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!
I’ve had an interesting question from Josephine of the blog Muscat Tales:
Can you talk about pace? How to speed up/slow down the action/plot – and when? Is there a general blueprint for this or does the story type dictate the peaks and troughs of emotion, action and change?
There’s much to chew on here. And I think I can provide a few blueprints.
In order to answer, I’ll reorder the questions.
First, a definition. What’s pace? Put simply, it’s the speed at which the story seems to proceed in the reader’s mind. It’s the sense of whether enough is happening.
When to speed up or slow down?
This comes down to emphasis. You don’t want the pace of the story to flag. But equally, you don’t want to rip through the events at speed. Sometimes you want to take a scene slowly so the reader savours the full impact. If you rush, you can lose them.
Here’s an example. In one of my books I had feedback that a scene read too slowly. Instead of making it shorter, I added material? Why? I realised the reader wanted more detail, that they were involved with the character and needed to see more of their emotions and thoughts. The feedback for the new, longer version? ‘It reads much faster now’.
More pace, less speed. It could almost be a proverb.
So pace is nothing to do with how long you take over a scene or the speediness of your narration. Whatever you’re writing, you need to keep pace with what the reader wants to know. If you linger too long on something that isn’t important, they’ll disengage. If you race through a situation they want to savour, they’ll disengage. But when you get it right … they feel the book is racing along.
How to keep the sense of pace?
This comes down to one idea: change. The plot moves when we have a sense of change. Sometimes these are big surprises or shocks or moments of intense emotion. Sometimes they’re slight adjustments in the characters’ knowledge or feelings, or what we understand about the story situation. A change could even be a deftly placed piece of back story. But every scene should leave the reader with something new.
This feeling of change is the pulse that keeps the story alive – and keeps the reader curious. In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a great plot – two of them are change and curiosity. (The other two are crescendo and coherence, in case you were wondering.)
And now to peaks and troughs. These are your major changes that spin everything in a new direction. As a rule of thumb, they work best if they’re placed at the quarter points (25% in, 50% in, 75% in). You usually need at least three, but you can have more if you like. Just space them out equally through the manuscript so you make the most of the repercussions. But that’s not a cast-iron rule (more here about general story structure).
The biggest question is this – has the plot settled into an unwanted lull? You might solve it by moving a pivotal revelation to one of these mathematically determined points.
Does the story type dictate the use of pace and change?
Yes and no.
Why no? Because these principles are universal – a change is whatever will keep your audience interested. It might be an emotional shift. An earthquake. A person recognising a stranger across a room. A betrayal. A murder. A cold breeze that echoes the fear in a character’s heart. An assailant jumping in through a window. A line that pulls a memory out of the reader’s own life. It’s all change.
Why yes? Because the type of story will dictate the kind of change your readers want to see. Thrillers need big bangs and danger; interior literary novels need shades and nuance.
Why no, again? Because all stories need change.
There’s lots more about pace and structure in my plot book, of course.
NEWSFLASH Chance to WIN 2 print copies
So many readers of My Memories of a Future Life have told me they wanted to discuss it with a friend. So I dreamed up a special idea to mark the relaunch with the new cover. Enter the giveaway on Facebook and you could win 2 copies – one for you and one for a like-minded soul. Closing date is this Wednesday, 12 Oct, so hurry. This could be the beginning of a beautiful book club… but don’t enter here. Follow this link and go to Facebook.
Any questions about structure or pace? Any lessons learned from experience? Let’s discuss.
I settled down to read this week’s Undercover Soundtrack contribution and what did I find? The writer seemed to have plundered some of my own favourite tracks. Massive Attack’s Unfinished Sympathy. The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony. Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting (though if you’re as much of a Kate Bush nut as I am you could be forgiven for thinking I was going to make an orchestral hat trick with Symphony in Blue). Not only has my guest served up a stirring soundtrack, she’s also made big waves with the novel she’s showcasing – securing a position on the shortlist of the Guardian’s Not The Booker prize. She says music is the emotional heart of the novel, speaking of relationships, times, hope, love and validation. Drop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of Deborah Andrews and Walking The Lights. Yes, despite the cover change, the blog is still resolutely red.
I’ve had a request from EJ Runyon (who you might recognise as an Undercover Soundtrack contributor). She’s asked me, quite simply, to talk about writing emotions and feelings.
Emotions and feelings are the nucleus of a story. The whizziest plot events will have nil impact unless they matter to a character – and to us.
