Month: April 2024

  • How many characters can you have in your novel?

    How many characters can you have in your novel?

    Characters are the heart of every novel. Usually the characters are human, sometimes they’re animals or aliens or some other fantasy creature.

    Even a location can be a character in its own right. Think Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

    Characters and character hierarchy

    Some novels focus on a small number of characters and others have huge casts.

    While this can work either way, the more characters you have, the more time you need to flesh them out.

    Fantasy or historical novels with large casts can work if there is plenty of time (and word count) to build the characters during the course of the story.

    Large casts in shorter novels can leave the reader confused and trying to remember who is who.

    It’s even worse for novellas and short stories.

    This is because you simply don’t have the time or the word count to flesh these people out for your reader. Even if these characters are sharply drawn in your head, there won’t be enough space to transfer this to the page.

    Your plot as a boat or ship

    Imagine your story is a boat of some kind. If it’s a short story, it’s a dingy. There won’t be enough room for many passengers at all. Otherwise the story will sink under the weight of all the characters.

    If your story is a novella, your boat might be a larger yacht. Here, you can spare a bit more room to house them all.

    If your novel is at the other end of the spectrum – perhaps a fantasy or historical epic – then your boat is a cruise liner or old fashioned galleon. Now you have even more space. Though you definitely don’t want to sink your plot with enough characters to fill a modern cruise liner!

    However, it’s important to remember that a higher word count doesn’t necessitate a higher character count. It simply makes room for more characters should you need them.

    You also have to bear your genre in mind. Locked room mysteries, haunted house stories (even including SF horror like the first Alien film), don’t need or benefit from a high cast count. There might be exceptions, but too many characters might distract from suspense.

    In a romantic novel it’s also important not to sideline your two main characters with unnecessary side characters. The reader is most interested in the main characters and their emotional and psychological journey. Other characters who take up too much space will just get in the way of this.

    Character hierarchy – first class or steerage!

    To determine how to prioritise your characters and control the number you have, it’s worth thinking about your characters in terms of a hierarchy or social class system. Who are the first class passengers? Who are the VIPs?

    Who is the most important character in your book? Maybe there are two (particularly in romance). Maybe there are more.

    But you need to establish a hierarchy where the most important characters get the most time. These will be your first class passengers.

    The secondary characters don’t get as much time, and neither do their subplots. Their subplots should ideally tie into the main characters’ story or reinforce the theme of your book.

    If they do neither, you could consider tossing these characters overboard and dropping them altogether!

    Minor characters should be unnamed where possible – some will be named, but there’s no point naming walk-on parts like waiters, etc, who will never appear again, or who are not important enough for the reader to remember. These people could be crew or steerage.

    Naming a character can be an indication that the reader needs to remember this person.

    Obviously, this doesn’t apply to the major and secondary characters so much. But when you don’t need to name someone, don’t bother unless you have a small cast of characters. With a large cast, you can’t afford to throw in any unnecessary names.

    Returning to the hierarchy – think of it as a social class pyramid. Few people at the top, who represent the main character or characters. More in the middle who will be the secondary characters – except for novels with small casts. Potentially a larger group of background characters at the bottom, but in reality you might not have many of those. Especially if you have a shorter cast list.

    On to this hierarchy you should superimpose a reverse pyramid or hierarchy. The people at the top get the most time. The people at the bottom get the least.

    Character names that are too similar

    Avoid character names that are too alike

    This is another issue to watch out for! I know it’s tempting to have character names that are similar – perhaps your fictional family has a tradition of naming their children with the same first letter. Or maybe you haven’t thought about the similarity of some of your names.

    A big problem is when your novel is very long with a big cast. You will now find it more difficult to use names that start with a different letter of the alphabet.

    Why does it matter?

    Well, the human eye doesn’t read every letter in a text. It reads for shapes.

    This is why it’s easy to make spelling errors and not notice when you read it back. Your brain fills in the missing letters without you realising.

    For that reason, if two words look too similar, it can be confusing. Too similar will mean:

    • Starting with the same letter
    • Being around the same length

    Examples would include Anna versus Anya.

