Autobiographical novels: Instead, Tell a Whopper

These guys can tell a whopper!

Almost every writer’s first novel is at least partly autobiographical. Mine is. It sits in a drawer where it belongs. But aren’t you supposed to write what you know?
Writing Tip for Today: What’s wrong with using your own life as you write a novel? Here are some strengths and weaknesses of relying on true life in order to write fiction:

  • Authentic Emotion Powers Authentic Fiction. Your experiences in life often qualify you to write about high emotion that can’t be manufactured (that is, made up). So many of us believe we have led interesting lives that will make for riveting fiction. I believe it is true that your emotional IQ is much higher if you’ve lived through the circumstance you’re writing about. This is one reason White Anglo-Saxons don’t generally write about the plight of African-American slaves from a slave’s POV. When The Bean Trees was published, Barbara Kingsolver was taken to task by Native Americans who didn’t think she had the “right” to write about their cultural identity. We have to be sensitive in this day and age–authentic, even.
  • But That’s the Way it Really Happened! Over relying on true life events can quickly derail your story. In real life, we often go through long stretches of boredom punctuated by brief excitement. A novel must not adhere to “real life” when it stalls or kills the story. Just because something happens doesn’t mean it qualifies as drama. For instance, one student wrote about taking two teen runaway girls to a restaurant. The author proceeded to detail (excruciatingly) every moment from perusing the menu to ordering and eating the food. Why? Because that’s the way it really happened! If you’re going to use events in your life to illustrate your fiction, be willing to, as Elmore Leonard said, “Skip over the boring parts.”
  • Authentic Emo + Made-up Dramatic Tension = Powerful Fiction. Ever watch a movie version of a novel? Moviegoers are even less tolerant of lulls than are readers. Many times directors will add events to the movie which weren’t in the novel in order to up the dramatic tension. When you use your own life as a starting point for a novel, go ahead and channel the Genuine Emotion. But be willing to change up as many story elements as possible: gender, place, time or other elements can help you let go of the “it really happened” stuff that isn’t dramatic enough, and may propel you into a true fictioneer–able to fashion pure fiction out of the rocky road of life.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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