Monday, November 19, 2012

How to Write About Your Real Life

by Stephanie Morrill

Last week, I received news that threw me into a frenzy of rewrites on a contemporary YA manuscript of mine. That means on Saturday, I made this:



The white cards are the current scenes. The Post-it notes are changes or additions to accommodate a new, stronger climax. And that row on the bottom is all spaced out because I know I'll need additions there, I just don't know what all it'll be.

It's been a year since I've spent much time with this project, so I have lots of tweaks and such that I'm making, but I've also noticed a few scenes that are falling flatter than I would like. And do you know what they have in common?

They all happened to me.

They're the scenes I borrowed from my real life, including the first scene of the book.

One of my most embarrassing moments in middle school happened to me in math class. It was right before class started, and I was chatting with my best friend about her dog, Buttons. So Jodi and I were having a very normal conversation when out of nowhere, the guy sitting next to me calls out, "What, Stephanie? You're in love with Palmer Freeman?!"

Totally and completely out of nowhere, and he clearly intended everybody to hear it. Including Palmer, who was standing in the doorway of the class. I remember looking at Brian and saying, "We're talking about Jodi's dog, Brian," as if there really was a chance that he'd misheard us, and he would now readdress the class and clear up this misunderstanding. Palmer was incredibly popular, and I definitely wasn't, which made it a 7th grade social nightmare.

I don't remember if Brian ever answered me, because Palmer (whose assigned seat was in the desk behind me) swaggered across the classroom with a loud, "Hello, sweetheart." I kept sinking lower in my seat. I was so mortified, I couldn't even speak, plus I was afraid I might cry from all the attention. I kept thinking my best friend was going to back up my story and say to Brian or Palmer that we had been talking about her dog, not Palmer, but instead she was watching Palmer and laughing along with everybody else.

When I originally started writing this book, which involves a nobody girl secretly dating the school's golden boy, I knew I wanted to open with something similar happening to my main character, Ellie. After all, I had lived it, and it was humiliating. Especially when you really DID have (what you thought was) a secret crush on the guy.

I wrote the scene exactly as it had happened to me. I kept the name Palmer, because it's such a cool name, and I left Brian as Brian, because it was the only scene he had in the whole story, so who cared if his name was cool or not?

I wrote the book - drama, drama, drama, secret relationship, more drama, secret revealed, Ellie and Palmer end up together. The End.

I loved the book, and I began to edit it.

When I started in on edits for that first scene, you know what hit me right away? Why did Brian do that? 

I had written the scene exactly as it happened to me, and in my real life, I had no idea why Brian did what he did. It's not like it was a crazy thing to have a crush on Palmer (almost all us girls did), and Brian and I hadn't spoken to each other in a year. And I don't remember ever talking to him again after that moment.

But Ellie could. So I wrote a scene where Ellie confronted Brian about why he had done what he'd done. And I liked it. It had great tension. But Brian wouldn't tell Ellie why he'd done it, so I had to write another scene. By that point, it was occurring to me that Brian might have some kind of crush on Ellie. And that maybe he could threaten the Ellie and Palmer relationship. Though not with a name like Brian. If you're reading a book and one of the guys has a cool, unique name, and the other has a common name, it's rarely a mystery who's going to get the girl. (Plus I had used Brian as the father in the Skylar Hoyt series.)

I renamed him Chase, and from that moment on, he completely took over the story. It was actually a little scary, and I remember emailing Roseanna and saying, "He wasn't even supposed to be in the book, and now I think he might be a better fit for Ellie! Now I can't figure out why she's dating Palmer!"

I wound up doing two more sets of revisions after that, and then I had to put the manuscript aside for awhile. Yet when I pulled it back out last week, I still wasn't satisfied with the first scene. Chase's reactions fell flat. And so did the best friend's. And so did Palmer's. The only character who seemed well thought out in that scene was Ellie.

Because I had taken it straight from my middle school nightmares, I hadn't given a single thought to why the other characters did what they did. Why did Chase pick that moment to humiliate Ellie? And why was Lucy laughing instead of defending her best friend? And why did Palmer inflame Chase's joke instead of all the other reactions he could have had?

And this is why writing from our real life can be a trap to our creativity. If this event hadn't actually happened to me, those are things I would have thought through as I wrote it.

If you've taken something from your real life and written it into your book, ask yourself, "How would the same scene feel if I wrote it from the perspective of another character?" Before I redid the scene this last time, I took time to think through what was going on in Lucy's head while everything unfolded. And then in Chase's. And then in Palmer's. The result was much richer.

Do you ever borrow things from your real life and plug them in your story? Characters? Scenes? Jokes?





49 comments:

  1. he he I do that all the time. I have very unusual experiences soooo it's easy to put them in. Sometimes I find it more difficult to add in those "you had to be there moments" because they tend to be NOT as funny as they were in real life : )Humor is what I usually add though.

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    1. I agree - that's tough, Alyson. I've tried to put in You Had to Be There moments, and it always takes a few drafts.

