Every so often, you’ll see a film or a novel that purports to be based upon true events. Recent examples include the Don Shirley biography Green Book and the Freddie Mercury story in Bohemian Rhapsody. But how much can we trust the version of events portrayed?
Life writing often involves considering difficult questions about the subject matter. Is it ethical to repeat an anecdote told in private? Can details be left out of the story to improve clarity for the reader? When is it right to use people’s real names?
The answer to these questions will vary depending on the situation. In a historical piece where the people involved are all dead, the writer is unlikely to run into ethical problems.
But if the subject is still living and perhaps still active in their field, they might be entitled to take legal action. Here is an introduction to the laws regarding libel and slander.
One notable publication was Spycatcher by the former MI5 agent Peter Wright, in which he alleged the head of his organisation during his career was a Soviet spy. The book was ultimately cleared for publication a year later.
Regular readers will be aware that this blog covers all types of writing from short stories and poetry to screenplays and rap music. I believe there’s a lot we can learn from all these forms. Even watching Made in Chelsea is a great lesson in improv.
However, on moving into a new place last month, I took the decision not to own a TV. This was something I’d considered for a long time as I would either rarely watch it, or it would become a distraction when I could be doing something productive. Either way, it would more than counteract the benefits of having one.
The other factor swaying my decision is the matter of the TV licence. In the UK, you need to pay an annual fee if you have equipment that receives television broadcasts, if you watch live TV online, or if you use BBC iPlayer for any purpose. The money goes towards funding the BBC and there are heavy fines if you aren’t correctly licensed.
While it’s a difficult field to police, that’s enough of a disincentive for me not to have a telly. If there’s something I really want to see, I have other options. You can watch DVDs or most catch-up services without a licence, and you can also own a radio without charge. Even better, I’m fortunate enough to be within easy reach of two cinemas: one mainstream, the other independent.
With not having a TV, it’s an obvious question to ask what I have in its place. The answer:
Almost every writer who wants to be published will have to face rejection somewhere along the line. Perhaps it’s not what they’re looking for at that time; maybe they liked it, but other work was of a higher standard.
Last week, though, I was in the position when I had to turn down an offer. I have a friend – let’s call her Alice – who runs community engagement activities for a historic trust. This time, she was running an event for people aged 60 and over to share their memories for a children’s’ book. Unfortunately, one of the participants had fallen ill, but she had an unusual story of World War II that deserved to be told.
Alice furnished me with the important points. I considered the offer for six days, but I found it impossible to shape a poem or a story around the facts I was given.
The difficulty with biography is that when you don’t know the individual personally, it’s necessary to conduct a lot of research. There was a Middle Eastern leader some years ago who would carry out an hour of research for every minute he planned to spend with a visitor; inconveniently, my own research has not turned up this guy’s name.
I need to stress that this wasn’t Alice’s shortcoming, but from the information I was given, I felt I’d be unable to do justice to her story. So I made the decision to decline the offer, but not before referring Alice to a tutor friend who teaches life writing. I do hope the participant’s story can be told in a suitable manner.
Of course, if there’d been no requirement to tell a true story, I could easily have taken the available facts and fictionalised the rest. It would have been very different, but probably rather compelling.
A couple of years ago, I was invited to pen a poem inspired by the former jute mill Verdant Works. I wrote the piece in situ. I later edited it, gave it the title Congregation, and sent it to the mill’s current owners to use as they wished.
Many months afterwards, the poem was published online for National Poetry Day. My original line breaks had been removed, however, so the piece was laid out more like prose. The image is below; the partially obscured words in the bottom line are mill fever and service is over.
I decided I liked this format better than the original.
Fast forward to the present day, and the question of typographical layout has occupied me again. Generally, I steer clear of contests with an entry fee, but I make the occasional exception, this time for the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition.
There are three rounds. At the starting whistle, every entrant is assigned a genre, a character, and a situation. In my case: a comedy about an art teacher and a mid-life crisis. We’re then given eight days to construct a story around these elements, and the winner progresses to the next round.
I struggled to start a story with my elements as they failed to inspire me. So I began to write down some thoughts as poetry, but using paragraph breaks rather than line breaks. I’ve also limited the number of rhymes that appear.
The final piece treads a line between prose and poetry that I would like the judges to pick up on. The other notable feature is that it runs to only 131 words, although there’s no minimum specified in the rules, only the maximum of 2,500.
Moreover, I’m happy with the result, especially since I now have something out of virtually nothing. If it’s enough to make it into the second round, all the better.
The other day, I saw a petrol tanker. It had a sentence painted on the side that said, as far as I can recall:
We take the petrol to the pump so you don’t have to go to the refinery to collect it.
