Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Even The Fail Was Cliche: Missing the Forest for the Trees

I went and saw Eat Pray Love this past weekend.

Now, I love that book.  It was the inspiration for The Road Trip; it got me through one of the nastiest breakups ever; every time I read it I find something new that speaks to my current difficulties.
I love Elizabeth Gilbert.  She writes some crackerjack fiction (Stern Men, it's like Jacob Have I Loved crossed with The Bean Trees and you should read it) and she's delightful in person (when she signed my book I teared up a little, because I'm not cool like that), and she wrote a memoir that touched millions of women.

The movie was bad.
And by the movie was bad, I mean the screenplay was bad.

Julia Roberts was fine.  Everyone can shut up about her performance.  She's great.  Loved her.  She brought energy to this movie.

But the adapted screenplay was just awful, because they spent so much time trying to squeeze in all the little special moments that people loved about the book that they completely missed the story of a woman who went from being miserable to being happy.

Now, the India sequence was fantastic.  You know why?  Because it was nothing like the book.  In the book Richard didn't tell a story about nearly running over his little boy.  There was no elephant.  She dedicated her Gurugita to her nephew, not the sweet young Indian girl. Her roommate never took a vow of silence.  But the story was true.
My writing professor used to say about fiction, "Did it happen?  No.  Is it true?  Yes."  And that's where this movie went wrong.  Trying to include accurate stuff in the beginning made Liz Gilbert look like an ungrateful, entitled rich bitch, because they couldn't include all of it; but by including some accurate moments they left out the story of a woman, who was so miserable from drowning in her false self that she couldn't have seen anything good if it whacked her in the nose, finding enough strength to do something she had always wanted to do after losing all of her assets in a divorce. 

So this is my message to screenwriters:  Fictionalize it if you have to, but for God's sake save the story.  I would rather have seen a movie about an entirely different person learning that being honest with yourself will bring you to happiness than an accurate portrayal of events that left out the story.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Query Letter I Wish I Could Send

I'm having the worst time writing a query letter.  I mean, I knew it was going to be hard, and all, but I didn't think it would be this hard.  I wrote the f*cking book.  I should know what it's about, and how to explain it in a business letter.  But man, it's hard.

So anyway, I thought I'd write a letter that said exactly what I was thinking, just to get it all out, and then maybe after I do that I can go back to writing the more appropriate kind.  But I kind of love my awkward brain-barf letter, so I thought I'd post it here for laughs.

Dear Mr. Bransford,

    I read your blog.  I read it every time I'm trying to write something and can't.  I'm not the biggest fan of the site layout and I don't watch reality T.V., or sports, because I haven't had cable since I was seven, so I totally can't impress you with jokes about the Lakers like that lady in the example query, but you seem pretty smart, and I like smart people.  Also it says, “When in doubt, query me,” and I'm definitely in doubt.  Not necessarily about your representation preferences, since I researched you as an agent, but I'm in doubt about some things, and you didn't specify.
    I went on this road trip to visit all of my ex-boyfriends in a desperate attempt to figure out whether they had a better handle on achieving a self-made life than I did, and then I wrote a book about it.  I called it The Only Cowboy and it has 76,000 words. Technically I guess I can say it's a memoir since you'd need to, like, market and shelve it, but I feel pretty douchey calling something I wrote a “memoir” when I'm only 24.  Plus it just sounds like a granny word, you know?  Like the way old ladies still say “toilette” or “derriere” when they're trying to say an impolite thing politely. 
    My one ex-boyfriend ate a raw rabbit in front of me, once.  He killed it at the golf course with a rock.  That's in the book.  Later he tried to give me a venereal disease.  That's in there, too.  He was a really sweet guy when we were dating, but I kind of f*cked him over and then he decided the world was a cruel place and he didn't want to play anymore.  He tried to pretend he was living his life however he wanted and no one could tell him what to do, but really he was hiding.  I couldn't get him to come out of his rabbit hole so I left him there. 
    My other ex-boyfriend was a literary genius who liked to send any money he earned straight up his nose.  But I would probably still donate my liver to him if he asked.  And if we had the same blood type; I guess that would be important, too.  When I went to see him on the road trip he was working a shit job and living in his parents' house and that was kind of disappointing, although not as disappointing as finding out that love doesn't actually conquer the combined effects of cocaine addiction, five years' separation, and a preference for being liked over living up to your own enormous potential.  People say it conquers all, and that kind of thing, but really it just kind of gets tucked away like an old sweater while the rest of your life goes on.
    Turns out I was the only one who was really doing anything.  It was kind of funny, you know? Because there I was, trying to learn from my ex-boyfriends how they made their lives into what they wanted, but I was the one on the road trip, making the effort to live my life and learn about myself.  My ex-boyfriends were just really smart drunks.
    Anyway, I don't know if the book is any good.  I've never had anything published before so you won't have any other editors you can ask about my writing.  But I had a lot of fun writing it so maybe it will be fun to read, too.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

