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

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Awesome Quotations from July-Dec 2012

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.
Maya Angelou

Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.
Douglas Adams

The person who has it in his mind that he will write to engineer better human beings is a despot before he writes the first line.
Richard Bausch

Until recently, I was an ebook sceptic, see; one of those people who harrumphs about the “physical pleasure of turning actual pages” and how ebook will “never replace the real thing”. Then I was given a Kindle as a present. That shut me up. Stock complaints about the inherent pleasure of ye olde format are bandied about whenever some new upstart invention comes along. Each moan is nothing more than a little foetus of nostalgia jerking in your gut. First they said CDs were no match for vinyl. Then they said MP3s were no match for CDs. Now they say streaming music services are no match for MP3s. They’re only happy looking in the rear-view mirror.
Charlie Brooker

Do you think it's possible to discuss politics without preaching?
Steven Brust

You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.
Octavia Butler

It's a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money.
Albert Camus

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and Determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “Press On” has solved and will always solve the problems of the human race.
Calvin Coolidge

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

No grand idea was ever born in a conference, but a lot of foolish ideas have died there.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat; the redeeming things are not happiness and pleasure but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

What'll we do with ourselves this afternoon? And the day after that, and the next thirty years?
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

The person who deserves most pity is a lonesome one on a rainy day who doesn't know how to read.
Benjamin Franklin

Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.
Stephen Fry

A well-composed book is a magic carpet on which we are wafted to a world that we cannot enter in any other way
Caroline Gordon

I don't want to force my politics on my readers.
John Grisham

Loafing is the most productive part of a writer's life.
James Norman Hall

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector.  This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it.
Ernest Hemingway

The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.
Samuel Johnson

I try not to spend too much time on partisan politics. Life's too short for that. I don't really believe that there have been many human problems solved by politics.
Dean Koontz

The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one's country deep enough to call her to a higher plain.
George McGovern

Writers don't make any money at all. We make about a dollar. It is terrible. But then again we don't work either. We sit around in our underwear until noon then go downstairs and make coffee, fry some eggs, read the paper, read part of a book, smell the book, wonder if perhaps we ourselves should work on our book, smell the book again, throw the book across the room because we are quite jealous that any other person wrote a book, feel terribly guilty about throwing the schmuck's book across the room because we secretly wonder if God in heaven noticed our evil jealousy, or worse, our laziness. We then lie across the couch facedown and mumble to God to forgive us because we are secretly afraid He is going to dry up all our words because we envied another man's stupid words. And for this, as I said, we are paid a dollar. We are worth so much more
Donald Miller

Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.
George Bernard Shaw

The lack of money is the root of all evil.
Mark Twain

Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.
Mark Twain

Books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time
Edwin Whipple

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Writer is Sick

I really did try to write an entry today. But then I realized it was making about as much sense as a Michael Bay movie. I am apparently in one of those horrible states where I'm too sick to really write coherently. It might be a shitty first draft day, but it is not a something-that-people-will-read day.

Seems like The Brain, who went with Uberdude to fight crime for a few days in India, may have brought back some Indian flu or something.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Write. Write Like the Wind! (Thursday's Three)

A few quotes on theme for Monday's article.

You might be able to detect a theme here...


If you wish to be a writer; write!
Epictetus

A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit.
Richard Bach

If you want to be a writer, write.
Neil Gaiman


See the last is a totally different quote because it uses a comma instead of a semi-colon. Or maybe since that is one of the only things writers actually agree on, you might take it to the bank. Maybe.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Random Creative Writing Terms Beginning With The Letter A

Act- A major division in a play. Many plays are further broken into scenes. Also what most people are doing when they pretend to be writers down at the local coffee shop.

Action Thriller- A sub-genre of thriller where the pacing of a story is characterized by continuous and rapid high tension events. What The Scarlet Letter really should have been.

Active Voice- Where the subject performs the action of the verb. This voice should be the one written in. Unless a very good reason is had not to. Or you're Herman Melville.

Agent- An elusive creature who often lives in a cave. Many of them do not understand technology from after 1980 and continue to demand submissions follow conventions of a time before it was even possible to easily make COPIES of something. In theory they try to sell a writer's work and guide their career towards appropriate venues and good matches, but in reality they do as much as they can to avoid writers, erecting barriers between themselves and writers like a Turret Defense Game.

Allusion- A reference, without explanation, to a prior work, historical event, or historical person. Typically the subject of an allusion should be well known to avoid confusion, but if someone doesn't understand a Star Trek or Firefly reference, that's really their problem for not being cool enough.

Article- A short, non-fiction work which often forms one part of a larger publication (newspaper, magazine, blog). Also, the part of English grammar that drives second language learners from Asia to drink.

Creative Writing Terms Beginning With the Letter B

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Guy Goodman St.White Reviews The Illiad--Genre Crap


If you thought a demi-god raging in a way only the gods can is unrealistic, wait until you see what happens next....

Good evening. I'm Guy Goodman St.White, and I am your terribly British sounding host. Today we shall hearken back to the ancient Greeks, as they are the progenitors of so much of our philosophical thought, and examine The Illiad. Unlike your cheeseburger or that cool special effect, The Illiad actually is "epic." Traditionally thought to be written by Homer, The Illiad roughly chronicles a few weeks in the last year of the Trojan war.

I could tell I was in trouble by the first line. The "wrath" or "rage" spoken of is a word reserved for the gods, and far from mere hyperbole, the Illiad takes a speculative turn into genre-ville right away. The non-stop meddling by supernatural forces--in this case the gods--brings almost an entire new dimension to the concept of Desu Ex Machina. Every two or three pages some "god" is butting in and changing the outcome. The whole thing turns into a ghastly speculative fiction goulash by the end of the first page.

I wish I could blame Homer for his descent from real literature worth reading into the dregs of genre. A battlefield is such a ripe time for confronting duty vs. desire, the morality of war, and the human condition. He *ALMOST* got somewhere interesting with the end conversation between Priam and Achilles. Sadly, that's probably the best we can hope for from these Greeks with their hero worship, and their need to have a god for everything, so instead we face down a melange of supernatural forces vying to affect the protagonists with a series of completely implausible direct interventions. It takes a seriously supernatural pile of rubbish to make Beowulf look positively banal by comparison.

Please join me next week right here on Writing about Writing for our next installment of Speculative Fiction Sucks Balls (And Not in the Good Way.) Good night.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing Part-6

Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3, Part 4 , Part 5

Earning the "ER"

"Isn't this the same story you're using in your other class?" I ask.

Willbehuge looks at me and nods. "Yeah bro," he says. "Actually it's something I used in a bunch of my classes last semester too."

"Nothing new to turn in?" I ask.

"Nah I don't like writing the stuff they want us to write," Willbehuge says. "I have about three or four stories I wrote as my first year. One of them usually fits the prompt."

"So you write your own stuff?"

"Yeah. I've got this novel at home. It's about vampires being humanities savior against the zombie apocalypse."

"That sounds neat," I say. "How's that coming?"

"Well it's mostly in my head right now, but the wheels are turning. I'm always, like, thinking of things I can add to it."

"So what are you actually writing?"

"Well...I don't do very much writing. I don't have much time..."

So writing is a process, and so far all we've talked about is the part that happens before the actual writing, but I want to say one thing that needs to be said.

Writers write.

You might be thinking to yourself that there's no way I could have possibly had a conversation like the one above in a Creative Writing program. Holy flaming cow testicles on toast do I wish that were the case. In fact, I had almost exactly this conversation, with a few minor variations, no less that five times. I noticed a LOT of my fellow classmates were "double dipping" with their assignments. (Turning in the same thing across multiple classes even though the assignment was to generate something new.) When I asked them about it, most of them said some variation on this theme. It's almost like they thought writing didn't involve much more than thinking about writing. Like they would wake up one morning and just casually splat out the novel in their brain if they only thought about it enough.

The halls of creative writing programs and the legions of would-be-writers have so many among them that think about stories, imagine being writers, and picture their Leno interview before they ever really sit down and write. At best you'll discover that they write for a few hours a week when they have to for school or when the mood strikes them. They've been noodling on that one story for nearly a decade. One of the reasons for so long I never called myself a writer was because I was standing in a sea of such people and I was painfully aware of how pretentious it sounded. I was among a group of people who were usually saying things like "When I'm a best selling author..." or "Once I make it..." and I didn't want to be lumped in with them.

