“How to find a ghostwriter” is a two-part process.
The first part involves creating a short list of candidates to interview. This is the mechanical part of finding a ghostwriter.
You have several options for gathering the names of book ghostwriters:
1. Check with a ghostwriting service. There are many of these, including Gotham Ghostwriters and Reedsy. You simply contact the service, explain what you’re looking for, and the ghostwriters attached to the organization are invited to submit their credentials and proposals for your perusal.
2. Check with literary agencies. Many agents work with ghostwriters, and will be happy to put you in touch with their favorites. Here’s a list of literary agents you can contact.
4. Conduct a focused google search. You’re undoubtedly familiar with googling. Just be sure to narrow your search. Instead of typing in a general search term such as “ghostwriters,” try “book ghostwriter in Los Angeles,” “New York Times best selling memoir ghostwriter” or some other phrase that contains descriptions of the type of ghostwriter you’re looking for.
How to find a ghostwriter on a budget
If you’re working with a very tight budget, you can try looking for a student ghostwriter in your local university’s graduate writing program, if such a program exists. (I coauthored my very first published book while still a writing student.) Students are often eager and inexpensive, albeit it inexperienced. You can also post an ad on inexpensive job sites such as Fiverr. You’ll find some amazing deals there, but remember, you get what you pay for.
So now you’ve got some names…
That’s the mechanical part of the “how to find a ghostwriter” issue.
But how do you find a top ghostwriter? And just what is a top ghostwriter, what makes certain ghosts rise above the rest?
Is it that they’ve worked with glamorous celebrities and high-echelon business leaders? The glowing recommendations they’ve received from clients? Their degrees from prestigious universities? Is it the length of their resumes?
Top ghostwriters have that extra “something” that allows them to get in sync with a client’s thoughts – quickly. They can easily put themselves into your shoes and understand your vision of your book.
And then they take it further.
They’ll push against the boundaries of your idea, scrutinizing it in different lights and from different angles. They’ll challenge, strengthen and improve your idea. And they’ll make your book better, often much better, than you ever imagined.
Top ghostwriters don’t just throw together any old book to keep the client happy. They craft an excellent book based on your idea, your dream, your vision – plus.
How to find a ghostwriter – a top one
Finding a ghostwriter is simple. But finding a top ghostwriter is much trickier, because there is no single measure of quality. Even a string of bestsellers on a ghost’s resume is not a guarantee, as he or she may not be a good match for you or your material. You’ll have to do a little more digging.
So create your short list of ghostwriter candidates, and start interviewing them by phone or in person. But don’t just ask questions about their resume and fees (although both are important).
Invite them to challenge your book idea. To poke holes in it.
Don’t settle for someone who simply tells you how wonderful your idea is.
Look for the ghost who tells you what’s wrong with your idea, and makes a convincing case for improving or even re-imagining it.
Try throwing some new ideas into the mix, and see how the ghost responds. Does she embrace dealing with these new ideas as an interesting challenge? Does she tell you, firmly but politely, what’s good and bad about the new ideas? Does she enthusiastically offer ideas for incorporating the good parts in the book? And do her ideas make sense?
If so, you may have found your top ghostwriter!
For more on ghostwriters and ghostwriting…
…see our “Professional Ghostwriter” page. And if you’d like to get started on your book, use the form below or to the side to contact us, Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, ghostwriters and editors of memoirs, business books, and more.
Deciding to write a business book inevitably presents a challenge: How do you begin? With a story? Some startling facts? A review of the problem you intend to solve? An explanation of why you wrote the book?
There are no hard-and-fast rules, as no one has conducted a scientific study to determine the best business book beginning. But you can look at what the most successful business book authors have done, and take note.
For Hush Puppies – the classic American brushed-suede shoes with lightweight crepe soul – the tipping point came somewhere between late 1994 and early 1995. The brand had been all but dead until that point. Sales were down to 30,000 pairs a year, mostly to backwoods outlets and small-town family stores. Wolverine, the company that makes Hush Puppies, was thinking of phasing out the shoes that made them famous. But then something strange happened. At a fashion shoot, two Hush Puppies executives – Owen Baxter and Geoffrey Lewis – ran into a stylist from New York who told them that the classic Hush Puppies had suddenly become hip in the clubs and bars in downtown Manhattan. “We were being told,” Baxter recalls, “that there were resale shops in the Village, in Soho, where the shoes were being sold. People were going to the Ma and Pa stores, the little stores that still carried them, and buying them up.”
Five muscled silhouettes, midnight blue against the sand-colored sunrise, moved down an otherwise empty street on the outskirts of the El Amel neighborhood in Baghdad. The morning call to prayer had just ricocheted through the urban sprawl and faded into the thick heat. A few blinds opened, then quickly closed; residents knew when to stay hidden. The door of a small house on the corner swung open and the men shuffled inside. It was September 30, 2004, and one of the biggest operations they would ever conduct was about to begin.
2. Begin with a story about why or how the author(s) wrote the book
With this approach, you invite readers to begin thinking like you do, by explaining what prompted you to take pen in hand.
Think Like a Freak opens by explaining how questions from readers of previous books prompted the authors to write this one:
After writing Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics, we started to hear from readers with all sorts of questions. Is a college degree still “worth it”? (Short answer: yes; long answer: also yes.) Is it a good idea to pass along the family business to the next generation? (Sure, if your goal is to kill off the business—for the data show it’s generally better to bring in an outside manager.) What happened to the carpal tunnel syndrome epidemic? (Once journalists stopped getting it, they stopped writing about it—but the problem persists, especially among blue collar-workers.)
Some questions were existential: What makes people truly happy? Is income inequality as dangerous as it seems? Would a diet high in omega-3 lead to world peace?
…. rather than trying and probably failing to answer most of the questions sent our way, we wondered if it might be better to write a book that can teach anyone to think like a Freak.
This book was born of a simple question—How old are Paul and his wife?
Larry and Paul were taking a break from what they call tennis, shooting the breeze, since talking is easier than running after errant shots. Larry launched into a harangue, as he often does; this one was about Social Security’s impossible complexity. Paul was listening, as usual, with his skeptical journalist’s ear. Or, maybe, since it was Larry, just half-listening.
Then Larry asked, How old were Paul and his wife and when were they planning to take their Social Security benefits?
The story continues, with Paul explaining that he and his wife planned to wait until they were 70 years old and could apply for maximum benefits. Larry suggests they do otherwise and launches into an explanation of the very confusing Social Security rules.
The Paul and Larry in the story are, of course, the same Paul and Larry who wrote this book.
3. Begin by demonstrating the situation or phenomenon the book examines
With this approach, you immediately bring the readers’ attention to the topic of discussion. For example, Thinking, Fast and Slow begins by inviting the readers to feel how the brain works, fast and slow:
To observe your mind in automatic mode, glance at the image below.
Your experience as you look at the woman’s face seamlessly combines what we normally call seeing and intuitive thinking. As surely and quickly as you saw that the young woman’s hair is dark, you knew she is angry. Furthermore, what you saw extended into the future. You sensed that this woman is about to say some very unkind words, probably in a loud and strident voice. A premonition of what she was going to do next came into mind automatically and effortlessly. You did not intend to assess her mood or to anticipate what she might do, and your reaction to the picture did not have the feel of something you did. It just happened to you. It was an instance of fast thinking.
