So, what about that book you were ghostwriting? I hear that a lot from friends I haven’t seen in a while. After all, it’s been three years. And it’s true that at times I feel like I’ve been sucked into a black, bottomless hole, or tossed upon some steep Sisyphean slope the peak of which I will never reach. Then again, what did I expect? It’s a book not a sandwich. A book doesn’t have a clear blueprint, or at least if it does (an outline), it is one that has the unnerving habit of morphing even while you are adhering to it fanatically.
The Decision to Jump the Genre Track
I punched out the first version of the book in a year. It was a straightforward life story beginning in childhood and ending with the author’s retirement and reflections on his life and career. I had, as William Zinsser put it in his acclaimed guide, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, imposed “narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events.” Several readers responded favorably, but these were mostly swayed by their fondness for either the author or myself. Then something happened to change our trajectory. (Long and complicated story there, one I wrote about in July.) Brakes were applied to the publishing schedule. Acting on the suggestions of a professional publicist and editor, my client and I pulled back to explore a more commercial version of the story in the form of a medical memoir.
Steps to a Genre Metamorphosis
At that time, I think I had some vague notion that I would be able to simply cut and paste my first autobiographical version into a cohesive new memoir. How wrong I was. What was needed was a complete overhaul. I would have to jettison parts of the book I (and more importantly my client) had loved, and if anecdotes or scenes did not support the memoir, out they would have to go. Following are the steps I have taken these last months in the process of transforming a life story to memoir.
- Book-ending the narrative: A crucial distinction between an autobiography and a memoir is focus. According to Zinsser, a classic memoir recalls “a particular period and place in the writer’s life.” It is “a work of history, catching a distinctive moment in the life of both a person and a society.” Accordingly, I had to identify new starting and ending points to my story. This being a medical memoir, I would focus on the years my client worked at the top of his field, building the new narrative within strict bookends from the time his reputation took off to his retirement. While I didn’t want to completely abandon important events and key experiences that took place in his childhood or training, I had to find a way to incorporate them through flashback within the new truncated time frame.
- Building a new chapter sequence: With a clear start and end point, I now went back to the original chapter sequence, pulling out the chapters that took place during this span, and using them to anchor the new narrative arc. Scrivener was helpful in this endeavor, allowing me to easily build the new structure by first importing all the chapters from the original manuscript into the binder of a new project, and then selecting from them to build a new sequence. However, since my client’s childhood and training had taken up nearly half the original book, I was left with only a dozen or so chapters that fit in the new time frame revolving around his career.
- Identifying events in existing chapters from which to build new chapters: Now I had to explore the chapters that dealt with his career and identify material that I had given less importance to that could be the basis of complete new chapters. This has been tough but edifying . An author makes so many choices focusing on one anecdote here, eliminating another there. Guiding my search was of course the strictures of the medical theme. However, I had to be careful not to settle for “fluff,” minor episodes that did not have enough meat to expand into a real chapter but that I was tempted to use out of desperation to replace chapters I had dumped.
- Integrating earlier key events through flashback: A real challenge has been how to retain some really dramatic scenes that on the surface did not directly support the new focus. I could integrate key childhood experiences through flashbacks but only when they supported or related to something that was happening in the new present of the story. The flashback must also be triggered by something happening in the present; there had to be a reason the author reflected on his past when he did. While a number of acclaimed memoirs have served as a good model, I found myself dipping time and again into Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, to see how she accomplished such a seamless shift from the present (the hike on the Pacific Crest Trail) to various points in her past that pertained to and illuminated her struggle.
- Identifying high and low points: This exercise was one of the first tasks the editor gave me, but it has turned out to be the cornerstone of my approach. Scanning the original manuscript (and working from memory) I created a table with two lists, one the high points/successes in my client’s life and the other the low points/failures/challenges. These I put in chronological order, then referred back to them as I built my new chapter sequence. Those that fit in the main narrative became, in many cases, the basis for a chapter. Those from earlier periods of his life could be included as flashbacks interspersed around the main action. The challenges in particular—and how the author dealt with them—reveal character and motivation, while the successes allow for a release from tension and provide variety and movement to the narration.
A Memoir Takes Form
This process has been slow and sometimes frustrating. Working with so much material (97,000 words in the original manuscript, as well as two dozen audio recordings) often feels like wading around in a flood grasping at flotsam as it floats by. And while I did get a good start on transforming the book into a memoir using the steps above, it was when my editor suggested I hold off on actually doing the rewrite and create a book proposal instead that the new book began to emerge in more clarity. I will be blogging about how creating a proposal expedites the actual writing of a book in an upcoming post.