Tag Archives: publishing

In Conversation with… Emmie Mears!

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It’s my privilege today to welcome back for a chat the fan-dab-tabulous author Emmie Mears, whom you may recall (that is, if you don’t follow her and her works already, double-finger-wag shame on you) from our conversation last year about her then-impending debut superhero novel The Masked Songbird.  Her journey since then has been one fraught with as many sharp curves and unexpected drops as a theme park roller coaster.  Now that things are trending up, big time – think rollicking new novel, new agent and new epic fantasy on the horizon – she’s graciously agreed to return to talk about it, in inimitable Emmie style, and share a few hard-earned words of wisdom.  Hope y’all dig.

The last time we caught up with you, The Masked Songbird was about to make its debut.  Since then I guess it’s fair to say a heck of a lot has happened.  Can you fill us in?

Do you have three days and a significant number of Big Macs handy?

2014 was one of those years that made me wish I had an ejector seat. Or could be cryogenically frozen. Or could become a glittery vampire and frolic away into the tundra. Basically, within about three weeks, all four of the books I had under contract became orphans. Publishing has been undergoing many seismic shifts in the past decade, and with the acquisition of Harlequin by Harper Collins, my imprint got smushed in the plate tectonics. It’s not a hugely uncommon thing to happen, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend the day my book disappeared from Amazon under a pile of pizza and Buffy episodes. Also, my former agent (who was and remains wonderful) left the business, so I had to do the query trench thing again. Which was…interesting. I girded myself with my beast of an epic fantasy and waded back in, to a surprisingly cacophonous response. I’m still sort of bewildered by February.

Ultimately, I decided the best way forward with three urban fantasy novels in a market where most editors have severe urban fantasy fatigue (actual diagnosis) was to put them out myself. My wonderful former agent and friend is making the covers, and they rock. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience so far.

Through a combination of circumstances, Gwen was orphaned.  Now she’s making a comeback.  What’s changed from the first kick at the can with this book – what have you learned, and what, in retrospect, if anything, might you have done differently?

Hoo, doggies.

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned about this business is that there is no “the one.” There’s no One Book. There’s no One Deal. There’s no One Agent. Essentially, there is no sovereign specific. I could go with a metaphor about eggs in baskets, etc, but I’d rather just say this: publishing is a rapidly-changing landscape. You have to be adaptable. You have to roll with rejections, and you have to get back up when the business doesn’t pull its punches. I have a pet (very mathematical) theory that…

Success in publishing = hard work + time(x factors)

Time can be two months or two years or two decades. (Hell, it can be two centuries — there are enough posthumous success stories out there. GO TEAM ZOMBIE AUTHORS!) The x factor is going to be that weird concoction of the market, industry biases, reader readiness, word of mouth, cultural coincidence, and whatever the fuck (can I say fuck?) else makes a book sell. The x factors can speed up or slow down a single book’s chances of success. But that little time variable is what mitigates their influence. If you work hard for long enough, you might not be grossing Janet Evanovich royalties, but you’ll probably find some sort of success whether you’re shooting for trade publishing (brick and mortar distribution, advances, etc.) or going it on your own.

Time and hard work also heavily influence a writer’s craft, which also plays a part. My seventh book was infinitely stronger than my first book.

Book math. It’s gonna be a thing. My equation right now looks like: >6 years working 60-130 hour weeks between full time day job and full time writing shtuff (crowded UF market + uncontrollable publisher movement + 7 years of an established online presence + readers still liking UF) = my first thousand sales. To me that feels like success.

Please don’t do the math on my hourly wage for the last half decade. (Anyone who ever accuses me of getting into this business for teh moniez is welcome to replicate my equation in their own controlled experiment.)

How has the progression of real-world events (i.e. the results of the Scottish referendum last year) impacted Gwen’s story, and do you think it has affected the timeliness of the book?

I was very deliberate when I first wrote Shrike: The Masked Songbird to make the referendum present and important without hinging the book on its outcome. I didn’t want that. A: I am heretofore unsuccessful at predicting the independently concluded thought processes of groups of 4 million people. (Or four people, for that matter.) B: The question behind the book was more “what makes a hero?” than “what will Scotland do?” And on that latter bit, I wanted to explore what Gwen would do. In the USA, there’s Captain America and plenty of homegrown heroes who love their country. Ultimately Gwen is a hero who loves her country.

