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Times Past: Themes and Focus

By Irene Waters

Although memoir is a true story of a particular part of your life, it must still have structure if you intend for others to read it. Firstly you have to decide what is the story that you want to tell. For most memoir writers it will be the most exciting, heart-pounding, significant time of their lives. For some, this may be their childhood to their coming of age (known as a bildungsroman) whilst for others, it may be an illness, an experience that happens later in life or it could be the relationship you had with a particular animal or a business venture you had undertaken. In reality – it can be any theme you choose. These days there are even immersion memoirs where a person will undertake some task or live amongst, e.g. footballers, for months and then write a memoir on this experience. For most of us, we know our story, and we know what has had the most impact on us, and that is what we decide to write about. For me – it was when my husband and I, as newlyweds, went into partnership with the paramount chief of an exotic island in the Pacific in the running of a small resort and tour business.

Early in the writing process you also need to decide for whom you are writing. Is your audience only yourself, your family or are you planning to publish and sell your memoir to the public. When I started writing my memoir the plan was that it was being written for my family. I included detail that interested them as they knew the friend that helped us load a pile of timber into a container that was eventually to be the house we built on the remote island. As I ventured further into the story my focus changed and I decided that this was a story that had wider appeal than just my loved ones. However, this change meant that the chapters I had already written had to rewritten to remove information that no-one, other than my family and friends, would have much if any interest in knowing. If, however, you are writing for your family then lots of detail about the family will be of interest to that readership. Early in my blogging I came across a chap that had published his memoir. I purchased it on Amazon only to find that this was a story that had been written for the family and had little appeal to the wider audience. It may have been worthy of some blogging of the more interesting aspects but I don’t think it should never have been put up for sale to the public without a lot of editing. If you are writing just for yourself then you can be free with details of a personal nature that might be therapeutic for you to acknowledge but should never be let into the public domain.

Having decided on a theme and a focus the writing begins. How you do this is an individual choice. Some people free write their first draft, just putting down all thoughts on paper. In the second draft, they add the structure. Personally, I write in a structured way from the start, but in second drafts I may change my starting point. Lee Gutkind, the father of creative nonfiction, suggests that you should open with a scene as it is crucial to draw the reader into the narrative immediately. Scenes are active. They show instead of tell and have dialogue and high definition scenes. Scenes and reflections on the effect that this has had on the author’s life should be put into the structure of the book. Again, this can be done in numerous ways either intermingled or set apart from each other.

Once the first draft has been written it should be re-read looking for the themes, focus, scenes, and reflection. If part of the narrative has nothing to do with the theme, even if it is a great story, get rid of it. If it doesn’t suit the focus, edit so that it does. Rewrite to create scenes where necessary and add reflection where there is none.

I would also suggest, as has Stephen King, Lee Gutkind, and many others, that reading memoirs that are of a similar theme to your own is a helpful exercise. Doing so allows you to see what works and what doesn’t work regarding structure. Sometimes the ones you don’t enjoy teach you more than those that you think are fantastic. Analyse what works and what doesn’t work. Reading is also useful when it comes to selling your book to a publisher as they will want to know – where on the bookshelf would this sit? Be able to tell the publisher who your memoir will appeal to. Mine will appeal to those that like travel memoirs, true-life adventure, small business and those wanting to make a change in their life. Knowing the themes and the focus will tighten your writing. I’m looking forward to joining in the discussion on your views of themes and focus.

The prompt for this month’s Times Past is a little different to those normally given. This month I am asking you to reflect on the biggest change in your lifetime. This can be a social change or a technological one or even one of both. Please join in giving your location at the time of your memory and your generation. An explanation of the generations and the purpose of the prompts along with conditions for joining in can be seen at the Times Past Page. Join in either in the comments or by creating your own post and linking. Looking forward to your memories.


  1. calmkate says:

    Great explanation of the whole process thanks Irene, very interesting reading!

  2. You are in control of this topic, Ms. Waters! You make me think.

  3. Charli Mills says:

    Irene, themes, and focus are certainly a part of fiction writing, too. It’s the crux between planning and pantsing — the writer who plans develops themes and focus alongside plot and action. The writer who writes by the seat of their pants is often writing to discover the themes and focus. Would you say that memoirists could also approach the development processes differently, or do you think the memoirist should define a focus first? Great topic!

    • That is an interesting question Charli. I guess the free write memoirists are the pantsers and those that write with theme and focus already decided are the planners. I have to thank you for that explanation of pantser. To my shame I have heard the term many times but have never understood its meaning. I think like fiction – how you ultimately write the memoir depends on your own style and there is no right or wrong way. The crucial point is that you decide prior to publishing and edit to have the themes and focus clear by the time you do.

