Top secrets of writing a memoir

Did you know that literary magazine Tin House receives 2,000 stories every month? Or that New York literary agents receive 10-12 queries per day? These are a few of the reality-check gems I picked up by watching the videotaped National Book Critics Circle panel “Secrets of Memoir” held recently at the NYU Bookstore.

The panel moderator, Susan Shapiro, is an NBCC board member and a knowledgeable, savvy and generous connector of people. Through her private classes and professorial teaching, she connects people who have no experience in publishing with those who have lots of it. This simple, slightly bolshy but effective formula has resulted in countless publication credits for her students, including book deals and now eight books of her own including the two memoirs Lighting Up and the forthcoming Unhooked. She moderates a “Secrets of Publishing” panel in addition to this one on the secrets of writing a memoir.

The panellists
The panel included Tin House editor Rob Spillman; Lindsay Harrison, author of Missing; Scribner’s editor Colin Harrison; Sheila McClear, author of The Last of the Live Nude Girls; WME literary agent Rebecca Oliver; literary agent Ryan Harbage (who represents Shapiro), and Publishers Weekly editor and author of Amore, Mark Rotella.

Their main points
For those who don’t have an hour and a half to spare, I have summarised the panel’s main points.

  • In memoir, the authorial voice is everything. The panel members sounded like adjudicators at a vocal eisteddford, the way they kept going on about voice. Some comments: “Voice is what’s going to get the agent’s attention.” “Voice makes a huge difference, makes an ordinary story extraordinary.” “I’m looking for a voice that transports me, that elevates beyond the immediate experience.”
  • Forget about trends in publishing or trying to tailor your memoir to a gimmick that seems to be in vogue. Lead times in book publishing are so slow, “by the time you see a trend, it’s over,” said one panellist.
  • Memoir is a category that people in publishing love, and that agents love to represent.
  • It’s increasingly difficult to sell a book based on a blog. In fact the majority of panellists agreed that giving content away for free online made them more skeptical about how they could sell any books resulting from the blog — a position that is tantamount to heresy in some social media circles.
  • There was a lot of talk about the dreaded “platform”, which everyone seems to loathe but find impossible not to discuss. My conclusion was that aspiring memoirists do not necessarily need to spent years building an online following, that in fact it’s possible to develop a platform rather quickly (eg by getting a piece published in the “Modern Lives” column of the New York Times). So be alert but not alarmed.
  • There is a lot of scope for what Colin Harrison described as the “repertorial memoir”, a first-person narrative in which we learn about or are introduced to a different world (whether it’s a place or an experience). “Memoir does not have to have a traumatic or familial arc,” he said.
  • Try to get a chunk of your manuscript published as a stand-alone piece in a literary journal. Rob Spillman said that after every new issue of Tin House he fields calls from agents asking if authors featured in the issue have representation. He likened the small magazines to “sieves” that, even before agents, do a lot of filtering of unsolicited submissions.
  • In terms of getting an agent, they work mostly on gut feeling and instinct.  It’s not fair, but it’s not going to change. Ryan Harbage said he usually knows by the end of the first page whether or not he wants to read more of your manuscript.
  • One-page query emails are best. A short pitch that summarises the book, giving the reason why you have chosen to approach the agent, is best (such as an affinity with other authors the agent represents). Don’t send a query unless you have a proposal ready, and do your research to find the basic elements of a nonfiction book proposal.
What was missing
I would have liked more discussion of the elements of a strong memoir. While there was much talk about “voice”, I had hoped there would be more analysis of those aspects of first-person storytelling that distinguish the standouts from the average.

How to become a better writer
The panellists all agreed on the following strategies for improving your work:
  1. Take a class (gee, didn’t see that one coming)
  2. Form a writers’ group, even if it’s just one other person to whom you show your work and who holds you accountable for meeting deadlines. (This was a sharp reminder to me to get back into doing this, which I stopped last year when I abandoned my novel.)
  3. Read a lot in order to study form and technique (sounds like a no-brainer, but we’ve all met plenty of wannabe authors who don’t bother doing much reading, if any).
It’s tough to be bookish and ambitious. Hopefully some of these tips will be useful. I’d love you to comment and tell me which ones stood out to you.


This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Virginia, I am newby bird on Twitter and have just discovered you. Found the shorthand list reassuring. I am currently working on second draft of a memoir set in Panama and struggling with balancing the emotional center of this coming of age story with enough repertorial information about this unexpected locale. Readers have told me that the voice is distinct and beautiful (am hoping that this appraisal will stand the test of a larger stage). Am delighted to have found you and will read your posts. Happy also to connect with other writers.

    1. Hi Marlena, great to hear from you and to learn about your project. You’ll find Twitter a great resource (and distraction) for writers. Glad you found me and good luck with the writing.

  2. Hi Virginia,
    I just stumbled on your blog after looking for some tips on memoir writing. I have written a memoir which is in the final stages of gestation – I hope! Was interested to read your comments, and especially to see the Australian connection. I am an Aussie too. I am thinking of entering the Mslexia memoir competition, but not sure if I’ll be ready in time. Would definitely consider sending you a draft for review when I am ready to publish. My story is a mixture of deep tragedy and humour, told of course in a typical Aussie style.

    1. Hi Jeanette,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Most manuscripts I see are still too rough to interest a publisher, so make sure your work is as good as you can make it before sending it anywhere — whether to a competition or to an agent. Good luck with your project — Virginia

  3. Thanks Virginia for your advice. I will not be sending my manuscript anywhere unless I am 110% happy with it.

  4. I really enjoyed and got something from this post, thank you! I’ve sold short pieces and have struggled to transition to writing books. The points you made have made me more confident about writing in a different voice than the bestselling memoirs I’ve read. Also good to know that there’s no need to worry too much about followers and platforms; and I like the idea about publishing a part of the final manuscript. I even like the thought that agents act on intuition – that doesn’t seem “unfair”, necessarily…

    1. Hi Mia,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. The hardest thing about writing memoir, which is also the essential thing, is the writer’s voice on the page. I suspect that each of the memoirs you’ve most enjoyed have been written in distinctive respective styles. You wouldn’t confuse the narrator of Angela’s Ashes, for example, with the narrator of The Year of Magical Thinking or of The Glass Castle. The subject matter of the memoir is secondary to the animating quality of the writer’s voice. Good luck with your long-form writing. — Virginia

  5. Yes. This leads me to wonder to what extent voice can be developed in short form and carried into memoir. Often it wouldn’t work, but with writers like Caitlin Moran and Nora Ephron, I think it did. If James Frey on the other hand wrote an article in the style of his memoir, that would just be odd…

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