help writing a memoir


 

“What’s in it for me?” That’s a key question on the mind of a potential follower/book buyer who is interested in mind/body/spirit nonfiction, the type of book I work on. (Editors, like ghostwriters, specialize in certain genres.) Whatever you are writing, it should sit firmly in that sweet spot where you and your work meet up with someone else’s need or desire to become informed, amused,  inspired  invigorated, etc. When you conceptualize a memoir or self-help book based on your story of overcoming challenges, you need to remember the needs of your potential reader. She wants to learn how she, too, could be like you, and do what you have done. She wants to feel a bond with you. If you want to write a story about a series of terrible situations you survived, do that because it has meaning for you and because it can be a valuable step in your healing process. But don’t assume people want to share in your trauma. They have their own traumas to process. If you want to write mind/body/spirit nonfiction that inspires and educates others, you have to step back from your story and imagine what your reader wants to read. She wants to share in your recovery from abuse, low self-esteem, addiction, and so on. The story of your trauma should be just a small piece of the book you are writing for her.

 

self-help book or memoir

The story of your trauma should be just a small piece of the book you are writing for a reader of mind/body/spirit nonfiction.

 

I hear daily from would-be authors who want to write their story of trauma, and I tell them that if they want to write and inspire others, they need to focus on how they overcame the trauma. As a reader, I always want to know the answer to “What’s in it for me?” I hope the answer is, “An engrossing story that educates me on how I can overcome trauma in my own life.”

 

Karin Volo’s memoir, 1,352 Days, tells an absolutely harrowing tale of how she survived nearly four years of being locked up in a county jail fighting extradition to a foreign country where you’re presumed guilty, not innocent. When I worked with her as a developmental editor to tell the story in an inspiring way, I encouraged her to maintain riveting details about her painful experiences, including the shock and fear she felt when hauled away from an airport gate in handcuffs or locked into a cell with strangers who could have committed a horrific crime for all she knew. However, the story that resonated for me, and that I knew would resonate for readers, was the story of how she got through those years in which she was separated from her young daughters and family, how she kept sane and optimistic, and how she came to forgive herself and her ex-husband for their roles in bringing about this frightening series of events. The book is a memoir, but as a reader, you  will feel it’s about you and what you can do to own your role in bringing about difficulties in your life, and what you can do to change your habits of mind and behavior and let go of anger, resentment, and shame. It’s her memoir, but in essence, it’s about… YOU.

 

Other nonfiction books I’ve worked on are in the self-help vein, and have practical strategies, tips, exercises, and action plans for transforming your life. They incorporate stories and anecdotes, but those stories don’t go on page after page in exhaustive detail. I took my own story about discovering my son had sensory processing disorder, and learning how to help him, and wove it in my book Raising a Sensory Smart Child, but I kept the stories short. I deliberately tried to paint the scenes emotionally so other parents could relate to my experience. I made myself vulnerable on the page, because it’s always easier to take advice from an author who admits to her own failings. In short, in telling those stories, I was always aware of how my reader would feel reading them.
Here’s a trick for making sure your stories are as much about your reader as they are about you. Watch how often you write “I” compared to how often you write “you” or “we.” My general rules are as follows:

 

Consider using “we” to create a bond with your audience: “We parents know what it’s like…” “We all try and fail at times…” Consider using “you” to give advice or create an intimate conversation with the reader. “You can consult with an occupational therapist…” “You might want to look at how you approach your child when he’s totally absorbed in what he’s doing…” “You, too, might be feeling overwhelmed by all the choices…” If you use too much “we” language, it can start to sound as if you’re pontificating, so be cautious. In self-help, I favor “you” but will often switch from “you” to “we” when I’m concerned that the author might take offense at the assumptions I’m making about her.  Rather than write, “You play a role in your child’s inability to control his temper”–ouch!–I would write, “If our children are unable to control their tempers, we parents need to know that we play a role in that” or “We might hate to admit it, but we parents always play at least some role in our children’s inability…” I might stick with “you” language and write something like, “You may not realize it, but you could be playing a role in your child’s inability to control his temper.” People don’t like to read about their failings, and they don’t want you to be the expert on high telling them what they are doing wrong and never admitting you screw up, too, so make sure that your language reflects their need to feel connected to you instead of judged by you.

 

Never forget that you are writing for a reader, not just for yourself, and your writing will be much more engaging, and much more likely to attract followers to your work.

