This year, I have started writing much more fiction than I have ever written previously. As a result, of course, my fiction has improved quite a bit over the course of the year. Even my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel is much better than my attempt for 2008, even after months of revision (although this is not to say that my 2009 novel is all that great, either; just that it's an improvement). And as I've been doing all of this writing, I've really begun to think about what makes my newer fiction so much better than my older fiction. Because even when I write a dud, it's a better dud than it would have been a year ago. So I've been thinking about what exactly has changed.
The answer is that in the past year, my imagination has improved tremendously. Not that I'm writing all fantasy or sci-fi - just that I'm finally starting to write outside the realm of my immediate experience. I've begun to ask "what if?" to get ideas. "What if Judas was actually a woman in disguise?" is just one of the questions I've turned into fiction this year. I've had to do research. I've had to write draft after draft to get dialogue to feel authentic. I've had to learn and brainstorm and outline. I've had to work to create stories because for once, I'm reaching beyond just what I know and forcing myself to learn more, to think differently.
My old stories really are just elements of my life rearranged and disguised. But you know, my life is just not that interesting. It certainly does not make for good fiction. Parts of it might make for good memoir someday, but all in all it just does not make for a great novel. There is no "What if?" there is only "What happened." No questioning, no learning, no imagining. Just life, disguised.
This is not to say that I've eliminated my own life and experiences from my fiction completely. Certainly, I am still inspired by friends and events. And pieces of my life definitely work my way into my stories. But they either serve as jumping-off points for a "What if?" or they accentuate it. They are elements, but not the whole.
Of course, there is more to good fiction than just this, but asking "What if?" has become one of the cornerstones of my own work. And to some degree, it's true of all my favorite novels. "What if there was a house that was bigger inside than it was outside, and it ate the people in it?" (House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski); "What if a man turned into a woman and aged very slowly, living 400 years but never appearing older than 32?" (Orlando by Virginia Woolf); "What if all books were banned?" (Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury). Perhaps the authors never consciously asked these questions aloud, and yet they are integral to the final story. The "What if?" is not the only element required for great fiction, but I've come to believe it's essential.