How do you start your memoir?
Some people just start telling stories from their life.
That’s one way. But it’s shortsighted.
A memoir, like all books, requires a strong idea—a thesis—that governs the book. It also requires idea development before you even begin writing. It can’t simply be an autobiography or a disjointed retelling of every story that has taught you a lesson.
Developing a governing idea helps your memoir have focus—what stories you should and shouldn’t include. It also helps you determine the structure of your memoir.
We sat down with Rob Lewis, ghostwriter of a memoir, who shared his expertise in memoir writing. In the interview, Lewis presented three questions all memoir writers should ask themselves before they start writing.
Do I Have a Story to Tell?
Writing a memoir is the craze of the day. Everyone believes they have a story that must be told. You must believe you have a story to tell if you’re reading this article. But before you start your memoir, you need to ask yourself, “Do I really have a story to tell?”
Or, “Does my story really have the potential to say something in a fresh way that will move people?”
Memoir as a genre has increased in popularity over the years. From celebrities to athletes to ordinary people overcoming obstacles—everyone, it seems, is dipping into memoir writing. There’s a problem with memoir popularity, though: people believe the everyday is extraordinary. It could be. But only if you help the reader see the extraordinary in the everyday.
When writing a memoir, you need to address whether or not you have an actual story to tell. How do you know?
A good memoir will be a story of significance. It will reveal an idea in a profound way, either through thematic exploration, character analysis, or voice and literary strategies.
A good memoir will also develop a fresh perspective on a topic. It will provide a narrative previously unconsidered, or provide additional, nuanced context to a former narrative.
Consider how your story will fit into the current narrative surrounding your topic. How is your memoir different? Why would a reader choose your memoir over another? Is there something in culture that makes your perspective particularly unique? Is yours written in an unconventional way that draws the reader in?
A fresh perspective on a written topic will spark a reader’s attention.
Remember: Memoirs are not a “regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal…but a shared discovery.”
What Is My Structure?
A memoir—like all good books—needs a solid structure. Structure keeps your story focused and moving, with the overarching theme of your book always woven throughout.
Memoirs typically follow one of three structures: chronology, thematic, and past vs. present. A chronological memoir presents a linear story. It starts at one specific date and concludes at...
We all want to write so people love to read us: "I picked up her book, and I couldn't put it down."
That is a high compliment.
Here's another: "I asked our book club to read it!"
Whoa! Now that may be the best compliment of all.
Or, "I referred the book to all of my friends."
None of us (except maybe the Unabomber) aspires to write a manifesto that only a few people read.
This is true whether you are writing an inspirational book.
Whether you're writing a memoir. Or a novel.
Or even a nonfiction book in which you tell stories.
Drama Creates Tension
I've mentioned in a previous Tipster that I'm reading "Catherine the Great" by Robert Massey.
This is a historical account of the life and times of Catherine the Great, the Russian Empress from 1762 to 1796.
She was Russia's last empress and longest-ruling female leader.
I expected the book to be dry. You know, like history books normally are.
Perhaps that's why Massey, the author, won the Nobel Prize for his book, "Peter the Great."
Two Keys to a Book that I Must Refer
And I definitely would refer "Catherine the Great" to you.
There are probably a hundred key things that make a book "refer-worthy."
But here are two:
1. Believable (and Maybe Even Crazy) Characters.
If you're writing a memoir, I need to care about you, the main character.
And I need to care about the other characters in your story. And your unique relationship with each.
I'm only at the beginning of "Catherine the Great," but here are some of the characters that are believable - and crazy.
* Catherine as a teenager and engaged to Peter, another teenager;
* Peter, the one Catherine is betrothed to. He may be gay. I'm not far enough along in the book to know for sure;
* Catherine's mother, Joanna, who is a crazy, glory-seeking "b____"; and
* Empress Elizabeth, who is mercurial, strangely religious at times, and, well, hateful and jealous.
Elizabeth is generous towards young Catherine and then spiteful towards her.
2. Lots of drama among the characters.
This means there are sparks, conflict, jealousy, devotion, hatred, loyalty - among the characters.
Let's just take the relationship between young Catherine (who winds up as Empress of Russia later) and her husband, Peter.
I think they are about 16 years old when they marry.
Peter takes no sexual interest in Catherine.
They don't consummate their marriage, and Peter likes to play "make-believe" war with the other servants in the quarters. He is a man-child.
