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

Friday, May 26, 2017

This "Populist Writing Philosophy" (Mailbox)

I disagree with the popular writing advice that quality doesn't matter.

[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. 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. I try to do only gentle takedowns when folks aren't anonymous.]

Paul writes:

I have to fundamentally disagree with this populist writing philosophy you espouse--i.e., that quality doesn't matter, instead all that matters is you write. While that may not be a statement you agree with, it certainly seems to be the gist of your day-to-day and week-to-week posts.

I'm sorry, but what matters is that you write the best you can, every time, and never accept anything less from yourself. Because if you write shit, no matter how much you polish that shit afterwards it's still just going to be a polished turd. I have seen many lifelong writers never even come close to escaping mediocrity, simply because they subscribe to this cop-out of refusing to demand more of themselves.

And it ties in with the idea of simply getting something on the page and then fixing it afterward. If you don't take the time to think about what you want to write first, you will rarely write anything that lives up to your true potential.

My reply:

Damn Paul, I just came here to have a good time and I'm feeling so attacked right now.

Okay, seriously though....I didn't get this as anonymous feedback, so I'm going to try to play nice, but it would be difficult for me to disagree more with the gestalt and particulars of a message than I do with this one.

There are basically six issues here, Paul, and I'll take them on as they showed up in your PM to me:
  1. That elitism has a place in writing. (Through the implication that populism does not.)
  2. That the end goal of everyone's writing is something we even know.
  3. That one should write the best they can every time and "demand more of themselves."
  4. That there is any way to be good at writing than by first writing a lot of what isn't good.
  5. That getting something on the page is not a fundamental part of the writing process.
  6. That one ought to think about it for a long time before writing.

1- That elitism has a place in writing. (Through the implication that populism does not.)

Whenever "populism" gets used outside of politics–and I mean literally the word itself–I start thinking of non-ironic use of the word "plebs." ("The plebs might like this sort of thing, but anyone with some REAL class....") It's not that I don't think typical writing advice can sometimes be less than helpful. It is after all a typical position that writing every day is not particularly important to becoming a well known published author, whereas most successful writers encourage it. In this respect a certain amount of elitism can creep into good writing advice. I mean do you want to listen to your friend who has seven chapters of their totally sick post apocalyptic steampunk zombie/dragon love story tucked in a drawer and has been talking about how wicked dope it is for five years when they tell you you don't need to write every day, or do you want to listen to the legion of household name authors when they respond to the question over and over and over (and over) about how to "make it" as a writer that writing every day is essential to that goal?

My question then becomes, Paul, if "just writing" is a populist philosophy, who are these "normal people" you think are kidding themselves and who my page should not cater to. I don't just mean that as a "gotcha" question. I would really ask yourself that and reflect. Elitism in writing has a fraught historical and cultural legacy–even who was taught HOW to write is only a couple of generations from being a repulsive means of cultural control.

I would really consider why you are comfortable with an elitist approach to writing that is so codified that you don't just think your approach is a better for you personally, but that I am actually running my page wrong and you need to tell me so.

Writing is for everyone (or should be), and one of the things I disagree with the most is folks who try to gate keep it either through content or quality or grammar or whatever. I'm more about tearing down walls and making writing accessible (and hopefully enjoyable) to even more people. You, of course, get to decide what you read, but deciding what other people write, and if they're doing it right is significantly different.

2- That the end goal of everyone's writing is something we even know.

This "don't do it half assed or you aren't really even doing it" advice is everywhere you look. Fitness trainers are saying it to people who power walk or just come enjoy the gym's pool. Multi level marketers say that you have to become a salesperson powerhouse. Cosplayers demand a costume be of a certain quality. The leader of my old World of Warcraft guild said it when I told him I wasn't going to be able to raid for three to five hours, five nights a week.

