Thursday, February 10, 2011

Private Enemy #1

It's a very common phenomenon that one's very first protagonist is an autobiographical one, thinly veiled (although, in most cases, not very thinly at all). This ought to be accepted by the writer as a stage in the life of her mind, similarly to the way a mother tolerates the toddler who won't shut up or stop crapping its pants along the way to becoming a self-controlled, sentient person.

This phenomenon certainly applies to me. Way back around 2003, I wrote a book called "Clear Blue Sky" which starred a completely unlikable, selfish, boring protagonist who happened to be myself. Well, a projection of myself; it wasn't a great time for me. Then I wrote "In Stereo Where Available," which wasn't the least bit autobiographical (contrary to what my son's science teacher seemed to believe), followed by a little book called "Desperado City," which was totally that book we all believe we have deep within our soul. Most of us are not fortunate enough to get that book published. In my case I was, and Publishers Weekly was happy to use this achievement as a cautionary tale, calling the book "a schizophrenic tangle" and a "teen soap opera" or something like that. Were they wrong? Unfortunately, no. I think the book I affectionately refer to as "DC" showcases both the strengths of my writing and my profound need, like most writers, for an editor.

It's my opinion that a writer's skill is really determined by whether she can keep turning out damn good novels once she has exorcised the autobiographical protagonist. There are a lot of writers who have turned out stunning first novels rooted in their own experiences as children or young adults-- I won't give examples, because I really love a lot of these books-- and then that's that. The next books are either on the same topics, or else they stretch out but disappoint the readers. I always feel perplexed when this happens because it seems obvious that the writer has a fabulous skill set which has nothing to do with the subjects in particular.

I feel fortunate in that once I got DC out of my system, I turned my attention to a novel that proved to be much better. I found a subject that captured my imagination-- why would a teacher, who has everything to lose, do that?-- and fell in love with the characters my mind sketched out to inhabit that world. To a great degree I think I was fortunate that the book I had in my soul didn't quite match with the skills I believed I had in my brain. It forced me to fire my muse and try again with a new one.

At the top of this post is a picture of me at age seventeen or so. For a long time, this was the girl I wanted to write about. Looking over the patterns in my writing, I can see that the features of this age-- the mistakes made, the loves ignited, the fear and awe of the world and the crushing naivete that makes it all so poignant-- are something I feel compelled to write about over and over. That's all right. What's important is not to limit myself to similar characters or similar settings in which to explore these themes. I thanked seventeen-year-old Becky for her service and sent her back to 1993. Sixteen-year-old Zach, in "The Kingdom of Childhood," is concerned about many of the same things that preoccupied Becky, but Zach doesn't think like her at all. His concerns are different; his hopes and desires and values are unrelated to hers. The joy of writing fiction is not to live in the past, but to live in your imagination.

So I would encourage all writers to go ahead and write that thinly veiled autobiographical novel. Do a mediocre job of it, stick it on a shelf, and then flex your fingers and get back to the keyboard. Write something beautiful and sensitive and above all, new.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Rough life

I have flown exactly twice (well, two round-trips) since 9/11. The first time was to Colorado in late 2009 to see my BFF Laura. The second time was last week to go to Harlequin's sales conference, to which I was an invited guest. Of course this would be the day when massive ice storms were making their way down the East Coast and blizzards ravaging the Midwest, so that the main story on all the news sites was "what a complete, nearly unprecedented disaster for air travel!"

Still, I couldn't really complain, so long as I made it to Tampa and back alive (and I did). Harlequin (the uber-company of my imprint, Mira) had arranged for to fly down and stay in the very fabulous Saddlebrook Resort so I could meet the sales team and talk to them about "The Kingdom of Childhood." Now, here is where I know I ought to be all professional and write about how this was just another day in the life for me. If I said that, I would be lying. Spectacularly lying. I wasn't scared, exactly-- I'm very outgoing and friendly, and fortunately I was naive enough about what I was getting into that I didn't realize I should be scared. Instead I was just petrified about wearing heels for hours on end, because you see, I don't do heels. I have a wonky ankle that doesn't like them. When I was a baby the pediatrician put me in one of those torture devices they used to use on babies back in the '70s-- the ruler-like board with a shoe on each end, which they strapped your feet into if they thought you were pigeon-toed. I blame this device for all of my wonky-ankle woes and my subsequent indifference to shoes, which makes me strange, for a girl.

My flight was delayed by only two hours, and I made it down to Tampa just in time to get dressed in my suit-like-items and unlikely shoes, then rush back to the main building to schmooze. Also, I wore makeup. Whose idea was it to take a writer-- a writer, who chose this line of work because it allows her to sit at her MacBook in her pajamas all day and talk to the voices in her head-- and parade her in front of a series of top sales executives for one of the largest publishers in the world? I believe it was my editor's. Just to raise the stakes for the protagonist-- that would be me-- the schmoozing involved cocktails both before and after the dinner, which is perfect when the protag was a Mormon for nine years of her adult life and can neither hold her liquor nor even reliably name a drink she might want to order.

Here are some of the highlights from the actual dinner-and-a-show, so to speak:

* Meeting Julie Kagawa, the author of The Iron Queen and other YA faery novels which have been a massive success. Julie is just terrific. She is really funny and likable and cares a lot about her fans.

* Meeting Sarah Matheny, whose vegetarian family cookbook, "Peas and Thank You," will be out this summer. Right away she intimidated the heck out of me because she is tall and thin and very professional-looking, and since she's a vegan you suspect she's going to disdain you immediately for your intense love of bacon. I had her pegged completely wrong. She's not at all judgmental, she's very down-to-earth, and also, she's hilariously funny. She's one of those people who you find yourself rooting for, because people like that deserve to be famous.

* Car service. I hadn't even known this existed until I watched "Real Housewives of New York City." It's not a taxi, it's not a limo-- it's a sedan. Harlequin had me in these things coming and going, four times altogether, and as much as I love my minivan I have to admit it was enjoyable. However, on the way from the Tampa airport to Saddlebrook, the driver asked me if I minded if he set the radio to "the news," which was fine. Little did I know that "the news," in his interpretation, was Rush Limbaugh yammering about Sharia law for 45 minutes.

* Seeing my book spiral-bound, with its prototype cover. That rendered me speechless, and if you know me, you realize what a feat that is. I didn't even get to keep a copy, though. They all went off to various buyers and Harlequin people. It's okay, I'm pretty sure I know how it ends.

Now I'm pretty sure all the travel-y excitement is out of the way until Book Expo in May. Back to the pajamas and MacBook. And the minivan.