Alexis Grant asked: Would you consider a post on memoir guidelines, since memoir falls somewhere between fiction and nonfiction in many ways? For my travel memoir, should I query when I have a proposal and several sample chapters, like nonfiction, or wait until the manuscript is complete, like fiction? What’s the usual word-count window for memoir? Are there any other areas—aside from reading like a novel—where I should follow fiction guidelines instead of nonfiction?
Great questions! I think memoir requires the most out of a writer, because it’s non-fiction, so platform matters. But it’s also story-driven and the writing is the most important aspect, so it requires the level of attention to the art and craft of writing that fiction does.
I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule about whether to query with sample chapters or a complete manuscript. With a first-timer, I always prefer to read the whole thing before I make a decision whether to take it on. At the very least, I want to read three or four chapters, and perhaps rough versions or outlines of the remaining chapters.
I DO recommend finishing the manuscript before you query. Like with a first novel, you are going to discover so much in the writing process. I believe your book will morph and evolve throughout the writing, and so those first few chapters, though written, will not actually be complete until you’ve finished the book. A memoir is a work of art much more than the typical non-fiction book.
Think of it like a sculpture, such as The Thinker by Auguste Rodin. Perhaps he could have sculpted the feet and those muscular legs, and shown somebody his work to see if they wanted to buy it. They would certainly have been impressed with his ability to render a set of feet and legs. But they couldn’t possibly understand the piece—the feel, the mood, the statement it makes—without seeing the entire sculpture in its complete form. That’s how I see memoir. It’s a whole that can’t truly be understood in pieces.
As far as length, popular memoirs range quite a bit from about 60,000 words to 120,000 or more. If you’re a new author, I’d recommend staying on the shorter side, perhaps around the 75,000 word mark. The important thing is that your length fits your book. Write as much as it takes to tell the story, and no more. (Helpful, huh?)
Rather than focusing on the fiction/non-fiction aspect of a memoir, read books specifically about writing memoir. I like Your Life as Story by Tristine Ranier, but there are many others.
Anyone else with insights about memoir, feel free to chime in!
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.