Friday, October 30, 2009

Having a Hard TIme Growing Up Response

By Casey Tolfree

Thanks for all the comments guys. I felt that it would be a good idea to post my answers here to make sure everyone sees them and because it might be helpful to someone else.

First off, I wanted to define what I mean when I say I write commercial fiction - which to me means that it's not literary. I generally write what would be considered the contemporary romance genre and a dabble a bit into Chick Lit. I throw out pop culture references with ease.

This is why I call my work commercial. I write about relationships and broken hearts, falling in and out of love, etc, etc. I write about finding yourself as you are doing all these things.

Anyway, APT 509 in a nutshell. It's a novella - about 97 pages and I workshop it in 25-30 pages segments.

APT 509 is about a 24-year old woman, Riley Anderson. She is a music critic for a low-budget, low circulation weekly magazine. She writes weekly reviews for it. She lives and works in NYC.
(This is the part my classmates and teacher found unrealistic that she would have this job).

She is 24 but she still watches cheesy teen soaps and SoapNet. She listens to punk rock/pop music and finds herself in a love triangle. (This is where my classmates and teacher are uncertain if she is really 24 and not 20ish. This is what I meant by they think she is silly. I don't know that silly is the right word though. They think she doesn't act her age but I'm not sure how a 24-year old is supposed to act. I find characters in adult fiction so "adult-like" and Riley is meant to be a real person with her one likes and dislikes regardless of her age. She has some of the same pop culture likes I do. She uses them as vernacular. I'm not sure how this defines her age though. I think at 24 most people are still just trying to figure it out.)

The general plot of the story is that after attending college in LA and staying there for a year, Riley moves home to New York for a reason the reader isn't sure of - though it is revealed later to be family related. She has two friends from high school who live in the area still (one lives down stairs from her) but they aren't getting along very well and Riley feels alone. She runs into an ex and they spark of a friendship just as she finally starts to date another guy. A love triangle of sorts ensues.

Riley's life is nothing like mine. Yes, we are both writers but for the most part she is very different from me, she has different problems. She reacts in different ways.

As for YA fiction - someone mentioned Prep which I read and loved. Prep is actually a general fiction novel with a YA crossover. It's similar to the Jessica Darling series by Megan McCafferty in that crossover genre. I think APT 509 would be in a similar genre to the Myth of You and Me by Leah Stewart.

I hope this answers all the questions in the comments.


  1. Okay this helps. So they aren't believing that a 24 year old would do the things she does. I'm 31 and she sounds a little like me lol. I have a few friends who are my age who are the same way. But on paper, maybe those things could be presented as quirks about her. Maybe another character could make fun of her about those things and you could show how she feels about that. You might satisfy the people who aren't sure about a 24 year old acting the way she acts by acknowledging in the story that those things make her different than other 24 year olds. Just throwing out ideas even though you didn't ask for them because that's how I stay true to myself lol.

    It's weird. I know the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction when I read it but I've never stopped to think about what makes the work fit each category. I'm not convinced that subject matter is the big distinguisher since literary stuff often is about relationships, love, and heartbreak as well. I guess the keys for me are the language and descriptions that are used in literary fiction. They're more dense. So it seems to me to be less about subject matter and more about how the story is actually told. But this is my first time thinking about this in detail so I'll have to give it more thought. Anyone else have thoughts on it? Is there a methodology to distinguish between literary and commercial fiction?

  2. I currently live in NYC and can think of two friends who were full time music critics in their early 20s in the city. They didn't make any money (low 20Ks), were not living large, were doing a lot of meat-and-potatoes product reviews along with features and such, but I think they probably fit your character's description. They worked for websites - so being anything but a freelancer for a print pub is a little unrealistic.

    Once you suffer the BS of trying to live in this city, you do tend to bristle at the fantasy version. Like "Friends" - you work at a coffee shop and you live in a spacious apartment off Union Square? You more likely live in another boro or else uptown in the 100s or higher. I remember knowing I had become a New Yorker when I watched "When Harry Met Sally" and found myself systematically evaluating all the characters' apartments and calculating probable rent.

    So, your character is definitely possible in real life, but wouldn't be living large. And you might just be catching a little NYC attitude from a few classroom aficionados.

  3. I agree with much of what JayTee is saying. Most work is, in one way or another, about relationships, love, "finding yourself", so there have to be other things at work to classify your work as either YA or commercial. A lot of that is language and point of view, I think. I like JayTee's use of "dense." When I think of commercial fiction, I do think of work that is light and white-washed, where the biggest problems people face are essentially external and surface-y. I also think they strive to answer questions, rather than ask them. I don't know if these sort of qualifications apply to your work specifically, but I wanted to throw them out there as my sort of general response to JayTee's question of distinguishing what is commercial lit. (And of course are all my own, not necessarily correct opinions!)

    I'm wondering what the POV of Apt 509 is. Is it first person? Or a close third? Is the reader let it on anything that Riley herself can't see? I'm guessing, of course, but my sense is that in Apt 509 your readers don't get beyond Riley's POV, which might explain some of the feedback Because even if Riley leads a life where she doesn't seek out subtle narratives, it doesn't mean she isn't living one herself. I've never heard of or watched a teen soap, but soaps in general aren't known for realistic reflection of life. Certainly not everything has to be subtle and some work is better when it is strictly plot driven (Divinci Code, or Stephen King, maybe). But work is often the most successful when it is both (Harry Potter, The Lovely Bones).

