By Tiffany Colter
I’ve regularly edit memoirs, biographies and autobiographies. I think studying the lives of others is a great way to learn and I personally read about a 3-4 books about the lives of successful people each year. In doing this I’ve learned what really makes a great bio/autobiography and what can really mess one up. I’ve listed a few things here to help you.
1. Remember it is about life lessons, not gossip.
It is tempting to share a bunch of stories that are meaningful to you because you like the stories, but that really isn’t the point of a biography. A biography will share information about a life—or a period of time in someone’s life—but the purpose is generally to share lessons that can be learned from that life. If I just told you about planting a garden on Saturday, it is nothing more than a story. It may be interesting, but it won’t change you. The story won’t stick with you any more than any of the other stories you hear that day. If, however, I tell you that the day I planted the garden marked seven years from the toughest struggle our family faced and that seven years ago we had no food, that story of a garden starts to have more meaning. If I tell you even more about the circumstances and how that seven years has changed me, those lessons will stick with you. Have a reason for the story. Don’t just tell random things.
2. Focus on the lesson and use illustrations.
This ties in to the first thing and that is you can add random stories if they are illustrations. Honestly the best example of that that I’ve seen is a book called “My Wish” by Mary Gustafson. I had the pleasure of editing this book. It is the authorized biography of Bhante Sujatha, a prominent Buddhist Monk. Her story did an incredible job of sharing random snippets of this Monk’s life and contrasting it to the life he now lives. Even if I hadn’t edited this book, I would recommend it for its unique style and beautiful craft.
When you are working on your own book, consider the lesson you want to make in each book, each chapter and each scene. Then make sure the illustration you’ve selected will help you do that.
3. The book doesn’t have to be a straight chronology…and it really shouldn’t be one.
Don’t feel like you need to start at a person’s birth and go the whole way through their life. Look at the key lessons that make this person’s life worth knowing about and then select the stories that will do that. Put the stories in an order that makes sense and that will lead up to driving home the LESSON and then let that be your chronology. That may mean that you sometimes jump around a bit in their life. That is okay, as long as the reader can follow. Other times this will be a straight chronology. That is fine too, as long as you don’t try to tell us about everything that happened during that time. Pick out key events and focus on those.
4. Be truthful.
Don’t get tempted to embellish, make up, tweak, or otherwise write something that is a lie. I understand that creative non-fiction allows for building dialog that may not be word for word what was said. That is not what I mean here. I mean, if you never hit the winning homerun in little league. Don’t say you did. If you don’t remember the exact words your dad said to you on graduation day that is fine. To say you were 5th in your class when you were really somewhere in the top 20 is a lie. By extension, if you had a very small graduating class [like a homeschooling group] where you were #3 of 10, don’t—unless it was clear you were joking—say that you were in the top 3%. It may be truthful, but you’re attempting to mislead. We may remember the memoir “A Million Little Pieces” where Oprah laid in to an author who lied about his memoir. Don’t be that guy!!!
5. Get permission.
If you are talking about someone by name, it is generally best to get their permission. If you are discussing siblings or parents or others who would be VERY easily identifiable by scanning your Facebook page, it is best to at least let them know they’re mentioned. If they are shown in a negative light…you might want to ask a lawyer what you need to concern yourself with in using them. My goal here isn’t to give legal advice—that isn’t my area. I’m simply telling you that it is generally smart to give people a heads up…and get their permission in writing to save yourself possible legal issues down the road.
I hope this will help you with not only writing biographies and memoirs, but also using illustrations in all of your books and stories. The key is to keep the story interesting, connect with the reader, and don’t ramble [these are all dangers when dealing with a person’s life].
And if you’d like to know more about Mary Gustafson’s book, “My Wish”, email me using the contact page on my website, and I’ll be happy to put you in contact with her. This isn’t a paid advertisement. Just a proud endorsement. Smile.
See you next time, Tiff
Your Coach for the Journey, Tiffany Colter, The Writing Career Coach
Don’t miss a single posting! Subscribe here to receive these postings by e-mail. Tiffany Colter is a writer, speaker and writing career coach who works with beginner to published writers. She can be reached through her website at writingcareercoach.com.