Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Writing "Real" Fiction

So a while back I waxed poetic on the merits of writing fan fic as a means to practice your art and to establish some kind of reputation as someone who can tell a story, craft dialogue and engage characters.  I stand by that advice, but I would like to deal with some of the negative stigmas that Fan Fic gets and how some of them are legitimate.

One thing that I see in a lot of fan fic, but rarely in quality published writing, is the use of specifics.  The main character does not get into a hot rod to drive to school, she climbs into a 2012 Pontiac Solstice with turbo charged V8, leather seats and the eight speaker stereo.

This makes me want to ask the author:  So?

If that much detail is going to be included, ultimately there should be a reason for it all.  What is the real relevance of having that particular brand and model of car?  How is that specific engine or stereo system going to affect the over all plot?

Now it makes sense to describe the hot rod car the main character is driving.  It can establish a certain level of decadence, or perhaps a need for the main character to have a powerful car to make up for lack of power in other areas of her life.  Maybe it's a case of conspicuous consumption.    It can be a point later in why the main character is able to out drive her rival on a race to get to the library first and score a chance to be tutored by the incredibly hot, but probably a vampire, science nerd.

If that's not the case, they why not just leave it at "car"?  Even the most verbose of writing (I'm looking at you, Moby Dick) provides a context for the instruction, and there it is not so much unnecessary detail, but it is an included treatise on the biology of whales to further the overall knowledge for the rest of the story.  The fair comparison would be that Melville was going through and fully educating the reader on the inner workings of the car's engine so that when the main character out paces her rival, you, the reader, understand in minute detail how this was done.

The detail is not provided to name drop the latest hot rod's title.  It is provided to better serve the story.

I feel the same way about music mentioned directly in the prose.  As I get older I recognize less and less of these pieces.  My wife will be listening to something on her computer and it will catch my ear.  I'll make a comment about "maybe I still like new music" to which she'll respond "new?  This came out, like, four years ago."

The key is in the relevance, again, to the story.  I skirted this with Mind the Thorns back in Chapter 3.  In the scene Regan is barreling down the highway in the passenger seat of a hot rod car, one I imagine to be, yes, a Pontiac Solistice.  On the radio is blasting "Raise Your Glass" by P!nk.  Why that particular song?  Part of it was that I had been listening to it a lot while I was writing and it was in my head.  For that scene, however, I envisioned it as the perfect song of self acceptance.  That moment in the car was the first that Regan stops and realizes, she is immortal.  She is going to be young and beautiful and powerful forever.  It is meant to be the kind of time where the character not just accepts who they are but revels in it.

But I held back from mentioning the title and settled on just a reference to the lyrics because I did not want the reader to be caught up in having to find the song to appreciate the moment.  Instead I focused my attention on writing the scene so as to capture that feeling without the aid of an outside reference.  The lyric I chose to include could be set to just about any tempo and tune and still have a contributing factor to the moment.

What else is interesting with that chapter is that the names of several class cars are also dropped.  Regan and Daryl take in a tour of The Earl's car collection.  Why did I mention the specifics there?  Because I wanted to establish key points of character that those names played to.  I wanted to suggest without flat out stating (ie showing not telling) that The Earl had a taste for the most beautiful cars made in America in given model years.  Why did I not do that for the modern hot rod?  Because at that point I did not want room for people to become distracted.

FantastiCon is a curious case of having to violate this rule just to have a story.  While Allison is in and out of costumes, and most of them seem irrelevant to the story, a convention like that is nothing but one giant pop culture reference.  People change in and out of costumes, and those costumes are from the movies and TV shows of the day.  Some of the costumes, also, had particular relevance to the character of Allison.  She dressed as a junior officer from a sci fi show as a way of saying "hey, I don't like to be the top dog; please don't notice me."  She was a Ravenclaw when she dressed up for Harry Potter as a nod to her intellectual side, and her desire to be a little different.  The Brotherhood of the Wolf costume was meant to show that she appreciated older period movies, as well as provide a foil in that the long skirts become an issue during the novel's climax.  Likewise, the fact that some people did and did not recognize the costume also become a minor plot point.

All told, the question that should always be asked, when writing, is "Are these details nessecary?  Do they advance plot, setting or character?  Is there a better way to share this?"

My personal pet peeve tied to this practice is that it comes off as a short cut.  Fan Fic writers (yes I'm going back there) often get a bad reputation because they don't world build on their own.  They play in someone else's sandbox.  By going another step and saying "She listened to Raise Your Glass by P!nk" you're taking another short cut.  Tell us why that particular song mattered at that particular moment.  Was it that she knew the song from a happier day?  Was it the song itself that put her in better spirits?  Was it a random song that happened to play?

In Jerry MacQuire, there is a famous scene where he desperately wants to listen to an upbeat song on the radio and he has to scroll through several stations before he finds Tom Petty's Free Falling.  There are many songs that are perfect sing along tunes that could have filled in for that song and your writing is considerably more accessible if you leave it open for a reader to insert their own "The perfect classic rock song to sing along to" unless you have a real need for that particular song to be Free Falling.

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