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What is Autobiographical Fiction? An Introduction to the Genre

Sean Glatch  |  July 29, 2021  |  10 Comments

writing autobiographical fiction

At some point along your fiction journey, you may have considered writing autobiographical fiction—perhaps writing an autobiographical novel, or a shorter work based on your life experience. Many famous authors have turned their life stories into compelling works of prose, from Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield to Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian .

Most writers have life stories that can be turned into fiction, but what is the purpose of autobiographical fiction? Even more, what is autobiographical fiction?

Creative writers love to break conventions and bend genres, and autobiographical fiction (ABF) is a great hybrid of creative nonfiction and fiction. Still, ABF has certain conventions you need to know about if you want to conquer the genre. ABF stories are most often written as novel-length projects, so let’s explore how to write an autobiographical novel and grab hold of this slippery genre.

What is Autobiographical Fiction?

To offer a simple definition, autobiographical fiction is any work of fiction that is based on the real life events of the author. Autobiographical fiction is based on fact—but, importantly, not bound by fact.

Autobiographical fiction is based on fact—but, importantly, not bound by fact.

However, it’s hard to define ABF precisely, because ABF describes more of a spectrum than a genre. An ABF writer may choose to write about their life and simply change some names, embellish some descriptions, and alter the location. Or, writers of autobiographical fiction novels might loosely base their story on real life events, but they will change the plot, add additional characters, and explore “what if?” questions.

It’s better to define this tricky genre on a spectrum—including some autobiographical fiction examples. From most to least fictional, consider ABF on the following continuum. And no matter where your interests lie on this continuum, if you want more information on writing autobiographical short stories, novels, or anything in between, check out our course on writing autobiographical fiction with Jack Smith!

Writing Autobiographical Fiction

The Autobiographical Fiction Continuum

Below are some possibilities within autobiographical fiction, arranged from most fictional to most accurate to real events.

1. The Author Surrogate

Some writers choose to insert self-inspired characters into a mostly-fictional story. An author surrogate is when an author writes a character into their story for the sole purpose of having that character espouse the author’s beliefs. This character does not have to be major to the story, but they do play an important role in advancing the story’s themes and arguments.

A great example of the author surrogate is Nick Carroway, the first person narrator of The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald uses Carroway to comment on the story’s themes of greed and relationships. Though Carroway is distinct from Fitzgerald, the writer is certainly present in the story’s events and interpretations.

Of course, you can also have fun with it. Stan Lee has a cameo in most of the Marvel movies, and why shouldn’t he?

2. The Self-Insert

The self-insert is often confused with the author surrogate, since both literary techniques rely on the author embodying themselves as a character in the book. However, the self-insert is a bit more obvious than the author surrogate.

A famous example of this is Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. At several points in King’s heptalogy, a character named “King” talks about himself in relation to the greater narrative and is imbued with many of the author’s own traits, from his physical descriptions to the way he talks. In a story as genre-bent and metaphysical as The Dark Tower, it makes perfect sense for the author to write himself in the story.

3. Semi-Autobiographical Fiction

Semi-Autobiographical Fiction (SAF), also known as roman à clef , is any work of fiction wherein the central elements of both the narrator and the plot are based on the author themselves. The “semi” exists in the definition because the author may explore fictional hypotheticals, introduce fictional characters, or else digress from what happened in real life.

Many literary experts consider Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to be an example of a semi-autobiographical novel. Much of the plot, as well as many of the characters, resemble Plath’s own life and struggle with mental illness. Plath may have chosen to write this story as SAF because, sometimes, it is easier to tell one’s own story when it has the façade of fiction.

4. Fully Autobiographical Fiction

At the far end of the spectrum is completely autobiographical fiction. In this form of fiction, the author pulls directly from their life experiences and makes only aesthetic changes. Names, dates, and locations will be muddled, but the plot fully mirrors that of the author’s own life.

It’s hard to draw a line between SAF and ABF. Since readers don’t know the precise details of the author’s life, one can never be quite sure whether certain events of the story are fictional. For example, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins accurately examines the dissolution of the French Communist Party, but does she ever embellish her relationship to Jean-Paul Sartre? And Elif Batuman’s The Idiot is about the author’s experiences at Harvard, but how much of the novel is fact, and how much is distorted by memory?

When the past feels like fiction, why not write it as such?

When the past feels like fiction, why not write it as such? What’s important is that the genre is flexible and allows for a conversation between fictional and nonfictional elements. Some literary theorists abide by “Death of the Author,” in which the author’s opinions are unimportant to the work’s interpretation. If any genre directly challenges this assertion, it’s autobiographical fiction.

Why Write Autobiographical Fiction?

Alongside this discussion of the ABF spectrum, you might be wondering what the purpose of autobiographical fiction is. Why not just write a memoir or personal essay?

Every writer’s intentions for writing autobiographical fiction are different. We can’t say for certain why anyone chooses to write in ABF, but there are a few major reasons why authors generally write autobiographical fiction novels.

To Tell Better Stories

For many novelists, the purpose of autobiographical fiction is to create a more satisfying story that is based in the strangeness of truth. The form allows us to consider what an autobiographical piece needs to feel more “complete,” or to bring across its core truths, and then write accordingly.

Autobiographical fiction can create a more satisfying story that is based in the strangeness of truth.

ABF also allows you to explore using your life as a starting point: write alternate endings, explore “what if?” questions, and pursue a different ending. You already know how your story is told, but will you tell it differently after changing X, Y, and Z?

To Create a Bit of Distance

ABF may also allow us to explore difficult moments in our lives through a protective lens, such as Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar. When nonfiction is too bright, autobiographical fiction can help shade us from our own harsh realities by creating a degree of separation between ourselves and our personal histories. Ironically enough, fiction gives us opportunities to be more objective about our lives.

Autobiographical fiction can also be useful for some writers who want to write with a sense of anonymity. They may be protecting certain names and identities in their stories, and the ABF form allows them to mask otherwise personal details

Finally, you might write ABF simply to have fun with it. Writing isn’t always a serious business, so why not insert your life story into the plot of Macbeth ? What’s stopping you from injecting yourself into your own fictional world? The ABF genre is just as much of a literary technique as it is an opportunity to enjoy the fiction writing process, your way.

Autobiographical fiction is an opportunity to enjoy the fiction writing process, your way.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Some Starting Places

Whether you’re writing an author surrogate or pulling stories directly from your own life, writing autobiographical fiction requires some innovation. Creative genres require creative thinking, so while the following four methods are tried-and-true ways to write autobiographical fiction novels, they aren’t the only ones.

ABF commonly presents itself in the novel form. If you’re interested in writing an autobiographical novel, below are a few possible jumping-off points.

1. Begin with a Noun

If you are an ABF writer who wants their novel only loosely based in truth, start with a noun. Specifically, start with a person, place, thing, or idea that is true, but leave the rest of the story up to fiction.

For example, let’s say there was a time in your life where you were a chocolate taster, like Roald Dahl. You might decide to start your story with a chocolate factory, but then form characters and events around the themes of inequality.

Of course, Willy Wonka is purely fiction, and probably not a self-insert for Roald Dahl. You will still need to base some aspect of the story off of your own life to make it ABF, but starting with a noun can help base a fictional story on an inkling of truth.

2. Edit a Nonfiction Piece

You might decide that real-life events provide enough content for your story. If that’s the case, start by writing a memoir or autobiography, then edit after the first couple of drafts.

You have several options for editing your memoir into ABF, though you may already have a sense of direction after writing the first draft. To make it a true-to-life account, you can simply edit the nouns—change names, locations, dates, and objects so that the story remains anonymous.

Or, if “what if?” questions arise that you don’t want to leave open ended, you can write fictional scenes and change the ending.

3. Start with What You Don’t Know

The autobiographical novel helps us explore the incompleteness of our own memories. To remember is to distort, and many of us have personal histories that are hard to disentangle, dissect, and distinguish.

ABF allows us to explore what we don’t understand from our memories and create a story that makes sense. Many memoirists find that the act of writing nonfiction is cathartic, but when real life feels strange, writers can find catharsis in autobiographical fiction instead.

Write a novel that explores what you don’t know. Keep writing autobiographical fiction until you’re satisfied with the answer, or comfortable with the ambiguity.

4. Start with Two Disconnected Ideas

Sometimes, the fun of writing fiction comes when the author is able to connect two seemingly unconnected ideas. A great example of this is the story “ Especially Heinous ” by Carmen Maria Machado, which connects ghosts and magical realism to a New York murder mystery.

