The difficulties inherent in ‘semi-autobiographical’ writing work

I’d say that the majority of mss that come my way are semi-autobiographical fiction. I do not think that the authors realize the issues involved. The words ‘based on’ are the first signal. The second signal is when I get an hedgy answer to “is it fiction or non-fiction?”

Why is it such a frequent choice? Some of the following reasons may apply:

  • They want to write their own stories, or something akin to them, but with added fictitious events. Which raises the question: why add fiction, if the real story is interesting enough? The answer is that most of our real lives are more interesting to us, and to our loved ones, than to people who don’t know us (the paying customers).
  • It’s easier to use characters, places, situations and events they know; creating them is harder. Perhaps they were told ‘write what you know,’ and misunderstood what that meant.
  • They have a point they want to make, but do not want to do it in non-fiction, for whatever reason: privacy, liability, etc. That’s probably the most understandable reason, but it might be preferable to present it as non-fiction with some locations and participants changed.

Compare two sentences, and let me know which is easier to support:

  1. Everyone has a story, and if it feels good to write it, s/he should do so.
  2. Everyone’s story is equally marketable and fascinating to the audience, which is everyone.

Put less gently, we have a tremendous species tendency toward believing that our life stories are marketably interesting. And, perhaps, they are–to that small minority who are collectors of life stories. The other 314 million Americans need something beyond ‘but it’s my story.’ Absent that extra something, your audience was just pared down over 99%.

Long as people don’t mind that, they should continue the way they’re doing. But know: the first major storytelling divide is that between fiction and non-fiction. There is no true ‘semi-fiction.’ One asserts that the story is true, or does not.

In fiction, no one is asserting truth. The characters may be modified. The plot can change. Not only can we lie, it’s our job to lie in the most engrossing way possible. The reader accepts this, sets her bullshit detector on ‘plausible under the postulated circumstances,’ and takes a trip to a land of fancy.

In non-fiction, we invent nothing, unless we so specify and have a credible reason. What happened, happened. If we want to use pseudonyms, we indicate that we have done so. If we must reconstruct and approximate dialogue, not being ourselves eidetic, we admit this. We may leave out events as long as the choice does not slant the story away from fact, but we cannot make any up. There are no characters to create, simply participants to describe. The ending is as it occurred. We defy anyone to sue, for we assert that this is how it happened. The reader’s bullshit detector is set on ‘even a whiff will make me doubt every word.’

So what’s the matter? If it’s semi-autobiographical, why can’t we just label it fiction-with-winking? In fact, we must call it fiction. It is fiction. As the umpire said: they ain’t no close calls; they is either this or that. And from an editing standpoint, it’s fiction with a ball and chain attached. As editor, the shackle goes on my leg.

  • What if the events are very personal to the author? S/he may veto changes to the events, even if they make bad fiction, because they may be the reason s/he sat down to write.
  • What if it would make a better story for this character to do something unadmirable? Sorry, that’s his or her daughter: “No way would my daughter do that!” In fact, in fiction, it isn’t his or her daughter. It’s a fictional character in an untrue story, and for good story development, we have to be able to make her do whatever we want.
  • What if the author reaches very personal events where s/he very obviously breaks the fourth wall, and is clearly venting from the soul? How do I tell the author that this is unsuitable narrative and needs to be removed? “But I hurt BAD! I need to say this!” What will happen when I advise the author that this is amateurish and a turnoff, and that we are forgetting the ‘fiction’ part?
  • How am I going to tell the author anything about his or her protag? If adverse, that will come as a personal insult. It shouldn’t, in fiction; it’s okay to size up any character any way we want. But with semi-autobiographical, the little boundaries stymie such frank editorial assessments.
  • If we need the story spiced up, how’s an editor supposed to tell that to the semi-autobiographer? “‘Your’ life isn’t that exciting. Could we arrange for ‘you’ to empty a pistol into ‘someone?'” What kind of response will that likely elicit?

It is not that semi-autobiographical storytelling is an automatic nyet. It is not that it cannot be good. It is not that I don’t ever want to see or read or edit any again. I understand the motivations.

I also understand that I can’t talk anyone out of it. You’ve already written it, or already plan to write it. Thus, please take it with a smile and simple realism when I acknowledge that you will therefore ignore any suggestion from me that you change this course. If a person wants to write something, and has his or her mind made up about what it will be, the person will tune out everything but encouragement and approval. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I simply mention that I anticipate it, based upon experience, and that this is why I get so much semi-autobiographical fiction, and why my view of it begins with a certain skepticism about the prospects.

On to the helpful part. If a non-fiction presentation is unpalatable to you, and you want to write semi-autobiographical fiction anyway, but without the blinders that say “everyone wants to pay to read everyone’s story and that includes mine,” what ought you to do?

  • Classify it as fiction, without qualifiers, and resolve that no character or event is more sacred than the goal of quality storytelling.
  • Depersonalize the ‘you’ in the story, and ‘your’ loved ones, enough that we can speak of them as professionals, editor and author, without you taking offense. If I can tell you that your protagonist needs serious counseling, or belongs behind bars, and that won’t hurt your feelings, you have succeeded.
  • Do as much outright character invention as you can. This is fiction, so you may do this, and are encouraged to do it well. ‘Write what you know’ refers to regions, professions, hobbies, languages, and other esoterica where you can ring authentic without effort. It doesn’t mean to limit yourself to people whose actions you can predict because you know them. But show the reader that you can invent compelling characters, and show the editor that we may alter them if we can think of a better way.

Do those things, conscientiously, and you maximize our ability to turn your brainchild into something you can be proud to have authored.

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