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?

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