Category Archives: For Writers: This Means You

Truth in Fiction

On both Fuse #8 and Liz’s site, there are fabulous and fruitful discussions going on about authenticity and what obligations, if any, writers or reviewers have in terms of ensuring a narrative’s authenticity–and, darn them, they got me thinking about that.  Eventually, I opened my big mouth and posted a comment that I’m also posting here because, well, you know, I spent a lot of  time thinking about this (which means that both Liz and Betsy did their jobs extremely well) and if I spend that kind of time, you should, too.

Really, it seems to me that what they’re talking about is that unspoken contract formed between writers and readers that has everything to do with trust: what a reader brings to a book before she even cracks the spine, and what keeps faith in a narrative, or destroys it.

So, what follows below is my response to Liz–and it’s not supposed to be either the final word or even all-inclusive because there are only so many hours in the day, and I got books to write.  Feel free to put in your two cents, or travel on over to either Betsy’s or Liz’s site and enter the discussion.

* * *

Now, I’m probably not going to explain this well–which is kind of a kicker, considering that I’m both a writer AND a child psychiatrist–but you bring up some great points, ones that got me thinking about what engenders a reader’s *trust*–because that’s what feelings of authenticity are. Do I, the reader, trust you, the writer, in our unspoken contract to deliver a narrative I feel is true? What is authentic is not necessarily the *same* as what is true, but if truths (read: facts) are used in a narrative then they must work to foster a reader’s trust in the story.

Honestly, it seems to me that feelings of authenticity are directly related to how much the book grabbed you. Period. As with your example about New Jersey and gas (thanks for that, btw; I’ll remember that if I ever set a contemporary YA in NJ–although my husband’s from NJ and I married him anyway): you know about NJ gas stations. You would know that this is a factual error. The question is whether or not the error is enough to kick you out of the story or influence your judgment as to how good the story is. In other words, do you lose trust in the narrative?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read books that feature child psychiatrists or doctors or scientists or hikers or survivalists or climbers or, for that matter, divers . . . and there’s almost always something that rises up from the page and smacks me a good one because I KNOW when the facts aren’t quite up to snuff. Sometimes, that’s enough to destroy the story; I’ll pitch that sucker across the room because I’ll be darned if I waste my time. (Psychotic, incompetent, cross-dressing, and/or homicidal shrinks almost always make me cringe. Really, most of us have gotten *so* much better . . .)

At other times, though, I’ll re-read the passage to make sure I really read what I read and then, usually, one of two things happen: either I’ll kind of shrug and move on because the story’s pretty darned good, or I’ll roll my eyes and continue on but with a heightened sense of okay-prove-to-me-that-I-should-keep-putting-effort-into-this. If the author makes a couple more boo-boos, then I give up because, really, if you don’t care to get your facts straight, bub, I don’t care to waste my time. I don’t *trust* you any more. In those instances, my doubts about a writer’s trustworthiness color everything I read.

But writers do make stuff up for a living, and I think readers have to bear that in mind. By definition, there’s only so much research you can really do and I guarantee you that if I wrote a book centered on a women’s prison or juvenile detention facility, someone will think I musta made that up. (Uh . . . that would be no; I’ve had a ton of personal experience working in those arenas. Remind me to tell you the one about a certain toe tag . . .) But I might not craft a story well enough to make you trust me, and so you’ll feel my work is inauthentic when, no, no, that really happened.

Further, feelings of inauthenticity are also directly related to expectation: what people *think* that, say, autism ought to be like . . . but how are those perceptions built? Through experience? Exposure through various media? Another book that you think “did it” particularly well? Or, as Charlotte wrote, something unconscious (even fantasies of what something “should” be like)?

The other thing is that authenticity in some branches of fiction is easier to create and sustain than others. I’m thinking of, for example, historicals. I once read a book–a bestseller, by the way–where Cleopatra used a fork. Uh . . . what? WHAT? At the time I didn’t know diddly about forks, but that was enough to throw me because I had a dim-enough understanding of utensils to figure, whoa, that’s not right. So I looked it up and found that forks weren’t invented until the 11th century or thereabouts–and that gave me pause in terms of the rest of the book. I mean, honestly, if *I* can figure this out with a few minutes’ effort, why can’t the writer? The story wasn’t bad–it was actually quite good–but I began to doubt the rest of the historical detail. I think I even got a little pissed–like, do your homework, bub–and this from a woman who grew up devouring science fiction where all bets are off. I no longer trusted the writer.

