The strange truth about fiction

“It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” Mark Twain

One of my tweeps  – if you’re not on Twitter, let’s just call him a friend – sent me a link to the opening chapter of his first book tonight. And it’s a corker.

Written in the first person, it tells the story of a father who finds out his two children have just been killed. It shook me to the core. I immediately presumed it was a true story. I messaged my condolences. Before telling him I thought his writing was brilliant.

Only it wasn’t a true story. It was fiction. And it got me thinking about truth and fiction. I’ve always believed the truth is far more interesting than fiction. But maybe it isn’t?

I’m planning my autobiography in my head at the moment. Exploring in my mind what I’ll share and what I’ll keep secret. I was going to write only the truth. Bare my bones on the pages. But now I’m thinking … maybe I’ll add in a fictional element. Maybe I could just use my life as a starting point. But then I can’t really call it an autobiography – or can I?

Now I wonder how many autobiographies are the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Surely any creative writer can’t help but embellish a little and edit a little bit more. I’m guessing then maybe zero. We use phrases like ‘inspired by her life’ or ‘based on a true story.’

Ok, so I’ll change some people’s names. I might even change some of the details. But what I won’t change are the feelings. And that’s exactly what works in my friend’s writing. He captures the feelings of shock and grief and the resulting devastation beautifully. It is powerful and – most importantly in fiction – it is completely believable.

Quite simply my book will be about one woman’s emotional journey through motherhood. How I tell that story is really up to me.

“Never underestimate people. They do desire the cut of truth.”  Natalie Golberg.

The chapter that inspired this post, well worth a read: Project JB – Chapter One

Getting the words out

I recently had a chat with a friend on Facebook who asked me to give him some tips about writing. I thought I’d post part of my reply for you – there maybe some useful ideas here for you too.

Dear friend,

Based on your writing in the message you sent me, you don’t need a writing course. You know how to write. And you’re good. So just write. Pick a subject or a character or a chapter or a part of your story and just sit down and write about it. Edit later.

Make a cup of tea and get a tasty snack to munch on while you write – dark chocolate coated licorice is my favourite. And commit to sitting for 20 minutes or an hour, or a day or whatever amount of time you want. And just write. Write from the heart. Ask yourself… What am I really trying to say here? What feeling do I want to create in the reader? You will find your unique voice. And I find that the more I write, the more inspired I am to write more.

I’ve mapped out the chapters in my novel – I’m writing my autobiography – and I just pick a time in my life, or a place, or a person, or a moment, and write about it. All those parts will one day add up to the whole story. Some parts of my life I’m not interested in writing about, but they are important to the story, so I have decided to write them last.

Writer’s block does surface from time to time. If you get writer’s block I do what I call ‘free writing’ – I just gets words on the page about the subject, whatever I feel even if it makes no sense and is rubbish. I don’t worry about the quality. I just keep writing and slowly the words start to flow again and before you know it you’ve been sitting there writing for half an hour.

Now even though I said you don’t need a writing course, there’s no harm in doing one. Great for confidence building. Even after 15 years of professional writing I still get plagued with self doubt at times and think I have no talent or ability. I think it’s just part of the creative person’s lot unfortunately! I got inspired to go to uni after doing a short course in creative writing at the local community centre so maybe have a look around your local area.

Google is a great resource for things like style, standard plot and tips. I also used a brilliant book when I first started writing called Writing down the Bones by Natalie Golberg. It has some excellent writing exercises – writing is like anything, you need to practise it to improve.

I also would suggest a blog. Do you have one? I must admit I don’t get much time to post in mine anymore, but they are fun and a good way to keep writing. I also follow a lot of writers on twitter – great for sharing inspirational quotes and asking questions. Maybe make some new twitter friends who write!

So just start writing – good luck and have fun!

Epiphany from the edge

People often ask me how I got into writing. So, at the expense of my autobiography, I’m going to share the story with you.

In 1995, I undertook a one year journey to Nepal and India to ‘find myself.’ I was 22 years old. Oh, and I’d met a Nepalese boy in Sydney I’d decided was my future husband.

I arrived in Kathmandu in March, alone, to rising heat and haze. Nepal was like a fairytale – so exotic, so old, so colourful. I felt alive. I went trekking near Mount Everest for a week. Walked for miles through mountains stripped bare from deforestation. Navigated winding paths along cliff edges through thigh-deep snow. Slept huddled with Nepalese families around open fires. Came face-to-face with poverty.

Then I caught a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara. We stopped along the way and – against my better judgement – I ate some curry from a roadside stall. BIG MISTAKE. By the time we reached Pokhara I had a raging temperature. I found a backpackers and a toilet fast. The next five days were a blur of fever, pain, toilet and bed.

