Sunday, 21 May 2017

Turning Memories into Story Plots | Halcja's Podcast #1

Hi, everyone. I've posted the first episode of my writing podcast yesterday and since it was scripted, I thought, why not post the script as a blog post? So here you have it. There were some spontaneous bits in the podcast but I've tried to even it all up. Hope you enjoy it and find it helpful and interesting!

I've noticed two main ways how you can fuel your writing inspiration, using your own life. And I've also seen the two of them combined in a bad way but I'll talk about that later on.

How to write stories from your own experience

1. Non-Fiction. Essays and Autobiographies. The first way is to just write down your memories of the past events, exactly how it all happened, or at least how much of it you remember. In this case, you'll be using the first person POV and past tense. It's similar to writing a diary but with adding more structure to the stories. You can have your main focus on the events, and also elaborate on your own thoughts or feelings, and speculations about the future. When it comes to storytelling, I think that you can apply here most rules of creative writing (show, don't tell: cut out filter words; don't overuse adverbs etc). The only difference being that these stories actually happened in real life and you are both the narrator and the protagonist.

My favorite example of this is David Sedaris. When I first picked up his book Me Talk Pretty One Day, I had no idea that it's non-fiction. I could tell that it's heavily based on his own life, but it was years later after I've read a few more of his books and finally decided to take notice of the categories they are listed in on Goodreads, it turned out that they are all non-fiction. These are collections of essays. So, okay, I actually suspected this with his Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls or Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, but with his debut novel, I honestly thought till the very last second that it was fiction. Based on his life, but still fiction.

If you haven't noticed it yet, I'm a big fan of David Sedaris. I love his style and humor. I highly recommend reading his books. Sedaris also has one fiction book. It's a collection of short stories "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk" about anthropomorphic animals. It's a little dark, but still enjoyable.

2. Fiction. Stories based on real life. I've noticed this with a lot of writers, especially if it's their debut novel. But what they do is basically write a story based on their own life, oftentimes childhood. This can be done in many ways and on different levels. For example, you can take situations from your childhood and rewrite them as stories, adding conflict and contrasts where it's needed. Or you can combine multiple memories in one story. I've got this idea for a short story, where I did just that. I took two unrelated childhood memories and assigned one, let's say, experience to my protagonist and the other one to his sister, even though both of these are something that's happened to me personally. You can also combine experiences of different people and incorporate them into one character's storyline. This way you will have more action and interesting situations, and your story will be denser and filled with more information, which will make it less boring because let's agree, that our everyday life is very slowly paced. Everyone has his good and bad moments, but the density of events can hardly be compared to that of fiction. Normal people cannot go through all of this drama and still remain sane in the end.

Some examples of this would be "A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway, "Anne of Green Gables" by Lucy Maud Montgomery, "Morphine" by Mikhail Bulgakov, "War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy and many more. You can notice if a book was based on author's life if you read his biography. It's really easy to spot.

What's great about these books and writing fiction using your own experience is that they feel genuine. You've probably all heard the saying "Write what you know". And this is a great example of this. Leo Tolstoy was the only one who succeeded in writing an epic war story of that scale because he lived it. He was born into that world and grew up in it, and he lived through the war.

Fun fact! There's an urban legend that if you look at the old time spelling of the title of the novel "War and Peace" - "Война и мир", it'll turn out that the word "мир", should actually mean "society" or "world". The Russian language has the same word for both "peace" and "world". Before the language reform, many words were spelled with the letters "ъ" and "і". Before the reform, these words had different spelling ("миръ" - "peace", "міръ" - "society"). So the title should actually be "War and Society" or something of that sort. They say that the legend originated from a typo in some old editions of the novel, and handwritten notes on Tolstoy's manuscript that may have been made by his wife, who had mixed up the two words. But people, who actually research Tolstoy's works, say that he himself was using the title "War and Peace" and that's how he was talking about his novel in his personal letters that were written in French.

What NOT to do

And now let's talk about one way, that in my opinion is wrong when using your own memories to draw inspiration from in writing. It's when you write an essay Sedaris-style but claim it to be fiction.

It's not very considerate of your reader. I've seen a few authors do this. I once read a collection of short stories, where the author described her own life but slapped a different name on her protagonist in each story, even though it was obvious that she's writing about herself.

Another example of this lazy writing is when an author actually comes up with an original story idea but still uses himself as the protagonist. It's not bad to incorporate some of your own quirks or characteristics into your protagonist, but don't overdo it. Work on developing your characters and giving them their own voices. Don't make every single one of them a carbon copy of yourself. That's called daydreaming, not fiction. There's no fun in reading that.

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