4. Begin by explaining something the readers need to know
The approach briefly describes a problem, then offers a key insight. Money: Master the Game begins with an explanation about the true nature of money.
Few words have the power to provoke such extreme human emotions.
A lot of us refuse to even talk about money! Like religion, sex, or politics, the topic is taboo at the dinner table and often off-limits in the workplace. We might discuss wealth in polite company, but money is explicit. It’s raw. It’s garish. It’s intensely personal and highly charged. It can make people feel guilty when they have it—or ashamed when they don’t.
But what does it really mean?
For some of us, money is vital and crucial but not paramount. It’s simply a tool, a source of power used in service of others and a life well lived. Others are consumed with such a hunger for money that it destroys them and everyone around them. Some are even willing to give up things that are far more valuable to get it: their health, their time, their family, their self-worth, and, in some cases, even their integrity.
At its core, money is about power.
5. Begin with a dictionary definition
Using a definition to open a business book is a simple way to focus the readers’ attention, especially when you’re defining a word that’s not well-known, or defining it in a not-so-standard way.
1: something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body
2: a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample
Choose the best opening for your book
Seven of the top ten business books on the October, 2015 New York Times list of best selling business books begin with a story, so story-telling is clearly a good way to begin a business book.
But remember: You can look at groups of books and discover successful ways of beginning a book, but your book is unique. Understanding how other books are constructed can be very helpful, but ultimately, you’ll have to determine what makes your book shine.
Perhaps the tried-and-true methods are exactly right for you, or maybe you’ll be the one who pioneers the next approach.
If you’d like help writing your business book…
Contact Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, the business book ghostwriters. Use the contact form on this page to send us a message, or call us at 818-917-5362.
Writing a business book can be a challenge, for there is no such thing as “the” business book.
Instead, there is a very broad and deep genre called “business books” which includes biographies and autobiographies; books that criticize and books that analyze; how-to books, inspirational books and handbooks; books that teach, plus those that preach; and more.
Some business books are built around metaphors, some are based on scientific research, and others are “company-ographies,” including Ray Kroc’s Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s.
Some business books take an academic tone while others are chatty; some warn that the sky is about to fall, while others offer hope and ideas for improvement.
There are numerous types of business books, which means there are many ways to write one. That raises a question: Which approach is best for your book?
Seven approaches to writing a business book
In this article, I’ll review seven common structures used in writing business books. These structures, which are used by popular business books, are:
1) “We’ve Got Trouble!” – You explain a problem in depth, but offer relatively little in the way of a solution. Example: The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz.
2) “Smashing the Paradigm” – You explain why the current way of thinking or doing something is seriously wrong. Although your book rips the old model to shreds, it need not offer a fully-developed new paradigm. Example: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.
3) “Presenting the New Idea” – You offer a new way of thinking or doing something, a novel mode or model. Example: Made to Stick, by Chip Heath & Dan Heath.
4) “Telling a Story or Fable” – You tell a story that illustrates both problem and solution. The story is typically invented and sometimes takes the form of a fable. Example: The Energy Bus, by Jon Gordon.
5) “Borrowing from Other Fields” – You take ideas or approaches from non-business areas to teach lessons that can be applied to business. Example: Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, by Wes Roberts.
6) “The Encyclopedic Approach” – You present a detailed look at, or a comprehensive resource for, a process, situation, or field of endeavor, with each topic presented individually. Example: The Economist Guide to Financial Markets, by Marc Levinson.
7) “Topic 101” – You lay out the basics, teaching readers everything they need to know about the topic to get started. Example: The Dummies books.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the seven approaches to writing a business book.
1. We’ve Got Trouble
In a nutshell: Explore a problem, in depth, without offering much in the way of a solution.
This approach is very useful when describing a problem the readers don’t know they have, or one that is mmore serious than they realized.
It’s not immediately obvious why having a wide range of choices when purchasing food, clothes, and other items is such a problem, so the author begins with a personal example:
About six years ago, I went to the Gap to buy a pair of jeans.
I tend to wear my jeans until they’re falling apart, so it had been quite a while since my last purchase. A nice young salesperson walked up to me and asked if she could help.
“I want a pair of jeans—32-28,” I said.
“Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy?” she replied. “Do you want them stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? Do you want them button-fly or zipper-fly? Do you want them faded or regular?
I was stunned. A moment or two later I sputtered out something like, “I just want regular jeans. You know, the kind that used to be the only kind.” It turned out she didn’t know, but after consulting with one of her older colleagues, she was able to figure out what “regular jeans” used to be, and pointed me in the right direction.
Schwartz devotes the bulk of the book to explaining why we should be concerned about having way too many choices. In fact, he spends 217 pages discussing the problem, and only 16 pages talking about the solution.
The intriguing part of We’ve Got Trouble is the presentation of the problem, which is designed to surprise, anger, disgust, thrill, or otherwise evoke an emotional response. The solution, which is brief and not very detailed, is not really the point of these types of books.
2. Smashing the Paradigm
In a nutshell: Explain why our current way of thinking or doing something is seriously wrong.
Smashing the Paradigm is a bigger, more urgent version of We’ve Got Trouble, and smashes the current model to shreds. It touches upon solutions, but the emphasis is on the problem.
This approach is put to excellent use in the New York Times bestselling Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell’s thesis is that we totally misunderstand why certain people become incredibly successful in business, sports, music, academia, and other areas of life.
The long-reigning paradigm holds that success is due to certain personal characteristics. As the author points out, when thinking about very successful people, “We want to know what they’re like—what kind of personalities they have, or how intelligent they are or what kind of lifestyles they have, or what special talents they might have been born with. And we assume that it is those personal qualities that explain how that individual reached the top.”
But Gladwell insists that the great successes “are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”
There is “something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success,” Gladwell tells us, offering numerous stories of truly successful—and some not-so-successful—people to demonstrate why our understanding of success, and therefore our ability to replicate it, is so unsuccessful.
While the ideas and details in a Smashing the Paradigm book can be fascinating, these books typically do not make concrete suggestions for change.
3. Presenting the New Idea
In a nutshell: Present a new way of thinking or doing something; a new model or mode.
The new idea is usually broken down into several parts, each of which is explored in a single chapter. Each of the parts stands on its own, and together they create a unified approach.
The first chapter (or introduction) lays out a problem or situation and introduces the new solution. Each of several chapters that follow discusses one aspect of the new solution. Then, everything is neatly summed up in a final chapter or epilogue.
The authors present their argument in the Introduction, asserting that the reader can “transform the way people think and act” and get customers to buy more products by communicating via “sticky” ideas. The authors then present the six principles of “stickiness:” simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories.
These two authors also used the Presenting the New Idea approach in their Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. However, their discussion of each individual principle is spread over a couple of chapters, rather than confined to a single chapter.
In the first chapter of Switch, called “Three Surprises about Change,” the brothers Heath argue that successful change requires that a leader do three things: change the situation rather than the people; understand that people resist change because they are emotionally exhausted and need fresh motivation; and recognize that people must be offered “crystal-clear direction,” since what appears to be resistance to change is often a lack of clarity.
