Before I kick off this post, first, an apology: you’ll pardon my lack of blog posts recently, as I’m slowly recovering from the GODDAMNED FLU. Jesus H. Christ on a shit-stained cracker, I never get sick! Suddenly, Friday night, I’m overcome with a thumping migrane and body aches. By Saturday morning, I’m in agony, so it’s off to the Urgent Care I go. A week’s worth of Tamiflu and Hydrocodone (which is quite delicious, by the way, and habit-forming…hmm…) notwithstanding, Saturday night was brutal. I was in the kind of physical discomfort that made resting absolutely impossible. Oh, and I got to hug the toilet, which is also a rarity. I’ve pounded booze until I’ve drunk myself sober, and hardly ever puked, but the flu make me do the barf dance.
Great. Nothing like puking in front of your daughter, who thinks this is HILARIOUS. That little shit. I reminded her later of when she got sick and spent the entire day puking. That shut her up.
So it’s now Thursday, I’ve exhausted my Tamiflu, but I still have some Hydrocodone left over. My head is stopped up, and I still feel sluggish. I haven’t had a chance to go for a 2-3 mile run lately, or to the gym, so I’m feeling doughy, but I don’t dare go to the gym feeling the way I feel. Worse yet, I don’t even feel like writing. Nothing. Not even a blog. Well, until right now, I suppose.
Ten days have passed, my throat is still scratchy, I finally made it to the gym this morning, only to wrestle furiously with an elliptical machine; I won, but barely.
In addition to the flu, I’ve reprised my role as a collegiate ringer. One of my wife’s classes involves her reading a rather horrible novel; essentially, it’s Socratic didactic disguised as a novel. Great. Nothing more I love than being lectured to. So I took it upon myself to read the novel over the weekend, only to work myself up into a teeth-gnashing frenzy over how fucking irresponsible and outright wrong the whole didactic was. But I finished her assignments for the week, with a few more coming in the following weeks.
Speaking of which, that novel, which I won’t reveal its title just yet, has now entered my list of my All-Time Top 5 Most Hated Novels Ever. A blog post on this to come very soon.
Oh, and J.J. Abrams will direct the new Star Wars film. I want to be all excited about this, but I’m withhold any expected frenzy until May 2015, when the seventh chapter comes to the screen.
Now, without further ado…
A few weeks ago, I was at a local writer’s critique group I attend every second Saturday of each month. A lively discussion took place regarding one of the participant’s submitted pieces. I felt his writing, though promising, needed a lot of work. Too many run-on sentences, and his story seemed to threaten to get away from him. Like a lot of young adult writers, his story is part of a multi-part story; his submitted short selection was the prologue and opening chapter to the first novel.
My suggestion to him, one which I voiced loudly, was to make the story more ambitious. I felt he was restraining himself a bit too much.
One participant argued otherwise. There’s an adage in the publishing world, she said, that both agents and publishers will repeat with writers: your first and second novels should play it safe. Save the really ambitious stuff for the third novel. Agents find it easier to sell novels that play it safe. A few participants in the group nodded their heads, although it was hard to say if they agreed, or were just nodding for the sheer hell of it all.
I let her commentary pass, without a comment of my own. After all, I’m not a published writer, so I have no frame of reference to retort with. There are rules every writer must abide by. The classic “show, don’t tell,” is probably the one cardinal rule no writer dare violate. The greatest lesson any writer should know is what the rules to writing actually are. Know the rules, and you’ll play the game correctly.
With that being said, there’s something to be said about breaking the rules. The greatest art has often been created when the artist thumbs their nose at the rules, and creates a new set of rules. Actually, let’s take that one step down a bit. Good art, even if it’s not great, should make every attempt to break the rules. And this rule that your debut novel should be something you should play safe, as a writer, is one rule I think needs to be broken more frequently.
I’d be hard-pressed to tell you exactly how many debut novels I’ve read, but I find that while so many are well-written and possessing of a literary voice that’s clearly going places, often times that debut just seems unmemorable. Not to say it’s a bad book. Far from it. But I get a feeling sometimes that after I’ve read a debut novel, I’ll likely not think much about it ever again. Which leads me recently to wonder if someone, an agent, an editor, another writer, suggested to this writer that they play it safe with their debut novel. The better the chances to get their novel published, right? So be it, I suppose.
Then I finished reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline recently, and was reminded again of what a debut novel should read like: an opening, forceful statement of intent from a new novelist, one that brims with so much promise, and whose debut novel is filled with the idea that “playing it safe” is a fool’s errand. Clearly, Ernest Cline skipped class the day that lesson was taught, and thank the gods for that, because had Ernest Cline played it safe, Ready Player One would simply be another run-of-the-mill sci-fi tale. By not playing it safe, Ernest Cline has weaved a hilarious, heart-racing, smile-inducing pop-culture thrill ride, a love letter to nerd culture and 80s-era nostalgia, and a game inside a story that’s hard to put down. If you’ve read this novel, then you know what I’m talking about.
In other words, this is one hell of a debut novel because it goes for something far greater than the sum of its parts. It dares to be far more ambitious than it should be, and it works.
I thought of some of my favorite debut novels: Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk, White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, and Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. What if Chuck Palahniuk’s agent told him to play it safe, and lose the whole plot twist about Tyler Durden and the narrator being the same person? Certainly Palahniuk’s ruminations on commercialism, masculinity, and materialism wouldn’t have had the same heft and anarchic glee to them. What if Joseph Heller’s agent told him, “Forget it, you need to make Yossarian less crazy and more likeable?”
It’s possible these conversations took place. Clearly, if they did, these authors dug their heels.
Mind you, I’m not dumping on agents for dispensing this advice. Sometimes an author not playing it safe is an author being self-indulgent, and a good agent needs to call bullshit sometimes. But sometimes this advice can be misguided. I’m not saying the rule of “playing it safe” is wrong, but it’s a rule worth breaking when writing your first novel.