Querying your memoir: manuscript or proposal?

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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8 Responses

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

  2. 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!

  3. 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. 🙂

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

  8. […] What I’ve got ready, a completed manuscript (with word count) and a proposal. Plenty of writers also pitch memoirs with only a proposal and sample chapters. […]

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