I'm thrilled to have Jennie Nash guest post this month, where she shares her insights about what does (and doesn't) get a memoir published!
Jennie is a trusted book coach who specializes in helping writers write and publish books that will get read. She is the founder and chief creative officer of Author Accelerator, an online program to help writers get from inspiration to publication. She is also the author of three memoirs and four novels.
5 Reasons Your Memoir Will Never Be Published
By Jennie Nash
1.) You confused “what happened” with a good story
“What happened” in your life is only part of the equation of a good story. You also need a sense of why “what happened” mattered to you, what it meant, what you took away from the experience. You need a sense of how “what happened” says something about human nature and the world and our time here on earth, because without that connection to the bigger picture, your memoir is in danger of being aimless and self-centered. You need to know where in “what happened” would make a good place to start, where in “what happened” would make a good place to end, and which pieces of “what happened” are best left out of this story and saved for another day.
2.) You forgot the importance of structure
Structure is the thing that holds a memoir up, that makes it more than just a series of journal entries. Take Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. That book has a beautiful, elegant structure. Three sections. Three big ideas. Three struggles to achieve a simple grace. You think Gilbert did that accidentally? The answer is no. And what about Cheryl Stayed's Wild? It's a road trip story-except the road is a hiking trail and instead of a vehicle, she's got her feet. It follows a classic structure of a person who sets out on a physical journey and goes on an internal, emotional journey along the way. One of my favorite celebrity memoirs, Andre Aggasi's Open, has an intriguing structure. It starts at the end of an illustrious tennis career that, it turns out, nearly crippled the author in a number of ways. The story traces the tale of how he got there, of why he made it as far as he did, and what he learned along the way. It all hinges on starting at the end. It all hinges on structure. To learn more about structure, re-read a few favorite memoirs. Instead of reading for what happened, read for how the whole thing is put together. Make a map of it. Watch how the author does it.
3.) You did zero market research
Most art comes from someone's heart and soul-from a place as far away from commerce as you can get. We write because we are called to write, because it is satisfying and healing to write, and there is no other motivation needed. Most writers, however, have some additional agenda for wanting to set their story down on paper. Perhaps they want to preserve their story for future generations. Perhaps they want to share what they have learned with other fellow travelers. There are a thousand good reasons to want to share your story. If your desire is to share your story with a wide reading public-with readers in a bookstore, with searchers on the Internet, with strangers you may never meet-you enter into a wholly different territory of the writing experience. You must now consider the realities of the marketplace. You must study how memoirs are packaged and sold, which ones do well, what readers respond to, what gaps there are in the conversation (and how you might put a stake in the ground in that gap), and how to present your story in such a way that it stands a chance of being read. You must, in other words, find a way to reconcile the work of your heart with the demands and realities of commerce. For help in making this reconciliation, read The Gift by Lewis Hyde.
4.) You were too stingy with your emotions
You may have the most dramatic and exciting story to tell, and you may have a solid structure to contain it, and you may have done your market research, but unless you share the gritty emotions you felt as your tale unfolded, you will quickly lose your reader to the latest Game of Thrones installment. Readers come to memoir to get inside the author's head. That is the one true promise of a memoir-and it's a promise no other art form makes. Readers want to see what it's like inside your head and to see how you handled the difficult, embarrassing, soul-crushing, harrowing, joyous and confusing things that befell you. Telling instead of showing, whizzing by the tough stuff, leaving things out because they make you look bad, making things up to make yourself seem anything other than what you actually are-these are fatal flaws. To learn more about how to invite the reader into your emotions, read Beth Kephart's fantastic new book about writing memoir, Handling the Truth.
5.) You didn't use a professional editor
Your sister and your spouse and your mother and your friend who is a stickler for correct grammar may love you and may support you, but they can't be trusted when it comes to how your story is working on the page and what to do to fix it. You need a professional editor or writing coach who is ruthless and exacting, and who can whip your prose into shape on every level-from the macro concerns like theme and story resolution to the micro concerns like pacing and dialogue. In the old days, editors used to do this work. Some of them still do, and some agents do, as well, but most don't. They are looking for work that is already polished. To find a reputable editor, get a personal referral from someone who has had an excellent experience, or consider the recommendation of a trusted pro. Jane Friedman, former editor for Writers' Digest and a super smart cookie about all things publishing, has a great post on her website: “4 Ways to Find the Right Freelance Editor.”