Friday, November 10, 2017

How Personal Little Stories Become Big Bestsellers

by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

Okay. We’ll re-situate the elephant in the room right away: It helps to have contacts and clout when you’re writing personal narrative. That being said, it still took more than money, influence and a gregarious personality to make the anecdotes and life experiences of the following writer leap off the paper, into our hearts and onto bestseller lists. 

Last month, I addressed some of the things I learned about writing from other authors, notably, Rick Bragg. This month I’m sharing writing tips I’ve gleaned from Bob Goff ’s book Love Does. If you’re listening Bob, “Put your humble hat on, because I’m gonna praise you” (as I heard one preacher say).

He makes a point, has a central idea. 
Love Does is a collection of outrageous anecdotes. Even though the stories are funny and exuberantly engaging, they still need to be corralled within the confines of a controlling idea. Hence, Goff’s over-arching premise: Love is action. God is on the move and he wants to move through you. Each of the chapters, although unrelated otherwise, contributes to this central idea.

I think this is difficult for those of us who like to write memoir and personal narrative. We know we have entertaining/informative stories, which we’re sure will delight or teach our readers, but we lack the thread to string our pearls on. That through line which makes our narratives part of a cohesive unit.

He uses a recurring refrain.
One technique Goff uses to link his anecdotes is to include a refrain at the beginning of each chapter: I used to think, do, believe . . . but now I know . . .

For example, he prefaces the chapter, “Sweet Maria,” with I used to think Jesus motivated us with ultimatums but now I know He pursues us in love. Goff then launches into the preposterous recounting of how he made a 4’x8’ cardboard valentine for a woman he’d known for a week, and lugged it up an elevator to her office floor:

Wouldn’t Maria think this was just about the greatest Valentine’s Day card she’d ever received?

Word must have spread in the office about the guy with the big card stuck in the elevator because, within a few seconds, a small crowd gathered in the lobby…. For the first time, I started thinking that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. But it was too late. After being paged, Maria came around the corner and saw me standing there with a big dumb grin, floppy ears, and a gigantic, overambitious card….Maria was absolutely mortified.

He transitions to his wrap-up about God’s love without pontificating. 
So often in our zeal to drive home our godly point, we wrap up our narratives with a jarring shift from the conversational voice we used in telling the story to one of a pulpit-pounding preacher. Notice how Goff keeps his personal tone with phrases like one thing I learned, and I like the passage in Scripture where . . . Here’s how he wrapped up his Maria story:

But the reason I wanted to tell you this story is that it has to do with another thing I learned following Jesus. Because God made me to love Maria, and because God made it so I had to convince her to love me back, He gave me a very real way to understand what is happening in the universe. Because of our love for each other, I understand just a little more how God has pursued me in creative and whimsical ways, ways that initially did not get my attention. Nevertheless, He wouldn’t stop. That’s what love does— it pursues blindly, unflinchingly, and without end. When you go after something you love, you’ll do anything it takes to get it, even if it costs everything.

Three years later Maria becomes his wife.

Finally, whether your personal narratives become bestsellers or remain bedtime stories, if you commit to telling them, do it boldly. 
One reason for Goff’s appeal is because his voice is so upfront honest you can practically feel it vibrating on the page. My personal favorite story “The Reach” smacks with 8th-grade boy humor. After Goff relates a hysterically mortifying incident, he concludes:

On one hand, I’d just destroyed a year’s worth of work . . . I don’t know how I could have messed up any worse, to be honest. Yet on the other hand, I had a story for the ages, a story I could someday tell my kids when they thought they had made a big mistake. I took in another deep breath and felt this huge grin spreading across my face.

Goff not only finds the jewel in this humiliating moment, but in the spirit of storytellers everywhere, he can’t wait to tell others about it.

I hope his ideas will help you go tell your stories.


Marcia Moston—author of the award-winning Call of a Coward-The God of Moses and the Middle-class Housewife—has written columns and features for several magazines and newspapers. She has served on the faculty of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and currently teaches her true love—memoir and creative nonfiction—at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Furman campus in South Carolina.


  1. Thanks Marcia. "The thread to string our pearls on" is the key. Said so beautifully. That is what I need to find in my personal narratives. I will look for that thread and perhaps my narratives will gel into a book that will sell. Thanks again.

    1. I hope you do Sheryl. Keep asking yourself what you're trying to say--what's it really about--what your stories have in common.

  2. Thank you. When I apply these words of wisdom, my main project will grow and improve.

    1. That's the rub for all of us, isn't it--applying wisdom! Hope you find the key you're looking for. P.S.--Love the "last arrow" idea.

  3. I think the rule about not pontificating is true for any kind of writing, fiction or nonfiction.

  4. Here I come, Amazon. :)