by Brittany Passmore
Everyone has a story to tell, and that story isn’t always fictional. Many writers have found memoir to be the perfect genre for telling their impactful life stories and sharing their histories with millions of others. You’ve probably heard of and even read a few, like My Story by Elizabeth Smart or Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.
Memoirs are a popular way to tell true stories that touch hearts and change lives, and there’s a large audience waiting to devour the next big hit. But so many people are also trying to write memoirs that they have a hard time getting their books published. Memoir isn’t the easiest genre to master as a writer, and the market can be just as difficult to navigate.
Despite the many reasons you may be struggling to write or publish your memoir, persisting in your efforts is worth it because your story needs to be heard. To help you share your story with the world, let’s go over what a memoir is, the tips and tricks you need to know about the writing process, and what it takes to break into the market.
What Is a Memoir, Exactly?
A memoir is a personal nonfiction book recounting a difficult time or challenge you overcame during your life, as well as what you learned from your experiences. These challenges range from traumatic childhood experiences to divorce, from mental illnesses to physical challenges, from social issues to surviving genocide. Memoirs aren’t always about a big, larger-than-life problem, but whatever your memoir entails, it should talk about a life-changing or transformative experience you’ve had.
The structure and writing style of a memoir set it apart from most other nonfiction genres. As Chip Scanlan at Poynter.org describes it, memoirs are the place where “storytelling and journalism” meet. Not only do you explain the facts of a real-life situation, you also tell a story—your story. Memoirs allow you to dig deep into a specific topic, explaining the details of your personal circumstances and the events surrounding them. At the same time, you bring readers on an emotional journey alongside you by utilizing storytelling strategies, such as character arcs, tension, and pacing. Readers can get just as lost in your memoir as they would in their favorite fictional genre, but they can also finish your story with a stronger determination to conquer their life challenges because of what you did in real life.
What Memoir is Not
As inspiring and engaging as memoirs can be, it’s important to understand what a memoir is not. Memoirs aren’t self-help books, for one thing. Although your memoir can certainly include a little helpful instruction on the topic at hand, it shouldn’t have chapter after chapter explaining how the reader can overcome this struggle in life. The point of a memoir is to simply narrate the situations and point out the principles that helped and influenced you so readers can choose whether and how to apply those ideas in their lives.
Memoirs shouldn’t be autobiographies. While an autobiography describes your life from birth to the present, your memoir should focus on a single transformational process in your life. If you feel your memoir should cover events from your entire life, you probably need to narrow the scope of your story and find the real heart of your life experiences.
Memoirs also are not confessionals. While terrible things may have happened to you, or perhaps you once did terrible things and have changed your life to do better things, a memoir is not the place to simply list all the bad. It is not a place to play the victim; rather, your goal is to show how you’ve grown because of your difficult experiences. There will be times to show how miserable or hurt you were—that’s part of your story. But if that’s the whole story, readers will get uncomfortable and wonder what they’re supposed to get out of it. Remember that your memoir should chronicle the ups and downs, twists and turns, and lessons learned.
If you keep your memoir focused on the theme of the lessons you learned from your life experiences, the true message you want to share with the world, you’ll already have a great start. In fact, when memoirists focus their works in this way, many are also able to launch coaching and business careers based on helping others with their transformations. For instance, Chris Gardner wrote a memoir in 2006 about being homeless while taking care of his toddler son, and today he is one of the most sought-after motivational speakers in the world. The takeaway: keep the memoir a memoir and let the self-help stay self-help.
Memoir Writing Tips and Tricks
Although you may be excited to share your personal story with the world through a memoir, writing it can still be a daunting task. After all, most people don’t write more than one memoir, and you want your book to be as perfect as it can be so it can stand on its own for years to come. Here are a few tips about structuring and writing your memoir to get you well on your way to perfecting your story.
Memoirs can vary quite a bit in length. Anywhere from 40K to 75K words is standard, meaning you have a lot of room to explore how much detail you want to share.
If you’re way below this mark, you might want to think more about the insights you’re sharing alongside your story. You might need to dig a little deeper to create a more meaningful discussion. Or perhaps your experiences aren’t playing as big a part in the book as you thought they might and you need to shift genres, exploring self-help or autobiography instead.
If you’re way above this range, that’s not always a bad thing. However, you could be putting too much focus on too many things in your memoir, potentially slowing the pacing and causing readers to put down your book or publishers to reject your manuscript. The next few tips discuss storytelling elements like your premise and character arcs and how correctly structuring these elements can help you bring those readers back.
Finding Your Angle
The first element you’ll need in your memoir is the same thing any good story needs—an interesting premise or angle that draws readers in.