    But you could have Anna and Alexandra because they have a different length and shape to the human eye.

    I’d advise making a list of your characters and check for names that are too similar. Compounding factors include:

    • The two characters appearing in the same scene which will be more confusing to the reader
    • The two characters being the same sex

    Generally this can just add to the confusion. The main problem is that it’s all very clear to you the author because you see the bigger picture of the story and you know who everyone is.

    But your reader can only see what’s on the page. They can only know what they learn from what is written there. The last thing you want is to have them go back and reread things for clarification. If this happens too often, it will interrupt reading flow and potentially lead to the reader giving up and putting your novel down.

    And you absolutely don’t want that.

    I know it’s difficult if you’re attached to particular names and want to use them. But the bigger priority is to ensure you don’t lose readers. And you can equally fall in love with a new name. It’s quite possible to find one that’s even better. You just have to be willing to let go when necessary.

    How many characters can you have?

    There is no set rule. You could have a longer novel with few characters. Especially where you want to create a claustrophobic atmosphere with the main character or characters cut off from the outside world.

    However, if you do have only a small number of characters in a long novel, they must be strong enough – along with the plot – to carry the weight of the word count. Filler scenes that do not advance the plot, character arc, or theme, will not cut it.

    Readers know when story pace is flagging and ‘nothing is happening’.

    The shorter your novel or story, the more strict you need to be with character count. Anything else short changes both your story and your readers.

    If you have great side characters but there isn’t the space for them – save them for another story!

    One piece of research you could do on this topic is to choose similar novels in your genre and do a character count for each. They won’t all be the same, but it will give you an idea of the parameters available. It’s obviously best if you have read these novels already and didn’t find the cast list confusing to follow.

    Looking for feedback on your novel or memoir characters?

    I offer opening chapters developmental edits, full developmental edits, and manuscript critiques. Ask me about tiered manuscript critiques – I can do lighter and cheaper critiques for those on a budget or who want me to look at specific issues. I can also just focus on the main issues and ignore smaller things.

    And if you want to try polishing your own manuscript a bit more, I have a developmental self-editing checklist. Here is a post that covers a lot of the basics:

    Developmental self-editing checklist for indie authors and self-publishing authors.

  • Weird inspirations: Wisconsin Death Trip

    Weird Inspirations: Wisconsin Death Trip

    “Nowhere in this great continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence than Black River Falls…”

    Wisconsin Death Trip

    It’s amazing what you can find trawling through old newspapers from long ago. For fiction authors, old newspapers are a gold mine – from old classified ads to local and national stories. Forgotten names and forgotten faces. Eccentric ghosts from the past. People who actually lived, who were ordinary yet extraordinary in their own way. Funny, tragic, even frightening.

    Their stories are there to be dug up if you’re ever looking for inspiration for your current or next book.

    Sometimes you hit gold dust as Michael Lesy did for his 1973 book, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’, later adapted as a documentary film.

    The Background

    Between 1890 and 1900, the town of Black River Falls in Wisconsin was subject to a bizarre catalogue of murders, suicides, insanity, pyromania, a diphtheria epidemic, mutterings about witchcraft, window smashing and other acts of violence and vandalism.

    Just the sort of colourful and mysterious series of events that can or should pique a writer’s curiosity.

    These events were reported by Frank Cooper, an Englishman who edited the town newspaper The Badger State Banner.

    Charles Van Schaick, the local photographer, also recorded many scenes and faces from the town, while the records of the local asylum complete the picture.

    The Book

    Michael Lesy first brought the strange tales of Black River Falls to light in his 1973 book, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip.’

    He began his project in the late 1960s while studying for a masters degree. One day he found himself at the Wisconsin Historical Society where the curator of iconography introduced him to the photographs of Charles Van Schaick. Lesy was struck by the portraits. Later he would say that “The whole experience that day seemed like a separate universe.”

    Eager to know more about the people in the photographs and life at the time, Lesy started searching microfilm records of period newspapers. His project ultimately became his doctoral thesis.

    Using the newspaper reports, the photographs and asylum records, Lesy’s book offered an alternative take on America’s self-mythology, all the more timely because of the book’s release during the era of the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair.

