What We Can Learn from Novel Writers
I don’t read many thrillers, but I have seen a few Stephen King movies. I remember how Misery made my ankles hurt and The Green Mile made me cry. Perhaps my favorite Stephen King story, however, is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
Although King provides advice for novel writers, so much of his writing tips transfer to memoir writing. I selected some of his (and my) best advice for this article, but I highly recommend you read his memoir if you want to improve your writing. Let’s start at the beginning of the writing process.
Memoir Writing Tips
1. Believe you are capable of telling your own story. King says, “I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened.” [p.18] Write what you know (or what you’ve researched). Your own story is the easiest story to tell because no one knows you better than you do! Believe. Write. Revise. Repeat. Stephen King and I have confidence in you.
2. Write smaller stories. I talk about 5-Minute Memoirs™—stories that can be heard or read in 5-10 minutes. King writes his memoir as short vignettes and separates each piece with a number (e.g., -1-, -2-, -3-, etc.) rather than a story heading or chapter name. Consider shorter essays that make the process less daunting.
3. Read memoirs. If you want to write your life story, read lots of autobiographies and memoirs. As a child, King read, “approximately six tons of comic books” [p. 27] plus WWII stories and Jack London novels featuring animals. He comments, “Imitation preceded creation; I would copy Combat Casey comics word for word in my Blue Horse tablet…”[p. 27] When you read lots of memoirs, you gather ideas about how to craft your own story.
4. Don’t be dismayed by your inner critic or an outer critic. King says, “If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.” [p. 50] Critics will always try to detain and derail your writing. Be polite and listen, but remember why you started your project. You have a story to tell, a legacy to leave, a family to empower.
Your own story is the easiest story to tell.
No one knows you better than you do!
- Michelle Beckman
5. Plan for multiple drafts of your story. (P.S. If you work with me, I will see many drafts. You will see two.) King advises that the rewriting process is intended to remove any details that are not part of the story. [p. 57] Your objective is to stay on point. Every word should have a purpose. If it doesn’t, strike it. Plan for two drafts and a polish.
6. Don’t write alone. Even Stephen King needed a cheerleader, someone who believed in him. [p. 74] Find a writing buddy, a memoir coach, a group, or a class to encourage you and recognize your consistent progress.
7. Some parts of your life will be hard to tell, but just keep telling. King says of his book Carrie, “…stopping a piece of work just because it is hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it…” [p. 77-78]
One of my Storytellers hired me as her memoir coach because she was ready to tell the difficult stories related to her divorce. She knew the story, but needed help transferring the story from her head and her heart to her pen and paper in a forgiving and honoring manner. If the story is too hard for you to write alone, consider telling it to your writing buddy, memoir coach, group member, or classmate first.
A 5-Minute Memoir™ is a chapter in a book or an
audio recording that the average audience member can
read or listen to within 5-15 minutes.
- Michelle Beckman
8. Use your own words. I say, “Your story. Your voice.” Tell the story using the words that you normally say with your family at Sunday dinner. King, of course, paints his own memorable picture. He advises not to “dress up your vocabulary”. [p.117] Naturally expand your vocabulary, but don’t use longer words just because they pop up in your thesaurus; don’t be ashamed of your shorter words.
9. Time box your effort. You could write your life story for the rest of your life. Instead, set a specific number of months that you’ll work on your book or a certain number of words that you’ll write each day or week. (Weight lifters measure in pounds. Accountants measure in dollars. Writers measure in words.)
King says he likes to write about 2,000 words per day. [p. 154] I recommend that you plan to write 1,200-2,500 words per week. That’s about one two pages, a 5-Minute Memoir™. You can write a medium-size book with 50,000 words and a few photos—about 4-6 months of writing if you stick with one 5-Minute Memoir™ per week. Then, start your sequel!
Want more memoir writing tips?
Read my article 4 Editing Hacks I learned from Stephen King.
Footnote: King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Pocket Books/Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2000. Print.
Share your stories often.
Save your life stories forever.
You won't regret it.
This publication is based upon personal experience, research, and education. Although the author has made every reasonable attempt to achieve complete accuracy of the content in this article, the author and Sunday Dinner Stories assume no responsibility for errors, omissions, or inaccurate information. For privacy reasons, some names may have been changed or omitted. The content is not intended to replace common sense, legal, medical, or other professional advice; it is meant to encourage, inspire, educate, and inform the reader. That means you should consult with your attorney, doctors, and other professionals if you have any concern about implementing our advice. But we hope you'll consider us your memoir professionals and will consult us for all your storytelling needs!
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