Tuesday, April 22, 2014

No Leads to Yes: Examples for Writers

I saw the Billy Crystal special on cable TV about 700 Sundays where he talks about his youth and how he wanted to be a NY Yankee or a comedian, or a very funny baseball player. I thought about my early ambitions and realized that we come to ourselves through a long series of ‘Nope, not that,’ or even ‘Been there, done that.’

I only wanted to be a writer -- a Great American Novelist. More specifically, I wanted to be F. Scott Fitzgerald. I didn’t want to be Zelda, the wife of a famous writer. The lifestyle was not my focus, but the stories.

I liked how Fitzgerald used anglo words and sneered at the French language that his buddy Hemingway only side-stepped.  I liked that Fitzgerald exposed the pretension of the new money classes and didn’t require a happy ending for a love story.

Later I discovered Lillian Hellman and wanted to be her, except she was so uncomfortable in her skin (when young). She told the stories from the point of view of the women, even though they were victims of the plot rather than driving the plot. Margaret Atwood does something similar, displaying the women as powerless in a stilted marriage or without funds or smarts to make a difference.

But why not a story where the female lead character drives the action?

You will suggest Sylvia Plath, I’m certain. Nope, not that.

There’s Carson McCullers, of course. Southern Gothic was her genre, and I was influenced by The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that I read at an early age. McCullers was sorta chewed up by the NYC writer’s lifestyle, though, as was Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird).

These stories are presented as confessions, a slice of life, illustrations of the era. Plots were outgrowths of situation following that axiom to write what you know.

“Today you are You, that is truer than true.
There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
– Dr. Seuess

But my life was boring – well-raised, bookish, affluent, Midwestern (not from the South where they seem to suffer more deeply). So … Nope, not that.

I liked action adventure stories like The Perils of Pauline or Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. I wanted the woman to drive a real plot. Why was that so much to ask?

So I read more stories by women in the fantasy genre like Louise Erdrich who brings in mythical elements from Native Americans, and Juliet Marillier’s series about a Daughter of the Forest. The girl protagonist was typically young and imbued with unusual powers of seeing. Other genre writers sent 14-year-old girls into battle in full armor and wielding a 24-inch battle sword. This impossible heroine makes the same choices a guy would make, except she’s gender female (often a cross-dresser like Arya in Game of Thrones). Nope, not that.

I read Robin Hobb’s many series (series-es) that start with The Assassin’s Apprentice. Hobb certainly has the chops for the fantasy genre with immediacy and surprise. (Dragon warming stations: still too funny!) I wondered why the primary character was not a girl. The female characters (in the early series) were relegated to stilted roles of a candle-maker and a misunderstood queen who wielded minimal powers through example and patience. The many lady-aunties accomplished small victories behind the scenes while presenting a benign presence at court. Nope, not that.

Is the same true for you, dear writer who is reading this blog? Do you come to goals for what you want to accomplish by what you know you don’t want to reinforce? Here are some of my standards I impose for my own stories:

·      Girl protagonist (past age 18) who drives the story
·      The protagonist isn’t isolated – knows her mother and sisters and cousins and opponents
·      Real problems that real women have to solve (without pretending to be a boy)
·      Believable obstacles such as no voice in public and no funds to achieve goals
·      A plot that has a crescendo at the end, not slice of life
·      Each character grows during the story arch (even the men)

This last goal is a pet peeve of mine that I call the Lee Remick syndrome. She played opposite Jack Lemmon in The Days of Wine and Roses. They were both drunks and he went through all the stages including getting clean but backsliding. She kicked him out so she could raise their daughter in a stable life, but he visited during his many ups-and-downs. Each time she opened the door, Remick looked the same, not a line on her face. She may have worn the same wig for the whole movie that spanned a couple of decades. Nope, not that.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Where are the Readers?

“In old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. 
Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody.” 
― Oscar Wilde

My son moved to California in his twenties, and we talk through email and Twitter. He visits in the summer when we gather at my mother’s table in Indiana with uncles and married siblings and nieces and nephews. At one event I remember, he was telling me about an article he had read about the Gulf Wars. I asked if he meant a Time Magazine article because I had read it too. I felt an odd sensation that we received news from the same physical source.

News anchor Walter Cronkite in the 1960’s was well known for his departing catchphrase "And that's the way it is," followed by the program’s date. No longer does one personality define the daily news and establish a narrative for anticipating the future.

The promise of the internet was connecting people without a mediator dictating the news, democratizing information so a user can gain several perspectives. The reality of the internet, however, may be that society is fractured.

People live in information silos now with cellphone conversations that trump talk with dinner guests, and success counted by volume of online visitors more than service to the local community.

I can gain information anywhere, so I seek those outlets where the viewpoints agree with my tastes – painted china rather than decals on motorcycle tanks.  I can ignore or discard the white noise of competing ideas and cling to bloggers who share personal experiences similar to my own.

My ideas are never tested in competition or debate. I live in the bubble.

My friend published her book and completed a blog tour and grew her Twitter following to 2000.  She did giveaways on her blog and in Goodreads, and solicited reviews everywhere. But the book had no sales. She complained bitterly that she lived in a “Kuiper belt” with other writers touting their books and no readers.

My book on Goodreads has 375 people who have marked it “to read”, and seven reviews. Maybe the others friends are waiting for a fresh giveaway. An odd concept, though, that devalues the work of the writer. Goodreads friends only commit to reading a book that’s free.

In fact, so much reading is necessary to get to the content that we have energy only for skimming. I can return to a blog, or do a fresh search, if I “need” the information.

I recently participated in a Twitter frenzy where friends broadcast their blogs on the same day with a specific hashtag. Except we retweet and follow new people and count the increase in volume as success. None of us read the blogs. We only note the titles for kudo replies.

Everybody’s a writer. Where have all the readers gone?