Writing memoirs

Ok, enough of the car crash stuff. I may be sporting some broken ribs, so I’m wrapped up with no place to go. I may as well blog ’til the beagle returns from carousing with her poodle friends and mixes up a batch of margaritas. While I’m waiting, let’s talk memoirs.

We all think our lives are hideously fantastic and anyone with a firing synapse would lurve our stories. Hence our love affair with memoirs. The truth is that most of us are pretty damned dull, and our stories would leave most yawning and poking our sides with a sharp stick just to stay awake. Yet many times each week, I receive memoir queries that result in instant death rejection. The reasons vary, but I’d like to bring up the main reasons I pass.

Keep in mind that all these elements are interrelated.

Who Are You? I don’t care that you’re not a household name because there is a huge audience who loves reading memoirs and biographies. What you lack in name recognition you make up for in content. You need to have a strong platform in order to create demand for your particular topic.

If you’re Uncle Fergus and spent your early life on a farm making moonshine, then I’ll expect you to have some sort of platform that will have readers flooding to hear you speak or attend your events. A platform for Uncle Fergus could be that he now works for Jim Beam. What a hoot that would be, eh?

But if you’re someone who had some interesting times back in the day and you now crochet toilet paper doilies for a living, then this isn’t a platform conducive to creating demand.

What Is Your Message? Since I don’t necessarily care if you’re a household name, that leaves one thing in your favor; your message. What’s your story? Whether your theme is inspirational or educational, your life has to say something and deliver some sort of punch that will stay with the reader for years.

It’s about making an impact, and that’s why I love memoirs so much. These are real people who did real things, and I want to grow, be inspired, charmed, or learn something from their adventures.

Going back to Uncle Fergus and his moonshine still on the farm; I had an actual query along these lines, and my first question was, “who cares?” Sure, there are narratives about times gone by, but they must offer some muscle behind their perspective. Uncle Fergus may have been quite a character in his time, but so what? So is the beagle, and god forbid anyone ever write about her.

I get a ton of bi-polar memoirs, which is a huge topic, and I turn every one of them down. So why did I accept Mommy I’m Still In Here? Because Kate McLaughlin offered a perspective unique to everything currently on the shelves. She talked of hope, of success, of faith, of staying together no matter how bad it got. And it got terrifyingly bad. Hers was a book that I knew would bring inspiration to thousands and didn’t have the same oft-repeated message.

“Cancer, divorce, mid-life crisis, I’m learning to stand on my own two feet” are overdone categories that they’re cliche, and that’s why I usually avoid these topics. I’m not a fan of literary Peeping Toms, and many of these memoirs have that feel to them. There isn’t a message, but more of a “hey look what we endured.” To what end?

If you are writing a memoir, define what you have to say and why anyone would care. “Look at what I endured or overcame” stories aren’t appealing to me unless they have a specific purpose. This is my biggest reason for rejecting memoirs.

Who Is Your Audience? Most writers of memoirs are normally too wrapped up in their own stories to understand that they need to appeal to a specific audience. They lack objectivity, so their first inclination is to state that “this book is for everyone!” Well, no it isn’t. Most memoirs have a target audience and can branch out from there provided the subject matter has wide appeal.

If you’ve written about your experiences of overcoming cancer, you know your audience is cancer victims and their families. But you must have the platform and message to attract them. If your memoir has more inspirational elements, then you need to dig a bit deeper to define where that audience can be found – which gets me back to Who Are You?

What Is Your Competition? I call this Been Thar, Done That. If you have a story that centers on any of the usual suspects: cancer, divorce, midlife crisis, bi-polar, death, then you MUST know your competition in order to determine whether your message is unique  to an over-impacted category.Otherwise, how do you know if you really have a story at all?

You must also know exactly how and why your story isn’t a retread of fifty other books that cover the same topic because we’re gonna ask. This is the material we use when pitching your book to the genre buyers and reviewers. Unique = happy editor, sales teams, and genre buyers. Same-same = rejection.

Sadly, the lack of knowing one’s competition makes up the bulk of my memoir rejections.

As you can see, writing is no longer a matter of “If I write it, they will come.” Nope, we gotta let readers know who you are so they’ll run to their bookstores, kicking and screaming the doors down to buy your book.

