Friday, 22 March 2013

Bitch Stole My Idea

A while back, I was watching an interview conducted by the eminent Christiane Amanpour, with the makers of a film that had been nominated for an Oscar. I can’t remember if it was nominated in the foreign film or short film category – assuming those are both actual categories. I can’t be bothered checking, especially since I’m not going to be detailing the names of the filmmakers, the title of their work, or the plotline of their film (which, now I think with more doubt about it, might have been a documentary – my stupid memory) which was discussed in depth in the interview and turned out to resemble an idea I’ve had on the go for months now.
Christiane Amanpour has a pleasantly modulated tone and interesting accent, and normally I watch her programme on CNN without the slightest distraction because her voice gently heralds the content so engagingly. But on this occasion I wasn’t to be consoled. I wasn’t to be re-hooked into the programme by that beautiful voice. I was sent spinning by this interview with the man who created a whole Oscar-nominated film using my idea.
Yep, at least until the credits rolled, I was lost to the world, trying to grapple with the injustice of not being able to use my idea anymore – that someone older and therefore more apt to get this idea out there before me, bah, had done so – that I would look like a huge fat copycat if I went on with the idea with the excuse that in transcribing it in my own medium, it’s not really the ‘same thing.’
But really, after all, before the film could come about, this man’s idea had to exist in words. It would have existed in script form. Which obviously is different to the novel or short story form (the latter of which being the medium I planned to use for this idea for all the several months since it’s occurred to me).
But that difference doesn’t necessarily outweigh the similarities the forms bear. Words, essentially, are what you read, what take you directly on a process and a set of tangents that work together to lead somewhere coherent but also chaotic and consuming when done right. So before the film existed, the idea must have worked in words. Someone else's words. 
So someone had the same idea as me – only several years earlier, or perhaps decades before me – and they wrote the thing out better than I could have. Well enough that it got the green-light to enter Film-Land. But this fact ought not to matter as much as whether or not to keep the idea in mind, I think. For I am not a scriptwriter. I don’t foresee a potential career in filmmaking for myself. I daren’t even dream of my work ever being ‘cinematic’ enough that anyone would consider adapting it. Let me get something published first, yeesh. This would only truly matter if I'd been planning on making a film around this Idea, wouldn't it? I think that's the case. Because I want to use a different medium the idea isn't ruined, probably; isn't unusable, hopefully.
Anyhow, being a storyteller means I exist in the same world as these people who had the good idea, the same good idea, as me, just got to it first, completed it first. Frustrating as it is – and yeah, I’m not serious when I say bitch stole my idea, that’s just admitting to what the silly ego thinks when one first encounters one’s good idea developed and pruned to fruition by some other artist – once the credits stopped rolling, jolting me back to reality, kind of, I realised that I’d actually had an idea that someone else had made work. I’d never come across one of my older ideas in another’s work, work that becomes internationally known and successful and lauded.
(Maybe others have heaps upon heaps of ideas all the time and experience plenty of their ideas being used well in other people’s books, films, paintings, TV shows, so on. Not me.)
Not to say the ideas that don’t coincide in an obvious way with a successful person’s ideas aren’t worth anything. Just that now I know – there’s elements to this idea I’ve had that people do like, that I could work with to make my story light up. It feels as if my mind was in the right place when it churned up the idea.
It lets me know my other ideas of the same sort of depth or weight or theme are workable. If in the right hands – so I have to improve myself (to make my hands the right hands) and my idea, develop it to make it my own, so I’m not copying, and face it, when you discover someone's used the same idea you had, but in a different manner, it'd be too easy to filch ideas, and while that's not necessarily a no-no, it still sullies what you could have created with your own pure analysis and tangents, which could turn out to be a piece of work just as great, or creative - generally as worth consideration and admiration.
I am superstitious about nothing but my writing, which is why I don’t want to detail the idea or the film that struck me and made me mad for an unsettling fifteen minutes; I do believe I’d jinx my own process by sharing anything about what should be private, in my mind, until it’s ready for editing and shaping by way of external feedback. I will say that this idea is going to stay on my list of ideas to use when my current ideas are Done With - and  
I’m going to use it anyway.
