Monday, March 31, 2008

Memoir Writing Tips

Abel Keogh

A funny thing happens to writers when we overcome a challenging event in our lives such as the death of a loved one, an abusive relationship, horrible childhood, addiction, or other horrific event: We want to share our experience with the world by writing a book.

Our motivations are usually good. We want others to learn and befit from our experience and, hopefully, not make the same mistakes. Yet, unless you’re a famous actor, athlete or other well-known individual, most people outside your family and friends aren’t going to care about it.

Despite this, the literary world is full of wannabe authors who want to share their story. After going through the arduous process of finding a publisher for Room for Two, I know. Literary agents and publishers are inundated with personal story manuscripts every day.

If you have a personal story you want to share, here are three tips to things to help your story stand out and make agents, publishers, and readers take notice.

1. Ask Yourself: Why Would Others Care?

Your story can be very important to you but can have no emotional impact on others. There are lots of books out there about overcoming an addition, a disastrous marriage, or the loss of a spouse, child, or loved one. You need to be able to take stand back and objectively ask yourself what makes your particular story unique enough that other people would care enough to read about it.

Everyone will lose a loved one at some point in their lives. Million go through a divorce or become addicted to drugs, alcohol, or other substances. What makes your experience different from others? What did you learn and how did you learn it that makes your story interesting enough that someone would actually take the time to read it?

If you can find something in your experience that is truly unique and sets your experience apart from thousands and millions of others that have experienced something similar, then you’ll have a leg up on getting agents and publishers to notice your manuscript and readers actually care about it.

2. Resist the Temptation to be a “Wronged Hero”

When writing a very personal story, it’s easy to turn yourself into a “wronged hero.” You know, the flawless individual who experiences something bad and valiantly continues to the uphill struggle against people and society who just don’t understand what you’re going through to make life and the world right again.

Don’t do this. We’re all human. Whether its lapses in judgment, a bone-headed decision, or a simple mistakes – we all do things that we regret. After going through a very heart-wrenching experience our judgment is often emotionally clouded and we find ourselves doing and saying things we wouldn’t under normal circumstances.

If you portray yourself as the perfect person, readers will not only know you’re being phony but they’ll start to wonder if there’s parts of the story you’re being less than honest about as well. If you’re can’t write honestly about yourself, the good and bad decisions you’ve made, and put them in a framework for the reader to understand, then don’t waste your time writing about it. Readers should be able to understand the context in which a choice was made and even if they don’t agree with your evenutal decision.

3. Know How to Tell a Story

The way you tell your story counts. It’s not just the words you choose to use (thought that’s important) but where the story begins, where it ends, and what you put in between.

When sharing person stories, it’s tempting to include every person detail or side story we can think of that shows how cute our kids are or what a jokester Aunt Sarah is. Yet unless you’re writing to your immediate family and friends, those elements can be detracting. Instead, focus your story like a laser beam on the people, scenes, and dialogue that’s important to keep the story flowing and the reader’s interest peaked. My first draft of Room for Two was approximately 120,000 words. The version that made it to print is around 86,000. I was fortunate to find a good editor that pointed out the fluff and helped focus my writing on the real meat of my story.

Remember, writing is an art and it takes a creative mind to know the best way to draw a reader into your personal experience in such a way that care about you and want to read about it. If done right, you can have a wonderful book that can help and entertain thousands of others.


Marcia Mickelson said...

That's great advice. I guess memoirs carry with them a whole set of rules, somewhat different than fiction.

Your editor that help you cut down the word count, was that the editor with your publisher or someone you had edit it prior to submission. Just curious.

Elaine Williams said...

I found this post very interesting and certainly valuable. I am a widow of four years and have my own memoir being released in June. Interestingly, I can relate to your advice, and when I first wrote my story, it was only for myself, but eventually I knew others needed to read it. So, warts and all, it is being put out there.

There is nothing earth shattering about it, just an experience that I have felt, and been told, others in the same situation will relate to. And yes, it is my hope that some readers will avoid some of the heartache and mistakes I made on my widow journey.

Emily Cushing said...

Last night I was at my book club meeting where we were discussing Miracle in the Andes. Some of the women were talking about how they liked that the author wrote about his weaknesses as well as his strengths. Using information from your blog, I explained to them that authors of a memoir should not portray themselves as a "wronged hero" and some of the other tips you gave. They were quite impressed with my knowledge--thank you for the information.

abel keogh said...


I'm interested in reading your book when it comes out.


So glad my post was helpful for your bookclub discussion.