by Annette Lyon
There's a reason Tom Clancy said, "The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense."
No kidding. I've heard many, many beginning writers go off on a tangent, demanding, "But that's how it really happened!"
So? That doesn't mean you should write it that way in your fiction. It's very easy to try "writing what you know" in the sense of recreating your own experiences in the pages of a novel. I think all beginning writers are guilty of that to some extent. And yes, it can work.
But here's where the problems creep in:
1) It becomes unbelievable.
This is the most common problem. A beginning writer recently complained that he entered his real war story into a contest, only to be told by the female judge that it was too unbelievable. He dismissed her comments because SHE WAS A WOMAN, so naturally wouldn't "get" a war story.
Hmmm. Maybe he should take a look at how he WROTE the story. I haven't read the piece, and I don't know the judge, so I'm just guessing here, but since I've judged enough of these things, I'm thinking I'm not too far off the mark: He probably didn't show what was going on, explain the situations, put the reader into the moment, make the motivations clear.
Your audience should be able to figure out, believe, and be immersed in your story regardless of gender. If he/she just can't buy it, the problem doesn't rest with the reader. It rests with YOU, the author. It's YOUR job to make the piece believable.
2) You're writing it like a journal entry.
In journals, we usually recount events. We don't recreate the scenes complete with dialogue and descriptions. If you've fallen into this trap, you're TELLING, not SHOWING, and the piece has turned into a boring sequence of events. (This happened and then this happened . . .)
Fiction must be propelled by motivation and conflict. Life isn't always like that. It USUALLY isn't like that. Stuff just happens. But in your story, events must be causally linked, and you must have conflict as the driving force.
If you're adapting a real story to fiction, you've got to be willing to hack it to pieces enough (taking out the boring parts, combining new elements) so that it becomes compelling to a reader and isn't just a bunch of journaled events.
Which leads to:
3) You won't adapt for the sake of the piece.
Sometimes a real-life story is a great springboard for fiction. But since we've established that you are writing FICTION, guess what? You can make it up. You don't have to stick with what really happened, even if you are basing the story on your first boyfriend who was such a jerk. Move things around. Change a plot point. Add a new conflict or subplot over there. Throw in a new minor character here. Clinging to "what really happened" when you're writing fiction is pointless and will result in a flat piece.
We all write from personal experience to some extent; it's inevitable. Just don't get so hung up on keeping what's "real" at the expense of what could be very good if you just shook it up a bit.