Posts Tagged fiction
In the almost twenty years since I started writing fiction, I’ve noticed a change in the way I read that same genre. I started my career as a scientist many, many years ago, and the only thing I wrote for a large part of my life were scientific papers. The only thing I read with any frequency was nonfiction, including other scientific papers and the occasional nonfiction book. (With the one important exception of Sherlock Holmes; for some reason which I can’t explain I latched onto Holmes a long time ago and read and reread it. Perhaps it has to do with Holmes’s insistence on using logic and reason—which is an important part of the scientific method—to identify the criminal in the case. The fact that Watson was a physician also didn’t hurt.) But in any event, my life was largely saturated with nonfiction, from biography to all sorts of general nonfiction to straight science and how-to books in microbiology and virology. Then I started a novel.
And as I started, I also began to read novels I hadn’t read before; I studied writing; I read writing magazines and books on writing; I went to writer’s conferences; I joined writing groups and listened to speakers talk about all phases of writing. I read novels and short stories and tried my hand at both. And I have so far gotten to the point that I feel I can write a reasonably good short story, one that stands a good chance of being published. (You can see two examples of my short fiction on this blog site; just go to the Short Stories tab.) Now all I have to do is convince a publisher to agree with me. But all that writing and learning about writing has had another effect.
Now when I read, I read more like a writer. I notice things I almost certainly would not have noticed had I not studied how to write. I’m much more conscious of what the writer of a book or short story is trying to do and say than I would have been otherwise. I look for plot holes; I look for foreshadowing: Ah-ha! He’s introduced an new character/concept. That could be important. I will follow this. To a lesser extent, I am more aware of things that are missing (why isn’t the main character doing this? Or this?). I look at grammar and sentence structure more carefully, I am aware of voice, point of view, and tense more stringently. I look at the author’s voice and style much more than I used to. Before, when I read nonfiction, I only wanted to get the information from the book/article/whatever. And in the case of the odd fiction piece, I read only for the entertainment. I didn’t have the knowledge to understand how it was put together. Now I am much more attentive to style and performance, even in nonfiction. Good or bad, that has been one of the side issues of learning how to write.
That extends to watching TV and movies. I’m now much more tuned in on how the show was put together. I’m conscious of plot holes and things that aren’t there. I look for oddities and peculiarities. I’ve come to realize that Captain Kirk on Star Trek, The Original Series was a lousier captain of a deep space vehicle than I thought he was at first. (Some of the things he did—wow.) But enough of that; who cares? Writing is fun and interesting, and looking at other writer’s works just makes me a better writer in the long run. A fundamental tenet of writing has always been that writers must be readers. This is one reason why.
A few days ago I watched the second half of a movie from 1974, called “The White Dawn,” about three whalers, two Caucasian and one African American (played by Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms, and Louis Gossett, Jr.) who get trapped in the Arctic, and have to rely on the local Eskimos to survive. The movie takes place in the late 19th century, and the natives rescue them from a hunk of ice in the Arctic Ocean. They take them into their extended family and feed them, and generally keep them alive until, ostensibly, they can get back to the civilization they are more familiar with. I found it interesting to watch the use of Eskimo culture in the movie: life, fishing, killing seals, building igloos, etc. The terrain was fascinating too, especially the way the ice, snow, rock, and water came together to produce a real otherworldly—and in a color movie an almost black-and-white—landscape. From the list of names that scrolled across the screen at the end of the movie, it appears that real Eskimo people were used as actors in the movie, not Caucasians made up to look like them (as so often happens in American western and Indian movies). The outsiders bring to the Eskimo culture some of their own culture such as booze, sex, and a sort of “me-first” attitude that the Eskimos don’t have. Eskimos live in a severe environment and depend on one another for survival. A “lone wolf” or “loose cannon” type of person could jeopardize the entire extended family. Eventually the outsiders make some home brew and get some of the Eskimos inebriated. One young woman gets so warm from drinking the concoction that she strips to the waist and goes outside the igloo, but collapses in the snow and eventually freezes to death. The outsiders are subsequently either run off or killed, and the movie ends.
But as I watched the movie, I began to take it in as a writer would, and I realized there are things in this movie I can use in my next novel. I have in the back of my mind an idea for a science-fiction novel, and I’ve begun to make notes about plot, characters, terrain on a far distant planet, the natives, and so on. But within that movie, details of Eskimo culture could be adapted to my fictional characters. I would never transfer Eskimo culture directly to a made-up culture, of course, but broad concepts such as dance, sex, life in general, hunting, terrain, housing, and so forth, could form the basis for the fictional culture’s life. And I certainly don’t mean to pick on Eskimo culture alone here either; far from it. There are many different cultures around this blue and brown and green and white globe we live on that ideas about culture can be gleaned from many, many different areas. It’s just that I happened to be watching an Eskimo movie at the time.
