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

Monday, December 30, 2019

25 Jackwads Who Show Up On Every Post About How to Write Something Oft Problematically Portrayed

Whether it's how to portray an asexual or trans character with some humanity and nuance, what gustatory adjectives people of color are getting tired of reading every time their physical features are described, how tired readers are of having sexual assault be the backstory of so many "strong female characters," or an indigenous culture that is tired of being reduced to a handful of tired tropes and clichés about archaic melee weapons and broken English, you can't post advice on how to be a better writer of certain groups without the usual suspects showing up to put their jackwaddery on breathtaking display.

For me, of course, this happens on my Facebook page, but you can watch such jackwad reactions unfold on Reddit or Tumblr or anywhere someone might have the brazen nerve to write up a list of suggestions for how writers could be a little more sensitive about what they're writing.

This is just an example of what I'm talking about.
It's not comprehensive, and a couple of people have even
said they think it misses some things.
But the important thing is they want to add nuance to it for
EVEN BETTER representation.
Of course, these jackwads are telling on themselves when they holler like this.

You notice they don't say it's BAD advice or that it's inaccurate. They do not simply quietly ignore it. They leverage their social power to make sure, in a very public way, that they mock the very IDEA of more positively representing another group.

Most people who see advice on how to better portray a demographic would delight in tucking that advice into their pockets and use it to write a better character. But these folks don't want to write a better character. They want to write the same old trope-laden-cliché bullshit again and again without thinking too hard about it, and without having to hear a peep from the folks who don't like seeing negative schlocky portrayals over and over again. And the reason the same couple dozen or so arguments show up over and over again like clones of the thousands before is that this is a script of a power dynamic. They may not be the "Capital B" Bigots of the highest order with transparent and naked bigotry but they aren't willing to expend the effort to unpack how representation matters and tropey portrayals contribute to cultural misconceptions and legitimately harm people's lives. Whether they are just dedicated SQuiDs or genuine asshole bigots who know better than to say the quiet part out loud, they are jackwads who immediately begin to defend their right (and to hear them speak of it, practically their OBLIGATION) to portray people with the worst sort of writing.

