I'm drowning in memoirs. Not only are they slowly taking over the bookstores, but they are also crowding my inbox. I get countless queries concerning memoirs from hopeful authors every week, and I have several life stories staring at me in manuscript form right now.
Don't get me wrong, I like memoirs -- but I don't think everyone should be writing one. I can't speak for all publishers, and I certainly can't begin to speak for all readers, but I can tell you what makes me care about your memoir, what sets it apart from the rest and gets my attention.
1. You're Famous, or better yet Infamous: The average person not being famous, we care about famous people's mundane lives. I want to know what Francis Ford Coppola has for breakfast, and how Lucille Ball took her coffee. I'm not always sure what drives my urge to know these things, but like most readers -- I care. Sometimes inexplicably.
Infamous is even better. Did you escape from prison and make headlines? Are you the Grim Sleeper serial killer? Are you Frank W. Abagnale? If you are infamous, you not only should write a memoir, but more importantly, you need to write one. We need to know how to avoid you, not fall for your scams and safeguard our houses.
2. You're Extraordinary: You may not be famous, but you experienced something incredible and came out on the other side. You're Laura Ling, a journalist who was arrested in North Korea and almost condemned to a life of hard labor. You're Jeannette Walls, who managed to overcome poverty, suffering, and an absolutely insane childhood to become successful and well adjusted. You're Augusten Burroughs, who dealt with a mentally ill mother, abandonment from his father, and a crazy adoptive family. I want to know how you did it, how you mucked your way through the insanity and adversity and kept your wits.
3. You're Hilarious: If you aren't famous, if you aren't extraordinary either by circumstance or intellect, you'd better be funny. Really funny. I don't often laugh out loud at books, but Elizabeth Emerson Hancock makes me cry-laugh in public, so does Dave Eggers. It doesn't matter if your story isn't outstandingly original if you have such an original voice that I can't put the book down. Then I will read.
4. You Did Something I Will Never Do: This also can be called the 'I wonder what that would be like..." hybrid category, often a little hilarious with a dash of extraordinary. Most of the time, however, it touches on things that we never will do in our waking lives and always have intrigued us. I will never be an elf in Macy's Santaland. Good thing David Sedaris was; I feel like I was there, and I laughed so hard I stopped breathing the first time I saw The Santaland Diaries performed. I will never be Vogue Editor Anna Wintour's assistant. Lauren Weisberger was though, and while The Devil Wears Prada is not an official memoir, it sure lets me know what I wasn't missing out on.
Of course, it doesn't have to be hilarious; sometimes a memoir really is a story about an everyday person living her or his everyday life. The problem is that most of us don't want to read about something that to experience it, we just have to put the book down and go do. If you want your story published, you'd better have something in there that makes me pay attention, a voice that resonates, a lens that captures the extraordinary.
So think twice, future authors, is your life story a good memoir or an even better back-story for the main character of your fiction novel? You don't have to trash your memoir material in order to make it into a book, but before you send out that query, just consider whether your life would be better as fiction.
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