    Of Van Schaick’s photography, Lesy would say in the book’s introduction: “Commercial photography, as practiced in the 1890s, was not so much a form of applied technology as it was a semi-magical act that symbolically dealt with time and mortality.”

    There were 30,000 negatives left behind in the photographer’s studio after he died in 1940. The Wisconsin Historical Society acquired 8,000 of them. (They have since acquired more.) Less than 200 were used in Lesy’s book. They included post-mortem photos of children in their caskets, a common practice at the time.

    Sometimes these were the only visual records grieving parents had of their deceased children. Something to remember them by. It seems morbid today, but in the 1890s, death was very much a part of life.

    Lesy’s book does not connect the snippets of newspaper articles to the photographs. It’s impossible to know if a particular face refers to the person in an article. There is also something cinematic about the book and Lesy originally wanted to make it as a film but couldn’t find funding at the time.

    However, the book would go on to be adapted years later.

    The Film

    The documentary film, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip,’ the adaptation of the book, was made by James Marsh for the BBC’s Arena series, though HBO Cinemax also provided funding.

    Marsh opts for a documentary collage that blends photographs of the period with black and white re-enactments of scenes acted out by ordinary people of the area. The modern day town threads through the film in colour, featuring Homecoming Parades and church meetings.

    The early scenes of the film include a photographer taking the picture of a dead child. Children often appear in the film, as killers, or victims.

    But the mayhem cuts across the generations.

    Middle-class teacher Mary Sweeney, one of the film’s recurring characters, goes on a window-smashing spree, aided by a fondness for cocaine. At one point, after completing a tour of the state, she claims to have caused $50,000 worth of damage.

    Mary would make a great character for a novel. A rebellious figure, kicking against societal norms and leaving a trail of destruction in her wake. How much fun could an author have with someone like her?!

    Then there’s the young teenage Polish girl who sets fire to her employer’s barn and his house because she is lonely and homesick and wants some excitement.

    A fourteen-year-old German boy, in the company of his younger brother, shoots an old man and takes over his house, only to go on the run later. When he’s caught and sentenced to imprisonment, he does not react, unable to comprehend either what he’s done or what his own punishment means for him.

    A famous opera singer from Europe turns up, believing herself to have bought a nice property in a resort only to have her expectations disappointed. She sings for the locals, looking for a patron, but her ill-fitting false teeth interfere with her singing and some doubt her identity.

    Again, this woman seems like a great template for a fictional character.

    On a more frightening note, the grave of a woman is opened for the purpose of removing her remains, only to find that she was buried in a trance. The body has turned over, one hand up to the mouth, the fingers half bitten off. It’s assumed she woke up to find herself buried alive and bit off her fingers in terror.

    The film includes poignant stories, including that of the fifteen-year-old girl who drowns herself. She leaves her dress on the bank, with a note inside: “My father and mother abused me and kept me working hard, so I thought it best to end my life. Here is my dress. Goodbye all.”

    A mother drowns her children in the lake, and sits on the bank. She believes that devils are after her.

    The town – past and present (as of 1999)

    Black River Falls in the 1890s is a town with many German and Scandinavian immigrants. With harsh winters and an economic depression, the town becomes gripped by a wave of deaths and acts of violence and insanity.

    The American myth lies in the suburbs and the small towns and countryside. The Western is the archetypal American genre where nature and the local indigenous peoples are supposedly tamed by the civilising forces of the white man’s culture. The Winnebago people of Black River Falls, forced out of the area, return to live on the outskirts, but do not feature in the stories of ‘Wisconsin Death Trip.’ The events are very much centred on the violent heart of the area’s white population.

    The town’s immigrant population must have arrived in the area expecting to better themselves, to participate in the American Dream. ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ suggests that many of them found something else.

    And yet the town is still there and, as one resident claims, it’s a great place to raise children.

    Cheerleaders, majorettes, church goers, Homecoming Queens are all there in the brief slashes of colourful contemporary footage. The residents of a retirement home are treated to an all-male choir singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ in a scene that in its own way is just as bizarre as the events of the 1890s.