Why not connect random events from your own life? Psychologists call this “apophenia,” a state of mind in which we connect two things which actually have no relationship to each other. Taking an “apophenic” approach will help base your novel in truth but create a wholly different narrative, resulting in a novel that’s fun, engaging, and exploratory.

For example, you might try to connect an event that happened at your sixth birthday party to an event that happened on your lunch break last week. Or, you might try to construct a narrative based on a christmas present you received every year. Apophenia allows us to find magic and mystery in the details of our lives, and who’s to say the connections you develop aren’t true?

How to Write Autobiographical Fiction: Write with Friends!

Autobiographical fiction is a challenging form to master, since your story is attempting a relationship between fiction and nonfiction. If you’re stuck on a draft or need an extra set of eyes, joining a writing community will help you conquer the genre.

The instructors at Writers.com can get you there! Learn more about our courses and our community , and let’s work on writing your autobiographical novel together.

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Sean Glatch

10 comments.

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Re: ‘Shot into the darkness.’©SM

Thanks for your tips about writing biographical fiction or ABF. That is always a great “exciter’. That gave me ana idea, that is not really new, but if it worked could be interesting. Of course, it depends on who is in it.

I would invite someone (who could write) to write a Semi-Biographical-Fiction book. I could write the synopsis as an azimuth, and I would start it, then together, we would finish it. No time no pressure. Know somebody? Yes, I ‘know’ how to write. So I would like to pair with someone also who would have some training. I don’t even need ideas, I lived it.

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Hi Sydney, what an interesting idea! I don’t know anybody off the top of my head, however, you are welcome to join our community group on Facebook to discuss your writing ideas! https://www.facebook.com/groups/146546396684638/

Warmest, Sean

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Great article!

My dilemna is how to deal with incovenient truths. Talking about them can expose loved ones and cause strained relationships or even legal action. But leaving out such material will significantly water down the emotional truth you want to convey.

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This is the Problem I am having also I am having trouble remembering some of the details of certain stories in my life but it is based upon my trials and tribulations and big mistakes and choices that I made throughout my life I am not sure if I’m going to let anyone in my family read this before I have names changed and tell them that it is partially fictional

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Thank you for clarifying the concept of the fictional autobiography/memoir.

I have been assisting my husband who has written a series of books that I have described as an impressionistic account of the people and events of his life as recorded by him in his journals but altered somewhat for the sake of privacy and the exercise of artistic license. As such, I feel they cannot be classified as nonfiction/memoir and are better represented as fictional autobiography/memoir. A major difficulty arises when submitting the books to self-publishing platforms such as Kindle Direct and Ingram Spark. These platforms do not offer ABF in their listings of categories, nor is there a comparable BISAC subject code. The closest match there is for Biographical Fiction—close, but still not accurate. Do you have any suggestions for dealing with this?

This is a great question! And unfortunately I don’t have a great response–self-publishing platforms have a lot of control over how you can market your work.

Part of the reason there isn’t an “autobiographical fiction” category is because it’s not a unique enough genre. At the end of the day, genre categories are marketing tools, and if there isn’t a large enough difference between biographical and auto biographical fiction (other than who’s writing it), self-publishing services won’t bother with the distinction. You might be able to petition one of those services to create the category, but unless a lot of people are asking for that, you probably won’t have much success.

My best advice is to clarify the book’s genre and intent in the actual book description. Search engine optimization is a major component of online retail sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble; if you hone in on the book’s description and pitch it towards the right audiences, you will be able to make up for the lack of a specific category.

I’m not an expert in KDP or Ingram Spark, so if other authors have more experience working with these platforms, your insight is greatly appreciated.

Best of luck to you and your husband!

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Quite educative on ABF.It appeals to me.20 years ago a friend urged me to be a writer but i dismissed the idea ! Today i feel inclined to the idea.

You should definitely do it, Peter!

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My name is Bill, I am 73 years of age, ad currently living a retiring life with my wife in Adelaide. Without going into details, I have lived a complex, varied and sometimes difficult life, ending with my current situation here now. Some people I’ve known have suggested that I should write a book of my life, and I have considered doing so. In fact I have attempted on several occasions without success, due to memory loss (amongst other things). My daughter suggested I get someone to help me through the process, eg get a student writer/journelist/etc to help . That sounded like a good idea at the time, but now at home by myself., I’m not so sure. Am I knocking on the best option doorway?, or, can you suggest where else to seek assistance.

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Thanks for much for the autofiction article. I am unable to find an example of a query letter for the genre, Any ideas on where I could find?

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HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL

by Alexander Chee ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 24, 2018

Deserving of a place among other modern classic writers’ memoirs like Stephen King’s On Writing and Chee’s mentor Annie...

A precise and candid set of essays from the novelist Chee (English and Creative Writing/Dartmouth Coll.; The Queen of the Night , 2016, etc.) about life, writing, and how each sustains the other.

This collection wasn’t planned as a conventional memoir. However, arranged to cover the author’s life from adolescence to the present day, it possesses a loose arc and consistent set of throughlines. One is Chee’s status as a gay Amerasian man, which has energized him as a pro–LGBT activist and liberated him as a person; the counterweights, though, are the friends lost to AIDS and the professional doors closed to him. (His first gay-themed novel had a hard time selling due to its subject matter.) Another throughline is Chee’s struggle to launch his writing career, and he’s engagingly blunt about the labor that serious writing demands and the money that’s often lacking anyway. At his most spirited, in “My Parade,” he rebuts the dismissive clichés about MFA programs and how they’re often born of a writer’s fear of confronting the emotional honesty the job requires. “The only things you must have to become a writer,” he writes, “are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.” Even Chee’s detours don’t stray far from his core concerns: working as a cater-waiter for William F. Buckley and his wife demanded emotionally balancing a certain jealousy of their lifestyle and contempt for his homophobia, while tending a rose garden in his dreary Brooklyn apartment serves as a metaphor for the ordered disorder of writing a novel. What truly unifies these pieces, though, is the author’s consistent care with words and open-hearted tone; having been through emotional and artistic wars, he’s produced a guidebook to help others survive them too.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-328-76452-2

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: Jan. 9, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

GENERAL NONFICTION

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More by Alexander Chee

THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT

BOOK REVIEW

by Alexander Chee

EDINBURGH

by E.T.A. Hoffmann ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 28, 1996

This is not the Nutcracker sweet, as passed on by Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa. No, this is the original Hoffmann tale of 1816, in which the froth of Christmas revelry occasionally parts to let the dark underside of childhood fantasies and fears peek through. The boundaries between dream and reality fade, just as Godfather Drosselmeier, the Nutcracker's creator, is seen as alternately sinister and jolly. And Italian artist Roberto Innocenti gives an errily realistic air to Marie's dreams, in richly detailed illustrations touched by a mysterious light. A beautiful version of this classic tale, which will captivate adults and children alike. (Nutcracker; $35.00; Oct. 28, 1996; 136 pp.; 0-15-100227-4)

Pub Date: Oct. 28, 1996

ISBN: 0-15-100227-4

Page Count: 136

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 1996

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THE NUTCRACKER AND THE MOUSE KING

by E.T.A. Hoffmann ; adapted by Natalie Andrewson ; illustrated by Natalie Andrewson

THE NUTCRACKER

by E.T.A. Hoffmann & illustrated by Julie Paschkis

TO THE ONE I LOVE THE BEST

TO THE ONE I LOVE THE BEST

Episodes from the life of lady mendl (elsie de wolfe).

by Ludwig Bemelmans ‧ RELEASE DATE: Feb. 23, 1955

An extravaganza in Bemelmans' inimitable vein, but written almost dead pan, with sly, amusing, sometimes biting undertones, breaking through. For Bemelmans was "the man who came to cocktails". And his hostess was Lady Mendl (Elsie de Wolfe), arbiter of American decorating taste over a generation. Lady Mendl was an incredible person,- self-made in proper American tradition on the one hand, for she had been haunted by the poverty of her childhood, and the years of struggle up from its ugliness,- until she became synonymous with the exotic, exquisite, worshipper at beauty's whrine. Bemelmans draws a portrait in extremes, through apt descriptions, through hilarious anecdote, through surprisingly sympathetic and understanding bits of appreciation. The scene shifts from Hollywood to the home she loved the best in Versailles. One meets in passing a vast roster of famous figures of the international and artistic set. And always one feels Bemelmans, slightly offstage, observing, recording, commenting, illustrated.

