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How long should your memoir be?

Authors ask me if their memoir is long enough. Actually, they usually ask if it’s the right length. How long should your memoir be? There’s a wide range of answers, and one of them is the right answer for you. The skill you will need from an editor of your memoir is knowing which length is best.

It’s not enough to say it depends, when I hear the question of how long should your memoir be. I usually ask questions like how much time does your story cover? Years, or months, or weeks? Some memoirs, only a few, can cover a handful of days. The shorter the time span, the more likely it is you have a good sense of how long your memoir should be.

You want to locate the turning point in the story. It might be after your wife died and you found your path onto schooling, leading to an advanced degree. In one book where I’ve helped out, that degree showed the author had healed his pain over the troubled marriage. Memoirs demand focus for writers, to keep readers engaged. That’s one reason they run best at about 65-75,000 words.

Make the story fit

It can be a real challenge to get a story that you’ve lived all your life to fit into a container of that size. Jeanette Walls has a memoir, The Glass Castle, that memoirists everywhere like to reference. Yes, it’s been a movie, it’s that popular. It’s super-long at 100,000 words. And Wild has been an astounding success at 130,000 words. Again, movie-worthy, and it’s important to note that the finished screenplay was about 150 pages. They winnowed on Cheryl Strayed’s winnowing. But Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, about losing her husband and her daughter in the same year, in just 50,000 words.

Glass Castle runs from the author’s little girlhood to her entry into college. Wild covers just the weeks of a long trek across the Pacific Crest Trail, plus many flashbacks into the author’s girlhood and addictions. The Year of Magical Thinking covers a year. Each of these stories has a container in time. Without a container, the meaning of the book drifts. Everything we live through is vital and searing to us. It has less potential for such sharp meaning to our readers, though. We pick our storytelling spots and work on making them sparkle.

A subset or a slice of life

As a development editor, I tell my authors we may look at a manuscript and come to a decision that it’s going to need a refocus, a winnowing of the many stories into a one subset of a life. That’s memoir’s mission: to help both the author and readers see how one chunk of a life changed things for the better.

No matter who you talk with about editing, everyone should be recommending Beth Kephart’s memoir book Handling the Truth and the one by Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir. Refer to them in that order; Karr has a more poetic approach. They both have memoir reading lists for your reference. Since you want to get published, rather than publish yourself, you’ll be in the race with books that follow those books’ guidelines. Knowing what else has been commercially successful is important.

Memoir editing can be a big journey. Sometimes there’s that moment when your editor says, after reading your pages, “How about more on that topic?” Memoir demands emotionally difficult material, usually, when you’re asked to add something. The hardest stories can come out last. My father’s suicide was the portion of my memoir Stealing Home that my editor asked me to write.

You’ve spent many years living and remembering your story. Giving it the best chance it can get will be worthwhile. It will also give your writing a better chance of a publishing contract.