Chip MacGregor

May 3, 2016

Ask the Agent: How can I create great memoir?


For a month now I’ve been doing “Ask the Agent” — your chance to ask anything you want of a literary agent. We had one person write in to say, “A memoir is a deeply personal story covering many avenues of thought. My tell-all of escaping the mental imprisionment of American Fundamental Extremism (having been inadvertently exiled because I admitted to being gay) is hard to pigeonhole. How do I determine how to present it to its broadest advantage, and find an agent who can appreciate the scope of its message?”

Yeah, that’s too long. (The fact is, the comment was actually much longer, and meandered a bit.) But what you’re basically asking is, “How do I write a great memoir?” And the secret of success with memoir is to write it like a novel. A memoir isn’t an autobiography — who reads autobiography these days? An autobiography is a careful retelling of everything that occurred, so you’ll be spending a lot of time researching sources, and making sure each date is correct. A memoir is a reminiscence — the stories and themes that capture a place, a time, an event, a lesson, a life. So instead of writing it like a history textbook, you write it like a novel.

That means you’re going to need to create a story arc. Not all the details will fit. You figure out which details we need in order to see your story. And the story will reveal to you where to start, and where to end, what stories will be told, and what will be left out. There will be an inciting incident, and decisions that lead to changes, because that’s what creates a story. It will have characters, whom we care about, and they’ll say and do things that matter in some way. You’ll not just talk about what you did, and what it was like, but what you wanted. Goals will be pursued, and obstacles will rise up to impede those goals. Eventually, you (since this is your memoir) will change, and it’s that change in your beliefs that creates an interesting memoir. Like a novel, your memoir will offer the reader a great story to follow.

I’m not gay, so I can’t directly relate to your struggle with American Fundamentalism, but my daughter Molly is gay, so I have some first-hand experience with the situation. I understand the fatigue and frustration that comes with dealing with American evangelicalism — the continual emphasis on conversion, the worship of bible verses, the separatism that creates groups inside and outside the circle, the vitriol hurled at those who don’t embrace whatever the current holiness standards are, and more recently the embracing of contemporary American conservative politics (because you just CAN’T be a Christian unless you support 2nd Amendment rights and low Capital Gains taxes!). Yep — I get it. It can make for some ugly conversations. Molly is gay, and was born gay (as anyone who has known her can attest), and loves Jesus, and I have zero shame in saying that, or in embracing her as my own, since I believe God made her and loves her as she is. She doesn’t need to change or be cured or go through therapy. My daughter has a great personal story… but I don’t know if she has a memoir.

Just understand this: when you choose to write a memoir, you’re telling your story, and you have to make it a good story. You’re making your point by sharing your stories. So you can’t assume that just because something happened, readers will find it interesting. You can’t just offer an angry polemic. You can’t share a bunch of stuff that basically says, “Poor me.” It’s not a listing of events, it’s not your therapy, and you’re not perfect. You can’t make the book just about you and your life — it’s a story, meant to be shared, so it has to be a conversation with your readers.

I love memoir — it’s probably my favorite genre to read right now. But I know that writing a memoir is hard work, because you’re managing “telling the truth” with “telling a great story.” You want it to be correct and accurate, but you also want it to be strong and interesting and entertaining. So when you ask “how can I present my memoir to the broadest audience,” my answer is “tell great stories, answer the big questions, speak to the universal needs of people.” That will get the attention of readers (and of agents). I hope that helps.

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  • Alia_Joy says:

    Thank you for this insight. I write primarily memoir style and it works for my readership. I’m telling my story but it resonates with people in their own lives. I’m at work on a book in that style but I’ve heard from many published friends that it’s very difficult to get a straight memoir published and that you usually have to package it more as Christian Living. Do you find this to be true? I’d love to write a story that certainly has a distinct arc but doesn’t break away from the prose to summarize, reflect, or offer take aways and maintains a novel-like feel. However, I’d also like to be picked up by a publisher so I’m weighing how to put my proposal together. Any advice would be so appreciated.

