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

Sunday, March 31, 2013

What Is the BEST Science Fiction or Fantasy Series?

Currently kicking ass and taking names.


I'm going to tally these votes tomorrow evening.  The past three months of polls are about coming to a head.   The poll itself is the black widget on the left side--probably near the current results (or the bottom of the entry near the comment section if you don't have ads blocked.)

The poll as it stands has Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter getting spanked by Vorkosigan and Pern getting spanked by everyone.  Song of Ice and Fire is climbing the ranks, but it doesn't look like it's going to pull out anything but a lackluster result. 

Vorkosigan Saga--Bujold
Lord of the Rings--Tolkien
Harry Potter--Rowling
Dune Saga--Herbert
The Song of Ice and Fire--Martin
The Dresden Files--Butcher
Foundation Saga--Asimov
Chronicles of Jhereg--Brust
Dragonriders of Pern--McCaffrey

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Mailbox: Recant. Reflect. Refine.

I'm starting to get some mail to respond to (so thank you all for that), but today I wanted to take some time to follow up with some amazing comments I got from my entry a few days ago about that What the Author Meant meme.  This is because the few people who do read Writing About Writing are not just made of Carbon and Hydrogen, but are also comprised of Pure Awesome. They are just one commercial break in the drama of our life away from evolving into beings of pure energy that travel beyond the galactic rim to do whatever it is evolved energy beings do out there.  (Stare at the black or have energy orgies or something.)

At the time I wrote the entry, I was just sort of having myself a good rant.  I flashed back to all the times I've seen this meme and (with the exception of one that was intended explicitly to irritate ME) how the replies have been a horrifying indictment of U.S. attitudes toward education.  In much the same way you see stories about politicians refusing to honor veterans, eggs balancing lengthwise on the equinox, or Obamacare requiring subdermal microchips that can track everyone from satellites go viral apparently without a single person thinking that the internet might be a decent place to check on the veracity of something like that, I watched social media explode with the jubilant validation that this meme apparently substantiated their feeling that they were wasting their time in high school.

As you can see from the comments, I have amazing and wicked smart friends who won't hesitate to point out if they think I'm missing a piece of the puzzle, and they gave me plenty to think about and reconsider.  I'm not going to repost everything they said here--you're welcome to follow that link back and check out their unadulterated amaziballs. The comments ended up being better (far better) than the entry itself. I'm also not going to reiterate everything I said in the comments on that page, nor am I going to reply to each response point by point since that tends to get too hair-splittingly defensive.

Instead I'll just encourage you to read those comments and mention that both Amy and Jess brought up ideas I hadn't really thought of in my original rant.  (The idea of teaching Creative Writing and the privileged voices in the canon respectively.)  If you ever get the opportunity to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and won't agree with everything you say, I highly recommend you take it.  They are gold.  The only people you want to think you are an infallible genius should be your groupies.

So let me make a couple of points by way of explanation that I wouldn't normally put in a fire-and-forget rant, but that seem to be more appropriate here since that fire-and-forget rant got me more responses than most posts ever.

1- Our education system is overloaded and fallible

In a class of 20-30 (or more), there are going to be people who are reading higher than the level of the class, and most of my friends are exactly the sort of intelligent-as-fuck readers who would end up in that position. They're going to be a little unimpressed by the lesson. In high school I read at a higher level than my honors counterparts, but when given the choice between Sword of Vermillion or homework, I was pretty consistent about being a slacker student. So I regularly sat in "college prep" (not honors because I didn't do my homework in middle school) classes bored out of my skull. I didn't exactly think it was a great use of time to spend a whole hour on the chapter about the turtle crossing the road in Grapes of Wrath or "memorizing" the symbolism of the Loman family's shoes. A good teacher will challenge their advanced students to do something a little extra, but no teacher can cater to the bored student who is determined to take the path of least resistance when most of the class is still wrapping their heads around a concept like metaphor.

And the teacher's situation is utterly untenable. With some people struggling, and some bored, they have to get through the lesson on metaphor and move on. So they don't have time to do the kind of metacognition teaching about authorial intent vs. reader response that English majors see in college, and the students end up not realizing how their lesson fits in a broader mosaic of possible answers and the journey beats the destination pedagogy when it comes to critical thinking.

If you were that person who didn't need to be spoon fed what the reading meant, more power to you. But I bet that not everyone in that class was as good at reading as you were, and needed a little help. (or maybe a lot) during the blue curtains lesson. Don't forget that there's a bit of self selection in who is going to be within audience of a blog about writing. We are not an accurate cross-section of Americana.

And by the way, the turtle isn't just a turtle. And you can draw a nasty anti-education Venn diagram all day about it, but it won't make you any more wrong if you think it is.

2- We tend to remember high school through a specific lens

I know I do. I was obviously the nicest guy in the whole fucking universe, but I could not get a date with Heather Thompson (until I got a car). All my friends were also amazingly awesome people, and strangely only adults ever seemed to think that might not be true. If I knew 25 aspiring writers in high school (and I swear that's low balling it), I can guarantee you that 24 of them were convinced they knew vastly more than their English teacher about...whatever we were reading. Especially English. People regularly insisted every member of the faculty faculty was "utterly stupid." I even remember one of my classmates promising to mail a copy of her first book to Mrs. Hassle to prove that the C- she'd gotten on her paper wasn't warranted.

I Google her name every year or two just to check. I think ol' Hassle is still safe.

Now I'm not saying there aren't any bad teachers in the world (there are), and I'm surely not saying there aren't any slacker ones (oh yes), but at least here in the US, they do have four year degrees and teaching credentials, and most of the probably mostly care about teaching. An English teacher with "just a BA" probably had to write about thirty papers in literary analysis to get their degree and then turn around and get credentialed in how to teach roomfuls of unwieldy children, so whatever they were presenting to the class probably wasn't their literature A game. Whatever else you want to say about them, a teacher probably knows more than their teen-age student about the subject they're teaching.

Also, if you've ever actually met a teen-ager and heard them talk about adults you may be aware that from time to time teen-agers don't completely respect their elders.

And.....(and I can't stress this enough), a lot of times things kids kvetch about never learning or being told, they quite simply were. They WERE. They were taught that. They just don't remember. It wasn't a day they were paying attention or a class they thought was important. They were tuning out. They've forgotten. That was the day they were late because of an orthodontist appointment. They were sick. It was mentioned, but wasn't a whole day's lesson complete with scaffolding, so it didn't stick. Most humans can't remember what was on our tests a few days after we take them. How are we supposed to know for sure we never heard some throw away line about authorial intent?

