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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Write in Phase: Best Contemporary Science Fiction Author

Who is the best contemporary science fiction author?

We're still doing something a little different this month than our usual fare.  Instead of books, this poll will be about authors. And instead of doing a whole genre with over a hundred years (at least) of history, and forcing your decision between foundational classics and contemporary brilliance, this entire poll will only be modern authors.  So if you've ever thought an author wrote more than one great book or series, and should be recognized for a stunning career, now's your chance to recognize them.

Also, please go vote in the classic author poll for pre-1970 science fiction writers. Though today is technically the last day, I'll probably tabulate and post the results on the 2nd. 
The rules: 

1- You may nominate only one (1) author as your choice.  (My nomination will be in the comments.) Please nominate them HERE rather than on another social media.  I will accept a FB or G+ nomination, but if there's a tie to break, I'll go with the ones written here.

2- You may second as many authors as you feel deserve it.  You also SHOULD second authors because very often there are too many nominations for a single poll and the way I resolve such issues is to take nominations with the most "seconds."  On our last two polls, no books/authors without at least one second made it to the polls.  So check back periodically to see what other authors people have nominated and give those you think are worthy a second.  

3- Our cut off for contemporary/classic is 1970.  Any authors writing after 1970 are fair game.

3a- (This one gets tricky.) Several authors have written on both sides of the 1970 divide (Clarke, Asimov, LeGuin and more).  In this case, please consider the works you feel were the best of their career.  

For example, if you only ever liked Left Hand of Darkness (late 60's) but not really LeGuin's later stuff, then she shouldn't be on this poll, but if you thought Rendezvous with Rama was much better than Clarke's early stuff, you should put him on this poll.  

I'm sure several authors will be on both polls.  That's okay.

As usual, I will tend to trust your judgement rather than make a lot of picky rules. 

I will put this poll up early in January, so give me all the nominations. If you do two picks, I'll take the first one only.

Monday, December 30, 2013

15 Things Not to Do to Writers (Unless You Want Them to Hate You) Part 3

15 things you might be doing to writers to make them hate your stinking guts.  (11-15)  

Part 1-5
1. You ask them for their publisher/agent (or ask them to promote you).
2. You brag about how you don’t pay for books.
3. You give them unsolicited advice.
4. You tell them you’re going to write a book/be a writer...someday.
5. You delight in their every grammatical failure, or conversely, constantly tell them how bad you are at grammar.

Part 6-10
6. You use the phrase “free exposure” in their presence.
7. You hector them about success.
8. You treat them like their work is no big deal.
9. You start right in on what you didn’t like about something they wrote, especially if you don’t even introduce yourself or say hi first.
10. Try to get them to buy your idea for 50% of the money.

11. You constantly ask them to read your stuff.

Serious writers generally express the amount of free time they have in NEGATIVE NUMBERS. They often have day jobs that put food on the table and keep their electricity running, so they can keep doing their writing thing.  They write. They read. They may even like to do wild and wacky things like have interpersonal relationships, fuck once in a while (you know...with a partner), and play a game of Catan with friends so they can snicker about having "some wood for your sheep."

They probably don't have a lot of time to read your rough draft of the best zombie story ever.

Oh no problem.  I'm not busy at all.
Photo by Evan Bench
Understand that this is not about you. It's about all those other assholes out there, of course, who insist on ruining it for "real" writers like you. If you were the only other hopeful writer in the whole world with something you wanted read, they would probably read it. Unfortunately you join a crowd of poseurs expressing florid love for an art they insist they don't need to do regularly to improve. They're all ruining it for your totes legit efforts!

Or...um....... *looks intensely at hangnail*

If you want to stand out from this crowd of wannabe writers, write. Write a lot. Write every day. And in a few years, that writer (if you still feel like you really even need their feedback) will probably take notice of you, and be honored to read your work.

If you are already writing at about the same level of prose and that the writer is (and you both probably realize this if that is the case), they may be slightly more inclined to do an exchange of work as peer review--knowing that one day you will do the same for them--but asking a writer you see as having a more developed skill than you is asking them for a favor. Be gracious if they gently tell you they can't. If you stay after them, you're not really respecting how busy their lives are, and they would probably rather tongue clean a bathroom than deal with you.

And along that line....

12. You devalue their time.

Remember writers are writing.  It’s true that some of us can sit around in pajamas and clock in a good day by noon, but if you think it’s because we aren’t really working feel free to give it a shot for a few years.

Don't forget to keep your "real" job so that you can pay the bills because eating rejection slips is great for fiber, but not so hot on vitamin C or protein. And if you don't want everyone you love to leave you, you probably should give them time and energy too. Oh, and don't let anything else in your life fall apart like your health. Whatever time you have left has to be crammed with decompression, social life, and that sort of thing in a ruthless hierarchy of priorities.  Better write hard and fast when you can find the time to do it, and pay attention to everything you give up in life to have the time to do so.

Oh and hey, don't forget that your best and your worst days are hugely different (and if you somehow do manage to make some money from writing, you don't get paid by the hour).  If you're still sitting there at eight PM in those same pajamas because the words just aren't coming that day, you just have to keep plugging until the shit gets done or it's chicken powdered Top Raman for dinner again.

How's that lackadaisical morning looking now?

Now imagine your friend calls you up and asks you if you can pick them up from the airport or feed their cats or take their kid to the zoo because you aren't "really working." Or get a phone call from family, try to tell them you're working and have them say "Chris, you're just sitting around. Give your mother a few minutes of your time!" (Or...um...maybe that's just me.)  How's that feel? Now you know why your writer friends you've done this to have not only stopped inviting you to have drinks with them, but also act really strange when you're standing next to incredibly sharp objects or ledges overlooking very long drops.

Thank you for participating in a multi-year experiment so that I could prove a point about what a cross-town bus ride of uncontrollable sharts these people are being. From now on, if you're going to pull this shit on a writer at least act like you are asking for the kind of favor that would pull people away from their job--because that's exactly what you are doing.

13. You pressure them for free work.

I recently had someone ask me about commissioned writing who was so awesome about it that it broke my heart to say no. It was a neat sounding project, but was simply a fraction of the amount I make when I freelance. I mention this partially so that if she reads this, she never ever wonders if I’m talking about her (because she was awesome and I would develop an insta-ulcer from the tidal wave of worry if I ever thought she were upset with me), but also to let you know that there are ways you can ask for free (or very low paid) work without pressure.

(Admit up front you can't pay them, pitch your project, and if you have something that's non-income AND non-bullshit, pitch that as well.  Don't tell them about "exposure" or future projects that will be paid--anyone who can write worth a piss won't be fooled by this crap.)

Just learn to have some fucking zen if they turn you down, and don't argue with them that it is the best opportunity they've ever had.

If your "opportunity" really does look like it might be even a little bit useful to the writer in terms of exposure or opening doors (rather than just squeezing the talent out of them and throwing away their twisted, empty husk like they are a toothpaste tube of brilliant sentences) they will probably give it some serious thought.

Being a total cheapskate is admirable, right?

If you put a writer on the spot, or keep after them after they try to graciously decline, they will probably just avoid you. Keep after them, and they will almost certainly begin to write you into their grisly horror stories as the victim who dies to show how the monster works.

The chances that a writer hasn’t got a plan for their next three or four major projects is generally pretty low, and if they wanted to work for free, they would just work on their own stuff. The writers who will do your stupid shit freelance project without wanting a paycheck for it or who will buy your candy cane bullshit about "exposure" and "ground floor opportunities" are probably going to give you about the quality of writing you would expect. Don't get too pissed off if it's written in crayon.

You don't have to do yoga near a waterfall for this kind of gratitude.
Just fucking say thanks.
14. You don't thank them if they do give you feedback.

If you DO get a writer to look over something you’ve written, for Zues's butthole's sake, thank them.

Maybe you batted your eyelashes and said "pretty please" and the fool of a writer fell for it, or maybe you just asked on a day where they had some free time and wanted to do something nice to erase the karmic debt from that day when they were twelve and wondered if the salt/slugs thing really worked. Either way they are probably going to give your work one of the most thorough, conscientious reads it will ever get, and letting them know you appreciate it (verbally, tactilely, take-them-to-dinner-ly, whatever) would be appropriate.

