I hate to say it, but pain is a very good teacher. Had I not spent over four and a half years (and roughly 12K) on a book which never saw the light of day, I have no doubt I couldn’t have pitched, drafted and published A Letter From Paris in less than two years.
Read on for all the nitty gritty details of how my biggest publishing failure led to my biggest success (and how what I can learned can help you, if you want to get a memoir published).
Or, if you’d rather just glean the gold (yes, this is a rather long post), skip to takeaways on how to get your memoir published step-by-step.
February 2011 – June 2014:
Fuelled by the hubris of having my first book published, begin writing a fiction novel. Don’t write an outline, don’t write a synopsis, assume that since I’ve had a book published before, and enjoy the process of writing, all will be well. Don’t even read much fiction, to be honest. I much prefer non-fiction, poetry and memoir. My first published book was actually a travel memoir (Love & Other U-Turns).
Don’t write in a genre that you don’t like to read for enjoyment! If you want to publish a memoir, first read lots of memoirs. Find the sub-genre that your story sits in (eg. Travel memoir, family memoir, health memoir, etc etc). Also look at blog posts and interviews with memoir authors on how they wrote their memoir, particularly any structural or planning tips.
June – November 2014:
Finally finish the third draft of fiction manuscript as I’m desperate to have it published. Pay a freelance editor for structural feedback. Instead she sends very detailed line edits and feedback on my writing style, but not structural clarity. Pay her invoice and start to re-draft, based on her tips, which involves cutting about 40 000 redundant words. Still don’t know what genre my book falls into, but figure that doesn’t really matter. The most important thing is that I finish it, right?
Know your genre. Love your genre. Read your genre. Get professional feedback from someone who specialises in your genre before you write the whole book – even if it’s only on the first three chapters, or 5000 words. Also do not pay for your entire book to be ‘line’ edited before you’ve ensured the structure of the story is working.
November – December 2014:
Take my now-finished manuscript to expensive writing retreat / workshop run by woman connected to well-known literary agent. Turn up to retreat, only to learn I am the only fiction writer in the group and agent promised as an introduction to all retreat participants refuses to read fiction. Use retreat to learn how to write a killer book proposal but do not get any closer to having my book published (or even seen by an agent.) Tweak manuscript a bit more. Enjoy tasty food on offer at retreat.
Write your memoir synopsis, author bio, chapter outlines and ‘proposal’ including three competing titles (and where yours sits / differs in the marketplace) before you write your memoir. This will give you huge clarity and confidence.
Also do not fork out for an expensive writing retreat or workshop without doing your research on those running said retreat! I actually wish I’d gone surfing in Hawaii, instead.
January 2015 – September 2015:
Get three friends to read manuscript and give me feedback. Apparently, it’s great! Feel jubilant and positive (have finally narrowed genre down, four years later) and purchase subscription to Publisher’s Lunch to find appropriate agents. Pitch 100 000 word supposedly-finished fiction manuscript to about 20 literary agents over the next 6 months. Join two paid online writing groups and start reading newsletters on what’s happening in the market for this genre. Pay for another round of freelance edits after 14 rejections.
Re-draft fiction for the fourth time. Learn about ‘beta’ readers – ie. People who write and read in your specific genre (NOT your friends and family!). Find one in one of my online writing groups who agrees to read first 5000 words and give me feedback.
Beta reader responds within a week: I have started the story in the wrong place (lightbulbs go off in my head). I also haven’t followed any of the structural story conventions for that particular genre (more lightbulbs go off). Beta reader has no desire to continue reading manuscript until I fix this major problem.
Get a reader in your genre who will give you some tough love early on! NOT a friend or family member who’s just going to say nice things! Clarify the inciting incident for the central plot or premise of your memoir before you start writing. Know where to start the book. Know what the internal and external conflicts are, and where they need to go in the structure of story (to keep the reader interested). Get advice early on, before you write your complete draft.
After this, I knew I had to start over (and delete 50 000 words, only to write the same amount all over again).
But it was all getting a bit Groundhog Day. Honestly, I was sick of it. I’d lost all enthusiasm for the story (hey, it was almost 5 years since i began it, by then). I was tired. I’d rewritten the draft in about six different ways over more than 5 years, and kept forgetting which bit I’d deleted from which version. The whole thing made my head hurt.
I’d also ‘wasted’ almost 12K on writing workshops, retreats, groups, edits, agent info subscriptions and more, and was no closer to finding an agent, publisher or seeing this book out on a shop-shelf with a spine. All I had was my depressing excel spreadsheet full of rejections.
Plan your memoir step-by-step
In January 2016 A Letter From Paris flew into my life, by way of an earth-shattering email and the terrified / excited feeling that I had to write this memoir.
Yes, I was exhausted at the thought of beginning YET another book that might not see the light of day after years of work, so I did something I’d never done before. I planned the whole thing step-by-step. For a creative, trusting, tangent-loving pisces like me, this was a new tack. But – I was tired of failure. I simply couldn’t afford to waste another three years on something that may or may not come off!
I outlined the central question(s) of my memoir.
I clarified the (huge) story into a one-sentence summary.
I found five competing bestsellers in my field, and I studied their structure.
(See Secrets of Bestselling Memoirs for what I learned, there).
I sought advice from experts published in the genre, clarified troubling parts of the story with professional writers I trusted (not family or friends who weren’t writers!), found an agent and sold my memoir on proposal only, finishing the first draft in under 8 weeks.
And, now it’s published, less than a year after that first draft was submitted to my wonderful editor at Scribe.
If I could give you one takeaway to getting your book published (and saving yourself 5 years of heartache, not-to-mention 12K), it would be to plan and outline your book with professional advice from someone published in, and passionate about the genre.
Do this before you write the first draft.
Save yourself time, money and heartache, and maximise your chances of getting a publishing deal – plan your memoir before you write it.