When reading a book that uses the Presenting the New Idea approach, readers should get the feeling they are having an interesting chat with a friend who’s telling them about a wonderful new discovery or idea. The sky isn’t falling and paradigms aren’t being ripped apart. Instead, the readers are having a very pleasant learning experience.
In a sense, Presenting the New Idea is the flip side of We’ve Got Trouble, for the emphasis is on the solution rather than the problem.
4. Telling a Story or Fable
In a nutshell: Tell a story that illustrates a problem and a solution.
In the Telling a Story or Fable approach, most of the book is devoted to the telling of a story, which is typically invented and conveys a moral—animals are sometimes characters in the story. Any required set-up material is presented in an introduction.
This approach is used in the Wall Street Journal bestselling The Energy Bus, which tells the story of George, a burn-out in the making, whose life is turned around by Joy, a bus driver he meets when his car has a flat tire. To quote from the book’s jacket flaps:
It’s Monday morning and George walks out of the front door to his car and a flat tire. But this is the least of his problems. His home life is in shambles and his team at work is in disarray. With a big new product launch coming in two weeks for the NRG-2000, he has to find a way to get it together or risk losing his marriage and job. Forced to take the bus to work, George meets a unique kind of bus driver and an interesting cast of characters who, over the course of two weeks, share the ten rules for the ride of his life. In the process, they help him turn around his work and life, saving his job and marriage from destruction.
The Telling a Story or Fable approach was famously used by Spencer Johnson in his New York Times bestselling Who Moved My Cheese? Johnson uses the fable of two mice and two “Littlepeople” who live in a maze and search for cheese, to teach the readers that change can be a blessing, if you approach it with the proper attitude.
Books using the Telling a Story or Fable approach are designed to be easy and enjoyable to read, and offer readers a single concept or solution.
5. Borrowing from Other Fields
In a nutshell: Apply lessons learned in other fields to business.
We normally think of Attila the Hun as a power-mad brute; it’s hard to imagine that his exploits could offer worthwhile lessons to the modern business leader. But as author Wes Roberts points out, Attila learned how to survive and thrive in desperate circumstances. Relying on loyalty, decisiveness, courage, and unquenchable desire, he rose from tribal leader to master of a huge empire, defeating the Romans and everyone else who stood in his way. These traits, argues Roberts, can be put to good use by modern business leaders.
The same approach is used by Itay Talgam in his The Ignorant Maestro to show “how great leaders inspire unpredictable brilliance.” Talgam, an orchestral conductor who has wielded the baton for the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and other great ensembles, urges leaders not to shove their ideas down the throats of their underlings. Instead, they should present their general ideas and have faith that the talented people they have hired will do the right thing.
According to Talgam, great leaders must be masterful conductors of people. As he writes in the first chapter:
One thing all conductors, great and small, have in common: We all use the same musical aid that makes no sound and requires no expensive carrying case—a stick. Yet in some hands this silent and dead piece of wood, the baton, can be exceptionally potent. An old proverb says: “If you look at zero, you see zero. If you look through zero, you see infinity.” Our baton is that zero, in itself of no use to an orchestra even if we wave it elegantly. Only when we are able to make our musicians look through the stick and see the full scope of artistic and human achievement embedded in music—only then have we touched the true essence of the conductor’s art.
6. The Encyclopedic Approach
In a nutshell: Present a comprehensive look at the subject
The Encyclopedic Approach book is an in-depth resource for readers already knowledgeable about the topic, who need additional information or explanations. Its logical layout makes it simple for readers to find the answers to their questions. It is not designed to be read cover-to-cover.
This approach is utilized in Essential Economics, which consists of a brief opening chapter titled “The Joy of Economics,” followed by an alphabetical list of economic definitions and descriptions spanning 267 pages.
Books that use The Encyclopedic Approach are reference books designed to sit on readers’ shelves for years and be flipped through as questions arise.
7. Topic 101
In a nutshell: Teach the readers everything they need to know to get started.
Typically aimed at those who know little about the subject, the Topic 101 book presents a survey of an idea, field, or situation, and point to resources for further study.
The Topic 101 approach is used in the popular Dummies series, teaching readers about investing, small business, personal finance, penny stocks, marketing, starting a business, and many other business topics.
The Table of Contents for Investing for Dummies illustrates this approach. The book is divided into five parts, each of which is broken down into several sub-chapters. The parts include: investing fundamentals; stocks, bonds and Wall Street; growing wealth with real estate; starting or purchasing a small business; investing resources; and three lists of tips at the end. The book includes just about everything a would-be investor needs to know.
Topic 101 books are meant to be “introductory courses” in a particular subject. The difference between Topic 101 and The Encyclopedic Approach has to do with the target audience. For Topic 101, readers are assumed to be relative novices in the subject matter, while in The Encyclopedic Approach, material is geared to those already knowledgeable about the topic who can benefit from further explanation and resources.
Seven Approaches to Writing a Business Book
These seven ways to structure a business book can be used to present a variety of business ideas and adventures, whether you’re writing about management, leadership, motivation, marketing, re-engineering, entrepreneurship, finance, investing, business culture, human resources, sales, or infrastructure.
Sometimes it’s obvious which structure is best for your book, and sometimes you have to experiment a bit, arranging your ideas in different ways to see how to best present them.
Always remember: These structures are tried-and-true and popular, but the needs and tastes of the reading public continue to evolve. New approaches to writing a business book will arise, and old ones will fall away.
There never was, and never will, a single “best” way to write a business book. The only thing that matters is which structure works best for your book and your readers.
Need assistance writing your business book?
If so, contact Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, the business book ghostwriters. Use the contact form on this page to send us a message, or call us at 818-917-5362.
As a professional writer with dozens of published books to my credit, I can tell you with absolute certainty that writing a book is not an easy, toss-off task.
Many a client has insisted that his idea is so good, the book will write itself. And while some ideas are certainly easier to work with than others, there’s no such thing as a book that writes itself.
Writing is a craft and a discipline, and if you want to be a successful writer you’ll need to develop certain essential skills. I’ve boiled them down to 10 habits that will see you through any kind of writing that you do—books, magazine or newspaper articles, website content; you name it. But before we start, let me just say that there will be days when you’ll become so frustrated you’ll want to hit the delete button and stomp away from your entire project. But if you continually practice these 10 habits, chances are excellent that you’ll not only complete your book, but create a quality work that you’ll be proud of.
Let’s begin at the beginning by setting a clearly definable goal.
1. Figure Out Your Ultimate Goal
“Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”
– Tony Robbins
Hopefully, you’re excited about your book. But why? Are you hoping for money, or fame? Or do you simply want to share your great idea or story with the world?
Do you wish to use the book to get on TV shows so you can attract new clients? Are you hoping a book will look good on your resume? Or is this all about getting revenge on your ex?
Begin by figuring out what’s urging you on, then ask yourself whether writing a book is the best way to achieve your goal.
For example, if money is your desire, it’s important to realize that most books don’t make much money, even if brought to market by a major publisher.
If, on the other hand, you’re passionate about changing the nation, a book can be a good idea—but so can writing editorials, joining or founding an organization, and raising money to support a certain cause or political candidate.
