Of all the querying writers in the world, I empathize most with memoirists because of the challenge they uniquely face. Memoir falls into a gray area where some agents/publishers are most interested in seeing you pitch the work like any other nonfiction book (with discussion of platform, market, and media potential), while others would rather have you pitch the work like a novel (that means focusing on story, and your unique voice or style).
Ideally? You have both story and platform to offer.
The good news, if any: Memoirists have a lot of leeway in choosing a pitching strategy that works for them, guided by the strengths of their project. But with freedom comes great responsibility, and it’s easier to get into trouble when there isn’t a tried-and-true formula to follow.
In my 15 years of evaluating queries, here are the three biggest pitfalls I see in memoir queries, regardless of your pitching strategy.
1. The Laundry List Approach
Repeat after me: a list is not a story. A list is not a story.
It can be tempting to list all the quirky things that happen in your book. Or go through a roll call of all the interesting characters. Or mention all the fascinating places the reader will go. Or mention all of the universal themes. It’s as if the writer is hoping that, by listing all these things, the agent/editor will be intrigued enough to read or ask for more. Here’s an example:
Each story—from the murder to a disturbing street encounter, to a missed train in Italy, to meeting my Hollywood actor father—builds upon themes of social class, sexual desire as a cautionary tale, and a longing for safety, through settings from Maine to Los Angeles to Las Vegas, New York City, Santa Fe, Austin, and back to Maine.
But no one really wants to read a book because of a list, no matter how interesting. We are looking for someone to care about, we are looking for a problem or question that intrigues us and that we want to explore with you. The above paragraph can’t be revised fruitfully, because we need key characters—you!—to be acting, feeling, and reacting. Go through your query and look for any list. Strike it. You’ll likely improve things immediately just by eliminating the list. (Novelists, the same is true for you, by the way.)
2. Going Heavy on Theme or Abstraction
Memoirs typically involve big transformations: finding love or losing love, becoming ill or recovering your health, forging a new identity or discovering who you really are. These are big, big concepts deserving of books. But in a query, if you try to emphasize the “big” theme at the heart of your book, or the “big” emotions you’re dealing with, the query will likely fall flat. Here’s an example.
When I lose the very first meaningful job I landed out of college, I am unsure of myself and my future. In addition to being dislodged from a promising career path, I also find myself struggling with drug addiction. At a crossroads in life, a hollowed-out version of my previous self, I search to find my identity.
Queries come alive when they offer vivid, specific details that can help bring your story to life. Ideally, we want mini-scenes that evoke the right emotion, without telling what the emotions are. Here’s a revision.
I spent $64,000 and studied for six years to become a pastor. But my first church assignment goes horribly wrong when my recreational drug use is discovered, and I become barely employable. In fact, I don’t really want to be employable any longer by any church.
To find solace for a while, I become a day laborer working on landscapes. My first job is with an older widow, Eleanor, whose yard, like herself, is in dire need of love and understanding …
3. Focusing on Backstory
With memoir, it’s especially tempting to give considerable background and context about yourself, so that agents and editors can better “understand” you or the memoir and how things came to be how they are today.
But in fact we need exceptionally little information to start with. In fact, it’s almost always better to start in medias res, in the middle of things, and fill in the gaps as we go. I think Denise Massar does a beautiful job with this in her query for Matched, which scored her an agent. Rather than talk about herself, her background, and why she wants to adopt a child, she cuts straight to the chase and starts like this:
“You’ll find your own birth mom,” our lawyer said. “That’s just how it’s done now.”
We advertised ourselves across the country as hopeful adoptive parents, fielding and vetting birth moms by phone. The first to contact us—there would be eight in all—had been raped by two different men. Ashamed and depressed, she’d spent her pregnancy drinking and doing coke. Did we want to adopt her baby, she asked?
Later in the query, we get some tantalizing bits about Massar’s own background, and at this point we’re hooked and want to read the manuscript so we can learn more about her. It turns out Massar herself is adopted. Read the full query here.
Think about the query as similar to going on a blind date. Do you tell your life story from the very beginning? No. Because that is boring even if your life is unique and interesting.
I mentioned earlier there isn’t really a formula for memoir queries. But if I had to offer a default approach, it would be: Make your voice shine and put us in your world, even if it’s just for a small scene or a small moment. Most unpublished memoirists don’t have a big enough platform to merit a book deal on reader reach alone, so pitch based on the strength of your craft and storytelling. Look for the moments you think will be talked about and referenced many years after your memoir is published. Can that be fuel for your query?
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses (How to Publish Your Book), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.