How To Write A Book About Your Life: Being Too Close To Your Manuscript

Wondering how to write a book about your life? Something an agent (Scott Tremeil) said at the NJ SCBWI agent panel really put a point on something I’d been thinking for a long time: being too close to a manuscript when you write what you know.

write what you know, writing life stories
How to write a book about your life? If sending your work into the world make you feel like someone else is holding your heart in their hands, you may be too close to your manuscript.

How To Write A Book About Your Life: Red Flags for Agents

Scott said that, sometimes, if he hears that a writer has been working on a manuscript for 10 years or so, that’s a red flag for him. I have to completely agree. Writers who write what they know and are emotionally tied up in their story to an extreme degree are also a red flag. These issues make me worry: Is the writer too close to the manuscript to be able to see it objectively and revise it accordingly? Is it too precious for them? Are they so emotionally involved with the piece that getting it rejected by a publisher will be damaging? Are they so invested in a particular story or can they move on from it to write something else? Will it also take them 10 years to craft the next book?

Working on a Project for Years

Writers who belabor something for years are problematic. I know some mad geniuses like Harper Lee only have one great book in them. In today’s market, though, the ideal writer (to an agent or publisher, that is) can turn out consistent, quality manuscripts about once a year. This way you can always have a next book coming out and you can start building your readership. You’ll have a brand and, twice a year, readers can look for you on shelves — once in hardcover for this year’s book, once in paperback for last year’s.

Excessive Emotional Investment

Writers who are writing about a personal subject that is very close to their hearts make me anxious, too. If you are writing a story, for example, about the death of a character’s sister to, Heaven forbid, work through that tragedy happening in your own life, how will you dealing with rejection in that scenario? Or with an editor coming in and wanting you to make changes? Is your subject matter too close to home? Is an experience in the novel too precious and too reflective of your own life?

In no way am I saying “Don’t write what you know.” Do. That way, your story will have great emotional resonance. And it will be cathartic for you. But do realize that when you’re writing life stories, part is yours and part is fiction. You need to separate which part belongs to you, privately, and which part belongs to readers, publicly.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: writing is extremely personal, but publishing is a business. If you don’t think you can walk this fine line with a manuscript that’s on your plate — whether it’s because you’ve been working on the manuscript for so long or because you’re writing life stories — it may be better not to pursue publication with it.

After All, Publishing is Still a Business

The point I wish I’d made, after hearing Scott’s advice, is this: there are many times in a writer’s journey where a manuscript is just a manuscript. Every single thing you write is a learning experience…but, sometimes, that’s all it is. Glean what you can from a manuscript or an essay or a paragraph, and move on. Start something new. You’ll be better and stronger and wiser for it. I like hearing that a writer has a lot of drawer novels, actually, because it tells me one very important thing: they know how to learn from an experience and move on.

This advice obviously doesn’t apply to everyone. Some people are able to run with the “write what you know” advice without entering a state of trauma. Some people take longer to write a manuscript. But if these things are starting to feel like obstacles to you, the best solution may be putting that particular manuscript aside and starting something else.

Have you been hammering away at your current project for too long? When you hire me as your manuscript editor, I’ll give you the push you need to cross the finish line.

20 Replies to “How To Write A Book About Your Life: Being Too Close To Your Manuscript”

  1. That’s great advice Mary. I put my first MS in the drawer after realizing that I wasn’t a good enough writer to do it justice, YET. I hope to come back to it after I’ve developed more. If you really have that emotional attachment to your story, it might actually help to write other things, become a better writer, and then try again when you can really make it shine.

  2. Wow. This post, just. . . wow.

    I think that as a writer it’s sometimes hard to separate ourselves from our novels, but that is one of the best things we can do. Even setting aside the novel for a month or two helps us see it more objectively. Then when we go back to it, we might see that it’s really just time to start a new novel. (Been there. And yes, it’s hard, but possible.)

    But ultimately, I think we as authors just have to remember that the agent and editor are just trying to help our books become better and they have a multitude of experience to draw from.

    Also, THANKS Mary for coming to Utah! We loved having you hear, and I can’t wait for your plenary today.

  3. Thanks for the post. I wonder, what do you think of just putting the MS down for a year and coming back to it fresh, with more experience? Is that a mistake? This is what I did. After a year I came back to it, didn’t hardly glance at the first draft, and completely re-wrote the whole thing, adding characters, adding more of a voice (though I am still working on that one), adding more dimention. I think it really helped. The MS is almost unrecognizable compaired to the original. I also love it more, I understand where I am going more now. Of course it WILL take me longer to write (or revise) it since I don’t now take the time I need (little ones at home makes it difficult), but I think after this experience I will write faster because of what I have learned in the process.

    Anyway, hope that was on point. Thanks again for the post. See you this afternoon!

  4. Thank you for this! Sometimes I need to remember that it’s OK to just use a book to learn. 🙂

    Have a great weekend!

  5. On the other hand, writing too many books and never revising them to the finish could also be a problem. I’d think writing a novel then setting it aside and working on something new for a few months before coming back to revisions would be a good thing. That way you get some detachment from the manuscript, but are still coming back to “finish” it.

    It is good to move on, but it’s also good to see something through to the end. If you don’t work on the other novels and try to improve them, you aren’t really learning anything about the writing process.