There is a sequel coming in September, and it’s followed with the sort of uncertainty that came in the wake of the referendum. Scotland is a very different place today than it was a year ago, and I wanted to show that, as well as the helplessness that comes when someone is swept away on something they can’t control. Shrike: Songbird Risen is very much a book about learning how to wield your power, and I think that remains topical in post-referendum Scotland. It’s a darker book (and I wrote it on deadline pre-referendum, so I was careful to consider how uncertainty shapes people regardless of what happened with the vote), but I think there is a lot of hope in it. Ultimately it’s not superpowers that save anyone — it’s humanity.

I’m very interested to see what will happen in the coming general election. The referendum galvanized a massively engaged, powerful populace.

There seems to be a perception, fairly widespread among amateurs, that all one has to do is land representation or get that first book published and it’s money-printing and red carpet time.  The media doesn’t help by hyping overnight success stories.  What’s the reality of a working writer’s life from your perspective?  What does everyone who calls him or herself “an aspiring author” absolutely need to know about making this business of wordsmithery a realistic calling?

There’s this common joke in publishing circles of the ten year overnight success. Like I said above, there isn’t a The One. No one thing will make you a success. I’d also challenge that those “overnight” success stories are probably not really overnight at all. Nobody waves a hand at a keyboard and poofs a book into existence, and there is no, “Like a good neighbor, IMPRINT is there!” to make an editor magically appear next to you with a contract in hand.

My reality is something I touched on above. I get up at 5:30 and shower and drag my sleepy butt to the metro. I either write or read on my hour train ride. I work 8-10 hours in the office. I slog back on the train (again writing or reading). I play with my cats, give them their beloved fudz, and write some more. On weekends, I get up and do write-y stuff. Plot, outline, draft, edit, revise, rinse, repeat. I wasn’t joking about the high end of my hours — sometimes I really do work 100+ hours in a week. That’s not everyone, but for me, that’s what it’s taken to get where I am.

Okay. I hate the word aspire. It sounds like a cloud’s fart.  I’m gonna go all Yoda on you. Do or do not. There is no try. To quote Chuck Wendig and probably a lot of others, writers write. If you write, you’re a writer. If you’ve written a story, you’re the author of that story and therefore an author. You didn’t fart it into existence (unless you have some extraordinary talent, and if so, you are squandering your potential and should have your own reality show), you wrote it. You’re not in competition with anyone.

If you want to do words as a career, it takes time. It takes that and a lot of effort. There aren’t shortcuts for reading widely in your genre (or in general). You don’t have to reinvent the wheel — I love craft books for learning foundational things like structure — but even learning things on an intellectual level necessitates practice to make them work for you. That said, I’m ten years in and only this year has it begun to look like I could do this full time and pay my bills this way. It’s a long con, and there are setbacks and obstacles at every stage. Getting an agent doesn’t make everything into the dance-y, pre-gasoline fight incident scene in Zoolander. (There might still be freak gasoline fight incidents.) Getting published doesn’t even guarantee your books will be on shelves a year later. *waves little flag meekly*

The great thing is that today in authordom, there are many paths to readers, and you can pick any or many of them.

It’s been said about just about every art form, but if you can be fulfilled and happy doing anything else, for Hades’ sake, do that instead.

What’s your writing routine?  What’s your writing playlist?  Is there one particular song or album that breaks you out of block?

I carve out writing time wherever I can. My dream schedule would be to wake up, go for a swim or a run, shower, write for a few hours, read, eat, write a bit more, and then play video games till 3 AM and do it again. (I’m allowed to dream, right? That sounds nicer than scribbling on a metro train whilst smelling someone’s BO after getting three and a half hours of sleep…)

I usually don’t write to music, which may be a surprise. When I do, it’s usually music without lyrics, though it depends on what I’m writing. Writing Storm, I listen to classic rock. For that I blame Supernatural, because even though I wrote the first Storm book before ever seeing an episode of the show, demon hunting and classic rock now just…live together. When writing Shrike, I listened to a lot of Frightened Rabbit. When writing Stonebreaker (my most recent novel), I listened to music only rarely, and it was usually the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, even though the book’s not so LoTR-y except for sharing a genre.

