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.
‘Start in the (messy) middle of the BIGGEST problem you are going to address in your memoir’ – excellent advice, thank you!
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!
“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
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.
Thanks, Louisa! Thanks helped a lot. Looking forward to the checklist and video!
You’re so welcome!