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Welcome to Memoir Writing for Geniuses!
When it comes to learning how to crochet a sweater or unclog the sink in my kitchen, I consider myself a dummy. Give me a straightforward, “how-to” book, and I appreciate the simple, “you can do it” tone, the step-by-step instructions to help me create a handmade garment that will keep me warm all winter, advice on how to stick a wire into the bowels of my plumbing so that my pile of greasy dishes can be washed once again.
However, when it comes to writing, I don’t want to be treated like a dummy. I once picked up those “how to create a memoir in twelve easy steps” books and tossed them aside as quickly as I discarded the crochet hooks. On one hand, I didn’t like their disingenuous “anybody can do it” tone. If there was one thing my experience had taught me, it was this: writing was never easy. It didn’t happen simply by following a list of tips.
But what bothered me the most was the lack of solid information. I sought out writing books late in my career, once I’d scored myself an agent and was tasked with a rewrite of my manuscript. “Structural problems,” she explained, which at the time was a mysterious phrase. When I searched for help on the shelves of libraries and bookstores, I came across tips such as “Write in first person” and “Use personal objects to jog your memory.” Still, there were no hard facts that would help me understand what it took to create a logical narrative structure.
At this point, I’d already gotten my first glimpse into what it actually took to get published. It was no playing field for dummies. Out of curiosity, I flipped to the sections in these books about choosing the right agent (even though I already had one) and couldn’t help but laugh at their trite encouraging advice. “Ask about their client list.” “Be sure to establish whether they will be handling sub-rights or if this will be contracted out to a different agent.” “When it comes to selecting an agent, choose the one who shows the most enthusiasm for your work.”
What dream world did these writers live in? A few months earlier when I’d first gotten interest from an agent, I didn’t start interrogating her with a bunch of questions. First of all, I hung up the phone and ran screaming into the bedroom to share the good news with my boyfriend. And then, rather than pretend I was an important writer who had the right to question whether this agent was worthy of my work, I bent over backward to try and make her happy, setting out to make all the edits to my manuscript she had requested.
Another thing that annoyed me was the lousy advice these books had to offer on query letters. They included a generic format that you could simply adapt to your own work-at-hand, letters that read much like this: “Given your fondness for historical novels which I read about in the 2010 Writer’s Guide, I am writing to gauge your interest in my novel, a period piece set in the 1800s centered around the experiences of Teresa Ann Holden, a bold beautiful woman who hopes to escape her humble upbringing and find true love in the form of Rex Nelson, a wealthy landowner whose checkered past remains a mystery.”
Those query letters simply did not work. The one that had worked for me was nothing like the samples I found in these books. On my own, I had discovered the secret to writing an effective query letter, one that had generated an impressive fifty-percent response rate! Of the ten agents I sent it to, five requested the manuscript.
In the end, I put the writing guides aside, finally learning the ropes myself with the aid of agents and editors, people who lived the day-to-day reality of publishing, not writers who earned their living creating how-to books. I did eventually gain a grasp of structure but it took me years, several discarded manuscripts, and too much wasted time spent rewriting.
The site you have in front of you is the one I longed for when I was first starting out, information it took me nearly a decade to learn as a published author. I embarked on this project partly because I firmly believe in writers helping out other writers, but also because I was pissed off — I was tired of picking up “how-to” books that offered little in the way of real information.
Before you get much further, you should be forewarned: There is no hand-holding here, no cheery encouraging advice about “make writing a habit” or “learn from reading other writers.” Instead, it’s the nitty gritty, the tough-love version of what it really takes to get published.
I’m not a nay-sayer, simply a realist. After all, getting a book contract truly is possible. I did it. I got my first agent (who I would work with for next nine years until she left the business) solely on the basis of a query letter. The good news: you don’t need to be well-connected to land yourself an agent. But here’s the rub, and pay close attention to this part: Your memoir had better be damn good. You have a lot of competition out there.
This site exists to make sure your writing makes the cut. Dummies need not read any further.