This may seem to fall under the auspices of human decency rather than something particular to writers, but something about those erudite little writer eyes apparently screams, "No need to thank me for those several hours of work. I love toiling away without acknowledgement." For some reason people think writers owe them two or more hours of feedback work and they don't even have to send a thank you e-mail or a fist bump at their next meeting....or a lap dance...or ANYTHING.  Pull this, and a writer is probably really going to wonder what other parts of life you are an ungrateful lamprey about. If you can't at least say thank you, Miss Manners needs to side eye you so hard she sees the inside of her temple

I'm not sure if this is because most people are expecting "OH MY FUCKING GOD THIS IS THE MOST GENIUS THING I HAVE EVER READ.  HOW DID YOU TURN 26 LETTERS INTO THIS DIVINELY INSPIRED MASTERPIECE?!?" and the fact that the writer had some nuanced feedback about how to improve things pissed them off, but it is so unbelievably common..

Or maybe I just keep running into seriously rude jerk-wads. Me and all the other writers in the world.

15. You give them back-hand compliments.

If there’s one group in the entire world who--as a general rule--are consistently and unerringly going to be able to see though subtext, it’s probably writers. A case could possibly be made that Lit Majors might be slightly better or maybe about the same and translators pretty much work down in the mines of subtext, but basically you're dealing with the top of the curve of any group of people in all of ever.

So they’re going to see right through your bullshit when you say things like, “It was pretty good...for genre,” “It was terrific that your publisher was willing to take a chance on that sort of thing,” or “I like that you kept the language and ideas very accessible to barely literate troglodytes.”

It just won't go unnoticed.

The weird thing is, people still do this a lot. They probably don't realize they aren't fooling anyone with that thinly-veiled crap, but they're being especially dense if they think they're pulling one over on a writer. But for some reason it's kind of like it's a matter of pride to not really compliment a writer on what is probably a year or more's worth of work. Like they could have done it or it was no big deal. Your criticism was veiled a lot less veily than you think, and that's why the writer hates you.

If you want to talk criticism with a writer, pull on your big kid undies and respectfully tell them you have some criticism instead of being a passive aggressive butt-hole about trying to be clever in a way that is, to a writer, about as subtle as a brick.

Just fucking please say hi and introduce yourself first.

Part 1 (1-5)   Part 2 (6-10)  Part 3 (11-15)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

There's Always Room for One More

Donating to Writing About Writing involves less spit running
down your cheek than being tied up by English executioners.
So...there's that.
Photo Image: Robin Hood Prince of Thieves 
Warner Bros.
Morgan Creek Productions
I am currently tallying up all the folks who have given to Writing About Writing--most through the Paypal button, but a couple who know me in person have done so directly. Our Ad revenue only accounts for about 25% of W.A.W.'s total (and we would probably get rid of ads if donations alone could pay the bills). These are lovely people who have given their hard earned money to help Writing About Writing cover a few expenses, and maybe even take it's contributions to the next level.  Each year I make a list of everyone who has donated--usually by first name only, but occasionally by full names or anonymously.  The post goes up early in the new year.

There are still two days left to be a 2013 donor!

I already "passed the hat" a few days ago, so I'm not going to hector or guilt folks into donating, but I will simply mention that if anyone would like to be included with 2013's patrons, as well as enjoying any of the benefits of donating larger amounts, it is the last couple of days to do so.

 (2012's Generous Donors)

It's a much, much longer list this year than last year, and though every single person on it is spectacular, it is also filled with much more breathtaking totals.

But there is always room for one more!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Michael Dukakis

[Michael Dukakis's bio for our Writing About Writing Staff page.]

After a disappointing political career that started with a meteoric rise among the DNC and ended in a frustrating run for president against George Bush Sr. and a criticism-filled second run at being governor of Massachusetts. He joined Writing About Writing in 2012 to have something to do with his days and make a little extra spending cash. He is the first janitor to survive for more than a week. (Unfortunately, that's LITERALLY survive; the early history of Writing About Writing's janitors was not a pleasant one.) He really, really likes Elizabeth Warren.

Editors note- At least that's who he SAYS he is.  I'm not convinced he's not just some weird old dude. But at least he cleaned up the remains of thousands of dead ninjas and Octorians without complaining and doesn't mind that my administrative assistant little round marks (from wet suction cup thingies) on everything. Michael has actually had more than one conversation with the cheese guy on the third floor (about something other than cheese).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Seasons Greetings From Writing About Writing

From everyone here at Writing About Writing, most of whom are figments of my imagination, have a wonderful holiday season--however you choose to celebrate it.  (Even if that way is arming yourself for the war on Christmas.)

The last week of the year will deviate from our regularly scheduled program. We're going to take tomorrow completely off (but we'll probably sneak over to the laptop to write on some fiction anyway).

After that we'll be putting up some end of the year posts like our annual thank-you post to our patrons, and the 2013 Hall of Fame. We may even actually manage to make Grendel turn in his bio. There are likely to be some "real" articles going up, but they may not do so on their normal scheduled days.

We will hit the ground running on January second and get set to rock 2014 with some serious writing.....about writing.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Just Another Mendicating Monday

That's mastication, actually.
In which I use "rage boner," "totes magotes," and an ironic picture of a dog still gnawing away at a bone to try to get Writing About Writing a little love.

So for two years running now--the life of the blog--I have done a post about every two months* reminding all of you wonderful readers of a couple of things:

A) My ability to improve the quality of Writing About Writing is entirely up to you.  

I work on this blog for about 30 hours a week. I pay the bills (after a fashion) with two other jobs--teaching and being a househusband to my family.  I put in about 50+ hours a week before I ever sit down to write. My ability to write higher quality articles, get some copy editing, and put up more frequent offerings of fiction (as well as some of the longer works I've written) are contingent on W.A.W. being a little more self sufficient instead of a labor of love.

B) There are TOTES MAGOTES things you can do to help Writing About Writing that don't involve spending any money.

*It's actually been more like ten weeks since I last did one of these posts.  I was a little out of it for the two weeks surrounding the baby birth, and not up to my usual par.

How can you help?

1- A donation.  Our Paypal button is over on the left. We're not looking for a "Christmas miracle" here, nor am I demanding a threesome-friendly live-in maid before you will see an improvement in W.A.W.'s quality (though if any of you are threesome-friendly live-in maids, you should...you know what, maybe let's just let that pass for now). A few dollars goes a long way towards our optimism and sense that we're not utterly pissing away the best money earning years of our life on some frivolous shot at the moon. I won't say I fall asleep every night crying about the fact that I don't even make half the current minimum wage, but.....

No....I won't say it.

So, if we've kept you entertained (and maybe even laughing) for hours upon hours, maybe the price of a movie or book wouldn't go amiss?  Don't forget that though I would love to reply to everyone extensively, that would quickly eat up all of my writing time--though I greatly appreciate every single donation, no matter how small, different levels of donations will get different responses from me.

However, every year one of our appeal posts lands during the holidays.  I know you have a lot of people you're buying gifts for, and this isn't the easiest time of the year to find extra cash for supporting arts and entertainment.  If you're strapped for cash, there are always other things you can do for Writing About Writing that are super helpful, won't cost you a penny, and only take a minute or two.

2- Turn off your adblock for the chrisbrecheen.blogspot domain.  
We get a penny per ten gillion unique page views (or something--math is hard), but only for people with no adblock.  Most people surf the web with adblock on--as well they should! But it is actually really hurting the websites you like.

Then you scratch your heads when the site shuts down because its creators have to go get a desk job at collections, and you think "Man, that site was really good.  I wonder what happened."  YOU HAPPENED, YOU PARASITIC DILLHOLE!!!

Um.....er.....I don't mean you personally, of course.

You can turn off your adblock for a single domain, but have it remain on for the rest of the web. (You should do this for any site you like because you are a good person who doesn't suck.) Simply click on the adblock icon and choose "Allow This Site."  Blogger and Adsense are Google affiliates, so none of the ads you'll see here will be pop ups or too annoying and they are likely to be relevant.

But don't just click the clicky unless you genuinely see something interesting. (I have some friends tell me they "hella" click my ads all the time.)  This sort of "help" actually isn't helpful--Google tracks IP's, watches behavior, and has a ten thousand trained monkeys scouring every click for fraud.  Chances I won't even get paid, and I may even get kicked off of Adsense and be forced to give handjobs for crack on the cruel streets of Oakland. Then your "help" will destroy my will to live and I will shut down the blog--but not before writing a fifteen part entry about how you smell like soup and no one should ever put their mouth on your bits.

Neither of us wants that.  Just click if you are genuinely interested in an ad.  Just turning off your adblock will be enough otherwise.

