I’ve had this rather interesting question: I saw you had written under pen names, and wondered: Is it difficult to keep your cover? I very much need an assumed name, as my novel will include details that will not go down well here with the powers that be. Said details won’t include names and faces, even so, I’d like to stay on the safe side. Do you have any advice or warnings?
As they say in magazines, names have been concealed and details changed to protect identities.
First – is it easy to keep my cover? Yes, because I’m not in hiding or in danger of being unmasked. The ‘authors’ whose names I ghostwrite under are real people. They appear on TV, they go to book signings and talk to the media and fans when necessary. Everyone who knows I wrote the books is within the industry and has a vested interest in keeping my cover. (But that also means I have to too…)
But it’s a different matter if you are genuinely worried about the consequences if someone can identify you as the author. And I’m probably not about to make you feel better.
Here is a law of writing. If you write a book, people you know will see themselves in it even if you categorically did not use them. Your family, your ex, your colleagues. Even your cat if he could be bothered.
Names have been changed
Will a pseudonym mean you don’t provoke those comparisons? It might be enough for situations where the aggrieved party might write an angry letter or exclude you from the Christmas card list. But this correspondent seems to fear a lot more than that.
If your revelations are sufficiently annoying, using a pseudonym is virtually pointless. The publisher is not obliged to keep your identity a secret if a legal letter arrives or the heavies call. They don’t have the code of conduct that journalists have, of protecting their sources. Publishing contracts, even for the sweetest book about daffodil husbandry, have a clause that requires the author to bear the cost of any legal claims or injunctions.
Changing names and faces does not stop someone being identified in your story, as many libel cases will demonstrate. If your friends will see themselves in your novel no matter what, think how sensitive someone might be if they suspected they or their organisation were the material for your book. You might find yourself with a libel writ, in breach of a contractual obligation, or even the Official Secrets Act. If you feel you must hide your true identity, maybe you would be better seeking legal advice and finding safe ways to use sensitive material. Much depends, of course, on what you’re writing, but an agent should be able to advise you, or a specialist media lawyer.
However, if you are determined to make fiction out of your experience, there’s a lot you can do without risking legal repercussions or concrete overshoes.
Spilling the beans – the safe way
Here was my advice.
First, write a private draft, with everything you have to say, for your eyes only. Then think about how to make it into a story. Real life has a habit of being messy, meandering and inconclusive. It often lacks coherence, artistry and all the neatness that make a crafted story satisfying.
Then start to camouflage – by looking for ways to change the story into fiction while telling a core truth.
Find themes to highlight – this will allow you to hone your main plot/ sub plot structure.
Remodel the characters into roles. There will probably be far too many people in the real-life version, so you’ll have to merge some of them. And in fiction, characters tend to have defined roles. There will be a hero, an antagonist, perhaps a mentor, perhaps a loyal friend. Make a list of character archetypes.
Sometimes using archetype lists can seem too formulaic, but you’re not doing this to paint by numbers, you’re working out what to do with a messy, real cast. Terrell Mims has an excellent series on character archetypes and how they work in a story.
Make a conscious effort to let go of real events. You have passed into fiction now – the gods aren’t going to examine you on what really happened. Your duty is to make a story that examines the themes, motivations and behaviours that kicked you to the writing desk in the first place. Identify gaps in the story and invent egregiously to fill them. It will probably be much better than the real version was, and will carry your truths more convincingly to the reader’s heart.
If you’re having trouble getting it all in one book, don’t try. Save material for another. This isn’t your only shot and publishers want a writer who can run and run.
Of course, all of us pour our life experiences, relationships, traumas and triumphs into our fiction – that’s unavoidable. For some of us the urge to write comes from a zeal to lift a lid, right a specific wrong. It’s possible to do that under quite a heavy smokescreen.
What would you add? Have you had to tell a story and camouflage it heavily? Relax… your relatives, friends, former employers will never read this blog… Share in the comments!