Posts Tagged real life

If you write what you know, where do you get ideas?

What does this phrase mean, ‘write what you know’? New writers are often baffled by it, and feel their creativity has been stomped on. Most of us have a regular life with average troubles and jobs that aren’t the stuff of stories. And we want to write fiction to escape, explore, expand – so how do we do it?

Find your people in fiction

Great stories come from great characters. We might know a few people in real life with traits that are good story fodder, but not suitable wholesale. Most writers get inspired by characters they meet on the page – and especially in fiction.

In the UK at the moment there’s a scandal about an eccentric disc jockey and charity worker. He died a year ago and now we’re stunned to hear he’s accused of indecent acts. An often heard remark is ‘how could someone who did such immense good also do such evil’? Read some literature, though, and you’ll know – very well – how it is possible for remarkable people to have extreme sides.

More than any other written medium, novels can give us a person stripped bare, scrutinised in three dimensions. We see how they behave with their friends, family, strangers, people they think will never see them again. We can peek at what goes through their heads when they’re on their own. That’s a level of honesty you don’t even get in historical texts or biography. And you certainly don’t get that access to the people you rub along with in real life.

Reading fiction gives you characters you’re curious to understand, and that can guide who you’re interested to write.

Find your plots in your obsessions

Some novels are written about normal, domestic lives. But many more are about characters in danger, or on the edges of society, or realms of the extreme and extraordinary. Have all those writers had racy, perilous lives? Most have not; their natural habitat is usually a desk, like you and me. (Or if they have been adventurers, the chances are they don’t do the writing too.)

Ghostwriters, historical novelists, crime writers, fantasy and science fiction novelists are the living proof that you don’t have to have to write what you have personally experienced. But what these writers are good at is thorough research, led by genuine interest, so they can inhabit these environments as though they were real.

Write what you know – don’t let this stuffy phrase smother your imagination. Novels are not created by your daily life, but your inner life.

You’re interested in certain kinds of people? That’s who you ‘know’, on a writing level. You’re interested in certain kinds of story, settings or time periods? There’s what you  know – or can know – well enough to write about.

Thanks for the pic H Koppdelaney

What feeds your writing and how different is it from your life? Are there other pieces of writing advice you’d like to take a hammer to? Share in the comments!

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Should I write a memoir, a novel or a fictionalised memoir?

If you want to write a book from your life experiences, which is the best option? I’ve had this rather interesting question…

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time working across the globe as a freelance soldier. I am committing my adventures to text to shine a light on the realities of that world. Far from the blood and gore of Tony Geraghty’s Guns for Hire, I want to explore the personal torment so many go through and the struggles they face in balancing domestic life and freelancing. Would this be better written as a personal recollection or a novel like Lee Childs’s Jack Reacher series?- Michael

My first reaction is, can I be your agent? Wow, what a story. Not many people who offer themselves to the publishing world have such a unique premise. You should definitely write a memoir first. If it does very well, you’ll find yourself asked to write novels anyway. Many successful publishing careers have started with a best-selling memoir – although, of course, there are many memoirs published that don’t hit the big time.

If you have ideas for novels, work them up too to demonstrate that you can be a long-term investment. (If you haven’t, it’s not a deal-breaker. If they’re really keen they’ll send you to someone like me :) )

Are you legally allowed to write it?

Make sure you’re allowed to write this book. In your case it sounds as though you want to focus on the personal story rather than operational details. But many writers with dynamite memoirs can’t publish because of libel laws, the Official Secrets Act or possible death threats.

Libel is when you harm a person’s reputation. You can relate events if you can prove they’re true. If you’re delving into people’s motives you have to be careful, or get the subject’s permission. But don’t let this scare you – people do write quite searching, searing memoirs. Just make sure you’re fully informed.

Publishers will not protect you

Writers often think that if they have a publisher to hide behind, it will protect them. It won’t. Although publishers have lawyers they can show manuscripts to, they usually only do that with the famous or infamous – otherwise it’s not worth paying the fees. (Sorry.) Publishing contracts always have a clause that makes you responsible for any harm (ie legal harm) caused by your book. Even if it’s only a twinkly fairy tale.

Be honest – do you want to be honest?

Are you willing to write honestly and fully about the experience? This is going to be a story about the effect on your family and friends. They won’t all be angels – and if they are, the book won’t ring true. Will they mind if you peel them in public?

I’ve seen many manuscripts from writers who are examining traumatic periods from their lives. While they delve truthfully into their own hell and bad behaviour, they balk at doing the same to their loved ones.

We novel-writers are frequently asked by friends or family if we’ve put them into books. If we deny it, they often don’t believe us. In a memoir there is no cloak of fictionality. They know, without doubt, that you did.

Should you write a fictionalised memoir?

This is the hybrid option – not quite truth, not fully invented. You take a real experience apart and make a story that is true in essence, even if not keeping to the precise detail.

