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I've always wanted to write fiction, but I've been afraid I'd sooner or later be limited by my lack of exposure to the world (or having any desire thereof). I barely watched television growing up, so my knowledge of pop-culture has always been abysmal; I don't remember anything that's not important to me, like people's names, restaurant names, and dates of events.

Meanwhile, I seem to have uncanny recall for things surrounding emotions that matter to me, like how a certain string of words, casually remarked by a friend while driving him to work, actually revealed a hint of an insecurity. Outside the "emotional" scenarios however, I feel completely oblivious to the world. Furthermore I feel unworldly, because I've never traveled, nor do I feel very much desire to travel—there's so much to do in my room alone!

I'm afraid that I'll never become a good writer, because though I may possess all the floor plans, I have no brick with which to manifest my ideas. Could I, for example, write a book like this:

Here, Megan says something that betrays that she's hopeful, despite insisting she's indifferent... At this point in the story, Jason should do or say something that reveals a non-malicious but still condescending or patronizing attitude toward Esther... Somewhere around here, the phrase "run away from your problems," needs to be stressed, as it's a phrase that Jane is sensitive to and easily misconstrues.

Is it possible to make a story entirely out of abstract thoughts, in the absence of concrete experience to draw from? Are there successful books or authors that operate that way?

  • Hi, and welcome to Writers. You have the kernel of a good question here, but it needs to be boiled down to something more concrete. What's the real question you want to ask? How do you come up with a plot? How do you attach your musings to a structure? Figure out what you're driving at and we may be able to help you. Also, browse previous posts for similar questions. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jul 19 '14 at 15:12
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    Also, please ditch the "literary fiction" idea. When you're writing, there's just fiction. Genre is only relevant for marketing. Don't fall into the trap of thinking "literary" fiction is somehow superior to "niche" genre fiction like sci-fi or romance or YA. Some of the biggest-selling books of all time are "niche" (Harry Potter) and not "literary." – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jul 19 '14 at 15:14
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    I have to agree with Lauren, the specific question needs to be brought out here. As it is, the question is more of a discussion starter and would fit a web forum better. But there might be a good question at the core here. Maybe we should put this on hold and discuss the question in meta? Any objection? – Neil Fein Jul 19 '14 at 20:05
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    Let's say, utter lack of knowledge about the Wild West didn't stop Karl May from releasing immensely successful "Winnetou". The book is ridiculously off-base when it comes to any historical truths and reality, but it reads as a great adventure and the world is internally consistent and believable (even if utterly fake), so it makes for a very entertaining read for everyone except those who actually have a good clue about life on the frontier. – SF. Jul 25 '14 at 17:08
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    I have edited the question to make it more focused and less broad, and have nominated it for reopening. – Chris Sunami May 2 '18 at 15:21
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At the very least, this would be a huge challenge to make successful, and would likely garner only a niche audience if it ever made it to print. A lot of the substantive work of writing is putting the flesh on the bones, so to speak. People typically don't like interacting directly with abstractions. In fact, allegories, parables, and books like "Flatland" are all doing the exact opposite --taking abstractions and fleshing them out with narrative details. Even if this isn't your natural gift, however, it's a learnable skill, and one that you will likely need to master if you are serious about writing.

Your lack of worldliness, however, is a much less serious barrier. It just means that you'll probably be most successful writing books about non-worldly individuals like yourself, people who live sheltered bounded lives, but perhaps have rich internal lives. I imagine that group does a lot of reading, so there could be a built-in market from that point of view.

As far as whether anyone has done this successfully --it probably depends on what you define as success. I imagine some very experimental, avant-garde, post-modernist writer has tried it. I've also seen this done jovially, as a parody, in various places online. As far as actual published work I'm familiar with, none goes this far, but the closest would probably be among the following: Murakami's short story "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl..." Russell Hoban's Kleinzeit. Nabakov's Invitation to a Beheading. Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers. Portions of Delany's Dhalgren. Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Auster's New York Trilogy. Mark-Jason Dominus' "Luis Briceno". Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler... and Invisible Cities.

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It looks like what you have written in your example is an outline, not a story. I think it's perfectly possible to go through and write an outline in the manner you have described, but the primary story-writing work will take place when you go through and fill in all the blanks you left when creating the outline.

I empathize with your dilemma, but it's important to realize that you do eventually need to fill in the details. It sounds like you do have all the "brick" you need to start writing a story- your story will just be driven by the characters, not by the world they inhabit. You'll make good, realistic characters that cope with their world and their problems in ways the readers can connect to. You do, however, need to come up with some problems that they need to cope with - all of which can be character-driven.

