When can you write like ‘real life’ and when do you take the ‘real life’ out of books?
I preach authenticity in writing fiction, but sometimes things that are too ‘real life’ are not right for books. Here’s what I mean:
Teen speak. Teens have a specific way of talking and interacting with each other, however this does not always translate smoothly to fiction. Know what authenticity to include: diction, habits, friendships etc. And know what authenticity not to include: pop culture references that will date the novel, slang that won’t translate across all reading audiences etc.
POVs. Use alternate POVs to better inform the reader in new perspectives, not repeat the situation from all angles.
Coincidence vs. Serendipity. There is a fine line between the two and I’ve touched on it before. Know which happens only in real life, which can be fabricated for fiction and when to avoid the two all together.
Timing. Timing in books is nothing like real life. Novels need planned and plotted pace, while life moves at its own speed. Never mix these two up. Real life pacing makes for a disastrous novel (read: boring and forgettable) and you can never expect what happens in books to happen to you!
Characters. All characters in a novel have a purpose for being there. If you introduce a character with no idea why or where they are headed that’s a problem. In real life you come across all types of people that come in and out of your life. Not so in fiction. Even if they are minor characters they should be as 3D as if they were real. Even if the character doesn’t advance plot do they reveal something about another character? Use characters with purpose.
Setting. Each writer has their own relationship with describing setting. Are you someone that notices the crown moldings on a brownstone? Or are you someone that whizzes through life without reflection on place? Let setting be natural to characters and purposeful. We’ve all had enough pathetic fallacy.
High stakes. In fiction the stakes must be high and they must be manufactured. It is not often in real life you are presented with the stakes that characters are in novels. This is a significant difference between novels that understand the borders of authenticity. Will the character lose their job if they go for the new job interview not knowing if they’ll get it? Can the character go on a date with a new guy taking a chance on love when they have an unhealthy, but steady relationship with someone else? What will/can the character lose as the plot moves along? (See this blog post for more.) Continue reading Writing Real Life Authenticity: Where do you draw the line?
Do you write with a strict outline or a loose concept?
While there’s no right or wrong answer there are pros and cons to each strategy. A strict outline can keep your thoughts on track and provide you with motivation even when writer’s block may hit. And a general concept might be too broad and leave you without a narrative arc. However, being strict with your outline can give you tunnel vision and you might be missing out on a new, more truthful path for a character, which is something a loose idea lets you play around with.
Still confused about backstory, how much to include, and where to add it? Think of the plot like an engine pushing the story along:
“Because fiction requires a mighty engine to thrust it ahead—and take the reader along for the ride—backstory if used incorrectly, can stall a story. A novel with too little backstory can be thin and is likely to be confusing. By the same token, a novel with too much backstory can lack suspense. […] Remember this: The fantasy world of your story will loom larger in your imagination than it will on the page. Continue reading Balance and Backstory
Every writer has gotten the advice to ‘write what you know’. It was my first bit of writing advice too. I believe there are two scenarios to look at when discussing ‘writing what you know’. Firstly, authenticity. Secondly, the limits of your imagination.
Authenticity is paramount to my decisions about taking on authors. The authentic voice that doesn’t seem forced, that seems effortless (but requires extensive effort to create) paired with natural dialogue is what lets you leap into the book with the characters. This authenticity often comes from knowing what you are writing from either having lived it or being closely connected to it.
However, career writers should be able to write about any location or type of character and make it authentic. The best compliment an author can get is a review that proclaims the writer must have lived in the location of the book setting to get such prolific accuracies of culture, voice, and characters when actually, they had never been there at all! This is the gift of imagination paired with extensive research. For example, the amazingly talented Helen Dunmore’s critically acclaimed pair of novels The Siege and The Betrayal set in Leningrad from 1941-53 were pure research that ‘grew from a lifelong love of Russian history, culture and literature’.