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

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Three Last UberGeeky Words of Warning About NaNoWriMo

Happy Halloween/Parentalia/Samhain/Summer's End everyone!!!  Here's hoping you don't eat too many peanut butter cups and fun-sized Butterfingers.

I've gotten a lot of hate mail about my NaNoWriMo article.  I've also gotten a lot of love mail.  One Creative Writing instructor of several years says that he's afraid to say anything bad about the event but praised my courage.  I'm pretty sure it was real.  Maybe.  NaNo gets people very excited.  Sometimes even the guy saying "be careful; I just want you to still be a writer on Nov 1st and not a self-hating smear on the wall" can get steamrolled by those "you've-lost-the-faith-my-brother" robe-wearing fanatic types.

And now I have an evil clone who is going to be doing NaNo himself.

I'd like to give you all one last word of warning in geek language since the overlap between geek and Nano-enthusiast is pretty high.  In fact, the overlap between geek and tends-to-overdo-things is pretty high in general.

This is an awesome article about losing weight and getting fit.  How to Finish What You've Started This guy is a colossal geek*.

So here is my last word of warning about doing NaNoWriMo--especially to you new writers--using Steve Kamb's terminology of a finite willpower pool.

1- NaNoWriMo is a powerful boss monster.  If you haven't spent some time back near the starting village killing Enraged Spuds and Koboldlings to build up your willpower pool, this boss monster will likely be too much for you.  In other words, if you have a good habit already of writing every day, NaNo is probably doable, but if this is your first attempt at sitting down and wordsmithing for hours a day, you might want to think about smaller goals.  1667 is the magic number and that is going to take most people three or four hours.  You might have that time to spare on paper, and it might even seem doable for the first few days, but most people don't realize quite what they're getting into.  I know NaNo might sound like a great way to get started, but it's very similar to someone starting their fitness regimen by running 27 miles before doing Couch-to-5k. And maybe you CAN defeat it, but you don't want to get smug on day two.  You still have the neverending middle Phase, and the All-This-And-Thanksgiving final attack sweep to go.

Don't get cocky.

2-Will you be fighting anything else this month?  Okay, let's assume you are pretty sure you can handle NaNo.  Either you've been writing daily for years or you just have the sheer hubris to ignore the advice of seasoned vets about how hard it is.  Is it going to be just you and NaNo?  Or are other things going to jump into the fight.  A lot of boss monsters are doable until they call in six adds and it turns into a not-the-awesome-kind of gang bang.  Is your family coming for an extended visit this Thanksgiving?  Anything major happening at work?  Are you going through some shit with your family? (Or in my case...) Is someone in your house having a baby?  If so, you're not just going to be dealing with NaNo. You might want to think about the wisdom of doing it THIS month since a lot more than just NaNo is going to be sucking up your willpower pool.  There are a lot of other months, tons of other 30 day blocks, and NaNo will certainly be here next year if you just have to do it at the officially sanctioned time.

3-Do you have time to rest between encounters? NaNo isn't technically one long battle. It's thirty medium sized battles of 1667 words. (For most this is between three and five hours.) And you probably have a life going on between each of these battles. Most of us can burn the candle at both ends for a few days--maybe even a week--but then it really starts to get to us. Do you have a full time job? A family that needs your attention? Other obligations? If you've crammed everything into your schedule in such a way that NaNo only technically fits as long as you jump up from it and rush to do everything else....you're probably going to burn out a little more each day as each encounter saps you of a little more of your willpower pool. If you're cannibalizing every moment of free time to do NaNo, then you go into each new session only with that willpower you have left over from the last session, and with no recovery time. By the end of day three or four you will be in desperate need of some downtime. (And not to harp on this, but downtime is important for creative types.) Just a bit of time to relax and call your own.  If your schedule can't accommodate NaNo AND some time to recover from each day of NaNo, you have probably made it a little too full.

And you know what. I'm not going to be a negative Nancy once the ball gets rolling. I don't want to discourage you from writing. If all these things are good to go--or you just don't care and you're going to try it no matter what anyone suggests--then believe my sincerity when I wish you the very best of luck.

*How do I know this?  Because his website is called Nerd Fitness.  (That was my first clue. ) In this article he describes how willpower is a finite resource like in a video game.  (Second clue.)  He uses the idea of playing video games to describe how to lose weight without overextending yourself.  (Number three right there.)  Don't attack too many "bad guys" at once.  Don't attack a "bad guy" before you've had a chance to recover.  And don't attack something that's too powerful for you. (At this point I was fairly certain.)  Of course he's talking about losing weight, but the concepts could just as easily apply to writing.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

W.A.W. Takes Tuesdays Off

Well, I was going to wait until November to announce this, but I have an evil clone I need to track down and beat the crap out of for erasing my Fahrenheit 451 essay.  (Now I have to rewrite the whole thing.)

Writing About Writing is going to start taking Tuesdays off.   

The staff here has been doing six day weeks since we started and they're about to go crazy.  Officially they've been off weekends for a while now, but I've called them in on Saturday more often than not.  And since unsupportive girlfriend often cruises into the basement and shuts down W.A.W.'s power or comes into the main office and complains until we wrap up for the day.  So I am going to murder two avians with the same rock.

Monday, October 29, 2012

You Can't Stop The Signal

Oh I'm sorry.  Were you looking for Chris's Fahrenheit 451 essay?  Yeah he tried to publish it just a minute ago.  I piggy-backed off the signal and hacked into the mainframe.  Which sounds a lot cooler than what I really did, which was to just take down his post and put up my own because he hasn't thought to change any of his passwords yet.  He'll figure it out eventually.  He's pretty smart.  Well, as smart as I am, anyway.
Evil?  No...just upset.
You would be too if you had these curtains.  

He calls me his evil clone.  Do I look evil to you?

Yeah, okay, maybe I'm a little cranky.  You'd be cranky too if you were a clone created to be killed for the entertainment of others.  It blows...and not in the good way.

Before you judge me too harshly for everything I've done.....and for what is yet to come, I want you to imagine something.  I want you to imagine waking up one day, starting to go about your business, and then finding out that you're not really you.  That real you already exists, and you are a clone.  Your life is a lie.  All your memories belong to someone else.

I'm not like Chris.  I don't just look like him and have some of his mannerisms.  I am Chris.  I have his personality.  I have his memories.  I have his...pizza-loving body.  Until two weeks ago Thursday, we don't have even a single divergent experience.  So he's out there running a blog I've spent nearly a year building up.  He's out there banging the woman I've loved for seven years.  He's out there hanging out with all my friends and sleeping in my bed.  He gets to go home at night and love my fricken cat!  Can you imagine this?  Wouldn't this make you cranky?

This isn't pure malevolence.
I just heard someone dis Virginia Woolf. 
And what's worse is that my friends just sort of accepted his version.  He told them about me and they just kind of took his version of it.  People I've known for years never even bothered to come ask me my version of events or how I felt about things.  Kind of reminds me of my divorce, actually.  Er...our divorce.  Did these friends--MY friends--have to take sides?  Can't they just like us both?  Is there one version of the story that has to be right and the other wrong, or am I really so unlikable that my friends all pick sides.  And if they do, can they at least have a serious conversation with me beforehand?

But that's not the worst part.  The worst part is, I can't even really blame the guy.  Can you imagine being in the moral situation of knowing that if your roles were reversed you literally would do exactly the same thing?  Can you imagine knowing that that person is effectively you?  Can you imagine knowing someone--someone who isn't yourself--that you can't decide whether to love or to hate?  You know them so intimately that their every eye twitch tells you exactly what they're thinking.  I can't hate Chris.  He's me.

