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Friday, November 30, 2012

Why Failure is Awesome but Quitting Sucks Hardcore (Like Titanium Hard)

Evil Chris here...

And only 3903 of these words
are related to threesomes.
With a little over three hours left in NaNoWriMo as of writing these words, I face the distinct possibility of failure.  2,500 words is probably not going to elude me, but let's pretend for the moment that it totally would or that I'm twenty thousand words shy...or that it's closer to 11:45.

Let's pretend I'm going to fail.  Go on, it's okay.  You can make believe.

See how I didn't change into all caps and start using lots of exclamation marks?  Notice how I'm not questioning my worth as a writer or whether I'm cut out for this sort of thing?  And I assure you if you were sitting next to me, you would not notice a distinct waver in my voice.

Witness my total lack of existential crisis.

In Western culture (in as much as that term means anything) it is extremely rare to find those that value failure.  Success is our singular premium.  It is so important to us that most of us have a healthy fear of failure. It's so scary to our cultural vicegerents that they tried to hoist participation trophies on young children who didn't even want them because they projected into them that it must make them feel so terrible. It's not that we're ambivalent or neutral about failure. Failure is something we dread, try to avoid, and hate when it shows up--like an alcoholic, libertarian uncle dropping in on the holidays. "Failure is not an option" is a cliche for a reason. If we tip our hat at all to failure, it is usually only in a broader story about success. Failure is more an obstacle to be overcome by unswerving tenacity. It's like how the Bad News Bears always lose their early games so that they can rally and their final victory is that much sweeter.

The problem is, failure is the good stuff.  Failure is the engine of human progress. Failure--not success--pushes forward science, innovation, and especially art.  I know it's hard to imagine that if this is the first time you've run into this idea.  It's like someone telling you french kissing light sockets is good for your complexion or something. But despite being counter intuitive, it's true. (The failure thing--please don't French kiss any light sockets.)  Every study of successful people reveals that they are usually the ones who fail the most.  (A statistic that is still accurate if you remove George W. Bush's and Donald Trump's particularly hideous track records and particularly lofty destinations.)

Failure is important to who we are as people. The way we deal with failure defines us far more than our successes. It toughens us. It reveals new opportunities. We learn valuable lessons that we wouldn't with an easy win. Failure helps us consider our goals and objectives, as well as our approach. (There's nothing quite like falling on your face to make you question if you're doing the right thing for the right reasons.) And, there's the fact (which is much more profound than it sounds at first) that failure tells us what not to do.

The problem is failure stings at the time. Failure doesn't reinforce our narrative that we are awesome. Failure isn't something people are likely to say "is an option." Failure is scary.

Everyone has to fail. They just have to. Artists have to fail more than most.  If you aren't failing some of the time (even a lot of the time--seriously...around half of the time), you aren't actually trying to do anything challenging.  The old Atari version of Ms. Pac Man used to have an option to have fewer ghost monsters. You could even have one. I could play that game all day with one ghost, and there were a couple of days when I was still numbering my age in single digits that I'm pretty sure I tried.

"You seem like you've got one ghost monster down, Chris,"  my mom would say.  "Why don't you try it with two now?"

"Because then I'll die," I replied.

I knew that two ghosts would eventually corner me, so I kept things easy.

I am the one-ghost master!  
Which basically only means I have a high boredom threshold when it comes to video games. 
You would think that once people hit like TEN or even ELEVEN, you wouldn't see this sort of thing anymore. But a lot of people coast through life. They never fail because they never risk. The progress of their lives--such as it is--is measured only by them dribbling from one sure thing to another, and a very careful and calculated avoidance of risk.

But it goes beyond that. We are SO afraid of failure that we actively eschew it. We may do this by "taking chances" that are basically non-effort Hail Mary passes at life. That way we never have to get invested in the bitterness of the outcome. If we fail, we can just say we didn't really try and keep telling ourselves that if we did really try, we would succeed. I know several writers who submit early draft writing for publication. They send out everything they write--usually after no more than a first or second draft. That way if it gets rejected, it's no big deal. They are much more reluctant to pour some time and effort into a two or three solid revisions before they submit because getting rejected about something they put some energy into that might actually feel like failure.  Far too many people have this sort of "reach for the stars" idea.  Rather than realistic goals and genuine effort (and the horrible risk of failure), they would rather have lofty dreams (that are nothing more than grandiose and non-urgent fantasies rather than goals) and then not really work at them.  They can "risk" failure only in as much as they never really try.

But people also quit.

We are a culture of quitters.  Whenever failure seems like it's coming, you can bet that most people will trot out the rationalizations and quit.  It's easier on our fragile egos to convince ourselves a battle isn't worth fighting than to face the prospect that we might fail...miserably.  Writers (and other artists) are perhaps more guilty of this than any others.  The fear of rejection...the fear that we are not perfectly articulating the wonderful story in our head...the fear that we might fail grips every artist--usually about fifty to sixty times before breakfast.  And out come the excuses to quit:  it wasn't a good idea, this is dumb, I need a better computer, I don't have time, this is futile, I've got too much going on in my life right now, and my personal favorite I'm not good enough.  And so we quit.  Or if we're extra savvy we "put that project on hold, but we're totally coming back to it later."  And if we're really slick, we might even claim some other project caught our attention--preferably with artsy sounding bullshit that uses words like "inspiration" and "my muse commands."

Any one of those excuses above might be true.  They might be hella true.  They might be SO true that they will cause you to fail.  But there is a fundamental truth at work here and there is no getting around it:

Failing is not quitting.  Quitting is not failing.

Failing means you fought the fight.  You showed up and tried.  At least you were there.  Quitting means you retreated. You ran like a two year old with a skinned knee.  Failing means you met the bully at the bike racks after sixth period and got your ass kicked (but they know they're going to have a sore fist every time they mess with you).  Quitting means you left campus on the opposite end of school and tried to tell everyone that it was totally not because you were afraid (and it means the bully really owns your ass now).  Failing is asking someone to the prom and they turn you down.  Quitting is not even asking, spending your life wondering what could have been, and convincing yourself it's because you're obviously too nice.   Failure is ejecting from your plane after it gets shot up and looses a wing. Quitting is ejecting before you even take off or as soon as you see there are more MiGs than you think you can fight. Failure means you're doing something, and that means you're improving and developing. Failure means you suited up and showed up, learned something, and took it on the chin with aplomb. You made an effort instead of an excuse.

Besides, you can't have an eleventh hour turn around if you quit during the eighth hour. Where's your fucking sense of drama?

You are not the first person to doubt yourself.  You are not the first person to realize that failure is a very real possibility.  You are not the first person to be scared--especially of writing (or art).  But if you trot out your rationalizations for quitting, you just joined the teeming throng of people who have a fanciful irresolute fantasy about being an artist that is nothing more than a facade that gets you scare quotes around your artistic label by those who know you.  (As in: he is a "writer".)

Stand up and give something a real try.  Don't give up at the first sign of trouble.  Take a chance.  Risk failure.  Have a spine!

At the end of the day failure yields fruit.  In the final analysis, I have a lot more to show for failing NaNoWriMo.  I have some insight.  I have some perspective.  I have a better idea of how much work NaNo AND daily blogging will be if I decide to do NaNo next year.  I also know I can write a serious fuck ton of words if my back is to the wall.  And,  not to put too fine a point on it, but  I have 47,501 words!  (It's not like they'll vanish if I don't "win.")  I have grown and improved as a writer.  I did something, and I have something to show for November's efforts.  All in all, not a bad haul as I head into December 1st.

Quitting yields nothing.  Quitting gets you a sense of inadequacy and the skepticism of people that know you that you really care about this as much as you say you do.  If I gave up three weeks ago with an excuse about how busy I was,  I wouldn't have any of the things I have today.  I would just be patting myself on the back for not failing...but it wouldn't matter because I would suck feces covered donkey testicles.

So whether it's NaNo... or writing in general...or finishing an (actual) novel...or publication...or making money with writing...or winning a contest....or whatever it is...get out there and give it everything you've got.  Rock the casbah and the party that rocks the party.   Take a risk by really trying. And if you fail, that's okay.   You'll have a lot to show for it.