If I liked it enough to let it ferment on my list, I might as well keep on considering it and use it as planned. Anyway, I doubt the end product will much resemble an elegant and noirish foreign or short film that was nominated for an Oscar – it’ll just be another one of my stories.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Opining: A Purposefully Limited View on Chick Lit

Surprising how expansive my limited view can be, in terms of word count (this post exceeds 1,500).
In this era, a book all about the trials and tribulations of single women trying to get married off as soon as possible would, most likely be classified as ‘chick lit.’ Chick lit is a term that I find both weird and funny, because say it fast and it sounds like the official term for the cooked version of a chick – don’t ask me why, that’s what comes to mind. But it is quite accurate in that it refers to all that concerns a woman, a ‘chick.’
My dictionary defines chick lit as:
a genre of fiction targeted to, and written by or about, young and sophisticated urban women (slang)
Why is my perception that chick lit is all about getting married off (and the often wild and saucy and unbelievably scandalous speed bumps a feisty Chick will encounter on her way to that highest altar)? I guess it can’t be all about that, really, because rare are the novels today which are only about a woman seeking a partner in life.

(Mills & Boon books aren't counted here; they're straight-up romance, whereas chick-lit is all about shucking off the pink cover and donning sharp edges that'll give you a paper-cut as hurtful as that from any other fresh new novel.)

The Chick usually has lots of stuff going on. Today’s woman naturally has so much more going on than one, say, from the 'Austenite era,' at least, the kind of ‘stuff’ that gets put into a book meant to amuse, engage, whatever else. And the books in which these lives feature are always covered with a cutesy cartoon depiction of women with the legs we wish we could have but humanly never will, so there's that to speak for how much of the focus is off men/love and perhaps more on the self, or the self the characters in the book want to be - not a bad thing, I guess. I'm probably reading too much into the cutesy cover pictures.
I would wager that the main deal for women of the past, Marriage, has been replaced with a plain Good Man to spend some quality time with and whom the reader knows will eventually marry the protagonist because such books always end that way, with that light-hearted wink of a happy ending hinting that things are going to be Happily Ever After. Bridget Jones’ Diary is the classic modern example. Pride and Prejudice is the supreme backdrop to it and others in the same mould, the mighty river from which all chick lit has trickled out of in their bubbly, transparent but somehow still dirty streamlets - i.e. today’s chick lit novels.
Another modern example that I like is Louise Bagshawe’s Venus Envy, where the objective is to slap down bitchy women in the office, climb social and business ladders, all while looking fabulous, dominating in high heels, dropping fashion house names printed across the labels of your clothes, and so on, because misguidedly you think that such qualities will attract the Right Man, only who you think is the Right Man at first turns out to be complete utter Sleazy Wrong, and it’s the one who was there, admiring you silently all along, who loves you no matter how much money you have, who is Mr. Right, the Mister to Marry, and marry him you do. In Venus Envy, there’s a heavy-kiss/light-hearted wink of an ending that indicates the protagonist, Alex, is going to say yes to her Right Man who loves her through rich and poor and thick and thin, and they will marry, and be Happily Ever After.
The women followed in P&P are basically the same as Alex, or Bridget, only they are from a time when a woman could expect to marry and give birth at most. Alex and Bridget’s chick lit adventures tail off from P&P in that they are not stuck in quaint country homes awaiting suitors; yet essentially, in these characters’ lives, the driving factor is the same. They’re motivated by men.
Men and Marriage are the same thing in Pride and Prejudice, I’ve gotta say; there’s little satisfactory distinction between a man and the act of getting married to him, even though it’s pointed out that Jane and Elizabeth quite like their respective suitors. Marriage is not the announced motivator for Alex and Bridget, but there are a bunch of side-motivations, branches that add to the whole tree, so to speak, of what drives these women to work so hard, impress men in their lives.
