Sunday, January 17, 2016


Look up “otherworldly,” and you’ll find lots on astral projection and interstellar travel. But good fiction is always “otherworldly,” even when it transports us to a world much like our own. As N.K. Jemisin put it in the N.Y.T. Book Review, “Beautiful writing just isn’t enough to save any story from overfamiliarity.”

Fiction transcends the familiar by altering the view. That might be an imaginary world, or simply the transformation of our own: deep penetration of one mind, the exquisite discovery of complexity in the apparently simple, or simplicity in the apparently complex.

What’s the source of this? The camouflaging and exposing of the novelist’s psyche:

Both candor and disguise are valid—even indispensable—ways of approaching the secret life in literature, and both can result in great art, though I believe disguise improves your chances, because the less you rely on autobiographical fact, the more your imagination is of necessity invoked. – David Jauss, “Autobiographobia: Writing and the Secret Life”

Fiction says the unsayable through characters enacting plot. Caroline Gordon is right that “A well-composed book is a magic carpet on which we are wafted to a world that we cannot enter in any other way.”

Only the merger of acute insight with fantastical invention can express those truths. You’ll need:

~ Groundwork.
Probe. Investigate. Observe yourself and others. Discard the rose-colored glasses. Gather the facts. It starts there.

~ Persona.
Create a narrator who represents the wisest, funniest, most objective and articulate version of yourself. You don’t get to comment in your novel. But without guidance, readers get muddled. To help them out, you don a mask. This transforms you into a narrator who escorts readers along the journey your novel captures.

~ Characterization.
The best characters are more credible than real people, even if they’re born on Saturnalia. These characters entice because they’re more driven, coherent, determined, and multi-dimensional than the people who inspired them.

~ Imagination.
It’s about compassion as much as originality. In The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene said, “Hate is a lack of imagination.” Only imagination lets us grasp how the other guy feels. That’s why J.K. Rowling called it “the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

With or without aliens, wizards, or auras, find a way to think differently. So your readers can. Albert Einstein noted that “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” That’s as true for novelists as physicists. Logical coherence is indispensable to every world. Beyond that lies the otherworldly thrill of possibility.

Tip: “Otherworldly” should apply to language, plot, characterization, and setting in every novel.

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