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Truth and Fiction

truth in fiction Sep 30, 2018

'The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!'

Oscar Wilde.

If you're new to us, welcome to The Novelry. This a place where words are important and serve the story, and we are story-telling animals. We live, breathe and create stories every second of every day. That's what the mind likes to do - it creates connections all the time between past experience and predicts based on not only experience but its vast library of stories, either a tragedy or a happy ending, depending on your mood or inclination.

The Novelry is a place where we learn to write novels better. Together. Side by side.

Part factory, part library, part quiet study, and plenty of revelry. Sometimes we come together, brawny-armed, dark-hearted and vocal and you can hear almost the shouting from the workshop floor at our members' group online. But we live in an era where technology allows us to work quietly too, alone yet side by side, across the globe. There's a quiet strength to honouring our commitments, to exploring our ideas singly yet as a community. Some of our members have a 6am wake up call on their messaging platform where they simply post the emoji of a wave. I think that's very touching. 👋

I think of The Novelry as a belfry calling the busy but faithful back to their place of writing. In my experience, you want to work alone on your book without disruption, but you need the support of others to remind you that just as one good day is followed by a bad day also the reverse is true. Sometimes only a writer pal will do as a sounding board - someone who quietly asks you if those words are really what you mean to say? And that alone makes you think, how it's not enough, not nearly enough to be clever. It's not about that at all.

"If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
"That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all."

TS Eliot.


Is it true, truer, truest?

You will all know my favourite Hemingway quote which I had pinned on my wall when I wrote my first book.

'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.'


But I am regularly brought up short, having been a bit of a ninny and a show-off, when I chose clever over true and that will never do. Either at the story level or the sentence.

Much of our writing has a technical virtuosity at The Novelry. I see a lot of excellent writing. Sometimes it is very hard to put into words one's response to it, luckily we have a sounding board of many many writers, very well-read and very well versed in the craft, so writers can get responses from a range of savvy readers who can help explain - and do so with great gentleness - why it works or doesn't work.

For myself, I can appreciate the clever construction of the words and the smart story but I can't feel anything, sometimes. Why, I ask myself?

There is a punch in the guts that's missing, something terribly true. Often that's only reached with the simplest language:

'He looked at her the way all women want to be looked at by a man.'

F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The issue is tenderness and honesty. The states we reach when drunk, sadly, sometimes. To speak our hearts and hope for a kind reception.

This is the state Fitzgerald and Hemingway and the 'greats' reach and I am sure dear Oscar as quoted above understood this - the purpose of fiction is to deliver the truth we cannot find in real life. Those truthful moments are rare, products of drink or distress. Perhaps this reticence of those writing in the English language hitherto, this pudeur, explains the importance of being earnest, the desire we have to take truth to bed and ponder it and pore the pages of paperbacks to find it.

Technical virtuosity is nothing and it would be better to have none and have honesty.

This made me think hard the other night about my book. I had to face the truth. Hemingway merged with Jack Nicholson somehow to give me a ticking off. 'You're hiding behind a birthday cake thinking that's the thing when you should be looking at the faces of the kids who wish it was their birthday.''

For that is all writing is; eyes open, see the truth, hear the truth, tell the truth. Three monkeys. (Did you know a group of apes is called a Shrewdness?)

Ok, I thought, let's get the hairs standing up again. Let's remember why I used to eavesdrop on my parents as a kid (hoping to hear the truth, to find out what they were saving to tell me when I was older!)

In practical terms this seemed to me to mean that every person in my book must be better than me. Ok, that works. Each gets a major moral promotion as I consider their hidden side, what they want and hope for. Of course, I will still have one unredeemable, who cannot admit to himself what he wants. You need that.

That's a useful first step, but you won't write truthful sentences if your story is merely an out and out fabrication contrived to be clever clogs.

Oh shit. I realized. 'I can't tell this story this way.'

My narrator was a girl. I am not a young woman nor will I ever be again. Then I began to smile, as I thought of taking my new hard-won 'shrewdness' and introducing an older female to the book, much older because one does like to exaggerate to get to the truth. Say - seventy-nine. 

Oh shit, shit, shit, I thought. She can tell it! It will be funny too if I keep her honest and don't ham her up!

Of course, the market may not like it. The market wants books narrated by young people, right? Yes, but this is me, this is my book. Funny, dark and not awfully huge or mainstream. Crap. That is me! And that's what I've got to write.

So no more fuss, my writers, please about trying to be clever or grand. Better to be stupid and hopeful, bad and grateful and tell a little truth rather than none.

Get the story true.  Say to yourself; this is the story only I can tell and I am telling it my way, the way only I can tell it or would tell it.

Then getting your prose true will be much easier. As old Hem said, you simply bleed onto the page. But I fancy a few accidents and a little violence too to get some truth in a red colour onto the page, and I know my new older lady will enjoy that too. 

Happy writing.


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