books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, January 22, 2012

How to Write a Publishable Memoir: 12 Do’s and Don’ts

They say we all have a book inside us—our own life story. The urge to put that story on paper is the most common reason people start writing. Adult education programs and senior centers everywhere offer courses in “writing your own life.” Memoir is the most popular genre at any writers conference.

Unfortunately, it’s the hardest to write well—and the least likely to be published.

Agent Kristin Nelson once blogged that she’s seen so many bad memoirs that she cringes when she meets a memoirist a writer’s conference. Author J. A. Konrath offered the simple advice: “Unless you're one of the Rolling Stones, don't write anything autobiographical.” Miss Snark pronounced, “every editor and agent I know HATES memoir pitches…I'd rather shave the cat.”

But memoirs like Eat, Pray, Love, In the Garden of Beasts and Townie: a Memoir, top the bestseller lists.

In this age of “reality” TV, there’s a huge audience for shared real-life experience. Readers are hungry for true stories: look how angrily they reacted to writers like James Frey and Herman Rosenblat, who passed off fiction as memoir.

So keep working on that masterpiece-in-progress. But hone your craft—brilliant wordsmithing and/or stand-up-worthy comedy skills help a bunch—and follow some basic dos and don’ts:



1)     DO read other memoirs. Before you put pen to paper, it’s a good idea to read some currently selling memoirs. See what works and what doesn’t. Know the genre and the market

2)     DON’T write an autobiography: An autobiography is a list of events: “I was born in (year) in (place) and I did (this) and (that.) Mr. Konrath is right—unless you’re Mick Jagger, nobody cares. (Except your family. Don’t let me discourage you from self-publishing a chronicle of your life as a gift to your descendants.)

3)     DO tell a page-turning story. A book-length memoir is read and marketed as a novel. It needs a novel’s narrative drive. That means tension and conflict—and ONE main story arc to drive the action. Most memoirs fail from lack of focus. Choose a basic storyline, like: “Orphan kids save the family farm during the Depression,” or “A cross-dressing teen survives high school in the 1950s.”

4)     DON’T confuse memoir with psychotherapy: Writing a book about a traumatic personal event may be cathartic for the writer, but there’s a reason shrinks charge big bucks to listen to people's problems. Put the raw material in a journal to mine later for fiction, poetry, and personal essays.

5)     DO remember that a memoirist, like a novelist, is essentially an entertainer. A memoir may be nonfiction, but it requires a creative writer’s skill set. Always keep your reader in mind. Never fabricate, but only tell what’s unique, exciting and relevant to your premise.

6)     DON’T expect a big audience for medical journaling: If you or a loved one has a serious disease, chronicling your experiences can be invaluable to those suffering similar trials. To the general public—not so much. You may find it’s best to reach your audience through online forums, blogs, and magazines. (See #6) Remember that publishing is a business, and no matter how sad your story, if it’s not an enjoyable read, it won’t find an audience.

7)    DO consider non-book formats to tell your story. Beginning writers often make the mistake of jumping into a book-length opus. It’s smarter and easier to start with short pieces—what a writer friend calls “memoiric essays.” Nostalgia and senior-oriented magazines and blogs are great venues for tales of life in the old days. Some niche journals and websites focusing on hobbies, pets, disablities, veterans, etc. even provide a paying market. These will also give you some great publishing credits, and you won't have to slog for years before reaching an audience.

This is one area where BLOGGING can provide you with a fantastic forum. A new blog I love is by Tony Piazza, a veteran of the film business—and mystery author—who has insightful stories about every Hollywood star you ever heard of. 

8)     DON’T include every detail because “it’s what really happened.” Just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s interesting. Your happy memories of that idyllic Sunday school picnic in vanished small-town America will leave your reader comatose unless the church caught fire, you lost your virginity, and/or somebody stole the parson’s pants.