But don't let go.  Don't give up.  Don't make excuses.

Don't quit.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Clam Chowder Will Be Served on Friday

It's the fifth Thursday of the month, so it's time for some Clam Chowder for the Writer's Heart (which is totally not a rip off of some other kind of soup for some other kind of existential personification).  However Writing About Writing is undergoing a security retrofit to deal with genocidal cephalopods and the Clam Chowder Room is inaccessible.

Plus...the A-Team we hired to help with this whole invasion thing is using the main foyer to train with the new Octorian weapons we commandeered after the battle.  Even with energy expulsion weapons they can't hit...ANYTHING.  Except of course to spell their name out in bullets (or energy blasts) along a wall.  I don't know why they're so unbelievably good at that, but can't hit anything else to save their lives.   But it is what it is.  We've spent the last week trying to get them to visualize their targets as a wall....but to no avail.

Like most restaurants, we will be serving our clam chowder on Friday.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Modern Artist's Survival Guide

The quintessential, So-Deep-It's-Almost-Confusing List of Paradoxical Tips and Mixed Messages that are as Conflicted as Modern Day Artists and Their Relationship to Society


Hold on!  Yes, there's a chance you will never "make it" with your art (so you'd better love the shit out of doing it for its own sake).  There's a chance you will struggle and never taste success.  But if you give up...that chance becomes a certainty.  You will have setbacks that may make you feel like you wasted years.  Some days will suck balls (and not in the good way).  You will get knocked down and life will do the Bruce Lee make-sure-you're-dead kidney jump just to make it clear that you aren't supposed to get up.  But...you only have to get up ONE more time than you get knocked down.

Let go!  There's so much to let go of!  Materialism, delusions of grandeur, ego, grudges, popularity contests, that stupid race with the Joneses, the rage that has become your master...  Most of your life is nothing but fetters that hold you back from the place where art lives.  The more of that crap you let go of, the easier art becomes.  Just don't accidentally put your dreams in the "let go" pile.

What you need is a cheerleader. Doing art in today's world is double tough.  Find some peeps who will cheer you on in your darkest hours and who believe in you even when you don't completely believe in yourself.  If they'll wear the little pleated skirt to help encourage you, that's even better.

What you need is a taskmaster. Sitting around and believing in yourself won't get anything done and that art won't create itself.  Find someone who will call bullshit on your bullshit and kick your ass into gear.  You can't shit a shitter with your tales of how you'll start working right after this thing or you're just too busy right now or you haven't gotten enough sleep.  You need someone who Spock-eyebrows that crap and tells you the truth: that if you want it, you'll find a way.

What you need is a critic.  Someone has to say no to you, or you'll produce nothing but prequel-caliber George Lucas tripe.  You need a critic.  You need to be told that something isn't working how you think it is.  You need someone to call bullshit on your bullshit.

Ignore other people's negativity. Unconstructive criticism and hurtful commentary has no other aim but to tear you down.  Putting yourself out there means haters are gonna hate.  You can't control that, and you can't make all of them happy except by crawling back into your hole and dying in ignominy.  But you can ignore them.  Ignore the ever loving shit out of them.

Ignore other people's certitude. You are a flawed creature and an imperfect artist.  You need to improve.  Echo chambers and adoring fans feel good, but they won't do your art any favors.  Ignore anyone who thinks you can do no wrong.  Ignore them as passionately as you do someone who thinks you can do no right.  Unless maybe they want to do the groupie threesome thing....

Learn not to care what others think.  You live in a society that doesn't celebrate art or artists (unless they are commercially successful).  People will judge your career, your values, your decisions, your material possessions, your fashion, your choice of beverages, and even your My Little Pony iPad app--and all those things are apt to be lacking from their perspective.  (Because, let's be honest, My Little Pony rules.)  Best to learn early how blow them off (and not in the good way).

Learn to care what others think.  Artists already tend towards contrarian status.  Half of them are one rejection of a social convention shy of picking their nose in public and living in a tree.  But empathy is panacea in any art.  (Oh how ironic and paradoxical is that?)  If you're not careful, you're going to be the weirdo wearing the tutu at the DMV.   That takes "not caring" to the next level, but at that point a person can't understand humanity enough to portray it in their work.  Gotta ride the hard-to-hit/impossible-to-maintain sweet spot right down the middle of not caring that you'll never get laid wearing second hand clothes and unapologetic explosive flatulence at formal dinner parties.

Wear your heart on your sleeve.  Humans are emotional creatures and you are funneling your passion into artistic expression.   Having passion is the first step, of course.  We live in a society that doesn't find any emotional expression from you appropriate, be it too happy or too depressive.  How dare you feel in a way that is expressed in something other than your clothes and musical taste!  You have to learn to crash through those walls...with a wrecking ball.

Be mysterious.  You might even want to be terribly mysterious.  Your art is the place to take your emotions.  If you're gushing and dumping and yelling and screaming and crying and getting your catharsis out in the world, you don't have as much to bring to your art.  Have the feelings, but always hold some of them back.

See the world the way it really is.  See the banal, the petty, the pedestrian, the tiny acts of kindness and cruelty unsung.  Read the comments on Youtube.  Notice beauty in its opposite, and ugliness in the sublime.  If you discover a bias or blinder, rip it from your face and look with eyes as perfectly untrammeled as you can make them.

See the world the way you want it to be.  Perfectly accurate truth isn't art.  It goes by names like "journalism" or "non-fiction."  An artist tells the truth by lying or by focusing or distorting an aspect of that truth just a little in order to bring it into relief.  The themes in art are teased out as the art is refined.  Learn to do that in your life and it will make you a better artist.

Forgive those who hurt you.  Nothing makes it harder to transcend the world into "art mode," or simply befuddle your ability to concentrate on creating something beautiful, like some petty grievance niggling at your mind like a commercial jingle that won't get out of your head.  Forgive.  Move on.  It's not worth it.  THEY'RE not worth it.  The last thing you want to do is give them that power over you and over your art.

Remember those who have hurt you.   Artists have a problem with letting themselves be taken advantage of.  Keep track of who isn't to be trusted, and don't collaborate with them on future projects.  Keep your distance for pragmatic reasons even if feeding that grudge cottage cheese and rage doesn't make it grow.  And if you really can't let something go, which is very human, after all, then use it.  Use the anger and bile.  Let the hate push you onward when all the fluffy bunny emotions are exhausted.  Because fuck them, that's why.

Know your limits.  Some things you cannot change....

Fuck your limits.  ....but until you try, you'll never know.

Be who you really are.  Creative minds attract creative minds.  If you bury that part of you--or bury any part of you, really--you will end up surrounded by people who like what isn't really you.  You will be avoided by people who you would like.  You will cultivate your facade.  Until one day you will become the person that you're pretending to be.  It will happen...even to you.  Even to you.

Forge your mask from hardened steel, and keep it with you at all times.  There's a world out there you have to deal with.  Call it the "real world" or whatever, but you have to live in it and pay your bills and go grocery shopping and deal with pencil pushers and cashiers and stuff.  Keep your mask with you so that you can deal with this world.  Just don't forget to take it off after you clear the check out line.

Embrace routine. In as much as creativity can be said to be anything, it is a habit.  Show up to be creative at the same time every day, and it will begin to happen.  Your muse will soon start acting like a pet who knows what time they get fed.  So make your life as routine as possible so that your art can be as wild and untamed as possible

Embrace change.  When change happens, embrace it.  Most people run from genuine change, even as they bash the artist for his precious regimens and routines, and do everything they can to avoid any real alteration of their lives.  Learn to love new opportunities and new experiences even when they are the juicy nugget wrapped in the shit burrito of your world turning upside down. Artists need to pay attention to the ripples that spread from change.  Art is about change, or at least the potential for it or resistance to it.

When you care what is outside, what is inside cares for you.  Not just an homage to the greatest anyone-can-do-it-if-they-try movie of all time.  Your brain is part of your body.  It does not exist psychically apart from physical reality, no matter what your culture thinks.  If you treat your body like a trash can, your brain can't generate its best creativity.

