80% of First-Time Memoirists Make These Mistakes.
Each year, thousands of people who “survive life” believe they should write a book about what they’ve experienced in order to help others.
This, in itself, is a terrible idea.
When should you actually write a memoir? When shouldn’t you? And what tools do you need to craft a book people will want to read?
Avoid common memoir mistakes by recognizing the best and worst reasons to write a memoir, and then ensure your manuscript meets today’s publishing standards without sacrificing authenticity by using the exercises and memoir-writing tips in: How to Make My Memoir Read Less Like Autobiography and Topic, Theme, Transition: Memoir’s 3 Essential Pillars.
THE BEST (AND WORST) REASONS TO WRITE A MEMOIR
5 GREEN LIGHTS FOR MEMOIR WRITING
1. ✨ You’re a professional writer.
Creative writing is a discipline, not merely a hobby. And, once you plan to charge people for a product, it becomes a business.
People spend years studying how to write a professional memoir. Traditionally-published authors work with an editorial team of up to a dozen people on their projects. If you are a writer by training or trade, you find yourself in the unique position to write a book that may offer comfort, insight, and assistance to millions.
If you have not yet practiced the craft, it’s unlikely writing will prove the quickest and most effective route for you to reach an audience. After all, there are many ways to get stories into the world. Determine if you’re primarily interested in expression, or you’re interested in the craft of creative writing as well: this will inform whether or not you should pursue memoir as your vehicle.
2. ✨ You have a platform.
If you already have a large platform, you are in a unique position to bring influence and visibility to an issue, possibility precipitating real change. You can bring eyes and attention to material in a way a new author who is relatively unknown cannot.
Perhaps you have some celebrity, are affiliated with a large organization, are writing on an especially “hot topic,” or have spent quite a few years building a platform from which to directly access an aligned audience.
Platforms are not limited to social media. (After all, family and friends are not the real audience for memoir and rarely buy books in large enough numbers to influence sales: your audience is always aligned with your topic.) Many influential authors leverage organizations they volunteer or work for, large email lists they remain in consistent contact with, or successful coaching or therapy practices / speaking engagements / nonfiction books to build community.
3. ✨ You’re a unicorn.
You’ve survived something that currently lacks representation and visibility. As in, there aren’t dozens of other memoirs on this same subject out there. Or, you’re the member of a group whose voice has not been often heard; therefore, there is a need for someone to voice this experience, or bring it into mainstream consciousness.
While no author should bear the burden of “representing” an entire group or experience, being willing an initial author on a topic will give you an advantage when it comes to marketing and approaching organizations with which to align.
4. ✨ You take a fresh approach.
You’re taking a new or controversial approach (stylistically or thematically) to your material. Simply put: the way you’re approaching your subject isn’t at an angle, but in opposition to how it’s been examined in the past. (This means your text is free of takeaways such as, “Make every moment count,” or “This too shall pass.”) Instead, you’re courting controversy to make a key point.
5. ✨ You care more about “why?” than “what?”
You’re a deeply reflective and insightful person.
Memoir rests on depth and profundity of insight when reflecting upon past events. What makes for great writing is an ordinary life delivered with great insight. You’re not “as interesting as events which befall you”—you’re as interesting as your insight.
The greatest value you offers is your personhood (made manifest via your voice.) If you’ve honed your powers of introspection, reflection, and artistry, you have a lot to offer readers.
Do you need to meet all these memoir-writing requirements? NO. But you should meet TWO-THREE.
5 RED LIGHTS FOR MEMOIR WRITING
1.✨ Your book is unfocused AF.
You can’t pitch it in a sentence or two. You can’t identify the topic, theme, and transformation : ALL of which are SINGULAR. You aren’t even sure what subject to be blogging or speaking about to build an audience.
The reality is ANY life can contain many themes, be related as a comedy, tragedy, hero’s journey, or love story . . . but when you write a memoir, you must make choices: WHICH trope you will center your narrative around, which stylistic approach you will take to tell your tale, and which subject you will narrow your focus to explore.
2. ✨Your timeline is longer than a year.
Are you looking at a moment that thematically represents a life, or are you trying to tackle an entire life, the way an autobiography might?
You have to bracket your story by selecting a tight timeframe around which to focus the plot, and then choosing only relevant moments from throughout your past to weave in via backstory.
Most contemporary memoirs limit their current timelines on to around one year. (Think Wild; Eat, Pray, Love; The Year of Magical Thinking.)
Another successful device includes using an event with a built-in climactic moment to stand in place of a clock to structure a book, indicating the end of memoir’s timeline from the outset, such as a trial, competition, roadtrip, mystery, reunion, wedding, or terminal diagnosis.
The tighter the timeline, the greater the tension.
3.✨ You’re writing chronologically.
No one has taken in a story from a purely chronological perspective in decades. (After all, any time you use a flashback, or even mention an event that occurred prior to the present moment, you are technically fracturing chronology.)
People have different expectations of material today. Forms are hybrid. Chapters are shorter. What was experimental is now expected. Nothing is completely linear. Tones and tastes change. Technology has completely changed. Not only does the way we read change if we’re reading an e-book versus a printed title, but representation of technology in stories must accurately reflect whenever they are set/written. You have to not only reflect all the ways technology and society has evolved, you have to understand how linearity has evolved.
If you’re writing a book that feels like it could have been written hundred years ago, you’re going to have a harder time publishing or finding readers to buy it.
4.✨ You’re throwing in everything . . . including the kitchen sink.
Art lies in knowing what to edit out as much as what to include.
If you’re including events simply because they “occurred” and not because they are directly relevant to your plot, you’re going to have an unwieldy memoir that needs to be rewritten. A rule of thumb: if a scene doesn’t relate to your transformation, cut.
5.✨You’ve had an interesting life, but not an interesting perspective.
The worst reason people write memoir is someone told them they had a life “stranger than fiction” and should write about it.
This results in the worst memoirs.
Because the focus is all wrong from the outset: it’s on events that befell an individual, not why they may have occurred, how you made meaning from them, or what fresh voice and perspective you bring to a subject.
An interesting life does not make for an interesting memoir. A interesting take on life makes for an interesting memoir.
So focus less on authenticity and adversity, and focus more on reflection, theme, and voice. (All delivered via strong writing skills.) These will make your memoir stand out from similar titles. And these will also move you from disempowered to empowered, passive to active, and bystander to co-creator of your own life’s journey.
Turn stop signs into speed-bumps by improving your manuscript with free exercises from TWC blog or book coaching and professional editing services.
an Arizona-based editor who turns ideas into art. Need to get your book publication-ready?