Let's start with a quiz: What is the difference between writing autobiographical fiction and writing about what you know?
Never thought about it?
Then you should – it's one of the biggest areas of confusion that exists for folks starting out in novel writing...
Can both pieces of advice really be true? And if they are both true, how the heck are you meant to stick to what you know without writing your life story?
Oh, and while we're dealing with the fundamental questions: What's so bad about putting your life story down on paper, anyway?
That last one is simple to answer...
If your goal is to write your autobiography, go for it! But the fact that you've landed at a website all about writing fiction implies that your goal is different: that you want to tell made-up stories!
So it really boils down to being clear about what you want to acheieve: to tell the factual story of your time on this earth, or to tell the fictional story of a person who has never existed.
It also boils down to understanding that there's a massive gray area in the middle: that factual autobiographies can be improved by using fictional techniques (such as plotting techniques), and that fiction can be improved by – you guessed it – writing about what you know.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's rewind and take it from the beginning...
Pure autobiographical writing is a thinly-disguised version of your own life story.
Apart from changing names and locations and any other key facts, you do virtually nothing to distinguish the events of your novel from the events of your life.
And you know what? It rarely if ever works, no matter how fascinating you believe your life has been.
Your job as a novel writer is to shape new experiences, not to rewrite old ones.
Note the word "shape." Real life doesn't have any shape (very rarely, anyway)... and that is precisely the trouble with trying to pass it off as fiction.
A novel's plot consists of a series of linked events. Each event is...
It is this linkage that keeps the reader turning the pages, eager to discover what happens next.
But real life doesn't work like that. It is more random, more episodic...
"Event A" happens and then "Event B" happens. You drive into town to buy some groceries then get home to discover the boiler has flooded the basement. The two events have nothing to do with each other, which makes them hopeless for the purposes of good fiction.
There is an awful lot of dull stuff in between these events, too. And real life rarely provides satisfying endings, with the good rewarded, the bad punished, and all the loose ends neatly tied.
Oh, and have you noticed how real life is full of incredible coincidences?...
We know that things like that happen all the time in real life. But put one of these coincidences in your novel and the reader won't believe a word of it.
Life really is stranger than fiction!
Another problem with writing autobiography disguised as fiction is that it is very difficult to be objective. Yes, the passing of time helps us to gain perspective on events. But do you think you could ever gain enough perspective when the protagonist is you and the protagonist's story is your story?
If you are still drawn to writing autobiographical fiction, despite everything I have said, I have two pieces of advice...
If you do NOT want to write purely autobiographical fiction (good choice!) but nevertheless want to make full use of your experiences (another good choice!), here's the solution...
If you have ever heard the advice to "write what you know about," you should listen to it. It is one of the keys to making your fiction truthful and alive.
The trouble is, many novel writing beginners take this advice and write pure autobiography. Taking the hard facts of your life and calling them a novel doesn't work. What does work is to draw on the experiences of your life, but not in a literal way.
Below are three ways to "write what you know" without resorting to barely-concealed autobiographical fiction.
We all have specialized knowledge of something, often many things. Maybe for you it's beekeeping or forensic science. Maybe it's rock climbing or dentistry.
Whatever subject you are knowledgeable about, don't be afraid to incorporate it into your novel. It is one of the best ways there is to write what you know about, because it will give your novel authority.
Oh, and never make the mistake of believing that your specialized knowledge, whatever it may be, is too dull for a novel.
Orchid growing might seem humdrum and ordinary to you if you have been doing it all your life, but it will be fascinating to those of us who know nothing about it.
Hands up anyone who has never had a romantic relationship turn sour. Not many, I bet. It is a common experience: falling in love and then losing that love.
Now, as I have already explained, it is not a good idea to write a novel about that relationship and simply change the names.
Writing purely autobiographical fiction is not a good idea artistically, and it isn't a good idea morally - because people's real feelings are on the line. (Even if you change the names, they will still know who they are.)
So, using this failed romance, how do you draw on your experiences without writing an autobiography?
The doomed relationship will be composed of countless fragments, and it is perfectly acceptable to use these in your fiction...
Think of these fragments like tiny tiles in a huge mosaic, with the mosaic being your novel.
The way you construct the mosaic is by using some tiles created in your imagination and some tiles borrowed from a countless number of real-life experiences.
Anyone who knows you might be able to recognize a fragment here and there, but the fictional stories you create will still be exactly that: fictional.
"What isn't written from experience is worthless. You must never write about what you don't know. Not to use the unique material which you have in your possession is a kind of suicide."
- John Braine
Back to that failed romantic relationship. We know that writing about the events in a literal way won't work, but that borrowing tiny fragments from the story here and there and working them into your fiction is okay.
