Congratulations on making the momentous decision to complete that book that you’ve been thinking about for years! Writing a book isn’t easy, so bravo! That decision is absolutely the first step. Now let’s tackle the next few.
I’m not here to tell you that writing a book can be made simple through a few steps. No, it will take time and patience. There is no way to even pen a short book in a few weeks. However, with a few preliminary steps I’d like to try to cut down on potential frustration!
Sum up your book in just a few lines
Before you can really start even outlining your book, you need to answer this fundamental question in a few lines: “What is your story about?” Then see if you can boil it down to a single line, a single breath. For example: This is a story about a young man, who rose from extreme poverty to become a successful entrepreneur. You know what the book is about, don’t you?
Why is this important? It keeps you on track. Plus, the themes, messages, and purposes of the book come out quickly from this simple one-line statement. It also keeps you from traveling down a divergent path. For instance, you might be tempted to devote three chapters of your business memoir to a failed marriage, designed to help budding entrepreneurs. Perhaps you’re hoping to get in a few good digs along the way. Well, that doesn’t really match your original concept, does it? So, toss it.
However, delving into an early business failure could definitely help your readers avoid the same pitfalls. Those stories would definitely be good to tell and would be important to your story.
Assignment: Write a one- to three-line summary of your story, answering the question, “What is your story about?”
What’s your purpose?
Why are you interested in writing your book? What do you hope your reader will gain from reading it?
As I’ve written a few times in my blog, if your purpose is to get back at someone, think again. That story just isn’t something worth reading. Another purpose that rarely works is financial. If you’re looking to make a million off of your story, and that is your primary goal, it won’t come out right.
By defining your purpose, you can help yourself stay on track. When you get into outlining, you can make sure that each scene, each segment aligns with that purpose fully. And if you find yourself straying, you can toss the paragraphs into a roaring proverbial bonfire.
Assignment: Write down your purpose(s) in writing your book.
What is your message?
It’s good to work out what messages you wish to impart to your reader early in the process. This will help you sort through all the information you’ll gather later, in order to figure out what will make the cut. It will also help you find your writing voice and determine how you want to tell your story (or share your wisdom).
For instance, one of your messages for your memoir might be about the value of perseverance. Another message could center around the importance of ethical behavior in business. So, the individual stories that will make up the book should center around these themes.
Assignment: Write down the messages you wish to impart to your reader.
Once you’ve finished these steps, you’ll be ready to start collecting notes, which you’ll use to create an outline. That will be the subject for the next blog article! Let me know how you did with the assignments above in the comment section below!
If you decide you wish to hire a ghostwriter, please contact me. I’d like to help. And if you wish to learn about my pricing, please check out my article on the subject!
Thank you and keep writing!
If you liked this article, here are a few additional ones you might find helpful:
Do you have a burning desire to write a book this year?
You are not alone!
I believe that everyone has at least one book within them. Whether you wish to share sage business advice to help others succeed, a personal life story that just needs to be told, an exciting fictional story, or a family history project that is time sensitive, now is the best time to start.
As a ghostwriter of twenty years, I’ve worked with dozens of clients in each of the above categories. Each genre has its own particular challenges and its own rewards. And although they are all unique, each book project requires the same elements and preparation.
If you follow the steps in this article, you will avoid the common problems people face, which can cause writer’s block and cause you to fail in your goal to complete your book.
Before you can really get started on a book, you need to prepare yourself for the project. I believe the reason most people never complete their books is that they don’t set themselves up properly from the get-go.
Make a firm decision to write a book
Make the firm decision to write a book—no matter what. This decision will help you stay on track in the face of distractions. Give yourself a final deadline and target dates along the way for milestones to complete. That will help you finish your book.
Find the time
The best way to complete your book is to make regular progress. Find a time of the day when you won’t be disturbed. This may be early in the morning before the kids wake up, or late at night after all of your other responsibilities are done.
If you can only carve out a few hours a week on the weekends, that’s a good place to start. Just know that you might find you lose some time in reacquainting yourself with the material if you allow too many days to pass between writing sessions.
See if you can find even a little time to write every day. You’ll soon be immersed in creating your book and may even find extra time to work on it.
Find a place
Find a dedicated writing space. Somewhere around your home, with a door you can close, would be most convenient. I know some writers who are inspired by the great outdoors and settle down near a lake or in a meadow. They don’t even mind the occasional visits from beetles and spiders.
It doesn’t matter where you set up, as long as you can write without distraction.
Experiment, and find your place.
State your purpose
Over the years, my clients have voiced a variety of different purposes for writing their books. Many writers yearn to see their names on the cover of their books. As an author, I understand; I know there’s no better feeling than seeing your creation in print.
Beyond that, there are authors who crave financial gain, while others want to share their story or wisdom in order to help. Some simply wish to complete their books for the benefit of their loved ones.
Be clear about your purpose right from the beginning. It will allow you to better determine what direction you will take.
Determine your readership
One of the biggest errors you can make as an author is to fail to identify your readership. You can’t write a book to everyone. Trust me, you’ll fail. No, you need to target your words to a specific demographic.
It’s important to figure this out early, because the voice and style of your book will depend on the readers you wish to entertain or educate. After all, wouldn’t you write a how-to book for experts in your niche market differently than you would a science fiction novel aimed at a young adult audience?
Consider your themes
Simply put, the theme of your book is the glue that ties everything together. This idea often conveys a universal truth, such as Love, War, Forgiveness, Courage, Friendship or Faith.
