Are you gonna use that plot?

pickpocket.jpgMiss Snark received an e-mail from a writer concerned with theft. Something similar came up on a writer’s forum a few weeks ago, something to the effect of “Why should I show my work here when someone could take it and publish it as their own.” This statement belies this sort of thinking (which is explicity stated by Miss Snark’s e-mailer): “My work is so unique that I would be ripped off in a heartbeat.”
Umm. No.
This seems to me a little like a passenger on an airplane not wanting to put his carry-on in the overhead compartment because it’s such a nice bag, and filled with such great stuff, that if everyone sees where they put it someone will steal it. That’s not gonna happen. Neither is someone going to be able to steal your whole novel because you post a chapter to get critiques or, even more ridiculous, by posting a synopsis. I’m not suggesting that plagairism doesn’t happen. It does. I’m also not saying that someone might not take your writing and try to pass it off as their own. They might. I’m talking about someone who’s afraid that a synopsis will give away too much of their idea, and someone will steal it. I’m talking about posting an exerpt, and fearing that now the whole novel is a goner.
The reality is that there are only a handful of plots and character types. People who work deeper in genre territory know this better than most. How many monster books, space operas or romantic tales are there? Not to many. It’s subtle shifts that make different books different. Authors find a way to make a tale their tale. That’s both the easy and the hard part. Tell your story, and tell it your way.
Not too many years ago I suffered from what I call the “Collective Unconscious Copy Cat Disease,” or CUCCD (pronounced “cooked”). I would be working on a story and would stumble across a title or article about a forthcoming title that would be using the same elements that my story used. CUCCD hurts. I would swear and stomp and my stomach would churn. “HOW DID THEY KNOW?!?” I would scream at the universe. The elements in my stories aren’t all that common. I don’t write straight-forward fiction, nor is it genre. I’m in a sort of gray area. So how did my “unique” ideas get lifted from the ether by other writers? One of my little gems was taken away by Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison!! Another was a talking gorilla. SOMEONE USED MY TALKING GORILLA!!!
CUCCD got me. And got me. And got me. I would take my “stolen” ideas and put them away. “No one will want this now. My idea is ‘already out there.’” I felt as if I was in some episode of the X-Files (granted, not a good episode, but an episode nonetheless).
Then I realized that it wasn’t what I wrote but how I wrote it. I had to make it mine. If someone used a story element, stole it, I had to steal it back, enrich it with something my own. It can be word choice, or theme, or tone, or character-related. It doesn’t matter. In the end, I had to tell the story I had to tell. Since then I’ve written many stories that have well used elements. Some of them feel as if they are in conversation with the other writers’ works. I wrote a story in response to George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” It’s one of my favorite works I’ve ever written. It’s very me. It’s mine. And another piece, the novel with the story element stolen by Ms. Morrison, the one I put away because “no one would want this because it’s already out there,” that one is my novel which got me an agent. It’s being submitted right now. So now, it really is already out there. Only it’s mine now.

Write what you know? What the **** do you know?

squid.jpgThe question always comes up. I’ll be chatting with a relative or an acquaintance and they will find out that I write fiction and they will raise their eyebrows and ask “Where do you get your ideas?” Where indeed. The mantra hammered into writers by how-to-books and writing courses is, “Write what you know.” In many writing classes I heard comments to other writers such as, “You know so much about white water rafting. You should really work that into your story. It would give it such authenticity.” Authenticity. How many writers have ruined a perfectly good story in the pursuit of authenticity? The writer receiving this advice would sometimes nod and say, “Yeah maybe.” The fact that the story was set in a desert, or in a nursing home, or in space, as far from any river rapids as could be, didn’t dissuade the commenter from suggesting this. That a experienced kayaker might not want every story they write to be about kayaking doesn’t shock me. I always marvelled that such suggestions came from other writers, blind to the idea that writers may be more motivated to write about what they don’t know than what they do.
So, where do ideas come from. They come from curiosity. They come from reading, and watching (yes, I even allow for television and movies as sources of inspiration). I was confronted with a very powerful urge to write a short story after reading thelong, sad tale of the lonely giant squid caught in New Zealand. The story is not about the squid, the process of catching it, or the men who catch it. It is pretty far removed from the factual elements of this event, but I wouldn’t have come upon the story I have at all, had it not been for simple curiosity and lots and lots of reading.
John Gardner wrote in one of his books on writing that writers don’t write what they know, they write to find out what they know. This strikes me as true and more helpful than “write what you know.” If I only write what I know I quickly find myself in a corner, and I become bored with myself. I’d find myself trapped and strangled, and much like that poor squid who found out that New Zealand isn’t a paradise for everyone.
And lastly, don’t confuse writing to find out what you don’t know with ignorant writing. Once onto a story idea research becomes not just a tool, but a necessity. It’s like oxygen. Ignorant writing, details made up rather than looked up, will stab at your readers sensibility and dispell their interest in your work. Research is part of the job. Think of yourself in the early stages of writing as a prospector who finds gold. He doesn’t just put the nugget on his finger. He takes it to the jewler who hammers it into shape. Curiosity is your prospecting, research is your refining.

