Life writing and fiction: too much or too little?

life writingRecently I’ve critiqued several fiction works that were at least partially (if not completely) based on the author’s own experiences. We all do this, of course. We give our characters our own reactions to terrible and wonderful things, we use our memories of events and people to create action and character, and we even use overheard or remembered conversations as a basis for our dialogue.

In other words, every fiction writer uses snippets in different ways. But when you write something that you turn directly into fiction, different rules apply. When I teach life writing classes, we talk about this a lot. “Real life” can hold you back – I’ve heard writers say many times, “but that was how it really happened”. Maybe so, but real life can ruin both plot and character if you hold to them too closely!

However, another issue that isn’t talked about much has arisen via the manuscripts I read. I call it “too much vs too little”. These are the two sides of it:

  • Too much is where you feel compelled to write everything – every single moment, every action, every thought, every conversation. It’s as if you can’t step back far enough to make the same kind of judicious selecting that you do when it’s all fiction. The fact that you lived it, in your mind, means it all needs to be there to show the reader exactly what and how and why.
  • Too little is where most of it stays in your head, because you already know the story so well that you think it is on the page when actually it isn’t. So you have characters talking in code, or taking great leaps into forward action with no justification, or doing things “just because”. You are unable to work out what bits the reader needs to know to keep the story cohesive in their minds.

Neither of these is unfixable, but both of them will take an immense amount of work and a good, critical reader who doesn’t know you. It will probably also mean you, as the writer, will have to take a long break from the work in order to help you get enough distance to see the issues for yourself.

Is it better to write too much rather than too little? Probably, because it’s easier to cut than to fill in, and if you have an editor working with you, they can’t really tell you what isn’t there! I would suggest if you have either of these problems, try working on a small piece to start with, with feedback from several different readers, and see how you go.


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