Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wordcraft -- An editor's take on memoir

“Memoir, to me, when it comes to historical fiction, is one of the best sources of material,” Steven Anderson Law, editor of Missouri-based Goldminds Publishing, told his audience at last weekend’s Houston Writers’ Guild conference.

That doesn’t mean memoir is always sellable. “Memoirs are tough business,” he warned. “Publishers are going to want to know who you are.”

However, not being a nationally-known name doesn’t make memoirs unpublishable. For instance, Missouri author Ellen Gray Massey had “just turned ninety when she said she wanted to publish her memoirs.”

When he considered that Ms. Massey had a significant following in the Missouri Ozarks for her Foxfire-type folklore writing, he told her to send them in. The result: Footprints in the Ozarks: A Memoir, now available on Kindle.

The technique for writing a compelling memoir, he said, is to “make it strong and powerful with a message in there for somebody else. We read memoirs for an uplifting message.” And above all, especially for memoirs from unknown or little-known authors, the quality of the writing is crucial to interesting a publisher.

A writer can have good ideas, “but I’m not going to truly know until I see your writing.”

What about length, audience members asked.

“If you’re a new writer and (publishers) are going to take a chance on you, the more pages, the more it costs.” Although cost is not as great a problem for electronic publishing, the writer must still keep in mind the strong competition between media for the attention of potential readers.

“To me, smaller is better. If you write more than 100,000 words as a first-time writer, you’re going to intimidate publishers.” (If fact, for first-time authors, he recommends keeping the word count between 75,000 to 80,000.)

But what if the names are changed? Or if the story is partly fiction and partly memoir? Or it’s about a person who doesn’t know he or she is a character in your memoir?

“Writers need to do a lot of soul searching,” Law said. “Why are you writing the book? I can tell from the tone, if somebody’s angry. . . You’re not trying to get back at someone, just trying to explain how it impacts somebody’s life.”

For more information about Goldminds, see or the July 27, 2011, post at this site’s archives, “Texas tales at A Real Bookstore.”

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