And that's great for what those powerhouses want to do, but some people don't want shredded abs, they just want to have more energy to play with their kids. They don't want to be the top of a pyramid scheme; they just want the product for their family and a few friends. They don't want to spend 150 labor hours making a costume; they just want to hang out in something that looks good enough. They don't want a part time job worth of video games; they want to play casually a couple of hours on weekends when they are done writing. Telling those folks they aren't really doing it and their effort doesn't count is at least kind of crappy. But mostly it just presumes to know what they want out of life and their pursuits, and tends to come with a certain level of sneering dismissal of anyone who isn't "in it to win it" so to speak, and a sort of belief that they are the "real" versions of whatever it is. If I don't get to be in that World of Warcraft guild (and I don't) because I'm a weekend warrior and never have the latest tier 87 power gear that's fine. But I have fun and I'm pretty good at what I enjoy doing (battlegrounds). And I can't remember the last time I picked a talent spec wasn't exactly what the "pros" were picking to win in the arenas. So don't tell me I don't really play. 

It's true that I modulate my advice based on whether or not I am addressing someone who is perfectly happy to do Tumblr fanfic once a month for the rest of their life vs. someone who wants to be a working (and perhaps just a wee bit rich and famous) novelist vs. someone who already has a writing career, but in general my advice is fairly consistent, and I don't presume to know what someone's goals and objectives are.

Write a lot. Read a lot. Don't give up. That'll get you pretty far when you realize everything else is variations on a theme and frosting.

People write for lots of different reasons. For catharsis, for enjoyment, for friends and family, to be understood, for money, for the joy of the page, to fulfil the ambition of a full fledged career in writing, for the pursuit of artistic excellence. I've written more than one story to impress a woman. None of these approaches to writing is "incorrect" or "improper." Just because someone hasn't done their best every time doesn't somehow not make it writing. Even published authors might whip out a short story for some extra cash that is something "less than their best." And given how hard achieving high end life goals like "paying career" or "artistic brilliance" can be with any art, the only generalized assumption I make is that most people who write, enjoy it in some way.

If you want to drive yourself to be great, spiffy. But let's leave some of the ice cream for the other kids, okay?


3- That one should write the best they can every time and "demand more of themselves."

If everyone who wrote, or I suppose everyone of the half a million folks who follow Writing About Writing on Facebook definitely wanted a career as a well-paid novelist or to tap into their literary potential, I might focus on encouraging them to write the best they could every time.

I more or less agree with you that doing your best consistently is the way to improve your writing, but improvement is not everyone's end game. Some people are getting what they want out of writing and that's great on them. It's not like the money and the fame and the groupie threesomes are reliable enough that anyone should be writing to get to those things. So the love of writing itself must be the primary motivation. And some people are content with their skill level and want to tell stories. Many authors improve only incrementally once they start getting published because at that point they have the skill they need to tell the stories they want to and maybe make a career out of it. That's okay.

Improvement is not always on every writer's mind during every part of their life either, even if it tends to be in general. When my partner of ten years got cancer and then I went through a breakup and a move, I just wanted to keep from losing readers. For an entire year, my only external goal with writing was simply not to lose ground. The real reason I kept writing was that it was my way out. It was my catharsis. My processing. My therapy. (Well, okay I also had some actually therapy, but that helped.)

I wrote my way out....


4- That there is any way to be good at writing than by first writing a lot of what isn't good.

You can't sit around and think your way to good writing, Paul. It goes against everything you will ever hear about how to improve your craft. At least by anyone who has done so themselves.

You can sit in smoke filled coffee houses discussing craft and attend webinars and take classes and read books until the end of days, but none of that will help if you don't get a lot of practice as well. Some of it might help you get better a little faster, but nothing will take the place of practice.

Adventure time.  Warner Bros. Television Distribution
You have to write. You have to write a lot. And you have to write a lot of crap. And maybe, maybe, MAYBE after you write a lot of crap, you will be a little better at writing stuff that sucks slightly less.

There really aren't any shortcuts to this part of the grand writing scheme. A lot of people really hope there are, and folks chasing the sacred effort shortcut amount to a tremendous amount of the cash flow generated by the "writing industry." However, almost every overnight success story you've ever heard actually wasn't overnight at all. There was just a lot of work going on behind the scenes. I'm often shocked at how many people can almost quote to me the story of Stephen King getting his "We-want-to-buy-Carrie" phone call from his publisher (he writes about it in On Writing), but can't tell me within a decade of accuracy how many years he wrote almost constantly before that happened...even though that's described only a few pages earlier. (The answer is over twenty years.)

