Your No. 1 Challenge If You're Writing Memoir

Last week I taught an online class about story openings for novel & memoir. Everyone was invited to submit their first pages for a rather public critique.

I tweeted some of the best tips, which you’ll find at the end of this
blog post.

Here I’d like to share the most common
challenge I see with memoirs and novels. First up: memoir. (Later: novels.)

Most Common Memoir Challenge
far the most common problem is an unrelenting focus on the visceral
experience of personal pain and anxiety—usually related to the death of
a loved one, the tragedy of illness, the short-term and long-term
effects of abuse.

There was one memoir opening that held
promise—it was about a woman exposing puppy mills. However, the
first page was consumed with her own fears, anxiety, and horror—all in
telling mode—rather than showing us a world we may not have experienced

memoir, you use yourself as the lens through which readers see the
world. You can change the focus or direction of the lens (your eye or
your perspective), but it’s not wise to consistently focus on the lens
itself—or, the inner workings and specifics of your turmoil. It’s
much better to write scenes and describe experiences to evoke a feeling
in the reader, rather than tell them how to feel, or to navel gaze.

The Hardest Truth About Memoirs:
Your Work Isn’t Publishable Just Because You Survived Something Difficult

I think Rachelle Gardner expressed it best on her
recent post, where she responds to a woman who isn’t sure if her story
of surviving cancer twice would be considered marketable

I’m sure you know, at any given time there are over 5 million Americans
living with cancer. Every one of them is living an incredible story, so
this is not to reduce the importance of yours, only to say that many
people choose to write their survival stories in book form, so only a
fraction will be published. …

Memoir is a demanding genre; it
will only sell if the writing is stellar, and the story is crafted in
way that is very compelling. It usually needs a unique hook or a fresh
spin on a common topic. Some of the bestselling memoirs of the
personal-adversity type either give the topic a humorous spin, are
authored by a celebrity, or are simply beautifully written.

a memoir is not just about your story. It’s about how that story is
written. Lots of people have a story similar to yours; only a few will
be able to write it in such a way that it could become a bestselling

Rachelle has a wonderful way of
communicating with writers and making difficult concepts easily
understood. If you’d like to get more of her expert advice, I highly
recommend her online class tomorrow with Writer’s Digest, How Do Editors and Agents Decide?

Tweeted Tips From My First-Page Critiques (#wdtip)

(Follow Jane on Twitter.)

Problematic: Opening a memoir w/death of loved one and/or funeral. Will it be anything more than your own cathartic ride?

I feel anxious about stories that start in the conditional perfect. Just get to the REAL world, please!

Avoid character dialogue that offers mini-biographies of people (to fill reader in on back story & history).

I prefer characters’ thoughts be integrated right into POV of story – not separated out in italics as separate phenomenon.

especially distracting when story is told in 3rd person POV, but
character’s thoughts are italicized in 1st POV. Mind jumble.

peeve: When writers use company names & brand names liberally in
their descriptions/characterizations. Feels like crutch.

story openings w/characters asleep or waking up. Almost as annoying:
Openings w/characters watching other characters sleep.

Most difficult part of 1st page critiques: Many writers have not found rhythm yet. Best way to illustrate:

Problematic: Opening up w/character’s inner monologue, contemplating themselves/life. Are you as good as Dostoevsky?

I love an opening that in 300 words can make me really fall in love with (or hate) a character. I’m hooked!

I do not recommend you start your story w/character thinking, “This isn’t happening.” (This opening is in fact quite common!)

Very tough: Starting your story w/dialogue & little/no indication of who is speaking or what context is. Readers get lost.

writers overwrite. More detail/description, more explaining than
needed. Even I do it. But you have to go back & cut cut cut!

favorite opening: Description of perfect weather outside, w/character
waking in bed, peering out window, thinking about day.

For those following my tips tonight, you can read my apology for them here!

Photo credit: open-arms

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30 thoughts on “Your No. 1 Challenge If You're Writing Memoir

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  3. Jennifer (Conversion Diary)

    "By far the most common problem is an unrelenting focus on the visceral experience of personal pain and anxiety…"

    So true. It really seems like there’s something about writing your life story that makes a writer drawn to focus on the pain. Instead of a title page on my memoir, I have the words "THIS IS NOT A SWEEPING EPIC," so that that’s the first thing I see when I open up the Word doc. I’m trying to keep it light and humorous, but for whatever reason I naturally slide into this serious, angsty voice, even when writing about periods of my life that were generally pretty happy. I can’t figure out why I do that. Maybe because it’s easier than doing humor and/or lighter writing well? Hmm.

