This is a great guest post on memoir writing by Brooke Warner, of Warner Coaching. Brooke and I will be presenting one of the workshops at the NAMW Telesummit. As the Executive Editor at Seal Press, Brooke knows memoirs and how to help authors create books that are great to read and offer learning and new experiences for us as the reader. Read this terrific article by Brooke.
Linda Joy and I have spent a lot of time talking about the power memoir has over the people who want to write it. Both of us have worked with memoirists who write because they’re pursuing a calling, who need to create a memoir that’s been sitting with them for years. We are both passionate about supporting writers to get their content out and onto the page, and we like to showcase good strategies for staying on track and committing to the process. For writing fast and in flow. But there are other valuable aspects of memoir that writers must know, too: positioning, theme, and takeaway. The sooner in your process these three deliverables are understood, the better your memoir will be. They’re deliverables as much as they’re skills, because your future agent or editor is looking for these things in your writing, and your readers, whether they realize it or not, are responding to your ability to pull forward and deliver these three things too.
Positioning Your Memoir
I’ve written about positioning before because it’s a concept that the average unpublished or first-time author too often fails to consider, usually because they just want to write and they don’t have a marketing background. Positioning you or your work is a process that involves understanding where you and/or your book belong in the marketplace, and how you are or will be perceived by your customers, fans, or buyers.
When it comes to memoir, you will generally position yourself by comparing your book to another writer’s. Overused examples include: “I’m the female David Sedaris,” or “My book is the next Eat, Pray, Love.” Because these are so overused, try to get more creative if either of these sentences are currently parked in your query letter or book proposal. Another way to position yourself is to counter-position yourself. For instance:
“My book is a cancer memoir in the vein of Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place. Unlike Corrigan, however, I do not delve into the deep or poignant side of cancer, intentionally keeping it light. My book is meant to be an uplifting, sassy look at motherhood and surviving cancer. My audience is younger women and young mothers, so think of my book as a mix between Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay and Bad Mother with a cancer twist.”
You can see right away how this positioning works—regardless of what you feel about such an approach. Do not try to be all things to all people. The more you can drill down and position your work as appropriate to a specific subset of readers the more likely you will be to get the attention of an agent or editor.
Identify Your Themes
As I mentioned, I’ve been turning around this idea of theme in memoir since the March 8 roundtable, in part because I said something on the call about most memoir being the result of having lived through something hard or challenging; or from having overcome something. And this is true to a certain extent. Misery memoir is the industry term for a very popular subset of memoir that includes books about mental illness (An Unquiet Mind), growing up in a crazy household (Jesus Land), eating disorders (Wasted), addiction (Drinking, A Love Story), surviving abuse (A Child Called It), difficult relationships and subsequent divorces (Happens Every Day), being the parent of a child with a disease or disorder (Schuyler’s Monster), and the list goes on and on. But of course there are uplifting memoirs, too—memoirs based on yearlong experiments (Julie and Julia), finding love in unlikely places (The Dirty Life), food glorious food (Blood, Bones, and Butter), traveling the world (Wanderlust), dance (Tango), parenting (Operating Instructions) . . . and this list too goes on and on and on.
So, what’s the point? That all memoirs must be easily identified for their theme—mental illness, abuse, food, travel, dance—but they all must have bigger umbrella themes too—becoming a different person, changing your life, going through a transformation, gaining a new perspective. The drill-down themes are the specific and nitty-gritty. They help to position your book and they do not need to be nuanced. But you will always have inherent themes—like the food in food memoir—and the more multilayered ones, like why cooking her way through Julia Child’s cookbook gave Julie Powell’s life new meaning. It takes the whole book to get there, but this subject of longing for meaning and finding it is certainly there—throughout.
The payoff of understanding your themes and making them work for you is felt by the reader of your book—whether that’s the agent who takes you on, the editor who buys your book, or your eventual reader. And theme is as important to the marketing of your book as it is to the writing. Knowing what your themes are (yes, you can have many) before you start is valuable (though not essential). Carrying them through the memoir is also hugely important. Every single chapter, in fact, should carry a theme, or two or three. For me, themes and through-threads are interchangeable. They’re what fuel the ah-has for your reader and probably, if you stop to think about it, what’s driving you to write your memoir in the first place.
If you can’t tell me in one sentence what your book is about, you’re not as clear as you need to be about your themes. Oftentimes my first exercise with someone when they approach me with a new idea for a memoir is to map out the themes of the book—well before we get to the outlining. So if you’re not 100% clear on this, do this exercise for yourself and for your book. It’s important for your memoir and critical for your proposal.
The Magic of Takeaways
As much as I think theme is important and I talk about it incessantly, if your book is lacking takeaways it’s completely unsalable. Lots of writers fail to truly express what their takeaways are because they think they’re inherent. For instance, you’re writing a book about an eating disorder and you get better and the takeaway is “things turned out.” But that’s not enough. Readers are looking for takeaways throughout the entire book. Just as a theme or two should run through every chapter, so should a takeaway. When I ask my clients to outline their books, I often require a takeaway sentence after each chapter summary. A takeaway might look something like this:
“Beauty is fleeting, and it’s not the only measure of a woman’s value. In this chapter the reader sees the author realizing for the first time that a man could love her for something deeper than her looks. This is a breakthrough moment for the author, and she ruminates on how she’s valued her beauty above all other qualities and how this has impacted her life.”
You’ll see that this is still about the author, but it’s an invitation for the reader to examine the ways in which she may have fallen prey to this kind of thinking. It invites the reader to examine broader social messaging and it is a subject that’s relatively universal. Even women who have not relied on their looks or who don’t feel defined by their beauty can relate to the sentiment of this takeaway in some capacity.
Just like theme, it’s good to know and understand your takeaways before you start writing. Or, if you’re already done with your memoir and you’ve never considered takeaways, find ways to go into the work and draw them out. Most likely they’re already there, laying tangled or hidden in the story. As the writer of a memoir, your job is to show them to the reader. You can do this subtly or overtly, depending on your voice, your style, and your skill.
I’m looking forward to talking with Linda Joy Myers this Friday, March 30, at 12.30 pm PST / 3.30 pm EST on the topic of writing in the digital age. We’ll be covering best strategies for keeping on top of your writing goals, tips for using digital content and publishing to build your platform, and the mindsets and skillsets you need for writing and publishing success! Join us for this information-packed one-hour call.