9)     DO limit the story to an area where your experience is significant and unique. If you gave birth in the mud at Woodstock, dated Elvis, or helped decipher the Enigma code, make that the focus of your book. I knew a musician who worked with of some of the great legends of American music. His memoir of those jazzy days was gripping, but because it was buried in his “happy ever after” life story, he never found a publisher.

10)   DON’T jump into the publishing process until you’ve honed your skills as a creative writer. Unless you’re only writing for your grandchildren (nothing wrong with that—but be clear in your intentions) you need to become an acomplished writer before you can expect non-family members to read you work. Even the most skilled editor can’t turn a series of reminiscences into a cohesive narrative.

NOTE: There are ghostwriters who specialize in memoirs, so if you want to get your story into book form and aren’t interested in becoming a professional writer, you can hire one. Many editing services offer ghostwriting—a more expensive process than editing—but worth the cost if you don’t enjoy the writing process. I’d recommend using a memoir specialist like YourMemoir.co.uk., which looks like an excellent service.

11) DO look at small and regional publishers. A national publisher may not be interested in stories of the vanished ranch life of old California, but a local publisher who has outlets at tourist sites and historical landmarks may be actively looking for them. Another plus: you don’t need an agent to approach most regional publishers. A good example of a memoir that found a home at a regional press is Anne Schroeder’s Branches on the Conejo,Leaving the Soil after Five Generations  (Another perk of being with a small regional press is that the book can still be in print after a decade.)

12) DON’T get discouraged. Ann Carbine Best, an award-winning poet, knew she had a story to tell that would help thousands of women who shared her experience. Unfortunately, most publishers thought her subject matter was too niche and controversial to be a blockbuster. But with a small press, she found a welcoming audience for In the Mirror, her memoir of a doomed marriage.

If you’re working on a memoir, polish your creative writing skills, remember publishing is a business, keep your reader in mind--and you’ll avoid the cringe-making amateurishness that agents, editors and readers fear.

What about you, scriveners? Do you read memoirs? What is likely to make you pick one? What are your pet peeves in memoirs? Memoirists--any advice to new writers who are working on theirs?


WE HAVE A WINNER of the signed first edition of Catherine Ryan Hyde's wonderful novel, WALTER'S PURPLE HEART. I assigned every address a number went to the random number generator at Random.org to select the winning number. 


The winner is Cathryn Leigh! Congratulations, Cathryn! CRH will contact you to get your snail address. 


Cathryn, and everybody else who signed up for our HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE  launch newsletter, you're still in the running for the signed first edition of Catherine Ryan Hyde's iconic novel, PAY IT FORWARD.


INDIE CHICK fans:  This week's exciting episode comes from Sarah Woodbury, author of some wonderful historical novels set in medieval Wales. I predict we'll be hearing more from Sarah, who out-did me by publishing no less than seven novels last year. Her inspiring piece is here. 

This just in!! The paper version of THE BEST REVENGE--the first of the Camilla Randall mysteries--is now available from Popcorn Press! Only  $9.95 

39 comments:

  1. Whoo! Well done Cayla! I shall go and put this on her Facebook wall so she can find it, bahaha!

    As for autobiography ... I've often been told my Army Brat upbringing would make a good story, but I'm not so sure. There's enough army brats out there aren't there? besides, it's the hilarious misadventures that happen briefly in between the normality that would make mine different, and I have no idea how interested the reader would be. I shall stick to fiction, methinks :)

    Awesome post though! :)

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  3. These are some fantastic tips! Thank you!

    I wish my life was interesting enough to write a memoir but I've not had anything extraordinary happen to me. I might write one for my children/grand-children/descendents though. I hope it inspires them enough to become writers also!

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  4. Not something I would ever write (my life was rather average) but great tips for those who do.

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  5. Another fine post. Thanks, again, Anne, & I'm with Kamille. I'm such a milquetoast!

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  6. My advice: pretty much as you've outlined here, Anne. Get the necessary writing skills and read other memoirs, and use the techniques of fiction, which is crucial. My skill with dialogue was what made my memoir as strong as it is (I'm not as good with descriptive passages). Readers like dialogue. It really moves the story along.