He is petulant. And petty. He is crafty. And often he throws tantrums like a four year old.
He is small and frail.
And we learn later that Catherine overthrows her own husband and takes over the leadership of Russia. You go, girl!
Now that is drama!
Does Your Writing Reveal Real Human Relationships
My point is simply this: Slow down your writing to think through the type of relationship each major character has with each of the other characters.
If you're writing a memoir, you, as the author and narrator, don't have the same relationship with...
Don’t tell my son (who thinks he has superior taste in movies), but one of my favorite horror films is The Blair Witch Project.
The film is about three aspiring filmmakers who set out to produce a documentary about the fabled Blair Witch, once blamed for the disappearance of children throughout the 18th and 19th century.
The witch is believed to haunt the forests of the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland.
It’s not a typical horror film. No chainsaw massacres.
No torture rooms. No diabolical clowns.
The terror is psychological. The filmmakers hear children laughing and twigs snapping as they sleep. Belongings go missing.
Cairns are mysteriously built around their tent in the night. Twig stick figures hang from trees.
But worst of all, when they decide to abandon filming, the trio can’t find their way back to the car.
They wander in circles for days.
At one point, they return to the same river crossing from the previous day. That’s when despair sets in.
There’s no way out.
When You Think There’s No Way Out
A few years ago, when I was ghostwriting a book, I had what I like to call a “Blair Witch Project Writing Moment.”
I had an idea for the chapter—a clear thesis, a destination—but 4000 words in, I was wandering.
I wrote in circles, not making much of any point. I couldn’t wrap up the chapter, because I couldn’t figure out how to make it back to my big idea, the thesis.
So, I kept writing. And writing.
And then I started crying, because despite all my writing, I realized there was no way out.
I had lost my way. I despaired.
Strip It Back
If you’re like me, in those moments, a good cry can help relieve the agony.
But tears don’t move your writing forward.
You need a strategy.
The best strategy for dead-end writing is to scrap what you wrote.
Dump it into a different document. And forget about it for now. Maybe all that writing and thinking will work in another chapter.
Strip your writing back to the thesis.
Remind yourself what the chapter is about, and the journey you want to take the reader on.
At least three times in three different ways, state: “This chapter is about…” Or “By the end of the chapter I want my readers to understand or feel…”
Or “In this chapter I must communicate…”
It seems so simple it’s stupid.
But forcing yourself to focus on the essence of what you want to achieve in the chapter is clarifying.
It reminds you what you need to say. It helps you see what doesn’t belong.
Once you’ve clarified your governing idea, then rebuild the structure.
Most aimless, frustrated writing is a...
I’ve never met a person who loves how they look or sound on video. I know I don’t.
Is my voice that nasally?
Is my hair that thin?
Do I look that old?
Videos eek out every one of our nits and picks.
We scrutinize ourselves as we think others might scrutinize us.
Why Care about Video?
You might wonder, “Why should I care about video? I’m a writer. Writers write. They don’t produce videos.”
Ten years ago—maybe even three years ago—I would have conceded to that argument.
But if you’re a writer who wants to publish a book, and actually have people read it, you’ll need to sell your book.
Whether you traditionally publish or self-publish, marketing your book is up to you.
No one is coming to save you. To write is to promote.
That means you must grow an audience.
Actually, you must captivate an audience. Pull them into your world so that they want to hear from you. It’s called “building your platform.”
And video, (I hear you groaning) is one of the leading ways (if not the best way) to quickly connect with people and extend your reach.
Video on the Rise
First it was YouTube. Then Snapchat. Overtaken by TikTok. And Instagram has been trying to catch up with Reels.
Video is ubiquitous. We live in an era where we video chat instead of talking by phone.
Video makes us feel like we are connecting with someone, even if separated by physical distance.
Studies have shown that video on social media platforms and websites creates trust and an emotional connection with viewers that writing doesn’t. That’s because humans connect with humans.
Studies also show that when you add video to your communications (whether via a blog, a social media platform or a newsletter), viewers stick around longer. Ten times longer.
And when people stick around longer, engagement increases.
Humans are curious.
If you’re an author, people want to know who you are. What you look like. What you sound like. What makes you tick. What ideas excite you. What direction you’re headed with your writing.
Video Platform Building in Action
Recently, one of the members of our monthly membership called “Roadtrippers,” shared that as she completes the revisions to her book manuscript she is also concentrating on building her platform.
