Monday, June 23, 2014

The Cathartic Novel – an Editor's Perspective

By Maria D'Marco 

Some novels need to be written because the story won't let us go. Others need to be written because we can't let something go. as helpful as these novels can be for us personally, they don't always make the best stories. Editor Maria D'Marco is here today to share some insights on what makes a cathartic novel work--and what to avoid.

Maria specializes in developmental and heavy copy edits. She truly enjoys working with first-time authors and considers it a real privilege to perform as a collaborative editor. Published writer since '79 (yikes!) and freelance editor since '98, she believes the story always comes first – perfect grammar + crappy story = crappy story.

Take it away Maria...

You've just slogged your way through a life experience that may have left you reeling or full of epiphanies or simply in a place you've never been before. As a writer, this can be an inspiring time where the urge to nail the experience down with words is pretty compelling.

When I give in to such cathartic writing urges, the results go into a folder labelled 'toxic waste' that's chock full of teeth-gnashing analytic vents. Later, when my cooler head prevails, I dissect these volatile constructions, peeling away wriggling tendrils of raw emotion for implantation into core concepts of new fiction stories.

This is my personal, pro-active de-tox approach to cathartic writing (since there's a law against backyard bonfires).

However, as a freelance editor, I encounter authors who handle their passion to purge differently; resulting in full-length manuscripts I've gently dubbed cathartic novels.

A cathartic novel takes writing, such as the bubbling cauldron of words in my toxic folder, hammers them into a seething pile, and then presents the whole steaming thing as a work of fiction. In my experience, the elements of fiction employed in these stories to disguise reality aren't comprehensive enough to allow the work to be called fiction.

This can be a problem.

In order to support an author of a cathartic novel, I not only need to perform a thorough conventional edit, but I also need to determine the author's ability to accomplish the re-writes necessary to truly fictionalize the story. This fiction status is important, if the book is to be published, as it can protect the author emotionally – and legally.

Here are a few thoughts, from your friendly editor, about cathartic novels.

Write what you know – but…

…don't write what is recognizable to others. If your family, friends or associates can pick themselves out of your character line-up, you can be vulnerable to legal problems. Libel and invasion of privacy laws are a fact of writing life and one editor responsibility is to ensure that your cathartic novel won't land you in a courtroom.

The following succinct definitions of libel: the publication of a defamatory false statement about an identifiable living person and of invasion of privacy: an individual's right to not be subjected to undeserved publicity can serve as initial guideposts.

When in doubt, re-write to further obscure identity; or obtain signed consent-to-publish forms (preferably indicating that the person has read your entire manuscript).

Presenting your cathartic novel as a work of fiction demands that it truly be a work of fiction. Changing character names and a few details simply isn't going to be enough – you need to push past reality.

Fiction is fiction is fiction

For some authors, pushing past reality is a barrier impossible to breach.

Fortunately, these unforeseen blocks are where an insightful, collaborative editor can help. In my experience, I've found that when authors say they have 'moved past' a story-inspiring event they've actually left little hooks of reality embedded in the story. These hooks usually represent little points of pain the author could not, consciously or unconsciously, treat objectively – and will have difficulty removing or re-writing them without editorial support.

Fictionalize through good story-telling

Cathartic novels are often structurally precarious, with dangling and criss-crossed story lines. Not surprising, since life rarely follows in a nice story arc. Fortunately, the transformation to true fiction can be achieved by simply practicing good story-telling.

Develop characters are believable in their decisions, actions, and re-actions. Construct timelines, environments, and events that produce comprehensive and comprehendible resolutions. Close loopholes. Don't leave readers stranded. Rebuild chaos. Create balance. Tell a good story.

Do your unresolved emotions hijack the story?

Writing with cathartic bias can affect how characters are portrayed and can extend into the storyline itself, forcing the reader to encounter you and your feelings. The need to purge, to point out the wrong-doing or wrong-doer can overwhelm or puncture the story, assaulting the reader with preaching or proclamations.

Perform a de-tox on your novel by framing your fictionalized perpetrators, nailing him/her/it/them down, and crafting iron-clad resolutions – all within the limits of your fiction storyline.

Trust your imagination, creativity, and writing skills

It takes an agile imagination and solid writing skills to transform true-life events into fiction. It also takes guts to move past those inspiring events and capture them in an objective POV. Fortunately, this challenging process can be conquered – just trust in your proven creativity and writing skills.

So, if you have a cathartic novel sitting in a drawer or serving as emergency printer paper – before you leave it for dead or use it up – give it a second chance. You put in the work, right? A bit more and you could be sending that novel off to agents or publishers – or bringing it to readers as an Indie publication.

A first step could be getting a manuscript assessment. For a relatively small fee, an assessment can identify any non-fiction elements and provide a great starting point in flipping your novel solidly into fiction.

If an assessment isn't in the budget, gird your loins, wade in with a big stick, and flush out non-fiction elements on your own. They may squirm a bit, once exposed, but will soon be transformed by your creative, thoughtful, and imaginative re-writes.