      • It’s a very good point, Irene, about making a decision prior to publishing and edit to the themes and focus.

        Thank you, Charli to point out the planners and pantsers. When I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. I feel like she is writing when she is walking, eating, thinking about the present but thoughts takes her to the past. She writes as thoughts come. The book is categorized as a memoir.

        I usually plan before I write but I have to learn to fly by the seat of my pants, then do the editing with the audience in mind.

        Thank you for your insights, Irene and Charli.

      • Thanks Miriam. Yes Eat pray Love is definitely a memoir and a great example of sticking to theme and knowing who the audience was going to be. I think Elizabeth Gilbert would love hearing you say that. I’m sure that is the effect she wanted to have on the reader as she took them along on her journey to find self. In reality this is, according to Gilbert, edited meticulously to the point that Gilbert doesn’t believe that you get the essence of her in it. She says if you want to see her in print you need to read her fiction where the editing was not done to the same extent (because it was fiction) and she can see herself much more clearly in it.
        It might be interesting for you to try a variety of techniques and seeing the difference it makes to the story you tell. I always find it interesting writing the same piece from an adult perspective and a child perspective. The child is always much more emotive and it is a good way to recover the emotion felt at the time.
        Thanks for joining in the conversation Miriam.

      • You’re welcome, Irene. I have Elizabeth’s fiction and memoir. I haven’t read the fiction yet.
        When I took the writing course, one rule was that if a child writes from a first person perspective, she wouldn’t quote the parents’ conversation. It wouldn’t include the third person narrative unless she was told about the conversation. I try to remember that when I write.
        In a memoir, when I write certain events or places, if I don’t have a clear memory, how do I include the research in to add some clarity instead of a blurry memory?

      • There is nothing wrong with having a blurry memory. Mary Karr is probably the one who excelled in a blurry memory. It depends on what the research is as to how you might include it. You can try and stimulate your memory by using photographs, google earth is a good one for relooking at places and often when you see the places you know those places that are no longer there come flooding back. I like to work through rooms. Each room of the house if you can start off by describing what you do remember and then it is surprising the stories that will come back to you. It is also surprising how much you simply don’t remember. I remember when my best friend was dying she was troubled by how little she remembered of her sister who shared a room with her. She had vivid memories of what she and I did but she couldn’t remember doing anything with her sister. It made me think how much do I remember of my brother’s life and I have to admit there are big blanks punctuated with some memorable incidents. If the research is of general events that you didn’t know at the time you have to seamlessly slide them in. If they don’t fit seamlessly they probably don’t belong in the narrative. I don’t know whether that has been of any help to you but difficult to answer without knowing the specifics.

      • Thank you, Irene. I included some description and the environment of Hong Kong from the research because my memories are bits and pieces. I ended up delete them because it sounds like research. Yes, I’ll try to include it as seamless as possible without sounding like research.

      • You recognised it yourself that it didn’t flow. Good thing to cut it.

      • Yes, I did. I find that the good thing for me to do is to read it aloud and try to read it fast. That’s just my way to test. I still remember the days I read to my students. A good story is one that flows!

      • Yes I do that also. You pick up so much more that way.

      • Yes, I’ll do it more often.

      • Charli Mills says:

        Writing has so many layers. And yes, pantser is an odd term, but really it’s free-writing. In the end, no matter our genres, we need to do both planning and by the seat of our pants writing. Thank for pointing out that the themes and focus must be clear before publication.

      • It could be interesting, as I said to Miriam, to change our technique and see what the difference is to the narrative.

    • Hi Charli, I agree with you that both fiction and memoir have themes and focus. In fact, as I’m learning how to write a memoir, the advice is to write it as a novel. I take it as “not writing it as a documentary” but present it as interesting as a fictional story.

      • Charli Mills says:

        That’s a good way to describe memoir writing, Miriam! I think it’s so good for writers to discuss process across their genres. We can learn from each other, too.

      • It’s so true that we can learn from each other. It’s amazing of how our ideas build on each other in the process of discussion.

