Should you serialize your memoir on Substack?
Yes! Why? Five reasons:
Memoirs are well suited to the platform.
It’s an opportunity to show proof of concept to agents and editors (i.e., that people are interested and will buy the book).1 Right now, publishers don’t consider writing on Substack previously published. My editor at HarperCollins encouraged me to serialize my new memoir Cured (the sequel to my journalistic memoir Pathological: The True Story of Six Misdiagnoses) before we go to sell it. My powerhouse agent and I ultimately made the decision to do so together—I mention that she’s a powerhouse to reassure you she knows her stuff.
You’ll become a more attuned memoirist.
It will make you a sharper editor of your work.
The result will be a more mature book.
Yes, you’ll build your platform and email list, but the best part about serializing a memoir on Substack is the way it will change you and your book. Let me explain.
How will serializing on Substack result in a memoir that agents, editors, and readers actually want?
1. The solipsism factor
The first rule in writing memoir is never to write about yourself and never, ever for yourself. You write with the reader, so the reader has the universal experience you’re writing about. The events in your story may be unique, but the mental and emotional dimensions are human.
Most memoirs fail because the writer either didn’t know this or failed to keep it in mind. In terms of the latter, there’s a good reason for this. Writing a book about yourself in a room with only yourself for a select number of readers (one’s agent, editor, writing group, friends, etc.) is a terrible idea. Solipsism inevitably ensues.
Serializing on Substack forces you to keep a collective of subscribers in mind as opposed to one or two or ten people to please. It will redirect you to what you’re writing and away from the mind’s tyranny of whether people like you or if you’re a “good” writer.
2. The voice factor
When publication is far off in the distance and one’s readers even farther away, it’s easy to slip into memoir-speak. Voice in most memoirs is preachy, pretentious, or precious. The writer often thinks she’s being poetic and creative, but it comes off as stilted and self-conscious, a voice that readers don’t trust.
On Substack—assuming you understand the platform and what makes it so different from any other—you can’t get away with that. As with blogging, you’re writing to others but even more so.
3. The word-count factor
I have an upcoming post begging Substack writers to write less, so I won’t get into the myriad reasons why long posts equal sloppy writing and thinking. For now, we’ll stick with the word-count factor in serial memoirs. Writing short installments will make for a better book. It will force you to be a fierce editor. As a guideline, if you’re publishing once a week, you shouldn’t post more than about 1500 words.
Yes, you may come out with a manuscript that’s less than the 70,000-word-count ideal, but that will make you rethink your memoir and what you want from it. Serializing my new memoir Cured on Substack has led me to a different, more expansive (and less self-centered) book, a journalistic investigation into why our mental health system doesn’t follow the recovery model of mental illness. It will focus on other people’s stories of mental health recovery and push me as a writer. I can do memoir; let’s see what happens when I make it less about me.
Why do memoirs serialize so well on Substack?
1. The stand-alone factor
A memoir installment looks an awful lot like a classic Substack personal-essay-esque post. Memoir installments don’t, and shouldn’t, come full circle like personal essays. Like novelists, we have to make the reader excited for (or at least interested in) the next installment.
With Cured, I’ve been amazed by how little exposition is needed in each post. Charles Dickens called this “the weekly view,” i.e., treating each installment as if it’s the only one the reader will get. Note: He did this with novels, which is even more challenging.
2. The point-of-view factor
On Substack, you’re writing an email memoir (or novel). People aren’t used to getting a third-person narrative in their inboxes. The first-person perspective of memoirs makes point-of-view easy.
3. The plot factor
There’s no way to measure which genre is more difficult to write and serialize. They’re both narratives but distinct in the aspects they (generally) rely on. Novels privilege point of view and plot; memoir is all about voice and character arc. Novels often require twists and subplots, which are much harder to translate over installments.
This is all to say, Let’s serialize! Not just to get subscribers but to produce the best memoirs—and novels—we can.
BONUS! A (very) short history of the serial memoir
Creative nonfiction was the first genre to be serialized. Travelogues were serialized long before novels. (They inspired Daniel Defoe to serialize Robinson Crusoe.) Full-length personal narratives have come to us in installments for almost two centuries:
Slave narratives were serialized throughout the nineteenth century.
Henry David Thoreau’s travelogues Cape Cod and The Maine Woods appeared in Putnam’s Magazine and Sartain’s Union Magazine.
About 250 pages of Mark Twain’s autobiography ran in the North American Review and New York Tribune in 1907.
Childhood Years: A Memoir by the Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki was serialized in a Japanese literary magazine from 1955 to 1956.
In the 1990s, Stephen King serialized On Writing: A Memoir of Craft in The New Yorker.
Most recently, Bret Easton Ellis serialized his memoir/autofiction (it’s referred to as a memoir, but it’s unclear how much of it is true) on his podcast.
Other memoirs first appeared piecemeal, with chapters appearing as essays in various publications or as blogs:
Mary McCarthy’s Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood (1957) was published as essays in The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.
More recently, blogs have been adapted into bestselling memoirs. The early 2000s was a boom time for bloggers, many of whom got book deals to write memoirs:
Glennon Doyle’s Love Warrior arose from her Momastery blog.
Julie Powell’s cooking blog became Julie and Julia.
Jen Lancaster’s blog jennsylvania led to nine (9!) memoirs.
Be the writer you’re meant to be on Substack
I can save you years of flailing around on Substack, trying to figure out the platform, and not getting any traction. I’ve seen the most amazing results in the Substack writers I’ve worked with: journalists, psychologists, people in tech, culture writers, creative writers of every genre, healthcare practitioners, scientists, those just starting out, and those that have been on Substack for years.
Each 30-minute Zoom meeting with me gives you an expert set of eyes on your Substack. I help you
focus your Substack and your goals and achieve them,
determine how your talents and expertise can be expressed in your Substack,
use Substack to bolster your career,
design your Substack to attract readers and reflect you as a writer,
sharpen the value you offer,
decide when and how to go paid and/or convert paid subscribers,
master the art of the perfect Substack post (write less, go deep, use your voice),
hone your long-term vision, and (of course)
increase your subscribers.
I share with you the advice the folks at Substack gave me and all my experience as an author at HarperCollins; the creator of two bestselling, featured Substack publications; a former advisory editor at The Paris Review; and a creative writing professor at Northwestern University.
Book a 3-meeting package for $25 off:
Or book a single meeting:
That could maybe, possibly change simply because anything can change. If you’re a worrier, you can stick to the 50 percent rule, i.e., about half can be previously published.