Come on, you bastard. Type.

typewriter.jpgI hate typing. I wrote a 70,000+ word novel and I hate typing. I am working on an even larger book now, and I hate typing. Hate hate hate. Type type type. Writing vs. typing. It is a problem.
I write everything out long-hand. Let me clarify that: I write all my fiction out long-hand. Work related stuff (my 9 to 5 office job requires memo and business e-mail writing) I do on the keyboard right from the start. They post was written using the keyboard. But my fiction, she is different.
My wife gets on me about this. “If you typed as you wrote you wouldn’t have to type it, it would already be typed and you could move on to the editing.” And if I ate as I cooked then I wouldn’t have to sit down for the meal. By the time the meal was prepared it would have been eaten. I don’t do that. I cook, then I eat. They are separate processes, they require different skills and can distract and kill the enjoyment if blended to much. I don’t type and write either, for much the same reason. I have a writing part of my brain and a typing part. They don’t particularly like one another.
When I write out long-hand I notice that my sentences are more complex, and my thoughts and writing seem to flow at about the same speed. When I type, it’s in little bursts. Three words. Two. One. Four. Then three again. Stopping and starting. My sentences are shorter. Like a telegram STOP Writing in spurts is like driving over speed bumps. It slows me down, breaks my rhythm. I become very aware of the process, of the stopping; I feel as if I’m not getting anything done because I keep stop looking stop away stop from stop the screen. Not so with the pen. It flows. The fact that my writing flows from the pen and from the pen is comforting. The habit of pulling out the journal, the pen, getting it on my lap in the right way, getting comfortable in my seat, getting the pen against the bump in my middle finger, all of that is like a runner warming up before taking that first step. It puts my mind at ease, I know what I’m in for, and I’m ready to go.
So, I write. Then I type. And I hate typing. Hate hate hate. Type type type.
To make matters worse, my handwriting is pretty much unreadable. Like a drunk doctor’s scrawl, it’s really bad. Sometimes it looks like a drawing of the ocean. Wave wave wave. But that’s a post for another day. I don’t want to type anymore.

Yesterday was the day.

cannon.jpgYesterday my agent, the inimitable Janet Reid, stuffed copies of my novel into a tremendous cannon and fired them over the island of Manhattan. The sound was unbelievable, even as far away as Coney Island. A small dog barked at the sound. Copies of the bound pages, wrapped in a simple brown paper, could be seen crashing through publishers’ windows, splintering glass, and sending editors running for cover under their slush piles. Some editorial assistants, it has been reported, were lost in the blast.
Now I must have patience. And sit. And wait.

What do I really have to complain about?

I was going to do a post today kvetching about the difficulty in finding a critique group. Finding one with the right temperment, timetable (I work full time and have a small son, so I don’t have a ton of free time), work ethic. There’s also getting over my own hesitation to show people my work, to share something before I know its done. It’s a hang-up, I know, but it’s mine, I paid for it, and dammit I’m going to keep it. I just pulled out of a group out of fear/time restrictions. It’s difficult and I was going to complain about it.
Until I read this post by POD-dy Mouth. It’s a great story, and it’s nicely told, which makes me wish all the more that I knew who POD-dy Mouth is so that I could read her fiction, but it’s also a sad truth about getting published and getting read. You have to pay far more than you will bring in, at least at the start.
Still, it’s worth it, I think.
I think POD-dy thinks so too.

Do you REALLY want to be reviewed? REALLY?

The Knight News, the paper of Queens College, has a really good series of interviews with people at the New York Times Book Review. The Man Behind the Criticism: Sam Tanenhaus. An Interview with the Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times Book Review. (sorry, you may have to register; it is free and doesn’t really hurt). It’s an opportunity to peak behind the curtain and see who is (are) pulling the levers.
One paragraph jumped out at me. Says Mr. Tanenhaus, “Novels and short stories are very hard to write about. There are few really strong fiction reviewers around and their standards are very high. Because what happens is, even though many of the reviews we run are mixed, and very few are raves, probably more pans than raves, almost every book we send out, we think is pretty good. We send a novel or a short story [collection] out to a critic because we think it’s good and yet the review will often be harsh.”
So, in a sense, you’re damned if you do, and your damned if you don’t. Get into the review, and you may be slammed in public. Don’t get in and show you didn’t even make the first cut, meaning you suck even more than the bad books which are reviewed. I never realized how much getting reviewed was like American Idol. What do you fear more: Acceptance (and an opportunity for Simon to poke you with his cattle-prod comments) or rejection (meaning you aren’t even worth the cattle prod)?

I’m sorry, Mr. Ferrell, but there’s another child with the same name as your son, and since he was here first…

My agent recently contacted me about a title issue with my book. She’s going to start submitting soon, and while discussing my book with another agent in her office discovered that he had a book with the same title: “Numb.” Now the question is, do I retitle my book or not. Do we go out to publishers who’ve already seen the other “Numb” and hope they don’t confuse them, or do I change my title for a fresh start.
No decision has been made. I do feel like I’ve been told that I have to change MY name, and while I know that a publisher can change a title for any reason they see fit, it’s still a complicated sensation.
I turned to my brother for help, in an instant messenger conversation, and here’s what we came up with:
Sean: Being Numb
Sean: like Being John Malkovich
Little Brother: I like that
Little Brother: Being Numb is a good one
Sean: Numb Strikes Back
Sean: The Return of Numb
Sean: CLose Encounters of the Numb Kind
Little Brother: The Numb Files
Sean: Too Close for Numb
Sean: My Three Numbs
Little Brother: Absolutely Numb
Little Brother: The Numb Show
Sean: Numb Development
Sean: Numb’s Company
Little Brother: Numbnation
Little Brother: The Numbs of Hazzard
Sean: The Numb Hillbillies
Sean: The Numb-Team
Little Brother: The Numb Zone
Little Brother: 21 Numb Street
Sean: Children of a Lesser Numb
Little Brother: Numbs Playhouse
Little Brother: G.I. Numb
Sean: The Numb and Bullwinkle Show
Little Brother: Ren & Numb
Sean: Numb Strokes
Little Brother: Father Knows Numb
Sean: Numb and the Bandit
Little Brother: Numb Knows Best
Sean: Any Which Way but Numb
Little Brother: Leave it to numb
Little Brother: The Numb Bunch
Sean: GoldenNumb
Sean: Doctor Numb
Sean: For Numb Eyes Only
Sean: You only Numb Twice
Sean: Thundernumb
Little Brother: I can’t believe how long this has gone on
Sean: Numbball
Sean: lol
Sean: I got another hour in me, easy

Anna Nicole Smith

I found myself very saddened by the death of Anna Nicole Smith. Not because of a sense of loss like when an artist I admire, or a great political figure passes. This was a simpler mourning, a recognition of the humanity in her passing, and the tragedy that her personal life had become. She now leaves behind a little girl who will never know her, and two men who having been battling over the girl’s paternity. I’m sure they’ll continue to duke it out because that little girl now comes with a bag of money tied to her big toe. That Anna Nicole’s son died so shortly after the birth of the girl was a strange and saddening loss, regardless of whether the woman was famous or not. That he died and was so quickly joined by his mother is almost unbelievable. If all of this was taking place on a soap opera even long time viewers might be strained to continue to watch, but this is real and it makes it all the more bizarre. How could it come to this?
The fact of the matter is that she was a train wreck of fame; she was the engine on the line of cars that include Britney, and Lindsey, and Paris, and whomever else seems so happy to ride those rails. And that engine is powered by drug-fueled relationships and the constant mistaking of a camera for a mirror and convicing yourself that because what you do ends up on television that what you do matters.
So, my sadness at her death is a recognition that at the center of it all was a sad woman with a sad life, who saw nothing but pills and problems, who left the trailer park but never left it behind, who’s entire life became a joke and who couldn’t escape it even at the happiest times of her life. I think it’s sad that she died as she did.
I think it’s worse that she’s being used to sell newspapers.

review of… Pierre Bayard’s “How Do You Talk About Books You Haven’t Read”

Pierre Bayard’s “How Do You Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” is a tour de force. While it promotes ideas that some will rebel against, even hate, I think that the details, how he really gets to the heart of the matter, will appeal to a great many readers. His plan helps people avoid the embarrassment of admitting a lack of reading time, and it amounts to light skimming and heavy lying. I can’t get into specifics in this short review, but some of the elements involve gleaning information from other sources (like reviews, or skimming a bit of the book itself, like maybe the jacket, or the author’s bio or the calaphon) and avoiding details which could trip you up. Be general seems to be the over-riding theme of Bayard’s book. Given that he is French, I think we can see why he might feel that way.
In the end the usefullness of this book lies in the time it saves more than the social awkwardness it remedies. With so much time reclaimed from the torture of reading actual books you give yourself the freedom to pursue other projects. Mr. Bayard, for instance, appears to have had time to write a book about not reading. While I find his bibliography highly suspect, I applaud the time and effort put into such a finely written and easily reviewed book.