Frequently asked questions about why and how to publish a memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Read my book, Memoir Revolution, about how turning your life into a story can change the world.

Once you write your memoir, you are ready to find readers. That means creating a book, and letting potential readers know why they should read it. Here are some answers to Frequently Asked Questions about the ins and outs of taking that next step.

Why should I seek readers?

There are many reasons why memoir writers want readers. You may want to be known or validated. You may want to make money. You may hope your story will teach a lesson, or leave a legacy, or share a witness to history.

My favorite reason for wanting to publish is that when you extend your mind toward strangers, you must become a smart communicator, shaping your thoughts so they are understandable. As you form your life into a story that can be understood by others, you become a storyteller. What does that mean? A storyteller provides the right amount of background, artfully steering between the extremes of too much information and too little. From the beginning, your protagonist draws readers in and motivates them to turn the page. After you find even one stranger who is willing to read your story, you have assumed a new role, as a contributor to the vast pool of literature that makes us a literate civilization.

Why would strangers read about my life?

People read stories for all kinds of reasons: for entertainment, information, curiosity, and escape. Memoirs break down barriers, inviting readers to set aside their own lives for a few hours while they walk in yours. Even ordinary lives, when written in a well-crafted story, can fulfill the reader’s interest.

Is it possible to actually publish this thing?

Traditionally, to publish a book you convinced someone to edit, print, and distribute your work. These days, if no company will perform these services for you, you can do them yourself. To decide how to steer through all these options, you need to do plenty of research and learn the pros and cons of each path.

Self Publishing Pros and Cons

Self publishing requires that you do everything yourself. In addition to writing the book, you need to figure out a title, hire a cover designer and an editor, choose a printer. And then once you print it, you must convince people to buy it.

Publishing the book puts you in complete control, and after you hold the book in your hands, you will be a “Publisher.” For some people, this is a fulfilling accomplishment in its own right. If you want to call yourself a Publisher then you have been born at a perfect time. It has never been easier or cheaper. But it is not free. It takes money and time, and very few self-published authors even break even, let alone make a profit.

Commercial Publishing Pros and Cons

To publish commercially, the hurdles are formidable. You must write a detailed proposal in which you describe what your book is about, who will buy it and how many you will sell. The proposal must be good enough to make some agent reach for the phone to offer you a contract. But it’s up to you to find that agent. This requires an astonishing reservoir of tenacity. Many successful writers have persisted despite hundreds of rejections.

If one agrees to represent you, they must then convince a publisher that your book will be a good investment. You then will work with the publisher to finish and edit the book, and then after the writing is complete, the selling begins. The publisher who buys your proposal expects you to arrange speaking engagements and book signings, and actively promote yourself on the internet.

Caught in the middle, which path should I take?

Some writers feel clear about which route to take. For example, if you are a lecturer, and simply want to offer your audiences a printed version of your material, self publishing is an obvious choice. At the other extreme, if you dream of the day your novel will be a bestseller, you will continue to look for an agent until you find one.

However, many writers are indecisive. They would be delighted to see their book on the shelf at bookstores, but don’t know how to get into the system. Naturally, there is the quality issue. Writers must constantly strive to improve their craft and product. But there is no way to know if the fault is quality or salesmanship. Writers face this choice: a) continue to develop the book, b) strive harder to find an agent, or c) publish it themselves.

There are many factors to weigh, such as the amount of money and effort you are willing to invest at various stages, your beliefs about which path is most rewarding, and your choice of mentors. There are strong advocates of each path. You will also be governed by your patience or lack of it. It all takes time. Common wisdom is that from the time you start proposing a book for commercial publication, two years or more could elapse before the book is on the shelf. Whereas if you publish it yourself, you could be shipping it electronically in weeks.

How will eBooks affect my choices?

Authors can now can distribute electrons instead of paper, which completely changes the economics. No longer must we cut trees, print books, ship them to bookstores and customers. However, the transition will mean we must relinquish our relationship with those old familiar physical objects.

I feel a sort of warmth, connection, and even reverence when I think of all the years I spent pulling books down from the bookshelf at the library or bookstore, turning them over, thumbing through them. The tactile relationship seems so intimately associated in my mind with the whole business of reading. What would it have been like to grow up without that?  I’m not sure if the coming world of eBooks will be better or worse, but I am sure it will be different.

Will the Publishing Industry die?

While options have increased exponentially, it requires specialized skills to move a book from your desk to the hands of readers. To do it effectively, we need help from experts. Collectively, those experts are called the Publishing Industry. The economics and technology are changing, but we continue to need specialists who know how to reach readers.

How much will I make?