      • Hi Miriam, carrying on the conversation here! I would love to hear about your writing course, as Charli suggests, a guest post about it would be great and I would love to hear about the memoir classes 🙂

      • Thank you, Sherri. The memoir classes at the Conference will begin on Thursday this week. I learned a lot from the Writing Course. I kept the lessons and my writing as well as the comments the mentor marked on my assignments. I would like to highlight the lessons I learned also. When I took the course, it was $395 for 10 lessons (takes about 10 month with the email back and forth, reading), it cost $895 currently, and the fee is good for 2018.
        I’ll share the notes about the memoir classes as Irene suggested. Thank you for your comment, Sherri. <3

      • I hope the course is well worth it for you Miriam. When I first made the decision to chase my writing dream, seriously that is, I took a creative non-fiction course by post, sending in my assignments and receiving the responses back the same way. It gave me the confidence to strike out with submitting articles to magazines for publication, and then I started my blog (5 years ago) and then began to bash away at the first draft of my memoir a year later. And here I am, still writing it! I look forward to reading your memoir class notes with great interest and enthusiasm Miriam. Enjoy! <3

      • The institute where I took the Children’s Writing Course is getting 3 times expensive. I was guided to submit to magazines also but life was too busy then. I want to take the sister institute for adult literature. But this conference costs $350 for 3 days. So maybe it’s worth to take the course. <3

      • Yes, definitely not cheap. I also took a home correspondence children’s writing course many moons ago (using a word processor, ha!) but I started it during my third pregnancy. After the baby, well, say no more. It would be another 20 years before I got down to serious writing again. Your course will be well worth it, I’m sure Miriam, as you glean all you can from it, and we can all discuss! Look forward to it! <3

      • Sherri, Did you take it from Institute of Children’s Literature and the sister group for writing for adult? The more we talk, the more similarity I find. I took the Children’s Literature from them

      • I might have done Miriam, I was living in California at the time. I still have the book from it, will take a look and get back to you!

      • Wow, it would be interesting to .know that we took the same course. A blogger provided a free learning website. I’ll take a look at it later. Getting ready to visit my daughter in Portland.

      • Hi Miriam, just a quick drop in to say the only book I have, which has obviously travelled with me ocean to ocean is called ‘Writing for Children & Teenagers’ by Lee Wyndman. 3rd Edition, 1989. Which makes sense, since I took up the course in 1991. I seem to remember getting the book as part of my paid subscription, but maybe I bought it separately. The Institute of Children’s Literature does sound awfully familiar, but I don’t have any more paperwork or anything left from that time. At least, none that I’ve found recently. Who knows?! I had this idea for a children’s book with my daughter illustrating it when she was about 7 years old. Even now, I think about that book that wasn’t… Anyway, I’ll be disappearing for a little while with my hubby on holiday, so I look forward to catching up with you once returned. Have a lovely time with your daughter in Portland! I’ve been there, stopping over when driving through from CA up to Vancouver. Ahh…such memories! Lovely chatting Miriam! <3

      • Hi Sherri, I must have hoped to do something about my children’s stories. I saved the whole binder with notes. I save the drafts and re-writes.
        Have a wonderful holiday. I’ll talk with you more when we all are done with holiday and visiting. <3

      • Glad you saved yours Miriam. Thank you, and you too, and yes, we’ll catch up again soon! 🙂 <3

      • Absolutely agree. A true story told well.

      • It’s interesting to see the visuals of the thinking patterns of different cultures. One pattern is zigzag without going anywhere. One is like a target straight to the point (I think it’s American). One is circling from the farthermost of outer area, eventually get to the center (it says that’s Chinese). There are about a dozen patterns. I wonderful if they are reflected in their writings.
        I watched some foreign movies, some just dropped in the middle of an event without an ending – it’s almost like a reality show.
        I hope I write with a theme and focus.

      • I have never thought of visuals of thinking patterns. Now you have pointed it out I will keep an eye out for it and perhaps do a little research on it when I have the time.

      • I have a book and the patterns are on the first page. I can’t find that book anymore. Let me know if you find the patterns.

      • Yes I will. It sounds fascinating.

      • Yes. 🙂

      • The book is by Kaplan 1966, but Amazon doesn’t have it. This post only includes 5 patterns.

      • I’ll keep an eye out for it in second hand shops. Kaplan rings a bell but there are probably lots of them. Thanks for the link.

      • I placed an order in the county library. Our local library doesn’t have it, so they send out a loan to all the library in the county.

      • Charli Mills says:

        That’s so interesting! Thanks for sharing, Miriam!

      • Yes, Charli, Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir is as interesting as her best selling novel. I feel sorry for her to give a fortune for the divorce. She chose not to talk about it. As we discussed previously, her theme and focus was something else.

    • Hi Irene and Charli, thinking of my own experience and just to add to the discussion briefly, I thought I had my focus, it being a memoir and a true story, naturally, and it was just a case of getting it down on paper. How wrong I was. The focus changed totally once I had my title, and suddenly the story began to slot into a very different place, or places. I have had to reign in a second vein to the story, otherwise all the cutting I did would only be filled with it. I really struggled with the theme and focus once I started the second, then third draft and rewrites, and got in a muddle with it all. Great advice Irene to be sure to have the theme and focus in place before publishing. Certainly helps with being to tell people, should they ask, and what is your memoir about?

