Archive | January, 2012

Is Fiction Too Realistic?

22 Jan

(Okay, first off in NaNoWriMo news, I am still “technically” editing by which I mean I’m probably going to call it quits on fixing the formatting and missing words for now and start sending it out to betas this week.  I’m in school again and trying to actually get GOOD grades so I can go to law school instead of my previous plan of getting mediocre grades so I could be finished and also trying to prep a novel to write during Camp NaNo so my time has officially vacated the building and editing is on a back burner until at least May.  If you’d volunteered to be a beta reader, keep an eye out this week because I’ll be sending it away.  Now that THAT is out of the way…)

I’m taking a literature class this semester.  I haven’t taken anything remotely related to literature or writing since 2006, and that primarily dealt with poetry and short stories.  This class is specifically interested in survivor’s tales.  Stories about people overcoming great obstacles and surviving in horrible situations.  Now, when I signed up for this class I was pretty upset.  I tried to get into literally any other literature class but African American Literature, Women’s Literature, and British Literature were all full.  It was this or bust.  I was afraid it was going to be “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” style stories about people who were drinking their own pee and cutting off their own limbs and crap and I didn’t want to deal with it, but I bucked up and decided to go through with it anyway because I need a literature class to graduate and I couldn’t really get any of the other classes I needed this semester.

Well, it turns out it’s NOT all high seas adventures and hiking down Everest on one leg.  The first book we’re reading is The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.  Now, this is not a review site and even if it were, I haven’t finished reading this book yet.  However, there are parts of this book that are absolutely unbelievable.  I mean, I’m sure they really happened.  I assume if she were making things up, one of her siblings or her parents would have mentioned it by now.  And anyway, my family has a long and happy history of dysfunction that makes stories like this incredibly believable.  So there’s that.

But I have a friend who I was talking to as I read the first hundred pages of text and I’m just going to post this little exchange in its entirety because it makes up my thesis for this post.  Just beware there is a minor spoiler for The Glass Castle in this conversation:

[14:29] Me: Oh my.
[14:29] Tim: Yeah?
[14:29] Me: This book is just horrific.
[14:29] Me: I’m reading The Glass Castle still.
[14:29] Tim: Oh?
[14:30] Me: The parents just had their fourth child and she’s a few months old and the other ones are about 8-5
[14:30] Me: And they almost got caught driving with no insurance, registration, brake lights, and a license plate stolen from another car.
[14:31] Me: So they ditched the car and rented a U-Haul but the front is only big enough for two so they but the four children in the back of the U-Haul for 14 hours “plus some scenic detours.”
[14:31] Me: With the 6 year old narrator holding the baby.
[14:31] Me: If this were a novel I would call bullshit.
[14:31] Tim: Heh.
[14:32] Tim: I think that’s the general thesis for why memoirs have become so popular over the last decade or so: non-fantasy fiction has become “realistic” to the point of tedium.

I bolded that myself for emphasis because I think it raises a good point.  I have a tendency to role my eyes at characters who have a lot of things “wrong” in their backstory.  This is a trait I probably picked up over my years of reading fan fiction — a lot of amateur writers will just toss everything and the kitchen sink at their original characters/”Mary Sues” to make them interesting or less perfect or whatever.  It gets to the point where you can gauge pretty quickly whether you want to continue reading an OC fic:  if the character is an orphan who was abused and molested by their caregiver, left homeless from a young age, prone to abusive relationships in the past, has a child with an unknown parent, forced into prostitution, etc. before the story even begins?  Just quietly hit the “back” button and pretend like you never saw this because shit’s about to get stupid.  When I started getting into Sim stories (people who make up stories about their characters using The Sims 2 or The Sims 3) and contests (people who have competitions to see who can make the prettiest Sim and tell the best story about them in words and images) I would mentally role my eyes at the people who seemed to delight in throwing one bad thing after another at their poor character — before the story even started!

I’ve always tried to make a point of only including 1-2 “bad” things in a character’s background for my stories.  In the background, mind you.  I think that’s the big difference.  Anything that you want to have happen during the story is fair game, but if you want to deal with the after effects of a molestation, then you (a) want the character to come to grips with it during the course of the story or (b) want to show it happening.  Tossing it in as one of many background horrors that were visited on your poor heroine during the planning stage means it’s probably only going to get minimal screen time in the story.

But I think it also comes down to Reality is Unrealistic.  I’m going to illustrate this with a story from my own past that I don’t think would work in a fictional work (although if anyone would like to try be my guest.  I’d just like an acknowledgement).