Remembering that we all THOUGHT we knew more than our teachers is probably a bit different than what we actually knew. Eye witness accounts are some of the worst evidence in law. Psychology has proven time and again that memory is demonstrably fallible. And that is a period of time where people's biases and filters are turned up to eleven.

So even when people tell me today that they knew more than their teachers, my first thought is to wonder if they didn't really just know more than that day's lesson, and that their attempts to communicate their grasp of one concept and readiness to move on to the next concept probably looked a lot more like a skull examining eye roll and, "This is stupid. When are we ever going to use this?" and a lot less like, "I believe I've got a handle on this metaphor. Is there a lens of greater complexity through which I could examine this story in order to challenge myself, Mr. Andre?"

Though it is also true that a lot of teachers need to treat their students like humans instead of little heathens. And it is also true that they would probably do a better job of that if they weren't being paid peanuts and given bigger class sizes with no budgets. I'm not blaming anyone. And I certainly would never suggest that a few burnt out, washed up horrors coasting toward retirement haven't slid under the radar and provided almost every one of us with at least ONE foundational experience that proves we were way beyond the effort they had any intention of expending. I just don't think "English teachers are full of shit" quite grasps the nuance of the U.S. educational system–and that's basically what this meme is saying.

3- This joke is funny. But it's also kind of mean.  

The Venn diagram proposes that what the author meant and what your English teacher thinks they meant have no little overlap. Memes aren't known for their nuanced portrayal of situations, but this one is pretty clear that your English teacher has no idea what the author really meant. There is only a small area of overlap. Most of what your English teacher said is not in the mind of the author. My five part response  to that idea focused on four reasons your teacher might actually know EXACTLY what the author meant (they probably do understand more about metaphor, it is a very vetted symbol, it comes from an author who considered their words carefully, the author actually TOLD people what it meant [which is sort of what this meme is demanding if you're keeping score]) and one reason that what the author meant absolutely doesn't matter to literary analysis or to teaching critical thinking (reader response–impact matters over intent).

When teachers teach symbolism they're trying to get students to think about the world in terms of figurative language and higher conceptual ideas. It's an invaluable critical thinking skill, and in the US, most English curriculums still do it through literature (so that you can be exposed to a few classics along the way).

It's kind of how if you post a meme about how you never used algebra and can't balance a checkbook, you'll probably make some math teacher's heads itch, and they'll point out that A) if you DID learn algebra, you shouldn't have any trouble balancing a checkbook, and B) you learned some very valuable skills about how to figure out variables. This meme joins "the powerhouse of a cell" in being sort of a flip cheap shot at teachers without understanding the complexity of state standards or how a curriculum is built, and there's a reason almost every teacher is annoyed by it.

Different people responded to different parts of that post. My roommate Uberdude took great umbrage with any literary interpretation that wasn't at least unconsciously in the mind of the author at the time of the writing. A friend thought the whitewashed canon was not necessarily always the best writing a student could be reading. Another friend said that often it was her writing being dissected for symbols that she hadn't intended. And while I am the last person to defend the highest reaches of the ivory tower, seeing shapes in the clouds is one of the most human skills we can learn (even if that was never the cloud's intention), and then being able to communicate how and why we see those shapes to someone else is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of communication itself. That ability ("This is what I see, and now I will convey it to you.") is precisely why liberal arts majors so often go on to management position in fields that aren't directly related to their majors.

But sure. Okay. When are we going to use this?

4- I should probably mention that I don't think English teachers have THE right answer

I think they have one possible interpretation. (Which is why I brought up point 5 on the original page.) It's a good interpretation–if simplistic enough to teach high schoolers about reading and writing and critical thinking. It's been vetted by many educators set as a standard at the state level, made into curriculum by the districts and turned into lesson plans by the teacher. It's possibly even been run by the author themselves. (Steinbeck, for example, talked at length about his symbols, so we know that he intended them.) It isn't based on nothing. And our meme-creator and its legion of followers seem more content to insist that the English teacher is just making things up than to discover why the English teacher thinks what they do.

Should an English teacher tell students that interpreting literature is limited mostly only by their own ability to draw connections? Maybe. There are tough choices and a lot of triage when you're overloaded in class sizes, have to get through a state mandated curriculum, have students who would rather be getting root canals, and the parents are angry at you because A) "My darling is failing" and B) "How could you not teach Milton at his clearly advanced level?" I'm not sure I want to complicate a freshman's experience with Roland Barthes or post-structuralism when they are still acting like it's uncool to know the difference between a simile and a metaphor. I'm big on metacognition when I teach; however, I also recognize when I'm teaching grammar to 78 students, I will be more likely to say "this is right and this is wrong" than I will in 98A when I teach them that there are different style guides that might make exceptions to the acceptability of a comma splice. High school students might do worse without some guidance and a couple of examples they KNOW they can use in a paper when they're first doing literary analysis. The question is more about pedagogy than it is about an English teacher just making up random shit to teach their lesson.

One is a problem with the cookie cutter, assembly line approach to education. The other is just assholery.

5- I do have my own bias in this situation.

I must admit it and own it. This meme causes me to flashback to a young Chris in my junior year American Literature class who (after class) listened to an honor roll classmate insist that the teacher was a "complete worthless idiot" because of a discussion of a Frost poem. This student went off for like five minutes on how she was way smarter than the teacher, and the whole "is it about suicide or not" thing was completely vapid. And the whole time I was thinking about I've actually seen the interview where Robert Frost says 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' had metaphorical connections to endings, just like we talked about in the lesson. But she was sure it was about a horse and some snow and had no deeper meaning and was absolutely ragingly indignant about the figurative language. This would turn out to be a formative experience for me and tint, for the rest of my life, my perception of people utterly dismissing those with more expertise.

But also, I went to a pretty decent public school in California suburbs and I liked English even when I hated school. So I have to own that part too.

The reaction of a high school student who just switched from book reports to analysis is a very predictable rebellion to the idea of reading any deeper (it's so predictable that you learn about how to handle it in teacher school), but at that point their skill at simply reading (anything) is developed and it's time to learn to go deeper than the surface meaning.

I have met WAY more people who don't want to deal with subtext, metaphor, symbolism, or anything beyond the literal meaning than I ever have who wanted to challenge the way in which literature is presented within a high school curriculum. Their cries of "can't you just enjoy the story" echo in my ears even twenty years later. Enjoying the story is fine. Appreciating some of its deeper meaning is also fine.

