Thursday, May 19, 2016

But that really happened!

When my novel City of Demons came out, there was a scene in particular that pulled people out of the story because it was just too unbelievable.  The scene in question was one in which one of the lead characters discussed learning martial arts from a legit grandmaster who happened to teach at the college she attended. Magic murder, they can deal with.  But learning a devastating fighting style in a college?  Too much. Yes, in a book where a killer can crush a person without touching him and a cop can feel the last few seconds of a dead person's life by touching his corpse, the moment that was too big of a stretch was one that actually happened to me.

See, when I went to college, I signed up for a karate course. I thought "it's a college karate hard could it be?" Then I met this guy.

That's Dann Baker, legit Grandmaster in Kajukenbo. And one of the best martial arts instructors on the planet.

We've all been there.  Writers are told every day to use real life experiences as fodder for their stories.   Write what you know, and know what you write! And yet, there are certain experiences that, if we use them, we're told they're too unbelievable. Your story may contain magic, demons, monsters, and superheroes, but coincidental things that really happened to you are considered too unbelievable to go in a book of fiction. It's enough to drive you mad.
Don't call me crazy...
It's happened in other situations too.  Students of mine have replied with passionate anger when I tell them that a scene in their thesis is unbelievable. "But it really happened that way!" they scream. "You just don't know what you're talking about!" Fair enough. You're right, I've not had that particular experience that seems to defy logic or physics. The coincidental continuum seems to have collapsed on a convergence conveniently. And it's still unbelievable. "But here's proof!" they shout. They wave photos, articles, protestations and proclamations all day long. And, in the end, I concede, yes, it happened the way you said it did. 
But here's the problem:  If I thought it was unbelievable, it's likely that everyone else who reads it will find it equally hard to believe. And what are you going to do? Run around and wave proof at everyone who has purchased your book?  Accompany your manuscript to the acquisition editor and prove your story to him? Take out a full 60-second ad during Superbowl halftime to explain that this scene in your book really happened that way and that's how you know it could happen? No... Probably not. What's more likely to happen is this:  You send your manuscript out, your agent or editor reads the scene, snorts derisively, and tosses your legit memory into the trashcan. Why? Because it came off as too unbelievable. 
Pictured:  You.
The following are a list of unbelievable things that I've actually done or have witnessed:
  • Honked a live squirrel's tail.
  • Tailed a 9' Texas Black rat snake
  • Skidded on a wet road and done two complete 180-degree turns, banging my car on the rail both times, and gotten away with no discernible damage
  • A person backflipped off a second-story balcony to impress a girl - Survived
  • A person survived having a full-sized telephone pole hit him in the head
  • Had an 800lb roll of plastic fall on me. Didn't die
  • Shot a near perfect round my first time shooting a pistol
  • Studied with a real grandmaster that I met at college
  • Rescued a 1-week old deer and let it sleep overnight in my bathroom
  • Rescued an equally young possum
"How dare you, sir?!?"

I have proof of every one of those items, yet I know that if I put them in a novel, someone would cry bullshit on it because, while people can suspend disbelief in the fantastic, their belief in the mundane needs to stay constant. In turning the world inside out and molding it to our peculiar vision, we need to make sure that we give the reader a foothold. A talking squirrel, sure. Sneaking up behind a normal squirrel and honking his tail?  Bullshit. 

The point I'm trying to make here is simple:  If it comes across as too much of a coincidence to one reader, it might do so to the rest of them. I'm not saying you can't include unbelievable life stories in your fiction.  What I'm saying is to be careful. "But it really happened" isn't a get-out-of-jail-free card. It's a tantrum. It's a child's argument. You will never get the chance to explain that it really happened or how to an agent, editor, or to your audience. Once you've lost their interest, you've lost them. So make the best of it. 

Until next time, write on!


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