Lisa Dale Norton is an author and memoir editor. She works on manuscripts with writing clients and teaches at conferences nationwide.

How Can I Finish My Memoir by the End of the Year

September 1, 2019
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How Can I Finish My Memoir by the End of the Year?—Three plans for right now

Many of you have begun your memoir and are puttering along; many of you are almost done with your memoir having hung with it doggedly; and some of you are still thinking about it, writing it in your head—or you did start but shortly got lost in the cascade of material and reverted to thinking about it and writing it in your head.

Here are three strategies for the Return to School spirit you feel in September that will get your memoir done by the end of the year.

“Your task is to write 1000 words three times a week. That’s four pages, three times a week.”

1. If you have begun your memoir and have a notion of what you are doing—an outline, either firmly typed, or etched in your mind that is guiding your composition—good. Your task is to write 1000 words three times a week. That’s four pages, three times a week. That’s put your butt in the chair and tap out—stream-of-consciousness—a shimmering image on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday after work, when the house gets quiet, or Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays before work at 4 o’clock in the morning. Or Saturday mornings, before grocery shopping for 30 minutes and Sunday and Wednesday nights before falling into bed. Whatever the strategy, it’s yours to develop, but the assignment is not negotiable. Three times a week: four pages. By the end of the year you will have composed approximately another 50,000 words of your story (give or take, depending on when you start). That chunk of writing should get you to the end of your draft. If not, up the word count or the number of 4-page sessions. And remember: No editing. No rereading. No being neurotic about the perfection of the writing, or the meaning, or the . . . blah-blah-blah, anything. Just write. Get your memories out. You’ll clean them up later.

“…think about what you want to do with your memoir.”

2. For those of you who are almost done with your memoir, your task is similar but slightly different. You need to keep up whatever writing process you have already developed, but be sure that you are writing at least 3000 words per week. In addition to that you need to think about what you want to do with your memoir. If you desire publication and are committed to going beyond self-publishing, then you need to research editors who can help you make your manuscript as good as it can be for the current market. Find someone who is a good match. You’ll find many people online. Others you may hear about via word of mouth, or learn about at a writing conference. Whatever information gathering process you use is fine, just don’t assume you can skip this step. The marketplace is grueling, and if you think you’re going to prance out there with your (brilliant) story and capture the spotlight, think again. Get a smart, savvy editor in your pocket, and then listen to what he/she tells you. And get ready to edit. Between now and the end of 2019, you need to be orienting yourself toward this reality: finishing your draft is the first step, finding a smart developmental editor who can help you knock that draft into shape is the next step. One word of advice: While there are a lot of editors out there, be sure you find one who can not only wield the editor’s pen but can help you understand why something isn’t working and show you how to fix it. This requires a good communicator and a person with a teacher’s gene. Not all editors are alike. And be sure you understand the difference between a copy editor who is tasked with correcting your grammar and punctuation (something that happens at the end of the book process when your manuscript is ready to go to print), and a developmental editor whose genius is helping you see how a story works and how to make yours do what it needs to do to be successful in the soup of stories out there in our culture, right now, today.

“…decide if it really is, in the deepest part of your soul, something you NEED to do before you die.”

3. Now, for those of you who are dreaming of writing a memoir, but just haven’t quite gotten started, or you’ve started—kind of—but don’t have an outline . . . and no real idea of where you are going with ALL THAT STUFF THAT’S HAPPENED IN MY LIFE, here is your strategy: First, decide if it really is, in the deepest part of your soul, something you NEED to do before you die. Yup, it’s that serious. Because it’s going to take time, and heart energy, and money, and hard, hard, work. In a word: dedication, or rather obsession. If you can honestly say: Yes, I have to do this or I will die incomplete, then step up and find someone who can help you start. Yes, books, can help, but it’s like an exercise routine. Sure you can read about it, and watch those videos, but you are apt to be more successful if you get out of the house and go to the gym and engage in an organized routine or class. Same with starting your memoir. Find a class where you have to show up (and then SHOW UP), or find a writing editor/coach/mentor/teacher who can set deadlines (AND THEN MEET THEM), explain how memoir works, guide you in the composition process, and help you sort out the story thread from all the dross of daily living we each have piled up in our years, months, and days of time on this planet. You need guidance, wise teaching, and support in the initial often clunky, exhilarating, and confusing process of getting the memoir rolling. Once you are into it, over the hump of procrastination, you will be into a different stage of writing, and you can stick with the classes, or continue with your mentor, or reevaluate and determine if you are ready to go it alone. (See #1 above.)

P.S. Do not let money be the issue. There are many affordable community education classes available at community colleges across our country. Find one.

If you select the option that fits your situation, and do the work, you will finish your memoir by the end of 2019—or in the case of the beginner, you may be chugging within view of that final station, smile on face, bragging to your friends.

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This post was written by Lisa Dale Norton

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