(Or: The glue that holds your Memoir together)
Not everyone writes their memoir in a chronological order. Often, we write as we remember. But once we’ve written some or all of the chapters of our lives, we find ourselves with a puzzle. What we have is a bunch of stories without a main thread tying them together into one journey.
How to put some order on the disorder? Make a single narrative out of the wonderful chaos of our memories?
Here are 6 tips to help you transform what you’ve written into one story — the powerful story of your remarkable life.
1: My first suggestion: Leave it, then Re-read it. This time, you’re looking for the theme/s and progression of your story. Try this process:
- Put the manuscript aside; leave it alone for some days.
- Now reread, making notes on emerging themes and subject matter as you go along.
- Sort the material according to time periods/ (your) personal growth/main characters/places/ events. Review themes again.
- Decide what goes into the Beginning, Middle and End of your story
- Put the manuscript aside again; leave it alone for a day or more.
- Re-read. Confirm/ finalize your themes this time
- Write a Synopsis of your Story
- Revise your Table of Contents.
So far, you’ve identified the major theme/s of your manuscript.
You’ve also created a rough structure identifying the progression of the overall story (what goes into the Beginning, Middle and End).
And – hooray – you’ve written the Story Synopsis.
These will help focus your story and keep you on track.
Your next step is to review your Table of Contents.
- How does your TOC compare with the basic structure (beginning, middle and end) that you’ve now identified for your Memoir?
- What chapters need to be moved around, added, or changed to comply with your basic structure?
- Reinforce Your Main Theme/s.
With a new and improved Table of Contents, you’ve taken another giant step forward. It’s now time to make sure your main themes are reinforced in your manuscript. There are several ways to do this. Here are some:
- An introductory letter to your reader. This is where you tell the reader why you have written this book, and what you hope they will gain by reading it.
- Parts. Your story may be best sectioned into “parts” (Some books have 3 parts (think of a 3-act play) but I’ve seen memoirs that have up to 5 parts. Each section builds on the other by telling a part of your life story that is focused around a particular subject, event, person, place or period of your life. (See 1c above.)
- Introductory notes, poems, quotes or letters to the reader. Usually placed at the start of each “part” of your book, these hint at what’s contained in the subsequent part and why it matters.
- The Front Cover – A visual icon for your book’s content.
- Photos. Choose photos or other images that illustrate your story and help carry out your theme.
- Make Linkages
- Book Title. The title is the first thing the reader notices. It should intrigue/ invite the reader to open the book. The title, often shown at the top of each page, also reminds readers, as they read, of what the book is about.
- Part and Chapter Titles. The same goes for the titles of each part of your book. Even chapter titles can help to maintain the links to your journey.
- Chapter endings. The last line or paragraph of each chapter can help to build anticipation for the next, and make the connection seamless in the reader’s mind. E.g. “As the door closed behind him, I knew that I was in for trouble.”
- Chapter beginnings. You can start a chapter by referring to something that happened in the one immediately before (or earlier), thus creating a link between the two. E.g. “I didn’t expect to return to Mandy’s home. But the very next day, that’s exactly what happened.”
- Foreshadowing. Similar to ‘c’ directly above, but may be used at any point in a chapter. To foreshadow is to hint at something to come, without saying exactly what. Useful for building suspense, too.
- The Leitmotif. A recurring “theme”, something you use over and over for effect. This could be a reference to a certain quote or song lyrics; the repeated use of a particular saying; a running gag of some sort.
- Anchors. Some books use particular venues or group settings to which the writer always returns. I use my kitchen and garden in my book “An Honest House” as anchors for the story. I also use the Sunday dinner where my family reunites and shares stories. Here, the use of recurring characters is particularly helpful. (In my book, it’s my family members.)
- References. Reference a person, place, time or thing that appeared in an earlier chapter. Be sure, when you initially do this, to reintroduce the person, place or thing in a few words, as your reader may have forgotten. E.g. “My favourite cousin Elaine”. Time references are also useful. E.g. “This was back in the summer of 1986, the season when I had my first kiss.”
- Create Opportunities to Reinforce the Main Theme/s (relates to 2 above)
- Your Book’s Opening. Whether it’s called a Preface, an Introduction or a “Letter to My Readers”, this is a good place to introduce the main themes of your book.
- Your Book’s Closing. A closing chapter may be used to remind readers of the main themes you wanted to impart to them, and may include the life lessons you have learned, as well as a look to the future.
- Intros to Each Part. Whatever device you use to introduce each part of your book (if the book is sectioned into “parts”) may be tailored to reinforce the theme of the following chapters, as well as their connection to your book’s overall theme.
- Lessons learned. These may be placed periodically throughout the book, or at the end of each part, or the end of the book. (See ‘b’, above.) It’s your choice – as long as it doesn’t throw the journey of your story off its track.
- Images. Use documents and images that are relevant to the overall theme of the book, and/or to that part where they are used.
- Appendices. The same applies as in item ‘d’, immediately above.
- Have a Consistent Writing Style – Your Writing “Voice’
- Your own unique style of ‘talking’ to your reader. It should be consistent. As people read your story, they become used to your style and more comfortable with it.
- Your choice of words and how you put them together. (Relates to ‘a’ above.) This might include a special ‘turn of phrase’ that’s unique to you.
- Rhythm. One of my editors calls this “the music”. It’s the rhythm you create by the way you pace the storytelling; the length of sentences and paragraphs; use of dialogue, etc. Is it a gentle and lyrical rhythm, quick and to-the-point or a mixture?
- The relationship you want to create with the reader. Do you talk to the reader directly or not? Is your style casual and breezy or formal? Witty or serious?
Written by Cynthia Reyes, author A Good Home and An Honest House. Cynthia originally wrote this list of tips and reminders for the students in her Memoir Writing class.