Are you writing autobiographical fiction?
Recently I heard back from a literary agent who had requested my full manuscript: an upper middle grade contemporary that I wrote after reading some of my adolescent diaries. Here’s part of what the agent said:
I was seriously getting flashbacks to my first relationships–dating in eighth/ninth grade was SO AWKWARD! You absolutely nail that in this story. I like the set-up a lot in terms of the characters, dynamics, and the unfolding dilemma. However, I’m afraid it began to feel a little too mired in the reality of eighth grade (the back-and-forth wondering, highs and lows of the day) and thus a little slow pacing-wise. I wonder if the diary format ages it down too much as well.
When I read the email to my husband, he said, “so she didn’t like it because it was too realistic?”
Yes, this is one of the problems with writing autobiographical fiction. Sometimes it’s hard to decide what “real stuff” you should leave out.
My manuscript isn’t exactly autobiographical, but it was certainly influenced by my actual adolescent thoughts, feelings, and experiences. There’s even one line in the novel that I lifted verbatim from my ninth grade diary because it was too perfect not to use (or so I thought).
What’s the difference between writing autobiographical fiction and writing a novel “inspired by” your life?
I don’t know that there’s a clear-cut answer, but an autobiographical novel sticks pretty close to actual events. Characters and place names are changed (or maybe two real people are merged into one), and the story might be enhanced or tweaked for dramatic effect, but overall the events are very similar to the author’s real life. On the Road by Jack Kerouac and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath are considered autobiographical fiction.
On the other end of the spectrum are novels inspired by the author’s real experiences but still highly fictionalized “made up” stories. Closed Doors by Lisa O’Donnell was inspired by her memory of being a child in Scotland and not knowing what it meant when she overheard adults talking about a flasher in the park. In Closed Doors, the eleven-year-old narrator Michael lives in a small Scottish town in the 1980’s (like O’Donnell) and is told that his mother was frightened by a flasher in the park… but the real story is more sinister than that. O’Donnell was inspired by her memories, but she used them only as a seed from which to grow a whole new story.
Somewhere in the middle on this continuum is the semi-autobiographical novel. I might classify Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, a novel about a midwestern girl who goes to an elite east coast boarding school, as an example. Although Sittenfeld has been quick to explain all the ways that she is not like Prep‘s narrator, Lee, the fact remains that Sittenfeld was a midwesterner who went to an east coast prep school, and the fictional account of Lee was very much inspired and informed by Sittenfeld’s actual experiences.
So how would I classify my manuscript? Probably on the end of “inspired by.” The main character is an eighth grade girl who loves math and writes poetry… pretty similar to myself as a teenager. The relationship she has with one of the boy characters was also heavily inspired by one of my first dating experiences. But the actual events of the novel are made-up.
Still, it’s been scary to send this manuscript into the world. When an agent rejects the book it’s hard not to feel like it’s my experiences and feelings that are being rejected.
Writing autobiographical fiction: Do’s and Don’ts
When I first started writing the novel that was loosely based on my own diaries, I was embarrassed to tell people where the idea had come from. I was afraid they’d think I was vain or not being creative. But the truth is, you can write about anything — your life or otherwise — as long as you do it well.
So if you’re writing autobiographical fiction, or a novel inspired by your life, how do you do it well? Here are a few suggestions…
DO consider whether the story you want to write is going to be interesting to people other than you, your friends, and your immediate family. If the answer is no, you could still write the book (maybe you just need to get it out of your system!), but you may not want to query agents with it. Give it to your family and friends instead.
DON’T worry about sticking to what really happened. If you’re choosing to write fiction, you can (and should!) make changes to real characters and events. Take the real life event that you’re feeling inspired by and run with it into the fictional realm. Brainstorm how you can add, embellish, and change to make a truly compelling novel. Your life should be the inspiration, not the blueprint. You can decide later whether what you’ve written is autobiographical fiction, semi-autobiographical, or something else entirely.
DO consider whether you’d rather write a memoir. If you find yourself not wanting to fictionalize your story, maybe you should be writing nonfiction instead.
DO write what you feel compelled to write. For a long time I resisted writing fiction inspired by my own experiences (even though I wanted to) because I thought that wouldn’t be “creative” enough. On the other hand, some people take too much to heart the “write what you know” adage and think they can only write about their own experiences. In the end, you should write what you what to write. Because writing what you’re passionate about is going to make the best story.
DO watch your word count. When we’re writing autobiographical fiction, it’s easy to include things that seem important to you but are not actually important to the story. An autobiographical novel with an excessive word count is a major red flag to agents and editors — makes it seem like you don’t know how to edit yourself. Check out Writer’s Digest’s guide to word count here.
DON’T get defensive and DO be open to constructive criticism. It can be hard to hear criticism about your writing no matter what, but it’s even harder when the story is inspired by your life and the main character bears a strong resemblance to you. When someone says, “this part didn’t seem realistic” or “I didn’t understand the character’s motivation” it can be hard not to get defensive. Keep in mind that “but it really did happen” isn’t a good enough justification for including something in your novel that isn’t working in the context of the story. Try to hear the criticism as ways to improve your story and not as judgements on your actual experiences.
DO consider how people will react to your story. Libel in fiction is very rare. Writers don’t often get sued, and when they do, they usually win. (First Amendment rights — whoo hoo!) So I wouldn’t worry so much about the legal issues (although you can read here about libel in fiction and defamation and invasion of privacy). Even though you’re probably not going to get sued, the things you write could still upset people and damage important relationships. If you’re writing a story with characters that are loosely-based on people you know, it may be worth thinking about how they will feel about what you’re writing, and if you’re okay with their reaction. You may want to fictionalize their character more, or talk to them about what you’ve written before it’s published.
As for my own manuscript, the feedback from the agent has made me feel excited about going back and revising. I’m going to get rid of the diary style format (read about the challenges of diary novels here), and I’m going to really think hard about what’s necessary to the story and what’s not, in order to speed up the pacing and heighten the drama. In doing this, I’m going to get further from my own experiences and deeper into the realm of fiction, which is where this story belongs anyway.
Are you writing autobiographical fiction or a novel inspired by your life? How’s it going? What challenges are you facing?