Monday, November 5, 2007

Selling the Memoir or Personal Experience Piece

Writing something about someone so interesting as yourself should be a breeze to sell, right?

Those of us who have been editors for any length of time (say, more than three days) recognize a good memoir or personal-experience piece when we see one. And we see one every two or three years.


Now, we didn't say we see a memoir or personal-experience piece every two or three years ... we said we see a good one. And that's only a tiny exaggeration.

The problem when writing this type of genre material is something we like to call the "oh-shid-eye" mentality. It's named after a braggadocios fellow we once knew back in Wisconsin. Whenever anyone mentioned something of merit that someone else did, he'd respond with, "Oh, shit, I did that." Unfortunately, those are the types of people whose egos often drive them to write personal genre pieces. Even more unfortunately, those are the types of pieces that drive editors nuts.

So, if you're going to interest an editor in a personal genre piece, you're going to have to avoid oh-shid-eye. And then you're going to have to convince the editor that you can do the piece and do it right.

Take this opening from a personal-experience account we came across recently:

"When I was in the army during World War II, I was given a very special, very delicate job to perform. I was uniquely qualified to do it in light of my personal experience, my professional background, and my education, and I was convinced I would make the most of the opportunity.

"The first thing I did when I landed in Krakow was to call a friend of mine to let him know I was on the job. He was delighted to hear it. 'Fred," he said, his voice wavering with joy, 'we've been under some hellaceous attacks out there. If you can figure out a way to break that code enemy and give us a chance to take the offensive on some of these missions, you'll go down in history as the savior of America's G.I.s. And if anyone can do it, I'm convinced you can ....'

"Now, wait a minute, Joe," I told him. "Sure, I know we're up against insurmountable odds, and I know the army has high expectations of me. I'd never shirk that. But it's not something I'm going to be able to fix overnight. After all, the problem has been festering for years--too many codes and not enough people qualified to break them. I'll do it, you can bet your butt on that. But I'll need some time. And some help."

That, of course, sounds just a bit narcissistic. Fred, it seems, got the idea somewhere along the line that "personal experience" is synonymous with "braggart." And, as we all know, nobody loves a blow-hard.

It just might turn out that Fred is actually a pretty decent fellow. But turn him loose with a computer filled with memories, and watch out! How much more endearing a small dose of humility would be. Take this rewrite:

"During World War II, the War Department asked me if I would lend them a hand at breaking a German code they'd been having trouble deciphering. I'd had some training in college plus a little practical experience in corporate America, and they seemed to think that that qualified me for the job. I had my doubts--and certainly I told them I thought I'd be getting in way over my head--but they stood firm, and I eventually gave in.

"They flew me to Krakow--just recently liberated from the German occupation--where I slipped into a half-star hotel and picked up the phone. I had a buddy stationed in town, someone I'd known from college, and I knew he'd just come back from the Front. I figured he might be able to help me out. No. I prayed he could. When I told him what it was all about, he told me that his platoon had just gone through hell, outmaneuvered at every turn, outflanked, outnumbered, and lucky to be alive. All because the messages they had intercepted were unbreakable ... while the messages the Nazis took off their lines were an open book.

"I knew then and there that, no matter what misgivings I had about myself, I had to give it my best shot. 'But I'm going to need your help, Joe,' I told him. 'I'm going to need you to sit down with me, show me what your re-cons picked up, tell me what happened. Every detail. Step-by-step. It's important. This is like looking for a goddam needle in a haystack. Without you, I'm not gonna make it.'

"Joe hesitated a moment, then said with a quivering voice, 'I'm all yours, buddy. You know that. If you can't do it, nobody can.'

"Then it was my turn to freeze. What was this goddam crazy mixed-up world coming to, anyway, when a fresh-out-of-school kid was handed an assignment that could mean the turning point in the war? 'I just wish I had your confidence,' I told him. 'I just wish I did.'"

The difference in the two versions is obvious. Instead of painting Fred as an egomaniac, the rewrite shows his foibles and weaknesses, his fears and lack of confidence. In other words, it painted him as he really felt: human. And that's the kind of personal experience editors want to see.

Anybody can write a query that tells an editor, Here's another ya-hoo aching for his 15 minutes of fame. It takes a special flare, though, to turn a heroic or a positive act into an exploration of the human psyche.

Personal experience and memoirs require a delicate touch--just the opposite from what most people attempting to write in those genres give them. Take a little time to write, read out loud what you've written, and then re-write--making every attempt possible to down-play your own importance to the story, to show your "other" side, your human side--your fears, your doubts, your trepidations, your wavering ... and then do it all over again.

By the time you've repeated the process five or six times, you'll be ready to paste the first few grafs into your query letter to the editor, secure in the knowledge of just how good--and interesting--you come off sounding, all without alienating the reader ... or the editor. And that oh-shid-eye mentality? Well, just leave it to somebody else.

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