WRITING

5 Proven Steps to Writing New York Times Bestselling Memoirs

I’m a 3x New York Times bestselling memoirist, and this is how I organized my books that sold millions.

Elisabeth Ovesen
Sep 2, 2020 · 16 min read
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Embattled writer, Hank Moody, played by David Duchovny, in Californication (Showtime)

Introduction

In the following text, I’ve broken down the five steps I used to organize my thoughts and content before starting my New York Times bestselling memoirs. The steps in this guide are simplified and carefully curated to challenge you to the point of completion. I’ve put these steps into comprehensive terms that will help you get started quickly and in a way that will yield immediate results, even if you’ve never written anything longer than a text or a blog post.

So, grab a notebook, a pen, and a pencil. I find that sketching the details of a book by hand, creating bubble graphs, or itemized lists help me organize my thoughts and the project's trajectory. Follow the guidelines below and write down your ideas as you go. Let’s get started!

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A scene from Mommy Dearest (Mara Hobel and Faye Dunaway), a film based on a memoir of the same name by Christina Crawford, the adoptive daughter of Joan Crawford.

1. Time, Theme, Point, and Tone

Choose a Time

Choose a Theme

Choose a Point

Choose a Tone

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Charlie Conspiracy, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX Networks)

2. Lists, Arcs, and Making it Interesting

Make a List

For example, maybe your memoir begins with your tumultuous relationship with your parents as you entered into your rebellious teen years. It carries your readers into the day you met the new boy in school, John, and how you never left each other’s sides after that day. But then, your parents’ divorce ripped you away to another state and a life without him. The story would progress from there and discuss how you lost touch with your first love, graduated high school and then college — so on and so forth––until the day you were both reunited during a trip to Paris with your theatre troupe.

Whatever the story, make a list of the important events that made it all happen. I recommend a list of at least twenty-five events, giving them short, descriptive names such as, The Teen Years, Meeting John, The Divorce, Moving to Wyoming, et cetera.

Your list should also be in chronological order. Write the events in your notebook and number them. I recommend you write the numbers in ink and the events in pencil, as it is not unlikely you will need to add, delete, or change the order of your list as you are forming it.

Take your time with this list. Be sure you are thinking about and including every necessary event and that they are in the correct order because this list will become your table of contents.

Following the Narrative Arc

  1. Exposition: This part of your arc is where you begin, introducing your characters and the general setting of your story.
  2. Rising Action: This part of your arc is a series of events that complicate things for the protagonist of your story, which in the case of a memoir, would be you.
  3. Climax: Your story’s climax is the greatest point of tension; this is basically when the proverbial shit hits the fan for the main character.
  4. Falling Action: This is where the tension begins to release, and the protagonist moves toward the resolution.

This is the elementary blueprint for every story, whether in fiction or non-fiction literature, television, or film scripts. The formula always works because it makes a story simple to follow and understand as it adheres to the most rudimentary of senses and common experiences.

The true mark of an extraordinary writer, however, is his or her ability to stray from the basic narrative arc format and tell a story in a new and interesting way. But, even then, there are rules for breaking the rules. You can’t just do what you want, how you want. Every style, no matter how abstract, has a formula that makes it work. Using the four aforementioned points in your arc will help keep you on track.

Make It Interesting and Relevant

More than that, ask yourself if your story is relevant. It’s nearly impossible to tell a story that’s not relevant to someone, somewhere on the planet, so I guess the questions would be, how relevant is your story, and to how many people? If you were to tell a narrative about your insane and sometimes inappropriate love of dairy products, for instance, I’m sure other people in the world would share your obsession, but how many people would that be, exactly?

I think it would be safe to assume that a large portion of the population isn’t actually in love with dairy — not enough to read an entire book about how you grew up on a farm and slept in the barn every night, next to your favorite cow, Bessie. So, the next question you may want to ask yourself is, how many people do you want to reach with your story? Be honest with yourself about the potential interest. If you insist on telling your tale, be clear on how widespread or limited the interest in its topic might be.

There are certain topics we all know to attract a wide variety of readers — topics like sex, ofcourse. We know there are amazing love stories and harrowing tales of survival that attract voracious readers, as well, and everyone loves a story of self-discovery, coming of age, and the trappings of traveling to foreign lands. A quick Google search can reveal other books and even social groups, websites, and blogs dedicated to the theme of your memoir. Look it up and see what sort of conversations people are already having about teenage love stories or exploring one’s sexuality, for example. The people who are already buying similar books and having related conversations are your potential audience!

What is the Takeaway?

One of the best cliffhangers of all time — the final scene of The Sopranos. Make your readers feel the way you felt watching this.

3. Hanging, Deciding, Placing, and Preparing

Leave Them Hanging

There are many tricks and tips for coming away from the usual narrative arc, each of them more complex than the last. My favorite deviation is a simple one that works every time, which is why I organize each of my memoirs in this particular fashion. Simply put, bring your climax to the front of your manuscript and start your book there.

Deciding and Placing Your Climax

Out of twenty-five items, you don’t want your climax to be number twenty-three on the list. If the highlight of your memoir isn’t somewhere between chapters thirteen and seventeen, it’s in the wrong place, and you should take a fresh look at your table of contents. The most complex part of your story should be as close to the middle of your manuscript as possible so that there is sufficient build-up and more than enough time to reach your resolution.

Between your major conflict and resolution, there will most likely be a few bumps in the road and times when the main character will fall back into old patterns or happen upon a few patches of bad luck. So, be sure to leave enough room to address all of that.

