Launches June 2022!

We all have a story to tell about ourselves, the good, the bad and the how did I end up there? Our memoir award celebrates the life story, a fragment in time or rear view mirror look at what was and now is.

A moment of truth

The pandemic has made us more aware of how fragile life is and how important friends and family are. A memoir weaves people and places into a story we can relate to, something we might learn from but most important of all, what we know to be true.

Look out for

We will be launching a specific memoir resources centre so you can get lots of information, hints and tips about this writing genre.

For insight into writing a memoir this piece by Blake Morrison is invaluable.

Key memoir dates

15 June 2022

Memoir competition OPENS. Submissions welcome of 5 to 8,000 words max. plus a 300-word synopsis which should form the first page of your entry.

30 September 2022

Memoir competition CLOSES.

28 November 2022

Twelve long listed titles published here on website and our social media.

1 December 2022

Long listed writers to submit 15,000 words, including the synopsis and original submission.

18 January 2023

Five shortlisted titles published here on website and our social media.

25 January 2023

Shortlisted writers to submit 30,000 words, including the synopsis and original submissions.

1 March 2023

Winner and runner up announced.

10 March 2023

Extracts from the winning and runner up memoirs published here on website.

How to pitch your Memoir to an agent

By Florence Rees, A.M. Heath Literary Agency, London

Where does my memoir fit in today’s publishing landscape?

Think about the memoirs you’ve read. What did you enjoy about them? Was it their unique perspective, one perhaps you may not have heard, the strength of their writing or just the interesting things that happened in their life? Which do you think yours is most similar to, what does it have in common with those you’ve read and what makes it stand out? Considering this will help you distil the strength of your own memoir and help you position it so you can pitch it effectively to an agent.

How do I find an agent who represents my kind of memoir?

Consider the memoirs you’ve enjoyed in the last few years and the authors who’ve written them. Research a few of their agents – do they represent a lot of memoir? You can often find who represents an author in the acknowledgements page. Are there agents who keep coming up? Look into them and their agencies. Perhaps within some agencies there are agents who specialise only in non-fiction? Agents often have bios on their agency websites about the books they have loved or represented which are intended to help authors such as yourselves decide who to submit to. Sometimes it’s a good idea to submit to the less senior agents of an agency which represents some of your favourite memoir writers as they will have smaller lists and more time.

What does an agent want to see in a submission?

This may vary agent to agent but a general rule of thumb is a synopsis or overview, 5-10 thousand words and a query letter with some background information about you, perhaps telling the agent why you decided to write this memoir and identifying where it sits in the market, ie which books would it be next to in a bookshop? When sending in a piece of work, you don’t necessarily need to submit the first part of your memoir, you could choose an extract where you feel your writing shines the brightest. If you do so, make sure in a query letter that you explain a bit of the story to the agent so they have context.

What makes a submission stand out?

An awareness of the book market and of trends can be helpful but isn’t as daunting as it sounds: comparison to other titles or authors is key information for an agent. Tell them whether it’s straight narrative, thematic or something else. Personalisation to an agent helps here – why have you chosen this agency or agent to submit to? I advise authors to imagine they’re telling their friend about their book – how would they describe it to them? Use that as the basis of writing to an agent. A few well-crafted lines can sometimes be better than paragraphs of information.

 

Memoir is Hard. Okay, Maybe It’s not Memoir

By Jarred McGinnis

Writing memoir the most important question you can ask yourself is, why do I want to do this to myself? Writing is hard enough and you are adding the difficulty of navigating the ethical minefield of writing about your own life and the people you know, some of whom may be litigious. If that wasn’t bad enough you must have a complete and objective understanding of your main character, you.

Good luck with that!

That’s called dramatic irony…

Dramatic irony?

Dramatic irony is when the reader’s understanding of events or individuals surpasses that of its characters. For example, in Othello we know Iago is a wrong’un before Othello, or how we know Oedipus is making some very icky and very tragic mistakes way before he discovers it. It is a powerful technique to employ.

