Friday, April 20, 2012

The Crapulous Blank Page

I've never really been one to post inspirational quotes. It's not that I don't find them inspiring. Sometimes just the right picture/quote/song says just what I need to hear. But sometimes it's idealistic poop-on-a stick people try to feed you to get you to stop screaming.

That said, allow me to post an inspirational quote. I'll even throw in an inspirational photo of an old fashioned typewriter and a blurry background of inspirational autumn:

A word is a bud attempting to become a twig. How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream.
--Gaston Bachelard

Aww. Isn't that inspiring?

Eh hmm. Truth?

I despise the blank page. When I read that quote, the first thing I noticed was that the guy's last name ended with lard, and I imagined him with a bushy beard and fried chicken on its way to his mouth. I did not envision myself typing away, glorying in the beauty and sheer miracle of the blank page.

The blank page is crap.

The only writerly thing that truly satisfies me is the page that's filled from beginning to end with words. That's where the story becomes a living, breathing thing full of possibility. When I first dream up a story idea, I get so excited I can hardly sit still enough to start writing it. But it doesn't take more than a few thousand (or hundred) words before I begin to despair. SO MUCH BLANK SPACE.

You'd think I weren't romantic or something. Honestly, I am. I'm a die-hard fan of grand gestures and fields of poppies and the ballet and Paris and writing at Starbucks and mud wrestling. Not the last two.

But I'm not particularly fanciful. I'm not the type to spend hours pinning things to Pinterest or finding just the right songs for my books' playlists or digging up quotes for my sanity. Perhaps it's a matter of practicality (or the sanity is already lost). I have two children and a husband to feed and water and my volunteer hours are ridiculous (seriously, go ahead and crown me Martyr of the Year.) But mostly, I'm really impatient. I don't want to fantasize about my stories. I want to live them. And I can't do that until I've written something. And that's bloody difficult. First drafts are killer. I will often rush through them just to have words on the page--something to work with, at least. I'm the photographer who doesn't necessarily envision the shot and then take it; I must take it and then work it until it becomes something glorious.

I just can't really see the story until I've written it. It's like I have to have a frame of reference in order to function artistically, but the frame of reference is inside my head not yet written--I've never found it outside of myself. That's the kicker. But by the time I've got a rough story written out, I'm so impatient to jump into revision, I don't want to go searching for stuff other people have tumblred and pinned and whatever to work the kinks out of the book. I just want to find my own story by digging inside my own head even more.

There is a certain vanity to this, I admit. But mostly just impatience.

Maybe this means I'm not a true artist?

It may be, though, there are simply two kinds of writers. Those that love the blank page and the endless possibility (these may be the ones who dream and fantasize and pin before the words come); and those who detest the blank page and revel in revision, dreaming and pinning and whatnot after the initial words. And then there's me who doesn't pin at all but thrashes inside my own mind looking for people and things that have never existed outside my head. Oh the folly. The torture...

You know that fiction, prose rather, is possibly the roughest trade of all in writing. You do not have the reference, the old important reference. You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true. You have to take what is not palpable and make it completely palpable and also have it seem normal and so that it can become a part of experience of the person who reads it.--Ernest Hemingway

See, Ernest gets me. And I get him. I, however, don't really get Pinterest.

I'm not entirely sure how this post on the crapulous blank page turned into a call for help with Pinterest.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Go Ahead, Use Clichés in Your YA

So, clichés in YA...there are lists and sublists, spoofs, drinking games and game shows (I'll take parentless teenagers for $1K, Alex). I'm sure you've seen it all, too--and perhaps tried to justify why clichés #'s 5, 8, 11, and 24 only apply to your manuscript a little bit. And then fretted because it's clear #'s 2, 13 and 19 are obviously in your work. It's enough to make you eat your own manuscript and throw it back up into the proverbial toilet bowl of shame.*

And yet, we see how successful books/movies can be with/despite clichés. come we gotta be the ones to write all new, uncommon stuff? Maybe I want to write a story about a parentless teenage girl who ignores the sweet, pimply little fella stalking her and falls for the bad boy (vampire/werewolf/jock/guitarist) who ignores her, reforming said bad boy with her love so that they end up on a double date to prom with teenage girl's gay BFF and her former arch nemesis, the perky blonde hiding deep-seated insecurities.**

Okay, so, that was filled with "clichés," but I kind of want to read that story.

