Writers in the Storm

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July 1, 2019

Top 5 Things Learned Writing My First Biography

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:

  • Introducing the hero and his/her dreams and desires
  • Enabling readers to experience the hero’s journey, with its many conflicts and conquests
  • Presenting the hero’s transformation

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:

  • Events that shaped or changed the person’s life
  • Obstacles the person overcame
  • Risks that paid off and those that didn’t

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:

  • What he did
  • What he learned
  • What he’s remembered for

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.

Final thoughts

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?

* * * * * *

About Christopher:

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

22 comments on “Top 5 Things Learned Writing My First Biography”

  1. Wow, now there's a labor of love, Chris! I give you credit - I can't imagine how hard that would have been to write about someone you're grieving for...or did it help you let him go?

    1. Laura, you--and so many authors--have taught me so much along my writer's journey. But interviewing a dying man was beyond a learning experience. I got my start as a journalist, so asking probing questions has never been difficult. However, in this case, I needed to be extra strategic in what I was probing for and listening--truly listening--has never been more important. As a result, I got to know him on such a deeper level.

      I wish I could've waved a magic wand and gotten the book done before he passed. But it ended up being the best possible gift I could've ever given him by publishing it the week leading up to Father's Day.

      As far as grieving and writing at the same time, I think it helped me move through both processes. It gave those precious last days, hours and moments meaning and purpose. And, it gave him pleasure to tell his stories even though he was in such distress. This book will help keep his memory--and his memories--alive.

      1. This is so beautifully said, Chris. I'm simply delighted that you were able to launch this over Father's Day. As I've said to you privately, this is a priceless gift for your family.

        1. Jenny, you've been in my head and in my heart--like Laura too--no matter what writing project I get myself into. Historical fiction, historical romance, biographies...not to mention an upcoming contemporary romance. You guys have always held a hand back to pull the rest of us along. We're grateful beyond words. And, for writers, that says something!

    1. Thank you, Tari. People often throw around the phrase "a work of love." This project truly is one. His life was a real page-turner and I hope that OPENING DOORS is too...whether the reader knew Jim or not. And as for "sharing," well, that's exactly what these WITS blogs are all about. Being a survivor of what's become the heart-less corporate world, I continue to be struck by how generous and caring the writer community is. Do you agree?

  2. Chris, you truly have created a work of art that is fitting and lasting tribute to your father-in-law. Blessings on you and the family.

    1. Barb, thank you for the kind words and thoughts. We all get to belong to the parent-less club...not a group to be joined too early in life. But as writers, if we can lessen the loss and focus on what made our parents sparkle, well, that's a treasure to share.

  3. I loved the way you laid this out it makes me want to write a biography. What a special wonderful gift you created for the family. Congrats Chris!

    1. This structure for telling my father-in-law's story/stories made the most sense. I'm glad you agree, Jeri! As I mentioned above, writing a biography was not something on my author's to-do list. I enjoy the worlds of historical fiction and romance. Writing in the real world about real people--doing or not doing real things--is a good challenge for any writer. If the opportunity presents itself, go for it.

  4. Thank you so much for this timely article! I sure appreciate the clear structure you provided as I have been working on a bio/interview that definitely needed to be hammered out with more direction than just good intentions. Big kudos to you for the book and for sharing this information.

    1. Good luck with your project, Deborah! Like writing anything, there's no one way--or one perfect approach--to doing it. I hope the lessons I learned are helpful. All of the blogs on Writers in the Storm are loaded with invaluable insights and practical tips. Right? Three cheers for WITS!!!

      1. We appreciate those cheers! This is our labor or love and giving back to other writers, here at WITS. We love it when the articles help y'all.

      2. Three more cheers to WITS! I very much appreciate the value of this writerly site, and more so because of the sense of community that is engendered in the process. Thank you to Jenny Hansen as well.

    1. I'm so glad you found the post useful, Julie. I've been on the receiving end of so many other people's guidance and teachings. It amazes me that I'm getting to a point in my writing journey to be able to share some stuff that might be helpful to others.

      I really love that about writing communities like WITS and RWA. Everyone is still learning. It's not a competition. We're all in this together.

    1. Thanks, Denise. It was no walk in the park. But it's just about the most important/valuable gift we writers can give the ones we love...capturing their lessons and adding to their legacies!

  5. Chris—last year I wrote first my mom’s, and then my step-dad’s, mini-bio for each of their celebrations of life with only a small heads-up, and that was a difficult and rewarding labor of love. I applaud you for being able to finish an entire biography about a loved one. Thanks for your tips for writing bios ... wish I’d had all this info then! Congratulations!

    1. "Difficult" and "rewarding" are great words to describe this kind of project...difficult because it's an in-depth farewell/grieving experience, and rewarding because you it's your chance to honor the person and his/her impact on the lives of so many people. Thanks for your kind thoughts, Nancy!

  6. Great tips, Christopher! Thanks so much for these. It's such a big undertaking to find the shape of your memoir or biography story. That's what I'm trying to get down right now with my memoir about attending college as a mother of five.

    1. Gosh, I think you hit it on the head, Victoria: a mother of 5 goes back to college! Second chances. Unfinished business. New beginnings. If you can take all of that on, you can pump out a memoir. No sweat! Please keep our WITS community up to date on your project!!! It'll certainly inspire us all.

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