Appreciate what you have.  You live in a society where the pounding message from every corner is that you are incomplete, lacking, and wanting.  They would never sell enough toasters, cars, and handi-wipes if every TV show were interrupted every ten minutes with a message reminding you that you've got it pretty fucking sweet, all things considered.  Instead they interrupt your life as often as possible to tell you that you are not complete without their shit. So take lots of inventories of the good things.  If you focus on what's missing, of COURSE you're going to be miserable.

Never grow complacent.  Your life is awesome?  Awesome.  But you've miles to go before you sleep.  Get to it.  The fact that your identity and well being aren't wrapped up in having a Blu-Ray player in your SUV is great, but that doesn't mean you don't try to improve yourself and it especially doesn't mean you don't try to improve your art.  The struggle for improvement is part of the human condition.  You want to turn off the part of the message that says improvement means better stuff, not turn off the message altogether.

Recognize those who are helping you, even if they act harsh.  Not everyone who cautions you is poster child for the bumper sticker that, "Those who have given up on their dreams will try to get you to abandon yours."  Some have simply walked the road ahead of you, and are warning you of the pitfalls (often pitfalls filled with shit and rabid mammalian alligators) that lie ahead.  They're not saying don't walk the path.  They're saying "Don't walk the path like THAT way unless you like alligators with rabies and shit all over their teeth biting your leg."

Recognize those who undermine you, even if they act kind.  The most dangerous allies are the ones smiling too sweetly who speak saccharine words about your art even as they extol the virtues of a "grounded career," "living in the real world," or "not losing your head."  They may truly have your best interests at heart, don't get me wrong (truly).  But they are NO good for you as an artist.  No matter how well they treat you, or how supportive they sound, if they are pulling you away from your art, be wary.  And be careful.

Choose your relationships wisely.  Surround yourself with other artists, supportive people, creative types.  People who GET you.  Who GET what's important to you. People who find meaning in the same things.  People who won't snort derisively when you say it's time to write. People who won't guilt you when you head is in your next project. These folks are vital to being an artist in this world.  They will be your peeps and your community and your tribe.

Plus these people will fuck you even if you drive a Segue and live with six roommates.  It doesn't get any better than that.

Choose your relationships whimsically.  Even if you could control everyone you liked, you wouldn't want to.  Let life get messy.  Let something get out of hand.  Lose yourself in a friendship or a love that you know is going to be a hot mess.  Fall for your FWB.  Bang someone just because you think their boots would look great on either side of your head.  Have a fucked up fling.  Have a horrible break up.  Befriend someone who talks to you on the bus. It's okay to get a few things wrong. Life is like that. Art is like that too.

Enjoy the little things.  Stop.  Breathe.  Take a moment.  Life moves pretty fast in this society.  And in the words of one righteous dude, if you don't take a moment, it can pass you by.  The world is filled with ladybugs landing on your hands and gentle breezes and sunbeams and palms pressed to cheeks with meaningful glances and conversations that somehow go on until dawn.  Slow down.  Let these things happen.  Enjoy them.  The raging stress ball of (whatever--career, family, drama) will be there when you return.  I promise.

Don't sweat the small stuff.  I'm not going to say it's all small stuff.  It isn't. Some of it is stage four cancer or genocide or global climate change and there's nothing small about it.  But some of it is a busted iPod, running ten minutes late, or a forgotten date that is just a number on the calendar.  Keep it in perspective.

Live for today.  There's only this; there's only now, and all that stuff.  It's later than you think or something.  You only live once, or some crap.  You don't have to bungie without a cord to sieze the day.  Just remember not to make so many plans that life happens to you while you're busy making them.  There's a bus out there, or a carcinoma, or a tumor or fluid filled lungs or paraneoplastic syndrome or a monster truck with spikes and a buzzsaw shooter....or something with your name on it.  Tomorrow.  Next week. Twenty years.  Who knows?  What would you regret not doing if you died in your sleep tonight?   What are you putting off because "there's plenty of time."  Because priorities are fine....if that's really what's holding you back.  But infinitely putting off something that should be a higher priority until tomorrow (in perpetuity) is not fine.   What if there isn't time?  Carpe all your diems my friends.   Every single one is the most amazing gift this fucked up universe has to give you.

Plan for tomorrow.  Unprotected sex with strangers is foolish, even for the diem carpeingest of artists.  Cheating on someone (or even with someone) isn't whimsically messy life...it's ugly and there will be fallout.  Your body won't last if you trash it.  Shooting up heroine is not Y.O.L.O.   Live in the now like there aren't infinite tomorrows, not like there aren't going to be any.   Save up for retirement.  Floss.  Don't eat that triple bacon cheeseburger with the smothered and covered fries.  Start walking if your blood pressure is a little high.  Living for today doesn't mean forgetting that there might be thousands of tomorrows.

Love the world.  There's something amazing about this world that as an artist you should have your finger on.  It's extraordinary.  It's magnificent.  It's breathtaking.  Life teems and pulses everywhere given the slightest chance.  Humanity is even breathtaking.  Look at a skyscraper, a modern day computer, or a freeway overpass and let yourself actually see the marvel of human cooperation and engineering.  This world is pretty fucking spectacular if you let yourself see it. You don't even need to believe in a higher power to find wonder around every corner.  The world is....incredible.

Hate the worldly.  You. Don't. Need. So. Much. Stuff!!  (Your art will pay the bills exponentially faster if those bills are small.)

Keep your eye on the prize.  Whatever it is you want to do--enrich your life, have a well-respected critic notice you, have a show at a venue people recognize, publish, pay the bills with your art...or maybe just pay the PHONE bill with your art--don't lose sight of that.  Your journey will have lot of crossroads with half-way measures or things that are sort of LIKE your art but not your goal.  (In writing, there are all kinds of professional writing gigs that make money--even good money--but aren't creative per se, for example.)  Don't lose track of what you want.

Remember the journey beats the destination.   Keeping your eye on the top of the mountain doesn't mean you don't stop during the hike to look around.  Fuck, that's a beautiful tree.  Oh shit, that deer came right up to me.   Damn, even the view from here is pretty amazing.  I really want to try THIS trail.  You may even find the destination turns out to be different than you first thought, but that doesn't happen if you're a close-minded fanatic about it.

Play!  No study of creativity and imagination fails to underscore the importance of simply letting your mind wander.  Fiddling with ideas in a non-urgent way.  Flitting from topic to topic in a mercurial way.  Not everything has to have a goal or an objective.  Waste some time.  Lose an afternoon.  Do some art in a discipline you suck at.  Do some art in your discipline that will never see an audience but is just for you.  Stare out the window and watch the hummingbirds.  Make love in a hammok because it's the middle of the afternoon.  Help the cats nap in a sunbeam.   Let your mind play.  In the end, that time will be better spent for your art.

Work! Your art isn't going to produce itself.  Get your ass to work.  I don't care how creative you think you are.  If the only place the idea ever lives is between your ears, you aren't being an artist.  You're being a daydreamer.  Get some perspiration going.  Don't make me bust out the success/work/dictionary cliche and my best step-dad impression.

Nothing is more important than loving others.  Artists across time, across disciplines, and across the world have something in common. A real, genuine artist (and not just someone who with a refined skill set in an artistic talent) is almost always a creature of extraordinary empathy. Even if they have other foibles that might seem antithetical like narcissism, substance abuse, anger management problems, greed, arrogance, or even misanthropy they still retain a quality of extraordinary empathy that most people just can't quite grasp.

Nothing is more important than loving yourself.  The world out there doesn't like artists.  It doesn't respect their decisions, their values, or what they find meaning in.  It really doesn't like those who it can't tell what to care about (and what to buy to assuage those cares).  And that world has so much power.  That world can make you doubt your life in the span of a commercial.  You have to have tremendous self love, or you won't last an hour.  It's so important, when the ground underneath you feels like it's collapsing away, to know that the world is what blows, but you....well you are pretty gosh dang awesome.

When you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.  Do not go there, my son.

