When your story is not the one a publisher wants to tell
Words by Vanessa Potter
Let me get one thing out of the way straight away. Your story is very important; it matters. It matters a whole lot, because it happened to you. It’s really crucial to say that – and I mean it.
Everyone’s experiences are unique. Experience shaped the person you were, the person you are now and the person you will become. And, what’s more, we learn from our experiences and when we tell our stories, others learn from us.
But, here comes the tricky bit; the proverbial fly in the ointment. Your experience, which may have been life changing, life affirming, sensational or traumatic, may not be one a publisher wants to tell. That is the hard, unfriendly truth. However, whether a publisher chooses to publish your story often bears no relation to the importance of what you have to say.
Having penned a memoir and trodden the precarious path to publication, I have compiled five reasons why you might choose to publish a memoir, and five reasons why you might chose not to. This may sound a little negative, but writing a memoir is no easy feat.
It’s worth really thinking about what is involved and how the process might impact you and your life. I also want to separate out the act of writing from the business of publishing. No-one can tell you not to write your own story and if they do, ignore them.
Writing – expressing how you feel and what you have learnt – is always your choice. This can be cathartic and a profoundly beneficial part of processing a serious illness for example. I am merely focusing on what to consider, should you want people, other than your own family, to read your story.
Five reasons not to publish a memoir
1. Because no-one will read it. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s the first question you must ask. Is your story one that people want to hear?
If you shout indignantly, yes of course it is! ask yourself the question again. But my mum cried when she read a bit and my friends say I should do it! Yup, that still isn’t reason enough.
Is your story new, unusual or at the very least, a refreshing take on a common subject? Your family are not the best judge – they are inherently biased and so they should be – so it is worth asking further afield, then ask yourself: what insights can you offer, that others have not?
Check out the market. Look for books on your topic, written by people like you. Look at what sold well – what were readers interested in and why? Doctor and medical memoirs are a growing market; Do no Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh was hugely successful because if offered a personalised view of a profession that the public rarely got to see.
If you come into that genre, make sure you know what others before you have done, how they tackled their subject and why your book will be different. Even if you’re not writing this style of memoir, the principles are the same. Your story needs to stand out.
2. Because you have an axe to grind. Be wary of this one. Those axes are not always obvious.
You can tell you have fallen into the vengeance trap when you find yourself feeling satisfied when you portray someone in your story in an unpleasant light. You have the choice to describe incidents in the way you experienced them and that can include unacceptable behaviour from others; but it is a fine line.
Do not take the moral high ground, unless you really need to. If you find yourself writing a vengeful fantasy scene, stop. It’s very visible to others and whilst it might make you feel better in the short run, it may damage relationships in the long run.
If you feel you just have to get it out of your system – do that, just don’t include it in the book. Writing memoir has a responsibility that goes hand in hand with the process. You can only ever write from your perspective, readers will respect that –but they can tell when you have toppled over into self-satisfying retribution and it doesn’t go down well.
3. You have a very private life and wouldn’t want to share ‘too much’.
This is rocky ground. Of course, you don’t have to tell readers everything, but you do need to go beneath the surface. We want to get to know you and probably those close to you. Readers want to go through this journey with you and if you are guarded and hold back too much, they won’t engage.
If your mum really doesn’t want you to write a memoir about your childhood, consider that. It’s a responsibility to expose your life to the public and open yourself up for criticism (and you inevitably will get some) but it’s a different matter opening up your partner, parents, children or close family to that too.
You can of course, write anonymously, but I always wonder how powerful that is. In Educated, Tara Westover wrote about her survivalist family upbringing, yet the people in her past are kept anonymous. If you are writing about people in your present life, people you love and who live with you — you might want to make sure they are on board first, for they will be on this ride with you.
4. You’re just not sure you want to do it. Everyone is telling you to tell your story – but it’s you who’s not sure. Hesitation or procrastination is normally a clear sign I’m not comfortable with something.
Only you can decide what is holding you back. But, if spilling the beans on your own life feels a bit much, perhaps you can fictionalise your story instead. Jem Lester’s Shtum: A funny and uplifting story of families and love, is a fictionalised account of living with his son’s severe autism.
