1. Lucas
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    Lucas Member

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    Autobiographical Novels: Are there conventions? How to gain readers trust?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Lucas, Jun 5, 2013.

    Hi,

    I plan to write an autobiographical novel. The term is vague and sometimes semi-autobiographical novel or nonfiction novel is used.

    The plotline of an autobiographical novel mirrors the author’s life and the protagonist is based on the author. However, events can be dramatized and locations can be altered. Essentially, it’s a memoir with an artistic license :)

    Part of what makes a memoir so powerful is that readers have a “compact” with the author that they’re reading a first-hand account of actual events. This “compact” becomes less credible with an autobiographical novel. What can an author do to establish this credibility and get readers to believe the events really happened to the author? I was considering including an author’s note at the beginning. Are there other ways for an author to persuade readers that the events truly did happen?

    Are there any conventions for an autobiographical novel that I should be aware of? How much can an author exaggerate and delineate from what happened? Are there any creative writing resources or books specifically about writing autobiographical novels?

    Thank you
     
  2. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    A lot of autobiographical novels are simply classified as novels. Some examples include A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. The term "autobiographical novel" is used only for classification purposes. An autobiographical novel simply means that you draw heavily from events in your life, and most people probably don't care about the actual events themselves (unless it was something significant like the Holocaust). So I would write your autobiographical novel the same way I would any other novel.
     
  3. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    If the "compact" between the reader and writer is that important to you, maybe you should stick to the memoir form. An autobiographical novel is, of course, a novel, so readers will not trust everything you put into it. Much of Hemingway's early work is autobiographical, but idealized; he never said it was anything other than fiction based on fact, though, not fact itself.

    A few years ago there was a big controversy over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. He said it was a memoir, but it turned out that he'd fabricated a lot of it. It was really an autobiographical novel. He lied about the truth of it and got dragged through the mud by the media, especially Oprah Winfrey.

    Make sure - absolutely sure - of what you are writing. If you call it a novel, you can get away with anything. If you call it a memoir, you'd better not be fabricating or exaggerating.
     
  4. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've never heard of this as an official genre. I've heard terms such as this used with respect to a novel that seems to have strong autobiographical elements, which is fine. But if I read something that purported to be an autobiography and found out that portions of it were exaggerated or outright fabricated, I'd be pretty mad.

    As others have said, just go with "novel." It's safest that way.
     
  5. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    R.F. Delderfield's "To Serve Them All My Days" was supposed to have been largely autobiographical. And a number of characters, places and incidents in Dickens' writing were based on his own experiences. Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels were not only based on political figures of the day, but were written in serial form and shaped based on the flow of current events.

    But none of it was ever portrayed as anything but fiction.
     
  6. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ditto all of that!
     
  7. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    If you are going to write about your own life, in memoir or non-fiction, or semi-autobiographical, and you are looking for widespread publication, you had better make darned sure your life is gripping enough to intrigue more than your closest friends, relatives, and allies.

    Just a warning here: The general rule of thumb in the publishing industry is, if your name isn't Edmund Hillary (Mt. Everest) or Heinrich Harrer (Seven years in Tibet), or you are not fabulously wealthy - Gloria Vanderbilt, or you are not celebrity or a former head of state, or a combination of any - Shirley Temple Black, you probably don't have a story worth publishing. And it would take an astronomically riveting story for most agents or publishers to even want to look at it.
     
  8. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    James Frey and "A Million Little Pieces" immediately comes to mind.
     
  9. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree wholeheartedly with your first sentence. But as far as the second paragraph, that's not necessarily the case -- there are plenty of memoirs of people who are not famous, but have nonetheless either had some incredible experience or are able to articulate especially well what it is like to live in a certain way or with a certain condition. For example, I've read memoirs of non-famous people who suffered from schizophrenia or were autistic, people who lived in certain religious cults or under extremely strict (usually religious-based) rules while growing up, people who lived through or were involved in a war, people who have been victims of violent crimes, people who have either had particular diseases or cared for a loved one with a debilitating disease, etc. I just read a memoir of a woman whose parents, children, and husband were killed in the 2004 tsunami. So, you don't necessarily have to be famous, but I agree that you do need to have some sort of very riveting story, or be able to really express the feelings, emotions and thoughts that one experiences in a particular circumstance.
     
  10. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    A Million Little Pieces was first marketed as a memoir, which is different from an autobiographical novel. A memoir is basically a type of creative nonfiction piece, whereas an autobiographical novel is a work of fiction that draws from events from the author's life. If A Million Little Pieces had been marketed as an autobiographical novel in the first place, I don't think there would be as much controversy surrounding it.
     
  11. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hence the part about, "...you had better make darned sure your life is gripping enough to intrigue more than your closest friends, relatives, and allies." And, "...you probably don't have a story worth publishing."

    There are, of course, a number of people whose lives were outside the public spectrum but they lived amazing lives or experienced alarming or horrific or otherwise of interest to the world in general. Harrer was one of those, which is why I included him in my references. His life was not considered anything extraordinary but he did do some extraordinary things. The most notable of those was traveling to Tibet 'for an adventure with a friend' and becoming the close friend and confidante of the Dalai Lama. A bond which lasted until his death.

    So, in the overall context, my observation - actually not mine but a collective opinion voiced by several agents - stands as written. While not excluding the possibility that there are those who have led and lived extraordinary lives, most people who feel their lives would make a great book actually fall into the category of "a legend in his own mind".
     
  12. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    True, but it was the fact that it was presented as the true story of Frey's own life. And, as Chicagoliz said,
    The distinction between autobiography and memoir is pretty blurry. Frey initially presented the story as HIS TRUE LIFE STORY. It was not. Without splitting hairs over the label, Chicagoliz's comment reminded me of Frey's fraud and the outrage that followed.
     
  13. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't really disagree with you, wordsmith, but I also included that there are also people who don't even do something really extraordinary. There are tons of memoirs of people who go through relatively common experiences yet are able to write about them in a very compelling way. I see a lot of memoirs of people, for example, who experience infertility, or adopt a child, or have a disease (such as cancer, which yes, it is terrible, and can make a compelling story, but it is, unfortunately, not all that uncommon). Scott Turow's first book was about him going to law school, and nothing particularly unusual happened to him. There have been a few memoirs of people who become chefs, or go to medical school, or open a deli in New York. If you can really convey the personal experience in a humorous or insightful or compelling way, it can work. I agree with you that it might be a tough sell, and of course there are many people who find themselves so fascinating that they feel they simply must share themselves with the world. But in the end, it all comes down to the writing.
     

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