Posts Tagged real life
I’m running a series of the smartest questions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never makes the final wordcount, how to flesh out a draft that’s too short and a problem of pacing if much of the plot concerns the fallout from one event. Today I’m looking at another interesting problem:
Important character disappears – how should I handle it?
The character didn’t die, and didn’t have a formal farewell event to create a definite exit from the story world. There was just a period where they ceased to be involved. The writer was worried that this might look like a continuity problem or a mistake.
She was right; it needed to be handled carefully. This character would be important to the reader because she was a key player in early scenes.
The earlier a character is introduced, the more significantly they lodge in the reader’s mind. The original cast members of a book are like the first friends you make in a new and strange place. They are probably noticed far more than those you introduce later.
(This is why prologues can seem irritating, because they might set up people who don’t play a major part, or are never seen again. There’s lots more about handling prologues and character departures in the Nail Your Novel books.)
So if a key character will disappear, you have to be careful. The reader needs their attachment to the character to be acknowledged, and to be comfortable that the disappearance was intended. They mustn’t lose faith in your control of the material.
We explored ways to do this. By far the most obvious solution was to invent a scene that made a feature of the departure, but in this case the writer felt that would be inappropriate or untruthful. And she didn’t want to invent letters or phone calls from the missing character.
With that in mind, we moved on to ways to keep the character in the text, if they couldn’t be in the scenes. I suggested the writer add a friend who was close to the departed character, who could continue the association on behalf of the other characters (and the reader). A relative or colleague would work well too. This character could carry some of the presence of the original and keep them on the reader’s radar – for instance by thinking or remarking ‘Kate would have liked this’, or ‘if Kate were here she’d know what at do’.
(BTW, if you’re using elements of real life in your stories, you might like this recent episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, with bookseller Peter Snell. You can get notification of new episodes by signing up to my newsletter.)
What would you do? Have you had to withdraw a character quietly from a story and how did you handle it? Have you seen it handled clumsily or well, and what did you learn from it? Let’s discuss!
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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.