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"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, April 24, 2011

I recently read Scott Smith’s first novel, A Simple Plan. I had already read, a few years ago, Smith’s second book, The Ruins, which I consider to be one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read. Smith is one of those interesting writers who doesn’t put books out very often—A Simple Plan came out in 1993, The Ruins, thirteen years later, and those are his only two so far—but when  he does, they are hugely successful. Both of his books have been made into movies (A Simple Plan I saw years ago, when it came out, and loved it. I haven’t seen the movie of The Ruins, although I heard it’s not very good, which is interesting because the screenplay was written by Smith himself).
What interests me most about Smith, though, is how seamlessly he weaves together genre-like plot with believable characters and beautiful writing (although the beautiful writing was less prevalent in A Simple Plan than I remember it being in The Ruins). Both books have very well developed characters, each who behave in the exact way these characters would if the story were real, regardless of the fact that the overall premise of each book is not really the stuff of real life.
It’s kind of amazing, if you really think about it, this ability Smith has to make sure the characters are always doing and saying things that are consistent with who they are, while still keeping the plot fantastically gripping. The problem with most highly plot driven stories, in my opinion, is that they tend to sacrifice believable characters for exciting plot points. The writer has mapped out, before he/she even began in many cases, exactly what should happen in this story. What will keep the reader turning the pages? What’s the most unexpected, electrifying way to keep the story moving? Then, the writer has to force the characters to do and say things that will make that next, pre-determined plot point happen. The result, of course, is that the characters aren’t doing or saying what they would if they were real people who actually found themselves in these bizarre circumstances.
But the alternative tends to require the sacrifice of a really stimulating plot. Well, this character would do this and not that in this situation, so unfortunately, the next plot point is going to be a bit dull.
Don’t get me wrong, I prefer stories that are more character driven. If your characters feel real and I totally buy everything they do and say, I don’t mind, so much, if the plot is fairly uneventful, as long as there is at least the bare bones of a plot somewhere in there (Raymond Carver is the perfect example of this style of writing). I don’t like it, though, when the plot is thrilling but the characters are bland and lifeless. That, to me, is the epitome of bad writing.
Smith, though, is able to have it both ways: his characters are believable and consistent, and yet turn after turn, the plot keeps you on your toes—in both books, the characters are dropping like flies, and there’s a lot of psychological suspense and unexpected plot twists. Yet at no point does a character do or say something that doesn’t ring true to who that person is.
Here’s my theory about what Smith does: I think he comes up with a wild premise (three men discover a crashed airplane with a dead body and millions of dollars inside; they decide not to report the plane and keep the money for themselves. Or a group of college kids on spring break in Mexico accidentally stumble into some ancient ruins; they become trapped there, and quickly discover that the ruins are home to a man-eating plant), and I think Smith knows how it’s all going to end, too, but beyond that, I believe that he has no idea what’s going to happen in between. How will these three men reach this conclusion? How will these kids escape or not escape (I won’t tell you which one in case you haven’t read it) these ruins? I believe that Smith himself doesn’t know when he starts writing; he just gets the characters to the starting point and then lets them do what they naturally would from that point forward.
If my theory is true, then why do Smith’s plots end up so compelling? That’s pretty much the way literary fiction writers go about writing, isn’t it? Probably these books’ success is largely based on the fact that Smith is just a good writer, plain and simple, but part of it, I think, comes from the way he’s going about it. His premises are bizarre and genre-esque, and his characters, very well drawn out. No matter what choices these characters make in these crazy situations, their choices are bound to lead to more interesting plot points, which will lead to more interesting choices. He doesn’t need to sit down and figure out the plot beforehand; a good plot is inevitable based on the way he set things up.
I don’t know, of course, if this is really what Smith is doing, but I really do think it is. It’s hard for me to imagine these characters remaining so true to themselves if Smith had planned the plot out in advance, and it’s hard for me to imagine the plot remaining so compelling if he hadn’t started with a high-concept premise and very strong characters. I think he’s just found the perfect balance between plot and characters, and ultimately, I would describe his stories as character driven, even though the plots are also very strong. Reading Smith’s work is enjoyable as a reader and inspirational as a writer. I can’t help but pick apart what I think he’s doing and learn from it in the hopes of improving my own work.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Success as a creative writer, like most (or perhaps all) artistic endeavors, requires many things: a small amount of inspiration; a small amount of talent; a large amount of determination (bred, perhaps, of naiveté and self-confidence); a large amount of plain, old fashioned, roll-your-sleeves-up-and-get-dirty hard work; and, more important than anything else, a very, very, very large amount of luck. And the truth is, while I wouldn’t urge anyone who didn’t possess all the first four qualities to get their hopes up, that last one is really the make-or-break you one, and you can, in fact, reach a ridiculously high level of success with luck alone (but you’d have to be really, really lucky . . .).
