Tag Archives: fiction

The Facts Get in the Way

Facts are the potato chips of life for me.  I crunch down on one after another.  I test out assorted dips.  I eat until the bowl is empty.

What does this mean as far as fiction is concerned?  Everything and nothing.  Despite what most readers think, my stories are not transcripting of the wonderful/horrible events of my life.  Neither are they (consciously) therapy.  I am appalled by some of my characters.  Others have courage and conviction that I, too often, lack.  I actually have a great affection for many authors whose work is thinly disguised autobiography, but that isn’t me.

For me, facts in fiction are the road away from truth.  The truth is rich and compelling and emotional.  The facts get in the way.  I am not of the “live it, write it” Hemingway school.

This does not mean that I don’t take notes on my life.  I do.  But just as journalism is the rough draft of history, journalism (for me) is the rough draft of fiction.  (Or the rough draft of the rough draft.)  Notes on the agonies and joys of life, whether written in loving detail (with a specific audience in mind) or simply thought through in detail are essential to holding onto moments.  Algis Budrys told me years ago that an unarticulated memory was soon lost, and I believe that’s mostly true.  So I consciously work through any event with emotion content.  But none of this makes it into fiction verbatim from notes.

How do facts, the facts of my life, make it into my fiction?  The primary route for me is via an actor’s approach.  I hit a place in a story where I know the character is in an important emotional space.  For instance, I had a character who, to save her life, needed a real experience of closeness with her mother.  I shuffled through several with my own mother.  And this may sound weird, but I shared them with my character.  One provoked a memory she had.  And, as she told it to me, I took it down.  It was fresh and full of an amazing mix of hurt and wonder.  She was telling me the truth.  It went into the story.

And that is how I use the facts, the pieces of my life, in fiction.  Of course, I love historical facts and scientific facts.  I marble my work with all the little nuggets I pick up regularly, especially the weird and the wonderful.  But the emotionally lade facts of my life do not get transcribed.

In fact, each one is aged.  For me, as I put together my work, the more immediate the experience, the less likely that I can deal with it effectively.  This is because the things that haunt me at the moment are intricately attached to larger contexts that I take for granted.  Ever have anyone tell you their dreams?  Usually, it is not a pleasant experience.  This isn’t because the person telling you lacks passion — that’s alway evident.  It’s precisely because every image they share is embedded in a complete, unexamined and (to them) obvious world of associations.  Only a true genius can take these, distill them out in realtime, and re-present them to an audience.  I don’t have that talent.  So I consciously avoid taking memories that are too fresh and using them in fiction.  (And I rarely talk about my dreams, no matter how excited I am about them.)

One more thing (and this I learned from speechwriting).  The facts of my life emerge, they aren’t referenced.  That is, I don’t say, “good place for a life experience — what’s in the notebooks?”  I only use experiences that come readily to mind.  Why?  Because otherwise they lack authenticity.  I think I was the only speechwriter I know (of dozens) who did not have a book of quotations on his/her desk.  I only used quotes if they occured to me as I wrote.  I did not find good quotes and insert them into speeches.  And I bet that I could find the latter in any speech.  They show up all the time on TV, saying “look at me!”  Such quotes are distracting.  They are phoney.  No thanks.  So, no thanks to the inserted memory.  Ugh.

The facts, for me, come out of conversations with my characters.  They are all aged so that I can provide the proper contexts.  And they all emerge from the situation.  No insertions.

Truth is what we read fiction for, but it is emotional truth, not (usually) the sequential facts of personal experiences.


A rejection, a second drama meeting and chewing on a tale

Always great to open the email and find another rejection for a story.  Today, I found that Waverley, which is a sort of nostalgic/aliens/pied piper tale, didn’t make the cut.  Again.  It is one of my more personal and unusual pieces, so it wasn’t a big surprise.  Reading tea leaves?  It took three times as long for it to be rejected as is typical for the pub.  (Great information supplied by one of my favorite sites, Duotrope’s Digest.)  Of course, maybe the editor just got busy.

Last night, things went a bit better.  I went to the drama group again.  There are some heavy hitters there, and I saw the first act of another piece by the star of the last session.  It was a death row story from two different viewpoints.  Not my sort of thing, but the dialogue was so good, it was irresistable.  I had my own work read by real actors, which was fun.  This was for the “six lines.”  I had to be humiliated first.  I had got the assignment just the day before: “You don’t know who I am.”  In my rush to complete something, I actually wrote seven lines, so I had to be told I was not going to be allowed to present, etc. etc.  They relented, and there was some appreciation for the twist at the end.  I’ve put the whole thing below.  See what you think.

