In the time I’ve spent writing every day, I’ve read a lot of writing tips. Most of them are okay, if repetitive. Few produced Aha! moments.
We’re told to take on topics about which we’re passionate and/or ones where we have some expertise. You may have tried this, and if you have, you probably discovered that the internet is already awash in articles about your favorite topics.
It’s hard to break new ground.
What I want to share here are some ideas you probably have not heard. The fact is, you can write successfully about almost anything if you keep a few things in mind that can help keep your writing fresh and interesting every day.
People will love reading your work because they will sense the excitement you feel when you’re writing it. Your fresh approach and individual style give you the juice you need to satisfy readers.
10 Tips To Get You going
Find all my books on my Amazon Author Page.
A fresh approach to the work of being a writer can bring the best out from your imagination. There may be a lot of good writing already out there, but people like you are still writing and others are still reading every day.
Do you have any original writing tips you can share?
Image credit: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License
In After Peter: Stories from the End of the World, I wrote this paragraph...
"Let’s be clear now. Alexander the Great had a mission, he had work, a calling to slaughter on a scale surpassing ordinary comprehension. You and I don’t have any impulse at all like that, no matter what you think. Even lacking empathy, we’d tire of the carnage once it became same old, same old. Alexander never got bored, by all accounts, with ravaging communities, ethnic groups, enclaves, families, etc. It was in his blood and bones, like anyone else granted a mission by God or gods."
An advantage when you write autobiographical fiction is the freedom to spout off, to write an essay. If you're freewheeling enough, you just go off on a tangent, like I did with Alexander the Great.
The point I had in mind... "A life proceeds from birth to salvage and destruction as a kind of rickety vehicle you might have some fun with, if you’re lucky and you want it...." But "you’re ordered to take the road ahead seriously, like you have a mission you must discover or risk wasting your precious resources on frivolous bullshit."
I used Alexander the great and, later, Edgar Allan Poe, to take shots at the romantic idea of being born with a mission. It isn't always the best news.
"In retrospect, though, all that bloated, high-sounding garbage just sucks the zip out of life."
I'll attach a PDF of the complete chapter below, but the point is that, if you are driven to write, not just by a desire to create stories, but also by another to share your most passionate opinions, fictional autobiography may be the perfect vehicle.
That may sound contradictory, but it's the best tactical for sneaking essays into the context of longer fiction. What makes it work so well is the advantage you have of designing all the scenery around, before, during and after you lay your ideas out. Publish an essay anywhere else, you're as likely to find it nestled beside Nivea skin cream and cures for erectile dysfunction, as phony a malady as the drug companies ever came up with.
You don't want that, do you? You want your creation to relax snug and secure along your wooded narrative trail, detoured around the commercial mishmash, drama and trauma.
As part of the fiction, your made up narrator gives you license nobody else ever will...
"Peter was never squandered or taken for granted as a resource. I blessed him with meaningful work, a job as my existential janitor, my standby, my narrator for outrages from which discretion restrained me, as a standup comedian delivering my jokes, and as a gadfly free to take potshots at anyone, especially that murderous asshole Nixon and his coldblooded hatchet man Kissinger, at no risk to myself.
Writing a fictional autobiography may put you at some risk and force you to handle other characters with extra care, but it gives you some privileges you won't get anywhere else.
Here's the chapter I've quoted from:
Find After Peter: Stories from the End of the World and all my books at my Amazon Author Page
The morning my black cat, Billy, died, the first thing we did was pick up all the towels and extra water glasses we'd put out to make things comfortable and convenient for him. My wife packed up all his medications and stored them out of sight.
We missed him so much already, we didn't want to be reminded of his absence every time we turned around.
We went through that day, talking about him and remembering all we'd done, working with his vets to get him through, and how great it was to have kept him with us months longer than the vets thought likely.
"Billy's a fighter," the vets said.
But you can't keep even the most determined and tough loved ones around forever, no matter what you do. A time would come when his body ran out of resources to match his passion. This was it.
By the next morning, I was surprised, getting up early as I always do and feeding our other cat, Sam, to find that what I missed most was the chances I'd had, every day, to care for him, to help him through whatever challenges might come up.
We'd build our routines around Billy. Starting first thing in the morning, I had to be sure he ate, an accomplishment that grew much harder than when he was young and we nicknamed him "Billy Goat" because he'd would eat anything, including tasteless, odorless styrofoam, if we didn't stop him. In the past year, one day's favorite might be totally unacceptable the next.
The important thing, all agreed, was to keep him eating.