Some non-writers ask authors, “Where do you get your ideas?” That’s especially true of sci-fi writers. Well, here’s one answer: the movies. (I’ve heard that some people get their ideas at Sears, but I never have.) Ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re all around us. Some good ideas come from the movies, some appear in the newspaper, some from politics or science, or whatever—you name it. This one movie I watched just goes to show you (pun intended) that ideas can come anytime, anywhere. Just keep your mind open.
What is it we are actually doing by being creative? That is, by making up a story such as a novel or a short story, or by producing a scientific paper that adds to the sum of human knowledge about some aspect of humanity, what is it that lies below the surface of this creativity? As a scientist trained to work with viruses, and later as an aspiring novelist, I’ve taken on and conquered (hopefully) two aspects of creativity: fiction and science. Both utilize the power of the human brain to come up with new ideas on a regular basis and do something with them. The question I’m trying to answer here is simply, what is the end result of that creativity? Where does all that thinking up experiments with viruses and writing fiction go? What do we get out of it? (I certainly don’t mean to imply these are the only ways to be creative; they just happen to be the two I’m most familiar with. You can probably think of others. But my comments here will apply to all.)
My first answer is two-fold. First, scientific experiments are done to gather information. Information that, somewhere down the line, can be used to improve the health of people, animals, the planet, or whatever. Some scientific papers are so esoteric that their ultimate usefulness to society may be hard to grasp in the immediate aftermath of their publication, but somewhere, sometime, they should be important. Creative writing, on the other hand, has as its most immediate goal that of entertainment. A good story is worth a thousand words. A story or a movie seeks to take us away from the cares and woes of everyday life and let us lead a different life vicariously in the guise of a fictitious character. Always fun.
But I maintain there is a higher purpose to creativity, and that is to teach. Scientific experiments produce good information about a subject, but they are also used to teach students how the scientific process works, and students learn more than what is written in the paper. They may learn a new technique from a paper, they may learn how a technique is applied to study a given subject, but most importantly, they take that information and merge it with all they’ve learned previously and begin to understand how the scientific process works in the broadest of terms. Each paper is a brick, and brick by brick, a wall can be built, and eventually an edifice can be constructed in the mind of a student that tells him/her how to proceed with the smallest of experiments he/she may be currently working on. They learn something, specific and general, at the same time.
Likewise with a novel or a short story. A reader gains access to the details of the story, the plot, the hero, the villain, the setting, and so forth. But a student of literature will also read to learn how a story is put together—point of view, description vs. dialogue, telling vs. showing, etc. Reading is the best way to learn, and ultimately, by reading many stories the student learns how to put his/her own story together. Creativity, therefore, is ultimately a teaching tool, not merely a device to convey information. Creativity is death to indifference and boredom, and we need as much of it as we can get.
I’ve noticed on Facebook recently some postings from at least one (possibly more) famous author(s) that are essentially advertisements for writing programs that purport to help the person who responds to the ad learn to write novels like the famous author. Some even say “I’ll teach you to write like me.” I’m a little concerned that this may lead people who read the ad into thinking that once they take the course they’ll end up being able to write novels that will sell millions of copies and make them as famous as the originator of the writing course. I hope most people already realize that isn’t going to happen.
Taking a writing course, whether taught by a world-famous author known for selling books, or by a much less well-known author who resides comfortably on a publisher’s midlist, isn’t guaranteed to endow the student with the ability to write spectacular, prize-winning, top-selling novels. Those programs are designed to teach the student the basics of writing, and even some of the more advanced concepts. It’s up to the student to produce a novel of his/her own design. It’s my opinion that regardless of what the famous author says, writing a novel that sells millions can’t be taught. All you can do is learn the basics, and then it’s up to you.
That famous author, indeed all famous authors, are famous for their style, their flair, their innate ability to string just the right words together into sentences and paragraphs and chapters that condense into novels that are a reflection of themselves. Contrast Faulkner with Hemingway, for example. That’s what a novel is; it’s a reflection of an individual. It’s as individual as a reflection in a mirror. J. K. Rowling can’t teach you to write like her even if you did learn how to “show” and not “tell,” and what the difference is between first and third person POV. If you learned music from Beethoven, you wouldn’t necessarily compose great symphonies even though you might be able to put notes on treble and bass clefs that produced lovely, lilting, ethereal music. Learning art from van Gogh wouldn’t teach you how to paint great masterpieces, even though you could apply paint to a canvas in a beautiful and expressive manner. There’s more to writing than the basics; more than putting one word after another. If you want to take the course from the famous author, by all means go ahead. I have no doubt the course(s) is/are legitimate. You may learn a lot. But you aren’t likely to write a best seller with your first novel, and you sure as hell won’t write just like the famous author.
