So you want to write a memoir. Maybe it’s because you’ve achieved a tremendous accomplishment, overcame a tremendous obstacle, or have been on some incredible adventures that you want to share with others. Well, here’s something that may surprise you – your memoir isn’t about you.
That probably sounds counterintuitive, since the purpose of writing a memoir is to tell your story. But in reality, your memoir is about your reader and what they take away from having read your book. Perhaps it changed their way of thinking, inspired them, or gave them the confidence they need to change their life. Or maybe it doesn’t have a profound, life-changing effect on them but instead entertains them.
Before you start writing, you have to think about what you want your audience to gain from your story. The way to get a memoir picked up by an agent and published is to write a manuscript that affects the reader. Most literary agents get pitched memoirs all the time. They know what type of book will sell. If your story isn’t something that readers can connect with, agents will pass it up. To craft your memoir to be the best it can be, follow these steps.
Step 1. Pick a theme
Unless you’re a celebrity, nobody wants to read your autobiography with every last detail of your life. Even if you are famous, chances are people wouldn’t want to know that information anyway. A memoir isn’t meant to be a timeline of your life, but rather selected anecdotes that are tied together by a common thread.
This is where theme comes into play. When people read your memoir, consciously or not, they’re thinking about how it relates to their lives. It could be that they’ve experienced something similar to you and they want to read your story to feel less alone. They may have something in common with you. Or sometimes, readers choose a memoir because it’s so drastically different from their own life.
While every reader is different and has a unique journey, there are universal experiences and feelings that you as the writer can tap into. Love, fear, loss, and insecurity are examples of emotions that everyone has felt. Even if they haven’t experienced it in the same way as you, they’ll connect with those feelings. Use these universal emotions to be the theme that guides your writing.
Step 2. Choose your stories
Like we already said, your memoir isn’t the story of your life. Instead, it’s a series of anecdotes that fit together to paint a bigger picture. Select anecdotes that fit your theme. As a memoirist, it’s essential for you to be honest. The greatest memoirs are raw and deeply personal. This means that you’ll have to dig deep within yourself to share your innermost personal thoughts and feelings.
In a way, writing an outstanding memoir is like writing a novel. The best fiction stories are the ones where the characters are so developed that they feel real to the reader. In that same vein, you are the main character of your memoir. You need to be as open and honest as possible for a stranger reading your book to connect with you.
Make sure that the anecdotes you select support your theme. Don’t include an unrelated story just because you think it’s interesting. Again, the reader doesn’t want to know every detail about you. What they do want to read, however, is a book that’s structured and is cohesive. Piecing together stories that don’t mesh well will make your book seem less like a real memoir and more like a diary.
Step 3. Get inspired
Good writers are avid readers. Don’t fall for the myth that reading other people’s writing will somehow change your voice and negatively affect your work. Reading memoirs can be immensely helpful as you begin the process. You can see what styles you like and don’t like. You might get ideas for how you want to structure your story. It could even make you remember details or anecdotes about your life that you’d forgotten. Read a few memoirs by different authors with different types of stories and experiences and you’ll be surprised by how much it can inspire you to write yours.
Step 4. Write with a fiction mindset
One of the best tips for writing a memoir is to treat it like you’re writing fiction. If you were to write a novel, you would be trying to show and not tell the reader what’s happening, write vivid descriptions, develop characters, and incorporate dialogue. You need to be doing the same things for your memoir.
Readers don’t know what type of home you live in or what your family looks like. It’s your job to make the people, places, and experiences of your life come alive in the book. Since you’re the protagonist of the story, you should write in the first person. Otherwise, you’ll seem detached from the story. Be sure to apply character development to yourself. Readers should see your progression and how you change from the start of your story to the end.
You don’t have to follow a linear sequence. It’s common for memoirists to jump back and forth in time. For example, if a memory from your childhood feels relevant to the theme in a chapter in the middle of the book, go for it. Some memoirists even insert their present self into the story, reflecting on their past. You can get away with a fluid timeline as long as you make it clear for the reader to know where they are in the story. What’s most important is that your book follows the theme and that should be your top priority.
Create tension in your memoir as you would with a work of fiction. People read novels cover to cover to find out what happens to the characters. You want people reading your memoir to do the same. Don’t give away the whole story in the beginning. Build up suspense little by little to keep your audience engaged and wanting to know more.
Step 5. Cover your tracks
Writing a memoir can be tricky because you need to be honest, but legally, you can’t always name all of the people in your life in the book, especially the “villains” of the story. People have to sign rights for you to write about them, which probably won’t be a problem for your close friends and family. People who have wronged you or caused you pain very well may be a part of the memoir you’re writing; however, what are the chances that they’ll agree to sign a release? Pretty slim.
Don’t let this deter you from telling your whole story. You can still write about these people by making some changes to hide and obscure their identity. Changing the person’s name, gender, or relationship to you can help protect their anonymity. You could also change the location of events or the time they occurred. Your book will still be considered a non-fiction memoir even if you make these changes. You’ll just have to include a disclaimer at the beginning of the book letting readers know that some names and details were changed in order to protect identities.
It takes a lot of courage to tell your story. Sharing your vulnerabilities, secrets, struggles, and thoughts with the world is no small feat. Remember that readers will appreciate your depth and honesty and it’s what will make them enjoy your book. Your memoir is your story and only you can tell it. Now that you have the steps, it’s time to set forth and get your story out to the world.