Pub Date: Feb. 23, 1955

ISBN: 0670717797

Page Count: -

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 25, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1955

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MADELINE'S SEASONS

developed by Ludwig Bemelmans ; illustrated by Steven Salerno

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by Ludwig Bemelmans ; illustrated by Steven Salerno

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by Ludwig Bemelmans

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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

  • Staff Reviews

"Chee takes on the impulse toward autobiography in fiction, and closely examines his own—he freely admits that his first novel, Edinburgh , was based on his own life. His writing is sharp and holds the kind of honesty achievable only through distance and introspection. These essays are like an ouroboros—a fitting metaphor, as ouroboros often symbolize the cycle of creation and destruction, and Chee writes from a place of never quite knowing what comes first."

See all my recommendations »

"Alexander Chee understands."

From the author of  The Queen of the Night , an essay collection exploring his education as a man, writer, and activist—and how we form our identities in life and in art. As a novelist, Alexander Chee has been described as “masterful” by Roxane Gay, “incomparable” by Junot Díaz, and “incendiary” by the  New York Times.  With  How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,  his first collection of nonfiction, he’s sure to secure his place as one of the finest essayists of his generation as well.   How to Write an Autobiographical Novel  is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel,  Edinburgh,  and the election of Donald Trump.   By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry,  How to Write an Autobiographical Novel  asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack.

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Home » Blog » How to Write an Autobiography in 31 Steps

How to Write an Autobiography in 31 Steps

how to write an autobiographical novel essays

TABLE OF CONTENTS

If you’re thinking about writing an autobiography, then you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we will be telling you all about how to write an autobiography – breaking it down and helping you along with the process.

1. What is an Autobiography?

So you want to know how to write an autobiography? First off, let’s start with what an autobiography is. Put simply, a biography is a book written about someone’s life. It includes all elements of their life, particularly featuring any significant events that took place.

The word ‘autobiography’ is made up of the two Greek words ‘autos’ and ‘bios’, meaning self and life. Put them together and you get a book that is a mix of who you are, and the life you have lived.

2. Memoir vs. Autobiography

Before you start any kind of writing process, it is important to know what kind of a book it is you are wanting to write. There is no way to know how to write an autobiography if you can’t distinguish the two. Memoir and autobiography are often plumped into the same genre, because they are both about someone’s life.

But they are two genres of their own. So here’s the difference:

It’s pretty simple – if the book is about the person’s entire life – it’s an autobiography; if it’s about one or two events, themes or memories within their life, it’s a memoir .

Knowing the difference will save you time and energy. It will also help you to shape and plan your book (if that’s your style).

You can always change your mind and switch genres, but at least you will know what you are doing and how both of them work. Whichever you choose will change a lot about your book – particularly the content you choose to include and the structure of the entire piece.

Memoir is the perfect platform to share your personal life experience, and you don’t have to share every other significant moment of your life. (A wise decision if only one really interesting thing has happened to you during your lifetime.)

Writing an autobiography is much different. While they are both to do with the author’s life, biography is more to do with what happened throughout your life.

That means all significant events from birth ’till now.

If you set out to write a biography and it turns into a memoir, this is not a problem. The problem is when you don’t know what you’re doing at all. This leads to confusion in the writing process. And a lack of professionalism outside of it.

A great way to learn how to write an autobiography is to read. A lot. Reading other autobiographies will give you an idea of which direction to go in and how this genre is structured. It can also help you to develop your style and tone of voice, and to pinpoint which writing techniques you find most effective. All good tools to have in your writing toolbox.

Here are a few examples of autobiographies you might want to read:

  • My Autobiography, Charlie Chaplin (1964)
  • The autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin
  • Long walk to freedom, Nelson Mandela
  • The story of my experiments with truth, Mahatma Gandhi
  • The story of my life, Helen Keller
  • The autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex Haley, Malcolm X
  • An Autobiography, Agatha Christie (1965))
  • The confessions of St. Augustine, Augustine of Hippo
  • Scar tissue, Anthony Kiedis, Larry Sloman
  • Open: An Autobiography, Andre Agassi
  • Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
  • Autobiography of a yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda

4. When to Write an Autobiography

how to write an autobiographical novel essays

Cellini (1500-1571) wrote one of the finest autobiographies of the renaissance. He stated:

“No matter what sort he is, everyone who has to his credit what are or really seem great achievements, if he cares for truth and goodness, ought to write the story of his own life in his own hand; but no one should venture on such a splendid undertaking before he is over forty.” Cellini

Knowing how to write an autobiography can have a lot to do with your life experiences. This fact brings into question the age of the reader.

Many biographies are written later on in life, when experience has been gathered and there are many exciting moments to draw from. But this isn’t always the case.

If you are a younger writer and feel that your life has been sufficiently fantastic, or you feel a growing desire to get down all of the details of your childhood days, there is no rule that says you can’t. So don’t let others’ perceptions stop you.

Twenty-one-year-old Edouard Louis, for example, published a hugely successful fictional autobiography (aka an autofiction), The end of Eddy about his childhood and adolescence. So it is possible. Sorry Cellini.

That said, an older, more experienced writer may have an easier time writing an autobiography, simply because they have more material to draw from.

Like memoir, autobiographies tend to center around a theme, even though you are including many life events. That is because people tend to also be themed, in a way. Want to know how to start an autobiography? Thinking about theme can be a useful way in.

If you are a professional dancer, and that is the passion of your life, it makes sense that your book would also center around the theme of dancing and how you reached that success.

If you are ghostwriting for a celebrity, naturally they will be famous for something in particular.

The main theme, of course, is the person’s life. But that is not enough to sustain interest across time. So bear in mind a secondary theme that ties it all together.

If your theme or themes are relatable, then that will stand you in good stead. If you are not writing a glitzy celeb autobiography, then having a very relatable and original theme is more likely to find a readership than any other. Be careful not to choose and manufacture your theme, however. If you are meant to write an autobiography, you will likely already feel compelled to write about your life. So try not to put too much thought into it. Just keep it in mind, as it will keep you on track.

6. How to Pick a Theme

How to start an autobiography? One way is to pick a theme. And stick to it.

One way of picking a theme is to choose an aspect of your personality that you feel is awesome and make that your sole focus. Maybe you’re great at maths, for example. Perhaps you made it to the world championships on mathematics or something. That would be a story worth telling.

Another is to look at your philosophy in life and make that the focal point of your book. Showing your values throughout the book can inspire and uplift the reader as it can show a good example of a life well-lived. It also reveals quite clearly who you are as a person, without you having to explicitly spell it out.

A third would be to consider the things that are most important to you in your life and to make a reference to these as you work your way through each significant event mentioned in your book. (This works especially well if you are writing an autobiography for those who know you.)

7. Exceptions

You might also be wanting to know how to write an autobiography, because you want to share your story with your family. This is an admirable reason to write a story. It means that your family will always have a special connection to you through story, no matter what. It also means that generations to come will have that link to their own past and history.

From that sense, everybody should write one!

This kind of story can even be compiled as an oral history of your families’ history and lives, which makes for an extremely personal keepsake.

Autobiographies are sometimes written in short form, as essays for college assignments. This is a similar exercise to writing a full book , but in a condensed format.

Another form of autobiography is as an autofiction. This book is based mostly upon autobiographical content, but is also a work of fiction. This is an easy way of avoiding any concerns you might have about privacy. If you are wanting to distance yourself a little and take more control over the content, then this may be the way to go.

You can also consider other formats, such as writing an autobiographical graphic novel, which has the essence of cool written all over it. If you are an artist or have a passion for strong visuals, this is something to consider.

8. How to Plan

“Look for the times when your life changed the most, and when you changed the most, those are the times of peak drama in your life.” Janice Erlbaum, The Autobiographer’s Handbook

An excellent practice when learning how to start an autobiography, is to begin by writing out all of the significant events in your life. These could be anything; from graduating college, to losing your virginity, to being born. Whatever you think is most important and noteworthy, write it down.

You can later play with the order of events if you like, to shake things up a little bit,  but for now, just get anything and everything you can think of written down.

When considering how to write an autobiography, it seems to be the most natural of all genres to plan. This is because within it’s very construction there is a presumption of what it will be about: events in your life. From this sense, it is already set up for you. In some ways, this makes writing a lot easier. On the other hand, the risk that easy planning poses, is boredom. For the reader or yourself. The challenge then becomes, how to make these life events interesting and stand out. But we’ll get to that a bit later on…

Nb If you are a pantser (someone who likes to write by the seat of your pants) then you might want to skip this step. In all likelihood you have something in mind to write about, so just start there.

9. Writing Schedule

A schedule helps you to get things done. You will know what works best for you after trying a few things out. You could try planning out how much you are going to write by the hour (i.e. I will write for an hour a day, every weekday) or by word count (I will write 500 words a day). Be realistic and don’t overwhelm yourself. If you are too overambitious, you may find you end up not writing at all.

