Pub Rants

Feel Free To Leave This Out

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STATUS: I spent my day working on three contracts and the last of the outstanding issues. My hope is that we can put them to bed tomorrow.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SHE WORKS HARD FOR THE MONEY by Donna Summer
(My theme song!)

I never claim to speak for all agents so this might just be a personal dislike but since I can also name 10 agent friends who are turned off by this as well, it might be a little universal. No formal study implemented of course.

I just hate when writers highlight (as if this is the main selling point of the query letter) that their work of fiction is based upon their true life story.

Writers are often told “to write what they know.” I’m good with that. But one’s true life story may or may not translate well into fiction. And if it does, well and good but you really don’t need to include that info in your query–mostly because of how that statement is handled. For some reason, it just comes across as amateurish rather than professional.

If the story is amazing, it will stand on its own despite the “true story” declaration. Let the story sell itself. Once taken on by the agent and then sold to a publisher, the true story aspect can then make a good human interest angle for promotion.

And before someone has a coronary, I still read those query letters and try and view it with an unbiased eye but I have to be truthful. I work a little harder at it since I’m already leaning toward NO.

34 Responses

  1. Christopher M. Park said:

    I’ve heard it said that “authors’ first novels tend to be more autobiographical.” Perhaps that contributes to the stigma, since first novels (written, obviously) are often not publish-worthy. As you said recently, third or fourth time is often the charm.


  2. Kimber An said:

    I can see that to be true in myself and others, Christopher. Just another reason I am now grateful I was only 11 years old when I wrote my first. That was more than a couple of decades ago, Dude, and as many books since. In retrospect, I can see how I evolved as a storyteller. Here I thought it was just a hobby and all along I was growing up and finding my voice.

  3. Anonymous said:

    Y’know, I was idly thinking today that I’d like see just one friggin’ post by Kimber An that didn’t mention “The Star Captain’s Daughter” even once.

    *TA DA!!*


  4. Anonymous said:

    Er… And just to make it clear, that last post was meant to be funny. No offence was intended.

    (Mutters to self: “Darn it; must remember to add the danged smiley faces…”)


  5. katiesandwich said:

    I never took the “write what you know” thing to mean, “write a story based on your own life,” but maybe that’s because I know I’m boring and that no one cares about my life story. To me, the write what you know philosophy is illustrated in such examples as: Kristen Britain paid her way through riding lessons as a kid by working in stables and therefore writes good details about horses, or if I, as a former waitress, had some fictional waitresses filling salt shakers in a story.

    This is a little off topic, though. Oops. 🙂

  6. B.E. Sanderson said:

    I think people have an urge to mention the ‘this story is based on the truth’ thing because people tend to view the important events of their lives as being important to everyone. Which is probably also why so many people write memoirs that never get published. (And why my memoirs are nothing more than some notes jotted down for my eyes only.)

    Personally, I will take little tidbits from my life and weave them into scenes from time to time – making them better and more interesting as fiction than they ever were in reality. But I’d never say that in a query letter. It’s not important where I got the ideas. It’s only important how those ideas are written down.

  7. Kimber An said:

    Oh, I’m kind of sick of it myself. 😉 There’s just a bazillion little details to deal with getting a manuscript polished and out there. It’s like my brain is a state of quantum flux on it. This is the week to move on though. I’m just a little more than dazed and confused by my prospects.

  8. Anonymous said:

    Although I’ve never mentioned anything about a true life story in a query myself, it’s surprising that would upset agents, and not just Kristin but ten other clones. Maybe the agent wants to feel they’re only rejecting the story not the person’s life as being meaningful? I’ve noticed a lot of agents seem angry lately. I’d guess it’s mostly a thankless job, since they have to rely on other people’s talent to make money, like a mosquito feeling off someone’s blood, and that may explain their disdain.

  9. Janny said:

    As a writing mentor, I see this way more often than I want to as well. I do wish I had a dollar (or ten) for every aspiring author I’ve talked to who has a story that simply MUST be told. Inevitably, the story is one of three types:

    a) a story about how they, or their relatives, were ripped off by The System, how unjust and shocking it all is, and we all have to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT;

    b) a memoir of their “fascinating” life as a stripper/call girl/exotic performer of some kind (with, of course, Big Names involved…which they unfortunately can’t mention!);


    c) a gruesome or at least disturbing account of someone in their lives who’s abused them, and how they rose from the ashes like a Phoenix and are now triumphant, and this is a story that will inspire everyone!!!!!!

    When you take into account that none of these people had a “household name,” or a platform, or in most cases even a manuscript…I did have to restrain myself from pulling a Miss Snark and running for a clue gun. Had I been armed with one at those times, I would have been truly dangerous.

    Like many here, there’s no way I took “write what you know” as “write the story of your truly amazing and fascinating life.” I see events in my life work themselves out in my fiction–and often, if I see something telegraphed like that, I will deliberately take it OUT of a piece. There’s no way I want a reader to look at something I’ve written and think, “Hoo boy, who was she mad at THAT week?”

    My take,

  10. Ric said:

    What an intriguing bit of information! Sometimes we learn more from these snippets coming from frustration on the agent’s side. Got more?

  11. Patrick McNamara said:

    I wonder if not mentioning it was based on truth would include specific references to the source of the story?

    Many don’t realize that the movie “Twister” was based upon events that happened to actual storm chasers.

  12. Christopher M. Park said:


    I think if you’ve been chased by multiple tornados, that might qualify as something of a selling point. Extensive experience as a telemarketer, however… not so much.

    But, really, the work should stand on its own either way. As was already said, the fact that it is based on true life events can just be part of the promotion later. Even if you have been chased by multiple twisters, I doubt it happened in the exact manner that would be most interesting/exciting in a narrative. The agent/editor is going to expect you to write it fictitiously in order to be more interesting and have the proper dramatic flow, just pulling in your life experiences to add accuracy and perhaps some specific events. Too often, non-writers with a story to tell will just try to recount the story in its real-life order and in great details. That, unfortunately, generally makes for a pretty disappointing novel.

    But, that’s just my two cents.


  13. L.C.McCabe said:

    This reminds me of a forensics tournament where I judged a round of Informative Speeches. (The difference between Informative and Original Oratory was that the former you were merely trying to inform and not persuade on your chosen topic.)

    One of the competitors did a speech on some medical malady, I forget what it was. It could have been autism or something like that. The speech was technically well constructed, the delivery however left me cold. Especially with the ham handed conclusion stating that she knew all of this because her brother was afflicted with said malady.

    She also had a freakin’ defiant look on her face when she said this.

    As if she dared me to not believe her on this point. I felt as if she were trying to just yank my heart strings rather than pluck them gently.

    She could have interwoven her personal experience into her speech about having a family member with the disease, and it might have worked. Instead it was a tacked on thing at the end that really annoyed me.

    I wound up scoring her lower than she probably deserved, but on the whole that aspect of her speech detracted from the overall impact.

    I can only speculate that some query letters may have a similar effect on agents if it comes across as “this is based on my life, so if you reject my story by extension you are rejecting my life.”

    Or some similar guilt laden sentiment.

    If it comes across with that kind of undercurrent, I can fully understand why it would be a turn off for agents.


  14. Sam said:

    You mean the fact that I was kidnapped by alien vampires and raised in the Andromeda galaxy before being beamed back to earth to write my autobiography shouldn’t be mentioned in my book “I was kidnapped by alien vampires”?

    (I didn’t forget the smiley face!)

  15. Anonymous said:

    Wouldn’t it be funny if the list of reasons agents devise to reject books kept getting larger, so it eventually includes all books, and nothing is published? That seems to be the goal they’re moving toward with these strange, and meaningless, rules. It seems no matter how silly something an agent says is, there are writers so gullible they’ll agree with it. It’s reached the point none of you stand up for anything.

  16. Kristin said:

    I do a lot of freelance writing from home, so I occasionally log on to craigslist looking for work. You would not believe the number of people in any given week looking for a ‘ghostwriter’ with ‘industry connections’ to help them write their life story, which is inevitably ‘bestseller material.’

    So, not only are there people out there who are writing their life stories and thinking they are the most original thing since sliced bread, there are people who can’t write worth a darn trying to hire people to write their life stories.

    It never ends!

  17. Christopher M. Park said:

    That’s pretty harsh, anonymous. Most Agents are doing the best that they can, as are most writers. The sad fact is that there are masses of people out there who don’t write well but think that they can, and they clutter up the whole system as a whole. What agents are doing when they give advice like this is telling us how to stand out from the clutter. It’s hard enough to get noticed as it is; it’s nice to know what makes a query sound amateurish or cliche. There is a logic to what agents and editors say, but you have to look at it from their pov rather than just your own.


  18. Anonymous said:

    Uh, I wouldn’t say this is a “strange, meaningless rule” — it’s a helpful tip about something that is a red flag for an agent.

    To me, first-time author + book based on own life = therapy. But that’s just my opinion and I’m not an agent.

    Kristin *did* say that she tries to look at these queries objectively, and I think that’s more than many people in the publishing industry would give.

  19. Anonymous said:

    If it’s an INTERESTING true story — worthy of being a memoir — that can create a platform to sell the book. But if the “story” is something commonplace (even if heart-felt), it won’t.

    A based-on-real-life novel about a kid raised in the Manson family, sure. A coming-of-age first love? Not so much.

  20. ORION said:

    Clutter up the system? Not write well?
    I have met many fervent individuals at conferences who take much joy in their writing – good or not. I would not tell them to stop and I would never presume to judge what is worth writing about and what is worth publishing.
    The proof is in the final product.
    Is it another mediocre story of abuse?
    Or is it Running With Scissors?
    Each time a blanket statement is made:
    -We hate queries when they say: Based on life experiences. — there is an exception (The Glass Castle).
    Coming of age story and romance based on real life? (Mozart and the Whale)
    I guess I could go on.
    If you recognize yourself or a black cloud descends when you read Kristin’s post (or any of the negative comments). Take heart. If you have written well and your story has a unique appeal or angle – you will persevere.
    This business is subjective.
    There is always another agent.
    I have to admit I was a bit shaken when I read on this blog last June that the “Lottery premise was overdone”.
    I am fortunate my agent and Putnam disagreed.

