What does ‘memoir’ mean to you? Is it something a famous person writes at the end of a long life? Is it a get-rich-quick scheme for minor celebrities when they haven’t got much to say? Or perhaps it’s a self-indulgence—something you write when you think you’ve had an interesting life and your children are sick of hearing about it?
Whatever the negative connotations surrounding memoir, it’s a thriving genre in the publishing world, and if you’ve got a story to tell you’d be surprised how successful you could be. For example, what if I told you that Call the Midwife is a memoir? Or This is Going to Hurt? They were both written by ordinary, non-famous people who had an interesting story to tell.
So should you write a memoir? And if so, how do you go about it? I’ve worked with dozens of memoir authors with varying involvement, from light editing to complete restructuring to rewriting projects when the author needs more help, and in that time I’ve found general principles for memoir writing that will help you to get started.
Here are my top tips for writing when the main character is you.
Find the theme
The best memoirs can be summed up in one sentence—or even, in some cases, a word. So what’s your story about? Tara Westover’s memoir Education covers many events, mainly a childhood spent in the grip of a controlling cult. But she summed it up nicely in one word in the title: it’s about the empowering effect of education and the journey she took to find it. So what’s the theme of your story? See if you can sum it up in a sentence, and you’ll be more like to create a joined-up narrative.
Pick out what’s unique
Although it might be interesting to you, you don’t have to include everything that’s ever happened to you in your memoir. The best memoirs are not ‘cradle to grave’ but focus on the events that fit around your theme. Kidnap victim Terry Waite might have had an interesting early childhood, but that’s not what readers of his memoir Taken on Trust want to read about. So what is it about your story that’s unique? This should be the focus of your book.
Take a step back
Although memoirs are by nature very personal, it will do you good to take a step back and get a wider view of your material. What’s the hook? The thing that will make someone sit up and take notice? Like novels, memoirs need a plot and ‘Woman grows up in middle-class Oxfordshire’ is unlikely to be it.
Isolate your market
No one ever succeeded by writing a book that will appeal to everyone. So who is your market? Who’s going to want to read about your experiences? Isolating this reader and working out what will make them pick up your book will help you to focus and write your story. Your reader has a lot to choose from, so they’ll need to have a reason to choose to read about your experiences. Find what resonates with them and write your story just for them.
Have you got a platform you can use to promote a book about your experiences? Do you have any social media accounts. A publisher looks at how you can promote a book yourself, so work hard to create a presence online. Publishers also do their research. What other books are there on this subject? Spend time immersing yourself in your genre and find out what you’re up against.
If you were asking the questions, what would you want to know about your experiences? Imagine you’re a journalist and are interviewing for a newspaper article. What would you want to find out? Chances are that’s what your reader will want to know too, so you might need to be more open than you think about personal details. Good memoirs are honest, even raw at times, and tell the truth, so if you’re not prepared to lay things bare you might want to reconsider.
Think about tense and time
Your voice as the author is the only thing your reader is going to hear. So how are you going to write? The tense and other stylistic devices you choose will depend on the feeling you want to provoke. Adam Kay wrote This is Going to Hurt mostly in the present tense, like a diary, while Terry Waite chose to alternate between his time in captivity and his previous life. Remember that you have several options and you don’t have to keep everything chronological. Not all memoirs start at the beginning.
Don’t forget dialogue
Dialogue brings a story to life, and you can use it in your memoir even if you can’t remember exactly what was said. Construct conversations that further the plot and add depth to your characters. You might be writing non-fiction, but this is still a story.
Zooming in and out when telling a story gives it depth and relevance, and nowhere is this a more helpful technique than in memoir writing. As well as telling your story, how can you incorporate a wider view? A travel memoir should include interesting details about the history and culture of a place, for example, not just your own personal journey. This is Going to Hurt is not just Adam Kay’s experiences of being a junior doctor but a manifesto for the better treatment of doctors in the NHS. Find the bigger picture and make your book about more than just you.
Whether you’ve started writing a memoir or have never thought about it until now, use these tips to think about the structure, style and purpose of your book. Don’t forget to think like a publisher (even if you intend to self-publish) and look for the commercial value in what you write.
And if you need help with structuring, editing or writing your memoir, email me to chat about your ideas.