The Problem with Memoir

In “Why Your Memoir Won’t Sell,” Jane Friedman offers seven reasons why a memoir won’t move copies. To paraphrase:

  • It’s the first “legit” writing you’ve ever attempted.
  • It’s an act of catharsis (a. k. a. emotional vomit).
  • It’s a glorified diary.
  • It’s a chronological autobiography.
  • It’s a series of unrelated anecdotes from your life.
  • It’s someone else’s memoir.
  • It’s been done.
  • I’ve come close to making almost every one of those mistakes.

After a significantly distressing period of my life, I considered writing a memoir about that time. Had I followed through, I would have committed sins #1, 2, 3, and 7 from that list.

Egregious memoir error #7 deserves more explanation. Jane writes, “This is the hardest thing to tell a writer: ‘Sorry, but your story of addiction or cancer survival or loss of a child just doesn’t seem that special.’” That’s a brutal publishing truth, but the reason it’s true is not that the story isn’t meaningful in itself; it’s that hundreds if not thousands of those kinds of stories are submitted to publishers every year.

However, I would still argue that it can be good to write those stories and self-publish for family, friends, and posterity, but don’t pin your bestselling hopes on such a memoir (unless you’re famous or an extremely talented writer who knows how to craft a compelling memoir).

Jane states the problem with memoir so well: “People have a hard time achieving any distance between the meaning and importance of their life’s events and the commercial market that might exist for it.”

So, write your memoir. Let your writing be cathartic. Record your life story. Commit every sin on this list. Just don’t expect more than what’s realistic if you choose to seek an agent or self-publish. (And if you’re serious about writing a memoir, definitely read Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir.)

Have you committed any of this memoir mistakes?
Or, what’s the best memoir you’ve ever read?

How Long Should My Book Be?

“My memoir is 270,000 words long.”

I heard these words during a breakout session I led at a local writers conference.

An editor friend of mine, Shayla Eaton with Curiouser Editing, was sitting in on the breakout. We gave each other knowing glances, and because I didn’t want to break this poor memoirist’s literary heart, I nodded at Shayla to take the lead.

As nicely but as directly as she could, she explained to the memoirist that a 270,000-word memoir was excessive. Even if she self-publishes, the cost per copy would be high, and few readers would slog through such a tome — particularly for someone who’s not famous.

And no agents or publishers would even look past that number.

The prose could be as fleet-footed as Fitzgerald’s. The life story could be as compelling as Lincoln’s. The platform could be as broad as Oprah’s. But no agent would get to know that because they’d see “Memoir: 270,000 words” and hit delete before reading any further.

So, how long should a memoir be?

For that matter, how long should any book be?

The short answer, and the long answer, are found in “A Word Count Guide for 18 Different Book Genres,” my recent column for TheWriteLife.com.

Is Backstory Necessary?

“So when my students ask me how much backstory they’re permitted to include in a story, I say, ‘How about none?'”

That’s Benjamin Percy in Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, an excellent book on writing fiction.

He expands on his backstory bashing: “None is a good start. Because it’s so often unnecessary. A reader intuits the history of a character by observing them acting in the present.”

It’s as if I were to tell you that I’m writing this post because I made a promise to myself a few weeks ago to blog more often, to have fun with it, and to use what I’m reading and listening to as launchpads for creating content.

Does that make you care any more about this post’s actual topic?

While I’m not a developmental editor for fiction (yet), I have read enough nonfiction works-in-progress (including my own) where the first 10 to 20 percent needed to be cut. It was the author warming up to what they really wanted to write about.
Backstory is like that. You may need to write it so you know what your story is about and why your characters do what they do, but you don’t need to publish it.

As Percy writes, “The impulse to explain will insult the reader. That’s their job—part of the pleasure of reading a story is inference, filling in the blanks and becoming a participant in the narrative, a coauthor.”

So let your coauthor do the work they may not even know they want to do.

Kill your little darling of a backstory.


 

The Art of Author Branding with Mary DeMuth

In preparation for her talk tomorrow, May 25, at 7 p.m. at Deep Vellum Books near downtown Dallas for the monthly meeting of the Dallas Nonfiction Authors Association, I interviewed Mary DeMuth about “The Art of Author Branding.”

As an experienced and prolific author of more than thirty fiction and nonfiction books, she has keen insight into what it means to be a working writer.

