Become a Writer Today

How to Turn Your Life Experiences Into a Book with Amanda Cosgrove

March 24, 2021 Bryan Collins Season 2
Become a Writer Today
How to Turn Your Life Experiences Into a Book with Amanda Cosgrove
Show Notes Transcript

You may find yourself wanting to write a book based on your life experiences, but where and how do you start? And once you've written it, how do you then get that book published?

My guest in this episode is Amanda Cosgrove. After putting her son through drama school, she felt compelled to share her story with other parents who are about to embark on the same journey.

Amanda runs a dance and drama school in Wales, so she already had a fair bit of background knowledge in this area, and yet, like many parents, she had no experience of the higher education process.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Why Amanda wanted to write a book in the first place
  • Who was Amanda writing for?
  • How to deal with rejection
  • Writing a non-fiction series


Resources:


Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/becomeawritertoday)

Bryan:
Are they finding the book organically on Amazon, or did you have some other way of getting the book into people's hands?

Amanda:
I wish I did. No, the whole thing has been organic, and if you asked me what the most difficult part of this process has been, which you didn't, but it kind of leads to it, it is the marketing of it because I was a self published author, and you will know all about this, I don't have a publisher, so it's literally me and social media.

Introduction:
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here you'll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.

Bryan:
How can I turn my life experiences into a book? That's a question I get asked a lot. Hi there, my name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. Many people who want to write a book have a lot of expert experience perhaps in their career, or they've undergone something, and they want to tell people about what happened or they want to make an impact based on their career or their years of knowledge. But it'd be quite difficult to turn your experiences into a book, because a book also has to be entertaining, informative, or engaging. And sometimes when you're thinking back to 15 or 20 years of experience, it's hard to know what to extract for your book or where to start. So my particular approach for using life experiences is to journal regularly. So most of the time, what I do is write up a journal entry about something I did or something I learned or a mistake I made or a conversation I had with someone or some events.

Bryan:
Now I don't use all of these journal entries in books, but at least, if I'm looking to reference a life experience to illustrate a point in a book chapter, I can go back and read through some of these older journal entries, and it's amazing how much I've forgotten about. And I've got to the point where I like to record things that people said, not with a Dictaphone, but I'd write it up as a conversational journal entry that night or at the end of the week. And I find this as a really good way, firstly, to remember life experiences. And secondly, it's almost like you're researching your own life, or I think it's mining at the coalface of your own life as the Irish poet Seamus Heaney said, to extract raw materials that you can use for your book.

Bryan:
So if you've got some life experience that you want to turn into a book, that's one approach that I recommend is to review your journals if you have them, or if you don't have a journal, is to start keeping one. Because at the very least, it's also a form of writing practice to get you into the habit of turning up in front of a blank page. The New York Times bestselling journalist David Carr, who wrote The Night of the Gun also wrote a fantastic book where he interrogates the story of his own life. Basically he was a alcoholic and he was a crack cocaine addict and so was his partner, and David was somehow able to turn his life around after his partner gave birth to twin girls, which he raised.

Bryan:
But he wanted to piece together what happened during all the years when he was addicted to drugs when he was struggling with alcoholism, so he went around and he interviewed people from his former life to ask them about events that he couldn't remember, and to find out what really happened. Now that's a bit of an extreme example, but it does show that if you go and talk to people in your personal life, they'll remember things from a different point of view than you do, and potentially that you could use those experiences in your own work as well. A third approach is to consider your ideal reader. What problems are they having right now that are related to your experiences and what type of questions do they commonly ask? Because if you could speak to half a dozen or a dozen people who represent your ideal reader and you can track our questions and you can come up with some sort of answers, you could probably get an outline for a book.

Bryan:
In fact, if you have a website or if you have a social media following, perhaps you could even survey some people online so you could get a taste for the types of questions people are asking. In fact, that's one of the reasons why I set up the Become a Writer Today podcast was because I wanted to speak to more writers and to learn about the writing process and to also learn about some of the issues that writers have and how they overcome them. This week's interview is with the author of a parenting book written for parents. Her name is Amanda Cosgrove, and she recently self-published the book So Your Child Wants to Go to Drama School. I recently had the chance to catch up with Amanda and I started by asking her to give listeners a flavor for who she is before getting into why she decided to write this type of book in the first place.

