I’m over at Word Whores, talking about the five books (or series of books) that really engaged and stuck with me this year.
The covers for the final two acts of Master of the Opera are in the wild! Head over to The Bookpushers to see both!
You all know I’m online a lot. Some might say TOO Much. I’m looking at you, Mom. And Anne Lamott. Between my laptop and my SmartPhone, I’m pretty much connected to the internet in some way during my waking hours. A major exception is when I’m at the gym. The other is when I sit down to read.
I need the internet to do both of my jobs. As a writer, I start my day by writing blog posts, answering business and reader emails, posting links to new covers, corresponding with my website designer over new info, etc. I interact with people on Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter. For my day job, I work for a company based out of Boston, interacting with colleagues and clients across all the timezones. That’s necessary connectedness, too.
But, in order to do the core work of both my jobs – writing or thinking through data – I have to step away from the distractions of the internet. When I write, I use Freedom to shut off access, to remove all temptation. When I switch over to the day job, though I might dip in and out of Facebook and Twitter, I mostly don’t look. The less I look, the more productive I am. I save things that take longer than a quick look – like Tumblr – for the evenings, when we’re watching a movie.
Yesterday, I was very productive, as I needed to be. I made excellent progress on developmental edits for The Mark of the Tala. I’m trying to finish those out this week, to stay on schedule with all the writing work. And I delivered the two items on my list for the day job that had to be done yesterday.
I finished my day job just in time to do an online chat with Night Owl Reviews for an hour, finishing up at 7pm.
It was a good day.
Settling into my armchair for the evening, I scrolled through Tumblr. As is my habit, I scrolled back to where I stopped looking the night before and worked forward.
And I saw it.
Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer. HERE. In Santa Fe on September 29.
I clicked the clicky as fast as my fingers could fly.
They’d already sold out. The notice had gone up at some point yesterday and I had already missed the window.
You guys know how I feel about Neil and Amanda. I even dreamed about them coming to my house for dinner. I don’t identify as a fan for much, but I’m a total fangirl for them.
Clearly, I’m not fangirl enough, I thought, or I would have known about this sooner.
But then… I only have so much energy to spend. I had to make choices and I did. I have to live with all the results of my decisions.
I’ve always found it interesting that the word “decide” means “to cut away.” (Think of other words, like “excise” – to cut out.) Deciding on one course of action means that you cannot do another. Working from home for so many years means I’ve developed a fair amount of self-discipline. I decide to get my work done first, which means I’ve decided not to be a 24-7 Neil Gaiman/Amanda Palmer fangirl.
Thus, while I’m happy to reap the satisfaction of having completed my work, missing out on those tickets is as much a result of that decision.
And I wouldn’t sacrifice the one for the other, in the final analysis. I guess that means my decision was a good one.
Or, at least, I’d make the same decision again.
Which is the most important point.
It’s funny living in Santa Fe, because it’s such a center for the visual arts. Ever since Georgia O’Keeffe arrived for a visit and fell in love with the light, visual artists of every stamp have flocked to the region. Galleries are everywhere and nearly every person you meet is a painter or a sculptor or a photographer or a jewelry maker and so on. It’s prevalent enough that it became a kind of running gag after we moved here, when we met new people – what kind of artist they’d be and how long before they told us we should buy some of their art.
(I am deliberately specifying the visual arts because there’s a weird dearth of writers here. One of my writer friends calls it “the vast Siberia of literary arts” and she’s not far off.)
So, it’s not unusual to see people’s artistic efforts around the neighborhood – in a way you would never see in another community. It’s quite wonderful, really, even if some of the art is kind of bizarre. There’s one house down the block from us where the resident artist – I’m convinced it’s a woman, but I don’t know – is into painting the desert plants and artifacts. First she painted a cow skull in big blocks of lurid tempura colors – pink, green and yellow. Then a piece of driftwood. Then a wooden saguaro cactus. She seems to be into the quadrants of unnatural colors thing.
It’s not pretty.
Then I noticed the other day that she’d attacked a large, many branched cholla on their property and the poor thing is now painted in similar chunks of this bright color, which I’m pretty sure will kill its ability to photosynthesize. It’s like she’s Goldfinger, serially murdering the landscape.
At any rate, I can see what she’s going for – a very clear style – even if it doesn’t do much for me. I do wonder, however, if she’s sacrificing a heartfelt artistic effort for the sake of this style. This brand.
We writers hear about brand all the time these days. We’re in a peculiar position in that we, ourselves, are our brand. Just as we glommed onto authors, reading everything from an author on the library shelf, readers follow US, not necessarily our publishers or our genres. What we write arises out of us, but we are the physical embodiment of it because, even with print books, story remains intangible. It can be kind of a funky thing – especially when being sane about the business requires separating ourselves from our work.
I’m very careful to say “this work was rejected” or “this book got a good review,” not “I was rejected” or “I got a good review.”
But, for the purposes of branding, well meaning and helpful marketing types are forever reminding me that *I* am my brand. My brand is me. I’m pretty much just a walking, talking advertisement for All Things Jeffe. I’m picturing something like that old movie poster for the Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.
See how creepy this gets?
It struck me the other day, because I saw a youngish writer tweeting about writing tips. She said something along the lines of that, when she gets stuck writing, she thinks of her brand and what her readers would expect from her. I can see how this is smart marketing, but it bothered me. It took me a few days to pin down why.
This is the tail wagging the dog, right?
I mean, let’s look at someone like Neil Gaiman. He started out writing dark graphic novels and creepy stories. He liked wearing black t-shirts because they generally looked clean and matched everything. Over time, the way he looks and the stories he writes merged into a very recognizable “feel” that is quintessentially Neil Gaiman. This is partly because he’s a person who is comfortable with himself and his career. His sincerity and honesty, his self-deprecating humor and insightful intelligence – all of these combine to make him very recognizably himself.
But WHAT he writes is all over the place! He does exactly what the marketers advise us not to do. He writes children’s books, adult magical realism, horror, screenplays, graphic novels, science fiction and more. All under the same name, too.
Here’s how he answered a recent set of questions on his Tumblr:
1. How would you describe the genre of your work?
2. Have you always known what genre you wanted to write, or was it a process?
I don’t know. I write stories, if that’s any help.
3. How important is the development of atmosphere and setting to the genre of your works?
Very, I think. Whatever genre they are, if they had no atmosphere or setting they would not be as good.
4. What do you prefer to write and why? (short stories, novels, screenwriting)
Yes. And the rest.
5. Is there any advice you would give to young aspiring writers? Thank you!
Write. Finish things. Worry less about genre and more about telling good stories.
Answers like this are why I admire him so much.
When he writes and hits a snag, do you think Neil asks himself what his brand is and what his readers would expect?
No no no.
Neil doesn’t think about what his brand is – or his genre, for that matter – because his allegiance is to the story. I feel very strongly that if we as writers don’t have first allegiance to the story, then we may become nothing more than factory workers, packaging little chunks of canned brand in the hopes of filling the supermarket shelves.
I don’t think we should EVER be thinking about brand while we’re writing. Writers often talk about the art of writing and the business of writing being two very different things. For me, I want to keep them that way. It’s a reality of the modern marketplace that writers must engage in the business end of writing far more than in the past. Nobody gets to be JD Salinger anymore, playing the hermit and refusing all interaction.
But we also don’t have to become what the marketers would make us into. There’s a soullessness to that and there are plenty of ways out there to make a living that are soulless and are much easier and more lucrative.
Like marketing. 😀
Seriously, if I wanted to be in sales and marketing, I would have gone to business school. I’m glad there are people who did and who then give us advice on how to get our books out there and into the hands of readers who will love them. But that’s a different way of seeing the world. I don’t tell them how supply and demand works and they don’t tell me how to craft a story.
That’s where I want my first loyalty to always be.
Story first. Sales later.
It seems the debate on “real literature” and “serious reading” will continue to roll on. It’s occurring on so many levels, with so many lines being arbitrarily drawn. There’s the Literary camp, of course, who accepts only a few authors into their lofty ranks. I really like this summation by Neil Gaiman in answer to a question on his Tumblr about why his teacher says Gaiman’s book isn’t “real literature”:
“Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig,” as Robert Heinlein once said.
I mean, you could ask your teacher to explain why Watchmen’s on the syllabus, if it’s not real literature. Or why TIME picked it as one of the 100 best novels of the Twentieth Century, but that will probably just make your teacher even more defensive. And mostly you’ll just be trying to explain to someone who is color blind why red is a really nice colour.
(About twenty years ago I was on a flight to the US, and sat next to an English professor at some middle-range US university, and we talked about books, because I love talking about books. And his specialty was early twentieth century literature, and I thought our conversation was going to be so much fun, until I realized that he really didn’t know any authors who he didn’t teach. He could talk Hemingway or Fizgerald, but as soon as I started mentioning authors equally as interesting out of the canon, and I was sticking to American authors because he was, you know, American, he started looking hunted; and I felt a little sorry for his students, but only a little, because even a bad teacher can’t stop you reading in your own time.)
I saved this link and this story because I think it speaks volumes. For a long time English and Literature classes famously only taught a few writers – often referred to as “dead, white males.” This has opened up, but judiciously, to minorities and females. But, as there’s an idea that lines must be drawn, most books smacking of genre are excluded from consideration.
Then, the other day, I stumbled across this really excellent essay by Ursula Le Guin. I think what we’re seeing now is these genre authors who’ve reached the age of authenticity, talking intelligently about their bodies of work, which just happen to be genre. She proposes a solution to the endless debate:
To get out of this boring bind, I propose an hypothesis:
Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.
The value judgment concealed in distinguishing one novel as literature and another as genre vanishes with the distinction.
Every readable novel can give true pleasure. Every novel read by choice is read because it gives true pleasure.
Literature consists of many genres, including mystery, science fiction, fantasy, naturalism, realism, magical realism, graphic, erotic, experimental, psychological, social, political, historical, bildungsroman, romance, western, army life, young adult, thriller, etc., etc…. and the proliferating cross-species and subgenres such as erotic Regency, noir police procedural, or historical thriller with zombies.
Some of these categories are descriptive, some are maintained largely as marketing devices. Some are old, some new, some ephemeral.
Genres exist, forms and types and kinds of fiction exist and need to be understood: but no genre is inherently, categorically superior or inferior.
This makes the Puritan snobbery of “higher” and “lower” pleasures irrelevant, and very hard to defend.
All of this continues to be on my mind because, even within genre, there’s criticism of who is legitimate and who isn’t. Mainly, there seems to be a bastion in sci fi and fantasy that feels pressed to defend it against feminization. No “soft sci fi” is their battle cry.
So, I’d like to propose an amendment to the hypothesis, as such:
Genres exist, forms and types and kinds of fiction exist and need to be understood: but no genre or emotional style is inherently, categorically superior or inferior.
What do you all think?
To clarify right off the bat: a blurb is absolutely not objective. It’s advertising, pure and simple. I mention this because I sometimes see blurbs referred to as reviews. An example of this would be Jessica Andersen’s first book in her Final Prophecy series, which carries a blurb from J.R.Ward. If you can read that, it says: “An astounding paranormal world…I swear ancient Mayan gods and demons walk the modern earth!”
I mention this particular example because I bought this book back in 2008 when it came out, entirely because of the blurb. At the time I was completely addicted to J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series and I was willing to read anything connected to her. Turns out the two of them are good friends and critique partners, so of course J.R. did this favor for her writing friend and for a book she wanted to support.
But this is how a blurb is not a review. Blurbs are absolutely biased support and people argue all the time about whether they’re effective.
See, the other way people get blurbs is through their agents or publishers. An agent might ask one client to blurb for another. The publishers ask star authors to blurb debut authors. Theoretically the authors always read the book first. They’re allowed to decline also. There are some famous stories out there of authors who not only declined to positively blurb a book, but tried to dissuade the publisher from going ahead with publication. Neil Gaiman has a story like this. It also happened to a friend of mine recently with her debut book. Seriously, the publisher asked this big, famous author whose name you would totally recognize to blurb this book and the author wrote back this awful letter on how much she hated the book and that the publisher should cancel it.
Don’t try this at home people.
At any rate, being the requestor is a funny place to be, because you’re essentially begging your friends and acquaintances for the favor of not only reading your book, but saying something nice about it. Or at least compelling. It’s kind of a fun game to read blurbs and discern when the blurber was just trying to think of something positive and interesting to say when “I loved this book!” is simply not a possibility.
Back when Wyoming Trucks, True Love and the Weather Channel came out, I was much bolder about asking. I asked writing teachers and famous authors both. Barbara Kingsolver’s agent wrote me a really lovely message in reply. Mary Karr didn’t bother to answer.
For some reason, I’ve lost some of that brashness now. Maybe I understand better what the big authors’ lives are really like. Marcella was egging me on last night to ask Robin McKinley and I was abashed at even the thought of asking her. I’d feel like a puppy peeing on her shoes.
Actually, given how much attention she lavishes on her Hellhounds, that might be an effective approach.
So, for now I’m hitting up my friends – especially the ones who’ve already read the thing and made nice noises about it. As I screw up the chutzpah, I might see if some others want to read, with an eye towards blurbing.
Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be good enough to ask someone like Robin.
That’s okay, as we’re a week into October now.
(No – I have no idea how that happened. One of my editors is planning to report the theft of September to the proper authorities.)
I’ve been thinking about imagination and creating stories lately. Totally part of my Neil Gaiman kick, I’m sure. It’s also because I found out that Marcella, Laura and I will be presenting a writers panel at the RT Booklovers Convention in April called I Was Born This Way! We all have really different styles of plotting, pre or no, and now we’ll have to find coherent ways to discuss it. I, of course, represent the mister pole, where I plot virtually nothing ahead of time. Not because I don’t think that sounds like a great idea, but because I just can’t.
Yesterday I wrote the scene where my Middle Princess arrived in the foreign country. All through the book so far, people have told wild tales about the place and the people. Tons of misinformation. In many ways the book has turned out to have the theme of things not being what they seem. So, she’s been anticipating – kind of dreading, kind of excited – arriving in this near-mythical place which will become her home. Believe me, I’m giving nothing away here. We know from the beginning that her fate will go in this direction, no matter how she fights it. She’s all interested to see what it’s really like.
And so was I.
Cuz, um, I had absolutely no idea.
This seems to be how my imagination works. I can think about the place, come up with hints and ideas, but until I write my heroine and I’m riding in her head, seeing the place, I just can’t seem to know much about it. While this creates uncertainty, it also makes writing really fun. But the place turned out to be… well, that part would be spoilery.
Suffice to say I was surprised.
Damn, now I want to tell you all about it.
I’ve been reading a lot of Neil Gaiman lately. I finished American Gods and now I’m reading his short story collection, Fragile Things. I confess I’d only ever read Good Omens before. The truth is, I’ve gotten away from reading many male authors. I know that’s likely an unforgivable bias. (I almost said reverse-bias, then I wondered why is it reverse – just because it’s more usual for guys not to want to read female authors?) It wasn’t really a deliberate choice, though I found I tired of the “boyness” in many of the stories, particularly in science fiction and fantasy (SFF). The incidental female characters who have no discernible personalities, the gallivanting from one fight to the next. The reflexive sexism. I know that not all male writers do this and I think Ender’s Game is a brilliant novel. But I stopped reading Orson Scott Card because I couldn’t stomach his male-dominated society ideals any longer.
Neil does not do these things.
He writes stories that arise from myth and fairy tale. They include sex, sometimes between partners of the same gender. His female characters are interesting people, even the sexy ones. And it occurred to me that I write a lot of the same kind of thing.
I hope that doesn’t sound vain or arrogant, comparing my work to his. It felt like a bit of a homecoming for me, because so much of what I write seems to fall outside of the usual arenas. So, it’s comforting to find someone else writing in a similar vein. Also, one of the neat things that he does in both of my editions (Kindle, natch) is provide notes. Sometimes he talks about his process or the inspiration for a story, or editing. For some reason, an aside remark I read yesterday hit me, where he mentioned that he knew very early on that he wanted to write SFF.
