I recently took a writing class with David Corbett, a New York Times notable author who’s written numerous novels, short stories and poems, and recently published a book called ‘The Art of Character’. (As an aside, this book is excellent. If you’re a writer, and you’re serious about the craft, you should buy it. Seriously. Now). Throughout the class, David gave me a tonne of great feedback, but there was one phrase in particular that kept coming up in his notes.
“Swing for the fences.”
Swing for the fences? At first, I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. Being a Brit, it’s not an idiom I’m too familiar with. But hey! I’m an intelligent guy, and I quickly worked out that it was probably a baseball reference (I was right) which, applied to my writing, meant: don’t hold back. Go all out. Let your imagination run wild… and take a risk or two.
It’s tricky sometimes, when you’re writing fiction that’s based—however loosely—on real events, because you tend to forget that fiction is not real life, and that you can, and should, make things happen that didn’t happen in real life. And those things can be way more fucked up, outrageous or heart-breaking than the events on which they’re based. Up until a short time ago, I shied away from writing anything I thought was too “far out”, and I often worry that my stories won’t be realistic. This is ridiculous, of course, for any number of reasons—not least because what does “realistic” mean these days anyway? You just need to spend ten minutes watching the news, or chatting to one of your more licentious friends, to remind yourself that the shit that goes on in real life is often way more fucked up, outrageous and heart-breaking than the stuff dreamt up by us writers. Unless you’re Chuck Palahniuk, of course. Or Stephen King. Or David Corbett, for that matter. Much like those writers, then, in order to make your story stand out, you need to go beyond the boundaries of the everyday, mundane reality of things. You need—in other words—to swing for the fences.
The other day, I rewrote a scene for the work-in-progress I’d submitted during David’s class. After I was done, I read it back and thought, wow. That’s really something. In fact, I couldn’t quite believe I had written it. I had done exactly as David urged me and swung for the fences, and it had paid off. Granted, it wasn’t exactly Chuck Palahniuk-fucked up, or Stephen King-terrifying, or even Junot Díaz-heartbreaking. But it was pretty far out—maybe even home-run far—whilst also being wholly believable within the context of the story.
And therein lies the key. Another teacher of mine, Jon Gingerich, once told me that while writing stories based on real events is all well and good, one has to be wary of becoming too attached to these events and putting them on the page simply because they happened that way. “Things that occur in fiction always happen necessarily,” he said, “because the writer is using these elements to yoke some deep-seeded meaning out of them. Whatever happens to your characters happens because the story needs them to reflect the thematic ideas you’re putting on the page.”
By marrying up these two pieces of advice, from two very wise men, I feel like I’m making progress…
Watch this space.