Why True Stories Don’t Always Make for Good Fiction

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard someone say, “I could write a book about my life,” I could stop using the cliché, ‘If I had a dime.’  I must confess; whenever I hear someone dishing the intimate details of their life I am always looking for a story in it…because…hey…you just never know.

But the truth is real life stories don’t always make for the best fiction. I think of the infamous James Frey. You remember the guy who wrote A Million Little Pieces, a candid memoir which we later found out was not so much true as it was fiction, hence no longer true by any account. Oprah called him on it because it was one of her book club picks and it went on to become a New York Times best seller because of this. Yet no one could deny that the story was well written. (O.K. as it turns out some thought it read as something contrived.) A few million were moved by the story. The point is, arguably Frey needed to use creative license (make up stuff) to make the story sound, tightly woven and plotted, like well written fiction. As a true story, I’m willing to believe the story would have been lacking…something. And Frey obviously agreed, hence his reason for making up most of it. Here are a few reasons why fiction and true stories can’t always marry.

Fiction is a fabricated truth

It is true that fiction contains elements of truth. We take real life events and then we create a story. We build on that story from bits of our imagination, mingled with what we know and what we want to happen; we completely change the ending, maybe, or the location; we change the protagonist from male to female, from White to Black because, as fiction writer Alyce Miller says, “Fiction…is a method of transforming, not simply transcribing, life.” These liberties are like candy for a fiction writer. We have the privilege to create.  Fiction is truth–fabricated.

The truth doesn’t always pan out into a sound story

The other day my brother was over and telling this joke which had him doubled over and I’m thinking, pull it together man and tell the joke we all want to laugh. Finally, he straightened up and told it between fits of laughter. We are all sitting there waiting for the funny part to sink in. Nothing. It was one of those workplace type jokes that just didn’t transfer to the general public. I’m sure if he would’ve told it to one of his coworkers they both would have been on the floor. Sometimes, with true stories, especially incidents which are personal and intimate the emotional attachment is so intense we somehow feel that those feeling will automatically transfer in our writing. But if the characters aren’t fully developed, or the plot is weak or full of holes, we won’t connect with the story. We don’t continue to read about stuff or people we don’t care about. Just because you care about them in real life doesn’t mean your reader will, unless given a reason.

No, seriously this is a true story

The saying that truth is stranger than fiction is absolutely true. But that doesn’t mean that it is good enough for fiction. I know, how ironic is that? But have you ever heard a story that was so absurd you absolutely didn’t believe it until the storyteller showed you proof? Well, real life events are like that. They aren’t tidy and neat. They don’t necessarily have story arcs or plot points or climaxes where the suspense is driving you crazy. Sometimes events shift suddenly without reason. True stories are all over the place rising and falling in the most unexpected spots. Frey said, “I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.”  And dude, I get that. That’s what we all what. But we don’t always get that with true stories. Remember, fiction is about the suspension of disbelief. If it rings as absurd you’ll get called on it, no matter how true it is.

Sometimes you will get to tell that story for which the back cover of the book will read: Based on a true story. But if not, just keep making them up.

What do you think? Are true stories usually worthy to be told as fiction? I would love to hear from you.

The Beauty of Rejection: Examine yourself, Examine your fiction

In the perfect world we would write the perfect story, the perfect work of fiction and…boom. Editors would fight over who gets first or second rights. But is that really a perfect world or just our ego rearing its humongous bald head?  Tall Stack of Documents --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

For most of my life teachers, parents, etc. told me that wrote well. Praise like that tends to both build your confidence and inflate your ego. In reality I had some kind of gift but in the context of a classroom full of kids who would rather undergo a tonsillectomy than write anything that is not saying much.

Yes, I had a talent. It was not until I begin submitting my work that I realized it was not rare. Why editors didn’t absolutely fawn over my work was a mystery. It would take a minute for me to get it: they see tens of thousands of manuscripts each year, many from folks whose egos were as inflated as mine, and whose talents were even bigger. This was not third-grade general Ed. There was nothing general about this group.

There were plenty of rejection letters. When I finally got the offer letter for my novel I cried. I had made it. But it was all those rejections that taught me more than anything. Let me share a few of the things I’ve learned.

Giving Up is Not an Option

The rapper and hip-hop mogul Jay-Z said: Excellence is performing at a high level consistently. He goes on to say that anyone can have that hot record or be hot for a little while. But a person of excellence is performing at a high level consistently. When rejections keep coming and you keep tweaking, changing, searching for ways to make it better, your energy and processing are at their highest. You’re pushing yourself despite the urge to quit. To consistently override thoughts of disappointment and fear and hurt and push past it and towards something you know is there but do not see is a form of excellence. When I watch marathon runners I wonder at which point their bodies say enough this is where we stop. But their will urges them on. Their resolve is strengthened. And again I imagine, at some point their bodies began to scream, but their will pushes them further and closer; override, override, until they are operating in sheer will.   A rejection is just a reminder to keep pushing, you haven’t gotten there. But you will not be at rest.

