Recently I received a letter asking me: "Do you have some sort of outline for how to organize yourself when beginning the process of writing an autobiography?" As several of my authors have undertaken this task, I have gathered some of the elements that are crucial to successfully starting an autobiography project.
- Determine why you want to write the book. Is it for your family or do you think this book will sell to a greater circle of friends and acquaintances? On the other hand, do you think people who have no relationship to you will be interested in your story? Regardless of the answer, the same approach will be used to produce the first rough draft of your autobiography. Your answer to "why" may be used as your introduction.
- Begin by gathering your materials. That includes photos, journals, letters to and from you, newspaper articles, clippings from magazines, baby books (if one of your parents was nice enough to do this), school writing projects, souvenirs, yearbooks, email messages, blog posts and anything else that you might have written or might have been written about you. I suggest that you have a box in which to put everything.
- Make a timeline of your life. Since it is a timeline, keep it simple and chronological. Include all important events—marriage, graduations, certificates, birth(s) of children, travel, death of loved ones, jobs, promotions, volunteer work, membership organizations' events, household moves. You get the picture. A printout of the timeline could be placed in a three-ring binder.
- Look at your timeline and start writing the things that easily come to pen or keyboard. Name the incident, event and write it into your timeline, showing that you have it. Add the file name and location.
- Create a schedule for writing. Write for 30-60 minutes once a day, three times a week or every weekday. Whatever you schedule―stick with it and write. Just write. Continue to write your memories, aided by your collected materials until it becomes difficult.
- When it becomes difficult, connect with a friend, family member or acquaintance who may be able to fill in gaps of memory or knowledge. They may have more information about other family members who are dead, events that happened when you were too young to remember or enhance your memories with another view. Write those events/memories. Keep notes of the names of people who gave you more info and link it to the info given. File these new writings and keep the timeline up to date with location and file names.
- Put all your writings into one document in your timeline order. You now have your very rough draft.
- Before you begin polishing your rough draft, work with someone unfamiliar to your story. Print out a hard copy for your reader. The reader will read your rough manuscript (don't have them fix the typos now—you may delete part of the story or rewrite much of this anyway). The reader's job is to write questions in the margin. Who is this? Why was this event significant? Where were you? All the questions to which you know the answer but have forgotten to write in your closeness to the story. I suggest that you have three readers using three separate clean manuscript copies. You then take all comments and put them onto one draft. Some authors might use a clean draft on which to write all notes and questions. On the other hand, one of your reader's drafts may have the most significant edits and questions—I would use that one and then add the other comments to it.
- With that marked-up draft, begin filling in the blanks. Continue with your writing schedule until you have a completed rough draft of your book.
- Now is the time to get someone to copy edit. You need to ensure that everything is spelled correctly and the facts are as true as you know. The copy editor will also see when transitions are missing and will either prepare suggestions or note for you what needs to fixed. Notes such as "needs transition," "you haven't introduced this person to your readers" or "time sequence seem off." Fix those and then have another round of edits.
You now have the first good draft of your autobiography. Next week’s blog will discuss photos for your autobiography project or any manuscript.
Nancy E. Randolph operates Just Write Books, a publishing business with the tag line: Maine books by Maine authors telling Maine stories. Randolph quickly developed a reputation as a publisher of quality Maine books. An active community member along with two others she founded and serves as a member of the board of Save Our Swinging Bridge.Org to ensure the maintenance of the historic Roebling designed and built bridge connecting Topsham and Brunswick. She co-chairs with Cathy Lamb the Androscoggin Brunswick-Topsham Riverwalk project--building a 2K walking/biking intown loop. To contact her directly: firstname.lastname@example.org