I want to ask a little about the “We Need Diverse Books” campaign.  Where did this start and what is it all about?  What voices would you like to see get more exposure on the bookshelves?

This amazing campaign started because of a sort of perfect storm (har har) of things. BEA released their author lineup for 2014 and stats came out for representation in literature, AND there was comparison to census data…it all added up to a rather stark depiction of the lack of diversity in publishing compared to the diversity of the American (and global) people. (They say it better than I.)

Basically, representation matters. Seeing yourself in media matters. Seeing yourself excluded from media has an impact. Seeing yourself relegated to a set of stereotypes has an impact. In any given adventure movie, you’ll have (usually white, able-bodied, and straight) men playing a number of roles. The brains, the brawn, everything in between. One gets to be a geek, one can be the muscle, one can be something else entirely. They are allowed a diversity of experience. Look at the Avengers for a sort of case-in-point example. Tony Stark is the wealthy genius playboy. Bruce Banner is a gentle — if explosive — also genius. Steve Rodgers is the underdog-turned-hero. Clint Barton is the pensive (at least in the movies), deliberate, competent dude. And Natasha Romanova is a femme fatale. She’s not without nuance, but where guys have four people to find themselves in, women have one. You learn at an early age to relate to people who aren’t you when you are part of a marginalized people group, regardless of whether that means gender identity, race, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, etc.

A desire for diversity is a desire to see many facets of experience. Being a straight, white, able-bodied man is not a homogeneous experience, and in all corners of media, they are allowed that diversity. Being a queer woman, or a woman of color with a disability, or a queer man of color? If you see yourself at all, you are conditioned to scramble to pick up the scraps. Diana Pho (editor at Tor) wrote a phenomenal piece on Jim Hine’s blog recently. Go read it. I’ll wait.

Ultimately books and media without diversity are erasure — if you’re writing a futuristic sci-fi where humans are exploring other worlds and your flight crew is all white dudes? On a lot of levels, that says that the rest of us aren’t welcome in that new world, or that we weren’t even thought of to include. This discussion is about having empathy for experiences outside our own and being willing to learn to see ourselves in people who go through the world in different skin.

I grew up with two moms, and I’m a bisexual woman. Growing up in the 90s where the only representation of my family that I saw in media was a banned book (Heather Has Two Mommies), I was used to receiving signals that my family was bad or wrong or somehow dirty. A book about a family like mine was banned. People argued about it. That communicates things to children. I remember when Ellen DeGeneres came out. There was this sense of “FINALLY” for me, to see someone I loved like Ellen suddenly having something in common with my family. Representation is powerful. It tells you that you’re not alone. It tells you that you deserve to be here. It tells you that your story matters, and that you can be a hero too.

Without dropping spoilers, there was a powerful moment in Storm in a Teacup involving consent.  The scene was realized beautifully.  Why don’t others get it – why do you think that there is still so much depiction of non-consensual sex in popular fiction, and what does it take to change that trend?

Possible trigger warning for my answer here, as I intend to be frank about issues of consent and rape.

I think that can be boiled down to that concept of rape culture. That phrase alone tends to flip the off switch in some people’s heads, so bear with me. Culturally, we’re taught that men make the first move, that men are the ones who are assertive sexually (or aggressive), and that women are the passive recipients. Phrases like “she was asking for it” (when the she in question was, in a literal way, doing nothing of the sort) and “he couldn’t help himself” reinforce this idea. I think a lot of the issues of consent in fiction are unintentional. I have done it too, without even meaning to. I’d meant something to BE consensual, but after multiple editing passes by multiple people, this scene had slipped by until my editor said, “Huh, just realized this could be interpreted as non-consensual.” And she was right. I was mortified, because that wasn’t what I meant. That’s why getting new eyes on things is important; your experience might filter out some of those interpretations. Someone else might be hyper sensitive to it and save you the heartache of having your words hurt someone else (and obviously, that other someone as well).

