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Monday, June 30, 2014

My Life Just Got a Little More Complicated

The twisted wreckage of this weekend.
I'm not a superhero.

My roommates are superheroes, but I barely even qualify as a sidekick. I mostly just watch The Contrarian and keep The Hall of Rectitude clean. I might go on one patrol each week.

It probably doesn't help that my main superpowers involve scathing sarcasm and writing strongly worded letters. The last time I was on patrol I fought this guy who could transform into magma (fucking MAGMA!! Do you know what happens when scathing letters get anywhere near magma?), and I pretty much got my ass kicked up and down The Temescal. (And a really bad burn on my hand too. It kinda bothers me in the shower.) If I could only shoot stinging foam or like...cut guns in half with my mind.

This has advantages and disadvantages. I have to get bailed out by the real heroes a lot, and sometimes that can be a little embarrassing. I was mortified this weekend Uberdude had to build a very expensive drone to come and save me when I got caught up in a temporal loop set up by Chronotron. But I'm getting ahead of myself....

One of the advantages is–or was, anyway–that I didn't get a lot of superhero trope relationships. I'm not an orphan. I can date women without them being horribly killed or held as ransom. I don't get villains who decide their first step is to take me out of the picture. I don't even get recruited by shadowy black ops organizations that want me to do morally ambiguous things.

Although I did get asked to write someone's term paper once....

There are...perks to being such a small fry. And sure, there's an evil version of me, but near as I can figure, he mostly just hangs out in the basement and likes NaNoWriMo, so it's not like your usual evil twin nemesis thing.

Frankly, it's been rather idyllic not having to put up with all that normal superhero crap. I don't know how the heavy hitters put up with it. Who needs to constantly be worried that their best friend is plotting their doom over their every game of chess. Maddening!

I fight a little crime so I don't have to hang around The Hall of Rectitude all day wishing I could go on patrol with the real heroes. It keeps me from drinking super serum because "I just wanted to be respected," or some shit like that. But then I also get to do my part to help the cause without having my skeleton ripped out of my body or my spine broken or leg ripped off by the Ochre Ogre. Sonic Gal, Uberdude, and The Brain do most of the heavy lifting, and I get to show up at the photo shoots.

All that changed this weekend. I became the victim of not one, but two classic superhero trope relationships.

I regret to inform everyone that I now have a nemesis. 

Not just a cute, evil version of me that lives in the basement, but a full on, fist-raising, "We-shall-meet-again-Chris-Brecheen!" nemesis. ChronoTron has been sent from the future where they are "out of time." (Don't ask me what that means, he just said they were "out of time" dramatically every time I asked for clarification. Must be a plot twist.) So he's been running around stealing little bits of time from the people of 2014.

An hour here. A couple of hours there. Nothing anybody would miss. But when he tried to take time from me, I did notice...because my life is freaking insane right now. If you don't believe me take a busy life and add 18 hours a week of keeping middle schoolers in the middle of their summer from squirming while you teach them study skills. Boy did I ever notice my couple of missing hours!

So I fought back. ChronoTron wasn't expecting that since I usually look like a civilian. My uniform is usually jeans and an ironic t-shirt, even on patrol. I sometimes catch criminals with a right hook while they try to read my shirt. I don't even own spandex.

(Probably for the best.)

Gets em every time!

There was some sarcasm....and then a scathing letter. And suddenly we were in a full-fledged fight on the rooftops of Oakland (which are shit rooftops to fight on if you didn't know–even in a lightning storm; I'd much prefer fighting on San Francisco's rooftops but the superheroes over there are really snobby about "their turf").  Anyway, fighting turned out to make things worse; it seems in the not too distant future only Technagency (a massive multi-corp that rules earth in all but name) communicates its will only through scathing letters and sarcasm (and also youtube video e-mail blasts) and that only small rebellion (who are "out of time") attempt to be gentle and sincere and not sarcastic or scathing to each other.

So ChronoTron kind of got a bee in his bonnet about my super powers. Like I would destroy the world with an evil multi-corp. Come ON! Does that sound like something I would do?

Anyway, ChronoTron decided to steal more than just an hour or two from me after he realized my powers. He kept blasting me with the Temporal Syphon ray (which looks like a cross between a Super Soaker and a bazooka). The hours added up faster than I could keep track, and suddenly I was past time to post on Friday because I'd had over an entire day stolen.

"I've just stolen one day of your life," ChronoTron smirked. "One day I might go as high as fifty...but I really don't know what that would do to you."

Then his smile grew. "Aww, what the fuck, let's just find out, shall we?"

He fired up the Temporal Syphon ray to fifty, and re-aimed it. "You weren't doing anything important until late August were you, Chris?"

"Yeah, actually," I said. "I hate feeling rushed when I'm prepping for Burning Man. If you could make it like forty-seven days, that'd be spiffy."

He took aim...

(Sarcasm is really only an intermittently useful superpower.)

Suddenly I was four meters to my left. The Syphon harmlessly hit the roof where I had been. And then ChronoTron was eight meters to his right which put him off the eastern edge of the building we were fighting on.

"Next time, Chris Brecheen!" he shouted as he fell. "NEXT TIME!!!" Then he touched his emergency temporal recall device before he hit the ground disappearing in a bitemporal field flash and a flood of loose chronotons.

Two women were looking back at me. One had fiery red hair in a short ponytail and the other a tight bun of coal black.

"Looks like we got here..." the redhead said.

"...just in time." the other finished.

So that's the other trope I'm now a victim of. You know how superheroes often have to deal with the sexy miscreants in their lives? Yeah...me too, apparently. Not villains per se, but definitely up to no good. Like Batman with Catwoman or Spiderman with Blackcat.

Well now I've got not one, but two of them in my life.

These two are a team and they go everywhere together. They even dress alike, and while their outfits aren't made of spandex nor do they involve the physics defying boobs of most cliché superheriones, their fashion sense could be said to edge away from entirely "practical," and they both wear these really smoking boots. I try to be a good feminist when I'm around them and talk about their dreams and interests, but the effect they have on my autonomic nervous system when they're flirting with me is...distracting.

Technically the only "power" (per se) they have is a telepathic link with each other that has fused their identity into a single person within their psyches. They're just crazy crazy crazy good at math and physics since their parents worked hard to counter the cultural stigma of women in STEM fields. "Dimension" (the redhead) handles the larger applications of dimensional physics and knows how to fold tachyon space (or something). Summation (the brunette) is basically this insane human calculator computer who can do mathematics faster than a supercomputer and she checks the calculations of the applied theoretical dimensional shifts. The end result is that they can "blink" anything they touch several meters in any direction by riding dimensional strings.

They insist on being called Dim Sum together. And they insist that they are really one person. I'm not sure which of those things I find more odd.

And I don't really know why they like flirting with me. Superheroes do that innuendo stuff a lot, but usually it's mostly harmless. Sidekicks don't usually get much attention. But Dim Sum is so, so, so....tempting.

What I will say is that while I can be (and have been) a consummate professional, even in the face of very hot boots and my abject weakness for implied threesomes, they both also really like reading literature and talking about speculative fiction.  We ended up in a wicked smart discussion about how zombies have shifted from loss-of-individuality metaphors to contagion metaphors over the last thirty years, and how Octavia Butler probably had the most plausible portrayal of a distopia.

Of course they had to go and be all smart and stuff too. Of course they did.

