Monday, August 10, 2009

Fiction is Dusty Work

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The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty than you shouldn't write fiction. It's not a grand enough job for you. -- Flannery O'Connor
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A lukewarm main character is incredibly dissatisfying. Life happens to them. They don't engage the menace. They stand back and wait to be rescued. I know this. I plot and develop characters with this in mind, and then, in the first draft, I invariably wimp out. My main character faces a milksoppy obstruction, not a knee-knocking malignancy.
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I honesty thought I'd written an engaged character in Lucy, the heroine of my WIP. She starts her quest with only modest equivocation and then spurs her "horse" onward.
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Then I took a long, hot shower. And, for me, there is no better place to discover the flaws of my writing. I'm too possessive of my words to delete them before my very eyes. Oh, the agony!
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Back to the story...Lucy faced a menace in my first draft--Is my ambiguity driving you nuts yet?--but her monster wasn't bloodthirsty enough. Losing the battle only meant a modest setback, not catastrophe. I had to up the stakes for her to truly reach hero status.
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But that meant getting really, really dusty--feeling revulsion, fear, helplessness.
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I rewrote the weak pages, and the story is stronger. I'm excited about returning to it, not only to fulfill my daily word count but to find out what happens to Lucy, to see what amazing things she'll do to overcome her nemesis--real or internal or both.
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I don't think Ms. O'Connor spoke exclusively for writers of fiction to portray the underbelly of humanity. She was speaking to authenticity, and authenticity has its transcendence too. I think of Alcott's Little Women. Their menace was the Civil War, the possible death of their father, and the loss of all they knew and held dear. And yet, they loved, forgave, and created. Louisa May Alcott got dusty.
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Having said that, let me acknowledge that the Christ follower has another layer of authenticity to portray--that which ought to be. What ought to be provides the best possible source for internal conflict, but our readers also want to see how this sense of "ought to be" plays out in the human experience.
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Pardon my meandering thoughts today. It's Sunday. Company's coming. I have no business trying to write a cohesive blog for such amazingly thoughtful readers as you. My apologies. Hopefully, I have given you some ideas to tickle your creative souls.
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Have you read something lately in which the author allowed him- or herself to get dusty? What hinders you from getting dusty? Is it harder to write underbelly or transcendence? How do you balance the "ought to be" in your fiction?

10 comments:

Lisa Karon Richardson said...

I think I actually have a harder time writing about transcendence. In the Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis speaks of the human tendency to view things that are horrific or painful or gritty as 'reality'. When literary critics herald a book as a realistic portrayal of the human condition you can be pretty certain the book will be depressing. There is some level of belief that wonderful moments with family or the inspiration of spiritual insight are simply fleeting, or figments of our imagination. But those things are no less real than the painful moments. In truth, it is this life that is fleeting.

Eternity is there, waiting to be embraced, waiting to be explored, but I find myself hamstrung sometimes by the fear of seeming cheesy or, even worse, preachy.

I have been consciously working on showing the transcendence that relationship with the Lord can make of our reality. I think that is what redemptive fictions is all about.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Great post, Patti! I think my problem with engaging the menace is that I fear being backed into a corner by him/it. What if he/it is too much for my heroine (or me) and we can't see the exit? I'm reading 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society' right now, and I like the author's pace at revealing the menace. When the story opens, the war is over. But the character gradually gets dusty when the carnage is revealed. I would never have read a book of this topic if it had been done any other way. There's plenty of dust, but it's very balanced, not despairing - at least, not yet!

Lisa, I love your comments about the nature of redemptive fiction.

Patti Hill said...

Well said, Lisa. Yes, the horrific and transcendent are parts of the same river of life. It's our job to tell about the sinking boat (Titanic!) and the fisherman catching his fill. This keeps us humble.

Carla Gade said...

Patti, you gave me a lot to think about. I've always tried to get "dusty" by portraying real emotions about the more difficult experiences in life. But behold you brought something so important to my attention. "Life happens to them. They don't engage the menace. They stand back and wait to be rescued." Wow. I have fallen into this trap with my characters far too often. You just helped me solve a problem with the hero of my current WIP who thinks he is being the hero in his obligation to his family, but he is living life by default due to his circumstances. Hmmm.

What you said about the Christ follower having another layer of authenticity to portray - "What ought to be provides the best possible source for internal conflict." That is so profound. And it is so true in real life, at least mine. The contrast of this playing out in the human experience creates an amazing opportunity for the character's goals and conflicts to be played out.

I really got some great stuff out of this post!

Nicole said...

I think the authenticity/reality factor varies according to genre and life experiences.

The "conflict on every page" is assumable when we write about FBI agents or cops or firefighters, etc., but what about you and me?

I think sometimes we must remember the degree of conflict isn't always sensational and therefore requires a serious dip into the emotional pool to extract the pearls of being meaningful. Most of us do have crises in our lives that deeply affect us, but again they aren't necessarily exciting, thrilling, or life-threatening. But they carry with them a universal appeal to the heart of people, therefore they're valid and important to write about, just not heart-stopping, rather maybe heart-rending because they're intimate, private, moving. How's that for a sentence? ;)

Patti Hill said...

I agree with you, Nicole. I write slice-of-life women's fiction. The menace is almost always within a relationship, but I pepper in some woman vs. nature and woman vs. society/culture to up the ante. The green-eyed purple-people eater never shows up in my work. The menace is unique to each character. What is life-as-we-know-and-like threatening to one character will be ho-hum to another.

This concept of getting dusty became especially meaningful to me in my WIP because it's different for me. My heroine does something extraodinary which requires an extraordinary motivation. I didn't give her a strong enough motivation, so I needed a dust storm. I don't like wind. I hate dust. This wasn't comfortable, but it rang true. And that's the final test.

Glad to have helped, Carla. Readers love strong characters.

Debbie: Yes! You nailed the very reason I loved the Potato story. I want to write a book like that someday.

Samantha Bennett said...

I am new to this blog and love it! I too struggle with this concept of getting dusty alongside my characters. The closer I feel to my main character, the more I want to shield her/him from harm--and the less I want to write those hard scenes.

It took a good friend to point this out in my writing, and I've tried to embrace the grit (along with the gleam) ever since.

Great post!

Patti Hill said...

Welcome, Samantha! I know what you mean about loving your characters too much. It took me a year to throw my first protag into the mud and lob rocks at her. We both, however, became better women for it.

And, oh, in a later novel I decided NOT to kill off a character as planned. He became too dear, such a teddy bear. My editor sent me an email that read: "H must die!!!!" He was right. The story packed more emotionally punch with H as a caualty.

Being a novelist can be brutal.

Sharon K. Souza said...

I enjoyed this post, Patti. It hits to the heart of what makes a good story great. Simply put, the stakes have to be high or the story will fall flat. Those stakes don't have to be stopping an assassin or finding a kidney donor in the nick of time to matter, either. Personal, internal stakes can be just as dramatic,just as compelling. It took a while for me to learn how important it is to the story to make things as difficult for my protagonist as I can, to let him or her make costly mistakes, for which there seem to be no solution. Like others of you, I tend to want to ease up just when I should be pouring on the pressure. To borrow a popular phrase, novel writing isn't for wimps, especially for natural nurturers. I enjoyed all the comments, especially what Samantha said about embracing the grit as well as the gleam.

Kathleen Popa said...

Patti, what a great post. I suspect your best thoughts come when you're too busy to question them. Best thoughts hate to be questioned.

Samantha, welcome! I hope you'll become a regular here.

I agree - the biggest trouble with lobbing rocks at my characters, is that I have to feel everything they feel, if I'm to write with anything close to clarity. Ouch! Couldn't we all just go get a latte?