Friday, August 11, 2017

Querying for memoir

There has to be a story.
A story is more than just what happened.
The story is the POINT you're making.

The reason you write a memoir is not to tell us what happened, it's to tell us how what happened changed you (and better yet, changed a lot of things.)

If you were shipped to Carkoon, and worked in the kale factory, toiling alongside your fellow exiled blog readers, that's a series of events. That's NOT a memoir.

If you were shipped to Carkoon, worked in the kale factory, toiling alongside your fellow exiled blog readers, only to discover kale is actually the secret to writing best sellers and now all of you are querying with Magical Unicorn Books written while smoking kale, that's still only a series of events and NOT a memoir.


If you were shipped to Carkoon, worked in the kale factory, discovered kale was the secret to good writing, started querying, only to discover that kale made you a great writer, but only for books of dino porn, and you had to choose between being a great writer (of dino porn) or continuing to struggle to write better the old fashioned way, THAT'S a memoir.

It's the same element I've been yammering about for novels: what's at stake, what choices did you have to make, how did it change you. Choices are what make a memoir universal. By universal I mean it will resonate with people who didn't get exiled to Carkoon and aren't even writers. They might be musicians faced with a man dressed in black at a dusty crossroad in the Mississippi Delta.  They might be a reporter who learned Miss Piggy is really Mr Piggy, but from a source who will lose her job if the news is made public. To report or not to report? That's a memoir.

I get a lot of memoir queries from people who've done interesting things. I think there's great value in having those books published, BUT if you want your memoir to be published by a trade publisher, you need to tell me a story, not just what happened.

Bottom line: when you query for memoir, tell me about the choice you had to make first, not the events that precipitated the choice.

42 comments:

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

And here again, a post which zeros in on me, because I know in life, it’s all about me. Oh wait, maybe it isn’t. Hell, it ain't at all. Anyway, wise words I am taking to my fingertips.

Um...Janet, the floor of my car glitters:)
WCTU forever?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

File under ITS - It's the story. Always the story. Kale is not the secret to anything. It's just green and trendy. Lots of things are green and trendy.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Interesting situations? Boy howdy, do I have some I could share between large families and work.

People, who've seen or heard parts of conversations, look at me and say "you should write a book about the things you know." Well...no. There's confidentiality. And privacy. Then there's also, as Janet writes, the point. Or rather, no point to these incidents.

But, can I take an itty bitty splinter of a random incident, twist it, add a few blenderized personalities, a couple unrelated subplots, and create a novel? Oh yeah. I'll give that a try.

Because there will be a protag and an antag, both fictional, who will have a clash, a learning sequence, and a final showdown.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

In Beartown, (Fredrik Backman) everyone in the story has to make a moral choice. I think that is what makes a good story a great one.

Theresa said...

Now I have the Brady Bunch song stuck in my head. Although it claims to be a story, it is in fact a series of interesting (and of course 70s-style hilarious) events.

Kitty said...

Sharyn Ekbergh, thanks for introducing Fredrik Backman's books to me.

Linda Strader said...

Yes, I agree. I've been beta reading a number of memoirs lately, and give the same advice to the authors of said WIPs. My comments are not always welcome, even though I speak from experience. They vow to self-publish. I say go for it, if that's what you want. However, that was never an option for me. It took me a while to get my story straight, but I did, and my memoir will be traditionally published next spring.

kathy joyce said...

Not writing a memoir, but the advice hit home. Thanks, Janet!

Mary said...

It took me years to figure this out, which is why it's taken me years to get my memoir published.

PAH said...

I've been querying dino porn since the Cretaceous Period.

Colin Smith said...

Which is why I am not writing my Carkoon memoir. When it comes to exile of this kind, enforced by the mighty fin of QOTKU, the words of Darth Vader ring true: "There is no conflict."

:)

Karen McCoy said...

What Kathy Joyce said. I'm writing YA fantasy, and this still applies. And, I'm also writing a fictionalized memoir (think Devil Wears Prada), and I copied this text into the draft so I remember to do it.

