Do you want to write your family story? But don’t know where to start?
A family story is one of the best ways to preserve your history for future generations. It bonds your family together. And it can establish your legacy. Like all forms of writing, though, writing a family story can be daunting. You may not know where to start, which stories to include, or how to remain objective without offending your family.
To begin to write your family story, it’s important to first be clear on what a family story is and isn’t.
A family story is a historical, generally chronological story that covers your family’s story. Now you might be thinking, Isn’t that a memoir? Great question! Let’s compare the two.
A successful memoir needs a meta narrative—a theme that ties all your stories together. It’s written in the first-person; you, as the writer, interpret the events in your life. Some of those stories might involve family members, but the stories aren’t so much about your family as they are about how those moments informed you.
A memoir focuses on specific events in your life. It’s not a junk drawer for all your memories, and the memories used are relative to the theme/s you’re exploring.
A family story doesn’t require a meta narrative. (In general, these books are shared only amongst family members. If you were wanting to sell your family story, it would need a meta narrative to engage a larger audience.) A family story also likely will cover a longer period of time and touch on multiple themes. It’s written in third person, which allows you to act as the historian. You’re sharingstories rather than interpreting them.
Why Do You Want to Write Your Family’s History?
Like all writing projects, a family story demands you identify your “why.” A purpose energizes you when you reach inevitable low points where you want to give up; it encourages you to keep writing.
A family history is most often written to celebrate the perseverance, determination, and drive of your family throughout history. This can be energizing, and perhaps the purpose that drives you: remembering the qualities that have defined your family from generation to generation.
Defining your purpose will help you shape your story in a way that accurately portrays your family and their survival.
To help you determine the “why” of your story, start by asking yourself, What happens if I don’t tell my family’s story? Why is it important for me to tell this story?
As you begin to write your family’s story, be cautious of telling stories that denigrate your family. You can talk about the hard stuff—alcoholism, illnesses, and affairs, for instance—but try to frame those stories in a way that shows how your family triumphed. In family stories, your ancestors are typicallythe heroes. Those heroic stories are what will unify your family around deeper...
“What do you look for in a manuscript?”
It’s a question every literary agent hears hundreds of times throughout their careers. And it’s the golden question writers want an answer to.
But answers vary from agent to agent. Most answers tend to be generic. Or they fail to provide practical advice writers can apply to their writing. (How many times have you been told an agent wants a “good first chapter”?)
To help aspiring authors improve their manuscripts, literary agent Soumeya Roberts encourages writers to review three things in their manuscript.
The first thing literary agents look for in a manuscript is a distinctive voice. They want a manuscript that is well-controlled. A manuscript where the writer chose the best stylistic option available—voice.
What is voice?
Voice is an abstract idea; a stylistic mixture of tone, vocabulary, syntax, and point of view. A writer’s voice is distinctive through their tone, pacing, word choice, and structure of paragraphs and chapters.
Think about Jane Austen in comparison to Ernest Hemingway. Austen’s voice is witty and sharp, while Hemingway’s voice is terse and not overly descriptive. You would never confuse Austen’s writing with that of Hemingway’s.
A writer’s voice is only half the equation, Roberts explains. Agents want to read a manuscript with a strong, distinctive character’s voice.
A character’s voice is the tone they use throughout the story. It’s a combination of how they speak, how they think, how they react to the situation unfolding around them.
Like humans, each character has a unique voice! And they will have different reactions to a situation.
Agents are on the hunt for a manuscript with controlled writing. Each character’s point of view (POV)—whether you’re writing in single POV or multiple POVs—must have a purpose. Why is this character the narrator? What makes their POV interesting? What insights do they provide to the plot, and how do they react to the problems unfolding?
A word of advice: When writing in multiple POVs, each character must have a distinct voice. The first line of each chapter should clearly depict who is the POV character. And it should be clear throughout the rest of the section that they are the narrator.
Character voice aside, you might be wondering, “How do I develop my voice?”
Voice can only be developed through continuous writing. You discover it over time. Roberts encourages fiction writers to write short fiction. MFA programs, for example, prefer short fiction as it requires an author to think about how to tell a story, and in what voice. Shorter pieces allow you to develop your voice in new ways.
Ultimately, developing your voice requires self-investigation. Practice writing short stories. Capture memories from your day at the park. Or an outing with friends. The longer you write, the easier it will be to discover your...
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...
“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 ...
We all remember our high school research papers. Twelve or so pages of regurgitated facts, figures, and quotes. And completely devoid of voice. To describe them as boring would be an understatement.