10 Responses to Writing memoirs

  1. First, I hope your recovery is moving along. I just returned from the Ventura Writers’ Club PR presentation and finished listening to the entire 2008 La Jolla Writers’ conference on CD. The focus is on PR, pitching, “10 most common reasons non-fiction book proposals fail,” and much more. I think the more you learn about what agents and publishers are looking for, the more you realize the importance of becoming your own driving force in this business. I’ve listened to quite a few PR presentations and how to start “thinking outside the box,” as far as your audience, where you plan on promoting your book, other than the “typical” bookstore venue, how to get other businesses involved in a book launch, etc. All these are exciting ways to think about standing out. What I’d like to know is, memoirs sold like hot-cakes a few years ago. Are they still considered a hot item if they’re unique?

  2. lynnpricewrites says:

    Are they still considered a hot item if they’re unique?

    You betcha. We specialize in bios and memoirs, and they do indeedy sell provided there is plenty of good, red meat.

  3. Brian Clegg says:

    Lynn – is that a real or metaphorical car crash? If the former, hope things aren’t too bad and you are feeling better soon. (Well, if either, but you know what I mean.)

    Having seen this video http://bit.ly/zXlE3 I would really worry if the beagle is hanging out with poodles. (You may want to skip the first bit until you get to the non-human poodles).

  4. Bep says:

    Firstly, hope you are feeling better.
    Secondly, you know me and memoirs. “For the Love of Hannah” Yeuk, yeuk and yeuk again. Many people think it is easy to write a memoir. They don’t need writing skills, they have their story. How wrong can they be because they do need the platform of which you speak. Much like my Grandma having to live with a sister she hated during the hardship of World War 1, only to discover the sister was actually a cousin. Unmarried mums in those days was a no no.
    I love your blogs, Lin. Now, when do we get the Tackle Box across the pond??

  5. lynnpricewrites says:

    Brian: yes, the crash really happened. Horrible stuff. Cracked ribs, bruises. And on Mother’s Day, no less. I wish nothing but genital crabs for the bastard who drove us off the road and never stopped.

    Beppie: Bang on with respect to people not realizing they need writing skills to write their memoirs. I see many memoirs by average Joes who believe their story is so brilliant that they can simply tell it and not worry about voice, POV, organization, etc.

    Tackle Box: I know it’s wending its way through the distribution channels and will be available through Amazon.uk. I just don’t know when. We’re also looking into signing with a UK distributor for all our books.

  6. eggnog1 says:

    interesting. post

  7. Kelley says:

    Ouch. Feel better soon.

    Can I slip a few dumb hypothetical ques by you? Pretty pls, with martinis on top?

    Okay. Let’s say there aren’t any other memoirs on the same topic. None.(Which is the theme of the memoir. How no one cared,because of prejudice, and that person set out to try and make them.) What’s the best way to tackle that?

    Also, I know. A memoir should be queried finished. But are there ever exceptions? Like, it’s almost finished, but the writer is just awaiting some medical stuff. Or, it’s almost finished, but some legislation just went thru and they want to use that momentum. Is it ever okay?

    I pre-thank you. And again, feel better soon.

  8. lynnpricewrites says:

    Hi Kelley. My brain may not be running on all cylinders, and I didn’t’ really understand your first question, so I’ll take a stab at what I think you’re asking. If I’m wrong, please shoot up a flare.

    Our lives are individual and few can repeat the same exact story. But those stories fall into a general theme.

    For instance, let’s say there’s a story about a guy who’s blind but plays all kinds of sports meant for sighted people. I’m willing to bet there are few books on the market about that specific issue. So, in the strictest sense, the book is unique.

    However, the overall theme may be inspirational, and that’s what we consider when attracting our audience. Well now; we all know there are a gabajillion of those running around, so now we have to place our would-be book as to where it fits in the inspirational type books. Whatever comparative title information the author can pass along is helpful in selling his work to us.

    Completed manuscripts: Sure there are always exceptions, especially if the writing is stellar. It depends on how much of the book is completed. It depends on the author. If they are a public figure, then it’s pretty easy to know how the story ends up, so it’s a matter of writing style and intended theme.

    Having said this, I have yet to accept an unfinished memoir about an unknown person. The idea is to submit from the strongest position possible, so why endanger those chances by not waiting until you’ve finished the project?

  9. Kelley says:

    Yes, you answered perfectly. 🙂 Thanks, Lynn.

  10. Megan Sayer says:

    Thankyou so much for this Lynn, it’s invaluable. So far the only information I’ve been able to find about writing and publishing memoirs has been “don’t even try it!” and, well, it’s a bit late for that now, I’m half way through. This is exactly what I need to hear about how to pitch my story and make it truly saleable.

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