So, in the end, you know . . . a story is fiction; fiction isn’t necessarily about what is true (that’s why it’s fiction); but facts in fiction generally *are* supposed to be true and truth is directly related to a reader’s sense of a fiction’s authenticity: the degree to which you abandon yourself and trust in the writer. Me, I think that’s mostly about story and how well a narrative is crafted: have you grabbed me; have you held me; and can I stay buckled in regardless of the speed bumps? Will I forgive you a couple of mistakes? If I can, then the story is true enough to and for me, and I will trust the writer. If inaccuracies foster enough doubt, well, then . . . you broke our contract, and them’s the breaks.

If that’s clear . . .

If A Blog Falls In the Forest . . .

So I went to this con in Minneapolis: KidLitCon 2010.  Supposed to be for bloggers about blogging in—and this is my new word for the week—the kitlitosphere. (English is such a great and malleable language.)  Why did I go, especially when Garrison Keillor just happened not to be performing at the Fitzgerald and Brett was going to be in Green Bay?  (Oh, Brett, Brett . . . Don’t get me started on Brett.)

Well, let me tell you why I went.

There’s this great scene in Julie & Julia where Amy Adams, completely convinced that she’s blogging into the great void, meekly types: Is there anyone out there reading me?  But I’m sure you are, aren’t you? Somebody? Anybody?

Oh boy, do I know how she feels.  Most days, blogging feels as if I’ve channeled  Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:

Now, why am I blogging altogether?  Simple: My editor told me to, and I take direction well.  (I do; just ask him.)

Here’s how it started.  My editor said that I should develop an online presence.  Get on Facebook; join Twitter.  Put up a blog.  The goal, he said, was for me to join the conversation.

Hmmm.  Okay.  Sure.  No sweat.  So I put up a blog; I joined Facebook and Twitter—

And discovered something really, really important.

I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what I was supposed to do or say.  To whom?  About what?  Oh, I maundered on a bit about myself, gave some background, weighed in on a couple topics—but in the back of my head, this little voice kept yammering: You have no idea what you’re doing and why should anyone care what you think, sweetheart?

I so completely angst over my blog.  I really do.  My blog tortures me.  My blog is the digital equivalent of that zit no amount of makeup will make disappear.  For me, blogging is like when a shirt tag’s showing or I’ve gotten lipstick all over my teeth; everyone’s too polite to say anything and just looks away.  (Disclaimer: I always say something when I spot a tag or lipstick.  I’m convinced that only another woman understands the horror, the horror . . .)

See, I want people to care—or, at the very least, let me hang around the bar and maybe chime in once in a while.

And as I write those words, I think I’ve just stumbled on something very important.

Blogging is community.

When you blog—or do Facebook or Twitter or jump into any other social medium—you’re reaching out, trying to squeeze your way into a mash-up of a very large cocktail party.  But this can be a problem if you’re someone like me: pretty reserved, a little superstitious, relatively adept at putting foot in mouth, and—honestly—kind of shy.  (Really.  The fact that I can smile and chat?  Years of practice.  Hey, all that psychiatric training wasn’t for nothing.  I learned how to ask questions so other people would keep talking.  Remind me to tell you someday about the assignment Tim Powers had us do at WOTF . . .)

Anyhoo.  Seems to me that one of the keys to successful blogging is to develop the confidence—or the illusion of it at least—that would make someone at, say, a cocktail party give a damn about anything you have to say.  In other words, if you don’t have any confidence in what you think; if you can’t listen to a conversation at a cocktail party—and really listen, not just hear—not only will no one listen to any comment you manage to slip in, they won’t even hear you over the sound of the band.

The first person you must convince to care about what you say is . . . you.


So I think that was in the back of my mind heading into KidLitCon.  I wanted to figure out why I should care about me.  I wanted to know what—and who—the heck my blog was for.  I really wanted to crash that stupid cocktail party without spilling my drink.

