Nothing New Under the Sun

BlankPageYou know when you find a $20 in the laundry? I was having a hard time coming up with a blog topic for today when I found a post I wrote in early November, on the day I felt like I was coming down with a cold. It is no less relevant today for the month it spent forgotten in my files:

I know this comes as no surprise to the literary among you, but writing fiction is hard. When you write nonfiction, the purpose is generally to explain the truth as clearly as possible. While the best nonfiction writers make their stories interesting, the story is already there, waiting to be told. If you are not the first person to that story, all you have to do is find new information, or present a new interpretation of old facts.

The fiction writer has to pull a plot out of thin air. When I started writing fiction I thought the conventions of genre storytelling would serve as training wheels. But now I wonder if literary fiction might have been an easier place to start after all, because it’s so much less dependent on plot.

Plot is supposed to be the simplest part making up a story. It’s just what happens. There are all kinds of guidelines for it – hero’s journey, escalating and releasing tension. But somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 words, I always seem to find myself knotted up.

Four days into National Novel Writing Month, I realized that my genre story was turning into a series of episodes that did nothing to generate the necessary conflict. I decided to do some reading for inspiration and downloaded one of the books I hadn’t read yet by my favorite romance author, Tawna Fenske.

And there, in the first chapter, was the exact same external conflict I was trying to map out. As a dash of lemon juice on the wound, her hero even had the same color eyes. (Not that eye color was related to the conflict; it just served to emphasize my complete lack of originality.)

‘Oh well,’ I thought to myself, ‘NaNo is just an exercise. This book will conveniently serve as an answer to my very specific question about developing an external conflict.’

Two hours later, my daughter came home from soccer practice to find me on the computer.

“When can I read it?” she asked.

“When you’re a grownup.”

“No, the other story. The one for my age.”

I have also been working on a YA fantasy (currently bogged down at 16,000 words).

“Does it have fairies?” she asked.

I said, “No, but it does have giant spiders.”

Better than a giant spider: Josh Spell with PNB School students in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo © Angela Sterling

Better than a giant spider: Josh Spell with PNB School students in
A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Photo © Angela Sterling

“Oh, you mean like in Harry Potter?”

Long pause.

“Um.”

Sigh.

“Yes, almost exactly like the ones in Harry Potter.”

The old saying is true. There’s nothing new under the sun. And that’s why fiction is hard.

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