The Memoir Query that Got Me a Book Contract – And 5 Tips for Writing Your Own

by Pamela Jane on August 18, 2015

Book Business PaperclipPost #144 – Women’s Memoirs, Book Business – Matilda Butler

Pamela Jane is Back with Tips for Writing a Winning Memoir Query Letter

Pamela Jane has recently signed a contract for the publication of her memoir. Her’s was not an easy path and she learned a great deal from the experience. She wrote and rewrote and rewrote her query letter, learning from the feedback she received from agents and potential publishers. She finally “nailed it” and will see her book out next year.

I’m pleased that Pamela is willing to share her query letter with you as well as her top five tips she learned during the process.

Thanks Pamela.

Writing a Winning Memoir Query Letter

By Pamela Jane

In the 1960s, my husband dreamed about starting a guerrilla war in the Catskills

In the 1960s, my husband dreamed about starting a guerrilla war in the Catskills

I’m always interested in reading successful queries, especially memoir queries because they are so difficult to write–at least for me. I was so close to my story that it was nearly impossible for me to describe it with any degree of objectivity. It seemed easier just to write the book! 

But after much revising and tweaking, I did write a query that ultimately sold my memoir, “An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story,” which will be published next year.  Enclosed below is my query and five tips to help you write your own.

Query

“An Incredible Talent for Existing” is the story of a young woman who longs for an idyllic past even though, as a revolutionary, she believes everything that exists must be destroyed. The story is set in the 1960s, the era of love, light–and revolution. While the romantic narrator imagines a bucolic future in an old country house with children running through the dappled sunlight, her new husband plots to organize a revolution and fight a guerrilla war in the Catskills.

Their fantasies are on a collision course.

The clash of visions turns into an inner war of identities when the narrator embraces radical feminism; she and her husband are comrades in revolution but combatants in marriage. She is a woman warrior who spends her days sewing long silk dresses reminiscent of a vanished past.

After an explosive cabin fire, the narrator finds herself bereft of everything that once sheltered and defined her–material possessions, her writing, her home, and her marriage, as well as her political creed. She is terrified that, like Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s, Middlemarch, she will “sink unwept into oblivion.”

Unfortunately, it looks as though she already has a good head start.

Meanwhile, I dreamed of a 19th Century country idyll (Painting by Carl Larsson)

Meanwhile, I dreamed of a 19th Century country idyll (Painting by Carl Larsson)

“An Incredible Talent for Existing” describes a descent into a very particular hell, and the journey back to the world of love and work. From hearing voices that drive her crazy to writing her first children’s book on a sugar high during a glucose tolerance test, the narrator draws the reader into a turbulent personal, political and psychological adventure with wit, intimacy and humor.

Author’s Bio (included in the query)

I am the author of over twenty-five children’s books published by Houghton Mifflin, Simon and Schuster, Penguin, and others.  My newest book, Little Elfie One (Harper) will be out in September 2015. My first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp Through Jane Austen Classic, was featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post and BBC America. I am a writer and editor for womensmemoirs.com, and have published short stories and essays in The Antigonish Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Literary Mama.  You can visit me at http://www.pamelajane.com or http://prideandprejudiceandkitties.com.

5 Tips for Writing Your Memoir Query:

1. Identify and Highlight the Central Conflict in Your Story

Conflict creates story, like rubbing two sticks together to spark a fire.  In my case, the following sentence embodied the main conflict:

A young woman longs for an idyllic past even though, as a revolutionary, she believes everything that exists must be destroyed.

If you are having difficulty identifying the conflict, think of your story cinematically. Close your eyes and imagine you are sitting in a theater watching your memoir as a film.  What is the drama unfolding on the screen?  How does the poster in the lobby describe it?  What image is used to illustrate the essence of the story?

2. “Un-Write” Your Query

If you’re having trouble writing your query, try to talk about it instead. Have a friend or colleague to ask you what your memoir is about. Describe it informally in a few sentences, then write down the words or images that most vividly depict the storyline and theme.

3. Write a Logline for Your Memoir

Returning to the movie theme, write a logline for your story–a one-sentence description. Remember that your query is essentially a sales pitch designed to entice an agent or editor and leave her wanting to read more. Here are some examples of intriguing movie loglines:

“An insurance investigator and efficiency expert who hate each other are both hypnotized by a crooked hypnotist with a jade scorpion who is into stealing jewels.”  The Curse of the Jade Scorpion

legally blonde“A ditzy-blonde, California sorority president, dumped by her Harvard-Law-School boyfriend, leaves California and fights to succeed at Harvard Law to prove she is worthy of him.” Legally Blonde

“During a weekend jaunt at a British country house, servants–who must keep order and protocol–struggle to please their aristocratic employers until a murder threatens to disrupt the balance.” (And I would add, “and unearth long-buried secrets.”) Gosford Park

4. Play!

In your mind, play with the themes, the ideas, the storyline.  Mix them up, throw them in the air, and see how they come down.  Don’t underestimate the importance of play in creativity.

