by Katie McCoach
Imagine you are sitting amongst fellow writers in a workshop class or critique group. You’ve just finished reading your work and this group is providing constructive criticism. You are nervous, of course, we understand. This writing is a piece of you—anything you write is. This group understands that as well, and they are in the group the same reason you are—to develop their writing. That is why you are here, right? To make your writing stronger? To see how an audience responds?
As each member provides their comments on your work, you begin to get antsy, and slightly irritated. How can they say that X moment in your story wasn’t believable? Yes, this was a work of fiction, but still, X happened in real life! Of course it’s believable because it actually happened! You know this from your real life experience even though, again, like I said, you are sharing the work with this group as “fiction” not creative non-fiction. This group of writers are wrong, you think.
Let’s take a step back.
Sharing writing is tough for any and every writer. Reading reviews online after it’s published, hearing what an editor, agent, publishing house has to say can be daunting and it can be difficult, yes. One key thing that is important to remember is that your writing class and readers are sharing their opinions and their experience with your writing so you can understand how they see it.
I’ve noticed the circumstance that I shared above has happened many times in writing groups and classes I have been a part of. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” This is because often times, that is the case. Memoirs can be such strong stories because it’s unbelievable certain things really happened. But in fiction, showing the “unbelievable” can sometimes be harder to do.
In work of fiction, every thing needs to be believable to the story. I’m not suggesting that we limit a writer’s imagination in any way. What I’m saying is that the in order for the crazy, the unbelievable, to make sense to the reader—for the reader to relate—you must make the characters relatable and their goals believable.
The point is, you don’t want to be forcing the reader to have to explain how or why certain things are happening without yourself (the writer) offering an explanation.
A writer cannot make a claim or add something to the story that is not believable to that story. Maybe it’s the characters themselves that make X moment feel as though it doesn’t match a character’s motives. Maybe the world that’s been created (realistic or otherwise) doesn’t allow X to be possible because you haven’t shown how it is possible.
If the criticism you receive on something is that X is not believable, it’s because the story, characters, structure, setting, etc have made X a mismatch to the story. It does not matter if X happened in real life or not. You are writing fiction, which means you have created a world that does not exist. By creating a new world, new life, new characters, the moments that take place within that story need to make sense to the story. “It happened in real life” is not a valid argument.
In the moments when you receive feedback that X is not believable; I urge you to listen to your story, not yourself.
Guest post contributed by Katie McCoach. Katie is a member of Romance Writers of America and the Editorial Freelancers Association. She has had essays published in TrainWrite and Kalliope and is currently writing a contemporary romance novel. For advice on editing, writing, and publishing, visit her blog and be sure to also follow her on Twitter.