Building a Memoir Writing Platform: What Is Your Message? (Part 1)

by Kendra Bonnett on February 27, 2010

Book Business PaperclipPost #29 – Women’s Memoirs, Book Business – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

For more than a month now, Matilda and I have been writing about leverage, as it applies to marketing and selling your books. More recently, we’ve introduced the concept of a memoir writing platform. Now it’s time to start putting together a plan of action that will bring these concepts together in order to help you market and sell your memoirs.

Having a platform for our writing is a critical component to getting book deals. Now, if you’re a celebrity (e.g., politician, actor or athlete) you have a built-in platform. The very fact that any of these public figures publishes a memoir is enough to spur some percentage of their fan base and a curious public to buy the book.

Alas, this type of platform is not available to the rest–the majority–of us. But we do have the potential to build our platform, either by leveraging (there’s that word again) our network of organizations (e.g., charities, schools, social clubs, community groups, fraternal orders), work connections, social contacts and even the causes and events we support.

Our challenge is to find a link between our existing network and our book. So we begin by asking the who, what, where, when, why and how questions. In this post, we’ll ask What?

What did you write about? If you answer, “My tattered soul and what it took to heal,” we must ask another question: What ripped your soul to shreds in the first place? Abuse? Incest? Divorce? Death? Poverty? Illness? Your answer to this will go a long way to helping you define your platform because there are websites, self-help forums, organizations, charities (to name a few) dedicated to every imaginable problem. And here you will find your potential reader base.

Now let’s get a little more specific: What’s your message? Notice that I’m not asking you to tell your story or describe any of the events (not even a milestone or turning point). Your story is the window dressing. I’m sure it’s appealing and may even be the reason some people buy your memoir, but it’s superficial by comparison. You need to dig down until you uncover the universal message of your book.

All For the Sake of Cheap Lobster

Shortly after I moved to Maine in June 2003, I started regaling my friends with lobsteramusing stories about the people and goings on in my small Downeast village. In response, Matilda’s husband Bill sent me a copy of Michael Korda’s Country Matters. It’s a delightfully entertaining memoir “for all who have ever dreamed of owning that perfect little place to escape to up in the country” (according to the copy on the dust jacket).

I imagined writing a Downeast version of Country Matters. I had the colorful neighbors, the indigenous rituals, distinctive dialects and a panoply of outré activities. I had ghosts in my ancient outhouse, vile-smelling sea cucumber guts moldering in a neighbor’s vegetable garden and the annual codfish relay race. I had tales of house renovation that would cure even the staff of This Old House from ever taking on another project. I saw a bear on my way to the supermarket one morning and a moose on the way to the bookstore. Northern Exposure may have had Mort the Moose, but my town has the infamous Decoy Deer. It’s used by our game wardens to catch out-of-season hunters, but according to local legend it’s been shot at by practically everyone in town and with an arsenal of weapons that includes everything smaller than a bazooka.

But with all this great content at my disposal, I couldn’t figure out how to write the book. At the time, I thought I didn’t have a hook. But that wasn’t really the problem. I hadn’t come up with a universal message. I didn’t have my What? (or my Why? either, for that matter). And without it I didn’t have a platform. So All For the Sake of Cheap Lobster has remained my hypothetical (and never started) memoir of my seven years in Downeast Maine.

I know what you’re thinking: Then how come Michael Korda was successful with Country Matters? Easy, he had a built-in platform. He’d been an editor at Simon & Schuster since 1958 and risen to editor-in-chief. He is a major fixture in the book business; he has helped launch the writing careers of several well-known authors; and he’s written several successful books himself, including three other memoirs. He built his platform through decades in the book business.

waterfrontIf All For the Sake of Cheap Lobster is to have even a hypothetical chance, I’m going to have to develop my platform from scratch. It’s true that I made a secret vow to myself when I was just eight years old that someday I’d live in Maine. Those lazy days on summer vacation with my parents so many years ago are etched deeply in my memory. I fell in love with the working waterfront and quaint villages, but more important I was introduced to lobster and the phenomenon of the local lobster pound–it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the coveted crustacean. But was that August holiday so long ago really the reason I moved to a tiny fishing village some 470 miles from my home town and only 80 miles from the Canadian border?

The answer is more complicated, and I’m not sure I’ve completely worked that out in my mind. Furthermore, this is a story that doesn’t yet have a conclusion. But it does have a platform. I’ll explain in part 2, tomorrow.

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