4 Questions to Ask Before Writing Your Life's Story

03/12/2017 08:33 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2017
Joel L. A. Peterson

everyone has an interesting life’s story -- to themselves

I was extremely lucky. I’ve had a biographical fiction manuscript accepted and published as a novel.

I’ve been surprised by the number of people asking me questions about writing and getting published. It seems that many people have a desire to write their life’s story or something based upon it.

Although now published, I have not been a writer by profession.

Therefore, the publishing process was truly eye opening and a steep learning curve. So I’ll share a bit of insight I gained on the path to being published.

The Publishing Explosion

No one knows for sure, but it's estimated that approximately 1.3 million new books are published each year and this number is increasing. This is due to the explosion in self-publishing that digital technology has enabled. This means that every day, more than 4,000 new books are published.

The vast majority — 80 to 90 percent of these — never sell much more than 100 copies. The mainstream trade publishing industry, though there may appear to be a large number of publishers, in reality has fewer than a dozen who control approximately 70 percent of the market. Five trade publishing holding companies control 50 percent of the market. These companies have bought up publishers over the years and keep using their names as brands, giving the illusion that there is much more competition than in reality.

Additionally, once a book is published, there are just a few large mainstream distribution companies and wholesalers from whom almost all book retailers purchase. These distributors generally don't take on self-published books. That's why the vast majority of self-published books never sell more than a few hundred copies.

Everyone has an interesting life’s story — to themselves.

However, I would suggest that very few have stories — or are in positions that make their stories — interesting to others to an extent that people would pay to read about it.

First Question

for whom are you writing?

Maybe the most important question that you may want to think upon is: for whom are you writing? For yourself? Your family and friends? For a narrow other audience? For a broader audience? For commercial success? For critical success?

The answer may help you decide how or if you will pursue publication. If you are seeking broad distribution or commercial success, you will need to have your book picked up and published by a reputable publisher, preferably a mainstream one. This is a very difficult outcome, especially for a first-time author who has not made a living as a writer (for example, a reporter or journalist).

If the answer is that you are writing more for yourself and for a narrow audience (family, friends, a club, a temple, or church), then taking a self-publishing route may be the better choice. However, self-publishing costs you money. Depending on how much outside services you use (ghost writing, design, layout, content editing, copy editing, printing, binding, marketing, etc.), it will cost from a few thousand dollars to several tens of thousands of dollars.

On the other hand, you can write your story, but never publish it in a book form, but simply share it with those you desire simply as a Word or PDF document. This has the advantage of little to no cost, yet may still meet the goals and reasons you may have for wanting to write your story.

Second Question

are you a good writer?

Particularly if you are seeking publication, another question that you would need to consider is: are you a good writer (it’s OK if you’re not)?

If the answer is yes, then writing your story yourself may be the right path. If not, then potentially finding someone to write it for you or with you — either paid or volunteer — may be the better path. If you have someone write it for you or co-write it with you, it may cost you a significant amount.

Even if you are a talented writer and enjoy writing, you will likely need to assess your time and resources and commitment to write a book. There’s no exact cutoffs, but a typical adult fiction/non-fiction book is between about 285 and 350 pages. Less than this, readers tend to feel short changed; more than this, readers feel the book goes on too long.

Children’s books are very different and much shorter (ranging from a dozen to maybe two dozen pages). Young adult books are shorter than adult books (typically ranging from about 150-285 pages). Many science fiction books tend to be longer (350 – 500 pages) as too are many historical or scholarly non-fiction books.

To help give context, a typical high school senior thesis or a college or graduate school term paper (15-20 pages, double spaced, 12 point font, not including bibliography) is about 6,000 – 8,000 words. An undergraduate or masters thesis paper is usually 25 – 50 pages, which is about 10,000 – 25,000 words.

In comparison, an adult novel of 285 – 350 pages is about 100,000 – 135,000 words. Therefore, a book represents a significant effort, investment, and commitment on the part of the author, even before the process of editing, re-writing, and re-drafting.

Third Question

how will you tell your story?

My experience confronted me with was: how will you tell your story? First person? Third person? Fictionalized? Memoir? Flashback? Contemporary? Linear time progression or an alternate progression? Single perspective or multiple perspectives?

Even those who have truly unique, fascinating lives, have aspects or long periods that are not necessarily fascinating or salient or relevant to the story you want to tell. What do you tell and what do you not? You will need to decide what the thesis of your story will be. What is the theme or themes? If more than one, how do they relate? What do you want the reader to take away?

The answers to this third general question of story structure may be the most difficult if you are trying to write for a broad audience or for commercial or critical success. How a story is told is often more important than the story itself for attracting and retaining a readership. It may be less important if you are writing for yourself or a narrow audience.

Fourth Question

how will your book affect other people?

A final question (though there are certainly many more topics) that requires significant consideration is: how will your book affect other people you care about or are mentioned or written about in the book? This is especially important if you are writing as non-fiction — as a memoir or autobiography.

Not only can what you write cause potential issues with others you care about and the relationships you have with them (hurt, surprise, anger, shame, elation — to name a few), but it can potentially cause legal issues for you. People may claim libel, which is defamation of someone that harms them through a written statement (slander is defamation by spoken statement).

Regardless of actual legal issues or relationship issues, you will also need to be comfortable that what you right will affect readers — positively and negatively). If your work is published, you will be subject to comments and responses by readers, some of which may be highly negative, personal, derogatory, critical, and just down right mean. Publishing your story can certainly make you feel very vulnerable. I would suggest and encourage you to deeply consider if you are also ready to handle such feedback and responses.

how a story is told is often more important than the story itself

Joel L. A. Peterson

So, in summary, these four questions are a good place to start when considering writing and publishing your life’s story. With questions, come answers. You need to be very honest with yourself when answering these key questions.

If you strongly feel that yours is an unique or inspirational life’s story, I would validate that your story — yours and all our stories — are important. And I would suggest that having more of them shared can be a positive thing. If you decide to move forward with writing and/or publishing, I would encourage you to set your expectations realistically.

Writing a book will take a long time. And that’s OK. Also, there is no one right way to write or tell a story. Your voice and your way is OK.

And if you want to get published by an actual publisher (as opposed to “publishers” who are just providing support services to help you self-publish — and charging you), realize that it is a long, difficult, and likely unsuccessful process, but that does not mean your story is not important, unique, or inspirational. It just simply means that competition to get published is intense, publishers must make money and that maybe your book does not fit their business analysis. And it just takes some plain luck.

As I said, I have not been a writer by profession and I don’t consider myself an expert. What I’ve shared is simply based on my experience and some or all of it may be in error. As of little benefit this may be, I hope that what’s been shared here helps you in some small way.

And if you decide to push ahead: best wishes and good luck.

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Joel L. A. Peterson is the national award-winning author of the novel, "Dreams of My Mothers" (Huff Publishing Associates).

Compelling, candid, exceptionally well written, Dreams of My Mothers is a powerful read that will linger in the mind and memory long after it is finished. Very highly recommended.

— Midwest Book Review

Learn more about the author and his book at Dreamsofmymothers.com and on Facebook

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