Dear Pamela, Memoir Advice about Your Book Proposal

by Pamela Jane on August 23, 2016

[NOTE: Here’s a sneak peek at the question Dear Pamela will be answering in September. If you are thinking about the synopsis of your book–for your own clarity, for a book query to an agent, or for a book proposal to a publisher, you’ll definitely want to read this advice column.

–September: Synopsis Sharon says: “I am having great difficulty in writing a synopsis for my memoir. Can you help?”]

Meanwhile, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Dear Pamela is currently swamped with memoir coaching and her own writing for a new series of books. The bad news is this situation means she will only be able to answer your questions on an every other month basis. BUT, don’t let that hold you back. She’ll still be providing her great advice to help you with your memoir writing–just not as frequently. After her September column, we won’t hear from Dear Pamela until November, her last advice column for 2016.

If you have questions about memoir writing that you need answered, please leave them in the comments section below today’s advice column or send your questions in an email to Be sure to use the Subject Line: Dear Pamela. Thanks. — Matilda

Need advice on a book proposal.

Dear Pamela, memoir advice

Dear Pamela,

I DO have a question . . . perhaps you can feature it on the “Dear Pamela” section of the site. I have finished the first draft of my memoir and am currently working on a Proposal for submission to agents. I also have a friend (met at a writing conference) who is just a little ahead of me in the game and is ready to submit to agents (manuscript professionally edited, proposal ready to go). She has, however, built her proposal completely online and I wonder if this is a newer trend. Her website is password locked, so that she can provide access to agents or publishers that are interested, once a query letter has been received and they want more information. The site has all of the proper proposal sections (Intro, Summary, Competitive Titles, Marketing Plans, Bio, Chapter Synopsis and even Sample Chapters). Is this the wave of the future?

Thanks, Looking-for-Book-Proposal-Advice Laureen

Dear Pamela

Dear Looking-for-Book-Proposal-Advice Laureen,

Thank you for your question regarding memoir proposals, and congratulations on completing the first draft of your memoir!

The subject of memoir proposals is perplexing, not because the contents and organization of the memoir proposal are especially difficult, but because there are contradictory positions on whether memoirs require proposals at all. Some agents do not ask for memoir proposals because, like fiction, memoir is fundamentally about narrative, storyline, characters, and voice. In that sense, a memoir is not a typical nonfiction book, such as a “how to” book, or other forms of nonfiction.

My suggestion, however, is to take time to prepare a thorough and well-thought out proposal. Some agents and editors do request full proposals for memoirs, but even if they don’t, writing a proposal will help you clarify the essence of your story and generate marketing material. For example, the language you use to write a summary or synopsis may end up being “flap copy” on your book jacket. And by writing a completed proposal, you will have all the elements, from query to sample chapter, assembled and ready to go if requested. Also, a well-written proposal shows an agent that you have thought deeply about all aspects of your book.

Dear Pamela Advice and Tips

Listed below are the contents of a typical memoir proposal, along with my tips, comments and suggestions. But here’s an important first tip: Your proposal should be double-spaced and paginated. Begin each section on a new page.

Tip #1: Table of Contents

This is a guide to the contents of your proposal (not to your memoir) and the page where each subject can be found. While tempting to leave out–don’t.

Tip #2: Summary

The agent or publisher quickly browses through piles of proposals. Make your summary stand out. Imagine yourself browsing in a bookstore or online, looking for a good memoir to curl up with. Write something intriguing, in a page or two.

Here is an example from one of my favorite memoirs, Rocket Boys, by Homer Hickam:

“…Rocket Boys is a uniquely American memoir. A powerful, luminous story of coming of age at the end of the 1950s, it is the story of a mother’s love and a father’s fears, of growing up and getting out. With the grace of a natural storyteller, Homer Hickam looks back after a distinguished NASA career to tell his own true story of growing up in a dying coal town and of how, against the odds, he made his dreams of launching rockets into outer space come true.”

Tip #3: Author

Don’t hold back here! Explain how you are uniquely qualified to write this book by virtue of your experience, or your qualifications as a writer. If you have published other books or articles, let the agent know what they are, as well as what you have done to promote them. This section should be no more than two pages.

I know you probably are, by this time, heartily sick of hearing the word “platform” (I certainly am) but agents pay a lot of attention to it. If you have a website, blog, Facebook page, or Twitter account, be sure to include this information here.

Tip #4: Audience

Who do you imagine your readers are? Why will they buy, read, review, or blog about your book? Be specific. Definitely do not assume “everyone will want to read this memoir.” Show your sophistication about audiences for different types of memoirs.

Tip #5: Competition

Are there other memoirs (or novels) similar to yours? Have they been successful? Explain how your memoir is unique, and identify competing books by title, author, publisher, and year of publication. Sometimes you can describe your book by juxtaposing two well-known titles, such Wuthering Heights meets Girl Interrupted. But don’t make comparisons lightly or flippantly, and be prepared to back up the reasons why you are comparing or contrasting your book to (probably famous) titles.