  1. That's not really a thing.//No one really thinks that.//What a load.//BS. It's difficult to imagine a less logical position (particularly from someone who most likely holds themselves in quite high esteem for being a "rationalist") than to look at a post by a person with a zillion jubilant replies of "THANK YOU" and to then assert that "no one" thinks that, it isn't real, or it is somehow being faked. Logically that statement was wrong with one person and became absurd with dozens and hundreds. Such replies really are the most basic (and I do mean BASIC) response by those with social power when they encounter something they don't want to exist. They simply deny that it does.
  2. Who cares? Isn't it a little obvious who cares? Do you really need help with this one? I mean there's the post and all its replies. You have usernames and everything. I know what you really mean WHO CARES THAT I THINK MATTERS (and you probably want to unpack how assholish that is of you), but if the people tired of seeing folks like them portrayed badly, their family and friends, folks who care about good representation, writers interested in not being cliché wranglers, [*inhales deeply*] and discerning readers are not enough to make YOU care, see above about unpacking your assholery.
  3. This is censorship. It takes a special kind of entitlement to believe that a post handing you advice on how to voluntarily write a better character IF YOU SO CHOOSE is somehow censoring you. You know you can just go right on writing your shitty portrayals, right? No one's going to stop you. It might not even stop your book deal, and if you're willing to stay off the internet, you may not ever have to have your tender fee-fees even wibble. Or are you using that special meaning of "censorship" so common among the powerful where it means "I have had my attention drawn to something I do that someone doesn't like, and I'm going to blame them for having the audacity to mention it." (Because you might want to consider how pathologically ABUSIVE that is....just in general.)
  4. Don't tell me how to write. Oh you mean you're not interested in writing better characters? You don't want more nuanced, human, and authentic portrayals of groups other than what you consider "default human" (probably white, probably male, probably cis and het)? You are content to use clichés and tropes and be kind of a lackluster mediocre writer? Strange corner of the internet to be hanging out if you don't like writing advice. Very strange indeed.
  5. Why so political (all of a sudden)? Calling the request for good media representation "politics" tends to reveal that one is probably white, cis, het, and usually male, just so you know. People tend to think of politics as this avoidable esoteric category of activity that doesn't affect every aspect of their lives when they aren't in the groups who have a strong vested, possibly life-or-death interest in political outcomes. These are lifelong struggles for some folks, and the fact that people these issues don't affect relegate them merely to the realm of "politics" is intended to be an insult. (As if the higher virtue is to be apolitical––a decidedly privileged perspective.) It's probably also not "all of a sudden."  You are just noticing it for the first time. Possibly because a lifetime of effort spent carefully consuming media in which you never had to notice it before (or could ignore allegories all damn day) is beginning to fall apart.
  6. Why are we pandering? I know you mean that word to be "bad" but consider that you're saying you don't want to gratify or indulge someone who simply wants to see a better representation of folks like them in your medium. ("You could write people like me better. Here let me give you a very simple primer on how." "NO! I shan't pander to your desire for....moving and nuanced portrayals. I want only to be a cheap hack of a writer who trades in overdone tropes and bigotry.") We "pander" because that's what good writers do. We care about getting a portrayal that isn't a caricature. If you want to be a shitty writer, go sit in the corner and never let anyone tell you how you could better describe humanity.
  7. Maybe I just won't write them at all! I suspect the folks in question would absolutely like no representation better than bad representation. However, since I know you'll be right back here with big tears after you get your first reviews that NOW everybody's upset that your writing is homogenous and has no diversity, maybe you should recognize how spectacularly, breathtakingly petulant it is to respond to some macro with a couple dozen bullet points worth of advice by taking your ball and going home.
  8. You need a REASON to make the character like this at all. Oops. You just told on yourself. (Again.) You have now admitted that you have a "default human" in your head. So strip away all the characteristics for which one would need a "reason" (race, some gender other than cis, maybe sexuality), and what have you got? Is it a straight white dude? Does everything else need "a really good literary reason"? So I ask you: what is the "reason" for having a straight white guy? Why do you need a "reason" to have a member of humanity represent the vast and varied diversity that humanity has to offer? 
  9. I don't mind X, but it shouldn't be the person's whole character development. It's sort of funny (not really) the way 8 and 9 move in pairs like the Sith. Make a character incidentally from a group and you had no "reason." Make their identity in that group part of the story and "you're making it all about THAT." It's almost as if—bear with me here—there's something else going on. It's ALMOST as if—bear with me—they can't win. Only some absolutely perfect (to them) representation that is neither too trivial nor too vital can ever count. Besides…..it is painfully apparent that status quo warriors demanding a marginalized identity not be part of character development have had few or zero friends from these groups. These folks may have other things going on, but the world around them is going to force them to make that decision over and over and over and it absolutely becomes part of their character. JFC, get a non-token friend or something.
  10. No wonder no one bothers. So many rules! It's just sooooo hard not to offend someone. Most of these posts are a half dozen to a dozen things literally listed in bullet points. They are a handful of pitfalls to avoid. It's time to pull up your big kid pants and fortify. You learned all the Pokemon in a weekend and the rules for Blitzball so you could get ALL the Ultimate weapons; you can piece this together and stop conflating your unwillingness to be a better person with the difficulty of actually learning how to do so.
  11. It's what sells, cupcake. Get over it. Is it, though? The outrageous success of things like The Ancillary trilogy, The Broken Earth trilogy, The Inheritance trilogy, The Handmaid's Tale or movies like Wonder Woman or Black Panther, and even better representation in once-lilly-white franchises like Star Wars seem to.....challenge this assertion. Positive representation sells well if for no other reason than it will be GOBBLED up by the folks who get to see themselves represented accurately for a change.
  12. That's why I write SF/F. Yeah, no one is actually fooled by this, and SF/F readers are not exactly slow on the metaphor uptake. If you are othering a race in science fiction or fantasy, particularly in EXACTLY the way that some actual group in our society is othered, your cunning dodge will not be as cunning or as dodgy as you think.
  13. How about I just write a good character? How about you DO? Here's a list of ways to do exactly that and avoid writing a shitty cliché. That's what you meant, right? Because literally that's what the post is trying to help you do. Isn't it funny (not really) the way people walk past thousands of generic writing advice posts/articles/pages about how to portray a character with absolutely nothing to say, but suddenly have a great and abiding concern for the quality of portrayals when the discussion shifts to good representation.
  14. That's just how it is. Stereotypes are based on truth. (Sanitizing this horrible thing is bad.) Think really hard about this one––how do you know that? You're looking at a post or macro or something by someone who is straight up telling you this isn't true (or this has some nuance that we'd like acknowledged), and it probably has a zillion responses from other people in that group saying "Yes, thank you" or "YES!" or something like that. So what exactly are you basing your belief on? 
  15. This is just how we talk about it. This is how WHO talks about it? Other people who are not in this group? White people describe a lot of other folks using food descriptors (almond eyes, mocha skin, olive complexion) and are told repeatedly that it's fetishizing and would they please stop doing it. "But other people do it," they whine. No, other WHITE people do it, continue to do it, and don't really stop. And maybe that's the problem that is being addressed? 
  16. This PC garbage is just a trend. If by "trend" you mean that people have been screaming about this for their entire lives and you have recently had to be exposed to it because the advent of social media democratizes voices and prevents you from living in a curated world that is sanitized from the reactions to bad portrayals, then...sure. "Trend."
  17. It's historically accurate. You see this a lot when people want to have no people of color in their vaguely European-based (ish) fantasy stories or they want to subject the women to all sorts of sexual assault. First of all, it's probably not as accurate as you think. I don't know what history you're writing, but even a casual look at primary sources is probably going to alter what you THINK is true about history, probably from reading too many stories like the one you want to write. The time of lily-white Europe where no one came up from Africa to trade or maybe settle simply doesn't exist. Further, you're standing there with a straight face talking about a land with dragons and magic and potatoes (look it up), but saying you want to be "historically accurate" about the sexual violence and racism? 
  18. What is appropriative about X? Appropriation probably could be (and has been....and will be again) its entire own post, and it is, at best, a super complicated issue where you're never going to get a monolith of agreement from any given group. But if someone is taking the time to tell you something makes them uncomfortable because they think you are appropriating their culture, you can't just Jedi mind trick them by saying "No no. It's appreciation." It's not that you can't include whatever the hell is anyway. The book police won't come and arrest you. You'll just have to deal with angry reviews and think pieces called: "We need to talk about [that shitty appropriative aspect of your novel]." What you really want, and what you need to come out and be honest and open about, is that you never want to have to hear about it and you think pretending you don't understand will work. But if you can wrap your head around "stolen valor" or your friend getting an A for copying your homework, you already GROK it. You just don't WANT to grok it. 
  19. Just because you don't like it, doesn't mean everybody else doesn't. Well, I can think of at least one group that isn't covered by "everybody." And if you want to cater to people ("pander," you might even say) who like their representation full of clichés and dehumanization, you may want to consider that you are facilitating OTHER jackwads who mostly just want to spend less (no) time examining their prejudice and bigotry.
  20. This is just forced diversity. Yes. The post in question reached through the Internet and jammed an assault rifle through your monitor and up your nose. You no longer have free will to ignore it, use your scroll wheel, write what you want, or just go on about your day with a smile and a Coke. You must now add well-represented characters to your book (you poor lamb). Your decision to be a better writer and human has been taken from you. What HAS the world come to?
  21. They should learn to be less fragile. Like not freaking out at a post suggesting that they could be doing better? Or do you mean even MORE "less fragile" than that? I'm not sure you know what "fragility" means, but standing up to the power structures of people with social power, "the way it's always been done," and the sheer unadulterated jackwadery of internet anonymity to say "you are doing this wrong, and I'd like you to do better" isn't actually "fragile." Have you seen the comments on these posts and how much abuse these people take for having suggested they and theirs could be written better? These people are fucking getting the "Daaaaaaamn" nod of respect from Karna and Atalanta. 
  22. You're the real bigot to even bring this up. No, that's not how this works. That's not how any of this works. A world sequestered from the very mention of groups and their concerns only benefits people who don't ever want to THINK about the impact of their portrayals or feel bad if their representation is bad. (And it is.......bad I mean.)
  23. It's just a story. Of all the people in the world, a writer should know better. A writer should know that there's no goddamned thing as "just a story." Media representation has everything in the world to do with how folks are perceived. Lest we forget that every pinnacle of human achievement and every atrocity we commit to the dungeons labeled "Dark History" all began with the justification....of a story.
  24. How about I write what I want? You already CAN write what you want, jackwad. That's the whole point. No one's going to stop you. They're just going to talk about it (and you) when you're done, so if you don't give a shit what they say, do whatever you fuck you want. All someone has done here is have the audacity to wish for better representation and provide you with a primer on how to do that. If the idea that you could take five minutes out of your schedule to learn how to write a better character is so anathema that you have to get in their face for doing so, and make sure they know you absolutely won't even consider their advice, you might want to get back to unpacking that assholery. (And mediocre writing, TBH). 
  25. If you want to see that, why don't you write it yourself! Well, first of all, they do. And in case anyone is keeping score, the same jackwads suddenly get fifty thousand shades of sensitive to where and when and how their group is portrayed in such work. But also they have more hoops and hurdles to go through to get such a work published. Because gatekeepers will turn around and say all this same bullshit. And while "write your own book" has been the response of many to the suggestion that they're getting something wrong, it's never EVER been a particularly good look coming from someone with power sneering at someone without.