Demonstrating my double shocker maneuver,
which I have dubbed the "shock both of hers."   
That's why I did what I did.  I can't try to be Chris.  I can't muscle into his world.  I don't want to compete with him.  He is me.  It would be too much like self destruction.  Like killing one's own child or a twin brother...only even worse.  It would just end up going badly for both of us, and I kind of like the guy.  That's why I gave myself the overlay from the Pretentitron.  I wanted something that was my own--something he couldn't have rights to.  I didn't even know what it was, I just knew it would add something that wasn't him.  I can't be Chris Brecheen--there already is one of them.  I have to learn to be my own person.  I have to have my own identity.  I have to start over from scratch. I just wanted something that was my own.  But if he thinks taking advantage of such a wonderful opportunity to try to find the writing core within you and participate in an event as wonderful as NaNoWriMo is evil....

Then I'm gonna be evil.

I'm going to be the most evil, NaNo writing, pretentious motherfucker he ever did see.  In fact, I'm going to hack the W.A.W. signal and give you guys a regular update on how it's going.  And I'm going to finish.  And when I'm done...I'm going to get that motherfucker published even if it takes me the next two years to do it, and I'm laugh in Chris's stupid goodie-two shoes face.

If he wants evil, I'll give him evil.

Oh hai, Chris.   Just sitting here...being evil.  Why yes, I AM signing up for NaNoWriMo.
See you when I'm a novelist, bitch!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Chris's Fortune Cookie Wisdom for Writers Part I

Add a scent to your descriptions to take them to a new level.   Everyone focuses on sight and sound, but what will really pull a reader into a moment is smells.

As a fiction writer, one of the least effective choices is to name the emotion your characters feel--especially if you expect the audience to feel it as well.  This is true even if you're writing in first person or a close third.  It's still tough to earn because it's telling your reader how to feel. Try instead to describe the events as vividly as possible and trust that your audience's emotions will do the work.

There are certain things you just never want to put into Google and then look at the autofill results. They will just destroy your faith in humanity.
Guage the quality of advice and not just the quantity. A lot of writers will tell you don't need X, Y, or Z.  How many of them are where you want to be?
Imagining walking a mile in someone else's shoes is NOT walking a mile in their shoes.  It just isn't.  So if you're going to be generous and genuine to your characters who have experienced things that you haven't, you have to go beyond an intellectual exercise. Real empathy should often feel like overkill. Trust me...it never is.

First drafts suck.  Stop thinking they don't or they shouldn't. Embrace the suck. That's the only way it'll get better. EMBRACE TEH SUCK!!!

With working out, the trick is to get up off your ass, but it's really hard.  With writing, the key is to apply butt to chair, but that's really hard.  So clearly the key to being a prolific writer is to really, really good at not going to the gym.

To be a writer you have to want to write more than you want to be a writer. That's probably more profound than it sounds. Or less. I'm not sure.

You can get an MFA, take classes, do camps, do programs, do Nano, all you want. But if your reasoning for doing these things is that someone pressures you to write and it creates an external motivation, your fundamental problem will not be solved by one more class or one more degree. Your fundamental problem is that you haven't learned to motivate yourself.

More Fortune Cookie Wisdom

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Mailbox- What does Good Writing look like? Am I Really Summa Cum Laude?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Thursday as long as I have enough to do.  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.  And if you write me bitchy little anonymous torpedos, it will be (as they say) "so on".]  

Billy Writes,

Did you really graduate Summa Cum Laude, or is that one of your things like fake guest bloggers?  It's hard to believe that you could have gotten almost perfect grades in an English major with your grammar.  

My reply:

Hi Billy.  I only ever make up bullshit about stuff that matters,  and even when I'm lying, I'm telling the truth, so this being both insignificant and something that lying about wouldn't be truth, it is accurate.  I graduated with a 3.94.  Here's my diploma.  You can see the S.C.L. honors right above the seal on the right.

This and five bucks can get me a sandwich.  
Some of those A's are sad examples of the state of higher education in the US.  Some of those A's should probably be credited to Wikipedia and papers with "guest blogger" bibliographies (if you catch my meaning).  But some I worked harder for than I ever have on anything else.  Ever.  Each of Janusprof's courses easily involved ten hours of homework a week (for a three unit class) and final projects that I spent twice as much time on as any other final paper.

But besides being able to occasionally tell supportive girlfriend that I'm allowed to make up words, it's not really good for much.  (Unsupportive girlfriend thumps me in the left eyeball if I pull that on her.)  You wouldn't believe how fucking hard it is to work into conversations without being insufferable.

"Hi there.  I'll have a number two with the chipotle sauce instead of the green and oh by the way I graduated Summa Cum Laude if you want to come home with.....no?  Maybe you just want to touch my......no?  Okay just the number two then.

And a coke."

You're right though.  My ability at proofing my own copy is terrible.  Or if I were giving myself a performance review in corporate America, I would call it an "opportunity for improvement," but then I would pause dramatically, look over the top of the performance review at myself and add, "a shitload of improvement."  I'm getting better, but I've still got a ways to go.  I have some pretty anti-writer learning disabilities (mild dyslexia and severe A.D.D.) that are always working against me like punk ass ferrets...with switchblades, and sometimes it's a Sisyphean chore trying to work against them.  If I had unlimited resources, I'd hire an editor, but last I checked they weren't so hot on the 2 cents a day I could pay them, so I just have to keep working at improving that skill.  Most writers do.

I was able to get the grades I did for a couple of reasons.  When I really take some considered time and effort, I can clean up my own work pretty well.  I should probably learn to pretend every blog entry is a final exam, but some days I'm posting after five hours of writing and just don't have the mental focus to catch all my mistakes.   I try to fix problems as I see them when I'm re-reading old stuff, but I know sometimes my posts go up with some real boners.

I should probably also mention that not one instructor failed to mention my grammar mistakes at least once, so they agree with you this is a place where I am teh suck.  Usually at least once a semester I got a paper in right under the wire and didn't have time to proof it carefully.  The saving grace was that my higher order concerns like thesis and cohesion were apparently very good.  (Which makes sense since I was usually running rings around the literature majors in class discussions.)  Once, on a Raymond Carver paper my instructor said very bluntly that my grammar mistakes should have gotten me a C; however,  due to the elevated level of the argument, she could not in good conscience give me such a low grade.  However she gave me the lowest possible A- and warned me that on the next paper, I was to dazzle her with my proofreading skills or the level of my thesis wouldn't save me.

Sam Writes,

You talk a lot about practicing.  I'm not sure what I would be practicing toward.  With cello, it's pretty easy, as I can listen to Yo Yo Ma and say "wow, I'm never going to be like that but I'm gonna try".  With writing, it seems much more ambiguous.  What does "writing well" look like?  I can craft a tightly written, clear essay in a snap, but does that not count?  Do I need to be able to write The Great American Novel and win critical acclaim?  What voice would it be written with, if not the one I use now?

To know what rough edges I'd be filing off with all that practice, I'd need a vision of the finished product... that's what seems to be lacking from so many of the articles (yours and others) that I read about "being a better writer".  If I read what I've written and I like it, and my friends read it and they like it, am I still being a pretentious twit who's really not good at all?  Who decides who's a great writer and who isn't?

My reply:

Fair question.  Ideally you want to sound like Faulkner or O'Conner, and not so much like your cousin who writes essays in phone text.  But I think most of us would be pretty content sounding like a published author and not like the people to whom agents send form letters of rejection.  But I suppose it can be kind of hard to figure out what that means.