Reexamines and Check the Ego

Reexamine. I began writing my novel in 2007. Spending that much time with yourself either does one of two things: gives you an inflated sense of connectedness with your own work or causes you to detest it. After a while you began to fall in love with it, sometimes in an unhealthy way. Imagine: your two-year old’s farts are brutal and the family thinks this is disgustingly hilarious; such an awful smell to come out of such a tiny, cute body. What could be funnier? You’re doubled over with laughter. And then he does it in church and the old lady sitting next to you erupts in a fit of gagging and has to be escorted out. Hmmm…not so cute anymore.

When our ‘baby’ is taken out in public others may have a different perspective. This helps us to constantly grow, reexamine our work, take out our little darlings and replace them with moving dialogue or exposition. It helps us to not fall in love with any piece of work, because most of it should be expendable if it is not working towards making our story stronger.

Confirms our status as a professional

People who only hope to one day write or who believe writing is kinda cool don’t have to worry about rejection letters—form or otherwise. Their dreams keep them in a perpetual state of hopefulness. They are the ones who always encourage you. And you really want to slap them sometimes but decide against it.  When you have a dog in the fight you get tired and discouraged and sometimes you are sure editors just don’t get it. But this simply means we are working, not sitting or wondering what it feels like to write, but working and getting our hands dirty. We feel defeat and sometimes, have to encourage ourselves hourly. But I’m finding that’s O.K. As long as we are in the running, the chances of us winning are very likely.

The Mundane Parts of Fiction: How to Move Your Story Along

dog-12Let’s face it; every part of our story doesn’t pop with excitement and drama. There is the humdrum of the everyday life that is about as interesting as a plate of food grown cold. Sometimes we don’t know how to navigate through these sections without boring our readers.

In my last blog I talked about life’s mundane moments–the daily, tedious rituals or habits that on the surface appear to be meaningless at best and completely mind-numbing at worst. But daily habits establish character and sometimes tell us more about people than dialogue. It is those unspoken words and movements of how, when and where we do what we do that reveals more about us than words can ever reveal. In writing fiction, instead of simply moving characters along or having them perform mundane tasks, turn these into opportunities to advance your story.

Do it with purpose

Using the mundane routines can help with character development and you can drop information by bits this way instead of large chunks of seemingly endless exposition. For example, your protagonist, Sean tends to drink too much when he gets upset:

Sean walks inside and smells dinner being prepared. He mixes himself a cranberry juice and vodka–light on the juice. He settles down in the recliner, thinking of his fight with his boss. He shouldn’t have gone on about that account the way he did. He sips as he wonders why he always allows Richard to get to him that way. Looking down at his empty glass he gets up and prepares another drink, this time leaving out the juice and the ice altogether.

Dropping information throughout the story at various opportunities while your characters are performing everyday tasks will help develop your characters. Think of the way you truly find out information about people. Yes, sometimes people tell you about themselves but more often than not you find out much more through careful observation of what they do. It is the same in fiction writing.

If you don’t want to write it, they probably will not want to read it

Elmore Leonard, author of Get Shorty said, “Skip the boring parts.” Sometimes we feel we must include every step of a task to give the story a sense of realness or to ensure that our story doesn’t appear to jump from scene to scene with no transition. Wait. He was just in the car driving home. He’s eating dinner already?  Seamless movement requires transitional words. If we know that Sean is on his way home from work, we don’t have to record him pulling up into the driveway, going up the steps, unlocking the door, closing it and locking it.  Summarize certain areas and trust that your reader will know he had to unlock the door to get inside, unless of course there is a reason that the door is unlocked in the first place or you are trying to build suspense for what he finds once he steps inside. Recording every little step is cumbersome and frankly, your reader won’t even care.

Once is enough

Every day after work Sean leaves and heads home. Chances are he takes the same route, passes the same stores, neighborhood and so on. Therefore it isn’t necessary to rehash the same scene unless of course your point is to show how mundane his routine really is and his frustration for the routine. And even then switch it up a little.  It’s similar to that guy who tells the joke and after the punch line everyone is laughing and instead of him relishing in his successful execution he explains the joke. We get it. Keep it moving.

Trust me, they get it. Keep it moving.

Thank God for the Mundane: Walking Through the Every Day

When I was a kid, Sunday was the most boring, tedious day of all. The house would rise early and scramble in preparation for church. There were eight of us and it took us three hours just to get out the door. My four younger brothers and sisters were only a few years apart and at that time, two were in diapers and the other two were not far behind them.

Out the door and in tow, were two baby bags stuffed with cloth diapers, (not for spit-ups but for wearing…seriously) plastic pants (they covered the cloth diapers), wipes, snacks, safety pins, hard candy (Mom’s sugar rush) and crackers; various changes of clothing and wash clothes. Once we loaded into the station wagon it felt as tedious as a road trip complete with crying babies and the perpetual smell of someone who’d gone in their pants.

