How to Fix an (Accidentally) Autobiographical Novel - ThePeepTimes
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How to Fix an (Accidentally) Autobiographical Novel

4 min read

Some of you may be participating in our 100 Day Book program, writing your first novel on your own, or kicking around the idea of starting that manuscript.

Writing Your First Novel: What to Do When Your First Novel Is (Accidentally) Autobiographical

Writing your first novel is hard. It’s a struggle. It’s a learning process.

And it’s often autobiographical, even if you don’t mean it to be. And that’s okay.

Wait, My Main Character Is Me!

Every character is a piece of the author. I mean, how do you “write what you know” if you can’t use who you know?

The thing with writing your first novel is that the main character will most likely be based on yourself. Heavily based on yourself.

My first finished novel was a dramatized version of my life at the time. I didn’t realize it when I was writing, but my main character was me. Her sister was my sister. Her husband was my husband. I believe I made up one character (an elderly neighbor woman) but other than that I basically just changed the names.

Even if you find your first draft to be “too you,” don’t panic. It’s not a waste of time, and you can still save it from collecting dust for eternity.

5 Reasons to Roll With It

You might be saying, “I didn’t mean for this to be autobiographical. Now I have to start over.”

No, you don’t.

Here are just a handful of reasons to go with the flow and keep writing your first novel:

1. You’re getting into a writing habit.

Writing requires dedication, time management, and a ton of patience. Just like anything else important, you have to prioritize your writing time and set goals and deadlines for yourself or you’ll never finish.

With your first novel, you’re practicing your writing habit by discovering what time of day you write best, learning how many words you can reasonably produce in each session, and developing your “process.”

2. You’re practicing your technique and finding yourself.

Writing is a lot of work. Structure, character arc and development, B plots, tone, style, etc. are all things you need to keep track of when writing a novel. Because your life is so familiar, using it as material makes it easier to focus on the finer points and lets you develop your writing style without having to concentrate as much on characters or original storyline.

When you move on to the next book, you’ll be much more confident in your writing.

3. You’re learning to differentiate characters.

A common problem with new writers (and let’s face it, some seasoned ones) is all their characters are the same. They talk the same, react the same, sometimes even look the same.

Drawing from people in real life can help with this. You know how your sister would react, what her speech patterns are, that annoying little half grin she gets when she’s right and knows it. No one else is like her. Writing “her” into your book will help you develop richer characters in later stories.

4. You’re learning to use real life.

But I just said you shouldn’t use real life, right? Not exactly. You will always use real life as a basis for your stories, but life should be a trigger for inspiration instead of copied verbatim.

As you’re writing your first novel, you’re learning to take notes, to watch people’s mannerisms, to recall weird conversations you had three years ago. You’re learning to pay attention. (And hopefully you’re learning to always carry something to write with.)

5. You’re going to finish a novel!

Remember how you wanted to write a novel, which is why you started the process to begin with? You’re still doing that!

Even if it never sees the light of day, you will have written your first novel. It will exist.

And when you move on to the next idea, you’ll be old hat at this whole novelist thing.

Up the Stakes

I know it seems like I’m saying writing your first novel is just a practice run, but that’s not necessarily the case. Besides the above reasons to stick with it, I have another secret:

You can still save this book.

So your main character is you at the core. She’s doing what you do daily. She’s taking her dog for a walk, going to the grocery store, fighting with her partner. She’s constantly doing something, so you feel like there’s a ton of action.

But where’s the conflict?

A list of action is not a story. There must be conflict. Your private life probably isn’t very dramatic, and that’s okay. You can still use instances of your life to write your novel.

Just up those stakes.

If your main character goes to the grocery store, what happens? Does she get mugged in the parking lot? Does she run into an old flame? Does she have a mental breakdown after finding out the store is out of her favorite toilet paper?

Something has to rub your main character the wrong way in order for there to be a story. Find the conflict and you’ll have a book, whether your characters are a little too true to life or not.

(A NOTE FOR THOSE MEANING TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY/MEMOIR: This section applies to you, too. You still need to have conflict in your story. The difference is you need to remember what the conflict was at the time instead of making it up.)

Keep Moving Forward

Even if upping the stakes doesn’t turn your raw material into shiny gold, it’s okay.

After my first novel turned out too true to life, I stagnated a bit. I put it in a drawer somewhere. (I have absolutely no idea which drawer now, but I’m sure the poor manuscript has a nice layer of dust and some expired coupons to keep it company.) I wondered if I should try to revise some more and decided it wasn’t worth the effort. The story just felt done to me.

Knowing that made me worry I didn’t have any imagination or writing chops. But I picked myself up and wrote a couple bad short stories. I started three other novels that didn’t get off the ground.

I kept writing.

It didn’t take long for me to get out of my slump. A little while later, I was practically bursting with ideas to write about. I’d trained my brain to write and opened the floodgates of inspiration in the process. The next novel was a dark fantasy, with characters that had personalities all their own and a world that was drastically different from my local grocery store.

That book turned into Surviving Death, and was published this month.

Now I have so many ideas, it’s hard to keep up.

Keep writing. Keep practicing. The rest will fall in line.

Is your book a little too autobiographical? What are you going to do to up the stakes? Let me know in the comments!


Today I want you to take fifteen minutes to write about something you did today. A conversation, a shopping trip, cleaning your house, anything. Keep it as true to life as possible except for one thing: conflict. Up the stakes.

When you’re done, share your writing in the comments. Don’t forget to comment on your fellow writers’ work!

Sarah Gribble

Sarah Gribble
Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death, her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.


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