June 8th, 2014

Blog questions about writing

There are a few little writing Q&As that roam the blogoverse. Like the frosh questionnaire, they sometimes come around more than once, but usually with enough space in between that my answers have totally changed in the meantime. I actually don’t think I’ve seen this exact one before, so even better. The “blog tour” is coming to me courtesy of my very talented friend, the writer/birder/teacher Julia Zarankin. She’s lovely and her answers to these questions are really wise and interesting–go read (the rest of her blog is also delightful–it’s about birds for the most part, but in a way totally approachable and entertaining to the non-birder). And now here’s my version–less wise than Julia’s, but hopefully still a little interesting…

What am I working on?
A new book! I finished the old one at the beginning of this year, and despite going back to it a couple times for revisions, and knowing that if I should be so lucky as to publish it a substantive edit is still ahead, I have plunged gleefully into a new on. The “finished” book was extremely challenging and dark, particularly at the end–I won’t say it ruined fall 2013 for me, but it certainly made it a grimmer season. Through that, I kept imagining a nice new project where nothing had gone wrong yet, where I didn’t fully know what would happen and the characters were waiting to be explored. Of course, doing that is significantly harder than thinking about it, but I am still enjoying this new, fresh writing with no expectations and no boundaries.

How does my work different from others’ in this genre?
Well, I don’t know that it does–I work hard a being good, but not necessarily at being unique. I figure that just comes with being myself and not being able to really disguise that fact or write in anyone else’s style. I’m actually a pretty conformist person and when I can be like everyone else, I usually will do so. Writing, though, I’m pretty much stuck with myself. I’m ok with that. So I suppose the short answer is that the way my work differs from other people’s is that it is written by me.

Why do I write what I do?
In terms of content, I write about the stuff that interests me. Writing fiction is a strangely useful way to figure out stuff in life that I don’t understand–when I don’t understand why people are behaving the way they are, sometimes I can write my way into their shoes. Who knows if I ever get it right, but I do acquire empathy for their ways of being and acting, and that’s really useful. I write short stories because that is what I am good at. I have been congratulated before at not abandoning my allegedly less-saleable stories in order to write allegedly more-saleable novels. But that is like congratulating me for not selling out to play with the NBA. I don’t know how to write a novel (or poetry or plays for that matter). I still have a lot to learn about stories, too, but I feel like I do know the form a bit, and how to most usefully work with it. That experience is hard won and it allows me to–sometimes–write something a reader can actually connect with. I may eventually be ready to start over in another form, but for now I’ll keep pushing stories to see how far they go.

How does my writing process work?

Whenever I have time–twenty minutes, two hours, a day–I open my computer and scroll through my current project until I get to the spot I was at last time, and then I try to keep going. I get distracted by everything, and rarely have a tonne of time to work, but bit by bit I get a draft. When it’s done, or at least has reached what feels like an endpoint, I go back to the top and read it through–changing obvious issues when I can. I try to go faster this time so I can hold the whole thing in my head at once. It’s usually only on the third time through that I start making big structural changes and finally feel like it’s actually a coherent story another human could read and understand. Another time through for line edits and then I’ll ask the aforementioned other humans for feedback. Then I’ll take the feedback that rings true, revise the piece yet again, and submit it for publication. If it gets rejected and the rejection comes with useful feedback–or doesn’t, but I’ve thought of some one my own in the meantime–I’ll revise it another time. Oh, and if there’s research to be done, it gets done whenever I get a chance. Easy stuff I can google or call a friend about happens mid-writing; trickier stuff that requires interviews or trips usually gets slotted in after the bulk of the writing is done. Sad but true.

***

This is meant to be a tour and I’m to pass on the baton at the end of this, but it seems I have fewer actively blogging friends than I used to, and those I do know have pretty specific content that they like to include most of the time. So I’m just going to leave this open to whomever wishes to try it out–but if you do take up the baton, be sure to let me know (if you don’t mind) so I can read your answers!

June 4th, 2014

I have figured out what’s wrong with *The Hunger Games*

During my period of reading tonnes of young-adult novels in case I wanted to write one (at press time: probably not), The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was one of the few I read with pleasure for its own sake, rather than amusement/bafflement/anthropological fascination (the only one to really beat it out was The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky, which just goes to show that sometimes what is popular is actually popular for a reason). I had put off reading HG for a long time, because I do not usually like sci-fi, or dystopian fiction, or post-apocolyptic fiction, or whatever category you want to put it in. More specifically: I do not like novels where starving children murder each other for basic survival.

