My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

My Latest Viral Article (Personal Update)

Raw unfettered shit- 82,098 (Last update 80,042) [Just this update- 2056]     

Slightly polished turd-80,042 (Last update 59, 956)  [Just this update- 20,086] 

Superpolishedfragileshitstick- 44,754   

It's not great, but I'm back on the move. I poured a lot of energy into blogging last week, and I'm going to do the same for most of this week. I'm about to transition into a difficult phase of the year–the six weeks when I teach summer school. It's only a three day, three hour schedule, but that is stacked on top of other jobs. I'd like to kind of fall into that month and a half of terrible jazz hands with a track record of ass kicking. That way people keep thinking "I know there's more to him than this!" as I post my fifth straight week of "Music that helps me write" or "Posts from last month that people liked" post.

Now, whip out your mouth harps because it's time for me to lay down some home spun wisdom.

You never know what's going to stick. You just never know.

Once upon a time I couldn't figure out what to write for the day, and I had been watching a few people on Facebook toss around a meme taking a shit on English teachers (of which I am one, by the way) in a sort of all-teachers-are-ignorant-trash/no-English-teacher-ever-knew-what-they-were-talking-about sort of way. And maybe my thoughts that day were shaped more by the commentary I was seeing going along with the meme, but I decided that would be my post for the day.

I popped off a short little listicle about five reasons I hated that meme. Suddenly, people I didn't even think were reading my blog were chiming in with comments. Good, thoughtful comments too! A robust discussion happened. They challenged my position, made salient points.  I reconsidered several points and tried to better explain the ones I stood by. More discussion happened.

That wasn't the last time that post got lots of attention either. Every night that I remember, I put up a rerun from the archives of Writing About Writing over on the Facebook page of the same name. Usually it gets a little boost and a few more pageviews land. Each time this particular post comes up, it generates massive response, both from those who agree and those who don't as well as from people who came to understand a lot more from the article about why an English teacher might teach a particular symbol and folks who want to telescope the issue out to an indictment of the American education system. This last week it came around in the rerun rotation again, and promptly proceeded to pick up forty thousand pageviews, becoming my number four article of all time.

It's always a stressful post to put up. Even though people get more hateful about their replies to my thoughts on Nanowrimo or MFA's, it's this post that stirs people to be more thoughtful--that goes viral, that generates comments (both dismissive and unkind and incredibly thoughtful–agreeing, disagreeing, and with nuanced middle roads). The angry dillholes I've learned to ignore–roll my eyes, ban the ones who can't say it without hate speech, and move along. The ones who failed their papers and think their English teacher couldn't handle a different point of view get taken with a grain of salt. (I've given A's for writing and argumentation to enough people I disagreed with and F's to people poorly regurgitating the class lecture to wonder if a grape or three might not be sour.) It's the ones who make a salient point that cause me to question and re-question myself. I've gone back over the post time after time to make sure I believe in what I'm saying and I'm saying it as well as I know how.

And every time this post goes up and generates the feedback it does, I am struck by how insignificant I thought it was when I wrote it. A filler post on a day I couldn't come up with anything else. Fired from the hip (only later to be polished), and a quick flip of the bird to some cruddy meme that seemed to delight in suggesting English teachers are full of shit, and the anti-education impetus that perpetuated it.

And how many other posts have I thought "This is good. People will really like this," where I have gotten a fraction of the traffic? How many have I worked on for days and thought I nailed and even tried to be provocative and as funny as I could that have slipped quietly into the archives with a whisper?

You just never know what's going to stick to the wall when you throw it. And that's important to remember as a writer because it means not only do you want to throw your best every time, but you want to throw a LOT.

There's a Ray Bradbury quote: "Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you're doomed." I'm a big fan of this quote not because I trust my writing ideology to any single quote-dropping writer, but rather because I see it merit out so often.

Of course it's inverse is true as well–that people who write a lot tend to achieve "quality" at some point, but what I see merit out the most is the doomed part.  A lot of people spend a lot of time on their One Thing™. And their One Thing™ might even be the best writing they've ever done, but often it is not received in quite the way they imagine.

This older article has taught me a lot of lessons. About how to communicate better, how to stand by my convictions when people are making great points that disagree, and how to thread the nuance with folks who disagree in good faith, but perhaps most of all that I never ever know what's going to grab people and resonate with them, so the best thing to do is keep writing, doing the best I can, being flawed and making mistakes, and learning to do it better.

I'll leave you with something that I've seen lots of places around the net. I'd love it if I could properly attribute it if anyone knows:
"The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pound of pots rated an "A", forty pounds a "B", and so on. Those being graded on "quality", however, needed to produce only one pot - albeit a perfect one - to get an "A". 
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work - and learning from their mistakes - the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay."

