How to Write a Publishable Memoir: 12 Do’s and Don’ts

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 once blogged that she’s seen so many bad memoirs that she cringes when she meets a memoirist a writer’s conference. Author J. A. Konrath offered 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 Eat, Pray, Love, In the Garden of Beasts and Townie: a Memoir, top the bestseller lists.

In this age of “reality” TV, there’s a huge audience for shared real-life experience. Readers are hungry for true stories: look how angrily they reacted to writers like James Frey and Herman Rosenblat, who passed off fiction as memoir.

So keep working on 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:

1)     DO read other memoirs. Before you put pen to paper, it’s a good idea to read some currently selling memoirs. See what works and what doesn’t. Know the genre and the market

2)     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 Mick Jagger, 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.)

3)     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 a basic storyline, like: “Orphan kids save the family farm during the Depression,” or “A cross-dressing teen survives high school in the 1950s.”

4)     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 people's problems. Put the raw material in a journal to mine later for fiction, poetry, and personal essays.

5)     DO remember that a memoirist, like a novelist, is essentially an entertainer. A memoir may be nonfiction, but it requires a creative writer’s skill set. Always keep your reader in mind. Never fabricate, but only tell what’s unique, exciting and relevant to your premise.

6)     DON’T expect a big audience for medical journaling: If you or a loved one has a serious disease, chronicling your experiences can be invaluable to those suffering similar trials. To the general public—not so much. You may find it’s best to reach your audience through online forums, blogs, and magazines. (See #6) Remember that publishing is a business, and no matter how sad your story, if it’s not an enjoyable read, it won’t find an audience.

7)    DO consider non-book formats to tell your story. 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 friend calls “memoiric essays.” Nostalgia and senior-oriented magazines and blogs are great venues for tales of life in the old days. Some niche journals and websites focusing on hobbies, pets, disablities, veterans, etc. even provide a paying market. These will also give you some great publishing credits, and you won't have to slog for years before reaching an audience.

This is one area where BLOGGING can provide you with a fantastic forum. A new blog I love is by Tony Piazza, a veteran of the film business—and mystery author—who has insightful stories about every Hollywood star you ever heard of. 

8)     DON’T include every detail because “it’s what really happened.” Just because something is true doesn’t mean it’s 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, you lost your virginity, and/or somebody stole the parson’s pants.

9)     DO limit 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.

10)   DON’T jump into the publishing process until you’ve honed your skills as a creative writer. Unless you’re only writing for your grandchildren (nothing wrong with that—but be clear in your intentions) you need to become an acomplished writer before you can expect non-family members to read you work. Even the most skilled editor can’t turn a series of reminiscences into a cohesive narrative.

NOTE: There are ghostwriters who specialize in memoirs, so if you want to get your story into book form and aren’t interested in becoming a professional writer, you can hire one. Many editing services offer ghostwriting—a more expensive process than editing—but worth the cost if you don’t enjoy the writing process. I’d recommend using a memoir specialist like, which looks like an excellent service.

11) DO look at small and 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. A good example of a memoir that found a home at a regional press is Anne Schroeder’s Branches on the Conejo,Leaving the Soil after Five Generations  (Another perk of being with a small regional press is that the book can still be in print after a decade.)

12) DON’T get discouraged. Ann Carbine Best, an award-winning poet, knew she had a story to tell that would help thousands of women who shared her experience. Unfortunately, most publishers thought her subject matter was too niche and controversial to be a blockbuster. But with a small press, she found a welcoming audience for In the Mirror, her memoir of a doomed marriage.

If you’re working on a memoir, polish your creative writing skills, remember publishing is a business, keep your reader in mind--and you’ll avoid the cringe-making amateurishness that agents, editors and readers fear.

What about you, scriveners? Do you read memoirs? What is likely to make you pick one? What are your pet peeves in memoirs? Memoirists--any advice to new writers who are working on theirs?

WE HAVE A WINNER of the signed first edition of Catherine Ryan Hyde's wonderful novel, WALTER'S PURPLE HEART. I assigned every address a number went to the random number generator at to select the winning number. 

The winner is Cathryn Leigh! Congratulations, Cathryn! CRH will contact you to get your snail address. 

Cathryn, and everybody else who signed up for our HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE  launch newsletter, you're still in the running for the signed first edition of Catherine Ryan Hyde's iconic novel, PAY IT FORWARD.

INDIE CHICK fans:  This week's exciting episode comes from Sarah Woodbury, author of some wonderful historical novels set in medieval Wales. I predict we'll be hearing more from Sarah, who out-did me by publishing no less than seven novels last year. Her inspiring piece is here. 

This just in!! The paper version of THE BEST REVENGE--the first of the Camilla Randall mysteries--is now available from Popcorn Press! Only  $9.95 

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,