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

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Giggle and Thursday's Three

The Crysis 2 ad on Steam says "Aliens are decimating New York..."  Prescriptivists the world over will not be playing this game because no matter what they do, 90% of New York is going to remain intact, and that just doesn't seem like high enough stakes for a video game.

Sound of Door Opening

Voice 1:  Uh...I'm in the middle of Thursday's Three, gentlemen.  It's poignant and tender day here at Writing About Writing, so all my quotes are guaranteed to get people misty eyed.  Plus I was just sharing a zinger I came across this morning about the word decimate that's always good for-

Voice 2:  We need to talk to you about these temporal fluctuations.  You realize that the last pulse pulled an entry from a week ago all the way back to yesterday.

Voice 1: Well thank you for mentioning that right in the middle of my segment.  We were going to simply switch out the entries and hope no one noticed.  You do realize we currently don't even have triple digit readership.  The chances of anyone noticing were not going to be very high.  Except that you mentioned it to the entire blogoshpere.

Voice 2: It's clear the Octorians are trying to bring even more of their army into our time/space continuum, and that Writing About Writing is the event horizon for the invasion--probably due to the fact that they're mostly interested in destroying the source of such bad writing.

Voice 3: That would be you, Mr. Brecheen.

Voice 1: Yeah, I got that.  Look I'm really sorry about the genocidal cephalopod army.  I really am.  It must really suck to be you guys right now.  But number one, I am not calling them the Octorians.  I mean really?   Really?  Octorians.  And number two, I need to get this segment done a little early.  I'm having lunch with someone who isn't completely opposed to the idea of threesomes.

Voice 2: Mr. Brecheen, your threesomes are not more important than...  I'm talking about the decimation of all life on Earth here!

Voice 1: (snickers)

Voice 2: Oh you think that's funny, do you?

Voice 1: No.  It's just when you say "decimate"...

Voice 2: This isn't a goddamned joke.

Voice 3: Wait.  Did you say this was going out to the whole blogosphereaverse?

Voice 1: Yeah, with the convention and stuff, I'm still not out ahead of myself.  All my segments are still going out live.

Voice 2: Jesus tittyfucking Christ......

Sound of Gunshots.


Hello.  I'm the SciGuy.  I uh....I help Lt. Lambaste with her segment.  I just happened to be wandering up the hall and I found...

What?   You want me to do three quotes?  Quotes from what?

But I don't know anything about writing.  I'm just a scientist.  I built the Pretentitron.

Three quotes that have anything even remotely to do with any aspect of art, creativity, inspiration, or writing? Or cheese?  Okay....I guess I can do that.  I know a lot of Einstein quotes.  Would that be okay?


‎Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.
Albert Einstein

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius -- and a lot of courage -- to move in the opposite direction.

Albert Einstein

Imagination is more important than knowledge

Albert Einstein

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Writing About Writing Celebrates It's Best Month Yet With Office Shenanigans

There's more cool meta-news on the blog front that I wanted to share.  We're having a big party here at the central offices, but I figured I should take time out from doing lines of coke off hooker's asses to tell the world about our triumph!

May is the best month we've had so far.  It's only by THREE page views, but it still came in over March.

You can see we went a little down in April, and I think that happened because in March a lot more people were curious just to see what I was doing.  Writing About Writing isn't the sort of blog that would appeal to *anyone, and I think most people kind of took a look to see what I was so on about and haven't really been back. I had a huge number of hits early in the month that tapered off to a trickle by the tenth or so.  That early blast of interest inflated March's numbers.

Since then it's been a slow and steady crawl, but as you can see, we've had the best month yet.

Even the genocidal cephaloopod that Max (from accounting) and Trixie (the front desk of the admin offices) found when they went to make out in the supplies closet can't ruin the happy times.

*I acknowledge the limited appeal of W.A.W.  To be a regular reader one would  have to be into writing AND think you have something to learn AND think I have something to teach or think I'm totally amusing or something.  Regardless, I know that it's a blog of limited appeal until/unless (probably unless) I get some things published and people think I might have something worth saying.

By the way if you have any skills at accounting or administration please shoot us a resume.

Five Things That You Might Not Think Would Make You A Better Writer (But Totally Will)

This shit is connected to your body, yo. 
In "Western" cultures there's a tendency to consider certain human dynamics as divorced from each other.  While we know our brains sit in a goop of cerebrosipinal fluid, and that they are a huge clump of specialized nerve cells that, while unbelievably powerful, still require potassium, sodium, calcium and stuff to fire, we still tend to think of our brains and our bodies as separate.  If you ask someone straight out about the brain/body relationship they'll probably acknowledge that the two are connected and maybe even that there is no actual difference, but if you look around there are deep seated clues that our culture views the relationship very differently, even among those that accept the science of biochemistry and neuroscience.

You don't have to go far to find the undercurrents of this philosophy.  Ever notice how functional people can be when they "step out" of their body in western media.  Man if they don't need to pick up an axe or something, they are downright unhindered by the lack of corporeality.  Whether they are astrally projecting or are a ghost, or whatever their mental faculties seem unhindered.  But there are more subtle clues too.

I'll make a short list:  1) Outside of a few medical specialties there is still a sharp delineation between mental and physical illness.  2) We think "all in your head" means "not real" when it comes to pain, illness or injury.  3) Any link between diet, exercise, and mental health is vigorously opposed--often with the same kind of evidence that causes people to want to murder the antivax crowd.  4) You can observe a general sort of contempt for education among highly physical people, and the same general sort of contempt for physicality among the mentally inclined. 5) The "smart jock" and the "in-shape nerd" are still sort of anti-tropes in most media.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

So keeping that in mind, here are some things that might not seem like they have anything to do with writing, but they totally do.

1- Disable Your Connectivity

I'll go ahead and start with a slow ball right over the plate.  Most of you probably know that the internet can distract you from writing, so this isn't actually anything new.  Farmville is probably the single most creativity-nuking activity ever conceived by the hand of man. What most of you probably DON'T know is exactly why, exactly how powerful it can be, and exactly how epically it is fucking you up.

Neurons are really fast.  They're so fast you could not outrun them without being in some pretty fly modern technology.  But...they do not travel at the speed of light, and they don't even travel at the speed of electricity through a wire.  In fact, they are roughly a MILLION times slower than that.  Still fast as hell, but let's keep it in perspective.

But your brain has this fatty stuff called Myelin, and it can put down sheaths of the crap on certain neural pathways you use often in order to speed up those thoughts.  You know how sometimes you always have the same cascade of thoughts?  A song from 1983 comes on the radio, you think of when you heard it, that makes you think of your boyfriend, you think of his beard, and that makes you think of how long it's been since you bought razors.  So every time you hear that song, you end up checking to see if you need to get razors on your next shopping trip.  You can thank Myelin sheaths for that.

Little fuckers.

Well these little bastards are also working against you in the "check your e-mail/Facebook/whatever" department.  Sure they help you recall more quickly the process involved in jobs you do daily or the answers to things that are relevant for you.  One of the reasons your SO good at what you're good at is that you have Myelin sheaths all over the neurons that are involved in those jobs, so you can do them better and faster than anyone else.  Zillions of gamer geeks can thank Myelin for the fact that it takes them .523 seconds less to think of the armor class of an umber hulk.  But Myelin sheaths also hate you.  The fact that every time you scratch your nose, you wonder about your e-mail, and every time you finish a paragraph your brain goes "Is anything new on Facebook?" is the downside of Myelin..

You also might not realize that it takes you almost two minutes to get your concentration back to what you were doing when you "step out."  It's just part of how our brain shifts focus.  As we click down the "MS Word screen with "The Great American Novel" on it, check Facebook and E-mail, and then click back, it takes about two minutes for us to get back into the groove we were in before. And that's if there were no e-mails to reply to or cute pictures of kittens to "Like."

Add even more time if something online upsets us.  A pissy e-mail from someone?  A political Facebook post we don't agree with?   That's going to distract us for much more than just two minutes. We get all emotionally tangled up.

Oh you actually want to RESPOND to the pissy e-mail or political post?  Add even more time.

And since you know that you probably won't ever get in the final word no matter how much your "words are your weapon," you will almost certainly get more pissy e-mails or political arguments or whatever distracted you in the first place.

Suddenly, the fact that you are online has cost you hours and hours of productivity.  All because you think you can handle having your e-mail open while you write, or you just check Facebook "a few times."

Writers in the 21st century have a problem.  When they sit down to write, they usually do so on the same machine that brings them so many distractions.  If every time they finish a paragraph they get a compulsion to check Facebook, and every time that happens they lose a few minutes....well, you can do the math.  Disabling your internet, unscrewing your wireless antenna, using a dedicated writing computer with no wireless, or (if you've got it in you) just the discipline not to go online while you're writing, will be the best thing you can do over time.

