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That's a pretty unwieldy title for the post!

I was thumbing through the January/February Analog this morning and read Richard A. Lovett's article, "Making Unreality Ring True: Writer's Tricks for Bringing Stories to Life." I was a little surprised at it because the article is a straightforward how-to-write piece, something I don't recall seeing in Analog much in the past.

That said, it was a darned good article for fiction writers of all sorts, not just science fiction ones. With entertaining examples, Lovett explains the basis for five writing rules that will make work stronger and more believable:

1. Write what you know.
2. Know what it is that you know.
3. Make good use of details.
4. Look for details in experience (yours or other people's)
5. Collect information. You never know what will someday be useful.

Near the end of the article, he says, "The best writers observe things. Sometimes these are details about the universe. Sometimes they are grand visions that instill the sense of wonder about which science fiction fans wax lyrical. Other times, the observations take the form of details about people or the lives we live: overlooked realities that ring true as they float across the page before us."

Lovett quotes Jane Kurtz, an award winning children's book author, who said, "Writers have good powers of observation. That's more important than imagination."

I tell writers in my classes and workshops that the skills necessary to tell believable stories are exactly congruent with the skills required of a good liar. Good liars, among other things, are masters of the specific detail, the one bit of their story that rings so specific and true that you believe there's no way they could have made it up. Their story must not be lying.

The article is a good one.  If you can get a copy of the magazine, I recommend it.



( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 12th, 2009 02:30 pm (UTC)
Excellent point!

Nov. 13th, 2009 04:07 pm (UTC)
Liars and truth-tellers
I am a serious reader and an aspiring writer, and find it dismaying to hear skills required for writing compared to those required for lying. Could we instead think of writing as a way of telling one very individual version of the truth? When I am writing about characters who matter to me, it feels like I am telling a very important true story about them, a story that is faithful to what I know about them. I'm not trying to lie to the reader; I'm trying to show that what I believe about these characters really is true, inevitable and authentic. Whether the characters are real people or the events historically factual is not really what matters; I'm writing about what I honestly believe, which makes it truth.

I should add that this discussion reminds me of the game "Scruples" that was popular in the 1980s. I tried to play it a couple of times, and was an utter failure. It involves being able to bluff (i.e., lie) successfully, as well as being able to judge whether other players are bluffing. I could not bluff to save my life, and I tended to assume others were as "scrupulously" truthful as me most of the time. I'm hoping this innocence won't doom my writing career!
Nov. 13th, 2009 05:40 pm (UTC)
Re: Liars and truth-tellers
Shoot, I guess you'll have to be dismayed then. I didn't say that writers are liars. I said the skills are the same. A good liar can convince himself of the truth of his lie (which is something I see in the high school all the time).

Fiction can be lies that illustrate truths. Elizabeth Bennett never existed in the real world (hence, she is a lie), but the truth of her personality and experiences make Pride and Prejudice a book that is loved by hundreds of thousands. When I write a story, I think for so long and so hard about the characters I'm creating and the lives they live that I begin to dream about them. They are "real" to me, and that's the only way I can write about them, but they are also lies in the technical sense.

I think we agree in spirit.
Nov. 13th, 2009 09:55 pm (UTC)
Re: Liars and truth-tellers
Ah, yes, sorry, I think I came off sounding like I took things a bit more seriously than I intended. I am dismayed only in a mock-theatrical sort of way...

I guess the original post got to me because I've thought a lot recently about what a challenge it is to just let go and make things up, whether it feels like they're lies or the truth. My education is in fields that sort of discourage that kind of thing, so fiction writing is an exhilaratingly different way of thinking for me, one that I've got to give myself explicit permission to engage in.

I'm just now reading "Strangers and Beggars," by the way, and I have to say the book contains just the kind of stories I love. The "what if" concepts you introduce are fantastic. Thanks!
Nov. 13th, 2009 05:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Liars and truth-tellers
I think you've missed the point a bit. He's not saying that story tellers are liars, only that they have a similar skill set, particularly with regards to attention to detail.

Nov. 14th, 2009 02:21 am (UTC)
Ah...but then there's that tricky situation where the detail *is* accurate, but it isn't plausible. Then the reader doesn't believe you, even though you know your stuff.

I was in a workshop a few years ago and I submitted a story in which I referred to foxes vocalizing on a hill. One of the members of the workshop called me on it and said, "I don't think so. Foxes are silent animals."

I've worked hands-on with live foxes and I've seen and heard them in the wild and I knew what I was talking about. The woman who called me on it had no background in wildlife at all, but she was absolutely convinced that she was right and I was wrong. So...what do you do in that case? I personally left that detail in. The story did sell and the editor who bought it didn't have a problem with it, but I do wonder if another reader picked it up and thought, "Yeah, right! Foxes make noise! She doesn't know what she's talking about."

Nov. 14th, 2009 05:06 am (UTC)
Reader response is totally out of your control. All you can do is be right. A reader complained in a long letter to Analog about a story I'd written in the world of H.G. Wells' Time machine ("What Weena Knew"). He listed numerous details that he said I'd gotten wrong. The problem was that he was going from the movie, not the book.

Connie Willis says that she gets notes all the time from readers who say that she gets her details about England wrong, some of them from British citizens. All she can do is stick with her research (which is impeccable) and apologize when she does get something wrong.

Nobody complains about Star Trek getting all the science wrong (well, most people don't complain). The details just have to sound believable for the moment of the story.
Nov. 14th, 2009 10:33 pm (UTC)
"The details just have to sound believable for the moment of the story."

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )