So You Want to Write Your Story?

One of the greatest perks of the writing life for me is sharing with and learning from other writers. I soak up all I can. I also love to share suggestions. Truly, when anyone writes, I get jazzed about it.

You there! Pick up a pencil! Write your story down!

A friend recently took on an adventure—writing memoir. He asked me for advice. I shot him what would be my top ten list for getting memoir from mind to media.


1) Words on page above all else at this point.

Don’t worry about editing or perfecting thoughts, sentences, or paragraphs at this juncture. It can become so time consuming and discouraging. No one is reading this yet. Worry not, there will be time to come back and fine tune later.

2) Show don’t tell.

The more you can keep this in mind from the start, the better it will serve your writing. We have such a tendency to say things like “I was nervous.” That’s horrible to read. Show your reader. Describe what you felt, thought, worried about—whatever is rolled up in the words “I was nervous.”

Same advice when describing scenes or settings. When you say “we were poor” or “our house was small” you miss a golden opportunity to paint the picture for the reader. Invite them into the small house, the poverty.

3) Kill the word that whenever and wherever you can.

Worthless word. It really is. One of the last things I try to do with every piece of writing I send to a client is execute a word search and see where I can remove or replace it. Trust me on this. You will thank me later.

4) Kill the future tense verb form to be wherever you can.

This one will come to you as you write more so than in my admonition here. It’s the difference between “It is Mike’s intention to write his memoir” and “Mike intends to write his memoir.” I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it will be on the whole. This is the second thing I search my writing for before I press send.

5) Swap passive voice for active where you can.

Active and passive voice are grammatical constructions. Active voice offers the clearest sentence structure: a character (subject) does something (verb) to a person, place or thing (noun/recipient). Example: Mom hugged me. The passive voice reverses the structure: person, place or thing (noun/recipient), had something happen to them (verb), by a character (subject). Example: I was hugged by Mom.

Using the passive voice almost always makes your writing more distant and your message less clear. Do you doubt me? Try these on for size—

(1) The passive voice almost always makes your message less clear.

(2) Your message is almost always made less clear by using the passive voice.

I rest my case.

6) Read while you write. Choose books and authors who will help your writing.

For memoir, I have three recommendations for you. Not as much for content, as for style, voice and storytelling. (1) Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie”—he chronicles his travels around the country with his dog in a pick-up truck/camper. It’s a marvelous example of all I wrote above. (2) Kerouac’s “On The Road”—he was the first beat-generation writer, which is “stream of consciousness” writing style. I LOVE IT where memoir is concerned. And (3) Anything Garrison Keillor wrote—he’s a master at show don’t tell. You read his stuff and you feel like you’re walking into every scene with him. The best thing about these three: they’re short, fast and engaging reads.

7) Let the story shift your timeline.

Don’t attempt to tell your story in linear fashion. Write it like you’d tell it, sitting with a friend or family member, over coffee … or better still, wine.

8) Let concerns like formatting, style, layout wait.

Words on page at this juncture. And more words on page. For now, go with a simple doc file, line spacing, fonts—whatever makes your reading eye most comfortable. Utilize divisions and markings that make it most convenient for you to navigate and find your way around. All else can easily be adjusted later.

9) Make it accessible wherever you are and whenever opportunity to read/write arises.

Laptop, iPad, phone, notebook (I even have a small digital voice recorder I speak into sometimes in the car as ideas arise) whatever. You might store your document in a cloud service like DropBox so you can access it from anywhere.

10) Schedule times and places to play with your writing.

Life gets in the way. Set appointed times when you can sneak an hour or so away. You might even budget a retreat—a weekend getaway so you can spend more significant time writing. I have coffee shops and even a couple of bars where I can sneak off to get away from it all. The folks there know me, what I’m doing and they even help buffer me from distractions. Where can you go? How often? Put it on your calendar. Make it a date.

Are you actively writing memoir? Some other genre? What tips might you offer? What helps you get words on page?


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