I don't know anything about the writing processes of authors, but I do believe that you can learn to write by reading. Here are some books you can read that are primarily character-driven:

  • An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, where the main action and problems revolve almost entirely around a single character. (Many of John Green's other works are also character-driven, including Paper Towns. I did not include The Fault in Our Stars because the primary problem those characters face is external, namely their cancer, although it does feature excellent characterization.)
  • Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, which is a romantic comedy. Most romances are, of necessity, character-driven.
  • Bridge to Terebithia by Katherine Paterson. Although it includes a magical forest, it is an escape dreamed up by the main characters involved.
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, for a story where the setting is important, but it would be meaningless without the powerful characterization.

These books have plots that revolve around the character's problems and what they do about them. The setting in these books is not as important, and there are no magical effects or otherwise external situations that impact the character's behavior. These books are all about people.

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No, you can't write really abstract fiction (well you can write it but nobody will read it).

As far as writing goes, you have a decent place to start. From my experience, writing is a mechanical skill that is all about practice and reading and not particularly valuable in itself. That's why there are so many writers out there. Anyone can do it.

That's actually not a bad thing, because anyone can read too and unlike the rarefied and deconstructed to death visual "arts", literature is still a middle class art form, accessible to everyone (not just people who can pay $300,000 to mount a partly destroyed urinal on their wall). The universality of access is what gives great writers a status that visual "artists" will never have. Writing, in itself, is cheap, and quite frankly there is so much of it out there that the hardest thing to do is to be noticed. What a lot of people do not realize is that the most important part isn't the writing; it's the storytelling.

Telling a story is the oldest human art form and still the most powerful and intimate. A good book goes with the reader to the bath tub or the bedside table and lives in their house for decades like a family member. It gets dog-eared and the spine broken and wine stained, and no other form of art can match it for being loved. Novels are the old, torn up teddy bears of human creative expression.

So the important thing is to have a story.

You observe people. That's very good. Observation, not deep thinking, is the most important skill for the novelist. Seeing how people do things, listening to how they speak, being sensitive to how they express things on multiple levels simultaneously, and then working very very hard with a lot of discipline to boil that down to the absolute most concise description is a lot of what makes a great novel. The thing is, you need a story. Not just some story that you think about for a minute and go "You know, that could be a book...". You need a story that sits in your mind and grows and grows and won't go away and gets so big that is must be written down or you are going to explode.

To get a story like that, you really need life experience. It doesn't have to be adventurous like Hemingway, but what he did that was so smart was constantly expose himself to new experiences and new people. He absorbed life in all the time and tried to find the most "real" experiences he could, and he knew that suffering and pain is part of life and sometimes (no, always) gives us the best stories in the end.

Staying in your room being comfortable is ok, and you might even come up with a couple stories, but I doubt you will develop a STORY that way. Since everyone writes and everyone has a couple (lowercase) stories nowadays, it isn't a good way to be noticed.

As far as abstraction: Novels are immune to abstract expression. That is the power of the novel as a form of art. You can't actually write a modernist or postmodernist novel. Not really. You can go James Joyce and get impressionistic, but that's about as far as the form can stretch. Since people have already read Joyce (or pretend they did), nobody wants that anymore because it isn't very nice to read, so there's no demand for it. If you go full on "modern art", you end up with word soup, which, by definition, is NOT a novel and won't be called one nor read by anyone. The reason for this is because language is our medium and language is a utilitarian thing with exact meanings for words which must always be placed together in certain ways. If you get too experimental, you are, by definition, no longer telling a story. If you aren't telling a story, it's not a novel. You can have totally incomprehensible "poetry", but then again, poetry is only published out of pity by non profit organizations who think it's sad that we don't have more poets (despite the fact that real poets make a perfectly decent living writing songs for singers in Nashville and elsewhere).

As far as total deconstruction: unlike visual arts, true deconstruction of a novel destroys the medium itself (language), which leaves nothing. Not even a blank canvass, just no "canvass" at all. So, because telling a story is the goal of fiction writing, you can't get too abstract or you lose the ability to communicate with your reader.

The magic of writing is the intimate connection between the reader and the writer, and the way the story comes to life in the reader's head like internal performance art. It allows them to experience things they never could have otherwise, and makes them think of things they never would have thought of, and (if done properly) it moves them in ways they didn't expect. You don't want to do anything that will interfere with that connection (like writing in an outline form or trying to be abstract). Likewise, you don't add much value to the reader if everything you describe is something they easily could have thought of themselves or have experienced plenty of times.

Great storytellers get out into the world and find the stories. There are so many stories out there you will never find the end of them. If you think you are such a font of genius that no story someone other than yourself tells you or you experience with someone else is as good as what you can just come up with in your room, you will never be very interesting. Have the humility to not only observe people but also listen to them. Meet them, find them.

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