Lemmie answer your last part first because you don't sound like a pretentious twit at all, and I want to nip this thing in the bud.  Pretentious and pretend have the same root.  They both have to do with acting like something that you're not.  All writers are a little pretentious.  It takes an inflated sense of self-importance to presume other people will care about what you've written.  However, beyond that sort of baseline, pretentiousness doesn't have anything to do with the quality of someone's writing.  It doesn't have to do with their level of self-promotion or self identification.  It has to do with whether those things MATCH each other.  A hobbiest writer who is perfectly happy and content being a hobbiest is not pretentious.  People who say they are writers but don't read and rarely write are pretentious.  (And they are legion.)  People who claim a first draft of a story they wrote twenty years ago is going to get published if they "just find an agent who understands what [they're] trying to do," are pretentious.  People who call themselves "novelists" after they write a 50,000 word rough draft are pretentious.  But people who are realistic about how writing fits into their world--even if it is not their sun and moon and star lit sky--are not.

Now, let me try to explain what "good writing" looks like.  Though short of pointing you toward a literature class (or even better, reading a gillion books), I don't know that this question has an easy answer.  Good writing is bound in Corinthian leather and stamped with the name of a dead white guy.  ~rimshot~

You mentioned practicing the cello, and how you know you will never be Yo Yo Ma, but you probably have some idea of the technical skills that you would need to get to Yo Yo Ma's level.  I never played strings, but I have seven years of power-nerding with school band (and then uber-nerding for two more years with the choir at the same time), so let me see if I can run with your music analogy.

When you first start playing an instrument, you just know that you don't sound like the people who sound good.  You can't really tell what's wrong.  You just know that when the beginning band starts warming up with scales, it sounds like someone is sliding a thousand pound steel bench across concrete. As you practice and improve, you start to get a sense of why your music doesn't sound like professionals', but there's still not much you can do about that until and unless you're willing to work.  But for a long time, you might not know what the problem is.  It is only after considerable work that you start to realize that being lazy with your fingering, using too much vibrato, a tiny bit flat, and you're going to have to practice a lot more if you want to get the bow motion right through the coda.  Those aren't things you would have been able to recognize back at the beginning.  Back then, you just knew you sucked.  So it takes some level of skill just to know why you suck.

This is where so many would-be artists live and breathe--in this world of not knowing what's wrong.  Not just writers either--painters, musicians, singers, actors.  They don't even know why their art is problematic.  Sometimes they aren't even aware that it is problematic.  And the thing is, many of them would rather live in denial and blissful ignorance than face the fact that they have a lot to learn and those dreams they thought were just out of reach might actually be years-of-work out of reach.

Writing is no different.  It takes a certain level of skill to be able to recognize what you're doing wrong.  I'm hoping that you have read great literature--modern and classic--and you probably have SOME sense that it is different than fan fiction, young writer's first efforts, your average Facebook post, or even authors with cruddy prose like Dan Brown or JK Rowling.  It isn't just random chance and personal preference that separate these works--or there wouldn't ever be so much consensus on what good and bad even means.  While there's a continuum of quality and a considerable range of aesthetic taste, the artistic integrity of good writing is noticeable even through raging hatred.  I hate Sylvia Plath with the white hot fury of a billion supernovas, but I recognize her talent as an artist and I could write a paper on The Bell Jar that would knock the socks off any of my old professors.  Once upon a time, we only really found a work "good" if it endured the test of time or had a moral lesson, and back then there was a very strong sense about teaching writing that "Genius can't be taught!"  But with New Criticism and careful analysis it is actually possible to identify why works tend to resonate.

Though essays and other expository writing have some overlap with fiction, the artistic integrity of the latter involves a weaving of elements together to support an artistic vision.  That means that you have characters, tone (word choice), setting, plot, symbols, theme, prose rhythm, and possibly even point of view all working together to achieve the same artistic vision.  Think about how Steinbeck uses setting to echo his character's internal struggles or how LeGuin will often use language that intensifies the feelings of what is happening in her stories (short clipped words, sentences, and paragraphs during action; long languid words, sentences and paragraphs during the parts where the characters have to wait or cross a huge expanse of wintery land).  Or think about how the sonnets that break the rules of sonnets with blank verse or an extra foot are often ones where the CONTENT is about how rules are changing or the deliciousness of breaking rules.

The elements at their part and the work as a whole do a dance like performers on a stage.  If that dance is well choreographed you can tell even when the elements go "against" the vision, that is what they were supposed to do so.  If they just meander around the stage doing nothing or miss all their cues, the work as a whole is diminished.

When the elements all point towards the vision, it becomes incredible art.  When they all kind of do their own thing but the story is entertaining, it's usually...okay.  This is true of most any art, though different media use different elements to achieve their vision.  (Film uses cinematography, painting uses color, poetry uses meter...etc)

As for "is it enough"?  That really depends on you. If your goal is to be able to write a slammen essay, you surely don't need to diligently write for hours each day. If you goal is the emotional catharsis that comes from writing, then you won the minute you touched pen to paper (or pressed a key).  If your goal is to delight your friends, it sounds like you've got it covered.  If your goal is to get constantly strive to improve at your craft, then you probably ought to read like crazy write every day, and possibly read a book or take a class on writing.  If your goal is to be a working novelist who pays the bills with fiction, then you have to become a little bit insane about how much work you do.  That work might not be "practice" in the same sense as a cello player (though I think way too many writers think everything they write will be published eventually and don't just write things for fun) but rather in the form of more writing, getting feedback, and pursuing one or more routes to publication (be it e-publishing and self-promotion or short story accolades and agent shopping).

It's a bit like getting "enough" sex.  There isn't really a normal amount from person to person.  If you are good with once a week, you don't need to write any more than that to be content.  Or you might be more of a three-times-a-day person.  No one can tell you but you.

But writing is its own reward and the WRITING part is the best part, so if you're happy, then you win.  I think way too many people have a sense that they MUST pursue arts with the intention of making money and they get very frustrated when they find that to reach the success they want will take more than they are willing to give.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Leela Bruce Kung Fu Fights "Write What You Know"

Hi everyone.  Leela Bruce here.  Today will be short and sweet.  Well....shorter and sweeter than my normal ass-kickings, anyway.

As you've probably noticed by now, sometimes bad advice is trying to be good.  It wants to be good advice.  It thinks it's good advice.  It may even be rooted in something that is good advice.

But it's just desperately ignorant advice in need of a serious ass kicking.

There's not a lot of evil advice running around the world unless you're asking some dude with severe "nice guy syndrome," who likes you, for dating tips on getting the older, tattooed motorcycle guy to ask you out.  But most of the advice I beat the shit out of isn't completely wrong or off base.  It's kind of right.  It's just that people treat it like it's always right.  People treat it like it doesn't come with context. People distill it down into fortune cookie wisdom and bumper sticker platitudes.  And that's when things get dangerous.  When a complex idea is spat at young writers like some sort of advice Pez dispenser, and they dutifully, sincerely, and reverently carry that advice into their writing and pass it on to others, that's when the problems start.

No advice to writers--none--is as guilty of oversimplifying a good idea to the point of being bad advice as "Write what you know."  No advice is more misunderstood, less contextualized, more helpful when cocooned within subtle shades of nuance, and more harmful when lacking them.

And that's why I have to kick its ass.

Millions of writers flutter across the earth parrotting "Write what you know.  Write what you know," like some horrible macaw that has been taught a single phrase to get its food, water, pets, and cage cleaned.  The offerings of fiction are filled with nothing but highly autobiographical characters of entire generations of writers.  And the writing programs of the entire English speaking world seem unable to conceptually grasp the idea that their students might want to write something other than their own story with a few cosmetic details changed.  Much of "literary fiction" and the outpouring of MFA programs is so transparently autobiographical as to be the basis of many literary genre cliches.

