Thursday, June 28, 2012

Let's Get Real

Yesterday, Karen wrote an amazing post about deepening the emotional resonance of your prose. If you missed it, scroll down! But today, I'm going to talk about another way to deepen the layers of your story, and that is by writing honestly.

Have you ever read a story and thought to yourself, "Give me a break. That would never happen in real life"? I find this happens a lot with romances because they're so formulaic. And I feel cheated every time I invest in a story, only to realize I've read the exact same thing fifty times. This can happen in any genre. The hero is a little too perfect. The heroine reminds us of a certain curvy plastic doll. And the only thing keeping them from finding what they're looking for is a little self-discovery. A trip to France, and wha-la! Everything is perfect. We're left with that just-ate-too-much-sugar feeling.

I think we have a responsibility as authors to be honest with our audience and honest with ourselves. It's not easy. All too often, when I'm writing, I get this sneaking suspicion that I'm not quite digging deep enough to my heart for the story. Has this ever happened to you? It can be so much easier to write surficial prose and play it safe, writing what we think readers will want to buy.

But is this really being true to our calling?

Writing deep, honest prose is difficult because it requires vulnerability on our part. The critiques, the contest feedback, the rejections all hit us on a more personal level when we've put ourselves, our own struggles, into our writing. But the results are so much more rewarding. These are the stories that inspire, that stick with the reader. These are the stories that change lives.

The following are three ways I think we can be intentional about conveying that vulnerability and crafting better stories.

1) Honest characters. Your characters need struggles as much as they need strengths. I have found that for me, my characters' struggles have to resonate on a personal level with me in order for them to be believable and for me to write these characters honestly. Does that mean every character is an autobiography? Of course not. You would only write one book if that were the case. But we have passions outside of our personal experience. Maybe you never went through something your friends struggled with because someone gave you sound advice, and you feel passionate about giving the same advice to others. Or maybe it's displaying the complexity of a problem or conveying sympathy. But no matter the theme, your characters have to portray that honesty, which takes authorial vulnerability.

2) Honest plot. In real life, people have struggles. Even a lighter story needs to demonstrate this complexity. Oversimplifying things might keep you from squirming too much as a writer, but it will also feel weak to the reader. Your main character doesn't have to be dealing with a terminal illness in order to show a struggle. Maybe she just feels lonely. Or she's got a big crush on some guy who doesn't even know her name. Or her best friend is moving away, and she's trying to put on a strong front even though she's hurting. These things are all ways to show deeper, honest levels of your characters' emotion in a way that comes across as honest to the reader. Try to incorporate these things into your plot instead of going with the first thing that comes to mind. It will endear your readers so much more to your story and leave a more lasting impact.

3) Honest voice. You have a unique writing voice. You may not know what it is yet, but it's there and it's brilliant-- I promise you. Voice comes more easily to some than others, so don't be discouraged if it's not your thing yet. But regardless of how strong you perceive your own voice to be, it's important to realize that for an author's voice to work, it's got to be honest. Otherwise, the line-by-line of your manuscript is going to sound hollow. For example, my writing voice lends itself to comedy. For years, I didn't realize this. As I was working on my M.A., I thought I was a terrible creative writer because I was trying so hard to be literary. But then one day, through the grace of God (literally), it dawned on me that comedy was my thing. Even if you've identified your writing voice, writing in your voice doesn't always come naturally. Things like fear of rejection, too many critiques, and even burnout can get in the way. Sometimes it's really difficult to get in the groove, so to speak. With comedy, I have found that I often get nervous that other people are not going to think I am funny. But when these doubts come, you have to push through. Don't try to hide behind someone else's writing style. Be who you are, because that is who God has called you to be.

Don't be afraid to be vulnerable. Make the first move, and readers will feel comfortable allowing themselves to be vulnerable too. And really, isn't that what good writing's all about?

How have you found honesty to be important in your own writing? What about in the books you read?

Ashley Clark writes romantic comedy with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Julia M. Reffner said...

YES, YES! I love this post! SO SO true! God does want us to be vulnerable so we can minister to others with our writing. And it does hurt like pulling teeth at times.

One author that I think of is Mary DeMuth, probably because she has blogged about this topic so many times and inspired me. There are other authors who do it so well, Gina Holmes, Carla Stewart, and Chris Fabry are a few that come to mind for me.

Unknown said...

Ashley, thanks for a great post! I appreciate your thoughts about writing with honesty. I'm still figuring this out. :) I do appreciate honesty in books I read. I think two authors who do this well are Susan May Warren and Rachel Hauck.

This post is a keeper!

Embrace said...

What a great reminder. I agree with you that some books just feel flat when I read them and then at the end I find myself thinking it was too easy. The heart of the matter was missing. I will keep digging to get to the bottom of the issues in my heart and in my characters.

Lindsay Harrel said...

Oh my goodness, I love this post! Honesty is soooo important to me as a reader. I'm like you--if things are solved too easily or the story isn't believable, I don't like the story. I can't connect with characters who aren't "real." I definitely try to make my characters flawed.

And ah, the elusive "voice." I'll tell you, mine isn't cut out for my MA papers either. I considered going for my PhD in lit, but yeah, decided I'd rather spend my time writing novels than agonizing over some small little slice of literary theory that most people wouldn't ever read. ;) But that's just me.

Ashley Clark said...

Those are great examples, Julia! Thanks for sharing those!

Ashley Clark said...

Jeanne, those are both great examples too! I love Rachel Hauck, and the way she's so skilled at weaving symbolism into honest themes. Thanks for stopping by!

Ashley Clark said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jodi! Isn't it so disappointing when you read one of those books that fall flat? It's like you have such high hopes and then, bleh. What a difference depth can make! Glad you came by today!

Ashley Clark said...

Lindsay, literary theory is such an interesting realm, isn't it? So specialized, it's like its own language!

Anonymous said...

Oh, EXCELLENT post, Ashley! I can't tell you how many times I've picked up a book only to be sorely disappointed by bad prose, shallow and unrealistic characters, etc. The WORST part is the reviews that sell me on a book, the big-ticket names (whose books ARE well-written) who claim the book is worth reading! That's when I really feel taken.... Why does THAT happen?

Ashley Clark said...

You bring up an interesting point, Becky! I feel frustrated when that happens too. I think sometimes authors feel such a connection with other authors that we hesitate to do things like write an honest review or deny an endorsement (not that anyone's asked me to do that personally-ha!) because we feel bad, but in the end, it affects credibility. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!