Thursday, August 23, 2007

Wednesday at Bryant Park: “We Love Chick Lit” Panel Discussion

This is from Richard Grayson's MySpace blog on Thursday, August 23, 2007:
Wednesday at Bryant Park: “We Love Chick Lit” Panel Discussion

On Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. I was in the audience under the dark skies and unseasonably cool temperatures that have been prevalent in New York this week for a Bryant Park Reading Room panel discussion called (to the apparent surprise of some of the participants) "We Love Chick Lit." (The Bryant Park Reading Room is not really a room as far as I can tell but a space in the park – a place you really wanted to avoid 20 and 30 years ago but now a midtown Manhattan oasis: lunch spot, meeting place and hangout.)

The wry Ned Vizzini, author of Be More Chill and It's Kind of a Funny Story, was an inspired choice as moderator. The Bryant Park Bookworm, librarian Miriam Tuliao introduced Ned and the panelists:

Jennifer Belle, author of the novels Going Down, High Maintenance and the new Little Stalker;

Caprice Crane, who's followed her 2006 fiction debut Stupid and Contagious with the new Forget About It;

My friend Megan Crane, whose books include English as a Second Language, Everyone Else's Girl and the new Frenemies; and

Carrie Karasyov, co-author of Wolves in Chic's Clothing and The Right Address and author of the new The Infidelity Pact.

Ned's first question to the panel was about the "log line," the need to be able to summarize your book in a sentence or two. Did the authors think this was important and what's the log line for their latest book.

Jennifer jokingly said it was important for going to cocktail parties because when someone asked you to describe your book and you told them the log line, it would immediately stop the conversation. Little Stalker is about a one-time successful 33-year-old author who finds herself blocked; obsessed with a Woody Allen-like director, she pretends to be a 13-year-old when she contacts him, eventually healing a painful childhood experience in the process. (My notes are less articulate than Jennifer or the other panelists.)

Caprice said yes, you need to be able to tell your story in a sentence for commercial purposes, but while you're writing, you should forget about the log line and write aimlessly. Forget About It is about a girl who fakes amnesia in order to reinvent herself.

Megan said, also jokingly, that she would usually, "Um, my book is about a girl…" Frenemies, she said, is about figuring out whether someone is really your friend or your enemy or maybe both.

Carrie said as a screenwriter she's used to giving pitches like it's Silence of the Lambs meets The Parent Trap or it's Jaws meets When Harry Met Sally. The Infidelity Pact is about four married women in L.A. who agree to cheat on their husbands for one year – and the one who finds out ends up dead.

Ned then noted that an "elevator pitch" is an extended version of the log line, then segued into a discussion of how writers name their characters.

Jennifer said the rule is that you name characters what their parents would have named them and then not let naming slow you down in the writing process. For characters who resemble actual famous people, lawyers advise not to use the same first initial.

Caprice also wrote screenplays and by now she feels she's run out of names. She struggles with them and sometimes changes them.

Megan said names come to her in a flash or not at all, and even when she sees her published books, she feels some characters' names are not "still wrong" for them, but she's glad she didn't obsess over names.

Carrie said she's obsessed with names; when she wrote with a partner, she was the one who did the naming while her partner wrote the titles.

Ned's next question was about strategies for writing when you're blocked.

After saying she was freezing (and yes, it was mighty chilly for August), Jennifer said that she is gentle with herself and not like some authors who force themselves to start writing at 7 a.m. She writes in the afternoons on computers, in cafes, and does not allow the word "blocked" to enter her mind while working on a book.

Caprice said she gets distracted by TiVo, dogs and IMing but not blocked. She'll take herself out of the office and go write in Starbucks, where there are no dogs or TiVo – but she can still IM there. She forces herself to write something, anything.

Megan said her writing blocks clear up immediately upon contemplating her mammoth debt; presumably finishing the book will help get her bills down to size. She said she doesn't really have blocks but instead has panic attacks.

Carrie said she'll go into bookstores and see how many books there are and how many writers and contemplate that writing is not a gift, it's kind of a job that just needs to get done.

Ned said putting all his money directly into checking and watching the balances diminish motivates him to write. He asked Caprice if she's distracted at Starbucks by other people and their conversations. She said she wears headphones that block out all the noise but music. Nick then asked the panelists about distractions and if they listen to music when they write.

Jennifer, who won't go to Starbucks but goes to other cafes said she sometimes can't help being distracted by people walking potbellied pigs down the street; she has a lovely country house with a gazebo set up for privacy and contemplation – and she can't write a word there. She disagreed with Carrie and feels writing is indeed a precious gift.

Caprice said she listens to music a lot and on one book listened to the same recording artist practically nonstop; it's not distracting to her.

Megan said she can't listen to lyrics so has to rely on classical and instrumental music; she also needs to face a blank wall when she's writing.

Carrie said she can't write and listen to music. Although she once needed a quiet place, now she has two kids and learned to zone out the noise.

Ned noted that he worked in the Brooklyn public library and that he sometimes got distracted by psychotic patrons who repeatedly hit themselves in the face.

