Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I'm going to play in the NFL!

People often ask me, if you get your book published, are you going to quit your job and write books for a living?

If statistics have anything to say about it, the answer is NO.

The fact is, very few people make their living as a fiction writer. The ones we hear about – the Dan Browns and James Pattersons and Stephen Kings – are such extreme outliers that we shouldn’t consider them at all. They skew our perception of the whole field. It’s weird that this phenomenon doesn’t seem to be as strong in other professional arenas. Maybe it’s because with athletes it’s easier for us to picture the physical requirements and sacrifices it would take to get there.

Take NBA basketball. I’m pretty tall, and I like to play a pick up game as much as the next guy. Statistically speaking, I have a much better chance of becoming LeBron James than James Patterson. Yet, no one catches me shooting hoops in the gym and asks when I’m going to the NBA finals. So why is it so different with writing?

J.A. Konrath likes to say that there are more NFL players than there are professional fiction writers. Think how hard it is to be become a pro football player. First off, there’s genetics. If you’re going to be an NFL player, you must have a certain body type: freakishly strong, freakishly huge, and freakishly quick. If you don’t have this, you’ll never be a successful pro player, not matter what you do. So that’s the foundation. Then you have to cash in that genetic lottery ticket at just the right time and place – get yourself into the right program, the right coach, etc. Then you have to practice your ass off.

To look at it another way: how many unique author names have been on the New York Times bestseller list (which still doesn’t guarantee they’ll be able to make a living as a writer) over the past four years? I don’t know the number, but I can assure you it’s far less than the 11,000 athletes who participated in the last Summer Olympics. And those people were genetic freaks of nature who’d spent every waking second of their lives preparing for the event. Seems pretty unlikely that I’d become an Olympic athlete in my spare time, right? So again, why should a professional fiction writer be any different?
I’m not bitter about this – really. But lately, I feel like I’m throwing a Nerf football around the parking lot, and you’re asking me when I’m going to play in the Super Bowl.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dear Editor

I wrote a letter to the editor of Writer's Digest Magazine, and they printed it. In a previous issue, Leslie Epstein, a distinguished writer and professor, had shared some tips on writing and life. I took issue with some of his "tips," and I wrote the magazine about it. As WD printed it, my letter looks like this:

In the MFA Insider article "Tips for Writing and for Life," Leslie Epstein tells us not to write such things as "He go out of bed, pulled on his pants." He says such constructions, leaving out the and or the then, are pretentious. Well, they're not as pretentious as Epstein instructing us not to pronounce the e in forte. How is that supposed to make me a better writer?

Brian Crawford
San Francisco, CA

It's embarrassing to admit how excited I was to see my name in print (reason enough for Epstein to give me no more notice than an errant thread on his tweed jacked). But I was disappointed, too. The magazine edited the content of my letter. In the printed version, my final sentence is missing:

Following that kind of advice is likely to get me punched in the head.

Come on, that was the best part. How could they cut it? Did WD think it was too incendiary for their readership? Or were they simply trying to preserve a modicum of hope that I could someday get into Boston University's Creative Writing Program, of which Epstein is the director? Regardless, this will no doubt be the first of many futile attempts to censor my dangerous literary genius...

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Brad Pitt vs. Chester

In the spirit of taking over the world, Google has developed Analytics, a program that can track your blog's visitors in alarming detail. It's the best free product I've used since the original Napster, and that one wasn't even legal.

It's fun to watch geographical trends, track the key words people are using, and to see how Leaf Blower's blog traffic changes depending on the topic, type of post, etc. I've noticed that on the days when I ask a question, about the same number of people visit, but they are much more likely to comment -- and to come back for a repeat visit. Presumably because they want to see what other people going to say.

