Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

~ WRITING A BIOGRAPHY ~
RESOURCES

    LINKS, A BLOG ROLL, and SOME HELPFUL BOOKS. For writers, biographers, readers, students and teachers, and anyone else interested in writing lives.




    LINKS:

    • Biographers International Organization (BIO). Dedicated to building community among biographers everywhere and in every medium, online and in person. Covers the biography scene in North America and the UK in a monthly online newsletter for members, The Biographer's Craft, which also provides advice to practicing biographers. The annual spring conference panels and workshops and the members-only Facebook page, where members can post questions and get information, offer a valuable (and enjoyable) community resource.

    • Nieman Storyboard. A project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Valuable analyses of narrative techniques for narrative nonfiction writers, including biographers.

    • Washington Biography Group. Website of Pat McNees, who runs the group. Monthly discussions; wide-ranging, often valuable newsletter. Lists members' websites and books. The same page has information on the Boston Biography Group and other biography groups and resources.

    • Women Writing Women's Lives. A discussion group in New York for women writing book-length memoirs and biographies of women. Has a useful resources page for biographers, though primarily with British or American/​Canadian subjects.

    • Writers and Editors. Pat McNees lists "websites and organizations useful for writers and editors, both general and specialized, with an emphasis on North America." Huge and comprehensive blogroll, including blogs about blogging. How does she keep up?

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    BLOG ROLL:

        Blogs whose authors write about writing biography. I'll be adding to some of the descriptions as I get better acquainted with them.

        • Kate Buford. The Thorpeblog. Notes on Writing a Biography of Jim Thorpe. The author of Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe, blogs about her subject. Buford is also the author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life.

        • Kate Culkin, A Biographer's Blog Relaxed, wide-ranging professional-professional blog. Historian Kate Culkin is the author of Harriet Hosmer: A Cultural Biography, the story of a pioneering 19th century American woman sculptor.

        • Oline Eaton. finding jackie. celebrity, biography, adventure. Oline Eaton, writer for cheekychicago.com, says she's "trying to be a biographer. like, for real" and "writing a jackie book about the jackie book that i am trying to write but likely never will." Meanwhile, she tells it like it is and writes up a storm.

        • Beverly Gray. Beverly in Movieland. The filmmaker and Hollywood-bred biographer of Roger Corman and Ron Howard. Smart, well-written, entertaining posts on movie making, crimes against punctuation, and other subjects.

        • Brian Jay Jones. Brian Jay Jones. The author of Washington Irving: An American Original, blogs on researching and writing his new biography of Muppet creator Jim Henson--how's that for a pairing?--as well as writing biography in general.

        • Catherine Reef. Meet Catherine Reef: Online Journal. Brief personal commentaries by a prolific writer and literary biographer.

        • Joe Roberts. Other People's Business. Joe Roberts, a mathematician (The Lure of the Integers), on biography. A mathematician? Yes, and one who writes better than a lot of biographers about why we read and write the stuff. Not many posts, but the ones that are there are well worth your time; here's hoping for more.

        • Amy Shapiro. Six Degrees of Millicent. Politically-oriented blog by the author of Millicent Fenwick: Her Way (2003).

        • Charles J. Shields. Writing Kurt Vonnegut. A Biographer's Notebook Wide-ranging, thoughtful, often engrossing blog by the prize-winning biographer of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and of And So It Goes. Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, coming in November.

        • David Stewart. David O. Stewart. Historian and author of books on Aaron Burr, Andrew Johnson, the Philadelphia Convention of 1787.

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        SOME HELPFUL BOOKS:

        BOOKS TO HELP WITH ACTUALLY WRITING A BIOGRAPHY:

          • Dozens of books have been written about biography and biographers, but there aren't many on actually writing one. That may be because it takes so long to write a good biography that most biographers don't make time to stop and talk about how to do it (a hearty vote of thanks to the folks below). Or it may be because writing biography is like any other craft: ultimately, you learn it by doing it, and by finding writers who inspire you and fill you with ideas about how you might write your own book.

          In the case of biography, that really means identifying and reading specific biographies that can serve as your models. Still, a book about how to write biography will tell you something about the process and make it less mysterious. Here are some that I think can do that.

           • Ambrosius, Lloyd E., ed. Writing Biography: Historians and Their Craft. University of Nebraska Press, 2004. Six historian-biographers discuss writing biography as history and vice-versa. Unlike most books about biography, which are either historical or theoretical in their focus, this one is concerned with how to write it, and while the focus here is academic and scholarly, there's a lot here for any serious biographer or reader of biography.

           • Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. Admittedly, Gornick's book isn't about writing biography. But her definition of what a story is, as opposed to "situation," applies to biographers as well as memoirists and essayists. It's very short. I urge you to put it on your reading list.

           • Hamilton, Nigel. How To Do Biography: A Primer. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2008. Basic, comprehensive, practical, humane, and eminently literate guide to researching and writing traditional biography, by a top practitioner of same.