Good luck!


  1. Bless you, Maria, for your thoughtful and understanding way of dealing with these types of novels (and by extension, their writers).

    I've belonged to many critique groups, and a common factor among all of them has been the writer with the cathartic novel. Sometimes it seemed the entire group was made of them. A common response to a comment that a particular event or plot point wasn't working would be, "But that's how it happened!" I didn't have the experience or knowledge to guide these writers into recognizing that story trumps reality. I just gave up.

    My own cathartic writing is personal journals I've kept for decades. Under no circumstances would I ever consider publishing them!

  2. I had the opposite problem in my previous writer's group in that I was GREATLY encouraged to use my life to inform my fiction (I don't write nonfiction or historical fiction [as much as I love to READ it]), as I just can't deal with the pressure to be accurate to a fault, but also I didn't want to write about my life, however fictionalized, and I didn't want my life to blind me to other ways of being and living.

    This also meant I had to work at getting parents right (I know most "modern" children's books often leave parents out, but my debut novel required they be there in a non-abusive context, but make no mistake, my MC handles his affairs himself!) as the adults in my childhood (except one) we're so far removed from the parents my characters typically need.

    They weren't super nurturing, yet not unforgivably abusive, and either extreme is valid if they're needed, my stories so far have simply needed the opposite of what I grew up with, so I needed the parents/writers in my tribe (I'm not a parent which I only say for context) to help me with that.

    To be continued...

    1. That said, I have to quibble with the "Story trumps Reality" idea because at least from my experience it's not always true. At least not for the writer versus the lay reader.

      Books are simply held to a higher standard than film or television on matters of fact vs. fiction in the name of "good" storytelling.

      While this article is right to address the dangers of letting real life overly dictate fiction, it's NOT ALWAYS EASY to do what's best for the story without issues of readers feeling it's too "Out there..."

      Nonfiction has the same danger of letting facts make the reading a chore rather than a joy, but we have to stick to facts, yet somehow. I'm not anti-nonfiction, but you can enjoy reading what you can't/don't want to write, something I wish we as writers talked about more.

      Sometimes the writer's desire and need to be in service of the story means that finding the right reader for it (whether we're talking lay readers or publishing insiders) I don't have the "realist" mindset that apparently many readers have when in comes to suspending disbelief.

      That said, when you write animal fantasy as I do, this issue is quickly magnified times 10!

      You're either 100% cartoony or 110% naturalistic. But I like being in the middle, and it can give you the best of both worlds, but just because I research the mating habits of baboons, doesn't mean it belongs in the particular book I'm writing, that doesn't mean I'll not include other facts that are relevant to the story I'm writing.

      This is a big deal when animals and humans live in the same world. Stories like "Redwall" avoid this because it's animals only, but whenever humans are part of the world, we have to deal with the "lack of opposable thumbs" issues that come up.

      But even if I wanted to be 100% cartoony, when your story's not visual like a comic, film, or television program it's HARD to get readers to get/respect what your story does differently than what's come before you. The biggest issue I face is getting readers (writers in particular) to understand how varied the genre is.

      Most people think animal stories are either Shiloh (Realistic) or cartoony (Tom and Jerry).

      That "Animal Farm", "Charlotte's Web", "Redwall" and "Warriors" are the last words in the book world. They're not, and I'm not bashing these books, I'm just saying not all stories can be 100% one over the other, at least as far as fiction goes.

      Just like how "The Fault In Our Stars" isn' the last word in YA.

      Or that "The Hunger Games" has made "The Giver" irrelevant in the cannon of dystopian fiction. They're two different books by two different authors, at different times in their careers, even if the subject matter's related.

      Sometimes, I think as writers we unmeaningly trivialize something that makes it that much harder to get the story right, whether it's based in tangible facts or not.

      Oy, sorry for the , but I do get anal about this push and pull between "Story trumps Reality" versus "Facts that inform fiction."

    2. Thanks for replying/commiserating with me, Maria/TigerXglobal.

      This is one of those things where I feel your mindset as the writer changes (from actually writing to SELLING your writing) and that categorizing stuff you have to face.

      That's where many of my current projects are at now and that's tricky, and while it's true "humanizing" animals is common, the DEGREES are different, and showing that solely in words (when your book's not illustrated or a comic) is all the harder, and that's what I was venting about, and how it's harder to get readers older than 5 to see how varied what I write is.

      For my debut alone I've had countless beta-readers who didn't get it wasn't supposed to be 100% naturalistic, but it also wasn't 100% cartoony either. I started my website "Talking Animal Addicts" in part to better educate people of the nuance involved-

  3. The F-ing blunderbuss WIP I refuse to let go of like some life raft is in fact a cathartic novel. I would not have known that without your article so like the others I want to say thank you so much for submitting this.
    BTW pounding the piss and venom out via Fiction University teachings has been its own catharsis and I am ready to call it done. After my last comb through is over :)