30 March 2010

Don't mind the skeletons

The other day, while browsing in a book store, my husband smiled and handed me a paperback. The joke was in the title, which contained our family name. But the cover was interesting: a tall old house with ghosts escaping its windows. Cartoonish but intriguing. I read the synopsis on the back and winced. It was very familiar.

Everyone is agreed that you must read in order to write. But a side-effect of reading while writing, particularly reading within your own genre while writing, is that eventually—and apparently inevitably—you will find a book that sounds so much like your own you start to wonder who plagiarized whom. And since that book is already published, well, you already know the answer.

But you didn’t rip them off! You hadn’t even read the book! You had your own story, your own characters, and you spent hours in front of the keyboard, months of your life constructing your own novel. Every word came from your brain and your heart. You didn’t even know that other book existed until it was all over, and then?

And then the synopses are so close you want to throw up.

I don’t know if there’s some cosmic force conspiring to reveal all similar stories as soon as you’ve finished your own. I suspect it’s more about the time and energy we spend involved in our stories, taking elements of the world and putting them in, so we see elements of that story in everything else. Sort of like when you learn a new word and suddenly everyone’s using it.

And I also think it’s the fault of the synopsis-writers, who can boil anything down into "And then their world is turned upside-down..." and miss everything that makes a book unique.

But it doesn’t matter. Don’t throw up. The bookstore employees won’t like it. Instead, do what I did. Buy the book and read it. See that it’s absolutely nothing like your own book. Even if they’re both about a Football superstar falling down the stairs and discovering a hidden passageway to Portugal (mine isn’t, by the way, but feel free to snag that winner) you will flavour your books so differently that it won’t matter. It’s your story and if it’s a good book then the basic plot structure isn’t everything. It’s a skeleton. All our skeletons look very much alike. Through our flesh we’re unique.

(Unless you're J.K. Rowling, but that's another story.)

Embracing Skeletons by billolen on flickr

24 March 2010

Orange controversy

I grew up admiring Stephen King and became quickly aware that you don't need to follow critical acclaim to find good writing. It's out there anyway, even if it never wins a prize. So I rarely pay attention to the Booker, Pulitzer, Giller... any of those -ers.

But in the last week the Orange Prize for Fiction has grabbed my attention. First of all it causes a stir by being offered only to women. Sexism!, some cry, That war is over and the debt has been paid. There is a fantastic discussion at Dan Powell's blog about whether fiction awards that specify gender are really necessary.

And second, this year the prize has brought attention to an abundance of misery in women's fiction. Daisy Goodwin is one of the judges who read over one hundred possible books and narrowed the Orange Prize list down to 20. In an article in The Independent she said she felt like a social worker after reading all the books. And:

“There was very little wit, and no jokes. If I read another sensitive account of a woman coming to terms with bereavement, I was going to slit my wrists.

“The misery memoir has transformed into misery literature.”

I hear her. I recently read a critically acclaimed book that was misery from start to finish. It was very well written but there was no let-up from despair. I was bewildered by this novel and why it was acclaimed. I wondered, who would want to read (or write) a book that was so devoid of hope?

In The Guardian Jean Hannah Edelstein suggests that the criticism should not be directed at female authors but at publishers, who market women's fiction containing humour or joy with bright pink covers and would never put it forth for a literary award. And on her Twitter feed Daisy Goodwin said "He gets it" in reference to William's Skidelsky's article that says all fiction lately has become stuck into the idea that it has to favour the dark to be taken seriously. I understand this too, having just witnessed several YA booklists chosen for London schools and libraries. They're all Young Adult and yet the misery within the pages would be enough (particularly if read en masse) to depress the sturdiest adult. Skidelsky also says that the imbalance is more noticeable in women's fiction-- similar to what Edelstein said-- "because of the pronounced divide in women's fiction between frothy, commercial 'chicklit' and more serious, 'literary' work."

I like these issues rising to the surface. I want to know that when I write a book I can concentrate on the story and not the need to bend it towards a falsely miserable market, or towards light and fluffy fun. My favourite protagonists balance light and dark like real human being, whether they're female or male, written by a man or a woman.

So far I've only read one book from the Orange long list: Sarah Water's The Little Stranger, which was more haunting than miserable. I'm currently reading The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, about a serious topic revealed with such accuracy and cunning that it ends up very funny. And next in my pile is The Twisted Heart by Rebecca Gowers, a historical murder mystery with a modern love story. So, well done to the readers who narrowed down the list. Hopefully the winner will be light and shade enough to satisfy all the critics.

Trophies by Kinho Pizzato on flickr

17 March 2010

Should writing hurt?

Some weeks back I was lucky enough to attend the Guardian book club that inteviewed Peter Carey. He said he'd felt that Oscar & Lucinda (which has been beloved for twenty years and made into a very good film) was within his skills. He remembers writing it and feeling like it wasn't a stretch for him.

I found this to be a fascinating statement as both a writer and a fan of the book. He wasn't particularly intimidated by writing this book, yet I think it's one of the best I've ever read. Is that even possible? Can a book be excellent if it didn't destroy the author?

In October last year I began writing a book that I felt would stretch my skills as a novelist. I wasn't sure if it would work but I was excited about the ideas, and after a slow start I had 20 and 30 thousand word months through January, February, and now March. As a whole it did stretch my skills but it was also a success, and this Saturday I finished the first draft. Hooray!