3- Subscribe. 
Success begets success.

Writing industry peeps are starting to get a whiff of Writing About Writing. I have had at least one person in the industry tell me they are watching me with some keen interest. They will gauge whether I am small potatoes or "srs bzns" based on the number of subscribers I have--basically how much self promotion infrastructure I have set up should they take a chance on me and publish a book.

You don't even have to really use the feed.  You can "Like"/"+1"/Subscribe/whatever, and then immediately turn off the feed or ignore it or whatever if you aren't really interested in Following W.A.W..  The supportive part is just having the numbers.  That's basically my e-peen, and when I whip it out, it brings all the publishers to the yard.

4- Share the articles you like on social media.  
Share the shit out of those fuckers.

My friends already all hate me. They beat me up at parties and shiv me repeatedly at conventions. I was shot twice last year--once with an RPG to the face. If I try to share any more articles, they will hang me from a flagpole by my underwear (and no one wants to see that).  You guys will reach a lot more people if you share an article or two you like.

And if you really want to help, dig though The Reliquary for one of your favorite old articles and share that.

5- Click the "Like" buttons.  A lot.
Google search engines are like Cyberdine Industries at this point.  You can't fool them with SEO. Like buttons are the only way.  If John Connor had had a few more +1's on G+ the machines probably wouldn't have sent Terminators back in time to kill him.

6- Comment or drop me a line. 
It's been a crazy year. I got four (and a half) death threats.  (The half was someone calling for my death.) Plus one angry boyfriend who says he's going to beat me up if we ever meat [sic.] because his girlfriend cried out my name during sex.

I wish that was a joke. I really, really do.

Just hearing from people who are reading and enjoying is SUCH a wonderful change of pace from the rage boners I'm usually getting smacked with....in the face.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Writing Prompt: Outside Looking In

Stick a whole tree in your living room.
Wait for some dude to break and enter your house.
Fill your socks with sticky food.
Sing the same twenty or so songs over and over again for a month.
Makes total sense to me.
Happy Birthday Jesu---
Wait.....is that basket of cookies fucking twinkling?
Anya: I love a ritual sacrifice.
Buffy: Not really a one of those.
Anya: To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice. With pie.

-Buffy The Vampire Slayer on Thanksgiving

To commemorate the holidays we have a fun prompt about writing from the outside, looking in.

You probably did a prompt like this in high school--I did a few of them from things like holidays to sports events. However, it can always be a good exercise for even the most experienced writers to try to tackle for multiple reasons.

First- It is one of the most fundamental jobs of artists to question the invisible assumptions of the culture in which they live.  Few things are as unquestioned as the rituals surrounding our holidays. And while few things will quite as absurd under the microscope, it's good practice.

Second- As a writer, making the pedestrian extraordinary and the extraordinary pedestrian is ever one of the tasks we face. A writer can turn changing the catbox into a mystical experience and the slaying of dragons yawn-worthy. Writing about things from a different perspective is always good practice for the artistic eye.

Prompt- Write about a holiday in your culture as if you are an outsider with absolutely no experience who is bemused by the whole affair. You can make this funny or clinical, but remember that the voice you are writing through will attach NO significance to the symbols you yourself have taken for granted (and perhaps not even questioned) your entire life. Write at least one full page about the strangeness of it all, but feel free to go on if you get on a roll.

Don't forget to have fun.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Mailbox: Is My Story Done?

How do you know a story is finished? Should I be digging up my old stories?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Sometimes I have to skip questions because I have too many, so when I'm out, it's a great opportunity to get an almost guaranteed answer.]    

Jennifer's first question landed back during the absolute feedback (e-mail/social media/even phone calls) height of the Creepy Guy article, and got lost in the crossfire. But recently during my call for questions (I still need more, BTW) she nudged me about hers, and also wrote a follow up question. I answered both--or tried to.

Jennifer asks:

So this might seem like a weird question but how do you know a story is finished? Sometimes I get to the end of a story and it just doesn't feel finished, but I don't know where to go from there. Also, how do you know when it's time to cut a story loose because it's just not working? How do you know the difference between the difficulty of writing in general and the difficulty of a story that should be abandoned?

There is a saying that no art project is ever finished.  They are only ever abandoned.

Of course that’s just the sort of bumper-sticker wisdom that makes for a good image macro with a picture of someone profound (like a Greek Philosopher, James Baldwin in one of his less-radical/more-wise looking poses, or Patrick Stewart dressed as a lobster in the bathtub), but that really doesn’t do much to help young writers figure out if they need to do ten more revisions or burn the draft to keep warm when their not-so-Bohemian landlord shuts off the heat.

Take heart!  You're in good company. This is one of those questions that is as old as art itself, and it's probably one that's as hard to imagine there being a solid answer to. I can give you a few guidelines, but ultimately it's going to be up to you to do enough Tai Chi near the waterfall and communing with lotus blossoms and shit to find the zen of this for yourself. The answer comes from within, Grasshopper.  Or something.

The simplest answer that I can give you is that you should share your work when you want to--when you're proud of it. Little kids are great to watch for this exact moment of pride as "Mommy, no don't look. It's not done!" becomes "Mommy LOOK!" after only six extra pieces of glued-on macaroni.  If you don't want to show the work, don't.

Now as to whether it could be good or just needs to be abandoned, that's even a little harder than that to articulate because one of the things that separates those who are technically proficient in writing (or other craft skills) with artists is the ability to tell if something has that....je ne sais quoi. A million copy editors who will never be writers themselves understand this painfully well. If there's something in that story whispering to you, "Don't let me go. I'm real," then you should hang on no matter what. Keep working that one bit that won't let you let go.  Maybe the story ends up being completely different with just that one nugget of real that is whispering to you, but don't let go.

Maybe you need to take that ONE good character and start a whole new story around them, or take that one scene that really popped and make it the start of its own story.  Though often the tweaks we need to go from "not quite" to "NAILED IT" are much more subtle. A shift in point of view might make all the difference, or just one scene that is doing too much work for the reader being replaced with something vague. With many starting writers, it's a matter of chopping out a big chunk from the beginning where the protagonist didn't yet have a need that drove the tension of the plot, and once it is gone, you find the story crackles a lot more.

One thing you can't be is afraid to get messy.  Play with your story. Tweak it. Fuck around with it just to see what happens. Don't get married to everything you write. It's okay to spend a weekend writing something that will never be published. (Think of it like a fling with someone you would NEVER take home to mom.) An architect spent a lot longer than that getting their degree, and a musician spent a lot longer than that learning their instrument, and a painter spent a lot longer than that throwing away doodles.  Writers seem to be unique among artists for thinking that everything they write has to turn into a finished product.

If this is happening to a lot of stories (finishing them and not knowing if they're done), you may want to look at your narrative structure. A very common pitfall that new writers fall into is that they are writing poignant vignettes that aren't actually stories. Your main character has to want something from the moment we meet them. There has to be a chance they won't get it. Balanced forces need to compete with a real possibility of failure. And at the end there has to be a capacity for change. These are such fundamental aspects of storytelling, that writers often feel they are too good to learn them and end up writing stirring, emotional, incredibly-well-written snapshots of interesting characters that lack any sort of central tension or plot arc. A story without a central tension can have a very "Am I done?  Or not?" feel about it.

In general though, you have to listen to your artistic side. If you're bored as fuck and would prefer to go change the contact paper in your silverware drawer to continuing, your reader will be too.  Abandon ship! If you just don't want to do the work, and you see that it's going to take a lot of work to make the writing pop, then stick a shoe on a doorknob, put your ass in the doorknob's path, and slam the door really hard. Once you really listen, you will likely be surprised at how clearly your artistic sense will guide you in this matter.  However, knowing what you should do (abandon a work or really get your ass to work making it good) and actually doing it are two very different things.

Just remember nothing is ever a waste. Not really.  It can hurt to abandon something you feel like you've given so much time and energy, but it's never going away completely. If you "abandon" a project, you can't unwrite those pages. You won't remove the experience or forget the lessons you learned.  If you start on something new, you'll probably see the best bits of old work showing up here and there.  It's not the turns of phrase or the clever quips that show back up, (for those are not what make up real art) but the real characters and the genuine moments and the interesting conflicts.  I've often let go of stories that just weren't working, turned to whole other projects, and realized that the things that were important about the abandoned project were starting to peek through in the new one.

