Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Not everyone gets writer's block.

(And yesterday's post--still figuring out how to create a link. Bear with me.)

Not meaning to be catty, and I wasn't intending to be touching so soon on issues like plagiarism, but the Boston Globe's timely story on Kaavya Viswanathan is worth a note.

A few months back I had read in the Globe about this 17-year-old Harvard student who had just inked a $500,000, two-book deal. Now, as it's risen to the number 32 spot on the New York Times bestseller list, Kaavya Viswanathan's first novel is going under the microscope. Purportedly many sentences and passages were strikingly similar to ones from a 2001 novel.

From the Globe:

On page 213 of McCafferty's book: He was invading my personal space, as I had learned in Psych. class, and I instinctively sunk back into the seat. That just made him move in closer. I was practically one with the leather at this point, and unless I hopped into the backseat, there was nowhere else for me to go.

On page 175 of Viswanathan's book: He was definitely invading my personal space, as I had learned in Human Evolution class last summer, and I instinctively backed up till my legs hit the chair I had been sitting in. That just made him move in closer, until the grommets in the leather embossed the backs of my knees, and he finally tilted the book toward me.

And so on...

Let them sort it out, but it 's possible that this is less an issue of plagiarism than that some novels are being phoned in on less-than-deep topics by writers who tap into some wavelength where these thoughts, expressions and descriptions are lazy, shorthand, standard rather than deeply considered and etched out? Now here's where I'm being catty.

I do remember reading some PR about Kaavya Viswanathan in the Globe a few months back, and the schadenfreude I'm feeling now stems not only from her lucrative book deal, her youth, her investment bank future and her well-rounded life of Harvard, clubbing and pedicures. But yeah, I'm being catty and snippy about that. However, more than that, it's the way she describes banging the book out in 50-page spurts every two weeks or so, between studying for exams and doing whatever else a busy Harvard student does. And she plans not on becoming a full-time writer but, more likely, an investment banker: writing is something she just "does." Damn overachiever!

I have to admit I haven't read the book, and don't plan to. But knowing many writers, I will be thinking about how they approach their craft as this blog unfolds. And for many of us, it is a long haul to get to a finished novel, or even a publishable short story. My friends, colleagues and mentors have also worked hard at their style, to reach an end result of glimmering prose, sharp dialogue and characters that stand out.

Then again, does it have to take three, five, even ten or fifteen years to write the thing? We'll get into that as well.

Another interesting factoid unearthed in the Viswanathan flap is that she had help from a "book packager," 17th Street Productions. An article on cracking the juvenile book market describes the typical process as follows:

For 17th Street Productions, once you sign the contract, the editor sends you a two-to-three page outline that relates the plot of the story and which characters are involved. The writer then creates a more in-depth chapter outline and returns it to the editor, who may require some changes, after which the writer completes the first draft. The first draft is edited for corrections and changes, and returned to the writer, who makes the required changes and sends it back to the editor.
I read that Viswanathan had originally conceived a "darker" storyline, but that 17th Street had convinced her to lighten up, and worked with her to develop the novel as it ended up.

What does that mean for my short story collection, your novel? Do you stand a chance in this industry without an obvious marketing angle working in your favor? And, by the way, how's the writing coming along?


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