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 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) will find an agent or receive a commercial publishing deal. Many memoirs ultimately have to be self-published. Here’s why.
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 story. 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. The more experience you’ve had as any kind of commercial writer or storyteller, the better your chances.
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.”
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 to publish …
… then publishing a memoir is rarely the next best next step. It’s great that you’ve used writing to aid in recovery, but it doesn’t mean you have a book that will appeal to agents or big publishers. (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.
If you’re a celebrity, notorious for some reason, or otherwise in the public eye, these materials may hold interest to a general readership. But for the most part, a collection of journal entries is going to elicit a quick rejection from those in publishing.
Use diaries, journals, and other personal written materials as the basis of research to write a narrative-driven story. But don’t use them as the story itself, or use them very sparingly within a larger narrative.
Your memoir is really an autobiography.
This happens the majority of 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, and many facets or times of your life will not enter into the picture. You might use flashbacks or flash-forwards to include critical moments, but even so, the narrative must 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, but it requires tremendous skill.
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 celebrities or well-established authors can publish essay collections or something that looks like a collection of vignettes. People love to reference David Sedaris, as well as Erma Bombeck, as a way to say, “But look how popular they are!” But 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 own desk 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, editors and agents will likely pass.
Your story is like a million others—and the writing just isn’t special enough.
This is the hardest and most awful thing to say, yet it’s true: “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.
So, what should you do if your memoir has a problem?
The first step is realizing and accepting this problem stands in the way of you getting an agent or a big, commercial publisher. Then you can decide what compromise you’re willing to make. Your key options are:
- Self-publish the book. You can still have a satisfying and successful experience of publishing your book, and it doesn’t have to cost you much money. (In fact, I suggest you avoid investing too much; it’s money you’re not likely to earn back.)
- Write another memoir—one that fits what agents and publishers want. Learn how to build a compelling narrative arc. Avoid the pitfalls of memoir. Try starting afresh with this list-making method.
- Hire a development editor or coach to help you revise your existing manuscript. This can get very expensive, and there’s no guarantee that the investment will lead to a publishing deal. Here’s how to decide.
For more tough love on memoir, I highly recommend this agent roundtable published in Writer’s Digest in 2010. It’s still relevant today.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. 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 columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.