Category: Writing in Overdrive

Fiction is a Different Kind of Truth

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“All good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened.”
—Ernest Hemingway

I’m a big fan of Lawrence Block and Stephen King, but there’s something these two fine writers say that sets my teeth on edge: They call fiction a “lie.”

Block has written a number of excellent books for writers, including Telling Lies for Fun & Profit (1981) and The Liar’s Bible (2011). (Despite the titles, I highly recommend them.) In Danse Macabre, Stephen King said, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” Clearly, King’s focus is on the truth, not the lie, because he goes on to say, “Morality is telling the truth as your heart knows it.”

Neil Gaiman once made a similar remark: “Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things, and which can sometimes pay the rent.” Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, said, “Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.” And Kurt Vonnegut, in the preface to Mother Night, said, “Lies told for the sake of artistic effect … can be, in a higher sense, the most beguiling forms of truth.” And William Gibson (Neuromancer) writes, “The most common human act that writing a novel resembles is lying. The working novelist lies daily, very complexly, and at great length.”

Why would any practitioner of the art of fiction slander his art by calling it a “lie”? Granted, fiction is an account of events that didn’t actually happen — but does the nonfactual nature of fiction make it a “lie”?

The dictionary definition of a lie is “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive.” Fiction does not try to deceive anyone. The reader knows a novel or story is not a factual account, and approaches it in a state of (as Coleridge termed it) “willing suspension of disbelief.” Without intent to deceive, there is no lie.

Equating fiction to a lie is like equating surgery to a back-alley stabbing. After all, the surgeon cuts you open with a knife and takes your money. Isn’t that exactly what a mugger with a switchblade does? Well, no — the two acts are not even remotely similar.

The point is this: I have a high opinion of stories and the people who write them — and I have contempt for lies and the people who tell them. I’ve been lied to by people who tried to deceive me, manipulate me, or steal from me, and I bitterly resent it. But I love being entertained by a good story.

“The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode,” said Flannery O’Connor. “The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth.” Great fiction can’t lie. Fiction, in order to function as entertainment, must be true. Sure, the reader knows it isn’t factually true — but the reader expects it to be true in a deeper way. As novelist Emma Donoghue has said, “Stories are a different kind of true.”

Orson Scott Card’s short story “Lost Boys” first appeared in the October 1989 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Though the first-person protagonist of the story is named Step Fletcher, many aspects of Card’s own life are woven in the story. Card himself didn’t realize how much of his own personal truth, including his emotional pain, was woven into that work of fiction until some months after he had written it.

Much of the pain of that story centered on his son, Charlie Ben, who was severely afflicted with cerebral palsy (and who died more than a decade after the story was published). At the time he wrote the story, Card thought he was writing a simple ghost story featuring a fictional boy named Scotty. Instead, he had inadvertently told the truth about his repressed grief over his real-life son, Charlie Ben. In an afterword appended to the story for its initial publication, Card reflected:

In all the years of Charlie’s life … I had never shed a single tear for him, never allowed myself to grieve. I had worn a mask of calm and acceptance so convincing that I had believed it myself. But the lies we live will always be confessed in the stories that we tell, and I am no exception. The story that I had fancied was a mere lark, a dalliance in the quaint old ghost-story tradition, was the most personal, painful story of my career — and, unconsciously, I had confessed as much by making it by far the most autobiographical of all my works.

Great writers don’t lie — they reveal the truth through fiction (often, without realizing it). Their stories are morally, emotionally, humanly true. Great fiction is convincing. It touches a responsive chord of truth within our souls. Fiction must resonate with eternal and universal truths, or the reader will throw the book away in disgust.

When you write a story, do you think you’re lying? Do you think you’re deceiving anyone? If so, stop writing. But if you are writing your truth, write on!

Don’t lie to me. Tell me the truth. Tell me a story.

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Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney [Kindle Edition available at Amazon.com for $3.99] [Print edition available at Amazon.com for $7.75]

And for a 90-day supply of inspirational, motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.

Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers. He’s the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).

 

Collaborating with the Unconscious Mind

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by Jim Denney

In Creating Short Fiction, science fiction writer-editor Damon Knight describes how to get your analytical Conscious Mind to work in sync with your creative Unconscious Mind (which I call “the Muse,” and which Knight calls “Fred”):


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Your mind comes in two parts, the conscious part and the other one. . . . I prefer to call it “Fred.” . . .

When you think about a creative problem, or even when you think something as simple as “I wish I had an idea for a story,” you are sending a message to Fred. . . . Fred will respond to your ideas pretty much the way you respond to the ideas you get from him: either a kind of dull, empty feeling, which means “No,” or else an excitement, an electric tingle, that means “Yes, yes!” . . .

To be productive, Fred needs a lot of stimulating input—odd facts or fancies to knock together, insights, specimens, interesting data of all kinds. . . . Critics talk about “the well of inspiration,” and they say that the well sometimes runs dry. What this means, in my opinion, is either that the author is feeling the lack of stimulating input, or that she has not given Fred time enough to think about the problem. Trying to force this process is a mistake. . . .

