Tone Deaf Fiction

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So, I’ve been reading slush. I’ve been reading slush because it is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in want of improving their skills must at some point in their career, read slush. The most heart-breaking stories are the ones that were ALMOST there… but just not quite. However, I don’t want to talk about the good things… today, I want to talk about tone deaf fiction.

Tone Deaf Fiction is fiction involving characters, situations, and places completely discordant with reality in a way that is grating to a reader. Tone deaf fiction is not so much rewriting reality as overlaying a chartreuse plaid wallpaper over everything making it useless to everyone. It isn’t a few wrong notes, it is ALL the notes wrong. It doesn’t matter if you get the rhythm of the song right if you’re not hitting any of the notes.

So, in thinking about writing about this I decided to try my hand at writing a character to the point of tone deafness. I am only excerpting from a longer piece because I got tired and started relating the character to my own personal experiences (doing yoga) and it stopped being a good example of what I mean. I hope this is still illustrative:

Seth finished shaking off his penis and pulled up his sweat pants. His yoga class was about to begin and he wanted to make sure he got there early enough to get a spot up front. If he got there late and had to look through a forest of pert female asses he tended to get distracted instead of getting the best workout possible. He paused in front of the bathroom mirror to judge if he’d need to shave again before his movie date with Teresa. His fair skin was the color of antique white house paint speckled with the hint of wheaten hair along his jaw.

He adjusted himself in his pants as he picked up his yoga mat and headed out into the hall. His mat was a plain dark gray, the manliest color he’d been able to find at Target. His sleeveless t-shirt clung to his lean physique, and for $40 it also wicked away the moisture he was about to start exuding from his skin

Usually tone deaf fiction comes out of writing things well beyond your own experience. Clearly as a genre writer I don’t believe you can only write things you know well, however… don’t pick ALL the things you don’t know in one story. That’s a good way to write tone deaf fiction. I suggest training wheels. Pick a memory from your own life, and change one major truth about the situation. If you were a very young child in the memory, figure out how to rewrite everything from an adult perspective, possibly from outside yourself, but keep every single other part of the event the same. Make sure you think, “How does this change things?”  and follow each of those ripples out to their end as they change how you tell the event. Repeat this exercise until you feel very comfortable with how to chase down all those ripples and imagine out all of their changing powers. Then, change two things using the same memories, and find where the two sets of ripples overlap and create new ripples.

You can never 100% replace your own perspective and experiences from the story. You can have enough ripples that the parts of you inside the story are unrecognizable, but still, you take a part of your truth and experiences as  reference for how ripples move through a story, through a character, through a setting. There are authors who use very few sets of ripples in their fiction and some that throw handfuls of gravel into a windy pond. It’s not going to be the same for every story, and it’s not going to be the same for you throughout your career. If you don’t relate to your characters and their situations no one else will either… so, write what you know about the truth of life, the universe, and everything.

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