How to turn autobiography into memoir for publishing success.
Every month, I work writers on projects intended to be memoir that instead read as autobiography. Some have received this very feedback in rejections from agents and editors. Others belong to writing communities where members simply do not understand the difference between forms, chalking every craft decision up to “authorial choice.”
A common myth seems to persist: that memoir is merely autobiography for those not famous.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Memoir and autobiography differ in structure, emphasis, and necessary skillset. Readers buy each in hopes of different experiences. If you want to write a successful book, you must understand which you are REALLY writing.
To avoid common memoir mistakes, here’s a quick rundown on the difference between memoir and autobiography, along with tools to tweak your manuscript if your book-in-progress reads less like a memoir than intended.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
“Autobiographies are a platform for well-known individuals to share the facts of their lives in their own words, memoirs are a format in which writers use their life experience in service of a larger theme.
The goal of autobiography is similar to biography, yet told through the author’s own words with an eye toward legacy-building.
Autobiography is usually reserved for famous individuals. Exceptional prose enhances an autobiography (hence the reason many celebrities employ ghostwriters), yet is less essential than in memoir.
The goal of memoir is to impart a thematic lesson via a key experience from the author’s life.
Anyone can write a memoir, provided they are both skilled at writing and posses distinct (not trite) insight into life’s experiences.
“The requirement for a strong autobiography is a life that’s out of the ordinary, whereas a memoir is about an ordinary existence told with profound insight.”
~ NY Book Editors
As a developmental book coach and editor, I provide straight talk on what works and what does not in client manuscripts, while offering actionable tools to improve drafts.
Here are four tips I give writers to help them move material away from autobiography and into memoir territory.
4 TIPS TO MAKE YOUR MANUSCRIPT MORE LIKE MEMOIR
1. Tighten Your Timeframe
Sure, you may wish your memoir to cover your entire life. But that’s not how memoirs are structured. Memoirs are structured around a specific bracketed moment that encapsulates the thematic transformation of an author’s life.
Can you distill your life’s story down to a timeframe with a tight clock and focused goal? Then work to weave moments that may have contributed to your wants, wounds, and worldview into the backstory at relevant junctures? Because, in a nutshell, this is what’s required.
Say you are writing a coming-of-age memoir. All of adolescence is too long to keep readers in suspense. So you must tighten the timeframe. To do so, ask yourself, over the course of what specific moment in adolescence did I move from a state of innocence regarding ___________(what theme?) to a state of experience/ hard-earned wisdom?
Your timeframe might then get shorted to the duration of a specific school year or sports season, the span a family vacation, summer spent at camp or living abroad, the duration of your first romantic relationship or a parent’s illness.
Keep your timeline as brief as possible, and focus it tightly around whatever topic your memoir will cover. (Read more about topic in memoir here.)
For example, Joan Didion presents both timeframe and topic in her title The Year of Magical Thinking, which comprises one year following her husband’s sudden death and explores grief via thinking we can control external events. Cheryl Strayd uses the duration of a solo hiking trip to frame the present action of her memoir Wild. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love spans the duration of a trip around the world, dividing sections into three-month stints each in Italy, India, and Indonesia. (She then pairs each country with her exploration of a particular topic for further focus.)
Need help finding your timeframe?
Identify three key turning points in life, moments where you transformed from something into who you are today.
Which of those presents the greatest number of external opportunities for action in a current story?
Which comes with a “built-in” climactic event a book could build toward?
Which intersects most organically with the topic or theme of your book?
The moment that meets the most of these criteria is the timeframe you should build your book around.
2. Avoid Writing Chronologically
After you have decided on a timeframe for your book’s current story, you’ll want to allow yourself the opportunity to weave in moments from throughout your history that inform how key scenes in the plot unfold.
The past provides context and tells readers why you behave as you do. For example, certain formative moments likely influence you to set a certain goal, take (or not take) action, make a particular mistake, reach a realization, or overcome a wound.
The secret is to add such moments into your manuscript organically as backstory at relevant points when the current plot calls them up, rather than starting from birth (or childhood). In this way, only moments that matter are revealed to readers.
To find your backstory, identify five-to-seven moments from your past to pair with transformative scenes in the present.
Brainstorm options by asking yourself key questions, such as:
What am I most afraid of?
What is the worst thing that ever happened to me?
What do I desire more than anything else?
What holds me back from achieving my desire?
What am I most proud of?
What am I most ashamed of?
What have I worked hardest to overcome?
What have I learned to accept?
What are my greatest strengths?
Once you answer such questions, see if a memory can externalize this answer in scene. If so, write it on a flashcard. Notice how these questions, answers, and scenes relate to one another. Often, what we are afraid of stems from an early trauma, the thing we are most proud originates out of a thing we are ashamed of, and our greatest accomplishments arise from failures. Once you select your formative moments, see which pair organically with moments in your present story’s plot.
A note on integrating memories: A memory may last only a few lines of narrative exposition. Or a memory may be rendered in a flashback scene that might last a few pages (or an entire chapter). Don’t worry about a memory’s length: worry about its relevance.
3. Know Your Theme
Autobiographies are about facts, memoirs are about theme.
Therefore, it’s essential you understand the general AND specific themes of your memoir, as well as how these differs from topic and timeline.
Surfing is a topic, not a theme. Coming-of-age relates to timeline, not theme. Growing up in the South is not a theme.
A theme relates to the lesson learned (a lesson you can then share with readers.)
Theme is closely tied to transformation, so the first thing you’ll want to do is read this to ensure you can crystalize your transformation in two words: from ___ to ____.
Once you understand your transformation, you’ll have a sense of the general theme your transformation explores, such as desire, body image, addiction, etc.
To crystalize your specific theme, ask: What larger question about the human experience does my story explore?
Frame your answer in the form of a question. For example: Can our thoughts control external events? How can we grieve in a society that represses displays of painful emotion? If relationships are temporary, what’s their value?
Each of the above questions deals with the general theme of “grief” in a best-selling memoir, yet the specific approach to this theme is unique.
Eventually, you’ll use your thematic question in jacket copy or when you pitch your book.
4. Develop a Distinct Voice
Voice takes on great importance in memoir. After all, voice is the vehicle which communicates theme.
As Jonathan Franzen noted, “There are only two things that can make a memoir really good. One of them is great material that is true . . . the other thing is if you’ve got a great voice, if you’ve got a great tone going. That’s it.”
But what is voice, exactly? Voice refers to the stylistic quality that makes writing unique. Voice reflects how an author thinks and approaches material rather than how an author sounds. To develop your voice, you must learn to translate your personality and way of thinking to the page.
To do this, practice being vulnerable, intimate, and honest in your work. Allow readers access to what you want more than anything, and what you fear as well. This intimacy, delivered via thoughts (or, interiority, as it is called in writing) is essential to a successful memoir.
Another way to connect with your voice is to identify all the things that make your perspective distinct, and to inhabit these when drafting.
What generation do you identify with?
How has being a second-born impacted the way you see the world?
What one thing has always puzzled you?
What particular obsessions do you find yourself returning to?
What do your favorite films have in common?
Remember: Individuality is inextricable from writing. And it is the only element that will enable your memoir to stand out from others on similar topics.
Compare Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking to Strayd’s Wild to Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. All explore the same theme via very different voices.
Want to learn more about how to structure a book? Do the exercises in these popular posts:
READY TO WRITE A MEMOIR? NAIL 3 THINGS BEFORE YOU BEGIN.
WHAT EXACTLY DO YOU NEED TO KNOW TO BEGIN A NOVEL?
an Arizona-based editor who turns ideas into art. Need to get your book publication-ready?