Too often, an independent author writing a memoir doesn’t deliver the sort of book readers at large can appreciate. Your task is to tell an interesting story, and you should avoid making these six mistakes.

You’ve lived a full and interesting life – and now you would like to sit down to writing a memoir and marking your legacy. It’s a laudable goal, and it would be an achievement to join the accomplished writers who have shared their amazing stories. But too often, an independent author writing a memoir doesn’t deliver the sort of book readers at large can appreciate. The professional reviewers at BlueInk Review have vetted nearly 1,000 independently published memoirs, written by people from all walks of life. In the process, they’ve become experts on where authors go wrong when tackling a memoir.

Writing a memoir? Don’t:

1. Use your book to settle old grudges

Many memoirs reviewed by BlueInk read more like a list of grievances than an artful telling of a writer’s life. Certainly there are memoirs that portray terrible injustices – Angela’s Ashes for instance. Done right, these grievances are an organic part of the story, shown through the actions of the characters, not directly spelled out for the reader. A skilled author will bring interesting insights to these old injustices, addressed from the distance of time and with perspective aided by the life they’ve lived.

Who wants to read the work of someone who is petty and bitter? If you have past hurts to deal with, shut down your computer and call a therapist. You’ll get better results, and you’ll spare your reader from having to dwell on your personal grudges.

2. Mention every single person you’ve ever met

It’s possible feelings will get hurt if you leave people out of your story, but are you writing a memoir for the people you’ve encountered or for a larger audience? If the answer is the latter, then throwing in a list names of actors who don’t play a key role in the story will alienate your audience, who will feel that reading the phone book might be just as interesting as continuing to plow through your book.

3. Mention every event in your life in chronological order

The easiest way to approach your memoir may be to start at birth and work to the present in chronological order, but that rarely makes for the most engaging story. Successful memoirs start with gripping scenes that may reference the beginning of the author’s life, but probably occur somewhere in the middle and even the present. Read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, which begins when the author is an adult working for The New York Times. As she looks out the window of a taxi, she sees her mother rummaging through a dumpster. Now that’s a great opening to a story.

Whatever your genre, your task is to tell an interesting story. Leave out inconsequential events and keep in mind that you’re building a story, not just making a list in the order things happened.

4. Fail to organize your story at all

While a chronological list might not make for the best storytelling, it is a far cry better than no organization at all. Memoirs by authors who have simply jotted down random memories as they come to them leads to chaos on the page and readers who will discard the book long before reaching the end.

5. Write in dry, uninteresting prose

A good memoir isn’t just a chronicle of events that add up to the sum of a person’s life, it is written with artful prose that often uses metaphor, simile, vivid descriptions, and other compelling writing techniques. In addition, a good memoir offers insights into events long past. A memoir written in a conversational style might appeal to people who know the author, but won’t offer the universal messages and fine writing that would attract a wider readership.

6. Expect a bestseller when your memoir is really a family keepsake

There’s nothing wrong with cataloging your life as a document to leave to family and friends. The mistake independently published authors often make is in thinking these documents will be of interest to those outside their inner circle. Take stock of your story and level with yourself: Would you be interested in it if you hadn’t written it? If the answer is “no,” print 50 copies for your family and friends and save yourself the regret of looking at stacks of unsold books sitting in the shadow of rakes and old bicycles every time you open the garage door.

This post originally appeared on the BlueInk Review blog. Reprinted with permission.

 

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BlueInk Review is a fee-based service that reviews self published books exclusively. Founded by Patricia Moosbrugger, an internationally known literary agent, and Patti Thorn, an award-winning book review editor, BlueInk Review offers honest, objective appraisals penned by professional writers whose bylines have appeared in major publications. Reviews are widely distributed, including to BarnesandNoble.com and Ingram and ProQuest databases (reaching 70,000 booksellers and librarians). Select reviews appear in Booklist magazine (read by 60,000 librarians), Publishing Perspectives (an internationally revered online journal), Goodreads, Twitter. and more.