Tip #6: Special Marketing and Promotional Opportunities

Do you offer a publisher any advantages or special opportunities to promote your work by virtue of your experience, professional associations, or background? Be as detailed as possible in one to three pages. Writers used to think marketing and promotion was what a publisher did. In this section of the book proposal show your understanding and willingness to help make your book a success.

Tip #7: Manuscript Specifications

What is your proposed book length? Will you include photographs or illustrations? Are there special requirements such as book size, font styles, or sidebars that will help accentuate or illustrate your text? Also include when will you be able to deliver the completed manuscript.

Tip #8: Outline

The outline should include section and chapter titles or headings, and beneath each heading a paragraph or two describing what happens in the chapter, and how the action relates to the theme and moves the story along.

Tip #9: Sample Chapter(s)

Here is where you can give the agent or editor the opportunity to see the tone and tempo of your writing, to experience its rhythm, humor, power, or poignancy. Make sure this chapter is clear and well focused. This does not have to be the first chapter, though it can be.

Tip #10: It’s Substance, not Form

You asked specifically about online templates for book proposals. As to whether online templates for submitting a book proposal are the wave of the future, it’s very possible. But no matter what form you submit your proposal in, the basic elements remain the same. No reason to get hung up on this. Once you’ve done the work to prepare the book proposal, you can quickly add it to an online system if you find agents/editors are asking for this form. During my search for a publisher for my memoir, no agent or editor mentioned receiving the proposal through an online service. However, I can see that it will be convenient.

Dear Pamela, memoir advice

This all sounds hopelessly difficult and discouraging. What should I do?

Now I’m going to answer the following question, even though no one has asked it. Why? It’s because I know what everyone is thinking!

This all sounds hopelessly difficult and discouraging. What should I do?

Dear PamelaWhen I was struggling with my own memoir proposal (which seemed harder than writing the darn book), Eric Maisel, author of The Art of the Book Proposal, suggested I write a mini-proposal. My mini-proposal included the following sections: Overview, Endorsements, Length and Delivery Date, Competing and Complementary Books, Target Audience, About the Author, Promotion and Marketing, and Sample Chapter.

The mini-proposal, minus the sample chapter, was about seven pages (approximately 1,500 words).

Ultimately, I did write and sell my memoir on a longer proposal, but the mini-proposal was a good start, and it’s possible an agent or editor will accept a shorter proposal than the one outlined above. You may be able to discern this when you are researching agents. So take heart! And please let us know how your proposal works out!

In my September Dear Pamela post, I will be addressing the memoir synopsis. And, in future posts, look for how to target the perfect agent for your book.

Here are some links to check out that will help you with your book proposal:

She Writes Press

If you have a question for Dear Pamela, please
leave a comment below or send an email along
with your question to
Be sure to put DEAR PAMELA in the Subject Line

Who’s Dear Pamela?

Pamela Jane is a children’s book author, and coauthor of Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp Through Jane Austen’s Classic

Her new memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story which Story Circle called “a fine, five star read” describes how she, an idealistic young newlywed, dreamed of a bucolic future in a country house while her husband plotted to organize a revolution and fight a guerrilla war in the Catskills, a conflict that resulted in explosions of various intensities, drove her mildly mad, and ultimately led to her becoming a writer.

You can see Dear Pamela’s Memoir Book Trailer below. Follow her @austencats.

Recent Essays by Pamela Jane

The Ambivalent Agnostic: An Adoption Story (In Literary Mama)

Just Wait! A Short Story Rejected in Grade School Becomes a Cause of Action (In The Writer)

Gradually, Naturally, Gracefully (In Mothers Always Write)

I Can’t Have a Baby Because I Have a 12:30 Lunch Meeting (in Mothers Always Write)

First Editing ServicePamela Jane heads the First Editing Service and invites you to contact her if you are interested. Click Here for more information.

The First Editing Service offers a great (and inexpensive) way to see where you have been and where you are going. Pamela’s understanding and insights have helped others with their memoirs and can help you move forward on your writing path.

Reviews of An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story

“…Jane takes us masterfully through her story of a lifelong writer struggling to emerge.” —Deborah Heiligman, author, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, a National Book Award Finalist

“…a fine, five-star read!” – Story Circle Reviews

“…incisive, funny, and touchingly candid…” —Howard Rheingold, author, The Virtual Community and Net Smart

“…a harrowing story that invites the reader to experience the thrill and danger of the Sixties from a place of safety and acceptance.” —Tristine Rainer, author, Your Life as Story

“…an inducement to all writers who aren’t afraid to take their past experiences and use them towards the future of their dreams…” – a comfychair

“Jane’s memoir…of the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read, is the only one that gives us the opportunity to go into the heart and mind, behind the flashy images of the Woodstock and hippies of the Sixties.” – Jerry Waxler, author The Memoir Revolution

Want to know more about the background of Dear Pamela’s memoir? Read this article in The Writers — Just Wait: A Short Story Rejected in Grade School Becomes a Cause of Action.

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