The Writer's Life, Writing tips

When Real Life Gets in the Way of Good Writing

You’ve heard it said, “write what you know.” In the past, I’ve suggested a variation of that, “write who you are.” However you say it, I think we can all agree that fiction resonates best when it comes from a place of truth – a place we understand because we’ve lived it in some measure. But our real life experiences aren’t always a boon to our writing. Sometimes they get in the way. Here’s how:

“But That’s How It Really Happened” – I hear this a lot from writers. They offer it in response to my editorial notes explaining why a certain section isn’t working. The author’s reasoning seems sound enough: “If it works in real life, surely it can work in a novel.” But that’s not entirely true. Real life doesn’t have to be interesting and compelling. Fiction does. Plot lines in real life don’t need purpose and direction. Plot lines in fiction do. Real life doesn’t have to be believable. Fiction demands believability. Just because it happens in real life doesn’t mean it works in fiction.

“Hey, That’s Funny, I Wear My Hair Exactly Like Your Book’s Evil Antagonist” – All writers collect templates for their fictional characters from real life, but sometimes they forget they’re writing fiction and transfer a Real Life Person directly to the page. These direct-to-the-page characters are surprisingly inflexible, defined as they are in the writer’s mind by real-world experience of them. This means the writer must bend the plot around them – even when it doesn’t fit. Real Life People forced into fictional stories often paint themselves into a corner. The key is to draw inspiration from Real Life People (character traits, speech patterns, belief systems, facial tics, inordinate love for bacon) – not copy them note for note.

“I Have Bills to Pay” – If writing is your business, you want to get paid. Soon. Knowing that your dog is going to need expensive dental work can push you in a good way – forcing you to make writing a priority when it might otherwise be relegated to “whenever.” But it can also press you in a bad way, tempting you with shortcuts that serve only the clock, not the story. Of course, typing “the end” doesn’t mean you get paid any sooner anyway if your story isn’t up to snuff. It just means you’ll be seeing more comments in your editor’s revision letter. And if you’re self-publishing? Well, sure. You can hit “publish” on a rushed project if you want. But if it’s not your best work, you may be killing your long-term success for the sake of a quick buck.

“I’m Hungry” – Some writers write better when they deny themselves the basics of life: water, food, Tweeting, watching Mad Men. Other writers can only find a writing rhythm if they’re eating regularly and experiencing an abundance of the non-writing life. While changing your normal routine can help snap writer’s block, more often than not it will send you to that place where laptops fly. (This isn’t as pleasant a place as it sounds. The laptops only fly as far as the wall.) The key is to know yourself – your body, mind, spirit – and do the things that make you feel most like a writer. If you write best when life is happy, then eat lots of chocolate and play with puppies every day. If heartbreak makes you brilliant, well, yeah, about that…

“Ouch” – Sometimes real life just hurts too much. Maybe you recently went through a breakup or lost a loved one. You don’t even want to get out of bed, let alone write that scene where your protagonist…goes through a breakup or experiences the loss of a loved one. As a writer, you know instinctively that the intensely-felt emotions you’re experiencing now will eventually make you a better novelist. (There’s a sick sense of satisfaction in that.) But the word “eventually” matters here. A lot. Even a writer’s heart needs a break once in a while. Besides, when you’re suffering in real life, your writing can suffer too. It can become overwrought with emotion, pouring pain onto every page because that’s all you know. Or it can become bereft of emotion because it hurts too much to feel, causing your unsuspecting characters to suddenly go numb when they ought to be joyful or sad or afraid or whatever. Take a break from writing fiction and pour your heart out in a journal instead. In a journal, the plot and characters don’t matter. Then, later, when you can embrace the diversity of emotion that a novel demands – go boldly back to the page. Accept the new truths you’ve learned, and let them inform your writing only where it’s appropriate.

What are some other ways real life can get in the way of good writing? Yes, I’m actually asking a question here.  Feel free to fill the space below with words.



4 thoughts on “When Real Life Gets in the Way of Good Writing

  1. Just to fill the silence…

    Perhaps it is not so much “real life getting in the way of good writing”, but it is real and debilitating.
    “Procrastination” – Writer’s denial. A self inflicted disease genetically related to writer’s block, self doubt and flying laptops. Your writer’s journal is longer than your pending novel and you like it better. You’ve studied your characters so intensely your timeline includes when they last cut their toenails.

    You will work on your novel tomorrow, after you’ve washed your hair, taken the dog for another walk, removed his fleas with tweezers and returned him to your neighbour. Your next journal entry details your new novel, titled “Procrastination”, that you intend to complete just so you can be ironic.

    Just filling the silence. Not substantiating the topic. Honestly.

    1. “Take a break from writing fiction and pour your heart out in a journal instead. In a journal, the plot and characters don’t matter. ”
      Love it. So enigmatic.

      Writing fiction + PMS = literary apocolypse.
      Your main characters children who are pivital to the plot are being shipped off to boarding school. You’ve introduced a divorce attorney in a story where no one is married and somehow that character who was ‘loosely based’ on your boss has now met an untimely and violent demise.

    2. The toenail clipping level was such ‘truth’ the soda I had in my mouth was laughed out of my nose.

      Not substantiating procrastination. Honest.

  2. i’ve just awarded you the ‘blog on fire’ award.

    naturally, it’s cobblers. i don’t expect you to be in the slightest bit interested in what is, by any other name, a MEME.

    but it allows me to pop in and make a comment, when i don’t usually. i read your blog avidly, but don’t comment because i am not a novelist. i do, however, blog.

    so this is just to say; i love your blog.

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