25 thoughts on “Writing a Memoir? Avoid These Mistakes.

  1. James Lee says:

    Thanks for the e-mail with the advice for writers of new memoirs. I don’t think I have been guilty of the mentioned mistakes, but of course I am biased. I guess the only way to know for sure is to publish the book and find out if people like it or not. I do look forward to the reviews, albeit I am a little apprehensive.

    Thanks- Jim Lee

  2. I was surprised to read this column and see no mention of what makes a memoir unique. There are two issues. One, a memoir is about a single issue so it is not an autobiography, and two, it is about a slice of time, not a full life. As publishers we sell a memoir on the value and interest of the topic, not the author’s name. And a good memoir takes a slice of time which is the “highlight” of the issue itself. For example, an award winning ad executive wrote an amazing memoir a few years ago called Running From the Devil. That memoir was about his years from 11 to 18, and the discovery that he suffered from epilepsy. He thought his “attacks” were from the devil, being a good Catholic young man. So it is about epilepsy and it is a discreet amount of time. Memoirs that are disguised autobiographies are amazingly boring. And really are just family keepsakes. Publishers and editors don’t serve writers well if we don’t know ourselves what makes a good memoir.

    1. Judith Poole says:

      As an instructor of a Memoir class I was pleased to see that you agree with me that Memoir has a specific focus, a slice of time, and is not a catalog of everything that ever happened in a lifetime up to the point of authoring the piece.

    2. Wendy says:

      Nice to know I’m not the only one who spotted this.

  3. I enjoyed reading this very much indeed and something really made me think
    “WOULD I BE INTERESTED IF I HAD NOT WRITTEN IT”
    My Book is an unusual Book as it mainly autobiographical with some fiction thrown in for good measure.
    It probably means much more to me as the Author than it does to others as when I am reading it I am reliving every moment over again and can see the people and landmarks mentioned
    I dont suppose many people are interested in what I have just said either

    1. Peggy C. Adams says:

      How sad Diane that you have such a negative outlook on your writing. Do you plan to write a novel or just doing the memoir, primarily for the family? If you want to be accepted as a writer, even accepted by yourself, you have to believe in yourself, first of all. Suggest you read and write, write, write and learn what makes a good written piece….even essays and articles offer good writing examples as well as books. I am 78 years of age and have only been writing for last ten years and I am self-teaching myself with this method I just told you. I do short stories I call the ‘incidents of life’ and they are not all about my life but about things and incidents I observe, for example I have a wonderful story I call, “Overheard conversation,” and writer’s groups generally enjoy this short-story. By breaking the element down in this way and limiting my thoughts from a many paged novel to a five to ten page story, I can, as you say, “relive the moment,” thus giving my ‘stories’ more vitality. Good luck and get your positive ‘mo-jo- going.’ I think everyone can write, some better then others, but we can all write and learn to enjoy it. Also, try rhyme poetry, it is wonderful and helps you tighten up your descriptive sentences.

      1. Marlene Martinez says:

        Hi Peggy, I am very glad to meet you and your comments were so helpful. I too am writing my life story, a memoir didn’t seem to fit. I love the idea of doing short stories. I am also 78 yrs. old. I do have vision problems, but thanks to technology, I have been able to continue with my passion, I got my first library card when I was seven and although I was in a prison of poverty, and abuse, it flung open the doors, to freedom, with that card I could go anywhere, be anything . Once I learned to read and write. I, read, read, and wrote, wrote, anywhere I found a place to do so. Again thanks, maybe we’ll talk again. Blessings Marlene

  4. Okong'o says:

    I sincerely appreciate these, but I found myself wondering why you’d ask me to do any of these. Then I remembered you started with “Don’t:”. Maybe start every one of those points with “Don’t …” to avoid that confusion?

    Nonetheless, great reminders.

