Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by glorybee » Sat Aug 30, 2014 12:46 am

First, I should say that this lesson is about short biographical sketches, not full-length biographies. For information on that, you’ll need to consult with someone far more expert than I. But short biographies—like the length of Writing Challenge articles—those I can approach from the standpoint of a past challenge judge and a reader of challenge entries.

It seems to me that there’s sort of a continuum of possible ways to approach a biography. You can keep it strictly factual, with details about the person’s life, their accomplishments, the time and place in which they lived, their family, the things that influenced them, and the ways that they influenced the world (or, on a smaller scale, the ways that they influenced you).

The problem there is that your biography may sound like a school report or an encyclopedia article. The facts will be there, but it might not be particularly compelling reading. You will need to be an exceptionally gifted writer to make this sort of nonfiction come alive for your reader. It can be done, of course, with lively vocabulary, snappy pacing, humor or some other emotion, vivid description, and colorful characterization. There’s no reason why nonfiction shouldn’t contain these.

On the far end of the same continuum would be a fictionalized account of the person’s life. In this type of writing, you would take your own research and your own knowledge of the person’s life, but write it as fiction in which you imagine and portray situations and conversations as if they might have happened. Some writers who do this put a disclaimer at the end, explaining the liberty that they took with the person’s life.

The problems with doing this: If the person is still alive, or if they are only recently dead (and still have living relatives), that person or those who knew him may take exception to the fictionalized version of his life. In addition, you may veer too far from the truth, and your readers may not fully grasp that they are reading, in essence, an alternate reality. Finally, some writers may feel squeamish about writing something that they know not to be absolute truth about a person who is (or was) absolutely real.

Also, if your subject is still alive or recently dead, you may need to obtain permission from the person or their estate to write about them.

So…in the middle of this continuum, then, are compromises. You can write a factual biography in which you take some small degree of license in painting a verbal picture of your subject’s world, in order to make it come alive for your reader. You can stick strictly to known facts, but conceptualize a pivotal moment or conversation in your subject’s life. You get the idea.

It should be obvious, I think, that in a bit of writing as small as a Writing Challenge entry, it’ll be nearly impossible to capture a person’s entire life. You’ll probably want to choose one or two important moments, and write those as vividly as you can.

Also, you should know that in a work of nonfiction, you should cite your sources. Certain bits of information are commonly known, and if your subject is very familiar, citation isn’t necessary for that kind of information. For example, you don’t have to cite that George Washington was the first president of the United States, or that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus. But if you’ve done research to flesh out your knowledge of your biographical subject, or if you’re telling your readers something that’s not widely known, you’ll want to include an end note with your sources.

And while I’m on the subject of sources, I should probably mention plagiarism. No one at FaithWriters would knowingly plagiarize, I’m sure, but it could happen as a result of incorrect understanding of what constitutes plagiarism. When I taught high school, almost all of my students thought that just changing a few words made the work their own. With an online thesaurus, they plugged in a few synonyms and rearranged a sentence or two, and honestly thought that the work was now their own. It wasn’t.

The best way to avoid inadvertent plagiarism, in my opinion, is to read and research from several sources—but to totally close those tabs or those books when you’re doing your writing, and don’t look at them again. If you need to check the accuracy of a fact, do it once you’re done writing.

All of the hallmarks of good fiction writing—many of these are Writing Challenge judging criteria—should be present in a biography. It should start with a great hook, hold the reader’s interest, end with a kicker, contain interesting characters and compelling action. It should have a point, and it should be fresh and original.

(When I post these lessons, I try to include a link to a past entry of mine that illustrates the week's topic. I could only find this highly fictionalized version of an incident in the life of King Wenceslas, for which I included no sources. Oops.)

***
What do you have to add on the topic of writing mini-biographies?

If you’ve written one for FaithWriters, please link to it, and tell us about your process. Why did you choose that person? Did you do any fictionalizing in order to make it more interesting reading?

Do you have questions that I didn’t cover?


As always—if you have a request for another class on any writing-related topic, let me know.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by Verna » Sat Aug 30, 2014 10:17 am

Jan, as I perused titles in challenges and in my poetry books, I was really surprised to see how much of my poetry is biographical or autobiographical, based on memories of people and events in my life. Some of it is true character description, and some of it is fictionalized accounting. For this challenge piece "Betty and Billy and Bobby and Me," I took an event that occurred when my husband and I were visiting my parents, and my dad took a broom to a mouse he thought had climbed up his pant leg. I changed the characters, except for Dad, and added dialect. http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=43800 .

This is for me a favorite short poem about my mother, based on things she said to me at different stages in our lives.