Amanda:
Well, I suppose my first employment, if you like, was within libraries. So I've always been surrounded by books. I love books. And in fact, by day I'm still a school librarian, so that hasn't really gone away. And then I left that to go into travel. And I was very lucky. I had a phenomenal job where I was doing... I was an operations manager for a business travel company, and I got to travel all over the world and do some lovely, interesting things. And then I had my little boy, who is now 24, and he wanted to be an actor and it kind of grows from there because in between that time, I was also a dancer and a dance teacher. I was member of a local amateur theater and got involved in everything and absolutely loved that.

Amanda:
So when I then got a son who was interested in it, it just all married together and the book came or came about after he auditioned for drama school. And gosh, even with my background, it was such an overwhelming experience. And there wasn't really anything out there to help. There's loads for the students, but not for the parents. So that's how we get to the book. I think I started before... But it got published in June of the first lockdown, so June last year, and I started writing it perhaps about November before, but very sporadically. Both my parents were very, very ill and have in fact since died, so it was quite a tumultuous time as you can imagine.

Bryan:
Oh, I'm sorry.

Amanda:
No, that's okay. But there were so many interruptions, if you like, that it took a while to really get started. But once I did, it was in that first lockdown and it just... I suppose I didn't really consider myself to be an author. This is the first book I ever wrote. And I didn't think if it as that. I was just a mom writing a book and sharing her experiences, and hopefully that comes across really, because it's not, "Here I am, I'm an expert, you must do this." It's just kind of, "This is my story, and these are the pitfalls that you might come across and hopefully this will help."

Bryan:
It feels like a lot of the book is written from your personal experiences.

Amanda:
Yes. Absolutely. Yeah, very much so.

Bryan:
So how did you figure out how to organize your life experiences into different chapters for your book?

Amanda:
Well, when you say my life experiences, it was really more to do with Alex, my son. But yeah, just looking at it now, I think it's got its own chapters. The whole drama school application process is very much in chapters. And as a parent it unfolds as you go along. And the first thing I start the book with is that initial conversation. Because for me, I knew that Alex wanted to be an actor, or certainly be involved in the performing arts somewhere, but it made me think that there must be so many people out there who think that their child is going to be anything from teacher, plumber, hairdresser, whatever. So for them suddenly to say, "Do you know what mom, I'd like to be an actor," is really quite a shock. And I thought with my little bit of experience, if I was overwhelmed, goodness knows what they must think, because it's just a whole new world. There's a pun in there somewhere from I think it's Aladdin. Musical theater head on there.

Bryan:
What does your son Alex think of the book, or has he read it?

Amanda:
He loves it and he was very kind enough... I mean, we worked very closely together. He helped me along the way. And he actually wrote the forward, which is really nice.

Bryan:
Oh yeah, that's your son. I was reading the forward.

Amanda:
Yeah. We've got a different name, so that might confuse you. He's known as Alex James Hatton, And when he came out of drama school, we're kind of giving the end away here, but he was really lucky just to go straight bang into his first job and, touch wood, I was about to say, he is still working now, but of course, like everyone, the theaters are shut. So he currently isn't, but he's meant to be on tour with The Book of Mormon. So yeah, he's done very well.

Bryan:
Well hopefully they open up things soon, especially with the vaccines.

Amanda:
Yes, it's moving, isn't it? It's moving.

Bryan:
So I was reading through the book, one thing that struck me is who you're writing the book at. Would you be able to explain who your ideal reader is? I think you mentioned it in your introduction.

Amanda:
Yeah, people like me really. It's just parents.

Bryan:
For parents.

Amanda:
Yeah. I don't know if I said this already, but there are loads of books out there written for the students or for the children. What sort of monologues to do, what's expected of the auditions, what sort of songs to sing and not to sing. And I didn't want it to be that. I'm not the expert necessarily in that. I'm literally coming from it as a parent and letting you know things like what sort of conversations should you have. Having just sensible expectations because with drama and the acting world, there's so many rejections and disappointments and auditions that don't go too well, and that can be difficult. So I think as a parent, knowing what to expect and how to discuss that with your child is a huge part of it. And then just explaining what happens. Yes, there are auditions, but then sometimes you get cut. Sometimes there are recalls. Sometimes there are interviews. Sometimes there are 50 of these. And as I say, it's just knowing what to expect and helping them support the child to and through drama school, really. That's a good tagline, isn't it?

Bryan:
It is, yeah. It certainly is. Even the title speaks directly, I guess, to your ideal reader. Did you get feedback from other parents, or just because you've been through this you knew what to put in?

