Your Self-Help Book Should Not Be a Thinly Disguised Memoir

If you’re writing a memoir, and it’s your very first attempt at writing (or writing seriously for publication), odds are good that you won’t yet be skillful enough to pass muster with an agent or editor. (See this YouTube lesson from master storyteller Ira Glass on why.)

Many people are sparked to write a memoir after they overcome great pain and adversity in their lives, as a means of catharsis, as well as to help others going through the same thing.

Based on writers I meet at conferences, about 50% of the time this memoir is actually positioned or written as a self-help book.

I’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating:

Do not attempt to write a self-help book that’s a thinly disguised memoir. (And do not attempt a hybrid of the genres.)

Just because you experienced something (and overcame personal adversity) doesn’t mean a publisher will find you a qualified self-help author—unless you are a celebrity, have an amazing platform, or outstanding connections/endorsements.

So: Either put your blood, sweat, and tears into writing a kick-ass memoir that stuns people with its artfulness and well-crafted narrative … OR … get active online, offering support, encouragement, and advice on your own site/blog, or in communities focused on the challenge you overcame. If your true goal is to help people, this approach is likely to be far more effective and fulfilling than trying to publish a book.

For more in-depth discussion of these issues, see my two previous posts on memoir:

5 Common Flaws in Memoir Projects

Your No. 1 Challenge If You’re Writing a Memoir

Also check out Rachelle Gardner’s excellent coverage on this topic:

Personal Adversity Stories

Resources for Writing Memoir

Writing Memoir

Note: This Thursday, I’m a guest on a free teleseminar on memoir writing, hosted by the National Association of Memoir Writers. Go sign up.

Photo credit: smaku

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4 thoughts on “Your Self-Help Book Should Not Be a Thinly Disguised Memoir

  1. Randy Peyser

    Don’t be so quick to put down memoir self help books. My first book, "Crappy to Happy" fit that bill. It told my story of overcoming adversity and offered tips for others who could relate to my crappy life experiences.

    Red Wheel/Weiser published it in 2002 and it sold 7300 copies. It went out of print in 2005.

    A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a movie theater watching "Eat Pray Love" and almost fell out of my chair: in the first 15 minutes of the movie there is a scene where Julia Roberts is in a bookstore buying a self-help book to help her with her crappy life, and guess what book she was buying?!

    There it was, my "Crappy to Happy" book on a big screen that millions of people will see. The movie used Crappy to Happy comedically to get a big laugh from the audience.

    So you never know what can happen when you write a memoir self-help book.

    Publishers Weekly really liked it, too. And so did a book reviewer for a New York magazine, who said he liked that it was self-help from someone who was a real person in the thick of things rather than from some know-it-all guru.

    My agent is now looking for a publisher to bring "Crappy to Happy" back into print.

  2. Dave Malone

    Jane, you always have such good advice. I love how a message I often here from you is: "What can you give to your audience? What can you honestly give your readers and how can you be engaged with them in an honest way?"

    It may have nothing to do with publishing a book. It may be as beautifully simple as "getting active online."

    Love it.

  3. Linda Joy Myers

    Jane–this is a really good post on a topic that I get a lot, especially since some of my customers are therapists! Many of them are engaged in writing what they feel will be the best of both worlds–the self help book and a memoir, and I do know a memoirist who did that. She self-published it and is enjoying the fact that she has completed her goal, but I found the book hard to read. I was upset when she broke away from the story, which was actually interesting, to lecture me on various topics that were already covered in the story. The story itself was instructive to me, as I was learning through the narrator/character the lessons that SHE was learning.

    As you know, some of my teaching/coaching/instructing has been in the area of memoir as healing, but I always tell the writer that once that draft is done, then they can focus on shaping it into something that someone else wants to read. They can learn how to frame a story so the reader is brought into character, action, plot, climax, and resolution.
    Thank you for addressing this complex subject. I think it is hard for memoir writers to get past just the healing part–especially if they have suffered a lot and rightfully feel so much better that they want to share their success!
    Writing, writing, and more writing, taking classes and workshops, and being willing to go the long haul is the way to get into the deep roots of a great story that everyone wants to read.
    Looking forward to Thursday at NAMW! Editing–now that’s a subject that fits right in with this post!
    –Linda Joy


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