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Shortcuts: Writing an autobiography

By Paul Sussman for CNN
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(CNN) -- Following the recent publication of "In the Line of Fire," the autobiography of President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, here's some advice on penning your own life story.

Don't worry about being famous: This might, on the face of it, seem counter-intuitive -- who, after all, wants to read about Mr. or Mrs. Nobody from Nowheresville -- but being obscure is not itself a bar to a successful autobiography. While global megastardom will, of course, make things easier on the marketing front, some of the most popular autobiographies have actually been written by complete unknowns. In the 18th century, for instance, "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano," the autobiography of an African slave, was a huge bestseller, even though no-one had ever heard of Olaudah Equiano. So long as you have something unusual to recount, fame need not be a prerequisite for autobiographical success (although, paradoxically, it could well be the result of it).

You don't necessarily have to be interesting: This is where fame does enter the equation, because while you can get away with being an unknown who has done something fascinating, being a boring unknown who has spent the last 40 years cataloguing your extensive collection of antique Latvian thimbles -- that's a no-no. Fame, on the other hand, particularly when allied with good looks, obviates the need to have anything remotely interesting to say about yourself since people will recognize your face on the book's front cover and, sheep-like, buy it in droves irrespective of the contents. Indeed when it comes to celebrity the more vacuous the memoir the better it seems to do, as evidenced by the current slew of autobiographies by reality TV contestants which, despite having nothing whatsoever to say other than "I was on reality TV and have got two legs and a pancreas", still sell in their millions.

Try not to be too honest: Even the most fascinating life can benefit from a bit of spicing up. The template here is actor David Niven's irresistibly witty autobiography "The Moon's A Balloon" in which, while not telling outright lies, the author certainly stretches truth to the limit for dramatic effect. Be careful, however: as U.S. writer James Frey discovered when claims in his best-selling memoir "A Million Little Pieces" were exposed as false, being too brazen with your untruths can lead to public lynching. If the odd exaggeration makes you look better, go for it. Unless you can back them up with legally admissible evidence, however, avoid really big whoppers (ie. "My 30-year love triangle with Thabo Mbeki and Madeleine Albright").

Have a dreadful childhood: It sounds callous, but the reading public love nothing more the story of someone who has had a truly horrible time growing up. As Dave Pelzer demonstrated with his seminal heart-wrencher "A Boy Called It," miserable childhoods sell. Big time. Obviously if you've had an idyllic upbringing with loving parents who bought you a pet pony and fed you so many scrumptious cakes you developed Type 2 Diabetes, there's not much you can do about it. If, however, you can manage to dredge up memories of the six years you spent locked in your underpants in a tin box while your mad mother hammered on the lid with a soup ladle screaming "You dead yet, monkey boy!" all the better.

Contract a terminal disease: This is a variation on the horrible childhood theme, and almost as effective. Not to belittle serious illness, of course, but it does strike a chord with the public. Unfortunately all the regular terminal diseases have, to coin a phrase, been done to death. If you can find it in yourself to contract some wholly new condition, however, one with an exotic sounding name like Patagonian Auto-Immune Cannibalistic Colon Necrosis, and truly terrible symptoms such as your toes exploding and your navel spewing toxic green jelly, you could be onto a winner, especially if, just before dying, you manage to complete a triumphant circumnavigation of the globe on a pogo stick. Never forget, the public want ludicrous heroism twinned with appalling suffering, and it's up to you to deliver.

Shamelessly name drop: Even if you're a vapid boring nobody, a handful of judiciously placed famous names can do wonders for an autobiography, livening it up in much the same way as a few globs of marzipan can make even the plainest sponge cake look tasty. Don't worry if you've never actually met anyone famous, it's the names that count. You'd be surprised how much a line such as "While George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Julia Robert were filming 'Ocean's 11,' I was working in a pig-skinning factory on the outskirts of Birmingham" can boost sales.

Worship yourself: Without doubt the essential quality for any budding autobiographer is an absolute conviction that people want to know about you; an unswerving belief in the importance of your own existence. Put bluntly, autobiography is narcissism, and if you're arrogant enough to actually write one you're certainly going to have the self-belief to deal with the fact that nobody actually wants to publish or buy it.


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You don't have to be a former president to write your autobiography -- but it helps.

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