I think most writers will admit to, at least on occasion, writing from the heart.
We discuss things which move and inspire us, because these are the things which we can write most passionately and knowledgeably about. And yet distance still plays an important part in the writing process.
Art often imitates life.
I’m not going to pretend that my novel ‘Flicker’ appeared out of nowhere. Whilst the main premise, based upon the Chinese Elementary Cycle, had been in the back of my mind for a number of years, it was only when I travelled down the east coast of Australia that the rest of the plot truly formed in my mind.
I had just been dumped, and had left the UK for a year travelling around the world, starting in Australia. Five years beforehand I had lost both my parents. And so when you meet Flic Firestone, Flicker’s central character, it might come as no surprise to find that, she too has been dumped. She has just lost her mother, never knew her father, and according to her mother’s last wishes, joins a gap year trip down the east coast of Australia.
Felicity Firestone isn’t me.
However, at that point, she definitely shared a number of my characteristics. Firstly, because I felt they added to the story. And secondly, because they were things I believed I could write well about.
And then there was the third reason why Flic shared some of my more painful characteristics. A normally unspoken reason.
Because on some level, writing about those things from Flic’s perspective was cathartic. What better way to get over some of life’s most painful issues, than have a character get over them for you?
And so Flicker took shape. Five months, and 180,000 words later, and I had myself a novel. I also had some form of closure.
The book wasn’t just about Flic’s parents or her heartbreak, but with those two things underpinning her experiences, it would have been hard not to draw parallels between her and me.
By the end of the novel, Flic is stronger. More certain of herself, and able to stand alone, without her mother, and without a man at her side. And as for me, well, by the end of the novel, I was stronger too. I was proud of my achievement, and felt stronger in myself … more willing to explore the world and its possibilities on my own.
A lot of readers have asked how I could bear to do this, but, other than the obvious complexity of physically removing so many words, I actually found the process rather painless.
There were two reasons why I so willingly cut the text. The first was that I loved the story as a whole, but not necessarily for its every individual word. And so, if slimming the contents of the story down was going to better my chances of sharing it with a wider audience, then that was something I needed to do.
My second reason for so readily editing down Flicker, was related to the reasons I first started writing.
When I first began writing Flicker, I was heart-broken, and so too was Flic. But when I finished Flicker, Flic had come to terms with her break-up with Ally, and I too had come to terms with the end of my own relationship. I had the personal closure, and the new distance from those emotions, to enable me to re-read what I had written, and very clinically remove all of the excess emotion, which at the time, my grieving sensibility had thought relevant.
Bit by bit, I removed myself, and my own personal pain from the text. Because it didn’t need to be there. Flic’s pain was enough!
This second step was arguably as cathartic as the first.
Being able to re-read my work, and remove the unnecessarily personal elements of the text so clinically, made me realise how far I had come, and that for Flicker to be a good story, it really didn’t need to be based too heavily on my own personal experience.
From this first edit onwards, all of the characters, including Flic, truly began to develop as individuals, rather than as mosaics of different parts of people I knew. For example, Jules, a character who had started off as a cross between my close friend Carly, and a girl I had known at university, fully developed into Flic’s best friend, an individual in her own right. And by the same token, Flic Firestone was no longer an echo of myself, and my troubles, but a real three-dimensional girl, with some of the problems and adventures I had experienced in my life, but with an awful lot more to offer too.
It was only a I stepped away from my comfort zone, and really explored my imagination, that I saw my writing truly blossom. I was no longer writing a journal of sorts and changing the names, but exploring the possibilities the corners of my imagination, and enjoying it. ‘De-Charlifying’ the text became as much a part of the edit as reducing the word count, and the result was something I was tremendously proud of.
But the interesting thing is that this change became a permanent one. Rather than beginning all my other books in the same way, setting the framework with people and experiences I already knew, and then colouring this framework with imagination, my later books all started firmly at that imagination phase.
It was as if, stepping firmly away from the comfort of topics so close to my heart, had marked a shift in my writing, and one, in my opinion, for the better!
I was asked just this morning if Ellody Rose, the main character from The Dream Navigator is based on me. And whilst, still, where Flic is concerned, I might dither ever so slightly on the answer, with Elle I can be categorical with my answer.
Ellody Rose is not me. Nor is she based on me. If I had to find any similarities between us … she has dark hair. But then, I have a feeling all my lead females will have dark hair, because as a lifelong brunette, I don’t think I’ll ever know what it is to be a blonde 😉
And in the book Ellody moves to Whistler … the infamous Canadian ski resort where my last two books were penned. A village which I know, and which I both love and hate … something which proved very useful in the context of the story.
However, other than that … Elle is all imagination.
And I love her for it!
So fellow writers … don’t abandon your hearts altogether, because knowledge and empathy are definite assets in a writer. But equally don’t spill those hearts out either … you’ll only have to time mopping them (and 90,000 words) up later!