Writing a memoir is awfully hard. If you’re a celebrity, it’s a piece of cake. You don’t have to know how to write. In fact you don’t even have to write the book yourself. Agents and publishers will quiver with desire to sign you on. That’s why Paris Hilton is a best-selling author. It’s called having a platform, a ready audience just dying to know everything about you from brushing your teeth to how you wipe your derriere.
If you are an ordinary person with no ready-made platform, you can build one by writing articles for magazines and other publications. The truth is if you’re a writer, someone who has to write or die, chances are you’ve already been doing that and have a modest platform. Good for you. Even so, your chances of being published are slim unless you treat the memoir as a work of art.
With memoirs, you’re not writing an autobiography. Rather, you’re writing about a period of your life or a specific incident. The first thing to ask is “Why do I want to write this?” If you’re just seeking emotional catharsis for a traumatic experience, it may be worth your while to visit a therapist or write for friends and family. You see, the writing counts. It bears repeating: the writing counts. The protagonist must have a goal, a conflict, an engine that drives the story forward so the reader wants to keep turning the page.
Treat the protagonist as a third person, which is not the same as writing in the third person. Not that a writer can’t choose any point of view he or she likes. Looking at yourself as a third person allows for objectivity and gives your story balance. This is especially important when you have villains. Is the protagonist guilt-free? Is he or she fair? Do the villains have reasons for acting the way they did? Do they have redeeming qualities?
A memoir must have a bigger message that resonates beyond the experience of the individual. This ties in with the reasons for writing. Some form of social commentary woven artfully into the story is essential. Of course, the author’s feelings about events must be included. Readers want to know. However, one must avoid over-indulging in one’s emotions.
Cut out extraneous material. Think of yourself as an artist sculpting an image. However amusing or fascinating, any incident with no bearing to the narrative arc must be trimmed, sand-papered off.
It is okay to use approximate dialogue, but it’s vital to be true to the spirit of the dialogue. While memories differ from person to person, a writer must be truthful. There’s nothing more upsetting than to fall in love with a memoir only to find the writer made up that story about living with wolves or some such thing. It also hurts future writers who may face skeptical readers and even publishers who don’t want to deal with lawsuits.
Publishers want best-sellers, but they’re even more particular when it comes to memoirs, which does seem unfair. So it’s important to use your best writing skills, write the truth as honestly as you remember it and, unless you go the self-publishing route, pray that some agent falls in love with your work. Hopefully, your story will inspire, inform and/or entertain.
Best of luck!