Rachel Held Evans on the challenges of memoir

June 30, 2009

I’ll try anything to convince myself that even though I’m writing alone in my office, I’m not really alone. That’s why I love connecting with other writers online, particularly those who are working on memoirs.

“Meeting” Rachel Held Evans, whose spiritual memoir will be released in early 2010, was particularly exciting because like me, she has a journalism background. Evolving in Monkey Town is her first book, and since she’s several steps ahead of me in the writing and publishing process, I figured I could learn a thing or two from her. And so could you.

Rachel lives in Dayton, Tennessee. She’s represented by literary agent Rachelle Gardner — Evans recently offered tips to first-time authors on her agent’s blog — and her book is being published by Zondervan, which specializes in Christian literature.

Let’s have a round of applause for Rachel Held Evans! (Roar from the audience.) Please, I know you’re excited, but let’s hold questions until the end.

Alexis: Tell us a bit about your book, Evolving in Monkey Town.

Rachel: I live in what is arguably the most religious town in the country – Dayton, Tennessee, home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Inspired by this environment, I wrote a spiritual memoir about growing up in the conservative evangelical subculture and seriously questioning my faith as a young adult. My story is intended to be an encouragement for other young adults who have doubts about Christianity or who are frustrated with current expressions of evangelicalism. Currently in the editing stages, it will be published by Zondervan.

How did you go about finding an agent and publisher?

I’d been piddling around with the book for a couple of years when I finally decided to put together a proposal. (Tip #1: For nonfiction, I recommend writing and pitching a proposal BEFORE completing the book.) I bought a couple of books on how to write a non-fiction book proposal, followed those guidelines, and put one together. (Tip #2: Even for creative non-fiction, a proposal is helpful because it forces you to outline and summarize the book and to consider how your book fits into the market.)

Once I had a proposal, I met with an author acquaintance of mine, who liked it and recommended me to his agent. (Tip #3: You gotta be willing to take advantage of ANY connections you might have in order to break into this very competitive business.) My friend’s agent was not interested, but passed it on to his associate – Rachelle Gardner – who was interested. (Tip #4: Rejections are a part of the process; get used to it.)

Rachelle pitched my proposal to several publishers, and after a few painful rejections, I got a “yes” from Zondervan. (Tip #5: Try to get an agent.) I signed a contract with Zondervan in September of 2008 with a deadline to send in the first draft on April 1, 2009. (Tip #6: Send your stuff in on time; editors will love you for it.) Finished the first draft by deadline and am now working with editor to polish it up. We should see the book on shelves within a few months. (Tip #7: The whole process takes a really, really, really long time, especially for the first book; prepare for a long ride.)

As a first-time author, can you share with us something you learned through this process that you wish you had known beforehand?

This is going to sound cheesy, but I genuinely had no idea how rewarding the process would be. If anything, I wish I had been willing to put myself out there sooner. Every day I am amazed that someone is paying me to do what I love.

What writing and publishing challenges are unique to memoir? How did you overcome them?

Memoirs are strange little creatures. While they deal with true facts, the good ones always include the elements of fiction – carefully constructed plots, strong character development, and vivid imagery. They can be a challenge to write because most people are just not that interested in your story unless 1) you are famous or 2) your readers feel they can relate. So the most important thing to keep in mind while writing a memoir is your intended audience. You have to constantly ask yourself – “Why would my readers care? How can they feel connected to this story? What is the universal truth behind this experience?”

Memoirs also pose a challenge because most of the books on writing and publishing are about either fiction or non-fiction. I recommend reading both, and then making a plan for yourself that best suits your book. I also recommend reading lots and lots of successful memoirs that are similar to your own. (Since I’m writing a spiritual memoir, I read Anne Lamott and Donald Miller. If you are writing a travel memoir, read Elizabeth Gilbert.) Take notes.

With memoirs, some agents/publishers simply need a proposal and a few sample chapters to make a decision; others will want to see the whole book. Again, I recommend writing a proposal first – if nothing else but to give you some direction. I was fortunate to get a contract based solely on my proposal and two sample chapters.

In my opinion, the best way to overcome just about any publishing/writing/marketing challenge is to know your audience like the back of your hand. What makes them laugh? What makes them cry? What do they worry about? Where do they hang out? How do they spend their money? Where do they get their news? If you know who your readers are, you will write about things they care about. If you know who your readers are, you can more easily build a platform that will attract a publisher. If you know who your readers are, you know where to find them when it’s time to sell the book.

What are your favorite blogs, books, publications for writing inspiration?

My agent, Rachelle Gardner has a great blog. I loved Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott — a good mix of non-fiction and fiction advice. I always like to read a little poetry before I write — reminds me of how very important every single word and syllabul really is.

Have more questions for Rachel? Leave them in the comments. She has promised to check back here and answer them.