For example, I think we can all agree that J.R.R Tolkien communicated courage beautifully in The Hobbit, as did J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter. Friendship was another theme in both these works.
Keep in mind a book’s theme is rarely stated outright. It’s more subtle. It’s a takeaway the reader will experience and consider for years to come when you express your viewpoint of the world and the human condition through your characters’ beliefs, actions, experiences and conversations.
Now that you’re fully set up to write a book, it’s time to organize your thoughts. A lot of first-time writers fall on their faces when they just begin to write without a strategy. After all, if you were to bake a wedding cake for your best friend, you’d probably do a little research and at least follow a recipe.
Create detailed notes
It is so helpful to jot down detailed notes before you begin to write a book. Get these ideas out of your head and onto paper. This process will help you envision your story and get the creative juices flowing.
I have found an effective way to collect notes is to create an idea folder. This could be a word processing document or a notebook. Any thought you have about your book should be recorded in this folder. Don’t worry about the order, grammar, spelling or anything else.
Just let your ideas flow.
Have fun with it.
Remember to research
Research is crucial for any book project. If you’re writing a memoir or recording your family’s history, you’ll need to provide accurate details as to time, location, appearance of the historic events. This also holds true if your novel is set in a past era.
Fortunately, you have many resources available to you for research. Many writers use the internet and the library, but don’t forget the treasure trove of information within the minds of your family members. Many of them lived through the decades past and can share experiences with you.
As you gather information, add it to your notes file. Be sure to always record your sources, so you can refer back to them.
Your story will take place in a location. If it is a real place, use the information from your memory or research to paint it accurately. If you are writing fiction and setting your story in an imaginary place, I recommend that you do some world building. World building consists of fully fleshing out the universe which your characters occupy. This includes the geography, history, scientific laws and developments, culture and customs of the inhabitants, etc. By having a crystal-clear idea of what these are, your story will flow, and your readers will happily come along on the adventure.
Know your characters
Regardless of your genre, you will probably have a cast of characters in your book. Even most business books include personal anecdotes that involve friends and family. Remember, these characters all need to be developed.
I find it helpful to create character biographies. Here I list each person who will be featured in the book and jot down their name, birth date and various other attributes that will help me write realistically about them. Some things to consider might be:
mannerisms or habits
At this point you have an excellent, solid foundation in place; you are well set up for success. Now it’s time to pull together all your notes and research into a cohesive plan. Then you can begin to write.
Create an outline
An outline allows you to organize your notes to create a good flow for your book. I am a big fan of outlining. It’s a road map that allows me to know the direction I’m going with my book. Without an outline it’s very easy to take a wrong turn and wind up in a dead end.
If you’re writing a novel or memoir, consider putting all the incidents in chronological order. That’s usually the best plan. Of course, you can opt to indulge in the occasional flashback, but don’t overdo it.
Your outline can take any form that works for you. After all, it is for your eyes only and is purely a tool to help you organize the content of your book.
When writing a business book, I suggest that you create a table of contents along with subheads. Jot down descriptions or bullet points under each to remind you about the content you wish to share.
For a novel or memoir, I prefer to use a different system. I create a large incident list which answers the following questions:
Who is in the scene?
Where does it takes place?
When did it happened?
What happened in the incident?
What is the purpose of the scene in your book?
Note: The last point is by far the most important aspect of this process. After all, if a scene has no purpose, it will just land on the editing room floor at the end of the project.
Write your first draft
Once the outline is completed, you may find that the book is pretty well written—in your mind. Now it’s time to get words on paper.
New writers often edit as they crank out the first draft. Try to avoid doing that. Just get the rough draft completed. I know, it won’t be great. That’s OK! You’ll fine tune your manuscript during the editing phase.
So just sit down and write…
If you’re writing a memoir, and find yourself sharing personal stories, be as detailed as possible so that you can help the reader feel as if he were right there with you. To do this, close your eyes and see the colors, hear the speech patterns, smell the odors, taste the food, and feel the textures in each incident.
The same goes for a novel. Use your senses when you’re telling the story. Draw on personal experience if possible. If not, use your world building notes to help guide you.
If you’re penning a how-to book, be sure to give step-by-step, detailed instructions for your reader. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who knows nothing about the subject. Imagine what questions he may have as he tries to do the steps, or any difficulties he may run into, and address them accordingly.
Edit your first draft
After completing your first draft, it’s time to edit. I’d recommend putting your manuscript down for a few days or a week to take a breather from the project.
The next step is to read over your manuscript from beginning to end and see if there are any issues with continuity. It can happen that you switch gears on a subject mid-writing. In that case, you’ll need to go back and make adjustments.
You will also pick up on issues with flow as you read it through. Some scenes will flow right into the next, while other transitions will be choppy. This is the time to fix that.
While doing this you may spot typos. Sure, fix them, but this isn’t the time to focus on grammar or punctuation. Instead, make sure the story sings. By the time you finish this phase, you may find that you’ve altered and rearranged the words so much that fixing typos doesn’t make sense.
Once you’ve worked out the major kinks, you can review your manuscript for errors in grammar and punctuation. I’d recommend hiring one or two editors to look at your story with fresh eyes. It’s always good to have a detached person review your work.