Most importantly embrace ambiguity and delight in paradox.  An artist cannot share society's discomfort with grey areas. Be they moral ambiguity, cultural paradox or just a question to which there isn't yet an answer.  These are the shadows where artists live.  These are the dark corners that artists flood with light, darken further, or conjecture as to what lives within.  That is WHY the world delights in their vision.  They see what others do not.  They make old things wondrous and novel and unknown things things familiar.  They show the world the shadowland between light and darkness is not a place to fear but one of amazing beauty.  It might not seem okay to have no opinion, not know the answer, or have an idea so nuanced that everyone on every side takes umbrage.  Everyone may hate that you can't just take a side, won't agree with them, or are perfectly comfortable with more than one answer.  That's what it means to be an artist.

Now take these visions and insights, and go create something beautiful.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

G+ Group. Everything That Facebook Isn't

I have a G+ Group now that is everything Facebook failed to be.  You can check it out here.  Daily updates, hand picked re-runs on days I don't post, bad puns, wordplay riddles, and even some comics and memes that I find hither and yon.

I know G+ isn't as popular as Facebook, but it's nice to have the option to bust out the force choke when a shitty company is shitty.  If you liked what I was up to on Facebook, please join me where that sort of behavior is acceptable.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Want to be a writer? Earn your "Er"

All the people who wanted to be a writer in my high school.
1993 only.  
Want to be a writer?  Earn your "er."

When I was earning my amazingly useful and in no way pointless Creative Writing degree at SFSU, Janusprof liked to use the phrase "earning your 'er'" to describe the simplicity involved in achieving what so many of the program's fresh-faced members wanted (to be a writer).  It was as simple as earning your "er."  I always liked the turn of phrase and so in the tradition of great artists (and Janusprof's direct advice), I'm going to steal it.  

See, I did learn something!

There are a lot of aspiring writers in the world. I don't mean that like there are a lot of doctors or a lot of redheads. I mean there are so many aspiring writers that they make legions look like cozy get togethers, and it is entirely possible that if they could all somehow be gathered together, armed, and trained, that they would be so numerous as to make getting involved in a land war in Asia lose its spot as the most famous classic blunder (to be immediately replaced by going up against a Sicilian when death is on the line).  

Go ahead.  

Look around.

Maybe you'll notice a couple here and there...

Everyone wants to be a writer. The girl who did really well in English class in high school.  The guy who liked to tell stories to his friends.  The gal who thinks her troubled teens are a story that everyone would be interested in because she got drunk a lot, tried heroin, and had a couple of threesomes.  The guy who sees writing books as a more "realistic" way into Hollywood and the director's chair than being a screenwriter.  The woman who won a short story contest back in college. Everyone in the world thinks their memoirs will coast right to the bestseller list even if they never did anything more exciting than manage Denny's through the post-World Series rush with a broken frier. Every single person who ever thought, "holy fucking archbishop balls, this thing I just thought of would make a good story," is probably harboring the fantasy of smithing words and cobbling them together.

And not all aspiring writers are just casually noodling a desultory fantasy either. Dig through all the "aspiring writers," and you'll find many (oh dear GOD, so many) who are taking aspiration to the next level. They burn to be a writer. They want it more than anything. They dream about it. They fantasize. They consider everything they do to be a temporary stop on the road to writerdom. Just as soon as they write that book, they will hit the bestseller list and make it big. Their ship is coming in. Life happens to them while they're busy making all their writerly plans.  

Dig through those dreamers, and you will find another strata. People who think they are writers....even though they don't write. They call themselves writers and are perpetually a single get-off-their-ass moment away from greatness. They tell social networks they're writers, and list "writer" as their job on Facebook.  

Among those, you can find an even higher pretentious strata: those actively pretending to be writers. They network. They market. They meet and greet. They do drinks. They work the writer world like an ex vice president trying to score a speaking gig. They just don't get much writing done--and who could write with a schedule that busy. Oddly enough (or perhaps not really), none of these behaviors really fools anyone unless the person is actually earning their "er" instead of making excuses. They may insist that they are writers, but the world doesn't really agree.

This is a disconnection that isn't found in many arts. People who haven't played an instrument since high school band don't call themselves musicians and dream of the philharmonic. Couch potatoes don't insist they are dancers and dream of Broadway. Aspiring painters don't comparison shop potential galleries and rub elbows with patrons before they've actually painted anything. And while there are plenty of garage bands destined for nothing more than a tragic break up when their first member gets a real job, has a kid, or sleeps with another member's partner they at least dream of grandeur while practicing twice a week. Only aspiring actors even come close to the hope of success-before-work that aspiring writers display so brazenly. So if it helps you put this behavior in perspective, imagine the starry-eyed Iowa farm boy getting off the bus in Hollywood who hasn't done so much as local theater since high school and hopes to be discovered.

That's what most aspiring writers are acting like. And in the writing biz you can't even whip out the kneepads and lobster bib and get empty promises made to you by sleazy a-holes on the casting couch.

I can be such a fucking killjoy, can't I?

I don't want you throw down your pen in dejection and quit the field. I'm telling you this because there are two kinds of motivational messages in this world. There's the motivational messages that business seminars pay top dollar, given by those who publish bestseller after bestseller, and who sell their CD's in a singularly epic display of just how unremarkable it is for people to enjoy (and even pay for) things that make them feel good. And if you want some white, cis, heterosexual, able bodied, upper class, probably Christian, American male to tell you that you can do anything you set your mind to, go for it. I mean they manage not to laugh at the irony as YOU PAY THEM to tell you that if they can get rich off of you, anything is possible. So if you're cool with the idea that you can unlock the secrets of the universe by keeping a day planner and thinking good thoughts, by all means tune out everything but their fluffy brand of rainbow-shooting, unicorn-orgasm positivism.  

It's not all bad, after all. We all need to be reminded that we've let non-priorities slip into our lives once in a while and that figuring out what we actually want to achieve really is the first step in success. And you can walk away from these messages determined to actualize your visualization with a spring in your step.  If you want to think that is all there is to success and get mad at anyone who dares harsh your moti-fucking-vational squee that's your choice. But let me be honest, you're missing at least half the story.

At the motivational tools stores,
we've been making the best motivational tools since 1000 B.C.E.
Get one in your rectum today and unlock your hidden potential!
There's also the well-needed boot in your ass motivation that you ALSO shell out top dollar for–especially when you want actual results. If you hire a personal trainer, they do not tell you that if you imagine a fit body and write down your goals. Fitness will not happen because you will it into being with positive actualization of your will-chi. They do not sell you some CDs or a day planner filled with the motivational quotes of physically fit athletes. They might ask you about your goals for about five minutes, so they can plan how best to get you to your finish line. Then they stick something heavy in your hand and tell you to do something unpleasant in three sets of 10-15. They do this for an hour, and when you think you are about to die, they tell you to come back in a couple of days. And they tell you that if they see you anywhere near a fast food joint, that you'll spend your next session doing an extra set...and five extra reps...with a fifty pound barbell shoved up your ass. And you don't walk out the door with a spring in your step and an uplifted heart so much as you stumble out relieved that you cheated death by ducking today's scythe swipe.

But you see results in five weeks.

I take a lot of crap when I bring out the boot. People don't like the boot. People want to buy the 20 CD set and be told there's nothing they can't do, and that they're awesome, and that there's nothing between them and the fantasy fulfillment but cotton candy clouds, sugarcane fields, unicorn orgies, and maybe some token mention of work that will happen in a power-chord montage and won't ever actually be difficult. No one wants to face the truth about earning their "er." Not if it means telling the Tinkerbell fairies flitting about their fantasy to stop "practice kissing" and get lost so some actual work can happen.

So wait just a second before you go saying: "That Chris is just such a fucking assburger with asspickles and assmustard next to a bed of assfries drenched in assketchup for pointing out that there are a lot of people who want to be writers. How could he do such a thing? Why does he insist on spewing his stupid factually facty facts every time I'm doing my super-duper dream stretching exercises (where I reach for the stars)? Doesn't he have any respect for my artistic ambition?" And wait just a second before you go looking for the validation of the internet that you're totally entitled to have your dreams come true just because they're yours. Wait just a second before you change the channel to the warm fuzzy messages that acknowledge how fragile your crystalline ego can be.  


