Thursday, January 26, 2006

Wait--am I defending Andy Greenwald?

Intrepid readers of this blog will remember that a few weeks ago, I posted about Jess Crispin’s disdain for chick lit. In retrospect, I suppose I should have figured that Ms. Crispin’s literary sensibilities would engender equal disdain for other segments of popular literature, too. Indeed, as of yesterday, it is also official that Jessa Crispin Hates the Emo Boy Writers.

Wow, what a shock.

I am not, perhaps, an unbiased opinion in this matter because I happen to have a soft spot for emo boys. I know, I know—they can be annoying as hell, but I’m a sucker for bands like the Strokes and JET and now I seem to have a thing for skinny, over-emoting James Blunt. But Crispin’s objection to this type of literature seems just as arbitrary. She doesn’t like that they “name drop” a la Nick Hornby (to which my Nick Hornby love responds with a resounding, “BITE ME”). She hates that they use pop culture references to iPods and movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Her most vicious wrath is reserved for the referencing of websites such as LiveJournal, which she believes is full of self-hating fourteen-year-olds and therefore not worthy of her time—on the Internet or in the pages of these books whose existence she chooses to ignore.

Obviously, I can’t fault Crispin for her personal taste simply because it differs from mine and I can, in some ways, see why she doesn’t like this particular type of book. The few that I’ve read (with the exception of Hornby—again, BITE ME) have little chance of being enduring literature. I tried desperately to get into Andy Greenwald's Miss Misery (a special nemesis of Crispin) after a male friend raved about it, only to hand it back with a smile and vaguely positive review. That title, like many of the rest, is too littered with pop culture references that were only ever significant to a select few, and they are far too “of the moment” to capture the public's attention for very long. But the point that Crispin misses is that the datedness of “emo boy lit” is the point. Not to sound all philosophically cliched about it, but we live in a far different world than we did ten years ago—and a far different one than we will inhabit ten years hence—and popular literature is one way of immortalizing this particular moment in history. And regardless of the fact that Crispin doesn’t want to recognize it, popular literature does change society.

In college, I wrote a paper about the role of underground literature ("samizdat") in bringing about the downfall of the Soviet Union. My two main examples were Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat trilogy. Though both of these works are enjoyable reads and were extremely popular in their day, they are unlikely to be on anyone’s reading list now. In fact, the Rybakov trilogy was out of print the last time I checked. Both authors were writing for a certain audience at a certain time, and they both hit their marks with the accuracy of champion sharpshooters. These books were published on underground presses and passed around in serial form for decades. Thousands upon thousands saw life under Stalin and his immediate successors mirrored in fiction and sided with the characters against totalitarianism and for individual freedom. But now? Few modern readers can understand, much less identify with Ivan Denisovitch, who doesn’t much question his fate as a prisoner in a labor camp so far north that there is no reason to attempt escape. And who can quite see themselves as Rybakov’s Sasha, betrayed by the Party he once loved simply for writing some not-so-funny jokes about shock workers? For that matter, how many non-Russians know what a shock worker is?

I know that some books are timeless—some are destined to be classics as soon as they leave the author’s pen—and some of those timeless books do indeed bring about change from within a society. But if every author sets about to write books set in some nameless, faceless place devoid of references that may one day date it, who will speak for this time, this moment? As a sometime historian, I am passionate in my belief that popular literature is a vital tool in recording our culture—we as writers have some responsibility to set down the world that we live in so that it won’t be utterly forgotten. These “emo boys” for whom Crispin has such disdain are doing just that. They are writing of an America obsessed with iPods and blogging, of bands that may never be remembered as the Beatles of a generation, but will still provide the soundtrack to our memories of today. If they are pretentious, if they can’t seem to find their own words in which to talk about modern relationships, then perhaps it is because we as a society have grown pretty damn impressed with our own intellectual prowess but are still figuring out this “dating” thing that our grandparents made seem so simple.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats unashamedly wrote to capture the days in which he lived. In his poem, “To Ireland in the Coming Times” he set down this purpose with all the passion and fervor of a big tent revival preacher:

“While still I may, I write for you
The love I lived, the dream I knew [. . .]
I cast my heart into my rhymes
That you, in the dim coming times,
May know how my heart went with them
After the rose-bordered hem.

I can’t say it any better than that. Write on, emo boys. One day you’ll be the record of our name-dropping, emotionally stunted, technology obsessed existence.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Mood Music

Not that kind of mood—get your minds out of the gutter. Unless you’re writing erotica, in which case, back into the gutter with you. I’m talking about creative mood, literary mood, Muse-won’t-shut-up mood. What’s the soundtrack to yours?

