Don’t Annoy the Novelist

Today, our guest is Janet Sketchley, a Canadian writer of suspense and redemption. She has also Sketchley headshothad published over one hundred articles. She likes Formula 1 Racing, adventure stories and tea. She has also generously agreed to give a free copy of her latest book to one commenter, chosen at random. But for now, let’s hear why you should never annoy the novelist. Here’s Janet.

Almost twenty years ago, I was an at-home mom with young children. We did errands together, bought groceries. Took the car for repairs. Since at least one of the boys still used a child safety seat in the car, this meant waiting while the work was done.

I’d had bad experiences with the local dealership, but when they contacted me about a recall, I ventured in.
We must have been in the waiting room for an hour, reading stories and snacking on cookies, when the guy at the desk called my name. “I’m sorry, your vehicle’s not under warranty anymore. The mileage is too high.”
I looked at him. “Your service department called me. They couldn’t do something like check the odometer when I first arrived?”

His smile didn’t do anything to defuse my frustration. “Sorry.”

Most days I can wait with the best of them, but I don’t do well when I discover I’ve waited in the wrong line, or in this case, waited for nothing. I’d been on edge emotionally that week, and a sudden sense of injustice turned this quiet Canadian into a customer-service nightmare.

I may have yelled. May even have cried, I’m not sure. I’m rarely tempted to swear, but right then it took a conscious effort to use only clean words.

Management tried to shoo me into a quiet room, out of the main waiting area, but I wouldn’t budge. I’d seen them do that with a businessman when I arrived. How many unhappy customers did these people have today?
As soon as I had my keys in hand, I gathered my children and left. Fuming.

This particular dealership wasn’t far from home. Many times the traffic lights would stop me directly in front of it. Every time I saw the building, resentment bubbled and I chose to let it go. It didn’t go far.

I was writing a novel about forgiveness, and here I had this experience I couldn’t put behind me. It wasn’t even an intentional hurt, just a poorly-run business where customers fell through the cracks.

My second novel gave me a chance at catharsis. One of the characters, Joey, had some things in his past that he’d rather forget. Including an impaired driving charge that ruined his career and landed him in jail.

Coming home from a party, with his boss’ daughter in the passenger seat, Joey decided to plant his fancy sports car through the dealer’s showroom window – “returning it for poor service.”

Yes, the thought had crossed my mind. No, I’d never do it. And no, I’ve never driven a sports car. But Joey gave me the chance to entertain the thought vicariously. Not in the “I wish it would happen” way, but in an offbeat, darkish sort of amusement that I can’t explain.

Something shifted. I still made a conscious choice to forgive, whenever I stopped at the lights facing the building. But now I had a little grin on my face, and my private joke took the barb out of my old wound. Eventually, I could drive by with a smile and no hurt feelings at all.

For the fiction writers reading this post, I’m curious: what’s something from your own life that has crept into your stories? Have you done this sort of stress-release intentionally?

sketchlley - cover lies - AFor the readers (including writers): if you’d like to see how Joey’s past comes back to cause trouble in his present, I’m giving away one copy of my Christian romantic suspense, Secrets and Lies. It’s really Carol’s story, the single mom threatened by a drug lord, but Joey would very much like to be her friend – and more.

One commenter’s name will be chosen at random to receive a copy of the book. Offer void where prohibited.


JIM:  Thanks, Janet.  Good story.  I saw a writer at the last conference who had on  a Tee that said, “Be nice, or you’ll appear in my next novel.”  I’ll bet many of us have included a caricature of someone in our novel.  If you have a story to tell on that front, leave a comment.  AND, you’ll be entered in the drawing for a free copy of Janet’s Secrets and Lies.  Thanks.

34 thoughts on “Don’t Annoy the Novelist

  1. We had some good conversation here. Thank you, everyone!

    Our randomly-chosen winner of a copy of Secrets and Lies is Marja McGraw. Marja, I’ll be emailing you to make arrangements about sending your book. Congratulations!

  2. I have put personal incidents and family situations into my stories, though none were intended to ‘get even’ or release resentment. At present, my WIP is taking a swipe at segregation on the railways during WWII – Soldiers on a train, told they must sit behind a curtain in a ‘white only’ car (in Arkansas). Such events are seldom discussed or remembered any more. So sad. Thanks for an interesting post.

    • Elaine, these historical tidbits are both interesting and important. If we gloss over what we don’t like about our past, we’re likely to either repeat it or to think better of ourselves than we should.

      I think we need to be careful in releasing our frustrations in fiction. If we allow ourselves the mindset of getting even, blaming or retaliating, it’ll get between us and God. For me, with my car scene, that meant I had to be sure I wasn’t really wishing harm to the actual people/business involved. I was using an offbeat type of humour to joke about something that wouldn’t be funny in real life.

  3. I really unloaded bad feelings for my ex-son-in-law in my last novel, now with my agent. The name and profession are changed–he is a minister, and we Christians are very sensitive to having ministers be the bad guys. So I made him a junior college professor. I left in the part about the unfaithfulness and porno addiction. So there!

    • That’s true, Lee, about negative Christian characters, even though they’re real. Sometimes we have to write them. Were you able to bring this fictional guy to a better resolution than his real-life inspiration?

  4. Similarly I did not put a particular story in my book, especially since it was creative nonfiction and people might recognize the characters. But who’s to know how I might use the story angle in some other story in a fictional setting, while changing a whole bunch of things about the story. Thanks for your article, Janet.

    • Yes, it’s not about hurting anyone, Carolyn, but about a little stress relief… and when we stop to think, often we can use some nugget of one situation to deepen our writing about something else. We do have to be careful.

