This transcript has been edited for clarity and length
My name is Paul Bradley Carr. I have written and published maybe 14 books now — of which three were memoirs. Two of them were published by big publishers and a smaller, independent publisher published one. So I've learned a lot about writing memoirs as a memoir writer.
I've also been a publisher myself. I've run a couple of different publishing houses, one in the UK and one in the US. During that time we published a decent amount of memoir. And then I'm also an avid reader of memoir. So I come at it from all different angles, as someone who's written, published, and loves the memoir genre. So those are my bona fides.
Check out Paul's paid course, "Open Book: from writer to published author in 8 weeks"
A few caveats
I'm not somebody who currently actively publishes memoir. I'm not someone who's going to be able to publish your memoir. But equally, anybody who tells you that they have the secret of what's going to be the next big memoir is lying.
It's much like anything in publishing or media. People are just doing their best to guess what the market will like. Nothing I say should put you off writing your story. And if you, at any point, think, "No, he's just wrong. My memoir isn't like anything he's describing, but it will be a huge hit." You may well be right. Every single book I've published and pitched has been rejected by at least one publisher, sometimes many dozens. And they've all been published by someone else.
The other thing I want to say is I will talk specifically about commercially viable and potentially commercially successful memoirs. The keyword there is commercial.
I recently self-published a book and used Reedsy for almost every part of the process, but one of the amazing things about Reedsy and the self-publishing boom is that nobody gets to tell you that you can't write your own story.
So what I'm going to talk about here is:
- what makes a commercially viable memoir;
- how to know if the story you're writing might be one; and
- how also to give it its best shot at finding a publisher.
So with all those caveats, I want to start by framing what we mean by a "memoir."
Memoir vs. Autobiography
I recently started teaching an online course on how to get published. A lot of the people who took the class are writing memoir. Early on, I realized that there was a lot of misunderstanding about what memoir is. And part of that is the difference between the broad category of 'autobiography' and the specific category of 'memoir'.
When many people think of 'memoir', what they are thinking of is autobiography. This means they're thinking of a story that starts when they were born and ends wherever they are now whatever age they are now. That's the criticism you often hear when 25-year-old writers get deals to write memoirs: "How can a 25-year-old write their memoir? They haven't even lived! That's what you're supposed to write when you're dying and after living an interesting life!" But what you're describing there is an autobiography — which is the story of your entire life.
Successful memoirs are generally very focused on a particular slice of your life or a particular theme of your life.
That's what I'm really interested in talking about today. That, to me, is the biggest thing to understand: If you're going to write a memoir that's gonna be commercially successful, it simply isn't enough to sit down and write the story of your life.
What makes a good memoir?
The great thing about memoir is it's both the easiest and the hardest format to write in. By that, I mean that every one of us has interesting things that have happened to all of us. Sadly traumatic things have happened to all of us. We've all lived through a lot in the past few years of the pandemic. But that doesn't necessarily mean it makes for a good memoir.
So I want to try and be as clear as I can: when I'm talking about memoir, I mean:
- A book that shares a particular aspect of your life that will be helpful to others.
- It will tell a specific story that has a specific theme. And;
- Ideally, it can be applicable and helpful to others.
So I'll give some specific examples from my back catalog.
My memoirs: three specific stories
I wrote my first memoir when I was 27 years old; objectively, that's not old enough to write the story of my life. But the story I wanted to tell was a very specific part of my life that I had lived in my late twenties.
At that time, there was a big buzz around Web 2.0, and we saw these people like Mark Zuckerberg and others getting very rich at a very young age. I was living in London, and I was an alcoholic (we'll get to that later, cuz that's another story for another memoir), drinking my way through London and Writing about the technology world for the Guardian newspaper.
I was spending a lot of time with these very rich, very young people, both in the UK and then also in Silicon Valley, and I thought, "I could do that — it's easy! I've met them, and they're not that smart. They're quite smart, but they're not geniuses." (That's something you should know about most tech people: they're not as clever as you think) And with the arrogance, abuse and everything else, I thought that I could do that.
So I quit my sort of journalism job and decided I was going to build the next big startup. And, during the course of that, I learned it's much harder than it looks, and at the time, I was not built for doing this.
So in the end, it all came crashing down — and I had a very specific story that I could tell about what it's like to be a sort of arrogant 20-something-year-old thinking that I could be the next Mark Zuckerberg — which a lot of people were also feeling and discovering how hard it was. But it was also a story about addiction and the arrogance of youth. All of those things applied to enough people, and I felt it was a good enough story to tell — and a publisher agreed.