      • Lovely to see you join the discussion Sherri. I’ve missed our walks and talks of late. That is interesting that the title made you realise what your focus was. It sounds as though you possibly have two memoirs there if the secondary story would fill the pages and possibly obliterate the story you are trying to tell. Yes I think it is crucial to be able to tell people what it is about. An exercise that you need to do for publishing is describe your work in three to five words, a paragraph (about the size of a back cover blurb) and in a page. Honing it down to 3-5 words really makes you recognise the focus and perhaps that is what your title did for you.

      • Lovely to join in Irene, you know I can’t resist a discussion about memoir with you! I too have missed our walks and talks, which is why it’s even more lovely to catch up at the Ranch. Yes, that was my problem I realised, and I kept going off on the wrong tangent/focus. Stories I wanted to write, but not necessarily right for the memoir I really want to write, at the moment at least. So I am putting aside those cut stories into a separate Word file (rather than deleting them as I used to do!) and will revisit them at a later time. Perhaps, once the entire draft is finished, I’ll be able to see more clearly which of those stories might belong after all. But if not, then perhaps a second memoir, which is what I sort of thought all along. That all seems way too daunting at the moment though. Although I do understand that we need to have the next project already singing in the wings for when the publisher asks that million dollar question. I have kept that exercise to mind ever since you first told me about it and it is not easy is it? But it is vital. Still working on it! Thanks again Irene 🙂 <3

      • Sherri, I shared with Charli at one point that I changed the title of my memoir several times. I started writing as a biography chronologically. I gave it a title. Then I got stuck at some point, so I wrote about the events I had better memory and left the previous writing alone for a while (haven’t gone back yet). I have another title of the second part of the story. Even the second part would cover many years, so I may divide the second part into two. Now I have to think of titles for 3 parts of the story.
        To sum up, I understand what you mean by changing the title and thems and focus.
        Hope we’ll keep each other company as the writing continue! <3

      • It is an ongoing exercise, that is for sure Miriam! We write and then the story sings back. The flow changes, then the focus and then the theme. Which of course, changes everything, arrgh!!!! I am working from the beginning forward and the end backwards at the same time (the middle sitting tight for now, hopefully just about where it needs to be…I hope!). Sometimes I find that if I get stuck at one part, by switching to the other, my memory shifts. But not always! So yes, I understand fully onging changes of title! Yes, certainly, Mirian, we will keep each other company! Have a great time at your course 🙂 <3

      • I’m glad to have met you and Irene to talk about writing memoir. I felt lonely and helpless when I got stuck sometimes. Let’s help each to move on. 🙂 <3

      • I’m glad to have met you and Irene too Miriam 🙂 Writing is a lonely business at the best of times, and being able to share the journey makes all the difference. That’s what is so wonderful about Charli’s literary community here at the Ranch, enabling all of us to connect in such ways and support across the genres, including our small group of memoirists! Help is at hand indeed! 🙂 <3

      • Yes, you’re right, Sherri. Talk some more later. Getting ready to go to the conference. 🙂 <3

      • 🙂 <3

      • <3 <3

      • Charli Mills says:

        I feel like I sit back and drink a cup of coffee, and take in what all you lovely memoirists are discussing. And yet, I resonate with what you are explaining, Sherri. A wandering focus can happen in fiction, too and just as you describe, it’s often in the revision process. In part, that’s why I created TUFF. It has helped me find the focus of an idea, my novel, and even synopses. But I also think that drafting gives us exploration. It’s learning to do both, isn’t it? Thank you for adding to the rich discussion!

      • It’s because of you that we are all here having this discussion Charli, so thank you greatly for the opportunity! I have learned so much from our combined discussions about the writing process, and how much of that dovetails from memoir to fiction. TUFF is a brilliant way to help find focus, as you say, in both memoir and novel writing. I didn’t think finding that focus would be a problem in a memoir. A novel yes, because to me (not considering myself a writer of fiction!) it goes hand in hand with developing the plot, characters and story arc, so I can see why TUFF would be an invaluable tool for fiction. But not until I began wading in on those rewrites did I understand the focus problem for memoir too! I figured, well, it’s a true story, what’s the problem? Just tell it how it is and yes, of course, edit and make sure it’s flowing etc. etc., but how little I knew! Then again, as you say, drafting is a great way to explore. Those first fruits of raw literature, right? I love how you have brought our little group of memoirists together at the Ranch Charli, how writing flash fiction has enriched our writing and our discussions so much. I am honoured and thrilled to be a part of it. So I say again, Thank You! <3

