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...
“Is my idea any good?” “Is this idea good enough for a book?”
At the heart of the creative journey is a good idea. And we all want to know if our idea is good enough for a book. But we have a fear that our idea might not be. That our idea is unpublishable. So, how do you know if your idea is good enough for a book?
Take a look at three of our seven questions to begin determining if your idea is good enough for a book. To read all seven of our questions, click here for our free downloadable!
Do I write regularly (or semi-regularly)?
If you write regularly, then you already know what it takes to write 1,500 words or 5,000 words. You have an understanding for the time it takes to research a topic, write the first draft, and then enter into a series of editing cycles.
Because a book is longform writing, it’s tough to wrestle with the idea of a book without ever having written a blog, whitepaper, or article before. A book requires creating and sustaining an argument over the course of (at least) ten chapters.
To know if their ideas were good enough for a book, two of our Roadtrippers actively practiced their hand at longform writing through their blogs. Blog writing allows a writer to get a feel for the length of longform writing, what is needed to write a sufficient story in a couple thousand words, and how to write a story that has a beginning, middle, and end.
One of our Roadtrippers, Alysa, has been blogging for years and has finished the first draft of her book. While book writing is different than blogging, Alysa developed her idea thousands of words in a blog. Each blog post received feedback that deepened her thinking and provided stories for her book. You can’t just drop blog posts into a chapter, but you can use the rudimentary ideas to shape your book.
Experienced writers tend to have a better feel for the kind of idea that can be sustained for more than an article or blog post. So, if you’re not writing, start today!
Is my idea based on a deep expertise?
If you have a deep expertise from years of experience, then you have most likely been sharpening your ideas for years. This expertise can range from personal finance to personal fitness to personal hobbies! And it means you have material to write on. Material that will sustain your idea for the entirety of a book.
One of our Roadtrippers recently wrote a book based on his work in the family business sector. He has thought about his idea for almost 15 years (talk about passion!). Through his years of experience and the qualitative research he conducted, he was able to sustain material for a ten-chapter book.
As an expert, you’ve likely spoken or written on your subject multiple times. You think of fresh ways to apply your expertise and connect with your target audience. Your biggest struggle will be focusing your idea more narrowly. The best nonfiction books have a narrow, specific thesis. Does yours?
And if you have years...
“Should I find a writing coach? Do I need a coach?”
It depends. Are you stuck on your thesis? Do you struggle with structuring your book? Do your thoughts lack clarity or depth?
If you’re struggling in your writing journey—and haven’t found the answers online or in a class—consider investing in a coach. An effective coaching experience will help you make progress wherever you’re struggling. And, hopefully, propel your journey forward so that you can find an agent or land a book deal or publish your piece.
In this blog post, we share insights into why you should find a writing coach.
What Is a Writing Coach?
A coach is a person who is involved in the direction, instruction, or training of a team or individuals. Coaches offer customized learning experiences that are tailored towards the needs of the individual they are working with.
The key word is “tailored.” A tailored experience helps you make progress on your specific writing goals. A coach builds on your strengths, yes. But they also are hyper-focused on helping you improve in specific areas of weakness.
While an effective writing coach has an editorial background, they are NOT your editor. Coaching demands you do the work. You do the writing. And to be honest, not all coaches make great editors.
Some coaches offer more editorial direction than others as part of the coaching experience. But a pure line edit or copyedit? You would need to ask in advance if they will provide that also. You’ll likely have to pay an extra cost.
What Do Writing Coaches Help With?
We already established that a writing coach is focused on helping you achieve your writing goals. But they can’t steer you toward success if you’re not specific in what you want.
Writing coaches can help with a variety of things: your target audience, sharpening your idea, improving your structure, setting daily or weekly writing goals, strategies to help deal with writer’s block, developing your book’s positioning, how to develop a platform, how to promote your book, and more.
What do you specifically need help with that?
The more specific your goals, the better the coaching experience will be.
A coach will also help you deal with your self-doubts. They will remind you why you’re writing the book and what your strengths are. While a coach should be realistic and offer you advice rather than constant compliments, they should also be your supporter.
An effective coach tells you what needs improvement while also celebrating your accomplishments when you make progress. Maybe you hired a coach to help you refine your thesis, for instance. An effective coach will acknowledge the elemental good thinking about your idea development but push you for more specificity and nuance. They’ll ask tough questions, forcing you to consider angles you wouldn’t ask on your own.
What Can You Expect from a Coach?
Once you answer the...
You may never have considered how curiosity makes your writing memorable. If you haven't, are you curious to know how?
Recently, Dave and I chatted about curiosity. We both self-identify as curious people. And we both have thoughts about how we developed the ability to ask meaningful questions.
One reason goes back to our years when we worked in the magazine world. Articles often start with good interviews. Good interviews start with good questions. Good questions are fueled by curiosity.