It's a question that is probably tainted by the gatekeeper setup within the publishing industry. Writers often have this sense that something is either Good Enough to Publish(tm) and therefore is "done." Or it isn't good enough to publish and therefore it should be sequestered away from prying eyes.  This dichotomy is false. You can now show things to people, get feedback, take it back and work on it some more. You can publish it (e-pub or self pub) and then noodle on it a bit if the feedback seems to be that it needs more work. Or you can press a button and send it to someone in Klikzaxistan who you trust to tell you if it's good.

What I can tell you is don't get stuck on perfection.

The world--especially the writing world--rewards completion, not perfection. Unless you seriously want to publish one killer book...ever....in your whole life, keep working.  Quantity is quality as Bradbury said.  Keep writing. And while revision is a critical part of the process, and probably more important to making "art" than to making consumable media, you can't lose yourself in eternal revision either.

I can name off the top of my head three writers I know personally--one of them a mentor of mine--who are simply in eternal states of retooling their one and only novel--ever submitting it to agents and getting rejection after rejection after rejection. Years have gone by and rather than self publish the thing, shelf it for publication after they maybe have some name recognition and work on a more sellable project, or just putting it away for an extended hibernation to hit it with really fresh eyes, they are constantly punching up, paring down, and tightening--endlessly retooling the one thing for that ONE moment of acceptance. It's a lot to do for a single work and while they retool and retool a lot of *CAREER* time passes them by. (A first book--even if one of the big six picks you up--is probably going to have a very modest run unless you become famous later.) And maybe they will have that be their breakout first opus/great American novel, but it's a lot more likely that they're just holding themselves back from genuine risk under the guise of perfectionism.

Besides you will learn more lessons on how to write something awesome by going and making new mistakes than by trying to endlessly diddle with the old ones.

Follow up: Hey! I see you're looking for questions but I don't think you ever answered mine! I have a follow up question as well. I have a notebook that's now full of rubbish that's not even worthy of a Tumblr fan fiction blog. Do I bother going back to edit it for the sake of editing, even if I have no interest in doing anything with it? (I've also killed several pens, thanks to you- if I wasn't 3000 miles away, married, and a mother to two kids, I'd totally be your groupie).

Very interested to see how you're going to manage with a newborn around. Can't say I've been productive since mine was born, but sleep deprivation has been more of a factor than time for me (my brain feels like mush). 

If you have no interest in those old stories, don't go back. Let them go. They will stay with you in all the ways that matter. You can't unlearn those lessons. You can't undo that practice.  And if one day you find yourself thinking of a GREAT twist on one of those stories or characters, you can dig it out from the locked chest you keep in the basement behind the dead bodies and under the collection of 90's Vivid DVD's. Until then, trust that with each artistic effort you engage in, you emerge a better and more refined artist, even if you never turn everything you ever do into something you might sell.

It's great to have groupies.  Even the married, cross-country, totally conditional kind.  The current list is deplorably lacking, and I'll take what I can get! And if it's because I've inspired you to kill pens and spill ink in wild abandon, that's even better. I'll go ahead and talk about you in the vaguest terms--also about shafts and "spilling ink" and stuff--and possibly it will inspire some less married, less 3000-miles-away potential groupies to wonder if they aren't missing out on something sweet.

As for the newborn, it's been interesting, but since it's Uberdude and The Brain's kid, I am still getting good sleep even though I've changed a couple of diapers already that could be their own Super Villain.  Their room is on the other side of the battle simulation room too, so even though I help out, I can hang an "Emergencies (or Arch Nemeses Attacks) Only" sign on my quarters door and get plenty of rest.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Apologies to Everyone for Basically This Entire Year

Dear Staff at Writing About Writing (especially guest bloggers):

It has come to my attention that basically you all have, in fact, been keeping quite up to date with sending me everything I've asked for. With the exception of Guy Goodman, who is drowning himself in Scotch and who I'll be talking to later today, all of you have actually been doing quite well about getting me guest blog posts each month, and they've just been getting eaten by our Evil Mystery Guest Blogger.  Now that the Trojan Horse computer program thing has been pulled from hard drives of the Writing About Writing computer network, I've come to discover all these old articles.

That means I owe a few of you an apology.

Leela Bruce, I'm sorry I kung fu fought you up and down the halls for three hours until you finally grew so tired that I was able to get a tentacle past your blocking zone.  I'm sure that suction cup mark will heal. I'll lend you a cream that should help.

Ima Lister, I'm sorry I held you down with four tentacles and made you list off a different adjective for each smack I delivered you with the other four.  I was impressed at the sheer scope of your vocabulary though--very impressive.

Guy Goodman St.White, I am less sorry that I did a spinning jump kick where I smacked you with all eight tentacles at in rapid succession, but I am a little sorry.  It seems like you got me something, even though they were Scotch addled rants about "fucking Spencer and his fucking high fantasy bullshit."

I guess the good news is that we have all these backlogs of articles.  If you guys want to take some time off like we....er I sort of thought you were taking off already, you could.  Just make sure to check in by February or so.  Chris is probably going to use all these as excuses to spend more time with the baby.

Again, truly sorry about the beatings,


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Recognize Real Opportunities

Photo by Jason Tester
While you don't want to get quagmired in the sort of writing you don't want to do, you also don't want to let good opportunities pass you by.

So I'm writing for another blog.  It's not just a guest post situation; I'm actually a blogger there.  Today was my first post (and yesterday was the launch) of a blog called Grounded Parents. While some of you who've written in requesting the deets of my personal life (multiple times and as though you are auditioning for the role of the tough-as-nails investigator on the new CSI: SF/Bay Area) might relish the opportunity to gain another piece in the puzzle, the blog really isn't about writing, and so I won't do a lot of cross posting here.  I'll probably put a link in my Folks Worth Checking Out page but otherwise you won't see much unless I write something there that also applies particularly to writing.

However I do want to use it to make a point.

Writers will have lots of opportunities to write.  From skeevy offers for unpaid freelance work to professional opportunities like tech writing and freelance writing that aren't creative. They can always go on Craigslist and end up writing scat fetish porn for a penny a word. But while writing opportunities are everywhere, a writer wants to be very careful which ones they pursue. Many of these opportunities are unpaid, and the ones that are may quagmire a writer in an unfulfilling, non-creative loop. A career writing electric toothbrush instruction manuals might allow a writer to light their cigars with five hundred dollar bills, but it would be an empty and hollow life of alcohol, drugs, and double-jointed prostitutes. There would be no real fulfillment. One of the toughest choices for an unpublished writer with a career path that is still unmanifest is to walk away from something that's not going to be worth their time.

However, especially if you are in on the e-pub/blogging/self promotion side of the business of writing, it is equally important to be able to recognize a really good opportunity when one comes along. You don't want to be so focused on your own shit that you never write for anyone but yourself.  The world of social media is a tricky beast and sometimes the best thing you can do is be seen outside of your normal circles doing what you do. Every advice column out there on how to get more traffic recommends doing guest posts and just being SEEN writing in other places--even if it's just commenting.  Any writing that you might be interested in doing anyway, done on major blogs, actually can be great exposure, even if they're not tipping over wheelbarrows of money into your cash pool.  Writing About Writing has already had a dozen referrals from Grounded Parent and it's only the first day.

Unfortunately I've known more than a few writers, some far better writers than I, who asked for signal-boosting without giving any back, wouldn't collaborate, and never did anything for which they were not paid, and they have all inevitably had a very difficult time expanding beyond their own ability for self-promotion. You have to recognize the importance of other people in this industry--especially if you are going the e-pub/self-pub/blogging route. But even in the incestuous world of traditional publishing, if you are always looking out for number one, no one will ever put their neck out for you either.

There isn't a hardline for judging this.  Just know that bullshit is probably going to smell like bullshit, and if you recognize the name of a blog without looking it up, you're probably looking at a great opportunity.  In the vast ocean between these two extremes, it's going to be up to your best judgement.  If you feel like your career is going well and you need to push hard in that direction, you may want to pass on more of the middle-of-the-road propositions. If you are just starting out, you might err on the side of getting the experience.

Just don't be afraid to flip them off with both hands and say "NOPE!" if it turns out to be something that isn't good for you.

You always want to beware of bullshit, snake oil salesmen, dead ends, and careers where you can "be a writer" but that aren't really the type of writing you'd like to do, but at the same time you don't want to be too good to write for anything but yourself, too focused on self promotion to realize the benefit of having your name shouted from a few new towers and too mercenary about pay to miss a good opportunity.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Asimov or LeGuin: Best Classic Science Fiction Author

Protip: When you take a screenshot, try not to capture the cursor.
Don't forget to vote in our poll for the best science fiction author.