The boots I could have resisted. But being a sapiosexual who happens to like boots...well, I'm not doing so well with the coherent thought lately. No matter how hard I try to resist Dim Sum, it seems whenever they're around I just end up wanting them to stay. I find myself on patrols two or three times a week, hoping that we'll run into each other.

I even caught myself moaning "More Dim Sum" in my sleep. How pathetic is that?

Ironic, I know. Dim Sum saved me from the Chronotron only to end up being a delicious distraction. One I should resist. But I can't.

Because I am weak. And Dim Sum is so very....

If only they didn't use their blinking ability to rob banks. Because that really should be a deal-breaker for me. It really, really should.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Really Really Last Chance. Really.

Tomorrow is the end of June. In addition to meaning that this horrible trend of longer days has finally come to an end and my cats will shortly end up hiding under the bed as the local delinquents blow up M-1000's around the neighborhood, it also means that our June poll and Reading Rainbow Kickstarter Fundraiser are coming to an end.

So please, take a final moment to vote in The Best Fantasy Series of All Time poll if you haven't yet (or if your last vote was over a week ago and you want to vote again).  Most of the results probably can't be changed, but there might be a hidden deluge of Harry Potter fans out there who could change everything. I will close the poll tomorrow night, and post the results on Tuesday.

Also, tomorrow evening, I will be pledging to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter with 1/3 of everything we've made this month. I'm no Seth McFarlane, but I have the honor of saying that with all your donations (and the trickle of ad revenue) I will be pledging $75.00. Thank you all so much. Of course, it's not too late for an 11th hour donation. Remember that because of two donors who have pledged to match Writing About Writing's donation, anything you give today will be almost doubled (2/3 to W.A.W. and the full amount to Reading Rainbow).

Last chance to save the world AND help out that blog that makes you laugh almost daily.

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

The best book I've ever found on writing...actually found me.

Back in the mid-nineties I went to Santa Monica College (a community college just a few blocks from the pier). During those rare moments when I wasn’t angsting-out over my general lack of marriageability to a nice Muslim girl (long story) or pacing a car dealership on the graveyard security shift with a book in hand (less long of a story, but still pretty long), I liked to wander from SMC where I took classes to UCLA where I lived in one of the zillions of Westwood apartments that crowded around the campus (that's a pretty short story...in fact I just told it). I bussed to SMC each morning, arriving bleary eyed at noon for class, but with only a class or two, I often had hours to kill afterwards, and I would leisurely stroll home, taking a different route each time. Sometimes I’d go north then east, and sometimes east then north, and sometimes I’d zig-zag back and forth.

I look back on how much damned time I had to waste back then with a bit of a head shake, to be absolutely honest.

This is a six mile distance catty corner to the street alignments, so I was never going to run out of new combinations of routes. I delighted in moseying down a new street I’d never seen before and gazing at new shops, restaurants, and boutiques throughout Santa Monica, Palms, Westwood, and sometimes even Brentwood.

Often I got deliciously lost, and occasionally only realized I was heading the wrong direction when I noticed I was heading into the sunset.

It was during one of these fantastically lost moments, when I was turned around on some street or another without realizing it, that I eventually discovered I was closer to the beach than the campus, and had been going the opposite way of home for nearly an hour.

That’s where I found the used book store.

It was one of those tiny holes in the wall that have almost faded out of time in the era of Kindles and book superstores. This was the nineties, so these kinds of places had only just begun seeing the first of the Visigoths coming over the hill in the form of bookstore "superstores" like Barnes and Noble and Borders. Back then they had a list of reasons why customers would never like those big book stores (just like today they have a list of reasons why customers would never like e-readers).

Even then–back before the superstores crushed the little guys–you could tell this wasn’t a shop someone took seriously as a way to make money. This was someone’s beach and margarita dream of retirement. Not one other soul entered that store in the two hours I was there.

It would be nearly 15 years later before I saw the British comedy Black Books, but the way Bernard runs the bookshop (yet hates customers) in that show instantly reminded me of that place I found while lost in Santa Monica.

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

The guy that ran the place sat in an E-Z Boy recliner amidst further stacks of books, tucked behind the counter which I can only assume was actually a counter, as it was so covered in books that it may have been made ONLY of books and I’d have been none the wiser. He barely looked up over thick, round spectacles as I jangled an old fashioned bell coming in. The register was one of those push button ones that was mechanical instead of electrical and made the little tabs pop up with the numbers on them.

I didn’t get the feeling the register was a retro aesthetic choice.

He didn't push the recliner back into "chair position" when I came in.  He barely even glanced over the top of the book he was reading. “Comic books?” he asked pointing to his left. I shook my head with a bit of vigor and Spock-arched eyebrow, and damned if I didn’t notice the tiniest of smiles and nod that reminded me of the proud sensei in a martial art movie who didn’t want his pupil to get a big head.

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

But there was one book…

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

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande.

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

One dollar for the best book I would ever read about writing. One dollar for something I value at least as much as my $35,000, four-year education.

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

You know that soundtrack for Lord of the Rings when they still think Lothlorien is a creepy forest. Even though that music hadn’t been written yet, that started playing when the light of my spelunking helmet hit it.



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

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

“My…precious…”I whispered.

Exactly. Like. That.

Well…I mean, I’m leaving out the part with the boulder and the glowing, yet somehow dark, eye that kept saying it saw me.

This is the best book about becoming a writer I have ever read—hands down and with none even approaching its equal. If you wanted to be a writer but only had fifteen dollars to spend, for all of time, on your writing education, I would direct you to this book without a moment’s hesitation. Not a year goes by—not one year—that I don’t read it from cover to cover and discover some gem of wisdom I somehow missed before. It is no exaggeration to say that I haven’t had writer’s block even once in ten years because of THIS one book, nor ever waited longer than few minutes upon sitting down for the words to come.

There are two remarkable things about Becoming A Writer.

First, it is not a book about writing—not even a little. You won’t find a drop of ink spilled about characterization or plot or setting or even grammar. This is a book about becoming a writer.  And Brande takes pains to explain the difference:

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

Brande goes on to discuss at length how different it is to be a writer than to know how to write. Since she feels there are plenty of books on the latter and a desperate need for books on the former she tears into the bit she finds lacking. Let the craft mongers prattle on.

Skill in writing will do nothing to help writers who can only produce under deadline or one story every year or two. The ability to write well, even the understanding of literary elements of fiction, will not tap the floodgates of creativity. In fact, many of these skills—absolutely valuable once one IS a writer—are useless if the creativity doesn’t flow.

In many ways I am thankful that I found Brande and worked with her for years before getting a degree in Creative Writing. I sort of had the hard part of writing out of the way by the time I started worrying about craft. All I needed to do was just go learn how to actually write without sucking. (Still working on that one.) But I saw most of my fellow students (almost all in their teens or early twenties) struggling greatly with writer’s block or creative flow. They recycled stories over and over for various classes sometimes bringing the same story into half a dozen classes over the course of four semesters. Many of them outright admitted that they hadn’t written anything (except when they had to) since high school.

Of course they were still all destined to be the next Stephen King. Of course....

As much of a “jump” as I sometimes lament my peers have on me by graduating at 21 or 22 instead of their mid-thirties like me, in many ways I was ahead of the game by having first learned to be a writer and then to write. Often discussion groups topics were some level or another of my fellow classmates commiserating on how “impossible” it was to really actually write every day (“especially for, like…ya know…two or three hours. Who can, like, ya know…really even do that?”).