With these steps for how to write a book, you should be ready to start. Regardless of the decade and what is going on in the world at the time, there’s no time like the present to begin. If you have any questions or would like some help, please contact me. My greatest joy is in helping others achieve their dream of sharing their story in a book.
Are you debating whether or not to write your life story?
Well, you’re not alone. I have spoken with many people who are considering the same, wonderful endeavor. Some are certain of their course of action, while others are still mulling it over, trying to figure out if penning a book is the right decision for them.
I love helping people resolve this question!
More often than not, I will strongly encourage a person to write their life story. This is especially true if their memoir would have an educational or inspirational aspect.
Is that true of your story?
Did you travel and gain insights into another culture, thereby shifting your worldview?
Or perhaps you worked hard to overcome a physical challenge, thereby discovering your own personal strength and resilience?
Maybe you persisted towards a goal, facing and demolishing great barriers, thereby unlocking your hidden potential?
These are the kinds of memoir themes that enlighten and uplift others. These are the kinds of stories that others want to read. Wouldn’t you?
Consider your audience
When you do decide that you want to write your life story, one of the first things to consider is your readers. Who will be your audience? Maybe the book will be only for your immediate family. That’s completely fine. Recording your personal history for your children, and your children’s children, is a wonderful gift. More and more people are becoming interested in learning about their family heritage. Unfortunately, often the experiences that shape and influence the family are lost over time. By writing your life story, you are creating a legacy that can be enjoyed and cherished for generations.
Maybe you are one of those people who wants to share your story with a broader audience. That’s wonderful! There are a number of ways to do this. You could use a blog format, sharing anecdotes on a weekly basis, or you could write a full-length memoir.
As long as your life story has a good, inspiring message, you should find a way to share it with others.
Not every story should be told
Now this might sound strange, but it’s true: not every story should be told. Yes, there are times when I actually beg someone not to write their life story. As a professional ghostwriter, I know that might seem bad for business, but I feel strongly that writers should avoid certain themes in literature.
Here are some examples of potential projects that I have rejected over the last decade:
“I’d really like to get back at so-and-so.”
Revenge is a dangerous motivation for writing a book. It can backfire on you. Be warned that you might end up hurting yourself more than your intended target.
Remember, when you put something in writing, it becomes a permanent record. You can never completely take the harsh words back. Your unkindness is out there for all eternity, for many readers to view over and over again. Also, consider that you might want to make peace with the person you maligned. Will he be able to reconcile with the person who maligned him so publicly?
Writing a book to hurt someone else, even if you feel it is justified, is always a bad idea.
“I’ve lived a horrible life.”
This might surprise you, but I’ve received a ton of memoir requests from people who have lived a life of misery and despair. For instance, their childhood might have been filled with abuse. Then they married another abuser and continued the pattern. When I ask about the purpose of their book, they usually say that it shows how one can live through anything.
While this may be a decent message for some, it isn’t really one to hammer into those who are trying to escape abuse. It’s true that not every story has to have a happy ending, but most stories, particularly the memorable ones, inspire us in some way. And it’s hard to be inspired when you’re reading such a depressing account of someone’s life. Most people would have no interest in picking up and reading such a book. Would you?
Even when the message is inspiring, there are some projects I won’t take on because of other circumstances or problems. Here are a few from my files:
“I want to become rich from this one book.”
While it is possible to do well financially with a book, it is very hard to make that happen with your first one. It really comes down to your marketing skills. If you are experienced in this area, you could do well. If you’re not, you’ll need to learn. There’s no way around that.
A brilliantly written book will not sell well if the author fails to promote. Even a publisher will not be able to work his or her magic if the author isn’t actively marketing his or her own book. There is only so much any publisher can do.
Even if you’re a marketing guru, you must have a well written book to sell. If you publish a book that breaks all the rules of writing and is littered with grammatical errors, you will wind up with poor reviews and negative publicity.
“I just can’t remember much.”
I completely understand how difficult it can be to remember details of one’s life that happened decades ago. Don’t worry about that. Still, a ghostwriter will always need a sketch of the incidents that formed your life. What you ate for breakfast isn’t as important as the fact that you dined with the Ambassador to France one day in Switzerland or you visited your Aunt in the hospital over spring break.
A few times this year I received requests to write a book from people who truly couldn’t remember any relevant stories from their past. Without those stories, there is no book.
Having said that, don’t give up your dream to write your life story if you’re having some difficulty recalling your past. I can often help people remember details through the interviewing process. It’s a fun perk to hiring a ghostwriter!
“My family and close friends would kill me.”
This is a common fear. When I have talked to client prospects to learn more about their projects and give them advice, quite a few have mentioned that they were worried about hurting the feelings of loved ones. This is a very valid concern, one that should be taken seriously. People like to be seen in the best light, and once you put your story in writing, it’s permanent. A negative or hurtful portrayal may cause upset.
As a ghostwriter, I can hide the identity of most people in your life by changing their names. George can become Pete or even Alice. I can also change other details, such as locations or career paths. However, I really can’t hide Mama or that eccentric uncle that everyone knows. Those close to you will know whom you’re talking about, and they might not like what you have to say.
“I’ve lived a boring life, except for this one incident.”
If you had, say, a near-death experience, it might have been very exciting and worthy of a short story or a newspaper feature article. However, if the rest of your life was relatively ordinary, or “boring,” most likely that one event won’t make for a good memoir.
A good book has dozens and dozens of exciting incidents. Now, a near-death experience would probably have quite a few good incidents connected to it, but it’s probably not enough to sustain an entire book.
