Friday, March 27, 2009

Accidental Copy Catting

I possess the trait I think many writers out there have wherein the ideas that inspire me enough to actually sit down and put something on paper come from the ether. Maybe a scenario or experience will spark an idea - the other day I saw two surveyors measuring and marking the street for some thing or another and thought that this might be an interesting profession to explore for a female in a male-dominated industry - and things blossom off of that original seed.

But for the most part, I get an idea from either a particular character that comes to mind fully-formed, or because there is some emotion or relationship or scenario that I want to explore. Sometimes it's a plot - what would happen if this happened or that - that inspires me. But usually my inspiration is character driven.

Rarely, I'll read a story and like the general premise but think I would have done it differently. When this kind of story inspiration strikes, I tend to ignore it other than running a few scenes through my head when I'm sitting in traffic. I worry too much about copying someone else to ever go down that road.

Which is why I'm kind of freaked right now. I've been working for quite a while on a particular story, and I'm fully in love with the characters. I've plotted things out, written many many words, and it's been the one idea that I've consistently turned to when other ideas claw their way upward vying for attention. I'm determined to finish this.

Except, in the past two days I've come across both a book series and a TV show (not based on the book - completely different) that contain elements that are uncomfortably close to my grand opus. I have neither read the book series in question nor ever watched an episode of the TV program. I swear on a stack of bibles a yard high that it is 100% coincidence that my ideas run so close to what has already been produced.

But, damn! How did this happen? How did I come up with the same thoughts as those who took it further and produced something with those ideas? Am I really that completely unoriginal? Are my "pulled from the ether" ideas really that cliché? Am I being subconsciously influenced even by pop culture that I've never directly encountered?

To say I'm discouraged is an understatement. I know that there really is no such thing as a new idea. It has all been done before. And I fully buy into the rhetoric that it's not the idea that makes something worthwhile but rather how you put your own, unique spin on it that counts. Two people can turn out completely different results when given the same basic ingredients. If this weren't the case, humankind would have long ago stopped bothering to write, paint, sing, dance or otherwise express themselves creatively because, hey, been there, seen that.

I guess I'm faced with the question of where the line is between "same basic premise, unique execution" and "same basic premise, very similar execution". How many details must be the same for it to skirt way too close to copying for comfort? And if a writer honestly - honestly - was not in any way influenced by the original by virtue of honestly - HONESTLY - not even knowing what the original was about, is it okay to stay the course?

I refuse to give up on my work. First, I've put too much time and energy into it to abandon it. Secondly, I really do love my characters. The idea of not telling their stories simply because they sounds eerily like someone else's story (either in basic structure or because of a few similar details) makes me slightly nauseated. In the end, if my eyes are the only ones that ever bear witness to what I've created, I'm even okay with that.

Sort of. Because I'm of the philosophy that writing for ones' own personal enjoyment is a great hobby, but if you have no intention of every sharing your story, why not just keep it in your head?

Perhaps my solution should be to cut myself off from all media. Currently I never, ever read any book if it even slightly resembles something I have cooking in my own mind. I don't want to ever be influenced - consciously or not - by someone else's interpretation. But clearly I am being influenced somehow.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Office

So, I finally discovered The Office.

I'd caught a random episode at one point, and I couldn't figure out what in the world people found so funny about this show. Maybe it's the absence of a laugh track to clue me in to what was supposed to be funny, but I just didn't find myself amused in any way. Office Manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell) was inane and stupid, and paper salesman Dwight Shrute (Rainn Wilson) was downright mean. I was supposed to tune in to watch these two goof balls act like idiots?

Then, a few weeks ago, I was trolling through the remote when I happened to catch the Tuesday night airings of The Office in syndication on TBS. Two episodes, which I watched intently, and I was good and hooked.

I have no idea what spurred me to give this show another try when I hadn't gotten it the first time. Actually, yes, I do know.

Jim and Pam.

In various formats I've come to learn that this couple called "Jim and Pam" are really appealing and offer up loads of UST and are just one of the cutest things to watch on TV. Since I'm always game to find a wonderful new 'shipping opportunity, I even went so far as to YouTube Jim and Pam and caught a few "My Favorite Jim and Pam Moments" vids which, to be honest, were enough to catch me up to their story and convince me that, yes, they seem to be 'ship-worthy. I figured if I ever got the chance, maybe I'd tune in again if only so I could watch this lovely couple get their romance on.

