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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

I Will Share My Experiences in Real Time

So I’m years out of a creative writing program* and starting to carve out my place as a writer!

[*I got tired of editing this every year. I graduated in December 2011]

And as I do, I’m going to post it right here.

Sometime around 2002, I hung up a sauce-stained tie, stopped managing The Old Spaghetti Factory in Concord, and gave up the USDA, public service announcement recipe for Happiness and the American Dream™, and struck off on my own path. I had tried the "real" job, "real" life, "real" responsibilities, and even saved up for a "real" house and was talking about "real" kids with my "real" spouse.

All that realness sucked balls. Sadly, not in the way that is vaguely tantalizing.  More like in the way that an over-enthusiastic teen with braces does it. No, not even that. More like......you know what, you get the point.

So I dumped all that "real" crap (except the "real" spouse; they did the dumping in that case) and I started writing. I got a flip over haircut and I told my mom I just really needed to focus on my art.

This was after I visited Esma's secret lab.
I'm one of the few people who know why she even has that lever.

Unfortunately, what I produced was little more than a steaming pile of crap. That is when I began my mission.

Well, really, I began a quest.

Many years earlier I had become "A Writer"....Dorothea Brande style...but I needed help with the craft itself. My prose was rough around the edges. My grammar was pretty atrocious. I liked writing about farm boys fighting dark lords. I had to learn to do with quality what I loved to do with quantity.

And so I began my quest. I was told the location of an ancient, magical sword by this venerable dude who looked amazingly like Burgess Meredith. I had to kill a troll. (There was even witty banter.) At first I refused, but then I got the sword. I went back to the guy and asked him how this was supposed to make me a better writer.

"Writer?" he blinked. "Who the hell would ever want to be a writer? There's no money in that. What you need to do is lop the heads off of dragons. The bigger the dragon, the better. Lots of money, fame, fortune. And chicks dig dragonslayers. Prolly hook up a threesome....after your first kill of course."

Turned out I we’d gotten our wires crossed somewhere. And when I said “learn to write,” he had heard “kill the hydra.” (Not sure where the hell that came from. They barely even rhyme.) I left him the sword, in case he found the right sort of hero, and headed off.

Without a wizened old mentor cliche, I didn’t see how I was ever going to learn to write. I kept putting on montage music and then sitting down to the keyboard, but by the end of the song, I was still looking at mediocre writing. (What do you expect, those songs are only like two minutes long.) I tried to catch a chicken, but even when I did, my prose did not improve. I also had a horrible case of histoplasmosis from fungi in the droppings. That put me in the hospital for like a month.

So I decided to quest for the secret to craft myself. No mentor.

Perhaps I would assemble a rag tag group of misfits along the way––hopefully including a ninja who is looking for his father–a ninja who can pull fish right out of a river. And a mandroid. We would hopefully be joined by a talking firedog, a gruff dude with a machine gun for an arm, and a giant stuffed animal ridden by a cat with a megaphone. And if I were very lucky, Meteor Man.

Each of them would join me for their own purposes. But, sausage fest full of tropes assembled, we would face the Dark Lord together.

The....um...."dark lord" of shitty writing.

Regardless, I was going to walk this road, mentor or no. Nothing was going to stop me. I even queued up "Break My Stride." I looked to the horizon, where the sun was setting, and dragged a blade across my palm (different blade—I gave the enchanted sword back to Burgess remember; try to keep up). As I did, with wind whipping my hair, I cried, “I swear by my blood, I will learn to write.”

And it was pretty dramatic except for fucking Matthew Wilder's voice.

 If we never ever again–as a culture–permit the combination of hippie mustaches and leather pants it will be too soon. 

To this day, if you go to that spot, where the wind tousled my hair, and my blood spilled to the ground, and you look where my life fluid touched the fecund soil beneath me, you will find.....absolutely nothing of any particular significance. But the wind might tousle your hair too.

My quest led me to college....where some said mentors still lived. But where the demon to be defeated was college itself.

Thus I battled with college. For seven years we fought. College smashed me, beat me, slammed me into walls, threw me to the ground, chewed me up and spit me out, and once swallowed me and digested me. But every time it thought the fight was over, every time I looked well and truly dead, and it turned away, I would stand up.

"Is that the best you've got?"

I found that college (even a creative writing degree) had very little to do with being a writer, and a lot more to do with a firm basis in general education, literary analysis, and following directions. It had some to do with writing (though not as much as I'd have hoped), but almost nothing to do with being a writer. It also probably wrung out the desire to write from more writers than it ever taught the craft. 

Now I had to fuse the knowledge of how to write with the love of writing itself, and combine it with one serious fuckton of work.

That's where the blog began. And even though most of this post is about the past, what I'm trying to get at is that you found me still on my way to The Black Fortress (even though neither they nor my sentient ninja star will be nearly as useful at defeating The Beast as THE FLAMETHROWER OF LOVE™).

Here is my pledge, however. 

Whatever I discover, I will share here. If I learn a trick, I’ll put it here. If I discover a surefire way to network, it’ll be up here by the next weekday. If I hit pay dirt along one avenue or hit nothing but walls along another, you will know it happened. If there's a wait involved in an acceptance process, I'll detail every agonizing day of it.

It will also show you the banal in excruciating real time. No overnight success stories. If I start to carve out something, you will see how it took me years of writing every day to get there. You will watch me improve from old articles to new. You will see my career as it happens.

The new leg of my journey begins, and I’m going to chronicle it here. Any insight I glean––be it the weaknesses of trolls, that publishers have a weakness for silver and cold steel, or kingsfoil as a creativity stimulant––I'll put it here. Conversely, if any place I point out troll droppings, ogre sniper rifle laser sight dots, or vampiric agents, because I know what to look for, I'll warn you. We can take the next part of this fantastic quest together.

Best to imagine me as Madmartigan looking at Arik with an impish smile. "Wanna come with us?"

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Guy Goodman St.White Reviews The Crap-Filled Canon

Good evening. I'm Guy Goodman St.White, and I will be your exceedingly British-accented guest blogger in my multi-part presentation of the sterling award winning, and critically acclaimed: Speculative Fiction Sucks Balls (And Not In The Good Way).

Please join me as I examine some of less realistic examples of hack genre writing and the writers who, were they not already dead, would certainly deserve to have their face--as the Yanks say--pwned. I look forward to taking our little journey together.

Beowulf                                                              The Epic of Gilgamesh
Judith                                                                  The Illiad
Le Morte d'Arthur                                                Lady Felicity The Odyssey (Guest Blog)
Sir Gawain and The Green Knight                       Plato's Various Works
Thomas More's Utopia (Sort of)                          The Divine Comedy
Spencer's The Fairy Queen                                 A Few Concluding Thoughts: Western Canon
Nathaniel Hawthorne
George Orwell (1984 and Animal Farm)              Guy Reviews a Bottle of Scotch

Glossary of Creative Writing Terms

Am I using a word you don't know, or--much more likely--using a word in a WAY that you're pretty sure isn't quite what it means in everyday usage? Fiction writers use a lot of terms (like "setting as kinetic landscape") that sort of SOUND like they might be English but probably need some explanation. As I start to introduce terms, I'll keep a running list here for reference with a quick definition and a link back to the post where I originally explained the idea.  Or if you just want a cheap laugh or two.

There is considerable overlap between creative writing terms and literary terms. The terms I use almost exclusively to refer to creative writing concepts and that I don't often hear used as literary terms I have underlined.  Also, though some literary terms must be included in a creative writing glossary, this is not a literary glossary, and it won't cover the more esoteric literary terms.

Creative Writing Terms- A-E
Creative Writing Terms- F-J
Creative Writing Terms- K-O
Creative Writing Terms- P-S
Creative Writing Terms- T-Z

Control What People See When They Search for Me on Google:

People will do web searches on your name as soon as you are in the public sphere.  Make sure they find something worth finding.  

It was my second-to-last semester when I heard the best advice of my entire writing program.

Normally, I wouldn’t be caught dead paying attention in class, but for some reason my iPad was taking forever to update the Phantasy Star II app, so I happened to hear it. But I also noticed that the woman who was saying it was a working writer who had broken into e-pub through blogging and was making enough in only five years to work very part time as a teacher and devote herself to writing.

