Memoir Guidelines

Alexis Grant asked: Would you consider a post on memoir guidelines, since memoir falls somewhere between fiction and nonfiction in many ways? For my travel memoir, should I query when I have a proposal and several sample chapters, like nonfiction, or wait until the manuscript is complete, like fiction? What’s the usual word-count window for memoir? Are there any other areas—aside from reading like a novel—where I should follow fiction guidelines instead of nonfiction?

Great questions! I think memoir requires the most out of a writer, because it’s non-fiction, so platform matters. But it’s also story-driven and the writing is the most important aspect, so it requires the level of attention to the art and craft of writing that fiction does.

I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule about whether to query with sample chapters or a complete manuscript. With a first-timer, I always prefer to read the whole thing before I make a decision whether to take it on. At the very least, I want to read three or four chapters, and perhaps rough versions or outlines of the remaining chapters.

I DO recommend finishing the manuscript before you query. Like with a first novel, you are going to discover so much in the writing process. I believe your book will morph and evolve throughout the writing, and so those first few chapters, though written, will not actually be complete until you’ve finished the book. A memoir is a work of art much more than the typical non-fiction book.

Think of it like a sculpture, such as The Thinker by Auguste Rodin. Perhaps he could have sculpted the feet and those muscular legs, and shown somebody his work to see if they wanted to buy it. They would certainly have been impressed with his ability to render a set of feet and legs. But they couldn’t possibly understand the piece—the feel, the mood, the statement it makes—without seeing the entire sculpture in its complete form. That’s how I see memoir. It’s a whole that can’t truly be understood in pieces.

As far as length, popular memoirs range quite a bit from about 60,000 words to 120,000 or more. If you’re a new author, I’d recommend staying on the shorter side, perhaps around the 75,000 word mark. The important thing is that your length fits your book. Write as much as it takes to tell the story, and no more. (Helpful, huh?)

Rather than focusing on the fiction/non-fiction aspect of a memoir, read books specifically about writing memoir. I like Your Life as Story by Tristine Ranier, but there are many others.

Anyone else with insights about memoir, feel free to chime in!
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.

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  • writer jim

    >Alexis:
    Fiction? in nonfiction? I suggest you may sometimes give a "general picture" rather than accurate details which may be too long, and unnecessary. Conversely, you can sometimes recreate details and emotions that you couldn't possibly remember in exact detail; so that readers can enjoy what you enjoyed.
    This is what I think would be called creative nonfiction. Just tell readers up front that you sometimes do that to make your writing flow better, etc.
    I live in FL and stay up till 3-4a.m.est; then befor bed I read some blogs… so that's why I'm first response on the blog. writer jim

  • Beatriz Kim

    >I love that book…"Your Life as a Story". It has a lot of helpful information. I should re-read since I'm thinking of writing my memoir.

    Rachel or anyone…

    I'm actually writing short memoir stories online. These stories are early memories and they won't end up in my memoir in whole, but I may use some of it. Is it a good idea to continue or should I stop?

    Actually, an independent editor finds my work very interesting and I'm hoping to get more of that kind of attention.

  • Anne L.B.

    >So just out of curiosity …

    How helpful would the ACFW fiction writer's conference be for a memoir writer? Does the "story-driven" art of a memoir use the same craft as fiction? Would all those fiction editors be interested in the "art" of a memoir, or is it pointless to meet with them?

  • Jim

    >As I initially wrote the manuscript for my memoir, I got some feedback about it being extremely detailed. As the "first Jim post" stated above, you may need to be careful to only include details that are relevant to the story. On the other hand, my early drafts were too much "telling" and not enough "showing". With my focus on detail, I was concerned about recreating some converstations where I didn't remember exactly what was said. However, I knew the "jist" of the conversation and soon found that the story was greatly improved with the first-hand conversations. Because I was obviously writing this story in the first-person, I avoided adding any dialogue in which I was not present for the original. I had to depend on "telling" about second-hand conversations.

    I've had more than one agent or publisher express the great challenge in marketing a non-celebrity memoir. However, some have said they would want to talk further with me if I chose to fictionalize the story. I'd be interested in hearing other insight on that topic.

    In the meantime, while awaiting feedback from one more publisher reviewing a partial, I'm very close to moving forward on custom publishing. All in God's timing…

    Oh, one more thing, editing sessions with a very emotional and transparent topic like a memoir can be very draining! :)

    Jim

  • Marla Taviano

    >Very helpful–thanks! Checking out that book now.

  • Patricia Raybon

    >I've written two memoirs, both published (Viking/Penguin and Tyndale/SaltRiver). Best tip: Read, read, read first-rate memoirs, especially in your genre.

