Should you write characters based on people you know?

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Real life as inspiration

I’ve begun writing a novel sparked by events surrounding a real-life family funeral. Not mine, but my  partner’s. In writing the opening scene, I asked him a series of questions about his family, which he happily answered. Then he went quiet before blurting out, ‘Hang on. That’s my family you’re talking about.’

Yet I can’t help myself. The funeral story is so profound – so guttural – that it gets to the core of family at its best and most bewildering. Good fiction is real life condensed and heightened.

Writers are magpies

The truth is that in fiction, every character written and every plot point created is based on people we know and have observed, and the things that have happened to them or others. It is also about us and our own experiences. Tim Winton once said that every character in his stories is based on himself. With our unique perceptions and beliefs, writers are our fictional worlds’ filters and interpreters.

As writers, it’s out job to pick the eyes out of our own and other people’s experiences, pay careful attention to the news, listen like a hawk to conversations both direct and overheard, and pool these things, adding further drama with our imagination along a thematic line. Then hey presto, we hopefully have a novel people will want to read, with characters and a story line readers can relate to and be moved or horrified by.

Writing about family members

That said, the number one rule is do not write about your family. Yet these are the stories that perhaps get us most riled, that we can relate to best and that go deepest of all.

Is this exploitation?

Yes it is. But what else do writers do if not exploit? Characters need to behave in realistic and believable ways or they risk being a shallow cliche. They must be authentic with genuine human quirk, faults and loveable traits.

Hiding your characters’ origins

What I plan to do is to change my characters – merging them, exaggerating them, or reimagining them depending on what my plot requires and how my characters guide me. As for the story, I plan to combine fact with fiction, disguising actual events and adding drama.

I will be that literary magpie writers so often refer to. I’m not writing memoir. Rather I’m creating something new while being informed by everything I know.

A price to pay?

I understand there may be a price to pay for what I’m doing.

Is it worth it? You’ll need to ask yourself before going down this track. Truman Capote famously stopped writing after he published a scathing book based on the rich and famous people he hung around with only, to his surprise, to be shunned by them.

Yet writers must. Perhaps I won’t publish my current novel, but right now it needs to get out. The characters are almost dragging me along by the hair, which means it’s something I have to do. Until I’ve completed it, nothing else will come.

An aside: On not being written about

In closing, I recall a 1960s American movie about an author who moved to a town to write about suburbia and its occupants. Townsfolk were outraged by their characterisation in his novel. Yet the greatest insult by far was not to have been written about at all.

The state of book publishing (in Australia)

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Publishing in Australia

The novel I’m trying to get published now is an Australian story, with universal themes and appeal of course, but there’s much in the subject matter that Australians will relate to. This means I’m touting it in Australia first before looking elsewhere.

But getting anything new published in Australia can be challenging. It has been for a long time, but with foreign competition, it’s even more difficult.

Some publishing facts (and some opinion too):

  • Big W is reportedly the single biggest book retailer in Australia, so if you don’t write commercial fiction of 70-90,000 words that Big W wants to sell, you may be at a disadvantage
  • The price of books has gone down with overseas competition, putting greater commercial pressure on publishers
  • If you write literary fiction (my novel is literary-commercial crossover) places reserved for new voices are very limited, as in maybe 5 novels per year one publisher claimed. Yes – 5!!
  • Fulfilling publishers’ commercial requirements seems more front of house than ever with increased competition
  • Character and plot rule, so if you’re attempting to push the boundaries and break some rules, your first novel may be considered too risky, but then again maybe not if you’re brilliant
  • All this competition has in my view pushed the Australian mainstream publishing industry towards conservatism. I find a lot of new Australian formulaic and disappointing
  • That said, small, independent publishers are taking risks that are paying off. These are the books I tend to find inspiring. Perhaps this is where the future lies for Australian writers whose work may not satisfy mainstream commercial criteria?
  • The pool of book readers isn’t growing in Australia
  • Bricks and mortar booksellers are the key to sales for debut novels by Australian authors
  • Around a third of trade (commercial) books published in Australia are fiction
  • Print books remain the most popular, with e-book sales decreasing before plateauing
  • How many times have I heard publishers say they’re looking for the next Bryce Courtenay or Andy Griffiths or Fleur McDonald? Interestingly, I’ve only ever once  heard them say they’re looking for the next Patrick White or Geraldine Brooks.

So what can you do to get published?