Saying that there is no deeper meaning is less fine.

There's a lot to be said about education, creative process, authorial intent, symbols on the page that were not consciously in the mind of the author, for teachers being fallible, and even the US education system. My rant didn't address these things because the meme didn't address these things. The meme says simply "Your English teacher is totally full of shit."

And that just isn't true.

6- There is so much more meaning in life for people who can interpret subtext, metaphor, allegory, symbolism, and other figurative language

In many ways it is analogous to learning to read or understanding when a person is being sarcastic. It opens up doors to deeper appreciation, but even actual meaning and understanding. A person will get so much more out of many experience, especially reading. They will be better at interpreting events. They'll pick up on little things in everything from books to movies to people's behavior.

We learn symbolism in high school to teach us how to better think critically about how language doesn't always mean only what it literally means. This is invaluable to being human when we come into contact with people who use words differently or can layer meaning.

To instead insist that education in understanding literature at this level is a fool's errand with no more utility than tilting at windmills is an embrace of willful ignorance. It's like saying there's no merit to eating anything but nutritional paste because that's got all you need to survive. Good food is good because of its texture, subtlety, flavor, and such. These people who just want to read without analysis may miss the delight of a well done metaphor, the comprehension of social criticism in a hidden symbol, and even "what the author meant" when they insist that the author meant nothing but the denotative, literal text. In a very real way, people who have a skill at reading are capable of reading more.

To mock that seems less than petty. It seems to celebrate the snub of expertise. It seems to delight in remaining ignorant as preferable to taking the time to understand why an English teacher might be teaching something. And in a world where we scratch our heads and can't figure out how Russian psyops get people to believe fake news, maybe we ought not to mock the people who are trying to teach us how to read with a little more intellectual rigor.

I mean I know English teachers make huge paychecks, enjoy a totally supportive community, are the idols of their appreciative students, and have near superhero status in the greater society for the job they do, but honestly some of them actually like to teach English.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Changes Afoot

I was in a foul mood yesterday.

It's true.
I may WANT it to be my carrer, but we're not there yet.
One of those little storm clouds, like you see in Peanuts comics, was following me around complete with a little zot of lightning that hit me if I started to smile at something.

Usually when I'm in a pissy mood, I run down the usual suspects.  I make sure I'm getting enough sleep and I take care to eat some decent food.  I get out and take a walk no matter how much I don't want to.  Usually this does the trick.  Our moods and even thoughts are more beholden to our physical reality than many of us would like to admit.

But these things weren't completely helping, and the feeling I was dealing with was the perception that I was completely overwhelmed.  Life seemed to be crushing down on me like the post bug room in Temple of Doom.  I love this blog, and I love doing this writing but it is a crazy amount of work and I think seeing my numbers sinking for a second straight month took some of the wind out of my sails.  I think I know how Marvin felt when there was no Earth-shattering kaboom.

I can't even really say it disappointed me in an of itself because, like I mentioned yesterday, I knew it was coming, knew the causes, and was even still pretty stoked to see that it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be and didn't affect my revenue.  (I mean, I'm still getting 500+ readers a day and making twice as much as five months ago!)  I think the better description of what happened is that the artificial inflation of enthusiasm I was experiencing in December and January finally got reappraised to a more realistic level.  I came down from the bullshit high.

Blogging takes a lot of work, and of course almost everyone who starts one with the intention of getting an audience is hoping to see it grow.  Somewhere back in the back of most writers' heads is the thought of their fandom and their incredibly successful career, and I'm no different.  So when the numbers were just rocketing upwards, it was hard not to get caught up in it.  Now I'm forced to look around at the tattered remnants of my social life and the kitchen that looks like a nuclear weapon detonated right about at the sink, and the fact that I'm writing perhaps a tenth of the amount of fiction I'd like to be, and even the growing stack of books in the "must read" pile (that I usually tear through faster than I can accumulate), and I have to admit that even though I'm loving blogging, it isn't fitting as well as I want it to in a larger mosaic of writing or my life.

But setbacks are part of writing.  The question now is simply whether I'm going to crawl in a hole and lick my wounds touch my bloody nose, look at the blood, taste the blood, crack my neck and assume an even more ridiculous stance of corded muscles.

I choose the latter.

Metaphorical me.  Real me is just slightly less cut.  Slightly.
(Image credit: Warner Brothers--will remove upon request.)
So I'm going to make some scheduling changes in my life so that I'm writing during my better writing time.  I can sit and write pretty much at any time, but almost every writer has a time when they work the best, and mine has always been late at night.

I've also adjusted the update schedule so I'm not facing down big articles on days where I need to work both my other jobs.  It's unlikely that any of you will really notice the difference because I don't think anybody but me actually pays any attention to my update schedule, but this is going to be the new schedule.

New Update Schedule (Probably of no interest to anyone but me)

Mon- Main Post

Tue- Guest Blog (or nothing if there is no guest blog)

Wed- Prompt

Thur- Something light

Fri- Mailbox

Some of the "guest bloggers" with the quotes around them are probably the articles that will change the most.  I'm not going to keep trying to do one every week on a rotating schedule.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Major Update Changes

This is my planning shenanigans face.
Over the last couple of months my pageviews have been going steadily downward.  While December was 18k and January actually hit 22k, February was not quite 17k and it looks like I'll be lucky if March hits 15k.

This isn't the setback it might seem to be at first.

First of all, I'm not going to "Ho Hum" 15,000 page views a month like it's not a big deal.  With the possible exception of my own traffic the months prior, there isn't a bellwether by which that's not breathtaking and fantastic.  Secondly, some of that is my own fault.  I wasn't teaching for a lot of December and part of January, I was doing a post every day--sometimes two--with no days off, and I was self promoting pretty aggressively across social platforms to see which ones were worth my time (Stumbleupon) and which ones would take lots of time and effort to build up a reputation before they would even bring me in a few hits (Reddit).

In February, my teaching schedule started back up, I went to Dundracon, I started taking a couple of days off a week, and stopped the self promotion.  Of course, my pageviews plummeted.

But what was interesting to me was that the revenue did not.  If anything, I've gotten a couple more donations in the last month or two than the months before that.

It's tough to watch your traffic tank since analytics provide one of the only tangible yardsticks for how a blog is doing.  But I knew why, I knew it would happen, I knew hard numbers were still impressive even without their soft bump from my "blog Hairography.  Having the trickle of money increase may have also softened the blow.

