Friday, November 27, 2009

Secrets from the Memoir Coach

Secrets from the Memoir Coach: How to Write Your Life Story

Ina Hillebrandt

If you need an incentive to write your memoirs, consider these points...
More people may be interested in your memoirs than you think -- not just family and friends but also people in the same profession or with similar experiences, or those who have lived in the same parts of the country.
Memoir writing is easier than ever before, thanks to new technology and the availability of professionals who can help you, usually at a reasonable price.
Throughout my experience in helping writers, I have found that once they are assured that people will actually want to read what they write, authors’ next concerns are where to start and how to organize their life stories. But it’s really easier than it seems.
Structure. Writing about events in chronological order is the simplest structure to follow. If you’re dealing with a shoe box full of notes that have accumulated over the years, it’s usually not difficult to sort them by date. Also consider variations in structure, such as flashbacks, which can be useful for adding interest and for showing readers how recent events relate to much earlier ones. You can also structure memoirs by topics or by milestones in your life.
Example: I recently helped a client write memoirs that were structured according to the many houses that she had lived in.
Mistake: Thinking of your memoir as a novel in which all the events have to be woven together. In fact, memoirs can be structured as a collection of short stories that aren’t necessarily related -- or if they are, readers will make their own connections.
Audience. If you’re writing for family members, you may not need to describe in detail relatives whom readers are likely to know. On the other hand, if your memoir is also aimed at former business colleagues, more thorough descriptions will probably be necessary.
As you start writing, it’s helpful to remind yourself of past events, which can be a great source of inspiration. Examples...
Old pictures, scrapbooks, home movies and letters.
Classmates, old friends and relatives you may not have spoken with in many years.
Your earliest memories. In my case, it was when I was two years old and my father came home from World War II. (My aunt told me to say, “Hubba-hubba,” when he walked in the door.)
There are many resources available to aspiring memoirists today...
Learn from the pros. One of the best ways to learn about memoirs is to read what others have written. Two of my favorites: Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life (Scribner) and Michael Caine’s What’s It All About? (Random House).
Though it’s not a memoir in the conventional sense of the term, Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Ballantine), about the legendary racehorse, is written in an excellent narrative style.
Computer assistance. Today, people do most of their writing on a computer with a word-processing program that checks spelling and grammar. But if you dislike typing, consider using a speech-recognition software program that lets you dictate into a microphone attached to your computer. The program converts what you dictate into a text file.
If your computer doesn’t have a speech-recognition program, you can buy one for about $50 to $200 from Staples, Office Depot and other retailers. The leading program is Dragon Naturally Speaking made by Nuance Communications (
Typists. If you prefer writing in longhand, you can hire a typist to transcribe what you write for about $3 to $5 per page, depending on where you live. And depending on how legibly you write, a typist can usually transcribe 1,000 to 1,500 words an hour.
Writers groups. In most parts of the country, there are groups of amateur writers who constructively criticize each other’s work and who often invite professional authors to offer advice and inspiration. To find a group, enter “writers group” plus the name of your city into your Internet search engine. Most groups welcome new members and are either free or charge about $100 or less in yearly dues.
Caution: Not all writers groups are helpful. A client of mine showed a memoir to a writers group only to be criticized for writing about the South and using Southern expressions in her dialogue. In fact, those were key strengths of her memoir.
Best: Attend a few meetings. If, after each session, you feel energized and inspired, it’s probably a good group for you.
Editors. Should you hire an editor to assist you before you start writing or publish? Probably not, if your memoirs are meant only for family and close friends. But if you have a wider audience in mind, an editor is almost a necessity -- because even the best writers make errors.
Friends with editing experience will often help out free of charge. Otherwise, you can find an editor for hire by phoning the English departments at local colleges, contacting a local writers group or searching for “editors for hire” on the Internet. Also, the Independent Writers of Southern California (323-653-4555 or 877-79-WRITE, can often put people in touch with an editor, regardless of where you live.
Before hiring an editor, talk with three or four references to make sure that the editor has worked satisfactorily on memoirs similar to yours. Cost: About $2,000 per book, half of which is usually paid up front and the remainder on completion of the editing.
When you are ready to publish your book...
Have the typewritten manuscript copied and bound at retailers such as FedEx Office for a typical price of $13 to $15 per book.
Self-publish by one of the companies that specialize in this type of printing, including Infinity Publishing (,, and Cost: About $8,000 for 1,000 copies of a 200-page paperback book.
Create a Web site for your memoirs. This has the advantage of letting others comment on your work. Cost: $250 to $1,500 or more to set up a Web site (includes producing three designs for approval, and should be easy to use and have tools that bring visitors to your site) and $25 to $50 a month to maintain it -- update information, forward or handle e-mail and forward book orders to the author. To find a Web site designer, look for a site you like and contact the Web designer. Or ask friends who have a site to give a recommendation.
Important: To prevent others from profiting from your memoirs, copyright them. Cost: $45 from the US Copyright Office (202-707-3000,
Also, be aware that there can be consequences if you criticize or discuss the private lives of people who aren’t public figures (and sometimes even if they are). Safeguard: If your memoir is critical of any living person, retain a lawyer familiar with publishing to review the book. Cost: $5,000 to $10,000. Ask what the cost will be before engaging such an attorney.


Bottom Line/Retirement interviewed Ina Hillebrandt, founder and president of Los Angeles-based Pawpress (, which offers a wide range of services to writers, including editing, coaching and help with self-publishing. She is author of How to Write Your Memoirs (Pawpress).

Coach Sherrie says: Keep your eyes open: I plan to start an on-line class in Life Story Writing sometime in the first half of 2010.
Send me an e-mail if you're interested: or

1 comment:

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