It’s all in your head: the psychological game of fiction writing

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The reason there are so many fabulous moments on screen of writers struggling with their prose – more so than, say, dentists struggling to make crowns or fit orthodontics, is that – drum roll please – writers are the puppet masters pulling the narrative strings. In short we glamorize ourselves and our work as writers because – we can!

Fiction writing struggles have been part of my life this week, as I have been busy editing the novel for my Creative Writing doctorate. That’s involved shuffling scenes, “killing my darlings” and doing the hard, grunt work of streamlining.

A writer’s battle takes place in their head. We start with a blank page or screen, our imaginations, throw in some real life, some observations, a whole truck load of unresolved issues from our past, a few nightmares, maybe some glorious memories. As well as plot, character, narrative, dialogue and structure, writers come to the table with a head full of just about every book they’ve ever read or film they have seen or conversation they have had.

Whether we are writing creative non fiction, or fiction, writers are shameless about plundering life. I joke that if you cross me, you’ll end up a mutant in my novel. But seriously, we can’t but help be inspired by those in our lives, in our orbit, both the good and the bad.

That doesn’t mean we use people without having them undergo a filtering process first. Mary Shelley could have been writing about the way writers write when she described how Dr Frankenstein made his creature, from pieces of body parts both animal and human. Because, if we are honest, writers are utterly shameless about what they steal from life. And who they take from. It’s the horror of our ‘secret toil’.

Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay?

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818

Like Dr Frankenstein, I have taken someone’s looks, or height, or hair, or mannerisms, and stitched that to someone else’s nationality or accent or trait, and sewn in some other piece of life story, a little dialogue from somewhere else, and then maybe added sartorial style from a newspaper clipping. But I take from the living, mostly. Beware.

The character takes on its own life

The fascinating alchemy is that at some point – if you are good at your job – the creature takes on their own life, and refuses to be seen as a composite. They demand a name, an origin story, they want to be taken seriously, and loved. I once tried to squash a character back into the person I knew, but the creature rebelled! He pursued me relentlessly until I gave in, and realized I had made something that now had an independent life. Here is a great example of a film about a character coming to life –

Ruby Sparks: What happens when your character comes alive? And you can control everything they do? Okay – what writer hasn’t had this fantasy? Writer’s block, inspiration, and the obsessive compulsive nature of creativity, it’s all here in this brilliant movie directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, with a screenplay by Zoe Kazan, who also stars as Ruby.

The thin line between reality and fiction

Now, I love reading about writers in fiction as much as the next writer. I also adored Douglas Kennedy’s book The Moment because it swept me along a writer’s journey. I kept dog earring the pages and if I had a pencil handy would write in the margins and underline phrases, such as this: ‘writers – as somebody once noted – are always selling somebody out.’ (Douglas Kennedy, (p93) The Moment.) I also enjoyed watching the film of Kennedy’s book The Woman In The Fifth, which asked viewers to ponder the thin line (perhaps) between creativity and madness. If you create characters and stories that seem very real – especially to you – how do you know that they are simply fiction?

The Woman In the Fifth: (from a book by Douglas Kennedy). Tortured writer, crime, obsession, maybe madness – what price would you pay as a writer for inspiration?

Another film about the writer crossing the line between reality and fiction – perhaps an occupational hazard, is The Swimming Pool. François Ozon’s stylish thriller with Charlotte Rampling as a writer struggling with ‘the block’ who takes a rest cure at her publisher’s fabulous house in France…and imagines things happening, which may be real, or not, or a damn good avoidance tactic. Writers know only too well that when everyone else sees ‘real life’ they see it distorted through the prism of what might be. An open door, a bump in the night, a curtain pushed back…

Use your imagination

‘Writing what you know’ doesn’t mean writing about the reality you know – writers have their imaginations, and that’s one giant tool in their workbox. Write what you know is about learning to mine the emotional truths and apply them to your world and your characters. Wherever your characters are, they are still human – even if they may not be entirely human – and therefore they are subject to the timeless tropes (or themes) of storytelling.

I grew up going to see Woody Allen movies with my beloved uncle, so even if it’s not one of his best, I’ll love one of Allen’s movies. And Midnight in Paris is, I think, one of his best. Owen Wilson plays successful screenwriter Gil Pender, who wants to write something substantial. Inspiration strikes when he is transported to the past, Meets the Fitzgeralds, and he gets words of advice from the likes of Earnest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein herself. (Read this ‘cultural cheat sheet’ about the movie) Five stars for fulfilling every writer’s fantasy. And also telling it like it is. As Hemingway warns Gil “You don’t want the opinion of another writer – writers are too competitive.”

Understanding human nature is vital for writing powerful fiction, which is why so many great books are written by authors who are older. They have had years to perfect their craft – and writing is a craft just like learning how to play professional tennis is a craft. Older writers have also been around the block of life a few times, had their hearts broken, trust betrayed, tasted power and defeat, all the things that big or small build up the layers the writer can mine for a story.

Behind great dialogue is not just an ear for how people speak, but their intentions. I love the way people can hide behind seemingly innocent sentences in novels, and then the ways writers can make a character reveal themselves by their actions. Let’s look at the 1977 film Julia, where Jane Fonda portrays playwright Lillian Hellman. Apart from the iconic moment where the writer throws the typewriter out the window in frustration, this movie explores among many other things a writer doubting her talent, and Hellman’s 30 year affair and creative partnership with fellow writer Dashiell Hammett.

Hammett tells Hellman, “if you really can’t do it [writing] you’d better find a job.” But here is the thing – even if you love words, love nothing more than to make them dance – it’s a job. It’s a job as much as any other job. But it is, for a fiction writer, about creating a made-up world. How do you know you have done your job well? When a reader gets inside that world, and believes in it, and believes in those characters, the ones you have sewn together.

Shake it up. Leave to settle. Pour.

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