How to Plot Your Memoir Like a Novel
15:00 EST - Feb 14, 2024
DR. AMANDA NELL EDGAR is an award-winning author, ghostwriter, book coach, and the founder of Page & Podium Press. Co-author of the forthcoming Summer of 2020: George Floyd and the Resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, Amanda has authored two nationally award-winning books and ghostwritten many more.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
All right, y'all. Well, I am so excited to be joining you today. As I mentioned in the intro, I am a ghostwriter. I've been a ghostwriter since 2009. I also own a small publishing company that focuses on memoir — and particularly a type of memoir called the hybrid memoir. A hybrid memoir is essentially a memoir that is also trying to teach a lesson, some kind of wisdom or expertise that your story is going to allow you to share in a way that people are going to be so excited to read it.
So with that, I want to dive right in and talk about how you're going to think about the plot to make sure that your story is going to carry a message, and the message is going to carry that story. Your readers will thank you, and it'll be a lot better process for you.
Bonus: Download Amanda’s Memoir Method Checklist, take her book strategy quiz, and look through her slides from this presentation at this link.
Talking About the 0.6%
Let's start by talking about this very elite group, the top 0.6%. Now, when we're talking about the 0.6%, that is the number of people who actually rise to the level of finishing a book and actually having it published.
Sometimes, when I share that it's only 0.6%, people are kind of surprised. I'm not surprised: as someone who has been working with authors for a long, long time, this makes total sense. And it's something that I like to call the leaky pipeline. You might have heard about the leaky pipeline from STEM fields. A lot of times, it's talked about in terms of marginalized folks like women.
If we think about this path of a pipe: it's carrying water from one direction to the other, but instead of water, it's carrying your story. So what we know is that when we start out, when we just ask everybody in the world: do you think that you have a book? Do you feel like you could write a book that would be interesting? Something people would want to read. We know that about 81–82% of people believe that they have something that they could share in a book. They know that they should be writing.
As that pipeline moves further from the idea — the inspiration and motivation — we know that the vast majority of people are going to fall out of that pipeline. They're going to leak out of it, and you’re left with 15%. I think probably everybody on this call is either in the 15% already, or you are very close to it.
Now, the reason that I want to talk about plotting your memoir and making it very readable is not only because of your readers, but also because having a plot is going to help you avoid falling out of that pipeline. As we move through the writing process, we only end up with about 3% of people who finish the manuscript. Only 3%.
I bet some of you have actually experienced what happens here — I've seen it in so many authors. What happens is, a lot of times when we set out to write, especially a memoir, you have rehearsed those first chapters in your heads over and over. I heard this just literally from a client this morning: “Oh my gosh, I did not know it was going to get so hard. Those first chapters, I knew exactly what I wanted to say before I even sat down.”
But as you get to chapter two, that's maybe a little harder. Usually, people are okay. When we get to chapters three and four, this is really when I see that people start to struggle.
And what's happening usually — it's what we're talking about today — is that folks don't have a plan. But there's another reason that you really need a plan: you really need a structure. And that is because even if you finish, such a small portion of authors actually get to the publication stage.
Now, of course, we know in today's world, we have so much more access to publishing than we did. Even when I started, because we have things like self-publishing, we have hybrid publishers and small indie presses, this number, this 0.6%, that still stands. And what happens is, as we're moving through this pipeline, people are leaking out.
So, what I want to suggest to you is that you can avoid leaking out. Not only of that 15% that gets started and don't get done with their manuscript, but you can also avoid falling out once it comes to the publishing.
Planning to Fail
If you are able to make a plan and follow this very, very simple set of instructions that I have for you today, you are going to be so much more likely to actually get the attention of whoever it is that you're wanting to work with — whether that is an agent, whether that is an indie publisher, a hybrid publisher, or frankly, just your readers.
What we've got to do is zoom out before we jump into the plan. We've got to think about what the whole book is. If we could do the whole thing like that first chapter where you know what's coming, you know what you've got to accomplish, you know what you're trying to do, then you are going to move so seamlessly through that pipeline, you will not leak out, and I'm so excited to share with you how that is going to work.
