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Posted on Jun 23, 2015

Stranger Than Fiction? Probably Not: Why you might want to rethink your memoir

Today, our lovely editor and Reedsy advisor Rebecca Heyman shares her thoughts on writing memoirs. In this lively and informative post, Becca offers some brilliant no-nonsense insights on the competitiveness of the memoir genre and why fiction might be a safer bet.

Memoir is everywhere. The genre is pervasive, clogging slush piles and hard drives and bookshelves. Part of its ubiquity might have something to do with the pop-psych notion fed to so many Millenials for so long, that we are all special and unique, our perspectives and experience critical. Another contributing factor is a literal interpretation of the author’s adage, “Write what you know,” which is in fact a call to use your experience as a launching point for story, not a script.

To be clear: I am not addressing those writers producing memoir to establish a family legacy. In this article, I’m talking specifically to those authors who plan to query agents or indie-publish—in short, those who intend their work for public consumption.

Okay, now that we’ve got that squared away, allow me to tell you why a vast majority of memoirists would be better off committing their creative energy to a novel or, if you must, a short story collection.

Reason #1: You don’t have an existing platform

Have a look at the best-selling memoirs for 2014. In preparation for writing this post, I looked at lists by the New York Times, the Guardian, Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and more. What I found is that close to 70% of the titles on all these lists came from famous people—politicians, celebrities, musicians, or figures of national import. The remaining 30-or-so percent of successful memoirs came from people with extraordinary personal experiences (think Cheryl Strayed’s Wild adventure), or previously published authors or poets.

Even based on such an unscientific survey, it’s easy to see that the memoirs selling best give readers a glimpse into a life most of us can’t imagine. And since the best memoirs transport us to another time and place the same way a good novel does, that distance between reader and author experience is critical.

Reason #2: Stranger than fiction? Probably not

The human condition is rife with suffering and joy. Mining our lives for wisdom is critical for our growth, and can sometimes yield rich, textured narratives that speak to our universal experience. So keep in mind that when I tell you the market is not looking for another breast cancer survivor’s narrative, or another memoir about how you emerged from addiction, I am not saying you shouldn’t share your story. You should. But your story is likely not as unique as you think which for many of us is a good thing. It means we’re not alone. It also means it’s unlikely your manuscript will get picked up by a traditional book publisher.

There are incredible online communities for personal narrative, and publishing on sites like Tumblr, WritersCafe and Scribophile can serve your artistic purpose on several levels: you’ll get to tell your story publicly and maybe attract a support system; you’ll probably get feedback (brace yourself—the internet is a gnarly place); and you’ll be able to gauge if your narrative has real legs, which might help you decide whether or not pursuing agency representation or independent publication is actually a good choice.

What I want to caution against is writing 60,000-80,000 words of soulful, heartfelt narrative that will only be rejected by the publishing establishment. The market won’t buoy you up just because you’ve experienced tragedy, found salvation or traveled the world. As harsh as this may seem, the truth is that the market doesn’t care about you or your compelling story; the market cares only about compelling stories that also sell copies.

Reason #3: You haven’t considered craft

Much of what makes successful memoirs great is that they read like novels. Memoirs have plot. They have tension, momentum, lyricism, style, and mood. And while some memoirs are “tell-all,” a memoir is not a diary. Memoir is actually a genre under the banner of “narrative non-fiction”—a moniker that cues just how important story really is.

Learning to write well is excruciating, difficult, thankless work. I can almost promise you that trying to better your writing craft while working on a piece that deals with highly personal events is going to be a disaster. You might have heard the adage “Kill your darlings”—an admonition to authors to edit their work ruthlessly, even at the expense of eliminating beloved passages or characters. Now imagine that the passages you need to delete are formative scenes from your autobiography, the characters your friends and family. Don’t even get me started on how atrocious your characterizations are sure to be if you’re trying to glorify the people you love and vilify those who have wronged you—that’s a recipe for failure every time.

If you feel you must be a memoirist, you must be a passable writer first.

Okay you’ve convinced me. Now what?

Maybe you’re starting to think a memoir isn’t your best bet. The key now is to keep writing…something else. Consider what about your story is most compelling: A particular relationship? A climactic event? A tragic or extraordinary set of circumstances that unfolded in an unexpected way? Extract what’s most incredible about your life and use that as the seed for something wonderful—and fictive. Please do not write a novel that is actually a thinly-veiled autobiography, as works of this nature unequivocally fall flat for reasons too numerous to illuminate here. Challenge yourself to be inspired by empirical experience and reach into the creative ethers to synthesize something incredible. Be your own inspiration. Be unafraid.

If you still think your memoir has what it takes to thrive in a crowded market, write it. And write a few personal essays too; try to get your work published in reputable literary magazines ahead of querying, and you’ll have an easier time standing out in the slush. If you’ve lived a life the world needs to know about, tell us—just be prepared to fight through a lot of noise to be heard.

Follow Becca and Reedsy on Twitter: @RFaithEditorial and @ReedsyHQ

What are your thoughts on memoir writing? Is the genre too competitive and dominated by celebrities for first-time authors to stand a chance? Let us know your thoughts, or ask Becca any question, in the comments below!

