Writing a Memoir: Know Your Story

When writing a memoir, it’s important to stick to one subject and one time period, then really focus on that. If your book is too general, it won’t make for a good read.

A good friend, who attends many writer’s conferences, teeming with agents and publishers, recently told me, “If a writer goes into a pitch with: ‘Hey, my book is about my life in the field of education,’ the agent is going to glaze over and start thinking about the conference lunch buffet. It’s way too general. No, it’s better to state the book’s focus upfront.”

So true! I would also add that you should know the purpose of your story. After all, that will help you focus and know your story.

Know your story

The first step when writing your memoir is to decide what you’re writing about. In the example above, perhaps you are a high-school teacher in the inner city and you’re writing to encourage parents to be more active with their child’s education. If that’s your purpose, tell that story. It’s specific, not general.

If your own educational path helps to illustrate your book’s purpose, by all means share it. You can do so with flashbacks or by starting the book at that period, if there is enough material to carry the story forward. Otherwise, skip it. For example, if you had supportive parents and went to expensive prep schools and Harvard, it just might not fit into this book (about working with inner city kids).

It would probably make more sense to open your memoir with a particular high school class and finish with their graduation. Include various gnarly parent teacher conference meetings that show what you wish to demonstrate and conclude with a result, one way or another.

Pick a lane and stick to it.

Define your reader

In the above example, your reader would probably be parents of high school students. Perhaps yours is a cautionary tale, warning parents of the dangers of leaving their children’s education solely in the hands of the school system. If that’s the case your book might span two decades, showing your breadth of experience and many examples of neglect with final resolutions that all exemplify the problem.

Or maybe you want to show how one parent got it right. Perhaps that one child made it out of the ghetto and into the sunlight. In that case, your story might just span one year, showing how that mom and dad took a strong interest in little Johnny’s education, while other parents failed to do so, and their children floundered.

Now, your reader might be the school administrative staff. If that is the case, your book would have a very different feel! Is this a David vs Goliath theme, concluding with your victorious battle to make improvements within the school system? The point might be to help others forge an improvement in a system that can seem impossible to penetrate.

We just discussed three versions of one life story. You see how these three books would be very different. It’s the same life, told through different lenses. Each story would be shared with your voice but would make the reader feel and experience very different things.

Pick your reader and write to them.

This is your life! You get to tell the story you wish to tell. You probably have a few books within you. Select one and start writing! And if you need help, please contact me.

If you have any questions regarding pricing, please check out my article about how much ghostwriters charge.

If you’d like to read more articles about memoirs, please check these out:

Memoir or Autobiography

How to Write Your Memoir

What are Good Memoir Themes?

Tips for Writing Your Memoir

People from all around the world email me each week with a strong desire to write their memoir. I love these requests! Memoirs and autobiographies are so important as they record a slice of history. As readers, we can all really benefit from these books in so many ways. After all, when we are given the freedom to step into another’s shoes for a few moments, we often comprehend life a little better. I know I learn a lot by reading a good memoir.

So, how do you go about writing your life story?

First, understand that a memoir isn’t purely a list of chronological events. I was born… then I ate cereal on the 22nd of September…then I… No, I think we can all agree this is boring. Yes, you will include dates and it’s best not to jump around the time line like a crazed kangaroo on frosted coco sugar squares, but we need to find the right stories to share.

FIND YOUR PURPOSE

Sit down and write out the summaries of important events that brought you to where you are today. Just a few lines that communicate to you. Trace your journey through these key incidents, so that you can lay out the breadcrumbs that others may follow.

As you identify these segments, zero in on the purpose of the scene. If you can’t identify a purpose, toss the scene. Be ruthless about this. Here are a few examples of a good purpose for a scene:

  • Introducing an important character
  • Showing a turning point in some key aspect of your life
  • Demonstrating an error you made
  • Sharing a realization you had

Of course, there are many more, but these give you a few ideas. Now, in contrast, here are some examples of bad purposes, which should be avoided at all costs:

  • I’d really like to get back at so-and-so.
  • I want to brag.
  • I’m angry at the world.

Your reader will be able to discern your purpose easily, and will throw your book away like a hot potato if they sense your motive is self-serving. You have to be honest with yourself here, as there is no fooling your reader. They’ll know.

When done correctly, the various incidents will fit together like an intricate puzzle, a beautiful work of kinetic art. They flow seamlessly. One question that will help you determine whether any particular incident should be included is: Does it help move the story forward? Make sure it does.

DISCOVER YOUR THEMES

As you write the summaries of these scenes down, observe what the emerging themes might be. Consider the lessons you’ve learned, which you wish to impart to your readers. Some examples of powerful and effective messages that I’ve recently seen are:

  • Hard work can overcome many obstacles.
  • Don’t hold on to anger. Forgive.
  • Practical experience is essential for any entrepreneur.
  • Failure is always part of success, if you learn from your mistakes.