Put the other way round, a character’s feelings about an event are as important as what happens. And this emotional tide is the force that sweeps the reader out of their own world and binds them into the story.
So how do we communicate these emotions?
Here’s a big hint: don’t be guided by movies.
I say this because many writers unconsciously learn from movie storytelling. That’s good in many ways – a lot of us get an innate sense for structure and pace from movies. But movies are not a good model for involving a reader in emotions and feelings – because the mechanics are totally different in prose. Movies show emotions from the outside – with faces and performances and actors’ personas, plus atmospheric enhancements like lighting and music. If you try to do that in prose – which I see a lot of writers do – that’s not very effective.
But prose has a great strength of its own. It can go inside. Into the characters’ heads, motivations and thoughts. This is the real core of emotion and feeling – and prose can put us right there.
Emotion in descriptions
Let’s examine a common maxim – write descriptions that ‘use the senses’. This is usually interpreted as sensory input – sights, sounds, tastes, smells. But this misses a more fundamental sense, the one that governs it all – the inner sense, the consciousness. Consciousness is how we experience the world – through our evaluating and emotional faculties, our thoughts and gut reactions.
Film can only approximate this. But prose can transplant us into the character’s heart. Into moments of anxiety, elation, fear, dread, boredom, amusement, the tingle of hope. Prose can stretch time so that it emphasises an important experience – slow the seconds down so we relish an experience – or receive it in agonising detail. It can speed time up so that years pass in a paragraph.
To return to EJ’s challenge, if we connect with emotions and feelings, we can transform mere words into the illusion of real experience.
How do we convey this experience? By far the most powerful tool is internal dialogue.
Internal dialogue can give us context. Suppose your character does something apparently random, like ripping a poster off a wall. Why did she do it? The internal voice fills the gaps. Perhaps the poster is for a political party she disagrees with. Or perhaps it is connected with someone she has fallen out with, and they have posted it on her garden gate. (‘It was Peter’s silly little residents’ group. Well I wasn’t having that on my property.’) Without these details, the act looks random. With them, it is understandable. We know what it’s like to be her. (Of course you might want the act to be puzzling. If so, do that as a deliberate choice.)
This sounds obvious, but I see a lot of writers present such scenes as though they were imagining them in a movie. They intend the moment to express something about the character, but they fail to give us the character’s narrative – so the action just looks baffling. Or they try to convey it with external, visible signs, as though describing an actor’s face – wide eyes and a tightening of the mouth. This is even more baffling. In any case, a facial expression is much more polyphonic than an eye-pop and a scowl – it’s very difficult to describe them precisely enough for them to make sense. Nevertheless, I’ve seen writers tie themselves in knots with gurning and grimaces, as they try to demonstrate their characters are emoting. And still, we might not grasp what that emotion is.
But internal dialogue is much easier – put the reaction into the character’s thoughts. ‘Crikey, I’m not having that abomination on my gate. Not after what he did to me.’
Stronger doses – handle with care
A final point. Emotion and feeling are cornerstones of storytelling. But beware. Strong doses can leave us cold or even be off putting if not handled carefully.
Quite a few writers begin a story with characters in a strong negative emotional state – a character who’s angry with the world. This can work very well to get us on the character’s side, but only if there’s something less hostile to catch hold of. Otherwise, it’s like watching a stranger rant – we’d run away as smartly as possible. So if you’re going to open with a character ranting and raging, add another dimension – a flash of humour, or vulnerability, or maybe regret. Or write it so beautifully that the prose keeps us enthralled.
So … to sum up
1 Context is everything – the ‘why’ makes sense of the ‘what’
2 When writing description, don’t forget the consciousness ‘sense’
3 Use internal dialogue
4 Soften angry protagonists with something less hostile
There’s more on writing internal dialogue – and angry characters – in my characters book.
I could go on for longer. But I want to hear what you guys think – or even feel – about this. And thanks, EJ, for a great assignment.
It’s five years since I released My Memories of a Future Life. I actually hadn’t realised it was that long ago, but Facebook has an algorithm that nudges you to repost old updates. And recently it gave me this:
Still, I wasn’t feeling especially retrospective until I happened upon this post by Caroline Leavitt at Jane Friedman’s blog, which talked about a few realities of author life. And I thought: yes. Releasing that book marked a big change. A set of new and unforeseen challenges.
