What to leave in/what to leave out.

page2-img5The most challenging process in writing my own lifetime book is deciding what facts and stories to leave in and what to leave out.  On the one hand, it’s important to include all of those life-changing experiences and defining moments, and on the other hand, what may have felt monumental to me at the time may have limited relevance or importance to my readers.

Consider your readers…

So what to do?  I say when in doubt, always default to reader-engagement.  When you are debating whether to include a certain time period in your life or an event or even a point of view or descriptive paragraph, think about what your readers will take away from your words….especially if they will be primarily family and friends and if your story is meant to be read by children or young adults.  Did the event or time period in question have meaning for you and you alone?  Is it a difficult concept for others to grasp? Is there a gem within that experience that can be applied to life today or in the future, or is it just a minor detail that may be unnecessary to others?

Consider your purpose…

Another way to make the decision is to consider your overall purpose. A chronological narrative covering every year of your life and every experience could become a very long, self-serving bore, even to you.  Is the purpose of your Lifetime book to write a history text?  If so, then maybe all those dates and details are necessary.  But realistically, your book will probably not be used in school as a textbook, so let’s re-examine your purpose.  Once you do, it’s fairly easy to weed out the paragraphs that do not advance that purpose.

Consider the impact…

A third way to decide is to think about the impact of your words.  Will a story hurt someone’s feelings?  Is the story one that is so controversial that it will cause some strife in your circles or some gross misunderstandings?  I’m not saying you should stay away from controversy, but I’m suggesting you add a bit of humility and compassion to your decision of what to include.  If you can’t present other possible sides of a conflict or if some of your facts are uncertain about a controversial subject or event, maybe it’s best to leave it out.

What to leave in…

What to leave in can be just as challenging.  Before crossing out an event or skipping a time period, consider transitions and cliffhangers. You may decide to leave out a year or even a decade, assuming there is nothing relevant or noteworthy.  From the reader’s point of view, however, the missing years can pose a problem.  It’s best not to leave any “cliffhangers” unresolved.  After finishing your Lifetime book, readers shouldn’t be wondering, “Geez what happened?  She met this guy and they fell in love but she married another! I wonder what went wrong?”  Or….”Geez, he went to college and got a degree but worked as a taxi driver all of his life, I wonder why he didn’t get a job in his field?” Remember that your story, although it’s an autobiography,  will be read by most as a novel, and to keep the readers’ attention, it should have some rising action, some conflict, a climax and hopefully some resolution.  Skipping too much time or some obvious important events, like a first or second marriage, or a second career, may cause a gap that interrupts the flow of your book.  But if you really want to skip a decade or two, make sure you give the reader the signal by using transitional words and phrases to explain the gap.  You may say….”…the next 10 years were spent learning a new trade and my life revolved around studying, taking classes and preparing for the future” or a few sentences that summarized the period and takes the reader elegantly to the next important chapter of your life’s story.

Yes, life doesn’t always come in that kind of neat packaging, but in your lifetime book, you have the luxury of looking back, analyzing what happened and telling the story with your reader in mind.  That’s the best way to make it memorable. Will it be marketable? Well that’s a blogpost for another day.