Writing True-Life Stories

Bestselling author Cathy Glass shares some tips on how to write memoir.

True-life stories, also known as inspirational or misery memoirs have enjoyed so much success in recent years that they have become a genre in their own right. This type of writing probably began about ten years ago with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes,and Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It. The book shops now stock so many of these books that they often dedicate separate shelving to the genre. According to the main publishers the success of True-life stories is set to continue; as I write there are three in the Top Ten non-fiction bestseller charts - including one of mine, I Miss Mummy.

My first book Damaged (Harper Element. Feb 2007) in which I told the heart-rending story of a child I had fostered spent three months at number 1 in the non-fiction bestseller charts. I have written five true-life stories now with sales so far totaling .7 million, and my agent is talking to directors about a film or television series based on my books. I must therefore be doing something right when it comes to writing in this genre; but what?

I am often asked by those who are thinking of writing their own true-life story if there are guidelines - a formula – like the ones for writing Mills and Boon romance; and one that I can pass on? Not a formula as such, but having spent some time analyzing how I write these books I have come up with a few suggestions which many be of use if you are about to embark on memoir writing.

Writing your own memoir: If you are writing your own memoir as opposed to ghostwriting for someone else, you will know the story better than anyone, and here lies your strength. Write straight from your heart. Think back and remember. When and where did it all begin? Where were you? Think of the setting. What could you smell and hear? What could you see through the window? What was going through your mind? Be there and relive it, although this may be very upsetting if you have suffered; but writing is cathartic and writing it out is a therapy in itself.

Goal: Have an aim for your book (a remit) - a message you want to impart to your readers. It may be one of courage, faith, hope, or sheer bloody-minded determination to survive and succeed. Remember when writing your true life story you have an emotional contract with your reader that you don’t have with any other book. You owe your reader honesty and in return you will have your reader’s unfailing empathy and support. I have been completely overwhelmed by the thousands of emails I have received from readers who felt they knew me personally from reading my books, and knew how I felt. Some of these emails are on the comments section of my website.

Create scenes: Write scenes, not a monologue. Although the memoir is true it doesn’t have to be a diatribe of abuse and suffering. Write it as you would a gripping novel, building scenes, creating tension, and using cliff-hangers at the end of chapters to keep the reader’s interest. There will be highs and lows in your story, so keep the reader on a roller coaster of emotion. There will be some very sad scenes, some horrendous incidents, and also some funny incidents. If there is constant and unrelenting degradation and abuse the reader will soon become desensitized and lose empathy, and therefore interest.

Episodes: Make your book episodic; described in detail events that are of interest or highly poignant to your story. Leave out the mundane unless it is an intrinsic part of building the scene. You can kaleidoscope years into a couple of lines or spread half an hour into two chapters as necessary.

Presentation: Your memoir should be approximately 85,000 words and double lined spaced; in electronic format; so if your are writing in longhand (as many still do) at some point you will need to type it onto a computer ready to email. If it is your first book the agent and publisher will also want a detailed proposal, even if your book is already written. Guidelines for writing a proposal can be found on line. Books are sold on proposals so a proposal is as important as the actual book.

Read widely: Read plenty of books in this genre. Analyze how and why the book works and what makes it successful.

Ghostwriting. If you are going to write a true-life story for someone else you will need to get to know the person and their story as well as they know it. Allow weeks for interviewing before you begin. Google ghost writing – Andrew Crofts is an expert and has a very informative website.

Good luck with your writing, and enjoy. If I can be of any further help please email me through my website: www.cathyglass.co.uk