Yesterday I had a horrendously long meeting that had me begging for death by the time it ended sometime after noon. I had planned to go to a cozy coffee shop and spend some time writing that afternoon, but my head was completely full of special elections and poll numbers and distinctly empty of anything I could use to work on my novel. So I went for my iPod and scrolled through to find some good music to get me into a creative mood.

This is something I do a lot—there’s nothing like music and coffee to get me kick-started into writing mood. I have several playlists on my iPod devoted to “writing music”—songs that get me thinking or ones that evoke certain emotions for me. When I was writing my first novel, I discovered that I wrote best with music playing softly in the background to drown out all the other noise. I also discovered that songs with strong lyrics really get me into a creative mood. It took me a while to get the “soundtrack” right, but when it finally clicked, I had over an hour of music that really fit with the story and put me into the mood I needed to be in to write it. That playlist tended heavily toward the Sundays, the Jayhawks, Beth Hart and Aimee Mann. For a while, I associated the Sundays’ version of “Wild Horses” so strongly with the more emotional moments of my book that I could no longer play that song in the car.

My second novel is not so emotionally heavy, and includes more action and suspense. My writing music reflected that. Instead of chicks who sing like they’re on the verge of tears, there were more guitar-heavy songs like “Momentary Thing” by Something Happens. The Dropkick Murphys, Supreme Beings of Leisure and the Dead Kennedys (because my heroine loves them) rounded out the action-y parts of the list, and some of my old favorites like “A Pair of Brown Eyes” (the Pogues), “La Cienega Just Smiled” (Ryan Adams) and “Righteously” (Lucinda Williams) are the more romantic soundtrack for the novel.

Over the next couple of weeks as I get geared up to really begin my current project, I’ll go through my music collection and look for things that evoke the same imagery that I’m trying to write and will probably haunt some music stores (and iTunes, of course) until I find the perfect mix. One of my most recent finds, which I expect will make up at least some of that mix, is James Blunt’s album Back to Bedlam. You might know the single “You’re Beautiful,” which is currently being played to death on major radio markets. Since I don’t listen to the radio that much, I’m not too bothered. The melodies on this album are unobtrusive and the lyrics are honest and interesting. One of the tracks, “Goodbye My Lover,” is a fantastic take on a break-up song and I can see that figuring heavily into my current project.

To me, music is an intrinsic part of writing. Without it, I have trouble capturing mood and breaking through bouts of writer’s block. So the time I spend making playlists and soundtracks is time well spent. I know some of you do the same thing—I even have some of your soundtracks, come to think of it. But how do you find the right music? Is it mostly from your existing CD collections, or do you search out new stuff? And how do you know when it’s right?

Thursday, January 19, 2006

To read, or to write--that is the question

A pledge of sorts has been going around some of the blogs and journals I read, and yesterday several friends signed on with their personal goals to read fifty books in 2006. These over-achieving freaks committed bibliophiles also listed the books they’d already finished this year, which was anywhere from three to seven. That’s seven. Eighteen days into the year, some people have read seven books.

I guess I’m not really doing too badly on that front. I’ve read four books (five, just as soon as I get twenty minutes to finish The Devil Wears Prada), and I’ve got a stack beside my bed that I can’t wait to dive into. I know that I probably could read fifty books this year if I put my mind to it. But the problem is, once I start reading, it’s hard to stop. I love books, I love stories, I love the constant flow of information into my brain. However, since I’m also trying to be a writer, I have to leave myself time to write. I wish I could do both at the same time—really, I’ve even attempted to listen to audiobooks while writing—but it simply doesn’t work.

It’s a balancing act, I suppose, because despite being stingy with any time I could potentially spend writing, I know that I need to spend time reading. For one thing, I need to keep up with the industry. The hours I spend in bookstores or checking out recommendations on Amazon keep me at least slightly in touch with what other authors are writing and what publishers (and the public) are buying. But more importantly, I have to read if I’m going to write. Reading is what made me want to write in the first place—that kick of inspiration that comes from reading a book I love, the “I MUST be able to do better than that,” that strikes after a truly bad book. Regardless of what I read, I know that reading makes me a better, more prolific writer—and it gives me ideas for future projects, too.

So I’ve decided I won’t be pledging fifty books this year, but I will be reading. Fast or slow, short or long, just as long as I’m reading I know I can still create. I have decided to keep track of my reading, an idea snitched from my Web pals—I can’t believe how many of you were already keeping track! This will hopefully solve an ongoing problem for me; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to go back and find something in a book I read and can’t remember what the hell I’ve read recently.