    Do you contextualize your the pop culture references you throw out? Or do you assume your reader will automatically know them? Are they used in passing, or used to reflect what characters are feeling/experiencing?

  4. God, I don't think I ever got through an episode of Friends without muttering, "That is totally unrealistic." Jamie is right about that. And it's also true that the show was a huge commercial success. So I guess it depends what you want.

    I think my experience with more commercially-driven work has been that the characters don't dive very deeply into their own psyches and tend to stay fairly close to the surface, which helps if your goal is to preserve the happy endings. I mean, a character might be written to be bawling over a problem, but it's often done in a way that still avoids much genuine transformation. (I'm not at all applying that to your work. I haven't seen it.)

    It's possible that you are doing exactly what you need to be doing and that your workshop mates identify strongly with a different aesthetic. Hard to tell without reading it. You sound like you have the confidence to stick to what makes sense to you. I would probably seek out more feedback and maybe meet privately with the professor to really make your case while being open to the idea that Riley could be fleshed out a little more. Let us know!

  5. Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!

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  6. To answer you quickly because I have to be up to cover a cross country meet in like 7 hours.

    APT 509 is in the first person. It's definitely character-driven. It's Riley all the way through.

    Language-wise based on your definitions of commercial I'd still classify it as commercial. It's very colloquial. It does ask questions though as well as answer them.

    Riley isn't really living it large. I myself am I reporter so I understand the plight. She has her apartment but besides that it doesn't talk about her having much - her furniture was hand me downs or bought by her parents (reader knows this) otherwise I mean she doesn't seem to be living a breezy life lol.

    As for the pop culture references - a line for example is "Their set was short but sweet for certain. Please excuse the Dave Matthews reference, it was Wendy and I's mantra junior year."

    Sometimes it's just like in conversation - in one scene they are talking about what teen soap (ONE TREE HILL, DAWSON'S CREEK, VERONICA MARS, ROSWELL, THE O.C. - those are teen soaps by the way) to watch. So they are throwing around character references.

    Hope this helps and thank you for all the feedback you've really helped me to feel better about what happened in class.

    I made a list of things I'm willing to change about APT 509 or in APT 509 so I'm going to start there. I'll keep you updated.

    Also, APT 509 (a very very rough first draft) is serialized on my myspace blog but you have to be on my preferred list so if you want let me know but like I said it's like first draft just written stuff lol. APT 509 has been through maybe four revisions since then haha.

  7. the thing about the pop culture references is just that you have to know that not everyone will know what you're talking about, but that doesn't always matter. fort example, the dave matthews reference you allude to in your expect went right by me because i don't listen to them. also, is "Wendy and I" a proper name for a band or something? or is that just grammatically incorrect? that threw me.

  8. wow didn't proof that comment. should be "for example" and "your excerpt," not "your expect." sorry!

  9. Hey Casey! Thanks for the replies. It would be interesting to read your list of things you would/wouldn't change in Apt 509. From the limited amount I know, I wouldn't be surprised that some of your pop culuture refrences might be throwing your workshop readers. I don't watch any of the shows you listed or listen Dave Matthew. If I was reading a story that assumed I was either familiar with or understood the signifigance of those shows/music, I would feel excluded. A sense that you are writing Apt 509 for a certain type of person (you/your friends vs. "everyone" - "everyone" being loosely defined as your workshop classmates) might be part of the reason you are seeing your work defined as "YA" or "commercial." And I think when people feel excluded, I think they can be kinda judgemental.

    I think you are committed to Apt 509 and I think that's awesome. I often don't feel as close to my characters as you do, and I envy you that. I'm hoping you are finding these comments useful. :)

    I have a list of 8 rules Vonnegut listed for writing, one of which is "Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia." So, don't change your story to please everyone, just take what everyone has to say and think about it and discard or use as you see fit.

  10. As for that poorly written Wendy and I's - it was like 12:30 a.m. and I'd been up since 4:50 a.m. haha. I was just typing the line from my story from memory but Wendy is Riley's best friend (not a band) lol

  11. i love reading this discuss. Casey, do you read Maureen Johnson? I love her YA sutff :)

  12. I haven't read her. Sarah Dessen is my favorite YA author. She is absolutely amazing.

  13. By the way I find it so strange that some of you haven't heard of The O.C. or One Tree Hill or Dawson's Creek - they were major (or are in OTH's case) shows. Really, really big shows.

  14. I watched Dawson's Creek (we called it "The Creek" lol) religiously. I've heard of all the other shows, just don't choose to watch them. Maybe people heard of the shows and didn't call them teen soaps. That term was new to me.

  15. I've definitely heard the title of those shows, but even though they are "major" shows, I couldn't name any details of the them (like any characters or plots or where the shows take place- other than the O.C., which seems obvious!). I'm not saying it's bad or wrong, but you do limit and self-select who your writing is open to if you use those references without explanation.


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