Craft Book Discussion: Writing Memoir

For our most recent craft book discussion, we had a fantastic conversation about the ins-outs-ups-downs and sideways of writing memoir. Here are some of the things we shared…

Memoirs That Have Stayed With Us (in no particular order)

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood (Alexandra Fuller)
Night (Elie Wiesel)
A Drinking Life (Peter Hamill)
Liar’s Club (Mary Karr)
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)
Wild (Cheryl Strayed)
Fatelessness (Imre Kertesz)
Limbo: A Memoir (A. Manette Ansay)
Hell and Other Destinations (Madeline Albright)
The Last Lecture (Randy Pausch)
This Is Not the Story You Think It Is…: A Season of Unlikely Happiness (Laura Munson)
Duke of Deception (Geoffrey Wolff)
My Losing Season (Pat Conroy)
My Father’s Keep (Ed Abell)
The Land Remembers (Ben Logan)
Maid (Stephanie Land)
Ma’s Dictionary: Straddling the Social Class Divide (Milan Kovacovic)
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (Amy Krause Rosenthal)
We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter (Rachael Hanel)
When Breath Becomes Air (Paul Kalanithi)
Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Ocean Vuong)


Memoir Writing by Our Participants


Victoria Lynn Smith: Writing Near the Lake

Jan Wilberg: Red’s Wrap



Nancy Bauer-King: Madness to Ministry: A Woman’s Journey from Psych Unit to Pulpit; Little Feet Be Careful

Ed Abell: My Father’s Keep: A Journey of Forgiveness through the Himalaya

Myles Hopper: My Father’s Shadow

Kim Suhr: Maybe I’ll Learn: Snapshots of a Novice MomRamon: An Immigrant’s Journey (Ramon Aguirre as told to Kim Suhr)


Resources for Writing Creative Nonfiction & Memoir

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–From Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between (Lee Gutkind)

Brevity article: “Write About Your Loss”

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir (Beth Kephart)

What’s my (Log) Line?

This happens all the time: a term new to me comes up in conversation; then it seems to be everywhere. Take for example, “log line.” I heard it in the Path to Publication workshop with Elizabeth Evans, then in our Roundtable as we tried to figure out the difference between a log line, a pitch and an elevator speech.

savethecatWhen my son came home from school with the assignment to write a log line for his school film assignment, I decided it was time to learn more. Fortunately, he had brought home a copy of Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder. As a “spec screenwriter” (someone who had to sell the idea of his screenplay before he ever wrote a word of it), Snyder’s livelihood depended upon his ability to write effective log lines.

Below are some of his suggestions in Chapter One: What Is It?

Very simply, a log line is a one-sentence answer to the question, “What is it?” A “winning” log line includes these components:




What comes at the end of the sentence would not normally be anticipated from the beginning. It is the sense of irony that hooks the reader.

Examples from Save the Cat!:

“A cop comes to LA to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists.” (Die Hard)

“A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend.” (Pretty Woman)

Try it: Can you describe your book using the natural irony of the situation to grab your reader’s interest?

A Compelling Picture

The reader must be able to “see” the whole movie [book], where it begins and where it ends—or at least the potential for its direction—in the log line.

Examples from Save the Cat!:

“She’s the perfect woman—until she has a drink.” (Blind Date)

“A just-hired employee goes on a company weekend and soon discovers someone’s trying to kill him.” (The Retreat)

Try it: Can you write a sentence that captures the beginning-to-end scope of your book?

A Killer Title

The best ones encompass irony and tell the tale. The following titles leave you with a strong sense of where the movie will go even without watching it for one minute.

Examples from Save the Cat!:

     Barbie Goes to Hollywood

     Airhead Apparent

     Legally Blonde

Try it: What would someone not familiar with your story picture from the title alone? Play with different options that might be stronger than your current title.

Audience and Cost

When pitching a movie idea, being able to communicate the target audience and the scope of the cost is vital.


The Breakfast Club

  • Five high school students, all different stereotypes, meet in detention, where they pour their hearts out to each other, and discover how they have more in common than they’d thought.

(Audience will be teens; cost of production will be minimal since detention doesn’t require special effects or        locations)

Jurassic Park:

  • During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.

(Audience: pre-teens and older; High cost: the theme park and cloned dinosaurs are going to cost a pretty penny)

Certainly, we want everyone to read our book, but we should have a very specific intended readership, and, while we can’t know cost of production, we can indicate how “big” we envision our books to be. This can be done by including “comps,” titles of other books that are in a similar vein to yours. (Be careful of comparing your first novel to the hottest title on the bestseller list, however!)

Try it: Can you write a sentence that implies the intended audience and “size” of your book?

Of course, Snyder’s advice is for screenwriters. Your book may benefit from a different type of log line—less “Hollywood,” maybe—but the exercise of trying to meet the above criteria and delivering it every chance you get will not only make your log line stronger; it will help you sharpen the writing itself.