Any writer knows. Some days you feel it, some days you don’t. Today was a no-feels day. Here’s how I knew:
I spent the first two hours of daylight with my laptop open in front of me while I stared out the window. See, a bird couple was investigating the birdhouse. They’ve come to check the place three days in a row now, but have yet to take up residence. I started making up stories about them. I decided they’re picky house hunters trying to incite a seller’s war. “You won’t get a year’s supply of premium seed from me, chickadees!”
I told myself to buckle down. I opened my current chapter and typed one sentence. I got stuck on a word. I opened Thesaurus.com. I opened Twitter. I opened Seahawks.com. I opened Dogshaming.com. I critiqued a query at a writer’s website I frequent. I got hungry. I went to the kitchen and ate a handful of Swedish Fish. I craved salt. I went back to the kitchen for potato chips. I wanted chocolate. I went back to the kitchen for a piece of Ghirardelli sea salt milk chocolate. I got a sugar rush.
I sat my butt back down. I looked at my sentence. The stuck word was still stuck. I looked at the clock. It was 9 AM.
I thought about needing to write. I wondered how warm it was outside. I watched funny videos people linked on Twitter. I did dishes.
I thought about cleaning the spare bathroom.
That’s when I knew I was done for.
My daughter doesn’t tweet all that much, so when she sends out a link, I sit up and take notice. Last weekend she tweeted a link to the powerful speech Shonda Rhimes’ gave upon her acceptance of The Hollywood Reporter’s Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, which recognizes a woman in the entertainment industry who is a pioneer and leader in the industry.
For those unfamiliar with Ms. Rhimes, she’s a serious force in Hollywood whose writing and executive producer credits include Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, among many others. She also happens, in her words, to have been “born with an awesome vagina and really gorgeous brown skin.” So when Ms. Rhimes speaks of breaking through a glass ceiling, she ain’t exaggerating. But the power of her speech, the extraordinary beauty of it, is that she doesn’t take much credit for it. Ms. Rhimes eloquently gives the lion’s share of credit to the pioneering women before her. The ones who didn’t break through, but who weakened the glass ahead of her. If you read the speech (linked below), I suspect you won’t come away unmoved.
The point she makes is one I’ve been struggling with recently. With all the work that had been done by my mother’s generation, especially in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, I can’t shake the feeling women have been pushed down a steep section of stairway. And I can’t help but look at my own generation–and myself–and wonder how we allowed it. I admit, it’s extraordinarily disheartening.
In 1968, Dihanne Carroll, an African American woman, had the lead role on her own show, Julia, where she played a widowed, single mother supporting her family as a nurse. Talk about groundbreaking. (Too bad she was the first, and unfortunately last, African American woman to reach such heights until Scandal debuted in 2012. But that’s a post for another day.) At the same time Julia was on the air, The Carol Burnett Show was among the most popular shows on television, and shortly after came The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Maude. Women had a prominent leading presence on TV, cast as smart, funny, capable and independent. Role models aplenty.
When I graduated from high school and entered college in 1982, there were ZERO majors off limits to women. I had sorority sisters majoring in business, communications, pre-med, engineering and architecture. We went to work and found ourselves on more equal footing with men than we had imagined we would be. Of course, early days. The glass ceiling was there, we simply hadn’t risen high enough to encounter it quite yet. Still, many of us felt confident we would be unaffected by that old idea. The mythical ceiling, after all, been shattered by our elders. Ah, the optimism of youth. Or maybe laziness.
Our early success came too easy. Our mothers and grandmothers had paved a deep trail, one earned by lawsuits and demands for equal opportunity, insistence on a workplace free of sexual harassment, and we didn’t have to break much new ground. We just plodded through the trail, stomped it down a little harder. When I looked around the office at my first job, I saw more women than men and felt a little shiver of triumph.
Hubris, more like.
Because when I looked up again in the 1990’s, women were back to being portrayed in media as little more than sexual beings, or existing to serve a man. Something felt very backward to me, as if we’d made a sudden U-turn. When I would decry how women were depicted in, for example, music videos, I was told—by younger women—I was old-fashioned, or worse, that my objection meant I wanted to rob those women of their choice to appear in such videos. That I was trying to rob them of the power they’d earned to choose to be sexualized in such a way. Ooookayyyyy.
