Thursday, 26 May 2011

Truer than Truth - Part Two

As a novelist, I’m often challenged by readers over credibility issues. The bits of the novel they don’t believe are always the bits based most closely on real life. This has become such a problem that I now know, if I base part of my fiction on real events – even if they happened to someone other than me – that part of the story could strain credulity and readers might reject it. (Increasingly I’m trying to steer clear of factual raw material. It just fails to convince when read alongside fiction. This paradox delights me and I’m hoping one day someone will explain it to me.)

When starting out as fiction writers, we have to learn the difference between something being true and something being convincing. Student writers often think a faithful, unflinching account of real-life events and feelings is enough to make something readable, even publishable. This is not the case. This kind of writing is therapeutic. It may be truthful, but it probably isn’t publishable. It might not even be readable.

Arguably, all writing is therapeutic to some extent and most writers begin writing therapeutically, but we need to move on from there if we’re to develop our writing skills, especially if we seek publication, because truth is stranger than fiction.

If you find the idea of modifying truth difficult, think about raising money for a charity and the photographs or news footage you might use in your campaign. You wouldn’t use material so upsetting that people would turn the page of the magazine or switch channels. You want to disturb, but not repel. Unvarnished truth might not serve your purpose.

This isn’t a cop-out, it’s careful mediation. If we record “undigested” truth in therapeutic writing, its therapeutic value exists only for the author, not the reader. We aren’t writing for an audience, but for ourselves. This might be a good starting point for fiction, but it cannot be the ultimate goal because truth doesn’t necessarily convince readers or editors.

Personally I’ve found the reverse to be true. I wrote a novel, STAR GAZING with a congenitally blind heroine and much of the story was told from her blind “point of view”. Many readers have assumed I must be blind or partially sighted, or at least have someone in my family who is. I’m almost embarrassed to confess this is not the case. I don’t even know anyone who is blind or partially sighted. I made it all up.

When I wrote my first novel EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, I wanted to use my own experience of mental illness as raw material, but I decided to fictionalise that experience completely. (This was no hardship - it had been bad enough living my life; I certainly didn’t want to write about it. But I did want to tackle the issues.) As a consequence I managed to avoid some common first-novel pitfalls by thoroughly “digesting” my experience, to the extent that the story was no longer recognisable as my life and the heroine no longer recognisable as me.

It was only after I’d finished writing EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY that I realised I’d rejected veracity in favour of emotional authenticity. This is, in my opinion, an essential creative process if the raw material of our lives is to be transformed into readable fiction. Paradoxically, fiction can tell truer truths.

The job of fiction is to transmit feeling, not information. If a reader is to believe (or suspend disbelief), truth must be edited and presented in the best form to do the job.

That is what good fiction is: true lies.

1 comment:

  1. How many times do we read a news report and say "if you read that in a novel, nobody would believe it!" The best meals I've ever cooked have been inspired by recipes, not recreations (I wish!) of Delia's or Jamie's or Nigella's sumptuous delights. Surely the same is true of fiction - better to be inspired by experience than attempt to imitate.