Michelle Haimoff on How to Steal From Your Friends

In her novel These Days Are Ours, author Michelle Haimoff writes about what it’s like to be privileged and yet still yearning. Her protagonist, Hailey, has come home to her parents’ penthouse apartment after graduating from college, jobless and shaken by the terrorist attacks of September 11. Hailey spends her time thinking about her future prospects and flailing through an extended adolescence with her similarly-minded friends–until she meets Adrian, a Brown student who makes Hailey question her entire worldview and upbringing. The best thing about These Days Are Ours is its authenticity–you truly feel as though Hailey and her friends could be you and your friends, thanks to Haimoff’s incredibly realistic, candid dialogue.

Read Michelle’s advice below, then follow her writing exercise: write down things your friends say, then use those lines to build a fictional scene that’s mostly dialogue. Tag your writing haimoffbff and the Figment editors will choose our four favorites to feature on the figment.com homepage! Tag your entry by 12 p.m. ET on March 16, 2012 to enter.

I think I have the greatest friends in the world. Does everyone feel this way? Maybe. But I’m convinced. I would not be able to write anything without my friends. You know that expression, “Write what you know”? We are what I know. Whenever I write dialogue, I ask myself if it is something one of my friends or I would say. If it’s not, I scrap it. I once told a much younger writer, “Write down everything you react to–whether it makes you laugh, makes you angry, or makes you cry. After doing this for a while, you’ll find yourself with a draft of a novel.”

Some people have projects mapped out from beginning to end. Not me. I start with the thoughts and conversations that are true to my and my friends’ lives and then build a structure around those elements. I didn’t know what was going to happen to the characters in These Days Are Ours while I was writing it, but certain themes came up that struck me as universal–hooking up with a friend’s sibling, dealing with divorced parents, wanting to marry someone who is culturally similar, stressing out about not having a job after college–those are just some of the themes in the book, but they’re themes that I’m something of an expert in (and you always want to write about that on which you’re an expert).

Here’s a writing exercise: spend the next week jotting down the things that you and your friends find hilarious. If it’s a private joke, give it context. Humor can be surprisingly universal. After you’ve written it out, turn it into a scene. Write dialogue the way you and your friends actually speak. Switch around who says what. If one of the lines would sound better from a specific type of person (reserved, loud, sarcastic), create that character. As inspiring as real life and real people can be, remember that the beauty of fiction is the flexibility to create any characters you’d like.

As for making sure that your friends don’t get mad at you–if something specific about a friend is what makes the scene funny, disguise that character. Turn a woman into a man, or change nationalities, or even hair color. And while you shouldn’t shy away from writing about a mean spirited character, don’t use writing as a means of revenge. Make sure the character you’re the hardest on is the one that most resembles you. Try to encapsulate why you’ve chosen who you’ve chosen to be your friends. The world desperately needs more strong cool female characters.

From These Days Are Ours:

The waiter put down two coffees and two croissants.
“When’s your birthday?”
“November twenty-second. When’s yours?”
“April thirtieth. Scorpio and Taurus. A fiery duo.”
“I’m on the cusp, and I can’t believe you’re into astrology.”
“My younger sister reads me my horoscope.”
“Yeah, right. You’re clearly her closeted older brother.”
“Just because I try on her clothes when she’s not around doesn’t make me gay.” One of the tourists glanced at him. He lowered his voice. “I’m guessing you’re the youngest in your family?”
“Yes,” I said. “How could you tell? My effortless charm?”
He reached for the jam. “Your constant need for attention.”
“Is this you being a dick?”
“That depends,” he said. “Is this you being turned on?”

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