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Fiction vs. Non-fiction: More Complex than Just True vs. Imaginary

Most explanations for the difference between nonfiction and fiction have to do with the reality of the material in nonfiction. Nonfiction is true and fiction is from the imagination. I would suggest, though, that there are a number of other distinctions:

Fiction is a close-in view of life. Think of going from nonfiction to fiction like the process of Google maps as it zooms in from a position in the stratosphere, zooming down into your backyard. And even closer than your backyard, zoomed in to the exact expression on someone’s face sitting at your picnic table on a particular day. It is the close-in view of life. The buttons on a man’s shirt says something about his character that is germane to the story as opposed to an essay on the changing fashions in men’s shirts that may have referenced the same button.


Fiction is focused on emotion. Emotional acuity is probably the most important trait of a fiction writer. Fiction is the only artform that describes the internal thoughts of individual people. It hangs on the ability to describe subtle changes in internal beliefs. Journalism and nonfiction seek to move you to action by giving you information or describing patterns from a higher level -- in the whole city, the whole county, a part of the population, or a social trend. Fiction, on the other hand, wants to transform you, to make you a different person by participating in the emotional journey of someone else, by witnessing the unfolding of an emotional transformation. It doesn’t matter whether the character is real or imaginary: historical fiction focused on previously living people is still fiction.

Fiction actively courts the participation of all of your senses. It is not merely a conceptual or informative piece. Fiction’s goal is to make you feel the dust of the road on your face, to smell the flowers, to not inform you but to transport you.

Fiction’s theme is hidden. The concept or theme that is the purpose of the story is designed to be subtext, to be the hidden wiring, not the lead. The theme is still essential (and frequently overlooked by beginning writers.) Fiction, like all art, isn’t about an event, it’s about the human condition and your unique take on it.

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The Writer's Life and the Allure of the Keyboard

How many arggghs are there in arthritis? What a drag – the thing I love to do most in the world is now so painful that every time I think of something to write I ask “is it worth the pain?” Every task around the house is judged according to its impact on my hands. (A friend called it ‘wrist cycles.’) Do I really want to spend my now-limited wrist cycles on pulling weeds, untangling that extension cord, chopping a big pile of carrots, peeling beets, sorting junk in the garage?


Admittedly, I'm still productive using the Dragon (speech recognition software that is perhaps more accurately described as speech approximation software) but sometimes I get sick of yammering on out loud and correcting ridiculous errors on the Dragon’s part. But there’s still something second-rate about dictating instead of typing. Typing feels more private, secretive, as if thoughts and words could be kept from parts of one's own brain, apparently. A microphone just doesn’t have the allure of the keyboard.

The keyboard has been my shield (if I write it down it can’t plague me); it is my segue into the world. It is my paint brush, my guitar. When I was a teenager I would watch television in a recliner with my hands clasped in front of me typing all the dialogue on the backs of my hands, including all the punctuation and carriage returns. For hours at a time. Not the ads, but all the dialogue of all the shows.

 

I was motivated in part by my mother’s typing speed-- legendary in the family-- so it felt like family tradition when I hit 120 words per minute. I have slowed quite a bit and last year sat in the office next to a much younger woman who typed that fast, nonstop, for hours at a time, as I once had. Unnerving. The contrast between how I used to type and how I type now was so disheartening that I asked to move desks.

My first typewriter was a small white manual Corona and as if it was yesterday I can see opening my bedroom door and seeing the desk lamp shining on the white typewriter, the only light in the room. Beckoning. Between one of my years in college I went to Washington DC on an internship with the National Organization for Women (NOW). At that time, I wanted to become a lawyer and advocate for women. I'm not sure what the other tasks were among the staff (this is a world before email that keeps us all at keyboards all the time) but I missed typing so much that I volunteered to type the NOW president’s speeches. I had to have a keyboard under my fingertips.