Some of my PROFESSORS even admitted to not being able to sit down and write every day, but only when “the mood struck them,” which might be a month or more between. And to make matters worse we often had guest authors that were one shot wonders and admitted not writing much since they produced their one hit.

It didn’t take me long to realize that writing fluidly was not in the skill sets that were being taught amidst the lit heavy major’s focus on elements of craft, the incredible importance of narrative voice, and creative reading. Brande nails these problems between writing well and BEING a writer right in her first chapter and goes on from there to give you the equivalent of a cross fit routine with weight training to help combat it, so that you can open the sliding sci-fi ship doors driving a yellow hydraulic load lifter towards the alien queen of your excuses and say “Get away from her you bitch!”

Metaphorically speaking. I guess “Newt” is your creativity...um...or something.

You know that metaphor was a lot cooler in my head.

The other thing that sets this apart is that Brande will not be coddling you. This is not a new-age, modern-day, feel-good book about how great it is to be a creative bohemian artist or Clam Chowder for the Writer’s Soul. This is Sun Tzu’s Art of War and the enemy is your justifications for why you can’t.

It is a how to guide for beating your muse into submission so that it’s working for YOU and not the other way around. Brande will not have you close your eyes and think of your totem animal eating berries with you in a tranquil sylvan glade. She’s going to put you to work. Hard work. Work that will, at times, make you question your ability (and even your inclination) to be a writer. Her exercises are not easy but they are effective in taming your muse, tapping your creative flow, and hacking your way through the thicket of your own psyche’s subterfuge.

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

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

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

This book tells how.

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

There is one caveat to my story of the book that is absolutely true and not at all artistic license. I never found that little bookstore again, no matter how hard I looked.

I tried to retrace my steps a dozen times. I swore once I was standing on the right street. Everything was exactly as I remembered it that day—the sun against the Pacific, the smell of salt in the air and the cry of gulls. The spot was flanked by a new age soap and candle shop and a jewelry store, just like I remember. But in the place where I absolutely SWORE the bookstore had been was just this Mediterranean deli.

"Was there ever a book store here?" I asked the hairy armed owner. "Like a used book store?"

"Yeah," he said nodding. "Like twenty-two years ago. That's what was here before I moved in."

I felt my spine turn to ice.

I know. I know. It must have been a different street. Just a coincidence. Some rational explanation. I don't believe in that sort of thing either. And yet...something about that day has never failed to inspire me that the universe might have a few tricks left up her sleeve for those who simply refuse to let go their sense of wonder.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Program....

"Chris, don't you usually do a Mailbox on Fridays?"

"Why yes. Yes I do."

Perhaps on Monday we can gather around the camp fire, and I can tell you all about this weekend.  (And I was about to triumphantly declare my success at dealing with time management issues, too.)

My own crime fighting efforts are very mild now that I'm watching The Contrarian. I wouldn't even call myself a side kick, honestly. But this past weekend I discovered that I have not only a nemesis, but also a seductive thief bad-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold Catwoman/Blackcat/Elektra trope thing going on. Not necessarily evil, but...probably not good how easily I get distracted.

I'll tell you all about it on Monday. Bring marshmallows.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

McKennitt: Dante's Prayer

When I was in high school, I was that sensitive dork who quietly memorized poetry (but never ever told my friends about it). I never quite liked the stuff that we studied (usually because studying it took a glimmer off of it for me), but I always had a few poems I'd found here or there that I worked on being able to recite.

That's why one day when I was a senior, my parents were listening to some of their god-awful parent music (as parents are wont to do). I had that dawning sensation that somehow I knew the words of a song I'd never heard before. I still remember the exact moment I realized why I knew what I was hearing.
"The knights come riding two by two/She hath no loyal knight and true."
I recognized that! It was from a Tennyson poem called "The Lady of Shalott," and it was one I had worked at for months the year before to recite without making a mistake. (I never quite managed to do it perfectly.)

Even back then I had begun to realize that wanting to write was going to make my life sequestered, and I loved how she was this artist–a brilliant weaver–doomed to live a life where she could only really experience the world by watching it from a distance....through a mirror. It's a perfect metaphor for an artistic life. But this song set the whole thing to Celtic music and a haunting melody line that gave every other stanza of the Tennyson poem an almost hypnotic reedy repetition and then shattered them brilliantly during the alternate stanzas with full range and voice. And her smooth, liquid crystal voice could make a seraphim shed a tear.

That was my introduction to Lorena McKennitt.

In high school, it's apparently only cool to like one genre of music (and that genre will define you as a person) but I liked McKennitt on the down low when my friends and parents weren't looking. And as soon as I got out of high school, I started picking up her albums whenever I could.

If you want to find "The Lady of Shalott," it's not hard, but it's a 13 minute song, and not the one I want to share today. "Danté's Dream" is actually the McKennitt song I find most inspiring. I played it every morning for nearly five years. The transitions from piano to cello always struck me as one of the most beautiful musical effects I've ever heard.


One of the reasons I like this song so much is that it means so many different things to so many different people. Play it for ten people and you will have ten wildly different stories about who they think the speaker is. Some imagine lovers who have died speaking from beyond the grave. Some imagine themselves talking to such lovers. Some imagine that the speaker is about to kill themselves. Some imagine that the speaker has decided to keep living. Some imagine singing to exes. Some imagine exes singing to them. Some remember the one that got away. Some remember the one they let go. Some imagine God calling them back to faith. And some, like me, imagine a personification of some part of their lives.

I started to play this song a lot when I returned to writing in my late twenties. For eight years prior, I tried to live the life that society told me to live. I put on a tie and managed a restaurant. I made good money and worked long hours. I wrote, but only sporadically. And I grew cold and miserable. I filled my life with ambitions of middle management and better cars and DVD's and CD's and stuff, but it didn't help the way everyone said it would, and the way the whisper of culture promised it should.

When I got back into writing, I had to start completely over with a lot of the basics including morning writing, and this song kicked off my anthem of music each day. I always imagined that it was me imploring my muse (or whatever you want to call it) to return to me, and bring back the light of creativity to my life.

To this day, this song can help me when I'm having trouble getting started.

When I wrote I was happy, and when I did what society told me would make me happy, I was miserable. I tried to get that happiness back. But (as with all things) art did not make it so easy for me to just return; I had to quest to implore that light and fire to return to my life.

And after a lot of work, it did.


When the dark wood fell before me
And all the paths were overgrown
When the priests of pride say there is no other way
I tilled the sorrows of stone

I did not believe because I could not see
Though you came to me in the night
When the dawn seemed forever lost
You showed me your love in the light of the stars

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me

Then the mountain rose before me
By the deep well of desire
From the fountain of forgiveness
Beyond the ice and fire

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me

Though we share this humble path, alone
How fragile is the heart
Oh give these clay feet wings to fly
To touch the face of the stars

Breathe life into this feeble heart
Lift this mortal veil of fear
Take these crumbled hopes, etched with tears
We'll rise above these earthly cares

Cast your eyes on the ocean
Cast your soul to the sea
When the dark night seems endless
Please remember me
Please remember me

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Must Directors Respect Writers? By Mike Fatum

[Mike Fatum, my editor over at Ace of Geeks joins Writing About Writing's growing (yet still totes elite) cadre of guest bloggers with a question about writing–especially for stage and screen–from his perspective as an actor, director, and writer of performance arts. ]   

Must Directors Respect Writers? By Mike Fatum

The first time I try it, I say, “And if we refuse to go?”

“No,” she says, “that’s not it. It’s ‘And what if we refuse to leave?’”