Yes, I'm the bastage with the boot  headed for your southernmost sphincter at ramming speed. I'm the one who killed your leprechaun on MDMA who was doing the Macarena to Celine Dion's dulcet vocalizations about belief in the heart going on. I'm the one telling you that your desire to be a famous writer is only slightly less common than brown hair.  

But I'm not doing that to make you feel common or make you give up. In fact, I'm here to tell you how to leave all those "aspiring writers" with their fantasy dreams and their actualized artistic visions behind.  I'm telling you how to actually make yourself extraordinary. 

Aspirations are a dime a dozen. In fact, they aren't even a dime a dozen--you can get a fifty pack for a nickel if you're willing to buy them in boxes of a thousand at Costco. You know how many people have a great idea for a book? ALL OF THEM. Every. Single. One. But actually doing something difficult, day in and day out, sets you apart almost instantly from those who only aspire.

The number of fucks the world gives–flying or otherwise–about what you aspire to do is best expressed with a negative integer. If give-a-shit for your aspiration were measured on a scale from the floor to the moon, it would barely clear the fibers of your carpet. (And not even that if you have shag.) If you aspire to scratch your nose, but just talk about how much it itches all goddamned day, people are going to start to treat you like you're a very special caliber of twit, and this is exactly what most aspiring writers do. The only way to distinguish yourself from an ocean of other aspiring writers is to write. Ditch the "aspiring" and earn your "er." Until and unless you execute the verb "to write" you aren't really a writer. 

Maybe you're a dreamer, dreaming of writing.    

Maybe you're a talker, talking about writing.

Maybe you're a networker, networking all the people in the writing world.

Maybe you're a marketer, finding the markets for future work.

Maybe you're a drinker, having drinks with editors, publishers, or other writers.

Maybe you're a performer, performing to an audience.

None of those things is writing. But until and unless you earn your "er" for the verb "to write" before all of these other things, you are not a writer. Stop dreaming about writing, stop talking about writing, stop thinking about writing.....and just write.  

So cry your bitter artist tears that you seem to believe are (to me) the sweet corporeal ambrosia of your silly dreams shattering and will fuel my Genesis immortality device. Get it out of your system. And when you're done wiping those thick runners of snot from your nose, buck up, put on your big kid underpants, and face the fact that unless you want to be just like every other aspiring writer crawling over the Earth like the eleventh plague of Moses, it's time to earn your "er."

And now, we come to the other side of this equation.

If you write...you ARE a writer. And don't let the world tell you otherwise. I don't care if you're a multi-bestseller novelist or an every-other-day updater on Tumblr. If you write, you're a writer. The world can go fuck themselves, and in the final analysis it will be the aspiring writers, not me, who will do their level best to try to tear you down and keep you from proving it's possible to do what they won't. If you're earning your "er," you are a writer. Maybe not published. Maybe not rich. Maybe not even GOOD. Always in need of improvement (for we all are). Foolish if you don't take every opportunity to improve your craft. Foolisher still if you don't read...critically...as often as you can. Likely in need of many more steps before "success" (whatever that means). But you ARE a writer. You have earned your "er." Let the snobs and the dilettantes alike talk about doing what you actually do.  Let them suck your ink spill.

You have earned your "er."

And when you have earned your "er," you are a writer. And no one can tell you otherwise.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Random Creative Writing Terms Beginning With the Letter I

Random terms beginning with H

I

Imagination- Shit you need, yo.  This is one of those parts of creative writing that is very, very hard to teach.  You can master written English. You can learn craft.  You can do exercises to tap into creativity.  But it's almost impossible to teach someone to develop the part of their brain that thinks: "I wonder what would happen if baby dragon zombies attacked inner city Okland and got into a turf war with the local gang..."  Imagination is more of a mode of thought that most people are taught to suppress for most of their lives.    It goes beyond creativity and into realms of pure speculation.  The good news is, it can be improved just by taking it out and playing with it as often as possible (which isn't as dirty as it sounds).  It may be hard to teach, but it is relatively easy to cultivate.

Image-  In writing (and literary analysis) an image is more than just a mental picture.  It is a sensory detail from any of the five senses.  Concrete imagery is an extremely important aspect of good craft.  If you can, get people to spell this word out loud, and then say "lightbulb" as enthusiastically as they can. It's a great trick at parties!

Inciting Incidents-  Sometimes called "trigger events" or even "plot bombs" by those who give fewer fucks--flying or otherwise--about "proper" terminology.  Pixar has just about the best bit of advice regarding these: they should only be used to get characters into trouble--never to get them out of it.  (The latter is called Deus Ex Machina, and is a big writerly no no.)  Good writing has very few inciting incidents and mostly involves character's reactions to the incidents.  Frequently in short stories and often in novels, the inciting incident occurs prior to the action of the story itself.

Invective- An insult.  A highly critical use of language.  It is absolutely intended to be hurtful.  90% of any comments section on the internet.  The way I talk about Harold Bloom.

Irony- A commonly misunderstood aspect of literature and writing since it has multiple meanings that are very different from each other and it doesn't actually just mean any T-shirt that someone finds funny, and it sure as holy flaming ostrich shit isn't "a black fly in your Chardonnay."

Verbal Irony- When the intended meaning is opposite of the literal meaning.  Like when I told you that your My Little Pony tie was "hella" appropriate for the interview you were about to have for senior editor of Maxim magazine, and that I was sure that your resume being in Comic Sans was going to win you points.  This irony is nestled between the lands of satire and sarcasm, and though it shares a thick  ribbon of contested border with each, it needn't be either.

Situational Irony- When an intended result is the opposite of the actual result.  So like, every Wiley Coyote cartoon ever.  Writers who think they are going to make money writing creatively, are often in for some bitter irony.  You see this a lot in speculative fiction with prophecies or predictions where it's the actions of the protagonist that end up causing the event they showed up to try to prevent.  Some h8ers don't consider this irony.  H8ers gonna h8.

Tragic Irony- This is a varient of situational irony in which the tragedy of the situation is well known.  Greek plays often have no complication or ambiguity of outcome.  They are a 90 minute train wreck towards an inevitable conclusion.  So if any truly asshole characters in any Sophocles play (ever) says "we can deal with this tomorrow," it's tragic irony because they'll be extra dead with dead sauce by then.

Dramatic Irony- The disparity of a character reaction when they do not have information which the audience does.  Like if the audience knows that the eyeball thief is hiding in the shadows next to someone and they say "See you tomorrow!" that is totally dramatic irony--in addition to being a death squad worthy pun.  Pretty much everything Shakespeare ever wrote relied heavily on dramatic irony.

Cosmic Irony- The difference between what a person wants and what the universe will provide.  Summed up succinctly by the philosopher McJagger when he said "You can't always get what you want."  It is also the difference between an expected outcome and the real outcome, though often this is simply improbable or unfortunate and not so much ironic.  This is the most bitterly disputed of all the ironies, and the question of it even being irony is debated with human-like fervor for labels.  Which is...well, somewhat ironic.  And that is also ironic.

Ivory Tower- Where intellectuals go to pat each other on the backs when they become so fantastically educated that no one who actually lives in the world can even understand what the fuck they're saying anymore.  The ivory tower is a metaphor for how high and cloistered they are, but we must also remember that there's a reason they chose a giant white phallic symbol in an institution primarily of white males and certainly of their institutional power.  The ivory tower has a lot to do with ego. While education is awesome to the point of absurdity, it must be tempered with pragmatism to be of any use to anyone who doesn't just want to hop into the academic circle jerk and become a professor who wears fuzzy sweaters and thinks everything is "terribly interesting."  The cloistered echoes of increasingly esoteric ideas that through the halls of the ivory tower can be--to use their verbiage--"problematic."  In creative writing MFA (and now PhD) writing programs this effect is magnified, as an increasing scrutiny is given to absolutely inaccessible authors, accessible authors are increasingly disdained, and the entire set up of the MFA program resembles a pyramid scheme.  (And even if it isn't, just the fact that such a comparison can be drawn is....."problematic.") One author after another that lit snobs and critics hated in their day gets canonized and the ivory tower just scratches its head and wonders why the writers the plebs find delightful keep being canonized.  This despite the Ivory Tower's incredibly well supported theses for what people ought to (and ought not to) enjoy is something they find very..."problematic."