There’s the side-motivation of competing with other women. Looking good. Dressing well and giving the impression of affluence even when there’s a natural lack of it. Pleasing parents and side-stepping the nasty comments of women one must work with who point out rips and tears in your outfit with the glee of a child finding their favourite cartoon character out on the street, some poor sweating man paid to manifest an unreality into reality. And usually the vile comments about your outfit and makeup are unfounded, an unreality, and the men typically find you lovely and this is the acceptable truth, not the truth belonging to the snarky rival women.
This is chick lit. It attracts the sillier molecules radiating off my feminine energy as I read, and siphons them off by amusing me for an hour, until I realise how not-feminist the feminist protagonist keeps claiming herself to be, how hypocritical the whole thing is. This helps me regain balance and return to a state where I may read a heavier story, in other words. This is why I read chick lit in between heavy books, and never varying from the only couple of chick lit novels I am brave enough to keep in my reading sphere. Bridget Jones’ Diary and Venus Envy. Anything from the 2000s onward would be too close to home, and any new scene of chick lit-ness would only be a disaster to pay for. I am sorry to sound like a snob but I really would rather spend the little money I have, when I do ever have it, on books of literary quality.
Chick lit – you read one or two and you’ve read as much as you need to, if not all (as I’m sure there are clever enough authors out there who are coming up with denser, more believable, but almost better-quality plots and character building schemes than I’m aware of; I just don’t need to know about it!). But there’s nothing wrong with making them your one-and-only in terms of books. Whatever works for an individual works.
Anyway, to an aside: what is so laudable about Pride and Prejudice? The reason I never wanted to read it was because I knew it was all about girls waiting around to be married off. Now I’ve read it, it’s love that they’re seeking, but the idea of love is so fragile, like a web, something the story won't touch, for it'll break apart if we have these girls examine the idea of love too closely. Plain and simple, it really is marriage and the security that comes with it that they love, I feel.
Love is not communicated strongly, not for me, between the four central characters, even though the right words are there in some places and they all do overcome stringent rules about class and place to be with whom they please; any passage where love might be sensed, like where Jane and Darcy, towards the end, can finally speak openly of their feelings, and where they defy the witch who insists on their never getting married, just doesn’t feel all that real to me, simply because of a personal sense that I don’t connect with this time, this era, the version of love allowably woven through a journey towards matrimony. Yep, it is due to my personal taste that I can’t connect it.
(In Bridget Jones, I can believe it, which might make me dense for not being able to get into the mindset of ye olde times and understand how love of eras past might legitimately be felt and expressed, for only believing what I know, that it takes time to truly know a person and to know for sure that they are The One who won’t ditch you at the first chance of something prettier, lighter, less verbose, etc.)
Maybe the story doesn’t need to be laudable. I’m not consciously looking for a novel to tell me how to live life; how to feel; the right morals to follow ... a basic spiritual guidance counsellor, for all intents and purposes. I don’t read looking for guidance. I don’t imagine I’d ever write hoping someone would take guidance from me (supposing I’m good enough I could hook anybody into following my advice, intricately paced and sighed through my work of literature. :P).
But anyway, the writer’s purpose isn’t simply to relay the details of a situation and feelings that arise about it, but as Zadie Smith has put it, ‘to tell us how the world works.’ (My understanding: stories are about not the What, but the How.) This is apt when applied to P&P.
The story gets interesting enough in its own way, with the little scandals people today would consider trifling. Yet it reeks of chick lit to me. Wasn’t this Way Back When’s version of today’s Happily Ever After chick lit fodder? What do I know … it seems like the kind of story that would be. Women who get their men in the end. Thereby securing financial freedom. Just like sophisticated urban women in modern chick lit novels, except in the latter the women are claiming they never needed husbands or think of the financial freedom at all.
The obvious fact is that Austen was a superb writer with a great and distinct voice, which is why I suppose that author is listed among the top writers of all time. At the same time I can’t help feeling I’m either still not getting something or have been too ruined by the high school education system which tells me the kind of writing featured in P&P is too straightforward, giving no nuance or layering to plot and storytelling; dull, telling and not showing, lacks metaphor and motifs, so on and so forth …
Still, I’m not actively looking out for stunning use of metaphor, motifs, writing that shows-not-tells when I first read something. If a writer is clever, these things occur to me as they pop up, but they don’t intrude on my individual reading process. All I want first time round is to read thoroughly, make sure I catch every necessary line, hang on to them all, and get to the end understanding at least most of what’s happened.