(P.S. Want more helpful advice on getting started writing and publishing your book? Sign up for my email newsletter!)

help writing a memoir


 

Have you completed a memoir, or written a lot of material, and become stuck? A developmental editor can help you figure out what you need to do and how you can reshape your material. I do this work and find it very rewarding because I love helping clients tell their stories. Whenever I can, I offer would-be authors advice on how to get unstuck in the process of writing their memoir or self-help book, and in that spirit, I’d like to share with you an interview I did with a colleague, Al Desetta.

Al Desetta is a ghostwriter/developmental editor I have referred people to when the project isn’t quite right for me or the timing isn’t going to work out given the client’s plans and my schedule. I asked him to shed some light on how he works so that people who follow my blog can learn from him.

 

Nancy: Many people are confused by what a developmental editor does. How would you describe what you do?

 

Al: A developmental editor helps an author develop the true potential in a completed or partially completed manuscript. Unlike a copyeditor who simply corrects a manuscript, a developmental editor looks for ways to help the author improve it, which typically includes helping the writer reorganize the book, rewrite parts of it, add new or additional information, cut or deemphasize parts of a manuscript, etc. For example, I often help memoir writers deepen certain aspects of their stories that they may have overlooked or not considered important. Writers—especially first time writers—are frequently too close to their experience to fully realize the true power in certain events. As a developmental editor, I help authors find the “diamond in the rough” of their experience.

 

Nancy: Who is your typical client? Why do they hire you? For instance, where are they in their process of writing?

 

Al: A typical client is a first-time author who has written a book, but who is uncertain about the quality of the work and seeks me out for objective and constructive feedback. They know they have the germ of a good idea, or even a pretty well-developed book, but they want someone who can offer a professional opinion on the state of the manuscript and ways to improve it.

developmental editor

Stuck on writing your memoir? Hire a developmental editor to evaluate it and help you write it! Developmental editor Al Desetta explains.

 

Nancy: You ghostwrite and you do developmental editing. How do you help a client decide which service is the right one for that particular project?

 

Al: Usually clients are pretty clear about which service they want. Ghostwriting is for people who don’t have the time or skills to write their own books. Developmental editing is for authors who have written their own books, but who are stuck in some way. Sometimes developmental editing also includes some ghostwriting. I’m helping an author right now who has partially completed a memoir. Some of what I do with her is developmental editing—I ask her questions and point out areas where she can improve and develop the manuscript. But I also do a little ghostwriting to help in the process—I interview her about aspects of her life, write chapters based on the interviews, and she then revises these chapters and adds more information.

 

Nancy: When you get full or partial manuscripts from a new client working on a nonfiction book, what are the most common problems you see?

 

Al: Two common problems are overwriting and lack of a workable structure. These problems often surface in memoirs, but are also true of most nonfiction books.

 

Memoir writers often tend to overwrite—they are so close to their experience that they don’t know how to manage or shape it. They think they can write their way out of this problem, but that only compounds the problem. A memoir can’t be about an entire person’s life—it has to focus on an aspect of a person’s experience. What you leave out is as important as what you decide to include.

Related to this is the importance of structure. When an author doesn’t have a workable structure or organization, it’s like driving without a map. Or, to use an analogy that a writing teacher once told me, you set out rowing on the ocean and you lose sight of land. And you keep rowing, hoping to sight land on the other side. But pretty soon you realize you’re lost on the ocean and more rowing (or more writing) won’t get you back to land. Having an organization or structure at the start helps a writer from getting lost, especially in memoir writing, where the author has access to great amounts of information about her life, but often isn’t sure what to include or how to organize it.

 

Nancy: Are there any recent developmental editing projects that stand out for you that self-help mind/body/spirit or inspirational memoir writers could learn from? Any lessons you drew from these recent projects, or were reminded of?

 

Al: One lesson that always stands out is how gratifying the process can be, for both writer and editor. People have life experiences or ideas that they’ve always wanted to write about, but all authors encounter obstacles as they try to write about them. Right now I’m ghostwriting a memoir for a mother and son who were held captive for months by Islamic terrorists in the Philippines. It’s been a wonderful experience to help them create the book they’ve always wanted to write, a process that has also helped them to heal.

 

As a developmental editor and ghostwriter myself, I understand Al’s enthusiasm for helping people to tell stories that lead to healing for themselves and others. If you are eager to get unstuck in writing your memoir, consider contacting a professional, experienced developmental editor to get you back on track.

 

Al Desetta’s website, where you can learn more about his services and the kinds of books he has worked on, is www.AlDesetta.Com