    In fact, the modern day town has its own dark undercurrents: a human head is discovered, and Jeffrey Dalmer and another serial killer are associated with the Wisconsin area.

    The film’s events are narrated by Ian Holm, together with a whispering narration of patient cases from the doctor at the asylum.

    There’s a documentary about the making of ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ on the DVD which is well worth viewing. James Marsh and the film’s director of photography also provide a commentary.

    In choosing ordinary people to play the characters, and shooting the re-enactments in black and white at 30 frames per second rather than the standard 24, Marsh and Eigil Bryld, the director of photography, create a strange, dreamlike collage that still retains a hold on reality.

    Holm’s narration of the newspaper reports is laced with irony, while the musical soundtrack is perfectly in tune with the period and location. Recurring characters like the wonderful window-smashing Mary Sweeney and Pauline L’Allemand, the Opera singer down on her luck, appear among the one-off stories.

    ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ is a hypnotic piece of documentary film making. There’s a haunting beauty in its black and white photography, and the film’s themes transcend time.

    It’s also one of those films – and this is true too of Grey Gardens – where historical eccentrics can be inspiration for modern writers. I can also recommend going through old newspaper articles on microfilm. I’ve spent a good many hours poring over forgotten stories.

    If you’re ever looking for inspiration, a visit to a newspaper archive is definitely worthwhile. You never know what rabbit holes you might find.

    It’s certainly true that Lesy’s original book, Wisconsin Death Trip, has inspired numerous artists, from composers and song writers, to authors like Neil Gaiman and his book American Gods and Stephen King’s novella 1922.

    This post is adapted from a review on my Substack and an original review I wrote for an online site many years ago.

    References and useful links

    Wikipedia article on Michael Levy’s book, Wisconsin Death Trip.

    The real story behind eerie Wisconsin Death Trip.

    Winona Daily News 1973 review of the book.

    Philadelphia Inquirer 1991 review.

    Charles Van Schaick photos at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

    Need Feedback on Your Manuscript?

    If you need developmental feedback on your novel or memoir, I offer opening chapters developmental edits, full developmental edits, and manuscript critiques. All three options offer a wealth of feedback, structured to help you polish the next draft of your book. Feel free to use the contact form on the page link below.

  • Master List of IndieCat Blog Posts

    Master list of IndieCat blog posts

    Master List of IndieCat Blog Posts

    In order to make it easier for new site visitors to explore the blog posts here, I have made a master list of IndieCat Blog Posts. I’m still drawing up this list so not all posts have yet been listed here.

    What is developmental editing?

    Developmental editing or manuscript critique? This post looks into the differences between two common developmental editing services.

    Wasting money on a copyedit or proofread? Please don’t hire copyeditors or proofreaders if you later intend to use a developmental editor. In this post I explain the correct order of editing.

    When is the best time for a developmental edit?

    When is your novel done? At what point is it appropriate to start looking for feedback?

    Should you dust off that old novel? Is it ever worth returning to an old abandoned or rejected manuscript? Or is it time to move on?

    Case studies in developmental editing

    This list looks at examples of developmental feedback which changed the outcome of a novel. There are also posts where I put on my developmental editor’s hat and explore narrative choices a writer made when writing their novel.

    How developmental editing feedback improved F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. This post looks at editor Maxwell Perkins and the developmental editing advice he gave to Fitzgerald after reading an early draft of The Great Gatsby.

    How developmental editing feedback changed Interview With The Vampire. This post looks at the development of Anne Rice’s first published novel, including the developmental editing advice she received from her editor. This advice caused her to radically alter parts of her novel, turning it into a classic of the vampire and gothic genres.

    Narrative devices in Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life. This post digs into Chiang’s use of point of view, tense, and structure in his award-winning novella, Story of Your Life. He also wrote the novel in an interesting way, starting with the ending!

    How narrative devices support a novel’s theme. This post looks at the viewpoint, tense, and other choices Sebastien Japrisot made for his award-winning novel A Very Long Engagement.

    Narrative choices Diana Gabaldon made in her first Outlander novel, Cross Stitch. In this post I give a developmental editing perspective on the choices Gabaldon made in her popular novel.