5.  Be Specific

Describe your memoir in specific, rather than general terms.  In early drafts, I wrote that I was in deep psychological trouble, but the query was more expressive (and more accurate) when I described a “turbulent personal, political and psychological adventure.”

Little Goblins Ten by Pamela Jane

Little Goblins Ten by Pamela Jane

The more queries you read, the better!  So please send share your memoir query with us at womensmemoirs.com.  And if you’d like your query critiqued, you may want to consider WomensMemoirs FES program. (Details are below.)



More About Pamela

Pamela Jane Bell, memoir authorPamela Jane is the author of over twenty-five children’s books published by Houghton Mifflin, Atheneum, Simon & Schuster, Harper, and others.  Her new children’s book, Little Elfie One, illustrated by NY Times best-selling illustrator, Jane Manning, will be out from Harper in 2015. Her book (for adults) Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp Through Jane Austen Classic was featured in ”The Wall Street Journal,” The Huffington Post, and BBC America, among other places.

Pamela’s own memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing:  A Writer’s Story, will be published in 2016. For more information, visit her at Pamelajane.com or Prideandprejudiceandkitties.com.

First Editing Service for memoir writers
Pamela is a writer, coach, editor, and co-founder of First Editing Service for womensmemoirs.com.

NOTE ABOUT FEEDBACK ON YOUR MEMOIR QUERY LETTER

Pamela and I recently launched an unusual editing service. We edit the FIRST or FIRST 10 pages of your memoir with the conviction that practicing what you are doing wrong just leads to bad practice. So let us catch problems that occur in your first one page (or ten pages) and we’ll give you a roadmap that will help you navigate the rest of your journey more smoothly.

As Pamela mentioned in her blog post today, you can use our First Editing Service to get a critique of your memoir query letter. It is an inexpensive way to learn from someone who has refined her skill while seeking a publisher for her memoir.

Pamela can put you on the right path, right away.

To learn more about this innovative service, click here now.

Here’s what one client wrote Pamela:

I wanted to thank you for your insightful editing comments on the first page of my memoir along with the synopsis. … In terms of the memoir page, your comments actually solved a dilemma for me as I have toyed with the beginning for a while. I like the solution you offered and made the change you recommended in the order of the paragraphs and presto, problem solved! So thanks so much! M.G-W.

Are You Asking Yourself If You Need an Editor?

Every writer needs an editor. This is true of professional writers. This is true of occasional writers. WHY an editor? Here are just 2 of the many problems that writers face and editors can help clarify:

Problem #1. Writers get overly fond of metaphors, even failing to notice when they get tangled up with each other.

Pamela catches this in the FIRST 1 or 10 PAGES, and puts you on the right road.

Problem #2. Writers want to start at the beginning, even when that part doesn’t engage the reader. Back story can always come later, but we fail to notice.

Pamela provides feedback on your apparent story structure and your opening.

Learn more about EIGHT other problems that Pamela catches. Plus check out our FIRST EDITING SERVICE [click here] and see if it is right for you.

Here’s what another client wrote Pamela recently:

I want to thank you for your brilliant comments on my manuscript. I know that I am, at times, too close to the story and can lose the perspective of the reader. After all, he or she was not along for the journey! –C.L.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Denise Barnes September 4, 2015 at

This was a really stunning query letter. A useful guide even if one is writing fiction at the moment – like me!

Jeanne Lombardo September 14, 2015 at

Very helpful post. Great to see a query that actually nabbed a contract, and very useful breakdown of the important elements. I noted that you used third person in the query, Pamela, which for me made the story (almost) sound like fiction; and also that nowhere was the word ‘memoir” used in the query (unless I missed it), so am wondering how this crucial information was relayed to the acquisitions editor who read it. I am a ghostwriter working on a medical memoir. Spent six months crafting a query letter last year before trying a different route (professional editor and proposal). So again, found this useful. Especially if I have to return to go on the query letter.

Pamela Jane September 15, 2015 at

Jeanne: Thank your or your comment; the medical memoir sounds fascinating! I don’t think using the third person was a conscious decision; I just thought of myself as “the narrator” after I’d done so many drafts! But I was also visualizing flap copy, which I know agents and editors like to have – a sense of a logline or tagline that will crystalize the story in a reader’s mind. My memoir (and many memoirs) are not exactly high concept, yet we have to conceive of them that way for others’ benefit.

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