I only have a few objects that I consider heirlooms and two of them are typewriters. My mother had a behemoth of an IBM Selectric and the ball bouncing and twisting was one of the bright sounds of my childhood. I have it in the garage zipped in a plastic blanket bag. I also have my grandfather’s field typewriter, very small, that originally came in a black box with a self-contained stand – the legs folded out from a special compartment. It sits next to my mother’s, honored objects both.

#JessWells, #arthritis, #writerslife

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Six Ways That Setting Can Drive Plot

Setting is not simple backdrop, like a green screen on which a film is shot. Setting in fiction plays an important role in plot and characterization. Whether you write sci-fi, historicals, or modern fiction, your setting can make or break your story. So, what are some of the keys to a well-drawn fictional world?

Four Major Mistakes with Setting
Setting is frequently considered the easiest and most fun part of writing. A writer seems happiest when describing rooms, clothing, smells in the air, the look of the lights, the weather. This focus makes sense, since we’ve spent a lot of our lives deciphering objects and their meanings. As fiction writers, we’re focused on the close-in vision of things. Big-concept people write essays. Fiction writers know that it says a lot when the curtains are torn versus curtains festooned with gold thread.
But I’m finding that there are at least four major mistakes with setting. Many writers:

 

  1. Over-do it with too much explanation and description, getting lost in the wallpaper and descriptions of the light.
  2. Make it inconsistent with theme or the characterization
  3. Leave it too shallow by describing just the house. For all the time spent on descriptions of rooms, not enough time is spent on the geologic, geographic and structural underpinnings of the fictional world -- the rivers, bridges, tides, and swamps etc. We rarely take the time to step back and look at the larger landscape.
  4. Most frequently however, we waste it. When it’s written as if you’re just painting a picture, you’re wasting the setting.


What Is a Setting That Works?

Setting is a mirror of the character: imagine a character who is immaculate in his dress but has a messy room (denoting someone who considers public appearance important while more genuinely being a slob), or an old man who lives in a basement hovel, invited into a ridiculously splendid mansion. Setting denotes social status and class background, as well as character attributes such as thrift, the tendency to hoard, forgetful disorganization, etc. For example: “On the last street in the village, down past where the earth bridge had caved in, Rebecca made her home amid the stubborn roots of an old bush.” What does this tell us about Rebecca’s class standing? Her inclusion in the community? How close to the edge she is living? How prosperous is a town with a caved-in earth bridge?

But most importantly, and most frequently overlooked, is the fact that setting can drive plot.

Six key ways that setting drives plot:

  1. Provides congregation and diversity
  2. Controls the movement of characters
  3. Hightens tension
  4. Establishes authority
  5. Challenges the protagonist in his/her quest
  6. Assist in disturbing the status quo


Let’s take each of those in turn:
1. Provide congregation and diversity: a setting can orchestrate the meeting of people who wouldn’t ordinarily congregate. Think of the crossroads where there is the unexpected arrival of travelers with no other connection. Or, think of the day care center where people from different classes, racial groups, age groups in different parts of town all meet in the same place. What about the barbershop, the post office, the communal garden? And then of course there is the neighborhood bar, frequently described in stories and film because characters emote heavily, and then leave.

2. Controls movement of characters: setting allows you to control the ebb and flow of action. If your story is set on a ship, for instance, there’s no way your character can simply walk away from difficulty. Subway cars that break down trap a small number of people together with no way out. Settings also present obstacles that keep groups of characters separate, simplifying your work. People in the village won’t see the mountain folk until the summer when the pass is open. Every time you have a geographic or physical barrier between characters, your plot is easier to manage than when everyone has total access to everyone else all the time. A physical barrier answers the questions: “Why didn’t she just leave? Why didn’t they know?” Physical boundaries can act as bottlenecks, which allows you to control their meetings, put them into conflict, or tie all the ends together (e.g. the storm abates, the supply ship arrives etc.)

