7 Common Mistakes in First-Time Memoir

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Today’s guest post is by developmental book editor Jessi Rita Hoffman (@JRHwords).


1. Confusing Memoir with Autobiography

Writing a memoir is not the same as writing an autobiography. In an autobiography, you typically start at the beginning of your life and record all the details you can remember, chronologically. In a memoir, you take a slice from your life—a particular theme or lesson or flavor of experience—and write about that, pretty much ignoring the rest.

Famous people, like celebrities, can write an autobiography and manage to sell it successfully because the public is already fascinated by them. Everything about the author is considered interesting, because the author is perceived as interesting. For the rest of us, however, selling an autobiography is in the same category as winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning.

That’s because even if we’ve had a fascinating life, it probably won’t be fascinating enough to the public at large for them to want to read every detail of our experience. There are too many other books out there vying for people’s time and attention.

That’s why authors with a special story to tell generally write memoirs, not autobiographies. They focus on the aspect of their life that is most unusual or fascinating, and structure the book around that. If the story is unusual or fascinating enough, their book will find an audience.

2. Telling a Story Already Told

That brings us to the second mistake people make when attempting to write and market their personal story: often they don’t realize that their story has been told before, by other people who have experienced the same thing. Growing up with an alcoholic mother or father or going through a divorce, for example, are stories which countless other books have already explored.

If you want people to read your memoir, it must be unique enough to stand out amidst the sea of other memoirs. Not only that—it also must sound unique in your marketing materials (including your query letter to agents). Agents don’t want to represent a book they think is a rehashing of books already written, because they know they can’t find a publisher for that. Publishers are interested in buying unique memoirs only, because that is what the public wants to buy.

3. Shoehorning Several Books into One

Most memoir manuscripts that come across my desk from first-time authors are massive conglomerations of two or three books, all shoehorned into one. They want to write about their paranormal experiences, but they also want to write about the funny things their child did growing up, and also about their lifelong struggle with ADD, at the same time sharing their heartfelt political opinions.

Any one of those could be the topic for a book, but trying to combine them all into one memoir is a mistake. Different audiences will be interested in those four different topics. If someone buys the book hoping to read about paranormal experiences, and instead finds 75% of the book filled with mommy stories and other material they have no interest in, they will feel you, the author, have cheated them, misrepresenting what the book is about in your advertising, and selling them one quarter of a book—one quarter of what they paid for.

A memoir needs to be focused on one theme, or one life lesson, that has wound its way like a bright thread through the experiences of your life. Yes, you have many such threads, many lessons that make up your life experience, but don’t try to include them all in one memoir. Pick one—the most important one to you—and write about that, stoically ignoring the others, which will vie for your attention and writing space like insistent ghosts at your shoulder. When you sit down to write, tell them no, and stick to it!

Most writers don’t realize that they typically have two or three potential books kicking around in their head, asking for written expression. They mistakenly try to put them all together into one book, which causes all of the stories to fail. Mentally separate the themes that you feel compelled to write about, and regard them as distinct and separate books. Start out writing just one of them. Save the others for later, if you truly believe they are unique enough to be marketable.

4. Confusing Memoir with Journaling

Writing down our experiences has the effect of helping us make sense of our own lives. That’s why journaling has become such a popular therapy and self-help tool. There’s real, personal value in contemplating the details of our lives and setting them down on paper. Writing forces the mind to reflect, to organize experiences, to distill and extract the meaning stored in our memories.

But writing a memoir is something else entirely. When we journal, we write for ourselves. When we memoir, we write for others. Other people aren’t interested in all the details of my personal life story the way I naturally am—close family may care, but not strangers. Strangers come to read a memoir in hopes it will somehow shed light on their own life experiences. This is an important distinction.

When you have lunch with a friend, you don’t tell them every minute detail of your life for the past several weeks. You select from among your experiences those you suspect they will resonate with, those they will find interesting, challenging, or amusing. You would bore them to tears if you didn’t mentally edit what you talk about. In the same way, a reader will be bored to tears if you indulge in writing about things that have special interest only to you.

