Sophie King’s latest book, How to Write Your Life Story in Ten Easy Steps, is a great beginner’s guide to autobiographical writing which can be easily adapted for biographical or fictional writing. It is also suitable for more experienced writers who want to freshen up their writing approach with a range of ideas and real life examples to consider.
In How to Write your Life Story in Ten Easy Steps, Sophie King offers advice which is very practical and accessible.
The focus in this article will be on how the content of the book can be adapted for fictional writing. King starts off:
‘My life would make a book!’
How often have you said that? Or heard it said? And the truth is, that it probably would. In my experience as a journalist and novelist, it’s not the lives of celebrities that are page turners. No, it’s the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. The sort of people you probably know. Your milkman who used to be a bank manager. Your elderly neighbor who used to work for the Resistance movement during the war. The woman at the end of the computer help desk who, unknown to you, is looking after her aged father, four children and doing an OU [Open University] degree.
This book is about helping anyone write their life story, and if you can write your own life story then you could also write the fictional life story of a character (or a life story about someone else).
King’s writing is clear, well explained and unpretentious. She offers suggestions, comments on potential strengths and weaknesses of various activities and approaches she suggests and illustrates these suggestions with real examples from her writing students.
STEP ONE: HOW TO BEGIN
1. Who do you think you are?
King suggests beginning by introducing yourself to your future readership – including things such as your name, where you live, some details about your family and your work, hobbies, hopes and fears, how you spend your time, your favourite things, current world events, etc.
This can also apply to fiction writing. You can begin by introducing your character in a similar way as you would introduce yourself. Alternatively, you could think about these details and imply them in a fictional story using characters’ actions, speech and setting.
STEP TWO: USING THE POWER OF MEMORY
2. Do you remember when?
King starts off by asking each of her readers to recall their earliest memory, or at least a memory from their early years which made an impact on them – such as an annual event like birthdays or Christmas, the birth of siblings, first day at school, favourite toys, or pets. Then she suggests that each reader build up a store of memories from throughout their lifespan, using a range of memory triggers to help recollection, and write down some details of each.
This can work well for writing fictional characters too. Just take the character introduced in step one and make up fictional memories, experiences or events across your character’s lifespan up to the beginning of the story (or even up to the end of the story to provide some guidance for the plot).
STEP THREE: HOW TO START YOUR RESEARCH
3. Researching the spoken word
4. Researching written records
In chapters 3 and 4, King describes how to go about researching what people say and write about you to provide extra insights into your life, as well your relationships with people such as family and friends. King provides tips for asking good questions when talking to family and friends, what to put in and what to leave out, and how to find family and friends you no longer have contact with. King provides suggestions for finding written details about yourself (and your ancestors if you want some family history included in your life story); not just official documents like birth certificates and medical records, but also things like report cards and old school books with your work written in them, books you owned as a child, newspapers from your childhood years, or old birthday and Christmas cards with messages in them.
For fiction you can of course go through a similar process with made up conversations and written sources. To get the hang of it, you could even write a mystery or detective story where a character seeks details about another character in the story. That way, your practice will result in a story instead of just a collection of notes.
STEP FOUR: DIFFERENT WAYS OF STRUCTURING YOUR LIFE STORY
5. How to structure your life story: chronologically
6. How to structure your life story by using specific time spans
7. Where were you when…
8. Desert Island Discs method
9. You’ve got a first!
10. Places I’ve lived in
11. Quirky ways of telling your life story that you may not have thought about
In chapters 5-11, King suggests a range of ways to structure your life story, such as:
Chronologically: Breaking down your life into manageable bits like Early Years (0-5), Childhood (5-12), Teenage (13-19), Young Adult (20-35), Middle Years(35-50ish) and Later Years (50 upwards) then write about events for each in the order they happened.
Specific Time-spans: Selecting timespans such as ten year periods and writing about a few of your most important memories about that timespan. (Stephen King does this well in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.)
These can be done in the same way for fiction and the timeframes of the different chunks can be any timeframe you want. For example, when writing a character with a major event in their past (before the beginning of the story) you might find it useful to break the story, or the planning of the story, into: before the past event, the past event itself, between the past event and the first major plot event, and after the first major plot event.
