Thursday, August 19, 2010

Shutting out the Voices

I think I finally have what I want to do with this book straight in my head, so today I'm going to start over and try again. At a writing conference, I once heard a speaker say that once you've written a draft, you should put it aside, not even look at it, and write the book all over again. The idea of it will be clearer in your head after you've written it and the characters will be more developed, but if you just try to revise the words, then you'll still be too tied to those words and the way things are to really be able to make the second draft better. I've never been brave enough to do that with a whole book, but I have found that it can work for individual scenes. So, today I will start over and rewrite what I've written to make it more what I want it to be.

I am having trouble finding the right mood-setting inspiration. The scenario I'm dealing with in the opening is a common one for fairy tales: person sets off in search of a new life and maybe a little adventure, but with their sights set to the point that "adventure" might just include trying a new kind of job in a different place, and along the way they run into something even bigger than they planned. So, they set off with a sense of adventure and maybe a bit of nerves because making that big a change is scary, but at that point they're not being chased by anything or trying to save the world -- that comes later. And yet I didn't find anything on my DVD shelves that really fits that. The one thing that fits the mood I'm trying to generate is the opening of Working Girl, and that's mostly in the music (wouldn't you know, after that being all over the HBO channels lately, it's not listed for this afternoon). I suspect, though, that this quest has become a procrastination tactic, so I'll imagine myself heading out into the world with "Let the River Run" playing in the background and get to work.

When you're writing something that you expect to be read by someone else, it becomes difficult to shut out that awareness of what people will think about it. Sometimes that can be good. I've learned to anticipate my agent's criticisms so that I can make corrections before I show her something, and that's improved my writing. I've learned from copy edits what some of my technical weak spots are so that I can fix them ahead of time or even avoid them. And I think it doesn't hurt to consider what the potential readership for a book will think about it. That doesn't mean I'll adapt my vision to win a popularity contest, but doing something that I know will be wildly unpopular means there might be an uphill battle. I do this to make money, so it would be silly not to worry about how something would sell. On the other hand, letting those other voices in can be paralyzing. I've been so worried about being typecast as a romance writer after seeing that response to a proposal I wrote that wasn't meant to be romantic that I'm almost afraid to write a scene in which a man and a woman acknowledge each other's existence for fear that it will make editors assume the story will be a romance. And now that everyone can be a critic and write Amazon reviews or blog post reviews, there are a whole host of "rules" that seem to be coming up among fandom that I worry about whether or not I should consider.

One I'm seeing a lot of discussion among writers about is the tendency to cry "Mary Sue!" about characters. The term originated in fan fiction, where a "Mary Sue" was an original character inserted into an existing world (like Ensign Mary Sue joining the crew of the Enterprise) and then taking over the story. Mary Sue was universally loved, good at everything, saved the day and then got it on with the author's favorite character. The character was so idealized that it was obvious that she was the author's insertion of herself into the story world. Then the term started being applied to original fiction, where the problem wasn't so much that this character who didn't belong took over the story, but rather that the character was so idealized and the author so obviously lost all objectivity in writing about this character that it was clear that this character was the author's stand-in. Now, though, the term gets tossed about left and right, used to describe any character given any positive traits. As someone has said, a character who can make her way home without drowning will be labeled a Mary Sue. That's practically become shorthand for "character I don't like who has any positive attributes or who is remotely competent."

I do worry about whether the characters I write might be considered Mary Sues, and I'm conscious -- perhaps overly so -- about making sure I'm objective even about characters I love. I'm still wrestling with this on the book currently simmering on the back burner. My main character in that book is hyper-competent and has many traditional Mary Sue hallmarks, but that's actually a plot point. She's supposed to look a little too good to be true to others. When we're in her POV, we see that she's working very, very hard to get people to think that about her, and then she learns that there's something else going on and is rather disappointed to find out that it's not really because of anything she's done that she has that effect on people. I think I've given her enough doubts and flaws to keep her from being a Mary Sue, but I'm also afraid that a lot of people -- the ones most likely to write nasty Amazon reviews -- won't get it, and the fact that she's hyper-competent will get her slapped with the Mary Sue label. There's even a physical trait that I would like to give her that I think makes a lot of sense for the situation and that I even consider something of a flaw but that shows up on a lot of "is this character a Mary Sue?" lists, so I'm afraid to use it. I know I should shut out the fear of criticism that hasn't happened for a book that isn't even finished yet and just do what my instincts tell me.

With the book I'm working on now, I've got another dilemma. Trying to keep this pretty vague because I don't like to talk in specifics about uncontracted books, this book fits into a subgenre that extends beyond the literary world into other areas (in fact, in spite of getting a lot of buzz, the literary subgenre is still really small). In my research, I've seen discussion about a particular element that's become a lazy shorthand for this subgenre, the kind of thing that people who are jumping on the bandwagon without knowing a lot about it do without having a good reason for doing it, so that this is seen by people in the know as the sure sign of a poseur. I don't think this thing has actually shown up in any books in the subgenre. But it's absolutely perfect for a plot element in this book. So, of course, I worry that people in the know will think I'm just jumping on the bandwagon without knowing anything about it by including it. On the other hand, the people in the know might find it amusing that I found an actual, valid reason for this trope. I guess it's up to me to handle it in a way that shows I'm aware of it so that it becomes an in-joke for people in the know.

If you're not already neurotic, being a writer is likely to make you so.

Now I'm going to put on my tinfoil hat and get to work.

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