But, it is a cliche for a reason. When we fail to plan, we plan to fail. So, let's not plan to fail. Let's plan to be in the 0.6%.
Now, what I want to talk to you about is outlining. And I know there's a lot of hesitation from folks about doing an outline. I think this comes from all kinds of places. A lot of times, folks are like, “It's going to be organic. I want to get it on the page. I'll see what I've got, and then I’ll revise.”
I'm certainly not arguing against revising, but what I will argue against is trying to go through this whole process without figuring out where you're going.
And one of the reasons is you're going to move a lot faster. If you have a plan, you're going to speed through this manuscript. You're going to know where you're going.
The reason that I think people hesitate is that, when we slow down to make this outline, it can feel a little bit like we're stalling, right? It feels a little bit like we're not making the progress we want to.
Sometimes, I hear people say, “I want to write 3,000 words a week.” You're probably not going to do that without a plan, right? Once you have an outline, you are going to get that very fast progress, that very rewarding, exciting pacing, because you know where you're going.
The second thing you're going to get — I think this is probably why a lot of y'all tuned in — is that you are going to get so much more meaningful storytelling. I mentioned at the beginning of this webinar that my company works specifically with people who have a memoir, and they want their memoir to help people.
What that usually looks like is that they are telling their story, and along with detailing what happened to them, what they experienced, the thing they really want to get across is all of the things that they learned. All the things that they had to go through, all of the hardships, all the victories and nuggets of wisdom.
When you have an outline, you are not waiting to see if the fates are going to drop those messages in for you, right? When you have an outline, we can make very, very certain that your audience is going to go along with you, pick up all the pieces, all the components of that message, as they're reading the story.
So, your story is going to feed your message, and your message is going to feed your story. But you cannot do that if you are just writing on the fly. It's not possible. It's not going to happen.
And then the third thing that you are going to get as you make an outline, as you work from this outline, this very clear, purposeful, intentional structure, is you're going to get happier readers.
So, I'm a reader, I'm sure y'all are too. There is nothing better than when I like to read in bed at the end of the night. There's nothing better than settling in with my book and seeing that I only have 20% left, I only got a handful of pages, I just want to finish it. I want to know what happens.
But have you ever gotten to that point in a book and it just dragged on and you're like, “Oh my god, I'm just going to go to bed. Maybe I'll finish this, maybe I won't?”
When you have an outline, you can be so intentional about your pacing. You know that by the time you get to that last 20–25%, you're going to move, right? You're going to help your readers get what they need, get the final theme of that message, the final idea you want to communicate. And it's going to feel so seamless to them that they will not be able to wait to refer your book to their friends, or if it's an agent, if it's a publisher, they are going to email you immediately to let you know what they thought.
And that's what we want to do. We don't want to let that happen by chance. We want to make sure we have a plan for that, so that you can move as quickly as I know you want to getting this outline done.
Structuring Your Book
It can be a challenge, certainly, to figure out how you're going to lay this out. What are you going to do? How are you going to make this work? What is this plan going to be? And I think a lot of times, that is why folks try to ad lib it and see if they can just figure it out as they go, because we don't know how to plan.
But one thing that we have done in my company is that we have worked with so many memoirists. We have figured out a lot of the things that trip people up. And the number one thing I see tripping people up is that they're not sure how to structure their book.
So, let me talk about some of the ways that folks try to do this that don't necessarily work for them.
One of the most common I see is folks saying, “I am going to use the Hero's Journey.” Now, I have a current client who did use the Hero's Journey to map out her memoir. It is working beautifully for her. That is amazing.
But, if you've ever looked into the Hero's Journey, you know that there is a lot. You have thirteen steps, it's supposed to be a circle, there's always all these infographics. It is so hard to put your real-life story into those moments, right? Because our lives don't always play out the way the Hero's Journey is, and it feels really icky to manipulate your story so it fits into the Hero's Journey. It's just not really made for memoir.
The same is true if you've heard of or if you've used “Save the Cat.” I love “Save the Cat,” actually, but it just doesn't really work for memoir, especially when you get to the end in “Save the Cat,” it's got all those steps you're supposed to be taking. It's really, really hard to fit your true story into a structure that is so constricting, that has so much detail to it.