All This 20-Something Bullsh*t Annoys the Hell Out of Me

At least two of my friends have sent me articles about the crisis of the 20-something, so, of course, I made a list of my grievances:

1. None of these articles were written by 20-somethings, or in conjunction with them, so basically you're writing about us as if we're not there. If you don't let us participate, we can't. 
2. Just because we're not the same kind of adult as you are doesn't mean we're not adults at all.
3. There are apparently five milestone markers for adulthood:  completing school, leaving home, being financially independent, marrying, and having a child.  And since we don't do those things, they're questioning our adulthood rather than the adulthood milestones.  People.  Learn what a premise is, and learn to check it for validity.
4.  The reasons I have thought about moving home have very little to do with my finances, and everything to do with wanting to be a part of a family, for real, and not on the internet.  I went to school across the country, and most of my closest friends live in different cities; our society is totally transient because it's so easy to move and travel.  And jobs aren't something you keep for a lifetime, now--but family is.
5. And on that note, this is the sentence that made me annoyed enough to write this: "With life spans stretching into the ninth decade, is it better for young people to experiment in their 20s before making choices they’ll have to live with for more than half a century?"  Guess what?  Life doesn't work that way, and the fact that you insist it does is what makes us terrified and unable to commit!  We can do anything we want, for however long we want, and a commitment doesn't have to mean fifty years.  PLEASE DON'T EVER SAY THAT  SH*T AGAIN!!!!!!!! And aside from me just denying it, that's not how the workforce works these days--we can't count on pensions and we can't count on committing to a company for fifty years.  That would be stupidity.  Our skills are the only real assets we have.  And based on how you all really fucked up your marriages, our observations tell us that marriages don't last that long either.  But family does.  My parents are my parents forever.
6. I'm sorry we're digging into your pocketbooks. I really am.  But you are the ones who taught us that there are more important things than money, and that we should feel fulfilled and happy.  So we are trying to do that.  You wanted us to have it better than you did; we saw what you gave up for us, and we want to give it back to you, and to take advantage of our opportunities.  Please stop criticizing us for wanting something better than a balanced checkbook, or making a half-century commitment to a company like Enron.  There is a good reason for wanting a job with meaning, that does something more than make money--pull your heads out of your asses and look around you!
7.  You went through this, too.  We see the problems with your choices and want to better them--just like you did with your parents.  We have a black president now, because of you all.  We don't blindly support wars anymore, nor feel afraid to voice opposition, because of you all.  Women make more money and have more opportunities than they ever did before--because of you.  So we're going to do it even better.  Now please shut up.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Why Adults Read Children's Literature

   Because it's f*cking happy.

   Children's literature is the only place where serious themes can be addressed while still allowing for a happy ending.  Especially during a recession, these are the things that people want to read about.
Sometimes I feel like there's an unwritten rule (irony ftw) that in order to write serious literature one has to write depressing literature.  I blame this on Fitzgerald, who had the audacity to write the world's most perfect novel about a series of tragic, unredeemable characters.  From there literature devolved into stories about characters who couldn't hack it in a world that won't forgive them, or characters who could hack it in a world that is so sick and twisted they won't be allowed to anyway, and that's not what we want to read about.
   Children's literature knows this.  Children's literature knows that we want to read about Odysseus, who was so clever and strong that he prevailed against the gods.  Children's literature knows we want to read about Harry Potter, who was so good and loving that he prevailed even against the greatest evil talent there ever was.
    Children's literature knows we want the good guys to win, because in real life, they don't.

    If you look back at the past ten years of hugely successful novels--the kind that make writers fantasize about totally unrealistic moneys and Oprah coming back from retirement just to talk to them--you will notice a pattern: they all have happy endings.  Harry PotterTwilightThe Da Vinci Code.  Even The Road was pretty happy, from a Cormac McCarthy point of view.  And I know it wasn't a book, but Avatar wouldn't have earned that kind of money if we just watched all the Navi get slaughtered in 3D, (which, btw, is what actually happened if you believe all that political commentary nonsense).  In all of these stories, there was hope.  These characters survived.  They kicked evil's ass, and found love along the way.

