Sunday, April 29, 2012

Should Authors Talk Politics?

I dread presidential election years because everybody and their dog seems compelled to make their political views known. If we're talking about pundits and hard-core partisans, then those views often are abrasive and not all that well-thought-out. The tone of discourse in this country has gotten so combative that I find it exhausting and disheartening to turn on the TV or even look at my Facebook feed.

Which brings me to this blog post. The other night I made a rare, semi-political post, sharing that I'd like to see a certain comedian/political commentator moderate a presidential debate. I woke up in the morning to find two of my Facebook friends had made partisan comments to me/each other. I deleted the post for two reasons: first, I don't want to provide a forum for people to bicker and second, I'm not sure it's appropriate for me, as an author and somewhat-public-figure, to be talking politics at all.

I don't necessarily feel the need to hide or be dishonest about my political views. If you sift through the vast amount of content I've put on the 'web over the years you can probably get a general idea where I stand (though I don't fall neatly into any silo - I form opinions on a case-by-case basis and often stray from what you might expect of a [insert political label here]).  It's more that I'm not sure I need to advertise my affinities of affiliations or whatever you want to call them.

Here's why:

1. I'm busy and don't have a lot of time to discuss. I believe that putting something online is an invitation to engage on the topic. I work a day job, take care of children and write novels at night when they're in bed. When I get online, most of my time is spent engaging with readers, authors and other publishing colleagues about books, writing and, occasionally, celebrity gossip. (Yes, I belong to ONTD, and yes, I've been known to get into conversations about the Octomom, Josh Hutcherson and Demi Lovato. I know... I know.)

I don't generally talk politics online because I feel like I owe those who might engage with me a well-thought-out response. With as complicated as most issues are, I anticipate having to come up with several well-though-out responses. I don't drop snarky stinkbombs and then walk away. If I say something, I should be ready to stick around and defend it. And most of the time I just don't have the time or energy to get into discussions like that.

2. I'll be honest, I don't want to turn off potential readers. I certainly don't shun people with different political views, but--I'll be honest again--I've been disappointed in the past to learn that someone whose work I admired felt vastly different from me when it came to politics. I didn't stop reading or following them, but I did stop and go, "Hmmm..." Given the tone of today's politics, I can't be sure a reader wouldn't see my political views and go, "That's it, I'm done with her." I guess I'm concerned about turning off half of my prospective readership, since our country seems pretty well divided down the middle.

I know authors who don't seem to worry about this. I know some who feel a responsibility as public figures to speak out. Believe me, if I feel strongly enough about a topic, I will make my voice heard. I'm an anti-bullying advocate, and I've had a few things to say about the role of women in today's political climate. But I don't feel comfortable, say, using Facebook and Twitter to try and persuade people whom to vote for. I don't look down on people who do this, I just skim past their posts.

For myself, unless something makes me really, really angry, I'm going to try and be the political equivalent of Switzerland. If you do see me posting about politics, you'll know I'm well and truly riled up. 

Authors, readers, friends - do you talk openly about politics? Do you care about an author's political views? What are your plans for social media this election season? I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Revision: How Did Dickens Do It?

I've heard it said that good writing is really revising, and in my case that's definitely true. My day job dictates that I'm able to write well on the fly but my fiction, especially, isn't the best it can be until it's been through dozens of revisions. I'm always polishing, but then I also spend a lot of time cutting, re-arranging and rewriting scenes.

With my "WIP from Hell," for example, I'm experimenting with taking whole chunks of scenes and transplanting them to other places. I owe huge thanks to the word processing gods for the ability to cut, paste, undo and save multiple versions of the same document.

But every now and then I realize what a big luxury those tools are.

The other day I heard a radio piece that talked about how Charles Dickens wrote all of his books longhand. The story left me with the impression that Dickens churned out his masterpieces virtually in single drafts. I was relieved, after a bit of research, to find that he probably did as much revising as any author. An original manuscript of Great Expectations proves it. (Image attribution: the photo up above comes from this article.)

But still. Can you imagine having to make all of your revisions in ink, then copy them again in a new manuscript, then rinse, lather, repeat until you were finally happy with your work? What about the not-so-old days when writers wrote on typewriters? I have a vague memory of my mom using some kind of inky paper that let her create a second version of whatever she was typing, but it was a far cry from my ability to just hit "save as" and try something totally new, then go back to my original if I don't like how my experiment turned out.

I wonder if writers wrote better back when they knew they had fewer chances to get it just right - or, at least, that making tons of revisions would be such a huge pain in the butt. Maybe I'm spoiled and lazy because I use cut and paste so wantonly. If so, then I guess I'm unashamed. I'm just grateful I'm living in the future and I have that luxury.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Finding Inspiration in a Ballerina's Story

Few things inspire me like ballet does; my preferred online "time waster" is watching YouTube videos of my favorite dancers and choreographers. I was doing that a couple of months ago when I stumbled on a ballet story that's inspired me like no other.

