The Great Competition for the Saddest Story Ever Told


Dear Erin Hosier,

My name is REDACTED and my memoir is titled Life's Not Fair. I grew up with a father who idolized Hitler and turned out to be a pedophile. As a child I blocked out memories that he molested me. When I was a teenager the police raided our home because he had child porn on his computer. My mother has paranoid schizophrenia and our father refused to let us see each other for about a decade. At school I was tormented by bullies and at home I lived in poverty and filth. My sister and I ran away from home and spent time in juvenile detention as teenagers. My little brother committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart because he became delusional and thought it would save our father's life. My little sister died of alcohol poisoning after choking on her own vomit. My siblings were both in their twenties when they died. I have also personally struggled with an addiction to marijuana and alcohol.

I married a man who began using meth, started hallucinating and became physically abusive towards me while I was pregnant. We have two small children together. At that point in my life I spent a lot of my time going to clubs and bars, getting drunk and cheating on my husband with random men. I was under so much stress I had a nervous breakdown and went to a mental hospital for the third time in my life. Our two children were taken by CPS and placed in foster care. Currently I am homeless and trying to get them back from the state. I have had other readers and writer read my story and I was told I have a very unique voice and story. I believe that one day this book will be on the New York Times Best Seller List and that anyone who sends me a rejection letter will one day regret it because this is the kind of story that I can see being made into a movie and making a great deal of money.

There is not another book out there like this one, but I can relate to stories like Glass Castle and Angela's Ashes.
I really hope you will consider representing me. Would you be willing to review a few sample chapters?

Sincerely,

REDACTED


Are you still reading? My editor thought I should cut this letter down because it's so depressingly raw, that you'd get the gist after the first paragraph and probably get turned off, but I wanted to keep it as is since that is precisely the point of this post.

Because I've sold a few memoirs, or maybe just because I'm an agent, I get letters like this every day. You'd think this was an extreme example, but unfortunately it's not. Last week another query promised its author's story would be "realer than Precious." Something about the writer's tone irritated me (it's not a contest!) and I deleted the emailed letter unread and finished my bagel. Who was she to say that her experiences were "realer" than anyone else's, even as she was referencing a fictional character? And then there are the true stories like the one above. A person so victimized by life itself that she probably can't consider the humor in a title such as "Life's Not Fair." But Erin, Mistress of Darkness, why should every book have a silver lining? Why does everything difficult need to be tempered with humor or self-deprecation if we're talking about pedophilia, suicide, poverty and mental illness? The answer is it doesn't...unless you want your story to actually be published.

And another thing: I don't think there's a person reading this who hasn't come face to face with at least three of the myriad of horrors the writer mentions above in her query. Life isn't fair, and thanks to Oprah we all know it. And while I'm sorry we live in a world as cruel and unfair as we do - of course I am, every day - I can not even begin to imagine how I would pitch such a story to editors. It's not that your life sounds like such a total bummer, it's that it only manages to get worse. Where is the lesson? Where is the story? Where is the hope? And what is the point?

Publishers are looking for stories that can inspire. That's just human nature and the American way. We don't mind if you were forced to bear your father's child in poverty, just as long as you eventually star in your own tv show, or at least work with other tortured children to try and make things better. But above all, you need to be a better writer than any of the other People With a Horrifying Life Story. And you need to remember what books are for.

Here's how this query letter can be fixed: If you're writing your own story, please know the difference between autobiography and memoir. In general, only really famous people like presidents and rappers can get away with telling us the whole story of their lives. That's an autobiography. But for the most part, memoir is about one aspect of one's life. That's how Mary Karr or Augusten Burroughs or Koren Zailckas can get away with writing more than one memoir - they've built an audience on voice and trust and for better or worse their sales tracks enable them to do it again, usually focused on another time or set of life circumstances. But that's what's key: voice and trust. If readers didn't respond to the over-the-top coming-of-age story of Augusten being raised by his crazy mother's crazy shrink in Running With Scissors, they wouldn't have clamored for his addiction memoir, Dry. And he wouldn't have had the opportunity to publish it.

A memoir is a personal story, but it's written for a reader. It's great if the author experiences some kind of catharsis out of the process of writing her book, but there's all kinds of writing that can aid in catharsis, and therefore publishing should not be the ultimate point. Personal writing - the kind that heals - need not be made into a movie. A memoir is for the reader, the person who can relate but could never quite put their story into words. It's for the reader who always wanted to know what "that" would be like. It's for someone else's enlightenment but more often their entertainment. Memoirs these days are often centered around an "issue." That's not an accident. Large groups of literate people share issues.The key word in that sentence is "share" - it's not all about the writer, it's about the community of readers willing to buy a book.