“Oh, sorry,” I say, “And what if we refuse to go?”

“What if we refuse to leave.” The voice is impatient, now. It’s the second time we’ve run this scene, we’re all standing in the oppressively hot wooden dance studio, staring at ourselves in a mirror that refuses to hide anything about the fact that my gut is spilling over my belt, and she wants to hear it again because of one word?

I sigh, step back two steps, step forward again, and say, “And what if we refuse to leave?” She’s happy. We move on.

Our director is a wonderful lady, but she has a deep, abiding respect for the words as they were written on the page. Maybe too deep. This could come from the fear of a surprise inspection that rights-holders often spring upon community theaters, but I think it’s more than that. She sits us down one day, after rehearsal, and explains that the author has carefully chosen each word as it sits upon the page. To change even one thing, to paraphrase even a little, is to insult the author’s integrity.

At first, I think she’s utterly full of crap. I come from a different world, the world of film. I open every rehearsal for one of my movies by reminding the actors that if a word I’ve written, or a phrase or a whole paragraph, doesn’t feel natural to them, to throw it out and say what works. As long as the general emotion, the idea gets across as I intended it, I only care that what they’re saying sounds natural. I’ve never once chosen to use “morose” instead of “sad” for Artistic Reasons - it just sounded right at the time.

But then, this week, I happened upon this incident.

The basic summary is that a theater in Texas put on a musical that had yet to hit Broadway, and took it upon themselves to change everything about it. They moved the opening to the Act 1 finale. They changed whole pieces of dialogue. And the director had the audacity to walk up to the playwright and say, “Don’t you think it works better this way?”

When I read that article, I was furious. But as I thought about it - isn’t that what I do, as a director? Once I sit down in the editing bay of a film, I can chop it to pieces. I’ve pieced together scenes to chance whole sentences. I’ve moved beats from the beginning of a film to the end. And I’ve done so in the name of improving the piece. So why is it so taboo in theater? Why are the rights of the writer so much more respected there?

Playwrights will often sit in on every rehearsal of their newest works, assisting the director and the creative team. Screenwriters are lucky if they get an invite to the set for a day. What they do isn’t so different, but the results are. A playwright gets their work shown exactly as they intended. Meanwhile, Joss Whedon only has one line of his original X-men script arrive untouched. (And it’s the one about a toad being struck by lightning.)

It’s an interesting experience being both a writer and a director. I’ve never had to approach either a play or a film with an outside writer before. The changes I’ve been so nonchalant about in my own work, I now realize, might be really painful when I’m changing someone else’s. So how do we reconcile that?

Do you respect the work of the author, or your own feelings about the final product?

The true answer is somewhere in the middle. As a writer, unfortunately, we have to understand that what we write might sound absolutely beautiful in our own heads might sound terrible and awkward coming out of the mouth of a living human being. I’m sure Lucas thought having Anakin wax philosophical about sand was a beautiful thing, but those of us that had to actually hear it know differently. As writers for stage and screen, we’ve got to know that sometimes the director will need to change something, just to deliver a watchable final product.

On the other hand, directors have the responsibility to carry a writer’s ideas out to an audience. Maybe changing a line or two is ok. Maybe even moving a scene around is acceptable. But once you find yourself moving away from the actual, final thesis of the piece, you need to check yourself before, if I may be so bold, you wreck yourself. If you take a story that is fundamentally about hope and make it about hopelessness, you’ve failed in your responsibility to the original writer.

Of course, there are always tales of finding the story in the final product, and editors for film do this all the time. But we can’t lose track of the fact that there was an original brain behind it all, and we wouldn’t be making this play or film without them. To completely disregard their vision in favor of ours is a disservice.

What do you all think - do directors have to respect the writers who created these works? And how does this apply to adaptations of novels and comics?


[Mike Fatum is the Editor in Chief and Podcast Co-host for The Ace of Geeks (link to main website). He has been a writer and director for stage and screen for the past fifteen years. You can see some of his work here.]


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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Don't Forget to Vote

If you know any Dresden fans, now would be the time to give them a call.
Please.
There's only a week left to vote in our Why Even Fucking Bother Because of Discworld Fanbases Best Fantasy Series! So stop by and get your vote on.  

Less than a week remains to vote until Discworld's rabid fan base will put this poll out of its misery the exciting conclusion to our June poll. And even though it really only matters what happens after second place Discworld will probably win, it took nominations, seconds, and semifinal victory just to get on this poll.

However, even though it's totally over it's not over yet–especially since Polldaddy allows everyone to vote once a week. If you voted before the 17th, you can vote again! It's still going to be Discworld by a landslide no matter what we do anybody's game.

So take a moment to scroll down to the long black poll on the lower left and at least go for a a good runner up status give the series of your choice some love.

Fairly Damned Whelmed, But Trying Not to Be Overwhelmed

Oh god, he's asleep!  I can finally clean the house and
write and do all the things I've been meaning to get to....
ZZZZZZZZZZZZ
I'm blogging on the down low, so it might be kind of stream-of-consciousness.

I don't have much time.

If The Contrarian wakes up, my chance to do some writing is over. He will kick and scream and demand butternut squash soup and milk and soil diapers at sonic speeds. If I suggest that his cranky mood is because he didn't get a long enough nap and he is still tired, he will use his power on me. "I am not!"

My mother–in one of those moments that at the time you simply can't believe, but later come to realize was simply them treating you as an adult–once looked at me across a plate of $2.99 pancakes and eggs, narrowed her eyes and said "You know how to really be a writer?"

I perked up at this. I was in my teenage rebellion, everything-about-you-smells-like-mothballs-and-wrongness stage, so getting me to perk up about anything was an accomplishment.

"Never fuck," she said.

"Mom!" I said, as if that weren't a word I could use three or four times in a well constructed sentence out behind the F building during lunch.

But the words had been spoken and they had more sagacity than I care to admit. I've spent most of my life trying to deny their irresistible veracity. Even now, in a life I have set up to write, and a circumstance I would not alter, even had I the chance, it is not actually summer school that is driving me to the precipice of insanity. It's everything else that was already there before summer school strolled into town with its fifteen hours a week.

Five more weeks. Five more weeks of screaming in panic. Of coming home from work and face planting into bed. Of waking up to take baby, passing off baby to get to work, coming home from work to do housework, and wrapping up housework to get to bed in time. Of trying to write like the wind Friday through Monday so that I have something to show for it instead of three days of dead air and reruns.

I swear this realization just creeps up on you. I was literally sitting there last night after trying to play some Steam Summer Sale video games for a couple of hours (even though it was a guilt ridden experience and now I feel further behind) and I was thinking to myself, "Why is this year so bad?"

"It seems like last year was bad," I thought, "but it was manageable. I got posts up and felt a little busy, but it got done. I was always rushed, but I never felt like I couldn't handle it. But this year, it's like I can't catch up. Something major must have changed between last year and this year.

Oh. ....right.

I don't begrudge this little dude. Actually he's all kinds of awesome. All the clichés about how they change everything are true. They aren't true in a magical pixie fairy kind of way, though. They're true in a horrible mind controlled, alien invasion way. Their little pheromones get into your brain, produce oxytocin and shit and rewire your whole neural network so that you can't help but love them. They make you care. Pretty soon the little bastards are always on your mind and you can't wait to see them, and you start saying corny shit like "You've changed my whole world little guy!"

