Saturday, October 27, 2007

True Characters in "True Fiction"

It's been a busy week, with no time to be ill, but somehow, that didn't stop a nasty virus from invading my body. I was pretty unproductive for most of three days of terrible congestion, fever, coughing, and sneezing. With most of my strength back, I'm ready to catch up on a few things. With help from my editor and proofreaders, Florence and Tayla, we have moved closer to finishing Raven Publishing's next offering, The Orange Slipknot, and hope to have it to the printer soon so early orders can be filled in time for Christmas. That and other publishing and marketing chores have left little time for writing, even for this blog. Now I'm ready to get back to my discussion of what it means to write "True Fiction."

In True Fiction, characters, though they may be completely made up, are a reflection of real people, experiencing real emotions, natural reactions, human qualities—frailties as well as strengths. I think we'd be hard pressed to find a fictional character who isn't in some way based on a real person, or, more likely, a composite people the author has known or knows about. Even though my characters are "made up," they inevitably have qualities of people I know intimately, often from my own life or childhood.

Characters carry the story. Characters own the story. Thus it behooves the author to know each character well. What do they want? How badly do they want it? What would they give or give up to get it? How would each one respond to a crisis, to each other, to the roadblocks you throw in their way? Once you have established their personality, convictions, limitations, and capabilities, they become the boss—the storyteller—and you are the scribe.

When I am reading a good book, nothing will make me put it down faster than to have a protagonist act completely out of character without any explanation as to why or how he could have done such a thing. One that stands out in my mind is "The Horse Whisperer" by Nicholas Evans. The ending was so completely out of character, that although I had previously enjoyed "The Loop," after reading "The Horse Whisperer," I have not read anything else by this author. I felt cheated when he created an ending that could not have happened with the characters he had previously portrayed. This book is definitely NOT True Fiction.

An author has to ask of his characters, even the minor ones, at every turn, "Would you really do or say that? If it's not something you would normally do or say, what has changed that would cause you to do or say it now?" If you don't understand your characters' motives, neither will your reader.

Similarly, it is essential that the writer of any genre, but especially "True Fiction," stay true to the premises he has set up. If you establish that a person is blind, for example, and suddenly have him see something, without explanation, your story will immediately be discredited. This is a poor example because it is too obvious, and I'm sure there are many better examples I could cite if I could just think of them, but you get my drift. The same with technicalities. If you are writing a novel and add a scene about wheat farming, for instance, and you mistakenly have your characters combining in the wrong month for the area in which your story is set, there are readers who will immediately see your mistake, and some will toss the book down in disgust and consider the author a charlatan. No matter that your book is fiction, research every aspect you are not sure about to make sure your "facts" are straight.

Next time, I will write about what I consider the most important aspect of "True Fiction."

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Art of Writing True Fiction

Where does the truth in "true fiction" lie? Er, I mean, uh, maybe I should say, where doesn't it lie? (I didn't notice the pun until I read the published post, so I've come back to clarify—I think.) This question, however we frame it—and perhaps I'd be better off to say, wherein is True Fiction true?—has a complex answer. To be classified as "true fiction" as I define it requires "truth" on several fronts. It does not, however, require that it be "realistic" fiction, even though that is mainly what I write.

I recently read an interview of Mary Cunningham, whom I interviewed here last month. Reading her answers on a blog called Independent Book Report reinforced my belief that other forms of fiction, including fantasy, scifi, mystery, etc. can have elements of truth as much as realistic fiction can. Mary's "Cynthia's Attic" series which are adventures that are part historical fiction and part time-travel fantasy could be classed as true fiction, too. Maybe you'll see what I'm getting at if I explain what I believe "True Fiction" includes and compare to Mary's interview.

I think that truth in fiction can be met when the author stays true in six ways. I'll discuss them one by one in this and future posts.

First of all, the author must be true to her muse.

Secondly, the author must be true to her characters.

Thirdly, the author must be true to the premises she sets up in the book.

Last, but surely not least, are these three related ideals; the author must be true to his or her conscience, purpose, and audience.

First I'll talk about the often illusive muse. Call it what you want: your inner child, still small voice, imagination, or muse, it comes from deep inside the psyche and can easily be drowned out by the noise and chatter of everyday work and thoughts. To be true to one's muse, a writer must take time to still the busy mind and listen. I find that the best way for me to do this is to get out in nature, in solitude, and walk. Each writer finds his or her own way to invite the muse. Some like nature walks, others meditate, some merely sequester themselves in a room especially set aside for writing. Many combine all three or find some other way to still tumultuous thoughts in order to listen to, or channel, the voice of the muse. However one does it, when the muse is working, the words come, and the writer pens (or types) them. It's almost like taking dictation, wherein the writer, like the reader later, is excited to find out what is going to happen next. At least this is how it is for me as I write fiction.

