They say we all have a book inside us—our own life story. The urge to put that story on paper is the most common reason people start writing. Adult education programs and senior centers everywhere offer courses in “writing your own life.” Memoir is the most popular genre at any writers conference.
Unfortunately, it’s the hardest to write well—and the least likely to be published.
Agent Kristin Nelson says she’s seen so many bad memoirs that she cringes when she meets a memoirist a writer’s conference. Author J. A. Konrath offers the simple advice: “Unless you're one of the Rolling Stones, don't write anything autobiographical.” Miss Snark pronounced, “every editor and agent I know HATES memoir pitches…I'd rather shave the cat.”
But memoirs like Angela’s Ashes, The Glass House, and I Feel Bad About my Neck make the bestseller lists. Readers are hungry for “true” stories: look how angrily they react to people like James Frey who pass off fiction as memoir.
So don’t toss that masterpiece-in-progress. But hone your craft—brilliant wordsmithing and/or stand-up-worthy comedy skills help a bunch—and follow some basic dos and don’ts:
DON'T write an autobiography: An autobiography is a list of events: “I was born in (year) in (place) and I did (this) and (that.) Mr. Konrath is right—unless you’re Keith Richards, nobody cares. (Except your family. Don’t let me discourage you from self-publishing a chronicle of your life as a gift to your descendants.)
DON'T confuse memoir with psychotherapy: Writing a book about a traumatic personal event may be cathartic for the writer, but there’s a reason shrinks charge big bucks to listen to this stuff. Put the raw material in a journal to mine later for fiction, poetry, and personal essays.
DON'T expect a big audience for medical journaling: If you or a loved one has a horrific disease, chronicling your experiences can be invaluable to those suffering similar trials. To the general public—not so much. Reach your audience through online forums, blogs, and magazine or newspaper articles.
DON'T be married to the book format. Beginning writers often make the mistake of jumping into a book-length opus. It’s smarter and easier to start with short pieces—what a writer/editor friend calls “memoiric essays.” Nostalgia, “Boomer” and senior-oriented magazines are great markets for tales of life in the old days, and niche journals focusing on hobbies, pets, disablities, veterans, etc. are always looking for submissions. Many of them pay: check Writer’s Market or our FWOI database.
DO tell a page-turning story. A book-length memoir is read and marketed as a novel. It needs a novel’s narrative drive. That means tension and conflict and one main story arc to drive the action. Most memoirs fail from lack of focus. Choose one storyline, like: “Orphan kids save the family farm during the Depression,” or “A cross-dressing teen survives high school in the 1950s.”
DO be selective in scene choices. Just because “it’s what really happened” doesn’t make an event interesting. Your happy memories of that idyllic Sunday school picnic in vanished small-town America will leave your reader comatose unless the church caught fire, or the bully who’d been harassing you lost his pants.
DO consider limiting the story to an area where your experience is significant and unique. If you gave birth in the mud at Woodstock, dated Elvis, or helped decipher the Enigma code, make that the focus of your book. I knew a musician who worked with of some of the great legends of American music. His memoir of those jazzy days was gripping, but because it was buried in his “happy ever after” life story, he never found a publisher.
DO look at regional publishers. A national publisher may not be interested in stories of the vanished ranch life of old California, but a local publisher who has outlets at tourist sites and historical landmarks may be actively looking for them. Another plus: you don’t need an agent to approach most regional publishers.
DO finish the book before you query. Memoirs are bought and sold like novels, so query with a synopsis, not a book proposal, and have the book polished, edited and good to go before you contact a publisher or agent.
Remember that a memoirist, like a novelist, is essentially an entertainer. Always keep your reader in mind. Never fabricate, but only tell what’s unique, exciting and relevant to your premise, and you’ll avoid the cringe-making amateurishness agents and editors fear