I read somewhere that all first novels are “semi-autobiographical” and are always dedicated to the author’s parents. Guilty. However, what I learned in writing Yankee Girl is that “semi-autobiographical” is not the same thing as a memoir with all the names changed to “protect the innocent.”
When I critique a manuscript, the author is always amazed when I say, “This is something that happened to you,” or “This is a family story, isn’t it?” I’m not Karnack the Great. There are certain hallmarks of writing ripped from your family album/high school diary. Here they are:
- Stories that meander. Life doesn’t fall into neat little story arcs with climaxes and denouements and resolutions. Between the exciting and interesting parts that inspired you to write the story, are the dull parts . . . flunked tests, bad hair days, barfy school lunches. In the first draft of Yankee Girl, I included them all. Then I wondered why a book about a pretty intense time and place (
, 1964) was so boring. Which brings me to a cardinal rule of writing; if it doesn’t move the story along, cut it. Unless that bad hair day turns out to be a key plot point, or you need it for a specific reason, CUT IT! Mississippi
- “Because it really happened that way” is not that reason. A truckload of specific details can bury your story. Anyone who reads my novels knows my fondness for using period detail . . . AquaNet hairspray, Beechnut’s Fruit Stripe Gum (“five different flavors!”), popular music titles. But a little bit of this goes a long way. When you describe every article of clothing a character is wearing, I expect that character to turn out to be a major player, and those clothes to tell me something about the person. If not . . . well, you know what to do! When I point this out to the author, nine times out of ten, I get the argument “But it really happened that way.” Rule three . . .
- . . . unless it makes sense within the context of the story, nobody cares if it “really happened that way.” This is fiction. Fiction is shaped reality. I didn’t “invent” any of the events of Yankee Girl. I did fiddle with time lines, smooshing events that happened over perhaps five years into one school year. Some of the things that happen to Valerie actually happened to me. Some of the things that happened to Alice Ann happened to my parents or their friends or people I knew in high school. I combined several people to make one character. This is why it’s semi-autobiographical and not biographical.
- The “real life” part of your story is only the seed. Yes, you might start off writing about something that happened to you in the eighth grade, with yourself as the main character, but the story eventually has to find a life and meaning of its own.
- Writing a main character who is essentially you is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. It sounds easy, but like playing “yourself” on stage, it isn’t. With Yankee Girl, I grew bored writing about myself as Alice Ann. I never realized how utterly dull I was. Why would anyone want to spend 200 plus pages with this character? That is when you try to put as much distance between you and your fictional self as you can, while remaining emotionally true to the story. At eleven, I had no self-esteem and was afraid of everything (not without reason, if you’ve read the book). I made Alice Ann everything I wished I had been . . . mouthier, braver, smarter.
This week’s reading list is on the meager side. By the time you read this, I will be recovering from retinal re-attachment surgery. So here it is (such as it is):
Picture book: FARMER DALE’S RED PICKUP TRUCK by Lisa Wheeler (2004, School Library Journal)
Middle grade: ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL* by Nora Raleigh Baskin (2009, Kirkus Reviews) TROPICAL SECRETS* by Margaret Engle (2009, Kirkus Reviews)
YA: WHAT WORLD IS LEFT by Monique Polak (2008, YALSA list), HOPPER GRASS by Chris Carlton Brown (2009, Kirkus Reviews)
(* indicates that I couldn't decide if this was upper middle grade or lower YA.)
Writing Workout: Fictionalizing Real Life
Write about an event or an anecdote from your life in which you are a central character.
Now write the same anecdote in which the central character (you) is the exact OPPOSITE of the real you. If you are shy, make the character aggressive. Instead of kindly, make yourself a bully or a “mean girl.” See what happens to your anecdote.
Did the story take a different direction?
Was it harder or easier to write about that central “you” character?
Are you surprised by the results?