Stranger Than Fiction

Once again, I just got around to watching a movie others had seen years ago–this time, Stranger Than Fiction with Emma Thompson and Will Ferrell. (For the two of you who haven’t seen it, I won’t include spoilers). I’ve gotta admit, while the film has its flaws, it’s stuck with me for over a week.

The story is an unusual one. An author who’s suffering from writer’s block attempts to create a character who will live an ordinary life and then die at the end of the novel. A problem arises when the character becomes a real person who can hear the author narrating his life in third person. When he discovers he’s in a story he isn’t creating–and that he’ll most likely meet a heartbreaking, artistic demise–he must learn to advocate for his own life. He must confront his author.

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The movie delves into questions about the nature of human existence and the artist’s imperative. For instance, do we own our stories, or do they live outside us? As writers, how often do we indulge ourselves by crafting stories that feel like an approximation of truth–but, in the end, rely on cynicism or well-worn tropes? Also, who’s writing the writers’ lives?

Your life?

The movie’s also about depression, about what can happen to art when an artist has lost hope. It made me think about the characters I’ve created. What would I say to them if they stood before me? Would they appreciate the endings I’ve given their stories? Would they agree that I’ve said true things? That I’ve been fair?

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I don’t know. I think so.

Stranger Than Fiction caused me to re-examine my commitment to creating worlds where both good and bad things happen, worlds where there’s danger and sorrow, sure, but also hope. It made me want to keep on saying the truest things I know how to say.

I owe that to my myself, my readers, and to those people whose stories I write down.

 

If You Can’t Write Anything Useful, Don’t Write Anything at All

It’s popular, in some circles, to deny the existence of writer’s block.

Butt in chair! Don’t wait for the muse! Treat writing like a job! they say.

They’re mostly right. Writers can usually conquer the blank screen by typing words in succession, asking ourselves what if? and then what happened? We can work ourselves out of a jam. That is, if we’re writing fiction.

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You know when this “just do it” stuff doesn’t work–at least for me? When it comes to blogging.

I think the reason for this is that the blogging world has become so crowded that, if you do have a blog  and you want people to read what you write, you feel an enormous pressure to say something useful. Give readers a takeaway, an actionable step.

Right now.

I see a lot of bloggers copying other bloggers’ “useful ideas,” almost verbatim, because they’ve bought into this idea that the appearance of added value is more important than any sort of originality or creativity. The way to get readers, they’ve been told, is to do how-to posts.

  • Short ‘n’ sweet
  • Bullet points.
  • Two picture minimum.
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I, for one, cannot force myself to say something useful. Sometimes I do, but it’s often by accident. So I stare at the blank screen. I can’t think of a single thing to say that someone hasn’t already said.

This is not useful. There is nothing to take away.

But it’s true.

On Getting Real

Everyone says a writer needs to be vulnerable with her readers–even if she’s making up a story. In fact, she should feel a little nervous about what she puts on the page if it means she’s telling the truth.

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On the other hand, we live in a culture where people share stuff that may titillate but doesn’t necessarily inspire others or elevate the conversation. And then there’s the (I believe) competing idea of professionalism. Do we really want to get deep with the authors we admire, or do we want a little distance? (I, for one, do not care about Graham Greene’s favorite beverage).

Still, I have to admit I consume vulnerable writing like I eat candy corn, which is to say, once I get started I can’t stop.

I’ve been following Penelope Trunk’s writing for years, and she seems like an emotional train wreck. I don’t say this to be hateful. She says it herself. She overshares and it often gets on my nerves, so I go long seasons of cutting her out of my life. But I always come back. Being emotionally vulnerable in your writing may not make others respect you, but it does make for good reading.

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So I’ll share what I thought I wouldn’t: an agent turned down my manuscript last week. She included a personal note that felt like a backhanded compliment, but it stung and made me feel like a creative imposter. I didn’t know if I should say anything about it because what if that isn’t professional? But if Penelope can talk to the internet about being incompetent at life, I guess I can admit this.

Honestly, I don’t feel better now, but maybe it’s not about me, anyway.

A Book by Any Other Name

One of the things fiction writers are supposed to be sure of is where their writing fits in the book world.

Do they write romances, sci-fi, or horror? If so, they’re genre writers. Genre writing, also known as commercial writing, is extremely popular. It’s mostly plot-driven stuff and fulfills specific reader expectations. Book marketers and publishing houses call it commercial because it sells.

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The other type is called literary, and boy howdy are there ever different views on what that word means. Some say it’s writing that’s character-driven, full of subtext, or has an overarching message. Others say it’s a way of warning readers a book has no plot. Still others think of literary writing as the kind your English professor assigned you in college (the kind you bought Spark Notes for).

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Guess which kind I write?

I’m attending a huge writer’s conference in early Fall. I’ll meet lots of industry professionals there, and do you know what at least one of them will tell me?

That literary fiction doesn’t sell.

They may also inform me that calling my book literary fiction (even if the plot is well-developed with plenty of action and clean writing) is the kiss of death in terms of marketing.

In the past, I might have said, “Then tell me what to call it, and I’ll call it that. Only let me write the way I have to.”

But times have changed. My writing is literary, and that’s what I’m going to call it. It’s not full of talking heads in cafes or one dream sequence after another. It’s not esoteric or high falutin’. It is character-driven. And, yes, I’m trying to say something.

I’m not worried about the label because there are people who want to read books like that (I know I do). It’s my job to find them.

 

 

 

 

Pushing Through Creative Fatigue

My brain is dead-tired as I finish up the last few chapters of my current novel, but my body feels pretty normal. These days, I crave mental breaks that don’t necessarily have anything to do with sleep.

In a recent post, writer and coach Lauren Sapala reminded fellow creatives that sometimes the best way to practice self care isn’t to sleep but to do something different. For many of us, the world of ideas is an exhausting place to live, but going to bed earlier doesn’t necessarily fix things.

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This is true for me, and I’ve taken to watching old television shows on YouTube and reading British fiction, especially at night. Sapala’s post was a reminder that there’s a good reason I feel like I need to do these things more often right now.

It’s called creative fatigue, and I’m trying to rest by immersing myself in other worlds.

Thinking about it like this (sort-of) lessens the guilt I feel when I tune in to Boris Karloff’s deliciously cheesy Thriller series after my husband has fallen asleep for the night. Besides, I know that as soon as my novel is complete I’ll be out like a light, again.