Creative Writing Terms Beginning With the Letter J

Friday, November 23, 2012

Mailbox- Giving Thanks and the Oxford Comma

Family is awesome. For realsies.
Do I realize how lucky I am to be a househusband so that I can stay home and write? What is my opinion on the Oxford comma?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Friday as long as I have enough to do.  (If not, I'll stockpile questions until I do, and do something else in the interim Fridays.)  Until/unless I have more questions than I can handle, I'll answer anything that has anything to do with writing.]  

Anonymous Writes: 

I read that you are a househusband and that gives you the opportunity to write.  Some of us aren't this blessed in our lives and writing every day isn't so easy as it is for you.  Do you realize how good you've got it?

There are a few answers to this question, and I'll start with the most knee-jerk defensive and work my way to the most appropriate.

First of all, I should point out that I work 35+ hours a week on house cleaning, 15 hours a week as a supplemental instructor at a community college for spending money, and another 30+ hours a week on this blog, currently for less pay than your average sweatshop worker, to which I add various other writing and reading.  So depending on whether you consider writing "real work" or not (and if you don't....I hate you), I work somewhere between 70 and 85+ hours a week.

I'm not exactly a gentleman of leisure.

Secondly, you probably want to check your assumptions about how idyllic my domestic life is.   There's a reason there's a tired cliche about the husband who thinks his wife just sits around watching soaps, and there's a reason that the cliche housewives who hear that from their cliche husbands usually feel under appreciated, get pissed, and ask if he'd like to give it a try.  Then something about conveyor belts of chocolate and an explosion of rice....or something.  I live with two other people, and I do 90% of the cleaning.  I clean an average of 30 hours a week.  I clean dishes, polish hardwood floors, do some shopping, vacuum, take care of four cats, and usually do it all again the next day.  And on a good week the place doesn't look TERRIBLE.  Back when we used to audit with hours and wages and stuff to make sure no one was getting taken advantage of, it was clear that I was more than paying for my room, board, and medical insurance, even if my imaginary wage was on the very low end of housekeeper pay.  I was making enough over what I cost that the occasional dental emergency or computer disaster would be covered--which is good for me because I have a strange and horrible habit of slamming my face, teeth first, into my hard drive.  These days we dont audit with a calculator, but I still keep track of how much time I spend cleaning, so we have a rough idea where the balance goes.  So it's not really like I'm being "kept" or taken care of or anything.  I have to carve out the time I spend writing, and there are days I'd much prefer to be shooting deathclaws in Fallout: New Vegas.

Third, while I don't think every opportunity will afford itself to every person, those who prioritize writing within their lives will find ways to create time and space for what is important to them.  For people who have a career and kids, I'm sure it is much harder to find time to write.  I don't think it is so impossible that it can't be done, but it certainly will be more challenging.  I have made a lot of decisions consciously and directly with writing in mind.  At first it seemed like I was being foolish about my future, but as more and more aspiring writers have laid down their pens when their careers took off or the kids came along, I have discovered that my choices have made a big difference in my resiliency.  I don't have a car.  I don't own a house.  I don't have children.  I've quit "real jobs."  I've turned down promotions.  I make very little money.  I go to bookstores and look longingly at the shelves and wonder how good my overdraft protection is.  I consider each meal I eat out.  I mull any purchase of over a couple hundred dollars for weeks.  Each life decision is weighed not against creature comforts, status, wealth, what the Joneses have, what will pimp my ride, or the American Dream, but against writing and the time to do so.

A lot more people could find more time in their lives for writing if they were willing to make sacrifices.  They wouldn't even have to sell their kids, ship their spouse to Guam, or quit their job to become a hobo, but even playing fewer video games, watching less TV, or writing through a lunchbreak is anathema to most people.  Most people LOVE writing....but not that much.   Or they want to be a writer "so bad it hurts"....but not so much they "lose their head" over it.  It takes a special kind of wank to prioritize writing over family or career.  So before you envy my writing time, ask yourself if you would be equally comfortable pushing middle age but renting a room, having a part time job, and having to ask people you might want to date if they can pick you up from the BART.  (I've missed out on enough opportunities to get laid that I'm all too well aware of how conscious my choices have been.)  Ask yourself even if you'd be willing to give up Breaking Bad or Walking Dead or Facebook time or an hour of sleep.

Time is a limited resource, and most people's lives reflect their priorities more accurately than they might be comfortable with because they involve hundreds--even thousands of decisions.  I find most people envious of my writing time would only actually have time to write themselves if they also possessed a Hermione time watch, and that is less about not having time and more about not having priorities.  If you have priorities, the time will come naturally.  You may not find yourself as the roommate of two high paid career chasers who hate housework, but if your choices always reflect that writing is your highest priority (or very high), doors will open.  It may mean decisions our society deems "inappropriate" (like being a grown man who still rents a room or marrying for money or something) but if you want to be a writer, you better get ready to be the pariah anyway.  Might as well start early.

Lastly, yes.  I am grateful.  I am intensely grateful about my family.  They are amazing and wonderful and supportive and some of the awesomest peeps in all of peepdom.  When I do "30 Days of Thanksgiving" it's really easy because it's just "My Family" thirty times.  Even though the math works out and no one is giving anyone a free ride, I have a commute that involves walking "down the stairs."  I can work a whole day in my pajamas.  I set my own hours (as long as they are enough).  I have a really good situation for the sorts of things I get meaning from out of life, and I never forget how epic that opportunity is as well as the people who have made it possible.


M Writes:

What is your opinion of the Oxford comma in prose.

My opinion of most contested grammar or grammar in flux is to learn the reasoning for both sides, and make an informed decision, and then stick with it. If you approach that shit like there's a right side, you're going to spend more time than you ever thought possible arguing with other pedants.  If you aren't consistent, it looks like you don't really know or care about the rule.

The reason people leave it out is valid.  Languages are living things that evolve, and one of the current trends in English towards minimalism and removing extraneous punctuation. Fighting for language to never change is not only futile, but it also makes it more difficult for you to actually communicate, not less.

Do people use "moot" wrong? Yep. Does "begging the question" mean something totally different from raising the question? Yep. Does "the prodigal son" have nothing to do with a prodigy and is actually kind of an insult? Yep. And it's good for a writer to know that. But it's also good for a writer to know how people actually write.

The problem with that "my way's right" is two-fold.

1) There is no demarcation line in which linguistic drift changes from "a mistake" to "well of course that's not right." If you've read Chaucer, chances are you've actually read a translation--but that used to be English. (And let me tell you, I lament the lack of "nether yeya" in bedroom talk.)  Nice used to mean simple and stupid. Artificial used to be a good thing. Even the prescriptivist "battles" are subject to the currents and eddies of what is chic to care about.  For centuries no one worried about using "literally" or "decimate" in the ways that are today considered uninformed. No one can tell you exactly at what point a change is valid (100 years?, 1942?, whatever I learned in high school even though that was thirty years ago?) and usually it's pretty much whatever they say goes. Do I even need to tell you how obnoxious that is?

2) The current score is Descriptivists: 9,789,244,234,976  Prescriptivists: 0 No one cares how people "ought" to use language. They use it the way people around them do. And while there are a few people who know what's right, they aren't enough to stop linguistic drift. Ever.

Language changes. Get over it.

All that said, let me also say this. Gatekeepers are pedants. Get over it.

Commas cause readers to pause, even if they are not reading out loud, and the smooth flow of a turn of phrase may feel better without.  Prose rhythm is extremely important to some writers and punctuation feels like it undermines the sleek elegance of a sentence, so they use as little as possible.  While they are almost always appropriate in expository writing, prose is an art form where the grammar should serve the meaning.