My next memoir was about the time I figured out a way to live in luxury hotels around the world for less than it cost me to live in London. Again, very specific story that had wider implications around freedom around travel; around things that could resonate with other people.
Then my third memoir was literally about quitting: quitting drinking and how I did it without Alcoholics Anonymous.
The unifying theme of all these descriptions? These memoirs are not about where I was born, my childhood, where I went to school, or anything else like that.
You don't have to be famous for your story to resonate
It may have escaped your attention, but I'm not a celebrity. Most of the people who write the best memoirs are not celebrities. And by contrast, most of the people who write the worst memoirs/autobiographies are people who were given book deals simply because they were famous. Nobody thinks to ask if they actually had an interesting story.
I often meet people who say, "I want to write a memoir. I think I'm a really good writer. Lots of interesting things have happened to me in my life. And I wanna tell the story of all of them!"
I have to break it to people (as I had to break it to myself) that nobody cares about you.
I say that in a deliberately horrible way, but by that, you have to give people a reason to care about you. They need a reason to relate to your story — for your story to resonate with them.
How will that story resonate with a wider audience? How will that story hit somebody where they currently are?
It is a big deal for somebody to give you time out of their day to read your story. The best memoirs are those that meet people where they are.
It's not saying, "Oh, you've gotta listen to my story because it's so interesting."
I don't care about that. I can turn on Netflix right now and see a million interesting stories. But why right now — at this moment — do I want to read your story?
I was having a look at the current best-selling memoirs — ones that are selling incredibly well:
One is Bookends by Zibby Owens: a memoir of love, loss and literature. But it's really a memoir of motherhood and of somebody who used books and reading as a way of learning what it means to be a mother — and the related trauma.
My partner, Sarah, runs a site called ChairmanMe, which actually started out called ChairmanMom, a community for working mothers. So Bookends resonated with me. I could relate to this idea that — when we're struggling — we reach for a book, or literature, or fiction. That reading is a way to try to understand the world.
Even though I'm not a mom, it grabbed me, and I can imagine how it immediately grabbed millions of other people who don't know who Zibby Owens is.
The Tender Bar was the other one that jumped out at me. I haven't read it, but it's very much on the opposite side of the spectrum. It's a memoir of masculinity written by J. R. Moehringer. It's a memoir of a man who never really knew his father, a radio DJ who he'd listened to growing up. Then when his father passes away, he finds a new father figure at his local bar. It's very much a memoir about the struggle of masculinity.
I haven't heard of the author, but that story resonates. The idea of looking at male figures who can be role models and the struggles around toxic masculinity. Things like that.
Again, this isn't a memoir about a guy's entire life. It's a memoir of his struggle to find these father figures told through a very specific lens that could resonate with a very wide potential audience.
Going back to my book about living in hotels. There weren't many people living in hotels when I wrote that book. There aren't many people living in hotels now, but the idea of wanting to escape, wanting freedom, the fascination with the world of luxury hotels, and the dream of thinking, Could I do that? Could I live that? That resonates with people who don't know or care about me.
I'm well aware that most of the people who bought my books had no feelings — good or bad — about me when they bought that book. But hopefully, by the end, they did. And that they also hopefully felt differently about themselves, like any good memoir.
Will your memoir help people?
Then the other more relevant point is not only will your book resonate with people: will it help people?
People are feeling very lost many people for a variety of reasons. And the memoirs that resonate with the market right now can help people navigate that uncertainty. So anything about health, raising good children, women's rights, and politics tearing families apart — these are all relatable, but they also are meeting people where they are and where they have problems that they are trying to navigate.
My third memoir was about addiction, but it was specifically about quitting drinking without Alcoholics Anonymous. An independent publisher published me, yet it sold more copies than the mass-published books I wrote. It's the book I still get the most emails about daily. Because every day, there is somebody who wants to quit drinking or is living with somebody who is trying to quit drinking.
I have no issues with Alcoholics Anonymous as an organization — it didn't work for me for various reasons that I wrote about. And it doesn't work for many other people too, as they write to me and say, "I was lost. I tried everything people told me to do and it didn't work. This book, though, told me there was another way." And even if my specific advice didn't match their specific experience or wasn't relevant to them, there was a message that they could find a different path to sobriety.
So if you're thinking about your memoir, if you're thinking about the specific story you're trying to write, pass it through those three tests:
- Is there a focus on the specific story you're trying to tell?
- Is it relatable and applicable to a large number of people?
- Can it give people support? Does it help people directly by giving good advice? Or indirectly by giving people support and an understanding of the world that will help them navigate their way.
If you say yes to those three things, then you are, you are on a very, very good path to having a commercially viable memoir.
