Friday, May 29, 2009

Writing from Life Without Boring Yourself by Mary Ann Rodman

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:
  1. 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 (Mississippi, 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!

  2. “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 . . .

  3. . . . 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.
I went through the same process again with Jimmy's Stars, which was based on my mother’s family during World War II. Ellie, the main character, began life as my favorite aunt. By the time I turned the manuscript in, Ellie was part Aunt Agnes, part my own mother, and part a girl I knew in second grade. When my aunt’s daughter read the book, she asked “Um . . . was that supposed to be my mom?” The answer? No. My aunt was the sand in the oyster who attracted all sorts of other influences. In the end, Ellie McKelvey was not my aunt or my mother or Barbara from second grade. Ellie was a full-blown fictional character, living in a real time and place, living events that had their genesis in family lore, but that turned out much, much differently in the book.

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)
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?


Marie said...

Great post! I don't write fiction, but I *do* teach a memoir-writing class for senior citizens. Even though they *are* writing from real life, they could benefit from following some of your fiction tips, too. Example: if it doesn’t move the story along, cut it.

Robin said...

I wonder if picture books are ever autobiographical in the way you describe. I have one about a Frog who always seems very familiar...

mary ann rodman said...

Robin--Funny you should ask! After I posted this I thought "I should have mentioned picture books!"
Although my picture books have mostly been based on things that have happened to my now-adolescent daughter, my latest one, SURPRISE SOUP (April 2009, Viking) began life as one of my favorite childhood memories...making soup with my dad. From there it turned into two BOYS making soup with their dad (making Sunday morning pancakes for the family with HIS was my husband's favorite childhood memory). I am an only child, and my husband is the youngest of three. Once again, I started off writing something I thought was going to be very autobiographical, and wound up with a double semi-autobiographical. Sometimes these stories just have a mind of their own!
Good question, Robin....