    I began writing pieces of my memoir even three decades before it finally came together and was published. Even after I got the publishing contract, there were MANY times when I was discouraged; it isn't easy delving into painful memories. But I'm glad I didn't "throw in the towel" as I sometimes felt like doing during the editing process. The book launch was a great 71st birthday present. It's never too late to write and be published! So if you think you've got a compelling story to tell...I agree that people do like to read "true" stories. So write a good one!

    Great post, Anne. And thanks for including a link to my memoir.
    Ann Best, Author of In the Mirror & Other Memoirs

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  7. Hi Anne! I wholeheartedly agree with all your advice. I've been writing my memoir (off and on!) for a LONG time. But I've learned so much and become a better writer over the past couple of years, so I do believe things are progressing as they should. I just sent a check to Ann Best for her memoir! Can't wait to read it!

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  8. Aloha Anne,

    I found your blog via a tweet from Alex Cavanaugh (which I retweeted:)

    As someone who's co-writing a memoir about a opera singer (who lost his voice, but found his cause) I wanted to say thanks and that this was a *great* post for me. You have a new follower:)

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  9. Anne, great, usable advice as always.

    But there is one other approach, the one my DH used: have a horrible, traumatic, earth-shattering (literally) experience & then wait 50 years to tell it.

    At a young soldier, Michael was sent to the Pacific Proving Ground to "observe" as the Army called it, the US H-bomb tests. He made notes at the time & over the years tried many times to tell the story but the events were so bizarre and horrific, he couldn't quite figure out how to write it.

    Slow forward 50 years: he tried again & this time we managed to laugh just about all the way thru. The book is called THE ATOMIC TIMES (the name of the Eniwetok newspaper he edited) and has been praised by readers from Henry Kissinger to Robert Parker.

    Lesson: some experiences need quite a long time to marinate!

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  10. Charley--I sure find it easier to write fiction than the real stuff. I can't stop making things up, for one thing. :-)

    Kamille--A great memoirist can make "ordinary" things become extraordinary, but that's not a talent I have. Fiction works better for me, too.

    Alex--You mean the CassaStar books aren't written from your personal experience in intergalactic travel? Well, I'm going to tell Oprah...

    CS (aka Wordmonger)--How many people have quit their jobs to go live on a remote goat ranch for a year?

    Ann--Excellent advice from somebody who knows how to do it right. Thanks.

    Becky--You've got it exactly right. It takes a long time to write a professional-quality memoir.

    Mark--Welcome! I'm so glad you found it helpful. Your book sounds intriguing.

    Ruth--You're right. And I think Michael's experience isn't unique. I think a lot of people have to process a traumatic event for a long time before they can write about it.

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  11. I started a writing club here five years ago and most members now want to write memoirs. Can I print and pass out copies of your wonderful 12 Dos and Donts?

    As for Moi, do I write about finding Mr. Right in marriage number three? Or about having my son kidnapped? Oh yes, and then ten years later, my other son was kidnapped.

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  12. Memoirs that cross into other genres are the best commercially.

    Bill Bryson's travel memoirs are huge sellers because they are simultaneously memoir, travelogue, humour and narrative non-fiction.

    Everyone loves to travel, so well-written travel memoirs will always be popular.

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  13. @Charley R - I think you could have a collection of shorts that's all those oddly bizzare moments, those would work great. Or stick to fictin. You're really good at that! *giggles*

    AND OMG I won! *excited dance*
    (I actually saw the e-mail first so I got out most of my squeeling then. Hopefully not to the detriment of Catherine's ears/eyes.) Anyway before I babble too much(too late I know)...

    yeah my life has been fairly bland, after all that's why I write fiction. I've been escaping the bland into my own fantastical worlds for quite some time.

    :} Cathryn

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  14. Phyllis--Yes, of course you can print it out and pass it around, as long as you give credit me and the blog. You might mention there will be more stuff like this in the book I'm writing with Catherine Ryan Hyde that will be out in June.

    And oh, my you do have some intense life experiences to write about. But I think for those of us who are long-time fiction writers, that stuff gets into our writing in many ways, doesn't it?

    Mark--You're so right that travel memoirs do really well. That's what Eat, Pray, Love is, essentially. And if people want to get a travel memoir published, they should be writing short travel articles now.

    Cathryn, Congratulations! I don't think it's your life experiences that make you a fiction or nonfiction writer--no matter how exciting your real life is. I think it's something you're born with. I've been into fiction from the time I could hold a crayon. I guess I'm a born liar. :-)

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  15. But if you want to make money at memoir writing, you still have a few more steps to go:

    13) be extremely famous before starting

    14) cross platforms of fame before even thinking first draft, ie. if you are a pop star, do something on Broadway, or if you are an actor, build a school in Gambia.

    15) randomly split names of past lovers into two groups. For the first group, mention every last salacious detail. For the second group, appear to have difficulty remembering who that person was.

    Now the money will start flowing in!

    William Doonan
    www.themummiesofblogspace9.com

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  16. Anne, another meaty post. I had to laugh at #8--"DON’T include every detail because 'it’s what really happened.'”

    Anyone who has ever taught creative writing knows how tough it is to drill this rule into people's heads. I knew a few teachers who actually assigned an autobiography to students in the first class, so they could do an "information-dump" and kind of purge all these details from their systems. (Wouldn't that be fun to grade? Aargh.)

    Fact is, many people sign up for creative writing courses beCAUSE they have some trauma or strange twist in their personal narratives that they're dying to tell people about. As their teacher, you need to repeat until you're blue in the face: all details are not equally important, interesting or evocative, and a crafted memoir is the only one readers want to read.

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  17. Anne, I really like the idea of FIRST writing short personal essays or vignettes for special markets in print or online (#7 above if I interpreted correctly). Writing these short pieces is a great way to find your voice and to apply craft to real experience: dialogue, sense of place and time, story arc, etc. All good story components are critical, I think, for writing exciting and compelling memoir. Start small. Especially if you're thinking of writing a much longer work later on.

    Great post, as usual, Anne.

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  18. You are so right about reading other memoirs. The more of them I read, the more I see different ways to structure the story I want to tell. And the best ones I read (e.g., Bill Bryson) really put their story within a universal frame. In other words, the story is not really all about me. If it were, who besides my family would want to read it. Finally, I agree with the idea of getting the feet wet by publishing essays, but it's difficult to figure out where to tell my story beyond literary journals. I'm still working on that writing problem.

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  19. The only way I'd ever write a memoir is in graphic novel form so I could be a superhero, or at least have a cool cape. Triple stars for your advice to mine life's events for use in fiction.

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  20. Great post, Anne. I am sure I'll never do a memoir. I mean who wants to read one more story about an ex hippie flower child who railed against the establishment, went without a certain undergarment (before gravity and childbirth ravaged them) and who basically had the best time when sex, drugs and rock 'n roll didn't cause a communicable desease? So what if I can't hear in one ear and my grandchildren don't understand why grandma is so different? You think for one minute I'd confirm any of it in print? Hell no! I mean, for me it's like identity theft, anyone stupid enough to steal my identity gets what they deserve :)

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  21. NOT a memoir writer, but I'm glad you paid special attentiion to them here.

    .......dhole

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  22. Hi Anne,
    Thanks so much for including me, Marnie from Your Memoir, in this post.
    It's absolutely brilliant and full of great advice.
    I think my favourite tip would be to remember that you have to entertain the audience and to this end a memoir needs a novel's narrative drive, no question.
    This is quite a difficult concept for some of my clients, who feel that to give their story a narrative drive is in some way not being authentic. They are quite reticent to treat themselves, and their story, as a 'real' book.
    Most of my clients are writing 'just' as a personal record for family and friends you see.
    A great post and some very interesting comments from people whose books I would love to read. Even those who say their lives are dull. I don't believe them. No such thing. Everybody's life is unique and interesting, which is why I love my job.
    Thanks again.

