Welcome

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

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Periodic Reminders

I'm writing this so I have a page I can share periodically with ALL the reminders that people either haven't been around long enough to know or have maybe forgotten.  

Did you know I have another blog called NOT Writing About Writing? It's where I write about social issues, personal thoughts, and review media when it's really not about writing (even by a stretch).

Did you know that this blog has a Facebook page (where I post all kinds of hilarious memes, puns, quotes about writing, and "you should be writing" macros)?

Did you know that this blog ALSO has a Facebook GROUP (where I post just the blog links and whatever meme, macro, quote, or share did the best from the previous day on the page)? Be sure and answer the "security" question. It's really just there so you don't end up subscribed to something you don't want. A simple "yes" will suffice.

Did you know that my public Facebook page is welcome to all? Well, mostly. It's a place I talk about some of the mundane aspects of being a writer, share things I just can't on my page, discuss social issues and politics a little more directly, and even do proto versions of some things that later become posts. Plus general nerdery and me being human. Fair warning: I can be a lot, and you might want to follow me for a while first to see if I'm your cup of tea. (99.9% of posts are public so the only thing you get from "friending" that you wouldn't from "following" is the ability to comment.) You should also read the commenting note so you know what to expect. And always send along a PM with a friend request.

Did you know we also have a limited presence on Twitter, Tumblr, and other social media?

Did you know that most of our bigger articles are categorized by topic in The Reliquary? And the best articles of each month and year are listed in The Best of W.A.W.

Did you know that except for a couple of newsletters, everything I write will always be free? You might pay a dollar or two to get it all in one place in an e-book [stay tuned], but you never have to. However, I have rent to pay and groceries to buy like anyone else, so if you want to support my creative efforts, you can stuff a few bucks in my "tip jar." (I also have Venmo at chris.brecheen@gmail.com) Or better yet, if you want be an ongoing supporter, help my monthly budget, and gain access to some small-but-nifty rewards, consider becoming a monthly Patreon. As little as a single dollar gets you into the VIP room.

Did you know I'm always looking for guest bloggers and will guest blog for you as well? This isn't just "exposure" stuff either. I can and will pay.

Did you know you can send me questions, and I'll probably answer them in a post if I haven't already?

Did you know that MOST questions I get not specifically intended for a Mailbox post have already been answered? You should check the F.A.Q.

Did you know that if you don't know who I'm talking about when I introduce a character in this blog, they are probably listed here?

Did you know I have an official Update Schedule and a pretty well defined Mission Statement?

Did you know that I moderate comments in every space I run? You might want to check them out if you don't want to get banned or have your input erased.

Did you know that Facebook started throttling page creators' content about six months ago in an effort to squeeze more ad revenue from people desperate to get their numbers back. So if you like a page (say, for example, MY page); a great way to show it support, especially if you want to, but can't afford to donate, is to comment and react to those links you know the page is trying to share. 


If you look REALLY close you can just barely notice where the change took place.



Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Best Classic Fantasy (Final Round)

What is the best fantasy book (or series) written before 1975?

OUR FINAL ROUND IS LIVE!  COME VOTE.  

I do want to stress one thing. This poll is about books. It is not about Peter Jackson, the Viggo Mortensen perfect-cast that somehow found actually Aragorn to play Aragorn and eye popping CGI. This is about written literature. And if you thought that the books were a little slow, vote for something else.

This poll will be up for the rest of May, but THAT'S IT. So grab your friends, whip up those fan clubs, vote early and vote often.

Everyone get three (3) votes, but that there is no ranking, so using as few votes as possible is better.

The poll itself is in the lower left at the bottom of the side menus.

I'm told if you're on mobile you have to click "webpage view" then scroll alllllllllll the way to the bottom, you can find the poll.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Best Classic Fantasy (Semifinal 2 Results)

Tuesday is a brutal day for me (especially during the month of May) so I'm just going to drop these results and move along. If the kid sleeps enough that I get some computer time, the final round will be up tomorrow.

The bottom two titles are dropping off, and the top four will go on to the finals.

Text results below.

The Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis 83 39.52%
Once and Future King - T. H. White 38 18.1%
Dragonflight - A. McCaffrey 33 15.71%
Watership Down - R. Adams 29 13.81%

Nine Princes in Amber - R. Zelazny 20 9.52%
Elric Saga (Minus Black Bane) - M. Moorcock 7 3.33%

Saturday, May 11, 2019

When It's Just too Big (I Am the Night)

On Saturday night, I went back to my Vampire game (after a long time off) so I'll also resume my series of articles about some sort of writing insight I glean from these sessions.