Some stories can leave you bewildered in a very good way, so that you want to read them over again, go back over for clues or to read especially beautiful passages. I don’t want to go back over Pride and Prejudice. There’s nothing extra, no undertone, no riverbed into which diamonds have fallen, lost under the streaming surface of water, that I want to examine.
And yeah, a book by Austen doesn't need to offer that, for what makes it worth the read is the voice itself, I can recognise that much; and no chick lit novel requires that quality. That isn’t the point of a light-hearted read. I don’t need that quality in everything I read. But it leaves me wondering again, what I’m missing about Austen, as a writer, aside from her voice, that has made her so lauded by men and women of modern times. Was it that she was able to formulate her books and get them out into the hemisphere in her day and age – is that what makes her especially special, buoying her near to the top of our greatest author lists? I have been ruined by 'whole packages' like Jeffrey Eugenides, I suppose, whose work is fulfilling on multiple levels, for multiple reasons, even if there's a point where I'm not getting something, not enjoying a part of the work.
I guess I will try Emma, or something, just to see if something more brilliant in that lauded work by Austen doesn’t knock me on the head and say hello.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Good Advice Works Even When You Fail To Follow It (If That Makes Sense)

A piece of advice given to young writers by Ray Bradbury is to leave novel writing for later, and instead aim to write a short story a week.
The logic here is that at the end of the writing year you’ll have produced plenty of material, and at least a fraction of this material must be usable, editable, in order to be publishable. (Lots of -ables!) Because out of 52 stories, yeah, you’d think a few would turn out to be real gems.
Last year I set out to take such advice because I couldn’t imagine being my age and churning out enough writing daily to produce a first draft in the time I would like to – which is a year. And though my would-be novel-ish project is nowhere near as complicated as a book like Cloud Atlas, I baulk when an author like David Mitchell talks about writing hours:
‘I could probably do ten if I had them, but I’ve got two young children, so I can either be a halfway decent dad or I can be a writer who writes all day. I can’t really be both. As things stand, I might clock in three hours on a poor day, and six or seven on a productive day.’
– yeesh! Ten hours if you could?! For me, three hours is a good day. Ha! It makes me realise how I’ve really gotta up my ante.
So it’s obvious why I wanted to follow Bradbury’s advice. I’d wind up with more material that way, I thought. But a couple weeks in, a near-complete short story just wasn’t reaching completion. I couldn’t pinpoint the ending because I wanted to keep ‘fleshing it out.’ The next week, I had a dream which provided a substantial idea for a new story, and decided to keep on with the previous week’s story at the same time. But then these stories turned out to feel connected, even though they were very different; magnetic strands of something I could feel would turn out to be one big short story.
It turned out there was more to both, and a third strand to come in a couple weeks later. By then I was ignoring the weekly story endeavour. I had already written beyond the scope of a short story, and then, more than what makes up your average novella.
Does it matter that the short story deal failed? It’s a wonderful swing of luck or fortune, I think, that an idea blossomed so pervasively, incorporating three different concepts lurking in mind, driving me to create so much material on a regular basis that I do feel, if I work as hard as possible on my actual writing, could be a viable piece of work.
It could be a project that takes a year to complete or ten – may have to restructure it many times, rework the story itself, maybe it is a complete slab of crap – but it’s still worth the effort, and the failure to keep on path with an original plan.
I still produce a complete draft of a story every now and then. I just don’t think they’re that good, my 'best work.' I feel much better about the bigger project.
I imagine most writers have an inkling of whether they’re more invested in short stories or novels early on. Here’s my guestimate at this point in time: I’m in this for whatever novels I can write. I like what I’m doing now much better than my short stories. But Bradbury’s advice was still worth following, and will be in future, when I’m free and loose and without direction, waiting for the next idea to hit me on the head, then whisk me away.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Moody Monday: Swimming Through Denial

In browsing the Internet for websites about writing, I came across Kristi Holl’s wonderful blog. This post in particular, in which she outlines ‘The Four Dreadful Ds’, has reminded me of my own follies. Specifically, my major ‘D’ is Denial. It is long and sometimes blue and watery just like the river, my Denial.