And it wasn't the first time I'd heard such a thing either.

See, there was a real changing of the guard going on in the business of creative writing at the time. (It's since somewhat shaken out, but it was pretty significant at the time.)  Publishing houses—even some small presses—had their heads buried in the sand; the sand that looked suspiciously like their own asses. They didn't seem to know what's going on with computers. That was 2011, and the interim decade has had a few of them catch up, but much like old generals fighting wars with the last generation's tactics, they're still having trouble.

The old guard and the new guard shift RIGHT about at people my age (maybe a little younger). This isn’t a small change either. This is a huge, nothing-will-ever-be-the-same, "It's a cookbook" change that is rocking the publishing world more than Lady Gaga and Beyoncé rocked Telephone. It is roughly analogous to the same change that hit the record industry in the early 2000s (and they still don't know exactly which way is up). Technology moves fast, and every shift is making new things possible, plausible, possibly even superior to prior versions of "The Way Things Are Simply Done™," yet some of these fossils are still insisting that fax machines are the antichrist and that email will be the downfall of civilization. 

This or be told speculative fiction isn't "real art."     
       Tough choice.                                     
Though their power falters evermore each year, the old guard are still calling a LOT of the shots in the publishing industry. If you’ve ever, I don’t know, looked around a Barnes and Noble, you know there are still a couple of books being traditionally published.

Sure, your local bookshop is starting to be more Shakespeare-bust electric pencil sharpeners (where you stick the pencil into his left nostril) and Moleskine journals, but  there are still one or two shelves of actual books behind the coffee shop, the CD rack, the used movie spinning display. and the Jane Austen tote bags. 

The old guard’s world is a world of gatekeepers and status quo. It is a world where few have the power, and they lord it over the rest.  A world where the only course to endgame is short story credits--->cover letter--->agent--->publisher--->book deal, and at every step someone is judging whether or not the work is of enough appeal (or "worth") to move up the chain.

This "someone" is almost always white, male, heterosexual, and middle class. Even in today's world where that is only "statistically likely" (rather than universally true), those who are not still overwhelmingly maintain the aesthetics and values of those cultures. Some inroads from marginalized groups have been made into literary fiction, but they often have to be a sort of "marginalization porn" type of story to do so, and mainstream is still oftentimes much more difficult for such voices. 

The old guard tend to love books as physical objects. They talk a lot about the smell of books—so much so, in fact, that you’d think they need to grind wood into a powder, mix it with glue and ink and rub that shit on their gums to test its quality. They speak of computers as "newfangled infernal contraptions." They seem confused, and I have to say maybe even a little befuddled, by the impact of e-readers and blogs on the readers market.

The old guard claim that the future of publishing is "totally up in the air," but they have "no way to know where the wind is blowing," and with every innovation and technology, they seem caught with their pants down, clinging to the vestiges of the old ways like ice cubes in clench fists that drip through their fingers in a horrifying melange of wind, pants, and ice cube metaphors. They disagree on the impact that e-readers and computers will have in the next decade, and some even insist their impact is nominal now—even though every single speaker not in publishing basically unanimously agrees that they have officially changed the game. The old guard claim they have absolutely no way to know where the industry is going.

And they are losing their jobs in droves.

They even (my hand to God) had not noticed by 2009—when I was in sitting in my Business of Writing class listening to a new panel of them every week—that their 15% drop in book sales exactly matched the reports that e-readers now accounted for 15% of the market share. They just thought people were "reading less these days." 

Again––I'm not making that up. They stood in front of us, presented us with slides and....didn't see it. 

But with speakers and guests right around my age, something strange happened.

The new guard aren’t “unsure” of what is going on within the publishing industry.  They are unanimous, loud, and very confident of their predictions. They don’t disagree with each other but rather have a spooky sort of consensus that you really don't see very often in writers. They can see the impact of e-readers, the trends, and the way the wind is blowing:

Paper books are on their way out, and computers are going to devastate the power of the gatekeeper model.

Not all paper books. Not completely. Never. We love them WAY too much for that. And this process will not happen overnight, especially as long as there are people who fetishize physical books.

Not beloved copies or masterpieces. Not “vanity copies” that hipsters will insist on mail ordering to match their seventies-style Puma sneakers and will tuck conspicuously into their skull-covered tote bags. Not the mega-bestsellers who will always be financially viable to publish physically.

No, it will probably shift slowly overy the next few decades until it looks a little like Star Trek, where they read everything on their little pads, but still give each other real books as gifts and had a few titles in paper form in their quarters.  But the books you gather up by the truckload and consume like jelly beans..... the books that my ex-roommate, has wall-to-wall, causing a fire hazard in one entire room of the house. The ones that can’t hit an increasingly high circulation number to make their publishing run "worth it"....  They're gone. 

Thirty years...maybe forty.

The content will still be there, of course, but it will almost ALL be electronic at that point.

The low-risk alternatives of print on demand and e-publishing are just making the old system not worth it anymore unless you're Rowling*, King, or Brown. 

(*Note: Don't be Rowling; seriously, she's unapologetically transphobic and that's just her loudest and most recent way to be problematic.)

But the thing is that the developments in these technologies are not just changing the publishing industry. They are also changing how a writer deals with that industry. Writers don’t even need agents anymore. Writers don’t need publishers anymore. They can take their work straight to the presses themselves. Fuck, they can hit a button and be published the same day electronically. It’s a major major game changer when the gatekeepers are being port rounded, and the artists can take their work directly to their fans. Suddenly, the artists have power again, and don't have to conform to a vision of either "what sells," or what a very narrow demographic of gatekeepers think has the literary worth to justify taking a loss on.

The old guard writers we met through my CW program were almost always professors, editors, publishers as well, or had some other day job. They made virtually no money off their writing. (Notable exception: Dan Handler. That was a fun evening.) Small presses can't really pay, and if they can, it's a pittance. The biggest royalty checks those writers got was when a class (usually a creative writing class) picked up one of their books to study, and it became a required text for the course—

—…aaaaaaaaaand if that kind of strikes you as a bit of a Ponzi scheme, you’re not alone.

By contrast, MOST of the younger writers were able to be working writers after a few years at it. They cobbled together ten different income streams from web content to freelance work, to erotica to be translated into Taiwanese, and some punched a part-time clock to shore up their defenses, but they were doing it. They were writing for a living, and not getting caught in 9-5 writing gigs that left them sapped and exhausted when facing their own fiction. They were getting their creative work out there with computers and technology. And a lot of them didn’t see agents and big publishing houses as the goal. A lot of them thought that was one way among a dozen to reach endgame, but the real money was in extremely cheap e-reader only versions of their work where they would pocket MOST of the retail price, marketed online.

And the most common advice the young guard gave us was this: “Control what people are going to see when they Google your name.”

We live in a world where some people sneer at online publishing. They think it is beneath them. They think it isn't "real." They have nothing published online, or if they do, it is their second- or third-tier work. That poem or short story they didn't think they could get published in a "real" venue.

Guess what comes up when you Google their name?

That's right. The crap.

The seriously terribad crap that they wouldn't ever want anyone to see.

What’s even more dangerous is stuff you don’t even know is out there. A mirror screenshot of your drunk text manifestos on how Nazi Germany wasn't SO bad because at least the trains ran on time that you put on Friendster back in 2002. Your twenty-something screed about how feminism hurts men. Your pindaric ode to your pet that you thought was really clever when you were flying recreationally on Adderal. You want to push that stuff onto page 23 (or later) by replacing if you possibly can. If you don't, the first thing someone sees of you, when they look you up, is some poetry you tweeted during your “EE Cummings Punctuation Phase” about how hard it is to be a white, het, male in today’s world.

Unless you're Lynn Shepherd, you should be able to exert some control over what people see when they Google your name.

So part of my mission for this blog is to have fairly tight control of what someone is going to see when they do a search for my name–lest I end up with people knowing about the Great Spumoni Incident of Aught Two.

Not good.

Monday, February 27, 2012

If you're in this for the money, do something else!