And now, fast forward to the new millennium, where women have more workplace muscle than ever, but somehow it’s acceptable for a guy to shove a woman’s head under the proverbial water and call her a slut and threaten to rape her openly on social media, or on comment boards. Our teenage boys casually use the verb “rape,” having apparently lost all understanding of the true meaning of the word. Women are portrayed on shows like Game of Thrones being violently assaulted, and the message is sickeningly mixed by the inclusion of what sounds like pleasurable moans in the background.
Yeah, I’m pretty positive the work my mother’s generation did has suffered a serious blow. Maybe damage inflicted by the patriarchy, maybe by hubris, maybe by entitlement. Whatever the cause, it’s happened.
I suppose great strides in human enlightenment aren’t taken on a linear path. As in war, there are battles lost and battles won, and this certainly isn’t the Women’s Movement’s version of Waterloo. But it feels bad right now. At least it does to me, having gotten a fleeting glimpse of what I naively thought would be a straight-line trajectory.
So I’m uplifted by, and thankful for, people like Shonda Rhimes. Women who, despite the noise, the long odds and ugliness with which they are occasionally (or frequently) confronted, manage to scope out the cracks in the ceiling and power through. I take from her speech the hopeful feeling that my generation wasn’t as stagnant as it feels we were, and the hope that those following behind her will be better equipped to take a stand at the next landing, will not cede ground to threat and disrespect and gratuitous sexualization, will, instead, power up another flight. Or three.
This pseudo-review is of a book originally available for free on the author’s own website. After people clamoring to “take it with them” on an e-reader, Mr. Weir uploaded it to Amazon in 2012 and charged the minimum 99¢. Then the movie people came calling, and then the Big Publisher. The Martian is in production, slated for a November, 2015 release, starring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott.
I’m intentionally not saying much about the plot here because…spoilers.
I don’t review books, or let’s say I never have.
See, if I really love a book, I’m usually so immersed I’m not paying attention to why I’m loving it. I’m lost in the story. And frankly, analyzing a story I connect with kind of…ruins it for me. I cherish that little bubble of having had an emotional tie to a piece of entertainment—be it literature, a movie or a television show. If I start digging too deep, I might see the flaws and lose that lovely naivete.
But reading The Martian by Andy Weir gave me a unique experience, not the least because there were points in the story where I was so stressed out I had to put my head up and gulp air. What really got me was that there were so many points in the book that I yanked myself out of the story. Out of sheer giddy surprise. And so, I decided to write about it, and to recommend it.
Let’s start with a couple of disclaimers.
- I don’t generally read sci-fi. The concepts have gotten a little big for me. Quantum-this and plasma-that. I haven’t kept up with science enough to read hard-core sci-fi seamlessly. If I don’t understand a concept, I have to go figure it out, and that means spending more time on Wikipedia than on the story. I don’t have that much leisure to expend on one book, so I tend to pass on sci-fi.
- I am picky to the point of ridiculous about the books I read, and I’m a total contrarian. If a book’s “the THING,” I probably pass just because, though not always. I’ve never read a Twilight book or a FSoG book, or just about anything Oprah recommends. (After reading a few of her early recommendations, I concluded we REALLY don’t have the same taste in books. This is helpful, though. It’s as important to have opinions/reviewers you know you disagree with as those you do, in my opinion. A consumer has to have ways of making choices.)
So why was I drawn to The Martian? I can’t really say, except that I read an article about it in Entertainment Weekly and the book sounded so fascinating. An astronaut gets stranded alone on Mars and has to survive. Whoa, cool! The simple premise sends the mind spinning with all sorts of possibilities. And then there was the opening sentence of the book: “I’m pretty much fucked.”
It didn’t hurt that the EW article was as much about the author as the book and I found Andy Weir instantly likeable. A writer I wanted to support. I bought the book and downloaded it to my Kindle, two years late to the party, but ready to go.
