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

Saturday, March 31, 2018

An Act of Faith (Personal Update)

Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.  
-E.B. White

I want to tell you a story, but before I tell you this story, I have to tell you another story.

This story can be inspirational if you want or didactic if you prefer. It can be whatever you want.

It is a story of the wee child Chris.

I've wanted to be a writer since I was ten. I remember the exact moment–a finish-the-story creative writing Halloween prompt that I turned into a ten page mystery. (TEN PAGES!!!) From that moment on, the how of it might go in and out of focus (from writing with all the *cough* free time I would have teaching choir to trying to take a year off to slam out a debut novel while still in my twenties), but I always wanted to be a writer.

Which turns out to have been less important in the grand scheme of thing than this: I always wanted to write.

At that age I just wrote happily about brain eating monsters from outer space and scientists who could save the earth with squirt guns using their "liquid laser" formula–which if I had to guess was a plot point that had a lot more to do with my new squirt gun toy than anything–and didn't care much about where the commas went. But as I got older, the emphasis on grammar loomed like a shadow in my mind. I worried a lot about my failings. I had trouble spelling and trouble learning the formal rules of grammar.

I would later learn that I had a mild form of dyslexia and off-the-charts ADD. Both had gone hidden into my adulthood for a myriad of reasons (from the fact that I was reading and writing so much that I was not making "typical" mistakes that would indicate learning disorders to parents who thought everything was a simple matter of my motivation).

Now our story moves on to my young adulthood. Where I'm struggling to be a writer, but not really at all sure how to make that happen.

The Hungry Writer Games™ begin as soon as you leave high school. Each high school produces fifty or so would-be writers. They all are sure they're going to make it. Every one has equal levels of yearn. They all are vaguely contemptuous of all the others.

Then the attrition begins.

Dan gets a "real job" at 60 hours a week. Never writes again. Celia gets some "realistic" feedback from her mom's agent friend and gives up. Mark technically doesn't drop out, but that NaNoWriMo manuscript tucked into a drawer hasn't seen so much as an edit in ten years.

During my twenties, platforms like Livejournal were all the rage. (Hell there was a time there in the late 90's and early 2000's where LJ handles were actually part of how you introduced people here in the Bay Area. "This is Chris. He's Dicedork on LJ.") One of the things I was increasingly self-conscious about spending hours a day reading my friends was that my writing didn't stack up. That's a tough tough pill to swallow when the north star of your dreams since ten years old has been to be a writer.

Okay, can I level with you? "Didn't stack up" is putting it mildly. Honestly....I wasn't a good writer. Like, I was actually kind of bad at writing. At some level, I was even aware of it. A few of my friends have admitted to me in the years since that they really didn't know how to broach the subject...

I don't mean like one or two friends. I mean like...a dozen.

Okay, this story is getting long and you're all going to be skeletons at your devices soon, so let me try to speed up the money shot here:

I was sure–just 100% sure–that the thing I wasn't good at was rooted in my poor command of grammar. If I could figure out what a participle was or how to avoid passive voice, I'd be better at writing. If I could just learn the difference between an infinitive and a gerund, the prose would come more naturally. I vacillated between outward contempt at "rules" and "prescriptivism" while inwardly being sure that if I could just grasp a few more rules, I would be a good writer.

Years went by.

This story doesn't have one ending. It has a few. Life is sort of like that sometimes. But let me lay them down end to end.
  • When I went back to school to study Creative Writing, I was immediately noticed by my freshman composition teacher and he recommended me to the tutoring program at the community college I was attending. Turns out I was better at grammar than I thought. I was comparing myself to a lot of very skilled writers instead of worrying about myself. I ended up being a second language teacher for a decade because of that tutoring gig.
  • Being a tutor, I discovered I actually DID know most grammar. I just didn't know all the labels and the formal structures. (You DO kind of have to learn that shit to teach it.) But reading avidly for 25 years, I had a pretty good ear for what sounded right. And most of the weird rules were in dispute or British vs. American or only something your blue haired high school teacher would give a shit about.
  • I learned more about grammar from taking a linguistics class in my upper division than from all the grammar books and high school lessons combined. It's amazing how much the subject/object passive voice paradox makes sense the minute someone explains to you what an AGENT is. 
  • In tutoring and teaching I learned to develop a healthier relationship with grammar as something very important (and occasionally critical to the intent of meaning) but not actually the beating heart of writing. Far less important than how to structure an argument or support a point.
  • Pretentious "Who needs grammar anyway!" me learned the very important difference between bending or breaking a rule for effect and not knowing it in the first place.
  • Through it all, I kept writing.
Now, for a much shorter Story Number 2.

Recently I reposted a couple of articles from the early days of the blog. They had errors in them and a couple of folks who are kind enough to watch out for those sorts of things emailed me to let me know about the corrections. One was even a "revision," but I hadn't caught some of the mistakes in it.

And when I got those emails I thought about my twenties and young Chris struggling so hard to try to learn the grammar that would unlock the doors of "good" writing. 

There wasn't one. 

One day the feedback started to change. One day my friends said "I was worried, man, but now I'm not." One day a professor, in a strange moment of gravitas handed me back a paper and said: "Don't stop writing." One day a friend gave me some money. Then a stranger. 

I'm here now, making money as a creative writer–enough to technically pay the bills (with some side gigs so that I can have the occasional Chipotle run), not because I'm brilliant at grammar or never fuck up (HA!). I make fewer errors per article these days, but I still fuck up more than any blogger I've ever seen. Every single post has at least a couple of doozies that I end up editing after I've hit "publish."

I'm not here because I had "talent."  In fact, I rather sucked.

I'm not here because I went to a great writing MFA program. Just SFSU undergrad English major with emphasis in Creative Writing.

I'm not here for all those reasons that The Hungry Writer Games™think of as important.

Yet somehow every writing goal I had as wee Chris is in my rear view mirror because for thirty years on, I have never stopped writing. I kept writing even though my friends could barely stomach my prose. I kept writing even though I knew other people were better. I kept writing even though the decades were stretching on and I hadn't made a cent.

I'll save you the "lesson" here. It should be pretty obvious that I'm talking about myself but also about anyone else worried about talent or particularly anxious about subjunctive mood or the twelve tenses. As important as grammar can be, I didn't get better because I learned some rule.

Just know that E.B. White was right.

Writing isn't a trick of grammar.

It's an act of faith.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Writer's Time (Personal Update, A Writer's Life)

A thing happened today.

I can't get into it much or I'll end up in one of those uncomfortable Truman-Capote-just-wrote-about-his-friends conversations. Maybe someday it'll show up in a story with all the names changed or I'll write about it looking back through time's soothing lens....and casualties. Suffice to say that it was one of those days that reminds me that one of the hardest parts of being a writer–whether you're working for a living or just an avid hobbyist–is going to be impressing upon everyone around you of the value and importance of your time.

It seems this will be Folksy Wisdom Week™ for that is the way things are shaping up with all these half written articles, so let me just go now and put a piece of straw in my mouth today and shift it from one side to the other as I gaze contemplatively at the horizon.

If you're a writer, this thing you want to do–this alchemy of words into emotions and experience and soaring heights and depths of despair–it requires an ingredient (in VAST abundance) to facilitate the transmutation:


So much time.

Oh my god, so much time.