Back then, there was no children’s church with brightly colored words to songs flashing on a giant flat screen so that we could sing along. After an hour and a half of Sunday school kids sat with the grown folks and I was thoroughly convinced that if Pastor Clark’s sermons got any more mind-numbing he’d put himself to sleep. The pews were wooden and hard and shifting only earned you a look which straightened your spine and attitude and had you praying for a hailstorm, tornado or some other sudden disaster to disrupt the monotony. Afterwards it was home where Momma cooked a big meal that took hours and afterwards we sat around watching, Wild Kingdom.

Years later Dad became afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s disease and our days were filled with caring for him. We were back and forth to the nursing home and hospitals trying to figure it all out. Years later, Mom grappled with lung cancer. My sister and I took turns caring for her: washing, bathing and pumping stellar drugs into her body in hopes of a miraculous breakthrough.  She’d lived a good life and was now ready for eternal rest.

Sometimes sitting with her I would long for those boring, predictable days, including our Sunday ritual. There is a welcomed rhythm to the expected. We thrive on it whether we realize it or not. But often we don’t appreciate it until there is an upset. I’m learning that it is not the great events–good or bad that makes life move at a consistent pace, but the slow, steady rhythm of routine. With those anticipated routines we establish good habits and foundations which build character and wholeness in our lives. From those Sunday school lessons I learned the words of faith to help me through the loss of both Dad and Mom. Those long sermons, well they taught me patience and discipline. It is from those Sundays I learned to be consistent.

Those occasional shakeups may startle us or even cause us to buckle. The good ones may create a euphoria that leaves us high for a while. Man how we like feeling on top of the universe. But eventually we have to come down. We begin to long for ease and repetition. It is that expectancy that causes us to turn back that comforter each morning, plant our bare feet on the floor, stretch and rise.

Next blog I’ll explore how to use the mundane to move along your story.

Are You Waiting it out or Giving Up?

waitingSome years back we had a white Astro Van that shot black, chalky smoke from the rear like the stack on an industrial plant, moved at the speed of a four-year-old on a tricycle and finally one day, coughed, sputtered and died. I was tempted to prance around and chant, the witch is dead but I remembered it was my only source of transportation. Suddenly I was forced to take the bus to get around.

Public transportation really doesn’t suite me because it requires that I actually stand and wait on something and I’ve never really been good at that. Besides, in my experience buses and cabs rarely showed up early and were usually late. To add to it, I lived in Michigan at the time and the winters are brutal to the faint of heart and not much better for those who consider themselves brave. Sometimes I would take a cab when I could afford such a luxury and on those days I was really feeling flustered and peeved at the world for permitting the death of my Astro van. On cab days I would loll around inside the nearby CVS until my ride came. (Did I mention I hate waiting?) Not once, but several times I missed my cab and even after explaining to the dispatcher that I had in fact been waiting patiently, and a long time at that, I had to be placed on the bottom of that list and forced to wait…again.

At first glance there seems to be an obvious difference between waiting it out and giving up. But if you look closely the two often share the same attributes.

Waiting often mocks the appearance of doing nothing or giving up because it is internal, you can’t see it. You only know that someone is waiting because they tell you so. We wait because we are hopeful and that is not always apparent to the onlooker. On the other hand someone can tell you with the broadest smile that they are hopeful, when, in fact, hope packed up and left weeks ago.

Well, what is the difference between waiting it out and giving up?

To give up is to retreat and stop hoping both physically and in spirit. When we give up we take our eyes and mind off of the thing. When I would go into that CVS to browse my eyes were no longer on the lookout for the cab and it didn’t take long for my mind to follow and focus on something more apparent–something that’s actually present.

With writers and other professionals where awaiting a response from other entities is as much a part of what we do as the profession itself, waiting must become somewhat of an art; we wait on editors, publishers, readers…checks. We are constantly pitching, selling and reaching out. We are told not to stalk or pester or appear anxious. Don’t call us until six weeks have passed…we are currently two months behind on reviewing queries… We are instructed to be gracious, enthusiastic, but not frustrated. All the while our insides are screaming for a response NOW. And if we aren’t careful our hope can dwindle to a mere ember as we move on to other projects or set our eyes on something more likely…like a real job. We become disinterested in trying to fix or adjust that which we were holding out for.

Giving up diminishes a part of us. In some regards it is like death; what we hoped for is no longer a part of us. We may smile and tell our friends we know it’s coming. They look at us assuredly smiling along with us. People want to believe in us, because in some way we reflect their own hopes and aspirations.

With waiting there is an internal anticipation, an alertness that follows expectancy. When we are actively waiting with hope, we are unconquerable and tend to take more risks and are more resilient to rejection. We are focused, centered. We are more prone to hear the voice of God, because we expect to.

And as long as we have hope, we will wait it out.

How do you deal with waiting? I would love to hear from you!