Writing a Client’s Memoir
A good memoir can be as compelling to read as a fiction thriller. In fact, it involves many of the same characteristics as a novel, and many memoirs reach significant numbers of readers. When someone asks you to help them write their memoir, where do you begin?
Listen. The most important thing you will do is listen to them tell their story. Give them a time frame, from thirty minutes to an hour, to tell you their story and why they want to share it. This is not a time for you to take notes. It is a time to listen to their story and how they describe it to you. Take in the events that touch them the most. Pay attention to the heartfelt emotions they express. This first-telling of the story gives you an indication of what they consider the most essential elements. Your overall challenge is to accurately tell their story using their voice and words.
Affirm. We all have a God story to share, so be sure to commend them for telling theirs. Not everyone is brave enough to tell their story. Mention some things you heard that touched your heart and think of elements that will be meaningful to others. They need to know their story is worth telling. It may or may not be the making of a book. It might be better used as an article or in a blog. You will need to guide them on this.
If it already has a complete story arc or the potential for one that you can draw out of them, then establish the framework for proceeding. Before you commit to writing it for them, have a list ready with the things they need to know.
Do they expect a traditional publishing contract? Do they have an agent? If so, they might want you to put together a pitch for them until they get a contract. Then you would write the manuscript.
If they want to self-publish, publish with a small indie publisher, or have you publish it for them, you need to know how much you will need to be involved in the publishing process. Will you be a consultant or the primary agent?
Depending on how they want to proceed, you need to establish how you will receive compensation. If they want you to take their existing (extensive) notes and shape that into a book, they might prefer you give them a set price to be their ghostwriter. They have total ownership of the book, royalties, and their name (only) will be listed on the byline. Consider the time you would spend and the word count. It will likely be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Agree on a total, then divide it into parts. I suggest three payments. 1) Retainer 25% of the total. 2) First draft 25% of the total. 3) Finished manuscript 50% of the total.
Many times, people can’t afford to invest that kind of money. In that case, a shared income and expense agreement would be more appropriate. In essence, your income will come in the form of half the royalties. You will share the income, expenses, and byline. In this option, the byline usually reads the name of the person “with” you, the actual author. In the contract, specify the total amount of royalty (or buyout) you will receive before they can cancel the contract.
Set a goal for publication date (probably twelve to eighteen months), final revision time, early draft time, and schedule interviews with them accordingly. You might consider giving them a monthly update. In that update, you can give them a current word count and ask for pertinent details you need to fill in the story.
If you share the byline and publish it for them, you will probably share the royalties. If you have already received total compensation for writing the book, you will not receive royalties unless you specify that within the contract.
Remember to discuss expenses like a professional cover, editing, advertising, set-up fees for Ingram. If you are sharing the royalties, it is reasonable that you share the costs. If you are the ghostwriter, they need to know they will be responsible for these expenses and your writing fee.
Set a limit on the number of revisions. If you are writing it as a ghostwriter, you might offer an early draft opportunity for revision, then a final draft opportunity for revision. If they revise a document, ask them to highlight their edits so you can easily find them.
After you agreed on all these details, set up a contract with each item included. After both parties sign the contract, begin your work.
Writing the story
Determine the Theme: After hearing them pour out their heart, you should have a good idea of the general theme, purpose, or message they want to share. Think of the overall story, the title they wish to use, to write out the core message of the book in a few sentences. Use this as your guide for every chapter, paragraph, and sentence in the book. If it doesn’t set the stage for the theme or address it, consider putting it aside. These can always be used as promo ideas and topics for speaking engagements. Don’t drift into random storytelling.
Unless they are set on a specific title, consider adding keywords from this theme within the title or subtitle.
Set Up a Chart with dates, locations, people, and events to get down their story’s details. If needed, gather separate files with information about facts such as the people and places. Draw a map of the town if locations are pertinent to the story.
Find the story: List elements within it that define sections, moving the storyline forward.
Maintain Point of View: To draw readers into the story, let them experience the story from the person’s point of view. Let the reader feel the clenched fists, sting of the tears, or pounding heart.
Grab the Reader: Find a moving, touching, relatable, or shocking part of the story that will grab the reader. Add a little of the setting and all the emotion possible. Use that as the first ten to fifteen pages, or at least the first chapter. From there you can add the background, then move the story forward chronologically. If you do it right, the reader will be hooked and immersed in the character, and they will be compelled to finish reading the book.
Ask for Details: In your updates, ask questions to get the right feeling for their emotions. How did they feel at a certain point? What were they thinking? What did it spur them or someone else to do? Did they expect this? What had they hoped would happen instead? How did they pray at certain times? Did God speak to them through His Word? What did God do to let them know what to do?
Setting: This can be added a little at a time within the narrative and dialogue without having a whole chapter or paragraph about a house or room. Using all the senses allows the setting to enhance the story. Let the smoke from the fireplace linger on their clothes without mentioning the fireplace. Let the reader hear the crunch of the snow from their boots and feel the breeze flutter their sleeves. Adding these elements within the story draws them into the scene without adding a lot of unnecessary description. You don’t want to lose the reader in too much narrative.
Dialogue: A narrative can become boring. To break it up, add dialogue between characters that move the story forward. Avoid adding conversation that could be summed up as “exchanged greetings.” Let the dialogue say something about the storyline or the character—their fear, dialect, desire, dreams, and loss.
This is also where you need to keep in mind the person’s natural dialogue. Use their words and phrases. This is their story, and it needs to be authentic.
Body language: Not everything has to be told. Sometimes, let the person twirl their hair, pound their fist, squirm in a chair, break out in a sweat, or crumble to the floor. Let the reader feel what is happening to the person rather than try to explain it.
God: Keep in mind the God element of the story, and be sure to insert the holy moments, prayers, fervent or faltering faith. Let the person experience hardship, then grow and see God at work. Keep it real and to the theme.
Arc: Even memoirs need a story arc. If you are a pantser, set the essential elements of the story, place them in a chart, or at least have an idea where you want the story’s climax. After this climax point, the story arc should move at a more rapid pace, as you would in fiction.
Resolution: Nothing can ruin a great story like a poor ending. Give the reader a sense of satisfaction with the ending. It can be happy or sad, but it needs to “feel” like a resolution. If their desires, fears, or hopes, are clearly established early in the story, make sure they are addressed in the ending. Tie in the theme with a memorable phrase that evokes emotion.
Lisa Worthey Smith weaves stories of faith, hope, and love, which draw readers to a closer relationship with God. She and her husband are empty-nesting in north Alabama, where she writes with a cup of Earl Grey by her side and manages Kerysso Press.