The Realities of Getting Real

Fair readers, sometimes I love things that are not good for me. We’ve all been guilty of this, I know, but it’s something I needed to say. You see, I’m not just talking about my obsession with The Vampire Diaries or my desire to wrap all foods in bacon. No, I’m talking about something far more detrimental: Contemporary Fiction.

(I’ll wait for your gasps to die down and the thunder and lightning to stop.)

I know what you’re thinking, “You seem so intelligent, Sarah! Why would you devote yourself to something that will never bring you happiness or wealth?”

It’s true. I’ve often wondered this about myself too, but friends… I just can’t stop. I love contemporary fiction and I need to continue my quest of saving it from the vampires, demons, and shapeshifters, even if it means starving to death or wearing clothes from last season.

Contemporary fiction (also known as realistic fiction) is a tough sell, made tougher by a surge of paranormal hits and a lousy economy. (Yes, the economy, and publishing, have both recovered significantly since 2008, but, well… you know publishing. Slow, slow, slow.) Publishers just aren’t taking as many chances with real life anymore. I’m specifically talking about contemporary YA here, but it’s true on the adult side as well. Real life just isn’t exciting enough… or something. Well wait – we all know that isn’t true. So what is it about contemporary life that makes publishers back away?

Well, for starters, there’s usually very little “wow” factor in real life, and when money is tight (as it’s been in publishing, particularly in the last three years), you don’t waste your time and funds on something that won’t draw a massive crowd. Remember that authors need to earn back their advances before anyone sees any real profit, so choosing who to give those advances to is a much more difficult decision than it used to be.

Does this mean you should make your main character have super powers instead of athletic ability? Or make the love interest a demon hunter from another dimension? No! Absolutely not.

Contemporary fiction, even in YA, is on its way back to the mainstream. Debut authors like Steph Bowe (Girl Saves Boy), Kody Keplinger (The Duff and the upcoming Shut Out), and Kirsten Hubbard (Like Mandarin) are all examples of really great realistic fiction for teens. And yes, I said debut! And yes they received real advances for their first novels! There are others like them too. This gives me hope for the genre, but these novels are not yet the standard. Rather than taking their place beside the wide selection of similar titles on bookshelves, these books still fall under the category of “defying the odds.”

So how can you defy the odds? I’ve written before about how to reap all the benefits of a paranormal bestseller without actually writing one. But there are other ways to make your realistic novel stand out just by focusing on the way you write it.

1. Boil your plot down to one sentence. Maybe two.
Plot answers the question “What is your book about? Be able to answer this question in one sentence. Ideas, themes, character development, and even narrative are not plot. Plot is just what happens. Keeping your one-sentence plot in mind, build a story around it. This is where you can be as commercial or as literary as you like. Want to throw around $100 words and write lavish nature scenes in which the rain is a mirror for the main character’s soul? Do it! It will probably be beautiful. Just remember to stay on point and not stray too far from that one magic sentence – your plot. (The magic part of the sentence is also called your “hook,” a word I hate, but one that is very necessary in regards to how your novel is perceived.)

Note: Ideas, themes, and character development might not be considered part of the plot, but they can be used in your 1-3 sentence pitch to give it a little pizazz 🙂

2. Have an original concept.
This sounds like the type of advice that should go without saying, but “coming-of-age” stories (for example) tend to center around very similar topics: loss of a parent, going on a “life-changing” trip, losing one’s virginity, growing out of your former BFF and meeting a new BFF… these have all been done and done and done. This doesn’t mean they can’t still be done. But it does mean you’re going to have to find a really fresh angle from which to tell this story. Sometimes this means an inventive writing style or unique settling. Most other times it means having a truly memorable character that literature cannot live without, no matter how “common” his or her story is.

Remember when I told you it’s OK to not be so original? Think of the above-mentioned plot scenarios as outlines. Your main character attempts self-discovery by going against a shy, quiet nature and heads to the Australian outback for spring break. He or she meets someone amazing [friend or love interest]. What else happens? Give your character an amazing adventure/purpose that highlights what this experience means.

3. Kill your darlings.
You wrote amazingly realistic scenes involving your main character and people who are less important to the plot. Your dialogue between characters is funny, moving, and real in a way that makes Aaron Sorkin himself weep with jealousy. Your settings are eloquently presented, your subplot can stand on its own, and your seemingly tangential character quirks rival the likes of David Foster Wallace and his footnotes.

But does any of that gorgeous writing slow down the pace? Make character development get lost in a sea of words? Create a subplot that never connects to the main plot?

Tightening up your narrative is the best way to make your story come through, but tightening language in this particular way can be hard, especially when you know you wrote something that’s really, really good. (I hate when I have to do this to my clients!) Making your manuscript stand out in a largely ignored genre means making sacrifices.

I’ve met several editors who share my love of the contemporary, but even still, it’s not always up to just them. Your manuscript goes through a lot of hoops, and many of those upper-tier rings still have “high concept!” “paranormal!” “dystopian!” on their brains. I fight on the side of realistic fiction, and it makes me, and other lovers of the contemporary, underdogs. I love my paranormal still too, don’t get me wrong. But there’s just something about real life that never stops being compelling, even when it seems mundane. So, no, this quest will never make me rich. And, yes, I’m setting myself up for lots of disappointment down the road. Like I said, sometimes I love things that are not good for me. But whatever, bacon is delicious.

Parental Units in Fiction

Question of the day –

Assuming you’ve encountered a book where the main character’s parents actually remained alive, whose parents would you most like to have had growing up?

Note: aunts and uncles raising the main character as their own do not count.

I want to say the Weasleys, but I think I’d grow impatient with Molly and her overbearing ways. I’d also want Atticus Finch as my dad, but again… I’m without a mother. What gives, fiction? Why are your moms unacceptable to me? Can I borrow Joyce Summers even though she’s not literary? Mother Goose, perhaps? Sigh.

What say you, friends?

Inspiration & Motivation

To my fellow writers… 

Yes, I say “fellow” because I am in the process of reclaiming my roots in creative writing. I’ve been so busy thinking my MFA was useless and not worth the debt, that I haven’t thought about actually using it. While my go-to style is personal essay, I’ve been trying my hand at (gulp!) fiction. It’s pretty terrifying. Right now my idea is heavily based on a friendship I had in high school, and, as expected, the sections that come more naturally to me are scenes involving those two characters. I find I’m less motivated to write the straight-fiction parts, which will account for 75% of the novel. 

The easy solution is to make this a memoir, but then I’d be stuck with having to make it truthful, and frankly, this story would be very boring if I start and end it where it did in real life. I want to take it further and explore areas in that time period without having to worry about things like facts. The only problem is – I just can’t make myself sit down and write it.

I’m curious about what happens after the inspiration. It’s hard enough finding a muse and putting an idea down on paper. But, once you finally map out where you want to go, what makes you get in your car and drive there? I apologize for the weak metaphor, but you see what I mean. Any advice out there for me or to the other writers out there?

One last word on MFAs – despite my gripes, I don’t regret getting one. I know being in the program made me a better writer and I definitely learned more in those two years than I did in the four years I studied creative writing before that. However, they are expensive!!! I do not suggest going for the MFA right after college unless you are 100% certain that the only career for you is “author.” Even then, they’re not super necessary, but you do meet some great professors (many of whom have connections) and form a decent writing circle that will be super necessary later in your writing life.