Otherwise, you could aim to write a certain section of the book per week or month if that works better for you. Because autobiography is so clearly and easily arranged into story beats (was born, had first pimple, dyed hair red etc.) organizing your writing by these events works for almost all writers, even if you are not a fan of planning.

Ask yourself the question, what’s the minimum I could manage on a regular basis? And be honest.

Everyone has their own writing style, including the way they schedule (or don’t schedule) their writing habits. So don’t ever let anyone tell you how you should be writing. It’s up to you.

10. How to Start an Autobiography

how to write an autobiographical novel essays

Well, now you have a list of important events in your life, starting to write should be pretty straight forward. If you don’t like planning, it’s even simpler, just pinpoint a significant moment in time and get to work! If you have a plan, all you need to do is start writing out a first draft of each event.

Next up we have a few tips and tricks to get you started.

11. Go Digging

While figuring out how to write an autobiography, you will want to have everything you are writing as fresh and vivid in your mind as possible. This clarity will translate onto the page and give your readers a strong impression of each moment.

To do this, you will be wanting to dig out any old photos of you and whomever you might be writing about, and begin filing things away for each chapter or section of the book.

You also might find it beneficial to interview anyone who remembers what happened. This can bring a new light on old events. Try using a recorder or dictaphone and typing up the best bits once you’re done.

12. Fill Up Your Senses

A good way to get into the moment before a writing session is to surround yourself with the materials relating to that particular event. Look at photos or listen to recordings from around that time, and jot down any thoughts you might have about them.

You may also want to listen to some music from the time. If you have any old clothes or keepsakes from the person, you will also want them to be around or near as you write. Listen to any interviews about the time or the characters before writing.

13. Write a letter

If you’re struggling to start writing, you can try writing a letter to yourself or to other members of the family from the time. This is a very personal way of connecting with the past. Remembering your connection to your characters will help your writing to flow more easily and mean you have material to draw from before you even start writing.

14. Emotions

Writing about certain life events is likely to be emotional. Say you had a car crash when you were younger, or had to deal with some maltreatment of some kind, this will impact your writing, and how you feel about it.

It can be a difficult balance. You need to care enough about your subject matter to write it. But you don’t want your emotions to take over to the point where style and the content of your book suffers.

While feeling impassioned by your writing, it is also important to be able to step back and take a second look at your viewpoint. This may take several rewrites to get right.

If you are finding it difficult, then consider writing out as many different viewpoints of the event as you possibly can. This will open up how you see it and may even lead to an inspiring revelation for both you and your book.

15. New Insights

One of the benefits of learning how to write an autobiography, is that, as you develop as a writer, new insights will likely occur.

So while emotions can run high, it is good to know that writing about anything difficult that has happened in your life can help you psychologically.

Dr. James Pennebaker, a professor at Austin Texas university discovered that students who wrote for just fifteen minutes a day over three days about difficult or emotional experiences had a better level of wellbeing. He found that going through the process was upsetting for them, but it was the new insights the students discovered through the process of writing, that led to their improved levels of psychological health.

16. Take Care

As with memoir, if you feel that it is too much to write any subject matter, always take a break and come back to it (or not). Your mental health and general wellbeing are always more important than a book.

17. Know Your Why

Make sure that you don’t add in topics or incidents simply to vent about them. Instead, get all your feelings out about it during your first draft, and then start with a fresh perspective. If your writing is only about venting, it will not interest the reader. You may come across as petty or whiny.

Instead, you will want to make sure you can see the benefit of sharing your experiences with people. When you truly know how to write an autobiography, it should empower and enlighten people and help them connect to your story, rather than reading like an unfinished diary entry. It is perfectly acceptable for it to start out that way. But by the end of your writing process, you should be confident in the purpose of why you are writing your book, and what kind of impact it will have on its readers.

Knowing why you are writing will keep you on the right track, and help you like a compass in the storm, when you are lost.

18. Tone of Voice

An important aspect of telling your story will be your narrative style and tone of voice. This completely depends upon who you are writing for and the purpose of your book.

If you are writing for your grandchildren, for example, you may use more simplistic language. If you are writing for a broader audience, then you may use a more neutral tone. Writing for friends? You might want to use more familial or colloquial terms.

This also depends a lot on what kind of person you are, and you will want your attitude and personality to be reflected in your writing. This should happen naturally, but don’t be afraid to write as if you are talking or to use a recording device and write up your account of each chapter afterwards.

Pro tip: Relax. You won’t find your tone of voice by constantly thinking about how you might come across. Just write as you think and your natural expression will do the rest.

19. First or Third Person?

You can experiment with viewpoint as you go along, but once you have chosen, you will be wanting to stick with it. Third person gives us the feeling it has been written by someone else. So, if you are employing a ghostwriter or are working on a fictional work, then this is a good way to go.

First person is the generally accepted viewpoint for most autobiographies, because it is your story, and you are the one writing it.

20. Conflict

As you recall the people in your life, adding in any conflicts, even if they are comical, will add to the richness of the book. Conflict drives drama, intrigue and interest. And that’s what you want, if you want your book read, that is.

21. Story Arc

how to write an autobiographical novel essays

One of the most critical components of how to write an autobiography is story arc. Like most genres of story, autobiography is no exception and will need some sort of an all-encompassing story arc. This is one of the main challenges you may face while writing this kind of book.

It simply can’t be a long list of events and then an ending. They have to all meld together cohesively in order to have some sort of an impact on your reader.

A story arc gives writers a structure, in which our main character aims to do something, and then either manages (or doesn’t) to achieve it. There are normally many obstacles in the protagonist’s way, and they must overcome them. Simply put, our main character must get from A to B. And you will need to decide at some point, what your start and end points in the story will be.

This ties into your overall message in the book. The great thing about autobiography is that it basically tells your reader who you are as a person.

You can start by making a note of your core beliefs and who you feel you are as a person before you begin. But don’t be surprised if, as you write, you reveal a value you hold that you had never especially acknowledged. This is a true gift to the reader, to leave them with your wisdom or knowledge.

Your philosophy can play a big role in the book, as it has likely led you to make certain decisions and can be featured and interlaced with certain events when your process of decision making was integral to the direction of your life.

22. Comedy and Funny Anecdotes

While you don’t want to overdo it on the comedy (unless it is a comedic autobiography, in which case, carry on!) a little comic relief can work wonders in this genre. It can lighten the mood and even make sad moments even more poignant. Funny stories specific to your family can add to the color of your characters, so they don’t fall flat .

23. Where to Begin ?

Think about when you might want to start your story. The logical point to start is from birth, but as your writing evolves over time, you may change your mind. You may want to add some perspective about your life from before you were even born. Your heritage may also be a large influence on who you are as a person today.

Once you have written a full first draft, you can consider changing around the order. Editing in this way can make for a more dynamic and varied read. If placed in the right way, you can even add in a plot twist or add to the suspense of your book.

24. Consider Your Reader

Don’t rest on your laurels. This can especially be a risk if you are writing only for friends or family. Just because someone knows you, it doesn’t mean your story will automatically become interesting to them. It will likely make it more interesting than if you were a random passerby, true. But this is not something to take for granted.

This point can be ignored during the first draft, but as you begin to develop your story, it becomes an implicit part of the process.

If you are wanting your book to sell, this becomes even more important as the reader’s interest and word of mouth can mean the difference between a book being put down or another sale.

25. How to Make Events More Colorful

Once you have written the thing, you will want to make sure that it is an interesting read. Even if you are writing just for friends and family, they will want to be excited by your life. And surely, that is why you are writing this in the first place?!

So a few tips to make sure that each story beat pops with color is to:

  • 1. Keep a notebook with you at all times for when you remember particular details about a person or place. Details will always give your story more originality and color.
  • 2. Show don’t tell – this is always relevant to any kind of writing and autobiography is no exception. Try adding in things you saw, smelt, tasted or touched within the scene. Avoid making a statement and describe what happened in the moment, instead.
  • 3. Add metaphor or simile- when describing a character or a vivid memory, don’t just describe how it looked on the surface. Unless this is not at all your writing style, you can enjoy emphasizing how something made you feel through descriptions that include metaphor. (use ext link for how to use metaphor) For example, ‘she was as fit as a fiddle’.
  • 4. Avoid common descriptive words – words such as ‘nice’ and ‘good’ should be considered with great caution once you have reached the third draft of your book.

26. Consider Your Reader

An important part of knowing how to write an autobiography, is having an awareness of the reader throughout the entire manuscript. This is not only a book for you. So don’t rest on your laurels.