Decades of reading. Years and years of practice before the skill has matured. Hours to get a simple paragraph perfect. All for that chance to turn twenty-six letters and some punctuation into poignant, sharp crystal meaning within another's mind.

I don't know a writer who doesn't struggle with finding more time. A friend who writes as a hobby can't get her husband to take her seriously when she says that she absolutely needs an hour or two on Sundays. A novelist colleague tells his day job twice a month that he absolutely can't work more than 30 hours and gets scheduled anyway or pressured to come in early or to stay late. One of the people I follow who is a working writer regularly has friends and family contact her during the day because that's when she's available–even though she's told them repeatedly that, aside for emergencies, she's not. One friend constantly has those around them asking for time-based favors like RIGHTNOW help with resumes,  rides to the airport, grammar questions that amount to a quick tutoring session, or their emotional labor on issues.

These people moving in on your time don't mean to. They're basically good people. They really do love you and want to nurture your dream (well....most of them). They want to be supportive. They just see time differently than writers do. They see those open oceans of time in your schedule and don't realize how many "good productive sessions" you've got planned. Or they see you looking off into space and assume you are just frittering away the hours. They know that you're "home all day" and don't read that the same way as if you were at a job with a boss. Most of them wouldn't be able to wrap their head around setting aside two hours to read. Reading is something to do during leisure time when there's nothing else going on not an activity one considers part of a dedicated regimen of career improvement (on top of giving it most of the Netflix/TV/Video Games time).

They certainly don't understand that a question that pulls you out of a thought and out of a sentence or a paragraph and out of a whole direction of concentration (whether reverie or rumination) and even out of pages of direction can derail you for minutes or even hours while you search to get back that thread.

And this is why, with unswerving consistency one of the bits of advice that almost every writer rings in with (after reading a lot and writing a lot) is protecting one's writing time.

Find it. Grab it. Build a fence around it. Put barbed wire on the fence. Scowl at the people on the other side of the fence. You have to make others understand because on their own, they just won't get it.

Whether hobby or career, writing isn't something one can do hastily with any potence. And so the time for writing must be at least as valuable to a writer who has to motivate themselves to sit down and work day after day as an employee's time is to a boss. And just like a writer has to get their own ass to work and set their own goals and be their own boss, they also have to be the one making sure they themselves show up on time, they themselves don't leave early, and they themselves don't spend the whole time doing something else.

Would your boss be okay if you just sat on the phone for an hour or so? Would your boss be okay if you took the day off to run your friend to the airport and feed their cat?  If you cruised in late every single day and left early? If you took personal calls all shift? If you spent two or three hours a day answering emails and facebook messages?  But when you're your own boss, no one's going to chase these people off except you.

That's why writers–serious writers anyway–have to sequester their time and sequester themselves and then protect those things with motion tracking auto-turrets like in the extended cut of Aliens. (That shit was badass.) We don't get bosses. If we're lucky we have a cranky editor or publisher glowering at us after an unproductive week, but the day to day accountability is still on us.

Grab your time fellow writers. Don't let it go. We won't get any more allotted to us and we need a LOT of it to be this wild and wacky thing we want to be. Be cranky. Be angry. Don't be abusive or anything, but if the worst thing someone learns is that it's really not a good idea to interrupt your writing, that's probably okay.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Best Dystopia [Diverse Poll]

What's the best dystopia written by someone other than a cishet white man*?   

We've got twelve titles from your nominations with equal numbers of "seconds" so we're not going to run any semifinal rounds this time, but there are a lot of great books to choose from. This one won't be easy!

If you have any questions about why this (and a year of our polls) are deliberately attempting to account for a usual lack of diversity, please check out this post.

I'm Spock-eyebrowing a couple of these titles. They're clearly more in line with horror and/or sci-fi than dystopia, but as with most polls, I will err on the side of inclusivity, and the folks who vote will have to decide if they agree.

The actual poll is on the left hand side at the bottom, beneath the "About The Author" section. Mobile viewers will have to go to the very bottom of their page and switch to "Webview" in order to access the poll.

Since we have a profusion of titles and a lot of powerhouses, everyone will get four (4) votes.

There is no way to rank votes, so please consider that every vote beyond the first "dilutes" the power of your initial vote and use as few as you can stand to use.

This poll will be up for a week and change, which means your IP logging will expire (after a week) and folks will be able to vote again. Since I cannot stop shenanigans, I encourage as much of it as possible. Vote early. Vote often.

*I tried on my Facebook page to word this inclusively ("by a woman or a POC or a member of the LGBTQ+ community") but pretty much the same number of Squiddies came to cry bitter tears about the double standard either way, so whatevawhooldes. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Last chance to vote

I got caught off guard with some extra side gig work today. That's going to happen from time to time (especially with the four-year-old childcare sidegig) until/unless Patreon covers enough that I don't need them. So it looks like this week will be back loaded.

In the meantime, I will absolutely be forming our newest poll tomorrow (and sharing that post on the usual social media haunts), so this is your really really really last chance to nominate anything or second anything that's already there.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Concrete Imagery (Revision)

One of the first lessons a starting creative writer needs to learn--and often one of the lessons they still struggle with after years--is the power of concrete imagery* over abstractions.  Read any fiction from someone starting out, and there will be a lot of words dedicated to telling the reader how they should feel or huge swaths in the character's head devoted to their fee-fees.  Big, complex, abstract feels sweep over these characters and they spend pages wallowing in them with an emo angst that will make your readers wish Donnie Darko might pop by to bring on the verve.

*Imagery in this case includes sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations.  I guess because assuming imagery covers everything is easier than inventing words like smellmagery or tastagry.

It's a tough habit to break because most people who want to be writers are all artsy and stuff and have the huge artsy feelings that they can't keep inside. Half the reason we spit words at pages in the still of night while everyone else has seen season 2 of Daredevil is because we realize the power words have for expression.  Words free us writers from the prisons of our minds.

But fiction gets a little trickier than emoting into a journal.

Unfortunately in most cases, it is preferable to create a vivid moment in a reader's mind and let them decide how they feel about it.  Yes, a writer can earn a moment of abstraction (even angsty emo abstraction), but for most readers pages of being told about the character's fee-fees becomes interminable. If a feeling isn't grounded within a reader's mind through concrete imagery, they are likely to start fading out, skimming, and wondering if that Michael Moore book might be a better use of their time.

If you stop for a moment and think about the moments in stories that have ripped your guts out, you are probably thinking of very specific images.  You are probably not thinking of a description--no matter how flowery-- of feelings. ("I was really really really sad. I mean way sad. I was the saddest.")

What jumps into your head is not "the pain I felt tore at my innards," or even "I cried so hard my heart felt like it would stop beating in my chest," or any total bullshit like that.  What you probably are thinking of is a specific, concrete image: a sign about the hope of man left in an empty cage, a singing mockingbird or a pair of shears, a single sock tucked in a book, a rose waiting back home under a glass, a robot's eyes dimming for the last time, or ducks in Central Park.  The thing about the ending of The Grapes of Wrath that bores through your ribcage like an Anthony-Perkins-seeking Maximilian arm is not Steinbeck telling you how awful the situation was ("Superbad, guys. Trust me.") or even an in-the-head glance at Tom Joad ruminating on the depth of his feelings of frustration.  ("Man this shit is fucked up and I'm really torn up about it.")  It is the specific and concrete imagery of Rose's lips curling into a "mysterious" smile.  (Even 20 years after reading that novel for the first time, just writing about it makes me get the shakes.) Even when Steinbeck is doing the most abstraction about the nature of man, he is comparing anger with grapes and banks with terrible machines--grounding those huge ideas of humanity with the concrete imagery of the concrete symbols.

