How to write a memoir

We get loads of enquiries from writers wanting to write their own life story. Sometimes it’s just a personal project. Sometimes it’s for friends and family. Sometimes it’s intended for commercial publication.

But the question we’re asked is always the same.

Where do I start?

That’s an easy one. Follow the rules below.

Is your idea any good?

Learn the fundamentals of writing

1: Tend your expectations

Writing your life story down is massively worth doing, but please don’t think that it’s easy to get published. It’s not, if you’re after commercial publication. Only the best stories will get taken on by literary agents and publishers, and only then if they are really well written and well told.

Of course, you can always self-publish, too.

2: Keep it simple

Many memoirs fail because they try to over-complicate. Keep it very simple, but be sure to do the simple things well. That means:

  • Start at the beginning and move forwards chronologically from there. (If you’re not doing this, have a good reason, and be talented at it.)
  • Keep the reader in your shoes. Talk about what you saw, what you did, what you felt. Stay in the present moment of your story.
  • Don’t digress.
  • Don’t tell your story in diary form, unless you keep a journal as compelling as Sylvia Plath’s. A diary is a very stop-start type of experience. You need to write a flowing narrative that keeps the reader engrossed.
  • Don’t lecture.
  • Remember to stay descriptive. You may remember what Heathrow looked like in the 1950s, but most of us don’t, so tell us. That’s why we’re reading your book.

3: Research

Research the market. Find out how professional, published memoirs are written. See how those writers handle the things you need to deal with. One book we recommend you look at is Please Don’t Make me Go by John Fenton. We recommend this for two reasons. One: we worked on it with John, so we’re fond of it. Two: it’s a masterclass in memoir writing. Very simple, but very, very good.

Other memoirs of note might be Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth, Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Nafisi Azar, or Where am I now by Mara Wilson.

Look at these and other memoirs you like and ask yourself what all these have in common. It could be a poignant insight into off-piste topics (Mara Wilson’s musings as a former child star turned writer), or a knack for colouring the ordinary to make it unusual, compelling (Jennifer Worth’s years as a midwife in London’s East End).

There may be other great, well-written memoirs from celebrities you like. What Happened by Hilary Rodham Clinton might be a compelling memoir, but a readership was already in place for her. Publishers would have considered this (before looking at a manuscript) when offering her a book deal, so try to pick out books from relatively unknown writers (or unknown before publication) wherever you can when researching the market.

Also, do get a proper idea of length. For commercial publication, and to have a chance with a literary agent, you’ll probably want to produce a manuscript of between 70,000 and 100,000 words. If you are much longer or much shorter than that, you can pretty much forget about publication almost irrespective of content.

Finally, although you are writing about your own life, you may well find that some research really does wonders for what you are talking about. Let’s say you were working in Iranian oil fields in the 1950s. You’ll remember a lot, but you’ll have forgotten things, too. The more you can research that time, the more you may spark your memory.

4: Take care with your style

If you want to grip a reader, to make sure that your words and your story hold the attention, then you must take a lot of care with your style. That means you can’t just write as you speak.

It means you need to get in the habit of challenging yourself to write clearly, forcefully, visually, so the reader can see exactly what you are telling them.

For more tips on good writing, please check tips on prose style.

5: Seek feedback

Once you’re properly stuck into your project, why not come to us with the first 10,000 words or so?

That’s far enough into it that we can give you detailed advice on what is and isn’t working in your writing, and how to improve where needed. The advice will cost, but for a project as important as this, it can be worth the investment.

Alternatively, if you prefer to plough through and come to us with a complete manuscript, we’d be delighted to work with that, too.

We’ll tell you whether your writing is the sort that a literary agent or publisher might be interested in. If it is, then we can advise on next steps regarding agents.

6: Enjoy

Don’t let writing your life story become anything but a pleasure and a joy. This is your story. Enjoy telling it and be proud of it. You deserve it.

Your life story

If you’ve come through to this page, you’ve perhaps been through challenging times and have a story to tell. As far as publishing that story goes, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that the market for inspirational true life stories (also called inspirational memoirs) is still fairly hot.

The bad news – you guessed it – is that competition is intense and only the best manuscripts are taken on by literary agents. If you have a story to tell, please ask yourself these questions first:

  • How will you feel if your story never gets published, or even accepted by a literary agent?
  • How will you feel about commercializing your story?
  • Can you tell your story in an emotive and unique way to connect with readers?
  • How will you feel about doing PR and other publicity work?

If your responses to these questions are negative, then ponder before going any further. If your answer is that you still want to go ahead, then read on.

Cathy Glass shares her tips

Cathy Glass is bestselling author of seventeen books.

True life stories, or inspirational memoirs as they are also known, have enjoyed so much success in the last ten years that they have become a genre in their own right, often separate from biography.

My own first book Damaged, in which I told the story of a child I fostered, spent three months at the top of the bestseller charts. Since then Please Don’t Take My Baby, and Will You Love Me? have also been at number one, with all my other fostering stories going into the Top 10 for weeks. To date, I have sold millions copies of my books around the world, and they have been translated into ten languages.

Is there a formula for writing memoirs like there is for Mills and Boon romance? One that I can pass on? Not a formula as such, but having spent some time pondering how I write these books, I have come up with a few suggestions which may be of use if you are about to embark on memoir writing (more covered in my book).

If you are writing your own memoir, as opposed to ghost-writing for someone else, you will know your story better than anyone, and here lies your strength.

Write straight from your heart. Think back and remember. When, and where did it all begin? Where were you? What could you smell and hear? What could you see through the window? What was going through your mind? Be there and relive it, although this may be very upsetting if you have suffered; but writing is cathartic and writing it out is a therapy in itself.

Have an aim for your book (a remit) – a message you want to impart to your readers. It may be one of courage, faith, hope, or sheer bloody-mindedness. And remember when writing a true life story you have an emotional contract with your reader. You owe your reader honesty, and in return you will have your readers’ unfailing empathy and support.

I have been completely overwhelmed by the thousands of emails I have received from readers who felt they knew me personally and were part of my family from reading my books. Their words of encouragement have been truly wonderful and are much appreciated. Some of these emails are on the blog on my website.

Write scenes, not a monologue. Although the memoir is true it doesn’t have to be a diatribe of abuse and suffering. Write it as you would a gripping novel, building scenes, creating tension, and using cliff-hangers at the end of chapters to keep the readers’ interest. There will be highs and lows in your story, so keep the reader on a roller coaster of emotion. There will be some very sad scenes, some horrendous incidents, and some funny incidents. If there is constant and unrelenting degradation and abuse the reader will soon become desensitized and lose empathy, and therefore interest.

Make your book episodic, describing in detail events that are of interest or highly poignant to your story. Leave out the mundane unless it is an intrinsic part of building the scene. You can kaleidoscope years into a couple of lines, or spread half an hour into two chapters as necessary.

Your memoir should be approximately 85,000 words in length, with double line spacing, using a word processing package. If it is your first memoir, the agent and publisher may also want a detailed proposal, even if your book is already written.

For writing a proposal, there are guidelines to follow, as there are for getting a literary agent.

Read other books in the same genre, and consider how and why these books work.

Good luck with your writing, and most importantly, enjoy it!

Is your idea any good?

Learn the fundamentals of writing