Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

We’ve all got our favorite authors. The ones we’ll vigorously defend, especially when some fool sucks her teeth and says, “I so totally HATE [your favorite author]. His/her stuff is drivel.”

To which you respond, “WHAT?! Are you out of your mind? Were you raised by mentally unstable wolves with bad taste or something? How can you possibly believe [my favorite author] is anything but awesome?”

And then the fool shrugs and says, “Meh.”

Then you say something ill-advised. And then this tacky fool who clearly has ZERO CLASS says something equally ill-advised, perhaps about your mother’s moral laxity, and the next thing you know, you’re taking off your earrings and telling the nearest bystander, “Hold my purse.” That’s when you both start pulling each other’s hair weaves while everyone is standing around chanting fight, fight, fight.


Your favorite author is obviously someone you like, but is your favorite author someone who you attempt to write like? Probably, yes. A little. Or maybe a lot.

I would say that there were two authors who I made an attempt to write like. Not in the sense that they had a very particular style of writing that I copied. Like. They used. A lot. Of. Staccato. Sentences. Or. Conversely, huge blocks of impenetrabletextthatallruntogether. It was more their sensibility, which, by the way, ranks slightly higher to me on the writing hierarchy than “voice.” In other words, what they said was more important to me than how they said it.

The reason I copied them was that I felt like, OK, this is good writing, so this is what I should aspire to do myself. But there seems to be this odd irony to emulating another writer to the point of imitating them. They inspire you, sure, which strengthens you in some ways, but attempts to copy another writer weaken you as well. First of all, nobody wants to be the poor man’s version of anyone else, right? And even if you were a near perfect facsimile of your favorite writer, no one will ever believe the best Elvis imitator is better than the original. So you’re doomed to failure in any event.

Everyone complains that when a book becomes super popular, there are a million copycat projects that seem to follow. I guess that’s because we don’t know what to do with influence sometimes. The simplest and most obvious approach to it is to copy it. Which almost always fails. But absorbing influence, processing it, and then evolving it into something new takes a long time. Longer than most publishing trend cycles certainly.

So. What to do, what to do? In one sense, you can’t help but be swayed by the authors you love, on the other hand, you cannot ever hope to find your own voice unless you step out of their creative shadow. I’m curious to know how you’ve handled that “tyranny of influence” thang in your own work.

(Oh, my, this is such an artsy post I’m doing today. I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I really gotta lay off the absinthe and Paris Review back issues.)

By the way, I’m not going to tell you who those two writers are who I attempted to imitate. No, I certainly am not. See, I just got my weave re-done, and I don’t want to ruin it in the event you roll your eyes when I disclose their names.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Are You Afraid of Your Own Manuscript?

My God! What have you done? You’ve written half a novel and then left it unattended for weeks or months?! What were you thinking? Now it’s broken loose of its chains and is rampaging around the village while you’re off picking daisies, oblivious to the carnage.

Writer-friends, do you have a monster manuscript hiding amongst your computer files? Some Frankenstory that refuses to be tamed? Are you avoiding it because it started back-talking and thinking on its own and then, bah, it became too unruly to deal with so instead you’ve walked away from this half-formed beast? 

If so, you are a very naughty, very irresponsible mad scientist. *finger wagging in your general direction*

Hey, don’t skulk furtively away when I'm publicly shaming you. I’ll show you what I mean. Here are some signs that you are afraid of your own manuscript.

When you find you have a spare 30 minutes to write, you instead decide to:

1) reorganize your sock drawer according to color, thickness, and cotton-poly blend ratios

2) watch YouTube videos of squirrels on water skis because they’re just so funny (FYI: if you’ve typed “LOL” more than once this week on any website, blog or forum, you need to stop screwing around online)

3) whine about how hard writing is

4) succumb to self-doubt and convince yourself that you should give up.

Here’s a writing lesson that everyone needs to learn: YOU ARE THE BOSS. ACT LIKE IT. Your story will only obey your commands. You have special bond, you see. Master and creation. It can be a beautiful thing. Or it can turn monstrous. 
Doesn't this look sort of romantic?

If you’re afraid to get back to work on something, it’s probably because you’re resisting making some hard decisions about where you want to take your story. I know that’s how it is for me. Writing is all about decision-making. Sometimes those decisions are easy or flow naturally, but sometimes they are hard. And tedious. I'm telling you, tedium is a huge part of being a mad scientist. It can't all be about hooking up the jumper cables to the neck bolts and joyfully shouting, "It's alive!" There's a lot of gravedigging and super gross body snatching that has to go into it.

Look at it this way, the longer you resist your beastly creation, the more potent it becomes. And if you wait too long, then you’re gonna need a crack squad of highly-trained henchmen outfitted with a whole lot of prototype weaponry so you can track the thing down before it maims or kills any more innocent bystanders. This is not good. For one thing, you know how hard it is to find good henchmen these days, and for another, with the way R & D timelines are always getting pushed back, there’s no guarantee your contractor is even going deliver your utility belts on time. Then there's the PR nightmare that is explaining away a pile of dismembered corpses. PLUS, don’t even get me started on skyrocketing budgets. Do you have any idea how much night vision goggles cost? Like, $10K a pop. Seriously.

So get back to it. Please. Before more hapless villagers are mysteriously mauled or downtown Tokyo suffers for it. Be not afraid of what you have wrought. They're just words.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Very Bad Dog

Valentine’s Day is almost upon us so I thought I’d do a post about love.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get all gooney about my husband or kids. Instead I’m going to talk about my poor, dead dog.

