Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Expiration Date for Literature - Like Milk, Books Go Sour

First, a terrible admission: I don't read enough.  It isn't that I dislike literature on principle, it's just that it's very hard for me to find books which hold my attention.  And it's grown worse over time - it might be that I'm easily distracted, or it could just be that I don't have the patience of my younger years.  The Once and Future King, even, when I reread it, simply wasn't as riveting at 29 as it had been when I was 15.  And it's even worse when I go to the bookstore.  I might spend hours in the science fiction section (my genre of choice) and not find a single book that I really want to read, the kind of book where you're eager to invest the ten or twelve hours it might take to go through each page.
No go back a couple decades - or, tougher still, a century - to the days when books were even more wordy than they are today.  Pushing my way through Henry James is like getting a buy-one-get-one-free on root canals.  And Henry James is a great author - The Turn of the Screw is the classic example of a novel that literally thrives on deconstruction and "spook-factor."  I've read the book twice for class, and it fully deserves the literary reputation it's built over the years, just as it's earned the reputation for terrifying boredom.  I think I can safely say I'm not alone in my visceral desire to avoid reading this book.  Yet I also own three copies - again, a result of studying literature.  It's a testament to the quality of the work that professors are still assigning this work as required reading for many, many higher-level literature courses.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to this loyalty many hold toward the canon of classical literature.  Anyone who's read a riveting novel - Harry Potter, for example, or The Silence of the Lambs - and then tried writing a story realizes that the styles of other authors will bleed over into your own.  You can unwittingly find yourself trying to write like J.K. Rowling or Thomas Harris, losing your own unique voice to their mastery of the language.  And this isn't entirely a bad thing - this is actually how we learn to write well.  Just as children learn to speak from hearing the spoken word, we pick up the essential techniques of writing from our reading.

The problem is that many writers end up reading too much of the wrong books.  For me, if I spent all my days reading trashy science fiction, I would eventually write only trashy novels.  And - disturbing as this declaration may be - too much great literature has the potential to pollute your writing with an obsolete style.  If you simply read The Turn of the Screw, you'll know that the book would never sell on the bestseller racks at the grocery story today - it's great literature, sure, but very few in the general public would find it worth the investment.  Yet the literary writers of today - anyone in an MFA program, for example - are reading disproportionate quantities of old-fashioned literature.  To me, it'd like trying to make science fiction movies if the only experience you've had comes from watching Star Trek's Captain Kirk "boldly go where no man has gone before."  Yes, it's crucial viewing if you want to understand the science fiction tradition, but Captain Kirk and Buck Rogers alone wouldn't be inspiration enough if you wanted to produce something as edgy and modern as Battlestar Galactica.

By reading classic literature exclusively - by ignoring the new (and unproven) novels of the past ten-to-twenty years - writers may fail to absorb the changing face of literature.  And let's face it - the novel has changed a lot over the past fifty years.  Direct, clean prose has mostly triumphed over the older, wordier narratives of Dickens and Hawthorne.  It's a reflection of the modern era.  Today's readers, racing to keep up with Facebook, Twitter, and cell phone bills simply don't have the time to slog through fifty pages of text without a clear conflict in sight.  Sure, we can argue that people should make time for "good" literature, but the great books of the past aren't competing with just the pulp racks at the supermarket - they face stiff competition from ten-dollar blockbusters and the instant gratification of YouTube.  Then we have Netflix - why spend twenty-five dollars and a hundred hours of your time to slog through six or seven classical reads when you can take in maybe fifty movies for eight bucks a month?

As modern writers, we have to be careful that we don't condemn our selves to the "classics" pile before we've even published.  Never mind that agents and editors are looking for modern material with an edge - if you want to make a living selling novels, then you'll need to attract an audience that keeps coming back.  You need to target the individuals who are harried by the stress of modern life - you need to attract them with something new enough and entertaining enough to keep them fastened to their seats, eyes glued to Amazon waiting for your next book.

This requires that we keep abreast of not just modern books, but the new language of these books.  I hate reading lines like "in my estimation" and "as a subscriber to the local magazine" in stories written by students and classmates during the past month - phrases like this may not be dead, but they're obsolete. They carry the kind of impact one gets from quoting Shakespeare over the course of a dinner date - wordy, pretentious, overdone.  Trying to attract steady readers with phrases like this is like trying to build a successful car company using Henry Ford's original assembly line - unless you're selling to a crowd that really, really likes the Model T, you'll be struggling to break even.