The only thing that makes a big difference in the number of unique visitors is when I post a link on Facebook. On average, this nearly doubles my visitors for that post. Check out the graph above. The spikes are on Tuesdays, when I update my blog. On May 25th, I didn't post a link on Facebook; on June 1st and 8th, I did. But there's something else that appears to make a difference: the picture. A thumbnail is included with the link on Facebook. The May 31st post featured a picture of my poor injured dog, Chester. He's a real crowd favorite. But not, it seems, as much of a favorite as Brad Pitt. On June 8th, the Brad photo brought a 20% increase in visitors.

I guess sex really does sell, even with the sophisticated Leaf Blower readers. Just wait... next week, I'm really going to jump the shark.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Sometimes Less is More

In my writing workshop, I read a lot of horrible stuff. I don't mean poorly written -- the group is filled with talented writers -- I'm talking about scenes where bad stuff happens.

The tendency is to put these moments "in scene," using vivid descriptions and dialogue so the reader can see and hear exactly what's happening. There is a place for this, of course. But I think that some of the most powerful moments are defined by what is not said, by what is not shown to the reader. Because, if left to his own imagination, the reader will conjure a version of the scene that is most horrific, most personal, to him. Something an author could never do, no matter how good she is.

For example, lately I've read pages where the character gets a call telling her a family member has died. And we hear these calls: "So-and-so is dead. He's dead... how? No, it can't be!" Now, don't get me wrong: these scenes were well-written and gut-wrenching. I'm just wondering if they would've been even more powerful if the reader was left to imagine how terrible the event would be. It brings to mind a paragraph from Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, one of the most powerful I've ever read:

"For, when the police sergeant early next May wakened me before daybreak, I rose and asked no questions. Together we drove across the Continental Divide and down the length of the Big Blackfoot River over forest floors yellow and sometimes white with glacier lilies to tell my father and mother that my brother had been beaten to death by the butt of a revolver and his body dumped in an alley."

Of course, this is only so powerful because up to this point, the author has already shown us what would be lost if Paul were to die. And this Maclean does masterfully.

LB readers, can you think of any scenes where the author accomplishes more with less? Or where the author gives away too much?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Cone of Shame

It only took a second. My black Lab, Chester, was chasing his beloved tennis ball in Golden Gate Park when another dog attacked him. The dog only connected with Chester for a second before the dog's breathless owner caught up and dragged him away.

After the attack, Chester paced around in a circle, a dark line of fur spiked along his back. He's a sensitive soul, and when he gets bullied he often hides his embarrassment by walking around and pretending he's doing something. To get his mind off the incident, I flung his tennis ball deep into the field. And then the most amazing thing happened. He didn’t move. He just sat there and watched the ball bounce over the grass.

That’s when I noticed the blood pouring down his leg. On closer inspection, I couldn’t believe what I saw. The soft skin of his belly had been torn open, exposing a wound deep into his body cavity. I mean, I could stick my fist through that hole.

At the emergency pet hospital, I burst through the door like a TV cliché: “Get a doctor out here now… my boy’s hurt bad!” The vet tech came out and started checking Chester's gums. I learned later that you check a dog’s vitals this way, but at the time I’m thinking, my dog’s got a gaping hole in him, and you’re looking for cavities? I point to the blood on my shirt and then to the giant hole in Chester’s belly, in case the tech missed it. “It’s down there -- see it? That huge, flapping hole? Doesn’t that need immediate attention?”

Turns out it didn’t. It was a big gnarly wound (her words), but it wasn’t life threatening. Six hours later, Chester came home with a tissue-glued wound, a fluid drain, and the Big Plastic Cone of Shame.

What, you may ask, became of the other dog and his owner? After the attack, I was so frantic, I wasn’t thinking straight; I was only concerned with getting Chester to the car. So I gave the guy my phone number, and didn’t take any of his information. He never called.

Now, I'd like to think that in my haste I gave him the wrong phone number. Why else wouldn’t I have heard from him? How could he watch his dog tear my dog open, and not call, if not to pay some of the vet bills, then to see if Chester was okay? If I remember correctly – and I see why victims of a crime make terrible eyewitnesses – the guy had a little boy with him. When his son asks later how the hurt dog is doing, what will he tell him?