This can especially be a risk if you are writing only for friends or family. Just because someone knows you, it doesn’t mean your story will automatically become interesting to them. It will likely make it more interesting than if you were a random passerby, true. But this is not something to take for granted.

Many new writers are tempted to leave in every detail of their life. But longer doesn’t always equal better – often it means that you simply haven’t cut out the parts that aren’t needed. So make sure you have your ego in check – don’t make your book too long just for the sake of it. Just because it’s interesting to you, does not mean every reader will want to know about it – family and friends included.

The average autobiography is around 75,000 words long. Much shorter than 60,000 and you might want to find other sources to write about, and any longer than 100,000, you might want to cut it down a bit.

28. Consider Privacy/Confidentiality

Much like memoir, autobiography includes characters who are real people. This means that some might be negatively affected by your work. So make sure to talk to those involved and to have an attorney at hand, just in case.

If you are unsure about leaving in their real name, it is best to give their character a pseudonym.

29. Editing

Both editing your book and getting it proofread will make or break it.

That means that you will want to find a professional editor to work with, who knows what she or he is doing. Ideally, you will want to find someone who is experienced in editing autobiography or memoir. Check that you have similar values and that you are both clear on what you are going to be working on, before you start.

30. Proofreading

Make sure that all your hard work shows. You can have a strong storyline and everything else in place, but if there’s a typo on the front cover, there is no way you will be taken seriously.

So, ask friends to check over your manuscript, or better yet, employ a few proofreaders to check it over for you. Don’t use the same editor to proofread, as they will find it more challenging to spot minute mistakes by the time they have reread the story more than once. A fresh pair of eyes will likely do a better job.

31. Autobiographies on the Shelf

The autobiographies in our bookshops today, you will notice, are mostly written by celebrities. This is because they often have interesting lives that we want to read about. They include incidents that we could never have access to otherwise, in our day to day lives.

And that’s what makes them so appealing.

Most people are not so interested in other’s lives, unless they have done something extraordinary. So if you’re thinking of writing something purely to try and get it sold, then you might want to rethink the genre you are writing in. We’re not saying it doesn’t happen that unknown authors sell a lot of autobiographies. It does. It’s just a lot less likely.

But don’t dismay, this is only a problem if that is the only reason you are writing your book. If it is because you feel impassioned to do so, then that is all the reason you need.

If it is for your friends and family to read, then you need not worry about big sales or landing a large publisher. It is so easy to self-publish these days on a relatively small budget, that you are pretty much guaranteed to achieve your aim.

If you are looking for a book deal, then you might be hard pushed, if you can’t say your life has an original element to it at all. If this is the case, consider writing a memoir , instead. There are many more memoirs written by ordinary people with extraordinary stories, than autobiographies. Because people love to hear about how ordinary people overcame the odds.

No matter what your reason, if you believe in your book enough to start writing the first page, then don’t let anyone stop you from writing the book inside of you.

So there you have it. Hopefully you will now feel confident about how to write an autobiography and ready to start. All it takes, is putting pen to paper.

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Alexander Chee’s new essay collection is a searing examination of the costs of writing

The author of Queen of the Night and Edinburgh turns to essays in this achingly vulnerable collection.

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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel , a new essay collection by Alexander Chee, is a book that will leave you breathless, as much for its vulnerability as for its exquisite sentences.

Chee is no stranger to the kind of writing that leaves you aching. He’s the author of 2001’s Edinburgh and 2016’s Queen of the Night , and he tends to write the kind of rich, sprawling books that take years and years to put together — hence the decade-and-a-half-long gap between his two novels. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel works on a smaller scale, but it’s no less ambitious or moving.

Its essays cover Chee’s life: his time as a 15-year-old foreign exchange student in Mexico (where “when people looked at me, they saw me, and they didn’t stare at me as if at an object”), his father’s death, his time in college and grad school, his time as a cater waiter working for the Buckleys, his time as a published novelist, and up through the 2016 election (“the election that for now we all speak of only as ‘the election,’ as if there will never be any other”). Much of the book delves into Chee’s struggles as a gay writer of color, but the heart of it comes toward the end, in a string of three essays built around the writing of Edinburgh .

The original plan, Chee writes, was for Edinburgh to be his easy book. He was desperate for cash after graduating from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and throwing together an easy, formulaic book seemed like the way forward. “I’m just going to write a shitty autobiographical first novel just like everyone else,” he decided, “and sell it for thousands and thousands of dollars.”

Instead, he spent five years writing a novel about his own trauma, layered with images borrowed from Japanese mythology and plot structure borrowed from operas. “I set about making up someone like me,” Chee writes, “but not like me.”

Edinburgh is about a boy soprano who is sexually abused by his choir director. And writing it, Chee concludes, “let me practice saying what I remembered out loud until the day I could remember all of it.” It created a space in which Chee could wrestle plainly with what happened to him.

But there’s a certain ambivalence in the catharsis Chee finds in How t o Write a n Autobiographical Novel . In the title essay, Chee warns, “Write fiction about your life and pay with your life, at least three times.” Writing Edinburgh meant destroying the version of himself that he presented to the world, to his closest friends and family, and creating a new self, one he’s not entirely sure is any more true than the last one.

And Chee is willing to immerse himself in this ambivalence, to explore fully how writing his autobiographical novel both wounded him and healed him. And what he concludes is that the project of writing holds immense value. “All my life I’ve been told this isn’t important, that it doesn’t matter, that it could never matter,” Chee says. “And yet I think it does.”

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How To Write An Autobiographical Fiction Novel

POSTED ON Oct 10, 2023

Sarah Rexford

Written by Sarah Rexford

Learning how to write an autobiographical fiction novel may be one of the most creative tasks you take on this year. This genre stands out among both autobiographies as well as fiction due to combining elements of both. 

If you want to:

  • Share your story
  • Delve into creative writing at a fiction level
  • Communicate your message to two audiences 

…I encourage you to familiarize yourself with autobiographical fiction. This genre targets readers who love autobiographies and biographies , as well as committed fiction readers. In this article, I answer several key questions so you can start your novel with confidence. 

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Autobiographical fiction: what you'll learn

What is autobiographical fiction .

Autobiographical fiction is a type of writing based on factual events and real people, but also allows authors to take creative liberties. 

Writing this type of fiction allows authors to not only share their lived experiences but thread creative twists throughout the pages. If you ever wonder if autobiographical writing could be your next writing endeavor, you’re on an exciting journey.

Autobiographical fiction, also called autofiction, frees its writers from the responsibility of getting every detail right. Instead, authors can craft their stories exactly as they desire, mixing fictional elements into the facts. 

How is autofiction different from fiction? 

Autobiographical fiction is different from fiction because fiction draws ideas from reality. However, in this type of fiction, authors do not base their stories on reality. For example, Kristin Hannah’s, The Nightingale , places fictional characters into a fictional story world. 

While her novel hints that she spent quite a bit of time researching the time period her characters lived in, she dreamed up these characters, crafted their arcs, and creatively built the plot. 

Autobiographical fiction focuses on the lived experience of the author. The fictional aspect comes from changing the name of the protagonist and adding fictional details to a nonfiction story. The created protagonist simply acts as a stand-in or loose representation of the author. 

Through this made-up character, the author can weave fact and fiction together to create a compelling story. 

How is it different from a nonfiction autobiography? 

Autobiographical fiction differs from nonfiction autobiographies in regard to how the author uses fact and which creative liberties they take. 

When you choose to write fiction that is autobiographical, your creative liberties can include changes in fact from relationship tropes to your family history! 

Remember that just as there is no autobiography vs memoir competition, as each fulfills different needs, the same is true for autobiographical nonfiction and autobiographical fiction. 

While autobiographies that are nonfiction strictly adhere to fact, even keeping dialogue as close to accurate as possible, autobiographies that are fiction prioritize creativity over fact. 

What are some examples of autobiographical fiction books?

The Bell Jar , by Sylvia Plath, stands as a prime example of autobiographical fiction. She portrays Esther Greenwood’s insanity so genuinely that readers can empathize enough to rationalize it. Described as a haunting American classic, this novel invites readers into a dark yet rich story. 

At just 23, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his first novel, titled This Side of Paradise . Fitzgerald casts a Princeton student, Amory Blaine, as the protagonist, who he based on himself. 

His novel pushed him into the spotlight at its release in 1920. Today’s readers can study the authorized version of his famous work. 

Both of these works are great examples of writing goals to pursue. Rather than stick to either writing your autobiography or writing a novel , why not set yourself the goal of combining both and write an autobiographical fiction book?  

Can I write a fiction book based on my life? 

