STATUS: It’s raining in Denver and we need the moisture so it’s a happy thing. Chutney is not so happy about the thunder though.
What’s playing on the iPod right now? GO YOUR OWN WAY by Fleetwood Mac
Last week when I was out in New York, I did a panel at the Backspace conference entitled How to Publish A Memoir If You Aren’t Famous with my terrific author Kim Reid and David Patterson, an editor from Henry Holt (but not Kim’s editor). He’s simply another editor who handles the genre.
The session was packed, which rather stunned me. I shouldn’t have been. Lots of people want to write a memoir and it’s also the hardest project to get published by a non-celebrity. And here’s my little rant, very few people actually have stories that are big enough to capture national attention and hence, editor attention.
Honestly, I’m not trying to be mean when I write this. It’s just the truth, but the attendees ended up asking some great questions that ultimately might make good blog material so I thought I would talk about the memoir this week.
I even had one of the attendees email me out of the blue with a thank you. In her email (and with her permission), she wrote, “I enjoyed all three workshops I attended in which you were a presenter, but the memoir workshop was my favorite. It really helped clarify the genre and gave me a new perspective on what it takes to stand above the crowd in that area. I appreciated the workshop and the opportunity to talk with you and Kim Reid afterwards. I didn’t hear what I wanted to hear, but I did hear what I needed to hear and I appreciate that.”
So I asked her to expand on that last sentence. She wrote me back and I think her email really sums up the essence of what makes writing and publishing a memoir one of the hardest genres to break in to. In short, most writers think they have an interesting enough story to share with the world and very few of them are correct in this assumption.
With her permission:
When you’re writing a memoir – telling your own story – the stakes are extremely high. It’s very personal. It’s easy to lose perspective. My parents divorced when I was a child and I had serious abandonment issues. So did millions of other people. I was in college in the 60’s and 70’s and participated fully in the sex, drug and rock and roll culture of the time. So did millions of other people. I got my master’s degree and had a great career. So did millions of other people. I had cancer. So did millions of other people. I had a business failure that resulted in bankruptcy. So did millions of other people. I turned my life around and ended up happy and healthy. So did millions of other people.
Aside from the fact that it was my life, what sets me apart from the millions of other people who had similar experiences? What makes my story worthy of being published?
People need to have a persuasive reason to read your story. Were you famous or associated with someone famous? If not, you have to find a way to tell your story that is so involving and compelling and unique that it grabs the reader from the very first sentence and never lets them go until the end.
When I sat in your workshop and truly listened to what you, Kim and David said, I realized my life is interesting to me and my friends, but in order to make it interesting to others, the telling of it needs a lot of work.
Between this workshop and the few minutes of time I had with you and Kim after it, I had the answers to the questions for which I traveled 2,400 miles.Was my manuscript good enough to be published? No.Was I ready to query? No.
Your workshop really helped clarify the genre and gave me a new perspective on what it takes to stand above the crowd in that area. That’s why I said I didn’t hear what I wanted to hear, but I did hear what I needed to hear and I appreciate that.
So how was I able to sell Kim’s memoir NO PLACE SAFE since she isn’t a celebrity?
I’ll tell you.
1. She had a compelling story about coming of age during a national tragedy otherwise known as the Wayne William children serial killings in Atlanta. (In other words, her memoir had a backdrop with a greater scope).
2. She had a unique perspective. Her mother was a lead detective on several of the cases—one of the first female African American detectives in the state of Georgia–so Kim had an inside view of the case unfolding and she was a teen straddling two universes—her black neighborhood where kids were literally disappearing off the streets juxtaposed next to her all-white exclusive private school across town where she had won a scholarship and where the news of black kids dying didn’t seem to touch.
3. There have been other works published about these killings both in fiction and nonfiction but NO ONE ELSE has told the story from the perspective of being a daughter of a cop involved in the investigation. Of having a mother who basically disappeared for two years in order to keep other people’s children safe—even when she knew that could put her own kids in jeopardy. Of becoming an adult at basically age 14 so she could help raise her younger sister.
Isn’t that compelling? My just writing about it gives me shivers.
4. This story is back in the news as several of the cases have been re-opened and coverage is happening today in TV/Radio etc and will continue.
5. Kim had access to private files that her mother had kept about the cases.
All of these things together just made for a bigger package that allowed me to sell Kim’s memoir. Some other thoughts tomorrow.