    Also, try to master fiction technique for use in this nonfiction format. The core things that make fiction work — a strong conflict, a key moral dilemma — apply to memoir. Good resources to study: Stein on Writing by Sol Stein, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Inventing the Truth by William Zinsser, On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

    Final thought. The point of memoir is to confess your truth so others are inspired to explore theirs. Ironic. But in the end, a memoir isn't just about you. Your story, when told with skill and courage, is a mirror for readers to look at themselves. Here's the operating Bible scripture for memoir: James 5:16. Enjoy the process — and blessings to all writers who embark on this remarkable journey!

  • Cecelia Dowdy

    >I don't read much non-fiction, but I read a memoir recently and it was well-written and funny. I think if you have a humorous and entertaining voice, that helps. The memoir I recently read was entitled I'm Perfect, You're Doomed – Tales From A Jehovah's Witness Upbringing.

  • Alexis Grant

    >Rachelle,

    Thanks so much for this post! You answered a lot of questions I haven't seen addressed on other agents' blogs.

    I particularly appreciate your comment about how the book will morph and evolve through the writing — I've found that to be true already, halfway through the writing. I love that this is healthy, and I do think it helps support your point that memoir writers should finish the manuscript before querying.

    Thanks for weighing in! And the comments on this post are proving to be helpful, too.

    Alexis
    http://alexisgrant.com

  • Michael Gray

    >I read somewhere that writing memoir is about telling the truth, not stating facts. This has helped me approach my writing from the more creative side of my brain, rather than the facts-based, hard news article side.

    Alexis, your questions were perfect and dealt with some of the same questions I have had. Thanks.

    Rachelle, as always you are an incredible resource for budding writers and I thank you for the time, energy, and mental capacity you put into these posts. I appreciate your insight.

  • Rachel H. Evans

    >I've written a spiritual memoir to be published by Zondervan, (with Rachelle as my agent). When you're working on a creative nonfiction piece, it's always a little tricky to figure out where you fit. Books on how to write proposals are often geared toward nonfiction writers; books on writing techniques are often geared toward fiction writers. So this is a good topic for discussion!

    Regarding writing: I would echo everything that Patricia said – read successful memoirs (and take notes), incorporate techniques used in fiction, and make sure your story is both personal and universally true. Show rather than tell.

    "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott was an especially helpful book for me. She's written several fantastic memoirs.

    I would also encourage you to incorporate some humor. Even though you are writing about yourself, don't take yourself too seriously…Don't be overly present or self-aware as you tell your story. And whatever you do, don't let yourself sound self-important! People can't relate to that, and it really turns them off.

    When I read memoirs from my genre (Blue Like Jazz, Traveling Mercies, Divine Nobodies, etc.) one thing really jumped out at me – the authors were charmingly self-depreciating, and that made me like them.

    Regarding Platform: I think blogs are a good tool for memoir writers. If you're comfortable speaking, you may be able to do some lectures on traveling or writing or journaling or something like that.

    Regarding Proposals: I wrote a proposal (based on the typical non-fiction model) and included three chapters. (I did not finish the book first, but outlined all of the chapters.) Rachelle found a publisher within a few months. She's a real pro!

    Hope that helps.

  • b.mousli

    >You may want to take a look at this essay : http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/narrative/essay.aspx?id=100077
    I just discovered the site, and think that for non fiction, it is quite interesting.
    Béatrice

  • debcleve1971@yahoo.com

    >I am four chapters away from completing a collaborative non-fiction, I guess that's what you call it, when the 'author' is the person whose life story is being told, but the 'writer' is the one actually telling the story. It has been an interesting journey and a labor of love, but if I'm asked to write another one of these, please, someone slap me! I long to get back to fiction where I can make it all up.

  • Anita

    >I love THE GLASS CASTLE (see my blog for short interview with Jeannette Walls, the author, if interested), THREE WEEKS WITH MY BROTHER, and A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (which was originally a memoir).

    I enjoy lots of scenes and dialogue in memoirs. Yeah, I know you didn't have a tape recorder going your whole life, but as a reader, I'm fine with that.

  • Matilda McCloud

    >I think a good memoir has to read like a good novel and for me it needs to have a wider significance. For example, I recently read an interesting memoir called BLACK GIRL NEXT DOOR by Jennifer Baszile about the pain and isolation of growing up in an affluent African American family in a very fancy white suburb in California.

  • Jungle Mom

    >Thank you for all these helpful insights. The comments are very helpful as well.
    Now, I just need to find some more time to get it done!

  • Anonymous

    >Rachelle said:

    The important thing is that your length fits your book. Write as much as it takes to tell the story, and no more. (Helpful, huh?)