I won’t outline the plot in more detail, since everyone in the universe has read it or seen the movie or sat next to someone who couldn’t shut up about it. These books are very VERY popular, and as I mention above, there’s good reason: Collins’s premise is incredibly inventive, which is not to say original–her clever mishmash of mythology and reality television is what makes her concept so stirring, and viscerally felt. Her plotting in the first novel is grimly tight–you can’t stop reading because there’s always something new to be worried about. And there’s nothing wrong with her prose, either–I could always picture every scene, characters and actions perfectly.

And while I applaud the achievement, I still felt pretty squicked by my enjoyment. I kept trying to argue with myself that the book makes clear that the Capitol rulers who pit these kids to the death are *evil* and it’s certainly not as if everything is peaches and cream in “real literature”–it’s not like things work out well for Anna Karenina, and Shakespeare is rife with despotic rulers, plus there’s tonnes of gore in Greek mythology.

That didn’t completely sit, but I let a year go by to forget the worst of my misgivings, and then I got the second of the HG novels, Catching Fire, out of the library. This one is not as good as the first–baggier, duller, too focussed on the silly love-triangle (I’m sorry, I know this pretty much rules me out of reading YA, but I cannot care all that much about whom a 16-year-old kisses or does not kiss) and bizarre things like what clothes people wear and identifying every single person who lives in the town. Seriously, there’s nearly 50 characters in this book, and I’m not sure why. We know them semi-well, get a bit of backstory, start to be interested, then they never come back. Very annoying, and constant.

Collins’s prose is as crystal-clear as ever, but the problem is there are much darker and more complex matters to illuminate. The evil President Snow is a dictator and an oppressor, starving the weaker districts to…exert control? This is where things started to fall apart for me. I tried SO hard to make HG a political parable–for apartheid? The Middle East? The most eerie resonances seemed to be Ukraine–Presidents Snow and Putin have some similarities–but the book was written before all that. And the truth is, the scenario with the Capitol and the Districts does not make a whole lot of sense. What do they get by all this violence other than a very expensive tv show? It’s really a child’s version of political oppression, with no real politics, just bad people and good people.

And that means I couldn’t sell the novels to myself as literature. That doesn’t mean I didn’t stay up late reading the end of Catching Fire (rushed ending and stupid cliffhanger, after 400 pages of babble about how the trees looked–not that I’m bitter). But the novel doesn’t really *do* anything–it doesn’t show us the complexity of political life, or political difference. It doesn’t examine how oppression serves the few, or how power corrupts. The first two HG novels really just comfortably underline what we already know: that good people are good and bad people are bad.

And if we’re not learning, growing, expanding our understanding of the world, then the books are just…entertainment. And there’s nothing wrong with entertainment, of course, many of my favourite books are nothing but–but the Hunger Games books are about the murder of starving children.

And that’s when the hammer dropped.

The Hunger Games becomes itself. The readers become, like the awful citizens of the Capitol, voyeurs of the sadistic torture of tweens and teens (and in the second book, some adults too). Whether it’s The Hunger Games I’m reading, or the Hunger Games that I’m watching on TV, I become complicit by not walking away from the book/screen–by indulging in the prurience of being entertained by others’ suffering. Of course, I don’t *want* anyone to die, but since I know that they must die regardless of my will, why not just wish they would hurry up and get offed already, and hopefully in the most entertaining, not-too-nauseating way. Is that a Capitol-viewer’s thought, or is that my thought?

Now I’m really uncomfortable with myself. I’m also not sure if Collins is a genius artist-saboteur, who created a slew of stupid, shallow entertainment gobblers, and then made her readers become them. Or is it all something a bit more benign and less meta? I can’t figure it out.

I suspect that someone has worked this out more insightfully than I did, and I’d really like to read THAT blog post, but I didn’t know what to Google. Anyone know?

Also, if I believe the theory above, does that mean I can’t read the third and final book in the series? Probably, right? Damn.