Yes, you can most definitely write a novel that you base on your own life experiences . This type of writing is a fantastic way to cover topics you may find difficult to write about. Depending on your background, you may relate to one of the following. 

First, if you overcame a specific struggle but don’t want to draw attention to yourself, you may wonder how to write about perseverance without making yourself the hero. Some writers prefer to stay behind the computer screen rather than launch a speaking career alongside their author career. Sharing your story through fiction may be a good choice for you.

Second, knowing how to write a book about war or another serious topic can feel overwhelming, particularly if you have first-hand experience. Sharing several aspects of your journey, but cushioning the stories with fictional spin-offs, can help you feel more comfortable doing so. 

Plus, autobiographical fiction is by nature, fiction. This allows the author to stay behind the scenes and promote their characters rather than themselves. 

What are the 8 steps in writing autobiographical fiction?

Equip yourself with these eight steps to write your first autobiographical fiction novel: 

  • Determine your idea
  • Define your key plot points
  • Conduct necessary research
  • Commit to completing your draft
  • Ask for another set of eyes to look at your draft 
  • Self-edit your work 
  • Read your manuscript as if you are a reader
  • Request beta readers and note their feedback 

YouTube video

Read the brief summation below to equip yourself to write your novel. 

1. Determine your idea

Pinpoint exactly what idea or theme you want to communicate, and don’t worry if this takes some time. You may want to read the above examples of autobiographical fiction for inspiration. 

2. Define your key plot points

Even if you prefer to write the story as it comes to you, for this type of fiction, you may want to consider determining your beginning, middle, and end. 

3. Conduct necessary research

Historical fiction relies heavily on research. For autobiographies that are fiction, simply do the research that will most add to your story. 

4. Commit to completing your draft

Like any genre, it takes commitment to see your project through. It’s helpful to choose to finish before you choose to start. To streamline the process and craft a compelling narrative, consider utilizing a free autobiography template .

5. Ask for another set of eyes to look at your draft 

You may want to invest in a manuscript critique or simply ask a writing friend for feedback before you dive into edits. 

6. Self-edit your work 

Learning how to edit your work will save you time and financial investment once you reach the professional editing stage. Don’t miss this step. 

7. Read your manuscript as if you are a reader

It’s easy to mentally fill in gaps in your writing because you know your story frontward and backward. Do your best to read your novel or manuscript as if you are a reader opening to page one for the first time. This helps you spot areas you can improve on. 

8. Request beta readers and note their feedback 

Beta readers are a big help in catching errors, typos, and even plot inconsistencies. They add tremendous value and are important to your author career. 

  • 50 Eye-Catching Autobiography Titles
  • 15 Autobiography Examples to Inspire Your Own

Take your next step today 

To set you up for the most success, I included a free, 3 minute quiz to help you determine which writing software will most benefit you. Using the best software for your needs can make writing your novel a breeze. Take the free assessment today!

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Book Reviews

'how to write,' yes — but alexander chee's latest is more mesmerizing memoir.

Martha Anne Toll

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

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Two-thirds of the way through Alexander Chee's How to Write an Autobiographical Novel , I abandoned my sharpened reviewer's pencil in favor of luxuriating in the words. Chee's writing has a mesmerizing quality; his sentences are rife with profound truths without lapsing into the didactic.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel purports to provide wisdom on the writing life, and in fact Chee has two chapters of writing tips, arranged in lists that will amuse and possibly thrill fledgling and not-so fledgling writers. In totality, however, this collection is not so much a lesson on writing as a deeply considered memoir.

Chee is half European American and half Korean American. Having grown up in Maine and been bullied for his mixed heritage, Chee recounts his struggle to come to terms with his ethnic identity and his painful teenage years, during which his father died of complications from a car accident. He interrogates his childhood history of sexual abuse, embraces his homosexuality, becomes an activist during the terrifying and tragic early years of the AIDS epidemic, and figures out how to thrive as both a writer and a man.

Chee addressed many of these themes with grace and insight in his debut novel, Edinburgh . In his new book, he circles back from his last book, the epic Queen of the Night, to further mine his inner core with a refreshing candor that poses answerless questions and owns misjudgment and uncertainty. Anticipating his mother's reaction to learning — from his first novel — that he'd been sexually abused, he writes:

The child in me had wanted her to figure out what had happened ... That adolescent wish that the mother knows your pain without your having to describe it. But children have to learn to say they are in pain. To name it. The naming helps heal it.

Of the first time he puts on make-up and cross-dresses for an ACT UP event in San Francisco:

I feel more at home than I ever have, not in San Francisco, not on earth, but in myself. I am on the other side of something and I don't know what it is. I wait to find out.

Alexander Chee's Voice Shines Through In 'Queen Of The Night'

Author Interviews

Alexander chee's voice shines through in 'queen of the night'.

'Astonish Me' Asks, Is It Enough To Only Be Good?

'Astonish Me' Asks, Is It Enough To Only Be Good?

This waiting, signifying openness to new experience, transmits a message to explore and relish the unexpected. Chee shares his fascination with tarot cards in a chapter called "The Querent" (the person who's asking the cards a question). He realizes that "the mirror I wanted, back when I wished to see around corners into the future, was never possible. The only mirror to be found in the cards was something that could show me the possibilities of the present, not the certainties of the future."

To his friends' horror, he earns money serving guests at Mr. and Mrs. William F. Buckley's parties. One night he sees Buckley, who was vicious in his homophobic attacks, swimming naked with a young male staffer. Eventually Chee reads Buckley's famous column "contending that people with AIDS should be tattooed as a matter of public safety."

I was surprised to see he wanted not one tattoo but two, one on the forearm and one on the buttocks. I wondered if he knew ... that this column would be mentioned in his obituary ... that it would, in fact, tattoo him. And I couldn't help but imagine him in that pool with the young male staffer, swimming underwater, the walls glowing with light, their naked bodies incandescent, just like at Yale — maybe — wishing there was some mark on the boy he could easily see. Chee is a very special artist; his writing is lyrical and accessible, whimsical and sad, often all at the same time.

Loss threads through How to Write an Autobiographical Novel as if it were part of Chee's bloodstream. In a brief twenty pages, "After Peter" encapsulates the agony of the AIDS epidemic. "I am a minor character in Peter's story," Chee begins. Even if true, the reverse is not. "Why am I telling this story?" Chee asks. Perhaps because the "men I wanted to follow into the future are dead." Perhaps because Chee's desire for Peter "was like a private horizon line." Chee notes that Peter's grandmother knew he was dying before Peter said anything about it: "'He was a very special young man,' she says of him now. 'It seems to me this happens to special young men.'"

Chee is a very special artist; his writing is lyrical and accessible, whimsical and sad, often all at the same time. No doubt he is an inspiring writing teacher as well. His views on writing reflect his own, thoughtfully examined life:

You can have talent, but if you cannot endure, if you cannot learn to work, and learn to work against your own worst tendencies and prejudices, if you cannot take the criticism of strangers, or the uncertainty, then you will not become a writer. PhD, MFA, self-taught — the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.

Martha Anne Toll is the Executive Director of the Butler Family Fund ; her writing is at www.marthaannetoll.com , and she tweets at @marthaannetoll.

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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

Alexander chee. mariner, $15.99 trade paper (288p) isbn 978-1-328-76452-2.

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Reviewed on: 12/18/2017

Genre: Nonfiction

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On the Same Page: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

How to write an autobiographical novel.

How to Write an Autobigraphical Novel - Essays

Alexander Chee

The short essays that make up Alexander Chee’s accessible volume How to Write an Autobiographical Novel are full to the brim with feeling, and don’t make for a simplistic portrait. It’s more of a Picasso- different angles showing a complex identity. This isn’t an instruction manual for writing autobiographically. This collection shows one person’s experiences over decades that ended up producing an author.

For those who are writers, or those who are interested in the writing process because they love reading, there’s much to take away from this book. There’s also intense material on queer activism at the height of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, thoughts on growing up Asian and mixed-race in America, romance, and family. The book contains moments of joy and trauma and growth.

You can jump around this book looking for the material that’s most obviously related to your own interests, but you’ll do well to read all of it, and reflect on the many things that make up your own identity.

Cover of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

About the Author

"What would you read to someone who was dying? Annie Dillard had asked our class. She wanted this to be the standard for our work. There, at the memorial service for my friend, I thought of another: Dying, what stories would you tell?"— Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

Connect with Alexander Chee | @alexanderchee | @cheemobile

Alexander Chee

For more, see the Read This! Interview with Alexander Chee

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The Barefoot Memoirist: Ina Garten Takes Her Story to a New Publisher

Garten, the Food Network star and best-selling cookbook author, has moved her highly anticipated fall autobiography from Celadon to Crown.

