Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Fiction - The Unplanned Birth

In my workshop today, one of my writers touched on the fundamental difference between fiction and nonfiction. She said that she normally writes nonfiction, and that she’s accustomed to outlines and roadmaps for her writing. But she hasn’t liked the results of her planned fiction. She found that she likes the results of her freewriting, but that the process is scary – there is no planning, and editing is needed at the end. But still, the she likes the results.

Part of the reason freewriting inspires the creative process is that it forces the mind to write automatically. The result is that the words you produce are words you’re intimately familiar with. You begin writing about your life, about the things you’ve seen in life, even if the story is not a true story. And it works. It has the feel of truth, because in a deep way the words written on autopilot are truth – your truth. The life you’ve been living.

This is the funny thing about good fiction - it can't be planned. It's as random as our lives, as constant as the stars. Certain aspects of the human experience are accepted as absolute - the need for food, for example, or the strain and exhaustion that come with stress - but the events and decisions of an individual defy outlines. It's a strange phenomenon - generally, most writers avoid crossing back-and-forth between fiction and nonfiction. Before freewriting, I tried to control my writing. I wanted to “make” it good. I believed in working hard to produce the “perfect” story. But results of controlled fiction aren't good, let alone perfect. The characters are stale, the decisions pre-planned, the conflict watered down.

Fiction is not nonfiction. How do I know? Try writing nonfiction without an outline and good sources. That's just not a good idea, not for a longer work. The reader has to believe in the work, and for nonfiction that means believable, reputable facts. And these facts have to fit together tight as a jigsaw puzzle. To make the truth coherent, you have to sit down and plan it out, piece it together, see how every isolated piece matches with every other.

It's not that fiction's any different in that regard - the "facts" must still be "right," and they must certainly "fit together," but the source of these facts is a different place entirely. Some call it the heart, some say it’s the unconscious mind, others believe it's the soul. Tapping it, though, is hard. Allowing the disorder and the chaos of the inner mind to creep out onto the page is a process all by itself. And then telling your conscious mind – the part of your brain that stops you from giving embarrassing revelations at work – to step aside? For some, it’s inconceivable. I've met people who don't believe in freewriting and won't try it - they hold on to the control they have, choking their own creativity. It's not a pretty sight - flat characters, organized plots without purpose, antagonists who don't care about anything except owning the world.

When editors look for good fiction, they aren't looking for someone who can string words together in the "correct" way. They're looking for someone who can reveal a protagonist's inner hate, someone who can show the antagonist's hidden love, a writer who makes us appreciate life in new ways. As you push forward in your writing, make sure that you are learning to write from within rather than simply pen beautiful sentences. Don’t plan your novel to death – write it. Feel it. Express it. And then later, after the words are on the page, after you’ve bled your soul through the keyboard, go back and edit. Assert the control you didn’t need before. Make sure the grammar isn’t too ugly. But don’t do this until you’re done. Don’t edit until after the last line is written. If you’re tempted to edit early, tempted to “tweak” the story a little bit, just keep one thing in mind: you can always edit grammar. You can insert and delete characters and subplots in a finished story. You can even go through and emphasize a theme that didn’t get enough “air time” in the rough draft. But no matter how much you edit, you can’t revive a story without heart.

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