Think about trying to tell a joke without actually telling the joke.  "We all thought the joke was really funny and we laughed like crazy.  It was so funny our sides hurt.  Tears of unmitigated mirth dripped down my face as I tapped a wellspring of humor I never knew I had."

Laughing yet?

Gee, are you sure?  I've written three sentences describing how funny it is.  You aren't feeling it?


Until you actually describe something funny, you can tell people how hilarious it was all day.  They will dispassionately read over it while they start wondering to themselves if there's any Fiddle Faddle left in the pantry.  You must write something that actually IS funny if you want them to laugh.  (Like this: "Q: What did the fish say when it ran into a wall?  A: Damn.")

Now you're barely able to contain yourself, right?  Of course you're not.

Now we're exploring some serious humor!
The same thing is true of any other abstraction.

People seem to understand the thing about humor pretty well, but then when it comes to pain or anger or ideas like the complexity of man's cruelty to man in a face to faceless society they think they no longer need "the joke" and can just tell people how "funny" it is.  But without concrete imagery, it's just a writer assuring them that they ought to feel a certain way.

Get over that.  Even Ian McKellen thinks so.

Uh....Chris.  This shirt isn't actually about concrete imagery.

Consider this handful of sentences that I read a lot of clones of during my time in the writing program: "I suddenly confronted a profound sense of loss. My father was dead. I felt like someone had emptied me out and left me hollow."

If I ran into this excerpt in a writing workshop, my first guess would be that writer is probably describing a memory of some kind--maybe the actual loss of their father. The reader is being told how to feel (or what the character feels, at best).  This writer probably experienced this moment with all its emotions and they were the most powerful part of the experience, so the writer tries to give them life and expression.

However, what is missing here is a concrete sense of grounding. Having experienced such a memory, we might take its viscera for granted, but our reader has not. You might remember the pain, but what were people wearing? What did the room look like? What was the temperature of the air? The reader doesn't have access to all those memories that ground your emotions to fill in the blanks so it's just a deluge of abstract feelings. Unless we have actually lost a father recently, this probably isn't going to resonate with us very much even though the writer is really letting loose from the heart.   Don't tell your readers "it was painful."  Reach into their chest, rip their still beating heart from within, and show it to them as you crush it.

Now how would a few concrete details punch this up? "I realized I would never again watch him trimming his bushy mustache with his little silver scissors.  I would never again bury my nose in the crook of his neck to catch a whiff of Brut aftershave as we hugged. I hadn't known it at the time, but Tuesday was our last trip to the water slides–the last time we would giggle as we shot down the blue tube and always failed to hold hands past the first turn. I couldn't cry. The tears wouldn't come. I just felt a hot agony beneath my rib cage like someone had taken a melon baller to my guts and scooped me out, one memory at a time."

Literary masterpiece? No. I'm in no danger of winning a Nobel prize. But this is so much better! You can see it, smell it, and ironically, feel it a lot more. You might not even know what Brut aftershave smells like (I don't) but it almost doesn't matter. A few concrete details go a long way.  Now this scene isn't an abstraction, and it's got far more impact. And it's not that you could never ever write the first example, but the only way  line would have worked is if it came at the end of a long line of concrete images.

No one would suggest that a writer can never talk about feelings, but the doorway to doing so is to ground those feelings in concrete details. A writer who wants to delve into abstractions will have to work much harder to earn that moment. Humans don't think in abstractions. We think in concrete sensory details. This is science, frands! Brain science!

I can illustrate this:

I'm going to say a word, and you think about that word give it a second to give the first real image that comes to mind.

Ready?  Here we go.


What did you think of?  An abstract feeling divorced from any imagery? Almost certainly not.  You maybe thought of your last break up.  Or of someone crying into a pillow.  If you're me you probably thought of Forrest Gump sitting perfectly still in his house after Jenny leaves, staring off into space.

Humans think in concrete imagery.  We experience the world through our senses not abstract feelings, and if you want to share another's experience, you have to engage those senses. Describing things in concrete imagery should be your default position, and abstractions should be earned.
I imagined a plushie heart with flesh colored band-aids.  Though, I grudgingly admit that's fairly concrete.

One of the most heart-wrenching moments in television is Anja's monologe in The Body episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.  It always gets top billing as one of best monologue in the show, and sometimes even for 90's television. I've heard from more than one person that it is the only moment in TV that has ever made them cry.  I was not able to find a clip of it (that wasn't a person with an iPhone recording themselves watching TV), but I'll post the text.

ANYA: (crying) I don't understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she's, (sniffling) there's just a body, and I don't understand why she just can't get back in it and not be dead anymore. It's stupid. It's mortal and stupid. (still teary) And, and Xander's crying and not talking, and, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she'll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.

Admittedly Emma Caulfield is an extremely talented actress, and takes these words to the next level, and some people will start to cry as soon as someone on camera is crying, but we can still do some creative reading even with pop-culture.  Notice where it gets really, really rough--not when she's crying or talking about how bad she feels.  As talented as Caulfield is, these abstract moments aren't the worst part.  It's when she starts to assault us with tiny concrete images about totally pedestrian things that Joyce won't do anymore that we lose it.  It is the moment with the first concrete visual (of getting back in a body) that starts to hurt, and then it gets worse from there.  We are brought to blubbering incoherence by two foods that are rarely consumed together and part of a hair care regimen.

Yes, most literature concerns itself with abstractions in its themes and ideas, but it does so by way of concrete details.  I may have to drink a tall glass of lye or at least take a shower with Comet and steel wool to platitude-ify this idea, but this is where "show, don't tell" came from.  And even though that pithy little bumpersticker wisdom has a lot that is problematic about being advice to writers, when it comes to abstractions, it's very useful to keep in mind.

And then he ended the post in a totally hilarious way that made everyone laugh until it hurt for hella days.

Practice Prompts:  Concrete Detail,

Friday, March 23, 2018

Another Round of Not Writing Questions (Mailbox)

Am I a communist? Is my tongue pierced? Why are all the "You Should be Writing" memes white dudes? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple a week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. And while I will answer these weird non-writing questions for cheap laughs, I tend to pick the writing kind most of the time.]   

It's time for another round of Questions that Have Nothing (or Very Little) to Do With Writing™. Gathered over the weeks and months and years, I usually don't answer them until I have enough to do a whole post.

Mike asks:

Are you some kind of communist or something?

My reply:

Don't you know that every artist is a dirty pinko commie? That's why you have to be very careful around us, comrade.

I'm not as much of an [any label] as I am not a big fan of capitalism, which is sort of a bummer because I live in a place where being anti-capitalist is sort of outside the boundaries of what is considered acceptable political discourse. The Demliest Dems in Demville still cleave to the idea that capitalism is the best thing since exploiting the proletariat to slice their bread. We fight wars, suppress whole populations, assassinated heads of governments against treaties we've signed for screwing around with socialism, and call any effort to mitigate intergenerational poverty cycles a "welfare state."

