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True Stories

They tell you to tell the truth and this sounds reasonable but you’re not quite sure how to do it.

They also tell you to do other things. Kill your adverbs. Kill your semi-colons. Kill your darlings. Kill your prologues.

Oh, you say, those I can do.

So you set the truth aside and head to the killing fields.

You reach for your metaphoric fountain pen, dip it in metaphoric red ink, and prepare to earn another metaphoric belt in the ancient art of Strike-Thru. At first you move cautiously, uncertain, fearing that you might condemn words just because of the clothes they wear. But it’s not their clothes, it’s the way they strut in them, commanding unwarranted attention like peacocks in a henhouse.

This isn’t a story about peacocks.

You find your resolve. (It was buried under a pile of metaphors.)

Quietly is the first to be silenced.

A semi-colon is decapitated; the comma slinks away and the dot falls. Period.

So much eye-rolling is plucked from the page.

And then, oh the humanity, an entire page is attacked. Words scatter, some find safety in later chapters, others are relegated to a losing game of Words With Friends.

That hurt a little – like the tingling needles that wake a sleep-fallen foot. But it wasn’t so bad.

So now, about that truth-telling thing. What does it really mean? Your invented character kills someone. Cheats on a spouse. Battles cancer.

Perhaps you haven’t done those things. Yet. How do you write about them truthfully?

Most writing advice is about what you do. Cut this. Replace that. Move the other thing.

Telling the truth is about who you are.

This is where writing gets real. Because to write about the murderer, the adulterer, the cancer battler, you’ll have to access the thoughts and emotions that most closely match the character’s. You’ll spend time in uncomfortable places. Bad memories. Secret fears. What-ifs. Temptations. Mistakes. Regrets. This is where you find the raw material to make the murderer, the adulterer, the cancer battler come alive.

Time for some potentially disheartening news: You may not have the necessary raw material. You may not have any relevant experience to draw from. [You can thank God for this now if you like. Or you can ask Him for more trials. But really? Do you want a harder life just so you can be a better writer? Who do you think you are? Me?] Can you write honestly about a woman who leaves her husband if you haven’t left yours? Can you write honestly about what it’s like to attempt suicide if you’ve never swallowed a bottle of pills. No. You can’t. (Feel free to argue with me here.) You can come close, of course – you can write about what it’s like to ponder those things if you’ve pondered them, you can draw from similar life experiences and try to extrapolate truth from those, and you can learn from others who have made those choices. But you’ll still be circling the truth, writing about it instead of revealing it.

And now some better news. Circling the truth will still satisfy most readers. That’s because most readers haven’t done those things either. They key is to circle as close as you can. Readers know when you’re faking it – when you’re trying to tell a truth you haven’t spent time with yourself. But when you get it right, or nearly right, readers will feel that truth on a primal level. Then you’ll be one of those authors readers can’t wait to tell their friends and neighbors about. “The author just gets it” they’ll say, not quite sure what “getting it” means.

But you’ll know what it means. You told the truth.

No matter how you get there – whether by looking closely at your own experience or examining the lives of others – it’s going to hurt. You will see things you don’t want to see, feel things you don’t want to feel, ponder things you’d rather not ponder. And then you will see them and feel them and ponder them again as you write the first draft, the second, the third.

One of my jobs as editor is to push a writer to dig deeper, to discover that well they can draw from to craft characters who reek of truth. I’ve worked with a few who couldn’t do this. Some just didn’t have the life experience to draw from. (This is why so many novels from young authors fall short of brilliance – the authors just haven’t lived enough.) Some had plenty of raw material but didn’t want to go there. (It hurt too much, or they didn’t think it was necessary.)

What about you? Are you willing to suffer a little (or a lot) so your writing doesn’t?

Can’t I just delete more adverbs instead?

Sure. If that’s what you really want. Is it?

Tell the truth, now.

15 thoughts on “True Stories

  1. When I first started writing in 2000. I wasn’t ready to take me (or my characters) into the deep parts of life. I danced around issues, skirted the truth, and avoided the pain. Until God continued to gently pressed in to explore those dark closets. And in those difficult places I found His healing, and am able to write more from the honesty and truth He desires.

    1. Sometimes a writer has to dance around for a while until the music makes sense. (Sometimes a reader of a blog comment has to read the comment for a while until the comment makes sense. This is one of those times.)

  2. You mean on top of everything else I have to tell the truth?!


    I hope I’m doing it right. It’s hard to tell when I’m in the trenches. I like what you said about digging deep. I guess that’s the surest way.

    1. Nope, telling the truth doesn’t always (or maybe even “often”) quench the pain. But it makes the story better, and sometimes just knowing that makes living with the pain a little more bearable.

      Sometimes not.

      I don’t write to quench the pain. I write despite it. And because of it.

  3. You’ve ripped open the long healed scar, called back the demons, and let them have their way as you grit your teeth and ignore the blood on your keyboard . A one-time pass to get it right.

    Days later, you swing your legs out of bed, clank empty wine bottles across the floor, and draw the blinds squinting at the sunshine dimly wondering how long it takes to get rickets. You examine your fresh stitches. They itch, but nothing hurts.

    Your voicemail reached its limit with concerned friends offering well intentioned commentary. “It will read fine without all this.” “Can’t you find a way to write around that?” “Don’t be crazy, it’s not worth it.” You’ve pressed delete so many times your number seven button now sticks.

    The monitor blinks to life and there they are. The four sentences. You smirk, but it’s not enough so you smile. This calls for an adverb. “Definitely worth it.”


  4. Oh, my gosh. I didn’t get past the part about killing adverbs. I had no idea adverbs weren’t safe. And semi-colons; I love them. They must be killed, too?

    “Where’s the honesty in that?” she mumbled anxiously.

  5. It’s like you’re in my brain. (And for that, I’m so sorry — it’s a crazy place.) You’ve captured my growing desire to write honest, authentic fiction even when it hurts. Every time I sit down to write, I remind myself to pop open those ribs and smear my heart on the page. If I don’t let my characters truly live, if I don’t let them feel and express raw emotions, I have failed them. And myself.

  6. Haha, gotta love the verbosity of the comments. Guess that’s what happens on a blog for writers. Great post as always Steve. Until next time

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