And not over lifetime time either.  You'll probably notice the difference after only a day.  Every time that fucking Myelin tells you to check your e-mail, but you can't, you'll realize how often you actually used to do it.  And you will notice your productivity going up almost instantly.

2- Write at the Same Time Everyday

Those Myelin sheaths that hate you so bad?  They're also your best friends.  Sorry about that.  It's a real Magneto/Dr. Xavier relationship.  You need those little backstabbing bastards to help you be creative.   If you can get them to stop saying "I detect nitrogen in the atmosphere--CHECK FACEBOOK NOW!!!" they can become your most powerful ally.

Chris talks a lot about his muse like it's a thing that lives outside of him.  Sometimes he even blames it for the scorch marks on the lobby walls and carpet.  The fact is that your muse is your brain, and your brain will drop Myelin over any thought process if you do it enough times.  They're called habits.  They're tough to form and tougher to break.  So if you sit down to be creative at the same time every day, it won't be long before your brain starts feeling creative around that time by sheer force of habit.  If you sit around waiting for inspiration, you will be at your brain's mercy...and the workings of your unconscious are mercurial at best.  But if you schedule an appointment every day with creativity, your brain quickly learns when to stop by to drop off the stuff it's accumulated.

There are a lot of metaphors for this.  The point is sit down to write like it IS a habit, and it won't take long before it becomes one.

3- Get Plenty of Sleep

I know this culture likes to boast about lack of sleep.  I listen daily to people talk about how much sleep they didn't get like it's a dick measuring contest in a high school gym, or like it's that Monty Python sketch about terrible childhoods.  ("We used to dream of getting two hours of sleep!")  The amount of caffeine one has ingested in the last 24 hours seems to be a point of particular pride.  ("Dude!  I just had six 5hr energy drinks, two no doze, a quadruple shot expresso, four Red Bulls, and I'm downing it all with this 2 liter of Mt. Dew!  HARDCORE!!!!!")

It is ironic that we turn around and have a zillion products and services designed to prevent us from aging or showing the signs of aging.  One of sleep's main functions is producing antioxidants that keep us from aging prematurely.  You literally age faster if you don't get enough sleep. So while people are dropping money on caffeine deployment devices and then dropping money skin tightening lotion pore megacream, they might consider the fact that going to bed would eliminate the need for both products.  However, we're not talking about aging.

We're talking about creativity.

Think of your brain like a computer.  This shouldn't be too hard since that's the metaphor we've been using primarily for about fifty years.  Now here's where it'll get funny: think of the sorts of mental functions that spark creativity as your graphics card.  (Things like complex visualization, chasing those flitting ideas, concentration, mood stabilization, higher cognitive function, and the ability to learn on the fly.)  Your graphics card is the primary suspect if your computer overheats, and it needs its own heat sinks if it's worth its salt.  You can run programs with lower graphics, but if you really want to turn them up, you have PHYSICALLY baby your card a little bit.

Sleep is your air conditioner.

See, you can function without sleep.  Just like you can turn your computer on in a sweltering hot room.  Your computer will come on, and so will your brain.  You might even be able to play a few games on low graphics settings--or do some mildly creative stuff.  But the more you push your brain to be creative without sleep, the more you risk freezing the whole system up.  Anyone who's ever pushed past their brain's ability to be creative, because they were trying to concentrate on something non-routine, and had a total, massive, systems-wide brain fart knows exactly what this looks like.  Suddenly you just can't think of anything at ALL for about ten seconds.  You probably wouldn't even know your name if someone asked right then.

Caffeine keeps your metabolic functions up, but it's not so good with hormonal ones (like sleep).  Anyone who's ever been "wired but tired" knows this.  If you need sleep, you need sleep, and having drifted off during graveyard shifts with my heart pounding from the 5 No-Doz I just took, I can tell you that caffeine is no substitute for sleep.  It's a little like waiting just a minute after your computer overheats and just turning it back on again.  Temporarily it will work.  In the long run, your computer (or your brain for the metaphor) will just crash again.  And if you keep it up, you do long term damage.

Caffeine is less damaging to brains than perpetually overheating CPU's is to computers, so this metaphor might break down at that point.  But caffeine addiction can be a pain in the ass to be sure, and it doesn't take more than a decade or two for the effects of caffeine abuse in lieu of good, honest sleep to start to take a fairly serious toll.

When you've had enough sleep you are, simply put, more creative.  You have more neurotransmitters.  You have more ability to concentrate.  You have fewer hormonal imbalances.  And you have more thoughts that are whimsical and playful and not simply functionality-driven--the thoughts that are the bread and butter of creativity.

And....should I even bother mentioning how many good ideas can come from dreaming?  A process which we remember far less of when we are not getting enough sleep.

Let the non-creative astound themselves with how functional they can be on a couple of hours.  Artists need different parts of their brains, and need them in tip top shape.  Artists need their "graphics cards" to go up to kick ass settings, to do it for more than a few seconds at a time, and not to freeze their whole computer.

But Ima!  All those writer cliches about staying up late sucking back coffee.....  Yeah, those cliches are during the writing part.  That's when the creativity has shaken out and the writer is just driving to get it out on the page. That stuff does happen, and it is frequent enough that we deserve a lot of those stereotypes, but without enough fucking sleep we would never get to those moments of driving inspiration.

4- Stop Eating Crap (At Least All the Time)

Look no one is saying you can't have a pizza and write a book. Lots of great writers don't eat very well. This isn't about can-you-ever-do-it-at-all.  This is about maximum efficiency.

Your brain is an organ in your body, not on the other side of some shield that keeps out your physical existence.  Aside from structure or disease (chronic or otherwise), food is the single most fundamental factor in our mental state.  Watch a kid eat a pound of candy if you ever want to test this. Or cut out carbs and see how quickly your ability to think starts feeling muddy (because our brain can't metabolize other energy sources, like fats). Or watch the mood crash that can come a couple of hours after eating a huge meal of fats, salts and sugars. What you stick in your mouth is all your body (and brain) have to work with when it comes to making you. Every thought you ever have is a chemical reaction consisting mostly of yesterday's dinner.

Think about that.

(And then, what will really bake your noodle is if you think about THAT being a thought that consisted mostly of yesterday's dinner.)

Look, it's not like you won't be able to finish your short story unless you have an organic alfalfa sprout sandwich with fifty-seven grain bread and a no cal mayo. But sometimes not being able to think of what to write is not some failing of your psychic self or psychological block. Your brain is a physical entity with physical needs and physical limitations. Sometimes blocks can be as simple as the fact that you had canned chili with WAY too much sodium, and your neurons need some potassium to be able to fire. I know it sounds flip to suggest that a banana might cure writer's block, but....a banana might just cure your writer's block.

Treat your body like a temple if you want. You'll probably be able to find a point of limited returns when it comes to creativity. I found mine a few years ago and it's right about at the healthy but not athletic point. But the thing you can't get around is how fast mood, creativity, motivation, and brain function can crash when you're treating your body like a fucking garbage disposal. So stop putting absolute crap in there all the time, and give it some respect. If our bodies were just bipedal locomotion suits that got our brains from place to place--biosuits that needed any sort of calories for fuel--it wouldn't matter what we ate. But our brains are part of that whole system, so paying attention can affect how well we're writing.


5- Get Aerobic Exercise (if that's a thing you can do)

You do not have to go to the gym and do Circuit Training in order to "exercise."  In fact, there is evidence that if you are focusing on your routine, you're not getting the full benefit of exercises potential benefits on creativity. You probably are getting a better workout, and will be cut and ripped and whatever other kind of asunder state you wish to be.  But this isn't about "The Best Workout™". This is about creativity.

General benefits of exercise are all touched on above. Blood pressure and muscle oxygenation greatly affect mood. (And if you've ever not been in the mood to write, you know how nice it is not to have to fight yourself when you sit down.) Circulation stimulates brain function. Exercise helps to balance out buildups of neurotransmitters that can cause distracting neuron firings and helps with concentration. (If you have mild A.D.D., they recommend a mid-day walk to deal with it rather than medication.) Endorphins released can powerfully affect mood, most especially the kinds of moods that affect our sense of motivation.

Without external motivation to write--when we are only beholden to ourselves to get anything done--endorphins that give us that I-can-do-this! feeling are our best friends in the world.

There's also the fact that we zone out during aerobics. It's almost a meditative state. Now for most people that means it's time to listen to a book on tape or grab a friend to talk to. But for creative types....zoning out is like sweet ambrosia. We need those moments to fuel our dark artistic energies like warlocks need babies.

