One aspect of writing that I love is when we stop to look inward at ourselves. We take note of the choices we’ve made in our lives and they present a multitude of stories to tell. Most writers don’t think it is that easy. I have received a lot of messages over the years from writers who say, “No one knows me, why would they care about my story?” And, “I’m not a professional writer, so I don’t know how to get my story on paper.”
I’ve said the same thing to each one of those writers, and I’m saying it here now. The trick is not about whether you are known or not, it is about writing your story in a way that makes people want to read your book. To be transparent with you, writing your life story as if you dug through the attic for a life’s worth of your journals, transcribed them into a document on your computer, and sent them off to an editor is not the best way to go about sharing your story in book form. There is, however, an easy process and formula you can follow to write your best life story.
The Story of You
I know I said you should not simply type up your old journals on your laptop and call it a book, but if you do have your old journals from periods of your life, they can serve as a jumping off point for your inspiration. Didn’t feel the need to write down every small detail throughout your life? You’re not alone. Either way, mull over specific, impactful moments from your life. Did your parents get divorced when you were young? Did you experiment with recreational drugs at a certain point in your life? Have you grieved the loss of a pregnancy? Maybe you lost your job when you couldn’t afford to go without one. Take note of your experiences and what you’ve learned from them. Then, follow the process outlined here:
A four-sentence summary. When deciding what to write about, it is extremely important to drill down to what we call an elevator pitch or, in publishing, a premise. Write down four sentences that home in on exactly what message you want to convey in your book. Think about the overall theme first. Then, ask yourself who you are now and how you got to where you are—good and bad. Be direct and succinct in your paragraph summary. If you asked a stranger to read your elevator pitch, the goal would be to have them fully comprehend your message and paraphrase it back to you.
An inciting incident. We can all pinpoint one moment in our lives that completely altered the course we were on. For some, it is hitting rock bottom with addiction or infidelity in a relationship. For others, it’s an amazing job opportunity or another form of success. Whatever your inciting incident—that is your jumping off point.
Your “why”. Decide what you want to discover for yourself by writing your story. Figure out what you want to understand about a specific relationship in your life or how exactly you were able to create a successful upward trajectory in your career.
Benefit for readers. Ultimately, the whole point of writing your life story is to provide a benefit to future readers. They either need to feel like they have learned something valuable or have been helped in some way. Before putting anything tangible on paper, you need to spend a lot of time in this space because what you decide is the ultimate benefit for your readers will also be what helps you decide which stories stay in your book and those that get cut.
A Recipe for Success
After you have done the mental work and internal searching, it is time to start putting words on paper.
Chapter one. All that hard work on the front end was not in vain. Your inciting incident will be your first chapter. Start your book at the one event that altered your life. It’s the hook you need to pull readers in.
The middle. Starting in chapter two, take your readers back to a poignant time before the inciting incident. Then, work your way back up to that moment—positioning it about two-thirds of the way into your book. Choose important stories that also tie back to your main theme. Share those stories through the middle zone of your book. You do not have to share every tiny and insignificant memory either. Not only can those stories become boring for your readers, but they also serve no purpose if you cannot tie them back to the main point of your book.
The last few chapters. The last few chapters will once again encompass the inciting event you used to kick off your book. This time, however, you’ll delve deeper into this event and why it sparked such a big life-change for you. Then, move beyond that event and share important stories that depict how your life is now, who you are as a person, and what you learned. These wisdom-filled reflection points are exactly what your readers want to know and understand as well.
Writing your life story can be not only beneficial for you as the author, but it can also be the one book someone you have never met needs to read. Finding the balance between your why and the benefit for readers is the sweet spot that makes these nonfiction books work.
We want to know, what inciting incident would you use in the first chapter of your life story?