So You Want to Write a Family Memoir!

So, you want to write a family memoir and you want to get it published. Okay, more power to you. But be prepared. If your experience is anything like mine, you are in for a long slog and many surprises. Frankly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I hope you are quite determined, can deal with rejection, and have a thick skin.

I was naïve.  I had six books listed on Amazon when I started the project.  I believed I knew my way around the publishing world.  I had made some money writing books – one of my books had sold enough copies to put a child through college.  All I needed to do, I reasoned, was find a sympathetic agent, get some pointers, and start writing.  Ha!

I called a friend who had run a literary organization and asked for some advice. “Let me ask around,” she offered.  Her first response was from an agent friend: “Tell him to forget it. If he wants to self-publish something for family and friends, fine. But commercial publishers these days are not interested in memoirs from or about people who are not famous. Those books don’t sell.”

“But,” I objected to my friend, “In their day, my family members were famous.” That didn’t help.  Apparently, fame a hundred years ago does not sell books today. Even fame from a couple of decades ago doesn’t count.

The second person my friend talked to was friendlier…and extremely helpful. This literary publicist, who took pity on me and became my guardian angel and advisor throughout the process, agreed to read a sample chapter.  “Can I now outline the rest of the book and have someone like you shop it around to agents?” I asked.

The response was friendly…but firm.  “No, you are going to have to write the whole book, then you will be submitting it to agents.  If you are lucky enough to land one, then he or she will start shopping it around to publishers.  But you are a long way from there.  I have read what you sent.  Entertaining as it may be [I realize in retrospect she was being charitable], I think you need some coaching on the writing.”

What?! Somebody to teach me how to write?  I already knew how, I argued.  “Your prose style may be fine for those management textbooks and manuals on fund raising you write, but it does not make for a compelling memoir.”  It turned out I was probably worse off than a beginner given all I would have to unlearn.

Enter my writing coach who helped me focus the subject matter, develop a new perspective (changing the voice from a dry third-person narrator to a first-person participant), trim excess fat from my prose, and make the whole thing get beyond the recounting of events and dates.  We argued about the structure of my story – she was always right, of course – and I kept hearing that certain material probably should be cut (advice I often ignored to my latter peril).

Meanwhile, there were the research tasks. I had assembled much material already and there were archives in this country I could visit.  The internet was also incredibly rich (many of my grandfather’s writings from a century ago in Russia had been digitized and were available with the click of a mouse).  There were also electronic archives of newspapers and ever so much more.  But the first third of the story takes place in Russia and I had only a cursory knowledge of the language. Furthermore, much of the material I required was in Moscow.  I needed a Russian partner.  Here I was again lucky. A Moscow cousin came to my aid and agreed to help.  Little did she know that the process would consume years of her life as well as mine. It was a happy collaboration that would bring our families even closer together. I cannot imagine what I would have done without her.

But I needed more help than my cousin could provide.  I needed a Russian speaker in this country, someone who also knew Russian political and economic history.  Happily, living close to Harvard University has its advantages.  I found my local research collaborator and translator, as well as a map maker, and various other specialists for necessary smaller tasks.

At this point, you must be wondering.  Didn’t this all cost a lot of money?  You bet. Early on I realized this was not going to be like other books I had written where a small advance covered my upfront costs.  All of this was coming out of my pocket, including a trip to Moscow, another to Paris, and a third to London to gather more material. “Why did my family live in so many places?” I sometimes asked myself. At least I couldn’t complain about the settings.

Once I finished the manuscript – an unwieldy 240,000-word tome – I gave it to a friend who writes books and was interested in the subject matter.  “A wonderful story,” he said generously, “but awfully long and repetitive.”  I was aghast and disappointed in his poor judgment until the first agent I contacted agreed.  “Who would buy such a book? Very few people would put up with something that long.”

Speaking of agents, my guardian angel told me that before I sent the book to agents, I would need to prepare a short document “selling” the book. “And to be perfectly frank,” she said, “you should probably hire someone to write your pitch document.”  So once again, another professional, another check, another delay. And then submissions to agents began in earnest.

Let me not bore you with the agent search. Agents may love literature but they are in business to make a living.  However wonderful they may think your book (if they are even willing to scan it, let alone read it), they have to believe that in the end they can sell it to a publisher and that it will make some money.  Happily, there was just such an agent who did believe the book had possibilities and took me on.

But now the last part of the story becomes the most painful part.  The 240,000 word manuscript was unwieldy (call it the equivalent of 600 typeset pages before footnotes, index, bibliography, acknowledgments, and photographs).  It would have to be cut – a lot.  And for that I needed yet another professional, someone skilled in trimming much of the same fat that my writing coach had suggested should go years before. Why hadn’t I listened?

Quite frankly, the book went through many iterations and versions. At one point it went from 240,000 words to 150,000 but this also turned out to be too long for some publishers.  Then in desperation I did serious surgery and cut it to 90,000 words. And for each of these versions I needed someone to copy edit anything I was going to submit.  As I looked at the 90,000 word version, all I could think of was a body that had lost its arms, legs, and head and I was not happy.  That part of the story at least has a happy ending – once a publisher was found, 35,000 words were restored and the book became better than it had ever been before.

Was I lucky?  You bet I was.  I had so much help along the way.  I have not even mentioned the more than twenty people – scholars, writers, musicians, family members – who were interested enough in the subject matter, the family, or me to assist out of the goodness of their hearts. They provided much additional information but their greatest value was in correcting the many errors that I had made – often tiny – but sometimes serious. No one writes a book this complex without mistakes creeping in. 

At the end of the process, my luck held when a publishing house representative who read the manuscript turned out to have been a Russian major and a music minor in college.  She loved my book.  Perfect alignment and a decision to publish – only seven years and many dollars after I asked the innocent question about how to begin the process.