Today I want to talk about the different approaches I took between writing a book based on personal experiences and a book that was completely fictitious.
The other day, I mentioned how in 2010, I began writing a YA book based on my own personal experience. It was about a summer romance I experienced when I was eighteen, with a gnarly love triangle (more like love quadrangle). When I wrote the book, I tried to keep the details as precise and truthful as I could. I think my motivation in doing so was to adequately capture what I thought to be an incredible story.
I don’t know why I didn’t think to classify it as a memoir. I looked up journal entries and dates and based my characters exactly on the real people involved. It was important to me to portray them correctly, though this point was moot, seeing as I could only portray them from my biased perspective. In the end, I did add a few embellishments to improve the story, but it was mostly accurate to past events.
Of course, nothing became of the novel, which came out to about 51,000 words and for which I sent a few queries. It was a turning point for me, though, because it was the first time I attempted to write a novel-length story and I actually completed it. The process made me think about the elements it takes to create a story (e.g. plot, themes, characters). And I think the most important thing was that the actual process of writing the story was very cathartic for me. It was therapeutic to vent all the emotions I still dealt with in the aftermath of that summer.
I used to say that fiction was never my thing because I felt like I had experienced so many incredible things personally, that I would rather write about them than craft something from my imagination. I spent a good deal of time writing non-fiction for a magazine and I enjoyed journaling my own experiences in essays. But I always maintained that if I came up with a good idea for a novel, I would pursue it. And that’s what happened in January 2013.
I took a few elements from my memoir/novel (love triangle, setting in Hawaii) and went in a totally different direction. Instead of trying to adequately portray a situation that already happened with characters I knew well, I had to come up with totally fresh, new characters out of my imagination. I have this notebook that includes my harried notes and brainstorming sessions to nail down the pertinent facts about my novel: who, what, where, when, why. Once I figured out the basics, the rest of the story outline kind of filled itself in.
I remember hearing authors describe their characters taking on autonomous opinions and actions from within the author’s imagination. I was always a little skeptical about that. After all, the author created them, gave them life. Everything that comes from that character obviously comes from the author’s mind.
And while I, subconsciously, understand that this is true, I’ve also experienced it firsthand. I daydream…a lot–when I’m in the shower, before I fall asleep at night, when I’m listening to an audio book. Sometimes when I’m driving around and I reach my destination, I wonder how I ended up there and can barely recall the drive because I was so immersed in a daydream. (Oh great, that makes me an awesome driver.) But while I’m daydreaming, I’m really thinking about my characters and their actions and reactions. What would he say in this situation? How would she react? How does that impact their relationship? What’s the chain reaction?
And it’s true: my characters sometimes make choices that surprise me. It’s my job, as the author, to facilitate those choices and create opportunities for the actions my characters have intimated they might make. And, of course, things change along the way. I get ideas that spark more ideas. In fact, during my first revision, my dad made a suggestion that turned into the creation of an entirely new character. It was like POOF! Suddenly, this new character existed, with unique motivations and traits.
Character development is important for crafting three-dimensional characters. That’s why we always hear about a character’s arc. They have to move and change in response to the plot. Otherwise, they are just names on a page. I’m especially excited for the impact my first book’s events will have on the sequel I am currently outlining. The repercussions of the climax in Book One totally mess with my protagonists, sending them spiraling into different situations and problems. How they cope with the changes is what makes them human.
Next time, I’m going to talk about my feelings about these characters, and how those feelings differ between the real life people I depicted in my memoir/novel and the fictitious characters in “Book One.”
PS: I really need to come up with a title other than “Book One.” How lame is that?