Sunday, January 30, 2011

Interview with Agent Chelsea Gilmore

Dear Readers,

I have a treat for all of you! Not only has the charming Chelsea Gilmore from Maria Carvainis Agency granted me this interview, but also, she has agreed to stop by the Sisterhood blog to answer any questions our readers may have! So what are you waiting for? Set your fingers on your keyboards and type away!


Chelsea, welcome to the Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood!

Q: How did you get your break in publishing?

A: I often joke it was dumb luck. While I’d always dreamed that there was some magical job that paid you to read, I never actually thought it existed! I’d been working at a legal recruiting company for about a year, (which was not at all what I wanted to be doing) when I saw a posting online for a position at Oxford University Press. I submitted my resume, got an interview, and was shortly thereafter hired as the Assistant to the VP/Publisher of the Higher Education Group. I held that position for about a year, and then moved over to Editorial, where I worked for over two years. It was a truly fantastic experience—I got to dabble in editorial, marketing, sales, etc. until I found my “niche.”

Q: What genres do you represent?

Women’s fiction, literary fiction, middle grade/YA, historical fiction (and romances), mysteries/thrillers—just about anything and everything! The only genres I don’t deal with are science fiction, children’s/picture books, and inspirational stories.

Q: What type of Women’s Fiction (or any of its subgenres) appeals to you the most?

A: I definitely gravitate more toward literary projects, but I’m a huge fan of women’s fiction in general, so I’m happy to look at just about anything.

Q: Back when you were an editor at Avalon Books you had to acquire books that didn’t have any graphic violence, sex, foul language or extramarital affairs. Are you following the same parameters for the books you take on as an agent?

A: Absolutely not, and I couldn’t be happier! While there is certainly much to appreciate in terms of the “family friendly” writing that Avalon publishes, I love being able to read anything I like, without any specific “rules” or guidelines dictating what’s OK and what’s not.

Q: What are your top three authors of all time? What are your top three books?

A: This is an extremely difficult question to answer! I think I really have phases when it comes to authors and favorite books—it really depends on my mood. Three authors that I continually come back to are: John Irving, David Sedaris, and J.K. Rowling. To keep things interesting, I’ll choose three books not written by any of these folks. She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb; Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann; and The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

Q: Please tell us what a day in the life of a literary agent is like.

A: My days typically consist of reading, emailing clients, doing research on publishing houses and editors, and keeping abreast of the dailies from sources like Publishers Lunch,, etc. I look online for exciting and popular blogs, big news stories and articles, etc. Of course, each day is slightly different from the day before, depending on what’s on my plate. I also attend conferences throughout the year, participate in the judging of contests, do guests blogs such as this, and generally try to keep my name out there.

Q: Please tell us about Maria Carvainis Agency. How many agents and interns work with you?

A: Maria and I are the only two agents. We have a fantastic assistant, Lyndsay, who helps with everything from query vetting to manuscript reading to filing royalty statements. We also currently have two incredible interns: Aviva and Tali, who help us out immensely. Martha Guzman is our sub-rights and contracts manager, and she is wonderful—extremely detail oriented, thorough, and always busy!

Q: About how many submissions do you receive per week? What do you look for in a query letter and what is the best way to submit to you?

A: On average, the agency receives about 250 queries per week. Of that, we probably request anywhere from 10 to 20 full manuscripts per week. In terms of queries, I’m mostly looking for solid, clear, and intriguing writing. An ideal query letter should focus mainly on the book itself, with a bit of personal info about the author. An indication of genre and audience, as well as a summary of the main characters and overall plot are the most important, key elements. The best way to submit your query is through good, old-fashioned snail mail. Send a query and up to ten sample pages to:

Chelsea Gilmore
Maria Carvainis Agency, Inc.
Rockefeller Center
1270 Avenue of the Americas
Suite 2320
New York, NY 10020

Q: What is one of the most common problems you see in the manuscripts you receive?

A: There is not one specific problem that I would say is common. Generally speaking, the version of your manuscript that you submit should be as clean (i.e. free of grammatical errors/typos), and well-written as possible. Sticking to a format of single-sided and double spaced is also very helpful. Also, try to be consistent with things like character names, tenses, etc.