I could rehash all the weirdness of capitalism here like the rampant commercialism and conspicuous consumption, the privatization of services which should be part of the public good in a bidding war race to the bottom, liability shields, a need for humans to be "productive" despite growing automation, and the anti-democratic, anti-free market, and anti-individualism tendencies within capitalism that unfailingly show up whenever those things threaten a bottom line.

But mostly it's that capitalism requires inequality. It's not a bug–it's a feature. And not just a little inequality because "humans don't have equal abilities, bro." It requires massive human suffering and human indignity because it ALSO requires an inexhaustible supply of exploitable labor. And in order to feed its insatiable hunger it requires the increasing commodification of things like health and shelter. It incentivizes naked self interest at the expense of ethics, the environment, communities, or any rival system of resource allocation. Nothing–not human life, not human dignity, not human health, not other species existence, not ecological sustainability, not even planetary health, NOTHING–matters more than profit.

And it requires a narrative that utilizes the greatest propaganda machine in all of human history to convince us that no other system is even possible, a narrative that blames people for their own suffering under it's baked-in inequality, and that manipulates our feelings of love, community, ambition, creativity, and solidarity to take our resources from us in an effort so sustained there is literally no getting away from it without leaving society altogether–all so that ever more can flow into the hands of a tiny few. A narrative that continues to scratch its head in bemused wonder every time a corporation screws people, our access to clean air and water, a species of super-fauna, entire biomes, and indigenous peoples because it's good for their bottom line. And a narrative that says that we too, all of us, are all just a few hard day's nights from being millionaires ourselves, so we must never ever think of ourselves as exploited.

So, no, I'm not a fan.

Unfortunately, I live in a country with a political landscape where my most pragmatic choice against the erosion of social security, progressive taxation, and health care I can actually afford is to vote against the person who swears to Charlie Brown that this time she won't pull the ball away the American people that this time tax cuts for the wealthy will create jobs even at the expense of every social safety net that exists, and to hope that the politicians on the left will move towards democratic socialism instead of placating an increasingly shrinking neoliberal center left group of monied constituents while failing to realize that playing nice with plutocracy will only get them the mad scrill they want for as long as it takes those plutocrats to defang the other bases of their power like unions and colleges.

But don't think for a moment I'm going to shut up and not say nothing.

Mindy asks:

Is that a tongue piercing I see in your pictures? Why on earth would you ever do that to yourself?

My reply: 

Yes indeed.

As for why..... Um...I'll, uh, tell you when you're older.

Farah asks:

Why are all the you should be writing memes white dudes? Can we get some that are something else.

This question is referencing my Facebook page and Tumblr blog where once a day I post some sort of "You Should Be Writing" Meme.

I only create a handful of these with text adding apps–and am particularly fond of using meme creators to fit them into the "grammar" of existing memes–but most of them I find hither and yon across the wide interweboverse. And yes they are overwhelmingly white men. (Not all, but boy howdy....) I dig around and look for others, but finding one that is anything else is quite a quest.

I have some theories. I don't think any ONE thing is the only reason, but I think they all work in tandem to form the ultimate combo move. Based on where I find these memes, I think they are often made by women FOR women (heterosexual women, you understand). They sometimes have "Darling" in the text or are particularly "smoldering" views. The few that have women in them are usually more of the "badass and empowering" variety than something made for the male gaze. They are also usually of actors (not writers), particularly following fandoms, and that means lots of white dudes because Hollywood and fandoms have nothing if not a profusion of white guys in them.

Interestingly, from what I can tell having posted these daily for years, if I put up someone who is NOT a white dude, the comments are much more....argumentative. Sometimes they include slurs (though those folks get swiftly banned), but I honestly think the white guys are seen, in a racist and sexist society, to have more authority.

I also wonder if anyone who might feel like we need more YSBW memes that are not white dudes might be exactly the type of person to not just slap that text on any ol' picture of someone from a more marginalized group to appropriate their image for a message that that person didn't necessarily endorse.

Regardless I'm always on the prowl, and if you find any, please feel free to send them on my way, and I'll happily work them into the rotation.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Best Dystopia [Diversity Poll] (Last Call for Seconds and Nominations)

What is the best (worst?) dystopia written by a woman or a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community? 

This poll is from our Year of Diverse Polls, and as such it can't includes authors who are cishet white men. Please adjust your nominations accordingly.

I am excited to run polls that don't just celebrate the same 20-30 white guys over and over, but only you can really see those polls succeed.

We totally need more nominations!

Be sure and drop the comment ON THE ORIGINAL POST, or it will get lost in the crossfire. That's also where you'll find the rules if you're confused about anything. There was a time when I could really go round and gather up all the breadcrumb nominations from all the various social media and posts, but things are way too busy these days.

Seconds are also needed. (And thirds. And fourths.) Remember that I will no longer be doing endless quarterfinal and elimination rounds. I will find a number somewhere between 8 and 22 of the most "seconded" titles. And there will either be two quick semifinal rounds or just the final round. I know that three and beyond aren't actually "seconds" but I'll still be taking the most.

So drop a nomination or two and second everything you want to see on the poll.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Is Fanfic Legit? (Mailbox)

What are my thoughts on fanfic?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple a week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. Feel free to turn my crank and aim me at the haters–I do that pretty well.]    

Arthur asks:

A friend and I started talking about the merits and shortcomings of fan-fiction. I think it's weird that people talk down on fanfic as an idea, because frankly I see nothing wrong with people taking an already established aspect of writing and utilizing it to flex their creative muscles. I do understand taking some issue with the quality of a piece of fanfic writing, but mostly in the sense of letting the writer know what and where they can improve on. That might be applicable only if the writer asks for that kind of feedback though.

It made me wonder what your thoughts on it are. Is fanfic a "good" thing, as long as the writer of it has a copyright disclaimer? Is it somehow selling oneself short by using another writer's characters/world rather than making one's own?

My reply:

This is my basic attitude when lit snobs or edgelords go after fanfic writers. (Copyright prevents me from embedding. You'll have to click the link.)

I'm really here for all the changes that the internet has brought to the world of writing (and not just because I'm a blogger who can (juuuuuuuuuust barely) afford to live in the Bay Area because of Patreon. For a long time the world of writing simply didn't have the strata of unpaid (or very low paid) artist in it. Your band could do do their gig for five bucks and free drinks or you could be a part of the local theater where maybe all the ticket sales could make for a cast party. You could do a community art show and maybe even sell a piece without a major deal. If you were a writer though, you could maybe show something to your friends, but that was about it until you cleared the threshold of profitability for a print run. Maybe you could get in on some tiny community newsletter type publications, but basically you were either "officially" published or no one had ever read you.

Then came tech. And tech has no time for your anachronistic culture based around yesteryear. You can print one book. Or just publish electronically. You can write for blogs or zines or just make your Facebook post public and hope it goes viral. And the role of the hobbyist writer to see their work in the world and even feedback has opened up and flourished.

And, of course, there's fanfic.

Lots and lots and lots and lots of fanfic.

Back when I was starting reading, a few authors *coughannricecough* would send really nasty with "Cease and Desist" notices to anyone fanficcing their work. Today, most of them seem to realize that's a pretty useless hill to die on *coughbutnotannricecough*, and they're just happy if no one is making money off of it or passing it off as official. Technically–legally–those copyright disclaimers don't mean jack shit unless the author has explicitly given their permission, and one of these days someone enjoying the spoils of a nice Patreon is going to get sued over intellectual property rights, but right now it's a pretty rare thing. Most content creators have come to realize that fanfic is basically free advertising for the source material and whether they are amused and encouraging or simply have an uneasy detente, they let it go on without blowing into the wind.

