This is guest post by Shayla Raquel.
A memoir is more than the true story of your life. It’s your legacy.
So if you’re going to write your legacy, don’t you want it to be unforgettable? Can you imagine spending all your time on your memoir, only for it to fall short?
While I could’ve given you twenty or thirty ways to write an unforgettable memoir, I chose to focus on the ten most important elements. I’ve had the privilege of editing a few dozen memoirs, and the ones that always stayed with me were those that followed these principles.
Before you write your memoir, you must:
1. Learn the differences between a memoir and an autobiography.
A common mistake is to pour your heart and soul into a book and market it as the wrong genre. An autobiography is a chronological telling of your life, but a memoir hones in on a specific timeline or event. It doesn’t mean you can’t have flashbacks or backstory; you can. But you must understand the big and subtle differences between the two before you write, publish, and market your story.
- Does my story reflect on my entire life (autobiography), or a key aspect, theme, or event (memoir)?
- Does my story start at the beginning of my life and progress to the end (autobiography), or does it start anywhere and move around in time and place (memoir)?
- Does my story require hours of fact-checking (autobiography), or is it more personal, requiring less fact-checking (memoir)?
“A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.” —Gore Vidal, Palimpsest
2. Cleanse yourself of grudges and animosity.
Writing a memoir is therapeutic; it should not be therapy.
Your mom was the real version of Mommie Dearest. An old flame destroyed your life. Your boss ruined your career. Your wife pushed you to drink.
Maybe these things are true, but it doesn’t mean you should write your memoir solely to get vengeance on these people. And trust me, a book won’t make the past go away or make you feel better about what these people did to you.
Before you sit down to write your story—no matter how factually awful it may be—you must kiss grudges goodbye. Your readers will pick up on the deep-rooted animosity and set the book down for good.
3. Build your outline before you write.
I know it’s tempting to be a pantser and just hope for the best, but a memoir genuinely needs an outline before you take off.
Your outline doesn’t have to be perfect; it can and should allow for flexibility. Try using Scrivener or Asana to help build your outline. Or kick it old school with some note cards.
4. Read engrossing novels.
What’s more nap-inducing than a dry tone in a memoir? If you want your memoir to captivate readers, then you’ll need to use some elements from novels.
Things like dialogue, setting, tone, characterization (yes, those family members are now characters), and emotion all play a role in the memoir. Although your story is true and a novel is fictitious, you must bring the two together in perfect union.
Create a character sketch for the people in your life who show up in your memoir. Travel back to the places of your story to create a realistic setting. Use The Emotion Thesaurus to help you with dialogue.
5. Save stream of consciousness for James Joyce.
I’ve had consults with too many memoirists to count. As soon as I hear, “It’s kind of like a stream of consciousness style,” I kindly bow out of editing the manuscript.
Has it been done before? Of course. Do I personally know any readers jumping up and down at the thought of reading a Ulysses-style memoir right now? No, can’t say that I do.
Ask yourself: Would I want to read this? Would I want to sift through stream of consciousness when I’d rather just enjoy a good book?
6. Hone in on a key theme.
Before the torches and pitchforks come my way, I want to make something clear: I’m not suggesting that you can just create the theme of the book willy-nilly. I understand that many writers 1) did not choose a theme for their book (but professors somehow found a theme) and that 2) themes do not simply present themselves immediately.
But here’s what I do know: if you want an unforgettable memoir, there will need to be an underlying theme. And guess what? The theme will come along when you least expect it. You can’t force it. You must keep writing, and it will creep up on you. You know it as the “aha!” moment.
Look back at some famous memoirs. What were the themes? What was the theme in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? Or The Glass Castle? Or Eat, Pray, Love?
7. Steer clear of Chronology Canyon.
If you understand #1, then #7 shouldn’t be a problem for you. However, even with true-to-form memoirs, I still see authors careen down Chronology Canyon.
Yes, your life is in chronological order, but it doesn’t mean the reader wants to go through the day you were born, then into adolescence, then into high school, then into adulthood, etc.
You must block out chronological order and focus on the turning points, on the distinct memories that relate to your theme. Think about that pivotal moment in your life that changed everything, and work from there. If that was when you were eight years old, fine. If it was age fifty, fine.
But readers don’t need to go back to the day of conception all the way to present. Oof!
8. Know the memoir’s purpose.
Why are you writing this—honestly? What do you hope will happen when you publish this memoir?
“To make a lot of money and turn my book into a movie—duh!”
No, no. Move it along, please. That’s a terrible reason.
Here are some good reasons:
- To share wisdom and truth in a way that helps my readers.
- To record my history and present it as my legacy to family and friends.
- To provide encouragement and inspiration for people who have lived through what I have lived through.
- To have a greater understanding of myself and the world I inhabit.
- To challenge myself as a writer.
9. Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
You’re going to look bad sometimes, and that’s okay. You, the author, shouldn’t be the hero anyway. Although you’re using novel elements, it doesn’t mean you should outline your book with The Hero’s Journey in mind.
One of my authors touches on her affair in her memoir. Now, you might think, “But that makes her look like the bad guy! Why would she do that?” Because the purpose behind her truth is bigger than her pride. This big bad thing that happened was a turning point for her in the memoir. Had she left it out, she 1) would’ve lied to her readers and 2) wouldn’t have made her message clear.
You must tell the truth in your memoir, even if the truth is ugly.
10. Protect yourself before you wreck yourself.
Wouldn’t it be fun to work your butt off on your life story only to be hit with a “I’m suing your pants off!” letter?
Uh, no. That sounds diabolical.
If you are going to write the truth about people (who are still alive) in a negative light, remember:
- Change the names of those real people in your memoir.
- Alter their physical appearances (in real life, maybe Suzie was a platinum blonde; but in your memoir, she has red hair with tight curls).
- Don’t write the people in such a way that other people would recognize them.
- Even if what you’re writing is a known fact, you could be slapped with an invasion-of-privacy suit, so do everything you can to avoid that when writing about people in a negative light.
For more on using real people in your story, see here.
Are you interested in writing your memoir? What questions do you have? I can help!
An expert editor, seasoned writer, and author-centric marketer, Shayla Raquel works one-on-one with authors and business owners every day. She has edited over 300 books and helps her authors launch Amazon bestsellers. Her writerly blog posts have been featured on popular websites like The Book Designer and Positive Writer. She is the author of the Pre-Publishing Checklist and her novel-in-progress, The Suicide Tree. She lives in Oklahoma with her two dogs, Chanel and Wednesday.
Visit Shayla’s Website: https://shaylaraquel.com/
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