Sunday, October 28, 2012

Let's Talk: The Art & Craft of Dialogue

Good dialogue is a delight to read. Bad dialogue is deadly. -Stephen King

Of the many aspects of fiction writing — character development, plot, description, scene structure — dialogue writing is often considered one of the trickiest. I am lucky, I suppose, in that it’s an aspect I find relatively easy. I can tie myself up in knots over how to move from Scene 1 to Scene 2, but dialogue flows for me and is pleasurable to write. Unfortunately, for those who struggle with it, bad dialogue is easier to spot than other writing bugaboos, and is especially likely to make a reader turn away from a book. I read an interview with an agent who said dialogue is her primary litmus test. With each manuscript she receives, she skips straight to the first bit of dialogue, and if it’s bad—off to the slush pile it goes.

Lesson: it’s really worth brushing up on your dialogue-writing skills.

Why is dialogue so important? It’s fast moving, keeping readers engaged where long chunks of text will lose them. Dialogue visually breaks up a page, adding necessary white space. Writers can use dialogue to efficiently deliver exposition. Dialogue reveals character better than description, and often better than action. Dialogue is, when done correctly, fun to read. And if you don’t have a knack for it, never fear: it’s not magic. It’s a skill that improves with study and practice. The easiest thing to get wrong is also the simplest thing to fix: formatting. Hardly any articles, blog posts, or book chapters on writing deal with the mechanics of dialogue, which is a shame. Because very few beginning writers get it right — and they’re going to get rejected by agents. Let’s fix that.

She said:
“You’re formatting this dialogue incorrectly.”

She said: “You’re formatting this dialogue incorrectly.”

Still better:
She said, “You’re formatting this dialogue incorrectly.”

“You’re formatting this dialogue incorrectly,” she said.

Keep dialogue on the same line as the dialogue tag. (“Dialogue tag” is the “he said” part — more on this later.) See how the first example above had a paragraph return between the tag and the quote? That’s incorrect. Furthermore, do not use colons in your tags, and avoid starting with the tag. Note the final, “best” example. The speech ends with 1. a comma, 2. a close-quotation mark, and 3. a lowercase “she said.” This is the default, at least for American English. This is what you should be doing most of the time; obviously there are exceptions to these rules. Don’t think you can get away with the exceptions, though, until you’ve understood and mastered the rules. If you think you’ve mastered them already, do a quick check. I mean, really, right now: go look. Find a section of your own dialogue and note whether you are mostly sticking to the default — and when you have departed from it, ask yourself if you did so deliberately and consciously for a particular effect. Based on the number of first drafts I have looked over, and based on my own learning curve, I’d guess there’s some brushing up to be done.

Many dialogue rules are picked up intuitively by writers who do a lot of reading. If you are getting feedback that you’re formatting incorrectly, you may not be reading enough, or you may be reading stories with bad dialogue. I find the best way to train my writerly intuition is not to study the formal rules, but to find writers who do it well and literally copy them: pick up a book by one of these authors  and copy out dialogue-intensive passages. I will continue to repeat this advice, because I truly believe transcribing is one of the best tools to improve your fiction. Transcribing is an exercise that rewires your writing brain on a level much deeper than rule-memorizing will ever do.

“Do not,” hollered the editor, “ever have your characters holler scream, whisper, or moan what they could just say!”
The use and abuse of dialogue tags, beyond what I discuss above, is more subject to controversy. First, there’s the question of “said.” Most editors agree that this tag is preferable to any other tag, such as “shouted” or “sighed.” This latter kind of tag is called a said bookism, and editors hate those. Unfortunately, elementary-school teachers have for decades instructed students to avoid “said” and instead use bookisms, so a lot of us have to be retrained to go back to good old “said.” The reason editors recommend “said” is that it is less colorful: bookisms are terribly distracting, and interrupt the flow of dialogue. You can use them occasionally to break up the steady march of “he saids,” but you want “said” to predominate.

Almost as loathed as said bookisms are adverbial dialogue tags: “Take that!” she said scornfully. This is one I have a harder time avoiding, as I do love me my adverbs. We are told time and time again to keep our adverbs to a minimum, but they keep creeping back into tags — at least, into mine. Often these tags are redundant, as we can tell from the context how the speaker is speaking. If you don’t think it’s clear, consider finding another way to evoke the mood.