Self-doubt and negative thinking of any kind, have no place in writing the initial draft of the story or novel. The muse and the inner critic cannot operate at the same time. Let the critic sleep while the muse is frolicking through your mind, giving you great materia, that can later be shaped and polished. As Julia Cameron says in her book, THE RIGHT TO WRITE, "Perfectionism is a primary writer's block." A writer must give herself permission to write badly, I've been told, and I agree. By writing down the ideas as they flow through the unblocked mind, one is being true to the "muse."

I'll be back later to write more about the other aspects of True Fiction.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Art of Criticism

I didn't intend to let so much time lapse before getting back to this blogpost. I took a road trip to Colorado to a reunion where I enjoyed visiting with siblings, nieces and nephews, and cousins, some of whom I hadn't seen since grade school. On the following Monday, I spoke to about 550 Namaqua elementary student in five sessions. I am grateful for the opportunity as interacting with children inspires me. It was my pleasure to accept an invitation to the home of the grandparents of three of the students for a lovely dinner. I feel very blessed that my writing serves as an avenue to make many new friends.

My last post was about how to receive criticsm. I will now take a look at the flip side—how to give it.

Beth Hodder, author of "The Ghost of Shafer Meadows," commented, "I think it may be difficult for some critics to face the author with their criticism if they're a friend or family member." A member of our local writers group expressed similar concerns and asked how one can be encouraging, constructive, and truthful all at the same time; honest without being hurtful. Understanding how sensitive a writer may be, we realize that criticism is an art.

William Zinsser, in his book, "On Writing Well," agrees. "To write about the arts from the inside—to appraise a new work, to evaluate a performance, to recognize what's good and what's bad—calls for a special set of skills and a special body of knowledge." Does the average writer have that? If not, how can we cultivate it to the extent that we can be helpful to other writers when they ask for our opinions? Since I don't have the answers, I read what Zinsser, Wallace Stegner, and John Gardner offer on the subject.

Zinsser gives these criteria for being a good critic.
1. "Critics should like—or better still, love—the medium they are reviewing."
2. When publishing reviews, don't give away too much of the plot.
3. Use specific detail, i.e. avoid generalities. This is equally important in critiquing a work we love as it is in discussing writing in which we see errors or fault.
4. "Avoid ecstatic adjectives."
Finally, remember that all forms of criticism consist of personal opinion. "What is crucial …is to express your opinion firmly. Don't cancel it's strength with last-minute evasions and escapes."

But this brings us back to the problem of ensuring that our words encourage rather than discourage. What if our impression of a work is negative? Do we want our opinion to dash the author's hopes, blocking him or her from writing at all? No, of course not. The only case I can think of where I would consider disparaging a written work is if I felt it had either the aim or potential to demoralize the reader. But that's a discussion for a future post.

I look to Wallace Stegner to solve the issue of giving constructive criticism. This may apply in places like writers clubs, schools, posts on public forums, online stores like Amazon, where customer reviews are encouraged, and in talking to fellow writers who ask us to evaluate their work. In his book, "On Teaching and Writing Fiction," Stegner answers questions of an interviewer. I think his treatment of the writing students in his classes is a good example for all writers, whether in school or not, as we are always seeking to learn more about our craft.

When asked what most needs to be done for his students, Stegner replied, "They need to be taken seriously. They need to be assured that their urge to write is legitimate." He reminds us that "these are hearts you are treading on." Yet he emphasizes the need to be honest. "Every student has a right to be listened to and be told honestly whether what he has written strikes no sparks, or few, or many. Before a teacher tells anyone he is good and has that magical promise, he had better make sure of what he is saying; before he discourages anyone, he had better remember how intimate a thing writing is and how raw the nerves that surround it."

So where has all this led us? It reinforces the quandary we sometimes face, the need to be both firmly honest and at the same time, very kind and supportive. Stegner says it's an attitude more than a technique. And, in spite of Zinsser's advice not to dilute our opinions with evasions and escapes, we must remember that others may have a different opinion and acknowledge that fact. Criticism, done properly, is not only an art, but a juggling act if we find anything offensive in the work we are judging. Stegner says that in his classroom, it is his job to manage the environment as students critique one another's writing, "which may be as hard a job as for God to manage the climate."

My grandma Elkins gave me these words of advice long ago that may be helpful here. "Before you speak, make your words pass through three gates of gold. Are they true? Are they needful? and Are they kind?"