But I thought that was normal

A fledgling writer has based some fiction on a real incident, or used a semi-autobiographical character, or their own or a friend’s reaction to or behaviour in a particular situation. They share it with their writing group, an online writers’ forum, or a critique-buddy and the response is a resounding no. No, I don’t buy that. No, people just don’t do or say that. No, I’ve never met a character like that in my life. So, do they say thanks for pointing out something that’s not working, or do they admit the truth behind the supposed fiction and let the group realise they’ve just invalidated this writer’s life?

Truth is stranger than fiction often enough, and the events of one outlandish night may well not wash as a story, but I’m not talking about that kind of unique event. I’m talking about the kind of thing that in the writer’s world is everyday or logical, some details they used to make a story more authentic. The kind of thing that, when the reaction is ‘normal people aren’t like that’, can hurt.

I’m not a fledgling writer any more but as I said in January on No Writer Left Behind it took me a while to stop writing middle-class characters speaking BBC English, when I wasn’t in SF mode. I’m still not sure of myself when I write fiction that’s closer to home, not based on people I’ve observed from afar. I still end up believing (sometimes) that everyone (else) in 21st century Britain has a car, a TV, a smartphone and a dishwasher, all women are on the pill, everyone goes on foreign holidays, and they all have a circle of friends they’re in constant touch with and see every week. So I find myself writing characters who fit those expectations, but then every so often I write something that for me seems more real, with a stronger connection to me or my family. The characters are usually some combination of hard up, lonely, anxious, socially inept and are not fitting in.

And I share the story and get responses like this:

  • Nobody does that.
  • Why would anyone think that?
  • I just don’t understand why he’d expect that to happen.
  • But surely he’d just… (this one often involves spending money or owning several of something, i.e. buy another or use the spare)
  • I’ve never met anyone who…
  • Who on earth is that sad/lonely/downtrodden/anxious? It’s over the top, it doesn’t ring true.
  • Why would she still be friends with that person? She’d just turn to her other friends instead.
  • I don’t see why that’s such a big deal.

They range from the trivial (I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, someone from the south-east asking who on earth has a washing line these days, to which I replied: everyone round here) to the deeply-felt and upsetting. A few years ago when The Nephew was a teenager he was seriously ill, and because I’m old-school British (emotionally stunted) I faced the prospect of him dying without my ever having made it clear how much he means to me. I’m not his only aunt, but he is my only nephew and since I have no children he’s basically it as far as my connection to the next generation goes, the only person to pass things on to, whether that’s knowledge or my record collection. Also, he’s a nice lad with good (that is to say, my) musical taste. Thankfully, he pulled through and of course other than buying him more books I haven’t taken any steps towards showing my fondness. However, I did write a story in which a childless poet has one niece (though he’s not her only uncle) who means the world to him and he realises he ought to tell her, if only by writing her a poem and sending it to her. Someone I knew from an online writing community read the story and emailed me with feedback: the poet seemed a bit sad and pathetic, why would he fixate on this niece who doesn’t see him as anything special, what’s so special about the niece? So not only did I think my story had fallen flat, I also felt judged. Perhaps I should add that I can think of plenty of instances in my extended family where the childless have a particular fondness for a niece or nephew (who they may well leave most or all of their belongings to) without necessarily seeing them often, so at home I don’t feel particularly unusual.

Recent questioning of details in a story undergoing critique made me think about all this again, as I stayed silent rather than defending behaviour I see replicated across friends and family, and the rest of the group clearly found odd. As long as a writer is writing their deeply personal story in isolation, it’s fine. Once they share it, it starts to matter who they share it with – if they’re working class and it’s being looked at by a middle class group, if they’re rural and being judged by the urban, or from an immigrant family and no-one who’s reading it is, then you get the possibility of this mismatch and disbelief. Class, upbringing, income or disability can all make a difference and if the writer feels judged or out of step, it’s easy to be discouraged or decide to write about the visible characters, the ones you think everyone’s expecting to read about.

I find it hard to imagine anyone pays four grand for a handbag, or twenty grand for a watch, but I see these items in lifestyle features in The Guardian so I assume the relevant people must exist somewhere. If you never see evidence for particular sets of people you’re not likely to find them plausible in fiction, so I can see (I think) how the ‘no’ happens, but we need to find a way to break the cycle and make the invisible visible, so that the next batch of fledgling writers can look around and say yes, I thought it wasn’t just me.

Fear as a guide to life

I let fear rule my life too often. Not just the self-preserving fear that stops me crossing the road when a bus is distantly visible down the street and may speed towards me at any time, but the fear that stops me writing. I sit frozen in front of the keyboard sometimes, not knowing where to start (or continue) a piece of writing. It’s as though the delete and backspace keys hadn’t been invented, and I get it into my head that not only will the next words I write be fixed forever, but I’ll have to show them to people. My hand hovers, I daren’t commit to a single letter: I know I’ll write something stupid or weak that will make everyone laugh. I’ve never stopped to ask myself why anyone would read it until I’m ready to pass it around, I just waste time and energy fretting over getting that perfect (or at least non-embarrassing) paragraph.

I have a fear of success too (don’t laugh, it might happen). I don’t mean a fear of being stalked by tabloid journalists because I’m a famous novelist (does that happen to writers, unless they’re known for something else already?), I mean what if some editor asks me to write a story, review, article or novel because they liked the last one I gave them. What if I then find I’ve run out of ideas (not likely, I’ve got enough in my notebook to last 2 lifetimes, it’s just a question of making something of them) or my standard’s slipped (surely OneMonkey will point this out and then pester me into writing better, he’s done it before) or I can’t complete it on time (though deadlines usually help me focus my efforts). So I’ve been procrastinating over Wasted Years, afraid that I might actually have to submit it (to an agent, like my brave friend D whose enjoyable novel for adolescents is about to go down that road?) if I finish redrafting, and I’ve been putting off contacting a magazine about book reviews in case they agree.

This week I’ve been reading On Writing by Stephen King (more of which later, I’m sure) and for no good reason (it’s not as if it’s the first place I’ve read it) I’ve decided to take on board the advice of sitting down and writing for myself, not worrying about what anyone else will think or how good it is, just getting some words on the page. Having been so tentative about the Big Finish Doctor Who story thus far (what if I write dialogue that’s more 5th doctor than 8th?) I more than doubled my wordcount in an hour tonight. Much of it will be cut, other bits will be kept but reworded, but that’s OK because no-one but me has seen what it said in the first place (and because there’s no manuscript, they never will).