Can Your Life Story Become a Novel? By Judith Laura

Can Your Life Story Become a Novel? By Judith Laura

More than 20 years ago I started writing what later became my novel, Three Part Invention, published just last year. That first draft was written in the first person, beginning when the main character, my alter ego Beth, was five years old. Though the novel changed greatly from that first draft, it has preserved for me experiences and emotions I’m sure I would have forgotten by now: details — even minutia — about growing up female in the 1950s, participating in the very early civil rights movement, and the flush of first love.

As I revised the manuscript, I discovered the greatest challenges of fictionalizing an autobiography are deciding on point-of-view, limiting the number of characters and events, and adding foreshadowing. For example, when I took out the manuscript after it literally sat in a trunk for many years, I realized that its narration from a single first person point-of-view was too narrow. It forced readers to focus on Beth’s gripes about her mother, giving the story a Mommie-dearest quality.

So I decided to add Beth’s mother Alice’s point-of-view in third person and also to change Beth’s point-of-view to third person. Beth’s change to third person gave me more objectivity in her characterization. While writing Alice’s chapters, I came to understand things that may have motivated my mother. These chapters also changed the book by sometimes giving two different views of the same incident, and by adding the depth of another character, who grew up in a different time period.

Then I decided to add a third main character, Beth’s daughter, Alexis. Of the three narrators, Alexis is the most fictional. I first wrote her chapters in third person, but in further revisions, it didn’t feel quite right. I experimentally changed Alexis to first person. This gave more strength to the character, who at that point entered the book several hundred pages after Alice and Beth. This point-of-view change led me to write more material for Alexis and to begin the novel from her first person narration.

If you’re like me, after you retrieve and write your life memories, you’ll need to eliminate characters and events that don’t add to your plot. This is probably the most difficult part of changing your autobiographical writings and memoirs into fiction because it’s hard to be objective about your own life. So you might try letting the “finished” manuscript sit a while — or ask a person outside of your family and close friends to look at it — before deciding you need that bit about Aunt Nellie darning 50 socks an hour while humming “Danny Boy.” Also important when writing life-based fiction is setting up, or foreshadowing, important events. This means creating subtle fictional hints of things to come. Paradoxically, lack of foreshadowing causes readers to feel events are “not real.” In Three Part Invention, two characters on a shopping excursion are involved in a horrific bus accident. In the pages before this fact-based incident occurs, these characters go on a pleasant but entirely fabricated bus-shopping excursion that acquaints the reader with parts of the bus and the shopping area that play a part in the later accident.

At another point, a previously healthy character dies of food poisoning. To set up this fact-based event, beginning early in the book the character ruminates about death and has real or imagined stomach symptoms and food concerns. Close to the event, I invented a scene where the character sits in a greasy-spoon type restaurant wondering if the food is alright to eat (this isn’t where the food poisoning occurs). Still, readers have commented that they were shocked when this character dies. So I feel I must have done something right!

Three Part Invention is Judith Laura’s first novel and third book. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have also been published in magazines and anthologies. Read more about the novel, which Midwest Book Review calls “a compelling story…highly recommended.”


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