An early look at a section of Blueprint for a Memoir: How to Write a Memoir for the Marketplace forthcoming from Jennie Nash summer 2023.
The structure of a book refers to the overall shape or form of the idea—how it is organized, how it functions. The structure you select has a profound impact on how your reader will experience the material and what they will take away from it.
Think of a book like Eat, Pray, Love—a book that is (in a very blunt analysis) about saving yourself by getting out of your comfort zone—and how that story would have been different if it had been any other number of idea/place combinations besides three.
If it had been just one place, it could have been a story about a person’s relationship to a place like A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle.
If it had been a whole lot of places, it could have been something like Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines.
If it had been 1000 places, it could have become an aspirational how-to travel book like 1,000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz (which would have taken it out of the realm of memoir.)
Changing structure can sometimes entirely change the kind of book you are going to write, your ideal reader, your point, and everything else about the project—which is fine. It’s more than fine. The Blueprint process is all about finding clarity and defining your book idea. Much of the work circles around shape and form.
The wonderful thing about structure is that you can adopt someone’s structure. Or as Chip and Dan Heath put it in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, “Don’t think outside the box. Go box shopping. Keep trying on one after another until you find the one that catalyzes your thinking. A good box is like a lane marker on the highway. It’s a constraint that liberates.”
I am not advocating literal stealing. You can’t write about the work of becoming an artist in a 12-step process like Julie Cameron did for The Artist’s Way and call what she calls “morning pages” something like “a.m. pages”—that would just be wrong and weird and possibly illegal, unless you were building on her work in a very specific way she had blessed, or perhaps satirizing it and acknowledging your debt to her idea.
But you can do something like what happened to me and my story about migraine.
For years, I was struggling with a memoir I wanted to write about migraine. I was unsure about everything from my point to my ideal reader to my structure.
I thought about writing an annotated journal, with entries for things like rain and poor sleep and chocolate, which are triggers for me and a lot of people with migraines. I kept thinking of 47 triggers, 101 triggers as an organizing structure.
I thought about writing a moody memoir about life and death. It would be centered on the month my mother died, and how in the midst of the chaos and the grief, I didn’t have a single migraine and wondered if perhaps she had been the cause, all along.
I thought about writing my story as a scathing attack on a medical system that seemed to ignore this affliction which impacted so many more women than men.
I started and stopped all of those books. I was clearly lost, but the idea of writing about migraine wouldn’t let me go.
One day, I was doing some research for a client, and I read an excerpt from Glennon Doyle’s Untamed. She has an unusual structure for her story about coming into her whole true self—three conceptual/ideological sections (which she names “cages,” “keys” and “free”) that tell her overall tale. Entries in each of the three sections are presented in a non-chronological order, pinging off each other in interesting and resonant ways.
This structure was like a lightning strike to my idea about migraines. I could immediately see how what I was trying to do would come alive with a fractured structure like that. I could number my migraines (I had the thought that I had had approximately 1,000 migraines) and present them not in order, but by theme or concept, such as despair, triggers, and hope. I could suddenly see the book I wanted to write if I adopted that structure for my own material and my own purposes.
That’s what you are looking for—the structure that brings the idea to life.
Play around with your idea. Try different shapes and structures on for size. Think about pouring your story into a different container and get a feel for how that will lead to a different book.
Jennie Nash is the founder and CEO of Author Accelerator, a company that trains, certifies, and supports book coaches so they can help writers do their best work. Jennie’s clients have landed top agents, six-figure book deals, and spots on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. She is the author of 11 books in 3 genres, including Blueprint for a Book: Build Your Novel from the Inside Out. To make sure you learn about the publication of Blueprint for a Memoir: How to Write a Memoir for the Marketplace, sign up for her mailing list HERE—and get a 7-day writing challenge.
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Thisisgreat . It has all the right shapes and colors.