Saturday, February 9, 2013

Genre and Its Discontents

Yesterday, I gave a lecture on selling a novel that I ended with the following advice:

There is no easy way to do this.
You will be rejected.
Rejection will hurt.
You will survive.

I told my students that success in this business relies on three things: talent, luck, and perseverance. We have no control over the first two, but the third trumps everything.

It is perhaps poetic justice that after such a speech, I had a story rejection in my e-mail inbox that night, gently letting me know I had failed to make the finalists of a short story contest I'd entered. I'll be honest, I set my hopes high on making the finalists. Worse, the rejected piece was the first chapter of my novel-in-progress, which I had adapted to stand on its own as a story. My first attempt at sending the book into the world had just been flung back. And I was right: it hurt. Though I have clearly survived, I have also been giving a lot of thought to the reasons for the story's failure, both because I want to persevere and send it out again and because the most important part of failure is learning from it.

In this case, I think my point-of-view character is a tough sell. He's a fourteen year old boy.

That may not automatically sound like a death knell to some readers, but in the literary fiction market, a young POV character doesn't help sell your book. I knew this going in, of course. I'd played around with young adult POV characters in grad school, and a professor had warned me that it marked my book as young adult fiction, which would prevent it from being taken seriously. "Try to think of one work of serious literary fiction that has a child as the point-of-view character," she said.

"What about Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird?"

She looked at me pityingly. "I would hardly call that a great literary novel."

I won't try to determine the literary merits of To Kill a Mockingbird here. The question, though, has stuck with me. Could you write a literary novel told from the point of view of a kid?

This question was driven home to me further this summer at a writer's workshop I attended. My workshop peers acknowledged the piece was well written, but they wondered whether "young adult fiction" was really appropriate in a literary fiction venue. The workshop leader, John Casey (whose work I highly recommend), came to my defense. "What makes you think this is a young adult novel?" he asked. "Just because we're in the point of view of a kid? This strikes me as literary."

The truth is, though, that I too had come to see book as a young adult novel. I had edited myself for language and sexual content that--let's face it--are a part of a real-life fourteen year old's experience. I came home and found myself writing a masturbation scene, and I'm happy with the results. In fact, scenes like this are becoming some of my favorite scenes in the book because I can feel the risk I'm taking there, and that risk feel authentic to the character I'm creating and the gritty world he inhabits. My rejection yesterday made me realize that I hadn't pushed the first chapter as much as I could--the character is still pretty squeaky clean there. I wasn't living up to the psychological reality demanded by literary fiction.

That said, the risk I'm taking by adding sex, drugs, and language back into the book takes me right out of the YA market, a market with significantly better selling potential than literary fiction. I'm happier with the book, but I may have just made it much harder to sell. The honesty required of literary fiction marks the book as "inappropriate" for younger readers, however more accurate it is to their experiences. Meanwhile, the fact that my POV character remains fourteen years old may make the book a no-go for literary fiction audiences. I want so badly for the book to be both literary and YA-friendly, but it seems I have hit a crossroads. I may lose both audiences by writing the book as I feel it should be written.

Should genre conventions govern the decisions we make as authors? On the one hand, surely we have to write towards Truth, or else what the hell are we writing for? On the other hand, if we want to have our book in the hands of readers, don't we have to acknowledge the realities of the market in at least some regard?

Yesterday, Richard Bausch posted the following advice on Facebook:

"Seriously, it's best to realize that it never does get easier, and the writer who thinks it should get easier is involved in a dangerous self-deception. Because as you go on and keep practicing this craft and art, you know more all the time, and are therefore apt to see with greater and greater clarity the large number of possibilities that exist in each line or gesture--and so the task just becomes all that much harder. And the heavy doubts never do go away. Better make friends with them now, because they really won’t ever, ever go away."

He's right in so many ways. There are endless possibilities in the line and gesture, and so many more in each scene added or deleted. I've signed on for the long haul; doubts will be my road companions. Perseverance is more than just sending out again after rejection. It's about facing your work every day knowing that each decision you make as a writer is going to be rejected by someone, and trying to determine what decision is the necessary one for you. It's about conjuring these decisions out of air and trying to make something that is authentic. There is no easy way to do this.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

25% of the Time: Questions of Process

I watched the documentary Bad Writing for free on Vimeo last month. The film maker Vern Lott (whom I learned from watching was a fellow University of Idaho Vandal--woot woot for Brink Hall on film!)

did a remarkable job of collecting interviews with some of the best writers and writing teachers working today, including George Saunders, Steve Almond, David Sedaris, Margaret Atwood, among many, many incredible others.

The film is a wealth of thought-provoking insight, but in particular, I find myself coming back to a comment from Daniel Orozco, who commented that he loves writing 25% of the time and hates it the other 75% of the time. I'll be honest, this made me sit up, say, "me too!" and feel awash in all sorts of warmth and kinship. What's made me keep thinking of it, though, is what he said next--that drafting is least favorite part of the process. For him, to draft is the painful process of forcing down words when he can see that the syntax and words aren't working and everything is so, so bad. Revision brings the joy of relief, when he can make the language do what it needs.

For me, the reverse is true. I love the magic of discovery when I write into a scene and begin to envision the place and start to understand the complex reactions of my characters to their private and public conflicts and feel their humanity. I love getting carried away by a sentence and feeling like I'm an oar-less canoe floating along its whorls and eddies.

Revision, though? Oh revision. It would be unfair to say I hate it. Hate is too strong. As I tell my children, I'm too young to hate. I don't want to hate or be hateful. And honestly, I don't hate revision. Dread, yes; hate, no. Revision can offer the same magical and exciting surprises, the same writer highs, the pleasure as drafting. Unfortunately, they're often fewer and painfully far between. Revision is the necessary work, the moment where I acknowledge that the draft that carried me away is nowhere near good enough, the part in which I tear the scenes along their seams to try to determine what stuffing is missing.

The thing is, I probably spend 75%-80% of the time I'm "writing" a book locked in this final battle, trying to revise it so that the text resembles the vision at least in small part. And I'm wondering whether, for Orozco, it's the reverse. Does it take him 75% of the time to ache out a draft so he can have a joyous 25% time revising it? Do writers, by our natures, rush the part we love in the frenzy of our delight only to slog through the other part, and vice verse? If so, can--or should--we spend more time in whatever phase is the "good" part?

Ultimately, I find I don't trust the desire to prolong the joy or to mediate the hard parts. As masochistic as it may sound, I suspect that the painful 75%, wherever it lies, is the part that actually makes the finished book good. It's the part we can be proud of later. I suspect that, whatever the painful part of writing is, we avoid it at our work's peril.