May 27th, 2014

Why a creative writer is not a journalist

One of the bizarrest comments I get with regard to writing, especially with regard to what I earn from writing, is “Why don’t you just do some journalism to earn money on the side?” (Note: the bizarrest comment I’ve received ever, about anything, may be when recently someone asked me if I shave my arms [no]).

There is so much wrong with the whole “fiction writing and journalism are the same” idea that I usually don’t even respond to it in conversation, but here in the blog, at my leisure, I figure I can. This is more important than I thought, because when I spent the afternoon with the teens a few weeks ago, I noticed that they didn’t seem to really know the difference between creative writing and journalism either (they asked my advice about journalism as if I, a story writer, should know). The adults who don’t get the divide can live with it, I figure, but I do worry about the teens. So here we go there…for the kids…

1) Journalism is a four-year degree or at the very least a year intensive plus an internship. Seriously, I can’t just intuit whatever it is they learn in journalism program. Yeah, yeah, I have a creative writing degree but there is very little overlap between the two curricula. Both would (I should hope) teach you how to read an efficient and elegant sentence, but beyond that, I do not know how to craft interview questions, how to do archival research, how to investigate a mysterious incident, how to avoid libel, or any of the other dozens of things that come up for real journalists every day. And really, if you were going to spend your time reading an article by me, you’d expect me to be able to do all of the above, wouldn’t you?

2) Journalism isn’t a license to print money. In fact, it’s another highly competitive, low-paying field, almost as bad as fiction. It’s not like people don’t have wonderful and fascinating and even lucrative careers in journalism these days, but opportunities are getting to be less, and competition more. If I wanted to really be a journalist, I’d have to work really hard, and do everything in my power to improve with every piece I wrote, and I still wouldn’t be guaranteed success. I’m already doing that in my creative work, and there are only so many hours in the day.

3) Journalists are stuck with the facts. There’s a reason that I write fiction–well, many reasons, but one is that I find the facts constraining. The hoity-toity version is that I feel better able to tell a larger truth without being held back by tiny truths; the more honest version is that writing a credible, engaging, resonant, and maybe funny story is hard enough without adding more stress about exact quotes and what everyone was actually doing that day… This topic has been extra on my mind lately, since I just wrapped up writing a short piece for Toronto Life. It’s not even journalism, it’s memoir (which is like journalism in which the only person you interview is yourself) but I still needed to get the facts straight, and restrain myself from adding illustrative, engaging incidents that did not actually happen. Very hard. Check out the July issue back page to see how I did.

This is only a short summary of the differences between these two rewarding careers. I should also add that I have the utmost respect for journalists (plus I married one), and I feel I can best show my respect by not pretending to be one.

If you are interested, here is a short list of other things folks have suggested I do to earn money while I write. In brackets beside each, I’ve included the reasons why this is not realistic, since I doubt I’ll get round to writing a blog post on each one. And yes, I do realize that it is very strange that people keep suggesting things for me to earn money, especially since I actually have a rather nice job. I don’t know why it happens.

–teach (as with journalism, this is a very hard job with lots of competition, and it also requires a degree most of the time)
–work in publishing (I actually do this, but when I point that out, the suggester always seems to have meant something else)
–freelance (freelance what? Sometimes the suggester doesn’t actually know, but I think folks usually mean occasional freelance magazine writing, which is actually not a bad idea–but only the memoir-type, where I don’t have to talk to anyone else. It is possible that this is what others mean when they say “journalism” and this is all just a language mixup.)
–write a vampire/erotic/Harry-Potter-esque novel (for every Twilight or Secret, there’s hundreds of terrible unsuccessful rip-offs out there. If I am going to write an unsuccessful book, at least *I* want to like it.)
–go on Oprah (Oprah is currently off the air, and I think the book club was discontinued before that. Also, as if it was so easy to get on Oprah even when it was an actual show.)

May 5th, 2014

Hanging with the youth

During my vacation, I offered to participate in a couple of old-leading-young type events. I had the free time, plus lots of people helped me when I was a whippersnapper, so I like to pay it forward. Plus, more selfishly, I’ve crossed the age wire where young people will talk to me socially without a reason, and I miss them. Sometimes they talk to me in social situations, but only if I am friends with their parents and their parents have taught/ordered/prodded them to be polite. That opportunity with teens or older is rare, as most of my friends have little kids–7 and under–and those ones still like me for no real reason. If I want to talk to teens or early-twentysomethings, I need to find something I have that they want, and wave it like a carrot.