And despite all the effort it took I can't say that writing the book was particularly terrible. I never hated writing it or dragged myself to the keyboard. I loved it. I treasured my time with my story. I even liked the time I spent with the characters I hated.

There's one of those pithy bits of advice floating around that says that if something isn't hard, it isn't worth doing. According to Thomas Mann, "A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." Whereas Gene Fowler said, "Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."

These quotes crack me up. I like them because I understand them, and they're fun to share because two writers can grin at each other knowingly and nod and say that, Yes, it is pretty damn hard, considering it's what you want to do.

But I think it's important to remember that the difficulty comes because we want to be better writers and we want to produce something great, and not because it's generally an awful experience. Writers who constantly bemoan the act of sitting down and writing get boring quickly. They probably get bored quickly, too. Do they ever really write, if all it is is misery?

Writers who love writing know it's difficult, but they don't have to also hate writing while they're loving it. They shouldn't have to look at the words they've written and wonder if they're no good just because it didn't hurt.

So I guess I prefer Carl Van Doren's perspective on this:

“Yes, it's hard to write, but it's harder not to.”

Well, damn. I hadn't read this post before I wrote my own, but now that I have I see my epiphanies aren't exactly original! Thank goodness for that, I suppose. Anyway, for further ideas about whether writing should be miserable, see Dean Wesley Smith's post.

Photo: Writers Block (8) by Jonno Witts on flickr.

10 March 2010

Write Anything, & The 100 Days project revisited


Today is Day #100 for the "100 days to make me a better person" project! My plan was to take a photo each day that represented that day for myself and challenged my abilities. Though I didn't shoot every day I'm proud of what I achieved. I like a lot of what I took. Among other things I've taken 5 photos of flowers, 7 of city streets, 3 of animals, 2 of video game screens, and 8 of food. 10 were taken on holiday and 5 in airports (or planes.) There were 2 gadgets and 2 newspapers.

And 1 sunset. Aw.

The entire set can be seen at flickr, but here are the writing-related highlights:

Photo #1, notes for my work in progress. I've taken about a dozen more pages of notes since then.


Photo #28, one of my novels loaded up on my Sony Reader. This photo is by far the most popular of all my #100days photos, and I have no idea why.


Photo #32, my brand new calendar for 2010 and my wordcount for January 1st. So far I've written most days of the new year and I love the way all those numbers look crowded onto that calendar.


Photo #45, my work in progress, in progress. I've written half the book since then.


Photo #93, my writing plan for 2010. I've never made one before but already it's been useful for inspiration and keeping me on track with my goals.


The last 100 days have been great for teaching me what kind of photos I prefer, how I can best take them and also which photos will never work no matter how hard I try. Witnessing other people's projects and the incredible challenges they overcame was awe-inspiring. I'm thankful to Josie Long, the London Word Festival and all other orchestrators of the project. It was quite a ride and very fun.

Also, this week I was asked to write a guest post over at the Write Anything blog. I chose to write about what an interesting (and chaotic!) time it is to be a writer right now, and why I'm optimistic anyway. I encourage you to go and take a look and tell me what you think, there or here. Am I right to be optimistic or is my head in the sand? Is it a good time to be a writer, or are all we all doomed with ebook pitchforks waving over our heads?

03 March 2010

March 4th 2010: World Book Day

Last week I wrote about my love of books and my appreciation for their silence. This week I need to write about the importance of making noise.

This Thursday March 4th is World Book Day, an annual celebration of reading that's embraced by schools (and anyone else who cares) to show kids how fun reading can be. Of course not everyone is going to love reading. I had friends in school who used to read as much as I did and have since stopped completely. They have other things to do and they made their choice. That's fine. But what a shame if they'd never had the choice!

Children are learning to be full-grown human beings, and they depend on the humans around them-- adults especially-- to set an example of what they can do with their lives. If the adults around them never pick up a book, why would the children? And further, if adults express distaste at the very thought of reading as opposed to watching television or drinking with friends, children will adopt that attitude as their own. Think of how much a child learns between birth and 12 years old: they crawl, walk, run, speak, write, sing... they're absorbing the world around them at an incredible rate and they deserve to build their lives with something positive and worthwhile.

Reading to children and getting them involved in the story or subject demonstrates the relevance of storytelling and language. It fires the imagination and opens up possibilities they may not otherwise experience. Reading skills help with problem solving and they allow access to every idea out there in the world, from bus schedules to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The ability to read is also integral for the ability to write. Children need these skills for school, for work, and every day common sense and judgements. Not knowing how to read can be crippling. And not knowing how to express yourself, through language and writing, is a tragedy.

You don't have to love reading to encourage the children in your life to give it a try. You just have to be involved. So if you don't love it, at least remember the value that the ability has brought to your life. Give the opportunity to love it to your kids. And if you do love books, show those around you. Choose a brand new book, read in public, share your favourite books with your friends or re-read them by yourself. Use World Book Day as an excuse and make some noise.

If you're looking for ideas, The Paws to Read program (link goes to Flagstaff but there are many more around the world) is a fantastic way to inspire children to read! It's also pretty adorable.

Photos: Father Reading to Child Under Net by Vestergaard Frandsen, Read to Me, Mom by BenSpark, & Samantha loves to hear kids read! by acpl, all at flickr.
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