    Narrative choices in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. A dive into the background, themes, and writing of the famous feminist science-fiction horror novel.

    Novel outlines – 3 case studies. Here I look at how three of my clients used outlining to help them write their novels.

    When publishers drop the ball. Even if you get a mainstream publishing deal there is no guarantee that you will get all the developmental feedback you need. This post deals with an unnamed published novel which had multiple issues.

    Famous first lines… or how to start your novel. A dive into famous opening lines in fiction and what they accomplish. Also, just how much depends on the opening line?

    Developmental editing basics

    Character credibility and the domino effect. What is the most common problem I see in manuscripts?

    Character credibility issues in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic park. While Jurassic Park is a great story, there are many examples of characters not acting credibly given their professional interests and knowledge.

    How many characters can you have in your novel? And what are the issues with larger character counts?

    10 ways to improve your novel’s pacing. While your novel doesn’t have to gallop along at a fast pace, sometimes storytelling gets bogged down and momentum is lost. Too slow and a reader could just give up. Be vigilant of anything that pulls your pace down. This posts has some tips.

    The Story Spine – the simple 8-point storytelling structure. Used by Pixar Studios.

    Your novel’s opening lines, and why they matter. The opening lines of your novel or memoir are prime real estate. Don’t screw up your chance to grab an agent or reader by making these mistakes in your opening.

    When dialogue ruins your scenes. A dive into how dialogue can sometimes work against the best interests of a scene.

    Too much period language in a historical novel? How much is too much? And why is it an issue?

    Too much internal dialogue? What can go wrong?

    Here is a check list for authors wanting to do some developmental editing on their manuscripts before hiring an editor. It’s also useful for authors who can’t afford a developmental edit.

    Fear of exposure in first-person narratives.

    Location issues in your novel

    Researching your novel’s locations online.

    Avoid this location issue in your novel.

    Historical fiction

    Too much period language in a historical novel? How much is too much? And why is it an issue?

    Laurie McBain – exploring the career of bestselling author Laurie McBain. She was one of the ‘Avon Ladies’ who rebooted historical romance in the 1970s and 1980s.

    Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon. A look at the narrative choices Gabaldon made in her first Outlander novel.

    Interview with author Dorothy M. Parker about her time travel historical novel, The Angel of Incompleteness. Among other topics, we discuss the issues related to writing about real historical people.

    Historical fiction as a time machine. A look at the appeal of historical fiction through the lens of old New York.

    A Place of Greater Safety. A review of Hilary Mantel’s French revolution novel.

    Indie publishing

    So indie authors aren’t real authors? This blog post was written after I read a very annoying and ignorant post from someone who completely underestimated the commitment and talent of indie authors.


    This post looks at memoir and the issues memoirists face when telling their stories.

    Interviews with indie authors

    An interview with Dorothy M. Parker, exploring the inspirations behind her time travel novel, The Angel of Incompleteness.

    Articles on authors

    This post is my deep dive into the life and work of Irish-American writer Maeve Brennan. The Irish author was the daughter of Irish republican parents who later moved their family to the US for work reasons. Maeve would remain there until her death. Glamorous in her youth, she worked for the New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar. She also wrote short stories and a novella, The Visitor.

    Joan Lindsay was 71 when her famous novel, Picnic at Hanging Rock, was published. Here I dive into her life and the background to the novel.

    Laurie McBain was one of the stars of the historical romance genre in the 1970s and 1980s. Here I look at her career and the mystery of why she disappeared after ten years of success. I also look at the writer who inspired her, Kathleen Woodiwiss.

    Beautiful Shadow is a great biography of author Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith wrote Strangers on A Train, The Talented Mr Ripley, and the lesbian romance novel, Carol. All three of these books were adapted for the screen. Here I review the biography and explore Highsmith’s life and career.

    Book reviews

    A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. A detailed review of the award-winning French Revolution novel.

    Weird Inspirations: Wisconsin Death Trip. Exploring the origins of Michael Lesy’s cult book and the subsequent film, and the impact both have had on other artists.

    General tips

    How to order short stories in a collection.

    Productivity tips for authors

    My best productivity tips for authors.

