March 11, 2008
Everyone has a story to tell, be it your own life story or that of a family member or friend. Memoir writing is a popular trend; no doubt another byproduct of the baby boom, many people in their 40s, 50s and 60s feel compelled to commit their life stories to paper, whether it be to honor someone who’s made a difference in their lives, to heal wounds, to record their family histories, or to leave a legacy to future generations.
When judging the life stories category for theWriter’s DigestNational Self-Published Book Awards and teaching memoir writing for the WritersOnlineWorkshops.com, I see a variety of memoirs. A few could be the next Angela’s Ashes or The Color of Water or Rocket Boys or the real-life-turned-fiction family history memoir Cane River—that is, the best sellers of memoir writing. Others may not hit the best-seller list, but will still attract the attention of commercial publishers. Most are destined for self-publication, which likely means they will reach far fewer readers.
How to get noticed
How can you write your memoir so that it has the best chance of attracting an agent or publisher?
Jillian Manus, agent for Lalita Tademy’s Cane River, says a commercially publishable memoir needs four crucial elements: wonderful writing; appeal for a large audience; at least one sympathetic character; and an inspirational, thought-provoking story.
Celina Spiegel, co-editorial director at Riverhead Books and editor for James McBride’s The Color of Water, agrees. “No matter how appealing your story, if you’re going to write it down, you have to be able to write,” she says. “Many people have wonderfully interesting lives that they will never be able to communicate on the page, while others with less dramatic lives, but who are talented as writers and as observers of their lives, will be able to make otherwise ordinary events seem riveting and meaningful.
“Part of the gift of the memoirist is to be able to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, to create meaning through seeing a pattern in a life, and to be able to convey both the meaning and the story.”
Beyond being an excellent writer and having a fascinating life, other elements can help your memoir stand out.