Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Art Of The Memoir

The other day I received copy of  The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Memoir.  At first glance I thought :  Do I really need a whole book to tell me how to write about myself? But then I realized the key is to write about yourself in ways others would find to be interesting and worthy of their attention.  It’s no easy feat to live an interesting life and it’s even harder to describe it in an equally interesting way, especially when you don’t want to sound self-centered, egotistical, or come off as a braggart.

The book features chapters about getting published, finding your emotional truth, how to use fictional techniques to write a memoir, the five golden rules of good writing, choosing the voice and tense  you want to write in, how to make a scene come alive, and how to go about revising your first draft.  It suggests having others read your pre-published book so they can offer critical feedback.  It also discusses key themes that may enter into a memoir – and how to handle them – including illness, relationships, business dealings, travel and adventure, and coming of age.

What to exclude from a memoir or book is just as important as what to include. But what’s most important is probably your overall writing style. If it comes across as too resume-like, the facts will bore the reader. Consumers want to read not about how great you are, but how you came to be.  They want to learn something, feel something, and find a blueprint to replicate your success.  When you hit rock bottom or suffer adverse conditions, people want to observe as a witness but not suffer the first-hand pains and loses that you went through.  They want a chance to see a train-wreck up close but not have a ticket on that train.

I found the chapter about truth telling most interesting.  It discourages making up stories, enhancing true stories, and the deceiving of readers. It speaks out against the use of composite scenes, composite characters, misstated chronology, the invention of quotes, and the falsification of the proportion of events. The memoir can be painfully personal, but it should only reveal the truth, no matter how embarrassing, hurtful or risky.

In the chapter about rules for revising a memoir manuscript, it suggests you write for readers who want to be surprised, discovering truth and meaning in life, and who want resolution to their own problems.

The book’s author, Victoria Costello, wrote her own memoir and has ghost-written memoirs for others.  I imagine writing about the life of another from the perspective of the subject of the book can be even more challenging than writing your own story.

The book contains tips for taking an inventory of your life and determining which parts are memoir-worthy.  The book marketplace is overcrowded but memoirs have a chance to grow because everyone’s life is unique for better or worse. Where other genres can grow stagnant (how many different ways are there to  lose weight or save a marriage?), memoirs can remain unique, vibrant, and incomparable.

If you can write about your life in an interesting way regardless of what happened to you, you will have won the battle for consumer mindshare.  Equally important: you’ll need to market and promote your story in a way that reveals and highlights your life’s appeal to others. People want to be you or be glad that they aren’t you.  There’s no in between.  A memoir must push buttons or it’ll just be bland and fall short.

Websites and Organizations for Memoir Writers
International Association of Journal Writers
National Association of Memoir Writers
Women’s Memoirs
AARP Memoir Writers Online Group (Public)
Yahoo Groups Lifewriter’s Forum

Interview With Literary Agent Denise Marcil

Denise is the owner of the New York-based Denise Marcil Literary Agency, Inc. For more information, consult   

1. As a literary agent, how do you help authors not only get a book published but to establish some kind of brand? The best writing is from the heart – whether an author writes genre or literary fiction, or narrative or prescriptive nonfiction. I’m drawn to authors who write with this focused passion. An author’s “brand” evolves from this passion and general belief in his or her story or topic. Therefore I encourage my authors to write from the heart – write what they need to write.

2.  Denise, what do you love most about being a part of the book publishing industry? It’s a toss-up between discovering and selling a first-time author, and seeing one of my discoveries succeed with stellar reviews and /or spectacular sales.

3. What challenges and rewards are you finding under the new publishing landscape? Most authors are faced with the extraordinary challenges of getting attention and awareness of their newly published books. Publishers insist on a wide platform either in the traditional media and the speaking circuit or via social media. Yet there’s too much noise in the social media world. I question whether social media, especially advertising on Facebook, Google, or other websites actually sells books.  The rewards are learning about new means of publishing, such as original ebooks and giving new life to reverted titles. I like being on the digital publishing vanguard.

4. Where do you feel the industry is heading? I think the industry is heading to further consolidation of the major publishers. We’ll probably have two or three large publishers eventually. We may see more niche publishers of print and digital books as well.
I think that e-book sales will comprise 70 to 80 percent of all book sales in a few years.

5. What are some of your recent successes? Which genres are hot – why? Sherryl Woods, who has been writing for years, has had 80 appearances on the New York Times bestseller lists since 2008. Most recently A Chesapeake Shores Christmas (Mira) was on the list on 11/2011. Peter Spiegelman’s Thick as Thieves (Knopf US/Quercus UK) has had rave reviews in the US and in the UK. A true brand is Dr. William Sears’ The Portable Pediatrician (Little, Brown). Written by Drs. William, Robert, James, and Peter Sears and Martha Sears, R.N., this is the Sears’ biggest and most comprehensive childcare book since The Baby Book which has sold well over one million copies. Little, Brown has developed a brilliant app of The Portable Pediatrician that’s searchable and so easy to use for middle of the night emergencies. Patricia Falvey’s first novel The Yellow House (Center Street, 2010) continues to sell, building the author’s fan base, especially in book clubs. Hot genres include women’s fiction, especially those focused on families and friendship.

See prior blog post:
Barnes and Noble looking to get out of publishing
The music industry might be publishing’s model

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

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