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro technique.

    How to establish a writing routine.

    Social media blockers.

    Need Freedom from social media distractions?

    Is social media harming the writing community?


    Fear of marketing yourself on social media.

    How to use Facebook and Instagram ads.

    Promoting your books on social media.

    Have you figured out your author brand?

    Why your book cover design matters.

    Terrified of reading your work in public?

    You need author photos but you’re camera shy.

    Don’t make this mistake on your author website.

  • Writing Your Memoir

    Writing your memoir

    When writing your memoir, you’re not telling the story of your whole life. Instead, memoir focuses on a specific period or event in your life which you dig into, reflect on, often addressing the issue in ways that are closer to a novel than a chronologically written autobiography.

    This is why memoir is seen as a form of creative non-fiction.

    A memoir offers readers intimate glimpses into your life and experiences. It’s also a chance for them to see what lessons you’ve taken away from your experiences.

    But writing a memoir comes with a set of problems – from reliability of memory to many other issues including the right to privacy of those around you.

    Memoir versus autobiography

    Some people confuse memoir and autobiography because they are both usually a first-person account of the subject’s life. It’s true that there are similarities. However, there are also major differences between them.

    Autobiography is more concerned with a whole life and with facts, dates, etc, given greater importance. There can also be less focus on a central unifying theme. Other than the story of a life.

    A long life can produce more than one autobiography. This is especially true if the author writes the first book when they are still relatively young. Years or even decades down the line they can write a second book if they have a lot more to tell about their life. This often happens with celebrity autobiographies.

    Memoirs, on the other hand, tend to be more focused on a unifying theme or particular time or experience in the author’s life. They are much narrower in scope. One life can still produce several memoirs precisely because they are limited in scope. It depends on whether you have the material to cover more than one book.

    In Let Me Go: My Mother and the SS, author Helga Schneider visits the elderly mother she has been estranged from for decades. Her mother left home when Helga was still very young and went to work for the SS at a concentration camp. Helga hardly ever saw her mother from that point on. Her memoir circles between her visits with the old woman at a retirement home and what happened in the past. The book does not cover Helga’s entire life.

    But Helga returned to the trauma of her abandonment in a second memoir, The Bonfire of Berlin: A Lost Childhood in Wartime Germany.

    Meanwhile, in Until The Final Hour, Traudl Junge does not write about her entire life. The book is about her experience working as one of Hitler’s secretaries and includes the final days with him in the bunker.

    In all three of these books, the scope is narrow. This allows for a deeper dive into the subject.

    13 points for memoir writers

    For obvious reasons, writing a memoir is a deeply personal form of expression. It can be intimidating, especially when it comes to revealing intimate details or events in the past. It can also be cathartic and therapeutic.

    But writing memoir also comes with particular challenges and dangers. Here are some common problems or topics you might face when writing a memoir:

    1. Telling the truth versus privacy

    Writing your memoir means revealing intimate details about your life, including your actions (positive or negative), and your thoughts and emotions.

    This can mean talking about things you’ve kept secret from those around you or shared with very few. Putting these things down on paper inevitably leads to emotional vulnerability.

    But in striving to tell your truth, you can also expose the intimate secrets and breach the privacy of others, including loved ones. There is a delicate balance here between authenticity and privacy.

    Some writers change details to protect the identities of those they are writing about. In that case, the exact truth is sacrificed for privacy, but there is still an emotional truth.

    However, if a writer is clearly making things up and it comes out later, readers will cease to trust them.

    2. Memories are subjective and unreliable

    In autobiography and biography, there is a greater emphasis on facts.

    This is particularly true of biography.

    In memoir, the author is using their own memory of events – which of course can be aided by diaries and letters from the period concerned.

    But no one has a completely objective take on their life.

    Memories can change over time. Things can get added or subtracted in your mind. You can start to misremember things like seasons, or even years.

    Memories – even diaries and correspondence – are not 100% reliable. It’s one person’s subjective take on what happened and may clash with others who were around at the time.

    Consequently, it’s not unusual to start doubting your own memory! Especially if you talk to others who don’t remember events or remember them very differently.

