Thursday, September 20, 2012

Using Real Experiences for Fiction

Life offers us the intriguing, the meaningful, and sometimes the extraordinary. Whether it is a conversation or a car crash, a writer will take these moments and commit them to paper. Recording them in a journal while they are still fresh is a good idea. Dumping them directly into your latest work of fiction probably isn't.

Admittedly, it will help you reach your daily wordcount (a HTWF Best Practice), but those words may be hard to reshape or extract during your rewrite. And, if you let them stand, they are likely to wound your story. Here's why:

  • You're too close. Shouts are still whispers and whispers are still shouts. Half your brain is having a riot fueled by the survival chemicals. Chances are, whatever seems to make perfect sense to you now will sound like ravings further into the future. This is obviously true in the immediate aftermath, but big experience tend to be relived days, months, and even years after a life event.
  • It's all about you. It is okay to write for yourself in your journal, but other writing is aimed at an audience. Ever notice how dreams that are vivid to you bore the heck out of people you tell them to? Until some time passes, it is difficult to put a real experience into a context that is complete and relevant to your readers.
  • The voice is wrong. Your fiction-writing voice is not likely to be the same one with which you relate the story of your own life. This is especially true if you are working on a first-person novel. 
  • The details aren't right. Just as you may struggle for the exact words in fiction, the details must be selected to serve the purpose of the story. Unfortunately, the details of a real-life event are not chosen. Unless you are very lucky, they will work against the narrative and weaken your story.
  • Facts aren't true. Anyone who has spent much time in a writers group knows what I mean. Invariably, there are times when someone writes something that is wildly unconvincing, and then defends it by saying that "it really happened." Sorry. That doesn't work for me. Real life is full of coincidences and unexplained phenomena. Fiction needs to offer something more.
  • You haven't had time to explore. For everything that really matters, our minds work in the background. This is why you often get the answers to story problems when you are not looking for them (all too often, in the shower where a pen and paper aren't near at hand). Events that shape us invariably shape our fiction. But not immediately. It takes time for the mysterious workings of the mind to rework them, highlight what matters, combine them with other experiences, and burn away the dross. And, once that is done and the experience return as story ideas, they need to be played with and rearticulated. Give the experiences time to ferment and age, and you'll end up with something fine, something that will thrill your readers. 
It may seem like a good shortcut to transcribe your life as you are living it. Without a doubt, people who have interesting experiences and who take the time to note them down do have a better chance of approaching their writing productively. But (unless you are a journalist or blogger) the advantage is in investments made for future work, not it cashing out immediately.

So save those moments. Capture them with all the authenticity you can and be sure to include context and your emotional responses. But be wary of introducing them directly into your fiction. If they really belong in your story, they'll force themselves in after your cooling down period.

How do you treat real-life events? What value do they bring? Have they ever led you astray? How long did it take for you to translate them into fiction that worked?

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