It's a story I can relate to on so many levels.

I found it almost by accident, when perusing my "recommended" list - it's this episode of a documentary the BBC did about the English National Ballet. If you have time, I highly recommend watching the whole thing.

This episode centers on the company's aging prima ballerina, Daria Klimentova, who is called to rehearse the lead in Swan Lake, a role that will be assumed in performance by superstar Polina Semionova. Klimentova is pushing 40 and knows her career is almost over. She's treated like a workhorse--to the point of abuse by the ballet's choreographer--and, in what could be seen as an even bigger humiliation, is paired with the ballet's new, 20-year-old male star, Vadim Muntagirov. The age difference seems almost absurd and she handles the entire situation with stoic, sometimes gallows humor. Everything comes to a head when Semionova can't make opening night due to visa issues.

Klimentova doesn't particularly want to go on in Semionova's place but agrees to take one for the team. You get the impression she's ready to have danced her last Swan Lake. She and Muntagirov figure they have nothing to lose so they drink a bunch of champagne, have a good laugh, and then go dance.

And something miraculous happens - Klimentova and Muntagirov become a sensation. They find they have an amazing chemistry, and the audience loves them. Critics compare them to Fonteyn and Nureyev, and Klimentov's career is resurrected in spectacular fashion. This article has the whole, inspiring story.

I love this because, as a writer/author, even at this early stage in my publishing journey, I find it's easy to feel like the best might be behind me. I hear similar fears from colleagues, no matter where they are in their careers. You see other, perhaps younger, writers getting the big book deals. It can seem like others have it easier, while you work your butt off only to feel like you're underappreciated at best, not good enough at worst. You try to be graceful and philosophical but sometimes you feel, as Klimentova says in the documentary, like an "old ballerina crying."

I'm sure it's not just writers who feel this way. That feeling probably visits everybody in their chosen field at one point or another.

But Klimentova's story should give us all hope that something unexpected can turn everything around. Maybe it's an inspiring new critique partner or an idea you try out for the heck of it. It might just be the most painful and absurd experience that opens all the doors. If you keep working and keep a decent attitude--and maybe drink some champagne because you figure you've got nothing to lose--you could find yourself in a whole new place, just like Daria.

In honor of her, let's enjoy a little of the bedroom scene from Manon, oui? :-)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

If I Hate It, I Know It Might Be Good

I've been doing a lot of critiquing lately - swapping manuscripts with fellow authors and reading the work of aspiring authors. I'm seeing a lot of great stuff, and I'm gathering awesome feedback that I hope will help me with a project I currently am calling "The WIP from Hell."

In a couple of instances, I've gotten the impression that some of my feedback didn't resonate with the person whose work I was reading. Everybody's been exceedingly gracious, but I could just tell that one or two folks didn't agree with some of my suggestions. That's OK - none of us takes every piece of feedback we receive, but here's the thing: I don't think I'm wrong.

In my own experience, sometimes the critique that makes me go, "Ew, what!?!? This person doesn't get it!" is the critique to which I find I should pay the most attention.

For example: I might call my current project the "WIP from Hell" but I believe in it and I love it and I think it's going to be successful. Early on, I shared a sample with a publishing VIP who I'll keep anonymous because there's no need to name names. This person came back with editorial suggestions that felt utterly wrong to me. I decided to continue on my original path, and my agent sent a proposal out on a round of submissions.

Fast forward a few months, and while we got rave reviews for my writing and lots of compliments on the overall concept, the final decisions were all "no." In essence, nearly every bit of feedback echoed what the first publishing VIP had said.

I realized that what didn't resonate for me was the first VIP's suggestion for a "fix." She was kind enough to throw out ideas for what might help the story, but I just wasn't feeling them. If I look deeper, though, to the problems she was trying to address, then I can see she was correct. I still haven't landed on the solution that's right for me and this story, but, thanks to her and the other editors who gave feedback, I have a much better idea what types of things need to be overhauled in order to make this the successful book I know it can be.

In the end, each of us is the boss of our own story. We decide what happens, what feels right, what's true to our artistic vision. If a beta reader denigrates your work or suggests you turn your realistic contemp into a sci-fi time travel then, by all means, move on. And if a reader you normally respect gives a suggestion that feels totally wrong, you don't have to take it. But ask yourself what prompted the suggestion: is there a problem with your plot, your characters or your pacing? What is your beta trying to help you fix? Because if s/he noticed a weakness, then you can probably assume an agent, editor or reader who buys your book will notice it, too.

How you overcome that weakness is totally up to you - in fact, I think it's awesome when a writer ignores my suggestions and come up with something ten times better. It's the spirit of the feedback that matters, and sometimes the key to success is overcoming the initial urge to say, "Yuck. No. That's not going to work."

I've actually learned to pay special attention when I have that reaction - it often signals an opportunity to take my work to the next level. Sometimes the most valuable advice really is the toughest to hear.