There are bound to be times when you are stuck in book writing, whether at the idea formation stage or as you flesh out a chapter. At those moments, you may need to do more research. Or interview someone. That's when it’s time to plug into your curiosity.
Here are five insights about how curiosity makes your writing memorable, and tips to help you develop curiosity.
1. Ask "good" questions.
Yes, when you're gathering information to support your idea, thicken prose, or nuance a story, there is such a thing as a bad question. "Bad" questions are closed questions that simply demand a "yes" or "no." "Good" questions are open-ended.
Anything that starts with “Tell me about…” is a great way to get people telling stories. "How do you interpret..." and "What are your thoughts on..." questions also get people to expand upon an idea that you are trying to understand more deeply.
2. Read the person and ask good follow-up questions.
This is how you go deep in an interview.
Often when Dave and I are interviewing someone, we look for the raised eyebrow. We listen for the tone in a person's response. We pay attention to the prolonged pause.
All these non-verbal cues can indicate that someone has something more to say on the topic and need a bit of encouragement to keep talking.
If a person seems animated in their response, you might say, "You seem to be passionate about this topic. Where does this passion come from?" Or, if a person is about to say something, but then pulls back, you might ask, "It seems like you were going to say something. Can you share what you were going to say?"
Often the interviewee just needs a nudge to keep talking. And as they continue to talk, you find the gold.
3. Empathize when appropriate.
When someone shares something personal, you can express empathy. This can contribute to creating a safe environment for people to share more candidly. A simple, "That must have been difficult," can keep the interviewee sharing.
Be cautious, however, in empathizing too much. The temptation is to tell a story that is about you, rather than keeping the focus on the interviewee. Don't hijack the interviewee's story.
When you interview someone for a writing project, be sure to do your homework and prepare some rudimentary questions. The best questions are those that get you beneath the hood early on. If you can understand a person's basic thinking on...
Mornings and I mix as well as homework and the weekend. The two are simply incompatible.
That's why I rarely write in the morning (though, ironically, it's morning, and I'm writing this before the hustle of the day distracts me!). Thankfully, there's no one perfect time to write. There are many writing discipline models that work for writers.
Writers often try out a variety of writing discipline models as they write their book, depending on their phase of life (working full time with kids rushing around in the background means getting creative with your time!). Dave and I recently chatted about the six writing discipline models for writers.
Which one works best for you?
1. The Early Riser/Late Night Model. The Early Riser model is the paragon for writers: set the alarm for 5 AM, brew your coffee, settle into a comfortable location and start writing for three to four hours.
If you like morning rituals and are juiced up in the mornings, this might be the model for you. Often professional writers will get up early, write until mid morning, and then be off the rest of the day.
Or you might write late at night, once the chaos of the day has receded. Dave wrote much of Death by Suburb from 9 PM to midnight at his dining room table. He had three kids at the time. Life was crazy.
The principle is, you write when the dailyness of your life isn’t interrupting you or nagging at you. No laundry. No emails. No phone calls. No children needing something from you.
2. The Toilet Seat Model. Imagine cranking out words your book on the edge of the toilet seat while your children bathed. That's what author Caryn Rivadeneira did when she had two small children underfoot and a book deal.
The "toilet seat" is a metaphor for fitting in writing time whenever and wherever you can. Dave and I love this model because it is where many of us live. We have a life. We’re not professional writers, whose sole job is to write. Nor are we professors at universities who teach only two classes a semester and have sabbaticals and summers off to write.
This model is for ordinary people who are doing an extraordinary thing – writing in the white spaces of their lives.
3. The Chunker Model. This comes from one of our Roadtrippers, George, who writes on Fridays from 8 to noon. This isn’t an everyday discipline; it’s a weekly discipline. Some may be able to do this on Saturday or Sunday--or any other day when the demands of the week quiet down.
Sometimes you might write a couple thousand words. Other days you may eke out only a few hundred. But if you honor the time, you'll make progress. As with the Early Riser/Late Night model, this model takes discipline. And the more routine it becomes, the more likely you'll stick with it.
4. The Retreat Model. Sometimes you have to break up the routine of your life and get away to jumpstart your writing or to create...
There are a thousand clichés about how to take the first step of a long journey.
But they all have one thing in common: you have to start. In this episode, we offer up a series of tips on how to start writing a book, including fighting through and overcoming the so-called imposter syndrome.
At some point, no matter how insecure we feel, the only way to overcome our emotion is the physical act of writing something down. Here are some ideas of how to Start Writing a Book:
1. Give yourself permission to not be perfect--and just write something. I’m a perfectionist (Melissa). Or at least I’m really afraid of not doing something well. That means I often don’t start something. I just say I’ll do it.
When I’m not worried about performance, it’s easier to just write.