3. Heightens tension: setting increases tension by adding deadlines to the completion of the hero/heroine’s journey. For example, the wormhole closes on Tuesday and the captives must extricate themselves in time; the tide goes out early in the morning and your characters must be on the ship or lose their chance at starting over in the New World. Setting can help you answer the key question in any story: “Why now?”

4. Establishes authority: setting can allow a single character or group of characters to have information that they can leverage. Think of the boy in the belfry and what he can see that no one else can. What about the shepherdess on the hill above town? Setting can also designate special routes for special people such as hidden caves, secret passageways, the hole in the wall gang protected by the obscure entrance to their hideout. And the sudden access to information or authority, created by a change in the setting, can be a powerful element in a story. Imagine a hole that is suddenly created in the floor of the maid’s room that allows her to hear secret conversations in the master bedroom below.

5. Challenges the protagonist: setting can also act as the goal for the protagonist’s journey. There was a reason that the ring had to be thrown into the fire of Mordor instead of any other fire. There’s a reason that apocalyptic stories frequently involve a journey to the radio station, or the last boat off the mainland. Setting can also create dependencies between characters that wouldn’t be there otherwise. For example, only Gollum knew the way through the Swamp of the Dead which made the Hobbits continue to rely on him. And setting is a great way to kill off characters when they have finished serving their purpose.

6. Assists in disturbing the status quo: setting can be an important catalyst that sets the story in motion. Think of the blizzard or the flood that cuts off parts of town and makes unlikely people band together. Think of the train wreck or the storm that sets your characters in previously unknown territory. A drought drives people off the land…and so on.

I was taught that a good story is like a machine: there’s no room for any superfluous cog, screw or washer. Likewise, setting isn’t just “atmosphere” – it has a job to do to move your story forward.



I teach a workshop in The Literary Landscape: Settings That Work Hard for Your Story at The Writing Salon, at the recent Rally of Writers, and elsewhere. Please join me if you can.

#JessWells, #TheWritingSalon, #writerslife,

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The Mathematics of Fiction

I have seen it so many times: the look of a young writer who is calculating the odds that they will ‘make it’ in literature. They are checking the ranking of their book on Amazon.com, the hits to their blog, books sold, hours clocked, word count checked daily, tracking shares and likes or any other mathematical measure to give one solace, or some faint indicator that they are approaching their goal of success, at the same time that they practice an art that always raises the bar on quality and holds many in obscurity without reason.

It is akin to using a ruler to judge the taste of cake.

Since we do these numerical calculations while we know that the quality and impact of art cannot be measured with mathematics, I would like to offer some additional math about fiction and the writing life:
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Good Storytelling Techniques are Required for Family Stories

The key elements of good storytelling apply to writing the story of your family. I teach a five-week course or one-day workshop that focuses on the keys to storytelling, which I think are: 

  • concentrate on the place where the action is greatest
  • be very clear about the catalyst for change– the pogrom, the famine, the opportunity
  • begin on page one with as much of a punch as you possibly can
  • evoke many if not all the senses
  • make sure that all characters are nuanced. Even villains must have redeeming qualities or flaws that can be understood.


The Personal Advantages of Writing Your Family Story
Anyone who writes, and anyone contemplating writing knows that it can be a daunting task. The New York Public Library article also reminds us of the personal advantages of writing this story: a better understanding of your family and therefore of yourself; the ability to see a common thread that has driven your ancestors and yourself. There’s the therapeutic nature of writing about your family and the sense of resolution it can provide. It is also an investment in yourself because of its reflective nature.

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The Advantages of Fictionalizing Your Family Story

I am obviously a big fan of historical fiction (two of my novels are based in the Middle Ages) and I tell my students writing their family stories that there are advantages to crossing the line into fiction – either fictive biographies or historical fiction.

First, fictional characters can be the personification of important forces in the story.

