Memoirs: What do agents think makes the cut?

At one point or another, it seems every writer has (or has had) a memoir in the works. So what do agents think makes the grade? Here’s the latest from Promptly’s Top 20 Tips From WD in 2010 series (the
quote-worthy quips that branded themselves in my mind when we were
creating these magazines throughout the year). A regular prompt follows. Break free of the saturation!

No. 10: Memoirs—Saturation & Separation

I guess I approach the entire genre as though it’s already completely saturated. The key is finding a story, or a way to tell it, that separates your book from everything out there. When I’m working with a client, I try to steer them away from, ‘I was born in a big/small town, and I liked listening to punk music, and I hated my mother and blahdee blahda blah blah.’ If you want to separate your story, find a way to tell it that focuses 100 percent on the reader and cuts out all the writing that is just there for your own ego. What do people want to read? I think they want to read one great story after another, with all the usual navel-gazing exposition cut out. And this is exactly what I try and get my clients to write. …

“Imagine how hard you think the market is for a completely unknown writer trying to sell their memoir. OK, now multiply that by a gazillion, and put St. Peter at the gate, and he’s in a very bad mood. That’s how hard the market is. 

Don’t get me wrong: All of that can be overcome if you have a proposal that delivers. … If you don’t, it probably isn’t going to happen for you. But then, the best thing about publishing today is that it’s possible for writers to go out and, entirely on their own, show what their books are capable of in the marketplace. There isn’t an editor in all of publishing who isn’t going to be interested in an author who’s single-handedly sold 10,000–15,000 copies of their book—which is becoming more and more doable with each passing day.”
—Byrd Leavell, “The Market for Memoirs,” by Jessica Strawser, July/August 2010 (to read the full piece, click here; for our entire issue specifically focused on memoirs, click here)

[And there’s also this perspective, from my friend, agent Mollie Glick:]

WD: What factors in a query or in the opening pages of a memoir will make you want to read more?
GLICK: “Wanting to turn the page! I really look for the same thing in a memoir that I do in a novel. If I have a manuscript with me on the subway, would I rather read the submission than whatever book I’m lugging around that day?”

(Image: Sembazuru [Flickr: Blank Moleskine Pages; CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

* * *

Feel free to take the following prompt home or post a response (500
words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below.
By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional
around-the-office swag drawings (next one: next week!). If you’re having trouble with the
captcha code sticking, e-mail your piece and the prompt to me at, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll
make sure it gets up.

There are carolers. But they aren’t singing Christmas carols.

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8 thoughts on “Memoirs: What do agents think makes the cut?

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  4. Reggie Manning

    "Silent Night"

    One of my eyes opened slowly and scanned my surroundings, while informing the other eye that the coast was clear. I was lying on the floor with my door wide open. Thankfully Kristina and her crazy ex had left. I felt a small gash on my forehead as I sat up trying to gather my thoughts. Maybe it was the hit on the head, or my pride dissolving, but I could hear Christmas carols; surely I wasn’t struck that hard.
    “Silent night… Holy night…” echoed through my head in an angelic tone. I wondered if my mind was playing tricks on me, or was it really somebody in my house singing. After that horrible ‘Midnight Movie’ the last thing I was in the mood for was a chant of holiday spirit.
    I stood up to close my door, the December draft was painful against my new wound but I was startled by a group of kids staring straight up at me. Their eyes judged me pathetically; I guess they had witnessed the previous altercation. I could still hear the Christmas carol, but their mouths weren’t moving. Maybe I was too far away, or maybe my eyes weren’t fully functioning yet.
    “All is calm… All is bright…"
    I stood in the doorway and lit a cigarette. The nicotine rushed through my veins and eased my pain immediately as the wind blew ashes back in the apartment… then the carols continued.
    “Round yon Virgin, Mother and child”
    The kids were still staring at me, still in the same position, like Macy department store mannequins. Their mouths weren’t moving, but the carols continued.
    "Where are their parents!?" I thought to myself. With sealed lips, and piercing pupils, they stared at me, and the carols continued. I was spooked now.
    I began to circle the group. Nobody moved not even a twitch or a blink. No cold smoky breaths escaped their noses; they possessed no humanly qualities, with their angelic voices.
    “Holy infant, so tender and mild”
    I saw no radio, no source of this carol, but the voices continued.
    “Sleep in heavenly peace”
    The hair stood up on my neck like Viagra shampoo. I stared into the face of one of the children and saw no emotion, but the voices continued.
    “Sleep in heavenly peace”
    I reached for one just needing to feel something to assure myself that they weren’t ghost. As my hand got closer to the kid my hair stood up straighter… another four hours of that and I would need to seek medical attention. When my fingers reached a point where they should have felt resistance, they just floated through. It was like the choir was a desert mirage of a water fountain. I panicked and stepped back until I slipped on a sheet of ice. It seemed to happen in slow motion, and I braced myself mentally for impact but I suddenly woke up back on my apartment floor, with the door wide open… and cigarette ashes beside me.

  5. Evelyn

    The news broadcasters don’t get it. They keep reporting on terrorism, climate change, and WikiLeaks. All these problems could easily be solved by me, if only I had thin thighs. My fat thighs had robbed me, and the world, of the brilliant life I could have had if I didn’t need to spend so much time thinking about how to hide them.

    I’m sure I could have found the cure for cancer, ended world hunger, and brought peace to the Middle East by now; if I could have applied all the brain waves I’ve spent on my fat thighs to solving those issues instead.

