Using Your History can Hurt Your Writing

history

Using Your History can Hurt Your Writing

This post is proof that I can argue from both sides of my mouth. Or, more kindly, I can see both sides of the argument. In the last post, I discussed how to use your own life history to enrich a fictional piece. And generally, I think it’s a good idea.  But sometimes it can backfire. Especially if the scene morphs into more auto-biography than originally intended. Then it can cause problems.

You avoid crucial scenes

One way to avoid the dangerous bits of personal history is to skim over or leave them out.

One writer was telling the story of a foster child whose foster parents wanted to adopt her. However, at the time, and in that locale, the birth mother had to give her permission. The ‘I’ character had to talk to her mother for the first time in years. This is my re-creation of how she handled the scene.

I stood at the door, knowing my mother was already inside. I couldn’t bring myself to grab the handle. What if she says no? What if she wants me back? My stomach churned. But I took a deep breath and pulled the door open.

When I came out of the room, I closed the door gently behind me. The tears I had been able to hold in now flooded my eyes so I could barely see. Thank god! Thank god!

So, here, the writer has avoided the uncomfortable bits by almost literally closing the door on us. Something happens in that room which turns out well but we are just told about it, rather than shown the scene between the mother and the ‘I’ character.

In this way, you protect yourself against having to possibly relive painful feelings but rob the reader of what is compelling in your story.

Your writing goes flat

Another way writers sometimes try to avoid raw feelings is to write the scene, say the one between the birth mother and the ‘I’ character, but make quite clinical or fact based. I’ll give a try at showing this.

My mother didn’t look that different from what I remembered. Smaller but that was probably me.

She kissed me lightly on the cheek. “My, how you’ve grown.”

We sat down at the table. I began. “I want to be adopted by the Warnsleys. But I have to get your permission.”

My mother paused for a moment and then said, “Well, I guess that would be for the best.”

“Well, thanks.”

Honestly, do you buy this? I don’t. We know the ‘I’ character was afraid the mother will say no, so how come no reaction from her when she says yes? In addition, this is presumably a big thing for the mother—how come she acquiesces so easily? Wouldn’t she try to justify why she had to put the ‘I’ character into foster care or regret  losing whatever tenuous relationship she has now with her daughter?

In short, I think the writer is primarily concerned with protecting herself from old feelings but in the process, has produced flat writing.

I know it’s hard, but to truly write well, you have to risk appearing naked on the page. If you cover yourself up carefully, even in fiction, the reader won’t see a real person or a compelling story. And isn’t that what you are aiming for?

 

 

Writing about Therapy Sessions

therapy

Writing about Therapy Sessions

What can I say? Writers, while not necessarily crazy (sorry, with mental health issues), nonetheless seem to be not infrequent users of therapy in various forms. And there is the whole write-what-you-know thing. So, sooner or later, we try to depict a therapy session.

And it almost always falls flat.

Not because you are a crummy writer but because of the nature of therapy. As those of us who have addressed our problems this way know, it is iterative, repetitive and slow process which takes a long time to get results. All things anathema to story.

So, if you try to truly reflect conversation in a session, you’re likely to get a boring, going nowhere mess which contributes little to the story.

How about speeding things up?

One option is, of course, to telescope the process in the novel. This compression in other areas is often quite justifiable to maintain the momentum of the story. So, the main character is completely open to all the suggestions made by the counsellor, integrates the learning with lightning speed, and is back on the right track in no time. She goes from mistrusting the world to complete and utter belief in the innate goodness of humanity.

First of all, sucky tale. You’ve removed all the struggles and conflict that makes a narrative hum. But more importantly for our purposes, completely unrealistic. Because we know in our own lives, with or without guidance, change doesn’t happen that way. Change is iterative, repetitive and slow.

How to avoid writing therapist scenes

Despite this, the insights that come with therapy may be pivotal to your plot. So how do you write about it without writing about it?

First, you probably need a scene establishing that your protagonist is seeing a therapist. But it might be the first session, where the main character illustrates the real reason she is embarking on this process. She thinks it’s because her family is so difficult but her defensiveness and the sharp tongued way she communicates cues the reader that there are other issues. Tricky to write, but if done well, it provides the reader with important information early on.

