Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Where's Your Naked?

A term I use a lot when I critique other writing is sincere. "This sounds sincere to me," I'll say. Or, the alternative, "This doesn't sound very sincere." I'll admit that it's not the best word to use. Much of fiction is created, and probably all of fiction has at least a few details that aren't actually true. And, even though I've tried to stop using such a vague word in my comments to other writers, I feel that the need for it comes up time and again.

Because, don't you think you can tell when a fiction writer is describing a real event?

A writing teacher once told me a quote that I think about often. She said, "Fiction is the mask that allows you to stand naked in front of your audience." Or something like that. (And, of course I forget who the quote originally came from). But, it's an idea that I have relied on often. I am willing to be more honest with my thoughts and emotions as long as I'm allowed to call what I write fiction.

At the same time, readers read to be entertained. I've been working on my first adventure book, and already I can feel myself caught up in the events of this extremely fictional story. I started it a couple of days ago, and in the first thirty pages, literally all of it came from my imagination. Then, at around page 31, I found an opportunity to rely on my real life experiences. A couple was preparing to do something very difficult, and one was losing faith in the other. Even though the first part of the book had action and drama and magic, I found myself getting truly excited--perhaps in a different way--about this little domestic squabble. This was my naked. This was the real emotion that was peeking through all of the stuff I was creating.

I think when we read, whether we are aware of it or not, something in our brain is always looking for the sincerity in the fiction. The naked. The facts. However you want to call it. For a story to be properly memorable, I think it needs to be the perfect balance of imagination and reality. To filter out the real emotion, the heavy stuff, is to tell a story that won't stay with the reader. To ramble on only about the things that really happened is likely to bore a reader.

So, what do you do with the naked parts of your story? Do you reveal them? Hide them? Consider them unworthy? How do you balance the fun details you are creating with the parts of the story that are actually real?


  1. I always write naked. LOL You know what I mean. I think, like you said, "we're always looking for the sincerity in the fiction."

    Absolutely! You know when something doesn't work, a setting, a verbal discussion/argument, you know as a reader when it's just taken out of the author's head and not his heart.

    I know for me, all my work has elements of 'naked' in them or they won't be believable. Either the setting has to be a place I've been or the people are someone (or a piece of someone) I've known, or the dialogue is a conversation I've had.

    People aren't stupid and they KNOW when the story is contrived. And as a reader that's annoying. As a writer if I didn't use the 'naked' my own integrity would be compromised. Why write something half-a**ed.

  2. P.S. I'm sorry I'm first again. I didn't mean to be.

  3. Davin, this is a great post! I often wonder how sincere I really sound. I try to sound sincere in everything I write, and I know a few pieces in particular that I can boldly say they are raw emotion straight from my heart, and it shows.

    So, what do you do with the naked parts of your story? Do you reveal them? Hide them? Consider them unworthy?

    I used to hide them. I think that as I write more and more and share my work with others, the more comfortable I get with letting the "naked" parts of my story really shine through. Also, keeping a blog where I can share personal things with others has been a huge help.

    How do you balance the fun details you are creating with the parts of the story that are actually real?

    That's so tough. I honestly don't know. I took a creative nonfiction writing class in college, and it literally changed my life. It helped me see that everything we write is actually real - pulled from our own emotions that we've lived and learned. Probably, the more life experience we have, the more "naked" we can put in our work.

  4. Hmm. My biggest writing struggle has always been - still is - standing naked in front of my audience. I can see the difference in my writing when I do it (my writing is, well, sincere) but it's really scary actually doing it. I much prefer imagination! :)

  5. I've found that a lot of my "naked" slips in during dialogue--in the tangents my characters take. It's also in some of the subplots I allow... and the character flaws.

    My sister finally noticed something that I'd noticed early on in my manuscripts--nearly every one of my MCs has some sort of sleeping quirk. They talk in their sleep (which I do) or they have insomnia (which I do) or they have vivid dreams that sometimes come true (which I do.) For some reason, I kept hoping no one would notice--like it was my dirty little secret. I felt very naked when she called and acted like she'd found an Easter Egg on Halloween.

    Of course... now that I've said this, you all know. Stop looking at me! Stop looking at me! Ahhhh....

