Tag Archives: NANOWRIMO

Coincidence? Or can you just explain it away?

I’ve been trying to put my finger on the logical explanation for something I know instinctually to be true, which is that coincidences, while so delightful in real life, are so obnoxious in fiction. (Not always, but almost always.)

My tentative conclusion is that our main job, as fiction writers, is to create an illusion of reality. (I’m talking just in general here, just with realistic fiction and its close cousins—so not, for example, meta-fiction, or even high-genre stuff like thrillers and romance, witch & wizard stuff. ) The basic requirement of the gig is to create and maintain what John Gardner in  The Art of Fiction calls “the vivid and continuous dream,” to make the reader feel like they’re immersed not in the product of a writer’s imagination but in an actual time and place. To make the fictional world, in other words, feel like it is the real world.

Anything that makes the reader question the reality of the fictional world (consciously or unconsciously) must then be edited or excised. Gardner talks about this in the context of “infelicitous” or “lumpy” writing that distracts from seamless storytelling, or a narrative voice that is too clever or too constructed, where the story is not being treated with due seriousness.

On the same list, for me, is a storyline that is full of wild, improbable events, not related at all to the motivations or needs of the characters—long-lost lovers meeting by chance on a city bus, that sort of shit. The sorts of events that make a reader go “oh, come on,” break faith with the reality of the story, and throw her book against the wall.

This despite the fact that, reality being the infinite and infinitely interesting thing that it is, long-lost lovers must, from time to time, meet by chance on a city bus. Right? But when those things happen in real life, they make us say things like “I never would have guessed it!” Or “I never would have believed it, unless I had seen it with my own eyes!” That’s what coincidences are, right, they are events that don’t seem like they belong within the confines of normal existence.

Coincidences by their nature seem to be somehow off the playing field, occurring outside the “rules” of real life. They almost seem  like cheating, like someone circumvented the natural ways things are supposed to go, in which our actions and circumstances lead us inexorably but unpredictably toward our life’s next events. Which is exactly why  they stink in fiction, because they give us the feeling that the author is not playing fair—he’s moving pieces around on a chess board instead of letting what is inside his characters drive them through the story.

Crucially, when coincidences happen in life, they do not actually cause us to question the the realness of reality. There is no book to throw across the room, no vivid and continuous dream to be interrupted. Because we know that no one literally authored this unlikely event, our response is to go “that’s weird” and move on; in fiction, because we know that someone did literally author this event, we say “oh, come on” and throw the book across the wall.

Final note: There are a lot more elements that have the opposite property, i..e. they are good in fiction but bad in real life. Like, for example, terrible people. The obnoxious pretentious asshole at the dinner party is a nightmare if you’re actually have a dinner party, but if you’re writing about one, he’s a goldmine.

Final final note: I’m going to try and write about writing a lot in the next month, since we’re entering November, in which a lot of people participate in NaNoWriMo, where you try and write a whole novel in a month. Which some people dog on, saying it’s silly or whatever, but I say more power to ’em. Everybody who wants to write should write all the time, for any reason. Right?

 

 

Let’s call it the Plot/Pants Fallacy

For those of you who are preparing for this year’s NANOWRIMO  (National Novel Writing Month, where participants are given tools and tips and encouragement to bang out a book-length work of fiction in just one month) I have just a quick piece of advice, which is that this whole “plotter versus pantser” thing is just a big pile of horseshit.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say “plotter versus pantser”, you’re probably better off. There is this supposed dichotomy between plotters on the one hand, who decide in advance, in detail, what they’re going to write, and then write it; and, on the other hand, pantsers, who fly by the seat of their guess-whats, opening up their golden conduit to the muse and letting the ideas come willy nilly and then just slapping them into place.

My awareness of this distinction comes from doing blog interviews, where people ask with apparent seriousness, “which kind of writer are you? A plotter or a pantser?”

The question is flawed. The question is not, “are you a plotter or a pantser?”, the question is “how do you develop and maintain a healthy balance between these two complementary and crucial components of your process?”

For me, I start by writing a shitload.

Let me say that better: I get an idea I’m excited about, and I launch in, sailing on the wind of the idea for as long as the wind holds—maybe it’s a chapter, maybe it’s twenty pages, maybe it’s just a few exhilarating hours where the force is strong in me, the idea keeps racing forward, and I am just galloping along trying to keep up with it.

burton-heated-pants

Some pants.

If you are a writer for whom that exhilarating white-hot feeling lasts long enough to write a whole novel, then I say peace to you and godspeed—and I will tell you what the pediatrician told my wife when she reported that our daughter was sleeping through the night at three months: Don’t tell the others, because they will burn you for a witch. 

But usually, you feel lucky when the white-heat-exhilaration segment of the program lasts long enough to get that great idea on paper, to establish the opening scenes, to get a good strong sense of what this world is and where it might go. And, crucially, this is where a lot of people stop. How many marvelous ideas have been abandoned somewhere at the end of chapter three? At that moment where self-styled “pantsers” run out of steam, where their metaphorical pants fall off, and they figure they’ll go and check their email real quick, and leave their great idea to die, forgotten, on a fallow field.

So here’s what you do: you stop, there, and you outline. (By the way, I’m using a form I call the pretend-second-person, where you say “you” instead of “I”, to presume that your own preferences and habits are universal). But it’s not a solid rock, carve it in stone outline. You can’t know yet everything that will happen in the entire story,and you shouldn’t try and force yourself to know. It’s loose. It’s bare bones. It’s “here are ten basic story beats, here are three moments of conflict, here are one-sentence descriptions of each of the, oh, let’s say, 25 chapters”.

WHITEHEAT

I’m talking about the inimitable sensation of writerly exuberance, not the Cagney movie.

While you are making the outline, though, you will make discoveries—you will find new ideas—you will get flickers of the white heat, and one of them will drive you back to the draft with a revived passion.

You make discoveries in the outline and bring them into the draft, and then when you are working on the draft you make discoveries which you then build into the outline. Both documents are provisional, both are rough drafts, both grow together.

Because, look, when you get that white-hot feeling that says I have to write that’s when you know you want to be a writer. When you implement a set of  strategies (i.e. building a provisional outline and then tacking back and forth between it and the draft), strategies that allow you to write in the absence of the white-hot feeling, that’s when you are a writer.