So as you choose your reading, make sure to throw in good books of the modern era.  Cormac McCarthy's The Road or even Stephenie Meyer's Twilight will reveal the turns-of-phrase and plotting which have held millions of readers in their seats for hours at a time.  Neither book is perfect, I know (many sentences in Twilight read like an ivy shrub - tangled and growing).  At the same time, you'll need to read authors who are not yet well known.  Nascent talents will write the literature of tomorrow, and you'll want to learn from them if you want to keep up - Syne Mitchell's science fiction is a fine example, or Evie Shockley's poetry (both are great writers who are well-known in their own right, but not yet household names).

This involves taking some risks, of course.  You may purchase books with incredible opening chapters which lead nowhere (I hate posting this link, but here's a book I wanted to return after reading it: Old Man's War.  If you want to read the more timeless classics from which John Scalzi pulled his story, check out Starship Troopers or The Forever War.)  You might end up with books you can't finish.  Or you may even pollute your writing with the ills of the modern style: misplaced colloquialisms, blunt-force metaphors, and similes which cause your liver to bleed out into your spleen like a dank moldy sponge.  But that's okay.  Because, armed with knowledge, you'll watch out for these problems in your own writing.

And, of course, because you're a writer, you'll ignore half my article and keep reading the classics anyway - as you most very well should.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Know Your Audience, Follow Publishing Guidelines

So I found out yesterday that I have to resubmit my MFA thesis with a different set of stories.  Now, before you worry, I have enough workshopped material for three more theses, so it's just a matter of picking a better set of stories.  Actually, I'm glad in a way - the material I submitted before wasn't my favorite.  But the fact that I need to resubmit shows the importance of paying close attention to submission guidelines.

According to common mythology, submission guidelines are more of a roadblock than anything else.  There is a kind of sacred merit for artistic work.  In books, movies, and conversation, we sometimes hear individuals speak of "being true to the art" as opposed to "giving in to fame" or, worse yet, "falling prey to lawyers and editors."
(At least, this is how I remember things growing up.  It's actually been a while since I've heard anyone voice this opinion.  It's possible that the economy has finally beaten the spine out of the writing community...)

However, regardless of artistic merit, any work you wish to sell must find a "home" in the publishing world.  And this can be difficult.  Or nearly impossible.  So here are some tips from a barely published writer:

1.  Guidelines, Guidelines, Guidelines
When you're sending in unsolicited work, read and follow the guidelines given by the agent or publisher.  If they ask for a two-page synopsis, don't send a twenty-page excerpt.

Now there's a bit of psychology behind why people often ignore this one.  As writers, we each like to think "I'm different.  My work is special."  And these facts are both true - all writers are different, and all stories are special.  But no one is so special that they can earn respect by ignoring simple directions.
2.  Politeness Pays
Imagine this scene: you are a thesis adviser.  One of your students has just turned in sixty pages of thesis that won't make it past the department chair.  You have to tell your student this and hope that new material can be found and submitted in time for the deadline.  Do you really have time for an argument?

Answer?  Of course not.  Now I'm not saying that writers should become "yes-men" to editors and publishers, but we need to be open to the bad news as well as the good.  Sometimes the truth hurts, and the reality pill seldom goes down easy.  But we all like to work with people who are able to adapt to change and then respond with a smile - publishers, editors, and thesis advisers are no exception.  And it's easy to forget, but our editors almost always have our best interests at heart.  My thesis adviser would very much like to see me earn my MFA - an not just graduate, but to really succeed in the program.  Agents and publishers want your books to do well - if they could write better books themselves, they would.  Instead they look for writers they can work with.

This is why early politeness and respect is so critical to being published.  Agents and editors have no idea how you'll respond to news along the lines of "fifty-seven publishers rejected your novel" or "this second half of the book?  You need to rewrite it."  But they do know that they will need to break such news to writers from time to time.  So they'll pay attention to how you react to the little things.  Something like "I'm sorry, I have to reschedule our meeting" shouldn't be met with "What?  You're my agent!  Without my book you'd be out of the job!"  Besides showing a lack of courtesy, such a response sends the message that you aren't open to change - and people who aren't open to change tend to ignore their reading public...

