New York Times and USA Today Bestselling novelist, screenwriter, editor, namer, critic, movie addict and chocoholic
Saturday, December 4, 2010
So you want to be a novelist
David Kazzie's hilarious video, "So You Want to Write a Novel" has been all over Facebook and Twitter. In the video, a novice writer profoundly irritates a professional writer by his hilariously naive and egotistic views on what it really means to be a writer ("How many editors do you think Random House will assign me?"). I was so in love with this video that I tracked David down so I could pepper him with questions. Check out David's other videos, too. And David, just for the record, I'm afraid of clowns, too.
Where did you get the idea to do these inspired videos? And in particular, the "so you want to write a novel" one? Are these all statements you've heard? (I know I've encountered quite a few.)
Let me start by saying I'm very, very appreciative of everyone who's watched and shared the "So You Want to Write a Novel" video. I can't thank you enough - it's very exciting for an unknown writer like me to get this kind of exposure.
Here's a brief (sort of) history. After dabbling in writing for most of my life (short stories, college newspaper, etc.), I took my first real stab at a novel in 2002. My first manuscript was a total disaster - as I've since learned, if your villain is a corrupt U.S. Senator, you've probably written a crappy book. I kept at it, and my third manuscript was one I truly loved and was proud of. It got a bunch of partial and full requests, but alas, nothing happened. Getting so close and coming up short was a bit disheartening. I decided to take a break from fiction, and in June, I started writing a weekly humor blog. Although I really enjoyed putting out a new column every week, I quickly learned that it's hard, very hard, to establish an audience in this day and age. I got a couple hundred hits a week, mostly friends and family, but after a few months, it seemed like I was bleeding readership and not getting any new readers. I started to think about cutting back or even shutting down the blog entirely to get back to working on fiction.
Now, being a lawyer by day, I had been wanting to do a satire piece about practicing law, but I could never think of a way to do it that didn't sound cliched. Toward the end of the summer, I saw a very funny video using the Xtranormal animation website called "HTCEvo vs. iPhone4" that had gone viral (and it truly is hysterical), and I thought the format would work well for a discussion between a jaded lawyer and idealistic law student (I've been both). Basically, "So You Want to Go to Law School" was my hail-Mary pass to drum up an audience -- I was thinking that if I was really lucky, it would get a few thousand hits, which compared to what I'd been getting, would seem like a bazillion hits. For whatever reason (I wasn't the first person to have made a law school video), mine took off in the last 2 weeks of October, and it's approaching 1 million hits on YouTube. My video spawned some other "So You Want To (insert profession/grad program here)" videos that other people did, and I did a few more about law school myself.
In my fourth video about law school (which I posted the Sunday before Thanksgiving), I introduced a character (the boyfriend of the law student main character) who's an aspiring novelist. He states that his work is experimental, and that he has no storyline ("plots are for the unwashed masses") and no main character (in fact, no characters at all). A couple days later, I thought, "holy crap, I should make one of these about being a writer." I searched YouTube and saw that no one else had done one. The day before Thanksgiving, I was off, I had a house empty of kids, and so I sat down and wrote the script for "So You Want to Write a Novel."
The attitude of the would-be novelist is hilariously spot on. Why do you think people persist --particularly in this age of information online--in thinking that being a novelist is fun, easy and that they are entitled to it?
I read a discussion about this very issue on an industry blog recently. I'm paraphrasing here, but the essence of the argument, which I agree with, was this: Most people realize that they lack the the size, speed and strength to be a professional athlete. Most people realize that becoming a doctor or electrician or lawyer requires years of education and training. But self-gauging whether you're a good writer is a far more slippery thing, because writing is something that virtually everyone can do. Being a writer doesn't require a college degree -- it doesn't really require anything more than something to write with. You hear stories about J.K. Rowling scratching out the early draft of the first Harry Potter in a coffee shop or John Grisham banging out one thriller after another, and you hear about the advances and the book tours, and working in your sweatpants in your beach cottage in Maui, and it’s easy to develop this picture in your mind that not only is this something you can do, you can make a boatload of cash doing it!
