When you write, you have to tell the truth, even if you’re making it up. That’s the lesson I’ve learned over these past few months of slogging through the final chapters of the novel. Sure, the whole thing is fiction, start-to-finish. It’s made up. Make believe. Pretend. That’s not what I mean by truth. There are also some details I’ve taken from my real life (for example, the story takes place on a beach, and I’ve been to a beach before. See the connection?). That’s not what I mean by truth, either.
This story is just a creation. Just me, sitting here and watching the characters “happen” on the page. Yet, it’s true. True for someone, somewhere, who will one day read it and say, “You know, that character is totally me.” That’s the highest compliment and honor any reader could pay me – to say that I wrote something she or he could relate to. Could feel. Could get.
Face it, straight writing is simple. Any literate person can do it. “Anna and Frankie went to the beach. They swam. They got tan.” That’s writing. The real trick is for me to make you care that Anna and Frankie went to the beach, swam, and got tan. I can’t just tell you about these teenaged chicks on the beach (okay, that might do it for some of you), I have to show you. You need to watch the central conflict unfold, feel your way through the defining moments as the characters are, and understand what’s at stake for these girls. That’s your job as a reader (yes, I know I ask a lot. No passive entertainment here!).
As a writer, it’s my job – the base minimum at that – to give you a reason to follow Anna and Frankie on their journey through the world of the book. My ultimate goal, however, is to make you wonder about them long after you’ve turned the final page. These girls have kept me up nights for three years; surely they can spark something in you, too!
Seems like pretty basic Writer 101 stuff, maybe. But it’s harder than it looks. The reason I’ve struggled with the last few chapters is not because I don’t know how the story ends or what to write next, but because these later chapters are in danger of becoming just… writing. Maybe even good writing, in a stylistic sort of way. But lies, all lies. I’m just typing things on to the page – the girls are on the beach. They’re eating ice cream. It’s hot. Lately I feel like I get more personal intensity out of the random observational posts in this blog – the desolation of dairyland, or the Colorado winter storms, for example – than I do from my novel. I think it’s because I can sit and watch these things happen in front of me, interact with them, sense them, really pay attention to the emotion I got from being there rather than thinking about grammar and editing. With the book, conversely, there is no “there” – nothing to watch or participate in. Nothing to react to. It’s all in my head, and it’s confounded by rules.
This story, in some form or another, has happened. I’ve experienced pieces of it or heard about it from others who’ve experienced it. We’ve all been young and foolish, we’ve all had broken hearts and bad dreams. What I need to do is take a step back, close my eyes, and create each scene in my mind like a movie. I need to totally immerse myself, so that I no longer write about some random beach, but the lone little gull who paces the tideline, the shush of the waves on the shore, the echoing laughter of kids splashing far away. Little things we’ve all experienced that can really ground a scene. Then, and only then, can I mine for the truth of the writing. It means longer hours at the laptop and many more rough drafts and outlines, but I need to do it. Otherwise it’s not real.
Alternatively, instead of making up little movies in my head when I’m pretending to be hard at work on yet another TPS report, one of you could send me on an all-expenses-paid beach vacation where I could while away my hours observing the delicate intermingling of the local and tourists cultures, sipping banana daiquiris, and shaking the sand out of my towel – all for the sake of research, of course. Just a thought. I mean, no pressure, but you’d get an acknowledgement in the book and everything.
If you’re too cheap to pony up for the trip, the least you could do is share a few beach memories for me. What do you remember most about visits to the beach? Sights, sounds, smells, feelings, everything. Come on, now. It’s either that or send me a check. Think about it and get back to me.