Friday, April 5, 2013

Two Ways to Focus an Autobiography/Memoir

The first and most obvious way is to tell the story chronologically. Here is what happened and in this order.

You set up the story with events that led up to the major occurrences or achievements. A few times I've started with a prolog—set up a powerful event which brought readers to a dramatic point, and withheld the crucial information until later in the book. That was to build suspense. Even so, the books are chronological.

The second method is to teach readers about some aspect of life. Your life experiences become the anecdotal material. You don't have to follow a time line of events. You illustrate from your life at the pertinent points.

In my previous blog, I've mentioned Don Piper and 90 Minutes in Heaven. That book follows Don from the car accident in which he died, to his being prayed back to earth, to his 34 surgeries and ongoing daily chronic pain.

I've done three additional books with Don. The second one, Devotions Inspired by 90 Minutes in Heaven, contains 90 stirring accounts of people who were affected by his story. The book tells stories that touch the heart. A nurse read the first six chapters of 90 Minutes to a dying solider in Iraq. Don soothed a mother's anxiety because she felt her dead son would have no one waiting for him in heaven. The time sequences weren't important.

The third book we did, Heaven Is Real, was a how-to book—simple guidance and suggestions based largely on Don's experiences. We wanted to teach people how to adjust to life after it has turned upside down. We had planned to call it The New Normal. That term wasn't a cliché when Don suggested it, but the publisher wanted the word heaven in the title. That book was sometimes chronological because we were taking readers forward from the old way to the new normal.

A third method—which I don't recommend—comes from advice I still hear editors give: "Write your autobiography as a novel."

It rarely works. Most people who write nonfiction aren't novelists. The techniques and skills are different.

The cliché probably holds true that most first novels are autobiographies. That is, the writers use their experiences as the foundation for the novel and invent portions to further the plot. Fiction is their strength and that's why it can work for them.

I can write my story as a here's-what-happened book 
or I can use my life experiences to teach others.

Cec's new book for writers, is now available through OakTara.


  1. Great info here Cec. Thanks again for sharing your expertise with us.

  2. Rose, thank you--and all of you who comment from time to time. I don't know everything about the publishing world, but I'm willing to share what I've learned.


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