(Also, there’s a difference — sometimes a fine line, sometimes a big boldy thick one — between hurting someone and offending someone. Someone telling me they think my hair is ugly might offend me or dent my delicate fee-fees a little, but someone breaking my trust or plunging me into a triggery situation without warning can do damage. I want to err as much as possible on the side of not hurting people.)

Non-consensual sex is rape. It’s not sex. Rape is violence, even if terrible politicians try to say that only certain kinds of rape are “forcible.” (They might as well say my rape didn’t count because I didn’t have contusions afterward.) I think the conflation of rape and sex is part of what makes this mess. Participating partners in sex should both want to do it. To me that seems very simple, but somehow that’s an alien thought to too many people.

What does it take to change it? So many levels of change will be necessary. Demystifying sexuality for children and adolescents, teaching them to engage with the subject thoughtfully and with empathy, giving them the tools (including facts and real information) they need to make informed decisions, teaching them about bodily autonomy and consent (these things are relevant at all ages — I was taught bodily autonomy and consent as a toddler by my wonderful mothers, and their instruction helped me escape a situation where someone tried to molest me). Putting examples of this in art and media — people internalize the stories they see. Many, many levels of change.

I appreciate your words about Storm. I was intentional about it. I’m glad it came through.

What are you reading right now?  What does it take to hook Emmie’s interest, and by contrast, what kinds of books would you avoid?

I’m currently reading The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I just finished Max Gladstone’s Two Serpents Rise and a bit ago, Delilah Dawson’s Servants of the Storm. Great writing hooks me regardless of genre, but I deeply appreciate finding stories that escape the trappings of cliches and tropes. I’ve read some fantastic stories lately. Some authors to watch: Jacqueline Koyanagi, Alis Franklin, Stephen Blackmoore, and obviously the others I’ve already mentioned. They weave gorgeous, rich worlds and tell stories that make me want to live in them. Also, most of the books I mentioned star people of color, and that’s refreshing to me, like that feeling of “FINALLY” I felt when Ellen came out. Yes, more of this please. More stories. More heroes. More people to love.

Fridged women are the fastest way to get me to tune out. I’m just so tired of seeing that trope over and over. It’s exhausting when your first introduction to a character like you in a world is to someone who’s gone already. Or to always have the damsel distressing as the bait for the beleaguered protagonist. Give me something I haven’t seen ten thousand times.

You’re doing your own series on the query trenches so I don’t want to step on that, but can you talk a little about how you secured representation with Sara Megibow, and any advice you’d offer to those champing at the bit to be able to publish their much-dreamed about “I FINALLY HAVE AN AGENT!” blog post – even if it’s a hard reality check?

I found Sara IN THE SLUSHPILE!!! I will crow that loudly to anyone who listens, because I am a firm believer in slush. I wrote a query. I sent it. She requested. She offered. It was the process in its most process-y form.

My biggest advice is to look over that equation I mentioned above. Hard work + time(x factor). Some things will be harder to sell. Pay attention to the market and what’s happening in publishing. Educate yourself about the business, because even though we venture into it with a dream, it is a business with a bottom line. It (as a business-y bottom line behemoth) does not care about dreams so much. BUT. This business is run by people who are humans and want to find things they love and share those things with readers. Write a fantastic book. Be a professional. Follow directions. If trade publishing is what you want, buckle yourself in for the long haul and start putting in the work. It’s not a fair business. It has systematic and structural issues with diversity, so if you are a diverse author and/or have a diverse story, it could very well be harder even with so many agents and editors asking for just that right now. Just keep swimming. And remember that there are many paths to readers these days.

Lastly, can you drop any tantalizing hints about Stonebreaker, and when we might feast our eyes on it?

Ah, this question! Stonebreaker news will happen when it happens (yay, vagaries!), but I can tell you that it is a book, and it is a large book. And there are giant sentient camouflage-able bats in it.

Curse your sudden but inevitable vagueness!  Oh well folks, I tried.  In the meantime, you can check out Storm in a Teacup, presently ranked #15 in Amazon’s top Dark Fantasy novels.  Thanks so much to Emmie for taking the time to indulge my inner Larry King.  To the rest of you, thanks for reading.  Now get back to work.

 

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Knocking on the Glass: A Rejectee Copes with Rejection

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Fair warning for the squeamish – some NSFW language today.  Don’t worry, I grawlixed it up for you.

