Monthly Archives: July 2012

Fact in Fiction

This morning something happened to me which was so trite and clichéd I would have been embarrassed to have written it.

Just near my house a car sped through an intersection, the passenger door swung open and a woman inside half flung herself out screaming “Help me please! Somebody help me!”. The car pulled over and I went to help, and interrupted an apparent situation of domestic violence. I convinced the driver to let the lady out of the car and he drove off. For her part, once she was out of the car, she wanted nothing from me but to get away and offers of hospitality or kindness or further assistance were declined. She went on her way and I had the sense that the situation was unresolved. I warned her he could easily come back, and sure enough when she was half a block away he did. There was no more violence and he spoke to her briefly before driving off again and she walked away. I called the police but they couldn’t do much without her reporting the incident or making a complaint against him.

I post this here because once the adrenaline had died down and my head was returning to normality my first reaction was: there’s a story in this.

Perhaps that is the life of the writer: that all the events we observe become fodder for our craft, grist for our mill.

My next reaction though was that it was too unrealistic – too clichéd! Are we supposed to believe our narrator just happens to be at that intersection, at that time? Are we supposed to believe the antagonist just drives off? That the ‘damsel’ rejects her rescuer as quickly as she rejected her attacker? And what kind of ending does this story provide. In the denouement does she return to the abusive relationship? Is the climactic intervention of our protagonist entirely pointless, merely a temporary disruption to the status quo?

It occurred to me that if this tale were to make good fiction it would need some serious amendments and revisions – perhaps some heavy re-writes.

So what role does fact have in fiction? and how beholden are we as creators of fiction to fact?

China Mieville populates his world with living cacti, scarab-headed beauties and trans-dimensional spider-gods, they move amid forests of frozen lightning, clouds of gaseous rock and cities polluted by thaumaturgic effluent, and yet they work because there are some facts that make them relatable. People are greedy and kind and nasty and brutal and selfless and contradictory, exactly as we know them to be. They behave factually in the most fictitious setting. Lord of the Rings works for the same reason (though despite Tolkein’s objections it is easier to read as a bucolic allegory of post-industrialism). Star Wars likewise: inter-stellar travel, alien races and an inexplicable Force (midichlorians be damned – The Force should not have to be explained) but amidst that a relatable human story (boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl likes smuggler, Wookie misses out on a medal, boy is trained by a muppet backpack, boy and girl are siblings… the usual).

Conversely “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” opened this week. If I type ‘Abraham’ into Google the auto-search function has ‘Abraham Lincoln’ as top suggestion, and ‘Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter’ second. Here the setting is ostensibly (in that Steam-punk / Alt-history way) a factual one. Real historical figures at a real point in history, acting out a plot of pure fiction. To what extent then do the writers owe us a ‘factual’ Lincoln. I suspect to no extent whatsoever.

And what then of the cases on the indistinct borders of these realms. What of the ‘based on an extraordinary true story films/ Films like ‘The Blindside‘ for instance, which presents the story of Sandra Bullock pulling Michael Oher out of ghetto-crack-oblivion, teaching him to play football, giving him Kathy Bates to lift his GPA and basically providing him with professional sporting success. A great story of heart-warming selflessness and triumph over adversity. To what extent did this film owe us such facts as Michael Oher’s recognised success in football pre-existing the intervention of Sandra Bullock’s character (he had achieved all-state selection and was rated 5th best lineman prospect in the country a year before he met Leigh Anne Tuohy), or that he lifted his GPA by taking online courses through Brigham Young University; scoring As in English to replace the Ds and Fs he was awarded in school?

Is the story not better if he comes into her care hopeless and becomes exceptional? Doesn’t that work better as a narrative arc? Isn’t it better fiction if his sudden success can be traced to a single inspirational speech rather than a montage of repetitive training? I think undoubtedly so.

So perhaps I will use my experience for a short story. It will be ridiculously over the top and require a great suspension of disbelief… and you will know those are the factual bits.

As TVTropes point out, reality is unrealistic, and as a famous Australian children’s author once said: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn”.

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Fears, Neuroses and word-count

I am at the point where I am sitting on what I believe to be a pretty good query letter and I really need to send it out. I’ve researched an agent. I’ve made it clear that this query is specific and targeted for a reason – not some generic mail-out. I’m ready to go… and yet I’m not going.

Ultimately the reason for this is a sense of internal neurosis. I’m pitching to an agent at the very highest end of the business, so I’ve basically talked myself into accepting the query will fail. While high expectations often suck because they just set you up for the fall, the converse also sucks, because it’s not even sent yet and I’m already dealing with the symptoms of rejection.

The consequences of this are manifold.

  • I want to go back and re-write the first three chapters of the book. Again. For the un-knowable-illionth time. And I’m not just talking about tweaking the prose. I’m talking full re-tooling rewrite. This serves no purpose but grows from a fear that it’s not good enough.
  • I am obsessing over whether my three page synopsis in double space font would be more acceptable as two pages single-spaced, or maybe I should split the difference and go 1.5 spacing and trim some material to get it to two pages. This from a synopsis that’s already so lean I worry that I haven’t cut through the suet and into flesh.
  •  I fear that the wrong font / type-setting / format will get my query (submission) discarded out of hand as the obvious work of a rank amateur. This fear exists despite my repeated and detailed referencing of the relevant style and submission guidelines.

Mostly though my fear is that all this effort will be for nought because of a single sentence which I cannot change:

“It is complete at 241,000 words”

To put that in perspective the generally accepted length for a novel (particularly from a first-timer) is 80,000 – 100,000.

To put it in a different perspective I’ve cut that down from over 300,000 – so it’s not a case of failing to edit. I cut it by nearly 20% to get to this point. To cut further would require cutting out characters, scenes, perhaps whole narrative arcs. The flow-on editing from which would be enormous.

I’ve borrowed from the hard work of some fellow bloggers to compare my manuscript with some published novels:

By Nicole Humphrey Cook’s count mine would be the second longest of the Harry Potter novels, and longer than any of the Lord of the Rings. In fact it would be more than half the length of the total Lord of the Rings word-count.

At National Novel Writing Month there’s a list that shows my manuscript would outweigh those of Steinbeck and Dostoyevsky, be nearly half of ‘War and Peace’ and about a third of the Bible (Old and New testaments).

So is my manuscript too long? Colleen Lindsay at ‘The Swivet’ says it almost certainly is. She’s a former agent so she should know, and while she deals more predominantly in YA (which I don’t believe is the best target market for my writing) her points are well worth considering.

Have I written a long novel just for its own sake because I am used to seeing big Fantasy novels? I can’t rule that out, but I’d like to think not though: I’d like to think I have written a story and that I have used precisely as many words were required to tell it.

Is it long because I am just not a very good writer, and I need to pare it down to its essentials? Again I would be irresponsible to rule this out, but I have cut it back quite heavily already, and further cuts will change the structure completely. Perhaps this is what needs to happen. Perhaps I’m looking at something I consider beautiful and others are seeing something lumpen and fat? I have given the manuscript out to several readers: Two family members who are readers of the genre, a friend – likewise, a former classmate from my days studying writing at uni. None have come back with feedback that it needs cutting. I’m trying one more reader though. One I know won’t be afraid to be honest and critical, so perhaps that will answer the question for me.

Of course I could be the exception. Lindsay mentions Elizabeth Kostova’s ‘The Historian’ – a debut at 240,000 words – so it does happen. Why could it not happen for me? If the material is good enough, should word-count be an automatic deal-breaker?

Her final advice is to keep it below 120,000, even if that means splitting it in two. This mirrors advice I got from another critical friend as I was work-shopping my query letter. So perhaps the answer is in front of me all this time… find a cliff-hanger somewhere in the middle of the novel and split it in two.

I think though that that decision will wait for another day. In truth what I really need to do is stop worrying, stop playing out every scenario in my head, and start acting. Even getting further publishing credits will help if I’m seen as an established writer rather than an utter debutant.

The query is ready, and waiting… time really that it was sent.

Stay tuned.

 


On the Literary and Genre

Here a ‘literary author’ (whose work is unfamiliar to me) decries the popularity of ‘genre’.

To summarise:

Edward Docx (has he taken a file extension as a Nom-de-Plume?) has had an initially cheerful, but subsequently less cheerful experience on a recent train ride. Firstly to the positive – everyone was reading. This he hails as a triumph of the novel over the gadgetry and distractions of the modern world. Too soon though his cheer is soured by a realisation that they are all reading Steig Larsson (and presumably none are reading any of his three published ‘literary’ novels). This he bemoans.

Docx makes his targets two of the most successful (read profitable) authors of recent decades. The aforementioned Swede and the American Dan Brown. On the basis of these exemplars he proceeds to rail against the popularity of ‘genre’ (as if these two authors of formulaic thrillers can somehow represent the diversity of all genre fiction). He compares genre fiction to the multinational hamburger chain and Lit-Fic to eel lasagne (I think this is meant as a positive for Lit-Fic).

The problem of course is that these analogies are abject nonsense.

To accuse Brown and Larsson of amateurism is hardly revelatory. That they are populist is demonstrable. That their writing is replete with clichés, unimaginative metaphors, derivative plotting, unenlightened gender politics, naff wordplay and unoriginal formulae… these things can remain undisputed. They are inconsequential to the argument.

What is of consequence is that these writers are not exemplars of ‘genre’ writing. To these authors I could easily add others: E.L.James of ‘Fifty Shades’ fame (infamy) springs quickly to mind, as does Stephanie Meyer and her sparklingly ‘vampiric’ creation. The fallacy here is a classical ‘straw man‘ (or straw woman in my examples). That Literary Fiction should be of surpassing quality to these examples is obvious, but it is no less obvious to me that genre fiction (if indeed there is a coagulant to combine sci-fi, fantasy, crime, romance, thriller, noir, dystopian… into a single category of fiction still somehow distinct from ‘literary’) should not also surpass a standard set so low.

‘Genre Fiction’ is susceptible to the misconception that its success is defined by sales figures, and to some extent this is true of any creative work, be that literary, statuary, musical or acrylic on canvas, but to make this the sole determinant is erroneous, and no less so simply because the work is genre fiction.

