Querying your memoir: manuscript or proposal?

May 3, 2010

So you’re writing a memoir. Should you complete your manuscript before approaching agents? Or query with only a proposal?

I’ve touched on this topic here and here and here, but it comes up so often in the memoir-writing community — and there’s so little advice available online — that it’s time I addressed it outright.

Here’s why this is even an issue:

Writers working on nonfiction projects often query literary agents before they’ve written the entire manuscript. That’s because agents sometimes sell nonfiction based on a proposal, a summary document that includes an overview of the book and author, a promotion plan and sample chapters.

Fiction works differently. Because the saleability of a novel depends heavily on the quality of the writing in addition to the idea, most agents prefer new fiction writers complete the manuscript before querying.

Memoir — that lawless genre that refuses to be put in a box — falls somewhere in between. It’s nonfiction, of course, a true story. But whether it sells depends on how the story is told, which makes it similar to fiction.

For that reason, most literary agents recommend completing the manuscript before querying, like you’d do for fiction. Even then you sometimes need a proposal, too.

But in practice, a good number of agents seem to take on memoir clients based only on their proposal. How do I know this? Because I talk with a lot of memoirists, and most of the ones I know who are represented by an agent established that relationship before they’d written their entire manuscript. In some cases the agent found them through their blog or magazine article. Other writers successfully queried with only a proposal, and their agent picked them out of the slush pile.

What’s the lesson here? There’s no right answer. You’ve got to do what’s right for you.

Me? I decided long ago to write my entire manuscript before querying, partly so I could pitch my best product rather than one that was still evolving, and also because I thought more agents might consider me that way. To cover all my bases, I also wrote a kick-ass proposal (in first person, since my manuscript is in first person). I want to give agents every possible reason to represent me.

If, however, your idea is particularly timely or you’ve got a great platform or there’s some other reason your story will stand out, you might consider querying with only a proposal. Whether or not that’s acceptable depends largely on the agent you’re querying, so check out their submission guidelines, as well as what other writers have written about them online.

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What do y’all think? If you’ve already been through the query process, which approach did you take — an did it work? If you’ve yet to query, will you wait until you’ve completed your manuscript or have a go with your proposal?

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    17 Replies to “Querying your memoir: manuscript or proposal?”

    • Karen Walker says:

      I went the same route as you, Alexis, and queried after I completed the manuscript.

    • Megan Hill says:

      I’ve queried agents for my memoir and stated expressly that all I had ready for them was a proposal. Those that either sent rejections or asked for proposals didn’t once mention preferring to see a full manuscript. So it seems like it depends on the agent. Very few, that I’ve come across, mention what to do with a memoir…but they should all start being more specific!

    • jessiecarty says:

      i think you definitely made the right choice. if you haven’t completed a book length project before you generally aren’t going to get much interest from an agent or publisher until the manuscript is actually complete. when you already have a full length work done it is a completely different world. 🙂

    • I queried with a proposal while writing the memoir. In retrospect, I should have written the full book first, as I had two agents request the full manuscript, which wasn’t quite ready, which led me to rush through finishing it – not the best way to complete it. Both agents rejected me with nice comments, but I wish I’d had more time to polish my book before I sent it out. I’m not back to polishing, and once that’s complete, I’ll query again.

    • littlehousesouthernprairie says:

      great post. it sounds like writing the whole thing is a smart choice unless the subject is extremely newsy, and really, most subjects are not.

    • Marianne says:

      You’ve already linked here to my experience – which was to plan to write the whole thing and then find that there were agents interested in seeing what I had before I was done – but I think generally writing the whole thing seems to be the solid approach (unless you are a celebrity, or have some other amazing platform or writing about something really hot and news-worthy)

      I think your approach was really sound!

    • Peggy Frezon says:

      I had an agent ask for my proposal after reading a magazine article I had published. My ms wasn’t complete at the time. They expressed interest and kept in communication, and when the ms was complete they offered me representation. I ended up accepting a different offer.

      Having a good proposal can garner interest if your memoir isn’t complete. But the agent may still wait til the ms is complete before they commit.

    • Brooke says:

      I know this is a very late response, but I just stumbled on this post. I worked with a former editor at a well-known publishing house who said that she actually would often reject memoirs because they were completed, and she wanted to have a hand in crafting the story. For some, that probably doesn’t work because they don’t want others involved in the process, but I think it’s important to reiterate that there are no set rules with memoir, unfortunately. Some agents and editors want the whole things. Others won’t consider it if fully written. Confusing!

    • Thank you so much for this post! I have asked a few agents about this and I felt like I was either asking an absurd or confusing question. But I would find on different websites different sets of guidelines. I had written 15 chapters out of a probable 21 when I started hearing from fellow nonfiction writers that a manuscript was pretty much a waste of my time. So I cruised around the Internet looking for definitive guidance…and wrote a few e-mails too. I decided to go the proposal route. Then I went onto the website of an agent I met, and she was requesting the Synopsis and first 50 pages for a memoir, a la Fiction submissions. I like your conclusion. Do what’s right for you…and I’m also going to be prepared for anything and finish the proposal and the book.
      So grateful for generous writers like you!!

      • Alexis Grant says:

        Great to hear this helped, Elise — Even though the answer is, there’s no right answer! Like Brooke said in the comment above yours, it all depends on what you want and what your agent wants. Best of luck!

    • Dana Brown says:

      When I first began my memoir I was planning on completing it before sending anything out. Then, as I researched the process more, I decided I should send proposals out while I was finishing the manuscript. But I never got that far because I then decided to go back to my first decision of waiting until it was complete. It’s good to know either way is acceptable because I will probably change my mind a few more times throughout the next few months!

    • Thank you, Thank you for this! For admitting it is confusing! 😉 I can stroll through the Internet and get so many different answers and I’m a girl who just likes the clear cut A or B so I’ve been in swirling around trying to figure out what to do. Alexis, you did mention some friends getting exposure from their Web site… What recommendations/advice would you give in that arena/area? Thank you!

    • Thank you, Alexis. My memoir is complete, but I’ve written a second one (co-written with/for somebody else) that still has a lot of cleaning up to do. I’ve got a proposal request for my memoir, but was thinking of sending both proposals. It did seem like the agent and I hit it off pretty well. Would you advise otherwise? Also, by chance, do you have a sample memoir proposal? I see the format/structure suggested all over the Internet, but I’d really like to see one to get a better idea of length and amount of detail.

      Thanks again for writing this, most helpful!

    • Sandra turner says:

      Thanks for the info. Glad I found you. I have many questions about how to present my memoir. I’ve been battling an illness for several years and trying a experimental drug now for 4 years. After finishing the first infusion I started writing and over the years I have filled several note books. I went thru them all last summer and have come up with enough chapters for a series of books. I have finished a proposal for the first book. My question is how should I query this or present it to an agent? I may present the the name of the book series and list the titles of the first 5 books saying book five takes me to the year 2014 and there will be 2 more books but they haven’t been created yet. Also telling the agent I have a complete proposal for book 1. Maybe you can’t answer but I need all the feedback I can get. What type of memoir would this be classified as ,illness memoir?(should it be written in the first person or do they prefer something else)
      Again thanks for the infor. Hope to hear from you soon

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