Often, when I take on a ghostwriting job, clients give me their first-draft manuscripts. Usually they think we won’t have much to discuss in our interviews since “everything is in there.” But we still have to have lengthy discussions about some of the details that have been left out. So let’s talk about what type of details I need to write a memoir or novel that people usually don’t include.
First–let’s say your book is about climbing Mt. Everest–I need to know why you did it. No, I mean really really why you did it. Ok, you’re an experienced mountain climber and the conditions were right. What else? You say: because climbing Everest is what mountain climbers DO. I say not necessarily. You could have climbed Kilimanjaro. So, why Everest? You say you’ve always wanted to climb above whatever-thousand feet? Ok. Why? Because it’s a feat few mountain climbers achieve. I see.
So you want to be among the elite in your mountain climbing community? You don’t want to admit it, but that’s true. Now we’re getting closer to the why. Further questioning will bring us even closer to the real reason why you climbed Mount Everest, and usually it has nothing to do with the reason you wrote into your first draft. This is a big reason why memoirs are so hard for most people to write on their own. It often takes another person to help you figure out why you did whatever you did.
Now that we know why you did it, we need to know what results you got. How did this experience change you? Most clients answer, “I don’t know.” When you work with me, sorry, but “I don’t know” isn’t going to cut it. Whew, that sounded harsh. Let me rephrase. I mean, sure, we can write a book about “I did this, then I did this, then I did that, now I’m here telling you about it, even though I don’t know what the point of it all was.” But it’ll be hard to make that book read like a compelling novel.
When ghostwriting, I do the work of creating a voice, a suspenseful plot, character development, dialogue–all that. And, if you really don’t know why you did the things you did in your memoir, I can even make up a reason, but you’re going to feel like the book really reflects who you are if you take some time to figure out why you did what you did and how it changed you.
Even if all the dialogue and many of the scenes are made up, as long as the core of the story centers on these elements, I still consider the book strongly based upon a true story–the true story of you, what you’re like, why you do the things you do, what you value, how you’ve changed, and what you think that says about human nature. That’s the deeper truth we’re looking for in any memoir or novel-based-on-truth.