So remember the other day when you were asking me the definition of irony......

Friday, December 27, 2019

Internal Critics and Other Voices (Mailbox) [Part 1 of 3]

How do you deal with the internal critic?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one or two of them every week or so. I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Hard AF questions may lead to multi-part answers.]   

Confession: I think I deleted this question. I remember getting it, reading it, thinking that it would be good for the next mailbox, and saving it, but I can't find it anywhere. (Note: In case you're wondering, this is why I ask you to include certain words in the subject of emails you send me. So I can do a search of keywords and get them all in one place, not just so I know before I open it––although that is nice too.) So without remembering who asked the question, or PRECISELY what the question is, I'm going to wing it by memory.

Human McPeepfolk asks:

Every time I sit down to write, it's like there are a million voices telling me that I can't do it or that something is stupid or that I will never make it as a writer. I am constantly finding the fault in what I just wrote and even self-loathing for writing it. I sit down and it's like suddenly there are two hours of these raging voices telling me I will never be good enough.

How do writers who make it deal with these voices?

My reply:

They're like fucking zombies, H. Always go for the double-tap. It's the only way to be sure.

Sadly, I can't write a post that will give you self-confidence. If I could, I would not be struggling for the second year running to meet my "taxes and health insurance" Patreon goal. I would be bottling that shit and starting up art incubators, UBI, affordable housing, and literacy projects around Oakland with all the money people were throwing at me. But what I can do is unpack a few tricks I've seen over the years––some that work for me and others that I find absolutely useless (I could never make "visualizing success" not feel silly. Plus they always turn into threesome fantasies, which is probably not helpful).

I will try to kind of go down into the "root system" of these voices. But this is not, strictly speaking, an "easy peasy" subject to write about.

The important thing to understand is that I'm not giving you a checklist here. You don't want to go down the list doing one thing after the other. This is more like a beginner's toolbox (the one that has a dozen tools, a few different screwdrivers, and a couple of adjustable wrenches, but not everything you could possibly need). You may realize that what you need is slightly different (I need a jeweler's screwdriver). Or you may never use the "hammer" if nothing seems like a nail. Use what works and match the "tool" to the "job." That is to say that some of these are encouraging and some of them are hardass and some are almost technical. It's tough to know what's going to work, so be ready to throw some spaghetti at the wall. Encouragement won't work on cynicism. Hardass won't work on diffidence. Trying to establish a regimen won't work if what you're fundamentally struggling with is a need for store-bought chemicals (which is fine).

Thus before we stock your toolbox, though, we have to figure out what is fundamentally at work. So here's what I want you to do, H.


As long as there's no fucking water temple!
Image description: Navi from A Link to the Past with the text "Hey Listen!!"

Listen to your voices.

One of the problems with our deepest and darkest anxieties is that we let them hang out in dark corners and imagine that they are huge and insurmountable. We listen with half an ear or try to distract ourselves or cover our (proverbial) ears and refuse to listen as soon as we realize that they are voices we don't like. When we only get part of the message, it becomes so easy to imagine that the rest is even worse. Sometimes we make fears and anxieties a hundred times worse by letting them live in shadowy corners where we can imagine they are so much worse and have so much more to say than we've ever even heard.

Imagine the voice that says you will never make it can't say anything else. You ask it why? "Um....er because you can't!" "I'm pretty good. I think I might be able to make it. I've gotten some short stories published. It's looking pretty good." "No, you'll never make it!" "What exactly are you basing this on?" "The....um....fact that you'll never make it." "Wait....is that actually all you can say?" "You'll never make it!"

Still intimidated?

Let them get it all out. Hear them. Take notes if you want. The greatest power that internal critic voices have is that they get to yell the WORST possible triggers to all your vague anxieties without ever really being confronted. Unlike a person saying something similar, they are never confronted rationally or unpacked.

What are they saying? Are they saying you don't have the skill? Are they saying you don't have the motivation? Are they saying you are a terrible person? Are they saying other writers are better? Are they saying that the realities of the publishing industry make it incredibly hard for someone who is not a middle-class white person to break in? Are they saying that you are not working hard enough?

And here is where I MUST take a minute to step outside of the pure encouragement zone.
Is your inner critic being realistic?
Some of that shit might be true. As much as some people might think you never want to listen to those voices, your own inner critic might be flicking a cigarette dramatically and saying, "Here's the thing..."

If your inner critic thinks you can't quit your day job and live off the proceeds of your debut self-published novel and you come to me and say, "I just need to believe in myself!," I'm going to suck in a whole fucking lungful of breath between my teeth before I give you this like thirty-second "Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaah...."  If your inner critic says that you need more than one rewrite/revision before your hundred-page NaNoWriMo novel (the first thing you've ever sat down and written in your life) is ready for publication on December 2nd, it is not the fact that your mom didn't hang enough of your art on the fridge that is causing your dreams to have some wind drag. If the inner critic says self-publishing after a couple of agent rejections might get you a physical book in your hand, but probably isn't going to sell beyond a few friends and family, then you're not just sabotaging yourself because in third grade the kids laughed at your spirograph art; you need to have some tough conversations with yourself. Maybe it is not your inner critic, but your inner fan telling you that "you're the best at books. No one in the world does books as good as you do" that you need to find a way to keep quiet. And maybe your inner critic isn't being a little stormcloud, but is Greek and named Cassandra, and you might want to listen.

Fundamentally, your little inner critic is you. It might be dressed up in goth clothes and shit in the corners of your brain, but it's you. And what inner-critic-you wants is to try to keep magical-rainbow-unicorn-you from getting hurt. You sometimes get a little too excited about being terrified of risk, and worry about how many Instagram followers will continue to love you (which is better to ignore), but you also warn yourself when you are legitimately in danger of making a fool of yourself (which is better to listen to). And in order to figure out how much of what is being said is valid and isn't, one has to listen. Trying to completely ignore inner voices with the ol, "Not listening. La la la la!" technique goes about as well with writing as it would any other aspect of your life. So give ear to those voices for a moment and see what they're saying.

