Jill King recently published an article in The Self-Publishing magazine about the art of Biography, with tips from her own experience of writing the biography of her international famous hair stylist, Aitch: A Life in Colour. She talks about the power of self-publishing to share stories. The article gives practical guidance on how to engage the reader in the subject’s life, how to bring their stories to life and how to collaborate using the skills of the subject as well as the writer. She recommends agreeing with the subject what you want to achieve by writing the book at the outset, and researching the context in which the book is written.
For further information, we have included the Article Below:
The Art of biography
The power of self-publishing to share stories
Our interest in other people’s lives has always been strong. From hagiographies of the saints, through to modern day autobiographies of celebrities, there is a fascination with reading stories of other people’s lives. As Mark Twain once said “There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is impossibility. Inside everyone, there is a drama, a comedy, a tragedy.” With today’s technological possibilities, and the resources available from self-publishing companies, creating and sharing personal stories has never been easier.
Extraordinary stories from ordinary lives
In recent years there has been a steady decline in sales of celebrity memoirs and a growing interest in stories of ordinary people who’ve led extraordinary lives. The fact that Justin Bieber released his second autobiography at the age of only 18 is an example of why some readers have turned to subjects with stronger personal histories. Readers are increasingly looking for deeper stories from people with something to say. The success of the inspiring biography ‘I am Malala: The Girl who stood up for Education and was shot by the Taliban’ is a good example of this trend. Meanwhile self-publishing has allowed the stories of ordinary people to be told at a time when traditional publishers focus almost exclusively on big names such as David Beckham or Sir Alex Ferguson.
Stories within stories
Whether you decide to write your own story, or that of someone else, it’s important to focus on telling a story rather than just laying down the facts. A straightforward chronological description of someone’s life may not be the most compelling way to tell a story that has the reader desperate to turn the page. Within every life there are a series of different stories to be told. These need to be woven together to create a complete picture of what makes the subject of the book tick. Readers are interested in the highs and lows of people’s lives; in piecing together the elements of personality, circumstance and situation. All these factors help readers understand the person more intimately, and to appreciate their unique perspective on the world.
Meaning and emotional response
The best biographies of ordinary people are those that make the reader laugh and cry – where the frailties of the subject are exposed as much as their triumphs over adversity or their personal achievements. Describing anxieties, hopes and fears, and how these emotions express themselves in decisions and actions gets to the heart of the subject, and connects with the reader’s own emotions.
The context within which a life is led is also crucial to reader engagement. Stories from someone’s life that reflect the interesting or challenging times they have lived through give greater meaning to the era, and to the experiences themselves. Taking time to understand what was going on at the time of the personal story, and describing the circumstances that form the background to the story, is well worth doing, even if it requires research to capture the details that the subject of the book may not remember that clearly.
Involvement of the subject
If you choose to write a biography it’s important to establish early on what the involvement of the subject will be. Kitty Kelley, the infamous celebrity biographer believes strongly that “the best way to tell a life story is from the outside looking in”. But much as this approach provides the writer with the opportunity to tell a truly ‘warts and all’ story, it also runs the risk of factual inaccuracies, and can make it hard to get the authentic voice of the subject across. So working with the subject of the book is advisable, provided clear ground rules are established at the outset about the degree of candour required and any areas of a subject’s life that are ‘off limits’.
It is also important to agree with the subject of the story what you both want to achieve by writing the book. Is it a way of laying down the story for future generations of the family to read, or does it have more commercial potential? The commerciality of the book will depend on how interesting and different the life of the subject has been as well as the ability of the writer to convey the facts in a way that engages the reader.
Bringing Aitch’s colourful story to life
In my book ‘Aitch: A Life in Colour’ I tell the story of Aitch Peters, who’s been my hair stylist for many years. Once we’d agreed on the project there were a number of decisions we had to make on how to work together to bring out Aitch’s colourful life stories in a way that would engage the reader as much as they’d engaged me. How would we recreate the salon conversations? What would the structure be? How would we get Aitch’s voice and sense of humour across? How would we verify the facts? How much involvement would Aitch himself have in the editing of the book?