  • David Michael McKinney says:

    Thank you Chip for your answer to my meandering question, and for your suggestion how to package my collection of anecdotes for reader consumption. Thank you also for going to the effort to relate to my personal situation. While my story may highlight the physical and emotional abuse brought on by religious malpractice, it doesn’t smack of “poor me”—too much good humor & positive attitude for that to happen. It does read like fiction, but not at the writers contrivance, my life simply demonstrated so much audacity and good fortune, it just reads like fiction. Is there someone who can look at it, and give me an honest evaluation of the work? I’m willing to arch it anyway it needs to go, but having already given it my best, I need guidance from here.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I would look for an experienced editor who has a track record working on memoir, David. Don’t go to the first freelance editor you meet — check them out, find someone who has a track record with memoir, and talk with them. That’s one way to push your work forward.

    • Chip, if this is out of place please delete and send me a rotten fish.

      Kathy Ide runs a great service matching editors (who’ve been screened and tested) with authors and publishers. Here is a link.

    • David Michael McKinney says:

      I hope your blog never ends. I’ll miss hearing from you. You’ve put a handsome, caring face on the abstract nebula of ‘New York Literary Agent’. Whatever may come of my work, you’ve humanized the experience tremendously.

  • Leola McCurdy Ogle says:

    Great article. I wrote a memoir several years ago, won a contest with it, which included the book being published. The story is about my marriage – a second for both of us. I am 16 1/2 years older than my husband. We will celebrate our 22nd anniversary in October. We’re still in love, but more importantly, we still like and respect each other. The publisher turned down my book because, although I tried to keep it low-key, our spouses were not nice people who made our lives hell. The publisher felt I was opening myself, and them as publishers, for lawsuits from the people whose names were mentioned. Being successful in a second marriage, unusual blended family, wasn’t so difficult because of our age difference, but because we dealt with so many obstacles from our e-spouses. The publisher suggested a fictionalize it, since the cougar thing was so prevalent at the time. But I just shelved it. I certainly didn’t want to give the exes any ammo to attack us.

    • Edwina Cowgill says:

      Leola McCurdy Ogle, do you mind if I ask who the publisher was? Were you self-publishing or traditional?


    • Leola McCurdy Ogle says:

      Edwina, I don’t mind sharing the information at all, but not on here. It’s a small press in Australia and I love the owner/publisher very much and respect her greatly. Email me at if you want more details. I’ll be glad to share. Oh, and I did agree with her.

  • Joanne Reese says:

    “The God I Love,” by Joni Eareckson Tada was masterfully written, and it contains each of the points you’ve listed here. She went with the same advice and wrote her memoir with a story arch. As a result, I was immediately drawn in and her story took my faith to a whole new level. You’ve encouraged me in so many ways today. Thanks for sharing your expertise with the rest of us.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I haven’t read it, Joanne, but I have loved some of the recent memoirs that have become popular: A Girl Named Zippy, The Glass Castle, Invisible Girls, Wild, Blackbird, A Long Way Gone, A House in the Sky, Let’s Pretend this Never Happened, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Thin Places, Just Kids, Fiction Ruined my Family, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius… all great books. (Again, I love memoir.)

    • Laura Jensen Walker says:

      And don’t forget Deep Down I’m Really Superficial 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yes. That too. :o)

    • Joanne Reese says:

      Thank you for these recommendations, Chip. I will be starting a freelance editing business to support my writing habit and I’ve decided to specialize in the romance novel and the memoir. You’ve given me a great place to get my feet wet.

  • Lynn Leissler says:

    Would you please discuss true-life novels, such as Half Broke Horses (Jeanette Walls)? How the market for that genre?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’ll admit I’ve quite known what to make of a “true-life novel.” Ms Walls started that book as a biography of her grandmother, then decided to use the basic story but fill in the details with fictionalized accounts (which, to me, makes it a novel). Sometimes a writer has the basics of a true story and needs to fill in the gaps. It’s proven to be a tough genre overall, probably because most of us want to know “is this true or not?”

      Of course, Wallace Stegner (who I think is a fabulous writer), when asked about one of his stories, once said, “Sure it’s autobiography. And sure, it’s fiction. Either way, if you’ve done it right, it’s true.”

  • This piece is very helpful in clarifying the key elements that distinguish memoir.

