Two words: Mass Media. I specialized in Mass Media in high school, an experimental program which included writing, art, literature, film and film making.
Know your stuff. It’s not just a matter of reading books, although I do believe to the very depths of my soul that good writers are great readers.
With this caveat, a great reader does not necessarily a good writer make.
A young woman, a recent college grad, contacted me because her mother told her to. Yup. Her mother, who I met exactly one time, told her to call me. Because like, I’m a published author.
It is to laugh. Her mother has never read any of my books. If I was her mother, I’m the last person I’d have my daughter call, but anywhoooo…
So this girl writes, or rather, wants to write what I consider chiklit. Now, Chick Lit, ala The Devil Wears Prada or Sex and the City, is a bit passe. Chiklit was big five, ten years ago, but publishers aren’t really buying unless the author is well known and the book is a sure thing. Besides, even those of us who pretend to be writers know… well, we just know it ain’t easy to go the traditional route and if you want to swim with the self-pubbers you gotta put in your time and pay your dues.
She tells me this:
“I don’t watch television. I wasn’t allowed to watch television growing up.”
“I don’t go to movies.”
“I don’t read newspapers or magazines.”
“I live in L.A.”
“I think it would be fun to write about the fashion industry, you know, a girl in the fashion industry.”
“How hard could it be to get an agent and sign with a publisher like Simon and Schuster?”
At this point I’m thinking, oh honey. Your youth is showing. (Yeah, just wait, she’ll write a fuckin’ blockbuster and make six figures.)
So I stop gagging myself and in my sweetest, most professional voice, attempt to engage her in a discussion about the current state of the publishing industry and options she may want to consider. I bring up editing and the craft of writing, suggest a conference she might want to attend or a class or two she could take. Nope. She wants to write a novel and she knows way more than me because she just does.
The only reason I’m talking to her at all – because I HATE giving writing advice – is because her mother asked me to take her call. I suspect her mother thought I could hook her up with a New York publisher. No can do.
So I say, “Go for it. Goodnight, Good Luck and God Speed.”
Here’s why I think it’s a mistake to ignore the benefits of Mass Media and those who have gone before UNLESS YOU ARE LAWRENCE BLOCK who can get away with anything. It’s a mistake to ignore television and film and popular culture because you will screw up.
Sometime this past year I read a book set in the present that ignored the present, and the author screwed up in the very first chapter. She forgot about cell phones. I’m yelling at the character – “Pick up your damn cell phone and call the police.” But the author had apparently decided to ignore the existence of the cell phone when the existence of a cell phone was de rigour. It was essential to the scene. A cell phone belonged in that scene, even if it was broken or the battery was dead or someone tossed it from a moving car. Ruined the entire book for me.
Ignore popular culture at your own peril. You’re likely to write something that’s already been done to death or you’ll leave out an essential piece of information or technology like a cell phone.
Anyway, this girl reminded me of a woman I’d spoken to in my capacity as a hospice nurse. My parents convinced her to call me because she was struggling with her terminal diagnosis. Which everybody does, of course. But her struggle was a little different. She wanted me to giver her a pass, get her out of her Final Exams. She honestly did not believe she would die because she was such a spiritual person.
At last I asked, “What did you expect to happen at the end of your life?”
She said, “I thought I’d just step into heaven. That I wouldn’t have to die like everyone else, because I’m such a spiritual adept.”
You mean because you are so effin’ looney tunes?
But I didn’t say that. I said, “Even the Son of God, if you believe Jesus was the son of God, didn’t get to escape death. He died on the cross.”
“Yes,” she replied. “But I’m far more spiritually advanced than Jesus. I mean, if somebody told me your father had cancer, well, that would make sense.”
What the hell? “Uh, excuse me?”
“Your father doesn’t even meditate,” she said. “He never thinks about the spiritual realm. He’s not a vegetarian. He eats dessert. And he tells dirty jokes. Now if someone like your father got cancer, that I would understand. He deserves to die. But me, well, I’ve passed through the highest realms of spirituality and I’ve achieved Godhead.”
Oh for Christ’s sake. “Let me get this straight. You seriously think you won’t ever die?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Listen, lady, everybody dies. Nobody gets a free pass. Nobody. We all die of something. You have cancer. It’s bad. You’re gonna die of this cancer. Now if you want to talk about hospice…”
“How dare you say that? How do you know I’m going to die? I traveled all the way to Brazil to see John of God and he cured me.”
“Oh. Well then, I guess you don’t need me.”
So that’s how I felt about this girl and her novel, except I wasn’t all pissed off because she didn’t insult my father. She didn’t need me. She just wanted me to hook her up. Well, unfortunately I have no more pull with publishers and literary agents than I have with the Angel of Death.
Yeah, the lady died and yes, the girl is still writing her book. Year two. God speed.
(You know what the Buddha’s hand gestures mean, right? Fear dispelling, boon bestowing. Read your Joseph Campbell.)