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Randi Kreger has brought the concerns of people who have a family member with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) to an international forefront through her best-selling books, informative website, and popular online family support community Welcome to Oz.

 
 

Questions to Consider Before Publishing Your Memoir


Part 2 of a two-part post by Rochelle Melander. Part one was about the healing power of writing about your experiences. This part is about determining if you're interested in sharing your story outside of your friends and family.

 

I regularly teach people how to use writing as a tool to cope with and transform life's challenges. But writing one's life story and publishing it as a memoir are two vastly different endeavors. If you have lived through a difficult time, by all means write it down. It will heal you. Part one of this article on Randi's Psychology Today Blog examined the first three phases of writing a memoir: journaling, deepening, and drafting. Today's article reviews the final two phases, revising and publishing. Here are five questions for you to consider before you revise your story and pursue publication:

Am I ready to share my story?

When we rewrite and pursue publication, we will share our story with a wider audience. In the long road toward publication, we will open our lives and share our story with a critique group, editors, agents, publishing professionals, a legal team, and marketing professionals . . . and that's before the whole world has access to it.

No doubt, some people know what you've been through. Before pursuing publication, consider whether you want to share the gory details of your life with neighbors and strangers. When you tell your story on a blog or in a book—even if you control what and how the story is shared—you open yourself to criticism, challenge, and even ridicule. Are you ready for that? Is your life grounded enough to withstand the praise and critique that come with success?

Of course the other side to coming out is the opportunity to help other people who need to hear your story to find healing. Merri Lisa Johnson, the author of Girl in Need of a Tourniquet, says this about why she wrote her book, "I want readers to gain something they can use in their own lives, not just witness that chaotic period of my life."

Thankfully writing and publishing a book is a process. You don't need to be ready to come out when you start writing your book. As you write and revise, test market your idea, and share your story with increasingly larger circles, you will be preparing yourself to encounter and survive the glare of the public eye.

Is my story suitable to the genre?

Everything you have lived through is valuable to you. You and your story are worthy of being honored because you lived it and survived. But not every story can become a great memoir. The memoir is a true personal story that reads like a novel. The ideal memoir contains these key elements: vivid settings, well-developed characters, a story with universal themes, a narrative arc that keeps the reader turning pages, a protagonist who is transformed in some way by the events in the story, and a unique telling that engages the reader emotionally.

The new memoir Wild provides the perfect example. In this story of Cheryl Strayed's trek along the Pacific Coast Trail (talk about a vivid setting!), Strayed's hike provides the narrative arc. As readers, we worry over Strayed as she copes with ill-fitting shoes, strange men, bears, snow, and rattlesnakes. But as Strayed battles these external threats, we are aware of the real story going on inside her as she gives up heroin, grieves her mother's death, and hikes her way into a new life. By the end of the story, Strayed has transformed her life inside and out, and we got to live it with her.

But memoirs are not the only way a writer can use her life story to support others. Jeanette Winterson first wrote her story of growing up in a restrictive Pentecostal family as the novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. Just this year, she published her memoir on the same topic, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?

Other writers have taken their challenging experiences and created inspirational or self-help books. S.A.R.K. recounts her experiences of childhood incest in several books on creativity and healing. Susan Jeffers used her own story of fear and how she overcame it to write the bestselling self-help book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. I often teach and blog about the transformative power of writing, sharing snippets of my own story to encourage others. Since 2006, I have been teaching writing to children and teens in the inner city because I believe writing is a valuable tool for coping with difficulty and envisioning new dreams.

Is there a market for this book?

We've talked about what makes a memoir work: universal themes, a riveting story, a protagonist who is transformed, and a unique voice. But a book can have many of these elements and still not sell—either because there is not a big enough market for the book or the writer cannot sufficiently define the market. If you cannot define the market, you cannot find the people who will buy your book—whether you publish it with a traditional publishing house or publish it yourself.

As you revise your book and get ready to pursue publication, create a clear picture of your ideal reader. List everything you know about this person, including where she lives, what she does with her free time, what organizations she belongs to, and what stores she shops at. Once you've done this, try to quantify your market.

When I researched the market for my memoir, I learned that according to the Archives of General Psychiatry, anxiety disorders affected more than 40 million adults over 18 each year. I studied how many people searched for key words relating to anxiety in any given month. I discovered several organizations dedicated to supporting people in overcoming anxiety. This research helped convince me that there would be a market for my book.

Once you have defined and researched your market, you can test market your book idea before spending oodles of time revising and selling the book. First, check out other books on this theme at the library, bookstore, and online. If other books on this theme have sold fairly well, that's good evidence that there is a market for your story.

Next, talk to a few booksellers at bookstores, preferably booksellers who read memoirs. Pitch your idea to them as a one or two sentence elevator speech. (Don't worry, they are not going to steal it—it's your story!) Ask them questions like: Do you see an audience for this sort of book? Is there room in the market for another book like this? What would it take to make a book like this sellable? Finally, test your idea in the real world of readers. Create a few blog posts or articles on the topic and see what kind of a reaction you get. What readers say or don't say will be valuable information for you as you write your book.

Am I willing to commit the time?

In the writing world, I'm known for writing books fast. (My latest book teaches people how to write a book in 26 days!) I wrote my memoir in just under three months. But that's not the whole story: those three months of drafting the memoir were built on years of journaling, creating and revising narrative timelines, and drafting chapters. In between attempts to write the book, I researched the form and the market, reading hundreds of memoirs. If I decide I want to pursue publication, I have no doubt that I have more writing and revising time ahead of me as well as creating a query letter, synopsis, and submitting the book to editors.

Before you decide to publish your memoir, consider your willingness to revise your memoir, submit your work for critique, and revise your work. In addition to writing and revising, pursuing publication takes a lot of time and effort. Finally, your work is not done once the book is on the shelf. Then starts the long road of publicizing the book so that you can get it in the hands of people who need it the most.

A Final Word

Years ago, I heard a famous author say that the most valuable part of writing and publishing her memoir was writing it. She swore that the rest of it was nice but not necessary. For years, I scoffed at her words: easy for her to say, she's famous, she already published her book. After having written my own memoir, I have to agree with her. I don't know if I will ever pursue the publication of my story. But I do know that writing my story released its hold on me. It freed me to live differently. It did not erase my anxiety but turned it into a compassionate teacher. For that I am grateful.

Toni Morrison said, "If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." If you have a story that haunts you, I encourage you to write it. Go into your room, shut the door, and tell your tale. Want nothing but the telling. In the end, whether you publish it or not, you will be transformed by writing your story.

Rochelle Melander is an author, speaker, and certified professional coach. She is the author of ten books, including the National Novel Writing Month guide—Write-A-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (and Live to Tell About It) Rochelle teaches professionals how to write good books fast, use writing to transform their lives, navigate the publishing world, and get published! In addition, she is the founder of Dream Keepers, a writing workshop to help at-risk tweens and teens in Milwaukee write about their lives. For more tips and a complementary download of the first two chapters of Write-A-Thon, visit her online at www.writenowcoach.com.

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