This was a red letter day in terms of page views. This is what I make on a red letter day. There are lots of better ways to make money--even by writing. Don't do it unless you love it. Don't do it unless not doing it makes you sick.

You can click the picture if you can't read it on the page. It won't take you to e-Narnia, I promise.

Six Ways LARPing (at Dundracon) Made Me a Better Writer--Part 2

Go back to part 1

4- There are a myriad of interactions and points of view

Want to hear a neat story? In the weekend between writing the first part and the second part of this article, the players who played Freeze and Panzer let me know that I’d misjudged the dynamic of their interactions. My take on their relationship was completely wrong. They weren’t hot for each other, but they knew alternate versions of themselves had been.

But this illustrates a great point.

I only knew what I saw from my point of view and I put that information through my own biases and filters to come to a conclusion. This is one of the beauties of LARP’s. We can only ever experience them from one point of view, but there are anywhere between a dozen and forty others. And unlike most of life, where we don’t really care much about roughly seven billion of those other points of view, in a LARP it’s kind of fun.

(Allow me to take an artsy fartsy moment here to suggest that a genuine artist will care very much about those seven billion points of view. It’s one of the things that sets us apart from most others who are content with their existing concepts of “the other.”)

We often get to find out how others experienced the game—how they may have even experienced the same conversation—from a totally different perspective. LARPers lovingly call this a “No shit, there I was...” story, and many of the games have “No shit...” time scheduled in to the end. I have heard the same moment retold from a dozen different perspectives before; each person explaining how their character viewed the events and what went through their head to cause them to act how they did. (“Okay, so I saw this random dude pull out a nuclear powered cheese grater, and I’m thinking ‘Not on my motherfucken watch!’ So I quick-drew my sentient-potato gun....”) Knowing why another character just beat you with your dead girlfriend or fired an implosion missile at the new Empress five seconds after her coronation can really add to the flavor of the game once it’s all over.

For an attentive writer this discrete consciousness is a gold mine of characterization tips. In a broad sense it’s up to an artist to remember a few things about life, about other perspectives, and about humanity. With seven billion options available without even starting to exercise one’s imagination, you can quickly see how keeping things myopic can stymie expression. Political causes, didactic themes, and ideological supremacy kill that artistry dead.

 If you don’t believe me, read anything Ayn Rand ever wrote. But bring a bucket.

A writer can watch these fifteen, twenty, even thirty-five or more people who all engage and then experience the world with their own unique take on the situation, and glean marvelous insight into their own characters and how to portray them.

Guess what? Not everyone instantly appraises a situation correctly. This doesn’t mean you have to have a Three’s-Company-caliber double-entendre fest for someone to get their signals wrong. (Not that I much mind seeing Suzanne Summers open her mouth ever wider.) But just having a character think two people are madly in love when they aren’t renders that character the humanity of being WRONG once in a while.

 You have to have characters get it wrong sometimes! You know the characters that notice everything? Holmes (or House), Monk, Father Brown, Colombo, or Poirot--every one of them has huge blinders about certain things—social graces, emotions, manners. Characters should experience everything through the filter of their own biases and the frailties of their blinders. If a character is no more than a mouthpiece for exposition, they are a stupid character. Characters should misgauge situations, misunderstand interactions, be unaware of everything going on around them, have some moral failings even if they are the protagonist, and always interpret things through a filter. That filter helps to describe and characterize them.

The careful writer can also watch these interactions (or hear about them in “No Shit” stories) and get a sense of how persona but also of circumstance work together. Even the most archetypical character will  sometimes size up a situation and modify their tack. Sure, if someone’s personality aspect is a hammer, they will probably see all their problems as nails, but even a hammer has the ability to be a lever.

A character might try to intimidate one character, negotiate with another character and be obsequious with yet another. Consider not only how unique each character is in their perspectives, but how each interaction forms its own unique dynamic.

One of the characters in one of the games got belligerent with everyone. Always. And it wasn’t long before everyone sort of got his two-dimensional shtick and left him alone for the rest of the night, secretly hoping for something to fall from a great height and hit him in the head—something like a missile. Your readers won’t find such a one-hit wonder any more compelling. In fact, the more you have a character that is singular of disposition, the more your readers probably want to know what it would take to crack that shell.

5- LARPs know tropes.

Many LARP’s emulate a story that will generate interest in them from a player base. We might not go to a Lots of Politicking People With Swords LARP, but many people would be interested in A Game of Thrones LARP just by name recognition. LARPs might be based on Torchwood, Dresden Files, Babylon 5, or some sort of generic form of a genre, and that means they take the job of emulating those shows or genres very seriously. One thing LARPs are keenly aware of are the tropes of a particular show, a genre, or of a medium in general. A writer who pays attention to these tropes and the metacognition that surrounds them in LARPs can hone themselves to be wary of them in their own writing.

It’s not that tropes are always bad. A well placed trope can make for great satire. But the more serious the work is, the more they have to be handled with great care.

Remember how the dynamite worked in LOST? Okay, tropes are like that except instead of your guts all over the place if you mess up, it’s your artistic integrity, and the smoke monster is a literary reviewer coming to tear you to pieces for being so predictable. AWOOOOOOOOOOOOO!. Chk-chk-chk-chk-chk-chk-chk-chk!

 One of the reasons genre gets so much flack from the literary community is that a huge chunk of it relies on tropes. A lot of speculative fiction breaks this mold, but a lot does not. A LOT of it does not.

Now it's true that you want to bring something new to the table. No one is really impressed anymore by a seemingly unstoppable alien force invading Earth. Since War of the Worlds it’s been done a couple of times...maybe. Unless there is something new and interesting about this one, we’re out. (The aliens…have to sing rock opera to make their weapons work....yes!)  Trope awareness can go too far--for there is a limit to how unique you can be. Ever. But it's good to pay attention to.

Both the dueling swords larp and the heist larp were laden with deliberate tropes. In one case two of the characters—brother and sister—were based on an anime and it’s poorly dubbed American counterpart. In the heist game every character literally had a single “flashback” card so we could reproduce the flashback scenes in the TV show Leverage. (“Last night I showed up in a janitor’s uniform and rigged the door latch with a small shaped charge.”) As a writer it is good to know both how overdone such a technique and how it instantly creates a specific genre flavor. LARPing may help you to identify tropes when you’re writing one, and then you can decide if you need to do something to get out of tropeville, if you want to be there, or if you need to work to earn it.

6- Every character in a LARP is a main character

Writers of LARPs know this all too well, but even a player can look around and see it in action. You hand out your character sheets to the players. Like I’ve said before, these players are not there to act out your preconceived plot. They’re going to screw with every idea you had about what might happen inside of ten minutes.

The reason for that is that they aren’t there TO DO something. They’re not fulfilling a role. Every single one of them is there as the main character of their own story.  There might have a few “lower intensity” characters for players who know they might have to go feed a baby or are a little tired from staying up all night playing five games of Dingos Ate My Baby, and you might have a couple of not-so-important characters so that your game won’t fall to pieces if you get 18 players instead of 20 (or you won't have to turn players away if you get 20 instead of 18), but no one will be very happy to get a character with nothing to do but be someone’s thug body guard. And if one person is cast as the hero, and everyone else is in a support role, that would be a pretty damn boring game.

That one person might enjoy it, but only until everyone else pushed them down an elevator shaft...on to some bullets. LARPs don’t work that way. Every character has to be written as the main character. Everyone is the star. They have deep motivations, dark secrets, and interesting goals. They have things they want very, very badly to achieve, and reasons why they want to achieve them.

This is human nature. We don’t run our lives as a narrative where we are extras in our neighbor’s story or a bit role in our boss’s story or even a minor role in our friend’s story. We are not the supporting star of our partner’s opus or the special guest star in our parent's saga. I may only get to talk to my friend Michelle for five hours a week, but I don’t go into a closet and stop existing for the other 163 hours. And neither does she. We are main characters in our own narratives. This is true of all of us. Every single one of us sees ourselves as the central role in an unfolding story about us.