Preparing to Write Your Climax

If this life-changing event is, for instance, the birth of a child, begin your first chapter in the middle of all the action. Don’t start from the beginning; you will cover the beginning moments of this event later in the text. For the opening chapter of your memoir, you want to grab the attention of your readers right away, so you’ll want to start in the middle of your labor and delivery — at the most painful or dramatic point. Write about these moments with the same intensity you experienced them, ending your first chapter with a cliffhanger.

In staying with the example of childbirth, maybe your child was born with a disability. In an instance such as this, you would end your opening chapter with a single line that would let the reader know something was not right, without telling them exactly what went wrong. Whatever it was about that moment that changed your life or your direction forever, lead into it without explaining exactly what it was that either went really right or awry.

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Ernest Hemmingway on writing: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

4. Beginning and Staying

How to Begin

What I can do, however, is tell you how to start — technically. Here is a list of settings you’ll need when using a word processor application like Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, or Google Docs.

  1. Set your title font and size: It is standard to use Times New Roman at size 12. For the title, use the font at a size 16 or 18.
  2. Set your title line spacing: For the title heading, it is standard to use single line spacing.
  3. Align and write your title text: Center your text. On the top line of your page, categorize your chapter (i.e., Chapter One, Introduction). Drop down one line by pressing the return key and write the chapter’s title. Embolden the title.
  4. Set your body spacing: Before dropping down to another line, set your spacing to double. Then, hit the return key. Write the entire body of your manuscript double-spaced. This leaves plenty of room for manual edits should you wish to print your manuscript and take a red grease pencil to it, old school style. Double spacing also makes it easier for your readers to clearly read your words and follow your sentences when your manuscript is printed.
  5. Set your body font-size: It is standard to set your body font size to 12.
  6. Indent your paragraphs: To do this, hit the tab key. If you prefer not to indent your paragraphs, that’s totally fine. Just skip a line instead.
  7. Justify your margins: Align your text to the left margin.

Now, this is where the brilliant author inside of you is unleashed, and you start feverishly pounding on your computer’s keyboard, banging out the best memoir ever written!

Remember, for this first chapter, you are bringing your climax to the forefront and ending it with a cliffhanger. And don’t be fooled by the word climax; this selection can be the highest point of anxiety or turmoil in your book. It can also be your rock-bottom.

Your second chapter will begin at the beginning. Check-in with your table of contents and work your way down the list. Each chapter should be seven to ten pages, double spaced. You will continue to write in chronological order from this point, being careful to show as much detail as possible.

Show don’t tell. The ability to tell a good story is cool, but what’s better is the ability to show someone what has happened by creating a flow of words that act as pictures, moving stills in the minds of your readers. If you are a writer at heart, you know what it feels like to be overcome by melodic waves of wonderful words that, when placed side-by-side in a particular pattern, make you and everyone who reads them swoon and fill with imagination. Your words should excite you and change the lives of others, hence, changing your life all the while.

Staying on Topic

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Terry Pratchett on writing: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

5. Let’s Start Over

I am often asked how long it should take to write a book of any sort, and my answer often surprises people — thirty days. This is how long it takes me to write a book, not counting subsequent editing and changes to the original draft. When all those things are added, then maybe sixty days, if there are no long breaks taken. I do not expect you to do the same, but I use this example to let you know how quickly you can realize your dream. But, by all means, take your time.

I do suggest, however, that on the days you write, begin and finish an entire chapter on that day. Stay in that zone and don’t give way to distractions. Finish the thought before moving on to the next, whether the next thought is another chapter in your book or your life.

The most important question about time, I believe, is not how much time it should take to pen your memoir, but how much time you should take away from it. Although I believe it is important to finish a complete thought or chapter while in the zone, I also believe it is important to take time between chapters when the emotional toll gets rough. I also suggest taking time and space away from the material after you have finished your first draft. Walk away from your book.

I like to take a minimum of two weeks away from my first draft and have been known to take up to four. During that time, I go about my life as usual and switch to working on other projects that are in no way related to my memoir. Still, I think about what I have written and continue to chart my thoughts using a bubble graph. I also research myself. It is important to see yourself as a character in your book, step outside of yourself, get out of your emotions, and look at your work objectively. Dig through artifacts like old photos and home movies. Research your life before going back and editing what you have already written. Your first draft is usually guided by your heart, and all subsequent versions should be guided by your intellect.

One Step at a Time

Check your dates and places, making sure each is correct. This is when personal research will come in handy. Old emails and birthday cards, airline tickets, and love notes all come into play when trying to piece together the events of your life. Call friends and family and ask them questions; they may remember things differently than you do, or they may remember things you have completely forgotten. Tap into all your resources!

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Maya Angelou on writing: “The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”

Final Thoughts and 5 Apps to Help You Get Started

Before I leave you, here is a list of helpful apps that can make your writing process simpler and faster. Good luck!

  1. Title Case Converter: Make sure your chapter titles are properly cased
  2. Readable: Check your content’s readability
  3. Scrivener: Organize and reorganize your manuscript’s content
  4. Scapple: Organize and reorganize your manuscript ideas and notes
  5. Grammarly: Edit your content

By Elisabeth

3x New York Times bestselling author. Pen name Karrine Steffans. Psych major. Life Mastery Coach.

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Elisabeth Ovesen

Written by

3x NYT bestselling author. Pen name Karrine Steffans. Psych Major. Performance + Life Mastery Coach. lilibetovesen.com

By Elisabeth

Random musings and wisdom from a New York Times bestselling author with more time on her hands than words.

Elisabeth Ovesen

Written by

3x NYT bestselling author. Pen name Karrine Steffans. Psych Major. Performance + Life Mastery Coach. lilibetovesen.com

By Elisabeth

Random musings and wisdom from a New York Times bestselling author with more time on her hands than words.

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