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Craft of Writing, Fiction, Social Comment, The Writer's Life

Real World News Derailing My Fiction

I should start writing fantasies.

Two weeks ago I finished what I hope is the final draft of a story that takes place in an exclusive New York condo tower. I was inspired to write it by an ad that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine for a building with units priced from $3 million to $60 million. The story is primarily an exploration of income inequality, and deals with the convoluted relationships of people of different strata—residents, visitors, and service staff—who coexist there.

This morning’s Sunday Times has a front-page story about those towers, the result of a year-long investigation into ownership of the units. As it turns out, around 60 percent of such units in the city are owned by shell companies, designed to hide the true owners, who were revealed to include many foreign nationals, several of them under investigation by their home countries. It’s a fascinating news report.

This may not kill my story, but it does continue a trend I’ve been wrestling with for years.

In 2010 I started a novel with what I thought was a great idea—a shy protagonist who begins to find success and acceptance, and the more successful he becomes, the fatter he gets. I was several chapters into the story when the slightly more famous author Ian McEwan announced his forthcoming book, Solar, featuring—that’s right—a protag who gets fatter as he becomes more successful.

Then in 2011 I started another novel. This one a near-future tale about cars and traffic and the people who manage transportation. Unusual and ambitious, perhaps, but I’m into that kind of stuff. Trouble was, every time I “invented” a new automotive or traffic control feature, some scientists and engineers somewhere made it real in the present. (If you’ve followed the news reports of self-driving auto technology, you know what I’m referring to.) No major problem, as I could always move the story further into the future. But the real story killer came when I decided to have the traffic control genius come from an eastern European country, someplace where traffic was just abysmal. My research said there were two cities that fit the bill. I nixed Moscow since I didn’t want to become bogged down in Russian politics. So that left Kiev, Ukraine. I did a ton more research and wrote some great chapters taking place there.

You all know what’s happened since. Story on hold until they sort it all out. It could take years, but I might actually have a better tale to tell at that point. I hope.

I’ve long believed that writers should read great fiction to learn how to write, and that they should read nonfiction and current events to know what to write about. It’s always a possibility that my latest story idea will be deflated by some real world development, but it’s a risk I will continue to take—I still believe the conflicts of current events often make a great basis for exploring relationships.

Sure beats the idea of me writing fantasies.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


15 thoughts on “Real World News Derailing My Fiction

  1. Hello Joe, GD checking in. What you said about reading great fiction, something I have sought to do over the years, yet as time has passed and I’ve expanded my sense of things, I have to ask … what is great fiction? How do we arrive at a point-by-point discussion of what constitutes “great fiction”? Is there a set of identifiable benchmarks from which we can authoritatively say, yes, this is a great work of fiction? I think this is one of the fallacies of literature, because I don’t think there is a single pundit or academic pontificator who can truly demonstrate to me, or anyone else, that one piece of work qualifies and another doesn’t. Of course we can sight a litany of shortcomings that might render a work less than great, but what is the magical formula that guarantees a story will be “great”? Obviously, money plays a part because one might assert that because Stephen King is one of the all-time biggest sellers in the history of the solar system that therefore his fiction must be great … but is that true? Not for me. I can barely stand to read SK. So let’s try someone else. How about Jhumpa Lahiri? She has something going, but what if I’m not interested in the viewpoint of a privileged-class person largely telling me stories about a culture I have nothing to do with? Is she great? Success would indicate yes. How about T. C. Boyle? One of my literary friends referred to him as “predictably pretentious.” I actually like some of his work, but is he great? Or what if we go all the way back to Hemingway? Some of his early critics said his short fiction was more like sketches than real stories, and that he had an adolescent preoccupation with certain themes. Beats me. I think Hem’s short stories are some of the best ever written. What I’m getting at here is that blatant subjectivity in the process of evaluating literature is so rampant as to nearly render evaluation irrelevant. If there were a set of identifiable principles that separated good from great, then I would tend to think that any think-tank of literature, or a giant corporate publisher, would simply be able to manufacture so-called great fiction. For chrissake, it’s not like trying to land a space rover on Mars! How difficult is it to write compared to having a go-cart on Mars taking soil samples and analyzing them? Look at that little red speck out there in the night sky and then tell me how the hell we’re going to land something on the speck? Is writing a tough gig … not compared to that. The tough part about writing is to write something that someone else wants to read, or more specifically pay money to read. However, there is an old saying amongst people in sales: “I’m so good I could sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo.” What if … now this is just a what if … what if the big-time money people, publishers and corporate masters took the same attitude? With enough advertising, I can make any writer great. Hmmmm. Then that suggests, by extension, that great writing is largely what the public is being told is great writing, no more, no less. If they could sell us on war with Iraq based on weapons of mass destruction, then I’m willing to suspect they can sell us on anything, if you see my point. I have a book on my desk as we speak that won a National Book Award recently, and I find the damned thing boring and almost unreadable. I guess I must be completely out of the loop! Or the loop involves fine-points that my peasant brain is simply not capable of comprehending. Enough for now, take care old soldier and give ’em hell. Best regards, G. D. McFetridge

    Posted by G. D. McFetridge | February 8, 2015, 2:15 PM
    • Howdy, George. Yeah, I should have made it clear that great fiction is in the mind of the beholder. I’m like you—I try to read a lot of books that the public or the publishers say is great, only to find them utterly boring and vapid, and filled with sentimentality. As Wiiliam H. Gass said, “The world is prepared to praise only shit.” He knew what he was talking about. (Guess I’ll never be famous, then.)