  21. ORION said:

    I did not mean to come off arrogant. That was not my intension. I just wanted to point out that it is easy to get discouraged if you believe all agents hold the same opinion. Kristin’s blog is useful and informative and an excellent resource but is subjective and echoes her own feelings.
    I in no way wanted to disparage that.

  22. Robin L. said:

    Is this different than if you wrote a book about, say fishing, and mention that you’ve worked in the fishing industry for x number of years? I thought I’ve read Miss Snark say that she likes that bit of detail because it shows that you have some knowledge. Or, you’ve written a book about gorillas and mention that you have a Ph.D in zoology?

    Someone enlighten me! I don’t want to committ query-cide!

  23. M. G. Tarquini said:

    I did not mean to come off arrogant. That was not my intension.

    ROTFL! Oh, Pat! As if you could!

    in other news:

    Presuming my name isn’t James Frey, the word ‘memoir’ should clue an agent that the work is based on my personal experience. If I’m querying fiction, then it’s fiction, even the bit about senator and the anorectic cat.

    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

  24. Christopher M. Park said:

    I didn’t mean to come off sounding arrogant either, but I suppose I did. There are obviously a LOT of writers at every skill level, and quite a good number who are amazing and yet not published. That’s not who I was referring to. But I think it’s also apparent that there are a large number of people who are just starting out and not nearly ready yet, or who had some sort of life experience that made them want to publish a book–and in their haste to write that book, they don’t bother to learn much about the actual art and craft of writing.

    Maybe I’m off there, but that is my impression, and I have seen evidence of that (as I’m sure we all have). To me, the main thing that separates the “real” writers from the perpetual wannabees is dedication. I’ve been at this ten years, and a number of you have been at it even longer. There seem to be a lot of other people who have mistaken ideas about glitz and glamour and how easy it is to be a writer, and so they pursue it without any real dedication to the art itself. And to me, those people are the ones who “clutter up the system,” to use my previous horrible euphemism. Those who learn and thus improve their craft, I applaud, and I certainly have nothing against young or just-starting writers. But I am offended by those who think that they can just sit down and create something in a month that, without editing, will rival the great works of our time.


  25. Christopher M. Park said:

    I’m no expert, but I think that there is a difference between being a subject matter expert and saying that something is an autobiographical account. Stories that are “absolutely true” often don’t have the proper pacing and flow and plotting, and so if the writer does not step back and add those things, the story might not be as good as it otherwise could be. In the case of noting that you are a subject matter expert, however, that can indicate a greater level or realism and accuracy within the narrative.

    Kristen or one of the other agents are the only ones here who can give a more definitive answer, but this is what I understand the difference to be.


  26. Diana Peterfreund said:

    Robin L., I’m inclined to think that mentioning you have a background in the topic you are writing about is different from saying “true story!”

    For instance, my book is NOT a true story, but my experiences informed the subject matter.

    I’ve always found the real challenge comes in convincing people that I am *not* my main character and that the book is nothing remotely approaching a roman a clef.

  27. Anonymous said:

    My well polished prose hid the fact that my life story was in fact fairly boring. In fact, if your prose is polished enough, you can diguise any boring story as something good. I spent so much time polishing my prose that the boring story of my life was seen as literary fare. While polishing my prose the other day, I began to consider that maybe a story about polishing prose could be passed off as something good, were the prose polished enough. With just the right polish, any prose can be seen as marvelous.

    Off to polish my prose.

  28. Anonymous said:

    autobiographical books are only fun when written by psychos who habitually did stupid things for most of their lives. trying the say that your fiction is based on your life seems to be publishing suicide, unless you can prove you were a navy seal with a twelve inch pecker, a drug problem and a vindictive family of devil-summoning witches.

  29. Shanna Swendson said:

    One other reason why an agent might not be overjoyed to see that your novel is based on your life story:

    If you have to base your novel on actual events that happened to you, it raises the question of whether or not you’re capable of making up a story from scratch, developing characters, and actually plotting. Agents generally are looking for authors whose careers they can build over the long term with multiple books. Someone who can only fictionalize his or her life story doesn’t sound like a good long-term career prospect.

  30. Kim Stagliano said:

    My MS has an autism backstory – and I have three girls with autism. But the book is pure fiction. None of my girls is telepathic… The autism scenes, even the ones completely made up, are dead on accurate and will ring true to readers. I did snatch some of the autism moments from my own life – but no one outside the autism world would ever believe they’re anything but fiction.

  31. Deb said:

    Janny, re: your post above–you owe the Termagant Police $3.00 for unauthorized use of exclamation points.

    One per manuscript, please! Them’s Da Rules! Swack!