Room for disclosure

In memoir, it’s possible to create dramatic irony within the text but there is another level of dramatic irony over which you have no control. It is that of the author’s own unawareness of the disclosures they are making. And, let me tell you, in 80k words, there’s lots of room for disclosure. You must be prepared for the inevitability of that. It is a risk unique to the form. For example, throughout Philip Roth’s memoir The Facts, blame is heaped on the women in his life and never himself. He seems to have little insight into his own pathology when it comes to relationships with women. And yet throughout his fiction we see reverberations of his toxicity and sexual predation. This layer of transtextuality complexity is not possible in fiction. As a reader of memoir, I am drawn to the possibilities inherent in that dissonance.

Many iterations

My novel The Coward had many iterations where it oscillated between the two forms of memoir and fiction. Ultimately, for the book to get to the insights I wanted to communicate (e.g. about trauma, addiction, disability, family, etc), the story had to be unmoored from the facts. I needed the freedom of fiction more than I needed the dialogue with or the documentation of a former self.

Stuck? Find your pivot point

When I am stuck and feel I might have painted myself into a corner. I deliberately try to rewrite the same scene or story to see if form is an issue. Memoirs, unlike the autobiography, are usually tied to a theme or a moment or an era in a person’s life. Often this involves a ‘pivot point’ in your life.

Try this

Think back over your life. Think of the pivotal moments of your life. Write them down. Just a word or a phrase to jog the memory. While you do this, notice the emotional response. Who are the other people you think of? What are the moments that come up but you don’t write down? It might be that aversion means there is something to explore there. Go on, add it to the list. Do this for about ten to fifteen minutes. Then pick one of these moments to expand. Fill a page or two about it. Remember all the things that make good fiction: specific details appealing to all the senses, not just sight. Write it as a scene.

Let it rest

Now go back. Maybe not just yet. Let it rest for a day or so. What tense did you use? What point of view? Probably first person. Write it in a different tense and/or a different point of view. Writing about yourself in the third person might give you the distance you need to really write what you need to write.

Now, rewrite the piece from someone else’s perspective. This could be the main ‘antagonist’, a passerby or a god imbued with omniscience. See if these changes unlock any insights about the moment or about how to approach the writing about that moment.

Jarred’s debut novel The Coward was chosen for BBC Radio 2’s Book Club and listed for the Barbellion Prize. His short fiction has been commissioned for BBC Radio 4. He is a mentor for the Word Factory. He has a PhD in Artificial Intelligence. 

 

Tips for Writing and Editing Your Memoir

Joe Sedgwick, Head of Writing Services, The Literary Consultancy

So, you’ve written your memoir. Firstly, congratulations! It’s always an achievement completing any piece of writing, especially recounting a personal experience from your life. Now you want to edit it, ready for sharing with your friends and family, or perhaps you’re thinking of self-publishing. Maybe, you want to send it out to an agent or publisher to see if it might be able to reach a wider audience… Whoever your intended audience for your memoir, you’ll still want to make sure it reads as well as possible and does your story justice. I’ve compiled a list of five editing tips that apply specifically to memoir writers.

1. Think like a novelist

There are many good reasons for approaching a memoir as a fiction writer would approach a novel, but for me, remembering that you’re telling a story is crucial. Often, a memoir will focus on one significant event or central theme (I’ll talk more about this later), which means that you can be creative with the telling of the story, and the passage of time for example, as you would if you were writing a novel. Keeping the reader in suspense, not giving away too much too early and maintaining narrative tension are not necessarily story elements one would immediately associate with memoir, but moments of light and shade can keep your reader gripped to your story.

This is not so that your memoir reads exactly like a novel. But by ordering the fragments of time that you’ve experienced yourself into a coherent structure, you can build a framework that you’re able to then play within. By structuring the narrative in the way that a novelist would, you can create a story that is cogent, readable, and enjoyable for your reader – whether they be family, friends or an agent or publisher.