If taking revenge on an ex is your passion, you might be better off grappling with your feelings in therapy. I say that kindly, for I’ve learned from clients that spilling your angry guts onto the pages doesn’t make you feel any better.
So dig deep within to discover the real reason you wish to write a book. And if writing the book is the best way to accomplish your goal, dive right in!
2. Select Your Tools & Environment
“Never underestimate the power of a simple tool.”
– Craig Bruce
I once stood with a fellow writer in a university museum, peering at the desk, pens, and inkwell of a very famous author. “Wow,” my friend said. “If I had that desk and those pens, I would be a great writer!”
At the same time, I was thinking, “If I put a better pillow on my crappy desk chair, like this guy did, my back probably wouldn’t hurt so much after lengthy writing sessions.”
Clearly, my friend and I had different ideas about our work tools. For him, it was about figuratively entering into the “writer’s world.” For me, it was all about practicality.
What about you? What kind of environment do you need in order to be comfortable and productive? How about your tools? Do you prefer to work with pen and paper, a typewriter, a computer, or a tape recorder? Do you need to “feel” the words flowing through your fingers into your pen or keyboard, or does your mind focus better when you dictate?
Are you an early morning writer, or are you at your best some other time of the day?
Do you prefer to work alone in your home office or does the bustle of Starbucks stimulate your thoughts? Or maybe you do your best work sitting in bed with a writing pad balanced on your knees and the shades drawn?
Set aside any notion of where and when you “should” write and ignore the ads for the latest software and pens. Experiment, if you have to, to figure out where and when you work best and the tools you prefer. Then you’ll know exactly what you need when it’s time to write.
3. Set Aside the Time
“…don’t waste time, for that is what life is made up of.”
– Bruce Lee
Many a would-be writer waits for the moment when the writing muse kisses her brow and floods her brain with the perfect words. But successful writers know that writing is a job and, like any other occupation, must be performed regularly, preferably at preset hours.
Set aside time to write regularly, at a certain time of the day for a certain number of hours. Turn off your phone, record any favorite TV shows that come on during that time, and tell your family that you don’t want to be disturbed. This is your time. If you don’t guard it like a dog guards a bone, it will be way too easy to skip your writing sessions and, sooner or later, give up on your project.
If you’ll have to miss your kid’s soccer game because you’re writing, or skip that concert you’ve been dying to attend, well, now you’ve got some hard choices to make about your priorities.
There’s no right answer here, but if you want to be a writer you must set aside copious amounts of time to write, and then stick to your schedule.
4. Develop a Routine
“The secret of your future is hidden in your daily routine.”
– Mike Murdock
Regularity is the writer’s friend. Using the same tools in the same place at the same time, surrounded by the same noises and the same people (or lack thereof) will help you establish a writing routine.
I have a small office where I write. It’s nothing special, just a modest room with an aged desk and some non-matching shelves crammed full of books.
It’s not the kind of place that any aspiring young writer would think of spending the next fifty years, but I can’t imagine writing anywhere else. It’s my writing place.
Simply stepping into your writing place will help focus your mind on the task at hand. Sliding into your chair triggers some mysterious brain chemical that sends thoughts about your book to the forefront of your brain; calls your fingers to the keyboard or wraps them around your pen.
You might think that variety is stimulating. So sometimes you sit and dictate into your cellphone while sipping coffee at Starbucks; other times you work late into the night typing away on your home computer; and occasionally you write out notes in longhand while pretending to pay attention at a work meeting. But the quality of your work is bound to suffer.
It’s fine to jot down notes as ideas come to mind, no matter when or where you are, but do your writing in the same place, every time, in every way. Consistency is king.
5. Figure Out What Your Book is About
You’ve come up with your goals, tools, time, and place. Now it’s time to decide what, exactly, you’re writing about. It’s great to get excited about a vague idea, but at some point—preferably early on—you must zero in on your topic and what you’re trying to convey. Otherwise, you’ll wander around in circles forever or you’ll get stuck because you don’t really know where you’re going.
I’ve seen this happen with my clients too many times. They hire me to write their book about Topic X, so I develop an outline that they approve and start writing. But after seeing a first draft of Chapter 1, they decide that they really want to discuss Topic Y. I then create a new outline and write a new first chapter. That’s when they realize it’s really topic Z that lights their fire, and ask me to toss out everything and start all over again.
Before you dive into the writing, decide what your book is really about. You don’t have to plot it out to the nth degree, or write a fifty-page outline. But you do have to think it through from beginning to end. Yes, you’ll undoubtedly change things as you work your way through the manuscript, but if you have a strong, well thought-out premise, you won’t go too far astray.
Begin by considering your idea or story carefully and summarize it in 1,000 words. Then, reduce it to a 500-word description of your book. Once you’ve got that just right, tear it up and write it all over again, in a different way. When you perfect this second version, tear it up and write a third version. When you’ve finally developed the perfect 500-word description of your book, rewrite it again using only 250 words, then 150 words, then 100, and then 50.
Working your way through this exercise will strengthen your concept, as it forces you to explore your idea from different angles and strip it down to the essentials. And then you’ll know exactly what your book is about and how to describe it to others with precision and clarity. That will be invaluable should you have to pitch it to a publisher or sell it to the public.
6. Write Regularly
“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.”
– John Rohn
Writing is a tremendous joy for some; a dreaded chore for others. But even if it’s a joy for you, there will be days when you’d rather be squirming in the dentist’s chair, getting your teeth drilled, than sitting at your keyboard trying to come up with scintillating ideas or perfect words. Still, no matter how you may be feeling, you must continue to write at your regular time. Don’t let yourself wait for “the right moment” or fool yourself into believing that if you skip today’s session you’ll work twice as hard tomorrow. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel inspired or the ideas aren’t flowing. You must write anyway.
Do ask yourself, however, what’s getting in your way. Is it noise? Block it out with music or use noise-cancelling headphones. A flickering light bulb? Change it. Are you tired? Have a cup of coffee, or whatever it is you do for a boost, then get back to it. To be a writer you must write regularly, with fierce dedication and an unshakeable commitment.
Yes, you can take the occasional day off, and you probably should, but be sure you plan these “writing vacations” ahead of time. Don’t let momentary whims knock you off course.
7. Get Feedback
“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”
– Bill Gates
Rather than waiting until you’ve completely finished your book before showing your work to others, get some feedback early on.
It can be helpful to hire an editor or a book coach to review a few of your early chapters and give you feedback. Think of it as having a building inspector check out the foundation and framing for your new house before you start to wall it in.
Be sure to hire a professional book coach or editor, however. Don’t just email some manuscript pages to a buddy or hand them to your spouse. They probably aren’t qualified to give opinions and will likely tell you it all looks great. That’s not what you need right now. Go with a pro.
Expect to go through several drafts of your manuscript, maybe more, before it’s truly finished. And be sure to get feedback again once you’ve finished your manuscript.
8. Set a Firm Finish Deadline
“One forges one’s style on the terrible anvil of daily deadlines.”
– Emile Zola
“Unfinish-itis” is a distressingly common syndrome among new writers. One newbie author that I know kept thinking that she was finished with her manuscript and ready to self-publish, but at the last minute she’d always realize there were a few more things to do: add something here, delete something there; tweak the cover design a bit, rewrite the back cover copy, have a new author picture taken; you get the idea.
