You’ll need paper, a pen, a handful of highlighters or colored markers, and whatever you’re working on. Using the paper and pen, copy your last page or two by hand. Don’t change the content yet. When you’re finished, read through the penned copy and look for anything you feel could be improved or tweaked. Don’t erase or scratch anything out. Instead, use the markers to make changes. Draw big swooping arrows to move things around, in different colors. Want to add a word? Do it in pink, or green. Or purple. If you can’t find anything to change, read through it again and highlight the parts you like, again in different colors. And draw stars, pumpkins or exclamation points.
Using color and changing the physical method of expression stimulates the creative half of the brain, your “right brain,” and encourages it to reopen communication with the analytical half of your mind, or the left brain. Like most artists, most writers are right-brain-dominant, heavy on creativity. However, we also depend on our left brains for the tools of writing. When you stimulate your creative mind with color and fanciful images combined with your analytical prose and sentence structure, it can open the channels of communication and get the ideas flowing once more.
If you’re reading this expecting juicy tips about romantic novels, you may wish to stop here. In this piece, “dating” is a verb rather than an adjective. When you date fiction, you pinpoint when in time it takes place, and tie it to reality. Dating a piece is not always desireable. It rarely matters in short stories, it never matters in historical or erotic fiction, and it worked well for Tom Clancy. If you write contemporary novels, however, whether you tie your story to a specific period in time should be something to think about. The sad truth is, many readers won’t touch contemporary stuff that appears to be ten years old. Evidently good words have an expiration date.
It’s not hard to write books that are not fixed in time. I’ve done two. I thought long and hard about my current novel, because fixing it in time and using current events is essential to the story. I also use repeating characters, so readers who do that kind of thing (and believe me, there are readers who do that kind of thing) will trace the story back and date my first two books.
What dates your story? Most obviously, using dates—years—in the book. Duh, I know, huh? If you write about a “brand-new 2013 Honda Civic,” you just dated your story. Another tip-off is a reference to a sitting U.S. president. Royals are easier unless you give their ages. World events such as the Olympics, marked catastrophes, and even films currently in the theater or newly released books can tie your story to real life. Using product names does not date the book unless you use a product widely known to have been available for a limited time. I basically keep this in the back of my head when I write. I’m always thinking about what I want the reader to know. That sounds egotistical, but that is our job in a nutshell. We tell the reader who, what, where, how, and why. Whether you wish to add “when” is your decision.
Whether you are aware of it or not, you are surrounded by your best resources. Friends, family, Facebook and other social media. The barristas at Starbucks. Anyone you talk to! We are encompassed by a wealth of information, and all it takes to find an answer is to ask a question. You don’t want to reveal your story? Fine. You probably shouldn’t. So compartmentalize. Ask specific questions. Be vague. As a woman, I’m always interested in how a man would react under certain circumstances, so I target men with those questions. If my character is a young child, I ask mothers or even children of friends. I have never, not once been turned down for information.
My friends on Facebook love this game (by now they know what I’m up to). I post questions such as, “Can you give me an argument that bin Laden’s killing was unlawful or wrong?” Questions like this generate a very long thread (and sometimes argument) with a ton of material I can use, including valuable links and citations. More frequent questions are simpler, for example, “What would you do if …?” or, “how would you feel if …?”
I guess my point is, writing doesn’t have to be a lonely pursuit, and it shouldn’t be. Our only resources aren’t libraries and Wikipedia. Use everything and everyone available to you. It is freely and usually eagerly offered. You will find the best answers in the most unlikely of places. Insight is invaluable, and we need all we can get.
(Did I mention how much I hate it when authors do this?)
Last weekend a black widow spider decided to take a nap in my big fleecy sweatshirt, and didn’t make its presence known for an hour after I put it on. Color me surprised. Color it surprised! The little bugger bit me twice before I got it out, though it won’t be making the same mistake twice. It paid the ultimate price. I spent three days in agony, then more in severe discomfort.
I’ve spent the time I’ve been laid up closely examining two characters in my book, mostly in my head. Something about the flow was bothering me. The two characters are fairly equal in importance, but I gave Character B a serious flaw. I wrote about this extensively in my first draft, several chapters worth. But while I was sick, it seemed contrived. It wasn’t working. Each of my books has been driven by a different character, and this book has shown itself to be Character A’s book. It’s his book, so it is he who needs to overcome his obstacles. And since he currently has none, I need to create them for him, and screw up his life as much as I can.
It’s soooo tempting to use the material I have. It’s good. It’s very good. Changing out base story and personality alterations at this stage of the game is daunting. But if I don’t, I’ll be submitting something that I know isn’t my best work. Why is it that it took being sick to be able to see these flaws clearly? Heck, I had a 102 fever when I finally figured out the switch to my oven light was on the oven door. I’d been turning it off at the circuit breaker for weeks. I don’t know. Perhaps when we’re forced to take a break from pounding out pages, we can stand back (or lie down) and think about the whole, rather than focusing on a single part.
I would not recommend seeking out a black widow, or sharing tissues with someone with the flu. But a short period of down time can be beneficial to your project. If you’re like me, you’re always writing in your head, wherever your body may be. You just gotta listen, and take notes periodically.
Oh, and give your clothes a good shake before you put them on.
The George Clooney/Sandra Bullock blockbuster film Gravity looks fantastic, and I can’t wait to see it. A friend told me last night that the film blew him away, but he had some questions about some of the facts. An hour later, one of the top three stories on CNN was Five Things That Couldn’t Happen In ‘Gravity.’ I don’t know about you, but if my books were featured on CNN, I don’t want my errors to be the focus. Will it matter for the film? No. But it can matter in books and smaller projects.
Apart from legal issues, believability is the crux to combining fact and fiction. A writer’s job is to engage and entertain the reader from page one to the end. In my experience, the fastest way to lose a reader’s attention is to demonstrate that you don’t know what you’re writing about. The emphasis in that statement should be on “demonstrate.” You don’t have to be expert. You simply have to convince the reader that you are.
The question is, can you make the reader believe you? How rigid you need to be can depend on genre. Writers in SciFi and fantasy can generally confabulate to a greater degree than historical and military fiction. When combining fact and fiction I use this scale: Impossible, implausible, plausible, likely, and confirmed. I write fairly over-the-top suspense, so I shoot for plausible as a minimum. I pushed the line in my last book and centered the story around cloning. I’m an expert on western medicine but not genetics, so I spent weeks researching and bugging experts in the field. But it really is all about the story. If you have great characters and can suck your reader out of his world and into yours, you can make him believe. And that is the coolest thing ever.
If you’re not a member of a writing group, join one. Pool your resources. I know medicine but not law, so I go to others when I have legal questions. Use any resources you can. I sent a question to famed FBI consultant Frank Abagnale, subject of the film Catch Me If You Can. I received the answer from him within three hours. If you don’t ask, you’ll never get what you need. Most people jump at the chance to help writers, so never be afraid of asking for help. In that vein, if you have medical questions for a project, feel free to send me an “ask.” I’m always glad to lend a hand.
Now please excuse me, I’m off to see a movie about gravity.
Oxford Dictionary of American English
fiction, noun: Literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people.
By their own definition, novels are fiction, which means, if you are writing a novel, you will be fabricating much of it. Few of us can get away with fabricating an entire book, however, and a novelist will come to many points where he grinds to a halt and needs to think about how much he can get away with. This is almost always related to using real world events, places, people or products (brand names, trademarks) in fiction. In my opinion the two major things to consider are legal issues and believability. To keep this short, I’ll write about legal issues today and believability tomorrow.
Legal issues come up when you’re using names of existing or deceased people, corporations or trademarks in publication. I have written about using brand names previously; you can find the post in my archives if you’re interested.
Some authors use a disclaimer as above in the front or back matter of a book, to the effect of, “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” I have read many books with this disclaimer that feature recognizable public figures anyway. You need to know that a disclaimer is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. If you give enough details to identify someone—for example, “George Bush” vs. “President George H.W. Bush,”—and commit actionable libel, a disclaimer likely would not cover you legally. That does not mean you can’t use the identities of existing people. It means you should do so with a judicious eye, and the rules as such are similar to those for brand names. Things to remember: If you write about a real person, be accurate, don’t show them in a bad light or make the person your villain, and be careful about fabricating dialogue. In other words, avoid libel. In Centaur I wanted to use local color, chose an existing radio personality, and initially wrote a script for her that was very close to things she had said in the past. It was great, and probably would have been okay. But you can never judge what may offend others, so I ended up cutting the whole thing.
Dr. Oz has recently been in a massive legal battle with manufacturers who use his name and likeness to sell products he has not endorsed on Facebook and other social networks, and was granted an injunction. There are no longer any ads for “Dr. Oz’s Wrinkle Cream” on Facebook. They now read, “Dr. O’s Wrinkle Cream.” This is technically legal, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
The late, great Tom Clancy was a master of blending reality and fiction. He sometimes did portray existing entities in a bad light, though never individuals. It’s not libel if you attribute unfavorable acts to a faction or government, though you might take into account whether you wish to be welcomed into that country when you make it big. When, not if. Always remember that.