  6. Great post Davin. You have a great point here. If our writing is insincere, it really comes through. Very soon, our readers have no faith in us or the story and the book is put down. I hadn't thought about the imagery of being naked for the audience (figuratively anyway), but it's an appropriate one. By making sure we are sincere in all of our writing, we allow the readers to believe that the factual information is true and the fictional is possible.

  7. I think this is what gets me about fiction sometimes. That's why I stick (more often) to non-fiction, true life stories... I need that emotion and so many fiction writers don't get it. I love this post! It's a great reminder. And it's definitely fun advice...


  8. I hope I can always put in the reality into whatever I'm writing whether it takes place in this world, the next world, or Mars. I think it's the emotional nakedness that makes all the other stuff (vampires, martians, steam powered computers) more believable. I use what I know to sell what I don't.

  9. Piedmont Writer, no need to apologize for being first. (Or second.) You're right that readers can tell. Whether or not a story is based on facts might not bother someone, but I do think they are aware of it. Just as readers can be aware of bad writing and not let it bother them if the story is good.

    Michelle, it has always been interesting to me that people assume some of my stories are more true than the others. Often, they're wrong, but since I almost always rely on things that are familiar to me, I think what they're picking up on are the particular details I've used in a story. Some things just seem to "feel truer."

    Ann, Absolutely, it can be terrifying! A few months ago I published my first non-fiction story and after it was accepted it suddenly occurred to me that people are actually going to realize that it was true. Just writing about it now still makes me anxious.

    Wendy, that's a great example. I think in that case you are actually writing in the subconscious zone, going with the flow, which for me is often how I access the real stuff. It makes for better writing, even if it's scary!

    Eric, faith is a great word for this topic. Somehow, I think a reader trusts us more if they can see the truth in the story--I think that's what makes fiction so powerful. If they are willing to trust us, if they have faith that we aren't cheating them, they'll follow us deeper into the story.

    Erin, thanks for your comments. What you say here is actually what inspired this post. I do thin that's why people are drawn to non-fiction. It provides more about life. Fiction does that sometimes but not always.

  10. Dominique, you're absolutely right. And, it's interesting to me that I'm thinking more about this now that I'm writing about people with magical powers!

  11. I like this. It's true, and I think the word sincere isn't vague but apt.

    It's great to hear your progress!

  12. This is something I require in all good fiction, but I don't call it sincerity; I call it the ring of truth. There must be, in a good story, something true, by which I think I mean some truth about really being human. What I try to do is not back away from the things people try to keep hidden in real life, to look at the actual motivations and thoughts of my characters. This need not be done in large amounts, but it needs to be done. You can be subtle but deeply emotional at the same time.

    I think that readers will accept a lot of fully-imagined writing about setting and objects and action, but once you start talking about character--about people--you had better be real and you'd better be honest or it suddenly becomes merely fiction.

  13. The more I write the less clothed things are figuratively speaking of course. With practice and ease of writing the inhibitions get stripped away.

  14. My nudity appears sometimes in the topics I choose to write about. They're often barely-cloaked fears or desires or hopes, fictionalized and layered onto characters that are amalgams of me, people I know, people I've known, etc. My internal world spills onto the page no matter what I do.

    This is why occasionally I don't immediately show my work to friends and family--they may actually recognize something I don't want them to! Strangers can look all they want though. Is that odd?

  15. I always fear I have no imagination and am just writing about myself all the time. Then I worry about having repetitive characters or themes. So maybe I'm writing naked and self-conscious about it!

    I love when I read something true and sincere in fiction, and I have to stop and wonder if the author went through something just like that.

  16. I'm a flasher. I like to think that I cleverly conceal my nakedness, but then open up real quick when someone isn't expecting it.

    I try to leave the reader to question whether something that happens in the book is something I did, or a character from my novel(s) is really based on me. If they think a specific part of the writing was nudity but it was not, I consider that a success.

