How I wrote two biographies in my spare time…

If you’re stuck indoors with the Coronavirus lockdown – which of course I hope you are (but in good health) – you might be kicking around for something to do. So I’ve had a brainwave.

Why don’t I talk to you about how I wrote the biographies of boxer Errol Christie and the Specials vocalist Neville Staple. No Place To Hide and Original Rude Boy were both published by Aurum Press and Errol’s biography was put up for two national prizes. But it was a long slog to get there – and I’ll share that journey below.

With a bit of luck – you might feel emboldened to try your hand at a biography yourself. Maybe you know a personality from back in the day whose life story deserves to be spread far and wide. Let me help you do that!

I went through a very steep learning curve so here’s some of the lessons I learned about writing a biography and getting it into print. And I’m not charging for this. It’s free advice at no cost. I know – hard to believe eh?

Back in 2005, I took up boxing aged 42. Sort of mid-life crisis thing I suppose. Gym Box had just opened in Holborn, London and I noticed that their star trainer was Errol Christie. Now I remembered him from the early 1980s being a regular fighter on ITV’s Saturday night boxing programme.

So, with a little trepidation, I marched up to Errol and asked him to teach me how to box. Only after a year huffing and puffing in the ring did I discover he’d been trying to write his biography. He’d partnered with other people occasionally but had got nowhere.

To gain Errol’s confidence, I told him that firstly we’d have a strict plan of action. Note taking at lunch or in the early evening two or three times a week. A chapter delivered every month. The two of us would read it out loud together and he’d register the changes he wanted – which he did in disapproving growls normally!

From an early stage, I started to put together a submission for literary agents. To get your book ‘properly’ published, you still need an agent. No matter what you think of agents! To be taken seriously, you have to prepare a synopsis of your book; a breakdown of the chapters and a couple of sample chapters – ideally the first chapter should be one of them.

This will give you a clear plan of action – even if you wait a while before sending it out. Don’t start a book with a blank page. Have a structure in your head and an approach to the writing. Things will change as you go along but… blank page!

Don’t worry about the introduction to the book at the beginning of the writing process – that’s something you might even write at the very end when you have a clearer idea of the whole book. And don’t keep re-writing chapter one over and over as some authors do – push yourself forward to the next chapter instead of being mired in the first pages. This is a sign of insecurity you need to overcome.

With regards to the agent’s submission, be prepared to show some marketing flair at the outset. Agents want to see a minimum of 5,000 books sold in an ideal world. They often don’t reach that figure. Have an extra sheet where you identify your target audiences for sales; media that is likely to be interested in reviewing the book and your social media strategy.

If you think marketing is tawdry – you may struggle to get an agent. Half the battle is writing the book and the other half is getting anybody to buy it. And there is no ‘slow burn’ these days in publishing. If it doesn’t fly off the shelves straight away, bookstores won’t stock it.

With the writing process, I found the biggest struggle was to get the ‘voice’ right. Early drafts of chapters for Errol’s book were too raw for my agent. But I didn’t want to lose that street fighter way of expressing himself. It was a struggle to find a voice that captured Errol but also pleased the end reader.

Biographies aren’t literal transcriptions of what your subject says – they convey the essence of that person but it has to be a powerful and attractive read at the same time. I can’t describe exactly what happens when you get the voice right but all I can say is that when you do, the words tip out on to the page that much easier. Hope that makes sense!

Choosing the episodes in a person’s life is crucial. You need to magnify something that sums up what was going on in their teen years or twenties, etc.

An incident becomes something epic. With Neville Staple, I turned a fight between his rude boy mates and skinheads with Stanley knives in a public park into a ‘battle’ – almost something you’d expect to find in a history book!

I also immersed myself in the ‘sound system’ scene of the mid-70s to convey what Neville was up to with his mate Trevor Evans and Rex Griffiths. Loved writing that chapter because I knew nothing about the sound system scene but getting to understand the nitty-gritty of it meant I could give a real flavour of life for black youth in the mid-70s.

Relating your biographies to big events in the wider world is always powerful. With both Errol Christie and Neville Staple, I was able to draw in a mountain of 1970s cultural observations and then move to the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the impact that had on their lives.

People don’t exist in a vacuum and these lives weren’t experienced in isolation from politics and economics. Errol’s boxing career culminates in a horrible fight at Wembley revealing the racism and violence that were endemic at the time. Neville sings with The Specials as Britain explodes into rioting during the summer of 1981 – when youth unemployment had scaled appalling heights.

Finally, get a celebrity endorsement at the start if you can – or a relevant voice who your readers will respect. The BBC journalist Steve Bunce wrote the intro to the Errol Christie biography and then featured him on his radio programme. Pete Waterman wrote the intro to Neville’s book because aside from his 80s jangly pop incarnation – Pete briefly managed The Specials and more importantly, was a DJ and huge promoter of reggae in the 1970s.

I’ve done a totally different type of writing in recent years – political stuff and ghost authoring. But I’m limbering up for another biography – keep you posted! And good luck with your efforts!

The lockdown should unlock your creative juices!!!

Neville Staple doing a book signing in 2014 – Somerset House

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