July 12th, 2009

writing everywhere

Fiction and nonfiction, upon a friend's question

In a locked post, one of my friends was talking about feeling sure she knew how to write nonfiction but also feeling sure she didn't know how to write fiction, and wondering what the differences are.

For me, they overlap significantly. I'm not prepared to say that they're identical, because writing 750 words on Hilbert spaces for an encyclopedia and writing 750 words of short-short story are not at all similar for me. But, for example, telling a story about my cousin and telling a story about one of my characters are not all that dissimilar. I think most people tell stories about their family and friends naturally, without necessarily identifying what they're doing or how they're doing it, so it's harder to apply it to fictional characters because it feels like your ordinary conversational stories are just saying what really happened, and with fiction, that's not an option.

Collapse )

I wonder if people tend to organize their thinking for approaching a large fiction project similarly to the way they organize their thinking for approaching a large nonfiction project. I know I do, but this is one of the times I don't really want to generalize from one example. I know that there are people who outline very formally and others who outline informally and still others who don't like to outline at all. I'm in the middle group for both fiction and nonfiction, but I'm wondering if others see it the same way. Also I like to do a bunch of research, think about where I might be going, outline informally, do a bunch more research, and then fix all the ways I was wrong before about where I thought I might be going. I like fixing the ways I was wrong before. It's so soothing! Hey, I was wrong, and the sky did not fall in! I was wrong, and now I am not-wrong, hurrah! Or at least less wrong! Hurrah!

If anybody else wants to talk about anything they've found useful across the fiction/nonfiction boundary, my friend might find it helpful, and I might find it interesting. Please feel free.

If you haven't written a lot of fiction, you probably can't write good fiction right off the bat. This is not anything bad about you. It's just that it's a skill, like anything else is a skill; unless you're a Mary Sue, you don't expect to be able to pick up your first wind instrument ever and sound like Louis Armstrong on the first day. So if you've mostly written nonfiction and you're making your first venture into fiction, when the little voice says, "I can't write fiction, I don't know how," you can answer it cheerfully, "No, that's true, I don't. But I can learn." You hit a lot of wrong notes when you're learning a new instrument, and if you're trying something like the oboe, you break things a lot and your tone is painful to all listeners for awhile, and that's okay. Practice really does help. You don't have to start out knowing everything you need to know. It's like the rest of life that way.
good mris pic

Random speculative writing exercises #442

Last night and the night before, markgritter and I watched Lust, Caution, an Ang Lee movie about a woman struggling with collaborationists in wartime Shanghai. (It's two and a half hours long, and my ability to read subtitles gave out at about the two hour mark.) And the thing is: I didn't have nearly enough of the cultural references to be able to see the shape of this story coming. None. I am used to being able to--well, not just predict things coming in movies, although that's a big part of it. But I am also used to being able to see the shape pretty clearly in retrospect--not just what happened, but why that was the way they went, what they were trying to do with it, which details were important after all.

At one point I said to myself, "If it was me writing it, this would be the part where they attempted to obtain for themselves Batman-like superpowers. Or at least James Bond-like ones." Then a bit later, "If it was me writing it, this would be the bit where they consulted a traditional Chinese magic practitioner, probably a Taoist." And then later yet, "Ah! I see now! This is where it becomes important that the jeweler is Indian, because India is still part of Britain and belligerent with the Japanese at this point in the war."

Needless to say, I was wrong at every turn.

It was a very nifty kind of wrong, though, a poking of assumptions about story shape but also cultural assumptions about which details were important and telling. If I had been looking for jumping-off points for similar stories, it would have been a neat way to do it, too; as it is, I am trying to wrangle the stories I've got and do not want to get into the Chinese Taoist magic practitioners vs. the Japanese in wartime Shanghai, because I don't have the background for that. (If you do, though, write it for me. It'd be awesome.) I would definitely recommend it as an exercise: picking a movie from a culture somewhat removed from your own and stopping the movie several times to say where you think it's going, seeing what you've missed and what you've mistaken. It's kind of fun. And it doesn't have to be a culture about which you're completely ignorant--I am nothing like an expert on China, but I know a great deal more about China than I do about, say, Ghana, and it still worked beautifully. And unintentionally, but I've often said my main talent is getting the wrong end of the stick in interesting ways.