Writing is a skill. When we think about what we want our finished product to be, we imagine bits of it as cinematics in our heads, fudge over cerebral ideas, and skip parts we're not sure about yet. It is uncongealed and not set to words. It turns out that actually converting all those great ideas into concrete language, is really, really hard. Hard enough that when people are good at it, we pay them lots of money. Hard enough that there's not really any way to get good at it except through practice.


5- That getting something on the page is not a fundamental part of the writing process.

I was sort of with you till we got here, Paul. I mean I had my problems with the elitism and stuff, but it seemed like maybe you were taking umbrage with people who just keep writing first drafts and wondering why they're not rich and famous yet. Or the folks sending their Nano manuscripts to publishers. Or folks who self publish a draft that clearly needs more revision. Obviously not everyone wants to do the work of revision, but some of them do scratch their head and wonder why they aren't getting better. But then you kind of undermined the first part of the point with the second and the whole thing fell apart.

It's funny that you mention polishing a turd as a way NOT to treat a first draft. See that's more or less exactly how the writing process works, including an awful lot of writers using that exact fecal metaphor. In fact, one of the breakthrough moments in experienced writers trying to teach inexperienced writers is when the later finally takes a leap of faith and lets go of the idea that they have to write something good the first time they sit down.

But hey, you know what. Don't take my word for it:
"The first draft of anything is shit."  -Hemingway 
“I hate first drafts, and it never gets easier. People always wonder what kind of superhero power they’d like to have. I want the ability for someone to just open up my brain and take out the entire first draft and lay it down in front of me, so I can just focus on the second, third and fourth drafts.” -Judy Bloom
"Just get the story down." -Nora Roberts
"I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them – without a thought about publication -and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside." -Anne Tyler
 “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” -Terry Pratchett
Shitty First Drafts PDF (An essay by Anne LaMott) 
 “Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”
― Raymond Chandler  
“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or 10 pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”—Lawrence Block, WD 
It's polished shit Paul.  Polished shit all the way down.

Not that you can't ever find writers who don't work exactly this way (Vonnegut and Koontz spring to mind), but even their page-by-page revision and polish happens on a real page not in their heads over time, thinking about it until they finally have thought so much that they can just write gold. They just tear a lot of pages out of the typewriter and crumple them up like you see in the movies.

Even those incredibly rare writing moments (like when Marilynne Robinson wrote Gilead in what would almost be a single draft) the writer admits to doing the actual linguistic work of sentence and paragraph revision in their head for years before they committed a single letter to the page.

What I fear your eschewing of revision belies, Paul, is a fundamental distrust in the writing process. I hear this all the time from my students who don't think they have to draft or that their revision process will be little more than a quick pass for grammar and a few word choices rather than a massive tectonic upheaval that reshapes and reforms their work. "Not MY draft," they all say. "Mine is good already because I really thought about it." They think they're not going to have to rip their work apart and they can somehow, with enough prep, get it right on the first try. If you're trying to get writing right on the first try, you're not trusting that you're going crack open its chest and do some organ transplants, and not get away with a little nip and tuck. You're not trusting the writing process.

Let me be as clear as I can: From popular cotton candy novelists to nobel laureates, all have the same thing to say about the idea that revision can be avoided with enough aforethought: That's NOT going to happen. You can't prep your way out of revision. You have to be ready to revise the shit out of your story. When they say "kill your darlings" they aren't suggesting every book needs a body count.

The process of polishing shit is HOW writing works. That's exactly what you want to do. Grab that turd and bust out a lint free cloth! Once the idea is on the page, you can see what's not working. Revise your approach. Get rid of that character. Notice those two chapters are doing the same thing. Abandon that plot arc. Start after all of that god awful exposition dump. Get rid of 90% of those lines you thought were so fucking clever. Rewrite it if necessary (and it will be at least once).

Then you revise again. Then you get some peer review and you go back and revise again. And again. THIS is where you hone all the skills. THIS is where the real magic starts to happen.

That's how all art works. You don't get better at a concert by thinking about it. You have a rehearsal and see what needs more practice. You don't paint great paintings by thinking about how awesome it's going to look when it's finally done and then just splatting it out. You sketch it, draw it, and paint it and see what works and maybe scrape it off or redo it if it isn't working. You don't think about your dance. You choreograph it, take a look at it, notice the parts that need work and start adding in complexity and nuance.



6- That one ought to think about it a long time before writing.

No! No no no. No. NO!  No. Don't do that. No.

