The perfect 5-step plan to write your memoir (a 10-chapter cheatsheet!)

The perfect 5-step plan to write your memoir (a 10-chapter cheatsheet!)

This is an advanced excerpt from Anna David’s new release “Make Your Mess Your Memoir.”

If you’re ready to take your own experience and make it into a memoir that can help other people…

There are just a few things for you to figure out first.

#1 Determine Your Message

Determining your message is, as far as I’m concerned, the only crucial thing you need to know before you start writing. Otherwise, you risk doing what I did—flailing around with multiple books that ultimately mean nothing to you.

If you’re not certain what your message is, I highly recom­mend working with a professional writer. Of course, hiring a great writer (and there’s no point in hiring one if you’re not going to hire a great one) isn’t possible for everyone.

So if you want to get started on your own, ask yourself: what is my story? You have one. We all do. And if you can tell it well, you can change the world. People often come to me concerned that their story isn’t compelling enough. I always confess that my story isn’t that compelling and yet I’ve made it into seven (eight, counting the one you’re reading right now) books. It is not about how interesting the story is. It’s about how it’s told.

In conceiving of your message, here’s how I recommend looking at it: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned? This will change over time. For me, 15 years ago, recovery took center stage. After going through my career and personal experiences and then landing in EMDR, I realized that my message was about seeing, feeling and sharing how my strug­gles had shaped me so that others could do the same.

#2 Determine Your Why

Writing a book, whether you’re doing it on your own or with help, is a massive undertaking. It might take a good deal of time or money to get through to the other side. The best way to set yourself up for the moments when your commit­ment may waver is to get extremely clear on why you’re shar­ing your story.

My why, when I wrote Party Girl, was what I told you at the beginning of this book: I thought if I could make the tiniest bit of a dent in the perception the world had about addiction and recovery, I could maybe help people from having to go as low as I had gone.

I didn’t expect it to lead to TV show appearances, TEDx talks or any of the other gifts it brought. But those gifts taught me another solid why.

Over the years, I’ve watched dozens of our clients reap incredible rewards from their books. Darren, in addition to all the other gifts he’s received, has told me repeatedly that the book gave him his life’s purpose.

Another client, Emily Lynn Paulson, took the memoir she did with us and landed on The Doctors, got a TEDx talk and grew a recovery coaching business.

Then there’s Matt George, the CEO of the Children’s Home Association of Illinois, who went from behind-the-scenes guy to center stage after his book came out. He’s now giving keynotes in front of thousands of people, doing podcast interviews every week and watching his social media following grow 10-fold.

Those are just a few examples of hundreds that I could give. I’ve watched clients add $500,000 a year to their bottom line and land more of their own clients in a year than they had in all the previous years combined, simply because the people they were doing business with knew their personal stories and thus trusted them in ways they hadn’t before.

But I can also give you examples of people who put all the same effort, time and money into a book only to have a nice object on their shelves. The difference between those people and ones like Darren and Emily and Matt is that the latter had a very clear idea about what a book could do for them.

They knew their why. And they followed it. Because of that, they changed lives—most notably their own. Still, you don’t have to want to be front and center. There are all sorts of reasons for wanting to write a book that don’t include appearing on TV or growing your business.

Maybe you just want personal freedom or to help people. In this Instagrammable world, where there are so many people out there perpetuating the story that having everything we want is easy, we can all do our part to tell the gritty truth.

Whatever your goal is, let’s move on to how to write your book.

#3 Learn The 10-Chapter Format

While you can follow any chapter format you’d like, I recommend using the 10-chapter format below (also broken down in the Memoir Download I told you about in the begin­ning). Here it is:


Chapter 1: Intro/Inciting incident/Flashback/Turning point

Chapter 2: Childhood/Adolescence

Chapter 3: The path (whatever it is…career/personal story)

Chapter 4: Escalation

Chapter 5: More escalation

Chapter 6: Hurdles or problems

Chapter 7: Turning point

Chapter 8: Path toward resolution

Chapter 9: Resolution

Chapter 10: Life after resolution


Let’s break down each of these.

The rationale behind making the first chapter a flashback is that it brings us smack dab into the apex of your story. You’re more likely to get us engaged if you deliver us a height­ened moment.

You do this because you want an audience immediately engaged—you want the reader thinking, “This person has a crazy life, I want to know more.” That way, they’ll be more invested in the second chapter—your childhood and adoles­cence.

Then, in the third chapter, you’re getting on the path. The word “path” depends entirely on the story you’re telling. Is it a tale of overcoming abuse or addiction? Is it about swimming with the sharks as you climbed the corporate ladder? What­ever your path is, chapter three is where you lay it out.