      • Charli Mills says:

        Sherri, I enjoy learning from you memoirists, and as you say, getting to compare processing notes. We all experience the first fruits of raw literature and that’s our first decision — harvest or grow the orchard? I think flash fiction lets us do both. We can do something with our small fruits, discover and continue to grow bigger. I love reading your comments and watching this memoir group dig in and discuss the genre! <3

      • And I love being a part of this memoir group within the Ranch Charli, discussing our first fruits whether memoir or fiction, and oh how much we learn from one another, genre to genre! Thanks to your wonderful literary community Charli, here we are! Love these discussions! <3

  4. Reblogged this on Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist) and commented:
    Another post I have written for Carrot Ranch on the themes and focus of memoir.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Thanks for sharing your knowledge with the Ranch, Irene! I have so many ideas rambling in my head for this month’s Times Past Challenge. I’ll see if I can find a focus for them all.

  5. Annecdotist says:

    Another interesting post, Irene, and much of what you write about structure and audience applies equally to fiction. But perhaps the pain of misjudging the audience is greater for personal memoir. One of the first events I attended as an author was in a small panel of new writers at a library. One of the other panellists had published a memoir about what seemed to be a very traumatic childhood, but the writing itself – at least in my opinion from the extract she read – wasn’t ready to be shared publicly. I may be wrong – she might have gone on to sell thousands of copies – but it seemed to me rather sad.

    • Yes, I understand the sadness to expose one’s traumatic experience. When I do counseling, my clients have no words to describe their suppressed emotions. When they read other writer’s experience, they feel that the writer speaks for them and they then could identify their own feelings.

      It’s courageous to be vulnerable and honest to help others to have a voice. I saw on a social media that one person made a post and asked readers to vote “me too.”

      • Annecdotist says:

        I think there’s a difference between being bravely vulnerable and sticking our fingers deep into our wounds and showing that to others. I think fiction can help give words to a nameless experience as well as memoir. I’d rather people share with a therapist than with the whole world.

      • You have a good point. I remember someone who wrote about her childhood experience, I can’t left it out when I look at her present life. It might have been better to write about that experience in fiction. Thank you for your comment, I appreciate that!

      • I agree Miriam that memoir can give voice to those that can’t express themselves and it shows that they are not alone in the world but I agree with Anne that it should be shared with a therapist and dealt with before it is put to paper for publishing.

      • Yes, Irene. It’s so true. Raw anger and lashing out is scary, negative, and destructive. One should seek therapy first, then write it as a retrospect without anger.
        I’ve read so many angry words. Sometimes I know it’s coming and try to skip those and see if there’s any message after those words.

      • Yes – angry words do nothing for a reader and usually it is the author that comes off looking worst in books like these.

      • You’re right, Irene. When I read people’s intro on Tweeter, I don’t want to follow them.

      • Annecdotist says:

        Interesting as I wasn’t thinking of anger at all, more that people are very vulnerable when their stuff isn’t yet processed and probably can’t write about it very well.
        I see anger as a positive (as long as I’m not the target, although a therapist will often need to allow themselves to be) and a step towards healing. Much better than wallowing in depression or being otherwise cut off from feelings.

      • Yes, there is a cycle of grieving. When something traumatic happens, it could cause anger, unexpressed anger turns into depression, therapy could help one to express the original trauma and anger toward the situation or people or even self, only after understanding the anger and process the feelings, the person could start to accept, and eventually forgive.
        It depends on how deep the hurt is. It may take a long therapy to go through the cycle.
        Thank you for your comment.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Anne and Miriam, you both bring up what I often refer to as “processing.” We get a story in our head, but feel its emotion in our heart. We strive to connect heart to heart with readers and let them recognize what is communicated with words for that space they have no words for. Head –> Heart –> Heart –> Head. But that path gets churned up when we don’t give time to process our work. The story remains caught in our heads and shoots out of our hearts with raw emotion to a reader who can’t grapple with it. A well-written (and processed) book has a better chance of being that universal voice for a particular theme.

    • You are right Anne. I think that those memoirs that are written that have a healing power for the writer should most likely never be published and made available for a wider audience. This is one reason why time should be left between the event and the writing to enable the author to deal with any issues they have and thereby be able to step away from the event and write it from a distance. Those traumatic memoirs that are written close to the time are much more likely to have an agenda such as revenge and hatred. You have raised a point that I don’t think I have made although I have put down the reasons people read memoirs – to learn how other people have dealt with a condition you have, to learn about conditions you don’t have, to give voice to those that aren’t able to express themselves etc. What I didn’t say was that people read them to buoyed up, to feel that there is hope at the end or that death will be pleasant etc. If you are left feeling sad at the end I think that memoir was written too soon in the processing of the event. One of the questions I was asked by my supervisor was: “are your husband and you still married?” She then went on to tell me that a publisher wouldn’t consider the memoir if we weren’t. I was surprised at that as my memoir is not of our relationship woes but rather a true life adventure but she was adamant.