For me, reading and writing go hand in hand—I think they always have. If I didn’t take time to curl up with a book every now and then, I might have more time to write, but I doubt I’d actually write more. It’s not a difficult equation at all, even for me: reading = creativity, therefore reading = writing. The key, as in all things, is to keep the equation balanced.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Requiem for a First Draft

Late Friday night, sitting on the floor in front of my coffee table with my laptop in front of me and a bottle of pinot within easy reach, I came to a difficult realization: my novel is not working.

Cue swearing, several more glasses of wine and requisite moping.

It’s frustrating—isn’t it?—to realize that no matter how you tweak and adjust and shift, it just. doesn't. work. I’ve known for at least a week now that my project isn’t quite gelling, but I had held out hope that it was something minor—that I hadn’t quite nailed the voice yet, that the shift from “intro” to “story” just hadn’t happened. I mean, I really liked my first chapter and I felt like some of the dialogue in the second was good. But just before midnight on Friday, I created a new file on my computer titled “Chs. 1-10, Take 2.” Not the way I wanted to start my weekend, let me tell you.

In this case, I feel like I know what the problem is. The heroine isn’t right for the story—she’s a character to tuck away for future projects maybe, but just not the right lens through which this story is meant to be viewed. Since I write mostly in first person, this is not a problem I can correct with any amount of wordsmithing. A non-writer friend naively suggested that I just “change the heroine’s personality.” How silly of him—doesn’t he know that once a character has been birthed, the writer has very little ability to manipulate that character’s actions, let alone their personality? Good characters are complex. They have hometowns, accents and jobs they love/hate/love to hate. Good main characters have, in addition, parental issues and first loves and repressed memories of that day in junior high when they slipped in the cafeteria and the entire school saw their underwear. I can’t believably reshape a fictional character’s psyche any more than my shrink can reach inside my head and reshape mine.

Instead, I’m starting from scratch (as far as heroines are concerned, anyway—I really, really want to salvage that first chapter) and building a new character from the ground up. It was disheartening to scrap those twenty pages, but I feel better now than I have for the last week when I trudged around snapping at people who asked how my writing was going. Now I have a plan, and a direction. That’s way better than this time last week. I may have twenty pages sitting in a “scraps” folder and an unfinished character sketch to write before I can get going on my novel again, but I’ve done the deed—cut off the dead limb, excised the wound and tossed out the bathwater while hopefully saving the baby. Best of all, I’m excited about this project again and believe that it will work, once my brand-new, yet-to-be-constructed heroine is in place

So here’s to a week of new beginnings for us all. May the Muse be kind.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Just Say No to Prada

I’ve been overdosing on chick lit lately (and enjoying every minute of it, of course) and because I’m reading books so close together without a break, I’m starting to notice certain small things that are either overdone or not done enough. None of them are major—I probably wouldn’t even notice them if I wasn’t plowing through my To Be Read stack like Kirstie Alley through a six pack of chocolate SlimFast. My favorite chick lit books tend to be the “Career Girl in the City” variety, and I’m probably a little harder on them because I am a Career Girl in the City, but come on. At the top of my list is this: Learn some new designers.

Seriously, people—I’ve had it with every It Chick, editor, starlet, and ball-busting female boss character having a wardrobe full of the Big Three: Prada, Armani, and Versace. First of all, not everyone with a pocket full of cash spends it on designers who have been coasting on brand recognition since approximately 1996. This also goes for Fendi, Dolce & Gabana and Gucci. A good rule of thumb: when fourteen-year-olds are running around sporting a designer’s logo over their training bras, actual fashionistas lose interest. Really, for people who know designers a huge logo is a desperate cry for hipness, not a sign of quality. There are hundreds of other designers turning out things that are just as beautiful, just as expensive and just as likely to induce a shoegasm in the dressing room at Neiman Marcus.

Secondly, has anyone actually looked at what the Big Three are putting on the shelves these days? I won’t bore you with the details of my rant concerning the Fall of the House of Versace, but let’s just say that having J. Lo as a muse has never done anyone a favor, Donatella. Even Prada—the tasteful old workhorse of yesteryear—is producing fewer gorgeous stilettos and more monstrosities like this little number from their Spring 2006 collection. Now look at that and tell me anyone with a subscription to Vogue can still take Prada seriously.

Third, if your character works at a women’s magazine, she would know all of the above and dress accordingly.

