From Life Story to Memoir: The Rewrite


A year and a half ago, I had completed my client’s story. It had started out with aspirations to being a memoir, turned down the highway toward autobiography, and ended up as life story. He was satisfied. We had a publisher. Soon, I thought, the project would be over. Ha!

I’ve relayed this story several times. Here I reference it to address the topic of rewriting a book. Not just revising. Rewriting. And it occurred to me this morning that what I had spent these last 16 months doing to my manuscript bore much resemblance to grappling with an unfinished manuscript, or even with a work in the germination phase. You’ve got dozens of gripping anecdotes. You’ve got a unique and workable angle and a clear theme(s). You might even have whole scenes and chapters written out. But how to organize it all? How to get at the point of it all? How to set the story soaring?

A recent post on fellow blogger Lisa Reiter’s Sharing the Story provided the impetus for me to finally write this post. Close to having a completed manuscript, she still struggles with key questions:

. . . ‘purpose’ is the biggest issue I feel I am grappling with. What is the purpose of my book? Who is my intended reader? And therefore where am I trying to end up? Answering these questions would help me jettison anything that is just background noise because writing this sort of memoir – one where the story is never quite over so long as I’m still living – could mean the writer makes the mistake of including everything that happened since survival.

This point in the road is precisely the juncture at which I found myself in February 2015. Like Lisa, I had a big theme; where her story is one of surviving cancer, my client’s is one of surviving early adversities to make it in the high-stakes world of neurosurgery. The problem was—as Lisa suggests in that last sentence above—that in the original manuscript I had included everything that had happened to my client over more than sixty years. Sure it was a hell of a story, but one that appealed at best to a handful of readers who knew or knew of my client. The key events were there, but they commanded no more page space than much smaller events. And what was the purpose? Indeed, what was the genre? Immigrant story? A tale of rags to riches? A life in medicine?

From Life Story to Memoir

I had had an inkling of the problem at the outset when my good friend, author, and grammarian Kathy Papajohn posed the question to me: Who is going to read this book? There are circles she explained to me, from intimate friends and family to readers interested in autobiography and memoir to those who look for a good story across genres. What is this book? WHY is this book? Who is your target market?

I was ill equipped to answer those questions in the beginning. I thought they would take care of themselves once I had 80,000 words. Indeed, I thought I could worry about overall structure during the revision phase. I didn’t know how else to tell the story but to get it all down. Such an encompassing process proved to be invaluable, but it also greatly extended the time it has taken for my client to get his story told.

Which brings me to late 2014. I was doing last revisions on the existing manuscript, and working towards eliminating unnecessary scenes and lines—what Lisa referred to as “background noise.” (I blogged about this process on my old site, Memoir Crafter.)  Soon after, everything changed when my client and I began working with an established agent/editor named Claire Gerus. After encouraging us to “stop the presses” with the first publisher, Claire immediately honed in on certain elements of the manuscript. Great medical anecdotes, she said. Engaging formative episodes in his youth. Fascinating stuff on his German roots. But his time coaching his kids in soccer? Boring. His first day of high school? Who cares? Then she told me the kind of book she saw in the manuscript, one that she felt she could represent: a medical memoir with brief but telling flashbacks to those important formative events.

How to Attack a Rewrite

It was almost harder to rewrite the manuscript than it would have been to start afresh. For starters, how to identify the key scenes? How to decide on a new starting point? Claire provided me with a couple of helpful exercises.

  • THE FIRST was to review the story and identify the important events:
    • What were the turning points?
    • Where did the protagonist experience a revelation or epiphany?
    • What dramatic moments moved the story forward?
    • What scenes showed the protagonist working through the important themes?
    • Which ones included key characters that served as friends or adversaries?
  • Then, Claire told me to break this list down into two columns: one showing the positive events that had supported my client’s journey toward self realization, and one listing the negative events or moments that had blocked the attainment of his goals or wishes.
  • Equipped with this list, I was now to block out a timeline where I interspersed these high/low events. This would create drama and tension in the narrative.
  • THE SECOND EXERCISE took my existing table of contents as a starting point. Using the list of positive and negative events, rethink the table of contents. Build the TOC from the combined list of high/supporting events and low/obstructing events.
  • Finally, identify a new starting point, not at “the beginning” but with a significant event, a major surgery for example.
    • Move forward from that point, using flashback as needed to fill in the narrative gaps and reveal and/or reflect on the formative experiences.