Financial rewards are tantalizing and like the proverbial carrot, draw us on, but in reality most authors earn a modest sum from their sale to a commercial publisher and self-publishers often spend more money than they earn.

For more answers to frequently asked questions see these articles:

Answers to Frequently asked questions about “How to write a memoir”

Frequently asked questions about “Should I write a memoir?”

Frequently expressed fears about publishing a memoir

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Frequently expressed fears about publishing a memoir

by Jerry Waxler

After writing their memoir, many people stop at the threshold, worried what they might encounter in the world of public storytelling. In this section, I answer Frequently Asked Questions about the fears that block memoir writers before their work reaches the world.

What if I’m too shy to sell my book?

If you feel shy about revealing your life, try to break the task down into small, achievable steps. In my experience, the safest first audience are your fellow aspiring writers who may share some of your anxieties and hopes. By joining a critique group, you can audition your material and get feedback. Try a few more critique groups and after a while you’ll feel more confident. A good next step is a blog. This free self-publishing tool allows you to share your life with one tiny corner of the vast universe of the public. As your blog grows, hopefully your confidence will too. Eventually sharing your story will feel more natural.

Will going public place me in danger?

No one can guarantee safety, and so, all of us must steer between the extremes of paralyzing fear and bold action. To keep fear in its rightful place, think of it as an advisor, and not a master.

Will I be sued or hated?

It’s relatively easy for someone to sue you, and even if their legal grounds are frivolous, you must defend yourself. As a result, you may imagine potential law suits lurking on every page. How do memoir writers make peace with this possibility? The first line of defense is to realize that someone will need to go to a lot of trouble and expense to sue you, so probably mere annoyance will not be enough to provoke this sort of response.

Some writers say that the very people who they thought would hate the book were flattered to see themselves in print. Some, like Linda Wisniewski say it’s her story and other people are entitled to their reaction. Others, like Sue William Silverman, wait until their abuser has passed. She was afraid her relatives would hate her for outing her father’s abuse, but instead they reached out to her and empathized, wishing they could somehow turn the clock back to those years and protect her. In, “Crazy Love,” Leslie Morgan Steiner’s first husband was one of the most abusive men I have seen in nonfiction. She apparently came to some sort of agreement with him before the book went to press. Here are a few other ways writers minimize the risk of incurring wrath:

  • By including more than one point of view you can imply that your own observations are your subjective reality, and others may differ.
  • Skip or only hint at the most incriminating observations.
  • Alter facts to obscure the person’s identity.
  • Write fiction.

Must I reveal every aspect of my life?

Writing a memoir initially seems like it may expose you to ridicule. Once you actually reveal secrets, you may be surprised to discover that your confessions make you appear to be a deeper, more authentic character. No longer under pressure to keep secrets, you trade in privacy for self-confidence. “I am who I am, and did what I did.” By telling your secrets, you become a more open and energetic contributor to your culture.

Of course, there may be parts of your life you still prefer to keep to yourself. You may want to protect your family and friends, or you may still be processing part of yourself that is not yet ready for public scrutiny. As you experiment in your drafts and critique groups, you gain discernment about which parts of yourself to reveal and which to keep private.

What if my sister or brother disagrees?

Even in casual situations, people have different recollections of the same event. Sometimes you can agree to disagree. Other times, the disagreement escalates, loaded with surprising tension, and a struggle for ownership of the past.

Some memoir writers weave disagreements right into their story. For example, “The Kids are all right,” by Diana Welch, “Night of the Gun,” by David Carr, “Mistress’s Daughter,” by A.M. Homes, and “My Father’s House” by Miranda Seymour.

If appropriate, discuss your memories with those who were involved, seeking to understand their point of view. Foster Winans, in an early draft of his memoir “Trading Secrets” painted a dark, damaging portrait of his mother. She read the draft, and they talked for hours, turning the pain into an opportunity for understanding. The published version took this new, deeper appreciation into account.

In the end, this is your story and you have the right to tell it. In fact, gaining confidence and ‘ownership” of your own life story is one of the greatest benefits of writing it.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Answers to Frequently asked questions about “How to write a memoir”

by Jerry Waxler

This is the third entry in my series of answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Memoir Writing. These are some of the questions I hear about how to write a memoir.

Why does my past feel vague or ordinary?

As our days slip into the past, we toss the memories into the storage bins of mind where they grow dusty and tangled. As we look back on them in their disorganized state, naturally they look unkempt. In raw form, memories are merely a conglomeration, not a story.

When someone tells you about any event, whether a baseball game, a childhood memory, or a tour of duty on a battlefront, your interest will be generated as much by the shaping of the story as by the actual experience.

What turns life into Story?