Rather than tell the story of the long drawn-out legal battle to get his son the specialised care he needs, Lester fictionalised the whole story. This allowed him some distance and a little more privacy for his son and family. It also allowed him to play with characters and add humour into what might otherwise have been a heavy read. Readers know the story is based upon his own experiences, but there is a line drawn in the sand.
If you’re still not sure, imagine if a made-up character told your story for you – how does that feel now?
5. You don’t know where to start. This is a typical memoir-writing problem. I’ve heard it said that this is the hardest genre to write, simply because you have so much content to pick from.
Do you include childhood memories? Do you start in the present or the past? Are there social or philosophical points you want to make?
If these are your dilemmas, then maybe don’t write your memoir straight away. Consider trialing your writing. You can do this in a number of ways: using beta readers to test out different approaches to structure the content, or you can try writing a blog.
This is a useful way to test the water. I started telling my story via a blog and got 1,200 hits in the first week. In truth, I had no idea what I was doing, I just wrote about my descent into blindness in the present tense and in a linear fashion.
This gave readers a real-time voyeuristic view into what happened day-by-day. I wasn’t being clever (sadly) – I was writing from the heart. When I got an email from a follower in Australia asking what time I was posting the next day (because she was going to be on a train with no Wifi) I realised she was reading my blog like a book.
The blog metrics gave me insights that were invaluable, allowing me to track readers’ habits. Did they read in sequence? Were there common factors that made some sections more visited than others? I realised posts that included dark humour spiked in popularity and this ‘road-testing’ helped when I came to write the book for real.
5 reasons why you should write your memoir
1. Because you’re happy to take your time.
Don’t expect to know everything all at once, learn as you go along. Evolve (imagine me saying that in a long, drawn-out voice). Be prepared for your final draft to be significantly different from the one you started. The writing process in itself is a healing one and throws up things we might not expect to find.
Embrace the unexpected – it’s probably great content. It’s okay to sometimes get lost along the way, as long as you keep your reader with you and you are kind to yourself. Writing my memoir (if I was to include the 10,000 words I wrote on my blog) took two and a half years.
Unlocking memories has a knock-on effect and the brain needs time to process whatever comes up. It’s likely that whatever you write about has emotional potency, so be respectful of that and allow yourself time to deal with it.
2. Because you have all the support you need. If you think writing a memoir is a solitary process, think again.
You will need access not only to your own memories, notebooks or files, but also your family’s, those involved in the story and even external experts you consult.
It takes time to amass and disseminate interviews and information from other parties. I include emotional support in this, too. Consider being part of a writing group, as revisiting painful memories can be challenging. I found myself visiting my GP confused as to why I was suddenly experiencing insomnia. When I explained I was spending eight hours a day writing about the horror of my sight loss, my doctor grimaced. ‘That’ll do it,' she rightly said. I was far more careful after that.
3. Because you know why you are writing your story. Bear with me on this one, it’s actually a very important point.
You need to know why you are writing your memoir to maintain the integrity of your story. If you are educating the public about an unknown condition, or highlighting the sorry plight of the NHS, or simply giving a novel insight into what it is like to be a teacher, soldier or sportsperson – be ready to explain why you are doing this.
You will have to fight your corner and deal with a marketing team who will want to distill your life-story into a pithy one-liner. So you’ll need to be very clear on your own intentions and be prepared to fight for them.
4. Because you have a unique voice.
You’d think this was an obvious one, but I found this quite hard. The tone and style of your writing is very important, whatever genre you write in.
Are you approaching your story in a lighthearted, dramatic or lyrical way. Are you using a lot of dialogue? Is your writing highly descriptive or funny? Humour works well in memoirs, readers tend to warm to a self-effacing storyteller.
That’s not to say confident and self-assured writers need not apply. Readers aren’t looking for heroines; invariably they want to read about real people like them. Of course, I have to separate out memoirs from famous people here, but even then, read a few of these and you’ll be surprised at how normal they sound.
Being able to relate to the author is the main thing a reader is looking for.
5. Because you’re prepared to be honest. Let’s face it, this is the most important one. Your story has to be timely and cover a subject audiences haven’t heard about, yes – but it has to be a genuine account.
It has to be true. You can only ever speak your own truth, but make sure it is. If you twist it a bit to make it sound better, readers will call you out. The truth, with all of its warts and lumpy bits is what readers are after. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but it does need to be true.