When Writing Your Own Memoir Just Isn’t Working

indian lady in a sari, smiling

Many of my ghostwriting clients come to me with written material, already. Some have tried to publish their memoirs and failed to find publication, which is why they seek out a ghostwriter to improve the work. Others have tried to write the memoir–sometimes over the course of many years–and have finally discovered that writing is hard, and creating a storyline requires very specific knowledge, and good dialogue doesn’t necessarily just come to you. I thought I’d talk today about how the ghostwriting process works when you have some material to begin with and want to continue from there.

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Write Knowing You May Have to Cut It

barber with Tattooed hand cuts a man's beard

A lot of people ask me about writer’s block, how I deal with it, and so forth. Honestly, I think the notion of a creative block is almost as romantic and fantastical as the romantic notion of “the writer’s life” I was writing about yesterday.

I mean, people get blocked in all kinds of endeavors, and usually that’s because they don’t know what their goal is, or they don’t know what steps to take to achieve it. Most blocks of any kind (I learned this while ghostwriting a time-management book) occur because you haven’t broken your task down into small enough chunks. Any daunting task is just a too-complex job. Make it into ten smaller jobs, listed in order, and then you’re facing something you can actually do. That’s true, but it’s also theory. So, let’s look at how this applies to creative work.

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“The Writing Life” (such as it is)

"passion led us" written on sidewalk beside two pairs of feet

Someone I just met the other day asked me what it was like to live “the writing life.” I tried not to laugh out loud. He made it sound like I must be holed up in a sleazy hotel room someplace “on the road,” with a portable typewriter, slugging scotch out of the bottle and raving about my childhood traumas. The answer is, it’s a beautiful thing to be able to challenge your imagination every day, pushing it further, forcing it to perform. It’s also scary, because your paycheck depends upon your ability to do this, and the imagination is a notoriously uncooperative thing. Then, of course, there’s the issue or marketing oneself, which I used to think was a thing you could hire someone else to do, but no. I can’t hire someone else to write my blogs can I? When my writing is the very thing that defines my work? So, I entered the world of blogging and I found that I liked it. It’s my warm up every morning. Sometimes, it’s my cool down at night, too. So the marketing life has turned out to be a pretty interesting addition to the writing life. The best part about it is having an audience and being able to reach out to them.

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Building Suspense, Now and in the Apocalypse

hand holding a gun

Let’s talk about suspense. A lot of memoir writers I consult with, as well as my ghostwriting clients, are interested in building suspense into their memoirs. Who wouldn’t want to? Suspense is the very thing that makes a book a real page-turner. Suspense makes a beach read what it is, makes a mystery novel mysterious, and makes you turn down invitations to parties so you can stay home and finish that incredible science fiction book. A lot of people think writers build suspense by creating a lot of plot complications, but that is not actually how it’s done. The level of suspense in a book depends entirely upon what’s at stake. For instance, post apocalyptic science fiction is going through a supposed “golden age” right now. So let’s ask ourselves–after the apocalypse, what’s at stake? Only the fate of the entire human race. Well, that’s about as high as stakes can get.

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Telling Stories about Failure

neon sign: people fail forward to success

I binge-watched the entire third season of Orange is the New Black. If you don’t know, it’s a TV series on Netflix about a women’s prison. Kind of a dramedy. The first couple of seasons were fun, but typical TV fodder–stories about peoples’ lives–their betrayals, loves, and ways of finding meaning in life. But in this season it seems like the writers doubled down and really went for it, making a serious statement about the for-profit prison industry in America. To me, this is the kind of writing that exemplifies why storytelling is important. Stories, told well, can make a statement without ever outright saying, “Here is what’s wrong with the world.”

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The Inescapable Link Between Character and Setting

wild west cliffs, utah

Went to a really interesting book signing tonight, by David Gessner, who is on tour with a book called All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and The American West. He spoke really intelligently about the environmental movement as seen through the eyes of two premier novelists who were also, in very different ways, emblematic of the quest to save wildness.

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Oral Storytelling and the Antihero

people sitting around a campfire telling stories

This blog ties back to the one I wrote a couple days ago about backstory. What I want to talk about today is the concept of the antihero. For me, these are my favorite types of heroes, because they’re real, they’re flawed, they’re not James Bond, they’re not entirely good or ethical, but we love them because they are like us. Only, in most cases, they dare to do things we wouldn’t dare to do. The caper I’m writing now, about bank robbers, is a great example of this.

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What the Heck is a Memoir Ghostwriter, Anyway?

I met someone new yesterday, and it happened again. When people find out what I do, they often do this thing where they squint, look off into the distance, look at me, look off into the distance again, shake their head, and finally ask, “I don’t get it. What kind of people hire you to ghostwrite a book?”

That’s pretty much what happened. Usually, such new friends have never heard of a memoir ghostwriter before, and their brains kind of short-circuit for a minute while they try to process the new information.

The answer to the questions is: a wide variety of types of people in terms of ages, backgrounds, and intentions for the book. But what the clients usually have in common is that they have had a single remarkable experience in their lives that they want to write about.

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Flashing Back

When I’m ghostwriting a memoir, an interesting challenge usually comes up: there are two stories that need to be told. This is also a big issue when the book reads like a novel based upon a true story: there is the “real time” story, and then there is the “back story.”

The real time story is the one we’re telling–

  • “How I succeeded in business,”
  • “How I overcame MS and became a celebrated athlete,”
  • “Our trip to Africa and how it changed us forever,”
  • “How I escaped from one cult only to join another one,”
  • “How and why my best friends and I robbed a bank.”

(just using examples from the books I’ve written in the past few years. You get the picture.)

Of course, the back story is what the reader needs to know in order to understand how you got to be you. Often, this involves  the story of your childhood, sometimes the story of your young-adulthood too.

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Using Dialogue to Build Characters

faces in grey concrete wall

On the current crime novel project, I’ve been writing a lot of dialogue lately. A lot of clients working on memoir (or novels based on true stories) actually end up coming to me after trying to write their own book. This is specifically because they have finally realized they can’t write dialogue.

I thought here I’d try to talk a little bit about how I do it. The answer of course, is I just DO it. The characters come alive as they talk. But if I were to break it down into the various components of what goes on, subconsciously, when I bring them alive like that, I’d say the following.

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