She Said

She said:
You can’t go there.
You can’t wear that.
You can’t watch that.
You can’t say that.
You can’t do that.
And I was sad.

Then after the passage
Of many years
In which I’d made
All my own choices,
She said:
I can’t sing anymore.
I can’t drive a car anymore.
I can’t go to church anymore.
I can’t cook anymore.
I can’t live in my house anymore,
And I was very, very sad.

And . . . just this week (bricks are up), my challenge piece is pretty much true about a family incident. "Delusions of Safe Keeping." http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=49187
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by pheeweed » Sat Aug 30, 2014 9:15 pm

You have a lot of useful information here. I'll have to sort through it, but my first thought is that I have written several challenge articles that are in the middle. They are based on actual events and people, but I was pretty loose about changing some of the facts to make them into a story. I definitely have to work on using the techniques you mentioned instead of changing the reality. In my defense, I considered them fiction, based on true events. But I don't think that's acceptable.

There's one entry in which I didn't do that, except to change a name. I was there, so I was confident in the dialogue and descriptions. My struggle is what to do when writing a story about people and events when I wasn't there.

http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=30588
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by glorybee » Sat Aug 30, 2014 9:27 pm

Phee, I think there's a bit of a difference between biography and what you've shown here, which is more autobiography or memoir or just first person narrative. My lesson was really more about writing someone else's life, and biographers aren't typically a part of their subjects' lives--there's a degree of distance in a biography that is not there in an autobiography/memoir/first person narrative.

Even if you are telling, say, your grandmother's story, something that perhaps has been known in your family for a few generations--it's not really a true biography, it seems to me. Maybe there's not a word for it, but that kind of story is more personal than a biography, and should feel more personal.

Sorry if I misunderstood your request. We really don't get a lot of biographies in the Writing Challenge--but we DO get a lot of memoirs and first person narratives and family stories, and those could take a lesson all their own. I know that I did one on memoir writing many years ago; I'll see if I can find that and update it some, perhaps for next week.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by GeraldShuler » Sun Aug 31, 2014 2:08 am

I wrote an entry called "When Mama Fainted..." (http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=21849) that was about a well know silent screen star. The research material wasn't documented but what was used in the story was from a hodge-smodge picking of facts from several people's biographies about this person. The only thing I made up was the dialog. I also changed one very important fact because the truth didn't fit in 750 words. The truth was that it was him AND his older brother that was sent out to sing and dance when their mother fainted. I couldn't think of a way to keep the essence of the story and still include his brother so I just wrote his brother out of the script.

So, was this biography or pure fiction?

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Re: Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by glorybee » Sun Aug 31, 2014 6:30 am

JayDavidKing wrote:I wrote an entry called "When Mama Fainted..." (http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=21849) that was about a well know silent screen star. The research material wasn't documented but what was used in the story was from a hodge-smodge picking of facts from several people's biographies about this person. The only thing I made up was the dialog. I also changed one very important fact because the truth didn't fit in 750 words. The truth was that it was him AND his older brother that was sent out to sing and dance when their mother fainted. I couldn't think of a way to keep the essence of the story and still include his brother so I just wrote his brother out of the script.

So, was this biography or pure fiction?
I'd call it something in-between. Looks like we need a word for this! Whatever it is, it's delightful.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by swfdoc1 » Sun Aug 31, 2014 2:28 pm

Here are two Challenge entries that are both fairly special to me, each in a different ways. The first one, The Way it Was, is straight biography, but with a fairly interesting set-up. It became my first EC.

The second one, Eternal Spring Hopes, is a fictionalized account of real (i.e., autobiographical) events in the lives of my family members. It was written prior to my son’s death & is pretty agonizing for me to read now because the “hope” of the title was unfulfilled in many ways, although he was diligently working on his relationship with the Lord at the end of his life.

Neither the wordplay in the title nor the story itself ever attracted any interest; it has 2 comments, and was written in the days when a group of folks tried to make sure every entry got—you guessed it—at least 2 comments. But it tells the story of how fun times led to alcohol use which led to drug use. (Can you say “the law of unintended consequences”?) That’s all we knew when the story was written. Later we were to find out that drug use led to schizoaffective disorder. (The link between marijuana use and schizophrenia and related mental illnesses has been established in the medical literature for 20+ years.) Sadly, schizoaffective disorder led to suicide. Like I said, it’s an agonizing read for me now.