3.  Know Your Audience
Have you ever heard the phrase "they don't know what they should like"?  Or something along the lines of "readers just don't know anything about good writing"?  It's rare to find an author who shows such blatant disregard for his or her readers, but many authors ignore their audience in more subtle ways - and these subtle ways can be just as damaging to your popularity.
First, if someone criticizes your work, listen to what they're saying.  For example, I turned in a story to workshop last week which had the term "EMP."  Now for me, a lover of science fiction, "EMP" is short for Electromagnetic Pulse.  It's the reason Tom Cruise has to steal a mini-van after the aliens show up in War of the Worlds - it's the only car on the block that's been to the shop for a new starter.  But most of my classmates - lovers of more traditional literature - didn't know what EMP was.  And it's good now that I know - in future stories, I'll make sure to reveal what EMP is rather than assume that everyone will already know what it does.

And this is good.  It shows me an important weakness in my own writing - I tend to assume my readers already know the facts that I take for granted.  And I'll take this information to go back and write a better story.  Which brings us to...

4.  Always Write the Best Work You Can
Personally, I hate reading novels that are poorly written.  I hate it even more when a good author - a renowned author whose books I've enjoyed in the past - publishes a $24 hardcover that reads like plotless swill.  And there's a reason that book ended up on the discount racks, and there's a reason I'm still upset that I wasted six bucks to own it.  It weighs two pounds and I can't even finish reading it.  I would send it to Haiti for firewood if it was worth the postage.  (Wait, did I just promote the burning of books?  It's only because that six bucks could have bought me an iced green-tea latte with change left over.)

Nothing will turn off a reader - or a publisher - like badly written prose.  Never assume that prior success means your new books is "good enough."  The goal should always be to write a better story, to give your audience something new and improved.  And this is especially important for new writers.  If you write a story that does well in workshop, try to write a better story that will get published.  Once you're published, try to write one still better that will receive critical acclaim.  Just because that last group of readers liked your story doesn't mean any one of them would trade in a green tea latte to buy it.  And if you're going hardcover, we're talking about convincing a lot of people to give up a whole lotta lattes...

5.  Never, Never, Never Give Up
There comes a point when every writer must ask the following: "Is this my life?  Can I make a living doing this?"  Most writers, actually, must ask this question at least once every three or four months, depending on the alignment of paychecks and rent checks.

So let me tell you a little secret: you don't need to make your living as a writer.  Not today, you don't.  Working at Starbucks?  Take your complimentary green tea latte back to the keyboard.  Working as a lawyer?  Remember John Grisham.  Stuck doing laundry on your lunch break from the factory?  That didn't stop Stephen King.

Except for Christopher Paolini (author of Eragon), pretty much every published writer has held a full-time job that had nothing at all to do with writing.  I'm working on my MFA now, but before this I've worked summer jobs in medical records, spent five years in the Army, spent another six months as a bartender, and held more campus jobs than I can count.  And every time I walk into Chipotle or Starbucks, I check out their latest Help Wanted sign.  (You never know when you're gonna need a job that offers a free green tea latte with your burrito.)

Never mind that there are the English majors who don't need to earn extra money for college, or that some of them go on to grad school and then go on to teaching part time.  Sure, you might say their lives revolve around creative writing.  But they still need to publish.  They still face the same hurdles that we all face - they take those teaching jobs to pay the bills, and those jobs never pay well.  There's always another MFA grad just waiting to step in whenever someone finally gives in and moves back home.  And publishers won't publish a book because of an MFA degree from Iowa - they'll publish a book because it's good.  They might be more likely to read a manuscript from an MFA grad, but that's little more than a foot in the door.  (And no, it won't help to mail a prospective publisher a green tea latte - those things don't mail well anyway.)

So don't give up.  Keep writing.  Those black thoughts of tossing your computer out the window will pass.  Know that publication is not the most important thing in the world.  Even if you never publish a word, you can still be a very successful writer.  You can encourage your children to write.  You can run workshops at the local library.  You can even start your own website.  And always, always, always keep writing.  The "overnight success" in the publishing world usually takes ten to fifteen years hunched over the keyboard without an advance.  No, there are no guarantees in the publishing world, except this one: those who give up today cannot publish tomorrow.