This week I’ve been advising a writer who wants to gather his professional experiences into a daring expose of … well, I’m not allowed to reveal that. But there is malpractice, corruption and a lot of harm being done to innocent people. Publishers have told him they’re wary because he doesn’t have a platform as an investigative reporter. Others have suggested that he could make his experiences into a novel. And that was one of the questions he asked me. Should he?
Obviously, if you’re going to embark on fiction, there are certain mechanics to learn – storytelling, character invention, show not tell, arcs, dialogue.
But this kind of book comes with an extra challenge. If your material is a true-life account, or a memoir, or an expose, you also have to change your attitude to the content. You have to be willing to change everything – anything – in the service of the story.
If you’re drawing on real experiences you’re often wedded to the exact details. ‘What really happened’ is part of the authenticity. Its very unbelievability might be part of its extraordinary nature. Real life is often stranger than fiction – that proverb exists for a good reason.
In fiction, believability works in a different way. You have to persuade the reader that the situations and developments are real. In memoir and autobiography or any other kind of anecdotal narrative, we already accept that it is. We accept whatever is put in front of us.
People in fiction must be believable too. Fiction has to present its characters with great care, especially the main characters. We might have to alter them from our original concept. An antagonist might seem ridiculous unless they’ve given a quality that makes them human. A protagonist might seem drippy unless they’re given a chance to be wicked sometimes. To create the credibility of novels, you have to be much more willing to adapt as you work. And invent.
Legal aspects – will fictionalising get you off the hook, legally?
Probably it won’t. If you’ve been a thorn in someone’s side and you bring out a novel that seems to enact your conflict with them, you’re probably vulnerable to being challenged. Changing a few details – or a lot of them – won’t stop somebody recognising themselves, their organisation or their battle with you. And if you’ve improved on the real events to make a better story, you might have compounded the possible libel by suggesting they’d do things they haven’t done.
But people do make real life into stories, quite effectively and without getting sued. The trick is to use the real details as a starting point and present them in heavy disguise – here’s a post all about that. Look out for Dave and me in that pic. (Ghostwriters do it too, for famous and infamous people who, ahem, write novels about their lives. If you’re curious about how that happens, step this way)
Assess your priorities – and perhaps adjust
You can still use fiction to expose an injustice or tell your unbelievable truth. Fiction writers usually want to probe for truths, anyway, even though they’re using invented people and events. Although fictionalising might involve compromise, you don’t have to see it that way. Aim instead to identify some core truths and then build a story that stays faithful to those. Your goal isn’t to be a chronicle; instead you’re communicating the deeper spirit, the themes, dilemmas, rights and wrongs.
Your turn! Have you tried to make real-life experiences into a novel? Do you know anyone who has, perhaps in a writers’ group? Any experiences, lessons or wisdom to share?
FLASH SALE Congratulations to Sophie Playle and Mary McCauley, who won the paperback copies of My Memories of a Future Life in the prize draw. Thanks to everyone who entered … and if you weren’t lucky this time I have an extra treat for you. Until Monday 17 Oct, My Memories of a Future Life is 0.99 on Kindle. Hurry there now! If you’ve already got it, send your friends!
#1 by lisa vee on October 16, 2016 - 12:56 pm
Just bought My Memories of a Future Life and love it so far. The new cover is great – I think I prefer it to the original version (which works very well, although this new artwork adds a more mysterious atmosphere)
#2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 16, 2016 - 1:05 pm
Thank you, Lisa! I’m just off for a run with some music to inspire me for my 3rd novel, so your words will add wind to my heels!
#3 by sharonhughson on October 16, 2016 - 1:38 pm
A struggle I am having with using a “what if” from my own life and making it into a novel that isn’t about me (and my sister and my niece) by giving the characters deeper hurts and diverse motivations. Still, I fear people who know us will read the story and say, “What? You did that? You’re such a jerk/idiot/moron/hypocrite/atheist.” It really puts a choke hold on the creative side to hear those accusations while trying to write from a place of grief into a story that offers hope and healing to others.
Thanks for this post. My sister and niece are beta reading for me to help me make the characters even less like us (and more readable, because most of us don’t have a life anyone would care to invest hours with).
I also snapped up a copy of your 99 cent book. Although my TBR pile being what it is…I may not get to it until 2017. I truly appreciate your blog. It feels like a hand up to my writing career.
#4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 16, 2016 - 5:33 pm
Sharon, what an interesting example and a tricky balancing act. Clearly you’re aware of the dangers and it sounds like you’re doing your best to write a book that will be more than just a piece of personal catharsis. Best of luck with it.
And thanks for your lovely words about my blog. I hope when you get to Future Life that you won’t look at it and think ‘whyever did I buy THAT’?!
#5 by DRMarvello on October 16, 2016 - 2:49 pm
I’ve included a few real-life events in my stories, but I write fantasy, so the events were adapted heavily.