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Ina Garten stands in a long dark jacked with a red lanyard and a medal around her neck. She’s smiling at the camera.

By Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris

In 2019, the celebrity chef Ina Garten set off a flurry of excitement among her millions of fans: Garten, a Food Network star, best-selling cookbook author and social media sensation, was writing a memoir.

The publisher behind the book, Celadon, celebrated the acquisition of what was sure to be a best seller in a news release. “Ina Garten is beloved by all, a national treasure who has become iconic beyond the food world,” Deb Futter, now the president and publisher of Celadon Books, an imprint of Macmillan, said in the release. “Her memoir will cement her legacy in the cultural landscape.”

When Garten recently updated her Instagram bio to note the book’s October release date, the revelation once again led to online chatter and a cascade of news articles.

One crucial detail was missing: The book was no longer coming from Macmillan. Instead, it will be published by Crown, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

There’s little information about the memoir online, and the change in publisher — which has not been publicly announced — will likely make little difference to readers and fans of Garten, whose cookbooks have more than 14 million copies in print. But for Macmillan, losing a blockbuster fall book — the season when most publishers release their big name authors — to a rival could be a blow.

It’s unusual, though not unheard-of, for a major author to change publishers after a contract is signed. Typically such breakups happen when a writer and publisher have irreconcilable creative differences, or sometimes when an author gets poached with a more enticing advance from a rival company. Authors usually return their advance to sever a contract.

In an interview, Futter said that there hadn’t been any disagreement about the direction of the book, but that Garten had a long history with Crown, which released 13 of her cookbooks through their Clarkson Potter imprint.

“Ina and I worked really well together, and I’m really proud of the work I did on the book,” Futter said. “I want it to get a great reception.”

In a statement, David Drake, the president of Crown Publishing Group, declined to comment on the memoir moving from Celadon to Crown, but said the company was “thrilled to be reunited with her for the publication of her entertaining and revealing memoir,” which he described as her “inspiring and instructive life story.”

Garten did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The market for celebrity memoirs — which have long been reliable best sellers for publishers — has gotten even more heated in recent years, with publishers offering multimillion dollar advances. Some of last year’s top-selling books were tell-alls by big names like Prince Harry and Britney Spears.

Garten, one of the food world’s biggest stars, has built a massive social media following. She has 4.3 million followers on Instagram, where she endears herself to fans with her down-to-earth demeanor, forgiving attitude toward novice home cooks (“store bought is fine!” is one of her catchphrases) and her love of indulgences like giant daytime cocktails.

She also had an unusual path to stardom. She worked for Presidents Ford and Carter as a budget analyst for nuclear policy at the Office of Management and Budget before pivoting to food and opening her store in the Hamptons, Barefoot Contessa. From there, she created a food empire, with best-selling cookbooks that she released at a steady clip, and a popular, long-running show on the Food Network.

So far, she has revealed little about the content of her memoir, but that hasn’t stopped her passionate followers from speculating that it will be dishy: “Spill the tea, Ina!” one of her fans wrote on Instagram.

Julia Moskin contributed reporting.

Alexandra Alter writes about books, publishing and the literary world for The Times. More about Alexandra Alter

  More about Elizabeth A. Harris

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Do you want to be a better reader?   Here’s some helpful advice to show you how to get the most out of your literary endeavor .

Each week, top authors and critics join the Book Review’s podcast to talk about the latest news in the literary world. Listen here .

Raja Shehadeh, Yiyun Li and Maria Bamford among L.A. Times Book Prize finalists

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The finalists for the 44th Los Angeles Times Book Prizes were revealed Wednesday morning. Palestinian human rights activist and writer Raja Shehadeh , novelist Yiyun Li and comedian Maria Bamford are among the 66 nominees in 13 categories honoring the highest quality of craft from authors at all stages of their careers.

Bamford is one of 10 finalists, including Sophia Bush, in the newly introduced category of achievement in audiobook production, which is being given in collaboration with Audible and spotlights performance, production and innovation in storytelling.

The awards ceremony, which will take place April 19 at USC’s Bovard Auditorium on the eve of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books , also includes a number of honorees in special categories. Pulitzer Prize-winning, L.A.-born author Jane Smiley will receive the 2023 Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement, which celebrates a writer with a substantial connection to the American West.

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The Ultimate L.A. Bookshelf

Your ultimate L.A. Bookhelf is here — a guide to the 110 essential L.A. books, plus essays, supporting quotes and a ranked list of the best of the best.

April 13, 2023

“Whether it’s her epic reimagining of King Lear in ‘A Thousand Acres,’ exploring campus life at Moo University in the hilarious ‘Moo,’ or her insightful writing about her beloved horses for readers of all ages, Smiley’s work brings a deeper understanding of the American landscape and the people (and creatures) that inhabit it,” said Times Associate Director of Events and Book Prizes Administrator Ann Binney in a news release.

The Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose will go to bestselling author Claire Dederer for “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma.” The award is sponsored by the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, and includes fiction, travel writing, memoir and diary.

“Claire Dederer’s ‘Monsters,’ a book-length expansion of an essay on the problematic relationship between masculinity and fame, considers how we come to love art made by less-than-perfect humans,” said the judges of the Isherwood Prize. “Dederer engages the essayist form at its best and the result is both critical, literary and provocative.”

The nonprofit organization Access Books, which works to renovate school libraries and to ensure that kids in underserved communities have access to quality literature and resources, will be given the 2023 Innovator’s Award. This honor recognizes efforts to keep books, publishing and storytelling relevant in the future.

“The work Access Books does in creating comfortable and welcoming environments for students to explore literacy and the world of books is incredibly important and has lasting effects,” said Times Interim Executive Editor Terry Tang in a news release.

The Book Prizes recognize titles in the following categories: audiobooks, autobiographical prose, biography, current interest, fiction, first fiction (the Art Seidenbaum Award), graphic novel/comics, history, mystery/thriller, poetry, science fiction, science and technology and young adult literature. Finalists and winners are selected by panels of writers who specialize in each genre.

For more information about the Book Prizes, including the complete list of 2023 finalists, visit latimes.com/BookPrizes .

Achievement in Audiobook Production

Maria Bamford, narrator, “Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult: A Memoir of Mental Illness and the Quest to Belong Anywhere”

Sophia Bush, narrator, “Wild and Precious: A Celebration of Mary Oliver”

Helena de Groot, lead producer, “Wild and Precious: A Celebration of Mary Oliver”

Dion Graham, narrator, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin): A Memoir”

Kerri Kolen, executive producer, “Wild and Precious: A Celebration of Mary Oliver”

Helen Laser, narrator, “Yellowface”

Adam Lazarre-White, narrator, “All the Sinners Bleed”

Elishia Merricks, producer, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin): A Memoir”

Elishia Merricks, producer, “All the Sinners Bleed”

Suzanne Franco Mitchell, director/producer, “Yellowface”

The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction

Stephen Buoro, “The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa: A Novel”

Sheena Patel, “I’m a Fan: A Novel”

Shannon Sanders, “Company: Stories”

James Frankie Thomas, “Idlewild: A Novel”

Ghassan Zeineddine, “Dearborn”

Leah Redmond Chang, “Young Queens: Three Renaissance Women and the Price of Power”

Gregg Hecimovich, “The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts: The True Story of The Bondwoman’s Narrative”

Jonny Steinberg, “Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage”

Elizabeth R. Varon, “Longstreet: The Confederate General Who Defied the South”

David Waldstreicher, “The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley: A Poet’s Journeys Through American Slavery and Independence”

The Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose

Claire Dederer, “Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma”

Current Interest

Bettina L. Love, “Punished for Dreaming: How School Reform Harms Black Children and How We Heal”

Roxanna Asgarian, “We Were Once A Family: A Story of Love, Death, and Child Removal in America”

Zusha Elinson, “American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15”

Cameron McWhirter, “American Gun: The True Story of the AR-15”

Christina Sharpe, “Ordinary Notes”

Raja Shehadeh, “We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I: A Palestinian Memoir”

Susie Boyt, “Loved and Missed”

Yiyun Li, “Wednesday’s Child: Stories”

Elizabeth McKenzie, “The Dog of the North: A Novel”

Ed Park, “Same Bed Different Dreams: A Novel”

Justin Torres, “Blackouts: A Novel”

Graphic Novel/Comics

Derek M. Ballard, “Cartoonshow”

Matías Bergara, “CODA”

Emily Carroll, “A Guest in the House”

Sammy Harkham, “Blood of the Virgin”

Chantal Montellier, “Social Fiction”

