Sunday, December 21, 2008

I've Got the Ideas: You Do the Work

Yes, I'm up on my hobby horse again. I ran across more ads, people offering their fantastic ideas for the poor idea-less writer to whip up into a best-seller. (With generous royalty split to come, of course.)

Why does this bug me so much? I guess because an idea is like an opinion, which--as they say--is like an *sshole: Everybody's got one. And it bugs me so much because it seems to discount the work a writer does. As if an idea is enough. The idea for a novel doesn't mean much until there is a novel. The idea is a starting point, a jumping off point, simply the beginning of the real work.

And maybe it bugs me so much because when it comes to writing, ideas aren't the problem. As if a writer doesn't have tens, hundreds, thousands of them a day, a week, a month. I have tons of ideas--big and small--and I struggle with them, everyday.

I struggle to get them down, struggle to make them clear to a reader, struggle to put them into a compelling form. One of the big ideas I've had for a long time is what I call--in my head--the intergenerational transfer of violence. The idea is the result of growing up in a family reeling with the after-affects of World War II. My mother was born in 1941, in Russia, literally in the middle of war zone.

She came to the States in 1951, along with her parents and three siblings, after spending five years in a DP camp. Now they were safe. Now they could concentrate on pursuing the American dream. Right? Well, sure. But these people had issues, to put it mildly. And because I lived with them, some of those issues became my issues.

I think of WWII as being, somehow, my war too, although I wasn't born until 1964. I'm not sure when the idea crystalized for me, or why it is so important to me. But it is. And I've been struggling for most of my adult life to transform that idea into an amazing piece of fiction. Or non-fiction. But to transform it, anyway.

I've approached it from many different angles: Academically (degree in history and Russian). Psychologically (therapy). Aerologically (travel to Russia). Pop-culturally (watch practically every WWII movie ever made). I'm engaged, searching, always. I write, I do research, and I grind to a halt. Repeat. But I don't seem to come any closer to wrestling the idea to the ground.

Now, I don't actually think I could just hand this idea off to another writer, and ask him to execute it for me. But even if I could, I wouldn't. It's my idea, for good or bad. It's apparently my task in life to struggle with this. I learn in this struggle, I occupy my time with it, I come back to it after breaks for other things.

And maybe that, in the end, is what so bugs me about these posts: they seem to me to be based on a premise that is wholly divorced from the reality of creative work, a premise that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the creative process. The idea is not the thing. The struggle with the idea is the thing. That is what produces the novel.

And the particulars (age, race, gender, family, history, culture, education) a writer brings to their struggle with an idea is what makes the novel worthwhile, what makes it interesting, engaging, and compelling for the reader. An idea isn't a relay baton, that can simply be passed from one person to another. You can no more give me an idea that results in the novel you have in your head than I can give you an idea that will result in you having the same dream I had last night. A novel is a kind of dream, made tangible.

The idea is simply a catalyst. It is both transformed by and transforms the person who holds it.

As far as I'm concerned, if there's an idea you're struggling with, especially struggling to execute creatively, you are lucky. So many people don't have any ideas about anything. This is a clue from your subconcious, a delivery of raw material, and you should take it seriously. (I would say it's a sign from the universe, but I don't actually think the universe gives a flying f**k about us.) It means you have work to do, research to do, thinking to do. Your struggle with this idea is a gift, and you should treat it as such.

* * * * * *
Ideas are easy. It's the execution of ideas that really separates the sheep from the goats. I read newspapers, textbooks on crime. I talk to private investigators, police officers, jail administrators, doctors, lawyers, and career criminals. Ideas are everywhere.

--Sue Grafton

Monday, December 15, 2008

I've Given Up on Women's Magazines

I am a CokeZero addict. Love it, can't get enough of it. About a year ago, I noticed that the bottle caps had little codes on them, codes to be entered into a loyalty program. Why not? I spend enough money on Coke, I might as well get something free in return. So I went to CokeRewards, and I signed up, and I started saving the bottle caps, and about once a week, I go to the site and enter the codes.

After so many months of this, I had quite a few points, and a little time on my hands one day, so I looked around the site for a way to spend my points. They were out of stock on the only t-shirt I liked and I work at home so I have no use for an insulated lunch bag. I'm not interested in iTunes downloads or video games. Then I saw the "Magazines" tab. Oooh. I love magazines.

So I clicked on the tab, brought up images of the magazines on offer. Glossy covers, famous people: Elle. Vogue. O: The Oprah Magazine. People. Marie Claire. Cosmopolitan. Glamour. I have, at one time or another in my 40-plus years, had a subscription to each of these magazines. And I had enough points to take two, or three, maybe four of them. Which ones did I want?

