Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Why REALITY is All the Rage

When James Frey couldn’t sell his excellent story (A Million Little Pieces) as fiction, he presented it as nonfiction and it sold with an explosive marketing campaign. What followed was Oprah’s endorsement and NYT bestselling status until...

A website called The Smoking Gun exposed it as fictional, after all.

Every story has some of the writer’s reality in it. But if you label it non-fiction, you should stick very closely to documentable events. Where you take liberties, such as name changes to protect people or omissions for the sake of expediency, you must acknowledge this right off the bat.

Even when reading fiction, the reader wants it to be real. We secretly think that though the writer states this is a work of fiction, it’s *likely, mostly, basically, please-be* a true story.

This is why the how-to books admonish not to start a story with a dream sequence or a flashback. A reader invests in what is happening, only to find out it was just a dream or something that happened long before the main narrative. Na-ah. Not nice. Don’t do it to them.

Readers want that “happening now” feel, an exclamatory phrase CNN uses with abandon. It is much easier to sell a story if the storyteller prefaces it with BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

Long ago, the sight of an old Victorian house in an adjacent town inspired me to imagine a ghost story that could have occurred in it. Actually, I based the story on something a friend told me did happen to the family that lived there.

The next time I walked by with my kids, (then five and eight years old) I told them the story. Don’t be alarmed, it was a kid-friendly version. They were riveted.

{Full disclosure: photo is not that very house^ but one very similar looking J}

Then the question came. “This I a true story. Right, Mom?”

The way they phrased the question begged me to lie. But they were my kids, not some nameless unseen readers. I told the truth.

“Well, no. I made it up. But the house inspired it.”

The instant deflation of their spirits testified to how much it mattered.

There are ways to sort of get around this.
Think of the lines that precede the first chapter of The Da Vinci Code. It’s a list of two little-known things that are factual, investing the reader in what is a work of fiction.
The Movie (and made for TV series) Fargo begins with “this is a true story,” but phrased in an enigmatic way that works as a disclaimer, too.

Because if we are to follow a narrative we need to believe it. At the very least, we need to have our incredulous nature suspended for the duration.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018


“Nothing worth having comes easily”
Theodore Roosevelt

Ever wonder about stories of worldly success that went something like...

 “I wrote it in an afternoon and knew a friend of a friend of an editor, so I passed it on to them never thinking about it amounting to anything and was surprised a week later to have an offer of publication. The rest is history.

From the writer of a children’s classic picture book.

"I was working selling shoes when I became an actor after a talent agent approached me one rainy afternoon, and a few months later I became a movie star never having imagined my life would go anywhere near such, and the rest is history."

 From a forty-year acting career veteran and much $$$ later.

 "I never thought of myself as an inventor. I accidentally mixed some ingredients in the kitchen while making a failed birthday cake for my dog, and wound up with something the whole world needed, and the rest is history."

From A Nobel Prize winner

If you don’t know these stories, you haven’t been to the movies in a very long time, and possibly avoid reading fiction, also.

I think we all secretly live with such fantastic hopes for ourselves, even as they are not the way it usually goes. (That's an understatement.)

I don’t think that if it came easily it isn’t worth having. That thinking is too puritanical, even for me.

But I think a creative worthwhile life begins when you can let go of this sort of narrative and make the assumption that it just ain’t so.

That’s when I get to work.

“The work praises the person”
An Irish saying

Tuesday, September 11, 2018


This Day in History

Any day before a reader was born is history.

If you write stories for children, (which, to me, means young readers/listeners up to the age of fourteen) September the eleventh two-thousand and one is history.

There are already some good Kidlit books that either tell of that day, or have it in the background of a story. I wrote one such, and my agent wondered if it was too soon. Less than six months later, a whole slew of children’s books came out telling of that day. It was not too soon.

It was a seismic shock for the United States, one whose reverberations are operational today. We fear depicting the religion in whose name the perverted individuals chose to act, because many innocent adherents should not be implicated. But if we tippy-toe around that, we can’t tell the story of that day honestly.

And if we tell it honestly, how do we tell it to a child?

For my grandparents’ generation, there was another day that lived in infamy. It was the day where Pearl Harbor, where most of the United States navy was docked, another nation whom we did not provoke chose to decimate the American fleet in a few hours.  Listen to the then president of the United States speaking to the nation here. Franklin Roosevelt said it clearly: December seventh nineteen-forty-one, a date that shall live in infamy.

The country of Japan is an ally now, after we defeated it. Few kids know that date. But it would not be farfetched to say that the events of that day are still reverberating in all we think, feel and do today.

I don’t know what we should do about nine-eleven, except that I am sure we should write about it, and tell young readers what happened. Best to do it with riveting stories, preferably engrossing fiction where imagined characters live through real events, because these are the stories kids read out of school.

Someday, through the haze of the passing time, we will not fear naming the perpetrators. We’ll be breaking bread with their grandchildren, and together we’ll confront new challenges.

But for now, today, nine eleven is still a date that lives in infamy.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018


*Note to self

Blogs are dying. Lack of visitors has made many bloggers become former bloggers.Not only this blog, but other personal blogs.  

The survivors are specific aggregators of useful information (think make-up tips, relationship advice, celebrity gossip, none of which I happen to be a user)—these blogs, when well done and their authors work hard at gathering followers, are doing well.

But not the sort of blog I so reluctantly launched seven years and three-hundred and fifty plus posts ago.

There are times I wonder if I should continue, or let it sit inactivated but not deleted, like so many still on my Reading List. There they sit and stare like the Egyptian Sphinges (plural of Sphinx) by the pyramids of Giza.

Only these mysterious beings get plenty of visitors who come daily to return their frozen gaze. Maybe the analogy isn’t the right one.

Some months ago, one of the personal blogs I really like and follow had the author state that one of her mood lifters is remembering to do things that make her happy, like writing in her not-much visited blog.

I, for one, am glad she does. But the key was that it makes her happy.

Works for me. So I’m still here.