Amanda:
I just had the idea and it was buzzing around. And then once I started tapping the keyboard, it just flew out and I wrote it just in my voice. I haven't tried to pretend to be anything clever. I'd like to think, as you read it, you grab a glass of wine or a cup of tea and you can dip into it or you can read it right through, but it's very lighthearted. But that's not to say that the facts aren't there. It's very informative, hopefully, but it's not written... It's a little bit sarcastic in places, really, because as a parent, my God, this is going to cost a lot of money for a lot of people.

Amanda:
It's just understanding where they're coming from and what they're thinking on. I was absolutely petrified about whether he'd get in. Because although I wanted him to get in, obviously, as mom, I also thought, "I'm never going to afford this." So I also talked to parents about all the different things you can do and the different funding that's available, scholarships, bursaries, grants, et cetera, et cetera. Just to take some of the worry away and to say, "If they really want to do it and you're willing to support them, do you know what, it can be done."

Bryan:
Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. You mentioned that you wrote the book during the lockdown, and you described how it almost felt like the words came straight out of you when you were writing the book. So what was your writing process like? Would you be able to talk through that?

Amanda:
I think it was very simple. As I say, I had this idea, I just started to go bleh and just start typing. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, which holds me back, so I had to learn not to be. I had a virtual assistant at the time, because I also run a theater company myself, and she helped me with that. So she did the first proofread of the book and she was in effect the first person that I dared allowed some participant read it apart from my partner and my son. I was a little bit embarrassed at first about people reading it, as in, "Well, who are you to write a book?" Because as I say, I am just a mom writing a book.

Amanda:
But her feedback was great and really positive. And I thought, "Oh, okay. Well perhaps I have got something here." And it just gave me that little boost to... And a bit of confidence to think, "Oh, to hell with that. Let's just give this a go and see what happens." I was very scared giving it to my son to read. I just thought, "This is going to be interesting. As somebody really within the industry, is he going to think it's a bit naff that mom's written this book?" And to my surprise, he said, "You know what? You've got something here. If only we'd have this book at the beginning." And I thought, "That's it. Let's do it."

Bryan:
Did it take you long to find an editor for the book?

Amanda:
Well, I kind of didn't. The virtual assistant did all the proofing and then it was over to me and I just did it again and again and again. I put it into different packages. I took it out of a Google Document pages and put it into an InDesign. I worked quite well with Adobe InDesign. I like to use that. I'm used to that. But as you do so, it just took on a different outlay, if you like, putting all the different chapters in different orders, scrubbing bits, rereading it, seeing the mistakes, rewriting it. And it was just that. It's just a matter of rewrite after rewrite, and because I was self publishing, it didn't actually have an official editor. It was me. Make of that what you will, I don't know.

Bryan:
What about the title? It's quite a clever, catchy title. So Your Child Wants to Go to Drama School.

Amanda:
It just is what it is, isn't it? That's just the start, so there's so much that happens from that conversation, and I think it's really important to have a healthy conversation at first. And as I say, I run a local theater company and I know lots of people who have had that dream to go to drama school and haven't been able to have that support, or the parents have just gone, "Whoa, hold on. I don't know. This is a new world to me. I don't know anything about it. It's expensive, isn't it? You're going to be disappointed. You're not going to get in," and all the kinds of defense mechanisms kick in.

Amanda:
And I just think that's such a shame. So I was hoping that by reading this, they might sit down and go, "Well, okay. Do you know what? Try auditioning? See if you get in. Let's have a look into this. Let's find out the differences between the different types of schools and the courses. And let's see if we can find a way." And I think if I can get them through that first conversation and job done, really, because the rest kind of unfolds. I hope so, anyway.

Bryan:
You talked a few minutes ago about overcoming rejection and how that's something drama students have to face. It's probably something writers have to face a lot too. So what kind of advice do you give people who are struggling with rejection for their work?

Amanda:
Well I talk in the book about having to have hunger and I think basically it's down to having hunger. You've simply got to get up and have another go and get up and have another go and get up and have another go. And I think when you get knocked down and you don't get back up again, that's the only time, really, when you can say, "Well, obviously it wasn't meant for you then." I think if you get rejected... I mean, you've got to look at why, you've got to be realistic. That's something else I talk about. You might have a child that actually isn't very good, and you're just being a pushy mom and saying, "Go on, go on, go on, you'll get in." And the poor things will just go through 10 auditions that they don't get, and perhaps they aren't good enough. So you have got to be very, very honest.

