Thursday, January 21, 2016


Once the domain of celebrities, more and more writers of lesser fame are turning to the category of memoirs and autobiographies in the hopes of getting published. This non-fiction category has skyrocketed in popularity over the last few years and editors report that the competition is fierce, especially at regional presses. I am of the opinion that memoir is one of the most challenging to write well.

Writers should know the difference in the two forms. While both are written in the 1st person, autobiographies cover a whole life from birth to death, and memoirs focus on a period surrounding a life-changing experience in the writer’s life. Memoirs can also provide focus on a subject other than the writer: for example, the book by Queen Victoria’s personal physician.

If you write in the 3rd person, your category becomes “fiction based on fact.” The personal experience or personal essay category refers, not to books, but to short stories.

Both categories need a strong, unifying theme and throughlines (just like good fiction) to prevent rambling, shallow stories that are dissatisfying to your readers. Themes can be as simple as "love conquers all" or "honesty is the best policy," but be sure you have one and that it is well articulated in your manuscript, query letter, and proposal. A clear universality or thread, which transcends your life, makes readers relate to your story. It is not enough to simply recount the events in your life as you might for family members, however interesting they are.

Experts at a writers’ mini-conference advised writers that, to get accepted for commercial publication, memoirs and autobiographies must contain outstanding writing and voice. They also insisted that writers must be able to demonstrate much practice, membership in critique groups, participation in courses, and previous publication credits. Placing in a contest or two also encourages editors to want to read your proposal.

Although memoir and autobiography are nonfiction, submission requirements follow those of fiction. Query letters to agents/editors must have a one-page, character-based synopsis attached, just like a fiction query. Nowadays, when a publisher or agent invite you to provide more material, proposals for memoirs or autobiographies should have half the manuscript enclosed, not just two or three chapters, to prove the writer can sustain the theme and throughlines, pace, and interest.  

Make sure you know which publishers and editors want what and don’t send your query incorrectly. That’s a sure-fire recipe for rejection. Most publishers’ websites will tell how to submit the query about your memoirs or autobiography correctly, thus giving your work a fair chance. Good luck!

© Julie H. Ferguson 2015