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.

 

 

Acknowledgments

According to Degree of Difficulty, it’s right up there with the first sentence of your novel, the query/love letter to your agent-crush, and the recommendation letter for that former employee who slept with your husband but really is a damn good accountant and shouldn’t be denied a job just because she’s a horrible waste of skin.

I’m talking about the dreaded Acknowledgments page.

I’m here to save you some pain. Because that’s what the courts tell me I have to do in order to compensate for all the damage I do as editor. (It was either this, or work at a morgue. But I’m afraid of…wait for it…Lindsay Lohan.)

The Acknowledgments page may be the greatest work of fiction you’ll ever write. To make it easier for you, I’ve provided a template below. Simply replace the bracketed descriptions with the appropriate info, then send this to your publisher mere minutes before your book goes to press. You don’t want to send it too early because at least three people you’ve thought about listing will say something stupid and lose their thank-worthiness between the deadline your editor gives you and the last possible moment you can actually turn it in (which is just after the publisher says, “We’re going with ‘I’d like to thank Kanye West and God’ if you don’t send the information in the next five minutes”).

So, here. And you’re welcome. And please sign my time sheet so I can count this toward my community service.

Acknowledgments

Wow, what a ride. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for all the help I got from the great team at [name of publisher], including [list of people you don't know personally who apparently had something to do with the production of the book, like the cover artist, copyeditor, proofreader, coffee monkey, that creepy guy with the blue goatee  from the marketing department]. Gosh, guys – you’re all the best!

I really wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my [mother; father; spermbank; alien host]. Thanks for [birthing me; empowering me; locking me in a closet for seventeen years so I'd have plenty to write about]. I’m proud to be called your [son; daughter; demon spawn; alleged murderer].

Thanks also to my writing group friends, [list only those people who said nice things about your book and not that woman who said it was like Twilight only not as well-written]. Your [hard work; encouragement; hopelessness as writers] inspires me.

This book would be [marginally readable; ten times as good; like Twilight only not as well-written] if it weren’t for the tireless work of my editor, [editor's name goes here]. I still think you’re wrong about [deleting the prologue; changing the POV; re-writing the entire novel in your voice]. Just kidding. All your advice was brilliant. You deserve a [raise; vacation; bloodletting].

What can I say about my agent, [agent's name goes here]? No really, what can I say [that captures the magnitude of thanks I owe him/her; that is defensible in court]? Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Then, of course, there is the one person who not only believed in me, but also endured my [late nights; whining; lack of personal hygiene; constant swearing]. I’m talking, of course, about my [spouse; significant other; puppet-master; imaginary childhood friend]. You are [the yin to my yang; the moon and a million stars; the reason I wake up in the morning; the reason I drink]. This book is for you.

To all my readers – past, present and future – I love all of you more than [Downton Abbey; Nutella; the Downton Abbey episode where everyone was eating Nutella; Rob Lowe; that feeling you get when you're about to be stabbed].

Above all, thanks be to [God, Buddha, Aslan, Kanye West, my cleverly-named dog Hemingway].

The Buoyancy of Words

Fair warning: I’m going to stretch a swimming metaphor well beyond my non-metaphorical comfort level. Feel free to believe that this discomfort serves some greater meta-metaphorical purpose. Then let me know what it is so I can say “yeah, I meant to do that.”

Writers spend a lot of time going nowhere.

We start out strong enough, with a perfect swan dive into the ocean of ideas. [Already the metaphor is causing me gastric distress.] But after a few weeks or days or hours of swimming in a Direction We’re Absolutely Sure Of (Until Suddenly We’re Not), we find ourselves far from the dock and nowhere near the distant shore. Our confidence falters and our Olympic-qualifying freestyle pace devolves into draggy doggy paddle.

And then we’re just treading water.

I’m not a very strong swimmer. I’m also pretty bad at treading water, or as I call it, “pausing briefly before drowning.” You may be great at treading water. But even if you are, eventually you have to start swimming again or drown.

Did you know that drowning doesn’t look like drowning? I’m talking about actual drowning now, not the metaphoric kind. There’s rarely any thrashing, handwaving or cries of “Help! I’m drowning!” A drowning person can’t call out because it takes every bit of respiratory energy just to keep breathing. [The preceding message was brought to you by the American Lifeguard Association. And now, back to the metaphor.]

Two truths:

  • Writing, like swimming, is a solitary act.
  • Writing a novel is like swimming across the Atlantic.

Do you see a problem here? I’ll paint the picture for you: You know that scene from Titanic where the lifeboat returns to look for survivors? Remember all those floating frozen bodies? Novelists. Every last one of them.

We can’t swim across the Atlantic on our own. We need a little help along the way. Encouragement to keep swimming. Direction to send us toward the right shore. This can come from a spouse, a friend, a writing group peer, a mentor. It can come from a tweet or a blogpost. Or…from another novel.

Sometimes the best motivation to keep swimming is evidence that someone else made it to the other side.

I read The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green last week. It’s a heartbreaking, edgy, funny, beautiful novel – the kind that implores you by its brilliance to become a better writer. I grabbed onto it just in time. The novel I’m writing (ten words at a time between editing projects) had been dragging me under. But thanks to John Green’s words, I’m swimming again. I can almost see the shore.

And I can see something else. That familiar look of quiet panic in your eyes. I don’t want you to drown. I want you to finish your novel. Do whatever it takes. Call a member of your writing group and plead for help. Ask your spouse to toss a few kind words your way. Read an encouraging blog post. (You’re welcome.) Read a great novel. Just find a way to get to the other side.

Not just because doing this will make you feel good. (It will.) And not just because it’s an incredible accomplishment. (It is.)

But also because I’m still not a very good swimmer. Someday I’m going to need another great novel to grab onto.

I’d like it to be yours.

 

Better Than You Think

The first time you ran into a wall it came as a surprise. Not because you didn’t believe in walls, but because you didn’t know they could appear in the middle of a sentence.

But you broke through it like the Kool-Aid Man, with the same broad smile, the same blatant disregard for plaster and paint. Because you were a writer and that’s what writers do. They persist.

And persist you did. Through the next wall and the next, until one day you hesitated.

Do other writers run into this many walls? you wondered

Writing used to be about ideas and dreams. Once, you were an architect with an empty skyline and a pocketful of girders. But something happened along the way. You were demoted to demolition. Oh, you found certain strange satisfaction in the power to destroy with the press of a button. But it didn’t last. Before long you were staring at ten thousand craters where a hundred buildings should be.

On that day, and with dust-choked despair, you thought The Thought That Must Not Be Thought.

“Maybe I’m not a writer after all.”

In that moment, the earth stopped spinning, the Walden woods grew dark, James Patterson put down his pen. Everything and everyone waited.

Would you walk away? Would this be the wall that defeats you? Would you give up your dream? Could you?

You sighed in resignation. No, not yet. Every other writer sighed in relief.

And the world resumed its spin.

You took stock.

This is not as easy as it once was.

You are not as good as you thought you were.

You have a lot to learn about writing. About re-writing. About trusting your instincts. About breaking bad habits.

You do not yet suffer in brilliance; you suffer because you’re not yet brilliant.

And so the wall looks at you. You look at the wall.

You lift your fingers, set them gently on the keyboard. And you begin again to write.

Meanwhile someone is watching from a little ways off. She looks a lot like you, only older. She smiles, then whispers, not quite loud enough for you to hear…

You’re better than you think you are.


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.