Tag Archives: fiction

Truth in fiction

There’s been plenty of talk lately about truth in fiction. Most recently in an article by Alexis Nowicki, in which she describes the experience of having very specific details and events from her life woven into a short story that went viral – ‘Cat Person’, by Kristen Roupenian. Roupenian has since apologised, and admits she could at least have changed the identifying details.

When I read books as a kid, and even as a young adult, I naively believed that all fiction was purely imagined, dreamed up by the writer. I was amazed at how authors could make something invented seem so true.

I was probably in my late thirties (and still a reader only) before I began to realise that writers often stole snippets or great swathes or even almost entire narratives from their own lives, or from lives around them. I discovered that one of my favourite novels around that time, The Spare Room, was actually written from a real-life experience, in which Helen Garner helped nurse a terminally ill friend until the friend passed away.

I can understand the attraction of using actual people or events in fiction. It’s a way of grounding the piece in reality, and can function as a jumping-off point. My first story written as an adult was in a workshop run by the fabulous Edwina Shaw. She urged us all to think of something important that had once happened (to us or someone close to us) then write that story. Next, she suggested, add something that didn’t ever happen.

Even then, though, I must have naturally steered away from my using my own life in fiction. Instead I wrote the story of a suicide attempt in my family’s history. I didn’t know many of the details, so even in writing this ‘real’ event, there was a great deal of fiction. I embellished on the event, as Edwina instructed. This approach definitely helped spark creativity, as well as helping me understand how horrific it must have been for everyone involved.

Now, as my short story collection nears being sent to print, I’ve been thinking about the elements of truth in my fiction – wondering what I’ve revealed of myself, or others.

There are very few straightforward truths in the narratives. I’ve never been thrown from a snowmobile. I’ve never been a teenage boy obsessed with playing guitar. I’ve never cheated on my husband. But there are realities in the smaller details, and in emotions. I have heard the sound of a goods train at night, for the past twenty-one years. Like the young girl, Lana, in Christmas Party, I was often taken to teachers’ parties as a kid in Canada, where even at the age of seven or eight, I was aware of the undercurrents of heavy flirting between adults. And like Nadine in Boxing Day, I was once in a relationship that came to feel increasingly wrong.

Despite my protestations of ‘it’s practically all fiction’, I’m sure there’s more of myself on the page than I think. Some of my attitudes or emotions or political views will have crept into stories, inevitably. It’s occurred to me that my female characters are probably better-behaved, overall, than the male characters, showing my female bias. And I’m definitely obsessed with parent-child relationships.

But I can honestly say that none of my characters are people I know. They are all completely themselves, doing good, bad and commonplace things. Their views are frequently different to mine. Their actions do not belong to me, or to anyone in my life. Part of what delights me most about writing fiction is how the characters build themselves, come to life, say and do things as if of their own accord. To me, they’re entirely new people.

Of course there are truths in fiction. But equally, from fiction comes truth.

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keeping it fresh

pink tulip flowers under white clouds blue skies at daytime

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

On the weekend, I joined an online workshop run by Caoilinn Hughes (author of Gathering Evidence, Orchid and the Wasp & most recently The Wild Laughter) as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. It turned out all participants, myself included, were emerging writers at most; several participants hadn’t yet started writing, but were hoping the workshop would get them motivated. When I heard this, I thought perhaps the content would be too basic. I wondered if I would learn anything new, since I’ve been writing and attending workshops for several years now.

I was completely wrong. The workshop sparkled with new information and advice, and I found myself scrambling to write it all down. But one tip stood out above the others.

Avoid cliches.

I thought I’d learnt this already. But when Caoilinn gave a few examples, my toes curled in recognition (hmm, is this a cliche too?). She warned against the old, hackneyed ways of showing what our characters are feeling – he bit his lip, she clenched her fists, he raised his eyebrows. Caoilinn Hughes suggested we try something different. Steer away from familiar, well-worn phrases.

And I realised that eliminating cliches, as much as possible, is what I need to do next to become a better writer. And that after that, there will be something else that needs addressing. And then another way to progress. And though I’ve known this a long time, I was reminded yet again that the writing life will be a constant process of learning and levelling up.

I find that daunting in some respects. It’s exhausting to think of always striving, never quite reaching a goal. But in other ways, the thought is exhilarating. To know that writing is a lifelong pursuit, that there is no ending besides our own deaths, that we will forever be discovering, examining, imagining and improving. It seems a thrilling and remarkable way to spend our days.

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sending words into the world

If writers want to be published, we have to submit work. And yet sending out work is one of the most challenging aspects of writing. I’ve been submitting work for six years (writing for longer), and I still find it hard to do. Sometimes I’m tempted to avoid it. After all (I tell myself )—statistically, rejection is the most likely result.

