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.

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.

The Book Has to be Good

“The self-publishing craze has made people forget that the book has to be good.”

That’s literary agent Eric Ruben during the “Bad Marketing Advice” session of DFWCon.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth in Eric’s words. For all the benefits of self-publishing—I’m a fan, to a point—its most egregious drawback is also its most appealing aspect: no gatekeepers.

In self-publishing parlance, the gatekeepers are literary agents like Eric and acquisitions editors at publishing houses. They wield the literary power from on high as to who makes it to the Big Dance of traditional publishing. 

If you clear the first hurdle of landing an agent, you have to clear multiple hurdles after that. The process is challenging, time-consuming, and requires at least a little bit of luck in that your book has to find the right person at the right time looking for just your kind of book.

I understand why it can be frustrating to pitch your work and experience rejection after rejection. Why go that route when you can just self-publish?

Because maybe the “gatekeepers” have seen thousands of ideas in just the last month and have a better lay of the literary land? Because maybe their expertise is worth listening to? Because maybe their feedback can help hone your book into something publishable?

Of course, receiving helpful feedback can be a rarity, but even a lack of feedback is feedback. (Hint: it means your query, proposal, or book likely needs more work.)

When I have clients who aren’t sure of the differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing, first we have The Talk. If they’re still unsure about which path to choose and I think their idea might be viable for a wide audience (and they have time to play the waiting game), I pitch this suggestion:

  1. Let’s create a proposal and pitch it to a few agents.
  2. Consider their feedback. If the client doesn’t receive feedback, I suggest self-publishing, so long as they can invest in an editor, a proper cover design, and correct interior formatting.

Some self-published books are good, but only because their authors put in the necessary work to make them so. They attended critique groups. They didn’t publish first drafts (or second of third or tenth drafts). They hired a qualified developmental editor and made the requested changes. They sent their book to beta readers who offered kind but unvarnished feedback. They paid for a cover designer and interior designer.

In other words, they put in as much time and effort into self-publishing their book as any multi-person team at a publishing house would.

Self-publishing shouldn’t be considered as a shortcut to “being published.” If you really want that to stick with you, remember this: Amazon has a long memory. Even if you pull your self-published book from its digital shelves, third-party copies will likely live on. And because Amazon is Amazon, its pages—with your name and your book—will sit high in every search ranking for your name.

So consider wisely the book you put into the universe.

If you’ve self-published, why did you decided to do so?

So, You Want to Write a Book?

WARNING: Don’t read any further unless you understand these words from Steven Pressfield:

“The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.”

If you’re ready to dine, read on. Continue reading “So, You Want to Write a Book?”

Author Brad Whittington Talks Self-Publishing, Writing, and The Reluctant Saint

Brad Whittington I’ve known Brad Whittington since his son and I were in the high school drumline together. As good friends with his son, I became fast friends with the family—all spectacular people in their own right. But life happened. The Whittingtons moved away, and I eventually went to college.

Still, I kept in touch, especially after Brad’s first book, Welcome to Fred, was picked up by a traditional publisher in 2003. The book is an hilarious, semi-autobiographical, fish out of water, adolescent preacher kid coming-of-age novel set in East Texas. (258 Amazon reviews averaging 4.5 stars can’t be wrong.) The setup was so ripe with fascinating characters and plot possibilities that he wrote two follow-ups, Living with Fred and Escape from Fred.

In time, Brad got the rights to those books back, and he re-published them under his own imprint, Wunderfool Books, beginning in 2010. Since then, he’s released at least one new self-published book every year. So, as he’s just released his ninth novel, The Reluctant Saint, I thought it prime time to ask him a few questions about self-publishing, the new book, and his writing influences. Continue reading “Author Brad Whittington Talks Self-Publishing, Writing, and The Reluctant Saint”

Do You Know the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing?

5-editors-tackle-the-12 fatal flaws of fiction writingIf you don’t know the 12 fatal flaws of fiction writing, don’t worry. I didn’t either.

In fact, I’m willing to bet there are at least a dozen more (that I’m sure to discover in due time). But, as for the specific 12 fatal flaws of fiction writing I’m currently discussing, five fantastic editors cover them in a book that releases tomorrow, aptly titled 5 Editors Tackle The 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing.

Truth be told, I haven’t finished reading it, but gauging from the first three chapters, this is a book I’ll certainly finish before embarking upon my own great novel-writing adventure. Continue reading “Do You Know the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing?”

The Self Publisher’s Ultimate Resource Guide

The Self Publisher’s Ultimate Resource GuideWhen it comes to nonfiction that meets a need, I have two responses for books that immediately solve a problem: “I wish I would I have had this when …” and “Why didn’t I think of that?”

The Self Publisher’s Ultimate Resource Guide made me respond in both ways.

I wish I would have had this resource when I first began self-publishing in 2013. With more than 850 curated and verified resources in 32 categories, the guide that Joel Friedlander and Betty Kelly Sargent compiled offers a directory of self-publishing that should prove invaluable to any new (and old) self-publishing author.

When I first considered self-publishing, I knew few people who had done so before, and I had no idea who to turn to for editing, formatting, cover design, etc. I eventually found good and qualified people to work with, but had I had the Resource Guide, I likely would have saved at least a weeks’ worth of time instead of trying to research so many self-publishing options.

Furthermore, I was surprised at Continue reading “The Self Publisher’s Ultimate Resource Guide”

About "Don't Fear the Reaper," My New Book on Editing

Don’t Fear the Reaper: Why Every Author Needs an Editor releases today.
For the next three days, it will be available for 99¢, so if you’re remotely interested in learning more about how an editor can help your book, I highly recommend purchasing it soon.
The book came about following a discussion with an online writing group of mine. They helped me to realize that this kind of book could be helpful to many authors who may be unsure about seeking out an editor’s help.
Personally, my favorite chapter is the last and longest one, “Unveiling Validation’s Hiding Place: How to Defeat Every Writer’s Nightmare.” I collected dozens of quotes from very well-known authors that ought to both challenge and inspire every author.
As for what the rest of the book holds, here’s the chapter breakdown: Continue reading “About "Don't Fear the Reaper," My New Book on Editing”

How (Not) to Respond to a Bad Book Review

How Not to Respond to a Bad Book Review on The Write LifeI’m writing at TheWriteLife.com today on how not to respond to a bad book review.
I look at the plight of one Stephan J. Harper, an author whose defensive and self-justifying rants on a bad book review of his own work made him a minor Internet celebrity. I feel for the guy, because no one likes a bad review. But there are certain, shall we say, unwritten rules of etiquette when it comes to author/reviewer interactions, and Mr. Harper breaks every last one of them.
I share my own poor reviews as well. Fortunately, rather than causing me to question my existence, these reviews make me laugh today. Every writer, no matter their fame or ability, will garner a bad review.

How to Turn a Bad Book Review into Positive Action

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield gets to the heart of the matter and shares a lesson that all writers would do well to learn as early on as they can: “The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.”
So with this kind of dinner presented before us on a consistent basis, how can we effectively handle the inevitable? I close the post by offering “7 Non-Career-Destroying Ways to Deal with Bad Book Reviews,” all of which I’ve tried and all of which I’m sure I’ll be trying again with each new book.
I hope you’ll take some time and read the post, then leave your comment on that post about how you handle bad reviews.
Read “About to Respond to a Negative Review of Your Book? Read This First” at TheWriteLife.com.