As I prepare to participate in a panel discussion on writing non-fiction and memoirs for the Central Oregon Writers Guild (and shamelessly promote the event!) I thought I’d share these points:
Your best chance of writing a salable memoir is to read as many successful memoirs as you can. Here are a few examples (in alpha order by author, not necessarily by rank):
- Augusten Burroughs ~ Running with Scissors
- Elizabeth Gilbert ~ Eat, Pray, Love
- Howard Shulman ~ Running from the Mirror
- JD Vance ~ Hillbilly Elegy
- Jeannette Walls ~ The Glass Castle
Each memoir is unique, but if your story can illustrate a theme that resonates so that others can identify with your experiences, you will have a more memorable (haha) book.
- Surviving horrific challenges (Running from the Mirror)
- Coping with a parent’s mental illness (Running with Scissors)
Tell the truth (be real, for better or worse, because that’s what gives you credibility).
- If you fudge on details to make yourself or others look better or change names, why are you writing a memoir? Write a nice fictional romance and be done with it.
But… don’t get hung up on accuracy.
- Unless writing that you were home at 2:00 instead of 2:30 proves you didn’t rob the bank, don’t be specific with every detail, or readers will miss the big picture.
- Eliminate junk words. “I remember being three-years-old when blah blah blah.” Of course you remember; it’s your memoir! Just say what you need to say: “I was three-years-old when …”
Come up with a great opening line to get the reader into your story.
- Yes, this is true for any book — fiction or non-fiction. For some reason, though, memoirists feel it is more important to be factual than dramatic and entertaining.
- Cut scenes or situations that are irrelevant to your theme(s). You do not have to include every single life event. Remember, a memoir is not an autobiography!
- Combine or rearrange sentences that begin with the word “I.”
- Find and delete repeated words (-ly words, such as “quickly,” however, really, just). We all have favorites that we don’t even realize we overuse. Readers, will find them and get annoyed!
- If you find yourself skimming a paragraph, consider deleting it. If it doesn’t interest you, it’s a good bet your readers won’t be interested, either.
Print out your manuscript. It’s amazing what you’ll catch on a physical copy.
Read your manuscript aloud. If you stumble over phrases or sentences, it’s quite possible your readers will, too.
And finally, competition for readers’ attention is fierce. For greatest chance of success, your story must be in the best possible shape. Hint: get a professional editor!