Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Biggest Loser

I am back now after several days of self-induced Modern Warfare 2 trauma.  My NaNoWriMo has suffered, my children's schooling has suffered and I am still not over my addiction.  Oh well.  I will achieve the goal of 50,000 plus words in November (more, if you count this blog and comments I leave on other blogs).  Also, I have a bone to pick (or a thousand) with the New York Times.  I will limit myself today, however.  Just in time for Thanksgiving.  This post is timely, I guess.

I have watched two seasons of the Biggest Loser.  I enjoyed it, mostly.  I wish the show would get a new editor, but the stories of these people changing their lives really resonates with millions of Americans.  Even the skinny ones.  We need to take care of our bodies.  Or bodies are God's temple.  It's not a vanity thing.  It's not a body-worship thing.  It is a survival thing--a longer, healthier, happier thing.  It is an obedient, God-centered thing. 

I read this article ( by the NY Times and felt compelled to put my two cents in.  This type of writing is what is systemic of our society as a whole.  Media is probably the largest contributor to this obsession with finding holes in every grand story.  They deny the divinity of Christ, they question the ethics of philanthropists, they smear the names of athletes and movie stars.  They tear apart the marriages of celebrity "reality" couples.  I realize many of these stories are brought to light by the same media and that is why I wonder.  It reminds me of the Chinese symbol of the dragon swallowing its own tail. 

But, I am casting my net too wide.  I could go on with this for hours and I would probably lose you, Dear Reader.  I want to specifically address this article and the show which it criticizes.  The show, if you are living under a rock, is about overweight people who compete to lose the most weight.  That is the simple version.  Of course, since it is a competition and people have proven they will do anything to get a competitive edge (Press Your Luck, Survivor, Twenty One, Major League Baseball, Olympics, et al), in this, too it seems, contestants have pushed the boundaries of sensibility to win.  As the article states, some contestants have resorted to dehydration to lose weight for the challenges.  The article, however, directs much of its criticism toward the show, as if it is to blame.
It would not be unusual for a media event to turn upon itself, or put participants in harm's way.  But, this isn't a Stephen King novella.  The emphasis of the show is to appeal to the popular American desire to lose weight. It points out principles that are already obvious to all of us who are aware that we eat poorly, excercise infrequently and have a poor mental attitude about eating.  It has become an obsession.  We have replaced sustaining our bodies with the needed energy to sustain our activities with eating to solve our problems/heal our hurts/comfort our souls or simply to indulge our love for the flavors.  We lack the proper perspective.  We sit more, do less, and subsequently store more of what we eat.  Pretty simple.

More to the point about my criticism of the article, I submit that to pit one doctor's advice about safe weight loss against another's is a weak argument.  The reader then is drawn naturally to the advice of the more conservative figure because then we can point a finger of blame.  But, wait.  If everyone lost weight at the same rate, where would be the contest?   Where would be the challenge?  Where would be the victory and the inspirational stories of NORMAL, everyday people overcoming the obstacle of obesity? 

And on what data do these doctors base their claims of safe weight loss?  For the doctor working for the show, certainly what these contestants do to their bodies is not normal.  He cannot claim that Joe Normal works out 6 hours each day or restricts caloric intake.  And the doctor from U of M?  Does he market some diet drug or run a weight loss clinic?  His answer can just as easily be linked to gain or profit as the doctor for the show. 

So we are left with what do the contestants say.  We have now five years' worth of contestants, some losing astronomical amounts of weight in a short amount of time.  Some have regressed.  Were we surprised?  Some have maintained.  Are we cynical?  If half of the contestants succeed, then that rate of success is considerably better than the rest of us.  And don't forget, thes contestants WANTED to compete.

Where this article gets my ire mostly is in its unmitigated rally to the poor winner from year one who was denied an appearance on an upcoming show due to his admission to dehydrating himself.  His admission casts little accusation at the show, but the reporter does not let that point escape.  I find this victim mentality abhorrent.  Not that victims do not exist, it is just in the search for a good "story," reporters and other media talking heads work so hard to manufacture the victim often not for the victim's sake but merely to cast aspersions upon some entity.  Of late, the targets of this vilification has been within the media itself, even culminating in books by Jayson Blair (Burning Down My Master's House) and Stephen Glass (The Fabulist) which in their self-pity lash out at their former employees to some extent.  Somehow, the self-vilification of media is reaching new heights. 

In the end, freedom of speech has its downsides, I guess.   And that is why I can express my thoughts in this blog.  Right?  What do you think?  I would be interested to know.  And, not to be outdone by the thousands of bloggers asking this most obvious of holiday questions:  for what are you thankful?

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Problem With Genre-less Novels

I read a lot of writer's and agent's blogs and I have noticed a trend for folks to either cross genres or to claim that their novel lacks a genre.  I am aware that some books are difficult to cast into a "Romance" or "Thriller" or "Horror" category and that "Commercial Fiction" or "Literary Fiction" have become sort of the miscellaneous category where books of this ilk are often tossed.  But, is saying that your novel doesn't fit a genre meant to elevate it above those categories or merely to differentiate?

I ask this question rhetorically, but the issue with this de-classification or extra-classification is that in the publishing world, often you don't want to be on an island.  The sad truth is, if you want readers to potentially happen upon your book on Amazon or in Borders/Barnes & Noble/Books-A-Million, you need to have that book placed in one of their categories. 

The next time you are in a bookstore, note the sections.  Then watch each section and the traffic.  Watch as dozens of teens browse the Manga or Vampire sections, or the fourty-something women pile up Romance books or browse Self-Help, Cookbooks or Religion.  If you don't have a "section," your book is hard to "define" and therefore hard to market.  Yeah, your coming-of-age novel set in Ireland may be a great read, but unless its on a book list, self promoted like crazy or given a huge marketing budget, fewer people will find it. 