It might seem like the stupidest, most inane, most obvious thing I could possibly say about what writing means, but if you take the time to start talking to people who want to be writers or identify as writers, you will come to a rather shocking conclusion: most of them don't actually write very much. They kind of think they're going to sit around and think about writing and that will cut it. ("Hey, Willbehuge? This is Leno. Listen, I know you haven't actually written anything, but I heard you've got some great ideas in your head that are like Firefly/Dawn of the Dead crossovers, and I simply MUST have you on the show.") So even though it should go without saying, at some point when we talk about writing, we are talking about the actual physical act of doing it.

Eventually, at some point, with pen, pencil, typewriter, word processor, voice recognition technology, chalk on sidewalk, or chisel on wall you have to actually write.

I had an instructor that called this "earning your ER". If you want to be a "writer" you have to write to earn the "er." But today I'm not even talking about the thousands of hours a writer puts in that don't ever even see a peer review let alone submission. I'm not talking about the endless hours spent clacking (or scribbling) away that probably won't ever see the light of day. I'm just talking about how that is part of the writing process.

For many writers struggling to find success, the problem is they simply write--without any regard for the other parts of the process, and they sort of expect the flotsam and jetsam of their brains to be spun into gold because they rock fucking hard it hurts. But for many other writers, and the obstacle they are actually dealing with in the writing process is the writing itself. There are a lot of reasons "writers" don't write, but many of them involve not respecting the process. One of the most paralyzing effects can be expecting the first words out to be good. They won't be. Anne Lamott refers to these first efforts with eloquence and beauty: shitty first drafts. Don't be afraid to write them. Ironically the inability to write comes most often from the unwillingness to revise extensively--which is the next part of the process. [And which I will write about next week.]

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Writing Prompts--Fast and Random

Random enough for ya?
Trying to get to my writing group this afternoon turned into a zany adventure of being late that culminated in a sit-com-esque moment when texting my partner to let her know that I was running late, I missed my stop on BART. Only a strange looking insurance salesman with a proclivity to share way too much personal information about his gastrointestinal status could have it worse. And the end result was we didn't get writing until a half an hour late. So instead of doing extensive writing on anything we picked we gave ourselves only five minutes of frenzied pace.

Why am I telling you this? Because sometimes some of the most exciting prompts that generate the most interesting ideas can come from having very little time. (This can be true in general about writing--put yourself on a fierce deadline and you will probably surprise yourself.) If you can't sit and think for a long time; you silence the second guessing pretty quickly.  Anyone who's finally gotten their paper topic with two hours to go until it's due knows exactly how this works.

Each of the following prompts is only five minutes. FIVE MINUTES--that's it. Write fast; don't stop; and don't take time to think. See what happens.

Don't forget that these are JUST exercises, and most importantly don't forget to HAVE FUN!!

Prompt 1- Pick a book from around you at random. Go to page 42. The first sentence on that page is the first sentence of your writing prompt. (If it makes absolutely no sense at all, go to the next sentence, but the point of the prompt is to make something out of nothing, so don't just keep looking until you find something you like.)

Prompt 2- Pick one random verb and one random noun. This is a pretty good place to do that if you don't have another way you prefer, but you don't need to use them AS a phrase--just figure out the verb and the noun. Just set one word to noun, one to verb (transitive or intransitive) and leave the others blank. Do this TWICE. These are the ideas you have to marry together in your prompt.

Prompt 3- Here's one from long long ago. Picture a memory. Nothing specific, just the first thing that pops into your head. Could be from last week or your very distant childhood, but don't "switch" memories to something easy to remember. Really do the first one to pop in your head. (Mine was about my fourth or fifth birthday. Close your eyes and try to focus on that image for just a moment or two. When you open your eyes, write about it in as much detail as you possibly can.


Next week: Reporting Progress

In the not-too-distant future --
Next Sunday A.D. --
There was a guy named Chris,
Who you might realize is me.
He wanted to make money with his art,
Just another fool trying to chase his heart.
He also taught English and cleaned up the place,
But his bosses didn't like him
So they shot him into space.

So he wants to be a writer huh?
What a pretentious git (la-la-la).
He'll have to report what he's up to,
And we'll evaluate the worth of it (la-la-la).
Now keep in mind Chris must report
What he writes from beginning to end (la-la-la)
If he really wants to succeed at this
He'll never see his non cat friends.

Kitty Cat Roll Call: (All right, let's go!)
Princess!
Benjaman!
James Bond!
Quiiiiiiiiiin!

If you're wondering if he's really in space,
has no friends and other facts (la la la),
Then repeat to yourself, "It's just a filk,
I should really just relax
For Future Reporting of Writing Progress...um...3000!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

You Can DOOOO EET!!!!!!!

Photo by AmyLovesYah
A lot of people look at writing like it's some mystical process and writers like they're a different species. For years, the pedagogy of creative writing programs across the country was that genius could not be taught. Starting writers worry more about some mythical quality that they hope they have that will transform their dreams into success than they do about how much work it's going to take to get from "here" to "there."

But writing does not need to be mysterious. As a culture we've come to revere the genius rather than acknowledge the simple fact that most artists were relatively normal people who put in a shit ton of effort. Craft can be taught.  Creativity can be cultivated. Discipline can be exercised. And while writers like Shakespeare or Faulkner are certainly wordsmiths of the caliber that we can only admire from far, far below, most writers are just people who work very, very hard, think deeply about their words, and learn to tap into the creativity that we all have within us. They are human beings composed of the same spiraling chords of DNA as the rest of us.

And you can do it too!

The Holy Trinity of Writing Advice--The Only List You Really Need
Earning Your "Er."
Ziglar and Success.  What's Yours?
A Writer's Attitude: 15 Adjustments Toward Success
Using S.M.A.R.T.(S.) Goals in Writing
Progress is Progress
10 Reasons to Write Daily (Accentuate the Positive)
Don't Make it So Damned Hard!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Earn it!


How to break the rules of writing within your writing...and get away with it.

It's not enough to say to a writer "Don't do this unless you have a good reason."

For starters, every writer will always think they have a good reason. They'll think they have a great reason. They'll think, since the dawn of the written word, they are on the top five best reasons ever to break this rule.

This advice is also probably wrong. Or at least wrong-ish. Or at least not absolute.

Every "rule" in writing is breakable.

Despite my philosophical divide with the pedagogy of SFSU, I really did learn quite a bit while I was there. I would probably not know how to torture lit snob professors by pointing out that canon literature is speculative fiction without having that education. At least not as well.

Plus there was a really good sandwich shop there in the cafeteria...

I must learn to intersperse my trash talking with poignant moments of self reflection. For all my quibbles, it was the best thing I ever did both as a writer and as a person. I did what I went there to do--I honed my craft. I wrote what they told me I "ought to be" writing, and avoided what their syllabi said they did not permit (that "evil trixie genre" writing) and I applied the lessons I'd learned to my own writing in secret–but first I locked the door, swept the room for bugs, and swore to them I was writing a short story about a bisexual Jew living in a halfway house who has AID, a meth addiction, and an unsupportive family.

Then I secretly worked on my genre novel.

One of the strengths of learning craft directly from people who have gone before you is that they can direct your efforts in a way that yields a greater return. Great writers can (and have) done nothing more to study craft than to read voraciously, and most writers (especially some of the MFA types) would do well to remember that before the 1950's or so, that (and maybe a mentor) was the ONLY way writers learned to write.

However, for writers like me with more passion than talent or skill, every improvement has been like passing a kidney stone, and the presence of instructors to point things out can help ease that transition.

Professors are like cranberry juice that way.

One of the instructors it was my honor to learn under enjoyed collecting a mental tally of stories that "broke the rules."

There are a lot of rules in writing, and I'm not talking about grammar. Crack open most books on writing, and a deluge of rules comes spilling out: Don't write in second person. Don't be too abstract. Don't write out dialect. Don't TELL people how to feel.  Don't switch point of view in a short story. Write about a short period of time. Don't write in second person. On and on and on. Some of these rules get as specific as "don't write about little kids," "don't write dreams," or "you should never have more than one adverb per page."

