Memoir: How to Write a Salable Personal Story and Enjoy the Process

This is the outline I use to teach workshops for San Diego Writers Ink and the Southern California Writers Conference. I hope this information is as helpful to you as it has been for the participants. If you have questions, or you would like further assistance, email, and I’ll be happy to help.



  • The three things that will make your memoir successful:


  1. Write your story as the illustration of a universal theme

(what Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-standardized Text for Writing and Life (TMP), calls “The algorithm”, p.23)

Exercise 1: Write your own statement that describes your memoir below.


“This is a story about ____________________________ and the illustration is




Examples: – This is a story about the struggle for love and acceptance, and the illustration is Howard Shulman’s disfigurement as an infant and subsequent abandonment by his birth parents. Running from the Mirror by Howard Shulman

– This is a story about self-discovery, and the illustration is Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey choosing places to explore pleasure, spirituality and love. Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert

– This is a story about emotional survival, and the illustration is Augusten Burroughs’s childhood, coping with his mother’s mental illness. Running with Scissors

– This is a story about love and loss, and the illustration is Nicholas Sparks’s relationships with his family members. Three Weeks with My Brother

Ask yourself: Who are you in your memoir? What is your position as the expert who has experienced your theme? What is your purpose; that is, what’s in it for the reader?


  1. Tell the truth (be real, for better or worse, because that’s what gives you credibility).


  1. In the revision phase, make every word/page drive your story forward in a context the reader can relate to (show don’t tell). If a sentence or scene doesn’t relate to your theme, leave it out.


“…when you have a flash of understanding on one topic, you can write an essay. Write an essay and you tackle a scene. Master the scene, and you can write seventy-five of them and have yourself a book. And here’s an unexpected dividend: Write a book about an aspect of your life, and you might gain perspective since … success in writing is all about which details you choose to emphasize.” (TMP, p. 34)


  • Write what scares you without worrying about family members’ or others’ reactions, and see what you have. If necessary, change names as Augusten Burroughs did in Running with Scissors.



Exercise 2: Think of a scene/event you want to write about or revise.

    • Set the timer for 20 minutes
    • Write continuously until the timer goes off without editing or pausing to think. You may end up in a completely different place. That’s okay.
    • When the timer goes off, stop writing and read what you’ve written. Underline or highlight lines that surprised you or phrases you particularly like.


Structure: Exercise 3:

Although Brooks discusses novel structure, people writing memoir can learn a lot from what he says about how to design a story to engage the reader. After all, you’re telling a story, and YOU are the hero on your journey. Here’s the gist of story structure:

  • Create a “through-line” to encapsulate your story in one or two sentences. Your algorithm is a good place to start. Your through-line will help you focus your manuscript, no matter what draft you’re working on. Read descriptions of memoirs with similar themes on the Barnes and Noble and Amazon websites. As you read examples, ideas for your through-line will form.
  • On index cards, jot a quick sentence for each scene/event you want to include in your story, so they can be sorted into four categories:
  1. SET-UP: begin your story with action
    1. weave in background for the conflict in your story, introduce your inner demons, build tension up to the…
    2. First Plot Point, the event that changes everything, the thing that sends you on your journey (about 25% into your story, at the conclusion of your set-up).
  2. RESPONSE: begins after the First Plot Point, shows the things you do to survive, persevere, etc. to the antagonistic force.
    1. Pinch Point 1: About half-way through the response, include a reminder of the antagonistic force still gunning for you. Then continue to build tension up to the…
    2. Midpoint Shift: an event that doesn’t necessarily change the story but changes your attitude, possibly how you will handle the situation from now on.
  3. ATTACK: These scenes show the reader how you do things differently as a result of the Midpoint Shift, maybe you’re proactive, stand up for yourself, begin to grow and deal with your inner demons.
    1. Pinch Point 2: About half-way through the attack, include another look at the antagonistic force, either how good or how bad things are going for you. Continue to build tension (eg. until all is lost, it looks like you might not survive)
    2. Second Plot Point: Happens at the end of the attack, possibly the climax, an event that produces new information, giving you the tools you need to be the catalyst to your story’s conclusion. Final point to inject new information. (about the 75% mark)
  4. RESOLUTION: Climax may be the second plot point or shortly thereafter. The following scenes show how you’ve grown from the person you were at the beginning of your story and tie up loose ends for a satisfying conclusion.

If you don’t like index cards, you can list scenes under the above headings and move them around using your cut and paste functions on your computer. The object is to assemble your story within your universal theme in an arc that will compel the reader to want to know what happens next. Using this method, you may be surprised how many personal epiphanies you experience on your writing journey.

