Are you considering writing your memoir?
Many people have lived lives of great adventure, or trauma, of scaling the heights of huge mountains, or escaping from the bog-filled horrors of addiction, abuse, or even imprisonment.
Many people have great stories to tell. And many want to leave family histories for their families as well.
They seek me out as a freelance book editor, wanting to express on the pages what their lives have been about, and what they’ve learned in the process. And quite often, yes, what amazing stories they have!
But that pesky devil is always in the development.
Because no matter how fabulous a life you’ve led, no matter the beasts conquered or mountains scaled, unless you can fashion all the events into a real book, nobody will read it anyway.
No pressure there!
The good news is, however, that together we can tame the most unwieldy stories, and create one that reads convincingly like a novel.
What did I just say? A novel? But no—you’ve written your life story, which is decidedly nonfiction! You don’t want any of that novel business, right?
Let me let you in a on a secret: The best memoirs read like novels. And, they have all the same elements of great fiction.
All of the tools that go into great fiction, come into play in writing your memoir as well. Yep—all of them.
We still need a beginning, middle, and end and we still need to focus on showing rather than telling. We still need characters that jump off the pages and become real people to your reader.
And we still need a story that engages your audience, keeps them turning pages, and feels satisfying in the end.
Still not convinced? Think of the memoirs you’ve loved (and if you’re setting to write one, you better have read in that genre). The ones that stayed with you. Didn’t they have all of the above?
So, let’s get down to business and discuss what needs to be included in your bestseller.
As with fiction, we need to open with a grabber. With something to reel in your reader, make him not only think but more importantly feel, and give him an idea of who this person is, the one around whom the story revolves.
As you can imagine, this isn’t the factual events of all of your ancestors here. That’s not what the beginning of a book is. We don’t want the chronology of how your great-to-the-nth-degree ancestor came across the ocean blue to America. Then who he married and who the kids married and down to finally you.
If an ancestor was beheaded by Henry VIII, well, that’s pretty cool, and we might open with that. Or, work it in later.
But we do want to open with a seminal event in your history. One which contains the main story question (just like when opening a novel), about which the main character (you) must face. An event that leaves the reader wanting more.
Here, as in fiction, we have the supporting elements of the book. We take that story question, and move it along with events that have meaning to the central question.
We see how your early years came into play with how you’re living life, growing as the story goes along. Also, we see you mastering tasks. Finding mentors and allies. The foes that you face.
We delve into your Achilles’ Heel. See how you dealt with the most difficult issues. See where you fell.
Probably the biggest test here for any writer is what to show/create, and what to just tell about.
And here’s the litmus test: create, evoke, show the most meaningful events in your history, the ones that play into that story question of what your life’s about. Then tell the ancillary things that still have some importance, but aren’t the meat of the issue.
For example, if you failed algebra 3 times, and that’s not part of a bigger issue, relay it in two sentences, with humor. But if you ultimately became a nuclear physicist, then by all means, create a scene/chapter around that!
What I often see as a freelance book editor are stories that have gripping elements in them, of great beginnings and even wonderful movement through the meat of the book. But then, when the writer gets to the end, well, there really isn’t an end.
“But I’m still alive,” a memoirist said to me recently.
“We don’t need you to die in order for this to be a great story!” I responded.
Let’s remember what the end of a novel does: It brings to a climax the events of the book. It answers the main story question, which we began with. We see our hero marshalling all of his forces, all of the things he learned through the middle section, all of his allies, to fight the main foe, whether that foe be Mt Everest of staring down the neck of a whisky bottle.
We see him succeed. Or, if this is a tragedy, we see him fail.
Two decades ago, I co-authored Fourth and Long: The Kent Waldrep Story. Kent was a running back for TCU, paralyzed on the field in a game against Alabama. We opened with the game, and the hit. We traveled through his life after the accident, to how he searched for a cure, and how he fought for the rights of the disabled.
Finally, we ended the book with the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act—legislation that Kent himself named.
He’s gone on to live well and actively since. So, he was obviously not dead when we ended the book! But we ended it with a bang.
Without all the hype of Kent’s life and those who backed him, a reader might have thought this book to be a novel.
And that’s what writing a successful memoir is all about –creating a visceral experience for your reader.
That’s quite a challenge, but keep the novel model in your mind as you fashion your own story. And then you’ll have a bang-up book!