And of course there are today's variations. "Vampires are overdone. Stop writing about schools of wizardry. First person is so five minutes ago–use close third. Quit thinking writing in present tense is edgy."

Pretty much...all bullshit.

Not that this advice is useless, and a writer would do well to understand what they're getting into if they write a present tense book about vampire children at a wizard school who dream a lot. But any rule you can dream up has had unimaginably touching and deep fiction that breaks it–probably even canon literature.

Writers dispense rules all the time. Actually most artists dispense with the rules of their art all the time, and it's when some of the best works show up. (Most artistic movements are basically gaggles of artists flipping the bird to the last generation's "rules.") Still writing has always had this strange relationship among the arts with its own anachronistic advice. Somewhere in the mix of idolizing those writers who have "made it," it seems like advice from writers (even those writers we would never today want to emulate) takes on this mystical veracity that it doesn't in other arts or professions.

In a normal discipline, if a teacher tells you to always or never do something, there's this response that seems almost second nature to the students of, "Let's figure out why this is a rule so we can bend or break it." But writers have stuffed that part of their brain with Tennyson quotes and dirty limericks, so they don't always take this advice with respect and a grain of salt.

For some reason, writers tend to go all or nothing. Or they go the other way and just ignore it altogether and never learn why it where its wisdom comes from. Every writer is a special snowflake and their story is so fucking brilliant that they are exempt from traditional wisdom.  Because "if you really want to" or "unless you have a good reason" isn't even a speed bump when it comes to many writer's sense of their work's importance. So now you have a bunch of abstract second person stories about vampire wizard kids telling you how to feel and the writers don't really understand what the problem is because they are all convinced that their reason was a really "good reason."

Or they go the other way and take the advice as some commandment-level rule. Hating themselves for every perceived slight they have made against a set of advice by a 100 year old novelist who would never ever EVER EV-ER find an audience among today's readers.

Enter Janusprof.

I know when I felt it was time to move on from Janusprof, I really felt like it was time to move on–being told LeGuin didn't have any real social messages will do that to a science fiction fan–but while I studied the force at the foot of the Emperor, I learned a lot.

What was great about this professor is that for pretty much any rule you could name, he had this mental list of a half a dozen stories that had successfully and beautifully broken it. Most of the stories were from authors that your average reader would recognize. He always had a sense that if you knew WHY something was a problem that was better than just trying to obscurely declare it to be so. So instead of spending his time worrying about what people shouldn't write (except....apparently when it came to genre) he instead had a catch phrase.

"Earn it."

Do the work that can make the writing happen. Earn the scene. If you want a character to wax abstract about their feelings, it's going to take a lot of concrete details around that moment to ground your reader so they don't just feel like they're being ham-handedly TOLD what to feel. If you want to write about little kids, earn that by showing how major events can take on strange and different meaning to them. If you want to write in second person, figure out what the strengths are of that voice and earn it like Loorie Moore or Jay McInerney.

Write your vampire story. Even your sexy angsty 90210 teen vampire story if that's what your soul burns to write. But also learn why that shit is overdone and publishers are avoiding it and then bring a fresh perspective to the table as well.

Rules beg to be broken. It's like telling a little kid "Okay, I'm going to leave now–don't look in the closet."

As you grow up, your relationship with rules changes. You learn to measure things like risk and consequences and to carefully break the rules you don't like. (If you make sure everyone's really gone, and you don't leave any evidence, but also you accept that you might be ruining your birthday present surprise, you can look in the closet.) Most people who do illegal things (like drugs or speeding) understand this relationship with rules. It doesn't mean they totally ignore them just because fuck rules–driving 120 through a school zone or blowing pot smoke into a cop's face. But they do know when and how to get away with strategically ignoring them.

Writing advice isn't really any different. Ignoring it because "I had a good reason" or because one simply doesn't understand why it's advice in the first place won't make the prose any better or more readable. And following every bit of advice like it's the Code of the Writer™ will leave work stilted and unwilling to risk.

Instead when writers focus on doing what it takes to make successfully execute their problematic moments.

"Earn it" is so much better than many of its contemporary bits of advice. Forget the reason. Forget whether it was even a good reason.

I don't care if it was a dare or if two groupies told you they would have a threesome with you if you would just publish something in second person. Your reason doesn't matter.  Your sense of whether its importance doesn't matter.

You don't ever have to justify your writing to yourself. Just sit down and write. You have to justify your writing to your readers. And for that there is no personal excuse. You must simply, without prejudice or passion, pay the toll of making it work.

Earn it.

"Earn it," casts off the veil of glamour and mystique about writing. There isn't some mystical force that will tell you when a reason is "good enough" to break a rule. This isn't magic that drips from your fingers into the pen or keyboard and spills out onto the page. What will get your from an unearned scene to an earned scene is not the pen of Poe or the finger bone of Shakespeare or talent or even having a really good reason. It's work–hard work.

The only rule is you have to earn it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Writers Talking Smack


When writers talk about "the rules" of writing, they always forget to talk about them as THEIR rules. Young writers, especially standing in the splendor of a successful, published author, are sometimes in awe of another person who has made the magic work.

These writers forget to whip out their grains of salt, and the result is that legions of young writers forget that art is like Jujitsu--do what ever works. "Whatever works" might break one of another writers vaunted rules or even conventional writing wisdom. The end result being that writers are often quoted at length for their "Thou shalt..."/"Thou shalt not..." advice without a second thought. It's important to remember that writing is not an equation or it wouldn't be an art and a lot more people would be very good at it.

In the same way we have different tastes in reading, we have different tastes in writing. When a chef says "don't use too much butter in your cooking" we somehow know that is THEIR style and that Julia Childs would have a thing or two to say about that, but when it comes to writing the tendency is to forget that not all writers--and even not all GOOD, FAMOUS, LITERARY writers--agree on rules or style or even what makes good writing.

And what could possibly illustrate that point more than seeing great writers talk shit about other great writers?

"[Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
-William Faulkner
"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"
-Ernest Hemingway

"[Ulysses is] the work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples."
-Virginia Woolf (about Ulysses)

"That's not writing, that's typing."
-Truman Capote (on Jack Kerouac)

“…like a large shaggy dog just unchained scouring the beaches of the world and baying at the moon.”
-Robert Lewis Stevenson on Walt Whitman

“All raw, uncooked, protesting.”
-Virginia Woolf on Aldous Huxley

“Miss Austen’s novels . . . seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer . . . is marriageableness.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson on Jane Austin

“A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven sure fire literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.”
-William Faulkner on Mark Twain

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The T Files

Each month I will (quietly) post screen shots of the blog's financial gains so that I maintain transparency regarding my Financial Pledge.  When Google sends me a check, I will post a picture of my PayPal account, the receipt from the charity, and a picture of me either stuffing Hen Wen with cash.  Eventually that will translate to improvements on the blog which you would get to see.

The intention here is never to brag, but rather to remain transparent about things like the literacy charity that W.A.W. provides.

December 2012 (First Paycheck)- Totals and charity.  Stuffing Hen Wen.
Screenshots between checks- Jan, Feb, March, April, May, June, July

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Guy Goodman St.White Reviews Judith--Speculative Nonsense

Pictured: NOT the human condition.
Good evening. I'm Guy Goodman St.White, your terribly British sounding host. Tonight we will be returning to the fountainhead of English literature again rather than mucking around in the regretfully seminal non-English parts of the canon. We will take a look at Judith. While this could technically be considered a religious text, the poem has some significant differences with the book found in the Catholic Bible. Regardless, Catholics are supposed to be doing their...non-protestant thing of hanging out in holy phone booths or whatever, and not reading the bible, so hopefully no one who might be offended will notice.

Major sections of Judith were destroyed in a fire. It was first discovered as an appendage to Beowulf. This is particularly notable as the chief claim Judith has to literary quality is that it is NOT Beowulf. Beyond that, it is a cesspool of genre tripe modeling itself closely after that steaming pile of speculative...oh dear, I nearly forgot my impeccable British manners.

Though there is some academic contention as to whether Cynewulf wrote Judith or not, it is my personal opinion that some silly git liked Beowulf a little too much, tried to write a story "just like it."

Obviously what we are looking at is the first recorded example of fanfic.