However, if you are soliciting my personal opinion, I use it. It will never cause confusion to be there. It will only cause confusion if it should be there but it isn't. It can't hurt you; it can only help you.

It also slows a reader down to consider if you meant the last items separately or as a unit, so unless you intend to be directly messing with the language or enjoying a delightful ambiguity, it's possible you just pulled a reader out of your story to think about what your grammar meant--probably the opposite of what you want--at least most of the time.

Plus if you submit, there's a chance you may find a gatekeeper who thinks you don't know the rule and made an error. (Or worse, you find a gatekeeper who DOES understand the current debate, but is an intractable pro-Oxford monkey warrior to the point of a negative bias against all those who take it out. And yes, they exist!) There is almost no chance that a gatekeeper will care equally if the comma is there in a situation where it's possible to remove it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving to the Readers of W.A.W.


The Buffy The Vampire Slayer gang (and me) hope that tomorrow you have a happy ritual sacrifice....with pie.  Commemorate that past event by killing and eating an animal!  Also, stuffing.

And if you happen to be from a country where your progenitors didn't get saved from starvation by people they subsequently exterminated, have a happy Thursday!  I'm sure you can find some other atrocity as a pretense for having cranberry sauce.

Writing About Writing will be back to its regular schedule on Friday.



Don't forget to vote in November's Poll about the BEST SciFi/Fantasy series.  The poll is DOWN AND ON THE LEFT...just below the "Who Wrote This" blurb.  Currently Dragonriders of Pern and Harry Potter are tied for the lead.

I mean, are you just going to let this stand?

Well, are you?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Inspirational Youtubes about Writing

We're still cleaning up genocidal cephalopod guts here at Writing About Writing, and we'll be back on Friday with lots of good stuff, and many interesting changes.










Friday, November 16, 2012

In Lieu of Content--Funny Videos!

Writing About Writing is currently enjoying a week off as we clean up an epic mess left in the wake of a horrific battle.  We will return to our regularly scheduled operation on the 23rd.  In the meantime, enjoy some hilarious and relevant writing movies.




Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cephalopods Attack! An Impromptu Hiatus.

We really suck at this genocide thing.
Really.
Why is Writing About Writing taking a week off?

Genocidal cephalopods, attempting to flank the army of pLink clones, have moved into the W.A.W. compound.  They didn't do a very good job as a major force of pLink clones are guarding the dimensional weak spot.  Mostly the fighting just moved into the W.A.W. compound within our dimension as a small force of them ran amok.  Mostly what THAT means is that it's a huge mess.  Bigger than even the janitor, Michael Dukakis, can handle.  We're all going to have to roll up our sleeves and dig out chunks of tentacles and goopy alien blood and stuff.

On the plus side, we beat them back.  This may have had entirely to do with the fact that in their zeal to kill pretentiousness, they tried to go down into the basement to kill my evil clone and stop his effort to "win" NaNoWriMo.  Evil Chris has set up a labyrinth of hidden doors and secret passages down there and was able to keep leading them straight into pLink ambushes.  Evil Chris recently stole Research and Development's "Door Revealer Gun" after pretending to be me and getting them to instal a reverse switch on it, so he can make almost any door down there look like it's just a regular wall.  He pretty much ran them in circles and let the pLinks pick them off a few at a time.

He's kind of clever really.  I mean that in an entirely me-deprecating way.

W.A.W. is going to need a little bit of time to recover from this travesty.  Halls are filled with corpses, office furniture is smashed to kindling.  My computer got some goop on the monitor that I might have to wipe off with a towel or something.  Of course this has NOTHING to do with the approaching holiday and the fact that I haven't had a real vacation, or usually even a two-day weekend in the nine months since W.A.W. started.  It's all about cephalopods.  Really.

We'll be taking a one week vacation from today.  Everything will come back online the Friday after Thanksgiving.  Our two guest bloggers (Guy Goodman and Leela Bruce) will be given the option to put their segments up after the break or just take the month off.  

However, in the cold and dark silence of next week, if you stop and consider how much you miss W.A.W. and how much joy and entertainment it brings to your life, please consider one of the few ways in which you can help W.A.W. continue to maintain an active and robust posting schedule.  (W.A.W. will continue no matter what its financial viability, but the ability for W.A.W. to scrape out a reasonable level of compensation [currently 10 cents a day] for its writer may affect the posting schedule in the long run.)  You will never have to pay a dime for any content on Writing About Writing, but every six weeks I will mention how you can help...should you be so inclined.

Don't forget that 10% of our budget will always go to a local children's literacy charity, and another 10% will always go towards improving the blog itself.  Our Financial Pledge is at the bottom of this page.  (Or up at the top of *this* one.)

1- Buttons.  Lots of Buttons!  Say that in your best Neo voice for maximum effect.   +1's, "Likes" or "shares" (especially on Stumbleupon) help me tremendously.  I don't know the exact formula, but I make about a penny every fifty pageviews or so.  You might think the effect of a single "+1," "Like," "Upvote," or "Share" is negligible, but I can assure you that with numbers as modest as ours, every button pressed makes a BIG difference at this point.  W.A.W. is picking up momentum slowly, but it has done so almost exclusively through social media and your help--both sharing beyond my own friends circles and improving my place in Google search results.  A single button push will help more than you might think.  And if you're feeling especially helpful you can dig up an old favorite and push some buttons there.  

2- Turn Off Your Ad Block.  Most people with Chrome or Firefox have an Adblock on.  You can turn it off just for Writing About Writing.  The ads will mostly be relevant to W.A.W.'s interests--scifi/fantasy novels, writing programs (online, seminars, and MFA's), grammar checking programs, etc....   I want to make it clear that I am not asking for anyone to actually click these ads until/unless you find something that you are genuinely interested in.  Blind clicking the ads can get me into trouble.  However if you turn off your Adblock you may see something you're interested in.  And if you don't, you can cheerfully ignore them.  I promise Blogger won't be doing any pop-ups or aggressive ads. (It's against their policy to have such an ad.)

3- Donate  If you'd rather make a more direct contribution to Writing About Writing and our future ability to bring regular updates, W.A.W. is always accepting donations.  As you can see from our modest numbers (like ten cents a day), even a small donation is a huge deal.  A couple of dollars would be three week's pay around here.  Just stuff a dollar or two into the conspicuously placed tip jar up at the top left.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Writing Prompts--Significant Detail

Given yesterday's attention to significant detail, I thought I would come up with a couple of writing prompts designed specifically to help bring attention to that element.

Don't forget to have fun with these writing prompts. 

1- For the first prompt, you're going to need three people you know very well--either real people or characters.  Two of them need to be very different from each other.  Set those two aside for a moment and consider the third.  Create a list of concrete imagery about this person including an outfit they might be normally wearing.  Try to avoid mentalities and stick to physical characteristics although well described physical mannerisms are okay.  (In other words, don't say "She has OCD" but instead describe how she's always clacking long nails against hard surfaces, for example.)  Make as extensive a list as you can.  Describe clothing, hair, features, behavioral ticks.  Remember this is just a list, so you don't have to write out a long description or complete sentences.

Now....take your list, and consider the other two people you picked who are very different from each other.  Assign one of them an X symbol and one of them an O symbol.  Go through your list and imagine which of the characteristics each of the other two people would think was significant.  (For example, I am not likely to notice someone's hair color unless it is neon [or I am in "writer mode'], but I will read a T-shirt from twenty feet away.)  Don't just think what would this person see or even necessarily notice, but what they would think was important.  One person might pay a lot of attention to a designer handbag.  The other might be more interested in physical beauty.  Come up with a few details that each person would notice.


2- Imagine a crowded scene and a character at the center of it.  It could be a restaurant or a bus station or a party or a rave.  Now, have the character look around the scene.  Give the character an emotional reaction to the scene around them.  Maybe they are turned on by the sexual energy of a rave or intimidated by the social mores of a fine restaurant.  Have them look around the room and see things around them.  Use significant detail in what they notice to make it obvious what their emotional state is without stating it.  Again...you may not state their emotional state or directly reveal their thoughts.  You are instead limited to revealing their emotions only through what they find important and significant in the scene around them. 