There’s a great temptation to make the book “perfect” in every way. But at a certain point, more tweaking is just as likely to make things worse as it is to make them better. Realize that there will come a time when you’ll have to release your book to the world. You’re not perfect, your book may not be perfect, but if you’ve given it your very best shot, it will be just right.
If you find yourself suffering from unfinish-itis, pick a firm finish date and stick to it.
9. Commit and Recommit to the Task
“Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes…”
– Peter Drucker
Writers sometimes feel like the mythical character Sisyphus, who was doomed to spend every day pushing a heavy rock up a steep and high hill, only to see it roll down again before he got it to the top. Then he had to start all over again the next day, performing a tedious chore that was never finished.
Be aware that your energy and enthusiasm will waver at times as you write. You’ll get behind schedule, you’ll sometimes feel that your book will never be finished. You may fear that it will be an ignominious failure, and wonder why you’ve hung this albatross around your neck.
Feeling this way is par for the course. So don’t fret. Just recommit to your project, yourself, and your eventual success.
10. Pat Yourself on the Back
“A pat on the back is only a few vertebrae removed from a kick in the pants, but is miles ahead in results.”
– Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Writing can feel like running an obstacle course blindfolded, or finding yourself on a TV quiz show where you speak English while everyone else is speaking Greek. It’s hard.
So take a moment to pat yourself on the back every now and then.
Congratulate yourself for writing a certain number of pages today, or sticking to your writing schedule every day this week.
Celebrate the milestones, like writing a particularly inspired passage or making it halfway through the manuscript. Not many people have the skill or the fortitude to do what you’ve just done, so be sure to give yourself some credit. But don’t rest on your laurels for too long. There’s still plenty of work to be done!
Make the “10 Habits of Successful Book Writers” Part of Your Life
A habit is an acquired behavior pattern, regularly followed until it becomes almost involuntary. This means that if you want to acquire the habits of successful book writers, you’ll have to make a conscious effort to practice them daily until you no longer have to think about them.
Make a copy of the 10 Habits and put them up where you can see them every day. They are:
Figure out your ultimate goal
Select your tools & environment
Set aside the time
Develop a routine
Figure out what your book is about
Set a firm finish deadline
Commit and recommit to the task
Pat yourself on the back
The more disciplined you are about writing, the easier it will become in the long run. And the quality of your work will improve by leaps and bounds.
There are many ways to start off a memoir, ranging from the conventional to the startling, the conversational to the literary, the deceptively mundane to the outspokenly confrontational.
You can begin a memoir by giving the reader a peek into what you are thinking now, what you thought then, or what you’re thinking now about what happened back then. You may decide to start off with a quick rundown of your family genealogy, if that’s relevant, or just dive right into the moment of crisis that shattered your life.
Many memoirs start slowly, perhaps with a description of the room in which the author played as a child, or watched her parents quarrel, or spent hours and hours with a beloved friend. The author may devote several paragraphs to setting the scene and describing the circumstances that would influence her life so greatly.
Other memoirs begin at a sprint as the author races to victory or watches his life careen off course.
Sometimes a memoir starts off introspectively, barely alluding to themes and facts that will later be crucial parts of the story, and other times it begins with the author shouting out to the readers, telling them in no uncertain terms what is important.
All of these ways to start off a memoir are good—the only question is, which is best for your life story?
Let’s see how eight different authors have chosen to start off their memoirs.
Recounting a distressing scene from the beginning of your life
“The first time Daddy found out about me, it was from behind glass during a routine visit to prison, when Ma lifted her shirt, teary-eyed, exposing her pregnant belly for emphasis. My sister, Lisa, then just over one year old, sat propped against Ma’s hip.”
Murray doesn’t have to start off her memoir with a description of an empty refrigerator or a leaky roof; she needn’t talk about her family’s income and expenses, or even tell us why Daddy is in prison. We instantly grasp the situation, sympathize with Murray, and are primed to wait for the specifics.
Casually describing a situation fraught with danger
“International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly. I scurried from one to another, desperately trying to find my black suitcase. Because it was stuffed with drug money, I was more concerned than one might normally be about lost luggage.”
With tongue slightly in cheek, Kerman turns a common problem, retrieving luggage at the airport, into a set-up for her arrest and subsequent prison sentence. We instantly feel she is one of us. We wonder how she got herself into this situation and we want to read more.
Describing the genesis of a horrible event that shattered your life
Ishmael Beah was only twelve years old when war forced him to flee his home, and he soon found himself a child soldier, carrying a gun and committing acts he could never have contemplated. Here’s how he starts off his A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, a national bestseller:
“There were all kinds of stories about the war that made it sound as if it were happening in a faraway and different land. It wasn’t until refugees started passing through our town that we began to see that it was actually taking place in our country. Families who had walked hundreds of miles told how relatives had been killed and their houses burned. Some people felt sorry for them and offered them places to stay, but most of the refugees refused, because they said the war would eventually reach our town.”
We don’t need to read descriptions of bloody bodies or burned houses to get a sense that war is approaching. Neither do we need to know, yet, exactly what country we are in or which war is raging. The sad march of refugees tells us what we need to know, just as it told Beah and his family what they needed to know.
Pinpointing the exact moment you realized that something was terribly wrong
In his Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, William Styron uses only eleven words to convey where he was and what it was like when he realized his life was about to change for the worse:
“In Paris on a chilly evening late in October of 1985 I first became fully aware that the struggle with the disorder in my mind – a struggle which had engaged me for months – might have a fatal outcome.”
Reading this, I instantly imagine a man shuffling down a dark Parisian street, holding his coat close, then suddenly stopping as the realization hits him. Perhaps you imagine something different. It doesn’t matter, as this brief description invites us to “see” it as we choose and, in so doing, become a part of Styron’s horrible moment of realization.
Describing what it was like before entering a potentially fatal arena
“Nothing ever dried. My damp combat uniform chafed at the back of my neck. Water ran down my forehead and into my eyes. The railing of the transport ship dripped with rain, but in the tropical climate, its wet surface was warm to the touch. The ship rolled slightly in the South Pacific waters, a constant unsettling movement that, just weeks ago, would have made me queasy. But my stomach held steady.”
Nez masterfully brings us into the moment by focusing on the water and dampness, the rolling boat, and the fact that he is no longer getting seasick. We know he’s about to enter battle, but he holds it at arm’s length for now, as he invites us to squish our toes inside his damp boots and imagine we’re about to fling ourselves over the precipice.
Taking us to your lowest point
Terri Cheney starts off her memoir, the New York Times bestselling Manic, by casually revealing the power associated with contemplating suicide:
“I didn’t tell anyone that I was going to Santa Fe to kill myself. I figured that was more information than people needed, plus it might interfere with my travel plans if anyone found out the truth. People always mean well, but they don’t understand that when you’re seriously depressed, suicidal ideation can be the only thing that keeps you alive. Just knowing there’s an out—even if it’s bloody, even if it’s permanent—makes the pain almost bearable for one more day.”
Her words are as clinical as they are filled with pain.