 Cynewulf or no, our author needs to learn a little something about how to portray character in literature. If writing wants to have any hope of being considered as high art, a character must be portrayed as a morally ambiguous agent.

The human condition creates within each of us a duality. We are all a mixture of repugnant traits and admirable ones. In REAL literature, the author knows this, and doesn't fall into the trap of "good guys" and "bad guys." Such is the mark of hack writing with no literary value to speak of. All these virtues Judith has create an implausible protagonist as she goes to fight monsters. She even glows with saintly light as she strikes down evil.  I mean come ON!

Where's the moral ambiguity that is required for high art?

Obviously Cynewulf needed to ditch the unrealistic monsters, focus on the human power struggle of the socio-political landscape, the struggle of duty vs. desire, and the confrontation of dark shadows regarding the ethical implications of killing another human being. If PTSD nightmares over the horror of taking a life had led Judith to self medicate with prescription drugs and junk food while slipping into a quagmire of increasingly unsafe sexual exploits (with other women, no less), this might have actually been a story worthy of literature.

 As it is though, we're going to toss it on the pile with last month's Asimov Magazine and lament the cold reality that speculative fiction even exists, and that the canon is so rife with it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing Part-5

Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3, Part 4

Minecraft Has Nothing On Us

"If you have technology as sophisticated as androids, you probably don't need to hook them into USB ports for updates. Wireless will be pretty established by the time we have that tech level." I say.

Willbehuge glares at me. "Dude, it's my world."

"Okay, but you might want to explain that if it's an aspect of your world," I say. "It wouldn't make much sense if it's just 'the future.' Maybe wireless viruses are prevalent or android technology has progressed a lot faster than wifi technology for some reason, but there should probably be a reason that your indistinguishable-from-human android doesn't have the technology that my iPad has today."

"Your iPad wirelessly updates?? Dude, that's dope!"

*headdesk*

World building! Dramatic huh? Sort of sounds like nothing short of launching a Genesis torpedo at your word processor could possibly do it justice. It’s certainly more involved than, “A thoughtful T graph is a good prewriting exercise for a compare and contrast paper.” Building worlds follows much of the same process as not being a stranger—you just have to not be a stranger in your own creation.

And as much as this seems like it should be pretty common sense, believe me when I tell you it is not. All the more so because this is not among the skill sets that are taught in most academic writing programs. There is very little time spent on anything but narrative voice and character, and most passes through setting are single chapters in the craft text book covered in a week of class.

By contrast there are entire classes devoted to narrative voice and to characterization. (At least at SFSU—given the pedagogy’s continuity with what is considered “high art” I seriously doubt many writing programs contain a world building class, though I admit I haven’t done enough research into some of the speculative fiction friendly MFA programs that exist.) Because most writing programs have made up their mind about what is “good” fiction, and which of fiction’s elements are worthy of their consideration, examination, study, and dedicated emulation, they eschew teaching a viable writing skill within fiction. Even though most writing program instructors will throw a (grudging) bone to U. LeGuin.P.K. Dick, or K. Vonnegut as literary writers, they will spend exactly no time teaching the skills that those authors had mastered so well.

Almost seems like they’re just paying lip service doesn’t it? (Remind me some day to tell you about the instructor who I discovered was just dropping names of authors he hadn't actually read, and claimed LeGuin didn't write political allegory.) You're not the only one who thinks so.

This is sort of the third part of prewriting, but it bears its own scrutiny within fiction writing, a world where an author can change anything and everything to suit their needs. Especially when we’re dealing with speculative fiction and the power of a writer to create places, races, and things that have never existed and events that have never happened.

But if you’re sitting there, reading the last two parts of this about looking around at the world as a writer and research and thinking to yourself: “I’ll just write sci-fi.”

Oops—you have auto-failed. Better restart from a previously saved position because you can't possibly win from this one.

Let me make this clear, if you think world building is a way to avoid research, ur doin’ it wrong. If you think it’s a way to avoid having to have experience the world as a writer, ur doin’ it wrong. If you think the endless bounds of your unbridled imagination are so compelling that people are going to want to stop by for a while even though you don’t have characters they relate to or events that resonate with them, ur not only doin’ it wrong, but you’re being a n00b by thinking ur NOT doin it wrong.

Building a world from scratch in which you have to keep track of details can be just as hard, even harder if you plan to stay in your world for an extended length of time, than doing research. You not only have to create the world, but you have to retain the integrity of the world. You may be in a universe with totally different rules, but you have to abide by those rules once established. JK Rowling (one of our generations most creative and successful world builders) may have had an awful lot of hand waving magic that just allowed things to happen at Hogwarts, but she worked within the rules she had established, and she made sure that the integrity of the world remained intact. No one got to pull off more than uncontrolled wild effects without a wand in their hand. Rowling spent YEARS deciding what the limits of magic were. She’s quoted as saying the following: "The most important thing to decide when you're creating a fantasy world," she said in 2000, "is what the characters CAN'T do." The minute you disrespect your own rules, you’re in trouble.

If you ever, even for a moment, think your readers are stupid, or they aren't following along VERY carefully, quit now. Just quit right now. Stick to non-fiction. That scene in Galaxy Quest where the kids ask the incredibly technical question is so funny because it actually happens. All. The. Time. And while you might be forgiven your inability to realize that in book two you made a passing reference to an event that should have happened after the flashback in book six but the item wasn't there or some such thing, if you do something epically stupid like having your prequels involve characters who have actively stated that they don’t remember each other in your originals, you’re going to be the subject of no small amount of ridicule. *coughobiwancough* I once read very thoughtful article online about how Rowling was remiss to have Voldemort be completely unaware of some of his ideological contemporaries given when he grew up. (England during the rise of the Third Reich.) I’ve seen a high fantasy author taken to task because their depiction of archery was comically uninformed. Your readers are paying attention…and if they’re generally paying a lot more attention than you are, you’re going to look a little bit foolish.

Now you may get lucky and be George Lucas foolish and he gets to say tripe like “I totally had Han shoot first even back in ’77; you just couldn't see it...yeah, that's the ticket” and we’re still going to go on Star Tours and buy lightsabers and ensure that he can retire with three blistering hot escorts on permanent retainer, but most of us are just going to be told our writing is kind of unconsidered and not very well thought through.

Prewriting is a frappe of techniques. Almost every bit of fiction requires some world building and some research. Even the most painstakingly accurate historical fiction involves some creative license or it would simply be a non-fiction history. You must delve into those experiences you’ve had as a writer to recombine and reconfigure what you know into moments you don’t, but world building never EVER absolves you of that. Even the most well built science-fiction worlds may require a writer to investigate current understanding of physics to explain propulsion or building technologies. The most fantastic settings may demand a writer understand a social nuance that they want to weave in as allegory. And a character, whether marching off to slay a dragon or flying a space fighter into battle must be, familiar enough that a reader can relate to them.

If you try to build worlds that aren’t somewhat researched you get worlds that don't make a lot of sense. While we forgive sound in space for our space fantasies, it bugs the hell out of us if you're writing something that gives a crap about physics. If you just fill built worlds with cardboard characters, you get a result about boring as you might expect. You’ll write the book equivalent of The Phantom Menace—without having George Lucas’s reputation and a generation of established fans to lean on. (We all wish he’d taken his own advice that a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing, but at least if he isn’t paying attention to himself, you can apply this wisdom to your writing.) You’re not dodging the bullet of research or of living life as a writer by world building because a story has to be rooted in what a reader can understand and comprehend, and that requires the WRITER to understand and comprehend. You’re only adding a delicious, wonderful, level of complexity to what should already be a rich and compelling story. You’re taking your reader on a voyage where nothing is the same as what they left behind, but also where everything has an eerie familiarity to it and resonates within them.

Ultimately the Genesis torpedo is not a terrible analogy because it did not create something from nothing, but rather it rearranged the existing molecules at the atomic structure into a planet capable of sustaining life. If used where life already existed, it would “destroy such life in favor of its new matrix.” That’s what you do when you build worlds because you can’t REALLY create anything. You have to build a new world out of what is already there, and that means you can’t duck the other aspects of prewriting.

