I’ve been writing about my experience of getting stalked by a neighbor. Many readers have asked how to write about their real crime experiences. This post is one of a series of posts, answering those questions. Click for an overview of topics: Want to write your personal true crime story?
Writing looks easy when you’re an outsider. In fact …
… somewhere in the back of your head, a faint buzzing reminds you about something about writers hammering countless revisions like a desperate kick boxer, despair over writer’s block, followed by the hot tail of alcoholism, something about Sylvia Plath sticking her head in the oven, and …
… you might want to give me a wink and a noogie, when I try to tell you about the training and hard work involved, because you know that you’re excluded from the writer experience. In fact, you’ve read others’ writing (garbage, all of it) and know you’ll do better. For your piece, it’ll be as easy as tossing words on a page: all of them magically falling into place like Darwin’s monkeys recreating Shakespeare on typewriters. Then—BAM! Novel. Easy.
If you’re feeling just that cocky, reread that first, non-italicized paragraph. Writing looks easy because you’re seeing a polished finished work that’s had multiple revisions (and you’ll still find typos of the worst kind), crafted under too many hours in a darkened room, with quite a bit of education to get it to that publishing point.
That education doesn’t come in a vacuum. It includes quite a lot of basic writing skills that you might get by reading a book, but is better gotten in a class.
The reason why I’m putting getting a good education at the end of my blog series on writing your own true crime story, is because you first need to work through the process of deciding, “Am I or am I not going to follow through with this?” Tips in previous posts, like being a good reader and the cranking away at NaNoWriMo are just prep work to help identify your direction. After going through those exercises, if you decide the cost is too high, and never really had the writing skills any way, you’ve just saved yourself some money.
However, if you decide, dammit (slamming fist on the table), you’re a gonna do it, then it’s time to knuckle down and learn writing mechanics. This is a good decision: your experience deserves to be presented in the best possible light, and you're going to learn to do it right.
So, the first class you need to take is grammar. Don’t give me that look. It’s for your own good. In fact, you might even learn to enjoy your native language, and gleefully join the inner circle of word nerds. We play such ferocious Scrabble games.
If you’re not swayed by peer pressure, think of grammar and punctuation as nails that hold your house together: without them, you’ll struggle to write a series of a good sentences. In fact, you’ll learn how to make those sentences reasonable, and keep them from running off at the mouth. Then there’s the run-on’s opposite, the sentence fragment. At their worst, frags cause confusion and hijack your story, but, at their best, can cause the right kind of jarring discord for a frightening passage.
You’ll learn that commas have their rules, but they can be slippery as hell. They dart here and there, easily interchanging between dashes and parentheses, depending on what you want the sentence to convey.
Then there are word use basics. If you cannot tell the difference between their (pronoun)/they’re (contraction of “they are”)/there (location), phase (process of change)/faze (disturb someone), or why I is the subject of a sentence, and me remains at the object, I can guarantee, at the best, your poor editor will fall into a blind rage and stab you repeatedly. Sure, you can count on an editor to find goofs. However, editors are human, and prone to mistakes. If an editor misses a major edit, like the moat/mote gaffe in the Twilight saga, worst case, your work ends up on a raging snarkfest on NPR, much to the delight of other well-educated writerly masses. We can be jerks that way.
(Confession: I have no problem editing typos in dinner menus, signage, and library books, one of which was a nice book on the history of astronomy. I justified the markups by telling myself that if National Geographic had truly wanted their multi-colored coffee table book to remain pristine, they would have hired a better editor. After finding the third typo, frustration completely thwarted my ability to concentrate while reading about the universe. Consequently, I still think the world is flat.)
If you already have a writing background, you can brush up with a bit of reading. I’m looking at my bookshelf, and see Woe is I, and then there’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, and you can’t go wrong with anything by Peter Elbow.
And while we’re at it, a live writing class is also within your best interest. A writing class takes your newfound grammatical prowess a step further, and shows you how to throw all that grammar/punctuation stuff together into a cohesive story. You also get feedback from your classmates, which is critical to evaluating necessary rewrites. Sure, you can attend a writing group and, if it’s a good group, you can pick up these skills from the hive mind. But it’s hard to find a good group, and you need those live critiques, so take the class.
In college, I was fortunate enough to take a writing class with an absolutely terrifying, fire-spitting writing professor. Our first week of class, the prof had a massive tangent about the day she was restrained and interrogated by FBI agents (while outrageously pregnant) for refusing to disclose where she’d hidden the aliens (the south of Texas sort, not the outer space sort … she wasn’t that crazy). Her spitting rage overlapped with the purpose of her writing class: as long as it wasn’t involving the FBI, we must always tell the truth in our writing.
Her arms flailed as she bellowed, “You always tell the truth when you write. Not what other people expect you to write. But what you know to be the truth of your experience. If you are writing about a lake and you write about the verdant surroundings and the placid blue, but in your heart you hate lakes because your brother drowned in a lake, but you insist on writing about the beautiful surroundings, then you are a LIAR!!” and she really did scream that word, and she really did lecture in run-on sentences, “and I shall know you are a LIAR and I will find my brightest red pen and write LIAR in the margins of your pathetic paper and flunk you.”
Unabashed fear of that prof pushed me to produce writing of the worst kind of honesty, and clarity. To this day, I hear her clearly screaming LIAR when I even think of writing half-assed platitudes. Including writing the cringe-worthy embarrassments. Stories I don’t like admitting in polite company. Blatant failures. Unexpected humor. Chronically loyal friends.
So, get to class, already.