The high/low exercise encouraged me. I can do this, I thought. Just identify the events, slot them into roughly chronological order, and insert sections of the original manuscript. Bingo. The rewrite.

Then I attempted the second TOC exercise. My efforts fell flat. I could not get away from my original chronological sequence. I ended up at least five or six chapter titles in before I got to a medical event, and that was only med school.

At the same time I was using Scrivener to rethink the structure and order of chapters. I moved the entire manuscript back into Scrivener, divided by chapter and scene. I experimented with moving the chapters around. I axed scenes I judged to be irrelevant. Most times I felt more muddled than ever. What I was doing was avoiding the real REWRITE. I hoped to slide by with a little shuffling and sleight of hand.

Using Mary Carroll Moore’s “W” structure with the high low points of the story. The bottom diagram shows the chapters inserted into the “W.”

Book Proposal as Guide to the Rewrite

In February Claire suggested a new approach. I didn’t have to have a completed manuscript, she said. The story was solid. Hold off on rewriting the manuscript. We could sell the idea to a publisher with a book proposal. Focus on a few crucial things, Claire said:

  • Rework, yet again, that new TOC with compelling chapter titles;
  • Do a knock-out sample chapter that shows the doctor at the top of his game;
  • Come up with a succinct title and subtitle that will grab attention and signal what the book is about;
  • Create an overview of the book, snagging the editor with a description of a dramatic scene and summarizing the main events and themes;
  • Throughout, focus on the editor not the imagined reader. Make each sentence crystal clear. Use powerful language that reflects the book’s uniqueness and appeal (“high-stakes”; “groundbreaking”; “game changer”; “pioneering”) and which in turn signals the main theme(s).
    • Remember, Claire said, editors want to see hard-hitting specific content that readers can get excited about.

So, that was the beginning. Those first sections of a traditional book proposal—overview, TOC, and sample chapter—set me on a track that over an entire year led me to the skeleton of my rewrite.

I will expand on this topic in my next post: The Book Proposal: Pinpointing Purpose and Readership, and show how for me, the proposal pulled me up from pantsing mode to outline mode—and gave me the structure I needed to make real headway.

What about you? How have you dealt with the task of organizing your manuscript? Of deciding which elements to include and which to leave out? What tools have you used to gain more control over the process?



8 thoughts on “From Life Story to Memoir: The Rewrite

  1. For my own book, after many rewrites and the slashing of things I really thought I was done. I’ve only read my own book about a hundred times. Every time someone said they read my book I would reread it to see if I had something there. Eventually after self-publish and self-marketing I grew weary. several years later I have reread the book again and although I still like the writing, I’m not so sure that is worthy of a greater Market. I hope to rework it someday because I think the message is sound but I don’t know if I have the energy or inclination to tackle it again

    1. Yes Robin, the rewriting is exhausting. Many times I hoped my client would just decide to publish the original manuscript. I had to get about 7 or 8 chapters in until I really felt momentum again and could see the new book emerging. Now I am happy because I do think it is a much more engaging book. If you ever do decide to rework your book, I hope exercises like the ones I described here provide at least an initial guide. As for market, that’s a whole other beast! (Having said that, how many of us ‘crones” are out here???? [I think that is a much maligned word.] Your book deals with a great topic that speaks to an undervalued readership.)

  2. Dear Jeanne

    You’re like a buoyancy aid at the moment!

    I am sorry to be late responding to this excellent and very helpful post. I had drafted one on the run, last week on my iPad and lost it to cyberspace! Grrr! I thought it had sent until I checked back here.

    Anyway, thank you for giving so much detail here and sharing the helpful tips from Claire. I have been avoiding facing up to a rewrite (I have probably revised, edited and re-written a good proportion of what I have many times already) but realising that wasn’t fundamentally going to address issues I hadn’t really got my head around. And all the while finding I am growing as a writer – in some places but not others. I have 80,000 words down but wonder if I am staring at just a bunch of ‘practice’ – that feeling, as Robin also alludes to is so wearying, it leads not a state worse than inertia – at times utter defeat although having got this far I cannot give up. And so it goes around!

    Anyway, suffice to say this post of yours has been inspirational amidst the chaos this week and if I manage to get a post out today/tomorrow, will tell more.

    I look forward to reading your post on Pinpointing Purpose and Readership for obvious reasons!