Are there shortcomings to fanfic? Sure! A lot of it's terribad all the way down to the punctuation and spelling. Characters becoming Mary and Gary Stus are ubiquitous. The disregard for the source material sometimes crosses into offensive disrespect. It's never going to make money for the writer who has done a shit ton of hard work making it. When people find their audience, they often stop publishing or go longer and longer between subsequent chapters.

And then there's the ships. Not that the ships are all bad, and don't think for a minute I'm too pure to slide into bed with a mobile device and the MCU Scarlet America ship with some Wanda threesome thrown in that I just happened to (quite unintentionally) run across earlier in the day. But...you definitely have to be ready to dig through some smut if that's not your jam.

But here's the thing and there's no getting around it.

(And if anybody asks you, this is why I'm really, really, really NOT here for that "Oh, now anyone can be a writer,"/"They'll just let anybody in the country club these days" bullshit that goes on down its nose at fanfiction. Or any claims that it isn't real writing. Or this convoluted idea that fanfiction is peeling away readers from "real" writing. Or that "real" writing–even occasionally the published kinds–don't ever have shitty writing or grammar errors.)

Fanfiction is done for the love of writing. It's done for the fun of creation. For the enjoyment of the craft and the characters and their journeys. It is done without regard for payment of any kind and often despite social censure from judgemental little snots who paint them all with the same brush and call them parasites, but who, in all likelihood, aren't doing half as much of their "real" fucking writing. It is done from the same impetus with which we've been reimagining and retelling stories since the beginning of our species–it is actually owning an "idea" and holding rights over it (particularly as a source of income) that is the fairly new development. Most people won't like it, some may be shitty about it, there will be no "tangible" rewards, and yet folks write it anyway–just to see it in the world. For me there could be few acts of writing done for purer artistic reasons.

And not that it HAS to be this, but in many cases it is the stepping stone to an author writing one's own worlds and characters (practice, so to speak), so people shitting in the fanfic sandcastle feel particularly to me like someone telling the junior high concert band to stop playing that Star Wars medley because they're not fucking brilliant at it yet and it isn't their own composition. Shit one of the best learning tools for new writers is to try to closely emulate the writers they love, so all this fanfic hate is really doing is saying "How DARE you show this to other people who like it! Crawl back into your cave!" Lots of starting writers make grammar mistakes and have clunky prose. That's not particular to fanfic, it's particular to starting writing, and counting only the worst of an offering is the same reason lit sommeliers are too fucking snobby to accept "genre" and "speculative fiction" (all while hailing a bunch of writers who have the same damned things in their fiction).

Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, but most of the shit we think of as brilliant masterpieces ARE fanfic. The Hours is just a retelling of Mrs. Dalloway. Hag Sea is The Tempest. Cinder is Cinderella. The Coming of the Dragon is Beowulf. Shakespeare actually wrote ONE play–the rest are his creative reimaginings of other source material. Many fan fic writers have changed a few names and gotten published–even mega-successfully so. And do you even know how many books are ancient myths and legends redone? This is one case where that high horse is actually a shetland pony with rickets.

Hating on fanfic is like so much elitist twaddle that betrays the fact that its own supercilious snobbery is unable to feel superior without tearing something else down. It's the same "I don't read that crap" all over again repeated (loudly and often) as a marker of class and sophistication by those who don't want to be seen enjoying something "beneath them." If anyone doesn't like fanfic, they can just have a coke, shut the fuck up, and scroll-wheel on by. And that's OKAY. We all have our tastes. (To be honest, I don't read much of it either.) But acting like fanfic is this blight that must not be suffered to let live is pretentious and shitty.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Why are Movie Adaptations so Iffy? (Mailbox)

Why do movie adaptations of books so often suck?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer a couple a week.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  Talking to me on the street may end up in your "question" being a mailbox and your name becoming Cedrick.]   

Cedrick asks:   

I just sat through The Dark Tower, and man I really wanted to like it, but...just no. I think the last time I thought a movie was really honestly true to its source material was The Shawshank Redemption. Even Lord of the Rings added all that Arwen bullshit and took out some of the best stuff. Don't even get me started on The Hobbit. What the fuck! They usually make such crappy changes to movies. Why can't movies just do a book fucking....RIGHT?

My reply:

They're not bad, Cedrick. They're just not BOOKS. Only books are books. I love movies, and I love books, but they're very different.

Full confession: this question didn't exactly get sent to me. It was more one of those questions that someone asks me and I pretend I got it as a letter. ("Surely that conversation I eavesdropped on overheard on the bus COULD be a letter someone sent in!") It was actually from a conversation I had around the time that I was doing The Book Was so Much Better poll a couple of months back. I'm not even sure the person's name was Cedrick, but they looked like a Cedrick, so I'm running with it. I'm writing it because last week Facebook has split down roughly the middle over whether A Wrinkle in Time was a terribad Disney adaptation that chose form over substance or a touching adaptation that cleaved close to the soul of the original while giving it a well needed makeover from it's 1962-strong-Christian-overtones source material. (And I'm sure that none of the comments on any social media will try to rehash that discussion because that's not really the point of this article. Yep. Just sure of it.)

Book nerds always want perfect movies and they'll pretty much never get them. Yes, of course there will always be the usual cavalcade of reasons movies suck from budget problems to director firings to producers trying too micromanage an artistic vision. But even accounting for the regular reasons movies suck, most word nerds won't get their fantasy come true, and there are several reasons for that but we can unpack the big ones.

1- Movies are just different.

If you want to piss off a film student, show them that meme with the iceberg.
That's the one.
Oh look...an angry mob outside my window. I wonder what they're on about.

Man oh man, will this make them turn that really pretty purple. You will get pages long screeds about how reductive this is. (Why don't they ever make a film about it, I wonder.) They will make counter memes and call you names. Whole empires will be crushed. It's inspired really.

The thing is, it's both true AND reductive. A movie is a different medium. You could just as easily reverse the words here and also be right. A movie shows you different things that a book can't.

You can't describe every last detail of a room the way a camera panning across it would, and if you tried your audience would be in a coma before the forty pages you needed were half over. One sweeping panoramic shot can take the place of pages of clunky attempts to describe a place's geography. Acting–especially good acting–can bring life and inflections to words. (Ever READ a Mamet play? Everyone either doesn't finish a sentence or says it at least twice, all while "MMMMM" ing their way through the scene changes.) A filmmaker has tools at their disposal that the pure linguistics of the written medium simply doesn't. Similarly showing a character's inner thought processes is a lot different unless you want to do shitty Dune-style voice overs. And a book can clear five minutes of vital exposition in a short paragraph. And no amount of prose rhythm or wordplay genius is likely to make it to a movie. Books have tools at their disposal that films don't. Different media will always create a different story.

2- You have to take out something. And not everyone's going to like what you pick.

You know the reason Shawshank Redemption moved to film so well? It's actually a surprisingly simple and oft unknown fact about movie adaptations. Obviously it had star power and a good director and a lot of things going for it, but the main reason the adaptation was so loyal to its source material is that it wasn't a novel.