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  2. I will occasionally borrow witticisms or epiphanies, or the cute things my kids do. =) Although when I recently borrowed my little guy's putting a French fry to his upper lip and calling it a mustache, I had to change it to an apple slice to be historically accurate. ;-)

    And just for the record, that scene might have felt flat to you, but it didn't to me, who DIDN'T have it happen to me. Not to say that you didn't make it even better, but just sayin'... ;-)

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    1. Aww, thank you :) You'll have to tell me if I added too much.

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  3. I've never even thought about the problems presented when adding real life to your book -- I don't think I've ever done it for a big scene, but I always assumed it would be easier, you know, since you've been there.

    Really cool post, Stephanie. (and also, very neat story. :P)

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    1. Lol, thanks Olivia. Hopefully he didn't grow up to be the type of guy who Googles himself...

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  4. Do I?! I do that ALL THE TIME. I haven't ever put a whole scene in there, though. Usually just problems, emotions, and sometimes goals :) One of my friends wrote a blog post about using your life in your writing. Part of it goes like this:

    "I've noticed that more often than not, my characters have problems that stem from my own. I just want to say: Don't be scared of it. Putting my own life in my writing destroys me. Someone will see. Someone will know. Someone will look right through the words and point an evil finger at me. We have no reason to be scared. How many times do we pick up a book, watch a character, and say,'Hey, I bet something like this happened to the author.' How ridiculous is that? Use your past, your pain, your problems. Exaggerate them. After all, characters tend to have it harder than most people in known reality. Don't be afraid to intensify it. Okay, so you were in this situation that your character's in? I don't remember you going mental and running away. You've lost someone you loved dearly? Put all those emotions in your writing. If you're feeling pain, the reader will too. If you're feeling love, so will the reader. If you're on top of the world. . .well, you can see where this is going. Don't be afraid. There's always going to be someone who will hate your writing. That's unavoidable. But there will be people out there who are ready to cry with you, smile with you, and rejoice with you. Don't be afraid to put yourself in your work."

    She said it perfectly. :) By the way, that was Kelsey Gulick...very awesome writer. :D

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    1. Kelsey IS a very awesome writer :) And I agree with her. We need to bleed on the page.

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  5. Wow. Excellent post, Stephanie. I had honestly never thought about the difficulty with writing true-to-your-life scenes, but it makes so much sense!

    And one of these days, I'm going to set up a corkboard like that one. It's been on my to-do list for a long time and I just can't seem to get around to it! :)

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  6. Well, once I was phonebanking (calling people and asking about politics) with my sisters. My sister called somebody but forgot to mention her name, (good phonebanking manners), so when the person asked she said, "Oh, I'm just a person named Talia." So I snuck that line into my WIP.

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    1. Lol, that's great. I bet she'll have fun spotting herself :)

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  7. I dont usually do it on purpose, but when my sisters read my stuff they always point out the things I stick in the story that are me, or other people I know. Great post.

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    1. How fun that your sisters read your stuff, MaddieJ :)

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  8. Oh gosh, Stephanie, YES!! I do and i always wish my situations were more intersting, lol. now i have some questions to ask. Actually, I've struggled with my current WIP (I struggle with every WIP) anyways I was writing this one plot I thought was interesting and relatable and then.....the exact thing happened to me!!!! really, i started writing it before it happened pretty much. But it wasn't I something I saw coming and it took me so much by surprise that I had to cut it out of my story so I can cope with the real life situation. It's my 100-4-100, two weeks ago i didn't want to continue with the story because of what happened to me. I seriously considered asking you if I could switch stories. Instead I switched up some plot lines and am continuing the same story to get through 100-4-100

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    1. Hmm. That's interesting, Tonya. I've had stories like that where I'm still too close to the real life situation. I WANT to write about it, but I don't have perspective yet. With those, I usually just write the story for me and my benefit, but it's not something I plan on publishing.

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    2. it was all so weird! and then I'm like its a plot point of my life, lol! While I think the idea I've been having are good ideas I am starting to feel that I'm to in the midst of it and they need to be set a side for a while. I don't like bringing my emotions in writing.

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  9. In first drafts, I like to put in all kinds of references to my favorite books, movies, TV shows and foods... But I doubt those references would make it to a final draft.

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    1. Lol, Allison. I often want to reference shows, but it's tricky. It really has to be a classic show or something.

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  10. Great post!!!
    Yes, I do it all the time, though sometimes I don't even realize till re-reading my work that a situation resembles something from my life. Yet again, on other occasions the exact same thing is my intention. However, situations aren't the only stuff I use, but if you ever read about dreams in my works (which is quite likely, since they play a quite important part), you can be sure that they are my dreams.
    Though I usually don't have any problems with imagining why a character taken from my life did what he or she did, I quickly make up something. ;))
    Alina

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    1. How interesting that you don't notice it until you re-read your manuscript! A subconscious method of problem solving, I guess? I think it was the book Chime where the main character "writes herself" to solutions.

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    2. Yes, I had that theory, too, as my stories usually have this strange mixture of dreams, paranormal and the subconcious next to the mystery and the romance, so it's quite 'obligatory' to think about such things again and again.