Why do I want to do this? Because I’m a writer, and an inherently nosy person. I want to know what everyone is doing, wearing, thinking about, and listening to on their iPods. It irritates me that there are demographics I don’t have access to right now, and so while I’m waiting for my friends’ kids to get older, I go further afield.

Hence the two events last week. The first one was a career-day type event for graduate students/those considering grad school at UofT, run by the Backpack to Briefcase folks. Unlike previous panels of this nature that I’ve been on, no one on this panel was spouting nonsense like, “Follow your dreams” and “Be the best you you can be” so I didn’t feel I had to run interference to give elementary practical advice like “get practical skills and put them on your resume.” In fact, everyone on this panel was REALLY sharp and accomplished–I was actually the least so, and the youth weren’t too interested in talking to me. That was a little boring, but fine since they were receiving really excellent advice from my colleagues.

Impressions: students were tidy, well-dressed in mainly nondescript ways, polite and respectful. They were all obviously accomplished students and sometimes had to dumb down descriptions of their academic work so that we could understand. Almost everyone asked clear and interesting questions, though some of them seemed a little under-researched–there are lots of easy templates you can find to make a resume, so asking at a panel discussion seemed odd. But I think a lot of the folks at the presentation were not yet graduating, so it makes sense that they weren’t really ready for the job market. They were all quite sharp and poised, but I did wish they had a *little* less distain for non-academic jobs. My real advice, which no one asked for, is that they should take part-time or summer work outside of the university while they worked on their degrees, so they could see for themselves what maybe their profs aren’t telling them–every job has its good and bad bits, and none are completely fulfilling. There are many ways to put together a good life. Seeing one ideal option (professorship) and a host of lesser ones is a good way to be sad a lot of the time. Again, no one asked for that sort of advice, so I didn’t say it straight up, but I tried strongly to hint at it.

The second event was probably a lot more up my alley: the Toronto Council of Teachers of English run a short-story contest for high-schoolers every year, and if you make the long list your prize is a lunch and afternoon workshop with a local writer. I was thrilled to be one of said writers, and tried hard to be worthy of my “prize” status. I couldn’t have been more impressed with the 10 students I got to work with–actually, all the other writers said the same, so apparently there was pretty uniform awesomeness at this event.

There was little hyper-fashion in my group of 14-18 year-olds–just lots of jeans and long flowing hair for the girls, jeans and plain shirts for the boys. The girl sitting next to me had picked a pattern of holes in her black tights that looked like a solar system–gorgeous–but otherwise it was mainly the teen standard of trying not to try.

But outside of fashion, these kids were SO keen. I have a speech I make to young workshoppers about being generous in giving as much and as detailed feedback as possible, and doing the work of specifically digging into the details rather than generically chirping, “So good!” which doesn’t help anyone. These kids did NOT need these speech–right through 10 stories they kept up lending each insight, support, and genuinely constructive criticism.

The standard of the stories was also very high–obviously I had my favourites, but everything brought to the table was worth reading. If you are curious, I suggest having a browse through the many awesome stories posted on the website for the contest. You’ll be impressed!

So in short, the kids are more than all right–they are smart, self-possessed, generous and funny. I would have loved a few more hours to pick their brains about tv, movies, their studies, and their parents, but I couldn’t make that not seem creepy. There was actually a “networking event” after the Backpack to Briefcase panel, but I didn’t quite feel comfortable accosting strange young people and asking them career questions, even if it was ostensibly for their own benefit. I left quickly, with complete confidence that they’d be fine without me.

December 8th, 2013

These things I know

Last week I did a “how to write short stories” talk in a grade 12 Writers’ Craft class at a high school uptown. Yesterday I went and talked literary analysis with a bunch of University College students who had read my second book. Both experiences were really fascinating and invigorating–the students were engaged and intense, and not afraid to ask the tough questions.

I love to do class visits (feel free to hit me up!) because students see different things in the writing process and my own work than I ever could, and it’s one of the few opportunities I have to hear that sort of stuff from the younger generation–or from anybody, really. In asking very basic questions, they can really challenge my ingrained assumptions about how literature should or has to work.

