Why Writers Care

The other day, I happened upon a negative comment about a friend’s book. It wasn’t really a terrible comment, truth be told. It was just sort of a nebulous, wishy-washy dismissal. Nothing that would send you (or me) to the bathroom for a bottle of sleeping pills, but I couldn’t help but to wince for my friend and hope that she wouldn’t come across it, too. (I would have warned her off, but let’s face it — morbid curiosity would have compelled her to look eventually. Hell, I would have, were the positions reversed.)

This did cause me to muse, however, on the notion that artists do not or should not care what other people think of their work. I’m not quite sure where this idea came from or when it started. I suppose on the surface it seems reasonable and maybe even self-evident. Writers, musicians, actors — all those who work under the heading of “artist” are supposed to be above this sort of thing. It’s the WORK that is supposed to matter. If some guy on the ‘net doesn’t like my book, why should I care? I create ART! The opinions of the masses aren’t supposed to matter to me. I am supposed to exist on some transcendent plane, some apotheotic realm where I am so consumed with empyreal issues that I don’t have time for the fleeting thoughts of mortals.

Well, bullshit.

I mean, very few people create art in a vacuum. Wait, let’s back up. That’s not really true. A lot of people actually do create art in something approximating a vacuum, but very few of them create it FOR a vacuum. You’ve got Emily Dickinson, but that’s the only one that jumps to mind immediately. Most people who create art do it in a solitary fashion, but for the purpose of exposing it to the world, and exposing the world to it. That’s the whole PURPOSE of art. If you stuff your poems in the sock drawer, Emily, you’ve amused and enlightened yourself and that’s it. If art is holding a mirror up to reality, then what good is it to shove that mirror under your bed, where no one will ever see it?

So we create art specifically so that other people will see. We want them to see it. And we want them to have a reaction because — again — otherwise what’s the point? If you go to all that trouble to hold up that big, heavy mirror and then haul it outside and no one notices or cares, then what have you accomplished?

Not much.

So we make art to show to others in order to evoke a reaction. Once you’re that far down the road of sharing with the world, you can’t HELP but to feel the impact (good and bad) of people’s comments and criticisms.

Because let me tell you something…

Da Vinci and Michelangelo cared what people thought of their work. They HAD to. It was their livelihood. Shakespeare sure as hell cared. Dickens had to keep fans coming back for each new installment, just like a soap opera. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought Holmes back from the dead just to shut up the rabid readership. Poe cared to the point that he drank himself and drugged himself to death because no one could recognize his genius. John Milton…

Well, OK. He probably didn’t care. At least, not when it came to Paradise Lost. Exception proves the rule and all that.

Even poor old Emily Dickinson cared. She cared so much that she freaked out at the idea that people might not like her work or might mock it, so she stuffed it away and we all got to read it after her death, poor thing.

What do we take away from this? Well, that writers not only do care, but also should care. That doesn’t mean that we let our fears and concerns prevent us from tackling certain issues. Rather, it means that the (perceived, anticipated) reaction of the reader can act as a goad, compelling us to produce our very best work. Hell, it can compel us to produce at all! Many friends of mine have quoted to me that old writer’s complaint: “I hate to write; I love having written.”

I would modify that to “I hate to write; I love having written; I adore being read.”

And being read brings with it all of Hamlet’s slings and arrows, all the outrageous fortune. It’s an occupational hazard. It’s a pain in the ass. But never, ever pretend it doesn’t matter. I don’t buy it.

Literary vs. Popular

I recently attended Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction residency as a visiting lecturer. Since I was only teaching one class, I had a lot of free time, which I used to sit in on other folks’ classes and see what was being taught to this particular crop of writers.

Dr. Mike Arnzen taught one session on “The Theory of Popular Fiction.” As part of this session, he had the class make lists of characteristics of popular fiction and a counterpoint list of characteristics of literary fiction.

It was interesting to see some of the prevailing opinions amongst the students as to the differences between the two, and of course the point of the exercise was to show that, ultimately, literary and popular fiction actually end up sharing more characteristics than one would initially think. Mike made a terrific observation, though — namely, that the ultimate distinction between the two may be that literary fiction is interested primarily in appealing to our intellect and reason, whereas popular fiction is concerned with emotions and generating pleasure.

But here’s something I’ve noticed over the years, something that is typically the major difference between the two: In popular fiction, people are attractive.

No, seriously.

