Monday, November 4, 2013

Why Good Fiction requires as much hard work as Good Nonfiction

This weekend I was going back and forth to the Convolution convention with my friend, awesome writer Lillian Csernica (here I have linked to her blog, which is always fascinating). While we passed the driving time talking about science fiction, fantasy, and romance, she told me about an insult that one of her writing acquaintances had leveled at her half-consciously, so many times that she finally had to call her on it. The insult was this:

Fiction is so much easier to write than non-fiction. You're just making stuff up!

I've never had this said to me, and I'm glad, because I'm not at all sure that I would react well. I've written both nonfiction and fiction quite a lot by this point. They are very different. However, I wouldn't say that either one is more difficult than the other.

Writing nonfiction requires research*. [*NOTE: This does not mean that writing fiction does not! I'll return to that in a moment.] It requires knowledge of the subject matter you are writing about, and it requires the ability to compose an argument effectively. Writing academic papers about empirical research requires a lot of knowledge about how to describe the research, how to talk about the methodology used, how to talk about the way in which one deduced results, etc. It also requires the ability to bring in the voices of other scholars to help back up one's own arguments, and in this way it somewhat resembles conducting a choir. I used to imagine myself waving my baton and saying things like, "And now, Vygotsky!"

Nonfiction does require the ability to organize information and create a narrative arc. This arc in a research paper won't be the same as one in narrative nonfiction, but it's still an arc. It still requires that you take your reader along with you through the "story." And you might be surprised to hear that both these varieties of nonfiction involve a certain knowledge of "show, don't tell."

Writing fiction also requires research, and anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves!

Say you're using a real-world setting of some variety. You have to know a great deal in order to portray that setting accurately. If it's a place where you have lived, your life experience serves as research...but you haven't seen everything, so research into relevant aspects of the place with which you are less familiar is always a good idea. If you haven't lived there - and if you don't speak the local dialect natively, for example - you need to get deep in. Talk to people who do live there. Dig into local history. Go there if you can. It takes a lot of effort to get things right, and readers will notice if you don't.

Say you are using a secondary world, either science-fictional or fantastical. You have to make sure that the world you've created works, and that it makes sense...which is not as easy as it sounds. This is where research on the way that the real world works comes in extremely handy. If the secondary world isn't to come across like large paintbrush strokes on thin cardboard, you have to dig in deeper. That means considering sociology, culture, environment, and all kinds of other factors. More than that, the elements that you will need are not necessarily going to be things we can bring up in our minds readily. It takes research just to know in which areas we'll need to be doing our research! (Which is one of the reasons I keep an index of my worldbuilding topics!)

Placing ourselves within a world that doesn't exist creates an additional challenge inasmuch as we have to work to keep our real-world judgments out of the process of creating the fictional world. Checking the integrity of the created world is an entirely separate step - one that is generally unnecessary for writers who are using the real world. That step is best accomplished through research into the areas of anthropology, psychology, sociology, architecture, climate and culture, etc., etc...

I've seen aspersions like this cast by science fiction writers on fantasy writers, too - but in my opinion they are similarly off-base. It's a parallel to this nonfiction-fiction dichotomy, just to a lesser degree. Put it this way:

Yes, we are making everything up. But we're not making it up randomly (we're making it up brilliantly, through very hard work)!

Some might ask whether created worlds really have to make sense, and really require reference materials in the real world. I would argue that all the best ones do. Even Alice in Wonderland, one of the most surreal pieces of all time, has a sophisticated and subtle grounding in real-world knowledge, and its own special internal logic.

Moral of the story:

Don't let anyone talk down to you, or belittle the work that goes into your creations.


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