Stating your philosophy
Rose McGowan starts off her memoir, BRAVE, by laying out her understanding of life, or, at least, an important part of life:
“Here’s the thing about cults: I see them everywhere.
If you’re deep into the Kardashians, you’re in a cult. If you watch your favorite TV show and go online and you’re in chat rooms with everybody else who’s obsessed with that show and you’re breaking it down episode by episode, you’re in a cult. If you’re bingeing, scrolling, absorbing from one news source more than any other, especially if it happens to be fair and balanced, you are in a cult. You’re living your life through other people. If you blindly vote for so-and-so, you’re in a cult. If you’re deep into your country’s propaganda machine, you’re in a cult. Look around you and see where the cults are, because they are everywhere. Anywhere there is group thought and group mentality: you’re in a cult, you’re in a cult, you’re in a cult.”
Pulling no punches, McGowan tells us exactly what she thinks about cults. And without explicitly saying so, she also reveals what she thinks of you, because you probably belong to one. Yes, McGowan risks alienating some readers, but I suspect that many more are delighted that she speaks up so boldly.
Describing a dilemma that simultaneously describes your life
In his New York Times bestselling Dry: A Memoir, Augusten Burroughs begins by laying out a common problem in his industry:
“Sometimes when you work in advertising, you’ll get a product that’s really garbage and you have to make it seem fantastic, something that is essential to the continued quality of life. Like once, I had to do an ad for hair conditioner. The strategy was: Adds softness you can feel, body you can see. But the thing is, this was a lousy product. It made your hair sticky and in focus groups, women hated it. Also, it reeked. It made your hair smell like a combination of bubble gum and Lysol. But somehow, I had to make people feel that it was the best hair conditioner ever created.”
As he breezes through his description of this “little problem,” we can be forgiven for feeling that Burroughs is resigned to fooling people—and maybe fooling himself, as well.
Great ways to start off a memoir: The list
Here are the ways to begin a memoir described above:
Recounting a distressing scene from the beginning of your life
Casually describing a situation fraught with danger
Describing the genesis of a horrible event that shattered your life
Pinpointing the exact moment you realized that something was terribly wrong
Describing what it was like before entering a potentially fatal arena
Taking us to your lowest point
Stating your philosophy
Describing a dilemma that simultaneously describes your life
There are many other approaches, including beginning a memoir with:
A recitation of facts about yourself, your family, career, schooling, or whatever else is important for the readers to know right off the bat
A cliff hanger: a dramatic moment that doesn’t resolve until later in the book
A crushing defeat that takes readers to your moment of greatest failure
An anecdote illustrating how you did, or did not, fit in at an early age
An explanation of why you’re now putting pen to paper
I’ll look at these ways to start off a memoir, and others, in articles to come.
How to best start off a memoir?
I wish I had an easy answer to this question, but there isn’t one. Sometimes an ideal opening springs to mind instantly, while in other cases you must work your way through several possible openings until you find the one that brings your story alive from its very first words.
What I can say, with certainty, is that it’s worth any effort you need to expend to create a great opening, as your first words will serve as the introduction to and foundation of your memoir.
Still not sure how to start off a memoir?
Click on the links below to see how authors chose to begin their memoirs:
To learn more about memoirs and memoir writing, see our “Memoir Ghostwriter”
And if you’d like help with your book, contact Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, the memoir ghostwriters. Use the contact form on the website to send us a message, or call us at 818-917-5362.
Do you start a military memoir in the midst of the climatic battle? Before, or after? Do you open with the story of your training? Or should you wait until decades have passed so you can maturely reflect on what happened?
As you can see in the examples of the opening paragraphs of military memoirs below, there are many good ways to start a military memoir.
Nothing ever dried. My damp combat uniform chafed at the back of my neck. Water ran down my forehead and into my eyes. The railing of the transport ship dripped with rain, but in the tropical climate, its wet surface was warm to the touch. The ship rolled slightly in the South Pacific waters, a constant unsettling movement that, just weeks ago, would have made me queasy. But my stomach held steady.
Born to the Navajo Nation, now a Marine—Private First Class Chester Nez—I’d never seen the ocean before enlisting.
Start a military memoir years after you’ve retired, looking back on what happened
I am still haunted by the names and faces of young men, young airborne troopers who never had the opportunity to return home after the war and begin their lives anew. Like most veterans who have shared the hardship of combat, I live with flashbacks—distant memories of an attack on a battery of German artillery on D-Day, an assault on Carentan, a bayonet attack on a dike in Holland, the cold of Bastogne. The dark memories do not recede; you live with them and they become a part of you. Each man must conquer fear in himself.
I have a way of looking at war that I have stuck with in combat and the six decades since the war. I look at those soldiers who were wounded in action as lucky because they often had a ticket to return home. The war was over for them. The rest of us would have to keep fighting, day in and day out. And if you had a man who was killed, you looked at him and hoped that he had found peace in death.
Start a military memoir by explaining why you joined up
I knew that I wanted to join the Army by the time I was in high school. I joined my college’s ROTC program partly out of genuine patriotism and a desire to give something back to my country, and partly because I felt like I had something to prove. Although I am extremely grateful for it, I led a privileged childhood – learning Latin and French in private school, traveling to Europe with my family – and I knew that the rest of my life would probably go just as smoothly. I would go to a good college and get a decent job… and some part of me would always feel like I hadn’t really earned any of it. I wanted to force myself out of that comfort zone and test myself in a world where that background was completely irrelevant – where my success or failure would be determined by me, and me alone.
I joined the Army to finance my nursing education shortly after I returned from a year as an American Field Service exchange student, having spent my senior year in high school living with a family in the suburbs of Copenhagen, Denmark. I was 18.
The year was 1965, men between the ages of 18 and 35 were eligible for the draft, and President Lyndon Johnson was getting ready to send half a million men to fight communist aggression in Southeast Asia. If asked, most people would not have been able to find Vietnam on a map. They knew the star of the movie Cat Ballou as Jane Fonda, Henry’s daughter, and not Jane Fonda, war protester.
Start a military memoir shortly after your enlistment has ended
At the age of twenty-four, I was more prepared for death than I was for life. My first experience of the world outside the classroom had been war. I went straight from school into the Marine Corps, from Shakespeare to the Manual of Small-Unit Tactics, from the campus to the drill field and finally Vietnam. I learned the murderous trade at Quantico, Virginia, practiced it in the rice paddies and jungles around Danang, and then taught it to others at Camp Geiger, a training base in North Carolina.
When my three-year enlistment expired in 1967, I was almost completely ignorant about the stuff of ordinary life, about marriage, mortgages, and building a career. I had a degree, but no skills. I had never run an office, taught a class, built a bridge, welded, programmed a computer, laid bricks, sold anything, or operated a lathe.
But I had acquired some expertise in the art of killing.
How to start a sports memoir – examples from the stars
The “how to start a sports memoir” question can be answered in many ways. You can start with a key moment in an important game or meet; begin in the locker room just before the big game; start with the childhood you dedicated to training; begin at the end, with your retirement, and more.
All these options, and others, work, as you can see in the examples below.
Start a sports memoir when you’re down and likely out
From the moment we got into our locker room at halftime, I told anyone who’d listen how the second half was going to go. “It’s gonna be a helluva story, boys!”
