Book Gadget v0.72

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What Lady Gaga Taught Me about Fiction Writing

Yesterday I watched Weird Al Yankovic’s video parody of Lady Gaga, and I ended up reading a lot of  posts criticizing her.  The usual stuff.  How her music is "superficial crap," how she is nothing more than a Madonna clone, and how her weirdness was carefully crafted for marketing purposes and is not who she really is.

First, I want to say that I’m not the biggest Lady Gaga fan, but whenever millions of people are responding positively to something, I pay attention.  I pay attention for the simple reason that I don't believe they can all be wrong.  Plus, I don't want to miss out on the fun!  Is her music superficial crap?  I don't know, but I happen to like some of it, and I like some of her outrageous videos as well. 

Second, yes, of course the woman has influences!  She is an artist. She acknowledges that Madonna is one of her sources of inspiration.  She also cites Queen and David Bowie.  If you look at her work, you can clearly see the mark of all those superstars.  In turn, if you study Madonna and Queen and David Bowie, you will see their influences, too.  And so on, all the way back to the beginning of music.

But third—the accusation that her weirdness is not genuine—well, this brings me to the subject this post.
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The Paradox of Weirdness

One of the most interesting things about success—and I’m talking about success in any field, not just the music business—is that being weird or different is ultimately the most important factor.  Yet, ironically, when you first set out to be successful at something, it seems everyone you encounter pressures you to be like those ahead of you who have already established themselves, to conform to the formula that results from studying the already-successful group as a whole. If you succumb to this pressure, you will inevitably be lost in the sea of other wanna-bees who are following the same formula.
 
Two perfect examples are Cindy Crawford and Arnold Schwarzenegger. When Cindy Crawford began her modeling career, she was repeatedly told by agency owners to have the “unsightly” birthmark removed over her upper lip or she would never make it as a model.  Yet that “unsightly” facial feature became her trademark, the characteristic that set her apart from every other model she was competing against.  It played a significant role in her rise to stardom.

Similarly, Arnold Schwarzenegger was repeatedly told that he would never be successful in Hollywood unless he lost his Austrian accent—“American audiences don’t like foreign accents” was the mantra.  Yet who can ever forget those famous words, “Hasta la vista, baby!” that made motion picture history.  Had they not been uttered in that deadpan, self-assured accent that is pure Arnold, would they have had the same impact?  I think not.

I’ve personally run up against this paradox over and over again in my own work.  It started with my very first novel, Wild Child, which the big NY publishers said was too short.  But I tend to write short books, it’s my style and a way I’m different from many other writers, especially the long-winded ones.  I tried lengthening the book to please the industry experts, but it slowed down the pace.  I eventually published the novel myself, and it went on to be a very successful book.  What is one of the most common praises? “Wild Child is a short, super fast-paced read!”

The same type of thing happened with my book Lust, Money & Murder—the publishers said the protagonist, Elaine Brogan, was “too plain,” that she needed to be more of a superhero.  But that was the whole point!  This is a thriller about an ordinary young woman who goes on to do extraordinary things,  butts heads with one of the most dangerous criminals in the world.  She's able to do this not because she’s a superwoman, but out of sheer tenacity and determination, simple qualities that are within everyone's reach.  I withdrew the book and published it myself.  Readers love this story, and one of the main reasons is that Elaine Brogan is an ordinary person that everyone can identify with. 

Similarly, I was told by the big publishers that readers would find an “evil” baby offensive.  And later:  no female readers are interested in the romantic affairs of a New Age playboy.  Yet my novels Baby Talk and Cosmic Casanova are both receiving outstanding reviews.

Odd, isn’t it?    

The very elements the experts criticize and want changed always turn out to be the strongest elements of my books.

It takes courage to fly in the face of all that criticism and advice (well-meaning, I'm sure) and stick to your guns, to maintain your uniqueness.  At times you really wonder if you're shooting yourself in the foot by not conforming. 

So, back to Lady Gaga, and the third criticism I mentioned.  Is her weirdness natural, or is it part of her act?

The answer is, it doesn't matter.  The fact that she's different is a major factor in her success, there's no doubt about that.  It took a lot of guts to do what she's done.

Lady Gaga, even though I know you will never read my words on my little blog, I thank you for the inspiration.

