by guest blogger Stacey Cochran
You guys are awesome. Thanks so much to Alex for the opportunity to guest blog, and thanks so much to everybody at Murderati for consistently putting together one of the best crime, mystery, and suspense blogs on the web. It’s really an honor to write to you today.
I’m fascinated by the past. Because out of the past we can see how people lived and functioned. Moments that stand in our collective conscious — Elvis Presley filmed from the waist up on Ed Sullivan; Neil Armstrong touching down on the Moon; JFK declaring “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”; race riots in the South, hoses and dogs and an astonishing lack of humanity; a man of God with a monumental dream speaking before a statue of Lincoln to the entire world and generations to come.
My thesis today is on the power of media and publicity in a writer’s life. More specifically I would like to address the belief that I have of that power — television, film, and the still image — to speak to people with an immediacy like nothing else on earth. Underlying all of this is the question I have of what role a writer plays in society.
My good friend J.A. Konrath sees the writer as entertainer and entertainer only. I’m sure there are a lot of us who would agree with him.
At Thrillerfest this year, I asked Marcus Sakey about the secret of developing compelling, great characters. He responded wryly that I’d have to pay him twenty bucks for an answer. But the point is that Marcus, as a novelist, elevates the role of character in his work.
There seems to be a fundamental split in the crime fiction community: either your work is character driven and serious, or it is plot driven and meant as entertainment.
The best writers walk an invisible line between the two.
Nonetheless, it’s important to know which side of the camp you pitch your tent on because it will affect how you promote yourself, how you approach bookstores, how you value reviewers, newspapers, and radio and television interviews. It will affect the persona you should be developing with regards to how you interact with the public.
I think we shape these things, and I think we make conscious choices about doing so. Even if your choice is that you’d never be so self-absorbed as to think about “developing a persona,” that in and of itself is a choice about your persona. You want to come across as modest and unpretentious. Only the work matters. Only the writing…
When I was in grad school, I went through a Thomas Pynchon phase. Here was this guy who completely avoided the media … in an obsessive way. What he was saying by doing so was that a writer’s personal life should not affect the way that his work is received or interpreted. Salinger was only marginally different.
Then came Stephen King whose personal story — being abandoned by his father as a toddler, living in a trailer while his wife worked at Dunkin Donuts, fishing that Carrie manuscript out of the trashcan — reads like an Emmy-winning TV mini-series.
There’s no doubt in my mind that his persona was fashioned with a great deal of revision and deliberation. The man made himself sound like the Abe Lincoln of the fiction world.
And he had the writing to back it up.
J.K. Rowling’s personal story of living on welfare as a single mother played a huge role in creating buzz about her first novel. People felt sympathetic, and her writing was very good.
The point is that we develop a persona consciously (and sometimes subconsciously), and that our persona comes from our belief in the writer’s role in society. This, in turn, affects how we use media to publicize ourselves and the issues that matter to us.
I personally believe in creating social harmony. To that end, it is a theme that runs through most of my writing, my website, how I do bookstore events, and on my new television show. There are few greater goals for a writer than to explore the issues that divide cultures, ethnic groups, religions, and other institutions with the potential to polarize individuals.
This is not to say you can’t do this in an entertaining way. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, David Morrell’s First Blood — these are all novels whose first aim is to entertain us. But not without addressing issues that divide us as well.
At Thrillerfest this year, James Patterson put it this way: “Nothing reveals character better than action, in books and in life. What we do is kind of who we are . . . I love thrillers, so it kills me a bit when people condescend to them. I don’t like it when someone calls a book a ‘guilty pleasure.’ I don’t know why anyone should feel guilty about reading a book.”
My goal is to take whatever success I have in this life — whether modest or great — and use that success to help others. Whether speaking to a room of thirty aspiring writers regarding the publishing business or building a library and school for children (my own personal dream), in my own humble way, I would like to enrich the lives of as many people as I can.
Welcome, Stacey! Great to have you here.
I think it is possible for fiction to entertain and educate at the same time. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction for example. But it’s a real tightrope walk to avoid becoming pedantic.
Stacey,What a pleasure to have you on Murderati today. You’ve given us a great post and a lot to think about.
I know that I started out writing to entertain–or that’s what I thought I was doing. (And, my tent is pitched firmly in the character camp. I love reading the other kinds of books, they’re just not what I write.)
In the beginning, I wanted to blast some stereotypes people have about “The West,” New Mexico, and the Jewish communities here. So, I guess I had a social/ulterior motive from the start.
A little later, I realized that my books always center around deeper themes — family disfunction, religiosity vs. spirituality, personal and social prejudice/intolerance — and that’s part of the attraction to me. Exploring issues through literature, is a very powerful tool.
But, if my books only work on the entertainment level, I’m not upset. I just want them to work.
I can’t decide on the character vs. plot divide. I just want to be a storyteller. And the stories I care about have to include both interesting characters and plots.
Don’t know what the means in terms of developing my “author persona,” though.
Thanks, guys, for the feedback, and thanks for being so gracious here at Murderati!
I never could really explain the difference between “literary” novel and “non-literary.” For me it’s always been “maybe I’d recognize it if I saw it.” What I read today, mostly thrillers and mysteries, are as good (or better) than much of the “literary” stuff I read in school, deal with many of the same issues, entertain as well as educate. What makes Poe, Melville, Dostoevsky, Crane, James, et alii, more literary than Ure,, Barre,Muller, Burcell, Hirahara, Rhoades, Bruen, Morrell, and so many others? Maybe the latter group just doesn’t hit us over the head so obviously?
While I return again and again to some of my favorite “classics,” I DO enjoy, more and more, all you new masters, some of whom already have established “classics.”
Keep ’em coming, please.
I have been encouraged by the information i have read on this web site i have always loved to be a writer but have had limited time to sit down and form a story.Ihave however written poems. i tend to love emotional true life stories as compared to fiction.I love to make an impact on the lives of people in my country but unfortunately here writers are not valued at all and the people are not great readers This discourages me alot because i know that even if i write no one will read it what is your advice?