How to Write a True-Life Story

By Cathy Glass
Inspirational memoirs as they are known, have enjoyed so much success in the last ten years that they have become a genre in their own right. It began with Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt), and A Child Called It (Dave Pelzer), and the book shops now cater for so many of these books that they often dedicate separate shelving to them. According to the main publishers of this genre, the success of Inspirational memoirs is set to continue. I have now published ten memoirs and have sold 1.5 million books. My agent is talking to directors about turning these books into films. I am therefore clearly doing something right when it comes to this genre, but what? Is there a formula for writing Inspirational Memoirs like there is for Mills and Boon romance, and one that I can pass on? Not a formula as such, but having spent some time analyzing how I write these books, I have come up with a few suggestions which may be of use if you are about to embark on memoir writing.

If you are writing your own memoir, as opposed to ghostwriting for someone else, you will know the story better than anyone, and here lies your strength. Write straight from your heart. Think back and remember. When, and where did it all begin? Where were you? – the setting. What could you smell and hear? What could you see through the window? What was going through your mind? Be there and relive it, although this may be very upsetting if you have suffered, but writing is cathartic and writing it out is a therapy in itself.
Have an aim for your book (a remit) – a message you want to impart to your readers. It may be one of courage, faith, hope, or sheer determination to survive. And remember in writing your true life story you have an emotional contract with your reader that you don’t have with any other book. You owe your reader honesty, and in return you will have your reader’s unfailing empathy and support. I have been completely overwhelmed by the thousands of emails I have received from readers who felt they knew me personally from reading my books, and knew how I felt. Some of those emails are on my website.

Write scenes, not a monologue. Although the memoir is true it doesn’t have to be a diatribe of abuse and suffering. Write it as you would a gripping novel: building scenes, creating tension, and using cliff-hangers at the end of chapters to keep the reader’s interest. There will be highs and lows in your story, so keep the reader on a roller coaster of emotion. There will be some very sad scenes, some horrendous incidents, and also some funny incidents. If there is constant and unrelenting degradation and abuse the reader will soon become desensitized and lose empathy, and therefore interest.

Make your book episodic and describe in detail events that are of interest or highly poignant to your story. Leave out the mundane unless it is an intrinsic part of building the scene. You can kaleidoscope years into a couple of lines, or spread half an hour into two chapters as necessary.

Your memoir should be approximately 85,000 words in length and typed in Arial, 12 point. If it is your first memoir, the agent and publisher will also want a detailed proposal, even if your book is already written. Guidelines for writing a proposal can be found online and on my website. Books are sold on proposals so it is as – if not more – important than the actual book to begin with.
Read other books in this genre and analyze how and why the books work. And lastly, if you are going to ghostwrite a memoir for someone else you will need to know the person and their story, as well as they do. Allow weeks for interviewing, and google ghost writing – Andrew Croftsis an expert and has a very detailed web site.

Good luck with your writing, and enjoy. And if I can be of any help please email me through my website.