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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Faces Come Out of the Rain


I have searched and googled and read and hunted. Is it better to
finish a memoir before querying? I have read that you MUST finish it,
I have read that it is better to propose and write after the book has
sold or at least the agent is on board to help shape the focus. What
do you prefer? Do you think most editors and agents are on the same

Thank you!

Dear James Frey:

This is an excellent question. And agents have differing opinions here. Generally, what I prefer is to give the publishers roughly 75 pages and a synopsis. I only do this, however, if the pages kill it and the author has some literary credentials such as prizes, publications, or is involved in some kind of literary world like Moth or, you know, has some following, maybe a popular blog, is a regular guest on This American Life, or has done something extraordinary that has garnered attention in the media. If the writer has nothing to help promote him or herself, then I suggest writing the entire book. As with a first novel, a memoir has to prove itself from beginning to end. There are always exceptions and different kinds of memoirs. And a selling strategy would have to take all of that into account.

Another great way to sell a memoir is off of a magazine piece. The first memoir I ever acquired when I was an editor was based on a Harper’s Magazine article. The agent submitted the article and a few more pages. Done. The next memoir I acquired was off a 30 or so page proposal. Later, when the writer was struggling with the book, I discovered that she had more than 800 of pages that were a mess. No surprise those weren’t included. We signed another memoir based on the sole endorsement of a very famous writer. Hell, people are selling their memoirs off of superb blogs such as Julie and Julia, or I’m Not the New Me, or It Sucked and Then I Cried. I believe I sold my own frickin’ memoir, Food and Loathing, on about 50 pages and a synopsis, but these pages included a scene where I describe how I want to smear chocolate custard all over the walls of a Dunkin’ Donuts, which I believe I refer to as a pink and orange shitbox. I mean, who wouldn’t pay cash for that?

No matter how you sell it, you still have to write it, and make it true-ish. Anyone have a good memoir story? Especially how you tried to sell one. Or recommend your favorite memoirs. Oh, and dearest darling readers, thanks for all the comments this week. I love the rodeo. Betsy

29 Responses

  1. I recently read, then saw the movie: Catch me if you Can by Frank Abagnale. I think the book was ghost written but it’s an amazing story of someone posing for years as a commercial pilot. All time favorites: The Long Walk: the story of Slavomir Rawicz: His trek to Freedom from a Russian prison camp.

  2. Misadventures by Sylvia Smith: a great book, a unique memoir, a literary sensation, only in the UK could a memoir be praised for being “banal and weirdly compelling” and find a huge readership. I LOVE this book — a memoir with ZERO introspection.

    Stacy Horn’s memoir has the best title ever: Waiting For My Cats To Die.

    I can’t wait to read August’s memoir.

    • I am the most boring person conceivable. My memoir would read like an empty three-ring binder.

      That said, the title of my current chapter is: “I got an editorial letter last Wednesday and am still fighting the urge to respond with a hearty, ‘Fuck you. You’re paying me sub-living-wages, you twenty-something dilettante. And I’ve seen line edits before. This is not them.'”

      Someone talk me down. I want to walk away from the deal. (Honey, if you read this? I’m not going to walk away from the deal.)

      • Just stop with the queries that are answered on the next page. Please. I beg of you. Page 45: Why did Frank run toward the river? Page 46: “Frank cringed as the enemy flyer roared overhead. But the thermal scanners couldn’t lock onto him this close to the river.”

        Page 61: “What is a top hat?”

      • Page 112: ‘The three-bladed mini-copter shot through the ducts.’
        Page 156: ‘The mini-copter landed in the palm of his hand, its three blades slowing from a blur.’

        Page 133: Query: “How many blades does the mini-copter have?”

        I wouldn’t get this shit if I wrote a memoir about how crappy my life is.

  3. I wrote a personal essay for Nerve.com that was voted one of the top 10 of ’08. An agent saw it, liked it, and contacted me. (!) I hadn’t even started writing, really, when she asked me to give her a detailed outline and two chapters. Before I could do that, however, she left publishing to return to the law.