Are you the one to write this memoir?
This is the other very key point. You can answer all three of those other questions, but the next question you have to ask yourself is, am I the right person to write this memoir?
I recently moved from nonfiction to fiction; I started to realize there is a lot of overlap between writing novels and memoir — because one of the first questions you ask when you write a novel is who should my protagonist be?
You know what story you want to tell, and maybe you know where you want to set it, but you need somebody to guide your reader through the story and who your reader can identify with. I know a lot of novelists spent a long time on this.
My novel was about awful Silicon Valley tech bros and the horrible things they do. And t's a murder mystery, a thriller, and it's about a serial killer who appears to be targeting some of the worst, most toxic predatory tech bros.
For my protagonist, I knew I needed somebody who understood the awfulness of Silicon Valley but wasn't necessarily so enmeshed in it that they could be in denial about it. They needed to pass through that world and get into places where others couldn't. Now, there's a reason why so many people choose journalists and writers as their protagonists in novels. Lo and behold, I realized mine should also be a female journalist who was about to quit because of all the toxicity.
Suddenly, somebody is going around killing all of these toxic tech bros. She finds herself in this struggle: on the one hand, she's a reporter, somebody who's supposed to fight for truth, justice, and the American way (maybe). But on the other hand, she's also thinking, "Good god! I tried to take him down, and it wasn't working — but then this guy's killed him."
To know whether this was the right protagonist for my novel, I wanted to ask the same questions that need to be asked by every memoirist.
Just because it happened to you…
It is not good enough to go, "Well, it was me that this thing happened to. Therefore I am the person to write that story."
In some cases, that's true. If you are involved in a world-changing event involving only a small number of people, then you are pretty much the person to write this memoir. Obviously, nobody's gonna say to you, "But why is your account of that kidnapping relevant?"
For the reasons I just outlined, many different people could tell the story of quitting drinking without AA. There are lots of people who could tell the story of living in luxury hotels. With that book, I thought long and hard and tried to think, why am I the one to tell the story of somebody giving up their house in London and living in luxury hotels?
First: I wasn't rich. I didn't have any money. The reason I had to leave London is that I had no money. So it was about thinking, how could I do this on the meager salary that I have for my job as a struggling writer?
No one would care if I was somebody who was rich and I wrote a book about living in hotels. Immediately I'd be the least likable protagonist. But my situation was one people could relate to: many of us can't afford our rent. Most of us don't decide to give up our apartments and live in luxury hotels, trains, planes, and automobiles.
The second thing: I grew up in hotels. My parents were hotel managers. They semi-retired and bought a small hotel that they then ran for best part of a decade. They've now retired but, but I spent my entire life in hotels. So I knew hotels inside and out.
Combine those things, and we're starting to see a potentially good protagonist for a book about the secrets of how you, too, can live in hotels.
The third thing: Unfortunately, I was still (as I said in the first book) an alcoholic. I was still drinking very heavily. And part of my story was about somebody who couldn't stay in one place — who felt that the answer to to all of his problems was to run away, change hotels every day and get on a plane or a train. I was someone who was running away from something.
If my story was fiction, you'd see that I'm potentially a character: this troubled, messed-up loser, who does this ridiculous thing but has the privilege, frankly, and the knowledge to just about get away with it. This is relatively compelling and would make a fictional good fictional protagonist.
In this case, I think I am the best person to write this book. And so when I then came to pitch to publishers, it wasn't just the idea of what I was doing. It was all of that backstory that might get readers to follow me from page to page — because they would be interested in how the character (me) navigated all that.
When I'm helping people to try and get an agent or get a book deal or, or self-publish, I spend a lot of time making sure they fully understand why they are the person to write this.
That's not to say that the conclusion might be, "well, maybe I'm not the person to write it." Rather, it's about digging deep into yourself as you would if you were writing fiction. This takes me to the next point.
What memoirists can learn from novelists
If you are already a novelist or write fiction, you are already ahead of the pack. Because the first thing you want to do is do all of the backstory work — whatever prep you'd do for a fictional character, do it on yourself.
What is it about me? What do I know about my character? What are my character's flaws?
Be brutally honest with yourself
Memoir seems so easy because, as I said, we all have lives. We could all write about them. We're all hopefully good writers. It feels so easy to write about ourselves. But at the same time, that gives you this false sense of security. "It's easy; I'll just write about myself in a good way." But you wouldn't do that with a novel.
With a novel, you would start by saying, "okay, who is my character? What is the backstory? What made them the way they are?" And you have to be brutally honest. A lot of us struggle to be that brutally honest about ourselves — but you have to be to write a truly good memoir.
