Writing your memoir can be a daunting task. Yes, you want to tell your story, and ideally, everyone would find it fascinating. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t always work that way—especially with millions of reading choices out there, and memoirs by figures like Barack Obama, Martha Stewart and Bono.
The key is identifying your theme, because a strong, unique, influential or relatable theme is the key to a great read. Here are seven tips to figuring out the theme of your story.
1. Why Should Anyone Care?
That’s right—I’m starting with that question right out of the gate. However, it’s an incredibly important one, because with all the reading choices out there, you have to make yours stand out to a reader. This is especially true if you are writing for the general population, expecting to rake in some earnings. Most memoirs are written because the author went through an unimaginable experience (i.e. toured the world as a rock star, or held hostage for a decade), but by the end the reader finds that they are able to relate.
Even if you are just writing this memoir for your family, you must ask yourself,
“What do I want the reader to get out of this?”
“What do I want my daughter/son/grandchildren to learn?”
“What am I trying to say?”
“Who am I trying to help with this book?”
“What makes my memoir special that people should care to read it?”
Always keep these questions in the back of your mind, because the answers might pop up when you least expect it.
2. Figure Out The Best Way to Write Your Memoir
Everyone works differently, especially when it comes to the creative process. If you haven’t started writing yet but have recognized what you want to write—SIT DOWN AND WRITE. The biggest issues authors have? Procrastination—and talking about writing, instead of actually DOING it. Sit down and schedule time to write. If you find that you’re not the creative type, and hate writing, hire a ghostwriter to help you do it.
I have authors who are slow to type, so I create an outline for them and they answer the questions and discuss memories into the recorder. There are other authors who work best when being physically interviewed. Still others write an entire draft and I help trim it down and cut out the “fat.”
The point is if you talk to someone else about your memoir, they may recognize something you don’t about the overall voice, theme or structure.
3. Look for Clustered Events
You don’t have to figure out your theme right away. Some authors know exactly what they want to write about, and have a point. But others just want to share their life story, because everyone has something to share, whether it’s overcoming challenges, celebrating accomplishments, or sharing inspiration that got you through tough times. I have edited several memoirs from authors who aren’t necessarily famous or in the public eye, but have sold well—because a theme was established.
If you don’t know if off the bat, once you get a substantial amount of pages have others read it. Ask what if they are identifying with a theme, specific story or idea. Inquire what the words are saying to them personally. You may be surprised at their answers.
4. Plot Your Scenes
Once you start writing, hopefully the ideas keep flowing out of you. At least, that’s the best-case scenario. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing about—every book has scenes. Some authors work best if they plot out their scenes in an outline before hand, while others finish a very rough draft, and then identify the scenes from that.
You can identify scenes by picking out the major turning points. Think of your life as a river: Every twist, curve and waterfall drop signifies a major event in your life, whether good or bad. List these out on a sheet of paper. When you’re done, notice if there are any in your life that really affected you, that maybe you didn’t recognize beforehand.
During this time, look for patterns. For example, are all your major events happening during a certain age or career period of your life? Maybe it will help you identify your theme.
5. Gather Opinions From Friends, Family—and Strangers
Your friends and family are often going to tell you what you want to hear. When people love you, they are either going to truly be interested in your story, or else don’t want to hurt your feelings. This is ALWAYS the case, but no matter what, you should still have people you aren’t necessarily close to (or even know) read your work.
Often we are much too close to our work, and can’t see the clear story. We don’t notice the common threads, whereas someone else might notice you talk about your travels a lot, or the fact that your career path centers around a competitive nature. Gather beta readers, and join chat rooms or groups where authors critique each other’s work. Attend workshops at local bookstores and connect with other writers there. When there are people providing an objective view of your work, you will truly get an honest opinion.
6. Determine How You Changed From Chapter to Chapter, and from the Beginning to End
Take a close look at each chapter, and identify how you changed during that chapter. If there isn’t a strong occurrence, then you may need to conjoin chapters or revaluate your content. How did you go from A to B within a chapter? Connect the beginning to the end in some way.
Now, read your book from cover to cover and try to identify the same thing. Who were you in the beginning, and who are you now at the end? If you still can’t identify a theme or pattern, then you need to dig deeper into your life story, emotions and soul. Maybe you are suppressing certain memories that could add much-needed depth to the memoir. It is a memoir, after all—the epitome of your life, “warts and all,” as one of my authors often declared. It’s these stories that have the most affect on a reader and teach us all.
7. Realize Your Memoir’s “Elevator Pitch”
Every author has to come up with an elevator pitch, no matter what type of book they crafted; fiction, non-fiction, historical, poetry, etc.
Really cut to the meat of what you’re trying to get across, and sum it up in one sentence. This will describe your memoir in terms of what you learned during the time covered in your memoir, and in turn will identify your theme.
Figure out the elevator pitch or the sound bite of your book. Mine is usually something along the lines of “It’s about a four year slice of my life after my husband’s death during which I learned there is a silver lining to grief.” Summing up your memoir in terms of what you learned during the time covered in the memoir will help you find your theme.