    For the best, I think. I’m not sure you want someone else poking their nose in your head at the very beginning of the process. And being my recovering Southern Baptist, guilt-ridden self, I might have ended up writing a book that was really hers rather than my own. That would’ve sucked. Hard.

    So yeah, I still have to write it. Working on that. And everyone just needs to leave me alone for a while so I can stew.


    p.s. As a reader, I don’t care much for memoirs. I don’t know what the hell to do with that.

    • No, no, Angela, don’t give up on enjoying the genre. Saying you don’t like memoir is akin to saying you don’t like food (a possibility, I suppose, but then FOR SURE we can’t be friends). There are so many styles to choose from. What kind of fiction do you like? Who are your favorite contemporary writers?

  4. I’m going to stick to talking about memoirs I love, because talking about my own memoir’s journey to publication makes me want to light my hair on fire, just for the fun of it. I am slowly dying of terminal encouragement. Let’s just leave it at that.

    Nick Flynn’s memoirs, ANOTHER BULLSHIT NIGHT IN SUCK CITY and THE TICKING IS THE BOMB are spectacular.

    I loved Stephen Elliott’s THE ADDERALL DIARIES and Lauren Slater’s LYING, Mark Doty’s HEAVEN’S COAST and DOG YEARS, ooh, and Abigail Thomas’s THREE DOG LIFE and SAFEKEEPING, Michael Ondaatje’s RUNNING IN THE FAMILY, JoAnn Beard’s THE BOYS OF MY YOUTH, and, seriously, I could go on all day here, people.

    Memoir is like the leopard print of the lit world: some people loathe it, some adore it. If you wear it well, it’s spectacular, but there are a million incarnationsout there that are just a big helping of “oh, honey, NO.” And now we’re in that phase where everyone has worn the shit out of it and–unless you’re rocking a serious pedigree or an epic sense of style–it may be time for mothballs. And by “you” I mean me, because I’m clearly INCAPABLE of not talking about myself for more than three seconds. Sigh. I know those matches are around here somewhere.

  5. Memoir is weird. Why should I give a shit about you? Why should you give a shit about me? All the published novelists and editors I’ve spoken with tell me to forget memoir and make it a novel. Which I have not. My own memoir (Small Town, Big Cocktails) is a humorous tale about leaving a stable social work career to open a wild cocktail lounge when I didn’t even know how the heck to make a gin and tonic. For now, I’m submitting segments of my memoir to magazines to try to get a bigger foot into the publishing door.

  6. Nothing has ever happened to me worth writing about, sadly. But I do love memoirs. Reading a really good one is like making a fascinating new friend who doesn’t expect you to call all the time.

    Ellen Graf’s THE NATURAL LAWS OF GOOD LUCK — in spite of its instantly forgettable title — is one of the best I’ve read recently. It’s about Graf’s impulsive marriage to a Chinese man when neither of them spoke the other’s language or understood much about their respective cultures. It’s incredibly funny and idiosyncratic.

    Michael Greenberg’s HURRY DOWN SUNSHINE, which is about his daughter’s mental illness, is beautiful and brilliant, and Betsy, you’d love it.

    Debra Gwartney’s LIVE THROUGH THIS, about her runaway daughters, is disturbing and fascinating. One thing l like it about it how she allows herself to be totally unlikeable.

    I guess I like memoirs about people trying to make sense of inscrutable loved ones. Abigail Thomas’s, mentioned in the above comment, is like that too.

    • You are the third trusted writer who has mentioned Hurry Down Sunshine, so I must read it. I think I’ve been avoiding it because I don’t want to take in the father’s point of view. It might mean letting go of a bit of my rage and then what would I do?

      • He never ever condescends to his daughter — takes her absolutely seriously. Really, it’s a thing of beauty.

        I forgot Elizabeth McCracken’s AN EXACT REPLICA OF A FIGMENT OF MY IMAGINATION. I usually *hate* books about dead babies/children, but this one’s different.

        Oh, yeah, and duh, AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FACE!