This is perhaps the most important lesson a writer can learn from LARPing. Look around. See twenty main characters and not one who thinks they aren't important. How can this deepen your fiction? You have to treat every human that strolls onto your page with dignity, respect, and their own humanity. When writing characters, there IS no minor character. The role in the story might be minor, but that character has to be the star of their own story and portrayed as if they are such. If you make them minor, they immediately stop seeming real. They have to have wants and needs and goals and fears and secrets just like the main character. Because nobody is REALLY a minor character—not to themselves.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Linguistic Love and Grammar Grudges

Grammar is important for a writer to know in the same way color theory is important for a painter or musical theory is for a musician.  You have to know some.  It's good to know more.  It's best to know as much as you can.  But if you act like it's a critical part of the art, you're not probably confusing being a pedant for being a creative, but you're probably being a douche to boot.

Teaching ESL and developmental English, along with a nerd hobby/fascination with cultural-linguistics studies makes me pretty non-prescriptive about grammar. I don't have one of those lists of pet peeves about semantics and grammar that so many writers seem to think makes them good writers.

This article about a Fish a Rat and a Prescriptivist pretty much explains my problem with hard core prescriptivism.

Plus most of the people I know who let themselves have partial aneurysms in their brain every time someone uses "literally" before some kind of hyperbole are going to turn around in five minutes and call their cheeseburger "epic," so it's all just selective hypocrisy anyway. And don't even get me started on how often the "chic movements" within prescriptive grammar are actually wrong. (For example, saying "I am well." to answer the question "How are you?" doesn't prove that you are a highbrow sophisticate. It proves either that you are merely not sick, or that you don't know linking verbs work.)

I surely wouldn't give most people such grief, for these aren't MY pet peeves.  However, when fussy little pedants insist on wearing the mantel of superiority, I feel like it becomes my life's quest to take them down a peg or two.

Myriad as a Noun?
Pet Peeves
A Linguistic Themed Potpourri
Four things Every Writer Should Know About Grammar
Glad to Hear You Don't Have Con Crud.  ("I am good." vs "I am well.")
Grammar Memes
A Fish a Rat and a Prescriptivist Walk Into a Bar
10 Words Writers Need to Learn to Use Correctly
Word Crimes? (My response to the Weird Al song)

Chris's Philosophy of Writing

The most common question I get is how I have become a working writer––how have I "made it." The most common reaction to my answer is "Meh."

These are manifestos, rants, edicts, warnings, fundamental precepts, principle advice, and more. I claim no authority of fiat (in fact, sometimes that's what I'm most objecting to), but they are as close to the core nuggets of my personal philosophy of writing as anything is likely to get.  Some are several articles surrounding a core idea like Dorothea Brande or politics.  Some are very (very) long, some are obviously papers I wrote for college, and many are more than a little self indulgent.  But all are fundamental to what I understand of writing.

My Mission Statement in three parts:
Control what people see when they Google you.
I will share my experiences in real time.
I will share what wisdom I have gained over the years.

Earning Your "Er."
No Apologies: A Defense of Why Speculative Fiction Should Need No Defense.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing- It's much more than just the writing part.
A Fish, a Rat, and a Prescriptivist Walk Into a Bar Why most linguistic prescriptivism bothers me.
Ten thousand hours It takes a lot of work.  A LOT of work.
NaNoWriMo: The Good, The Bad, and the Really Really Ugly
The A to Zen of a Writer's Life
The Modern Artist's Survival Guide
An Open Letter to Lynn Shepherd
The 17 Rules of Writing
A Passive Aggressive Memo to Other Artists
On Sister Act 2 and How to Know If You Should Be a Writer
Ten Reasons to Write Daily (Accentuate the Positive)
Don't Make It So Damned Hard
On Failing Your way to Success
Consider Your Writing Talent Build Carefully
This Populist Writing Philosophy (Mailbox)

Series Articles

The Lessons of Brande Dorothea Brande's book Becoming A Writer has shaped how I fundamentally approach writing. 1 The book and what it's about.  2 Cultivating internal dualism.  3 Morning writing.  4 The Floating Half Hour of Writing

It's Really Okay NOT to Write. Really  Intro & Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

If you're enjoying this blog, and would like to see more articles like this one, the writer is a guy with a rent and insurance to pay who would love to spend more time writing. Please consider contributing to My Patreon. As little as $12 a year (only one single less-than-a-cup-of-coffee dollar a month) will get you in on backchannel conversations, patron-only polls, and my special ear when I ask for advice about future projects or blog changes.

Useful Resources That Cost

If I review a book, an app, a class (for some reason) or anything that isn't both easily accessible through the web and free, I'll tell you what I think of it. That way you can use my opinion to inform whether you want to expend the time, effort, and/or money to acquire it as well. (Who knows, maybe you don't respect my opinion and you'll only buy things I hate.)

I'll keep a list of these reviews and a basic rank here. Most of these are links that will take you back to the original page I reviewed them on, and the full text of what I had to say, not to anything like an Amazon page.  I'm fairly confident that you can handle that part if you want to.

This one goes up to 11- Dorothea Brande Becoming a Writer

10s- If I didn't buy this, I would wonder if I hadn't been taken over by a pod person.  I would start to watch me very carefully when I slept.

9s- At twice the price this would still be a steal.  Simply put: find a way to get this.

Strunk and White.  The Elements of Style

8s- A phenomenal value. The kind of thing I write into my budget right after food but before electricity.

7s- A Great Deal. Unless you are wondering where the next rent check is coming from, this is a "Should buy."

Stephen King On Writing

6s- A decent deal for the price. Pat yourself on the back after this purchase and say, "That'll do, self.  That'll do."

App- Level Me Up

5s- You get what you pay for and you pay for what you get.  An even value.

Good Vocabulary Builders

4s- If you have money to burn--sure, why not?  If you found it on sale at 1/2 price books, give it a shot.

3s- Don't bother. Even at a discount it's probably not worth it.

Bad Vocabulary Builders

2s- It's probably worth it to pay NOT to have this

1s- I would risk fighting Morlocks for the chance to go back in time and warn myself not to waste money on this tripe.

If you're enjoying this blog, and would like to see more articles like this one, the writer is a guy with a rent and insurance to pay who would love to spend more time writing. Please consider contributing to My Patreon. As little as $12 a year (only one single less-than-a-cup-of-coffee dollar a month) will get you in on backchannel conversations, patron-only polls, and my special ear when I ask for advice about future projects or blog changes.

Potpourri Links


The best of writey/ arty/ linguisticy/ grammary/ inspirationally/ motivationaly/ creativity...y things found elsenet.   

[I will attribute with a link if I have used one of several good comics (in a sort of "go here to see more of this great stuff" way) but if this is unacceptable to the creator, please let me know at the email below and I will remove it.  Many images are viral memes (on Facebook or G+) and lack legible copyright information (or any copyright information at all).   I may also have inadvertently shared an image from a third party that was less discriminating about where they got it. I honestly do try in good faith not to make money off the creative efforts of others.  If I have used your image in an unacceptable way, contact me at chris.brecheen@gmail.com and let me know what you'd like me to do: remove the image, attribute it, give you a shout out with a linkback, anything*. If I can't comply, I will simply remove the image immediately.]

Feb 1, 2015- A Superb Owl Potpouri
April 21, 2014- One Amazing Potpourri of Images (and a really neat video about learning)
Feb 2, 2013- Holy (Pope) balls!  Fucking funny videos. Links to awesome shit.  And bitchen comics.
Feb 9, 2013- A potpourri to inspire you.  Images, videos, and peeps of totally inspirationaly inspiration.
April 21, 2012- A Joss Whedon themed potpourri.
May 5th- A linguistic themed potpourri.
May 12th- A grammar themed potpourri with LOTS of comics
May 26th- No bells and whistles on this potpourri done in a hotel room.
June 10th- In honor of Ray Bradbury's life and career, a Bradbury themed potpourri.
June 17th- Ten Classic SF books that were originally failures. What's next for self-publishing?
June 30th- Since I'm in Texas with my mom, I did a Texas and mom themed potpourri.
July 8th- A Ted that talks bout risk and connection.  Grammar rules you can ignore.  And more.
July 14th- Image Bonanza
July 21st- A tech themed potpourri.
July 28th- Politics and Writing.
Grammar Memes- Potpourri on a Sunday?  What kind of fuckery is this?
August 4th- A laughter themed potpourri.  We have ways of making you laugh...
August 11th- Creativity Themed Potpourri.
August 18th-Shameless fundraising. Two great articles about the Chick Fil A kerfuffle. And lots more.
August 26th- Plans for Burning Man.  One sentence stories, and why not to go to grad school.
Oct 3rd- Meme's collected off of Facebook.  Lots of funny to be had here.

*(Please provide a URL to the original site and/or image--some people pretend to be artists just to mess with me or take credit for something THEY stole.) 

[I am currently in the process of canibalizing old potpourris to form new ones.  Many of my copyright indiscretions in old entries were back when this blog was getting less than 100 page views a day, but it is absolutely improper for me to make money off the work and creative efforts of others, so I am in the process of removing those images.  If I missed one, please let me know at the email above and I will remove it.]

Four Caveats to Sending Links for Potpourri.

1- It must (at least in some small, tangental way) be about writing. It can be about inspiration, art in general, creativity, but if I can't see SOME connection back to writing, it kind of doesn't fit here.

2- It must not be an ad. I don't care if it's a site that HAS ads or if the site is designed to create awareness about a product, so long as that is not its primary content. It's hard to come up with objective guidelines. I'll know sketchy when I see it. A tiny list of writing tips with eight inches on every side of scrolling banner ads would not be posted but someone blatantly promoting their book among a useful article about writing, I would.

3- It needs to be ABOUT writing. There are tons and tons of awesome places online to publish fiction or prose, and I even put some of my own stuff up, but for now I'm not ready to adopt the logistics that would be involved. (Though I might publish a writer-conscious piece of metafiction if the mood strikes me--especially if it's really funny.)

4- If I reach a point where I have more links than I can possibly post, I'll have to choose between them. I put up between half a dozen and ten links each Saturday, and I have hundreds of back up links.  If I'm getting dozens of links a week, I will never catch up.  Sometimes I even have themes in potpourri.  That means I'll have to pick the best, most relevant and most enjoyable links I can find. It doesn't mean I didn't like something you sent me or even that I won't get to it eventually; it just means that with limited space, I had to pick the best fit.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Six Ways LARPing (at Dundracon) Made Me a Better Writer--Part 1

I love list posts.  I might not read a manifesto on Speculative Fiction (~cough~), because seriously who has that kind of free time, but I would totally read an article called “Six Reasons Speculative Fiction is Better than you Think.” List posts tap directly into the power once reserved only for potato chips, Samoa Girl Scout Cookies, and sex with outrageously hot people to get humans to say: “Well, maybe just ONE more...”

Suddenly it’s five days later and your boss is on the phone and you're sitting in a pile of your own feces with a post it note on your forehead from your spouse telling you not to even think about joint custody.

I’m normally not one to go with the flow, but when it comes to absolutely underhanded cheap tactics to try to scrape a few page views, I suddenly become an unrepentant sellout. If I didn’t think claiming I had naked pictures of Bee Arthur might send the wrong message about the sort of writing I do here, I would totally title a post with that to generate traffic from the blogosphere's various indie bands.

Anyway, about four years ago I finally let myself get dragged to my first gaming convention despite the worry that it might take a week to wash off that weird smell that happens deep in Open Gaming. What I discovered was that I really enjoyed the Live Action Role Playing (LARP) games there. I had previously run an independent Vampire: The Masquerade LARP game for a couple of years. (By “independent” I just mean we weren’t tied to One World by Night or The Cam not that I didn’t call the players up at all hours and ask them for validation to assuage my insecurities as a person.) I sort of thought I wouldn't enjoy one-shot games. Part of a role playing game's appeal for me is watching a character grow and improve. But one-shots turned out to be a lot of fun.

Yes LARPs are unbelievably geeky, but for those people who don’t take themselves so damned seriously, or just don’t care about the hate of hatin’ haters, they are a lot of fun. Why yes, of COURSE you can see “those weirdoes” on TV being so weird they’re scary, and since you know that modern day TV/Film media is renowned for treating every sub-culture group with dignity and respect not suggesting that the most outlandish outliers they can find are representative of the whole, you know that the portrayals you see in these media are absolutely accurate and not some unfair caricature. But even so, they're still a hoot.

The thing is, LARPing is a great activity for writers.  To take a character and try to role play it—with different motivations, skills, and abilities than you have—you have to be willing to do at least SOME level of acting, so in many ways it’s kind of like impromptu theater. That means LARPing has elements of drama in it which can be very useful to certain types of fiction. Fiction and drama don’t always rely on the same techniques to achieve tension, but they both require it 100% of the time.

1- LARPs rely on character drama

Outnumbered usually ten to one, the storyteller in a LARP are not going to be able do the kind of hand holding that you get in your typical Role Playing Game (which gamers call a “tabletop game” because of where it happens) where there is a deeply interactive story and every single thing the players have their character do generates an immediate reaction from the world. (Player: “I stare into the void.” Storyteller: “Dude, nothing fucking HAPPENS! Either take the “leap of faith” or go back to the posting board at the tavern and do the caravan-guard quest.”) In the Mutant Saga game there are two ST’s to thirty-five players, so there is often a queue to talk to an ST when a player needs to know a rule or does something to the world or another player without their knowledge.

The way a LARP deals with this is to have most of the interactions with other players. If all you’re doing is telling Freeze (the gal who freezes people by touching them and has an ovarian hard on for this invulnerable dude named Panzer) that you are there to help, no storyteller needs to be there for that. You two just have the conversation. If you go on to say that you wish she had run through more fields of daisies chasing rainbows as a young child because in this time line she’s kind of a total fucking hardass overly driven about things, this is all just between you and her. You’re not doing anything that will change the world or another player or requires rules adjudication, so you two can just have your conversation. If Panzer (who has a hard on for Freeze that is SO big it requires its own in-game prop) wants to have a sexually tension-filled conversation, that doesn’t affect anyone but the two of them. They might tell everyone about it after the game is over, but they don't need a storyteller to be there to watch.

This means most interactions involve different motivations and different techniques. Everyone has something they want, and they may be candid and forthright about it, or they may lie, trick, seduce, intimidate, persuade, or bargain to get it. This is great practice for a writer. Not everyone tries one tack and then goes for their plasma rifle. Actually almost no one does that, and it gets a little old in stories where it does. Keeping in mind how character drama unfolds is great for a writer. And watching people go after what they want in a myriad of ways, can strengthen a writer's realism.

Even most arguments or power struggles (which might attract attention or lead to violence) are character generated. In the Mutant Saga LARP—on its sixth sequel at this point—there is never an external threat in the game. No evil cyborg ninja-pirate-hybrid dragon ever kicks in the door and says “Fuck you. I’m a dragon!” and all the characters race either to fight it or to the back wall. Don’t misunderstand me. These games almost always end in a huge fight that involves thirty-five people trying to kill each other, but it’s basically because one of the character’s starts shooting and things go downhill from there.

By the same token Storytellers usually set up events that have happened before the game, but no a whole lot happens during. In fact the vast majority of a LARP is people just talking--working things out, getting a feel for who might have similar goals or be easy to use. You might get an “event” every hour, and in a spectacularly intense LARP something might happen every half an hour. Usually, though, most things that happen are what the characters do to each other, and some games basically have no external plot at all. Even these events rarely involve a great deal of character/world interaction. They happen, and then the characters discuss them between themselves. In the Flash Gordon LARP a ship crashed with the final delegate who delivered a last message and died within five minutes. There was some kerfuffle trying to save the delegate, but mostly, once he was dead, everything went back to characters interacting with characters about WHAT had happened and what they wanted to do about it—and each character had their own machinations about how to use it to their advantage. The best games tend to involve the ST’s sitting in a corner and giggling manically about what the players have gone and done to each other.

This is great for writers who pay attention. You can’t always have another wave of zombies showing up or an attack cruiser coming out of cloak in a story. Nonstop stimulation from the world can get heavy handed and tread towards Deus Ex Machina. Characters have to interact with each other with the only fallout being their egos and emotions. A story must involve at least the potential for the character to change. And in the BEST stories that change comes from other characters, not from the plot.