“You can also leave off tags entirely.”
“How do you know who’s speaking, then?”
“Let readers sort it out from context.”
It’s fine to skip tags occasionally when you’ve got a long page of dialogue; you don’t need “he said” after every line. Some schools of thought go further and treat tags as if they were volatile little bombs: icky things you use only when absolutely necessary. You know these authors: you flip open a book and it’s just this endless wall of dialogue. You have to go back three pages to sort out who’s speaking, and then count lines to keep track. Cormac McCarthy not only does this, but foregoes quotation marks altogether. Hint: unless you are Cormac McCarthy, do not write dialogue like Cormac McCarthy. Use dialogue tags. And punctuation.

To move from the abstract to the concrete, let’s take a look at some dialogue from an actual published novel. I’ll flip open Lorrie Moore’s novel A Gate At the Stairs, because it’s chock full of excellent examples:

“So,” said Mrs. McKowen, “have you met the birth mother?”
“Yes,” said Sarah.
“And you’re sure you want that woman’s child?”
Edward began to cough. “Excuse me—is there a bathroom I might use?”
“Why do you say that about the birth mom?” asked Sarah.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Mrs. McKowen. “I guess, well, the lady’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.”

In the first sentence, we see how Moore uses the dialogue tag in the middle of the sentence: this is my own preferred way to tag, at least for dialogue that’s longer than a dozen words or so. The second speaker, Sarah, has the default tag: statement, followed with a comma and simple “she said.” Edward arrives on the scene without a true dialogue tag, but rather introductory action: he does something on the same line as his dialogue, so we know he is the speaker: this is another good dialogue option, which you can use more frequently as the defaults become automatic for you. (Use a period, not a comma, in this construction.)

When Sarah speaks again, she gets the tag “asked Sarah” because it’s a question: notice that “asked” is lowercase. Many writers understand that “he said” is lowercase because they see the comma, but when there’s a question mark they mistakenly revert to capitalization. However, the formatting remains as if it were a comma: remember your defaults, which here is, “use lowercase with dialogue tags.”

Finally, the last line repeats the middle-of-the-sentence dialogue tag, with the default “she said” but in reverse. “Said” should generally be the second word in a tag, not first, but you can use this construction for variety.

Variety. Look how well Moore plays with the default. She shifts her tags around from beginning, to middle, to end, and back. Why? Because of flow. If you always place your dialogue tags at the end, your dialogue can sound programmed and monotonous. The default is a good one: dialogue tags at the end, stick with “he said,” but Moore shows how variation can ensure flow.

If you feel overwhelmed by the technicality of this explanation, don’t worry. You will pick it up intuitively if you study good dialogue. Remember, though, that you’ll get much more out of the masters if you copy out their work, word by word and comma by comma, than if you simply read it.

“I was thinking, um, that, well, maybe, you know—” The writer fiddled with her earrings.
The editor scowled. “Get to the point!”
“But this is, like, kinda, how people—how people, actually, you know, talk.”
“That nice,” he said. “But it’s not how writers should write.”
Drilling further down into style: There’s an irony of writing good dialogue, in that the most natural-sounding written dialogue is not much like actual speech. Read an exact transcript from a radio or television interview to see what I mean: note all the stammers, ums, self-interruptions, start-overs, and banalities. When I was a journalist and did interviews, I had to clean this sort of thing up for the final product; all journalists do this, which is why you don’t see “uhhh” and “I mean” in written interviews. You don’t see the stops and starts as the interviewee finds her point. This is even truer for fictional dialogue: Your characters should speak more economically than people actually do. The flipside of this is that dialogue shouldn’t be too clean. The grammar in dialogue can be incorrect, and should be incorrect when that’s true to your character. You can get away with “gonna” and “woulda” in dialogue; you can say, “Me and her gone shopping” if that’s how your character — say, a three-year-old — would speak. You clean up the distractions, the ums and stumbles; you don’t hide personality, age, or education. Here’s an example from John Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men”:

Aw Lennie! George put his hand on Lennie's shoulder. “I ain't takin' it away jus' for meanness. That mouse ain't fresh, Lennie; and besides, you've broke it pettin' it. You get another mouse that's fresh and I'll let you keep it a little while.”