   These are the things that are worth living for when you are unemployed and your kids have the flu and your hometown just got the f*ck flooded out of it and your husband has PTSD and there's a high pollution warning and the oil spill and holy sh*t we're still at war seven years later and we still haven't captured Osama Bin Laden and oh yeah like now with instant communication we can watch a live feed of people dying in Haiti after an earthquake.  That is our real life, and it sucks.  So we don't want to read about that bitch in The Elegance of the Hedgehog who finally starts living and then shoves her face right into a semi's grille.  That sh*t's depressing.  If we wanted to read about that we could open the Christmas letter from Uncle Roger.  Or read the paper.  We want to overcome the odds, even if it's only for two hours with a cup of tea before bedtime.  Two hours of glorious hero-overcoming-all-the-odds-to-win is enough to allow us to get a full night's sleep and then get up and pay the bills late.  It really is.

   Literature isn't, or at least it shouldn't be, a self-contained world.  No matter how nerdy you were in high school, and how much other kids made fun of you because you liked to read, as a writer you are not participating in some special little club of people who know how to spell antidisestablishmentarianism.  You are not isolated.  This is not about your art. You are a storyteller.  And everybody reads stories--or at least watches them, or plays them on a controller, or listens to them.  Stories are metaphors for ourselves, for the way we treat conflict and difficulty.  Stories are a very human institution, and they're what allow us to picture ourselves as heroes, as people who don't give up, as chosen ones, when really we are all very small and not sure of what to do. 
   So of course adults read children's literature.  Because we still need someone to tell us that it can be done.  That we are heroes.  That even though we are older now, we can still do anything we want to, and be anything we strive to be.  These are things we need, desperately.  So however important and tragic and well-written All the Pretty Horses might be, guess what? It doesn't give us what we need.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

If You Don't Know, Who Should I Ask?

All while I was growing up, if my mother asked me a question about what I wanted to do, or eat for dinner, or some other volition-based inquiry, and I responded with, "I don't know," she would say, "Well, if you don't know, who should I ask?"  (Then she would giggle like she always did when she was pleased with herself for stumping me.  Totally endearing.  I love my mom.)
Anyway, I only just realized today how deeply that phrase has embedded itself into my psyche.

When it comes to what you want, you should know.  AND say it, especially when asked.  There is no one else to ask.  You should know what you want to eat for dinner, or whether you want to stay inside and read or go to an amusement park, or why what that jackass on the subway said is upsetting you, or what you want to spend the rest of your life working on.  You should know this, because nobody else can.

Sometimes these questions are hard.  I know.  They suck.  I spent years figuring out the last one, and even now I'm still not sure all the time.  But nobody else knows the answer.  It takes time and effort to sort through your own reactions to find what your real preferences are.  But no one else can do it

So if sometimes I am blunt, and say things that other people don't say, it's only because it's one of those things that nobody else could say.  This is my job.  I am me, and I am the only one who knows what I want, and I am the only one who can communicate that.  This is what I am here for. 

And if you don't know these things about yourself, then who should I ask?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How To Write Award-Winning Literature (Sponsored by Blood Meridian)

1.  Give your protagonist absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever so that everyone can really relate to him.
2. After the first fifty pages there is no need to mention him.  Describing the homogeneous landscape will be enough to remind everyone of his miserable existence.
3. When he does decide to reappear, reveal the history of other characters whom you haven't introduced by making your protagonist listen to long, overwritten stories told in vocabulary far beyond the speaker's (and the listener's) intellectual capabilities.  But they shouldn't speak like that unless they're delivering exposition.  That's gay.
4. Don't give your characters names, or if you do, don't reveal them until there is absolutely no context by which the reader can understand to whom the name refers.
5. Racial stereotypes count as characterization.
6. Your characters don't need to be distinguishable except regarding the degree of violence with which they are willing to kill each other.
7. Women aren't people, and rocks are more interesting.  Write about those.
8.  Plot should develop as follows: The group, of which the unnamed and unmentioned protagonist is a member, rides through a desert until the horses are tired, kills something, and then a random character expounds on an irrelevant and Neal-Cassady-esque topic.  Repeat with minor variation in available petroglyphs in order to demonstrate movement of said group.
9.  Testicles are the only body part of any importance, and cutting them off is worse than killing someone.
10. If part of the action takes place in the Grand Canyon, there is no need to say so, or describe it in a recognizable way.  Everyone will know what you're talking about.
11.  Once you decide on a title, make sure you overuse all of the words in it throughout the story so that people notice and think it's profound.