      • This is a very good point, Irene. My clients have all kinds of issues. We assign reading to them to do between sessions. They realize that they are not alone, but they are also seeking advice, lessons, and ways to deal with their own. My first hero was Abraham Lincoln because he persisted in his learning and overcame circumstances and became a leader of the nation. We need someone to lift us up. When my clients feel a little better, they try to disconnect from people share their experience because they don’t want to have pity party anymore.

      • As a counsellor you have much more experience in these early days than I do. It is very interesting what you say is the process.

      • With good guidance, they could come out of their angry cocoons in nine months, depending on the years in abuse and hurtful situations.

      • Annecdotist says:

        Ha Miriam, nine months? It was more than nine years for me!!!

      • Annecdotist says:

        Thanks, Irene. Do people read memoirs only to feel better? Don’t they also read sad stories that make them feel better about their own lives? Or to empathise? I think those reasons definitely apply to fiction.

      • All those reasons you’ve given and more are why people pick up a memoir to read but they also want to know the subject of the memoir has a happy ending even if that ending is death. They don’t want to wade through pages of misery only to find the author still equally as miserable as they were at the start. I think the purpose of the genre is to uplift and perhaps inspire – if they could do it so can I.

      • Charli Mills says:

        Ha! That would suck to read through misery to end miserably.

      • Wouldn’t it. You’d feel quite suicidal at the end.

  6. mrmacrum says:

    Well, this is something I have not thought about doing in a structured way. On my regular, write, rant, and bellyache blog, the origianl BoZone, I have many memoir posts of the “Pantsing” variety as Charli calls them.

    I think I am going to try Irene’s approach and see how it goes. She has given me a focal point. Let us see where it leads.


  7. This is a wonderful explanation of the difference between telling a story and having a conversation. One of the disadvantages of self publishing is that the wisdom of an editor is missing, and a writer’s self indulgence rises to the top. What could be a compelling story becomes a personal rant. I’ve been dissuaded from self pubbing for this very reason, but also am determined to write my own work with a sharp knife and a sober eye.

    The other really important thing is knowing your audience, i.e., knowing your genre. If you don’t know for whom you’re writing, you probably don’t know what kind of story you’re telling. That’s not only problematic in terms of your likely audience finding you, it also allows a writer to wander all over the place, thinking every little thought is important.

    I think you were wise to have gotten your masters in creative non-fiction once you realized your story had broader appeal than your family. You’ve learned to articulate the most essential elements for a bigger audience, and have certainly identified the most evocative parts of your experience.

    Have you thought of offering courses in how to write memoir?

    • Charli Mills says:

      Good points, Sharon! And I do agree that Irene would make a fantastic teacher of memoir writing. I’ll be working that angle with her on a Carrot Ranch New Zealand writing cruise (it’s a dream I have, but I’m persistent in following my dreams). She was focused once she identified her book had appeal beyond family and made a decision that supported its success.

      Independent authors have many choices. Like Irene, one can take classes and in different settings from Udemy to University. Writers can work with different editors (there are three levels of editing) or alpha and beta readers. Or hire a mentor or writing coach. I believe authors should remain in control of their work, but also be clear in the type of editor/coach/instructor/reader they work with. And good for you in keeping a keen eye on your work. We all need an extra set of eyes, too!

      Yes! It’s so important to keep the reader in mind. I like the saying, “Write first for yourself, and revise next for your audience.” It’s also good author branding to develop a reader persona for your brand, but the added benefit is that it gives a writer a person to think about when writing.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion!

      • I’m going to a 3-day Writers’ Conference next weekend and will attend the 3-part memoir writing. I’ll share notes with Irene (that she requested).

        My experiences with editor/mentor are that (something I appreciate), they would do the editing without changing my voice and my style. My dissertation editor/typer even made a couple suggestions for certain spots and let me pick one that I liked.

        I had a personal mentor when I took the children’s writing course, he was also very good at keeping my writing style when helped me do the editing.

        Charli is right in that author should have control of what they write when hiring a coach/mentor/editor. Thank you for the quote of “Write first for yourself, and revise next for your audience.”

        I don’t know where to find such editor though when I need one in the future as a self-publisher.