BUT I find myself getting very hedgey in these situations, too. Youth wants answers, I have found, and many questions simply don’t have them, or not definitive ones. I remember at that age, if I was certain something worked one way, that was the ONLY way. I just wanted to lock down an answer so I could move on to the next question; the idea that some things I’d still be pondering 20 years later would have been horrible to me at that point in my life.

So I’m very reluctant to give definitive answers in these classes. Most of what I say comes larded in, “Well, in my opinion, what works for me, some people say, I’m not at all certain but…” That probably gets annoying but better than locking impressionable young minds into the rose-coloured way of doing things when there are so many others.

There are a few things I find myself saying declaratively in these classes with totally comfort, so I guess those are the things I feel are totally true without reservation. Interesting to find this out about myself. From the two classes I spoke at recently, I have found I’m pretty sure that

1) It’s ok to be influenced by other writers. This one comes up a lot. I think it’s natural to feel other writers in your own work. The best part, though, is that the more books you read, the more you context you are able to give them so that you never quite have that overwhelming, suffused-by-genius feeling you have when you start reading you first truly good works of literature. The reason everything I wrote after I first read JD Salinger sounded like JD Salinger is that his style was pretty much alone in my brain at that point; I didn’t have any other first-person chatty, self-conscious narrator to, as it were, dilute Holden Caufield. The answer was not to read less Salinger but to read more Plath, more Colette, more Hemingway. Students who worry that their stories sound too much like their idols wonder if the best thing to do would be to read less, and sound more “like themselves.” Of course, no writer is self generated; we are all a pastiche of the people and experiences and books we’ve encountered. The trick is not to limit influences but to have lots, so that the way you put them together, your blend of influences, is truly your own.

2) There is no ideal writing schedule or setup. I’d say this to adults, too, but that doesn’t stop them–or me!–from loving to ask writers whether they write in the mornings or the evenings, with a pen or on a keyboard, at a cafe or in the kitchen. It’s funny, even while I gobble that stuff up, I have no idea why I care. No one ever asks actors whether they prefer to run their lines before or after lunch, do they? Or songwriters whether they get better melody lines if they sit at the piano or pick at their guitar? It doesn’t matter. The way you get work done is the way that works for you; it has everything to do with your individual schedule and temperament, and absolutely nothing to do there being a “best” way. The only reason to try a new schedule or chair or writing exercise is that you personally might enjoy it and it might make you feel so good you write more. I firmly believe that, if you produce better work with pen and paper than on a computer, you should keep on, but it’s really not because you have some mystical “connection with the page” that the keyboard does not afford. That’s stuff’s bunk. Do what works and, if it stops working, do something else.

3) A real writer can do something else “full-time.” I think most non-writers are a little baffled by the idea that you could be a legit, publishing, even somewhat (well, a little!) respected writer and still have to go work somewhere else. Millenials are actually less susceptible to the idea that everyone has one real occupation. The new way the world works, and the way it has always worked for creative folks, is you take the money you make from doing what you love and subtract it from your expenditures per month. The number that results is the amount of money you will earn per month doing something other than what you love. Possibly, hopefully, you will earn it in a job you like quite well, but most of us are willing to do what it takes. The idea that your real job is 9-5 and everything else is a hobby is going the way of the woolly mammoth, but the youth has still been talking to their parents and need a helpful reminder now and again.

4) I can’t tell you what my works “means.”  And this is not just because I’m refusing to do your homework for you (sad but true–when students email me for help writing essays on my stories, I am so flattered I usually help at least a little, even though I really feel I shouldn’t). Sometimes I know what I meant when I put the story down on the page, and sometimes I don’t–because I was myself confused or feeling ambiguous as I wrote, or because it was a long time ago and I forget. But even if I had a very definite thought behind what I wrote, the story is only the story. If you cannot divine what I was thinking, then for you, that thought is simply not in the story. You’re NOT wrong if you can’t see it (I mean, if you’ve read carefully and thoughtfully, and basically understand written English–otherwise you might be wrong). Stories are limited to the text and what the reader can bring to it; if I got to follow each story around and add my deep thoughts and feelings to what you read, that would be a different story  (and a far more annoying world for us all). So when I’m asked what my “themes” are or my “message,” I really honestly mean it when I say, “you tell me.” I guarantee, I won’t correct you.

