Guest post by Joe Bunting
How do you start writing a book about your life? How do you take your whole lived experience, all the memories and emotions and events, and then write a first page? Or even a first sentence?
It’s not easy, right? I’ve written a memoir, a real life adventure story set in France called Crowdsourcing Paris, and yet the thought of starting a new book about my life is stressful. There’s so much to choose from, so many stories to tell.
How do you do it? How do you start a memoir? In this post, that’s the question I want to answer for you. If I were starting a new memoir today, taking everything I’ve learned from writing over ten books, this is what I would do.
How NOT to Start Your Memoir
Most people just start writing. They pick a place in their life, often when they were born, and just start.
This is what I did, too. It’s also why, by the time my memoir was published, I had deleted or rewritten over 20,000 words from the beginning.
I didn’t have a plan for my memoir, and because I didn’t have a plan, it made the whole writing process ten times harder.
It wasn’t until my second draft that I realized how important a plan could be for a memoir. I should have known better. I had used book plans for every book I’d written before, but because memoir felt different, easier somehow, I skipped the planning process. It was the biggest mistake I made.
How do you plan, though?
The 3 First Steps to Start a Memoir
1. Write a Premise
The first step to write a memoir is to summarize your whole memoir idea in one sentence.
You might be thinking, “Wait. How do I summarize my whole life in a single sentence?”
And the answer is, you don’t. Because here’s the thing: most first-time memoir writers want to tell their whole life story in their book. But that’s not actually what memoir is good for. Great memoirs, stories like Wild and Eat, Pray, Love, are about a specific situation in a person’s life and the lesson they learned from that situation.
You can’t write a memoir about your whole life, and if you tried, it wouldn’t be a very good memoir. Instead, do this:
Write a memoir about only what you can fit in a single sentence.
Your single-sentence memoir premise should contain three things:
- A character (i.e. you) in two words
- A situation
- A lesson
Here’s an example from my memoir Crowdsourcing Paris:
To raise $600 for his dream Paris trip, a cautious writer accomplishes 12 uncomfortable adventures given by his Internet followers, and through it all learns that the best stories come when you get out of your comfort zone.
Let’s break it down, based on the 3 elements of a memoir premise. First, you have a character, a cautious writer; then you have a situation, not quite enough money to make it in Paris; finally you have a lesson, the best stories come when you get out of your comfort zone.
How can you share your memoir idea in a single-sentence premise?
2. Create a Memoir Plan
A good plan is more than an outline. I’m a big fan of outlines, but if you identify more as a pantser than a planner, a memoir plan will still be a huge help.
I’ve found that writers who start with a plan are much more likely to finish their books. In fact, I’ve found with my 100 Day Book students that those who created a book plan before they started writing their books were 52 percent more likely to finish their books within 100 days.
What does a memoir plan contain? I include 10 things:
- Premise. You’ve done this already above!
- Deadline. As Jerry says, “Establish a sacred deadline.” We all need deadlines to accomplish our goals, and a memoir is no different.
- Consequences. But a deadline alone isn’t enough. You also need a consequence to give your deadline teeth. If you have a traditional publishing deal, your consequence is that if you don’t hit the deadline your publisher will be upset and may eventually require you to return your book advance. For me, when I was writing Crowdsourcing Paris, I wrote a $1,000 check to the presidential candidate I most disagreed with and asked a friend to send it if I didn’t hit my deadline. I was very focused!
- Genre. What type of story are you writing? For example, it could be an adventure story (as Crowdsourcing Paris is), or a love story (like Eat, Pray, Love), or a coming of age story.
- Intention. You’re more likely to get into a writing habit and accomplish your goals if you imagine yourself doing the work. So imagine when, where, and how much you will write each day. Then, write it in your plan.
- Team. No one can write a book alone. All books are, at some level, crowdsourced. I find it’s good to make three lists: people who will hold me accountable, other writers who will give me feedback during the process, and one or two editors who will give me professional feedback.
- Inspiration. “Books are made from books,” Cormac McCarthy said. What other books will inspire you during the writing process, preferably other memoirs that tell the same type of story?
- Reader Avatar. You can’t make everyone happy. But you can make one person happy. Who is the one person you will think of when you write your book?
- Personal Marketing. Thinking about the writing process from beginning to end, even through the publishing and marketing process, will make you much more likely to actually get to the end. So spend some time thinking about what kind of marketing you will do for your book after it’s published.
- Chapter-by-Chapter Summary. Only after going through all of the previous steps do I spend time outlining my book. Why? Because outlines change throughout the writing process, but if you have a deadline and consequences, you’ll finish your book no matter what. Spend time outlining, yes, but don’t make it the only or even the most important part of your planning process.
So that’s the memoir plan. To get a handy worksheet to fill each of these out, you can find my memoir plan worksheet here.
3. Write Imperfectly
First drafts are almost always terrible.
The goal for the first draft of your memoir shouldn’t be to write a perfect draft. That’s impossible.
Instead, try to write the worst first draft ever.
Perfectionism will derail your writing faster than any other thing, leaving you mired in writer’s block.
Instead, be aggressive about ridding yourself of perfectionism for your first draft by actively trying to write the very worst first draft you can.
Just throw your story onto the page, full of comma splices, awkward dialogue, and all the typos in the world.
The amazing thing is that if you’ve done the planning process right, your draft will probably turn out pretty good, or at least good enough to get started with the second draft and make your book much better.
It’s Time to Start Your Memoir
Writing a memoir isn’t easy. For me, it took five years of blood, sweat, and tears.
But it was so worth it.
Someone told me recently of Crowdsourcing Paris, “I’ll be thinking about your memoir for the rest of my life.”
When your story can connect with readers at such a deep level, it makes all of the hard work of writing a memoir worth every moment.
So get started.
Joe Bunting is the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in Paris, now available here. If you’re writing a memoir, you can also click here to get a free guide with 10 tools every memoir writer needs.