Come to find out, when I watched those two rerun episodes that Tuesday night, I was jumping into the Karen-As-Obstacle chapters of the Jim and Pam romance. Even though this might be consider the lowest valley in the Jim/Pam relationship rollercoaster, I still found them compelling as both a couple and as individual characters. Plus, what do you know, some of the other characters were kind of funny as well.

Some easy wikipedia reading caught me up, I set my DVR to record any old and new episodes, and headed to Amazon to see how cheaply I could find Seasons 1, 2, 3 or 4 in the "Buy New/Used" section.

Over the past week, I've watched all of Season 1, all of Season 2, most of Season 3 (the local Blockbuster didn't have the 3rd disc on hand for rental) and the Season 5 episodes that have aired in the last few weeks.

What I don't get is why in the world I didn't find this show hilarious the first time I saw it. This show is a roll-on-the-floor scream! And it's not just the Jim/Pam romance that keeps me hooked. It's Michael taking the women of the office shopping at Victoria's Secret and Dwight giving Pam a hanky to wipe away her tears and The Dundies and Bob Vance of Vance Refrigeration and Jan's boob job and creepy Creed (actually, he's the one character I do not like) and the entire premise and execution and all of it. This show is a masterpiece. Of course there's no laugh track. You don't need a laugh track.

And there is Jim. Oh my goodness, there is Jim. What a wonderful hero. He's every-guy. The perfect template for the true beta-hero. He's cute but not gorgeous, sweet and charming but just a little bit goofy. He's romantic but clueless, he's naughty but not cruel. His sense of humor is right up my alley - sarcastic and dry and amused by the absurd. John Krasinski owns this character, and if I worked for Dunder Mifflin Scranton branch, he'd be the reason I showed up at the office every single day. Never before could I have imagined a fantasy wherein I was a receptionist for a paper company.

Pam and Jim's romance has been absolutely perfect. Friends who feel more than friendship, kept apart by Pam's relationship with another man. When Jim confessed his feelings for her at the end of Season 1, I wanted to melt. And knowing that she wanted to be with him as well but felt she couldn't leave Roy...perfect. Then it was too late. Jim was gone and then he had Karen. Or had he?

Best thing about this relationship is how it unfolded so realistically. Just as such a relationship would in this situation, an office friendship turned romance. You can imagine the daily flirting, the lunches together and shared experiences that little by little by little push these two together and deepen their feelings for each other. That's the way we as viewers got to experience it as well. Each episode gave us the same tiny amount of development that one might expect in the real world, nothing huge, no grand gestures or dramatic events. Just a slow evolution that seems very organic but is unmistakable in its direction. Thus the obstacles standing in the way seemed natural as well. You can believe in this relationship because it's based in our reality.

It will be interesting to see how Pam and Jim's engagement and (presumable) new marriage will play out.

One thing I have come to know about this show is that it does need to be experienced from the beginning to fully appreciate. To a casual drop-in viewer, Dwight's antics and Michael's incompetence come across as absurd (see my above experience). You have to live with these characters to understand them, to care for them and understand their appeal. I think that's what was wrong when I saw my first episode. I had no background from which to gain context, so Michael and Dwight came off as stupid rather than funny. Now I've had a chance to see their layers and their actions make a lot more sense.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

He's A Magic Man

Holy Cow!

Why do I find this guy amazingly sexy?

He is everything not what I normally imagine when I think of my "perfect guy."

First of all, he's openly gay. Not that I have any issue with homosexuality. But I'm a woman, so the preferring of the males kind of doesn't work for me so much.

Secondly, he's really embraced the whole goth/emo look, complete with black fingernail polish and guy-liner so thick he probably goes through more in one night than I have in my entire life. I've never been big on fingerless black leather gloves or jet-black hair dyed colors not found in nature. I've never been a big fan of any look that requires so darned much effort to affect. Give me a pair of faded Levis, a white tee shirt and a comfy gray hoodie any day of the week for pure honest sexiness. Same with the hair. If I have to fight my guy for the flatiron, something isn't right.

And if all that weren't enough "not my cuppa", the guy looks like he's rocking some ear gauges. I hate - HATE - ear gauges. Granted his aren't the inch-wide, disfiguring horrors they could be, and they are black and thus blend in with his hair. Still...ick.