From there forward, the therapist might not figure prominently at all. But the main character might recall something learned in therapy which she applies to the present point in the plot. You might even be able to get away with a short—very short—scene where the protagonist comes to a significant revelation which we then see her applying it to refocusing her actions and life.

So you might be able to get the juice out of these sessions without having to do all the peeling, pitting, and dissecting which actually occurs.

If you must write about therapy

It is possible that your plot is integrally tied to depicting therapy sessions.

The only thing I have ever seen which did this effectively was an originally Israeli series, adapted to North American audience called In Treatment. In it, a therapist treated four different patients. And it works. Even though the whole series takes place inside the therapist’s office and the patients are just basically telling the therapist their stories.

So, if you must, you would do well to study why this tell-not-show approach works. If it’s the acting or direction, then you’re sunk. If it is the extremely clever writing (and I suspect it is), study how the writers made it work. Unless of course, it’s just bloody magic.

Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

orwell

Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

So you know George Orwell’s famous novels like Animal Farm and 1984. In addition, he set down Six Rules for Writing which are:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

All good advice but I want to focus on two of them: #2 in this post and #3 in the next.  The action called for is self-evident but writers don’t always seem to understand the logic behind them. And because the reasoning isn’t obvious, it may not be clear why they embody such wisdom and are so worth following.

Rule 2: Never use a long word where a short one will do.

On the surface, it’s hard to imagine why it matters. Long words abound. Politicians can use them to cloud the issue. I would never obfuscate on such a monumentally portentous issue.  But medical people can use them for precision. It involves the integumentary system. Sports use terms particular to their activity. Wow, that guy just got posterized.

But generally, although long words might delight the writer’s instinct for the new and different, most readers are not fascinated with the words themselves but more focused on the unfolding story.

Here’s an example and an alternative.

Example—meandered

She meandered through the forest, her ambulatory exercise freeing her mind to address the shattering decisions preying on her psyche.

Applying rule 2 to the example

Walking through the forest freed her mind up to think about the decisions worrying her.

Discussion

I know the first sentence is over the top but it’s possible that the second sentence might feel as if it lacks drama or even interest. You might be right. However, if you look carefully, the drama in the first example, such as it is, comes from the writer telling you how to feel about the heroine’s issues (shattering, preying).

In the revamp we know the heroine is worried, but we’re not directed by the writer on how to feel about it. Presumably, he’ll show us what’s worrying her and we can decide ourselves how shattering and predatory the issues are.

So, you don’t need to, nor should you, have one sentence do all the work or all the reader’s thinking. Plain, short words present the action in a clear and understandable way. It’s up to you to build them into a compelling story.

Situations where Orwell’s rule 2 might not apply

Sometimes, the longer word is preferable because of its precision. Take the word disingenuous. Other, shorter, words—like dishonest—might be similar but ‘disingenuous’ has the particular implication of being deceitful knowingly. It is built into the word. A person might be dishonest without realizing it—from lack of knowledge, etc. Using ‘disingenuous’ removes that possibility.

So, use a longer word to capture accuracy. However, and especially if it’s an esoteric long word, don’t pack it closely together with others of the same ilk.

In short, long words if needed but not as a way to show off how learned you are (which I know you are).

Next post: Rule Three: Cutting out words.

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Lots of Events, No Story

events

Lots of Events, No Story

In the last post, I discussed Amor TowlesA Gentleman in Moscow which, while it had lots of events to recommend itself, a story that went somewhere seemed absent.

I want to talk about how to up the chances that your novel will have forward motion. But before I do it, I do want to repeat that a compelling plot is not the only thing which makes a novel attractive. It might be beauty of the language or brilliant capture of the nuances of a character or a time or a setting.  If this is where your novel is focused, then ignore this post.

But if you’d like to make sure that your story has forward motion, read on.

Events do not a story make

I think the idea that lots can happen in a novel but still not have a story is a tough concept. But without a plot that gives meaning to the events, the reader is left vaguely dissatisfied but doesn’t know why.