Before you set off to write about a heroine known for her fashion sense and sophistication, do some research. If your target audience is a twenty-something single woman with disposable income and a huge shoe collection, get to know some women who fit that demographic. They have their own language, and they can spot a non-insider from forty feet away. Read Vogue--that’s Vogue, not Glamour--and visit to see all the beautiful things being made by indie designers that can’t afford to blitz the major fashion mags. Subscribe to the Daily Candy mailing list for the city where you story is set, and find out what’s happening there. Most of all, don’t assume that Carrie Bradshaw is the epitome of big city fashion and model your character’s wardrobe after her. Trust me, she’s a freak. Even Betsey Johnson can’t explain her fashion sense.

And while you’re checking out all those websites and shops, pick a designer you’ve never heard of and buy something nice for yourself—a Helen Welsh bag, a pair of Casadei pumps, a cashmere sweater by C3. Go on—you deserve it. I won’t tell.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Wishes (and Resolutions) Aren't Enough

Two summers ago, a friend and I journeyed to Eastern Europe for a two-week vacation that included Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Krakow, Warsaw and, of course, Prague. I firmly believe that no trip to Europe (Eastern or Western) is complete without a trip to Prague. Central to this fairytale city with its “Thousand Spires” and towering castle is the Charles Bridge, the oldest bridge in the city and a tourist destination that no one should miss. Between the sixth and seventh pillars of the bridge, near the revered statue of St. John of Nepomuk—patron saint of Prague—is a small plaque bearing a simple star. This spot is said to mark the spot where the martyr’s body was thrown into the Vlatava River below. Legends (and tour guides) say that if you touch that cross and make a wish, your wish will be granted. As my friend and I walked across the bridge on a scorching day in late July, we found the spot, closed our eyes and made our wishes. Being a frustrated novelist-in-progress at that particular point in my life, I naturally wished for the thing most on my mind: to finish my book before the end of the year.

Well, that wish did not come true. In fact, it was almost a full year later that I finally typed those beautiful words: THE END. Looking back at the year in between my Charles Bridge wish and the end of my novel, I think I can begin to see where I went wrong. I had a burning desire to finish that project—it had already been hanging over my head for more than a year and I knew I wouldn’t be able to commit myself to anything else before I completed it. I had wishes, New Year’s resolutions, and a whole section in my Goals/Objectives Journal dedicated to writing. What I didn’t have was a plan. I’m not talking about some regimented system a la Stephen King wherein I would nail myself to a chair for three hours every morning at sunrise and write steadily until my egg timer went off. That sort of schedule doesn’t work for me, and not only because the sunrises I tend to see signal the end of a night, not the start of the day. I mean a plan to harness my particular writing habits into the most profitable use of time until I completed my manuscript.

Finally, last summer, I sat down and assessed where I was in my writing and what I was doing wrong and right. I made a list of the things I liked about my manuscript, things I knew needed work and things I hated. Then I made another list of ways to motivate myself and make the most of my time. The best idea I had was to stop going home at the end of my work day and instead head to the library, a coffee shop or just stay in my office with the phone unplugged and devote the time I always meant to spend on writing to actual writing. The result to that idea was even better than I’d hoped—in addition to finishing my first novel in under two months, something about writing each and every day kicked the Muse into high gear and I was able to complete a first draft of my second novel before the end of the year. Signing with an agent, and outing myself and my real name on this blog and other Net outlets also felt like a big step because it removed the idea that writing was a hobby that I could quit at any time with no one the wiser.

Since I now have a better idea what works for me as a writer, I approached my 2006 goals far differently. For one thing, I didn’t put a number or a deadline on myself. It’s never worked in the past (for major projects, anyway), and when the deadline passes and I’m still stuck I get frustrated and depressed. I also didn’t set a number of hours to spend on writing every day or every week because my day job is unpredictable and since it pays the bills, it has to come first. Instead, I am making an effort to fit writing into my every day life and, as much as I am able, to shift my focus into the literary world. Maintaining an active blog, and networking with other industry people are also major goals, and although I know that the time I spend doing those things may sometimes cut back on my writing time, I also know that keeping up with the industry makes me a better writer. I do have a game plan—not the kind of regimented, deadline-oriented plans I use in my day job, but I’m adjusting.

So, the game plan for 2006: write, of course. Continue figuring out how best to harness my productive times. And get used to the idea of being a writer, instead of someone who occasionally writes. The rest, I leave up to the Muse. She did well enough this year.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

You Know What You Need?

A random Livejournal conversation yesterday had me in front of my computer for forty minutes working on a new project—not an actual writing project, mind you, but something to hopefully assist in my writing. A fellow writer mentioned a “Graph of Shame” on which to record daily word totals and find out precisely what my productivity is. Now, due at least in part to my background in politics, I love numbers because they tell you exactly where you are and when. Numbers, numbers—tiny little evidences of success—how I love them. As a sometimes-political consultant, I pour over polls. As a student loan-plagued former student, I love to watch my Sallie Mae balance inch down a little every month. And as a writer, I love recording word counts.

