Saturday, July 17, 2010

Being Neil Gaiman

Sometimes I read books that have won stars, awards and widespread praise and think, "Why can't I write like that?" But I've just read two books that fall into that category which left me with a completely different reaction: "I could never write like that!"

The books in question are The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. You'll notice the Newbery seals on both covers. They're both extremely well-written and original books that have won over readers across a broad spectrum.

But I don't aspire to write books like either one. 

The Graveyard Book (which had to overcome my resistance to having received so very much attention) is a perfect example of a book that breaks rules and still succeeds. If you'd told me a book that begins with a multiple murder would win the Newbery, I'd have laughed at you. (In the category of great first sentences you'd have to include this one: "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.") Nobody does eerie better than Neil Gaiman, and his mastery works here. I admit to having to push through a slow patch in the middle, but I cared about all these characters, most of them dead. I also have to admit -- though I hate to, because I'm usually good at spotting a twist on the way -- I fell for one involving the main villain.

 The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is an entirely different book. In the tradition of the Little House books or Caddie Woodlawn, it's the story of a spunky girl struggling against the restrictions of her particular historic era (in this case, the turn of the 20th century). It gives insight into its time as well as tells the story of an interesting girl and her large family. Using Origin of the Species as a linchpin was a brilliant strategy for illuminating the thinking and conflicts of the time.

So why don't I aspire to write books like these? Because these aren't my styles or subject matters. I couldn't write these books, even working at the top of my game. I don't know ghoul gates or wind machines; I don't do creepy and I don't do period.

It's important to know that about yourself as a writer. To know what genres, styles and subject matter work for you. I've ventured outside my comfort zone occasionally -- I even have a science fiction novel tucked away in the proverbial drawer of unsold manuscripts -- and those expeditions have been valuable. But my most successful writing happens when I explore territory closer to home.

I admire writers who are able to cross genres and styles easily (who would think that The Giver and Gooney Bird came from the same pen, for instance). But I think I'll concentrate on mastering one area before trying my hand at becoming the next Neil Gaiman.