In chapters four and five, the action escalates. If it’s a mem­oir about building a business with a morally corrupt partner who ended up fleecing you, this is the part when you’re thrilled as you watch the money roll in and marvel at both the skills of your chosen partner and your luck in having aligned your­self with him. Escalation is when everything is exciting; in chapter four, the wheels haven’t yet fallen off the bus.

That all changes in chapter five. In recovery, people use the expression “First it was fun, then it was fun with problems, then it was problems.” Chapter four is still fun; chapter five, less so.

And then, in chapter six, the fun screeches to a halt. This is when incidents that, in retrospect, couldn’t have lasted come to a grinding halt. The tax bill arrives. You miss a crucial event because you’re drunk. The buck has stopped.

In chapter seven, something shifts: there’s a hint of a different way of living. It’s when, to stay with the scenario of the crooked business partner, you see that there actually might be a way to start a new business without him. In the recovery memoir scenario, you meet someone who’s sober and success­ful and happy. Chapter seven is when you haven’t arrived at a transition point quite yet, but there’s a glimmer of hope that it’s possible.

And then there’s chapter eight, in which you prove the shift is possible because you take one tiny step toward it. You tell your wife that she’s been right this whole time: the busi­ness partner has to go. You start calling rehabs.

This sets you up for the real transition in chapter nine: the resolution. You officially make that business partner a former business partner. You check into rehab. Chapter nine takes us through you finding out what life is like without whatever it was that you never thought you’d let go of.

And that brings us to chapter 10: life after resolution. Today, or something close to today. This is the chapter that focuses less on tentpole scenes and more on the comparatively peaceful day-to-day existence you’ve achieved as a result of this journey.

And there you have it. Your (former) mess. Your message.

#4 Select the Right Scenes

If the 10-chapter structure I just detailed sounds overly simplistic, know one thing: it is.

But simple is not the same as easy.

One of the most challenging tasks, once you’ve determined your message and your why and are ready to get started, is going to be determining which scenes you’re going to use.

I recommend selecting between three and seven scenes for each chapter and really fleshing them out. A laundry list of what happened is going to read like, well, a laundry list. Instead look at your life and ask yourself: what are the incidents that really shaped me?

This can be inarguably challenging. You may be thinking, “You’re asking me to pick three events from my entire child­hood? Are you kidding me?”

I get it. There’s a reason “kill your darlings” is a common quote about writing. But having too much to pick from, as opposed to not enough, is a quality problem.

I recommend asking yourself: What are those memories that are stuck in my craw or that I’ve discussed repeatedly in therapy? Still, it’s important to make sure you balance out the more damaging incidents with happier times. There are very few times in our life where only terrible things happen (except, perhaps, in chapter six).

In this book, I realized I had to skip huge chunks of my life in order to tell the story. I distilled the three years after college into five paragraphs, simply because, in retrospect, nothing that happened felt crucial or helped move my story along.

You get to do the same. There’s no detective who’s been by your side your whole life and is going to rail against you for not sharing about times in your life that aren’t relevant to the story you’re telling.

You get to decide what matters. Isn’t that fun?

#5 It’s About You But It’s Not About You

As you take us through your story, the most important factor to keep in mind is that it is for us. Your readers.

I spent so much of my career thinking, “I should write about this topic because it will be a hit” or “I should write about this topic because the opportunity is here so it must be fate.” I didn’t think: what have I experienced that can help people?

Choosing to write about something because you think it will hit still makes it about the writer—what the writer thinks. But what does the reader think? What does the reader want?

It may help to picture one person—your ideal reader—and then multiply that person by a thousand.

They say the riches are in the niches because it’s true. And it’s never too early to start thinking about your niche.

I often think about what Ryan Holiday wrote in The Perennial Bestseller: that his first book, Trust Me, I’m Lying, was geared toward people who worked in social media.

Not people who use social media. People who work in the social media business.

A slim segment of the population, no?

That was his point. If you conquer a niche fully, that niche will become your fan base—the beginning of what Kevin Kelly calls your 1000 true fans.

I also think about an anecdote I heard when I first started studying marketing. It was about a lawyer who created a course called “How to Get Clients.” No one bought it. So he changed the course to “How Lawyers Can Get Clients.” A few more people bought it. Then he changed it to “How Lawyers Can Use LinkedIn to Get Clients.” It sold like crazy.

So how you do you find your audience? You can simply go look for books like yours. Start by checking out books you know of, then do simple keyword searches on Amazon. And pro tip: if you want to know what you can include that your competitors have not, check out the one-star reviews and see what readers complain is missing.

Once you figure out who your audience is, you’re going to have a much easier time sharing your message with them.

Need more help with your memoir? Get Anna’s book now!

Read Next: 15 practical tips for memoir writers.