Anyway, I need to incorporate what I've learned into how I move forward.  All the blog articles about getting traffic are about SEO and cheap tricks.  No one ever really writes about how you have to decide how much not-writing you have to do, how to keep people coming BACK to a blog (instead of just stopping by once), or how to decide if your blog is probably still going strong when it's numbers are going down, so I've had to figure those things out as I go along.  I can become a slave to the pageviews, have no days off from blogging, spend more hours a week on social media, write more articles, watch the house fall apart, and dread any day I have any other obligation from teaching to a social plan.

So, after the last couple of weeks and closely watching the numbers I generate when I don't do anything at all, or when I just pick one good past article and put it on G+ and FB, plus after looking at things I'm getting to less than I'd like, such as my obligations to clean house or my desire to write more fiction, I've decided to rethink the schedule.  I know I want to do some kind of "main" article each week and The Mailbox seems to be popular (when people write in), but posting frequency and any other sort of schedule are up in the air for now.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What is the Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Series (FINAL WEEK)

A week remains in our Best SciFi/Fantasy poll, and the results are starting to look a little closer to what I thought they would.  I'm still surprised Vorkosigan is doing so well, but many of the other series are starting to land just about where I thought it would.  Lord of the Rings is creeping towards the top, Harry Potter is about to edge out Chanur, and The Song of Ice and Fire is climbing the charts.

Only a week remains.  We need more votes.  Eighty-five votes is good, but more votes means more street cred if we're going to convince the man that this poll had results worth considering.

Tell everyone.  Spread the word.  Fight the power.

Even as we speak I am driving to a convention of teenage girls to tell them all to "Vote Pern!"  Unless you want to see that book skyrocket to the top of the list, you better get voting.

The poll itself is the black widget on the left side of the screen.  If you do not have Adblock, it's right near the comment box for this entry.  If you have adblock on, it might be a little lower.  Everyone gets three votes.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Using S.M.A.R.T.(S.) Goals In Writing

Unless you live in a cave, (and not one of those tricked out caves with easy access to the outside world, but a cave out of of a Dungeons and Dragons game where it's so deep and dark that there are whole civilizations of bipedal albino geckos) somewhere along the line you've probably run into the idea, or at least heard, of S.M.A.R.T. goals.  "SMART" is a mnemonic acronym that's been around since the early eighties designed to help people remember what makes for a good goal.

Obviously SMART goals have their place.  You don't set out SMART goals when you're hungry, you just go look in the fridge for something to eat. When you are not even quite sure exactly what you want, it's very hard to set SMART goals, and much more important to get a sense of your true desires. But when you have a clear idea of what you want, and it's not something as easy as making a sandwich, goal setting will help get you there much faster.

Most people suck spectacularly at making goals. They may not know how to get what they want, but the real problem is that they don't even know what it is they do want.

You've probably heard someone in your life talk about doing something at some point in a way that it's almost completely unclear what they would be doing or when.  ("I really need to learn Spanish one of these days."  "I should get healthier."  "I should go back to school eventually."  "I want to be a writer some day."  "I should get back into the habit of jogging."  "At some point, I'm going to start a business.")

These "goals" aren't even really goals.  They are more appropriately characterized as dreams or whimsical fantasies.  They're goals in the same way Madonna is an actress--they sort of fill the spot where the real thing should go, but they're not fooling anyone. Unsurprisingly almost no one ever gets around to doing the things they want to do in such a chimerical way.  At least not before setting some real goals first.

SMART criteria help turn daydreaming into actual goals.

Timely (or time-based)
And to this I am adding a second S.  (Which I will explain below.)
S elf-contained

But what does that crap actually mean?

SpecificThe more ambiguous your goal is, the less likely you are to achieve it.  A goal to "go back to school" is very vague, and more likely to be a platitude than anything.  A goal to get a degree in linguistics by taking two night classes a semester is much more specific, and thus more likely to be realized.   "Getting healthy" is meaningless.  Quitting smoking, dropping 30 points of cholesterol, and improving blood pressure by ten points is an actual goal.  (Just don't check on your progress when you're being chased by zombies.)

You can't hit a target that you can't see.

MeasurableThis is a little redundant with specific, but I don't think SART goals or MART goals would quite have the same ring to it.  A goals measurability means that there is an actual bellwether or yardstick for success.  "I should lose some weight," is a meaningless goal that is technically achieved by voiding one's bladder or possibly not feeling like enough even after dropping 50 pounds.  "I will lose two inches from my waist," on the other hand provides a way to measure success.  "I want to do better in school," is meaningless, but "I want a 3.5 GPA gives one a beacon to pursue and a tangible point at which to say "I have achieved this goal."  (Endless goals are frustrating, and nothing succeeds like success.)

Attainable- Goals have to be realistic.  I could set all the specific and measurable goals I want to jump ten feet straight up into the air while shooting fire out of my mouth, but I will never hit them.  You're not going to lose thirty pounds in a month (not without reenacting 127 Hours....a couple of times.  You're not going to run a marathon next week if you're pushing fifty, completely sedentary, and a hundred pounds overweight.  You have to come up with goals that you can actually achieve or you set yourself up for failure very early on.  Learning to play Chopin's Piano Concerto #2 in one year is specific and measurable but if you're just starting piano lessons today, it's not very attainable.  Of course any goal could be too easy, but a goal that's too hard leads to frustration and dejection, and succeeding leads to improved confidence and self-esteem.

Relevant- A goal has to be good.  It has to be useful.  If you want to start a business a goal to lose ten pounds might be specific, measurable, and attainable, but it has nothing to do with what you want to do. .  And while that is an extreme example, a lot of people end up spending a lot of time doing things that are more subtly tangental to what they really want to be doing.  If you want to run a marathon doing a hundred push-ups a day might not be completely counter-productive, but it's probably not the best use of your time.  If you want to start a business making video games, you want to get good at making games, find an audience, create very very easy support systems so you can get paid.  Getting an MBA, or a CS degree, or going to graphics art school, or climbing the corporate ladder at a big game studio are all goals--and mind you, they aren't completely useless--but they are perhaps not the most direct route to your business making video games.  Losing 10 pounds is specific and measurable, but it isn't always the appropriate goal for someone who is building muscle.  "Staying healthy" is a good goal, but a better goal would be "Escape Zombies.  Then check blood pressure."