Her name was Jou-Jou, and she passed away just about this time two years ago. 

She was four years old when we adopted her from a rescue group, and I won’t go into all the details of her background. Let’s just say, she spent several years in a puppy mill situation, and her life story is so sad it can only be properly told in a smoke-filled Parisian café, over several bottles of Beaujolais, with Edith Piaf playing in the background on a loop. Her existence -- it was très, très tragique.

Have you ever owned a French Bulldog? Are you familiar with the breed at all?

They are an ungainly beastie. Heavy in the front, weak-legged in the back. They sink like a stone in water. She was unable to go up or down stairs because once gravity gets a hold of that big head, French Bulldogs go down steps like furry bobsleds.   

French Bulldogs are cold intolerant. And heat intolerant. Pretty much they can only exist in perfect, 72-degree weather with low humidity. Preferably with a light westerly wind blowing in across a sheltered bay lined with palm trees where frothy, rum-based drinks are served. They’re also not too fond of precipitation.  

Bulldogs are also prone to frequent respiratory illness as well as food and environmental allergies. Jou-Jou was no exception. Near as we could determine through expensive veterinary testing, she was allergic to just about everything. She had a perpetually runny nose that I would have to wipe with a tissue several dozen times a day. Her allergies caused her fur to fall out in the spring time and develop itchy red welts all over her body.

She wasn’t good with other dogs. In fact, she pretty much wanted all other dogs to disappear from the face of the earth so that she might have the sun and moon all to herself.

She generated terrible, eye-watering gas. Think baloney-scented tear gas released into the atmosphere once an hour, like some ghastly anti-air freshener.

Was she lazy? But of course she was lazy! Mon Dieu! How can you even ask such a question? What self-respecting bulldog isn’t lazy? While many dogs have skills that make them ideal watch dogs, hunting dogs or even seeing-eye dogs, Jou-Jou’s only skill was the preternatural ability to find the softest place in the house to sleep. “Walks” entailed me pushing her in the stroller with the kids. 

And speaking of the kids, she didn’t like them. No, no, no. Didn't care for them at all. She would nip at them if they approached me, especially when I was in the kitchen. And I was in the kitchen a lot cooking special meals for her because she refused to eat regular dog food. You see, the bulldog is a breed prone to weight gain, but she was actually underweight, and we had a hard time keeping the pounds on her. When she lost weight, she got sick and needed to go on antibiotics. So I had to feed her what she wanted to eat or else pony up more cash at the vet.

What else can I tell you about Jou-Jou?

Her response to most requests such as come, sit, or stay was simply, “Non.”

She often barked at the wall. No idea why. Chalked that one up to painful war memories.

She arrived un-housebroken and despite our best efforts, largely remained so.

After a flurry of astronomical vet bills, she passed away at age six from a brain tumor. This after a months-long episode of grand mal seizures that required the administration of medication multiple times a day. Via suppository. 

Of course you might be wondering why. Why would anyone put up with such a very bad dog for so long? It was just one thing after another, ending in heart break and financial stress. Who needs that in his life?

Let me ask you this: does anyone ever ask you why you write?

Well, there you go.

There is no rational explanation for love, now is there? 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Secret of Eternal Youth

Yes, I’m seriously going to tell you what the secret of eternal youth is in this very post.

And, no, I don’t just mean the key to feeling young. Who cares about that? I’m talking about looking the same age for your entire adult life without resorting to plastic surgery.

First, however, a digressive writerly discussion. Because we all love those.

So, here it is. I recently forced myself to read a “grown-up” novel. It’s been, gosh, I don’t even know how long since I read something that did not fall into the category of YA. 

It was good to stretch ye olde grey matter a bit – which is not to knock young adult fiction at all -- it’s just that I realized how important it is not to read too much of one kind of thing. After all, isn’t this the advice we get all the time? More importantly, isn’t this the advice we give to young people who aspire to be authors themselves one day?

If you want to write, you need to read. And read widely. Read everything. From cereal boxes to instruction manuals to translated Canadian poetry.

And why is it again that we recommend this to young people? Can anyone tell me?




Yes. You there in the third row. Why do we recommend that young people read widely?

Um, 'cuz we’re obviously big meanies who have no idea how much time and effort texting our friends takes up on a daily basis?

No! Of course not! (And please put the phone away now before I confiscate it.)

It's because we recognize that there’s so much wonderful stuff out there, and you never know when you’re going to find something that will a) really light up your imagination or b) change the way you think forever. And you never know what category or genre that book will come from.

As a writer for young people I now realize that the other benefit to engaging with new and challenging material is that it keeps you a little off-balance intellectually. And anything that helps you maintain a sense of wonder at all the many things you still don’t know puts you in the right frame of mind for writing books young people can relate to. If you want to feel like a newbie forever, it's pretty easy. Just read widely.

But perhaps you’re thinking, yeah, yeah, yeah. Enough with the metaphorically youthful business. Get to the part where you tell us how to LOOK young forever.

OK, I shall keep you waiting no more. The real secret of eternal youth is....

Full-face make-up. 

Like, you know, what Gene Simmons and those guys in KISS wear. You put that stuff on, no one knows how the heck old you are. Those KISS guys are now, like, what? 70 or something? I have no idea. Because they look exactly the same now as they did 30 years ago, and it’s all thanks to full-face make-up.

Of course, you had to have started wearing it when you were in your twenties. So, you know, admittedly that’s a problem if you’re already older than that now.

Sooooooo. Yeah.

Anyway, have you been consistently reading outside the genre you write? If so, what?