Q: Would you take on a client based on his/her potential even if the manuscript is not ready to be sold?

A: It really depends. As a general rule, I only read completed manuscripts and prefer that the novel be as perfect as possible before signing. I am more likely to offer an author suggestions for revisions to see if he/she is capable of taking direction and notes for a re-write before offering representation.

Q: What do you think is the ideal/manageable number of clients for an agent? And how many do you aim to have?

A: I don’t think there is a formula to agenting in terms of number of clients. Maria and I pride ourselves on giving each of our clients individual attention. I think it is important for any agent to not overextend themselves to the point where they are unable to do their utmost for each client. That said, we currently have about 40 or so active clients, and I think we do an excellent job of handling each one.

Q: Could you tell us what the process is like from reading a query letter to signing a client? Have you found any clients at conferences?

A: After reading a query, if we like your work we’ll request your full manuscript. If we find your writing strong, and feel that we can sell your work, we then inquire as to what other projects you have lined up. Ideally, we want to work with writers who have plans for a long career, with multiple book ideas. If we like not just your current novel, but the plans for future work, we will then send you an agency agreement and begin the process of submitting your novel to various editors/publishers. I have found clients at conferences—it’s quite rare, but it does happen!

Q: How often and how do you communicate with your clients?

A: All the time! For clients with projects currently out on submission, there is a lot more day to day contact. For clients who are in the process of writing (or re-writing) a novel, I am here for support, to be a sounding board, etc. As I said before, Maria and I pride ourselves on giving each of our clients individual attention—we’re here when they need us, and keep the lines of communication open. Most communication happens over email and phone calls.

Q: How much marketing/self promotion is expected from a writer aside from internet interviews/blogs?

A: It really depends on the writer. I think it’s particularly important for new writers to have a solid presence online—in blogs, on Twitter, Facebook, etc. I think every author, regardless of popularity/success, needs to be capable of self-promoting. This can be in the form of book signings, blogs, book trailers, etc. Because competition is steep, and our attention spans are waning, every author needs to be diligent about keeping their name and novel(s) out there. One bit of advice that I often give in terms of blogging is that only blog if you can commit to writing a minimum of twice a week. If you feel that your schedule only allows you to update a blog once a month, it is probably better to not have one. It is also incredibly important for non-fiction authors to do a lot of self-promoting and marketing. Your platform as a non-fiction author is your lifeblood, and therefore maintaining a solid online presence is an absolute must.

Q: How are the International/Film Rights handled in your agency? Do you have someone who specifically deals with that area?

A: We do have someone who handles our foreign and other sub-rights (including film)—Martha Guzman. The agency has a very successful record of international sales. While film deals do not happen often, they are a handled by the agency.

Q: Is it true that advances are getting smaller for first time authors? In your experience, do authors more often than not exceed their advances with debut novels?

A: Yes, this is true. Advances are getting smaller in general, and especially for first-time authors. It is difficult to say whether or not authors exceed their advances with debut novels—sometimes yes, sometimes no. While big advances are great, the more important factor is staying power—do you have a publisher that will help grow your career? Will your publisher solidly promote and market your work, thus trying to keep you from getting stuck mid-list?

Q: There seems to be an ongoing controversy over the “chick lit” genre. Do you have any insight/opinion on the subject?

A: Not really. I love solid chick lit as much as the next gal. I think there are a few trends happening at the moment—middle grade and YA fiction are hugely popular, paranormal is still hot, and literary fiction is on a slight upswing. I think that it is easy for a lot of folks to look down their noses at so-called “chick lit,” and demonize it for lack of substance, being superficial, etc. But in fairness, a lot of chick lit encompasses the thing many readers love best about a good novel: escapism. When faced with a recession, political drama, etc., a lot of readers just want to disappear into the pages of a novel, and chick lit can be a real balm in that aspect. Trends come and go, and no one can predict what will be popular next, so if you have a chick lit novel that you’re dying to write, by all means write it! You never know what might appeal to an agent, editor, or reader on any given day.

Q: Finally, does your agency have a website and if not, are there any plans to build one?