  5. Most of these suggestions can apply to someone writing first person fiction as well. So many people are only comfortable writing in first person, and they fall into these same traps. Let’s face it, a first person story basically IS a memoir of sorts, maybe not of you, but of their character.

  6. At the moment I have been putting my story on paper. I will take what I have seen posted to hep me in my writing. I don’t consider myself a “John Walton” and my book will very likely not be made into a television series but I would be happy with a top seller.

    1. Peggy C. Adams says:

      Hi Teresa, I think first in order to get a ‘top seller’ you must learn to write for the fun of it. I do not believe people can successfully write with a goal of a ‘top seller’. Most of the ‘top sellers’ loved writing and what they wrote became a hit with the public. I also detect a negative element in accepting the fact you are writing. I believe a writer’s feeling shows in their work. Own your desire and your words and write for fun and who knows maybe you will get a ‘top seller’ from the joy of writing. Just saying…..

  7. Angela Hoy says:

    Memoirs can create anger among friends and family members so you need to be very careful when writing one. See: Don’t Invite a Lawsuit with Your Memoir
    http://writersweekly.com/angela-desk/dont-invite-a-lawsuit-with-your-memoir-by-angela-hoy

    1. Karen Crider says:

      I have been asked to do a memoir on my family, but know without a doubt, that the best way to do a family memoir is to out-live each member of my immediate family. LOL. Which will probably never happen, cause I’d rather have them here.

  8. Viga Boland says:

    Excellent points. I’ve written 4 memoirs, teach memoir writing, and do book reviews of memoirs. When it comes to reviewing memoirs, I find what you point out above as the most frequent problems with too many memoirs. Great post!

    1. Red Brown says:

      Do you do book reviews for fun? or do you charge for the service? Just out of curiosity. I think what I need is a good proofreader, but a review would be a nice touch as well.

  9. Possibly my being an engineer as well as a linear thinker started my memoir as a chronological “masterpiece to be” BUT now I have a have permission to highlight a few great incidents! Thanks for the insights.

  10. Terence Briscoe says:

    Hi fellow writers.I find this platform very inspiring and could possibly help with my own problem.I have written a book.(up to my 40 year old time period)But sadly I wrote it in the third person prose..It the manuscript is at the 50,000 word stage. Would it be advisable to stop,and rewright as a memoir.with the option to contjnue at hopefully a later date?I say hopefully because I am at the ripe old age of 81,.Iwould be most grateful for some advice on how to proceed.Or even send extracts to anyone who may be interested .the one problem that I for see is that many words are written as spoken in the slang of my home town in Northen England.I dont think there is a book on the market which translates such Dialect.

  11. In writing On Marriage and Widowhood A Journey to Getting Unstuck and Empowered I managed to avoid the pitfalls mentioned in this article. Whew!! Am I glad. I also received a most complimentary critique from a judge at the 2016 self published book contest at Writer’s Digest​Magazine.

  12. nicolette says:

    Hi all, am just about creeping in this book writing arena. It seems a bit scary but I have been encouraged by friends and otherwise to share my life dramas. I have been avoiding it but am now feeling the pull to do so also I can see me on the cover of the books, I know am going to need all the help I an get and take it a privilege to be able to tap into these comments, advises and suggestions.

  13. Red Brown says:

    Really good points, actually. When I started my own, it was kind of by accident, then it evolved into this whole other project. It became more therapeutic than anything else. It wasn’t until I was finished the first part that I even considered publishing it for real. When it started filling pages, it just spilled out of me and released this old weight on my mind and allowed me to move forward with the next phase of storytelling of my life and make new memories too. Once it started flowing, though, I thought long and hard about what to include and exclude, things like names and dialogue I set aside in favor of Description and Narration. I figured just about everything I was talking about I could go back later and expand into groupings of much smaller short stories.

    At the end of it all, it turned out to be a very inspiring exercise

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