So, I'd offer him as many choices as it took to find one he liked enough to eat a good amount. Then, I'd make sure he had fresh water in multiple places. Advanced kidney disease demanded that. Done, I settled into my own business and waited for him to cry for attention or to come out for a visit.
Throughout the day, we arranged for his medications, kept him eating, loved and cuddled him in every way we knew how. We didn't know how long we'd have him with us. One vet warned us that, in his condition, sudden death was a possibility. However long we'd have him, we wanted each day to be the best possible for him.
Then, one cold January day, he was gone.
Billy's Black Cat Biography
My guess is that most people would think, "It's just a cat."
They'd put the loss in the backs of their minds and move on.
But we didn't want to forget Billy any more than we wanted to forget any loved one. For sixteen and a half years, he shared his life with us. I bet there wasn't one day when he didn't make us smile at least once. On most, he made us laugh.
His love for us was so genuine and uninhibited, it was irresistible. We've known many cats, but Billy is the only one who had no guile. He never flirted, did figure-eights around our ankles or played coy to get attention.
My guess is, he was taken away from his mother before he had a chance to learn the tricks of the feline trade. He was all feeling, pure and natural.
Rescued from under a porch where he'd taken refuge with his sister, Billy was so tiny I held him easily in the palm of my hand. Like a newborn, he felt weightless, just a mound of black fur with fearful eyes.
We watched him grow into a figure so powerful-looking, tall with broad shoulders, he looked like a linebacker - if, that is, they ever start a football league for cats.
We saw him slow into old age and heroically battle multiple illnesses. But before that, he showed us what a cat really is, beyond the funny stories, the love and the unexpected incidents. He showed us what it was like to adjust to a universe controlled by another species without giving up your own character or becoming an unequal subordinate. Whether he couldn't or just didn't want to acquiesce doesn't matter. Billy maintained his black cat integrity every day of his life. More than that, he did things his way. His way was sometimes hilarious, sometimes impressively unique.
My wife and I shared our stories about him and our perspectives, and while this kept him so vivid and so different, I decided that my next book had to be his story, Billy's black cat biography. To sharpen the perspective, I began by telling it from the experience of his final months with us, the feelings and memories those unforgettable days brought out.
The book was one of the hardest things I've ever written because it was so difficult to think straight through emotions that built up while recalling special stories. The comedy of my efforts to keep a very young Billy from drinking whatever fluids he found in the kitchen sink reminded me of how determined he was, even as a kitten. His "farewell tour" grew clearer to me as I recalled the details. The more I remembered, the more I missed this special little animal.
A friend who'd spent years living in India knew Billy well decided that he was a Buddha. For me, he was also a fierce little playmate with a vertical leap to make Michael Jordan envious and the only alarm clock I ever really liked.
So You Want to Write a Fictional Autobiography?
Writing a fictional autobiography has disadvantages. Among them, readers think maybe it’s not so much fiction as fact. Another factor threatening to stop you cold before you start is the uncomfortable question: What about your life makes you think anyone, let alone a lot of them, wants to read the details?
We’re not talking about memoirs here or ghost-assisted celebrity bios. This is your life. Do you want to be that exposed? And what makes you think readers will be interested when you're standing there naked?
Henry Miller Writes Novels About Henry Miller
Nobody influenced me more than Henry Miller. I discovered him… Rather, his books hit me like an emotional tidal wave of vicarious adventures and freethinking when I was eighteen.
In this three Tropic novels, Cancer, Capricorn and Black Spring, Miller wrote about a struggling writer, an American expat living in Paris, bedeviled by a woman he can’t hold and and can’t let go, after leaving his wife and child behind in Brooklyn. The struggling writer’s name? Henry. And Miller, during the time recounted in the stories anyway, just happened to be living in Paris, struggling as a writer and trying to recover from June, the woman who would haunt him for decades.
(At the time Miller started writing Tropic of Cancer, he was by then being well cared for by Anais Nin who, with her husband, paid for his apartment and necessities. Without her husband, Nin handled some of his less material needs.)
What got me stirred, starting with Tropic of Cancer, was Miller’s free style prologue in which he wrote passionately about the value of writers writing real stories from life. At the time, he was frustrated after several unsuccessful novels and pretty much let it rip. The results are still stunning to read.
Later, Gore Vidal confirmed something I suspected by noting that he never saw anything written by Saul Bellow that wasn’t autobiographical. The intense intimacy of Bellow’s books make them feel that way, but Bellow never wrote a novel about a writer named Saul. He just edged his ideas and experiences into the emotionally hapless Moses Herzog and even the dignified Polish holocaust survivor, Artur Sammler.
