Narrative Non-Fiction and Memoir

All right, we’ve dealt with what we’re looking for in practical, prescriptive non-fiction.  Now onto the next biggest category of non-fiction that we get submissions for: narrative and memoir.

Let’s start with the good news — unlike with prescriptive, you don’t need those fancy letters after your name for narrative and memoir.  All you need is a good story.  And a platform.  For non-fiction, you always need a platform.  For Lauren Slayton, a key part of hooking editors for her Little Book of Thin was the fact that she has a Masters in Clinical Nutrition and has founded her own nutrition consulting business.  But for Jenny Feldon, all she needed for her Karma Gone Bad was her crazy, amazing experience being outsourced with her husband to India for a couple of years.

And a platform.  That she was a blogger and had a circle of blogger friends all ready and willing to blast out her publication went a long way to hooking an editor’s interest.

The other good news?  Like all other non-fiction, narrative and memoir non-fiction are pretty much sold on proposal.  That’s right, you do not necessarily need to have the entire book written before you sell it.  But it does mean that every single page and line and word in that proposal functions as a writing sample.  Even more so than practical non-fiction, your narrative or memoir proposal needs to serve as a microcosm for your book as a whole, so the proposal has to be a tight and exciting read, and capture the arc of the book.  Sometimes it is harder to capture that arc in a proposal than in a whole book.

Narrative and memoir can also be a little trickier than practical non-fiction, however, because at heart it’s not a book of information.  It’s a story.  Real life often doesn’t follow the rules of standard story-telling, but your narrative or memoir needs to be shaped as a story, with character growth and an arc — as in Karma Gone Bad, where in spite of her loneliness and the immediate, staggering culture shock, Jenny learned that her biggest problems were her expectations, and once she was able to accept India for what it was, she was able to enjoy and embrace it.  Narrative and memoir also needs a take-away, the perspective or lesson that your readers will carry with them after they turn the last page.  It’s something we look for when considering a proposal, and that editors ask us for when we’re pitching one.

That’s general stuff.  Now, what are we looking for with narrative/memoirs?  The biggest thing we’re looking for is something new — a perspective we haven’t seen before, an experience we haven’t heard about. Ben Mattlin’s Miracle Boy deals with his experience growing up with spinal dystrophy during the cusp of the disability rights movement.  His perspective was what set him apart. Instead of asking readers to pity him, he pretty much told readers how fantastic his life was, especially given his time in disability history.

We get a lot of submissions from people who have truly heart-breaking stories to tell — but, unfortunately, simply having a horrible experience isn’t enough to sell a book.  The memoir market is very crowded, and there are a lot of misery memoirs out there already (and misery memoirs aren’t really our thing).

What we’re also not looking for is general life stories. If your narrative starts at birth and ends at the present day without a hook, it’s not for us either. What’s a hook in narrative? Well, it’s something detailed that shapes the story. Tom Holland drafted a memoir about his rise in the personal trainer industry, and while it was his story, it was also an expose of gym culture. It aimed to do for gyms what Kitchen Confidential did for restaurants. His was the gimlet eye going behind the scenes and revealing all the dirty little secrets of such institutions as Crunch or Equinox or NY Sports Club. And it had personal growth along the way, how despite the sleaziness of the business, it was a saving grace for him.   While he ultimately did another book, Beat the Gym, instead, his narrative worked; it got us, and editors, interested.  The best part — readers could learn something, about him, about the industry, about what their trainer probably thought about them.

Another lesson to learn — the narrative can’t be too narrow. While one author’s experience going back to law school as a married woman in her 40s was fascinating and funny and well told, editors ultimately felt it was too specific and passed.

Just the other month at BEA, some of the editors we spoke to made a point of asking about ‘quirky’ memoirs, or experience-based narrative non-fiction.   If you’ve made a vow to eat as local as possible for a year and have spent the past twelve months turning your backyard into a fruit and vegetable garden, that’s a book (but it’s been written recently so if you’re doing that, give us a new element).  If you decided that you’re going to fulfill your lifelong dream of becoming an astronaut and want to chronicle your adventures in trying to make the cut, we’d love to see it.  If you have a memoir about your monster of an ex-husband and your struggle to reclaim your self-esteem after finally kicking him out, I’m very sorry, but that’s not really for us.

What it boils down to?  What we want out of narrative and memoir is what everyone wants out of a book: a good story.  One that we haven’t seen before, or with a new take on an old idea.  We want to see experiences that change people’s lives, how it changed them, their struggles, and how it made them better.

And, please, don’t forget about the platform.



2 Responses to Narrative Non-Fiction and Memoir

  1. Michael Kirkland July 14, 2015 at 3:11 pm #

    I have a complete, revised draft of my book and am working on the proposal. But I don’t really have a platform. Since I don’t yet have a blog or a website, I can’t claim an audience who are demanding publication of my book. Should that be the logical next step?

    I am working with a sophisticated writing group of biographers, historians, and another memoirist. Some are already published; others are well on their way. I’d like to be next!

    • Caitlen Rubino-Bradway July 15, 2015 at 4:17 pm #

      Hi Michael,

      I assume your book is non-fiction? If it is, then yes, you need some kind of platform. That doesn’t necessarily mean an audience (that’s your proposal’s marketing section). It could be a blog or a website, or a presence on social media. It could also be contacts you have to help promote your book – reporters you know or could realistically reach out to in order to promote your book. Local radio or tv shows you could get on. Do you give promotional talks where you could sell books? Every little bit helps. Publishers want to know that you have a way of getting your book into the public eye, because bookshelves are crowded and books easily get lost in the shuffle.


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