Monday, March 29, 2010

Fantastic Journey.

I went to the other side of the island today. As small as the island is, this is an epic journey. And as I was riding along admiring countryside I hadn't seen since I was a tourist, I realized the importance of setting and scale in fiction. Does your story have major, nation-breaking stakes? Espionage and terrorists and corrupt governments? Well, I'm guessing it's not set on Kauai. It's probably set in New York City and London and Timbuktu. What if your story is about a family crisis, a boy and his dog, or maybe a diary someone shouldn't have read? That one probably doesn't span the globe. It probably spans a small town in the midwest.

Think about your setting. Settings. If you can pull off the mismatch, and launch a successful tempest in a teapot, I shall cheer you on. But avoid the common error of trying to make a story seem larger and more important by inflating the settings. This is a mistake made in science fiction and fantasy all the time. If you need to spring a prisoner from the federal pen, there is no reason to locate that prison on the Moon. Trust me, there really isn't.

I'm still trying to find a story to fit Kauai. It's small, but it carries the risk that almost everyone out there has an idea of what Hawaii is. Anything I can say will be familiar but not a match to a reader's understanding. It's too unique. And heck, it's cute. It's a lovely place with lovely people. When I first moved here the police blotter included loose cow reports, and who am I to comment on the moral turpitude of farm animals?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Do Not Want.

I was wandering a bookstore looking at the new fiction yesterday and found a couple of things that reduce a novel's appeal for me. One is a trend I thought would die out years ago: the New Age-y Title. Examples:

Like Water for Chocolate
Water for Elephants
The (insert archaic job title)'s Daughter

Even Marquez is guilty:

Love in the Time of Cholera

There was a new one yesterday:

The Solitude of Prime Numbers

Honestly, if anything will make a reader long for Olive Kitteridge, this trend is it. But then I noticed something else. Read the precis on the inside flap of too many novels and find this:

(Character name) is haunted by (choose: his past, the accident, memories, etc., etc.). In short, pick anything except a ghost. So here is a plea from a potential reader. If your character is haunted, have it be by a dead guy. I'm tired of ennui and angst. I can supply my own, thanks. If there really is a ghost, carry on.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It's (Not) Raining Men.

Tragic, I know, but nobody talks about the landing. Or the cleanup. But I'm not talking about the weather. I'm talking about the reader.

There's a discussion going on in the world of writing, and certainly in the world of publishing: where are the male readers? Specifically, where are the young men?

There is a perception that young men don't read, and I think the perception is accurate. First, let me say that most people of every age and gender don't read. They watch TV, spend time on Facebook, play video games, watch movies, whatever. But when you look at the few, the proud, the readers, there is a missing group: young men. I have offered the theory that they are drawn more by World of Warcraft and porn than to fiction, and I think that's part of it. More of it is probably down to the unsolvable problem of excitement.

Reading used to be the main source of excitement and adventure for those of us who were not going to sign up to crew a clipper ship or be discovered as the missing heir of some remote kingdom. As time passed, war fiction and science fiction could still provide surrogate thrills to the young man struggling with high school or college or a first job. Then came all the other draws: movies, television, video games, and the Internet. Sorry, books, but for the casual reader you can't compete.

You're mad now, but it's true. Only the die-hard readers remain. And people who want something more sedate, like romance, or more difficult to replace, like epic fantasy.

So the young men aren't reading. Young Adult fiction is, for the most part, female-oriented. Fantasy is read by young women. Romance is almost entirely read by women. Yes, older men are still reading. They are reading what they have always read: science fiction, war fiction, literary fiction, and non-fiction. But what happens when today's leveling-up WoW young men replace the former D&D-playing older men?

I visited a couple of bookstores last Wednesday. One was the Lihue Borders, and as I surveyed the new and notable fiction, I realized that most of the books were written by women. And I also realized for the first time that my favorite author list split pretty evenly between the genders. Think of what the literary world looked like fifty years ago, and you'll see some major positive change for women writers.

I predict that trend will continue. But I don't think we'll see this wonderful balance last long. I think we will tip to more women writers of literary fiction. Vastly more. A few reasons here:

1. Publishers know there is a wave of young men out there to whom they can't sell a book at gunpoint. Think they will make a major effort to solve this problem, or will they instead try to reach the reading women? Publishers are trying to survive; they have to serve the largest possible audience. I'm afraid the current generation of young men, and the future generation of older men, has been written off.

2. Do men, especially young men, want to do "girl stuff?" Nope. So what happens in twenty or thirty years when the majority of writers in every genre except science fiction and war fiction are female? What happens when the majority of literary fiction writers are women? Think young men will aspire to join that rank as they once did?

3. Think the Nobel Prize committee, which has already declared that it will never again give the literature award to an American, will be more or less likely to give the prize to a man? You'd better be from an oppressed community, buddy. Yes, we are all made stronger by recognizing the breadth and depth of human experience, but cutting off one group completely is a mistake.