Blogging About Blogging

I don't have a lot of knowledge about blogging.  I can't tell you the HTML code for widgets that will raise your SEO's or what tricks you can find on the internet really work for getting more hits.  I am not up on how to trick Google's latest search algorithms or the latest psychological theories on exactly how long a blog post should be in today's short-attention-span world.   So I'm not going to give you that "How To" crap.  This is more of a collection insights of  I'm picking up along the way that I'm willing to share.

What I can say is that I write this blog for all the same reasons that I write most anything, and I reject many of the same "cheap tricks" of the business of writing when they are translated into the business of blogging.  So while I've read more than a handful of "How to get more traffic on your blog" page, and I probably don't have anything to add to what's out there, what I might be able to do is help you consider "...but do I really want to DO that stuff?"

Writing is hard enough without getting sucked into the bullshit that surrounds the craft that ISN'T writing, so finding the way to strike that balance, do it well, and not lose yourself along the way can be tricky on the best of days.  Blogging will not free you from that bullshit.

Let the Fractions of Pennies Flow!
Trashing Prometheus is the New Black
Spam on Your Blog (A Nickle's Worth of Free Advice)
6 Easy Ways to Ninja More Pageviews
Increasing Blog Traffic-Accumulate Tributaries
Seven Ways You Can REALLY Help A Blog Succeed Without Spending A Dime
So You Want to Start Your Own Blog  Part 2

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sunday Prompts-Disney Style

The last of my Disney themed writings to honor the fact that I'm here on my anniversary with Supportive Girlfriend. I'm headed into my fourth and final day, and the four day pass has done what no three day pass, no mere ticket, and no visit before has ever been able to do: make me glad to get out of this place. Well played, four day pass. Well played.

However, I recall some prompts from back in the day that have had Disney themes. Don't forget that these are JUST exercises, and most importantly don't forget to HAVE FUN!!

This is called The Proof That Disney Isn't Actually Enlightened and Progressive Prompt: Choose your favorite Disney movie. Now change ALL the genders of everyone. The first thing you're probably going to notice is that the movie you rolled your eyes to when someone called it a sausage-fest is now...a little heavy on the estrogen (especially if you picked a Pixar film). Don't worry. It's cool for you to notice when a film gets too chicky but be totally oblivious to the reverse. It's called privilege--you're soaking in it. The other possibility is that you're going to notice you're guy is hanging out in a tower a lot waiting around to be rescued with fairy god fathers and stuff, which will probably be even a little weirder. The trick is to make this work. MAKE it work. That's your prompt. It would be too easy to just make your guys effeminate and your women butch and dress everyone in drag. Oh the hilarity. (Ben Stein voice on that last sentence to make it work.) Now that that is out of your system, really make it work. Make it make sense without silly characters. Give everyone depth. (And man, do you have your work cut out for you if you picked Mulan.) Write up ONE scene with your reversed roles. And now you will never watch a Disney movie's gender roles quite the same way again.

Characters are what drive stories. If Othello had been in Hamlet's place, he would have killed his uncle in Act 1, scene 2 and cut out about three hours. If Hamlet had been in Othello's place he would have said "Iago, I've spent the last three days thinking about what you said and Desdemona couldn't have done what you said because these three people weren't where you said they were and there is an inconsistency here regarding what this person is like and I think you've been lying to me." Again....two scene play. Now the problem with trying to do this with Disney movie MAIN characters is that they're all very similar to each other. Lots of basic western morality in their characters, and if they're rapscallions, they're usually about one hour and ten minutes from their moral crisis. Aladdin doesn't have enough really different with Lightning McQueen for switching out main characters--except for the logistics of having a car running around the cave of wonders with no way to even pick UP a lamp, never mind rub it. However the minor characters in Disney movies can actually be interesting. Pick one. Now insert it into the MAIN character slot of a TOTALLY different movie. Write for a few pages and see how this new character handles the situation. (I was particularly fond of Russel taking the place of Belle in this one--true love's kiss will never be the same.)

Just two today. There's this strange abandoned hotel that I think I want to check out in California Adventures. I'll be back up to regular content amounts next week. Besides, I can't think of any other Disney prompts I've run into over the years. (There IS a Muppets one though...)


Friday, March 16, 2012

Watching Disney Movies as a Writer

Found on Google Images as "labeled for commercial reuse"
Will remove upon request.
In honor of the trip I’ll be taking to Disneyland this weekend, I thought I would power-navel-gaze about the value one can get out of watching Disney movies as a writer. Also, this will probably not be a particularly long entry, as C-3PO and Indiana Jones await.

Wait. What? Disney movies? Seriously Chris? 

Are you talking about those movies that are notorious for perpetuating racial stereotypes like the crows in Dumbo, the “hot crustacean band” in The Little Mermaid, the natives in Peter Pan, the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp, pretty much every character in Aladdin, (seriously I could go on), and that's if we sort of pretend The Song of the South didn't really happen. The same Disney where the bad guys are almost always effeminate and darker skinned than the good guys (even when they’re both supposed to be from the Middle East…or are…ya know…lions)? Are you talking about the same Disney that indoctrinates legions of young women that beauty is their prime asset, to be completely submissive in courtship and let the men come to them even if it means waiting around for life to just serve you up by magic that your prince will come, and frankly it’s probably just best if they sleep most of the time anyway, abusive guys have a heart of gold inside if you just Stockholm syndrome their beast into submission, and that even if you kill every last motherfucking Hun in China, your big achievement is still if the barrel chested hot guy likes you. Are you talking about the same Disney that indoctrinates legions of young men that they must solve their conflicts with violence, and to be “manly,” they must be a barrel-chested Adonis and fight for their woman—who must be an object of beauty and pleasure because that’s what matters. Are you talking about the same Disney that indoctrinates legions of young people into the belief that there is “One True Love” out there, who is identifiable on sight, who you should leave everything you know and love to be with, and is so preposterously repetitive with their “love conquers all” narrative that they white wash over things like North American colonialism? The same Disney movies that has a generation of kids thinking Hercules’s real mom was Hera and the Little Mermaid ends in a wedding instead of foamy?

Heteronormative, sexist, racist, Bechdel-failing, status quo supporting Disney? Is that what you're talking about?

And yes, this article was written before Frozen and yes, I realize that a few of these tropes have (finally) been challenged by the more modern films.

Yeah. That would be the movies I'm talking about.

Hold the phone, though. I didn’t say they were good movies. I certainly didn't say they were great didactic movies. I said that they could be valuable to watch as a writer. Let’s say if you’re one of those people who thinks Disney movies are still so totally enchanting that you let your kids watch them over and over and over and over again and you figure that images bombarding them fifty or sixty times a year when they’re five won’t have the same effect as a meaningful conversation or two about gender roles when they’re teen-agers. Or maybe you think that at least your kid isn’t watching Jersey Shore.

Edit: or maybe you just think “Oh my god, this will distract them for 90 minutes while I have a chance to do laundry and have a bowel movement of longer than thirty seconds. Pixar isn't TOO bad. At least it's not Cinderella.”

However, I’ve already received death threats from my fellow barrel-chested white males for threatening to mess up the steady supply of subservient women, and this is usually about where the people who think Disney isn’t so bad start to rise up with pitchforks and torches, and the people who hate Disney for all the reasons above are polishing their Awl Pikes for our next encounter because how dare I derive anything of value from something so patently sexist, racist, and everything-else-ist.

And there I am, standing in the middle of a scene from Braveheart, except the two sides want to kill me instead of each other. So let me just say this:

I think Disney movies suffer from being easily accessible and recognizable pop culture icons that everyone has seen and become an easy way to critique the larger culture. If half of us memorized every line from every James Bond movie, we’d probably pick those movies to talk about misogyny or colonialist racism…and we’d probably have even more to talk about if we did. Anything mainstream media puts out would be just as problematic to essentially put on an auto repeat loop, and we go after Disney because it is such a recognizable icon. For all its faults, Disney tends to at least be conscious of some the social progression of our society. Many of its latest movies have even social progressives saying (well, this last one wasn't SO bad). The problem is many of its classic and iconic movies date back to more problematic times. It is even possible to say that one of the reasons many Disney movies achieve such a popular state is because they twang the cultural chord that many people in our society WANT TO HEAR. The really great exceptions to all this bullshit are usually not the movies every little kid knows by heart. And given the reaction that Disney DOES get from enraged fans about anything that isn’t perfectly sweet and antiseptic for the kiddies, it’s probably a wonder they don’t actually have everyone make up and have hot coco at the end of every movie.

