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Recently I was at a conference where I met with a writer who was working on a non-fiction memoir. It needed work, but it was viable, I thought.

Imagine my surprise when we met again and he told me he had been advised by two others (faculty members at this conference) to write it as a novel, not as a non-fiction book. He scrapped the memoir and began his fact-based novel.

I think he was given bad advice. I’m assuming the other two faculty members believe that if you can write non-fiction, you can write fiction just as well.

I disagree. Fiction and non-fiction are not the same and, in my opinion, take a different set of talents. Yes, there’s some overlapping. Some fiction techniques are useful in writing non-fiction and vice versa. But few authors succeed at both fiction and non-fiction.

The stumbling block as I see it is that turning a true-life experience into a novel is handicapped by the reality of what actually happened. Fiction is a made-up story. When you try to pour non-fiction realities into a made-up story, you’re no longer free to tailor the story according to your creative imagination.

In my days as an editor, I rejected many novels based on “my grandmother’s life” or “my uncle’s experience in World War II.” Most of the time when I suggested a plot problem or an unbelievable scenario, the reply was, “but it really happened that way.” In fiction, we don’t care if it really happened that way. We want it to be believable and compelling. Non-fiction writers trying to turn a true story into fiction rarely succeed at either.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s fine to write both fiction and non-fiction. I do that myself. But for every book we want to write, we need to ask ourselves and ask the story itself, Is this a novel or is this a non-fiction book? And when we receive the answer, the next question is Do I have the capability of writing it that way?

Not all writers can write both fiction and non-fiction. One of our tasks as writers is to know our strengths and weaknesses and then major on our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. You may want to try writing a true story as a fiction piece as an exercise to see if you can do it well….but please don’t write it for publication without getting some input from several editors/agents/other writers you respect.

Write the story as it’s meant to be told—whether fiction or non-fiction. And then only if you have the skills to write it that way.

I’ve previously mentioned pantsers and plotters as two commonly known ways of writing a novel. Plotters are those who outline their novel ahead of time and pretty much stick to the outline (with some bunny trails and replotting allowed). Pantsers are those who write by the seat of their pants, abhorring the idea of knowing what comes next in their story. Like the reader, they want to be surprised at what happens when they turn the page.

Today, I’d like to propose a third option. That third option is what I’ll call the flashers. (Don’t worry…I’m not going there). I bring this up because I’m somewhat of a flasher myself. A flasher is one who, after a reasonable time of brooding over his novel (read my blog on brooding here), begins to see flashes of his novel, not necessarily in chronological (or any) order.

As an example, for some time now I’ve been brooding about my men’s novel. I know the characters and generally where they’re going, but not specifically (in that way, I’m somewhat of a pantser). One of the men is the father of the main character. He’s about 70 and a lonely widower. Although this character is well known to me in my mind, he, as of now, is still nameless.

Well, last night I had a flash of this nameless character and in this flash (which I perceive as coming near the end of the book), the poor guy had a sudden unexpected heart attack. It struck me hard. I hadn’t thought that would happen….but now I know it must. I also saw in this flash what will happen in terms of his survival of this heart attack. I’m not telling that here, but suffice to say that knowing the outcome will give me some fodder for the ultimate outcome of the novel.

Oddly enough, only mere minutes after the heart attack flash, I had another flash about this same character. In this flash, he had signed up for an internet dating service and was matched up with a gregarious (too gregarious) woman named Dolly. The scene that flashed before me was humorous with our poor old man suffering through a date that he knew within five minutes would be their last date. Dolly, on the other hand, was charmed by our nameless character and chattered her head off for the three hours of their date.

Okay, so I got these two flashes. What now? Well, the important thing is to write these scenes as I saw them, without worrying where they’ll show up in the novel. As I continue to brood, get to know my characters, and experience more flashes, my hope is that the novel will gather enough momentum in my mind for me to begin to put it on paper. As I’m given to procrastination (as are many of you, I’m sure), I must be careful not to overbrood to the point of not beginning the thing. I’ve actually started a few times, but each time, deleted what I had. As you know by now, I’m absolutely obsessed with having the right opening page to novels. Sadly, none of my attempts at a beginning satisfied me. I suspect when I finally hit on that dynamite opening, I will begin the entire thing in earnest by assembling some of my flashes and see how they connect or how I can gently encourage them to connect.

How about you? Are you now or have you ever been a fellow flasher?

