Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Plan - Part 1: Who Am I?

I am my brand, so ... who the heck am I?

Or more specifically, who am I in terms of my writing and career and public life? My writing is scattered across genres, and in many ways so is my life -- but it feels unified to me, so what is that unifying factor?

In an earlier iteration of this post, I sat down and just typed the first thing that came to mind:

I write mystery swashbucklers.

That is true. It might even be a little redundant; The great cloak and sword swashbucklers (which are the kind I love most) were all mysteries on some level. If there wasn't an actual mystery ("Who is this man, this Scarlet Pimpernel?") there was at the very least criminal skull-duggery, and a lot of figuring out who was up to what and why. There was always something that was demmed elusive.

And if you think my mystery westerns have nothing to do with that, think about it: what is a western but a swashbuckler with guns instead of swords, and no plumey feather in the hat?

(For the movie-history-impaired: left to right, that's Douglas Fairbanks Sr as Zorro, Leslie Howard as The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Doug Jr and Ronald Coleman as Rupert of Hentzau and Rudolf Rassendyll in The Prisoner of Zenda.)

As the image above illustrates: this fits into one other incredibly major influence on me, which I have been told all my life to bury when it comes to fiction.

The Dream Factory

Also known as Hollywood.

The first thing they told us at Clarion was that Star Wars and Star Trek were NOT acceptable science fiction at the time. Anything seen on television or in the movies was unsophisticated, and reflected whatever was in vogue decades earlier.

The first thing the professor said in our playwrighting class in grad school was: "I want you to write what's in your heart, not what you're told to write, or what's in anybody else's heart. Break free of restrictions! ... so I don't want to see ANY science fiction, mystery, romance, fantasy, coming-of-age, action, adventure, chick lit, ..." He pretty much forbade everything you could put a name to.

Luckily I never listened to those sorts of things ... much. I mean if you hear something over and over again, and sometimes you get rejected based on it, you can't help but sighing in disappointment and putting your favorite stuff on the shelf for your own pleasure only.

But here's another thing about Hollywood: If you are an old-school movie buff, you love the story behind the story too. Hollywood itself is a part of the glamor. (It's show biz, after all.) That's part of why I noted, in the picture above that Doug Sr was Doug Jr's father. It's interesting, it's a part of the pleasure of the story.

And Doug Sr's wife (Jr's step-mother) is possibly even more relevant here than the boys are.

The first image there is three-fourths of United Artists -- on the bottom is Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and on his right shoulder is Charlie Chaplin. On his left shoulder is his wife, Mary Pickford. Those three, plus D. W. Griffith, were sick of being pushed around by the studios. They were the talent. They were the draw. So they formed their own company: United Artists. You could say they were the first "indies."

And though she is the one usually left out of pictures about the founding of United Artists, Mary Pickford was one of the major driving factors. She was the one, of all of them, with the best head for business.

But her importance here goes back even further. When she started in the movies, nobody cared about actors. They were like props. Their names didn't appear in the credits, nobody knew who they were.

Until Mary Pickford.

Viewers would send fan mail to the studio, addressed to "The Girl with the Curl." And of course, all that mail was hidden from her. But when she found out about it, she was smart enough to realize "hey, I'm the star here. I'm the brand." So she took the bit in her teeth and ran with it.

Many people call her the first movie star. Some say she invented stardom. She certainly understood the concept of personal branding. And that is a concept that stayed with Hollywood, even though publishing never quite got the hang of it to the full extent.

Mary Pickford played 12-year-old girls right on up into her thirties. Not exactly the kind of brand you want to get stuck with but 1) it worked for her, and 2) in many ways her tough, independent little girls paved the way for the next generation's tough independent flappers, and 3.) it's a good segue to another major influence on me.

I write kid's books for grown ups (aka pulp fiction)

Let's face it, pulp fiction is good straight-forward storytelling, which dares to skip the boring stuff. As you get older, of course, what you consider interesting and boring changes -- but let's face it, adults have learned to put up with boredom. Kids haven't. Adults have learned to do without humor. Kids haven't.

But the biggest, most important element of children's stories which is often missing from grown up fiction (including, sadly, even the lighter genres sometimes) is a subversive sense of morality.

"Life just isn't fair" is not good enough for a children's story. And it isn't good enough for even the darkest noir. Sure, there is no God and nobody's going to fix it for you when things go wrong.... but as Sam Spade says, you're supposed to do something about it. Even if it's against your best interests. And if society is wrong -- if it's full of bullies and unfairness -- then you fight it.

Today we often miss the real message of so much Golden Age film. Listen, do you actually think that the end of It's a Wonderful Life is upbeat? Do you? Honestly? Have you seen it recently? The message of It's a Wonderful Life is very much like the message of Casablanca: The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Where the rubber hits the road in all of these genres is a form of Existentialism: If justice means anything to us, we have to bring it to the table ourselves. And it's the same for joy.

And these various genres -- Hollywood, swashbucklers, pulp fiction, mysteries and children's stories -- all part from Existentialism in a similar way too: they believe in evil. They're flexible on the concept of good, and the actual politics waver all over the place -- but evil is a disdain for justice.

(The last two pictures up there, along side United Artists, are Slappy Squirrel of the Animaniacs and Miss Marple, as played by Joan Hickson. They are both little old lady avengers. Like Zorro, only not into rescuing, only avenging. Of the two, Miss Marple is the more dangerous. Slappy is definitely more likely to use violence, but if Miss Marple gets you, you'll hang by the neck until dead.)

One last element that I see when I look at all of the genres and influences, both those mentioned above and those I didn't touch on: the stories tend to be short. What we now consider to be a novella -- 30-40k words -- was once a full novel. And the length of story in a novella actually matches the amount of story usually in a movie.

eBook publishing once again gives us the option of writing a story to the length that suits the story.

So I've identified the flavor and nature of what I write -- or at least what influences me to write. And I've mentioned in other posts about how I shouldn't really market until I have an identifiable body of work. So what's the plan to get from here to there? Tomorrow I'll outline my writing plans (and the minimal marketing associated with it), and then the next day I'll talk about something I'm doing full-throttle now: blogging.

See you in the funny papers.


Rex Jameson said...

Hi Camille. I didn't know the story of Mary Pickford, and you've definitely wet my palette to find out more. I'm glad you bucked the advice of your playwrighting class professor and others at Clarion. Thanks for posting your interesting perspective on your writing influences. Very cool!

The Daring Novelist said...

After I posted it, I realized that I meant to call others to think about their influences.

For writers -- even those frimly in the middle of a commercial genre -- it helps to identify your voice, and what is unique about you.

But I think it helps everyone to think about such things. If only to make your life more satisfying and fulfilling. You find the stuff you love.