In this short interview, Mary offers one helpful tip from her talk, describes her new site, BookLaunchMentor.com, invites listeners to Rockwall or Geneva for a book mentoring intensive, and lets us know what her favorite read of the year has been so far.

If you’re in the Dallas area, please consider joining us this Thursday at Deep Vellum Books. First-time attendees are free and can show up at the door.

Learn more about the meetup here.

And don’t forget to check out Mary’s most recent release:

The New Author’s Conundrum: My Woeful Platform

“Start with the actual and build a bridge to the potential.”

That’s lit agent Sharon Pelletier during her session, “The 10 Best Secrets for a Winning Nonfiction Book Proposal,” at DFWCon 2017.
But before we get to what she’s talking about, let’s discuss the elephant in the publishing house: PLATFORM.

Michael Hyatt didn’t coin the term, but his book, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, certainly elevated its importance in the minds of authors. And as publishers consolidated, self-publishing skyrocketed, and agents and editors learned how to tread water in the deluge of queries and proposals they receive, a majority of the job of selling a book fell onto the shoulders of the author.

For better or worse, every author needs a platform.

But it’s almost a chicken-and-egg conundrum: How is a new author supposed to build a platform before releasing their first book?

Well, here’s the good news: At DFWCon and elsewhere, I’ve heard from industry pros that platform doesn’t matter as much for fiction as it does for nonfiction. For fiction, you need a good pitch/query and proposal, a compelling story, and writing that sings. The words, more than the person, sell the book. (Of course, having a platform certainly won’t hurt your chances of being published or selling books.)

But it’s almost the opposite for nonfiction authors: platform rules. To be taken seriously by agents and traditional publishers, you need to be the go-to person in your field and with the numbers to prove it. You need to have an established platform that reveals how invaluable your words are to your specific tribe.

So what if you don’t have a platform?

First, start working on it today. If you’re serious about seeing your nonfiction book published, or you’ll be self-publishing and want to accrue healthy sales, you need to establish yourself as an expert whom people listen to. (Read Hyatt’s “Why You Need a Platform to Succeed” and consider buying his book.)

Secondly, and this gets back to Sharon’s excellent point about the platform section of a nonfiction book proposal, “build a bridge to the potential.”

In a book proposal, don’t lie about your current platform. If you have 127 Twitter followers, own it. But if you believe that a healthy Twitter following is beneficial, tell the agent/publisher how you plan to grow your following. (For what it’s worth, I’ve heard that agents like to see upwards of 5,000 to 10,000 followers on any given social media platform.)

And don’t forget that “platform” isn’t synonymous with social media. Platform encompasses everyone you could conceivably reach. Do you have an email newsletter? Do you take part in speaking engagements? Do you teach? Do you belong to an alumni association, nonprofit, community organization, etc.? If you don’t, what places could you start knocking on doors?

I hate to say this, but gone are the days of the Walden writer. You can’t just sit in a cabin by a lake, write a book, and hope it sells. You have to be a salesperson, and the truth is, you’re not selling your book—you’re selling yourself.

So if your platform isn’t what you think it should be, sell yourself on what it will be.

Launching the Dallas Nonfiction Authors Association

The Dallas Nonfiction Authors Association officially launched on March 30, 2017 at Deep Vellum Books.

Along with my co-leader Clay Morgan and featured speaker Blake Kimzey, twenty other Metroplex nonfiction authors showed up to meet each other, talk craft and shop, and hear Blake deliver an imminently helpful speech on getting published, fighting rejection, and being sought after as a writer.

If you’re local and this already sounds like something you’d be interested in, RSVP to our next meeting via the Dallas NFAA Meetup group.


If you’d like to learn how I got involved with this group—and maybe glean a few insights into how you can (and likely should) volunteer to lead a writers group, read on.

Lesson 1: Investigate what intrigues you.

In December 2016, I had the glad opportunity to be one of eighty-six publishing professionals to be interviewed for the Publishing Success Summit. That number also included Stephanie Chandler, an author and speaker. I listened intently to her talk but forgot most of what she said when she casually mentioned she was also the CEO of the Nonfiction Authors Association.

I’d never heard of the organization, and I’d like to think I keep up very well with the incredible tools, resources, and organizations that are available these days for writers. I visited nonfictionauthorsassociation.com as soon as I finished listening to her talk.

From there, I browsed through the immense number of benefits to joining the Nonfiction Authors Association. But what was most compelling to me were the local chapter meetups. I quickly clicked on the NFAA Directory of Local Chapters and browsed the list of twenty-nine cities, half of which seemed like they were looking for leaders.