A: The agency currently does not have a website, but we are certainly considering creating a very basic one with information on submissions. I’ll keep you informed of any progress!

Thank you, Chelsea, and best of luck to you in all your upcoming projects!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Pink covers.

‘When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing.’
--Enrique Jardiel Poncela, Spanish playwright and novelist, 1901-1952

There is a difference between being able to adequately assess whether or not the writing behind a project is good, and dismissing an entire sub-genre out of hand. Why is it that those projects which avail themselves of the rich trove of archetypal characterizations and plotlines and those which garner critical acclaim often congregate at opposite ends of the continuum?

To put it another way, why are the pocketbooks of the masses open for the presumably inferior devices of ‘commercial’ writing while the more refined eye of the intellectual elite appears to delight— if in a muted, ironic fashion— only in stories which regularly eschew the time-honored hero’s journey altogether?

Put yet another way, why is it that the Katherine Heigl vehicles and the Nancy Meyers projects consistently rake in the bucks while the depressing— arguably demoralizing— films and genres of literature mostly concerned with meeting Waterloo are often leagues ahead in racking up the ‘serious art’ brownie points? Why is there a disconnect between what the average heart races to consume— again and again— and what the above-average intelligence scrambles to approve of? And— perhaps most importantly— can we, as writers, heal the breach?

Is it tone? Is it execution? Or is it subject matter? Is it the difference between tying up all the loose bits at the end with a tidy bow and leaving the characters flailing in a vat of angst and lack of resolution that determines the credibility conferred upon a work? Is it all of these things? Is it any of them?

Perhaps it’s compression, the sense that if the writing is swiftly and methodically touching all of the mile markers— the call, the reluctance to answer, the introduction of allies, obstacles, heightened stakes, the turning point, the moment of grace with— on celluloid— the gratuitous close-up, the dark moment which more often than not smacks of contrivance at the end of act two chased by the scene with a manufactured sense of urgency as it barrels toward resolution— that leaves certain readers/viewers cold with the awareness that attempts at emotional manipulation are underway. Well, naturally, all experience of art is an exercise in emotional manipulation. The question then becomes is the manipulation seamless or do the seams show? And my question to you— as the writers responsible for many of these journeys— is why do the seams show more consistently in the stuff that sells?

I recently watched a Katherine Heigl film with the express purpose of dismantling the experience in order to study it. There was a row of women behind me in the theatre who laughed a lot. They peppered my viewing experience with exclamations of, ‘Oh, snap!’ and— in the moment that the boy does in fact return to the girl at the end of act three— ‘I knew it!’ When the lights went up, they cheered.

In other words, these women were moved enough by unapologetically formulaic premise, plot and execution to grow noisy and applaud— though it must be said that, personally, I gave Heigl herself a fair amount of the credit. In any event, the consumers got what they paid for. And as I sat there in my movie bucket seat next to a fellow scribe along for the experimental ride, a jumble of thoughts rushed through both mind and heart— the most salient of which were, for whom am I writing? And why?

Is my writing trying to be an artful interpretation of human experience? A commentary that is ethical in nature? Moralistic? Subversive? Sublime? Is it trying to emerge as something which pulls a more visceral punch or something that—perhaps, finally, by unabashed design— simply goes down easy? I know I want my readers to feel, but how do I want them to feel? Do I want them to laugh? Cry? Both— often? Or do I want them to think? Do I want to rout expectation or do I want to take them where they’re paying me to lead— straight through the reliable climb of escalating emotion and down a safe descent into surprising inevitability? Can I even decide— with authority— and, if so, do I have the chops to carry out any intentions with excellence?

Though a novelist, the bulk of my night stand material— say, 85%?— is non-fiction. When it comes to story, you might call me immoderately particular. I like a smart read, but not one that is too heavy. I’m partial to sharp banter between expertly-drawn voices but not too many graphic scenarios (or any, really.) I like to read characters stripped of their complacency but not of their dignity and— if at all possible— with a light touch. I favor subtlety but not authorial conceit. I like to laugh but not at the expense of substance and I like to grow but not at the (total) expense of levity. But perhaps most of all, I like to be left on an auspicious— but not hackneyed— note.

