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How to write a memoir

Writing your own story is sometimes not an option - it is something you have to do. I'd Iike you to do it well.

These tips are to take into account when you are at the editing or rewriting phase. During the first phase of writing, you are simply telling the story. So just write it all, and then we can work on making it better.


8 Tips to Write a Memoir

1. Make sure we are backing you

We don’t have to like you or even approve of you – think of James Frey in A Million Little Pieces or Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street – but we do need to want you to win. Bad characters make for great reads, but the reader has to cheer you on. How do you do this? Deliver interior dialogue that is real and honest (Did I just say that / do that / behave like that?). We don't really mind if you are a lying, cheating, gamblin' man... as long as we know what's really going on inside you and we can relate to your story.

2. Leave most of it out

The tighter a memoir, the more pace and excitement you can create. One editor told me she cut an entire military memoir of a 20-year career down to the first crazy six weeks of basics training. Only 15,000 words were left once she was done. "This is the real story. Now build this out," she told the writer.

3. Drop us slowly into the story

A book is a long journey so we don’t want to know it all upfront. We got the gist of your story on the cover and then by reading your back cover blurb, so we know what we are in for. Start with the promise of a journey (with your inciting incident and hook), just don’t deliver it all in the first chapter. You have at least 60,000 words to tease it out. We want to spend at least eight hours reading to find out how you survived (won/lost/fought).

4. You are the tour guide

A reader’s eyes move rapidly down a page and it's your job to slow them down when you need to. Readers can miss small flags and it is the job of the author to make sure important beats, points, and moments are noticed. Don't bury them in the body copy. Break them into full scenes, full chapters even.

5. Keep the pace

Some scenes of your story require slow, languid writing, while others may sum up an era, a decade or a lifetime in a page. Mix it up so the pace changes and the story keeps moving forward. Bestselling memoir I have Life by Alison Botha and Marianne Thamm spends around 55,000 words in a harrowing four-hour fight for life - and it sums up the entire arrest and court case in the last two chapters.

6. Audition the cast

Who else deserves to be in this story, and are they engaging enough? Ordinary folk seldom are so you need to choose carefully and make them real and kind radical. Keep the cast tight – we don’t want to meet too many of your colleagues, friends, family, doctors, lovers… just a few super intriguing ones.

7. Use good storytelling techniques

Pace. Conflict. Dialogue. Remember that all story is driven by conflict and that means things need to go wrong – and lots of them. Those things can be external and real or internal (your mind, thoughts, and personality). Ideally both and in varying.

8. Keep the hooks in

We are not going to keep reading if there’s nothing pulling us forward. How does your story build on itself? How does it keep us guessing? You can’t plot this as you do in a novel as it’s your life, but you can build in questions and cliff hangers that you only answer or resolve later. Eg…. How was I going to tell Dante I was going to leave him? / I knew what I had to do – get on the train to Poland and find them. / I knew then that the small mistake I had made was going to cost me, and the price was going to be high.

Yours, in writing

Sarah Bullen

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