  7. I’m currently reading Perfection by Julie Metz, which I love. That could be because I see so much of myself and my marriage in her story.

  8. I love all of M.F.K. Fisher, especially “Stay Me, Oh, Comfort Me” where she circles around the grief she never throws off for the love of her long and well written life.

    However, the conceit that truth trumps fiction for reader interest bores the shit out of me. Art is art. You can either make it work in long prose form or you can’t.

  9. I rarely read memoirs though Adderall was good. I’m halfway into Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS, after hearing her on the radio, and I am completely blown away by the quality of the writing. That (for me) is often missing in memoirs.

  10. I like David Sedaris’ episodic memoirs, if you can call them that. Banana Yoshimoto has a similarly vignette-like approach that I enjoy. A number of David Foster Wallace’s semi-autobiographical essays have qualities I wish I found in more memoirs.

    Of all the bio-species, I prefer correspondence.

  11. […] Lerner Faces Come Out of the Rain Agent Betsy Lerner gives her take on—and experience with—selling memoirs. Finish it first? Or […]

  12. here are some of my favorites….
    – Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (Nick Flynn)
    – Fun Home (Alison Bechdel)
    – The Burn Journals (Brent Runyon)
    – My Bondage and My Freedom (Frederick Douglas)
    – A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers)
    – Nothing To Do But Stay (Carrie Young)
    – Running With Scissors (Augusten Burroughs)
    – Palimpsest (Gore Vidal)
    – The Underdog (Joshua Davis)
    – The Game (Neil Strauss)
    – Just Kids (Patti Smith)
    – Coyote Medicine (Lewis Mehl-Madrona)
    – Oh The Glory Of It All (Sean Wilsey)
    – A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beahl)
    – Dreams From My Father (Barack Obama)
    – Jarhead (Anthony Swofford)
    AND…. Fear and Loathing by our beautiful friend BETSY!

  13. There is a smiley face in the grey background of your blog…it’s about an inch to the right of the “Ask A Question” header.

    Why? Also, how did you do that? It’s cute.

  14. My Oscar categories:

    Good-But-Not-Great: Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club.”

    Wet-My-Pants-Funny: Shalom Auslander’s “Foreskin’s Lament.”

    Meh: Jacki Lyden’s “Daughter of the Queen of Sheba,” Abigail Thomas’s “A Three Dog Life.”

    Ne Plus Ultra: Tobias Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life.”

    Also, check out Ben Yagoda’s “Memoir” — a breezy, readable history of the form, and my first e-book purchase — as well as Daniel Mendelsohn’s recent awesome essay in the New Yorker.

  15. I’m in the process of shopping my memoir around now. Comments from agents have been interesting. The writing and voice seem to have appeal, but it’s admittedly a “quiet” memoir, without a “high bar” that editors look for. It’s going to be difficult, I think, to find the right match. And even if I make it past this first hurdle (finding an agent), I suspect that finding an editor to take it on will be another difficult process. But I’m digging in for the long haul!

    Memoir is pretty much all I read. My favorites: “In the Wilderness” by Kim Barnes and “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel. “Fun Home,” in my opinion, is a near-perfect memoir.

    • Rachael, I’m interested to know what makes yours a “quiet” memoir. I, too, read mostly memoirs because, well, I find fact much more engaging than fiction.

      Betsy’s books rule, of course, but I also love David Sedaris, Jeannette Walls, Frank McCourt, Malachy McCourt, etc. There’s so much to learn from other people’s escapades. Please tell me what yours is about. I’m nearing the end of mine, which is a funny coming of age story about my young writing life and pathetic excuse of a marriage and how I overcame both. Thanks for sharing!

  16. Elizabeth McCracken’s “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination” was beautiful, considering the subject matter. But perhaps I say that because I am a deadbabymama myself.

  17. Virginia–You don’t have to have gone through such an experience to think McCracken’s “Figment” is beautiful. Many of my other faves have been mentioned here, but I’ll third “Hurry Down Sunshine” and add Natalie Kusz’s “Road Song” and Karen Armstrong’s “The Spiral Staircase.”

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