(If it helps you not feel defensive, Paul, I'm writing that more like a loving mother whose child is walking hand first towards the lit stove and less like Steve Carrel on The Office.)

This is a really great way to get writer's block. I mean like bigtime, no nonsense, serious ass, sit in front of that keyboard for hours and then days and then months kind of writer's block. Please don't do this. This is EXACTLY the sort of fear of failure/demand for perfection that paralyzing writers indefinitely. Thinking that they have to get the words perfect on the first try is basically the number one cause of writer's block. Or they get one line perfect and then....fall apart at line two. Not to mention that this is thing that most steals the simple joy of writing away.

And then we have to go back and unlearn all this perfectionism. And relearn about morning writing and free writing and stream of consciousness writing and trusting in the writing process to be able over many revisions to turn a steaming hot turd into something beautiful. We are so worried about perfect execution that we've forgotten how to let go and be creative and we have to go back to those fountainheads of inspiration as a deliberate act of will. We have to remember how to write a bunch of shit down and throw 90% of it away because it's not working but you got a really good idea from something in that 10%. We have to remind ourselves how much of art is play.

I hate Scott Adams untethered bigotry, and I sort of wish we could
liberate this quote, but boy did he nail it here.

Are there some ideas you let percolate before you write them? Sure. They're not really fully formed ideas at that point. And many's been the post or essay I thought about for days before I started writing. My personal process leans towards deep introspection lots of "staring at the ceiling" and then faster writing once I'm at the keyboard but I still have to write it down after the ceiling is done giving me ideas. I also rarely use outlines or notes once I know where I'm going, and I'll admit that on important works, I should be revising more than I do. People have a different point before they need to start articulating their thoughts, but 1) it always happens eventually, and 2) the people who need to start writing sooner are no less of writers.

The inescapable truth, though, is that once the ideas are as nebulously formed as they're going to get, you have to just start splatting them out, (warts and all) so that you can see what you're dealing with and start the process of revision. You HAVE to start foraging these ideas in the crucible of language or they will only ever languish all nebulous-like inside your own head. Thinking about it MORE after that point doesn't really help, and if you just sit around and play Fallout for 16 hours a day thinking that your idea is somehow going to evolve into its final form in your head, rather than by struggling with the precise words you need on the paper, you'll only ever end up with lots of thoughts and a very, very small number of written things.

It's not that quality doesn't matter, Paul. Of course it does. Any writer who isn't comfortable exactly where they are with exactly what they are doing (whether it's their aesthetic or their career) should care very greatly about the quality of their finished products. Revision, editing, and final product all take lots of work and dedication to quality. It's just that there is a way we get to quality in the arts. A faith in the years long apprenticeship with the old masters and our personal heroes that produces lots of practice and lots of unusable product, and after that, a faith in the process of refinement (revision in the case of writing) to bring our initial efforts to a higher quality.

But between the writing process that absolutely is all about revision and the writers who don't necessarily want to be treating their writing like it's boot camp, I'm really uncomfortable being elitist about a prescriptive demand that writing requires anything but writing to be writing.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Best YA for Young Women (Reminder to Vote)

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

I'm obviously going to need another day on this mailbox I'm writing, so instead of that going up at 11pm on the west coast, you'll get a reminder to vote. Semifinals will go up on Monday.

Monday the results of the last quarterfinal will be tallied and the first semifinal will go up, so take your last couple of days 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."

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

February's Best

I don't normally do a post on Wednesdays (Wednesday is a long nanny day for me, Tuesdays are ten-hour, two-job days, and I'm usually still catching up from a late night on Monday, so by Wednesday I need a day off), but I have a little extra time this week, and I'm very behind on these "Best of" posts, so I figured that could be today's post.

But here are the posts from February that will be going on to untold fame in The Greatest Hits.


Saying Goodbye and Peak Orangosity (Tribute)

These posts were #1 and #2 respectively, but I'm putting them both as a single entry since the first one was little more than a "I won't be able to make a post today" that just happened to pique a lot of people's interest. In February I said goodbye to my feline companion of 17 years.

Social Justice Bard vs. Milo the Troll

Is Milo really just the poor maligned edgy champion of free speech he claims to be?

The People in my Life/The People in My Fiction

M wants to know where the line is in bringing real life people into one's characters.

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.