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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Fiction Writing and the "What If" factor

I decided when I was about 12 or so that I wanted to be a writer. I arrived at this conclusion because I understood that while I could watch things on TV, and read other people's stories about events everywhere, I could not always have the experience directly.

I began writing in earnest when I watched Winning Colors, a filly, win the Kentucky Derby. And I asked myself, "What if a filly won the Triple Crown? What if I was the jockey?"

And those questions lead to other questions, and I found the answers at the tip of my pencil, writing into the late hours of the night. I must have re-written that story time and time again, trying to figure it all out, and as an adult, I am still working on the story. Unfortunately, since my perspective has changed, it has become much more difficult and I am hindered by the fact that I still have not had the opportunity to see the world from the back of a racehorse at a dead run, although I have watched a camera fly out of my shirt pocket while at a full gallop.

So I guess I have the elements, the necessary disconnectedness needed so as to surprise the reader from time to time with seemingly inconsequential moments, and enough experience to extend the imagination.

But I don't have enough facts.

That brings me to my next point. The cool thing about writing fiction is that the process answers the question, "What if?" However, we have to consider the ethics and the morality of our answers.

Given the subject of my particular story, I need more facts. The story is fiction, but the likely audience of such a book would be offended if I got everything wrong. They would want to know why they weren't consulted. People love to talk, to share their stories, and have a personal interest in not seeing their lives, their culture, etc., misrepresented by shoddy work. That's ethics. Don't insult your readers.

Of course, it's impossible to avoid offending everyone, if a story is truthfully told; unless it is fantasy, and even sometimes when it is, people will find something offensive to their delicate sensibilities. I do not suggest that we as writers (or aspiring writers such as myself) go out of our way to offend, but we cannot be afraid of conflict. Without conflict, there is no story, and once the story is out, there may be additional real-world conflict.

I love fiction, I love reading fiction, and long ago, even while recognizing fiction, I wanted truthfulness in the stories I read. I wanted the storyline to be feasable, to make sense, and when it didn't I found myself disappointed.

I think it would be difficult to find someone not in agreement with this. One example I can give is cop shows on TV. They always get stuff wrong, and it drives me crazy. They'd have a better story if they stuck to the truth.

On the other hand, fiction opens doors to suspend reality...back to the "what if" factor. Consider "Demolition Man". One element of that movie addressed the enforcement of law without the use of weapons or force. The movie did not ask us to judge the movie by current police standards, as by their context they defined the parameters of their story to exclude what we understand to be true.

As Christian writers we need to be aware of even a higher standard, namely, as that set down by our faith. We have to be true to Jesus Christ in the words we set down on the page. Debates rage around this topic...use of profanity, use of sexual intimacy, etc. How much is too much? Is it even appropriate to bring it up?

It's difficult to avoid these issues if one is writing truthfully, but it is possible. I offer as an example Bill Kassel, who wrote a couple of great books dealing with the issue of abortion and homosexuality. If you haven't read his work, look him up.

In sum, contiue to ask the question "What if", open your imagination to endless possibilities, and let the Holy Spirit and a well formed conscience be your guide as you discern the limits available to you.

Hmmmm...define "irony"...what if this gets published somewhere like a magazine for Catholic writers? (does any such thing exist?)


Our Word said...

Excellent points. I've asked myself many of those questions many times in my own fiction writing. In an attempt to present an accurate portrait of life, in trying to tell a story about "real" people, how far does a Christian writer go?

For me, it's been a matter of motive, as well as the effect my writing has on the reader. What am I trying to achieve through this plot line? Why am I choosing the words I use? Do I have some type of ulterior motive, either for me or for my readers? My writing has its fair share of what some people would call "objectional" language, and yet one could also argue that it's what the situation calls for. I do have boundaries I won't cross, but in looking for a dramatic impact (especially when dealing with any type of redemption) it can be a very difficult issue for a writer.

On your other point, regarding realism, very good question. I think one way to deal with a situation when you don't have enough information is to portray it in such a stylized manner that you appeal to what people expect, while at the same time letting them know that the scene shouldn't be considered 100% accurate. For example, I once wrote a scene that occurred in a strip joint (don't ask), and I wasn't about to go in there for first-hand research. Still, I worked with popular stereotypes and created such a stylized, exaggerated scene that research suddenly doesn't play such a big role.

Maybe we need writing classes. I don't know about a magazine for Catholic writers, but I'd like to hear about one. I know Eve Tushnet deals with quite a few of these issues in her fiction writing, but I don't know how she's reconciled the process in her own mind.

Adoro Te Devote said...

I hate to say this, but if you have questions about the inside of a strip joint, I can give you some of that. Not to any great degree, and I am not proud of my personal experience (no, I was not a stripper), and I also had a friend who was a stripper for awhile. I pray she's out of it now. She didn't like it, anyway.

I understand what you are saying. I think that sometimes objectionable language is actually needed to make the story plausable. Sometimes it's possible to narrate around it, but in actual dialogue..well...dialogue, especially believable dialogue, is difficult enough to reproduce. But I think sometime elimination of the actual speech patters of a certain type of character renders the character unbelievable and wooden and can actually ruin a story.

It's a tough call to make.

I'm pretty sure I need a writing class. Let's start one! (Not with me at the teacher, :-)


Our Word said...

Remember that saying - "those that can, do. Those that can't, teach." Still sure you want me to teach? ;)

I agree with you on the language. I've dropped a few f-bombs and the like, but I do have my limits. No matter how plausible it might seem, I won't use the Lord's name in vain. I admit there are times when it's the logical thing for someone to say, and maybe I'm being too sensitive about it, but to me it just doesn't seem right.

So you were in a strip joint? I might have to forward Chapter 24 to you to vett! :)

Adoro Te Devote said...

That's one of my boundaries..using the Lord's name in vain. I'll admit I've done so myself, but writing the words is the same as saying them...and if I wouldn't say them myself, well...can't cross that line. Regular secular profanity is different, though. I'm still working this out, keep that in mind.

Sure, if you have something to forward, let me have it. I can't make any promises as I'm not an expert, but since I've been in a joint and got inside info from a friend who was actually working in another joint...well, I'm happy if that experience is helpful to someone. It sure wasn't helpful to me personally!

I'm really not proud of this revelation, but no one should be surprised when it come down to it. I wasn't always a trying-to-be-good-Catholic.

Our Word said...

I think we all do things we aren't proud of. We confront it, repent, and move on. Hopefully, we learn from it as well. I say hopefully, although I always seem to be going through remedial education.

You're right about crossing the line, that's exactly how I feel about it. Maybe I haven't set the line close enough, but at least I have one.

Remind me to send you Chapter 24 - I want to see what you think of a joint called "Atlas Shrugged."