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Writers: The mire of conflicting advice & unfair criticism

The hierarchical structure of the autobiograph...

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When I got into the business, there was a criticism meant to shut writers down.

“Too autobiographical” was the kiss of death.

That’s ironic for several reasons:

Biographies and autobiographies are moneymaking books. Sarah Palin‘s ghosts have already published more books than you and possibly more books than she’s read. Okay, that was a cheap shot, but somewhat funny and it has the added bonus of being an Irish fact—that is, something that is a lie, but should be true.

I digress.

Back to the issue of unfair criticisms and misguided advice:

 The mind boggles at Augusten Burroughs work. How much childhood trauma can one man recycle into his fiction and non-fiction? He has enough monsters, addictions and insanity in his past that he’s set for several more books at least.

“Too autobiographical” is now a stale criticism when you consider the movement of the market toward tell-alls, whistleblowing and confessionals. There’s a lot of popular fiction that’s thinly veiled life story, too. In fact, if you’ve been a lion tamer-stripper-celebrity-prostitute, you’re a much easier sale than if you’re just another writer working away at your desk making stuff up.

Diablo Cody is a talented writer, but she had a lot more heat going into the fray because of her tattooed image and history as a stripper. I’m not saying she wouldn’t have sold the brilliant Juno script anyway, but really, how many celebrity screenwriters can you name besides her, McKee and William Goldman? If you came up with a few names, it’s probably because they are famous writer-directors, not just writers.

(And notice that irksome phrase “just writers.” I use it advisedly, as a synonym for “merely,” since that’s the stature writers generally have in film, television and publishing.)

“Too autobiographical” was once a stinging barb. It marked a talent that was undeveloped. It suggested teenage angst worthy of a diary, not of publishable quality.

The worm has turned. Now your tortured history as a brawler helps; Chuck Palahniuk brawled a bit and escorted sick people to support groups long before Fight Club. Your time in seedy bars lends authenticity to your writing and manuscript evaluators may well take you more seriously because of the stuff you don’t want your mom to know. A work can still be too autobiographical, but that criticism doesn’t carry the weight it once did.

Evaluators can be off the mark in what they think qualifies as authentic, anyway. One writer, for instance, was told that her dialogue didn’t ring true for how contemporary teenagers speak. She was advised to hang out with some kids to catch the flavor of the real thing. What the manuscript reader didn’t know was the writer was 17 at the time.

We’re a culture that worships celebrity, so “too autobiographical” isn’t a criticism that comes up as much (unless your life story is deadly dull.)

The true irony is that the same editors who would say “too autobiographical” would also routinely tell aspiring writers to “Write what you know.”

That’s bad, even egregious advice. Don’t write what you know. If you only write what you knew, there wouldn’t be much fantasy, science fiction…or much literature at all, come to think of it.

Instead, write what you care about.

 Your research and the knowledge

flows from caring, anyway.

Filed under: authors, book reviews, Books, Editors, links, manuscript evaluation, Rant, scriptwriting, Useful writing links, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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