How to Write Your Memoir and Share it with the World:
A Memoir is literally a slice of life – your life. It is not an autobiography, which is your whole life, cradle to, well, just before the grave. Nor is it a biography, which is someone else’s life, often cradle-to-grave, and not your own.
So if you’re planning to write a memoir, start by defining the slice of your life that’s most compelling or pertinent (and because it’s a memoir, you have some literary license to create fictional scenes and characters to better tell it).
To be intelligible, your Memoir should normally be linear, i.e., the events composing your story should be told in chronological order.
Prepare for this approach by detailing an outline of the key events that will take place inside the four walls of your Memoir. I usually create a chart of sorts, putting the date on the left and the event to the right, starting at the beginning.
A good Chronology is not so detailed as to bog you down, and yet not so succinct as to leave important things out.
You are the star of your own Memoir.
In a movie, you’d be played by the leading man or woman who would win Best Actor or Best Actress at the Academy Awards. Therefore, your name should top the list of the characters in your cast. Below you should fall everyone else, from most significant to least significant.
Start by making the list and rearranging names later depending on your plot lines.
This is my own little trick.
It helps immensely to narrow the wide field from which Narrative Style can be approached. Google around for your favorite memoirs, or if don’t have any, narrow a list down to those you might like.
Then hop onto Amazon, or go to your favorite bookstore, and buy your three or four favorites. Each will be written in a different narrative style, which should stand out. Pick the two between which you will “Bend It Like Beckham.”
By having two goalposts, it is easier to center yourself.
Memoirs are written in the first-person point-of-view. How do you know if it’s first-person, second-person, or third-person?
You know by how you start the sentences in which a person is active. In a story about you, i.e., in a Memoir, you put yourself in the driver’s seat and tell the story from your pov. “As the leaves turned orange, I headed to school,” is first-person.
If you wrote, “As the leaves turned orange, John Smith (you) headed to school,” that would be third-person. Since you are writing a Memoir, “I was,” “I wrote,” and “I couldn’t believe it,” are all apropos.
All stories, Memoirs and otherwise, must be told in present or past tense.
Those told in past tense read as follows: “I was late,” or “I headed to school.” Those written in present tense read, “I am late,” or “I am heading to school.”
How do you know which tense to write in? You don’t, at least not before you start, though your goalpost books may clarify this for you.
If both are in past tense, and you want your Memoir to read like them, then past tense it is. If one is present tense and the other isn’t, you’ll need to examine the stories to see which best fits your own.
In any case, with rare exceptions reserved for masters, Memoirs are told in one tense or the other, not both. In fact, switching tenses is a major no-no.
I like to start every book with a great title that captures the essence of the story I’m telling, whether my own or someone else’s.
“Lift Up Your Head,” “The Food Mafia,” and “Cameron,” are all titles we started with. But sometimes the right title doesn’t rear its beautiful head until later in the process. “Still Standing,” “Conquering Your Adversities,” and “The Fast Diabetes Solution,” though the last wasn’t a Memoir, all materialized from the words of the book’s various drafts.
When you start, because you don’t know for sure what will happen, call it a “Working Title.”
If you want a crack at landing an agent and thus an outside publisher, your book must be a certain number of pages. Generally speaking, Memoirs are between 70,000 and 100,000 words.
To give you a sense of it, a typical paperback book of 100,000 words is three-hundred pages. You might submit a 60,000 to 70,000 word draft to an agent. If he or she loves it, then you’ll be told how much more is needed. But unless you’re a famous person whose book will fly off the shelves no matter how long it is, anything shorter or longer diminishes the chance for success.
Of course, if you self-publish, you can do anything you like.
With your Title, your Chronology of Events, and your Cast of Characters, now you’re ready to create a Chapter Outline. This is a summary by chapter of all the chapters that you want to include in the book.
Each chapter summary should be between 250 and 1000 words, providing enough grist to spark the ideas and direction from which to write. Some like ‘em short, some like ‘em long.
Personally, I find around 600 words to be just right most of the time. Much longer than that gets into the narrative prose and style of the chapter, which is something different. Sometimes I even prefer bullet points.
The Chapter Titles pertain to the Chapter Outline and follow the chronology of the book, often tied to your age or the event kicking off the the different stages of your life.
“Reflecting Back,” “Tap Dancing at Euclid Beach Park,” “The Browns & The Mafia,” “Appalachin & The Mob,” “The Cleveland Mob,” “Nuts, Bolts & Heart,” all were working chapter titles that stayed in the book upon completion.
However, Chapter Titles are optional in the final, published book. Many books have them, but more don’t. At the writing stage, most do, as they serve to guide the writer, from chapter summary to final polish.
All Memoirs require research.
How easy we have it today with internet access to almost every bit of knowledge imaginable. It you want to know when the sun rose and the weather for a particular important day in your life, and you want to get it right, google will lead you to the answer.
In the olden days, you would have to drive to a large library and hope a/ you found the book in the card catalogue, and b/ that the book was still in stock, the hassle of which was likely to cause you to skip that information altogether.
More importantly, today you can find out what other people were doing, what places looked like, and any other detail that might sharpen your story – all at your fingertips. Once you’ve assembled your research, try to plug it into the Chapter Outline to create what I call, “The Long Outline.”
But it’s not as easy at that.
Memoirs often require that people be interviewed about what they know or how they saw things.
There is no better way than interviewing real, live people to learn from them how things were viewed by themselves and others during the times in question. What they describe, the words they use, and the tone they conjure up – these help you define your narrative style, the beats of the story, and the rhythm of the book, as well as give you the meat to put on the bones of your outline.
Between your own memory, historical notes, research, and people interviews, you’ve got all that you need to start writing. Well, almost.