UPDATE: There’s more helpful information from Rachel in the comments, so scroll down.

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    23 Replies to “Rachel Held Evans on the challenges of memoir”

    • No questions, but I found Rachel’s tips helpful and think they apply to writers of any genre.


    • Alexis Grant says:

      Rather than muddle up Rachel’s interview, I thought I’d put two comments here:

      1. Rachel, you mention the challenges memoir poses because it’s neither fiction nor nonfiction. I love that you GET that! It’s a memoir-specific issue.

      2. Interesting that Rachel sold her memoir based on proposal and sample chapters. That goes against what all agents have told me — that to sell memoir, it’s essential to have written the full manuscript. Just goes to show there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to publishing.

      Thanks for the insight, Rachel!

    • Interesting interview with Rachel! She includes some great tips that will be helpful to all writers.

      Mystery Writing is Murder

    • Karen Walker says:

      I’m jealous!

    • theoldsilly says:

      Excellent advice. Wish I’d had this article to read when I was writing my first book, a memoir. It so happens apparently by pure beginner’s luck I DID include a lot of the elements suggested here, and DID keep asking myself, as I developed the story line, “why would anyone care to read this?” I solved that by interweaving a social/political commentary on the evolution of our society during the 50’s through to the present as the story my life unfolded.

      Biggest problem I found while trying to get a traditional publisher was they ALL said they did not accept memoir submissions from anyone who was not already famous for some reason or another.

      The Old Silly

    • I am delighted to see this fantastic post about memoir. I have scoured the bookstores and blogosphere for info on creating queries for this market and there isn’t a lot out there. Thank you, this is very helpful.

    • Regarding proposals/ full manuscripts, clearly there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. My book did include a lot of non-fiction elements – primarily research and analysis about the evolution of fundamentalism in America

      (Kinda like what was said about “interweaving a social/political commentary on the evolution of our society during the 50’s” – Good strategy!)

      Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to be famous to write a memoir. It seems to me that you have to be famous OR a good writer with a good story. Seems like the route that doesn’t involve a reality tv series is the most preferable anyway!

    • Destineers says:

      Very interesting interview with great tips. I have heard with non-fiction articles to do the proposal before the project, didn’t realize it held for the book-length works as well. Good to know!

      Nancy, from Just a Thought”¦

    • Alexis Grant says:

      Hey Rachel,

      Since no one’s stepped up to ask a question yet, I’ll give it a go:

      You’re finishing up edits on your manuscript this week, right? How much revising/editing did your publisher ask for? Significant content revision or minor tweaks? How long did that take you?


    • The edits I’m working on now are the first from my editor at Zondervan. These are the edits required to make the manuscript acceptable for publication so that I can get the second half of my advance. (Hurray! Money!)

      I was actually pleasantly surprised by how few revisions my editor suggested. There were two chapters that needed additional content and significant re-working, and then there was the regular line-by-line spelling/ grammar/ word choice edits. She asked for some clarification in a few places as well. Overall, I thought her suggestions were extremely helpful. They definitely made the book better.

      I was really happy when my editor told me she thought the manuscript was exceptionally clean. I’m not telling you this to brag, but to suggest that turning in clean manuscripts/ proposals/ queries ALWAYS works to your advantage. If you develop a reputation for being easy to work with, you’re more likely to get a second book deal. When you make your editor or your agent’s job easier, they are more likely to give you additional opportunities.

      Zondervan gave me until September 1 to finish the edits, but I think I’ll finish by next week. Not sure if this will help expedite the publication process, but it’s nice to have it nearly finished. All in all, the edits took me about two months, but I probably could have finished them earlier. You know how it is. The longer you have the longer you will take!

      I actually enjoy the editing process much more than the initial writing process. Forging ahead to the next blank page is a lot more daunting than refining what has already been written.

      I gained almost 15 pounds writing the manuscript, but have lost most of hat during the editing process! 🙂 I’m much more relaxed.

      So those of you working on your manuscripts are doing the really hard work now.

      Also, I wanted to add that if anyone wants to contact me via e-mail, just visit my site. There’s a “contact'” page. It was an author who gave me my first break in this business, so I vowed I would always be available to other writers who were trying to break in.

    • Love the embedded tip format, very helpful. Not seen it before, but, when I’m rich and famous, I’ll for sure steal this technique. Thanks for that.

      Tell us a bit about your relationship with your agent. How much critique does she do? Did she want changes before pitching the book? Were you involved in the publisher pitch process, and if so, in what way?

      Thanks.Best regards, Galen
      Imagineering Fiction Blog

    • Very fun and helpful interview–thanks! I’ve had 4 non-fiction books published (Harvest House and Howard), and I’m working on a memoir. It’s freaking me out a little (lot). I’ve chatted with Rachelle, and she’s awesome! Can’t wait to read your book!

