Monday, April 24, 2017


I had a Facebook friend ask some basic advice on beginning her memoir and I thought I'd share an edited version of my response since this has been something on my list anyway. This is quick and dirty advice for someone thinking about writing their personal story. I've worked with a number of memoirists to get their books ready for publication and the editing process often comes down to structure, layering the work with themes, and making sure the author is "showing" versus "telling." Here are seven simple tips for getting started:

1. Get a pad of paper out and take some time to think about and write down what your overall message would be. What do you most want to articulate to readers through your story? It's possible you won't know this until you're further into the process of writing (and it may even change as you go), but it's not too early to think about the overall reason for writing your story and the message you hope to convey to readers. Is it a message of hope or a cautionary tale?

2. Write down what themes you think you'll likely be addressing across the manuscript. Is this a story of forgiveness? Coming of age? Redemption? Loyalty? Survival? Awakening? What are the top three things you've thought about as you've healed and gotten distance from your story? I like to see at least one or two themes addressed in each chapter of a work so the work is layered. If you've been cheated on, for example, did you think about revenge before ultimately landing on forgiveness? Were your thoughts then different from what they are now? What themes do you come back to when you think about the events of your life? Write these down. They'll be helpful later and will help guide your work. You'll want to explore one or two of these in each chapter in one way or another.  

3. Think about structure. How will you tell your story? In chapters? Vignettes? Parts? Chronological? Experimental? I've worked with authors who have told their stories in vignettes and with chapters. Both vignettes and chapters have to have a sense of arc. If you are going to tell your story in parts, do you have a concept for these parts in mind? What kind of structure makes the most sense for not only your style of writing, but also the story itself?

4. Think about your story in terms of pivotal events. Memoir is not the same as autobiography (though it's autobiographical). Memoir is usually focused on a shorter period of time in a person's life or on an event or theme, which is why some authors have written more than one memoir. When I think about my life, for example, I might be able to write about four distinct periods (spiritual awakening, dog rescue in Puerto Rico, opening a cafe in NY, or dating and sexuality), though not everything that happened during these periods was pivotal or interesting. Focus on pivotal life moments, start with events. Give yourself two weeks or a month to write one chapter, and remember your first draft doesn't have to be perfect. Think of the chapter like a short story needing a beginning, middle, and end.

5. Timekeeping is often unnecessary. As long as the reader understands the roadmap for how a story is being told, they can make leaps in time without having to know how many days went by or what day-to-day events happened in between. It may be important for you as the author to know the dates and times things happened, but it's often not important for the reader unless time is a concept in the work, theme, part of the actual structure, or completely necessary to understanding the story.

6. Memoir authors tend to have difficult stories to tell. It's really difficult to go into your past, particularly where the memories bring up physical or emotional pain. I generally see memoir authors "telling" versus "showing," simply because the memories are too painful. We are wired to defend against pain to a large extent. So much of my work with memoirists focuses around getting the author to go deeper, to "show" versus "tell" in the writing. Bring the reader right into that painful event. For the reader, it's the difference between hearing about a great party, and being in the corner of the room watching it. Though what you're writing about may be extremely painful, sometimes the deeper you go, the more healing there is to be had.

7. Last, for those authors who are telling difficult stories, be sure to have a support system in place and be good to yourself during the process of writing, whether it's getting a massage after a particularly difficult chapter, buying yourself flowers, getting a shot of wheatgrass, or having a therapist on speed dial... If you are going to dig into difficult physical or emotional terrain, be really good to yourself and have something special waiting on the other side. Write down what it's going to be so you don't forget or underestimate how you may feel. Also, let your family and friends know so they can be there to support you.

Elizabeth K. Kracht is a literary agent and freelance editor.

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