I love this blog more and more all the time.

Craig F said...

Yes, it took me a long time to realize that all of the bells and whistles of subplot are not what makes a query. It is the spice that makes the kale and speckled lima bean salad that is the essence of the plot enticing. Use them sparingly though or they will overpower the taste of the essence of the plot, the meat of the query.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

My bookshelves are full of memoirs/biographies/nonfiction. I love reading about real life and have been especially drawn to memoirs since childhood.

It would follow, I suppose, that my own books about the sanctuary and the animals who have found their way to us would be written as memoirs.

Linda... (fellow female firefighter) I've been watching your journey to publication. I'm looking forward to your release.

Karen McCoy said...

Congratulations, Linda!

nightsmusic said...

I had a very eclectic childhood and young adulthood as well. I don't think though that people are all that interested in it even if it seems interesting to me.

Interesting to me is specifics. Certain times in a person's life. Bud Anderson's P51 and his highest climb. What it must have felt like to walk on the moon for Neil Armstrong. People who had that big, bright shining/inspirational/thrilling moment in their life. Reading all the flotsam that goes along with it from birth to that point better be as thrilling or I'm not inclined to read it. And I think that's where someone ghost writing the memoir is critical. Most people who think their experiences are important to get out there in book form aren't very good at writing them. And I think that's why so many memoirs never get published.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Yesterday, one of my beta readers who was a dominatrix asked me to ghost write her memoir. I felt both honored and bewildered. I don't even feel comfortable writing sex scenes in my WIP. But it's a challenge that the writer and the imp in me cannot simply turn down. I suppose when the time comes, I will just approach it as if I'm writing high fantasy:)

Linda Strader said...

Thank you Karen McCoy and Melanie Sue Bowles!

Colin Smith said...

Linda: Be sure to let us know when SUMMERS OF FIRE is available to pre-order. I'd like to add it to the Published Works list in the Treasure Chest. :)

Linda Strader said...

Thank you, Colin, I sure will! Release date is May 1st, 2018, but not sure about pre-ordering yet. :)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Yehhhh! LINDA.
Hot huh.

Mark Ellis said...

Cecilia, please let us know when that one comes out :)

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Mark,

You betcha, buddy!

LOL

Adele said...

A couple of years ago I read two very different memoirs. Both well-written, traditionally published best-sellers, but at the end of each I was left unsatisfied because there was no denouement. Each story ended rather vaguely, as if the author just wandered away. In real life, when you have a 'life-changing experience' it usually doesn't neatly wrap itself up in a telling moment, and I suppose there's no way to get around that.

Both books were best-sellers, though, so I have to assume other people aren't as fussy about their endings as I am.

Steve Stubbs said...

You remind me of something Max Guunther said in WRITING AND SELLING A NON-FICTION BOOK. This is from memory and I notice the book is still in print so there may have been a new edition since the one I read. But as I remember, he said everyone wants to write about the person he or she considers to be the center of the universe, and to forget it unless your name is Billy Hayes and the book details your harrowing escape with your life from a notorious Turkish prison and the name of your book (and the movie made from it) is MIDNIGHT EXPRESS.

Of course Casanova did well with his story of his escape from the Inquisition prison in eighteenth century Venice. Before putting it into writing he polished it telling it to a million people, including the reigning pope, whose prisoner Casanova was.

MY LIFE: IT WAS BORING AS HELL GROWING UP IN PODUNK, IOWA migh be hard to sell.

Beth Carpenter said...

Congratulations, Linda!

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Wait. What? My sweet little Cecilia writing scenes rated X...! Say it isn't so.

Back on topic: I don't believe memoirs have to be about "earth shattering/life changing" or epic "walk on the moon" events. Some of my favorite titles are simple and eloquent stories about a regular Jane or Joe.

One example of a ka-gillion I could offer: THE THREAD THAT RUNS SO TRUE by Jesse Stuart. "A mountain school teacher tells his story." I loved this book...

