Here’s the log line for a novel I have discussed a few times during How To month:
~Bad Sale is a 95,000 word thriller about a farmer whose life falls apart after he is tricked by a boyhood friend into buying bomb-making supplies at the hardware store.
Notice my use of the word “discussed” in the above sentence. I did not use the phrase “I am writing” because I am not writing Bad Sale. I am writing about it.
What does this mean? It means Bad Sale is a pretend novel, a work not-in-progress but whose premise allows me to use it in instructive posts or practice exercises.
Many writers have a practice novel–you know, the one hidden in a drawer or under a bed or some other dark place. Sometimes there are more than one. (If you have a stack of them, be sure to check back here Thursday.) A practice novel is the one you wrote when you were learning how to write the hard way, by writing. It’s probably awful. You’re probably ashamed of the purple prose, the blatant abuse of adverbs, the lexicon of dialogue tags that are anything but “said”. And we won’t discuss the cardboard characters and the glaring absence of anything resembling a plot. Your practice book is a disaster.
Nevertheless, part of you loves your practice book, because it taught you how to write. You keep it in that drawer, as a reminder of the writer you were and, hopefully, the much improved writer you are now. The drawer is as much a place of honor as of shame.
A pretend book is not like that.
Here’s how my pretend book Bad Sale was born. One morning, while working on a lesson plan for an online course, I put together a glossary of literary terms referenced in the class. I needed an punchy example of a log line, so I did what I always do when I need inspiration: I went to the spare bedroom where we keep our spare books, closed my eyes and pulled out a book. It was A Simple Plan by Scott Smith.
A good choice. A Simple Plan is a cautionary tale about two brothers and a friend who come upon a crashed airplane full of money. It was dirty money, so it dirtied up their lives. A simple theme for a very compelling novel.
Halfway into trying to write a log line for A Simple Plan, I realized this was probably not a good plan. Writing log lines about published novels is a helpful exercise, but for my class, I should use an example of a book I wanted to discuss. I didn’t plan on discussing this particular novel; I planned to write original examples from…thin air, I guess.Which was not a good plan.
I glanced through A Simple Plan, noting what I’d liked about it: the honorable characters going about ordinary but pleasant lives; the married couple’s optimism about their first child; the brother who’s harmless but a bit of a ne’er do well; the friend who is not a great guy but they’ve known each other forever so they’ll have each other’s backs.
While written as a thriller, A Simple Plan could be in the oeuvre called bourgeois literature–stories about the middle class. Think Death of a Salesman. I like the idea of plain, honest, hard-working people struggling with extraordinary situations that test their moral boundaries and sense of honor.
Who’s more plain, honest and hardworking than a farmer? What situation is more extraordinary than domestic terrorism? What better tests a person’s moral boundaries and sense of honor than being asked to help–and then rat out–his oldest friend?
So was born Bad Sale. A good citizen gets duped by a pal into buying a list of ingredients on a government watch list. Oops. Now his life is ruined. Was he stupid? Was he trusting? Was he stupid to be trusting? These are questions I’d ask if i were writing Bad Sale, which I’m not.
Why am I not? Because I don’t need the story of Bad Sale, I need the premise–the idea–so I can explore it when I need it. Over the past month, I created characters (farmer Richard and his wife Jillian) and a situation when I needed to Show, Not Tell. When I wanted an illustrative example of how writers Stall, I sent Richard and his friend Simon to a hunting camp in the woods. Richard helped out again when I wrote about Reactions.
In short, when I need a character or situation to fit any situation, I pull out my magic hat of a pretend novel. Bad Sale can do and be anything I want it to be, because I’m not writing it as a full story. I just use the premise and the characters to suit my purpose of the moment.
What’s the value in this? What’s the good of popping in and out of a pretend story?
Unless you are exceptionally prolific and possibly suffer from multiple personality disorder, no one writes in every genre. I don’t write thrillers, but sometimes as an instructor, I need to write about a thriller. So, voila! I have an original story to call upon. I can fit in scenes for any teaching scenario or problem and it doesn’t matter if these scenes are necessary to the novel, because there is no novel.
What good does this do a writer, not an instructor? Sometimes we get so close to our stories, and know them so intimately, we can’t use them for exercises. Let’s say you’re taking an online class. There’s an assignment about emotions. You’re to write a character in a fit of rage. What if your fallback character–the one in your novel–never has a fit of rage? Does this mean for the sake of the assignment you force an emotion or scene on a character who would never do this thing? Is this a stretch for this character, or is it a falsehood to who they are?
If the latter is the answer, your fallback story could be a pretend one. I could put Richard into any generic situation and give him any range of emotion because he’s not limited by the reality of his story. A pretend person can do anything. When called upon, it answers.
Bad Sale is like a practice novel. It allows me to grow as a writer, to practice skills or try out tasks without committing to writing the full story. I can make mistakes with Bad Sale, and it doesn’t destroy my investment. I learn from it and it asks nothing in return. And I don’t have to hide it away. I use the bits and pieces of it when I need it.
Also, and importantly, it’s fun. I get to toy with these people, but I don’t have to write their whole story. Whee!
Have you ever toyed with a story you know you’ll never write?