Writing a non-fiction book is a huge undertaking whether you are writing a memoir, a self-help or expository text. Unlike fiction, you do not get to make things up. What you write has to be true. That is what makes it nonfiction. Depending on what genre you are focusing, you have to determine the non-fiction voice in which you will write your book. The most important element in finding your non-fiction voice is who you are writing to, or your target audience. While you always want the voice you use to be authentic, we all have many voices. In …
You’ve logged the miles and now it’s time to write the journey.
Writing a memoir is your opportunity to share a transformational story or collection of stories from your life’s journey. You’ve logged the miles, and, along the way, you’ve faced challenges, taken risks, failed, given up, risked again; until, finally, you emerged transformed in some way. You’ve reached a crest where you can see 365 degrees around you, and you pick out the faint trail of your passage all the way back to your beginning. You know you have a story to share with others. Where do you begin?
Begin at the end
Begin at the end of your story. Really. Not kidding. Your story may be one of struggle, facing and ultimately overcoming adversity. Think Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Author Cheryl Strayed structures her narrative on her actual journey, over a contained period of time, with a clear story arc based on her transformative experience. At the same time, she is writing about her journey to come home to herself after years of dangerous, addictive choices. Her story is one of transformation, step by step, mile by mile, challenge by daunting challenge.
If your memoir is about overcoming adversity, then you, too, are telling a story of transformation. The main character (in a memoir that’s you) faces a dilemma and views her world differently at the end of the story than she did at the beginning. Your reader, too, must experience this journey of transformation from beginning, to middle, to end.
Picture your transformation
Think about powerful last images of books and films you love and how they capture an essence of the story. Now imagine yourself at the end of your story. Take a snapshot in time. Pick an image that captures something essential about you at the end of your story. Where are you? Who are you with? Or are you alone? How are you standing, sitting, dancing? How are you relating to others? Pick out any details that come to you.
Want to get writing right now? Grab your paper and pen and write for 5 minutes. You can use this method to answer all the questions in this post. Easy hint: You’re not writing your story, you are playing with ideas so stay loose, write quickly, do not erase or censor, have fun.
Now circle back to the beginning
Now imagine yourself at the beginning of your story. Take a new snapshot in time. Again, pick an image that captures something essential about you at the beginning of your story. Where are you? What are you doing? Who are you with? What are you seeking?
Before and after
Finally, hold those images side by side in your mind. How have you changed from the beginning to the end? How are you relating differently to others? How has your view of the world shifted? Something inside you has changed profoundly. You have undergone a transformation. You’ve let something go and you gained something new. In story terms, you’ve sacrificed and you’ve earned a gift.
When your memoir is not about overcoming adversity
No excruciating problem? No problem! Your memoir may be based on a your adventures, your experiences, and organized thematically. Novelist and memoirist, Roz Morris, author of Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction, was inspired by an old, leather bound diary, a “visitor’s book” that she carried with her on her travels and used to record unique encounters and interesting experiences, moments otherwise lost. She selected her most “tellable” stories and then looked more carefully for connecting themes to create Not Quite Lost. Roz Morris, also a respected writing teacher and mentor, encourages writers to clarify the primary theme of their memoir and/or chapters by finishing the statement: This is the story of how I did (fill in the blank). Note: Keep a journal or file of stories that don’t fit your statement because they may well find their way into other books you write.
Borrow, build, restructure
Wise writers do not reinvent the wheel. Who has time? When it comes to structuring your narrative, be imaginative, and also recycle. You can use markers on a map, musical scales, ingredients in your favorite recipe, the Ten Commandments. Lists may make great story markers: the list of Einstein’s Demands (to his wife Mileva); Galileo’s Shopping List; Santa’s List; your grocery list; a list of country-western song titles–you get the idea. Take a look at Charles Dickens and his chapter headings. In one of my novels, I divided sections by using the circles of hell from Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno. Dickens and Dante can be models for memoir, too.
‘Find your why’ and stay on course
A writer recently shared some great advice from a conference speaker talking about memoir. Her directive: Find your why, it doesn’t matter what it is, but find it! Why are you passionate about telling your story and sharing it with readers? Write down your “Why” on a sticky note and tack it to your computer or somewhere visible on your desk. When doubts arise and your spirits flag, use your passion to re-inspire and re-energize yourself.