What is also okay - indeed, what is essential - is this...
Making use of the emotions that the real-life story caused you to feel.
We all know what it feels like when a relationship ends. The emotion experienced is usually one of pain - though it can sometimes be relief (!)
The precise way in which we experience this emotion will be different for all of us, meaning that if your novel is to truly show the reader what the world looks like through your eyes, you need to get down on paper precisely how a relationship ending feels to you.
The relationship you create in your novel will not constitute autobiographical fiction (barring the odd borrowed fragment here and there), but the emotions underpinning the imagined events will be very real.
Another way to make use of your real-life emotional experiences is to use them to help you imagine how experiences you have never had might feel.
I might not know what X feels like. But I do know what Y feels like. And remembering Y will help me to better imagine X.
Writing autobiographical fiction might be tempting at first glance, but you are going to have the devil's own job trying to craft a story out of events which don't want to follow the principles of storytelling.
Much better merely to borrow from your life - a fragment of an experience here, an emotional truth there. That way, you can write what you know about while keeping the story you tell essentially fictional.
If to "write what you know" means drawing from your life, but making up the bulk of the material in the novel, where will all your made-up ideas come from? The answer, of course, is the imagination. After all...
All good fiction writing is imaginative writing. If a writer makes nothing up, save for maybe changing a few names, she is effectively writing autobiography and should probably stick to non-fiction.
Isn't that kind of obvious?
Yes, I suppose it is. But here is why I said it...
There is a danger that the aspiring novelist might believe that, just because she has no first-hand experience of certain things - robbing a bank, riding a camel, running a dairy farm - that she cannot write about these things in any meaningful way.
But she can, and she must. And her imagination is the tool which allows her to do it with authority.
Sure, a first-hand knowledge of things is always helpful. And research is important, too. Beyond that, you must never be afraid to use your imagination. After all, creative writing is sometimes called imaginative writing. And as we all know from our daydreams, the imagination is capable of magical things.
Here is the horror writer Stephen King on the subject (from his great book "On Writing")...
"The dictum in writing classes used to be 'write what you know.' Which sounds good, but what if you want to write about starships exploring other planets or a man who murders his wife and then tries to dispose of her body with a wood-chipper? How does the writer square either of these, or a thousand other fanciful ideas, with the 'write-what-you-know' directive? I think you begin by interpreting 'write what you know' as broadly and inclusively as possible. If you're a plumber, you know plumbing, but that is far from the extent of your knowledge; the heart also knows things, and so does the imagination. Thank God. If not for the heart and imagination, the world of fiction would be a pretty seedy place. It might not even exist at all."
Later in "On Writing", King goes on to talk about how the principle of using your imagination applies to characterization...
"When you ask yourself what a certain character will do given a certain set of circumstances, you're making the decision based on what you yourself would (or, in the case of a bad guy, wouldn't) do. Added to these versions of yourself are the character traits, both lovely and unlovely, which you observe in others. There is also a wonderful third element: pure blue-sky imagination. This is the part which allowed me to be a psychotic nurse for a little while when I was writing Misery."
But what about truth?
Is it possible for me to write truthfully about a character riding a motorbike, for example, when I have never ridden one myself?
Sure it is...
I might need to do a little research - find out what the various controls do on my chosen make and model, what the top speed is, things like that. A few facts and figures will help me to describe the motorcycle ride authentically.
But getting your facts straight is only one part of truthfulness. Another, perhaps more important, part is writing convincingly about how something feels - that is, to write what you know on a sensory and emotional level.
I have had some real-life experiences that I can draw on here...
These experiences will help me to an extent. For everything else, I can use my imagination and my imaginative writing skills...
I can climb onto that motorbike in my mind and experience the journey as if for real. I can feel the wind pressing my clothes to my body. I can feel my heart quicken as I lean into corners, and the exhilaration as I accelerate out of them.
And so I will be able to write with truth and honesty what riding a motorcycle feels like to me, even though I have never actually ridden one.
What if I can't experience it in my imagination?
What if I close my eyes and draw a complete blank? Then I won't include it in my novel - simple as that. I will have my character travel by car instead. Or by bicycle.
I'll leave the final word on the power of imaginative writing to the novelist John Irving...
"When The World According to Garp was published, people who'd lost children wrote to me. 'I lost one, too,' they told me. I confessed to them that I hadn't lost any children. I'm just a father with a good imagination. In my imagination, I lose my children every day."
And that is that: everything there is to say about autobiographical fiction, "writing what you know," and using your imagination. You've been blessed with a great imagination; make sure you use it to shape that other great gift: your life experiences.