It’s not an autobiography

It’s also worth keeping in mind that when writing a memoir, you’re not writing an autobiography. You don’t need to cover every detail of everything, in order, exactly as it happened. I won’t go as far as to say, ‘don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story’, because a) it’s a cliché and b) finding the essence of truth is key to the success of all good writing, as Hemingway believed. But I do think that you don’t always have to rigorously stick to the exact details of everything that has happened, and often, in reality this can hinder the flow of the narrative.

It is of course important not to embellish what happened to the point of complete invention, but it’s important to keep in mind how engagingly something reads on the page. In fact, it’s often the case that even if the reality is outlandish, dramatic or surreal – something that might make you think ‘this is like something out of a movie!’ in real life, can actually feel forced or trite when it’s on the page.

2. Establish your narrative voice early on

This is true of all writing, but especially in memoir, where you need the reader to be on your side and really know you (the character of ‘you’) as early as possible in the book. You’re taking them on a journey and leading them by the hand through some of the most personal moments of your life, so making sure that they are familiar with your voice from the first page is crucial. Your reader needs to trust you, not necessarily because you need to be a trustworthy narrator (we all love an unreliable narrator, don’t we?), but because they need to understand your perspective, and I think the best way to do this is to settle them into the timbre of your voice on the page from the beginning.

On a technical level, you might do this by incorporating some of your dialect, the patterns of your accent, or particulars of your idiom into the writing (I always think of Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ as an incredible example of strong voice in a memoir). A good exercise for honing this might be reading your first page aloud, recording it, and listening back to it or playing the recording to a loved one (if, like me you can’t stand the sound of your own voice). If it sounds like you – you’re on track. If it sounds like someone else – keep editing.

3. Treat each person like a character not someone you know

This is a hard one, because similarly to the previous tip about establishing yourself in the narrative, it’s so personal. You might be writing about your mother, father, brother, sister, child, or teacher – people who have shaped who you are. Doing them justice on the page, when they are a living, breathing person is a real challenge, but it’s also very important for making the reader feel part of the experience of your story.

I’d argue that the best way to do this is to take a step back from the real-world version of ‘the person’ that you know and think of them as a novelist might think of a character they’re creating in a fiction. What are their hopes, desires, fears, dreams? What’s their favourite food or drink? Do they have any unusual habits? This not only provides you with a valuable level of objectivity, but also means you can really flesh them out on the page, by showing your reader who they are, rather than just telling them, based on your relation to them.

Readers don’t know your Uncle Jack, Shaz or your Mum

It’s also tempting (not to mention very easy) to assume that all your readers will know your Uncle Jack, or your friend Shaz, your Mum, brother, daughter etc. Especially when these are people that are integral to your life and story. But you must remember that if you’re writing for a wider, general audience, it’s unlikely they’ll know anything about these people, and so it’s your job to bring them to life on the page. And sometimes, in memoir, you might find that you don’t need all of the sub-characters of your life, instead choosing to amalgamate some into one character that supports the progression of the story.

Think about consent, privacy, legal issues

Do also remember, if you are describing people who are still alive, that you might need to think about consent, privacy, and any legal issues around disclosure.

4. Let the reader make their own judgement

Following on from this point, while you’re undoubtedly writing the memoir to share your experience, I also think it’s key to not lead the reader too much with your descriptions of certain events, so that they don’t feel that they’re able to make their own mind up about. One of the reasons memoir can be difficult to edit – as opposed to fiction where the building blocks of the story are fluid and moveable, or general non-fiction where ‘facts are facts’ (hopefully!) – is that everything in the narrative is viewed through the lens of your experience.

