In this first Memoir Masterclass, I’ll show you the most common reason most memoirs are rejected (or worse – not even read).
This Masterclass series (of 3) is going to show you how to make your book marketable to a publisher, agent or editor.
Whether you’ve written the first few thousand words or you’re up to the umpteenth redraft of a 100 000 word manuscript, this masterclass is for you.
But specifically, if you’ve got a book draft that’s been rejected and critiqued so much you’re confused, dejected, and ready to hurl your laptop out the window… I want to show you that there’s actually a simple way to know how to edit it and get it ready to shop.
Save yourself thousands of dollars and years of exhaustive re-writes.
I’ve written two published memoirs to extremely tight deadlines and I’ve read hundreds more.
At the end of this memoir masterclass you’ll know the #1 reason most memoir manuscripts are rejected.
The importance of structure
Often, all it takes is a few key structural tweaks to change a story into a publisher’s dream!
Writing is hard, yes, but the structure of story isn’t complicated.
Once you know the basic principles of story for memoir – and use it to map out a plan – you can get your book in pitch-ready shape in six months, whether you’ve started the first draft or have yet to even outline the story.
A checklist before you send your memoir out to agents and publishers
Perhaps you don’t know how to start the story. Did you know that that’s actually pretty simple, too?
What I’m going to show you is that you’re just a few ‘a-ha’ moments of clarity away from getting this manuscript finished. There’s a checklist you just need to tick off, before you send your query out to agents.
All you’re missing is structural know-how and an enforced deadline.
Focus on story structure
Memoir is just, in essence, story. Personal story. And GOOD STORY follows key structural patterns.
You see, even if your writing is beautiful, if the story isn’t interesting, no publisher is going to read more than a few pages.
We crave certain conventions of story the way we crave certain foods – if your manuscript is missing the ‘meat’, so to speak, you’re never going to get any bites (pardon the pun).
But how do i differentiate my book from others…?
Just because your memoir needs to follow a certain structure (or pattern, much like the way music follows certain patterns), your memoir won’t be ‘just like everyone elses’. If this was true, then every song would sound the same. Story structure is like learning the basic chords in music: it’s a structure you can then play around inside, like an enforced boundary that helps you feel more creative inside.
The thing is, by pinpointing the EXACT spot you need to start the story, you can get to the really juicy part (the personal bit, the part that differentiates you, the part that everyone wants to read) much quicker.
By identifying the crux of your story (here’s where you need your focus sentence), you can use your writing muscle to build the tension (again, making for a much more sellable story), craft scenes, and finesse the details that will captivate a reader.
Many of you have asked similar questions, and they range from tiny grammatical queries to the how to pitch to an agent (and what to expect). So I just want to answer a few basics before I get to the #1 reason manuscripts are often rejected.
Common questions about structure of memoir:
- What tense do I write my memoir?
Stick to the past tense in general. [Yes, there are definitely exceptions to the rule which are done very well, but if worrying about tenses is holding you back from writing, just choose the simplest one – past tense.)
Eg. “The trees were tall but I was taller…” – Cheryl Strayed, WILD
- Do I write in first person or third?
Stick to first person, for memoir.
Eg. “After some time Chris looked at me, and he smiled…” – Steph Jagger, UNBOUND
This doesn’t mean every sentence needs to have ‘I’ or ‘me’ in it. When you get to the second draft, you can polish all that repetition out and make the writing better.
- What if I get sued by someone I mention in my memoir? Can they stop it being published?
Worry about that when you secure a publisher. Don’t forget that memoir is your truth and your story and how you perceived things. You’re not jumping into another person’s head and heart and writing from their perspective. This is what makes memoir so sellable and what makes it so personal to write – we are literally pouring our hearts and souls onto the page. Our unique perception. Memoir is YOUR story of an experience, not anyone else’s.
For now, focus on telling your story, and change the gender/looks/location of anyone you’re really worried about (this is what Mary Karr did in Cherry because she wrote of incidents of abuse). The reason you don’t need to worry about this in the initial stages is because you may not even end up keeping those scenes, further down the track, anyway!