I just don't get it.  I keep giving myself infinite time to finish this project,
and it keeps not getting done.  I'm not sure what's going on.
Timely (time based)A goal is just a dream with a deadline.  Even the most specific, measurable, attainable and relevant goal is useless without If you have forever to do something, chances are it will actually be a low priority in your life.  You have to set time-based goals or you will simply never get around to them.  Or possibly only when all other things are taken care of and your life is an idyllic unstressed sea of free time.  I think I had a moment like that back in the late nineties.  Losing five pounds eventually is a goal you will never really take seriously or take real steps to achieve.  Losing five pounds in two months places a sense of urgency on the goal that leads to actual action.

But just so we're clear, even if you have a goal to take your blood pressure every day, it's okay to skip it if you're being chased by zombies.

Self-Contained- To this list I add "self-contained," and here's why: a lot of people set goals that they can't actually control.  (And I don't just mean that in a "we can't control the weather" or "we can't control the economy" or "we we can't control whether or not we get taken over by parasitical worms from the first season of Star Trek TNG!" kind of way.)  For example, if your goal is to get a promotion at work, you really can't control that.  You can affect it, but not determine it with your own choices.  Factors like how much your boss likes you, the performance of your competition, and your company's budget would all be a factor in such a goal that you have no way to influence.  Better goals are goals over which you have direct control.  In our example, better goal at work would be to arrive early every day, never check Facebook, ask someone once a day if there's anything you can do to help them, and to learn one aspect of the job each week that you didn't know before.  Those are things you can actually control.  I have about forty different goals related to threesomes I want to have.  They are very specific, and measurable.  And timely because I want them later on tonight.  But...I can't control who gives enthusiastic consent.

Self-contained becomes particularly important for writers, as I'll get into.

How to apply this totally awesome shiz to writing.

One of the biggest problems would-be writers have translating their dreams and desires into tangible results is that the process of writing is almost completely self-motivated, and, like most people, they don't know how to actually set good goals.  No one has a personal ass kicker telling them what to do. (And in fact, getting such a thing is the most oft-cited reason for writers getting MFAs.) Most writers have a sort of vague sense of wanting to be successful as a writer, but they don't have a good sense of how to get there, or really even what that means.

One of the reasons NaNoWriMo is so seductive to so many young and new writers is that it is a pre-packaged SMART goal. You have to write 50,000 words in 30 days.  This is actually  Specific, Measurable, Timely, Self-Contained.  And while I would argue that at 1776 words a day, it's a little too ambitious to be Attainable to most, it is technically not so unrealistic as to be outside the bounds of plausibility.  The only real question is if it's relevant. Are writers really doing themselves any favors by powering out high quantity, low quality as fast as they can once a year?  Obviously not if their efforts stop there.

NaNo is compelling because it has most of the elements of a good goal.  But if a writer learns how to set their own S.M.A.R.T.S. goals, they don't need to be beholden to anyone else's.

Specific- "I want to be a writer."  "I want to make money writing."  "I want to be successful."  These goals don't actually mean anything.  They are fantasies wrapped in language--nothing more. You're a writer if you write. You could make between five and ten cents a day (like me) and be making money, and success is whatever you define it to be. Even a goal like "get published" is a little nebulous as technically that could be achieved through self-publication of a single blog article (which is likely to have more readers than most anyone's first time print publication) or in a local paper.  But that's likely not to satisfy most people who dream of doing Ricky Lake and Ellen. You should really focus in on what your goals are for writing in the most crystalized way you can. "I want to write a 4 pages a day," is a much better goal. "I want to publish my novel with a big six" (Although technically that fails the S.M.A.R.T.S. goal for not being Self Contained.) These are specific goals.

Measurable- Do you know what the most common thing I hear from other writers is. THE most common thing?  It's the sentiment that they should be writing more.  The problem is that "more" isn't measurable.  A vague sense that one should be writing more often can be assuaged by spending one Saturday afternoon writing. "More" isn't measurable. 5 pages a day is measurable. 20,000 words in a month is measurable.  An hour a day and ten on weekends is measurable. Finishing a story in three weeks is measurable. Drafting a novel in four months is measurable. Set goals you can measure.

Attainable- Writers have a bad, bad habit of overcommitting. They are constantly starting new regimens and failing them (often spectacularly).  "I'm going to start writing five pages a day!" they say.  Shortly after day three they can't handle having no free time and quit altogether.  The 80+% of people who don't finish NaNoWriMo are evidence of how people set goals that aren't actually realistic.  You can't write forty hours a week (or really even twenty) if you have a day job and a family.  You're not going to write a publishable book in a couple months.  And most people can't do any more than 2500 words a day in a sustained way.  Set modest goals and adjust them upward if you need to.  Failure begets frustration and dejection--which is probably my primary reason for warning newer writers off of NaNoWriMo--and too many writers throw in the towel on writing completely because they simply expected too much of themselves.  On the other hand, hitting an easy goal is a good feeling, and you can always adjust the difficulty upward later.

Relevant- One of the biggest pitfalls writers fall into is not setting relevant goals.  They forget that they have a finite amount of time and to consider their talent build.  They get involved in writing projects for money just because it's PAID WRITING and forget that it's not the kind of writing they really want to be doing.  It's just such a thrill to be writing for a paycheck.  Or they do writing challenges (like NaNo) even when it's antithetical to the type of writing they usually or makes them put down a project they're in the middle of.  Or they become an editor because it's something in the writing world even though it isn't actually writing.  Or they attend a crazy amount of literary events and readings and end up being social more than actually writing.  Or they spend more time doing online social media self-promotion than actual writing (which is a problem this writer and other bloggers have to keep a close eye on).  Or they keep going back to school for another degree instead of just writing.   There are lots of pitfalls that are technically "not useless" but also not really the kind of writing that most people want to be doing.  You don't need to have absurdly extreme examples like "eat two hundred eggs" to have an irrelevant goal.

Timely- If you ever stepped into a machine hooked up to angel food cake that showed you the number of would-be-writers who are going to publish a novel "someday," your face would melt off Raiders of the Lost Arc style.

There are so, so, so many.  And many of them are probably even pretty good writers.  At one point in my twenties it was actually a rarer thing for me to know someone who didn't have a book cooking in their brain or a chapter or two written with a clandestine plan to get to the rest eventually.   Of course then they all started having kids and getting serious promotions.

A goal without a deadline is just a dream.

This should be a no-brainer, but it isn't.   People continue to operate as if they will be just as productive when they have infinite time to procrastinate as they will under deadline.  Goals like "in a week" or "each day" or "by the end of this month" are good goals.  "I will write 5 pages a day."  "I will finish this short story by Tuesday."  "I will have a rough draft of this novel done in four months."