So, a lot of times folks will go the other direction, and rather than have these very detailed structures, they'll say, “You know what? I think I'm going to do the three-act structure.” If you have played around with the three-act structure, you will know that it is so far in the other direction. With the three-act structure, you have really just got three acts.
And there is a reason that agents and publishers and writing coaches and writers talk about the three-act structure as having a saggy center. If you've looked at the three-act structure, you know that the middle half of your book is just rising complications. Well, our whole book is rising complications, right?
So, that is not a super helpful way to think about how we're going to break up our outline. In fact, it gives way too much freedom where the hero's journey story grid and some of these other ways of approaching your memoir give so much structure.
So, what we have done at my company is through working with authors, we have found a really simple way that you can approach planning your memoir, outlining it, and getting it onto the page.
We have got these three steps.
- First of all, we're going to bracket.
- Second of all, we're going to segment.
- And third of all, we're going to outline.
What this is going to do is give you a very clear instruction on what you are needing to do at each stage in this planning process so that we can make it as quick and painless as possible.
Let's dive into these steps. We're going to use the rest of the time that I've got here to go through these three steps, and I'm going to give you an example that I hope will be very relatable.
So, what do we mean when we talk about bracketing? If you think about your life, the story you want to tell across a whole span from your birth to now, that's a huge amount of stuff.
And I think most folks know that we aren't going to tell that whole entire story in most memoirs. The exception might be if you're writing a legacy memoir, which is just for your family. In which case, I love a legacy memoir. Go for it.
But if we're writing a memoir that we want readers to pick up, that we want readers to talk about, that we want agents to be really excited about, we have got to be able to share — in one sentence — what that memoir is about.
And that's where we have our bracketing come in. So, to start with bracketing, you're going to need to ask yourself: What is my core topic?
Now, your topic is different than the message, which we're going to get into in a second. Your topic is just simply what your memoir was about.
So, let me give you an example. Let's say that you want to write a memoir about this experience: You got a job, your boss was really toxic and intense and awful, really bad for your mental health. You had to figure out how to escape. You probably had to find your self-worth back. There were lots of stages in that journey.
What I will hear from authors sometimes is they'll share something like that. They'll say, “Oh, this is what my memoir is about.” If I pause, what I find is that a lot of people are so tempted to add in, “Oh, and this, oh, and this, oh, and this.”
So, that might sound like, “Oh yeah, I had this job. I had to escape from it. It was terrible. But also, my parents got divorced when I was little. And when I was a teenager, I fell off a horse and I had this really bad injury...” And it will end up being a list of all the really hard things they've been through.
Now, those things are all important. Those things all shaped who you are. They're all key to the messages that you want to get out into the world in general — but they are not part of your core topic.
When we're writing a memoir, we want to pick just one slice, one core topic.
I got a terrible job. It was awful for my mental health. I had to figure out who I was so I could escape.
That is one thing, right? We can know what the cover is probably going to look like. We know what the title is going to be. Makes it very, very clear.
Then, once you've got that topic, here's where the bracketing comes in. If you remember, we have this whole timeline of your life. We are to put brackets on either side of just the topic.
So, in that example I was giving a second ago, we are going to bracket at the point where that job comes on your horizon. Now, sure, maybe you were in college or high school before, and you were figuring out what you wanted to do, and maybe that led you to this job — but that is not part of your core topic.
Your core topic is one thing. One sentence. So, we're going to draw a bracket right at the point that you came into this job. Maybe when you applied, maybe on your first day, but it's going to be somewhere around there.
It's not going to be your childhood when your dad was really nervous about losing his job and he didn't know where the money was going to come from. That might be something that shaped how you're going to view the situation you're talking about, but that is not the beginning of the story. The beginning of the story is right at the point that you encounter that core topic for the first time.
Now that we've got our beginning, we've got to figure out where did this journey end.
And here's another place where it can get kind of hairy, because what I find is that a lot of times folks are like, “I'm still learning. I'm still growing.” I love that. I love personal development. I love to hear about growth — but that is not part of this journey. That's probably your next journey. Sounds like another amazing memoir that you can write, but as we're bracketing, we want to stop right at the end of the journey.
