Writing Tips for a Relatable Memoir
Guest Post by C. Hope Clark
So many new writers start by writing their memoir, often the first serious piece of writing they’ve tried. Logical since everyone who’s ever picked up a pen has heard that writers should write about what they know. After all, what do we know best other than ourselves?
In my opinion, however, writers need to start with fiction. Specifically, short stories.
These memoir-writing authors always raise a brow when I tell them this, because they don’t want to write fiction, often adding that they aren’t sure how. But when you write short stories first:
1) You learn to write tight.
You are limited in space. Therefore, every word must count. You have no time to build a backstory or cover much history. In a short piece, you open in the thick of action, or immediately in the controversy. Every tale has a problem for its protagonist to overcome; otherwise, what’s the point of the story? In short fiction, you learn to fine-tune what you have to say because you have little space to say it.
2) You define a story’s beginning, middle and end succinctly.
One of the biggest flaws of new writers is the inability to open masterfully, strongly carry the story through the middle, and wrap up cleanly at the end. It’s not easy. In long writing, novels and memoirs alike, it’s even harder, because you have many more pages in which the story can drag. At least in short fiction, you see more quickly what you haven’t achieved. The story just doesn’t work.
You cannot pontificate about your characters, which means their descriptions come through in one and two words inserted here and there. You use responses, dialogue and quick phrases of action instead. Crisp and unique wording that thrusts images easily in the reader’s head. The reader learns the character without needing his biography.
Okay, let’s say you feel you’ve grasped the short story. I still tell authors to write their book-length memoir like a novel. No memoir is worth reading if it doesn’t sing like a creative novel. What can memoir writers learn from novelists?
1) Novelists research.
A novel has a setting, whether fictitious or real, and the author will do legwork to determine the personality of that locale. My mysteries are set in real places in rural South Carolina. I take intricate notes of areas, eying the simplest items to capture a realistic feel so my story reads genuine. But research is also used to ground you. Do not insert all those intricate details, just the ones that pop, snare or give your reader great flavor.
2) Novelists use lapel-grabbers.
Why does anyone want to read about you if they don’t have an eye-opener of a story? That means starting with action, an anxious moment, an intriguing dilemma, or even a dead body. Open in the courtroom, on the edge of the cliff, when someone’s life went to hell. Textbooks are dry. Novels are juicy, beautiful, or suck-you-in overwhelming. Which do you want to emulate?
3) Novelists avoid backstory.
Author Elmore Leonard is renowned for his ten famous rules of writing, one of them being, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Novelists fight to make every word leave its mark, avoiding backstory. One would think memoir is ALL backstory. But your job is to make it read as if it is taking place, like you’re writing mystery, fantasy, romance or women’s fiction. Omit the boring stuff. Nobody’s entire life is interesting. Leave those ho-hum parts out.
4) Novelists develop characters.
Novelists cut characters open and spill them all over a page. The nasty and the gob smacking, the loveable and the despicable, the pretty and the horribly disfigured. Novelists draw out character charts, noting traits, answering questions about these people, so the author can write about their flaws, their loves, and where they are most fragile and vulnerable. It’s in those tender places that stories are born and characters become worth reading. Real people need to be split open, too.
Writing a memoir may sound simple, but the real deal can distract you from being creative. Envision your plot, theme, characters, voice and flow just like you would fiction, and your nonfiction can take on a remarkable 3-D life.
BIO: C. Hope Clark is author of the award-winning Carolina Slade Mystery Series and the upcoming Edisto Beach Mystery Series. www.chopeclark.com She is also editor of FundsforWriters.com, chosen by Writer’s Digest for it 101 Best Websites for Writers. www.fundsforwriters.com