Having run into the game's national politics with my last character––essentially sacrificing a "powerful" character who could be badass at the meetings in favor of giving myself too many of the types of tools that can be used to solve established mysteries and problems BETWEEN games (it's called "downtime"), and then turning the full force of those abilities onto a national plot, the answer I got back was "You had enough to crack this twice over, but we're not ready to reveal it yet. Sorry."

Lesson learned.

This time I picked a character who can do VERY little during downtime––mostly just look pretty and run around seducing everything and rousing rabbles. But I didn't just want to be a stompy bashy character either, and I'm always looking for ways to keep my role-playing interesting. Most vampire role-playing involves intense spoooooooky personas or deeply affected speech patterns (and I'm not even talking about the accents) or power brooding or long pauses as everyday Bay Area folks try to channel Lady Grantham levels of subtext to their interactions.

So I decided to play the most authentic, agreeable, genuine, and personable character I ever have. So I'm in there with a bunch of ancient predators who will insinuate that they are going destroy you (politically, socially, maybe literally) every other sentence, and I'm just....super fucking agreeable with everyone. So far, I've already thrown a couple of the players WAY off as they try to figure out what my angle is.

And while I think we could probably stop there and have our "writing lesson" be about genuinely authentic characters inside of nests of vipers, and why that relief of contrast causes what is almost banal to POP, something happened that I want to talk about.

About half-way through the game, there was a massive earthquake. And it wasn't because one of my seductions had achieved a critical success.

At first we roleplayed the "Woah!" stuff and "What's going on?" but then most people went right back to talking. Most people in this game who knew they would be directly affected by whatever had caused the big earthquake went right back to talking about whatever they were discussing before. It was only some of the characters with the appropriate skill sets or information gathering tools that were suddenly buzzing around trying to dig their hooks into what was going on.

For the rest of us it was just too big. We didn't have the ability to affect it.

And that made me think about people and characters and why we like superhero stories right now and why a certain genre of farmer vs. dark lord type trope can be so comical when handled badly. Even in our modern political landscape.

A lot of characters in that moment immediately assessed what was going on and what they could do about it and just decided it was too big. It was way too much. There was nothing they could do so they went back to what they COULD deal with.

And this is a VERY human reaction. We see something too big and it's not a moral failing or that we don't care. We just....can't. I think it's why we are so apathetic when it comes to anthropogenic climate change even though it's so big and so, so urgent. How do we stop multibillion-dollar corporations with the most powerful PR firms of all time from dismissing it as even a problem that only crazy people worry about? How do we act collectively when every collective action that even tries to pump the breaks on environmental exploitation is whack-a-moled as being "the REAL destructive force"? How do we stop something so huge? And that's why so many of us see that we have a smidge over a decade to reverse the worst of our emissions or BILLIONS of us will die and society as we know it might collapse, but our reaction is to turn around and wonder if our social media strategy is going to work well enough that we will recover from the pre-taxes losses.

No one grabbed the family sword and decided to head to where the mansion is and take down the dark lord oil tycoon. Not one person in seven billion did that.

We know that there are second-in-commands who would just take over. That we would be framed as the evil one. That the security forces for your average billionaire will kill us before we cross the grounds to where the mansion is. We know...we can't do this. So we go back to what we CAN handle. We know that collective action will be more effective, so we join groups, and support leaders (with five bucks and a letter writing app) who are starting to prioritize climate change. Collective action isn't dramatic, but it works, and a leader who gives people a small thing they CAN do and a little bit of hope is far, FAR more powerful than a well-sponsored politician scrutinizing the polls for what they should care about.

What does this have to do with your writing? Well, if you want things to be big and dramatic (instead of just someone who learns they have a knack for cold calling and being a community organizer), you have to either give your characters the power to conceivably, plausibly, maybe-with-great-difficulty-but-still-feasibly DO something about what is happening (like magic or The Force or whatever) or you have to give them a more plausible goal. (Or you have to make them part of a massive group effort but they are the sole survivor or something.)

I think that's also why the superhero or "chosen one" genres are so satisfying right now. The "odds are stacked against them" is different than "this is literally, laughably impossible." We want to imagine characters with the power to make real change, and kind of avatar ourselves into a role where we're not just some person WAITING to be rescued.

And it's also why the farmer vs. dark lord stories can be really clunky if they're not handled right. The farmer isn't going to just set out one day to stop the dark lord. That's bananapants. The farmer doesn't have the power to stop the dark lord and the stories that have them take off as if they know ahead of time they'll be leveling up like they're in an RPG are bad writing. The farmer needs to go looking for his oracular pig or try to deliver a message from the princess to the old wizard beyond the Dune Sea or to just take the ring to Rivendell...and then things kind of domino out of control. Once they're stuck or have no choice, then their actions make sense.

