In a previous article, I highlighted four business memoirs that I helped bring to life. Each book was a significant one not only because of its subject matter but also because of its length. Each business memoir ranged from 300 to 400 pages, making them into hefty accounts of lives well lived.
How do you go about writing your business memoir?
In this post, I would like to show you the process of writing your business memoir with a co-writer/ghostwriter. It’s probably safe to say most people who are gifted at business are generally not as gifted in writing. There are exceptions, of course, but the four examples I wrote about in the previous article were not among them. Sometimes a writer needs a little help.
Develop Vivid Characters
- Are the characters your memoir going to bore—rather than impress—your readers?
- Are you at a loss—“Help! What can I do!”—about how to make the people in your memoir more interesting?
- Are you embarrassed by the “stick” characters you have presented? “She really was a complex person, but I don’t know how to show her that way.”
One author who had already written some 250+ pages of memoir said, “I got all the facts and dates and people right, but I didn’t get the interest right. It’s a little bit boring.”
Well, yes, it was, and this is where a co-writer can really benefit the quality of your memoir.
It’s a book you want; you don’t want to learn to write a book.
Most memoir writers are one-time and only-time authors who do not envision themselves writing another book. This is it. So learning to write is not a priority. Having a book that they are proud of is what they are striving for.
The process that gets a manuscript into book readiness
To highlight the process of collaborative work, here is an example from my own experience.
As I did with the author who had written a story he did not find interesting and with two of the other three authors that I worked with, I began to read excerpts of the story as the authors had written them. Then I asked questions to expand the text or to clarify it.
The people I work with, naturally enough, know their stories well. Because of this, they often skip over facts that the reader needs to understand the story. I do not know their stories and the questions I have, I can presume, are the questions that others will have also.
In a number of instances, the quickest way for us to develop a quality text is for me to ghostwrite it. In ghostwriting, I either originate the text or I rewrite so much of it that it can be called my text. While this sounds as if it takes control away from the author, people have been very receptive to this active collaboration. Many business people have not honed the skill of writing—being restaurateurs, machinists, cost estimators or barbers: yes; but writers, no.
Authors send in their text as an attachment. I read the story and make my changes and I annotate comments. Sometimes the changes are easy to make because I understand what someone is trying to say but the order in the sentence is really off or an antecedent to a pronoun is not clear. Sometimes, however, I simply don’t know what the author wants to say. In that case, I will place a comment in the margin of the document asking for clarification.
After I have reworked the text, I will send it back to the author as an attachment. The author will read through the text and either approve or reject my changes. If there is a rejection, then an explanation is in order. Oftentimes, this is due to my misunderstanding of facts. The author is always the creator of the story because the final text is always the author’s text. I am the writer, but not the author.
In Business Boy To Business Man, Mr. Verreault wanted me to be the co-writer from the get-go. He dictated every word of the manuscript to me. He did not, of course, dictate text. What he dictated were stories, vignettes, strings of fact. Sometimes I might say to him, “Can you describe for me what the house looked like?” “Do you remember a specific conversation you had with this person?” In this way, I was able to have salient details to add to the description. Mr. Verreault would approve or reject the text. If he rejected the text, that was often because he had forgotten to tell me something. He’d say, “Let’s take this story and let’s add facts that I had forgotten about.” Many sessions with him to begin with “I forgot to tell you last time…”
Going deeper for a better book
In all of these memoirs, I was able to get very deeply into the life of the person that I worked with. Each of these manuscripts took more than a year to work. In the case of the Lowther memoir, we worked on it, on and off, for some five or six years. In the case of Mr. Myers’ story, we worked for only one year, but we met every single week. The process was intense but enormously satisfying for him and for me.
I will usually go over a text at least twice with an author. So, we begin the writing and we work the text to the end. This is the first draft. This process usually reveals the ending of the story. Remember that a first draft can have many reworkings. Then we go back to the beginning, and we sweep through the book again. Here we are looking for additional details for clarity and for impact.
- Have we repeated stories?
- Have we forgotten to include important stories?
In this second sweep through of the text, I will oftentimes very consciously include foreshadowing into the story. Knowing that something major happens—let’s say on page 123, I will foreshadow that event on page 75. So in the case of Business Boy To Business Man, there was a major fire at the shop. It is appropriate to include incidents of minor fires or incidents of minor problems earlier on—say, page 76 and 91. In these foreshadowing references, I might say “What a relief that nothing happened! If the plant were to have been destroyed, all work would have had to come to a stop? Would that have bankrupted us?” Eventually of course, there is a major fire that does threaten the survival of the company.
After a book has been written and reviewed, I will suggest to the author that the book be passed on to another editor in my company. This second reader approaches the story with fresh eyes. He or she will be looking at the composition of the story as well as at proofreading elements. As the writer, I become a bit like the author in that I know the story very well and perhaps I have begun to assume facets of the story that the second reader, the editor from my company, will be unaware of and will ask for a change. A memoir always benefits from having a second reader.
A person who has achieved a significant business and financial success will oftentimes feel that a memoir of his or her achievement is a final tribute to a life well lived. Often it is a tribute also to the husband or to the wife who supported them and to the community that worked to make the business a success.
While writing a memoir entails a significant investment of time and money, I am not aware of people who have plunged into the waters of writing to be sorry that they have done so. They are generally happy to have their story recorded and preserved for posterity.
“I can now rest assured,” said one writer, “that my children and grandchildren will know who I was and that my story may serve as an inspiration to others to achieve in their own right.”
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