Agent Monday: Looking for Memorable Memoirs

Businesswoman standing on a ladder looking through binocularsHappy Agent Monday!  I know. I’ve been “away” for a while. That’s what the holidays plus a family round of the flu (wash your hands, people!), in addition to a heavy work load can do. Anyways…today I thought I’d chat about memoirs. And about why, though I’m interested in representing memoirs, I haven’t yet found one I want to champion.  The reason? I’m looking for memorable memoirs. And it seems they are a bit hard to find.

There are definitely different types of memoirs. There’s the famous person memoir, and plenty of war-hero memoirs. I group that as one sort. The interest in the market is high for this sort of project, for obvious reasons. Still, they need some meat to them. Something revealing or scandalous or whatever…

Then there’s the “gone through something extreme” memoir. Drug abuse, debilitating illness, horrific accidents, true tragedy. It’s heartbreaking some of the things I read about, and sometimes it’s plain old heartbreaking to tell that writer “no thanks.” But this isn’t the same thing as saying that the writer isn’t an amazing human being for overcoming terrible stuff. What the “no thanks” does mean is that the writing skills aren’t strong, or that the memoir isn’t laid out in an interesting way, or that the voice doesn’t draw the reader in. It means that, basically, I don’t feel it is at the level where I can sell it to a publisher. As tough as it sounds, an agent must view the memoir as a product to be sold.

Lastly, there’s the slice of life sort of memoir. This is the type that I get all the time. Too often I see people trying to sell me their memoirs about common things such as having a baby, or studying abroad, or going through a divorce, or parenting a surly child. These may have been monumental for the writer, but not exceptional for the average reader, and if nothing unusual is brought out in the book, the memoir isn’t of interest to the public. It needs something to distinguish itself from common experiences.

So what can make this slice of life sort of memoir soar? Incredible voice, amazing humor, sharp writing, gripping page turning pacing, unusual settings if possible, things like that…  How ’bout a memoir about a boy and his dog? Yawn, right?  Oh yeah? Perhaps you haven’t read Marley & Me. Here’s a slice of life memoir that could have been a serious yawn, but the writing and voice and pacing and emotions are spot on – something to keep in mind as you progress with your own memoir.

It’s important when plotting it out (yes, I said plotting 🙂 ) to give the memoir a tight structure and to keep away from the trap that telling a real story presents – that of plodding along chronologically without regard to what’s most interesting. Keep a strong narrative thread throughout, even if it’s with interlocking essays. And in the process, if I learn something – bonus! Make the reader wonder “will she ever be able to finally xyz?” Like in the memoir Season to Taste, where an aspiring chef gets in an accident and loses her ability to smell and taste…will she ever get it back? Will she ever be able to realize her dream of being a chef? This question keeps you turning the pages.

So what am I looking for, exactly?  Something compelling. Something GREAT.  An example of a great memoir?: Angela’s Ashes. It has incredible voice, gripping hardship, unusual setting, heartbreak – the whole enchilada. Send me something on that level, and I’ll be VERY interested.

My inbox awaits…


26 thoughts on “Agent Monday: Looking for Memorable Memoirs

  1. Nicely said, Marie. Mundane events packaged into a great story still add up to a great story, and fascinating experiences with high stakes and great psychological drama is even better. I think I might have just the thing you are looking for, but first I have to make my soon-to-be-released book Memoir Revolution into a best seller. I’ll keep you posted. 🙂

    Best wishes,
    Jerry Waxler
    Memory Writers Network

  2. Well put, Marie. As a life writing teacher, I’ve read scores of life story bits and pieces as well as some longer ones that had seeds of greatness, but weren’t yet compelling to the larger public.

    I hope readers of your blog don’t get the impression that if they don’t have the equivalent of Angela’s Ashes to offer the world, it isn’t worth writing at all. Families (perhaps skipping a generation) are going to be thrilled and fascinated with stories and memoir of previous generations in a way the general public isn’t. That link of shared history makes a difference. That’s beyond the personal value of making sense of our own lives as we write.

    Even if we never reach the sale to a publisher point, the process is the cake. Publication is only icing. Y’all keep at it!

    • Hi Sharon,

      Thanks for chiming in. Yes, memoir writing is so important for many reasons. Writers need to keep in mind that my comments are from the agent’s point of view. There are certainly more goals to writing anything than nabbing an agent. As a writer myself, I know that all too well.

    • Thanks, Karma!

      I haven’t taken a memoir to market yet, so I can’t really speak to this market right now. I do think, however, that there is always a home for an exceptional book.

  3. With all due respect, it’s all very subjective. What one person finds interesting, another person can’t stand. Just because a New York agent doesn’t like something doesn’t mean it won’t sell and garner a strong following. I think it’s important to remember this.

  4. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 02-07-2013 « The Author Chronicles

  5. Pingback: Agent Monday: Digging for Buried Treasure | Marie Lamba, author

  6. Marie,
    Good Day. Agent Monday: Looking for Memorable Memoirs provides good reading, as this blog demonstrates accurate, brief, and concise writing. A memoir solely exhibiting celebrity, overcoming challenging life experiences, or sharing ordinary experiences is a difficult if not impossible agent sell. A memoir evidencing all these attributes as well as not being memoir writer experiences focused, thereby maximizing memoir reader interaction and reflection, offers high selling potential. Am this day sending you a query regarding a memoir written as above noted. P.S.
    Loved this blog photograph. This picture pleasantly drew me into reading this blog

  7. I am finishing up my memoir about growing up in Ireland in the 70s. Are you still in the market for something along the lines of “Angela’s Ashes”? ( below e-mail link not working).

  8. Hi Marie – thanks for this article! My memoir isn’t ready to be queried yet, but you’ve given some solid advice. My goal is to write the best damn high-stakes, hilarious road-trippin’ memoir I can and make it easy for an agent to say YES when the time comes.

  9. Are you still active? I see the 2013 date. I have 3 memoirs I haven’t tried to publish yet: ESL: English as a Singing Language, Everything I Should Have Learned I Could Have Learned in Tonga, and The Inadequacies of Obituaries. March 1, 2015

  10. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 02-07-2013 | The Author Chronicles

  11. I have a memoir that was written roughly 114 years ago. The writer speaks of working as a child in a woolen factory and being abused and watching other children being abused. It details one of the lords coming to the factory then creating child labor laws. Further in he has an encounter with two men which he later finds out were killing men and selling there bodies to medical schools. Also speaks of his voyage to the Americas on a ship that wrecked.
    There is much more to the story.
    It is written in cursive and hard for me to read. I hired someone to read it and re write it only to find a lot of old English words that we did not understand and could not find definitions for.
    It is an amazing first hand account from some historical points in the 1800’s but well beyond my ability to do anything with. If you are interested in more info please email

    • Hi Travis,

      Thanks for sharing this. The only way to contact me (or any other agent who does memoirs) with a query or manuscript idea, is by following agent submission guidelines.

      So many people try to contact me via comments, facebook messaging, linkedin messages, and twitter messages, but I can only respond to queries sent the proper way. Literary agents have such a huge volume of reading and work, but I do read every single submission sent to me in the proper manner.

      My guidelines can be found here:

      Thanks! 🙂

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