Maddening.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Silver Bullet: Helping Reading Rainbow's Kickstarter

Cracked.com Learn some shit while you yuk.
Our Reading Rainbow Fundraiser lost some steam after its first week. And when I say "lost some steam" I mean "pulled over to the side of the road at one of those truck stops to maybe just go to the bathroom and grab a bag of chips from one of the vending machines and ended up asleep until morning."

Given the momentum of the first week I probably let myself get too excited. After making nearly $180 (that's $60 to go to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter), I let my imagination run wild with images of sauntering into the Oakland Library with the good news that their subscription would be covered, and now all we had to do was buy some cheap tablets so kids could watch it.  

Awwwww yissss.

Unfortunately, after that first week, I was starkly reminded of Writing About Writing's very modest financial realities. If I could somehow drum up hundreds of dollars, I probably wouldn't be averaging a dollar an hour. In the following two weeks we've only made a couple of dollars in ad revenue and even less in donations.

However, I'm not here to beg again like a broken record. I will tell you why this matters so much to me.

We live in a world with one or two problems. Maybe you've noticed a couple. Perhaps. Most of the time, for most people, the best you can do not to avoid getting overwhelmed by how fucked up everything seems is to remember that you can't possibly fix everything. The best we can do is to sink our teeth into one little problem like a starving vampire and never let go, even though sometimes that leads to a bunch of people with pet projects all competing for resources like The Hunger Games of worthy causes.

No not THAT silver bullet!
The kind that kills werewolves.
Wh-  Where did you find this new picture-finding intern?
I know the idea that "this" is a silver bullet or "that" is a silver bullet is an overdone and trite cliché, but I really do think that basic literacy is one of those few vector points that can solve SO many problems. Kids who learn to love books and read have more opportunities, they do better in school (because so much of school involves reading) which helps them do better in life. They have more ability to solve problems, and a better sense of when something is a problem and why. Whatever someone tries to do in this world, they're probably going to be better at it if they know how to read.

And I don't just mean pass a literacy test, but really, really read.

And it doesn't just end with a better education for that literate peep. The benefits reverberate through things like their health, their understanding of the world, their ability to empathize with others, their ability to articulate their own perspectives, and eventually it influences their children's lives and love of books as well.

Even their potential ability to solve some of those other problems plaguing the world.

I don't think Reading Rainbow is going to solve world hunger or nuclear proliferation or antibiotic resistant bacteria. Then again....I already know a lot of people who have come up with brilliant solutions to huge social problems. And many of those people came from worlds where their lives could have gone very differently. And the reason they didn't fall through the cracks or do drugs or get involved in gangs or whatever was because they learned to love reading as a kid.

We may never know whose lives we will fundamentally change by getting a child turned on to reading. It's the butterfly effect. In fact, it's the butterfly in the sky effect.

While I love books, and I love reading, and I love the idea of turning kids on to both, I also think this is a bigger project. This isn't just "my thing" because I'm a word nerd trying to proliferate my species or because I want to harvest a generation of blog readers or something. The reason I was giving to libraries before Lavar Burton ever started his Kickstarter was because, in my own small way, I'm trying to save the world.

I know. I know. "Save the world." What a crock! That sounds too big. It sounds too pretentious. It fills up the room with bombast like a melodramatic movie or video game, so you don't dare say it out loud. You just whisper it, and cradle it in your hands. And you don't show people because it is so fragile that their laughter might rip it apart. But you also don't give up because nothing ever came of not bothering.

So please don't forget that for the next week (seven days) 1/3 of everything you donate to Writing About Writing will go to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter. I also have two donors who have promised to match what I donate. That means for every donation you give, W.A.W. will get 2/3 of the amount and the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter will get 100% of the amount.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

My Name is Chris, And I Use Two Spaces

Worst character defect ever.
Bigotry. Sexism. Genocide.
Nothing compares.
I have a deep, dark confession to make. Some of you probably already have noticed this vast and personal failing, but to those who have not, I assure you, I am not attempting to get away with anything. I will lay it all bare.

My mother taught me to type when I was six. What I didn't learn from her, I learned in my high school keyboarding class in 1993. We still used typewriters back in those ancient days of yore. It was a different time--a time of innocence. Back when sending troops to Iraq was new and fresh and not the tired cliche of today. A time before computers and automatic formatting.

Before the dark times.

Before The Empire.

Yes, by now, you probably know the deep horror to which I'm about to admit.

I am not a good person. I am flawed...frail...all too human. But the brightest lamp among my glaring faults is that I sometimes use two spaces after punctuation. I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. I learned skills and reinforced them day after day for years--decades. Who knew that we would end up with auto-formatting computers? We were just happy back then to not have to run from saber toothed tigers on our way to school.

As you can see from Farhad Manjoo this is an ugly error, and according to Damian Thomson it is an atrocity. I had hoped it would be enough in my life not to commit genocide or become a serial killer.

But I was wrong. So very, very wrong.

Of course, like most such arguments, there are huge camps, debating even the very history surrounding the controversy. Lines were drawn. A typographical civil war rages with brother pitted against brother. There is a side out there that agrees with me makes pathetic excuses to justify my moral failing.

But I have no illusions that the two-spacers are morally depraved to their space bar tapping cores and on the wrong side of history. And so I can only ask you for your humble forgiveness that I am a human who has such a horrific and terrible practice ingrained deep within me as habit. I can only ask your clemency and mercy when I stray.

When I falter.

I am pretty good when I pay attention, and getting better, but when my fingers are flying, sometimes...I don't think about the hurt they can cause until it's already too late. I forget about the suffering. I don't think of the children.

I am weak. Please forgive me.

Prompt: Pinterest Story

Wouldn't it be ironic if Pinterest got mad at me
for using a copyrighted image.
Pinterest sends me a notification e-mail me every time someone pins one of my pictures to one of their boards. At first I thought these were pretty annoying. (Jeffery has pinned one of your pins! That's great. Can you send me an e-mail if Jeffery has a successful bowel movement too?) Only sheer, unadulterated laziness prevented me from figuring out how to turn off the e-mail notifications.

After a while, something changed. I got to like these e-mails. Sometimes I follow them back and look through the board the person pinned my image to in order to find new writing memes for my Tumblr and FB page.

Usually they're writing boards because that's the kind of image I stockpile there. (My account is mostly images that have shown up somewhere here on the blog.) But every once in a while...

I find a board that tells a story.

The latest one was a deluge of slut shaming images telling women never to give it up to anyone who doesn't respect them and an almost equal number of "Men are weak" macros–especially focused on how men are pigs who only want women for sex. As I scrolled further down, the theme morphed to a series of images along the theme of, "True love means never leaving no matter how broken you are," "I am so beautifully damaged" and "I deserve better than anyone who would leave me" images. The last third began to change again, and there was one macro that I thought might be hopeful: "No reason to stay is a good reason to leave" but toward the end came a series of repudiations: "Don't leave something good to find something better because by the time you realize you had the best, the best will be with someone else."

The last row was a series of images about how the perfect love was your best friend and how sometimes you didn't notice something was there the whole time.

Pinterest, of course, pins your latest images at the top and your older ones further down. Based just on the pins, I began to construct a story...

In chronological order (bottom to top), I imagined a couple who were friends. Perhaps one of them (probably her) had wanted to be a couple for a long time during their friendship, but he kept it just friends. Until one day they got together and she thought they were perfect and destined to get married and have lots of babies. He was using her in a time of weakness (rebound from his own breakup?) and he ended up leaving her. She wanted him to him how much he was missing. Desperately so. But life didn't go the way she planned, and the relationship he ended up in lasted longer than theirs. She tried to find love, and only found casual sex within a series of relationships that left her increasingly more disillusioned with men and what they valued from her. Finally by the end, her faith in men had been altogether shattered. She may have even had self loathing about her string of relationships and how she had allowed herself to be used.

