If you want to use your diaries or journals to start a book-length memoir, I’m going to give you three simple steps to turning diaries into a book.

Many wannabe authors get book deals from writing memoir essays for places such as Narratively, and then use the essay as a bounce-off point to work on a book.

I’ve used journal entries to form scenes, chapters and more for both my published memoirs as well as essays I published before each book was written, and this is how I started at the very beginning of the process of writing those memoirs.

1: Find your transformation or ‘challenge’

The first thing you need to do is find in your journals where you’ve chronicled the challenge or transformation you’re exploring in the book, or areas where you wrote about a specific experience you want to draw upon.

This challenge or transformation will be the main theme of your book or essay. It could be a health crisis, or emigration, or grief, or wild romance, or a meeting with a mentor or another key relationship that has changed you such as a love affair, a big creative venture, or major career feat (maybe you landed a dream job on the opposite side of the world and had to learn a new language to take it up?)… or a family discovery that set you out on a quest.

This isn’t your personal opinion on something (this might come later), but this is the overarching theme or topic that will appeal to the widest amount of readers as possible. You need to find the beginning and end of that transformation.

Once you’ve found the theme or challenge you want to write about, you’re going to start mining your diaries for gold.

TIP: Once you’ve decided on your transformational journey / topic / challenge you’re going to explore in your book-length work, look for the journal entries you made at the beginning of that process.

2: Find your ‘point of view’ at the beginning of the transformation

Next, you’re going to look at who you were at the beginning of the ‘quest’ of the story. This is where you’re going to re-read your journals to see how your point of view has shifted and changed.

Your point of view is really important, because this is who you were when you began the journey. This is what will make up the beginning of the story.

Where were you living, what was your position in life, what was your relationship / career status, how were you feeling about life, what did you want, back then? What did you struggle with? What was ‘normal’ that then had to shift?

For example, if you are a Canadian woman who up and moved to Italy at age 25, who were you before you left Canada? What came before that huge decision? And what were your first impressions of Italy (could you even speak the language)?

Point of view is what draws the reader in.

The phrases and words you repeat around the subject is your ‘voice’ on the matter.

TIP: Find your journal entries around the time of the ‘beginning’ and highlight certain passages or phrases to use them to outline the first chapters of your memoir (or first paragraphs, if it’s an essay).

3: Mine your diaries for anecdotes, dialogue and details

Now that you’ve found the journal entries around the time of the challenge or quest, go through and highlight details that happened during key parts of the story, such as conflict, pain points or highlights. Details pull the reader into story.

For example, if you were the woman who emigrated to Italy from Canada, did you record any dialogue or first impressions of your new country during those first few weeks and months? What did your new country smell like, look like, feel like, in those early days? We’re incredibly perceptive when things are new.
Similarly, first impressions of people, jobs, or the details we notice when shocking things have changed, can really be amazing in stories and scenes. I remember visiting a friend’s house just after she’d had a serious accident. Overnight, she’d gone from life to death, but the milk in her fridge was still fresh.

Use those key words, phrases and dialogue to prompt writing certain scenes and plot out how you dealt with the key ‘conflict’ of the story.

4: Outline your story using the Map Your Memoir method I teach

Now that you have some material to begin with, you’ll need to do some further work to deepen the outline so that it can form the backbone of your daily or weekly draft routine.

I teach a 5-step process called Map Your Memoir that takes you through the 5 fundamentals to a compelling book-length narrative: You can learn more about the process here. It’s just one of the lessons within my larger programme, The Art of Memoir, and it’s the perfect place to start if you are right at the beginning of your writing journey. It works for any style of narrative nonfiction.

Inside Map Your Memoir you’ll learn storytelling basics including:

The Story Hook
The Two Desires
The 3 Act Structure
Your Universal Themes
Your Basic Premise (& crafting a ‘focus sentence’) from that

You can learn more about Map Your Memoir and sign up for the course here.