All that said, you might still think I’m insane for suggesting that Disney could be valuable for a writer to examine. Those stories are trite. They are simplistic. They are formulaic. They are almost all the same with only a few cosmetic variations. They are the movie versions of a four chord song.

Yes. Exactly.

Because their greatest weakness is also their greatest strength.



Disney Movies can be very useful to a writer precisely BECAUSE they are formulaic. I know a lot of people look at Disney movies and vow that they will never write something so simplistic, so predictable, and so shockingly laden with tropes and cliches. That's good.

But like many things in life, it's very difficult to break the rules if you don't know what the rules are. Ever seen someone who talks about how they are breaking the rules of grammar for effect, but it's pretty clear they just don't know how to join two clauses? Yeah it's like that. It's impossible to write against the grain of a Disney movie if you don't know what that grain really is.

Most people have their stories rejected not because they lacked complex literary elements–in fact most people do a PRETTY good job of knowing what level their writing is at and what sorts of magazines to send them to. According to editors I've spoken to and what I've read, most people have their stories rejected because they lack a plot. Nothing really happens. "This is a poignant character sketch of an intense moment, but it is a vignette not a STORY," is shockingly common feedback for new writers.

I witnessed this phenomenon time and time again throughout my writing program and even in some of the graduate work I had a chance to see. Amazing writing with fantastic descriptions, exquisite significant detail, care paid to setting, and simply gorgeous characterization would all fall flat on the page because nothing would HAPPEN. No rising tension--no tension at all. Just someone wallowing in their emotional state for a few pages. Often there was an antiseptic reveal that I know was intended to be a plot twist but wasn't because there was no plot to twist.

Some writers try to pass this off as "character driven." Usually they don't really know what that means, they just think it sounds highbrow and means they're NOT "plot driven." But even if this weren't pretentious bullshit, they have confused "character driven" with "no discernible plot." In a character driven story, the characters aren't reacting; they want something. And it is their desires that are driving the action forth.

There is no driving to speak of in 80-90% of young writers' fiction–plot or character driven. Publishers know it and Creative Writing instructors know it. And instead of working on writing good, compelling stories, most programs are still focusing on elements they've deemed more important to
"literary" writing.

Most writers would actually do well to understand plot, and going back to the basics is a good place to start. Disney movies are masters at the basic plot. You can't overly burden a four-year-old with intense complexity and subtle motivations. You might be able to slip in some adult humor, but the basics of the story have to be basic. Yes, a Disney movie is formulaic, but that formula is something people must know long before they can successfully break it. Disney movies have the story arc down pat–rising tension, complication, climax, denouement. Most of them follow The Hero's Journey (despite its flaws and criticisms) so closely, that it would only take you a few seconds to figure out who the "mentor character" is in a list of ten or fifteen Disney movies. (Go ahead; try it: Hercules, Cars, Lion King, Aladdin, Mulan, Finding Nemo.) Most Disney protagonists burn with what they want and what they need.

Sure it's sophomoric to have them say "I want to win that race more than anything!" within the first five seconds of being on screen, but it beats ten kinds of pants off a story where you're not sure WHAT the hell a character actually wants, which is a big problem with much new fiction.

What Disney demonstrates unswerving skill at over and over is telling a story. And for all their flaws and simplicity, examining them for what they're doing well is a great way to avoid stories without plots.

So if you have problems with plot, you could do worse than to suffer through a few Disney movies. Learn to walk before you fly...to infinity and beyond. (Sorry, I had to.)

Now, I must go to see a mouse about a thing.  But work on your "four chords" in the meantime, and enjoy the Official Video with several more examples:


Watching Disney Movies as a Writer--Part 2

Part 1

Continuing my effort to give W.A.W. a Disney theme in honor of the fact that I'm AT Disneyland for a few days, as part of my anniversary with Supportive Girlfriend. Also, this will probably not be a particularly long entry, as C-3PO and Indiana Jones await.

So last entry I talked about the perils of Disney movies, but that they could be very useful to a writer precisely BECAUSE they are formulaic. I know a lot of people look at Disney movies and vow that they will never write something so simplistic, so predictable, and so shockingly laden with tropes and cliches. That's good.

But like many things in life, it's very difficult to break the rules if you don't know what the rules are. Ever seen someone who talks about how they are breaking the rules of grammar for effect, but it's pretty clear they just don't know how to join two clauses? Yeah it's like that. It's impossible to write against the grain of a Disney movie if you don't know what that really is.

Most people have their stories rejected not because they lacked complex literary elements--in fact most people do a PRETTY good job of knowing what level their writing is at and what sorts of magazines to send them to. According to editors I've spoken to and what I've read, most people have their stories rejected because they lack a plot. Nothing really happens. "This is a poignant character sketch of an intense moment, but it is not a STORY," is shockingly common feedback for new writers.

I witnessed this phenomenon time and time again throughout my writing program and even in some of the graduate work I had a chance to see. Over and over I would see amazing writing with fantastic descriptions and significant detail, I would see care paid to setting, and simply gorgeous characterization...but nothing would HAPPEN. No rising tension--no tension at all. Just someone wallowing in their emotional state for a few pages. They don't burn with desires and needs when they walk on the page, so before we try to slip the noose with "there's no discernible plot because this is character based" which is high brow and pretentious but also absolute bullshit, let's just be clear that you can't have character based fiction if your character is REACTING to everything and isn't going after what they want.

There is no story to speak of in 80-90% of young writers' fiction.

Most writers would actually do well to understand plot, and going back to the basics is a good place to start. Disney movies are masters at the basic plot. You can't overly burden a four-year-old with intense complexity. You might be able to slip in some adult humor, but the basics of the story have to be basic. Yes, a Disney movie is formulaic, but that formula is something people must know long before they can successfully break it. They've got the story arc down pat--rising tension, complication, climax, denouement. Most of them follow The Hero's Journey (despite its flaws and criticisms) so closely, that it would only take you a few seconds to figure out who the "mentor character" is in a list of ten or fifteen Disney movies. (Go ahead; try it: Hercules, Cars, Lion King, Aladdin, Mulan, Finding Nemo.) Most Disney protagonists burn with what they want and what they need. Sure it's sophomoric to have them say "I want to win that race more than anything!" within the first five seconds, but it beats a story where you're not sure WHAT a character actually wants. What Disney is doing poorly is also what Disney does great, and examining them for what they're doing (over and over and over and over) again is a great way to avoid doing it yourself, or to do it knowing what you're doing, or to do it in unconventional ways, but if given the alternative between no story and a Disney story, writers shouldn't be too proud of going against the grain.

So if you have problems with plot, you could do worse than to suffer through a few Disney movies. Learn to walk before you fly...to infinity and beyond. (Sorry, I had to.)

Now, I must go to see a mouse about a thing.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Thursday's Three, Disney Style

In keeping with our Disney theme, to go with my vacation, here are some Disney quotes. I'm not sure there are a lot of Disney quotes about writing until/unless you're dealing with Walt, and he's just a bit too much of a character for even me to try to compartmentalize the weirdness. However, what Disney lacks in writing quotes, it makes up for in inspirational quotes, so just imagine the talking clock or anthropomophized fish or whatever is talking to you about writing.

Actually, some of them aren't terrible to keep in mind when it comes to ethnocentrism and bipartisan demonization...

You think the only people who are people, are the people who look and think like you. But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you'll learn things you never knew you never knew.
Pocahontas (Pocahontas)

Giving up is for rookies.
Phil (Hercules)

To infinity and beyond.
Buzz (Toy Story)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Watching Disney Movies As A Writer

In honor of the trip I’ll be taking to Disneyland this weekend for my anniversary with Supportive Girlfriend to mark our seven year anniversary, I thought I would use this time to talk about the value one can get out of watching Disney movies as a writer.

