Sunday, December 27, 2009

real fiction

“But that really happened,” the writer says. “That’s exactly the way it really happened.”

He’s saying this in response to criticism from his critique group that the scene doesn’t seem real.

“It is real,” he says as if he’s throwing down a trump card. “That scene is as real as it gets.”

Au contraire. Real life does not always make real fiction.

I think this is one of the big mistakes of beginning writers. Often times faithfully rendering something that really happened in life will lead the writer down the wrong path. Either he’ll put in the wrong details or too many details or the whole scene will not fit with the rest of the novel.

You can’t trust real life when it comes to fiction. Of course you use your life and things that have happened to you and things you’ve felt in your fiction, but you always have to remember that you’re writing a story. YOU ARE WRITING A STORY. Sometimes that’s hard to remember because we want our stories to have verisimilitude. But I believe we can only achieve that by carefully picking and choosing details that serve the character and story. You can’t be true to real life and do that. You have to be true to your story.

Or so I think today.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Real fiction


So now I’m trying to figure out what is going on in this scene I’ve been writing. For inspiration, I go for a walk. Maybe it isn’t inspiration I’m looking for exactly so much as clarity.

So I walk down my street, which parallels a little lake that’s more like a river, taking my sheepdog and lab along for company. (Dogs are great company on walks and make your walk seem purposeful. You’re not just wandering around aimlessly, obsessing on your writing, you’re walking the dogs. )

Anyway, there we are and I’m thinking and not thinking, feeling the warm sun on my face, looking out over the water, when one of my characters appears next to me, a deep frown on his handsome face. His steps match mine.

“Yo, dude, you got it all wrong.”

“Got what all wrong?”


“What’s all wrong?”

“I’m a lot better looking for one thing, and I sure as hell am smarter. You make me sound like a barking idiot.”

Both dogs look at him when he says barking and then look around hopefully. (It’s a word they know. I use it around the house frequently as in, “Quit barking.”)

“You let your jealousy get the best of you,” I say. “Jealousy will do that. It will take over everything.”

“It’s not jealousy. I do what’s right for everyone. Can’t they see he’s a fake? He’s just a fake.”

“What I don’t get is how you could think what you’re doing will solve your problem.”

“My problem? Everyone else has the frickin problem. I don’t have a problem. They just can’t see. That’s the problem. And I’m going to make them see. I’m going to force them to understand.”

“Understand what?”

“That I’m the one. Not him. I’m the one.”

“The one what?”

“That they should love.”

And then I see. Yes. That’s it. That’s what he wants and needs. That's where the desperation comes from. I start to ask him more, but some neighbors pass and I think it best to pretend I’m one of them, you know not insanely talking to a fictional character, so I say “Hi” and “Nice day.” My dogs, witness to the whole act, look back at me, raising imaginary dog eyebrows. But then, being dogs, forget about me when they smell something on the grass, mostly likely another dog’s pee. What self-respecting dog wouldn’t greedily sniff in such circumstances? It’s what makes the same walk every day always different to them.

And so, a day in the life, or a few minutes in the life, of a writer and his dogs.

I think a lot of writers solve problems in their stories when they're doing mindless tasks like walking or taking a shower or brushing their teeth. If you're involved in your manuscript, you're going to constantly struggle with parts of it that bother you when you do other things. Still, I wish I could control it more. It's a little freaky to drive somewhere and realize when you get there that you don't actually remember driving because you've been thinking about whether your character should really go to that party or stay home.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

character invention

I’m not someone who builds a character by listing his or her favorite colors, where he or she went to school, what his or her favorite books, food, movies, kind of jeans and tennis-shoes are. Some authors do this and they have a lot of success building a character in this way. A lot of writing books promote it. A lot of teachers promote it.

I’m not arguing against it. It works for some people. If it works for you, great. It doesn’t help me though. It doesn’t make my characters richer. It makes me self-conscious and it tends to make me force things.

