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It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that autobiographies are reserved for celebrities and those lucky few who have lived a life of adventure. But you aren’t giving yourself enough credit! Even if you don’t realise it yet, you probably have several unique perspectives on the world which could make for a fascinating story. Just the fact that you are alive in this time period gives you a wealth of cultural knowledge that will one day be lost unless it is recorded in some form.

And it’s not just an interesting topic which makes a successful autobiography, but an engaging style too. I’m sure you’ve met a few people – usually down the pub – who can make even the dullest anecdote seem gripping. If you can bring an attitude like that into your writing, you will stand a much better chance of success. So, now that you know it’s possible, here’s a couple of tips for making the most of your autobiography-writing experience.

Don’t Start at the Start

It seems like the most natural thing in the world, to start at the beginning, work up to a climax and then reach a resolution. But this doesn’t often work with autobiography. Unlike in fiction, your life probably didn’t start with an exciting enough event to hook the reader in. So, presuming you aren’t writing autobiographical fiction, you are going to need another way to get your reader engaged.

Unless at least 50% of your baby photos contain an explosion, you're going to need a better hook. Image by Bryan Burke

Unless at least 50% of your baby photos contain explosions, you’re going to need a better hook.
Image by Bryan Burke

Common practice in this genre is to begin with a defining event in your life – something you could reasonably say has been the climax. Give us a taster of this event, but don’t reveal everything just yet. We don’t want the reader to think that they’ve already seen the best bit, we just want to let them know that it is coming. This prologue section should give your story a purpose and something to work towards. Once you have set that goal, you can go back to the beginning and start the reader on their journey towards that eventual end.

Even once you have laid out that teaser, you don’t necessarily have to go all the way back to the day of your birth and this counts doubly if you are writng on a theme. For example, if your autobiography centres on your career as a topiary gardener, you may want to start with that birthday when you received your very first seedling as a gift.

Too Much Information

I know when people talk about a life story, they’re usually implying something that incorporates every tiny, insignificant detail. But if you actually want a reader to make their way through your whole book, you might want to tone it down a little. Of course, sometimes seemingly trivial elements can be key to building a character, a setting or a time-period, but just make sure that they are only seemingly trivial and not actually trivial. Take a look at Cider with Rosie you will find a number of charming tangents and anecdotes which may not contribute to the overall direction of the narrative, but they certainly help us to better understand the mind-set of both the character and the period in which the story is set. Even in more fragmented autobiographies such as the works of Bill Bryson, which are mostly just a collection of smaller anecdotes, you will find that every detail contributes to the overall theme.

"This next Chapter details my most deep and personal thoughts on stamp collecting" Image by KLMircea

“This next Chapter details my most deep and personal thoughts on stamp collecting”
Image by KLMircea

Inevitably, all of this is going to mean excluding certain sections of your life from the story. Cutting from an autobiography can be soul-wrenching and you will certainly have to battle your own bias when choosing what you think your reader will want to hear about. You may find it helpful to turn those cut sections into short stories or flash-fiction of some sort. This should make the process a lot less painful as you will be able to preserve those precious memories without damaging the flow of your main manuscript.

I hope this has given you a little inspiration to get you started. If you enjoyed the article, please click like and follow. With Christmas and New Year coming up, there will be no big posts over the next couple of weeks (I will be busy watching The Muppets Christmas Carol on loop). But I’ll be sure to drop in when I can to let you know I haven’t died of chocolate-overdose. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year – please join me again in 2015 when I will be kicking off the year with a discussion on the pros and cons of writing fan fiction.