It was a novella. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption clocks in at 38,000 words. Which is about 85 pages or so. (I'd have to dig up my copy of Different Seasons to verify this, but the PDF is 88, so I'm guessing that's about right.)

88 pages became a 2:22 minute movie. And they STILL took some minor stuff out. (Red's trial and such.)

And while they changed a few things, they were able to make a NEARLY two and a half hour movie and cram in almost the entire narrative. The same is true of Stand By Me. With short stories you have to add a bunch of padding and with novels you have to take a HUGE amount of stuff out. It's impossible to hit all the beats. And we're not just talking about Tom Bombadil and the scouring of The Shire. The shorter a source is, the more likely its movie will be loyal to its vision.

Now if an 88 page novella becomes a two and half hour movie, how much do you suppose you have to cut from a 200 page kids book to get a 100 minute film (which is around the average for younger audiences)? What about a four hundred and fifty page book with a run time of a couple of hours? Or a seven book series into a single movie?

You have to take things out.

And anyone who really likes that book isn't going to like one moment of it being cut away. ("What?? How dare they leave out Fiyero's diarrhea in this remake of Wicked.") And whatever choices you make, not everyone is going to agree with what you cut and what you kept. The ascension of serial television might see a great adaptation on Hulu or Netflix or Amazon, but we're probably not getting one down at the AMC-14

3- Not every change is for the worst.

We all know the Jonah Jameson Hollywood exec caricature lighting his Cuban cigar with a hundred dollar bill and saying: "Needs more sex! I'm not doing Wuthering Heights unless it has a car chase in it. Get me pictures of Spider Man!"

Reality is a bit more complicated.

This movie is crap crap crap megacrap.
I'll give you $200 million to produce it if you add a giant robot lizard. Kids love robots.
Image credit: Columbia Pictures CorporationMarvel/Enterprises/Laura Ziskin Productions

Yes, many decisions Hollywood makes are based on what will make a movie more profitable, and some of them display a remarkable lack of source-material knowledge (somehow I don't think Demi Moore gasping and grinding on the New England rice* harvest was quite what Hawthorne had in mind), but they do occasionally take a chance or release something that doesn't just sound like sweet angels printing money.


Hollywood is a business though. You want art films that lose money, you can go to film festivals or dig around on Youtube. Honestly. I'm not kidding. Some of that stuff is Br-fucking-illant. And yes, you might have to spend some time wondering why the clown is making pancakes, but a lot of it will just be fantabulous compared to Hollywood formulas. This isn't just my artsy fartsy side either. They're often compelling and fun and extremely well done.

When it comes to making movies out of books though, you probably need a budget that even a grad film student with a shiny grant isn't going to be able to match. And Hollywood has to try make back its significant investment, pay about ten gagillion guild and union members, and turn a profit because it's a business and THIS. IS. SPARTA CAPITALISM.  (Though some movies make back LOTS of money, most movies lose money, and so Hollywood is constantly trying to refine its recipe.) And that means someone's going to do some market research and try to figure out how to make the movie more accessible. "Accessible" is a little different than "add a giant robot."

Now here it's important that we acknowledge that two roads are diverging in a yellow wood.

When I say "not every change is for the worst" I want you to understand that some of them truly goddamned were. Turning Gatsby into basically a music video, dragging out a kids book into three indulgent movies (with shitty CGI), putting the white person front and center in the narrative even when they weren't, casting Mike Myers, whacky voice overs to replace "thought" text, stripping the religious undertones from a book about religious undertones and just turning it into a movie about a really kick ass polar bear, or abandoning the religious OVERTONES in a book that is an allegory about Christianity and turning the movie into a story about white kids running around killing Mediterranean looking bad guys, trying to completely change the tone from satire to serious or from serious to satire or from satire to satirizing the serious people who don't get that it's satire....well, you get the idea.

And then there's THIS shit.
New Line Cinima
Some changes suck and are terrible and are made because cis het white dude executives think cis het white dudes are "everyman" (and will sell) and white dude lenses on the world are the only ones that count.

But that's not always true these days...

Sometimes these changes really are inclusive and increase the access (not just the marketing image of whiteness, male gaze, toxic masculinity). Some of these books were written before civil rights or the ERA. They maybe have themes that are more resonant for the era in which they were written like anti-tribalism, capitalism, or exceptionalism. Perhaps they are are sausage fests and lily whitewashed whitefests. They espouse toxic masculinity. They have characters who are homophobic, transphobic, racist, or misogynist in a way that adds nothing to the story. Changing certain things to make the story more enjoyable to a wider audience is not always a bad thing. And I know you have some feels about Arwen, but she's probably in that movie because someone said: "This fucking wangfest needs more than just Galadriel and Eowyn!"

We've been telling stories a little differently to reflect the social values of the time since Beowulf and before.

Or sometimes it's just a case of what has happened in between within media and/or the genre. Having your villain be just a brain in a 1962 book is different than after 55 years of that being a sci-fi trope that got so cliché it became lampooned and then a big joke.

"Michaelangelo...dude, one smack with the chucks ought to
totally detubularize his pizza movie night."

And if our author is not beloved to the point of being understood in their own time (like maybe Shakespeare and a few others), some changes might get made.

Other than a few hundred thousand raging book nerd purists (and I want to make it perfectly clear that I am one of those raging book nerd purists), not a lot of people are going to see some anachronism that's dry like Russian black bread or steeped in postwar Christian allegory or because they loved the book. They're going to want the relatable (to today's multicultural audiences) protagonist, the resonate (to today's topicality) conflict, and...maybe that one scene that was a little navel-gazing could be given some panache.

Or you know....a car chase.

4- Once the changes start, it's really important to figure out what matters

Okay so now you, intrepid filmmaking team given a budget by the studio that isn't enough but will have to do as long as you add an action sequence that isn't in the book at around 30 minutes to keep the pace from plodding and losing the audience.

You also have to change a few things because it's 2018 and no one wants that purely cissexist heteronormative source material.

And you have to take a lot out to make a movie that isn't nine hours long.

You HAVE to make changes, so what will it be? What do you change? What if you pull an important character or relegate them to a minor role then farm their lines to someone else. What if the new person wouldn't say it that way? Which subplots will you be getting rid of? Is the narrative more important or the theme? Which characters do you focus on?

How do you go about deciding which core ideas are essential to the soul of what this book is? Once you've decided that and a vision begins to crystallize, it becomes a lot easier to decide what's not going to make it into the movie medium. ("Okay, I want to focus on the story of what it means to have free will, then I'm going to take out cyber babbel parts that focus on the tech and what it can do.") And whatever you pick, it's going to disappoint some of the people who know your source material well enough to know what you left behind.

5- And then you get the creative licence.

Not because a cut had to be made or a thing changed for today's audiences or whatever, but just something the filmmaker decides to change. Because that's something artists do. Because movie adaptations are essentially one artist retelling another in a whole different media. And a lot of times, even if their change is right on the money for a general audience and and right for someone who'd never read the book and right for a casual fan and right for a the folks who found the change interesting and delightful, they still annoy the folks who just wanted to see the print come to life on the screen with absolutely no alterations.

This is why the more reread and beloved a book is, the more likely you are to probably hate the movie. Those books you read once and can't really remember are the ones you'll not shed too many tears over.