Some of us have visionary ambition to see that we are capable of what the world thinks is impossible, but even those folks have a really good sense of when they are absolutely not equipped to PLAUSIBLY affect something. Your characters should be written this way too, and if they charge off willingly to face challenges that aren't just overwhelming but LITERALLY impossible, you probably want to explain what the hell is wrong with them.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Writing, Money, Capitalism. The Little Stuff. (Mailbox)

How can someone in the writing industry survive capitalism while doing what they love? 

[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. I am 576% here for questions so long that they do the heavy lifting of a post and let me make a shorter answer.] 

Deva asks:

Hi Chris,

I’m a longtime reader and fan, lifelong writer, and very recently a writing professional. Easily my favorite part of writing consultation and editing is having the opportunity to help people ask for the things they need and want-- grant writing, resume workshop, scholarship applications, petitions and letters, advocacy campaigns, etc. This work is even more fulfilling when I am able to do it for someone who *really* needs it and most especially rewarding when it is connected to any sort of cause meant to serve others. If I didn't need to eat or sleep or drink water (or pay for the privilege of living), I would spend every minute of every day doing this kind of work. That's the dream.

Enter Stage Right, CAPITALISM:

In the professional world, I've found that the more financial security I gain, the fewer people I am able to help in this way. I am grateful to be at a place in my life where I am truly scraping by instead of falling further behind, but I cannot yet afford to offer up my skills as a writing consultant for free. 

I've figured out that I can scale back on my hours at my full-time job and take on a few clients and projects at a very affordable rate. But I can't figure out how to ethically accomplish this without undercutting my colleagues. Do you have any thoughts on how I (or how we as a community of writing professionals) can make our services more accessible and still make a living*? And is it possible I'm overthinking this? Do these concerns of "undercutting the competition" only apply if my goal is to be competitive? Is it enough to say that my little labor-of-love "side hustle"  won't *really* affect the market?

Alternative question if there isn't a good or interesting answer to what I outlined above: are there any service-oriented writing careers that I have missed?

Any insight would be appreciated :)

My reply:

Just as a point of logistics, if anyone else is hoping to hop the queue this May and get a question answered right away, it's a long, tough month for me, and it will help if you do a huge question that does a lot of heavy lifting and lets me pop off a pretty brief answer that still feels like a full post.  

Congratulations on discovering what you love within the industry. I know a lot of people get so fixated on being A Novelist™ that they aren't willing to adjust course to go after what brings them far more bliss. So now all we need to do is figure out how you can do what you love, survive capitalism, not undercut your industry colleagues, test the waters of other kinds of service-oriented writing, seize the means of production, cast off the yoke of our oppressors, abolish bourgeois private property, and solve climate change in the next decade before humanity goes extinct or at the very least, civilization as we know it completely collapses in an extinction-level event that kills billions and renders most of the world uninhabitable.

Easy peasy.

The first and most important thing you can do is know your value. I'm not kidding. Walk through the world with your default setting being: "Fuck you. Pay me." I know a lot of your questions have to do with doing things pro bono or for a big discount, but knowing exactly what you are giving someone when you work for free is the most important thing you can do when interacting with the forces of capitalism. If you are trying to figure out how philanthropic it is to charge someone $10/hour, the answer is different if you are worth $20/hr than if you are worth $50/hr. And knowing that is important in making certain decisions. The basic core principle here is that there's a difference between donating labor that you know has value and letting yourself be taken advantage of.

Are you undercutting your colleagues? First of all, not really. You, Deva, are not somehow going to go out there and change the market value of freelance writing with your own personal philanthropy. Maybe, maybe, maybe in a world before the Internet you might have been able to impact a local market by always working for free, but....not really.

And also consider that as long as you're talking about folks or orgs legitimately helped by you working for a little less and not Jeff Bezos convincing you he'll get you free Amazon Prime for a year and some awesome exposure, consider that anyone itching to charge these folks is not super high key the type you need to worry about.

"How could you edit that cleft palate orphanage's webpage for their help-us-not-go-bankrupt auction for only $20/hr. I was going to make FOUR TIMES that and overbill them. You....UNDERCUTTER!"

In a broader sense, though? Well, this is one place where knowing your value matters. If you are letting yourself be hired by slick-ass rich folks who absolutely COULD pay for the work, but just want to be able to sing a song about "exposure," you ARE undercutting your colleagues. The entire writing industry––and really the entire CREATIVE industry––has been so saturated by writers (artists) willing to devalue themselves for "exposure" that it is NOTICEABLY harder to get a paying gig. To this very day people slide into my PMs thinking that I might work for no pay and "ground floor opportunities," and they get genuinely OFFENDED when I won't budge from my freelance rate.