  17. This reminds me of a conversation Mighty Reader and I sometimes have, which I like to call “This Story Is Not An Allegory.” Mighty Reader will find something disturbing about a character of mine and will ask me if it’s “true.” It’s true for that character, I’ll tell her. “Have you ever done this?” she’ll ask. “Or has anyone you know done this?” No, I’ll say, but that character has. I am not every character in my books. Every character in my books is not me. They’re themselves. They act like they act. This story is not an allegory. “This guy is too believable to not be true.” Well done me, I say. Behold the wonders of fiction. The secret, which I haven’t told to Mighty Reader, is that I let my characters do those things I only think about but would never attempt. The thoughts I push away are the thoughts I put into my character’s heads. But there is also room for love and honor and light and beauty. Truth isn’t all darkness.

  18. I like to say that there's fact in my fiction, cleverly wrapped up in fiction!

    More and more, I use real life as a jumping off point for my writing. I take an actual event, delve into the emotions, and then take the event on a wild and crazy ride, because often, I only know the surface details of the event, and not the nitty-gritty details . . . which I end up creating on my own.

    I think that, no matter how hard a writer tries, real life works its way into the fiction, even if it's solely on a subconscious level.

    I just hope the naked isn't too obvious . . .because boy, am I going to be in trouble one day!


  19. Actually, I think this kinda swings both ways: the better the fiction writing, the more the real stuff seems fake, the more the fake stuff seems real. They must meet in the "center" somewhere. And that's why I think what you said here is true:

    "I think when we read, whether we are aware of it or not, something in our brain is always looking for the sincerity in the fiction. The naked. The facts. However you want to call it. For a story to be properly memorable, I think it needs to be the perfect balance of imagination and reality."

    --That perfect blending is key.

    And that (IMO) there's so much focus on everything but the actual writing today--too much focus is now on the writers themselves. It's almost like readers are now demanding insight into the writers' private lives! I don't like this; no one's obligated to invade their own privacy on the page. If a writer does, be thankful you've been given access. But never expect access.

    W.r.t. to what I do in my own comment! lol

  20. This was a great post. It made me stop and think. I think I unconsciously will write some parts of fiction more open then others. I draw a lot on my own experiences to create a setting for any fiction I write. I'm not sure how "real" or not it comes across though. I have a hard time jumping from the point of view of the writer to the reader. When I go back to revise, I see where the real parts slipped in but don't know if they blend in well with the fictional parts.

  21. Oh, the stories I have . . . and have been incorporating in my writing! Only I truly know where the fact ends and the fiction begins!!!

    The above are words I put in an email to a friend I'm going to visit this weekend after she made the comment: we have so many stories to share. : )

    I think the above statement is probably true of every writer out there.


  22. Scott: I don't, I think, actually use my real-life stories in my fiction. I try to use real-life emotional states, but the events and people themselves? Not so much.

  23. Thanks, Jill. I'm glad the word works for you. If you ever ask me to review your work, you'll probably be seeing it. :)

    Scott, "merely fiction" is a good way of putting it. Sometimes I feel like the decline of fiction readers is the result of fiction becoming "merely fiction." We need to find ways of adding value to our stories.

    Lois, I have found that too. It does take skill to be able to be honest. We're battling with our words because no word is probably ever the perfect tool for expressing an emotion. The more we write, the better we are at getting close.

    Simon, I don't think that's odd at all. For all the talk I've done about my writing, for all the people I've told to read my stories, I've never approached my parents about it. I think eventually I will bring it up to them, but maybe only after I'm done writing about them as the subject matter!

    Annie, Personally I think you're better off writing more true than false. If you're scared because too much of your writing is based on reality, I don't think you need to worry. My favorite authors often seem to be exploring the same topics over and over again. But, each time, it comes out slightly differently. That makes for an interesting read.

    Rick, I'm the same way. I have this story called "Dolores" that everyone assumes is about me. It's a love story between a guy (a scientist) and a woman named Dolores. It's always funny to me how people consistently assume that is autobiographical when other stories that really are autobiographical seem more fiction. I think it must come down to the details, and somehow the details in "Dolores" ring true.

    Thanks for that, Scott! That's very interesting. I think something all writers must feel is that the things we write about are somehow associated with us and our lives. At the very least, everything that we've written has gone through our heads, so even if we didn't actually do them, we were capable of thinking about them. That type of exposure can be scary.

    Scott, I think you're right that we can't always control how much truth we put in, and there's probably always some truth, just as there's probably always some fiction. I also think there's something addictive about truth. Real details are frequently so much stranger and more interesting than anything we can make up.