I perused the covers, growing increasingly dismayed. I'd read these articles before. All of them. Nothing sounded good, nothing looked interesting. I don't need a list of the 100 best beauty products: I consider it a successful morning if I manage to put on a coat of powder and a little lip gloss. If I want a new diet plan, I'll go to the diet shelf in my library. I don't really care what celebrity moms think--about anything. I don't need a list of ten do's or ten don'ts. I've pretty much got the do's and don'ts covered by now.

I don't know what happened to me. In my 20s, I couldn't wait for Cosmo every month. I kept an eye on the calendar, anticipating its arrival, and I practically ran to my mailbox on the day I was expecting it. In my 30s, I got marginally more serious, in the context of a woman's magazine, that is: Vogue, Marie Claire, Jane. And then the subscriptions began to run out, and I just didn't renew them. I thought that I had given up women's magazines for financial reasons, because I couldn't afford everything, and there were other magazines I wanted more: Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, Granta, The Sun, The Atlantic Monthly.

But now, on the CokeRewards site, there were no financial considerations. The magazines were FREE. They would have cost me nothing but points, and the time it took to fill out the subscription forms. And yet I couldn't be bothered. Not for a single one.

Do you hear that Hearst? You couldn't give them away.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Do You Work for Free?

As a freelance editor and writer, I spend a lot of time on web sites like Craigslist, reading help-wanted ads, looking for clients and trying to get a sense of what is going on in the market.

And what is going on in the market is that nobody wants to actually pay you for your work anymore.

Memoir: I am working on my memoir, but I'm not a writer, and I need help. I don't have any money, but it's a fascinating story.......
Writer Wanted: I have all these great ideas for novels, but I'm not a writer. I can't pay. But they really are great ideas, and I'd be willing to share them with you, if you wanted to write them up. I'm sure it would be easy for you to write it....
GhostWriter: I have some notes for my DaVinciCode/The Secret/Anne Rice/JRTolkien kind of story. Everybody--my mom and my girlfriend--swear it will be the next big thing, but I really don't have the time to write it. And I can't pay. And I'm not such a good writer. But if you are a writer, then I'm sure you could knock it out in a couple of weeks and I would be willing to give you a percentage when it sells...

I'm frankly puzzled. These people apparently think that writers are some kind of cyborg/software amalgam: plug in an idea, sit us down in front of our computers, and we just go. (This might explain why they think we don't need money, since cyborgs shouldn't have bills, and don't need shelter, or food, or clothing to cover up their robot parts.) The irony is that if anyone should know how difficult writing is, then it's the people who posted these ads. Presumably, they've given it the old college try, and sat down at their computer and attempted to put their fabulous ideas into words and those words into sentences and those sentences into paragraphs. . . and they've figured out that this whole writing thing isn't as easy as it looks. In fact, it kind of sucks. It's work! Maybe what they don't know is that the difference between them and us "writers" is that we keep doing it anyway.

Now, I'm not a wealthy person, and I understand having limited funds. In the spring, for example, I requested a 'free' copy of a book from a writer in the UK, a book I couldn't get my hands on here in the States (despite Amazon and WorldCat). At that time--back in the good ole days--the dollar/pound exchange rate meant that I would have had to pay hundreds of dollars for the book, which I didn't have, and I really needed it for some research I was doing. But it didn't feel right to ask the guy to give his work away, so I offered to donate it to a library of his choosing when I was finished with it, or trade some research, editing, or writing hours in return. (I live in DC and thought he might need something from the Library of Congress or National Archives.) He didn't, and in the end, he turned me down. But he thanked me for my offer. Another example: I posted my own Craigslist ad, looking for a graphic designer to come up with a logo for my new web site, for "free." Well, sort of. Again, I offered editing or writing services in trade. I got 20-some nice responses. I struck a deal, got my logo, did the editing work in return, and made a new friend in the process.

I just don't understand the freebie mentality. I belong to a writer's group, and my fellow writers know I have an editing background, and they ask me for editing advice. I give it. Freely. And in return, I get their company, and their attention when I read my chapters, and their comments, and somebody to commiserate with over the writing process. When it's give and take, I'm more than happy to give my share.

Want some free advice? If you've got a great idea for a story and you aren't a writer, and could use some help, then how about offering something in return? My bedroom could use a coat of paint. Is anybody in your family a dentist? (I have a loose filling.) Or a vet? (My kitten is due for her next set of shots in a couple of weeks.) Or how about house cleaning services? My kitchen floor is sticky again, and I can't deal with it, I've got a deadline to meet for a (paying) job.