    Thank you ❤️ Lisa

    1. Lisa, so glad you made it back. I know the struggle it is to juggle the WIP, thinking through and posting on your own problems/issues, dealing with clients (if you have those as well); and finding the free moment to read other bloggers and drink that sweet nectar of encouragement and inspiration. If it helps you at all, please know I had this post in draft form for months. I have posts running through my head all the time. Drat! I will get back to teh second piece of this soon. In fact, this post started from that point. Then I realized I needed to fill in the background a bit. At any rate, 80,000 words is an achievement! You have the raw material at the very least, and I am sure you have thought out the structure to some extent. In this post I really loved the high low exercise. Not only did it help me build tension into the structure, but it provided the seeds to the major scenes. Now of course I struggle with trying to fit too much into flashbacks….I don’t want to lose it. Gee, I will have to post on that problem too! Thank you for stopping by!

  3. Ahh dear Jeanne, at last I have had the chance to sit here with my cup of tea and read your extremely helpful post for this memoir writer – including your links! The bullet pointers on Claire’s advice for attacking ‘that’ rewrite and a book proposal as a rewrite guide are excellent. I was not prepared for a total rewrite when I at last finished my first draft at the end of last September. Three years it took me (long gaps when I was too emotionally wrung out to write when helping my daughter go through a bad few years…) to get to that point and I could not believe I finally did it. But even as I got to the last few chapters, I could see that the story I thought I was writing was not the story I started out with. I ended up with approx 122K words and realised I had written about far too much in the earlier part. And like you, I am a panster by nature so I bashed it all out, ‘feeling the flow’, thinking how good it was to at long last, over 30 years in the making to be really ‘writing a book’. Ha. What did I really know? Zilch, that’s what. Since re-visiting that first draft – and yes, it is shit – the struggle really began. I’ve managed to blog a few posts since last autumn, but nothing like before. Since before last Christmas, off-blog ‘stuff of life’ has been relentless (a car accident for me and then as you know my dear mum had a stroke in March…) and during this time I realised that when I was able to write, I was essentially rewriting the entire manuscript. Well, the first half at least. This is because the title didn’t come to me until after I finished the first draft and I realised that in writing the second half, as the story unfolded, that I needed to approach it with a totally different perspective. Although it takes place over three years, I wanted to know how to bring in some elements of the past, but I found I brought in far too much from my earlier years. I was slowly learning that much of it wasn’t relevent to the story. Then I panicked over the first chapter. I changed it several times and at one point seriously thought that I would not be able to write this memoir as I had hoped because I lost all confidence in any slight ability I thought I might have had at the start to attempt it. Once I rewrote the beginning, copying and pasting some paragraphs from the first early chapters, I ended up condensing ten chapters in to three, including the opener. I still don’t know if it is a prologue or a first chapter. And it took me ages to get that far. Since then, I’ve been rewriting everything. When you wrote about getting to chapter six and still only as far as med school, I had to smile wryly as I thought about my first draft and how I had written funnily enough six chapters and still hadn’t even met my American GI! When I re-read it I was gutted, realising that I had to start over. A rewrite is exhausting, that’s for sure. But Jeanne, reading your story – and thank you so much for sharing it here – encourages me and any memoir write to not give up and to keep going. I don’t use Scrivener as I don’t want to take on something else new to learn when I have this weird system with Word, printing off chapters, hand marking them, rewriting and editing on Word and making new files as I go along. Somehow it works for me, but I still get in a muddle at times.
    And back to the purpose of our memoirs, as asked by Lisa. Who is my market, target audience? Who is going to be interested in my story? I still struggle with this and have a great deal to sort out in my head as I write on. And getting rid of that ‘background noise’, finding the key points, writing them through the theme and structuring it all together with flashbacks and then reflection. A long way to go, that’s for sure. But your post has helped me along the way as I seek answers to all these questions as I write on. I very much look forward to your next post…thank you…

