No Publishing Without Penalties

May 25, 2021 § 4 Comments

We’re all concerned about hurting others or getting hurt.

We all want to share our story as truthfully as possible.

What happens when these are diametrically opposed? When your ex threatens to take the kids, Aunt Mildred screams at you on the phone, and your mom says she’s “not mad…just disappointed”?

Your story matters, and you get to write it the way you remember. It’s called a memoir, not a “comprehensive review of all facts.” But you can take steps throughout your writing and publishing process to minimize fallout and family strife.

Write the book. You may discover a new story thread as you write, leaving out the worrisome scene or the touchy relative. You may discover that actually, you have five scenes showing why you became a mountain climber, Aunt Mildred saying you’d never amount to anything isn’t the strongest one, and you’re cutting it.

Seek out other perspectives. If you’re not speaking to your antagonists, ask their family members. If you are, interview like a documentarian. Don’t ask, “Why did you push six-year-old me down the stairs, Dad?” Instead, “Tell me about how we interacted when I was a kid. What were our days like?” You might cry in your car after every interaction, but you’ll get better material by starting from a neutral position.

Do as much showing as possible. Describe behavior and show its effects on those around the person. It can be very meaningful to write an antagonist’s perception of herself, giving her view serious consideration (Is Grandma an alcoholic or is she just “jolly”? Are you being judgmental?). Balance makes a more interesting book, with more for the reader to think about. Give the clues to the problem—make the reader a detective who puts it all together.

Rest the book. Every author, fiction or non, needs a resting period for their book. If you’re a category romance novelist churning out ebooks for dollars (you go!), that might be an afternoon. But for memoirists, your final-draft manuscript should sit without your attention for a minimum of six weeks, and ideally six months. Coming back to a book with fresh eyes is one of the best editorial techniques I know. When you come back, read the manuscript into your phone’s voice recorder. This will teach you where your voice is overly formal or just plain awkward, and the saying it aloud part confirms, “Yes, I really do want to say this, in this way.” Then play the recording back. Listening also shows where your book needs revision.

Get the deal. Before you tell any relatives the book is done. No point in getting everyone all fired up if it turns out you’ve written a “practice” memoir. When you’re contracted, an agent or publisher (or freelance editor, if you’re not ready to query or you’re self-publishing) can help navigate second thoughts. A supportive stranger’s perspective on your portrayal of a partner or relative can confirm your words are fair.

Step with caution if you’re in mid-divorce or a custody battle. But divorce papers get signed and custody gets solved, and your book will still be there when the time to publish is right.

Prepare for engagement. Plan and rehearse what you’ll respond to questions you’re dreading and how you’ll handle interactions with people in your book.

Tell your sibling, “Isn’t it fascinating how we can grow up in the same family and have such different experiences? I’d love to read your version of the story someday.”

Tell your parents, “You don’t have to read it, but I hope you’ll support me sorting out my own experiences on paper.” It’s not the first time you’ve hurt your parents’ feelings (we were all 13 once!) and it’s probably not going to be the last.

Most people who threaten to sue don’t, won’t or can’t. It’s not as easy as they think, and it’s not cheap.

There is no memoir-publishing without penalties. You are never going to get off scot-free. Someone you were very kind to will be unhappy anyway. Someone you didn’t even mention will be mad you left them out. People will remember things differently. Your book will sell a ton of copies and your friends will be jealous and even more people will read it and be mad. Or your book will hardly sell at all and your enemies will triumph. Cousin Mark will be mad you talked bad about his dad. Your mom will be upset you dug up that old family story. Your kid will be embarrassed you talked about changing their diaper.

You can’t stop people from feeling their feelings and having their own memories, and you will never finish your book if you are trying to please them more than you are trying to tell your story.

A memoir is, by definition, one person’s memory. Be honest with yourself, be kind when you can be, and put in a disclaimer about memory at the beginning. Write your best work and brace yourself—sharing your journey is worth it.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 4 Responses to No Publishing Without Penalties

  • VJ Knutson says:

    Good post. I’ve been working on a memoir for years, and when I finally let family read it, two things surprised and educated me. 1) my mother was offended, not by what was written, but by what was not – (It’s a father/ daughter story, she needs her own book). 2) that my siblings remembered things differently. We have to write our own story. It’s the only one we know.

  • judyreeveswriter says:

    What a great post, Allison. My memoir isn’t a family story, more a traveloir with grief as a companion, but of course there are family stories and friends stories and oh! the ex-. And I appreciated all you wrote; who knows what my next story will be. I will share your post with my memoir-writers group. Thank you.

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