You will probably discover that your inner critic comes from one of a few different "sub-species" of inner critic. (The bog critics get +2 vs. poison, but the mountain critics regenerate.) There may be others, but I've tried to include the big ones.

The voices, and what they say, in PART 2

Monday, December 23, 2019

Go Check Out NWAW!

Hi folks,

Today's post isn't here. It's actually over at NOT Writing About Writing. So all I'm leaving here today is a pointer for folks who get posts through email or other notifications. You have to go there to get the goods.

Today's post is mostly navel gazing––a personal update about a solstice ritual. It's the kind of not-really-about-writing post that led to the CREATION of  NWAW in the first place. It includes the next year of goals I've set for myself and some thoughts about personal magic. However, some of the goals are about writing (and others are about how Facebook can suck an elf), and some folks like to follow everything.

Friday, December 13, 2019

The Writer is.....Not Sick

If you can't stand it every time I write a post to say that I'm not writing a post, give the ol' scroll wheel a nudge, because other than a few juicy details about my love life, you'll find nothing else of interest today. Today's post is not some "capitalism work ethic" post or even a guilty post to my Patrons that I'm taking a day off. (The only response I get to those anymore is "Take the damned day off and don't worry about it!") That said, this is a day where if I had a boss and time clock, I would be calling in.

And yet this post is one of the most important things I'll write.

I would tell them I'm sick. I wouldn't be LYING exactly (sticking to vague "I don't feel well"s is useful if you abhor lying), but I would be creatively stretching the truth. I might even throw a cough in there.

You folks....you get the straight dope.

I was just going to slip quietly into the weekend. I think there might be two or three people out there familiar enough with my update schedule to wonder where my "solid" Friday post went off to, but for the most part, I figured anyone watching that closely would know what was going on.

But then I realized I had a post to write after all. This post.

It's meta. It's navel-gazey. It's a little stream-of-consciousness. It might even cross the line into self-pitying. It's NOT a major craft essay on dialogue. But it's important.

I am having a bad day. I am having a bad week. I am having a tough month. I'm not that gangbusters about the entire holiday season. And this whole fucking back half of 2019 can get bent.

But rather than slink off and hit the ground running next week, leaving everyone with that "How does he write like he's running out of time?" impression, I have committed to this blog, wherein among the threesome jokes and the thirty- to forty-year-old pop culture references, there are actually a few guiding principles that I use as metrics.
And one of them is this: I want to show you how the sausage gets made.
It's so fucking important that you not think this is magic. That you realize that writers are neither soulless machines cranking out unfathomable word counts without regard to what's going on in our lives or that we're mercurial fae who flit from stimulus to stimulus until something "inspires" us and then we shit out entire books in a Squatty Potty unicorn rainbow sequence (with sprinkles).

The most common question working creative writers get is "How do you do it?/How can I do it?" or some variation. We are implored like there's some trick, some magic that we've learned, and we're holding back. I want to demystify that process. I want you to be able to literally comb back through the posts (if you should ever want to) and see the improvement curve, the evolution of audience awareness, the incredibly glacial process of building a financially-viable career as a working creative writer––going from years without a penny to pocket change to maybe a cell phone bill to part-time-job money to a job, but that has to be supplemented with a side gig––and yes, also the productivity lulls....all in real time.

Watch my productivity tank when The Contrarian comes along, when a loved one gets cancer, during the complicated and messy process of a major breakup with a kid involved. And these last few months as I've been overwhelmed by yet another baby and more hours than I can handle.

But also notice that even in the lulls, the posts (generally) go up. Notice that I keep grinding away. Notice that there have been no hiatuses and few vacations longer than a couple of days. Notice that I may not get a fully formed blog post written, but I write even when I'm going through the worst moments of my life. I'm not saying this to brag, but to point out that the discipline I cultivate when it's not easy is what leads to the ten-page days when I'm on a roll.

I don't stop. But also I absolutely have shitty days and blow off work. But I also push through more often than I don't. But I also can get overwhelmed during really super shitty weeks and I just can't tough it out. But even on those shitty days I write something (as you can see).

  • This entire six months has been long and tough. I quit pet sitting (except for a few very local rockstar clients), but I got a bump in nanny hours that turned out to be WAY more than I could handle.
  • Fire season ends (quite literally) with the first rain. So we go from running around and wondering if we're going to have to evacuate to being wet, and it makes regular hiking and nature-communing hard. (I don't hug trees, but I miss it when, for weeks at a time, I can't get out and look at them while taking a walk.)
  • Going easy on myself often has this initial effect of making things worse. (Just ask any teacher when they usually get sick.) It's like you slow down and everything that your adrenaline has been holding back comes flooding in. 
  • I used to hate the kitchy commercialism and once-a-year-compassion of the holidays. I would very grudgingly put up with it for the sake of people who get all "Sleigh Ride! Sleigh Ride!" about their Christmas spirit. Then I had a family with a kid and holidays became AWESOME. Like living them AS A KID all over again. Then I lost that family*. And holidays became a painful reminder that even though I would do it all again, I have spent my life choosing to be a struggling writer. And I have great friends, great partners, and a life I enjoy, but every once in a while I just wish I had someone to come home to and talk about the next home improvement project.
  • *The family in question isn't GONE, and though things are a little weird and messy, they are usually pretty great, all things considered. They need childcare and I need a side-gig, so that works out and I get to see the kids almost daily. And after a while of angry breakup feelings, we carved out a friendship and some "chosen family" feels. I usually get to have SOME kind of holiday with the kid, and the past couple of Christmases, I even got to sleep over and do Christmas morning. This year some parents are in town, and if you think non-monogamy is a tough sell to the in-laws, try having the ex who ISN'T actually the kid's dad hanging around on Christmas morning....we decided to skip it. I agree, but that's the closest thing I have to a child of my own, and missing him during that time is going to be tough.
  • I don't think I have seasonal affective disorder (at least not in a way where I need a special lamp and stuff) but when it is grey and rains for weeks and weeks, I start to really get gloomy. And I'm already missing the daylight hours this time of year.
  • I'm kind of cooped up in this house because of the rain. I can't HIKE hike because the trails are muddy, but I could at least go on some walks and hike paved bike trails if it would stop pouring for a while.
  • Sometimes there's just a downswing. I think of mental health as sliders rather than light switches, so everyone will have their own severity and approach, but think of how often you've heard "artist's temperament" used as a sort of "low calorie" version of something like manic depression. There's probably something to that even if it needs to be unpacked to avoid ableism. Yes, I have my "productive phases" when I'm on a tear, but sometimes there's a downswing too.
  • I try to maintain an update schedule folks can count on here at WAW, but sometimes my muse isn't working and playing well with others and dashes off to other places. (This can particularly be a problem when something extra shitty is going on in the news.) I end up with just as much writing, but it's not HERE. It goes to NOT Writing About Writing or just comes out in a lot of separate Facebook posts. This happens to every writer I know, but most of them don't update several times a week, so it averages out and their audience only ever sees the final product and can imagine it was written at a steady pace. Here you get to see every single hiccup in my process laid bare. The days where the wheels of my Delorean leave fire trails, and the days where I really don't want to get out of bed.
  • My nanny hours have involved a lot of extra hours this week. 

