Sunday 20 September 2020

Writing Tips: My Memoirs

So, you want to write your life story? An ordinary person’s autobiography is very unlikely to be published – but look at Sylvia Smith. She wrote about a life devoid of incident in a deadpan, direct manner that is both poignant and funny. 

If your life has been unusual, if you can take the reader into an unfamiliar world, if your experience is relevant to a topic of the day, publishers are more likely to be interested. Give the reader the inside dope about life as a stripper, lumberjack, circus artiste, zookeeper, nun, butler, tutor to rich children, cab driver. Early struggles are more interesting than the record of a successful career. Joan Rivers ends the first volume of her autobiography on the eve of her big break.

It helps to keep a diary, or have a good memory, or both. Some people use Facebook as a “blog” about their lives – I would read a compilation. Books have been made out of diaries found chucked in a skip.

Be particular, not general. Recount specific incidents, rather than "Every day we..." or "We always..." or "Mother used to...". Junk adjectives like "wonderful, marvellous, amazing". Avoid clichés like “her smile lit up the room” or “she was a tower of strength”. Prune similes ("It looked like..."). You don't have to be “literary”. There's no need to exaggerate incidents until they become “amusing” anecdotes. (And don't borrow anecdotes from others and pretend they happened to you.)

Recall sounds, smells, textures. Give details such as brand names. What happened on your first day at school? What games did you play outside at break? Who were your schoolmates? What did they wear? What was the pattern on the sitting-room wallpaper, your mother's apron? Margaret Forster recalls her mother getting a job during the war and being able to buy herself some smart clothes – like a navy edge-to-edge coat. What did you eat for lunch? Chef Nigel Slater describes his childhood and youth through food.

Write as you speak. Why not record your memories and then type them up, or have them transcribed? Include conversations.

When you've finished your story, get it proofread by a professional. Once it's all shipshape, send it to an agent: they're listed in the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. If none of them wants to take you on, or the agent can't interest a commercial publisher, you can still publish your book yourself (self-publishing) by uploading it to Amazon. 

There are companies that promise to publish your book for a fee, making it available on Amazon and a few similar outlets, but this is not the same as commercial publishing. Your book will not be distributed to shops, or reviewed. They are what we used to call "vanity publishers".  Self-publishing is just as good!

If you want the chance of a review, you need to send out copies yourself to publications that review books: newspapers and magazines. Accompany the book with a press release on a single side of A4. Address the parcel to the books editor (see Writers' and Artists again, or look for the publication's "masthead" giving names of staff and their various roles – usually on the first page). Give the press release a large, bold, informative headline (LIFE OF A LUMBERJACK, or STRIPPER REVEALS ALL). The first paragraph should give all vital information: book title, author, price, where available. Next paragraph should tell exactly what the book is about. Continue with background on the author, plus a few quotes from him or her, and from people who've read the book. Say that the author is available for interview, and give contact details.

Reading list
Sylvia Smith Appleby House
Betty Macdonald Anybody Can Do Anything
Joan Rivers Enter Talking
Jilly Cooper The Common Years
Margaret Forster Hidden Lives
Nigel Slater Toast
Agatha Christie An Autobiography

Tips on writing fiction here.

Rookie writing mistakes here.
A Short Guide to Writing Well
Writing tips here.

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