Unreal Fiction

For the past few weeks I’ve been watching Psych (only a little behind the times) because I wanted something light that I wasn’t going to get super invested in (I’m in season 5 now). What I find interesting about the show is the levels of suspension of disbelieve it requires to watch it.

This is not a critique and analysis of Psych and what it portrayed accurately, but rather the attitude about accuracy and the suspension of disbelief in fiction, and here I’ll mostly be thinking of contemporary romance fiction as the genre with which I’m most familiar. We’ve all seen arguments about how accurate and factual a book should be, how much research an author should do, and how stories need to be grounded in reality (if they are contemporary fiction). I’ve even seen it argued that people will use these as tool in their own life, so we’re required to present the facts correctly.

To which a big part of me says…REALLY?

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely understand inaccuracies throwing a reader out of a story, and that is an important consideration. (Ask me about 99% of stories involving horses and people writing them that do not know what they’re talking about.) However, I question how real reality needs to be in fiction. Because the stories are made up (and the points don’t matter), does it matter if something is an accurate portrayal?

To some degree, I think stories have to be grounded in reality because of common knowledge (ie, if you ignore that World War Two happened, the reader isn’t likely to suspend disbelief that far). But for less common knowledge, or facts that toe the line of accuracy for sake of a good story–does it matter that the author diverged from reality?

Can you have a gay romance in a small town where the two mains are both out and proud and receive no backlash? Can you have a story take place in the “now” but ignore that the government is a horror movie and the world’s on fire if you wrote the book in 2020?

Yes, because it’s fiction. (And you can feel free to disagree, but you’re wrong ;P)

Going a step further (and circling back around), can you create a premise that is maybe not grounded in reality but still has its feet on the ground (like, say, a fake psychic solving a ton of cases for a local police station)? Can you fudge the laws of inheritance to create dramatic tension? Can you ignore the reality that half your cast shouldn’t have green eyes? Can you ignore that your uterus-having characters never have to deal with a period? Can you fudge that if someone actually missed work as much as the MC did because of story drama, they’d likely be fired?

Within reason, I say yes, as long as it’s not a glaring issue that will throw the average reader completely from the story and make them unable to suspend their disbelief. IE, the story could happen in a very similar parallel universe.

I’m not judging stories that purposefully keep their stories grounded in reality–props to them–but that shouldn’t make them inherently better in some way. Because these are fictional stories.

That said, the less you can diverge from reality in a book that is meant to take place in the real world’s present, the more real your story may feel. But I don’t think we should tell writers they can’t (shouldn’t) write that story about the professional Mennonite football player (who sends all his big bucks back to his community) and the love he finds along the way, as long as the author can sell the story to the reader.

(Please do not think this post means that I’m excusing stories for being all straight, cis, and white [which doesn’t properly express reality’s diversity]. There’s a difference between changing something for dramatic story telling and ignoring that gravity exists. But I’d also argue most of those stories aren’t actively deciding to ignore a fact and more are just showing their own bias/ignorance. Many of us need to do better. I’m also not trying to excuse stories that actively do harm to people, although that is a fuzzy line and a different debate.)

I need the happy ending

Lately I’ve been trying to read outside the romance genre more, which has been an on-going thing from last year, but it hasn’t seen rousing success, and while part of it is just me not sitting down to read, another key road block is that, well, I’m reading outside the romance genre, and in the romance genre, I’m guaranteed a happy ending.

It’s not that I can’t read stories without them (I have in the past, at least), and it’s not like general fiction/fantasy/sci-fi don’t have happy endings a lot of the time. But in this day and age (hah), where it’s cool and edgy to have dark, unsatisfying endings, I’m incredibly cautious of proceeding. Not because I don’t see the use of some of these types of books, but rather, when I read, I experience the emotions of the book, and if the book is going to be depressing, then it’s likely to trigger a depressive episode, and who wants that?

Unfortunately, I’m not sure how much of this roadblock is in my head (again, because I’ve read LOTS of non-romance stories with happy endings), but I know it’s kept me from finishing Left Hand of Darkness and The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion (which is a novella and I really have no excuse).

A little voice in my head is yelling at me to just read some romance, let myself off the hook, and get some reading done rather than tie myself in knots. But I’m so bad at letting myself off the hook.

We’ll see.

Anyway, I have a horse show this weekend, so wish me luck!

What’s in a Word Count?

The other day I came across a manuscript that was 190,000 words. My mind boggled. That was so long! Most modern manuscripts I see are at max 125,000. But that got me pondering word counts. Is 190K that big?
In it, I learned that Gone with the Wind is over 400K. Wow. So maybe 190K isn’t that big. After all, there are several well-known books on that list that are the same length.
Of course, a few things are different since Gone with the Wind was published in 1936. Television and internet create a world where we either need to keep your attention or lose it to something more immediately entertaining. Not that people can’t/won’t sit down and read 400K, but it’s harder to entice them in and get them to read through it.
I understand completely, as finding time to keep up with all the entertainment and media stuff is hard enough. Who has the time to read something that long. Is it fair to a book that is 200K and a masterpiece that it may never be purchased by a publisher because it’s just not marketable (assuming it can’t be broken into two smaller books that may be more enticing)? Maybe not, but that’s the world we live in.
(Also, as a side note, many of the longer books we’re familiar with were published piecemeal in newspapers (etc) on a weekly/monthly basis where the author was paid per word. So yeah the authors milked that for all it was worth. Plus if you’re only reading a chapter at a time, the length doesn’t seem nearly as overwhelming.)
This post helpfully breaks what lengths should be by genre: https://worddreams.wordpress.com/2010/12/08/word-count-by-genre/
In general it seems fairly accurate, though I think with more progression in the digital age, some of the lower word counts can be moved down. For instance, 75K seems to be a golden number in the books I see. Not too short, not too long. Enough space to flesh out the character and story, but not enough to lose the reader to a billion other things.
Personally, I…have trouble writing that long. Generally my works max out at 50K, if they even get that far. I’m working to develop my writing and flesh out the story/character/senses more, which will hopefully lengthen my word counts (and make the writing more enjoyable in general). For instance, my current WIP has a character who I envisioned in his thirties, but my writer group envisioned much older, because I gave no clues to his age. I obviously need to describe my character more! That will help my writing, yes, but also help me hit the golden word count. (Maybe :P)
My point (yes, I have a point!) is that when we’re writing, we need to keep in mind our genre, audience, etc. Yes, we should write for us, but if we want to be published, keeping in mind these guidelines (not rules or laws, just guidelines) are important. Cheating on some points within a genre may make books harder to sell (but not impossible) to a publisher. Cheating on all of them means a book better blow them out of the water for them to take the (likely) risks.

And this isn’t meant to be preaching or teaching so much as just a reminder to myself. Or maybe just an awareness to keep in the back of my mind. You know, along with all the other crazy stuff.