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.