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.
Writing your life’s story isn’t easy, and penning someone else’s can be even more difficult. In my experience as a New York Times bestselling memoirist, writing about one’s life conjures a complex series of emotions and truths for which most of us are not prepared. When done correctly, writing a memoir feels more like a forensic excavation than a literary journey or an exercise in wordplay and clever prose. It’s brutal, and sometimes there’s crying –– and boose –– lots and lots o’ boose.
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!
1. Time, Theme, Point, and Tone
Choose a Time
Decide which time frame you’ll cover in your memoir. Some of you will want to write about your lives from birth until now. Others will wish to write about a particular time in your life, such as your formative, high school, or college years. Maybe you’d like to skip most of that stuff and focus on your relationship — from the first day you met your spouse to the day you sent your youngest off to college. Perhaps you wish to explore the period of your life after a divorce or death or your journey as a single parent. Either way, pick a time of life to write about and make that time your primary focus.
Choose a Theme
Perhaps you’ve decided to write about your entire life. Great! Now, what’s your theme? Many things have happened since you’ve been born, so which group of events will you focus on while writing your manuscript? Maybe you want to discuss the special relationship between you and a family member or friend and how that person has changed your life over the years. Perhaps you grew up with a disability and worked hard to overcome the stigma associated with it. Perhaps you want to focus on your romantic relationships or the love/hate relationship you have with your mother. Deciding on a running theme will help you hone in on your memoir’s direction before you get started.
Choose a Point
What is it about the time and theme you’ve chosen that deserves to be written and read? In other words, what’s the point of your memoir? For example, perhaps you’ve decided to write a book about your life and center the manuscript around your relationship with your mother. Why is your relationship with her special, so thought-provoking that you need to write an entire book about it? Perhaps she helped you hone your craft and realize your dream. Maybe she taught you how to cook, and during your times in the kitchen, she also taught you a string of life lessons you’d like to share. You’ll need to decide on the specific point you want for your memoir and keep that point in mind while you are penning your tome, being very careful never to come away from it. All roads lead to the point of your story!
Choose a Tone
As it is in life, the way we deliver our words and the order in which we place them has a lot to do with how people perceive us and our points of view. So, choose your tone carefully. There may be passages in your memoir where you want your reader to feel the same disdain you felt when you caught your spouse cheating or the joy you felt when your first child was born. Is it a triumphant story? Is it humorous? Perhaps it’s a serious piece. Be sure to make your tone reflect how you want your readers to feel at the moment, never losing track of the overall tone of the book.
2. Lists, Arcs, and Making it Interesting
Make a List
Make a list of major or relative events you would like to cover in your manuscript. As you make this list, make sure each entry stays on your topic based on the time, theme, and point you have chosen.
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
Though no one can tell you what sort of story to write, there is a particular formula to telling a good story, and that formula is known as a Narrative Arc, which consists of these four parts:
- Exposition: This part of your arc is where you begin, introducing your characters and the general setting of your story.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
It should go without saying that your memoir has to be interesting. As with anything, two heads are better than one when preparing to tell your story to the masses. Talk to people about what you’re writing. Tell people who never knew about this part of your life and gauge their reactions. If their mouths drop open in disbelief, or if someone starts bawling at any point in your storytelling, you’ve got a good tale on your hands.
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?
Is there a moral to your story? Do you want your audience to learn something about you, themselves, or the world around them? Or do you want them to be left with more questions than answers only so that you may answer those questions in later works? Perhaps you want your readers to empathize with you. Maybe you want them to hate you then, all of a sudden, love you. Maybe you want your reader to cheer for you and support your decisions by the end of the book. Before you start your memoir, it is important to know what you want your readers to take away. Keep this in mind as you prepare your list of events, being sure that each period of time leads to the takeaway you desire.
3. Hanging, Deciding, Placing, and Preparing
Leave Them Hanging
As I mentioned earlier, it takes a particular amount of skill to veer away from the usual narrative arc and tell your story in a more complex way. Even when you have left the basic blueprint of the arc, however, it is still imperative to keep form and follow a set of rules. These rules will help you stay informed while building your characters and storyline, helping you stay organized while penning your memoir.
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
Naturally, before you can drag your climax to the forefront, you must first decide which event is the actual climax. Look at your list of events. You should have written down at least twenty-five items in chronological order. Now, if your story is good, it will have a natural narrative arc, and somewhere in the middle of your list, you will find 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
Once you are sure your climax is in the right place, it’s time to prepare to write about the event that changed everything. This may be a horrible or a wonderful thing, but whatever it is, it changed you and the direction of your life in some way, and it’s time to start writing about it.
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.
4. Beginning and Staying
How to Begin
One of the questions I get the most is a simple yet, very complicated one — how do I begin? Well, I can’t tell you how to start writing your memoir. Not really. This is where being a true writer comes in. I believe that you’re either born a writer, or you aren’t. Like any art, it can be technically taught, but if you aren’t a true artist if it isn’t something you were born loving and already instinctually knew how to do on some primordial level, doing it will always feel like a chore, and someone will always have to show you how.
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.
- 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.
- Set your title line spacing: For the title heading, it is standard to use single line spacing.
- 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.
- 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.
- Set your body font-size: It is standard to set your body font size to 12.
- 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.
- 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
The title of your chapters tells you, and eventually, the reader, what each chapter is about. Be sure to stay on topic as you are writing, not to lose the reader. For instance, if your chapter centers on the day your dog died, begin and end with that day only. The following chapter should focus on the aftermath of that day with a title that suits it. Stay organized as you continue to write your chapters. During this your first draft, write according to the subject of each chapter. There will be plenty of time to add, change, and rewrite as you review your manuscript. You will go through at least four drafts before it’s all said and done and, hopefully, published.
5. Let’s Start Over
When you reach the end of your manuscript, this only signals that it is time to start again. So, as you tie up all the loose ends in your last chapter and after you find the perfect last line with which to leave your readers, know that this is only the beginning of your memoir-writing journey.
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
For now, when you decide to take a second look at your manuscript, focus on carefully reading the material, checking for content. You want to be sure the story you intended to tell is there. Sure, there will be grammatical errors, but that is not the focus this time around. Just check for the storyline, making sure that each chapter tells the story you wanted it to tell and that each one leads gently into the next, making chronological and emotional sense.
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!
Final Thoughts and 5 Apps to Help You Get Started
This guide has one purpose — to help you get started! Its five steps should give you some idea of getting those first chapters off, and those first chapters will lead you into the next few and then the next. The writing, editing, and researching techniques I’ve discussed are my personal habits, developed over the past fifteen years of my career, and are merely suggestions. I believe each of us has to go our own way, to find and follow our creativity wherever it may lead. Personally, I’ve done things in ways that others said couldn’t or shouldn’t be done, and each time I have, I have won. So, take what you need from the above advice, and leave the rest. Save this article and come back to it when you need reminding.
Before I leave you, here is a list of helpful apps that can make your writing process simpler and faster. Good luck!