Of course I'm probably just doing that thing I do when I look at things and make up stories. It's equally possible that she was very religious and the guys all broke up with her when she told them no sex until marriage. Of course, I'll never really know. But if she's as hurt as her pins seem to indicate she is, I hope she finds what she's looking for.

And if my story is maybe closer to her truth, I hope she discovers that what she's looking for isn't ever going to come from someone else.


Prompt: Practice your skill at taking bits and pieces and forming a story out of them!  Find a person you don't know with a board on Pinterest that tells a story. Remember that the story goes from the bottom (the first pins) to the top (the last pins). Unless, of course, top to bottom is a more interesting story! Write a one page summary of the story. Develop it if it seems interesting enough. Don't forget to have fun!

For this prompt, it is also important to remember that you don't actually know this person!!! You have NO idea who they are or what they're going through. You're just taking a guess and practicing your storytelling skills. Please be rational, and don't presume you are correct.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Mailbox: Not Writing and Intelligence


Does ONLY writing "count" as writing. Can a character be smarter than the author who writes them?  

[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. And I simply adore standing in the no-man's-land between two warring writers.] 

Lou asks: 

[I'm] curious what Chris Brecheen, of Writing About Writing fame thinks of Greta's thesis. [The article Lou is referencing is, “Planning to write is not writing”: Like Hell It Isn’t by Greta Christina.]

My reply: 

I laughed at the "fame" comment.  "Fame." (Can you practically see me doing the scare quotes with my fingers?) Can you hear my eyes rolling through your monitor.

I've been reading and enjoying Greta Christina for a long time now, so I was a little surprised to see her go the hyperbole route with a Willow Rosenberg-caliber flaying instead of exploring the nuance. Generally, I consider sacrificing coherence for head-in-ass jokes about old-guard writers to be more my shtick than hers. I'm also pretty sure Christina knew she was being overly scrupulous about Doctorow's intentions to bring up the pauses in writing or the few seconds before or after one is actually physically writing. Building an EVEN BIGGER ROBOT might work when Mecha-Godzilla stomps into town, but it's probably not the best way to respond to pedantry.

This whole thing could have been avoided if someone had simply
remembered that right before this I also said "For me, merely....."
And yes, Doctorow was being a bit pedantic in that quote.

However....maybe that quote strikes a nerve with Christina. If you show me that "What the Author Meant" meme, I'm likely to break a bottle and rage-shiv my own flunkies, so I certainly have some sympathy with how annoying it can be when a concept is doing the electric slide on one's last nerve. Besides, Doctorow is a big boy. He can take it.

What? You guys don't have flunkies?

Also Christina is absolutely right, so that kind of matters. Also Doctorow is right, so that kind of matters too.

Quotes can be slippery out of context. I mean we kind of know that on an intellectual level, but if we ever actually got it as a culture, modern political campaigns would collapse and force politicians to discuss real issues instead of snipe at the "other's" sound bites. (Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria.) Plus it's not like an author is given a list of their own quotes by the folks over at Quotopia and asked to choose which ones they would like to see go out into the world with their name on them. Probably Doctorow said (or wrote) a lot of things that day, but what has gone meme-viral is only that one particular contextless sentence.

That has a lot less to do with Doctorow's head-to-butt positioning and more to do with the folks within whom the quote has resonated. I'm guessing a lot of people recognized themselves in that quote in some way or another and it proliferated because of that. Or a seriously huge butt-load of people are trying to passive-aggressively call out their pretentious writer friends.

I couldn't actually find the context, so it's possible it was in a treatise called: Only Writing is Actually Writing, You Assholes. (If that's the case, I may owe someone an apology.) But the only thing I found on the Internet is about a zillion pages of the quote itself. Around page four or five of Google, I gave up.

I suspect most writers who write about the process of writing have said something similar at one point or another. You can absolutely find an almost identical sentiment on this blog in some article about how aspiring writers find very creative ways to say they are writing and not ever actually write. I can be pretty strident about the fact that a writer must Earn their ER.  If someone cherry picked a quotation from one of those articles, they might have the impression that I agree with Doctorow. And of course you can do the opposite as well. I wrote a whole magnum opus (which is entirely too long for internet attention spans and needs to be revised very badly) about all the parts of writing that aren't actually writing. Clearly any number of quotes from there could appear to be antithetical to Doctorow.

See, check this out: I can even make it look like Christina said basically the same thing if I quote her out of context.

At some point, you have to sit down and do the “typing out words” part of writing: if you never ever get to that, then no, all the planning and thinking in the world doesn’t really count as writing.     
–Greta Christina 

Keep in mind, also, that writers tend to give very different advice to hopeful, aspiring writers than they do to other successful writers who have already worked out their own processes. Doctorow's readers (and students) who are also would-be writers are legion, and most of them probably want to know how to reproduce his success. If Christina dealt with dozens of sincere, young, hopeful students each week with NO publishing credits at all (even blogs or zines) who had never really finished a major writing project and wanted her advice on how to really, for real "make it," she might be dispensing similar advice.

The problem of many aspiring writers is that they don't actually write. They tool, they tinker, they tweak, they outline, they character sketch, they think, they contemplate, they ponder, they plan, they research to levels of detail that couldn't possibly be useful in their story, they network, they brand themselves, they work on their Tumblr feed, and they talk–oh god do they ever talk–to everyone and anyone who will listen to them, they talk about what they are going to write.

What they do not ever seem to get around to, however, is actually sitting down and writing.

On the other hand, Christina is absolutely right. Writing isn't only writing, and any writer knows that. Doctorow is also well known for the driving in the fog quote about writing ("Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.") so he obviously doesn't plot out his stories; however, that doesn't mean that everyone could or should write in the same way. A lot of writers–particularly old-guard white, male writers–have a pretty bad case of "It works for me, so it must be 'correct.'"

When writers talk about "writing," they are talking about a larger diaspora of action than merely physically writing. If I said I were a fisherman, I might consider going and digging worms up to be part of my job, and count as "fishing," even though I didn't have a rod and reel in my hand and bait in the water. In the same way, writers may consider everything from reading to self-promotion, to staring out the window and imagining the character-driven reactions to the latest plot twist to be writing. And for an expository writer (like Christina) the need to organize one's thoughts prior to actually writing is even greater. In fact, I spend about three weeks of my 98 and 98A class teaching my students how not to just sit down and write off the cuff without pre-writing first.

"Don't just start writing!" I say. "Writing is a process," I say. "You need to do pre-writing!" I say. But do they listen? Oh hell no they don't.

So is Doctorow or Christina right?

Yes.

Really, it doesn't matter what I think. I'm not the person who can judge if not writing is really working for a particular writer or not. (Maybe if I watched them for a month or two...) A writer should do whatever works. But a writer should also be brutally, horrifically, unerringly honest with themselves about whether or not something is actually working or is an affectation.

If thinking about writing and outlining and all that stuff leads to productive sessions when the fingers finally reach the keys, obviously a writer should do it. If a writer is kidding themselves that they are writing by doing everything in the world other than writing, this quote may be serendipitously timed advice, and perhaps a well-needed wake up call.

