By Olivia Newport
In previous seasons of my wordsmithing career I have worn an editor’s hat. Occasionally I edited a novel for an aspiring writer—often enough to recognize this common exchange between fiction writer and editor:
Editor: Chapter 21 is a gripping incident, but I’m not sure it belongs in this novel.
Writer: But it’s a true story.
Editor: And that’s why it’s a gripping incident. However, it focuses on a new character who has no place in the plot otherwise. Readers might find it a distraction.
Writer: But it happened exactly that way. I want to be authentic.
Editor: Could tighten it up? It might not feel so distracting if it were not 6,000 words.
Writer: I wouldn’t know what to cut, because it’s a true story.
You get the drift.
What does truth mean to a fiction writer? We all have our antenna up for larger-than-life experiences that might be fodder in a novel. Our hearts also listen for the small voices in ordinary moments that ring true in great fiction.
Truth does not always mean a protracted verbatim account. Rather, for the fiction writer, truth lies in peeling off the leaves of an artichoke. Dipped in enough butter or mayonnaise, the leaves may be pleasing. But the heart of the artichoke brings the greatest reward of nourishment and salivary satisfaction.
A few years ago my wordsmithing career paired me with an innovative passionate ministry leader. After 25 years, he had a book in him. He just was not sure what it should look like in print. I spent several days shadowing him, finding out about his work, interviewing others on his team—trying to get to the heart of the ministry.
On our last evening we sat on his Southern wraparound porch. His wife had fed us a scrumptious meal and then left us to our conversation. As we talked, spring shadows descended, and eventually our only light was my laptop screen, where I was taking notes that might shape a book outline. We both sensed we were approaching the turning point where we would finally recognize the book that lay ahead.
The screen door creaked and his wife stepped outside.
“Don’t you want a light on?” She snapped a switch, and overhead brightness sliced through the nuances we were discussing.
“Turn it off,” the author and I said simultaneously, both blinking.
She complied and retreated into the house while we scrambled to reclaim the turning point.
Now those are the facts. I doubt that scene will ever make it into one of my novels. But I remember the intensity of concentration, of being on the brink of revelation, the interplay of mental energy, the intrusion that nearly destroyed our momentum, the exultation that came in a breakthrough a few minutes later.
And those things are perfect fodder for a novel.
Just because something happened in real life doesn’t mean it belongs in your novel unedited. The catalyzing event is more likely to become the germ of a character’s experience, rather than a verbatim account. The final value may be emotional or spiritual, rather than factual. Stay alert for those moments, big or small, that take you to the turning points in your story. Don’t fester on the packaging so much as what is at the heart.
Olivia Newport is the author of The Pursuit of Lucy Banning (Revell, May 2012), Accidentally Amish (Barbour, October 2012) and the forthcoming The Dilemma of Charlotte Farrow (Revell, January 2013). Her novels twist through time to discover where faith and passions meet. She lives in Colorado with her husband and two twenty-something children.