Which leads me to wonder, is it possible to write a book that can translate to a two-hour capsule— easily consumed with a side of popcorn and Junior Mints— which at the same time does not inspire the roll of a more discriminating eye? Because to imagine that a description like ‘bubble-gum pink’ covers the scope of the contemporary female living— largely through accident of birth— in an industrialized society as she grapples with vocation, love and progeny is both an indignation and a challenge.

So— in the end— does the onus of responsibility land on us as writers to execute these reputedly bromidic arcs in such a way that the dismissal of the erudite is not a foregone conclusion? Forgive me, as I seem to be all questions, today— and with precious little in the way of answers— but I’m stumped, and have been so for a rather annoyingly long time.

Perhaps you can shine some light along the way?

Until next time, dear reader.


Monday, January 17, 2011

The Controversial World of Slang

Being a historical writer certainly comes with its challenges. I'd say one of the more interesting and, often times, more fascinating aspects is the use of slang. If you're a more contemporary writer, or one of those who delves into Fantasy, Science-Fiction or other-worldy genres then you might not feel the need for believable slang in your writing. But for me, it's essential.

When I wrote my first novel, which takes place during the mid-1800s, the first major roadblock I ran into was that my dialogue was just not convincing enough. "Why would a slave speak like an everyday, ordinary human being?" one critiquer asked. And you know what? That particular critique was spot on. I had written flat characters onto the page, simply because I had ignored the speech patterns of each individual character. And I had avoided the lingo of the time period.

Among the three time periods I've tackled (1850s, 1920s, and 1940s) I'd say the one that takes place in the 1850s was the hardest for which to research the slang. Why, you may ask? Because it's not as easy to trace slang when no one today was alive during that time period (let alone really speak it since most of it is viewed as derogatory). Yes, it gets passed down and we find certain references in other literary works, but writing styles during the 1800s were quite unlike the writing styles we find today. Those writers may not have followed the slew of rules that bog down the more modern tippy typers, but a majority of literature one reads in a World Lit class, American Lit class, European Lit class, etc. was written by highly educated individuals (or incredibly detailed individuals). Now, I'm not saying that writers today aren't a wonderfully educated bunch, but the difference lies in the fact that colloquial speech is much more acceptable this day and age. But that also depends on the words one chooses to use.

When contemplating the use of slang in your manuscript there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • First, take a look at your genre. Some genres (like sci-fi and fantasy) don't necessarily require the use of slang. In actuality, it might even age your writing. If you're using today's slang, then five, ten, twenty years from now, readers are going to see that what you wrote has become outdated (just take a look at some of those sci-fi movies from the eighties). There are a few exceptions, like with Steampunk, where history is mixed in, therefore the use of slang would actually add to your story.
  • Secondly, don't overuse it. Slang is good in small portions. If you decide to go back and infuse your manuscript with this element, make sure you aren't writing large portions of dialogue or prose that get bogged down with slang. This just makes your writing ridiculous. Just like with any other element you decide to use (flashbacks, multiple POVs, the "to be"verb, etc.) keep it to a minimum. You don't want to draw unwelcomed attention to your writing -- you want that writing to sing, uninterrupted.
  • Thirdly, don't confuse your reader. Finding a treasure trove of words from say, the 1920s, doesn't mean your audience is going to understand what you choose to use. Make sure your target audience is going to grasp the meaning of your chosen slang. With historical, readers expect a different vocabulary, but again, don't use the most obscure terms you can find. And put it into a context that can lead the reader to its meaning. For instance, when I referred to my protagonist as a partier I used the term "liberally spifflicated." It's an old term referring to one being drunk, and one of my critiquers instantly picked up on it and actually enjoyed the use of it. 
  • Lastly -- and keep this in mind -- know you're not writing to be "Politically Correct." If this mindset sets in, then know that you're not really writing -- you're putting things on a page that a PC-populous would want from you. As writers, we need to respect the lingo of our chosen time period, no matter how offensive it would be viewed today. There was a reason for its birth -- don't squash that reason with your seat-shifting need to avoid it. If you're not comfortable with writing certain words, then perhaps you should change aspects of your story around in order to avoid them.
This final point brings me to a debate about which I recently read. As a writer, my hope is that through the years my work will be passed on from generation to generation. I'm sure Mark Twain had that in mind as well. There was an interesting article published on Entertainment Weekly's website concerning The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn debate. Basically, what the article states is that a new version of this wonderful novel will be published with the "n" word and the word Injun removed and replaced with the less offensive terms slave and Indian. There is the argument that this is a form of censorship. I believe Mark Twain had a purpose for writing the story as he did. Does that mean that years later a PC public should come along and change it just because we now view these words as offensive? You can read the article and responses and decide for yourself.