Think about who you are writing for, who your target audience is, and always keep them consciously in mind while you’re writing. Don’t allow yourself the luxury of randomly writing whatever comes into your head, or you’ll veer off the pavement and into a ditch.

Try to imagine the reader sitting in front of you, and always write as if they were listening, as if you were sitting together sharing a cup of tea or coffee. Sometimes it helps to think of one real person you know in particular, and imagine yourself writing the book to them. The important thing is to keep your readers in your mind whenever you sit down to write. That will keep you driving within the lines, steering the book where it needs to be going.

5. Overdoing the Family History

Most memoir manuscripts I come across get into irrelevant side trips regarding family history, local history, or other topics of interest to only a very small audience. If you’re writing your memoir only as a gift to your family, and don’t intend it for public consumption, then by all means delve into the details of your family’s past. Write down everything you know and remember. Your loved ones will thank you for it, and you will have preserved the family stories for future generations.

But if you’re writing your book with the intention of selling it, with the goal of reaching a broader audience than just your kids and grandkids, stick to your topic and don’t get caught up writing about how your great-grandmother met your great-grandfather at the meatpacking plant (of which you give the history) and then settled down to raise nine kids, all of whom you individually name, along with birthdates.

Readers want to read about the life theme you advertised your memoir as exploring, so focus on that subject and don’t get distracted. Like journaling, writing family history has its place—a very respected place—but that place is not the domain of memoir writing. Memoir is a different genre entirely.

6. Chronology Mismanagement

Chronology in a memoir will be problematic when it errs in either of two directions. On the one hand, readers get whiplash when an author jumps forward and backward in time often and without good reason. Amateur writers sometimes do this, thinking it makes their writing seem “stylish.” But unless you have a good reason to relate events out of order, you risk confusing the reader as to when the various incidents occurred.

On the other hand, it’s a mistake to slavishly narrate events in the order they happened when a different ordering may accent the story’s most important events, creating questions or suspense in the reader.

A good technique is to open the story with an incident that focuses the theme of the memoir, after that starting the story at the beginning and continuing with scenes chronologically (unless you have good reason to do otherwise).

For example, you might start a memoir about your lifelong struggle with ADD with the scene where you lost your first job after college because your employer thought your learning style meant you were slow and stupid—an event which made you doubt yourself and almost give up on your future. That could be your Chapter One, followed by a chapter where you switch to your first day of school, where you also confronted ignorance about your disability, this time on the part of your first-grade teacher. Then you could continue chronologically after that.

In this example, by starting the book with the crisis event that caused you to seek help and self-understanding, you create a need in the reader to keep on reading, in order to find out what happened. Don’t make the mistake of ending the first chapter by revealing how you worked your way out of the problem, or you’ll ruin the suspense. Save the resolution for the end of the book, where you circle around back to the crisis event and tell how you rose above it.

7. Writing Libel

If your memoir contains stories of villains and people who have wronged you, you have to be really careful, or you could get sued. Contrary to what many writers think, using fictitious names is not enough to protect you. I’ve written a whole article about the libel problem, which you can find here.

When in doubt, consult a lawyer. That can be expensive, but check out the various services online, such as Legal Shield, that allow you to speak with a lawyer for a small fee. Talk to a defamation attorney, not just a general attorney, to ensure you’re getting accurate information. Legal Shield allows you to specify the kind of lawyer you wish to speak to, and if you don’t like the person assigned, you can ask to speak to a different lawyer afterwards. I’ve had good luck with Legal Shield and have used their services for various matters over the years.

With the above information, you can avoid the major pitfalls involved in writing a memoir. When you’ve given it your best effort, pass it by a qualified developmental editor before contacting agents. You only get one shot at impressing them, so make sure that what you’ve written passes muster.

Posted in Getting Published, Guest Post.

