I was talking with someone the other day and the subject of writing came up. “What do you write about?” they asked.
That might be one of the most difficult questions a writer is asked, outside of “Why do you write?”.
“I write about spaceships,” I said, “or aliens. Interstellar wars and great, long-lasting peace. Sometimes I write about vegetables or pre-industrial societies.”
“Oh,” my questioner said, thoughtfully. “Well, I meant, what’s your writing like?”
“I, um… well, it’s wordy,” I fumbled. “I often include coffee in it.”
Writers, like other artists, have a style all their own. We have characters with quirks we revisit over and over, much like a painter might paint similar scenes over the years. We have phrasing we fall back on as we write, much like a rock and roll guitarist might have a unique way of playing musical phrases. We have favorite themes we revisit time and again in different stories, each time visiting a different aspect of the theme.
Let’s think of some examples.
If I mention the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, what do you think of? Chances are, if you know who he was, you think of melting clocks such as this one I bought for my wife for Christmas. Dalí really only occasionally used these clocks, but he became famous for them and now, whenever someone comes into my house and sees the clock melting over the edge of the bookshelf they ask: “Hey, isn’t that like those paintings that artist made?”
“Yes,” I say, “it is.”
Similarly, if you know who Al Hirschfeld was, you’d think of his daughter, Nina. Well, my wife tells me you’d think of her. This is because in all of his drawings, he included her name somewhere in the picture. It became a challenge for people to look at the images to “Count the Ninas” within them. It became something that drew people back to his work.
More up my alley, I remember a time in February, 1987, when teenaged me was sitting with a buddy listening to the radio. My friend was quickly rolling across the analog dial on the radio when I heard two notes of a song and shouted for him to go back. I didn’t know why exactly, but when he rolled back to 93.7 FM WSTW I heard the song “That Ain’t Love” by REO Speedwagon. It was a new song I’d never heard, but the two notes of guitar work were enough to let me recognize Gary Richrath’s style and draw me in.
My conversation the other day got me to thinking about what my writing is like. It is no secret that I have a gimmick in my writing these days. Whether you call it “a thing”, “a shtick”, “a gimmick” or… “annoying”, it is something that has come to be an important part of my writing though I didn’t consciously set out to include coffee and the number 13 in each piece. It just kind of happened. Sometimes these elements have a large role in the story, other times they are just mentioned in passing. But they are always there. I have written pieces where coffee was actually a key plot element (almost even a character). It has gotten to the point where an editor received a story from me and tweeted:
“Reading Rob Diaz’s story. Wonder when the coffee will be introduced.”
“Yup, there it is.”
“And there’s the ‘13’ – I thought he had forgotten it!”.
I’ve had beta readers tell me that the biggest flaw with a story was that I didn’t include enough coffee in it – that they overlooked the one reference and wanted more. I don’t plan my writing in advance so each story just flows onto the page as it comes to me. Characters drink coffee. They meet up in coffee shops. They wield decaf as the massively-powerful, evil-thwarting weapon that it is. There have been stories I’ve written where I didn’t even notice putting coffee into the story at all. It just happened naturally.
Now that readers have come to expect it, I do make more of a conscious decision to include these elements somewhere in the story. It may be obvious: “The 13 coffee cups sat in a row on the counter”. It may be more subtle: “Bob stared at the box containing a baker’s dozen bagels and he tapped his foot nervously as his evil plan percolated.” Or it may be something difficult to find – one story I wrote used the same word 13 times (and yes, several readers noticed).
Obviously, forcing the issue and injecting coffee into a story where it has no business would be a bad idea. If I brewed up a story about un-earthly worlds… what is the likelihood that coffee would exist in that universe? Probably none. Though to be honest, it would not be outside the realm of possibility that this thoroughly alien culture could have a ritual that requires the use of an aromatic infusion of ground up seeds in hot water in order to ensure a successful growing season. Of course, it would have to be shared by the thirteen elders of the village in order for the ritual to be a success.
Clearly I am not yet famous in any circles, let alone as an author. But maybe one day, if I’m lucky, I’ll be at a party or sitting in a coffee shop and someone will come up to me and say:
Hey, aren’t you the guy who wrote about, like, thirteen ways to use coffee to win an interstellar war and bring about universal peace?
Yeah, that would be cool.
I am currently at work on my second sustained piece of fiction (I thought it would be a novel, then a novella, now it is looking like a screenplay). Anyway, one thing I’ve included in both works is a scene where the main characters view and comment on classic works of art. I think this might become a “signature piece” for me like coffee and 13 are for you.
That’s funny. I love reading coffee in a novel–I can so identify. Did the editor think it was overdone? What a way to pull the reader in.
No, I think there was concern that there wasn’t enough coffee!