Hi. My name is Doug Richardson and I’m a bull-shitter. That said, I’m not just any kind of bull-shitter. I’m a professional bull-shitter. A bold statement? Maybe. Dangerous? Well, it does put me in the same category as White House Press Secretaries and public relations spokes-holes for British Petroleum. We spend our livelihoods mixing truth with marketable fiction.
Which brings me to what I’ve been doing during my somewhat brief hiatus from the blogosphere. I’ve been prepping to launch my latest thriller, 99 PERCENT KILL. Around this time—as it has been for my previous four novels—it can feel like a game of whack-a-mole as my beloved War Department applies the finishing touches hunting down typos and other errors. Every so often, she’ll take me aside and ask a question about a particular passage she might be fact checking.
“Is this really a thing?” she’ll point out. “Or is it bullshit?”
Now this could be concerning the street address of a building either real or make believe, a trivial factoid rattling around the skull of one of my characters, or a brand and color of chainsaw sold at Home Depot.
Sometimes I’ll say, “That’s for a for sure real thing.” Then again, I’m just as likely to reply, “Caught me. It’s bullshit.”
Now mind you. Sometimes the bull is deliberate; after all, I write fiction. And sometimes it’s a placeholder I’ve dropped into a sequence, fully intending to return with a digital pooper-scooper and sub in some words with a bit more verisimilitude upon future passes.
How about I backspace a few? What is my job but to sit for hours at my generous computer monitor and make stuff up. I mean, hell. That’s the fun of it, yes? I unleash my imagination, apply it to an organizing principle, and with a little craft and a lot of sweat equity, out comes a novel or a script that I hope to God somebody will read, enjoy, receive a thrill from, or send hurtling into production.
But it’s still bullshit, a product culled from what I know to be real and believable mixed with flights of fictional fancy.
Maybe instead of asking, How real is your bullshit? I should ask this old trope, Do you write what you know? Now that’s one you’ve heard. If you’re a writer, maybe a thousand or so times from instructors or books or (gulp) bloggers who think they know their ass from an old standup Moviola.
The first time I’d heard that sage old advice was in film school. I was getting graded on a short film I’d turned in. It was little more than a cinematic exercise in shooting movement, establishing a point-of-view, and creating suspense through editing—all in a span of five minutes. I was proud of my little terror sequence. My fellow students had been demonstrably effusive in their praise. I’d gotten a rise out of them. Which was something considering they were all jaded film geeks who’d seen and heard everything.
Then came a one-on-one sit-down with my professor. Though he admired my filmmaking skills, he was keen to suggest I try creating something from my own experiences.
“What experiences?” I argued.
“You’re how old?” he asked. “Twenty? There’s experiences in there just waiting to come out.”
“Boring experiences,” I flatly replied.
“In your opinion, maybe. But maybe you can find a way to mine them and bring some reality to your work.”
“What wasn’t real about it?” I brazenly asked.
I’ve actually forgotten his answer. Possibly because I’d already resolved it in my own mind. I was a cinema nerd. I had dedicated my life not just to studying the form, but to consuming it like a Bacchanalian all-you-can-eat Vegas buffet. Beyond my basic day-to-day college life, movies were my reality despite those famed words scrawled above the USC film school entrance—REALITY ENDS HERE.
Not that I didn’t fully understand the write-what-you-know advice. I just hadn’t yet figured out how to trust it.
I eventually had some movies made and I’m grateful for the successes that came with them. But it wasn’t until I decided to try my hand at straight fiction that I first heard a version of those words from The War Department:
“Sometimes I can’t tell whether what you write is real or bullshit.”
I recall grinning and logging her statement as one of the best compliments ever.
“Is that a good thing?” I asked.
“I think so,” she said.
I do too. So instead of getting wrapped up in “what you know,” I choose to raise the bar and ask, “How real is my bullshit?” I revel in it. I obsess over it. And the deeper I’m willing to dig in it, the higher I’ve discovered I’m able to fly.
You should try it sometime.