For her that means sending out a weekly newsletter.
One component is a link to a YouTube video, where she shares a bit about life.
Sometimes it’s related to her book idea.
Sometimes it’s about something personal.
Sometimes it’s a funny story.
It’s always her in front of the camera—connecting with her followers.
Does she enjoy it? Not really. She says she feels...
“How do I know if my manuscript is ready for submission?”
You might never know fully. But careful review of your manuscript can get it closer to being publishing-ready.
Reviewing your manuscript is mostly intuitive. Of course, you need to clean up grammatical errors and make sure you write in the same voice. That’s basic. It’s what we learned in high school English.
But reviewing your manuscript is more than just cleaning up grammar. Your editing process should also review cadence, specificity, idea development, and scene development, to name a few! There are a few key areas where writers—especially new writers—tend to overlook in the editing process.
In this blog post, we share three of the many editorial mishaps to pay attention to when you review your manuscript.
The Manuscript Is Being Reviewed
Reread that subtitle above. It sounds awkward, right? That’s because the subtitle is written in the passive voice.
One of the simplest yet most important things to pay attention to when you review your manuscript is this: passive and active voice.
What’s the difference? Passive voice produces a sentence in which the subject receives the action. Active voice produces a sentence in which the subject performs an action. The subtitle, for example, rewritten in active voice might be: She Reviewed the Manuscript.
Let’s look at another example.
Example: The ball is being chased by the dog.
This example uses passive voice. The subject is the dog. The object is the ball. The subject—the dog—is receiving the action.
Note that the passive voice is made up of a form of the verb “to be” and the past participle of another verb (“were stolen,” “was chosen,” “is eaten”).
Here’s a better way to write the sentence: The dog is chasing the ball.
See how the subject of the sentence (the dog) is performing an action (chasing the ball)?
Why do you want to avoid the passive voice? It’s not just a rule for “rule’s sake.”
An abundance of passive voice slows your writing. Makes it sluggish. Your writing will lose energy and is more impersonal. It feels indirect and evasive. Writing in the active voice, in contrast, infuses your story with vibrancy, action, and in-the-moment character decision-making.
There are times when the passive voice is more effective than the active voice. If you’re trying to write about an impersonal feeling, or evasion, or a situation when a person feels paralyzed, then passive voice is a great tool to use! Form underscores meaning.
Say you’re writing a story about a politician who wants to avoid blame for a mistake. What do most politicians claim when they mess up? They’ll say, “Mistakes were made.” This is the passive voice and it deflects blame from the politician.
As you review your manuscript, note each case of passive voice. A rule of thumb: try to eliminate most ...
I feel sleazy admitting it, but the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard defamation trial has been on in the background at our house for the past few weeks.
I’ll blame it on my husband. He sets up his remote-work station at the dining table.
When I slide out of my office into my husband’s space, I get to dip into the trial.
Yesterday, Heard’s attorney asked Johnny about questionable behavior towards his then-wife Amber.
He responded with something like this, “In situations like that, people tend to get really, really, really, really irate.”
He used “really” four times. And I’m really not kidding.
I realize speaking is not writing, but I immediately said to my husband, “If you’re irate, you are really angry. About as angry as you can get. You don’t need to modify ‘irate’ with ‘really’—certainly not four times!”
“Really” is like “very.”
It is one of those junk adverbs that indicates you haven’t found the strongest adjective.
In Johnny’s case, he found the strongest adjective. He used “irate.”
He didn’t need the “really” to begin with.
It’s Called a Thesaurus
In writing, though, a newbie might write, “She was really angry.”
“Really angry,” of course, could collapse into any number of adjectives.
Open a thesaurus:
“Outraged,” to name a few.
When you choose a stronger adjective, and collapse two words into one, you tighten your writing.
And you convey to your reader it’s not “spilled-milk” anger but “my best-friend-betrayed-me” anger.
If you want to push for a more literary approach, try a metaphor or simile: She was Vesuvius, her words spitting hot lava.
The metaphor helps the reader feel and understand the anger without saying, “She was really angry.”
Mark Twain Wisdom
Mark Twain famously wrote, “Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
It’s a quick editing technique to apply to your writing today.
Check for all instances of “very” and “really.” Then search for a stronger adjective.
Better yet, every time you’re tempted to use the words “very” or “really,” pause and search for a better word.
“She slowly walked” could be she “ambled” or she “strolled.”
