On Writing Memoir and Agents...

Publish date:

I spent much of these past few weeks on vacation, but now I'm finally back in the office, plugging away on projects and glancing through the brand new 2009 Guide to Literary Agents, which will be available nationwide soon.

One of the projects I've spent several nights on recently is freelance editing a memoir. To back up a bit here, let me first say something about the memoir genre in general: Everybody wants to write one, it seems. When I go to writers' conferences, there are a disproportionate amount of writers who are trying to sell memoirs (with picture books probably a close second). So I am often listening to memoir pitches and hearing about them. It is rare, though, that I get to read an unpublished one front to back like this and dive into it.

So fresh from editing the manuscript, I humbly offer four tips for those out there penning a memoir:

1. Give us only the best parts.
A lot happens in your life, so writers may summarize lots of information in their pages, but this approach backfires. In your quest to get it all down on paper (in a much too diary-like fashion) and leave no month un-summarized, you have "told, not shown" us everything, and we never slowed down to enjoy scenes of the best moments. Realize that you will end of leaving plenty of the cutting room floor.
2. Ask yourself: Is your life that interesting that someone will spend $25 to read it? If you say yes, identify why. Make that the crux of your book.
3. Establish the themes early.  Is your book about redemption? Family commitment? Overcoming despair? Figure it out and have that theme tie the book together.
4. Write it like a novel. Use cliffhangers, quotes, white space, character development, and the three-act structure. Make sure it begins quickly and hooks us in.

The good news for memoir writers is that plenty of agents want to rep your books, but the bad news is that you're fighting against lots of other writers, so make sure your writing stands apart. You must either have a tremendous story to tell, or a fantastic voice that can make an ordinary story very entertaining.