Marina’s Notes from Melissa Hart’s Presentation on How to Craft & Market Life Stories

Melissa Hart, author of the memoir, Gringa, recently released from Seal Press, gave a riveting speech on how to write a memoir that sells.

The first step: Choosing a topic

Topic selection:

You must brainstorm before you select a topic:

  1. What three events in your life stand out as most significant?
  2. What three events stand out as most painful?
  3. What three events stand out as the funniest and/or most bizarre?
  4. What are three of your most vivid memories from childhood?
  5. What are three things about your life that make you unique?

It is essential that your main topic sound immediately interesting. Make sure your perspective is different from previous memoirs. Publishers are looking for fresh stories.

Hyperboles and stretching the truth:

Ariel Gore said “A memoir is to a journalistic autobiography as a movie based on life events is to a documentary.”

  • It’s okay to make up dialogue you can’t remember as long as it’s based around a truth.
  • Do not stretch too far from the truth, and if you do, don’t admit it.
  • You have to be very careful with lies, be as honest as you can. Lies tend to disappoint people.
  • Avoid getting sued by people in the book
    • Change name, job, and all identifying characteristics

When writing a memoir:

  • Make it specific, don’t try to cram your life into one book
  • Focus on one small part (i.e. Your love of candy, the men in your life)
  • Admit your flaws
    • No one wants to read about someone who is perfect
    • Have the courage to make yourself unlikable
    • Use humor
      • Publishers love it when you have the courage to write humorously about a social issue that people are afraid to talk about (i.e. having a brother with down syndrome, but talk about how he always wins taco eating contests)
    • Tie in current events whenever possible

Literal Elements

There are things that all memoirs need

  1. Conflict & Resolution
  2. Setting
    1. Season, time of day, walls, floors, people around, the atmosphere of the place
    2. Characters
      1. Focus on eccentricities and idiosyncrasies
    3. Narrative arc
      1. Rising Action
      2. Climax
      3. Falling action
    4. Descriptive Elements
      1. Hyperbole
        1. i.     Exaggeration of the truth
      2. Metaphor/smile
        1. i.     Comparing two things
      3. Sensory details
        1. i.     Don’t forget smell and taste
    5. Conclusion
      1. Take time to explain the significance of the event, reflect
      2. End with an image or a funny story

After first draft

  • Work with a critique group or a partner
  • If you can, let the writing sit, you can come back to it with a fresh mind

After final draft

  • Never sell all rights
  • You need a platform, be visible, get known
  • Create a book proposal
    • Write a good synopsis
    • Really sell your work

Fun Extras:

  • Try a 6 word memoir at Smith
  • Take a creative writing class
  • Learn about multimedia production, this can also help with advertising

Melissa Hart Resources:

Blog for Writers at


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