Think about how you choose books.  Known Author?  Cover Art?  Browsing on the Internet?  Do you have a deliberate way of determining which book will occupy your valuable time and draw from your hard-earned money?  If you aren't looking for a specific book, you most often will resort to what I call the "Genre Hunt."  You seek out novels in a genre you have predetermined that you will want to read.  It is like picking a restaurant.  Do you want Mexican, Chinese, or the hard-to-define American food?  If you choose the latter, you often are in for a treat--a pie place, a steak place, a burger joint, a greasy spoon, a diner, drive-in or dive.  But, isn't it easier to know what you generally want first and then to determine from there what specifically you want? 

That is why these genres were created in the first place:  to facilitate marketing;  to reach the most people in the quickest and simplest way.  It has been successful.  And if your novel crosses genres?  Say you have a Modern Sci-Fi Romance?  Fine, you can put it in both genres.  You might be surprised that it sells more in Sci-Fi than in the Romance section, but who cares? 

Is your novel doomed if it doesn't fall neatly into a category?  Why, no.  Of course not.  It just means you need exceptionally good marketing, which you want anyway.  And, of course, you will have to do a fair amount of marketing yourself, which, again, your publisher and agent will probably expect this of you anyway, even if the novel was a pure genre story.  The bottom line is, don't define your novel as "undefinable" because you think it elevates your novel above the din of genres.  And, don't disdain the categories because they "limit" you and your writing.  Embrace them if you can.  Use them to show how you differentiate within that genre, not against it.  It will allow you to develop an audience and then you can jump out of genres because people will be looking for your NAME.  Won't that be nice?


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What I've Learned About Writing

Next week I will be speaking to a local HS Writer's Club. I am looking forward to sharing my knowledge about what I have learned about writing. The assignment got me wondering about just some of the things I've learned recently.
#1)  Writing is a craft as much as an art.  It is more like sculpting than pottery.  We chisel away at the story more often than we take mud and form one. 

#2)  Inspiration for "stories" come unhindered and are often discarded, forgotten or "archived."  They rarely see the screen of our computers or the paper of our journals.  They exist in our minds.  And I am glad, because many of them need to stay right there in our own private novel sanctuaries.

#3)  Writing journals are as much a tool for finding our voice as they are a way to express ourselves.  When we write thinking of ourselves as our only audience, we learn to write what impacts us (this is mostly stream-of-consciousness, but effective, none-the-less).  Writing unfettered like this, we find the pace and the style that defines us as writers.  Our "voice" is commonly our inner selves leaking out into the pace, structure, content and tableau of our story.  A good writing journal challenges us to tap into this dynamic.

#4)  Writers are a jumpy bunch.  As I read comments on agent's and publisher's blogs, writer's websites and writer's groups, it becomes very plain that writer's have a fair store of anxiety about their writing.  Much of this anxiety can be attributed to their high degree of concern for their careers.  However, I can also sense why publishing has become such a competitive atmosphere.  You can read on internet sites like this one all day.  Thousands of words are produced each second, 90% of which is FREE.  The "competition for eyeballs" as Nathan Bransford, a literary agent, puts it, has become intense.  This creates agony, bewilderment and concern for anyone tied to making a living from the words they can type, the stories they can tell, the information they wish to broker.

#5)  Telling stories is part wonder, part science, part art, part systematic, and part i don't know what.  That's alot of parts, but if we assume we know the formula, I think then we have lost our way.  To every individual the beauty of a story is defined differently.  If I ask my son Seth, a very exacting literary critic to be sure, what he liked about Of Mice and Men, his comeback is "It was cool."  Well, cool notwithstanding, stories need to grab us in a very personal way.  And since we are all individually made up of different stuff and every story is a complicated sophistication--even stories as simple as Where the Wild Things Are--then that "grab" is different for every person and every story.  As writer's, the magic compilation is one that grabs the most hearts, touches the most lives, resonates within the most imaginations. 

The Harry Potter phenomenon is used as an example of this.  Stripped away of all its magic, dragons, evil wizards and Quidditch (which are all setting and important in their place), Rowlings' popular series is a chronicle of an orphaned boy coming of age and the tests, trials and wonderment of the loyalty found in friendship.  The Star Wars saga is similar.  Ignoring the lasers, the light sabers, the space ships, Wookies, Ewoks, Twileks and bounty hunters, and even the sophomoric romance plots, black caped conflicted bad guys, and Pod Races, we find an elementary story that resonates with thousands:  an epic clash of good versus evil, our proclivity as a race to define ourselves as either servants of the common good or machievellian machinists.

These books as well as thousands of others take us to other worlds, or within our own.  They transport us and this escape is what we demand when we pick up a book and from the first sentence determine that we are willingly going to suspend disbelief until the author fails us in some way.  Setting, backdrop, place, time, landscape, these things all help take us to those places of escape we desire.  But, it is the unfailing core of the story that we often love, whether we realize it or not.  We may remember the light saber battle, the assault on Helm's Hold, the line "you killed my father; prepare to die" or the white-washed fence of Tom Sawyer but it is the elemental conflicts within the story that shape its success.  That is why publishers, agents, writers, marketers and editors have such a problem determining what will "work."

Monday, November 2, 2009

Writing Away

Whew! Spent the weekend writing, mostly. Kicked off NaNoWriMo with a hefty 2,200 words and wrote and edited a 730-word article for Constant Content. I want to eek out some 500-1000 word articles each week and see what happens. Please check from time to time by clicking on the link over on the sidebar. I know I can churn out words and hold down a regular day job, but this will be a daunting task.

It is good to see some fellow WriMo's out there, Nate and Noel. It is encouraging to know you will be write there with me. Happy writing to you both and I am looking forward to reading your work.