Photo courtesy of © Kim Baker (http://www.flickr.com/photos/kimberlyfaye/3520321496)
A couple of nights ago I had a dream. The subject matter may have had to do with reading WORLD WAR Z before bed after watching the movie twice (not on the same day), so you could say I got what I deserved. Did I dream I was trapped in a dangerous place with Brad Pitt? Ohnonono. I dreamed I was at the bottom of the zombie pile swarming up a wall, with bits of my brain dribbling onto my shoulders under the weight of rotting zombie feet. It was unfortunate, but what did it teach me? That it’s better to be the zombie who has a shot at the helicopter than the zombie sucking mud. And here I’ll do as Maggie Smith suggests–never explain. Okay, I’ll explain a bit.
As we stagger or float through Publishing Today, our books are in danger of sucking mud. Under a deluge of writing, formatting, marketing, networking and general buy-a-ticket-I’m-a-circus imperatives, for some of us, it’s easier to clutch our books to our chests and cower under the bed with them, stroking their bruised spines and whispering tear choked commiseration into their pages.
You need a book that says BOLLOCKS to all that. A book that looks at you (as you shudder in terror) with a degree of contempt. A book that sticks its own chest out, grins maniacally as it powers into the scrum, and takes off on a crow’s back to outfly the helicopter. You need a rugby player of a book.
How do you create such a marvel? Haven’t a clue, but here are a few random tips that might help all of us, in no particular order:
1. Get passionate. Many of us have forgotten what that feels like. Passion may seethe or shout, but one thing it doesn’t do is tolerate suppression. The moment we ignore our passion it mutates, twists on itself, gets all sad and subversive until poof, it’s gone, leaving us timid and wondering what happened to our guts and spunk. The child/adolescent in us remembers what it was like to care, care so voraciously that sometimes it was hard to breathe. Is it dangerous? Of course. Worth the risk? Definitely. We don’t have to go around throwing things, leaping on attractive strangers or sabotaging laboratories; we’re WRITERS. We get to plunge our wild hearts into words that spit and sing, go to war and dance. We get to invent characters who seduce, rage, love, plunder, crusade across that vast wilderness we call a page. So rummage, root out something that gets your pulse racing. A good novel is a tough master, but passion is equal to the task of taking it on.
2. Get rebellious. I’m going to get a lot of flack for saying this, but here goes. Rules are your enemy. If we all obeyed them, we’d be a nation of zombieclones. I’m not advocating anything criminal or even anarchic, but a little chaos goes a long way. Now and again you hear about that one pig who jumped off a moving truck and ended up a pet rather than a pork chop. But see, there’s a caveat, and it’s a big one. According to the rules of war and rugby, you have to know your enemy. Ask Attila the Hun. Intimate knowledge of your enemy allows you to defeat him, and if you really know him well, the skirmish can be bloodless. So study, devour rules like you’re Pacman, wrestle with them and devote time in your crazy writer’s day to turning them on their heads. Some of them actually make a lot of sense, and you’ll enjoy rubbing up against them. Will you always win? No, of course not. Will you piss people off? Definitely. Ah, but will you be interesting? Hell, yes.
3. Get brave. If you’re a man, write like a woman; if you’re a woman, write like a man. This is a very tough thing to pull off and brings us back to #2. Don’t ever, ever, ever do it until you know how tricksy the terrain is. At best, we come off as unconvincing; at worst, presumptuous and pretentious–loutish usurpers. The landscape is not only precarious around gender–it gets downright dangerous around culture, ethnicity, politics and economics. But…um…don’t let that stop you. Legions of historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers will tell you, no, they never knew Thomas Cromwell and had no idea what language unicorns spoke, but they got up close and personal with research and world building. When you read a novel like WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel, you’ll know exactly what I’m going on about.
GRAVE OF HUMMINGBIRDS was my MFA thesis at San Francisco State University. It was an ambitious, risky book in more ways than I can count, and it struggled to survive as the wild child it was. So I tamed it. I’m not just talking editing, which we all have to do over and over again; I mean I put it through rigorous finishing school, cutting thousands of words, changing protagonists and doing away with a nymphomaniacal ghost. Is it a better book? I honestly don’t know. It’s an easier book on the reader. It got through Kindle Scout and will soon be out there, hopefully beating its chest while I cover my head with a blanket. One thing I do know, GRAVE wouldn’t be the book it is today, if it hadn’t been the book it was yesterday: coming from a place of passion, rebellion, and balls.