    3. Emotional vulnerability

    Writing a memoir is like putting your intimate diary out into the world for all to read.

    Of course, you can edit some things out. But in exploring your most intimate thoughts, feelings, and experiences, you’re often revisiting painful or traumatic events.

    And this can be triggering and lead to shame, fear, embarrassment, or discomfort. There is also the sense that once you let the cat out of the bag, you can’t stuff it back inside. When your truth is out there in the public domain, it’s out for good. Or for at least as long as the book remains in print.

    This realisation can lead to writer’s block and other avoidance strategies when it comes to writing things down.

    4. Structure, story, dialogue, and scene versus summary

    Even though you’re not writing a novel, you are still writing a narrative. And there are many overlaps between fiction and memoir.

    For one thing, you need a coherent narrative arc in memoir writing.

    While you can circle around in time, it must make sense. And the reader must be able to follow you.

    Memoir writers must also decide which events to include, how to order them chronologically or thematically, and how to keep readers engaged from beginning to end.

    As I’ve said, there are similarities between fiction and memoir. In both, you should have a proper story structure, fleshed out characters, sensory details, and a strong theme.

    You are also more likely to have dialogue in a memoir, compared to an autobiography. Of course, this can mean having to recreate a distant conversation as best you can. No one remembers exactly what was said decades ago, unless they carefully recorded it in a diary.

    Another technique borrowed from fiction is scene versus summary. There will be times when you don’t need to write out an event as a whole scene. You can just summarise it. You can also weave in your reflections about it in the summary.

    But including summary, action, dialogue, etc, will bring the more important parts of your narrative to life.

    This results in a far stronger and emotionally gripping story.

    5. The importance of musing

    In addition to scene versus summary and dialogue, you also have something that is particularly important to memoir. And that is musing or reflecting on past events.

    The reader wants to know what you have learned. And if you’re writing a memoir, going over the past, trying to understand it better, it will be imperative to have some level of musing.

    Otherwise, you are simply recreating your own version of the past, without learning from it or offering up conclusions. And that means you’re leaving out a crucial ingredient of memoir.

    Musing can be done in various ways. You might reflect on some events within the period itself, but much of it will be done from a distance of years or even decades, as you look back from the present.

    Musing can occur in fiction, but it is even more important in memoir.

    6. Finding the universal in the personal

    While memoirs are always inherently personal, the best ones resonate with readers on a universal level. Yes, even when the experiences described are far removed from the reader’s own life. This is because, as a memoirist, you can still connect your experiences to broader themes and emotions your readers can relate to.

    In Let Me Go: My Mother and the SS, Helga Schneider’s narrative deals with a less common problem – a Nazi mother who served in a death camp. But in spite of Helga’s personal distaste for her mother’s actions, there is also some compassion for the forgetful old woman who sits before her.

    In that example, many readers can have the same experience of being estranged from family, yet find themselves having to deal with them in their later years. The reader will also wonder what they would do in Helga’s position.

    Would they refuse to visit the elderly Nazi war criminal who abandoned them when they were young, or try to do the decent thing as Helga does?

    Helga’s narrative, complete with the research she has done on Nazi atrocities, offers the reader food for thought. What would any of us do in her position?

    In Traudl Junge’s case, her experience working with Hitler raises issues about our complicity with wrongdoing around us. At what point are we accountable? Can we really blame youth and ignorance? Ultimately, Junge realised she could not.

    7. Perspective, voice and tone

    Determining the perspective of the memoir can be challenging. Writers must decide whether to narrate from their current time/perspective, which can lead to a greater degree of self-reflection, or go back in time to capture the voice of their past self.

    It’s a case of striking a balance between authenticity and readability.

    First-person narration though is the norm. Problems like head-hopping are far less likely to occur, compared to fiction.

    When it comes to tone, we’re really talking about writing in a humorous way versus anger, etc. Some memoirists deal with difficult topics from a position of humour. Sometimes that’s the best way they have to approach an otherwise painful subject.

    It’s worth thinking about the kind of tone you want to aim for in your memoir. Of course, it can vary somewhat as you circle between different scenes, but an overarching consistency of tone will bolster your narrative and theme.

