Writing a memoir proposal differs from other nonfiction proposals. If you’re trying to sell your memoir, you’ll need specific tools to attract an agent’s attention.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss the elements of an effective memoir proposal.
A memoir proposal differs from a nonfiction proposal. With nonfiction, you are showing what you will cover and how. In memoir, your ability to tell a story in an engaging way is paramount. In your proposal’s opening section, you’ll provide an overview of the themes and story, but you’ll also write it in the same engaging voice that readers will find in the book.
An overview should read like a teaser—in fact, you may be able to craft it to also function as part of a query letter, synopsis or back cover blurb. You need to summarize the story but also include a snippet or two of a scene from the memoir. Let your Overview/Intro be only a page or two. The longer your Intro gets, the more you risk a yawn.
You can also include the book’s word count and felt need. A felt need is the “why this book now?” question. Be specific as possible—if your story is about losing a child, for instance, try to tie it to recent events. Avoid blanket statements such as “A Google search result on [topic] has 10 million hits.” (Thanks Jane Friedman!) The question all agents want answered is, “Is there a market (felt need) for this story?”
The next section of your memoir proposal is all about that sales stuff. As with nonfiction, you’ll want 5-10 solid Comparables—books similar to yours. This part helps differentiate your book. State how your book is similar and different. Make sure the comparisons are for recent books—an agent wants to see how well your book will do against others currently on the shelf.
Next, you’re up! A section on you as an Author will show the agent your experience. If this is your first book, you can list relevant experience—say you run a cat rescue if the book is about rescuing cats. But don’t treat it as a resume unless your degree gives you authority in regard to the topic. Also include what you plan to write next—two or three titles will suffice.
The dreaded PLATFORM comes next. If you aren’t working to build a platform right now, get busy. Become fluent and active on a couple of social media platforms. Get some speaking experience. Instead of thinking about platform as a horrible aspect of writing, think of it as an opportunity to find readers. If you’re just starting, list all the ways you can think of to show that you’re serious about building that readership.
Think of platform as an opportunity to find readers.
Now you can get to the book itself. A Chapter Outline (one brief paragraph per chapter) gives an idea of the arc of the story as well as theme. If you find you have trouble summarizing the chapters, try writing one sentence about each and then look at them altogether in order. Are you seeing a story or are you seeing a bunch of stuff that happened? You need a story.
The end of your memoir proposal contains the actual sample. Some agents require one chapter, other three or more. Be sure to look up each prospective agent’s requirements and follow their rules. Some experienced writers will be able to sell a partially written book, but many time a first-timer will need to have written the whole story first. Polish your first chapter until it sparkles. Always use Chapter One; the rest can be from other parts of your story. Format it double-spaced in a 12-point serif font such as Times New Roman.
A memoir proposal is as much about your storytelling ability and writing style as it is about content. Writers often ask me how you develop a writer’s voice, and I just say write, write, write. Keep working on your craft, read widely and learn to write shorter personal essays while you’re finishing that memoir. When you craft a memoir proposal, showcase your best story and your best skill as a writer. Good luck!