Jessi Rita Hoffman is a developmental book editor (content editor) who specializes in helping first-time authors. She can be reached through her website at www.JessiRitaHoffman.com

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Lisa Tener

Excellent Tips! I would add generic information that “tells” rather than shows. I’ve seen quite a few first drafts that start out with some generalization of the author’s experience, “I often went to night clubs,” rather than starting at one moment in time and painting a picture of it.

BK Jackson
BK Jackson

Thanks. While I already understood the difference between autobiography and memoir, I have not read much memoir so these 7 pitfalls to avoid were good info. Memoir seems extremely popular, however I’ve never looked into what’s available because I suspect most of the standard fare would not interest me. That’s why I always have difficulty when someone advises to “have your reader in mind” because sometimes, the topics that you want to deal with in memoir are ones in which you feel you’re one of the few who seemingly ever had to deal with that topic.

Wendy
Wendy

I’m working on a book about my healthcare whistleblower story. A hybrid publisher–affiliated with a major publisher–has offered to vet my manuscript for free. Should I first hire a developmental editor and then an agent, to make sure the manuscript is polished before it’s vetted?

Jane Friedman

Hi Wendy: I’ll jump in here since your mention of a hybrid publisher complicates matters a bit. They could have a financial interest in luring you to their operation, and they may also charge you for editing after that initial vetting. So I’d proceed with caution; otherwise you may be paying for more editing than you need.

All that aside, if you know the work would benefit from editing, or if it otherwise needs editorial help, then I’d seek out that help. But not because you want to impress this hybrid publisher.

Marian Beaman

Jessi, my memoir Mennonite Daughter: The Story of a Plain Girl debuted this Saturday after a 5-year pregnancy. Because I heeded the advice of two developmental editors, beta readers, and multiple copyedits, I hope I have dodged the bullets.

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[…] of several writing friends, I started writing memoir.  Thanks to Jane Friedman’s post, I have a better sense what common mistakes to […]

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[…] can work for most writing, there is some advice that is very specific. Jessi Rita Hoffman shares 7 common memoir mistakes, Lucy V. Hay has 10 quick tips about writing horror, Amy Rogers gives us pitfalls and solutions for […]

Liesbet

Great points and overview, Jessi! Of all the pitfalls mentioned, I think my weakness is still the “Shoehorning Several Books into One” in my current memoir. Thanks for the article!

BJ Helmer
BJ Helmer

Thank you, Jessi Hoffman, for this article. Your specific “one theme, one life’s lesson” advice is a valuable lens as I am writing the experiences of an idyllic childhood that combined ranch life and animals with bombers flying tree-top high overhead–daily life in western South Dakota for those of us growing up during the Cold War. I now realize that I need to focus more tightly so each chapter includes/reveals one more step in the silencing impact of McCarthyism. Your article is improving my writing!

Suzanne Newnham

Thanks once again Jane for sharing an insightful look at a topic. Thank you Jessi for the list of tips. I’ve been writing my mother’s memoir about being a company accountant from the mid-1940s with a number of firsts for a woman working in a man’s world. The first version was printed for her 90th birthday two years ago with lots of interest for the family. Then I was asked by friends for a copy and consequently version two minus the other family stories and photos is just about completed. As I read your article I was mentally scanning my… Read more »

Cindy Schwarz
Cindy Schwarz

Thank you Jessi for your specific examples and information. I now know the “theme” of my memoir and know to re-write a large section which tells about a cousin who swindled me out of money and etc. Yikes! Liable possible. I did realize liable is an issue in memoir, but you explained it more hands on.

Emma Darwin

What a terrific post! thank you to Jessi, and to Jane for hosting it. I’m teaching memoir and life-writing a lot at the moment, off the back of my new book, and this encapsulates so many of the things that most commonly need making clear – especially since a workshop on memoir (unlike, say one on novels) is likely to have more people who have perhaps never tried to write anything substantial before.