All of these are the reasons why occasionally you get a movie like Blade Runner, The Godfather, or Princess Bride that arguably ends up being better than its book. (Rare, but it happens.) A team identifies a far more resonating facet of a story to focus on, and a lot people run around never even knowing there's a book.

So when we book nerds go to see movies, we can accept that if we're lucky, we're going to see a bit of audio/visual media roughly similar to the book we like with some familiar moments that hopefully cleaves close to the spirit of its source material. If we're not so lucky, the filmmaker has made some changes that pretty much ruin the whole thing. But either way we're not going to get "THE BOOK ON SCREEN™" so it's important to remember that we're watching the movie for a MOVIE'S sake and that it's an adaptation.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Mailbox Week Coming

Hi everyone!

So this weekend turned into a swirl of side gigs and long nights.

Next week, in addition to a couple of other posts, I'm going to try to plow out some of this backlog of mailbox questions.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Question: Is Talent Important to a Writer? (F.A.Q.)

Short answer: Not really. At least not the way you're probably using the word. But maybe. But not as much as work.

Longer answer: This is less of a frequently asked question, and more of a frequently hot topic

Some comic or writer or something expresses irritation at having their years of studying, their decades of practice, their unpaid hours upon hours of building an audience all reduced to "talent*" that someone envious of them wishes they simply....had. ("If only I had TALENT, I could be more like you....") Or it goes the other way: talent comes up, and people are 100% cocksure it is absolutely vital (and usually that they got it), and that anyone without it is simply wasting their time.

[Generally, no one cares if someone calls them talented, by the way. Particularly not once or before saying their name wrong at the Academy Awards. It's a fine word with a lot of metonymy. But when someone starts to actually convey that they think that the artist simply has some mystical ingredient that makes them good, and there hasn't a boatload of work––that's when many artists start to get a bit "Well actually…" about it.]

And while the existence of talent might be a complicated topic for a series of conversations, the artist who is having decades of toil reduced to some innate aptitude that one is either born with or not isn't likely to find this exchange quite as charming as intended.

But should they point this out, another group shows up.

There's a real loud faction out there advocating hard for the idea of talent — and let me go ahead and spoil the ending for you: they're almost exclusively not the successful writers/artists/whatever. They want talent to be real because they want to believe they have it and that it is going to set them apart. Toss the lot in a crucible, and you'll find the writers on the other side of paychecks and publication generally have a vastly different picture of what got them there than "talent," how important a role "talent" plays, and particularly what could be done by a determined person (no matter how old or "untalented" when they start) if they wanted to become good at some kind of art.

Dissing "talent" seems to be an existential threat to the former group. I don't know if it's because then that means it's a wake-up call that they'll have to get off their asses or just that almost anyone who works hard can become what they think makes them special, but they treat the idea poorly even though it is ubiquitous among those they often seek to emulate.

[Note: I mention this periodically in this post, but I want to acknowledge it explicitly now: Not everyone can write. There are limiting factors that it is sheer ableism to ignore. Physical realities of human bodies (including human brains) make it a skill that not everyone has and incredibly difficult for others to cultivate.]

First of all, it's really hard to figure out what "talent" even means.

This is like trying to measure intelligence–what you end up with is a messy glob of data that has profound cultural biases, favors certain kinds of bellwethers, and reveals a tremendous inability to separate nature from nurture.

It's a little easier in kids, but not that much. But by the time a linguistic aptitude shows up, it's very hard to know if that's some innate circumstance of genetics or if it has more to do with parents who talk a lot and use big words. By the time someone can be said to have a "talent" in writing, it would be nearly impossible to know if that was merely a result of their particular swirl of genetics or if had to do with their parents' love of books, with a dedication to library visits, with trips to museums, with the quality of preschool, with their culture's value on particular art forms....whatever. (And if you're noticing that a lot of this "talent" dovetails strongly with having upper class resources, that's very perceptive of you.) Even the famed geniuses folks want to hold up as proof of talent, like Mozart, had a childhood of dedication, practice, ruthless drive, and parents who could afford to be supportive. (And by "supportive" I mean an ambitious helicopter parent living vicariously through their kid.) Look at the actual lives (even of wunderkind), and it complicates and undermines the narrative of casual, unpracticed genius.

Not every writer writing for the same amount of time will produce the same quality prose even if we could somehow account for stylistic differences (we can't), but consider this: Fifty years ago the dominant thought in creative writing programs was that genius could NOT be taught. You either had it or you didn't. Then a bunch of education experts broke down what people meant by "genius" and discovered that actually most of it could be learned in a classroom. What will we understand fifty years from now, I wonder.

What IS clear is that very little under the superficies of what people call "talent" can't be trained, practiced, refined, achieved through careful revision, or taught, even much later in life, whatever their "opening" skill set, and that seems to break with the idea that you're either good at something or you're not.

Trying to figure out whether you have talent or not is almost meaningless. Defining it and understanding it is nearly impossible and it won't take the place of work anyway.

Okay, well, whatever you call it, some people have a leg up, right?

Sort of?

Some people start with a leg up, though it probably depends on what you consider the "starting line."(First grade? Graduation from high school? 20 years old? Graduation from college? 30?)  Certainly, some people, through some unknown cocktail of nature and nurture may have an advantage over others, but this will not last if they do not continue to work, particularly if they count on that advantage to keep them better than those who work hard. A hard-working writer with less initial advantage can catch up, and eventually excel beyond them.

In fact, this happens quite often.

What seems to be clear is that, barring physical limitations, getting really good at a skill like writing might take a while and a lot of effort, but it doesn't require one to be innately "good" and can be started at any point. And while an athletic skill started after forty might mean someone is never going to the Olympics, they can still get quite good; and furthermore, writing tends to have a longer window of opportunity before it is made difficult by biological degeneration in most humans. Some folks write bestsellers and literary masterpieces into their fifties, sixties, and even nineties.

An aspiring writer never deemed to have "talent" and lacking a casual skill in writing could begin in their thirties to read voraciously, practice writing, commit themselves to improving, learn the craft, study narrative and storytelling, teach themselves the grammar they still struggle with, and, in short, immerse themselves in reading and writing, and within a only few months would be writing at a level far beyond someone who was told they were "talented" in high school and got all A's in their English degree, who then went on to be a general manager at the Coco's in Arcadia, rarely reads anymore these days, and almost never writes except to poke at a half-finished vampire vs. zombies novel tucked in a drawer every once in a while when the inspiration hits on their days off. 

Even if the latter still nurtures the quiet belief that they have talent. 

Within a few years, the former might have an audience and perhaps be making some money while the latter is basically doing the same thing as ten years earlier except hoping that this time around they'll get that promotion to district manager. Where's the talent now?

Even the most ineffable qualities of many writers — like imagination and language play that can't necessarily be taught — CAN be practiced like a muscle and most folks will get better at it in time. There are some neurodivergences that would make this particularly hard, and such folks might have to stick to more clinical writing. Still, what certainly merits out over and over again is that if there IS something like talent, it means absolutely bupkis next to hard work.

Is there something? Anything?

Sort of?

There are some obstacles (like learning disabilities). It would be ableist to claim that everyone will have exactly the same difficulty/ease becoming a successful writer. Of course some people have a physically harder time writing. And certain disorders make organized thought take more effort. It stands to reason that other folks will have an easier time. (But if you want an example of someone with two major learning disabilities [dyslexia and fucking RAGING ADHD] who has substituted hard work and passion for innate ability, and gotten to the point where they're making money writing, you're reading them.) 