I recently submitted something I’ve spent a lot of time on, and sending it triggered all the usual crazy, mixed feelings. I thought I’d try to order my thoughts, in case this helps another writer.

Reflections on submitting:

  1. It must be done. If we want to share our writing with others, there’s no escaping this. Yet submitting can be terrifying. We have to steel ourselves and send our work anyway. (We may not want to send our very first efforts. But if a writer has been creating work for more than a year, and wants to be published, it’s probably time to start submitting!)
  2. Timing is everything. Too early and our work is clumsy, full of holes, rough around the edges. Too late and we may fall behind, not make deadlines, or put off submitting forever. How to tell if it’s too early or too late? No one seems to know! We make our best guess and then send.
  3. It’s normal to feel strange emotions after sending. I often feel uneasy. Sometimes I feel hopeful (tempered with common sense—this submission may not be successful, but the next one may be). You may feel a whole range of other emotions. (To avoid feeling overwhelming regret, my advice is to avoid looking at your submitted piece or manuscript after sending. Whenever I do this, I find something I hate!)
  4. Multiple submissions make sense (if allowed). Some journals hang on to work for months, even years. I once had a story with a US literary journal for 14 months, and I’ve heard tales of much longer waits. If the journal or competition allows simultaneous submissions, it’s worth improving the odds by submitting to at least one other market (in my opinion).
  5. Destinations are important. Except in the case of a freaky genius, it’s probably best to send the first submitted poem to a smaller magazine, rather than the Paris Review. There’s no point sending a sci-fi/Western story to a snooty literary magazine that doesn’t publish genre fiction. And it may be unwise to send a literary novel manuscript to an agent who specialises in fantasy and YA. Choosing where we send our words improves the chance of being chosen.

I’m sure there are other aspects to submitting I haven’t considered. After all, I write short fiction only.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

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Inspiring, inspired: ‘Home is Nearby’ by Magdalena McGuire

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Home is Nearby, the debut novel of Magdalena McGuire, is a book rich with themes of love, loss, home, inspiration, freedom and truth. I closed the final pages with the deep satisfaction that comes at the end of a good book. My heart was full.

This fascinating and emotional story follows the life of Ania, a young woman sculptor living in Poland in the early 1980’s. We meet her friends and boyfriend Dominik in Wroclaw, and her beloved father back in her home village. Poland falls under martial law, and conditions become dangerous. Houses are searched by militiamen, and citizens are thrown in prison without charge.

On a personal level, Ania wrestles with her own feelings of inadequacy as an artist, and experiences jealousy towards a talented artist friend who she suspects once was intimate with Dominik.

Home is Nearby has a freshness and an originality that makes you eager to read on. The entrancing characters live vibrant lives yet also deal with fear, hardship and grief in places and circumstances that are intriguing.

Ania’s passion for her art was especially moving, and her doubts and indecision were relatable. And although this book was very much about love and where we call home, the most powerful thread for me was about our inner creative lives and finding the truth in what we create. It was an inspiring read for any artist, or in fact anyone who likes to express their creativity.

If you’ve struggled lately to find a book that excites you, one that is different and beautifully-written, I can highly recommend Home is Nearby.

 

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Straight from the heart: Review of ‘To Become a Whale’ by Ben Hobson

IMG_2402Books rarely make me cry. Movies, yes. Talent shows, oh boy, yes (when those contestants get selected, they’re so happy! Who could stay unaffected?!). But for some reason, while I may feel some inward emotion when reading, I hardly ever cry. A book has to be powerful to squeeze actual water from me. To Become a Whale is that type of book.

To Become a Whale is the debut novel of Brisbane writer Ben Hobson (published by Allen & Unwin). It’s an emotional and mesmerising read – the story of a boy on his way to manhood, fighting his way through loss and a difficult relationship with his father. Part of the story takes place at the old whaling station on Tangalooma Island, and these gritty details are both repellent and engrossing.

The voice of the main character, thirteen-year-old Sam, is so believable that I quickly fell under the spell of this book and was reluctant to put it down. More than that, I began to love Sam himself, and every twist and turn of his fate tugged at my heartstrings.

And yes, I cried.

What I liked most about this book is that it is written for the reader, not for the author. Ben Hobson hasn’t used long flowery phrases, he hasn’t gone wild with metaphors or wacky similes or descriptive passages. The novel is beautifully written, yes, but always with the reader in mind, never as an indulgent authorial flight of fancy. The story is told in a clear and compelling way.

If you want a riveting read with a profoundly tender heart, To Become a Whale is definitely for you. Just keep the tissues handy.

 

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