Tuesday 14 January 2014

Five Things You Should Never Write About - The Creative Process

Five Things You Should Never Write About

I did a piece recently about five things you should always include in your work (found here) and while this is a similar piece, it's more about situations you shouldn't include from your real life in your work. Of course, everyone is different and these are not hard and fast rules for anyone. Even if you consider them as rules, bear in mind that some rules are made to be broken. I know that I've been guilty of that myself on occasion! The good part about being a writer is even when you know all the rules, you also learn about when to bend them slightly, or even break them outright.

So, without any further ado, here are my top five things that I think you should never write about!

Now, I'm not talking about cameos here or even just using their names for characters. Sure, you are welcome to do that, but I would say that it's best to always ask permission from the person first. You don't want to be confronted with an angry friend who just found out that you made them a psychopath who killed sixty people. This rule is about not just using their name, but their personality, their physical description and events from their life. It's just not cool to put all that information out there without asking for their permission, and even then I would say it's a grey area.
You might also want to steer clear of self-inserts too. Part of writing fiction is making things up for a living. So, using a real person as your character seems like you're cutting corners and just inserting them into your work without doing the work yourself. As always, there are exceptions to this rule, but for me, writing about a real friend and their life is a big faux pas.

This goes with number five in a way. Just as it's bad form to use a friend for a character, it also applies to embarrassing true life details. I don't mean a situation that you were in, as I said in the companion piece to this one, there is a balance between including an awkward situation that you experienced and giving away too much information that isn't needed in your work. If you want to include the time you slipped in flip flops and broke your leg in three places while outside naked, then go right ahead (and no that didn't happen to me!) I just mean that while it's okay to go so far with what you share of yourself in your work, you have to be careful not to go over the top.  Have I broken or bent this rule myself? A little, but part of going through a writing journey is learning how far the rule can be bent before it becomes an annoyance to the reader. I am also aware that my editor has told me to cut a few of those so sometimes you can go past that point and not realise it until someone else reads your work. That's the benefit of having an awesome editor!

Now, I know that you all know that this is not something you should do...EVER! I'm not talking about the most obvious forms of plagiarism where you basically copy word for word, I'm talking about including information from other books that isn't relevant. You might want your character to talk about the latest book from Sue Grafton or Harlan Coben, but there is no need to discuss the plot in detail and include information that belongs to another writer. If you think about how hard you work in creating from nothing, you can imagine how much it would anger you to find your work mentioned, discussed and the ending given away as someone in another writer's work causally discusses it, especially when it doesn't seem relevant to the plot. There is also another part of this and that is tearing apart another writer's work and using your characters to do it. That's just a big NO. If you don't like what they've written, at least have the decency to leave a review on their work or keep it to yourself. There is no need to include all the bad points about it in your own work because it just makes you look like a bad person. I have mentioned other books in my own works, but never more than a few mentions and I try to make sure they are always relevant. And, going back to the great editor, sometimes they don't make it into the final draft.

This point is higher up than turning your friends into Real Person Fiction because we all have things in our families that we would rather other people not know about. While you personally may feel that it's okay if you tell everyone about the time your little brother dressed in your mum's underwear and strolled round the garden, he might find it offensive and unnecessary. There's also the little things like the fact that your aunt is in prison more often than he's out. There's no need to tell everyone your family's dirty secrets. All it's going to do is cause upset and more family drama. I know that not everyone will feel the same way and that some families don't actually have any dirty secrets, but it's still not cool to include things that just aren't relvant. Especially if it's your way of getting back at someone for what they said/done to you. It goes along with point three in that it does not reflect well on you as a writer. Of course, there are some things that can be written down and presented in such a way that no one would know, but I would still say it's not something you should write about.

And finally #1 - REAL LIFE CAN BE TOO REAL
I know that a lot of people read to escape, or to dream about how if they lived in that particular universe life would be different. However, I also know that if we only wrote about the good parts of life, writing would be very difficult and it would mean that those who don't experience a perfect life feel like they're not being represented in fiction. As I mentioned in my last piece, people want to be able to relate to your characters, so not including things like death, disease, mental health problems, war and child abuse etc means that there will be a huge number of readers who will find it hard to actually relate to the people you've written about. However, once again there is a balancing act between what to include and what not. You can get to the point where things are too "real". That said, I am in no way advocating that you don't write about real life, as I've said in the past, life inspires us and what one reader would see as too real, another would see as a piece of work they could relate to, so it's a juggling act once again.

As I've written this piece, I have found myself seeing exceptions to some of these points. The last one especially. For people who have seen a lot of the bad of the world, reading about it can be too much or it can help them start to heal from their trauma. Seeing other characters who have gone through what they have can help them to see that life does get better. I know that for others though, it can seem like reading about it will only make it worse so I guess it's all about the individual reader and how they feel. Take each of these points with a grain of salt, I'm only talking about my own experience here and obviously, I can not speak for every writer or reader.

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