Maybe the problem is that we've come to believe common equals bad.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But from a $$$ standpoint, it seems to be pretty dang okay***. Not in the sense that you should now write a book about a pale girl named Jella who moves to Spoons and falls for a vampire named Eddie Sullen (that's fan fiction--and a whole other blog post); but in the sense that so many big sellers have derivative qualities and "clichés." Ideally, you can write an original, entertaining and gloriously lyrical story without a single cliché and make MILLIONS of dollars. But. Why exactly are you trying to eradicate all sense of the familiar? Are you really that opposed to prom? To gay best friends? To teenage girl MCs?****

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating the use of clichés. Neither am I condemning it. Per se. Yes, actual clichés, especially in abundance, can be annoying. That's hard to refute. But I think we need to be careful how we fling the cliché word around. That is, the blanket categorization of common elements in YA as cliché (and bad bad!) seems a bit careless to me, not to mention confusing, given how many successful books we've seen with said "clichés." If we were to strictly judge our manuscripts by the lists of clichés circulating the Internet, how many of us might feel compelled to rethink our stories--even if they're not filled with trite expressions, plots, and characters? Or worse, feel like we suck and should quit writing to go work in a pickle factory?

Let us not equate common with trite, my friends. A teenage girl MC is common in YA because, well, a lot of teenage girls read YA. So it makes sense it's common. In a Hello, Of COURSE kind of way. Just as it's common to have prom at the end of books (especially teenage romances), because prom is for many teenagers a meaningful event. Okay, fine, truth is most of the YA I write takes place in locations where lockers and prom and cafeteria lunches don't exist, but I was a misfit nerd who hated high school and constantly dreamed myself out of that location, so non-school settings and dangerous situations are just what I like. But if prom and hallways and homecoming makes sense for your book, and you like it, by all means, write those elements into your stories. And don't feel guilty about it. The key is to have language, plots and characters that feel original, even if the stories include prom and a vegetarian, clumsy teenage new girl at school who falls in love with the Chosen One destined to kill/eat her. In other words, write stories that are awesome (and that you love), regardless of the never-ever-don'ts they include.

Obviously, readers don't want to pay for the same old thing. They want to pick up a new story and feel the love they felt for an old story. If you can reproduce those emotions in readers without a single "cliché," AWEsome. Pip pip, cheerio. But it's totally possible to write good, original stories with common literary elements because it MAKES SENSE FOR YOUR STORY and not because that's just whatcha do in YA. Clearly, don't overload your manuscripts with every common element--that's just a parody waiting to happen.

Then again, do it if you want. Maybe it'll sell. Just write what you want to write and what people want to read. Not what you think will pass for an MFA thesis (unless you're writing an MFA thesis whether for grad school or because you really, really want to, in which case, ignore me completely.) I realize this advice (which is, after all, just a matter of opinion), is contrary to all the FOR-CRYING-OUT-LOUD-YOU-MUST-NOTs on the Internet and in your craft books. But I figure readers are hungry for good, memorable stories in all shapes and sizes. That's it. I believe in fiction as a matter of craft, and I work very hard to perfect it. But I work even  harder to please potential readers in a way that feels right to me, and sometimes that entails ignoring the must-nots.

*There is no such toilet bowl, proverbial or otherwise.
**I'm not sure what happens to little fella. Let's assume he turns out to be the bad guy all along.
***This is assuming that you give two kadoodles about $$$. Perhaps you write only for yourself, or for free, in which case, well, carry on. Cheers.
****FYI, I don't advocate the use of token characters of any kind. That's just insulting and generally diminishes the quality of your characterization. So, there you go. A must-not. Oh, the irony.


In the event you did not see yet, the winner of the signed hardcover of WANDERLOVE by Kirsten Hubbard was posted HERE. Thank you to all who entered! Stay tuned for the next giveaway.