You don't need an introduction for your memoir. Really, you don't.

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I spent the weekend at a writer’s conference, taking appointments with people who wanted advice about the work they had done so far on their memoir. Without exception, every manuscript I saw started out with an introduction. Most of them were long. Many were ponderous. All were boring.

I was intrigued to see that every introduction included a version of these elements, written in different ways, and quite often repeated several times:

I wanted to write this book for these important reasons [insert important reasons here].

I’m not a writer, but it’s been on my heart for a long time to write this book.

Wow, writing is hard!

Most of all, I’ve written this for you, dear reader.

In other words, every introduction was the same as every other introduction.

Here’s the thing: nobody cares… yet.

What do readers of memoir care about? They’re there first of all for the story or the hook they’ve been promised.

‘How I coped after my son was diagnosed with autism.’

‘Why I quit my job and went backpacking across Asia for five years and ended up living in a yurt.’

‘How I learned to live like the Eskimos.’

Your readers pick up your book because of the part of your story that speaks to them, or appeals to their curiosity. At the beginning, it is all about them. Later, when they’ve met you on the page and they feel like they know you, it’s about you-and-them. If they like you, they’ll be keen to read the reasons you wrote the book, how you felt about writing it, and how hard it was to do. (If they don’t like you, they won’t care, but that’s another story… you’ve got to make sure you put your whole self on the page.)

So, you don’t need an introduction for your memoir. You might like to include something small and personal at the back as a postscript, but keep it away from the front. Start with what your readers are looking for: the story, a character, and a transformation. Once you’ve delivered that, you’ve earned the right to speak freely.

Beginner writer tips: ways to really get to know your characters

You’ve got a character forming in your head, and you want to get her onto the page, but you’re not 100 per cent sure who she is yet. She’s halfway there, just not quite fully formed. How are you going to get to know her so that you can write her? Here are some ideas.

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Get a starting image

I like to have a visual of my characters before I even start to ask them who they are. So far all of my main characters have been based on real people (in How Not To Be Popular Abby was based on a person I knew who had bright red hair and a smiley, kind face). Pick someone you know, or you’ve seen on the street, or perhaps start with the face of an actor. Searching through a stock photography site might also help you find a visual that is a good basis for your character.

Begin with a personality type

Is your character a choleric or sanguine type? Are they an ENFP or ISTJ? Which of the five natural elements do they identify with most? Check out the Enneagram tool as well.

As you can see, there are plenty of ways to define personality and plenty of tests you could do. I’m not so much interested in the science of these things (and frankly there may not be much) as the helpful descriptions they can give us of how people act and react in life.

Make sure your characters are different from each other

It’s easy to have everyone in your story sound the same, react the same and learn the same way. As well as doing character work for your protagonist, you’ll also need to do similar work for your minor characters. They need to have their own voices and their own stories, even if all of that story isn’t told.

Make sure your character is different from you

Beginner writers often end up creating what’s known as a ‘Mary Sue’ character, an idealised version of themselves. It’s not deliberate most of the time - it’s just easy. Check your character. Does she have flaws? Is she annoying at times? Are there bits of herself she’d rather not show, but which poke into the story and make it interesting? Check yourself: can you bear to write your character’s flaws, or are you somehow too attached to her to show her, warts and all? If you don’t want her to suffer or be exposed on the page, you may have written a Mary Sue.

How does your character make other people feel?

I pinched this question from author Claire Zorn’s writing workshop I attended recently. It’s a useful one because it goes to the heart of the interactions between characters — which is really what every story is all about. You can create a well-rounded, complex, interesting character, but if she doesn’t interact with other characters in a way that brings about tension, conflict and sparks of emotion, you’re not going to have a very effective story.

Related to this is: how does your character speak and act around other people, and what do they leave behind them when they go? Checking out the personality types may give some helpful insights into these interactions with others. Most of the personality tests I’ve mentioned above not only describe personality types, but offer insight into how they might operate when they are stressed or happy, and how they react to other personality types.

Talk to your characters

One of the most helpful things I have ever done to create, uncover, discover and form a character is to ask them questions. ‘Send’ them a list of questions, and ask them to write back the answers to you, in their own words. (Obviously, you do the answering… but you’re just the pen holder for their words. Let them find their own voices.)