To be fair to Docx he does admit that Brown and Larsson are not ‘good genre’ writers, but he never raises any examples of those that are. Where’s his discussion of China Miéville? of Neil Gaiman? even Stephen King, who amid the airport-shelf dross and formulaic horror has written some enduring cultural touchstones – The Shining, Misery, Carrie, The Green Mile, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Body (Stand by Me), not to mention the Dark Tower series.

And what of the ‘literary’ authors who write genre? What of Michel Chabon? What of Alan Moore’s Hugo Award winner?  Or Ursula Le Guin’s? What of Cormac McCarthy’s dystopia? or Margaret Atwood’s? And that’s before we begin on Yann Martel or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Le Guin herself has written frequently on the ‘false dichotomy’ of literary and genre fiction. Here she responds (brilliantly, and with a zombie) to Ruth Franklin’s review of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. The implication here seems to be that Chabon has transcended genre because Chabon’s writing is ‘good’. He hasn’t been limited by the constraints of genre… but this is a stifling and rather dated view of genre. I defy anyone to read Perdido St Station or American Gods or The Lies of Lock Lamora and suggest that its genre has curtailed the imagination of either Miéville, Gaiman or Scott Lynch (and of course generally people don’t; generally they declare these works genre-defying, or cross-genre – an ad hoc rescue of their argument that genre confines).

Perhaps the solution is in Ursula Le Guin’s hypothesis that “literature is the extant body of written art. All books belong to it.” That’s not to say that all books are good literature of course, but all are literature (yes, even Twilight).

I went through the Guardian’s 100 greatest Novels of all time and found eighteen (nearly 1/5)  ‘literary’ novels that are (secretly or openly) genre fiction (as defined by… me):

Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift:                                                      Fantasy / Alternative World / Satire

Frankenstein Mary Shelley:                                                                    Sci-Fi / Horror

The Count of Monte Christo Alexandre Dumas:                       Adventure / Revenge Thriller.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll:                  (Children’s) Fantasy

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Robert Louis Stevenson:                          Sci-Fi/Fantasy

The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde:                                        Uncanny / Fantasy

The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame:                                  Animist Fantasy

Brave New World Aldous Huxley:                                                          Dystopian Sci-Fi

The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler:                                                          Crime Noir

Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell:                                                 Dystopian Sc-Fi

Charlotte’s Web E. B. White:                                                                       Animist Fantasy

The Lord Of The Rings J. R. R. Tolkien:                                               High / Epic Fanatsy

One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez:          Magical Realism

The New York Trilogy Paul Auster (with which I’m unfamiliar but which is described by The Guardian as a “metaphysical thriller”)

The BFG Roald Dahl:                                                                                          Children’s Fantasy

La Confidential James Ellroy:                                                                     Crime

Wise Children Angela Carter: (with which I’m unfamiliar but which is described by The Guardian as a “Magical Realism”)

Northern Lights Philip Pullman:                                                               Young Adult Fantasy


Another Milestone

About 8am this morning local time my website (jmichaelmelican.com) got its 1000th view.

I can’t be sure if the actual 1000th came from Australia, the UK, the US or Malaysia (several came in in rapid succession after Swedish views got me into the high 990s).
Thanks to all of you for your support! I have 57 followers as I write this and it’s a great encouragement believing that there’s an audience out there prepared to read what I have written.
My single greatest referrer is still Facebook, but there’s been a few views generated from Google searches as well. The most popular searches to find me are variations on my name, though “strong female protagonists” seems to work as well.
I thought in honor of the milestone I’d share some of the more unusual google searches that have brought people here:
green monkey injured – presumably this led them to one of my short story pages entitled “The Green Monkeys”
talamh war crys – presumably because ‘Talamh’ is the name of one of the areas in the fictional Kingdom of Alterre, the setting of my novel ‘Exile’. What the googler was looking for though I am not sure.
brian melican.com britishness – which led me to discover another literary Melican.: author, journalist, translator and apparent teutophile… Brian Melican
melican bahar şarkıları – the meaning of which eludes me (my Turkish is a little rusty unfortunately)
and my favourites:
how to summoning the jinni – presumably because the jinni are featured in my work-in-progress, a dark urban fantasy  set in an alternative contemporary Melbourne. Unfortunately for the googler it’s not intended to be instructional.
pet monkey climbing nets – presumably they too found my story “The Green Monkeys”. Whether that helped them with their query about pet net-climbing monkeys I cannot say.

Published!

My first publishing success story has hit the virtual shelves.

Check out the 2nd issue of ‘Dark Edifice’ magazine for a free dose of emergent Australian Speculative Fiction, including my own contribution: ‘A Choice of Kings’.

It’s a tale of competing obligations, of the difficult decisions that come with power, and of the consequences we must accept if we are to be true to our ideals.

Hope you enjoy it. Feedback most welcomed. Bonus points if you can spot the error which somehow slipped through my rigorous editing… (I hope there’s only one)

http://darkedifice.webs.com/magazine