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How to Uncover Your Message and Bring Your Books to Life

Five Tips on How to Make Your Stories Stand Out - Even if You Write Non Fiction

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How to Bring Your Books to Life – Lessons in Narrative and the Power of Storytelling

Human beings (that is, the readers you’re trying to sell your books to) are hard-wired for story.

That is, we subconsciously get hooked by certain elements present in a great yarn – making us want to turn the pages and find out “what happens next”.

If you’re a fiction writer, you already know this.

But what about other genres?

If you’re trying to teach or inspire someone with a how-to book, you still need a story to bring it all together (otherwise, nobody cares).

Want to write compelling sales copy? Yep, you need a story.

It’s even more important for narrative non-fiction…

Biographies? You bet. Nobody wants to read about what Churchill had for lunch or where he bought his ties. They want the all the juicy bits.

Memoirs? Guess what. You need a story. Otherwise you’re just describing what some random person’s day looked like.

Travel? Nobody cares which airline you used, or which countries you visited. Readers care about the story, your personal journey, conflict, drama, stakes…

Otherwise, you’re pretty much just listing out a “bunch of stuff that happened” and the meaning behind your words gets lost.

In my experience, there’s very little difference between fiction and narrative non-fiction. In the former, your plot points are made up. In the latter, your plot points actually happened to someone. In many ways, narrative non-fiction has the potential to be far more engaging – because readers know it actually happened.

As far as the reader is concerned, it’s all new to them. So the lines get very blurred (case in point – George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London” is, by any definition, a memoir – but was originally classified as a novel. It isn’t. There are many more examples).

Which means, if you’re writing ANY kind of book – that you’d like readers to actually finish – you need a compelling story to suck readers in and keep them turning the pages until the end.

The better the story, the better your results.

To illustrate this point, today we’re hearing from award-winning memoir author Michelle Weidenbenner.

Michelle is an expert at helping authors and aspiring authors uncover the real story they’re trying to tell – and she does this by applying fiction principles to her brand of narrative non-fiction (she writes fiction too).

So, if you’re a fiction writer – pay attention. Your stories need to follow this same process to draw those readers in and keep them hooked.

If you’re a non-fiction writer – pay even more attention! If you’re not using the power of stories in your work, here’s a masterclass in how to do it right.

Enter Michelle…

Uncovering Your Story: Five Tips on How to Write a Best-Selling Memoir

By Michelle Weidenbenner

In this article, I will share tips on how I constructed my award-winning memoir, Fractured Not Broken. A literary agent told me not to waste my time writing this book or publishing it, yet it’s selling better than any of my other books. It also has a movie option. But more importantly, it’s changing lives.

I’m a writing coach and speaker and have published seven books –most have been best-sellers and award-winning. I call myself the Uncover Agent. I help people uncover their messages in their books and lives, so they can leave a legacy.

 

 

My Story

Kelly, a young woman, came to my office one day. She sat in a motorized wheelchair with her atrophied arm poised above her controls. “I’d get up and shake your hand if I could,” she said, then laughed.

I instantly liked her sense of humor and the way she tried to make me feel comfortable with her limited mobility.

She continued. “Would you write my memoir?”

“I don’t know. What’s your story, Kelly?” I asked.

“When I was nineteen, I was a nationally ranked athlete, but when a drunk driver hit our car, my neck was crimped at the C-3 and C-4 level. I became a quadriplegic, which means I can’t walk, brush my teeth, comb my hair, or make dinner—or get up and shake your hand.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“I don’t want pity.  I want to tell my story to bring other people hope.”

Kelly told me about her life and how her miracle came in a way she’d never expected. I was in awe of her poise, her faith, and the way she influenced children and adults. Her courage was something I couldn’t imagine. She’d done more in her life as a quadriplegic than many able-bodied people do in their entire lives.

I believed that her story could change lives, and I was on fire to write her memoir.

 

 

It’ll Never Sell

But several months later, a literary agent told me not to waste my time. He said Kelly’s story would make a great article, but it would never sell as a book.

At the time, I didn’t have a book published, and I knew nothing about how to self-publish. What I did know was that I was competitive, and more than anything, I wanted to prove the agent wrong.

Ten Years Later…

In 2015, I wrote and published Kelly’s book, and it’s selling more than any of my other books. It’s been an Amazon best-seller and has won multiple awards. It also has a movie option.

(Oh, yeah. Take that, Mr. Literary Agent!)

But more importantly, it’s changing lives and bringing people hope, which is the greatest reward an author can achieve. Fractured Not Broken is a love story so unbelievable that it only happens in nonfiction.

 

 

How Did I Do This?

First – I read books on memoirs and studied the publishing industry. Most memoirs don’t sell well unless you’re famous, so if you’re not famous it’s really important to tell a great story and design a marketing plan.

After Mr. Lit Agent discouraged me from writing and publishing Kelly’s book, I surrounded myself with award-winning and best-selling authors who knew how to kick booty in the self-publishing world. I found them on FB and blog sites. They weren’t afraid to share their strategies and help me along either.

 

 

1. Bring the reader a story that will inspire them.

Read blogs on writing and interview successful authors. Ask questions. I surrounded myself with people I wanted to be like —successful authors who had their readers’ hearts in the forefront of their business.

Study fictional elements.

I published five books before writing Kelly’s story. I learned how to market these books and turn them into best-sellers and award-winning.

One of the greatest resources I used to help me bring out Kelly’s story was Natalie Goldberg’s book, Old Friend from Far Away. Natalie taught me how to ask Kelly the most bizarre questions that would build the foundation of her story.

“Can you remember a time about a popsicle?” I asked Kelly one day.

I had no idea where that question would lead, but it led to a rivetting scene in her book that shows a part of her story, but eductaes readers too.

