Redrafting the Real World

When I was ten or eleven years old, I had already tried to write–and failed at it.

My aborted novel, Outside the Local Universe, never got beyond a chapter or two. It had other problems, such as a complete lack of a plot or any relatable characters. After several weeks of fumbling with the text, it seemed clear that this story would never be told.

Over the years, I’ve become a better writer. I’ve also learned that writing non-fiction is a lot of fun. I know how to add structure, I’m pretty good at pruning my own writing, and I like to think I can keep the reader’s attention. (I’m certain of that with every insecure bone in my middle-aged body.) I’m a decent enough writer that, as an editor, I feel confident helping truly excellent writers hone their work.

But I never got the knack for coming up with believable characters or settings. I know bad–and good–characterization when I see it, and I usually know how to fix problems.

I don’t know how you writers do it so consistently. Are you all tearing your hair out at the roots and only sending me the happy accidents? Or are you all secret geniuses, the writerly angst just an act you put on?

One of my own creative outlets is songwriting, and the song lyric is a relentlessly economical form. One wants to say a range of things, but only has so many words to use in a three or four minute song. The lyricist learns to pare the message down to its absolute core, down to what’s truly important. Sometimes, that ends up being something other than what the writer had in mind originally, and when the song is writing itself…that’s when I know I’ve got something good on my hands.

But my stories are usually based on things that have happened to me or to friends, even if I do make heavy use of composite characters and changed details. I keep trying my hand at fiction. My latest attempt is a cycle of songs that tell the story of a family falling apart, the daughter finding refuge in the shadow of the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. She’s trying to finish her mother’s work, left unfinished when she died young. The problem I have is, quite simply, a lack of essential detail and, by extension, a lack of believable motivation. What was this work, and why does it become important to her daughter?

Are you writers making these characters and settings up out of whole cloth, or are you just really good at combining your friends and enemies into composites? Could it be that re-drafting the real world is all there is to fiction? The parts of my song cycle that are based on events in my own life, those things seem clear and real. Unfortunately, the parts that are fiction are blurry and melty.

I may never finish Welcome Home, and that’s all right. What’s important is that I keep revisiting it and trying to do some work on it. Maybe I’ll learn a thing or two with each attempt. And if I don’t–at the least, I’ll be a better and more understanding editor.


Thanks to Sara Goas for inspiration–specifically, the first sentence of this article got me thinking about all this.

Ask Ceil will return on August 5th.

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2 thoughts on “Redrafting the Real World

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  1. Such interesting things to think about, as usual, Neil!

    Did you have imaginary friends when you were very little? I did, and my children did, too.

    Children create these complete, three-dimensional characters, even those with superpowers, who experience the full range of human emotions, or at least the ones the child knows about. The characters in the novel I am writing are like my imaginary friends. Each has a larger or smaller piece of me in him or her, plus characteristics of people I’ve known and loved or known and disliked, but there is a large element of fantasy. Sometimes, at work, when I’m doing a boring task, I can ask myself, “Hey, I wonder what Jesse and Lily are doing right now?” and imagine a little scene. They live for me off the page.

    One of my characters in 90 years old, though I’ve never known someone well who is extremely elderly. I imagine my way into her aging body, into her fears, into the hopes and dreams she still has, even though she has so little time left to fulfill them. Is she realistic? Who knows? If my book ever gets published, readers will presumably tell me. But she feels as real to me as someone I’ve gotten to know over a period of years.

    The test might be this: if you can experience something in your own life, then ask, “Hmmmm…how would Character X react in this situation?” and feel confident of the answer, knowing very well why the character would react that way, then I think you’ve created a real, three-dimensional, believable character.

    As for settings, I’m terrible at those. But I draw a lot of maps and take little bits of places I’ve known. I’m working on getting better at this. I’m not a visual person at all, and have prosopagnosia, so faces are impossible for me, but I work at it.

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