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Personal twist or codpiece fetish?

codpiece.gifDo you watch American Idol? If so, you’ll hear the acerbic Simon Cowell use a three-pronged barb of criticism over and over. One is, "that was precocious." Another being "that was indulgent" and the last is usually something like, "talent-wise you’re on the Titanic with a valise full of bowling balls"—see, I could be a judge.

It’s the first two that jog my brain. 1) Precocious—pretending you're something you’re not (yet). 2) Indulgent––celebrating your own personal tastes. Two ends of the spectrum where I think all artists get pinched in this Malachi Crunch.

It happens with writers too. This writer, anyway. I find myself wondering if I’m being something I’m not, or being too personal––arriving at that place where your writing is nothing more than a giant buffet for one. Dig in!

Why is this hard? Because writing reflects who you are. I’m a modern, urbanized kid, raised in a Chinese home. I’m a Rubik’s cube of cultural quirks. So if this bubbles over in my work, am I being too indulgent? Am I being something I’m not? Or am I just being me. (Cue the Gavin DeGraw music, maestro).

Here’s a sample query letter (rough); you’ll see where I’m going with this:


I must admit I hate Asian stereotypes. You know the ones. Good at math. Hardworking. Likes to gamble. Come to think of it, that last one might hold water. After all, my father taught me how to play craps long before my eyes set upon a chessboard. And my Grandparents met in the gaming parlor of the most notorious speakeasy in Chinatown.

Maybe there’s something there after all. Which is probably why my novel has a little to do with that particular vice.

Anyway, the working title is
Surefire and when people ask me what the heck it’s all about I usually tell them something along these lines:

"After winning the lottery, Edwin Lee skips town and heads to Vegas to bet it all––at the urging of his uncle, a degenerate gambler who also happens to be dead."

But it’s more complicated than that. It’s a bittersweet fable about money. About family. It’s about winning and losing both.

For our 30-something protagonist, there’s also an Asian-American subcurrent:

"...well, for one, you said
baak gui, but I think you meant bak gwai!" Edwin unwrapped his chopsticks, rolling his eyes. "You meant to say ghosts, but just said the place is filled with white devils––honkys. You sound like a Chinese Farrakhan."

I’m half-Chinese, but a 3rd generation American. I have feet planted in the soil of two cultures. While my book has a mix of Asian characters, it’s not really about Chinese culture in any way. There are no flashbacks to the "old country". It’s modern. It’s strange. But it’s what I know. In trying to be uniquely me, am I being precocious, or too indulgent? Take a look at your own work in progress, and ask yourself the same thing. Let me know what you find.

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Reader Comments (14)

Very introspective, although I have no real answer to your question. Except that "strange" as you put it may not be so strange these days, since there are lots more people like you with no personal flashbacks to the "old country".
May 14, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjackt
My latest post would have to be precocious. If anything, I'm trying to pretend I'm a newspaper columnist, and it doesn't come off sounding right.

But I ain't messin' with it. It's part of the process.
May 14, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Hatadi
I think I'm pretending to be precocious. Indulge me.

A true artist has only what he is. Everything else is marketing. Create your art, and let the soulless market it for you.

Now I think I'm pretending to be a cynic. Thanks for indulging me.
May 14, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMark Pettus
I hate to be the opposite of precocious, but I'm not certain I understand the question...

You feel guilty because you wrote a book about a 30-something Asian-American who isn't good at Math?
Any chance you were Italian in a past life? Because we got that guilt thing right down. I wrote about a bunch of Italians and not one of them is mafioso. Or in construction.

Don't tell anybody, okay?
May 15, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterm.g. tarquini
Thanks Jackt, that's what I'm beginning to realize.

May 15, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjamie
Hey, Jamie--

I always thought that if you write based on your own unique style, it's not indulgent and it's not precocious, but I might just be indulging my own sense of self-importance by pretending to comment.

So take that with a grain of salt and keep writing.

May 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Hurtubise
standing at a microphone screaming fuck for five minutes just because you feel like it -- that's indulgent. and precocious. are you doing either of those things? if not, you should be okay. ;)
May 15, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteranne frasier
sheesh. my comment doesn't even make sense.


May 15, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteranne frasier
Indulgent is your own, unique, wonderful perspective that no one wants to read.

A best seller is your own, unique, wonderful perspective that everyone wants to read.

The real trick is figuring out which is which before you spend 2000 hours writing it.
May 15, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjason evans
Beautifully put Jason. Knowing the difference is the hard part.

Like Anne said, there are people who cover themselves with chocolate and alfalfa sprouts and scream into a microphone and call it art. I'm sure in their own minds they're being incredibly expressive and can't understand why others "don't get it" and are so unenlightened.
May 15, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjamie ford
I agree - less and less people will be able to relate to "flashbacks to the old country" because America is the country they grew up in. Obviously there will still be people who have immigrated here more recently (my father is one of those people). My family is mostly Dutch, but we don't smoke pot and my parents are very conservative for the most part. My mother does enjoy wearing clogs in the garden, though. For some people, those ugly sterotypes just happen to be a part of their reality.

The most interesting story is always one that is partly based on your truths and your life experience. It will be up to you how many of those truths and experiences you wish to share with your readers.
May 15, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterMaryke
I agree with Jason, it depends on the way the world takes it. But you can't worry about that. What writer isn't self-indulgent? Please...Just write what compells you. If it's commercial and it sells in a day, fabu for you...if not, see what you're getting from it. If it's enough, then terrif, for you. It sounds like you have a strong notion of who you are interms of your writing so go with it.

May 16, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterkathie
Yo Maryke--thanks for commenting. Say hi to Kev for me!

Thanks for the advice kathie.

It seems that there are two schools of thought:

1) Write for your audience. Know your target, what they want, what they're looking for and serve it up.

2) Write a book you'd enjoy. Then hope your tastes aren't so esoteric that there's no mass-market appeal.

I'm on the fence. I work in advertising so I live in a world of campaigns and target audiences. But for my own writing, I enjoy the process more if it's more personal. I'm trying to find that fine line where I'm honest with myself in my approach, but still creating something that's marketable.

I read Joe Konrath's first two book. I enjoyed them. But I couldn't help feeling that there's a better book in Joe that's waiting to come out. Something that's more him and less "for the market". A book where he can be as funny and as irreverent as he wanted. Then again, maybe I'm not his target audience.
May 16, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjamie
This is a really hard line. At the end of the day to be a writer (or any kind of a artist) you are being precocious because you're an aspiring author so you're pretending your work will be published. And you're also indulgent because you're writing something that interests you and reflects your personal taste but you won't know whether anyone else will enjoy it until it is published and read.

While these two will not matter if you have the craft and talent to create a story to support your personal tastes you have to go on faith and hope for the best.

Interesting what you said about JA Konrath. I'll have to track down his book, especially since he compared himself to Evanovich recently. I love Evanovich but feel she lost it after the fifth one and she drifted in and out of her style. Too much promoting and not enough crafting perhaps, so I'm curious to see Konrath's style.
May 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAmra

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