So, my questions: Was my blog a way to let people know about a nice review?  To weigh in on the big issues of the day?  To reveal my deep and abiding attachment to my new compost bin?  (Don’t ask.)  What?

I mean, why blog?  I’m serious.  There’s no compelling reason why anyone should visit a writer’s blog unless that writer has a fan-base, people out there who’ve read a book or story and decide to look her up.  So someone like me is blogging for a potential: a hope that, someday, someone’s going to stumble on by.

Only who is that someone?  Because aside from those teens who write review blogs, my zillions of potential YA fans don’t read blogs.  They couldn’t care less.  They don’t use Twitter.  They play around with Facebook, and they’ll text their thumbs off before they’ll actually do something as radical as talk on their cell—but they don’t routinely visit blogs.

Which is pretty discouraging.

So I finally asked the question during the conference: as a YA writer, for whom am I blogging? Straight out, using just those words.

There was this loooonnnngggg pause.

Finally, someone said (and I paraphrase): A YA writer is blogging for the gatekeepers—i.e., teachers, parents, and librarians.

Uhm.  Okay.  Really?  A teacher?  A librarian?  My . . . my mother?

Wow.  I didn’t know that.

So, after I digested that bit of information, I did manage to figure out a couple ways to play around with my blog, which I’ll be trying out in the next couple of weeks.  In the meantime, though, I figured I’d recap some of the other pearls I picked up from an audience of some 80+, very accomplished and dedicated bloggers: librarians, reviewers, pro-bloggers, mommy-bloggers, publishers, publicists, illustrators and authors.  [Oh, and if you want to read a couple of very in-depth recaps, you can access comments here.  For example, while I thought that the talk about various platforms was great—and, if the presenter is correct, a platform may very well dictate your audience—I don’t see the value in outlining the pros and cons of, say, WordPress versus SquareSpace.  Although I did find one editor’s comment about LiveJournal—that it’s a gated community of writers talking to other writers—very interesting.  In that instance, a blogger knows pretty much exactly who her audience is.]

Similarly, while I heard a nice presentation on blog tours, I also talked with several authors who pretty much said that they’d found blog tours to be a tremendous amount of work for very little reward.  (Just what I heard by asking a couple questions; don’t shoot me.)

On the other hand, you could say that a blog tour is the equivalent of bar-hopping: bellying up to the bar, chatting up the regulars while staying sober and then moving on.  So, if you feel that you must do a blog tour, keep in mind are that while many questions can be quite repetitive, your answers can’t be.  No matter how many times you’ve answered the same question, you’ve got to change up your answers.  Also, you can help increase your visibility by coupling your tour to either a cause/issue (say, if you wrote a book dealing with child abuse, you might raise awareness by tying the tour to campaigns against abuse), or a charity.

But this was interesting, too: every single author I talked to said paying someone to arrange a blog tour was a waste of money.  Okay, before you yell at me, remember: just repeating what I heard.  I have no experience with blog tours: never done one, never got asked, hasn’t occurred to me.  Just so we’re clear on that.

So, the pearls:

1.  Self-promotion is a necessary evil. Get over it.

2.  A blog is a conversation.  That means if a reader makes a comment, you need to answer.  Your readers are people, too.  Above all else, be polite; be nice—and do respond.

3.  A blogger needs to know his/her audience.  In other words, audience is key—and audience changes depending on where you are in your career.  What you write for fans will be different than, say, what you might write if your primary audience consists of other writers.  But you must be aware of who your audience is at any one point in time.

4.  Dovetailing on that, a blogger must develop an online persona.  In essence, you craft the kind of person you want your readers to see and make decisions about your posts accordingly.

5. A blog writer should be a blog reader. This turns out to be a big deal because bloggers—especially reviewers and librarians—want to know who and what you’re reading.  They want to know that you’re serious, and you’ve got to demonstrate a working knowledge of other people’s blogs.  That’s fair.  You want to buy a house and fit in?  Bake cookies, pick up after your dog, and get to know your neighbors.

6. In line with that, you need to develop an online presence by commenting on other blogs (which is probably what my editor meant when he said I should join the conversation).  Use the Goggle Reader; comb through the blogs; make a comment here and there, not only to spread your name around but to hear/read/listen to what other people are saying—and respond in kind.  Really, if you want to join a conversation, you don’t just butt in with some comment about the Packers if everyone else is talking politics.  Would you do that in real life?  Of course not.  Same thing here.