Nobody really teaches you how to not lose your voice in your research. They just teach you how to cite research.
That’s a problem for authors of nonfiction writing in particular, who must find a way to use research to support or apply their idea. Because a book isn’t the research. The book is a unique idea.
When writers spend hours researching for their projects, the temptation is to include every single quote and study that supports their argument. Or, to use long, cumbersome block quotes that interrupt the narrative flow.
Quite simply, too much research can overpower your voice and lose your reader.
We sat down with Melinda Moyer, author of How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes: Science-Based Strategies for Better Parenting—from Tots to Teens. As the title suggests, Moyer’s book is science-based and research-driven. Yet Moyer artfully maintains her individual voice—even in the midst of research.
In this blog post, we share two tips on how to not lose your voice in your research.
Reframe Your Research
Unless you’re writing a PhD dissertation, research is best when it is buried. That means, as a writer you incorporate the ideas into your own voice, rather than simply reporting what others have discovered, often through long quotes. Allow your voice to weave all the ideas (and voices of other writers and researchers) together.
How do you do this?
Start by collecting nuggets of research that relate to your idea. Create documents labeled by subject/idea matter, and drop quotes into the correlating subject documents. You might put the same quote into more than one doc, as you wrestle with how to best use the research. Sometimes, the research will pop up more than once in your writing. That’s fine, too. If it’s an important idea, it might demand revisiting.
Once you have written down the quotes verbatim, rework those nuggets of wisdom with your own words—in a way that the average person will find interesting. You become the translator of information that might be too dense for the average reader.
The key is to not simply regurgitate direct quotes. Through reframing the research, your voice will remain unique and present in your text.
Break It Up with Story!
To keep your reader’s attention, you need to continually tap into the reader’s emotion. One way to do this is through story. Stories bring to life the research by applying it or illustrating it.
Check out Moyer’s article ‘I Had Never Felt Worse’: Long Covid Sufferers Are Struggling With Exercise. She starts her article with a personal story. And then connects this story to her research. In a research-dense article that could be boring and overwhelming, personal stories allow your voice to...
“I have an idea for a memoir. But I don’t know how to structure it. What do I do?”
A memoir, like any book, needs to be structured. It needs to provide a compelling story and maintain your reader’s attention.
We spoke with Anna LeBaron, author of The Polygamist’s Daughter, who grew up in a cult. In her memoir, she chronicles her coming of age in the midst of a volatile atmosphere, one in which she was on the run from authorities. Her story is structured in a way that demands your attention from the beginning until the end.
In this blog post, we share the best tips on how to structure your memoir.
Find Your Angle
There is a book, blog or article written about every idea.
In Anna’s case, multiple books were written about her family and her villainous father. Out of all the books written on her family, not one chronicled the experience of the children. So she wrote from the perspective of a child. Her memoir provided a new perspective to an old topic.
When you think about your own memoir, ask yourself: “What does my story provide to my reader?” and “How does my story differ from others?”
For instance, loss of a child, addiction, dysfunctional families, poverty—all of these subjects have been discussed at length before. And it is more difficult to find a literary agent if you simply rehash what has already been written on these subjects. That’s not to say you can’t write on these topics. But to do so effectively, you have to provide a fresh take. What in your story is fresh?
Your Structure Needs Some Thinking—And Tension
Once you have an angle to work with, you need to structure your memoir in a way that keeps your reader’s interest.
Your structure can be written in chronological order, or a change between past and present, or center it on a message or theme you want to share, with no particular reference to chronology. Each of these options can be effective in storytelling, if you build on the proper tension.
The chronological structure presents a linear story. This is effective if you withhold information from the reader and/or allude (foreshadow) to coming problems.
Anna structured her book as a chronological timepiece of her childhood. She did not use flashbacks nor foreshadowing to build the tension. Instead, she maintained tension by withholding information. The reader learns pertinent information—such as when she learned that her father was a murderer—at the same time she did as a child. This technique keeps her reader engaged.
A “past vs. present” memoir structure is used to compare life events without being held back by chronology. This technique is most effective through the use of flashbacks and flashforewords.
“I’ll Push You,” a memoir about two friends—one confined to a wheelchair—and their journey on the 500-mile Camino de Santiago trek, uses past vs.present structure. The memoir...
Didn’t you hear? Humans have the attention span of a goldfish.