    F. P. That's very interesting, and I agree with you. The two parts, the fact and the fiction affect each other. And, somehow you have to balance them or one or both parts won't work. What you say about delving in to our real lives is something I've been thinking about for a long time. I think you're right. Something the same writing teacher told me was that she was never going to claim that anything was completely true. I've basically taken that same stance. I write fiction.

    Insanity, I have the same problem. I can't predict at all when someone will think that part of a story is real. Often, the reader response surprises me. But, I try to learn from each experience so that I can get a better sense of what I did that worked. The response is something that can really help us.

  24. Okay! Davin. You know how to get folks attention. Don't ya? :)

    I try to make my story REAL! If it's real to me then I know or I hope it will be real to the reader. So the naked parts burst forth.

    Balancing the fun with the real. Hmmm, that's hard to answer. It's just something that happens. I don't know how really. The characters do that for me. Does that sound crazy?

    Great post, that's for sure. :)

  25. Davin, your post immediately made me think of Jhumpa Lahiri and how "true" her stories ring, and how the same themes and overreaching experiences show up in her stories. I think they ring so true because she does know what it is like to have one foot in one country/community and one foot in another--either from having lived it herself or from watching her parents and others live it. So do I think every single thing in her stories actually happened? No, but I bet there is a good basis for much of it. And I have to say even when I read the birth scene in The Namesake, I thought, wow, has she already had a baby.

    That's the ring of truth--the details are right, the emotions are sharply drawn--and we believe.

    But I do worry about the perception of being naked when, in fact, I am fully clothed. My brother read a story of mine and then said, okay, we need to talk about the autobiographical parts. But the parts he thought were autobiographical were not.

    And that kind of feeling makes me nervous about writing certain things because "what will the people who know me think"--they'll think that it's me, or my opinions, or something I've done, of course.

    Perhaps the most lovely example of an author dealing with this can be found in Alexander Chee's "Acknowledgments" to Edinburgh:

    "This novel is a work of fiction, invented and imagined. A resemblence of the characters to people living or dead, and to situations from history, will be largely a function of a synchronicity between the imagination of the writer and the life of the reader. I would acknowledge there is a boy I did not know, who did set himself on fire in my hometown when I was too young to remember fully, and the faint memory of which haunted me until I wrote this. His story is inviolate, and not here. (emphasis mine)

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  27. I'll always remember Stanislavsky and method acting from my theatre classes in college.

    What that basically means is that, as an actor, you tap into times when you felt the way the character you're portraying felt -- angry, happy, sad, vengeful, etc -- in order to craft a performance that will resonate with your audience.

    Writing is the same way. Writing "naked" or having the ring of truth/sincerity/veracity/what have you .. is the method acting of composing a fictional story. You're pouring your emotions onto the page, tapping into what the character's feeling, and crafting that resonance with your audience.

    I attempt to do that. Don't know if I always succeed though.

  28. Robyn, maybe it sounds a little crazy. LOL. Hmmm, I think what you're saying about the characters makes sense. If they are acting in the story, then there will be times when they are doing things that you've done before and things that you haven't.

    Jennifer, Lahiri's stories are often covering the same theme. I had the chance to go to one of her readings (and I've seen her interviewed on television) and it really surprised me to find out what parts were true and what parts weren't. She's quite open about it. But, even for the situations that she didn't live through directly, she could find some connection to what she HAD been through. As far as people thinking some things are autobiographical, I dare say that come with the territory. Even if you didn't do something, you at least thought it. There's no avoiding that connection. It does take courage to put our work out there because of that reason. Thanks for the nice quote!

    Matthew, That's exactly how I feel about it too. We find parallels to our lives as we move through our stories. I always think of the kid who played Elliot in E.T. He once said that the only reason he got the role because his dog had died recently, and he just pretended E.T. was his dog.

  29. When I think of sincerity or nakedness in terms of fiction I think of emotional truth.

    Do the characters thoughts and actions ring true on an emotional level?

    No matter how made up things are, do they ring true as being an authentic response for a given character in a given situation?

  30. I try to add those moments. I agree, I think those are the things that pull a reader into the story. Make them love the characters.


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