Three Memoir Writing Failings and Fixes

by Pamela Jane on January 27, 2015

Editors on Editing LogoPost #12 – Women’s Memoirs, Editors on Editing – Matilda Butler and Pamela Jane Bell

Memoir Writing, Memoir Failing, Memoir Editing

Failing? Boy that is a scary word around a writer. Yet, Pamela is on target when she begins her new monthly series on WomensMemoirs. We all have writing failings and we need to … despair? No. Absolutely not. Let’s figure out the fixes and that is what Pamela will do each month. She’ll give us both the failing and the fix. Then all we have to do is to use her advice as we move forward with our writing.

I’m looking forward to seeing what Pamela offers us.


memoir editor

Three Memoir Writing Failings and Fixes

By Pamela Jane Bell

As a writer of many children’s books, essays, and a recently completed memoir (it took me only twenty-one years!) as well as a writing coach and editor for Women’s Memoirs recently launched FIRST EDITING SERVICE*, I am intimately familiar with the most common memoir (and fiction) failings–faults that weaken your story, slow down your narrative, and disengage your reader.  The good news is every one of them is fixable!  Below I’ve described three of these failings, and a prescription for fixing them.

Failing #1:  DetoursDetour

Often we can’t resist taking the scenic route even if it is a bit out of the way.  After all, we have so many fascinating stories to tell!  You’re writing about your daughter’s wedding dress made by your grandmother on an old treadle sewing machine that was bought from a psychic who had this absolutely fantastic…oops!  You just dropped the narrative thread, which makes a surprisingly loud noise – the sound of your reader’s head hitting the table.


Stick to your story.  That requires that you know your story.  But how do you know for sure that you do know your story?

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game

Try writing a movie “tagline” for your memoir – a pithy sentence describing your story’s central conflict or premise (you won’t necessarily use this, although you could incorporate it into your query letter).  A tagline often plays with two opposing meanings of a word or concept.  For example, a tagline from the trailer for The Imitation Game reads “It took a man with secrets to break the biggest one.”  Here’s another I wrote for a modern retelling of Snow White: “She can’t find peace of mind until her step-daughter rests in peace.”

For more information on taglines, and how they differ from loglines click here.

Failing #2 Clumping

Much of revising is actually reordering and repositioning text.  Often we miss the opportunity to build suspense and create conflict by clumping together emotional reactions or “beats” rather than spacing them out.  (Screenwriting teacher Bob McKee defines a beat as “an exchange of behavior action/reaction.”)  A beat isn’t necessarily a “loud” action; even silence can be a beat.


Simply moving a sentence can make a big difference.  Let’s say the narrator just discovered that her fiancé is a conman who raided her retirement account. First she’s shocked, then bereaved, then angry.  Rather than clumping these reactions together, one after another, experiment with spreading them out or breaking them apart to give the story more texture and shape.  Perhaps the narrator smashes her fiancé’s car window in a rage.  Putting the window-smashing episode at the beginning of the scene, when she first discovers what happened, will have a different effect from placing it at the end, after she’s had time to think about it.  Her delayed –­ and possibly uncharacteristic – action signals that she’s not going to take this sitting down.

Moving words or phases around for the best effect is like shifting logs in a fireplace to allow the air to flow through and fan the flames.

Failing #3 Telling the reader what to think rather than telling the story

“This is the story of a horrible school system that destroyed my son’s love of reading.”  You’ve just given away the story and drawn the conclusion for the reader rather than letting her discover it on her own.  Why should she even bother reading your book?  She already knows what happened and what you, the author, think about it.


Allow the reader to come to the conclusion that the school system destroyed the boy’s love of reading through strong storytelling and vivid details.  Let her discover this gradually, as the narrator most likely did.

In his bestselling book, The Gift of Fear, Gavin De Becker describes a chilling scene in which a woman points a gun at her husband who stands helplessly in front of her, his hands outstretched.  “The stakes were high, for in addition to the man at risk, there were also two young children in the house.”

If he’d begun with “When I was only ten I had the most unbelievably horrifying experience when my mom shot my step-dad…” he would have cheated the reader out of realizing for herself that the woman is his mother and one of the young children is the author himself.

95741039Most importantly, have fun with your story!  Play with it – throw the words up in the air and watch where they land.  As Einstein said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”

First Editing Service for Memoir Writers


Pamela Jane Bell and I recently launched an unusual editing service. We edit the FIRST or FIRST 10 pages of your memoir with the conviction that practicing what you are doing wrong just leads to bad practice. So let us catch problems that occur in your first one page (or ten pages) and we’ll give you a roadmap that will help you navigate the rest of your journey more smoothly.

We put you on the right path, right away.

To learn more about this innovative service, click here now.

Here’s what one client wrote Pamela:

I wanted to thank you for your insightful editing comments on the first page of my memoir along with the synopsis. … In terms of the memoir page, your comments actually solved a dilemma for me as I have toyed with the beginning for a while. I like the solution you offered and made the change you recommended in the order of the paragraphs and presto, problem solved! So thanks so much! M.G-W.

Are You Asking Yourself If You Need an Editor?

Every writer needs an editor. This is true of professional writers. This is true of occasional writers. WHY an editor? Here are just 2 of the many problems that writers face and editors can help clarify:

Problem #1. Writers get overly fond of metaphors, even failing to notice when they get tangled up with each other.

Pamela catches this in the FIRST 1 or 10 PAGES, and puts you on the right road.

Problem #2. Writers want to start at the beginning, even when that part doesn’t engage the reader. Back story can always come later, but we fail to notice.

Pamela provides feedback on your apparent story structure and your opening.

Find out now if our FIRST EDITING SERVICE is right for you.

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