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?
Hello. I have written an autobiographical novel and wonder if there are agents who specifically represent that genre?
That is a great question, but I don’t have the answer. If you look into it and find out any information, please share!
Dr. S. Krishna Murthy says
I’m a doctor aged 60 years. I often relive my medical college days. Good and bad memories kept haunting. I had eloped with my classmate of the college and got married. I’m sure I can write well about our love story in the same book. Since long time, I daydreamed to write my real experiences if those six long years. Of late the desire is burning and getting ready to start!
First obstacle I thought that I’m not good at my writing skills, but, I’m improving on it.
Second worry is to use the actual names of my classmates and professors or not. I can’t take permission if each one of them.
Third thing is my laziness to start though the desire of publishing my book is sure to happen!
Kindly give your advice and suggestions to realise my dream one day.
Expecting your reply….
Thanks for the comment! It sounds like you’ve got a story in you that’s begging to be written. As for your second worry, are you planning to write a memoir, or fictionalize your story? In general you don’t need people’s permission to write about them, but I understand not wanting to upset friends and family if you write about them in a way they might not like. My advice is to write your story and use the real names if that’s what makes sense to you. If and when you get an agent, your agent (who will know all about the legal aspects of publishing) can help you decide whether or not to change names, get permission, etc. But for now, don’t let that worry stop you. Just write! It may help to take a class or join a writing group to motivate you to push through the laziness! 🙂 Good luck!
Earl Robert Key - Strong Boy, Weak Man says
To write a powerful motivational fiction story, you need to have the heart, experience, and generosity to share the things that you think can motivate other people.
Read my blog: Tips on Writing a Powerful Motivational Fiction Story
Hope this will help, Thank you!
Thanks for your article. I have had an interesting life, unique experiences, and others agree with this assessment. I am writing an autobiography, in a novel form (third person), and am tempted to fictionalize it somewhat to make it even more interesting and powerful, to have a good place to end. Thoughts?
Hard to say without knowing the details! But unless you’re famous it may be hard to sell your autobiography. A page-turning novel about a character with a fascinating life, on the other hand…
John Goldsberry says
This is exactly what I needed today and is quite helpful. I am nearing completion of the first draft of just such a story, dealing with my emotional problems as a nine-year-old boy. It has been the most intense writing project I have ever worked on, and I didn’t even know how to classify it. There is a considerable amount of sometimes painful truth involed, but within the framework of fiction, it is ambiguous. The fictional narrator freely admits in the telling the tale, that having suffered from delusional schizophrenia, in fact, the bulk of it might be all in his mind. It concludes with a psychotic break, but redemptive healing on the other side. My biggest concern is that where a tale of a nine-year-old child in 1966 would fit in as a readership level. It’s too intense for actual children, but will adults want to read that? I’m not sure it is publishable no matter how well written I can make it.
I’m so glad you found it helpful! Is the narrator a child, or is the narrator an adult telling the story of when he was a child? If it’s the latter, there are MANY adult novels and memoirs that do this. (For example, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, Education by Tara Westover, or The Goldfinch by Donna Tart). If it’s the former, it’s a little harder to do, but still totally possible to be an adult novel with a child narrator. (For example Room by Emma Donoghue, Closed Doors by Lisa McDonnell, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd).
Since it sounds like your book deals with mental illness, I recommend reading The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar by Terri Cheney. It’s very much an adult book but it’s about her childhood struggles with bipolar disorder.
Good luck with your writing!
John Goldsberry says
I just ordered the book. Thank you for the recommendation. It is told first person past tense from my adult perspective, and as magical realism. In a nutshell, two best friends with spiraling emotional problems that live two blocks and 53 years away from each other and the parallels between their childhoods during the summers of 1914 and 1966. Everything in both timelines is based on real places, events, people, and memories. It was inspired by my propensity for inventing playmates as I had problems dealing with real ones. Interestingly, in researching a 1914 paper from the day of a major story event, there was a column called ‘Observations,’ which was a weird amalgamation of single paragraph news stories with clever quips next to ‘Body Found by Rail Station.” The one that caught my eye was “The older a man gets, the better he can remember things that never happened.” Pretty much where I am now. This gives me much more hope of finding a publisher. Thanks again.
“The older a man gets, the better he can remember things that never happened.” Ha! I love it!
John Goldsberry says
Just a follow-up, I decided to self-publish (The Childgrove, on Amazon,) and it’s doing very well. I’m editing the one and only sequel, which involved taking a hard and realistic look at childhood trauma taken from many interviews with former and current foster and adopted children. I have learned so much from them and am humbled by their incredible spirits. I’m starting training soon to adopt one of them. This has been the deepest and most personal thing I have ever done, and I hope it opens some eyes. Thanks again for the help.
Congratulations! I will have to look into this as the subject of adoption and foster care is of interest to me. One of my best friends is a foster parent, and I’ve thought about it as something I might want to do some day as well (though I know it’s not an easy thing to undertake!) And what an incredible person you are to open up your home to a child who needs one! Best wishes!
Gerald Nardella says
Was looking for some takes regarding this topic and I found your article quite informative. It has given me a fresh perspective on the topic tackled. Thanks!
