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Aspiring authors unsure of what to write first are often told to “write what you know.” Memoir is, therefore, a gateway genre for many. That answers the What should I write about? question, but leaves the would-be writer without answers to the question How do I write something that a large number of people will want to read? In this post, I will offer tips from my own ghostwriting and editing practice, a way of thinking about and writing memoir that has resulted in multiple book awards and national media recognition.
Let’s start with the basics.
How Is Memoir Different From Autobiography?
Autobiography typically covers the whole of the author’s life, from when and where they were born up to recent times.
Memoir typically spans a limited period in the author’s life and is focused on a specific aspect of their experience.
Scope tends to be the defining distinction, but the terms are often used interchangeably. Think “celebrity memoir” when most are actually autobiographies. Perhaps a more useful way of looking at them is from a platform or marketing perspective.
Readers of autobiographies tend to be more connected to the author than to the topic of the book while readers of memoir tend to be more interested in the topic than the author. For example, I was interested in reading Steve Martin’s autobiography Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life not because I’m particularly interested in learning about what it might take to be a stand-up comedian but because I admire Steve Martin as a creative. On the other hand, I picked up The Perfect Predator: A Scientist’s Race to Save Her Husband from a Deadly Superbug because I’m fascinated by medical science and epidemiology.
Knowing what will motivate your readers to buy your book will help you determine its scope, broad (autobiography) or narrow (memoir). For most authors, memoir is the tightest fit.
Elements of a Good Memoir
Regardless of whether you’re writing an autobiography or memoir, there are some critical elements to be aware of.
- Your story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end.
- It should be defined by personal growth or change. That is to say that the story arc should be positive, so the reader is satisfied when they get to The End.
- Emotional vulnerability is what separates the best memoirists from average ones. So, give your readers the good, the bad, and the ugly. You’re human. Let readers see your humanity.
The best memoirists also understand the difference between situation and story. Situation is the stuff that happens around and to us, but story is what happens in us. And its story that readers want, not reporting.
How to Overcome New Writer Challenges
Two of the most common problems I see when editing memoirs and questions that repeatedly come up when I teach workshops are related to where to start and end the story (scope) and how to know what to include and exclude.
Where to Start and Where to End
Not knowing where to start and where to end is perhaps why so many would-be memoirists slip into autobiography. It’s much easier to start at the beginning of one’s life than to identify a good spot to start their memoir. The same goes for the ending. Unfortunately, this approach makes for a long, boring book.
The solution is to study storytelling from a novelist or screenwriter’s perspective because the emphasis there is on structure and within that structure pacing. More on this below.
What to Include and Exclude
My rule of thumb is: if you can’t write it as a scene, leave it out. That’s because first-time memoirists often default to talking about the situation or their thoughts about what was happening rather than allowing the reader to step into their shoes and experience the moment as they did.
But how do you know if what you’ve written is a scene?
A scene is a mini story with its own beginning, middle, and end. It’s also active. If you’ve written a proper scene, a group of actors should be able to act out—with dialog, movement, and micro expressions that communicate subtext—everything you’ve written. And an imaginary audience should be able to understand what’s going on without the equivalent of your voice over. This is the heart of the writing commandment Show, don’t tell.
More practical help related to what to include and exclude comes when structuring a book.
How to Outline or Define the Structure of Your Memoir
Constraint fosters creativity, so the first step is to further define the scope of your book.
- Limit your word count. I’ve found that 60,000 words is a good cap.
- Limit the number of scenes. There’s a lot of wiggle room here, but a good rule of thumb for a standard memoir is 40-50.
- Identify 5-7 key moments related to the topic of your memoir. On index cards or sticky notes, write a phrase or sentence for each. When I worked on Good Cop, Black Cop: Guilty Until Proven Innocent (Authority Publishing) with retired Black police officer Clayton Moore, we knew that the all-is-lost moment at the climax of the book was when he was fired. So, that was one of those key scenes. The companion scene was when he was hired. Right there we had 2 of the must-have scenes in the book. One came early. The other came later in the book. Then we identified several other critical events that shaped Clayton’s experience and that readers would need to know about for the story arc to make sense. By the time we were done with this exercise, we had more than 10 of the 40 or 50 I knew we’d need.
- Next, on a wall or large table or floor area, arrange the scenes according to where they’d fall on the timeline of events. This will give you an idea of how many scenes you need between each of those major events. Select the most impactful events and experiment with how the pieces fit together until you have a compelling story arc. Clayton’s book had three story threads: professional, personal, and social commentary. We carefully selected scenes for each of the first two and current events coupled with Clayton’s Black police officer perspective that wove together to give readers a well-rounded sense of his lived experience. It was easy to come up with enough scenes for a compelling book and to identify scenes that didn’t add to the story and could, therefore, be removed before investing a lot of time in writing them.
- When you’ve organized your scenes, divide your word count by the number of scenes. Let’s say you limited your word count to 60,000 and ended up with 44 scenes. That means that you have approximately 1,360 words per scene. Some scenes will naturally be shorter, some longer. But your word count should end up around the 60k mark.
By doing this, you’ve essentially storyboarded your book. This exercise takes the anxiety out of writing because you are in control and know exactly what you need to accomplish during any given writing session.
Getting Your Book Across the Finish Line
Early progress creates momentum. If you follow the advice above, you can better determine how long it will take you to finish your manuscript. And by breaking it into easy-to-accomplish tasks, you’ll make progress quickly and avoid the dreaded writer’s block.
The reality is that writers avoid or leave the writing chair for many reasons. In my experience, the ones who finish and publish are the ones who are driven by a specific vision and have a burning desire to serve a specific audience.
If you realize that the only reason you’re writing a memoir is because it seemed like the thing to do, a gateway to Authorland, step away for a while. Quit even. There’s no shame in that. It might just give you the time, mental space, and energy to figure out what you really want to write about. Your future published author self will thank you, and so will your readers.
Either way, you can use the tips in this post to write a compelling book that touches readers on every level, intellectual and emotional.
Cristen Iris is an award-winning ghostwriter and developmental editor. Her clients have contracts with the Big 5, academic, and respected independent publishers. They have earned more than 55 book and writing awards; bestseller rankings, including New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and Amazon Charts; and nationally recognized media placements, including one being listed by Parade Magazine as one of the “24 Best Memoirs to Read in 2020.” Clayton Moore’s memoir mention above recently won an NYC Big Book Award. You can learn more about her at cristeniris.com.
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