When I got to the end of chapter one I had my first big surprise moment. I thought, “I should tweet about this while I’m reading.” I was hooked. Hard. And I wanted to share my excitement. Why should that be a surprise? Most books I love have compelling first chapters, but I’ve never had the urge to want to tell anyone to READ THIS BOOK after a first chapter. As a writer, I was instantly aware that Weir had masterfully pulled off a feat with an extremely high degree of difficulty, a triple-cork 1440 of sorts. Eight pages. Action, character, setting and problem were all fully established in eight pages. Even though there is a good deal of techno-speak and mechanical jargon, it’s all accessible to a layperson, easily visualized, mostly because the protagonist, Mark Watney, narrates in a stunningly every-man voice. He’s a Mars astronaut for crying out loud, but his parts of the story feel a bit like having your next door neighbor tell you an amusing tale over beers across the fence. If your neighbor was an astronaut. And had been stranded on Mars.
After 7-ish pages of describing how he came to be in this predicament, and just what the predicament is, Watney wraps up Chapter One this way:
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah, I’m fucked.
So yeah, I was hooked.
We spend the first chunk of the book with Watney on Mars. He’s totally alone, unable to communicate with Earth, and by sticking only with that part of the tale, the reader feels the isolation, too. I remember at one point musing, “I wonder what NASA’s thinking” and I imagine Weir must have fought the urge to tell that side of the tale in parallel from the get-go. But to do so would have significantly deflated the tension. First we had to know that Watney wasn’t going to settle for being “fucked” and actually had the skills and moxie to do something about it.
This is one of Weir’s gifts. To convince the reader that one man, alone on a planet, can fight the slimmest of odds with a hammer and duct tape. And to make us believe every bit of it. This is a sign of a highly skilled story-teller, and they are the authors I want to spend my time reading. I’m not saying anything about The Martian is absurd—I don’t really know how duct tape works in the Martian atmosphere—but if it is absurd, it doesn’t matter, because I believe. Just like I believed that Claire walked between standing stones in 1945 Scotland and ended up in 1742 in Outlander. Just like I believed that an evil force was inhabiting a Native American burial ground in Pet Sematary.
And of course, Weir’s Mark Watney has more at his disposal than a hammer and duct tape. He’s got mad skillz, as the kids say. He was the mission’s engineer and he’s a trained botanist, which just so happen to be the skills most useful for an astronaut stranded on Mars. He’s a masterful problem solver and outside-the-box thinker. Just the kind of guy who becomes an astronaut. He’s special, and yet so very unpretentious.
The Watney sections of the book are presented as log entries, so while we’re in his head, they are meant for keeping track of his doings, for outside eyes to read later. Which, thankfully, means not a lot of navel-gazing. There are some angsty moments, especially when he’s missing human contact, and we get his victories large and small (with exclamation points!) and his annoyances (with snarky commentary), but the doses of “woe is me” are very small, making natural-optimist Mark all the easier to root for.
The secondary characters, are fun to hang around with, too, especially NASA director of Mars operations Venkat Kapoor. One part admin, one part techie, one part humanist, ultimately practical and always empathetic, he balances nicely with Watney, and the other NASA/JPL characters revolve around him like moons of various size and importance.
I happily raced through the book over the course of a long weekend, (taking breaks when the tension ratcheted a little too tight) and as I sat at LAX waiting for my flight home, the final “surprise” moment caught me. My eyes teared up and I hitched a breath. I looked up to see if any of the people across from me had funny looks on their faces, if they’d heard my little sob. I had to turn off my Kindle, and this time I did tweet. I’m in the midst of the last phase of Andy Weir’s The Martian and I keep having to stop. Tears/worry/terror. So good. So effing good!
The Martian is not hard-to-grasp sci-fi. Mostly it’s a story of survival, the ultimate Man vs. Nature tale with an intrepid, unflappable and funny protagonist. I believe most sci-fi writers would say the best of their stories center on characters, that the science enhances rather than demands to take center stage. That is certainly the case in The Martian. It is a story that readers of all genres can enjoy by the simple fact of it being a good tale well told. If, like me, you wouldn’t normally pick up a sci-fi novel, I encourage you to take a chance. Put yourself in Andy Weir’s capable hands and go for a ride.
In case you haven’t figured it out, Curious Puppy gives The Martian Four Paws Way Up.
One of the most common questions I’m asked when I describe the novel I’m writing is, “How the heck did you come up with the idea?”
Chuck Wendig recently included a version of this question in a post on his brilliant Terrible Minds website Ten Things To Never Say To a Writer. His reply? “The real question is, how do we make them stop?” (He’s far more eloquent and picturesque than I am, so after you’re done here, go read his post. )
It made me both laugh and sob a little.
