How to write your life story

“I want to write my life story and help people” is one of the most common phrases I hear as a Book Coach.

When you’ve been through difficult experiences and successfully come out the other side, it’s a beautiful thing to want to share your story in a way which might resonate with others who are going through something similar… to give them hope.

If this sounds like you, you’ve come to the right place.

In this blog I’ll talk about how to write your life story, things to consider, when it is a great idea, and when it might not be the right move to make right now.

In this article, we will cover:


WHY do you want to write your life story?

There is one important question I always ask people when they say they’d like to share their life story?

And that is… why?

Often it’s because you have gone through something extraordinary and people will say “Wow, you should write a book.” And it’s a great sentiment – usually shared by people who have no idea of the work involved to write, publish and promote a book.

I also find that it’s the people who casually encourage your ideas who, when it comes down to it, won’t actually put their hand in their pocket to pay for it.

When writing your life story might NOT be a great idea

Writing a book, when done well, takes months… Then you have to edit it (usually more than once), you need book cover design, and you must promote it to get it seen.

Editing can cost thousands (depending on factors like how long your book is, how good your writing is, etc), and you definitely need to edit before you publish, so it’s a non-negotiable. Book cover design costs can also vary, but if you want a great book cover (again, non-negotiable in my opinion), you will easily spend a couple of hundred dollars. Maybe less, but often more. And this isn’t factoring in costs you also might incur, like book coaching, help with uploading to retailers, and printed copies of the book (to take to events etc).

So if you’ve spent a few thousand dollars on your book, given that you might make $0.50-$3.00 per book (depending on cover price and the fee taken by the seller), think about how many copies you need to sell to break even…

Let’s say you’ve spent $2000 (and that’s very modest), and you’re making $2 a copy… you need to sell 1000 copies.

Most self-published authors sell less than 100 books. The reason this happens is because they’re not prepared for the amount of work it takes to promote a book.

Therefore, if you are going to write your book, what will you do with it then?

If you just upload it to Amazon and tell your friends on Facebook, you might sell 20 copies. What about the other 980 copies?

You need a platform and a well-executed marketing strategy. This is where it makes sense to have a business, and the book aligns with that business.

When writing your life story might be exactly what you need to do

Perhaps you’ve had a difficult life, gone through hard times and come out the other side happier, healthier, and thriving. You changed your life, studied coaching, started working with others, and now you run a successful coaching business where you help others who have gone through a difficult past and are now committed to changing their lives too.

A book about your life would serve to introduce potential clients to you, and allow them to ‘get to know you’ before deciding to work with you. It’s the perfect soft opening for people!

In this scenario, I would suggest you wait until the business is solid and producing a regular income… and THEN you write the book to use as another tool in your business.

The book will help you with raising your profile and positioning you an expert… making you more valuable because you’re a published author with expert status.

You can use the book as a basis for workshops and/or your coaching program. You can also leverage it to get speaking gigs, media, panel invitations and more. There are lots of options!

If you don’t have a business… how do you make money and/or get it published?

In short, to be brutally honest, if you don’t have a business which aligns with it (coaching, consulting, speaking etc), I don’t think it makes sense to invest the time and money into writing and publishing your memoir*.

Because if you don’t have a business, and can use the book as a tool in your business growth strategy, then what is the purpose of the whole thing?

If you want to just make passive income, then I hate to break it to you, but very few authors live off their book sales income.

You can make some money from book sales, but you have to run Amazon (etc) ads continuously, so you’re still spending money to make money. And those ads won’t work unless you have reviews – and getting reviews takes work as well.

The money from books generally comes from the ‘things’ around it, as suggested above… so if you don’t have a service to sell, you’re not in a great position to make the book a successful venture.

Maybe you think you can write the book and it will get picked up by a publisher. I wrote this blog about how to get published, and also interviewed a publishing expert and mentor who helps people get traditionally published.

In short though, getting published by a traditional publisher is a very long shot. If you’ve written a memoir and you’re not already a celebrity, then you have a one in a million chance of being picked up.

Your story would have to be exceptional, unusual and extremely compelling to even be considered. Stories about death or regular life struggles around relationships, poverty, violence, are not generally unusual or ‘new’ enough to get a look in.

Publishers will also generally expect you to have a big social media following, so that you can BYO book audience. To give you an idea, the head of Hay House said he gets ten manuscripts a week from people with 100,000+ followers. It’s normal. They’re taking on people with 500,000-1,000,000 followers for the most part.

As for getting your book made into a movie (like Elizabeth Gilbert did with Eat, Pray, Love), then forget it. Of course it happens, but you wouldn’t want to base all your hope, dreams and effort around it!

If you are still keen to write your story, I’ll explain how in the next sections.  