To recreate your story, you root through the pile, pull out bits, line them up, and link them together. That is an introspective art, requiring frank exploration through old dreams and experiences. To create an interesting story from these parts, you need to develop storytelling skills by attending writing conferences and workshops, reading books about writing, and reading memoirs. Then practice, practice, practice.

Start to gather the events of your life into chronological order, and write the scenes as if you are there. Then look for the motivations and obstacles that caused you to solve problems and grow. When stirred in the right proportion, these ingredients create a magical potion to transport readers to an alternate reality.

How do successful authors improve the readability of their work?

All successful writers hone language skills to present readable prose that makes sense and keeps readers reading. Here are some of their ingredients:

—    Metaphors
—    Speculation about what others were thinking
—    Humor
—    Background material about the community and times

In addition to language arts, you will stimulate your readers’ emotions by using “emotional arts.” For example,

—    Guide the reader along lines of the protagonist’s desire
—    Offer glimpses of frustration or foreboding
—    Build up suspense before revealing solutions
—    Include only scenes that contribute to dramatic impact

Can I embellish scenes to make my story more interesting?

Memoir writers employ a variety of methods to make memories more readable. Some examples:

—    Combine several minor characters into one
—    Combine or prune repetitive incidents into one that represents the pattern.
—    Sharpen a scene by guessing at details, such as the color or style of clothing.
—    Invent specific dialog to convey the essence.

Depending on where you draw the border between truth and art, you might love these techniques or hate them. Since no governing body can dictate whether they are right or wrong, you must choose your own path. Whichever way you decide, you will explicitly state your contract with your reader in the front matter, explaining your attitude towards composites and accuracy.

Should I use flashbacks?

Once you understand the straight story, there are several reasons to modify the sequence:

—    Sneak backstory into a flashback.
—    Dive into the thick of things. Then rewind to the first event. – “In medeas res”
—    Bounce back and forth between two characters’ points of view
—    Essays follow the logic of ideas, not a chronology of events.

If you see a perfect opportunity to write out of order, take it. But if you want to keep it simple and straightforward, that’s okay too.

Other answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Memoir Writing

Frequently Asked Questions about Published Memoirs

Frequently asked questions about “Should I write a memoir?”

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Frequently asked questions about “Should I write a memoir?”

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second installment in my series of answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Memoir Writing. This list focuses on questions about why and if you should write a memoir.

Who are these people who would read about my life?

Your written account of life could help friends and family know you better. You may have group members or people with a similar set of experiences who would be curious to know more about what you went through. If you are promoting a cause, your memoir might appeal to people who are interested. And if it is well-written and satisfies other criteria of the marketplace, you may earn the attention of strangers.

Why would strangers read about my life?

People read stories for all kinds of reasons: for entertainment, information, curiosity, and escape. Memoirs break down barriers, inviting readers to set aside their own lives for a few hours while they walk in yours. Even ordinary lives, when written in a well crafted story, can fulfill the reader’s needs.

I’m not a professional writer. How can I write a memoir?

No matter what your current level of expertise, this writing goal provides a wonderful opportunity for self-expression and introspection. And attempting to improve your writing skill will turn into an invigorating quest. Take classes, attend conferences, and workshops and get feedback from peers and editors. And by simply writing regularly you will improve. In addition, the neurological exercise is good for your brain.

Am I too old?

Harry Bernstein published his memoir “Invisible Wall” when he was 93. It was about growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Great Britain in the era of World War I. After the book was published, he immediately began working on his second, “The Dream”.

Am I too young?

Zlata Filopovic started writing her memoir when she was 10. “Zlata’s Diary,” about growing up in war torn Sarajevo, became a bestseller.

Does writing my memoir make me a narcissist?

To communicate their lives, memoir writers learn how to reach towards strangers. While learning this skill, writers read memoirs, an activity which expands empathy even further. In fact, writing a memoir might be one of the best antidotes to narcissism.

Related essay: Is it narcissistic to write your memoir?

Is writing a memoir therapeutic?

Through the course of decades, recollections accumulate in ever higher heaps. When we try to make sense of this jumble, some events are obscured while others jut out with exaggerated importance. To reclaim our past, we are aided by scrapbooks and photo albums, but for the most part, our past is stored in a hodge-podge of mental images that come to mind in any order they please.

By writing your story, you record events in a sensible sequence, welded together by emotional and historical forces. The story brings together your entire self, increasing your clarity about who you are e. In addition, you gain deeper appreciation for all the characters who have acted on your stage.

Related Essay:  Is a memoir therapeutic?

Other answers to Frequently Asked Questions about Memoir Writing

Frequently Asked Questions about Published Memoirs

For more memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Frequently asked questions about published memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Aspiring memoir writers ask me all kinds of questions, like “What’s your favorite?” or “How about those Million Little Pieces?” or “What is a memoir, anyway?” I will answer many of these common questions in groups, over the next month or two. Today’s questions are about published memoirs. Please feel free to add comments, questions or answers of your own.