A writer is a storyteller, but LARPing can give you a really good feel for how to balance your plot against your characters. Sure you toss a few grenades at them and see how they deal, but mostly you let them react and react to each other, and you sit back and giggle manically at how much pain they cause each other. This is basically the difference between plot driven narrative and character driven narrative (which unless you live in a very dark cave that doesn’t have Wifi, you should recognize as one of the principle delineations between good fiction and mediocre fiction), and if you’re LARPing, you get a hands on look at this dynamic. Almost every LARP veteran has been in a game where they think “Things are happening too fast. I need time to process. I haven’t even talked to Duke Thrashurface about the trade agreements yet, and now THIS.” Unless that too-fast-to-react effect is an intended element of atmosphere and adds something to the story or setting, what is going on here is too much plot and not enough characterization.

2- LARPs can’t rely on gimmicks

You know what the budget is for a LARP? If you’ve got a troupe of insane storytellers who are professionals by day running the show, you might have a couple hundred dollars’ worth of props floating around and the fancy name tags that go on a string around your neck instead of just a sticker, but usually your average troupe is bitching about having to buy a new cartridge of ink to print out the character sheets. In the dueling sword-master LARP, where I played the ninja king, everyone had their own plastic sword. The ST troupe said they mostly just gathered up their own toys from around the house, but did have to stop and drop a few dollars at Toys-R-Us on the way there.

 This game—with plastic the swords—was the equivalent of a special effects spectacular for a LARP. It was the Avatar in 3D with Smellovision of LARPs. Unless the troupe were handing out costumes and had commissioned Christopher Walken to do a cameo, it couldn’t have gotten any better.

Why is this good for writers? A “special effect” is a visual thing. It costs a writer nothing but a few lines of concrete description to do their version of a special effect. A writer could have a special effect so spectacular that it would take the ACTUAL Smellovision 3D Avatar budget to match one paragraph. Why the hell would the shoestring budgets of LARPs make a better writer?

Because LARP’s are forced to rely on other things to be GOOD.

You go to see a movie about aliens invading Los Angeles, you pick the theater with the biggest screen and surround THX sound and you bring a fifth of Vodka to turn off the critical thinking portion of your brain because the star of that show is going to be the special effects, and you know it. And the drunker you are, the less likely you are to say “This doesn’t make any sense. Why would she steal the helicopter given her childhood background and need for acceptance from father-like authority figures?” But as the budget for movies goes down, the things you go to see aren’t the amazing explosions or the incredible CGI bug people. The things that make a good story have to get better or people start leaving the theater to go to the bathroom, buy some popcorn, or play a quick game of Final Fantasy II on their iPhone.

Writers paying attention will quickly realize that without all the sound and fury of a big budget movie, a LARP is immediately forced to rely on deep characterization, interesting plots, conceits that are not gimmicks and will still entertain after five or six hours, and twists that are actually interesting—instead of just well rendered. We forgive stupidity when the special effects budget is bigger than Pakistan’s GDP. But we are much more discriminating about the things that make for a better writer when that budget is less than I make in a month off this blog.

I won’t say which LARPs were good and which were bad because I have friends that poured their souls into making those games and I honestly think they were all good this con. I have been in bad LARPs before, but not this year. Each had different strengths though and that's where I can pick up good hints as a writer. The metaconscious tropes of the genre cross dueling game and its weave with Arthurian legend were wonderful and incredibly funny. The world building of the Mutant Saga was extraordinary. The stylistic theme of the heist game was superb. And Flash Gordon had great characters with built in conflicts. Most of these were done with nothing more than words on a page.

3- Characters create plot

It is very common for a troupe to run a particular game more than once. With about 50-75 LARPers at most conventions and games that have between 15 and 35 slots, very often people don’t get to play the game they wanted to, so a troupe might run it at the next convention to give others a chance to get in on the delicious goodness.

I actually got to play the Flash Gordon LARP twice. Once was LAST May at Kublacon, and then again this year at Dundracon. The second time I got a call in my hotel room from Uberdude. I thought my con was over since I didn’t really see anything else I wanted to do, so I was out cold in my room (having managed to read an entire paragraph of 1Q84 before I drifted off) when my phone rang.

 “Will you play in the Flash Gordon Larp? They’re okay that you’ve played in it before. For the band. For the band? For the BAND? FOR THE BAND?"

So an hour later, I’m dressed in full drag playing the love interest of Uberdude (my own roommate) without both of us just dying of laughter because the only character left was not my gender.

These games were run identically by the storyteller. There were a few small changes that made “team evil”’s lives a little easier, but mostly the same plot points happened and the same people spies or turncoats or secretly totally good.

As a matter of fact, I kind of had to keep a few things I knew about the truth to myself and pretend I didn’t know them. In the first game I played Klytus, the head of Ming’s intelligence who was masquerading as someone else, so I knew which character was secretly Klytus was when I played the second time. I had to keep that sort of thing to myself. I also spent most of the game working with someone I knew was a cultist of Ming, but since my character didn't know, I had to play nice.

These two games could not have ended more differently. In the first game, when I was Klytus, my plots were going well until I got the ever loving piss beat out of me by the “Coalition of Lion and Hawk Men For The Non-Proliferation of Klytus’s Face.” The good guys won. Aurora and Prince Biran discovered the poison, hooked up, and Auraora became empress. I’m pretty sure the movie ended with someone freeze framed in the middle of jumping with a fist raised.

In the second game things ended horribly. Aurora died. The Frigidian heir to the throne died. The ring that could have made it rain again was destroyed by an implosion missile that wiped out a number of delegates including Prince Vultan. This basically meant everyone was going to war since the water crisis was at fevered pitch. Essentially, the bad guys won by default since they all have back up bodies and clones and the only potable water now comes from a process controlled by the two assholiest races in the entire galaxy.

The plot was exactly the same. Every plot point was exactly the same.  Every starting character was the same.  What happened? The CHARACTERS happened.

The characters changed the plot. They reacted to the same stimulus in different ways. When I played Klytus, I was sneaking around—afraid to take a chance or be discovered—and as a result I made it to the final reel before getting my face pwned. I ALMOST cloned Ming using the blood of all his various progeny, but I also failed to supplant Aurora, and spectacularly lost at getting my puppet on the throne. In the second game the person playing Klytus was a little less patient and shot Aurora dead about half way through out of sheer frustration—which got him tortured and killed by the other players. He also didn’t win, but in a much different way. I was overly cautious so I missed some opportunities. He was overzealous so he tipped his hand too early.

See how the characters changed the plot? Characters create plot. A writer’s job comes from making sure the plot isn’t railroading the characters towards a predetermined outcome, but that the characters have the ability to change it. They ARE the plot in many ways. Writers who want specific things to happen at specific times can learn a lot from watching a LARP about how it just doesn't work like that. If you HAVE to have a happy ending, perhaps rather than change the plot to suit the characters, you might consider changing a character in a way that makes such an action or reaction more consistent. And it sure won't hurt if you're willing to have a happy ending that isn't quite like the one you pictured.

Not everyone gets the benefit of seeing the same LARP twice without being the person who is running them. That was an interesting treat for me. However, it is possible for a writer to look around in a LARP and notice how much effect the players are having on what’s going on. Almost everything should be a result of the characters' choices. In the Mutant Saga LARP there wasn’t any external plot. They just stuck thirty-five characters like bugs in a jar, shook them a little and waited to see how many different ways we could come up with to hurt each other. The entire night’s events were entirely character generated by character.

The characters are driving in most LARPs. That means that once game is on, the storyteller HAS to let go of any expectation of the outcome. They must let go. (In fact, the worst LARPs are the ones where the players feel that they’re not affecting the outcome.) The same is true of good fiction. You have to let go of that plot, dear writer. LET IT GO! If you’re just moving your characters from point A to point B to point C and it doesn’t matter if it’s a tortured artist with daddy issues or a fuzzy puppet that believes violence is the way to deal with moral dilemmas, you’re not writing compelling characters—or a good story. If your characters have never done anything you didn’t expect, you might want to give them a longer leash. Your characters should always drive the plot, and never (EVER) the other way around. Watching a LARP can be a great experience in watching how characters cause things to unfold, and in becoming zen that they might screw everything up, but it will still be a better story if you let go.