“I don’t want everyone to know what happened to me.”
Writing a memoir is essentially putting your personal life on display for all to see. If you are concerned about others knowing what happened to you, it’s probably not a good idea to write a book.
Having said that, some clients who don’t wish to share their story with the whole world opt to write it for their family. This allows them to accomplish both goals. I love helping people become their family’s historian.
Another option is to fictionalize your story. It wouldn’t be classified as a “memoir” anymore, but it would be a way to get your story out there. However, keep in mind that there’s a good chance your family and close friends could still guess that it has something to do with you and your experiences.
As a ghostwriter, I normally encourage others to write their memoirs because I strongly feel that people often have a book or two within them. It may be that your life story shouldn’t be the subject of your book. But that doesn’t mean you don’t still have something valuable to say. Maybe you can share your niche area of expertise with others, or perhaps you have an idea for a science fiction novel. Fantastic! I can help you write those kinds of books as well.
If you’d like to explore hiring a ghostwriter, please email me. I’ll give you my honest advice and direction.
Today I’m pleased to present a guest blog from Erick Mertz, author and ghostwriter, who is an expert when it comes to structuring a book. I asked him to write this article to give my readers a good foundation in the three-act structure.
Writing a good book, one that connects with readers, requires the mastery of story fundamentals. You must understand characters, the “who” of your book, as well as the setting, the time and locations where your story takes place. No element, however, is more richly rewarding than the plot.
The plot describes the series of events that take place throughout the course of your story. It is the action, those challenges your character faces on his or her path toward achieving their end goal.
A lot gets written about how to properly formulate a plot. Structuring the events in a story the right way leads to a higher degree of readability, meaning your readers will simply enjoy the book more. Getting the right events in place is important, but the right events in the wrong order will leave your readers confused, or unsatisfied, which ultimately leads them to put your book aside in frustration.
Don’t let that happen. Once your readers get into your book, you must do everything that you possibly can to keep them engaged. Getting the right events in the right order is critical to achieving this. One of the ways you give yourself the best chance of achieving this is to follow a classic story structure that has been around and engaging readers for nearly two thousand years.
What Is The Three-Act Structure?
The first thing you may have thought of when “three-act structure” was mentioned was the theater. Stage plays breaks into acts, usually two or three, with an intermission between them. This is the time when the stage changes form and you can go out into the lobby for a quick breath of fresh air.
Using a three-act structure in a book or a screenplay is not indicated by a roadblock break in the action. There is no end of Act I break written on the page. In a book, structural shifts are seamless. While some changes may come in the form of a chapter break, there isn’t a callout anywhere that says, commencing Act II, as there would be in a stage play script.
Rather than roadblocks, a writer signals changes in the act by way of subtle shifts in the focus of events. Instead of being told the act change has happened, the reader senses it through the events that unfold. Events in a three-act structure build off of one another, behaving like emotional building blocks. Early scenes set the tone for future events, always narrowing in focus and increasing in intensity until the very end when the main character — your protagonist — reaches their goal.
Three-Act Structure & Character
Before diving into the elements of the three-act structure, it is important to establish a fundamental understanding of core character archetypes. In the most rudimentary terms, characters break down into three main types: protagonist, antagonist, and ancillary characters.
The main character, or the protagonist, is the central focus of the story’s central journey. They are the person (or creature, force of nature, or animal) whose path of change we are following. Change comes to all characters, but the protagonist’s change is the one we really care about the most.
Opposing the protagonist is the antagonist. This is the story’s villain, the force putting up the resistance to the main character’s change. Their actions are focused on holding back, slowing down, or stopping the protagonist on his or her way toward their goal.
By and large, ancillary characters are along for the ride. They attach themselves to either protagonist or antagonist (although sometimes they act alone) and are the ones helping achieve those ends. Think of them as the cast of fun, interesting, helpful, or hindering partners that move the story along.
When we refer to events within the three-act structure, they come in reference to what the protagonist is doing and where they are. In rare instances, those events connect to what is being done to them. You will see that the other character roles are usually there to affect what the protagonist is doing.
During the first act, setting and character are established. This is what writers call the ordinary world, where the main character has their roots planted before the real story starts. We see this is how they were living before the “inciting incident” an event that happens during this section.
Act One is important for a couple of reasons. First, it provides the necessary context. We need to see who our hero or heroine is before the adventure. At some point in this story they are going to change — hopefully drastically, in the direction toward a better self — so this is our chance to see their life before.
The other reason Act One is important is because it is where the “inciting incident” occurs. Every hero receives a call and it usually comes in the ordinary world when they least expect it.
The demarcation between Acts One and Two is the moment when the story’s hero chooses to accept their call to action, something they may have denied before. They’ve debated about the ordeal long enough. They’re no longer thinking about doing something extraordinary — they’re on the path to doing it.
Act Two is the book’s longest section. It comprises roughly 50-60% of the length. This act comprises most of the action, from the early part of the adventure to the introduction of antagonist forces to the set-up for the final conflict.
Every hero is faced with a unique challenge all their own. In Act Two, they are meeting that obstacle, learning about the mountain they must climb, and actually climbing it. This is where they stumble and fall down, before getting strong enough to make the push to the end
Any storyline can be thought of this way, from fiction to memoir to business book. All of our lives and journeys, real or imagined, are filled with conflicts that require acceptance, practice, and trials before the climactic moment on the path to ultimate success.
