Life story writers, personal historians, memoirists, autobiographers, ghostwriters: just some of the terms to describe the writers who are using their expertise – and earning a living – as they help people to write, and publish, their life stories. But how does this process work, and how can you, as a writer, use your experience and skills to earn an income as a freelance life story writer?
An overview of the process
At the center of a ghostwritten life story project are a series of recorded interviews between yourself and your client. A full life story is usually told in eight to ten interviews of 60 to 90 minutes each. You’ll use a voice recorder to capture the audio of the interviews, listening to this later as you write your client’s story as if they had written it themselves.
It’s usual to write the book in stages, writing up each interview after it happened, rather than waiting until after the last interview to start. Every two or three interviews you’ll share the work in progress with your client, and once the book is complete, they’ll review it once more and make any final amendments. When they’re completely happy, you’ll use a print-on-demand service like BookLocker to privately publish the book – including photos – and you’ll order as many copies as your client would like (and has paid for).
The life story interview
How you conduct an interview very much depends on the person you’re working with. Some people are fantastic orators, and will glide from story to story. Others will need a little coaxing, but you’ll have a variety of questions in your arsenal for these folks. Use questions that involve the senses: rather than asking “What was your childhood home like?” try, “Are there any smells you associate with your childhood home?”
In the first interview ask your client to imagine their life in chapters. Where are the turning points? These chapters won’t necessarily form the chapters of the finished book but they will provide you with a structure for future interviews.
The writing and editing process
For every ten minutes of interview time allow an hour of writing-up time. In terms of word count, 60 minutes of interview generates between 3000 and 5000 written words.
A life story is never told in chronological order. It would be impossible for a client to tell you about their memories from A to B to C and so on. People forget certain details and recall them as they go along, and so it’s a given that you’ll be constantly editing and refining the manuscript as you progress through the interviews.
Have a separate word document open as you write: add in any queries that come up that you need to put to your client at the next interview. This interactivity is essential. It’s up to you how often you share the work in progress, but every two or three interviews is good. Keep the life story teller at the centre of the project – they are paying you for this service, after all – so let them review the book as you write it.
Publishing a manuscript privately with a service like BookLocker is straightforward for you and will be the icing on the cake for your life story teller. Adding this to your service increases your appeal enormously. You can offer a certain number of copies included in the price – five is a good starting point, with the option to add more at an extra cost.
Some life story tellers celebrate publishing their book with a ‘launch’; others mark the occasion more quietly. Whichever route your life story teller takes you can know that you’ve played a major part in helping them to record and preserve their voice for generations to come.
Interested? What to do next
Gain some experience of life story writing. Offer to write a chapter of a friend’s life story for free – on the proviso that they allow you to publish it and use it as a ‘sample’ to show your prospective clients.
Set your prices
Most life story ghostwriters create packages rather than charge by the hour. Take a look at some of the websites listed below to get an idea of what other writers are charging and where to place yourself.
Marketing – Start local
Have some good quality flyers made promoting your service, leave some in your local library and on any community notice boards Write a press release for your local newspaper – let them know you’re launching a new and exciting life writing service. Offer to write an article for the paper too – perhaps on the benefits of life story writing – and include information on how you can help. Give a presentation on life story writing at a senior’s group – take along your book sample.Book a room at the library, community centre or similar and offer a free life story taster session. Again, take along your book sample and explain the services you offer. Tell everyone who’ll listen about your new venture – so often people will respond with, “That’s such a great idea,” and if they’re not interested in writing their life story, there’s every chance they’ll know someone who is.
Useful Resources –
Books on the business of life story writing:
- Start and Run a Personal History Business by Jennifer Campbell
- Skills for Personal Historians: 102 Savvy Ideas to Boost Your Expertise by Dan Curtis
Websites – see how other writers are doing it:
- The Memoir Network – a very comprehensive service with free tools and advice for life story writers too
- Kevin Anderson Associates – a huge and well known company of ghostwriters based in New York – useful to see how life story writing is done on a more corporate scale.
- Similarly, see Modern Memoirs
- History From The Heart – a really friendly and welcoming website. Offers other ways to record a life story, such as audio stories.
- “Will You Write My Life Story?!” By Angela Hoy
- Ghostwriting Executive Blog Posts Can Be QUITE Lucrative! by Annie Mueller
- Can Your Life Story Become a Novel? By Judith Laura
- How to Get Lucrative, Steady Work Doing Executive Ghostwriting! by Annie Mueller
- “How much should I charge to ghostwrite someone’s life story?”
- Ghostwriting: Know Your Clients By Rich Mintzer
Teresa Stenson is a life story ghostwriter based in York, England. After working for two of the UK’s leading life story companies she branched out on her own to set up Your Life Story (https://yourlifestory.website) a writing and editing service for those who’d like to see their autobiography in print. In her other life she’s a fiction writer, and has had work published in a variety of places, including The Bridport Prize Anthology and The Guardian Summer Reads.
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Hi Kurt – thanks so much for your feedback. I’m thrilled this is going to be useful for you. And yes – both of those sayings are appropriate and in my arsenal for when a project feels huge! All the best with your writing and with your friend’s story.
Great info! Thank you. I have a friend whose life story I would like to tell someday, but I was daunted by the scope of and approach to the project. Your method seems to be the most logical way to get some traction and sustain it to the finish line. It reminds me of the two sayings regarding a journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step, and that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time (metaphorically speaking, of course.) Thanks again!