    (For the record, I’m leaving this comment while procrastinating on writing said memoir.) 🙂

  4. Jane Friedman

    @Pamela – Excellent!

    1. For an online workshop, I highly recommend the Advanced Novel Writing Workshop with Mark Spencer. You get to work on about 200 pages of your manuscript, and you can keep repeating the workshop as often as needed until you feel you’re done.

    I haven’t heard anything good or bad about Writer’s Relief; you may want to ask over at the WD forums at:

    2. Yes, definitely agree with the women’s fiction category for you!

  5. Pamela Hutchins

    Thanks, Jane. This blog was a help to me, especially taking a look at the opening of Eat, Pray, Love. I have started incorporating your suggestions, and I have thought of two questions I should have asked you:
    1. Do you have a Writers Online Workshop or something similar you would recommend for me that would allow me to work through the whole book with someone? (I also saw, thoughts?) My goal is to not burn submission bridges, but instead on this first novel to get a professional opinion for additional work I can do on it from someone who does a whole read-through.
    2. Given my Under the Tuscan Sun/How Stella Got Her Groove Back vibe, do you think I am correct in classifying this as women’s fiction?
    Feeling like the first timer that I am,
    Pamela Hutchins

  6. Jane Friedman

    @Everyone – Very much appreciate your comments, and letting me know more about the challenges you’re facing and what information is helpful.

    @Karin – I recommend looking at THE POWER OF POINT OF VIEW by Alicia Rasley.

    Here’s an excerpt from POWER OF POINT OF VIEW:

    Another good one is CHARACTERS, EMOTION, AND VIEWPOINT by Nancy Kress.

  7. Karin Gutman

    Jane, I really appreciated your comment about switching POVs. I have been studying POV in fiction quite a bit lately, and am wondering if you could recommend a "book on writing" that explores this subject in depth? Thanks for any guidance.

  8. Lynn Henriksen

    I especially like what you said about memoir writers using themselves as the lens to see, but not navel gaze. I’ll use that in my next Tap Memory & Write Memoir workshop and credit you, if that’s okay with you.

  9. Theresa Milstein

    This is a timely post.

    I belong to a critique group in which one person is writing a straight memoir, while two others are writing fiction based on their own lives. I’m going to pass this post on to them.

    For the past several months, I’ve been considering writing a memoir. Although it’s a hot genre, it’s a crowded one. I’m going to refer to this before I embark on it, to make sure my story is ready to be written.

  10. Debra Marrs

    Bless you, Jane, for outing the most common frailties, challenges and editors’ pet peeves in memoir. As an editor too, we can all preach these same prescriptives you mention over and over. Finally, when it’s said by someone of publishing importance (you, in this case) and with the influential power of a prospective agent (Rachelle as quoted), perhaps memoirists will hear it as the truth rather than writing blindly into the dark. As always, thank you for your straight-forward candor. I love how you write it real!

    @DebraMarrs (on Twitter)

  11. Jane Friedman

    Well, you’ve raised an interesting issue — it appears that you may be switching POVs frequently in this work. That can be difficult to pull off unless you restrict each scene to only one POV. I recommend you read up on POV issues in fiction.

    That aside, here’s what I’d recommend:

    She felt his beady brown eyes look on her, up and down and all around. He turned his head slightly to the side and sniffed. His eyes blinked at her with lustful admiration. Oh, God, to be invisible right now, to be a man right now would be good. A tiny trickle of sweat rolled down the nape of her neck.

  12. Cindy

    Here’s an example of me having a hard time editing to remove the italics.

    His beady brown eyes looked at her, up and down and all around. He turned his head slightly to the side and sniffed. His eyes blinked with lustful admiration.
    [ITALIC] Oh, God, to be invisible right now, to be a man right now would be good. [ITALIC END] A tiny trickle of sweat rolled down the nape of her neck.

  13. Jane Friedman

    Here’s a straightforward example:

    Jody looked at the bread on the shelf. [ITALIC] I can’t believe how stale and disgusting that is. [ITALIC END] He went to the store for more bread.

    Jody looked at the bread on the shelf. Ugh, it was stale and disgusting. He went to the store for more bread.

  14. Cindy

    Jane – I am still pondering the advice below because I actually do this. In 3rd person, how do you place a character’s direct thoughts if not in italics???

    "It’s especially distracting when story is told in 3rd person POV, but character’s thoughts are italicized in 1st POV. Mind jumble."


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