Tomorrow night our book group will be discussing A Girl From Yamhill by Beverly Cleary. It’s the first of her two memoirs and has added appeal for us Oregonians because the book takes place in and around Portland (two hours north of us here in Eugene). When I was growing up, I didn’t read Beverly Cleary’s extremely popular books. Mostly my nose was in Hardy boy books and Mad Magazine at that age. Even so, I’m really enjoying the book and will likely turn next to a couple of her better known children’s books, probably Ramona the Pest and Ribsy (unless you have a better recommendation).

I’m not quite finished with A Girl From Yamhill. But I just came to the place where her teacher had the class line up in alphabetical order as if they were books on a shelf. Beverly laments: After that, I found a place on the shelf where my book would be if I ever wrote a book, which I doubted.

Then four pages later she turns in a composition (she’s twelve) and her teacher reads it aloud to the class and says, “When Beverly grows up, she should write children’s books.” Beverly is, of course, “dumbfounded.” The rest is, as they say, history.

Mrs. Cleary turned 94 recently and I have to wonder if she still writes. This book was written when she was in her late seventies, and the second book some time after that. I’d love to see a third memoir by her.

One reason for blogging about her today is to mention a previous memory of her girlhood writing efforts that’s noteworthy. A writing contest was held wherein the children were to write an essay about any animal. Beverly, Oregonian that she was, chose the Beaver. She entered because her mother had drilled into her that she should always try, even when she doesn’t feel capable of completing the task. She won the contest (only to find out hers was the only entry), and she concludes the memory with this observation:

This incident was one of the most valuable lessons in writing I ever learned. Try! Others will talk about writing but may never get around to trying.

Wow, is that ever true! Some of my most memorable writing efforts were when I tried something that seemed hard, but which I really wanted to do in spite of the obstacles. My present project is that way. It’s a genre I’ve never written before and is about a ten on the risk-o-meter, but if it succeeds, I’ll be a very happy man. Early on I faced some seemingly overwhelming obstacles as I began the project. More than once I really wanted to pull the plug on the whole thing….but I just couldn’t. Sometimes I still feel like pulling the plug….but I just can’t. I’m trying something new and I’m going to see it through until God Himself pulls the plug. In the meantime, I’m learning, having a great deal of fun, and best of all, I really feel like this project IS God’s will and will ultimately be a blessing to many.

The point is, what in your writing career have you been afraid to try? Or did you try something once and got some discouraging reviews? Don’t let that stop you if it’s something you really want to do.

Keep trying! Or, if you’re bored with your present writing, try something new. Fear not!

I apologize for the absence in blogging. I was away at a really fine writer’s conference and came back to a manuscript I was editing that was facing a quick deadline. In fact, I’m still busy enough that today’s blog will be short, but hopefully meaningful. (And to my FB friends, this is not the rant. Sorry Patrick).

In this week’s Publisher’s Weekly, there’s a brief interview with Toni Morrison. A couple of her answers to PW’s questions jumped out at me as important points for every writer to remember, so I offer them with hopes they will help. They are applicable to writers of both fiction and non-fiction.

The first point is found in Ms. Morrison’s statement, “I know what to leave out—which is the most important thing. It’s not what you put in, it’s what you don’t say that makes a powerful difference.” That confirms what my artist friend Jean-Paul Dusseault has told me about art. Good art—and good writing—is as much about what is left out as it is about what is seen or written. Nuanced truth is, I believe, more effectively received than truth overtly spelled out for the reader. Often, that nuance is a result of what you’re leaving out, not what you’re saying. Going through the second, third, or fourth draft of a manuscript is the time to be looking for scenes, dialogue, or narrative that is too obvious and needs to be cut. As a writer, learn what to leave out. It’s as important as what to put in.

The second point was when the PW interviewer asked Ms. Morrison if she still writes with No. 2 pencils on a yellow legal pad. She said, yes, she does, but “when I’ve done a chunk of it, I put it on the computer and print it out.” The interviewer then says, “And then you edit it.” She replies, “Back and forth, back and forth. It works for me.”

I’m afraid too many of us eliminate much of the “back and forth, back and forth” stage of editing our manuscripts. Most good writers will take their fiction manuscripts through six or seven drafts (or more). Each draft should bring the story closer to perfection.

So, there are today’s two lessons. They can be summed up as “Know what to leave out of your writing” and “Back and forth, back and forth.” Two very important principles that will result in much better writing.