So you want to write a book – but what’s it about?

Me Myself and I bookSome years ago I spoke to someone who’d been to a motivational seminar. The result of it was that it had inspired her to write a book. That’s great news I thought, a real tangible action that she could follow through.

The next question was of course, “what’s the book about?” She said, “It’s called Me, Myself and I – the story of my life”.

Now I don’t want to sound too dismissive. I didn’t know her that well either. But what I did know was that she was more or less like most of us. Fairly straightforwardly normal. Nothing particularly remarkable had happened to her that hasn’t also happened to me and you.

At this point I think we’d all agree that this was a pretty poor idea for a book. If she was writing this autobiography for her own and her families enjoyment then that’s a good thing. We should all do that in some form, to record and pass on our stories and experiences to the next generation or simply to reminisce. But who else is even remotely interested? Let’s face the facts: no-one.

By the end of this article I’m going to change my mind about that. Let’s see if you do too.

Since then I’ve met a load of other people who’ve been to motivational seminars and have come out with the ‘big idea’ to write a book about their average mediocre lives.

I’ve also met a lot of people who’ve had some wonderful or tragic experiences. On the face of it, these heroes appear to have it easy, they can tell the story of their triumph over adversity, good fortune or hard work. The story is right there for the telling. But they have a little problem in that when that big story is told, there is nothing else to tell. They have become that story. There’s nothing more to give.

And that’s why us ordinary folk have a subtle advantage. But we have to work hard to get a grip on it.

If you’ve ever read any biography of a famous person or seen an in-depth interview (like the ones Michael Parkinson used to do, not the product placement ones we get nowadays) you may have noticed how they work. The story of their life doesn’t necessarily start at the beginning. It is framed up with the main thing that they are famous for. Every part of the biographical detail from then on, every story that follows, adds insight which builds the picture of the famous person and the fame they were born to have. If it’s an actor, they’ll recount the first time they ever acted (probably a game they played as a child). If it’s a comedian, they’ll recount the first laugh they got from their mates or from the school bully to avoid being punched. They miss out most of the missed opportunities and other adventures that aren’t central to the main driving story of their life’s purpose. They don’t recount their holidays or what they got for Christmas unless it’s central to the main thrust. Often they don’t mention their children, who may be in reality the most important people in their lives. If they don’t play a main role in the big story, they don’t get a look in.

It’s the secret method hidden in every kind of storytelling. You only mention things that are relevant. To add drama you may not reveal their relevance straight away and when the reader realises the truth later on, they experience that wonderful payback as they form the thread of the meaning of the story in their own minds as they read. The same is true for films, for sitcoms, for plays, for everything. In fact, it’s a good way of seeing if a story is based unchanged on a real story or not as real-life accounts are full of extraneous detail that have no bearing on the plot.

The point here is that famous people have a fulcrum to their life story, a pivot or purpose that vignettes are chosen to add colour and detail to the driving plot of their lives.

So what has this got to do with us?

Imagine if you were to write your biography now. Imagine writing it with no major destination, it’s just the story of your life, the story of ‘Me, Myself and I’. You’d have school stories, teenage adventures, college or work anecdotes, family crisis, family fun. There’d be no shortage of material, but without a focus, all those stories would be of little interest to anyone who didn’t know you as there would be no correlation between them other than they all happened to you. The reader would be desperate to link it all but without your help they’d get distracted and bored and would stop reading.

Now imagine picking a point to your life. Let’s start with an easy one. Imagine the point of your life was to have your children, or to do the job you do now, or to have the lifestyle you have now or the particular hobby or interest that you’re so good at. If you wrote your biography only including the stories and anecdotes that relate to that point you’ll have a totally different book to the sprawling, meaningless all encompassing one. If you chose another, a different point, you’d have a different set of stories to include.

This is why I said we’re better off than those who have one big story that’s so big it dominates everything else in their lives. These heroes struggle to tell another story of their lives without the big one getting in the way. For most of us there are dozens if not hundred of stories to tell, all of which have may a strong point. If effect we could write a dozen autobiographies of ourselves, each one different to the last.

The challenge is now to choose which of the possible life purposes are we going to choose for our first book. Notice I say ‘first’ book. They say everyone has one book in them. It’s not true, everyone has dozens of books in them. We just need to decide to begin. It’s actually easier to choose than you may think. You simply chose the purpose to your life that you have the most or best stories to tell. You choose ‘the point’ that the book will make that is the most interesting or compelling that a certain type of audience will want to hear.

If you take this approach, what you’ve really done is the opposite of what most new authors do. You’ve picked a purpose that is powerful, personal and relevant to others, that you have a cache of real personal stories to add human interest which grips and entertains the reader. You then add in relevant research, facts and data about the topic to educate the reader. What you’ve done is given the reader a useful, valuable experience that is unique. It’s your personal take on the topic. It’s that unique personal take which is the magnet that attracts the reader to the content. A personal story with no point is irrelevant and content without a personal take is a textbook which is boring.

So here’s your task. Writing your autobiography is actually a good thing! Why? because by plotting out your journeys, stories and anecdotes, randomly at first, you’ll start to see patterns emerging. By writing ‘Me Myself and I’ you’ll build up a body of work that will become your resource bank of material for your entire writing career.

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