A Session with Cara Sue Achterberg
I’m not a fantasy writer. When I saw my novel I’m Not Her listed under Mystical Realism on Amazon, I blanched. But after I thought about it, I realized – we’re all fantasy writers.
We, every one of us who strive to write fiction, are writing fantasy. None of the stories that flow from our imagination to the tips of our fingers to words on a page are real.
Fantasy: noun, the faculty or activity of imagining things, especially things that are impossible or improbable
I’m embracing my inner fantasy writer these days, and you could, too. An element of fantasy, even realistic fantasy, can make a mediocre story magical.
I remember the first time I read Jodi Picoult as a teenager. It was Keeping Faith. I was gobbling up the pages, thrilled to have discovered this wonderful new author, but then I turned a page and stopped reading in my tracks. Suddenly the little girl Faith seemed to be magical – she knew things she shouldn’t know.
I looked back at the cover copy. There was nothing there about fantasy. But you know what? I stayed up all night reading that book because I had to know if Faith was really performing healings. Picoult was pushing her readers – what were they willing to believe? – in the same way Faith was challenging the belief of the other characters in the story. The whole thing was an obvious metaphor of faith. Wow. It had a powerful effect on my literal teenage mind. She totally sucked me in. I did believe Faith was doing those impossible things.
There are days when I’m writing and I find myself following my story down a rabbit hole of sorts, before thinking, Ah, no one’s gonna believe that! and deleting pages of prose. It’s important not to abuse your reader’s trust, but can you test it a little?
When you and your reader turn that first page, there is already a willing suspension of belief happening. You’ve created a world, a character, a situation out of your mind, and the reader knows it didn’t really happen, yet she’s willing to follow along with you. But with some readers you have to tread lightly. Readers like me, the annoying person sitting next to you during a movie who says, “Oh c’mon, that would never happen!” With those people you have to be careful. This doesn’t mean a little fantasy isn’t good for their literal minds.
Adding just an element of the fantastic, but not an entire world of sea monkeys who live in a glittering castle under the sea, can be powerful. A little fantasy goes a long way.
In my novel, I’m Not Her, the two main characters switch places. Just like Picoult (well maybe not just like), I was using an element of fantasy to illustrate my theme. We can’t literally walk in someone else’s shoes (unless, like me, you buy them at the Goodwill), but a fictional character can. That’s what makes it fiction. I thought, “What if a skinny, shallow, privileged woman swapped lives with an obese, uneducated, impoverished woman?” What would happen? That’s the idea I wrote from. The tricky part was getting my readers to buy in.
Here are four reasons why I think it worked.
1) I didn’t dwell on it. I didn’t spend pages and pages dropping clues and then create a big, magnificent swaperoo. It just happened in only a few sentences on the second page. Okay, reader, you’re either with me or you’re not.
I’m not certain of the next chain of events. I remember Leann wrestling with the change drawer. She can’t slip the credit card receipt in the slot because something is blocking it, so she begins shaking the machine to shift the contents. The oversized metal Valentine’s Day card attached to the lane pole begins to sway as Leann’s bulk rattles the cash register. Sometimes events happen in slow motion and your brain freezes and you simply watch the train wreck or the car accident as it happens, never moving to avert disaster. I see something large crash towards me. I wonder briefly why I don’t move out of the way. Then everything goes black.
I feel a funny floating sensation, like I’m a balloon lifting off. I see the nasty linoleum grocery store floor receding from view, and it’s all eerily surreal until a powerful surge, kind of like the time I touched the static ball in physics class, rushes through me and I’m slammed back to reality.
When the grocery store comes back into focus, something has shifted. I’m standing behind the register, which is crazy because I can see myself clearly lying on the floor as blood pools around my head. The manager kneels next to my body frantically stuffing magazines under my head. I know I’m not dead because I hear my own voice asking, “What happened?” No one answers. A small black guy appears next to my body and says, “Shit!” in a voice that seems more annoyed than horrified, before picking up the Valentine’s display that inflicted this trauma.
As I watch myself, all I can think is the blood is ruining my newest Anne Taylor jacket and I’m not doing anything to prevent it. I’m just lying there growing whiter. But then I realize I’m not lying there, I’m standing here. To verify this fact I look down at my hands and notice that they have deep creases at the wrists. I shiver and try to refocus. My head is pounding, and as I bring my hand to my head, I’d almost swear I brush by boobs. I’ve never been more than a 32A, so the shelf I encounter doesn’t make sense. But then again, none of this makes sense because how can I be standing here with a throbbing head if I’m lying on the ground covered in blood?
I did worry that this happened too quickly and without any kind of flash of lightning or poof of magical fairy dust. Part of me just wanted to get it out of the way and tell my story. It wasn’t a believable event, so no point in trying to rationalize it. The fact that it happened swiftly and simply is a big reason why I think it worked. Which brings me to my next point.