I think it is perhaps the most common mistake that separates working writers from "pre-success" writers is that the later waits for inspiration to affect them before they write, and the former roll up their sleeves and work with the trust that the inspiration will come. The merits of writing under deadline are well documented in everything from freshmen who get their paper idea at 10pm the night before it's due to journalists to novelists.  But it's almost like those other writers just don't want it to become work.

Self-Contained- A lot of writers have publication goals.  A short story every month.  Something in one of the big literary reviews by next year  A novel by thirty.  A career in ten years.  I've heard all of these as actual goals of actual writers.  (Sadly, in no case that I know personally were these goals achieved even when they managed to finish the writing.)  The problem with these goals is that the writer may have absolutely no control over them.  A story or novel gets rejected for a hundred reasons that have nothing to do with the writer.  Personal taste of the E.I.C., length, a theme of the particular issue, the aesthetic of the magazine, or even budgets may all have more to do with a rejection than anything the writer can control.  Focusing on self-contained goals can keep a writer from buying a high powered rifle and climbing up a bell tower. "Getting a short story published each month" is something they cannot control.  "Submitting 20 times a month," or "get to a final draft and submit my novel by thirty" are much more self-contained.  The writer who focuses on the efforts instead of the success can't be frustrated by a gatekeeper.  And the writer who doesn't give up on self-contained goals will probably eventually succeed in the other stuff.

So remember to run your goals through the S.M.A.R.T. S. filter to see if they're good goals and tweak them if you need to.  Otherwise you end up chewing away your finite number of breaths thinking "I'd like to be successful...someday."

Saturday, March 23, 2013

5 Reasons I Absolutely Hate That "What The Author Meant" Meme

So if you've been on Facebook sometime in the last fifty years or so, you've probably run across this little turd of a meme.  I've personally seen it forty or fifty times, including one day where it decided to show up on my wall something like eight or nine times as my less literary minded friends bounced it between them with the online equivalent of "Hur Hur."

I hate this meme.

Hate it.

I hate it so bad.  If hate were pebbles, my hate would be....um....a great big boulder.  I hate it with the white hot fury of a billion supernovas in a synchronous explosion up my left nostril.

I want to travel back in time and find the father of the person who made this on the night before their conception and kick daddy in the nuts so hard that this person simply ceases to have ever existed in the time space continuum.  No fading Polaroid and transparent hand.  Just one kick....gone.

Mostly I hate the way people don't just have a giggle and move on.  I could almost spare daddy's scroat from my snap kick of protodoom if people just posted it with a "Snerk" and moved on. It is funny. It does have a point. English teachers DO do this.

But no.

They insist on acting like this meme contains the wisdom of ages, that SOLOMON himself dragged the great English teacher and the word was spoken. All English teachers exactly this pointless and absurd and awful, and that it isn't just sour grapes by someone who failed their Steinbeck paper. This is the most profound thing anyone has ever said indicting liberal arts.

"Oh my god, this is so true!" or "ZOMG YES!!!"

Y'all know I'm an English teacher right? I've given A's to people I disagreed with because they argued it well and F's to people who regurgitated what I said because they didn't. And even I laughed at this meme....the first fifty times it quietly got shared. But once people started acting like this meme was a salient indictment of liberal/language arts in primary school, and all English teachers want is to have their own absurdly over analyzing pet theories parroted back at them, I knew it was time to throw down.

[Edit May 2019- This post is now more disclaimers than it is article but what the hell.

I would encourage everyone to please please please consider how this post so predictably divides people along the lines of those who have taught and those who haven't.

We can all consider that US education is
SYSTEMATICALLY failing (particularly poor and marginalized students) without going after the teachers, many of whom are working for less than they can live on and are already each at their part blamed for not being every single student's personal Jaime Escalante. Folks (who have never taught) seem to realize that education is important, critical thinking about humanities is a vital skill (to do things like recognize when we are culturally being attacked by Russian psyops), and that students need to think about what they read in a way that is a little more sophisticated than plot summaries, but they don't have any problem dismissing the INTRODUCTORY lessons teaching these skills. And part of me is interested to know if they'd like to change the education standards, write a curriculum, and give teaching a whirl if they're so sure that the curtains were always blue.]

[Edit June 15, 2016: I notice this post is going a little viral today (three years later) and I should share a personal story since its success is both confusing and amusing to me. It was written furiously in a fit of pique one crisp March morning after I had seen it shared by two or three different friends. One was trying to get a rise out of me. One thought it was funny but knew that it was also pretty much an annoyed student, or ex-student, with graphic design skills being obnoxious.

But the third.  Ah the third. The third was like "OH MY GOD THIS IS SO TRUE!!!" And even included in her comments a five paragraph screed about how liberal arts were pretty much entirely made up.  She was a friend who had asked me on no less than five separate occasions to give her free tutoring on her literary essays because she was having trouble with them. (I'll let you work out the irony there.) So my furious clacking was shooting a bit from the hip. I do encourage folks to read both the comments and the follow up article. I have been accused of a lot of things because of this article, many of them profoundly unkind, but I hope no one thinks I would never say there are no bad English teachers, authors confused by the overreach of their intentions, or possible merit in any way to this meme.]

1- Being proud of your ignorance isn't cool.   I get it.  Literary analysis is hard. Finding the symbols and then discussing them with written language in a concise and clear way can be frustrating. There's a reason that you have to take half a dozen college courses before you really start to acquire that skill set, and most high school students are taught a very formative version that helps them pair the literary terms they are learning with clear cut examples. (A lot of us learn "setting" when we're reading Steinbeck, for example.) Drawing connections and thinking critically is not easy. Understanding meaning beyond the literal words on the page is a skill. And discerning multiple layers of meaning...well it's almost like it could be a whole discipline. Symbolism, allegory, metaphor...that is some next level shit. When we learn to read with these things in mind whole new meaning opens up.

There's a reason the Romans guarded their liberal arts knowledge for citizens only. Any ol' barbarian could become an engineer.

And if you don't want to have that skill, that's fine. You don't have to. You can wonder why people who read a lot really like Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood. You can even think that Shakespeare thought the entire world was a stage and was not speaking figuratively. It's cool. But let's acknowledge this meme as a "Haha" joke and not a universal truth lest we be guilty of dismissing all the people who do have that skill––who have spent years learning that skill and are then trying to show others how to do it. Having a laugh at how convoluted literary analysis can get is wonderful. Let me buy you a drink and join you. Insisting that we are ABSOLUTELY making stuff up. That's like saying evolution doesn't exist because you don't understand how the fossil record works.  If you're not going to stop at the water's edge of a giggle, maybe instead you should be asking yourself what your English teacher knows that you don't.