Act Three commences moments before the final challenge is breached. It is arguably the shortest section of a story, centered around the climactic confrontation and falling action.
What is the climactic confrontation? Think of the moment in the story when the hero meets the villain, opposite forces facing off against one another. The protagonist has been moving steadily toward meeting their goal and the antagonist has been pushing back. This is when push comes to shove, the moment when someone has to triumph.
What constitutes the falling action is everything that happens after the climax has been resolved. Maybe the antagonist is vanquished, and the protagonist receives the proper laurels. In one way or another, the journey of transformation has been completed and the hero can return home.
The Three-Act Structure In Action
Perhaps the simplest visualization of a three-act structure is through the Disney classic, “Dumbo”.
In Act One, our protagonist, a baby elephant with ears too big, is born into an unforgiving world. He is an outcast in the circus and struggles to find his worth in a world cruel to misfits.
Act Two begins when Dumbo works to find his place in the circus. His journey is to find his means of fitting in despite an outcast status he is helpless to do anything about. At first, he fails in his big change, but with some grit and determination (and the help of his guide Timothy Q Mouse) he works to find a place for himself. Through this process, he learns that he may have the ability to fly.
At the beginning of Act Three, Dumbo on the edge of trying out his new trick of flying in front of a packed entire circus tent. After much trepidation, he is successful, which ultimately solidifies his place in the circus as an equal to his peers. The antagonist of prejudice has been vanquished.
The Three-Act Structure — In Conclusion
Understanding how to employ the three-act structure is an invaluable tool for reaching your readers. While the idea of a structure might seem rigid, it actually works quite the opposite way. Knowing where certain events should fall makes structure intuitive and leads to happy readers.
Erick Mertz is a ghostwriter/editor/manuscript consultant from Portland, Oregon. You can read more of his thoughts about the business and craft of writing at his website here.
Dear Friendly Ghostwriter,I’ve never hired a ghostwriter, and I have no idea how I go about any of this, but I really would like to write a book on my life. Please could you give me some advice on the ghostwriting process? Also, do I need to know how to write a book first? – Larry
Dear Larry, Whenever I take on a new client, the process is unique, because the author and written content are unique. However, I can share with you a few aspects that seem to occur with every book project I’ve worked on for the last two decades. To learn about my process, please read my article: My Ghostwriting Process.
As a first step, the ghostwriter you hire will collect all the information required to write your book. In the case of a fictional novel, that could simply be understanding your core idea. However, with a memoir, your writer will need to know everything about you and your life that is relevant to the book. Your writer will probably interview you over the phone. Personally, I find it is effective for the client to send me a lot of written notes (in rough form). After I study these carefully, I can follow up with emails and phone calls to clarify.
Please understand, when you hire a ghostwriter, you don’t need to write the book; you just need to provide notes. All your notes will be rewritten, so don’t worry about spelling and grammar. Now, some people prefer to work with the ghostwriter and write their book alongside them. That works, too! Again, each relationship is unique, but never feel you have to be a good writer to hire a ghost.
Don’t edit your book before you complete your first draft
Dear Friendly Ghostwriter, I need help and inspiration in surpassing the first eight pages of my book. I am sooo stuck… It feels as if I’m writing the same thing over and over, so I delete and delete, while continuously whittling my pages away. Also, I am constantly unsure of my grammar and punctuation.– Ennayt
Dear Ennayt, Stuck in the mud? You know, I hear this a lot! You’re not alone; not by a long shot. The fact is, a lot of new writers make the mistake of cutting out words, then pages, as they produce their first draft. It’s important to let yourself go and just write. I implore you not to waste any time (and words) editing in the beginning. Allow yourself the freedom to create! Trust me, once you get to the end of your first draft, you’ll be better equipped to sculpt your draft into a book.
I’d also recommend that you not worry about grammar in this phase. Just let the words pour out of your mind onto the page. If you’re interested in learning more about the English language, I’d recommend reading a simple grammar book or checking out an online source like Grammar Girl. Start by learning one rule, then applying it. Then select another and so forth. Take it step by step. You may just find the learning process fun!
How to write a book about real people
Dear Friendly Ghostwriter, I would like to write an autobiography/screen play. This is something I have thought about for many years, but I’m extremely nervous how to approach this because of safety issues. I am not sure where to start. I would appreciate a consultation if possible.– Gen
Dear Gen, You bring up an excellent point. Honestly, I do think you have a right to be concerned. Once you put your story out there, you can’t take it back. I believe there are many instances when it just isn’t wise for someone to write their memoir. And it isn’t always safe.
Another point to consider is how a book will affect the people in your life. When writing a memoir, your characters are real people. They might not like what you have to say about them and if it isn’t handled correctly, the whole situation can blow up.
I always advise my clients to hide the people in the book as much as possible. For instance, it’s fine to change their names and physical appearances. The story will still be true even if the details are changed to protect the people involved.
Thank you all for your questions! Please feel free to write more in the comment section below or write me privately and I’ll do my best to answer!
So many people have a burning desire to share their life story, but need a little help. It takes discipline and experience, as well as dedication and determination. The process will take a few hundred hours. However, if you’re not a professional writer, don’t despair. You don’t need to abandon the dream. If you need help writing a book, you have options.
Improve your writing skills
If you must write the book yourself, you’ll need to gain experience. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and write and write and write, and then write some more.
What should you write?
