Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Books of the Heart

Before today's entry, a little public service announcement to the people in my neighborhood: Carrying a leash while your dog runs 30 yards ahead of you down the sidewalk does not mean you're complying with the local leash laws, no matter how well-trained and obedient you think your dog is. And if your dog continues to run ahead of you and runs growling at someone, totally ignoring you while you call out, "Come back here! Sit! Stay!" your dog is not well-trained. Maybe I'm a little overly sensitive about the subject ever since the time that one of those empty leash-toting dog owners was calling out, "Don't worry! She doesn't bite!" at the exact moment her dog was sinking its teeth into my leg deep enough to leave major bruises for two weeks and a scar that lasted a year. Last night it was finally nice enough to go out for a walk, and wouldn't you know, I was almost immediately faced on the sidewalk by one of those dogs who growled at me as her owner ran to catch up while ineffectually calling out, "Come back here!" Fortunately, there was a couple nearby with two huge Dalmatians on leashes, and they had me come stand behind them so I had two big dogs between me and the one running free. The man with the Dalmatians did make a pointed remark as the lady finally caught her dog and put its leash on about how at least nobody got hurt this time. I'm not sure she got it. She was too busy saying, "She never does that!" (I bet about 90 percent of dog bites come from dogs who supposedly never would do anything like that.) After the stupid woman and her dog were gone, I stayed and chatted for a while and played with the Dalmatians, who were very sweet dogs who'd just been rescued from bad homes. The people were pretty understanding when I explained what had happened to me before, and they'd been nervous, themselves, because of the way that dog had been acting. I'm not really afraid of dogs. I love big dogs, and I'm good with them. I am, however, afraid of stupid dog owners who don't understand dogs or know how to deal with them. For one thing, when you give a command to a dog, you have to sound like you mean it. I bet I could have got this dog under control if it had any training at all, but reprimanding other people's dogs in public is about as well-received as reprimanding other people's kids (and the people who are most likely to take offense are the ones whose dogs or kids most need the reprimand).

I've had to temporarily switch projects, as my editor wants to read Damsel Under Stress during the holiday weekend (I'm not sure her motives are entirely work-related), so I'm giving it one last read-through. I've also had my deadline for book 4 moved back to November 13, which is a huge weight off my shoulders. I'll probably still finish not too long after the original Sept. 15 deadline, but it's nice not to feel so pressured. I can even take the holiday weekend! There's a tentative publication date of January 2008 on that book. Yeah, I know, that's later than I've been saying, and I know I promised a shorter gap between books, but trust me, I've already whined about it.

There are times when a bunch of seemingly random free-floating ideas all converge at once to really make a point. That's a lot of how I get book ideas, and it's even where I often get Deep Thoughts. In her Girlfriends Cyber Circuit interview yesterday, Ellen Meister said something that put something I'd been thinking into words when she said to write the story you most want to read at that moment in your life. Writers often talk about the "Book of Your Heart," the book you feel you have to write that comes pouring out of the very depths of your soul. It's something you write regardless of commercial appeal. Published authors, in particular, like to talk about this because often their publishers aren't interested in these books of the heart. These books are usually quite different from what the author usually writes, and publishers worry that they'd alienate their current readers. Thus, the authors feel like they've been pigeonholed by their publishers.

I was at a conference for published authors a few years ago, and we had a session with a big-name agent. Someone asked about these books of the heart, and he groaned. He said that when one of his clients sends him a book and says it's a book of the heart, he knows up front that it will probably be unpublishable. It will most likely be dark and brooding, and while he recognizes that it's a book the author may need to have written, it's usually a book that doesn't speak to anyone else but the author, and publishers are doing authors a favor when they won't buy these books. An author who has so much clout that the publisher would put out a hardcover edition of her grocery list and who can get this kind of book published may regret it because that kind of book often tanks or turns off readers for the author's future books.