Monday, May 22, 2017

Best YA for Young Women (Quarter Final 4)

What is the best book (or series) marketed to young women?    

Our last quarterfinal is live! Come vote for which titles will go on to the semifinals.

Everyone will get three (3) votes. The top four will go on to the semifinals.

The poll itself is on the bottom left of the side menus, below the "About the Author." 

These quarterfinals will only be up for a week so that we can move on to the semifinals and the final round in a timely manner. Vote quickly.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Best YA Marketed to Young Women (Quarter Final 3 Results)

What is the best book (or series) marketed to young women?

Just a quickie here. I'm working on a bunch of non-blog writing today, and trying to catch up on some physical chores that have gone neglected for long enough that my room is one skull pyramid shy of being a post-apocolyptic set for the next Terminator movie.

*looks at the time* And I'm falling behind on all of it. Those Sunday afternoon naps really cut into the day, don't they?

I might shift a bunch of stuff next week around to continue catching up. It'll be the first time in....years(?) that I've had two quiet weeks in a row, and I really want to keep taking advantage of it. So if that happens, look for the final quarter final early tomorrow.

But here are the results of this, the third quarter final. Top four titles will go on to our semifinal round.

Results in text form below.

The Will of the Empress - T. Pierce 61 28.64%
Cinder - M. Meyer 39 18.31%
The Finishing School Series - G. Carriger 36 16.9%
The Ruby in the Smoke - P. Pullman 31 14.55%

Jacob Have I Loved - K. Patterson 24 11.27%
The Fault in our Stars - J. Green 9 4.23%
Mairelon the Magician - P. Wrede 9 4.23%
Podkayne of Mars - R. Heinlein 4 1.88%

Best YA Marketed to Young Women (3rd Quarter Final Last Call)

What is the best book (or series) marketed to young women?

Tomorrow the results of the third quarterfinal will be tallied (along with, a few minutes after that, the last quarter final), so take your last chance to vote for which titles will advance to the next round.

Everyone will get three (3) votes. The top four will go on to the semifinals.

The poll itself is on the bottom left of the side menus, below the "About the Author."

Friday, May 19, 2017

Swearing in Third Person (Mailbox)

Is it okay for the writer to swear?   

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week (after this week). I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. We may have a lot more mailboxes going on here soon.]

Maxim asks:

Hi, I was wondering if you could maybe shed some light on an argument me and my friend are having?

Basically, we're both aspiring writers (in high school though, doubt it's actually relevant by it might add some perspective) and we've gotten into a really bad argument over using curse words as a narrator. Meaning, not when writing something a character said or thought, but when I basically narrate the story itself... as the writer. Is using curse words ok, and could it helpful in your opinion or is it disrespectful to the story or something like that.

I think it's just a matter of style but my friend seems to think there is some unwritten rule about this thing when cursing is pretty much forbidden when not used in dialogue or character thoughts or anything like that.

Hope you could help! 😅

My reply: 

Aren't we writers spectacular? Even in our misspent youths, we're such nerds! While the whole damned high school world is getting into arguments over who "dissed" whom, long standing feuds about what went down in Mrs. Krazenski's fourth period social science class, getting bumped in the halls between classes, or wayward affections of Cynthia Masterson, we're off ending friendships over the limits of third person narratives. ("That would compromise the integrity of the focalizers filter....CHAZ!")

It does my heart proud. Let me wipe away this single tear and get back to your answer.

I hope the two of you are ready for a complicated answer (and hopefully some make up fist bumps or smooches or whatever you do) because you're both right and both wrong. There is an unspoken rule, and I'll get into why it's so ubiquitous. But like most of those "unspoken rules," once you start speaking about it, you find there are reasons for it and exceptions to it.

The answer to this is actually complicated enough that I had to write a primer on point of view in preparation. (It's okay. I really needed the kick in the ass to get started on the Very Basics menu.) I'm going to assume I'm not using any terms that you don't know in this reply, so pop back there for a refresher course if something is unfamiliar.

First of all, I'm assuming you mean third person because any other point of view is the actual words of the point of view narration and can include as much swearing as the writer wants the character to use. If your first person narration is from a sailor, they are not going to describe someone they don't like using polite euphemisms like, "He smelled like fecal matter."

So let's talk about third person and swearing.

Can you? Yes.

Always. Always always always. It's your writing. You can do anything you want. You can do anything you can get away with. I don't like the oft used phrase among creative writing teachers "If you have a good reason/you have to have a good reason," because everyone thinks their reason is spectacular. I prefer the phrase "Earn it." Now it doesn't matter how important your specfuckingtacular reason is. It's just a matter of asking yourself if you can earn it with your reader? And that's where the real question hits? Because some things are harder to earn than others, and swearing narrators are not all created equal.

Should you swear in third person narrative? Here's where the fun begins.

