Fiction starts with reality


I love Jane Long’s work.  You can find some here, and more here.  She takes existing antique photographs and turns them into whimsical, magical scenes.  What strikes me is how her works are imaginative yet (for the most part) logical extrapolations of the existing images.  Above are two children dressed in adult clothes, particularly the little boy in the military uniform.  Long’s recreation invites us to look into the future, where the two are grown up, yet reminds us that the future is uncertain, and only shows us their backs.

Fiction, when done well, does the same thing as Long’s art. It starts with a given, with something that exists, if only in general, then draws out the rich possibilities, taking imaginative, yet logical, narrative steps.  A writer sees two children, and imagines how they might grow up. And perhaps they only show us their backs, and allow the reader to fill in the blanks.

Under the wire!

Just reached my word count goal for today!  Woohoo for cutting it close! Here’s a sentence from today’s work!

“He was still in that first six years, where all the pain and suffering was roiling in his body and mind and making him angry at everything, everyone, the doctors, his parents, his former friends, everyone, everyone, himself, himself, himself.”

The penguin you don’t know

This interesting bit of taxidermy is part of a 19th century sea captain’s cabinet, now on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.  Just looking at it tells you two things: one, the taxidermist had never even seen a penguin; and two, neither had the sea captain.  They obviously made it look the way they thought it should due to what they knew of other birds, and got it hilariously wrong.

I often think of this bird when I write about an experience I haven’t had, things I’ve never seen, people I’ve never known.  “Write what you know” is a cliche, but no less true for its overuse.  On one hand, it can be interpreted too narrowly.  I may only have first hand knowledge of a small sphere of human experience, but empathy, extrapolation, and imagination allow my knowledge to be much broader.  Still, when writing about something that necessitates a stretch of knowledge, I need to remember the penguin, do my research, and be careful of my own preconceptions.  For one thing, I don’t want to look foolish.  But more importantly, I don’t want to mislead people who might be basing their own perceptions on my work.  It’s important that I do right by the metaphorical penguins, and by the people who might look at my atrocity and be convinced that a penguin is really just a goose that can’t fly.

The tension between the known and the unknown

Photograph by Martin Vlach. Click the image to see more of his work. Hat tip Beautiful Decay.

My mentor Paul McComas has a principle he calls the Tightrope of Disclosure.  Give too much information to the reader and the writer falls off one side into obviousness and will bore the reader.  Give too little information and the writer falls off the other side into obscurity and will confuse the reader.  The sweet spot is between those two extremes, a fine line where the reader has just enough information to know what’s going on and be intrigued, to want to read on, discover more. The writer should be sure the reader knows what’s happening, and then let them figure out the why.

I think this principle can also be helpful in other artistic media.  Consider the photograph above.  Much of its power is in its simplicity.  Its aesthetic grace draws us in, and once we’re in it tickles our brains.  We know the what, the men standing silently in a forest shrouded in mist, but we don’t know the why.  We’re prompted to ask questions, and then to imagine answers.  And those answers are going to be different for everyone.

I love using images like this as writing prompts, but it also inspires me to infuse my own art with mystery.

A Writer’s Resolution

It’s a week and a half late, but still, happy new year!

The most common New Year’s Resolutions are to lose weight and get into shape.  Seen in the right light, my resolutions are pretty similar.  I resolve to streamline my writing process, to cut out the fluff and hand wringing and second guessing, until my writing speeds along like a sleek greyhound.  And with that I resolve to write a short story a week.  This isn’t the first time I’ve made this resolution, but hey, how many people resolve every year to lose ten pounds?  By this time next year, I aim to have fifty or so stories, some of which may actually be decent, and a well-honed writing discipline.

The kids are back in school, and my husband is back from his conference.  Time to crack my knuckles and get down to business.

Write what you don’t know


There’s a certain amount of tension when writing a character that has a strong, defining experience that you yourself have not had.  One of my protagonists in the Haunted series is a woman who lost her father to suicide.  I have not experienced that tragedy firsthand.  Sometimes I wonder if I should even be writing about it.  How could I possibly do justice to that?

