I was wracking my brain thinking about a "seasonal" topic for Mysterious Matters, but - alas, I must blog about what I'm thinking about, rather than what the season dictates. And this week I've been thinking about what it's really hard to do as a writer (other than get published and sell more than a few thousand books). Thus, I present:
It's really hard to...
1. Write a funny book. Lord knows, many people try. If it weren't for my karmic approach to blogging, I'd love to list all those supposedly "funny" series that have failed to elicit even a smile, much less a guffaw, from me. I suppose I belong to the Oscar Wilde school of humor, which dictates that anyone trying to be funny by definition is not. I think I'm pretty good at suspending disbelief (one must, if one wants to read and enjoy this genre), but madcap schemes went out with I Love Lucy, and characters created to be wacky always come across as completely fake to me. The only funny books, I think, are those that are understated, where the humor comes from the author's wit and ability to turn a phrase, as well as his or her ability to observe and comment on a situation with dry detachment. I know editors say we're looking for funny--and we are--but each time I get a query or manuscript that the author describes as "hilarious," I cringe.
2. Create a world. Years ago (1980, to be exact), Joyce Carol Oates' greatest work, Bellefleur, was published, and that superb novel contained an author's note that reads as follows:
This is a work of the imagination, and must obey, with both humanity and audacity, imagination's laws. That time twists and coils and is, now, obliterated, and then again powerfully present; that "dialogue" is in some cases buried in the narrative and in others presented in a conventional manner; that the implausible is granted an authority and honored with a complexity usually reserved for realistic fiction: the author has intended. Bellefleur is a region, a state of the soul, and it does exist; and there, sacrosanct, its laws are utterly logical.
Though 'twas 30 years ago now, I remember my reaction upon reading this note: "What pretentious bullshit this is." Now, 30 years later, I see how completely wrong I was, and how absolutely correct JCO was. For the best fiction- whether genre fiction or more literary fiction - does succeed in creating an utterly absorbing world that follows its own rules and logic. Unfortunately, I can't quite describe what it takes to make this happen; perhaps it springs from a sense that the author had spelled out in his/her own head exactly what is allowable in the created universe and what isn't. Certainly this requires more than a little self-confidence. In fiction, as in life, self-confidence sells something better than tentative baby steps, which is why I always admire books that choose to make their own rules.
One writer who creates a believable world, even amidst a lot of supernatural happenings, is F. Paul Wilson, author of the Repairman Jack series. While Jack goes about solving various crimes, there's a war for the world going on in the background. It's all treated so matter-of-factly, with just the right amount of explanation (and zero apology), that I have no trouble believing any of it.
3. Write as the opposite sex. Wow, this is hard. Really, really hard. In fact, I can't think of any bigger challenge that a writer can set for her/himself. Again, it's hard to put together a "to do" list for writing as the other gender, which would most likely lead to a list of stereotypes so blatant that Mysterious Matters would be blasted from the blogosphere. But does anyone remember the cause celebre over Smilla's Sense of Snow, in which Peter Hoeg dared to write as a woman, and found himself excoriated all over the place? As a man, I can't know how a woman feels when reading a book by a man written in first person as a woman, but I do know how I feel in the opposite situation; and I've just finished two books by women who write in first person as a man. The first, Emily Arsenault's The Broken Teaglass, is a worthy book in many ways, though definitely caught in a strange timewarp that requires much suspension of disbelief. Her male narrator, while sympathetic, just isn't male, and I know why--he just isn't angry enough, and the way he reacts to various stimuli isn't male: it's a female's take on the way a man should act, or on how she would act if she were a man.
In contrast, in The Little Stranger, a haunted house tale set in post-War England, Sarah Waters writes a first-person narrative as the male Dr. Faraday, who falls in love with a local woman as he goes about his rounds. I found many of Waters' little touches absolutely convincing and never questioned the character's maleness. There's a touching scene where the doctor gets a haircut and realizes that his shorter hair calls attention to his hair loss at the temples--a very male reaction.
4. Be a good critic. Whenever I finish a book (never before), I go in search of reviews of that book, whether professional or amateur. Surprisingly, many of the key review engines, such as Library Journal and Booklist, get the broad strokes right 98 times out of 100. But the limitations of the format prevent any sort of longer or serious discussion about the book much of the time; and, sadly, some of the periodicals/newspapers that still review books tend to look down their noses at genre fiction, which means I have to go hunting around on the Web, Amazon, listservs, and so forth. While those hunts often reveal many gems, they also reveal a lot of half-hearted, not-very-thoughtful, or just plan incorrect criticism. I usually find the best criticism in the 3-star reviews on Amazon, huddled there in between the rave reviews by people who just LOVE anything that so-and-so has written (or the author's friends/family) and the 1-star reviews of people with an axe to grind. I wish there were a place for serious, thoughtful criticism of our genre. The DorothyL listserv used to serve that purpose a bit more, but it seems to have become primarily a promotional device where anything negative is perceived as "hurtful." This is one of the reasons I welcome comments on Mysterious Matters--I would like it to be a forum for the serious discussion of the books we love. But just because we love 'em doesn't mean we can't talk about what they do well and what they could do better!
How well do these women succeed in writing as men? Read them to find out...