    8. A sense of time and place

    I’ve already mentioned the importance of sensory details. This also applies to fiction writing.

    Here’s another thing important to both memoir and fiction writing – a strong sense of place and time. When you’re writing many years or decades after the events of your book, it’s important to try and recapture that place and time for your readers. You can include sensory details and also cultural references – music, film, fashions.

    With memoir, you can transport not only yourself back to that distant time, but your readers.

    9. Legal and ethical concerns

    Writing about real people and events can raise legal and ethical concerns, particularly when it involves portraying others in a negative light, making allegations, or revealing sensitive information.

    Writing about the living is a tricky subject!

    Memoirists should be mindful of potential repercussions and consider obtaining consent, legal advice, and changing any identifying details including names and appearance where necessary.

    10. Revising and polishing your manuscript

    Like fiction and other forms of non-fiction, your manuscript will require careful revision and editing to polish it to a publishable standard.

    But while it can be difficult with novels to ‘murder your darlings’ and cut out cherished characters or scenes, it can be even more difficult with memoir. Writers can feel that removing an important event distorts the truth.

    They might also find editing and rewriting painful events over and over again emotionally triggering. In this case, it’s best to take breaks and give yourself some time and space from your manuscript.

    11. Fear of judgement, criticism and rejection

    Memoir is the most personal of writing genres. Matched only by diaries or published letters. But people don’t usually plan to publish their diaries or letters, least of all when they’re writing them. Whereas memoirs are usually written with the intention to publish or be shown to others.

    Putting deeply personal truths out into the world can feel intimidating. All writers feel fear when their books are about to be published. Bad reviews and bad sales are common fears. But with memoir there is the potential for deeper and more personal criticism and judgement.

    And not just from readers or reviewers – but from loved ones and family. The people whose opinions often matter most.

    Fear of rejection can lead to self-censorship and suddenly deciding to remove parts of a book. Often to the detriment of the memoir.

    Yet, some memoirists have undoubtedly alienated family and partners/ex-partners with their published books.

    12. Will you find closure?

    For many memoirists, writing their account helps them make sense of their past and find closure. However, please be mindful that this is not always possible.

    If you are writing to help others in the same situation, that can offer a kind of closure in itself.

    But it’s worth remembering that with publication comes criticism and reviewing, and the reactions of those you’ve written about.

    This does not mean you shouldn’t proceed. It’s simply a matter of being realistic about the outcome.

    13. Leaving behind something for your family

    Sometimes writers are telling their story to share with family. This could mean private publication rather than a book put into general circulation. But it’s also about leaving behind a legacy after you’re gone. Something for loved ones to read and remember you by. Even descendants who are not yet born.

    Some memoirs are deeply rooted in a particular geographical location and will contribute to the larger tapestry of local history.

    Memoirs can tell us about the lives of women and other groups in the past, opening a door on experiences that are often forgotten today. Even though the memoir is not concerned with facts in the way an academic book is, that doesn’t mean it has no relevance to social history.

    Because history is more than facts. History is about people.

    Developmentally editing memoir

    I’ve edited a few personal stories. Some were very personal accounts of difficult childhoods where the author wanted to get their personal story out into the world. Often with the intention of helping others.

    One author I worked with used her childhood diaries to craft a narrative that read more like a novel. And it was one of the most memorable manuscripts I’ve worked on. I can still well remember scenes from the life of this young girl back in the 1960s as she walked around San Francisco and the likes of the Tenderloin district. The people she mixed with often lived on the margins and I found myself wondering what happened to them. Though some are dead now, they still live on in her manuscript and in my head. I will always associate Dionne Warwick’s Walk on By with her story.

    There is something really magical about vividly recreating the past, the emotions of that period, incorporating the fleeting nature of time and youth.

    It also gives those who never lived in that place or period a brief chance to walk in the author’s shoes and see through their eyes.

    Need feedback on your memoir?

    If you need developmental feedback on your memoir, you can contact me about your manuscript. I offer opening chapters developmental edits, full developmental edits, and manuscript critiques. Feel free to use the contact form on the page link below.