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  11. Okay so this is such an awesome post! I am always writing things that happened to me in my stories.
    I am currently writing a historical piece so I can't have too many of those in my writing but jump at the chance when my character and I CAN have a similar thing happen to us. Such as when horse back riding. Or sledding. Or swimming. It is so fun!

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    1. Leorah, I'm so glad you liked it! I hope your historical piece goes well. I love historicals :)

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  12. Thanks so much for this post! I just got a new story idea a few days ago and I've realized that the main character is basically a ... more irritable version of me. The plot is based on what would happen to me if I had a very different family and decided to make a very dumb decision.

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    1. Ooh, new story ideas are so fun! That explains the research questions you've been posting in the Facebook group :)

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  13. Honestly I started a novel and realized halfway through it was basically my life story... But in a better package... The story has some good qualities, but I had to set it aside so get some space between fiction and reality... This is a constant challenge for me, anybody have ideas of how to capture events and such from life and twist them effectively into fiction?

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    1. I used to do that a lot too, basically rewrite my life story. Me, Just Different was the first book of mine where I made a conscious decision to make the character completely different from m. (And it's the first book I sold, so...)

      To answer your question, I think it's a matter of brainstorming and not getting hung up on what REALLY happened, but letting it be a springboard for a bigger idea. So looking at the situation and asking things like:

      What could make this worse?
      What if the character was from the opposite kind of family?
      What if the character was a boy instead of a girl? (Or reversed)

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  14. I do let life slip into my work probably way too often, but it does give it a feeling of reality. For example, in my freshman year I didn't know who our school dean was and he caught me wandering in his office, lost (only he thought I was snooping, but I was totally lost) and I crashed into him, screamed out of fright, and took of running. I'm pretty sure he still thinks I am a complete doofus. But, I actually found a perfect part to add a very similar scene in my book and I laugh every time I read it!

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  15. In the story I'm currently revising, I used some real-life best friend drama from my high school days (high school drama = painful at the time, but later a source of endless YA material, right?) as the backbone for part of the story. But I changed around a lot of details, basically just keeping the whole friend-replaced-me theme, so it's not even recognizable...Unless you're my mom. I let her read the story once I finished the first draft, and she said, "I noticed how you stuck the [friend name] saga in there."
    But overall, I just take small pieces of quotes, ideas, or events, then build around them. I have to be careful, though, because I tend to be too loyal to what actually happened and not want to change it.

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    1. Anna, that's totally true! Isn't it nice to have a place to really USE that pain? I've done some serious borrowing of yucky friend situations too...

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    2. Yes! Definitely nice to be able to channel it into writing. It makes me wonder what people who don't write do with all of that stuff ;)

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  16. If my friends say something funny, I might borrow their words, change them slightly to fit the situation, and add them into my WIP. I get some very real dialogue this way. But I try to keep my life out of the story. It's good to have something totally separate from reality to work on when high school gets me down!

    ~Caite

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    1. That's a great point, Caite. That escape is wonderful :)

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  17. I put in little snippets now and then. But my book is fantasy. I don't go around shooting bows and clashing swords. My characters, on the other hand, pick up quips and quirks from people I know (though I do it very rarely, otherwise it's embarrassing). Things like from my brother who can't grow a beard. Or my little sister who hates certain foods. Otherwise, my story is devoid of personal experiences.

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    1. That's great, Cait! I bet it gives your fantasy a very, "This could be real" feel to it.

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  18. I used to "borrow" all the time - more so than come up with original stuff, sometimes - characters (or at least names), events, settings, basic plots, pets, everything. And the result a few years down the road is that I have strictly forbidden myself to borrow anything but memories of physical places, because everything else goes... badly.

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    1. That's interesting, Emily. I've sometimes named a character after a real life person, only to end up using that character in some manipulative, horrible way later on. Then I have to rename them. So I've just stopped doing that :)

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  19. Wow! Awesome post Stephanie!

    I honestly had never really thought about writing a book based off of my real life. But I realize that's a pretty cool idea.
    I guess you never really know why people do what they do but that's why its awesome to write because YOU get to control what they do :P

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    1. Fire, well said :) I rather enjoy that control too...

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  20. I've tried to. But honestly, when I borrow things from real life, it seems less-than-interesting or original in a story. It makes it dull, I think. And besides, I think pure creativity is a lot better :)

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    1. And oddly, I think it's almost easier done like that :)

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    2. Exactly! When I come up with things that have never happened, it makes a story more exciting and more fun to write :) I'm doing NaNo and you have to be able to come up with a lot of new ideas to succeed. Very fun though.

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  21. I wrote 33 pages after my ex and I broke up--best form of therapy by the way. What would I have done different in real life?

    Where should I start?

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  22. STEPHANIE! So timely! I think this shall go on my top five fave GTW posts ever. Yes, yes, it shall.

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  23. I've taken stuff like lines that some of my friends have said...or things that have sort of happened to me, but wrote them out differently to make it fit with the story...I think I might do it more often! But yeah...might have to make sure it works out with the story :D

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  24. This is perfect timing. My current working in progress is an autobiography of sorts and I've felt it kind of flat in places. I'm eager to see what will happen when I go back and play with it now. :)

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