    I've just finished editing a memoir, or thematic narrative, that will be published this fall (Lulu: One Woman's Journey from Poverty and the Occult to Enduring Faith and True Riches, Chosen/Baker). I've worked with the author for ages, and was (embarrassingly) too close to see that the ms. we submitted to our fab editor at Chosen had a couple of extra limbs that needed chopping off. Lulu's story is amazing; it's her descent into the occult and then her release from it (on the very day she was going to commit suicide). But instead of ending the story there, we skipped ahead 10 years to her bout with breast cancer, and then another 20 years to when her husband finally came to faith in Christ and then died. Our editor saw immediately that those extra 'limbs' needed removing for the book to be whole. So I want to affirm what Rachelle says about writing as much as it takes to tell the story, and no more.

    Amy Boucher Pye

  • the wanderer

    >Great post. Ranier's Your Life as Story is a great resource. Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington is also a good resource

  • Marianne

    >I've found "Your Life As Story" by Ranier really helpful as well as "Writing the Memoir" by Judith Barrington and "Old Friend from Far Away" by Natalie Goldberg.

    I'm 60,000 words into my memoir about life as a UN peacekeeper in Afghanistan and the book is changing shape as I see the whole story emerge. I'm very, very glad I didn't try to get a book proposal together when I had what I thought were the first three chapters and an outline of the rest. But then again, I'm new to this genre and perhaps had a lot more to learn than most.

    Thanks Rachelle for your helpful advice and to everyone for their useful comments. This feels like a group of people I could learn a lot from!

    Good luck every one.

  • Katherine Jenkins

    >I am so happy to find your blog. I am writing a spiritual memoir entitled "Lessons from the Monk I Married" and this information is very helpful. I'm am about to send my proposal out. I have a question, how important is blogging? My blog http://lessonsfromthemonkimarried.blogspot.com/ has gained a lot of traffic. Do agents look at blogs as a way to gauge if a book will be successful? Do you recommend blogging? Three of my chapters of my book are on my blog page. Is it recommended to put book chapters on blog pages?

  • Rachelle

    >Katherine, I've written about this approximately one million times (give or take). Look in the sidebar under "Find Posts on this Blog" and click "Marketing-Platform-Branding."

  • Tomas

    >Hi. I'm a newbie to this, though I think one with a story. Actually it's my half-sister's story. She died months before I found her though an agency. She was writing about her life and I acquired her unfinished papers. She was an artist, a poet, a confidant and close friend to Jimi Hendrix, whom she sketched for the cover of his Cry of Love album. Anyway, she writes about Jimi and art and the 60s and her childhood in pithy poetic blasts. Sort of like massaged haiku. I guess the appropriate genre label would be collaborative non-fiction, based on an early post here, slash memoir. Anyone have any suggestions or guidelines on crafting a proposal for memoirs in general, or, of course, for this idea in particular? Comments most appreciated.

  • Cynthia

    >I'd longed to write a memoir and Tristine Rainer's book helped me to crystallize my ideas, find a strong desire line and weed out the irrelevant. I looked her up on the internet and discovered that she teaches memoir writing and consults privately. I contacted her and arranged to meet and discuss the first five chapters of my work. Over the course of an hour, Tristine helped me to find my voice. She gave me very clear and concise feedback and constructive criticism. Once she'd given me all she felt I needed, she set me loose to finish my work on my own. This October, I completed my 78,000+ word memoir, "I'll Find a Way". I consulted Tristine again and she quickly identified the areas that were unfinished or lacking adequate substance. With her help I revised the manuscript and every single person who has read it since compliments me on the writing style and flawless structure. I am absolutely certain that I could not have produced this work without the invaluable information and insight Tristine provided. I am a huge fan.

  • http://www.penultimateword.com Arlene Prunkl

    I realize that most people on Rachelle’s mailing list are hoping to find an agent and/or a publisher, but I wonder if any of you are considering self-publishing. I am a professional freelance editor with years of experience editing self-published memoirs. I can help you with all of the elements presented in this very informative discussion, and I can also guide you through the process of self-publishing. I’m at http://www.penultimateword.com.

  • Reba Cross Seals

    When I first started transcribing the journal I kept when traveling the grief journey, I envisioned it as a Christian how-to book written with humor, irony and determination. Now that it is nearly complete, I realize that I have a memoir more than a how-to. Hummmmm! Can’t be both, I guess.

  • http://leinhaus@blogspot.com/ Leslie Einhaus

    I am so thrilled to find the answers to these questions! I had to drop by and say thanks! I have looked and looked on the Web and what little information I did find was confusing! One would say this and another would say that. And another wouldn’t include memoir! Writing my first book is so important to me & I was lucky enough to find this post tonight and I have the books you are talking about, too! I’m set. I so appreciate having this information, Rachelle! Now I need to keep on writing!