    1. Wow, so much here to address Sherri. I feel your pain! But first off, let me say that those 122,000 words are your gold mine. Even when you don’t use much of it, it is there informing your story at deep levels. I read once that writers of novels should write out their characters’ pasts in detail, even if those details don’t ever make it into the story. I think it is the same with memoir. Even if you “know” the character, (in fact sometimes it is harder knowing the real person who becomes a character in your book) you may take for granted aspects of their character or personality that your readers need to know, things that appear in their mannerisms, actions, speech. You may want to just tell people all these great details and bits of history, but then you lost the importance of what they are doing, where it all fits into the larger narrative.
      As for personal events–LIFE–I have not got that one figured out. I was a limp rag at my writing all last week. My son was released (oh happy day) and I drove three hours down to SE Arizona to pick him up.Then I’ve been playing phone tag and juggling appointments with various doctors. I just want to cancel all of them. (Related to a fainting episode in March..I feel fine now!) And those are big events, but you have had your mother’s stroke to take in. I am so sorry. That one must be incredibly worrying and sad and scary… be kind to yourself, ok?
      I really understand your reluctance to learn a new program right now, but honestly, Scrivener has saved my life. It allows the space to shift things around easily. You can focus on one scene at a time, or switch to another scene in the same chapter or in a different chapter. You can name your scenes to get a quick idea of the event or important theme. You can split your screen and refer back to another section or copy and paste from it. You can save versions of a scene with a simple screen shot.You can color code. I do move my chapter into Word and polish it up at the end. But I cannot imagine now writing the whole thing out that way from scratch. I have done that in the past, and then given up at the morass of it all. Here, if you are in one scene, and a great idea hits you, you can so easily jot it down in another file in your “binder” and then move back to where you left off earlier.
      That is partly what I wanted to address in this post. The process of moving my existing manuscript back into Scrivener as a new project helped me to identify those scenes I needed to keep, scenes I wanted to use as flashbacks, new scenes I needed to build to suit the change in genre. And those scenes you don’t use now will still be there, easily found, for another book or other kind of writing. Maybe just take a peek at Scrivener 🙂 I don’t know the half of it I am sure. There are functions I never use but the basics are very helpful.
      Finally, congratulations on a solid draft!!! My poor personal work languishes in bits and pieces…. how I long to work on just that! Who said one could write a book in a year or five years? That you are doing it, have done it a first time around, is so much more than many people ever achieve.

  4. Ahh Jeanne, I am so very happy to hear that your son is out…and how wonderful to see your happy, smiling photos on FB. Wow. What you have been through. And so sorry for your own health problems – fainting, scary. So glad you’re better now. I know just what you mean about wanting to cancel all those appointments. I’m having to deal with this at the moment for my daughter, a bit of tail spin with the news that her Asperger Psychologist is leaving and with NHS cutbacks here, there is nobody to take his place. This means referral back to the mental health team, which we do not have a good history with but I won’t bore you with all the gory details…just I am having to keep vigilant in my advocacy for my daughter. Well, enough of all that. But yes, it is so difficult isn’t it to find that pure writing time, to put all aside and just get on with it. And after reading what you say about Scrivener and the issues coming up to the surface with my memoir, I am beginning to see that actually it might just be the answer in several ways. I promise you, I will take a peak and I will let you know! The problem is that I’ve identified some of those key points you mention in your post, those that I need to bring in, and during the flow of writing a scene and then bringing in reflection or past memory of earlier years, as they express my thoughts at the time. Something in particular I was hoping to avoid writing about I now see I need to bring in. Oh Jeanne, I could talk to you all day about all this. I wish we could! But for now, I will thank you again for sharing all of this…you and Irene are keeping me afloat with your fantastic knowledge of the memoir process and I can’t thank you enough. I’ll be writing a post next week – ha, God willin’ and the creek don’t rise as ‘they’ say – and I will link to this post if you are okay with that, along with Irene’s memoir series. I’ll be in touch…meanwhile, I hope you have a wonderful weekend and also no doubt will see you over at the Ranch here and there… <3

    1. So sorry I missed this last week Sherri! So much to talk about! Like you I wish we could just meet over tea or coffee or a pint! I saw that you posted on your blog today (or yesterday?)and will treat myself to reading it, as well as Charli’s last post. Just such a crazy time, not only with my son and the book etc. but with a stepson we are again having to take action with. He has never been diagnosed but he definitely shows signs of Asbergers. And our system here is pretty frustrating too. The doctor we like takes no insurance at all, (not that my stepson’s insurance is very good) so it will be an outlay up front. Anyway! Very frustrated that I have not gotten back to my blog! I want to do that second post. But at least I am writing! Trying to get the last chapters finished–at least in draft form–by the end of this month. Take care Sherri. Will be in touch! Can’t wait to read your London ruminations. How I miss that marvelous city.

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