Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Good, The Bad and the Memoir

by Cindy Sproles 

“I have a memoir.” An excited conferee said sitting across from an acquisitions editor.

An awkward silence filled the space between them. The editor tinkered with the manuscript. “We aren’t looking for memoirs.”

“But your site says you publish them.”

“We publish memoirs if you’re Brad Pitt, or George Clooney or you have a platform of millions.”

“But we have a story about how my mother overcame cancer.”

The editor smiled. “Thousands overcome cancer. It’s an over-done topic.”

Why are memoirs so hard to sell?
I can answer that but please don’t shoot the messenger. It’s important to know the facts and remember exceptions always exist. Being in the right place, at the right time, with the perfect manuscript does happen for some, but for most, the work doesn’t supersede the obstacles.

A popular phrase at writing conferences is, “Everyone has a story.” And that’s true. If you want to be a writer, you probably have a story twirling around in your head about a conspiracy theory, or a romance. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have a personal story—aka memoir.

Neil Genzlinger of The New York Times, it best described in his 2011 article, why memoirs are not successful for most authors.

Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually every­one who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.  

You can write a successful memoir, but it’s important to understand that without the proper platform, selling the manuscript is difficult.  The story must be unique, digging deep into the overall life of the person, steer hard away from author sympathy.  There are successful memoirs by unknown authors, but it’s their construction and twists that set them apart.

Why Memoirs are Difficult
  • The memoir becomes a cry for sympathy for the author: Be it true or not, this is how the public takes note. We live in a world of “it’s all about me.” Readers are not interested in feeling sorry for someone when they have their own issues. Writing a compelling memoir pushes the author to the side and tells the real story without constant author interruption.
  • Readers don’t want to suffer: Many times a memoir focuses on the pain and agony of an issue forgetting the good things in the lives of those who have lived the story. Often the author wants the reader to feel their pain – and if feeling the pain once isn’t enough, they relentlessly beat the reader over the head thinking that incessant reminders will help it “sink in.”  Readers are not dumb. They get the pain and suffering without having it stuffed down their throat every other paragraph. Learning to show the incident with balance and control allows a reader to become sympathetic and interested, rather than put off.
  • There is no real meaning: Often writers tell the story of a hardship they’ve experienced and it ends leaving the reader with no real meaning. No sense of accomplishment. Readers feel unfulfilled and cheated - it was simply a story about overcoming a disease. Remember the movies in the 8os that started out as good, but when they ended, there was nothing. No resolution, no joy, nothing. The movie just ended leaving you hanging in a lurch. When a memoir ends, there should be resolution and an end, that even if it’s tough, shows some sort of hope or determination to persevere.

If you want to write a memoir, remember these things:
  • Selling to large houses without a huge platform will be tough. Medium-sized houses will publish memoirs, if the story is compelling, not dreary or author focused, and it’s a topic that house has experience and success in tackling. Smaller houses will publish a well-written memoir, but their reach in the marketplace is very limited. Self-publishing puts a book out there, but more times than not, it’s lost in the millions of books on Amazon. Unless the author has a steady speaking venue where books can sell at the back door, sales will be slim to none. Memoirs are rarely, if ever, money makers. Understanding this going in prepares the you for what lies ahead.
  • Write the story by digging into the life of the person, not just the hardship. How can you write a memoir without digging into a person’s life? It happens all the time when authors allow the story to encompass nothing but pain, no hope, no depth of impact to others around them. It’s easy to allow the manuscript to become a pity party and self-absorbed rather than pulling out the heavy “I” and allowing the impact of the story on others to show. Good memoirs cover a life not just tragedy.
  • Seek out a new twist on an old subject. Remember, if you have experienced something, chances are thousands of other have as well. This is good in that there are others looking for how you handled your situation, but bad in that there are probably thousands of others who have written the same story. Search out what is different and unique about your story. What can you give the reader that will help them outside of a search on Google? In the Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, we learn how Walls overcomes poverty in a dysfunctional family to become a successful New York journalist. It may be a personal impact but chances are it will be the impact you have on others.
If you choose to write a memoir, research, practice. Look for your unique twist. Seek guidance from someone who is accomplished in writing a memoir. Their guidance will be valuable. A good memoir doesn’t just talk about an accomplishment, it helps to change lives.

Why a #memoir is a hard sell for a first-time-author - @CindyDevoted on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

The good, the bad & the memoir—hard facts every author needs to know - @CindyDevoted (Click to Tweet)

Cindy Sproles is an award-winning author and popular speaker. She is the cofounder of Christian Devotions ministries and managing editor of Straight Street Books and SonRise Devotionals, imprints of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. Cindy is the executive editor of
www.christiandevotions.us and 
www.inspireafire.comShe teaches at writers 
conferences nationwide and directs The Asheville Christian Writers Conference - Writers Boot Camp. 

She is the author of two devotionals, He Said, She Said - Learning to Live a Life of Passion and New Sheets - Thirty Days to Refine You into the Woman You Can Be. Cindy's debut novel, Mercy's Rain, is available at major retailers. Visit Cindy at www.cindysproles.com and book her for your next conference or ladies retreat. Also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. Great tips! Thanks Cindy. I do not write memoir but I can still see how I can apply this advice to my genre writing. Thanks again.

  2. As soon as I started reading this post I thought of The Glass Castle, an amazing story of triumph. This is great advice for those with a personal story they want to tell. We don't want to wear out our readers with doom and gloom or leave them with no hope.

    1. There is a real craft to writing an engaging memoir.

  3. Your honesty and directions in this post will cause memoir writers to show depth of change in their characters that will influence the readers to consider meaningful change in their own lives. Truth and hard work overcomes challenges while drop-kicking defeat. Great post. Share on!

    1. Memoirs are tricky. So I hope folks are the craft in shaping one appropriately.

  4. Excellent! Thank you, Cindy!

    1. Thanks Sarah. I appreciate your sweet words.

    2. Thanks Sarah. I appreciate your sweet words.

  5. Thank you Cindy. I am thankful for you and others sharing their writing and publishing wisdom!

  6. Great advice, Cindy. Although I have no desire to write a memoir, I believe they, like any story, should offer hope to the readers. Thank you.