July 11, 2016

6 ways authors go wrong writing their memoirs

memoirBy BlueInk Review

You’ve lived an interesting and full life – and now you want to leave a legacy. It’s time to write your memoirs.

This is a laudable goal, and many, many authors have amazing stories to tell. But too often, they don’t deliver the sort of book readers at large can appreciate. At BlueInk Review, we’ve vetted nearly 1,000 independently published memoirs, written by people from all walks of life. In the process, we’ve become experts on where authors go wrong when tackling a memoir.

Here are 6 of the most common mistakes we see authors making:

1. They try to settle old grudges.

Many of the memoirs we receive read more like a list of grievances than an artful telling of the author’s life. While scores of wonderful memoirs portray terrible injustices (think Angela’s Ashes), these grievances are an organic part of the story, shown through the actions of the characters, rather than directly spelled out for readers. Furthermore, skilled authors bring new and interesting insights to these old injustices, as they reflect from the distance of time and perspective.

No one wants to read the work of someone who seems petty and bitter. If you have past hurts to settle, close your laptop and call a therapist. You’ll likely get better results—and you’ll spare the rest of us from having to read all about your personal grudges.

2. They try to mention every person they ever met.

Sure, someone’s feelings may get hurt if you leave them out of your story, but you need to ask yourself: Am I writing this for the people I’ve met in my life, or for a general audience? If the answer is the latter, then throwing in endless names of those who don’t play a key role in the story will alienate your audience, who will begin to feel as if reading the phone book might be just as interesting as continuing to plow through your book.

3. They start at birth and mention every life event in chronological order.

No doubt the easiest way to approach a memoir is to start at birth and move chronologically to the present.  But this rarely makes for the most engaging storytelling. Successful memoirs start with gripping scenes that may reference the beginning of the author’s life, but just as likely occur somewhere in the middle and even the end. (Think, The Glass Castle, which begins when the author is an adult, working for The New York Times; looking out the window of her taxi,  she sees her mother rummaging through a dumpster. Now that’s a beginning!) Remember: your task is to tell an interesting story, not just to chronicle every moment of your life from start to finish. Leave out inconsequential events and keep in mind that you’re building a story, not just making a list.

4. Worse than No. 3, they don’t organize the book at all.

Writing chronologically is immensely better than no organization at all. We often see memoirs by authors who have simply jotted down random memories as they come to them, leading to chaos on the page—and readers who discard the book long before reaching its end.

5. They lack artful writing.

Successful memoirs aren’t just a chronicle of events that, together, add up to the sum total of a person’s life. They are written with artful prose that often uses metaphor, simile, vivid descriptions and other compelling writing techniques. In addition, they offer keen insights, hard won by the author, into events long past. By contrast, many of the memoirs we receive are written in a chatty style that might appeal to those who know the author, but don’t offer the universal messages and fine writing that would attract a wider readership.

6. They expect a bestseller when the book is best viewed as a family keepsake.

There’s nothing wrong with cataloging your life as a document to leave to family and friends. The mistake independently publishing authors often make is in thinking these documents will be of interest to those outside their inner circle. Take stock of your story and level with yourself: Would you be interested in it if you hadn’t written it? If you’re an accountant who has led a run-of-the-mill life, the answer is likely “no.” If so, print 50 copies for your family and friends — and save yourself the regret of looking at stacks of unsold books sitting in the shadow of rakes and old bicycles every time you open the garage door.

BlueInk Review is a fee-based book review service devoted to self-published titles exclusively. For more news and writing and marketing tips, sign up for our mailing list. And be sure and visit us at https://www.blueinkreview.com

3 thoughts on “6 ways authors go wrong writing their memoirs

  1. As a book editor who sees many a memoir manuscript gone wrong, I’m putting a link to this article in the next issue of my newsletter, “The Writers Network News.” The final error some memoirists make is to think their books don’t need editing. Every book needs to be the best it can be, if writers hope people will read and enjoy it.

  2. Advice everyone can learn from.

    Recommended reading!

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