Australian author, editor and publishing consultant Belinda Pollard offers a succinct and smart guide suitable for both beginners and advanced authors considering ghostwriting someone else's memoir or writing their own, drawing on her own extensive experience of doing both.
Ghostwriting someone else’s memories can become more intimidating the further you get into the project. However, there are ways to reduce the angst and produce a powerful story, whether you are ghostwriting for a fee, or helping a friend or relative.
Start with existing sources
- Emails and letters between the person and their closest friends or family will reveal what they talked about, when it happened, and what type of relationships they had.
- A set of annual Christmas/holiday newsletters can provide handy overviews, year by year. You’ll need to dig a little for the nuanced story underneath the surface gloss.
I was surprised to find old appointment diaries useful when researching my own light memoir, Dogged Optimism: Lessons in Joy from a Disaster-Prone Dog. I set up a table of relevant years and listed key events in the arenas of work, travel and family. I didn’t include it all in the book of course, but it gave me a framework to recall those years, and helped me understand who I was at that time.
- Some people will find it much easier to talk you through their photo albums than to speak off the top of their heads. You will of course need to reorganise, redevelop and selectively cull all these recollections to make it an interesting book.
- If the person kept a journal, you’ve hit the mother lode. The sheer quantity of words can be overwhelming, but it helps peel back the ‘wisdom filter’ we all apply to our past thoughts and actions. Use journals to help you write a more vigorous memoir, taking the reader back into the life of the person as they experienced it at the time.
Take shortcuts to the first draft
- Ask the subject to write a short, rough outline of their story to help you plan what you’ll include or exclude.
- Some people might find it easier to speak their outline into a voice recorder. Pro tip: transcription is excruciating, so if the budget allows, pay to have it transcribed. Do keep the recordings – listening to them can help you absorb the person’s literary ‘voice’ in a more intuitive way.
Bring it to life
- Once you’ve got your draft of the book written, print it out, read it thoroughly, and jot down in the margins all the places you wanted to know more. Then work through it with the person, a voice recorder on the table between you, and get all their answers to fill out the book. Think about the senses – what did they see, hear, smell, touch or taste?
- What you harvest from these interviews not only fills gaps, it also gives you the cadence of the person’s speech, verbal tics, mannerisms and so on. Pay close attention to these and see how you can incorporate them into the finished manuscript to make it sound like the person, not you.
- Even a memoir needs a theme and purpose, which makes it a stronger book but also helps you decide which people and events to include. It’s often easier to clarify the theme once the manuscript is already taking shape, rather than trying to do it before anything is written.
- For more ways to make the story come alive, download this free mind map.
I’ve found ghostwriting and partial ghostwriting jobs intensely draining. You have to get inside the other person’s mind and inhabit their life for a time. When it’s a traumatic story, don’t be shy about seeking support from friends, family, a counsellor or pastor.
OVER TO YOU Have you written a memoir for someone else? What did you learn that you’ll use next time?3 top tips on #writing or #ghostwriting a #memoir - by @Belinda_Pollard #ww Click To Tweet
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