Prior to leaving New Zealand, my late grandmother had made me promise I wouldn’t visit Indian doctors. She was a nurse and was worried I’d be prescribed medications banned in the West. But there were no Western doctors in Pokhara. And after five days it dawned on me that people die from dysentery. I went to a local doctor who gave me a packet of huge pale blue tablets and told me to come again the next day. The effect of the tablets was like pouring concrete on my insides. I began to crawl out of the twilight zone.

Pokhara has a large picturesque lake, one you might expect to see in Switzerland. It is surrounded by huge snow capped mountains and, in April, the weather is very warm. I lay in a sunbed by the lake recovering, in that surreal state between awake and asleep. Or was it between life and death? It was hard to tell.

In my obscure state of the next few days, I watched a man sailing a yacht carrying tourists. There was only one yacht on the lake. I couldn’t tell how old the man was. He was wiry, sunbaked and only wore white shorts. And I started wondering about this man’s life. Who are his family? What are his hopes, his fears, his dreams? Where did he get his little yacht? How long has he been doing this? WHO IS HE? I really wanted to know. And I really wanted to tell his story.

So, by this lake on the roof of the world, I decided I wanted to inspire others by sharing the extraordinary stories of ordinary people. Like my Nepalese sailor. Although, sadly, I never did share his story. But I shared many others.

And that Nepalese boy I met in Sydney? He actually was my future husband. And the father of my child. But that’s another story.

Reading the bones

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”  ~ Stephen King

When I moved to Melbourne this year, I decided there were three things I wanted to do in my new life: start doing yoga, sleep more … and read more.

Now this may come as a surprise, given I’m a writer.  I should clarify. I read and write every day in my job. I read reports and academic articles. I devour online news and blogs. On weekends it’s glossy magazines. But novels? A hard-copy book? Until recently I had literally read one novel since 2005. It was Tuesdays with Morrie and it took me months to get through. Since graduating from university after seven years of part-time study I have struggled with books.

As a teenager, I would have three books on the go at any one time. Enid Blyton, John Steinbeck and C.S. Lewis would sit comfortably together on my bedside table. Fiction was my first true love.

But undertaking a degree killed my love of fiction. All that critical analysis meant I couldn’t escape into fiction anymore. My mind couldn’t stop thinking about semiotics and binary opposition long enough for me to actually enter the story. I gave up. Besides, I had already fallen deeply and passionately in love with non-fiction. Enter journalism. Features. National Geographic. But still, strangely, no books.

But I am pleased to report I recently read three books. Novels. Autobiographies actually. I’d always thought they sounded heavy and boring. But actually they are perfect for me. Non-fiction and a novel. Who knew?

First came Unbearable Lightness by Portia De Rossi. Beautiful, mesmerising. My first just-can’t-put-it-down reading marathon in years. Inspired, I looked around. Enter Mia Freedman. One of my idols. She and Jana Wendt were two reasons I got into journalism. Mia Culpa was fun, playful. Loved it. I decided to read Freedman’s autobiographical second novel Mama Mia. Wow.

One 36-hour reading marathon later, punctuated by tears and laughter, and I’ve not only decided to read more novels – I’ve decided to write one. My love of books is back. Big time. Thank you Mia xxx

The ugly truth about writing

When I embarked on my writing career 15 years ago, I wrote because I felt inspired to tell other people’s stories. But I also thought journalism would be glamorous and fabulous. Oh, how wrong I was.

Writing is not glamorous.

The closest thing to glamour you will feel is the day after deadline – when you’ve slept, had a shower and changed your clothes. Prior to that you will be on a caffeine-fuelled, sleep-deprived, anxiety-loaded, mission to overcome your terror of writing something worthless and missing deadline.

If you don’t like staring at a computer screen for hours agonising over little things called words – I call it pedantic semantics – don’t become a writer.

Writing is not all about inspired brilliance.

You have to learn to write on demand – whether you’re inspired or not. Writer’s block can be debilitating until you learn this skill. Sometimes you just have nothing to say.

And mostly, even when you are inspired, writing is typing. Unfortunately I’m not a typist, so I’m slow – with typos. Constant typos are infuriating, not inspiring. That said, there are moments in the writing process when you will feel euphoric. Or is that just the caffeine high? Enjoy them.

Just because Carrie Bradshaw got $4.50 a word – doesn’t mean you will.

Once I got paid $2 a word. And I mean literally once. I also used to write 2000-word features for $125. That’s about six cents a word. If you freelance for more than 50 cents a word – be grateful. And smug. You’re doing well.

Your article in print will be flawed.

A story is never finished, it is merely abandoned. Funnily enough, at precisely the time of your deadline. So, when you read your story in print, it could be better. Even if you thought it was perfection, you will read it and see flaws. You might even hate it.

My advice – don’t read it. Look at your byline, let your ego have its moment, then turn the page immediately.

Happy writing!