Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Last Unicorn

The other night I was in a local video rental place and I found a real treasure--the animated version of Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn. It's the story of a unicorn who has not left her enchanted forest in a long time. She discovers she is the last unicorn left on earth--and she sets off to find the rest of her kind. In the hands of a Disney-type animation house this would become a treacly, kid-friendly story with a few knowing smirks at the adults, at least one overly-hyper sidekick, and unavoidable musical numbers. But instead it's a strangely compelling, haunting movie--oddly poetic, and oddly adult--without any annoying cultural references.

I watched it when I was very young--I don't remember when, but I was definitely under ten. I remembered scenes from that movie in a way that made me feel like I'd dreamed them. They were archetypcal, poetic and almost unfathomable in the way scenes are in the type of dream that goes all the way to the core of you, to a place that can only communicate with your waking self through deeply personal metaphor.

This story might be kids' fantasy, but it does not sugar-coat the truth. The friends the unicorn accumulates in her travels are flawed and damaged. The most compelling character was the villain--he might have been a campy, cackling figure in a typical Disney movie; in this one, he's a deeply tragic figure.

The animation is very dated and took some getting used to, and the music is definitely an acquired taste--I loved it; you might not. But overall this movie made me think about the type of fantasy movies we show our kids today. They're aimed towards both kids and adults, just as this one was. But the nods in our movies are meant to be funny--kids are never exposed to wrongs that can't be righted. In The Last Unicorn, the ending is bittersweet--the unicorn finds love and loses it.

There's nothing in today's big animated features that is seminal enough to have imprinted itself indelibly in my consciousness, the way the images from this movie were so long ago. Most animated movies today are all show and no poetry, with the exception of movies like Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. I believe that our kids' imaginations would be better served by movies that don't sugar-coat reality. Fantasy might be considered primarily a children's genre, but it is also, like dreams, an excellent way to communicate deep truths through compelling metaphor.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Keeping Inspired in an Uninspiring World

Inspiration is something I've learned to live without. When it's there, writing is effortless. Ideas and words come streaming out of me as though from another place; stories take fascinating turns and they always wind up being the right turns; things fall into place as if by magic. If I could stay inspired all the time, I would have dozens of books under my belt.

Unfortunately, inspiration is undependable. It comes and goes. And I've come to terms with the fact that if I want to be an author, sometimes it's going to be work. Writing without inspiration is why I need outlines, why I procrastinate, and why each word sometimes feels like it's being pulled out of me with tweezers. People who rely on inspiration alone never get off the ground. Still, it's nice to have it--it makes things so much easier. Here are a few things that work for me in finding inspiration.

Read books in your genre. Reading works in the genre I'm writing in never fails to get me excited to write. When I'm writing fantasy, I revisit some of my favorite fantasy authors from childhood--Robin McKinley, Tolkien, David Eddings, Neil Gaiman, and even a little Steven King for the scary bits. When I'm writing romance, I revisit my favorites from Judith McNaught, Joanna Lindsey, and Karen Marie Moning. If it's a book I've read before, it doesn't matter--seeing those old characters is like visiting old friends again, and they always inspire me.

Make a collage. Look around in magazines and papers for images that remind you of your mental picture of your story. A house that looks like your main character's; a living room or bedroom that reminds you of the place where your hero seduces your heroine; a scenic vista that reminds you of your setting; or pictures of people that remind you of your characters. Make a collage and hang it near where you usually write. Just looking at it will get you in the mood.

Make a mix. Go through your playlists and pick out music that reminds you of your story. Think about the soundtrack to a scene that stands out to you; the theme songs for certain characters; or the song you'd play in the credits if your book were made into a movie. Play this mix whenever you sit down to write, and you'll feel instantly transported.

For me, getting inspired isn't about taking walks or even writing in new and novel places. It's about keeping my imagination focused on the world I've created. The more clearly you can create it--in sound or pictures--the more real it will be to you when you sit down to create it in words.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

How to Survive on a Salary that's Sad

Amazingly enough, when I took my first job in publishing my salary was actually an increase from my previous job as a part-time stage manager and full-time box office manager at a non-profit theatre. I was pretty sure that surviving on $26,000 a year would be easy peasy-- I was sorely surprised when I started apartment hunting in Manhattan and realised that $25,000 a year was the maximum income you could make and still qualify for government subsidised housing. Eventually, I found an apartment share with two other room-mates in Queens. Both of my room-mates made over twenty thousand dollars a year more than me and were living in Queens to save up money to buy their own properties or pay off their debts.

My current salary is an increase from my crushingly small stipend in New York-- I wont discuss what I now make, but its considerably more then my last job. While I graciously ate my ramen in my apartment in Queens I consoled myself with the following truths I've learned about pay in the publishing industry.

Everyone in Publishing Starts at the Bottom
Its true. Everyone starts as a lowly EA (editorial assistant), MA(marketing assistant), PA (either a publicity assistant or personal assistant to a VP or company director). There's no real short-cut to the top. At least, I haven't met anyone who's had a short-cut to the top not in New York or London. Everyone puts in their grunt years at the bottom. The big difference with publishing is that some people have their lifestyles subsidised by their parents, boyfriends, lovers, sugar daddies (or mamas) while they go through these lean first years. Sadly, I wasn't and am not one of those people-- thankfully, I've got a very generous and patient husband who's helped me to continue a career in publishing.

Part-time jobs are pretty standard
While I lived in Queens I worked at the local Gap in our mall and I tried to get as many freelance writing gigs as possible. My bosses at that time had both worked as waitresses and Barnes and Noble booksellers to supplement their salaries. When I advised my bosses that I would have to find additional work to help pad out my income I was (amazingly enough) given a small cost of living raise (about $1,000 a year) which was a wonderful gesture, but not quite enough to keep me from folding jeans during my spare time.

Complaining wont change anything
To be honest, everyone knows that publishing jobs are underpaid and whinging about it to your co-workers, boss, or family members isn't going to change it. Most people either suck it up (I know, its horrible) and work through those very lean first few years or they find another profession. Most of my friends who I worked with at my first publishing house have gone onto other more lucrative non-publishing careers. Jobs in publishing are seen as 'love' jobs, meaning you work in publishing for the 'love' of working with books. These jobs are very much in demand and this is how employers get away with paying you next to nothing. In a perfect world if all the minions stood up and demanded better wages we would then be able to create a labour revolution and reform the industry. This isn't going to happen-- sorry folks. Mostly because there are about five people fresh out of university lining up for your low paying job.

So, the next time I'm going through a lean time or one of my existentialist delimas of 'where is my career going', I'll calmly remind myself that everyone goes through this. Which is somewhat reassuring, no matter how grim.