Writing a Memoir: Six Tough-Love Lessons From My First Draft

Writing a Memoir: Six Tough-Love Lessons From My First Draft

Over the fall and winter, I wrote the first draft of my memoir about a year spent learning to play roller derby.

I’d had big plans for the book for several months, and with the help of things like NaNoWriMo and a heavy dose of rain over a Portland winter, I was able to finish a very rough draft.

It was less than 50,000 words, which is about 20,000 short of a standard memoir, but I knew I had to start somewhere. With this draft telling the story of my first year of skating, I asked for feedback from other nonfiction writer friends, and a great editor in Los Angeles, Liz Galvao.

With Galvao’s help and the comments I got back from beta readers, I began to see some themes emerging from the feedback.

Here’s what I learned about how to improve my second draft:

1. Know your audience

This is a basic one, right? Well, it turns out I wasn’t following this important advice as closely as I thought I was.

For the purposes of my book, it’s best to assume the reader knows nothing about roller derby. I jumped right in talking about pace lines and speed trials like everyone reading had already seen Whip It! and gone to see a bout themselves.

In reality, most of them didn’t know that roller derby games are, in fact, called “bouts.” I realized my book was in serious need of an “introduction to roller derby” chapter.

My second draft will go into deeper detail about the sport, its rules, what its players do and what its culture is really like. I probably don’t need to go into detail about the parts that make up a roller skate like some excellent beginners’ guides do, but I need to do a better job of taking my audience along with me for this ride.

2. Stop trying to make chapters serve double-duty as standalone essays

Some of the chapters in my book have been published as stand-alone essays in other places online and in print. I wanted to make sure each could serve as its own story, in case excerpts are needed down the road.

But you know what? That will be a good problem to have once it comes up.

For now, I need to go back and note where characters are first introduced, and then remove any additional introductory language that follows in later chapters.

There’s a lot of duplicated information in this first draft that needs to be cleaned up.

3. My journalism brain is getting in the way of my creative one

This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, but Galvao pointed out that some parts of my manuscript are very matter-of-fact. It’s in my reporter nature to give a timeline of events and to not want to omit any facts, but this method doesn’t always make for great storytelling.

In my next draft, I’ll really need to pay attention to what does and doesn’t further the overarching narrative.

4. Name your characters!

A lot of the manuscript discusses a previous relationship, but I didn’t want to name my ex-boyfriend in my book in order to protect his privacy. Instead, I referred to him simply as “my ex” throughout.

Many reader comments begged me to give him a name, even if it was a fake one, simply because the wording was confusing.

Additionally, I need to be pretty selective about who to include as a character and who to leave out because if there are too many, readers might be confused by that.

Much like with my fact culling, I’ll need to go through and see which characters drive the story and which ones don’t.

5. Not everything has to be about roller derby, and that’s fine

The parts readers responded to the most weren’t about roller derby — they were the parts I’d felt reluctant to include about my personal life.

Galvao was especially encouraging in my inclusions of stories from my personal life in my book. She pointed out that, while not everyone knows what it’s like to try out for a roller derby team, most people can relate to losing a loved one, fighting with a parent, or going through heartbreak.

Additionally, because roller derby was a constant throughout the year I wrote about, a lot of the things I was dealing with overlapped. I found that the sport and the skills I was learning were giving me confidence on and off the track.

I just need to make those connections clearer in my next draft.

6. The story isn’t done after all

Ughhhh. This was the hardest thing to accept, because I had wanted so badly for my book to encompass one year: From January until December 2015.

However, my story is still ongoing and I (hopefully) have a long roller derby career ahead of me.

Back in January, I loved the idea of getting an agent by summer and a publisher by year’s end, but I see now that that was incredibly ambitious. All I can do now is keep skating and learning, and take really great notes along the way. I’ll know when the timing is right.

In the meantime, I’ve got a great start to what will someday be an amazing book. I’m going to keep improving on the work that I already have and add in new material as I go.

And even though this book needs a lot of work, it sure feels better to tighten up a first draft after getting a wave of helpful feedback than it is to stare at a blank page and start building from the ground up.

Authors, what lessons have your editors or beta readers helped you learn?

Filed Under: Craft
Karan Bajaj

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  • Darlene says:

    I don’t know if it is a memoir or autobiography but l am writing about my life, l,want to know should l write about the good things in my life or the bad things or both l,call it my memoirs because it is about abuse l went through as a child and what kind of research should l do and where would l go to look for this research

    • Meryl says:

      That’s a really tough decision, Darlene! I can’t guide you on research but I do think it’s best to write what comes out and make the decisions about what to include versus not include down the road. I’m sorry for your experience and I wish you the best!

    • Diane says:

      Hi Darlene. If you are writing a memoir or autobiography, I don’t think you should do any research as you know all that you need to know as it’s about your life. In my opinion it’s more important to decide what you would like to tell your readers with your story and what you would like them to learn from it. And from that you can decide what to include and what not and on which part of your life you would like to emphasize.
      If you still would like to do a research, maybe you can have a look at the psychological effects of childhood traumatic experiences and how they influence you when growing up and as an adult. You may also consider writing a self-help book to help and give advice to people who have had similar experience.
      Wishing you all the best!

  • Nicole says:

    This is excellent advice, thank you! I am pretty overwhelmed – I’m about halfway through my first draft of my memoir. I need to always remind myself that this is a marathon, not a sprint.

  • Tanya says:

    This was helpful. I am on the third edit of my memoir and feeling as if there’s not enough or too much. I feel like I’m confusing at some parts but too vague in other parts. Its been a rough year of working on it but I’m still trucking along. Lol

  • Thank you for all the tips! Quick question and I apologize if this sounds really ignorant. Do you need to get permission/release to use someone’s real name? Or if you are describing events and they are involved? What if you are quoting conversations with them? Is it easier to just change names and put an asterisk?

    • Meryl says:

      Hey Patrice! From what I understand, if you get down the publishing road, fact checkers will come into play and get confirmation of events described and possibly get releases from those in your book. I’m changing names for some people in my second draft. I would love to hear a literary attorney’s take on this and the rest of your questions!