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Five Secrets to Writing a Fascinating Memoir

Former secret service agent Dan Emmett shares his five secrets to compiling a fascinating memoir—the same five tips he used when working on his memoir, I AM A SECRET SERVICE AGENT.

Writing a memoir is difficult and extremely time consuming. Like many things in life, if it were easy, everyone would do it. It is so difficult in fact, that there are in all likelihood more memoir drafts on paper, computer hard drives, and various memory devices than memoirs published.

The rewards of writing a published work, however, can be beyond imagination. No words can adequately describe the feeling of seeing one’s book on the shelves of a bookstore for the first time. It is like Christmas morning and your birthday all rolled into one.

This guest post is by Dan Emmett. After a stint in the Marine Corps, Emmett joined the United States Secret Service, serving on the elite Counter Assault Team before being selected for the most coveted of all assignments in the Secret Service, the Presidential Protective Division. After twenty-one years as an agent, Emmett retired from the Secret Service and joined the CIA for six more years.

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Today the author is an adjunct professor as well as a security consultant for both private industry and the United States government. His memoir, I AM A SECRET SERVICE AGENT, was released in June 2017.

While the writing of a memoir is difficult, it is obviously not impossible given the number published. To assist the aspiring new author, I have distilled the problem down to five basic areas for anyone bold or insane enough to venture into these waters:

1. Was Your Life Interesting to Anyone Other than You?

Before any would-be author writes the first word of a memoir, they must decide whether the details of their lives have been so interesting that if put to paper, people would wish to read the work.

By the time most of us have reached middle age, we possess an abundance of experience in a specific subject or simply life in general. However, are those experiences interesting to anyone else other than ourselves? While each of us may feel our lives have been utterly fascinating, others may not find our experiences as enthralling. The best way to determine whether your life is worthy of a formal memoir is to speak with people other than family or friends about the issue. They are best suited to give you an honest opinion on whether your proposed memoir would be of interest. While almost everyone has at least one book in them, and there is an audience for almost every book, be rational in your decision whether to move forward with a memoir.

2. Time and Place

Once a person decides to write a memoir, they must resign themselves to the fact that time is perhaps the most important element in any significant writing adventure. Someone once said, “The most difficult part of writing was putting backside to seat.” No truer words were ever spoken. Writing a memoir piecemeal, a few minutes each day, is almost impossible. Rather, it should be attacked with an aggressiveness and sense of purpose, which can include writing for hours and days at a time. It is helpful to set aside a specific time each day to write, but impromptu sessions based upon sudden ideas are fine too. Never let a spontaneous memory or idea go unwritten or it will surely be lost. In addition, while devoting a great deal of time to the work is essential, take a day or two off from writing when you develop a case of writer’s block. It is not uncommon to simply lose focus from time to time. A little time off will generally put you back on track.

Equally important as time is a proper environment to write in. While Hemingway frequently wrote standing up from any place he could set a typewriter, most of us do not work that way. To write effectively, it is best to segregate one’s self in a quiet room away from family, TV, pets, and all other distractions. Let everyone in the house know that you are not to be disturbed for anything other than a true emergency during writing hours. Along these lines, be aware that the writing bug can cause family rifts. Children sometimes do not understand why mom or dad disappear each evening into the study with orders not to be disturbed rather than spending time with them. Also, spouses and significant others may find it difficult sharing you with your new lover known as the memoir.

3. Make an Outline and Begin at the Beginning

Before beginning to write your masterpiece, it is best to begin by writing the table of contents, as this will serve as the all-important outline. I discovered that my writing moved in a logical, easy flowing sequence by deciding at what point in life the memoir was to begin from, then chronologically writing about each phase. For example, do you want to begin your story from the cradle, or perhaps merely mention those years briefly and move right into the main story? Once the outline or table of contents has been completed, you may then fill in each section as you wish. In other words, while the table of contents must be in order, you do not have to write your memoir in order from beginning to end. Simply fill in each chapter as you outlined them and it will all fall into place. The writer should always attempt, however, to keep the information flowing chronologically and in a logical fashion.

4. Learn From Others

While plagiarism is a major sin in any sort of writing, there is nothing wrong with examining the memoirs of others to help with your own ideas. Decide what memoirs are similar to what you are trying to write. If you are a pilot for example, study the memoirs of Chuck Yeager or John Glenn. If you are an actor, read memoirs of actors for ideas. In the end, your writings must be your own but there is no reason to re-invent the memoir wheel.

5. Consider a Ghost Writer

Perhaps you have an idea for a great memoir, but you are not much of a writer. Do not let your amazing, exciting life go unwritten simply because you cannot put a sentence together. If that is your situation, find someone who can write to help you polish and structure the work. Perhaps you know a former English major who can help, or simply a well-read person willing to review your work and help correct the draft. While a draft may be as ugly as you wish, the final product must be clean, grammatically correct, and readable. There is also the option of merely sitting down with a writer and speaking your memoir to them, then let that person do all the work. Writers can be contracted for a price, or if you are fortunate enough to sell a publishing house on your work, they will provide the ghostwriter at no charge.

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