Simon Spurrier, “CODA”

Ned Blackhawk, “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History”

Joya Chatterji, “Shadows at Noon: The South Asian Twentieth Century”

Malcolm Harris, “Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World”

Blair L.M. Kelley, “Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class”

Nikki M. Taylor, “Brooding Over Bloody Revenge: Enslaved Women’s Lethal Resistance”

Innovator’s Award

Access Books

Mystery/Thriller

Lou Berney, “Dark Ride: A Thriller”

S. A. Cosby, “All the Sinners Bleed: A Novel”

Jordan Harper, “Everybody Knows: A Novel”

Cheryl A. Head, “Time’s Undoing: A Novel”

Ivy Pochoda, “Sing Her Down: A Novel”

K. Iver, “Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco”

Airea D. Matthews, “Bread and Circus: Poems”

Maggie Millner, “Couplets: A Love Story”

Jenny Molberg, “The Court of No Record: Poems”

Simon Shieh, “Master: Poems”

Robert Kirsch Award

Jane Smiley

Science & Technology

Eugenia Cheng, “Is Math Real? How Simple Questions Lead Us to Mathematics’ Deepest Truths”

Jeff Goodell, “The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet”

Jaime Green, “The Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos”

Caspar Henderson, “A Book of Noises: Notes on the Auraculous”

Zach Weinersmith, “A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through?”

Kelly Weinersmith, “A City on Mars: Can We Settle Space, Should We Settle Space, and Have We Really Thought This Through?”

Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction

Tananarive Due, “The Reformatory: A Novel”

Daniel Kraus, “Whalefall”

Victor LaValle, “Lone Women: A Novel”

V. E. Schwab, “The Fragile Threads of Power”

E. Lily Yu, “Jewel Box: Stories”

Young Adult Literature

Jennifer Baker, “Forgive Me Not”

Olivia A. Cole, “Dear Medusa”

Kim Johnson, “Invisible Son”

Amber McBride, “Gone Wolf”

Sarah Myer, “Monstrous: A Transracial Adoption Story”

More to Read

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IMAGES

  1. 40 Autobiography Examples ( + Autobiographical Essay Templates)

    how to write an autobiographical novel essays

  2. 020 What Is An Autobiographical Essays ~ Thatsnotus

    how to write an autobiographical novel essays

  3. 013 Essay Example How To Start An Autobiographical Sample

    how to write an autobiographical novel essays

  4. 011 How To Start An Autobiographical Essay ~ Thatsnotus

    how to write an autobiographical novel essays

  5. 40 Autobiography Examples ( + Autobiographical Essay Templates)

    how to write an autobiographical novel essays

  6. 20 FREE Autobiography Examples (Autobiographical Essay Templates)

    how to write an autobiographical novel essays

VIDEO

  1. How to write and develop critical essays

  2. How to write a Novel in less than 0.0084 minutes #shorts

  3. what writing a novel is actually like

  4. How to write essays, thesis and research

  5. HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL INCIDENT

  6. AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL |DEFINITION ELEMENTS OF AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL @BachelorofScienceEnglishLitera

COMMENTS

  1. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

    By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack. Buy the book Praise for How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

  2. Writing as Drag: Alexander Chee's Essays Consider the Novelist's Craft

    HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL Essays By Alexander Chee 280 pp. Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Paper, $15.99. "How to Write an Autobiographical Novel" is a disarming title for an ...

  3. How To Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays

    How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author's manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean ...

  4. Autobiography Definition, Examples, and Writing Guide

    Written by MasterClass Last updated: Aug 26, 2022 • 6 min read As a firsthand account of the author's own life, an autobiography offers readers an unmatched level of intimacy. Learn how to write your first autobiography with examples from MasterClass instructors.

  5. How to Write Autobiographical Fiction

    Creative genres require creative thinking, so while the following four methods are tried-and-true ways to write autobiographical fiction novels, they aren't the only ones. ABF commonly presents itself in the novel form. If you're interested in writing an autobiographical novel, below are a few possible jumping-off points. 1. Begin with a Noun

  6. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

    How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Alexander Chee. In Stock Online. Paperback$17.49 $18.99. In the age of internet hate-reads, when the most intimate of horror stories or partially-baked ideas turn into clickbait, personal essays have taken a lot of heat. At worst, they're embarrassing, meant to be memorialized in a journal (and perhaps ...

  7. HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL

    This early reader is an excellent introduction to the March on Washington in 1963 and the important role in the march played by Martin Luther King Jr. Ruffin gives the book a good, dramatic start: "August 28, 1963. It is a hot summer day in Washington, D.C. More than 250,00 people are pouring into the city.".

  8. How To Write An Autobiographical Novel : Essays

    How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author's manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction...

  9. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

    From the author of The Queen of the Night, an essay collection exploring his education as a man, writer, and activist—and how we form our identities in life and in art. As a novelist, Alexander Chee has been described as "masterful" by Roxane Gay, "incomparable" by Junot Díaz, and "incendiary" by the New York Times.With How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, his first ...

  10. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

    By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack.

  11. How to Write an Autobiography in 31 Steps

    Avoid common descriptive words - words such as 'nice' and 'good' should be considered with great caution once you have reached the third draft of your book. 26. Consider Your Reader. An important part of knowing how to write an autobiography, is having an awareness of the reader throughout the entire manuscript.

  12. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel review: Alexander Chee in top

    How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, a new essay collection by Alexander Chee, is a book that will leave you breathless, as much for its vulnerability as for its exquisite sentences....

  13. How To Write An Autobiographical Fiction Novel

    1. What is autobiographical fiction? 2. How is autofiction different from fiction? 3. How is it different from a nonfiction autobiography? 4. What are some examples of autobiographical fiction books? 5. Can I write a fiction book based on my life? 6. What are the 8 steps in writing autobiographical fiction? 7. Take your next step today

  14. 'How To Write,' Yes

    How to Write an Autobiographical Novel purports to provide wisdom on the writing life, and in fact Chee has two chapters of writing tips, arranged in lists that will amuse and possibly thrill ...

  15. How To Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays Paperback

    ALEXANDER CHEE is the best-selling author of the novels The Queen of the NightHow to Write an Autobiographical Novel. He is a contributing editor at the , and an editor at large at . His work has appeared in The Best American Essays 2016New York Times Book Review, among others. He is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in ...

  16. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

    How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author's manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him.

  17. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

    "To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth, but into it," short story writer and novelist Chee (The Queen of the Night) alerts readers here. In the 16 essays assembled, he ...

  18. On the Same Page: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

    Alexander Chee. The short essays that make up Alexander Chee's accessible volume How to Write an Autobiographical Novel are full to the brim with feeling, and don't make for a simplistic portrait. It's more of a Picasso- different angles showing a complex identity. This isn't an instruction manual for writing autobiographically.

  19. How To Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays

    How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author's manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him.

  20. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

    ALEXANDER CHEE is the best-selling author of the novels The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh, and the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.He is a contributing editor at the New Republic, and an editor at large at Virginia Quarterly Review.His work has appeared in The Best American Essays 2016, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, T ...

  21. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

    How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays [Chee, Alexander, Isaac, Daniel K] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

  22. Crafting your life story: A step-by-step guide to writing personal

    Practical writing tips. Before you get started with your autobiography, there are a few things you should consider to help your writing flow. First, write what you know, then write your introduction. Write what you know first. To help construct your story quicker, write everything you know first. Follow this with the information you must research.

  23. The Barefoot Memoirist: Ina Garten Takes Her Story to a New Publisher

    In Lucy Sante's new memoir, "I Heard Her Call My Name," the author reflects on her life and embarking on a gender transition in her late 60s. For people of all ages in Pasadena, Calif ...

  24. L.A. Times Book Prize finalists for 2023 announced

    The Book Prizes recognize titles in the following categories: audiobooks, autobiographical prose, biography, current interest, fiction, first fiction (the Art Seidenbaum Award), graphic novel ...

  25. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

    An essay collection exploring his education as a man, writer, and activist-and how we form our identities in life and in art. As a novelist, Alexander Chee has been described as masterful by Roxane Gay, incendiary by the New York Times, and brilliant by the Washington Post.With How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, his first collection of nonfiction, he is sure to secure his place as one of ...

  26. @uniquelyvintage_ on Instagram: "Let me tell you about the incredible

    22 likes, 0 comments - uniquelyvintage_ on February 8, 2024: "Let me tell you about the incredible life of Sylvia Plath. Sylvia was an American poet, novelist,..."

  27. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays: Library Edition: Chee

    How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays: Library Edition [Chee, Alexander, Isaac, Daniel K] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays: Library Edition