Everyone in the room was horrified, and there were some mutterings about how this agent didn't know what he was talking about. While I could sort of see his point, I have to admit that I was in the middle of an ongoing struggle to get a book published that I guess was my book of the heart, though I'm still not sure why I loved that book so much, and I really don't think it came from the depths of my soul, or anything like that. I was just really stubborn about it, and it wasn't until I could get past it that my career got going again. But Sunday afternoon on the radio, I heard something that clicked into place with all this, and now it all makes total sense.

On Sunday afternoons as I drive home from church, the local jazz station runs a syndicated program called "Piano Jazz," in which various musicians sit at the piano with an interviewer and do an interview interspersed with music (they'll talk about a song, then play it). The guest Sunday was Elvis Costello, and after he'd performed a few of the songs he'd written that were inspired by jazz standards, the interviewer mentioned how dark and broody these songs were. They joked a bit about writing songs designed to make people miserable, and then he talked about finding the balance between something that's deeply personal and something that strikes universal emotions. You may start with something that really does come from your own soul and that's from a particular point of pain in your life, but then you have to get over your selfishness as an artist and broaden it to something more universal that everyone can relate to.

I think I actually shouted, "That's it!" in the car. Your story may come from a very personal place, but something that intimately personal may not appeal to anyone but you. The trick is to get beyond that and find what's universal in the feeling, or find a more universal experience to convey that same feeling. And that brings me back to writing the story you most want to read at that moment. Chances are, no matter how specific a reading mood you're in at any given moment, you're not looking for something that exactly mirrors whatever you're going through. Rather, you're looking for something that will make you feel a particular way -- something you can identify with and relate to that's still different enough from your life to make it worthwhile reading a book instead of just living your life. So maybe the way to make your "book of the heart" work is to find the feelings that you're trying to express and convey them in the way that you'd want to find in the book you'd most like to read for yourself as you're in that kind of mood.

That is pretty much what I did. I eventually got over that book that will never sell (though I just came up with a twist on it that may give it an entirely new life and that I can't WAIT to play with). But when things really took off for me, it was because I wrote the book I wanted to read. When I first got the idea for Enchanted, Inc., only the very back of my brain knew it was a book I needed to write. The rest of me remained stuck for quite a while on the fact that this was the kind of book I most wanted to read. I went on a desperate search to find something like that. It seemed that most of the fun fantasy that uses magic or the supernatural as a metaphor for common experiences was aimed at kids or teens. We had the Harry Potter books, and then there was Buffy, but I couldn't find anything like that for adults that dealt with more adult subjects and with the adult phase of life. I was really getting into the chick lit books about that phase in life, but I thought those kind of stories would be really fun with some magic. I found Charles de Lint's contemporary fantasies, but they were more serious and atmospheric. Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere came close, with its nice-guy everyman hero sucked into a strange, magical world, but it was about a guy and it didn't really get much into how that affected his normal life. It was only after a lot of frustrated searching that I realized the kind of book I was thinking of didn't exist, and if I wanted to read it, I'd have to write it (and then it took me a while to write it because I was afraid that if it didn't exist, it meant no one else wanted it and there wasn't a market for it). I think there ended up being more passion in writing the book I wanted to read than there was in whatever it was I was trying to get out in the book I just had to write (which I have come to realize I wouldn't have enjoyed or even bought as a reader).

A corollary of this is the old "write what you know" advice, which is why there are so many first novels (published and unpublished) about struggling writers (including my very first novel). It's more accurate to say "write what you're passionate about."

And now back to frantically re-reading my book ...


Erin said...

Really great post! Thanks for writing it. :)

Amanda Ashby said...

Great post, on all topics, Shanna. My kids' primary school has a very narrow entrance and everyday more and more parents were coming to pick up their kids with their dogs in tow. And these weren't friendly dogs, they were all potential fighting dogs and despite them being on leads, it was still pretty scary, so I went into supermom mode and now all dogs are banned from the school yard. It was definitely an accident waiting to happen.