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I’ve learned from writing my own memoir, it’s that it’s much harder than it seems. There are so many different little movies pieces: your flow, your narrative arc, your pace, your voice, your audience’s impression, your ideal reader, and the overall consistency in your story, all while remaining entirely conscious of how you’re balancing your story.

I know. It’s a lot. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Memoirs are considered one of the hardest genres to write and publish in. But why is that, and how can you overcome those challenges?

Memoirs at a Glance

Memoirs can very easily be turned (unintentionally) into autobiographies—or worse, diary entries. Memoirs only work if they’re crafted in a way that provides a healthy balance between pain and resilience. Books like Wild (Cheryl Strayed), Eat Pray, Love (Elizabeth Gilbert), and Educated (Tara Westover) have done so well for themselves because they’ve provided this balance. It’s your job to illustrate your struggle while highlighting what came out of those adversities. This is known as the “payoff” for your future readers.

The difference between an autobiography and a memoir is that while an autobiography tells your life story, a memoir highlights one specific life event. There may be value in the story an author wants to tell, but it’s the craft that’s going to make or break it. It’s all about the execution.

Take Chanel Miller’s Know My Name for example. It details her experience getting SA’d on Stanford’s campus back in 2015 by Brock Turner. It walked you through her internal struggles, her legal battles, and the fluctuation in her sense of self. She was livid, depressed, confused, hurt, and in an extremely sensitive state. This could very easily have been an purge, a catharsis, but she crafted it with such balance between her voice, pain, and resilience that it became a New York Times Bestseller and won multiple awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The Craft of Memoirs

Let’s start off with what doesn’t make for a good memoir…

  1. A series of “vignettes”: This happens when all the pieces are there, but they’re just not connected together—like having the beads of a necklace without the string. In other words, your story lacks structure.
  2. A family legacy: It’s not that a family’s story doesn’t have value, it’s that—again—it has to answer that golden question: why should anyone read this? What is unique, or nonreplicable, about your family’s legacy? Like autobiographies, these are usually received on a wider scale when it comes from a celebrity or someone with a wide influence.
  3. Indistinct Writing: A question you should immediately be able to answer with your writing is, what makes your story so special? What is it that’s going to really make it stand out so others will want to read it? And maybe you don’t care about selling copies, maybe you just want it to be made and nothing more. That’s fine. But generally speaking, when it comes to your memoir, two things should happen: your writing style (or voice) should be engaging or unique and/or the story itself should be engaging or unique.

In Terms of Publishing

Publishing is a whole other ball game you’ll need to prepare your memoir for. Generally speaking, you’ll want to have your whole (or most of) your story written out and edited. You want this to be in the best possible shape it can be so it can actually be just as compelling as it sounds.

Part of the reason it’s important to already have your memoir written out is because if you decide to get a literary agent to represent it/you, they may request to see the whole thing when you pitch it to them. And if you don’t already have it worked out, then it can quickly make you look unprofessional.

Hybrid and small presses are also a great starting point for debut authors. They’re often more willing to coach you through parts of the writing, take a chance on lesser-known authors, as well as provide more individualized attention through the publication process.

Do some research in your area (or the city closest to you) to get a feel for what options are out there for you. Some notable hybrid presses include:

Final Thoughts

This is a lot of information that can often become infuriating, especially as a new writer trying to get off the ground. Here’s what you need to know about publishing books, though: your first book is essentially your ticket into the “author world.” It might not be a huge splash, but at the very least, it will guarantee you credibility and social proof for future opportunities.

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