Pub Rants

Memoir—The Most Popular Genre At Any Writing Conference

 19 Comments |  Share This:    

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.

19 Responses

  1. angelle said:

    Congratulations! I just read on the Backspace blog that you had won the Kellogg award. I love your blog – and as I’m sure you’ve heard countless times, it really clarifies a lot for me, all the questions I had or wouldn’t have even thought to ask yet. Thanks!!

  2. Angelle said:

    Okay, weird, in my whole life I’ve never come across anybody else with my name! And now she’s here, on Kristin’s blog?! The Interweb is truly awe-full, in the Miss Snark sense of the term.

    Anyway, thank you, Thank You, THANK YOU, Kristin, for endeavoring to impress on people why memoir is hard. The world needs fewer mediocre remembrances and more powerful books, whether they’re “true” stories or not.

    Angelle (the one in Ohio, not NY)

  3. 2readornot said:

    At the conference I attended this spring (where Kristin was a speaker), we also heard some excellent advice about memoirs. There was a woman who had written one — and certainly it was a compelling story in many ways — but Kristin and Anne (and editor) pointed out to her that she was sharing the story from the wrong POV…it was really her daughter’s story.

    And they both pointed this out with a great deal of gentleness, imo. I think the woman understood what they were saying and didn’t feel discouraged. I was impressed by the entire process, I have to say!

  4. Anne Glamore said:

    I really enjoyed all your sessions at the conference. I just finished Kim’s book, and you are right- it’s the juxtaposition of Kim’s 2 different worlds and her mom’s inside info that make this such a compelling story. My sister has dibs on the book next!

  5. ~Em~ said:

    Someday, I’d love to write my story. But what I have isn’t that unique from anyone else… But at some point, I’ll find my angle.

    Until then, I’m sticking to fiction.

  6. Julie Rowe said:


    What a great post! I think what your prospective memoir writer said is entirely appropriate to every story a writer writes. Why should someone buy it? What makes it interesting and different? Why should we care?

    If you can’t answer those questions, rework the story until you can.


  7. Anonymous said:

    Having read this, I would like anyone’s opinions as to whether or not there is a market for my memoir. I am an unknown and no external history is involved in my story. I suffered from bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses to the point where I was on Social Security Disability. I was in the hospital 30 times over the last nine years and was physically disabled as well (on oxygen 24/7). Although there was very little expectation that I would ever get better, I miraculously recovered, am back to work volunteering and am planning on starting my bachelor’s degree at the age of 39.

    This story is pretty amazing to the people who know me, but would anybody else be interested?


  8. Janny said:

    This post sums up what I’ve been trying to tell many people who’ve come to me for writing/mentoring help over the years. (!)

    I’d say about 70% of the people I encounter have a personal story that they “need” to tell, and that sometimes people around them have urged them to write down and even try to sell. However, your respondent put the reality best: “I did _____. So did millions of other people.”


    What I usually tell them is to write it for their own use; it’s a great cathartic, it can do a lot for the writer, and it can be useful for other purposes than publication. I don’t know if most of them ever follow through, but unless they find some other reason for the rest of us to care, they’re not going to get an audience much bigger than their friends and family, if that.

    Some of them still don’t get it, which is why those workshop rooms will continue to be full, at least for awhile. But with any luck, maybe this blog will help to spread a little common sense among the pipe dreams…

    My take,

  9. Patrick McNamara said:

    some memories make for better short stories than novels. A person might not have enough material to write a novel about, but they might have a few incidents worth telling.

  10. Lisa Hunter said:

    No Place Safe is one of the few books this year that made me think, “I absolutely have to buy a copy of this!” An incredibly compelling story.

  11. Kristin said:

    This was the kind of info about Kim’s book that I was looking for when you announced it a couple of weeks ago. Thanks! It *does* sounds like a compelling read.

    As for autobiographies, I think so many people write these or want to write these because they cannot think of an original story on their own (not all, mind you, but many). The ‘plot’ is already there for them, as are the characters, when they write an autobiography.

    What these writers need to realize is that they can draw on their cancer survival or their childhood with divorced parents or what have you to create compelling characters and believable situations. All the seeds of a great story are right there, in your own life.

    Just like an actor who must draw on his own emotional experiences to bring a character to life on stage or on film, a writer must be able to tap into feelings and emotions of her characters. And if you haven’t lived through heartbreak, divorce, etc., it makes it that much harder to write it in a realistic and compelling way.

  12. The Anti-Wife said:

    There’s one thing I forgot to include in my e-mail to you. I would never discourage someone from writing their memoirs because, for me, it was a positive and cathartic experience. It allowed me to let go of some old baggage and gain a fresh perspective on how good my life is now. It also enabled me to see other people in my life not as tormenters but as people who were struggling with their own demons for survival.

    Writing your memoirs can be good for your soul. You just have to remember that your soul doesn’t buy books. Unless you’re famous or extraordinary, write them for yourself.

  13. Carolyn Burns Bass said:

    I just finished Kim’s NO SAFE PLACE. Bravo to Kim on the writing and bravo to you, Kristin, on seeing the story in her.

    I taught memoir-writing for my community adult education department for a time and found two main reasons why people took the class:

    1) They wanted to record their life story for the benefit of their family.

    2) They wanted a therapeutic outpouring that was cheaper than therapy.

    Occasionally one of them would tell me, “So-and-so thinks I should get this published.”

    Anti-wife’s email covers almost verbatim what I would gently tell these students.

  14. OpenChannel said:

    I think almost everyone has had something story-worthy happen to them in their lifetime. I think my life and my friends’ lives are pretty interesting. But would anyone read about it? Not util one of us gets famous.

    There’s a lot of me and my friends and family in my creative work. Bits and pieces. All that stuff that Kristin (above) said writers can draw on to create “compelling characters and believable situations.” Absolutely.

    So take those experiences and fictionalize them! Change the names and put situations together so they tell a great story. That way, you can be creative with the facts and not worry if it was exactly the way it happened. And you can STILL inspire others with it (because you can go on talk shows and say it was based on your life – LOL).

    When the director of BOYS DON’T CRY was accused of changing the facts to make her movie, she said she changed the facts so she could tell the Truth more effectively.

  15. Wackjob said:

    I had one truly astounding thing happen to me in my life, and turned it into a one-woman-show that toured the country. It took me about three or four years to come to terms with the experience, and several more years to finalize the script. The only thing that drove me crazy was that program and press materials stated it was a true story, there was even an opening gag about it being a true story, and yet HUNDREDS of times people would ask me, “Did that really happen?” and then refuse to believe me! Jeez.

    But it took years and tons of craft (and some outside help) to get that one experience down.

  16. T.C. Lessons said:

    I often hate good advice, and that couldn’t be truer than in this situation. After struggling for several months to interest an agent in my fictional memoir, I know why. I’m part of the horde. Small town life seen through a newspaper while coming of age in the West may not be unique, but I’m going to continue to push it. Self-publishing and selling to the crowd where I am well known looks like the way to go. Most of the agents I queried were courteous, I’ll give them that. One or two even read a few pages.

    Larry Lynch in Paso Robles CA

  17. timothy moriarty said:

    Subject Line : Beat Long Poll Lines with Absentee Ballots from

    Many state and local election officials are encouraging voters to use Absentee Ballots to avoid the long lines and delays expected at the polls on November 4th due to the record-breaking surge in newly registered voters.

    Voters in most states still have time to obtain an Absentee Ballot by simply downloading an official application form available through, a completely FREE public service from the nonprofit StateDemocracy Foundation.

    Read More: