it’s a trip . . .

tips, quotes, insights, and lessons about writing and publishing learned the hard way

Archive for personal experience

you can be too close to what you write

I won’t argue with the guideline that you should write what you know. Nobody likes poseurs unless (of course) you make them into unreliable narrators to lift your writing out of the ordinary. I’m asking you to consider that sometimes you can be too close to a personal experience to write about it well.

too painful for readers?

your pain: too painful for readers?

Your lack of distance can be a trap that snags up your storytelling, your pace, your plot, your character development. In other words, it can sabotage the book in your head you’re dying to write. It can and often is the dealbreaker.

When trying to write a fictionalized account of something that really happened to them, writers feel an unnatural and ultimately limiting responsibility to faithfully represent everything that really happened. You provide too many insignificant details–many more than the reader needs. You fail to use the old flash forward–jumping the timeframe of the story–because flashing forward is not true to your precious memory.

Memory isn’t always your friend.

I learned this lesson firsthand in writing my first book–a fictional account of a major midlife reckoning. It was gratifying for me to recount every detail of the viewpoint character’s meltdown for the reader. It was my life, I felt violated, I was writing this book to eke out some poetic justice for myself and those who suffered what I did–my motives were pure. It was a formula for an unsuccessful novel that would have held little interest for most readers.

I tried valiantly to recreate the characters in this autobiographical tale faithfully; I see now how that limited me.

Did I learn I from my mistake? Absolutely. In fact, I approached the same theme again in a short story a few months later, this time taking quite a bit of poetic license with the protagonist and antagonist.  The protagonist even became a ghost, coming back to haunt the man that drove her to self-destruction. I changed up lots of small details. And it was very freeing. I felt unshackled from my own history and finally able to tell a story, and I did much better job of it. It won a short story contest, and I made my first ever money from writing creatively–at 3 cents a word, that story earned me $90-some bucks.

Now that I’ve committed the I-was-too-close-to-the-story-I-was-writing offense, I recognize it in others. When I point it out, however, people most often balk at the observation. That includes memorists and essayists, too.

“Well, I have to say what really happened,” one writer said, when I told him he really didn’t need to share every detail of his motorcycle ride across New England. He disagreed with me. He won a battle but lost the war–he lost a reader.

This topic segues nicely into the next lesson-from-friends segment I’ll be posting, one that has to do with control, discretion, and writing about something very painful with a healthy amount of emotional distance, which is necessary for exquisite memoir or autobiographical fiction.

But some people can only learn this lesson the hard way. At the time I wrote my first book, I didn’t have a circle of writing friends as resources. I had a burning passion to pour out my story, my keyboard, and my unflinching memory.

In the instance of autobiographical fiction, two out of three would have been better than three out of three.

I should have flinched a little.

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  • my author bio . . .

    I began writing creatively three years ago, fueled by midlife and a Curves' addiction. Since then, I have published short work in The Christian Science Monitor and Sirens Magazine in the same year. How's that for versatility!
    Sirens Magazine

    Sirens Magazine

    Also the Duck & Herring Company's Pocket Field Guide, The Giggle Water Review, Alighted, Wet Ink Press, America's Funniest Humor, Brilliant!, Laughter Loaf, Flash-Flooding, and the Greensilk Journal where my short story, "How I Boinked John Cusack" won editor's pick.
    The Greensilk Journal

    The Greensilk Journal

    My newest novel, THE SHAKER PROPOSAL, has received numerous accolades, the latest a fifth-place in the 2008 annual NWA (National Writing Association) Novel Contest.
    THE SHAKER PROPOSAL

    THE SHAKER PROPOSAL

    I am a marketing professional by vocation (but not by choice). My husband and I live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—the sounds, sites, smells, and flavors of which are a never-ending source of literary inspiration.