George is a migrant worker with little formal education. Note that while his grammar is true to his character, Steinbeck has kept his speech economical. No unnecessary words are used. (Bonus points if you noticed that Steinbeck does not use a formal dialogue tag here, but uses a line of action to indicate the speaker, as Lorrie Moore had her character Edward do in the earlier excerpt.)

Not exactly Steinbeck, but really. Is this not fabulous dialogue?

In addition to Steinbeck, one of my favorite writers of dialogue is John Cheever, who manages to create sparkling characters with pinpoint use of dialogue. Let’s meet Mrs. DePaul, a character from John Cheever’s short story “Christmas Is A Sad Season for the Poor.”

“Oh, Charlie!” Mrs. DePaul was a stout woman with an impulsive heart, and Charlie’s plaint struck at her holiday mood as if she had been caught in a cloudburst. “I do wish we could share our Christmas dinner with you, you know,” she said. “I come from Vermont, you know, and when I was a child, you know, we always used to have a great many people at our table. The mailman, you know, and the schoolteacher, and just anybody who didn’t have any family of their own, you know, and I wish we could share our dinner with you the way we used to, you know, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t.” 

She carries on like this for another few sentences. Her repeated use of the phrase “you know” is as much a representation of her character as her stoutness and her impulsive heart. It gives us a quick, intense impression of her, like a black-and-white photograph with a few details colored in. The repeated phrase would be maddening in a novel if she were a primary character, but Mrs. DePaul is a sketch. Cheever can use this device with her because this is a short story, and she only has a few lines. Another dialogue-savvy author I’d recommend is Flannery O’Connor. When I do my transcribing exercises, I usually pick Flannery. (I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence that these writers are both from the mid-20th century: perhaps that was a heyday for dialogue writing.)

“I don’t know. It just started shuddering and then steam —” I began.
“Eee, cabron, I told you she was a girl!” the woman shouted at her husband, interrupting. “Sorry, mija,” she added to me. The man stepped back, looked me over skeptically, shrugged, then went back under the hood.
Ready to drill a little deeper? The next step is to get your dialogue to perform multiple functions. In the above excerpt, from one of my works-in-progress, the viewpoint character is dealing with a broken-down car, and the dialogue appears to be focused on that. But if I did it right, I also let the reader know that this setting is not your typical American setting and that the point-of-view character is a girl who looks like a boy. We also can see that in spite of being a tomboy, the viewpoint character doesn’t know cars,  that the shouting woman is kinder to strangers than she is to her husband, and that the husband is not much of a talker. My intention was to pack a lot of information into a small bit of dialogue—without the reader noticing what I was doing.

Your characters will sound wooden if you give their dialogue only one job, especially if that job is “transfer info to reader.” Your characters are not robots. They are, or should seem like, real people. They need dimension. As your character delivers plot information to the reader, she should also be delivering other subtextual information, such as her personality (is she bubbly? Clipped?), her relationship with the person to whom she’s speaking (does she love him? Fear him?), and her reaction to the events around her (is she excited? Bored?). As you add these layers, you’re going to find yourself excited at how real your dialogue suddenly sounds. Your characters will have more life than you’ve ever given them. One exercise you can do right now is to look over a few pages of your dialogue and rework it to reflect the speaker’s unique personality. Look at the Moore excerpt above: See what Edward is doing? He coughs, then tries to flee the room. He is startled by the previous comment, and uncomfortable with conflict. We learn a lot about Edward from this tiny bit of dialogue.

As much as I’ve covered here, I’ve only touched on the basics of writing dialogue. Entire books are written on the subject; courses are taught. You can read the books, you can sign up for the courses; you can memorize everything I’ve written here. But if you want to write dialogue that sings, that will grab the attention of every agent out there, read the works of excellent writers. Read closely. Transcribe, and while copying out their work, notice what they are doing. Think about what they were thinking about when they chose those words. Smoke that stuff, get it into your bloodstream, into your DNA, and it will become your own. You’ll have the skills to let your own voice — what is uniquely yours — come through.
Jan Švankmajer, "Dimensions in Dialogue"

Monday, October 22, 2012

Crossing Over: Does It Really Work?

