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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