In the best memoir pitches, the author clearly has enough distance from her story to be able to tell it with clarity and humor. The writing doesn't have to be funny, it just has to understand the necessary balance between lightness and darkness. Unlike in this letter, there has to be a reprieve from the pain every so often. You have to be aware that the reader is not your therapist, even as they are a witness, and that in every tragedy or dark time, there's hope or goodness or art at the end of the process. A good writer can write about anything - I really believe that. They just can't write about everything at once.

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Tags: #nonfiction, #publishing, agent, memoir, query letter

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Comment by Karen Hamer on July 21, 2010 at 3:08pm
You are so right. A story shouldn't be about the ashes, but the phoenix who rises above it all.
Comment by Pattie Cruzado on July 21, 2010 at 10:30am
Wow, certainly makes me think twice about my writing.
Comment by Erin Hosier on July 21, 2010 at 10:00am
I agree that this letter seems so over-the-top as to be ghostwritten by me or altered in some way, but the fact is that this is how it came to me, word for word. I merely removed the woman's name to protect her identity. This query was emailed, so I didn't retype it. I definitely don't want to shame its writer - she's been through enough already. My point is that I see letters and manuscripts with content like this all the time. It's heartbreaking, but I'm an agent, not a therapist. And I want to remind people that books are about connecting with readers. When you are "in it" you can certainly write about it, but that is not the time to start thinking about what your story may be worth on the open market. If each of us made a list of every horrible thing that has ever happened to us, or that we've ever seen or heard about happening to someone else, we would all jump out the window. Don't make me want to jump out a window in a query letter, please. Make me marvel at your reasons to live.
Comment by Linda Strawn on July 21, 2010 at 9:32am
Thank you for sharing your insights on this query letter. This women's story is heartbreaking. I hope that she'll come to the point of facing it with courage and humor. I have a friend who has had her share of tragedy in life. Raised in poverty on an Indian reservation, raped numerous times during her teenage years, and alcohol addiction molded her into an angry adult. Today she knows Christ. God raised my friend up from the darkness she lived in and led her into ministry where she shows other American Indians how to find hope in the Lord. As tragic as her life was, she exhibits a cheerful attitude and is one of the funniest people I know.
Comment by Lacey N. Dunham on July 20, 2010 at 9:17pm
At first I questioned the reason for posting this letter in full. Even with the name redacted, isn't it shaming? Then I read your critique of the letter and recognized the wisdom in sharing: to assist others in recognizing the function of any writing intended for publication, not just memoir. It's not just about you, the author, but about the audience beyond the words. The first audience member is the potential agent. If that agent, and every subsequent agent, gets turned off, all signs point to much needed revision of the work in question, something all writers should be coherent in. Thanks for sharing and for your honest feedback that rounds out the post.
Comment by Randi Fine on July 20, 2010 at 6:35pm
What a depressing query letter. You're so right about getting turned off...I couldn't finish reading it. I agree that a memoir should be uplifting and relatable for the reader. This is a powerful post. Thanks!
Comment by Linda K. Wertheimer on July 20, 2010 at 6:08pm
Loved this especially your line about how the author needs to have "enough distance from her story to be able to tell it with clarity and humor." Hear, hear, says someone who wrote a memoir about loss then tucked it away for five years until she felt she could write it with that all-important distance. There are memoirs out there that have been published a year after the traumatic or life-changing event - and they never quite reach me as well as others do.
Comment by Christine Macdonald on July 20, 2010 at 3:54pm
"...it's not all about the writer, it's about the community of readers willing to buy a book"
Fantastic. Thank you.
Christine
www.poletosoul.com
Comment by Amy Hartl Sherman on July 20, 2010 at 3:52pm
Yikes. Great post and very informative. I love that you point out peoples' lives are not a competition. It really isn't about the horror, it's about redemption or the strength to come through it all with perspective and hope. Claiming to be a "survivor" has become a bit cliche of late, but surviving and growing from challenges can be very inspirational to those who feel lost. Reading The Glass Castle certainly made me appreciate the author's ability to deal with what could have been insurmountable obstacles and her ability to never give up. It's too easy to fall into the blame game rather than use what skills a person develops because of difficult situations. Good luck sorting through all the tragic stories that come your way!
Comment by Kimberley Johnson- McMechan on July 20, 2010 at 2:48pm
I loved this post! Thank you! So helpful.

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