Don’t know about the rest of y’all, but I had a pretty nice weekend – lots of quality time with the wife and kid, getting to see my best friend and his wife and kid for the first time in some months, eating too much, ramping up my vitamin D content by getting out in the sunshine.  And starting to go running again, because yay exercise.  So I’m feeling quite a sense of uplift as the long weekend comes to a close and I pop onto my laptop yesterday evening to check and see if another friend has posted any more updates from his Las Vegas wedding.  Right off the bat I see a notification in my email.  From a literary agent I queried recently.

It’s a rejection.

I’ve done enough research on querying and read enough tweets and blogs and other material by agents to recognize a form rejection when I see one.  It has no salutation and is the usual canned rigmarole about the market being difficult and terribly sorry but this didn’t do it for them.  My shoulders slump and my stomach hurls a tablespoon of acid against itself for about half a second and I sigh.  Intellectual me says, yeah, you don’t really want anyone representing you who doesn’t think your work is so awesome that they would proudly stand between you and a mob coming after you with torches and pointed sticks.  So thank you for your time, fare thee well, best wishes and all that.  Onwards and upwards.

Emotional me thinks otherwise.  Emotional me wants to channel this fictional character and yell, “@#$@ you, you @#$@ing literati latte-sipping snob, how DARE you dismiss my insightful yet entertaining BRILLIANCE without so much as a by-your-leave!!!  DON’T YOU REALIZE WHAT YOU’VE MISSED OUT ON IN YOUR PEON-LIKE SHORTSIGHTEDNESS???”  You know, the pitiful wail of the wannabe knocking desperately on the glass a la Dustin Hoffman in the last scene of The Graduate.  They say you have to develop a thick hide in this profession, but what they fail to mention is that you only callus up by absorbing punch after punch.  And a punch @#$@ing hurts.  It’s not just a quick sting.  It’s a body blow that rings down into your guts and slaps your confidence around like an angry frat boy wielding a wet towel with a bar of soap rolled into it.  It’s the girl you’ve had a crush on for years friendzoning you after you finally summon the courage to ask her out – you question your competence, your very existence as a man.  The same goes with your ability to write after a professional turndown, no matter how inconsequential it might seem.

Sunday night I put together something for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hitRECord about The Other Side.  Here is an excerpt from that piece that seems topical given the subject under discussion today:

We will always come up against people who do things differently, who do them better, who are less successful or more successful than we are in our chosen vocation – even in the basic vocation of being human.  In this case, the other side can be a construct of intimidation, a reminder of things we can’t and will never have, of charmed lives beyond our reach via accident of birth.  It can warn us about things we never want, of pitfalls we risk falling into if we are not careful.  It can be a source of incomprehension, a place that is totally abhorrent to our values and our morals.  Yet it can also challenge us by beckoning, daring us to try to cross over.  Forcing us to better ourselves to earn the right of passage.  The choice we have to make is in how we will look at the other side, if it is to be defined, somewhat crudely, as an enemy to be vanquished, or instead as an opportunity to better who we are.  If we are going to look into the depth of the mirror and bare our teeth, or smile and say, I got this.

As a writer, nothing is more intimidating than the blank page.  But second to that is the success of other writers, particularly when you haven’t, at least from your sulky perspective as you pore over that single rejection email, had anything comparable.  Most of us have run into the soul-splintering “That’s nice, dear” from friends and family who think it’s positively peachy that you’re writing a novel but kindly get back to them when you’ve accomplished something quantifiable with it, i.e., made a @#$@load of money.  We’ve also, as we’ve begun to take part in an online community of fellow writers, happened upon that insufferably cheerful blog post that can be paraphrased somewhat like so:  “I worked as a claims adjuster for twenty years and then thought it would be fun to try writing a book.  Two months later I had SEVEN OFFERS OF REPRESENTATION for my story about a privileged yet endearingly goofy girl who just can’t find the right man!”  Sometimes it’s enough to make you want to chuck the laptop against the wall and settle into a monotonous life of trying to accomplish nothing more than finding the last gnome in Fable III, elusive bastard that he is.