  • First draft (affectionately termed “the vomit draft”)
    • Set a daily writing goal and stick to it (example: write a page per day (more if time permits or the spirit moves you) – if you start tomorrow, you’ll have your first draft in a year or less).
    • Choose a specific period during the day to make writing part of your routine.
    • Don’t worry about finesse and grammar at this stage. Just get the words into your computer (or on paper).
    • Use an Internet storage, such as Google Drive or Drop Box, and/or a thumb drive to continually save your manuscript file to avoid losing your work.


  • You have to get the facts right to maintain credibility with your reader.

Here’s a list of references or computer tabs to keep handy to check your facts:


  • Steps for the first round of editing/revising
  1. Come up with a great opening line to get the reader into your story.
  2. Make sure by the second or third page, the reader knows what’s at stake, what’s unknown, and what to value if that important thing is stripped away.
  3. Look for the portions of your first draft that resonate within your theme and do research to flesh out those scenes (hint: use the references above).
  4. “Kill your darlings…” a la Stephen King’s  On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
    • Cut your fancy phrasing (frivolous similes, metaphors, adjectives and adverbs), clichés, unnecessary anecdotes
    • Cut entire scenes inconsistent with your theme(s) and put them in a separate computer file labelled “Deleted Scenes” for possible later use.
    • Handout: Words to Cut from Your Writing

Rule: If it doesn’t move your story forward, delete it!

  1. End your manuscript with a reference to how your story began.


  • Steps for the second round of editing and revising:
  1. Decide how paragraph 1 sets up your story, how paragraph 2 differs and adds to your foundation and so on. Refer to your graphic organizer (which will probably have been revised several times) to make sure your manuscript hits the high points.
  2. Vary the language. Use synonyms to eliminate repeated words, revise to include active verbs rather than forms of be so the reader can SEE each scene.(handout “Show Don’t Tell)
  3. Avoid sentences that make grand conclusions. Don’t tell the reader you had an epiphany; show what you went through and your evolution along the way.
  4. Search for all the sentences that begin with the word “I” and rewrite at least 2/3 of those sentences to begin with action. (example: “I hid the key in the silverware drawer.” versus “After bringing in the groceries, I hid the key in the silverware drawer.”)


Exercise 4: Reread your “quick write” (Exercise 2) and choose a paragraph to revise. Delete the junk words, replace passive verbs with active ones to “show” your scene.


  • Steps for the third round of editing:
    1. Print out your manuscript.
    2. Circle every noun/adjective pair and every adverb (expresses manner or quality, place, time, degree, or number.  -ly words, such as “quickly”; quite, then, there). If those adverbs and adjectives are necessary, use the most effective ones, otherwise delete.
    3. Look for long sentences. Either make them more concise or separate them into two sentences.
    4. Finesse the words you use to create emotion and more vivid pictures, remembering each phrase must be judged for tone, your voice.
    5. If you notice yourself skimming a paragraph, consider deleting it. If it doesn’t interest you, it’s a good bet it won’t interest your reader either.
    6. Revise your computer file with all your edits on your hard copy.


  • The fourth round of editing: The Critique Group



  1. Join a group with the understanding that you are each other’s advocates. Feedback must be kind and constructive to make a manuscript the best it can be.
  2. Choose a format as a group. (How often will you meet? In-person or online? Will you take turns reading an entire manuscript for everyone to critique? Read a number of pages and give each writer 20 minutes for feedback?)
  3. Don’t judge the writer’s or other “characters’” actions, and avoid offering therapeutic help or interjecting your own tales of woe.
  4. Talk about the positive things you notice first.
  5. Give suggestions on how weak scenes may be fleshed out (become more vivid and emotional via setting, action, etc.) and site inconsistencies.
  6. End on a positive note.

IMPORTANT: The writer being critiqued must write down questions or notes and refrain from commenting until everyone is finished giving feedback.


  • After revising with the feedback you choose to listen to, read your manuscript aloud. You’ll catch all kinds of things to fix when you hear the words you’ve written out loud.




NOTE: Before you embark on publication, have a professional edit your book! The competition for readers’ attention is fierce. To give your book a chance to be successful, your manuscript has to be in the best possible shape it can be.


  • Traditional publisher: Query agents to find one to pick up your project to pitch to publishers. Memoirs are a difficult sell unless you’re famous or well-known in a specific niche (examples: you’re a martial arts champion; you have a huge blog following).





No matter what avenue for publication you choose, if you want your story to sell, you’ll have to participate in promoting your memoir. Myriad websites offer advice on how best to market your book, but one of the best I’ve found is the blog Diana Urban writes for Book Bub.

Here’s an example:


Happy writing!

Trish Wilkinson