      • Charli Mills says:

        Miriam, if you’d like to share any of your experiences from your up-coming Writer’s Conference, you could submit an essay to Raw Literature. Thank you for sharing what experiences you’ve had with editors and mentors. You bring up an important point about working with someone who doesn’t override your voice and style. I work with indie authors on developmental edits and final proofing. I’m actually updating my services next week so look for that page! However, I don’t do line edits but can recommend The Write Divas. You can always ask an editor to edit a sample page to get a feel for their work and if it matches the support you need. Again, the author stays in control.

      • Hi Sharon, just to chime in here and say yes, I agree, Irene would make a wonderful teacher of memoir, and already is to me from all the great advice I’ve gleaned from her posts at her blog and here. And count me in on your NZ cruise Charli and Irene, just the very thought of it thrills me!

      • Charli, thank you for your suggestion of how to find an editor. I think it’s a good idea to have the editor editing one page and see if I like the process.

        I’m submitting one non-fiction story to an anthology (I will write about that process when it is done). I originally wrote that to another anthology. It’s a sequel of a popular book. The guideline for submission said that they get submissions all over the world, only the ones get considered will be notified. It will take one year to find out.
        I don’t want to wait around, so I submitted it to another anthology. The editor manager is working with me one-on-one right now. He doesn’t “correct” my writing, he makes detail recommendation. I just submitted my first re-write. I’m waiting for his email to do the second re-write. All the re-write must be done by July 16. This is another great learning, one-on-one mentoring I have. I’m so thrilled about the process. I’ll know what my story looks like by July 16.

      • Charli I’ll definitely be in on the New Zealand Cruise or cruise anywhere. You should get in touch with a couple of cruise companies and say you would run a writing cruise – you would probably find that they would give reductions to those organising the sessions and it would be open to all the cruise passengers – not just those at the ranch but there would be plenty of time for us to really get to know each other better in person. I am getting excited.
        Good on you Miriam for all the effort you are putting in and I’m looking forward to hearing more about each as they progress. It would be good to read an essay in raw literature on the process and the knowledge gained.
        Sherri glad you’ll be coming on the cruise. I’m excited.

      • Charli Mills says:

        Irene, the cruise is part of my vision! Yes, I should get the ball rolling and find out what is needed. I know they will do group rates. We can at least start planning! We can have a panel of Carrot Ranch memoirists!

    • Thanks Sharon. For many self-publishing is the only way possible to get the book out there but I agree there are so many unpolished works that one gets frustrated. I believe that whether you self-publish or go through a mainstream publisher your work should be edited by a suitable person other than yourself. There is no excuse for these types of errors. Unfortunately when you are an unknown author it is difficult to get an audience with a publisher (although lately it seems to have freed up a little) and to go through an agent, for many, is a prohibitive cost. All your work is polished Sharon and I’m looking forward to seeing you in print.
      Yes, knowing who your audience will be is crucial. It is also a question that publishers will ask – what books would your book fit between on the book shelf, what reader will your book appeal to. To know this you have to research your genre widely and read within it as well.
      No I haven’t thought of teaching a memoir writing course but perhaps I should think of offering something at our local U3A. I am happy to share here and I enjoy the conversation that ensues as it makes me think and it keeps my conclusions clear in my head.
      Thanks for popping to the ranch to read.

      • Irene, I agree with you about errors in a book due to short of an edition. When I did my dissertation, no typo was allowed. Finding an editor is a good choice.

      • Absolutely imperative Miriam.

      • Irene, yes, that’s right.

      • Irene, I’m a member of a publishing FB group. One person asked about the tax issue in Australia. The admin of FB gives this link to apply for US TIN – Tax ID Number. Do you want to read about it to see if it helps.

        That person asked question about publish Kindle on Amazon and need social security number. So the US TIN would be used.

      • If you publish on amazon you have always had to get a U.S. tax number. I will read it as I will one day publish on Amazon. Thank you for passing it on. The problem isn’t publishing it is purchasing eg self published books on amazon American and English will not be able to be purchased in Australia. That really cuts down what I can read as amazon Australia does not have such a large range of books. I feel as though censorship has returned. I also have a vast library on my kindle and if I change to amazon Australia I lose all I have purchased. As I have many nonfiction books that are in frequent use I don’t want to lose them. So do I spend a lot of money buying a device that I can set up independently to join amazon Australia and leave my current device with amazon US but not be able to purchase anything else on it. I don’t really have the spare cash to do that so I am in a quanderry.

      • It’s so complicated. There are a lot of authors in my FB publishing group voice their concern and asked lots of questions.
        Make sure it won’t delete your US account when you set up Australia account. I use iPad before, Amazon had it as my kindle auto delivery. When I used my PC to register kindle. my iPad device was deleted and from that time on, only deliver to my PC. So find out before you do it.

