Happy Agent Monday, everyone! The LAST Monday in February. We’ve nearly made it through this bitterly cold month, and better days are a-coming. Hang in there! Speaking of tough times and hope, I thought I’d weigh in on memoirs today. What makes them work, what makes them stumble, and what makes me as an agent interested in representing one.
So memoirs are tough. I’ve been looking for one to rep, and in the past few years, I’ve only made an offer of representation on one so far. And two others had merit, but weren’t right for me, so I passed them over to another agent in our firm. It’s not that I’m not getting memoir submissions. I am. And a number of these are even well-written. So what’s the problem?
Well, here’s the thing about memoirs. They need to be well-written, definitely. Simply put, many are not well-written, and the story isn’t spectacular enough to merit a ghost writer. (Publishers sometimes pull in a ghost writer for a high-profile memoir — such as a celebrity’s story.) A well-written memoir should be told in an accessible way, with a clear voice/personality, and revealed in a novel-like style that has a narrative flow.
Memoirs must also be about something remarkable. I get plenty of “I went on a trip” memoirs, or “I broke up with my husband” memoirs. Or “I had a baby” memoirs. While these are remarkable things in your life, they aren’t tales that will draw in someone who doesn’t personally know you. Are there exceptions to the more everyday sort of memoir? Sure. Look at Marley & Me, about, essentially, a boy and his dog. But this was written beautifully in a way that drew in the reader and made an everyday story truly remarkable. Not easy to do.
I also get, sadly, many a memoir where someone has gone through a terrible illness or addiction or abuse, or experienced the death of a loved one. Heart-wrenching, yes. But if that is all there is to the memoir, unfortunately I pass. It’s hard to send a rejection to someone who has gone through so much. But while I may feel sorry for what they’ve gone through, that still doesn’t make their memoir something that will succeed in the commercial marketplace.
Why? What’s missing? Well, in essence, something for the reader. What makes the reader care, feel involved, want to read this? What can the reader get out of this book other than a voyeuristic glimpse into suffering? These are key elements to a successful memoir.
So, a successful memoir needs to be well-written, reveal a remarkable life, AND offer something for the reader….a reason to care, something they can take away with them after they read it, an entertaining journey, and, I’d add, a new way to view their own lives.
Get all of this right, and you’ll have a memoir that transcends the “this is what happened to me” sort of manuscript and have a book that will matter to many. And it will matter to me. Send THAT memoir my way. You can find my submission guidelines here.
*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.
Great insight Marie! You have the pulse on meaningful stories and I’m grateful every single day that you are my agent.
Oh, thanks Penelope! I am so grateful to have you on my client list – honored!
Is it possible for an ordinary person with an ordinary life to see their ordinary world in such an extraordinary way that their ordinary life is now considered not ordinary but remarkable and can thus merit being written as a memoir?
You should follow your heart and write what you believe in. Do it in as authentic and brilliant a way as you can. That is all in the writer’s control.