So, that is probably, in this example, the point at which you left that job. It's probably the point at which you freed yourself, you reestablished who you were and you felt like you really started to heal.
That's our brackets. It's going to end up being a pretty narrow slice. Sometimes it's a year, sometimes it's even less than that. But if we start going too big, we lose sight of the core topic. So, as you work through your own memoirs, keep going back to that core topic.
Is everything I'm saying going straight to the core topic, or do I have things that are outside of the brackets I drew around that journey?
Okay, so an example: The Lion King. Now, in Simba's life, we have him coming from birth. But there's a really good reason for that. The reason that his journey begins at his birth is that the core topic of The Lion King is about figuring out where you belong.
So, we might say the core topic is that Simba, this tiny little lion, he grew up knowing that he needed to follow in his father's footsteps. He had to go through a lot of stuff along the way, but eventually, he found his place in the kingdom.
Other stuff happened to him, right? But we have one topic, and that's how we are going to sell and market and discuss our book. When we know that, we know that the journey has to begin at the point that his place in his kingdom started.
So, this is an excellent way to think about the start of this journey to community, to ruling, to being in charge and responsible for this whole entire Pride Rock. The journey ends at the point that he is so incorporated into this world that his own son is being offered up.
Now, could we go on and see what's he like as a father? I kind of want to know, right? But we bracketed. We are not going to go on to these other stories that go on after. They're their own stories. We are going to stop right at the point that he has learned that lesson. He's gotten into community, and we can resolve this one journey, this one core topic.
So, now what we've got to do is figure out what is your core message. It's really deeply intertwined with the topic. Our core message, I would argue, is going to be something to do with what you learned.
And the easiest way to figure out what your real core message is to ask yourself just that. What did I learn?
In our toxic workplace situation scenario, what I would see as the core message is that the person really learned that they needed to value themselves, that they needed to assert who they were. They needed to be confident. They needed to really understand their self-worth and their self-value.
Did they learn other things? Undoubtedly. You maybe learned that you really need allies when you're in a tough spot. You maybe learned not to take home the stresses of the workplace to your family. You probably learned things about the particular profession or the field you were working in.
That is not your core message, though. Our core message is the one thing that we learned and that we want the readers to learn. They go together so naturally that this is going to be really helpful as you're going through this segmenting process.
But, as you no doubt know, if you're going to learn things, first you got to fail at it. All of us are going to try things to learn in our life, but we're going to mess up. We're going to make really dumb choices, or we're going to be misguided before we can figure out what's going on.
So, we have three different steps, three different types of movements toward learning at the end of that bracket.
The first thing I want you to do is divide that bracket in half. We're going to call that our midpoint. If you've read anything about writing, you know this midpoint, right? Comes at 50% and it's typically the point at which our hero — you — is going to take the agency and the power back. This is the point at which they know something's got to change, but they're usually not very good at it.
So, the midpoint, what we're going to ask ourselves is: When did I fail… but I was really trying?
In other words, we might call this the misguided step. What was the thing that I was taking right in the middle of those brackets? What's the thing that I did where I was really deeply misguided?
This might be, in our toxic workplace situation, that you just totally checked out. I've seen this a lot in folks that I have worked with, is, you know, if they felt like they were in this toxic situation, they just withdrew, they just did not even want to be around it.
Well, is withdrawing going to really help you learn that lesson you learned? No, it's misguided, but it's agency. It's misguided, but it's a choice I made. It's something that I needed to do to get to the end. So that's going to be our midpoint.
Now we've got two halves of our story between those brackets.
So, let's take the first half. We're going to divide it in half again, and around this point, you're going to look for the moment in your life that's about halfway from the start, halfway from that first bracket, to the midpoint.
And usually what we find is that there's some kind of a desperation that happens. This is the point where stuff gets so real and you just really were not ready for it.
So often — if we're thinking of this workplace story — this might be like the very first time that your boss really laid into you. It might be a time that you heard a rumor about yourself and you knew that someone you trusted must have spread this around. And, you're going to take action.
