Memoirs: What’s your hook?

Remember that show called What’s My Line? Ok, I’m dating myself as part of the Early Dawn of Man, but I loved that show because they always had great guests whose odd occupations made it easy to stump the stars [also because half of them were buzzed].

Well, writing a memoir is much the same thing. What’s your line? Or really, what’s your hook?

Many memoirs that cross my desk aren’t marketable because they lack a hook. The #1 reason for that is because the author is too close to his own story. Most of us lead interesting lives [well, except me, of course, where I live out my existence chained to a desk with a boozy beagle who refuses to file or answer phones] and think our lives or experiences would make a great book. As a result, I see a lot of the:

  • “I grew up on a farm and milked a cranky cow”
  • “I survived cancer by eating pecan pies”
  • “I went to Tibet to study Buddhism”

These are  “so what?” stories. They aren’t interesting because they lack a hook. While they may be mildly entertaining to the author’s family and friends, agents and editors are looking for something that knocks us out of our chairs.

How do I know if I have a hook?

Funnily enough, most authors don’t stop to ask themselves this question when it comes to a memoir. They just sit down to write about their lives with no particular direction.

And that’s the key: Direction. Where are you going with your story? What’s your point? Is this a story with no road map? If so, how are you going to know when you’ve reached your destination? And if you do, will anyone care?

There has to be a purpose, a direction to your story. That is your hook. Let’s look back at the “I went to  study Buddhism in Tibet” example. So what, right? An agent or editor may think it’s another story of seeking spiritual or religious enlightenment. But what if the author says, “Going to Tibet to study Buddhism was less about spiritual awakening than it was in my relentless pursuit to get laid.”

Wha’? Ok, that makes me sit up and take notice because the two ideas are so contrary. That’s a hook. Now whether that hook is marketable is another issue, but at least it got my attention.

Categorize me!

There isn’t a “Mindless Wandering” category in the bookstores or any place in publishing, so what do our sales teams say when pitching to a genre buyer? The first thing they need to do is give a category. Look at your memoir; does it have a category?

  • Inspirational?
  • Educational?
  • True crime?
  • Travel essay?
  • Humor – a la Erma Bombeck?
  • Family issues?

Yes, yes, authors HATE to be categorized, but really – get over it. First thing anyone asks is, “what’s your book about?” It’s a lot easier to explain if you’ve pigeonholed yourself because now we have a frame of reference.

Have a Message

Memoirs of famous people have their own hook by the merits of their fabulosity [yes, I know it’s not a word]. But most of us walk with both feet on terra firma and breathe the same air, so I look for a memoir that says something, has a message. This is meat I can sink my teeth into.

Look at the list above and decide where you fit. Then ask yourself whether you have a message. You can have a travel essay, but what is the message? If your story is about buying a house in Rangoon and discovering it’s infested with pygmy mice, then what is the message about your travel essay?

Readers are looking for a story that makes us think long after they’ve finished the book, makes us care, so you want to consider whether your story makes an impact. And the way to do that is to have a message. I love a good memoir that forces me to look inward, to look at my own life with a different perspective.


For instance, my dear mother married my dear father and discovered too late that he had this crazy side that said things like, “Hey, darlin’, Parsons Corp. has a jobsite starting up in Baatman, Turkey. Let’s go!” Now this is in 1953-ish, so there’s no town, no hospital, no school, no nuthin’.  But Mom, good soldier that she is, sez, “sure, sweetie.” Mind you, they have three small kids [I’m not quite a glimmer in anyone’s eyes yet].

Now what kind of brain slippage does it take to say yes to this adventure? But they went and had an incredible experience. They tell stories that make my sides split – like my brother drinking Mom’s perfume – her last vestige of civilization – and he didn’t have the good grace to even barf it up. Or the time Mom, who was forever fishing my sibling’s toys out of the toilet and sink, reached into the toilet to retrieve a dropped frog, only to discover it was real. I’m sure she left a dent in the ceiling.

Then there are the poignant stories about how my father gave money to a village so they could grow crops  and survive. For hundreds of miles, villages knew of my dad, and would always make sure they were safe and always protected. When my sister got scarlet fever, people traveled for miles to make sure “the American girl” was ok. Still chokes me up.

All told, Mom is an incredibly good sport, and I love her adventurous spirit and love for my dad that she’d say yes to something that would have most people grabbing for a Xanax. Her experiences of Alice stepping through the Reality Glass with three young kids are great fodder for a memoir because there are so many elements that create the hook, the category, and the message.

Hook: “Stick with me, kid, I’ll show you the world!”
Category: Travel essay
Message: True happiness is how you handle life when it spills its guts in your lap.

Take another look at your memoir and ask yourself three basic questions:

What’s my hook?
What’s my category?
What’s my message?

As for Mom, I think she’s certifiable, but I do adore her more than anything.

9 Responses to Memoirs: What’s your hook?

  1. Lauren says:

    I lurve your mom!

  2. Ray Saunders says:

    I will soon be combining two short volumes of memoir into one book for republication.
    An aunt born 1898, teaching school at 16, then running a cattle ranch for 70+ years. Not a volume that will make the Big Time but will sell respectively forever in the West.

    Category: Vanishing Americana?

  3. HarryMarkov says:

    Family issues are a category? What can be the point in those memoirs, if you had any?

    My mother is urging me to write the soap opera epic that is my family. *laugh*

    And your mom is fantastic.

  4. cat says:

    I have a book called “Life with Ali” – it was written by Winifred Stegar when she was an old woman – told of her life in an orphanage in China and then married to a Muslim cameleer in outback Australia. When he went to Mecca she insisted on going too – a very difficult and dangerous journey back in the early part of last century, especially for a non-Muslima woman. It is compulsive reading not because it is great literature but because it has that ‘hook’! Your mother would appreciate it!

  5. Family issues are a category? What can be the point in those memoirs, if you had any?

    Harry, family issues are rich environments for all kinds of hooks. Let’s just take one hook – coping – and see what we can do with it. Coping with a sibling who has a terminal disease and how it changes the family dynamics, coping with family dysfunction and how it impacts one’s perception on love, communication, children, career.

    I could go on and on, but I think you have the idea. Like you said, if there’s no point, then why bother?

    Cat, Winifred’s memoir sounds amazing. Some day I’d love to write a book in my mom’s POV about their crazy times because it didn’t just stop with Turkey. They went on to live in Germany [I was there for that], Iran [I was there for that one, too], Saudi Arabia [where I visited and met hubby – who worked for my dad and, ironically enough, grew up 30 miles from me], and Alaska. While they lived in these places, they traveled all over the world on vacations.

    In comparison, it almost seems criminal that I’m chained to a desk, but I love what I do.

  6. This is great Priceless – you’ve given me an idea for a hook! thanks. Miss you already 😦

  7. Definately no Toy Story 4 ?

  8. […] A Strong Hook: What’s the book about? Can you couple two disparate subjects together in a surprising way? […]

  9. Nice, from the boozy beagle (who won’t file) to your courageous mother and adventurous father. Several hooks.
    My German shepherd can file and answer the phone. Can’t type yet, workin’ on it.

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