5) You can learn how to write better. Many snotballs run around saying “You can’t teach someone how to write well.” (Interestingly, the first time I heard this was from a writing professor.) Of course you can–there are always refinements and reimaginings you can use to make your writing clearer, brighter, easier to feel for a reader. Some you learn from reading good work, some from having smart people read your work and tell you where it falls down. Sometimes you learn from staring at the same sentence for an hour. The thing is that all these things are hard and many dull, some depressing. Many people would like to stop writing fairly early on in this process, thereby not learning anything new. The rest of us slog on, getting better very very slowly, with the help of whoever is willing, forever.

 

 

November 11th, 2013

A blast from 2009 (from the Puritan)

If my last post has you intrigued about why I write what I write, this one should be up your alley too. Way back in 2009, my story “If This” ran in Issue 8 of the Puritan. 4 years later, the Puritans (that’s not what they call the editors there??) asked me to write a blog post on how/why I wrote it, and so I did. Enjoy!

It’s funny to be going back to older stories now. For ages, whenever I went back to something from a few years ago, I would want to shrivel up in horror at how bad it was. Now that I have published work that people have enjoyed (or claimed to), I am able to not feel that way sometimes, and instead just, you know, read the story. Sometimes, often actually, I can’t remember writing that bit or exactly how I felt about it or what I wanted to convey. I’m stuck on the outside as a reader interpreting rather than a writer knowing. It’s kinda cool, and kinda terrifying, actually.

October 25th, 2013

New awesome

So, yesterday was a good day for awesomeness–the new and gorgeous issue of The New Quarterly arrived, containing a story called “Marriage” by yours truly, and another called “The Man Room” by Mark Sampson, aka my husband! We’ve never been together in a literary journal before and it feels pretty cool!

Also cool is the Who’s Reading What section of the TNQ website, where you can find out what I and the other contributors have been reading lately.

Another great thing yesterday is that the wonderful Kelli Deeth quoted me in a piece she wrote for the National Post Book blog on short stories. Such a compliment to be mentioned next to Lynn Coady and Shaena Lamber–all three of these other ladies say cool stuff in that piece. Go read! In fact, Kelli’s been guest-editing the NP Books blog all week and all here pieces are wonderful. I especially liked A Writer Who Writers What She Wants. Enjoy!

All this, plus it’s Friday–amazing!

October 9th, 2013

What I’ve been doing

I seem to have gotten away from posts about my personal writing process on this blog. I would love for the reason there to be that I am so much more comfortable and used to my own process now, after two books, that there doesn’t seem to be much more to say.

Ha!

Though it wasn’t a conscious decision, I’m pretty sure not talking about the writing process has to do with my fear that I will never ever finish this book, or if I do it will be unpublishable and no one will ever read it–by talking about it, I’m just making people I’m aware that I’m trying to do something that later, when no book is forthcoming, be an obvious failure.

There, I said it. Whoo.

But whatever–I now know the first part of my fear, at least, isn’t true. I’ve completed a draft. It may be pretty far from a *final* draft, and who knows if it’s publishable, but it’s a complete set of all the stories (I think) the book needs to make sense. Right now, I’m reading quickly through each story for consistency issues (a few characters seem to switch around minor details like age) and obvious big problems. Then, and this is the best part, I put the good-as-I-can-make it story in the “Full Draft” document. So as I go, I get to accumulate word/page count (currently at 30 000/102, and counting). I’m also reading at a pace much faster than I normally do when I’m editing, and reading the stories as they were (I think) meant to go, one after another, as opposed to total immersion for months, followed by not thinking about or touching the story for months or even years. Some of this stuff I’d semi-forgotten.

It’s nice–not that I think the work is necessarily amazing or even good–it’s just nice to feel I did what I set out to do and wrote the book (or at least a version of the book) I meant to write. I’m going on 3 years on this project now, and this is the first time I felt like there was a real milestone.

What happens next? Someone smart and honest who loves me will read it and then gently tell me what needs to happen to make the book accessible to anyone who lives outside of my brain (full disclosure: I am married to this person). And then I will do those things, I hope. And then I’ll see what happens when someone who doesn’t love me reads it.

