Books Writing

Writing biography or a novel?

The novel

A novel is a purely fictional story – at least that is the general definition. Of course, a novel is shaped by the author’s life: It incorporates their own experiences, their own experiences and convictions. But the plot and the characters are fictional.

If autobiographical narration is combined with fictional elements, the result is an autobiographical novel. But an autobiographical novel is far more difficult to write than a purely fictional novel.

Surgeons are advised against operating on relatives. This is because they lack the inner distance and thus the professionalism. It is similar with autobiographical novels: there is a lack of professional distance from the plot. It is difficult to see oneself as a “novel character” and one’s own life as a “story.”

The autobiographical novel

To make a good novel, characters and plot are shaped into an exciting and entertaining story. This editing is difficult to do for one’s own life. You yourself find everything interesting and exciting, but you often don’t manage to shape your own story in such a way that other people also find the plot exciting. You simply don’t have an outside perspective, a professional view of what’s going on, to be able to judge what it’s better to leave out and what to add for a good dramaturgy.

Agencies and publishers know this problem. They are often offered autobiographical novels in which the transfer performance is not successful or only moderately successful. That is why they look at a manuscript particularly critically if the cover letter indicates that it is an autobiographical novel.

Casting one’s own life in novel form usually only succeeds if one manages to detach oneself from the actual events. If you can take two steps back from the real events and the people involved. When you use your own life primarily as a creative reservoir from which you can take events like puzzle pieces to insert them into the new story to be created.

As the author of an autobiographical novel, you need a certain distance to recognize what is good for the story and what is not – regardless of what actually happened.

The biography

A biography, on the other hand, is expected to have everything correspond to reality. Of course, you can leave things out, you don’t have to tell everything. But what is written in a biography should be accurate. This also applies to the subgenres of biography such as autobiography, memoir, and travel journal.

Autobiography, memoir and travel diary

In a biography, one person describes the life of another. Memoirs, autobiographies, and travel diaries, on the other hand, are first-person autobiographical narratives in which people write about their own lives. While biographies and autobiographies focus on a person’s entire life, memoirs are thematically focused. They describe, for example, only a certain aspect of a person’s professional life or how he or she coped with a particularly difficult phase of life. In a travel diary, on the other hand, a person describes his or her journey, describing encounters and experiences.

For some years now, the memoir and the travel diary in particular have become increasingly popular. However, similar to the autobiographical novel, autobiographies, memoirs and travel diaries often lack the necessary distance to be able to decide what to tell and what is better left out.

Good biographies are created by leaving out unimportant details. If you are part of the action, it becomes a challenge to separate the important from the unimportant.

Reviews are part of the process

For autobiographical writing to succeed, the emotional level must also be revealed. In the case of decisions or strokes of fate, you should describe the emotions involved and what it meant for the author. One should be authentic, only in this way can one arouse interest in the author, in her fate and her undertakings.

One should take into account that books are reviewed. Be it in a review on Amazon or in a newspaper – the public reviews are part of writing a book or writing a children’s book. Especially with autobiographies, memoirs and travel diaries, this can be very hurtful. Because the described actions and emotions of the authors are also analyzed, evaluated and criticized.

Once the book is published, it cannot be taken back. Even if you withdraw the book, used copies can still be offered for sale on Amazon or Ebay years later.

The right of personality

Another thorny issue is the personality rights of the people mentioned in biographies. Germany has a strong personal rights law that protects in particular the private lives of people who are not in the public eye. This includes, among other things, the right to self-expression:

“The right to self-presentation ensures that individuals can determine how they present themselves in public. It therefore protects him from unwanted, distorted or dishonorable representation by third parties. The protection of self-presentation includes, for example, […] the right to one’s own word (and) […] the confidentiality of the conversation. Furthermore, from the right to self-representation follows the right to determine whether one’s own name is published or mentioned in public.”

No one wants to read it

There is hardly any market for biographies or autobiographies of unknown people. Many readers of this genre would rather read books about well-known personalities. Only (auto)biographies of people who are either very well known and have a high media presence, or of people who have achieved something absolutely spectacular and thus also have a certain media presence, or of people who have mastered a very unusual fate, achieve noteworthy circulations. Only rarely are autobiographical works by unknown people sold in a significant number of copies.

Biography : Autobiographical novel

Pros and cons of autobiographical novel

It is hard to write a good novel. It is even harder to make a good novel out of your own life story. The closer you stay to your own life and experiences, the harder it is to make a really good novel out of it.
The right of personality also applies to an autobiographical novel. That’s why you should alienate all the characters who are modeled on people in your close social environment to such an extent that they can no longer be recognized.
In an autobiographical novel, the author does not have to reveal what really comes from their life and what is fictitious. Readers can only speculate about what really happened – and some will.
If, with a little distance, the experiences of one’s own life can be incorporated without sticking too much to one’s own story, it could turn out well.

Pros and cons of biography

  • A biography and its subgenres such as the autobiography, the memoir and the travel diary also need a dramaturgically well-built structure. If one describes one’s own life, then it is difficult to decide what one should tell and what is better left out.
  • Since very few people lead a hermit’s life, there will probably be other people in a biography. You should ask them for permission before publishing – or you risk the book being banned.
  • There is practically no market for biographies and autobiographical works by unknown persons. One’s own life story, which a person and those closest to him or her consider spectacular and extraordinary, may not be judged as particularly outstanding by other people.
  • Therefore, one should abandon the idea that one can sell a significant number of the books.
  • One’s own family, friends and social environment often have a great interest in the life of a loved one. For this alone it is worthwhile to write down one’s own life. You don’t necessarily have to make the book public. There are now many self-publishing services that can help you print a small, non-public edition for little money.
  • Autobiographical storytelling can be very satisfying – whether you’re writing for publication or your own social circle. You can also get support in the process: Biographers not only write about the lives of others, but also guide people who want to write down their own stories. A directory of biographers can be found here, for example: Biography Center.
  • Writing down one’s own experiences can also be a valuable help in coming to terms with difficult life events. Therapeutic writing is becoming increasingly important. The resulting texts are not suitable for publication, but can be an important support on the path to healing. More about this can be found on Wikipedia under the keyword poetry therapy.

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