3- Think of a place you visit very regularly.  Now imagine that a complete stranger has come to this place.  What will they think is important here?  What is prominent?  What stands out?  (For example, if someone walked into my house, the first thing they are likely to notice is that I have an overflowing bookshelf of board games.)  What will they notice almost immediately?  Remember, they are a complete stranger, so they will take nothing for granted and may not even know what certain things are or what they do.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Significant Detail

Concrete imagery is important to ground writing against abstraction, but too much concrete imagery can turn your writing into technical schematics.

How can a writer know what is a delicious sense detail that grounds the reader in the moment and what is just way too much that makes the reader skip pages while thinking, "Damn you, Anne Rice!  Damn you and your twenty page description of a house that will be burning down in four more chapters without the layout and curtain rug scheme ever having been important! Why do you hate us?!?"

A writer trying to render a moment or a room or a character or anything must not simply gush an endless spew of concrete imagery or their readers will cast about for incendiary weaponry and hunt them down.  Yes, they must render their subject with lush details from each of the five senses.  But they must also decide which details are important.  In fact if concrete imagery is the lifesblood of good writing, significant detail is the beating heart--controlling the flow of that imagery so that all the other bits aren't just free floating in a pool of detaily blood.

That was a cooler metaphor in my head.

Significant details are important.  Insignificant details are BORING.  It's hard to explain how boring they are in terms one can understand, but if you've seen Stephen Spielberg's A.I., it may help.  Insignificant detail is somewhere between 37 and 59 A.I.s worth of boring.  One of the first--and most painful--lessons that many writers need to learn is that they need to let go and trust their readers to fill in the gaps and not be so worried they're going to get a perfect vision "wrong."  If you describe a person, an office, a kitchen, anything, you can give a few details that are important, and trust your reader to fill in the rest.

Consider this description of a person:  John was six foot, three inches.  He weighed two hundred and fifteen fifty pounds and had a BMI of twelve.  John was 26 years old but had a face that appeared six to ten years younger and wore his brown hair in a short crop cut.  He has green eyes that he used to look at most people for no less than three to five seconds when he talked to them.  He wore a maroon tie that went with the thin vertical stripes on his button up shirt.  His black slacks were a poly blend.  His socks were brown.  His loafers were black and cost him three hundred dollars at Nordstroms.  

Yawn!  Unless you are a cop trying to I.D. a suspect, you are probably falling asleep just from that paragraph.  I'm pretty sure most cops would fall asleep too, but they know how to sleep with their eyes open, so it would be harder to tell.  Yes it is an accurate description and one with a lot of concrete imagery, but it doesn't show the reader the difference between a detail that is important and one that is just superfluous.

Now consider this "identical" description of John: John towered over most people, and donned a power tie and pricey designer shoes even to go grocery shopping.  He cropped his hair close, worked out constantly, and worked on his steely gaze with everyone he met.  But perhaps because of his boyish face or perhaps because his socks didn't match his pants, he never could quite get taken seriously.

See how I threw some details out?  (Don't need them.)  And most others were worked into a description that actually tells us more about John than the first paragraph even though they are less technical.  The details I chose were significant to John's description as a person trying to be taken seriously but failing.

A fiction writer needs to be able to lie.  Granted the good writers are lying to tell the truth, but unless you're writing non-fiction, lying is just sort of a prerequisite.  In fact, most writers are wicked good liars if they want to be, and it's just a pretty good thing that most writers are also moral enough to know they have a duty to the truth.  But the key to a good lie is in the details. Think about how you make an assertion when you lie.  You tell your boss a nasty symptom when you call in sick--that's a detail.  You explain the visceral events you witnessed of the horrible accident that happened to make you late to pick up your partner (even though you were just playing World of Warcraft and didn't want to leave the instance--that's a detail.  You explain three fake mistakes the bank teller made to support your lie that the bank must have screwed up your deposit when the truth is you didn't even go to the bank--that's three details.

But a really good lie has a tiny perfect detail like: "I remember thinking the teller was screwing up but there was this mean looking Asian woman behind me who kept glaring at me and fiddling with her queen head brooch like she was daring me to take longer, and I really didn't want to make a fuss."  Notice I didn't include the color of the counters or the height of the teller or any of a million details.  Why would I remember any of that stuff.  But someone fingering a brooch while they glare--that seems like just the sort of thing that would slam dunk a lie or a story you truth teller writer, you.


Look around the room (or area) you're in.  Not to put too fine a point on it but you could probably write a book about this room.  The textures, colors, shapes, lengths, heights, weights, the fonts of anything with writing on it....  It would take you pages and pages to get every detail.  And if you ever did write such a book, people would hunt you down with high powered rifles for the good of all humanity.  But take another look.  What's important around you.  What defines the area.  I'm in a room with a half a zillion details, but the important ones are a chocolate brown couch, an eyesore computer on a regular table that cramps up half the room, two DVD racks that are both totally full of DVDs, teal walls that Supportive Girlfriend painted herself, a leafy rug that matches the wall and the couch resting over the hardwood floors, and a huge flatscreen TV with a Wii underneath it.  Any more detail about this room, and I'm going to lose a reader.  But with those details I can give you a sense of the contrast in this room between tasteful decor and technology.  But I didn't tell you about the lamp or the curtains, I didn't mention the floorboards.  You don't know where the TV is in the room or that a DVD player under the Wii.  I didn't mention the mirror, the decorative plates, or the painting.  Those details exist, along with a million others that don't add anything to the flavor of the room.

There are a few major ways to approach significant detail.  I'll write them into their own articles eventually (cause this one is getting a bit long), but for now let me just list them and say a bit about them.

Significant detail as characterization through point of view.  If your narrative voice works through a focalizer--either because it is first person or because it is a close third, the significant details should be those that the character would notice.  This is a good way to reveal what things the character cares about enough to notice.  George R.R. Martin is very good at this.  In The Song of Ice and Fire, one character is intensely interested in clothes.  Another couldn't care less about clothes but notices all the food. A third character is interested most in the emotions of others, and yet another character pays close attention to who is armed and what they are armed with. This not only describes the world in concrete imagery, but also says something about the mindset the characters through which the perspective is reached.

Significant detail as characterization through stand out features.  If your narrative voice isn't through a focalizer (for whatever reason) or when you're characterizing someone, you can use significant details to help characterize them.  A guy with a pony tail, a tie-dye shirt, and sandals has an almost immediate characterization.  There may be delightfully stereotype-transcending revelations about this character, but on the surface, things are pretty clear.  You can get the idea of who this person is and how they come across without me describing their every single fabric of clothing and feature, height, weight, or anything.  This effect took me only twelve words.

Significant detail by theme.  Some of the details you might pick out to describe will be symbols or may echo your theme.  You might describe a steeple covered with bird droppings in a story about religious corruption, or the hallway full of doors in a story about having no good choices but too many bad ones.  Steinbeck is a master at this (and someone almost everyone has read).  His intense descriptions of setting, especially at the beginning of a chapter, almost always echo the conflicts going on within the story.  He describes in detail the line between light and darkness from a lamp when the lines between good people and evil people begins to become clear.

One of the reasons revision is so important is that the first time a writer writes something, they may not know what's going to be significant.  Only as themes and characterizations are teased out in later drafts will these aspects reveal themselves.

I can't tell each writer what style to embrace in their own writing.  Some have the lush and languid descriptions of Umberto Eco and others the sparsest details of Carver's minimalism.  But whatever your style, your details should be significant, and thinking that endless gluts of ponderous details makes for good writing without understanding what is significant can lead to some very, very boring prose.

What I can tell you that current literary trends--both the unsung heroes of the "high art" world and "what's selling today"--tend to be focused on two things:

1- Less is more.  If you don't have a reason for lots of detail, use less. If you aren't sure if a detail is significant or insignificant, you should assume it's insignificant.

2- Modern literature emphasizes the development of character over plot (even more than a generation ago), so having your significant details characterize is always a good choice.


Writing Prompts that are good for Significant Detail:

Writing Prompts-Significant Detail 
Get into the head of your character (especially the third prompt).
Writing as a Child