Things are still pretty tight, but the tie for first place has been between LeGuin and Asimov all month long.  One will pull ahead and then the other.  Down in (what will be) third place, Wells and Bradbury are neck and neck as well.  Though really it's still early enough and close enough that any author could pull this one out.

Don't forget you get FIVE votes (5) but that for every vote you give you "dilute" the potency of the others since there isn't a ranking system.  Choose wisely.  

The poll itself is on the left hand sub menus at the bottom.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Command Decision

So there's going to be a slight change in things around Writing About Writing--at least in regards to Facebook.

For about the past year I've been trying to bolster our numbers here at Writing About Writing in any one of a dozen ways, and one of the things that I've discovered is that while I greatly enjoy doing the "plot arcs" with guest bloggers and ongoing shenanigans, those posts don't do particularly well when shared on social media.  They tend to be something that only those following the blog pretty closely really like.

Facebook is a strange beast.  Writing About Writing's Facebook page now has over 3000 followers, and has the greatest potential of all the social media I use.  (Stumbleupon is fabulous, but has a glass ceiling unless there something is just going viral.)  However, Facebook is also where I'm constantly trying to do jazz hands to keep the page interesting and entertaining and not just a cross post of blog stuff.  Almost every waking hour I'm posting some macro, meme, comic, pun, riddle, or writer's quote.  That's probably why I have three thousand people (instead of just three) who might click a link to an interesting article.

But who probably won't click to find out that Cedric and The SciGuy have found dozens of missing articles in the wake of the computer attack by the Mystery Guest Blogger--which I think is hilarious and love writing about.

The catch is that since I am only posting a couple of links to Writing About Writing each day on Facebook (amidst a gush of other content to keep the place compelling) each post feels like it really needs to "count." Posting plot arc articles on media where there isn't a dedicated following is basically just ensuring that a "slot" that I could be using for something much more popular is being wasted.

I've noticed in the last few months that I've often forgone a "plot arc" post for something else just because I knew the former wouldn't do well on Facebook.  But I kind of miss them, and I sort of feel like they've been a real part of the flavor here.

So I'm not going to share them on FB anymore.  I will just be sharing the more popular articles that drum up views.

What this means if you're on Facebook:

1- You won't get every update.  If you want to get every last W.A.W. update, you will have to subscribe, follow the blog through Google/Blogger, sign up for e-mail notifications, subscribe to an RSS feed, or follow Writing About Writing (or me) on G+.

2- I may cycle through the "reruns" a little faster on Facebook. Days I write a plot arc post would end up being "double rerun" days.  I have two years of writing and growing, and it takes MONTHS to cycle through the whole batch of reruns and go back to the beginning, but it will happen faster.

What this means if you're on G+:

1- You may have a slightly higher rate of days with three posts.

Hopefully this little tweak means more plot arc and more page views.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The "Other" Questions

What have I been doing my whole life? What do I want for Christmas? Will I look at your book/story/thing?
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Sometimes I have to skip questions because I have too many, so when I'm out, it's a great opportunity to get an almost guaranteed answer.]    

Okay so since no one is getting me good questions, I'm going to have to answer the...other questions. Please send me more questions!

Mark writes: 

What have you been doing your whole life? I'm so sorry that have only decided to start writing so late in your life. I will enjoy the blog and your fiction for as long as it lasts, but I sure wish you had kicked off your career in your twenties.

My reply:

Dude. I'm not quite dead yet. I have a great pulse and blood pressure for someone with a foot in the grave, so there is cause to be somewhat optimistic that I might see 2020. I hear people are even living into their forties these days. So I'll try to hang in there for a few more weeks (maybe even months if I learn to love cruciferous vegetables) and get you a couple more good articles before I become more interested in plots than plots.

Q.L. asks:

What are you hoping to get for Christmas?

My reply:

You mean besides the groupie threesome? Because I thought I made that one pretty explicitly clear.

I usually ask people not to get me stuff for Christmas. That's really the best gift I could ever ask for. I sort of hate the materialism of Christmas, and I would much rather have some good peeps, a bit of cheer, and maybe one too many cookies--or four....teen.

However, my mom instilled this crazy sense of reciprocity on me. We would wander the isles of Toys R Us with her vetoing my every suggestion with "No, Josh got you those really nice walkie talkies last year, so you have to get something really good for him--$24.99 at least!" Now, thirty years later, I basically have a neurotic complex about reciprocity. Handing me any sort of gift begins a cascade domino reaction of anxious stress in my brain about getting back a present of equal sentimental and worldly value.  I have ended up in a 24/7 gas station at four in the morning on Christmas Eve wondering which grotesquely overpriced novelty set of neon headphones best defined a mother of three ...as a person (and absolutely ready to shiv some poor dad for the last pack of AAA batteries) because someone handed me a gift I wasn't expecting at the last second.

I don't actually have anything I'm hoping to score this season (other than the aforementioned groupie threesome, of course). I have very little I want in a normal year, and The Contrarian's arrival has muted even that--I really just want the people I love close to me. My uberpeeps usually manage to delight me with some kind of techy toy (like a watch that counts calories or a game on Steam I was never going to buy for myself at full price or something), but they're not things I would have even thought to buy myself. I try to find them something similar.  My Christmases usually clock in at under two or three hundred dollars, and that's the way I like it.

Michael asks:

This might seem like a silly question, but do you actually like writing?

My reply:


I understand that there might be some confusion about how much a writer enjoys the actual process of writing itself. Some find it to be excruciating. More something they are compelled by unholy forces of darkness within their corrupted soul to the page, and not something they particularly enjoy. And writers are even quoted as saying "I like having written," or words to that effect.  But I think even with those people there is a sense of catharsis they can't really deny. The act of birthing an artistic creation is like horrible and messy and painful, and it fights back, but there's nothing like it in the universe. (Not unlike the literal version, I'm finding.) I can't always say I love every painful word birthing second of writing, but it brings me more fulfillment in life than anything else.

Lemmie put it this way, Michael.  I've been doing this blog for 2 years and I've made about a thousand dollars.  Before that I wrote for about twenty years and never made a dime. I wouldn't stop if you told me that I would never make another penny, ever.

Yeah, I actually like writing.

Will you look at my manuscript/book/short story/whatever?

Okay this isn't really a bad question, per se. Those of you who have been writing a while probably ought to know better, but this question keeps coming to me from much newer writers (usually younger as well).

I want to be really careful here because some of you who are writing me are at a very tender place in your development as artists. When that first spark of artistic passion really flares in young people, the world works hard to stamp it out (under the auspices of "being pragmatic" or "just telling it like it is") and keeping it alive through those first few years is a little bit like protecting a soap bubble from a sandstorm. Lord knows I had people in my ten year old face saying "Why on Earth would you want to be a writer? Can you maybe want to be a lawyer instead?"

So I want to encourage everyone who is writing me with these sorts of requests to keep your dream alive. Keep writing! You may have to write for a few years before you are ready for serious peer review or before a mentor might take you seriously, but if you look at the stuff you wrote when you first started, you should be able to see improvement.  Well, actually, the reaction you are probably likely to have is to look at your old stuff and think "Oh Jesus titty-fucking Christ this shit is next-level awful!"

That's basically as close as you'll get to watching yourself improve in art.

The thing about peer review is you want it from peers--people who are about at the same level of writing as you. (Otherwise they'd have to name it something else, and that's a lot of paperwork to submit.) If someone is way above you, they are really doing more mentoring than peer review, and if they are far below you, it is likely that the feedback will be of very minimal help. While I put my fiction through peer review, I really don't have time to do mentoring, unfortunately. I am very busy with my three jobs and my blogging and my other writing, and there are a lot of people asking me to look at their stuff. I just don't have time! I'm sorry. I have occasionally made myself available for some of my friends who like writing, but those are people I am close to and rare occasions. So find a couple of people writing at about the same level as you and give each other feedback. (You'll probably find you learn more from the giving than from the receiving.) And keep writing.  Keep writing. Keep writing.

Because I can absolutely guarantee you one thing: if you keep writing, the day will come when I will be honored beyond my ability to express it to look at something you've written.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Enter The Contrarian

I would like to introduce you to The Contrarian.
Enough of this gazing adoringly crap.
Let's go fight some crime!

Though powers of your average superhero baby tend to grow and develop over time, we have already begun to see a bit of our little crime fighter's preternatural abilities peeking through.

He appears to have the ability to psychically contradict people's intentions.  He's best at it when it involves people trying to do things to him.  It doesn't appear to be able to be broad or categorical.  He couldn't stop a band of thieves from robbing a bank by psychically contradicting the whole bank robbery, or someone from committing a murder (unless he was standing right next to the person), but anytime someone wants to do something that can affect him directly, he can instantly contradict it with little more than a psychic thought. It'll be a handy power, especially once he learns how to use it, but it's largely defensive, and so he's going to have to learn martial arts or throw chakras or something too.

Still at six days old, he is pre-verbal, so who knows exactly how his powers will develop as he gains the ability to vocalize.

Unfortunately when two superheroes fall in love, their babies (almost always superheroes themselves) sometimes lose control of their powers during the difficult birthing process.  The Contrarian had some tough moments where his powers were just going off left and right, and accidentally hitting everyone.

"You are going to be birthed right here in The Hall of Rectitude," The Brain said.  "I've even rented a birthing tub, hired a doula, and contacted some midwives who specialize in superhero births."

"I Am Not," The Contrarian (psychically) said, and The Brain decided to transfer to a hospital.

"Okay now that you're at the hospital," the nurse said, "He is going to come out without any trouble now, I'm sure."

"I Am Not!" The Contrarian (psychically) said, and suddenly it was time for a c-section.  The Brain still had an infection from Cybotrex's nanites, and The Contrarian's heart rate was getting too high. Every time someone said "You need to come out baby," the contrarian's reply was "I Am Not!"

I stop more terrorist plots in my sleep than most people do awake.
No seriously.  That's not hyperbole. I really do.
So there was a C-section. I would like to tell you that it was textbook, but there were complications.  Uberdude and I sat on stools behind a curtain looking at The Brain's worried face.

That's when Doctor Negatron tried to use the surgical laser to slice and dice The Brain. We ended up having a fight between Doc Neg, The Warlock, Uberdude and me, IN THE MIDDLE of surgery, and Doctor Negatron and The Warlock were not being careful not to contaminate the operating room.  We wanted to let loose and really fight but we had to be calm and careful battling the villains.  We kept holding back our true fury for The Brain's and the baby's sake.

At one point The Warlock had me cornered.  If I dodged left I would end up crushing the baby. If I dodged right, I would contaminate the surgery and The Brain would probably die of sepsis. So I just froze--unable to really do anything but stand there and wait.

I felt The Warlock reaching into my body with his disembodied shadow hand and my very soul hooked from the its anchor by his necromantic powers. Everything got desperately cold, and the first real fear of my life gripped me. I could lose people I loved.

I could really, actually lose people I loved.

"Well, well, well," The Warlock said, eyes glittering under the surgical lights, "nowhere left to run."

He pulled back for one final yank. "Looks like this little guy is going be growing up without an Uncle Chris."

"I Am Not!" 

A thin smile crossed my lips. "You just made a mistake," I said.

The Warlock paused, unable to continue. Confusion bubbled up and hardened into frustration at his inability to kill me. By including the baby in his intentions, he had opened himself up to be contradicted. He struggled to no avail against the irresistible psychic compulsion of....The Contrarian.

That's when Sonic Gal burst into the O.R., ran over, picked up an oxygen tank, and brought it down over The Warlock's brain pan--all in just the second it took him to realize that he couldn't deliver the coup de grace on me.

The Warlock's head made a very satisfying clangthump when hit with an oxygen tank.  That's one less baby he will be able to eat to fuel his dark energies.

Doctor Negatron, never one for physical conflict, slipped out of the O.R. with a cry of: "Next time Uberdude!  Next time!"

Then suddenly everything was over. The Contrarian was in the world. I got to look at his little face, awake and looking back at me. His tiny eyes were open, and he looked cranky....but he looked okay.

And all of it--ALL OF IT--was worth it.
"Thirty seconds old, and you already owe me, brah."

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

November's Best 2013

Still recovering from the arrival of "The Contrarian" who is our newest little crime fighter. He's gotten home from the hospital and has been showing off his psychic powers of contradiction.

However, we've been on hiatus for over a week now. And while the reasoning for this will probably make perfect sense once I tell you about The Contrarian's entrance into the world, and the terrorists led by Hans G. Roober who tried to take over the hospital for the bearer bonds in the safe, and the psychic showdown on the rooftop. I'm not sure who takes over a hospital during Christmas season, but it all felt really familiar for some reason.

Anyway the point here is that I apologize for taking longer than the couple of days but after eighty hours of labor, some seriously heroic heroism, and the day of just sleeping that we needed to catch up, I'm finally back.

These are the articles from November that will be going on into the Hall of Fame.

Seven Bits of Advice to Get You Through Week 2 of NaNoWriMo

The Mailbox: Traditional vs. Digital Publishing

A Demon's Rubicon Part 3

I'd also like to give honorable mention to "The Remote Milestone."  While I don't usually put the "meta" articles in with the "Best of W.A.W." (Like poll results or poll descriptions.) That one did get enough page views to make the list.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Poll: Best Classic Sci-Fi Author

Who is the BEST classic science fiction author.

So our newest poll is live. The poll itself is at the bottom of the left hand side menus.  

This is an author poll, not a book poll. Consider the author's whole career and all the books they've written.

HOWEVER, our cut off is 1970, and authors are notorious for continuing to write all their lives and not simply quitting on round numbered years.  That means we have several authors who straddled the divide.  Please consider only their pre-1970 works in whether or not you vote for them. So if you love Clarke mostly because of the Rendezvous with Rama series, please hold off voting for him until we run our contemporary science fiction author poll (next month). I'm not going to police this--anymore than this reminder. But several authors like LeGuin and Clarke might be instantly recognizable science fiction names but often wrote the majority of works for which they are recognized after 1970.  (Of course Left Hand of Darkness is a pretty remarkable exception in LeGuin's case.)  Asimov is pretty much half before and half after, so consider whether you like his earlier or later work better.

I dropped all the authors who didn't get at least 1 second.  It's still a pretty long poll.  Lots of great authors didn't get nominated and yet the names on the list are still giants. A couple of people tried to nominate two or nominate post 1970 writers so I didn't take those nominations and made their "seconds" actually their firsts (and thus they didn't make the poll).

Yeah, it's a bit of a white sausagefest, but that tends to be what happens when someone says "classic."

I'm going to try something a little different.  Everyone will get five votes (5).  That's a lot of votes, but before you simply vote for your favorite five, consider that you somewhat dilute the effect of each--as there is no ranking of those five votes. So if you have a genuine favorite--or pair of favorites--it's better to use as few votes as possible.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Poll Results: Best Speculative Fiction

The results are in.  The best (non sci-fi/non fantasy/non horror) speculative fiction novel is....

So thank you to everyone for participating (though I am doing narrow eyes at whomever nominated The Rook and then didn't vote for it).  The talking rabbits have it.

It was surprising.  Watership Down never got out of third or fourth place until my 48 hour extension.  Then, suddenly, it shot into the lead.

Rabbits are built for sprints, I guess.

Better yet, it seems like all the ties ended up being broken one way or another. Even the weeks long dead heat in the middle of the poll finally got broken up in these last couple of days.

I also want to thank so many of you for participating.  Even at three votes each, at least 120+ people voted in our poll.  That's incredible! Our polls are really getting interesting.

So stay tuned in the next couple of hours for the new poll to go up. And if you haven't made any nominations or seconded others for the BEST CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION AUTHOR, you still have time to get over there and help shape December's poll.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Why I Left Islam

This might be a personal question, but I saw that you once used to be Muslim on one of your other posts. Why did you leave?  

It's funny.  I met a Sufi (to those who don't know, that is a practitioner of one of many forms of Islamic mysticism) not so long ago, and after he got to know me, he told me I struck him as more Muslim than most of the Muslims he knew. I told him I hadn't prayed or fasted in years and I was pretty much never going to do pilgrimage. His reply was: "Muslims do those things to remind themselves they are Muslim. You don't seem to have ever forgotten."

I don't know about that, but it is an interesting introduction.

