Memoir metamorphosis – from dry to rich

September 1, 2009

I read The Intern’s blog because she has a terrific sense of humor and writes with a great voice. Since I am a fan of memoirs, her observations in yesterday’s post really hit home:

Writing to tell what happened = less potential for greatness.
Writing to discover what happened (even when you technically know what happened) = more potential for greatness. [bolding mine]

Makes me want to smack my forehead and scream at the beagle, “why didn’t I think of that?” Nothing like being shown up by a kid. But she’s a smart kid and deserves major kudos for analyzing what I see as a huge hole in memoirs.

Every place I go, authors tell me they are working on a memoir. I love the fact that so many people have so many fascinating experiences. Alaska was like landing on another planet, and I wished I could have spent time listening to all the brave, crazy, oh-my-GOD stories from these fiercely independent people. But I digress.

An interesting story does not a successful book make, and these stories rarely just write themselves. It’s all in how you tell it, which is what The Intern pointed out. Most memoirs submitted to me read like a dry accounting of someone’s life. It’s as rigid and colorless as cardboard because of its passivity. The author has already lived their life, so it’s difficult to retell it as if they’re experiencing it for the first time. The excitement level and passion aren’t there.  I’m suspicious the reason is that they’re too close to their own story. It’s hard to conjure up old emotions when you’re regurgitating a story you lived. Your goal for an outstanding memoir requires that you include some vital elements.

Make me care

The first order of business for any piece of writing is to engage the reader, and the quickest, most effective way to do that is to make us care about you. Being emotionally involved with you, the author, is the vehicle that compels us to continue turning the pages.

Not every author’s experiences are bigger than life – like a movie star or journalist, where readers will have a natural curiosity because of who these people are.  Stan Chambers fits that description, and readers are always drawn to his story because he’s a Los Angeles news icon.

But rather than merely talking about all the fabulous people he interviewed and the amazing stories he broke, I wanted more from him. I wanted him to come out from behind the microphone for the first time ever and tell his readers how some of these experiences affected him. We are thrilled with the result because readers come away feeling they know Stan on a more human level. And he’s such a sweetheart, that it’s hard to remember he broke the Rodney King beating or interviewed the Pope.

In order to care about you, you need to come clean about who you are. You need to make yourself as three-dimensional on paper as you are in person. So ask yourself; who am I? Defining yourself may be a lot easier than you may think. What attributes or quirks do you have that we can empathize with?

  • Do you sip vodka through the space between your front teeth?
  • Do you let fear rule your life and color the decisions you make?
  • Are you so naturally curious that it gets you into trouble? Or made you a success?
  • Have your childhood experiences/parents/friends colored the person you are today in some pivotal way?
  • Are you a closet softie for pregnant women and dogs?

Take a deep look into yourself and look for elements that shape who you are today and explain why you made the decisions you did. Share yourself.

Making it feel new

Another element of making your story come alive is write like this is a whole new experience and go into your story with the idea of “what do I have to learn today from that experience?” We all know writing is cathartic, and that means you’re digging deep to remember how you felt when you were going through a particular experience. I reject far too many manuscripts because there is no life and personality injected into the writing.

I don’t want to read someone’s diary, which is how many memoirs read. Diaries lack tactile and emotional flavor, much like my meatloaf recipe that’s far south of being a family favorite.

If I feel as though I’m on a journey of discovery with the author, rather than reading a diary-type accounting of a fabulous experience, then I’m engaged. This requires the ability to sit back and remember every detail – not just the physical experiences, but the mental ones. I want to know how your experience made you feel. Don’t tell me; show me. I want to know what’s going on in your heart and soul. That is what keeps readers turning the pages.

Metamorphosis: “My experienced changed me”

I look for memoirs (and pretty much all genres) that expose how your experiences changed you.  I want to see stories where the author was a little caterpillar at the very beginning and, because of what happened to them, bloomed into a beautiful butterfly at the end. By golly gosh, that’s a story I can sell because it’s human nature to desire becoming better than the sum of our parts.

Reading about how someone’s experience altered the way they think or perceive the world and themselves is very inspirational. I’m a big believer that we could all use more inspiration in our lives, and the story that goes from caterpillar, to chrysalis, to butterfly is a timeless journey that has the power to affect our lives forever.

After all, none of us go through life completely unchanged. It’s that moment of clarity, that ah ha! moment where we realize that our experience enriched us, that makes for a memorable memoir. We all want to be butterflies, right?

So these are the elements I look for when reading a biography or a memoir:

  • Do I care about the main character?
  • Does the narrative read like the author is re-experiencing his story for the first time rather than a dry, lifeless rehash.
  • What is the metamorphosis? Be very clear on each stage of development; from caterpillar, to chryaslis, to butterfly.

It’s the difference between a full banquet of yummy foods and my dry meatloaf that the beagle won’t even touch.

The unmemorable memoir

June 17, 2009

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

Writing memoirs

May 14, 2009

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.

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