Thursday, September 24, 2009

If My Life Were a Novel

Olivia Williams in Miss Austen Regrets - an excellent film about the later part of Jane Austen's life. I always like to think if she chose a book she could step into and live, it would have been Persuasion.

If My Life Were A Novel:

1. I could charge through to find out if I end up happy,

2. and then I could write up an outline and fix all the things that never made any sense

3. I could spend pages and pages on one delicious moment in time focusing on one or two details that send shivers down my spine

4. I could go back and change my words

5. I could make mistakes and know they'll probably be redeemed later

6. I could get feedback on every. single. word. event. moment

7. I could know what the other people in my life really think of me

8. I could relive the best moments over and over, and tweak them to make them even better

9. I could cut out all the boring crap where nothing happens, like cleaning the kitchen and laundry

10. I could have flashbacks where every detail is crystal clear and has something to do with an event that's just about to change my life,

11. and then I'd get rid of the flashback because they almost never work when I write them

12. Everybody would be amazed by my layers of expertly woven symbolism and metaphors

13. I could sum up my life in one really important blurb that makes me sound like the best thing you'd ever want to read,

14. and you could read me over and over again and keep me on your shelf

15. I would never die, even when my life ended

Who in their right mind wouldn't want to write a novel? But I think one of the most important things to remember when we put that pen to paper, or our fingers to the keys, is that novels are usually not meant to portray real life. They. Are. Fiction. Even if it's a memoir or an autobiography, we don't include the boring details that have nothing to do with the point. There must always be a point. Every scene, every line, every word needs to move the plot and characters forward. If it's something experimental or postmodern, there still needs to be a point, even if nothing happens or moves forward.

I try to remember these things as I'm writing and revising. My readers don't care what the room looks like unless it matters. They don't care what a character looks like unless it matters. No matter how important it may seem to you, or how vivid it is in your mind, please don't put it in unless it accomplishes something productive.

I've talked about this before on several occasions, but even for me, even when I hear it over and over, I still throw meaningless things into my work. It's probably why I can usually cut my 102-thousand-word novel down to 70-thousand. Stupid details are okay for me with a first draft, but after that, they've got to go. If I only I could do that in real life.

Question For the Day: If you could live your life like a novel, what would be the best part for you?

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. I love this post, though I expect if our lives were truly novel, and if you did all the things you listed, the one thing you wouldn't do is LIVE.

    As much as I would like to have a life like a novel, our very humanity depends on our life experiences, the mistakes we make and what we choose to learn or not learn from it.

    But if my life were a novel, I would love it to be like the kind of stories that are in my head - where the heroine gets lots of problems, but she always wins in the end, and of course she always has support and love of her life, and quite often fantastic powers.

  2. Revisiting the good parts, and most especially the life-changing ones. I'd love to have a transcript of the conversation I had with my best friend the night we decided to move to Virginia, the last time I saw my dad, or the phone conversation I had with my now-not-then husband when he called me out of the blue after we hadn't spoken in five years.

    Often in the moments that were most life-changing, I didn't know they were until later, when I wished I'd paid more attention.

  3. Nice post, Michelle. The thing that confounds me is how anyone decides what's interesting and relevant in a story. I'll bring up Tolstoy again. In Anna Karenina, he includes pages about farming. If I were to write his story, I wouldn't have done that, and yet when I read it, I love it. I do wonder if he was self-indulgent in that regard. I wonder if he was only trying to please himself, and that HAPPENS to be what I also appreciate. I think what you're saying in this post is absolutely true, and I think one of our jobs as a writer is to be sensitive to what is interesting to read intuitively since there isn't always logic to rely on.

  4. I'd love to delete the boring details like dishes and laundry, too. And to be able to jump to the exciting things, like writing. That would be sweet. Oh, well. We can dream. That's what we do, after all. ;)

    Lynnette Labelle

  5. Great Post and similar to one I'm doing for tomorrow or next week (whenever I find the time) about how many of the little details - eye color, hair, clothes, etc. - are essential.

    As for what part of a novel . . . well, the happy ending, of course!


  6. Lost Wanderer: Hah, you're so right. Most of what happens to us happens in the meaningless mundane details, I think. The fast, fleeting moments of realization that slowly add up to a huge moment. For me, anyway.

    In the end, really, I wouldn't want a life like a novel. It would be extremely dramatic and short!

    Michelle: I loved reading your comment. It's so true that we don't know those moments when they're there. Reflection is usually the only thing that reveals them. Sometimes, though, I do know they are coming. Like when I gave birth to my daughter and held her in my arms for the first time. I paid attention to every detail because I knew it would be something I would want to remember forever.

    If only I could anticipate every life changing event like that!

    Davin: This makes me think of Scott's recent post about self-indulgent writing. I do think, though, that if there are passages in a novel that are there mainly because the writer is just putting something in for pure fancy, that it's possible it can still serve a point. Notice how I say "unless it accomplishes something productive..."

    For instance, Scott's eel section in his book. That was just beautiful. It might have not worked where he had it, but if it works in another section, it's a great spot to include details that strengthen the character, and even the narrative on some levels.

    You're right, though, it's absolutely confounding how anyone decides what's interesting and relevant.

    Lynnette: Yes, we do dream, that's for sure!

    Scott: Do you mean the little details are essential, or aren't? I think they're essential if they're strengthening a character, if they mean something to another character, etc. I often put in eye color, and sometimes I wonder if I need to. What's interesting is that I never even describe one of my main secondary characters. Ever. Not one description of him except that he's young looking. And that's super vague. But I don't think he needs a description. Especially his eye color. Nobody cares what color his eyes are, even me.

    We seem to be on the same wavelength lately with post ideas!

  7. i think for me, i would take a languid pace to go back through my life up until now...really analyzing the tough parts. what made that situation hard? how did i handle it? was that the right way or wrong way in hindsight? what could i take away from that event that might help me in the future?

    i think it's easy to want to go back to the dogeared portions of a book...the pages that made you happy. but i think learning and gleaning happens in those darkened pages we often want to skip over.

    just my therapist's two cents. :)

    The Character Therapist

  8. The other day I figured out the difference between Real Life and a novel. In fiction, the characters have no choice but to endure their journey. They are driven to the end. IRL, we get "Calls to Adventure" every day, but we wind up watching TV. We have goals and dreams but more likely than not these go unfulfilled.
    Or if we answer the call, we may fail to find a mentor to help us, or we may "try" something for a couple days/weeks/months/years then give up, and lots of times, the antagonist wins. IOW even if we start a journey, once we encounter too much resistance, we give up.
    If my life were a novel, the reader would be yelling and screaming at me. I'd be the most annoying character of all times. I think this is true of most people. Most people aren't the heroes of their own life story.
    Real stories come from problems we actually take on no matter what the consequences, problems where we feel we have no choice.

    I'd prefer my life to NOT be a novel, because I don't really want to know the ending frankly.

  9. I would love to do things I know I cannot or should not do... like dangerous stunts (skydiving, etc.), traveling the world, going back in time.

    By the way, I love your post! The list was great!

  10. Erin just proved my point...we get the Call to Adventure all the time...but we don't answer it.

    Erin-what's stopping you?
    (Besides the paradoxical impossibility of Time Travel)

  11. Nice post, Lady Glam. I love the idea of reliving the best parts and removing the boring stuff.

    I am glad my life isn't a novel, too many secrets! I kid of course.

  12. Michelle: If my life were a novel, it would be one of those "make your own adventures" with branching plot lines based on decision trees. Then I'd look ahead and see how each branch works out so I'd know which plotlines to follow. Or not. Interesting question. I do not want to either relive or change any of my past, ta awfully, nor do I particularly believe in happy endings. So, I suppose, I'd just want laser beams and flying cars and all the cool stuff they promised me when I was a kid. A sci-fi utopian society. Also, I'd be taller.

    Davin: Tolstoy's generation of Russian writers (and the writers who followed him) didn't so much care about plot as they cared about character, and there's also a long and venerable Russian tradition of writers' published "sketch books" filled with accounts of farming, the countryside, peasants, etc. Turgenov's "A Hunter's Sketchbook" leaps to mind. So Tolstoy's readers knew what they were getting in his books, I think, and it's what they were expecting.

    Each reader/writer relationship has to be negotiated on an individual basis.

  13. Q: If you could live your life like a novel, what would be the best part for you?

    A: That really long chapter where I got to live on campus for ten years go to a ton of frat parties.

    Hey, I'm honest.

  14. I love the picture of that scene. I just have to say. Anywho... On to the actual matter at hand. If my life were a novel, it would go on and on about how talented and wonderful I am. Heehee! No seriously, I think it would circle around the idea of time and talents squandered doing the wrong things or misuse of time. Contrasting the potential with the output. That sort of thing. If there were one scene I'd live over and over, it would probably be of the family sitting around laughing with each other--and that scene does actually repeat itself with some regularity, so that's good.

    Of course, if my life were a novel, I would completely fictionalize it and become a huge success as a writer. Maybe this will happen. *crosses fingers and tries not to waste any more time*

  15. When I first read this I thought, if my life were a novel I'd probably spill coffee all over myself and then I came to the words, "the best part of you..." which leads me to answer: My passion for life.
    ~ Wendy

  16. Jeannie: I like your analyzing idea. It would be nice to have a little more wisdom as I make decisions. Yes, the darkened pages are where I find the most depth, actually! It's like that in life, just not as pleasant.

    Andrew: I want to know how you figured out that difference between Real Life and a novel. That sounds like it could be a good story!

    Yes, I get calls to adventure all the time. It's pathetic how many times I ignore it. I don't want to know the ending, either, like you say. That would probably ruin everything.