The world is made objectively worse by people who mock those trying to create a bridge to the understanding of a concept because they don't get the concept.

No one can know everything--especially at the age where one is usually facing down English teachers. Celebrating willful ignorance and mocking the people who do not is a particular kind of unkind. In a world where we all bemoan the lack of respect for expertise and think the whole country is diminishing in its respect for those who actually know things, folks don't recognize that it is lifting up memes like this one as "so true" that contributes. (It's always the person who doesn't respect one's OWN expertise who is to blame, right?)  It would be a little bit like a three-year-old looking at the pictures in a picture book when they can't read, deciding you know the story (from the pictures alone), and telling the literate person who is sitting next to them reading the text that they're "wrong" and to stop making stuff up. They're NOT wrong. They have a skill you lack. And if you "learned to read" you'd be able to see it too.

2- Art is considered.  Any book you're reading in an English class is most likely some of the best literature out there. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying it's THE BEST stuff ever written. It's predominantly dead white guys, and usually picked by parents for its "appropriateness" to young students. Other voices are often just as good and even better.

But it's still pretty good writing.  And like any art, literature is done with great care, consideration, and thought. It wasn't slapped out in a single draft on a Saturday night. YOU may not have any  symbolism in your first or second draft. Stephen King or Jim Butcher might do three or four drafts and tease out a handful of allegories, but an author in the canon being studied by millions has probably done ten or more drafts at least, refining their language to fit their themes with each draft. Probably on their second or third draft, they noticed how their themes worked with certain imagery, and they began to tease that out in subsequent revisions.  And knowing what I do about virtually any published author, I absolutely guarantee that a writer of that caliber went through so many drafts that they considered and chose deliberately almost every single word choice. There is almost no chance anything in the entire work is not a conscious decision, probably even the color of the curtains.

3- Your English teacher isn't operating in a vacuum.  Your English teacher has things they need to cover and a limited amount of time.  They have established lesson plans and curriculum based on learning objectives that came from standards generated by lots of other English teachers, a district, and a state, with heavy influence from the federal government. (At least here in the US.) They can't really just wax philosophically and go off on tangents forever (unless they truly DO suck...which of course we pay teachers so poorly that some of them might).  But for the MOST part, they're going to focus on what is generally agreed upon by wide bodies of scholars and literary analysis, and the big huge examples of what they're trying to teach.

They really just need thirty people who would rather be getting root canals to GET "symbolism," so they don't have a lot of time for flourishes.

Your English teacher isn't just spitballing. Chances are they probably took the time to isolate the most important aspects of the work you're reading, choosing only what works well with the lesson they're trying to teach. Also, they probably picked out a few of the glaring examples--the best examples for the lesson at hand--not everything that could possibly fit.

So you're getting the most obvious examples of the most elementary lessons in what is probably some of the most exemplary writing of that particular element of fiction.  And understanding how an author works their mojo makes you a better reader (and will make you a better writer too!).  It's like someone trying to teach you algebra and you claiming that they're just "making up" their solutions to the variable and there's nothing to it. If every English teacher in the world understands that there's something going on with Steinbeck's turtle, there probably is.

But by all means just spit out a meme.

4- Books do not spontaneously generate.  Authors don't live on the moon. They do not send their books down by shuttle to be interpreted in a (wait for it....) vacuum.  They have lives. They walk around on Terra Firma. They eat at restaurants. They have friends. And sometimes they even talk about their writing. Even the most antisocial writers have often done interviews, panels, and articles about their own work.

I just turned around and there they were!
One of the ways we know what the author meant is BECAUSE THEY FUCKING TELL US!!

You can't get more authorial intent than that.

YOU may not have intended something to be a symbol (always one of the first argument that nothing ever is because one's own experience is always universal), but they looked a journalist or an audience member dead ass in the eyes and said "Yeah, I was trying to symbolize depression."

And even if we don't know exactly what the author meant about one particular symbol, we can extrapolate from what we do know about them. Raymond Carver may never have specifically discussed the fading light in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" (he did, but let's pretend), but he did talk about how he tends to use light meaningfully in his stories, and we can apply that to his later pieces.

We also know from talking to authors how carefully they choose their words when they write. Shakespeare may not have done a series of interviews for the BBC, but from what we do know, he pondered over every word, so we can assume any given word has been debated and consciously chosen.

And sometimes even when a symbol wasn't explicitly in the mind of an author on a conscious level, they show up unconsciously. When a writer is creating literally every aspect of their worlds, sometimes what's on our minds show up like a Rorschach inkblot test or like when Data started causing there to be 3's everywhere. How many interviews did I have in my writing program with authors who were surprised (YET DELIGHTED) to have a symbol they missed pointed out because "yeah, actually that was kind of on my mind."

[Allow me to regale you with a VERY common story that happened several times when I got to meet authors in my Creative Writing program. Almost every single one had some variation of what I'm about to tell you. Someone in the audience (who had read really carefully) pointed out a symbol they noticed and the author hadn't intended it. Of course, they didn't say "No, the curtains were fucking blue!" Rather they said something like "Holy shit! You're right. I must have had that in my mind but not realized it. Because you're right. That totally fits!"]

The point is, a lot of times, we can just ask, have asked, and the authors have TOLD us.

5- Authorial intent hasn't mattered as much as reader response since about the sixties.  For over five decades, we've moved away from what the author meant as the authority of analysis. We've come full circle and we care again, but it's not the ONLY way to engage the text. The author is one person. How a work resonates in a culture is much more interesting.  In post-structuralism there is some incorporation of a work's context and that includes biographical analysis, but the interpretation of a work is as much (arguably more) in the hands of the reader than of any right or wrong interpretation.  Anyone who has gone back to a favorite book years later and read a COMPLETELY different book is familiar with this.

We are much more interested in how words are received rather than what was intended by them.  One of the reasons "I didn't mean it like that" is a fairly unacceptable counter-argument for someone using "gay" or "bitch" as a pejorative. No one cares what they meant. We care about how those words resonate culturally. The same is true of art and literature. James Cameron didn't mean to make a recruiting poster movie for postcolonial theory, but that's what he did and it was the focus of most of the more thoughtful reviews. When we can more deeply understand art and how it resonates in the world around us, we open doors to communication.