Perhaps you were one of the many who recently purchased J.K. Rowling's first adult-centered novel, The Casual Vacancy, but quickly became one of the few who finished the book. Believe it or not, there's a real reason why you just couldn't find it in your heart to slog your way through to the end.

Let me preface this post by first saying that I have not read Rowling's latest work, and in all honesty, I have no real desire to read it after the dismal reviews and critiques it has received. According to an article published on Yahoo!News that came out a few weeks ago, the novel was widely panned by several media outlets. 

Here are a few of the comments well-known news outlets had to say concerning The Casual Vacancy:

According to The New York Times: "Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that “The Casual Vacancy” is not only disappointing — it’s dull." 

According to The Guardian: "Generally, though, The Casual Vacancy is a solid, traditional and determinedly unadventurous English novel."

According to the Daily News: "'The Casual Vacancy,' which one bookseller breathlessly predicted would be the biggest novel of the year, isn't dreadful. It's just dull."

But these are just major newspapers. What do they know, right? So, I did a little light reading on Amazon, and guess what I found? Yep, 280+ similar one-starred reviews. Basically, Rowling's attempt at writing adult fiction boils down to three words — sad, miserable, and dull. Not quite the cheery words the author was going for, I would assume.

And, of course, I bet you can't guess what Rowling said would be her next move. That's right! She's going back to writing for children.

But where did it all go wrong and why, when it came to The Casual Vacancy?

According to this article published by Children's Literature Association Quarterly written by David Galef, those authors who wish to write both children's literature and adult literature fall into three categories:

  1. Writers of adult fiction who take up writing children's literature in mid-career. As we all know, this is not what Rowling chose to do, but there have been some authors successful with this formula. One recent example in this category is John Grisham and his Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer series. Unfortunately, those who fail at crossing over into children's lit tend to just dumb-down what they've already written, not taking into consideration that there's a real transition to adhere to when it comes to writing for children. Children are looking to learn something new in a style that speaks directly to them. A few other good examples David Galef cites in this category are Roald Dahl and Antoine de Saint Exupèry. These two authors wrote works that appeal to a broader audience, but are originally intended for children. In some ways, one could argue that Harry Potter falls into this category, but Rowling actually started her career intending her work to be written for the middle-grade audience alone, thus starting her career out in kid's lit, not jumping on the boat later on down the line. 
  2. Those who start out writing for children and later decide to write for adults. This is where we'll find Ms. Rowling and her Potter Universe. These authors have already achieved fame in the children's market, and thus that fandom spills over into their adult works. Let's take a look at Rowling for a moment. She has extensive fame through the publication of her Harry Potter novels, with a very solid fan base. Having these elements in place allowed for her to take her hush-hush adult novel to shelves with nary a word about the storyline. Immediately sales soared on sites such as Amazon, even though barely anyone knew what she'd written. But do blind sales necessarily translate into success? In Rowling's case, no.
  3. Authors who balance an array of diverse projects from the beginning of their careers. These types of writers are few and far between. According to David Galef, two good examples are Louisa May Alcott and C.S. Lewis. They were both prolific authors who learned how to develop the craft well and use it to their advantages. It takes a certain ability to know how to write for various markets. Someone who is a master at writing, say, mysteries, will run into problems if he/she decides to delve into fantasy. This is why we come to associate certain genres with certain authors. When we think of James Patterson, crime fiction easily comes to mind. When we think of Philippa Gregory, historical fiction easily comes to mind, and so on. Crossing over is no easy task, and it takes studying the new genre to make it work for the author.
Having a fan base already in place is about the only good thing Rowling's novel had going for it. She and the publishers were very quiet about the book, not wanting to give away too much of the plot before the book hit shelves. This created curiosity, particularly for those interested in what Rowling could conjure up after taking such a magical ride through her Potter books. Unfortunately, most readers received a strong dose of reality when they cracked open The Casual Vacancy. As many critics have stated, the magic was simply gone. And if an author isn't careful, so will be the audience.

