Conference takeaway: It’s all about how you tell the story

I had an Ah-Ha! Moment at the Compleat Biographers Conference this weekend. (Yes, there might be a biography in my future. But I’m not ready to share details yet.)

We’ve all been told a million times that the success of a book depends on how the author tells the story. It doesn’t depend on the plot, although a good plot helps. It doesn’t depend on the topic, although a popular topic helps, too. It depends on your voice, your story arc and the narrative you create.

Biography is a perfect example of that. Why? Because some biographies have been written dozens of times. How many authors have written about Lincoln, Jane Austen or Marilyn Monroe? A lot. But each one found a new way to tell the story.

This is something I didn’t really understand when I started writing my travel memoir. I thought my book’s premise — what it’s like to backpack solo through Africa as a woman — would interest readers and draw an audience. But having a good premise isn’t enough. It’s got to be an awesome story. One with a beginning, middle and end. One with character growth. As literary agent Susan Rabiner said during one of the panels, “Nobody wants a history of a life. Nobody wants you aggregating. They want an authorial voice.” In other words, it’s all about what you can bring to the table — not some cool thing that Lincoln did. It’s all about how you tell the story.

Other tips I learned at the conference:

Be creative with your book proposal. Author Robert Kanigel suggested giving yourself freedom and creativity in format, and Rabiner backed him up on this. Yes, every proposal needs certain components. But your main task is to explain why you want to write the book, and you can do that in a unique way. Kanigel once wrote a proposal in the form of a letter. Whether or not a proposal is in letter format when you submit, Rabiner said starting out that way can help authors who feel intimidated by the proposal-writing process, whose writing is stiff or lacking authentic voice. A letter that explains the merits of the book, written to your agent or your publisher like she’s your best friend, can help you find your groove.

Add this to your reading list. Editor Helen Atsma suggested The Lost City of Z as a refreshing way to tell a biographical tale. Anybody read this one?

Go out of your way to build rapport with sources. Author Will Swift said he shares his findings with his subject and their family because it helps him create relationships of trust. It also helps sources realize that he’s a good reporter who knows what he’s doing, and that the information he finds isn’t only useful to him, it’s useful to the family, too. Author Charles Shields recommends opening up to sources so they’ll open up to you. And it’s okay, he said, to let them think they’re smarter than you. Author Nancy Kriplen offered this tip: when interviewing older people, meet with two at once so they can jog each others’ memory.

For more tips, check out my #BIOorg tweets.

[tweetmeme source=”alexisgrant”]

This first-time event was well-organized and practical, and lots of authors attended who were willing to share their expertise. It’s coming to Washington, D.C. next year! I’d highly recommend going if you’re into (or even thinking about) biography.

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2 Responses

  1. I LOVED reading biographies when I was in grade school. I don’t feel my non-fiction writing skills are up to par enough for me to really try one myself but I am trying to work on a weight loss memoir – again – I’ve tried 3 or 4 times to start it but, like diets, I stop..hmm…a theme?

  2. I am far from mastering my proposal, but I agree with Robert Kanigel that writing a draft in letter format back loosen you up. I was feeling frustrated and then wrote an email to my friend trying to tell her what the book was about and it ended up being really good – I think because I had an actual, friendly audience in mind. Good advice!

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