Should you tailor your fiction to what you think publishers want? Should you cut your text back to fit the word length, make your characters more mainstream, latch on to the latest trend and write in that genre?

Not unless that’s where your passion lies or it will improve your work. Your writing must be the best you can make it, which demands authenticity and tenacity. Writing is testing at the best of times, let alone if you’re not working on something that fires you up, even during the dark times. First and foremost, love what you’re doing.

Don’t compromise, improve your work

Instead focus on making your manuscript the best it can be. Then continue to seek a publisher until you find someone who believes in your work. There are alternative publishing routes you might consider too, which I discuss here.

Publishing is a business, but never forget that writing is an art.

 

Waiting: What should you do after submitting your manuscript to an agent or publisher?

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I submitted my manuscript to two new publishers this week, dutifully complying with all their requirements before I sent it off as well as checking and rechecking my letter, author bio, synopsis, book comparison, marketing appraisal and so on.

But what to do, or not do, now?

  1. Tread the fine line between hope and lowered expectations
    Rejections can be gutting. I’ve written about this before. You need to prepare yourself in case that’s what happens. On the other hand, you want to believe in your work and be open to success. It can be torturous when you’ve invested so much time, effort and even money.  But aim for zen like detachment, understanding that you’ll be rejected until you aren’t.

  2. Start something else immediately
    If you’ve written fiction, perhaps you have an idea for a non-fiction book. If you’ve written long form, maybe it’s time to try short stories, which if published can help build your author biography. Alternatively, your short stories might make great novels. 

    When starting a new project remember two things. First, you learned how to write your last story, not necessarily others. A new story might demand other skills. Second, first drafts are often terrible. Don’t judge yourself. Just get something down and redraft, redraft, redraft…

  3. Take a break
    Is it time you did something else for a while? Doing nothing can be anything but doing nothing. You might actually be creating a masterpiece in the background. More on that here

  4. Have a Plan B
    I like to have a back up plan. Perhaps there are other publishers you haven’t tried such as overseas or independent ones. If you’ve exhausted all channels, consider other publishing options, as I’ve discussed here. For me with this manuscript my Plan B is joint publishing. But perhaps you want to consider self publishing. Then again, after some reflection, you might conclude this was your learner novel. There’s no rush.

  5. Learn patience
    Patience is not an inherited trait, it’s a learned and practiced skill. Get on with the next thing in your life, quarantining a place of hope inside you in case that positive outcome arrives. 

What not to do

  1. Don’t reread your work
    Unless you’re prepared to endlessly rewrite your manuscript, don’t reread it while you wait. You can do that later if your submissions is rejected. 

  2. Don’t make changes and resubmit to the same publisher
    Once you’ve submitted that’s it, so make sure your manuscript is ready. Some people put their work away for weeks or months before deciding whether their piece is ready. I wish I’d done that in the past. Still, everything is a process, including mistakes, or rather learning experiences

  3. Don’t harass publishers or agents
    It’s a test of patience, but if your potential agent or publisher said they usually reply in 3 or 6 months, then wait the allotted time. If they’re considerably late, inquire politely. Harassing won’t earn you a favourable reputation. 


Remember, publishers want commercially viable books.
If you don’t succeed, it doesn’t mean you can’t write
or that your work is rubbish. 

 

How to know when your book is cooked

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Is your book cooked when:

  • You’ve put it aside for a while, and when you return to it you’re satisfied
  • The story works well, including the ending
  • You’ve found an agent or publisher
  • You know you’ve done your absolute best
  • You don’t care anymore, you just want to get it out there
  • You’ve rewritten it 12 times and that’s enough
  • Your beta readers, editor or writing group tell you so
  • You’ve reached the standard required for your genre
  • You’ve simply got nothing left
  • Another book beckons
  • You just know this is it
  • The world can’t wait to hear your story any longer
  • Never?

I’m coming to the end of my final edit for my MS, unless a publisher tells me otherwise. The problem is, every time I look back I see new ways to improve my book. I believe this is because with every edit, my skills improve. But if I begin yet again, there’s a real risk of getting caught in an endless rewriting loop.

Set your work aside if you can, or seek an outside (objective) opinion to help you determine if your work is sufficiently cooked. If you’re a perfectionist, remember there’s no such thing as perfect because EVERYTHING is subjective.

With my manuscript, it’s definitely near ready to eat, which my writing group has confirmed. I hear the call of another story.