Another curious reason that popped up in many of the lackluster reviews was how Rowling chose to craft the storyline. When in a child's mind, there is a simplistic way of viewing the world. Life tends to be more black and white than the gray world Rowling thrusts her readers into with The Casual Vacancy. Many critiquers bemoaned her choice to use so much profanity throughout the entirety of the book, particularly the f-bomb. Many of these individuals found the characters too numerous and hard to keep track of, not to mention the one-dimensions Rowling thrusts said characters into. Many scenes get overly graphic, causing readers to skip ahead or simply put the book down altogether. And because of these reasons, many reviewers believed Rowling was simply trying too hard to write for an adult market.

And perhaps there in lies the main problem with Rowling's novel. She is used to writing for a market that doesn't need deep prose or the wittiest and catchiest of dialogue. But when it came to crafting a world strictly read by adults, she perhaps felt the need to throw in everything she could get her hands on to make the story believable and relatable to her audience. But throwing too much in destroys a storyline, taking the reader on tangents that don't need to be there.

Grant it, the lady has guts to step out of the box her readers have put her into, but I hope that through this experience she has learned where her true talent lies.

Are you a genre-crossing writer (and by this I mean have you written more than one book pertaining to two completely different genres)? Have you read The Casual Vacancy? If so, do you feel Rowling completely missed the mark or did she actually hit the nail on the head when it comes to writing for the adult market? Can you think of any other authors who have been successful (or unsuccessful) when it comes to crossing over into another genre?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Plagiarism or a New Genre? Defining Fanfiction

The arrival of Internet has revolutionized the concept of fandom, and a manifestation of this revolution is the fan-generated literature known as “fanfiction.” Beyond homage or admiration, these written spinoffs of television, film and literary franchises could be cataloged as samples of personal prose and a good practice for more serious fictional writing. Nevertheless, well-known authors resent amateurs meddling with their work and view fanfiction as mere plagiarism.

The definition of “fanfiction” applies to a story inspired by an original work that either modifies or expands the actual text. Such yarns are non-profitable, exclusively on-line published (most of the contemporary fanfiction in English is gathered at and targets devotees of the inspiring piece. These transmedia texts are triggered off by several subjects: anime, films, TV series and books, especially sagas like Twilight, Harry Potter and George R.R. Martin´s A Song of Ice and Fire.

Fanfiction springs from four emotions:

Love: A loving fan would wish to enhance a favorite tale by using its universe and characters.

Deprivation:  After the word “The End” is reached, a feeling of hunger gnaws the fan’s vitals. The only way to appease it is to continue the story, to expand the boundaries and create sequels.

Impatience: It arises while waiting for another season of a TV show to roll by or by the incessant counting of months and years before a new book comes to the market (George R.R. Martin, hear our clamor!) What best way to beat that impatience than writing our own versions?

Frustration:  Many readers experiment with fanfiction to appease exasperation with an author who pairs off the heroine to the wrong partner, kills a favorite character or drags the plot into an undesired direction. Most aficionados understand those moods. How many of us want to push Martin to write faster, are angry that Bella didn’t choose Jacob, or, like me, feel that the doctors in “Grey´s Anatomy” never make the right amorous decision?

 Fanfiction is basically prose, although I have heard of poetry fics and fan song fiction. There is a form of fanfiction that is expressed in video structure, and you may find several samples in YouTube. FF or “fanfic” (as it is known) appears usually in the shape of short stories, but there is also the drabble, telling a tale in less than a hundred words. On the other hand, some fan-authors actually write full novels that are posted in a serialized fashion.

Fanfics are usually set in their canon universe, but some are located in alternative spaces. I have seen Game of Thrones characters turned into contemporary high school students. Crossover fanfiction is when characters mingle with other fictional individuals outside of their canon universe. An example would be people from “Glee” attending Hogwart, or the “Ron Solo” fics. Yes, that is indeed Ron Weasley ambling about the “Star Wars” cosmos. I have found some interesting crossover romances among YouTube videos and I leave you this one that pairs Jaime Lannister with Lucrezia Borgia (from “The Borgia” series.)