Amanda:
But you know what, if they've got the passion and the hunger and they've had little... If you've seen them growing up and they've been to the local theater group, they've been in the local choir, they've had singing lessons, dancing lessons, whatever, then they'd given you already a bit of a clue that this is an interest that they're passionate about. So hopefully if they've got that hunger, they're going to take the rejection and just bounce back. That's the plan. But I think as a parent, just understanding that there will be rejection or at least more often than not, definitely [crosstalk 00:15:17].

Bryan:
No, I have three kids, but it's hard seeing your kids being rejected for something that they want.

Amanda:
It's horrible. I was dreading it, absolutely dreading it. Alex was very lucky. He'd booked in several auditions, but he had his heart set on one particular school in London, and it so happened that that was his first ever audition. So I didn't think for one moment it was going to be a positive outcome because it was a really difficult school to get into, and it was his first experience. So I thought, nerves will kick in, anything could happen. And he got in. He got in. So lucky. He was only 17. He started then as he turned 18 the following year. So yes, so, so lucky, but that isn't normal. That isn't normal. I know people that have been time and time again... I would say on average, about three years in a row until you get in for a lot of people, and that's...

Amanda:
For a parent, you can understand why they might say, "Well okay, love, you've had a go. Well done. Now let's look at university courses and see what you can do instead." That's fair enough. You can see why they would think that. But if that hunger's there, I just say, "Look, no plan B. You've got to stick to this. Just go, go, go. If you really want it that badly, stick to it. Because you can work in between while you're auditioning and you can do things to enhance your experiences that will only help the acting experience." So yeah, just have the hunger and no plan B is what I'd say.

Bryan:
You mentioned you can work in between. How can someone balance working on something that creatively inspires them versus work with paying the bills?

Amanda:
Do you mean as an adult or as a drama school applicant? A student, if you like?

Bryan:
I guess as an adult, because I presume Alex would have had support for you when he was [crosstalk 00:17:05].

Amanda:
I think it's a difficult balance, actually. And funny enough, I do talk about this a little bit in the book in that you can be really good and say, "Right, okay mom, I'm going to take on this job. In the meantime, I'm going to start saving for school." But the more and more you work or the longer hours you work, the least time you have for auditions and lots and lots of employers don't let you have the time off for auditions. So it really is a bit of a catch-22 situation. So it's finding work within industries that I think have some understanding of that.

Amanda:
Perhaps you could certainly volunteer in the first instance, but perhaps get a job teaching or doing workshops for your local drama school. That type of thing is a good way to go. Estate agents seem to be really supportive for some reason. I know loads of people that work with estate agents. But obviously there is retail jobs, but again, they expect certain hours from you and they certainly expect you to work Saturdays. And if you're also trying to build your experience by being in shows, you have to take the Saturdays off because of performances and so on. So yeah, it's hard. I think that's why you got a lot of students doing evening bar work, because it's just no strings [crosstalk 00:18:12].

Bryan:
Yeah, because the hours are better for auditions. Yeah, that would make sense. When you were writing the book, did you read many other parenting books?

Amanda:
Not really. Not on a specific subject because this was something so different because it was for parents, and I knew that there was nothing out there. I just went for it. But I do read a lot of... I love business books, self-help books, that type of thing. And there's a couple of people I've read whose I think voice I might've taken on a little bit, whose humor sat well with me and things like that. So no doubt I was influenced a little bit, but yeah. I read mainly for just learning myself and for pleasure, really, as opposed to how to write a book.

Bryan:
And did you write this particular book specifically focused on parents in the United Kingdom or are there lessons that would apply for parents in other countries?

Amanda:
That's a really good question and this is something that's unfolded and actually I probably need to go back and address. I wrote it, yes, definitely, for people within United Kingdom. So much so that in the back I've included 25 drama schools and all the different things you need to know about them, the fees, even the nearest train station, what the application deadlines are and so on. Bags and bags of info in there, but they are all UK drama schools. And then, the book, I noticed drip by drip started selling in France, Germany, the States. And I was like, "Oh, okay." I didn't expect that at all. And then as it evolved, obviously these dramas schools take on loads of international students. I know in Alex's own year there was people coming from all over the world, which is fantastic.

Amanda:
So the book does seem to be resonating with those that are outside the UK, but in the sense that they'd want to come to the UK for their training. So I think there is something that I do need to add. I need to go back to the book, I think, and perhaps add in the international fees as well as the UK fees. I think that might be useful. So that's on my to do list, actually. But yeah, it's very much relevant to anyone all over the world that wants to train, but who's looking to come to the UK for that training. I haven't included schools in the States or Europe. Really nicely so, we are the leaders, I think, in this field, and people do want to come to the UK to go to our fantastic drama schools and conservatoires, so I suppose [crosstalk 00:20:29]-

Bryan:
You mentioned that people in the United States and France and other countries have bought the book. Are they finding the book organically on Amazon or did you have some other way of getting the book into people's hands?

