Confession: Tom Petty has not taught me anything about writing. Nothing quantifiable at least, although listening to Wildflowers approximately one hundred million times as a teenager has surely impacted me in some way.
But here’s a true story: when I was sixteen, I mowed down my garage door while driving our family car. It was the 4th of July, and as I pulled into the driveway, I realized the garage door was alarmingly close. Actually it was my sister who first said, “Um, shouldn’t the garage door be up by now?” So I slammed on the brakes, and by slammed on the brakes, I mean hit the gas and crashed through the garage door. Also, we were listening to Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me, Baby” at the time.
The story itself is not very hard to believe, especially if you ever rode in the car with me as a teenager. But there’s something about the details of this story that make it sound over the top. I mean, what are the chances I would be listening to “You Wreck Me, Baby?” in the moments before wrecking my own garage door? They seem so slight that if I came across this scene in a novel, I would feel as if the writer was trying to trick me. And readers don’t like to feel tricked. They don’t mind being surprised. But if something feels too tidy or convenient or simply unbelievable, the reader will lose faith in the writer.
If I were to fictionalize my infamous garage door incident—maybe in this version someone sabotaged the brakes in the car because I had inadvertently stumbled across a plot to cover up the existence of sharks attacking people in their suburban swimming pools—I would probably be tempted to include the Tom Petty song in my rough draft because it seems so perfect. And it happened. It’s real!
As fiction writers, we often cling to the real details we insert in our fiction, especially if we get our ideas from real life. Like Raymond Carver once said, “Stories don’t come out of thin air. There’s a spark.” Sometimes the “spark” for a story or novel is something that actually happened, either to us or a friend or a friend of a friend. And for me, when I start revising, I’m often reluctant to remove that sparking detail.
You the writer will always know the spark that got a story moving, that much-talked about “a-ha!” moment. But to your reader, your story is a forest fire. They don’t need to see the spark; they simply need to see what happens once the spark becomes something big and wonderful.
A few years ago, I was flying to London, and we were delayed on the tarmac for a long, long time because minutes before take-off, liquid began dripping out of the overhead compartment onto the seats below. A debate started amongst the passengers about what the liquid could possibly be. Juice? Water? Urine? (Yes, someone actually suggested it might be urine, which in turn started another, secondary debate about why someone would bring urine onto a plane.) And then someone from maintenance came on board to make sure the electrical systems hadn’t been compromised, which involved him shining a flashlight in the compartment and mopping up the spill with a washcloth.
While we were waiting, though, I started writing a short story in my head about a couple who had to be somewhere and their flight was delayed. And then when I returned home I wrote a rather boring and confusing short story about a couple traveling to New York for a vacation. Several people read it and kindly suggested it might make a better novel, and so I started writing a novel about this couple, and it turned out they weren’t flying to New York; they were traveling from Dallas to Austin for a wedding. And it was the first time they had gone away together since their year-long infertility struggle. I took the airplane scene from the short story and included it in the novel, but at a certain point, the airplane scene stopped making sense. Why would this couple fly from Dallas to Austin to attend the wedding? They wouldn’t— they would drive. (It’s an easy three hour drive, and if you grew up in central Texas, you’ve probably made the drive countless times.) But I kept trying to make the airplane scene work because it was the genesis for the entire novel. It had to be in there.
Disclaimer: nothing has to be in your story. Except words. As soon as the airplane scene was gone, the story expanded in the direction it needed to, not in the direction I was trying to force it.
Writing a story is such a fluid, organic process, especially if you don’t outline, which I never do. Sometimes the real-life details give us the illusion that we are firmly in control of our characters or plot; this real detail happened, which means your fictional piece will read like it was taken from real life. But often those details simply aren’t necessary once your story gains momentum. I like to remember this quote from E.L. Doctorow when I feel discouraged about not knowing what is happening in my story: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
In other words, it’s okay to start with one idea for a story and end up with a completely different story. That is probably what most writers do. E.L. Doctorow also said “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” How comforting is that?
So turn on your headlights, crank up Tom Petty, and turn those sparks into stories. Just beware of garage doors. And people who bring urine on airplanes. Seriously. Those people probably need wide berth.