Semi-autobiographical, part 2

I wrote before about one form of semi-autobiographic writing that can drive a reader nuts. There’s another kind that some audiences just eat up, which drives a lot of writers nuts.

It’s the fictional, semi-autobiographical best seller. This seems to occur in movies and television far more often in books—or maybe I’m just lucky and don’t read those kinds of books. It’s the tale of an author who wrote a semi-autobiographical novel or series of novels that became bestsellers, and she/he either a) has to eventually deal with the fallout of friends and relatives who felt betrayed or somehow stolen from, or b) it’s a big secret that it’s semi-autobiographical, because there is some tragedy or a long-hidden crime or something.

Certain readers eat this up because they always assume that the only way a story can get under their skin and make them feel as if these are real people in real danger, et al, is if the stories and characters are drawn verbatim from the author’s life. Which is pure BS.

Certain writers use this trope because they started their writing career trying to sell a profound, serious novel or screenplay they wrote about their own life which they have failed, repeatedly, to sell. They think that they have moved on, writing other things—and look, they’re now successful screenwriters!—but they haven’t moved on. Since about half those “has to deal with the people who feel hurt about seeing their lives in the book” tales focus on just how profoundly shallow, lonely, and unfulfilled this has left the writer, they are simply experiencing sour grapes. “I didn’t really want to sell that novel and have it become a bestseller. It would have just ruined my life!”

Arguments can be made that the other common scenario involving the secret tragedy or secret crime/great moral failing/what have you is just another form of sour grapes. A sort of Faustian bargain, if you will: the tragedy or guilt is the price some authors pay for their success.

The truth is, most of those semi-autobiographic novels don’t sell or become a hit because they are awful. They’re awful because the writer wasn’t experienced enough yet to know the biggest difference between fiction and real life: fiction makes sense. They’re awful because the writer wasn’t experienced enough yet to realize that his/her barely post-adolescent deep insights into the human condition aren’t all that deep, and certainly aren’t new. They’re awful because the writer was more focused on himself than on the tale.

Another truth is that every author, aspiring or otherwise, has written that awful semi-autobiographical novel, screenplay, or short story. Sometimes more than once. Every now and then we even manage to sell one. My particular tale that falls in that category is, without a doubt, the second worst thing I ever got published. The worst thing I ever got published was my first sold fiction story, and it was worse because it was pure wish fulfillment—the only thing more self-indulgent than the semi-autobiographical tale.

On one level, I’m ashamed those things were published. On another, I’m grateful they’re out there, because they constantly remind me of just how bad and self-delusional I’m capable of being.

A third truth is that in one sense, every successful story does contain some elements drawn from the author’s life experiences. We can’t tell a tale without alluding to things we have observed, felt, or otherwise experienced. The secret is to use those experiences as guideposts, not as cookie cutters. Any character you create will have bits and pieces of people you know. Sometimes consciously, more often not. And when you know you’re basing a character on a person you know, you have to be prepared to diverge from the real person whenever it makes sense for the story.

Because your first duty as a writer is to the story. If you make decisions based on your own agenda, or trying to please a particular person, or staying true to a personal experience you’ve decided to crib, rather than the story, you’re headed for disaster.

I’ll end this rant with a few rules I’ve adopted over the years:

  1. “But that’s what really happened!” is never an excuse. It’s either believable within the context of the story, without any outside knowledge, or it’s wrong.
  2. The more profound you think you’re being, the higher the probability that you’re writing pure crap.
  3. Your job is to tell the very best story you can right now. Your job is not to impart wisdom or Great Truths. A good tale contains some truths for some members of the audience. Some readers may find wisdom. But those are the results of telling the best tale you can and the reader responding to it. It’s not about you.
  4. You can get away with more in the service of comedy, but even there, remember that if you’re writing a pure comedy, the joke trumps other concerns, including sometimes consistency and believability.
  5. Always remember Niven’s Law: it is a sin the waste the reader’s time.

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