On June 16, Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Myers (http://writeyourbookinsixmonths.com/) presented a webinar on writing memoirs that attract the attention of agents and editors. Below are some of their thoughts:
Writing for yourself vs. writing for others.
Brooke: The reader should be able to take something away from your project: universal truths. Readers want to be mirrored. Julia Scheeres, the author of Jesus Land, said emphatically, “You write for yourself.”
I absolutely have changed my tune [about thinking you write for others]. It’s both; you write for both.
Linda: I was too far on the “write for yourself” side. Now we’re both in the middle. You have to write for others if you want to get published.
Brooke: Consider/anticipate what readers want to know. It’s your life. You lived it. You don’t anticipate questions readers might have sometimes. [Often] writers rush too quickly through the story.
You have to take care of the reader. Essential details are hugely important. Assume the reader has never been there before [to the setting you are describing]. Attend to the reader like a dear, old aunt. Slow down for her. Don’t just breeze along. You don’t want to go too fast or too slow. Sometimes the pendulum swings. Gently remind readers who your characters are. Agents and editors are looking to be held.
Linda: You need to be clear on the heart, the meaning, the lesson, the teachings. How clear are you? You need a quick summary/assessment: What is your memoir about? You need to offer something that no one has read before. How are you delivering a unique story? What’s the hook? A conceptual “what is it about and what does it deliver.” [These are questions that should be answered in the book proposal.]
The first few lines of the book have to be catchy. Start in media res—in the middle of things. What are the stakes in the story? Who’s in it? What’s it about? How is the story unfolding?
Brooke: These keep coming up in the larger story. Agents and editors want to forget they’re reading. They want to be suspended, wholly in the scenery of the story, several ripple layers out: room, house, neighborhood. What details does the reader need to see the whole picture? Contextual reminders are sign posts along the way.
“We’ve been here before: the same trail, but ten years earlier.”
You don’t need a bunch of back story about someone introduced earlier, but you need to remind them. “Remember Bob? Yeah, that guy.” Remind the reader in a way that’s not overwhelming, but is helpful.
Don’t talk about a person [or event] you discussed before as if the reader never met him before [or knew the scene before]. It needs to be streamlined. It happens all the time. The edited version can be a subtle difference. Contextual reminders make a huge difference in the reader feeling like they are in your intimate circle.
Inviting the reader past privacy boundaries.
Linda: I work with people all the time who are struggling with writing their truths. It’s very deeply personal, not just about technique. It’s a very psychological process.
Say the unsayable in the workshop environment (a safe place). You’re way beyond journaling if you want to get your book to agents and editors.
You need to have very good self-care in the process.
Know where you need to go. What do you need to show your reader that is part of the theme? Close the blinds. Be in the space of your story. Shut out the rest of the world.
Where do I have a gut reaction to material I want to write?
Brooke: There is a subtle recognition of the agent, editor, or attuned reader if something is missing (truths): the thing the writer didn’t want to talk about. How and why are you holding back? You’re going to let the reader so far in that you’re going to feel uncomfortable.
Linda: [It’s a] “shame hangover.” [When you think,] “Oh my god, what have I done?” it means you’re uncomfortable. If you’re not uncomfortable, you haven’t done your job. Dive off. Write it. Get it out of you. Then craft it so the reader understands it. If you take us to the bedroom, how did that moment of love making affect your relationship with that person?
Brooke: That’s where the juice is, something that’s burning that needs to be told, that wants to be stifled. A good reader will suss it out.
The question of liability/being shunned scares people a fair amount. Question: Do you need to write this story for yourself? What do I need to publish about this? Do you want the world to read it that way? Or shape it and craft so people can read it?
Change names. But it’s tricky if you’re writing about your ex-husband. It usually doesn’t go anywhere, unless it’s a best seller. Worry about liability after the first draft. Worry about the fallout later.
It’s important to have a proposal and a smashing query letter. Do your research on agents. On Twitter, follow literary agents.
Check out www.publishersmarketplace.com.
Recommended book: You Should Really Write a Book: How to Write, Sell, and Market Your Memoir.