Memoir Glut and How to Stand Out

People often ask me about the types of submissions I see in my role as Senior Editor at Seal Press. Of the agented manuscripts, a good 70% are memoir; of the unagented submissions, it’s closer to 90%. We’re known for memoir, and we’re a women’s press, but still. Memoir is where it’s at—and where it’s been at for a while. Despite the fact that it’s difficult to get memoir published, the industry still loves a good memoir.

I tried to get some up-to-date stats on memoir, but because I’m late in getting to the newsletter this month (real excuse—I got married earlier this month!), I’m citing some older statistics. This 2008 USA Today article says that 295 memoirs were signed by publishers in 2007 compared with 214 memoirs in 2006. So right off the bat let’s say that today that number is 350. Then there’s the question of how many deals went unreported to Publishers Marketplace. There are many many editors who do not report, or only report some deals. So let’s tack on another 250 (yes, that many) unreported. Add to that number the self-published memoirs, and we’re conservatively looking at about at least 1,000 memoirs a year, though even that number seems small to me given what I see on a day-to-day basis.

So where does that leave you, the aspiring memoirist?

The point of this post is not to discourage you from writing your memoir. It’s to encourage you to consider what an editor is looking for when they read your memoir. Here are several major things I look for in a memoir—after good writing. But you don’t have to be a brilliant or natural writer if you understand and execute the following takeaways:

1. Relatability. Consider some of the top-selling memoirs out there: Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle; Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. All of these writers came to the table with pretty unique stories. It’s not that most of us can relate, per se, to Eggers’s experience of having had our parents die within five months of one another of unrelated cancers, or Walls’s portrayal of growing up with pretty much insane and neglectful parents; or Gilbert’s capacity to leave everything behind to tour the world in search of herself. And yet these authors wrote in a way that moved their readers. Sometimes a random or strange life story is what moves people to write memoir in the first place, but if you don’t know how to invite the reader into your inner world, to a place where they not only see you but relate to you because of what you’re willing to show them once they get there, then you’re not going to make it past the editor’s desk. Editors are looking for stories that have universal appeal even if the story itself is really out there. They’re looking for writers who know how to make an unusual or heartbreaking or tough situation be something everyone can relate to and understand.

2. Insights. Most writers are insightful or they wouldn’t write in the first place. But do you know when and how to deliver your insights? For that matter, do you consciously do this when you sit down to write? The number one reason I reject memoir is because of the “and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened” mistake of telling rather than showing. This is a classic mark of a novice writer. If you’re writing memoir, you must slow down. You must share your insightfulness and own the fact that you have something to say. (I know it’s scary! Wait till we get to transparency.) But if you sacrifice your insights for the sake of getting all the details of something that happened just right, you’re probably being more self-indulgent than you need to be. The insights are more important because those are the times when you’re reaching out to your reader rather than asking your reader to be with you. It’s a give and take. Don’t forget that we want to be moved.

3. Through-threads. Don’t lose site of what you’re talking about. If you’re writing a continuous narrative, figure out the question you’re trying to answer before you even start writing. What’s the payoff for the reader? If you’re writing a memoir in essays then you do this for each chapter—in these instances the chapter itself functions much like the arc of the whole book and requires you to hold the reader’s hand. It’s not easy to juggle these threads, but the mark of a good memoirist (and novelist for that matter) is someone who remembers to tie it all together. I often liken this to wrapping a present. You have to make all the right folds and tape the sides and then tie the ribbon across the package. You wouldn’t bring a half-wrapped package with an untied ribbon to a party, right? So don’t send sample writing off to an editor that doesn’t have all your through-threads cleaned up. True, sometimes these threads can be difficult to see, but if you’re answering the questions you set out for yourself at the beginning of the journey then you shouldn’t lose your way.

4. Transparency. This includes honesty, truth-telling, and being vulnerable. For some people this comes so naturally that it’s a nonissue. For others it’s like pulling teeth. Many writers don’t realize how much you have to put yourself out there until they’ve delved into some memoir writing. Most memoirists, other than those who don’t even know the meaning of the word shame, will freak out at various junctures. This probably means you’re writing a good memoir. We live in a tell-all culture and if you don’t want to tell all then you should consider writing a novel. It’s important to distinguish the difference, however, between telling everything about yourself and telling everything about other people. I’m not suggesting that you sacrifice family relations for the sake of your memoir (though many people do), or that you bash all your exes for a good laugh (though many people do). (As a side note, I know lots of writers who have waited till certain family members were dead to be able to tell the truth of their life story, and there are some horrible people out in the world who don’t deserve to be spared. It of course depends on what kind of story you’re writing.) You don’t have to alienate everyone you know to tell the truth, but you do have to take risks. If you’re being transparent and telling your story as it happened and providing insights and nuance, then even those people who lived through the experience with you will likely, some day, understand why you wanted or needed to write your story.

Until next month.


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