(Will the ‘de Nile’ joke ever fall into extinction? It probably should. I’m sorry for perpetuating it.)
My Denial is long because I’ve been at this not all that long, I understand, compared to others, but it has been ages relative to the span of my lifetime. Because it feels like it’s been an age to me, Denial forges itself into belief that, after working on my writing for years, my stories are good enough now to start being accepted by literary reviews, or what-have-you, regardless of my age.
There are superb talents who find themselves published young, but almost never are they as young as I am. I know this logically. So what am I really expecting? See, for a long time, I’ve had this niggling expectation undermining my great fort of Logic which says I won’t be published for years yet. It’s akin to the pea under all my many mattresses of Logic and Productive Thoughts. I can feel it there when I sleep, that one angling pea of Denial which would have me believe that right now I could accomplish it ALL (as in everything I want), if only people got with the programme already, and ‘got me.’
My Denial is blue because denial is a very sad modus operandi to indulge in. It’s sad to onlookers and even sadder for the self. Blue is an amazing, versatile colour with plenty of meaning. My de Nile becomes indelibly blue in some patches, for the depressing quality of its flow; though sometimes sparkling prettily with hope, other times it’s just dull, an unremarkable surface only there to stare back at the sky. But blue doesn’t cover the whole spectrum, true. It’s murky in some parts, making it difficult to gauge its depths. Elsewhere, it runs shallow and transparent. You can see dirt and scum and a mucky floor. Some parts it billows across my terrain so broadly that I can actually use the de Nile to my advantage: to fertilise ideas, certain fallow inspirations, working under an illusion that the plentiful results are usable, that somehow I might keep up such productivity into the season where most of what is harvested turns out overly ripened, close to rot. Some parts it slows to a trickle, de Nile, but this is where its tinkling rush laughs louder than previous roaring waves, because the latter can blend into the background, be mistaken for wind; the light, tinkling trickle, that is what tickles into everything you’re doing and becomes much harder to ignore.
Naturally, Denial is watery. When it comes a-blasting, what do you do but let it drench you in your silliness? I’m so connected to my art; I’m not ashamed to admit how often I’ve cried over it. I’ve cried because a painting or story wasn’t coming out the way I meant it to. Which typically means I wasn’t being true to how I wanted it to come out. I’m so susceptible to people’s idea of ‘good’ changing what I like to create. Why create something I don’t like? Spending so much time conforming, placing such importance on what everybody else will see while forgetting the true message you wanted to communicate, renders the piece empty of message, empty of soul. It’s all about visual, what can be seen. But not what can be seen then absorbed, chewed on, swallowed, digested. Thought about. It’s a painting of a pretty flower, the kind of thing anyone could produce, something common that will never compare to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Why wouldn’t you cry if you found out you’d been compromising your potential for the sake of pretty flowers that anybody could produce?
How to sum up? I guess I’m a watery person. I’m pretty sure mental illness runs strongly through the branches of both sides of my family tree, and I’m not a light-hearted spirit in the slightest, so ‘the blues’ apply easily enough here. I’m long-winded, which covers the long bit. See, I’m Denial itself.
Admitting it is the first step to good riddance, though. The trick is to keep aware. What other commonplace phrases about Denial could I expound? At this point I really do have to keep in mind that the only thing that matters is denying negative thoughts I feed myself, like all the above; continuing to deny them as Denial itself denies my person of much good sense and sanity when I’m lost in the labour of my craft.
And each new day I slog at this, the easier it is to trust my instincts and keep going. ‘Just keep swimming’ is the way to go with denial. Jumping into Denial is daunting but I’ve found it’s the only way to keep your motion flowing forward, so you won’t stay fighting some persuasive current, or even one that’s stagnated and left your brainwaves cold. Swimming through it, swallowing some accidentally, but never minding, and aiming for the other side – getting to the other side – is the best way to overcome that undermining body …
So I keep telling myself.