Inkpop Blog

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How to write a teen memoir

Posted by inkpop on December 10, 2009

inktip #10: The teen authors of the Louder Than Words books dish autobio basics
Marni Bates, Emily Smucker, and Chelsey Shannon have experienced more challenges before the age of 20 than most people do in a lifetime.

Bates suffers from the stress disorder Trichotillomania, commonly called “pulling,” causing her to pull out her hair. Smucker was diagnosed with the rare and incurable West Nile virus. And Shannon, who’d already suffered the loss of her mother, dealt with the violent murder of her father, shortly before she turned 14.

All three tell their stories, as high-schoolers dealing with huge obstacles, in the first series of teen-authored memoirs Louder Than Words (HCI), released in August. The three young authors applied for the memoir series by submitting samples of their work and summarizing the gists of their experiences. (Learn how to submit your story here.)

Once selected, Deborah Reber—the author of a number of teen books, including Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul: The Real Deal—helped the writers to shape their stories into autobiographies, simply titled Marni, Emily, and Chelsey.

Whether you’ve experienced a life-altering event or you just want to take a sort-of “My Life Up Til Now” approach, everyone has a story to tell. The key is writing the story well, and figuring out how to make it unique. Here, Bates, Smucker, and Shannon share tips for jumpstarting a memoir.

PUT YOUR BEST FOOT FORWARD

When submitting samples of your work to a publisher or to the inkpop community, make a good impression from the get-go. Whether you’re writing a cover letter, a short bio, or an inkpop profile, or you’re compiling a portfolio of writing samples, select your highest-quality work.

Sure, many writers keep a stash of scrappy, random rants and half-formed thoughts, but those are best kept in the privacy of a diary or notebook.

For Smucker, the best place for her to flex her writing muscles was her blog, which provided her with “a boatload of writing samples” to submit to Reber to pore over. “[My blog] really helped me grow as a writer.”

ORGANIZE YOUR THOUGHTS

Keep a journal? Blog about your life? You’re off to a good start for an autobiography.

In the case of Emily Smucker’s book, Emily, she’d already documented her experiences with her illness—in bits and pieces on her blog. Come book-writing time, she made like an editor, and glued those bits together. “I took my blog posts and diary entries from the time of my sickness, arranged them in chronological order, and deleted everything that was too personal or embarrassing to put in a memoir,” she says.

Once she had major points organized, Smucker spent several days rearranging her story. “I ripped parts out, combined entries, and added sentences here and whole entries there to fill in the cracks,” Smucker says. “Then I took the mess I’d created and typed it back into the computer. Ta da!”

MAKE AN OUTLINE

If you’re starting a memoir from scratch, organize the major themes of your life or a critical event by creating an outline.

You might think of outlines as those annoying things you write in English class, but they actually work. “Writing an outline also made it easier for me to see where I was going when I felt stuck,” Bates says.

STICK TO A SCHEDULE AND SET DEADLINES

Marni wrote a chapter per week, and finished writing Marni in six months. “Keeping a steady pace really helped me stay focused without getting bogged down by the enormity of the goal,” she says.

Without deadlines, it’s easy for writers to procrastinate. With Reber’s deadline schedule in place, Smucker says she finished her book in “record time,” in the same way that she meets deadlines for school assignments.

“Unfortunately, it’s hard to stick to deadlines that I give myself,” she says, raising a good point. In the case that you’re unable to meet the deadlines that you set for yourself, invite a peer, fellow writer, teacher, or writing group to help you stay on target.

Once you meet your deadline, reward yourself.

GET A PROOFER

“The biggest thing I’d recommend is having someone else look over your work to catch awkward sentences, etc.,” Shannon says.

Chelsey Shannon

Shannon, Smucker, and Bates had Reber’s editing and guidance, but if you don’t have an official editor to read your work, enlist the help a writing buddy, family member, a teacher, or the inkpop community.

LEARN AND GROW FROM YOUR STORY

Smucker describes the process of writing her book as a painful experience because she had to “re-live all the indescribably awful moments” shortly after she’d begun her healing process. “But after a while I realized that it wasn’t just a bunch of painful moments anymore—it was a good story,” the 19-year-old says. “Something beautiful had come from the pain. That was an amazing thing to discover.”

Bates says her autobiography completely changed her life, and gave her a  newfound appreciation for herself that she “desperately needed.”

“Before I was hired by HCI, I was terrified of other people discovering that I pulled out my hair,” says Bates, now a college student. “But by writing about my struggle to deal with my disorder, I’ve been able to put it in perspective and live a happier life. It is because of my book that I’ve been able to offer other people the support I so urgently needed in high school. The good that has come out of my autobiography makes me feel like all the pain I dealt with was worth it.”

Participate in the Louder Than Words inkpop Forums Event: Get ready to post your questions and comments for Emily Smucker, Chelsey Shannon, and Marni Bates on inkpop Forums, on Saturday, December 12, at 5 p.m. EST. You must create an inkpop profile to participate.

The inkpop blog is written by inkpopAmy

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2 Responses to “How to write a teen memoir”

  1. […] teen authors wrote their incredible life stories (read Marni, Chelsey, and Emily’s advice on “How to write a teen memoir” here on the inkpop […]

  2. […] What was it like to edit the autobiographies of teen writers Marni, Chelsey, and Emily for the Louder Than Words […]

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