The newest addition to the text gallery is our memoir designer.
This simple form takes you step-by-step through all the critical elements of constructing a memoir that readers will love. If you’ve ever considered sharing your life story with the world, the memoir designer is a great place to start. You can find it in the text gallery.
In my experience helping people with their memoirs, there are a few key components that they leave out and a few odd things that they seem to think are really important. One of the easiest first steps to writing in any genre is to actually read books in that genre. It’s often obvious that people haven’t because their memoir is so disorganized and makes the mistakes mentioned below.
Dates and Names
I have been repeatedly amazed (I know, you think I’d be used to it by now!) by how many memoir manuscripts come to me filled to the brim with dates, streets, detailed estimates of the time of day that something took place, and the names of high schools or companies.
That’s not to say this information isn’t helpful for orienting a reader to time and place, but only when added to a more robust retelling of events in the person’s life that readers will care about and can relate to.
Here’s an example.
I remember it was around 11:00 p.m. because my neighbor worked third shift and I had just heard him pull out of his garage in his yellow Toyota Camry. I used him as a timer to help myself go to bed at a decent hour on weekdays so I wouldn’t be so exhausted when it was time to get up and go to work. I was the shift supervisor at the Wriot Gear selling writing equipment like journals, whiteboards, and printers. It was the one in Atlantic Station next to the Publix. I lived on Fletcher at the time (in Mechanicsville) so I didn’t have to deal with Atlanta traffic too much.
I heard a weird noise outside, so I went to my front door. I had windows in the front but they were frosted glass so I couldn’t see anything out of them clearly, just shadows really. My father would replace those later with a wall of glass that made my living room blazing in the summer and freezing in the winter. I thought maybe my neighbor’s car was acting up. I thought that might be weird because I heard that Camrys (and most Toyotas) were reliable vehicles. When I get to the front door to look out, I saw a man walking up my driveway with a gun!
I don’t know about you, but I’m practically asleep until the very last line. Look at all that wasted time and information. It’s like that key incident gets pushed to the back burner so the writer can insert a bunch of details that aren’t all that interesting or helpful. Now, let’s try this version on for size:
I heard my neighbor pull out of his garage, heading to work to start his midnight shift. I closed my book and turned off whichever Vivaldi concerto I was listening to at the time. I didn’t want to be too drowsy to get up on time in the morning.
“The hell is that?” I mumbled to myself.
The sound came from the driveway, so I went to check, wondering if my neighbor’s old Toyota had finally broken down on him in the middle of the street. But when I cracked my front door, I almost collapsed and instantly broke into a sweat. I hadn’t been this terrified since the war. It was my ex-husband, in his fatigues, walking up my driveway with an assault rifle.
See how much more quickly we got to the main event? If the crux of reading the memoir is because it’s about a life spent overcoming the aggression men have toward the writer, that’s where the focus should be. The reader picked the book up because they want to understand how the writer overcame those situations, not to learn where they worked and what street they lived on.
A Lack of Emotion
We feel emotions every day. Yet, when it comes to recalling traumatic or exciting things that happen to us, I find that a lot of writers gloss over this key component of telling their story. I’ve had people reduce rape attempts to two sentences, but spend three paragraphs on the architecture of their boyfriend’s house. Take a look at your manuscript to make sure you slow down at critical moments and recall the emotions involved. Adding the other senses doesn’t hurt either. What were you hearing, smelling, touching, etc.? Bring your reader back into the moment with you.
Hops, Skips, and Jumps (in Time)
Some memoirs do slip back and forth a bit (that means only a little!) between distant past (childhood, early adulthood) and recent past (old age, in most cases). Skipping around frequently and without reason is a great way to confuse and frustrate your reader. Generally speaking, relaying your life events in chronological order is best. You can refer back to things that happened when you were younger in a sentence or two, but traveling back forty years to spend ten pages on a series of events isn’t always the best course of action.
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In the End
Ultimately, your developmental and line editors will help you work around these issues in your manuscript as long as you hire and listen to their guidance. However, if you’re going to be trying to produce your memoir on your own, a well-structured, easy-to-use guide like our Memoir Designer is going to be an essential tool for you to have on hand.