In high school, I was a bit of a slut.  Same in college.  I kept stumbling into committed monogamous relationships when I was looking for casual sex.  The guy I lost my virginity to assumed it meant I wanted to get married and live happily ever after, but I had only intended for it to be a semester long fling to get my hymen out of the way of future happiness.  I ended up dating him for 4 years because I couldn’t find a compelling reason to break up with him beyond “gee I’d really like to be having some casual sex right now.”  I had a great relationship with my dad, I was confident, I was fairly pretty.  But I didn’t particularly enjoy sex at that time (I do now, lemme tell you) but I felt compelled to have a lot of it with random men.  I didn’t, but I wanted to.  I had been molested, but honestly I never really considered the molestation to have been the worst thing that ever happened to me and I didn’t blame myself for it particularly.  So why did I do it?

Well, a lot of soul searching and research and thinking hard on my behavior DID lead me to an answer.  An answer so stupid that if I were to come across it in a novel I would throw said novel across the room and take to the web to rage about it:

When I was 8 or 9, I said something sarcastic to my mother.  She’s never been particularly well equipped to handle sarcasm although she grew up in a sarcastic household and my father was sarcastic (also passive aggressive).  She, at that point, basically told me nobody was going to like me if I kept being so sarcastic.  That took me off-guard because I wanted people to like me.  I really did.  I wanted to get married and have friends, but I also didn’t want to give up this central piece of myself to achieve that so I decided I’d just deal with it if I ended up alone because of my sarcastic personality.  So then I get to high school and I’m pretty but I’m not conventionally pretty, I’m very tall, I’m chubbier than most of the girls, I’m smarter than a lot of the boys (which I considered at that time to be a weakness in the world of dating, and it probably was in high school but that’s a whole other post someday), and I think I have a terrible personality.  Why would anyone ever want to be around me?  Well, I put out.  And I did.

I know, that’s the worst reason ever, isn’t it?  But it’s a true reason.  To my high school (and college) brain, sex was what you did so the boy you liked would deal with your obvious flaws as a human being.  I mean, it worked but still.  Who would write that?  It’s a terrible story.  It was a throw-away comment she made because I hurt her feelings but my brain turned it into this huge thing and I think that’s where I should probably start allowing my characters to have more angst-ridden pasts than I have been.  I’m fascinated with the idea of a perfectly normal person thrust into unusual circumstances, but I think everyone has a story like mine of some minor slight that grew inside of them until it was an insurmountable hurdle.

What do you think? Do you prefer a simpler back story or do you like one with the “kitchen sink angst” effect?  How far can a novel go and still be considered “realistic” to you?  Am I just a judgmental bitch?  Because I’m okay with that.

Resolutions in the New Year

1 Jan

Happy New Year! I meant to write this post last night but one of my friends was feeling kind of down and long story short, just because you don’t FEEL the half bottle of rum right away doesn’t mean it isn’t working. Anyway, I’ve officially stopped throwing up and whining on Twitter and it’s time to blog!

I’m a fan of resolutions. I’m a fan of change in general, actually. What can I say? I’m a water sign. I make New Years resolutions, I make birthday resolutions, I even make “just because” resolutions. Resolutions rock. Let’s all change for the better! The thing is, resolutions only work when you’re ready for change and most people aren’t. Change is big and scary and unexpected. Change is uncomfortable. Change is also something that is going to happen whether you’re ready for it or not, so it’s better to be ready for it so you can have some control over the outcome. See? It’s kind of logical!

Anyway, if you are ready to make a change in your life, now could be your time! I try to look at my New Years Resolutions as less of a holy mandate for how I’m going to like, completely turn my life around, man! and more as a list of things I want to accomplish for myself this year. That way it’s less intimidating, it’s just things I want to get done not big scary things.

  1. Finish editing Promise Me Paradise and begin the second draft
  2. Complete the first draft of The Madness in the Moonlight
  3. Read 25 NEW books (however many rereads I can squeeze into my daily activities as well)
  4. Finish my BA and sit for the LSATS
  5. Get a job
  6. File immigration paperwork so my fiance can move to the country
  7. Try to take at least two long walks a week, more if I can find the time

I’d like for the walking to be slightly higher on the list, but everything else on there is non-negotiable whereas the walking is something I can add in if/when I have free time. Note that I’m very specific in my goals. “Read more” and “get some writing done” aren’t very helpful at all because it’s so easy to trick yourself into thinking you’ve done more than you have. Also I think I should add in the resolution that I won’t drink myself stupid and hungover again unless it’s a really special occasion. Ugh.