Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why can't I be the Meryl Streep of fiction?

In the August issue of Novel Writing Magazine, Jane Friedman wrote something that put a bee in my bonnet:

“It’s likely you’ll be returning to the same themes or topics throughout your writing career. [e.g. – if you write about small-town life today, it’s likely you’ll still be writing about small-town life in a few years.] Becoming known as someone who explores certain themes or topics can make you interesting and visible to particular audiences.”

As a reader, I understand why writers write about similar themes. But like most people I know, I have an expansive curiosity – and so this advice puts me in a conundrum. Must I write about the same themes? The same landscape?

So I ask you: Why can’t I be the Meryl Streep of writing? Streep has an unquestionable range of talent. She can portray an inflexible nun (Doubt), a romantic hotelier (Mamma Mia) or a cold magazine editor (Devil Wears Prada) - and so many other roles in between! She may be virtually unrecognizable from one character to the next, but you still want to see her. You know you will be in good hands. Her brand is Meryl Streep – not any particular character or era or subject. If she can inhabit different worlds and still have fans, why shouldn’t a writer be able to do the same? Why can't I write about murder and suspense from a man's point of view and then write women's fiction that explores marital infidelity?

I suppose I know the answer. If you want to build a following or readership, that following must have a sense that they will get what they expect when they plunk down hard-earned money for an author’s latest work. I have purchased most of Elizabeth Berg’s novels because they explore the underbelly of women in suburbia. I love Elmore Leonard because I can experience the crime underworld and root for both good guys and bad guys – all while learning how to write dialogue.

Writers who’ve built a career in a certain genre are generally more successful. They have a style. They’ve created reader expectations and they meet them. They sell books.

I understand this on a business level, but didn't on an artistic level until I read this:

"A second novel must be like the second song on a CD. It may be different, but the listener must be able to recognize similarities in the different tracks, They must sound like they fit together, but also be unique."

(I'm paraphrasing this because I can't for the life of me remember where I read that. I remember I was standing in a bookstore, reading it from the acknowledgments. Somehow, that book didn't make it home with me.)

The musical analogy makes it clear: It's a good idea for a writer's SECOND novel to include the voice and style and possibly, the themes, that marked the first work. It might just need to sound like another track on the same CD.

I'll still keep my Meryl Streep dream alive and I hope my career is as diverse. In the meantime, there's plenty of time to create more stories that fall under the category of psychological suspense and family drama, which are themes I explored in my first novel....(wait for it...shameless plug ahead)....Janeology.

Write on!

Karen Harrington
author, Janeology
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