It’s a long long road, writing books, and at the end of the road might just be a field of lima beans. But along the way you get smarter, and the view is pretty nice.

August 22nd, 2013

Dance like no one’s watching, write like you’re 14

I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing lately and it’s pretty good–folksy and a bit “well, it worked for me!” simplistic, but also funny and well-referenced and common-sense. It was clearly written with Stephen King fans in mind (some of the examples do not make sense unless you have read one or another of his novels) but another target audience is nervous novice writers. There’s a lot of gentle handholding about not caring if it’s brilliant, not torturing yourself over the exact wording of the first sentence when you could be writing the second one, not caring when people say you ought to get a real job (Note: King’s central delusion is that novice writers can and will write as a large share of their every day.)

It’s mainly good advice and certainly supportive, but geez, it made me feel bad for people who start writing as adults. So much pressure!

Not that I think you shouldn’t, mind you–anyone who wants to write ought to, immediately. It’s just that it’s so much easier to start in high school. Because I wrote my first creative pieces in grade 9, I always find the “why did you decide to start writing?” question that gets asked in so many interviews a bit baffling. Eh? Why *anything* I did when I was 14? Why the floral leggings, the swamp food, eating lunch on the shotput court, that crush on Bill S.? The short answer for almost everything that happened in high school is boredom. From bullying to band practice, teenagers choose their high-school activities basically just to fill time. The kids in band don’t expect an orchestra career anymore than the football team expects to eventually make it to the CFL. I played intramural *badminton* in high school, and believe me it was not a springboard to going pro (hands up if you’ve ever taken a birdie in the eye?)

I was a chubby smart kid, so sports and dance were largely out for me. I played in band, but drama club was a disorganized mess and honestly, even if it hadn’t been, I really wasn’t much of an actress. I needed another *thing*…and then there as the poster in the library about a literary conest–with prizes! I was bored, I spent a lot of time in the library, I got good grades in English, and my friends said I was funny–why *wouldn’t* I write a humourous essay about my school bus?

My point is slightly undermined by the fact that I did win the “junior humour” category of that literary contest, but I think out of a fairly narrow field. And it wouldn’t have mattered to me if I didn’t, just like it didn’t matter to me that I was a lousy pianist–I still played from ages 5 through 19. What else was I gonna do after school?

Grownups give themselves a much harder time, generally, especially if they have multiple other demands like work, spouse, kids, commute, etc. They feel some kind of pressure to have a “reason” to write, like people loving their work or making lots of money. But writing is hard, slow, and often unrewarding by the conventions of the “real” world. And even if you could write the best novel in the world, if you started tomorrow you wouldn’t be finished for at least a year, more likely a few–and a couple beyond that to see it in print.

Aspiring writers who haven’t yet started the actual process find me a bit baffling sometimes–I have some markers of success, like published books and some positive reviews, the occasional award nomination. But I am neither rich nor famous, and I am still work at something other than writing most days. Am I a big deal? A big failure? What’s going on here?

Grownups, used to doing things for a reason and seeing the results, find the lack of concrete “made it” moments in writing frustrating. Teenagers, who can’t even necessarily drive the car or buy the shirts they want, find random impotent work totally normal. If it’s fun, why not do it? It’s better than homework, and if your brother’s watching something stupid on tv…

This was actually a really wonderful attitude, and one I try to recapture when I feel like writing is pointless. Why does it need a point if I enjoy it? It’s cheaper than golf, and better for me than Facebook–and I like my stories. Game, set, match.

I’ve gotten in trouble for saying this before, but sometimes I can sell working on my book to myself more easily if I think of it as an occasionally lucrative hobby rather than a career. I get that writers need to take ourselves seriously in order to get the work done and done well, and if for you that means saying the word “career” than please do so. But I think I’ll probably write for the rest of my life no matter what I call it, and when I call it a hobby I feel less pressed, more like I’m supposed to have fun.