Let me start with a power-fist of bluntness to the face to set the tone for the savagery of the ass-kicking that is about to take place here.  I'll even make it bold and big and put it in the quotation font just to slam this mofo home extra hard with hard sauce:
Unless you want to publish your goddamned fucking diary, you will ALWAYS be writing some stuff you don't "know."
If you want to embrace essentialism as a writer, all your focalizer characters must be your race, your sex, your gender,  your religion, your creed, your political philosophy, your socio/economic class, your education, have pretty much your abilities, and be roughly your age.  Because, you can't possibly imagine what it's like to be anything else.

Sound like much fiction you've read?  No, and that's why I'm power punching this advice...again.  Half the fun of fiction, more to some people, is how it can render experiences to us that aren't banal and pedestrian.  Look at this picture next to this paragraph.  Is this kid looking over the wall to a seedy rehab facility.  Is there a pair of disapproving parents whose religion makes it impossible for them to support their child's sexuality?  Do you see a widower or divorcee raising three kids on their own?  No man!  It's like rockets and balloons and shit.  The rehab and the mean parents kind of look like the side that the kid is actually on.  Sometimes "what we know" kind of sucks, and we want to read about anything but that.  It's even got a name--it's called escapism.  We wouldn't be able to get very far if we only ever escaped to what we know.

So as I pepper this advice with body blows to slow down its reaction time enough to start getting in some kicks let me just point out that even as bumper sticker wisdom, "Write what you know," fails the test of good advice because it would be better, even reduced to some platitude, by saying "Write what is familiar."  It's true that you can't plug into someone else's brain and experience what they've gone through, but that is why empathy is so important to a writer.  A writer forms experiences they haven't gone through by drawing on experiences they have gone through.  We may not know exactly what it means to lose a father, but most of us have experienced loss.  We don't have to experience our father's death to have a character who does.  Write what is familiar more accurately encompasses this.  You don't want to go so far out of the range of your own experience that you have no idea, but "what you know" probably has more core truths and thematic experiences to extrapolate quite a bit further than your own pedestrian life.

It's true that you don't want to write what you don't know.  If you have a car mechanic as a character, and you want to describe their job in detail, you better not say that the chasis is a little bit that goes in between the transmission and the drive train.  If you want to extensively detail the use of tachions in your faster-than-light space ship, you probably want to know what a tachion is and how it works.  You'll end up with Prometheus level stupidity if you don't.  But it's just as easy to avoid those things directly or have a focalizer who doesn't know how shit works.  We don't care that Star Wars has sound in space, lightsabers, and space stations that would take a billion workers a thousand years to build but somehow show up without anyone having heard about it.  We don't care because Star Wars never tries to explain that stuff.  We care greatly about The Force being a bunch of microorganisms in someone's body because that tries to explain it...in a really stupid way that ignores a lot of fundamental aspects of human nature and science.  Seriously watch Gordi LaForge go on for five minutes about the positorons in an anular confinement beam and no nerd will even stir, but if Sherlock in the new series says he's not a psychopath but a high functioning sociopath, a thousand bloggers rush to their computers to point out that, psychologically speaking, those are the same thing.

But don't get too comfy, bad advice.  I was just giving you a breather.  And the foreshadowing for the spinning kicks that are coming next were all over the last paragraph.

There is an entire genre and a phenomenally rich literary precedent of writing things that no one could POSSIBLY know.  Do you think Tolken or the Beowulf poet actually slew dragons?  Do you think that Mary Shelly really built a human out of cadaver parts?  Do you think that Orwell had some talking animals he interviewed as source material?  Do you think that he time traveled to an alternate universe to write 1984?  Do you think that Bradbury really liked to burn books?  Do you think Spencer really knew some fairies?  Do you think Shakespeare actually hung out with Danish ghost dads?

Speculative fiction isn't what writers know--it's exactly the opposite.  And while that might make the "literary world" insist that it's not realistic, I have it on pretty good authority that Mirakame, Martin, LeGuin, Orwell, Bradbury, Tolkin, Shelly, Heinlein, and half the pre-20th century authors of the Western Canon say that the literary world can go fuck itself.  H.G. Wells specifically coined the term "Lit snobs can eat a bag of unwiped asses."  Speculative fiction draws on what the writer knows at its emotional core and explores what is familiar through an imaginative lens. These writers use a fusion of what is familiar and what is absolutely not what they know even a little to create something wonderful.  How dry and dull and boring the world would be if Pullman, Caroll, Ishiguro, Lewis, and even "commercial" writers like King, Rowling, and Chriton had stuck only to what they knew.

For the final back spinning side kick, I would point out that as a writer, you are a reader.  You have to be.  And a reader knows so many things--so very many things.  A reader knows what it is to get expelled and have a breakdown in 1949 Pennsylvania.  A reader knows how revolution can go wrong and the revolutionaries can become the very thing they sought to overthrow--be it a farm or a nation.  A reader knows that the next door neighbor might have a horrible reputation, but most people are good and decent once you get to know them.  A reader knows how even the most pure hearted can be corrupted when they hold true power and that even those who don't want such precious, precious power, find giving it up to be impossible.  And a reader knows that the world is filled with beautiful roses, but the one back home that loves you is special.  What a reader knows spans the slaying of Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies to the eradication of the Bugger's home world by some kid in the G.A.T.E. program.  Readers have lost spouses, climbed mountains, come out to their parents, and hidden the truth that they killed their best friend.  They have faced impossible odds and won, and faced reasonable odds and lost.  What a prolific reader "knows" spans the length and breadth of human experience even through time and space.

Never EVER discount this knowledge.  For while there is always a disconnection between reading something and really experiencing it--a difference that is not lost on any writer of even minor merit--a writer has the tools to take what they know, what they've read, and their carefully cultivated empathy, and combine these things to portray each moment with integrity and genuine compassion.  What you KNOW is almost anything you choose to know, for someone at some time has written about it.

I won't do a death blow on "Write what you know" because like most bad advice, it is just misunderstood.  It is like taking the most prominent ingredient out of a wonderful rich and flavorful soup and declaring that it is what matters (which probably means it will be as un-enriching as the water from the metaphor would be).  I will simply let "Write what you know" think about its ass kicking, lie there and bleed, and consider the ways in which it could be better advice in the future.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Day of Tagging and A Clone's Revolt

Dear Writing About Writing readers,

This is Chris Brecheen.  I am taking today to continue the long and arduous job of tagging all these old entries.

At this point I am also doing this to keep myself busy, so that I don't have to think about two e-mails I got this morning.  The more I work, the more I will not feel tempted to scour writing about writing for the clone of me and do something...dramatic.  I realize we had a fairly reasonable detente just a day ago, (I was even planning on Scott-Pilgrim-style brunch with me later this week, though I doubt we'll keep that rendezvous now) but then...I'm afraid my clone went and did something....rather rash.

I will share.  Not because I want to think about this, or because I have time to spare from this crummy job of tagging over three hundred old entries, but because I have no doubt that in the future of Writing About Writing these things will almost certainly come up.

Email #1


SciGuy here.  I think we have a problem.  Someone used the Pretentitron last night.  Besides me and Lt. Lambaste, you're the only one with a handprint that will open our lab.  But that means your clone has the same handprint.  And I don't think it was you because there's a note here that says "I can't live in his shadow.  I have to be my own person.  I know I'm not supposed to get jealous of the fact that he has my life, but I do.  So I need to make my own life.  I need to be my own person.  Tell me I'm sorry."

I thought it was a fairly big clue.

The Pretentitron is way to complex for him to do a whole new personality matrix.  I don't mean to insult...uh...you, but he would need six PhD's in various biological sciences, like I have, to be able to work it at that level.  However...there was a preloaded overlay, and it wouldn't take much to figure out how to upload that to an existing matrix.  So...it's possible that your clone has a strong affinity for something that you find repugnant.  I know what that thing probably is, but I really don't want to mention it over email.  Please call me ASAP.

-Thaddeus Guy

I haven't called him.  I don't need to.  I already know what's going on.  There was a second e-mail in my inbox just after SciGuy's.

