Monday, February 28, 2011

Do You Write Like a Dude?

Me: "Hey, I'm sorry you didn't get any of the pasta last night."

My son: "Dude, I didn't mind. I'm glad the guests liked it so much."

Yes, my son calls me dude. All the time. In fact, my three teenagers (including my daughter) all call me dude, and I kinda like it.

You see, in many ways I am a dude.Way more dude than chick.

Got a problem? I will immediately try to find a solution, rather than "listen empathetically" and "reflect your feelings back to you."

The only time I cry is when someone I love is dying or dead.

Want to go clothes shopping or antiquing? Ask someone else. I chew my cuticles bloody in a store, like a trapped animal trying to free itself.

I physically can't sit like this:

I don't giggle, I laugh from the belly.
My mom says I walk "like a truck." 
I will try to kill you on a tennis court.
I think flirting is stupid. Instead, I asked my husband to marry me on our third date.

You'd think this means that I write like a dude, too. But apparently my forceful personality is not the key predictor of whether my fiction writing will be masculine or feminine in nature.

According to a research paper by Shlomo Argamon of The Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and Moshe Koppel of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, women tend to use more pronouns and relational words (I, you, she, mine, yours, with, for), while men use more noun specifiers (a, the, some, it, that, these). That is, independent of subject matter, female prose exhibits characteristics identified by researchers as being more "involved" (relating to how things are connected) and male writing uses features that are more "informational" (relating to the things themselves).

By taking samples of fiction and adding and subtracting points for the use of key "masculine" and "feminine" words, Argamon and Koppel predict the genders of the authors with 80% accuracy. (Note that this predictive power doesn't work for non-fiction writing, which is more similar between the sexes.)

The New York Times published a simplified algorithm of what the researchers did, but you'll have more fun using the Gender Genie created by the folks at

So, scientifically speaking, do I write like a chick, or a dude? Well, the Argamon-Koppel analyses of the first chapter of both my current young-adult manuscript and my current middle-grade manuscript both end with the chipper news: "...the author of this passage is: female!"

Yes, they caught me. The real truth is, I sometimes cry at the end of novels.

Monday, February 21, 2011

My Editor is Trying to Kill Me

 Crime Scene 01 by charlesviper

The editorial letter I received a few weeks ago might be considered assault with a deadly weapon. I could probably press charges, and possibly even win if it went to trial.

My editor's weapon isn't clumsy, like a handgun or a machete or a falling anvil. No, it's the editorial equivalent of The Subtle Knife: maneuverable, lightweight, and one deft nick will bleed you out over the course of months. All my editor wants in return, before I take my last breath, is a magnificent piece of work, an epic YA fantasy, a literary-award winner. I feel the steel near my throat as she whispers this sweetly in my ear.

She's brilliant, it turns out. She knows exactly where to put her knife. The prologue and the first three chapters have some wonderful and lovely and important things in them, she says before the quick slash: they've got to go. She's confident I'll find a place to weave in the important threads later. And just in case my instinct is to negotiate, she prefaces her thoughts with the simple but incontestable words "I feel strongly." It's OK, no problem, I assure my executioner, like an exceedingly chipper Lady Jane Grey. I'll figure out another place to put that stuff! (I have no doubt that I will, it's just at this moment the where and how completely elude me.)

I hate it that she's right. But deep in my heart I know that those first pages only work if every teen reading them is in training for a bildungsroman like Jane Eyre. A whole mess of other readers will find the beginning to be too much work, and take a pass. It would be a mistake to lose them, because the rest of the book is verging on a kick-ass page-turner. And let's face it: even PhD candidates writing their dissertations about Charlotte Brontë secretly only slog through the first ten chapters to get to Mr. Rochester.

The rest of her comments are insightful and targeted and just an enormous amount of difficult thinking. To do them justice I could easily devote a decade of serious work, not the mere five months I actually have. But their hidden message reveals her brash, nearly blind faith and hope that this book could be a contender, if only I rise to the challenge; if only I'm not a wuss.

Yes, my editor is trying to kill me. And I love her for it.

Monday, February 14, 2011

My Superpower is Old Age

This weekend my son's college friend invited him out to comedy improv. This friend had just had an all-day double root canal, and was on massive antibiotics for a deep abscess. But, being twenty years old, he figured he was good to go. With two decades of pediatric medical crises under my belt, I knew differently.

"You need to rest tonight," I ordered. "You can't tell, but you're still numb from the local anesthetic, and you won't know how you really feel until tomorrow morning." I blurted this out to someone else's child without editing, like a cantankerous geezer (no wonder people are afraid of me). And that's when I realized I had discovered my superpower! And here it is: old age.

