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.

How do I choose a point of view?

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So you’re beginning a new novel. A flurry of ideas fills your head. It’s exciting. You consider them all, dismiss most, others you put in the maybe category, but some stick. You build on them, but you worry if anything is going to result. Is your idea gripping enough to fill an entire novel, will the story peter out, do you care enough to finish it, are you capable? You’re compelled to go on.

Now that you have an embryo of an idea, and perhaps one or two characters who reach out to you, there’s a decision to be made over point of view (POV).

1st person: ‘I’

Traditionally one point of view allowing intimacy – the reader seeing the entire story world through one character. But there are more options – multiple first person point of views, sequential multiple viewpoints (e.g. alternate chapters with told from more than on ‘I’), separate multiple viewpoints that are seemingly disparate but come together in the end. So many possibilities!

2nd person: ‘You’

This POV be powerful and immediate, but not easy to pull off. Usually these stories are also told in the present tense. One memorable Australian novel, The Bride Stripped Bare by Anonymous (Nikki Gemmell), is told from this point of view. I still remember that voice.

3rd person:  ‘S/he’

Limited – Told from one character’s point of view at a time. But you can have more than one main character in separate sections, eventually bringing them together. It’s similar to 1stperson but can feel more distant. This is the most commonly used POV in modern fiction.

Omniscient – Told from multiple characters’ points of view, dipping in and out of their heads as though taking a birds eye view. A more limited omniscient POV exists where the reader is in one character’s head at a time rather than skipping around or taking an overall perspective. Generally, omniscient is so popular these days. But it can be done well.

Some things to ponder, bearing in mind that point of view is the narrator, who is the reader’s eyes and ears:

  • Who’s story is this?
    Is it one person’s story? Is it two people’s? Or is it multiple characters’ story?
  • Whose head, and how many heads, do I want the reader to be in?
    One character’s and close (1stperson). One character’s, close and immediate (2ndperson). Two character’s (1stor 3rdperson limited) or everyone’s (3rdperson omniscient).
  • What am I trying to achieve?
    If you want to manipulate the reader say with an unreliable narrator, then 1stperson is for you. If you want to sound like a fairy tale, use 3rdperson omniscient. If you want something in between, consider 3rdperson limited.
  • How immediate do I want the story to feel?
    In order of immediacy: 2nd person, 1st person then 3rd (limited, limited omniscient and omniscient).
  • How much do I want the reader to know?
    If you want the reader to know only what one character sees consider the 1stperson POV, but 3rd person limited can also be used though with less range. If you want them to see the entire picture, then use 3rd person omniscient (but perhaps limited).
  • How close, or distant, do I want the reader to be to the main character/s?
    1st person creates greater intimacy i.e. the reader is the 1stperson narrator. 3rd person limited can be more distant but offers considerable closeness too. 2nd  perron is in your face close. Dropping in and out of different character’s heads in 3rdperson omniscient gives you immense freedom but requires technical competency.
  • How much versatility do I want?
    1st person lets you only have one point of view i.e. one voice. They’d wanna be someone your reader can relate to and wants to spend an entire novel with. I know I’ve got sick of main characters and stopped reading well into a story.
  • How important is backstory and world building?
    This can be easier to convey in 3rdperson omniscient. That said, these should always be written as the story requires in small sections (never more than two paragraphs is my general rule).

What next?

Ask yourself the above questions and experiment. Write a page or two from two or three POVs and see what feels/reads best. You’ll soon know what suits your story, even if by realising out what DOESN’T work.

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.

Should you join a writing group?

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I’ve been a member of my current writing group for 4 1/2 years now. I say current because I tried another couple of groups that didn’t work out. I’ve almost pulled out of this group too, but now I believe that sticking with it is one of the best things I’ve done for my writing.

Which group is right for you?

There are many kinds of writing groups and you’ll need to consider which one suits you best. Are you looking for a group:

  • that critiques, providing constructive feedback for existing work
  • that takes you through writing exercises aimed at improving your craft
  • that cheers you on, offering mutual encouragement
  • is in-person, online or offers both options
  • where you share a space with other writers and work on your own pieces simultaneously
  • that’s casual or requires consistent attendance?

I’ve joined the first kind of group through my local writers’ centre because I wanted to improve my manuscript. Members are serious about getting published—and some of us have been. We meet weekly with each person reading out 2k words for which we receive feedback. Many of us find the act of reading out loud a good starting point because we often hear our own mistakes first. People seem to have their strengths and together we make a formidable team even though our genres are diverse, including historical fiction, chick lit, crime and science fiction. One person tends to comment on structure, another grammar and voice, another character development or story line and so on.

What are the benefits of joining a writing group?

  1. Critique and/or support – When you find a good group you get free critiquing or support that would otherwise cost 3 cents per word and upwards. It’s not quite like having your own editor, but it’s the next best thing. In some ways it’s better because of the diversity of opinion you receive.
  2. Motivation – Some members in my group find the weekly commitment of 2k words a strong motivator, saying they might otherwise struggle to commit writing time.
  3. Support – A couple of times I’ve reached out to members when I’ve hit lows. They’ve reminded me that my story is strong, important and worth the effort. Recently they told me enough finessing, it’s time to finish my manuscript and put it out there. In short, they’ve bolstered me and given me perspective when I’ve most needed it.
  4. Being with fellow writers – As much as your friends or family might think it’s great (or not) that you write, no one can understand your writing glories and struggles like fellow writers. Writing is an otherwise solitary act so it’s great to share.
  5. Brainstorming – Sometimes members get stuck and we brainstorm ideas. The ending of my book wasn’t quite right, but now it’s formidable thanks to one member’s suggestion. Others have changed point of view or added in magical realism elements to overcome challenges. More heads can be better than one.