They learned that quadriplegics can’t perspire in the heat. During one of Kelly’s beauty pageants, she began to overheat and grow dizzy. It wasn’t until people in the parade stuck frozen icy pops down the back of her dress that she was able to cool off.

Can you picture the scene on a hot summer day: Kelly sitting in the back seat of a car in a parade, her head bobbing from the sun beating down on her? Then watch as young girls giggle as they help cool her off with plastic-covered flavored ice pops.

 

 

2. Make your story read like fiction.

Start with a BOOM! Or a hook.  A hook is a literary technique used in the opening of a story that grabs the reader’s attention so she’ll keep reading.

Many writers who tackle their memoir want to start at the beginning of their lives, or they construct a story that takes the reader to one place, then to another, with no goal in mind.

It’s boring.

If your intent is to have readers read your book, you need to start your book with a hook, in the action, just before the inciting incident happens, when everything changes.

Also, your character needs to have a character goal and a transforming journey. Know what this is before you begin. Tape it to your computer screen to remind you daily what your character’s goal is.

What can  your character do at the end of the story that she can’t do in the beginning? Why should your readers go along on a journey with you? What’s in it for them? Do you hook them in the beginning to make them care about you and your plight?

If not, think deeper about how you can tell your story so readers will want to stay in your story and root for you until the end.

Find a developmental editor who can check to see if you’ve used fictional elements at certain places in your story.

For instance,  my editor, Vie Herlocker, sent me this breakdown of my story structure. She based this on K. M. Weiland’s story structure for novels.

In this example, Vie checks to see if the story parts fall in the proper places.

This might look like a ‘formula’ to some people, but in my opinion, story structure is a science that should be studied and applied.

Kelly’s book isn’t fiction, but I wanted it to read like fiction. And here’s a breakdown of how certain elements of the story showed up at specific points of the book – notice how similar this is to a fiction story:

 

 

3. Include the four pillars that make a best-selling novel.

Novelist, Susie May Warren, teaches that every best-selling novel has four essential elements that can lead to its success. Again, a memoir isn’t a novel, but if you include these four elements, readers will love reading it.

Heroism. Everyone makes selfish choices, but if you show your character making a selfless decision, your readers will root for him. Since this is most likely a book about you, think of your story and when you’ve been a hero. Can you show your better side? How?

Sacrifice. Look at your dreams and desires. What did you want more than anything? Then show how that’s taken away from you. In The Hunger Games, Katniss gives up her freedom to save her sister, and we instantly love her. Help the readers like you by showing you sacrifice something important to you. Share your dreams, then take them away.

Redemption. Your character (you) musst have a moment when you see the mistakes you’ve made. Early in your story you make poor choices, but by the end of your story, the reader wants to see that you’ve learned something. At the end of your book, when you’re given the same opportunity, show how you choose differently because of what you’ve learned along your journey.

Justice.  In Kelly’s story, the drunk driver got nine years in jail. Readers were happy to see justice. They don’t like to see unjustice. They love it when all the loose ends are tied up neatly in a bow, too. Give them a reason to clap when justice is served.

However, in memoirs, the truth might mean that justice was never served, which motivates the reader to care deeply about the victim or you.

But maybe justice is in your forgiveness. Maybe you were the victim, but throughout your story you learned how to forgive, you became a stronger person, and even though the villain didn’t get what he deserved, you moved past the wrong-doing and became a mentor to others who are similarly wronged.

In this way, the reader finds satisfaction.

 

 

4. Let Readers See your Character Journey

Who you are in the beginning of the book shouldn’t be who you are at the end. You must have a character arc. It’s important to show what you learned along the way, but what you learn is a transition. It isn’t the fairy godmother showing up, waving a wand, and making your life better again.

Your character journey is an inside job. It’s the sequence of events that changed you on the inside.

How do you show your arc?

Let readers see your goals and dreams and what motivates you.

What obstacles get in the way of you reaching your goal? Is it a drunk driver like in Kelly’s case? Is it the environment or something inside you that gets in the way of you finding success?

Show two steps forward toward reaching that goal and then two steps back again. Are you your own worst enemy? Do you sabotage your success? Show that.

With each new struggle, show how you respond. Toward the climax of your story, you should be learning how to move past the obstacles with new strength, courage and tenacity.

Do something that surprises your reader. Kelly decides to go tubing on the lake while she’s working with teens. As a quadriplegic, she can’t swim. If her head gets below water, she can’t lift it.  She would surely drown. She must rely on others to pull her out. There was no way she could do this in the beginning of her story.

It was only toward the end that she was able to move past her fears and rely on others.

 

 

5. Develop a Marketing Plan

Before you begin your memoir, think about this: What’s in it for your readers? Who are you trying to influence and why?

Once the memoir is written, you will need to find ways to turn this into a nonfiction how-to book that will serve others that share your pain.  If you write your book with the intention of making it a business, you’re much more likely to succeed.

Your book could lead to a career in coaching, speaking, paid mastermind groups, Bible studies, or maybe a paid program that speakers will pay you to use. If you think of your overall message and what that means to your readers, you’ll come up with other ways to help serve those you want to influence.

My friend and mentor, Kary Oberbrunner says, “You must make your book the beginning of a relationship with your reader. Not the end.”

 

Michelle calls herself the Uncover Agent. She helps people uncover their message in their books and life, so they can leave a legacy. Her current project,  “Leave a Letter, Change a Life,” encourages everyone to leave their friends and families letters or keepsakes designed especially for them. When Michelle isn’t writing or coaching, she’s playing pickleball.

Get free writing tips from Michelle right here on her website

And now, we want to hear from you – whether you write fiction or non-fiction, let us know how you use story in your books to hook readers in and keep them engaged (or how you plan to) – leave a comment below and let us know.

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