Telling stories and sharing your knowledge with the world is one of the most amazing feelings there is.
I hope you can take the time to read my post as well Effective Steps on Writing Your First Novel.
Alenra Tarak says
Thank you for sharing your knowledge.
I started writing one non-fictional book, that is motivational and describing the steps I took to change my life. I wonder if it is wrong to cite the other motivational authors whose formulas I used to improve my life. I mean, I want to express my gratitude through the book to these people, and to direct my readers to study their books in depth, where everything is explained in details, but would it be weird? How would readers react, in your opinion.
Secondly, I want to write fictional book about my future self and where I see myself in life (which would be actually published as a first one, and at the end of it the reader would be redirected to the “book, I am already writing – non-fictional one), kind of motivational and inspirational. What kind of genre would this book belong to? Semi-autobiography or..?
Thank you in advance for you advice.
Have a wonderful day.
I think it’s totally fine to reference other authors/books in your motivational, non-fiction book. You could even provide a list in the appendix of all the books that you think your readers might want to read. As for your fiction book about your future self — interesting idea! I’m not sure what the genre would be, but I say don’t worry so much about the genre right now. Just write it and decide the genre later. Happy writing!
Alenra Tarak says
Thank you for your advice regarding non-fiction book, it’s such a great idea! I am glad you liked the idea for my fiction book! 🙂
Lots of success, and thank you a lot for your response!
Samuel P. Spottedhorse says
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Vish Kalki says
Thank you for sharing your experience/wisdom. Let me explain the issue that I’m facing.
I initially started writing a memoir (which I had wanted to for many years) but soon realized the complexities of writing a fact-based script. So, I ended up injecting fiction for multiple reasons, but also to bring closure to certain items that I don’t know how they will end. I had an editor review the manuscript, and he believes that a novel would require a totally different framework – currently, it is written as a memoir (first person POV, etc.). I’ve gone thru it a million times and I just cannot seem to figure out how to apply a “narrative arc, a clash, a climax…” which I am told are essential for any fiction writing.
Based on the above, I’m sure you’ve guessed that I am not a writer (but the passion is there :)) and hence struggling with the basics. My question is… can I call it a “Fiction written as a memoir?” Any implications I should think about? I’m now convinced that there’s no way to rewrite it as a novel (at least not by me).
Thanks again for your help.
Ps… the following is from my blurb which may help to understand the background (from my website)…
Based on some real events, REGRETS is fiction disguised as a memoir that examines the stresses that family, religious, and cultural expectations put on our relationships and ourselves and how the key to happiness is often a matter of LETTING GO.
A couple of thoughts..
What do you want to do with this manuscript? If your plan is to self-publish (and you don’t care about making much money), you can do whatever you want and call it whatever you want! If you’re hoping to go a more traditional publishing route, however, I would recommend trying for a narrative arc. After all, many memoirs have a story arc even though they’re not fiction.
I know it can be really hard to fictionalize a real-life story, especially when it’s something that happened to you. Maybe try imagining the story as a movie. What would the climax of the movie be? What are the most important scenes, and what could be cut? Maybe look at all your story scenes then pick and choose the ones that can be used to build tension and lead to some sort of climax. And, since it’s fiction, add in new scenes to flesh out the story arc. Maybe read some memoirs that have strong narrative arcs (Educated, Wild, The Glass Castle, etc.) and see if you can get any inspiration. Also google “story arc in memoir” and read the articles that seem helpful.
Vish Kalki says
Thank you for your guidance. I’ll do some Google searching and also soul-searching 🙂
Thanks for the suggested reads.
Memoir for children is just the same as most children’s storybooks, except that the story is based on real people and events. Check this blog Essential Things to Consider in Writing Memoirs for Children for the list of the important things to remember when writing memoirs for kids.
Laurie Hill says
I’m halfway through a novel that I’m now calling a semi auto fiction. I’m writing as the author telling about a fictional romance. So I use my, me, I, etc. I’m now stuck though because in real life I was involved in something that made international/national news, tv shows like Dateline, People magazine, a crime novel was written (not by me), and multiple court trials of professionals. I want to incorporate that story as maybe the highlight but change it up somewhat, configuring it into the fiction of the book’s beginning. Any advice?
Wow, this is a very intriguing question. What is your main concern? Is it that the story is already out there in various forms? I wouldn’t be worried about that at all — it’s obviously a good story, and the way you’ve described how you want to write the novel is very interesting. My advice is to write it however you want — however will make the most compelling story. If you already have an agent, discuss this with your agent. If you don’t already have agent, when it comes time to query, I would mention the novel is based on personal experience (as long as you’re comfortable doing that). Good luck!
i really want to write a book loosely based on something i went through but i don’t know how to start
Oh my goodness, isn’t that the big question! I’d recommend brainstorming a list of scenes, conversations, events, characters, etc. that you definitely think should go into your book. You can also brainstorm how you want the story to differ from the actual events: will you maybe combine several people into one character? Will you condense the timeline? Will you increase the tension and stakes to make a more dramatic story? Will you shape the real-life events into more of a traditional 3-Act plot structure?