In terms of genre, fanfiction’s favorite category is Romance.  Love fanfic provides an extensive canvas upon which devotees can splash all the intensity of their lusty or platonic fantasies. There are romantic fics for every taste, from “fluff” or “feel-good” happy-ending stories, to “kink” (in Spanish we use the Japanese term "lemon") used to define erotic tales with extensive sexual content.  There is heterosexual fanfic as well as one targeting gay audiences. The latter is known as “Slash,” or “Femslash” if geared towards lesbians.  To continue the possibilities, now we have “twincest”, which was obviously prompted by the nefarious Lannister Twins’ escapades, but I found several fics that involved George and Fred Weasley!

A glance through the almost infinite variety of romantic merging proves the readers’ need for love stories in places where such emotions are not present. It also expresses the vastness of fan’s imagination when it comes to the engineering of these liaisons. Hermione Granger and Harry Potter sounds like a match made in heaven, but Hermione and Severus Snape CatelynStark and Jon Snow?  Jaime Lannister and Ned Stark? Jacob Black and Edward Cullen?

I love fanfiction, but I am not longer interested in writing it.  Way before the term existed, I was already scribbling it. It was a great method to rewrite poor and unsatisfactory endings. In my stories, Julien Sorel survived the guillotine; it was Brian of Bois Gilbert (not dull indecisive Ivanhoe) who rescued Rebecca from the stake; and Scarlett and Ashley flew together to Mexico leaving Melly behind to look after her rival’s brood and to comfort Rhett (in more than one way.) Curiously, years later I discovered the existence of a manga that had Rebecca and her Templar nemesis in love and together. Curiouser still, at a high-school workshop I had my students rewriting GWTW´s last chapter. Five of them had Melanie living happily ever Mrs. Rhett Butler!

Were Melanie and Rhett meant for each other?

One of the most rewarding aspects of fanfiction is learning than others feel just like you do, that they also envision perfect couples that no author cares to create.  It gives you a sense that you are not a freak because you want Sansa Stark to fall in love with Sandor Clegane, or because you wish Sirius Black to resurrect, and that you are not alone in giving the Hermione-Ron combination a jaundiced eye.

Around the turn of the century, I had my first ran into official fanfiction. It happened at a website devoted to “Big Valley,” a 60’s television western. I never thought “Big Valley” had such a large following, especially thirty years after its cancellation. But there it was, an Internet page with some juicy fanfiction as bonus.

Big Valley’s major hook were its protagonists, The Barkley Brothers played by Richard Long, Peter Breck and Lee Majors (in his pre-Farrah days). Most BV’s followers had a thing for Jared Barkley (R. Long) or his half-brother Heath (Majors). It surprised me to discover, through the said fanfiction, that grumpy Nick (P. Breck) also had a major fandom. For decades, I had thought I was the only soul on the planet to have a crush on him. This showed me that fan interaction is the phenomenon´s major attractive. Fanfiction brings together likeminded people, even if their taste in common is just a mundane fantasy.
Peter Breck as Nick Barkley

Inventive and daring as the internet version may be, fanfiction is not a new art form. Back in the early XVII century, readers demanding a follow-up to the adventures of Don Quixote saw their dreams come true when Spanish bookstores presented the desire book. The only problem is that this Quixote was a fanfic written by Alonso de Avellaneda. Since Miguel de Cervantes had no way to sue Avellaneda (Golden Age Spain was not a litigious society), he had no other choice but to write a sequel to the quests of his mad knight.

 In our own times, we find novels that could be defined as fanfiction. Examples are parody novels such as Seth Grahame-Sennett’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Alice Randal’s Wind Done Told, a retelling of Gone with the Wind seen from the point of view of Scarlett´s mulatto half-sister. Parallel novels like Geraldine Brooks’ March (reviewing the experiences of the father of Little Women in the Civil War) and Jean Rhyss’ Wide Sargasso Sea (the story of Jane Eyre’s “Madwoman of the Attic”) also qualify as fanfic.
Even sequel novels that have not been written by the author of the source material are nothing but glorified plagiarism (aka “fanfiction.”) Just think of P.D.James Death Comes to Pemberley, (sequel to Pride and Prejudice) Susan Hill’s Mrs. De Winter (sequel to Rebecca) and Alexandra Ripley´s infamous Scarlett.  But nobody would accuse those respectable writers of being anti-original. Why not? Is it because their skills place them above a bunch of dilettantes?

