Friday, June 18, 2010

When Fiction Masquerades as Fact

or, Make Certain Your Sources Ain't Lion

In I Kings 13, there is a story I have always found profoundly disturbing. Only recently have I understood a part of it. And I have not-yet-made-it writers to thank for it.

(Understand, this is not the only Old Testament story that disturbs me. The one in Judges 4, where Jael hammers a tent peg through Sisera’s head and nails him to the ground while he sleeps is more than a little eewwy. But I digress.)

Quick 3-Act Recap. No, It’s Not a Bible Study

For those unfamiliar with the tale: an unnamed “Man of God” is instructed to deliver a prophetic message of doom to King Jeroboam who has strayed from the straight and narrow and erected altars to other gods throughout Israel.

The MoG does his job so completely that the King’s hand & arm shrivels, the altar is destroyed, and the King begs for (& gets) his body restored. The King invites MoG to come have dinner in the castle. The invitation is declined, because MoG has strict instructions not to eat or drink anything and to travel a different road home.

The King and the Man of God part ways. End of Act I.

MoG heads home after a job well done, thankful, no doubt, to still be alive after confronting the King.

Meanwhile, an old prophet in Bethel hears from his sons what has transpired. News travels fast even without the internet. The prophet has his boys saddle up a donkey, then he starts down the road, where he discovers MoG sitting under a tree.

The prophet invites MoG home to eat, saying that an angel came and changed the original message. MoG goes to the prophet’s house, eats bread and water –

And immediately the prophet yells at the MoG for disobeying the Lord’s instructions! End of Act II.

By the end of the day, the MoG is dead: killed on the road home by a lion, who stands guard over his dead body, but doesn’t touch the man’s donkey. (My daughter is currently reading The Chronicles of Narnia, so it’s impossible not to see Aslan here.) The prophet who lied to him goes and picks him up out of the road, carries it to the grave he’d intended to use himself, and has the whole city mourn for the MoG. End of Act III.

The denouement is that King Jeroboam returns to his evil ways.

There’s a Point in All of This

This story has always bothered me. The Man of God did what he was told, right? He followed the instructions he’d been given, right? So why should he have to pay when the prophet (who clearly had some spiritual awareness) deliberately led him astray?

Shouldn’t the story have ended with the prophet in the ground?

The answer – then as now – is a resounding “no.” You see, our success ultimately comes from where we get our information. Not all instruction is created equal.

When we choose to follow just any old advice, we put our feet on a slippery slope. When our feet shoot out from underneath us, we can’t blame the bad content for our downfall. We must blame ourselves for blindly following an unworthy leader.

This tenet holds true in all areas of life. Lately, however, I’ve been musing over how pertinent it is to the writer. Nearly every day, I read several blog posts and articles about the craft and process of writing. Some (like those by literary agents Scott Eagan, Susie Townsend, Rachelle Gardner, and Chip MacGregor and writers like Terisa Green and Roz Morris) are consistently informative.

All too often, however, I find fiction masquerading as fact. Articles and blog posts abound from writers who have yet to sell a single piece, who have not yet finished a book, and who have never worked with an editor or publisher.

Now please do not misunderstand me: I am all in favor of writers who have not yet broken into publishing documenting their journey. Everyone is at a different rung on the ladder. Everyone is capable of finding a way to make the climb easier for the next person. But because of WordPress, Facebook, and Twitter, it is now possible for the amateur’s words to appear to have as much – if not more – merit than the pros’.

Case in point: earlier this year, I was asked to write a monthly column of screenwriting advice for a well-respected writing blog. Me! Un-optioned, un-repped, un-produced me.

I replied that, while I was flattered, my screenwriting expertise and experience was limited to only winning a few contests. I declined the column and, instead, helped the blog owner to connect with a very capable script consultant. It’s not that I don’t think my theories of screenwriting are sound. It’s not that I haven’t had some measure of success. It’s just that I have yet to “make it.” And until I do, I feel that I have no business offering advice on the industry to others.

Would that everyone agreed with me.

Lately, I’ve been seeing articles on writing tweeted and re-tweeted on Twitter and touted as the gospel truth. These articles, however, when followed to their sources, originate from newbies. If written on subjects I do know something about (non-fiction publishing, ghostwriting, making deadlines, working with publishers, editing), I often find glaring inaccuracies, na├»ve advice, and outright misinformation.

We writers are responsible for our own careers. We devise, revise, craft, and create. We are responsible for our research, our writing, our editing, and – to an increasing degree – our marketing. It only makes sense that we go looking for advice on how to improve the process and wear all the hats the industry requires.

“Does this character arc make my butt look big?”

But when we go looking for advice, it’s up to us to vet our sources. Not everything that sounds good is. We don’t need to accept every offer of a free meal that comes our way. It’s our career on the line. Our integrity. Our professionalism.

I’d never suggest that I have nothing to learn from the unpublished. However, when it comes to improving my craft, I vet my sources in an ongoing effort to avoid becoming lion-chow.

What writing sources do you find most reputable and useful? I'd love to know!

1 comment:

dirtywhitecandy said...

Amy, you're so right when you say we make our own careers. I love finding new people to learn from - for anything from a technical point to a behind-the-scenes tip on how to use characterisation better, for instance. That's also why I love writing about writing - because I love to discuss what I've learned and see if others have wrestled with that problem too. I'm honoured to have made it to your list. Thank you.