But really, if the worst thing that happens is that someone spends a lifetime calling themselves a writer and never manages to do anything but outline their book fifty times and tell all their friends about what they're going to write, how does that really affect me? I might not even point it out until/unless they asked me what they were doing wrong.

In the final analysis, it seems to me that Christina actually does understand the context in which Doctorow was almost certainly speaking when he punched out this particular word-baby because she articulates it perfectly in the second half of her article:

"And yes, it’s easy to procrastinate by telling yourself things like, “I’m writing in my head,” or by doing every possible thing even vaguely related to writing that isn’t the “typing out words” part. (It’s one of the things that’s so dangerous about Facebook and Twitter: if you’re a writer, going onto Facebook and Twitter do qualify as work, since it’s part of publicity and promotion.) At some point, you have to sit down and do the “typing out words” part of writing: if you never ever get to that, then no, all the planning and thinking in the world doesn’t really count as writing."
Given that this disclaimer is about a quarter of the word count of the entire article, and that it exactly articulates one of the most endemic and ubiquitous problems within the community of aspiring writers, I suspect that Doctorow and Christina agree on much more than they don't (about this, at least), and really the worst thing the opening salvo of this article can be said to suffer from is a mild case of not giving an established writer the benefit of the doubt.

Not that I would know anything about that or anything.


LeeAnn asks: 

I recently had a conversation with someone where we discussed if it would be possible to write a character that would be believably more intelligent than the writer. Sherlock Holmes is a character of incredible talent and intelligence, and Doyle was also very widely knowledgeable and accepted as very smart as well. Thoughts?

My reply:

Boy I hope so, LeeAnn, because I'm not very smart, and it would be a travesty for all my characters to be doomed to be no smarter than I. (Seriously, if I'm not predicting the "twists" in Lost, I'm really not that clever.) Fortunately for me, when it comes to writing, it's actually possible for the writer to be believably more intelligent than the writer actually is–not to mention one of their characters.

I'm glad you brought up Doyle and Holmes because that's a great example of the tricks a writer has at their disposal to make a character smarter. Doyle may have been no intellectual slouch, but he went to his death bed believing that the Cottingly fairies were real and that they would open the door to the legitimacy of other psychic phenomenon. He was nowhere near as rational, reasonable, or skeptical as Holmes is supposed to be. Holmes (as he is portrayed) would make Doyle look like a semi-sentient slug by comparison. But they make for an excellent example of the misdirection and illusions a writer can use to make a character seem highly intelligent.

Just chillaxing. With some fairies. You believe me, right?
  • A writer has infinite time. Ever been in a conversation and an hour later you think "I should have said THAT"? Well, a writer doesn't have to kick themselves and try to shoehorn it into the next conversation. They can go back and actually write "that" in. It's amazing how smart you can seem when you have all the time in the world to ponder each decision or turn of phrase. Editing can make a genius out of anyone!
  • A writer has research. This is kind of a specific variant of infinite time. Today, with Google, this is even easier, but it is still possible to have a character be able to pluck tons of esoteric knowledge right off the top of their head because the writer has the ability to go do as much research as it takes. Of course my character knows about string theory! (~spend an afternoon studying multi-dimensional physics~)
  • A writer can reverse engineer a problem and make it look like the character figured it out. In life we have problems and we are forced to come up with the solutions. A writer can work backwards–designing the solution first, and then giving their character an unerring ability to solve it. ("How ever did you know these random symptoms were leprosy Dr. House?" "Because my writer opened the medical book to "leprosy" and picked out all the rarest symptoms.")
  • A writer has more than just themselves. A writer can literally walk over to their really smart friend (or their friend who knows more about some subject) and say, "Hey what do you think? Is this right?" A character who can have the benefit of five or six different peoples' expertise and judgement is going to seem wicked smart.
  • A writer can just say what a character knows. Doyle didn't have to learn about every kind of tobacco to have Holmes be an expert on them. He just had Homes look at the ash and insta-identify where it came from.
  • A writer is usually pretty savvy in the ways that can be written about. Writers do generally have an advantage when they are writing smart characters. There are a lot of ways to be "smart." Interpersonal, spatial, body/kinesthetic, musical.... And a writer can simply declare these to be so. ("His violin playing made my heart soar!") The only types of intelligence that really come through in writing–also the ones most favored by contemporary cultures as general "intelligence"–are logical/mathematical and linguistic intelligence. Writers tend to have higher levels of these due to self-selection bias. It's the people who love books and reading who most often become writers. So they're at an advantage to make a character appear smart in the ways that have to be written out.
  • A writer can make their character be right. Holmes made a lot of deductive leaps that were, frankly put, really stretching it. But somehow he was always right. If he had been in the real world, eventually someone would have said "No, that suntan is not from my days in the military; it's from the fact that I work outside/spent yesterday at the beach/tan easily," or something. But simply by making the character always be right, you can increase the appearance of intelligence. Holmes solves a number of cases by "contemplating the facts" and we never know what his actual thought process is. We just see him smoke a pipe (or two if it's a tough case) and then he suddenly has an idea for how to crack it.
  • A writer can make the other characters less competent. Ever notice how Inspector Lestrade is just a fucking terrible detective? Or how about the fact that a medical doctor can't get a single deduction right....ever? (Seriously, please don't let that Dr. Watson guy do my appendectomy.) You probably don't notice because it's so much FUN watching Holmes turn around and explain what's really going on. But if you really go back and look hard, you'll see that's one of the smoke and mirror illusions that Doyle is pulling off. He brings everyone down a little bit to make Holmes seem smarter.
So yes, it's very possible to make a character seem smarter than the writer. And it's a good thing too.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Ain't No Cure for the Summer School Blues

Cedric,
Please tell the new picture-finding intern
the following three things:
1- Her access to the communal doughnuts is
contingent on her doing a good job.
2-  Mark Harmon movie posters are NOT
considered a good job.
3- Then tell her about how the last intern was
never found.
Then laugh, and say that we just fired him,
and he left the building looking healthy.
But then get kind of serious and let your face
cloud over, look into the distance, and tell
her that he actually was never found.
P.S.- Why is the dog wearing sunglasses?
Seriously?
The next five weeks are starting to shape up, and I'm beginning to believe that one of the great life lessons (along with "actions speak louder than words" and "failure is awesome") is that no schedule is ever quite the same as it looks on paper.

Ever.

While it seems like a three and a half hour teaching gig three days a week shouldn't really cut that much into a full week of writing time, toss in an hour of commute time each day, an hour or so of thousand-yard-stare after teaching 4-9th graders who would rather be getting root canals than sitting in a class about study skills (each day they reproduce the Bane/Batman fight with my will to live playing the part of Batman's spinal column), and if you take into account the fact that the whole teaching gig is resting precariously on top of a preexisting schedule of housework and Contrarian care, the landscape changes considerably.