Here’s a sample letter for your character with a list of questions you might like to try. I’ve created them for a younger character: feel free to adapt as appropriate for your character.

Dear ___________ ,

Kinda weird, I know, but I'm hoping you'll be interested in answering some or all of these questions. If you don't want to, it's no problem, but it would be cool if you could. I'll start with the easy ones... I think! (:

When you were eight, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Who was your favorite friend when you were ten? what stuff did you do together?

What was your first memory of your mum? Your dad?

Who do you hate most, and why?

When have you felt most alive?

What was the hardest thing in your life when you were 12? What's the hardest thing in your life right now?

Be honest: what do you really think about your mum?

What intimidates you?

When do you feel most confident?

What makes you laugh so much you can hardly stand up?

When was the last time you cried - and why?

Are you a 'lots of friends' person or 'just one friend' person? Why?

What are your favourite shoes?

Dogs or cats?

Meat or veg?

Ice cream or pie?

Mountains or beach?

What music do you listen to when you feel sad?

What music always makes you feel happy?

Describe yourself in one sentence. Or maybe three sentences. Whichever suits you better. (And why did you pick one, or three?)

Your thoughts about swimsuits?

And now I'm going to ask you one more question. I want you to answer with the first thought that comes into your mind. Don't think about it too much, okay? Just scroll down until you find it and then answer it.

....

...

...

...

What do you really want, deep inside?

 
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Cecily Paterson’s online Write Your Memoir course helps first time authors with the confidence and skills they need to tell their story. Her own memoir, Love Tears & Autism won third place in the 2012 Australian Christian Book of the Year Awards. She is the author of seven novels for young teen girls.

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Is my memoir worth writing? (Spoiler: yes it is)

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Some of the writers in my ‘Write Your Memoir’ course get a little worried when they’re starting out.

They want to write their story — but they also don’t believe that anyone would want to read it.

They think: ‘it’s not important enough’ or ‘it’s not significant’ or, and this is something I hear frequently, ‘my life has just been normal’.

Of course, we all know of memoirs that tell incredible stories of bravery, suffering or triumph – the ones that are a publisher’s dream. Those stories can be moving, inspiring and challenging.

But I believe that even the small, ordinary stories are worth telling.

There are two keys when you’re telling a ‘small’ story. First: know what a story is.

It’s more than just an anecdote, or a series of events. It’s more than an emotion or that time when we fell in love, or the trip we took.

Any and all stories contain certain, distinctive elements which work together, in the right order, and in the right proportion, to produce a sense of suspense, build up, completion and satisfaction in the hearer or the reader.

  • The beginning of the story must include an obstacle or problem, and a point of decision.

  • The main character of the story must choose to act, rather than be a passive recipient of circumstances.

  • There must be a significant low point, and a regathering of strength, and some kind of showdown.

  • Finally, we must see change in the main character. The events of the story have affected them internally as well as externally.

The second key is this: understand how your story has changed you.

The transformation of the main character is an important part of a memoir. It’s what makes a ‘small’ story – even a ‘trivial’ story – worth reading. When you are able to write with honesty and vulnerability: “this changed me”, you are on the road to writing a story which might help to change others.

Of course, to be able to write this requires self-knowledge and awareness, the willingness to be open, and the vulnerability of putting yourself out there. But if you are courageous enough to put these things on the page, your readers will truly appreciate it.

Perhaps you’ve been wondering if your story is important enough to write?

If so, I’d encourage you to think in two ways: firstly, what exactly is my story, and secondly, how have these events changed me?

Let me say it again: your story doesn’t have to be a long screed of drug use, abuse or suffering.

It could be as simple as the book my young daughter brought home from the library, about the true adventures of a troublesome puppy and what its owner learned. It seems like a trivial little tale on one hand. On the other hand, my daughter loved it. And she’ll take the lessons from it and absorb them into her own life. Which makes it a worthwhile and valuable story.

This post was first published at Christian Writers Downunder

 
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Cecily Paterson’s online Write Your Memoir course helps first time authors with the confidence and skills they need to tell their story. Her own memoir, Love Tears & Autism won third place in the 2012 Australian Christian Book of the Year Awards.