This needn't be vigorous exercise. You'd be surprised at how many writers don't even walk if they can help it. But an uncanny number of successful writers, you will find, swear by an hour of walking every day (or an hour on the treadmill maybe).  Cathy Lamb, Anne Lamott, Thoreau, Asimov, tons others and of course King got plowed into by a car during his daily constitutional. (I don't recommend this for general creativity, however.) Walking turns out to be pretty damned common among artists and creative types. And while they might not understand the biology of it, and call it things like "cleaning out the cobwebs" or "getting the blood flowing," it has some benefits that writers would do well to consider.

Once we realize that our brain is an organ inside our body that can be ravaged or cared for just like a liver or heart and not some psychic entity living across the body/mind Rubicon that is immune to our body's circumstances, we open up a lot of new ways to talk about creativity that aren't so mysterious and mercurial.  The fact of the matter is that solving your childhood issues with your mother or meditating on the infinity of the cosmos before a writing session might not effect your abilities as a writer nearly as much as having a banana and a nap.  So remember that your brain IS your body (or at least a part of it) and physical realities and limitations shape you as a writer as much as anything mysterious, untouchable, unteachable, and unknowable.

Probably more.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kublacon Report '12....as a writer. (Part 1) A Hero Is Only As Good As Their....

I made a few "...as a writer" type observations at Kublacon this year, but I won't try dumping all of them at once.  Perhaps a thought here and there and a few in the coming weeks.

Besides, unsupportive girlfriend kicked open my door this morning and began listing all the things we would be doing for date day, starting with leaving for breakfast right that second.  I'm sitting down to do some writing on a blog I try to update before noon at about six-thirty.  I don't think I have time for one of my killer long posts. 

I was in five LARP's this weekend.  They just kept coming and I just kept getting into my first pick with no difficulty.  One slot I didn't make through the shuffler, but I was early on the overflow and had no trouble getting into the game.  I would come back to the room from one game, fling myself into the bed (either for a quick nap or a night's sleep) and then wake up to do it all again.  I ate food merely as fuel, and drove myself onward.

But here's something I noticed having played so many games with such a diverse range of characters.  The interaction between character and setting made a huge difference.  Technically it's something I've known for a long time, but it's worth using the most geeky tool available to try to explain it.  Joyce Carol Oats likes to describe her setting AS a character, and in creative writing we often use the phrase Setting As Kinetic Landscape.

On Saturday night, I was handed a character that I realized, within about three sentences of reading the description, was Indiana Jones.  It was a Star Wars-esque universe LARP set in a cantina.  I could literally not think of very many things cooler than playing Indiana Jones....IN SPACE.  Well, not without involving 3+ Asian cheerleader nurses, a drop cloth, cooking oil, and some little blue pills.  

But actually turned out to be a very frustrating night.  I'm not a bad role player.  I don't always sweep my goals or "win," and sometimes I even die horribly, but I usually manage to get some things done one way or another.  This time I was just stuck.  I was standard screwdriver surrounded by Phillips screws.  Or whatever version of that metaphor ends up with me being screwed.   

Indiana Jones isn't "high art" or a "literary character" but he is a fleshed out adventure hero who we can play with a little to understand.  

Let's be honest.  Indiana is a badass. (As was my space archaeologist version of Indiana.)  Doctor!  Adventurer!  Badass pugilist!  There's a reason he is one of the most instantly recognizable characters of all time.  Put a whip and a fedora on a silhouette, and many people will recognize instantly who it is. The problem with Indiana is that all that coolness is a product of his environment. We meet this character in a trap-filled tomb, and within twenty minutes he's dodged arrows, blowguns, bullets, hopped a plane, gotten hit on by a coed, solved the first part of a mystery, and is struggling to keep Nazis from getting their hands on divine power.  The dude just reeks of cool.  But Indiana is also coolest when he has puzzles to solve, tombs to raid, big spherical rocks to outrun, and Nazis to beat up.  Indiana in a bar full of people, one of whom has perpetrated a heist to steal a necklace, turns out to be less his element. A lot less.  And that doesn't just make him a cool character in a different place.  It makes him a kind of pathetic character.

At one point I realized my entire "faction" was turnkeys.  I realized that there was not only a second necklace, but a third , and I was mostly sure who had the real one.  (I turned out to be right.)  I had all the pieces of the puzzle in my hand.  I had literally solved every mystery on my character sheet.

But there wasn't a thing I could do about it.  I watched them fly away in a smugglers ship (admittedly because my guess about another plot was very wrong) without having been able to stop them.  No other character cared, and unless Indiana starts doing his beat-everybody-up-within-three-square-miles bit, he often can't get to (or away) from what he needs to.  The last time Indie tried to be suave, social, and political was with Lau Che.  We know how that went.

Towards the end, when the players/characters involved in the necklace heist realized how impotent I was, they didn't even bother really hiding it. I was walking up to conversations about "you sell the fake, and I'll take the real one and we'll book passage on the..." that they didn't even bother to hush as I walked up.  They knew I couldn't do anything, and no one else in the LARP really cared enough about that plot to stop them.  I was Impotentiana Jones.  A bigger plot was more important to all the players with the guns, and if I started just throwing punches, I'd be dead within seconds.

I know it was up to me to find allies...to GET people to care.  I have this problem that Chris is an introvert and I just sort of watch almost any room for about an hour before I feel comfortable in it, but even when I was moving, I just kept hitting brick walls that I couldn't hit back.

The game was really a lot of fun on a lot of levels, had many more plots than just the one I was caught up in to dig into, and many of the interactions were absolutely hilarious, but Indiana Jones away from all the things that make him cool, and unable to really Nazi-punch his way to an optimal solution turned out not to nearly be as epic as I thought when I opened the character sheet and realized what I was looking at.  A hero is only as good as their weapons, their allies, their enemies, their....well you've heard all the cliches, but they have many grains of truth.

As a writer I took a keen interest in watching the fascinating dynamics of how character and setting changed this badass character completely.  I did a pretty good job of being Indianaish. I tried to be intellectual about the ancient cultural artifacts involved in the game. I got terse and gritty when I was frustrated with people.  I punched a guy for information, and even stayed cocky when the entire room pulled their guns on me for doing so.  I even said, "It belongs in a museum!" at least a dozen times.  But in the end, I turned out to be one of the most useless characters in the game just because the Indiana Jones skill set and the problem were so far out of sync.  

That's a great lesson for any writer to understand.  Respecting the dynamic of how setting can change a character is important, not only because a writer has to understand the symbiosis between those two elements, but also because unless one is writing an action adventure, the audience really wants to see the character out of their element.  Knowing where they're awesome is fine, but they also want to know where they fumble and drop the ball and suck and can't get anything done.  Even the original movies knew this as Indies frailties nearly led to his downfall in each film.  (Each film that I am willing to acknowledge, anyway.)

Character and setting are inseparable, and keeping that in mind as a writer is a good lesson to learn as soon as possible.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Post Con Writing Report......Report

The convention is winding down back in Burlingame, but I've been home for over an hour now.  The worshiped have decided to forgive us our lapses in proper penitence, and naps will soon be had.  I seem to have avoided con crud, but that may have been as much because I cracked our room window the entire weekend (for uncirculated air) as anything.

However, when I got back to the main offices of Writing About Writing, I discovered some trouble.  Seems the weird genocidal cephalopod army that our (ex) research and development team may have inadvertantly brought into this space time continuum (sorry about that, by the way) had stopped by.

And not to borrow a cup of sugar.

Fortunately it was only a small advance scout team, and the first thing they ran into was Leela Bruce.  It probably helps that at the moment they rounded the corner and ran into each other, the cephalopods were talking about how passive voice must always be eliminated.  With a cry pointing out the irony of such a statement, Leela flung herself, fists first, into their midst.

Various screams of "Melville," "unknown agent," "modern journalism," and "the verb 'birth'" echoed out as she systematically went into a primal martial frenzy that would make River Tam look like she'd done Quaaludes right before the end of Serenity.

There's not much left of the advance scout team.  And I mean that in a "contiguous volume" sort of way.

But it seems like the aliens, in shifting to our time stream, may have set off some governmental alarm bells, and I'm now drowning in a sea of bureaucratic bullshit by guys who are so serious they make Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones look like they're in some kind of light and fluffy comedy or something.  I am absolutely totally holding the con report (Titled: Kublacon 12....As A Writer) and not in any way procrastinating because I want a nap, but on the way to the central computer cortex to upload it, the whole building basically got locked down by a "Monsters Inc" caliber bio sweep.  I've explained (repeatedly) that I am not trying to cause the invasion by writing badly--it's just an incidental side effect.  I even sent some freaky elf dude who hates--and I quote "octorocks....and octoanythingreally" to their dimension with a really cool sword, and for all I know he could still be there working his way towards their main headquarters.

So that entry might have to wait until tomorrow, I'm afraid.

