Many people think they need to do something massive or be famous in order to write about their lives…
That’s not true at all.
In fact, more people can relate to regular, non-famous people and their struggles than they can those who have been in the limelight.
The reason writing about your life is important is because you have a story. You have something worth sharing that can actually change the lives of others through your trials and tribulations.
Even if you’re not ready to write a memoir, you still have something valuable to share—knowledge gained through the years or maybe you just experienced a short, influential event in your life that you believe can help other.
No matter what that story is, you can and you should tell it.
How to Write a Book About Your Life in 10 Simple Steps
So you’ve discovered you have something to share with the world…but what you don’t know is how the heck to make it happen.
Here are our top tips for writing your life story.
Take a few minutes to free write or journal each day, focusing on one memory. A good writing prompt for this free-write session is to write about a significant 24 hours in your life. This is just to help you get started. The memories written down from this significant moment in your life will be use later to build upon to create your nonfiction narrative.
Even if you don’t ultimately use this particular memory in your overall narrative, getting into the habit of writing down memories will benefit you as a writer and help keep those memories fresh.
After you’ve written down a variety of memories—whether they’re a part of an overall narrative or a collection of essays—they now need to be organized into a coherent story in order to actually write it.
Since you’re writing your life story, technically the plotline is already there; it just has to be written down and organized in a manner that will speak to your audience.
However, if you are the more organized type and not a “pantster” like other writers, outlining what memories you want to include in your life story may help get the writing juices flowing.
Not only can an outline help you get clear on the message and order you’ll write your book, it can also help you form writing goals that will set up a writing habit. These are two keys to actually finishing your book.
Other writers struggle with writing unless they have an outline or book template, even if it’s a book outline of their own life. It all depends on you, the writer.
#3 – Pick your genre
“Creative nonﬁction has become the most popular genre in the literary and publishing communities.” – Lee Gutkind, What is Creative Nonfiction?
There are several book genres that fall under the nonfiction genre: memoirs, essay collections, autobiographies, motivational books, and more.
Since you are writing a book about your life, it might feel like you have to put it in the “memoir” genre, but that’s not always the case.
In fact, it might hurt your book sales to mislabel your book as a memoir when it’s actually more of a self-help in a specific category.
An example of this is While We Slept by our own coach here at Self-Publishing School, Marcy Pusey.
While this author does label this book as a memoir, it also fits in several other categories. These Amazon categories will help you 1) reach a wider audience and 2) help you tell the story in a way that will speak to those readers.
If you’re struggling to decide whether your book about your life is a memoir or autobiography, this can help:
The main difference between memoirs and autobiographies are their focus. Memoirs focus primarily on one specific time, or “memory” of one’s life, like a battle with a disease, traveling to a foreign country, or adopting a special pet.
Autobiographies, or “biographies of oneself,” focus primarily on your entire life from start to finish—from when you were born until you die, or at least until the current moment in your life with details about achievements or notable moments.
Autobiographies also tend to be a bit more factual than creative, though there have been some very well written autobiographies published.
What if neither of these makes sense for my book about my life?
Maybe you don’t have a specific period in you want to focus on, but don’t necessarily want to tell your entire life story from start to finish. This is where a collection of personal and/or lyrical essays may be more of your style.
Think Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and Why Not Me? Kaling is still telling her life story, or at least memorable moments in her life story, without necessarily being one complete narrative. Collections of personal essays are like the nonfiction version of a collection of short stories.
If you are still uncertain about which nonfiction subgenre to write your life story in, this is a major topic covered in the Self-Publishing School VIP course. They take you through choosing your categories that will help your book sell the most.
#4 – Research
Regardless of how you begin writing your life story—with free-writing or outlining—research can help you build on memories to create a fuller story and establish you as a credible writer.
Memories are fickle, and we don’t always remember things correctly, especially if you are writing about something that happened many years ago.
Researching for a book can seem like a daunting task. In fact, out of all the research you’ll end up doing, only a very small percentage will end up in your story. In order to find that small percentage, however, you need to do your research.