It can take time, but you must discover your messages before you can really write a good memoir.

When you sit down to write your chapters, you need to write with honesty. Tap into your emotions and communicate them. Use all your senses to describe what occurred for you in the past. That way your reader will feel what you felt. If you do it correctly, your reader will experience your life as if they had been there alongside you.

Enjoy the process! And if you need help, please don’t hesitate to contact me. To learn more about pricing, here is an article I wrote a while back.

If you liked this article, here are a few additional ones you might find helpful:

Questions for a Ghostwriter

A Ghostwriter’s Fee: How Do They Charge?

Working With A Ghostwriter – What Steps Should You Take?

I Want To Hire A Ghostwriter, But Don’t Have Any Money…

I really enjoy talking to people about their book concepts. After all, I’ve worked with dozens of clients over the last sixteen years and have had the privilege of writing their books with them. It is wonderfully rewarding!

Some prospective clients have very good ideas and just need help. However, occasionally there are those calls which frustrate me beyond belief. One occurred the other day…

I was right in the middle of the last chapter of a memoir I was ghostwriting for a client when the phone rang. Normally, I don’t like to be interrupted while writing as it breaks my creative flow, but I worried that it might be a writer with a question, so I picked up (I also coach budding writers from time to time).

“Hello?” I asked.

“Is this Laura Sherman?” the young woman asked, her voice slightly demanding.

Oh my… It wasn’t a good start. I was brought up to identify myself on the phone and dislike it when people don’t bother to give their name before asking me for mine.

“Yes, it is,” I said, with a sigh. I wasn’t in the mood to correct her. At least the woman didn’t seem like a telephone solicitor.

“I want to hire a ghostwriter to write my book, because I just don’t have the time to write it myself.”

“That makes sense,” I said. She had voiced a common plea. Most of my clients are busy executives, with very little extra time. “And to whom am I speaking?” (hint hint)

She paused for a moment, probably weighing the pros and cons of telling me her name. “Joyce.” (Okay, that wasn’t really her name, but I’m a ghostwriter, so I can embellish.)

“Hello, Joyce,” I said. “What’s your book about?”

“My life story,” was all she offered. “What are the steps involved with hiring someone to write my book.”

I gave her a brief overview of how the process works, letting her know it would probably require a couple dozen interviews, spread out over a ten month period. I explained how it takes a ghostwriter hundreds of hours to write a book. She asked a few more questions then got to the big one.

“So, how much will it cost?”

“How long will your book be?”

“About two hundred pages,” she said.

“I charge a dollar per word,” I said. “So, I’d charge $50,000. What’s your budget?”

“I don’t know. I don’t have a lot of money to spend.”

Just what every ghostwriter wants to hear. “Well, how much did you want to spend?”

“I don’t know, maybe a thousand dollars? I know that probably isn’t enough, right?”

“No, it isn’t,” I agreed. No one can charge a thousand dollars for ten months work, not even starving ghostwriters. However, I always like to try to help everyone who contacts me.  “Look, I know a few editors who are looking to branch out into writing. If you’re interested in writing a short, one-hundred page book, I could talk to one of them about maybe coming down to ten thousand dollars. That’s low, but possible.”

“I don’t have that kind of money.”

“Then you’ll probably need to write the book yourself,” I said. “If you did manage to find someone willing to write your book for a thousand dollars, it probably wouldn’t come out well. Then you’d be stuck hiring someone else to rewrite it.”

She then asked me what would happen after the book was written and I gave her a rundown on what an author needs to do to sell a book, such as creating and maintaining marketing websites.

“I’m not good with computers, so I can’t do any of that,” she said.

“You’ll need to learn,” I said. My bluntness sometimes gets me into trouble, but I find it’s better to be upfront than beat around the bush. “Even if you get a publisher, you’ll need to do your own marketing.”

“So, how can I find a ghostwriter?”

“As I said, if you’re able to scrape together ten thousand dollars, I can ask around for you.”

“But that would be for a good writer,” she replied. “What if I just wanted to find a writer who will do it for one thousand dollars?”

I have to admit I was speechless for a moment. Finally, I tried to repeat that anyone willing to write a book for a thousand dollars wasn’t someone she’d want to hire, but she cut me off and said, “OK, thank you!” and hung up.

Moral of the story: If you’re serious about writing a book, you will find a way. Either by hiring a good, qualified ghostwriter or by making the time to write it yourself.

Now, if you’ve read this article and you are interested in hiring a ghostwriter, I would love to hear from you. I charge $50,000 for a 200-page (50,000 word) book. Am I within your budget?