The level of writing skills in fanfiction varies from author to author. There are some whose style is definitely amateurish, whereas others show much literary promise. A couple of years ago, my countrywoman Francisca Sola wrote a fanfiction novel called El Ocaso de los Altos Elfos (The Twilight of the High Elves.) It was her response to a major disappointment with Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix. El Ocaso was so booming that it was translated to English and Italian, and was not bought by Random House only because of copyright conflicts with J. K. Rowling. Since then, Francisca has became a novelist in her own right, having published two books and being one of the few Chilean authors to dabble in paranormal fiction.

Francisca Solar, a fanfiction success story

 Francisca Solar is not the only success story in the fanfiction universe. E.L. James has achieved fame and fortune thanks to the rewriting of her Twilight erotic fanfic. For those who still don´t know it, the fic had its rebirth in the market as the notorious 50 Shades of Grey. Naomi Novick, creator of the Temeraire series, has confessed to have written fanfiction in the past. But despite these precedents, the new genre is still reviled and even fought by established authors who rail against the bootlegging of their works.

The United States Supreme Court has been emphatic about it, as long as fanfiction is described as such and as long as the authors do not profit from it, fan-generated literature is perfectly legal. The Guardian may define fanfiction as “crass” and “celebrity-obsessed,” but many critics and reviewers (such as Teresa Nielsen Haydn, editor of Tor Books) are embracing it as a new subgenre. Yet writers are still raising their voices against the trend.

While Stephanie Meyer encourages fanfiction based on her characters, Anne Rice has formally demanded that stories centered on her work be removed from Fanfiction.Net.  She wrote an open letter to her readers denouncing fanfic:  “I do not allow fan fiction,” she wrote. “The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters. It is absolutely essential that you respect my wishes."  Some fanfic authors, who did not abide with Ms. Rice´s wishes, claim to have been victims of further harassment from her part.

George R.R. Martin does not reach those extremes, but perceives fanfiction as an infraction of his copyrights. He resents the distortion of his literary universe and believes that plagiarizing his work is a bad exercise for novice writers.  J.K Rowling is much more tolerant, she claims to be flattered by the Harry Potter inspired stories, but draws the line at excessive sexual content.

How do you feel about this issue?  Have you ever been inclined to write about characters that were not your own? Or do you see it as a useless exercise of your writing skills? Do you feel that derivative tales are never up to the original’s excellence or are you one of fanfiction’s secret “junkies”?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

I Have Met the Enemy

When I was in Art School, there was a little red book that was a mandatory reading for all students: Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Surprising as it may seem, I never read it. Back then, I didn’t want to waste my time with theory and ideas; I just wanted to paint. One of my girlfriends got a copy of the book, read it and lent it to me. A few months ago, while organizing my book shelves, I found said book. Inside was a receipt from 03/03/95!! (You may remove your calculators and figure out my age now. And for those of you shaking your heads, I promise to return the book soon!)

But aside from an old receipt, I found something else: understanding and enlightenment. Yes, lovely college professors wherever you might be, I finally read the book!

The beauty of this book is that it’s not just for visual artists. It’s also for musicians, writers and anyone who wants to (or has already) dedicated their life to artmaking. Thus, reading this book at this moment of my life couldn’t have been more timely. I’ve replaced the blank canvas for a blank page and my dirty brush for my handy dandy laptop. But the struggle to succeed in art, the self-doubt and the dry spells are still there—the same jewels that are present in all art forms. Isn’t that nice?

Interestingly, all these problems boil down to the same source: FEAR, our biggest enemy. Fear of failing grants us excuses not to write and/or sabotage our own work. This dreadful emotion can manifest itself in a variety of ways:

1. Being too busy 

By mentioning a list of all the activities we must get done every day, we prove that we really have no time to write. But honestly, if we really wanted to do it, we would find the time. (After all, we have done it in the past, right?) But writing means making choices and doing so can lead to failing, which we must avoid at all costs (or so we think).

2. Distraction

We set our work aside and find distractions from the blank page. This can take the form of activities as varied as the artists themselves: internet browsing, computer games, television, sports, visiting with friends, and a big etcetera. Of course, at the end of the day we “punish” ourselves for our distraction by calling ourselves lazy or unmotivated. Soon enough, we get so used to the distractions that the novel we were going to write one day becomes a permanent resident in the back of our minds.