Email #2

Dear Chris (or should I say "Dear me" [or should I not say that in light of current events]),

I'm going to do NaNoWriMo!  You can't stop me.  I'm going to write a novel and get big before you ever do.  So screw you and your NaNo hatred.  I wish those ninjas had killed you.  

I will write my novel from your normal desk in box-room five, which is to be kept empty for me.  If these demands are not met, a disaster beyond your imagination will occur.  

See you after I'm a novelist, bitch!

-The Only Chris That Matters

So, it seems I do in fact have something of an evil twin running around.  I am bothered less by his love of NaNo than by the fact that evil twins are such a cliche.  And so I'm going to go back to tagging old entries and try very hard not to think about the pretentious version of me running around and calling himself a novelist while quoting Phantom of the Opera like it wasn't embarrassing 25 years ago.

Anyone have a stress ball I can borrow?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Problem With Evil Twins is....

So I was coming back from my second date with Lt. Lambaste where I got the strangest feeling that I was just kind of there under some kind of pretense.  She was saying all the right things about being my groupie and stuff.  She batted here eyelashes.  She wore a skirt that broke my concentration at least a dozen times. She even sometimes made some of those passing remarks about being a little into women...especially if a guy was there.  Normally I wouldn't fall for that bi-for-guys crap but she was really hot.  The thing was...even in the haze of hormone carbonation she was causing in me, I got the feeling she was a lot less into things than she was saying.

Stuff just wasn't adding up.  It was one more weird thing in the seven layer dip of weird that had been covering the chips of my life all week long.  Ever since last Thursday, I've been having conversations with people that didn't make any fucking sense.  People telling me that they just talked to me a few minutes ago when I hadn't seen them all week.  People telling me they were going to do what I wanted and then talking about something I never said.  Guy Goodman St.White finally got pissed off at me for giving him mixed signals about his Cervantes article when I pretty much gave him the thumbs up from the start.

Also, it looks like someone has been checking my e-mail.  I changed my passwords and it stopped, but then I got a verification e-mail that my security questions had been used to access the new account.  So I changed the questions to things I was sure only I knew.  But the e-mail still got hacked.  So I changed the questions to things that were lies I'd just come up with on the spot.

Which is why when I got a call from the R&D department that my executive order on pLink's latest  research demands had been completed, it was the last straw.  It seems that instead of researching weapons for the war against the genocidal cephalopods, pLink has set them to creating a gun that can reveal when any wall was actually a door.  Seems that where pLink comes from there are a lot of hidden doors that require keys or bombs or musical instruments to open, but they often look like ordinary walls.  So pLink had them hard at work at a machine that makes things that aren't walls look like what they really are.  Apparently when they complained--to me--my response was to put a reversing switch on the machine.  So it could make doors or caves or anything really look like it was just a normal wall.

Well, I never said that.  Who in the name of Zues's butthole would want an illusion gun that makes doors look like walls.  How is that going to win our war???

Now, I am a lot of things, but stupid isn't until eighth or ninth on the list.

I hung up the phone and looked at Lt. Lambaste, who seemed to have developed a sudden (but slightly fake) interest in me the same week as there were multiple indications of someone masquerading as me. The same Lt. Lambaste who uses a big machine that makes clones.  I leaned forward and looked right at her.

"Let's cut the bullshit," I said.  "You know I have a girlfriend right?  You're okay with that?  I know she is."

"Of course," she said, winking and scissoring her legs.

Okay, maybe stupid should be a little higher up the list.  But I figured it out eventually.  See, later that night when we pulled into Writing About Writing's parking garage. I saw me walking towards the elevator.

I was sitting in the car...watching me walk towards the elevator.  I turned and looked at me.  My eyes narrowed.  I mean to say other me's eyes narrowed.

But then I got it.  "This is like that episode of Star Trek!"  I jumped out of the car.  "We're in a temporal loop!  You can't leave Writing About Writing.  The anomaly will destroy the whole thing and throw you back in time and we'll do the whole thing again."

"What the hell are you talking about?" he fumed.

"That episode of Star Trek..." I said.

"Yeah, I know," he said.  "I just love saying 'What the hell are you talking about' with that histrionic edge of incredulity."

"Yeah, I know," I said.  "I was actually jealous that you got to say it first."

"We should totally get brunch like Scott and Nega Scott!" he said.

"Shut. UP!" I said.  "I was just thinking the exact same thing."

"Shut.  UP!" he said.

Lt. Lambaste shook her head.  "Oh god, this is going to get so annoying."

"Hey which of us should be evil and grow the goatee?" I asked.

"I'll do that.  And I'll wear dark eye liner," he said.

"And we can occasionally argue with each other on the blog!" I said.

"This is going to be great!"

Monday, October 22, 2012

Talent: A +5 Sword That You Would Do Better Without

A Dungeons and Dragons/role-playing-game metaphor for why having talent might just be the worst thing that could possibly happen to you.

When I was in school a lot of people said I had talent.  I would sometimes be paraded in front of the other kids with a few congratulatory words from the teacher.  "Chris certainly has talent!" they would say.

It would have better if they hadn't.  If only they knew how much they contributed to perhaps two decades struggle to get the fuck over myself.

               It isn't elegant, but it is simple and effective.                    
         Fatal to even the biggest-headed and thickest-skulled
of SFSU Creative Writing Majors.                           
Of course, Janusprof beat the idea of "talent" out of his students (and me) by the second class.  He jumped up on his desk wielding baseball bat with nails sticking out of it and slammed it down into the bedhead-covered melon of which ever pretentious freshmen drew the short straw.  It was done as an example to all of us.  He emphasized each word with a swing of the bat: "YOU! DO! NOT! HAVE! TALENT!!!!  YOU! ARE! NOT! A! SPECIAL! SNOWFLAKE! AND! THE! SOONER! YOU! REALIZE! IT! THE! SOONER! I! CAN! HELP! YOU!!!!"  And as the body--now perforated with grisly holes--lay in a spreading pool of vermillion, and we all stared in open-mouthed horror, he turned around to reveal his other head, which promptly began to talk.  "Because I really do want to help you get better, and that is so difficult to do if you already think you know everything.  So...I'm dreadfully sorry about that unfortunately necessary business.  Now, let's talk about characterization through significant detail and the word choices that create it...."

Let me make this clear: you never want anyone to tell you that you have talent.  Ever.  If you can jump out of a plane with nothing but an inflatable raft in order avoid someone who's trying to tell you that you have talent, do it.  If someone ever does manage to tie you down to a table and stun your vocal chords for long enough that you have to listen to them, and then they tell you that you have talent, the best thing you could ever do for yourself is to attempt experimental brain surgery to carefully remove the neurons in which that memory is stored.  You might be able to handle it when you've been writing for decades.  Before that, it's not doing you any favors.  Also, it's not just so that you if you ever have to witness Janusprof killing a random freshman, you are subjected only to the sight of a brutal murder and not the much worse trauma of being told you actually don't have talent.  That's nice, but it's not why I'm warning you.

It's not just that you need talent AND $20 bucks if you want a decent hoagie (though you do).  It goes even deeper than that. The very idea of talent is actually doing you a disservice.  But to explain why, I have to tell you the story of the first level character with the +5 sword.  Let's call him Werner of the village Satinerous, and let's call his sword Talentos.

I hope that you have enough exposure to role playing games--the pen and paper kind or the computer game kind--to follow the basic concept of a +5 sword, but if you're not let me just say that in Dungeons and Dragons +5 is the most uberific mega-fucking-awesome magical sword to exist--the only way to be better than +5 is to be +5 AND have effects like bursting into flames on command, shooting lighting bolts, or beating you at chess. Technically, without going outside of the rules as they are written, there is no such thing as a +6. +5 is as good as it gets. 