Lastly, I’m working on version four of an SF story for Baen’s Universe.  They have an online workshop for newbies.  The good and the bad of any critique group is there, but I am working hard to make my work less “distant.”  This is a real problem with my work.  (Years ago, an editor described my work is third person, over the hill, in the next county.)  I have dug into the discussions in the workshop, and I think I finally, “get it.”  Version 3 had encouraging results.  Version 4, I’m hoping will be closer.  And I’m going to take what I’ve learned and see if it will help Waverley.

Six Lines


 Look, Buster.  I hope you’ve gotten an eyeful because it’s time for you to move on.  Take your monobrow, your fat butt and your cheap shoes over to the snack table.  You’ve got a better chance with the clam dip than you’ve got with me.


Nice.  Nice.  But I’m going to give you a second chance.  I may not look like Tom Cruise, but I am Valentino, reborn.  Five hundred years go, I was Don Juan and I gave pleasure to a thousand women.  Two thousand years ago, I was Marc Antony and Cleopatra died for my embrace.


Well, no one is dying for your embrace now.  They’d prefer to be dead.  You’ve got a less than zero chance with me.  Now go satisfy yourself with a bowl of nachos.


I like you.  I enjoy the thrill of the chase.  It heats things up, you know?  The other women here will just have to wait in line.  I’m all yours tonight.


Do you see that rather big man near the door?  He works for me.  Once I saw him pick up a jerk, a jerk much larger than you, with one hand and stuff him into an aquarium.  I’ll call him over here. 


 Call gorilla over if you must.  I’ll keep trying.  There is a tie between us that transcends time and space.  Our hearts are linked.  Through all of history, we have known each other.  Insults and threats can never keep us apart.  You will be mine.


I didn’t want to say this.  You’ve forced me to tell you the truth.  This will hurt you.  I know that you have been a great lover throughout all of history.  The greatest!  And we have met, the two of us, over and over again.  You always love me.  And I always love you.  You know… a mother always loves her son.

Dramatic beginnings

I’ve made my living by writing for decades now.  In the past year or so, I’ve ventured into new territories of fiction.  About two weeks ago, this took a strange turn when I joined a local drama group.

Drama?  Drama?  I don’t know upstage from downstage.  I’ve never spoken a line in a theater except from a seat in the audience.   But my friend Bob, who recently had a play produced by this gang, invited me to come to one of their twice monthly workshops.

I almost backed out.  Having been involved in numerous writing groups over the year, including a summer at Clarion, I felt I should bring some of my own work.  It can be hard to take criticism from someone who doesn’t stand up to take a few blows.  As stated, my collected works includes no plays.  I have a completed screenplay, but that seemed like overkill.  Rummaging through stuff that represented my current efforts, I found a curiosity that could work as a monologue.  In fact, more people had heard me read it aloud than had read it.

I asked Bob what he thought  and he told me you needed to give your manuscript to the group’s guru ahead of time.  So I emailed it.  Almost by return mail, I was told that 1) I needed to go to the back of the line and 2) monologues were not appropriate unless part of a larger work.

I read this as “sit down and shut up.” Luckily the response came in email, not face-to-face.  My wife said theater culture is different from storywriting culture.  So I took a deep breath, asked that my manuscript be withdrawn and decided to show up and see what happened.

I’m glad I did because one of the key people there had several portions of his play read, and they were brilliant.  The scenes worked, alternating humor with heatbreaking conflict.  It was better than some evenings I’ve spent on Broadway, and I would have slit my wrists if he hadn’t said he’d been working on it for six years.

We had several other one acts, including one by Bob that was quite impressive, and a few the did not crush my writer’s ego.  I felt like I was able to offer some effective criticism, too, which is nice at your first time at bat.

The group also has an exercise of six lines, three by each of a pair of actors.  This was charming and apparently did not require waiting in line.  We also had a monologue, not connected with any larger work.

On Monday, I go to my second meeting of this group.  I have some lines ready, but I probably won’t pull them out this time.  I’ll have them, though.  Just in case things get dull.