When Writing Your Own Memoir Just Isn’t Working

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.

The first thing I have to do is read the material you’ve got and decide if it’s a memoir that just needs some editing, or if it’s simply a collection of raw material I can pull information from. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never had a client give me a book that’s just 99% done and needs a few tweaks. (I’m open to that happening, though, some day!)

That’s because story writing is a profession that requires education and training and practice, like any other profession, and none of my clients are professional writers. They’re professionals in other areas (and gamblers and reformed criminals and baseball coaches and spiritual seekers, etc.). Sometimes it takes folks a lot of experimenting before they realize how very specialized my field is, and that’s fine. I relate. I’m a do-it-yourselfer, too, and rarely seek professional help until I’ve proven to myself the project (computer repair, home maintenance, inventing Rube Goldberg contraptions) is way way way out of my wheelhouse.

Some of my clients have, however, written nonfiction books before, so they feel like it shouldn’t be too tough to write a memoir or novel. I laugh as I type. That’s like saying I painted my bedroom walls a beautiful shade of robin’s egg blue, so I should be able to paint an impressionist landscape, right? The former is, mostly, a science, and the later is, mostly, an art.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, don’t feel bad if the hundreds of pages you’ve written don’t turn out to be “almost there.” Every writer has to write hundreds, no, thousands, of pages over many years before they get a feel for how to build stories and dialogue and characters. Typically, the work you’ve done gives me a sense of the style you’re working toward and, of course, the basic information needed to write your book. I usually take that material and highlight areas I find interesting, then, on the phone, I’ll ask you for more details.

Ghostwriting clients often answer my queries by saying “It’s all in the book!” but trust me, it isn’t. The details I’m looking for are always different than the ones you wrote in. I should talk about exactly what details I’m looking for, but this blog is already verging on too long, so I’ll do that tomorrow. In the meantime, keep writing! The more you work on your draft, the more efficient and productive our conversations will be.

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