But the sword Werner has doesn't do any of that this-game-is-absolutely-overpowered shit.  It's just +5.   It increases Werner's chances of hitting someone by 25%.   If it does hit, it does almost twice as much damage as a regular sword. It makes Werner swing faster even than someone using a dagger. This fucking sword is so awesome, it practically fights for him.

Werner had Talentos from the beginning.  His uncle was also an adventurer until he took an arrow to the knee, and then he handed Talentos over to Werner in a totally sentimental moment (even made him swear to avenge the knee in question), and wished him luck.  And Werner went out in the world, Talentos in hand, to make his fortune.

Werner was in a normal adventuring scenario so he fought giant rats and kobolds and maybe some goblins for a while.  Werner didn't even have to try during these fights.  Before the kobolds could even pull out their feeble little weapons, Talentos had sliced them into two diagonally-sliced pieces of kobold.  He dismembered goblins without really even paying attention.  During these fights, he could actually keep talking to his henchmen, The Duke of Monroth, without missing a beat.  It was effortless.

Nothing in the local area was even a challenge to Werner.  Some troglodytes moved in but he dispatched them while still in his pajamas.  Some other fighters of the local area--who Werner thought of more as contemporaries than equals--found other magic swords, but none of them were as good as Talentos.  These guys took like five minutes to kill an owlbear and they would be bloodied and wounded when they finished.  Werner continued to be the best warrior in the area because of his amazing +5 sword.

But then the terrible dragon Kristianik cast it's rapacious eye upon Satinerous.

A cry went out to all the heroes of the land to help Satinerous in its hour of need.  And of course, Werner, with his awesome sword, rose to the call.  His henchman, The Duke of Monroth, offered to let Werner use his full plate armor and dragon scale shield, but Werner said those things would just slow Talentos down.  Werner's uncle tried to give him advice on dragon slaying, but Werner insisted that with Talentos in his hand, he could not but win.

The other heroes who had rallied to the banner were concocting a plan, but Werner sauntered past all of them.  He walked up to Kristianik, with Talentos at the ready.  And Kristianik--who at that moment was experiencing dreadful gas from having eaten a whole field of cows--burped a very large burp as Werner approached.  This burp had a little flame in it because Kristianik was a middle age dragon and was really not able to eat a lot of red meat anymore without having to deal with some very unpleasant indigestion.

The flame from the burp hit Werner and instantly charred him.  The people of Satinerous still insist there was a split-second, blood-curdling shriek, but my uncle said that claim is preposterous. Werner was nothing more than a smokey, blackened skeleton.  Then the skeleton fell into a pile of ash as Talentos clanged to the ground nearby.  Magic swords can't be destroyed by anything as pedestrian as dragon flame.

However, Werner had provided a pretty good distraction for the other warriors and they charged in on Kristianik's flanks.  The battle was long.  It was bloody.  For four of the warriors that fought that day, it would be known as their last stand.  (No ninth level priests around, apparently.) But in the end Kristianik was slain by a badass knight named Henry Lautrek who only had a +1 sword but knew how to find an enemy's soft spots and who climbed up the dragon's back Shadows-of-the-Colossus-style, tied himself fast with his 50 feet of rope, and shoved his sword into the weak point where head met neck.  The plus one sword didn't kill the dragon, but then one of the other warriors on the ground grabbed up Talentos, and heaved it at Henry with a mighty cry. "What a great gift!" Sir Lautrek cried.  He jammed the sword into Kristianik with a battle shout.  The dragon yanked and twitched through death throes, and even dislodged Henry (who hung suspended from his rope by his ankle).  But after a moment, Kristianik fell to the ground with a deep thud. Satinerous was safe. Kristianik was dead.

See, it turns out that while Werner was just swinging Talentos around without thinking, the other warriors were actually working on becoming more skilled.  They where learning how to duck and dodge and block and parry and riposte and not to telegraph their swings and how to tell when an enemy is about to strike and how to approach things that breathe fire from their rear and all sorts of great battle survival skills.   They were training until the callouses on their hands burst open, and then they were training more. They were actually doing the hard work of getting better while Werner just relied on Talentos.  They were letting seasoned vets train them.  They were learning to move in armor.  Talentos was an amazing boon when fighting kobolds and goblins, but it turns out that actual skill was needed to fight a dragon, and the power of Talentos wasn't enough to turn someone too good to train into a dragon slayer.

And the reason they were learning all this great shit was because no one ever gave them a +5 sword. They had to actually get better if they wanted to beat their enemies.  Werner's uncle--god bless his soul--basically got his little nephew killed.

Now I know this allegory is a doozy, so I'll help you decode it a little.  The world is filled with people declared at a young age to "have talent."  My teachers said it of me over and over again when my fledgling spark of interest in writing first manifested.  I was paraded about before the entire school and had many of my young writings picked as the winner for school contests and such.  But the talented cover the earth like a plague of flies.  Even if we consider only the artistic medium of writing, each school produces half a dozen truly "talented" people each year, the 2010 census says there are about a hundred thousand schools in the U.S.  That's half a million or so talented people EVERY year.  99.99% of people take their artistic talent and go manage restaurants or sell real estate.

But it's worse than that.  Those who do try to cultivate their art have been damaged by being told this myth about talent.  They assume that means they are too good for advice, too good for others' input, too good to work with a group of other writers reviewing each others' work.  They think they are too good to need their ten thousand hours.  They mistake "talent" for unmitigated genius.

It's not.

It's really, really not.

And here's the real sphincter muscle of the whole thing–even some unmitigated ubergenius wunderkinder of writing divinity who causes their teachers paroxysms of ecstasy as a child will be outstripped by someone with less talent and zero genius who is willing to work hard in only a few years.  Talent isn't just meaningless in the face of hard work–it can be dangerous to acknowledge when it makes you think you don't have to try.  Best to forget about it.  Best to proceed as if you suck rocks–not even rocks....hardened chips of cow dung.  Then you will never meet the advice that is too good for you or the opportunity to practice that you will think you don't need.

There are a lot of parts of writing that can be taught in classes or learned from books despite the pedagogy of many MFA programs. There are a lot of other parts of writing that can be cultivated, like the discipline and the habit of creativity. But there are a few parts that are damned hard to teach like the linguistic creativity and wordplay or the empathy towards humanity that are so much a part of the ingredients for being a good creative writer. Having talent really helps in these areas.  But if you've got some sense that your talent is going to mean more than someone else's sweat, get over yourself.....like ten minutes ago.

Because there are things a lot worse than dragons waiting for you out there.   And most of them are guarding gates that you need to go through if you want to be a successful writer.  Talent won't mean a thing to those monsters if you don't have the skill to avoid the fatal pitfalls and get yourself positioned perfectly to strike.  And by the time you've done all that...you're going to find that you already have talent.  It has come to you from quarters unexpected, and NOW you are ready to wield it.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Writing Process

 #6 is obviously groupie threesomes.
Also, clearly this is a metaphor for creativity,
and not just a licence free image for the word
Generally, there is a great deal of confusion about the difference between process and craft.  A lot of people who enjoy writing and have a refined process, are not particularly good at the actual craft (like me) and a lot of people who are quite adept at craft struggle with the process for their entire lives.  Many excellent writers have written only a few stories, and cannot motivate themselves to write more.  Or they write brilliantly, but only when under deadline for a class.

Very often the trouble here is that writing well is only half the story and usually only a small portion of the difficulty most writers struggle with.  If the technical skill of writing is not married to a good sense of process, then what you end up with a very good writer who does not produce very much.  Indeed, most writers have more difficulty just sitting to write than they ever do with the prose itself.  (Although, unfortunately, most writers focus on learning the technical skill almost the exclusion of working on their process.)

