Tips for Crafting a Winning Memoir
Memoir writing covers a huge range, from autobiography to a single incident. Before beginning to write your entry, read the competition requirements carefully and check you have complied with each one. For the purposes of our particular competition, we have specified that it be an incident, or a series of related incidents, from the writer’s own life.
Check you have also complied with all the conditions, including the word count, as to exceed this brings instant disqualification, so your entry never reaches the judge, no matter how good it may be. Each condition is there for a reason and must be complied with for your entry to be valid.
What it is:
It is a recollection of an incident, or a series of related incidents from the writer’s life, always told in the first person, a slice of life with a point to it. In this case it is not the whole cake.
What it is not:
It is not a mini biography encompassing a whole life, no matter how dear or special that person may have been. Nor is it an obituary, with an incident thrown in. It is definitely not a rambling reminiscence of an era, or a holiday trip.
Must it be true?
Essentially yes, but like any recollection, it is filtered through the imperfect medium of personal memory, so some liberties can be taken in the telling.
So what is it that sets a memoir apart from the very first reading and puts it into the short list, rather than that larger pile destined for shredding? A well-
1. Start with impact, gaining the reader’s attention immediately so they are encouraged to read on. Don’t waste precious time on setup details but include them as you go along. A memoir that doesn’t get going until halfway down the first page has already lost.
For example: ‘My uncle never meant to run over my auntie, he just wanted to give her a scare.’
2. Have a point, not a floating reminiscence. Make this clear from the opening sentence and hold to it throughout, not wandering off course in unrelated incidents.
3. Limit the characters. Don’t allow your main character to be lost among a cast of thousands.
4. Draw your characters well so they come alive for the reader. Don't tell us about them but instead let them become real to the reader through dialogue, actions and attitude.
5. Have an arresting title, a lure to draw the reader in, one which is relevant to the point of the tale. Definitely not something bland like A Holiday, or My Nana.
6. Have a conclusion that satisfies, rounds off the point raised in the opening sentence. Beware of ‘preaching’ to the reader, telling them what to think, or being obvious. Let them draw their own conclusions. Be careful not to tie everything up in a neat bow. Do you really need that final sentence/paragraph?
7. Conversely, don’t leave your ending hanging in mid-
8. Take care with all the basic writing skills of spelling, punctuation and grammar. If you are a wordsmith, these are the tools of your trade. Above all, don’t rely on your computer’s spell-
9. Make good use of dialogue to break up the narrative. A solid block of narration can slow a tale down. If the character is alone and the dialogue is internal, take extra care to make observations that keep the reader standing by your side throughout.
10. When you have edited your memoir, made the corrections you can see necessary, have someone whose writing skills you trust read it over for you. Our brains see what we think we’ve written, not necessarily what’s on the page. Others can find anomalies you would miss.
11. Finally there is the elusive factor of readability. Your memoir doesn’t have to be startling, but it does have to draw the reader in, saying ‘have I got something to tell you!’ It can be funny, sad, shocking or tame, but it must hold the reader’s interest, and this comes down to good writing skills.
If your entry was unsuccessful, try a rewrite and submit it somewhere else for another chance.