Funny....they were making a direct path for Lt. Lambaste's studio.  I wonder what they wanted with her...

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Glad to Hear You Don't Have Con Crud* (I am good vs. I am well)

"I am good." vs. "I am well."  

As I maneuver about the game convention, which is packing an entire hotel wall to wall with something like 2,500 gamer geeks (so tightly that even the Asian stewardesses on layover have to find themselves another hotel) I am confronted with levels of social anxiety that go up to eleven.  We're all more at home among "our own" than out in the world so it's not quite as bad, but really the main difference among gamers isn't the levels of social anxiety, but rather the level of tolerance everyone else has towards expressions of social anxiety.  Some people get loud, very nearly shouting their every word.  Some get quiet (~raises hand~) watching a room like a deer in headlights until/unless they are comfortable enough with the people in it to start opening up.

And some put on airs of sophistication.

It's an interesting phenomenon actually if you've ever seen it.  I'm betting most of you have.  You might think it's isolated and quirky, but if you pay attention, you'll actually find it quite ubiquitous in this sub-culture.  A lot of people (especially dudes) have this highbrow sort of regal civility about them that comes through in their interactions and their language.  It's not because they're actually fabulously wealthy people with incredibly sophisticated manners passing among the plebs to get in a Firefly LARP either.  (I checked.)

Nope they're just some regular person who has decided to do little bows and speak with sophistication like they are Pip 2.0 and the little graveyard urchin version of themselves is far behind.

I'm speculating that it's a coping mechanism for anxiety--kind of like social armor--but honestly, that's just a guess.  When people deliberately take time and energy to invest in the mindset of other people (the characters they play...or write about) sometimes they find an extraordinarily eclectic set of interests far outside the mainstream. We are as likely to be into Victorian manners and steampunk dirigibles as ninjas and pirates, as space westerns and Marvel comic movie adaptations. In a world where we feel like outsiders most of the time, and self conscious about our lack of social abilities and skills much of the time, I can see how trying to codify something (anything) internally could have it's appeal.

Oddly enough, as outside of mainstream as many gamers are, they move and live in a swirl of rules. The games we play are deliciously objective, and uncomplicated by the infinite variations of social interactions. Many gamer geeks know twenty, thirty, or more sets of rules for the various games they play well enough to need no book most of the time. Systems can be learned and mastered--even manipulated. They're good at them.

And life in the 21st century is kind of the opposite of that.

Our culture struggles against gender roles, language use, sexuality, and a gillion other things that we thought we had all figured out not so very long ago. We deconstructed most of those "rules" in the later half of the 20th century and the king's horses are having a bitch of a time putting them back together again. There are a number of gamer geeks who I think are simply drawn to highbrow interaction because they are fascinated by the rules of social propriety. Suddenly they have a system, or at least an idea, they can codify.

Of course this is all mindless morning navel-gazing conjecture by way of saying that I hear the phrase "I am well," a lot around gamer geeks. I sometimes even get asked how I am, reply that I'm good, ask how the other person is, and get that "I am well," in reply that makes it very clear that they're correcting my troglodyte use of "good." Once I even talked to a fellow gamer who said he was actually called out for saying he was good, by someone who snidely explained how good was an adjective and adverbs modified verbs like "am."

"I am well."

Without getting into a major grammar lesson, let me explain this one. Yes, adverbs modify verbs and "am" is a verb, but the mistake here is that "am" is something called a linking verb. They're a special set of about thirty or so verbs in English that link the idea of a subject and a predicate together. (A few of them can operate as linking verbs or action verbs like "looks" or "smells.") Instead of the S-V model you get with intransitive verbs, or the S-V-O you get with transitive verbs, linking verbs have an S-V-C model where C stand for the compliment. What gets linked to the subject is almost always a noun ("I am a writer") or an adjective ("I am happy.") In the same way you wouldn't say "I am happily," or "I am sadly," or "I am hungrily," the use of an adverb after a linking verb is actually incorrect.

(Am could also be the helping verb in a progressive tense, but that's a whole other kettle of fish.)

You can say "I am doing well." Then "well" modifies an action verb (doing).  But "I am well," probably has a different meaning than the "enlightened" intend.

Why doesn't "I am well" sound as funny as "I am happily"?  Because "well" can be an adjective too. That word just doesn't mean what most think it means. (Read that last sentence with a Spanish accent for maximum effect.) Usually we use the adjective "well" to simply mean healthy. It doesn't mean happy, or joyful, or just-got-laid-by-a-hot-gamer-geek. It just means healthy. As in the sentence: "Are you well enough to travel?" So basically when someone is getting all highbrow about "I am well," they are grammatically not telling you anything but "I am not sick."

There's nothing WRONG with saying "I am well," if that's what you mean. An answer about physical and mental well being is a perfectly acceptable answer to "How are you?" There's just nothing wrong with "I am good," either.

Of course if you don't believe this hack.  Grammar Girl can probably explain it better and she has way more street cred.

Using "I am well" is not exclusively a gamer geek phenomenon. You'll hear it everywhere. It's just that in these kinds of environments the frequency of it goes up to eleven, and I get a much higher sense that many people are doing it not out of habit but out of a deliberate and conscious decision to be more debonair. I've even caught people correcting themselves. "I am goo--erm--well."

It's a phenomenon called arrant pedantry--when something is corrected that isn't actually wrong.

Let me make this absolutely clear. This only really tickles my pickle because of the irony involved and because some people get pretty prescriptive about it. I am amused that they make this decision deliberately because they think they are being more sophisticated, more cultured, and more proper.

In the meantime, you'll be glad to know I am well.

Also, I am good.

[I should, by way of disclaimer, make it clear that I am not using "I find this amusing," as a passive agressive way to say "fuck you in your ear hole, you asstard."  I really do mean that I find it amusing.  Some of my friends say "I am well" to sound highbrow and I love each of them to death.  Someone would have to be a serious first-rate jerkwad elitist about insisting that "I am well" is proper for me to really rub this in their face with an sort of genuine enmity or malice.  Mostly I just think it's cute.  It's like Mr. Bean very properly using the wrong fork at a high class meal or something.]

*Con-crud is the affectionate name we give to the assorted maladies that convention goers come home with.  Between sleep-deprivation-compromised immune systems, people who are so glad to be at con that they will brave the initial symptoms of something contagious, and being in a hotel filled with mostly recycled air for three days, it is quite common for people to come home with some form or another of nasty.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Saturday Potpourri

I'm not going to do a real State of the Blog this week since I am at con.  There are some interesting things happening and coming, but I'll wait until I'm home and resettled into my routine to open those cans of worms.

So let's go right to the potpourri, though I'm afraid it won't be quite as spectacular as usual since I am away from my desktop with all my saved images and categorized bookmarks...

The World's Best Ever tackles 33 ways to stay creative.  I think this list should be called 33 things you might TRY to see if they work for you, but that probably wouldn't get them so many hits from Google searches.  Some of them are strangely redundant like carrying a notebook and writing down things you think of.  Some just seem like they were tossed on there (Foreign Films?  Read a page of the dictionary?) to reach the number 33.  Not that those things couldn't be creative, but I wouldn't consider them as fundamental to staying creative as getting lots of rest.

Ghostwriter Dad talks a lot about blogging, so I read him a lot now that I've got this new, shiny blog project I'm doing.  Here are 10 Grammar Rules You Should Ignore.  Be careful though....I'm not sure G.W. Dad mentions it, but in highly formal writing four of these rules should be embossed on your desk and at least 3 more are almost always good advice unless you're really sure what you're doing.

I'm not a prescriptivist (except when someone says all babies are miracles, but not all grilled cheese sandwiches are), but this is an interesting article about 8 words you might be using incorrectly.  I think half of these are persnickety people being persnickety, and they should learn to relax, but if you're going to use those words, you better know the history.

The reason you write the book that you want to read (or short story...or poetry...or creative non-fiction...or whatever) is because readers just don't agree.  This rocking article by the New York Review of Books talks about Why Readers Disagree using lots of nerdy (read: awesome) psychological analysis and stuff, and it's a slammin read if you have a few minutes.

Creative Writing Made Easy.  I'm posting this mostly by way of pointing and laughing.  I suppose as with every continuum of quality in art, there are some people who are dedicated to the painstaking quest to create something of quality and others metaphorically painting with watercolors and remarking how easy it all is.

[Do you want to be featured in potpourri along with a few words from me about how awesome you are?  Do you know a great writing link that I should share? Please send it to me at chris.brecheen@gmail.com, and I will post it along with a shout out singing your praises (unless, of course, you don't want one).  There are four caveats to this.  Please read them before you send me stuff.  If I've posted anything that you feel is "yours" (or "your client's" --eeep!) please just tell me what you would like me to do.  Most everything here that doesn't have an embedding code within its source is some kind of meme, so it would be quite difficult for me to do proper attribution.]

