The end of exploration – on writing a book where you can’t make things up

If you get my newsletter or follow me on Facebook or Google+ you’ll have seen dancing and jubilation as Not Quite Lost is finally ready for general parading and pre-order.

It’s certainly been a new kind of writing experience, because, of course, I didn’t have the freedom to invent. (Why? It’s non-fiction. More here.) This set some interesting boundaries for revision.

The pieces that were easiest to edit were the amusing mishaps  – mostly involving idiotic use of cars. Also easy were the fragments about people and places that were intriguing and mysterious. But other pieces gave me more difficulty, refused to spring into shape for a long time. They fell flat for my wise and ruthless beta-readers. ‘You lost my attention here,’ said one of them. But… but….. but… I thought.  There’s something in that story.

When a piece in a novel isn’t working but my gut tells me I want it in the book, I change the circumstances, add pressures in the characters’ lives or give the event to another set of people. Clearly I couldn’t do that in Not Quite Lost. It must stick to the truth. You can change details of people to prevent them being identified, but you can’t change events. You’re stuck with them.

So what do you do?

I’ve edited memoirs and I recognised the situation. If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story. In short-form memoir, they go by another name – the personal essay. I had failed to recognise that some of the pieces in Not Quite Lost were personal essays as well as travel tales.

Full circle

This week I heard Ann Patchett being interviewed on Radio 4’s Book Club about her novel Bel Canto. One of the points discussed is how each character is like an onion, losing a layer each day until they’re down to the core.

And in the good tradition of ending explorations and arriving where we started, knowing it for the first time, we come full circle to fiction.

My diversion into narrative non-fiction has, at times, felt like writing pieces of a novel. It’s also given me a sharper view of a quality I value in literary fiction. ‘Literary’ is a slippery thing to define, and I enjoy playing with fresh interpretations. So my current favourite definition is that a literary novel is, in some ways, like a personal essay for the characters, peeling away a skin at a time.

Anyway, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is now on pre-order. And it looks like this.

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  1. #1 by Alexander M Zoltai on August 13, 2017 - 3:04 pm

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    I’ve pre-ordered the book Roz talks about in today’s re-blog 🙂

  2. #3 by Don Massenzio on August 14, 2017 - 5:12 pm

    Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio.

  3. #6 by dgkaye on August 15, 2017 - 2:44 am

    Congrats on the new book Roz. Great article! As a memoir writer I can identify with the dilemmas we stumble upon when our story is factual and not fiction where we can tweak a story. All my books are nonfiction or memoir as some tend to turn into short essays within a theme. So I can relate to much of what you wrote here. I’m currently peeling that onion on my latest work now. 🙂

    • #7 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 15, 2017 - 6:39 am

      Thank you, Debby! I’m back to fiction now. It feels like all brakes are off!

      • #8 by dgkaye on August 15, 2017 - 12:46 pm

        Lol. See? We tend to gravitate back to our comfort zones. 🙂

  4. #9 by DRMarvello on August 17, 2017 - 3:14 pm

    Roz said: “If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story.”

    Perhaps there’s a lesson here related to “kill your darlings.” It may be possible to save some of those darlings if we can uncover the “subsurface process” that originally inspired the passage. With a twist here and a tweak there, we may be able to reveal the surprising or beguiling element that brings it into significance. I suppose the trick is knowing when you’ve accomplished that!

    • #10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 17, 2017 - 5:41 pm

      Wise as ever, hooded man! But it can take an awful lot of quarrying – maybe uncomfortable quarrying.

  5. #11 by Teddi Deppner on August 17, 2017 - 7:35 pm

    Fascinating insights from your venture into non-fiction story writing. I love to see you pursuing this project and appreciate hearing how it went. More and more writers I know are going after the projects that in the past they felt were too non-commercial or risky. I think we’re starting to realize that even the most commercially sound idea may not hit the jackpot, so we might as well do what’s on our hearts to do.

    And after all, isn’t that what our writing should be? Taking something utterly “us”, something from our own inner landscape, and putting it out there for others to sample — and perhaps enjoy. It’s always a risk, but when you find those who love what they see the reward is marvelous!

    • #12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 17, 2017 - 10:03 pm

      I love this phrase of yours, Teddi – ‘we might as well do what’s on our hearts’. The funny thing is, this was supposed to be a more categorisable kind of book. But it’s ended up, as all my books do, being a bit more its own thing. One of my first reviews said ‘I’ve never read a book quite like it before’. Fortunately the reviewer also liked it a lot! Thanks for dropping some good wishes my way.

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