Here are some tips for book research when writing a book about your life:
List memories or facts you’re not 100% certain about
Ask family members or others close to you for details
Get quotes from those people if necessary
When writing and you come across something you need to research, simply make a note to research and keep writing so you can write faster
#5 – Identify characters and perspective
The people you have met in your life influenced you in some way, and as such, they will influence how you write your life story as well.
Here are some tips to organize these characters for your story:
Make a list of people, also known as “characters” in this case, who you want to include in your story
Write down their description: physical appearance, age, background,
Write down their relationship to you (and if you’re close or distant to them)
This will assist you in describing them in your narrative through the rule of “show don’t tell“, that way readers can visualize them and understand how they affected your life personally.
The only thing you may have to alter is a character’s real name, or names.
Changing names can protect a person’s true identity in their story. Unless you have permission to use someone’s true name, change it and include a disclaimer at the beginning of your story. Make a note in your character list of names you change, that way you can keep track of who’s who.
Also, just because this is your life story—so technically, it’s told from your point-of-view—doesn’t mean you can’t explore the perspectives of the other characters in your story.
Keeping other character’s point-of-view in mind will give your story more dimension, and will help you to avoid a one-sided, train-of-thought narrative.
#6 – Add speculation
Use “speculation” to fill in gaps in your life story. Not sure if one of your character’s motivations? Is your memory of the event a bit foggy? Using what you already know, combined with the research you’ve conducted, speculate to the best of your ability.
Here is an example of writing speculation:
“I am not sure why my parents chose to end their marriage after 15 years together. They were always private people, and after their brief announcement to me about their separation, neither of them spoke a word to me about it ever again.
Perhaps they were trying to spare me the heartache of the ordeal. I often wonder if my father’s time in the service made him distant from mother; that was the case with me. Maybe my mother, like me, became lonely as a result of that.”
Words and phrases like “perhaps,” “maybe,” and “I wonder if” show your reader that you, the narrator, are speculating.
Try to find creative ways to speculate, as well. You are, in a sense, still telling a true story; you’re using what you know to create a hypothesis about something that is still a mystery to you.
If you were to claim this hypothesis were true without facts to back it up, you could get end up in trouble.
#7 – Determine the setting
Readers want to know where your life story took place, or the setting. Like fiction, you need to consider how the setting of this story affected you as a person.
Here are some questions to help you discover the setting of your book:
Where was this place?
What did it look like?
Did you enjoy living/visiting there?
Do you remember any smells from the area?
What was the culture like there?
Were you a spectator of that culture or immersed in it?
How did the setting contribute to your experience?
What mood did that setting elicit?
Details like these affected your life tremendously—maybe more than you realize—and therefore must be included in your narrative, just as they would be if this was a fictional story.
Not only that, but this helps paint a much clearer picture for your readers and creates a more entertaining experience.
When you forget to write dialogue…the book can end up reading like a very boring textbook.
Dialogue is what gives the writing—and the story itself—life.
But that leaves the challenge of writing accurate dialogue. Unless you used a tape recorder or video to record a conversation, chances are you’re not going to recall previous conversations word-for-word.
Just write down what you remember to the best of your ability, and paraphrase if you must. If you are still on good terms with the person you’re speaking within your memory, try contacting them to be sure that their memory of the conversation is similar to yours. You can even ask them to approve any written dialogue that’s in quotes if it’s not 100% accurate to what was really said.
Write dialogue the same way it would be used in a fiction book and remember to use correct dialogue formatting and tags.
#9 – Prepare for negative pushback
Not all of us have sweet stories with cute pets. Sometimes our memories and experiences are on the dark side—for example, The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison.
This memoir focuses on the time in the author’s life where she has a sexual (and incestuous) relationship with her father. She received a huge amount of negative reactions to her story.
If you are going to write and publish a personal and scandalous true story about your life, steel yourself for these kinds of negative reactions, particularly from those in your life unhappy with you telling the story to begin with.
Rebecca Fischer is a writer and graphic designer who is obsessed with books. She loves writing creative nonfiction and is in the process of writing a memoir/biography about her great-grandparents. When she isn’t reading, writing, or drawing, she’s probably hanging out with her cats. You can follow her at: Facebook | Instagram