With the tremendous success of such memoirs as Frank McCourt’s "Angela’s Ashes," Mary Karr’s "The Liar’s Club," and Dave Eggers’s "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," the 1990s and early 2000s saw an explosion in the genre. The boom was seen in the number of memoirs acquired by publishers, the number of titles shelved in the memoir section in bookstores, and, as a result, the number of memoirs unfolding on writers’ computer screens across the country. But the brutal truth is that without a few crucial elements, your memoir will have no chance of finding a literary agent’s representation, never mind becoming a bestseller.
It might help to consider a question that’s always puzzled me: What’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? Webster’s defines a memoir as “a narrative composed from personal experience” and an autobiography as “the biography of a person narrated by himself or herself.” (The second definition of “memoir” is “autobiography,” indicating just how blurry the line is.) I think of a biography as a life story--a full life, that is, unofficial “biographies” of Paris Hilton or Justin Timberlake aside. Most memoirs, by contrast, don’t begin at the author’s birth and provide a thorough chronological history of a life now in its twilight years.
Memoirs are, of course, written by authors of all ages, and their narratives can encompass fifty years or one week of experience. The first element necessary to a successful memoir is that experience. Lots of us have led interesting lives, or had unusual experiences. But not all of those interesting lives and unusual experiences are memoir-worthy. At the same time, the life experience you want to write about doesn’t need to be earth-shattering to be the basis of a successful book--if you’re a good enough writer. Whether your memories should jump from your head onto the pages of a memoir is difficult to judge when you’re the one whose life’s literary value is in question. If you didn’t think it was worth writing about, you wouldn’t be thinking about a memoir in the first place. But it’s a judgment you must make honestly and objectively if you don’t want to waste a lot of time writing a manuscript that will never sell.
So how do you know if your idea is a book in the making? Try to gain some distance and look at it as a potential reader. Would you pick such a book up off the shelf if it were about a total stranger with no other claim to fame? Would you read the description on the book’s flap and be intrigued? Or would the words “Oh, it’s another person who…” enter your mind? Jaded and insensitive as it may seem, agents discard query letters all the time uttering the words “another victim of abuse” or “another recovering alcoholic” or “another cancer survivor.”
That’s not to say that if you fall into one of those categories, or another that encompasses a lot of people and has seen a lot of memoirs published, you should abandon yours. But you need to bring something new to the table, whether the experience itself is different from everyone else’s or the way you tell it is. And, unless you’ve led a truly wacky life, more likely it’ll have to be the latter. How to make it different? Well, that’s the hard part. And the part you’re going to have to figure out on your own.
As with any genre in today’s book market, publishers are more likely to acquire a memoir if its author has a platform, i.e., comes with a built-in marketing plan. While writing the book, start a blog discussing the experience or issue about which you’re writing. Become affiliated with any advocacy organizations, etc., who might help promote your book. It’s tough out there if you’re not a celebrity or an author with a track record. For every Dave Eggers, a thousand memoirists can’t even clear the hurdle of finding an agent. This week, publishers bought memoirs by a Washington Post columnist, Cary Grant’s daughter, the former head of a record company and the Air America radio network, and a woman with a New York Times bestseller to her name. But take heed: another author sold a memoir “about a typical divorce transformed by a lyrical yet brutally honest voice and narrative style.” That author figured out how to tell an old story in a new way.
As important as marketing is, the memoir, perhaps more than any other genre, depends for its success on one simple thing: writing skill. Too many people make the mistake of thinking that fascinating experiences make for fascinating reads, no matter who writes about them. If you’ve never written before, take some classes. Work on your book in a workshop or in a writers’ group. And if you look in the mirror and see someone who doesn’t have the writing chops to tell their story right, contract with an experienced ghostwriter or coauthor to help out. After all, everyone has lived a story, but only a select few have both the right tale and the right talent to create a winning book.
About The Author
Lisa Silverman is a freelance book editor and works in the copyediting department at one of New York's most prestigious literary publishing houses. She has also worked as a ghostwriter and a literary agent representing both book authors and screenwriters. She founded http://www.BeYourOwnEditor.com in order to provide writers with free advice on both writing and the publishing business.