How can I write a book about my life?
If you want to write a book about your life, I have three words of advice: 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 your own life story and it is not an endeavour to take lightly. 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. The only way to ensure that you don’t fall into either camp is to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.
If you are feeling stuck, begin with a plan. I am a stickler for planning when it comes to books. Don’t panic about getting it 100% right, or trying to polish your plan into what you believe will be a bestseller. There is plenty of time for all of that. To get started, make yourself comfortable and write a list of roughly what you want to say in your book. What you are looking for here is a synopsis of the key events you would like to include. For now, it may help to set them out in chronological order. You could begin by mapping out personal experiences from childhood influences, to school, first love, parents, siblings, friends, marriage, children and grandchildren. Then you could move on to listing wider events, such as hobbies, interests and your career. As a prompt, try to think in terms of themes such as: 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.
Now you have something to play with, you can begin to experiment with the order of events. I would advise anyone to think beyond an episodic, cradle-to-grave type approach. I was born in Finchley, went to school in …It’s just too predictable and won’t capture any reader’s imagination. Is there a more interesting way to tell your story? You may, for example, begin with one of the most influential events and then move on to telling the back story that led to it, alternating between time periods. Alternatively, you could 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. An author I worked produced a very compelling biography by grouping together his stories into one theme per chapter, creating a compelling series of standalone vignettes. A few of these themes centred around some of the most important people he met and lessons he learned that influenced his choice of career. Others, were highly personal, analysing the ongoing impact of the loss of a parent at a young age. Other short stories were upbeat and funny, such as a through-the-years description of his close friendship with his university buddies and the crazy things they got up to. This episodic approach pulls the reader in and tempts them to come back for more each time, which is obviously the point.
If the core of the main story is challenging, or potentially gruelling to read, consider carefully how and where in the book 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. It may be better to balance it with less intense moments. 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.
Another consideration at this stage is Point of View, or the perspective from which a story is told. This is the angle from which a reader will observe the narrator and learn about their world from their behaviour and reflections. In fiction there are many options for Point of View, ranging from first person, through to second person, to third person. In this case, it is highly likely you will be writing in the first person for your life story. The good news is that writing in the first person is relatively intuitive, using words such as I, my, we and our. It is also a quick route to creating intimacy with your reader, so they are interested in the narrator’s point of view and relive the experiences alongside them.
Now you’ve set out a detailed plan, you are making headway. The next, very important, step is to get started. You know what you want to write and now need to make progress. It can be helpful to set a daily, or weekly, word count. 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. Some days will be easier than others, but it helps to get into a routine and to be disciplined about it. It is challenging to write a full-length book – a biography is generally between 60,000 to 80,000 words in length – and the only way to get it done is to make steady progress. It is rather like that old adage: how do you eat an elephant – one slice at a time. Each time you meet your word count, you are eating another slice of that elephant.
There is nothing that says that you have to begin at chapter one and work your way through your plan sequentially. If you have decided to begin with a dramatic chapter, which recounts events you find painful, it’s good advice to leave this until later, when you are more in the swing of things. Once you are in a good writing routine, you will find it much easier to describe challenging events.
Honesty is very important when you begin writing. 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 perpetual superhero, without faults, who has never made a mistake, is very obviously not telling the full truth. That’s not how real life works. Likewise, 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. There is a balance here though. Don’t fall into the trap of describing too many characters. It gets too complicated and will confuse the reader.
Try to 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 to the next one you will never get the story written. (You won’t hit your daily word count target either.) 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.
As I said from the outset, the most important step is the first one. If you want to write a book about your life: start now.