Writing a memoir is not writing your journal
Although writers often use journals to record material, thoughts, notes, your memoir is not your journal. A journal is meant to be sequential, a collection of images, stories, moments, an exploration of history, memory, and the unconscious, a catharsis. A journal needs no ending, no structure, your memoir does.
Writing a memoir is not writing your autobiography
A memoir is not an autobiography. An autobiography aims to cover the span of your life. A memoir is the story covering a slice of your life–a life slice meaningful to you and to others. A memoir is not a biography. If someone wants to write a book that details your life, you are already famous.
What is a Target Audience? And why do you need one? If you have decided to write a non-fiction book, you have expertise in a subject of broad interest or you have lived through a compelling experience and have come out the other side having learned something of great importance to share with the hopes of improving your reader’s lives. Who do you want to reach with your book? That is your Target Audience. As a non-fiction and memoir coach and editor, I have been blessed to work with some amazing people who became even more amazing writers. Some authors …
Writing a non-fiction book? Let’s talk! Welcome to my non-fiction blog! I am a writing coach and editor for non-fiction authors. I have been helping non-fiction writers follow their dreams for three decades and believe me I have seen the gamut of topics! My blog postings will answer the most common questions that I have encountered in my many years of coaching and editing. My posts will cover all types of non-fiction: business, medical, law, finance, self-help, memoir, spiritual, political, academic, health, and anything else that comes down the pike. As you read my blog, if you are struggling with …
Great dialogue makes for great scenes In last week’s post, I focused on tips for writing great scenes–scenes and summary are the building blocks of fiction and memoir. A friend who blogs and writes essays read the post and reminded me that scenes and partial scenes also lend energy and veracity to nonfiction. So true! C’mon, make a scene! First of all, a vital reminder: a scene is a piece of story action, played out moment-by-moment on page, stage, or screen. Conflict drives every scene. No conflict, no scene. A scene moves, dynamically beginning in one place and ending in …
Action, Conflict, Scenes! Scenes and summary are building blocks of stories–both fiction and memoir. A scene is a piece of story action, rendered continuously moment-by-moment, without summary, but with action and, often, dialogue. A scene can be acted out on stage. She wants, he wants: Characters work in conflict. If they both want to go to the same party and they go, sorry, no conflict, no scene. In contrast, let’s say Joe and Suzy are on their third date and Joe wants to take Suzy to Dave’s party. Dave is Joe’s best friend. But Suzy absolutely doesn’t want to go to Dave’s party–Joe just pointed …
You’ve written one draft, two drafts, you love your novel, your retired 5th-grade teacher loves your novel, so you must be ready to publish, right!? Whoa back, wait up, hold on a sec, Pardner. Before you even think about sending your book out into the big (sometimes bad) world to publish, you must make sure you’re both ready! That means getting a professional copy edit, finding qualified beta readers, deciding between traditional and indie publishing options, and researching accordingly a) overall market b) agents or c) indie publishers. Of course, while you’ve been writing your book, you’ve been building your …
Want to start and finish your first, fifth, or tenth novel in 2017? Read on! In my previous post, I wrote about 1st drafts, and I shared my best suggestions for finishing draft 1 of your novel within 3 to 6 months (without losing your mind). Your 1st draft is the one Anne Lamott aptly dubs the “shitty first draft.” Give yourself permission to work quickly with forward momentum. When your 1st draft is complete: Set it aside for days, weeks, maybe even a month or more. Give yourself time to let it go and separate yourself. When you come back to the …
It’s that time of year when many of us are looking forward to 2017, evaluating what matters to us, and making our resolutions. If writing and finishing your novel tops your list, here are some tips to help you write your best book. I use these steps to write my own fiction and I’ve just finished the 1st draft of my newest novel, working title, The Book of Riddles. Write your 1st draft quickly, ideally within 3 to 6 months. Key to this process of drafting is to refrain from editing your 1st draft! I know that makes some writers howl with …
Here’s the thing, being human isn’t easy. We are human and we are animal—savage and tender, mindful and thoughtless, loving and cruel, base and divine—and then toss our heart and spirit into the mix and try telling our story. Wait, shhhh, hear that existential scream? Yup, understanding the complexities of human nature is an ongoing challenge. If you have any desire to try, and if you are a writer, painter, musician, actor, creative seeker of any stripe, you are a storyteller and you are on the journey toward transformation and this is a gift. When it comes to story, transformation …