A True Story: How To Ghost-write, Or Write Biography
True story telling and writing has been around for a very long time but, as a genre, it really came into its own a few years ago with a spate of ‘kiss and tell’ books. These tended, at times, to be fairly lurid accounts of sexual abuse and the like and, on at least one occasion, were discovered not to be a true story at all, but a work of fiction pretending to be true!
BLOG A TRUE STORY
So how do you go about telling a true story – your own or someone else’s? Those of you who have been following my blog will know that I am in the process of serialising my first book, published more than twenty-five years ago, which I’ve re-titled: Demise Of A Marriage. It appears as a blog post two or three times a week and is the true story of a young woman called Megan, who married in the 1960’s just as the sexual revolution was about to begin, with the advent of the contraceptive pill. As she recalls, with the so-called ‘freedom’ of sexual expression came the devastation of divorce, and fragmented families.
THREE CATEGORIES: AUTOBIOGRAPHY, BIOGRAPHY, GHOST-WRITING
But what exactly is meant by a true story?
A true story comes into one of three categories: autobiography, biography, or ghost-writing. So how may these be defined? And what’s the difference between them?
- Autobiography is a life story, written by the person whose life it portrays.
- Biography is the story of someone’s life, written by a third party.
- Ghost-writing has its own sub-categories, but it is always written by a third party: the ghost-writer.
- It may, or may not, be the story of someone’s entire life.
- It may, for instance, be only a slice of life – a special event, like climbing Everest, being a cancer-survivor, or having a faith that overcomes adversity.
- Or it may be a ‘how-to’ book which appears to be written by the author whose name is on the front cover, but is, in fact, written by the ghost-writer.
- The book will almost certainly be written in first person.
- The ghost-writer’s name may, or may not, be included on the front cover of the book.
- Alternatively, some credit may, or may not, be given to the ghost-writer, inside, on the flyleaf.
- The ghost-writer may be paid per page, by a flat rate fee, or by a percentage of the royalties.
WRITING AND PUBLISHING A TRUE STORY
There are many people who feel that they have a true story worth telling. However, few people writing an autobiography will be fortunate enough to find a traditional means of publishing. Usually, it is only celebrities who are commissioned to share their lives, warts and all, with the reading public. But these, as I’ve indicated above, are often the subject of ghost-writing or biography i.e. written by someone else.
So how, if you want to get into print by writing someone else’s story, do you go about it? If you’re well-known as a gifted writer, you may be commissioned by a traditional publishing house. This means that you will have a contract from the publishers – as I had with Demise Of A Marriage, and other titles – before you actually set to and write a word of the book. If you are not commissioned, you will need to lay the groundwork yourself.
1. Find the subject of your book.
The first step for a ghost-writer is to find someone with an interesting story. It may be something infamous, like the true story of the disgraced UK MP Jonathan Aitken, or that of MP Jeffrey Archer – both of whom were imprisoned for perjury some years ago. Both have since had books published!
Or it may be topical: the story of a perfectly ordinary individual who has, say, successfully taken on the establishment and won. For instance, a cancer patient who fought a decision by NICE (the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) to restrict certain drugs for the treatment of cancer. If they then won their case, and went on to live for many years afterwards, that would be a story worth telling. Whoever and whatever you plan to write about, it must have a broad appeal and be interesting to readers of all walks of life.
2. Decide the nature of your story.
The book you are planning to write may be a faith-based inspirational story, like Demise Of A Marriage. Or it may be emotionally and educationally informative along the lines of my novel, A Painful Post Mortem (which is inspired by real life experience) and which explores the themes of love and loss through divorce, drugs and death.
Your aim, in either case, would be to enthuse and encourage readers to see that no matter how bad things get, there are steps they can take to cope, and to improve their circumstances. Or it may be concerned with aspiration: showing your readers that by culturing self-discipline, self-confidence and perseverance, they, too, may one day become President of the United States of America, or the next footballing legend, like David Beckham.
3. Write an Outline.
Draft an outline of the story, describing the good and the bad circumstances; the coincidences and inevitabilities; the triumphs and the failings of human behaviour; the emotional highs and lows. In any story – be it biographical or fiction – there must always be a ‘depths of despair moment’ before the victory. Through the medium of creative writing, the readers of your true story will learn what it feels like to live this life you are describing. The one crucial element is that, whatever the theme, your book must have a victorious outcome, a ‘look, I’ve been through all this – and survived!’ Sell it to your readers.
4. Select the right publishing house and send it out.
Your readers, in this case, will be the publishers to whom you send your book proposal. You will need all your creativity to sell the story to them. Back it up with media evidence of its topicality and universal appeal. Make sure you include a history of your writing experience.
If you don’t know how to write a book outline or proposal, see my articles Writing A Synopsis For A Novel, To Submit To Publishing Houses, and Manuscript Submission Guidelines: How To Write A Publishing Proposal For Your Book. And don’t forget to let me know how you get on. Good luck!
If you are already a ghost-writer, perhaps you’d be good enough to share your expertise in the comments box?
Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV.
All proceeds from Mel’s latest novel, A Painful Post Mortem, are for charities benefiting children worldwide. Buy a copy here and help raise cash for children like Rachel, who, at 13 is mother to 6 kids orphaned by AIDS, or this project, drug-proofing teenagers in the UK
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