I’m glad I’ve started running again, because for me nothing is better for working through anger and frustration.  You channel each pissy thought into a determined flail of your legs and arms and burn the petulance out with each increasingly agonized stride.  @#$@ you, flabby body, @#$@ you, pedantic writing twits, @#$@ you, uncaring literary world, @#$@ you, unfairness of life in general.  You tear through your neighbourhood as the sun rises and hope that the few folks you pass won’t notice the look of homicidal rage etched on your face and call 911.  Finally the app tells you you’re done, and you slow to a cooling walk and realize as you reach your door, drenched from head to toe in eye-stinging sweat, that you have purged those thoughts in a cleansing, cathartic fire.  And as intellectual you reasserts his dominance you realize, in the mode of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life or Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus, that you are a successful writer, and here are a few reasons why:

1.  You covered an election for the largest newspaper in Canada.

2.  The leader of the Liberal Party and the potential future leader of the country liked something you wrote about him so much he shared it with his over 200,000 Twitter followers and thanked you by name.

trudeautweet

3.  Arianna Huffington invited you to write for her online news service.  Pretty nice club to be in, given that your writing hero Aaron Sorkin writes for it too.  And you’ve written 20 more articles for it than he has.  A post of yours was featured over Kirk Douglas once.  YOU WERE PLACED HIGHER THAN KIRK @#$@ING DOUGLAS, the man who broke the Hollywood blacklist for Christ’s sake.  (UPDATE:  And now Stephen @#$@ing Fry writes for it too.)

4.  Rob @#$@ing Lowe thanked you for something you wrote about his character on The West Wing.  This guy.

lowe

5.  A fellow writer whom you’ve come to admire asked if she could quote you on the back of her debut novel.  Um, yeah, holy @#$@ing @#$@balls.

6.  Look at this map.  Look at it.  Every single color on the map represents a country where someone has read something you wrote.  Some of these places don’t even have running water, and yet someone there knows who you are.  (And you still suck, Greenland.)

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7.  You have fans.  Honest to goodness fans.  And they’re awesome and they are always there to prop you up, without fail, when you’re wallowing in a cesspool of self-doubt and flagellation.

8.  A friend once told you that a post you wrote about your father made him want to be a better dad.  And you cried when you heard that.

9.  When you weigh the compliments, shares and positive feedback you’ve received versus the rejections, uninterested shrugs and outright insults, the ratio is still about 500:1.  And when you’ve been insulted, it’s because they didn’t like something you said.  Not one of them said you were a bad writer.

10.  You’re still at it.

Sorry for the diversion down Ego Street there, but these are the kinds of affirmations that writers need to poke themselves with from time to time – that the very act of putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard is in itself a form of success.  Even if nought but a single soul retweeted an otherwise ignored blog post, it should be another brick to add to the wall you’re building to shield yourself against the slings and arrows that will inevitably come as you continue to knock on the glass to The Other Side.  So we beat on, boats against the current, as FSF would say.  Of course I’m going to keep writing, and blogging, and querying, and if I can’t get a single nibble on this novel then I’ll write another one and push the hell out of that one until the glass cracks – lather, rinse, repeat.  I might even query that same agent again someday if I have another project I feel might be more up their alley.  A rejection can be many, many things, but what it NEVER should be is a reason to pack it in, or worse, lash out in anger at the futility of existence.  So have your pity party but wrap it up after last call and get back to work.  There are words to be written, bub.

What the @#$@ is next?

Five things to hate about pop culture references in novels

Aren't those the Spice Girls?
Aren’t those the Spice Girls?

Whether by coincidence or not, I’ve come across a few articles recently about the wisdom (or folly) of including snippets of song lyrics in your novel.  The consensus seems to be that it’s a bad idea.  Allen Klein is dead but those who adhere to his mantra are still far and wide squeezing the vice of legality against the temples of well-meaning, starving scribes who seek to pay a tiny bit of homage to that epic anthem that helped get them through a rough patch of their lives, or, more cynically, want to drop in an overly familiar reference point that will elicit immediate emotional identification without putting in the effort to craft their own.