Click here for part 2

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Why Becoming a Writer is Just That Awesome

I spent yesterday gushing about Dorothea Brande, so I figured you might appreciate quotes from her today. These are only from the first couple of chapters, and I’ll quote her again and again (and again and again) as other parts become pertinent.

It may be that the root of the trouble is youth and humility. Sometimes it is self-consciousness that stems the flow. Often it is the result of misapprehensions about writing, or it arises from an embarrassment of scruples: the beginner may be waiting for the divine fire of which he has heard to glow unmistakably, and may believe that it can only be lighted by a fortuitous spark from above. The particular point to be noted just here is that this difficulty is anterior to any problems about story structure or plot building and that unless the writer can be helped past it there is very likely to be no need for technical instruction at all.
—Dorothea Brande

I suspect that every teacher hears the same complaints, but that, being seldom a practicing author, he tends to dismiss them as out of his field, or to see in them evidence that the troubled student has not the true vocation. Yet it is these very pupils who are most obviously gifted who suffer from these disabilities, and the more sensitively organized they are the higher the hazard seems to them. Your embryo journalist or hack writer seldom asks for help of any sort; he is off after agents and editors while his more serious brother-in-arms is suffering the torments of the damned because of his insufficiencies. Yet instruction in writing is oftenest aimed at the oblivious tradesman of fiction, and the troubles of the artist are dismissed or overlooked.
—Dorothea Brande

The grain of truth in the fin de siècle notion, though, is this: the author of genius does keep till his last breath the spontaneity, the ready sensitiveness, of a child, the ‘innocence of eye’ that means so much to the painter, the ability to respond freshly and quickly to new scenes, and to old scenes as though they were new; to see traits and characteristics as though each were new-minted from the hand of God instead of sorting them quickly into dusty categories and pigeonholing them without wonder or surprise; to feel situations so immediately and keenly that the word ‘trite’ hardly has any meaning for him; and always to see ‘the correspondences between things’ [I’ll write about this soon] of which Aristotole spoke two thousand years ago. This freshness of response is vital to the author’s talent.
—Dorothea Brande

I especially love this last quote. I live in the SF/Bay Area so a lot of my writer friends are also intensely political, which can sometimes lead to its own unique brand of pigeonholing and sorting quickly into “dusty categories” and not so much to seeing each situation as new and immediate. Sometimes I think their hasty rush to generalization certain conservative positions, constituents, or politicians is a great detriment to their ability to consider humanity’s larger mosaic and treat those with whom they might disagree as having equal humanity to their allies. This runs the risk of characters that are hollow and didactic and writing that pushes more towards preachy—like when you’re watching Law and Order and they’re dealing with a culture war issue and you can pretty much count on the “tough cop” to parrot out all of one side’s talking points and you wince and hope someone kicks open the door with a knife REALLY soon. 

It’s not that I don’t think politics dovetail with morality (they do) or that I have no moral code (I do) or that I’m apolitical (I'm not), but writers who intend to portray the humanity of their characters have to be willing to engage in some relativism and walk that mile in the other persons shoes—not half heartedly, but really.

Brande is so perfectly essential because one of her most fundamental concepts is moving through life as a dual entity. More than any other writing advice, I have ever seen,  she expresses a very real sense that a writer develop a persona to deal with paying the bills and deciding what to eat for lunch and a persona that is constantly looking at the world as a writer and artist—not in a casual way, but in a deliberate, constant, ever-attuned way. She even takes a moment to disclaim the fact that make that she’s essentially espousing a “controlled” form of multiple personality disorder, and that she doesn’t really want you blanking out and waking up to find copies of the Great American Novel next to dead relatives on your desk.

This is sort of an obvious practice when doing things like reading. Indeed she has a chapter called Reading as a Writer. This isn’t to say it isn’t a skill or is a skill that is easy to master. Creative reading was a mandatory class for my Creative Writing major, and after 15 weeks of cultivating the skill, many of my classmates still wanted to talk nebulously about how deeply they felt when reading a work rather than what the author actually DID to invoke those feelings.

“Woah, that’s like….hella deep," they said as I quietly wished the building to be invaded by rabid lemurs.

But looking at the world through the lens of a writer doesn’t just have to happen when it’s obvious. Reading with an eye for how that author rearranged those 26 letters to evoke your emotions is kind of an obvious choice. However, one can watch TV as a writer, watch film as a writer, ride the bus as a writer, and sit in a café having lunch as a writer.

Personally I am notorious for not having my headphones on as loud as the people talking next to me think I do. I love my music, but mining people for character fodder on public transit is simply too rich a vein to ignore. Unless I’m listening to Jefferson Starship, of course.

Or Ke$ha. She's the bomb.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

One Book to Rule Them All (And With Oversewing Bind Them)

This article has been punched up, revised, and generally made better here.  Please read that version.

Back in the mid-nineties when I was going to Santa Monica College, during those rare moments when I wasn’t angsting out over my general lack of marriageability to a nice Muslim girl (long story) or pacing a car dealership on the graveyard security shift with a book in hand, I liked to wander from SMC (where I was taking classes) to UCLA (where I lived just off campus). I bussed to SMC each morning, arriving bleary eyed at noon for class, but with only a class or two, I often had hours to kill afterwards, and I would leisurely stroll home, taking a different route each time. Sometimes I’d go north then east, and sometimes east then north, and sometimes I’d zig-zag back and forth. This is a six mile distance catty corner to the street alignments, so I was never going to run out of new routes. I delighted in moseying down a new street I’d never seen before and gazing at new shops, restaurants, and boutiques throughout Santa Monica, Palms, Westwood, and sometimes even Brentwood. Often I got deliciously lost, and only knew it because I finally realized I was heading into the sunset (home was east).

It was during one of these fantastically lost moments, when I got turned around on some street or another without realizing it and eventually discovered that I was closer to the beach than the campus (on 40th if I’m remembering my Santa Monica geography correctly), and had been going the opposite way of home for nearly an hour.

That’s where I found the used book store.

It was one of those tiny holes in the wall that have almost faded out of time in the era of Kindles and book superstores. This was the nineties, so these kinds of places had only just begun seeing the first of the Visigoths coming over the hill. But even then, you could tell this wasn’t a shop someone took seriously as a way to make money. This was someone’s beach and margarita dream of retirement. Not one other soul entered that store in the two hours I was there. It would be nearly 15 years later before I saw the British comedy Black Books, but the way Bernard runs the bookshop but hates customers never failed to remind me of that place I found while lost in Santa Monica.

It must have violated a hundred fire codes. Books were stacked everywhere on shelves and off. Where one could see that once—years before—the shelves had been “a little too close to each other” to maneuver, books had long since metastasized out of the shelves and into the aisles, stacked shoulder high or higher. A tiny little path ran between these stacks to the various areas like a mouse maze. A left and two rights got you to the history section, which was literally under current affairs.

The guy that ran the place sat in a recliner amidst further stacks of books, tucked behind the counter which I can only assume was actually a counter, as it was so covered in books that it may have been made ONLY of books and I’d have been none the wiser. He barely looked up over thick, round spectacles as I jangled an old fashioned bell coming in. The register was one of those push button ones that was mechanical instead of electrical and made the little tabs pop up with the numbers on them. I didn’t get the feeling the register was an aesthetic choice.

“Comic books?” he asked pointing to his left. I shook my head with a bit of vigor and Spock-arched eyebrow, and damned if I didn’t notice the tiniest of smiles and nod that reminded me of the proud sensei in a martial art movie who didn’t want his pupil to get a big head.

I didn’t have work that night, so I must have dug around in the tunnels of books for hours. This was back when I had pocket money and before Amazon’s instant gratification THROUGH the Kindle, so I came back with a stack of books to buy half as tall as me.

But there was one book…

When I found it, I swear to you, I was on hands and knees and balancing slightly to get at the “Books on Writing section.” It had a strange sort of cover for a paperback—more like a soft cover—laminated plastic with swirly maroon and vermillion, and the simple title jumped out at me.