“Her socks were really smelly” could be “Her socks reeked.”
Even better “Her socks...
Every spring my mom crosses her fingers and prays a thousand little prayers that the poppies will bloom at the base of the Organ Mountains, in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
It’s the desert.
Most years the soil cracks like concrete. Too much sun. Too little water.
An ironic setting for fragile blooms.
But if there’s enough water throughout the winter and early spring, my mom gets to experience the miracle of the mid-March poppy bloom—a wild, flaming garden.
I’ve been thinking a lot about poppies this week.
Strange, because they aren’t even my favorite flower. I’ve never had luck growing them in my mostly too-shady Zone 5 garden.
But a lesson I was developing on diction brought me to “the poppy.”
What Are Your Lazy Words?
When we write, there are words that we love, and because we love them, we overuse them.
One word I frequently use is “whimsical”: playfully quaint or fanciful, especially in an appealing and amusing way.
I use it to describe just about anything.
A whimsical story. A whimsical object. A whimsical outfit. A whimsical flower (that, of course, being the poppy!).
Describing the poppy “as a whimsical flower” isn’t a terrible writing effort.
You get the sense that the flower is more playful than a Hosta.
But it isn’t the best description, either. As a reader, you don’t know what in particular I think makes it whimsical.
As an exercise, I pushed myself to describe the poppy in a variety of ways:
The petals were the color of overripe cantaloupe.
The stem was both stringy and prickly, bendy but at attention to the sun.
Its petals were crinkly like grandma’s hand.
Caged by boxwoods, the flower resisted being tamed. It rioted. It danced, bending and swaying.
Not great. But better.
Poetry Is a Gift
While doing this exercise, I Googled “poppies.”
A poem by English poet Ted Hughes, “Big Poppy,” caught my attention.
He describes the poppy as having a “flame fringe,” as a “drunken, fractured goblet” and even as having an “athletic leg, hairy.”
Hughes personifies the poppy as a female who at the end of summer will “fling off her skirt.”
Hughes’ choice of words, or diction, helps us envision a poppy in a new way: sensual, strong, and verging on dangerous. Imagine if Ted Hughes simply wrote, "the poppy was sensual." That description is flat.
Word choice matters. A poppy can be whimsical.
A poppy can be sensual.
Or a poppy can bloom in unlikely places.
As you write, what words are you prone to overuse?
One exercise is to slow down and ask yourself, “What does this word really mean to me, and how can I use diction to convey what’s in my...
Flashbacks are essential in memoirs and fiction.
They are also indispensible in writing narrative nonfiction.
Here's a basic definition of a flashback:
"A flashback interrupts the chronological order of the main narrative to take a reader back in time to the past events in a character's life."
Here's my biggest struggle when using a flashback:
Nothing happens in my flashbacks.
The interruption in the narrative is, basically, a recollection of an event or experience.
It's a memory. So my description is mostly about my thinking.
No. No. No.
Writing a flashback as a general memory will put your reader to sleep.
A flashback needs the energy of movement. Something needs to happen in the flashback.
The Vivid Scene
For most you, this is not new.
Just a reminder.
Conceive of your flashbacks as a series of complete scenes with dialogue, setting, character development, and tension.
Don't just "recall something" - make it a vivid scene.
Flashbacks for Context
I'm currently reading a Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie, who won the Putlizer Prize for his book Peter the Great.
Catherine the Great is a 600 hundred page monstrosity of this impressive Russian leader.
Early in the book, after introducing the main character, Catherine the Great, as a child, he interrupts the narrative to give some context to the story.
That's a great use of the flashback - to give some historical context.
The book is a historical biography, after all.
He uses a flashback to explain how Peter the Great died at 52 and the bizzare set of succession circumstances (mostly untimely deaths) that led to his daughter Elizabeth finally initiating a coup against her sister and taking over the throne.
As a reader, I needed to know how Empress Elizabeth came to the Russian throne, if I am to understand the ascent of Catherine the Great, who rises to power later.
The flashback is essential to understanding the fuller story.
Create Movement in Your Flashback Scenes
The historical biographer Robert Massie doesn't just give general information (like my lame, third-rate approach to flashbacks), he creates a series of scenes.
The scenes have a setting rich in detail.
The scenes have colorful characters - and character development.
Most of all, the scenes have ACTION. And MOVEMENT.
For example ...