           • Rollyson, Carl. Biography: A User's Guide New York: Ivan R. Dee, 2008. This isn't a how-to, like Hamilton's book, but an A-to-Z for biography's "users," whether they're writers, readers, students, or teachers. Its author says it's "a quirky encyclopedia," and it certainly isn't a dull one: Rollyson, an experienced biographer and teacher of biography himself, is a lively and often deliberately provocative writer.

        BOOKS TO INCREASE YOUR CHANCES OF GETTING PUBLISHED:

           • Nothing I've seen in the last few years has altered my belief that anyone who knows how to tell the story of a life well can find a publisher. That said, since I compiled this list of books, the ways in which those stories can reach the public has been revolutionized. If you're a biographer who has sold a proposal or published a biography with help from a website or book about self- or digital publishing, please let me know.

          I also recommend that anyone embarking on his or her first biography join Biographers International Organization (BIO), whose members know something not only about writing and researching biography but about getting it published. Both online and in person at BIO's annual conference, you'll find others who are ready to share experience, advice, and the passion for telling lives with beginners.

            There are dozens of books about how to write a nonfiction publishing proposal. I've picked these three because they give some attention to biography. The two aimed at the trade market provide actual examples of book proposals, as do many others I don't mention here.

            Caveat: As with any advice books, use intuition and common sense. The sample proposals in these books are meant to suggest possibilities, not to provide you with iron-clad rules for selling a literary "product." Biographies are as singular as their writers, and no one size or shape will fit all.

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            • Germano, William. Getting It Published: A Guide for Scholars and Anyone Else Serious about Serious Books. Univ. of Chicago Press, 2001. How to submit a book to a university or academic press, with information on submissions, the peer review, what to do and what not to do. Though he gives no examples, Germano makes clear what a university press submission package should include.

            • Larsen, Michael. How to Write a Book Proposal. Writers Digest Books, 1997. Overview by a commerical literary agent of things to bear in mind when writing a nonfiction book proposal. Pages 104-106 discuss writing a proposal for a biography. Appendix includes 3 sample proposals, complete with chapter outlines.

            • Rabiner, Susan and Alfred Fortunato. Thinking Like Your Editor. How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction--and Get It Published. Norton, 2002. Practical advice on appealing to a general audience from the perspective of a former editor-in-chief of Basic Books. Gives more space to biography than some of the competition. Includes the proposal for Debby Applegate's prize-winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher. (See "Caveat," above.)

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        And more:

            • Appelbaum, Judith. How to Get Happily Published. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. I haven't checked to see whether publishing developments in the Internet age have outstripped some of the advice in the fourth edition of this long-lived perennial, but Appelbaum's book provides a comprehensive, if somewhat cursory, survey of the entire publishing process and includes advice on how to write and sell nonfiction book proposals.

        TWO INDISPENSABLE ANNUALS:

            • Literary Marketplace. Annual book publishing directory put out by R. R. Bowker every fall. The Yellow Pages of the publishing industry, it includes not only large trade publishers, their editors, and the kinds of books they generally publish, but also literary agents and many small and university presses. The paperback costs about $300, so you might want to go to your local public library for the most recent edition.

            Don't confuse "LMP," as it's known, with Writer's Market, an annual aimed chiefly at magazine and article writers. For advice on writing a book proposal, you're better off with one of the books listed here. For tracking down editors and literary agents, stick with LMP or try the Internet. (More on that some other time.)

        AND FINALLY....

            • Walsh, Pat. 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might. Penguin, 2005.

            Read this only if you're very determined. Walsh's book is a harsh but honest look at publishing realities for writers of both fiction and nonfiction, including biographers. An editor and the co-founder of his own publishing house, he offers 78 short chapters on what can keep a book from finding a publisher and 14 more on how to improve the prospects of finding one, as well as some useful straight talk about book publishing as a business and why editors go into it.

            Among the reasons Walsh gives for not getting published, I especially liked, "You Do Not Kill Your Little Darlings" and "You Sacrifice Clarity for 'Art,'" problems that can afflict experienced biographers as well as novices. (Wish he'd also included, "You Refer to Your Work as 'Creative Non-Fiction.'" Why? The next time you're in a bookstore, ask the bookseller where he keeps his "creative nonfiction." Then watch him try to figure out what shelf to send you to.)

            Of Walsh's final 14, my favorite was, "You Learn from Rejection." Not for the faint of heart, but salutary, smart, and valuable.

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          STALKING THE ELEPHANT is a blog about writing biography, the creative processes of biography, the writing life, and of course SARA AND ERSKINE, AN AMERICAN ROMANCE, my work in progress on the World War One-era minister's wife and suffragist, Sara Bard Field, and her extraordinary affair with the outspoken atheist and philosophical anarchist, Charles Erskine Scott Wood.
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                  is a riveting account of the life and work of an extraordinary Iranian aristocrat and social reformer, Sattareh Farman Farmaian, DAUGHTER OF PERSIA is at once a memoir and a work of historical journalism that is still relevant today, opening a personal window on Iran and America's involvement in the six tumultuous decades that laid the foundations of the present-day crisis now facing the United States and the West.
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                        The biographer's craft, what a story is, whether biography can ever be an art, and more.
                        RESOURCES
                        A list of resources for anyone interested in biography and writing lives.