November 02, 2009

How to Write a Best Selling Memoir in Four Months

Many memoir authors take ages to write their book. Jeannette Walls took about five years to write The Glass Castle. Other outstanding memoirs that have not made it to the best-seller list — yet — are Linda Joy Myers’ Don’t Call Me Mother, Karen Walker's Following the Whispers,  and Heather Cariou’s  Sixtyfive Roses. Each of those books reportedly took about twenty years to write.

So how did Sarah Palin manage to crank out Going Rogue (which topped the best-seller list weeks before its release) in only four months?

Answer: she had help, and she is Sarah Palin.

I have not checked for details, but it seems safe to assume that agents and publishers were pestering her with offers months before she committed to writing the book. Another huge advantage she had was a compelling reason to write. For better or worse, whatever personal motivation she may have had, the over-arching importance of this book will be its role as a political platform document, and Sarah is obviously committed to her political career. 


My assumption before reading it is that comparing Sarah’s book to writing most readers of this blog will do would be like comparing carrots and kiwi fruit. But even so, there are some valuable lessons to be learned from her process.
  • She was persistent. According to a report on the Time website,  she wrote a four-hundred page draft in four months. Don’t faint. That’s one hundred pages a month, or five pages a day, five days a week. If you just blast out draft without stopping to read, edit, tweak, or obsess, that’s entirely doable, in only a few hours a day, depending on your typing speed.
  • She had an overriding purpose. I’ll leave it to the pundits to ponder her motivations, but it hardly seems coincidence that hype for this deeply discounted book is hitting the news at the front edge of holiday shopping season and just before next year’s elections begin to heat up.
  • She had help. I have no idea whether anyone worked with her on her concept and draft, but the TPM LiveWire site reports that she spent much of August in San Diego working with veteran ghost writer, Lynne Vincent. Vincent signed a non-disclosure agreement, but the Time article sheds light on the general process of ghostwriting.
    You and I may not be famous, and we may not have the sort of purpose Sarah had, but we can adapt her example and move our projects along with these simple strategies:
    • Get focused. Being clear on your concept and purpose is a large part of the battle. If you aren’t sure of your focus, jot down the first thing that comes to mind and get started. It’s okay if it evolves as you proceed.
    • Set a schedule and deadline. You don’t have to write every day, or finish one hundred pages a month. If you can only devote an hour on Sunday afternoons to your writing, make that sacred time and stick to it. Making a personal commitment to having something to show people by a specific date, like your birthday next year, can speed things along. Especially if you tell them about it.
    • Blast through a draft. This may be the hardest thing for most people to do. Just write. Don’t look back. Don’t even think of rereading or editing until you’ve written at least twenty more pages. Otherwise, you could die with seven pages that you wrote seventy times.
    • Get help. You may not be able to hire a high profile ghost writer, but you can find a writing group, take a class, or read books on writing. You may be able to afford a few coaching sessions, or help from a reasonably priced editor.
    Follow these guidelines and you can follow the example of Paul Ohrman, who wrote his 286 page autobiography, Living to Serve, in just under two years. His second volume, a World War II memoir, took even less time.

    Write now: set aside an hour and write a purpose statement for your project, and set up a writing schedule. If you already have a purpose statement and schedule, spend the hour writing. If you are still searching for a concept, do some freewriting to uncover one.

    10 comments :

    Karen Walker said...

    Hey Sharon,
    Thanks for including my memoir in the "not best-seller" list in your post. My memoir only took 10 years, not 20, but it was a lifetime in the making. The best advice I've heard recently is set a reasonable goal that you can easily meet, even if it's a half hour a week. Then you'll feel good about accomplishing it and want to continue.
    karen

    Shaddy said...

    I'm participating in NaNoWriMo so I'm banging out a 50,000 word novel out in 30 days. My story is actually a novel/memoir.

    I'm evolving as I proceed.

    Thank you for your very helpful ideas.

    After one day's writing, I'm at 2769 total words. Starting is the hardest part so I've gone beyond that.

    Sharon Lippincott said...

    Hey Karen, I'm pulling for you to make that best-seller list yet. I'm sorry I mis-remembered the length of time it took you to write your book. Thanks for the correction, and for confirming the wisdom of commitment.

    Sharon Lippincott said...

    Shaddy, congratulations on your commitment to NaNoWriMo. Maybe I'll do that next year. Lots of memoirs may benefit from transformation to fiction where they can be spiced up with abandon, identities hidden with impunity, and any number of misdeeds written off as imagination. That is a legitimate form of life writing.

    I love the line "All stories are true. Some stories happened." Maybe some stories happened a bit differently than the way they are written.

    Your initial progress is phenomenal. 2500 words a day would have you finished in ... 20 days. You go girl!

    Pat's Place said...

    Great points. I have to set a goal and then go for it and it does help to announce my goal to everyone. That way I am committed and cannot back out without losing face...

    Sharon Lippincott said...

    Pat, you've already demonstrated your ability to pull a project together, so you know! May your next be as successful as the first.

    Linda said...

    Thank you for these good points, Sharon. As I have been working on my own memoir for almost one year. I'm working on "blast through a draft" right now. You're right it is hard, but I'm seeing the value in it.

    Sharon Lippincott said...

    Thanks for the report Linda. Let's hope you keep making progress and see continued and increasing value.

    Kendra Bonnett said...

    Excellent post, Sharon. And one additional post. Apparently Sarah kept journals. I'm sure this helped her as well. I know Susan Albert swears by the journals she has kept for years...and the value they have given her.

    Sharon Lippincott said...

    Kendra,

    Thanks for the plug for journals. I too am a huge advocate of journaling. I didn't read any references to Sarah's journals. They do seem likely, But even if she didn't keep journals, she surely had extensive calendars and other reference material to help construct a detailed timeline -- another key element I urge everyone to use, downloading my template if they wish from http://sharonlippincott.com/resources.htm.

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