OK. Now I’m going to move to what I promised you in the beginning. If you’re wondering how to get published, your key concern is the proposal. So why, even if you’re an amazing writer, do you keep getting rejected (or worse, hearing nothing back at all?)
What’s the number one mistake memoir writers make with their proposal?
You’ve started the story in the wrong spot.
Start in the middle of the BIGGEST problem you are about to address in your memoir. Check here for what to include in your first chapter.
Find your focus sentence and clarify a scene that puts you in the messy middle of that problem.
But even more importantly:
- CUT OUT THE BACK STORY – you can weave it in, later! Publishers are just readers – and readers want a story that’s going to draw them in. The constant question in a reader’s mind (just like you, reading this blog post) is “where is this going? Why should I care?” – by starting in the mess, raising questions, keeping them intrigued, you keep the reader turning the pages.
DO NOT start with back story. Or flowery descriptions of your house. Or with an observation that has nothing to do with the actual crux of the story.
Get to the point, raise some questions, and raise the stakes. A reader with intriguing questions (who likes the feel of the heroine she’s encountered on the page) is a reader who keeps reading. And this is what you want, from a publisher. You want them to care about your story.
How to know if your memoir is ready for submission
If you’re like I was, you want to see your book in an actual shop with a beautiful spine.
You want your story as a physical, tangible thing that pulls complete strangers out of their own worlds and into yours and nodding with a resounding “me, too!” that falls into your inbox or makes its way into the reviews section of your dream publication and brings tears to your eyes. It’s a miracle, really – you have figured out a way to share your story in such a deep and meaningful way that others not only understand, but are deeply inspired and prompted to react, from your story. Your words.
It can actually be simple
Writing a book is hard just as running a marathon is hard. But it doesn’t need to be complicated. All you need is someone who’s been where you want to go (ie. Published) to break down the process, answer your pressing questions, and give you advice you would otherwise need a literary agent to access.
Just as you wouldn’t run a marathon without ticking all the boxes (training, nutrition, recovery, perhaps having a running group you’re accountable to, getting advice from a pro), you shouldn’t think you can just give writing a book a whack without expert advice and expect to succeed.
Overcoming fear of the blank page
The most complex of topics can be broken down into snack-sized steps, and this is the only way to combat procrastination and self-doubt (which is really just fear and overthinking). Bust through writer’s block by taking massive action – this will help you overcome your overthinking brain, too.
Remember when you were learning to draw? I used to love colouring in, because someone else had already created the outline, and I got to just enjoy the process of choosing which colours and filling in the spaces in my unique way.
Writing a book is no different. By having a clear plan and a go-to guide for when you hit a stumbling block or get conflicting feedback, it’s like returning to that outline you coloured in as a child. It actually makes you enjoy the writing a lot more.
The four things every memoir needs before it goes out to market
In the next masterclass I’m going to explain the four things every memoir must have before it goes out to market. You can then hold your half-finished or complete manuscript up against that checklist and assess what’s missing from your story.
It could just save you months of work (or hundreds on a manuscript assessment).
Don’t let the overwhelm of the task keep you from finishing a story that’s burning to be told. You can write your book. If you’ve already written a 40, 50, or 100 000 word draft, you’ve proven you’ve got the mettle to get the words down on the page, anyway!
You just need clarity to pick it up and know where to fix it up. And if you’ve not yet finished the manuscript, you need to reignite that dream of exactly how and where you want this story to go.
What’s stopping you? Let’s solve it
Is it fear of what other people think? Memoir is not a judicial report or a police statement. Memoir is your account of what happened
You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.
Remember – every published memoir has four things in common.
- It’s pretty simple. I’ll share those four things in the next masterclass.
Where do you want to be in 6 months? Will ‘published book’ still be a distant dream? I hope not. I hope instead you’re opening a very special bottle of champagne because you’ve just had a REQUEST for FULL manuscript from your dream publisher!
It can be simple.
I hope this first masterclass has helped you if you’ve had a rejection – particularly if they said the writing was beautiful. Starting in the wrong spot is the number one reason most manuscripts aren’t read past the first few pages.