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I have finished reading from my book Seven Hotel Stories when a guy in the audience raises his hand.
‘How much of these stories is made up, and how much is real?’ he asks. ‘And in general, how do you use your real life to create fiction?’
This struck me as a great question. How much of fiction is the writer’s experience, and how much is made up? Suppose you work as a lawyer, or in an insurance office, and are not an astronaut, a detective, or an assassin? Can you still write about something thrilling?
Marilyn Monroe trained hard to become an actress
Here are five ways you can turn your experience into compelling fiction:
(i) anyone can write great stuff: don’t worry about who you are, or what you do. All you need is a paper and a pen, or a screen and a keyboard. The trick is to get started (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site);
(ii) do use what you know to help write your story: whatever you can do and however you live, you can draw on your life experience to create rich, multi-layered fiction. John Grisham started out repairing roads, then became a lawyer – he used his legal knowledge to write The Firm. Tom Clancy worked in insurance: his hero Jack Ryan is, like Clancy, of Irish Catholic stock; (more…)
I recently wrote on how to write a novel: plan in advance or not? (Links in bold italics are to other posts on this site.) I quoted Stephen King, and Stephen Donaldson, whose main tip on how to write a novel was “start today”.
Maybe you would like to write a novel, or a story. But you haven’t started yet. You often say, or think “I’d like to write a story”. But you never quite find the time.
People. Start today.
Starting to write a novel can be difficult
Of course we all feel obstacles to writing. We are busy. We worry that what we write may not be good enough. We don’t have the right computer, or the right software. We are waiting until we have finished another project, until a child is older, until we change job, until the stars are aligned. Starting to write is hard.
Here are five ways to get in the habit of writing. (more…)
What is the best way to write a novel? Let’s explore two common methods. I’ve tried both. Each can work well: which is best for you will depend on how you write and what you are writing.
Before we look at that, let me cite the US fantasy author Stephen R Donaldson, who was once asked by an admirer how to achieve success in writing. “Start today,” Donaldson said.
Donaldson’s advice is great. If you want to start writing fiction, don’t wait until the conditions are perfect and all the stars are aligned (“I’m waiting until the kids grow up”; “I have to get some new writing software”; “I’m too busy right now”). Set aside some time tonight, this afternoon or even this morning; get out a pen and paper; and start writing.
How do you begin?
How to begin? There are different ways of writing a novel
The first method is taught in writing courses and top universities across the world. You should plan your story around a standard structure. This structure is set out in a thousand primers – try googling “narrative structure” or “three act structure”.
This plan goes back to the ancient Greeks. That’s no bad thing: it has stood the test of time. In brief:
- the first part (or “act”) of your story introduces your main characters and describes their situation, usually including a problem or conflict;
- the second part involves an “inciting act” (eg: a letter in the post; discovery of a body; a glance across a crowded room) leading to, or highlighting, a conflict or problem. This then escalates, perhaps via a series of mini-crises, to become a crisis;
- the third part sees the main character or characters developing and changing (“digging deeper than ever before”) to a climax where they overcome the crisis, often preceded by a section where it seems that “all is lost”. This leads on to the end of the story, with the main character in a new equilibrium.
I crave good thrillers. But they are vanishingly rare.
So when I find a book with a compelling plot, rich characters, horrifying jeopardy and seat-edge cliff-hangers, I fall on it like a starving man on a feast.
I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes is such a thriller – an epic, breathtaking romp from New York to Afghanistan to Bahrain to Gaza to Bodrum to Bulgaria and back. I really enjoyed it.
Here (no spoilers) are some reasons it works well:
- characterisation: the outstanding feature of the novel. Both the bad guy (“The Saracen”) and the protagonist, the US-trained superspy codenamed “Pilgrim” (both Saracen and Pilgrim can also mean “Nomad”), are richly drawn, with enough back story to fill several novels. This can be irritating: the book is so long that some threads of detail disappear (Pilgrim’s drug habit) or reappear without having been described in the first place (the Saracen’s dead wife). But on the whole the characters, including a host of minor players, gleam like diamonds. This makes you care about them;
- action: the action scenes are thrilling. A firefight in an Afghan village, the ghastly deaths of three hostages, the theft of some medical supplies from a heavily-guarded facility – all will have you on the edge of your seat;
- evil: the consequences with which the world – and specifically the US – will threatened if Pilgrim does not succeed in his mission are both credible and horrific. The potential horror is illustrated early on in the book in microcosm, leaving you praying it will not come about on a bigger scale;
- good: Pilgrim has an unerring moral compass which draws sympathy – a bit like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher (links in bold italics are to other posts on this blog). Other characters also have clear moral values. Even “The Saracen” plans his act of evil for reasons which he believes are pure and noble;
- richness: Hayes reaches deep into characters to create insights which enrich and illuminate the book. For example, he creates a Jewish character who has survived the Holocaust and hangs around the Bebelplatz – a memorial to the 1933 book-burning by Nazis in Berlin – to highlight a point: when millions of people, a whole political system, countless numbers of citizens who believed in God, said they were going to kill you – just listen to them. Later, Pilgrim inspires a cynical musician who has lost his mojo to resume his musical career – just in passing. The book is full of warm, fascinating detail;
- I am Pilgrim contains some fine epigrams. I liked Evidence is the name we give to what we have, but what about the things we haven’t found? and If you want to be free, all you have to do is let go;
- The structure of the book is outstanding. Hints from opening chapters flower into relevance hundreds of pages later. For example Pilgrim’s early hatred of the practice of torture by “waterboarding” sets the scene for it to be used later. The early love of an anonymous Geneva banker for his family becomes a key to the resolution;
- The book is rich in cliff-hangers, especially from the mid-way on. You really, really want to know what will happen next.
Another fast-moving thriller – described by Edmund de Waal as “utterly gripping” (more…)