3. Irritation

Irritation ranges from being frustrated with the materials (if you’re a visual artist) to discontent with the quality of writing we see in bookshelves to the heartbreaking process of publication, and everything in between. Anger can sometimes propel artists to create. But at other times it can bring us to a halt (who can concentrate when all you want to do is punch the computer screen?)

4. Questioning our talent

Another common habit is to put ourselves down. (It’s better than letting others do it.) We have a tendency to look at the finished work of others and determine that our own work will never get there, so we assume they must have something we don’t (aka, innate talent). Even worse, we fear we might be “pretending” to make art whereas the others are “the real thing.” According to Bayles and Orland, the idea that “extraordinary people make art” is a myth. (And I agree with them.) Not every artist, musician or writer is a genius (Mozart is an obvious exception) yet art gets made all the time. Books get published, paintings get sold and buildings get made. Pondering about our own talent or lack-thereof is frankly an unproductive exercise and one that will inevitably lead to uncertainty and self-doubt.

5. Perfectionism

One of the things we struggle with as creators is having to reconcile our initial vision of our work with the actual execution. Very often the final version of our piece is different from what we had originally envisioned (which can sometimes be a wonderful thing). But many times we can only look at its flaws and how it didn’t live up to our expectations. Worse yet, when we’re ready to start a new project, we hesitate to do it because we don’t want to “mess it up.” Like Ansel Adams said:

“To require perfection is to invite paralysis.” (Pg. 30)

As artists, we must come to terms with the fact that our imperfection is “necessary” to produce our artwork.

“To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work requires a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept.” (Pg. 31)

The only way to come close to this coveted “perfection” is to produce more work. The book mentions a case where a ceramics class was divided in two groups. One was supposed to work all semester in achieving “quantity,” the second group had to come up with ONE piece of “quality” to get an A. At the end of the semester, the group who achieved quantity produced better quality than the second group, who had been theorizing about perfection the entire semester.

6. Uncertainty

Creating art requires making decisions (and the more decisions you make, the less choices you’ll have). We might start with what materials to use (if you’re a visual artist) or what POV, genre and length would better serve your novel, to other important considerations such as theme, plot and characters (or subject matter for artists). There is an infinite number of decisions that will shape your piece and make it a reality. But this uncertainty can also lead you to inaction.

Sometimes we can’t imagine that successful artists may have experienced our same doubts, but even that apparently perfect piece was at some point a struggle for its maker. Art & Fear mentions that Tolstoy wrote War and Peace eight times and continued proofreading at the printing press.

“The truth is that the piece of art which seems so profoundly right in its finished state may earlier have been only inches or seconds away from total collapse.” (pg. 19)

7. Comparisons

Competition proves positive when it propels us to do our best work, but it can also be devastating if we constantly get the feeling that we lose in comparison to others (be it our peers or established professionals).

According to the book, we should ideally compete with ourselves but not by determining which is our best piece of work, but by understanding the differences and similarities of each one. This understanding will lead us to create an extended body of work where all our pieces (even the “crappy” ones) play a part.

8. Fears about others

How will your work be perceived? Will people understand it? Will they consider it “art” and if so, will they like it?

Many artists need public approval to value their work or themselves, but this is a slippery slope if we consider how subjective taste can be. Like Bayles and Orland say, giving the audience this much power can be dangerous. Artists may find themselves trying to please everyone or compromising their vision of their work in order to “fit.” But not being true to ourselves may lead to unhappiness. Like the book suggests, in the history of art the audience didn’t always “get” what the artist was trying to say. Sometimes it took a whole new generation to grasp new concepts and appreciate them.

In conclusion, understanding that our fears are normal and identifying the particular source of our inaction can help us fight it and move forward. Remember that:

“Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping. The latter happens all the time. Quitting happens once. Quitting means not starting again—and art is all about starting again.” (pg. 10)

I’ll leave you with this final thought:

“You have a choice between giving your work the best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot—and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy.” (pg. 118)

Do you see yourself in any of these behaviors? How do you overcome your fear of failure?