You dare to be different.

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30 comments:

  1. How was I not following your blog before? Unsightly error corrected now! ;) I was sent by Samantha Warren and I must say, I'm so glad I listened! I think this problem of "fitting in" extends outward into the disdain many readers are having with the saturated markets out there. Everyone wants to jump on the vampire/werewolf/paranormal bandwagon and many don't understand why these trends were hawt in the first place. As a writer, it's important, IMHO, to be yourself. Find your voice and move forward fearlessly.

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  2. I think weirdness is often simply the audience having not caught up to accept the new-something. I can take almost any fantasy or science fiction book and show it to my mother and get glared for being weird for liking such stuff. Yet if I find a buddy who is into that stuff, they connect instantly. But Lady Gaga has done something that is hard to match--she has created a huge audience who would have never accepted the next level of creative genius to accept just that and not just label it as weird and move on. Now the rest of us so-called weird folk have a better chance at being noticed in turn. Unfortunately not everyone accepts change, or are open-minded to differences and sadly that's still a huge chunk of the planet. Too many droids, not enough artists.

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  3. Whether you like her or not she is following her dream and doing what she loves to do and we should all have the courage to go against the what others believe is normal and get our weird on. Kudos to you Mike for also being "weird" and doing what you knew was right for you.

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  4. Wow, Mike. You really made me stop and think. While I still feel it's important to have a good GMC and story structure, you never know what kind of character will click with readers. I'll keep this post in mind as I revise my new release "Someone Else's Daughter."

    I've got "Wild Child" on my Kindle and am looking forward to reading it. :)

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  5. Thanks for these great comments! Linsey, good luck with your revision and let me know how you like Wild Child.

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  6. I like short books, too. I think publishers want long ones for reasons of economy of scale. It costs X to set up a 100 page book and only a little more for a 400 page one but they can charge much more for the 'airport blockbuster'. I also like short stories and am doing my best to restart the genre through running a community college course 'Become A Published Author'. At the end, as well as some tips on writing, everyone gets published in a paperback anthology. We are getting to be known as 'The Rorschach School' after the book titles (so far 'The Rorschach Collective' and 'The Rorschach Continuum' are out there via Lulu.com)So many creative writing courses are out there teaching and taking fees but then what? The student has to do a "How to be published' course. SO I combine the two and hope in time to have ten Rorschach anthologies we can sell and help bring back short stories, novellas and so on into vogue. Loving your blogs BTW. I will download the books too. Cheers Perry

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  7. Perry, that's a great idea--I've never heard of a writing course like that! I love the name, too! I'll check it out. I appreciate the feedback on the blog as well.

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  8. Very well-put! I'm not a Gaga fan particularly, but the minute I saw one Youtube vid of her, I knew immediately that whatever the source of her "stand-outness" is, the fact that she stands out and doesn't fit with the norm works for her very well. I definitely see how the analogy works for writing as well.

    I write urban fantasy that smacks heavily of CSI (main inspiration...what can I say, I didn't stray far from my criminal justice degree!). Wild Child is on my to-read list!

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  9. Great post! Our own creative fingerprint is what we have to offer the world. I think we each instinctively know what that is and just need to put it out there for other like-minded people to find.

    Inglath Cooper
    www.inglathcooper.com

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    1. Fabulous write Mike. Yes, one has to have the guts to be different and that really counts. Bold literature too count, literature which is honest pulls people to read it.

      juliadutta.blogspot.com
      Twitter: @Juliadytta

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  10. Fabulous post Mike. You can also file this under never judge a book by it's cover. Just because it's wrapped in a pretty package doesn't mean it's worth reading even if it fits in the neat box that the industry is selling.

    We are writers and catering to the mass audience is in no way or shape creative. One of the reasons why we write is so that our unique voice can be heard.

    As for the divine Lady Gaga, she is super talented. Her antics aside, take her music down to the basic form and you will find a savvy, intelligent, introspective dreamer that has the talent to make you sit up and notice.

    Can't wait for you next fast paced release Mike.

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  11. Thanks Lizzie and Inglath, I appreciate your comments.