1 Lovely reactions – which will wildly delight you
My Memories of a Future Life wasn’t my first book. I’d ghosted lots of titles (more about that here), so I was used to seeing my work bound between covers. I’d also published the first Nail Your Novel book, and knew how nice it was to get feedback. But fiction sets up a different kind of relationship. I received long emails and reviews – as if the book had started a thoughtful and personal conversation. I didn’t know this happened.
2 Upsetting reactions – your author friends will see you through
In her piece, Caroline Leavitt talks about bad reviews. We all accept we’re not going to please everybody, so we shrug and move on. But sometimes, a bad reaction really knocks you. Especially if it’s soon after the release, when the book is finding its way.
I had two.
The first was from a pre-release reader. It all started well. He wrote me emails while reading, chapter by chapter, saying how much he was enjoying the book. Then the end threw him right out of whack. It wasn’t what he was expecting. He sent a long, wounded email.
I was prepared for disagreement, or even dislike. I’d had the book rubber-stamped by people who wouldn’t let me get away with bad work. But still, my confidence was battered. This reader was genuinely upset and I didn’t want that.
My fellow authors told me: ‘Never apologise for your book’. Even so, I wrote back – which I shouldn’t have done and probably wouldn’t now. He replied, calmer, admitting there were complicating personal factors. Quite horrendous ones, as it happened. Still, I sneaked back to my blurb and description and examined them carefully, in case any of it was misleading.
The other upsetting reaction was a thoroughly scathing review. A blogger eviscerated it viciously. Again, I wondered what to do. Again, other authors held me down: ‘It’s dripping with malice. Some people do that. Stop being so sensitive. You don’t have to do anything.’
This time I heeded their advice. But I worried about that streak of spite, sitting on a blog for all to see, a stain on my book’s reputation before it had had much of a chance in the world. And I also didn’t do anything about the person who voiced plenty of critical opinions about the book but managed to reveal she hadn’t read it.
Two lessons here. 1 – other authors are your rock. 2 – you have to hope that on balance, you reach enough of the right people.
3 Your book changes you – a deep work of fiction is a work of personal examination
You mine yourself to write a novel like that. Your central characters come from your understanding of the people around you, and of yourself. Spending time with people in deep crisis, even imaginary ones, can change you. As do your antagonists. In order to make them rounded, I had to empathise with their point of view.
Carol’s end point made me examine some of my own life. Her psychological journey felt like my own rite of passage, a memoir in parallel, even though it was all invented.
Hence the need to be talked down, from time to time.
4 When the book comes out, that’s not the end
When I ghost-write, my contribution finishes when the book goes to press. But your own book needs constant shepherding and revisiting – and not just for promotion. I made an audiobook, which meant presenting it to voice actors, discussing the characters and approach – and finally, listening to the recordings chapter by chapter (which revealed how much of it I had completely forgotten). This year I was interviewed at the Clapham Literary Festival by Elizabeth Buchan, so had to brush up on it again.
Tip – keep a list of your old interviews so you know what you said about your book when it was fresh. Also read your good reviews so you can discuss the themes and bigger picture – I found my smartest reviewers identified these more readily than I could.
5 Your debut is a special time – enjoy it
‘Debut’ is a good word for releasing your first novel. ‘Inauguration’ would be a good word too. It’s more than just putting a book on public sale. It’s the beginning of a new order. Even though I’d written for years, been published under cover, taught and mentored, produced oodles of other books, nothing was like this. Releasing my own novel was like finally putting my feet down, having a voice in something I hadn’t been part of before.
Lately, Husband Dave had been dropping hints. Should My Memories of a Future Life have a new look, in tune with the style of Lifeform Three? I resisted long and hard. Getting a concept first time round was difficult enough. And if you’ve been round this blog for a while, you’ll remember that the cover of Lifeform Three was an epic undertaking.
But he was right and it’s now wearing its new jacket. I was going to sneak it out without much ado because, well, it’s just a jacket. But I didn’t anticipate how new it would feel, all over again.
Which is where we came in.
If you’ve released a novel, what took you by surprise? Is there anything you’d do differently? Any advice you’d pass on? And I think next time I owe you a writing craft post, so if there’s something you’d like me to tackle, leave it in the comments or drop me an email on RozMorrisWriter at gmail dotcom.
