The Big Idea: David Lubar
Posted on March 4, 2016 Posted by John Scalzi 7 Comments
Fun fact: Back in the day, I edited a humor area for AOL, and one of my regular contributors was a fellow named David Lubar, who wrote reliably funny and interesting stuff (this is a more rare talent than you might expect). Here in the future, both David and I are authors, him primarily of middle grade and young adult books, the latest of which is Character, Driven. I’m delighted to have seen David do so well, and I know for a fact David’s proud of what he’s pulled off in this new book, which has managed starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly. Here he is to tell you what he’s done, and how.
Character, Driven begins with a bang, a chase, a tumble down the stairs, and snapping bones. It then slams to a dead stop against the brick wall of narrative intrusion as our hero discusses the importance of grabbing the reader with a strong opening. That scene lay untouched on my hard drive for ages, along with scads of other sentences, paragraphs, passages, and chapters I’d written over the decades in an attempt to bolster the self deception that every writing day is a productive day, even if I spend fifty percent of it Googling myself. I saved the scene with the filename Edgy, in a nod to the ubiquitous editorial call for “edgy YA novels.”
Several years ago, Susan Chang, my editor at Tor, came to my house to help me brainstorm my next novel. I shared a variety of my ideas with her, sticking with science fiction, fantasy, and horror, because that’s what Tor is most known for. Just as she was leaving, on a whim, I read the edgy sample to her.
“That’s your next novel,” Susan said.
I pointed out that it wasn’t speculative fiction. She pointed out that she didn’t care. I agreed to take a shot at it. When I sat down in earnest (a small town in Idaho, named after Hemingway) to turn that scene into a novel, I thought the big idea was to break the fourth wall. My main character, Cliff Sparks (wink, wink), frequently pauses the action to point out some aspect of the novel-writing process, such as the difficulty of describing himself without resorting to trite devices, or the art of seamlessly emerging from a flashback. He even talks about the problem of talking to the reader, and confesses that the novel will have to be plot driven because he isn’t charismatic enough to draw the reader along on personality alone.
That’s a tasty mouthful to pitch to the target audience: Hey, want to read a metafictional coming-of-age novel? And it’s an enthralling and joyful project for someone like me, who took an abundance of English classes while drifting through college, adored Borges, and wanted to be James Joyce, or Hunter S. Thompson. Metafiction, stream-of-consciousness, wordplay, and the like are wonderful tools. But a hammer isn’t a bird house. And a narrative conceit is not necessarily a big idea.
I didn’t even realize I’d crafted an authentic big idea until I noticed that nearly every early reader, blurber, and professional reviewer used the same unexpected words to describe Cliff’s voice. And they weren’t words I’d strived to evoke. I am, at heart, a goofball. My most popular books, the Weenies short story collections, feature anthropomorphic hot dogs on the cover. I’m proud to claim the creation of the largest lit fart in contemporary literature. I started out my career writing magazine humor. I live for retweets. I want to make you laugh. I need to make you laugh. And Character, Driven will do that. But it does something more.
The big idea is not that Cliff speaks to you, but that Cliff, who desperately wants to lose his virginity and is socially ill equipped to make much progress in that direction, speaks in an honest voice, holding nothing back. That’s one of the unexpected words: honest. Another is authentic. For example, when Cliff learns that a classmate involved in a tragedy might have been pregnant, he reveals his chain of thought: If she was pregnant, that meant she had sex, which meant he might have been able to have sex with her, had he had the courage to press his case. He also admits feeling guilty that compassion took second place to hormones. He shares his most intimate thoughts about sex, suicide, friendship, and art, among other things.
Cliff’s story is not my story. That’s a very good thing, given what he goes through. But his thoughts are drawn, in part, from my own memories of those awkward high school years. Most of us have dark thoughts, fleeting or frequent, that we’d never dare admit to even our closest friend or partner. Somehow, as I traveled with Cliff through his story, I forgot to switch on that filter.
