Writing a memoir is different things to different people. Some people are looking for closure, or a cathartic release from a traumatic event in their lives, others simply want to share their experiences with readers.
Whatever the reason behind writing a memoir, there are a few rules that should be adhered to.
5 Rules to Writing a Memoir:
1. Know what you want to convey to the reader. Know why you’re writing a memoir and let the reader in on what to expect. This will help give your story direction and focus – it will provide a basis for it to move forward.
2. Decide on what format you will write your memoir, but keep in mind that trying to stick to a purely chronological order can cause a problem with the flow of the story. One possible alternative is to divide the story into specific topics within the overall subject (your life), possibly childhood, education, marriage, family, or other topics important to the story.
The idea is to realize you have options. You might try brainstorming some alternative memoir formats. You can also do some research by reading memoirs by traditional publishers; go to your library and ask the librarian to offer some suggestions. Finding ones that are recently published will be helpful; you need to know what the current market is looking for.
Another aspect of structure that needs to be addressed is how you speak to the reader. In a Writer’s Digest article, “5 Ways to Start Your Memoir on the Right Foot” by Steve Zousmer, it says, “Is the conversation external or internal? That is, is writing your book the equivalent of sitting down in your living room and telling a small group of people the story of your life (external), or are you having an internal conversation with yourself while allowing readers to listen in?”
3. Whether you’re writing a mystery, a romance, or a memoir, you need to hook the reader. Again, read other memoirs for some examples and ideas.
As a former accountant who now writes, if writing my memoir, a possible beginning might be, “From the pencil to the pen.” This possibly has the potential to arouse enough curiosity to hook the reader.
Your experience and story is unique, try to come up with something that reflects that.
4. Don’t let your memoir be a platform to get even with those who you perceive have harmed you in the past. You may feel good about venting, but your readers won’t. This will turn off agents, publishers, and readers. Remember, your memoir should be to entertain, enlighten, help, instruct, uplift, motivate, inform, or encourage your readers; it shouldn’t be all about you and your vendetta.
5. As with any form of writing, the bare bottom basic is to have a proofread and edited manuscript. Even if you intend to have your manuscript professionally edited, you need to know the basics of writing. This aspect of writing entails effort – effort to learn the craft of writing, including revisions, proofing, and editing.
If you are having your manuscript professionally edited, the editor will expect to be given a relatively polished manuscript to work on. Unless of course, you’re having the memoir ghostwritten, in which case you and the ghostwriter will determine what shape, if any, your manuscript needs to be in.
But, assuming you’re doing it on your own, at the very least you need to be part of a critique group, a non-fiction writing group, or one specifically for memoirs. A critique group will help you hone your craft and will spot a number of problems within your manuscript that you will not be able to find on your own. And, be sure the critique group you choose has experienced and published authors, along with new writers.
So many new writers don’t think this aspect of writing a memoir applies to them. Or, they just don’t want to put the time and effort into learning the craft of writing. But, if you intend to submit your manuscript to traditional publishers, or if you are self-publishing, having a polished manuscript is a must. It’s a reflection of you and your writing ability, and will be a factor in how readers view your book.
If all the elements and rules of writing a memoir are applied, and your particular story offers unique insights, has a universal theme, has a one or two sentence WOW elevator pitch, is memorable or provocative, it may have the potential to soar.
Memoirs that have gone above and beyond include:
“Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert
“Julie and Julia” by Julie Powell
“Marley and Me” by John Grogan
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