He's not an alpha male, at least not in the traditional sense. He's a hard core theatre boi, as far from the special operator/firefighter/super spy/he-man manly man as any male could probably be. He's prettier than most women, and not in that masculine male-model way. He's androgyny personified.

So what is it about American Idol contestant Adam Lambert that has me glued to the screen whenever he's performing? I simply cannot look away. I'm mesmerized.

I find him to be walking, talking sex appeal on a stick. He's a gay man who makes straight women want to do very wrong things. He's the antidote to vanilla. He's the thing that entices you into the dark and keeps you coming back for more. He's Spike. He's that boy your mama warned you about but you just can't stay away from.

And I have absolutely no idea why this is. Really.

I do know that I'm not the only one who has reacted to him this way. In last night's critique of his performance, Kara DioGuardi told Adam that he made her feel "confused, but happy." I'm so on board with this. Completely.

Or, as recapper Jacob put it in his latest AI recap on TWoP:

"It is... I hate this, because he makes me talk like Paula because people words don't work for things that are essentially otherworldly, so every week it's difficult to describe without resorting to these weird labored metaphors. So -- beyond saying that the Jeff Buckley vocal resemblance gets stronger every week and somebody needs to mention that already -- like... It's sort of like what if that movie Queen Of The Damned were not only real, but interested in slipping you a roofie and selling you on the black market. He screeches out some kind of artsy orgasm and nearly pulls his shirt up over his head, and then just starts wailing like some forgotten homosexual Greek myth about sailors that never come home. It's... Totally awesome. Of course. I feel weird and crazy, and entertained. Those sudden register shifts used to freak me out with Jeff Buckley too, like, "And now I am a lady... And now I am a dude again." I can't imagine how uncomfortable that must have been for lots and lots of people."

There just aren't the right kind of words out there to describe what goes through my head when Adam performs. It's beyond me.

I can identify one undeniable aspect of his appeal, at least as far as I go. Adam simply oozes confidence. He knows who he is, what he is, what he wants to be, and he makes zero apologies to anyone for any of it. I think confidence is the sexiest trait a man can have, and Adam has it in spades. When he's on it, he owns the stage.

I admit, Adam is an extremely polarizing performer. You pretty much either love him (!) or hate him. You get him or you don't. Unfortunately, from what I've garnered on various message boards and via various Idol reviews, getting him/liking him or not is much dependent on where you stand in general conservativeness or liberalness. Seems like the Obama supporters are on board whereas the McCain/Pallin cheer team simply doesn't get him. I think you have to have a pretty wide open mind in order to appreciate the experience that is Adam Lambert.

You can check out the video of his performance last night here. Check out the rest of his videos if you want to see if you, too, will fall victim to Adam's brand of magic.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Should Be a Four Letter Word

There are a few words in the English language that I cannot stand to hear spoken. One of those words is a racial slur, and two others are slang for parts of the female anatomy. Honestly, I hear those words and my skin crawls and I want to find a hole to hide in.

But now there is another word that causes me to cringe when I hear it used in a particular context - cougar.

I'm talking about cougar when defined as: a woman, usually over the age of 35, who seeks out the sexual attention of men who are younger than she is, usually in their early-to-mid twenties.

Basically, cougar as it is used to describe the female version of a dirty old man.

The local radio station that I listen to recently ran a gag wherein they were sponsoring a "cougar" party, stocking the event with young guys and inviting self-proclaimed or wannabe cougars to call in and win chances to attend. The radio station would play a snarling cougar sound byte as part of the promo, and every single time I heard that sound, I had to turn the station.

I have no idea why this irritates me so much. Maybe it's because I'm over 35 and the idea of anyone thinking of me as a cougar humiliates me. I do appreciate the pleasing face and form of a young, physically fit male, but I'm in no way on the prowl. In my world, cougar is far from a compliment.

Too, I can't get out of my head the stereotypical image of a middle aged woman, face painted with layers of makeup, body stuffed into lycra pants and a gaudy beaded top, cruising the bars looking to score. This is just as bad as the depiction of some balding middle aged guy cruising college campuses in his mid-life crisis vehicle, looking to score some young ass. Ick on so many levels.