Last Wednesday I also visited a used bookstore that sorted literary fiction by gender. Yep, male writers on one side, female writers on the other. Strangest thing I've ever seen. We're supposed to be on a level playing field in literature. Our only chance is to help the reader reach for a book without thinking of the gender of the writer. We can't risk making the male reader look down that aisle and see "girl stuff."

I suppose, in the end, that's the point I'm trying to make. I hope we aren't losing a generation of men. I hope we aren't losing men entirely.

Monday, March 8, 2010

You Should Do This.

Dont'cha love shoulds? Don't they just wreck the peaceful enjoyment of your hobbies? All the shoulds: should pay your taxes, should replace the roof, should feed the other humans in your house. Such a time-consuming bunch of tasks.

Here's one that isn't. It's one every writer should try:

Take one chapter of your book.
Remove all the adverbs.

That's it. That's all. Use your Find function and look for -ly endings. You can leave "family" in there, and "only" if you must. Everything else must go. See if your work doesn't sound more rigorous and professional.

Try it. You'll like it. Yes, you can feed the other people in your house first, if you must.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

I Will Never Do This.

Writing groups, conferences, and forums all have their own personalities. If a writer is lucky, he or she will find a community somewhere where they feel they belong. And he or she will also find a few where they don't feel they fit, and figure out why, and learn something.

I like Nathan Bransford's forums, but I don't fit in there. Part of it is chronology— I'm a decade or two older than most of the folks over there. Then there's the fact that my reading list does not overlap with theirs. Mostly it's something I've seen in post after post that drives me straight up the wall. Posts like this one:

"I know we're told never to use Crappy Writing Technique X, but Writer Joan Doe uses it and sold a zillion books, so I'm going to ignore that advice."

Followed by a dozen "me too" or "you go, girl" posts. No matter how egregious the writing technique, how epic the fail, some will embrace it. Or rather, not bother to root it out of their own work.

Three thoughts:

1. It is true that any bad writing technique can be found in the work of some successful writer out there. It is also true that successful writers can get away with things that new writers cannot.

2. It is true that I feel a certain level of sangfroid in reading posts by new writers who are cheerfully deciding to hobble their chances by ignoring their craft.

3. I will NEVER agree that you can let craft go and ignore problems just because someone who has already earned their publisher a pile of money has let their work slide.

Now get back to the hard work of writing well.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fiction and the Stages of Grief.

Hello again. Sorry for the delay. I do enjoy the writery bit, but it's Second Life that pays the bills, and I've been to a three-day conference in-world and then been doing a little bit of work. Terrible thing is work, but at least I don't have to get off the couch.

On to the writing part. I seem to have survived the online discussion of that vampire book. My explanation that it's not to my taste as I don't care for adjectives, adverbs, twinkly people, 700-year-old high-school students, and the creepy subjugation of women, seems to have gone over well. It's just not on my reading list.

Which made me think about my reading list. Active novels are Roberto Bolaño's 2666, John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River, and Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. So far we have serial killers and literary critics, industrial accidents, and school mass murder. A cheery lot, that. Actually, I'm finding 2666 to be wonderfully funny, but that's probably just me.

So why do I want to read this stuff and not something a bit more escapist? I was pondering, and that's when I thought of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. Anybody who ever took Intro Psych in college knows the name. She introduced an orderly chart of the stages of grief. Get a bad diagnosis? You'll first deny it, then get angry, then try bargaining with any available deity or fate, go on to get depressed, and then find acceptance. You may also remember jokes about people jumping off tall buildings and managing to complete all stages in ten seconds. Maybe you don't if you went to college after 9/11.

Moving on. What I have learned from my experiences with real-life grief is that the stages don't actually come in order. You can have all five in less than three minutes. They come at you when you don't want them, and the last one in particular never seems to last very long. The orderly system is chaos, and even Kübler-Ross called bullshit on the whole thing when she herself was dying. Funny thing, perspective.

What has this to do with fiction? Well, not to beat a horse facing a serious diagnosis, but life is full of occasions for grief and suffering. Life is hard. Whether you're a high school student being told that your geometry final will make-or-break your getting into the college of your (parents') choice or an adult who spent the day sorting her taxes and wishing the new roof could be deducted as a medical expense, much of life is, to put it bluntly, a bitch.

Again, what has this to do with fiction? I believe that fiction helps get us through the night. What we're reading can tell us where we stand on the stages of grief. Do you just want to ignore what's flying at your head? A little denial for just a little while? Escapist fiction. Shiny supernatural sophomores. Down the other end of the scale, you might want to see other people struggling, and you're reading literary fiction. You are suffering, but you are not alone. We are billions of Tolstoy's unhappy families in an endless archipelago.

One of the best critiques I've ever read of a novel was for Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron. I think it was from the Chicago Tribune. The reviewer called the novel "a primer for the survival of the human soul."

That's all writing is, folks: the most important thing in the world.