How to Kill Your Muse: Too Much Truth in Fiction

[tweetmeme source=”sarahockler” only_single=false]A recent tweet by author and D4EO Literary agent Mandy Hubbard (aka @mandyhubbard) inspired this post. She asked fellow agents if they saw red flags when a query for a novel mentioned “based on a true story” or “sprinkled with true life experiences.” She went on to say that lots of first-time writers start out trying to write novels from real life, but quickly learn that fiction makes for a much better story.

As someone who jumped into the world of fiction after decades of journaling and personal essay writing, I couldn’t agree more.

Before we continue, let me clarify a few terms. Regardless of genre, a novel is always fiction. A memoir is a true story (recent literary scandals aside) the author writes about some aspect or time in his own life. An autobiography is the true story of the author’s entire life history (and generally only works for celebrities or public figures or someone with an equally compelling entire history). A biography is a true story written about someone else’s life history. In this post, we’re discussing the pitfalls of taking a real life story, keeping it real (or only very loosely disguising it) and calling it a novel.

How to Kill the Muse in One Easy Step: Tell the Truth

It took me about fifty pages to figure out why basing a novel too closely on real life is the fastest way to kill off the muse.

Why? When we set out to turn the True Story of Me into fiction, we still feel responsible to tell the truth, almost exactly as it happened (or as closely as we remember it happening). That sense of responsibility can become so overpowering that it prevents writers from fictionalizing any plot point or character trait or event, even if the made-up version would make for a much more compelling story. Too much honesty blocks the creative process. It puts us squarely in the “must tell the truth” offensive so that when the muse comes knocking, we squash her. We’re simply not open to new twists, to characters interacting in unplanned ways and taking their own paths, to themes developing organically, to totally off the wall ideas, because the story is already complete in our mind and needs only to be written down exactly (or close to exactly) as it happened.

I truly believe that every person has a story, and that every life is interesting. That’s why I write contemporary realistic fiction. But can that spark of an interesting life be translated into a full-length novel? Interesting doesn’t mean fascinating or exciting or heart-wrenching. When writers develop books and screenplays, the boring parts are cut (or should be). The “ums” and shoulder shrugs, the trips to the bathroom, the sleeping, the long ho-hum stretches of “nothing happened” that we all experience in real life are cut from novels because, although we can all relate to those things, they don’t advance the plot or add to our understanding of the character and his motivations. They don’t make for a good story.

Some of the best fictional stories, in fact, are wildly different from the author’s original intentions. The author was open to the lies and twists and turns that the creative process naturally inspires. She wasn’t set on one version of the truth. She wasn’t trying to gun down her muse.

What happened to the old “Write what you know!” stuff?

Beginning writers here this advice all the time, but it doesn’t make any sense. As fiction writers, its our job to make stuff up (and write it down). We get to use our imaginations — that’s just part of the gig. We can also research unfamiliar topics and totally twist and exaggerate those we’re more knowledgeable on. So rather than write what you know, I like to say, write what you care about. That might be a theme or an issue, a particular character you’ve envisioned, a setting or place, a life situation, a story or plot line that keeps you up at night, or all of the above.

But where do I start?

Let real life inspire your story rather than dictate it. I “borrow” stuff from my memories and observations all the time. The setting for Twenty Boy Summer was based on beaches and summer resort towns I’ve visited over the years. The relationship between best friends Anna and Frankie had similar dynamics (and drama!) to those of my own teen best friendships. Like main character Anna, I collect sea glass and love Jack Kerouac. In Fixing Delilah, I used bits and pieces from my grandparents’ homes and a few story threads from the family archives. But in no way to either of these books represent actual events or people in my life, past or present. I simply borrowed bits and pieces — a voice here, the view from an old house there, a piece of jewelry, a cool trait from a relative, the smile and laugh of another — and used them as kindling to spark the rest of the story.

Realistic fiction needs truth.

Storytelling isn’t all lies. Real life is an important element of realistic fiction. By infusing fiction with reality rather than forcing reality into fiction, we can create authentic stories and characters that resonate with readers. A bit of real life keeps realistic fiction fresh — when done well, it prevents our characters from becoming cardboard cutouts or caricatures and makes the readers wonder, “did this actually happen? Could this have happened?”