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande.

I’d love to tell you that it just looked interesting with its swirly cover, so I took it back as part of a big stack, paid for it, and the guy, when he realized that I was there to do more than just raid the vintage Playboy issues, helped me dig out a few other books on writing and comparative religion (to match another of my finds). “You’ll like that book,” he said, knowingly pointing to Brande as he rung it up. “I don’t see a price sticker on it though, so why don’t I just charge you a dollar for it.”

One dollar for the best book I would ever read about writing. One dollar for something I value at least as much as my $35,000 education. (Which, I’ll grant you, might have something to do with the fact that the U.S. government picked up the tab.)

I’d like to tell you that’s how it went. But this is how it REALLY happened…

You know that soundtrack for Lord of the Rings when they’re in the creepy forest. Even though that music hadn’t been written yet, that started playing when the light of my spelunking helmet hit it. Here it is if you need a reference. [It's blocked from embedding by the record label, or I'd just put it here.]

Yep. It was totally like that, except there was also that multiple-voice whispering that you see in movies where you can’t really make out the words, like happens when a character starts to reach for something that’s really powerful.

I touched the spine and felt something like electric current. The hairs on my arm stood at attention, and my heart raced. Over the whispers I heard one whisper saying something about ultimate power, and another seductively spoke my name. I slowly gauged its weight and sifted sand out of a burlap sack. Then with one swift move, I grabbed it and replaced it with the bag of sand.

“My…precious…”I whispered.

Exactly. Like. That. Well…I mean, I’m leaving out the part with the boulder and the glowing, yet somehow dark, eye that kept saying it saw me every time I read the book, but whatevahooldes. Let’s stick to the important stuff, and forget about the dark lord of ultimate doom.

This is the best book about becoming a writer I have ever read—hands down and with none even approaching its equal. If you wanted to be a writer but only had fifteen dollars to spend, for all of time, on writing education, I would direct you to this book without a moment’s hesitation. Not a year goes by—not one year—that I don’t read it from cover to cover and discover some gem of wisdom I somehow missed before. It is no exaggeration to say that I haven’t had writer’s block even once in ten years because of THIS one book, nor ever waited longer than few minutes upon sitting down for the words to come. I haven’t always liked WHAT I’ve written, but I’ve never lacked for something to write. And while I talk about better and worse times of the day to write for me, I am talking about the difference between two hours of productivity and six and not about a time where the words simply don’t come.

There are two remarkable things about Becoming A Writer: this is not a book about writing—not even a little. You won’t find a drop of ink spilled about characterization or plot or setting or even grammar. This is a book about Becoming A Writer and Brande takes pains to explain the difference:

"Most of the methods of training the conscious side of the writer-the craftsman and the critic in him- are actually hostile to the good of the artist's side; and the converse of this proposition is likewise true. But it is possible to train both sides of the character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two."

Brande goes on to discuss at length how different it is to be a writer than to know how to write. Since she feels there are plenty of books on the latter and a desperate need for books on the former she tears into the bit she finds lacking and leaves the vociferous musings on technique to prattle on within their own spheres. Skill in writing will do nothing to help writers who can only produce when in classes or only produce one story a year or write one novel and then stare at a blank page for the rest of their lives screaming “KAHN!!!” every couple of hours to an orbital camera shot of the earth against a backdrop of stars. The ability to write well, even the understanding of literary elements of fiction, will not tap the floodgates of creativity. In fact, many of these skills—absolutely valuable once one IS a writer—are useless if the ju-ju doesn’t flow.

In many ways I am thankful that I found Brande and worked with her for years before getting a degree in Creative Writing. I sort had the hard part of writing out of the way by the time I started worrying about craft. All I needed to do was just go learn how to actually write without sucking. (Still working on that one.) But I saw most of my fellow students (almost all in their teens or early twenties) struggling greatly with writer’s block or creative flow. They recycled stories over and over for various classes and even semester after semester, and some of them outright admitted that they hadn’t written anything except when they had to since high school. (They still thought they were destined for greatness, of course…) Some of them could really write too, but they weren’t writers.

As much of a “jump” as I sometimes lament my peers have on me by graduating at 21 or 22 instead their mid-thirties like me, in many ways I was ahead of the game by having first learned to be a writer. Often discussion groups topics were some level or another of my fellow classmates commiserating on how “impossible” it was to really actually write every day (“especially for, like…ya know…two or three hours. Who can, like, ya know…really even do that?” [Read that in valley girl inflection for maximum effect.]). Some of my PROFESSORS even admitted to not being able to sit down and write every day, but only when “the mood struck them” which might be a month or more between. And to make matters worse we often had guest authors that were one shot wonders and admitted not writing much since they produced their one hit. It didn’t take me long to realize that writing fluidly was not in the skill sets that were being taught amidst the lit heavy major’s focus on elements of craft, the incredible importance of narrative voice, and creative reading. Brande nails these problems between writing well and BEING a writer right in her first chapter and goes on from there to give you the equivalent of a cross fit routine with weight training to help combat it, so that you can open the sliding sci-fi ship doors driving a yellow hydraulic load lifter towards the alien queen of your excuses and say “Get away from her you bitch!”

Metaphorically speaking. I guess “her” is your creativity...er...or something.

It was cooler in my head.

The other thing that sets this apart is that Brande will not be coddling you. This is not a new-age, modern-day, feel-good book about how great it is to be a creative bohemian artist or Clam Chowder for the Writer’s Soul. This Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the enemy is your justifications for why you can’t. It is a how to guide for beating your muse into submission so that it’s working for YOU and not the other way around. Brande will not have you close your eyes and think of your totem animal eating berries with you in a tranquil sylvan glade. She’s going to put you to work. Hard work. Work that will, at times, make you question your ability (and even your inclination) to be a writer. Her exercises are not easy but they are effective in taming your muse, tapping your creative flow, and hacking your way through the thicket of your own psyche’s subterfuge.

Becoming a Writer is old enough to be seriously anachronistic—I swear it suggests you might even try your morning writing on the “new typewriters” that are all the rage. However, its messages are timeless, and as applicable today on the cusp of voice transcribing software as they were when Brande wrote them in the 30’s. Done with sincere application, her suggestions can develop the kind of habits that put the flip for the creative switch directly into your conscious mind. And such a skill seems to be truly elusive to almost every modern book on writing (Stephen King’s would be a notable exception) and writing program, which all seem to peak out in their profundity of creative habits at “Keep a Journal” and “Don’t give up, kay?”

I will keep coming back to this book and its wisdom time and time again here on this blog, but for now it’s enough to understand why I consider the craft OF writing and BEING a writer to be such very different ideas.

And the grand irony is THIS: Becoming a Writer is what most people want to learn when they pony up gobs and gobs of money for writing classes and spend half their discretionary income on writing books. They are often looking simply for the kick in their creativity’s ass that will make the blank page that taunts them go away. Plot and narrative and characterization can be fine tuned through deliberate study, but much of the sense of good writing simply comes from reading. Sitting down and not drawing a blank is not an academic skill or something you can read one last book to “get”—it comes from discipline, and Brande will show you how to cultivate that discipline. That is the elusive X factor that so many search for like The Holy Grail of writing. This book—right here—is what so many want. They don’t realize that they don’t really want to know how to write. They want to know how to become writers.

This book tells how.

And perhaps the best part is that since it's old enough to be off copyright, it is available for free on PDF.

There is one caveat to my story of the book that is absolutely true and not at all artistic license. I never found that little bookstore again, no matter how hard I looked. Never. I tried to retrace my steps a dozen times. I swore once I was standing on the right street. Everything was exactly as I remembered it that day—the sun against the Pacific, the smell of salt in the air and the cry of gulls. The spot was flanked by a new age soap and candle shop and a jewelry store, just like I remember. But in the place where I absolutely SWORE the bookstore had been was just this Mediterranean deli. The owner said he’d been there for twenty-three years. He wasn’t sure, but he thought it might have been a book store way back then.

Something about that day has never failed to inspire me to believe that the universe might have a few tricks left up her sleeve for those who simply refuse to let go their sense of wonder.