Writing the real, part IV: Filling in the background shading

I know that some of you have been waiting with bated breath for me to do my promised write-ups on sterling insights from these last two conferences — do not despair. As many of you know, I’m up against a tight revision deadline between now and the end of the month, so honestly, if I didn’t write it traveling to and fro recent conferences (hooray for long layovers), it’s probably not going to be posted before Halloween. It is all coming, however.

On Friday, I deliberately told a real-life anecdote in the way that most fiction writers include such stories in novels: in bare-bones form, assuming that my reader would automatically feel the way I did about the incident when it happened to me. I told it, as most aspiring writers do in their submissions to agents and editors, exactly the way I would have told friends over coffee — which is to say, I told it rather than showed it, and my telling, insofar as I got through the story at all, was light on such scene mood-setters as characterization, locale, etc.

I told it, in short, in a way that was not likely to prompt an agent to ask for the rest of the book.

Let’s return to my story, and see if I can tell it better this time. I was at a small conference in Montana, sitting by a plate glass window the size of a woolly mammoth, gazing out over a well-trimmed golf course toward the nearby blue mountains of Glacier National Park. (Better already, isn’t it?) I had given a class on manuscript submission dos and don’ts, which, I am grateful to say, attracted many conference attendees to share their book ideas with me, looking for advice on how to impress agents with them.

However, even the most well-meaning of helpers needs a break from time to time, so I was sitting with one of the other presenters, enjoying a cup of the local stand-a-spoon-up-in-it coffee, the old West kind that keeps even latte-hardened Seattleites like me up for days. Suddenly, a dear little old lady plopped herself down in the middle of our conversation and started telling us both about her novel. At length. As in the age of the woolly mammoth might have come and gone in the course of the telling.

I’m going to interrupt myself here to ask: isn’t this a more compelling telling of the story than Friday’s, which told the reader nothing about the setting or my mindset at the time the little old lady appeared? In this version, the scene is set enough that the arrival of the antagonist is palpably disruptive of a well-established mood. See why professional readers get annoyed by writers skipping that kind of background?

So we’re definitely better off than we were in the first telling, but this anecdote is still not up to submission standard. In fact, I’ve deliberately made another couple of common mistakes in this second telling, to see if you will catch it, too. Anyone? Anyone?

Points, of course, if you pointed out that I’m still telling about this little old lady, not showing. Also, I have tossed her into the story without giving her a name right off the bat – dooming my reader to endless future repetitions of the phrase “the little old lady.” (But she was small in real life, I tell you! And she was elderly, and female! It really happened! See how ineffectual reality is as an excuse for under-description?)

A great big gold star to those of you who caught that I’ve made the extremely common twin mistakes of assuming that the fact the story’s antagonist annoyed me is the most important thing about the scene — which, from my point of view, naturally it was — and that what annoys me will inevitably annoy everyone else in North America. (Extra credit to those of you who speculated that the pace of my going through this anecdote, and thus the length of this series, may have more to do with the fact that I wrote large parts of it while sitting in an airport in Kalispell, Montana, rather than home at my desk.)

The annoyance assumption is not limited to real-life scenes that are underwritten, of course. Many writers assume (wrongly) that if someone is annoying in real life, and they reproduce the lady down to the last shoelace, she will be annoying on the page as well, but that is frequently not true.

Exposing the schmucks around you for the scum they are is, of course, one of the great unsung compensations for being a writer. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Just be aware that it doesn’t always work. If a reader has to know you, or the other person, or any other pertinent background not in the book (or not essential to the plot), think very carefully about whether you want to keep the scene. Be aware, too, that often in such tellings, the writer’s dislike of the real-life person so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with her, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero.

You really don’t want that kind of ill feeling to boomerang back onto your protagonist or narrator, do you?

A really, really good test about whether it should stay: hand the relevant pages to someone who does not know you very well, WITHOUT saying “This happened in real life, you know,” and have her read it. Then (again without saying the magic phrase of justification) ask this helpful soul to tell the anecdote back to you. Does the emphasis fall where you expected in the retelling?

If it doesn’t, rework the scene or cut it. Give some serious consideration to changing a few of the facts to make it a better story on paper. (Not if it’s a memoir, of course, for A Million Little Reasons. In a memoir, real-life scenes that don’t work should just be cut.) After all, if you don’t go around trumpeting this particular scene in your novel is based upon a real event, how is the reader going to know?

Users of real-life material, please write this tip down and post it somewhere you can see it when you are sitting in your writing space: storytelling is supposed to resonate with truth AND be entertaining at the same time. Just because it happened a particular way doesn’t mean you have to TELL it that way. Because you are a fiction writer, not a reporter: dramatically, your story needs to work for your reader.

Have you noticed that I have not actually made it to the amusing part of the anecdote yet? I’m reserving that for tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work?

PS: Mark your calendars, folks up north: the PNWA is hosting one of its excellent Writing Connections events at the senior center in Mount Vernon on this coming Saturday, October 28th, from noon to 4 pm. Admission is free. Here’s your chance to meet published authors and a screenwriter and pepper them with questions!

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