Note from Jane: This week, I’m kicking off a 5-week online course on how to write a nonfiction book proposal. If you’re a memoirist preparing to pitch your work this year, it may benefit you, and it’s not too late to register.
Of all the projects I’ve heard pitched over the years, memoir is the category with the most intractable, hard-to-solve problems. Partly this is a function of what memoir is: something that’s very personal. People have a hard time achieving any distance between the meaning and importance of their life’s events and the commercial market that might exist for it.
What I’m about to write may come off as cold and insensitive. File it under “tough love for writers.” It’s not that your life is unimportant or without value. Quite the contrary. Everyone has a meaningful story to tell, but not everyone’s story (or writing) is going to deserve a commercial publishing deal.
Here are the most common problems I encounter in memoir pitches and manuscripts.
The memoir is the first piece of writing you’ve ever attempted.
It’s often said that a writer’s first manuscript never gets published; it’s the third, fourth, fifth (or later) manuscript that gains acceptance by a publisher. While this principle is common in relation to fiction writing, I think it applies to any type of storytelling. If your memoir is the first thing you’ve written and finished, it’s unlikely you knocked it out of the park on your first try. Of course, anything is possible, but you’re relying on being an outlier.
Your memoir is primarily pain focused, or an act of catharsis.
This problem often goes hand in hand with the first. Someone has experienced something traumatic, and as part of their therapy or recovery, they write about the experience. Before long, they have a book-length work, and friends and family say (as a form of well-meaning support), “You should find a publisher.”
No, you probably shouldn’t. If your writing was:
- undertaken as a way for you to deal with a painful experience
- if that painful experience is in the recent past (within the last few years), and/or
- if you have no other writing experience or ambition …
… then publishing a memoir isn’t the best next step for you. It’s great that you’ve used writing to aid in recovery, but it doesn’t mean you have a book that’s appropriate for the commercial market. (Unless you’re Hillary Clinton and you lost the 2016 presidential election.)
Your memoir consists of diary or journal entries, letters, or other ephemera from the past.
Don’t do it. One of the fastest ways to get a rejection is to pitch your book as a collection of entries from a diary or journal you kept or a family member kept, or letters sent and received.
Okay, maybe if you’re a celebrity, notorious for some reason, or otherwise in the public eye, perhaps these materials will hold interest to a general readership. But for the most part, a collection of journal entries is going to elicit a yawn from those in publishing.
Use diaries, journals, and other personal written materials as the basis of research to write a proper, narrative-driven story. But don’t use them as the story itself, or use them very sparingly within a larger narrative.
(Yes, I know Sedaris is publishing his diaries. You’re not Sedaris.)
Your memoir is really an autobiography.
This happens about half the time I read a memoir chapter outline or synopsis: it begins in childhood and ends in the present day. In other words, it looks more like an autobiography.
Most memoirs should be limited to telling a story about a particular period in time. A distinctive lens or angle is applied—which means many chapters (and characters) of your life will not enter into the picture. While many phases of your life may be referenced, or there might be flashbacks or flash-forwards, the narrative ought to have a clear focus, or a beginning-middle-end, that isn’t defined by the day you were born and the day you started to write your life story.
Sometimes you can get away with something very broad ranging indeed, but it requires a skilled storyteller, who knows how to weave together scenes to create a cohesive narrative.
You’ve written a series of vignettes.
A vignette is a story that stands alone and is little more than an anecdote about your life. Some memoirs consist of nothing but back-to-back vignettes. They might be beautiful and touching vignettes, but the manuscript lacks a narrative arc. There’s no real story; there’s no question that keeps us turning pages.
Some authors can get away with publishing essay collections or something that looks like a collection of vignettes. Again, people love to reference David Sedaris, as well as Erma Bombeck, as a way to say, “But look how popular they are!” But you are not them, and you won’t get the same latitude if you’re a relative unknown.
You’ve written the memoir of someone else.
You have a family member and they have an amazing story to tell. But they’re not a writer, or they don’t care to write it (or they’re dead). But you’re motivated to do something. So you embark on writing the memoir (or sometimes biography) of their lives.
This type of project is unlikely to go any further than your computer hard drive unless you self-publish it. There is great value in writing and self-publishing such a story for the family legacy, but unless you have a track record of writing and publishing amazing stories about (or for) other people, prepare to be disappointed in the reaction of editors and agents.
Your story is like a million others (and the writing just isn’t special enough).
This is the hardest thing to tell a writer: “Sorry, but your story of addiction or cancer survival or loss of a child just doesn’t seem that special.” In other words, your story sounds like everyone else’s story. It’s not written in a way that makes it stand out, or it could be written poorly. The only antidote to this problem is to either become a better writer, or to find a more interesting story to tell.
For more tough love on memoir, I highly recommend this agent roundtable published in Writer’s Digest in 2010. It’s still relevant today.