Meghan had been working on her novel for eight years. The story of a 21-year-old woman who decided to sell all her worldly possessions and work in the Mumbai slums with Mother Theresa was based on Meghan's life--and not very loosely based, as I came to find out through some intense coaching sessions.
The premise of the novel excited me from the moment I heard about it. Young woman struggles with her faith, has a life-changing experience working with the homeless in Vancouver, BC, gives up her life of privilege and spends her life serving others. There was even a romance. Better.
When Meghan got to the climax of the story, where her then-boyfriend decided to go back to America, abandoning the poor in the slums, and she has to choose between staying in India and following her new love back to wealth and opulence, she had a hard time writing the scenes.
The first time I read one of her drafts, it read something like this. Virginia sat down in the coffee shop to pray. She sipped her coffee and decided to go to America. I was dumbfounded! She'd just spent an entire book setting me up for this moment, and this was supposed to satisfy me? I immediately called her.
"Meghan," I said, tension oozing in the drawn-out syllable. Honestly, I didn't know what to say. How do you say, that last scene really blew in a constructive way? So instead of making a pronouncement, I asked a question. "So, what made you write that scene with Virginia in the coffee shop the way you did?"
"It really happened that way."
"So, when you decided to come back and marry Sam, you were in a coffee shop and you made your decision?"
"It happened exactly like I wrote it. I sat down, thinking I would pray, and I drank coffee for awhile and thought, and then I just decided to go back to America."
There was the problem right there. It really happened. She was writing, essentially, a piece of creative nonfiction, and didn't know it. She was trying to find the best way to say "and then I decided to go to America." But it just wasn't working, from a story-structure point of view. Why? Because it's not a good story the way it really happened. Not in that particular place, anyway.
"What made you decide that?" I asked, pushing for some motivation. "I mean, was there a thought that went through your head just before you decided? Were you thinking about Sam? Or did you maybe feel like your work was done? Did God at least talk to you? Or maybe nudge you?"
"I don't remember. I just remember I thought about stuff for awhile, and then... I don't know. I just decided I wanted to marry Sam and go back to America."
How do you say to someone, okay, honey, your real life is just not interesting enough to write what really happened? But that was essentially the problem. What really happened doesn't ring true. It really happened, but it was really boring.
I prodded her for awhile, and we established that her motivation was really her love for Sam. So I told her she needed to rewrite that scene so that she and Sam were in the coffee shop together, and he told her he was leaving, and she said she was staying. But when she sat there, with her decision, after he left her, she realized how much she loved him, and she wanted to be with him forever. Then she made some big romantic gesture at the end. Not like a chick-movie thing. No rain or corny lines or pencils or puppies. Just some kind of way to let him know that she chose him. That she wanted him.
"But that's not what really happened." Imagine the voice of a petulant child, and you will come close to seizing upon the whine in her tone right about now. She doesn't like me very much right here. And, yes, that's "telling". Not showing. I'm aware. And I'm doing it anyway.
"It doesn't matter," I said. "You want to get across what's true about her character right here. She has to realize that she wants to be with Sam. You have to resolve the anxiety that your building tension creates in your readers."
"But I like it the other way. People will believe it, because it really happened."
"Let me tell you something." I donned my most posh-academic MFA voice. "Readers don't believe something because it's real, they believe something because it's true. Because it rings true."
She did end up changing the scene, after a much longer phone call where she swore at me a lot. But I stuck to my guns. And the book ended up getting an offer for representation from an agent. It's on her desk as we speak, waiting for the call. And I guarantee you, it would never have made it there with that weak climax.
In reality, though, it didn't matter whether it was the climax or not. It didn't matter if it was an unthinking decision, a mother's two-week silence after her daughter's death, or a transvestite pastor taxi cab driver in Marrakesh who only knew two words in English... whether or not something is "real" is not important to fiction. This becomes especially tricksy if you're writing a novel that is based on a true story.
There is an element of truth to all good fiction. Otherwise, people wouldn't read it. There's something powerful and even transformative about a good story, well-told. In fiction, your target is not "real". It's "true". Even if your novel/novella/short story is based on a true story. Doesn't matter. As a writer, it is your responsibility to tell that story in a way that is transformative and engaging. That's the only way that the "real"ness of the story will have any power. If people get it. And sometimes we don't "get" real. It's just the unfortunate truth of being human. Sometimes, we need a little raconteur to spin a tale that teaches us something that's true about ourselves. And even entertains us in the process.
So what about you? Have you ever had an experience like this? Are you writing a "real" novel? Do you struggle with this? By the way, I should tell you, only about 50% of the above story is really "real". It's all true, though. :-)