Assumptions, assumptions revisited: writing the real

Sometimes, when I write about an issue on the blog and have a hard time coming up with a solid, memorable, real-life example to illustrate it, the universe seems to go out of its way to provide an example immediately afterward. A few days ago, the PERFECT situation occurred to illustrate the point I had been making in my Assumptions, Assumptions series. So, although that series is rapidly fading into just an archival memory, I can’t resist revisiting it, to be able to use this anecdote.

Oh, like none of you have ever manipulated the running order of a story in order to be able to include a good bit of dialogue… And I have an even better excuse than usual: I started to write about it while sitting in an airport during a layover that can only have been designed to encourage me to embark upon some particularly ambitious personal project.

Like writing ULYSSES, for instance.

Remember how I was advising you last week that it is NEVER a prudent idea to assume that your reader — be it agency screener, editorial assistant, contest judge, or eventual reader — shares your worldview, age, sex, political affiliations, etc., because your never know who is going to end up judging your manuscript? I pointed out that such assumptions render the probability of rubbing a decision-maker in the submission process the wrong way a virtual certainty — and it’s always a poor strategic move to tumble into the bad graces of someone who has the power to get your book published.

What, you DIDN’T learn that at your mother’s knee? I did. The joys of growing up in a literary household: my kindergarten years were rife with cozy moments when adults took me upon their aged knees and complained to me vociferously about their agents or editors. But I digress.

One of the more subtle, but most common, assumptions that novelists in particular tend to make in manuscripts is that an incident that was funny or touching or character-revealing in real life will be equally as touching or character-revealing on the page. In fact, many of us were specifically taught to make this assumption while writing, weren’t we?

Hands up, everyone who has ever had a writing teacher tell you that you need to dig deep into the contents of your triple-locked diary in order to get your best material. Heck, I’ve been in writing classes where I was told that it was our ONLY material, as if such endeavors as research and plumbing the imagination were merely the lazy writer’s way to avoid writing about our bastard fathers.

I’m quoting Sylvia Plath here, incidentally. My father was not in any way a bastard, I’ll have you know. Naturally, my writing teachers despaired of me accordingly.

To be fair, for many writers, sticking to one’s own personal experience can yield some awfully good material for novels. As Virginia Woolf tells us, “Good fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.”

However, as anyone who has read fiction can tell you, not everything that happens in real life is plausible on paper. Why? Well, good fiction tends to adhere to rules of dramatic structure and probability; real life has a nasty habit of thumbing its nose at ol’ Aristotle’s rules.

Think about it: does your favorite story about yourself have a third act? An antagonist? Are you of royal blood (Aristotle was awfully picky about who was drama-worthy), to raise your most cherished heartbreak to the level of tragedy?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing the answer is no, on all counts. And here is where having a good imagination is awfully handy, isn’t it? A talented writer can almost always improve upon the merely real. In fact, that’s what fiction writers are paid to do — i if we’re lucky, that is.

I bring this up, because I’ve just been giving feedback at people’s informal pitches at a conference, and I’m here to tell you, “But it really happened that way!” is an EXTRAORDINARILY frequent exclamation in craft classes. Even in fiction, writers are often stunned at the suggestion that a fact-based incident in their books could be changed in order to enhance its impact upon the reader. And while appealing to the truth of an incident is a terrific thing to say within the context of an interview after your book is published, it’s just not an excuse that flies in the industry.

It’s a hard, hard fact for a lot of writers to swallow, but the fact is, in a submission, ALL that matters is what’s actually on the page. No further explanations allowed.

Which would render ULYSSES well-nigh impossible to sell in the current market, come to think of it. Imagine how fast an agency screener would have moved the first few pages of THAT into the rejection pile: “What’s going on here? Coherence? Structure?”

Oops, I’m digressing again; blame airport coffee.

“But it really happened that way!” is not an excuse that professional writers EVER use — or that most agents and editors will ever accept. Why? Because it’s the writer’s job to make everything in the book seem plausible, whether or not it really happened. And in a submission, no author in the world gets to stand over the agent or editor’s shoulder, explaining why she made this or that narrative choice.

It seems so obvious, once it’s said, doesn’t it?

Yet very few aspiring writers seem to bear the no-explanations-allowed rule in mind during their pre-submission revision process. Even in the best possible situation, with an agent who fell in love with your talent from your first sentence and an editor who had heart palpitations at the very mention of your premise, you will STILL not be able to stand by their sides while they are reading your submission, saying, “Well, you see, that’s in there because it really happened…”

And in no known universe will the agent or editor then say, “Oh, really? Knowing THAT makes the scene work. Let’s not cut it.” Sorry, but it just doesn’t happen.

Since I’m apparently just bursting with advice today, I’m going to codify this into a hard-and-fast rule: if you ask yourself, “Why is this scene here?” or
“Why does the scene need to play out this way?” and your answer contains any flavor of “But it really happened that way!” it’s an excellent idea to have an impartial reader take a look at that scene, to see if it works dramatically. Or if — and I tremble to suggest this, but it is what an agent or editor interested in your work would ask — if it even needs to be in the book.

In other words, the excuse itself may well be telling you something.

Oh, dear — I have come to the end of my space quota for today, and I haven’t even begun to tell you the anecdote that prompted this train of thought yet! There’s a lesson about the value of writerly discipline, isn’t it?

But speaking of discipline, my revision calls, so I must bid you adieu until tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

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