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  23. Excellent post. I'm wary of memoirs, and tend only to read them when my book club insists. (I found eat, pray, love intensely boring and self indulgent.)

    I love the idea of a memoirist putting several years of distance between the events and the recounting. I'm sure that lessens the "then this happened, then that happened" kind of narrative.

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  24. Hi Anne,

    My first book is a memoir about my backpacking days around Australia. During that year I kept a detailed diary of my experiences, and I thought it would be such a waste if I didn't try to write a book at the end of it.
    I published my manuscript as an ebook in April last year after having the work edited. I had no idea if I would sell any copies at all, so you can imagine my delight that at 9 months later, I have received several 5 & 4 star reviews from total strangers, most of whom live in America (I live in the UK). I still can't believe that I've created something which other people love and tell me they can't wait for book no. 2 - another memoir about travelling Canada.

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  25. Great detail and advice. I'm forwarding your link to the memoir discussion groups I belong to.

    I would add that Memoir doesn't have to mean YOUR STORY. Expanding the personal to include the universal will involve more readers in "your" story.

    Writing BRANCHES ON THE CONEJO taught me the importance
    of capturing social history. That little book has nearly sold through its 3500 print run and is now on out-of-print book sites for $75.

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  26. William—LOL. Actually the most successful memoirs, like Eat Pray Love and Angela’s Ashes aren’t by mega-celebrities, but they are by professional writers and journalists with some stature in the business. It helps to have friends.

    Rebecca—I think all of us who have taught newbies run into this all too often. It might be good to put this on the board on the first day and keep it there “a crafted memoir is the only one readers want to read.” People love to make lists of unrelated events.

    Mindprinter—You know whereof you speak. You’ve written some superb personal essays that have found homes in lots of prestigious journals. And I’m still hoping for a screenplay of your story of your friendship with an emperor!

    Julie—Think screenplay. Seriously. A screenplay is much easier to adapt from a shorter work than a longer one. If you have a great episode in your life to tell about, it might just make a good film. I’ve had the privilege of reading Mindprinter’s article from the African American Journal that I KNOW would make a hell of a movie.

    Leslie—I love the idea of a graphic novel memoir. Has anybody done that? Cape or no cape, it could be awesome.

    Fois—Oh, yes. I’m a member of the sex drugs and rock and roll generation too. We were so spoiled, weren't we: no horrible STDs or the TSA molesting us at airports. "Flying into Los Angeleez, bringing in a couple of Keys..." I’m not sure anybody but us wants to read about it now. But damn, it was fun.

    Donna—Thanks. But never say never. You’ve got a job that provides a lot of fodder for writing.

    Marnie—Thanks for stopping by. I’m really impressed with your site and your service. A lot of people are dying to tell their life story, but don’t care to learn to become professional writers, and you’re just the one to help them. Although I don’t envy you having to teach them it’s not “wrong” to turn history into something readable.

    Mari—I love Ruth’s suggestion too. A few decades of aging might be required to make some stories palatable to the general public. (I’m generally not a fan of memoirs either, although every so often one astonishes me.)

    LK—It sounds as if you’ve hit on a niche audience that will be loyal. Congrats on your success. The travel memoir (or essay) is a very popular form. With people who hope to travel to those place for real, or just in their armchairs.

    Anne—Very good advice: a memoir doesn’t have to be about you. It’s nice to know your book is a collectible, but I hope you’ll put it in ebook soon so it doesn’t go out of print!

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  27. Nicely done. Good advice. I have been thinking about ghost writing a memoir. This helps.
    Ciao,
    Carole
    http://www.facebook.com/Writingdivine

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  28. golden--I think ghosting memoirs can be rewardiing. As long as the client understands that most memoirs don't make a lot of money. (People can have grandiose ideas of book profits, if they aren't familiar with the realities of the market.) Good luck. I'm glad this helps.