What are any negatives of joining a writing group?

  1. Lack of safety – In one group I joined, a member turned vicious if she didn’t like your work. Unfortunately, others copied her negative tone. I was once lampooned an entire season for having a prologue. This kind of experience is destructive. Avoid. Writing is exposition of your deepest self. The critiquing environment must be safe and encourage constructive, dissuading destructive participation. There are always positives.
  2. Poor organisation and leadership – There must be agreed and enforced rules for writing groups to be effective and rewarding. For example, for long prose groups, a quorum who attend regularly is critical. Other questions to ask are does your organiser take into account others’ views on potential new members? Are they a good time manager keeping members within their allotment? And are they willing to reign people in if they step out of bounds or remove members who don’t fit in?
  3. Wrong genre – Are you a short story writer but you’re in a long story group? Do you need a group of fellow biographers but you’re in a fiction group? Do you write science fiction but you’re in a romance group and they don’t get concepts such as world building? Make sure you know what you need and search for the appropriate group or you’ll risk feeling alienated and disheartened.
  4. Group mentality – Even in the best of groups, people can get carried away. I recall my group telling me they didn’t care about my main character. Whoa! I got the point, which was valid and important, but I didn’t need to have it repeated for half an hour. You may need to firmly but gently steer your fellow writers back towards their more diplomatic, positive selves.

How to find the right group for you

There are many options, including:

  • Online groups where you trade feedback. These can be genre specific
  • Writer’s centres in your area or state that offer many kinds of groups
  • MeetUp
  • Start your own group, perhaps finding members through your local library, your existing network, at writers’ festivals or even Gumtree.

Trust your judgement. If a group doesn’t feel right, then it’s not for you.

Above all, be open, but also listen to yourself.

 

Finding [Making] Time to Write

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I’ve recently started a small business. I’m also managing the planning process for a house renovation and am undertaking a technical two-year course sandwiched into nine months. To top it off, I’ve set myself a 3-month deadline to finish the final edit of my novel, Gunfire Lullabies, because ENOUGH NOW (time to move on)! In short, I’m extremely busy.

Guess what’s fallen by the wayside these last two months? Was it study or the renovation? No. Was it my novel? Yes! Yet not writing much was causing me stress to the point I was getting physical symptoms. Studies show that when people and animals lose control of their lives, this is the most stressful situation they can be in. I was caught in a vicious cycle of stress making me less productive, which resulted in even less time for my writing.

What to do about this? Make a plan, I thought, even though I’m not good at sticking to them. But writing is extremely important to me so I decided I’d commit. Here are my tips on how to make time to write:

  1. Prioritise – Are you trying to achieve too much? List your key annual goals and number them from most to least important. If writing is high on your list, move other tasks down the list. If it isn’t as important as you thought, accept that. Perhaps now isn’t the right time. This way you take the stress out of trying to do it all. I’ve decided to go slower on the social media side of my business, setting a strict time allowance for each session and limiting it to every second day. It’s working!
  2. Commit time – For me it’s critical that I write for my sanity, creativity, happiness, self-worth, health, wellbeing, identity and more. So I’ve committed to writing for at least one hour, six days per week before I work, study, do chores and so on. I also schedule my writing time, and just like any other appointment, I don’t let myself down any more than I would my best friend or doctor. Interestingly, I find that I pack much more into my writing time than I once did. By following through on my commitment to myself, I also feel I’m telling the world I’m serious about writing. What can you commit to? How serious are you?
  3. Be realistic – But don’t make unrealistic plans. If two hours per day is untenable, but regardless you’re determined to do it, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Plan instead to write for an hour or thirty minutes. Smaller, regular writing sessions are better than no writing sessions! Could you get up an hour earlier four weekday mornings, spend half an hour of your lunch time writing, write before bedtime, write on the train to work or devote every Saturday morning to writing? Be creative and find what works for you without adding more stress into your life. And stick to it! Remember, this is about regaining control and writing more.
  4. Unplug – When you make time to write, ensure you don’t fritter it away by ‘just checking that important email’ or ‘taking this phone call’. I’ve gone hardline and turn everything off while I write. Mobile phones have Do Not Disturb options and there are apps for computers that turn off email and so on. Maximise your productivity during your writing time by focusing. It feels great when you achieve this.
  5. Clear your mind – Turn off the TV and go for a walk in a park, do yoga or pranayama, meditate (there are some great free apps), exercise or use an app like these to calm the mind. When we’re in a state of stress, we don’t breathe properly, meaning our brain is deprived of oxygen and can’t function optimally. When we’re calm, the opposite is true. It may sound counterintuitive, but by finding the time to achieve calm you’ll gain greater control and be more productive during your precious writing time (as well as in all other areas of your life).

All the best. You CAN do it (if you want to badly enough).