Writing Friday

I was at the spa! So relaxed I almost forgot it was…Writing Blog Friday!

Lindsey asks: I am writing a book based on something that happed to me in my life. It is very personal and I am worried about what a few people might think or do if I get it published and they got their hands on it. It is also very hard for me to sit down and write it. Almost every time I try to write, I get emotional. I have tried to finish it for two years and I only have two chapters done. What do you think I should do?

Thanks Lindsey, for a very interesting and important question. I myself was in this very same boat for the longest time. I wanted to write about what happened when my family moved from the Philippines to America. But every time I tried to write it, I just couldn’t—I hadn’t been able to process it yet, I hadn’t been able to really think about what happened to us, and how to make it compelling fiction and I just didn’t have enough distance from it yet to look at it and write about it objectively in a way that other people might want to read about it.

I was finally able to write this story, and it became my novel Fresh off the Boat. The book is based on the year my family moved to America, when I was fourteen years old. I was able to write about this when I was THIRTY-FOUR years old. TWENTY years had to pass by before I could really WRITE this story.

So it takes a LONG time to process experiences and turn them into fiction. I’m not saying you have to wait twenty years, but one day, you will figure out how to write this story and it will just flow out of you.

At this time, I suggest taking notes, writing about it, and thinking about it, but don’t FORCE yourself to “Finish” it. In the meantime, there are other things you might want to write about.

For instance, I used to cover fashion shows for magazines and newspapers, and I turned that experience pretty quickly into my first novel, Cat’s Meow. The turnaround time on that was quite short.

But if your story is close to your heart, and makes you feel very emotional, it will take a long time to get it on the page. And that’s Okay. Because, unlike supermodels, we writers have an almost infinite time to get published (Frank McCourt was what, in his sixties?) and no one cares what we look like or whether there’s someone new and hot nipping at our heels.

As for the fear about what people will think who are based on the people in your story—well, I always tell my family and friends if they are ever so flattered to think that they made their way into my pages: It’s FICTION! I also advise disguising people to the point where they cannot recognize themselves.

For instance, I once did not like a girl named Eunice Chang* (name changed of course!) who used to be this editor at a magazine and had this fake laugh and this really annoying way of worming herself next to every cute boy I liked, so I made her into the character “Teeny Wong” in my novel Cat’s Meow. Teeny was a magazine editor at a magazine who had this fake laugh and wormed her way next to every cute boy my heroine liked. See? Fiction!

At this point all of my characters are based on some aspect of my personality or just come full-blown into my head. I have given up disguising nemeses in fiction. For those with huge egos, it’s just another way to pump up their resumes. “I once inspired a character in a book!” You don’t want annoying people to get even bigger heads. Sigh.

However, if the characters are based on people you love, like my family who kind of ended up in Fresh off the Boat, because it’s fiction it’s not really a portrayal of them per se. Sure, the parents in Fresh off the Boat are very much like my parents, but in a way, they are also very much not and their own people. They might have been inspired by my parents, but they are not my parents. At least, that’s what I keep telling my mom and dad. Heh.

Also, when you write about your parents, they are usually pretty forgiving. As some of you may have noticed, neither my younger sister or brother appear in the book. There is a younger sister in the story, but she is completely unlike either of them, which is 100% deliberate. I did not want to get into that kind of situation! Parents might forgive you, but siblings might give you a rug burn. ☺

It sounds like what you are writing is a bit darker and more serious than the stuff I write, especially your comment of “what they might do”—I don’t really have experience with that kind of writing, but I do recommend you check out Ellen Hopkins, who writes those verse novels about dark issues—-her first book was based on her daughter’s experience with meth. She might have some better thoughts on that kind of matter than I do, and I’ve met her and she’s so great at reaching out to young people with these kinds of questions. Tell her I sent you!

Good luck with your book!