This, of course, is disheartening for those of us who don’t see ourselves as particularly lucky people. It’s frustrating to think that I can get inspired with a great idea, I can combine talent and hard work to get the idea down, and I can be determined, can plow through rejections and keep at it and keep at it, and still end up nowhere if I don’t happen to get lucky somewhere along the way. Can you imagine if other things in life were like this?
What if, for example, you were invited to a friend’s house, but in giving you directions to her house, she warned you that even if you follow all of these directions exactly, her house is under a Brigadoon style curse and is only visible to outsiders at random times; you’ll have to just hope that when you arrive, you’ll be able to see it and can come in. Let’s assume, also, that her house is very far away. To make the trip at all will entail several days on the road. Would you make the trip anyway?
Your answer to that question surely relies on your answer to another question: how badly do you want to see your friend? Like with writing, your answer to that question will at least decide whether or not you even stand a chance of making it. If she’s just an acquaintance, you probably won’t care to make the trip. If she, however, is someone very important to you, you might be willing to risk it, even if your chances of actually seeing her at the end are slim. At least there is a chance, and if you didn’t go at all, there wouldn’t be.
Perhaps the key difference between this analogy and writing is that many would-be writers don’t realize how much luck has to go into their success, so it’s a little bit like if your friend forgot to mention to you the curse. Many would-be writers, actually, believe that it all comes down to talent. I’m sorry, but there are far more writers with talent in this world than there are writers who will ever reach any notable level of success. Writers with talent are everywhere you look. Inspired writers are, too. Writers with enough determination (which is linked to wanting it bad enough) and writers who are willing to put the work in are less abundant, and the writers who have all of those qualities and will also get lucky are even scarcer.
For those of us who fully understand this and have, for whatever reason, chosen to stick to it, anyway, there is a glimmer of light at the end of it all, although to see it, you might have to adjust your glasses (read: expectations) a bit. If you are in this for fame, fortune, and validation, you might be heading down a long, dark road, at the end of which you may or may not be rewarded for your efforts. If you’re in it, though, because you love writing, because (to extend the previous metaphor to the breaking point) you’ve decided that it’s okay if you don’t get to see your friend—you’d like to get out and see a bit more of the world, and the journey will be your reward—then you might find that it was all worth it in the end, even if when you arrive, your friend’s house is nowhere to be found.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

It’s baseball season again, a fact which really wouldn’t affect my life in any way except that I’m married to someone for whom baseball makes the world go ‘round. Even though in general, I still really don’t care about baseball (or any sport, to be honest, although sometimes certain events at the Olympics can be kind of exciting), I do like that baseball makes my husband so happy—almost giddy, sometimes—and when he really gets caught up in the heat of it, he tends to share with me all kinds of anecdotes about the game and its players, which I enjoy hearing.
He told me a story this morning that I think is the perfect metaphor for what it takes to be a writer (or to be good at any kind of artistic or sporty endeavor). It came up because we were talking about him playing catch with a friend of his; it’s an activity he loves to do, but it always leaves his body sore. “I’m no pro,” he said. “I can’t do anything athletic without getting sore.” But then we realized that probably pro players get sore too; they just power through it. They do it anyway because they love the game so much (I’m sure the fact that they make tons of money off of doing it doesn’t hurt their motivation, either).
Then he told me the story of Andre Dawson, a professional baseball player who had to have his trainers break his scar tissue before every game so that he could play. He said Dawson would excuse himself into a private room and close the door, but the other players still saw the tears streaming down his cheeks when he would come back out again. Breaking that tissue before every game must have caused incredible pain, but he had to do it if he wanted to be flexible enough to play. 
I’m sure if you want to go pro, some genetic issues have to line up just right, but I imagine there are a lot of people who genetically have what it takes to play. The real difference, I think, between the people who go pro and the people who play catch once or twice a week with a friend comes down to much more than just genetics. Part of it, obviously, is that you have to want to be a baseball player to begin with (my husband, and many others like him, don’t really want that—they want to watch and sometimes throw the ball around with friends, but they don’t really want it to be their careers). But even wanting to play is not enough; you have to want it bad. You have to want it so bad you’re willing to do it even when it hurts. You have to want it so bad you give up other things you’d rather be doing because you have to practice. You have to want it so bad that you intentionally inflict pain on yourself if it means you’ll be able to play.
Okay, maybe writing doesn’t require physical pain to get good. We writers don’t have to break our fingers every morning in order to be able to type fast enough or anything like that. But we do have to sacrifice. We do have to write even when we don’t feel like it, or even when there is something else going on that we feel like doing instead. We have to pick apart our own abilities, recognize our flaws and learn to overcome them. We have to understand that being sufficiently intelligent and wanting to be a writer are not enough. What it really takes is that extra effort, that drive to power through the pain, that will to get up an hour earlier than you have to in order to make sure you get at least an hour of writing time in every single day.