In a subjective third person narrative, where the narrative voice goes into the feelings and thoughts of the focalizer character, you can absolutely swear, and many authors do.

Jeff clicked on his electric razor with a huff. This all-day-every-day office job shit was fucking ridiculous. 

This is the kind of narration you might see in a thousand books on a million shelves. It's in the head of the character. Even though it's third person, we readers are not confused about who is making these value judgements or using hyperbole (no one really works ALL day and such a claim is not "objective"). We know that it's JEFF who is tired and that the words are reflecting his attitude.

Now if you have an objective voice swear, it gets trickier. Of course your writing style might just have coarse language, and that is yet another decision that is stylistic and up to you to earn. A fluffy subject matter doesn't pair well with coarse language.

Jeff took his morning shit while he looked at his phone. He had had a good fuck the night before, but fatigue still plagued him as his long days stretched on. He found the whole office job gig ridiculous. 

Here your narrative voice is...okay (though you can see the edges of "where is that coming from?" starting to creep in as the reader may wonder why it's being SO crass). You might see a softer author use "crap" or "dump" or "sex" instead of "fuck," but the reader is probably not starting to distrust the voice yet–just wondering why it's using those words.  If the subject matter is equally mature and gritty, they will likely settle in if the book is simply crass throughout. Though if the subject matter of the book doesn't call for coarse language, that might be an atonal note that pulls them out of the story every single time it happens.

Now look at the swearing that you really want to be careful about. Value judgements that aren't coming from the focalizer.

Jeff despaired working an office job with long hours. His body ached constantly and his shoulders most of all. He was always tired, flopping into bed the minute he got home only to have to wake up unrested and start all over again. Weekends, the ones not spent working, were too short to rejuvenate him and it would be a year before he had earned a week's vacation. Only the thought of his bank account consoled him, and the memory of the day he had been hungry to the point of weakness with only thirty seven cents to his name. Begging on the streets of Moraga, and being greeted only with the faces of fucking assholes. He wasn't ever going to let that happen again.


Sticks out like a sore thumb, right?

Trust me that if I had gone on for a longer period of objective narration, the value judgement swearing would have felt even weirder.

Okay, so now....we have a problem. Who is it who thinks these people are "fucking assholes"?  Is it Jeff? Because the narrative has been establishing distance from Jeff. Even though we're discussing his feelings and thoughts, we're not in his head. The writing has stayed descriptive and objective. If it's not Jeff, then who is it? Is it the writer? Why are we getting editorializing from the writer?

See where this is going, Maxim?

The problem isn't that you can't do this in an objective third person. The problem is that IF YOU DO, you then have a reader who wonders if they can fully trust the narrator's objectivity. You're no longer an impartial "god." Now you're somebody with an opinion–somebody who has a bias that REALLY came through with "fucking assholes."

If it's Jeff, that's okay (but then the writer needs to occasionally show that they are going to drop into Jeff's head, probably by closing the narrative distance a little). If it's the impartial narrator (particularly if the narrator is supposed to be omniscient), now we have an issue.

A lot of swear words aren't inert. They carry some strong judgement. I can say shit instead of crap without too much trouble, but if I say "snotty fuckface" instead of "dour looking" I am really revealing an opinion. And so using curses in an objective narrative third tends to undermine the voice as impartial.

This isn't universally "bad." A reader who can't trust a narrator will begin to look for "clues" about who the narrator is and what their filter might be. That can be delightful for a reader to a sort of guess/detective where the lens is coming from when it turns out the narrative voice has a particular bias that is coming through. (There was a book–title long since forgotten–where I loved figuring out that the third person omniscient narrator was actually a minor character telling the story many years later, and adding up the clues to figure out which one.) However, if this narrative filter is unintended on the part of the writer, it just ends up making the writing sloppy, the voice untrustworthy (but for no reason), and detracts rather than adds. Not earned at all.

Why is there kind of sort of a "rule" about this? Well, it actually ended up helping that you mentioned you're in high school. Most of the third person literature you will have been exposed to by the time you leave a high school curriculum (that is repeatedly drilled into your head as "good") is going to be more impartial. There are a couple of reasons for that that aren't important to your question that have to do with difficulty, the introduction of point-of view needing very clear cut examples, what sort of dead-white-guy writing is generally considered canon, and how uncomfortable PTA's and school boards get if they see the word "fuck" in a book. Suddenly you have a cocktail for thinking "this is what good writers do," even if your sample size is skewed greatly toward a fairly wholesome teaching tool. I don't know how much reading you've done outside of school, but it will probably be useful to pay close attention to how authors you enjoy use their narrative point of view. Once you know what to look for, it's a lot easier to notice this stuff.

I hope this helps the two of you get back to fighting about Cynthia Masterson and Mrs. Krazenski.