This release from the chokehold of perfection only comes with a mindset shift. You have to make the shift from thinking I can’t and that it won’t be great and that I am some kind of imposter to the mindset of I'm just going to do it--even if it isn't praiseworthy.
2. Start small. In one of our Roadtrippers calls, someone was challenged by the idea of writing a mere 50 words a day. That’s not overwhelming.
If you wrote 50 words a day for 365 days, that’s 18,250 words. If you wrote 100 words a day, you’d have 36,500 words. That’s almost a book.
Of course, there will be days you won’t have time to write, or are sick, or just need a break. But imagine if you began to discipline yourself by writing small? You’d make progress. And begin to find your voice.
I (Melissa) developed a discipline of writing when I started writing 50- to 100-word posts on Instagram every day. It was writing, but because of word count limitations, I never felt the pressure of writing something long. In the process, I figured out how to tell a story. I worked on my word choice. And I found my most natural writing voice.
If you’re struggling to write, maybe it’s because you have never really written before, and you need to just write more—and in smaller chunks.
You can’t become a writer without writing. Writer’s write. So maybe start like I did and tackle a few longer social media posts each week. Work on crafting the post.
3. Write about what you're interested in - not what you think you should write. When you're sincerely interested in a topic, you'll find it easier to write.
When I write about vintage, for instance, I have a lot of ideas on the topic. Lots of stories to share. Lots of tips and knowledge. Because I was interested in it, it was easy to write about.
Maybe your interested in fly fishing, like Dave who wrote the book "The Fly Fisher's Book of Lists." Maybe you're interested in leadership strategies. Or cooking. Or your family history. Whatever your area of interest is, start there. You'll have easy access...
By Dave Goetz and Melissa Parks
Who am I to write a book? If you've ever asked yourself that question, then this episode is for you! Dave and I offer practical ways to overcome your writing self doubt.
1. Recognize you'll likely always struggle with credibility.
Self doubt is completely normal. Even once you have a solid thesis, structure and are well into writing. Old messages creep in: "I don't have an English degree." "I didn't get an A in high school English class." Or, "I've never published anything. Why should I start writing now?"
Doubt might be greater when you haven’t ever written a book, because you don’t know what it takes to actually write and complete a book. Not to mention, you have no track record of people responding to you writing. You literally don’t know if you’re writing is good or not.
But it might help to realize that self-doubt burdens even the most accomplished writers. Writing is something you'll always be working on no matter where you are in the writing journey. As Ernest Hemingway said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
2. Start writing.
One way to build confidence in any are of your life is to stop thinking about it. And start doing it. You build confidence by doing. As you begin to write, you'll test out your idea and if you really have anything to say on the topic. The act of writing will also help you sharpen your thesis, narrow your audience, and spark new ideas that you haven't thought of.
Cumulatively, this will create momentum and help you overcome your writing self doubt.
3. Write out your worst-case scenario.
This will help you identify what you are most fearful of. Then write out what it would feel like to never get out what’s inside of you.
Which of these two scenarios has the worst outcome?
Perhaps the criticism that follows publication is the worst-case scenario. Young adult author V.E. Schwab said this of fear and writing:
"Be brave. Putting yourself and your work out there to be judged is a terrifying thing, to be sure. But this is a very hard industry, one built on critique and rejection, and in order to get through, you have to be brave.
"Your want of publication has to be greater than your fear of rejection. If you find yourself paralysed by the mere notion of critique, then you do not want it badly enough. YET. You are not ready. YET. And that’s okay."
Are you ready for feedback, criticism and even rejection? Or it that too much for you? You have to mentally prepare yourself for the difficulties ahead. And if you aren't mentally prepared, then maybe you aren't ready for the writing journey...quite yet.
4. Have realistic expectations.
If you’re a new writer, or haven’t written regularly ever, then the path to becoming a great writer is going to be longer. You have to build time into your life...
By Dave Goetz and Melissa Parks
We want to pivot a bit and discuss how to spot and eliminate clichés as you write your book. Whoops, we need to eliminate "pivot" from this blog post!
A cliché is simply a word or phrase that has lost it power because of overuse. It's tired. Well-worn. A million miles from fresh.
Sure you can use clichés, but if you don't lose your readers altogether, you certainly won't delight them.
If you want your book to be read and enjoyed--and, consequently, referred--you'll want to do the hard work of eliminating the clichés of your industry or community. And, yes, finding fresh ways to communicate your ideas is mind-breaking work.
Here are a few tips to help you spot and eliminate clichés in your writing:
1. Reading great writers helps you identify writing absent of clichés. Underline sections/sentences that feel fresh. That pull you in. The great writers don’t use cliches.
2. Conversely, pay attention also to bad writing. Clichés often show up in "fast writing" produced quickly for digital consumption. As you begin to identify clichés in other people's writing, you become more aware of clichés in your own writing.
