How to write a memoir essay

If you’ve been reading my emails and posts for awhile you’ll know my favourite strategy for getting a book deal.
Why is it my favourite strategy?
Because it’s empowering! Let’s face it, publishing can be slow, elitist, confusing, and secretive!

My favourite strategy for getting a book published is not…

  • Spending five years on your manuscript,
  • Spending two years on your book proposal….
  • Paying for endless critiques or constantly workshopping either of the two….

My favourite strategy is to leverage a published non-fiction piece – say, a blog post, an essay or an article – and turn it into a book deal.

Why?

This is how I found an agent and publisher for A Letter From Paris, it’s how dozens of authors I know have secured incredible book deals. You also earn money (if you pitch to a paying publication), improve your writing skills, build your platform and make impressive connections, learn a lot, and more.

Publishing a non-fiction piece either in a top publication or even a lesser-known outlet is also a great way to boost your writing profile (AKA that dreaded thing called ‘platform’ for the introverts among us!), gauge interest in your memoir topic or particular threads of the story, improve your google-ability (yes this IS a thing – be assured any agent or editor will google you before they do anything else!), add fantastic clips and extra material to your book proposal, and finesse your story and wirting skills.

So how do you write a memoir essay?

In this post I’m going to give you the key points you need to remember to write a memoir essay.

First – in case you’re wondering my credentials – I’ve published thousands of articles, blogs, essays and features over the last twenty years. My recent essays are here, if you’d like a read.

1: Clarify your Hook

The most important thing you need to get right for your memoir essay is also the most important thing you need in a book-length memoir: a strong hook.

Put simply, a hook is something unique, unusual, contrasting, strange or compelling about your specific personal story. I’ve talked about the hook in many of my blogs and webinars, but really, your hook is that part of your story that your friends say “WTF?” when you explain that the same day you lost your dog and your husband, you won the lottery.

It’s that part of your story that beggars belief but also elicits intrigue from your audience. It raises questions and interest.

Of course, you may not have lost your dog and your husband but also won the lottery on the same day, but the most human experiences can be given a strong hook. Find a common experience – right now, it’s the global pandemic. Throw in something unique to contend with or to assert: For example – you were on your second date when the lockdown was announced, and suddenly you had to decide whether to move in together or risk breaking the law or breaking up.

See what I mean?
Practise finding your story hook by talking about your story with friends. What do they find most compelling? What is the question at the heart of your hook? You will spend the rest of the essay or article or series of blog posts exploring this.

Tip: Don’t just say “the essay is about my mother.” Or – “the essay is about my hunt for a house”. There has to be some kind of contrast. Even in a lyrical, prosaic essay, you need to explore the internal grapplings with something  – well, gripping.

Bonus tip: Start observing yourself when you watch a movie – how is the beginning of the story presented? How quickly do you learn the hook? Usually, it’s right, front and centre. For example: The Bourne Identity – Jason Bourne wakes on a boat in the mediterannean with amnesia, and appears to have bullets in his body. Layers of intrigue… (I love the Bourne movies!)

2: Include both an inner and outer journey

Christopher Vogler in one of my favourite writing books, The Writer’s Journey says:

“Good stories show two journeys, outer and inner…”

When I read a compelling memoir essay or article, I’m struck by how the narrator weaves the inner journey with what’s going on in their physical or outer world, and how the two reflect and build upon eachother.
Have you read this essay by Lauren Hough? What’s so human, and so compelling (and by the way, it led to a book deal for her forthcoming memoir from Vintage!), are the contrasts between her physical and working environment (being a “cable guy”) and the internal life she leads: left-leaning, queer, empathetic…
These contrasts keep you reading (as well as the vivid examples she gives!). The characters she meets in her job (external) show who she is and what she believes (internal). Do you see what I mean?

Coming back to the hook element – it’s not enough to ‘explain’ something that happened to you – eg. I did this, I went here, I felt like this…. Plenty of these pieces get published. They’re clickbait, they’re quickly-forgotten, and you don’t want them on your clip list. Instead you need to deep-dive into how the external influenced the internal – to show those two journeys, inner and outer… To explore your own empathy, if you will.

Tip: Use the outer to provoke the inner. What do I mean? If you’re writing a story about meeting your real father for the first time at age 19 in a dive bar in New Orleans, relate the external reality of being in New Orleans with why and how you came to be meeting your father there…

3: Only include what’s relevant

I’ll come back to this, but a key pointer to an early versus a later draft is including relevant material. Essays need to be clean and concise – you don’t have an entire chapter to introduce a character, you have a few sentences or a paragraph. Even in longform essays, the story needs to be relatively tight.
So, if your essay is about meeting your father in New Orleans (as the above example suggests), only include anecdotes, references, observations and material that relates to said meeting or how you dealt with said meeting.

Tip: Often (always?) you need to write out a whole heap of irrelevant material before you can get rid of it. You need to ‘write’ your way into the story. That’s fine! But make sure you leave it for a couple of days so you can assess what needs to go, when you come back to edit it.

4: End on a summary and/or show a clear transformation

The most important part in a memoir essay is that you show some sort of transformation in your character or point-of-view or change from beginning to end of the story. While you might be exploring a topic, question or theme in your story, you need to show that you, as a character, have changed or at the very least learnt and reflected from your journey.
If it’s a non-fiction article, the ending will generally be a summary of what you’ve learnt, but with memoir it can be a little more subtle. You could end with a surprise realisation or moment of movement, to leave the reader on a high note.

Extra tips:

  • Never ever send your first draft to an editor – leave your memoir essay or article for a few days and come back to it.
  • Get some feedback. Truly – if one piece could mean you start fielding offers from agents and editors, wouldn’t you want to make it the best it can be?
  • I’m currently offering written feedback on essays and articles up to 2500 words for $75 and you can book here. 
  • Edit for repetition and relevance: It always amazes me how much I repeat certain words in my writing. You only see this when you’ve left it a few days, and if you use that wonderful ‘search and replace’ tool in Word.  So look for repetition of certain words and delete or change them, if need be. Be ruthless.
  • Relevance – As I touched on, above, if you’re aiming for a word count of 1200, for example (very standard for essays in publications such as the New York Times Ties section), and trying to lop 400 words off, what is LEAST relevant chunk to the main question or theme of your article? Remember: You can include the whole story in your book. This is a strategic published piece to elicit interest and engage in the most compelling elements of your story.
  • Don’t take a huge ‘run up’ – Just as a huge issue many editors see in memoir manuscripts submitted to publishing houses is that they take too long to get to the point of the story– so you should jump right into the inciting incident, or compelling event, in the beginning of your essay. Don’t write three paragraphs of beautiful poetry about what you did the day before the big event. You don’t have a lot of words to waste in an essay or article.
  • Study other essays – this should really be my number one piece of advice. Whatever outlet you choose to pitch to, study what has been published there and what has gone well.
  • Read it out loud. This is a great tip one of my first newspaper editors gave me (particularly when you have a low word count). Reading out loud helps you see what needs to go, and what doesn’t work, very quickly.Want to know how to pitch an essay, and what to do when it’s actually published? I include all of this in my self-study course: Essay to Book deal.

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2020-05-22T21:08:52+10:00

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