In popular fiction, the main characters are always attractive. The antagonists are usually pretty good-looking, too, but if not, that’s OK — they’re the bad guys, after all. The good guys are always good-looking, unless there’s some sort of deliberate story element that requires them to be ugly, but that’s quite rare.

In literary fiction, it’s POSSIBLE for the main characters to be attractive, but it’s just as likely that they’ll be seriously flawed in terms of physical appearance. And the writer will absolutely DELIGHT in telling you this. In Wonder Boys, for example, Michael Chabon is very happy to repeatedly mention the narrator’s amazing girth over and over again. (Of course, when the book was made into a movie, they cast as the corpulent college professor…Michael Douglas.)

This observation probably ties into Arnzen’s idea that popular fiction is predicated on providing pleasure — after all, wouldn’t you rather read/think/fantasize about attractive people rather than people who are unattractive or just plain NORMAL?

Publication Timeline

Following is a rough timeline on the progress of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl from the time I met my agent to its publication.

January 2005: Meet Kathy Anderson at San Diego State University’s annual writers’ conference.

February 2005: Kathy agrees to represent me on the strength of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl.

March 2005: Revisions to Astonishing Adventures completed and off to Kathy.

Mid-July 2005: Kathy informs me that she has sent the manuscript to five different editors. “If we’re not successful in this round, I will send out another in August.” I decide to take a little vacation to take my mind off of things.

July 28, 2005: As I am headed into the wilds of Maine (and no cell signal!), I get a call from Kathy, who’s in China, informing me that the first offer has been made on my book.

July 29, 2005: No cell signal in Maine, but internet access a-plenty! Kathy e-mails to tell me that one of the five editors has outright turned down the book. Two have made offers and one needs more time to put together an offer. The fifth is MIA. Kathy gives everyone until August 5 to send in their bids.

July 30, 2005: I get sick. Really, really sick. Lots of fun on vacation, but I have an impending book deal to keep me happy.

August 3, 2005: Kathy informs me that the fifth publisher has also declined. It’s down to three, now. I head home.

August 5, 2005: Kathy calls to tell me about the three offers. Houghton Mifflin is the best. I am in something like shock that this is actually happening

August 7, 2005: I talk to my editor, Houghton Mifflin Executive Editor Margaret Raymo, for the first time. It lasts five minutes – she’s about to go out of town on vacation. She promises to get her notes on the book to me when she returns after Labor Day. I decide to chill out for a while.

August 12, 2005: Margaret lied! Well, she changed her mind. She sends me her notes before her vacation. I immediately begin to stress about my first editorial letter.

August 13, 2005: Margaret’s notes are sensible, modest, and nothing to panic about, it turns out. I stop freaking out and turn around the corrections before she returns from vacation.

September 23, 2005: Margaret asks who I would like to have blurb the book, sending me into a flurry of blurb-hunting from a variety of professionals I know or “sorta, kinda” know.

October 11, 2005: I travel to Boston to meet with Margaret and the rest of the folks at Houghton Mifflin. We discuss marketing, promotion, and cover design.

October 21, 2005: Margaret and I hash out the flap copy for the book.

Early November, 2005: I get the copyedits for the novel. It’s pretty overwhelming to see how many mistakes I didn’t catch! I take a week to go through, double-checking myself and Margaret and the copyeditor. At the end of the week, I have a manuscript I’m happier with. I send it back.

Early December, 2005: Production begins on The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl.

December 24, 2005: The FedEx truck pulls up to my house. Last minute Christmas or Hanukkah gifts? Not a chance — the galley pages from Houghton Mifflin. “We need these back in a week,” Margaret tells me.

December 27, 2005: Margaret sends me cover designs for the book from none other than Jon Gray, the cover artist for such luminaries as Jonathan Safran Foer and Jonathan Lethem. I am thrilled that my book will bear his first YA cover and that he’s doing it even though my name isn’t Jonathan.

December 30, 2005: I return the proofed galley pages back to Houghton Mifflin.

January 10, 2006: We settle on one of Jon Gray’s seven cover designs.

February 2006: A “pre-pre-publication” advanced reading copy (ARC) of the novel is produced in a very limited (around 200 copies) run. This is specifically for giveaway at the inaugural New York Comic-Con at the end of the month. This is not the final, “real” ARC that will be given away to booksellers and reviewers later. It is based on pre-proofed pages and done so that we have something cool to give to comic book fans.