      • Charli Mills says:

        Miriam and Irene, it’s so complicated self-publishing globally. It makes us reliant on the distributors. But I had no idea that kindle AU didn’t have as many books as others. Does sound like censorship.

      • The book publishers have always held Australian readers to ransom and I think Amazon responded to this pressure.

  8. Norah says:

    Interesting post, Irene. I have read a lot of memoirs, most of them excellent and agree with your advice. I would be employing it should I ever decide to write a memoir of my own.

  9. Hi Irene, as always, I very much enjoyed your memoir post and I look forward to taking part in your Times Past challenge. I will have to focus on what it is I want to write about! Such a great discussion here, I wish I could spend more time and join in for longer. I was fascinated to read about your memoir writing change of heart, from family reading to publication for a public audience. As you might remember in our previous discussions, it wasn’t until I bashed out the first (bloated!) draft over the course of a year until I found my title. Once that title came to me, it changed the way I needed to structure the entire story. Four years later, on the fourth and please Lord, final draft, I do believe it is finally coming together. It is so true about what might seem a good story sometimes needs to be cut altogether if it doesn’t fit the theme. I also took encouragement from your Lee Gutkind suggestion to begin with a scene. That was my original beginning from the very start, then I kept changing it. Finally, I came back to the original scene. So reading that has helped me a lot to think maybe I am at last getting it where I want it to be. I consider you my mentor Irene. No pressure then 🙂 Thank you Irene and all for a great discussion.

    • Thank you Sherri and I am honoured that you consider me your mentor. I have loved the discussions we have had on memoir and I am looking forward to reading your memoir. I’m also glad to hear that you feel it is finally coming together. A good feeling indeed. I’ll have a glass of champers to celebrate that thought.

      • I do Irene, and have ever since you first found me and encouraged me in my memoir all those years ago 🙂 I love our discussions and can’t wait to read your memoir too. We will keep that bubbly chilled at the ready…but it won’t hurt to have a glass or two beforehand just at the thought of it! 🙂 <3

    • Sherri, I responded to you about the changing back and forth with my writing. I started in November 2017, but one blogger friend said it took her four years to write. I’m encouraged by it.

      I went to a presentation by a best seller author who published 8 books so far. Her books are not long novels, but she said it took her a year to write one novel – I think the word counts barely qualify for novels.

      Let’s keep the conversation going.

      • Ha…now I had responded to you in another comment to say that I am in my fourth year of my memoir rewrites (in what I hope is my final draft), before I read this reply! So, yes, I am encouraged by it too Miriam! I bashed out my first draft, finished in September 2014. I’ve had several breaks in my rewrites since then due to family circumstances, and have found each break of flow more difficult to recover from each time, but it was during those times away that I discussed with Charli the importance of processing. I hadn’t realised that was what I was doing until she explained it to me. It freed me greatly, not having to get so hung up on not being able to get to my memoir, as has Irene’s long standing advice to remember that we have other lives that need to be lived! I have certainly found that the time away, despite not being what I wanted at the time, has greatly benefited my memoir writing, letting it breathe and bringing the true focus and theme to light. Not what I intended, but hugely beneficial as it’s turned out! Of course, each of us has a different time line. I get incredibly frustrated that it’s taken me this ‘long’, and I have many other writing projects I want to get my teeth into (and have worked on other writing these past 5 years while working on my memoir), but I can’t focus on them until I have finished my memoir. I don’t know how some do it, such as the best seller author you mention, being so prolific. It must be a very different approach indeed. Irene will correct me if I’m wrong, but in a recent discussion from her memoir posts, she answered my question about word count, that typically for a memoir it is between 70 – 80K, especially if a debut memoir. My first draft was 125K!!!! The first draft took me a year. Then the real work begun with the rewrites to form the structure. Yes, let’s keep the conversation going. Irene’s monthly memoir posts here at the Ranch are a great place to do that, as well as her blog of course. Great chatting Miriam and Irene! <3

  10. robbiecheadle says:

    Everything you have said here, Irene, makes a lot of sense. A memoir does still need structure and some sort of story line to make it interesting to a third party reader.

    • Yes it does Robbie. Like fiction a memoir needs to have peaks and troughs and one or more climaxes. Many memoirs do well for the first half and then they seem to become flat for awhile before they end. Like fiction you have to maintain the suspense and the desire to know more.

  11. Hi Charli and Irene, if the timing of the cruise is right. I’ll come onboard. My husband will come along and he would want to stop by “home” – Australia.

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