If you write a novel, your friends will assume it's about them. It doesn't matter if you call it fiction, it doesn't matter what genre it is, if you write a novel your friends will assume it's about them.
You've always lamented that you wish you had a more literary group of friends? That you knew people that read more? Well, guess what, now you have a group of friends secretly studying your book like it's the ancient Talmud and they're at a rabbinical college.
Every friend will find a character they're certain they are, countless characters they're certain other people are. But, here's the thing: most people ARE very similar. There's not that many different way to be a thirtysomething white man in New York City. Don't get me started with character names.
I went to college with a guy that was a laughably terrible screenwriter.* He wrote horrendous sci-fi space operas. But, I still admired the guy because he was an absolute genius at naming things. Futuristic space weaponry, undiscovered galaxies, alien species--he could always come up with a name that made you go: "Yeah, that sounds about right." Me? I'm shit with naming things, especially characters.
It's like, the second I introduce a new character while I'm writing, my mind goes blank and the only human names I can think of in the entire universe are those of my dozen closest friends. Now these characters have no relation to J____ or T____ or E____ aside from the name. Still, if I kept those names in the book, people would assume I'm flat out telegraphing who I'm writing about.
During early drafts, I use friends' names as placeholders but I sometimes forget to change them. During the final edit of HOW TO FAIL, I tried to eliminate as many incidental friend names as possible but I still missed a few. In fact, an ex-girlfriend I hadn't talked to in years emailed to congratulate me upon hearing about the book being released. It was only then that I realized a less than desirable character in the book had her exact name. I apologized, told her that it was a completely accidental coincidence, but I doubt she believed me. She probably read the book thinking the whole time, "Am I like that? I'm not like that! Oh, fuck him! Fuck him!"
And my other friends presumably have other characters they assume are "them." But they aren't. I swear. The human experience is just so similar that if I've written a good book, you'll see yourself in a character. Probably several. In the character's highs and lows, successes and failures, behavior and experiences. So, in a certain regard, it's a compliment. If I'm writing about a doctor, I have to draw from all the doctors I've ever dealt with in my life. And, if I'm writing about a dude that lives in New York City, I have to draw from all the dudes I've ever dealt with in New York City. Which includes most of my friends.
Do sci-fi authors have the same issues? I'd love to ask my old classmate but, despite his naming prowess, he never made it in the business. Still, I'm guessing no matter the genre one writes, the author's friends are always pissed off that they were written about. But, for the most part, they weren't.
In HOW TO FAIL, there is actually one character that is 100% based on someone. Some guy I truly hate. Still, I never wanted him to read the book, never thought he'd read the book. He did though and...loved it. Shook my hand the other day and everything, told me I should really be proud of it. I guess he didn't recognize the character that was him. And, why should he? Except for neurotics, no one likes to think of themselves as anything less than great, so, a character that is far from great--like the character based on him--surely wouldn't even appear on this man's radar as being him.
He thinks he's great. The character is not great. So, obviously, how could it be him, he thinks. Or, rather, doesn't think. It doesn't even register.
The real secret, though, is that every character I write is based on someone I know. Me. Which kinda makes me hate myself.
Do any other authors have this problem? Any funny stories to share?
*Oh great, now he's gonna wonder if I'm talking about him.
Is your book selling like shit?
Probably because it's well-written. Or long. Or, you're not a celebrity. But that doesn't mean you can't make your next book a bestseller!
If you're writing non-fiction it's easy. Just pretend you hung out with God once and he's for realz, or that you have some quick weight-loss plan, or you know a way to make me a happier person (Step One: Read your book)*. Today, however, we're talking about fiction. Not real-life stuff. Like the time you hung out with God.
When someone tells me their life is "stranger than fiction," I'm not impressed. Most fiction isn't that strange. (And, most people's lives are pretty goddamn boring.) Most fiction is just generic. Which is what genre fiction is: generic fiction. You want to have a bestseller, pick a well-worn genre--horror, detective, legal thriller--and write the most bland story ever. You might think combining several genres will make the blandest book possible, but you'd be wrong. Two wrongs don't make a right but two blands do make something fairly inventive. Too inventive to sell.