"Why should I pay you if I can just get some other writer to do it for free?"

And there it is! And yes, it hurts me. Maybe not ME me because I don't do a lot of freelance, but the universal me. Everyme.

The industry is steeped in this assumption, and that sense of entitlement from those who would otherwise be paying clients hurts everyone. If writers, as a whole, would just appreciate not only their actual labor value but the value of the training that got them to their current skill level, we would all get paid a lot more. Although I will say that, in general, the people who have money but try to weasel out of it by citing "exposure," are exactly the sort who would try to rip off independent contractors and freelancers in other ways. So I wouldn't work for Trump even if you get him to agree to your freelance rate.

So you do have to be aware of not giving away your value to folks who could otherwise pay you.
But it's pretty easy to just not do this. 

If someone can pay you, charge them. You know what you're worth and if they have money to give you, you're all trying to survive capitalism. TAKE their money. You deserve it. This is very important both to yourself, your self-respect and self-esteem, and also to your colleagues.

If they can't afford to pay you, things get interesting. Now you get to decide if you want to essentially GIVE them $X/hr (in the form of your labor) for whatever cause or interest they're working on. And most of them are going to open with things they CAN do. (Like a non profit can give you an invoice for what you are worth [again, know what you're worth] that you can use as a tax deduction.)

I charge $50 an hour for most people who want me to content or line edit something or write something for them (I don't do proofreading). But actually, I'm worth a little more than that. And if Bill Gates or Google wanted to hire me for some god-only-knows why reason, I'd quote them $75/hr and start with a consult hour where I tell them what I like on my bagels (lox, capers, cream cheese, and cucumbers for sure). But for most mere mortals, I go down to $50. I know how expensive freelance work can be for folks who aren't independently wealthy or have the backing of a major corporation.

Major Corporation!
(Yeeeeaaaah, this joke might be funnier in person.)

And sometimes my friend who works part time at the Shakespeare theater and who also wants to be a writer asks me to look over her stuff before she submits, and I work for more like $10/hour. Or $25/hr for someone who is trying to put together a grant proposal for their non-profit. Or I let a fellow artist pay me in trade. Or I tutor a kid on their admissions essay for free because I know their mom lives from paycheck to paycheck. (And even though for me it isn't about who can regale me with the best sob story––I actually KNOW these people––I get to be the one who decides essentially how much I'm going to DONATE to their cause or situation.) Or I'm completely a dry-mouthed pushover and I work for half price because I want someone who is really cute to like me.

And here's the beauty of all this. If they can't pay you, you're not screwing over your colleagues. They wouldn't have been able to pay your colleagues either. It only damages the "freelance ecosystem" if you don't take money from people who COULD pay you.

But in all these transactions you MUST KNOW YOUR VALUE.

What about competitiveness? Again, know your value. (This is like the "Know thyself" of freelance work.) If you're having to bid for a contract, and you know you need to be competitive, knowing what you're worth can help you decide how low you're willing to go. (I don't really bid for contracts, but if I ever had to, I could go as low as $45, but it wouldn't be worth it to me to spend my valuable time that I could be writing my own stuff working for any less. So I'm not going to lowball at $40 just to get the gig.)

Are there service-oriented writing jobs you haven't worked yet? I'm sure there are many, but I don't know everything you've already done. If you've done grants, applications, petitions, editing, and advocacy, you've done a lot. Grants are always going to be the biggie (because they translate most directly into money), and honestly you can make money in development if you want to do the same thing during the day. Staff writing. Blogging/web content for a non-profit's website. Philanthropic journalism. Copywriting. You might even enjoy technical writing, which doesn't OFTEN happen outside of day job contexts, but is notoriously hard to find for cheaper than a pretty "robust" market rate.

Many of these would not be most writer's first choices in what kind of writing they'd like to be doing. They usually pay the bills. But if you're picking your causes, it sounds like it might be very rewarding and the kind of writing you like to do. Personally, I would either pick one and specialize so you can be VERY good and maybe even renowned in that one thing (and probably have a skill set that might translate to paid work if you ever needed it to) or keep just helping all over the place as eclectically as you can and enjoy the sort of gestalt way that you become better at the entire spectrum of freelance and/or consulting.

I will give you one piece of advice that actually came from my editor who also does pro bono work for causes she believes in (of which, thank all the things, I am one). No matter what amount you're working for, even if it's FREE, absolutely bring 110% to the table. Do your very best. Because once your work is out in the world, no matter what you got paid for it, it is representing you. And you want your best possible effort in a portfolio if you're trying to land a paying gig.