I guess I also have issue with what I perceive is certain amount of desperation being turned into some kind of joke. I'm sure there are many cougars out there who love their lives, are happy with their choices, and are very proud of their ability (after a certain age) to attract the attention of younger men. But for me, the word cougar denotes a certain amount of desperation and neediness - that these women must have the attention of younger (and presumably attractive) men in order to validate themselves. If this is the case, why is it okay to make that into a joke? Nobody thinks it's okay to be a dirty old man. And certainly no radio station I know of would consider sponsoring a "Dirty Old Man" event wherein men over the age of 35 or 40 are encouraged to call in so that they can win a chance to attend a party stocked full of women in their early twenties.

Of course, my pity is probably unwarranted. These cougars are probably having the greatest sex possible and should be the subjects of envy. Somehow, though, I can't manage that reaction.

I'm not a fan of extreme May/December romances, which I admit is totally unreasonable. No reason an older woman can't or shouldn't find love and happiness with a younger man. But I've figured out why I have a problem with it - I can't manage to get rid of the cougar factor.

Monday, March 02, 2009

This Is Good Writing?

Holy cow. Ever have one of those reading experiences that leaves you wondering in complete bafflement why in the world that particular book ever got published?

I'm not talking having a problem with the plot being full of holes or the characters acting TSTL. I'm talking about the writing just being so bad that you can't believe that this is what passes for publishable writing?

Over the weekend I tackled my To Be Read pile, which has begun to take over my house. I realized there are really a lot of books that I own that I'm just dying to read, and I need to get busy. So I grabbed a YA title off the top of the pile and crawled into bed an hour early.

After the first chapter, I was left shaking my head over the narrative voice, which was so scattered that it made buckshot look like a laser beam. The story was told in the first person, so I can handle some amount of stream-of-consciousness flow. But this was so out there, all I could think was that the narrator - a young, 15 year old girl - must be afflicted with schizophrenia. The dialog was equally random, with non sequiturs so abundant I wondered if parts of the text had gotten deleted from the file used to create the printing press plates.

Then there were the type Os that somehow squeaked past copy editing. In a book of 80,000 plus words, you've got to expect the occasional missed type O. But I found six - SIX! - within the first two chapters alone. And these are ones that jumped out at me. I wasn't looking for them with a fine toothed comb. Some copy editor out there is highly overpaid.

But what really got me was just how bad the writing was. I mean, it was just bad. It reminded me of a rough draft, where a writer just brain dumps the story with the intention of going back and fixing sentences to avoid duplication of words (within the same sentence!) and make things less awkward wording-wise. But in this case, that second (or third or fourth) pass was never done, and the book reads like a very amateur offering.

I'm not discussing this to rant about my disappointment over the book. More, I'm just a bit confused and frustrated that something like this got published in the first place. For the past five years, I've paid a lot of attention to the publishing process, following with keen interest the anecdotes and advice offered by published writers of all different success levels as well as editors and other publishing professionals. And the the one issue that always comes up first is how competitive the industry is and how good you have to be to make it to the top of the pile.

But then I read something like this and I have to wonder that if THIS is what represents something someone in the publishing industry considers good writing, what is going on?

When people don't like a book because of story or character, you don't necessarily need to wonder what the editor/publisher was thinking for printing it. If the writing is good, then other aspects are subjective enough to believe the decisions were a matter of taste. But when the writing itself is bad - so bad that you can't get over it to even see the story or characters - what is the answer to the question of why this particular writer is considered "good enough" to be published? I just don't get it.

Because this book is a YA title, I had the scary suspicion that no one thinks it needs to be any better that it is, given the target audience. It's okay to print crap because the only people who read this stuff anyway are teenage girls. How discouraging that idea is.

I couldn't stomach this book enough to finish it, so I started to toss it in the bag to be taken to the used book store, only to pause thinking that maybe my daughter would want to read it in a couple of years. But heck if I want her to read this tripe. Into the bag it goes.

But here's the real WTF moment for me. Wondering if anyone else out there (everyone else!) agreed with my assessment of this book, I went searching for some online reviews. I was horrified - All About Romance gave this title a B-, and one YA review site simply raved about how great this book was.

Am I really that off base? I am not a literary snob by any means. My standards are not uber high. This was really, really bad. I would love to post excerpts here and gather other opinions, but that's a douchey thing to do. Darn it.