Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Notes from "When Memoir Inspires Fiction" Part 2

Tips for making memoir-based fiction work:

1. The most valuable part of any fact or memory is not the material itself, but how much energy it gives you to write it. We talk about inspiration a lot as writers, but in order for inspiration to be truly valuable, it has to sustain you over the years and years you will be spending with this project

2. When we write about characters that are like us or like people we know, we’re always afraid of exposing them too much or airing their dirty laundry out in public. What we should all strive for is to make our characters understood by our readers and we shouldn’t be afraid to lay out everything we know or create about them. Once you make the decision to write fiction, you have to be prepared to expose your characters totally, even if someone you love might recognize themselves, or even if you don’t want to reveal too much.

3. That said, the ethical thing to do when you’re writing about someone you know is to tell them that you’re doing it. This is particularly important if you’re writing about events that are painful. I’ve been known to say that if you’re hanging out with a writer, you should know what you’re getting into, but the truth is that you don’t want your whole family to hate you.

4. You never have to feel that you’re wedded to the facts. Fiction really takes off when we allow ourselves to compress events, or impose a structure to the plot that brings everything together, or increase the drama. Part of the reason we decide to make something fictional is because we want the freedom, so you should use it! Once the characters and events hit the page, they’re no longer real and we can manipulate them as we wish.

5. Structure is easily something that can make or break a book and it’s the thing that most writers hate working on the most. When we’re writing stuff based on reality, our tendency is to follow events as they occurred. Remember though that the structure of your book doesn’t have to work that way. You want the structure to tie themes together and help the reader make sense of the story, and this may not be the way it actually occurred. No matter, just organize it properly and your story will sing.

6. Many people who use fact as inspiration for their fiction have to set their novels in a historical context, war novels are a good example. This means that you really should get your details right--things like what kind of heating did people use, did mean wear boots or shoes. Research is key in these situations. My trick for this kind of research is to write one full draft using details that seem as if they would be right, then I go back through it and double check the facts. Of course, you still have to do some initial research to get the ball rolling, but for small details, this method works well and saves time.

7. You have to be aware that no matter what you write, a certain portion of people will always read your life into the story and assume it’s all about you, even if it isn’t. You have to be comfortable with that if you’re going to show your book to the world. As well, if you’re writing something close to you or someone you know, you may scared to have your friends or family read it. You can’t keep it from them once it’s published (I know, I tried), so just brace yourself. They will say things that won’t make you feel good, or they’ll say things that will. Just know that their reactions are coming.