    My two cents: I do agree with using humor when appropriate. Although, I think it should be part of the author’s personality. Mine focuses a lot on medical issues and I try to allow for some humor in my writing to lighten the mood and keep things moving along at the appropriate pace. Humor, though, has to be dealt with carefully. It
    doesn’t take much to go overboard. In the end, you just have to know your story and your audience.

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  • http://www.dpswanwriter.com David Swan

    My first book is a memoir and if I knew back then just how much time and effort it would take, I would have chosen fiction. I’m down to the third draft now after two years and heading for the home run now.I wrote a short blog on memoir writing from an amateurs perspective if you would like to read. Thanks for an informative blog Rachelle.I will be emailing you shortly begging for some representation or insight : ) http://dpswanwriter.com/category/creative-writing-2/

  • Patricia

    Thank you for this blog Rachelle! It is very helpful. I am currently writing my first book and it is a memoir. I prefer not to share the details at this time. Rachelle, can you email me and give me some pointers/feedback?

    Thank you everyone!

  • Dove Jacobi

    Oddly, after I posted my comment, I looked at your full bio and saw that you are in Colorado. (didn’t know you were an agent, either…just Googled and found your article on memoir). Anyway, that’s exactly where I’m from and am returning to in a few months to rebuild my life in preparation to bring my partner over. I lived mostly in the Lakewood area. I just thought that was an interesting coincidence. (BTW, Dove Jacobi is one of 8 pseudonyms I use, since I write in so many different genres). Thanks for your site. I’ll be looking at it in more detail in the days to come. :)

  • Dove Jacobi

    My previous post with questions about memoir, etc, hasn’t appeared here, so not sure if it got lost in the sign-in procedure or not…?

  • Dove Jacobi

    I posted a comment which has since been vaporized into cyberspace somehow, so this is another try….(Hate when that happens. I knew I should have saved it into a text file, first. That’s what I get for not listening to myself).

    I am an Indie writer and publisher who has authored 33 books of both fiction and nonfiction in a variety of genres. (I now use 8 different pseudonyms, according to genre). I have been planning a memoir about the last couple of years, as it is a timely subject, but more importantly, it might be helpful to others who have been dealing with the same issues. I am in a bi-national, same-sex couple, and I moved to New Zealand to be with my partner, but now I will be returning (after a year here) to the U.S. to rebuild my American life again, and prepare to bring my partner over in a couple years as my fiance (since the demise of DOMA, I can now do that, thankfully). We have to wait until her youngest child is old enough to go out on his own, and although the original plan was for me to be here 5 years, and then the two of us return to Colorado to retire together (she is also an author), I discovered, much to my chagrin, that I have not adapted well in another country, for various reasons, even though my relationship with my partner is stellar. So we had to make some hard choices.

    I have written one other memoir, but I suspect I made all the usual mistakes with that one, and want to do better this time around.

    The issue that seems most problematic at the moment is what format to use. I don’t want to write it chronologically, as that seems to be a bit of a non-starter, according to recent articles and trends. So I wonder if you could recommend some memoirs that use the flashback technique, perhaps alternating each chapter in current and past? I’ve used flashback before in my fiction, but I’m not sure all the same parameters apply. The memoir itself deals with some difficult subjects, but I intend to sprinkle in generous amounts of humor to keep it from being just a poor-me cathartic jaunt that loses its universal appeal. The main point of it is that I discovered I am not as adaptable as I thought I was, and the life I had built was instrumental in my ability to function in a healthy way. There is an odd contradiction at play here, in that I had to give up all I worked for in order to have this love, and that in order to keep it, I now have to rebuild what I lost and bring her into it.

    Since moving here, I have discovered that I don’t belong in this situation–the proverbial Stranger in a Strange Land–and must get my identity back, and regain control over my daily life. My relationship with my partner is not the issue. We are an insanely great match and completely committed to each other. But the peripheral challenges here have proved too detrimental to me, personally. I have felt helpless, trapped, ineffectual,
    and as I told my partner, “You have been sharing your life with me, but I
    have not been able to share my life with you.” I went from middle class,
    to poverty, for one thing. I left everything behind–sold my vehicle,
    gave up my beloved cats, and arrived with one suitcase and a carry-on.

    I’m hoping this story will provide insight into the unique challenges that
    bi-national same-sex couples have to face.

    So, if I can find the right format, I can tell that story. Hopefully you can make some suggestions about that?

  • John Robert Young

    Unhelpful – unimaginative.

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