Note: the rest of the socialist revolution will have to wait until part two, (which I will never get around to writing).

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Reminder to Vote (Best Classic Fantasy Semifinal Round 2)

What is the best fantasy book (or series) written before 1975? 

The semifinal rounds go FAST. I'll have the results of this poll posted on Monday and the final round up on Tuesday. So don't dilly dally. Vote today!

Two titles are not going forth to the final round, but WHICH two are up to you.

And while I know the laws of large numbers have begun to determine that a certain number of people won't read anything but the preview text and the poll before commenting that "OH THE HUMANITY!" please consider that 1) this is only half the titles  ("Oh my god how could Lord of the Rings not make it????" It did. It was on round one.), 2) there were rules that disqualified titles (particularly series titles that didn't conclude until after '75), and  3) we arrived here through a nomination process, and I controlled literally NONE OF IT but rather my readers made all the decisions, so if a title never got nominated, acting like it is a crime to the genre might make you look a little foolish, and maybe you should chime in a little sooner next time.

Don't forget you get three (3) votes, but that there is no ranking, so using as few votes as possible is better.

The poll itself is in the lower left at the bottom of the side menus.

I'm told if you're on mobile you have to click "webpage view" then scroll alllllllllll the way to the bottom, you can find the poll.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Best Classic Fantasy (Semifinal [Results 1/Kick off 2])

What is the best fantasy book (or series) from before 1975? 

The first semifinal round is over and we have the results. But don't go anywhere. The second semifinal round starts TO-NIGHT. Scroll on down and vote on the next round. Again, four will go on to the final and we'll lose the bottom two.

Text results below...



Lord of the Rings - Tolkien 158 56.23%
Earthsea Cycle - Le Guin 52 18.51%
Brave New World - Aldous Huxley 26 9.25%
Where the Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak 23 8.19%


The Chronicles of Prydain - Lloyd Alexander 15 5.34%
Gormenghast - Mervyn Peake 7 2.49%

The Chronicles of Prydain and Gormenghast will get some lovely parting gifts, but won't be joining us on the final round. Thank you to SO MANY for voting. This was a really spectacular turn out.


The second semifinal round is already live. 

Tomorrow is my ass kickingest of days and we have to keep moving if we're going to get onto our new poll by June. So we won't be taking the usual day to turn around. These semifinal rounds are going to go VERY quickly, to get through this first part of the process. This poll will only be up a week (and another week for the second half) so we can get on with the final round. So please make haste.

Everyone gets three [3] votes, but as there is no way to "rank" votes, you should use as few as you can stand.

The poll itself is in the lower left at the bottom of the side menus.

If you're on mobile you can scroll ALLLLLL the way to the bottom and click on"webpage view" to see the side menus and get to the polls.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Should I/Must I Read the Classics? (Mailbox)


Must I read old-timey classics?


[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. I am pleased to announce I am only like two years behind in answering most people's questions.] 

Judith asks:  

I grew up French Canadian and only been using (speaking, reading, writing, even thinking) [English] since 2014, give or take. So 5 years at this point. I was told in one of my writing group[s] that I "had so much to learn from old-timey classic" and probably couldn't pretend to call myself a writer if I had never read them. My only experience reading classics was in college (and in French) and I couldn't understand half of it. I can't imagine doing this in my second language (even if it is the one I use the most nowaday). I mostly (read 'only') write and read fiction anyway, so it doesn't seem relevant to me?

What's your take on it?

My reply:

I'm going out on a limb here and guess that you left out the word that I put in bold and brackets in your question. I suppose by this math, it might also possible that you are eight or nine and English IS your first language, but that seems far less likely––especially imagining you in a writing group with other pre-teens, one of which happens to be a total snob. If so, I'm sorry you're inheriting such a fucked up world from my generation, but if we can fix the climate change thing, you'll probably live twice as long as I will and see humanity take to the stars, so that's pretty cool.

Oh and tell that other kid to go watch some fucking Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir, and loosen up.

Buuuuuuuuut assuming that you're talking about full fluency in a second language (congrats by the way, that shit is double tough and the English refusal to settle on just one root language makes it one of the harder ones, so triple tough), it definitely changes the landscape. I'm also going to assume that we're talking about your ability to write in English.

Let's break this down before I give you a straight up or down answer because I'm nothing if not overwordy. Besides, I can shoehorn a LOT more shitty jokes into a nuanced answer.

Should you read shit you can't even read?

So the question on the table, as is, seems to be should you read books that are so hard that you can't even understand them.

Hang on. I have to look incredulously at the camera for this one.

Ahhhh. There we go.

That's a big negatory, Judith.