While concrete imagery, dialogue, or characterization are craft elements, how many times to draft, when to write, how important research and how to sit down and produce every day is process.  These are articles about the process of writing and whatever insight I have gleaned about it.

The Lessons of Brande.  Dorothea Brande's book Becoming A Writer is the best process book that I know of.
1 One Book To Rule Them All (And With Oversewing Bind Them).
2 Cultivating internal dualism.
3 Morning writing
4 The Floating Half Hour of Writing

Do What Works For YOU It's not just a concept in martial arts, but about writing in general.
The Witching Hour When Magic Works Write when you enjoy writing, not others.
Free Writing--Why it Rocks There's actually a neurological reason
Should I Outline? (Mailbox) Authors have mixed feelings.  I weigh in.
Revision Land (Mailbox) Charlie the unicorn goes to the magical Revision Land
When to Revise (Mailbox) What to do when revision feels like not writing

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.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

I'm on Facebook!

Hey everyone!  I have a facebook page just for Writing About Writing!

I'll put daily updates there as well as a lot of the comics I've been putting up (like on potpourri).  I've been very worried about attribution here since I don't want to steal other people's stuff so much as just point at it and share it, but that will be a way to make the group fun and interesting as something more than just a daily shout out for the blog.

Edit to add: I'm not on Facebook anymore!  They have instituted a reprehensible policy of blacking out a pages fans to all of its post.   A given post might not be seen by as many as half of a group, and a given person might see only half a group's posts.  Of course, FB "generously" provides a way for groups to promote their own posts to be seen by all.  It only costs two hundred dollars a post.

Isn't that sweet of them.

Needless to say, I didn't have enough non-friend followers to justify that for now.  So the group has gone "fallow".  If I ever pick up popularity, I'll consider going back.  In the mean time you can find Writing About Writing as a G+ group.

Friday, October 19, 2012

I'd Like You All To Meet Adam Licsko

I'd like to introduce you to Adam Licsko.  

Adam is a painter and visual artist of extraordinary talent.  This is his website where you can see how amazing his dramatic use of color, light, and scope is and how he uses deceptively simple form to bring out really rich content.  His paintings remind me of the best kind of fiction--the stuff that just keeps getting more complicated the longer you look at it.  It's sort of like the visual version of Raymond Carver.

I've known Adam since junior high when we were fast friends.  And while I will not tell you that we broke into the Calabasas Lockheed facility and dodged security cameras for fun, we had many a childhood adventure.  We would stay up all night watching Jaws at our friend Brandon's house.  We would invade the local business offices with our water gun wars because they always had the best cover and obstacles and clear out long before the police arrived to drive us off.  And I can't even tell you how many times we walked around the lake in Calabasas Park just talking.  (We were so young that the security guards didn't have the heart to kick us out of what was a private park not intended for the apartment-dwelling likes of me and Adam.)  Whether it was the beginning band of A.E. Wright middle school, the first stirrings of our artsy brains to appreciate certain things that many of our other friends just didn't "get," or just general mayhem, we were partners in many wonder-years stories of mischief.  But not that Lockheed one.  Seriously.  That never happened.

Adam has recently written a hilarious book self love, called Kama Sutra for One and a blog promoting it.  I hope he doesn't hate me for saying I find his painting much more inspirational.  It's not that I don't want to think about the guy up at the top of this entry giving me tips on masturbating, it's just that I think that...okay yeah, that's exactly what it is, actually.

Mostly though, Adam inspires me because he's an artist.   I grew up with this guy.  We played Atari together, and agreed that Tax Evaders was the worst game ever.  (Of COURSE I mean except for E.T.)  We watched Blade Runner over and over because even back then we could tell something more important was going on in that movie than in Star Wars.  And he is a working artist.  He made it.  I lost track of him for years, and then one day I walked into a gallery in Cambria (on the California coast near Hearst Castle) and half the store was just his stuff.  I tried to convince the store owner I knew him, but I think she thought I was a stalker fan or something and wouldn't pass a message on to him for me.  It took me a few more years (and Facebook) to finally track him down.  But knowing Adam when we were both young, and seeing him later, really brought home to me that working artists are not some strange species of creature.  They're just humans with a flicker of talent, and the passion and will to blow that spark into something greater even if it takes a metric asston of work.

He's had so many recent articles--of high praise--on Huffington Post, that I'm pretty sure he HAS to be sleeping with Arianna.  And yet...I still knew him during the summer where I'm pretty sure he didn't say a single thing that wasn't a Bobcat Goldthwait impersonation.  Though, maybe Arianna likes that sort of thing, I don't know.

Technically I even own one of Adam's paintings.  I could NEVER afford one myself, but I did some biography writing for him a couple of years ago and instead of mess with freelance contract BS., he just offered me a trade of one of his smaller prints of a dirigible.  (Which I will totally be staring at repeatedly when I write my steampunk zombie story.)  He just needs to get off his tortured artist butt and actually send it to me.

Nothing but love Adam.  Seriously.  Not anything (well, except perhaps for a hint of envy that is probably good because it drives me forward).  It's been an honor to know you.

And you guys should totally check him out.  Spend more than a couple of minutes looking at one of his pictures, and I promise you'll realize something you didn't see at first glance.  Sometimes art of completely different media can be the most inspirational thing you'll ever encounter.  Well, except maybe for realizing that the working artist with the gallery in Cambria and the mind blowing paintings used to be your friend who didn't like to practice drums and always stole your fries.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Few Concluding Thoughts About The Western Canon

Pictured: all the translated books in the canon that are speculative fiction.
Good riddance!
Good evening.  I'm Guy Goodman St.White your bloody British sounding host, and tonight, I want to do something a little different.  We're saying farewell to the translated works of the Western Canon to focus exclusively on important British literature and eventually even some of that Yank stuff.  However, I thought a few parting thoughts on the non-English Western Canon might be in order.

Oh who am I kidding? Chris keeps coming in here and changing his mind about whether I should do a segment praising Cervantes for his ruthless dedication to expunging speculative elements or if I should just take the whole day off.  The worst part is, he keeps changing his clothes back and forth and acting like he didn't say the last thing and has no knowledge of what he said while wearing the other outfit.  He's pretending that there's two of him--as if that isn't the most overdone cliche in all of literature!

Anyway, finally he said something about just doing whatever the hell I wanted and he couldn't go on living in the shadow and something like "that guy has everything that's mine."  By that point, he'd wasted enough of my time that a thoughtful review was out of the question.  Thus, I am simply going to  say a few last words about the translated Canon of Western literature.

I've done a review of Beowulf, Judith, The Iliad, The Odyssey (with Lady Felicity's help), Plato, and The Divine Comedy.  Frankly even if I hadn't been downsized from a segment a week to this...once a month shenanigans, I could do this for years.  There is simply so much speculative tripe in the canon that at some point, it becomes an exercise in simple recognition.  Gods, ghosts, magic, demons, the afterlife, talking animals, fairies, dragons, minotaurs, Fenris, Medusa, Grendel and more.  There is high fantasy, low fantasy, utopian fiction, distopian fiction, and even conjecture about the future that would easily be considered science fiction by today's parlance.  For all the praise the canon gets, it is akin to an all-you-can-eat buffet of unrealism and the readers of the world brought their extra stretchy pants.  As if any of these hacks could say something meaningful about the human condition so far divorced from the gritty truth that marks real literature.

However, with all that said, it was never my intention to point out every failed attempt at true writing the canon has to offer.  I picked a few of the most well known pieces of flotsam with some of the most dramatic examples of speculative excreta.  At this point you have certainly gotten the point that the canon is filled with the kind of fiction that every real literary connoisseur knows is simply bad writing.  We shall now turn our attention fully to works done in English.  And believe me, there are many.  Resting like it does, on a bedrock of unrealistic precedent, English literature delves time and again into failed attempts at being meaningful or poignant by succumbing to the siren song of speculative tripe.

