Point of View

A writer friend recently asked me how I go about determining from what point of view to narrate a story. As I considered his question, I realized that I could not remember making a conscious choice of which perspective to use in any of the novels I’ve written. Rather, I’ve always allowed the proper point of view to emerge organically.

I have no preference, either as a writer or as a reader, other than having a strong dislike for any fiction written in the second person (“you”). In fact, I can remember reading only one such narrative during a university-level creative writing course. Although, I do not remember its title or author, the story was presented as avant garde. I simply found it annoying.

My first novel So Shelly (Random House/Delacorte), set for a February, 2011 release, is told in the first person through the observations of one of the three main characters. The novel is based on the lives and personalities of the Second Generation of Romantics: Keats, Byron, and Shelley as they are transported into modern-day high school students. Of the three, largely due to his less-sensational lifestyle and more conventional views, Keats seemed to be the most reliable narrator. Modeled loosely after Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, he provides a moral center for the story and a trustworthy account, while simultaneously undergoing a series of life-altering events himself. In the case of So Shelly, a narrator was required who could provide an objective balance and who could act as a sort of clearinghouse to separate the truth of the lives of the Byron and Shelley characters from the salacious rumors and vitriolic opinions inspired by their often outlandish behavior.

For my second novel, currently a work-in-progress, I’m employing a third-person narrator. The yet-unnamed novel has two major characters. Over the course of the week in which the story takes place, their lives regularly intersect; however, many of the events in need of narration occur while they are separated. Should I use one of these characters to provide a first-person narration, it would severely limit my ability to share the other’s story. Although I may sacrifice some of the immediacy of a first-person narrator, the omniscient, third-person perspective solves this problem.

I think that the general moral relativism of the past fifty years or so and society’s continual championing of the individual over the collective has inspired the use of first-person narrators and severely limited the relevance of absolute, god-like, third-person narrators. I don’t think that’s necessarily either a good or bad reality; it simply reflects the times.

My best advice is to listen to your story and to let the necessities of telling it effectively dictate your choice of point of view.

Book Club

I had my first public appearance this evening as an author! A local book club invited me to speak at their monthly meeting. There were only eight members present, but it wouldn’t have meant more to me if there were eight hundred audience members and Oprah was the host. They could not have been more welcoming, delightful, or gracious. They were sincerely interested in my book, asked intelligent questions, and made me feel like a celebrity.

I have been quite pleasantly surprised to learn of the number of people who belong to such book clubs. In a time when nearly every new entertainment option comes with personal viewers and ear buds, which only continue to further isolate us from one another as social beings, it is incredibly refreshing to find a group of people actively seeking out and engaging in real human interaction, even at the cost of missing the American Idol finale. Each member of the fairly diverse group spoke intelligently, eloquently, and passionately of books read in recent weeks, while the rest of us listened not only politely but intently.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, salons – gatherings in which a host invited guests into their home for an evening of conversational entertainment and enlightenment – were commonly held throughout French society. After this evening, a part of me longs for the return to those days. I know that I will make every effort to revisit my new friends and to be an occasional participant in their gatherings – not as a guest author but as a fellow reader and lover of books, conversation, and people.

Reading and Writing

One of the most common bits of advice rightly given to aspiring authors is to read. Although I wholeheartedly agree with the benefit of reading regularly – especially in one’s genre and from acknowledged masters both past and present – since I’ve lived through the nearly four-month long process of revising and rewriting my first novel with my editors, and I’m currently redrafting the second novel as part of the two-book deal, I find that I rarely have time to sit down and read for either pure enjoyment or professional growth. When I do make the time, one of two outcomes usually occurs; both of which can be inexpedient to my own projects. The first common result is that I become so engrossed in the novel that I have difficulty putting it down and walking away in order to work on my own. The second, more debilitating, if less frequent, result is that I find myself discouraged by attempting to pursue a career in a field crowded by so many masterful storytellers.

Whatever modicum of success I’m able to claim as a soon-to-be-published author, I’m quite regularly humbled by the genius of the authors I read during my leisure. Sometimes, I’m so humbled in comparing my own work to theirs that I wonder why I even bother. The good news, however, is that after a few moments of struggling with a paralyzing sense of inferiority, I find the self-doubt disappears and that it is replaced by an even stronger sense of motivation to work harder at my craft, to elevate my skills to the level of these exemplary writers.

The novels and essays of my all-time favorite novelist, David Foster Wallace, always leave me feeling this way. Recently, the wit and poignant observations of Sam Lipsyte in The Ask caused me to marvel at his talents, and the sublime lyricism of Colum McCann in Let the Great World Spin has simply left me in awe of his poetic narrative skills. Simultaneously, I love them for the heights of genius to which they inspire me to aspire and hate them for setting the bar so damn high.

How about you? How do you reconcile the time demands required of pursuing your own writing projects with the need for professional growth through reading? Who are some of the authors whose genius sucks the wind right out of your belly and your sails?

“Writing Habits”

Since I first started seriously pursuing publication, I’ve developed a few quirks that help to put me in the mood for writing and to sustain it once I begin:
1. For me, nothing jars ideas loose inside my head better than a long run. Once I settle into a pace and successfully regulate my breathing, thoughts regarding my various projects start to flow. During many runs, I have patched plot holes and jump started many stalled plot engines.
2. A steady supply of Animal Crackers, Twizzlers, and Diet Pepsi. I think, sometimes, I’m motivated to write because I’m jonesing for my treats.
3. Write a little; nap a little. I very commonly reward myself for spending a prolonged period writing with a ten-to-twenty minute nap. During which time, the next scene often appears to me and chases me back to my den and desk.
4. Speaking of my den and desk, that is the only place I write, which makes me wonder why I even own a laptop. The next time it sits on my lap will be its first.
5. I work best when the house is empty; however, that is rarely the case. Therefore, I do my best to drown out the noise of daily living by turning on what I call my “noisemaker.” It’s actually a “white noise” machine designed as a sleep aid for light sleepers (think of the sound of a room air conditioner or a fan). Its gentle hum prevents me from becoming distracted by life outside of my den’s French double doors.
6. I always begin a writing session by rereading and making necessary revisions to whatever I completed in my last writing session.
7. I put on clothes that help me to feel “writerly,” which for me is typically a bohemian-grunge look: barefoot, a pair of my most comfortable jeans, and a favorite graphic t-shirt (in the winter time, over a white, long-sleeved, waffle-knit or flannel shirt). I have no idea why this is my image of a writer.
8. If the ideas aren’t flowing, I’ll go do something, anything else until they do. I refuse to wage war with writer’s block. I love to write, but sitting still for prolonged periods is almost impossible for me.
9. I like to shower right before I begin writing. It seems to energize me, wash away all that is unrelated to my work-in-progress, and puts me in a fresh state-of-mind.
10. I review Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing.”
Those are a few of my peculiarities. What about you? What puts you in the mood?

“What’s It About?”

The question I most often receive regarding my forthcoming novel is the most obvious one and the one that I hate the most: “What’s it about?” Don’t get me wrong. I know that it’s a perfectly reasonable question and good one. I’m just never sure how to answer it. Is the goal of the question to discover the plot, and if so, how much of the plot should I reveal? What about the many sub-plots? Is my interlocutor interested in those too? Or, is the question a deeper one? Is its purpose to mine the thematic depths of the novel? I don’t know. But I’ve decided the failing is my own. I really need to come up with a pithy answer to this inevitably recurring question.

The most difficult aspect is boiling down nearly eighty-thousand words to a sentence that does justice to a story I’ve spent nearly two years researching and writing and providing that summary before the asker’s attention wanders to more pressing matters in his own life and beyond the subject which he had only introduced as the most obvious subject for small talk between us anyway. I’ve tried memorizing and reciting a piece of the actual blurb from the book jacket, but I always end up sounding inappropriately formal, like the narrator of a movie trailer.

I understand the need for a writer who is seeking representation to prepare an “elevator pitch” for the chance or planned meeting with an agent or editor at a writer’s conference or wherever fate throws the two entities together; however, every fiber of my being rebels against the notion of reducing my story to a sound byte. And I don’t mean to be pissy about it. It’s just that when I think of some of my favorite authors, I can’t imagine how they could have captured the sublimity of their novels in such a tiny baby food jar. How in God’s name could Tom Robbins have miniaturized Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, or David Foster Wallace Infinite Jest, or how would Roberto Bolano have pigeonholed The Savage Detectives? By no means do I possess the audacity to compare my work with these masters of the novel form. I’m just saying that I would have to question the worthiness of any novel that could be successfully summed up in so few words.

Regardless of the difficulty of doing so, I need to conjure something and soon. I mean, what if it is Oprah’s first question? (I know. I know. But a man can dream can’t he?) So, here’s my response: “So Shelly is the story of three modern day teenagers with personalities, experiences, and philosophies of life based on those of the Romantic Poets: Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Together and alone, they confront the only two life experiences that really matter: love and death.”

Yuck! It still feels shamefully inadequate; however, I’m going to take its resistance to the nutshell as a good thing.

Celebrity Authors in YA Literature

With relatively few exceptions, for years, authors of YA literature have labored in an amorphous obscurity. Although several canonical authors including J.D. Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye can fairly be identified as the prototype of the modern YA novel, and Ray Bradbury, whose Dandelion Wine remains my personal favorite, dabbled in the young adult market, until recently the genre remained under the consciousness radar of most “serious” readers. However, due to the continuing strong sales and library lending of YA titles, the genre is suddenly “hot.” According to the annual library survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy for 2008-9 – the National Year of Reading, “Children’s fiction showed a 6.1% rise in lending over the year . . . Meanwhile the number of children’s books bought was up 8.8% (“Children’s library lending jumps in latest CIPFA stats,” by Benedicte Page at http://www.thebookseller.com). As usual, notice has followed the money to such an extent that celebrities such as Lauren Conrad, Hillary Duff, and Tyra Banks have laid claim to the fast-diminishing real estate available in YA-land, signed book deals with major publishers for significant advances, and in Conrad’s case, already released bestselling novels.

Like many other YA authors who have devoted years of their lives in pursuit of agency representation and mainstream publication, my initial reaction to what appears to be literary carpet bagging was consternation. I mean, how dare they? However, although I’m still empathetic to that response, I have gotten past the futility and shortsightedness of such reasoning. Whether we schlubs like it or not, these “stars” possess a built-in platform and fan base that will take us years to build. Their celebrity status alone justifies a large initial print run and all-but-guarantees a large return in sales. Is any of this fair? Of course not, but only a child expects or demands fairness. Celebrity authorship is a reality that will only continue to grow in a publishing environment that is growing increasingly reluctant to take chances on anything less than a slam dunk title and author. Can you blame them?

The only consolation we have as YA’s grunts is that these celebrity titles fill the coffers of publishers, who, in turn, can take the occasional risk and absorb a few losses on a few of the rest of us as we attempt to build careers. It is also unfair to dismiss these celebrities offhandedly. If their writing talents are lacking, the market place will soon render them irrelevant, but, perhaps, not before they draw a few more newcomers to the young adult section of the bookstore or library. I know what you’re thinking: “But ghost writers and/or editors will perform the bulk of the writing.” I suspect that this is often the case for celebrity-authors; however, as a soon-to-be published author with Random House/Delacorte (I will be an imprint mate with Tyra.) and having only recently completed the editorial process, I must admit that the novel my agent sold (So Shelly) is not the novel that will hit bookshelves next February. Michelle Poploff, my editor at Delacorte, played an instrumental role in fashioning a much re-imagined and much improved story. The point is that the majority of novelists, not just celebrity-authors, rely heavily on talented editors to bring a polished and salable book to market.

So relax. Try not to let the celebrities cutting in the line spark your envy or exacerbate your frustration. Place your faith in the process that for decades has, to an astonishing degree, managed to uncover the literary gems that have enriched the lives of so many writers and readers.

The Writer’s Ego

Whenever I discuss my book deal with aspiring writers, it often seems as if they are parsing my words, carefully panning for the secret that allowed me to meet with such coveted good fortune. Their curiosity has got me to thinking about it myself, and the closest thing I can come up with for an explanation is ego.

I’ve always believed that it takes an enormous ego to succeed artistically or on any sort of grand scale. To believe that anyone wants to hear your song, view your painting, or read your story requires a sense of self-worth well beyond the typical person’s. On the flip side, it’s that same ego that fuels your disbelief when agent after agent fails to see the genius of your work, and each rejection is one of a thousand cuts torturing your ego to death, or at the very least, bleeding it of the resolve to keep writing, to continue seeking representation, and to dream of publication against all the reported odds and all of the evidence to the contrary.

I didn’t discover the immensity of my own ego until, after three novels and four years of consistent rejection, I found that I still had another story to tell, and with no reason to believe the results would be any different, I was determined to tell it and believed that there were those who would benefit from reading it. Unlike many, I have never been motivated by rejection. I didn’t save rejection notices nor did I question the competence of the agents who turned me down. Instead, to paraphrase the boys from Journey, I never stopped believing. My overinflated Teflon ego wouldn’t let me.

I also feel that an author’s ego lends him an air of authority that infuses the tone of his text, makes him believable, and enables his readers to trust him, take note, and listen. Perhaps it is this tone that leaps from between the lines of a well-written query and convinces a work-weary and reluctant agent to ask for one more partial from one more egomaniac.