Then he asked the panel about writing as craft versus "precious gift" and how much of their writing comes immediately as perfect and how much they labor over.

Jennifer said she didn't really know, that she went to her computer with an open mind and heart, writing what she feels. Sometimes she gets it right immediately, but she's also constantly reworking her prose.

Caprice said that when her writing is really flowing, she doesn't even want to sleep. Sometimes that's her best writing.

Megan said some of writing is a gift, the rest is craft, and that in her final product she can't tell the difference between pages she struggled over and those that happened with little effort.

Jennifer said that while writing sometimes feel like hard work, she never looks at it as a boring job; it's a privilege to be a writer.

Carrie said writing is a precious gift but also a craft. There are tons of amazing geniuses but not all end up being working writers. Many people have brilliant ideas but can't express them. She quote the film Finding Forrester (not a great movie, she said): the most important thing is simply to write.

Writing isn't a divine gift, Carrie said. Your writing will resonate with some people and not others.

Ned mentioned Dostoevsky and how many of his great novels were occasioned by the urgent need to support his family and pay off his gambling debts. He asked the writers about their typical writing day.

Jennifer said she's not strict about it, that she'll go to a café, write in her journal and get on the phone to argue to someone that chick lit has set women's writing back hundreds of years. (This seemed to change the tenor of the discussion). Jennifer noted that she's got a baby and must be flexible because of that.

Caprice said she doesn't have a set schedule and often writes from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. Megan said she doesn't have a set schedule either and likes being able to go to movies in the morning and never argues with anyone about chick lit. Carrie said she's had a partner and has kids so she can't have a set schedule either.

Ned then took up the question of chick lit.

Jennifer said her first and second books came out before the term chick lit was invented by a magazine writer and then it began being used, much to the financial detriment of women writers whose work is monetarily devalued as mere chick lit. She said she doesn't think anyone really sets out to write chick lit – not her students at the New School, whose meaningful books list show gender differences. Every woman student mentions books by men as well as women authors, but no male student ever mentions a woman author as his favorite. No man will ever buy a book marketed as chick lit, and Jennifer thinks that's sad. She's not a chick lit author but an angry writer girl.

Caprice said she was surprised to learn that this panel would be called "We Love Chick Lit": "Who knew?" The problem is that we are limiting ourselves to only half the potential audience. Chick lit, she said, is 8 letters that can be rearranged into two 4-letter words. One way of looking at it, though, is that women are the vast majority of book readers. She's written a book with an alternating point of view, male and female, saying she doesn't want to limit herself.

Megan said simply that she hopes everyone will read her books and that chick lit was just a marketing term; it's also allowed voices to be heard that were not before (Jennifer shook her head vigorously at this). Megan said chick lit gives insight into different women's lives and that's good.

Jennifer replied that there were just as many books by women published before chick lit existed, and Megan asked her to name some of them; Jennifer said she was one of many and that "you demean yourself" by calling yourself a chick lit author.

Carrie said she had no problem with chick lit, that one of her books was called "gossip lit" in the New York Times. Some people are offended by categories, but that's how things are marketed.

Megan said if chick lit creates a debate, that's good.

Ned asked about lad lit as a male equivalent, and the panel said there's not really such a thing, that men don't buy so-called lad lit books and women don't either.

Jennifer said she's just glad her new book doesn't have a cover with women's legs, and someone in the audience said she thought chick lit was all about the same story of an urban young woman in a shitty job trying to have a good relationship with a guy. That to her was chick lit.

Megan said no, that's how chick lit started but it has evolved. Jennifer again noted that chick lit allows publishers to pay women authors a fraction of what they pay men, but the others on the panel disagreed.

An agent in the audience said some of her "literary" male authors don't make as much as her chick lit authors. More women buy books, the agent said, and more buy chick lit books than any other genre, so it's a good way to get readers into bookstores. The agent noted that she gets a lot of chick lit manuscripts from would-be clients, but that lad lit doesn't work and writers themselves aren't really interested in producing it.

An audience member said she hated pink, fluffy chick lit covers. No guy, she said, would ever buy a pink book. Carrie said lots of people do love pink covers, that they have come back in fashion after a hiatus.

Near the end of the panel, an audience member asked what writers the panelists were inspired by.

Jennifer said Jean Rhys, Chekhov, Salinger, Tennessee Williams and others. Caprice gave a shout-out to J.K. Rowling and said she likes Jonathan Tripper a lot but was also inspired by early books like The Poky Little Puppy, and when she was a bit older, The Little Prince. Megan said she loved comfort books, like romances, which are predictable, and mentioned Nora Roberts and David Feinberg. Carrie said she loved Dostoevsky, Austen and especially Nabokov, but the book that most inspired her most to write was Donna Tartt's The Secret History.

Soon the hour was up and Ned thanked the panelists. All their books were on sale, and a number of the people in the audience went up to buy books and speak with the authors under the statue of William E. Dodge, the nineteenth-century industrialist, abolitionist and advocate of temperance, as a woman began to play a chartreuse piano and the rain, which had held off all day, started to come down a bit more heavily.

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