I’m going to stick my neck out here and try and define a characteristic of fiction that is, at least to me, new. I’ve written a few short stories as well as three novels, but when I finished a short story of about 4600 words a few weeks back, and read through it several times, I was struck by the story’s lack of a characteristic I’m going to call “import.”
What’s import, you ask? It’s going to be hard to define, and I’m not sure I can do a very good job. Perhaps the best way to define it is to look at stories that lack the concept. A story without import is bland, unimaginative, listless. That’s not to say that a story without import can’t be well written, or well conceived, or well executed. But when I finished reading through my story I asked myself, “What the hell was that?” It wasn’t that the story wasn’t satisfying, and it wasn’t that I didn’t get anything out of it, but it fell flat on its face, and I was left with the feeling of, “So what?”
To be effective, a story has to mean something. It not only has to have a real beginning, middle and end, the final impression left in the reader has to be real. My story didn’t do that. I thought it was reasonably well written, it has a real beginning, middle and end all right, and when I was through, I felt it gave the reader a lot of interesting information. I even had to do some research to get my facts correct. Yet, it was flat. Dullsville. Again, I said to myself, so what?
This was the first time this had happened. All my stories I feel give the reader something significant to take away. But this one didn’t, and I can’t really define why not. A story has to leave an impression on the reader. That can be either a positive or negative impression. Leaving a negative impression is at least an impression. If a reader says, “I hated that story,” that’s better than, “I got nothing out of it,” or “I didn’t understand it,” or “So what.”
I’m not sure how I can fix the story to make it more significant. It actually tells the story I wanted to tell, and does it effectively, with even a little humor, yet it lacks something important. The story falls into a category called magical realism, a relatively new genre which is sort of a subdivision of science fiction, and a genre I’m just getting into. I suspect no reputable journal or magazine would ever accept it, though; it’s too bland. I could spice it up, yet that would be to pollute it with details that have little to do with the plot. That probably wouldn’t fix the problem anyway.
Ah, the vagaries of the writing life.
I’m a writer. I specialize in writing fiction, especially science-fiction novels, but I’ve written several short stories, mostly with a sci-fi bent, if not outright. But fiction by definition is a story about something that is not real. Fiction generally uses made-up characters and plot lines, though real people can appear in a fictitious work. Even though it’s made up, much fiction can sound very realistic, even fooling some people into thinking it was real. That’s what Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Bridge of San Luis Rey did to me. I read it in high school. I thought it described a real event, it was so well written. But it isn’t—it’s a novel. It’s all made up. What the hell did I know? I was seventeen at the time. One editor of a journal to whom I’d sent a short story sent me an email asking if the story was fiction or non-fiction. I had to tell him it was a totally fictitious story, but they didn’t print it. (They didn’t like the ending.) That seems to me the ultimate complement a person can give to a writer, that his/her fiction is so real it seems like it really happened. On the other hand, science fiction stories don’t usually have that problem. If you read a story set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, you know right away it’s total fiction. Or a story about a man dressed vaguely like a bat who fights crime in the most unimaginable ways possible won’t strain your ability to tell fact from fiction.
But that just brings up an important point, a point I’ve wondered about for a long time. Why do we make up stories? There’s a lot of real stories out there all the time. All you have to do is watch the evening news. Yet there are those of us who sit down if front of a computer or a pad of paper and write about things that never happened, and in many cases, could never happen. Why do we do it? As the title of this post asks, don’t we have something better to do? Isn’t there a soup kitchen we could volunteer at? Couldn’t we advocate for processes to reverse climate change? How about a walk in the woods or the wilderness? Strap a pack on your back and set out along the Continental Divide Trail and expand your mind. Take pictures about your experiences and publish a book. Get involved in real life. Anything other than making up stories.
On the face of it, making up stories about fictitious characters and unrealistic situations seems infantile and childish. We’re supposed to be adults. Shouldn’t psychiatrists be concerned that so many people sit for hours split off from society living in their own little worlds making up events that never happened? Well, no.
We write fiction for many reasons, and I suspect every fiction writer has his/her own reasons. Some write to tell a real story but in a way that the real people won’t recognize it, or if they do, will understand that others won’t be able to tell who the real people are. Shakespeare did that. Some, like me, write fiction to entertain, to tell a good story that illuminates a part of real life that only a made-up story can do. Connie Willis did that in her twin novels, Blackout and All Clear. Fiction tells us a little about ourselves in a manner we couldn’t get in any other way. Dr. Seuss did that. Fiction illuminates a small part of our humanity that we never really knew existed. Shakespeare again. There’s a place in this world for fiction, certainly, and we must realize it and get to know it. Advocating to end climate change is important, but if you want something better to do, read a novel. Better yet, write one.