11 responses

ATinchini says:

22/06/2017 – 00:13

Hi, very interesting post! I just started my 52 week writing challenge last Monday and it deals with excerpts from my memoir, telling the occurrences during three years spent in the inland of Brazil. I am sharing my blog articles through twitter and facebook to get the story known. I don't know what it'll turn out, but for the time being, I am just sharing it with the world.

↪️ Reedsy replied:

22/06/2017 – 09:49

Glad you found the post interesting! Building interest for your memoir through your blog is a good idea. Good luck with the writing challenge!

Nick Cordovano says:

12/09/2018 – 23:36

I know this is an old article, but it pisses me off that you come right out and say don't do it. Don't even try! C'mon! As long as there still is a chance, even a very small one, why not? I mean what it sounds like to me is that your story or memoir got turned away and now you seem bitter in your writing. I could be wrong, but there is always a chance. I know a few people who's dream is to publish a memoir book. I would have to be pretty miserable myself to want to take someones dream from them.

Nick Cordovano says:

12/09/2018 – 23:36

Great job!

Lynda Yeates says:

08/05/2019 – 12:31

This article reminds me of the old adage "No one loves your dog, like you love your dog." We all believe we are special, and unique, and our life is worth telling. How many times have you read some non-fiction article, or story, and found yourself nodding your head as you realize how much you and the author have in common. Unless your story, your life is somehow relative to current events, keep your diary for your family to read when your are gone. Sadly it is questionable if even they will want to read it.

Tony James Slater says:

08/05/2019 – 12:31

It certainly is a tough world out there for the aspiring memoirist. I spent six years on my first one, editing, perfecting, endlessly re-drafting... only to be told that memoirs by a nobody simply don't sell. Eventually I gave up my dream of being 'properly' published, and pursued the indie route. It was a pretty steep learning curve, but I felt sure my tale of accidents and misadventures in an Ecuadorian animal refuge would appeal to readers. It took the better part of a year to find some traction, and I still have to spend a decent chunk of time promoting, planning sales and strategy and generally not writing - but it's working! That first memoir has now sold over 30,000 copies, and is the first in a series of 4, following my exploits around the world. A fifth is in progress, and my mailing list is now big enough that I'm reasonably confident of a Amazon top 100 debut for it. I've hit the top spot a couple of times in the UK and the US, and given away tens of thousands of free e-copies in the process... generally, business is good! And the best part - I now get to travel full-time, looking for new adventures to write about - all courtesy of the memoir that wouldn't sell! As an aside, a bunch of indie memoirists formed a Facebook group called 'We Love Memoirs'. It's now grown to well over 2,000 members, all fanatical memoir readers, some of whom are also authors with varying degrees of success. It's definitely the best place to go for an aspiring writer on the brink of churning out their life stories... and for anyone interested in reading them, too!

↪️ Tony James Slater replied:

08/05/2019 – 12:32

Thank-you! Yeah, I'd even go beyond saying it's difficult in the traditional model, and say it's borderline impossible. Of course, with the DIY route you can publish literally anything, but whether or not it succeeds will depend largely on the elements you touched on in this article; craft, originality and interest of the tale, and (alas) platform. It IS possible, and I know a few other memoir writers who are now paying their bills this way - but they are all tireless in their promotion and platform building, their interaction with readers and their study of the changing algorithms that govern Amazon et al. Having said that, for anyone who just wants to create a shiny autobiography to show their kids, that's one thing that has never been easier or cheaper to achieve!

↪️ Rebecca Faith replied:

08/05/2019 – 12:32

Tony, Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I hope what people take away is that even an extraordinary life is hard to sell in the traditional model. I mean, if you can't get a deal based on adventures in an Ecuadorian animal shelter, what can you get a deal for?! I'm so glad you've found so much success. Best of luck with your next release!! RF

Carolyn Branch says:

08/05/2019 – 12:31

This confirms what I've already been thinking about. I have written a memoir, and pitched it a few times. Although agents and editors like it and want to see other things I've written, they say nobody wants to read memoirs by ordinary people.

↪️ Rebecca Faith replied:

08/05/2019 – 12:32

I'm sorry but not surprised to hear about your experience, Carolyn. But it sounds like the good news is, your writing is getting positive feedback; you know how to put together a sentence. Do you feel compelled by any other genre, and/or have you tried turning a chapter of your manuscript into an essay for publication in another medium?

Meg Leigh says:

07/09/2019 – 13:09

If there's one thing that gets my back up, it's articles that tell any writer flat out "Don't do 'xyz.'" Such posts usually have me rolling my eyes by the end of the first paragraph and this one is no exception. Writers write. Publishers publish and occasionally, the twain shall meet. Let people write whatever they want to write and put it out there. Readers tastes change all the time. Who knows maybe, in this world of billions of lunch eaters staring at millions of photos of other people's lunches, memoir by ordinary people will become a thing. If not, the writer is still doing what writers do...writing! Writing anything hones the skill of writing, imo. It's sitting back not writing because someone on the internet told you not to which will stymie the development of the craft.

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