Your angle should be intriguing enough to convince the readers to keep reading. For instance, if your memoir is about how you survived cancer, that’s incredible, but many people (unfortunately) have had to endure cancer, so it’s not something that will hold a stranger’s interest. But if your memoir is about how you survived cancer by practicing yoga every day for a year, that would be a unique premise that makes a reader want to know the whole story.
The reason this angle works is that there are both new and relatable elements within it. The relatable part is that you survived cancer—almost everyone has either experienced that difficult physical trial or knows someone who has. But there’s also that new component: yoga isn’t typically a prescribed way to beat cancer. These new and relatable parts make the reader want to find out how they work together. They want to know why yoga, of all things, could help someone in the fight against cancer.
You might be thinking to yourself, “Great. I survived cancer, but I don’t have an interesting angle like that. What am I going to write about now?” If that’s the case, don’t worry; you don’t need to have a crazy, flashy premise to make your memoir great. All you need is to dig a little deeper and think about what truly makes your experience individual. What could you tell others about your struggles and accomplishments that no one else could because of your perspective?
Along with finding your angle, you’ll want to hook your readers with your opening scene. You want your readers to invest in your story, and the best way to do that is by giving them a character and conflict they’ll care about. Take special care with your opening line because that often determines whether someone will continue reading your story.
Think about powerful opening lines from best-selling novels, like “Call me Ishmael” from Moby-Dick or Pride and Prejudice’s first statement: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife.” You can also check out these articles about great opening lines and reeling your readers in once they’ve been hooked to learn more about creating a best-selling beginning.
Creating Effective Arcs
The best stories have well-developed character arcs, and your memoir should be no different. But rather than fabricating a character and deciding who he or she will turn into, the main character in this story is you.
The arc of your character will be the foundation of how you tell your story in your memoir. Although at first you might think it makes the most sense to tell the story in chronological order, there will be too many details and unrelated events to include that way. Instead, establish how you evolved throughout your experiences and organize your scenes and pacing around that.
To start off, you’ll need to determine where your character began. I don’t mean your birth story; I mean whatever event in your life spurred you into actively taking this memoir-worthy journey. Who you are at that moment is the beginning of your character arc. This starting point should also include what a lot of writers call the “desire line,” the thing motivating you to begin this journey of self-transformation in the first place.
Next, you need to pick the point where your character ends. Of course, your character hasn’t actually ended yet—that’s why you’re alive and able to write this memoir—but you can’t keep this story going forever, and you don’t need to bring your readers up to speed with the present day. Think about the moment when it felt like you finally conquered your problem or found a resolution. If you were someone different than you were in your first moment on this journey, then you’ve probably found the right ending point.
Next, take a look at the actual journey you made to get between these two points. Identify emotional beats—moments when you were changing, growing, and learning. Each of these emotional beats will be like a plot point in a book.
Finally, make sure to keep the momentum going throughout the book by showing us clear actions on your part (not just inner contemplation) to get around the obstacles blocking your way. Just like a fictional story, the readers want to see you struggle, sometimes fail, and eventually triumph in your personal story.
Memoir is a difficult genre to write in, and sometimes that’s simply because it’s so personal. Memoirs are often about our most difficult, horrific, or disturbing times in life. In a way, you may relive those moments as you write them, and that can be painful.
It’s easy to gloss over some of the details or facts, pretending certain situations were better than they were. But when you leave things out or aren’t completely honest about your experiences, readers can often sense that some of the story is missing or isn’t completely authentic.
Sometimes we aren’t afraid to share our story so much as we are afraid to hurt others who played a role in that story. Especially if your memoir involves a dangerous situation or legal implications, it can be overwhelming just trying to figure out where to draw the line when it comes to privacy. Tracy Seeley has a few thoughts about addressing fears like these and finding ways to be transparent in your memoir while respecting your own and others’ privacy.
Be brave. Take whatever time you need to build up your courage, but share your scars. Your honesty will allow readers to trust you and take to heart the themes and lessons you give them through your memoir.
The Dangers of Embellishing
Finally, as you write your memoir, it’s understandable that not everything will be completely factual. After all, your memoir is from your perspective, and everyone has their own opinions and ideas that may not line up with the facts of life. However, because memoir is a nonfiction genre, there is somewhat of an expectation that anything without a disclaimer is true.