It’s often the case that one person’s eye-opening moment is another person’s blank stare, but I had a bit of an epiphany (the sun broke through the clouds, gleamed on the puffy cottony flowered bush, angels hummed – it was just a baby epiphany). I realized that, though I have lots of sex and romance in my stories, that I really want to be a SFF writer.
(Yes, Mom – I’ll keep writing nonfiction, too.)
I think I fell into the idea that the sex and romance outweighed the rest and pushed me into romance. But now I’m all about, hey, if Neil can do it, I can do it. (Obviously the erotica is a whole different kettle of fish and I’m okay with that.)
So, this is likely a ho-hum revelation to you all. Feel free to stare blankly and then go about your business.
But I can still hear those angels humming.
Random choice, I know.
That’s kind of how life is, though; how people are. Some days a certain or image is in our minds and the next, something else. For a while I’ll be madly in love with a certain band and later I’ll think of them fondly, with a certain nostalgic affection. Celebrities are hot one moment and yesterday’s kitty litter the next. People spend time and money trying to track and, better, create these phenomena. They can’t. Our attention is riveted, then lost.
Yesterday I read a published author’s blog post about a conversation with her agent. They’d been discussing what she’d write next. They went over a number of ideas and the agent said, which one are you most excited about – except this one. Of course the idea the agent eliminated from discussion is the one the author was most excited about. But the market has been tepid for her books. She’s had a bad run and the publishing houses aren’t picking her up like they used to. She and her agent are trying to reposition her and it’s clear she’s feeling down about it. Like everyone, she frequently refers to the “changing publishing industry.” Things are just difficult right now, she says.
I also have a couple of friends who are querying their manuscripts and getting not much response. They’re not getting requests for even partials. These are good writers with good books. But people in the industry, in the top tiers, aren’t looking for that right now. They’re looking for hot and hip. They want the next phenomenon.
Earlier this month, I mentioned Oprah’s interview with JK Rowling. You can watch it on You Tube and it’s worth the time. The best moment, I thought, was when Oprah asked JK if she had ever imagined Harry Potter would become such a phenomenon. She said no and turned the question around. It was fascinating to hear these two vastly successful women, both of whom had once been in the poorest of circumstances, discuss the amazing serendipity of their successes. Especially now that both are at the end of their particular comet-rides. Oprah is ending her talk show and Rowling has ended the Harry Potter series.
Oprah asked Rowling if she’d try to do something like it again and Rowling instantly said no. She said, in fact, that people regularly warn her that she’ll never do anything that huge again. She’s promised herself that she’s not spending the rest of her life chasing the phenomenon, trying to top what she did with Harry Potter. Oprah said she finds herself thinking about how to do it with her new network, how to make it be the sensation like her show has been. She stops herself, too.
They both referenced a moment in an interview with one of Michael Jackson’s people. How no one had expected Thriller to become such a worldwide phenomenon. And how Michael Jackson then spent the rest of his career and his life chasing it, trying to make it happen again.
He is now, of course, the great cautionary tale for all creative types.
Ambition is a necessary thing. It’s what keeps us going in the face of adversity. In the face of people who just aren’t sufficiently enthusiastic about your work. But it’s the love of the work itself that’s truly meaningful. Neil Gaiman (my hero, you know) was featured in an episode of a children’s show, Arthur. It’s only something like 12 minutes long. I thought I’d only watch a minute or two, since my boy did the voice. Then I got so drawn in and, yes, even a little emotional, I watched the whole thing.
It’s about writing a story – a graphic novel, actually – and sticking to what you want to write, rather than what people like. (I admit I did grumpily mutter, when Neil tells the little girl that he wants a copy of her book when she gets it published, something along the lines of “easy for you to say, you’re Neil Fucking Gaiman.” But it was just a little spat – he still has my heart. He can be my inner Neil anytime.)
At any rate, I think those “lessons for children” are good lessons for all of us. You never know what people will like. And what made them say ho-hum yesterday might be OMG tomorrow.
I do know this: we need to love it first.