How to write a life story can present difficult answer questions, especially if you’re early in the discovery process. Choices you make on the structure of the manuscript, the story voice, and approach to information gathering can define the direction of a manuscript.
Here are some things I think you should know before getting started.
How To Write A Life Story: Terminology
Among the most important aspects in understanding how to write a life story is one of terminology. Think of this as the language of the publishing industry. You have probably heard the words “biography”, “autobiography” or “memoir” before and assume they mean mostly the same thing when it comes to a life story. There is, in fact, a great deal of similarity between these associated terms, but let’s underscore how they are different.
The term “memoir” refers to a manuscript covering some or all of a subject’s life story. In most instances, a memoir reveals an entire life but it focuses intently on a well defined segment of it. Take for example, an actor’s memoir about their time on a particular television program, or a famous couple’s account of their troublesome marriage. In order to understand the whole story, we get the big picture, but the book really focuses on those critical junctures.
An “autobiography” or “biography” are forms of life story more broadly defined. They are, in most instances, books that take into account the subject’s entire life. Think of them as more definitive accounts, one that I reader can sit down with and gain a perspective on who they were and what they stood for. The former term, autobiography, suggests that the subject wrote the story themselves.
As you can see, these terms all suggest a life story in one form or another, any of which a ghostwriter can help you write. For the sake of clarity, if you’re interested in a life story focused on a specific area of your life, you’re probably thinking of a memoir. On the other hand, if you’re thinking of a life spanning account, a biography or autobiography is likely your best choice.
How To Write A Life Story: The Five Key Aspects To Consider
In my experience, these are the five area you need to address before writing a life story.
What Is The Story’s Scope?
This can be a tough element to define early on, especially if you’re writing a biography or autobiography. How to write a life story often comes down to knowing what goes into the book and what doesn’t belong. Allow me to explain.
Recently, I worked on a life story with a ghostwriting client. Her book focused on her family, how she struggled to raise four children in a marriage that was disintegrating all around her. Among the most difficult elements for her in writing this story was how to handle her in-laws. Some of them she had a good relationship with and others, well, not so much.
Ultimately, we decided it would be best for her to leave her ex-husband’s extended family out altogether. It was, in the end, an easier story to tell if she left them out than if she continued struggling to find ways to bring those elements to the page.
If you’re struggling with how to write a life story, perhaps you need to look at the scope. Are you bringing too much peripheral material in? Is it possible you’re not including enough key aspects? Scope is really important. It helps you identify the heart of your story and then hone in on that.
Who Is Your Audience?
One of the first questions that I work to answer with a life story ghostwriting client is this – who is your story’s core audience?
Some clients, most in fact, answer simply: everyone.
I hope I’m not the first to tell you that “everyone” is actually not the answer you’re looking for here. Here is a key understanding: there is no book out there that can boast “everyone” as its audience. None. Often people reply, but what about those books that everyone seems to love?
I’m here to tell you that universal appeal is a myth. It might seem like everyone is reading Harry Potter, but the truth is, they’re not. In fact, a small fraction of all readers read even the most popular books. The success of a series like the aforementioned Harry Potter is that the author did a world class job of writing to that book’s core audience, readers young and old, who loved magic and fantasy.
If you want to successfully reach your audience, you need to first identify them and then second, know how to reach them. Without this knowledge, a book tends to lack focus. It loses readers because it doesn’t know exactly who its readers are.
What Will The Story’s Style Be?
If you look back at old life stories, it’s plain to see that a cradle to grave approach used to be the predominant style. People wrote about how they were born first and proceeded in a linear fashion through to the end. This is what I would call a chronological narrative.
Storytelling has changed – a lot – over the years. How to write a life story isn’t simply an exercise in assembling a chronology anymore. Writers are taking a more cinematic approach, moving forward and backward in time, focusing on areas based more on their impact than where they fall into line.
It may be a lot to think about now, however, understand that the style you choose goes a long way in helping you sell your book. Publishers like a good story. They love a good story, well told. Before you sit down to write a life story, decide on a style that fits, one that’s engaging and fun to read.
Do You Have A Voice?
Voice is a part of writing that jumps off the page and commands your immediate attention. Addressing the identity of the subject, in part comes down to what they say.
More often though, it comes down how they choose to say it.
Is the subject of the story angry about what happened to them? If so, a writer chooses to use a tone that connects that. They’re terse, combative, hard to get along with.
Is the ultimate message one of hope? To write that manuscript, a writer would choose a softer look at the world, striving to find the good in whatever they encounter as opposed to the negative.
Voice carries a story. How to write a life story eventually comes down to answering questions of how do you look at the world.
How To write A Life story: Information gathering
Your approach in writing a life story comes down to how you anticipate gathering information. As a ghostwriter, whose job it is to write biographies and memoirs for my clients, getting the story often comes down to basic interviews. We sit down, talk about the story, and I work off of those interviews.
If you’re writing your own memoir or biography project, that can get a little more complicated. Sure, you don’t necessarily need to interview yourself, you lived it, but what about filling in the gaps. Will you interview other people who were involved in your story? If there is an element of history involved, often the case when we work on books like these, how will you create that context?
Often overlooked, approach is an important part of how to write a life story. If you’re a person who needs their facts in order, I recommend getting them in line first. Other people I know are comfortable writing a loose rough draft, filling in the gaps later, after they’re done.
A key last word on your approach – if it’s your first time writing, you might not know exactly where you fall. If you are taking on a life story as a first writing project, and find yourself getting stuck, ask yourself what is troubling you. If you’re getting hung up on details and facts it may be an indication that you need to get your research done first.
I hope this blog addressed some of your questions about how to write a life story. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below.