So, indulge me if I try another example, this time a good one. In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a widow and her three daughters try to make their way in the world when her husband’s estate passes to the male heir. They move, they meet interesting new people, the older girls fall in love, etc. So, lots happen. The difference is that the novel has forward motion. We want to know what is going to happen to the family, particularly the two young women. We keep reading for that reason.

This applies to memoirs

By the by, memoir writers should take note of this concept. Memoirs are not, or should not be, just a listing of the events of your life. That’s history not memoir. Remember, a Memoir is a Lifestory, emphasis on story. You want your readers to want to keep reading so you need to build in a sense of forward action beyond the tried and true, I-was-born-I-lived-I’m-writing-this-before-I-die.

Building story in

So after harping on what a difficult concept forward action is to identify, the answer is, I think, is a lot less mystic.

You need to make sure you build in the classic plot structure. You know, rising action, climax, etc. The novel needs to build to some point that the reader cares about. Will the young women marry the right men? Will the hero overcome the monster? Who killed Cock Robin? (Sorry).

I know this seems an obvious and even disappointing answer. But I find a surprising number of writers, perhaps carried away by the fun of creating secondary characters and subplots, forget this fundamental principle. They may end up with an entertaining novel but they are less likely to create a story that readers can’t put down.

So carefully review your manuscript to make sure that you have built this forward action in. This includes establishing a goal or outcome the reader cares about but isn’t limited to that. Does the rising action keep rising at a good pace or does the story get bogged down in interesting byways and asides? Is the climax ‘justified?’ That is, has the protagonist done enough or changed enough so that the outcome is satisfying rather than out of the blue.

So think of this as good news. The fix to forward motion is very doable. A lot of work, but doable. Not unadulterated good news, I grant you.

A Gentleman in Moscow

Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles’ widely acclaimed A Gentleman in Moscow was published in 2016. It is the story of a Russian aristocrat during the Russian Revolution. His sanctuary/house arrest is the luxurious Metropol Hotel where he meets a girl who shows him the inner workings of the hotel. A moody chef, among other characters, figure in his discovery.

I found I enjoyed reading the novel while reading it but when I put it down, it took me a long time to pick it up again. This happened again and again. At about page 250, I think I figured out what was causing the sporadic reading.

The novel has lots of events, but no real plot. Things happen but the novel doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

A Gentleman in Moscow has other charms

Although I enjoy a good plot, I recognize that novels can be excellent for other reasons. I can and do appreciate living in the world Amor Towles created. The Count is quite a delightful character and his insights into Life are both apt and apropos. NPR’s review of the book says:

All of the verbal excess, the gently funny mock-epic digressions, the small capers and cast of colorful characters, add up to something undeniably mannered but also undeniably pleasant.

And I agree. It is lovely to read when I am reading it.

But there is the problem that I keep putting it down and not picking it up for a long time.

Lots of events, no story

This is tough concept to get. The idea that lots can happen, but there is no real story. The closest thing I think I can get to is when you watch, willingly or otherwise, somebody else’s vacation photos. Lots of places are visited, lots of boats boarded, lots of meals consumed. But it isn’t so much a story as a litany of events.

Which is fine for holiday snaps but readers usually expect more from a novel. I am prepared for people to argue that A Gentleman in Moscow does so have a story. I might even agree with them. But fundamentally, although things happen, it doesn’t have a sense of forward motion. The sense that the protagonist is going to end up somewhere different or be someone at least slightly different.

It might be argued that it is more real life to have a protagonist who is adapting as well as he can to a difficult situation. True. But, as I have said Fiction is Not Life and how it really happened is not actually an adequate defense against the charge of no story.

Fiction has its own rules. In order to feel authentic on the page, it often requires a distortion of what usually happens in real life. And generally, fiction requires that the story goes somewhere even if we don’t necessarily expect our own lives to come to a climax which is resolved in a surprising yet satisfying way.

Well, it is possible that A Gentleman in Moscow does suddenly develop a forward motion even if there was no sign of it at page 250. I’ll let you know when I get back to it.

Next post—how to turn events into a plot.