While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Is Fiction A Cop Out?

At work the other day I saw a Slippery When Wet sign on the way to the bathroom and had a light bulb moment:

Why doesn’t someone invent lino that changes colour when wet, so you can see exactly where to avoid and do away with those yellow signs?

Maybe this would be prohibitively expensive to manufacture, or there is simply no demand for Smart Lino™ -- but I didn’t go down this path at the time I had this thought. I am not an inventor or an entrepreneur. I am (trying to be) a writer. My next thoughts were: Perhaps one of [Main Character in Novel B]’s colleagues could invent this lino and exit the 9 to 5. Often you do not learn colleagues’ passions until they disappear or breakdown…

Perhaps I have just given away a million dollar idea. Nah. If I believed in Smart Lino™, I would have added this to my folder for un-posted posts. But it might work in fiction, so long as there is enough in the story to make it believable.

This partly explains one of my core attachments to fiction. I write, in part, because I can use my ideas, which I would not have the time, resources or inclination to bring into reality.

But, on a case by case basis, placing an idea into a story is a cop out.

It’s easier to write about a man following his dream of being a kindergarten teacher and not caring that perceptions are stacked against him than it is to actually be that man.

It easier to write about an invention which allows buildings to hover just above the ground—and with the help of an elegant algorithm, remain on the same spot in relation to the sun at all times, letting the planet rotate underneath it, effectively creating 24hr sunlight for the building—than it is to actually achieve this in real life.

I should probably come to the defence of fiction (in particular: people who write copious amounts, ahem), so here’s my BUT.

But a story is not made of one original idea. A story is made of a hundred of tiny cop outs—things you didn’t actually say in real life but wish you could have; places you’d rather be; people you would ignore in real life; opinions you’d keep to yourself when the subject came up.

There is a name for a writer who writes only about things they actually did: memoirists. (Though James Frey et. al. have stretched this term…)

The last time I read a memoir was… um…

I read Ray Davies’ (he of The Kinks) ‘autobiographical’ X-Ray in 2006. There are quotation marks around autobiographical because it was narrated by a fictional character who talks to an elderly, misanthrope called Ray Davies… so maybe I need to go further back to find a memoir/autobiography.

The thing is, I read a lot of fiction. When I want facts, I read non-fiction which covers more than one person’s experience. I hear about a lot of people reading less fiction as they get older, so perhaps I’m still just a young’en regarding my taste in books… So?

Fiction does things fact can not. Science fiction deals almost exclusively in things that can not be the subject of a memoir, and few would be willing to write serious non-fiction about. And while I have read as many books of pure Sci-Fi as I have memoirs lately, I’m finding quite a few Sci-Fi-y aspects popping up in my own short fiction over the last few weeks.

[Massive aside: I have been listening to Pavement’s Wowee Zowee as I type this post. I never really got that into Pavement, as the 2 and 3 star ratings of Wowee Zowee’s songs on my iPod attest… but I am enjoying the album right now. Like, next time I sit down to write, I will queue up another Pavement album—that kind of enjoyment.]

An example of a Sci-Fi element in a story on the go is: extinct animals start reappearing all over the world.

Am I the next Kilgore Trout? No. But, having thought through the above, I think I appreciate Sci-Fi aspects because they are the antithesis of memoir. And perhaps, the acme of fiction. Perhaps.

But most science fiction falls down because it doesn’t do other important things like character, dialogue and humour very well.

So it is not enough to have a handful of great ideas (a.k.a. cop outs), you must also be able to get inside other (fake) people’s heads, render speech in interesting and believable ways, and not take yourself too seriously. Sheesh.

Or put another way: the task of the fiction writer is to a) have good ideas, b) put the right ideas together in the right order in the one story, c) link it all together with words and punctuation that the reader does not notice.

This is why writing fiction is not a cop out, even though you are sitting in a room typing away at what might never get read by anyone except rejecting editors and agents. Because it’s hard. Because when it works, it’s transcendent.

But finally, a word of caution.

If you weren’t swayed by my talk of transcendence, and do consider it a cop out to use ideas in fiction rather than in the real world, you should think twice before acting out your next idea: the one idea I’ve had that I considered attributing to a character but carried out myself was this blog. This Million Words In One Year trip. Who knows the kind of hole you could dig for yourself?

Administrative matter: I’ll be driving around Scotland over the weekend so the status report for this week (what number are we up to? I think I’m on the toes on my second foot) might be delayed until Monday. If you can’t wait for your weekly fix of graphs, click here.

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