Anything and everything!
Keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings. Describe objects in your home or people you know. Record family stories or funny incidents that happen to you. Write a love letter to your partner. Jot down that silly bedtime story you made up for your child. The more you write, the easier you will find it to get the ideas out of your head and down on paper.
It is a good idea to read books on how to write. These will teach you basic techniques that will allow you to bring your thoughts to life.
And definitely read the works of other authors. Notice how they tackle challenging scenes. How do they approach dialogue? How do they incorporate descriptions? When you find a passage you particularly like, dissect it and see how they were able to communicate their vision to you.
Now that you have improved your writing skills, tackle that story! For more information on how to get started writing your book, check out my Ask a Ghostwriter series.
Hire a writing consultant
If you want to write your own book, but feel you don’t have the experience and skill set to do so, you can hire a writing coach. This person’s job will be to provide guidance as you navigate your project. With this option, you will still do all the writing but you’ll have a guardian angel on your shoulder.
Find an experienced writer to help you. She should have a few books under her belt, preferably within the genre of your work. If she has never written a book, she will not understand the process and will not be able to guide you in the right direction.
It’s a good idea to lay out your writing goals early on. Share them with your coach and ask her to keep you accountable so that you finish your book in a timely manner.
Of course, it goes without saying that you’ll need to pay the consultant for her time.
Hire a Ghostwriter
Another option is to hire someone else to completely write your book. Then all you’ll need to do is make comments about her writing. Of course, this is the most expensive option for you, but it’s also the least time consuming one. Although you’ll need to review her work and be available for interviews, it will only require an hour or two a week of your time.
If you have limited time and a low budget, you might consider hiring a ghostwriter to write a novella. A novella is a shorter book, usually about 100 pages long, and will only run $15,000 – 25,000.
Once you have your finished book, plan to spend a little extra money on an editor to polish it up and do your proofreading. Personally, I include editing in my pricing (and always hire an outside professional to read my book with an expert eye), but not all ghostwriters do. Strictly speaking, it isn’t usually included in the deal.
So, as you see, there are options for you to get help writing your book. If you need help sorting through these choices, please don’t hesitate to email me for a consultation!
Writing dialogue can be difficult for some new authors. It’s tough to keep it real while maintaining the pace of the story at a brisk jog. But don’t despair. Give yourself time to work it out. And in the end, when you’ve mastered it, your readers will forget they are reading a book; rather, they’ll be transported to your world.
Why dialogue is important
What people say helps us understand who they are and how they think. So the dialogue in your book brings the readers directly into the center of the action, allowing them to feel what the characters are feeling and thinking in real time.
By using great dialogue an author establishes a character’s voice. Through their speech patterns, dialect, use of proper grammar (or not), we can learn a lot about the people in your book.
Remember the axiom Show Don’t Tell is key to excellent writing. Dialogue is instrumental in showing the reader what you want them to know. Through the conversations in your book, we can learn more about the time period of the story and discover truths in a way that doesn’t require a lot of explaining.
Dialogue can set the tone of the emotional tone of a character. For instance, angry people tend to be terse, as are introverted or shy folk. They don’t usually use a lot of words to express themselves. On the other end of the spectrum are the people who use flowery words and tend to ramble without realizing it. This can show volumes about a character.
A writer can reveal important qualities in their characters through dialogue without resorting to telling the reader that Joe is angry, or Sarah is shy.
Writing dialogue takes practice and study
As with most skills, writing dialogue takes practice. It also takes study. While you might have a natural knack for this, every author can improve his or her ability.
If you wish to hone your skill, I’d recommend finding a quiet spot in a bustling area and eavesdropping on passersby. You’re not listening to the content of the conversations as much as to the styles of expression. What do the various kinds of dialogues communicate to you? Think about the impressions they make on you. Having been a writer all my life, I am always listening to the way people speak. It’s fascinating to me how people communicate thoughts to each other in a variety of ways.
Another great source for learning about great dialogue is to read books that you love over again. Pay special attention to the dialogue. Notice how the author shows you what the characters are feeling. Does it feel like you’re eavesdropping? Notice that it’s not simply the words they speak, but the ways they communicate that create the effect it does on you.
Create interesting characters
When creating fascinating three-dimensional characters, writing dialogue can be as easy as just listening to good friends speak. The words tend to fall out of their imaginary mouths with ease. When this happens to me, I feel a bit like a transcriber just writing down what I hear.
If you’re having trouble writing dialogue for your novel, step back and work on developing your main characters. Really get to know them. It might help to set up an imaginary interview and jot down notes.
For instance, let’s say your main character is a nurse from New Haven, Connecticut. Why is he a nurse? Which hospital does he work in and why does he choose to stay there? What does he do in his spare time? Does he have a family?
Pretend that you’re meeting this nurse for the first time and ask questions with abandon. Don’t hold back! You might be surprised by the answers you receive.
Now do the same with all the other characters.
Once you understand your characters better, invent a scene and just allow them to talk to each other. The subject doesn’t matter. Just let them develop their style and voice and take notes.
Writing dialogue is my favorite part of writing. It allows me to create three-dimensional characters that seem to breathe and find a life of their own. What’s more fun and rewarding than that?
If you’re interested in hiring a ghostwriter, please feel free to reach out to me!
