One of the hardest things when you’re writing about yourself is to know what to include and what to leave out, so my first secret has to be:
1. Don’t tell your whole life story.
There has to be a point. Your memoir has to add up to something. If you want to write about your interesting life, I would suggest that you plan a series of interesting stories, each with its own point.
Whether a single theme or a series, you will need to formulate a premise for each story. A premise is one or two sentences that sum up your whole plot.
Here are the elements: main character / their problem / resolution
Every story needs conflict, or it’s nothing but an anecdote. .
The premise for the movie ‘The Godfather’ was: Son is reluctant to go into family business but eventually agrees to do so.
2. Create an ideal reader profile
Do this before you begin writing. Optimally, make that person understand nothing about your subject.
Note down details about your ideal reader’s age, sex, tastes, marital status, means and hobbies. You can even give them a name.
Then write your story for that one person.
3. Assume Nothing
You have a whole vocabulary and history, things that are obvious to you but potentially foggy to your readers.
For example, my own memoir begins with me travelling in Israel with a friend from half way across the world. People naturally want to know how the two of us became friends.
A sentence or two covered it.
Questions like that left unanswered would leave your readers wondering, i.e. distracted.
4. Write scenes
It is very tempting, when memoir writing, to set down what happened first and what happened next.
When you show, rather than tell, you’re writing in scenes. A scene is action set in a place and time.
Here’s a short example of part of a scene from She Does Not Fear the Snow:
A couple of weeks before I was due to leave, the phone rang early one morning.
‘Terry’s disappeared!’ Butch announced.
His voice sounded strained. It was still night where he was. ‘She hadn’t been to the house in more than a week, so Don used his key and went inside.’
She had been living in their home, Don just across the yard in his parents’ former home.
I saw scenarios of big rows ending in violence, Don furious with the court’s decision to let Terry live in the log cabin he built, while he was demoted to the little, old house.
I saw my friend’s poor, broken body languishing in some forgotten gully, for the wolves and coyotes to feast on.
‘Everything was packed up, like she was moving out,’ he went on.
Ah, that put a different complexion on things. I couldn’t see him waiting to vent his passion while she packed everything away first.
This is how it might have looked, written as an account:
One morning, a couple of weeks before I was due to leave, Butch phoned early to tell me that Terry had disappeared. I worried that Don, who had been forced to move out of the log cabin he had built them, might have become violent with her.
However, Butch told me she’d packed everything, which reassured me.
Which do you prefer?
5. Bring your story to life with telling details
Telling details allow your reader to ‘see’ what you’re saying and feeling. There are a few examples from the passage above:
- His voice sounded strained. Adds an atmosphere of anxiety.
- So Don used his key and went inside. We picture Don opening the door.
- I saw my friend’s poor, broken body languishing in some forgotten gully, for the wolves and coyotes to feast on. We picture my wild imaginings of violence on my friend.
- ‘Everything was packed up, like she was moving out,’ he went on. We picture what Don saw when he went inside.
(Note to blogger – I will participate in comments, if advised of their existence: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Bobbie Ann Cole is author of her faith memoir, She Does Not Fear the Snow. A trail of miracles led her from a Jerusalem church, where she wasn’t supposed to be, to meet and marry her Boaz in Atlantic Canada. Free sample chapter and promo video: www.shedoesnotfearthesnow.com. Bobbie, AKA The Testimony Lady, will help you write your testimony, too. Download her free workbook, Start Writing Your Christian Testimony: http://testimonytrain.com.
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Genre – Faith Memoir
Rating – PG
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