Otherworldly fiction needs it, too.

Borrowing from reality is just as important — if not more so — in fantasy and science fiction genres. Readers will suspend disbelief and follow a story where vampires and werewolves exist in high school because they connect with and believe the core elements of the story — the truths of it to which we can all relate. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series is not about a vampire and human love affair, but about finding and holding on to love against all odds. At its core, The Lord of The Rings is not about defeating a dark lord, but about friendship and loyalty. Harry Potter isn’t just a boy wizard, but an abandoned and lost kid who finds his inner strength and overcomes life’s most difficult and heartbreaking obstacles. Love, friendship, loyalty, heartbreak, adversity, obstacles. We’ve all experienced (or will experience) these things in life, and so should our favorite fictional characters.

What about memoir?

Oh! That’s different… sort of. A memoir is not fiction. In a memoir, you’re intentionally telling the True Story of Some Event or Situation in Your Life, presumably because it’s a unique, amazing story that must be shared with the reading world. The best memoirs have something more than just a good story, though. Lots of people have experienced an illness, lost a loved one, had a bad childhood, but great memoirs capture something even more unique and compelling about these kinds of experiences. I’m not going to say too much about the craft of writing memoir, since I have no experience in this form, but I will tell you that even with an intentionally true story, you need to do so much more than simply tell the events as they happened. The memoir must be crafted like a novel, cutting out the boring parts and characters that don’t advance the story, organizing the writing so that the plot unfolds organically and has the biggest impact on readers, all while staying true to reality. If you’re interested in writing memoir, check out agent Kristin Nelson’s blog, pubrants. She’s got some interesting posts on memoir in her June 2007 archives (scroll down to the mid-month entries).

Just remember: a memoir is not fiction. A novel is not the truth. All great stories have elements of truth and lies, of reality and fantasy. The most important thing we can do as writers is be open to the creative process, and when the muse comes knocking, put down the guns and put on the coffee. Welcome her in and listen to what she has to say, especially when she’s making up lies. Your story will be better for it! 🙂

Your turn!

Writers, have you tried to turn real life into fiction? Did it work for you? Do you have any tips for finding story inspiration in real life without letting the truth get in the way of the tale?

7 thoughts on “How to Kill Your Muse: Too Much Truth in Fiction

  1. Ahhh I love this post! I still have to finish reading it, but this part caught my eye…

    “I truly believe that every person has a story, and that every life is interesting. ”

    I believe the same thing and told my mother this one day and she looked at me as if I were insane (which, granted, is kind of her general facial expression when it comes to the things i say), but up until that point I hadn’t realized that there were people who DON’T THINK EVERY LIFE IS INTERESTING and that every person has a story.

    …off to finish the post…

  2. Okay, finished reading.

    You’re brilliant.


    1. I wrote about (sort of? kind of?) the same topic over on YA Lit Six a few days ago. I’m now going to attempt to insert a hyperlink here. (I know. My computer skills are astonishing.) link?

    2. I once tried to write a story where the central conflict was taken from my own life. It was something very personal that I had gone through and about two weeks into the planning/drafting of the novel I realized I couldn’t do it. I slowly realized that the story I actually wanted to tell was the real one, not a fictionalized version of it (and also that I have no idea how to write the real-life story). It made me realize that while it’s tons of fun letting things in my life inspire my fiction, it’s a really bad idea to try to BASE my fiction off of my life. So this post is spot on.

  3. Love this article–especially “write what you care about” over “write what you know”. I think that’s where the best stories come from because they ring true.

    You also put it very well, how we take little bits of truth and pieces of life around us, and weave them into fiction to give it a real feel. It makes me think of the books I’ve loved and wonder what little bits are taken from their authors’ lives. Like the sea glass with yours. And mine. 🙂 BTW, I found another book I’m reading right now, JARS OF GLASS, and it’s all about sea glass and a special red piece as well! Something mystical about that red glass, I guess…

  4. I’m not an author/writer, but I love to read and I’ve come across a few books that were “loosely based on life” that I found were amazing, Ballads of Suburbia by Stephanie Kuehnert comes to mind 🙂 I personally love it when a novel isn’t based on a life story, but merely takes maybe a few moments from real life (like random gestures) and truly makes things more relatable/unique.

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