Reality is Harshing My Mellow


How did facts make their way into my fiction?
How did facts make their way into my fiction?

The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.” ~ Tom Wolfe
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” ~ Mark Twain

I’m just over 80,000 words into my first draft of THE BOOK. My arbitrary goal of writing 100,000 words in one year is nearing, but as I get closer to the end, things are getting sticky. My imagination has cruised forward without restraint for about ten months, but now I’ve run into two specific roadblocks:

Rules and Logic

I know. I’m writing a novel, which is fiction, right? So you’d think rules and logic would mean nothing to me. They barely mean anything to me in real life, so why would they bog me down now, when I’m this close to finishing my first draft?

At this very moment, three of my most important characters are stuck in Chapter 18, sitting on bar stools at a diner in Pennsylvania. My imagination got them to this point, but they’ve been sitting on those stools a few weeks now, waiting for me to propel them forward in some interesting and logical way. But I’m slogging at best. I’m only writing about 100 words a day, 400 less than I should be. I know where my imaginary friends are going, generally speaking, but as I get close to the end, their every move needs to have a finer focus. What they do and say now has added significance, crucial to the consistency of the story’s entire framework.

Did I Just Say Framework?

But I wrote in my last post that I didn’t need any framework. And yet one has constructed itself, without my willing participation, and I’m more and more beholden to it, and its rules, as the story progresses.

I told you before that my imagination is a free-range chicken, pecking where it pleases. I’ve told you elsewhere that it’s OK if a first draft is rather shitty, at least in an organizational sense. I don’t need an outline or structure in the initial draft, you’ve heard me say (as if I’m some sort of writing authority), because I’m a Pantser, writing by the seat of my pants, finding my way through the story, just like the audience will do when they read the finished book.

So maybe I’m … wrong?

I don’t think so. Sometimes chaos breeds order in spite of itself. Look it up.

Without any framework, my unorganized brain-chicken has unearthed some top-notch, yummy, plumpity worms over the last ten months, it’s true. But I can’t just leave them littered about the barnyard to dry out in the sun. Maybe it’s time to stop, gather and categorize those worms into labeled dirt bins so I know where to find them later. Right? Clearly, I can’t keep my Red Wigglers intermingling with my Canadian Manure Crawlers. I may be a Pantser, but I’m not an animal.

I started THE BOOK one morning last August, by writing that a guy drove up in front of his parents’ house. That’s it. I knew the guy had a particular character flaw, and I knew a couple other things about him, but I didn’t know why he was at his parents’ place. I didn’t know if he had sisters or brothers; I didn’t foresee any other characters yet or what any of them might say or do once they’d blooped into existence. I just took off on my little literary road trip without a map, like a good Pantser.

And without benefit of any forethought, characters developed out of nothingness and took on personalities. They interacted in a world. They moved from place to place, had wants and disappointments, and said funny things. Then, abracadabra, they were tangled up in an honest-to-God story. And that fictional story came with a built-in set of logic and rules.

For Instance?

Well, some rules are just pesky details. If, for example, my characters live in Cleveland, they can’t decide to go visiting ancient pyramids in the afternoon. Cleveland doesn’t have ancient pyramids. See? That’s a rule. That’s logical. That’s some kind of intra-fictional factoid.

If a lady in my book has an astronaut job, then I’m on the hook to know what a lady astronaut does, day-to-day. I can’t simply write, “Jane walked into the offices of Galactic Rocketship Incorporated and began dehydrating Reuben sandwiches for her weekly trip to Neptune.” There are probably a lot of factual inaccuracies in that sentence. Can you even dehydrate a Reuben sandwich? I don’t know. I’m not a lady astronaut. Probably no one is going to question me about the sandwiches, though. But famed American astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson might argue that Sauerkraut, desiccated or otherwise, would have terrible intestinal implications in space. Maybe this is a well-known rule of space sauerkraut. So, before I wrote about any of that, I should have done some research

Then there are larger rules — the logic of fiction — that existed before Aristotle ever wrote Poetics, which is a collection of lecture notes about storytelling guidelines, written 330 years before Jesus was born — and easily 2,300 years before he appeared on a cheese sandwich (more on this later). You’ve heard about these big rules before: The main character has to be relatable and must experience overwhelming obstacles. There has to be rising tension and a satisfying conclusion. This is an oversimplified summary of a book that runs about 150 single-spaced papyrus pages.

Is Reality Even Real?

Here’s the thing about rules and logic: they aren’t exactly fair to the world of fiction. Fiction, in some ways, is held to a higher standard of reality than reality itself.

If you read a news story about some woman who sold a grilled cheese with Jesus on it for $28,000 on eBay, you’d believe it without question. If I wrote a fictional story about a lady who traveled the world using the proceeds from the sale of a Jesus sandwich, you’d call it lazy storytelling. Grilled Cheesus is only believable in the real world, not in a novel. It sounds too “made up.”

If I had a character stuck in a small dinghy in the middle of the icy Atlantic, I can’t write that a huge ship coincidentally happened by and saved him. That might actually happen in real life, but in fiction it’s a sucky answer to a big dilemma. This kind of overly convenient solution is called Deus ex Machina in drama terms, which I mention here only so you’ll think I’m a smarty-pants.

What’s It Like?

I know I overuse analogies. Sorry. I realize I explain myself far too often by way of chickens, bananas, worms and sandwiches, but get ready for a new one: paint.

Writing is like painting a room. At first, I was able throw color anywhere on the walls. I could swipe it on with my hands. I could splatter it on with my toes. It didn’t matter because I could neaten it all up later. Now I’m at the slower part of the paint job, where I have to be careful of the woodwork and the ceiling. My lines have to be straight and true. Most importantly, I can’t paint myself into a corner. I have to plan my way out the exit door. I have to back out carefully now. The time for toe-splattering is over.

So before I move my waiting characters off of those bar stools and into Chapter 19, I have to be super sure where we’re all headed. I have to look behind me to see where my door is before I can close it, let the paint dry, and come back later to touch up the bare spots.

This is slowing me down, for sure. But I have to deal with it, and slog toward my ending, even if it’s only at a rate of 100 words per day. If I have a bad ending, devoid of rules and logic, my audience will hate the story, maybe close the book before they even get there.

So now is the time to put my worms in jars and cage my chicken.

It’s, um … what other analogies have I left hanging open?

It’s time to check my literary map, touch up my paint job, and get my dinghy out of the icy Atlantic so I can re-hydrate my space sauerkraut and …

Oh, Cheesus. Finishing something is hard.


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