Losing one's faith, especially when you really, really don't want to lose it an intensely personal and cerebral event, so I'm not sure how well I can put it into words without oversimplifying, but I'll try. It's sort of like having a big, strong bully who wants your favorite toy just yank it from your hands no matter what you do. And you know the minute you see them exactly what is going to happen, and you can see it coming but you struggle and fight anyway even though it makes no difference.
I can only fairly tell you what I experienced, and not how things truly were.
I teach English as a second language at a community college, and as many things as I am good at like literary analysis, making stealth snipers in FPS games, guessing business's hotspot passwords, and writing really long blog posts, bicultural people (or those in visibly marginalized groups) have at least one ability I simply lack. I would offer up that I'm better now (after fifteen years of being a writer) than I was when I was having a crisis of faith, but still rubbish compared to any one of them.

Me: Uh....no.
                        Them: Yeah, I can see how that could work.                                   
That is the ability to keep two mutually exclusive ideas within one's head as absolutely true at the same time. 

Cultural paradox turns out to be common among those who have no choice, but for a white, heterosexual male living in Los Angeles during his early twenties, it was more than I could handle.

The more I understood Islam, the more I couldn't cope with that comprehension. Ideas like women's equality, LGBTQ+ equality, communities that struggled to simply exist, and even democracy crashed against Islam's foundational principles like unrelenting waves. Every day I read something about stoning adulterers, lashing people for premarital sex, or beating women for dressing too revealingly. One moment I particularly remember was reading–ironically, on the exact same day as some breaking research into the biological component of homosexuality–a saying of Muhammed that the punishment for homosexuality should be having a burning house collapsed on them or being thrown off a cliff. But then one of my friends chimed in that, well actually....it wasn't clear that anything should happen except for the prescribed flogging for pre-marital sex.

Yeah.  That was the moderate stance: "You ONLY flog them!" I don't think people understood why I was starting to recoil.

(As a matter of record, let me point out at this point, that I do, in fact, realize that there are much more moderate schools of thought. I may have had a very different life if I'd run into them sooner rather than later.)

Or I would read Surah 4 of the Quran and then lie in bed at night staring at the ceiling while those deep seated values of equality my parents raised me with fought it out with what I thought then was God's will on the matter. Was God really telling physically stronger people to beat the weaker ones if they showed too much skin? Had He really had made men as the maintainers of women? Was a man marrying four women okay if women couldn't do the same.  Why was men marrying Christians and Jews okay but women couldn't. Why could men have sex with slaves captured during war but women couldn't? Was women getting half the inheritance of men simply by virtue of being women really okay? Was there really some inherent total equity in all of this because "women don't ever have to work except on the housekeeping and child rearing" (cause, you know.... that's not *real* work)? Was I missing something?

Some nights back then I didn't get much sleep.

I took after Islam with the same obsessive intensity with which I take to so many things--a talent I would later apply to reading Robert Asprin books, memorizing MST3K lines, beating real time strategy games on their hardest setting, and player vs. player combat in World of Warcraft. I learned more than most of my Muslim friends in a few months. After only a year I was being invited to give a khutbah (that's the little talk before the Friday prayer) all over L.A. area almost every week, and I was teaching Sunday school to people who had been Muslim all their lives. (That's pretty weird on a number of levels.) And with that knowledge came both the awareness that people really weren't behaving anything like they were supposed to be behaving as well as increased ideological conflicts--conflicts that weren't going to go away by reading yet another scholar's commentary.

This cultural paradox affected me in an intensely pragmatic way as well. It seemed to me like I was never going to get married. My Muslim friends were largely very rich immigrants whose parents had fairly high levels of nationalism, materialism, and culturalism that were anathema to the spirit of Islam but didn't seem to create any cognitive dissonance within them. They would wonder about which sub-specialty of medical doctorate prospective husbands had. The very liberal ones would ask "Doctor or Engineer?" I actually had more than one conversation with middle aged men who had bought an ice cream store franchise or a small restaurant for their wives "to have something to do during the day" that went something like this: "Oh, it only generates fifty or sixty thousand dollars a year. Certainly not enough to live on."

Yeah, who could possibly live on so little?

On top of that there was this strange nationalism within the Muslim community. Syrians thought Syrians made the best Muslims and had the best form of Islam. Egyptians thought Egyptians made the best Muslims and had the best form of Islam. Pakistanis thought Pakistanis made the best Muslims. Malaysians: Malaysians. No one came out and said it (well...except the Saudis--they totally came right out and said it), but it was always there.

And since I wasn't any of those things, they all liked to share with me what the others did wrong. "Those barbarians do not care about the zabiha meat!" "Those fake Muslims do not care about the hijab!" "They are ignorant and do not care about the ilm (knowledge)." It's not really anything different than any immigrant community experiences when people carry their sense of national pride and their hope that their children marry someone from the old country. (Hopes that are fairly lax with sons but become rather....*ahem* strident when it comes to daughters, if you take my meaning.) I still see it today in my E.S.L. classes and it's not even necessarily a Muslim thing per se. "No no no," they say. "It's not that I think my culture is the best in an ethnocentric way. It's just better than any other culture and no one else will be marrying my little girl. Ever."

It's just that in the case of Islam there's an actual proscription from God against that sort of thing. One that is pretty cheerfully ignored.

I had left a life of high school dating to be Muslim, assuming that marriage would be something Muslims did as young as possible to protect them from a world of temptations. Not so much, it turns out. Not only did Muslim's marry later than most religious folks who cling to high levels of orthodoxy, they actually even tend to marry later than most other Americans (many waiting until after graduate or med school). And all these dads wanted to see their daughters hooked up with young men making six figure (minimum) who were from the same country as they were, and in many cases even the same part of the same country.

You see where this was going for this here white boy, right?

Pretty much the whole community had a big "You're Never Going to Get Married" stamp on it. I would even have these surreal conversations with dads. That basically went: "Man I feel for how hard this has got to be on you, and this community totally needs to step up and get over this 'dunya' (worldly) crap. They all pretty much suck. Not my daughter though. No fucking way it would ever be MY little girl."

Like...I had a clone of that conversation not a few times.

I couldn't deal with all the disparities around me between my thoughts and values, the Muslim community's thoughts and values, and the thoughts and values that seem to be evident within Islam--at least within a dogmatic interpretation. And my rationalist and liberal upbringing was battering at the defenses I'd constructed. I didn't have the ability to be both, to say "I don't like that part," or to take solace in lax interpretations of Islam. Most of the people I met thumped the Quran pretty hard about the stuff their culture cared about already, and shrugged when it came to the parts they were clearly ignoring. And I've always been an easy person to guilt (which is a different and also long story).

I once got asked to lead the Friday prayer for a group of middle aged guys in Lancaster. I quoted them about thirty verses on how rockstar awesome charity was and handful of sayings of Muhammed about how spartan the lifestyles of the leaders of Islam were. I called on them not to live such lives or even give up modern conveniences, but only to reduce the conspicuous consumption among their trappings of gross excess–like maybe trading their Benz or BMW for a Toyota or giving up their half a million dollar homes (in early 90's real estate prices) for something with one less bedroom. Think of how much direct charity they could do–like just pick a cause and go wild.

"Brother," one said to me afterward, "we don't really talk about these things."

I wasn't invited back.

To be fair.... Islam has a number of moderate and even liberal interpretations and even a rich history that closed the door on personal interpretation around the 10th century for very political reasons and many Muslims the world over recently been vociferously questioning that choice.

Further, the Muslim diaspora spans from Morocco to Malaysia with communities all over Earth.  I came in contact with a minuscule fraction of a fraction of the Earth's BILLION or so Muslims, so I can only fairly tell you what I experienced, and not how things truly were. It's possible that beyond the L.A. area I could have found legions of lower middle class Muslims engaged wanton miscegenation who had a real keen sense for the paradox of Islamic expression within the U.S. and who could have talked a convert through his crisis of faith instead of basically giving me the advice of the "pray and fast" variety that amounts to telling someone with an aerodynamically unstable flying machine to "pedal faster."

For me, it became increasingly impossible to accept the watered down Islam because how could anyone accept something as the word of God and then proceed to ignore it? That made no sense. Either you believed or you didn't. I thought the people who claimed to be Muslim but substituted a personal morality when it suited them were the worst sort of hypocrites. I couldn't see Islam as a soft culture–a background radiation like secular Christendom is for so many in the US–but always as something steely and unyielding.

And you can probably imagine what a fucking ray of sunshine I must have been back then to be going through this at what was already the height of my emo phase. Any young woman who might have had liberal parents or been willing to butt heads with them because "I love him daddy!" was not exactly going to be dazzled by my clinical depression and overwrought judgmental bullshit.

I became sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy of rejection.