I'm not talking about quiet discomfort during reading something difficult or a book that makes you look up a word or three each page, but if you can't even follow what's going on, that's not really reading. That is basically translating (even if you're being good and only doing English to English you are essentially translating hard English into everyday English), and translating happens in a whole different part of your brain. It's the reason we don't give 1st graders (or people first learning to read) a copy of Infinite Jest, and just tell them "Hey, but by the time you finish, you'll be amazeballs." Because that's not how any of this works.

There are a lot of classics that are easy to read. Harper Lee, Steinbeck, Orwell, Hemingway, Carver. Even Vonnegut is pretty readable. And while you will definitely hit linguistic shift as you go further back, if you take it one step at a time, rather than just diving into Cymbeline, you should be okay.

Is this relevant if you only read/write fiction?

*record scratching noise*

I'm trying to decide whether it's weirder that you think there's no old-timey classic fiction or your friend thinks you should be reading old-timey NON-fiction if you want to be considered a "real writer." Like, both those things are equally dismissive of CLASSIC FICTION. Did I misread this?

I'm not saying that it wouldn't be valuable to read the source material of someone like Locke or Smith or even seeing what the ACTUAL parable of the cave reads like (although translations have their own sort of artistry and licence in that tension between readable and precise). Reading some of the great thinkers of human civilization is kinda cool. But that stuff is pretty dry. Like imagine eating a tasteless cracker...but without having a glass of water nearby. And the cracker is stale. And there's a stack of them.

Like, really dry.

If you're mostly wanting to write fiction, you should probably mostly read fiction (although with the caveat that you should never exclusively read what you want to write in, just because of how refreshing and useful it can be to sometimes break out of that modality). Just like if you want to publish meaningful philosophical thought, you should probably mostly read philosophy and philosophers or if you want to...well, you get the idea.

However....just so we're clear. There are a bucket load of "old-timey classic" works that are FICTION. From The Epic of Gilgamesh to Utopia all the way through history and up to Alice Walker or J.D. Salinger, all are considered "classics."

Should you read old-timey classics?

So let's get my bias out of the way. I'm an anglophone. I'm an English major. I'm a voracious reader. I have OPINIONS on classic literature and classic authors. It's one of the few subjects you can bring up at a party and I will come out from the corner where I'm petting the cat and stand on a table and bloviate for hours. Not all of my opinions on classic literature are complimentary. Some of them are downright "Fuck all these dead white guys!" in timbre. But most of them recognize a high quality of prose in that writing which has been canonized and all of them acknowledge that to understand the literary tradition in which one is attempting to add something, it is extremely helpful to have been exposed to it. Some of these works have kicked off entire literary movements.

And they echo into today. If you haven't read Beowulf, you might not understand what Tolkien is doing with elves (because they are seriously removed from the fae traditions of Great Britain). If you haven't read Le Morte d'Arthur, you probably are missing a lot of references and thematic explorations in Babylon 5. If you've never read Hamlet, The Lion King is probably no deeper than a kid's movie. Arguably this is more than just the party trick of being able to show that House M.D. is modern medical Sherlock Holmes. It opens up new dimensions of appreciation and comprehension of popular culture. Everything from Faulkner's influence in A Song of Ice and Fire to the Victorian literary themes in the Twilight Saga to the romantic tradition of knight errant tracing a line through gothic literature to land squarely as (....drumroll) the modern day detective all add dimensions and layers to the appreciation and understanding of fiction.

Should you read these books? You should. These are good books. These are not shitty third drafts rushed to print because they're cash cows. (Dickens maybe.) Once in a while it's really good to take a pass through something classic. It's good for you as a writer, as a reader, and if you want my nerdy English major opinion, as a person. Our ability to have compassion lives in these vivid portrayals of other people and other times. These days, we can't really write the same way these old-timey authors did if we want to sell/be published/be taken seriously, but they were SO good at crafting a sentence or finding the perfect word. Drinking from that well once in a while and letting it influence us is probably really good for a writer.

I agreed with your colleague when he said there's so much to learn. The great writers of the past basically have private tutoring sessions on tap for anyone who knows how to listen.

Must you in order to 'pretend to call yourself a writer'?

Fuck that guy. Fuck him right in the ear.

I agreed with your colleague right up until he turned into an elitist ass-strudel and conveyed that you probably shouldn't pretend to call yourself a writer if you'd never read them. That's when, in my mind's eye, I began to imagine him as very Harold-Bloom-shaped and hanging off a cliff over some crocodiles.

"Do you hear something? Someone calling for help?  No? Pass me the Grey Poupon, would you?"

