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How soon can I write my memoir?

The inaugural installment of our publishing advice column. Send our Agony Agents your most pressing book industry questions!

Dear Agony Agent: I have a day job and have written a novel in my spare time. I don’t have any established publishing connections. What’s the best way for me to find an agent to represent me? –Afterhours Author

Dear Afterhours Author: Congratulations on completing your novel. If you are thin-skinned, do not go any further. Show the novel to your closest friends and your doting aunt and bask in their praise. Then put the manuscript in a drawer and leave it there.

If you are truly determined to get it published, prepare yourself for rejection, and lots of it. The first wave of naysayers will be the agents, and you will need one in order to get published (unless of course you wish to go the self-publishing route, but that is a whole different subject). You can minimize the pain by doing your research and querying those agents whose sensibilities match your own. Many agents are active on Publisher’s Marketplace, Facebook and Twitter, but don’t, for goodness’ sake, contact them via those sites. Use them for research purposes only. Write a good query letter and follow the agent’s submission guidelines. The single best way to get an agent’s attention is through a referral from one of their clients or someone in the publishing industry. Namedropping works! Writers’ conferences can also be decent opportunities for networking, but agents are bombarded with dozens of submissions, so—good luck—you will have to make sure yours stands out. (Full disclosure: I’ve attended many writers’ conferences and thus far taken on only one client, and she’s not only an amazing writer but also jumps out of helicopters for a living.)

Before your head hits your knees in despair, remember this: The publishing industry may be filled with snarky, socially inept, former nerds who now delight in sticking it to defenseless, aspiring writers like yourself. But they are also professionals. They spend their days thinking about what makes a book good, and what will make it sell. So they can be powerful champions, and that’s worth putting up with a little attitude.


Dear Agony Agent: What are the most common mistakes that first-timers make when submitting a manuscript? –A Rookie

Dear Rookie: The most common mistake that I have witnessed in my seven years as an agent is the premature submission—an eager author submitting to agents before the work is ready. All published authors will agree that a novel is not finished when the first draft is written, nor after the second, and maybe not even after the third. The revision process is crucial. Jennifer Egan wrote twenty drafts of A Visit From a Goon Squad. Jonathan Franzen discarded one thousand pages of an early draft of The Corrections. Junot Diaz wrote multiple drafts over the course of a decade before he created the genius The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. What’s that saying? Don’t serve a wine before its time. Well, the same is true for a book: don’t send it out before you have taken it as far as you possibly can, on your own. Solicit feedback from readers you trust. That doesn’t mean your doting aunt or your best friend, whose mission in life is to make you feel good about yourself, but writers, editors, and students of literature. Take a workshop. There is much to learn about the craft of writing and it’s a mistake to underestimate that.

Once you’ve finished your masterpiece you’ll be hit by the burning desire to get it published instantly, knowing it’ll be a bestseller. You might dash off a quick email to a few dozen agents, sharing your passionate conviction that your novel is the next Da Vinci Code, and attaching the manuscript. Then you sit back and wait, hitting the refresh button every five minutes. This is a mistake. Every agent has different tastes and submission guidelines, but all agents are allergic to hyperbole. Invest the same careful work and consideration in your agent search that you invested in the actual writing. If you have written a good book, there is an agent out there who will fall in love with it. And there will be a publisher, though it may take a while to find the right one—the one who has the right vision for it. In the meantime, find a way to be Zen about the process. It’s slow and arduous. You’ll need to be patient, and have faith.


Dear Agony Agent: In your opinion, what is the earliest acceptable age to write a memoir? (I’m twenty-four.) –Eager Beaver

Dear Eager Beaver: Speaking from the perspective of someone who passed twenty-four many moons ago, there just aren’t a whole lot of interesting 24-year-olds. It’s not that they (or you) haven’t had interesting lives—many have had deeply fucked up, traumatic childhood experiences or traveled around the world or even accomplished amazing things. It’s just that most 24-year-olds don’t have the perspective, the insight, and frankly, the depth, to write about those experiences in a way that extracts their universality. If you want to write a memoir that will stand the test of time, then I suggest you wait. Digest your experiences, find a way to distance yourself from them, and when it doesn’t feel so raw and painful anymore, then write about them. The goal is to create a portrait that is at once intimate,idiosyncratic, and universal, one that uses specific experiences to say something significant about the human experience. One of my favorite memoirs is The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr, in which the author paints a riveting portrait of her parents’ fractious marriage and her own fraught relationship with her mother. She was forty when she wrote the book, about experiences she had when she was seven; it took her more than twenty years to acquire the skill to tell the story and the perspective to see it as a whole.

P.S. Be prepared to be brutally revealing. Your mother will probably not talk to you ever again. No mother—no one, really—likes having his or her less flattering moments exposed to the world. Everyone you write about will remember life episodes differently and will argue with you about your portrayals. If the experiences you’re chronicling haven’t driven you crazy, I guarantee you this will. So just chill, enjoy life, and write your story when you’re old and everyone expects you to be eccentric anyway.


Have a question for Agony Agent? Send your question to submitmargins [at] with the subject line: “Agony Agent Question Submission.”