That being said, with the amount of information available about the craft and business of writing on the Internet now, I can't believe anyone still thinks that becoming a novelist is fun or easy. Many days, I wish I didn't have the compulsion to do it myself. I even tried giving it up several years ago, thinking I'd be happier without it -- I could just live a normal non-writer life without the stress of writing down story ideas, coming up with character names (frequent thought in my head when I'm writing: "that's a stupid name for a character. It even sounds fake."), etc. I lasted about a year, and then I came crawling back to the keyboard.
I also loved the voices of the characters--which sound almost computer generated, which somehow adds to the hilarity. Was this a deliberate choice? Ditto this question for the bears, especially the one with the big button overall. Somehow hearing and seeing a bear saying matter of factly, "I have a gun in the car. I'm going to get it now," makes it even funnier.
So there's a little voice in my head that tells me every day how crappy a writer I am.
That voice says I owe 90 percent of the videos' popularity to the computer-generated voices and maybe 10 percent to my writing talent. Maybe less.
There are a handful of voices to choose from in the Xtranormalmoviemaking template (and given that I am not a filmmaker by any means, I like the simplicity of it, and I am the biggest Xtranormal fan there is), so I chose the ones that were the easiest to understand. I had used the human characters for the Law School videos, and I did switch over to the animals to distinguish them from my Law School characters. And yes, there is just something awesome about adorable little animals threatening bodily harm in a deadpan voice.
Has any would-be-novelist without a clue recognized himself or herself in the video? (I'm afraid to hear the answer to this one.)
A few brave commenters on Twitter, Facebook, etc. have hinted they may have said or thought similar things when they first started out. I confess -- I know that when I finished my first manuscript (a thriller) in 2002, I remember thinking something to the effect of "yeah, this is awesome. I'm gonna be rich now." Pretty sure I started querying it about ten minutes after I finished the first draft. And now, eight years later, I think to myself, "Really? An evil U.S. Senator? Really?"
What's up next for you?
Honestly, I'm not really sure. It's been awesome for me to get this kind of exposure, but I also realize I can't ride the animated video train forever.
Certainly, my ultimate dream is to become a full-time novelist (because the Maui beach cottage is a powerful image indeed). That being said, I think that finding an agent is an important step I still need to take. I truly thought my most recent manuscript would be the one to break through -- and it got multiple requests for the full and personal comments from agents (and even one phone call from an agent) -- but maybe it wasn't the one.
Bottom line -- it's still my dream to see a novel that I've written on the bookshelves (before we all bow to our e-reader overlords and there are no more bookshelves). And with my last name starting with K -- I'd be really close to Stephen King and Barbara Kingsolver on the shelf -- I can't lose, right?!
What question should I be mortified that I didn't ask?
Whether I like clowns. The answer is a resounding "no.". (Seriously -- I don't think you missed anything -- sorry if I went on too long). Thank you for having me on your blog. And thanks again to everyone who has watched the video.
Stay tuned, THIS OTHER LIFE has sold to Algonquin, my beloved publisher and I am busy writing it now. My 11th novel CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD is an Indie Next Pick. IS THIS TOMORROW was an May Indie Pick. I'm also the New York Times bestselling author of PICTURES OF YOU, a San Francisco Chronicle Lit Pick, a Costco "Pennie's Pick." a NAIBA bestseller and on the Best Books of 2011 List from San Francisco Chronicle, Providence Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Bookmarks Magazine. I'm the recipient of a New York Foundation of the Arts Grant in Fiction. I was a 2013 finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and a finalist in the Nickelodeon Screenwriting Fellowship, four of my novels were optioned for screen, and I talked my way into writing the script for two of them. My essay, HIgh Infidelity, has been optioned for film. I'm a book critic for The San Francisco Chronicle and People Magazine. I teach novel writing for UCLA Extension Writers' Program, and Stanford online, do private fiction editing, and I am a professional namer! I live with my husband, writer/editor Jeff Tamarkin and we beam with pride about our son, an actor/filmmaker in college. Visit me at http://www.carolineleavitt.com.