Guest Post by Susan Bowman, author of Lady Father

A memoir seems like an easy book to write, but don’t be fooled by the familiarity of the stories. They did happen to you, but it’s important to remember that your reader was not there, didn’t know the characters, and doesn’t have a picture of where the action occurs. Descriptive words will help your reader to form a picture of the whole scene. This will help you reach your main goal, which is to bring your reader into your compelling story so completely that they will not be able to put it down and will tell all their friends what a great read it is.

Here are some tips to help you accomplish this:

1. Grab Attention. You want to grab the reader’s attention at the very beginning. You can do this by opening your book with a brief story that is surprising, compelling, and will make them want to read on to see what happens.

My memoir begins with a Prologue titled “The End.” The first sentence is short but unexpected and even shocking. The words, “It was as if someone had died” is the beginning of the most devastating moment of my life and the Prologue ends leaving the reader wondering how such a thing could have happened to me, which is exactly how I felt. This is a crucial part of any book but especially a memoir.

2. Start at Your Beginning. After your shocking beginning, and it can be something that happens at any time in your life, it’s best to start at the beginning of your life’s story and, as much as possible, keep it in order. You want your reader to keep reading and not get confused from having to jump back and forth in your life.

3. Write in the 1st Person. You want to write your story in the 1st person to allow your reader to identify with you. This is difficult to do when the story is in the 3rd person. Constantly reading about he or she makes your story feel like it’s about some nebulous being that is difficult to get to know. Keeping the story personal by using “I” and “me” keeps you squarely in the story and your reader squarely in the book.

4. Be Descriptive. Descriptions of events, people, and places are best if told succinctly so that you don’t lose your reader in a convoluted description of the things that happen, the people in your life, and the places where you lived, grew up, worked, played, and experienced life as you knew it. When a person or place suddenly pops up in your story after an absence, a subtle reference back to the original quickly identifies the person, place, or event and keeps the reader in the story without having to flip back to refresh the memory.

5. Make Elements Fit. When choosing the people, places, and events to include in your story, it’s vital that each one fits in the story you are trying to tell. The sudden appearance of someone or something that seems extraneous to the picture of the life you are attempting to paint for your reader can cause confusion and frustration. The reader must try to figure out why you included something that doesn’t seem to have any effect on the life story you are telling.

6. Be Accurate. You always want to tell stories just the way they happened – being honest and straightforward about the details, how people treated you, and the effect on you at the time and even later in your life. When you can do it smoothly and without recrimination and blame, it’s very important to your credibility to find a way to accept your own responsibility for what happened in your life.

Nothing turns a reader off more than a memoir that describes the author’s negative experiences as always the result of someone else’s actions. Your reader will respect you and your story much more if you honesty make it ring true.

7. Be True to Your Emotional Experience. To keep your reader involved in your life, your stories must teem with the emotion you felt at the time. Be descriptive.

  • If it’s a sad story, describe your sorrow clearly, letting the reader know how much it affected you and why.
  • If you felt put down, say so.
  • If you felt abandoned, use words like left behind, alone, scared, angry, etc.
  • If it’s a dangerous story, make it pop with whatever you were feeling – fear, uncertainty, hopelessness and build up the suspense to keep them hanging on the edge of their seats wondering what will happen next.
  • If it’s a moving story, use words like wonder, awe, warm, safe, etc.

Don’t be afraid of appearing weak. Your honest portrayal of such scenes will endear you to your reader.

8. Use Transitions. You absolutely want to keep your story flowing smoothly by the use of transitions. Words and phrases that will continue the feeling you have just created or refer back to an event, place, or people that they will be familiar with from previous experiences. It will help keep your readers present with you.

9. Show Emmpathy. One tricky part of writing a memoir is identification of people who affected you during your life. Some of them will have had a positive effect on you, while others may have hurt you or embarrassed you. It can be difficult to keep your story honest, while trying to protect someone’s identity but it’s important not to use your story to hurt or embarrass others. Using another name may therefore be necessary so use care to choose one that is not similar to the real name.

Being kind to someone who has been unkind to you will help to ensure that your story does not become a diatribe against those people in your life who had a negative impact on you. Your reader will enjoy your book and your life much more and will thus have kind words to say about it to others.

10. End Well. The ending of your memoir is just as crucial as the beginning. You want to leave your reader with a desire to know more about you, especially if you plan more writings about you and your life.

Avoid leaving the reader with the feeling that your life is over. Try to pull together the main themes that you highlighted using similar words and phrases. I ended my memoir with a short paragraph about the grace of God which I had consistently alluded to throughout the book. I concluded with this sentence, “This is grace, and grace is what made me whole again.” This succinctly described how I survived the ordeals in my life.

As I wrote my memoir, Lady Father, I kept reminding myself of three things: be honest, be compelling, and be a good host to the reader. I wanted to make anyone who read it to feel my pain and my joy and come to the conclusion that I had an important story to tell.

More than anything else, I wanted every reader to know me through the pages of my life.

* * *

Susan BowmanSusan Bowman, author of Lady Father and God is in the Journey, attended seminary at the University of the South’s School of Theology and graduated with a Masters of Divinity Degree in 1984. Following her ordination in 1986, Susan served as Chaplain in a girls’ group home and then as Pastor for three churches until retiring in 2007. In May 2010, Susan became the Senior Editor of Our Heritage Magazine Online.

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