Semi-autobiographical Novel

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Semi-autobiographical Novel

Post by Aimée » January 29th, 2011, 9:16 pm

The main problem that people have when ready my stuff, they tell me, is connecting with the characters. I've really been focusing on this for the past few months, and I think the problem is that I've been writing about people and places I know nothing about. I don't know anything about Englishmen photographers in their thirties. I don't know anything about the foster care system in Texas in the seventies. And I certainly don't know anything about French immigrant chefs working for drug cartels in New York. So in order to try to make readers be able to connect with the characters better, I decided to write about a female college student in Michigan, a person about whom I am an absolute expert.

Channeling Jack Kerouac, I decided to integrate my own experiences into my writing. My question is to my wonderful writer friends is how far is too far? Where is the line between fiction and fact? I changed the names of people and some characteristics, but there are events in my story that my friends would definitely recognize if they read it. Are there any rules about semi-autobiographical novels when it comes to publishing? Not that I would be publishing it any time soon. It's hardly even a quarter of the way written.

So yeah. What do you think?

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Re: Semi-autobiographical Novel

Post by Holly » January 29th, 2011, 9:39 pm

Most writers draw on their experiences to some degree.

However, I don't want to hurt or embarrass people, or stoop to revenge -- so my awful sister will never end up in a story, which is too bad, because she would make a great character. I don't want to be that kind of a person, if that makes sense.

However, the mugger who robbed me at gunpoint in D.C. ended up in a novel, which was fine.

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Re: Semi-autobiographical Novel

Post by cheekychook » January 29th, 2011, 10:30 pm

I don't think there's any set "rule" about where to draw the line between fiction and auto-biographical. There are tons of books that are thinly veiled (at best) retellings of the author's life/experience. It's really your call as to how much you choose to fictionalize events. Obviously if you are writing personal details of OTHER people's lives in the retelling of your own story you run the risk of upsetting the identifiable other person(s) who experienced the real life event with you. That's something you might want to give some thought. It's one thing to put your personal history in a book, it's quite another to "out" someone else's experience in an identifiable way.

I find this topic fascinating because I have always gone out of my way to make sure that none of the characters/events in my writing are ever "real" things that I've experience/people I've met, yet people always "see" themselves in my writing. I can't tell you how many times, through the years, with different works of writing, people have asked me "am I so-and-so? or is that character the guy who blah-blah-blah?". The answer is always "no", and it's a sincere "no" at that; it's both scary and flattering that people find my characters so relatable. I'm thrilled they identify with them and get emotionally involved with them, but it's bizarre to know that they think some things are probably autobiographical on my part and they're not. Sure, I use places and situations I'm familiar with---in my novel the characters live in cities and towns I've lived in, attend the universities I've attended, work at a store I once worked at---that's so that I know the factual/background stuff is accurate---but none of the events or people are in any way based on my real experiences. There are, however, a few extraordinarily minor things (a flippant remark made by a character, or a description of something in a house) that are teeny-tiny shout-outs to one or two particular people who, when they read that line, will chuckle and see that it's an instantaneous reference to something we shared---not major or minor plot points, just a comment or detail---everything else is entirely fictitious.

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Re: Semi-autobiographical Novel

Post by Leonidas » January 30th, 2011, 10:27 am

Are you researching the time periods and settings in which you choose to write? If you research things, there's really no excuse not to "know" how someone lived. Of course, there is a difference between living something and researching it; no matter how much you research, you're never going to be able to know exactly how something feels to someone, but you don't need to be that precise in your descriptions. If you were that precise in your descriptions of the situations you put your characters into, there wouldn't be room for anyone else in the scene; the reader wouldn't be able to put themselves there with your characters.

Holly's right when she says that most writers draw from their personal experiences in some way. It's just a matter of how deeply you draw from your life when you write. There's another quote (and I'm paraphrasing because I don't know who said it or exactly what they said) that says something to the form of "you have 50% (or more) of the material you need to write by the age of thirteen." To write, you need to live life. You need to live life from all different perspectives. Sometimes, the only way you can do that is through researching a topic (especially if you're writing something historical) until you can write about it as though you lived it.

On a personal note, I'm seventeen. I'm a girl. I've never had a kid, don't plan to for several more years, and haven't held a job outside of being a high school student. Does that mean that I can only write about seventeen year old girls who go to a private school like mine? No. I think that's boring, so I write about soldiers, mobsters, murderers, both in modern and historical contexts. The one thing people have never told me is that they can't relate to my characters. I've never written about a seventeen year old girl struggling to get her AP US history notes done on time, even though that's the life I live.

I could write about myself, yeah, and maybe I will write about that high school girl someday. Just not now, when I'm living it.

Writing's all about being flexible. =D

edit: on second thought, writing is also about finding the humanity in someone. If you can find the humanity in someone, you've found your relatibility.