Leave or create space for the reader

By sharing your writing with a reader, you obviously want to make sure that you’re getting your views and opinions across, but you also need to acknowledge that once it’s out in the world, a memoir is open to interpretation and the opinions of others. In my experience, manipulating readers too much in one way or another on topics such as politics, or whether you feel someone or something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, can take away from their experience of enjoyment in the book. First and foremost, tell the story, and let people take away from your experience what resonates most with them. Make sure when editing that you have left – or create – enough space for the reader.

5. Remember your central theme as you edit

As I’ve already touched on, it’s common for memoirs to centre around a theme or moment in someone’s life, rather than being a chronological retelling of an entire life. This has been true of many of the more successful commercial memoirs in the last few years (think ‘This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay, ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen McDonald, or ‘Crying in H Mart’ by Michelle Zauner), and it can be an incredibly useful device for keeping you on track when you’re telling the story of your life.

Focus and limit distress

While it can be good to have more material to hone down, rather than be struggling to think of new things to write, the problem with getting carried away in the re-telling is that you can set yourself an insurmountable task when it comes to editing. And especially if you’re writing about any form of trauma or painful life event, sticking to a theme can help you focus, and limit distress. It will also help you decide what to cut, and what to keep; and you will need to make a distinction between what’s important to you, and what is important to the story, and your reader. Whether you’re writing for a wider audience, for your friends or family, or even as a form of catharsis for yourself, keeping the purpose of what you’re writing, and importantly, why you’re writing in mind can help you create a piece of personal, powerful life writing.

Joe Sedgwick has a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and American Studies from Manchester University and an MA in Publishing from Kingston University. He is head of writing services at The Literary Consultancy.

 

Good memoir reads

By Kate Craigie, Senior Commissioning Editor, Yellow Kite & Hodder Non-Fiction

In Order to Live. Yeonmi Park

There are some stories that can only ever be told by one person, someone with a unique experience or insight into a historical moment – the person who was in the room where it happened. For me, these are the first kind of stories that come to mind when someone says ‘memoir’ and Yeonmi Park’s In Order to Live is a perfect example.

Yeonmi Park was born in North Korea, in the city of Hyesan, which is close to the Chinese border. She was brought up under its brutal dictatorship, where paranoia, oppression and famine shaped her childhood. When she was thirteen, Yeonmi and her mother escaped North Korea, but it would be another two years before they reached the safety of South Korea, as they fell victim to sex traffickers in China, before making a dramatic second escape through the Gobi Desert to Mongolia.

There are not many people who can write a memoir when they are in their early twenties, but Park is wise beyond her years because she has endured hardships and oppression – and all-consuming hunger – that are impossible to imagine from our vantage-point. It is a harrowing read in places, but it is also brave and honest and – that incredibly over-used word – inspiring.

Read also: Wild Swans by Jung Chang, I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, Educated by Tara Westover

My Name is Why. Lemn Sissay

Some of my favourite memoirs are also manifestos; memoirs with a message. They use personal experience to shed a light on a social issue or structural injustice, and the extraordinary – or even relatively ordinary – life at the heart of them offers context, grounding the book’s arguments in the material circumstances of the memoirist’s lived experiences. Lemn Sissay’s searing memoir, My Name is Why, is one such book.

After a childhood spent in a foster family, and then six years in care homes, Norman Greenwood was given his birth certificate. From it he learned that he was British and Ethiopian and that his name is Lemn Sissay.

As a poet, Sissay brings a lyricism to this memoir that makes it stand out. As he reflects on his childhood, Sissay offers a moving and frank expose of the bureaucratic cruelty and the racism at the heart of the British care system. You cannot read it and come out unchanged.

Read also: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Natives by Akala, Lowborn by Kerry Hudson, Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey

Uncanny Valley. Anna Wiener

One area of memoir that has been incredibly popular in the last few years is the ‘professional memoir’. Giving us a window into a world that those of us with comparatively unexciting desk jobs rarely get to see – and hope that we won’t get to experience first-hand – memoirs by emergency responders, brain surgeons, forensic psychiatrists and criminal barristers, reveal humanity at its most vulnerable and its most cruel, and expose systems at breaking point.

