I’ve been playing catch up with my query Inbox this weekend, and I’ve received a large number of memoirs. Out of the 26 I’ve read, I’ve asked to see pages for one. The rest were rejected.
Folks, memoirs are tough. Period.
We all think our lives are fascinating and worthy of being between covers. But the harsh facts are that most of us are pretty dull and we lack the objectivity to realize that. Instead, we whup out our trusty laptops and begin banging out our “I was born in a log cabin on a cold and lonely January morn…” Blah blah blah.
Memoirs are literary Peeping Toms, and that means you need to have something worth taking a peek through the window. So what if you married a man with seven toes on one foot and who had mommy issues? What’s the freaking point?
Memoirs require a BIG STORY.
Here’s what I found myself uttering this weekend:
The “Who Cares” Factor/What’s the Point?
You need to ask yourself the point of writing your story. I look at these “reality” shows on TV and want to gag because they blather on without a point. Each one works overtime to have the biggest sleazoid factor because producers know that we’re simple-minded ocelots, and sleaze sells.
-“Hey, my looooser husband and I sneaked into a White House dinner!”
-“Oh yeah? Well my hubby is a mafioso and even though we’re in foreclosure, I blew a fortune taking my family to Italy!”
Good holy looserville, Batman…have these people no shame? And really, why should they? They sell, sell, sell because TV is a medium where you can take any lowlife and turn them into moneymaking enterprises because we’ve all lost our minds.
Thankfully, literature is a bit more discerning and the “hey, lookee at me!” memoirs are pretty much relegated to movie stars and prepubescent rap singers. They don’t need a point.
But you do.
And that’s because you’re a “nobody.” You probably don’t have the huge platform that will launch a thousand ships…sorry…books. Face it, you’re selling your life, so you gotta have a point. A purpose. Something that makes people care. Ask yourself very honestly if you meet the “Who Cares?” factor.
Let me give an example. A number of years ago, I spent 17 bug-filled days in the Peruvian Amazon with a medical team to do research on a book I’m writing. From time to time I’ve amused my family with a few of the sillier/poignant/tragic stories of my time over there. Mom, whose my biggest fan, dontcha know, told me to write about those experiences. Eh, sez me, what’s the point? Heck, Ma, I’m a nobody.
Sure, it’s an exotic locale that most right-thinking people would avoid like the beagle avoids sobriety, but what’s my hook? Insane writer goes to Amazon with medical team? So what? However, I could dig deeper and explain that while I went to the Amazon so I could write a book, I never expected how it would change my life. Maybe it would be an Eat, Pray, Love a la Amazon. And don’t snigger, Lizzie Gilbert is stinking rich!
I dunno…maybe Mom is right and there is a story in there. God knows I had the mosquito bites to show for it. But I have to think about who would care and why they’d care.
Who Are You?
As I’ve said before, movie stars and talentless hacks who don’t even shave yet can break wind, and it’ll get them a book deal. But why would anyone care about you? Who are you? What do you bring to the party? The memoirs we publish all have a raison d’etre – whether it’s a woman renewing her faith through some of the toughest family issues or a tough ad man who thumbed his nose at Madison Avenue by creating some of the most memorable ads in America.
They did something extraordinary and meaningful.
What did you do? Who are you?
Have You Read Your Competition?
The reason I ended up tossing nearly all the memoirs is because it was very clear the authors hadn’t read any memoirs. A classic mistake. I maintain that it’s hard to know whether you have a story unless you’ve read the other stories that are already on the marketplace.
This is the nice version of “know thy self, know thy enemy.” Remember, you have to justify why your memoir is worth reading, so you have to be able to speak to what’s out there. Surviving cancer was a fabulous memoir at one time. But now there are gajillions cancer memoirs out there. Unless you have something unique to say, you’re going to have a hard time selling it. And you won’t know if you have something unique unless you’ve read your competition.
One of the saddest moments was when I was working with a woman who wrote a cancer memoir. I told her there was nothing unique about her story and recommended that she read her competition and analyze what made their stories worth reading. Three months later she wrote back to tell me that I was right – she had no story. Being right never felt so crappy.
I’m the last one to denigrate anyone’s life, but I have to look for what I know I can sell.
Is It Complete?
Many authors feel that since a memoir is nonfiction (unless you’re James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces), they don’t have to complete the book. So I’ll get queries that consist of a prologue and a couple chapters.
This. Is. Wrong.
First off, debut authors don’t have a readership or track record. Secondly, they’re writing about their life. I have no idea how it ends because they’re unknown, and I have very little idea how they write. So I’m left with very little. This isn’t a promising beginning upon which I’m willing to offer a contract.
If your life is that amazing,then write it. It shows that you’re committed to your story.
Unless you’re a public figure, like Barry Petersen or Stan Chambers, a memoir is far different than writing about, say, a true crime, something where we know how it turns out. And at that, both gents’ books were complete.
Keep in mind that an unfinished memoir is easy to reject because there are too many unknown variables.
Do Your Homework
So you can see there are a lot more factors that go into a successful memoir than initially meets the eye. The best gift you can give yourself is to do your homework. Figure out why your story is important. Know your competition. Figure out who you are and what you bring to the party. If you do, I guarantee that you’ll be miles ahead of the folks who received rejection letters this weekend.