You might think that a Memoir doesn’t require plot lines. It’s just your life, right? Told more or less in chronological order.
No, no, and no, sorry.
You do need plot lines to make the story interesting. You and other characters will need an arc that takes you from where you started to where you end – from single and lonely, to happily married; from never starting in high school to playing for a professional football team; from having no chance in life, to overcoming your adversities and achieving your dreams.
All or any one of these may be plot lines in your book. In a way, they shape the story that you tell, like the pencil sketch that guides a painting.
Just like there’s no better place to begin than the beginning, there’s no better way to get started than to start writing.
Some writers do prefer longhand to engage memory to page, but today most of us hunch into the keyboard and start tapping away. Either way, let it rip with the first thought that comes to your mind and go from there.
Then keep going as long and hard as you can, paragraphing as seems appropriate. Try not to be too verbose, too flowery, or too brief. A middle ground usually reads best, shadowing one of your several goalpost books in sentence and paragraph length.
When you’re done, go back and sculpt it, deleting and enhancing as seems fitting. This you may do once, or a hundred times.
I don’t want to call it The Grind, but honesty makes me do it. By now the thrill is gone and you’re hunkering down for the long haul.
Don’t tell me Michelangelo loved every moment of painting the Sistine Chapel. Bullocks! After a few days or weeks his hands, back and feet must have hurt. Add brain to that, to be complete.
Like every bit of progress in life, you take one brick, one chapter, one day at a time. I suggest finding a routine that works for your schedule and fits your life’s demands.
Coffee and three hours of writing in the morning, followed by some form of exercise – yoga, jogging, bike riding – works for many, end-capped or not by more grind in the afternoon or evening.
Myself, you’ll find me sometimes writing for ten straight hours with several small breaks in between to rest my eyes and mind.
Some days you get it, the dreaded Writer’s Block. But I have the elixir that never fails.
When you can’t think of the perfect phrase or haughty insight, write pure rubbish. Let your fingers fly with whatever nonsense comes to mind. Just keep going until you run dry. Then pick up one of your goalpost books or another book, similar or entirely different, or watch a movie about someone’s life.
In all of that, you will see ways to turn your rubbish into art or find permission to delete the irredeemable rubbish and start afresh with something brilliant. And never, ever be afraid to select, mark, delete, and start all over.
The end will one day be in sight, I promise you. You will be staring into the tunnel, and voila, light will appear.
Whether it is the headlights of a train or truly the end of the book will be hard to tell, but there will be light. You will have many chapters behind you, depending on your book length.
If you are shooting for 80,000 words, then do the math. That means you need ten 8,000-word chapters or twenty 4,000-word chapters.
The range for acceptable word counts in a single chapter of a published book is 2,000 to 5,000 words. So that means your 80,000-word book at 3500 words per chapter, requires twenty-two to twenty-three chapters.
This of course is something to consider when crafting your Chapter Outline and summaries.
Finishing your draft is a misnomer. It does not mean that you are finished. You are not.
Now that you have a complete draft, which may we very rough, even full of typos if you didn’t smooth them out on the way, you must go back to page one and read your work critically. This entails deleting, sometimes painfully, parts that you loved to write but that don’t fit or drag things out or go on and on.
Your book needs to be balanced, the chapters more or less the same length, with the occasional exception. The read needs to be smooth, fast-paced, and easy. You want readers to to unable to resist putting your book down.
You want, go ahead and say it, the vaunted page-turner.
Done, right? You finished your full draft and polished it. Certainly that is done and done. But no, ye of little patience.
As the writer – the author – you are blind. That’s right, you cannot see the forest for the trees that are standing right in front of you. You’ll read right past typos, misspellings (despite Word’s built-in spellcheck), grammar errors (despite Grammarly, which you should have), and gaps in your story.
The dreaded gaps are the things you’ve naturally assumed but which, to the unknowing reader, do not bear themselves as easily. To fix these shortcomings you need an outside editor, maybe two: one for story, one for copy. These you’ll have to pay for, if you want to get it right.
Done, done and edited, your finished manuscript should leap from the digital files and print itself, especially with all the blood, sweat and tears that have flowed. Your blood, sweat, and tears, you might remind yourself. But alas, tis not so.
If you want the chance of going big with your book, of seeing it on bookstore shelves, or having it made into a movie or Netflix series, you will need an agent. A literary agent or manager will take your manuscript and submit it to dozens of publishers with whom he or she has a relationship.
Usually the agent will take you on only if your book has a fighting chance. Why? Because they feed themselves by selling your book. A book that won’t sell is one they won’t take one, at least not on purpose.
To get an agent, you must send a query letter with a few chapters of your book…then pray.
In the modern world of publishing, however, you no longer need an agent as you once did. There are myriad outlets that enable you to self-publish, the most prominent DIY being Amazon CreateSpace. Hire a few freelancers to help you format the book, and you’re golden.
There are also many services that help you market your book and become a bestseller. Some deliver on their assurances, but all require a budget. Of course, selling the book might not even be your goal. Many memoirs are written for family and friends only. These are intended to preserve the family heritage, which may be the most significant goal of all. B
ut no matter what you do, I guarantee you this: when that first printed copy arrives in the mail, you’ll be on Cloud Nine.
All of this sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Do this, do that, and shazam! You have a brilliant, publishable book. But again, I cannot lie.
If ever there were a truth when it comes to writing a book, “it is easier said than done.” But then again, that’s why people like me are here. We can help you write your book, soup to nuts as they say, or help at any point along the way. We have done the crime, so we can now have the wherewithal and the time.
For ghostwriting, co-writing, or story editing, email me at [email protected]. And since you’ve come this far, I’m happy to give you some time no matter what your questions or needs.
Consider it on me, for reading to the end. 😊