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 whole darn 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.” Enclosed below is my query and five tips to help you write your own.
“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.
“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.
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.
5 Tips for Writing Your Memoir Query:
- 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?
- “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.
- 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
“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
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.
- 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.”
If you are interested in having me help you craft a query letter for your memoir, please see the coaching section of my website.
A version of this piece was posted on womensmemoirs
Pamela Jane is the author of over thirty books for kids and adults, a writing coach, freelance writer, and public speaker. Learn more about her by booking a school or author visit, perusing her blog, or reading her memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story.