    But I sure wish you’d avoided perpetuating this stereotype: “I understand the fatigue and frustration that comes with dealing with American evangelicalism — the continual emphasis on conversion, the worship of bible verses, the separatism that creates groups inside and outside the circle, the vitriol hurled at those who don’t embrace whatever the current holiness standards are, and more recently the embracing of contemporary American conservative politics (because you just CAN’T be a Christian unless you support 2nd Amendment rights and low Capital Gains taxes!).”

    Not all evangelicals are fundamentalists. And my faith doesn’t determine my politics.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Well, that would be a stereotype because it’s largely true, Sheila. American evangelicalism is dominated by the things I mention above. it’s often called “the Christian right” because of the right-wing emphasis of politics (and I think you’d have a hard time arguing there’s a separation between American evangelicalism and conservative politics). But this blog isn’t about politics, it’s about writing and publishing. [But since you brought it up, I’ll just point out that the bastions of American evangelicalism all seem to be endorsing a womanizing casino-owner who comes across as a thug, while vilifying a Bible-carrying woman who has made it a point to pray regularly for the people around her… Why? Because they feel her politics don’t fit their faith circle. So in other words, “Trump is in, Hillary is out.” Fascinating, and I’m no fan of the Clintons.]

    • All excellent points, Chip. Frustrating for folks like me, but accurate.

      I’m sorry that your daughter and you have suffered and the hands of such people. I could say a lot more but as you pointed out, this is a (your!) writing and publishing blog.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I don’t mind talking about this stuff, Sheila.

    • In the Bible, the job I see assigned to us humans is to love each other. I like to just stick to that.

  • Barbara D'Antoni Diggs says:

    Chip, thank you so much for this article. I could weep with relief. This is what I’ve tried to do in writing and sharing my stories about the lives of people I’ve met, worked and lived with overseas. This confirms that I’m on the right track, and I needed to read this today! This article gave me the confidence to persevere. Thank you!

  • Kurt T Mullen says:

    This post is helpful, Chip, thank you. Especially, for me, the part about “what you wanted.” It seems so simple. But looking backward over your own story and knowing some of the answers it’s easy to overlook how it felt in the beginning, to overlook the desire that got you pushing the boulder in the first place. I have a question. When you accept a memoir project, is it enough for you to see a great writing sample and proposal, as you might with other works of nonfiction, or do you prefer a completed manuscript? Thanks for the “Ask the Agent” feature, as it has been fun to read, and helpful.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s a fair question, Kurt. I think it usually depends on the author platform. I’ve done a lot of celebrity memoirs, and we sold those based on the great story and sample chapters. But with a writer who is not a celebrity, or who doesn’t have a tie to some huge event in the culture, I’ve often had to have the full.

  • Patricia Zell says:

    One of the most profound statements in the Bible: ” … God is light, and in Him there is no darkness.” (I John 1:5) Light swallows up darkness, and God’s light shines on everyone equally. The day is coming (and now is) when love will swallow up the hatefulness that works to divide us into groups that fight each other.

  • Edwina Cowgill says:

    Chip, what a great answer to a challenging situation. As you may recall, I have written my “memoir,” submitted it to a “self publishing” company, and, unfortunately already paid for the work. The content evaluation team has returned my manuscript twice now – I can’t have anything in this book that would have even the slightest reference to a person, place or thing that was involved in my story. I also wrote this as kind of a Christian “self-help” book in that I had 3 “applications at the end of each chapter: 1) practical (what does the reader need to do) 2) supportive (what can family/friends do to help); 3) spiritual (what kind of spiritual help does the reader need and where to get it). I include a page for journaling and a prayer regarding that specific chapter. I really do not want to rewrite this as fiction, but the thought has occurred to me that maybe it would be easier to work with the publisher, and maybe, as you say, it would reach more people. So your post comes at perfect time. I will print it out and ponder over it for the next few days. Thanks so much – and if you have any suggestions, I’d be most appreciative!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I’m not an attorney, so I’m not giving you legal advice here, Edwina… but I don’t believe the people telling you that you can’t include references to real people or events know what they’re doing. Good grief. As for turning it into fiction, that’s a decision every writer faces when sitting down to create this type of story. You have to decide what your goals are, who your readership is, what you want to say, etc.

    • Edwina Cowgill says:

      Thanks, Chip. I do enjoy reading your blogs!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I appreciate you saying that, Edwina.

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