Monday, October 25, 2010

I Swear, I Thought of Sparkly Vampires First!

In response to my last post, Robyn noted the near-impossibility of stumbling upon a truly original plotline, and offered voice and style as the necessary antidotes to a world already saturated with good ideas. The same day that I read Robyn’s comment, a friend and coworker asked me if she should change the plot of her work-in-progress since she’d discovered that it shared some vital plot elements with a bestseller she’d just read.

I am not a writer, myself, but after years of working with writers I’ve come to see that one of the first and most difficult challenges they face is the pressure to come up with a totally original premise. In an industry that churns out new hits at what can seem like an astonishing rate, that pressure can be debilitating. And maybe it’s too easy for me to say, “Don’t worry about it.”

But seriously, don’t. At least not right away.

First of all, there’s the time factor. The fast-paced industry keeps audience attention constantly shifting to a new hit. As long as your book isn’t about a boy going to wizarding school or kids killing kids, chances are good that by the time your work-in-progress finds its way into a publisher's hands and makes it all the way through the editorial and production processes, it won’t be compared to today’s bestseller at every turn.

More importantly, it’s not ideas that make stories; it’s voice and character. If ten skilled writers tackled the same plot, I feel confident that they’d write ten completely different stories, with ten different moods and at least ten different meanings. Their own individual styles would appeal to different readerships and convey different emotions. Perhaps even more noticeably, each of their characters would be their own, and thus each writer's ideologies and ways of looking at human nature would determine her characters’ personalities and choices. And those unique characters would make different choices in the face of the same challenge. The same basic plot could branch out into hundreds or thousands of unique stories.

There were books about Taliban murders before The Kite Runner. Before Marcelo in the Real World there was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. There were books about the holocaust before Everything is Illuminated. Before The Hunger Games, there were plenty of books about dystopia (even a few about the government forcing children to kill each other), and there sure were a lot of books about dangerous love before Twilight.

We are a species which tells itself the same stories of love, friendship, desire, tragedy, persecution, hope and redemption again and again and again. Almost any story, boiled down to its essential parts, is about the way people interact, the way they hurt and the way they heal. So it wasn’t plot alone that set these novels apart. The premise of a story is all packaging; the story's heart is its emotion. And a story’s emotional content comes from voice and character, not from plot.

True, there does come a point in the journey to publication at which it’s absolutely vital that you and your work stand out. Sometimes a house or imprint will turn a proposal down because the story is simply too much like something that the house recently published or a big competitor already on the market. And I do believe that the very best writers set themselves apart by marrying content and presentation, pairing a great idea with skillful writing.

But when you’re drafting a story, there are still so many directions it could take. Who knows how much of your original idea will even make it into the final story, or how it will read in the context of the finished work. So if you feel you have a good idea but worry about how it may be compared to what's already on the market, I'd encourage you to put that worry aside for now and see how far you can take your idea. Use your idea to explore what your strengths are as a writer, and I trust you’ll find a way to set yourself apart through them.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Did Gutenburg Worry about Making Artists Redefine Themselves?

I just read this fabulous article on the Pictorialists, the rise of photography to the status of an art (which, by the way, I discussed in my first blog post), and the way Hipstamatic and other apps introduced for the iPhone recently have tried to recreate that movement's feel. The article did a great job of explaining how Pictorialism came about organically as a reaction to technological advances at the time.

Originating in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and championed in America by Alfred Stieglitz, Pictorialism was a movement in the art world that placed value on hazy, dreamlike photos which emphasized light and mood more than actual readable scenes. It's often wrongly assumed that photos from this time period look so different from today's ultra-sharp images because the artists were limited by the technology available to them. In fact, it's quite the opposite; with Kodak's release of the first handheld camera for amateurs, the technology needed to make high-quality narrative photographs had just become all too available. It was no longer enough for professional photographers -- already working hard to earn the art world's respect -- to own and know how to operate complex photographic equipment. Thus, photographers who wanted to stand out as artists in a field now overrun with "snapshooters" began tweaking photography to look as similar as possible to what was already considered a serious art: painting.