Obviously, there are some people who have proclivities to tell stories or display linguistic aptitude. There are people who have the discipline to sit and write alone, calmly and for hours; the kind of self-control that other people can't even fathom. There are people who are exquisitely precise with language. And there are people with a penchant for keeping large ensemble casts of characters in their heads. (This may have more to do with whether they end up being a tech writer, a poet, or a novelist than whether they can write at all, but certainly these inclinations exist.) Maybe we don't know if these predispositions are all in the genes or have something to do with early childhood (maybe we're all wrong, and it's prenatal vitamins or zodiac signs [Libras, baby! We're all entirely a monolith of writers.]), but they're there early enough to affect a whole lifetime.

However, the most meaningful "talent" when it comes to who merits out at being a "successful" writer (by whatever bellwether is being used to define success) seems to be genuinely enjoying writing (and reading), and being passionate about doing it and getting better at it. It's the people who like sitting down every day to do some writing and who enjoy the endeavor even when it feels like work who typically have enviable careers or accolades, not the people who run around trying to find a Talent-O-Meter to use on themselves. If someone likes writing and has been doing it regularly for years, they're likely to be seen as "talented" by most of the world that uses that word as a synonym for "skill that took a lot of hard work to acquire."

Mathematical aptitude exists too, but you rarely hear physicists worrying about their talent.

But what about prodigies and the completely talentless? Surely they are real?


And if you were one, I guarantee you'd already know it.

The Shakespeares and Faulkners and Morrisons and Rumis of the world may be beyond the grasp of most to approach, and we may never compose such delectable prose, but keep in mind a few things:

1) These people may have had something "talent-shaped," but they stayed at the top of their game with hard work. If Shakespeare had gone into the goat breeding business and only ever wrote "when the muse moved him to words," we'd probably be down one Globe theater, all reading Beckett and Wilde in high school, and people would have to say my sweet and charming innocence is as pure as something OTHER than the driven snow (which, baring the occasional threesome, it totally is).

2) An okay writer can become a good writer with work. A decent writer can write something poignant. A good writer can have a career, and even write a masterpiece with enough revision. Almost none of us are Shakespeare or Morrison, but most of us can develop our skill.

3) The truly "talentless" writer is probably as rare as the Shakespeare or Morrison. It's the entire other side of the bell curve and just as rare. Most people who love reading and love writing (and are not just floridly expressing love for something they never do) are pretty good at it. Not that everyone is pretty good at writing, but most of those who are not don't actually want to be writers, and many of them don't read very much. It's like having someone with actual amusia (not just an unpracticed ear) who wants to be a (non-percussion) musician. It happens, but it's very, very rare that someone with amusia actually passionately burns to recreate the note-y part of music (the beat and the lyrics would be more likely). Most of us who love writing have gone through a hazing process that we weren't even aware of over the years, and we are going to get better if we get our asses to work.

Now if you're using prodigies to prove that there must be a bell curve that some people fall further to the right on, that's probably true in theory, but even if you could separate it from passion and hard work (spoiler: you can't), on a long enough timeline, it won't matter. Genius might give you a boost, but the work will always merit out.

Why do we have such a hard time letting go of this idea?

I think there are a lot of reasons. Cultural mythos narratives of exceptionalism. The ubiquity of prodigies–often messianic "chosen one" prodigies–in popular media. A deep societal demand that we be "really good" at something "productive" because that's what good capitalists do. A strong correlation that belief in talent has with unearned advantages (such as being born rich or being a white man) that probably leads to feelings of entitlement. And the fear of something called "effort shock," which frankly (when it comes to writing) should terrify the total fucking shiznit out of anyone who doesn't love writing for its own sake.

Did you know that it goes back to a class issue? It's why painters often DO want to be called "talented" instead of skilled. Painting used to be skilled labor. Then it was turned into a "fine art" that only the aristocracy sat around doing and suddenly sprezzatura demanded that they needed another word that meant anything other than "long hard hours of practice."

It's a seductive world to imagine that if we aren't good at something, it's because we lack some je ne sais quoi we can't control, not because we haven't put in sufficient effort. Similarly, it's more compelling to imagine there's an "IT" (and we have IT and could tap IT at any time, should we so choose) than to imagine that lots of folks could quickly and easily match and then exceed our skill if they started working hard.

What does matter?

Ironically, most successful writers (the ones you've heard of–the ones you might have a book of on your shelf or recognize the names of) have a very different formula for what got them to where they are. They don't spend a lot of time worried about talent. Not that there aren't any arrogant writers who talk about how awesome they have been since the moment of their conception (there totally are), but for the most part, most writers pretty consistently talk about a different handful of contributors to their success. Some leave out one or two (though never the first one on this list) but these are the recurrent themes.

Tons of hard work: I don't really know any writers (personally or through stories shared by those I've never met) who got to where they would consider themselves successful, and who don't ALSO have similar stories of the long, grueling hours they toiled away at perfecting their craft. A few of them undertook some part of this process in the service of another writing career (tech writing or content writing), some learned in years of college and MFA programs, but all of them have put in the hours. Some have put in decades of "unpaid internship" hours before they see their first paycheck or fan. Some had to walk five miles as children to get to the library that was their sanctuary against the bullies (uphill both ways, right, Dad?). Some worked full time jobs, came home and cooked dinner, put the toddlers to bed and crept into the hallway (since there was no dedicated office and that is where the TV was least distracting) to write for a half an hour a night. 

But all have worked hard and none relied on talent to carry them.

They do the work. And they recognize that the more work they do, the better their output becomes.

Unearned (but not innate) advantages: Oddly we come full circle to the idea that much of what we call "talent" might actually be privilege. A lot of writers acknowledge that their humble beginnings of writerdom sparked by having access to a library, parents that read to them every night, or a writer in the family. Maybe they had a tiny bit of nepotism in the form of an uncle who is an agent or editor, or a trust fund to burn through in those initial years of writing without pay. (Some obviously have more advantage than others.) They acknowledge the role something that was neither earned nor innate had in shaping their destiny as a writer. They may not call it "privilege," but they acknowledge it.

And some will call it privilege–recognizing that publishing is whitewashed, sexism and heteronormativity influence what sells, class restricts access, and even their titanic amount of work might not yet have found fecund soil were their circumstances different.

Luck: Most writers seem to have a sense of fortune. Maybe it comes from telling ourselves so many "believable" stories that genuine coincidences are things we would tell ourselves are implausible and deus ex machina. ("Ridiculous that this book offer would just HAPPEN. Please revise!") Not that these writers think anyone, regardless of skill, standing at the same place at the same time, would have gotten the same opportunity, but it seems a lot of us aren't quite sure we quite earned every twist of fortune that came our way. (I often talk about how lucky I got to have my Facebook page explode–I would not be where I am today without it.)

Maybe just a little bit of nerve: The writers who are making money (or maybe not, but enjoying success by their own yardsticks) all seem to share just the tiniest bit of moxie. Most struggle with imposter syndrome. Many fret about their peer reviews and are devastated by criticism. (~raises hand~) But at the end of the day, they do believe they have something worth saying and they keep putting themselves out there for the world to see (.....and point at.....and tear apart).

Almost none, ever, talk about their talent.