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How to Write Your Life Story

Updated on January 7, 2019
TessSchlesinger profile image

Tessa Schlesinger has been a writer since birth. She was published early, is opinionated, and, in her 7th decade, still continues to write.

"I just love biography, and I'm fascinated by people who have shifted our destinies or our points of view." Richard Attenborough
"I just love biography, and I'm fascinated by people who have shifted our destinies or our points of view." Richard Attenborough | Source

Writing My Autobiography

At some point, many of us consider writing our life stories. I know that I have. At times, like many others, people have said to me, “You must write your life story” or “Have you ever thought of writing your autobiography?” Some have even offered to sponsor me while writing it. For me, the answer is no, I don’t really want to write down the events of my life – too traumatic, too different, too much movement, too many different things, and more. I don’t have the energy or the inclination. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't write yours.

There are very good reasons you should write your life story.

I spent two years working as an editor for publishers in London, and I was stunned at the number of people who wrote their autobiographies. I learnt how incredibly different our lives were. Some stories I have never forgotten.

So here's what Iearnt.

Dawn French on her unofficial biography
Dawn French on her unofficial biography | Source

Entertainment and Historical Value of Your Life Story

I have met many people who tell me that they want me to write their life story. They then tell me that because it's going to be a bestseller, they would like me to write gratis, and then they will give me 1% of their royalties when it's a bestseller.

Yeah. Right.

Perhaps that does happen, but I'm betting it's not often. So if you're going to write your bestselling life story, you need to have something totally different and spectacular. I present some options below.

Let me give you some examples of that.

  1. You spent 10 years of your life as a cannibal eating other people.
  2. You spent 30 years hiding in the bush in Japan because you thought the world was still at war.
  3. You discovered/invented a product so advanced that it will change the world for ever.
  4. You had a sex change, discovered you didn’t like it, then changed back again, only to discover you had become an it.
  5. You grew up in a palace, escaped, then married a pauper and lived happily ever after.

It is always the first person to write about something that gets published (and then makes some money). For those who come afterwards with a similar story, it’s not going to work. So just because, 30 years ago, someone wrote a story about their drug addiction and made $10 million, it doesn’t mean that because you overcame your drug habit, you will make a million. At this point, nobody is interested in those type of stories.

This does not mean you shouldn't write your life story - just that you will need to consider that it probably won't be a bestseller. In fact, it might not sell at all!


Creative Non-fiction and Well Written Prose

Literacy, creative writing, and literary writing are all different things. We are all, to one extent or another, literate. We have been taught how to write. Creative writing and literary writing are, however, quite far removed from basic literacy.

Creative writing is generally plot driven, commercial fiction. Literary fiction is character driven fiction. Obviously, as our life stories are non-fiction, none of these styles of writing will suit.

The best style of writing (used by both the San Diego Reader and the New Yorker) is creative non-fiction.

Creative non-fiction uses fictional techniques to liven up non-fictional narrative.

Let me give you an example of that.

You are repeating a conversation between yourself and one other. You greet each other, chat about inconsequential tidbits, and, finally, after fifteen minutes, you get to the point. That is how a normal conversation is conducted. However, no fictional author writes conversations as they happen in real life. Instead, the conversation is used to further the story. It is shortened, so that the conversation only has the relevant information to move the story forward.

In addition, it is vital that you either have an excellent grasp of grammar, or you pay for a professional editor (not someone who you think has good grammar from school days) to do a professional edit.

I read somewhere that ninety percent of screenplays and eighty percent of novels are rejected as a result of poor grammar and structure. This ties in with what a well-known producer told me – he rejected 99% of the scripts he received after reading the first page. Why? Spelling mistakes and sentences incorrectly structured.

I also know from my days working for publishing houses in London that a novel which starts badly is not read beyond the first page. Generally the first paragraph of a book will define whether the writer can write well or not.

Write your life story because your children, and your children's children, will want to know who you were and what you did.
Write your life story because your children, and your children's children, will want to know who you were and what you did. | Source

Some Very Ordinary Stories are Quite Extraordinary

To be honest, in the two years I read and edited all those life stories, only three stand out.

  1. The story of a woman whose son was killed by a group of thugs. She had been very involved in prison rehabilitation, and so, although she had lost her son, she was keen to forgive and to rehabilitate the murderer. She was never able to do that, and towards the end of the book, she realized you can never change some people. To this day, I feel her sadness and her shock.
  2. The story of a military unit for small men during WWI. Men whose height was below 5’ 3” were never permitted to join the military. Some wanted to, so they formed their own unit. The book was the story of their exploits.
  3. The story of a young lady who immigrated to a country in South America, had no money, started teaching English, and in time, bought a house and married. It really was a happy ever after story. What is extraordinary is that it was such an ordinary story.

The first story was interesting because both the murder of the young man and the subsequent trial were national news. The second story was interesting because it was told by the grandson of a man who had joined the Bantam regiment. The third story succeeded because it was so well written that I found myself living through job-hunting, struggling to speak another language, meeting someone, and more.

So, yes, some very ordinary stories are quite extraordinary, and although they don't gain bestselling status, they do have a steady readership.

Do you want to write your life story?

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Readers of autobiographies.

Many people love to read biographies, so if your story is well written, and you have a good story to tell, you will find readers.

I've also heard many readers say that they love to read the ordinary lifestories of others, and that it is uplifting to them.