Many of my other narrators have said what’s on their mind, of course. Though, to overwork a metaphor, they’ve only stripped down to their underwear, while Cliff has removed not just clothing, but layers of flesh. I really can’t explain why this book took the turn it did. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I never told myself I was going to reveal the deepest thoughts and secret yearnings of Cliff Sparks. I just gave him some of my pain, my regrets, my sorrows, my disappointments, and my youthful misconceptions, tempered with the lens of time. Fear not, I also gave him courage, strength, heart, a sense of humor, a love of books, a fondness for wordplay, a fierce loyalty to his friends, and the ability to triumph against brutal obstacles. Somehow, I think it all worked out. Honestly.
Character, Driven: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.
Very few books sold as YA grab my attention, but this sounds great!
(of tragically dead female classmate) “which means he might have been able to have sex with her had he had the courage to press his case”
Wow I can’t even unpack that without turning into a rant. Let’s just say that this is a lot more about whether women are people and whether harassment is okay than about compassion versus hormones.
Not selling the book to me. I suppose it won’t do a great deal more harm. But yeesh.
He’s not trying to say that teenage males are wonderful. He’s just saying that this is the way they are. Fortunately, many of them grow out of it.
The book does sound interesting.
Sounds a little like Sanderson’s “Alcatraz and the Evil Librarians” series, which also breaks the fourth wall – though in Sanderson’s case, he uses it to teach young readers about literary style and the craft of writing (in a snarky way). Really looking forward to Alcatraz 5 this fall!
Best wishes on your book too, Mr. Lubar!
You need to improve your reading skills. The female friend is involved in a tragedy, but death is not mentioned. And if you think a 16-y-o male doesn’t consider sex with every female he is remotely acquainted with, including those involved in tragedy, you were never a 16-y-o male.
Teenagers are not involved with cultural / sexual divides, they are involved with hormones. I say that as a 65-y-o male married for 45 years now.
All that said, the whole concept of breaking the wall between reader and writer sounds quite interesting. A novel idea…?
And Mr Faber, do read that paragraph again, to see where you got the spurious thought that death was involved.
I gotta say, I’m with Cat. And hell, I’ll unpack it. There’s this huge myth that people, men, are owed sex, that to have sex is a reward of a virtue like heroism, of courage. It’s not. A person ought to be bold, heroic, or courageous because those are good things to be, not to “get the girl” or lose one’s virginity. The idea that, though Cliff knew nothing about this girl, her likes or dislikes or the intimate facets of her love life, “he might have been able to have sex with her, had he had the courage to press his case,” is just untrue. This kind of thinking is deeply harmful, because it leads to both entitlement, which can lead to aggression if unfulfilled, and a terrible hurt to one’s self-esteem if one doesn’t seem to measure up by this arbitrary standard.
And then the fact of the thought itself–he thinks not of the girl as a person, not of her pain, but only what end he might’ve had with her. This is textbook objectification.
And then in the context of broader culture–what a fundamental misunderstanding, to think that being pregnant as a teenager is something desirable because it means the person had sex. There are few shames in high school greater than those thrust upon a teenage girl.
This passage tells me that this character is very selfish and lacks empathy, especially when it comes to women. Honestly, I think it does a disservice to the friends I have who are guys to say “all teenage boys think this way.” I have had guy friends, while I was in high school, be deeply compassionate to me when I was going through hard times, without ever objectifying me. I never dated in high school, and though it was obvious early on that I would never be romantically or sexually available, they never dismissed me.
That is what I think is most frustrating about this kind of book. Are there horny teenage guys who objectify women? Sure. There are also catty, over-emotional teenage girls. Stereotypes are sometimes true. But why embrace the worst stereotype version of ourselves in the name of “honesty”?
Yes, I’ve heard that all straight guys from ages 12-102 pretty much have “Can I fuck it?” going through their heads every time they see any female. I’m unfortunately aware that that is a truth among all men. However, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t get super damn uncomfortable reading that bit about wanting to have sex with the dead girl because she was easy anyway. I had the emotional equivalent of wanting to turn and run when I read that reference. I didn’t, because I know that’s a truth among men and especially horny young virgins–but it’s still not a “yay” thing to read and know as a female. I try to actively block that knowledge from my brain so I can manage to interact with half of the world without wanting to freak out.
Then again, I’m probably not the audience for this anyway.
It does sound good otherwise, though, and I give the author props for being inventive. I did like the metacommentary on “in medias res” stories where they don’t really start with action.