If you feel the need to embellish anything in your memoir, tread carefully. Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons—for instance, perhaps you portray a family member in a kinder way than you remember to preserve their good name, especially if their unkind actions aren’t an important aspect of your story. If you change too much, however, readers may start accusing you of writing fiction instead of memoir. In fact, this happened to James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces. Whatever level of change you feel comfortable incorporating into your story, it’s safest to include some sort of disclaimer in the front matter to clarify which elements are true and which are fiction.
What You Need to Know About the Market
The memoir market is a bit of a paradox: it’s booming in popularity, but it’s also becoming more and more competitive. The rise in the genre may have something to do with the rise of social media. Memoirs are a look into our personal lives, and anyone can write one, just like anyone can post glimpses of their personal life on social media. Consumers are gravitating toward both social media influencers and inspiring memoirists.
Publishers and agents, however, are looking for specific qualifications in the manuscripts they make offers on. Not only do they want amazing writing, as any publisher or agent wants for any book, but they also want a unique approach to the subject matter and, if possible, a previously established platform for the author. We’ve already talked about how important that unique approach is when it comes to drawing your readers in, which is exactly why publishers want it. But what is a “platform,” and why do they want you to have it?
As a writer, your platform is essentially your public presence. And if you’re already a fairly popular public figure, you can imagine that you’ll have an easier time selling your memoir based on the audience you’ve already accumulated. For instance, when Bethany Hamilton was attacked by a shark while surfing, she lost her arm and made headlines in the national news. She already had a lot of media attention, so getting a deal to later sell her memoir Soul Surfer was easy.
So, what if you don’t have a good platform and aren’t even sure how to get one? There’s no need to worry. Memoirists still get published without large platforms, but only if they have those first two requirements: best-seller writing and an unforgettable approach. Focus your energy on those two aspects of your memoir, and your traditional publishing dreams could still come true. For a little extra help, read about “Pitching to Agents” in one of our helpful blog posts.
Despite having everything right about their memoirs aside from the coveted public platform, many memoirists never get traditionally published. But rejection letters from publishers don’t mean you can’t still make it in the market—on the contrary, you can still be wildly successful by choosing to self-publish.
If you’re writing a memoir that just isn’t “flashy” enough for a publishing house or can’t seem to get the same media attention as a celebrity, you don’t need to wait around forever for someone to say yes to your manuscript. Publish it yourself and get your story out there! You’ll find there are plenty of readers who are willing to say yes to reading your book. And at the end of the day, for most memoirists, the most important thing is to share their story with those who need it. Some memoirists don’t even pursue traditional publishing, using their memoir as more of a self-fulfilling, self-healing journey. For these writers, just finishing their memoir and getting it out there is enough.
If you’d like to learn more about the options you have in self-publishing, check out a few of our previous articles on the topic: “Is Indie Publishing Right for You?”, “Traditional or Self-Publishing?”, “Hitting the Top 100 on Amazon Lists,” and “7 Steps for Hiring a Good Editor” to help you on your writing and publishing journey. You can also look into our self-publishing services by visiting our Publishing Services page.
The Wrap Up
Remember, you have a story to tell that no one else does! And you can make your memoir successful by leading with an irresistible angle, including a satisfying character arc, and being brave and authentic. And while it may be harder to get traditionally published without a public platform, you won’t be out of the game. In fact, our editors can help you make sure your memoir’s writing and structure will be just what readers and agents are looking for.
Do This Now
- Find your memoir’s unique angle to draw your readers in and make sure it includes both new and relatable elements.
- Outline your character arc, making sure your actions are always fueled by your “desire line.”
- Read some of these stellar memoirs (some of which have been adapted into film) to become more familiar with the genre:
- Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
- Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
- The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
- Marley & Me by John Grogan
- Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir by Ernestine Hayes
- Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang
- Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson
- Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
- Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
- The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
- Julie and Julia by Julie Powell
- First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung
- The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea
- The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
- Take a look at some books and blog posts about writing memoir for a little extra help:
- The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
- Still Writing by Dani Shapiro
- Your Life As Story by Tristine Rainer
- Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
- Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington
- Inventing the Truth by William Zinsser
- Living to Tell the Tale by Jane Taylor McDonnell
- Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas
- Writing for Story by Jon Franklin
- Story by Robert McKee
- Follow the Story by James Stewart
- How to Write a Nonfiction Query Letter
- How to Write a Book Proposal
Brittany Passmore is a freelance editor who specializes in fantasy and science fiction. She is currently interning for Eschler Editing, a learning experience she has loved and appreciated. She recently graduated with a BA in editing and publishing from Brigham Young University, and she works from home in Logan, Utah, where she also takes care of her adorable one-year-old son. In her free time, Brittany loves reading and writing (of course!), practicing yoga, playing the piano, and playing games with her family.