Friday, May 25, 2012

Hotel Blogging

So I'm in a hotel room at Kublacon.  I've signed up for the LARPS (live action role playing) games that will be happening that I want to play.  In an hour or so, I'll wander down and try to get into the LARP that's tonight and can't be signed up for using the computer.

I like conventions, but I like them for very different reasons than most people here seem to.  I don't stay up until all hours, play game after game after game until I can't see straight.  I don't wander open gaming like I'm on the hunt.  I like seeing my peeps, but I am a curiously antisocial animal--preferring intimate conversation and meaningful interaction to the cotton candy kinds of interactions that happen in large groups.  I mostly sign up for LARPs, hang out in the room reading, catch up on sleep, and maybe take hot baths.

It's bliss.

But it is also a bit of a reminder to me how much I am usually marching to the beat of a different drum when I'm with people I love, doing the things we love, and it is still very clear that I'm doing them in a different way and for a different reason.  I love conventions because they are a great recharge for my writer batteries.

Live action role playing sometimes puts people off.  Even geeks who love getting down with some thick rule books and strangely shaped dice, often recoil in horror from my touch when I admit that I LARP.  I get holy symbols thrust into my face and occasionally suffer communion wafers flung at me like little ninja stars from people who only play games on table top and don't need me weirding up the place.  As a writer I love LARPs, though.  The focus is on character interaction and it runs more like a impromptu theater or one of those How to Host a Murder games than a game with dice and lots of rules.  Most of the table-top games here focus on a single mechanics-centric adventure and not character interaction, drama, or the things that tickly my artsy fartsy pickle.  I'd rather have a game come down to a climactic character choice than a climactic dice roll.  (Though I admit the best games come down to both.)

I've signed up for a game every basic slot.  (The LARPS run for half days, so there are basically five slots.)  Part of me hopes I don't get every choice because some time to chillax in the room and bury myself in a book sounds too delicious.

I debated shutting Writing About Writing down for the weekend, but I figured I come up with a few things to say "in the field," and then process stuff out a bit once I'm home.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Because Without It, We Would Die (Thursday's Three)

As I pack to get ready for the convention, I realize that I will physically face a number of people for the first time since starting Writing About Writing.  This actually fills me with a looming sense of dread.

To be fair, it's a very mild sense of dread.  Very unlike the level of dread one gets when realizing the old man might be right about that moon being a space station.  More like the sort of dread one might get if one realizes one didn't put away the remaining quart of milk after breakfast this morning.

But I do have this fear--which I recognize is probably more than a little irrational--that all the people I respect the most, many of them professional writers themselves, will see me and say things like "Boy Chris, you are one pretentious little bastage, aren't you?  Thinking you have something to say about writing..."  Or even worse "I was mildly entertained until I realized how many commas you forgot.  Then I thought 'why am I listening to this HACK?'"

Or even worse...silence.  And in the quiet I will imagine the worst.  Trust an artist, with their inflamed creativity gland, to imagine that lurking in every shadow and behind every corner are demons ten times worse than any they've actually faced.

This is not my fucked up way of soliciting praise, by the way, but rather an intro for today's quotes.  It is in these moments of facing rejection that I am forced to face myself in a sort of dark mirror, and confront why I write.  Of course, I quickly remember that I don't write for praise and I would write on (and, indeed, I have written on) even after rejection.  I write because not writing would be like cutting off an arm.  I write for the same reason people have felt compelled by creating art for as long as our condition could rightly be called "human."   (Which makes me think that a book about the "Australopithecus Condition" might be kind of funny!) Art is something that artists have to do.  Of course we admire the artistic urge of Michelangelo or William Faulkner, but that urge strikes even the mediocre and unbrilliant like me.  We are as much its victims as Shakespeare and DaVinci.

We just have fewer groupies.

A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession. 
Albert Camus

We have art in order not to die of the truth. 
Friedrich Nietzsche

True art is characterized by an irresistible urge in the creative artist. 
Albert Einstein

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Leela Bruce Kung Fu Fights Bullshit Adverb Hatred

Beating up bad advice since....
um, well...actually only since 2012
If you've been writing for more an hour or two, or have ever read anything written about writing that was penned after 1920 or so, you've probably heard someone tell you not to use adverbs.  You've heard that adverbs are not your friends.  Adverbs are the devil.  No good writer uses adverbs.  You should never have more than one adverb per page?

Sound familiar?

Just the sort of art-by-numbers absolutist rule that makes my fists tingle for the sweet taste of putting shitty nonsense in its place. Time to kick some serious bad-writing-advice ass.  Ka-POW!

First of all, let's talk adverbs.  Understanding anatomy is crucial for delivering pressure point strikes of sanity to insanely bad advice, so understanding the adverb will help us stalk our prey. Adverbs are kind of like the "Miscellaneous" of the parts of speech.  Anything that modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb is an adverb, and that's just the high school grammar definition.  You get a few fantastically weird adverbs out there modifying things like adjectival or adverbial phrases, entire clauses, or verbs in ways that don't make them look like adverbs.  For example in the sentence, "Do it now,"  the word "now" is an adverb.  It modifies "do" with time information.

Without ever ending in "-ly."  Pretty spiffy huh?

Anyone who's ever had kids or been in an action movie knows how difficult life would be without the word "now."  So let me start my smack-down with a flurry of body blow strikes that point out words that you might not know are adverbs--words that would be quite difficult to live without.  Some of these may function as prepositions, conjunctions, filler subjects, or more depending on where they are in the sentence, but all of them could be adverbs.  And each of them would make for a substantially less understandable sentence if they were absent  This is not a definitive list.  Just a few words that generally get the reaction "THOSE are adverbs?" from the down-with-the-adverb crew.


And my personal favorites...

Too and Very.

Yeah, try saying "I am very excited about leaving tomorrow to study abroad," without any adverbs.  That should be an interesting sentence.  ~SMACK!~

Still think you don't need adverbs?  Still think you can write meaningfully with only one per page?  Still need me to keep bringing the pain?  Yeah...let's keep going, shall we?  I'm just getting warmed up.

Now that this bullshit advice is softened up and losing reflex speed, it's time to do some kicks.  Let's start with the side-kick-of-what-happens-when-you-give-bumper-sticker-advice-without-explaining-it.  Tell a young writer not to use adverbs without them really understanding what adverbs are DOING in a sentence and you will end up with adverbial phrases.  The sentence "He walked across the room stealthily," is using an adverb in what is typically considered a problematic way.  But if you don't explain WHY that's a problem, the writer won't look to the verb for the solution.  The writer will figure out another way to write "stealthily."  And then you end up with "He walked across the room in a stealthy manner." or "He walked across the room using utmost stealth."  Yay!  No adverbs!  Except those sentences, with their adverbial phrases, are even clunkier than the first one. Legions of inexperienced writers are scouring their pages for any word ending "ly," ruthlessly expunging them from existence, and half the time putting even worse writing in their place.  So if you want to see "with enthusiasm" instead of "enthusiastically, or "in a profound manner" instead of "profoundly" keep telling people to avoiding adverbs without explaining why.

Way to be shitty advice, Shitty Advice.  Now I elbow strike you.  In the face.

Still need me to keep the ass-kicking coming?  No problemo. With this shitty advice winded and dazed from my ongoing onslaught, telegraphing my strikes won't be such an issue. I can probably get in some spinning kicks to really up the damage.  So let's start with a spinning roundhouse to the radial nerve of adverbs-suck advice by looking at some authors who laugh in the face of adverbial prejudice.

Here is a paragraph from the 2011 Pushcart (that's an anthology of the best literature from all the literary journals in the U.S. generally considered to have the best American short stories of a given year in it.)   It's from a story called "Remembering Samuel Becket" by Barney Rosset.

"Usually, however, Sam the writer and I the publisher just went out drinking and talking.  Becket always had very set ideas about where to go and what to eat.  At first his tastes were quite broad, but as the years went by, they narrowed down, exactly like his writing, and the choices got fewer and fewer.  In the beginning Beckett favored the Closerie de Lilas on Boulevard Montparnasse, where Hemingway had liked to go, and where the names of famous writers were embossed on the tables.  There was also the grandiose La Couple, a small bar called Rosebud, and allegedly English pub Fallstaf.  But especially congenial was a seafood brasserie..."

That's a lot of adverbs.  Way more than "one per page".  Is Barney Rosset a wild maverick?  Or maybe he just knows bad advice when he sees it.

