When Writing a Memoir, First Consider How to Tell It


John DeSimone is a published memoir ghostwriter and novelist. He has successfully ghostwritten more than a dozen books, taught writing at the university level, and edited several hundred others, both fiction and non-fiction. His passion is helping individuals shape their stories into compelling reads. Find out more about him at www.johndesimone.com.

When Writing a Memoir, First Consider How to Tell It

By John DeSimone

Recently a friend of mine who is writing a memoir told me about a conversation he had with an acquisitions editor at a writer’s conference. After he had chatted her up about his story of the unfortunate death of his sister, one he thought as a teen he could have prevented, she stated flatly, “I’d be interested—if it’s about grief.”

A memoir about grief—aren’t there enough of them already?

Evidently not according to that editor. Despite the discouragement that literary agents pass out like dictates from heaven that memoirs by non-celebrities are impossible to sell, publishers are always looking for well-told stories that fit into a category they know how to edit and market.

That’s why this bit of advice from an acquisition editor is so relevant to anyone thinking of writing a memoir. Not that you need to write a memoir on grief because that particular editor said she was interested, but consider her advice in a wider sense. Before you think about pursuing your dream of writing your story, think about what story your writing. Why? Because that’s how the people on the other end of the writing process, those who will publish and read it, will market and find your book.

Categories and Narrative Arcs

Memoirs are theme driven stories about our lives. Memoirs are about one story and one story alone—the theme. They are not a comprehensive compilation of incidents—that’s the territory of the biography. Rather, memoirs are selective, they dramatize experience, they are based on memories, and they have a strong narrative arc.

A memoir with an identifiable narrative arc will be easy for publishers to fit it into a particular category.

A story with a narrative arc takes a character through a series of events, beginning with something tragic, happy, unsettling, or whatever—that impels the character to seek change; scenes lead to a rising action that results in a positive or negative conclusion. Most but not all memoirs end with a positive change that places the author in an entirely different place than in the beginning. (I’ve written extensively on narrative arcs in memoirs if you care for more.)

A successful arc creates momentum, the sense that the story is leading somewhere, and not just a series of vignettes or essays about your life, and it ends with a conclusion that is logical based on the stories events.

A story of escape has a character reaching safety, a triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles. A story of healing has left the author in a new state of health, a victory over sickness. Or maybe not. It may be a story of dealing with the inevitability of death, and so it does end with death, but the lessons learned are transformational. A story of transformation has to lead to a new person, spiritually, emotionally, or whatever the case may be. And so one.

The arc ends up establishing the category of memoir.  

Memoirs Fit into Categories

Editors buy well-written memoirs that develop a theme that will fit into an established category already on the bookshelf; every book is sold through placing it in an identifiable category. Marketers and search engines need to know where it fits so readers can find it. With the dominance of Amazon or Google categories have become more important than ever before.

It is true that certain categories, such as recovery from divorce or an abusive marriage, have exhausted the market and agents turn them down for that reason. That’s why I suggest working with a memoir ghostwriter who knows how to shape your story for maximum effect. There are ways to develop a story that can save you the anguish of rejection if you write it from the wrong angle.

Think of the memoir, Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. She had gone through a painful divorce, leaving her lonely and depressed. Knowing that surviving divorce memoirs is a saturated category, she chose a different angle. The theme of her memoir didn’t focus on the divorce directly but on finding new love. Using the structure of a travel memoir, she turned her painful experience into an exciting tale that bridged two categories: travel and recovery; it became an instant sensation. The story not only captured the imagination of editors but readers as well, eventually becoming a hit movie.

Should you have such focused attention on the market while you wrangle the details of your life into a meaningful tale? As a memoir ghostwriter, I say most emphatically, yes. I talk to people all the time who want to write their story. Your experiences are valuable and should not get lost in the unpublished world by not shaping your story correctly. If you use a narrative arc that allows the book to slip neatly into an identifiable category, it will appeal to readers who seek out your thematic concerns. And if the story proves exciting, it can succeed. And in the hands of a competent writer to assist, it likely will succeed.

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Marcia Layton Turner


  1. Nancy Peske on August 30, 2017 at 2:46 pm

    Great piece! I agree that theme and narrative arc are crucial. Also, doing a comparative books list will help. If you want to focus on the theme of grief, see what other grief memoirs are out there–what makes yours different? I also tell my clients that we need a pitch, not just a one-word theme, to focus the memoir around. That pitch is the narrative arc.

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