Where Were You When…?: Recalling where you were when significant events happened and building more personal detail from there. (Neil deGrasse Tyson does this, as well as the chronology approach, well in The Sky is not The Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist)
Desert Island Discs Method: King explains: ‘If you listen to Desert Island Discs on Radio 4 [in the UK], you’ll know that it comprises an interview with a celebrity who recalls different stage of their life in chunks. At the end of each short chunk, the celebrity thinks of a favourite piece of music which reminds them of that time or which has some sort of significance for them.’ (Nick Hornby used a variant of this well in his novel High Fidelity, recalling the five worst break-ups of his life while sorting out his collection of music records.)
You’ve Got a First!: Recalling your first time for a particular kind of event – such as your first school, the first time you rode a bike, your first job or your first child and building more detail from there.
…and so on.
STEP FIVE: HOW TO MAKE YOUR LIFE STORIES STAND OUT WITH PICTURES, COLOURS AND SMELLS, ETC.
13. Noises, smells, colours
The old saying goes: A picture is worth a thousand words. Pictures can convey a lot of detail quickly and can supplement words well. King suggests including copies of childhood drawings, newspaper clippings, photos, tickets from entertainment events, etc.
In fiction, there are the obvious options of illustrations and including copies of fictional documents, emails, etc in a fictional book. There is also the option of characters using pictures in the story, such as looking through a photo album or folder of newspaper clippings.
In addition to pictures, King recommends providing details from the range of senses, such as sound, taste, touch, smell and sight. This can apply equally for non-fiction and fiction.
STEP SIX: HOW TO PROVIDE A CONTEMPORARY FEEL TO YOUR LIFE STORY
14. Fads, gadgets and innovations
15. Making a song and dance
16. How much did that cost?
King suggests that considering things which you had or did earlier in your life that people don’t generally have or do now can help make your life story interesting to contemporary readers. Likewise, she also suggests considering things which you didn’t have or do earlier in your life that people generally have and do now.
In fiction, doing this can help to develop realistic and interesting characters with their own experiences across their lifespan leading up to the story told.
STEP SEVEN: BRINGING THE REST OF THE WORLD INTO YOUR LIFE STORY
17. Writing a timeline
If you follow the steps in the order presented, you should already have a lot of details specific to the time and place, including other people from that time and place, worked out when you get to this stage. But King suggests developing a timeline to give an overview of developments across that time period. For a non-fiction life story, this could be included in the book.
For fiction, a timeline would typically be of more use for assisting story development and keeping details consistent while you’re writing.
STEP EIGHT: HOW TO END YOUR LIFE STORY – AND MAKE SURE THAT IT DOESN’T HURT ANYONE (INCLUDING YOURSELF)
18. How to end your story when you’re still alive!
19. Ouch! The Importance of thinking about other people’s feelings
20. Writing a life story for someone else
King offers a range of suggestions for ending your life story while you’re still alive. Such as summing up your life to date or writing a summary profile to end on, ending with lessons for life, sayings, messages for future generations, imagining what someone might say about you at your funeral, etc.
These can all be easily adapted for ending a fictional story.
King also covers issues relating to sensitivity and accuracy in non-fiction stories, which also apply to stories based on or inspired by true stories.
STEP NINE: HOW TO PRESENT YOUR LIFE STORY AND GET IT PUBLISHED
21. Presentation and getting it printed
22. Problems and solutions when writing your life story
STEP TEN: STILL STUCK? TRIED AND TESTED REMEDIES
23. Writer’s block
Chapters 21-23 relate to practicalities of making your life story available to readers and overcoming problems encountered in writing your life story.
Fictional writing is the same as if you were writing about an actual person or people, except you have to (or get to) make up the details. Sophie King offers a lot of practical suggestions and activities to help build up a life story from the very beginning to a detailed story of a life. How to Write Your Life Story in Ten Easy Steps is a good step-by-step guide to building up an original and nuanced story without resorting to abstract story templates, formulas and theories. Real examples from Sophie King’s writing students of her suggestions in practice as well as clear headings and chapter summaries make this a very user friendly guide. This book is great for writers who want to think about their characters more as though they are fictional people rather than alternatives such as treating a character as a collection of traits or performer of a role in a story’s plot. If this appeals to you, I think you will find How to Write Your Life Story in Ten Easy Steps to be a fun, well rounded guide which can help you arrive at an original story that is rich in detail and entertaining to read.
The Australian Literature Review