Amanda:
I wish I did. No, the whole thing has been organic. And if you ask me what the most difficult part of this process been, which you didn't, but it kind of leads to it, is the marketing of it, because I was a self published author, and you will know all about this, I don't have a publisher, so it's literally me and social media. So for me to be selling books at all is nigh on miracle. I'm so grateful, but it's frustrating because you just want to get into the book... You want to get the book into the hands of the people that need it and who would benefit from it. I just wish I could wave a magic wand. So yeah, organically, in answer to your question, which is fantastic. It's only available on Amazon anyway. It's only available in one place. But of course that's available to all countries in all languages and so on. So yeah, just drip, drip, drip. I think social media has a lot to answer for, but in this case, a good thing in a good way.

Bryan:
And do you think you'll write another book?

Amanda:
Yes. There's one on the way, actually. I'm going to take the next stage. I haven't decided exactly on the title, but it will be something like So Your Child is at Drama School, and it's going to be-

Bryan:
Oh, it's a series.

Amanda:
See where I'm coming from here?

Bryan:
I do, I do.

Amanda:
It's going to be the next stage, because, and this is... Well I think it's not funny, but it's sort of funny, it's just that they're so reliant on you before they get into drama school, financially, and they still are during drama school, but I think... It's like a boot camp once you get there, it's like being in the army. They work so hard. And the best schools, connection time between, the contact time, if you like, the hours are so long and you don't really get a chance to catch up very much with them. And they also belong to a new world, then. They've left home, they've flown the nest, they don't want to be ringing mom every five minutes.

Amanda:
So the next book is how a parent can find out what's going on. If they're not getting those phone calls home. So written very much in the same lighthearted vein, but with information that explains all the different classes, what they're learning, how it works, what happens when they do their end of year shows, how they find an agent, et cetera. And also other jobs that they can do at the end or further courses they can take, post-grad courses and stuff. Whereas in this one, I've put the current courses, the next one will have the post-graduate courses in.

Bryan:
I like the idea of writing a nonfiction series. It's a great way of using the next book to promote the last book.

Amanda:
Yes, true I just love nonfiction. That's mainly what I read. I very rarely read fiction, although I just picked up on it again recently. I've read a couple of books just recently, but apart from that, I'm all nonfiction. Yeah, don't know why.

Bryan:
Yeah, same as me. Maybe that's because I think people read what they like to write and they write what they read. So it's like a virtual circle.

Amanda:
Oh, do you think?

Bryan:
I think so. You find a lot of thriller authors will talk about their favorite thriller books, nonfiction authors read a lot of nonfiction.

Amanda:
I've never really thought about that, but yeah, I guess that's right. I wouldn't dream of writing a fictional book. I wouldn't know where to start.

Bryan:
So Amanda, where can people find more information about you or where can they find your book?

Amanda:
A couple of places, really. I've got a website, first of all, which is www.amandabcosgrove.co.uk. In fact, to make it easy, and I've been lucky for this, every single platform on social media I've managed to get AmandaBCosgrove. So if you can remember that name, you'll find me all over the place. And the book itself is available from Amazon. Obviously you can search me or the title of the book, but I'm sure if you just put drama school book and things like that, it should come up for you. Quite a distinctive nice blue cover. I can show you.

Bryan:
It does indeed.

Amanda:
But your listeners won't see this.

Bryan:
Blue cover and white and black text.

Amanda:
Yeah, that's actually available also in ebook, by the way, for those that would prefer to read it electronically. And if anyone's enrolled in the KDP Select Unlimited scheme, they can actually download that for free. So there we go.

Bryan:
Well thank you for talking to me today.

Amanda:
Thank you.

Bryan:
I hope you enjoyed this week's episode. If you did, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes store or sharing the show on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you're listening. More reviews, more ratings, and more shares will help more people find the Become a Writer Today podcast. And did you know for just a couple of dollars a month you could become a Patreon for the show. Visit patreon.com/becomeawritertoday, or look for the support button in the show notes. Your support will help me record, produce, and publish more episodes each month. And if you become a Patreon, I'll give you my writing books, discounts on writing software and on my writing courses.