Writing

On MySpace

So, last week (while I was on my way to the Greater Rochester Teen Book Festival), I got a phone call. It seems MySpace wanted to feature my blog on the MySpace Books page.

Well, after a few days of figuring out what to write about and coordinating with the folks at MySpace, the blog is up and prominently displayed on the MySpace Books page!

Some of you may have mixed feelings about MySpace. My opinion is that it’s like any other piece of technology — it has the potential for good or for ill, depending on how it’s used. I just can’t see a downside to this sort of exposure.

I had a lot of fun writing the piece and I’m currently discussing the possibility of further entries with MySpace. We’ll see how this goes.

Teen Book Festival 2007 – Updated!

I attended the Teen Book Festival in Fairport, NY this past weekend (Saturday, March 31, to be specific).

I don’t think I can adequately explain how damn much fun I had! Really. I mean, I’ve been to events before where I felt like a rock star, but this was the first time I felt like a god! (OK, maybe a demi-god.)

Festival Goddess Stephanie Squicciarini deserves an award, a plaque, a week at a spa, and a handsome cabana boy named Paolo by her side 24/7 in honor of her heroic efforts. Her crack squad of volunteers deserves the same. (OK, they might have to share Paolo, but that’s OK.)

It was great to see ten other YA authors, so many of whom I’ve admired for a while now. I knew David Levithan and Lauren Myracle from last year’s Texas Book Festival and it was great to catch up with them. And I was so happy to meet other cool folks like Nancy Werlin and Terry Trueman! Newbery winner Linda Sue Park even stopped by Saturday night to chat with us…and to cause a near-heart attack in yours truly when she  said she’d actually READ MY BOOK! Whoa!

Cecil has pictures, including the infamous “author flower.”

My pics are on the Fanboy site — you can see ’em in the Gallery.

Too many good times to recap them all. It was great to meet Terry, who’s buds with MY bud Terry Davis. It was great to talk business and art and that strange place where the two intersect with people who have been at this longer than I have. It was even great to bore poor David to tears by talking comics ALL NIGHT LONG with Cecil.

UPDATE: The folks at the TBF have posted pictures from the event in a flickr account . Check ’em out — more will probably be added later as other attendees add their pics.

Fan Mail

I got fan mail today.

OK, now I hope I don’t sound like I’m tooting my own horn or anything, but I actually get fan mail a lot. (Well, it seems like a lot to me. To some writers, I’m sure it seems like a paucity, but hey — for me it’s a lot!) I almost wrote that today’s fan mail was special, but that sounds like I’m denigrating the rest of my fan mail. Every piece of fan mail is a big deal. For those of you out there who are readers, trust me — you have absolutely no idea how much it can make a writer’s day to get a letter or even just a brief note from a fan. We work in isolation, with only our keyboards, our Internet connections, and our pets to keep us company. We thrive on contact from the outside world.

(Um, said thriving, by the way, does not in any way, shape, or form justify the woman who — a few months ago — called me from out of the blue and said, “I’m in your neighborhood today and was wondering if I could stop by to have you sign my book.” Er, how did you get my phone number? And my address? And, oh, right — NO!)*

Where was I? Oh, yeah — contact with the outside world. We love it. Live for it. Keep that fan mail coming.

Today’s fan mail was… Oh, hell, I’ll say it — it was special. Special in a different way from the rest of the fan mail, which is special in and of itself.

See, today’s mail came…in the mail.

As in, via U.S. Postal Service.

As in, actual physical paper with actual physical ink that produced actual physical handwritten words.

This wonderful, wonderful fourteen-year-old girl from New York was so taken with my book that she actually wrote to me. With a pen held in her own hands.

She didn’t pound on a keyboard. Or text me from a phone.

She sat down with that three-hole-punch notebook paper we all remember from school. She filled three sides of it. She folded it up and put it in an envelope and stuck a stamp on there and sent it to my publisher, who dutifully forwarded it to me.

Like I said, I’ve gotten a decent amount of fan mail since The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girlcame out. And I’ve been thrilled by each and every contact with readers.

But this was just cool. In this Internet-connected world, the time and effort it takes to handwrite a letter and mail it seems almost…superhuman. When was the last time you actually handwrote a letter to someone you didn’t know? Hell, when was the last time you handwrote a letter to someone you do know?

I was really touched by the letter. I’m touched by every instance of contact with my fans.

But this one… Yeah, this one was a little extra-special.


*(Oh, and about that woman who called my house a few months ago? Never fear, dear readers — I arranged to meet her in a public place. She was a perfectly lovely woman who had no idea how much she freaked me out. I happily signed her book.)

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?