The Indian War Memorial monument
(2006) courtesy of Wikipedia
Another example I'd like to point out involves The Indian War Memorial monument at the center of the Santa Fe plaza. I bring this up because this is the first I've seen like it. Just so you know, I'm not condoning the use of derogatory or hateful language of any kind, especially this day and age. I'm simply stating that there is a reason why writers choose the language they place in their work.

If you've ever been to the monument, seen the inscriptions, and then read the plaque in front of it, then you've seen that some of the original inscriptions have been chipped away. It once read "Savage Indians", of which only "Indians" remains. It's been a while since I last visited the monument, but I also believe a couple other offensive terms have been removed (correct me if I'm wrong). Even so, should a monument, with an inscription that once reflected the charged, strife-filled atmosphere of Santa Fe, have its historical meaning removed in order to placate those who don't want a reminder of history staring them in the face? History is just that -- history. If we remove the words that created our world, simply because today we find them offensive, then how will we ever fully understand the past? As a historical writer that's exactly what I need to know in order to craft my story properly and bring a bit of what was once known to the world we live in today. Otherwise, we may just end up repeating that past so many others want to believe doesn't exist.

How about for you? Do you think The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn debate is a form of censorship? Or do you view it as minor corrections to a work children will read in their classrooms? Should we erase offensive slang of the past so as not to bring up the children of today in a world that still bears the scars those terms created? Can you think of other instances where either literary works or public inscriptions have been changed?

Just food for thought that I believe is worth munching on!

♥ Mary Mary

Thanks, for this lovely award, goes out to the The Blogger Formerly Known As and also over at Jennifer Lane Books. Stop by and show them some love! Perhaps I will pass it on at a later date, but I'm just unable to at the moment.

Stop by and see what I've got going on over at The Random Book Review!

Monday, January 10, 2011

First, Third, Multiple POVs: ¿Who should tell the story?

In days of old, authors were omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. They were privy to every little thought that went through their characters’ heads, and, being great gossips, they disclosed them to their readers. This viewpoint mélange is known as “head-hopping” and it is a sin that no contemporary writer should ever attempt to commit. Novice writers skirt the caveat by narrating their stories in the first person singular, but even that intimate narrator has its limits. So, which point of view is the ideal one?

First of all, let´s review the types of raconteurs available to us. The most common is third person singular, but in order to avoid the dreadful “head-hopping,” the storytelling must rely on only one character’s perspective. Although the rules are flexible enough to permit changes of point of view, preferably each chapter should be told from a single POV.

As every novice writer knows, avoiding head-hopping is a difficult task. It´s always easier to go for the first person cop-out… only to discover that it also presents drawbacks. Having little knowledge of what other characters really think invites to constant speculation. Terms such as “apparently,” “it appears,” and “it seems,” become crutch words and the description turns clunky. Moreover, there are readers who actually hate first person narrative!

In Sophie’s Choice, William Styron presents action and characters through the eyes of Stingo, a young aspiring writer from the South, living in post-war Brooklyn. However, the true protagonist is Sophie, a Polish refugee with a dark past. At times, Stingo has Sophie tell her story in pages- long dialogue. Often, the author cheats by having Stingo describe Sophie´s past with the excuse that he has come to see Poland (and her life) through her eyes.

Nevertheless, Stingo also disrupts Sophie´s narrative with his own perspective. At some moment, he claims Sophie lied when she said she had no lover before Nathan Landau. Then, he proceeds to tell us of Sophie´s brief affair with a Polish underground fighter. As readers we are assaulted by these overlapping POVs, but the writing is so masterful, we never complain. Alas, I don´t think I could get away with that, so I am a great believer in having more than one POV.