The statement may be a stretch (even though Ted Lasso made us all believe it’s an immutable truth!), but the idea behind it isn’t. The attention span of a human is short.
You may wonder how a person’s short attention span affects your writing. We did some math and made a few hypotheses. Read below to find out more.
How Fast Do I Read?
Let’s begin by establishing some parameters.
On average, adults read 220 to 350 wpm (words per minute). This does not include technical, software reading, which takes far longer (and probably more brain power) to complete. College-age people (19- to 23-years-old) read, on average, 300 to 350 wpm. And high schoolers read 200 to 300 wpm.
Will This Chapter Ever End?
Most chapters fall between a 1500- and 5000-word count. That’s not to say that some chapters are longer (as can be seen in popular fiction series such as The Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones). But, for the most part, chapters will fall into this range. Especially in nonfiction.
The sweet spot for chapter length will be 3000 to 4000 words.
20 Minutes Is My Limit
Research has concluded that the optimal attention span in adults is 20 minutes. “Optimal” means your audience is engaged at their fullest capacity.
No matter how interesting your topic may be—whether it’s a speech, lecture, or piece of writing—20 minutes appears to be the limit. There will be those outliers who exceed a 20-minute attention span—who have a natural ability to spellbind us with their words—but we’re focusing on average people. Like you and me.
Consider the previous parameters established. If an adult reads 220 wpm, they will start to lose attention (after a 20-minute period) at a 4400-word count. If an adult reads 350 wpm, they will start to lose attention (after a 20-minute period) at a 7000-word count.
Forget Everything Else. Curiosity and Tension Are Your Greatest Allies
Now you’re probably wondering: how do I keep my reader’s attention?
This may relate to previously mentioned research on words read per minute and the attention span of the average human. Emphasize may.
You can research all you want about words read per a minute, the average length of a chapter, the average attention span of a human, etc.—but none of that really matters.
Humans—readers—are curious beings. We pick up a book and want to know what happens to the characters, to uncover the mystery, to learn more about complex ideas. It is our curiosity that encourages us to read a book in the first place.
And it is our curiosity that leads to anticipation. Anticipation keeps us reading. We want to know what happens next. We want to know if our characters will make it out alive, if they heal from their trauma, etc. We want to know why an author’s ideas matter—more specifically, if they matter to me.
This is how...
What is memoir as a genre and memoir as a strategy? Senior Vice President of Editorial at Harper One Mickey Maudlin identifies the differences.
“So what? Why does memoir categorization matter?” It’s a question that all writers setting out to write a memoir must ask.
We live in an age where just about anybody can write a memoir—and many will write a memoir, even if their story is unremarkable.
There’s an ocean of memoirs swallowing up the truly memorable—and readable—ones. If you want your memoir to gain an audience, you have to set it apart from others, deciding first the most effective way to tell your story. And more importantly, asking yourself why anyone would read your story.
Once you know your “why,” you need to understand the difference between the two categories of memoir writing.
We caught up with Senior Vice President of Editorial at Harper One Mickey Maudlin, who identifies the difference between memoir as a genre and memoir as a strategy.
Memoir as a Genre
We typically think of memoirs as autobiographical. They tell the story of a distinct period of time, often following a chronological narrative arc.
This is what Mickey calls “memoir as a genre.”
Memoirs as a genre are collected stories about someone’s life. There is not necessarily one theme that carries the collected stories. And they typically do not connect to a political, religious, or cultural phenomena. These memoirs are simply an arc (often a particular period of time) of human life.
The most successful books in this category have an exceptional story to share, like near-death experiences, scandalous-murder-mysteries, or cult-associated stories. They provide readers a rare look into something that few will ever experience. They strike an emotional chord and gain some early buzz on the talk-show circuit. Because of media buzz they tend to gain early momentum although they lose popularity over time.
There are also memoirs that succeed because they are written exceptionally well and cover a topic that has never been tackled.
Take, for example, Lab Girl, a memoir which explores both the narrator’s vocational discovery as well as insights into the secret lives of plants. The writing of Lab Girl is both poetic and academically challenging. The writing pulls the reader into a story that might not be engrossing (at first glance) to the masses.
Memoir as a genre is best executed by skilled writers. And they are typically more difficult to write if you don’t have a remarkable life story.
Memoir as Strategy
Memoir as a writing strategy communicates an overarching message or theme. It explores different stories of your life, but it’s main focus is to share a core message, whether it’s on forgiveness, friendship, or developing your writing voice. These types of memoirs typically are instructive.
