I was watching what I thought was a documentary about a boy interviewing all his ex-girlfriends to find out where he went wrong in relationships. It quickly became apparent that what I was actually watching was a mockumentary; a fictional documentary.
When I thought it was real it was quite funny. As soon as I started to suspect it was fake it lost all appeal. Doesn’t it seem odd that the exact same thing can go from entertaining to boring just by a change of context? Shouldn’t something just be intrinsically entertaining or not?
It is hard when you are presenting something as real when it is not. I would like to suggest that you should be up-front about the fictional nature, but then Blair Witch depended on belief to be scary. If the film opened with a disclaimer about it all being fake people would have walked out of the cinemas long before the motion sickness kicked in.
There are some great mockumentaries and there are many terrible ones, but I cannot tell you what puts one in one category and the next in the other. Maybe the question to ask yourself is if what you are presenting is likely to be real for some people, should you be making it as mockumentary, or should you go and find the real thing? I really don’t know the answer.
I’ve actually written a mockumentary, coincidentally enough it was about a girl’s search for love in all the various dating mediums available back in the naughties (when there actually were options besides online dating). Now I wonder if perhaps I was lucky I never did anything with it. Would people have felt cheated when they learned that my heroine, and her eventual suitor, were just actors?
There is a format of writing know as the unreliable narrator. This is where the character taking you through the story is lying to you, but you don’t know it. For example, they may talk about how wonderful person X is and can’t understand why someone would murder them, then the punch line of the story is that they are the one who murdered person X.
Generally this style annoys me (though when pulled off well it can be excellent), and the only way I can relate it back to real life is those friends (and we all have them) who exaggerate their stories and sometimes get confused about what they imagined and what actually happened. And let’s face it, we know they do this so we don’t put a lot of stock in their tales anyway.
But then I realised we do all have an unreliable narrator who we cannot trust; ourselves.
I recently wrote a story and tried to edit it within 24 hours of finishing due to a writing group deadline. The edit was a waste of time. The story looked like a mess to me. I couldn’t see enough good bits to exorcise the bad bits. Yesterday I edited it again. There were lots of good bits, yes there were also lots of opportunities for improvement, but it was not the total write-off that my first edit indicated.
Then I was talking to a friend who was saying how much she hated her novel right now, and instantly I went ‘oh, you’re up to that bit’ –because it is so common for writers to hate their story at some stage, usually closer to the end than the beginning. It is our unreliable narrator kicking in and telling us stuff is crap when it is not.
I’m sure this same narrator tells us we are stupid, fat, ugly etc. and we believe it. If only it was so easy to recognise our exaggerating, lying self in real life as it is when it comes to editing. I guess we do have the benefit of writers groups to tell us that it is not crap (and honestly tell us when it is), but our friends and family are probably a little less reliable when we check in with them about if we really are being stupid.
Occasionally I stop obsessing about how to be a better, more dedicated writer and I think about how to be a better, more dedicated person. Part of me was seriously considering inviting friends and family to give me a 360’ review so I could better identify and deal with my faults.
For those not getting crushed by the corporate machine, a 360 review is where you get (usually anonymous) feedback from your staff, managers and general colleagues. In other words it is a bit of a slag fest from people who work with you at all levels (hence 360’). It is usually confronting, upsetting, unfair and often ignored, but only because most people are not used to being critiqued.
As much as I love self improvement, and books from that section do take up a big chunk of my non-fiction reading list, I must admit I wasn’t sure that I was quite ready for that level of honesty.
Then I started reading a (self-help) book that told me that really, we all know our faults and issues, they are the things we project onto other people. Suddenly my 360’ review is not necessary! All the things I complain about in others are apparently the things that deep down I know are wrong with me.
The weird bit is that I never complain about others being slackers and watching The Voice when they should be editing. And I haven’t yet got upset about others promising to focus on one story and then immediately starting work on another. I’m not sure if this means that these things are not faults, or if it just means that they are not faults that I need to fix.
Maybe I need to read a different self-help book?
Writers group opened with the usual guilty confessions about how much we had not written since last month. This is a fairly common conversation in both my writers groups, yet each month there is new writing to be critiqued so something must be getting written.
Are we expecting too much of ourselves?
For the most part we are not full-time writers. We have jobs, families, friends, gardens and pets that have genuine claims on our time too. There is no denying that writing is a lonely game, and you have to make sacrifices that others won’t necessarily understand, but I wonder if we are all a bit too heavy on the guilt.
It is hard to find the balance between saying no to the social events so you can get your story finished and giving your time to those who need you and who, in turn, you will need in the future. After all, if we do reach the goal of getting published, we want to have loved ones to invite to the book launch.
I’m starting to realise how important it is to factor in the non-writing time. You can either plan for it and enjoy it, or you can put unrealistic expectations on yourself and get disappointed. Sometimes having a bit of a break can be good for your writing.