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  12. Oh how right you are. There are many shelves lined with books that someone chose to publish that is absolute rubbish. Probably those books, like Wild Child, started off as something amazing that was tweaked and twisted beyond all original recognition. How sad. I have a dear writer friend who is always worried about word count. I told her to stop worrying about it. That fluffing and padding her stories was a huge mistake. She argued back, "but I have to consider the "big 6" long term." Sigh...whatever. I disagree. Just like I disagree about never sharing your opinion on controversial subjects. Anyway, I digress...I loved this post. Thank you for sharing it with us, Mike.

    People complaining about artists like Nickleback and Lady Gaga crack me up. Their work is enjoyable. It's WHY it sells. It does not have to be profound or make some statement...it can just be plain simple entertainment.

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  13. A thought-provoking and inspiring post in more ways than one. Thank you. As a student of creative writing, I and my colleagues are learning about techniques that have worked for other writers. We are also regularly subject to critical feedback on our work. This has led, as I'm sure most people know, to a 'creative-writing-course style' effect, as those of us who are doing these courses find our unique wrinkles and gnarbly bits smoothed out by our experienced tutors. I have learnt a great deal and am grateful for that. I suppose the trick has to be deciding what's a mistake and what's a unique trademark. I am hoping that this will come with experience.

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  14. Great post! I think that it's important to retain your own voice and be willing to break the rules every once in a while--provided, of course, that you knew they were there in the first place and are breaking them deliberately for effect.

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  15. I loved this post, Mike! I actually listed Gaga in my book's acknowledgements for being such an inspiration...I love what she has done, that she creates her own music, and that she doesn't let the self-doubt get her down. She really is an amazing artist.

    I keep thinking lately about my life path, potential success, and how it might (or might not) happen. In 2003, I quit film school, which had been my life dream, because I knew in my gut it wasn't the right path. It was the scariest decision I had ever made at that point, but as a result, new channels opened in front of me. Now, I've started a publishing company, I have a book coming out, and I'm working on screenplay that might actually get made into a film. It pays to take risks, even if it only pays in the currency of self-expansion. Good for you that it has paid in other ways as well! :-)

    I hope your 2012 has started out well, and keep up the awesome writing!

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  16. Great post Mike! So true! And thanks for sharing your story of success for sticking with your own guns! Well done!

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  17. Very nice meditation on honoring our own unique talents! Thank you.

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  18. Great post. You really take the bull by the horns. I am blogging about serialized eBook authors and making a difference and your post just makes my day.

    I totally agree that it does not matter who she might have imitated. Her expression and interpretation of arts sell. In order for me to make a difference today, I must finish the blog and other assignments. Challenging but fun.

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  19. Fabulous write Mike. Yes, one has to have the guts to be different and that really counts. Bold literature too count, literature which is honest pulls people to read it.

    juliadutta.blogspot.com
    Twitter: @Juliadutta

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  20. As always, well worth my time. Thanks Mike!

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  21. Thanks Mike you made me look at weird in a different and positive way. I like the idea of a short, super fast-paced read. I look forward to read one of your books so which one shall i pick?.well I'll let you know after I read. thanks for an interesting post :)

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  22. Thanks for your comment, Yamini, glad the post was helpful. About which of my books to read, I would recommend Lust, Money & Murder, as it's my most popular. You can download Book 1 free in all e-formats here - dld.bz/afHzG

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    1. Or click on the photo of the cover at the top of the left-hand column of this page

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  23. Terrific post and very insightful. And it just goes to show, whether you're weird or ordinary, stay true to who you are and keep your own voice, because regardless of comparisons, it's unique and all yours.

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  24. What an awesome post. Thanks Mike. In my Senior English class, one day, my teacher said I was an iconoclast. Now being seventeen-ish I was automatically on the defensive and got mad and stormed out. She caught me and asked if I knew the definition of the word. I said that I didn't and she told me to look it up.

    She was right. I tend to do what I want to do and not what the masses are doing because it is the normal convention or socially acceptable. After I learned the word's definition, I was proud that she called me an Iconoclast. I hope that my "style" shows it in my writing.

    I will not bend to one person's opinion that I need to change it just to suite them. I will let the readers decide if they like the work or not.

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  25. An important reminder for writers reading critiques. Don't let the heart of your story get changed. Ever. Hold onto your vision.

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  26. I think that, as always, you seem to have an uncanny way of expressing the obvious in a simple way

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