I particularly enjoyed writing a scene where my male protagonist proposes to the female protagonist. It was probably one of the most unromantic proposals ever which was based on my real proposal to my wife. We were driving to Yosemite National Park and had reached a stretch of highway lined with deciduous trees in glorious fall colors. I was enjoying the views and thinking about how much I was looking forward to spending the weekend with the woman riding next to me. I thought about how much fun we had together and how I hoped that would continue indefinitely. I blurted, “We should get married.” She answered, “Okay, but I want a ring.”
She got her ring, we got married, and 25 years later, I still hope our adventures continue indefinitely.
#6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 16, 2016 - 5:35 pm
Daniel, I love that story. It’s so casual, but no less affecting because of that. Happy silver anniversary.
#7 by Lesley Rice (@LesleyORice) on October 16, 2016 - 3:30 pm
Towards the end of my WIP two of my characters have a show down. I started to write it several times, but just couldn’t find their conversation in my head until I realised that the character had a lot in common with my ex-husband. It wasn’t conscious, but after that I had the opposite problem. It poured out onto the page, it was personal and I cried while I wrote it. At the end I cried some more and felt a lot better about a lot of things. Then I deleted most of it and kept what I hope was just enough, but not too much. I think it’s one good thing about being an older wirter, no matter what you can always find some experience to draw on, just as long as you don’t let the truth of the experience get in the way of the story.
#8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 16, 2016 - 5:38 pm
Lesley, thank you for sharing this. Another point to add to your point about the older writer: I think being an experienced writer allows us to be more disciplined about how we use our lives in our fiction. We have more of a sense of proportion. We know we have to justify everything we put in.
#9 by acflory on October 16, 2016 - 10:08 pm
As another, older -grin- writer, I’ve had much the same experience as Lesley, with much the same result, but I think this is exactly the point at which fiction writers can and should differ from writers of memoir or expose – for us the story is everything. Even painful experiences become sublimated to the needs of the story. And that is why I hope the writer who inspired this post does /not/ turn his experience into a novel. For him, the experience is everything and I doubt that he will be able to sublimate that experience any time soon. More importantly, I’m not sure he should. He is a whistleblower, and his unadulterated experience is probably needed to clean up another murky corner of Western life.
#10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 16, 2016 - 10:28 pm
Hi Andrea! You make a good point here about whistleblowing. If my writer makes his experiences into fiction, it becomes ‘one more novel’. No matter how good it is, it will be seen as a story, not an urgent call to action.
#11 by acflory on October 17, 2016 - 6:31 am
Not easy being a whistleblower but I’d canonize all of them! lol
#12 by mrszee333 on October 17, 2016 - 1:35 am
I think where life is stranger than fiction however a non-fiction story is going to have to cross a few boundaries – but only with the universal – conversation, times and places. I think it gets to be about arranging the material more too. Obviously I am attempting this very thing. Thank you for this topic. In part I tell my tale the way I am because it is terribly tedious as non-fiction – whistle-blowy, kind of story with the smallest hope to be able to help others who may have had the same experience to come to terms with what really happens to their identity in an abusive environment. Novice.
#13 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 17, 2016 - 5:48 am
Hello Mrs Zee! You’re approaching this from an interesting angle – the ‘real’ story seems to have little consequence, but if you fictionalise you can make something that conveys your message better. Nice example!
#14 by Don Massenzio on October 18, 2016 - 3:29 am
Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.
#15 by dgkaye on October 18, 2016 - 9:43 pm
Excellent article Roz. As a memoir writer I can vouch for all those fine lines I worry about crossing. It becomes an art to write about real life people in such a way as not to incriminate or bash, and still be worried about someone coming after me. It is for those lingering little worries that I have taken out media insurance when I wrote my first memoir. 🙂
#16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on October 18, 2016 - 10:28 pm
Eek, media insurance! Debby, I’ve never heard of that. Though when I’ve ghostwritten, I’ve seen some fairly frightening clauses in publishers’ contracts about possible court cases. Thanks for bringing the memoirist’s perspective.
#17 by dgkaye on October 19, 2016 - 10:24 pm
My pleasure Roz. It helps me sleep better at night, lol. I’ve heard some horror stories about writers being sued from people accusing them of writing about them because the descriptions sounded like them and the writer never even knew who they were! Sure once it goes to court it gets thrown out, but it’s all the costs incurred by lawyers to prepare for court that writers can get stuck with. 🙂
#18 by juliecroundblog on July 21, 2017 - 9:41 am
I had two different reasons for putting my life experiences into my novels. In one I was having a torrid time in my marriage and felt like leaving. I didn’t. Instead I wrote “Never Run Away” a book about the destructive force of redundancy, and things calmed down.Then I wanted to write a romance but couldn’t think like the youth of today so I set it in the sixties, when I felt romantic. I was asked yesterday which of the characters was me? That was “A Lesson for the Teacher.”(one was more like me as I was and another as I wished I could be!) That’s enough novels. I’m now concentrating on poetry instead.
#19 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 21, 2017 - 6:33 pm
I love that character split, Julie – you as you were, and you as you wished you could be. Writing the book must have been such an interesting journey.