The unmemorable memoir

We all have real lives – except me, and I live vicariously through the beagle’s exploits – and memoirs are a very popular genre because lots of interesting things happen to everyday people. But an interesting life doesn’t translate well if the author isn’t a writer. I wade through a ton of unmarketable, unpublishable memoirs for this very reason.I thought this would be a good time to talk about the Unmemorable Memoir.

“Hey! I’ve got this memoir!”
This usually screams somewhere at the beginning of the query letter.  The problem, I find out all too soon, is that many authors who write memoirs don’t know the first thing about writing, the publishing industry, how books are marketed and sold. All they want is to be able to slap out their story and retire on the royalties. This is where fairyplums collide with reality.

This is a genre populated with the largest number of non-writers, so my rejection rate for these types of books is at 99.9%. And why is this the case? Marketability, baby.

Where’s the message?
In truth, many memoirs aren’t marketable to a wide enough audience because the stories lack a message. It’s not enough to invite a reader into your life just to tell them a story. There needs to be some purpose. That purpose – that message – is what makes a memoir marketable.

Many memoirs that come to me have more of a literary Peeping Tom quality that says “Hey, lookee at me, and my life, and what I did.” And most of it is answered back with, “who cares?”

Many stories run a wide range of riveting, fascinating, or horrible, but at the end of the day, I have to ask, what is your message? What is it that you’d like your readers to come away knowing or thinking? I look for books that make readers think and will ponder it for days after finishing it. I look for books that make readers say, “Whoa, I’m a better person for having read this book.”

It’s not enough for me to like the story; there has to be some point to it, some reason for it being written, that raison d’être. When I market and promote our books, I always include something about what you will learn/feel/understand from having read this book. It gives it purpose, a sense of immediacy. I think that’s why Mommy I’m Still In Here continues to sell. This is a very personal, beautifully written story, but the reader has the added bonus of walking away with some unique and realistic coping tools that other books don’t offer.

Tunnel vision – let’s be clear
Deciding whether you actually have a good story takes clarity. Writers need to be clear about the reason for writing their story in the first place. Many writers have tunnel vision and don’t consider that their story may not be fascinating to a wide audience. Tunnel vision prevents writers from looking to the outside world.

I’ve had stories about Uncle Bert who grew up on a milk farm in the 30s and missives that detailed Cousin Jack working in the coal mines in the 50s. The beagle suffers insomnia, so I give these to her to read before bedtime.

These stories won’t appeal to a wide enough audience to make it financially responsible for me to publish. That, and they’re boring as hell because they don’t have a focus or a definable audience.

Many memoirs are meant to be inspirational, and it’s really hard for my eyes not to glaze over when I see this. Inspiration is fine, but there are a trillion inspirational stories on the market, so it’s vital to figure out your specific readership. Are you talking to mothers who suffered miscarriages? Death of a child? Divorce (please, dear God, no)? Midlife crisis (another please dear God, no)? Be forewarned: Inspirational stories require a strong author platform.

Inspirational is a heavily impacted genre, and they all tend to blend into a stack of white noise. That’s why I’m so incredibly picky about inspirational memoirs – even though I love them to death. For inspirational stories to flip my Vickie Secrets, they have to have a strong message other than the usual inspirational aspects. They have to make the reader think and make them feel they are a better person for having read the work. Their message must be very clear and not just be a feel-good story for feel-good’s sake.

Avoid making your memoir unmemorable.

  • Organize your thoughts and be very clear about your intent and message you want the reader to come away with
  • Do some serious work on your platform
  • Do a lot of reading of memoirs and analyze what made them good or bad
  • Consider whether your memoir is of interest to anyone but your mother

2 Responses to The unmemorable memoir

  1. Lissa Lander says:

    Just to clarify: I won’t get to retire on royalties? All this time I have been under the general impression that life really is that easy, and that unicorns and rainbows will inhabit my backyard if I just believe. (I believe, I believe) I’m thinking it’s not a good sign to see this post the day after I sent you a memoir query 😉

  2. jo walmesley says:

    Arrrgh ! I wish I’d read this 3 weeks ago. I wouldn’t have submitted (or started) a memoir. I got a nice rejection saying, in a shortened form, just about everything the posting says.
    I’m going to re-work the 2 novels I consigned to the memory stick and forget the memoir till I’m famous (lol)

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