    • My agent Rachelle has been such a great ally throughout the whole process. She didn’t make any drastic changes to the proposal, but her connections within the industry have been absolutely priceless. Reading her blog every day makes me feel like I talk to her every day. We e-mail back and forth pretty regularly, but I’d like to think I’m a low-maintenance client overall. (I generally reserve major venting sessions for my husband!) She’s been a great resource and friend, and I cannot recommend agent representation enough.

      Also, Rachelle was extremely helpful with all the contract negotiations. It was so nice to have an expert available to answer all of my questions, and I’m certain my advance/royalties turned out better than they would have without representation. This is reason enough to get an agent.

    • Forgot to answer your question about my involvement with the pitching process.

      Rachelle actually started pitching my proposal while I was on vacation! It was a very nice feeling to be sitting on the beach knowing my agent was out there working on my behalf!

      I did meet with one acquisitions editor from another publishing company that didn’t end up accepting the book…but that was mainly because he was in the area. Mostly Rachelle just kept me posted on her progress. Rejections still hurt, but they’re better coming from an agent who has the “inside scoop” on things, can break it to you gently, and will remain positive and come up with the next step.

    • Peggy Frezon says:

      Thanks Alexis and Rachel! I am thrilled to have recently acquired an agent for my memoir…My question is, what comes next? He’s sent the pitch to about 6 publishing houses. I don’t want to bug him by asking what’s going on…so, what can I expect to hear from him? When should I contact him? And when you say this is a long process, how long might this whole pitch process take? My imagination gets running away with me! Thanks!

    • Ami says:

      Thanks so much for the great interview. You’ve provided a lot of really helpful tips here. I’m in the process of reworking my ideas for my own memoir based on some suggestions I received from an agent I met at a conference, and based on your comments and what I’m hearing elsewhere, I think developing a proposal for my book will be a great way to get organized and clarify my plot, market and the like.

      You’ve answered most of the questions I would have had, but I was wondering if you worked another job while writing your book? If so, what were your strategies for finding the time and/or energy to write during your “down time”? If not, how did you support yourself while writing your book?

      Thanks again for sharing! It’s so helpful to hear about others who have been through this process, particularly with memoir.

    • Peggy, congrats on getting representation from an agent! This is such a great step, and I wish you all the best. Regarding timing, I can assure you that if a publisher is interested in your book, your agent will make you the first to know! I tried my best not to bug Rachelle when I knew she was pitching my book…(I desperately wanted to call her up every day and ask, “What did they say?” “What did they say?”). Usually she let me know if the book had made it past the acquisitions editor and on the the publication committee. Otherwise, she just handle the rejections herself.

      It can seem like a very long silence, but for me, the time between acquiring representation with an agent and getting a “yes” from a publisher was less than three months (felt like a WHOLE lot longer, I can assure you!) It then took another three months just to get the contract.

      Be patient, and try not to bug your agent every day….as tempting as it is. Your agent is just as eager as you are to get a contract, and he or she will definitely let you know as things progress.

      And just to let you know: I faced some nasty rejections myself. At one point, I thought for sure I had a book deal in the bag, but in the end, it didn’t make it past the publication committee. I spent an entire afternoon in bed sobbing.

      …Three weeks later the phone rang and Rachelle said, “Rachel, this is the call you’ve been waiting for!”

      Be patient!

    • Ami,

      I was operating a pretty decent freelance writing/marketing business from my home when I got the book deal. In order to make more time to write, I let go of some of my most time-consuming (and lucrative) clients. My husband and I took a small hit financially, but the advance money really helped. My theory is that if I spend my time writing, speaking, and marketing my books I’ll make more money in the long run because I’m doing something I really care about.

      A tip: Schedule time to write during the part of the day when you find yourself most productive. If you’re a morning person, get up extra early. If you’re a night owl, stay up late. Work with your own personality and natural bent and you will maximize your time. I like to write between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. and then again at night. I’m completely worthless during the afternoon hours!

    • I can relate to Tip #7: The whole process takes a really, really, really long time, especially for the first book; prepare for a long ride.

      But this can be good news as quick responses from agents usually mean a rejection response, but those agents who take a long time to respond are usually floating the idea of representing you. This is what I’m currently experiencing.

      I’ve even had some agents email me telling me that they need more time to mull around my query letter. Hey, at least they haven’t said no.

      Stephen Tremp
      Author – Breakthrough

    • Helen Ginger says:

      Very interesting interview and the tips were helpful. I helps to hear from someone who’s already been through the process. Congratulations on the book – that’s very exciting!

      Straight From Hel

    • Wow, these are great tips. Thanks so much for sharing. I especially liked what Rachel said about reading both fiction and nonfiction advice since a memoir goes into both of those territories — I hadn’t thought of that.

      Thanks again!

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