Establishing structure and themes
At an early stage we agreed a working title of ‘Aitch: A Life in Colour’ and we sketched out the themes and key stories we wanted to tell. Although the actual structure didn’t crystallise until a little later, it became increasingly obvious as I captured the details of Aitch’s life, that we needed to find a literary vehicle to bring out the surprises and dramas in Aitch’s life, the connections between his history and his later success, and to weave together the themes in a way that left the reader wanting to know more.
As the book developed Aitch and I would meet up about every three weeks. I would set the agenda in terms of the periods of his life I wanted to explore, or the themes I wanted to develop. I would then ask Aitch probing questions that I had prepared, and I would capture his stories as he told them to me. At times I used a tape machine so that I could hear the nuance of his voice and pick up the phrases he uses most often when I came to write his stories. At other times I would listen attentively to him and write verbatim notes, focussing on key words and the detail of his colourful descriptions. I would often interrupt him to hear more of a particular experience, or to clarify what he was thinking, feeling or sensing at the time. It felt quite a laborious exercise at times, and frustrating for us both in different ways, but once the stories started to take shape the project took on its own rhythm, and we both looked forward to the next session together.
Writing the narrative
I learnt to discipline myself to type up my notes from the interviews within 48 hours and then I would start to cluster the stories into chapters and to develop each one into a conversation at the hair salon within the context of my regular haircut. There was inevitably a degree of poetic licence, but in the main the book replicated my own experience of hearing Aitch’s stories in a series of short encounters that always left me wondering what I would hear at the next haircut. As the material was developed I was able to shape each chapter with an unusual and arresting beginning, followed by a lively conversation, and ending with a hint of laughter and intrigue. I also decided to keep the answer to one mystery – the origin of Aitch’s name – until the very last chapter.
Writing any book is an iterative process, and writing a biography is no different. I would work on a couple of chapters at a time and then edit them myself in the first instance. At significant points I would leave the draft manuscript with Aitch for him to read for himself. He would mark up any sections that he felt didn’t quite ring true, or to which he wanted to add or embellish detail. Thankfully he didn’t attempt to edit the text on a word by word basis and this helped to keep the integrity of the manuscript intact.
Part way through the writing of the book I submitted the manuscript to an editor for a critical evaluation. This proved to be a very useful exercise and gave me lots of constructive feedback. In particular the editor felt that my depiction of Aitch was too gushing. This prompted me to tone down some of the language and to insist on more stories that revealed his darker side. I was open with Aitch throughout and this quickly built trust between us. So despite the fact that Aitch didn’t read every word I had written until the very end of the process, we both knew that I would faithfully recount his stories and that I would bring his colourful personality to life.
The power of collaboration
At the end of the day writing a biography is a collaborative project. The subject relies on the writing skills of their biographer to record and tell their story in an honest and engaging manner. The biographer relies on the subject of the book to be open and forthcoming, to help verify facts, and to work with the writer to create a book that will be well received. The relationship is founded on trust and mutual respect for the different skills and contribution that each brings to the project. I recognised for example that Aitch has a much better visual eye than I do, and so I left it largely up to him to design the cover of the book. In the same vein he was more than happy to leave the copy editing and proof-reading to me.
You don’t need to become best friends when you write someone’s biography – in fact it’s probably better you don’t – but you do need to play to each other’s strengths and agree on what you want to achieve together. Ultimately it can be great fun.
Key lessons learnt
- Agree upfront what you want to achieve with the book.
- Take your time to scope out the structure and flow of the story.
- Capture detail through questioning and listening techniques.
- Allow the subject to comment and offer suggestions as you go along.
- Retain a master version of the manuscript following each iteration.
- Utilise the best story-telling techniques throughout.
- Play to each other’s strengths and be honest with each other.
Jill King, January 2014