These books are self-published.

Perhaps it is a good idea to read a few before embarking on telling your own life story.

"Biographies and memoirs can never be wholly true... The novel can." Anthony Powell
"Biographies and memoirs can never be wholly true... The novel can." Anthony Powell | Source

Check the Details! Your Autobiography Needs to be Accurate.

I have been hired several times to ghostwrite autobiographies for others. While writing the life story of Dr. Febes Tan Facey, something didn’t ring true in the data that she gave me. So I spoke to her relatives. As a result, some in the the family discovered that a particular situation had been interpreted quite differently!

While dabbling in writing my own life story, I discovered how faulty my memory was.

My mother had walked into her bedroom to discover my father making love to another women. The women was naked and my mother chased her out of the house and she ran naked down the street. The naked woman found sanctuary next door and was complaining about how my mother hadn’t allowed her to put on clothes. The neighbour asked her, “What were you doing in Mr. Schlesinger’s bed?”

I got the story wrong, though. I thought my mother had run after her in the street, but she hadn’t.

The problem with not getting details right is that someone will notice. Make no mistake about that. So when you write your story, check the dates and speak to family and friends about incidents.

You will lose credibility immediately if you say you were in Paris in June 1938 and there were Nazis all around. The war in Europe only started in 1939. If you lose credibility for one episode, you will lose credibility for the entire book. You will probably lose your reader and get a bad book review.

So check your facts!

Writing our stories clarifies the way we see ourselves and the events that we lived through. For that reason, alone, it is a good thing to do.

The Best Reason to Write Your Life Story

You have kids, right? You have family? You have grandparents?

Don't you get incredibly curious what the lives of your forebears? Don't you want to know where they came from?

Unhappily, by the time we are old enough to be curious about that, they are long gone.

Your children might not be curious now, but they will be.

Write your life story. Please. For your family.

When you are gone, it will be passed down to your children's children. I know that, because my paternal grandmother wrote down my family details to the year 1780, and now my daughter has them...

Writing About a Particular Episode in Your Life

Sometimes we don't want to write our entire life stories - we just want to write about a particular episode or period of time.

My late father wrote such a booklet. It was entitled Memoirs of a Jewish Journalist in Nazi Germany.' Books like this can be very important for other people to read. Right now, my late father's ebook (written in 1983 on the 50th anniversary of Jews being kicked out of public service) is useful for those who want to draw parallels between pre-war Germany and the current events happening in the world.

You might have such experience, and this experience if of historical value. Sometimes that kind of information can contribute to vital decisions, so it's important to write.

It doesn't matter if it's only 40,000 words. Ebook formats allow one to publish that. So go for it.

Memoirs of a Jewish Journalist in Nazi Germany." W L Schlesinger
Memoirs of a Jewish Journalist in Nazi Germany." W L Schlesinger

The Law and Libel

There’s a limit to what we can say about other people when we write. In some countries just saying something bad about someone else is considered libel. In other countries, if what you say is proven to be true, then it is not libel. However, it has to be proven true before you write it.

There are also ways of writing things. For instance, you can say “I am of the opinion that Mr. Smith is less-than-truthful.” You cannot say “Mr. Smith is a liar.” You can state that something is your opinion and explain your evidence. You cannot make a direct statement.

It’s best, however, not to negate another in your story. Only tell what happened. Let other people make their assessments based on what you say. You may not, for instance, say “Mr. Smith stole my ribbon.” You may say that your ribbon was in your room, then Mr. Smith went into your room, and afterwards you couldn’t find your ribbon.

Another way of writing your life story...

Book Specificatons and Publication

Your book should be between 75,000 and 100,000 words. It should be typed in double spacing and in a normal font (fancy fonts will get your book rejected). Other than that, you will need to check the requirements of the particular publisher you wish to submit to. These can be very stringent as per the Wiley-Blackwell guide.

If you’re going to self-publish, the best place to start is Smashwords. They will publish your book (in ebook format) and, of course, you will need to present it in their format. When you are ready to publish on Amazon, you will need to check their requirements.

Why are you writing your life story?

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How to Market Your Life Story Book

This is a tough one.

Let’s assume that your book is well written and that you have a fantastic story to tell.

If you have acquired a publisher, they will probably ask you help in the marketing – things like book tours, etc.

Publishers, these days, do look at how much expense is involved in marketing your book before accepting it. So, for example, if you have a following of a 100,000 people on the web, then this will certainly work in your favour.

If you have a fantastic story to tell (You won a gazillion in the lottery, squandered it in five years, won another lottery, and then became a saint), they will probably also accept it.

Publishers accept books, not because they are fantastic stories, but on the amount of money it would take to market them to buyers. They are, for instance, more likely to accept autobiographies from Angela Jolie, Hillary Clinton, or Antonia Banderas (I shall always be half in love with him) than they are from me and you. That’s because there is already an existing market for those stories.

If you are going to self-publish, hire a marketing team, but be aware that it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to become an international bestseller, and you might never recoup your money.

Indie Authors are Highly Successful

Despite Amazon saying that there is a decline in ebooks, the truth is that there is only a decline in ebooks for recognized publishers. Indie authors are doing exceptionally well, and each year their sales increase.

So that is not a bad way for you to go. You could do very well indeed!

© 2019 Tessa Schlesinger

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