I get it.  It’s difficult, and even a bit scary, to risk originality in a self-referential culture where everything seems to link back to something else like a giant Wikipedia.  Going where no one has gone before is even more daunting given that every time you think you’re venturing down a fresh trail, you find someone else’s bootprints on it.  There are simply too many of us writers attempting to figure out the human experience.  It’s inevitable that more than a few will reach identical conclusions – sort of the thousand monkey/thousand typewriter argument featuring mildly more intelligent monkeys.

In one of my more wrenching experiences as a gestating writer, I lent a draft of the novel that preceded my current opus to my best friend for his feedback.  I can still recall with gut-churning anxiety the pregnant pause that hung between us one afternoon when I was forced to ask him the question that chills all writers’ bones as it spills across our lips:  “So, what did you think?”  I don’t think the word had entered the zeitgeist yet, but his reaction was the equivalent of “meh.”  I should point out here that my friend is not evil nor inconsiderate of others’ feelings.  But like the most ideal of companions he will never let you twist out in the wind with your pants down if he can help set you right.  And his most germane suggestion, while wounding to anyone convinced of one’s own genius as most beginners tend to be (and I certainly was back then), was not only invaluable, but continues to inform me when I compose fiction.  Paraphrased, it was simply this:

“Cut the pop culture references.”

Between the tears and the simmering hatred (which quickly subsided – we’re still besties, no worries folks), it was a cloud-parting Voice of James-Mason-as-God moment – and yes, Eddie Izzard fans, I am aware of the irony of using a doubly-meta pop culture reference to illustrate this point – that I could not believe I had not seen before.  And it reinforced the notion that you can’t write in a vacuum.  Because I never would have come to that conclusion at that time in my life, and yet it was exactly what I needed to move forward and become a better writer.  Whether it’s in using song lyrics, referencing TV shows or framing your character’s predicament in terms of how much it makes them feel like Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, there are, to me, five main reasons why popular culture should be flung far from the pages of your book:

1.  It dates you

And not the good dinner-and-a-movie type either.  Pop culture’s shelf life is shorter than that of the mayonnaise you’ve been meaning to throw out of your fridge for the last few weeks.  Your bon mot about your hero’s wisecracking best friend being a combination of Sue Sylvester and Honey Boo Boo is going to go way sour long before your book even makes it to the shelves.  I remember a few years ago when Desperate Housewives premiered and every entertainment trade paper, magazine and website could not shut themselves up about it; every goddamned article about anything television-related found a way to work in some mention of Desperate Housewives and how it was a divinely inspired paradigm-shifting watershed point in the history of broadcast programming.  Ask yourself whether in 2013 and beyond, anyone is going to view a witty Desperate Housewives reference as anything but sad.  (Fair warning, Downton Abbey and Girls, it will happen to you too.)  You want your story to mean something to people for decades and generations to come – timeless is preferable to timely.

 2.  It’s meaningless unless your audience gets it

In the realm of stand-up comedy, one of the worst offenders for dropping obscure references is Dennis Miller, with the result that even the most well-read of his audiences will only laugh at his material a fifth of the time (of course, ever since he was reborn as a Dubya-lovin’ right-wing pom-pom waver, he’s been considerably less funny anyway).  A reference that a great number may not understand is not the most egregious violation of “good writer etiquette,” but a major beat should never hinge on it.  If, at the moment of her deepest anguish, your heroine is compelled to confess that she feels just like Bitsie Tulloch’s Dylan on Quarterlife, that’s awesome for the three people out there who remember that show and completely baffling for everyone else (i.e. 99.9999% of your readers), and thus any hope you may have harbored for soliciting empathy will be lost to the winds like the passengers and crew of Oceanic 815 (see what I did there?)

3.  It’s the last refuge of the unimaginative

Licking my wounds back then, I was compelled to ask myself why I was relying so much on what other people had created instead of forging ahead on my own.  Writing moments that resonate is a lot like method acting:  you have to look deep inside and wrench the truth screaming from your own gut, not rely on what you once heard or saw in something somebody else wrote.  And it’s an opportunity that you should never pass up, even if it is intimidating.  If you’re running down the field with no one in the way, why would you pass the ball to another guy for the final five yards?  You should never abdicate the chance to be creative.  If you’re writing about a group of characters who have bonded over their love of a favorite TV show, why not make up your own show?  I’ll get you started:  every show is about cops, doctors or lawyers, so have your guys quote lines from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D.  Okay, I’m staking a claim to that one and writing a pilot.  “FADE IN:  INT. COURTROOM – DAY – CLOSE on SERGEANT LAWYER as he contemplates a scalpel in his right hand and a semi-automatic pistol in his right.  CUE the opening chords of The Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes.’”  Aw, crap, there’s Pete Townshend’s attorney on line one.