With the score leaving us buried under a 21-3 deficit, Super Bowl LI had been a thirty-minute horror show at NRG Stadium in Houston. The Atlanta Falcons’ speed and execution and our lack of precision put us in a Super Bowl hole deeper than one any team had ever climbed out of.
What made me so sure there would be a plot twist? Didn’t I have doubts? No. We’d been in holes like this before. In Super Bowl XLIX, we trailed by 10 at the start of the fourth quarter against Seattle. No team had ever erased a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl. We did.
Start a sports memoir by describing a feeling no one else understands
I have scored more professional soccer goals than anyone in the history of the game, 184 to be exact, but I never once witnessed the ball hitting the net. Although my eyes were open and aimed in the right direction, as soon as leather met rope the picture went black—not a slow fade, but a swift guillotine chop that separated the scene from my ability to see it.
My mind celebrated while my vision, blinded from adrenaline, lagged a beat behind, and by the time the two equalized there was a party on the field: high fives and hell yeahs, upraised arms and pumping legs and bouncing ponytails. I thrived on these brief blackouts, these zaps of instant amnesia. For thirty years scoring goals was my currency, the one skill I could barter for security and acceptance and love.
From the moment I began to stir in bed on the morning of Wednesday, November 2, 2016, my mind was already racing. While most of America was at work, I was finally waking up. After leaving the locker room and winding down, I finally got to bed the night before at 2 a.m. as our Chicago Cubs continued chasing one of the great dreams in all of sports—one that had eluded us for more then one hundred years: winning another World Series.
I started up the climb shortly after dawn. I wasn’t even sure I’d found the right start, since I hadn’t been on these lower pitches for two or three years. The beginning of the rout is kind of scruffy and ambiguous—ramps, traverses, and hand cracks angling up to the right—but it’s not as difficult as the upper two-thirds of the wall.
Still, I was nervous, even a little giddy. It had rained pretty much nonstop the day before, and now the rock was sandy, slabby, and a lot damper than I’d hoped. I probably should have waited another day before heading up the route. But I was overpsyched. I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting in my van another whole day, thinking the same thoughts I had recycled for the past forty-eight hours. I had to strike while the iron was hot.
Start a sports memoir in early childhood, where it all began
I’m seven years old, talking to myself, because I’m scared, and because I’m the only person who listens to me. Under my breath I whisper: Just quit, Andre, just give up. Put down your racket and walk off this court, right now. Go into the house and get something good to eat. Play with Rita, Philly, or Tami. Sit with Mom while she knits or does her jigsaw puzzle. Doesn’t that sound nice? Wouldn’t that feel like heaven, Andre? To just quit? To never play tennis again?
But I can’t. Not only would my father chase me around the house with my racket, but something in my gut, some deep unseen muscle, wouldn’t let me. I hate tennis, hate it with all my heart, and still I keep playing, keep hitting all morning, and all afternoon, because I have no choice. No matter how much I want to stop, I don’t. I keep begging myself to stop, and I keep playing, and this gap, this contradiction between what I want to do and what I actually do, feels like the core of my life.
Not sure how to start a political memoir? There are many possibilities, for you can begin by highlighting either yourself or the “politics part,” the campaign, issue, office, or other piece of politics you wish to write about.
The five examples below illustrate interesting ways to start a political memoir – with an “after the election” crisis, a terrible fright while in office, a moment of peace on the campaign trail, an experience that changes the way you think, and the moment of leaving office.
Start a political memoir at a moment when all seems lost
Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened (2017) – a New York Times notable book
Deep breath. Feel the air filling my lungs. This is the right thing to do. The country needs to see that our democracy still works, no matter how painful this is. Breathe out. Scream later.
I’m standing just inside the door at the top of the steps leading down to the inaugural platform, waiting for the announcer to call Bill and me to our seats. I’m imagining that I’m anywhere but here. Bali maybe? Bali would be good.
It’s traditional for Bill and me, as a former President and First Lady, to attend the swearing-in of the new President. I had struggled for weeks with whether or not to go. John Lewis wasn’t going. The civil rights hero and Congressman said that the President Elect was not legitimate because of the mounting evidence of Russian interference in the election. Other members of Congress were joining him and boycotting a President Elect they saw as divisive. A lot my supporters and close friends urged me to stay home, too.
Start a political memoir at a time of great crisis
Special Agent Jimmy Scott burst through the door. “Mr. Vice President, we’ve got to leave now.” Before I could reply he moved behind my desk, put one hand on my belt and another on my shoulder, and propelled me out of my office. He rushed me through narrow West Wing hallways and down a stairway toward the P.E.O.C., the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, located underneath the White House.
We stopped at the bottom of the stairs in a tunnel outside the PEOC. I watched as Secret Service agents positioned themselves at the top, middle, and bottom of the staircase, creating layers of defense in case the White House itself should be targeted. Agent Scott handed out additional firearms, flashlights, and gas masks. He’d evacuated me from my office, he said, because he’d gotten word over the radio that an inbound, unidentified aircraft was headed for “Crown,” codename for the White House.
I’m up with the sun, in a studio apartment that’s tiny even by New York standards. I think it is charming. The bed is in a loft, connected to the living area by a black iron spiral staircase. I climb down and tiptoe to the kitchen. In America, I’d make a giant cup of coffee, but I’m in Paris, where “filter coffee,” as the Europeans call it, would be a sin and a spell breaker. I pop a little espresso pod into a sleek French machine.
I sip my espresso and stare down into the courtyard through a giant wall of windows, each panel of glass the size of a dining room table. The neighbors are chattering over breakfast. This isn’t the Paris of tourists. I see gray tile roofs and smokestacks, not the Eiffel Tower. This is the real Paris, and I am an American cliché.
An NBC News correspondent dispatched overseas, I’m based in London but in love with a handsome Frenchman who is still sleeping up in that loft.
In the fall of 1961 it didn’t take very long to discover in Vietnam that we weren’t likely to be successful there. It took me less than a week, on my first visit. With the right access, talking to the right people, you could get the picture pretty quickly. You didn’t have to speak Vietnamese, or know Asian history or philosophy or culture, to learn that nothing we were trying to do was working or was likely to get better. I read somewhere you don’t have to be an ichthyologist to know when a fish skinks.
It helped that I was part of a high-level Pentagon task force, visiting the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Vietnam with a “go anywhere, see anything” kind of clearance.
Start a political memoir as your time in office is coming to an end
Hoping to freeze time, I thought back to the phone ringing one December morning and the words, “I want you to be my Secretary of State,” and to the swearing-in ceremony where my eagle pin came unstuck. I thought of little girls seeking autographs on a triumphant train trip from Washington to the United Nations in New York; of Vaclav Havel’s face, warm and wise, as he placed a red sash on my shoulder and a kiss on my cheek; and of names enshrined on the wall of a synagogue in Prague. I thought of buildings in Kenya and Tanzania reduced to rubble; of coffins draped with the American flag; and of President Clinton in a rumpled shirt, with glasses perched on his nose, pleading the cause of Middle East peace.
There is no “right” way to start a political memoir
Selecting just the right moment to start a political memoir is, like politics, a mixture of experience and guesswork.