Wait, Disney movies? Seriously Chris? Are you talking about those movies that are notorious for perpetuating racial stereotypes like the crows in Dumbo, the “hot crustacean band” in The Little Mermaid, the natives in Peter Pan, the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp, pretty much every character in Aladdin, (seriously I could do this all day), and don’t even get me started on The Song of the South. The same Disney where the bad guys are almost always darker skinned than the good guys (even when they’re both supposed to be from the Middle East…or are…ya know…lions)? Are you talking about the same Disney that indoctrinates legions of young women that beauty is their prime asset, to be completely submissive in courtship and let the men come to them even if it means waiting around for life to just serve you up by magic that your prince will come, and frankly it’s probably just best if they sleep most of the time anyway, abusive guys have a heart of gold inside if you just tame their beast, and that even if you kill every last motherfucking Hun in China, your big achievement is still if the hot guy likes you—a barrel-chested hot guy because that’s what matters. Are you talking about the same Disney that indoctrinates legions of young men that they must solve their conflicts with violence, and to be “manly,” they must be a barrel-chested Adonis and fight for your woman—who must be an object of beauty and pleasure because that’s what matters—but that you should always stay your hand in life or death fights because something will end up wasting your enemy pretty much by accident every time. Are you talking about the same Disney that indoctrinates legions of young people into the belief that there is “One True Love” out there, who is identifiable on sight, who you should leave everything you know and love to be with, and is so preposterously repetitive with their “love conquers all” narrative that they white wash over things like North American colonialism? The same Disney movies that has a generation of kids thinking Hercules’s real mom was Hera and the Little Mermaid ends in a wedding instead of foamy?

Yeah. That would be them.

Hold the phone, though. I didn’t say they were good movies. I said that they could be valuable to watch as a writer. Let’s say if you’re one of those people who thinks Disney movies are still so totally enchanting that you let your kids watch them over and over and over and over again and you figure that images bombarding them fifty or sixty times a year when they’re five won’t have the same effect as a meaningful conversation or two about gender roles when they’re teen-agers. Or maybe you think that at least your kid isn’t watching Jersey Shore. Or maybe you just think “Oh my god, this will distract them for 90 minutes while I have a chance to do laundry and have a bowel movement of longer than thirty seconds.”

However, I’ve already received death threats from my fellow barrel-chested white males for threatening to mess up the steady supply of subservient women, and this is usually about where the people who think Disney isn’t so bad start to rise up with pitchforks and torches, and the people who hate Disney for all the reasons above are polishing their Awl Pikes for our next encounter because how dare I derive anything of value from something so patently sexist, racist, and everything-else-ist.

So now that I look like I’m standing in the middle of a scene from Braveheart, except with three sides running at me instead of two, let me just say the following few things: I think Disney movies suffer from being easily accessible and recognizable pop culture icons that everyone has seen and become an easy way to critique the larger culture. If half of us memorized every line from every James Bond movie, we’d probably pick those movies to take to task…and we’d probably have even more to talk about if we did. Anything mainstream media puts out would be just as problematic to essentially put on an auto repeat loop, and we go after Disney because it is such a recognizable icon. For all its faults, Disney tends to at least be conscious of the social progression of our society, and adapt to it. Many of its latest movies have even social progressives saying (well, this last one wasn't SO bad). The problem is many of its classic and iconic movies date back to more problematic times. It is even possible to say that one of the reasons many Disney movies achieve such a popular state is because they twang the cultural chord that many people in our society WANT TO HEAR. The really great exceptions to all this bullshit are usually not the movies every little kid knows by heart. And given the reaction that Disney DOES get from enraged fans about anything that isn’t perfectly sweet and antiseptic for the kiddies, it’s probably a wonder they don’t actually have everyone make up and have hot coco at the end of every movie.

All that said, you might still think I’m insane for suggesting that Disney could be valuable for a writer to examine. Those stories are trite. They are simplistic. They are formulaic. They are almost all the same with only a few cosmetic variations. They are the movie versions of a four chord song.

Yes. Exactly.

Because their greatest weakness is also their greatest strength. And I’ll explain what I mean by that on Friday. [I’ll be breaking my own rule about posting the same post in the same week because 1- I’ll be too busy riding the Dumbo ride to do a whole new subject, and 2- it stays thematically with this week. So I hope y’all forgive me.]

But for fun, I'll leave you with the four chord song explanation for those of you who didn't get that.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Now That You've Hit 1337 Page Views, What Are You Going To Do?

I'm going to Disneyland.

It doesn't have anything to do with noticing last night that I'd reached 1337 page views though, even though that's pretty funny.

I'm going to Disneyland to see if I corrupt the virtue of some Disney princesses. Also because of my seven-year anniversary with Supportive Girlfriend. We've given ourselves four days because I hear the line for Star Tours is pretty long right now. I'm hoping we get on it by about midday on the third day; I'd like to see The Haunted House too.

I'm going to try to keep posting, but it might be a bit light or show up at weird times.

I'm also going to break my newly established rule by posting both parts of a two part entry in one week since it is about Disney movies and thematically relevant. Look for part 1 tomorrow before we leave.

Guy Goodman St.White Reviews The Epic of Gilgamesh--Epic Genre Crap (Literally)

You can't demonstrate the human condition without realism.
And there's nothing realistic about that thing in the middle of the tablet.
Good Evening. I'm Guy Goodman St.White your terribly British sounding host, and tonight we'll be delving back into the Western canon, long before Beowulf, to explore some of the roots of Western literature. I'd like to start our evening with two small disclaimers. For starters, we will only be reviewing dead religions as literature. While there is some qualitative value in examining living religious texts under literary scrutiny, I already receive enough death threats for reasons I cannot possibly fathom, and I don't want to exacerbate those uppity religious sort to be any more irrational than they already are. Don't worry though, we will only briefly study a few texts of the Ancient Middle East, and will revert quite quickly to the works of Europe.

No need to worry that we're not studying enough white voices.  Just a necessary evil.

The Epic of Gilgamesh: I'm not even sure where to begin with this one.

I'm genuinely overwhelmed. The sheer level of preposterous insanity going on in this story has literally overwhelmed me. Gods. Demigods. Ogres. Giant bulls. Scorpion people. Precognitive psychic dream powers. A fight scene pretty much once a tablet. Huge, Earth-covering floods (which, as you know, are only achieve credulity in Judeo/Christian tradition, and become completely implausible otherwise). Immortality. In many ways it is no surprise that we had to endure an epic like Beowulf as the fountainhead of English tradition. Look at where the older tradition lies. Look at what they had to work with. This non-stop melange of genre imagery is chock full of speculative tropes and is real literature's and high art's worst nightmare.

Clearly there is nothing of literary value within The Epic of Gilgamesh. It is just another superhero versus a monster-of-the-week mash up with no redeeming qualities or meaningful themes. I haven't seen anything this god awful since my 14 year old cousin from America forced me to watch a disk of some Yank show called Supernatural. If Enkidu had been questioning his sexuality and killed by homophobic bigots, Gilgamesh had been struggling against the preconceptions of his society and raging alcoholism, and the whole thing had been set in the seedy mud brick reality of Babylon, this might have been a better story. As it is, I had to gird myself against actual physical revulsion with each new tablet. The Mesopotamian people certainly had enough real-world struggles trying to establish the patriarchy and civilize an entire world of hunter/gatherers to need to resort to fanciful tales of the supernatural. Is it any wonder the whole of Western society is not capable of determining what is actually good to read?

Thank you for joining us this evening, and please tune in next week for another edition of Speculative Fiction Sucks Balls (And Not in the Good Way) where we'll return to the British Isles and take a look at what some seriously white dead white guys have written. Good night.

Monday, March 12, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing Part-4

Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3

Research—Don’t be a stranger.

Sponging may not cover it for prewriting. Sometimes you hit something you just don’t know enough about, and no amount of the life YOU’VE lived is going to make you able to portray something you don’t know about. You have to do some research.

You have to do SOME research.

You’re going to have to accept something that might be hard right now. Repeat after me: “I do not know everything.” Now go find a mirror and say that fifty times. Go ahead. I’ll wait. A lot of writers really think they’re too good for research. They “would rather actually write.” Noble...but bullshit. I’m here to tell you that your actual writing will suck rocks if you don’t take the time to learn the things you don’t know about a subject. And unless you want to spend your life writing about personnel meetings and TPS reports, you will probably eventually write about a culture, place, era, activity, or something that you don’t know about. Having emotional Legos won’t help you with this because you need to portray your topic accurately. I don’t care how poignantly you describe a character’s angst, if you’re ascribing a Catholic burial ceremony to your Inuit characters, you’re going to come off like a moron.

