Writing a Memoir That Will Sell
by Linda Austin, Moonbridge Publications
first published in “The Scribe,” Winter 2013 edition, by the St. Louis Writer’s Guild
Memoir is very popular these days and it seems everyone, from public figures to pop-culture celebs to the next-door neighbor is writing one. Is the market saturated, is the fad fading yet, is there still time to jump the bandwagon?
Memoirs have been around for quite a while, birthed from autobiography, matured to the modern, 20th century memoirs by well-known people or ghostwritten for them. With the recent development of quality digital printing and print-on-demand services, however, everyday people are now self-publishing personal life stories that would never have caught the eyes of inundated, risk-aversive trade publishers. The genre is not going away, and you might be thinking of writing your own story. The question is, will YOUR story sell, or is it best left as a (priceless) gift to your family?
Because there are so many memoirs published, a commercially viable memoir must stand out from others of its type. This is particularly important when it comes to surviving illness, abuse or other trauma. It may seem cold-hearted, but from an agent’s viewpoint it is not enough these days to have survived cancer. How does your cancer journey differ from the others written about? How can you put a unique angle or perspective on it? Is there a niche audience that needs your special story? This is where Amazon and Barnes & Noble become your research laboratories. Study the descriptions and reviews of memoirs already out there that would be related to yours and, better yet, read some of these books. If there are only a few, then go for it! If there are many, you’ve got your work cut out.
If your story incorporates history or culture (often they go hand-in-hand), you may have a better chance at sales because there is a wider audience for this; people enjoy learning—or reminiscing. While you write your story, be conscious of including dates and historical or cultural details. Not only do they add to setting and sense of place and time, they offer an education without the dullness of a history book. For this type of memoir it is important to determine the age of your target audience as some stories can be adapted for young readers.
As with any other book project, getting the words down into a draft is really the first order of business. It does help if you can determine the age and gender of your audience first and keep that in mind. Take a look at the first draft, determine the focus and angle of your writing and confirm the audience. From then on the writing becomes very similar to writing fiction except that what you write is true to the best of your knowledge. Cut out anything that doesn’t pull the story forward—you can NOT include everything that happened during that time in your life.
A memoir may be one continuous story with a trajectory that includes character development, setting(s), plot, dialog, tension, and conflict. This type of memoir must come to a resolution or have a takeaway to leave the reader satisfied. There needs to be a point to the story – what did you learn from your experience, how did you change, how can you summarize your journey? If your memoir does not have a resolution, then it’s not yet time to publish it, and maybe not even the time to begin writing the draft as you might not be through living the story.
The other memoir format is a series of short stories bound by a common theme; for example, growing up during WWII or life in a boarding school. These are more likely to include culture and history. They may follow a chronological order or be grouped by topic. Each story will have a beginning and an ending, or at least a lead-in to the next story. The final story should be either an overall summarizing or another short story that concludes with a satisfying overall ending. Usually each story is long enough to be a chapter, albeit sometimes they are very short chapters.
Most important, a memoir is NOT a means of revenge, rather it should be a culmination of the process of living through a particular life journey, of learning and of coming to an understanding. Spearing other people and leaving them with a one-dimensional and ugly portrait only reflects badly on the character of the author—and may result in a lawsuit, which is a whole ‘nother subject. Whining is also unattractive.
One of the important elements of memoir that writers easily forget is the author’s thoughts and feelings. It is not enough to state what happened or explain the details. Readers want YOU to be a well-developed character they can empathize with or at least understand to some degree. They also relate to you more if you do not come across as perfect, so be sure to include your quirks and mistakes and fess up to your part in bad relationships or situations.
Finding a publisher for a memoir by an unknown author without much following or “platform” may be more difficult than for other genres. Even agents who accept memoir seem to lump them into one eye-rolling category of “here we go again.” This is why your memoir must stand out. Independent presses might be a better bet, and many authors simply choose to self-publish.
No matter how your book is published, though, you must be its best advocate and play a major part in publicizing it. Big publishers may reject your memoir, but many readers love real-life stories. Your memoir may help others heal or support them through similar troubles, show new perspectives and experiences, or delight others who have similar memories.
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