In one scene, in the dead of night, Elizabeth wakes up her sister (who is the Empress of Russia at the time) and takes over the throne with few hundred soldiers.
Now that's movement. The scene of how the coup happened moves the story along.
Now I can't put the book down!
Review all of the flashbacks in your writing project.
* Do your flashbacks move the story along? Is there action?
* Does something happen in your flashbacks other than just recollection and memory?
Now, buckle up and write.
And create flashbacks with action!
“Is traditional publishing for me?”
It’s a question all writers ask at some point in their journey. And the answer depends on each individual. We interviewed Jamie Weiner, author of The Quest for Legitimacy: How Children of Prominent Families Discover Their Unique Place in the World, who has both self-published and traditionally published a book. In our interview, Weiner shared the pros and cons of his individual publishing experiences.
There’s no one right way. You might go the route of traditional publishing for one book and the self-publishing route with another. There’s no right path. But there are a few guideposts to help you make your decision on your book writing journey.
Responsibility vs. Independence
Publishing houses are like banks: they want a return on their investment, your book. Because they are in the business of producing and selling books, they have refined the process so it is as efficient as possible. While the entire process is managed for you—editing, designing, printing, and distribution—you might be surprised by the limited interaction you have with the publishing house. Yours is one of many books to be published.
Because a publishing house provides a copy editor, a cover designer, and a marketing and distribution team, you don’t have to find—and vet—a team of professionals (which, let’s be honest, we might not trust our instincts to pick the best for the best final product).
The flip side? With self-publishing you have more control over the process of the book. You don’t have to wait on a publishers release date (which can sometimes be years after you submit a proposal). You don’t have to defer to their creative process. You can control the pricing and distribution of the book. You can control the audio rights.
Simply, you have more control.
The most alluring aspect to self-publishing is your ability to control the creative process. We’ve worked with authors who have fought with their publisher on titling and cover art. One publisher wanted to replace a conceptual (and catchy!) title with a purely descriptive title (because, they said, it would be better for SEO). Another author was provided cover designs that used stock imagery. Yawn.
While some traditional publishers take your creative feedback, they won’t always. Ultimately, the final decision is theirs.
With self-publishing, you have complete reign over your creative vision. You will determine when your book will be published, what cover design looks best, how your book should be organized, the contents (references, appendices, glossaries, etc.) to be included, and more!
Publishing houses also have heavy sway over your material. Do you want to include a prologue? Your publisher might not allow for it. Or, they might demand it, even if you don’t think it needs it.
That being said, most publishing houses are open for discussion if you have concerns. In...
Word choice matters.
Mark Twain allegedly said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
I often struggle to lay down a clear sentence.
So thinking about selecting the precise word that conveys exactly what I mean can feel onerous.
But the persistence is critical.
It's one way you establish your voice as a writer.
Your word choice is part of your writing voice.
1. Yes, it is a fight.
Writing well is always a grind.
The creative work is to say something in a fresh way. And in a precise way.
To write what you mean.
It's easy to default to clichés and common words.
2. I almost always never get the right word in the first draft.
Most of us know this, but just for the record:
Don't expend much energy "crafting your sentences" in the first draft.
That's too overwhelming.
Just get the first draft onto the screen or in your journal.
Just burp it out.
The first draft is just that: a first draft. One of many. Maybe one of a hundred drafts.
3. The right word may not simply be a synonym.
I look up synonyms online all the time.
I lay down my first draft. I see a word that needs improvement, and then I jump online for a synonym.
That's a good start.
But it may not be enough.
In his book, The Elements of Story, Francis Flaherty references Roget, the 19th Century British physician who published "Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases."
Roget said something to the effect that in reality, synonyms do not really exist because every word has a unique meaning.
My point is simply to say: Start with a synonym.
You may find the perfect word. You may not.
Be persistent if you don't feel satisfied.
4. Fight for the right word up until the bloody end.
I make changes to words up until the moment I push "publish" on a blog. (And sometimes after I publish the blog, I make even more!)
I've even made word changes on the final proofs before my books were published.
That's the last seconds of the last minute.
This is normal.
5. Don't make your search for the perfect word an excuse not to publish.
Yes, stay in the fight to write fresh words using vivid and precise language.
But you still need to ship your work.
Go ahead and publish that blog.
But don't delay sending your article to the magazine for publishing.
And certainly don't postpone sending off that book manuscript.
Now, buckle up and write. And then ship.