Friday, January 13, 2017

When Your Fiction Is Really about You (Even a Little), Do You Need to Protect Yourself?

One of my private coaching clients successfully finished her revision last year.  Her next step was to find close ("beta") readers for the manuscript so she could get feedback on anything else that needed tweaking.


The novel, her first, is loosely based on her own true story.  She chose her sister, two close friends (one of whom was a writer) and her daughter (also a writer).  They read, they commented, but they mostly had concerns about the autobiographical nature of the story. 

My client wrote me:  "A couple of them have asked me whether I want to put this story out there.  The themes are so universal I have never been too worried about [it being autobiographical].  But it has caused me to think about whether I should try to change the location, place names etc.  Or even use a pseudonym.  I know you caution about having family/friends read too soon, perhaps for this type of issue, but I couldn't go much further without this step."

First, readers who know you will ALWAYS wonder if your fiction is autobiographical, even if it's not.  They want to know how you came up with the ideas, how you were able to present them so authentically in the story.  They immediately suspect that if you're writing about divorce with such poignancy, you've been through it too.  It's always been my experience, as a writer. 

It's also a kind of "duh"--authenticity in story comes from two places:  either we lived the experiences or we have compassion and good research skills and can capture the experiences vicariously.  I work with hundreds of writers and easily 75 percent start first novels from a true-life experience. 

Such feedback--do you really want to put this out there?--is valuable because it may be telling you that more revision is needed.  You may still be processing the story.

Early drafts are often processing drafts--the writer is getting the experience on paper for the first time, perhaps, and using the character to understand it.  (This is why many first novels never see the light of day.  We've done our work with them and they don't need to be out there.)  When the processing is over, though, and you are still fascinated with the story, you move to the next step:  How can you make this truly fictional?  Or do you want to publish this as a true-life novel, which is also a respected genre?

Once I've processed the true story behind my fiction, I begin to see what I can change.  I usually change the location, the era (year), the backstory, the gender, and the appearance of characters as much as I can.  An old man becomes a young boy, a small town becomes a village in another country.  As I do this, the story takes wings in a way it couldn't when I was sticking to what really happened.

So, the answer isn't a simple one.  If you are concerned from these kinds of reader questions, ask yourself if you've got anything else you can change.  What are you still wedded to, in the true story?  What can you let go of?  Or are you fine about the autobiographical part being exposed?  Your choice entirely.

An exercise to find the answer:  If you're a fiction writer, choose one of your pieces of writing and go through it as a curious reader might.  Make a list of anything that mimics your own life, in any way.  Then pick three of these items to change.