So please join me next month when we stop reading the works of less civilized cultures, and start reading exclusively English canon works.  All on the next episode of Speculative Fiction Sucks Balls--and Not in the Good Way.  I'm Guy Goodman St.White.  Good night.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Increasing Blog Traffic--Accumulating Tributaries

[As of this writing, I'm still working on tagging all my old entries, so the tagging system won't quite do much yet  Give me a few days....]

When I was a wee lad, my grandfather took me a couple of times to the Mud Island Mississipi Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.  They have a 2000 foot scale model of the Mississippi.   It uses 2.2 million gallons of water.  When you're a little kid a scale model over a football field long filled with water on a Tennessee July day is pretty awesome.
And for fifteen bonus points,
see if you can guess the body of water in the background.      

The Mississippi is the biggest river in North America and the fourth biggest in the world, but unlike many rivers, the Mississipi doesn't have one huge water source like a melting glacier or giant mountain formation.  Lake Itasca might be considered the source (the Latin translation of its name would certainly suggest that possibility) but that lake itself is fed by dozens of streams.  Instead it has a water basin of over a million square miles, extending all the way up into Canada, and hundreds and thousands of tiny tributaries feed into it on it's languid journey south.  All those small rivers, creeks, brooks, and later rivers like Jefferson and Missouri join it in it's journey towards New Orleans.

The Mississippi is like someone who gets a high level character in a role playing game by killing hundreds of thousands of giant rats back near the starting village.

There is a lot of advice on how to increase blog traffic online, and I've even gone blind trying to read and understand some of it, but I tend to apply the LCD principle to online advice.  [The LCD principle is that I check multiple sources for advice and see what they all have in common--the "Lowest Common Denominator"--and then I focus on that.]  I'm sure there's SEO information I could be using to improve my numbers, and technical things I could be doing, if I wanted to take time from writing, reading, housekeeping, teaching, and relationship to learn them, but given limited time and resources it's better to take the LCD advice first and work the other stuff in piecemeal.  The one thing most of those pages come back to is that what will really work is providing good content.

Good content.

Aside from that much of the rest is smoke and mirrors.  SEO is useful, but Google has a thousand tech nerds working overtime to circumvent any sophist manipulation and find the good stuff so just using key words over and over again is becoming the online equivalent of Mr. Subliminal from Saturday Night Live.  Just today they rolled out some new "link disavowing" software so that you can disavow links coming into your site from spam sites.

There's a reason I know three or four people who make a living writing web contentent even if they have to take a shower with Comet and steel wool at the end of each day and weep themselves to sleep.  I've even done some of of it.  You get some totally random ass topic that you have to do some research on.  You're encouraged to use other articles about it as long as you don't steal them word for word, and you're given a list of half a dozen words you have to include--some multiple times.  When you're done, they pay you.  It isn't much per article, but if you can write quality content quickly, it adds up fast.  Plus it's WAY better than doing a blog about writing where you sometimes put up your fiction.  Trust me.

You probably aren't going to have a viral post until a lot of people are already reading you regularly.  You might.  Maybe. But it's almost impossible to know what's going to get attention online, and if you don't have a pretty large pool already when you "nail" something, it's probably not going to go as far as you'd like.  Some of the articles I've spent a lot of time on and thought were really good have never broken a hundred hits.  I really thought 6 Easy Ways to Ninja More Pageviews was going to be a hit, but it's still hobbling along at 56 views as of this writing.  On the other hand some of the tabs up at the top of my page that I think are basically just taking care of business and making disclaimers are getting hundreds of "Like" clicks on Stumbleupon and generating 20+ views a day.  I never figured my Mission Statement was all that interesting.  And I never expected 20 Ways To Sabotage Yourself as a Writer to be my most popular article.  You just can't tell.

But Ray Bradbury said quantity is quality.  This is as true of blogging as it is of fiction.  Not every article will be your best.  Not every one is brilliant.  And even if it is those things, you might have just written on something people don't care about.  Just keep throwing spaghetti at the wall because there's no way to know what's going to stick.  And there's no way to know what's going to start crawling up the wall with a life of it's own and reaching for the ceiling with it's little noodly appendages.  Perhaps some epically viral blog was the primordial birth of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  RAMEN!

As I've blogged with some kind of content almost every day over the last nine months, and watched my analytics, I've seen how this works.  I have a few articles doing some heavy lifting, and I get twenty or thirty hits off of all my various social media (Facebook, G+, LJ) each time I post a new article, but most of my traffic comes from many many different articles, each pulling in a few hits a day off of google searches or Stumbleupon.  They are like the tiny trickle tributaries of the Mississipi, each adding a new trickle to the total.

There aren't any ways I know of to short cut this process.  Most social networking sites will have some kind of backlash if you overuse them, and the consequences are very much like killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.   I love Stumbleupon, but every time I submit a page to them, they shut down my URL's recommendations of "stumble hits" for a few minutes.  (So if I were spamming them with no-content links, I'd quickly blacklist my own URL)  The only articles that keep getting recommended daily--instead of once in a blue moon--are the ones with multiple "likes."  The system sort of creates its own meritocracy hazing.  (So if I were just posting page after page of useless crap, SU wouldn't provide me with any real traffic.)  Any social media like Facebook or G+, you run the risk of irritating your friends if you are too self-promotional.  I haven't yet gotten an e-mail from a friend telling me to tone it down on FB or G+, but that's because my peeps are saints.  I am assured by a friend that using Reddit depends ENTIRELY on the sub-Reddit category involved.  (Someone has put a couple of my articles up on the "Writing" subreddit, and my experience has been sort of mixed-with-negative-leanings.)  Again, you aren't likely to get upvoted into viral fame there unless you already have a name for yourself and if you post too much bad content, your posts will never see the light of day.  In Reddit they use something called Karma.  Though you might be posted by someone who already has good karma--but that probably won't happen if you don't have good content that has impressed somebody.  So you are right back to writing good content.

This is a lot like writing in general.  We like stories about meteoric rises to fame like Stephen King's first novel, Carrie, making crazy amounts of money or Fitzgerald living in the French Rivera off the proceeds of his first and only novel, but those stories are attractive BECAUSE they're extraordinary.  It is much more likely we are going to have to struggle for years just to get to a point where it might be theoretically possible to quit our day job (if we're willing to stop eating out, and eat our college-roommate's famous "Potato Pasta" twice a week).  It is much more likely that we will have to splice together different writing income streams and "recognition streams" so that one day, when we really nail it--enough people recognize our name that it will actually matter.  A lot of writers' first books are REALLY good, but they don't do very well because know one knows who the writer is.

Yeah, you can get all caught up in the networking and the elbow rubbing and know five publishers and go out drinking with three editors, but that's a lot like worrying about your SEO and networking the shit out of yourself on a billion different social networking sites when you don't actually have any content.  When you come back to it the writing is always going to be the more important factor in your success.  Then again, you can't just write good content in a vacuum.  I'd likely still be struggling along at 50 hits a day if I hadn't discovered Stumbleupon.

So learn the business.  Figure out what works.  Try something new once or twice a month and see if it helps.  Don't turn up your nose to a website that suggests a few simple changes that will make a big difference, but don't get lost in that world either.  Remember, if you're not already famous, what is really going to turn your blog into a giant flow of pageviews isn't one extra use of a keyword or some layout trick.  It is good content, and a lot of it.  So instead of trying to force every article be a viral sensation, work with perseverance to build up a network of tributaries that will each trickle into your total numbers.  It works for the biggest river in North America, so obviously it is an unassailable metaphor and can work for you.