3. Enlist a reader, and ask them to identify the clichés . They’ll likely identify stuff you overlook. Just recently I (Dave) wrote and published a piece. During a peer review, someone spotted a cliché I had previously overlooked. Slow down for this important step.
4. Lay down your first draft, and then re-read what you wrote. Clichés often pop up when we we write the first thing that pops into our mind. If you're in a writing groove, and the ideas are flowing, we don't recommend you slow down to craft sentences. Leave the clichés until you have time to slow down and ask yourself, “Is this the freshest way to say this?”
5. When you flag a cliché, slow down to describe what is happening in specific detail. For example, when I used the word pivot in the opening sentence, what do I actually mean?
What I’m actually saying is that “I am derailing or jumping off the rails of my current train of thought and jumping to a new topic.” That would be a fresher (though longer) way to describe a transition of ideas. You might even be more descriptive: "We're jumping of the Blue Line and jumping on the Red Line."
When you slow down to describe what you want to say, fresh metaphors and imagery come to mind.
By Melissa Parks and Dave Goetz
There's the book idea. But first there is the hard work of book proposals. To grab the attention of the editorial committee and the pub board, the proposal needs to stand out.
It's a craft.
Professional writer Caryn Rivadeneira learned the book proposal craft over two decades of writing and publishing 13 books for both adults and children. "Your proposal has to stand head and shoulders above all the others proposals to get a book deal," Caryn says.
A strong book proposal does more than just identify your thesis, structure, and comparable titles. It demonstrates why your book matters and why it matters that you are the one to write it. It can't be too general, nor can it be too eccentric (after all, it has to have mass appeal).
The hard work of a book proposal is foundational not just to publishing your book but also to writing a book. Caryn says that writing a book proposal before a book is fully formed helps her identify if her idea has depth--if it can be sustained over the course of ten chapters.
She says it forces the author to ask, "Is this really a book, or just a magazine article?"
When you spend the time on a proposal, you give yourself ample time to explore this question. Each chapter must be substantial enough to serve a purpose in the narrative arc of the book.
The narrative arc, typically associated with fiction writing, is paramount in nonfiction writing, according to Caryn. You start with the problem--why you're writing the book in the first place. Then you continue to build a case for why the problem exists. Then you must resolve the problem with your idea.
For Caryn, when she writes her book, she goes back to the structure of her proposal. While she hasn't answered all the questions in the chapter summaries, she has the big ideas to work with. And that simplifies the writing process.
Whether or not you intend to pitch a traditional publisher, seek the support of a hybrid publisher, or self publish, crafting a book proposal provides a roadmap for your book writing journey.
Tune into today for more advice from Caryn on finding time for writing, what a good book agent does for an author, and why some writers prefer to self publish.
By Melissa Parks and Dave Goetz
What is the starting point for writing a book? Do you just sit down one day and start to write?
That's not a bad idea. At least you create a bit of momentum.
But there are some strategic activities to help you make more progress more quickly.
Here are seven way ways to start writing a book:
1. Determine what type of book you're writing. It's the most basic place to start. Will you be writing fiction or non-fiction? If non-fiction, will it be a business book, a memoir, a guide, a coffee table book? Will it be academic or popular? Formal or informal? How you answer this question will determine how you structure the book as well as the type of research you will do.
2. Identify your ideal reader. Once you know the type of book you'll be writing, come up with ten qualities or descriptive phrases that capture the worldview of the person you’d like to reach with your book. What does he or she believe about the world? What does she read? What does she get angry about? What motivates him?
The answers to these questions will help you develop specific ideas for supporting your thesis. And it will be the benchmark for all of your writing: "Does my reader need to hear this?"
3. Ask, "What kind of research does this book need?" You might have an idea for a book, but if you haven't done much research, it likely is not a nuanced idea.
Research reveals what you don't know, supports hunches, and creates data (both qualitative and quantitative) to illustrate your points in a compelling way.
Some people's books begin with a formal research project: the data creates the thesis. Others have a thesis idea, but need research to validate it. Research can take on many. forms, including interviews, reading other books on the topic, studying data on the topic, and even social media polls. You'll likely need a variety of research for your project.
4. Evaluate your personal experience. Personal experience is most often where our passion originates. That's why many books include personal stories by the author. Consider moments in your life when you said "A-ha!" Or when your brow furrowed. Tap into the details of those experiences, and identify how they inform what you want to say to the world. These personal stories are what will make your book unique. Nobody else has your experience.
5. Go back to your presentations. We've said that you can't create a book from PPT presentations. Meaning, you can't just string together a bunch of talks and hope they hang together as a book. We stand by that. But it's beneficial to return to your presentations. Something from those presentations might remind you of an idea you had forgotten, or spark some fresh thinking as you begin to shape your book idea.
6. Start creating "car parts." A car doesn't run with just an engine. A book doesn't run with just a thesis. You need...