      Funny you should mention TC Boyle. When I started writing the blog, I remembered that he also bases a lot of his fiction on current events and trends. It’s served him well. Last story of his I read was in Best American Short Stories. I can’t say it impressed me that much, but I could see what people saw in it—it didn’t deal directly with the big issue, only with people affected by it.

      So I submitted the story I wrote about the condo tower to a workshop I’m in a week ago, well before the Times article came out. It’s a class with 15 students enrolled. The piece is anything but traditional storytelling. It will be fun to have it critiqued, as well as to see if anyone knows about the Times’ article.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | February 8, 2015, 6:31 PM
    • Hi, I like your point of view very very much. :-)

      Posted by Heather Cai | February 9, 2015, 6:52 AM
  2. Hi, Joe. I guess your dilemma only reinforces the dictum, much overused, that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Of course, you could decide to write a kind of realism-cum-fantasy in which a writer is in exactly your predicament, and what he writes comes true–then give him some really unbelievable things to write about….his moral dilemma once he begins to feel like one of the Fates, etc….

    Posted by shadowoperator | February 8, 2015, 2:38 PM
    • I find that I’m moving towards the kind of hybrid writing David Shields talked about in “Reality Hunger.” He sees the best of modern writing as containing elements of both fiction and nonfiction, and not concerned as much with an accurate reportage of facts, as with a meaning that is true. I just picked up a copy of Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” which he praised as a great example of this kind of writing. I started reading it yesterday and can’t wait to get further in. It’s exactly that kind of prose. William H. Gass (whom I’ll be writing about here soon) also did it. I’ve recently written a couple of stories in that style, and think it shows great promise. At least, I enjoyed the process.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | February 8, 2015, 6:17 PM
  3. I wrote a novel about the Middle East, but its political landscape keeps shifting. I finally decided that it doesn’t matter. What concerns me as a writer is the unique story I’m trying to tell, something that captures some truths about the human condition, regardless of the current state of the Middle East. If a reader wants to be informed of the status quo of whatever, he/ she can always read non-fiction, which should come with a warning: liable to change.

    Posted by nadiaibrashi | February 8, 2015, 2:51 PM
    • Nadia, I was going to say that every story is really about people, but I posted the blog before putting that in. So a lot of these considerations are at worst, temporary. But a writer still has to be careful, especially when referencing technology or history. There’s always someone out there waiting to jump on a mistake. I find the fewer “true facts” one includes in a story, the better.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | February 8, 2015, 6:12 PM
    • My response to Joe’s blog entry is much like yours, Nadiaibrashi. Write what interests you. Write as well as you can. Of course, I’m not making a living with my writing. But enjoying the writing and the result is what I want to do.

      Posted by mysarahskitchen | February 19, 2015, 10:01 AM
  4. I am holding something dear to write and I am writing something dying…I think people are the souls of any characters in any books.

    Posted by Heather Cai | February 9, 2015, 6:51 AM
  5. Joe, another old dictum: there’s nothing new under the sun. I think it’s all about execution. As someone who seems to suffer from GADD (genre attention deficiency disorder), I try to think a lot about why one story is better in a visual medium while another might be an essay or another still, a novel. Or perhaps it’s better to say, it’s not so much the story fitting the genre as the approach (lens) of the story that matters most.

    For my money, you could write a fiction piece about some event exactly as it happened and it would be worthwhile because one thing fiction writing gives us that no newspaper, news camera, film camera, etc. can do is go internal. Only authors get to know the why of an action. That kind of knowledge doesn’t even happen in real life. I can’t tell you why I do some of the things I do, but I need to have a pretty decent idea about why some character does.

    (As I write this, I know there are some theorists who would disagree, but let’s not go there for now. I know why I don’t like to read those folks–at least I know that,)

    I hope you are well in the PNW.

    aka, the circularrunner

    Posted by g. martinez cabrera | February 9, 2015, 8:45 AM
    • Hi Gabe, it’s been a long time. You’re right about the lens of the story—and I do spend a lot of time trying to pick the right one. I’ve written some historical fiction, and I find it actually a little easier to do, because you don’t have to worry so much about plot—the frame of the story has already been determined by events. It’s when one tries to anticipate the events too close to the present that the problems start.

      Loving the Northwest. Hope all is well down SF way, and that your foray into film is satisfying and successful.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | February 9, 2015, 10:00 AM
    • Bravo interior monologue. It’s what I read for.

      Posted by mysarahskitchen | February 19, 2015, 10:25 AM

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