Sleep is good because it makes the conscious mind shut up and gives Fred a chance to think. Drop an unsolved or half-solved problem in before bedtime; in the morning, chances are, you will see it in a different light.1


Ursula K. Le Guin has a similar view of the Conscious-Unconscious collaborative process. “All I seek when writing,” she said, “is to allow my Unconscious Mind to control the course of the story, using rational thought only to reality check when revising.”

In Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande talks about an ability we all have, though few of us realize it: “The higher imagination, you may call it; your own endowment of genius, great or small; the creative aspect of your mind, which is lodged almost entirely in the Unconscious.” Our goal as writers is to harmonize both regions of our being—the Conscious and the Unconscious—in a productive and creative collaboration.

We tend to think of Damon Knight’s “Fred,” the Unconscious Mind, as a nebulous, irrational part of us, hidden and submerged somewhere underneath our real personality. But the Unconscious is, in many ways, actually more powerful than the Conscious Mind, especially when it comes to the creative process, the writing process. The Unconscious is wild, uninhibited, and exuberant, so it is the Unconscious that breathes life, energy, and emotion into our work.

Once we learn to marry the raw creative power of the Unconscious to the critical, analytical reasoning of the Conscious, our best work will come blazing forth, white-hot with energy, ready to dazzle editors, reviewers, and readers alike. That is the kind of uninhibited creativity that drives great fiction — and great fiction-writing careers.

  1. Damon Knight, Creating Short Fiction, Third Edition (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997), 23-26.

For more insight into how to tap into the uninhibited creative power of the Unconscious Mind, read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney [Kindle Edition available at Amazon.com for $3.99] [Print edition available at Amazon.com for $7.75]

Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers. He’s the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).

How to Write a Novel in Three Days

By Jim Denney

From Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney [Kindle Edition available at Amazon.com for $3.99] [Print edition available at Amazon.com for $7.75]

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In his early career, Michael Moorcock eked out a living writing adventure novels in the low-paying pulp fiction field. To boost his productivity and income, he devised a plan for writing sword-and-sorcery potboilers very quickly, usually in a matter of three to ten days. Every novel he wrote this way adhered to a series of simple formulas:

• Length formula: 60,000 words, divided into four sections of 15,000 words, six chapters in each section, no chapter longer than 2,500 words. Each chapter is required to contain elements that advance the action.

• Plot formula: the familiar tale of a lot of people competing in a quest to gain a much-sought-after object (examples of such objects: the Holy Grail, the Maltese Falcon, the gold of El Dorado, Alfred Hitchcock’s notion of “the MacGuffin,” or the Rambaldi artifacts in TV’s Alias).

• Character formula: a fallible and reluctant hero who tries to avoid responsibility, but ends up being pitted against vastly superior, even superhuman, forces.

• Structural formula: a dire event occurs every four pages to advance the action and keep the reader hooked.

• Fantastic images formula: the story must contain a series of wild, vivid, fantasy images, such as Moorcock’s “City of Screaming Statues.”

• Time formula: the hero is in a race against time. Moorcock explained: “It’s a classic formula: ‘We’ve only got six days to save the world!’ Immediately you’ve set the reader up with a structure: there are only six days, then five, then four, and finally … there’s only 26 seconds to save the world! Will they make it in time?”1

Even though the actual writing of a novel may take as little as three days (a phenomenal 20,000 words per day!), Moorcock would always spend at least a couple of days preparing and organizing the story structure, characters, and lists of images and events he wanted to include, so he’d have everything he needed once the writing began. “The whole reason you plan everything beforehand,” he explained, “is so that when you hit a snag, a desperate moment, you’ve actually got something there on your desk that tells you what to do.”2

This may sound like a recipe for churning out the most dreary and unreadable fiction imaginable—and in the hands of a lesser talent, it undoubtedly would be. But Moorcock actually wrote some of his highly acclaimed Hawkmoon and Elric tales on this formula. Though the plots were formulaic, his characters were strongly delineated and memorable, and his writing was clean and well-crafted. About the same time he perfected this recipe for writing novels in three days, he began earning better money. Growing tired of the formula, he moved on to more challenging genres and projects.

Yet he continued to write quickly. One of his most celebrated novels is Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen, a literary fantasy novel that won the World Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Published in 1978, Gloriana has remained continuously in print to this day. Moorcock wrote it in a mere six weeks.

For Michael Moorcock, preparing to write quickly is a matter of quality as well as speed. He organized and disciplined himself to write quickly, and in the process he wrote very well, and acquired a reputation for literary excellence.

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Notes
1. Michael Moorcock and Colin Greenland, Death Is No Obstacle (Manchester, UK: Savoy, 1992), 8.
2. Ibid., 9.

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Update — Tuesday, August 23, 2016:

I received this from a friend on Twitter today: “I’ll go so far as to say it can be done, but I don’t think even attempting this speed is good for most writers.”

