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Writing and Selling Your Memoir: It’s All About Theme

Writing and Selling Your Memoir: It’s All About Theme

Memoir Cartoon


Associate Editor, Nonfiction, David C. Cook Publishing

Reviewing Pre-Conference Manuscript Submissions and meeting with writers, March 18-22, 2016



“Memoir is about handing over your life to someone and saying, ‘This is what I went through, this is who I am, and maybe you can learn something from it.’ It’s honestly sharing what you think, feel, and have gone through. If you can do that effectively, then somebody gets the wisdom and benefit of your experience without having to live it.” ~ Jeanette Walls, author of The Glass Castle

You have a personal story. It may have been tragic or traumatic or very emotional, and you not only survived it, you learned valuable life lessons from it. Perhaps it can help others if you share it. So, what do you need to know about writing and selling your memoir?

Here are some basic writing guidelines:

  1. Rule #1: Your memoir is not about you. There’s more to crafting a memoir than writing your life story. It isn’t one long journal written in chronological order. It also isn’t a book-length rant. Writing your memoir can be cathartic, but good memoir is geared more toward the reader’s experience.
  2. Tell the truth. With recent books having been fabricated, it’s more important than ever to make sure you’ve got your story straight. That doesn’t mean you have to remember what color shirt you were wearing on a certain day, or that you have to include every factual detail. It means be honest, don’t embellish, don’t exaggerate. Also, you’ll want to document facts, especially if you have legal or medical aspects to your story.
  3. Use fiction techniques. Every page must drive your story forward, so you need to create tension and remember to show, not tell. A good memoir often begins with an intense, emotion-packed moment of drama.
  4. Make ‘em hungry. Only include things that will actually interest your reader and make them want more. So what if your cat hacked up a hairball? Just because something happened, doesn’t mean it’s interesting. Keep in mind that the reader wants an emotional experience, and they’re always looking for what’s in your story for

Annie Dillard says, “You have to take pains in a memoir not to hang on the reader’s arms, like a drunk, and say, ‘And then I did this and it was so interesting.’”

What do agents and editors want to see in a memoir?

  1. A query with a strong hook. Unless you’ve met in person with an agent or an editor, don’t send anything more than a query letter. Make your letter stand out by creating a compelling hook for it.
  2. A complete, compelling proposal. Follow agency guidelines when submitting to agents. If you haven’t already written a book proposal, do this even before you finish your manuscript. A book proposal is like a business plan for a book. It will help you fully evaluate your audience, your market, and your own merit for writing a memoir.
  3. Excellent writing—an absolute must. Do not send your manuscript to an agent or editor until it is ready! The worst thing you can do is to be in a hurry to publish. Have a professional critique and/or edit your manuscript and proposal first, and be willing to do revisions if needed.
  4. A sensational or highly emotional story. Readers only keep reading memoir that holds meaning for them personally. They want an experience, not just lovely prose. Also, note that Christian publishers prefer a redemptive ending.
  5. A considerable platform and/or media attention. This is especially important to publishers these days, so you’ll want to give it your best effort.

Finally, remember that writing your memoir, even though it’s your story and what you learned along the way, is not about you. It’s about your reader—their life, their issues, and what they care about. And readers only read because they want to.

Alice CriderCome meet Alice Crider at the conference, March 18-22, 2016!

Registration is Now Open!

View Comments (2)
  • Hows this for the title of mine when its time?….”I Should Have Been a A Canceled Czech, But God Had Other Plans”

    • Hi, Edie.

      Good to see you here. Sounds like an intriguing memoir title. I hope you’re able to join us for the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference in March.


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