4.  It’s giving away free advertising

I’ll invoke the mighty Aaron Sorkin and repeat his maxim that a writer’s job is to captivate you for however long he’s asked for your attention.  And we writers are serious bear huggers.  We don’t want to let you go.  We want you firmly ensconced in our world, and not thinking about TV shows and songs that have nothing to do with the story we’re trying to relate.  We certainly don’t want you thinking about other products you might like to purchase.  Ever wonder why you don’t ever see commercials for handguns?  Because there are enough glowing closeups of barrels and triggers and bullets flying in sexy slow motion, and irrelevant exchanges of dialogue about muzzle velocities and stopping power in movies to do all the advertising gun manufacturers will ever need.  Walther probably owes a great chunk if not the lion’s share of the sales of its PPK to James Bond.  Sex and the City and chick lit do more for Manolo Blahnik shoes than ten years of paid ad campaigns ever would.  (If I can digress further into the cinemarr for a moment, one of the most vomit-inducing examples of this was the trailer for 10 Things I Hate About You – the ad trying to get people to see the movie, oh irony of ironies – which opened with a character saying “There’s a difference between like and love.  I mean, I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.”  Spew.)  If that’s truly your wish, then why not just publish a novel full of empty pages stamped with “Your Ad Here”?  Or go to work writing advertising copy since it’s probably more up your alley.

5.  And it will probably cost you

So not only will you not be paid for name-dropping all these lovely corporations and pushing their merchandise, but you’re just as likely to get dinged by the same people for using their content without the express written consent of Major League Baseball.  This is an older article, but a good one from The Guardian where novelist Blake Morrison talks about how much it cost him to include fragments of popular song lyrics in his work.  Don’t these people have enough money already without needing more of yours?  And what’s worse, the money probably won’t even go to the artist who wrote the lyric in the first place – it’ll get split amongst various anonymous shareholders in the faceless publishing company that holds the rights to the song.  If you really, desperately, achingly want to have your character sing “Bitter Sweet Symphony” to the extent that you’re more than willing to cough up whatever atrocious fee you’re invoiced for, Richard Ashcroft isn’t getting a penny, as much as he may be tickled that you quoted his signature composition.  It’s going to whoever now controls ABKCO Music, the actual rights holder of that song.  The thought of that should turn your stomach enough to lead you in another direction.  Here’s a much better thought:  Even if you can’t write chord progressions, you can probably make up your own original lyrics.  Then one day, maybe someone will want to compose a song using those lyrics, and they can pay you for the privilege of doing so (or, conversely, you can sue their ass off when they steal it without acknowledging your authorship).

Having said all that, let’s make it about me again.  Does any of this apply to my novel?  Well, fortunately, when writing fantasy there’s less of a temptation to include popular culture since it makes no sense within the context of the story – or worse, pulls you out of the story when a grizzled medieval warrior makes anachronistic mention of the Seinfeld episode about Teri Hatcher’s boobs (argh!  Desperate Housewives reference!)  That isn’t to say you can’t or won’t slyly drop in semi-clever hints or vague references about the galaxy far, far closer to home.  I’ve been pretty good about steering clear of that, with two or three arcane exceptions (in extremely non-consequential passages) that I won’t mention except to say that when you do read the book you get +1 Internets for finding them.  I have, however, committed the faux pas of including allusions to songs as chapter titles.  Not in all of them, but enough to be potentially embarrassing and/or expensive.  So a quick trip to the rewrite shed is in order.  But better to do it now than to get too far down the road and receive a sternly worded letter from Sergeant Lawyer, M.D. demanding recompense for what is, essentially, a throwaway gag that has no significant bearing on the greater narrative.

The moral?  Make your story one hundred percent yours, soup to nuts and credits to navy beans.  It’s like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman:  cheaper, easier and more fulfilling too.