How to tell if your sensational life story will tempt a book publisher
When you have a personal story that you’re burning to get out into the world, a book is a brilliant way to do it.
We’ve all read memoirs and autobiographies that have gripped us, moved us, and made us laugh (or cry). Wouldn’t it be amazing if yours was one of them?
But how do you know if your story is capable of having that kind of impact on thousands of people?
Even more, how do you write it so it attracts the attention of a publisher?
One thing’s for sure: if you have an important story you must tell it, and as a ghostwriter I’m often asked to help with this. Let’s look at what you need to do to make it a success.
It’s what you tell . . .
For your story to appeal to large numbers of people it must have mass appeal. A story like this can take various forms:
It’s told from the viewpoint of an ‘insider’ who’s letting us into the secrets of a world pretty much everyone is interested to learn about. This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay is a good example of this kind of memoir – it’s written by a junior doctor who works in the NHS and spills the beans on how the system isn’t working.
It takes its readers on a journey from low to high, such as its author having had a terrible childhood to now feeling happy and confident. This kind of story gives us hope that life can always change for the better, which is why we love reading them. If this is your story you’ll need to be sure the low is low enough and the high is really high, though. Your parents getting divorced and you being bullied at school isn’t exceptional enough to cut the mustard given the number of ‘misery memoirs’ around these days. An example of a successful one is A Child Called It by David Pelzer.
The value of some stories is in what readers can learn from them, rather than just the story itself. This comes down to the thinking the author has invested in their experience so it can be used to help others. An example of a book like this is Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. In this book, Sandberg tells the story of how she lost her husband and the grief she was plunged into as a result. However, she spends as much time talking about how the experience changed her thinking, and how we as readers can also deal with a painful loss.
The roller coaster
This kind of story is gripping, with plot twists and ‘I can’t believe it’ moments scattered liberally throughout. As most people’s lives don’t conveniently follow this kind of trajectory, these real-life stories are less common and tend to focus on a specific episode rather than a long period of time. Examples are stories of real-life crime such as bank heists, or trail-blazing sporting achievements.
When a book is authored by someone who is already well-known or has a high media profile, readers buy it because they’re curious to discover what it’s like to be them. Pretty much all celebrity autobiographies fit this criterion. Of course, the celebrity must have an interesting story to tell as well as being famous, but their name will carry almost any story in its shoulders. If this is you, congratulations. But if you’re a mere mortal like the rest of us you’ll have to make sure your story is one (or more) of the above.
. . . and it’s the way that you tell it
Okay, so you’re sure you have a strong enough story to generate popular interest. But that’s not enough. You need to spin a tale that’s irresistible, drawing your readers in so they forget they’re even reading a book at all. They’ll be so absorbed in your experience that dinners will get burned, TV programmes will go unwatched, and kids will be left hanging around at school gates waiting in vain for a pick-up that never arrives.
It’s time to look at technique, and just as there are various types of story you can tell, there are also different ways of approaching them. Let’s look at the key qualities of a successful story.
Your story will stand out if it makes us chuckle. We all love a light-hearted read, and as long as you have a gift for putting across the elements of your life in a funny way we’ll pardon you for any short-comings in your tale. For instance, The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell is based on the relatively hum-drum life of a bookstore manager, but it’s the details the author picks out, and the misanthropic humour with which he writes about them, that make it work. In some books this comes at other people’s expense, which we’ll forgive as long as it’s genuinely funny.
This is the ability to write in such a way that you excite strong emotions in your readers, such as anger, sympathy, or sadness. Especially when you’re writing a sad story, you need to awake those emotions at a deep level. We’ve all read tales that are heartbreaking in their content, but which in their style are hackneyed or cliched. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, but if you can let your feelings run through you as you write and be honest and true about them, your readers will be on your side.
No-one likes a braggart, so however much your story might paint you in a good light it’s wise to dose it heavily with humility. This often goes well with humour, as comedian Sue Perkins’ autobiography Spectacles shows. Also, when an author is humble and human about the way they portray their life, we’re automatically drawn to them and want to learn more. It keeps us with them.
Your story must be oozing with personality if it’s to grab our attention. Please don’t be tempted to don some kind of ‘writerly’ persona in an attempt to look clever, or hide your flaws and failings in a bid to impress. We want to know who you really are, and that means being brutally honest. If you feel like squirming when you read back on your chapters, you’re probably in the right ball park.
Looking at your story now, does it fit one of these types? Could you tell it with humour, pathos, humility, character – or all four? Because that’s what you need if your book is to attract the attention of a publisher and touch the lives of countless people.
If you feel daunted at the prospect or aren’t sure if what you’ve got fits the bill, apply for a free half hour Strategy Session with me and I’ll get you clear on your next step.
Your story deserves no less.