March 2006: Lull. This is the deadliest time for a writer, I’ve learned. Everyone at the publishing house is doing his or her job, but the writer is just not needed yet. At this point, I’ve done everything I need to do and I’m just extraneous to the process. I work on a new book and try not to think about the current one too much.

March 23, 2006: The lull is broken in wrenching fashion — an early reader has discovered highly disturbing bit of information in the book, something that I really wouldn’t want teenagers to read. Its inclusion was unintentional and so under-the-radar that no one noticed it until now, so I’m tempted to leave it as-is. But after much soul-searching and discussion with Margaret, I decide to change a few passages. The result is actually better than the original text, so I’m quite happy with it.

April 2006: Copies of the real ARC arrive and a friend promptly discovers a typo on the first page! I freak out and call Margaret. Fortunately, there’s an hour to spare before the book needs to be “set,” and they are able to correct my embarrassing gaffe.

May 18-19, 2006: I attend Book Expo America in Washington, D.C., where I meet booksellers and talk to them about the book. I also have an hour-long signing, during which I sign more than 100 copies of the book, much to my surprise and delight.

October 2, 2006: Publication of The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl.

The Wish List: 30 People I’d Like to Meet

My good friend Robin Brande made an excellent suggestion on her site. Her idea is that everyone should make a list of 30 people they want to meet someday.

In that spirit, I’ve made just such a list, and I figure I’ll post it here. This way it’s public and maybe it will shame me into actually meeting these people.

This list is in absolutely no particular order!

And realize that the reasons for wanting to meet any particular person on this list may or may not be pure or even sensible to anyone but me. In some cases, I’d just like to shake the person’s hand and thank him or her for being an inspiration. There are a couple of cases where I’d probably say, “What the hell were you thinking?” A few would reduce me to blubbering, incomprehensible human Jell-O.

I’ve also included a list of people who would have been on this list, if not for the fact that I’ve already had the pleasure of meeting them, as well as a list of folks who would have been on this list had they not already left this particular plane of existence. Let that be a lesson to all of us — life is ephemeral; talk to people now.

And now, the lists:

30 People I’d Like to Meet People I’ve Already Met People I Can Never Meet
Bruce Springsteen
Stephen King
Steve Jobs
Steve Wozniak
J.J. Abrams
Lynda Carter
Steven Spielberg
George Lucas
Sam Raimi
Keith Giffen
Alan Moore
Neil Gaiman
Terry Davis
Chris Crutcher
Pete Hautman
Philip Pullman
Bill Clinton
George W. Bush
Al Gore
David Fury
Paul Dini
Bruce Timm
Ted Koppel
Jon Stewart
Harold Ramis
Warren Spector
David Lynch
Mark Frost
Clint Eastwood
Michael Chabon
Paul Levitz
Joe Haldeman
Mark Hamill
Jerry Siegel
Curt Swan
Jack Kirby
Warren Zevon 

Alex and Robots

Alex and Robots

Alex says: "Not finished yet, but close. Superhero? Not quite, but working on it. I have sensors on my skin that track the electrical activity in my muscles. The sensors cause the exoskeleton to move with my body."

Oh, the people you meet at Yale!

My college roommate takes one step closer to kicking Iron Man’s pansy ass.

Alex Sulkowski: Mad Scientist or Disturbed Genius?

Here’s the thing about going to Yale: people always say to you, “Wow, you went to Yale. You must be some kind of a genius or something.”

Well, no, sorry, I’m not a genius. I may not even be a something. But the absolute coolest thing about going to Yale was this: I got to meet geniuses. Bonafide off-the-wall, brains-coming-out-of-their-ears geniuses. I got to hang out with them, bask in the glory of their unfettered intellects, and generally enjoy the sensation of pure awe.

One of those geniuses was a guy named Alex Sulkowski. Alex was one of my roommates for my senior year and a good friend my entire time at Yale. He’s also the most brilliant person I’ve ever known. He used to build remote-controlled tanks with video cameras and mounted water guns, then sit in our room and control the things through the TV, driving around campus and drenching people with the automated water gun. He built a robot with bulletproof skin that could detect when it had hit an obstacle and reverse direction. All kinds of cool stuff.

The best part about it? Alex isn’t even an engineer or a roboticist by trade. This is the stuff he does for fun.

Last year, Alex won a contest for designing a mechanized exoskeleton. He’s entered a new competition this year and sent me some pictures of his work-in-progress. It was so cool that I just had to share it with the world.