2) I threw it in quickly before anyone was overly invested in my character. If a reader is going to shut the book at this idea, then I’m not going to trick them into reading half the book and then piss them off. Most readers will give you five, maybe ten pages before they close the book. I had to make the switch and then suck my readers back in during those pages. They had to like Leann, just a little, enough that they’d keep reading.
3) It was a simple element even though it completely changed the course of the story. It wasn’t complicated and didn’t require that the reader buy much more than one twist of reality. She didn’t have to understand anything like how goblins speak or whether or not water melts witches. Still it was a challenge for my reader – a huge what-if situation that I hoped would make her step into the story and consider what she would do in the same situation. I wanted the reader to be curious about how she would solve the problem and then turn the page to find out how the character would. I didn’t want her worrying about what would happen next – would the store manager read minds? Would the ambulance driver be God? No, everything was completely normal after the element of fantasy. Now the reader could reorient herself to the new reality, much like the character had to.
After the ambulance leaves, the manager comes and sits next to me.
“Leann, I need you to tell me exactly what happened.”
I look at him like he’s nuts, because he must be. This can’t be happening. I read his name badge. It says Vernon Slick, Assistant Manager. I don’t say a word. I just allow my mind to fumble along with this. I stare at him. He sighs and opens his cell phone.
“I’m going to call corporate and let them know what happened. You look a little spooked. Maybe you should go lie down in the break room.”
I don’t move. I just watch him like he’s a science documentary. I’m fascinated, but completely uninvolved. When a voice comes on the line, he gets up and begins to pace the aisle, explaining what’s happened. When he’s finished, he yells, “Phyllis, come take Leann back to the break room. Have her lie down for a few minutes. And somebody take down the rest of those damn Valentine promotionals before anybody else gets hurt.”
The other cashier, the one with the mustache, puts her hand on my shoulder and looks down at me kindly. When I don’t move, she puts her other hand under my elbow and lifts. My elbow rises with her, but the rest of me remains on the bench anchored by the extra two hundred pounds and the shock of what is happening. She lets go of me and says, “C’mon Leann, don’t make a fuss. The registers are backin’ up.” Her expression is equal parts frustration and pity.
I don’t know what else to do, so I heft myself off the bench and follow her. My thighs rub together uncomfortably, and more than once I knock into customers as I figure out how much space I require. Right in front of the canned tuna, Phyllis stops and asks, “You alright? You look kinda sick.”
I just stare at her, wondering when I’m going to wake up. She shrugs. “I gotta get back to my register.” She turns and scurries back up the aisle.
I sigh and wait. I close my eyes and try to relax my body—maybe I’m hallucinating. I take deep breaths. A woman with an overflowing shopping cart stops in front of me. She’s watching me expectantly, and I think she’s about to explain it all or shout, “Gotcha!” and point to the reality show cameras. I stare back at her and she raises her eyebrows. I don’t know what she wants me to say, so finally I blurt out, “What the hell’s going on?”
She glares at me and growls, “Can you let me by?”
I’m blocking the aisle. I try to apologize, but really there’s no explaining myself, so I back up against the cans of tuna and let her by. I’m not sure how it could be possible, but this is real; I’m not dreaming. I can click my heels together and take all the deep breaths I want, but I will still be this fat woman with hair in my eyes and sweat behind my knees.
4.) The last thing that makes this moment of fantasy work is that the rest of the book justifies it. It wasn’t random. I didn’t just make a pink unicorn in a leotard run through the scene and never appear again. The element of fantasy was crucial to the story.
And that’s probably the most important thing – don’t use an element of fantasy as a gimmick, use it because the story calls for it.
One of the first reviewers for I’m Not Her wrote,
“Unbelievable circumstances, because people don’t just hit their heads and change bodies with someone else. But sometimes unbelievable events must occur to illustrate one of life’s more obscure truths.”
So when your next story starts down an odd path and you think, what if . . . go with it. And find out what if.
Try to remember when you were a kid – back when fantasy was a part of everyday life. Do you remember being stuck on a long road trip with nothing to look at but what was out the window? Or how about when you were in the waiting room at the dentist? Be that kid again and finish the phrase, “What if…” in at least fifteen ways.
Adding an element of fantasy can punch up any boring situation. Write at least fifty words describing something boring that happened today – maybe doing your laundry or checking your email or walking the dog or driving to work. Do this before you read any further.
Did you write your boring passage? (You didn’t? Well, then, do it now!)
Now add an element of fantasy into your passage. Something simple, silly, funny, completely random. Rewrite the passage.
Much better, right? Or at least more interesting!
What kind of superpower do you wish you had? How would it work? Would other people be able to tell you had it? How would life be different with this power? Would it be better? Or maybe worse?