This post could also be called: What I Wish I Knew Before I Started Writing My Memoir. This is Part 1 in a three-part series.
As a nonfiction editor and writing coach, I often work with first-time memoir writers who have a story to tell and need help shaping it. These writer-editor relationships may last from six months to three years until what really needs to be said makes its way to the surface of a page.
Memoir writing is more than jotting down thoughts the way we do in a diary. In memoir, ideas need to be organized. Characters and themes developed. Context and sensory details added. Words, sentences, and paragraphs grammatically scrubbed and primed. Chapters need to work independently but also as a whole.
After our work together, it’s rewarding see how these clients have grown stronger as writers, how they’re now able to identify inciting incidents (yes, we use those in memoir too!), what matters, what doesn’t, and perhaps more importantly—from a business perspective—what the reader is interested in reading about versus what they think the reader is interested in.
Whether you’re designing your own covers or hiring someone to do it for you, it’s easy to fall prey to some common traps along the way. Here are five pitfalls to avoid as you navigate the wild world of cover design.
A great-looking piece of art that doesn’t represent your genre won’t help you in the long run. If it tricks the wrong reader into thinking they’ve just picked up the romance of the century, only to find it’s a thriller inside, they won’t be happy no matter how pretty you make the cover. And it will lead to bad reviews. If you’re hiring someone to design your cover, make sure they understand your story’s genre.
Over the last few years, I’ve shared “Top 10” lists from several amazing people on the topics of writing and success but I haven’t branched out into musicians. In my humble opinion, there’s no one better to talk about creative success than Prince. (Yes, that Prince. aka Prince Rogers Nelson.)
This massively talented genius, who died in 2016 at age 57, left behind millions of devastated fans. He also left behind a locked vault reputed to hold 1,000+ unpublished or unfinished works. The contents of the vault are unknown as no one can get into it.
Prince wrote scores of hits under his own name, and others you might not have known were his songs, like:
Rather than examine boring things like his estate plan (which was so non-existent, they’re still duking things out in court almost five years later), I’d like to focus on Prince’s own inspiring words about how he built his phenomenal success.
Here are some of my favorite quotes from Prince on what success looks like for creatives:
Secondary characters add depth and interest to the world your main character inhabits, helping to make the tale more memorable. They play a significant role in your story, but aren’t necessarily integral to the plot. These characters may be protagonists or antagonists of their own subplots.
Strong secondary characters reveal more about your primary character by, motivating, creating stumbling blocks, or helping define the setting by use of cultural clues. He or she may goad the protagonist into doing something out of character to the benefit or detriment of either of them.
These ancillary characters may become more popular than your protagonists. This happened to me in my children’s chapter books as Frankie, Charlie Chameleon’s obnoxious pet fish, became the favorite of many readers, adults as well as children. There is something about Frankie, maybe his naughtiness, that makes him relatable.
I’ll soon have my second Covid vaccine, and I’m already making my TJ Maxx shopping list, planning lunch dates with equally-immunized friends, and looking at flights to…anywhere. One thing I dread about venturing out in the world again, though, is running into acquaintances who may ask, “So, how’s that book coming along?”
Perhaps I had run into these casual friends in pre-Covid days when I declared my manuscript accomplit. Perhaps last year, they saw a social media post where I shared my excitement and trepidation about querying literary agents. Or, they might know me from 20 years ago, when I first started writing my memoir.
My short answer would be, “It’s coming along.” (For my long answer, keep reading.)
A little over ten years ago, I wrote a post that changed my trajectory as a writer. Writing this post literally pulled me back from that edge of giving up the thing I most love to do. It was January, 2011 and one simple resolution saved me. In these crazy pandemic times, I thought perhaps someone else could use the words of encouragement.
Some background on what was going on with me…
I’d just lived through the kind of pregnancy where the chance of everyone dying is incredibly real and I had a mild case of post-partum depression.
That baby I worked so hard for was about eight months old.
I was really really ill with what I realized later was an insane allergy to gluten.
You’ll read the rest in the post, but I was very much in danger of losing my writing. The details and the chaos of my life were pounding against my creativity, washing it away like waves on the sand, and I didn’t have the mental or physical resources to turn the tide.
I’ve spent much of our Covid year learning about, editing, and writing my own memoir. Memoir is a form I think every writer should try to tackle at least once. Everyone has a story to tell. The exercise of writing a memoir can sharpen our memories and force us to write outside our comfort zones—always good practice for a writer at any level. If you want to craft a memoir that is truly a page-turner, you can and should use many of your fiction writing tricks.
First Things First: What a Memoir Is and Is Not
It is important to know what a memoir is and is not. A memoir is not your autobiography. A memoir is a slice of your life at a particular time, in a particular place. It is literally your memories put to paper. Some memoirs cover a year in a person’s life. Some memoirs cover several years. Think in terms of a season of your life, rather than a finite block of days on the calendar.
Many new memoirists hamstring themselves by feeling they need to tell their entire life stories, nose to tail, David Copperfield-style. You do not. A memoir focuses on a theme, on a particular red thread that has wound through your life thus far. It is not a full accounting of all your sins and wins!
When you begin to learn about Deep Point of View, one of the over-simplified “rules” that’s taught is to remove emotion words (hate, anxious, happy, sad, worried, etc.), but that leaves you with a BIGGER problem. How do you show the character’s emotions once you’ve removed the emotion words?
Emotions become the WHY for everything your character thinks, says, and does, so if you’re getting feedback that readers can’t connect with your character, they don’t understand why your character thinks/says/does certain things – you might have either a WHY problem, or a GAP.
A Shift in Mindset
The goal of deep POV is to remove the writer/narrator voice and create an immersive emotional journey for the reader, where they are with the character in every scene and privy to every relevant thought and feeling. Every word on the page comes from within your character, you’re not telling a story about a character (as you are in limited third person).
Next month my book Max and the Spice Thieves launches, and one of the main events, especially during the time of Covid, is a virtual book tour. The days of slogging a trunk full of books from bookstore to bookstore are far and few unless you are a celebrity. Traditional Publishing houses don’t pay for them like they used to, and the turn out at many events can be a little depressing.
Virtual book tours have taken up the slack and are growing in popularity. These virtual tours help an author get their book in front of the right people: book lovers. In addition, they are connecting to people who like books in the genre they write.