What is a memoir?

In the old days, before 2000, memoirs were mainly to let people learn about famous people. Since the beginning of the Twenty First Century, definitions have changed. Now, memoirs are well-written stories, often about ordinary people. Published memoirs traverse the spectrum of human experience including Coming of Age, romance, war, family, mental and physical illness, career, religion, care giving, aging, culture clash, and the journey of self-discovery.

What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?

Until a few years ago, an “autobiography” was considered to be a historical record of a person’s life, without much effort to find a compelling story line. Such lifeless books are a dying breed. Nowadays, the term autobiography can refer to any first person attempt to communicate authentic human experience, crafted into well-told dramas. In fact, a book with the label “autobiography” may contain as much dramatic tension and character development as a book that calls itself a memoir.

For more on this subject, see my essay titled: Your Autobiography is the First Step Towards Writing Your Memoir

What is the difference between a memoir and a novel based on a true story?

Some novels claim they are based on actual events. This assertion does not offer readers much guidance. For all we know, only a thin web of facts links the story to reality, leading to endless speculation about where truth ends and fiction begins. However, if the book is to fulfill the charter of fiction, all scenes must serve the dramatic tension, whether they are true or not.

For example, the novel “Power of One” by Bryce Courtenay was billed as “fiction based on his life,” so Courtenay was free to create any scenes that propelled his story. The book ends in a life and death confrontation between two enemies, a scene filled with dramatic impact, but so slick and coincidental I can’t imagine it happened in real life.

By contrast, memoirs follow facts. Since life situations seldom wrap up with a tidy ending, memoirs tend to be rougher-hewn, sometimes ending on a philosophical note. Kate Braestrup’s powerful book “Here If you Need Me” ends with an analysis of Good and Evil, which flows as a beautiful conclusion to the story.

What is the difference between a memoir and a diary?

The goal of most diaries is to pour words onto paper, without intending it to be read by a stranger. You may not even intend to reread it yourself. By contrast, a memoir is crafted to communicate with strangers. To achieve this goal, the first draft is only the beginning. It may require years to learn the skills and develop the compelling stories.

What is your favorite memoir?

To research memoirs, I have been reading them for several years, and comment on the ones that interested me and which I believe would provide insight to other memoir writers. I have posted annotated list of books, each one offering a window into someone’s world while at the same time providing examples of the way an author translated life into story.

Here is my first list with more than 70 memoirs, annotated with comments.

Here are ten more books with mini-reviews.

It’s hard to say which ones are my favorites. The answer depends on what you are looking for. My favorite memoir of “good versus evil” is Kate Braestrup’s “Here If You Need Me.” My favorite ones driven by the writer’s voice are, “A Girl Named Zippy” and “She Got Up Off the Couch,” both by Haven Kimmel, and “Liar’s Club” by Mary Karr. My favorite for giving me permission to be a nerd is John Robison’s “Look Me in the Eye.” My favorites for insight into the workings of recent history are “Man on Mao’s Right” by Ji Chaozhu, “Crazy for God” by Frank Schaeffer, and “The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood” by Helene Cooper. My favorite for overcoming the darkness of an unsupported childhood is “Don’t Call me Mother,” by Linda Joy Myers. My favorite for allowing me to explore the dark side of human experience from the safety of my room are: “Slow Motion” by Dani Shapiro, “Lucky,” by Alice Sebold, and “A Temporary Sort of Piece” by Jim McGarrah. My favorite for a year in a motor home is “Queen of the Road” by Doreen Orion. And an even cleverer transformation of travel into memoir is “Zen and Now” in which author Mark Richardson takes a motorcycle ride along the road originally travelled by Robert Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” How Zen is that? Each month I find new categories, and new favorites.

“Are memoirs true?” or “How about those Million Little Pieces”?

When James Frey’s memoir “Million Little Pieces,” was selected for Oprah’s book club, his sales skyrocketed. Then Oprah discovered that parts of the book were fiction. Summoning the offender to her television show, she rebuked him in front of millions of viewers. Like an angered parent, she furrowed her brow, tightened her lips, and leaning close said menacingly, “How dare you?” The incident affected our culture so broadly that for more than a year the topic of memoirs almost always provoked a question “How about Oprah and that guy who lied?” Her outburst did more than expose one case of fraud. It raised a much more troubling problem. How can we trust memoir authors when we can’t even prove the accuracy of our own memories? My advice: Speak your own truth, and do your best to surround yourself with others who wish to do the same.

To read my whole essay about truth in memoirs, click here.