Writing Your First Novel: How to Fix an (Accidentally) Autobiographical Novel

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

Writing Your First Novel

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.

However, as you write your first novel, it would be worth stepping back and considering how much you need your book to replicate your life.

Great writing comes from great experiences, of course! But, does your first book need to be your life?

Can you start writing something inspired by your life, yet not the same, instead?

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 book is that the main character will most likely be based on yourself. Heavily based on yourself.

What I mean by this is that their point of view likely comes from your point of view in real life. When it’s your first time writing, it’s not uncommon that your main character shares your perspective.

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.

Writing your first novel is hard work, and learning how to write a POV or POVs that are inspired by you without being exactly you is a learning process.

And part of the creative process, too!

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.”

Writing sessions should be dedicated to learning your style of fiction writing or nonfiction writing.

Don’t obsess over whether or not your writing is as good as a published author’s. Instead, write your first novel with a goal of developing good writing habits.

This is what will push you through writing lows like writer’s block, perfectionism, or imposter syndrome.

And all of these habits will support you again and again as you put more words down on reoccurring blank pages.

Some strategies to nurture healthy writing habits include:

  • Set a daily word count (or protect a routine time of the day for writing).

You might even like to make a “Word Count Jar” or “Word Count Bank” and add or remove money from the jar each day you do or don’t meet your word count goal. Treat yourself to something you’ve special like a yummy dinner or special gift when you’ve added a certain amount.

  • Find a writing blog (like this one!) or listen to a writing podcast that teaches you something about writing without clouding progress made on your first book.

Different writers have a different writing process, and others have similar ones, too. Whether or not you enjoy writing tips that come with the territory or a step-by-step process on how to write your first book, turning to aspiring authors turned published authors is a good way to develop healthy writing habits that will lead to your finished book.

  • Read! Don’t stop reading!

Never stop reading, even as you write. Many writers’ bets story ideas come from reading wide and deep. Your writing process will only benefit from a bookshelf that its full of bestsellers, short stories, classics, debuts, contemporary stories, and a variety of genres.

Do you want to become a great writer with brilliant story ideas? Then you need to read. You need to learn from the best.

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, or even the second draft, you’ll be much more confident in your writing.

But for now, lean on the reason you decided to write your first novel in the first place. Use that to finish your book.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if your first person narrative feels a little too close to home.

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.

However, while your characters might have similar personalities to people in your life, that doesn’t mean they have to share identical backstories.

If you are worrying that your characters are carven copies of one another, and that bothers you, maybe consider how you can make their backstories different.

Take a writing break day and dedicate it to getting to know your characters a bit better by writing out these backstories in a synopsis of their life. If it helps, try finding a photo online that best fits this character—but is not that sister who inspired them.

Are you starting to see them slightly in a different light now? Is that difference making it easier or harder to write them?

If easier, bravo, and keep going!

If more difficult, scrap this character day as one for practice, and give yourself a break for making the characters so alike others in your real life. It’s your first book. You’re learning!

4. You’re learning to use real life.

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.)

P.S. If you haven’t tried writing (and taking notes) with Scrivener yet, I highly recommend it.

Carrying a writer’s journal in your back pocket is always a good habit. Using Scrivener to take notes and plot and write your book is too. You can read more about our book Scrivener Superpowers in this post.

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.

However, if you get hung up on your story needing to be perfect, on it needing to be as good as what your future books will inevitably be, you’ll never finish this one.

Finishing is the most important step you can accomplish this time round! You’ll learn so much about story structure, your writing process, and other writing essentials by accomplishing what you set out to do in the beginning of your writing challenge.

You can’t edit anything that isn’t written.

In the same light, you’ll never learn as much about writing a first book as you do from actually finishing your first novel.

Whether or not you’re writing a 50,000 word MG book or a 100,000 word fantasy novel, finish your story. Share it with others. And prepare for the second draft.

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 doneto 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!

PRACTICE

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 GribbleSarah 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.

Follow her on Instagram or join her email list for free scares.

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