I wouldn’t claim to know what’s best for most writers — there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to writing. In my books and blogs about writing, I try to present ideas that my fellow writers are free to adopt, adapt, or ignore, depending on their preferences and predilections.

Yet I absolutely believe that most writers could benefit from “writing in overdrive” — that is, writing quickly in a state of creative flow. When you are “in flow” or “in the zone,” you are tapping into the creative power of the unconscious Muse. You are not thinking critically and analytically about your work. You are simply letting the work flow straight from your imagination onto the page. Your writing is free and uninhibited. Because the work is flowing quickly, you can easily remember everything that happened before, and you don’t get lost in the thicket of your plot. You stay excited and energized, and you experience one inspired insight after another.

Michael Moorcock’s peak results — 20,000 words per day — are an extreme case. But any writer could adapt Moorcock’s formula by lowering the daily word goals to a less daunting level — say, 5,000 words per day. At that rate, you could first-draft a 60,000-word novel in twelve days. At 2,000 words per day (which, by the way, is the daily word quota set by Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and John Steinbeck), you could first-draft a 60,000-word novel in thirty days.

I’ve never had a 20,000-word day myself — but I’ve had quite a few 10,000-word days over my writing career. That kind of speed may not be for everybody, but it’s exhilarating to experience. Over the next few weeks I plan to post more “writing in overdrive” insights that I hope my fellow writers will find helpful and empowering. God bless and inspire you!

— Jim Denney

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Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers including Simon & Schuster, St. Martin’s Press, McGraw-Hill, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Baker Books, Humanix, and many more. He is the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). For more writing insight and inspiration, read:

Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney

Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney

Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney 

Copyright 2016 by Jim Denney.

Dip Up the Fire!

“The writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels.”
— Simone de Beauvoir

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Why did you become a writer?

My own reasons for writing have evolved over the years. I knew I wanted to write stories from the time I was nine years old. A writer, it is said, is a reader moved to emulation. That was me. I wanted to write the kinds of stories I liked to read, and to entertain others the way those stories entertained me.

There’s nothing wrong with writing purely to entertain. But somewhere along the way to adulthood, I discovered that stories do so much more than merely entertain. As Harlan Ellison observed in Slippage:

“Entertain, yes! That goes without saying. But a good writer does that automatically, it’s built into the machine. Telling a thumpingly good, mesmerizing story is what one does without question. But beyond that, any writer worth his/her hire knows that all writing, one way or another, is subversive. It is guerrilla warfare against the status quo.”

Ellison expanded on the idea of writing as guerilla warfare in his story collection Shatterday,

“I don’t know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not a responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of the rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerrilla warfare. I stir the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyeballs water. I spend my life and of miles of visceral material in a glorious and painful series of midnight raids against complacency. It is my lot to wake up with anger every morning, to lie down at night even angrier.”

When you write, do you inconvenience anyone? Is your writing an act of guerrilla warfare? I’m not saying you should intentionally preach sermons through your fiction. A story should be a story, not propaganda. If you pollute your fiction with heavy-handed preaching, you obliterate its artistic and moral integrity. “The theme must be deeply submerged in the story,” novelist Elizabeth Bowen warned. “If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea.”

The unconscious mind does not lie. If you draw upon the power of your unconscious mind to write your story, if you dig deep within yourself and write about characters and situations that engage your emotions and passions, your story will be honest — and it will possess layers of meaning that you may not even realize. Your story will come alive as literature, verging on myth.

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The writer’s unconscious mind always reveals more truth than the writer suspects. As Madeleine L’Engle reflected in Walking on Water, “It is a humbling and exciting thing to know that my work knows more than I do. … Sometimes it is years after a book is published that I discover what some of it meant.”

When you write from the unconscious mind, you write stories that entertain — and that resonate deep within the reader. You write honestly. You write about things that matter. You write about universal truths — deep truths you share with your readers. Again, Harlan Ellison:

“I talk about the things people have always talked about in stories: pain, hate, truth, courage, destiny, friendship, responsibility, growing old, growing up, falling in love, all of these things. What I try to write about are the darkest things in the soul, the mortal dreads. I try to go into those places in me that contain the cauldrous. I want to dip up the fire, and I want to put it on paper. The closer I get to the burning core of my being, the things which are most painful to me, the better is my work.”

Write to entertain. Tell a story, don’t preach. But summon your stories from the volcanic core of your being. Reach down into the cauldrous unconscious, dip up the fire, and put it on paper. You’ll find that the truth within you burns brighter than the sun.

“It’s not worth doing something unless you are doing something that someone, somewhere, would much rather you weren’t doing.”
— Terry Pratchett

Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers including Simon & Schuster, St. Martin’s Press, McGraw-Hill, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Baker Books, Humanix, and many more. He is the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). For more writing insight and inspiration, read:

Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney

Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney

Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney 

Copyright 2016 by Jim Denney.