And COTTON FIELD OF DREAMS by Janis F. Kearney. Or LETTERS FROM SIDE LAKE by Peter M. Leschak (Two of my heart books). CITY LIMITS by Terry Teachout. I'll stop... my point being, nothing epic happens in any of these memoirs. They're stories about regular lives. But, to me, they are told very, very well and worthy of being read.

Kitty said...

Janet, sorry to veer off topic here, but you use blogger. Did you try to post a picture today and couldn't? I tried to post something on my blog and couldn't post a picture.

BJ Muntain said...

A memoir? Moi? Nah. I'm just not that into me...

Now George Burns was into Gracie Allen. He wrote a memoir about their life together - Gracie: A Love Story. I don't know if he had a ghostwriter, but his voice is there, all through it. He talks honestly about his regrets - maybe he pushed her too hard, maybe he wasn't the perfect husband for a perfect woman. He never remarried in the 30+ years after she died.

Some were talking (OT) the other day about real love stories. For those who like them, read this book. Like George, it's not perfect, but it's full of love. :)

Karen McCoy said...

BJ, I love George Burns. Must get my hands on this book.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

Steve,
Ray Bradbury grew up in Waukegan, Illinois.
Get to work. Read Dandelion Wine.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

Kitty,
I live with Ove. (OO-veh!)
He is 90, grew up in the north of Sweden, loves cats and children, and will judge you by the car you drive.
I gave him the book for Christmas.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

Melanie,

Oh, but this is one dominatrix you will like. She is also part of a group that fights to protect the wild horses of the Canadian prairies.

About them X-rated scenes, don't worry. I don't think she will make me write super graphic scenes (Sorry, Mark!). She knows that my porn vocabulary is very limited.

Ardenwolfe said...

Thank you for posting this. SO MANY who write memoirs needs to read these words of wisdom!

Kate Larkindale said...

Very useful advice as I jump back into the memoir I'm ghostwriting at the moment. Somehow the posts on this blog always feel timely to what I'm working on.

Julie said...

Timely. Again.

Joseph Snoe said...

I'm out of my league on this, but why not take what is really a memoir and write it as a novel. Or let it serve as the framework for a novel. Pat Conroy did okay doing that.

kathy joyce said...

Cecilia, the perfect writing prompt: "My porn vocabulary is very limited."
*snicker*

Colin Smith said...

I have to say, steamy scenes in novels are not my favorite. And not because of any prudish sensibilities I might have. No... you see...well... You know how you can develop characters' voices by listening to others talk, so they don't all sound like you? And you know how you can pick up mannerisms for your characters that are not your own by observing those around you? Well... when was the last time you sat watching a couple make out so you can get tips for your kissing scene? Or worse... well, let's not go there. I just can't imagine how an author can write a steamy scene without it being somewhat autobiographical, hence my discomfort. Sure, you can get ideas from TV and movies, but--especially with things like that--if you write based on Hollywood, you end up with something that sounds like Hollywood, not real life. So I don't know how else an author would write steamy stuff without being shunned as a perv, or getting arrested, other than drawing from personal experience. And... I'd rather not know, thanks. Talk about being pulled out of a story! :-\

Anyway, all that to say, Cecilia... please don't be offended if I give that book a pass. ;)

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...


Haha Colin

veronicathepajamathief said...

In Whip Smart, Melissa Febos left several questions unanswered and was, intentionally or unintentionally, I can't say, less than honest with herself about the choices she made. Hers was a story that demanded raw, brutal honesty... undiluted. I felt her story was lacking.

I would be interested in reading your friend's memoir as the subject of dominatri intrigues me, but the telling of any story must be honest above all else. If a reader feels the author is "sparing" themselves, they are not going to be favorable of the book.

mythical one-eyed peace officer said...

FWIW....the weekend Wall Street Journal Review section has, in the "personal choice" feature, "on books that blur the line between memoir and novel."