Dreams

One of the unexpected offshoots of having signed a book deal has been the number of friends who, in the wake of my success, have begun to pursue latent or long-abandoned dreams. Some have returned to unfinished novels of their own, one has begun singing at open mike nights, another has decided to pursue a long-considered side career in modeling. Now, I’m not so vain as to suggest that I inspired them; however, I believe that they must think, “If that idiot can do it, why can’t I?” And they’re right! Not about the idiot part but about the soul-feeding importance of chasing dreams no matter what your age.

Maybe it’s time for you to dust off the goals you shelved years ago when you decided to go back to school, to raise a family, to take a second job, etc. when life got in the way and knocked you back to the rear of the priority line. But, maybe, today is the day to situate yourself in the center of your universe once again. I was thirty-nine when I decided to take a shot at my lifelong dream of being an author. The odds of signing with a mainstream publisher were ridiculously small, but I thought, “What do I have to lose?” For the most part, all I’ve sacrificed is a lot of hours that I would have spent in front of the television.

Your dream doesn’t have to be a dramatic one. It could be the dream of building better relationships with parents or spouses or children, the dream of a more fulfilling love life, the dream of running a 5K, the dream of owning that sports car you’ve had your eye on. The possibilities are endless, but the time in which to make these dreams come to fruition is not.

People, your age, are dying every day. None of them will die wishing for more money or to watch one more hour of television. However, most of them will die wishing for more time. Time, perhaps, to chase the dreams they’d sacrificed to whatever exigencies life laid in their path. So, think about it. What dream deferred is waiting to be fulfilled in your life? I dare you. Go make it a reality.

Rules for Writing Fiction

The Guardian has been running a popular article titled “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction” on its “Books” page (www.guardian.co.uk). Although I tend to be wary of such oversimplifications of the complicated and intensely personal process of creating any form of art, I have found the various “rules,” offered by a variety of successful authors from a wide range of genres, to be enlightening and to provide interesting lenses through which to view my own process.

Clearly, as a debut novelist, still months from having single book on shelves, I would never be so brazen as to believe that any “rules” I might provide would be of equal value to those offered by proven writers with established careers and readerships. However, there might be something of value to be gleaned from a writer still chilled from years in the slush and still not hardened to the magic that is fiction.

1. Read fiction. Nothing original here. For good reason, this is probably the most consistent advice given by writers for writers. I, however, suggest not reading exclusively or even predominantly in your genre. If you do, I think you will find nearly everything you write somehow derivative, which will ultimately lead to dejection.
2. Get yourself a moleskin notebook. They’re convenient to carry, and inspired ideas are so few and far between, you can’t afford to lose one. Also, they’re cool.
3. Make your writing time inviolable. When my teaching schedule allows, I exclusively commit three hours in the morning and another three hours in the afternoon to writing. Now, during those six hours, I might read, take a nap or two, or perform a few household tasks, but I schedule nothing. I am one hundred percent available to my work in progress;however, I refuse to sit and stare at an inactive laptop, coaxing an arbitrarily set number of pages or words from my unresponsive imagination.
4. Be true to your vision and voice. I believe that being a significant artist in any medium requires a massive ego. If you don’t have one, I have to question the value of your art.
5. Here comes the one that will piss off the masses. In adherence to rule # 4, lose your writing group and critique partners except to discuss writing in general and your works-in-progress in very vague terms. Sounding boards are good for writers, editorial boards not so much.
6. Unless you have a massive readership already addicted to your formula, you need an original “hook” to capture an agent’s/editor’s interest. To paraphrase Emerson, imitation is authorial suicide. Even if you manage to achieve publication, what will distinguish you from the many?
7. Borrow from other mediums. Listen to music, watch television, go to the movies, play video games, etc. Obviously, not to the point that it detracts from time devoted to your writing, but these are fields of gold waiting to be harvested by authors for plots, characters, and themes.
8. Trust your agent and editor, especially at the onset of your writing career. Their skill set is different than yours, but their expertise is vital and their goals are the same: to produce a worthy piece of fiction and, hopefully, an artistically and financially rewarding career.
9. Keep your project in perspective. It’s not your “life” or your “baby.” It’s just a bunch of words on screen or paper. This will help you avoid the emotionally-crippling feeling of desperation.
10. Read Stephen King’s On Writing between every project. A more accessible treasure of advice for writers has never been penned.
11. Ignore all lists of rules for writing fiction.

There you go. What do you think? What are your “rules?”