Reading about Pictorialism in The Atlantic, I couldn't help but compare the cultural changes that photographers faced at that time with the cultural changes that publishers and writers face today. With the popularity of digital technology like the Kindle, the Nook and the iPad and of e-publishing in general, publication of a sort is available to more writers now than ever. Anyone with a bit of design sense and some familiarity with technology can create e-books and print-on-demand books. And with the increasingly common creation of new initiatives and imprints like Kindle Singles and Odyssey Editions, it seems that the variety of works and writers hitting your e-bookstore of choice is set to get more varied by the day. Never has publication been so accessible to the amateur writer.

That said, there are some definite differences between our situation as writers, readers and publishers today and the situation of those early-20th-century photographers: most notably, the fact that writing was long ago established as an art form. If you ignore the fact that many genres and target audiences still fight to be considered legitimate literature, you could say that we, unlike Stieglitz, don't have to try to romance the art world in order to prove that we really are artists.

Still, I think that most artists do try to set themselves apart from the masses, and it sure seems that "the masses" just got a whole lot more massive. What do you think? Is publication by an established house still enough to offer the kind of status artists often seek? Or, will writers trying to establish themselves as artists have to work harder to separate themselves from the masses in the greater world of publishing? Leaving aside nay-saying about the supposed shortcomings of web content, do you think literary writing is going to change as a reaction to technology? Where are we going to see those changes -- in style, in format, in content, or somewhere altogether different? Please, Writer Friends, do enlighten me!

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Very Short Story About Coming Back

Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to become an editor. And she worked very hard, and was very lucky (usually in that order, but sometimes the other way around), and had the chance to intern at some really fabulous publishing houses where the editors were passionate and connected and interested in helping her grow. And she met a lot of brilliant writers (with stars in her eyes for all of them) and got wrapped up in a whole community of people who were excited about their craft and about trying to make the world a better place. And it was good.

Then the girl got her first Real Job in publishing. And that, too, was good.

But the Real Job required even more time and attention than the girl had put into college, even more time and attention than she had put into interning, even more time and attention than she had put into job searching. And because her daily trip to work was long and arduous, the girl uprooted herself and moved to a new city, and that, too, took much time and attention. And because the Real Job brought hundreds of emails to the girl's inbox every day, she sometimes avoided reading emails on her own time. She sometimes avoided the internet altogether. And because she was in a new city, she had a whole new world to explore when she was avoiding the internet, and that was good. She had a Real Job, and a coffee shop down the street that let her stay as long as she liked with her books, and a group of dancers to befriend, and a trove of art galleries to visit and neighborhoods to photograph and plays to see. And she let that world wrap her up in a warm cloak of vibrant music and buzzing, energetic routine.

But sometimes the girl wondered if something was missing. She liked her Real Job, and she liked her coffee shop, and she liked her dancers and her art galleries and her neighborhoods and her plays. She liked being on the go at all hours and filling her life up to the very brim. But sometimes it seemed that her head was so full of buzzing that her dreams didn't fit inside it. And sometimes, very simply, she missed her old lifestyle, and the time she had spent with quiet, passionate writers and readers.

So the girl changed again.

In other words, I'm sorry for the long silence. Let's talk again soon, shall we?

This blog is going to change a little bit. For one thing, I plan to update more regularly. You might find fewer essays in this journal, and more snapshots of my thoughts about the industry, like ideas scribbled in the margins of a page. You might find questions, and I sincerely hope you'll answer them. You might hear more about how I relate literally everything I do and see to storytelling, because it's the only way that makes sense for me to put together the pieces of my life.

And I hope you hear more about what you want to hear. So please tell me what that is! What can I tell you, teach you, or ask you? What do you hope to read?

More posts will be up soon. Until then, please leave your suggestions in the comments!