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Re: Semi-autobiographical Novel

Post by polymath » January 30th, 2011, 11:46 am

Artful exceptions for the adage write what you know benefit journalism. A weather reporter who's not experienced hurricanes and tornadoes will have an edge of awe, wonder, and terror in his or her voice when covering a cyclonic or anticylconic storm event live and in person. A lifestyle reporter covering a music performance who's a fan of the group will report an approval-biased slant, as a detractor will report a disapproval-biased slant. Far better and more representative of the review and promotional purposes to send a reporter who doesn't know much about the group, if anything, and approaches the experience with an open mind.

From a final analysis, fiction reporting (narrating) shares a make-believe personal account. Incorporating a writer's personal experiences are a given. The challenge of personal narratives is to rigorously avoid author surrogacy's self-idealization, self-efficacy, and too easily accomplished self-realization, which tend to alienate readers. Consequently, a reporting narrator who doesn't know much about the narrative except as it unfolds, like a journalism reporter, tricky as it is to write, is artfully closest to true-to-life.
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Re: Semi-autobiographical Novel

Post by Watcher55 » January 30th, 2011, 12:06 pm

There’s knowing, then there’s knowing. You may not know what it’s like to be a foster child, but certainly you know what it’s like to be isolated in a crowd and at the mercy of those who “know better” (first day of school lived over and over – getting from the parking lot to your seat on the plane). You may not know what it’s like to be abused but certainly you’ve experienced pain at the hands of cruelty. The rest, as Leonidas points out, is research and imagination.

I know my examples are simplistic, but so are seeds. :)

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Re: Semi-autobiographical Novel

Post by BetweenTwoWorlds » January 30th, 2011, 1:04 pm

Sure you can write from your own experience, but if I have to know you in order to understand or enjoy the novel, then you will have a limited audience. You have to find a way to make the people universal.

Maybe you could do some freewriting to flesh out your characters. Write about what they did the last time they were in the grocery store. What aisle did they gravitate to? When they get their hair cut, what kind of snipper do they like? When they meet an old friend, do they discuss illnesses, friends, work, or their kids?

Try to make them real in your own mind. Flesh them out there. You don't have to bring any of the descriptions into your story. But you absolutely must be able to see them.

I wrote a scene for two of my characters, and just let it flow. One of them revealed a whole new side to her character as she talked with the other one -- pulled out something from her secret past and explained how it fit into the story. Now, I know that it all comes from me, and I'm doing the writing -- I don't claim any divine inspiration. But I had to sit back and just type what I was "seeing" and "hearing" -- it wasn't something I expected or planned for. I just let the characters round out their selves to
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Re: Semi-autobiographical Novel

Post by bySD » February 8th, 2011, 8:08 pm

I'm an escapist. I'd rather not write about my own life. However, I think if you're going to write a story, you had better pull on your knowledge of the world around you.

Semi-autobiographical novels could get messy real-life wise, if modeled on other people and their experiences (a woman in GA got sued), and a little trite if modeled on yourself too much. But using real and familiar settings sounds like it could definitely improve a story. If you do use a person you know as a character, get their okay and let them read it. I let my sister know one of my psychopath villains was based on her temper & personality, and she's pretty much gotten used to the idea.

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Re: Semi-autobiographical Novel

Post by bcomet » May 1st, 2016, 5:07 pm

In much of my own writing, I might start (and that is start only) a character based on someone or someone's profession that I know. Then I can go back and ask that person for research help in intelligently writing about their profession. But after that, I like my characters to become totally fictitious as are my stories and to take on a life and story of their own. For me, this is easier, as much of my own writing falls into the category of magical realism.

However, sometimes a writer will have real people and events they find compelling enough to write about. If that is the case, just changing the character's name may not be enough of a cloak for those people. Especially if the reality is personal and/or private to them. I kind of think that that is a good case for using a pen name too.

I have a friend who deeply inspired a character -and also much of that friend's life dilemmas- in a novel. The story goes on to develop that character and their dilemmas differently, but it was definitely influenced by that person. My friend really supports this story. However my friend also adamantly does not want their name or even initials used as inspiration for the story and has expressed relief that I've both promised not to and that I'm using a pen name, as others might very well recognize that individual.

I understand this personally as I also am a very private person. Life is one's own to share or not.

And the lack of privacy in public or famous people can be, for those people, horrific or great exposure, depending on their personality.

Also, author interviewers, these days, seem to like asking: Is this book about you? I don't really like that question. If it is fiction, isn't it fiction? Although I suppose it is fair question, it feels too prying. But that is a whole other conversation.

Your question is a good one to ask. It shows sensitivity. One might have a compelling story, but it is important, I believe to always use the directive of: Do No Harm. (Unless there is a very good reason, such as dealing with known atrocities, and that can be tricky.) I think the directive of Do No Harm is valuable to apply to life itself. Or, at the very least, try not to do harm.

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