Thursday, April 18, 2013

Spilling the beans - writing an autobiography

Better on toast
”I'm writing my memoirs". Remember this phrase? It used to describe some old boy chewing his stubby pencil down to its point while painstakingly (or is it tediously?) reconstructing all the major events in his life. Ultimately, these 'memoirs' would almost certainly never see the light of day, and if they did, they'd probably end up being vanity published because no publisher or agent would touch them. You can just see it now, our superannuated pen-pusher desperately trying to give away copies of his life's work to any poor passing padre.

He’s the sort of person who goes to a party, family meeting etc with a trunk load of copies of his book. “Don’t invite Harry for goodness sake!!!”
She could tell a tale or two
The autobiographies that did get published were typically the semi-literate ruminations of the well-heeled and famous, descriptions of the drugged excesses of some rock guitarist or actor or an account of the trials and tribulations of an explorer who'd managed to survive six months in sub-zero temperatures with just a bag of peanuts.

I'm assuming if you're thinking of taking advantage of the self-publishing revolution and are writing an autobiography, you’re not in one of these three categories – correct? So, if you're not one of life's notables, does this mean that you've nothing worthwhile to say?
Not at all.

Especially since much of what makes a successful autobiography is merely a matter of perspective. A monarch, president or pop-star says that they like a particular brand of coffee and not only is it front page news, they're probably paid a not-so-small fortune by the coffee company for that five-second throwaway comment. Yet, if I now tell you my favorite brand, you'll go "What's this idiot raving about? BORING!".
You see, what makes an autobiography worth reading is often merely a matter of perspective.

Anyone outside the UK may not have seen the hilarious (yet well-observed) series 'Ripping Yarns' which was written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Although its Monty Python roots do make it somewhat over the top (as you can imagine), one episode in particular illustrates my comment about it not being a case of what you say, but who you are.
In 'The Testing of Eric Olthwaite', Eric (Michael Palin) is the "World's Most Boring Person". At every opportunity, he proudly drones on about his new shovel and the 'blackness' of his mother's black pudding (‘apart from the white bits’), with the unsurprising consequence that people just drive him off. At the end of the episode (and after he's involuntarily become famous), everyone wants to hear his previously boring anecdotes. When a young boy in the crowd that’s gathered around him subsequently grumbles about having to listen, his mother clips his ear and tells him that it's extremely interesting and that he should pay attention.

Thus, if you can’t be famous, you need to be entertaining. In a nutshell, an autobiography written by one of us 'plebs' needs to be something which will catch the attention of the reader and keep them entertained. This means you have to build into it humor, pathos, emotion, love, hate and all the other strong feelings. Besides this, it has to have an identifiable storyline, just like fiction.
I thought it was interesting
Sadly, too many ‘autobiographers’ will concentrate more on the minutiae than on these two simple (ahem) elements – that is, the human interest and enticing story thread. You and your immediate circle may well find your story meaningful and relevant but stop and think of it as a novel for a moment - would someone want to buy it (and keep it)? If you've got to hard-sell it to a buyer, the book’s going to flop. From the author’s point of view, a flopped autobiography is worse than a flopped novel because it's all too easy to perceive it as a slap in the face (which it isn't, by the way).

With that in mind, it's probably best to cut your teeth on fiction. Make your mistakes with some short stories or novellas which won't wound you so much if they don't rocket up the charts. If they do, then your autobiography will sell itself, of course!
Another thing is that you've also got to consider your starting point. Do you do it chronologically or do you organize it by eventfulness? Always remember the need for it to lead the reader through and keep them amused. Never labor points and maintain a light touch to your writing - a page of dense text describing some trivial item in detail is undoubtedly going to lose you your reader. The book needs to be ‘lean and mean’ because, if they encounter self-indulgence, they'll simply start flicking pages and then, the next thing, the book will get returned.

The real problem you're going to face is that no-one knows who you are. Why would anyone buy a book about a 'nobody' (no offence intended)? You've got to create interest - both with a catchy cover and title and also with as much publicity as you can muster.
On that subject, large adverts cost a lot of money and if you aren't selling what the buyer wants to buy (because you’re not famous), you'll just end up wasting your hard-earned pennies. The solution is, instead of pushing your book at people, get them to come looking for you.

But how do you do this?
Obviously much is going to depend upon what the main 'selling' point of the book is but, in general terms, you should consider:

  • Contacting all your local newspapers
  • Sending out a press release (remember, you need that angle)
  • Befriending like-minded people, groups on Facebook - maybe get a few independent readers to look over what you've done
  • Writing blog articles (like this one) and getting them put up on relevant sites
  • Creating a website and blogging about your experiences
  • Producing a short video which you can then embed in your blog
Basically, anything and everything you can do to craft a reason why someone should purchase your autobiography. They need to want to read about you so, demonstrate that you've something to say by getting 'out there'.

If you’ve taken your autobiography and shaped it into a fascinating story which creates passion and depth of feeling in an independent reader, your memoirs are now truly memorable.
Aiming True, the autobiography of Conrad Phillips has just been published by Any Subject Books. While Conrad does manage to meet the criterion of having been an actor for nearly 50 years, in his book he’s made excellent use of humor and the lightness of touch that I’ve described in this blog. Unlike many other such autobiographies, Aiming True’s not a barrage of name-dropping. If you read it, you’ll see that his anecdotes manage to both divert and entice you to read more – a goal for anyone writing up their life story.

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