Memoir-a pesky category buster at best

I've helped a friend prepare her memoirs for publication (she's elderly, not computer savy and a bit disorganized now; she stopped writing 20 years ago.). Two questions for Miss Snark:

1) Should the query letter be in my name on her behalf or written AS IF she had written it?

2) I've taken the manuscript behind the woodshed and chopped off 600 pages of autobiographical and historical material, and darned if a compelling story ( i.e, her experiences during the Nazi occupation of Lorraine, deportation and life in post-war Paris ) didn't emerge from the block.What's a good ratio of early childhood background to the the "real" story of interest in a memoir of an unknown person?

Thanks, Miss Snark, for your invaluable blog!

Is your friend around the bend? Can she take phone calls? If she can't, you've got a problem. Agents are going to want to talk to her directly. Clearly she doesn't have email so you can use your own email contact for the letter.

You'll want the query letter to be from her.

I can't really make even a guess at any ratios, but it's always a good idea to focus on the interesting parts more than the idyllic childhood chasing butterflies around the vineyards.


Anonymous said...

I thought one of the main differences between a memoir and an autobiography was a memoir focuses on only the parts of a person's life that relate to a theme or issue that person is exploring. So if the childhood stuff relates to the later stuff, it stays. If it doesn't, it goes. Same for concurrent events. If the job a person held while having a great love affair (subject of the memoir) relates, it is woven in. If it doesn't relate, it might not even be mentioned.

Anonymous said...

There's an interesting memoir titled MICHENER AND ME, by Herrman Silverman. He was James Michener's best friend for fifty years, and the book is about as tight and well written as you can get. And, even though he was friends with a famous writer(and a well known business person in his own right), Silverman still received rejections from some very well known agents, and it wasn't an easy sell. But, clearly, not impossible either.

Nancy Beck said...

(i.e, her experiences during the Nazi occupation of Lorraine, deportation and life in post-war Paris) didn't emerge from the block

Wow, really? This is the part that would have me intrigued, as I like to read stuff from the 40s (esp. the war years).

Are you sure you want to jettison that part of the story? Please rethink that!


Anonymous said...

Nancy, I think she was saying the Paris bits were the compelling parts. In contrast, she was chopping the historical/childhood background so that the WWII story didn't get lost. I agree that the Paris bits sound quite compelling, so long as she's got the capabilities to get herself published (with your help!).

Anonymous said...

Nancy--I think the writer is saying that that is the part of the story that stayed--the sculpture that emerged from the block of stone.

Anonymous said...

Are you sure you want to jettison that part of the story? Please rethink that!
I thought the writer meant that that was the compelling part of the story that emerged. I don't think that was the part he/she was getting rid of. I could be wrong, though.

Anonymous said...

~nancy, I think you're misreading that...the quote starts "darned if a compelling story didn't emerge", meaning that was the part that was kept. I hope so, anyhow; I'm right there with you in thinking it could be a fascinating read.


Anonymous said...

Apropos of M.S. comments about the agents and editors needing to talk with the nominal writer herself:

FWIW, I once had a similar situation with an elderly woman who wrote a book, by hand, on lined notebook paper. She knew nothing about querying, etc., and I assisted her solely as a friend.

Wrote the query, got responses, and the whole deal quickly turned into an episode of Remington Steele. I knew if anyone talked to her, it was all over. Not because she was "around the bend" or otherwise anything but knife-sharp. But because she was 92 and sounded 111. (Think Emily Letilla.)

Long story short, she turned down Doubleday, (they wanted changes,) and accepted a mid-size publisher. Bernice died happy, the publisher was happy, I was happy that they were happy and I would never, ever do it again.

To the poser of the original question: you're a lovely person to do this for your friend. I negated all my good-works points in heaven by resenting the amount of effort as it went along. Even if God knows, I hope Bernice never sensed it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks everyone, for your posts. Yeah, it's the story about the Nazis and her ordeal being deported, plus meeting her dashing Muslim Caucasian husband in postwar Paris that I found most interesting. The angle of coming from Alsace-Lorraine is unique, too. She gave me handwritten journals kept over the years, so there's lots of detail. My main concern is if anyone shows any interest, will they want to deal with an 84-year-old woman, hard of hearing, etc., and at what point I need to step in and say, "You can talk to me." Obviously, she didn't take "Miss Snark's Crash Course in Query Letter Writing," and I wanted to know if I still should send it in her name or mine. I hate to waste precious word count explaining my position in a Query Letter, yet don't want to mislead anyone, either.

Anonymous said...

Authors of memoirs come in three varieties: author, author AND co-author, or author WITH someone who is not a co-author (such as a compiler). It sounds as if you have a WITH situation, which could be mentioned in a query letter containing both of your signatures. Explaining this is not a waste of word count. Instead, it neatly clarifies your position and is an open invitation for the agent/editor to deal with you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Anonymous, that's a good idea. That would solve the whole problem.