First novels are very often autobiographical. If you’re writing a story with a plot that borrows extensively from your life or whose protagonist closely resembles you, you’re a member of a very large club. And if you’ve struggled to keep some objective distance, you’re a member of an even larger club! Learning to step back and examine one’s own work without emotional attachment to characters that clutter the landscape or subplots that distract readers from the main story arc may be one of the hardest things a new writer has to learn. Many writers never master the skill, relying on writing partners or editors to be merciless where they are unable. And if your characters or subplots are grounded in your personal experiences, you’re even more likely to wrestle with this crucial skill.
What Really Happened Doesn’t Matter
I’ll give you a piece of advice novelist John Weir (whose book What I Did Wrong certainly has some autobiographical elements) gave to me many years ago. He told the story of a workshop where the class critiqued the dialogue and a particular scene from a student’s story. The student got very upset. “But it’s practically verbatim what happened!” He exclaimed. “How can you say it’s not realistic?” Weir pointed out that just because something happens in life, that doesn’t mean it works on the page. At the end of the day, readers don’t know and don’t care what did or did not happen to you—they only care about what they’re reading, what works for them, whether it seems authentic to the characters and the world you’ve created. You’re a fiction writer, after all, not a journalist: It’s not your job to report what happened, but to bring to life an invented reality that’s believable.
In short, what really happened doesn’t matter.
Understanding this may help you take a look at your work with a different perspective. You’ve got to completely forget about what actually happened and focus only on what’s going on in the pages of your novel or short story. If the material there isn’t working, no amount of “but it really happened!” is going to make a difference.
Get Some Emotional Distance
If you’re still bound by the reality that inspired your story, maybe you need to fictionalize more. For example, if you’ve been writing about a protagonist with a daughter, try making the child a son. It sounds like a simple fix (though depending on your story it may change things a bit), but it will help give you emotional distance between the story and your life. Many writers use tricks like these to great effect:
- Move the setting to a different city, state, or even a different country
- Change female characters into male characters and vice versa
- Rearrange the types of relationships characters have to one another
- Combine elements of different people into one or a few composite characters
- Change to a third person limited POV
- Set the story in a different era
- Keep the key event and emotional underpinnings, but change everything else entirely
Get Some Actual Distance
If you’re still unable to see your work as an invention that plays by its own rules instead of being dictated by what did or did not actually happen, you may need some time away from it.
It’s common for people to use writing as therapy, and though it may have felt good to write your story down, it could be too soon for you to work with it the way a writer needs to—especially if you’re writing about a deeply emotional period of your life. It isn’t easy to open up and let the reader—a perfect stranger—in; you may feel too exposed and vulnerable. You may be hindering yourself with your fear of judgment. But if you hold back, it will negatively affect the reader’s experience. So don’t rush things.
Writing a book is a huge endeavor. Finishing a book, regardless of its commercial appeal or quality, is an accomplishment of which you should be proud. So many people say they want to write a novel and never write a single word, or they start a hundred stories and finish nothing. So if you’ve got a complete draft, you’re ahead of the game! You’ve got all the raw material. Now you just need to keep polishing it. And your ability to do so will come, if you give yourself enough time, and if you can commit to the integrity of the story as something organic and self-contained and not as a recording of your memory.
I’d love to hear how the abovementioned tips worked (or didn’t) for you! Please share below.
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.