For the next five weeks here is how the world is likely to end up actually shaking out:
  • I'll work hard on the weekend to create some content for the week ahead. My success or failure may be determined by things like whether it is Supportive or Unsupportive girlfriend who is hanging out with me on Saturday.
  • Tuesday and Thursday are likely to be my days "off" from the blog. I know that writing on the weekends and not writing on weekdays will hurt my numbers a bit, but the need for cash monies is a cruel mistress. (My damnable body and it's incessant requirement of health insurance!) I will probably try to make my weekend posts more of the "slow burn" posts that get traffic over time. Hopefully I can at least whip up a "brunch" post, and if I'm doing great on writing ahead, I'll have something to show for it (especially possible on Tuesday), but if there exists a day in my schedule where the perfect storm combines to shatter my ambition, it is Tuesday and Thursday.
  • Friday Mailbox posts may have to go up Friday night or Saturday. (Today's, for example is just going to have to wait until tomorrow.) I usually start them on Thursday, and if you take that away, I often spend the whole day on Friday pounding them out. Once the East Coast U.S. starts going to bed for the night, it can really hurt my numbers to post so late, so I'll probably just post on Saturday in those cases.
  • There might be an awful lot of jazz hands in the middle of the week. Not that I think my readers will likely mind much. Some of the posts I think are my most lazy, tend to be my readers' favorites.
  • I may need to take a periodic day off here and there. I'm usually the only one who really cares if I don't write anything in a given day, but these six weeks are burning the candle pretty hot at both ends. A day off may end up being a necessity.
And of course you are all awesome for your patience. Perhaps some day, in the distant future, Writing About Writing will scrape enough money together to BE my day job, and things like this won't need to happen.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Questions From Facebook

Will I promote your thing? My personal social media. Why is it always about the money? Will you tell people to stop commenting in Arabic? Is it toward or towards?

Today's post is a series of questions that I have gotten on my Facebook page. While I did a mailbox a while back consisting only of questions about my Facebook page, this one is only questions I have gotten through Facebook. Many of these I have answered one at a time on my Facebook page, but I've gathered them all in one place. This post also includes my response to some of the solicitations that I'm getting more and more regularly now that that page is getting pretty close to 15,000 likes (and growing).

Will you promote my page/webinar/book/etc...?

My reply:

I don't really have a canned answer to this or a flow chart that I can just check to give you a straight up or down answer, but I can tell you this: if it's spam, the answer will be no. I've worked hard (and for two years) to build up the meager audience I have. I don't want them to have to deal with spam in my name.

And let's be honest, a very real part of me is thinking: "Go build your own fucking social network, you lamprey! Quit mooching off of two years of my effort."

When someone asks me "Will you post this?" I do a few things:

  • I check out the page. Is it about writing? Is it useful? Is the person trying to promote something that my audience would find useful, or are they hoping that my audience might be useful to them?
  • I check to see if the person likes Writing About Writing. Seriously if you want to do social media promotion, the most important rule is that one hand washes the other. Please remember to give someone some social media proliferation if you expect the same.
  • I look to see if they are wanting to promote a paid or a free service. I won't post paid services sight unseen. I won't. I'm not trying to get free samples or anything, but I just won't. That is a tacit endorsement and basically free advertising for you. If I have seen a product, I may do a review of it, but that review would be honest. 
  • Did you ask first? If you sent me a message, I'll probably be more willing to work with you (if you are not obviously trying to spam). I've even given a shout out to people's self published novels and such when they were considerate enough to ask me to do so first. If you just post your stuff on the Writing About Writing wall or as a reply to a comment, I am very likely to take it right back down. If you do it more than once, I flag it as spam and ban the account.
I don't have a formula. If it smells like you're trying to take advantage or peddle something to my audience that they wouldn't like, I'll probably say no (or take your post down). Actually, I narrow my eyes, sniff a couple of times, and dramatically whisper "Smells like spam" in my best Strider the Tracker voice. If it looks useful, interesting, or you're willing do some shouting out yourself in exchange, I'll probably work with you.




Can we be friends on your personal Facebook page?

My reply:

A number of people have sent me friends requests or asked about being personal FB friends.

I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to decline for now. I'm actually in the process of culling some names from my FB of people I've never met and who I don't really know. But like every cheating paramour who is actually more right than they realize: "It's not you. It's me."

I'm thrilled that you are interested enough in my work to wonder about me as a person. But I'm boring! I promise. Seriously, my day's most exciting events involve strange growths of mold in the sink of dishes I need to do or the geometrically impossible volume of poop The Contrarian creates. I mostly bloviate about social justice on my personal wall and try (unsuccessfully) not to let the social ideals I espouse dip into partisan politics. Oh, also I complain a lot how hard it is to clean the house and watch a baby at the same time. A lot. My true creativity goes into my writing, and I'm more than happy to share that.

Also, I am just starting to get big enough that I need to be a little bit careful. After I wrote Changing the Creepy Guy Narrative, I got tons of friend requests and casually accepted them all. (What the hell right? Future networking opportunities!) While many people were awesome and I've even made a couple of real-life friends from the event, many turned out to be a little creepy themselves, several of them were very unpleasant if we ever did not agree about something, and a number of them were just absolutely unconscionably vitriolic with my meatspace friends. One guy was a straight up MRA trolling me--fortunately I figured that one out right away. I don't want this to come across as "I'm kind of a big deal," because I'm really not, but it's becoming pretty obvious that I need to deepen the divide between my work and private life.

If you're that interested, follow me. You'll see that you're not missing out on much. I'm not hard to find and more than half my posts are public.


Mahmood asks: 

Why is it that you always make it about money.

My reply:

I do?

I know I have a couple of articles that mention how much I make (or rather how much I don't) but I think they amount to perhaps one out of every 20 or 30 regular articles.  Since donations are most of the income I make from Writing About Writing, I am forced to remind people periodically.

Is this about yesterday's post where I explain why I have regular jobs and occasionally have to defer to them since they actually keep me fed and sheltered? I have cut down on the hours I work because of the money I'm making from blogging, but I would need to make about five to six times as much as I do now to quit my day jobs altogether.

I work about 40 hours a week between writing and the social media that promotes it. (That's in addition to my regular jobs.) I make about $150-$200 a month on average from writing. (It fluctuates wildly from donations.) So very roughly....I make about ONE DOLLAR AN HOUR....or one seventh of the minimum wage.

If this were about the money, I'd be doing something else.

"Mark" (from what is clearly a sock puppet account) asks:

Will you tell all these people to stop commenting in Arabic or Farsi or whatever it is? This is a site about writing IN ENGLISH. It's distracting.

My reply:

Nope. I sure won't.

I love my peeps from Egypt. There's something called "engaging" in social media (liking, commenting, and sharing posts) that helps those posts be seen by more people. The followers I have in Egypt are really good at engagement. They're actually better about that stuff than most of the English speakers from America, Australia or The U.K. (I guess they're jaded and don't like anything or something.) They even come check out my blog from time to time.

Reading comprehension is a lot easier than writing, so a lot of people who can follow a joke or a meme in English may not be able to respond to it except in their native language.

I run the comments through a translator just to make sure they're not spam or abusive (if they are I report them and erase the comment the first time, and ban the user the second time). I'm not too excited about being told I'm going to hell for not being Muslim and stuff. But if it's just a comment about liking the post or tagging a friend or whatever in Arabic, there's no reason I would take it down. But it is an American idiosyncrasy to believe that one should never have to hear or read any other languages besides English.

Ahmed asks: 

Is it "toward" or "towards"? Many American English speakers are mean about it when I say "towards."

My reply: 

That's because most of us Americans think we're the center of the damned universe, and the way we learned it in high school is always right. Both "toward" and "towards" are correct. British English tends to favor the S, and American tends to favor no S. (I usually write "towards" because I cut my teeth reading a LOT of classics.) This isn't even something an editor would care about unless the in-house style guide had a specific protocol.

The only thing I WOULD encourage is to pick one and stick with it--at least on a given piece of writing. But if someone is getting "mean" with you, tell them to stop being an ethnocentric dillhole and to read something without sparkly vampires for a change.