 

Status quo: You may not have any evidence that someone told your grandmother that a woman can’t open her own blacksmith shop but since the establishment of the status quo is essential to showing the adventurous nature of your grandmother, you need to introduce this idea. However, these ideas must be personified within a character, they can’t just be a vague social pressure that is described.
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How and Why You Should Write the Story of Your Family and When to Veer into Fiction

Happily, my new course on “Crafting the Story of Your Family: For Writers and Non-Writers Alike” at The Writing Salon has begun and I am reminded of what the New York City Library has listed as one of their “20 Reasons You Should Write Your Family History”: the historical and literary record needs more material from previously underrepresented people – women, people of color, the poor and working-class, the disabled. In short, if you think the historical record is too filled with privileged white men, get writing.



The Social Advantages of Writing Your Family Story
In this culture filled with megastars, it’s hard to remember that, in fact, you and your ancestors count. “The entire story of mankind has come to us from individual voices from the past,” some say. Family histories and first-person narratives are important historical documents that fuel research, social histories and fiction. They provide the sparkle that enlivens and provides depth to data on birth dates, names of children and day of death.
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Please join me Oct. 22nd for a Special Reading at The Writing Salon, Berkeley

San Francisco Bay Area writers and readers: Please join me at The Writing Salon in Berkeley on Oct. 22nd, 7-9 p.m. as I read new work, introduce my student Agatha Hinman to her first public reading, and share the stage with Karen Bjorneby and her student.

I'll be reading from my unpublished collection of short stories, The Disappearing Andersons of Loon Lake, featuring a story that is particularly appropriate for an audience of writers.

The event is free but space is limited. Refreshments will be served and my books will be available for sale.

Please join me at The Writing Salon, 2121 Bonar St., Studio D on the Second Floor, Berkeley CA, 94702, October 22, 2016, from 7-9 p.m.

Looking forward to seeing you!
Jess
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Reading and Writing -- Pleasures from the Same Wellspring

It is my contention that the desire to read and the desire to write come from the same place – a longing to live in fantasy. They are both great brain candy (but good for you so perhaps ‘brain fruit,’ though more substantive than that so perhaps ‘brain kale’ but that sounds unpalatable. Clearly the metaphor needs some collective work.) An interesting piece recently ran in the New York Times Book Review, in the back section called “Bookends” – always one of my favorites in the newspaper because of the quality of the writing and the subtlety of what they discuss. On Sunday, June 12, 2016, the question was whether or not it is harder to be transported by a book as you get older. And what Benjamin Moser says is “the problem is that the deeper you go into your own writing, the harder it becomes to enter someone else’s. If pursued seriously, writing demands a kind of obsessive concentration that came, at least for me, to preclude reading.”

Reading great stories or novels adds another dimension to one’s life as if having a secret

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Join Me in the Workshop: How to Write Historical Fiction, in Berkeley, CA

Really happy to be back to teaching, and back to The Writing Salon. If you're anywhere near the SF Bay Area, I would love to see you at this fun and affordable one-day workshop:

Writing Historical Fiction – Weaving Past and Present into Art

Historical fiction can transport you into worlds that are incredibly fun to write. Do you want to reintroduce a little-known hero/heroine into popular culture? Would you like to tell the sweeping saga of your own family’s struggle in America? Is there an event from long ago that seems hauntingly relevant today? Any story that is more than 50 years in the past is considered historical fiction, so sometimes one’s own childhood can be the source of inspiration.

Historical fiction has its own unique demands, though. I'm fond of mentioning that “You can’t just throw a tapestry over the flat screen TV in your scene and call it historical. There are real differences between modern life and life in the past, which require real differences in your writing. And that, to me, is the greatest thing about it.”

In this lively, one-day workshop, we will:
• Identify where each of you is in the process of your project – idea, complete research, plot obstacle
• Discuss how to research and when to stop researching
• Discuss how settings can help your plot
• Consider how to tell the story of famous people told from a fresh angle
• Identify ways in which historical stories illuminate modern truths
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