Contested learnings

Recently, I had the opportunity to be a first reader for a reasonably prestigious literary magazine’s creative non-fiction writing contest.  (Say that 3 times fast.)

I then promptly forgot that I’d agreed to do it, though I did remember just in time to turn in my votes and comments 1 day late, so they couldn’t use them. (Don’t try to bribe me, people, I am not organized enough to handle it.) But still, I learned.  And not just about writing down deadlines.

Of the nine entries I had to read, only one was good enough to make the longlist (which the real judge reads.)  And even that one, well, it wasn’t amazing.  It was simply good; nothing obviously flawed, but nothing incredible.  I’d be surprised if it wins, though the writer could probably sell that piece to a magazine somewhere.

Here are some of the big problems I saw.  If you can revise out these problems, your work will stand out:

  1. There’s no story. Amazing how you can write a story with no story in it.  But the truth is that we all do this.  Or we start a bit of a story, and then we don’t go there.  We forget about beginnings, middles and endings.  We forget about conflict.  We ignore the naked guy.  Make sure your story has a story.
  2. Falling in love with a gimmick. Sometimes, that’s a complex structure. Sometimes, that’s a dialect.  Sometimes, it’s even as little as a line or as much as a character.  Whatever it is, the reader can tell you’ve fallen in love with it because it stands out more than the story.  Once you’ve ascertained that you really do have a story there, ask yourself “Would I still have my story without this?”  And if the answer is “yes,” you don’t need it.
  3. Telling me the story. Your job, as a storyteller, is not to tell me the story. (Misleading job title, eh?)  Your job is to reveal the story.  Show it to me.  Let me enter your world and participate in it so that I can make up my own mind. If you’ve revealed the story well, the story I see is the same story you showed me, and I will walk away thinking “Ah, I just read a story.”  But if you are telling me what the story is, and telling me what the characters are like, and telling me how to react to everything…. frankly, I don’t like being told what to do. At best, I’ll tune you out.  At worst, I’ll start telling you why you are wrong, and since you aren’t here to defend yourself, I will win that argument handily.

There you have it.  Three little things.  None of these things are easy, mind, but all of these things will make you a stronger writer.

The Truth sets you free… to revise

The MFA program I am taking is designed around a multi-genre approach, the idea being that we become better writers by exploring other ways of writing.  This year, I am taking creative non-fiction, which is on its surface a lot like writing fiction, except that the stories are factually true.  As a fiction writer, I figured it wouldn’t be too hard.  Ha!

But I believe that spending time with non-fiction will help me write better fiction.

One of the things I find difficult in writing fiction is figuring out what happens next.  Some writers have an overabundance of ideas when they write–I envy them. I sit and stare at my characters, willing them to just do something, anything, so that I can have a story.  The moment one of them makes a move, I strike, snatching the tiniest action and pinning it down on the page while it’s still wriggling. I write cheerfully for a while and then the idea slows down and then stops moving. Then I fall back into the shadows and stalk the next idea.

Non-fiction seemed easier; the ideas were all there.  Get to know my characters? I already know my characters.  I am my main character. The actions, the ideas, the plot points?  Shooting fish in a barrel.  Make random shots into the barrel and yield of whole mess of fish. Except that’s what it is, a mess.  Just because I had a lot of fishes didn’t mean I had the right combination of fishes to tell the story.  (My metaphor just ran out on me.)

The art of writing non-fiction is in the careful selection of elements to tell the story. In non-fiction, the writer knows many things, but to tell the story well, the writer must select which things to tell. To do this, the writer has to know, what is the heart of this story?

Notice that I say ‘heart’, not what is this story about. I can write a story about a woman preparing for a special dinner to impress her often-absent husband, but the heart of the story might be the efforts we go to so that we do not end up alone.  The heart of the story is that greater truth, the part that elevates it beyond plot, and connects the story to our greater sense of humanity.  Great literature, those books and stories that we read that touch our souls, does this very well.

Sounds like an overwhelming task, doesn’t it?  (And maybe you fear being a wee bit pretentious?) I mean, first you have to have character and plot and setting and description and dialogue, and then you need to make it sound plausible and with real events and real characters–which you have to actually think up–and now you have to make it mean something too?  (Hey, writing isn’t for sissies.)

This is why it is easier to work on this in non-fiction. In non-fiction, you already have character and plot and setting and description and dialogue. In non-fiction, you don’t have to limit yourself to what is plausible, because you are already presenting it as true. The events and characters are already true.  You don’t have to think them up because you already have an abundance of these to choose from.  So what you are left with is the heart, to look at this collection of people and places and events and anecdotes, and figure out what is the bigger thing that connects all of these pieces together in a meaningful way.

You can apply this to fiction.  This is not something I would do on a first draft–there’s too many other things to figure out at that stage. Get to know your characters and what they are doing in the world a little better.  But after you’ve built up the skeleton and start fleshing out your piece, go back and ask yourself, what is the heart of this story?

With that in mind, go through your draft and see what fits and what does not, what works and what needs to be strengthened. The heart of the story keeps it alive.