Calling all writers – I need your help

14

January 28, 2013 by talkaboutyork

For the last few months I’ve been doing a writing course. It has been interesting. Like doing a course on learning how to walk. Imagine it. You have walked since you were anywhere between nine and eighteen months old. Unless you’re a catwalk model, you’ve probably not considered your walk much. It’s just something you do. So going on a course to learn how to walk would be odd. You have to break it down and analyse what you’re doing. All of a sudden walking becomes quite a challenge. You become more aware of what your legs are doing, how your arms are swinging, how long your stride is, whether you roll in on your ankles. Little things you just did but are now aware of.

That is what this writing course has been like. I’ve had to deconstruct whatever I write and think about every part of it. Sentences stopped flowing as I analysed each word used. Some assignments were a joy and just came naturally. Others took ages and I ended up trying too hard.

I’ve now reached the final assignment where I have to write a scene of my choosing. I have written the background work – outlining a summary of the scene, describing the back stories for each character, writing how they physically react to the situation and giving a detailed picture of the scene setting. Now I just have to write it. Four times. Getting critiqued each time.

What I’ve found most difficult about this assignment is choosing the scene. When you can write about absolutely anything you are swamped with choice. I decided to write a scene that actually happened in my life, simply changing the characters’ names. Perhaps it was cheating, but I felt I could write the most easily compellingly about people I knew, a place I’d been and a thing that had happened. I didn’t need to imagine it all and then try to find the words to fit my imagination. I went for the easy way out. I am writing about what I know.

This is advice I’ve heard many times. To write about what you know. But it throws up a question. How do you write (I am thinking beyond the scene and more about a novel now) about things and people and places you know about without causing upset? Surely everything you write reflects what you are and what you think about things? If I for example decided to write a book about a mother who wanted to escape doing the laundry and set sail across the sea, would I upset my husband and children when I describe what life at home was like? I would need to make it sound worse than it was to make it work as a piece of fiction, but surely it would lead them and others to think that what I was writing was at least partially true?

If you can’t pull on your own life experiences to write, writing becomes a great deal harder. But doing so means you’re very likely to upset someone. Not dissimilar really to writing a blog at times.

I’d love to hear from other writers and how they have overcome this issue. Are you all just blessed with the most incredible imaginations? How much of your fiction is based on fact? How do you merge the two?  And has what you have written caused upset to those nearest and dearest to you as they recognize themselves as characters in your book?

Thanks in advance for any thoughts. I’m off to write my scene now…

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14 thoughts on “Calling all writers – I need your help

  1. Hello – thanks for commenting on my blog and letting me know about yours! I hope life in York is working out for you.

    That’s a really interesting question. I haven’t had a novel published so I don’t know what impact that might have on the people around me, but I do blog extensively about my family and haven’t – so far – caused any offence. My current WIP is fiction and – fortunately – not at all true to life (it is a psychological suspense about a woman involved in a hit-and-run which kills a child) so again, I shouldn’t encounter any problems. But in writing it, I have drawn on my experiences of losing a child, and the book covers grief and the impact that has on relationships, so I guess I’m still writing about what I know.

    I’d love to know more about your course – I’ll have a poke around the blog and see if you’ve written more about it…

    x MTJAM

    p.s. Your blog address in your Twitter bio is wrong 😉

    • thanks – will correct the twitter bio! Your novel sounds fab. What gave you the idea for it? I think it’s great that you’re managing to draw on your own life experiences without making it about you. The course I’m doing is just The Basics of Creative Writing through The Writer’s College. I’ve always written but any writing training I’ve done has been professional/corporate rather than creative so I thought it would be useful to go back to basics and it has been massively useful.

  2. Zen A. says:

    I’ve heard that advice before, but I’ve never taken it. None of the things I write are based upon real people. “The characters in this book are purely fictional. Any resemblance to persons, living or…” and all that. It actually feels easier for me to pull things up from my imagination than try to base them on actual events. To each their own I guess, right? 🙂

  3. Everyone says write what you know, but I agree you have to be very careful with fiction. I recently showed my husband the first chapter of a novel I started a few years ago – he immediately recognized some of his own characteristics in the protagonist’s husband….

  4. Have no fear, just write! Some famous authors incorporated people they knew well into their novels. Perhaps the most famous is Charles Dickens and who could argue about his writing? One of his victims was his long suffering wife. Yes we should write what we know about, it makes our writing so much better, not forced, just natural. Even people who claim not to write about people they know may have been influenced to do so subconsciously. We are all like sponges and we cannot help but be influenced by people around us. The skill is how you present your thoughts and ideas.Your characters are just that, uniquely yours to create, develop and maybe even destroy…………..

  5. judithkingston says:

    Writing about what you know for me does not necessarily mean limiting yourself to the actual circumstances or events or people in your life, but taking details from them and working them into your fiction. When I write, the characters in the story take on a life of their own, but I might borrow characteristics from a range of people I know to flesh them out. The result is realistic because the quirks are based on real people, but not offensive because the characters are not just based on one person and not living out one person’s life. If that makes sense. It made sense in my head…

    • Good advice Judith – thank you. I am trying to do exactly that but find I end up relying on one person too much

      • judithkingston says:

        I know what you mean, that’s easy to do. One way of getting round it is to borrow details from a man for a female character and vice versa, or to borrow details from people you knew well in the past but who are not in your life much anymore. I believe you’ve just moved to York, is that right? So i imagine you must have several past lives to draw on! Another way to force yourself not to stick too much to one person is to use character traits from one source but life details from another person, just to mix it up. Have you written character sketches for your main characters, to flesh them out and give them an individual identity? You could write a little bio for them. Something else I sometimes do is write little vignettes for my characters, things that happened to them before the start of the story. That helps bring them alive. Example in my dormant blog here: http://judithkingston.wordpress.com/. Sorry, some of it is in Dutch!

      • Thanks Judith – those are really useful tips. I had a read of your blog (and given my South African background, can actually understand some of the Dutch!) I am in the process of writing up character backstories at the moment and some of the characters are mixtures of people taken from various periods of my life – or based on real people but just changing them up. But the main character is too easily identifiable as me mainly because of the places she talks about (I need to write about places I know). It’s early days and I’ve not even attempted to write the actual story yet – just working out the plot and characters at the moment. Thanks again for your help.

      • judithkingston says:

        Ah of course, you are South African! Excellent. My Geraniums blog has been gathering dust for a few years – while my kids are little I am using what little brain space I have left over on http://secretsofthesandpit.wordpress.com/ But one day I may add more little backstories and then we might actually write the TV series the characters were meant to appear in…

        I hope your writing goes well, I’d love to read some of it – are you planning on sharing the end results…?

      • I’ll go check out your blog but do pick up the Geraniums blog – the writing was great. not sure if I’ll be sharing my writing – am hoping to actually end up with a novel but we’ll see!

      • judithkingston says:

        Thanks for the encouragement! I have got rather fond of those characters, so I may well return to them at some point. Whether you share the actual writing or not, I’ll definitely be interested to read about how you get on and whether it does become a novel! Good luck!

  6. […] birthday and a brilliant trip to Dubai with old friends. While there, I decided to capitalise on the writing course I had recently completed by deciding to write a novel. Which I did. Seventy thousand words in four […]

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