    I had a glimpse of greatest way back when I was 19. I had starved myself for two weeks, living off one banana and yogurt per day. At last I could squeeze into my skinny jeans. That was the day — or rather eight hours — I ruled the world, until I caved in and ate a snickers bar. Goodbye skinny jeans, goodbye world peace.

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  6. Dare Gaither

    Ignatius chewed his bleeding nails with savage compulsion.
    Where were they?
    The last message he had received was urgent.
    The attack must be tonight.

    Ignatius slammed his fist into the wall, welcoming the
    pain that radiated up his arm. His bitter howl of frustration
    almost drowned out the faint sound of singing.
    He caught his breath.
    They were here!

    He flung open the door to find a small group
    of carolers gathered on the sidewalk.
    A slim girl with blond curls flashed the sign to
    confirm their identity. Ignatius waited for a
    woman walking her poodle to pass by and
    quietly spoke the required password.
    A man wearing a red scarf nodded and
    announced name of the next carol.

    Ignatius shivered with excitement as he listened
    to the message encoded in the words of the familiar
    Christmas song. His heart exploded in his chest.
    He was to act now.
    The instructions were clear.

    He nodded to the carolers and they moved
    on to the next house. With shaking hands he
    he picked up his gear. He headed for the train
    station for the last time. Tomorrow the sun would rise
    on a different world. It was for the greater good.

  7. Mark James

    Ahhh. . . this is my take on romance. . . If you are so annoyed and irritated that you have to skim to the last sentence, and then you’re even more irritated because you never find out what the damn carolers are singing. . . give me two thumbs up. I done it right.

    The carolers outside the window sang. I heard only the music of my heart. The seething melodies heated the deepest part of me. I ached for the man upstairs, the man I had left in his bed. His masculine body was too much for me to take.


    The very word filled me with need. He’d told me over and over again how he would take me because I was his Bond-DNA-Universal-Decreed-Mate-Woman. But how could a weak, terrified delicate feminine creature such as myself hope to be worth anything to a man of such masculine power? His strength flowed from him on the breath of every word he said, and spiraled through me in aching rivers of lust that flowed and pooled to the sweetest, deepest woman part of me.

    “Cassandra, what are the carolers singing?”

    My name on his lips was ecstasy that I had only dreamed, dreams that woke me to a body full of heated longing. Could I answer him? What would he think when he heard desire threaded through my every word? What could a woman like me hope to say to a man whose masculine power was in the very air around him? Did the carolers sing words of love at his direction?

    “Don’t you recognize the melody?” I said.

    I tried to keep my voice steady, but the urgent pounding of my pulse was surely clear in each word. What would he think? He came a step closer. I inched back, hoping against hope that his dark gaze would not rake over my rising and falling chest. But it did. His dark eyes fastened onto the twin shows of my arousal. He growled low in his chest, closed his eyes, turned so that I saw his perfect profile in the moonlight streaming through the window.

    “Have I not told you to be dressed decently in my presence?”

    Yes. He had told me. But tonight when I went to get dressed, I couldn’t help but run my fingers along the silk of the white gown I now wore. I imagined how it would cup my breasts, lift them to his eyes. Would he think I was wanton? Just another woman, one of the hundreds who would willingly throw themselves at his feet and offer their lithe needy bodies for his pleasure? I was not that way. I wore the nightgown because it made me feel feminine and special. What business of his was it what I chose to wear? Wasn’t I an independent female? Wasn’t I unlike the women he was used to? The women who would obey his least command, and hung on his every word? I would show him that in America, women were a different breed.

    “What I wear is none of your concern, Halderick. I just came down to hear the Christmas carolers.”

    He took a step closer, not bothering to hide that he was more interested in what my body would look like without the bit of silk that barely hid the curves of my woman’s body.

    He said only one more word that I remember that night, “Mine.”

    Then he reached for me.

    Then I was lost in him. Lost in my need for him. Lost. Lost. Lost. Perhaps forever.

  8. Janel

    Captain Akov knocked on the door then hurried back to stand with the others. He pulled the brim of his hat down farther, not trusting the darkness of the night to hide his face. Lieutenant Oric was standing beside him. She had done a great job replicating the clothing. The women had on full, hoop skirts and bonnets to hide their features. The men wore wool pants with wide-brimmed hats.

    A light next to the door blinked on. In unison the group slid back, out of the ring of light. The door swung open. A man stood in the doorway, looking at their little group. The room behind him glowed with the light from a lamp. The backlight blurred his features.

    Edyir whistled quietly to let the others know the man had a weapon. He had disguised his scanner to look like a song book.

    “Merry Christmas.” Captain Akov stepped forward.

    “Who are you?”

    “Why, sir, we are carolers.”

    “Really? Way out here in the middle of nowhere?” The man stepped onto the porch and looked around like he was searching for something. “And why are you dressed all old-fashioned?”

    Captain Akov cleared his throat. “Old-fashioned?”

    “Yeah. Old-fashioned.” The man moved closer to the group. “Well, why don’t you get this over with. It’s cold out here. Sing already.”

    Captain Akov nodded. Lieutenant Oric blasted the man with the ray gun she had hidden in her muff. The remote location of the man’s house made his capture easy, but she wasn’t sure he was the best of specimens.

    Captain’s Log:
    We captured the human. Experiments are going well. Still don’t understand why he said we looked old-fashioned. The outfits were constructed after intense study of the humans’ television broadcasts. Need to intercept more Little House on the Prairie episodes to figure out what was wrong.