Popular authors, such as Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, and Barbara Brown...
We’ve all studied basic story structures in our high school English classes. And if you’re anything like me, you probably purged them from your memory. What will I ever need to know this for?
But your English teacher had some valuable stuff to say: story structure, particularly the narrative arc, is just as important to memoir writing as it is to fiction writing.
Dave and I recently sat down with co-authors, Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray, to discuss their memoir, “I’ll Push You.” The co-authors emphasized the importance of getting your story architecture in place before writing.
Why Story Architecture Is Important
Story structures helps you as an author establish your overarching theme--the "why" of your story. It also makes sure your story flows. Those two things work in tandem to hook your reader, so they'll keep reading.
Here are three tips on story structure, so your memoir will be read and move others.
1. Form Your Book's Skeleton
Before you begin writing, brainstorm the general idea of your book. Start by creating a chapter-by-chapter skeleton.
Dig into the thematic components, characters, and flashbacks critical to the narrative. With each new idea, think of how it relates to the whole of your book. What is the big idea? How do the individual ideas build to support the primary idea? Which comes first, and which should come last? Where do you want to take the reader, and how do these stories create movement for that journey?
The brainstorming phase is the perfect opportunity to consider the flow of your book and your overarching message. Don’t be afraid to delete ideas or pencil in potential concepts.
As hard as it is to do, scrap those that don’t work, and fiddle around with those you think might work until you have a working structure.
If you’re more daring, consider the connecting pieces between your chapters. Justin and Patrick brainstormed ideas to transition the closing sentence of a chapter into the beginning sentence of the succeeding chapter. This will help your book flow.
2. Establish Your Characters' Journey
A book cannot succeed without complex characters. Memoirs included. Proper characterization is important to your story’s structure, because its their journey (and their transformation!) that creates the narrative arc.
When structuring your story, consider the characters' pain, joys, internal dilemmas, moments of decision, their hardships, and their victories as well as insights--even if small.
Your story’s structure will reflect your characters' journey from conflict to resolution (even if that resolution is complicated).
3. Set Your Pace
Story structure builds the pace of your book. You don’t want to spend too much time on a single section of your story. And you don’t want to rush other sections. Intentionally structuring your book will prevent either from happening.
The structure of your...
By Dave Goetz and Melissa Parks
Each of us has spent quite a bit of time in the magazine industry. During those years, we learned some skills from magazine writing that can translate to book writing.
1. You have to know your audience. Every magazine exists because of a well-defined audience, so well-defined that this audience is willing to pay $19.95 a year or $49 a year to pay for it. With magazines, the writing has to be so engaging, that people will pay for it.
Think about that.
A book is like that, in that, people are buying content. They are paying $19.95 or $24.95 to read something. That’s a big commitment.
One of the metrics of magazine vitality and financial health is the “renewal rate”: That is, once someone buys the magazine once or subscribes once, how likely is that person to renew their subscription. Whether they renew is entirely based on the content: the writing.
With a book, whether someone refers your book is also 100% based on the writing. Did that book move the purchaser in some way? Did it inspire him?
2. You have to have a hook. A magazine editor will make you refine your angle until it is grabby.
I remember writing a home feature story for a shelter magazine and I started off the story about a young couple buying a bungalow in shambles. shambles. Squatters lived there, the walls were falling apart, and the yard was overgrown. I then talked about how the young couple brought the home back to life with lots of love.
The editor said it was a cliche hook. And she made me rewrite it with a fresh angle. I changed the story to talk about the 1940s love letters the couple found in the lathe of their home during renovation, and how they were writing their own love story in the same home.
This is a hook. It's specific, unique and memorable. We talk about the necessity of hooks in chapter writing often. You have to have a hook for each chapter. The hook isn’t necessarily a long drawn-out story. It can be a vignette. It can be a powerful statistic.
Each chapter you have to be ready to take the reader on a journey. The hook grabs their attention, so they don’t bail
Often, the hook will connect on a emotional level with the reader, so they are engaged from the get-go.
3. Titling is absolutely essential to arresting attention. I'm not great at titling. I admit it. I try to be clever, and I'm just not clever. But I can appreciate a good title, one that both is descriptive and clever--that's arresting.
A strong title will capture the attention of the reader—often in a clever way—to get them to read the article. But the title must also speak to the content of the article. I just read an article in a British shelter magazine about a rehabbed barn situated in the English countryside that was filled with modern art and furniture. The title was “Barn to Be Wild”--a fun play on words.
When you're titling a...