On Writing: Write What You Know? Maybe Not.

Reality Lacks A Satisfying Narrative Arc

Guest post by Jeanette Grey

write what you know

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The message is everywhere: write what you know. We hear it from college professors, from abrasive-but-ultimately-kind-mentor-characters in movies, from random relatives who think they have sage advice to offer about writing in spite of never having really pursued it themselves.

It’s reinforced when friends suggest you should write a book about your life. Or about their life. Or about the life of one of their friends who recently had something interesting happen to them.

It’s reinforced when everyone scoffs at the disclaimer in the front of every novel about all people, places and things being fictional.

And it’s so, so tempting. I don’t know about you, but my most wildly productive writing years occurred when I was in my teens and bleeding words onto a page. I just had so many emotions to deal with and no other way to process them except through writing. I wrote what I knew, all right. I wrote my pain, and my joy, and the petty, petty details of my relationships, my family life, my school life. My word count was astronomical, and the sheer carnage in terms of wasted novelty notebooks and drained sparkle pens was enough to fund my local stationary store for years.

Here’s the thing, though: writing about reality is, in general, a terrible idea.

Now, I’m not saying that non-fiction doesn’t have its place. Of course it does. But novelizing real life events has an inherent flaw, because reality lacks a satisfying narrative arc.

What’s a satisfying narrative arc? It’s the lovely, circular aspect of a story that writers painstakingly weave into their books. It’s the details planted in the beginning of a novel that come to fruition in the climax. The twist of fate that unites a hero and a heroine that have complementary strengths and flaws. The conflict that represents whatever the main character fears most and present her with a chance to grow.

They’re the aspects of a story that make you jump up and down, your heart glowing, and that leave you beaming after you turn the last page.

Sure, these things happen in real life, but rarely in the kinds of combinations they do in books. Rarely in the kinds of combinations they need to in order to keep a reader devouring your books.

A random anecdote from life is like a burlap sack, and a well-crafted novel is like a finely tailored suit. Everything fits. And sure, you can cinch a belt around a shapeless swath of fabric, but it’s just not the same.

Personally, when I was still writing about my own life, my stories never seemed to go anywhere. I would get bogged down in the true events behind the story, and I never knew how to push past them to make the story into something more.

It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I got the hang of it. After a wordless decade, I started immersing myself in the world of fiction again, and new ideas started to emerge. They were untethered to my life except in the details. I set completely fabricated stories in locations where I had really lived. I gave heroes and heroines jobs I’d really had. I incorporated elements of personalities of friends and loved ones into invented characters, but I invented the characters. I made up the scenarios. The real, embedded details allowed the imagined stories to come to life, but the realities of my mundane and unsatisfying life stopped restraining the narrative, hamstringing it to true events that didn’t really matter to anyone but me.

For me, the key to writing fiction that jumped off the page was just that: writing fiction. I had to write what I didn’t know.

And using my imagination was what finally allowed me to write books that felt true.

About the Author

Jeanette Grey started out with degrees in physics and painting, which she dutifully applied to stunted careers in teaching, technical support, and advertising. When none of that panned out, she started writing. Her stories include futuristic romances and erotic contemporaries, and almost all of them include hints of either science or art.

When she isn’t writing, Jeanette enjoys making pottery, playing board games, and spending time with her husband and her pet frog. Her most recent release, Take What You Want, is available from Samhain Press as well as on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She blogs regularly at Bad Girlz Write and irregularly at JeanetteGrey.com. Follow her on Twitter or Like her on FaceBook.

On Writing: Music as Inspiration

Music and Prose

Guest post by Jack Croxall

writing inspiration with music

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What I’d like to reflect upon here is how useful I’ve found assigning particular songs to certain sequences, settings or even whole chapters of my novel.

I first tried this because I wanted to create a kind of reference point for the feel of some of my scenes; a way of standardising say, a certain location’s mood or the mindset of a particular character. It seemed like a decent enough idea and, once I’d decided on a suitable selection of tracks for a sequence, I always made sure to have a quick listen through any time I wanted to add anything more to said sequence, hopefully preventing myself from accidentally bolting on any tonally dissimilar sentences.

However, I soon realised music could do more for my work than just help with continuity.

I think everybody’s experienced that moment when a familiar song comes on and you’re instantly reminded of how you felt when you first heard it; I know when I hear tracks from Echo Park by Feeder, I suddenly feel as sad as I did at the end of the book I was reading when I bought the album (Watership Down). I mention this because, as I began carefully allocating scene X with track list Y, I started to realise a lot of the older songs in my music library put me in the precise mental state I’d been in when I’d first listened to them during my teenage years.

Now, a lot of teenagers have an incredible amount to deal with and dredging some of that back up could perhaps be considered a bad idea, but upon taking the plunge myself, I recognised I’d discovered a priceless writing tool.

Let me explain a little bit more. The two main characters in my YA novel are, unsurprisingly, teenagers and having not been one for a while, I was sometimes finding it difficult to work out how certain events in the plot might affect them. In rediscovering some of my older music, I realised I’d stumbled upon a valuable window into how I’d felt during the more testing times (but comparatively meagre in the grand scheme) I had gone through as a teenager; insecurity, break ups, cancelation of my favourite TV show etc.

So, the point is, I was suddenly able to construct more realistic reactions and responses to some of the more emotive events that occur throughout my plot, simply because my old music could reminded me of how I’d felt and thought during similar, albeit far less extreme, situations. It really was somewhat of a revelation.

About the Author

Jack Croxall - Author PhotoBorn in High Wycombe, Jack Croxall now lives in rural Nottinghamshire with his chocolate Labrador, Archie. He has a degree in Environmental Science from the University of Nottingham and currently toils away as a science writer in between working on his books. A YA Victorian fantasy, Jack’s debut novel, Tethers follows Karl Scheffer and Esther Emerson as they become embroiled in a treacherous conspiracy. The book is available through Amazon and you can find out more by visiting Jack’s blog or the book’s GoodReads page. You can also follow Jack on Twitter or Facebook.