I read somewhere that Gone with the Wind is told from Scarlett’s viewpoint because she is a much more interesting character than Melanie. I strongly disagree with that statement. Once in a while, Peggy Mitchell regales us with Melanie´s perspective (an example is her relationship with Rhett after Bonnie´s death) changing our whole perception of Melly and the story.

Having multiple narrators has its great advantages, as William Faulkner’s fans may tell you. As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury are masterpieces of American Literature, in spite of their variety of POVs. But if you want to go Faulkner´s way you’ll run into a couple of questions. How many narrators should you have? How many are too many? Who should they be? How should they appear? Should you have multiple POVs from the start or they should pop up at different stages along the storyline?

My last novel presents an apparently insurmountable problem. The first part describes the antics of the heroine, from birth until she meets the man of her life. So far so good. But it happens that the hero who blindsides her has a past so steeped in mystery and rumor, that it’s not simply a matter of having him tell it to Violante (yes, that´s my heroine’s name) over tea. Since I wanted him to remain mysterious, he could not narrate his own tale. So, like Conan Doyle, I created a Watson-like character to sing the chanson de geste of this larger-than-life protagonist. And then trouble began to brew.

Viktor, the second narrator, turned up to be such a fascinating creature that both my Beta Readers confessed to like him better than the hero! Therefore, I tried keeping his overwhelming presence at a minimum. He ended up reporting only eight out of forty chapters. It just made poor Viktor´s entrances and exits awkward and unbalanced. To be quite frank, I still don´t know what to do with my novel, but it is a good example of the problems that arise in handling more than one POV.

Which viewpoint do you prefer as a reader? As a writer, which narration style would you say it is the most unmanageable?

Sunday, January 2, 2011


1. made according to a formula; composed of formulas: a formulaic plot.
2. being or constituting a formula: formulaic instructions.

A curly-haired colleague of mine was enrolled in a writing class at a local college. Early on in the semester, the instructor began to subtly patronize an oft-vilified, though proven-to-be commercially-successful genre. You know— the kind of stuff a fair contingent will always read no matter what the shape of the economy or what the latest hand-over-fist-inducing trend? Yes, friends, we’re talking about romance— or as I prefer to think of it, strong romantic elements in a more broadly-textured narrative. And as my esteemed colleague went on to describe the instructor’s disdain for allegedly tired plot lines, I shifted in my overstuffed, trendy coffeehouse seat.

At first, I couldn’t tell if I was shifting from indignation or from the heat of the fires I often feel stoked within when formulating a reply. The more she spoke, though, the more quickly I was able to deduce that it was a lovely combination of both. So the result, dear reader, has taken shape beneath my flying fingers and emerged as this Lincoln-Douglasesque rebuttal.

Curly-haired colleague confided that her instructor huffed in response regards a student’s attempt at penning yet another iteration of the favorite roast of intellectuals with a taste for highbrow writing— or, wait. People are calling it ‘literary,’ these days. Right? Or is the term, ‘upmarket?’ Difficult to keep track. Especially when you’re at your first conference and the panel of agents and editors seated before you— approximately six in number— as you float in a veritable sea of hopefuls who, like you, have worn down the whorls on their fingertips tapping out the (d)reams they will pitch later that day and you start to hear these exotic terms being bandied about.

I don’t handle category romance.

My clients are more in what you’d call the upmarket women’s fiction range.

I tend to favor more literary texts.

O—kay. So does this mean if my book has a fight scene and then a make-up scene involving heavy petting that you won’t take a look? Even if my characters use big words?

In any event, back to highbrow instructor. Curly-haired colleague goes on to tell me that her prof posed the following insufferable question to our fellow aspiring writer.

**Disclaimer: Subsequent snippets of dialogue are the product of my imagination reconstructing a scene at which I was not present. Any dissimilarity to actual events, people and places is deliberately embellished for the sake of dramatic effect though the kernel of historical— and relevant— information remains respectfully intact.**

‘Let me guess,’ highbrow instructor holds up a hand. ‘Your story starts off with a girl who can’t stand a guy but they get thrown into a situation where they’re forced to collaborate and, eventually— despite her best efforts to the contrary— she falls in love with him?’