What was it about me? What was so messed up that made me want to flee London and live on the road, getting into all these horrible adventures, so many of them drunken? And ultimately, what made me stop doing that? All of that has to come from a place of such brutal honesty.
A lot of new people coming to memoirs new resist that kind of brutal honesty, and it makes for very unsatisfying memoirs — because you are not a believable or engaging protagonist in your own story.
Every scene must earn its place
The other lesson to learn from novelists. Every single scene should drive the book forward. And this is, again, a thing that happens when we confuse autobiography and memoir.
That doesn't mean that every scene must be action and drama — somebody getting killed or murdered. Sometimes those scenes in a novel can just be introspective: watching our protagonist make their lunch. But even in those scenes, we are learning something about that protagonist. We are learning something about who they are and it's something that ties into the main plot.
In my novel about, this journalist tries to understand who's murdering all these awful Silicon Valley people. Even in the scenes where Lou gets ready for work, or sits at her desk, we learn something about what makes her tick. We learn how that relates to the toxicity she was about to encounter or had already encountered.
In memoirs, I often see sections about, when you were born and where you went to school — which is all good stuff, but it isn't tied to the main story.
A friend of mine, Susan Fowler, was one of Time's People of the Year as one of the whistleblowers. Her innocuous blog post ended up blowing up the world of Uber. She wrote a memoir about being the person who blew the whistle on the toxic, sexist culture inside Uber that ended up with the CEO being ousted, among other things. She included a good amount about her upbringing in that memoir, but it worked because what we saw was: Somebody who was homeschooled and from a very religious background who rejected all of that, then got herself into a very high-end university and became a brilliant computer engineer. Her upbringing and her resistance to her upbringing told us everything we needed to know about what made her the whistleblower today.
My upbringing, as someone who grew up in hotels was relevant. I'm not saying don't talk about that, but the thing I ask about every scene, every fact, for every line, for every word: is this driving the story forward?
If not, you might be accidentally writing an autobiography. In which case, again, you're gonna find it much harder to sell this to a publisher. And it's going to make readers skip over page. "I don't care where you went to school."
How can you ensure that your book is incredibly tight and well structured? One thing that I definitely recommend to memoirists who need to give backstory that reveals what made them the person they are: write your book in a very nonlinear way.
You can open with the scene of you being the whistleblower and bringing down Uber or the scene of you being kidnapped or piloting the oil tanker through the storm. And then go back to your childhood to reveal how it got you there. You can have all that stuff, just not at the beginning.
My point is simply this: make sure you have removed any extraneous bits that are irrelevant. Otherwise, you might have accidentally written an autobiography, not a memoir.
How to get started on your memoir
Just one last bit.
So I've given you a lot of dos and don'ts. But I want to show you, as somebody who's written three memoirs, how I run myself through those tests on how to write a good memoir.
Distill into a single sentence
Firstly, I just ask myself those three questions to figure out what my story is about. A technique I find very helpful is trying to write the back cover blurb of your book. Or, even better, write the summary you would tell people if they asked what your book was about.
Because you can get in a real tangle and go, "oh, it's the story of my life. And I guess it's really about this and that." Before you know it, the person asking has already wandered off.
"It's a story about my attempts to become a dot-com billionaire at 25 and failing disastrously."
It took me about a hundred different attempts before I realized it was really a story about people. It was a story about drinking. It was a story about I quit London and decided to, and, and figured out a system to live in luxury hotels for more than five years. It's about what I learned about the price of freedom along the way.
It's not great, but once I had that sentence locked down, then I knew I had a memoir. I knew it had the potential to be a memoir because I knew who my protagonist was and why I was writing it. I'd done the character work, and I knew how to explain the book.
So the first thing I'd recommend to anyone writing a memoir is to write that one sentence. Write a sentence that will engage people. Only after then, should you do your character work — and then the final stage, which is to write the proposal.
Writing the chapter breakdown
The proposal is where you write your chapter breakdown. What will chapter one be? What will chapter two be? What are the key beats to this story? It's making sure they're all relevant to the bigger theme you're trying to talk about.
Many of my worst book ideas have been fortunately wiped off the planet at this stage: I think I have a great idea, I think I have a character, I think I have a theme, and I'm definitely the one to write it. And I start doing the chapter listings. I get to chapter four — and that's about it. I've got nothing else.
Anyone who's ever pitched to an agent or a publisher will know that for nonfiction and for memoir, you are going to have to do that anyway: You're going to have to write a sample chapter and then a breakdown of the rest of the chapters. So doing this chapter breakdown early in the process is a great way to figure out, "does this have enough steam to be a memoir?"