I know a lot of people break out in hives at the mention of research. If you’re picturing the lonely stacks of some giant library’s twelfth floor or a montage of pouring over first edition tomes with rubber gloves, you’re probably over thinking this. That was my parent’s generation. I mean I could go all gumtoothed voice and tell you about something called an Index of Periodical Literature, little slips of paper, and a weird smelling guy in a back room who handed you tattered magazines. We didn’t have the newfangled Lexus Nexus. But seriously, computers have been streamlining research more every year since I was about twenty. Not that a stern librarian in boots would be unwelcome—one who undoes her hair from a tight bun when she tells you how hot she finds your dedication to knowledge.....

You know what? This is probably more MY thing, really. The point is unless you like trolling for librarians by appearing erudite, you probably won’t have to do much of that kind of research unless you want to.

This process is as involved as you want it to be or your type of writing requires it to be. If you don’t like to do a lot of research, you can just do the kind of writing that doesn’t require a lot of research. Or you COULD go raid the most esoteric volumes on being a fifth century seamstress in order to have such a character in something you write, especially if that’s just the sort of nerdgasm thing that would really turn your crank. Remember this is your art. If you’re getting pleasure out of it, then you win. Other people can suck an elf.

If you’re not into deep research, don’t sweat it, but you still can’t get past this aspect of pre-writing completely. Now I am going to say something that I’ll say again and again, so pay attention because these are words to live by when it comes to setting and character—which are, you know, elements of fiction and sort of important and stuff.

Don’t be a stranger.

I like this better than “write what you know,” because “write what you know” is a cliché and it doesn’t even begin to touch the full range of writing that matters to me. We can recombine and reconfigure what we know into what we don’t if we take some time and effort to do so. I’m pretty sure Orwell didn’t KNOW 1984 since he wrote it in the forties, nor do I think he ever met a talking pig. I’m pretty sure Tolken had never had a conversation with a dragon. Most people use their sponged experiences like Legos to recombine and rearrange what they do know into what they can’t know. So “Don’t be a Stranger” seems to cover much more accurately what it means to be a fiction writer. You only KNOW what it means to be your gender, your age, your race, your age (or younger), your social status, and dozen other things, and while this will always inform your work in ways you should be aware of, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want all your characters to be exactly the same as you lest you end up in a world like when John Malkovitch went into his own brain tunnel. I don’t think that would hold up well for a whole novel.

“Don’t be a stranger” also carries with it the keys to the kingdom. “Write what you know” has sort of been perverted into a flip, dismissive way to say “Sorry, you don’t know, kthxbai.” People who are tired of bad portrayals of their life experiences sometimes make claims like “you can never really KNOW what it’s like,” and honestly, there’s some truth to that, but a fiction writer has to break out of essentialism unless they only every want to write a journal. Plus, it’s the sort of thing that leads to writers doing damn fool things like trying crack cocaine so they can describe it. A writer in today’s social landscape is going to have to navigate minefields like “appropriation” and avoiding stereotypes, and it can be intimidating as fuck when you realize you don’t know how to do that. Don’t be a stranger is how.

If you’re going to set a story in Santa Monica, you better know Santa Monica. Describe the shops, the air, a corner people will recognize, and the great pizza place near the pier because if you say “this is Santa Monica” and then describe Walnut Creek, bullshit detectors will go off in your readers. If you’re going to describe a culture that isn’t your own, you better understand that culture, how they look at death, what they think of life, marriage, morality, religion, and not from YOUR outsider point of view either—don’t be a stranger. Go find out from them.

Access to knowledge-wise, you are the most empowered human beings ever to walk the face of the Earth. I’m not just fellating you with en-vogue self help slogans either. You’re reading this blog, so I assume you have a computer with Internet. That makes you able to find more information in five seconds than your average surf had to absorb in their entire lifetime. Most of you can do this from a device that's smaller than a deck of cards. Seriously, the only thing slowing down your acquisition of knowledge in our era is how fast you can read and the 10 terabyte estimate of ultimate human brain storage capacity. You almost never have to go on some first edition book safari unless you kind of want to.

Let me share a story with you that is almost completely unrelated. As Will and Grace finished up its run they had a bloopers episode as part of their Will and Grace last night finale two hour event. My ex-wife was a huge fan so I ended up watching. In one of these bloopers Grace has a bottle of something, and they tell Debra Messing (who plays Grace) they want the bottle to be more empty for the shot. She goes to the kitchen and pours it down the drain. And then all hell breaks loose. She screams and laughs and says she’s sorry. See, the sink wasn’t really a sink. They weren’t in a real kitchen. She was on a set. The drain probably went to where they stored paint thinner or something. Everything “on camera” looked real, but it wasn’t, and Debra had just ruined some set designer’s day. How does this matter to you as a writer? You may not need to be some deep expert to reveal enough “on camera” to make a good story. You just need whatever you’re writing about to look like a real “kitchen” for the confines of your story.

There’s an element of "Hollywood magic" in what writers do. A writer might become an expert on just enough of a subject that their story is going to need. That’s why a lot of writers are strangely well informed about the most bizarre and random stuff. They needed it for some story. But you don’t have to find out everything on a topic to be able to write anything about it. You just need a few significant details to make sure you know what’s up, and to check yourself.

I constantly have a search engine open when I’m writing. I look up all kinds of things all the time. Who starred in this movie? What’s that word? What does an archery stance actually look like and what kind of advice would a coach give a beginner? How is this city laid out? I’m not doing a marathon session in a library (and I would probably personally eschew a character or setting that would require me to). But if you add up the amount of times I change my window over to Google something or other, you probably end up with hours of research.

As I wrote one story about a character in the mid 21st century involved in a water war, I realized that I was going to need more details about the setting to fill out some of the trouble that the story was having in its third draft. I didn’t really know much about water wars. So I spent an hour or two on Google learning where they were likely to happen and why. I picked The Danube, but I didn’t know much about eastern European geography so I had to look at Google maps. It was kind of fun really—if a little alarming and scary about the future of war. A couple hours and I had enough detail not to be a stranger for what I was doing. It doesn't have to be a big deal, but just think of how vague or misinformed that story would have seemed if I hadn't done that.

Be careful. One of the really important places to not be a stranger is when you deal with writing a character who is experiencing some of the difficulties of their own culture or group. You can’t use Hollywood magic here. You have to try to really understand with all the writer empathy you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. Google “cultural appropriation” if you want to see the epic insensitivity and resulting shit storms that can develop if you don’t take this very, VERY seriously. Some people out there are basically going to tell you that you can’t successfully write "their" story. And they’re right if you sit down and write it from your point of view about what you think their point of view would be. You’ll end up with something like that travesty of well-intentioned idiocy about what the middle class white guy would do if he was a black kid from the inner city. Oh. My. God. Don’t be that guy. Do your research. Instead be more like Jeffery Eugenides. He did enough research on five alpha reductase deficiency syndrome that people who read Middlesex assumed he HAD to be intersexed to have described it so well. He is not. And there are fantastic examples of fiction of people writing from perspectives that are not their own in ways that are so convincing that people didn’t realize they weren’t from that group. So don’t lose faith because P.C.-ness makes your job a little harder. Just don’t be a stranger.

The thing that is particularly cool about fiction writers and research is that “don’t be a stranger” can lead back to one of our core tenants. Research for academics and non-fiction writers can be an arduous affair taking months and even years depending on the subject matter. Fiction writers usually aren’t going for that level of detail and precision, and all we need is the right “Legos” for the job from a culturally accurate viewpoint so we have this totally awesome option of reading a few great stories on the topic. When I say "hear it from them," I don't mean you have to do a cultural ethnography. The voices of this culture (and almost certainly of this struggle) already exist--you just have to read them. And you thought this was going to suck! Imagine reading the great literature of a culture to try and get the sense of it. That doesn’t sound like unpleasant research; that sounds like someone just said “Okay, I need you to taste test the final products for my gourmet chocolate and tell me which one you like the best.” Only a stern librarian with a very healthy respect for a dedication to knowledge could be more fun.

Of course, sometimes you can’t research something because it doesn’t exist yet. That’s when you have to build worlds. [Continued next Monday.]