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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

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Believable Fiction

Fact can be stranger than fiction, but readers tend to have a low threshold for the unconventional in fiction. Writing believable stories requires writers to play into what’s expected. How far you can veer from that depends on who you’re writing for and how willing readers are to play along.

In grad school, my fellow students were interested in my stories about gay characters, but more than a few times, they questioned whether audiences outside of a workshop setting would believe, or even understand, the stories. I guess they weren’t paying attention to the emergence of queer characters and issues in popular entertainment. Ellen DeGeneres had recently come out; Will and Grace had started its run. To be fair, these weren’t very impressive accomplistments. DeGeneres’ show tanked after she came out, and Will and Grace simply moved the long tedious tradition of gay caricature into the foreground. Still, it should’ve been pretty obvious that my stories didn’t reflect a murky subculture hidden from the mainstream.

The responses I received from them gave me a useful lesson in how readers think. They wanted something somewhat familiar. Even readers who are writers (and consider themselves to be enlightened, worldly, etc.) want what they want and are harder to sell on much else.

They also often revealed what they’d be willing to do to get published. Presumably thinking one of my stories was worthy of such an honor (with some work, of course), someone suggested that the characters didn’t really need to be gay. “I mean, is this a particularly gay situation? This could be any married couple.” I told him that was precisely the point, that I wanted to show that gay relationships could be remarkable for something other than the gender of the partners, and he looked at me blankly as he told me that in fiction sometimes it was necessary to sacrifice fact for truth.

He was repeating common advice: not to let facts become obstacles to telling a story, i.e., just because something happened a certain way doesn’t mean it’s going to work for the story. However useful this advice may be in most instances, it did not address my situation. I don’t believe it’s productive to write about straight people when the characters are gay.

Relationships are key in most stories, because characters are important, and plot tends to have a lot to do with how characters relate. The complexities of real relationships can be messy and confusing. I think it’s the strangeness of such complexities, rather than any particular aspects of identity, that readers and writers have trouble with. They’re torn between a desire for a neatly wrapped story and a sprawling mess that reveals their experiences. Striking a balance–that’s always the challenge.


2 Responses

  1. What a true realization! Thanks so much for posting.


  2. Weird. I had THIS VERY CONVERSATION yesterday. Synchronicity.

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