Do you know what you have to do in order to "call yourself a writer"? (This is not a trick question, by the way.) You have to write. That's it. That's the end of the list. Now if you want to publish, get some fans, make a bunch of money, improve your writing, or be excellent, there's some nuance. You should read. You should read a LOT. You should probably read a ton of what you want to write, but also some other genres and stuff just to mix it up. And you could definitely do worse than an occasional classic lit book thrown onto the ol' To-Be-Read pile once in a while, but you don't HAVE to do any of that shit to "call yourself a writer." That guy's just being a supercilious fucktrumpet, and you have my permission to laugh at his pompous shartbagle face if he pulls that again.

Tons of writers don't read classic lit. They still read a LOT (because that's how you get the tools to be a good writer) but they don't read fucking Byron or Chaucer. They are grounded in a more modern tradition––particularly one that emphasizes a new diaspora of voices.

You, Judith, have an even more exciting opportunity. You can bring a French tradition into your writing. I mean you're going to do it unconsciously because you were raised on French stories and French kids books and French linguistic/cultural influences. But you can also do it explicitly the way a lot of Latinx writers talk candidly of their cultures, infuse their English writing with words and phrases from Spanish, and explore the varied cultural themes that have come to them from the Spanish-speaking side of their lived experiences.

Caveat.

I danced around this above, but I'm going to come out and say it explicitly. The English speaking world has a literary tradition that is racist and sexist as fuck, and that shit hasn't gone away because we're all living in some enlightened period of enlightenment now (*cough*). Really, really, really good writing exists from today and modernity and even from "old-timey classics" eras, writing that has not been canonized, chiefly because it is from voices that are marginalized in our society. I think many of them are technically recognized in official long-as-your-leg canon lists (yes, even of Harold Fucking Bloom), but they are not the titles taught in high school or usually even college (outside of a niche class or somewhat subversive professor), and they are rarely what lit snobs are thinking of when they tell you to read a classic.

However, these are also GOOD writers. These are also tutors across time. These are also authors who have something worth saying. But we don't live in a world that is willing to give up one of six books by Faulkner to read Jean Toomer or Luther Standing Bear. We won't edge Hemingway off a few academic lists to make room for Rabindranath Tagore, Lu Xun, or Ralph Ellison. Academia and lit sommeliers are still in the phase of, "I'm not racist, but all the writers I can't bear to take off the curriculum to make room for anyone else happen to be dead white guys."

So even if you were to go read some old books, you don't have to read the old books "they" say are classics. In fact, you might be better for it if you took them with a grain of salt and "diversified the ol' literary portfolio."

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Reminder to Vote (Best Classic Fantasy)

What is the best fantasy book (or series) written before 1975?  

The semifinal rounds go FAST. I'll have the results of this poll posted by Sunday and the next semifinal round up on Monday. So don't dilly dally. Vote today!

And while I know the laws of large numbers have begun to determine that a certain number of people won't read anything but the preview text and the poll before commenting that oh how could their very favorite fave not be here, please consider that 1) this is only half the titles  ("Oh my god how could The Chronicles of Narnia not make it????" They did. They'll be on the second semifinal.), 2) there were rules that disqualified titles (particularly series titles that didn't conclude until after '75), and  3) we arrived here through a nomination process, and I controlled literally NONE OF IT but rather my readers made all the decisions, so if a title never got nominated, acting like it is a crime to the genre might make you look a little foolish, and maybe you should chime in a little sooner next time.

Don't forget you get three (3) votes, but that there is no ranking, so using as few votes as possible is better.

The poll itself is in the lower left at the bottom of the side menus.

I'm told if you're on mobile you have to click "webpage view" then scroll alllllllllll the way to the bottom, you can find the poll.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

When Life Is Determined to Kick Your Ass

Bringing an all new dimension of  weirdosity and tension
to the fact that you can't tell the difference between
"May" and "me" in some songs.
I started this with a title about May. Like "It's gonna be May" or something. Then I scrolled through my Facebook, and I gotta tell you, between Justin Timberlake and Jonathan Coulton, if you don't know it's May––if you don't know that today is the first day of a month that is called May––I'm guessing you're one of my four readers who aren't on social media.

Let's do something a little different today.

Instead of a post where I tell everyone how May is going to be this existential crisis of screaming clown heads, and I tearfully admit that I may not manage to get to every single last post that I have previously scheduled for myself, even though literally no one but me cares about me missing a day here or there and even my patrons wish I would just quietly skip the damn post once in a while and not feel compelled to share all the excruciating details about why ("listen I got this G.I. bug and it's turned my digestion inside out––here are some pictures––and that's why I won't be posting today...")