This question was raised in a Facebook group this week: if you’re not earning much from writing, does that make it a hobby rather than a serious pursuit? My gut reaction was ‘no’, and I’d like to examine why. What follows will be a few attempts at definitions, a few assumptions – and I want this to be the start of a discussion rather than the last word. So do let me have your thoughts at the end.
First, let me state that when I use the term ‘hobby’, I’m not suggesting a pastime that isn’t serious. I have hobbies that matter greatly to my enjoyment of life. I ride horses and I attend dance classes at Pineapple Studios in London. My weekly schedule is constructed to accommodate these activities. They are essential outlets in a cerebral, sedentary life and they ensure my general wellbeing. I spend money on them; I’ll buy a good pair of riding boots to see me through the winter or because I’ll enjoy using them. I’ll pay serious attention to technique and invest in tuition. Because of my perfectionist nature, I’ll be frustrated if I’m having a klutz day.
But they are hobbies. I don’t kid myself I can match the standard of real professionals. I’ll perform them with dedication and I’ll try to improve. But my expectations are capped. I don’t have ambitions for them.
A business / profession?
Any level of writing where you’re earning money would fall into this category. Or is it that simple? Perhaps not.
If you’re writing as a business or a profession, the sums are important. You are careful about the investment of time. Will the book repay in terms of sales, or as a gateway to other kinds of income such as speaking or consultancy? When you buy equipment or services, it’s not an indulgence as my boots might be. It’s an investment that must save time, or add polish to the final product.
An art / vocation
What follows will be completely subjective. I’m going to try to explain why I regard my fiction writing as an art or vocation, not as a hobby.
I’m not happy to write – or use my writing sensibilities – just for income. Of course, I have to take income seriously, but I also want something more worthwhile to show for my days, months and decades. Stories have been some of my most enthralling, memorable experiences, so that’s what I think a proper story should be. When I read a good writer, it is a challenge to my sense of worth – if I don’t aim for this, I am not respecting the medium. Some people don’t feel like this about their writing, and that’s fine. But I do.
Writing this piece, I’m struck by the crossovers. The hobbyists and artists are not so far apart, in terms of devotion. So let’s quarry further.
In my hobbies, I don’t compare myself to others. A hobby is something we largely enjoy, give or take the odd teething trouble or bad hair day. We keep a sense of proportion. But many serious authors find writing exquisitely hard. They like ‘having written’. They can be profoundly disappointed in themselves.
Let’s return to the question of income. I earn most of my income by editing, teaching and ghostwriting, and I find these rewarding in more ways than just £££. I’m not a mercenary, I believe in my craft and I love to teach. But I see them as enablers for the work that matters to me most – my fiction. Like a director or an actor who makes one movie for artistic satisfaction and another to pay the bills, the work that truly defines them is the passion project.
An artist finds their identity in their work, for better or worse; which is why it’s hard and relentless and a personal quest that will probably be endless. Is that it? Let me know your thoughts.
Is the tone of your prose in tune with your novel? A simple exercise with Pharrell Williams and Yellow Magic Orchestra
Your prose does more than simply describe what happens. It creates the experience in the reader’s mind – the atmosphere, the themes, the lighting, the mood. Imagine the book has a soundtrack, like a movie. In fact it does, because the ‘music’ is created by the shape of the words and the images they conjure. A writer’s distinctive style is often called their ‘voice’, and that voice speaks the book inside the reader’s mind. So we have to be very deliberate with every word.
But quite often, writers don’t realise they’re actually sabotaging their narrative by inappropriate word choices.
To hone your awareness, try this exercise
Pick a simple scenario. Let’s have a character waking up in the morning, climbing out of bed, putting on a dressing gown (or, if you prefer, a suit of armour). Write it in your normal voice. Don’t put on a character. Just imagine it’s you, being natural, explaining to a friend.
Now write it again – as a character with a skippy song in their heart. Infuse the text with vigour, optimism and joie de vivre. Smile at your screen. Don your headphones, dial up Pharrell … okay, that might be too much for some of you.
Now go to the dark side. Describe exactly the same sequence, but make it tense. Foreboding. This is someone who wakes up and doesn’t know where they are. Or has been startled out of sleep by a sudden sound. For this I recommend Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Loom, which appropriately for our setting has a picture of the morning tooth routine.
Do you see how different they all are? Notice particularly where your natural voice falls on the spectrum of mood. Is that the tone you use in the narrative parts of your novel? Does it fit the material?
Of course, the examples I’ve made you write are extremes, but they demonstrate what a difference your narration makes to the atmosphere – and how you can change it.