So there you have it. The reason I.....uh.....won't be posting today. *cough*

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Best Modern Science Fiction Book (or Series) [Reminder to vote!]

What is the very best sci-fi book (or series) written between 1976 and 2000? 

Don't forget to vote! Your nominations have formed our poll, and now it's time to make your voices heard. I'm going to wrap this poll up and post results in very early January, but TIME MOVES DIFFERENTLY IN THE LAST HALF OF DECEMBER. It will be over before you know it. So take a moment to vote for your favorite book that isn't classic, but isn't super contemporary either.

And don't forget that the poll will let you vote again after one week. Since I can't monitor or stop the shenanigans, I encourage it. Vote early. Vote often.

Everyone will get three (3) votes. Use them....wisely.

The poll itself is on the bottom left of the side menus, below the "About the Author."

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

November's Best

Hi folks,

Below are the best posts of November that will go on to fame and glory in The Greatest Hits.

I Hope You Play

Why do Inktober and NaNoWriMo feel so different even though they both start out with such a similar premise.

11 Reasons Fame Probably Doesn't Look Like You Think (The Renown Margin) Part 2

If you think fame means having lots of friends and never being at home alone on a Saturday night, you might be surprised at what fame actually tends look like.

Most Invested POV (Mailbox)

How do you move the point of view to a character who is not that invested in the story?

Honorable Mention

Hi Folks

Technically this post should have done the best of all of them, but it was an appeals post. I guess I'm getting better at writing those. Or the GIF parties in the comments sections on Facebook are really doing the trick.

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Last Four Boilers (Personal Update, Meta, and a Dollop of Didactic)

 Twentieth Century Fox,
Paramount Pictures,
Lightstorm Entertainment 
True story aside: the title of this post is an oldish pop culture reference (as I am wont to make), and in the course of looking up exactly how old, I may have shocked even myself. 

I have a shiny new schedule with more time for writing, but for the first time in my life, I'm not going to immediately set about stuffing it beyond its maximum capacity with all the good intentions in the world. That way lies teeth in advanced states of gnashed and hands arthritic from being wrung.

Okay. But you have been hearing me talk for weeks about the new schedule. You know I'm back. Well then just how "back" are we?

Well.....let's unpack that. And along the way, since I don't want to write an entire post just gazing at my navel about why it's best that I take it slow, I'll try to awkwardly pair it with some generic advice for everyone who wants to be a writer.

You see, normally, this is the part where I would be updating the Update Schedule* with absolutely the most ambitious regimen I could conceive of. ("Hello. folks. I'll be updating 34 times a week now, but I'm only going to do six posts on Sunday because that's a day of rest. Be SURE to check in on Fridays when no fewer than four of the posts will be six to ten pages. Book should be done by mid-January. I'm also going to start working out again, and see two movies a week for self-care. And I bought a monitor lizard.....who is pregnant.")

(*Aaaaaand now I notice that this has not been updated in over six months.)

One of the reasons I'm not the biggest fan of NaNoWriMo (particularly for the uninitiated writer) is that it is roughly analogous with someone who's never done or hasn't really been doing it for a while suddenly signing on for two or three hours a day. ("I'm going to start herding lemurs after work EVERY DAY from six until eight-thirty! I'll be the best lemur herder outside of Madagascar by year's end!")

Oh. I get the appeal. I get it so hard. There's this visceral allure in making something just almost as difficult as you can possibly handle––in saying that you're going to do it SO FUCKING HARD that you will get better right away. It proves you really want it, right? If you fill every moment with it, then you really care. And those wide expanses of unspoken-for schedule beckon like untrodden snow to be filled with "productivity" and not "wasted."

Trust me. I get it. Truuuuuuuuust me. 

You're reading a blog by the guy who decided to create an "event" called the Megathlon. It's like a triathlon except it uses every piece of cardio-vascular equipment at the gym, and the five mile run on the treadmill is the SHORTEST of those distances. The entire thing would have taken about 15 hours to finish. I was spending five hours a day in the gym "training." You're reading a blog by the guy who once signed up for 21 units in a single semester because I wanted to knock out the general education classes as fast as possible. You're reading a blog by the guy who created a checklist of minimum times for writing "training" that included things like "Three hours a day reading" and "30 minutes studying grammar." It was like NINE hours a day of this brutal regimen. I've spent most of my life basically operating under the slogan that if it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing. I get this impetus to dive into something overwhelming. In a lot of ways, NaNoWriMo is not even particularly notable compared to some of the daily productivity demands I've made of myself. It's kind of on the low end of the ridiculous scale.

Now for fifty points, control of the board, and a chance at the Cuisinart and the trip to Barbados, see if you can guess how many of those regimens I actually stuck to.

Okay, plot twist. The answer isn't zero.

It's actually one.

Oh, I never stuck to the nine-hour checklist or the Megathlon or "2500 words a day," and I dropped nine units from my 21 unit semester by week three. Those were absurd. But what I did stick to was a much less ambitious goal: to write every day. (Or almost every day.) Some days it is little more than a Facebook post and a couple of emails. Some days it's eight hours before hunger pulls me out of the zone. And from there I go up, adding posts when I have the time to write them, fiction when I find a dedicated few hours, and other projects as I can.

Do I overdo it? All the fucking time. This entire blog is a MONUMENT to me overdoing it. My "I can't keep this up" posts are so frequent that they ought to be a series with their own Reliquary menu. I should legally change my middle name to "Overdoinit." And usually I'm the only one who cares when I can't meet my self-imposed deadlines.

So if you want a universal lesson, oh Writer, let it be this: set reasonable goals. You're just going to feel like a failure if you set some outrageous goal and then can't hit it. Better (in many ways) to find your sweet spot and limits by working up to them.

[In the interest of keeping it real, let me hit the pause button for a second. There's like this WHOLE other side of this. I talk about it all the time but I would be remiss not to mention it here. 99% of aspiring writers who want to be paid and published and whatever else they think "success" is aren't overdoing it. They are underdoing it. They have all the excuses (which I don't judge for legitimacy, so let's not even go there) about why they can't write. From what I know of almost every working writer who ever was, I'm in great company. Almost all of them are perpetually committing themselves to writing "MORE!" And so while I own that I screw this up (royally on occasion), it's also worth mentioning that the folks who are the best in their fields at ANYTHING are probably pushing themselves just a little beyond the "design specs."]

So this time––THIS ONE TIME––I'm going to try to ramp up slowly instead of hitting the ground running. I'm going to recognize that there's a lot of life happening right now, and that if I light the last four boilers, I might run full speed into an iceberg. And I'm going to stop letting my reckless ambition write checks that my temporal inability to time loop can't cash. While it's probably safe to assume that Monday posts will return shortly, I'm really going to trickle ALL that stuff in.
  • It always takes a week or so for a new schedule to really make a difference. (That's why so many people think they've got things handled for that first week when they are, in fact, really completely overwhelmed.) I should wait until then; I expect I'm going to have a more realistic sense of the impact next week and beyond. 
  • So far, I've only really added about three hours to my schedule. 45 minutes a day makes a big perception difference in how rushed I feel getting to work, and it's often the little changes that add up rather than some big "waiting for my ship to come in" moment, but 3 hours a week is not going to give me time to finish my novel by next year. I still need to be better about more often saying no to my clients when they ask me to do a little extra work.
  • Some of this time needs to go to things other than writing. My room is a mess. I need to get to the dentist. I have fallen behind on my hiking. I would love to catch a movie. I can't fall into the trap where "All your freetime base are belong to us."
  • The holidays are coming up and they are brutal on schedules. I may need some extra time, and it's just going to be better not to have something new going before the holidays.
  • While I want to bring what's happening "on stage" back up to speed, a whole lot of what's going on right now in my writing life is "behind the scenes." Fiction. E-books. A merchandise project. I don't want to overcommit to what folks are going to "see," and then not have time for the things I have to quietly work on out of sight. 
So just in general, I think the best play is to move forward cautiously and do lots of self diagnostics so the staff down at logistics have plenty of status reports. Like a gravy, I will slowly add the writing as things thicken.

I think I'm out of metaphors, so I better wrap this up. Push yourself if you want to chase this spurious "making it" thing. But also don't overdo it if you don't want to crash into walls. And if you think I don't know how hard that fjord is to navigate, trust me. I know.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Pointer Quests (Mailbox)

Whitewashed Publishing.
How to just DO it.
What if I have no talent?
Are MFAs really that bad? 
Can Netflix shows count as reading?
[Insert question about the publishing industry here]
What to do about all the poseurs?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one or two of them every week or so. I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I don't often answer redundant questions unless I have a new take on the answer, but occasionally, I'll make a post like this one.]   

In many online role-playing games (especially the massively multiplayer kind) at some point, you will be assigned a quest that is pretty much to just go to another area and talk to another person. ("Go deliver these books to Twizzlefizzlepop in the Desiccated Woods and tell him I sent you. He has need of an adventurer of your skill.")

These are called pointer quests, and you usually get them when you are too über for the area that you're in and the game is trying to tell you to stop slumming it and go find a real challenge.

Today's post is all about the pointer quests.

Not that I'm telling you to go find a real challenge....but...um....okay look, the metaphor breaks down a little the more you deconstruct it. Yesterday around 1pm, as I tackled what I thought was going to be today's mailbox, I realized I wasn't even close. I wasn't even KIND OF close. I had written two pages and I was really just hitting the Tootsie Roll center of the Tootsie Pop. I knew I was going to be working a long night last night (got tagged out after 11pm), and that I was going to have to change tack and make that NEXT week's mailbox. (It's about how to deal with your internal critic. Stay tuned!) So instead I decided to answer some of this mail that doesn't need a whole new post, but maybe just a pointer quest.

Persephone writes:
You often call the publishing industry whitewashed. I know WHAT it means, but why do you say that?

Because it is. Oh, it's not JUST the publishing industry. All the institutions in the English-speaking world are dominated by white men. Journalism. Academia. Politics. Law enforcement. Publishing is just one more place where the gatekeepers are usually white men, and even if they're not themselves, they're often using the yardsticks of what is "high art" that have been established by white men. But you can read more about what I mean here: Why Is the Publishing Industry So Whitewashed? (Mailbox)

Alex asks:

I sit down at my computer and I just stare at it. I just can't write. How do you do it?

I might need to slip this one into the FAQ. I seem to be getting the question more and more these days. It kind of depends on what's blocking you, but I would start HERE. That's kind of the whole toolbox, so just throw it at the wall and see what sticks.

Many write:

Will you read/critique/edit my writing and/or tutor me? 

Yes, but I'm a professional writer with a very busy schedule and my time is valuable, so I charge $50-$75 an hour. This question is answered (with further details) at #10 in my Facebook FAQ (along with a LOT of other questions that I usually only get on or through Facebook).

Sawson writes: 

I'm worried that I don't have talent, and that all this work will be for nothing. Is there any way to tell?

Would that there were. I write a lot about talent, and while most people come around to what I mean when I unpack the entire bag, it really makes a lot of people's heads itch when I tell them that I don't really think it exists....at least not in the way they're using the word. Read my thoughts on it or don't, but the bottom line, Sawson, is going to be this: what are you doing "all this work" for? If it is because you love writing, then it's already worth it. Writing is worth it all on its own. The milestones beyond "for the love of the game" involve, luck, privilege, gumption, and a whole fucking shit ton of work (about ten years of which will probably be unpaid). You'll notice you can only really control about half of those things. I hate to be so blunt, but writing is a piss-poor way to be famous or rich (or even pay the bills without what amounts to a multi-year unpaid apprenticeship), so you'd better find the intrinsic rewards.

Dan writes:

Are MFAs really that bad? Why do you hate them so much?