As you can see in the five examples below, it’s quite common to begin with you, the author. To lead off with an “I” or “me” or “my” statement that places you squarely within the action and defines what the book is about – you and your relationship to the family.
See how these authors have worked themselves into their family memoirs, right from the start.
Start a family memoir with an object that holds memories
I have a picture I prize of my grandfather and father, John Sidney McCain Senior and Junior, taken on the bridge of a submarine tender, the USS Proteus, in Tokyo Bay a few hours after the Second World War had ended. They had just finished meeting privately in one of the ship’s small staterooms and were about to depart for separate destinations. They would ever see each other again.
Despite the weariness that lined their faces, you can see they were relieved to be in each other’s company again. My grandfather loved his children. And my father admired my grandfather above all others. My mother, to whom my father was devoted, had once asked him if he loved his father more than he loved her. He replied simply, “Yes, I do.”
Start a family memoir with your education, in a far away place
I carried a sheaf of papers almost as thick as my hand to the third floor of my dorm on New Campus, just across the canal from the academic buildings. My room was small and sparse, just a metal desk with a matching chair and a small electric fan to blow away a little of the Pakistani heat. It suited me. My clothes were tucked neatly into a closet, and my bed was a cotton mattress on the floor. There had been an iron bed frame, but it was too short for me, so out it went. Sleeping on the floor was better for my back, anyway.
Start a family memoir by describing something that sets you and your family apart
Like most small children, I learned my home address so that if I got lost, I could tell a grown-up where to take me. In kindergarten, when the teacher asked me where I lived, I could recite the address without skipping a beat, even though my mother changed addressed frequently, for reasons I never understood as a child. Still, I always distinguished “my address” from “my home.” My address was where I spent most of my time with my mother and sister, wherever that might be. But my home never changed: my great-grandmother’s house, in the holler, in Jackson, Kentucky.
Start a family memoir with a recitation of family facts
I was the fourth of four, with all that goes with that. Each of us, the children of Sam and Saidye Bronfman, were two years apart in age. Minda was born in 1925, Phyllis in 1927, Edgar in 1929, and me in 1931. My parents wanted me to be born on June 20, the same day Edgar was born and the same day as their wedding anniversary. Phyllis says they went for a ride on a bumpy road to try to induce my arrival, but I was stubborn and didn’t make an appearance until a week later. She chuckles that I was kind of a “squabby, long kid…like a chicken.” Whether it was the poultry look or not, I was most certainly the overprotected youngest of the family, something of a toy for the others. Phyllis says I was an adorable little kid with blond hair, and crossed-eyed, which meant I wore glasses with one lens frosted.
Start a family memoir by touching upon the thing that loomed so very large in your family’s life
Ever since I can remember, the Museum hovered at the edges of my consciousness.
At first, like New York, the Museum was another faraway place to which my parents would disappear for weeks at a time to see “Mama,” my mother’s mother, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. “Mummy needs to see her mummy, too, just like you do,” my nurses would say. “She’ll be back soon.” Small comfort. She was surely too old to need a mummy.
The image of the Museum grew as I did. Much later, in the ‘50s, it came to symbolize a completely different way of life from mine.
Now that you’ve seen how to start a family memoir…
As you can see, there is no standard approach to beginning a family memoir. The best opening for your story will depend on your tone and theme, how familiar the readers are with your family, the point you’re making, and other factors.
How to start a celebrity memoir can be a tricky issue, for the readers know and love the authors – or, at least, the authors’ public personas. Readers who purchase these memoirs know the films and TV shows the authors have appeared in, the concerts they’ve given, the outrageous things they have said on talk shows, how many times they’ve been married and divorced, the causes they support, and more.
Because of this, there can be pressure on the celebrity memoirist to write as the persona the public knows, rather than the person they really are. To come out swinging with a funny story or outrageous statement, rather than with a previously unknown anecdote that reveals the person beneath the facade.
Some celebrities happily highlight the persona in their memoirs, while others try to show us the person underneath.
Here are five examples of the opening paragraphs from popular celebrity memoirs. As you can see, some have tackled the “how to start a celebrity memoir” question by highlighting the persona, while other have tried to pull back the curtain.
There was a small window in my early childhood when I wanted to be a doctor. This was inspired by my pediatrician, a relatively young man whom I called Dr. Handsome. I had assumed this was because his name was Dr. Hasen or Dr. Branson, but I recently found out that his name was Dr. Ringer, so I guess I should’ve just died age four when I decided call my physician Dr. Handsome without so much as a pun to justify it.
Remember when you first spotted him sprinting across the playground, schooling the other boys in a heated game of tag? Or the moment you noticed him at his desk, brown spiky hair ticking up in all the right places?
He was the first boy to make you crave the male gaze; he made you wonder what it would be like to have a boyfriend; he inspired you to start a diary.
You’ve been there, dear reader, haven’t you?
For me, that boy was Jason Sprott.
Start a celebrity memoir with insight into you and your world
I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success. My most persistent memory of stand-up is of my mouth being in the present and my mind being in the future: the mouth speaking the line, the body delivering the gesture, while the mind looks back, observing, analyzing, judging, worrying, and then deciding when and what to say next. Enjoyment while performing was rare – enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford. After the shows, however, I experienced long hours of elation or misery depending on how the show went, because doing comedy alone on stage is the ego’s last stand.
Start a celebrity memoir with your birth and childhood
In the first decade of the twentieth century a man and a woman from Poland, another man from Poland, and a woman from Russia undertook to cross a continent and an ocean with little more than a fierce determination to find a better life in America. They were my grandparents, and they found that better life in Brooklyn, New York. Had my grandparents not emigrated when they did, I might have been born Jewish in Eastern Europe during World War II, or I might not have been born at all. Instead, I was born in 1942 in New York City.
Start a celebrity memoir by describing a situation laden with possibilities, good or bad
Why did we stop at the 4-Dice Restaurant in Fordyce, Arkansas, for lunch on Independence Day weekend? On any day? Despite everything I knew from ten years of driving through the Bible Belt. Tiny town of Fordyce. Rolling Stones on the police menu across the United States. Every copper wanted to bust us by any means available, to get promoted and patriotically rid America of these little fairy Englishmen. It was 1975, a time of brutality and confrontation. Open season on the Stones had been declared since our last tour, the tour of ’72, known as the STP. The State Department had noted riots (true), civil disobedience (also true), illicit sex (whatever that is), and violence across the United States. All the fault of us, mere minstrels. We had been inciting youth to rebellion, we were corrupting America, and they had ruled never to let us travel in the United States again. It had become, in the time of Nixon, a serious political matter. He had personally deployed his dogs and dirty tricks against John Lennon, who he thought might cost him an election. We, in turn, they told our lawyer officially, were the most dangerous rock-and-roll band in the world.
How to start a celebrity memoir?
As you can see from the examples above, there is no hard-and-fast answer to the “how to start a celebrity memoir” question. It depends on whether you wish to write as your persona or the person underneath, your theme, slice, and more. To learn about the theme and slice of a memoir, see “Writing Your Memoir: First Steps.”
And for more on how to begin a memoir in general, see our “How to Start a Memoir.” You can also see examples of how specific types of memoirs are started in these blogs: