Sunday, April 1, 2012

Your Story, and the Truest Way to Tell it

For about six months as a teenager I worked as a journalist. It was rather an unhappy experience. Let me clarify: I hated it. Before I could scrabble together enough courage to quit, the newspaper folded. (Not my fault. Economic problems. You know.) So that was the end of my career as a journalist, and I was grateful.

But I did learn one thing that I’ve never forgotten—the concept of “slant.” The whole thing about journalism is, you’re dealing with facts. And those are the same facts everyone else deals with. The only way to make your story fresh is to come at it from a different angle; perhaps a more original look at the events, a truer approach to the story. It’s your slant.

Now, in fiction, it’s a bit different. Our starting point isn’t a set of facts, but a set of ideas, connected somehow into a premise. No two writers start off with the same premise (and if they do, we say it’s “been done” before.) Rather than add our slant to an event, we invent a new way of exploring some universal theme or drama. We try to reinvent it, if we can.

Every once in a while, someone comes up with something revolutionary. Think Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or yes, Twilight. By now there are dozens of new explorations on those same ideas, but they were very unique when they first came out.

So when it comes to fiction, the idea of “slant” isn’t used to compare us to other writers and stories. Instead, slant is a lot more personal. Slant is how we approach whatever specific story we’re trying to tell.

Some novels seem to know exactly what kind of story they are. Others start out looking like, say, a coming of age story, but then that doesn’t seem to work right; and we wonder if maybe it’s a story about family instead. So we scrap all our previous work and start over, with this new slant. And then we realize, no, it’s not about family so much as personal values. And maybe…how personal values can conflict with societal values. Aha.

The thing is, your original concept—your core idea, your premise, your “facts”—don’t change much in this process. It’s your approach on the idea that changes. Your slant. Your vision, developing.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- I took the one less travelled by,
and that has made all the difference
-- Robert Frost

Go back to that “aha” moment when you finally discovered the right slant on a story. Why does it feel like all the other directions were “wrong,” and this one is “right”? Why is it that we’re often dissatisfied with a perfectly good plot—a plot that some other author would have loved? How come when friends suggest fixes to our story problems, we get so irritated, and end up saying, “you just don’t get it”?

What is it they aren’t getting?

Fiction is fiction. From start to finish, we’re making it up. But there’s still a sense of truth in it—writing is a way to interpret what’s real, to mirror it and explore it through these made up stories. So we need to represent them accurately. Truthfully. As writers, we struggle to find meaning in life, and we do it by writing stories that play out this bigger meaning.

So sure, it’s fiction—but it’s truth.

Which is why one particular slant can feel wrong. We have a vision for a story, and if our approach at it doesn’t match that vision, we go back and try to start over. We have to tell this story. And we’re trying to find the truest way, the most honest, accurate, and profound way, in which to tell it.

I’ve been doing a lot of agent research lately, and one thing I keep hearing authors say over and over again is, “they got my vision.” The agent got their vision. I’m like, “what vision?” So it got me thinking about the vision I have for my stories and where I’d like them to go. Particularly, it has me thinking about what I’d like to do if I ever wrote a sequel to MIRRORPASS—(or, um, if I got an agent, sold MIRRORPASS, and by some stroke of awesomeness landed a contract for a MIRRORPASS sequel)—because I have a very specific sense of what MP2 would need to do.

See, the ending to MIRRORPASS makes a lot of promises. MP2 would need to explore those promises. And I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished the first draft if MIRRORPASS. I couldn’t help it—the writer in me wanted to know, what next?

And I realized this. It could very easily be a book about recovery; a book about politics; a book about culture; a book about trauma and fallout. I don’t want it to be any of those things. Those are boring, depressing things. I’d want it to be a fierce, hopeful book—one about homecoming, in all its aching and passion and happiness. I’d want it to be a book that calls to the inner warrior of my characters and challenges them to arise.

That’s my vision.

What's yours?

Think about the novel you’re working on right now. What’s your vision for it? I’d love to hear what WIP’s you guys are focused on right now, so feel free to share as much detail as you’re comfortable with. And what do you think about this "truest way to tell a story" concept?

Truly and always,
-Creative A


April Plummer said...

Wow. Fantastic post. And so true. Slant is so important. It reminds me of what my AP American History teacher said on the first day of class - beware of your source. Slant is different, but something you have to consider as well, especially when dealing with facts. Not so much with fiction.

Creative A said...

Oh, definitely, yes. That's really why I wanted to talk about it--because we don't often associate it with fiction, and all the while, it's playing this part.


Ryan Sullivan said...

I'm working on the last chapter of my first draft, so I would say my vision is almost complete -- except that I know it's not. I guess my vision was to begin with something personal that escalates into something affecting the whole world.

And I think through revisions, I'll be able to make that vision much stronger by removing and replacing certain passages that just didn't contribute to that vision as they should have. Things have changed so much over the course of the first draft, including my whole understanding of why certain events take place. And as those events are central to the book, I need to go back and clarify it every time those events were mentioned.

It shouldn't be too hard. It might take a day of focus to set it all in stone. Then I can be content that I know what's really happening and the reader won't go, "Uh, but he died . . . "

Natalie Marie said...

Well said. :) Definitely lots of good key points in there. I have seen recently, more so than ever, how my stories are "me" and "true" to my own thoughts and life and what I want to put out there, while also allowing me to reflect.

I have two works in progress right now, this saves me when my writing ADD or writer's block sets in. One is a light and somewhat fluffy romance, with some self realization thrown in. The other has more of a mystery suspense vibe going on with the incorperation of lots of character development and some flashbacks.

Stalk my blog for details :)

Nata said...

Yeah, whatever. "We making it all up." :D Nice try, we don't all get out that easy. I don't know, to some people it's not real, it's fake, it's fictional. But to me, it's just as real as the chair I sit in or the pencil I write with. I know my characters, and I love them. And they talk me through bad times and sometimes get enough courage to ruin the good, but they're my characters and I'm their writer, I guess.

My vision is something new. I want to write something that breaks all of the cliches that I can fit in there. I want it to defy all means of "should be" and "expected". I guess on a deeper level I want bravery, both kinds. The loud, bold, boisterous kind and the quiet kind that lets you do what you will.

Overall, very thought-provoking post! Thank you for writing it. Good job and keep writing!

- Nata

Creative A said...

Ryan--hah. The part about the "uh, but he died" cracked me up. That does seem like a rather important detail ;)

I find that I end up tweaking the vision a bit each time I edit. In the beginning it was like sluicing off whole other side visions, and now it's a bit more like fine-tuning the focus, but it's interesting to me how it never quite ends.

Best of luck with yours!

Creative A said...

Natalie -- "this saves me when my writing ADD or writer's block sets in."

I'm doing multiple projects for the first time, and it's the same for me--I absolutely love that. Feels like you're wasting less time when yo get to multitask. Glad you can make it work for you.


Creative A said...

Nata -- that reminds me so much of a quote I read...something about "when we write or read, we're not just reading the story. We're inhabiting it. The story becomes the walls in a house we're walking through."

Loose paraphrase, but yes...definitely an element of the story coming more alive.

And thank you!

Claire L. Fishback said...

I love this post. This is just what I needed to hear today. I've been struggling with my current WIP. I'm hung up on details I learned in a Writer's Boot Camp. I know what I want to do with this story, but for some reason I feel I have to follow the steps I learned. There is "being true to the story" and there is also "being true to YOURSELF as an author."

I need to do both at this point in time. I need to get the first draft written and the best way for me to do that is let my muse take over and let the creativity flow, and if it is an unorganized mess when I'm done, that's what editing and rewriting are for!

Creative A said...

Oh Claire! I am so glad I could have actually helped! Rules and methods are great, because they teach you principles. But if the story knows where it's going, I agree; definitely just let it go. I'll bet you'll find the "mess" at the end is a much more natural and truer mess than if you followed the guidelines.

Good luck!

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