Aspiring writer flicks at her scarf. ‘Er— yeah. Kinda.’

Highbrow instructor, eyes sharp with the gleam of an ex-romance writer who went on to pen a novel from the point of view of a perspicacious dog later hailed as a modestly-coruscating gem and a literary triumph (over whom? I’m always tempted to ask,) tosses out an expertly-timed scoff— though delivered tastefully and with a pitying, if arguably affected, grace.

So. Here was my thought after hearing the pre-emptive dismissal of aspiring writer’s kissy-kissy yarn: It sounds interesting.

Sue me! Her book sounds interesting. Never mind that my sympathies are— heavily— in aspiring writer’s camp. My point is, what is so terrible about writing a story that’s already been written? Yes, hi— there’s a reason these narratives are penned over and over, again. And yes, it’s true, there are some writers who are in it strictly for commercial gain since, ya know, everyone likes to eat and wear clothes and/or pay the mortgage or the rent. Hence, carefully measuring out a certain dosage of story elements, mixing them together in prescribed parts and watching them erupt in a reliable— if predictable— explosion is the way they roll. Then, if executed with a respect for the basic rules of style and grammar, they proceed to sell their thinly-veiled, fizzing concoctions and start all over again. And to those members of my tribe I say, ‘Power to ya’ and ‘Vaya con Dios.’

What’s hurtful, I believe, is when these formulaic plots arise not from the commercial writer’s handbook but from the deep spaces of your subconscious and, later, you’re called on it. When you write your stories without regard for What’s Been Done (or worse, What’s Not Done) and it turns out you have nothing original to say. All you have is your original voice with which to say it.

Well, friend, herein lies the rub.

The thing about originality versus templates proven to succeed— and therefore looked down upon by the refined members of the Pulitzer-collecting crowd— is that, amidst the roar of feedback and constructive criticism and trying to come out ahead with authenticity in what is, essentially, a marketplace, the highest calling is so lofty— so all-encompassing— that it almost seems the only way to nail it is to do so by mistake. It’s serendipity and timing and long hours in a vacuum invisibly honing your craft without the certainty that your words will ever see the light of the shelf under the mega-bookstore fluorescents— or the light of a portable screen— yes, but it’s also something far more primitive.

People want to read about a girl who meets a guy she can’t stand but is then thrown into a situation in which they have to get along and she falls in love with him for a very fundamental reason— and it ain’t formula.

It’s resonance.

It’s why Episode 4 endured for thirty years spawning an empire of product tie-ins that built Skywalker Ranch from nothing— and I’m still wearing the Millenium Falcon t-shirt to prove it— and why Episode 1 just sorta sucked. It isn’t formula that arises from your earnest, naked heart in the dark hours when the rest of the house is asleep and your characters are so painfully real it’s like all you’re doing is taking dictation.

It’s Jungian.

It’s the hero getting her call to adventure and being timid about responding at first but then, against all personal odds, grasping for the grail. It’s suffering in the process and meeting friends along the way, some of whom turn out to be enemies; and squaring away with villains on the high-stakes path toward the inmost cave, some of whom turn out to be allies or— better, yet, that most deliciously unsettling of archetypes— shapeshifters. It’s the drama of your protagonist discovering— in precisely the moment readers yearn for the master stroke of redemption— near-reptilian energies eye-for-an-eyeing-it within.

And that’s why people will read twice-told tales when the chips are down and when the chips are soaring, alike. Because, as writers, we have the honor of tapping into the guts of the human experience and reproducing some version of it in portable form— be it by gobbling up pulp resources or light-emitting diode ones. The makes and models may change but the journey stays the same. (And if you knew how much it cost my little, analog heart to type that assertion, you’d pat me on my little, analog head.)

Bottom line, don’t ever let anyone make you feel like the fact that you’ve got nothing new to say means you’ve got nothing to say, at all. You never know when the product of myths which have endured— and inspired— for millennia and your toddling imagination will mix it up with just the right amount of ala kazam and touch off the Next Big Thing.

Until next time, dear reader.


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