    Of course, spending ten years on one MS is a bit much . . . How long is too long?

    I have a particular MS I wrote almost eight years ago. Every now and then I come back and fiddle with it, using what I’ve learned in the time since to improve it. I doubt it will ever see the light of day, but I find its a good learning tool. Plus, it makes me feel good to look at the “original” MS and the newest version and see how far my writing has come. 😉

  6. Bongo, are you sure the men in suits aren’t from the Psych Hospital? : )

  7. Joan brings up a good point. Some writers revise a manuscript to death, wait to send it out for years, finally send it out to five carefully chosen agents, get five rejections, and throw their hands up in the air and swear they’re never going to write another book again.

    Then there are the writers (raises hand) who have a tendency to rush things. Who just hope it’s *good enough* and send it off and cross their fingers. Who maybe get a few requests, but never much more than that.

    The best response, of course, is somewhere in the middle of these two. Sometimes you have to preach two completely different sermons to get at the same principle.

  8. Scott had some amazing things to say at the NJ SCBWI. He had a different perspective then the other agents. I think he’s right ten years on one piece is way too long. But it does make me wonder what is a good amount of time. Six months seems WAY too short. A solid year seems pretty good. But I would argue you need space between you and your writing. I know I need months so I can look at my novel with fresh eyes. I need NOT to be super emotional attached to the characters and any “new” writing I do. I need time to look at it objectively. I am giving myself a cut off time— if it’s not ready by January 2011, I’m moving on to a new project.

  9. Great post! I was in a critique group with a gal who had a manuscript she’d been working on for over ten years. The key word here is, “was.” I do have a manuscript that I wrote about eight years ago, got good feedback on the voice, but never really went anywhere with it. I think I needed to write it for me, to get it dealt with. Now, years later, I realize the manuscript did have voice, great characters. But no plot! Yikes! Because of years of distence, I’ve chosen to rewrite, and now have a compelling plot, etc.
    I think it’s Steven King that says you have to write at least a million words before you can call yourself a writer. I don’t think you can continue to learn and hone your skills if you work on the same manuscript for ten plus years. Anyway, I have lots of drawer manuscripts. About three are worthy. I wish Harper Lee DID have more than one book! Thanks Mary!

  10. A great reminder! I think that the more you expose your work to critiquing, the easier it is to let it go.

  11. This is an interesting post that raises some questions. For me at least.

    – My fist chapter book I wrote is my stongest finished piece. There are several reasons for this. 1) I wrote it and two weeks later wrote a MG novel and four weeks later wrote a second MG novel. 2) I then revised my CB and got great feedback on it from editors. 3) I set it aside while I wrote a YA and a handful of other pieces. Two years later I edited and subbed. The feedback told me the piece was good–but my topic was too hot. 4) I set it aside for another two years while the market cooled. Just completed another revision and have started sending off again.

    Technically, this manuscript has been in existence since the fall of 2005. However, I haven’t been “working” on it the whole time. I’ve written lots of other pieces, completed and revamped several novels and did some nonfic contract work. In other words, I gauged outside factors as well as honed my craft during my revision cycles.

    While I know this is a long time for one project, my process is very different than spending five years on one manuscript, coddling it, nurturing it and refusing to let it grow up. Yet posts like yours make me wonder, “Have I invested too much into one piece?” and “Why do I feel this is THE book? Is it because I’m too close to it, or because it really is my break-out novel?”

    Not that you can answer that question without reading the manuscript, but it does raise the question: “When do you give up on a project?” Not the whole writing gig. Just a specific piece. What factors point to not developed versus not the right time?

    ~ cat

  12. you haven’t kept up with your blogging responsibilities just because of some silly conference?! Lazy, lazy, lazy. 😉

  13. This is great advice. I really appreciate your point of view (and that of other agents) who aren’t writers (published or unpublished) with stars in their eyes. It makes me reevaulate why I’m a writer and come out with stronger resolve in the end.

    (It also makes me feel better about the book I’m currently working on. I’ve made unheard of progress – for me – in less than a year, and I was beginning to wonder if I was writing too quickly. I spend varying amounts of time on some books, but now I know something’s not wrong with me and all that practice is paying off!)

  14. Something that’s hard to judge sometimes, is when you should put your manuscript in a drawer and move on. Because it can feel like giving up on it, even if you’re ready to work on something else. And, there’s lots of advice out there that tells writers to “be persistent”. For me, one thing that makes it easier is having a new project to work on and learn from.

  15. Very interesting points about a topic that isn’t frequently discussed. Sometimes, novels need time to settle and mature – and then you can see what you really need to do with them. I’m tweeting this.

  16. Interesting thoughts! Don’t get me wrong, I love my novel, but I’d never be that obsessed and paranoid about making it 135% perfect.

  17. I stay away from my MS after completion- by locking it in the drawer or bricking it up. The distance is necessary for sanity and my editor’s sanity

  18. Interesting discussion. The internet is full of references to “Novels (and other things) are never finished, only abandoned.” Is that why we look to others to answer “how long is long enough”?

    On the other hand, I wonder why the first published novel of an author is often the best of the ones he or she has written. Could it be the first novel was given enough time? Or is it because the author had to find the right stopping place?

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