Here’s the rub. Writers often use their ‘normal’ voice in the narrative parts of their novel, as though they were explaining to a friend, perhaps over coffee or wine. Without realising it, they’re being flippant, raconteurish or breezy. Their main character is being interrogated by the police? He’s ‘squirming’ in his chair. A cherished ornament is knocked off mantelpiece? It ‘topples and bounces’ to the floor. A character is in intensive care? They’re ‘encumbered’ with tubes. A character’s lover is shot by the police? Their blood ‘splatters everywhere’. It’s all rather jolly. They’ve got Pharrell in their hearts when they might be better with a gulp of YMO.
If you find it tricky to establish an appropriate tone for a serious scene, try drafting it in first person to get the mindset. Then switch back to general narration once you’ve established the mood and perspective.
But what about humour?
Of course, even the darkest stories need humour. Humour is part of life. But it’s better done through the characters – their thoughts, actions, quips, the ironies of their behaviour. It shouldn’t look as though the neutral narrative is telling the reader to find the situation humorous. If you describe a cop as ‘huffing and puffing’ as he chases a suspect, you’ve introduced levity. Is that appropriate to the action or would you be better to say his lungs were raw but he wouldn’t give up?
Let’s stay with ‘huffing and puffing’. If a humorous remark is made through the filter of a character, it’s entirely different.
Indeed, the humour can add an interesting layer. John le Carre uses this in The Night Manager. In one scene, the agent handler, Burr, has tapped the phone of his agent, Jonathan Pine. As Burr eavesdrops, he hears Pine get a call from the villain’s girlfriend.
Jonathan at first furious … but then less furious. And finally, if Burr read the music right, not furious at all. So that finally… it’s nothing but Jonathan … Jonathan … Jonathan … and a lot of huffing and puffing…’
Yes, this description is humorous, embarrassed, dismissive – but it’s in the mind of Burr. It doesn’t defuse the tension or make the incident trivial because it’s coloured by Burr’s feelings. Indeed, it shows his exasperation, his horror and disbelief that his agent is putting everything in jeopardy by having a liaison with the villain’s woman. (More here about the prose of The Night Manager.)
Your prose makes the environment
The prose is like a soundtrack for a movie, the lighting, the mood. Your natural outlook, your raconteur voice, may not be right for your fiction.
Main pic courtesy BBC
Is there a writer whose narrative voice you particularly admire for evoking atmosphere? Have you had to consciously modify your writing voice to suit your material? Even, have you altered your chosen genre because you discovered your voice suits it better? Let’s discuss!
I’m good at giving myself homework. Most of the books or articles I read are part of an organised research list. I’m bad at allowing myself downtime. Even when I decide to read for pure curiosity, the editorial spy is on alert, muttering in the basement. Why was that sentence so devastating? Why do I feel this way about a character?
I don’t mind that. It’s the way I’ve always read anyway. But sometimes I need a rest from my forensic brain. And from book agendas. The chance to just poke about, dawdle and wonder.
I’m fond of junk shops for the haphazard discovery of oddness. But I really can’t resist art installations.
Last week I went to the Cornelia Parker exhibition at the Foundling Museum in London. More than 60 artists were riffing on the theme of ‘found’. A sleeping bag beneath a painting in the grand picture gallery. A cheap plastic mirror left on a chair, looking at first glance like an iPad, but when you peered over it, reflecting a royal icing ceiling.
A year’s worth of tickets from a pawn shop, many of them for wedding rings. A stick that had been used to stir paint, and had acquired annular rings of colour, year on year. A collection of playing cards randomly found on streets.
A crazy video where a woman described how several vegetables had fallen through her ceiling and landed on her bed, which she took as a holy sign. A bronze cast of a newborn baby, isolated in a room on its own, made even more tiny by the tall walls. A bottle found on the sea bed by a scuba diver, encrusted with organic structures. An unfinished painting from a garage sale, showing a pair of girls with blank faces. A sequence of sofas being sold on eBay, whose buttons and creases seemed to suggest faces. Two manila envelopes folded into an origami shape in the corner of the room – for no reason; just because.
Although these artists weren’t working in words, they were doing what writers do. They collected scraps of life and made them into things of fascination, or oddness, or absurdity, or poignancy. Or things that defied analysis, but were just themselves. And they showed it’s amazing what jumps into your mind when it’s off the hook.
Where do you go to stop and stare?