  5. Janet, Your post is actually quite uplifting. I’m sure at some time each of us has hatched a plan to get even, although we wouldn’t follow through. Yes, there have been a couple of books, or even just scenes, where I was able to get the frustration and anger out of my system through fiction because of things people or businesses have done. Excellent post!

  6. Thanks for the post. Life’s experiences have a way into our fiction, only it’s not always fiction. I, too, am writing about unpleasant topics and have to be careful not to include real life experiences of people I know or about myself. That’s sometimes difficult, so I have to be careful…too many tragic events creep in. How does one avoid including a lot of experiences without revealing reality? That’s the question for me.

    • Hi Pirkko, I think it’s especially difficult when we want to address something without identifying the people involved. We don’t want to add hurt or cause trouble (or lawsuits). This isn’t something I’ve dealt with, myself, but one question I’d ask is, can you take the essence of a particular issue and re-set it in different circumstances? For example, a sibling rivalry could become a workplace one, or an abandonment by a parent could be a betrayal by a friend? The underlying emotional experience and reactions could be the same, but in a different situation? Or start with a similar situation with different types/genders/ages etc of characters, and let it play out differently to show what could have happened if different choices were made? The basic guideline I’ve seen in writing advice is to change the characters and situation so they’re not recognizable. On the other hand, I’ve heard writers say they’ve been accused by specific individuals of writing about them, when that wasn’t the case. So perhaps guilty consciences will recognize themselves even if we don’t plan to include them 🙂

        • Is this a fiction project, or non? If it’s fiction, you might even want to pick just a few key details/situations to use, and save all the rest for later projects. You can still journal them all out for your private thought processes, and just pick the bits that are most relevant to your work-in-progress.

  7. This is so interesting, Janet, and I probably know the dealership you are referring to. I haven’t written a lot of fiction but it would be a great place to work out these incidents in life, in a clean way! Great story of how you did this!

    • Ruth Ann, they hold flea markets in the parking lot on weekends now. But I’m careful not to publicize what brand of vehicles they sold… no point in annoying the corporate powers-that-be. I do find it fun (therapeutic?) to release some negative experiences this way, or to do what some of the other commenters have said, and revisit a situation and allow a character to say what I wish I’d thought at the time. If I can look back and see a lesson, then I can write it as short non-fiction.

  8. Thanks Janet – I too write out my ‘issues’ in my writing. Sometimes I try to explore what happened in others’ relationships too. Generationally I have tried writing out the tension between my mother and my grandmother in hopes of understanding my mother better – she told me once about losing a quarter on her way back from selling their eggs. Everyone in the family went out to search for the quarter (this was in the 1930s). I imagined the tension between her (the oldest daughter) and her mom who had sent her – it was all the money they had for that week. My grandmother had been pushed into an early marriage and my mom suffered the frustration of it. They never found the quarter. Peace comes at an awful price sometimes.

    • Taking time to write things out is a great way to explore some of the behind-the-scenes influences on relationships and events. It’s sad that we can’t change the hurtful times, but if we can understand, it can help us and help our relationships. I think it gives our writing a depth and empathy, too. Thanks for commenting, Maribeth. That lost quarter story is a great insight into how tough the struggle was in the 30’s, and I can only imagine how much worse the tension was because of your grandmother’s existing resentment.

  9. Pingback: Don't Annoy the Novelist | Janet Sketchley

  10. A few years ago, a guy broke up with me in a very humiliating, disrespectful way. I rewrote the scene in my first novel (not published) with the added benefit of having the heroine react the way I wish I had! He didn’t come off that well either. Even if the book is never published, it felt good.

  11. The premise for the contemporary romance my agent is trying to sell is the young girl who grew up with separated parents, like mine. I wrote the whole scene of my Daddy leaving as the prologue. Even though I cut it later, it felt good to write it. Though it was absolutely for the best that my parents didn’t get back together, the parents in this story did. Fiction is wonderful, don’t you think?

    • Fiction is a wonderful way to let us re-examine and sometimes re-write life, isn’t it, Jenny? That prologue must have been so hard to write, but it probably brought some closure. One of the things I try to be mindful of is when the writing’s for me, when it’s for the the reader, and when it’s for both.

  12. I’ve got a good dealer and service department now. Past experiences aren’t so good. For example – I went back into the shop to see what was actually going on. “That your pickup?” asked a mechanic. Yes, it is. “There’s mine over there. It kept jumping out of gear. So I cut me a pine board. Wedged the shift lever down.”

    And that guy was gonna work or MY truck? No way!

  13. Enjoyable post, Janet and James. Yes, I’ve done something similar. In Rhapsody in Red and its contracted sequel I took on some of the conflicts I’d experienced but that are common to many denominational colleges: academic standards vs. commercialism, education vs. indoctrination, and Christian heritage vs. secularism. In the interest of fairness, however, I always take care by various means that no actual person or institution is represented in the novel. And, of course, I never let that background environment interfere with the story.

    • Donn, it can be a good way to explore some of these conflicts as well as to let people outside the “arena” know about them. I agree, it’s important to not represent a specific individual or institution, especially in a bad light, and not to turn the novel into an agenda-driven commentary.

    • As I’ve mentioned before, I had a personal encounter with eminent domain. But when I put it in a book, I decided not to mention the specific industry of my experience. Thanks for the interesting comment, Donn.

  14. My pleasure, Janet. And I love the topic. In my latest novel, Over My Dead Body, I take a swipe at the use of eminent domain. It’s not at a particular person, but at the courts who have trampled people’s property rights. Thanks for a great post.

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