Did I mention that I'm writing a full-on science fiction novella that may even grow into a novel? It's a noir kinda thing, set in a dystopian future Los Angeles. (It's not Blade Runner. That's the first thing people think when I say it, but I'm keenly aware of that, and I've taken the appropriate world-building steps to make sure it doesn't go there.) It's been ridiculously fun to write, which is good, because the joy I'm experiencing while I discover new and entertaining things about my world and my characters is (barely) holding the voices of Self Doubt and all of its friend Performance Anxiety at bay.
A lot of what I'm going to write in this post is probably obvious to more experienced writers, and will feel like real duh stuff to a lot of you, but I hadn't really thought about any of this stuff until a couple weeks ago, and I thought that I'd write it anyway, because it may be useful to someone else out there. I'm going to talk about the differences I've discovered between non-fiction and fiction, and one of the key differences between short and long form writing. Hopefully, sharing my own experiences will help dispel fear for some other newbie writers.
In narrative non-fiction, I know the entire story, and when I find a lull, I just look around in my memory for something that can keep the story interesting until the next thing happens. I know how it's going to end, so I have a certain amount of security while I'm writing, because I know where I'm going.
In fiction, I have no idea what's going to happen until it's actually happening. I mean, I have a basic outline, and I know that I have to get the guy from point A to point B, but everything that happens along the way is a mystery to me until I write it. This is really scary at first, but eventually it becomes pretty cool.
I remember asking Roger Avary how he ended up with the Gimp in Pulp Fiction. He told me that he crashed the cars together, had Marcellus chase Butch until Butch found a store to duck into, and . . . well, there was a Gimp in the basement. I was inspired by that, and I've never been afraid to let my imagination go nuts and lead me to unexpected places when I'm creating stories. (Note: so far, I haven't found a Gimp in any of my stories, but I suspect that he's sleeping, somewhere, waiting to be woken up.)
In some regards, fiction is more fun than narrative non-fiction, because I can do whatever I want; I'm not constrained by what really happened, so when I think, "That was cool, but wouldn't it be better if this happened?" I can go ahead and write that. For example, in this story I'm working on now, I had my main character, Charlie, walking up the street on his way to someplace important, and when he stopped at a red light, he was suddenly surrounded by a group of teenagers who tried to mug him. How he dealt with that revealed a lot to me (and the reader, eventually) about who Charlie is. I didn't know what he was going to find between his office and his destination when he left, but I trusted my brain to kick something interesting or entertaining (or both, if I was really lucky). It took a few fitful stops and starts, but I eventually ended up with something cool, because I was willing to find the Gimp, if that's where the scene wanted to go.
Not having a clear memory to draw from can be super intimidating, though. Yesterday, I knew that Charlie was going to this building, but I wasn't sure what he'd find when he got there. It's not the most important scene in the story, but it's something I need to have so I can logically move the plot forward. I had a couple of different ideas, so I chose one of them and wrote it down to see how it worked. It was a decent scene, with some nice dialog and a few turns of phrase (noir, it seems, is all about the turns of phrase, like, "The only place you could find an honest cop in this town was in a history book at the central library.") but it didn't feel right to me. In fact, Charlie actually said to me, "This isn't what I expected to find. . ." and I knew it was wrong; I'd have to throw it out, and start over.
I went for a run, and after a couple of miles, I figured out why it was wrong. By the time I got back to the house, I'd figured out what to write in its place.
Want to see how different the two bits were? Here's part of what I wrote first:
His work address lead me to a two story tan colored building with an empty loading dock down the right wall. It was in an industrial park that didn't have too many tenants. The parking lot was empty, short weeds growing up through cracks in the asphalt. As I crossed it, I saw there were several flyers jammed between the smoked glass doors in front.
Where this guy Charlie is looking for works isn't that important, because [spoiler]. But having Charlie find an empty building just wasn't right, and when he told me that, I rewrote it:
A few minutes later, I walked down a well-landscaped path toward a five story mirrored glass building. A few workers with badges affixed to their shirts stood in the shade of a tree, their eyes staring into infinity while they talked to each other through cochlear IM devices. They ignored me as I passed.
Glass doors opened automatically, and I entered a spacious lobby in a two-story open atrium.
Neither one of those excerpts is final draft material, but I'm willing to share them to make my point. Those are two completely different settings, aren't they? I mean, they couldn't be more different, unless I put on my robe and wizard hat in one of them. Maybe when I'm more experienced, I know that the first way was wrong, and not invest half a day writing a scene that I can't use, but I learned a lot from the effort, and I think I can rework the first try into a different part of the story later on, so it wasn't a total waste.
What was my point here? Oh, when I recall something that really happened, I try to capture the feeling and as many details as I feel are necessary to bring it to life, so I pull those out of my memory. It's totally different when I'm making something up, because I'm pulling them out of my imagination, and though the uncertainty is a little scary from time to time, it's also tremendously liberating. (I just realized that this is a lot like Neil Gaiman's Trudging Through Fog thing. See? This is all real duh territory, isn't it?)
Okay, this is way too long and rambling already, so I'm going to wrap up with the key distinction I've discovered between short form and long form writing.
The hardest thing to get used to is working all day and not having a completely finished work that I can publish. Some days, I get 500 words and others I'll get up to 3000, but my target is between 30000 and 40000 words for this story, so it's impossible to finish it in one go. I've had to retrain myself to be happy with different milestones than I'm used to, and -- hardest of all -- I have to trust myself to keep on going without any outside feedback until the thing is done, when I'll find out if it's worth a rewrite, or just a good learning experience that gets filed away in Time Machine.
I'm excited about this story, though, and that's carrying me through every day, especially the frustrating ones. I want to know what happens, and I want to see how Charlie handles all the obstacles I know I have in store for him. The world I've built is fun to explore, too, though I have to be very careful not to get seduced by high concept, big idea stuff that distracts from the story.
Anyway, Charlie has a meeting to attend, where he's going to learn something pretty important, so I guess I should stop writing here and get back to the future.