I thought this rather insulted the intelligence of the audience. That’s how you might explain it if a child asked. But if you’re old enough to buy petrol, you’re old enough to understand what a tanker does. A friend’s daughter used to work in the media and often encountered this kind of tone. She brands it infantilisation.
It’s timeworn advice not to think about your audience while you’re writing fiction, but I do think it’s important while editing. Let’s say your character plays a musical instrument. It’s probable your audience would know what a balalaika is, but would they be familiar with a theremin?
If you’re unsure how a passage will be received by an audience, give it to other people. If it’s not clear to the majority of them, can your meaning be shown through dialogue or action rather than plain description? For the balalaika, you might only need the action:
Becky strummed her balalaika every evening, adding a fresh twist to popular rock classics.
Whereas the theremin might need more explanation, done here through dialogue:
“What’s that aerial thingy?”
“This? It’s a theremin; it’s what I play.”
“How do you play that?”
“Put your hand near it and it makes a noise.”
Also ask yourself whether something actually needs to be explained. It’s a common habit of beginner writers to overexplain:
Jessica pushed down the door handle and pulled the door towards her. She stepped back as it opened and she saw Fiona in the room. Fiona was sitting in a chair and clasped in her hand a stack of £50 notes. When Jessica looked at her, she raised her eyebrows and opened her mouth wide, knowing she had been caught with the takings from the shop.
Whereas this could be made less flabby by allowing the reader to make the mental leap between actions:
Jessica entered the room. There was Fiona; £50 notes in her hand. The takings from the shop. “This is not what it looks like,” said Fiona.
Notice in the second passage that the focus is on the actions that drive the plot forward. Here, the facial expressions are of little relevance to the story; the reader wants to know what happened to the money. The question of relevance is key to pitching your text at the right level.
If anyone sees that oil truck, please pass on my comments to the company.
For a writer, receiving a rejection letter is one of the hardest things you’ll have to face. But probably the second hardest is realising that what you’re writing is going nowhere, or that it has no place within the context of a longer work.
Earlier this year, I began to edit a novel I wrote four years ago because the current storyline wasn’t working. This meant cutting out several sections I liked, such as the 10,000 words where the main character arranges to rent a minibus with six football fans when their plane is cancelled.
Once I decided on a new plot direction, I needed to fill in the gaps. But around 2000 words into what I thought was a great idea, I found I was bored while writing it. These will therefore be cut on my next edit. And I still don’t know the exact direction I’m going to take the book.
Nevertheless, always keep the parts you cut out; you never know when they might be handy in the future.
I was given a writing group challenge to come up with a story that included an A to Z structure, however loose that structure might be. My story was called The Eternal Student, and it centred around a young man from a family of accountants who had been sent to university to gain the formal qualifications. As he knows it all, he enrols in evening classes through boredom, each with a name one letter higher than the last. It would then have gone on to describe his disillusionment with university management and how he set up his own institution.
With 1500 words on the page, there was no more mileage left in the idea, so I put it to one side. A few months later, An Abundance of Apples was born, using the idea of an A to Z structure.
A year after The Eternal Student was penned, I rediscovered it in my files. Using a fresh cast and a different situation, I borrowed the element of disillusionment and wrote another story called Plans that ended with the main character setting up a new university. This then inspired another novel starring the same character and borrowing some elements from Plans.
And to date, I still haven’t been able to do anything else with my trainee accountant.
A few days after my handwritten entry last week, I was looking for something in my bottom drawer, when I discovered an old notepad. It’s nothing special; it’s a Tesco Value spiral-bound A4 pad with a slightly ripped cover.
I’ve used a quarter of its 80 pages, and most of it is taken up with attempts to expand on a fragment of poetry that I tried to expand into a song, although there is also a brief novel idea, pages of free writing, and a poem on the topic of my own handwriting.
Of these, I only consider the poem be a decent piece of work. As for the rest, I know what I was trying to express, but I didn’t have the techniques at my disposal to do it properly. But looking at the content, I’ve calculated that I last wrote in this notebook in September 2009, more than a year before I began writing. I’m therefore not surprised about the quality.
Yesterday, I discovered other half-completed notebooks, but none as full or detailed as this one. I’ve noticed I rarely reached the last page, although I’m more than likely to complete my current ones. Also, there are hardly any drawings or even doodles, just text.
But the one notebook I would like to look at again is missing, believed lost. At my very first National Novel Writing Month meeting, my laptop battery died. I had to rush out and buy a notepad and mechanical pencil so I could continue my story. I had it about a year before its disappearance, and it contains drafts of my first novel, and some of my earliest stories. I don’t think I’ve lost anything, but I might have.
I know I’m not the only writer with notepads dotted about, and I’d like to hear about yours. Do you have any hidden in a drawer somewhere? What did you discover when you pulled them out again? Have you misplaced an important story you wish you could recover?