Just like in the movies, sequalizations are also king. Especially, when you can add a parenthetical to the title:
BOO COCKY! (A John Glass Thriller)
By book five in your newly-created bestselling series you won't even need to write them yourself any more.
H8 CRIME (The Fifth Book of the John Glass Thrillers)
An Aaron Goldfarb book
written by Sam Stank
Novels about how tough it is to be a girl are swell too. You know, with all the having to wear the right shoes and stay skinny and shop til you drop and find Mr. Right and actually be good in bed. These books especially sell well when they have a hot pink cover. On the other hand, there's never once been a best-selling book about how tough it is to be a guy. Unless you count "Decision Points." Remember, men don't read books so don't write for them.
When all else fails, have vampires making out. Young, toned, nubile vampires. They should be straight, though the men can be effete (and capable of being played by a homosexual actor in the movie adaptation) and the women can occasionally "experiment" in an erotic fashion. They should never go beyond first base though. Any way, vampires surely give terrible head and talk about vagina dentata!
You may say, by the time my book is out, vampires will already be a tired genre. Then what else? Wolfmen making out? Maybe in the 70s, but not in today's wax-centric culture. Zombies?! They don't even have brains--and making out without brains is no different than a loathsome frat mixer. Ghosts? Too non-tangible. Mermaids and mermen?!? Naw, too scaly.
Any how, it doesn't really matter if vampires are a tired genre by the time your book is done. In fact, it's even better. As I said, bland genre stories always sell, so, when all else fails:
Vampires making out.
*Conversely, I'd be a happier person if you read my book:
I was talking to a "famous, rich, important person"* the other day and he asked me a very simple question:
"Why did you write a book?"
What did he mean? I'd been interviewed a zillion times in the past few months, asked a ton of the same questions, most of them boring, a few of them interesting, but I'd never been asked the most obvious one:
Why did you write a book?
I was so flummoxed I asked him to expound:
"It's a lot of fucking work writing a book, isn't it? Why do you do it? Not for the money, right? Bigger speaking fees afterwards?" Why, Aaron?!
Sometimes we get so caught up in our art we never think why we're doing it.
I mean, the guy who writes the spec scripts for potential Nic Cage movies is surely writing them to become rich.
The dude who writes love sonnets is probably writing them to get laid.
The girl who writes in her diary every night is most likely just being therapeutic.
But, why did I write a book? Why did I write "How to Fail"? Hmmmm...
I answered back:
"Yes, it's honestly one of the hardest fucking things I've ever done. And, I'm not sure it would have ever gotten done if my reasons weren't pure. I wrote the book because of only one reason: I had something to say. Simple as that."
But "famous, rich, important person" wasn't going to let me get away with such bullshit. So he called me on that:
"If 'I had something to say' was the main reason, why not just blog? Why go to the trouble of a published paper book?"
Damn, he's good. Probably why he's famous, rich, and important.
Now I really had to delve deep, really look within myself. Why did I write the book?
I suppose "I had something to say" that needed 400 pages to say it. Honestly, if I hadn't found a publisher quickly, I wouldn't have languished for years looking for one, I'd have just released "How to Fail" on my blog, chapter by chapter or something. This is what I've been telling other friends to do who have had an unpublished manuscript sitting in a desk drawer for years. Luckily, or unluckily, I found a publisher and kinda fell for some aspects of publishing I would have never guessed I'd fall for. Covers and page design and book store signings. I'm a devout Kindle reader, but I liked having a book I could hold and look at. And, without paper books, I could have never done the 30 Bars in 30 Days book tour which I feel was integral to getting a "nobody" like me some buzz.
So, I enjoyed it, yes, but in many ways it is more trouble than it's worth. If my future publisher(s) don't make the process less trouble, then I'll gladly just release all my future books self-published on Kindle, which is easily done. I'm still trying to figure out the best way to spread my ideas, like we all are.
Or...maybe I'm just bullshitting myself and I thought the book would make me rich.
So, if you wrote a book, why'd you write it? If you're planning to write a book...WHY?
*anonymous name dropping?