When Serena got in touch, she’d already written half her autobiography. It certainly wasn’t the finished article. It wasn’t in any way polished or perfect. But she’d made a good start. She showed me the copious notes that charted her story. She let me read some of what she’d written, and it told her story well. It looked like Serena knew what she was doing, and with a bit of work, she’d finish her autobiography under her own steam.
At this point you’re probably wondering, why was she speaking to a ghostwriter?
Serena simply didn’t like what she’d written. She felt that while her manuscript chronicled the events she wanted to record, it didn’t really convey her story. It was just a bit too matter-of-fact. The emotional heart of her book was somehow missing.
Make sure you know what your book is really about
Serena knew that she needed to work with someone objective. Someone who could ask her some of the questions she’d struggled to ask herself. The first question I asked her was: what’s your book about?
It was about lots of things. In fact, there were so many interesting angles that Serena wanted to explore that there was simply too much going on in her manuscript. So we reined Serena’s ideas in a bit, helping the big picture themes to emerge more clearly.
I talked to Serena about her primary reason for writing the book, and it was clear that she was motivated by a laudable aim. She wanted her book to really delve into the difficulties she’d overcome in her life (in order to help others), and the manuscript as written, didn’t do that.
But, freed of the burden of articulating all the interesting ideas in her head all at once, we outlined a simpler, more accessible, and ultimately more affecting way of telling her story.
If you don’t know who you’re writing your story for, who on earth is going to read it?
Serena wasn’t afraid to open up about any of the terrible things that had happened to her. She had faithfully recounted those events in her first draft. She had even articulated the impact they’d had on her life. But she had stripped out all the emotion. It felt sterile.
Why did it feel like she was holding back from being herself on the page?
I think it’s because she didn’t know – and couldn’t visualise – who was going to be reading her book. Consequently, she didn’t quite know how to write it.
We talked a lot about who her book was really for, and we identified a target market of readers who could really benefit from what her book had to say. (Knowing who your readers are – picture them if you want – helps you keep your focus razor sharp.)
For Serena, feeling like she knew who her story was for, changed everything. It gave her the confidence that comes of talking to peers, to people, who understand. And that gave her significantly more freedom to relax into her story.
Ripping up the first draft
Then we did the hardest thing of all. We abandoned everything that Serena had already written, and we started again, from the beginning. I should say that Serena made that decision herself. There were a few ways we could have gone about writing her book – using her existing material or not – but when I laid all the options out, she chose the rip-it-up-and-start-again option.
It was the right choice. While it could have felt like abandoning all her hard work, she soon realised that starting afresh gave us free rein to steer the manuscript in the new direction we’d devised.
I interviewed Serena to build up a story focusing on the events and themes she’d outlined. The work she’d already done wasn’t wasted. The process of writing out her first draft had helped solidify the facts of her life in her mind. So when we talked through her story, she was really able to home in on the feelings that gave those experiences meaning.
Making your book look, feel, and sound like yours
We worked on uncovering how she’d managed to move on from some of the traumas she’d faced, and what she’d learned in the process. She talked so openly and in such positive, life-affirming ways that it helped make her book so much more vibrant. More like Serena herself.
By that stage, I knew Serena pretty well. And that helped her answer my questions in a very natural, unfettered way. She wasn’t guarded, her natural humour shone through, and made our new manuscript feel so much more accessible.
By the time we’d finished, we had a very different book on our hands, but it was the book that Serena had wanted to write in the first place. Even though it glossed over a lot of the events she had described in her first attempt, and excluded others altogether, it felt much more complete. Certainly more meaningful.
Don’t let a disappointing first draft set you back
Sometimes, a first draft can take you in entirely the wrong direction. But everything you learn along the road will absolutely help make your book better.
If you’re stuck at a dead end in your storytelling journey, just let me know. I’ll be happy to help you get back on track.