Turning your life drama into good fiction

Turning your life drama into good fiction

By Stevie Martin 04/07/13

From breakups to bereavement to moving back in with your parents, how do you turn a depressing life event into good fiction? Stevie Martin gets advice from Cuckoo In The Nest author Nat Luurtsema and Farrago Poetry founder John Paul O’Neill ...

Free-write the first draft, soon 

“You need to write it all down in a big splurge-y mess to figure out what direction to take - I always free write, then sculpt it afterwards,” says John Paul, who runs an Elephant in the Room class allowing students to do just this.

Nat Luurtesma, whose novel started life as a blog about moving back in with her parents aged 28, started writing immediately: “It was a spontaneous decision. I realised that my nocturnal lifestyle 20 miles out of London was going to leave me quite lonely.”

Most people struggle to find their story, but yours is there. You just need to get it down.

But tread carefully 

Writing it down won’t solve your problems, but it can be cathartic. “Deal with things when it's right. When you embark on this process, things will come out that are difficult for you to think about,” warns John Paul. “Write the first draft and then leave it. You may need space and time to reflect.” 

On the other hand, Nat found bashing out words helped her cope: “It's got to be emotional enough so that it's interesting, but I find it helps to make light of horrible life events.”

Simply put: be gentle on yourself and listen to your gut.

Be prepared to edit the crap out of it

Editing sounds dull, but it’s essential in order to turn your work from a sprawling ramble into a piece of art.  “A wise person once said “rewriting is writing” and that's very important to remind yourself,” advises Nat.

John Paul agrees: “Good writing comes from an emotional place. But look at F. Scott Fitzgerald - he wrote loads of rubbish about his relationship with his wife before nailing it with The Great Gatsby. You need to apply your intellect to all these emotions you’ve released and decide what to create.”

Life is meandering - fiction is structured

You have to be very experienced to pull off those effortless stream-of-consciousness-style novels like Kerouac or Woolf. John Paul advises figuring out the order of events by condensing everything into key points of drama or tension, then writing the ending first. “You can always change it as you go along, but you need to know there’s a conclusion. Chapters help, too as they can make planning more manageable.”

Exaggerate, but don’t lie 

“If you're writing about people you love, never lose sight of the fact that they're real people,” Nat says. “I tidied up various events, though. My parents and I had about 20 disputes about the dishwasher but I didn't want readers taking their own lives with tedium, so I condensed it all into one eventful row.”

She also smoothed out her parents’ dialogue in order to keep the pace moving.

Write consistently

“Write every day, even if it's not much, even if it's awful. And carry a notepad. You will improve, guaranteed,” says Nat. “It's amazing how many writers don't write. Just do it!” Jottings and impressions can be reworked later, just make sure you collect as much inspiration as possible, and experiment too. “Try first person, third person and go for funny or serious,” says John Paul. “You’ll know when you’ve hit the right voice.” 



For more articles, jobs and opportunities, visit our Writing and Publishing hub.

Visit Nat's blog

Find out more about John Paul's creative writing workshops.

Image by aaayyymm eeelectriik  via Flickr under a creative commons license.

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