I don't. They're not BAD. I don't hate them. What I've said, and will say again is that they are time consuming, very expensive, and privilege a certain small set of voices within a very narrow aesthetic, and if it's not exactly the kind of prose-aesthetic that a writer wants to be creating, it is NOT a good move for someone with ambitions who does not know what to do next. The kinds of careers most writers want (particularly hopeful genre novelists) would be better served by using that time to just get started. In fact, I have been very clear that there are a lot of good things about MFAs.

Mike asks:

I don't really read that much, but I want to be a writer. I love Netflix shows and stuff though, and a good story is a good story, right? 

Yes! (And that's about as far as this answer is going to go the way you want it to, Mike. I'm sorry.) 

However, it might be worth considering if what you really want to do is be in TV or film or video games?  I think writing is considered this "accessible" way into what is essentially people's love of ANOTHER art form because most people can write and the starting tools are relatively cheap. By contrast the stories about how difficult it is to break into Hollywood are the subjects of their own legend. But if you break down the numbers, it is just as unusual for a writer to "break in" to movies as it is for someone who starts out doing movies.

TV shows and movies will absolutely instill in someone certain skills that are also useful in writing. Things like pacing, dialogue, plot construction. However, the tools film uses to tell a story are totally different. At the end of the day, a writer doesn't have an actor. They don't have a set. They can't use a lens flare. There are no special effects. They can't have a soundtrack.

Writers have words. That's it. And that's why writers tend to love books. That's why writers are (with so shockingly few exceptions as to be statistically zero) always always ALWAYS into reading....a lot.

And if a writer is not reading enough, they will not have the skill to metabolize the thoughts in their head into language. Their prose will be stilted and clunky. I write more about that here: The Value of TV/Movies/AV Media to a Writer

Every few days someone asks:

[Insert question about the publishing industry here]

Fortunately I did a 20 Questions last summer that covered most of the basic questions about the publishing industry. I will mention this here, though. Most people ask this WAY before it's time to be worried about it. The vast majority of questions like "How do I find an agent?" can be easily tackled in an afternoon of online research. What really needs to happen first is for the book to be finished. And when people ask this question, they are usually putting the cliché before the horse.

Chad writes [Swear to god, the name on the email was Chad]:

Everyone thinks they're a fucking writer these days. They're just clogging up the system with their shitty self published books and Nano drafts. How can someone who's actually serious deal with it?

Oh, Chad. Dear, sweet Chad. I'm not sure where you thought this was going to go, but if you haven't realized it yet, I'm the Chef Gusteau of writing. ("Anyone can cook write.") And while I know there is technically some nuance there when it comes to the actual capability of "anyone" to write, I think a lot more people can and should be writing more often because writing is awesome. 

I'm pretty sure the chip on your shoulder doesn't make you any more "serious." (Or any other adjective you try to slide in there to mean basically that you are a really real writer and they aren't.) People have tried before to get me to renounce my "populist writing philosophy," but it hasn't gone very well for them.

Are there people who are self-publishing books before they're ready, who then only sell a few copies to their friends and family and go right back to being frustrated about their writing careers? Sure. But they're not "clogging up" anything. If your book is better, it will stand out. Do agents and publishers refuse to touch anything they even think might be a Nano draft from about Dec 1st to early summer? Yep. That's true. But if your book is not strangely close to exactly 100 pages with a distinct "first-draft-feel" to the first few pages you've got nothing to worry about....right? Right?

Worry about you, Chad. This isn't the fierce competition of a sylvan glade. No one is going to steal your sunlight. We can all make it.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Best Modern Science Fiction Book (Or Series) [Come vote!]

What is the very best sci-fi book (or series) written between 1976 and 2000*?  

Our latest poll is live!  Come vote!

[Note: I'm getting some reports that the voting "widget" isn't visible to everyone. The place where I make my polls recently underwent some changes (I think they got bought out by a parent company), and they've been having some growing pains. Here is a direct link 

https://poll.fm/10472241 ]

Our poll was pulled from your nominations, and now you get to decide which one wins. This was a popular topic for nominating so not only did no titles make the poll that didn't get a second, but no titles made the poll that didn't get TWO seconds (a third?) 

Let me just make ONE caveat. This poll is about BOOKS. It's about writing. If you loved watching Alan Rickman play Marvin, but found The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book to be trite and boring plot driven drivel with sophomoric humor, please vote for something else.

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

Everyone will get three (3) votes. 

There is no way to do ranked choice voting, 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.

I will probably run this poll through December and post results early in January, but that's a pretty busy time of year and it might go longer if it's still picking up new votes when I remind people about it.

[*There are separate polls for other time periods, including "contemporary" (2001-present). I had to break them down because the field was just to busy.]

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Best Modern Sci Fi (Last Chance for Nominations--SECONDS NEEDED)

What is the best science fiction book (or series) written between 1976 and 2000?  

As I work a pair of 12+ hour days (and pull down 40 hours by Thursday––long before the first potatoes even get mashed), I will remind everyone to nominate their favorite science fiction, but not before checking the publication date because some of these books are too NEW to be on this poll (we'll have a contemporary sci fi poll separately). Running this poll is about all I've got the energy for this week, and I'm sure as fuck not going to crawl out of my warm bed and my carbohydrate coma on a perfectly good almost-bank-holiday-except-for-poor-unfortunate-retail-souls in order to post something that 90% of folks won't see because they're out suffering in some way or another from the symptoms of late stage capitalism.

So for any of you who have ever said "How can this poll not have SOANDSO?!?", now is your very last chance. Get that fucker on the poll and get it some fucking seconds.

Remember, I don't do that endless quarterfinals shit anymore.  At most, I will do ONE round of semifinals. So the 8-20 with the most seconds get on the poll. And if those "seconds" are technically thirds, fourths, or fifths, then that's what I'm doing. So get over there and second anything you want to see on the page.

So please pop over to the original page (very important), read the rules if you haven't yet, and drop a nomination or an undersung hero. 

I'll be putting this poll together on Friday. That'll be my big day. Come back next week for the good shit.

Remember, go to the original page or it won't count. Not a comment here. Not a comment on the Facebook post. Not Tumblr. THE ORIGINAL PAGE.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Hi Folks!

Two recent events mean that we are no longer able to avoid a few big changes here at Writing About Writing, but let me tell you what's about to happen.

For the past four months, I've been "working for the weekend," so to speak. I've been knowingly overdoing it on nanny hours and letting my writing suffer a bit (though obviously not entirely). My clients were telling me that come January, the baby would be off to preschool, and there would simply not be as many hours. There would still be SOME, but it would be much closer to "the edge" of my budget. And this has been the plan for months now. I've been socking away money for that moment when the winds of fate shifted and brought the financially lean times, but a lot more opportunity for writing.