Unconvinced?  Let's look at something by Murakami, a writer who is basically expected to win the Nobel prize for literature in the next decade or so.  This is from 1Q84 and I tried to find a paragraph without spoilers:

"They left the seaside road, drove a short way into the hills, and arrived at the crematorium.  It was a relatively new building but utterly devoid of individuality.  It seemed less a crematoriam than some sort of factory or office building.  The garden was lovely and well tended, though the tall chimney rising majestically into the sky suggested this was a facility with a special mission.  The crematorium must not have been very busy that day, since the casket was taken right away.  The heavy lid was shut, like a submarine hatch."

Lots of adverbs.  Couple of adverbial phrases.  Anyone think that's bad writing?  Anyone?  Cause I can kick more than one ass a day, no problem.

Too modern for your literary sensibilities?  Or perhaps you don't trust translations.  Here's Virginia Woolf from Mrs. Dalloway:

"It was a splendid morning too.  Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.  There was no fumbling--no hesitation.  Sweeping and swerving, accurately, punctually, noioselessly, there, precisely at the right instant, the motor-car stopped at the door.  The girl, silk-stockinged, feathered, evanescent, but not to him particularly attractive (for he had had his fling) alighted."

FIVE. ADVERBS. IN. A. ROW.  Anyone still think one per page should be the limit?  Or do me and Virginia need to go back to back and do a face-the-mob battle sequence?

General adverb hatred needs a crescent kick to the temple because it fails to address what is problematic about certain adverbs and WHY a writer might want to avoid them.  So allow me to do what gagillions of lazy writing teachers have spent decades avoiding and has become the "organ harvester" urban legend of writing.

In a sentence that you want your reader to experience as closely to the action as possible, you should use a descriptive verb.  If you want some kind of narrative distance for artistic sake between your reader and the guy walking stealthily across the floor, that is your choice, but if you want your reader to be there in the moment, and experience that with all the tension of the person taking the action, you should try to pick the verb that combines the ideas of walking and stealthily.  "He tiptoed across the floor," for example.  We have zillions of verbs.  The chances are pretty good that most verb+ly adverb combinations have a verb equivalent.  Run+quickly=sprint.  Close the door+angrily=slam.  Eat+messily with horrible table manners=slop.  I could do this all day, but you get the idea.  A punchy verb tends to be better than a simple verb+ an -ly adverb.  But then there are just some times when the simple verb+-ly simply doesn't exist, or it does but would be too esoteric (either for your reader or for your narrative voice).  Sometimes clouds simply have to "drift lazily across the sky."

Redundant uses of adverbs can be problematic.  You don't need to "slam the door loudly".  The idea is already covered in "slam."  If you just have to emphasize how loud the slam was, write a sentence about the windows rattling or something, but using a redundant adverb will almost always draw attention to itself in a negative way.  The only reason you might want to do this is if you are exploring a narrative voice that CAN'T WRITE.  A story in first person from a fourteen year old's perspective might talk about slamming doors angrily, but most narrative voices will allow the punchy verb to stand alone.  It's like using the phrase "very unique."  You just don't need both words.

Adverbs in dialogue attribution are a risky proposition. Not only can you usually find a better verb for said+ -ly adverb (he said+angrily=he shouted), but also adding words to quotation tags can undo how "invisible" they are.  You have to decide if that is worth it because quotation attribution visibility becomes irritating to a reader.  Readers reading dialogue almost always skip over "he said" and "she said" as they read and just read the parts in quotes.  This is a good thing because it can give your dialogue a more natural feel.  You start throwing adverbs in there ("I like cheese!" he said enthusiastically.) and your reader won't unconsciously skip over the "he said" part.  Your reader will read them.  And then your dialogue becomes less natural.  But if you want a break in the rhythm of dialogue a "she said flatly" is almost certainly going to do the job perfectly.

These dialogue adverbs also break the second reason to be careful quite often.  They tend to be redundant given the context. Anyone need to be told that a quotation with an exclamation point is enthusiastic? Trust your reader to pick up on some of this stuff and only tell them when you need to.  ("Love your tie," he said sarcastically.)  If you have already made it clear that the tie is hideous, your reader doesn't need to be told every single emotional inflection.  Let them figure it out.  If you treat your readers like they need to be spoon-fed the action without leaving some wiggle room for their interpretation, your writing will tend to feel stilted.  You only want to do this rarely.  And only when you want to control the scene very tightly.

That brings me to the next point.  Value judgement--especially in character interaction.  Unless your narrative voice is passing through the filter of a character, you shouldn't be using adverbs to judge the quality of things.  "...he said sarcastically" is a value judgement.  Let your reader make the decision if someone is being sarcastic.  If you want your narrator to THINK it was sarcastic, fine because maybe that says something about how the narrator views the world.  (For example, someone who thinks everyone is being sarcastic will come off in their portrayal as clinically paranoid, without you ever having to say so)  But if you are trying to have an omniscient narrative voice that is neutral, this is just the sort of opinion to be careful about.  Try other ways to show someone is being something than just telling your reader.  ("Nice tie," he snorted, smirking.)  When a neutral narrator tells a reader how to feel about something, the writing can feel very problematic.  Readers like to make their own judgments.

Adverbs out of certain adjectives just sound clunky.  Yes, by the rules of grammar, you can technically make an adverb out of most any adjective by adding "-ly" to the end, but it doesn't always make for a good word.  Clumsily, deceivingly, healthily, speedily, piercingly, unnecessarily are all adverbs that just put the clunk into a sentence.  Use those words and you just are asking your writing to take you to...take you to....Clunkytown.  Someone reading those kinds of strange adverbs will stop (even if only for a split second) to think about what the word means.  And that means you have interrupted the flow of your story.  Then again, maybe that's exactly the kind of reality-check/pause feel you want.  Then that's a good adverb to use.

("You smell like a peasant," she said condescendingly) is basically everything that is troublesome about adverbs.  You could substituted "sneered" for said+condescending.  The adverb is drawing attention to the dialogue attribution tag, so the reader doesn't just read "You smell like a peasant," and then skip to the next line. There is almost no way the reader would NOT have known what the inflection of "you smell like a peasant" should have been in context--this writer doesn't trust their reader, and it's killing their sentence.  It is a value judgement about how she is speaking which would be better served by a nose tilted upward or a curled lip.  Unless a character were INTERPRETING her look, the writer should stay out of opinions like that and leave it to the reader whether she is being condescending or not.  And "condescendingly" is a clunky-ass adverb that most people won't read without being pulled out of the moment in the STORY to look at the language.

I should take a caveat here to gently say that you might also want to especially be careful about splitting infinitives with adverbs.  "To boldly go where no one has gone before" might ring familiar in your head, but it is kind of clunky writing.  Now I punch bad writing advice in the face, so I'm the last person to accusingly tell anyone never to rebelliously split their infinitives, but knowing WHY advice is sometimes considered good advice is probably important.  Split infinitives can create really clunky phrases if you aren't sure of what you're doing, especially when split with adverbs.  When you modify a verb THAT YOU ARE STILL IN THE MIDDLE OF SAYING, it can draw attention to the language.  The last thing you want is to stupidly pull your reader out of the moment in your story because you were too good to wisely learn why there might be something to certain advice.  (See what I did there...multiple times?  See how sometimes they're really not as bad as the pedants would have you believe....but sometimes they totally are?  Don't forget this lesson, Grasshopper.)

Now I know it's easier to just say (oh...did it again!) "avoid adverbs" than to understand ten or so whole paragraphs worth of ideas about why they can be problematic but seriously....Eagle Claw to the forehead.

None of these ideas for avoiding adverbs are absolute.  There are always marvelous, brilliant, breathtaking exceptions.  But mostly there are other places--places that are not listed above--where an adverb is EXACTLY what you need.  (See what  I did there?)  If you are reading as much as you should be to be a serious writer, you probably furrowed your brow (with no need to confusedly furrow your brow) when someone told you that adverbs were anathema or to have only one per page.  This is probably because you already knew they weren't always bad.  And you probably are already able to tell when an adverb is being clunky and when it is the right tool for the job.  So have a little faith that any advice so trite is probably that much bullshit.

An adverb is a tool.  It is as problematic to use an adverb in a place where they don't quite work as it is to try to nail in a screw.  But it is equally stupid to declare hammers are the devil and try to use your screwdriver's butt to slam home nails.  If you have a Carver or Fitzgerald style, you might eschew the adverb.  Great.  But don't go telling people never to use them, or Leela Bruce is going to have to go Karate Kid Montage on your face.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

On Failing Your Way to Success

Americans don't like failure very much. Well, that's sort of like saying snails don't like salt very much. Americans, like snails confronting salt, shrivel up into foaming puddles of screaming goo at the very thought of failure.