All of this collided in the spring of 1997 along with the divorce of my parents.  They were irritated enough with my decisions, but also had their own shit to deal with. I think they just kind of forgot about me in the crossfire. And I didn't treat that like the huge thing it was. I thought I could just shrug and move on when actually it kind of ripped me apart.

It was pretty clear that I wouldn't be starting up my own family any time soon. (And despite what you may have heard Muslims aren't really big on cuddle parties or puppy piles.) Many of my student friends even went home on weekends and over vacations leaving me alone in our Westwood apartment about half the time (because for me, it wasn't parent-supplied student housing--I actually lived there). There were months--entire months--where I literally did not have even the human contact of a hug.

[Edit: I now know that this is actually something medical and clinical called "touch hunger."]

I went a little crazy.

I don't mean that in a cute, hyperbolic way. ("Oh wasn't that just a shit wacky time in Muslimville? Hahahaha!") I mean I genuinely broke. There were moments where if I had been put in front of a psychiatrist, I probably would have been "held for evaluation."

It was the only time in my life that I genuinely contemplated self harm for more than a couple of days at a time. Suicide was strictly against Islamic doctrine, but I started to dream about buying a one way ticket to some middle eastern country with a messed up dictator, grabbing a rock or stick or knife and just running towards the royal palace as fast as I could until someone holding a rifle shot me dead in the street and made me a martyr.

With subtle variations, I dreamed about that a lot, actually.

I dreamed about the way I would look up at the sky from a spreading pool of my own blood and smile, and all the self loathing and confusion and rejection and stark horrible loneliness would be over.

I idealized suicide by corrupt regime.

I couldn't honestly tell you what cracked first--my loneliness or my sense of moral dissociation. I remember moments of depression so severe I literally could not get out of bed; I would replay the middle part of Holst's Jupiter song over and over again and wish I could even nod to my roommate asking "Dude, are you okay?" I remember spending my nights at graveyard security walking my patrols while trying not to cry--often failing. I couldn't sleep and when I did I had terrible nightmares about aspects of my faith and personality literally personified as snarling monsters that were fighting each other and me trying to fight Satan with a pen for a weapon.

I couldn't hold an Islam-lite in my head. I couldn't handle the "real" version. (Remember, this was my experience, not some "truth.") My future prospects were negligible. No one wanted to deal with my "hardcore crap." I was utterly unweddable. I didn't really even have anyone to talk to who wasn't either telling me to "buck up little soldier" or "quit that silly Buddha crap." (I don't want to impugn anyone personally--they were doing their best and I don't think they knew I was actually in need of professional help.) I was praying to be killed basically every day. And the more I tried to double down and be a better Muslim, the more I didn't like the sexist, homophobic, misogynist I saw in the mirror.

And I can't underscore the non-touching thing enough. It wasn't even the celibacy that was killing me; it was the lack of touch.  Now understand the psychological effects of a complete lack of oxytocin a little better, but at the time I just thought I was growing to hate everyone and everything. Which of course made me even more disagreeable about how I wasn't being handed the wife I was entitled to, and made things worse, which made me more disagreeable. (Seriously this is how MRA's get to be so fucked up.) Hope had abandoned me. Both ideologically and logistically my worlds seemed like magnets with the same poles. The harder I tried to press them together the more force with which they would fly apart.

When there is no alternative, folks learn to adapt to cultural paradox. But I had a choice.

Losing my faith was like being caught in a tunnel with a train coming.  I could see it a mile away, but there wasn't a thing I could do about it. By the end I was running towards the train so there wouldn't be any chance my faith would be anything but a long red smear along the tracks.

I felt...like an absolute failure--like I had let everyone down. And yet that release was so sweet. So much of who I really was returned to focus. I felt like me again. I could get a hug, relate to people, maybe kiss a girl without first being a doctor or an engineer, and value ideals like equality and social justice again. (And look, let me underscore again this was a personal journey–today I know there are Muslims who value those things, even if they may have to break from formal Islamic jurisprudence to struggle for many of the same things.)

The worst part about it was that at that time in my life I look back upon as the most intensely spiritual and most beautiful of my life in a lot of ways. One of the reasons I'd fallen in love with Islam in the first place was the regimented spiritual connection. I could possibly pontificate about altered states of consciousness today, but the fact was at the time my perception was that I had a very spiritual connection to a higher power and I had intentionally severed it because I could not hold to the dogma. Having that wilt in my hands was like watching someone you love die of some wasting disease....that I had somehow infected them with.

I'm not sorry about what happened. It's possible that if I'd gotten married (or just gotten hugged) that my rougher thoughts may have been smoothed over to make way for slightly laxer substitutes that could coexist within Americana culture. Or it's possible that I would have found peace enough to carry on and found someone with whom I could really open up to about what was going on in my head. It's possible that with my outrageously over-inflamed sense of commitment and loyalty that--had I gotten married--I would have found a way to make two mutually exclusive ideas work. Or maybe just kept quiet about it. There are, of course, more liberalized Muslims out there. I just wasn't moving among them.

My life could have taken a very different turn.

However, I would also not be who I am today, and I like that person. I like his blazing sense of social equality–as imperfect as its expression may sometimes be. I like his snarky sense of humor. I like his contrary irreverence. I like that he is skeptical about the fantastic claims of those around him and that he looks critically at evidence whether it be to crystals or major world religions.

But the story didn't end there.  I thought it did--for many years.  But it turned out that God (for whatever value of "God" one is comfortable inserting into this metaphor) hadn't died at all. Just all the things that I thought about Him died. He turned out to have survived may crisis of faith, and was merely waiting for me.

There was a moment that happened years afterward. In the darkness of my faith and the height of my lament for losing that spiritual connection with Islam when I was reaching around for some sense of spiritual meaning, but intensely unable to deal with any form of dogma, (at a time when I was just beginning to understand that faith and dogma were separate things), I just happened to have gotten my hands on a copy of Babylon 5. A very personal spiritual character arc is defined when a certain character says "I have always been here." (You will either understand this reference perfectly, or explaining it further would be meaningless.)

I fell to bits.

I still can't watch that scene without losing it.

For the love of everything that is holy in the universe do NOT watch season 5.
My faith is a softer thing these days. It lives in the cracks between my (admittedly layman) understanding of science and doesn't directly challenge such ideas.  It is formed of thoughts I am happy to change instead of beliefs that must be cherished at all costs. It considers ideas like heat and energy and entropy in relation to religious concepts of ultimate reality and holy light–both how we came from a single point of light and heat and energy, and of how, through entropy, all of time and creation will eventually boil back into these states.

My faith wonders about universal souls and science fiction ideas like "the universe trying to figure itself out." It thinks a lot about placebos and the power of our minds to make things we believe in real. It has no proof of these things, so it does not claim them "true" or define them with anything as blunt or immutable as "faith" but it finds them comforting to think about. Yet even as it's doing this pontificating, it doesn't take on any endeavors as lofty as attempting to define the entirety of ultimate reality. It looks out across the wonders of the universe and thinks to itself "this is dazzling and spectacular and awe inspiring enough without trying to cram it into a single book to tell you what it all means. And if something I think of as ME ever figures it out–if 'I' ever do–it won't be in this form."

My thoughts delight in the vast open spaces of questions that they cannot answer, and the endless possibilities of a universe that somehow physically stretches out to the dawn of time, where a point of infinite light and energy once contained all consciousnesses that ever was and ever will be....after a fashion. (And if the universe trends towards disorder, would not that point have been perfectly ordered and contained all consciousness within itself? And would being a part of that not be, in some way, divine?) My thoughts do not try to explain, but delight in the images of iris pigmentation looking like galaxy cluster filaments.  Maybe holy and profane are concepts we use to try to grasp at the edges of something we sense but do not yet fully understand.

And maybe we evolved as a species with a particularly strong need for social bonding that makes it difficult for us to outright reject the ardently held beliefs of so many around us, no matter how absurd they are. Such that it literally begins to rewire our brains to see "five lights."

Maybe I'll go the fully the other way. (Doubtful, but....) Maybe my Sufi friend was more right than he ever knew and there is still another chapter to be written. A chapter with a gentle return to Islam and a family and a softer form of the religion I insisted had to be coarse and difficult (because of course there are more liberal forms–of COURSE there are). One with spiritual connection and social justice.


There have been too many plot twists at this point for me to even think I have all the answers.

And yes, my faith still holds to the possibility that while it's looking out and feeling that wonder, perhaps there is something--something bigger than this tiny fleck of a world and one little mammal crawling around on its surface--that might be looking back.