Keep the hankies close... 1
Writing true life stories can be cathartic, but the likelihood of resurrecting an avalanche of unexpected emotions is high. My first memoir was Helpless, a short story about my time caring for a newborn baby, Sarah, who suffered severe withdrawal symptoms soon after birth. I picked Sarah up straight from hospital and my whole family quickly grew attached to her. When I wrote the ending, about Sarah moving onto her adoptive parents, my face was wet with tears as I relived the upset of saying goodbye.
Is the story unique? 2
If there's a plethora of books in the same genre as yours, study them, and try to find a quirky/creative way of portraying your own story. Fresh insights and an authentic voice will engage readers and help your book to hold its own against the competition, but it may take time to come up with something original. Before I started writing about my own experiences of fostering I was a big fan of Cathy Glass and Casey Watson, the leading voices of fostering memoirs, and I had to work very hard to try and find my own little space among them.
Start with a bang 3
Real life stories have to stick closely to the truth but, like novels, they have to grip from the first page as well. The best way of producing a page-turner is to start with a dramatic scene - it doesn't have to be mind-blowingly exciting, but needs to spark some interest. Opening at a flash point is far more likely to draw the reader in than telling the story linearly and starting with, say, a descriptive passage, or the details of your own birth. I can never resist reading on if I've spotted unresolved issues in a story and I think most readers love a good cliff hanger.
Fortunately, writing fostering memoirs means I'm never short of dramatic scenes to choose from, even if it's only recounting a disagreement with a social worker (plenty of those to choose from) or the mortification of dealing with a toddler in meltdown at the local shops.
Getting started... 4
The sight of a blank page sends me scurrying off to the kitchen for chocolate cake and tea, so the first thing I do when starting a new memoir is jot down a series of events, one after the other, until I have some sort of structure in place. When children are in placement I rarely have much time to spare during the day, so getting up an hour before everyone else and staying up for an hour after they've gone to bed is my only chance of getting anything down on paper.
It really is surprising how much can be done by setting a short amount of time each day aside, with screens off and phones on silent. If you need added motivation, remember that JK came up with the idea of Harry Potter while travelling on a train from Scotland to London. Next time you're in the bath, don't just lay there, get planning...
Finding inspiration... 5
Thankfully, since foster carers have to keep daily diaries, I have a treasure trove of information to look back through for reminders/ideas for my memoirs. When I need added inspiration I dig out the old photo albums - they're always useful for unravelling threads of memories. Letters and emails are helpful prompts as well.
Be Honest... 6
Writing true life stories means laying intensely personal emotions bare and exposing your own shortcomings as well as your strengths. Savvy readers will see through any attempts to create a false impression of yourself so it's best to be honest and open about your own limitations as well as your triumphs.
In my memoirs, some details have to be changed to protect identities, but I try to stick as closely to real life as I can, and of course, my own feelings and reactions to events are always genuine, because they are uniquely mine and no one (except perhaps my mother) could possibly recognise them.
I've been enormously touched by the messages I've received from readers who feel as if they know me and my family, and I think being honest and open has encouraged that connection.
Consider an alias... 7
Bear in mind that family and friends may not like the character appearing before them on the page and they may not agree with your version of reality either. Depending on the content, it might be wise to write under a pseudonym.
Because identities have to be protected I have no choice but to use a pen name, much as I'd love to tell everyone about the books I've written. On the positive side, I've been able to express feelings in print that I've never shared with anyone else, not even my closest friends. I'm not sure I would have been so unguarded if using my own name.
Don't trust your friends! 8
Unless your best friend is like mine (an unflinchingly honest perfectionist), they're likely to love your work and tell you it's brilliant. Praise is lovely to hear, but it won't help to improve your manuscript so that it's the best is can possibly be. If you can take a bit of honest criticism, consider using a reviewing site such as Authonomy, where fellow writers read and critique your work and vice verse. It can be a humbling experience (I still push that SEND button with an inward shiver when I post a new memoir off to my editor) but it's a great way of finding out what works well and what doesn't, and the quality of some of the unpublished stories on there might surprise you.
Have fun with it! 9
Try to keep some balance in your memoir so that it's not unrelentingly grim. However sad or tragic, true life stories need some highs as well as lows to keep the reader engaged. One miserable scene after another will alienate your audience and make a dreary read. Lively characters will help to lift the story and keep it lively, as well as colourful descriptions and an authentic voice.
Stick at it! 10
The average length of a memoir is roughly 80,000 words, so writing 500 words a day means a completed memoir in less than six months, ready to send out to agents and publishers. And then there are the less traditional routes, with platforms such as Amazon's CreateSpace or Smashwords able to take your work to a worldwide audience. There have never been as many exciting opportunities for writers.
Betrayed by Rosie Lewis is published by Harper Element, out now.