I used to envy baby authors like Laura Schechter (a.k.a. Lauren Oliver), who knew right out of college not only that she wanted to write, but what she wanted to write. She has such a head start over me, who only started tackling YA novels at age thirty, after slogging through a useless PhD in Economics and creating a family so big that people ask me point blank whether we're Catholic.

But my superpower provides a worthy challenge to her youth. There's a vast amount of knowledge that is absolutely second nature to me now that I'm old. I have magical stuff at my fingertips, and it's all based on putting one foot in front of the other for four and a half decades.

When, over the course of twenty-two years, four of your children have asthma, three of them get steroid-induced adrenal insufficiency, one of them is diagnosed with Eosinophilic Esophagitis, three have reflux, one has migraines, two of them break a limb, two of them knock a tooth out, one breaks two fingers, three of them need stitches, one gets braces, one gets Invisalign, and three need glasses, you sort of become an amateur doctor-slash-dentist-slash-orthodontist-slash-optometrist, without even realizing it.

When you've cooked over eight thousand dinners, you start to handle kitchen equipment like a chef. You know what tempering chocolate is, for Pete's sake. You can make homemade pasta faster than it takes to boil the store-bought kind.

In your recreational research you've inadvertently amassed enough biographic, discographic, and geographic information of esoteric historical characters like the Boswell Sisters to write a bloody dissertation.

You've lived in a few different places, or visited them so often you know not only what they look like, but how they feel and smell and taste, and what kinds of bugs crawl up the window screens at night.

And that's where the writing comes in: old people know. so. much. shit. You're a walking encyclopedia of a lived life. If your manuscript's plot touches on any of the topics that you're an amateur-expert at (and there are an astounding number), you won't believe how fast the setting, the dialogue, and the character's motivation pour out of you, and with such accuracy. It's like you're suddenly an evil genius.

There is a drawback to every superpower, unfortunately. For old age, it's the disintegration of your quick recall of nouns and verbs and adjectives. The word you need is right there, on the tip of your tongue, but somehow your entire brain is stammering. Thank God for technology: this is what online dictionaries are for. You can golf your way from a known noun to a desired noun in just a few clicks of the thesaurus. Or even faster: ask your teenage kids.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Portfolio of Lions

My mother-in-law was the first person to tell me Aesop's fable about the vixen and the lioness. The vixen boasts about her healthy, large litter, and sneers at the lioness's single cub. The lioness replies simply, "Yes, but mine is a lion."

Stephen King has a huge curriculum vitae. According to Wikipedia, he has published sixty-three books since 1960. If you count comic books, electronically published manuscripts, and contributions to edited volumes, the number might be something closer to eighty-eight. Good for him. Really. Many of those books are lions — enough to populate maybe a couple of prides — and he has changed the face of literature. But it raises a question for me, a writer who will turn out to be about one tenth as prolific if I'm lucky: could he have done it with fewer books? Is it possible to change the world with a small handful? Jane Austen also influenced writing immeasurably with only six novels, produced before her death at age forty-one. But she was, well, Jane Austen.

I don't know how Mr. King achieved his stats — but I suspect he hasn't spent as much time tending to children, cooking, and doing laundry as I have. In fact, I know he hasn't, because in his book, On Writing, he recommends without a second thought a "shut the door" policy for writers: set a daily word count, and shut your office door until you reach that number. Frankly, that advice only works if you're not the mommy, or if your daily word count is...ten.

So Mr. King can't be my hero, and I've chosen Franny Billingsley instead. Soon, in March as a matter of fact, she'll be your hero, too. She puts out nothing but quality. At a snail's pace. It's not that she doesn't want to write faster. I think she'd tell you that she does. But she makes sure that every single thing she writes should stay on the paper — a blessing (or a curse) passed on to her from her first editor at Atheneum, Jean Karl: "Take out every word that is not wholly necessary." I didn't even know Ms. Karl, and those words became burned into my memory merely by association with Franny.

When I'm an old woman I don't want to look back at my curriculum vitae and be happy to toss out one or two (or more) publications, knowing that no one will miss them, and that the average quality might actually be higher without them. Given how deliberate and plodding my writing career promises to be, I can't afford to grade it like a math class in which I drop the worst of my quiz scores.

No, when I'm on my death bed, I want to be able to look back at my portfolio of books and say I did the best I could with the time I had. I have to be able to say, however few there are, that they were all lions.