My friend and mentor Paul McComas (I’m constantly calling him that, I should make an acronym or something) likes to talk about a period he went through in college that his writing teacher called “The Earnest Young Man Stories.”  Told “write what you know,” he produced a series of stories about a sensitive college aged guy interacting with the world.  After a number of these stories, his teacher told him “You know…you know people other than yourself.”  Point being, when we write fiction, we don’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, limited to the strict area of our own personal experience.  Our personal experience informs our writing, but so does our relationships with other people.  So does the things that we read, the things we watch, the things we observe , the things we deduce.  

I do need to be careful, I think, because despite the fact that my work is fiction, it will still inform my readers’ understanding of that experience, the same way the things I read inform my own. (This, incidentally, is one of my issues with things like The DaVinci Code and 50 Shades of Grey. People base their views of theology or of how to properly go about BDSM on what they read in these books, and both are irresponsibly, and, in the case of 50 Shades, dangerously inaccurate.)  But that doesn’t mean I need to, or should, limit my exploration of the human experience based only on my tiny slice.

Going camping!



So, you’re probably familiar with the National Novel Writing Month, known affectionately as Nanowrimo, that glorious program where millions of aspiring writers race to write a 50k word novel  in the month of November.  I’ve participated for years, and have crossed the finish line three times.  The first became my book Haunted, the second we shall never speak of again, and the third, Crisis, will be a book (probably book 3) in the Haunted series.

What you might not be aware of, though, is that the Nano folks also run a program called Camp Nanowrimo, two sessions (March and July) where you set your own word count of at least 5k words, on any kind of project (novel, play, collection of short stories, dissertation…), either pick or are assigned “cabin mates” to encourage and be encouraged by, and then race to finish your word count by the end of the month.

I’m signed up for July, with a goal of 50k words, to write book 2 in the Haunted series, tentatively titled Committed.  I’m excited – and a little scared – to be throwing myself completely into writing this novel.  I enjoy spending time with my characters, and enjoy writing their adventures.  That said, there’s a lot of pressure to be perfect, which is one thing I’m hoping to be able to leave behind by doing Camp Nano.  One of the philosophies of the Nanowrimo program is that you shut off your internal editor and just write.  Screw quality, you’re going for quantity.  You allow yourself to write crap if that’s what it takes to get to your daily 2k.  The secret is, of course, that writing fearlessly is how you get quality.  That sometimes you have to write through the crap to get the gold.  And Nano, in any form, allows you to do just that.

Of course, writing 2k words a day will leave me little time for things like, say, my thrice weekly essay-length blog posts.  So my plan is to post nifty pics on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.  Things I find cool, or exciting, or weird.  Probably a lot of weird.  I like weird.  The usual posts will return in August.

Wish me luck!

On War Narratives and the Human Condition

ImageI wrote in an earlier post about how it’s impossible to fully understand a tragedy unless you were there.  I think war pretty clearly belongs in that category.  Only people who have been to war can fully understand the experience.

I am fond of war narratives.  One of the best books I’ve read recently is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, a semi-autobiographical account of the Vietnam War.  One of my favorite books of all time is Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, the satirical classic set in World War II.  Both of these narratives portray war as a liminal experience, a strange jumble of contrasting superlatives.  Where life is precious exactly because it is valued so little.  Where moments of horror are imbued with a dark sardonic humor.  Where circumstances can whiplash 180, boredom to carnage, when a slog through the jungle is pierced by a rigged artillery shell that blows a friend into the trees, when a milk run suddenly meets enemy fire and the rear gunner is gutted inside his flak suit.  Where the most meaningless becomes the most meaningful: Lemon Tree and the Snowdens of Yesteryear.

War narratives are a touchstone into a world that, God willing, I will never see firsthand.  However, war narratives have much to teach us, about ourselves, about others, about the very best and very worst of humanity.  In particular, they have much to teach writers, since a writer is always a student of the human condition.

Try reading some war stories.  The Things They Carried  and Catch-22 are exceptional places to start.