There’s no question I’ve forgotten ten times as many story nuggets as I’ve used. A hundred times as many. And when people ask me that question, it almost always takes me a little aback. “How do you not find stories every day?” I want to ask.
Many (if not most) writers are inundated with ideas. We scribble in notebooks and on the torn-off flaps of the envelopes our bills come in. We find half-legible sentences in weird places all the time. Under a layer of coupons, receipts and limp celery leaves in the recyclable grocery bag, on moldy-edged napkins in the cooler last used at the Sasquatch Music Festival—two years ago. Sometimes we snap pictures of unusual incidents of fog in the woods or a rusty bike leaning against a street sign or we try, try to sear into our memories all the details of a woman waging a losing battle between her skirt and a gust of wind.
Inspiration comes from everywhere, and frankly, it’s annoying.
So many ideas want to be stories. We’d like to make use of them all, but there are only so many waking hours, and the truth is, most of the inspirations don’t make for good stories. They’re scenes, or settings, or character studies, elements essential for every story, but not stories themselves. If a writer tries to capture all of her ideas and make stories out of them, she’ll accomplish nothing. I’ve been down this road, spent weeks, months trying to make a story out of something that was nothing more than a great scene.
The maturity of knowing what makes a capital-S Story and what doesn’t, of being able to recognize early on what has full potential, is one of the hallmarks of a writer in control of his craft, in my opinion. Not that one shouldn’t explore story ideas, or that the notebooks filled with half-formed plots or the partially-written novels are wasted effort. Every job, every craft requires its learning stages. Only, when a writer gets to the place where he or she can look at an idea, an inspiration, and judge its capacity to become a full-fledged story, she has achieved a certain level of professionalism. The ability to look at one’s own ideas with a measure of objectivity.
As writers, we have to cull through all of those inspirations flooding in every day, be choosy.
That oh-so-famous quote in writers’ circles: Kill your darlings.
It’s attributed to many famous inksters but the first evidence of its use is by Arthur Quiller-Couch, a not-so-famous lecturer on writing craft. Generally, the advice is thrown around for scenes or sentences, bits of your story you should edit out. But it also applies to ideas. No matter how badly I want to write a novella about the couple “having intimate relations while the woman was getting a chest tattoo,” I can’t. Because that, my friends, will not a story make.
So I’m tucking away the scrap of the Crate and Barrel catalog on which I scribbled that bit.
Honestly, that one’s just too good not to use someday.
Image attribution: Belarusian industrial design duo Solovyovdesign's Brain-shaped lightbulb
5. Do not use the phrase sleepless in Seattle or any variation thereof.
There’s a shitload of sleeping in Seattle. In December we barely have daytime. The sun doesn’t peek up until, like, 8 in the morning and it’s gone again at 4 o’clock, and during every one of those 8 hours it’s behind a cloud-deck that starts at the tops of the trees and goes to infinity. Most Seattleites suffer from the depressive effects of SAD. All we want to do is sleep. Why do you think we drink so much coffee?
4. Never have any character say anything about Fraiser.
Fraiser and Eddie didn’t film here. Neither did those Gray’s Anatomy people. (Oh, Patrick Dempsey, why do you shun us?) They just used us for our background shots. However, if you need a Seattle-ish TV reference you could drop in Twin Peaks because…Twin Peaks.
3. Employment at Amazon, Starbucks or Microsoft.
Hundreds of Seattle residents DON’T work at these companies. Tens of hundreds.
If you need a good job for your character, we have a remarkable number of bikini barista stands, and a large number of undercover cops staking out bikini barista stands. (And also creepy people checking out the cops and the baristas.)
Don’t worry, it’s not sexist. There are men working as bikini baristas, too.
2. A romantic dinner at the Space Needle.
Yeah, fine. It’s kinda cool to have on our skyline, but the Space Needle is a tourist magnet. The ONLY reason Seattle residents actually go there is because we get a rise out of our out-of-town guests saying “Oooh. Ahhh.”
Or prom. I guess the Space Needle’s a popular place to go for Senior Prom. So…mayyyybe if you’re writing YA…
No, I take it back. Just don’t do it.