I loved Bellow’s writing even more than Miller’s. Bellow had an elegance about himself and a keener awareness of others. In Humboldt’s Gift, he pointed out that the way people presented their rear ends told us about their general, public attitude, but he did it with such diamond, polished precision...
While my take on writing fictional autobiography falls about halfway between Miller and Bellow, my life hasn’t been as fascinating as either. So, I wrote my books about the times, which were, using some personal incidents, adjusted to fit the story, and some wholly made up characters.
(You can find all of my books, by the way, on my Amazon Author Page.)
How Fictional is My Autobiography?
Look at it this way. It took four novels and 300,000 words before I ran out of storytelling gas.
I never rambled around Paris, as Miller did, and I didn’t consort with gangsters and renowned intellectuals like Bellow. Living in interesting times wasn’t, for me, the fulfillment of a Chinese curse, as some believe the phrase to mean. My times are my material, observed from a personal standpoint as reflected in stories.
When I started a novel, one that blossomed into four, that I originally titled “The Autobiography of X,” I was inspired by the historical coincidence of being around for two events I believed changed the world, at least for Americans, forever. The first was the assassination of John F. Kennedy, witnessed in my high school classroom in Binghamton, New York, hundreds of miles from the scene; the second, the World Trade Center disaster I witnessed from near enough that I felt the vibrations rattling downtown when the first jet hit the North Tower and watched when the second impact sprayed a billowing cloud of fire and smoke in front of those of us who walked up to Broadway, hoping to figure out what was being confusing reported on television.
What lay in-between? For me personally, hippies and the counterculture. The Vietnam War and the peace movement it inspired; political assassinations unlike anything we thought conceivable in America; Watergate; the personal computer revolution and the internet; running and physical fitness; a president having oral sex in a White House closet; the AIDS epidemic; and the conservative backlash against human rights advances… you could go on for a long time about what happened in America during my lifetime.
On the other hand, there were times as dull as white bread. How do you deal with those? And how do you show how events personally affected individual lives or how they really didn’t? How could I get my hands on my own experiences enough to reshape them into interesting events?
I solved that by refusing to write a narrative dependent on chronology. My narrative was built somewhat randomly — in the way I believe we run personal histories through our heads. We jump around, mix and match, to explain ourselves and the world around us. I was a big fan of free style books. I thought the traditional style had run its course. So, like Henry Miller and James Joyce jumping headfirst into Ulysses, I just plunged in with the most general idea and let events pile up. I let them snuggle next to each other to see how, like with color swatches, they looked in close contact. It was the antithesis of the traditional novel storyline, and it suited me.
I could emphasize and deemphasize as it suited my sense of things. I could leave things out and invent some to fill in. Would my original philosophical take attract readers? I had no idea, but I loved creating paragraph after paragraph.
Soon, I realized I had way too much for a single set of covers. I made a mental commitment to three and wound up with four.
Hazards of Writing a Fictional Autobiography
In this kind of writing, there’s a fine line between writing intimately enough to tell a story charged with meaning and saying too much, especially about others. You might embarrass yourself, but you can injure innocent people. Truman Capote’s defense that his friends knew he was a writer and had to expect that he’d write about them was lame enough that his Answered Prayers left him with so many fewer friends that gaps needed to be filled with drugs and alcohol.
I guess my observations about my friends are more generous, and I’m less inclined to gossipy swipes at people who trust me. I also kept a safe distance. My fictional autobiography tracked close to contemporary times but only a little. I disguised people with false names, even keeping a list to help me keep up with all the fake names.
More importantly, since most of my stories are drawn from incidents decades before, few of my characters were likely to be recognizable now. Some were, however, and I even got a note about one not so prominent character, an old friend asking me to confirm his identity.
Flattering though it might have been to my sense of mental prowess, I assumed that no one believed I could recall thirty and forty year old conversations in the detail in which they made it into the books. When I’ve run into friends, many years later, I’m surprised that they remember things that happened differently than I do. It makes me realize how memory's necessary compressions can change history.
In the end, my life as I remembered it amounted to fictional autobiography, even when unintended. Memory is creative. It fills in gaps and deletes the unwanted.
I bet it was the same with Henry Miller.
Try the first chapter from Traveling Without a Passport:
The Fictional AutoBiography Books:
Originally from Binghamton, New York, I am New York City based writer of novels, nonfiction books, online content on several platforms as well as a hard copy journalist and reviewer.