Um, yeah, so instead of doing that, I'm going to flip the whole thing around. We're going to look at it from the other side for a change, in accordance with the Updates in Real Time portion of our mission statement, in which this blog tries to be as transparent as possible.

May involves two pet-sitting jobs (one in San Francisco and one in Santa Clara) that will take up the entire month. Mostly no big deal since I can write anywhere, but for those days that I have to trek to Oakland to do my newly bolstered nanny hours, I will be spending hours in the car.

And easily this could be the end of 2/3 my writing productivity for May if I weren't careful. I go to Oakland four days a week. In traffic either of the trips I mentioned could take two hours one way. By Thursday, I'd have spent 25 hours at work and another 16 in commute. I'd spend Friday recovering. Saturday and Sunday would be my only days to get everything else done that I needed to. I'd hang in there for a week, maybe two. And then....screaming clown heads.

So what do you do when you have a chance to sock away an entire month's worth of expenses with your favorite clients? When you need those side gigs to keep you from entire weeks of nothing but PB&J sandwiches and to provide a bit for the occasional train trip? But also what do you do when you're a working writer whose income is crowd funded and you can't do a G.R.R. Martin impersonation for a month?

As often as I get asked any other question, it is "How do you do it?" and what they mean by "it" is making a living with creative writing. And that answer, or at least one month's worth of decisions about that answer, you're about to watch in praxis.

How I do it....is that I make sure that when something like May is coming, I keep writing my priority. I could toss it on the back burner, do a bunch of filler, neglect some of the longer stuff, and come back to it stiff and out of practice (if at all) in June, but that's not how I got here, and that's not how I keep going.

So first of all I know that to keep writing, I need two things. The first one is a no brainer, but the second one is just as important or I will end up cannibalizing the first one.

  • Writing time
  • Self care*

*Not bubble baths and retail therapy here. I'm talking about getting enough sleep. I'm talking about spending enough time doing shit like reading, watching TV, relaxing, and taking care of parts of my life that aren't just writing. 

My first move was to see how things looked on paper (not great). If I have big open weekends, sometimes I can take on a tough day or two during the week, so long as I remember to do my writing earlier.  Unfortunately three days off and four on is too much, so I couldn't just Tetris my writing time. I had to find some substantive changes.

Then I started making tweaks until I found enough time for writing and the self care that keeps writing viable:
  • By making my needs known to my side gig employers (the parents of the nanny gig), I was able to work in a May substitute for the little three hour shift I had on Thursdays. So during the month of May, I'm only driving out 3 days a week and have a four-day weekend.
  • The Mondays are sort of unofficial, so I can wait out traffic before I head out.
  • One appointment on Monday got cancelled, so I made sure the whole day was cancelled. That week I'll have Monday off. And I'll keep my eyes open for any other opportunity like it. A day off here and there can make a big difference.
  • I'm using BART to get to the city job after I do the initial drop-off of stuff. That'll keep me from having to dig through traffic (it'll be about the same amount of time, but being able to read is a HUGE plus to any T graph). 
  • I'm going to pick up a couple of audiobooks for those rare occasions when NPR isn't blowing wind up my skirt.
  • It might make for some long days (and some slightly hungry kitties by the time I get home), but movies or hikes I can do after I work, so that I can wait out the traffic.
  • Double dipping with an infant while they're napping is pretty easy if one is determined to make it work.
  • I pay someone to help me with some of the admin of social media management. I lined up extra hours for them in May.
  • I've saved up a lot of admin-type posts and am running a poll that will require a lot of reminders. 
  • I have a lot of important but shorter posts "saved up" just for May––we're running a poll with semifinals that will require a lot of reminder posts. And I haven't done "best of" for 2019 yet. I can't run an entire month of filler, of course, but having a LITTLE less that requires my urgent attention day after day makes the fits and starts dynamic of May's writing/self-care time––and the fact that Tuesday and Wednesday are just about going to be a wash––a little easier to handle.
  • Since I have more money than time during May, I have set up a couple of low-key Facebook promotions to make up for the fact that I won't be able to be 110% on social media or write quite so many heavy hitting posts.
  • I'll still have a week front-loaded with side gigs and back-loaded with writing, so I need to sit down with my planner every week and really plan out what posts I'm going to write ahead of time and get them done early.
And that's how I do it. I make writing the highest priority, I scowl at my schedule, and I don't fuck around. A lot of people love writing, and I'm not here to judge their love or how much of a writer they are, but if they get into a pinch, it's the first thing they toss to the back burner and the last thing they sit down and plan for how they're going to keep it a priority through a rough time. For most working writers, that would be like not figuring out how you're going to get to your job or see your family during a rough time. 

If it's a priority, make it a priority. 

This is Folksy Wisdom; over and out.