Tips for turning real life into fiction – Lindsay Cameron

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By Lindsay Cameron

I was sure my first novel, BIGLAW, was going to write itself. After all, it would be based on my own experiences and isn’t that the ultimate “write what you know” situation? But when I sat down at my computer to write my story, it didn’t exactly happen the way my optimistic self had envisioned. Let’s just say there was a steep learning curve. Here are five things I wish I’d known before I typed “Chapter One.”♥

1. Just because it’s factual doesn’t mean it’s believable. In my first draft of my novel, I stuck to the facts, right down to the dialogue. One of the comments that came back from my agent was “this conversation doesn’t seem believable.” I was indignant! That conversation happened that way in real life so how can it be not be believable? After a few deep breaths, I took a step back and recognized that real life is full of clichés, awkward conversations, and implausible situations. Our goal as fiction writers is not to stick to the facts, but to make the story sound authentic to the reader. If something doesn’t ring true on the page bring out the red pen and edit!

2. Don’t hesitate to fictionalize the facts. Even if it’s based on a real life event, you must be willing for the story to evolve and change if you want to write a compelling novel. One of the best things about being a writer is that you have the power to change how the story goes. This is your chance to embellish, exaggerate, make events more exciting, change the ending. So go ahead and move the setting from the Midwest to New York City. Add the extra thirty pounds to the person you thought was too perfect. Change your main character’s dull profession. Always remember, you are writing a novel not a memoir!

3. Real people need to be tweaked to become good characters. Even if your story revolves around the most interesting, dynamic people, they will likely need some editing before they become perfect characters in your novel. Maybe it would be better if the best friend in your novel had more flaws to add some complexity to her character. Use your poetic license to enhance your characters in whatever way works best for your novel. I promise you aren’t being disloyal to your best friend if you do. Which leads me to…

4. Don’t become too emotionally attached to your real life story. While they may have provided your inspiration, your fictional characters are NOT your real life friends and family. In real life your best friend would never have an affair, but it might be better for the plot if her fictional counterpart did. Let go of your emotional attachment and recognize that you are creating fictional characters that are part of a novel. Frankly, the more unrecognizable you make them, the better. Change their birthplace, hair color, accent, marital status. That way no one will know they are a character in your novel and you’ll avoid the “but I’m not really like THAT am I” conversation.

5. Shorten the time frame. Let’s face it, real life can be boring at times. Your story may have taken years to unfold, but that doesn’t mean your novel should. Pick up the pace by collapsing events together and edit out any part of your story that has a “you had to be there” feel. Cull the most essential, juiciest parts of your story and have it take place over the course of one year instead of five. It may not have happened that way in real life, but there is a reason you wanted to write a novel instead of a memoir, remember?

Happy writing!

Lindsay Cameron is a graduate of the University of British Columbia School of Law. She worked for six years as a corporate attorney at large law firms in both the United States and Canada. Deciding that writing would be more fun than lawyering, she left the law behind to turn her real life experiences into fiction. She currently lives in New York City with her husband and two young children. BIGLAW is her debut novel.

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