READY TO WRITE A MEMOIR? NAIL 3 THINGS BEFORE YOU BEGIN.
Perhaps you have no idea what elements are essential for a successful memoir, or you’re stuck on how to start your book.
Should you outline first, and then fill it in? Or free write to find out what happens along the way?
Writing is a journey. And while any trip remains an adventure, you wouldn’t leave home without a map or ultimate destination.
To begin, you must leave room for discovery, yet you’ll want to avoid years of drafting in wrong directions.
Focus early efforts by identifying three key mile-markers at the outset:
The rest can be discovered en route.
First things first, differentiate topic from transformation. What subject will your memoir cover?
Almost ALL sales as a debut author will be made as a result of your book’s topic: not your bio, prose style, or even the story itself. (If you become well-known, readers may then buy your brand; until then, they will purchase primarily topics of interest.)
What larger topic guides your story of transformation?
A memoir topic can be any subject where your personal story and a broader issue in culture or media have the potential to intersect.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love explores spirituality via a travel narrative. William Finnegan details his obsession with surfing in Barbarian Days. Stuck in the Middle with You by Jennifer Finney Boylan explores a transgender woman transitioning from parenting roles of father to mother. When Breath Becomes Air by neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi explores medicine and morality as doctor becomes terminal patient.
Acclaimed memoirs have been written on topics vast and niche, from religion, to addiction, sports, pets, immigration, health, family, trauma, travel, food, relationships, sexuality, class, race, social issues, phobias, fetishes, rituals, and more.
Your topic is something you can leverage to promote your book as you build an author platform. It may also provide opportunities for you to become a featured expert or to guest speak, blog, make videos, or give interviews regarding. Celebrities, and occasional authors, are able to build platforms around simply being themselves, but it helps most projects (and potential sales) tremendously if you can tie your story to a topic.
After all: your topic is the tie that binds you to your readers.
Note your topic: _______________________________________________.
Timeline is also referred to as clock, and focuses stories around moments that matter.
It refers to the duration of time it takes for the present action of any book to unfold—not backstory. Readers appreciate the brackets a clock provides; these tell them when a book will end or what event a story is building toward. A timeline might span the duration of a trip, tour of duty, relationship, pregnancy, or illness. An event a book is building toward might be the verdict in a trail, resolution of a mystery, or revelation of a secret. The shorter the timeline, the greater the tension.
The clock on a memoir should never comprise the story of your entire life, the way it does in autobiography, although you will weave formative moments from throughout your life into backstory when relevant. Clocks on memoir must be tight, and focused around your topic.
For example, Ronan Farrow chronicles his investigation leading up to the #MeToo movement in Catch and Kill, focusing topic and timeline. Roxanne Gay’s Hunger presents a looser timeline via a coming-of-age style memoir, yet laser-focuses each chapter around her—and culture’s—emotional struggles with “undisciplined” bodies.
Memoir writers frequently mention their timeline in titles or sub-titles. Check this out for inspiration on how to frame your own book.
You’ll see that 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 control events. Cheryl Strayd uses the duration of a solo hiking trip to frame the present action of her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found Along the Pacific Crest Trail. (She also mentions her transformation in the subtitle.) Although Didion includes memories from throughout her marriage, and Strayd examines the loss of her mother and her series of affairs, it is always the current timeline—Didion’s year and Strayd’s challenges along the trail—that serve as plot. The length of a life would be too long a clock (and too unfocused a topic) for anything but backstory.
Note your book’s timeline: _______________________________________________.
A memoir is not about you; it’s about a lesson you’ve learned and can share with readers.
Memoir is a highly thematic genre, and your transformation speaks directly to the theme of your book.
While novels center around plot, memoirs focus on personal transformation in a key thematic area. What key shift did you experience over the course of your journey? And how can you translate that into a lesson that resonates with readers?
To build upon the example of Wild, we know from the book’s subtitle “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” that the transformation will involve a lost woman finding her true self as a result of a hiking trip. The lesson we hope to learn is how the author achieved this.
Once you’ve decided on a timeline to frame your story, try to crystalize your transformation. First, limit this to one shift—the most important. Then, create a tagline to describe your shift by picking two words that best evoke what you moved *from* and *to* to guide potential scene selection.
How did you change as a result of your experience? Did you move from denial to acceptance? From trauma to healing? Pain to purpose? Passive to active? Conformist to authentic? Disengaged to present? Anxious to calm? Seeking love to loving yourself?
The opportunities to chart change are endless.
What’s vital is that the words you choose represent relatable binaries. Binaries describe each side of some tension or opposing force that you have felt pulled between your entire life. (What makes memoir popular is your struggle is one others also experience as part of the human condition, even if particular events rendered along your journey prove uniquely interesting.)
For example, say you are writing a coming-of-age memoir. That is more timeline than transformation or theme. To find your transformation, you would need to examine what coming-of-age means. It usually refers to a transformation from innocence to experience. So you might 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? Once you can answer that, you’ll understand your thematic transformation.
Your transformation tagline will help you know what material from your life to include—and what to leave out—as you begin to draft your book.
It will reveal options for early scenes that show how you and your world used to be, before you underwent this shift, as well as potential climactic moments, where such a transformation can be witnessed.
Best of all, it will reveal which lesson you had to learn to achieve this shift: a lesson you then share with readers.
Spend your time wisely by drafting into these moments.
Note your transformation tagline: _______________________________________________.
Writing a novel?
Know where you’re writing from, and what you’re writing toward!
Writers of trade nonfiction:
Check out tips to position your book in the marketplace.
See if your opening passes the test:
Does Your Opening Hook Readers with 3 Key Questions?
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