Want to write your true crime story? Why are you writing?

I’ve been writing about my experience of getting stalked by a neighbor. Many readers have asked how to write about their own 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?

"Why am I writing about my worst experience?" is the first question you should ask before dedicating yourself to any work on your new true-crime-writing project. Your answer might be, “Duh Amy? I, too, survived something huge, and you’re asking me why I’m writing?” So hear me out. This question shapes your goals and guides as you proceed with your work.

The idea for writing about being stalked started with a tight-knit writers’ group I attended during the Dark Years. Every writer in that group knew that when I staggered into the weekly critique, it was at a risk of getting jumped by next-door-neighbor-stalker. The writers kept my spirits up with encouraging dark humor, “When are you going to write about this?” and “How’s your story going to end?” (Which planted much-needed hope that I’d live to tell the tale.)

That’s what writers do, after all—we play hokey pokey with life. Put your left foot into the experience, and then take your left foot out, and shake it all about towards the closest keyboard. Life and all its challenges becomes the canvas for our next great novels. Or blogs. Or ranting posts on Facebook. Thinking about turning tragedy into art is a means to express and rise above the pain. “How would I write this?” we ask, while talking a head-first tumble down the stairs.

We’re kinda sick that way.

"Writer's Block II," by Drew Coffman on Creative Commons.

"Writer's Block II," by Drew Coffman on Creative Commons.

Regardless, the decision to write started with my writing buddies throwing down a challenge. I started immediately after my stalker neighbor’s arrest (like I said, we’re sick that way), because I thought the story finally had an ending. Whatever I churned out needed to survive the critique from my group of professional writers. There’s a difference, after all, between tragedy and bad writing. One is unavoidable, and needs support. The other is inexcusable, and needs to be burned. That meant a choice. Was I writing to …

  1. Vomit everything I’d kept pent up, looking for affirmation and compassion?
  2. Produce a piece for another person to read, enjoy, and possibly learn from?

You’ll probably encounter similar choices, while you decide how to write. Option 1 might look especially good. There’s a lot to be said for writing purges. They’re great! It’s just you doing a wordy Technicolor yawn without any pesky interlopers passing judgment.

In fact, if that sounds good, stop reading. I mean, stop reading now. Pull up a pristine white page and start writing. Don’t stop. Don’t edit. Write exactly how you’re feeling. Grapple with septic-laden memories over the horror, tension, pain, and suffering. Carelessly toss them here and there onto what used to be a pristine white page. Call the villain who haunts you every single dirty name in the book. Tell people who should have protected you exactly what you think of them. When you run out of names, create new ones. Scream. Rant. Rail.

 Write for as long as you want, and then write some more. Write until your fingers bleed. And then, keep typing.

The freedom of purging those vile things from your system! You’ll get clarity! You’ll be shocked at what you really thought! You’ll want to defend yourself from invisible readers! But, despite those second thoughts, don’t edit yourself. Keep writing.

When you’re done with your frenzy (and make sure you’re really done). Go to the corner of your room. There you’ll find a flamethrower that you so conveniently stashed. Turn it on. Point it at your ranting septic manuscript.

Burn it.

Believe me. At this point, your writing needs to be torched.

Believe me. At this point, your writing needs to be torched.

Do not publish one damn word of that document.

Unless you’re planning to use it as a launch pad for your next therapy session. In that case, keep writing.

Why am I saying this? This type of writing—ranting rage, name-calling, and hapless manifestos—will alienate your readers. Purge writing is for your benefit and your eyes only. It reflects your processing and journey towards healing. Living in the moment without seeing the end. Nobody wants to read a first-person singular tale of ranting-life-done-did-me-wrong. Granted: you absolutely feel that way. Who doesn’t, after surviving a crime? But it doesn’t make good reading.

Instead, people read because they need heroes. Unlike reality TV, where viewers eagerly seek train wrecks, when readers open books, they’re seeking knowledge or escapism. Readers want a role model who guides them to the truths they’re seeking. Or, simply a story where the hero (that’s you!) rises above their circumstances, and one way or another, wins. This is where you become an expert who passes on the precious knowledge you gained. That’s why people read, and what makes good writing different from subjective, group-therapy-type confidances.

If you decide that writing for an audience is your path, you to shift your focus and write objectively. Shifting to being objective changes your story. Sure, you’re still the main character, because it’s your story, you lived it, and dammit, you’re telling it, but in the objective version, your reader’s needs come first. You need to tell the tale in an engaging manner. Suppress your Tourette’s-like responses, and relay the facts, while being completely honest, without alienating the reader.

"Let Go," by Andrew Mitchell on Creative Commons.

"Let Go," by Andrew Mitchell on Creative Commons.

Another reason to make sure that you're out of the spitting-hatred phase? If you're looking for affirmation or pity, you likely won't get it. Some readers aren't nice. Trolls will snark. Reviewers will rip it to shreds. Social media will create a hash tag with your name. You'll hear the same accusations from complete strangers that you heard from the people closest to you, while you went through the ordeal. It takes a thick skin to handle these people with grace, something that's harder to do while still vulnerable. On those days you'll hate writing and will sequester yourself to a darkened room with a pint of ice cream, shoving down heaping spoonfulls while muttering to yourself.

However, you'll also find readers who relate to your story, who found courage, and as a result, the strength to go forward. For those people, you'll find a way to keep writing. 

If you choose to share these words to a broader audience, and know you’re at a good place, go back to the charred remains of the rant-doc. See what looks good, post-flamethrower. It might be one sentence per page. Maybe one every three pages.

Use those words to build your story.

In one way or another—because you can’t control the outcomes of your work—someone will find meaning from your writing.

To be continued.