“Novel” tips to writing a better memoir

For those of you savvy-readers, you may have noticed a tiny play on words in the title of this post. Am I talking about a “novel idea” or am I talking about Stephen King’s next haunting novel? I suppose it is a bit of both.

One thing that happens when someone is writing a memoir is they fear to be creative. Is anyone going to believe what I have to say? Am I going to be sued by Target because I mentioned shopping there? I can’t put this in because I can’t remember if the event occurred on December 4th or December 6th. I don’t want my parents or spouse to know I did that. These are actual concerns clients have shared with me. The one about being sued by Target comes up way more than you’d think. Target will not sue you because you mention that the store is your go-to for Chobani yogurt and toasted coconut almond milk. Whether it is a lack of detail, the fear to express your inner-beliefs or the fear that your kids will find out you smoked a doobie on Haight Street in ’69, it is fear that holds people back from writing the memoir they often approach me to write or write their self.

I get it, some of your fears are valid. You may still be skirting the FBI due to mob activity in the ’80s, but in general, most concerns are merely laughable moments that twenty years later most people won’t care about.

So, what I propose to you, the memoirist is to use novels as your guide to writing a better memoir. From the important details to insulting Aunt Dottie, these tips will help liven your story and create a better writer.

If you show the gun, you better use the gun: Ask any experienced mystery writer who has read an inexperienced writer’s work and one of the top mistakes will be unresolved clues. Some writers may pawn these “clues” as red-herrings. But, a red-herring isn’t just a gun in a drawer that you want the writer to think about, it is a well-developed plot diversion led to creating a twist in the story. So, why does this matter? It matters because if you introduce a gun in chapter two, your reader will expect that a gun will be used in the book. So what happens when your reader finishes the book, never reading about the gun except in chapter two? Your reader will close the book, shut off the Nook, and read the last page of their Kindle with only one thought on their mind: What happened to the gun? Did I miss something?

Be careful what you do and don’t mention. If you introduce an event, item or person make sure that they are integral to your story. Making of a great story is in the details – the ones you put in and the ones you keep out.

Create the laughable moment: People are often too embarrassed to admit mistakes or to offend. But, what most will find is that ten, twenty, and thirty years down the road most people really don’t care about being offended by something you did when you were younger. While you don’t have to come out and say, “I always hated the pink bunny slippers Aunt Dottie made for me every Christmas,” you can say “My aunt Dottie was always a seamstress. In fact, every Christmas she would make me these fluffy, comfy pink bunny slippers. For a thirteen-year-old country boy, I was the envy of the neighborhood.” Sarcasm, if not overused can be an excellent source of storytelling.

And then there are your own humbling moments or blunders. You might be cautious to write about them, but as long as they are relevant to your story, they can add a lot of perspective about you during that period in your life. I’ve blundered – some would say a lot, and those blunders can either be really embarrassing, or they can be laughable moments that give insight into my life at the time.

Consider my first trip to San Francisco – age 32 – and I J-walked across the street with everyone else while a police officer stepped on the street stopping these pedestrians who brushed the officer off and continued walking. I was appalled! So I stopped, much to the chagrin of my girlfriend who was pissed that I stopped at all. Imagine the society where people ignore the police because they don’t want to deal with their actions. Really? Well, this Wisconsin/Minnesota kid couldn’t take part, so I stopped. Now, I’d heard that San Francisco was a place of love, peace and all that, but imagine my surprise when I found out you could avoid a J-walking ticket by donating to an animal adoption charity. I still recall the first thing I thought when I heard that: “This really is an amazing city.”

Then I felt my girlfriend tugging on my arm, I saw the snickers of people walking by and felt the gullibility on my face. I was dragged away, but not so fast that I couldn’t toss a $5 at the cop who was only trying to save the animals.

It’s stories like these, the fun and gullible that provide a look into who you were at the time. This story tells of a 32-year-old man who probably should have had the street smarts to know he was being duped. But, frankly, people can underestimate the reality of “Minnesota nice.”

Don’t overfill your grocery bag: The average person has a lot of stories and in my post The Mistake that Stops You in Your Tracks! How to Keep Your Biography Moving Forward. I help to break down which stories to use, how to use them, and when. One of the key elements of writing a memoir is to remember what you are writing about and making sure that your stories are relevant to your memoir. The example I use for myself is tennis and career. Tennis and my career as a production supervisor and manager overlapped in regards to chronology. Yet, in my life they were separate. Tennis started when I was young and taught me about independence, confidence, and perseverance for a relatively shy kid. Career taught me about perspective, perception, and communication skills for a confident adult who was trying to figure out life. But, if I were to write a memoir I would not combine the two. It would be like trying to fill two grocery bags worth of food into one and forgetting that you put the bread and eggs on the bottom.

You may have a lot of stories to tell, but in your memoir on how tennis changed your life, you don’t need to cram all the stories into one memoir. Keep your focus on the memoir at hand, and save those stories for future memoirs or a full biography – where the same exists – relevance.

Keep moving forward: Just like a novel, a memoir should keep moving forward. Remember that because this is a story about your life doesn’t mean people will continue reading just because it’s a story about your experience. They want to read because your life will provide perspective, enrich their lives, and offer entertainment. In fact, I have several memoirs and books about family members that I’ve tried to read over the years and just can’t finish. They’re not entertaining. Sure, they have facts, figures, and a timeline, but…borrring. So, it is important to move on and keep the reader, not only interested in the current material but also a curiosity for what is to come.

One of my favorite ways to do this is a simple lead-in at the end of a chapter for the next chapter. In fact, this is a trick I learned from reading Lloyd Alexander’s middle-grade fiction. He always leaves one chapter with a curiosity to go to the next. Whenever someone recommends a book and says, “I read it in one night” the novelist was probably using this technique. One title that comes to mind is Dan Brown’s Davinci Code.

In a memoir, you can do this with a lead-in such as: “I had to convince myself that was the last time I’d make such an impulsive decision, and it was… right up until James said, ‘do you want to move to the Virgin Islands?’ and how could I say no to that?” Then move onto the next chapter.

Be concise: The Hemingway-esque guide to being concise can be tricky. You are excited to write your memoir, you have so much to say, and now you’re being told to tighten up your britches. Both in a sentence and in story-telling leaving out the verbose is essential. If you’ve read above, you’ve already seen some examples of this such as staying focused on your memoir and not overfilling your grocery bag. Also, learning the difference between a direct active sentence and a wordy passive sentence is important.

So, why do we write in a passive voice? Well, a lot of people do so because they think it makes them sound more intelligent. This happens a lot when someone asks me to ghostwrite a book for them. They call it “scholarly.” But, it’s not scholarly, it is weak writing.

If you don’t know what active vs. passive sentences are, here are a few examples:

Who taught you to write? (active)
By whom were you taught to write? (passive)

Jody generously donated money to the scholarship fund. (active)
Money was generously donated to the scholarship fund by Jody. (passive)

While there are few “rules” to writing, there are quality suggestions to make the experience fun for you and fun for your readers. In the end, while memoirs are a therapeutic way to discover yourself, the ultimate goal is to leave your legacy on life for future generations. After all, you never know who you are going to inspire, and how far that person will go.

As always, I’d love to hear from you, so feel free to leave a comment or send me a message.

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