Writing the book you want to read: Elevating wish-fulfillment to the level of art

Writing the book you can’t find

One of the things that happens when you write the book you want to read – standard advice for newbies – is that you question your motives.

The question is not settled once and for all, either – it pops up to haunt you at points where you know the marks on the screen are drivel. Understanding the process – as well as your motive for writing a particular story – is a form of inoculation against the self-doubt that can arise as a result. If you don’t know why you write what you write, a good crisis can make you walk away from a perfectly good story – or develop some other lovely form of writer’s block.

Hugh Howey has a post up about advice he gave someone who asked him how to learn to write.

Is a story a better version of real life?

This got me thinking about some of the ways stories come into being, and what drives a beginner to actually sit down and start to write.

Is the story you find yourself driven to write somehow an elaborate way to make yourself the heroine of the real-life story you don’t get? Did Margaret Mitchell get to be Scarlett O’Hara in her writing because she would have liked to be Scarlett in real life? Was Robert Heinlein Manny or the Professor in the acclaimed SF classic, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress?

There is a flaw new writers are warned about, that of creating a ‘Mary Sue’ character, one who gets everything the writer would like to get in life, and is armored against all the slings and arrows and guns. Mary Sue stories are very hard to read unless you are the author – because nothing really bad ever happens to Mary Sue, which, in writer terms, means the story has no conflict.

Start from a wish – but don’t stop there

Wish-fulfillment may be a way to get a story started, but it isn’t going to be a very interesting story – no matter how fulfilling the fantasy – unless it evolves very strongly away from that initial impulse. Why? Because fantasies rarely have to make sense – and fiction does.

The clash of wish/fantasy with explaining why the heroine actually wins (or loses beautifully and tragically) runs through some version of real life: even in the most vaporous fairytale, the characters are going to need to sleep occasionally, eat, and use the facilities. If there is no provision for this, the reader WILL eventually notice. Tolkien took care to send Frodo off with elf-bread, and to slip in details of how a hobbit managed to hold together long enough to get into Mordor. Frodo KNEW he had no resources for getting back to the Shire – he expected to die on Mount Doom – it was part of the deal, and detailed when they had eaten their last morsel of even the most wondrous bread.

So even if a story STARTS in the writer’s head as the fulfillment of a deeply-held fantasy, the writer is going to have to anchor that story in a world with regular rules of some kind – or has a LOT of explaining to do, and a lot of dei ex machina to spirit away.

The art part

The next bit of a wish-fulfillment story is that the basic story will need a lot of elevating. This is the ‘art’ part: real stories set in real worlds are full of boring parts. And are remarkably free of useful coincidences coming about just as the story needs them. DH and I have been watching Covert Affairs – and noted that the only reason we still watch is that we have already invested in the story and characters, but that since the very beginning the series writers have been demanding a huge amount of suspension of disbelief on the part of their viewers: the number of bad guys with amazing powers of recuperation is staggering – and they always know exactly the wrong piece of information.

The good guys are almost as bad – something convenient is always popping up. It is currently at the cartoon level: people fly back and forth to Geneva (you know, the one that is 7 hours away by jet, and in Europe?) without a blip in a timeline, jet-lag, or excessive hold ups at airports – when pretending to be ‘regular people.’

Do this kind of stuff in your book, and you’d better be very entertaining in the dialogue part, because you’re going to need that disbelief permanently suspended while your readers go along for a roller-coaster ride.

The art part actually requires learning a lot of craft – and having or somehow acquiring the spark that takes you from reporting to creating. You need to go from ‘She felt bad’ to ‘Beadlets of sweat sat uncomfortably on her upper lip, and her stomach hadn’t been this queasy since the  time she’d been quarantined for swine flu.’ Good writers may be economical to the point of stinginess or flush with evocative details – but they don’t tell you baldly that a character ‘felt bad.’

Did Margaret Mitchell elevate her wish to the level of art? Did she make the extraordinary number of coincidences, good and bad, work for her Scarlett? Millions of people thought so – and still do. But she never forgot to ground her story in the red Georgia clay caught under Scarlett’s fingernails.

Go for it

There is nothing wrong with starting from a fantasy of the perfect life – and that fantasy can and does provide the drive to spend all that time planning, writing, and editing – but don’t stop there, because it won’t be enough unless you actually ARE the fairytale princess, in which case – what are you doing spending your life writing, when you could be princessing?

If you’re writing, why did you choose this book? If you’re reading, can you see the ghost of the writer’s wish in there? And is there enough art?


2 thoughts on “Writing the book you want to read: Elevating wish-fulfillment to the level of art

  1. Rachel

    I write to tell stories about people whom I fall in love with in my head. I make it a point to question my motive, so the will-o’-the-wisp Publication doesn’t drown me in daydreams. But the real fun is in creating adversity and overcoming.

    Let’s see, a novel about a writer meeting an actor and developing a relationship? Ooh! And then real-life relationship problems happen? Aahhh… Oh, but it’s fascinating to think about and to read.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      It doesn’t matter what you write (though the how matters), as long as you know what you’re doing, and have it under control.

      Except for the stuff that comes from your subconscious and plops itself down on your pages.

      I think if you keep asking yourself questions, the reasons and motivations eventually come out.

      Eventually can be a very long time.

      And it IS fascinating – and a lot of fun.



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