And the Number One thing NOT to include…
Fine. It rains here. We get it. Screw you, Lewis and Clark for making such a big deal out of it. You came from Washington DC. They get more rain than Seattle. Manhattan gets 9 more inches of rain a year than Seattle.
It’s sunny here. I swear. *crosses fingers under North Face raincoat*
What does rain add to a narrative, anyway? Straggly hair and beads of moisture on your MCs polar fleece is about it. It’s so passe to have your character begin an internal monologue while watching raindrops inch down a picture window, don’t you think? Go for something more original. Have your Seattle-based character gasp in alarm because of the thick band of dog snot she sees when the sun slants through the glass. Monologue? There’s no time for monologue! Where’s the Windex?
I’m sure I left a few NOTs out. Feel free to add to the list in the comment section. Think of it this way: You could be saving a future novelist, cartoonist or playwright from making a grave Seattle error.
On Tuesday I was shocked to see reports that authors, cover artists and editors who might provide evidence in the Ellora’s Cave litigation felt they were unable to come before the court (via affidavit) to voluntarily testify whether they had been paid for their services under their contracts with EC. (See more more specifics in Courtney Milan’s post here.)
The reason cited: A confidentiality agreement that was part of the contract each party signed when entering into business with EC.
Now something about this stinks to high heaven to me, on a human level, if not on a legal one. Theoretically, under the terms of a confidentiality agreement, I can be told I cannot speak out if I haven’t been paid for services rendered under the contract. That strikes me as oppressive. And it does make me wonder…if I haven’t been paid, is the contract now void? It would take an attorney to answer that one, so I completely understand why it’s a position most of the authors would not want to risk here. They’re stuck in the middle and it’s a terrible spot. I feel awful for all of them.
While this is an unusual circumstance, we can use it as a reminder to those of use who are, or would like to be, published under contract, and those who perform work-for-hire. The most important thing anyone can do before signing your name to a contract is read it and understand it. And if there is something you aren’t comfortable with, negotiate it.
A contract is a special document, signed by parties who are presumed by the courts to have read and understood the language, and consented to the terms. “I didn’t know what I was signing” isn’t a valid legal excuse in a contract dispute, either in court or before an arbitrator. Each party to a contract has the right to try to negotiate terms, to offer amendments and, of course, has the right to refuse to enter into the contract if the terms are not suitable. Only after the terms are mutually agreeable should the parties sign a contract. This is true whether you’re buying a house, entering a layaway plan or a publishing contract.
Now I haven’t had the privilege of being offered a publishing contract, but I know one thing for sure. If I ever am offered one, it will be all I can do not to scribble my name first and read the terms later, and I’m pretty certain I’m not the only one who feels that way.
We writers toil alone, we face rejection after rejection, we pour our hearts out through our fingertips to produce a story. When someone says “I like it. I want to pay you for it!” it’s all we can do not to cling onto the publisher’s leg and hold on for dear life. It is for this very reason that every author must force him- or herself to read and understand any publishing (or agency) contract they are offered.
It’s also part of the reason writers feel they don’t have much leverage, but au contraire, mon frère. You have the ability to try to negotiate a change in language you feel is contrary to your interests. You have the ability to hire counsel if you choose, or to let your cousin Stan the law student take a look. Remember, you have a product for sale, the publisher has expressed an interest in brokering your product. You are not in a powerless position.
One of the benefits of having an agent, of course, is someone acts as your advocate, presumably someone familiar with the ins and outs of publishing contracts. But if you’re going it alone, it falls on you to acquire some rudimentary knowledge. You are a business. It’s your name, your income. your publishing future on the line.
Bearing in mind that the party offering you a contract will often prioritize their own interests, if you ask for an amendment and they balk, you may ultimately find yourself having to choose: sign or walk away. But if you’ve done your homework, considered the pros and cons, weighed your options and the likelihood of good and bad outcomes, you can at least feel informed about your decision, whichever you choose.
There are scads of places for writers to find help with contracts: genre-base organizations like RWA, SFWA and MWA, the Author’s Guild and other similar writer’s advocacy organizations, and various writer’s websites. Do your homework, seek out reputable advice, and above all, at the risk of sounding repetitive, read, know and understand the document you put your name to.
Disclaimer: Curious Puppy is not a lawyer, just someone with some experience dealing with contracts. This post does not constitute legal advice.
(Aren’t they all?)