Monday, June 27, 2011

I'm Not Charles Dickens; Writing the Autobiographical Novel

     "Everybody's first novel is autobiographical." I don't know who said this, or how true this. However, I am guilty as charged.  My first published book, Yankee Girl, is at least semi-autobiograpical. By semi-autobiographical, I mean I changed the names, physical characeristics, and several of the characters are composites of real people. 98% of the incidents in the book really happened, if not to me, then to members of my family, or someone I know personally. The most important part of the story, the inner struggles and fears of Alice Ann Moxley are 100% me.

    Why do writers start off writing about their own lives?  What could be easier than writing about yourself and the people you know?  Right? Wrong!

    Yankee Girl took me five years. It was my life.  What took so long?  I have kept a diary since third grade, so I had my fifth and sixth grade journals to jog my memory. True, I did have to do a years worth of research on things that weren't in my journal (the chronology of the Civil Rights movement, hairdos, television schedules....but I'll save that for a future post.)

    I do a lot of critiquing, and I can always sniff out an autobiographical first novel. New writers think that you start at what they believe to be the beginning (sometimes all the way back to the beginning, as in David Copperfield's first chapter "I Am Born.") In fact, most autobiographical novels seem to take Mr. Dickens as their literary role model.


   Before you start snorting, "Just who does Mary Ann Rodman think she is, trashing Dickens?" I will tell you I like Dickens.  Nobody can create a character like Dickens. However, there was a reason that most of us read "edited" versions of David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities in middle school. Our books were perhaps 250 pages.  The uncut versions are around 900 pages! Before I went to college I decided that "a real writer" would have read the original versions.

     So I ploughed into them. Here is where I became frustrated with Dickens' style. He could spend a whole chapter describing a character who never appears again.

     And description? I love writing description, but again, the man could write for pages about a room that really had nothing to do with the central story. OK, I realize that Dickens wrote many of his books
as newspaper serials, and that he was paid by the word. But that was then. This is now.

     My point?  Real life and fiction are two different things. Fiction is life edited. I learned this the hard way.  The first draft of Yankee Girl and included everything, even the color of my bathroom tile  (mint green, if you want to know). And it was 300 pages! Somewhere in those 300 pages was the original story of following your conscience vs the crowd...but it was buried under characters who appeared once and disappeared, a fight my mother had with the Welcome Wagon Lady who told us to move back to Chicago (it was funny, but really added nothing to the story), and endless details that were accurate to the time...but detrimental to the story.

    I was writing Yankee Girl in the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children program. My second semester, my obese novel landed on the desk of my semester's mentor, Marion Dane Bauer. I wasn't around when she first saw it, but I can imagine her reaction. Marion is of the Spartan school of writing.
Her books do not contain one unnecessary word, character or scene. Her Newbery Honor winner, On My Honor and Yankee Girl are both middle grader novels. The first draft of YG was something close to 80,000 words. On My Honor is 16,000.

   I have lost track of how many times per critique Marion would use the phrase How does this move the story along? She used it in reference to characters, scenes, and descriptions that I thought were just too cool to leave out. Because it really happened this way I would write back. That's not a good enough reason Marion answered.  If it doesn't move the story forward, take it out.

     Being a slow learner, who likes to wander up literary cul-de-sacs just because I love the way the words sound, it took me most of the semester to discern what did or did not "move the story along." The "move along" critiques continued to the end of our time together, although they grew became less frequent, I went into the next semester with a 50,000 word draft. (The published version of Yankee Girl is around 44,000 words.)

     Meandering around with words doesn't just happen with autobiographical novels. However, in an autobiographical story, you have a tendency to not want to leave out a single detail, relevant or not.

    Thank you, Marion Dane Bauer, who has influenced me more than she will ever know, even though our styles are absolute opposites.  And for the rest of you who haven't had the good luck to spend six
months working with this wonderful writer, repeat after me How does this move my story along?

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman



Carmela Martino said...

My first novel was somewhat autobiographical too, MA, but the funny thing is, I never intended to write about the incidents that inspired it. Mine came out of an assignment Marion Dane Bauer gave me when she was my VC adviser.

storyqueen said...

Love this post. It is always a challenge to navigate the cul-de-sacs and know when to venture into them deeply, and when to avoid them altogether.

Well done.


Sandy Brehl said...

Thanks for the timely and helpful reminder-words to live by- and write by!

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