Thus literary analysis can be something of a Rorschach inkblot test for a group or culture (or a subculture if you are looking at it through intentionalist lenses like Critical Race Theory or Feminist Theory). An author may not have meant anything, but the fact that we see it is still worth exploring. Literary analysis (especially being taught by "your English teacher") is more about critical thinking and the eventual articulation of that in an argument (such as a paper), not an absolute, objective cypher of authorial intent.

Maybe the author did just mean the curtains were blue. But can you make a case that the color scheme reflects a larger pattern? Can you use your writing skills to craft a compelling thesis that is supported with evidence? If you can you have a very important skill in drawing connections. You might find that useful in management later on.

Of course to know what all that means, you might have to question the idea that every English teacher in the world is just randomly making stuff up.
“They belong to their readers now, which is a great thing–because the books are more powerful in the hands of my readers than they could ever be in my hands.” - John Green

EDIT:  In response to the awesome comments below, I have written a follow up to this article.  Come check it out.

If you're enjoying this blog, and would like to see more articles like this one, the writer is a guy with a rent and insurance to pay who would love to spend more time writing. Please consider contributing to My Patreon. As little as $12 a year (only one single less-than-a-cup-of-coffee dollar a month) will get you in on backchannel conversations, patron-only polls, and my special ear when I ask for advice about future projects or blog changes.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Write Today. Because It's A Brand New Day

I tend to turn on reruns of old shows while I clean house.  I get distracted too easily if I'm cleaning in silence.  And if it's a show I haven't seen before, I get distracted BY the show and wind up sitting down and watching it.

So a little while ago I was oiling the hardwood floors with House M.D. on in the background and I heard this song.  It made me think of how often we put off writing not because of where we are, but actually because of the past.  Like a diet or exercise regimen, writing is easy not to do because it hasn't been going well lately.

Now I can't seem to get enough of it.  In fact the whole album it's on (Joshua Radin: Simple Times) has been on repeat for a while.

But when we consider each day a tabula rasa and wake to the possibility that this will be the day we stop stopping and start writing, it is much easier to make the slumps short and...as Gold Five says: "Stay on Target."  Yeah, I know it's sort of about other stuff, but you know how you kind of bend and twist song lyrics to fit your lives like a Rorschach inkblot test?  Well, I do that a lot.

Forget how it's been going.  Forget that you've had a bad run.  Forget that you fell off the wagon thirty times before...and that was just last month.  Today is a new day.  Write.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What is the BEST Scifi/Fantasy Series?

It's only a matter of time, Vorkosigan.
Only a matter of time!!!
With just under two weeks left to vote, many of the results are starting to look a little more typical of what you might expect.  I'm still shocked at how poorly Song of Ice and Fire is doing, but as a friend pointed out, maybe that has to do with Martin's latest offering to the series.  Plus another friend's efforts to "stuff the ballot box" for Chanur have it doing considerably better against Lord of the Rings than I would have expected.

I'm also still surprised that a series I've never even heard of (Vorkosigan) is absolutely kicking ass and taking names.

The poll itself is the very black widget on the left hand side of the screen.  Depending on whether or not you have Adblock running on this site, it's probably right near the end of this entry at the comment box.

Everyone gets three votes.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Writing Prompt: Sonder

Image credit: Unknown.  Please e-mail me if it's yours.
One of the pitfalls many writers fall into is that any characters outside of a few main ones aren't characterized with very much depth.  They exist in a world that is little more a support system for the main characters--showing up when needed, and quickly disappearing when not, and serving, while on the page, as little more than a railroad tie for pushing the plot forward.  Characters like this are often labeled by pejoratives like "flat," "hackneyed,"or "bromidic."  (The later used mostly by snobby critics to explain why no one else should read your work.)  Too many such characters and a writer risks an ensemble parade of cardboard.

Many writers have incredible difficulty with this because many people have incredible difficulty with this.  Humans are basically and generally self-centered egomaniacs.  And even though some elevate that self absorption to surreal levels of narcissism, all of us are trapped within our own consciousness.  The reason we admire the truly compassionate (like that Jesus dude) is because it is, in fact, a very rare quality. As the center of our own universe, it takes an extraordinary act of imagination and empathy to imagine the lives of those outside our sphere of influence.

But everyone is the main character of their own story.  And if you don't write them that way, they will come off as trite (at best) or a terrible stereotype (at worst).  And then critics will write "bromidic" and make you cry.

As with all writing prompts, don't forget to have fun.

Prompt: Go about your normal day.  (A day where you go out, not one where you stay in.)  Pick one person who you do not speak to--even just as a cashier.  It's best if you can watch this person for a few minutes, but please don't be a hairy eyeball creeper and stare at them with the cold psychotic gaze of a serial killer.  And if you can't help doing that, then for fuck's sake leave my name out of it.  I'm already in trouble with the local cops over the "chicken trebuchet incident."  Just watch them casually for a minute or three.

Then write about the person you watched for two or three pages.  Don't describe them physically--that's not important--but write about their deeper lives.  Their hopes and dreams.  Their ambitions.  Do they have a lot of friends?  Who is their best friend? What was their worst childhood experience? How about their best? Do they have a romantic life, and if so, what is it like?  What are they doing to sabotage their lives (for we're all doing something)?  What are they doing that people would admire?  Do they like eating out?  Where?  What's their favorite food?  What's their relationship like with their parents?  Was their greatest love requited or not?  What kind of art do they like?  Are they smart?  Funny?  Sarcastic? Kind? Uncompromising? Do go home to their kids? Pets? Tragically underpaid blog? What is their guilty pleasure.  Go as deep as you can into their "real" persona as you can, and keep going with it for at least two or three pages.

Now...write a small vignette (a page or two) with this character in which you have them meet a character you are familiar with.  (Maybe the main character of that story you've been noodling or something.)  Have this new character and your established character have a very limited interaction: a few lines of dialoge at most.  In the course of their interaction, reveal three of the deeper truths you've figured out about them.  You don't want to be ham-handed about this.  ("Here's your coffee sir, and by the way I still watch Titanic at least once a week!")  Rather work the clues in subtly.

Ideally you want to do this prompt a few times, until you notice that you start to add in a little more depth to all your minor characters without even thinking about it.  That's like snatching the marble from Sufi's hand.  When you can do that Grasshopper, you will have learned....metaphorically speaking.

Disclaimer- It's very important to do this exercise with a certain level of detachment.  This is a fabulous way to learn to flex your empathy muscle with those who are just flitting through your life, but it's important to remember you don't really know anything about them.