However, I know that the purpose of this little graph (or in my case, spreadsheet replete with automatically sum-functioned totals) is not for me to chuckle gleefully over my progress. A word count really isn’t a good arbiter of progress on any writing project; we all know that it’s not in the writing, it’s in the revising—and revising is hard to measure in neat little columns. What I’m really hoping this spreadsheet will do for me in the coming year is help me analyze when I’m most productive. I’m also hoping it will be, as Jennifer Echolls put it, a Kick in the Ass when I’m procrastinating or getting bogged down. Because as much as I believe in the power of revision, no words = nothing to revise. You’ve got to write it before you can perfect it.

My question to the rest of the writers out there is this: what provides your Kick in the Ass? Do you have a critique partner who doubles as your own personal Vic Mackie when you haven’t touched that dreaded Word doc for a week? Do you set daily word count goals—do you have a work ethic that compels you to meet said goals? Do you have Jewish/Catholic/Yankee/Southern guilt that nags you every time you sit down to watch Project Runway instead of sitting down at the computer? (Show of hands—who else wants to see a crossover with America’s Next Top Model where Janice Dickinson and Nick have the most awesome walk-off ever?) Do you have a Graph/Spreadsheet of Shame that makes you heave your butt off the sofa and into your desk chair? Or is it all about deadlines for you—do you need an actual drop dead date when the thing has to be finished?

As a writer who took two years (two. freaking. years.) to finish one novel, I can see the value in all of these methods. I’m hoping my little spreadsheet (which can be converted into a graph, come to think of it) will be enough to get me going when Shirley the Muse is being difficult. Let's face it, we all have slow phases. . .and dead phases. The point is to get going again, no matter how you do it. My goal this year, more than finishing any number of projects, more than writing a certain number of words, is just that--to get going and keep going even through the rough spots. I wish you all the same.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Write What You Know

That’s the old adage, right? By and large, I am a believer in this philosophy. From setting to character, I tend to stick fairly close to things I’ve either experienced or studied extensively. At the very least, I write about things that interest me. For instance, I will probably never write a western because I cannot remember the last time I stayed awake long enough to read or watch one. I can’t even make it through Unforgiven. Oh, wait—I did manage to watch Legends of the Fall one or two million times, but that was mostly because of the. . .er, scenery. Anyway, the point is that most of the writers I know tend to write about familiar things.

But what happens when those familiar things are a little too personal? This in itself is a very personal question for me because I’ve recently started a project that is very close to my heart. A few years ago, I spent some time living in working in St. Petersburg, Russia and I loved every minute of it. (Except perhaps the minutes spent trying to make my cleaning lady understand that I didn’t want her to throw out the miscellaneous scraps of paper piled on my desk.) I came back to the States under protest and pouted for at least six months before I decided that living in Boston wasn’t really all that bad. At the very least, Boston has salad bars consisting of more than iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing. But Russia in general and Petersburg in particular still have a special place in my heart (wow, that was corny) and for a long time I simply couldn’t think or write about it without getting incredibly homesick. There is an unread book in my collection right now that I’ve picked up and put down at least a dozen times because it takes place just before the 1917 revolution and is set in the neighborhood where I lived—it’s terrible; I know what’s about to happen to my beloved city and I cannot bear to read about it.

Recently, however, I’ve felt the itch. You know, that faint longing somewhere in the back of your mind that begs you to write about __________. For me, this time, the itch has been to write about Petersburg. I suppose enough time has passed now that it’s not so intensely personal and my homesickness has subsided a bit. So about a week ago, while I was home for the Christmas holidays, I sat down and started writing a story set there. It’s been a great experience so far. As my heroine discovers the city, I am remembering my own first reactions to this place that has meant so much to me over the past few years. I remember how dazzled I was the first time I saw Nevskii Prospekt at night, and how I sat at the window of my office every evening for a week to watch the sun set over the Neva. I remember how I’d sometimes start to forget the huge division between rich and poor in the city and then I’d turn a corner and see a homeless person huddled in the doorway of a posh boutique. I remember finding a place in the expat community there, and how for a while my entire social circle was made up of voluntary exiles like me. And I remember when I finally dropped my inhibitions and made friends with Russians, and how they took me into their families without hesitation.

I don’t know how much of this will make it into the book, but I’m sure some of it will spill into my heroine’s consciousness because—wait for it—I’m writing what I know. And at the moment, it feels great.