Friday, June 26, 2009

Writing memoirs


Think it's easy? You sit down with a subject and a list of interview questions. Place the recorder on the table between you. Ask the first question. Now comes the fun part. The subject, especially if that person is a celebrity, answers the question and his response triggers a memory so he keeps talking. Before you know it 3 hours are gone and you have a lot of very valuable information that was related in stream of consciousness in no chronological order.

In my case, my subject, Leroy Cooper, legendary blues, jazz and big band musician rambles on about his 20 years with Ray Charles, most of those years as bandleader. While speaking about one member of the band, David "Fathead" Newman, he wanders back through his childhood when he and Fathead were in the school band together in Dallas. Now we're back in Leroy's childhood, school days and college stories, all of which are interesting and relevant. Guess what? Leroy's old childhood friend was the one that got him into the Ray Charles band?

Somehow this brings him back to Dallas and picks back up at when Leroy got his first big break with the Ernie Fields Big Band, going to New York and then having his musical career being interrupted when he is drafted into the Army during the Korean War.

Well, you get the idea. Obviously, this information didn't all come out of one session, but still, only one interview question has been answered. Starting out with the expectation of spending a few weeks together and gathering the information you need for your book, you suddenly realize that this is going to be a long, long process. You could just stick to the interview but in a case like this, so much would be lost: gigs with other famous musicians; leaving Ray Charles -- the first time, the second time and the last time; the stories of segragation; touring Europe, etc.

Two years later, the recording sessions are done. Another month or more goes into the transcription. You put all the files together and read the draft of the manuscript as it was originally recorded. How did this happen? There is absolutely no order to all of these wonderful stories, and now the work begins.

When a memoir is written by a "ghost writer" the contract between the subject refers to him as "writer" and you as "editor" although it hardly seems fair. He has spent many afternoons telling stories to an interested person (who by now has become a family member) and you have months of intense work to do just to transform the draft into a manuscript that will capture your reader's interest from page one and maintain it through to the epilogue.

There are a lot of steps in between. You have to do fact checking; interview key people who are 'characters' mentioned throughout; find photographs that will be used to illustrate the subject's experiences and get permission from the photographers to use those pictures; approach professional editors (hopefully friends who are successful authors) who will see if your manuscript makes any sense; then decide whether to submit to a traditional publisher or go the new and popular self-publishing route.

Ah, and did I forget to mention the marketing? Yes, you are also responsible for marketing your work. Most tradtional publishers don't have large budgets to market the work of first time authors so that next, very important step is to create a marketing plan and execute it.

And you thought writing a memoir was easy? Maybe it is if it's your own memoir and starts out with, "I was born in (year) in (place) to middle class parents. . ."

There are still other considerations along the way but I'll save that for my second book: How to Write a Successful Memoir.

1 comment:

strattonm said...

You just confirmed what I had long suspected about the serious amount of work that goes into a memoir.

I would suspect it is the same even if it is your own memoir.

Enjoyable read.