One of my husband’s peers in his MA program out here—a lit student, not creative writing—once told us that he used to want to be a writer, but then he realized that being a real writer took more than just writing a first draft of a story when he felt inspired. If he really wanted to be a writer, he would have to dedicate his life to it; he would have to push himself hard at it and make real sacrifices. So he decided not to pursue it. “I like the idea of being a writer,” he said, “but I don’t actually want to do the things it would take to be a writer, so I think I’ll stick to lit.” Not many would-be writers are that cool, I have to tell you. Not many hobbyists really understand that they are not putting in the same effort as the writers who are having consistent publication success.
This all doesn’t mean that people who don’t have that drive can’t dabble. There’s nothing wrong with being a now-and-then sort of writer, a hobbyist, and in fact, I think it’s a healthy way to get in touch with your creative side and explore the world around you, and it can be very rewarding. I think everybody who wants to write should do it, even if nobody but they themselves will ever read what they’ve written. But if you really want a shot at the big game, or even just consistent success in the minor leagues (since after all, let’s be honest, the big game takes more than genetics and wanting it bad enough; the big game takes a heavy dose of pure, unadulterated luck), I think you need to be pushing yourself harder than just writing when you feel like it or when you feel inspired.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

In a recent Salon.com article, Laura Miller discusses the increasing importance of self-promotion for writers. Miller compares the current state of the literary world to times gone by, when authors like J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee (just to name a few of Miller’s examples) were able to have their writerly cake and eat it too, being both reclusive and successful at once. In the contemporary literary market, Miller points out, “someone like [Harper] Lee might as well not bother; however good her book is, it won't find an audience unless she's willing and able to make hawking it at least a part-time job.”
This is so true. So depressing and yet so true. As someone who has recently published my own first book, I have to admit that I’m a bit discouraged by how much of a published writer’s job is just getting out there and trying to sell his or her book. I have to admit that, while I’m still excited about having a book published, I’ve also found the entire experience anti-climactic in that writing the book, it seems, was just one small step in the being a published writer process. Now that the book is out there, I have to become a salesman, which is something I’m not particularly good at, nor is it something that I really want to do. I hate selling. I’m like Lloyd Dobler (from Say Anything) in that way: “I don’t want to buy anything, sell anything, or process anything as a career.”  
But unfortunately, it turns out that a good deal of a writer’s job is spent in PR and sales. I’m introverted and socially awkward—that’s why I got to be so good at writing to begin with. Instead of spending time outside, interacting with other kids my age, I stayed inside and wrote. At the time, of course, I wasn’t thinking about one day trying to publish the things I wrote, but if I had been, it surely wouldn’t have occurred to me that if I did publish them, I would have to then get out there and try to make those other kids, who I was afraid of to begin with and didn’t know how to talk to, like me enough to want to buy my book.
And what I find the most discouraging is not even that I have to get out there and push my wares, but the fact that even if I do, my book is still unlikely to reach a very wide audience. I can set up readings and book signings galore, but I’ll be lucky if very many people show up, never having heard of me, and even luckier if I actually sell more than a copy or two per event. It feels, sometimes, fairly futile. And all of the time and energy I put into those events take away, as Miller says, from the time I could spend writing.
So yes, I think the true state of the publishing world is a bit depressing. It’s depressing for the writers who will never reach much of an audience because they don’t know how to sell themselves, and it’s depressing for readers, who end up only hearing about a small fraction of the great stuff out there, and who, even then, are most likely to only hear about the writers who A) Spend more time marketing themselves than writing, and as a result are not great writers, or B) Have been deemed marketable enough by the gods that be at a major publishing house that the publisher is willing to spend time and money on promoting their book(s). While certainly the latter group includes some good writers, both groups, I’m afraid, include a lot of hacks and otherwise lousy writers. In other words, I don’t think it actually is that far-fetched to suggest that most of the really good writers aren’t even on the radars of most readers.
This all sounds like a rant, perhaps, or at least a whole lot of complaining. I don’t mean to complain. I’m a cynic, certainly, but I don’t see myself as a pessimist. I guess to some extent I think it’s interesting, as both a reader and writer, to be aware of how these things really work. I don’t know that there’s a solution to the problem. I suppose as readers, we have to be diligent about seeking out new work, and as writers, we have to be willing to put the time and effort in to selling a book or two here, a book or two there. But even then, there’s going to be a whole lot of great writers that I’ll never hear of as a reader, and there’s going to be a whole lot of potential readers that I’ll never reach as a writer. And I suppose that’s just the way it goes.