When you’re bored with brainstorming, start writing, whether you start at the beginning of the story or jump around. Know that the first draft will be messy and need lots of revising. Good luck!!
I’m doing an autobiographical fiction for two reasons.
1: I don’t want to hurt my loved ones, or get sued by not-so-loved ones. In order to give my story a “soul”, I’m going to have to share a lot of personal experiences, and details. I’m gonna need this loophole.
2: A creative outlet.
But, I have a question!
If I use a Pseudonym, will it make it harder for people to try to sue me?
Hi Sherry! Because of the first amendment, writers rarely get sued, and when they do, they usually win. After all, a defamation lawsuit can only be brought against something that is being stated as fact. If you’re writing fiction, you are not claiming that anything in your book is fact. Also, if you use a pseudonym, there’s a good chance the not-so-loved-ones may never read your book at all. Anyway, I wouldn’t worry about it at this stage. It’s something you can discuss with your literary agent and editor later down the road. I’d say, just write your book how you want to write it! Give it a soul! Good luck!
I just found this article. Thank you for posting it. I’m struggling with identifying what goes in and what doesn’t, and I realize I’m trying to cover too many themes in one novel: it’s a failed romance story; it’s a coming of age story; it’s a struggle to fit in; it’s a character arc from compliant to defiant. Oh boy. What are some of the good ideas for identifying what my novel should truly be about when I have these many themes and plot lines in one novel?
Hmm, that’s a good question. Have you written a complete draft yet? If not, maybe just keep writing and worry about what needs to be cut later. Always easier to cut than add, in my opinion. Are there any parts of the story that you might be including simply because they actually happened and feel important you, but they aren’t truly serving the story? I would try writing a one-page, single-spaced synopsis of your entire book. Hard, I know, but it will force you to decide what are the most important aspects of your story and what could potentially be cut or condensed. Good luck!
I am 29 and have been itching to write a boom at least closely based upon my childhood and life through my 20s. It would have to be a lengthy book or trilogy at the most. I’m not willing to blast my family with accurate names, but the general geographic area is necessary for the background of my entire life.
I have a lot of sensitive topics that would be brought up (mental illness, sexual assault, suicidal ideations) that definitely stay more older YA to adult ages. I’m not afraid of telling these stories, but the mental state behind the main character (me) could be very disconcerting to folks who don’t grasp mental illness may want to light a fire under me for bringing up so many sensitive topics.
Would it even be logical to bother writing and publishing a work that would nearly be as dark and depressing as A Child Called “It”?
Thanks for your questions! Are you thinking this would be a memoir or fiction inspired by your life? That’s one of the first things to decide.
Based on what you’ve described it might make sense for your book to be an adult novel (or memoir) with a young protagonist. Especially if it is told by an adult narrator who is “looking back.” On the other hand, there are a lot of darker YA books out there these days. Off the top of my head, I recently read Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow, about a teenage girl who self-harms, and it was quite dark and graphic in places. Anyway, you can always write first and decide what genre it is later. But I wouldn’t shy away from going to dark places if that’s what you feel compelled to write.
I’m also reminded of two memoirs by Terri Cheney: one is called The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar, and the other, called Manic, is about her adulthood struggling with bipolar. So it can definitely be done: writing multiple books about your own experiences with mental illness. Also, people write about mental illness, sexual assault, and suicide all the time. For those who don’t want to read about such topics, they can choose not to read your book!
Good luck! I hope the writing process is healing. My advice? Write your book, and once it’s finished you can start thinking about how to get it published, if that’s your goal. Take care!
I don’t feel like I’ve lived a very interesting life (then again I’m just barely entering adulthood, I have time), I’ve always felt very mundane and yet the things that I’ve gone through emotionally throughout my childhood to now I’ve always felt like turning into a novel. But I’m worried it’ll seem childish, like I haven’t had enough distance from these events, I’ve only gotten a little older, and that I won’t have the perspective needed to tell it from afar, that the events are too random to formulate an actual story? If that makes sense? Lots of questions. But I’d like to write a story very loosely inspired by events that happened to me concerning family and personal mental health issues, the problem is how to let myself fictionalize these events and make them happen to a fictional character, and not me. And how can I write with enough distance from these events? I really appreciate this article, it was very helpful and I’d appreciate any feedback or advice!
These are all really good questions! At the end of the day, you should write what you want to write, and if you’re feeling called to write a story loosely inspired by events from your childhood, you absolutely should.
A lot of people find writing therapeutic, so it’s possible that in the writing of this story you might work through some things and start to gain perspective.
You say that the real events are too random to formulate a story, so I think it’s great that you plan to fictionalize. I’d suggest using the things that actually happened as inspiration, but don’t feel you need to stick too closely to them. Change them, add more plot points, add more drama and tension — create a story with rising action and a climax and a satisfying resolution (even if not all the ends are neatly tied). Since you’re fictionalizing, you don’t have to write what actually happened; just use the real events as a jumping-off point. Does that make sense?
As far as whether or not you have enough distance… who knows? Maybe not. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to write what you feel compelled to write; even if you never end up showing it to anyone else, it will help you learn something about yourself and help you grow as a writer. Hope this helps!