    Erin: I would love to do things like that, too, but it just I sometimes think that it's more I want my personality to be more like that, and it's not. That's one of the reasons I create characters.

    So like Andrew asks below, what's stopping you?

    Crimey: Hehe, too many secrets. That's for sure! But I'd at least get to choose which ones are revealed. Maybe. :)

    Scott B.: I love the choose your own adventure idea. It would be nice to have choices like that, and to see which ones are most interesting and exciting.

    I'd be taller, too.

    I agree with you on your response to Davin, especially about each reader/writer relationship being negotiated on an individual basis. I probably wouldn't tolerate Moby-Dick like descriptions about whaling in any other book but that one. Probably because of the time period, the author, etc.

    Aimee: Haha, frat parties. Awesome. :)

    Lois: I love that you recognize the good moments in your real life already. That's a beautiful start to enjoying this journey!

    Wendy: Passion for life is great! I sometimes get so tired out by real life that it's hard to get passionate, but I try. Every day, I try!

  17. Wonderful post. I may have to make my own personal list.

    If I could insert myself into a novel, I would travel back to my younger self, maybe have a Time Traveler's Wife experience or two just so I could observe. But as writers, we sort of get to do this anyway. :)

  18. Probably, for me, the best part would be that all the weird things that happen in my life could be called symbolism, and there'd be some deeper meaning going on here.

  19. Scobberlotcher: I think I need to read the Time Traveler's Wife. Everybody seems to like it a lot. The best part about novels is that I can back and re-experience things. :)

    Dominique: Your comment made me laugh pretty hard! I often think the same thing. It's frustrating to know most everything doesn't have a deeper symbolic meaning all weaving together to create theme and a powerful ending. Hah.

  20. The falling in love. It would happen and be instantaneous. There would be none of the "does he like me or is he just stringing me along?" drama.

    Although I could do without the rip-apart moment of romance in fiction. Just skip over that to the happy ending.

  21. Definitely reliving the best bits and the defining moments because you never know them at the time but in a book you get all the little details.

  22. I like your changing words idea.

    I'd go back and say the right thing, the sensitive thing, the caring thing and never ever stick my foot in my mouth.

    That would be lovely.

  23. It would be a toss up between my internal dialogue and antics with my husband—all very animated, but probably only an interesting read for he and I.

  24. Novice: Yes, instantaneous would be fantastic! Although that's pretty much how it happened with my husband, no joke. It was really weird not to go through all that dramatic stuff. But all the interesting stuff happens after marriage, so the happy ending is just a good beginning. :)

    Alexa: I agree! I love little details. I often overlook them in real life. One of the great things writing has taught me is how to focus more on those details and remember them.

    Tess: Yes, I know you've said you don't believe it before, but I've stuck my foot in my mouth a lot, even if it's just a toe. I just hope I never do it online where it'll be seen and recorded forever!

    JB: LOL! Hey, if it makes for an interesting read for at least two people, it's great!

  25. Very nice post. If my life were a novel I'd want to go back and read the whole thing, maybe skim through the boring parts, but I'd really like to be able to go back and see what I was really like through all my life stages.

    Also, I'd want to go the choose-your-own-adventure route and live out all the choices I have. Sometimes I get down that I can't do EVERYTHING in life b/c deciding something means other things won't/can't happen.

  26. Annie: Yeah, choosing one path means another one isn't traveled, and how much are we missing? I need to live about 50 lives in order to be truly satisfied, hah. There's so much to do and so little time!

  27. Live my life like a novel? Well, I'd have a lot more time in the day... people in novels never seem to sleep, go to the bathroom, clean out the litterbox or vacuum the living room. Heehee. How fantastic would that be???

  28. An interesting concept.

    I don't always know what is important to put in my own novel, let alone someone else's; though I do think someone on the outside has a better view of whats important.

    If my life was a novel, I doubt my idea of what's important would be the same as the view of people important to me. I'm a cynic, and too often focus on the negative as life changing events. I have to agree with Michelle, I miss those points when they're happening. I'm so glad Lady Glamis anticipated her highest point - having a baby - and it turned out as sweet as she'd envisioned.

    So often in my every day life people compliment me on my accomplishments and I think: Why is that person impressed? But I think it goes back to the question of deciding what's important. People watching our lives (or reading about our characters in a novel) have a different perspective on what's important.

    I try to listen to those voices so I don't get lost in the everyday, mundane details.

    Thanks for this post.

  29. Rick: That would be nice. Yup.

    Faith: Exactly. It's all about story and the moments worth living... instead of chores. Hah. Although I think I should take chores over villains trying to kill me.

    Donna: Great comment. It's so easy to get lost in the mundane details, as you say. And I agree that others have such different perspectives that we do. It can really helps shift our own perspective if we listen and pay attention to others we trust.


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