Be wary your pop-culture references.
So continuing in the series of “mistakes young writers make that can hopefully correct”, let’s discuss keeping your work semi-current and pertinent. I see this one a lot, oh boy do I see it a lot…
One of the biggest advantages/disadvantages of books is that they are permanent; once written, a book can stick around for a very long time. Though the novel format is relatively new when compared to the history of writing(the Epic of Gilgamesh, at 4,200 years old, is considered to be the earliest piece of literature, the first “novel” in the modern, familiar format, was Robinson Crusoe, from 1719), but we still commonly read novels that are quite old.
Lately, if like me you occasionally emerge from under your writing-rock to see what’s going on in the world, you may have noticed a whole host of big-budget movies based on old fantasy novels. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the newer Chronicles of Narnia movies. But did you know: both those series’ debuted in the 1950s? Half a century ago or more, their authors never lived to see the movies being made of them today.
So how did these epics endure for a half-century and finally spawn awesome movies and gain readerships in the hundreds of millions? The authors wrote them to be timeless.
Pick up a copy of Hatchet sometime, give it a quick read. Aside from a curious lack of cell phones, it’s easy to imagine it happening last year. Hatchet is from 1987. While it doesn’t have the same popularity as Lord of the Rings(to be fair, hatchet would be a really boring movie), the book is still easily found in every school library, and being read to students in classrooms all across America.
The story is written in such a way as not to become dated. Hatchet is realistic fiction, but its not filled with pop-culture references or names of currently popular stars or bands. There are no trends, nothing to specify when the volume is set. Woodcutting tools and small propeller airplanes have been around for a long time, and will be for even longer.
The biggest mistake I see my young writers make, both in fantasy and realistic fiction attempts, is getting to “in” to current trends and culture. Here’s one particular case-study: the author, a teenage-girl who was quite tragically a democrat, was working on a piece of realistic fiction in which she portrayed all high-school students as also being, unfortunately, democrats. And true enough, when she was writing her piece, most high-schoolers in the area were. This was around the time we as a people elected a functionally-retarded man as president, thanks to affirmative action, and everyone was apparently thrilled about it for some reason. However, back when I was in highschool—just a handful of years earlier—being called a “democrat” was about as bad as being called gay. Scratch that, being called a democrat was worse; most guys I knew would rather be called a fag than a democrat, and were more likely to vehemently deny the second one.
Have you ever heard of the Federalist Party? No? How about the Whig party? In fifty years we might not have Democrats anymore, either. Of course that’s not as major a concern as the shifting political winds among people who aren’t old enough to vote.
Writing a book takes time. As I’ve often mentioned, Author of the Gust took five years to write. Publishing takes even longer; from the day an agent first says “ok, I’ll represent you” to the day the first copy of your book hits store shelves averages about three years, minimum. If I spent 5 years writing, then 3 years getting published, that’s two full presidential terms. Political winds being what they are, you can virtually guarantee a different party will be in power by the time your book comes out.
So essentially, in a story that was not written to be about politics, this girl managed to add enough political stuff to ensure anyone who was not a democrat would be horribly offended. It added nothing to the story, mind you, the author was just a stuck-up, self-righteous child, which to be fair is her right as an American. But, in the eight years it will take to(hypothetically) write, edit, and publish her novel, a completely different president will be in office, and 17-year-olds everywhere will be bitching about the other political group.
The moral of the story: don’t make your writing too current. I’m not saying you can’t write about politics; you just have to do it in such a way that it doesn’t become dated almost instantly.
Pop-culture references are another thing. Twenty years from now, no one is going to have a clue who Hannah Montana is. And twenty years from now, your book will not still be on library shelves, because nobody is going to have a clue who Hannah Montana is. Even if that’s not the main focus of the story, if you just have too many jokes that rely heavily on your reader knowing who she is, then even by the time your reach library shelves, your book will be out-dated.
I know what you’re thinking: “Wait! I see tons of Hanna Montana books on the shelves at bookstores right now! Those couldn’t POSSIBLY have been written three years ago!” They weren’t; they also weren’t written by people like you. Those sorts of books were written by a writer on staff at Disney, who’s job was to come in to work every day and write Hanna Montana novellas. I believe according to Dante that’s the Third Circle of Hell.
Even if it wasn’t a staffer on salary, someone was approached and offered money up front to hammer that thing out in 3-6 months, so it could be on store shelves inside of 12, and still be relevant. The person who wrote it probably signed their check directly over to their local blow dealer.
This is not to say that occasional references and inside jokes are a no-no, but like politics you have to phrase everything in such a way that it doesn’t become stale. My own work is littered with little jokes that are funny, but get ten times funnier when you really understand them. Most people won’t, but its ok because the role is so minor.
Writing timelessly is tough. It takes practice, research, and dedication. But its also the only way you’re going to end up with a finished novel that can pass the test of time. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolken books continue to be printed and read over half a century later, do you want the same from your work?