This is usually the first sense of failure or sense of not knowing what to do, and we call this the desperate step. This is the step where you have to do something, right? You don't know what it is. You don't even really have time to think.
What we have to do is figure out how we're going to move forward. Usually, it's pretty desperate. It's pretty panicky. It's pretty easy to identify this one, right? About halfway between your bracket and your midpoint.
Then, we need to split the second half of our story up. So, draw a line right down the middle between the bracket and your midpoint, and here is where you come to the point of learning that lesson. And you'll see this now when you're watching movies, when you're reading — about 75% of the way through the story, there's often a point where something clicks.
So, in our toxic workplace situation, my guess is that this is something that happens that makes our hero realize that they have been thinking about things all wrong. And if they don't get their life back in a different direction, they're going to be lost forever.
That is what we're going to call our epiphany. In our workplace right there, they're realizing, “Oh my god, I need to embrace my self-worth. I need to recognize my value.” That's the epiphany. We want to take our readers along for the ride of really realizing what's going on and figuring that out.
All right, let's do The Lion King here. So our core message, it's this message of community, right? Belonging, family, knowing what is our home. This is our core message: you've got to really embrace who you are. You've got to step into the light, step into your rightful place as the ruler of this kingdom.
But Simba failed a lot, right? The great thing about The Lion King is that it's so dramatic. Simba's failures are really, really obvious, undoubtedly more obvious than yours were.
Let's start by cutting that bracket in half. We've got when Simba is presented to Pride Rock. And we've got when Simba is home in his own family. When we divide that in half, this is the point at which we have the song “Hakuna Matata.” So, if you remember The Lion King, you know that there is a point in the story where we don't think Simba's going to go back. He's got his two friends, and he's dancing through the jungle.
He has figured out a place that he belongs, but it's not really the place he belongs, right? So, we can really identify that as our misguided step. This is the step where Simba took agency. He decided to do something, and it seems like he might be happy. But when we really step back, we know that's not really what he was supposed to be doing. He claimed the agency, but that's not what he was really designed to do.
So, let's plot that. That's in the midpoint. I'm going to cut those brackets right in half and put that misguided step right there in the middle.
Now, let's go to the front half. If we divide that in half for Simba, this is where he's running away. So, again, a very, very dramatic moment in this story. This is where he sees his father die and he panics. He thinks it's his fault. You can feel the desperation in that sweet little kitten's face. He's so scared. He doesn't know what to do and leaves.
So, we eventually learn that he had to leave his community so that he could find how valuable it was. We know that's going to be 25%, right in the middle of our first bracket and our midpoint.
Now, we can take the midpoint to the end. We'll slice it in half again, and here is his epiphany. At around 75% through of this movie, there is a point at which Simba gets a vision of his father. And this is the point at which he realizes that he's not going to be free. He is not going to be able to live this happy life with Timon and Pumbaa. He is going to have to go back to Pride Rock.
And that's the message, right? You have got to go home, you have to embrace your community, and you have to really know who you are and you have to do the things that align you with who you are.
All of us can learn from that, and the fact that we get to see him have that epiphany, it's powerful. It sticks with you. That's your epiphany. That's what's happening at this point in the movie.
And now, from here on out, everything is going to be so, so simple. At this point, all we are doing is filling in the gaps.
You know where your story starts. You know what the midpoint is. You know where it ends. And you've got a little marker that's a dramatic scene but a little bit less dramatic than your midpoint at your 25% and at your 75%.
Now, all we've got to do is ask ourselves: Which of the other moments in my life, which of the things I experienced along the way, helped me get from the beginning, from that first bracket to 25%, from 25% to the midpoint, midpoint to 75%, and then finally to that last bracket?
All you're doing now is plugging in chapters. So, this is a little bit of a cheat code, but I'll share it with y'all. If you know that you want your memoir to be, say, 60,000 words, it's about a 200-page book, you know that you're probably going to have around 20 chapters. It's typically how it works out, at least in my experience.
So, now we know what chapter one is. It's the beginning of that bracket, right? We know what chapter five is because that is your desperate step. We know what the midpoint is. That's going to be around chapter ten because we identified what that was in our segment section. We know what 75% is, and we know where the story ends.
