Overcoming the Challenges to Writing Your Life Story

(I originally wrote this for the Imagination Soup blog.)

My middle-grade novel in verse, Starfish, is based on my life. So people often ask me, “How can I turn my personal story into a fiction novel?” On the surface, it might seem like the easiest book you’ll ever write. That’s the problem, though. That’s on the surface. If you’ve ever tried to write your story, you know it’s a challenge. 

Challenge No. 1: People don’t want to know everything. We’ve all had our struggles, so we all have plenty of material to work with. The temptation is to tell the reader every tiny detail of your life and include everyone you’ve ever met. That’s overwhelming for the reader. And, if you’ve done this, it’s overwhelming for the writer; that’s why you give up and stop writing the novel.  

Solution No. 1: Leave a lot on the cutting room floor. What events in your life – good or bad – made you, you, make your story unique? Think about how you’ve used or want to use what happened to you to change or help the reader and the world. Look at it like the Kennedy Center Honors. When someone receives a lifetime achievement award, the audience gets a highlight reel of the defining moments that shaped the person’s life and allowed them to have an impact on the world. That’s your template.

Challenge No. 2: You have to be honest – with the reader and yourself. While the good things that happen to us are some of our most precious memories, it’s usually the bad moments that define and shape us. They’re not pleasant to even think about or share with our closest friends we trust – let alone put in print for strangers around the world to see, strangers who might not “get it.” Often, they’re embarrassing. Sometimes our reactions to those moments reveal a side of ourselves we don’t want to admit we have, and we definitely don’t want anyone to ever know that’s who we really are. Write about those moments. That’s the story.

Solution No. 2: You have to be real and raw. In Starfish, Ellie takes a beating, emotionally. I always tell readers, “Not everything that happens to Ellie happened to me, but a version of everything that happens to Ellie happened to me. Ellie got the watered-down version.” Telling the world that, when it came to my weight and my body, my mom saw me as a thing was not easy to write about. I wept writing those poems. I weep thinking about them. I’ll never read them aloud. Know what’s worse? The moment I realized I had to accept that was the truth: My mom saw me as a thing. With the fictionalized version of your story, one thing must be nonfiction: your emotions. If your story lacks authentic emotions, you’ll never connect with the reader. And what do writers want more than anything? Christy Anne Martine says it best: “I want someone to read these words and understand me for just one second so I’m not alone with my thoughts.”

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