This is a pity because failure is such an important part of our lives. But in almost every story that Americans enjoy, failure is only there as a "setback" in a larger narrative of success. The Bad News Bears lose so that their end victory can be all the sweeter. Clubber Lang has to beat up Rocky so he can overcome the defeat (and so we can stop giggling at the idea that Mr.T and Sylvester Stallone are world heavyweight champions). We don't hear a lot of stories about how the failure itself ends up becoming the best thing that ever happened to someone.

Those stories are icky. They are the story equivalent of that guy who smells vaguely like toe jam and limburger cheese–we're not opposed to their existence in the strictest sense, but we don't want them anywhere near us.

We don't hear about the person rejected by fifty publishers who discovers they love teaching and goes on to have a fulfilling life as a teacher, writing as a hobby and is blissfully happy. The happy ending is all but negated by the fact that the person failed.

What we do like to hear about is the person rejected by fifty publishers (who just KNEW they had something good to sell, self published through vanity press, and sold their books out of the trunk of their car until a publisher going to work and coming home happened to notice that the trunk had emptied out in hours. (This's John Grisham by the way.)

The point is, we never hear much about the benefits of failing. We hear platitudes about getting knocked over six times, and getting up seven, which, while containing seeds of truth doesn't give us the bigger picture that we don't just just fuel that getting-back-up with an endless pool of raw determined willpower to succeed. When we get knocked down–each time we get knocked down–we we learn something invaluable about ourselves. Failure is brilliant.

We may learn our strengths, our weaknesses, and, yes, even our limitations. We may learn sobering lessons about what won't work and what can't work. We may give up on things not because we are weak or soft but simply because we realize how limited the returns are. (When I was younger, I had easily three dozen friends who had ambitions to be published authors. Now that number is closer to five or six.) We learn who we are and what we really care about.

We may even realize we don't want something as bad as we thought we did–not enough to keep getting knocked down for it.

Not many of our American stories are about a young man who wants to be a surgeon more than anything, studies pre-med, works hard through every single class studying math and science. But then one day he walked into a sliding glass window he didn't see, realized that there was simply no way that his eyes were going to be good enough to be a surgeon, and decided to try his hand at a little hobby in acting he had always enjoyed. (And that story, if I have told it right, is James Woods's.)

J.K. Rowling spoke at a commencement speech for Harvard on the fringe benefits of failure. I disagree with one simple idea here. These aren't the "FRINGE" benefits of failure. These are simply the benefits of failure. Yes, we are probably looking at the most profound narratives of success in our generation, and the stories of her failure are (typically) woven into a narrative of eventual success, but Rowling herself does not demean the idea by simply telling the graduates to "have faith and press onward." She tells them why the failure made it possible for her to succeed.

FAIL!  Fail again. Fail better.

You might want to grab a tissue if you watch this.

[Youtube does not have the full speech, but it is here if you'd prefer to watch it uninterrupted.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Jazz Hands

There's an old saying: "fake it till you make it."  I think this applies to writing as much as anything.

There is a caveat.  

If "make it" means fame and fortune and publication and all that jazz, it might be a long wait, doomed to disappointment.  But if "make it" is more like writing every day, emotional fulfillment, and bellwethers of art that have much different meaning, faking it is the key to making it as much as anything.

The setbacks of late have kind of made writing feel like jazz hands, but part of just doing any art for a good length of time is knowing that if you push through those times when inspiration is low and the lightning bolts of creativity aren't lancing across the sky of your mind.....if you just keep grinding away like you are the most creative being in the universe...eventually all that mojo comes back.  Eventually.

(That last sentence is awesome if you read it in the voice of a little girl with a slight English accent.  It's even awesomer if you GET why it's awesome.)

While I struggle against data loss, and trying to write out ahead of myself and the strangeness that is a schedule in the week before a convention, and a few other factors I'm not going to talk about in public space, I feel one of those runs where the writing is kind of a chore, but I keep trucking onward.

When I was a wee lad, every summer I went to see my grandparents.  Grandpa was getting on in years (and was--I would later find--in the last couple of years of his life) but loved to watch birds.  So on the other side of a huge picture window in the den that looked out over the side yard, were about ten different bird feeders, hummingbird feeders, bird baths, and bird houses.  My grandfather filled the feeders, changed the water, and cleaned out the houses if they emptied so that new tenants would move in immediately.  He chased off crows and made sure the feeders had anti-squirrel devices all over them.  All this effort to make a hospitable place meant that the side yard was constantly alive with birds.  He put in the groundwork, made the effort, created a wonderland, and the birds showed up.

This is a pretty good metaphor for artistic muses and creativity.  Do the work.  Lay the groundwork.  Keep doing what you're doing even if it seems like nothing is there at first.  If you create an environment hospitable to creativity, it will show up.  (And probably around the same time every day.)  If you horde your seed, and wait for creativity to give up the goods before you deign to toss some its way you might wait for a long, long time between visits.  If you show up, build houses and feeders, and a utopia for creativity to play in, creativity may not always be there all the time, but it will know, "that is an awesome place to grab lunch.  Let's go there!"

So jazz hands when it hurts and isn't working well.  Fake it till you make it.

And you will.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Moving on From The Great Data Loss of Twelve

Having discovered many of my word files corrupted, I proceeded There were chicken strips, multiple giant Carls Jr. burgers, fried zucchini, real sugar Coke and Pepsi (from Mexico where they still use real sugar to bottle it), salted caramel ice cream, and a pair of EMT's on standby with a pair of those paddles for my heart attacks.

So I had my sugar, I had my salt, and I had my fat.  I sat around all day watching TV and playing video games. It was a perfect setback kind of day.

Now it's time to get back to business.  Who-Ah!

Honestly, there is only perhaps one short story that was in the Dropbox that couldn't benefit from major revisions anyway.  There are a lot of worse fates that finding I'll have to retype stuff.  There is even a way to look at this event as beneficial...or at least not entirely shitty.

It's a setback.  They happen.  Sometimes they are generated by people, and sometimes they are generated by computers.  Usually cats have something to do with them....somehow.  Every writer is familiar with seeing their work go "pop," whether it's everything since the last time they saved (even autosave doesn't always work), a whole day's work or something larger.  Those still working with older forms of media have seen something physical happen to their pages from a wind to a fire, and anyone working on computers has likely had some kind of devastating data loss.

It happens.

It's just part of the cost of doing business.

What matters is how you deal with those moments.  Every job, every endeavor, every thing worth doing has moments of such profound setback-y-ness that it feels as if you are starting over. If you have a good piss and moan, dust off, and keep trekking, then you might just care about whatever it is enough to go the distance.

Anyway, it's a perception issue anyway.  Setbacks are annoying, but they're never as bad as they feel.  We can't unlearn the lessons or unforage the memories.

We're never really starting over after a setback.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

There Would Be a Potpourri Here

Today's would-be entry highlights the need for me to write out ahead of myself.

Last night I opened my Dropbox to find out where the fiction was that I intended to post, and I discovered something horrible.  I couldn't open it.  Something was wrong with the some converter, and I'm sure it was some Windows or MS Suite update that now means I can't get to a bunch of my files.  Including a couple of my finished hundreds-of-pages manuscripts.  No computer in my house could open it either.

This isn't quite as epic of a tragedy as it might sound, but it is right on the cusp of Chris flips his shit and starts using incendiary weapons on marching bands and saying things like, "Only my weapon understands me."   Most of those files are quite old--even before I was in school--and they would have to be majorly reworked anyway.  I was also able to access the Dropbox files on my iPad, but Mac doesn't like MS Word very much and I will likely have to retype everything.  It's better than nothing, but I'm looking at hundreds of hours to get back to where I was.

Hundreds of hours of labor....

I sort of get now why people who aren't computer gurus really swear by Mac.  I know enough computer savvy peeps to know the appeal of non MacOS systems, but when it comes to people who don't intend to work outside the basic computer box, they work how they're supposed to work.  It was the Evil Empire to the rescue this time.  The iPad was the machine that did what it was supposed to do. I can at least read my files from there.

I don't really have the money to do spare, but I was considering getting a Macbook Pro to avoid this in the future.  I have had a major data loss issue in my writing at least five times in my life, and Mac has consistently been the computer that did what it was supposed to (and conversely Microsoft has consistently been the computer that did not).  This isn't about me failing to back up files or saving diligently.  I have back ups on flash drives and externals in addition to Dropbox.  This is some update that makes some of my files unreadable.

If Bill Gates walked in here right now, one of us wouldn't be making it to dinner tonight.  Just sayin.....

Anyway, the point is, I want to eat the manly dude equivalent of a quart of ice cream (which might involve Carl's Jr. or something) and crawl into bed and weep myself to sleep.  I'm in no head space to spend the couple of hours it takes to whip out a decent potpourri.  So I offer you my apologies and the hope that next week will be better.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Turning the Page, What's Next For This Blog, And Why I'm So Afraid

Part 1-  Turning the Page

Yesterday I took a walk .  It was about a three mile circuit around my neighborhood.  I started the walk just to get some exercise.  Writing About Writing has eaten a lot of other time sinks while I launched it, one of them my health and fitness goals, so I figured I'd get back into that by starting to kick off a daily walk.