Now, all you have to do is figure out what the chapters in between are going to be. And the way you need to ask it is thinking about your core topic and your core message.
So, first of all, which are the moments that move that topic forward?
In our toxic workplace example, this may be conversations you had with co-workers, and maybe it will be exchanges that you had with your boss that were pretty terrible. There may be moments where you took your work home and you were really unpleasant with your family.
But remember that we're limited. You can't put everything in there. You're really picking three or four for each of those segments we created earlier.
And then you're going to go back in and you're going to look for where the message is. What are some of the things you experienced that really make it so clear that you were either on the wrong track or you were on the right track when it came to learning, getting through, failing, getting back up, and continuing to work learning this thing you needed to learn?
In The Lion King, we've got all these examples, right? We've got musical numbers, we have got other kinds of encounters that Simba has. Of course, this is not a memoir, so we also have scenes that happen when Simba's not there.
But all those things really serve that core topic. The journey from him being welcomed into the kingdom to leaving, running away, mourning his father and coming back.
And all of those scenes are going to support our core message. As we're moving through The Lion King, we are continually learning about community, about family, purpose, belonging, identity, all of these things that are part of that core message that this story communicates.
Okay, so once you have outlined, once you have laid all of this out, here's what I suggest: write out your outline for yourself. This is going to be an internal outline. It can be bullet points, it can be scratches on a piece of paper, whatever works for you.
Then, here's what I want you to do: I want you to go back to it and I want you to write the external version.
You've got your internal — you did it just for you. I want you to write out now a couple of sentences, maybe a paragraph, for each of those chapters so that you know what's going to happen in every individual chapter, one through twenty or however many you have. And what that's going to allow you to do is be so, so purposeful.
So, remember in the beginning, I was describing such a common experience, which is we sit down to write our memoir. We know what that first chapter is, it flies onto the page. It feels so good, right? It's nothing more rewarding than feeling like, “Oh my god, I have nailed it.”
But, now with your outline in hand, with all this thought work and all this development work you've already done, now you can have that with every single chapter.
I'm not promising it's going to be easy. For most of us, that desperate step, the misguided step, even the epiphany, actually, can be really, really painful. There is a lot of personal growth and healing that happens as we're getting those parts of our story onto the page.
But you will know when they're coming, right? So, the client I mentioned earlier who had just said this to me, like, “Ah, chapter one was so easy!” The reason she mentioned that is that we were talking about her chapter ten, which is what she had been working on, working on it for a couple of weeks, because it's the chapter where her dad died unexpectedly.
They were very, very close. It's a really, really hard chapter. But you know what? She knew what needed to go in there because we'd already done that work a long time ago. She was able to knock it out.
Now, did she feel insecure about it? Yes. And I find that is very, very common when you're writing those super, super hard scenes, but she knew how to do it. She got it knocked out. I was so proud of her. Way to go, Maggie!
So, you are going to be able then to set up your plan from your outline. If you want to try to do a chapter a week, in my experience, that's pretty fast if you're a novice writer. Maybe you can, but only you know how long it's going to take for yourself, how long you need to reserve. You should be able to move forward quickly with that without having to stress so much in the middle.
Wrapping It Up
Okay, so this is how we're going to get to 0.6%. We're going to bracket, we're going to segment, we're going to outline. This is going to take you some time, but we're going to slow down so we can speed up.
Then you're going to write that outline out and you're going to make your external outline, your outline you can share with others. This is a great time to get somebody from Reedsy, find an editor. Get some feedback on that outline. It's going to save you so much money and time. If you get feedback on the outline before you write the whole book, you can move things around and it is so much easier to do that when you're just talking about an outline versus a whole manuscript.
And then third, we're going to create a really realistic timeline. Like I said, a lot of people want to do a chapter a week. My experience is you can probably do a chapter a week, three-quarters of the time. So, we want to give ourselves some cushion, some padding, but we're going to make a timeline.
We're going to sit down, figure out when we're going to write. And when we sit down to write, we know what we need to cover. Okay, and then you're going to write the thing.