Today I want to talk about the most common reason most memoirs are rejected. If you’ve endured the painful silence of a publisher rejection, this post is for you. Sometimes a rejection is clear, written and quick! They’re almost like a special rejection. The worst rejections are radio silence, as you just don’t know what you’re doing wrong.

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.
This isn’t about writing a killer query, or book proposal, but the actual manuscript: so if you’ve made it past the gate-keepers of query-land to that holy grail of “request full manuscript” yet your full manuscript has been rejected this post is for you.

My worst ever rejection…

I’ve written two published memoirs to extremely tight deadlines and I’ve read hundreds more. But the knowledge I’m sharing here came from my most painful rejection. This rejection gave me a strong insight into what publishers see every single day – and more importantly, what they want. The first rejection I had for Love & Other U-Turns was a face-to-face conversation with a top Publisher in Australia who arranged to meet me for coffee (cue excitement) only to tell me how bad my book was in its current state (cue devastation).

Her reason for not wanting the manuscript?
I’d started the story in the wrong spot.

At the end of this post you’ll know the #1 reason most memoir manuscripts are rejected – and what you can do to fix yours (without having a rejection like I did!).
Oh – and spoiler alert, if you haven’t yet watched my masterclass (linked below) – I edited that same manuscript to fix that problem and i had a book deal within a week of a cold submission.

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.

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). And publishers are just readers who crave a good story. Remember that. They want to be engaged. Like an audience at a cinema, ready for the film to start – they want you to grip them in the heart of your story, so, you need to do a few things…

If we all follow the same structure, won’t it be the same story?

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 else’s’. 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.

The reason your memoir was rejected

Beginnings matter – this is why i wanted to talk about structure.
If you’ve written the complete draft and submitted either a partial or full manuscript and had it rejected, I can bet you’ve started the story in the wrong spot.

Most memoir manuscripts take WAY too long to actually get to the central theme or quest of the story. This is because the author thinks they need to over-explain where they’re ‘coming from’.

We read memoir to relate to a human aspect to the story, we want to be plunged into a problem with a heroine we can identify with…But when you give too much general information and not enough specific detail about the compelling action of the story in the beginning, you get a big “no” from the yawn coming from your reader.

Think about how many manuscripts an agent or editor might read at a time – as SOON as they pick up your manuscript (or open up the digital file!) they want to be engaged, they want to know where you’re going with the story, and they want to know if you have the skills to take them there. They want your point-of-view, and they want to be plunged into the story, the hook, the problem that your book will take the next 60 – 10 000 words to address… They don’t want to be plunged into the backstory, or a 50 page ‘run-up’ or explanation of the problem.

How to fix this

Start in the middle of the BIGGEST problem you are about to address in your memoir.

Write your focus sentence and clarify a scene that puts you in the messy middle of that specific 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 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.
  • IDENTIFY THE STORY HOOK  – your hook is the most unusual and compelling aspect to your story.  Sometimes it takes a few conversations with other writers to get clear on the most important ‘hook’ to your story.
  • Raise the stakes, raise the questions, make the ‘ordinary world’ clear but leave the reader wanting more – wanting to ‘join’ you as you journey through the ‘special’ world of your memoir. If you start by explaining everything, oversimplifying and summing up the journey, what else is there to want to read?

You don’t need to re-write your entire manuscript or even throw it out. you don’t need to write a new story. You DO need to know where your story begins. By identifying the REAL BEGINNING of your story, you will start in the middle of the action and compel the reader to want to keep going.