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THE MEMOIR

May 30, 2012

            Though most people pronounce it mem-waw, I like to play around with it and call it, mem-o-ear. However you want to say it, for a lot of writers, the memoir is da bomb. I can’t tell you how many times new members of the Henderson Writer’s Group will introduce themselves and when asked what genre they write, they’ll say “I’m writing (or just wrote) a memoir.”

            While quite a popular genre, it’s also a very hard one to sell. That’s why the memoir is often relegated to the self-publishing market, distributed mostly to family and friends. Sometimes, that’s the intention of the author. When the purpose is family legacy/family history, one can pretty much write whatever they want. However, if you’re out to sell books, you need to up your game a bit.

            The question you need to ask yourself is why would anyone care to read about your life? What have you done that’s so interesting? If you don’t already have a built-in fan base from being a celebrity, in which you could copy the phone book and sell a million copies, you’d better come up with something that’s going to compel readers to ante up the bucks to buy your story.

            Your life, just like a fictional story, has to have some kind of hook to draw in readers. What is it about yourself that will make readers care enough to stick with it for a couple of hundred pages? No matter how interesting you many think your life is, will others? That’s the question you have to answer before you consider going through all that effort. On the other hand, if you’re going to follow your muse and do it anyway, finish it and worry about marketing it later. Your life story could surprise you either way, just don’t be too shocked or disappointed if it doesn’t sell.

            As much as I rail about how I hate first person in fiction, a memoir is not fiction. Therefore, it must be in first person. It’s about you, not someone else, so it must be told through your eyes. The best format for the memoir, though not the only one, is chronological order. Start from the past and go forward, addressing whatever time period you’ve decided to cover.

            The Achilles heel of all memoirs is rambling. I’ve seen it too many times where the author will go off on tangents, talk endlessly about minutiae and ramble about things that drag the narrative down to a standstill. Don’t let yourself get caught in that trap. To make your story interesting to others, it has to move. Each a scene should be a short story or chapter (just like a novel), that progresses toward the end. The last thing you want to do is lay down a bunch of random memories without form or fashion. Though you want to give the reader a sense of place, describe the atmosphere and environment of the era you’re coming from, you can’t let things drag or your readers will start skipping pages. If you keep it up, they’ll start skipping chapters and eventually may put the book down and never finish it.

            Be careful dropping names. This can be a really tough call, especially if you’re drawing people in less than glowing terms. You can open yourself up to lawsuits, especially in this litigious world. This includes privately owned places.

            When pitching your memoir, the key is the hook. I alluded to it earlier. An agent or publisher will want to know the same thing. Why would anyone want to buy your story? You need to know that up front if you plan to sell it to anyone. If you’re writing it just for family and friends, well…

            Don’t forget the cool photos. Just make sure they’re good quality and if they show other people, have due permissions.

            Happy writing.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2012 2:20 am

    I agree totally what you said, Fred. I had no intention of having my book, ‘Diary of a Young Musician, Final Days of the Big Band Era,” published. I had to be talked into printing three copies on my printer for my son, David, my sister, and a niece. My niece and sister passed it on to other members of the family and they’re the ones who convinced me to have it published. By the time I found a self-publisher quite a bit of time had transpired. During that period I had edited it about five times on my own and luckily it turned out quite well. Writing the book in the first person was quite an experience. The way it’s written it could probably still be fresh years from now. I received high reviews from Midwest Book Review, and reporters for different journals. It was a book from the heart (felixmayerhofer.com). Incredible as may seem my biggest fans, mostly musicians, have been from Great Britain and Australia, where they want me to conduct workshops for their school jazz bands.

    • May 31, 2012 2:53 am

      Felix,

      You have a wonderful story with a built-in hook.

      You told it in chronological order and did everything right. What you started out to do became something more. I loved it!

      Without being a huge celebrity today, you still have a hook that people, especially musicians and anyone interested in the big band era would find appealing. That is what it takes to sell a memoir. It should be a big seller.

      I highly recommend it.

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