Perhaps because it opens with twenty-five-year-old Anna deciding to leave her publishing job (ahem) and moving to San Francisco to take up a job at a start-up, one of the ‘professional memoirs’ I most enjoyed was Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener. I bought this book on the strength of Rebecca Solnit describing it as ‘Joan Didion at a startup’, and raced through its witty, precise and intimate account of working in Silicon Valley. A literary-minded coming-of-age memoir, Uncanny Valley reveals the bullying, greed, sexism and #DownfortheCause fetishization of hyperproductivity that powered the ‘fever dream’ years of the tech industry. Anna is an appealing narrator because she is relatable, a kind of outsider’s insider. (And it makes me really happy to work in publishing.)

Read also: Do No Harm by Henry Marsh, The Devil You Know by Gwen Adshead, The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson

In the Dream House. Carmen Maria Machado

If you read all of the books listed above, you might feel like you understand exactly how memoir works – what it is and what it isn’t. But In the Dream House, the story of a relationship gone bad, completely explodes any ideas about what memoir can be.

Tracing her relationships with volatile women, In the Dream House is a hard book to pin down – constantly shifting perspectives and borrowing from different genres and literary tropes as Machado tries to make sense of the abuse she suffered. Each chapter considers the relationship through a different lens. It’s inventive and beautiful even as it is harrowing, and a propulsive read that stayed with me for long after I read it. It is a testament to what a writer can do when she completely throws out all of the rule books.

Read also: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, The Fact of a Body by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

 

From classics to contemporary lives. Read on…

By Rose Billington, Associate Editor, The Literary Consultancy

Classics

Goodbye to all that. Robert Graves

A haunting exploration of the legacy of WW1 by the English poet.

A voice through a cloud. Denton Welch

An account of the terrible accident in 1935 that left this creative artist bed bound and his hospital experiences afterwards until his early death at aged 31.

Hons and Rebels. Jessica Mitford

Comic yet feeling portrait of an isolated and eccentric upbringing amidst the aristocratic Mitford family in 1920s/30s.

Bad Blood. Lorna Sage

Searing account of a childhood and adolescence in the 1940s and 50s on the Welsh borders where family trauma reverberates through the generations.

Fierce Attachments. Vivian Gornick

Love and hatred between mother and daughter starting in the Bronx in the 1940s.

Miracles of Life. J G Ballard

Childhood in a Japanese internment camp by the author of The Empire of the Sun and then adulthood in the swinging sixties bringing up three children after the tragedy of his wife’s early death.

Grief and illness

The Last Act of Love. Cathy Rentzenbrink

The author’s teenage brother was knocked down by a car and in a coma for eight years before he died: how to find hope and joy when your world has changed forever. Cathy is the Bridport Prize’s 2022 memoir judge.

When Breath becomes Air. Paul Kalanathi

A 36 year old surgeon faces cancer and death with unflinching honesty.

The IcebergMarion Coutts

A wife’s experience of the effect of a deadly brain tumour on her husband while bringing up their young child.

Interesting form

Sleepless NightsElizabeth Hardwick

First published in the US in 1979, a unique and kaleidoscopic account of images and memories from the wife of Robert Lowell.

Bluets. Maggie Nelson

Ostensibly about the author’s obsession with the colour blue, this is also about the end of an affair and questions the role of beauty in facing pain and grief.

Annie Ernaux series

Especially The Years. 1941-2006 from memory, photos, songs, past impressions, a French writer’s personal and universal highly original charting of her times.

Where shall we run to? Alan Garner

Charming account of the writer’s rural Cheshire childhood up to the age of 11, deceptively simple portrait of a vanished England.

Contemporary women’s lives

Everything I know about love. Dolly Alderton

The author’s exploration of her twenties in the 1990s with all the heartbreak and revelation it entailed.

