Some years ago now, an acquaintance of my parents published a book about his life. Then in his 70s, he’d just been awarded an OBE for his services to the church and local community. At the urging of friends and colleagues, he’d spent many hours assiduously writing his memoir and then paid for it to be professionally published. As soon as he got the finished copies, he sent out a number of them to his many friends and acquaintances; my parents were among the fortunate beneficiaries. Having always had an interest in books himself, my father in particular was curious to read this one as soon as it arrived.
In his younger days, my father was a brilliant if slightly subversive teacher of English literature, who had gone straight from school to work for Shorts aircraft manufacturers in Belfast, and had only studied for his first degree (alongside Seamus Heaney) when in his 30s and married with two small children. He has always been a great lover of literature and has little tolerance for anyone who doesn’t treat the English language with enough respect; he also has a very keen eye for pretentiousness in any shape or form. While he readily acknowledged the good things this acquaintance, and now debut author, had done for the community, he’d occasionally indulge in a little private humour at his expense, because of the man’s extreme punctiliousness and earnest air of moral rectitude in all things. Let’s just say, he didn’t really ‘do’ wit or irony.
So as my father sat down to appraise this much talked about book, my mother, my sister and I waited for his verdict with a certain sense of anticipation. He spent several minutes reading the first few pages with intense focus, and then began to flick through the rest of the text, stopping for a few moments to read every now and then. After what seemed like a relatively short space of time, he flung the book down on a nearby table in exasperation.
‘Ah, no! Just what I feared – one of those awful, no-detail-too-insignificant tractates no reader with any sense could ever be expected to finish!’
Wondering if he was being a little harsh, I took the book back to my house that day, intending to have a look at it myself. As I’d just started working in publishing at the time, I was interested in these things. That evening, resolving to be absolutely fair and unswayed by my father’s words, I opened the pristine covers and began to read.
Only a few minutes in, my heart was sinking. The first pages launched from a standing start into a lengthy exposition of the thirteen-century origins of the author’s family name, exploring the many variants over time and by geographical region in a fashion an expert etymologist would have struggled to follow . . . And that was just the first chapter.
The ‘story’ continued in this vein – a long, laborious recitation of minimally noteworthy minutiae about ancestors and then more recent family members – facts and figures about where they lived and what they did which gave no sense whatsoever of who they really were. No poignant or telling anecdotes from the author’s childhood or later life, no insights into what motivated him so strongly to give back to the community he came from. No pivotal moments of self-doubt, or anguish or personal triumph; no key experiences which made his life unique in its own terms.
Yes, I had to conclude, my father was absolutely right – no detail too insignificant, irrelevant or uninteresting had been omitted from this book. . . The man was a pillar of the community, but he couldn’t write – more than this, he had no idea of what other people might find compelling about what had, objectively speaking, actually been a very interesting life.
Even experienced writers can have problems when it comes to putting together a full-length book about a subject in which they’re an expert. I remember working some time ago with a talented journalist who was writing a book about a notorious cold-case murder which had happened 20 years previously but had come back into the spotlight after the perpetrator had sensationally handed himself in to the police and confessed everything.
Within the 500 – 1500 word framework of a newspaper article, this journalist was a consummate storyteller. However once he was faced with the challenge of distilling his research into an 80,000 word book, he began to struggle. As an in-house publishing editor at the time, I was assigned to help him carve out a structure for the book-length version of the story. I’ll never forget the first time we met: I’d opened the door to his office at the newspaper he worked for, to see a defeated-looking figure just about discernible behind a desk piled high with a mountain of reporter’s notebooks and huge box files, each overflowing with notes and documents. Meanwhile, every square centimetre of the floor around him was taken up with more randomly strewn papers.
‘You see, Susan – here’s the problem,’ he said, glumly nodding to the chaos around him. ‘All of this is my research, pages and pages and pages of it . . . How the hell am I supposed to get everything into a 300-page book?!’
The point here is that sometimes you’re just too immersed in a story to be able to ‘see the woods for the trees’. While this was clearly the case for the journalist above, (who, happily, went on to produce a best-selling book), it can be a particular problem with memoir, because by definition, you can simply be too close to the story to be able to craft it into a narrative which is both easy to follow and compelling. After all, you are the story, and you’re still in the process of living it.
This is where working with a professional ghostwriter or book coach can be invaluable. A good ghostwriter combines the necessary writing skills with the ability to bring a story to life. They’ll be engaged enough to support you every step of the way in putting the book together – but they’ll also have the necessary distance to discern the interesting patterns and an overall arc in the aggregate of your experiences. With their help, ideally you’ll end up with a book in which every detail is significant, relevant and above all, interesting!
A final word to any potential clients reading this who’d been thinking about approaching me to help them write their book: I can absolutely assure you that my attitude to these things is far less demanding than that of my father. After all, I know at first-hand what it’s like to have everything you’ve ever written or said held up to the forensic scrutiny of a purist of the English language – and so I myself have always favoured the path of positive reinforcement and gentle encouragement . . .