7. Develop an online presence, and blogging can make your career.  This was something that Maggie Stiefvater really hammered on in her keynote.  In fact, her publisher elected to start her most recent book tour over the summer instead of the fall and counted on her blog presence—which she’s built up over almost a decade, starting from highlighting her art work to posting a story a week with two other writers—to bring in fans.  Which it did, in droves.

8. Figure out what’s not out there.  This is in-line with what Maggie said at the beginning of her keynote: the world really isn’t waiting for that next big blog.  The world couldn’t care less.  So you must figure out  not only how to join in but stand out in some way, sort of like making a comment that’s actually listened to versus simply chiming in with an oh yeah, like, totally.

9. Anything you write will be remembered forever.  This presumes, of course, that someone reads you.  But you must always behave as if someone is.

10. Blogs should be user-friendly: easy to navigate, self-explanatory, tidy.

11. For YA and kid authors, in particular, there are ways to participate with fans that don’t involve leaving your house or driving across country.  For example, you can Skype into a classroom.  (In fact, I talked to one librarian about doing just that.)  You can do a chat.  Let tech be your friend.

12. This was kind of interesting: don’t make blog posts TOO long.  Only dedicated, fascinated readers will persevere to the end.  How long is too long?  Beats me.  But here’s what I figure: blogging is a little bit like submitting a story to an editor.  I know a couple editors who both love and hate when a writer hooks ’em because then the writer’s made them spend time they haven’t got, damn it.  So, in a way, it seems to me that blogging is not a time for a writer to get lazy.  This goes back to making readers care about what you have to say—and why blogging can also be a HUGE time-sink, which leads me to:

13. If you’re not careful, blogging will take over your life.  Now, no presenter actually said that; this was something I picked up by eavesdropping between panels.  (Yes, I was the woman in the funky orange top pretending to be über-fascinated by that utterly incomprehensible painting you’all were standing next to . . .)  As with anything else, if you’re going to blog, remember that while a blog is product, it is product that no one is paying you for.  Now, obviously, if you collect related posts and make a book out of them, that’s not true.  But, by and large, you are spending time blogging, and time is money, so budget accordingly.  Think of blogging as an investment of your time and resources.  A couple of coins every few days will probably yield a greater return than one huge bolus of cash.

12. And, oh yeah: If you don’t think you have the time or aren’t comfortable blogging, don’t.  Really.  Your lack of enthusiasm will be all-too painfully obvious.

So, there you go: some pearls.  Like I said, if you disagree with some, don’t yell at me.

Okay, blog time’s up.  I got a book to write.

Oh, but before I forget: those kick-ass Jeffrey Campbell boots?  Too big.  Quelle bummér.

Now to find a size 7 in distressed brown . . .

When You Can’t Say No

Stephen King does a fabulous review of a new Raymond Carver biography and volume of Carver’s stores, restored after being eviscerated by Esquire‘s then-editor, Gordon Lish. (This isn’t the first time this issue has come up either; the NYT has made this charge before and the restored, Lish-less stories are VERY different.)

Whatever the truth, King (correctly) highlights what can happen to a writer’s work if you just can’t say no to an editor–or, rather, keep saying yes. As King writes: “a good editor should improve the writer’s work by doing a number of useful things: posing questions the writer should have answered and didn’t, suggesting places where thematic concerns can be reinforced to make a more pleasing whole, and pointing out (gently) infelicities of language. What an editor should never do is superimpose his or her own beliefs about style and story on the author’s work. An editor should be an expert midwife, not a surrogate parent.”
Heinlein once said that a writer should never rewrite except to editorial demand.  Dean Smith gave me his own caveat to that Heinlein-ism: and you agree.

I have been fortunate to have a series of expert midwives.  My Carolrhoda editor has been both exhaustive and thorough and, best of all, respectful.  He has been, as King would have it, gentle–and gently unsparing when it’s counted.

Now, what’s also very interesting about the whole Carver debacle is that Lish is also a writer and very much alive. You have to wonder what’s going through his mind–and if he’ll have a response.

Well worth the read, folks.

Currently reading: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness