About a week ago, something amazing happened: I sat down to write a fictional story.
I’m a professional writer now (my coworker calls me the “staff journalist”, which is very kind of him but probably a stretch), but I haven’t had a fictional piece in my head for at least six years. Last time I wrote fiction I was eighteen, virginal, and still figuring out who I was–so, basically like most teenagers. Now, at twenty-four, things are very, very different.
I often wish I could write letters to my younger self, to tell her what’s coming down the road; I don’t think she’d ever have believed it. In the past week, the differences between then and now have been especially clear. So in the spirit of me kicking off my very first NaNoWriMo ever, I’d like to share some of the things that are different about the fiction process now.
When I got my idea, it came in the form of a few loosely connected scenes and concepts. As a teenager, this would have been enough to bang out a prologue and start writing away, inevitably doomed to run into impenetrable writer’s block several weeks later and abandon the project.
This time, my thought was: “This motherfucker needs to be planned out.”
I went looking for story tips, cracked open my old screenwriting books to review the components of the three-act-structure, and realized just how many elements I was missing from my core concept. I’m still in the planning stages of the damn thing; a lot of my initial ideas have been scrapped, but better ones have replaced them as I steadily plot out the major events of the story. It’s an immensely refreshing demonstration of the fact that those prefrontal lobes do eventually grow in, and that little bit of foresight results in a far more sophisticated story.
Part of my story involves a guy having an affair with his best friend’s girlfriend. While writing during adolescence, this wouldn’t have happened without a guaranteed happy ending and paragraphs upon paragraphs of buildup to that first kiss. I was a late bloomer in the world of dating, and remain to this day a curmudgeonly introverted weirdo who’d rather read a book than try to get into someone’s pants, but I’m happy that I’m going to get the opportunity to write sex scenes in a far more realistic light.
I can barely read my old romance scenes now, because they’re horrible. They are fluffy and overwritten and reveal a very young, very narrow view of how romance works. And that’s just the ones I published online; I’m grateful that I had the presence of mind at the time to get the very worst ones down on paper and then hide them away in folders on my hard drive, never to see the light of day.
People bump uglies for all sorts of different reasons and with a wide variety of emotions at play. I’m no longer a blushing adolescent about the subject, so I can challenge myself to create sex scenes that are actually well-written. And as certain outselling-Harry-Potter midlife-crisis erotica authors prove, sex scenes are difficult to write well, even if you are decades above the age of consent in your home country. So my goal is to do better than E.L. James, and then get around to addressing my overwhelming addiction to flogging dead horses.
When you’re a teenage girl and your fictional characters are all either projections of yourself or people you wished you could know, the harsh truth is that your characters are going to suck a little. The heroes are all far too heroic, the villains are somehow both cartoonishly evil and, at the same time, far too lenient, and female characters all tended to just be me, in a variety of masks. Romantic interests were…well, see Point #2, and wait while I retch into my wastebasket for a second.
We identify with characters, in part, because they have very human flaws; this means that they sometimes act like assholes. As a writer, you cannot be in love with your characters, because they will need to do stuff that is thoughtless, hurtful, or just plain bad. But it’s not just that characters will act like assholes; they do so because in their own mind they think they’re right, not because the puppetmaster has pulled the “be a dick” lever in their heads. That’s another thing I wouldn’t have considered back in the day. A good character-based story works because the subjects have a significant arc; they must have significant stakes which prompt them to change, and that means that they probably can’t react ideally, no matter how much you wish they could. A character who dodges every bullet is interesting to precisely one person, and that is the writer; if you can’t bring yourself to throw actual, significant obstacles in the path of your protagonist, then you need to have the words “Kill your darlings” tattooed onto the inside of your eyelids.
4. Burn that Mother Down
When I was sixteen, I possessed the following two things: dozens of potential story ideas stashed all over my computer, and a devastating, debilitating fear of change.
I would come up with story ideas, character profiles, set pieces, and scene progressions, and they’d be wonderful. But they’d never, ever go anywhere, because as I tried to think of a full plot, all of those initial status quos would remain as they were, because I loved them and didn’t want to destroy them. This had the effect of killing the story before it even had a chance to exist.
University, heartbreak, and a healthy dose of critical film studies has made me realize my mistake. The drama of a story comes from a disruption to the status quo, and quite often the most effective stories are the ones which apply change in a permanent and devastating manner. Never being able to go back to the way things were used to frighten me on a very visceral level; now I understand why, and I’m perfectly willing to just set every fucking thing on fire (…in the story, guys) to make sure that the protagonist can never, ever go anywhere but forward.
Some of you may argue that it’s natural that a teenager would miss some of these things, but my point is that when I was younger I really felt that I had a talent for fiction–and in some ways, I did. But I did not have the courage to plunge into the depths of what truly makes a good story captivating. Coming back to fiction after so many years away has felt like being a time traveler, emerging from my machine after a whirlwind trip to the future and back: a lot of the world feels the same as when I left it, but I am overwhelmingly different and know much more than I did the last time I saw these streets and houses.
So, fiction, here I am. I know far more of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll than I did the last time we did this little dance. Let’s fucking roll.