 

* There is an exception to the idea that you should have a business to write a memoir. Sometimes you just have a story you need to ‘get out’. In this scenario, you might write the book just to get the feelings out of your body, and you don’t plan to really do anything with it. In this situation, if you do have a lazy $2-5k to spend, and you just want to write it and keep it for yourself, or maybe you do publish it but you don’t really care if it sells… then you’re doing it as a passion project. Sometimes the cathartic process of writing it is what you needed. I’ve had a couple of book coaching clients who have done just this. And if this is you, go for it… just keep your sales expectations modest, remove the need to recoup the costs, and you’ll be fine.

How much of your life to cover

This is a hard one. If you tried to cover every single interesting event in your life, the story would lose impact and the book would be very, very long!

My advice is to think about the theme or message of the book. What do your readers need to know about you to understand you better, and how you got from ‘there’ to ‘here’?

I like to start with a prologue which drops the reader right into the action. Choose the pivotal moment in your life where:

  • everything went to shit; OR
  • you finally had enough and suddenly saw the light – and this was the turning point in everything happening for you; OR
  • the moment where everything finally clicked into place and things were amazing!

This way, you are giving the reader an incentive to embrace the book from page one. They want to know exactly what happened leading up to that point, what happened next, and how you ended up the amazing, adjusted, successful, prosperous, #blessed person you are today. (If you are still using #blessed in your social posts, please stop).

Then, in Chapter One, you can go back to the beginning of your story. Not the beginning of your life – ie. Please don’t start with “I was born in 1975 to working class parents. I had two brothers and a sister.” Those are the kind of details you need to weave into the story as it progresses.

Start with the beginning of the particular journey (I do hate that word – journey – but can’t think of another one which is as relevant) you are taking the reader on which relates to your theme or message.

Then go in chronological order until the ‘end’ of the journey – where you can show how you came out the other side, how you are today, how things have changed.

You can always end the story with a separate chapter which has a call to action, and speaks directly to the reader about what you’re doing today and how they can work with you.

Writing style

I like what is called ‘creative non-fiction’ – which is non-fiction written in the style of a novel. It brings the reader into the action and lets them get lost in your world.

You write in first person, and therefore you are the central character in the story, telling the story through your eyes.

Writing like a novel means writing using dialogue, action, description, internal dialogue, narrative… Mixing them together to create texture and light and shade in your story.

This is what keeps it interesting for the reader.

It’s engaging, because they feel like they are IN your story, not just a passive observer.

Show, don’t tell

Most people, when they start to write a memoir, will write in ‘journal style’. This is how you’d write in your diary or journal, where you are ‘telling’ the story, rather than showing it. There’s no light and shade. Your reader will feel removed from the story, rather than engaged right in the middle of it.

It’s boring.

Here’s an example of writing in journal style, or telling:

Jake was always so annoying and paranoid. We were driving home from the party and he was really quiet and obviously angry at me, but I didn’t know why. When I asked him what was wrong he started going on and on about me supposedly flirting with some old guy who had accosted me at the bar. He was being completely ridiculous because I had spent the whole time trying to get away from the guy, who had smelt a bit like cabbage to be honest.

In the end, it turned into a big argument about how I never stand with him at parties and he feels like a gooseberry. When we got home, Jake jumped out of the car angrily and said that he doesn’t know if we should be together anymore.

  Let’s turn it into showing:

The ride home from the party was quiet. No chatting and laughing, no swapping stories about drunk friends. Not like we used to.

Jake was staring straight ahead, his hands gripped tight on the wheel.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, still not looking at me.

“Are you sure? You’re being really weird,” I said, and put my hand on his thigh. It normally appeased him, but not tonight.

“Amber, I saw you flirting with that guy at the bar, and it was pretty bloody embarrassing,” he said, flicking the blinker lever forcefully to indicate the turn into our driveway. “You didn’t talk to me the whole night, but you were laughing with him like old friends when you just met the guy.”

What guy at the bar?

I racked my brain trying to think of someone I’d spoken to who could have made Jake jealous.

Then it clicked.

“You mean the old guy who smelled like cabbage?” I said, laughing. He had been relatively charming ? for a pensioner ? but I’d spent the whole time politely trying to get away.

I won’t write the whole scene, and it’s just something I wrote quickly, but you get the gist.

Which version is more engaging? Which one can you picture more clearly?

The second option is showing, and it is so much better. That’s how your memoir should be written.

Having some narrative summary is fine, but don’t overuse it. Getting the balance right can be tricky, and it’s something I help my clients with… but when done well, it’s a beautiful way to write. You do get used to it!

What tense should you write in?

Past tense: Easier to write this way. It’s how we speak. It’s less immediate and engaging for the reader, but it’s in such common use, this doesn’t present a problem. The above example is written in past tense.

Present tense: More difficult to write this way because we never use it in real life. It is, however, even more engaging for the reader and brings them right into the action as it happens. Most of my clients write in past tense. For your first book, it can just be a lot easier.

If you can, however, get yourself to write in present tense, then that’s great!

When to use narrative summary

I want to clarify (maybe, just to confuse you), that it IS okay to use narrative summary… sometimes, and carefully, deliberately. This is done to balance out the text and separate scenes.

What is narrative summary?

It’s basically the ‘telling’ I mentioned above. Using narrative summary is telling some of the story in whatever way seems to make the most sense.

It can be used to move the story along more quickly and make brief transitions between scenes. This can be essential in memoir, where you are spanning many months or years. You can’t possibly show every scene from age eight through to 48.

So, to cover a brief period of time you might say:

I drove home from the office and went down to my favourite local coffee shop.

You’d use this when something significant happened at the office, and then something else significant happened at the coffee shop. But unless something significant also happened on the drive, we don’t need to see that. Everybody knows how you drive, park, and get out of the car. Narrative summary or ‘telling’ is totally fine here.

You would also use narrative summary to briefly gloss over a longer period of time.

The next six months were hard on everyone. Even after George found out where his brother was, nobody could explain why he’d been gone so long. It put a lot of pressure on my aunt and uncle, and you could feel the tension at family gatherings.

A brief narrative summary is good when you could easily spend several pages talking about something which isn’t a core part of your story, but needs to be mentioned to give context or background.

To see if you’re getting the balance right, ask yourself:

  • How often do I use narrative summary?
  • Do I have entire paragraphs or even chapters where I’m telling the reader what happens instead of showing it?
  • How can I revise the passages so that I’m showing and not telling my audience what is happening or what my character is feeling?
  • Have I avoided included narrative summary completely, bouncing from scene to scene with no break?
  • If so, where can I add a bit of narrative summary to balance it out?

Concrete vs Abstract words

Another very important concept in the ‘Show, don’t tell’ realm is the use of concrete vs abstract words.

The Australian Writer’s Centre wrote a great post on this (you can read it here), but I’ve borrowed from it a bit here.

Concrete words refer to things we observe through our senses (“yellow” or “cold” or “gritty”, – we can see the yellow colour, or feel cold and feel and touch the grit). Concrete words are things, not ideas. Concrete words are specific and have only one meaning — “run”, “jump”, “ball”, “water”, “rough”, and “blue”.

Abstract words refer to concepts or feelings (“happy”, “sad” – these are feelings and cannot easily be observed). Their meaning is open to interpretation. So we can’t use our senses to understand them.

Using these abstract words frequently moves us into telling rather than showing and as I’ve discussed, readers find ‘telling’ to be very dull reading.

There is another way to think about abstract vs concrete words which might be more meaningful… If a character is thinking and analysing something, then that is abstract, but if a character is doing something, then that is concrete.

Example: “I felt sad” is abstract and it robs the reader of the chance to get involved in the story and work out what’s happening.

But if you were to write near the start of your memoir, “I slipped into my room, and buried my head in the pillow. I grabbed a picture of my mother off the bedside table, clutched it to my heart and began to sob” … that’s concrete.

It’s also active, not passive (which is something we want in our stories).

Most common mistakes people make when writing their life story

One of the things I always tell my clients is that with a memoir, you should never remind the reader they’re reading a book. That might sound a bit odd, but it’s when you address the reader directly.

Remember, you are a character telling a story.

Don’t break from character by speaking to the reader, and saying things like “If I had known then what I know now” or putting things in brackets (which I love doing. See?).

It pulls the reader out of the magic of your story and reminds them that you’re an author, writing a story, rather than a character inside a story.

Another common mistake is having hindsight or ‘future self’ narrative.

If you are eight years old in the start of your story, you’re not actually writing like an eight-year-old, but you are still thinking and acting like an eight-year-old in the story, if that makes sense? You can’t have the wisdom and insight of a 44-year-old when you’re in the middle of an eight-year-old’s situation.

Are you ready to write a memoir?

Writing a memoir is all about taking the reader on an emotional journey.

There are moments of light… moments of dark… moments of realisation…

It can’t ALL be description.

It can’t ALL be dialogue and action.

It’s getting the balance right and the structure right…

Often, even when you think you’ve got it right, you’ll change it in the editing process, once you read it back in context of the full manuscript.

But this is all part of the beautiful process of writing a book!

What to do now

If you’re ready to write a book and you think self-publishing seems like your best option, you will find my 45 Step Book Writing and Publishing Checklist very handy.

Just click to access and tell me where to send it!

ACCESS CHECKLIST HERE

If you are a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing and think you may need support, please contact me at any time. I have different options available to help you, depending on your goals, your budget, and where you are in the process.

If you’d like to book a free, 10-minute Book Clarity Call with me, we’ll have a quick chat about your book idea and if you could leverage it to raise your profile and make more money in your service business.

If there is good potential, we’ll talk again for longer. If I believe a book isn’t the right option for you right now, or if we’re not the right fit for each other, I’ll let you know. It’s pressure and obligation free, I promise.

Use this link to book directly into my diary.

BOOK CLARITY CALL HERE

I can’t wait to work with you and help you finally write that book this year!

Cat


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If you’re keen to get started on writing your book, you will find my 45 Step Book Writing and Publishing Checklist very handy. Just click here to tell me where to send it!


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