How can I write a book about my life?
Just do it!
OK, apologies to Nike for the misappropriation of their famous slogan. And to you, the reader of this blog. There is, of course, a lot more to writing a life story. The point I was trying to make is that although many people think hard about writing a book, the majority never start. And, of those who do, a huge proportion never finish.
I am a stickler for planning when it comes to books. However, even after ghostwriting more than 50 of them, I still find it a tough to begin each one, plan or no plan. There is a lot of wondering around, cups of tea made, house plants watered, and words muttered under my breath. And then I always end up doing the same thing. I sit down and write something that is roughlywhat I want to say. After that, I am off. Writing at my usual confident speed. I always, always, go back and change the beginning, but the important thing is I have started.
Returning to that plan, I believe that it is the key to what comes next: getting one chapter complete and then the next. It is challenging to write a full-length book. (A biography is generally between 60,000 to 80,000 words in length). Remembering, and then relating, details of your life in a way that is interesting to read is no easy task. This is why people employ ghosts like me to help them. However, if you are writing your true story yourself, start with a plan.
Think carefully about how best to bring your story to life. It helps to think about things from a reader’s point of view. What would they find interesting about your story? The aim of writing a book is, after all, to share your experiences with the wider world. For this reason, I would advise anyone against an episodic, cradle-to-grave type approach. I was born in Finchley, went to school in …It won’t capture any reader’s imagination. Instead, it might help to focus on key themes or lessons learned; the parts of your life which shaped who you are today, even if they might have been extremely painful at the time. If you focus on these themes, or perhaps the number one message your experiences have taught you, it naturally pulls you towards a more story-like structure, which immediately makes a book more readable. Readers may have had similar experiences themselves and will welcome the opportunity to hear how you reacted to them and came out the other side.
If the experiences or themes all seem a bit of a muddle, take the time to write a list of key events. Set them out in order of, say, childhood influences, school, first love, parents, siblings, friends, marriage, children and grandchildren. Then list out your responses to the following themes: aspirations, failures, successes, regrets and resentments. It is highly likely that you will see a pattern emerging. The events that have resonated most and which have had the greatest influence on how you see your life will stand out. Keep a side list of supporting stories that back up the overall theme.
If the core of the main story is challenging, or potentially gruelling to read, think hard about how you will present it to the reader. While you might want to tell your full story, warts and all, it may be too much to tell all in one go. A memoir that reads like a relentless tale of misery, or negativity, can be hard to read. Think about what less intense moments you might be able to add. This is not to make light of the story, but simply to give the reader a bit of breathing space now and again. Consider too the narrative arc, which shows what you learned and how you changed from the beginning to the end. Are you leaving the reader with a positive message that the good guys will eventually triumph? You might be bloodied, yes, but unbowed.
Honesty is very important. This is not just because you don’t want to fall foul of libel laws (which you absolutely do not) but also because authenticity is crucial. Readers need to relate to the author and believe they are getting the full, unvarnished story. Anyone who portrays themselves as a superhero, without faults, who has never made a mistake, is not telling the full truth. That’s not how real life works.
Once you have your theme and supporting stories worked out, start writing. (See above!). I find it helpful to set a daily word count goal. I know this is not always easy when it’s not your main job, so don’t be over ambitious. Just set a small, yet doable, quantity of words and stick with it. If you are the type of person who likes routine, write at the same time of day, each day and in the same place. The very deliberate methodology will become part of your commitment to complete the book.
While you are, of course, the star of the show in your life story, don’t neglect the other characters. Good stories need strong characters. Think about the other people you are writing about and what it is that makes their lives complicated and interesting. Give yourself space to describe key people and their motivations. Don’t however, fall into the trap of describing too many characters. It gets too complicated and will confuse the reader.
Avoid editing and re-editing as you go. Refine your manuscript a little, yes, but if you get bogged down with polishing each chapter before moving on you will never get the story written. It’s easy to get discouraged when you are still on the first few chapters, after a year or more. Get it all done, then go back and make it better. It is also a lot easier to edit once you have the whole book written. The themes will stand out better and you will see any glaring plot holes.
Finally, don’t forget to enjoy the experience. Writing your story can be a very therapeutic process. For some it will offer some sort of closure on the not so good bits. For others it is a welcome opportunity to reflect on all of the crazy, yet highly enjoyable things you’ve done.
If you want to write a book about your life: start now.