I believe in creating a character in an organic way without any preconceived notions about what he/she might become as he/she evolves in a manuscript. I don’t want to know or think about his or her favorite color or ice cream. I want to be fluid and unencumbered by facts, trivial or otherwise, until they arrive in the natural order of invention. That is as the story evolves, the characters evolve. Another explanation might just be that I’m lazy, but while this is no doubt true, you have to find what works for you and go with that. I do, as I’m working on the manuscript, write little notes about characters. That is, I test out things I learn about characters. Is J. really against potbelly pigs in the house? Why? But something about filling out forms on characters before I write or in the very early stages has a bureaucratic feel. When I’m revising in later stages I might do a character analysis or listing, but not early on.

Probably it just goes back to my notion that writing a novel starts with getting into a place that allows you to live in the work and make the right choices about your story. Within this context you will discover all kinds of things about your characters and what they want and what they fear and maybe, even, what their favorite color is.

Monday, December 14, 2009

What We Do

I’ve watched a lot of football over the past few weeks so I’m thinking about football.

Football players wreck their bodies and put them through incredible punishment for what? They usually begin playing as children and those with talent are encouraged early. By middle—school they’re playing on a team. Most of them, if they don’t get hurt, play in high school. But only a few will get scholarships to play in college and only a very few will get scholarships at major universities. Out of those, a tiny fraction will be legally paid, will make it to the pros. The chances, I’m told, of playing pro football are one in a million. And those few who make it will play for an average of three years. Almost all players will be finished as a player by the time they’re in their early thirties. (Say yahoo, authors, because we can write until taking our final breaths).

So what about this? Why do they do it? For some there’s the possibility of the escape from poverty, the lure of girls, the chance for fame and riches. Everyone has a mix of motives for pursuing something that takes singular dedication and sacrifice. But I think most of them do it for one main reason and it’s the same reason writers write and actors act and painters paint. Love. How many people love what they do? A big part of who we are is what we do, and yet most people don’t love what they do. It’s worth a lot of struggle and heartache and pain, physical or other, to find the thing you love to do and do it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Be Bold

I’m working on a new draft now, and I’m struggling some days. When you first start a new draft, it’s all possibility. It’s great because you can go anywhere. But after thirty pages it’s not so great. Why? Because you can go anywhere.

All these possibilities, all these choices—that’s what a first draft is full of. It seems like every few pages offer some new crossroads. If you think about it too much, you’ll freeze at those places. But let’s say everything goes well and you don’t freeze; you’ll still have a lot of difficult choices. Going down one road always means you won’t be going down another. What interesting things might you have come to if you had gone down the other? Alas, one of the unfortunate limitations of being a writer and human is you’ll never know.

But writing a novel is all about choices and many of those choices, in a first draft, are intuitive. Of course you can always backtrack a bit if you feel you really did go down a wrong road. Sometimes you should. Sometimes though you should just force yourself on. I’m working on a first draft now while I let something set for four or five weeks. I found myself writing a scene that doesn’t seem to fit. I considered going back but then I decided just to push on.

I think sometimes you just have to go with that first instinct, you have to be bold. Maybe you’ll throw the scene out in revision, but writing it may provide you with some benefits you can’t see. Maybe it will help you make necessary connections in your story or be some piece of back-story that illuminates a character for you at a critical moment. Everything that goes into a first draft will have to be scrutinized in later drafts, but I think it’s better to push on many times and just be aware that you worried about the scene a little in the first draft. It’s better to make those bold choices and see where they take you.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Using Your Life

One of the great things about writing is that nothing in life is ever wasted. It can all be recycled in a story: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

For example, you get in a fight with your wife, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend. Well, it’s never pleasant, but regardless of the outcome you will have something to bury and use later. Not that you will recreate the fight exactly, but it will be buried in your compost pile (every writer has one) and when (perhaps years later) you’re writing a scene where lovers argue you will dig up moments from that old argument. Of course these moments will need to be changed to fit the story, but that will happen automatically as long as you’re true to the moment in the story. So—nothing is wasted.

IMPORTANT TIP: Never bring this fact up during or after an argument with a boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse. Even though, when you’ve lost one of those silly arguments, you may feel like saying, “You may think you’ve won, but I’m just putting all this away to use later when I’m working on a novel. Ha.”

Bad idea.