For more resources, check out these articles and books:
Dear Friendly Ghostwriter,Hi Laura, I am 48. I need someone to write my life story. I read your article about hiring a ghostwriter and didn’t understand when you said that I would need to prepare work and research. What sort of research would I need to do? After all, it’s my real life story? How do I research a memoir? Thanks, Vi
Dear Vi, What a great question! Let me explain what I meant in that article. Whenever I ghostwrite a memoir, I always do a lot of research on a number of subjects. That way I can get the background information I need to tell the story with authenticity.
While it is helpful for an author to provide research information to their writer, the ghost will also need to do extensive research on top of that. Ideally the author and ghostwriter will work together as a team to uncover needed information on a variety of subjects.
Memoirs take place in the past, often in a period long gone. For that reason, I like to research the culture of that epoch to ensure I describe it accurately. For instance, cell phones wouldn’t have been used in the 1980’s, so your characters would need to find payphones or use landlines to call one another. By the same token, the internet would have been in its infancy, so there would be no “surfing the web” day and night. Of course, you’ll also need to reflect the correct clothing styles of the era. When I write a book, I find myself looking up the details surrounding the scene so that I depict them realistically.
In addition, it can be helpful to refer to the current events of the time. For instance, if I’m writing a memoir taking place mid-September 1959, most households would probably be talking about the moon landing. Or if your book centers around a key moment at the end of 1989, you might mention the Berlin Wall falling, as that would have been a hot topic. Discussing those major milestones would be a good way to help the reader orient himself to the time periods in your story.
Establishing the location is always important in any scene because it takes out the guesswork for the reader. That’s why I sometimes need to research places my characters will go. For instance, I had a client who described running down a major street near Miami. I wanted to get a feel for what the area would have looked like, so I used Google Earth and zoomed in to view the actual street. I learned it was an eight-lane highway and found there were lots of residential neighborhoods nearby. It helped me fill in the description.
Sometimes I will explore the homes I write about on the internet or through photos. Learning the layout helps me realistically put the kitchen next to the family room and the bedrooms upstairs (or not). Discovering the architectural style allows me to properly paint the picture with words. Sometimes I’ll do a search online to sneak a peek at the exterior of the home to get a feel for the front of the house. Of course, if the client has a photo of the place, that is very helpful.
When I can truly grasp the location, it helps me put myself in the space of the characters, which helps me write the story in an authentic way. I could make up details (and sometimes do), but it is wonderful when I can draw on researched facts.
Diaries, scrapbooks, and newspaper articles
When I research a memoir, some details comes in the form of firsthand recorded information. As a ghostwriter, the pages of personal diaries are like nuggets of gold. The words recorded years before provide information in a very organic way.
Likewise, newspaper clippings can help fill in missing pieces of important events, allowing me to understand more fully what happened. For instance, a wedding announcement would give the exact time and day of the event. This information allows me to look up the actual weather on that day. I’ll tell you, a wedding in the middle of a June thunderstorm is quite different from one that takes place in a heat wave.
One client had very little information about his ancestors, but wanted a story written about what could have happened. Through some online websites, I was able to determine the exact boat on which his grandfather arrived in New York in the mid 1800’s. My client had known the rough time period, so it was a joy to be able to discover the precise day, as well as the name of the ship. Then it was easy to research the boat to learn its size, crew compliment, and passenger list, all of which I could use to write faithful descriptions of the event.
Research in important in any memoir
So, Vi, research is a vital part of any memoir. If you and I worked together, we’d be a team, tackling this crucial area. So, consider collecting journal entries, newspaper clippings, photographs, and perhaps short biographies of the main players that will be featured in your book.
I’d love to hear from other writers on the subject. How did you research a memoir?
If you’re interested in writing a memoir, here are a few other articles you might enjoy reading:
Writing a memoir requires the skill sets and virtues of a knight.
The author needs unparalleled bravery and must possess an honest and true heart. He or she has to show humility and be generous to the others mentioned in the book (even if they have done harm to our hero).
But how do you find the theme of the tale you want to tell?
Start with the end to find your memoir theme
A good memoir takes the reader on a journey of the courageous hero (you). Your path should lead to growth or accomplishment of a goal (if it doesn’t, please rethink writing the book). This growth or accomplishment will point you in the direction of your memoir theme.
While the spoils of war, the victories, are the focus of your memoir, lessons will be learned along the way. Keep in mind, that means your mistakes will be exposed for all to see. But in the end, you should be the conquering hero.
And the reader will be by your side, sharing in your victory.
For instance, if you are a successful businessperson and wish to share your story, your theme might be how you slayed your personal demons that threatened to hold you back in order to rise up in the business world. I’ve written quite a few memoirs with this message.
Or perhaps you survived a life-threatening illness. In that case, your memoir theme would be centered around the successful life changes that guided you to health.
So, look carefully at your story. Where did you win? What did you do to get there? That’s where you’ll find your theme.
Summarize your book in one or two sentences
When you complete your book, you’ll often be asked “What’s your story about?” It’s good to tackle this question right at the start. When you first sit down to write out an answer, it might take you a few hundred words to summarize your 50,000-word book. That’s normal.
Remove the extraneous words and explanations and work to pare the description down to a single line or two. Thoroughly examine what your story is about. I know. It isn’t easy, but you have to edit it down.
This description will come in handy when you need an “elevator pitch” later. And in the short run, it will help you uncover your primary theme. For instance, if your book is about your grueling escape from a communist country to find success in America, your memoir theme might be: Persistence wins in the end.