Deborah Levy’s trilogy series

From what it is to be a woman writer to her divorce to the power of ‘real estate’ and how to live alone, this is a hugely powerful, honest and uplifting trilogy.

Clothes, clothes clothes, music, music music, boys, boys, boys and To Throw Away Unopened. Viv Albertine

The female punk singer’s life and loves; and the devastation and family drama when her mother is dying.

The Wild Other and My Wild and Sleepless Nights. Clover Stroud After her mother’s tragic accident when the author is 16, she travels from gypsy camps to Texas to war torn Russia finding a way through her grief; years later an emotional depiction of what it means to be a mother of 5 children – with conflicting feelings of loneliness, despair and joy.

Consumed. Arifa Akbar

When her artist sister dies of TB in a modern London hospital, the author looks back at their relationship with each other and their Pakistani parents who arrived penniless in 1970s Britain.

20th century 

Educated. Tara Westover

The author’s account of her radical religious “off-grid” family and how reading took her into a new world.

Nothing holds back the Night. Delphine de Vigan

Shocking and tender depiction of family secrets and revelations in one 20th century French family.

The Devil that Danced on the WaterAminatta Forna

Powerful account of post-colonial African childhood and exile showing consequences of her father’s stand against tyranny.

Don’t let’s go to the dogs tonight & Leaving before the Rains come. Alexandra Fuller

Dramatic childhood in southern Africa filled with grief and violence and later, a turbulent marriage and travels.

Hillbilly Elegy. J D Vance

Portrait of the white working class in 20th century America and how the author escaped the legacies of abuse, alcoholism, poverty and trauma.

Rose Billington is an editorial consultant, adviser and mentor. She was an agent at the Wylie Agency where her clients included Salman Rushdie, and is now Associate Editor at the Literary Consultancy, as well as editor and reader for a variety of publishers, agents and literary scouts. She has an MA in English Literature from Cambridge University and lives in London.  

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Memoir Judge: Cathy Rentzenbrink

Cathy Rentzenbrink is the author of The Last Act of Love, A Manual for Heartache, Dear Reader and Everyone is Still Alive. Her latest book Write It All Down: How to put your life on the page is published in January 2022. Cathy regularly chairs literary events, interviews authors, reviews books, runs creative writing courses and speaks and writes on life, death, love and literature. Despite being shortlisted for various prizes, the only thing Cathy has ever won is the Snaith and District Ladies’ Darts Championship when she was seventeen. She is now sadly out of practice.

What you would say to your younger self?

Stop giving up. Learn to stick with it through the ups and downs. Falling out of love with the manuscript is not the end of the relationship, just part of the ebb and flow. Any creative endeavour is hard work. It’s not coal mining, but it is hard. Don’t think about whether it is any good, just know that if you get some words down you will work out what you are trying to do and be able to make them better at a later stage. Keep on keeping on.

What do you do when you’re stuck?

Sometimes it is fear and I need to push through. Sometimes I am tired and I need to rest. But fear is sneaky and will try to hide as exhaustion so I struggle to know what I need. I don’t sit and stare at the screen when I’m stuck. I get up, go out for a walk or a swim. I try to work out what is bothering me and talk to myself kindly but firmly, lowering my expectations of the work and offering some privacy: ‘This doesn’t have to be any good, and you don’t have to show it to anyone, but you will feel better if you make progress towards finishing it.’

Have you ever felt like giving up on writing?

Often. I struggle with the enormity of carving a book out of air. And I get lonely and am prone to fantasise about an office full of stimulating colleagues with whom I could share water cooler moments and feel part of a team. I take on lots of teaching and events work to give me company and stimulation but then can end up over-stretched. It’s a balancing act I have yet to perfect. I’m not sure I will write forever. There might come a time when I feel empty and then can switch to a full-time job facilitating other people’s books. I don’t dread that but rather look forward to it.

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