Turning Whine Into Gold
Imagine looking in the mirror one morning and finding that you had shrunk to half of your height. Whoa. That would be jarring.
Frankly, all sudden change is jarring. This is why so many readers turn to story—to examine the way extreme pressures usher a fictional protagonist to the brink of change and then kick her right into its chasm. That protagonist is the avatar for us as readers, and we want to know what she does next—from the comfort of our armchairs, of course, because we’d much rather learn from her pain than endure more of our own.
But of course witnessing pain isn’t the entire point, is it. What truly inspires readers is witnessing that final climactic fight. It takes an entire book to set it up. By this point in the story we know why our protagonist’s struggle matters so much—to her, her family, her community, perhaps her world. We sat with her through each torturous decision as she struggled to achieve her desire. We stood by, helpless, as she suffered what seemed to be the opposite of success, and now understand full well the stakes should she not achieve the goal that unexpected change has pressed her into pursuing.
We are about to find out what our protagonist is truly made of. Who is she, and how will her story be important?
Now for the Real Story
Now imagine that you are a young person waking up in the United States of America the morning after the 2016 election. You look in the mirror glad to see you are still the same height, even though your country has gone mad due to an unforeseen plot twist. Your friends are fighting each other and some of them may suffer the loss of the rights you grew up thinking were inalienable. What stories will we writers leave behind for these young people?
No matter who you voted for, new pressures have been brought to bear on America’s belief systems—pressures that, ready or not, are rocking this country to the point of extreme change. We authors must ask ourselves anew:
Who am I now, and how will I function within my society?
Really? You might ask. I’m just writing stories. It’s entertainment.
If that’s the way you think, I urge you to think again.
As a writer, your response to change has been shaping you your whole life. Pick your era: Martin Luther King’s assassination. The Challenger disaster. The events of 9/11/2001. The death of someone you loved. A devastating diagnosis. If any of these events rocked your world, you no doubt went through a time of existential questioning that may have felt a lot like depression but was in effect your struggle to redefine who you were and how you would function within your world, post-personal apocalypse.
This is how we use our experiences to grow. Like it or not, the election has given us another opportunity to evolve. So writers, dust off those existential questions, because it’s time to revisit them.
I’m not suggesting we all need to go out and write political novels. I’m saying we can’t write inside a bubble. When the world changes, its literature must change. Whether you think it was for worse or for better, a tsunami of change has hit our country, and it will seep right into what readers hope to take away from your women’s fiction and your romance and your fantasy. If you want your story to matter, ignore this at your peril. Our stories carry forward the key to our emotional survival as both individuals and a nation, and readers will be looking for the inherent power of such stories now more than ever.
Writers have a special ability to allow our readers to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Whose shoes will you choose, and why? Your answer will affect you on every single level, from the stories you pursue to whether they will sell to how you will conduct yourself on the public platform your writing bestows.
I, for one, am re-evaluating my women’s fiction-in-progress. It no longer feels important enough. How can I sink the stakes for this family’s survival deeper into the community? How can I make the story feel more relevant? More necessary? You can bet that the agents and publishers who will ultimately decide our work’s salability will be asking these things. If you need ideas about how to start, check out Kate Moretti’s recent WITS post on that topic.
Politics aside (seriously—the endless ugliness of the campaign was bad enough, let’s not pull each other down any further!), I ask you as fellow humans and writers: do you give much thought as to how writing fiction can make a difference? Are you rethinking aspects of your current WIP, given your new awareness of our country’s deep divide?
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Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” will appear in the forthcoming guide from Writers Digest Books, Author in Progress, available now for pre-order.
Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads workshops and speaks often about writing.