Step back and look at the big picture
It can be hard, when you review your life, to find a theme. After all, it was your life and it can be hard to be objective. That’s probably why a lot of people reach out to me to help them ghostwrite their memoirs. It’s often tough to do on your own.
If you’re writing your book yourself, try telling someone who doesn’t know your story about your life story. This may help you sort it out because they’ll probably ask questions and make comments. Note these. If you are not ready to share your story quite yet, try stepping back and asking yourself questions you think your reader would ask about your story.
“Why did you make that choice?”
“What was your mindset when you traveled that path?”
“What would you do differently now that you know what you know today?”
These kinds of questions can help you formulate a good memoir theme, because your answers are really the successful solutions you developed. They brought you to the place you are today!
Your readers may be able to resolve their issues and be victorious in whatever battles they are fighting when they follow in your brave footsteps and apply your successful solutions. That’s the beauty of a good theme. You, the fearless knight, can really inspire and help others.
Please feel free to email me if you need a little help!
Dear Friendly Ghostwriter, I have an amazing story to tell, but don’t know how to start writing a book now. I have so many things all jumbled up in my head and I don’t know how to get it out on paper. Help! -Art M.
Dear Art M.,
When I received your question, I did a little search on the internet: “How do you start writing a book?” I was curious to see what other writers had to say.
Up popped a dozen articles that made the process seem ridiculously easy. Unfortunately, these articles paint a false picture. Writing a book is far from simple. Trust me, you’re not the only one to have difficulties in this area.
I don’t want to answer your question with a cookie-cutter twelve-step to-do list. Instead, I would like to give you some broad-stroke advice.
Make a list of incidents
When you consider a movie, it is made up of hundreds of scenes. They flow together to tell the story. With a book, these scenes can be better described as incidents. Basically, think of these incidents as the things that will happen to your characters (or if you’re writing a memoir, they are the experiences that have happened to you).
Some people like to make flashcards. They write the individual incidents out onto three-by-five-inch cards and put them into the order they think will work best. I prefer to open a word processing document and write out the incidents there. I don’t number them, but just get them out of my head in the simplest way possible. For example, it might look like this:
Incident: Bob discusses breaking up with Mary in a coffee shop.
Incident: Terry says good-bye to her parents before entering her new college dorm for the first time.
Each incident just needs to have enough information to jog your memory when you create a more complete outline later on. Don’t worry about putting the incidents in any order. You’re just trying to get the information out of your head and onto the paper (or computer document). It simply is a list of what happens.
Note: Some incidents might be super short. That’s fine!
Give each incident a time stamp
You should end up with dozens of incidents (perhaps even hundreds). Next, go through and give each incident a time stamp, which tells you when it took place. Some time stamps might be simply a month and year. For example:
Incident: Sam starts high school: September 1979.
Incident: George gets a job at Mercury, Inc.: May 1983
Sometimes, the time of the incident will be relevant. In that case, be as specific as you can. If you know the exact date, mark that down. For instance:
Incident: Bernice gives birth to her daughter: June 17, 1988, 4:30am.
Incident: Lonny graduates high school: May 25, 1999, early afternoon.
Again, these are notes for you. Don’t get bogged down. If you don’t the exact date, just put in the year.
Put the incidents in order
Now that you have the time stamps, you can put the incidents in chronological order. It’s possible that some incidents will serve as a flashback. If you know that will be the case, you can group them after the appropriate incident. For example:
Incident: Joe waits for Sally at their favorite park bench: September 2002.
Incident: Flashback: Joe and Sally share their first kiss on the bench: August 1994.
Flesh out your incidents
Now that you have all your incidents in order, it’s time to drill down and examine each one. I find it helpful to use a kind of journalistic approach with each incident.
Here are some questions you can answer:
Who is in the incident? (Name all the characters, even minor players.)
Where does it take place? (Be as specific as you can.)
When does it happen?
Describe what occurs (very briefly)
What is the purpose of this incident? (Why should it be included?)
You might have other points to mention, but it is important to keep it very brief. Don’t indulge in lengthy descriptions. It’s not time to start writing your book quite yet. For one thing, some of these incidents might not make the cut!
Note: The most important element on this list is the last one—the purpose. You must have a strong purpose for including this incident in your book. If you can’t come up with one, cut the incident immediately.
If you feel inspired to write a scene from this list, go for it. You might need to rewrite it later, but that’s OK. I understand the need to get the ideas/images out of your head! Sometimes I just write a few notes under the incident description. This helps me free up my attention and move on to the next incident on the list.
The next step
After you finish creating your master list of incidents, you want to make sure they flow one into the next. Once you have them all in sequential order and you’ve weeded out ones that don’t fit or have a real purpose, take a step back and review it. Read the list over a few times to make sure it works for you. This is one way to create an outline. If you want to change the format, it will be easy to do so, because you now have all the information you’ll need.
You may just find that the book is pretty much written! Yes, it’s still in your head and you’ll need to write the 50,000 (or so) words, but now you know where you’re going.
The incident list is a great tool to help you sort out the ideas that are jumbled in your head. And it will act as mile markers for you on your journey, helping you make sure that you’ve included all the important occurrences and events. It’s much easier to start writing a book if you have a well-laid plan. Enjoy the process!
As you begin your new adventure, you might find yourself hitting a few distractions. If you’d like some tips on how to avoid these, read my article on the subject. And, of course, if you have any questions, please feel free to email me!