Structuring Your Memoir

Lately I have been thinking about my book proposal again, which is a good sign to me that I’m perhaps lifting a little bit out of the depression that’s been holding me down for over a year now.

I saw a notification for a course taught by Allison K. Williams entitled: “Nail Your Memoir Structure by Thinking Like a Novelist.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the course itself. But it sparked some ideas in my mind about how I’ve structured my memoir.

I am working with a developmental editor on my book proposal (this in itself is exciting, to get a thorough, unbiased viewpoint on my proposal), and one of the things I said to her in our introductory phone call was that my chapter summaries were boring. A book proposal includes a number of things for describing and marketing your book, but the chapter summaries are critical because they outline the book’s trajectory, what topics it will cover, how, and in what order. The chapter summaries have to read like a mini-version of the book itself, and mine just don’t seem up to the task.

That’s where Allison’s course comes in. As soon as I started reading the course description, I realized that my chapter summaries could definitely benefit from thinking like a novelist: in terms of story arc, inciting incidents, climaxes, dramatic action, etc. What is the arc of my book – what overarching story does it tell? What are the inciting incidents that push the story forward – where do I have to make choices that take me down one path or another? What is the dramatic action that pulls the story forward and makes the reader want to keep reading? Allison’s best tip: the story is about what you did and how you changed.

Image from here (free for commercial use).

Based on these questions, I mentally ran through my story outline and picked out what I saw as the overarching story of my book, and the inciting incidents where I had to make choices to follow one path or another. The next step will be to identify the timing of dramatic action sequences that draw the reader into the story.

Other tips I got from the promo material for this course were that not everything has to go into your memoir – you can leave stuff out (I knew this, but wasn’t acting on it. There are a few sections I’ll be removing). And that you have to start with an engaging hook – something I think I have but will likely rethink once I hear back from the developmental editor.

I really hope that Allison’s course will be available for replay – I think I could get a lot more out of it! Here’s a blog post she wrote about memoir structure that ties into the course itself.

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2 thoughts on “Structuring Your Memoir”

  1. Congratulations on re-engaging with your book. I’d be interested to hear more about the process of working with a developmental editor.

    Also, with non-fiction, is a proposal really de-rigueur? I spent countless hours several years ago crafting a book proposal for a work on economy and the environment. The proposal garnered some interest but no takers. Last year, I re-engaged with the subject as more of a book of essays — still fact-based but with a greater element of personal opinion. I just said “screw the proposal; I’m just going to write this thing.” So the question is, can a non-fiction book get published without a proposal?

    • Hi Andrew – a proposal is definitely expected with a non-fiction book. It’s the best way to get an agent who will then sell your book to a publisher. You can write the book and then write the proposal if that works better for you. But you definitely need a proposal to get that book into the hands of an agent.


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