Memoir Masterclass #1: Why have I been rejected?

In this Memoir Masterclass, I’ll show you the most common reason most memoirs are rejected (or worse – not even read).

This excerpt from my Memoir Academy program will 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:
  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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.

Anne Lamott

Remember – every published memoir has four things in common.

  • I share all these elements (and how you can rejig your manuscript so it has them, too) in my signature course, MEMOIR ACADEMY. I poured 20 years of hard-won wisdom into this program so you could skip the queue (and the agony of endless rejections!).

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. And in 8 weeks you could have the complete strategy for getting your beautiful book published, too. Head here to learn more!



About the Author:

Author. Editor. Memoir course creator. Lover of cats, kindness, and coffee.


  1. Louise February 2, 2019 at 12:07 pm - Reply

    ‘Start in the (messy) middle of the BIGGEST problem you are going to address in your memoir’ – excellent advice, thank you!

    • Louisa February 2, 2019 at 8:17 pm - Reply

      Glad it helps – going to add in a link to another blog I wrote on what goes into the first chapter, as it addresses where to start the story, too!

  2. Rita Annandale February 2, 2019 at 8:09 pm - Reply


  3. Anya February 3, 2019 at 12:15 pm - Reply

    “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.” – Thanks, Louisa for the reminder, that’s exactly where I am currently struggling with!

    In the beginning you mention a checklist a writer should consider before sending out the memoir to agents and publishers – can you identify that list? Or do you mean all the questions you raise later on in the text? Maybe it’s just a misunderstanding and just me looking for an ‘actual list’ to tick off 🙂

    In terms of tense I slightly disagree. There are also a couple of memoirs that use present tense, which works pretty well as the reader is taken along on the journey, such as Ninas Riggs “The Bright Hour,” Claire Bidwell Smith’s “The Rules of Inheritance” and Dani Shapiro’s “Slow Motion” & the latest “Inheritance” (she play with tense here).

    In reference to the advice you give on the backstory: Does that mean to cut out the backstory (for now) whilst clarifying the structure as well as the chapter summaries in the actual proposal?

    Many thanks, Anya

    • Louisa February 3, 2019 at 10:31 pm - Reply

      HI Anya
      Many thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’m glad the beginning bit is helping – honestly, I think this is the hardest part of memoir – and where we have to find our hook. Knowing how to plunge into the story – and sometimes it takes writing quite a bit of back-story to ‘feel around’ to where that beginning actually was.
      In terms of back story (!) I actually recorded a video to go with this post (as many people learn better with video), but technology was not my friend on the weekend and i haven’t been able to get it off my iphone, just yet. But in the video, I explore the notion of tenses a bit more. I agree completely – many beautiful memoirs play around with tenses successfully, but it takes work. And what I was aiming for in that part of the post was to bust through the questions I think that hold people back from getting on with the writing. So – when in doubt, just do past tense, until you’re more confident or deeper into the rewrite.
      I can’t wait to read ‘Inheritance’ by Dani Shapiro – I have it on order but in Australia, we won’t get it til March!
      Lastly, the checklist is coming in the next post – 4 things you have to check your memoir has, before you send it out on proposal. Really imporrtant. I’ll post that class on Wednesday and hopefully my video will be off the phone, too!
      Re: your last question – I was referencing the first ten or twenty pages of the book that you send out with your query. The first 10 pages HAVE to plunge the reader into the story. That’s all you’ve got – like your audition, so to speak – so you need to make it set the tone and raise some intrigue for the reader (agent) to request a full manuscript.
      Hope this helps. Thanks for your insights! I haven’t read Ninas Riggs’ The Bright Hour – will look it up, now.

  4. Anya February 5, 2019 at 6:51 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Louisa! Thanks helped a lot. Looking forward to the checklist and video!

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