But mainly I don’t call it anything–I just keep writing, or try to. Because that really is the best part…

July 16th, 2013

YA Roundup

Over the past 6 or 8 months, I’ve been reading a lot of YA (young adult) novels. This is something I haven’t done since I was, in fact, a young adult. Very young, actually, since I more or less stopped reading this sort of fiction when I entered high-school, before my critical skills were really up to par. A lot of what I was reading back then was pretty bad. Which is fine–I totally endorse a tween’s right to read crap, and I doubt it did me any harm (though I have an unquenchable desire for a red Spider Fiat).

But when I restarted YA reading after that 20-year hiatus, I wanted to read the good stuff, because someone had asked me if I could write a YA novel and I had no idea. I figured I would try to read the best of the genre and see if it inspired any ambition in me. No one wants to write trex, and while I probably can’t be the best myself, if you aim for the moon and miss, you are still among the stars, right?

The learning curve has been steep, because YA has *way* evolved since 1992–earnestness is out, drugs and sex aren’t just for bad girls (what, you think Jessica Wakefield had sex????), and the slang is all different now. I know, I know, there’s lots of good books from back in the day, but why not look at the current context, the one in which I could conceivably be writing in.

At first, I also had lots of other rules: no sci-fi or fantasy (because I can’t write that), all Canadian, a few others I can’t remember. Those went by the wayside–I don’t have a tonne of people in my life to recommend these books, so if it looks promising I go for it. Also, I can read a YA novel in a day or two, so they don’t take up much time (and make me feel smarty!) so why not try everything.

Here’s what I found out about the state of the YA novel in 2013. Please keep in mind I’ve only read a dozen or so books so far, with new ones regularly, so these impressions could change… Also I think I will break this post up into installments because, as ever, I am chatty.

Cad dads and trampy moms
If you trace the evolution of YA back to The Grimms’ Fairy Tales (I don’t know if anyone else does that, but it makes sense to me), you’ll see authors have been desperate to knock parents out of the picture for a long time. Moms are always dying in childbirth, dads off to war in the Grimm days. In mine, it was divorce and absentee dads–lots of sad moms drinking wine in the kitchen when their kids got back from the court-ordered non-custodial parent’s weekend. I know that that is a reality many kids face now, and always have in its various forms, but I do think it’s often a writer’s way of not having to write so many darn characters!

That is still going on, but it’s way dirtier now–if you’ll pardon the image, moms and dads are getting laid now. While plenty of dads ran off with mistresses back in the day, now it’s way more explicit: in one of my favourite reads so far, Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mother, Violet’s dad runs off with a big-breasted starlet (standard for me) and her mom dates a string of losers and flashes her thong in a Facebook photo. NON-STANDARD.

Now, instead of writing parents out of the action, authors are writing them off–I came across so many stupid, self-absorbed, slutty parents in my reading. I think this is a convenient way for authors to clear a path for kid characters to have adventures no parents would sanction if they were decent at the gig. In the incredibly far-fetched Saving June, Harper drives across the country with a stranger because her sister died and her depressive mom is so useless. Dad’s out of the picture. In the much more realistic Red Rage, Mara spirals into tragedy because her parents are basically the worst people one earth (but realistically depicted, I swear). In The Hunger Games (yes, I said no sci-fi, but who can stand up against that kind of hype?) Katniss’s mom is, again, a weak idiot who relys on her teen daughter to keep her from ruin.

When I complained to a friend who teaches grade 6 about this “all parents are losers” theme, she said I don’t know how bad some kids have it, and fair enough–I have good parents who never appear on Facebook. But I still think making a teen protagonist essentially parent-free is cheating. Like I’m not saying Jillian’s situation in Wicked Sweet–abandoned by her evil-incarnate mother day after day to take care of half a dozen siblings under 8–would not have happened in real life. I’m saying it would be an emergency and Children’s Aid would’ve shown up in chapter 2. A lot of these books give the false sense that 16-year-olds can do anything, and parents are just dead-weight.

That’s why I liked The Perks of Being a Wallflower so much (so did everyone, I guess). Charlie’s parents are present, his siblings are important parts of his life, grandparents, an aunt, cousins–he lives in a fully realized world that Steven Chbosky took pains to imagine in detail.

I guess what I’m saying is that I read as a writer, and as a writer summarily saying, “This person is bad, let’s not talk about them anymore” is sloppy writing most of the time.

***

Whoo, I have a lot to say on this topic–more topics soon!

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