It turned out to be just what I needed.  I've been a little bit afraid of the next few steps.  Maybe "afraid" isn't the right word, but I've been trying to psych myself up for what comes next and feeling like my sticking place was melting into jibbering goo instead of being a solid anchor for my courage to screw.  Then again, maybe "afraid" is exactly the right word.

The reason I have a Summa Cum Laude degree in English (Emphasis: Creative Writing) covering up a hole in my drywall is because I tried the whole "just writing" route about a decade ago, and it ended with a number of people telling me not to quit my day job. Some did so with as much politeness and gentleness as they could muster, and others did so with the tact of a jackhammer welded like a piercing ram onto the front of a bulldozer, driven full speed into my soul.

Now...well, now I can tell you a hundred things I did wrong back then.  I can tell you craft elements that weren't working, and how to fix (most of) them.  I can tell you the ideological difficulties my work was having being didactic. I can tell you major, fundamental process issues I had--primary among them giving out a first draft, and giving it to anyone who would read instead of people I trusted and respected to give good feedback.  I can even tell you that I hadn't cultivated the kind of thick skin that one needs to be able to get "Go back to the farm, kid," caliber feedback and just keep right on going, and that now I know feedback that nasty is just part of the price of doing business.

But what I can't do is forget how much it hurt.  God, did it hurt.  Wisdom teeth, root canals, pulled muscles, internal bleeding from a car crash--I've never hurt like that before or since.

I slunk away from that encounter with my tail between my legs, enrolled in school with the goal of a creative writing degree, and buried myself in being the best student I could.  For seven years I had a great excuse for why I couldn't expose myself to that again.  I still had "things to learn."  I wasn't done yet.  I'm not even a hundred percent sure that starting this blog wasn't partially a way to put off that inevitable moment just a little longer.  Oh I had my legitimate reasons for it, but of the legitimate choices I could have made, it might also have been the path of least resistance.

But here we are...

And so yesterday, I walked.  While I'm sure that just getting some blood pumping and working some atrophied muscles was a good experience, and that just the meditationesque mind-floating that happens on a solo walk was good for clearing out some cobwebs in the corners of my brain, what really did the trick wasn't just the pedestrian benefits of a good walk.

I was passing Oakland Technical High School right when they were getting out for lunch.  There's an energy that swirls around high school students gathered en mass--especially in the second half of May--because so much of the trajectory of their life is yet undiscovered.  It isn't exactly tablua rasa, but it's one of the closest things we'll ever really get.  Individually there may be exceptions, but as a a group, there's less tragedy, more youth, and a sense of unbridled optimism (even through the emo filters of some) that the world has yet to beat out of them.  A twelve year chapter of their life is finally coming to a close, and the next part is unwritten.

At that moment the theme song for Dragon: The Bruce Lee story came on.  This is not only a gorgeous and moving song, but it came out right around when I graduated, so I've always associated the two.  At my own graduation rehearsal, instead of being a good little line walker like I was supposed to, I was running a pair of headphones up under my gown and listening to this very song.  Try hitting the pavement right at the fanfare of this song during a coronation if you ever want to have a peak experience.  Not. Even. Kidding.

With all that optimistic teen energy around me, and this song blaring in my ears, nostalgia hit like a hammer.  I didn't really enjoy or hate high school--I liked the structure and seeing friends each day, but I pretty much thought the class part was slow torture. But I do remember the idea that I was stepping into a world of possibility and wonder.

I became, in that moment, that young little Chris once again.  Eighteen, and looking out on the world for the first real time.  Not quite yet realizing that I couldn't actually be anything I wanted.  I was held in that split second--that suspended moment right before the roller coaster tips over the edge of the first hill--just before you realize that your life won't really be shaped by your fantastic string of awesome successes, but by instead by how you handle your innumerable failures.

And that turned out to be exactly the perspective I needed.

I don't know if what I'm planning is going to work, or if I'm going to fall flat, but let's crank up the Bruce Lee soundtrack and say, "What the hell!"

Part 2- What's Next for this Blog

When I was young I didn't know what was going to happen in the publishing industry.  I grew up with the same formula every other writer hopeful did of short story publication, agent, publisher, book deal, win.  I couldn't have predicted that this strange machine that a few of my tech-savvy friends had--a machine that made a lot of weird noises and let them go into "chat rooms"--would be upending everything within the publishing industry right about the time I felt ready to have a serious go of it.  I couldn't have predicted the longest recession my generation had ever seen would make everyone gun shy to take a chance on arts.  I just knew I thought it would be the coolest thing in the world to be able to write fiction for a living.

I've watched the industry carefully.  I've watched the popularity of e-readers explode.  (Even Uberdude bought one, and two years ago, he was sure I was personally contributing to the destruction of bookstores.)  I've watched a lot of writers make a go of it in unconventional ways, and I've listened closely to those who are in the right kinds of places to hear the wind blowing.  I've watched book stores, small presses, and major houses have to change their business model to keep up with the times.  And even some of the local mom-and-pop, brick-and-mortar stores have done so with aplomb.  I've watched writers I like increasingly eschew the traditional routes of those first few steps in favor of pioneering their own paths of monitization.  They might not run screaming when Random House stops by with a fat check and an offer, but they begin the journey on their own terms.  More and more success stories that involve blogs, zines, e-publishing, show up every day.  (Cory Doctorow, J.A. Konrath, Grammar Girl, Fifty Shades of Gray and on and on and on.)  These aren't one-time flashes in the pan.  The frequency of these non-traditional routes to writing success is increasing.

I've also watched people doing the more traditional route smash their head into one proverbial wall after another. Writers of true excellence who simply can't find an agent in this environment.  Or if they find an agent, they can't get a book deal.  Agents are increasingly quagmired in anachronistic submission processes that paint a picture of their deliberate, calculated ignorance of industry changes which are already upon them.   Small presses and literary journals fold one after another like the characters in an Agatha Christie novel with the death knell of, "The smell of books!" on their lips.  Yesterday's publisher sneering at the Kindle as ridiculous, today puts a "For Sale" sign on their store with a bewildered scratch of their head.  The publishing industry has practically ensured that it will be irrelevant by not adapting.   The old guard seems to be collapsing in on itself and the writers who allow the decades-old stigma of vanity press, and the more recent contempt for zines, or online publication to influence their decisions are dealing with options decreasing even as they watch.  They too sneer at the coming of the new age and then wonder why competition is so tough for  the dwindling number of spots the industry can still handle.

So this is what I decided...

1- I'm going to write out ahead of myself, so that I can take W.A.W. up a notch.  If I get week or two ahead, things like dental appointments will be less likely to alter a decorum of professionalism.  Cause it's really professional around here.  Oh yeah.  That will also give me more time to copy-edit since that is one of my weaknesses, and it takes me longer to do.  Basically, I'm going to try to take W.A.W. to the next level.

2- At the suggestion of a few of you, and given some calculated predictions regarding the industry, I'm going to put some of my short fiction up here.  I don't know if that's the "right" decision, but it's something.  If that works, then I'll keep doing it.  If not, then I can go back to other directions.  But scoffing at the past while being unsure of the future was just one more way I was avoiding taking the first step, so I'm just going to take some first step and let's see what happens.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Moving Forward Requires Inspirational Quotes (Thursday's Three)

Yesterday evening I finished my last real night of work for Fall 2012.  I'm going to do a final review for them next Wednesday, but it's less than a half shift.  The point is, basically, I'm on summer vacation now.

The timing is auspicious.  My last project was this blog, and I have basically spent the last three and a half months finding my sea legs here (my blog legs?).  I feel like that chapter is coming to a close--and just in time for summer.  I have a good sense of how to move forward, what I want to get out of blogging, and how much time it might take.  Whether by technical learning curve or realistic expectation, I'm past the point where the blog takes 5-8 hours a day.  Though there may be changes, and even big shake ups here at Writing About Writing depending on how certain things go, in many ways I am now cruising at fifty thousand feet.

That means it's time to move on to a new project.  Grass is growing under my feet.  Chop chop!

Oh, I'll keep blogging, and doing it most days.  I hope I'm improving at self-editing.  All the reasons for this project still exist, but it no longer requires "launch energy."  It can subsist on "maintenance energy."  So now it's time to move forward.

Moving forward is scary, so I could use some inspirational quotes today.

Far better to live your own path imperfectly than to live another’s perfectly. 
Bhagavad Gita

There’s only us. There’s only this. Forget regret. Or life is your to miss. 
Mimi, Rent

Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward; they may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.