Once I found Dallas, I saw “Accepting Applications for Chapter Leader.” Figuring I had little to lose and much to gain should I be accepted, I applied in January 2017. The timing was right as a few of my new goals for this year, professionally speaking, were to get out of the house more, network with other writers, and seek more speaking engagements. Though the local chapter meetings of the Nonfiction Authors Association wouldn’t need me to speak as an expert, becoming a chapter leader would force me to shirk my introvert ways and connect with more writers.

Thankfully, gratefully, I was accepted. Planning for a late March launch began in February.

Lesson 2: Give yourself plenty of time to launch.

I was fortunate to have had some momentum from a former launch, as the Dallas Nonfiction Authors Association Meetup group that’s used for reservations and group communications already had 100+ members before I began leading the group.
For February and March, I had two goals:

  1. Seek a space to meet.
  2. Find experts to speak.

I also strove to connect with the NFAA members online, but I knew that finding the right place to meet and the right people to speak would be key to getting any members to get out of their homes.

Lesson 3: Get ridiculously lucky with your venue.

Eventually, Deep Vellum Books gladly answered our need, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the space we get to use every fourth Thursday of the month from 7 to 9 p.m. I could wax eloquent about Deep Vellum, but I’ll let “Meet the new owner of Deep Vellum Books,” a Dallas Morning News profile of Anne Hollander, Deep Vellum’s owner, provide the necessary background information.

Lesson 4: Lean on your connections—even those you’ve just met.

Through a fortuitous series of events, we landed our first speaker through author and epic connector Tex Thompson, who was also responsible for putting together WORDfest, an epic and (incredibly) free writers conference for dozens of North Texas writers groups. Through her, I met Blake Kimzey, an author and the director of Writing Workshops Dallas.

Even though we’d only met a few weeks prior to our launch date—I wasn’t even planning on having a speaker for our launch—Blake gladly stepped in to discuss “Writing Out of The Wilderness: How to Make Yourself Findable Online, Survive Rejection, and Forge a Path to Publication.” He provided ample advice and encouragement and revealed a fascinating and proven pathway toward publishing success. (When you have NY lit agents preemptively asking you for your next novel, you know you’ve done something right.)

Lesson 5: Make an ask of yourself.

One of the benefits to leading a group like this is contacting people you want to personally hear from. As I made my list of locals whom I’d like to connect with and whom I thought would be helpful to our group, I contacted Glenn Yeffeth, the publisher of BenBella Books, a local nonfiction publishing company with a national reach. On April 27, our next meeting as of the writing of this post, he’ll be talking about “The Economics of Publishing.” And while that almost sounds dry to me, the longer I work in the world of words, the more I begin to understand that part of the art of sustaining yourself through words is understanding the economics of it all.

I tapped my personal connections as well. Mary DeMuth, who’s encouraged me and my writing in many ways just about ever since I moved to Dallas, gladly agreed to talk to our group about “The Art of Author Branding” on May 25. As an author of thirty-plus books in fiction and nonfiction, she’s learned a thing or a thousand about what it means to work and promote yourself as an author.

Then, finally, the moonshot.

Before I even knew if I could technically pull it off, I asked a professional heroine of mine if she’d be interested in doing a live virtual Q&A with our group. I sent a quick email and relayed that I had no expectations, particularly because the speaking gig wouldn’t pay and I can only imagine how busy she is.

Then, not two hours later, she replied, “Sure, I’d be happy to participate.”

I was over the moon.

After checking with Deep Vellum and the NFAA home office if I could do such a thing (i.e., have a virtual speaker), I happily placed Jane Friedman on our calendar for Oct. 26: “Live Virtual Q&A with Publishing Industry Expert Jane Friedman.”
Seriously, if you haven’t heard of her and are intent about becoming a better writer and a better businessperson as a writer, you need to read Jane Friedman’s blog on at least a weekly basis.

Lesson 6: Get involved and find your people.

If there’s one thing I’m learning about getting away from my computer and getting involved in writing groups like the Dallas Nonfiction Authors Association, it’s this: organizing, supporting, and maintaining a group has its challenges, but you shouldn’t walk the road of professional writing alone.

If you can’t join us, search Meetup.com for writers groups near you, or talk to other writers you know who can lead you to the right writers group for you. With the right group, you will grow as a writer—and that growth, whether you’re leading the group or just attending, is something every writer needs for the rest of their life.