by Chris Lentz
Every “book baby” presents challenges. But when I was honored to be asked to write the biography of an incredible entrepreneur and philanthropist—who’d just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which briskly became a death sentence—my latest book baby became a unique challenge altogether.
As if the project wasn’t daunting enough, the subject was my father-in-law.
I write fiction, but I found that much of the strategy and craft authors use with a romance or a thriller applies to constructing a biography, like:
After researching, compiling and writing Opening Doors: Jim Swenson’s Life of Grit, Gratitude and Giving, I came away with a list of top five lessons. They may work for you. They may not. All I know is this approach resulted in the book landing at #5 on an Amazon HOT NEW RELEASES list for biographies and a review that said, “I couldn’t put it down and I burned the corn on the stove.” Cool, huh?
Lesson #1. Do your homework
If the person is alive, your best source of information is that person. Before you start interviewing, make a list of questions that dig into:
Also, ask questions that go beyond the what the subject did to focus on the why.
It was clear that Jim was going to have to be vulnerable for this book to work. For a first-born, overachiever, Jim was not known for vulnerability. I had to strategically and creatively approach him with questions and prompts to get the stories behind his stories.
I also asked about the parts of his life that were more jagged than smooth. Like hunger. Like alcoholism. Like death. Those kinds of struggles often spark a significant change and accomplishment in life.
My advice: Surround yourself with mountains of information that you can mine later in the writing process.
Lesson #2. Think broadly
I suspect that many first drafts of biographies resemble history textbooks. But if you’re hoping to attract, enlighten and entertain readers, then a different approach is needed. With Opening Doors, I determined the best book I could write wouldn’t be Jim’s entire life story. Rather, it would be a story about his life and the impact he had—and continues to have—on others.
I needed to review and study the high points of his life so I could tell his story in a panorama with the broadest of strokes and unify it with a theme. The idea: opening doors…doors that had been opened for him and the many more he continues to open for others.
My advice: Identify a theme and connect as much as you can back to that theme.
Lesson #3. Write narrowly
The book needed a structure that met the needs of today’s readers: bite-size nuggets, easy to scan, lots of dialogue and some clear takeaways.
My decision was to work within a three-part structure:
In the first section, the milestones of Jim’s life are laid out in decade-specific chunks. To help transport the reader back in time, I incorporated some headlines of the day. The goal here was to set the context for the next section.
In the middle of the book, the focus is on 13 tried-and-true tips for opening new doors that Jim wished he’d known back when he faced far too many closed doors. This is where his recollections and anecdotes support each of the 13 tips.
The final section is all about tributes. Readers will find eulogies, testimonials and various articles and posts about Jim and his accomplishments.
My advice: Let the subject of the book tell the story, but also allow other voices to tell their stories about the impact of the biography’s subject.
Lesson #4. Capture and connect moments
Jim was a storyteller. And, thankfully, he was a consistent storyteller. His stories were usually grand on their own telling. No fish-story treatment was needed or occurred over his lifetime.
What we did together during his final weeks was search for and capture the meaning of those stories…the feelings, the emotions and, most importantly, the lessons.
In researching ways to write a biography, I realized and shared with Jim that we needed to keep in mind that his stories are his, the events they’re about are not. Memories of those events also belong to friends, family members, co-workers…none of whom asked to be in the book.
After Jim’s passing, I scoured the manuscript to find any passages that might be problematic. And, I held back entire incidents and/or details to protect people who may not be ready to have that information shared about them.
My advice: Tell the truth.
Lesson #5. Write with your heart
You’re going to be devoting much time and energy to this project. You might as well care deeply for your subject, either positively or negatively. Your emotional connection to the subject will bleed through.
I worked hard to publish a book that creates an emotional journey…one that puts the reader in the subject’s shoes. I wanted readers to come away knowing what Jim dreamed about, struggled with and was successful with.
My advice: Devoting your energy and resources to a project like this should be for the joy of it.
Some readers will need more than text, so the print version of Opening Doors features more than 130 photos. And, because of Jim’s love of reading, education and children, the purchase of Opening Doors supports Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library book-gifting program.
Those are the top five lessons I learned writing my first biography. I suspect everyone’s encounters with projects like this one are different. Please take a moment to share your thoughts below.
Are there any tips you’d like to offer about writing a biography? What do you like most/least when you read a biography?
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Christopher Lentz is the acclaimed author of Opening Doors (biography, 2019), My Friend Marilyn (historical fiction, 2018) and The Blossom Trilogy (historical romance). His books are about hope, second chances and outcasts overcoming obstacles. But most of all, they’re about how love changes everything.
Lentz made his mark as a corporate-marketing executive before becoming a full-time storyteller. He resides in Southern California with his high-school-sweetheart wife and family. To learn more, please visit www.christopherlentz.org or www.blossomtrilogy.com.
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