I get approached by a lot of people who want to write about a major change in their lives, such as unusual travel experiences or giving up a high-flying career to start anew in a foreign country. Speaking with my cruel marketing hat on, these are not as unusual as Michael’s story. It’s probably better to mine them for a novel instead, where you have licence to make something bigger and more distinctive than reality. In that case fictionalised memoir might be a good option.

From the moment you cross into fiction, fiction rules apply. Start with what really happened, but do not shrink from adding, cutting and inventing until you have the best story and the most usable characters. What’s the difference between that and ‘real’ fiction, if there is such a thing? Probably not much.

Huh?

Fictionalised memoir is mainly a label to get more attention in an overcrowded market. It says ‘this is a story, but it is written from what I truly lived’. Some readers like that; some are profoundly irritated and want either truth or fiction. They certainly don’t want to question whether you made the best bits up.

Attention!

The problem with being a debut writer is getting attention. Readers – and publishers – buy the author’s story as much as they buy the book. For that there’s a pecking order.

1 – Memoirist – translates as ‘read my book because this is my extraordinary life and it’s fascinating’

2 – Fictional memoirist – ‘read my book because it’s fiction based on my inimitable experiences’

3 – Novelist – ‘read my book, I made it up from extensive research, the depth of my human understanding and the pure dedicated application of my craft’

Believe me, it hurts to write that list. It’s not a comment on quality, simply on the volume of writing that is out there.

The bottom line

Memoir comes with the marketing built in. If you have enough usable material to write a straight memoir, go with the memoir. You’ll start at the top of the debut writers’ pecking order.

You guys may, of course disagree! What would you tell Michael? Share in the comments!

 

How to write a novel – in-depth webinar series with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn.  Find more details and sign up here.

I have tools for writing novels in Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one –available from Amazon.My own novel, My Memories of a Future Life is now available. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

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Should you use real life in your novels?

How do you make good stories out of real life?from Peter Richardson and David Orme's Cloud 109
S
hould you change things?

 This week, a picture popped into my inbox. It’s a frame from the manga graphic novel Cloud 109, the latest WIP by artist Peter Richardson and writer David Orme. Peter sent it because he’s put me and Dave into the background as a cameo.

This is something arty folk do regularly, of course; we’re forever using each other as cameos and walk-ons in our stories.

But this is only for cameos. Not main characters.

In fact, this topic has been hot all week. Mysteries writer Elizabeth Craig started it when she asked, should you write about people you know? Non-writers assume that everything we write is recycled from our own lives – but they don’t realise how much invention is added. The debate carried on on Twitter, where the consensus from writers was this: sometimes real people go into novels, but if they are to play major parts, they require a lot of tweaking. What comes out is not necessarily that similar to the raw materials that went in.

No character from real life, however remarkable, is going to be completely suitable just as they are.

And that’s just when they start off in the story. If characters are to be explored in any great depth they will probably – and should – evolve as the story goes. They may surprise you, develop a will of their own – that oft-repeated phrase ‘the characters took over’. Not only do they do what they want, they go through their own changes which you can’t necessarily predict when you start.

To use real life well in a novel, you have to allow everything to go its own way.

This doesn’t just apply to characters, but also to events.

I used to go to a critique group, and one week a lady read from her novel about a couple divorcing. There were many scenes featuring bitter arguments. Everyone agreed the characters’ distress was plain to see but following it all was difficult. We started to make suggestions that would help us find a way in – so that we could engage with the characters and why they were so upset with each other. There were suggestions to amalgamate two characters, show some of the other person’s point of view, tone down the villainous behaviour. Every comment was answered with ‘but I can’t change that, it’s what really happened’.

Really, she was writing the novel as therapy, so telling it exactly as she saw it was the point. Inviting the reader to become involved was not her purpose.

But if inviting the reader in is your purpose, you have to be prepared to change things.

You have to know the difference between real truth and dramatic truth. Dramatic truth is universal, in some ways it is about us all. Real truth is messy, overblown, particular to one situation. For instance, coincidences – in real life they happen all the time. In novels coincidences usually look like lazy storytelling. In real life, people behave in ways we will probably never understand. Real life is a terrible template for a story – it only gets away with it because we can’t turn it off.

Truth is stranger than fiction – or, if you’re a storyteller, fiction cannot be as messy and strange as truth. In a novel, the reader knows you have made up the events – therefore the events themselves are not as important as what they signify, or their part in a coherent whole. This is an absolute rule, no matter what kind of material you are basing your novel on – and I’ve helped clients make novels out of truly horrific childhoods, which you might think gave the writer a free pass for the reader’s indulgence.

If you’re basing a story or characters on real life, don’t get hung up on what really happened. You are not giving evidence for the police. When you write fiction, no matter what you are making it out of, you cross a line. Telling the real truth isn’t your job. Telling the dramatic truth is. 

If you’re going to write about real life, be prepared to let it change to make a better story.

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