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  29. Some really good tips here, thanks for this Anne. Thinking of some local celebrities who could have done with this list of does and don'ts lol.

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  30. Thanks Emily. Yes, celebrities who don't use ghosts can put out some pretty unreadable stuff. And it sells anyway :-(

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  31. Great article. My husband's life has been bizarre journey through various subcultures and the seedier elements of society. Not only has he survived extreme scenarios that most people never encounter, the details are hilarious. He's a natural story teller, but some of the best stories are dependent on the weird cadre of people he has met. He wants to tell his story as a memoir and has no qualms about offending anyone, but being sued for some of the scandalous details is a real concern. How can he tell his story with all the oomph and appeal of "truth" without inviting defamation suits? None of the people involved would ever agree to be included, and while names can be changed, the real stories are too good to fictionalize. Have any advice?

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  32. Anon--He will need to tread carefully. I would change the names of any character who is likely to take offense and do the Dear Abby trick of saying. "my friend...I'll call him 'Bud' did blankety-blank.."

    And if he's accusing somebody of criminal activity--even a very long time ago--he's treading on very dangerous ground.

    Most important, remember that a memoir needs to tell a story, not relate a series of anecdotes, so he might do better with a collection or series of funny stories.

    I'd advise him to read some of David Sedaris's books and see how he uses funny personal stories in a way that's not libelous.

    But your husband would probably do well to run things by a lawyer before publishing.

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  33. This blog is great. I'm pleased I discovered it. I had my autobiography, Never Ending Circles, published last August but I had in mind a niche audience which were students. So I was surprised when it became popular with local general readers too. This was partly because they knew me and partly because I had written about things that had effected most people. I'm working on my memoir now and realising that you never stop learning your craft. I am now starting this one with a major incident in my life to grab the reader rather than childhood which I sort of wish I had also done with the auto/bio but its all part of the learning process I suppose. Look forward to more of your posts.

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  34. David--Thanks. Most people write autobiography instead of memoir--and autobiography can be pretty dull, even when the subject is wildly famous. Most people prefer to read a story rather than a series of events. So if you can write about one incident instead of a whole lifetime, you're way ahead of the pack.

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  35. Best advice I've heard in a long time! I'm one of those medical "cases" (LOL) and I know I have to work extra, extra hard on the entertaining angle (not to the point it shows or is ridiculous, of course! Ha!) but enough that readers stay entertained, my themes shine through, and my message gets across. Quick n' easy... Yeah, right! I'm trying! Thanks for honest, straight-to-ya advice. Much appreciated. -Leslie aka The Healing Redhead

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    1. I missed this one Leslie. Sounds as if you'll have a good book! Keeping in mind that it needs to be entertaining is half the battle.

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  36. I want to write up my travel memoirs from my year around the world. If this was yours memoir how would you write it? Person, theme, style etc? Would you focus on the photo side? Natalie

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  37. Hi,

    Brilliant advice.

    How you would write a travel memoir from a year around the world?

    I can't seem tho chose my narrative style for it or decide whether to make it a travel guide or memory based photo book.

    Natalie

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    1. Natalie--If it were me, I wouldn't have the photos because I'm the world's worst photographer :-) But first let me congratulate you on managing to travel around the world. What a great accomplishment and how fun!

      Trips like yours can often be best done in blog form. That way you can post all the photos and keep the narrative going in a simple linear style.

      For a book, you need to consider the cost of photos. Big, big bux for print and tough to put in ebooks (Basic Kindles only see black and white)

      Then you want a story arc. Look at what works in other memoirs. In Eat Pray Love, her arc was finding herself (and love) after a bad breakup. What's your reason for the trip? What thwarted you from accomplishing it? That's the thread that will keep readers turning the pages.

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