I hope sharing this second entry doesn’t bring comments on this lesson to a grinding halt; Jan works too hard on the lessons & I'm sure other folks have lots to share or ask. I hope everyone keeps on sharing your thoughts, questions, and links. It’s just that after reading Jan’s lesson, I immediately thought of these 2 entries.
Last edited by swfdoc1 on Sun Aug 31, 2014 3:31 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by glorybee » Sun Aug 31, 2014 2:49 pm

Steve, thanks for sharing these! I actually remember reading the C. S. Lewis one, and it's a great illustration of one of the points of the lesson--biography doesn't have to be dry and uninteresting, if it it written with creativity. In your case, the creativity was in the staging of the piece, and not in the facts about C. S. Lewis's life.


And the second one is poignant, especially knowing the rest of the story. I so much appreciate your being willing to share it here. I wish it had got more reads first time around.

Thanks, Steve.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by swfdoc1 » Sun Aug 31, 2014 3:10 pm

Thanks.

Your "yellow box" comment on the C.S. Lewis entry keyed in on the "trick" I played with that piece. I deliberately induced readers to "hear" Walter Cronkite's "famous, clipped, trained-to-talk-slowly, recognizable-anywhere voice" in their heads. My hope was that they (or, at least as I said, those of a certain age and those who had seen the newsreel) would hear that voice all the way through the piece.

Is this the basis for a future lesson? Embedding language dealing with the senses into a piece, whether it be the 5 traditional senses of sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch; or other "senses," such as temperature, pain, and other stimuli?
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"When the Round Table is broken every man must follow Galahad or Mordred; middle
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“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Re: Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by glorybee » Sun Aug 31, 2014 4:51 pm

Good idea, Steve!
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by pheeweed » Sun Aug 31, 2014 7:28 pm

Jan, this is exactly what I was looking for. I guess I first needed to have the differences between biography, memoir and whatever else there is defined for me. Jaydavidking's story and both of Steve's have given me a better idea of what biography is. It's also clear that the way to grab the reader is to tell a story, or write a scene.

I have two questions (okay, I have more than that, but I'll only ask two).

If I'm writing about my grandmother, but it's based on letters and other research, not just family stories, does it become biography? Or does it matter what I call it?

What about the dialogue? Is it okay to write what you imagine was said based on what you know happened?
Phee

Steve, thanks for sharing your story, even though it's painful. It was helpful.
Phee
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by glorybee » Sun Aug 31, 2014 9:13 pm

Okay, here goes. What all of these things have in common is that they are nonfiction, and they are written about real people. Here are the differences:

BIOGRAPHY: The story of another person's life (not your own). A biography would be written in 3rd person, and the writer would not be expected to make an appearance. A biography would cover--beyond the basic data of a person's life--the ways in which he influenced or was influenced by the time and place in which he lived, the events in his life that shaped him for good or for ill, and his own perceptions of those events. Usually a biography is of a person of significance beyond his own family.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY: The story of a person's own life. It would be written in 1st person, and all of the above things would be expected in there.

MEMOIR: Very similar to an autobiography, but only focusing on one or a few specific, significant events in a person's life. Also written in first person.

FIRST PERSON NARRATIVE: Probably the most intimate of these. There's considerable overlap here with 'memoir,' but a first person narrative could also involve telling someone else's story or event, but one in which the narrator ("I") also was present or has first-hand knowledge of. Or it could simply be a light story about the writer--not one with great significance: just something that happened.

So, Phee, to get to your specific question: a story about your grandmother based on research as well as family stories is closest to biography. If you are also in the story, I suppose it depends on to what extent. For example, in college I read the biography of Ted Bundy, the serial killer. It almost entirely fit the definition of 'biography' above--but its author was a woman who had worked with him for a time, and knew him personally. So in a few chapters, there was that writer's 'I'--not typical of biographies, but possible.

As you can see, all of these definitions are somewhat soft around the edges.

You can certainly write dialogue that you imagine is close to what probably happened. Let your reader know that's what you're doing--either in an end note, or worked into your narrative.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by swfdoc1 » Sun Aug 31, 2014 9:40 pm

pheeweed wrote:Steve, thanks for sharing your story, even though it's painful. It was helpful.
I'm glad it was.
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"When the Round Table is broken every man must follow Galahad or Mordred; middle
things are gone." C.S. Lewis
“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Re: Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by Verna » Mon Sep 01, 2014 9:11 am

Thanks, Jan, for your definitions. Obviously, much of my writing consists of first person narrative.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--BIOGRAPHY

Post by pheeweed » Tue Sep 02, 2014 1:50 pm

Thank you, Jan. The definitions are clear and very helpful. Now I'm off to write some biography. Rather, I'm off to do research for a biography.
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"And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise." Philippians 4:8 NLT

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