Then two things happened.

1) My October appeal went quite well. You may have noticed that I didn't do a round of direct-to-social-media, which is my usual wont on the alternative fortnight to a post like this. Things had gone SO well, and I was updating only three times a week––I felt like it was probably better to just skip it that one time. My writing income still wouldn't pay all the bills, but after October's appeal, I'd be a lot less nervous about being cut from 30 nanny hours down to 10 or 15.

2) I found out that The Smol didn't get into preschool for spring semester. Bringing the new estimate to August (as in ten months from now).

That means more income than for at least an additional nine months, but it also means almost more hours than I can handle and not enough writing time for those same nine months. I was okay to run my engines over factory specifications for a few months, but not for an entire year. That's falling right back into problems that I've spent too damned much in therapy to keep repeating.

So...I've set about making those scheduling changes happen anyway.

I'm giving up an hour a day to the morning Nanny, and I'm working out with my clients how to shave off some of the hours that end up happening on weekends and evenings, so that 20 hours/week on paper looks more like 20 hours/week in reality.

This is going to mean more writing starting December, but it's also going to mean that all of your help is more important than ever before. As with every other moment I've been able to drop the teaching of a night class or make a decision to stop a side gig to devote to writing, this is a decision and an opportunity that would not have been possible without my wonderful, generous, and generally ass-kicking patrons.

Once I'm down to the lower hours, I may need to dip into my savings to get through any greater-than-average expense months. And if that starts happening, I'm going to get nervous and pick up freelance work, side gigs, maybe even pet sitting jobs if it gets bad.

This is where all of you come in.

I would much prefer to do my appeals post when I am crunching out two or three heavy hitting posts a week, but I hope that you can see that we're still committed to a steady update schedule even though writing time is a bit hard to find right now, you can glance through the archive and see that over time, I serve up some pretty good writing about writing, and can trust me that it's going to get more robust again real soon.

Today is the first of two times a month (once a month directly to social media and once a month here on the blog) that I humbly ask you to help me keep the rent paid, the lights on, and the crisper full of vegetables instead of "backup Raman packs." Right now I can't quite make all the ends meet with just writing alone (I won't die, but things like dental plans, my cell phone, and food with cellulose take a little extra).

Remember, you don't just get Writing About Writing. There are some personal and political thoughts along with media reviews over at NOT Writing About Writing, and I often use my personal Facebook page for bite-sized thoughts and proto-versions of bigger posts that are still in the "thinking" stage. And there's "the show" on the Writing About Writing Facebook Page––where I share memes, humor, articles about everything writing, and puns all day. And anything else I write for other venues will end up here as well. Always free as well as ad free (as long as I can keep it so) but it takes 20+ hours a week to keep it all going and is a full time job if I really want to do it right.

At this time, I depend completely on donations and patrons for my writing income. As with most donation-based media, the tiniest handful of folks (less than .1%) are creating the experience the other 99.9% get to enjoy. I know it's a tough time right now. Anywhere one looks on social media, there is someone trying to crowdfund an unexpected expense.

However, if even 1% of everyone who stopped by gave a dollar, I would be able to write full time without a side gig for years to come.

If a couple dozen people pledged at the $3 level, I'd be heading into 2020 to give writing an even more robust full-time schedule without needing to worry about oncoming recessions, nanny hours, or dipping into my savings. I know that most people will ignore these appeals. But if you like my work and want it to keep seeing it (and more OF it), please take a moment and see if you can't spare a couple of dollars.

There are two ways to help.

I prefer if you become a Patron through Patreon. Even a small donation goes a long way, and with Patreon, I can budget and plan for the future. Plus, it doesn't take much to get in on some of the most active and robust reward tiers. Our monthly newsletter of behind-the-scenes updates and previews of upcoming attractions is the $3 tier because a foundation of many, smaller donors is so important.

Or if an ongoing donation is not in your cards, of course you can always make the one-time kind through Paypal. Or Venmo (at chris.brecheen@gmail.com)

Lastly, these posts will never do particularly well organically, and it is the nature of social media that I cannot reach everyone who wants to see my content. If you don't have the financial means to support us financially, but still want to help (or would like to help doubly), please engage with this post. (Shares and GIF comments are particularly good for the algorithm.)

Thank you all so much,


Thursday, November 21, 2019

Most Invested POV (Mailbox)

How can I write from the point of view of an uninvested character? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer one or two of them every week or so. I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Excuses to show you that my English major was not completely wasted are more than welcome!] 

TMC asks:

So here is my writing dilemma.

The protagonist is the person who drives the story. The POV should always belong to the person with the most invested in the scene.

Currently the only character with a POV I'm comfortable writing is not the person who's driving the story and is not the one most invested in what's going on.

This means that whatever I write, she's going to 'feel' like a passive observer.

The other three people in the scene cannot, for various reasons, become POV characters, even though one of them is driving the story and is the most invested in what's going on. And this part of the story has to happen.

My Reply:

I had some formative late teen years when The Movie Channel underwent its post-Viacom rebranding (in 1988), and blasted its acronym two or three times per commercial break during the "Weekend Multiplex" when it played what was, for a late 80's/early 90's kid who hadn't yet convinced his BEST friend to try Dungeons and Dragons, much better than trying to walk to the Swap Meet six miles away to check out the only place with Nintendo games in the whole damned valley. (Santa Clarita Valley back in the day was NOT a happening place.) I don't even think they actually said or spelled out The Movie Channel at that point. It was just TMC. And now....


There's a lot to unpack here, TMC, but before we throw some Supernatural on the big screen, order some pizza, and begin the unpacking party in earnest, let's clear up at least one misconception. Because most Americans (who would read this blog, anyway) and 75% of well-read anglophones elsewhere on Earth are already thinking that Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby is the checkmate to this whole thing.

He isn't. At least not exactly. At least not in the way most people first offer him up.

So the first thing we have to do is talk about the difference between a focalizer and a narrator. The narrator is the character telling the story. That "character" might be omniscient, limited, or one or more of the characters inhabiting the story. The FOCALIZER is the perspective through which the story is told. So even though 1984 is written as an omnicient narrator, WINSTON is the focalizer. Usually, in a first (or second) person narrative, they are the same thing.

Not always, though. Once in a while you get a narrator clearly telling a story about SOMEONE ELSE. Gatsby is such a story. It's far from the only one, but is one of the best well-known (because of its position in American Literature education standards) as an example where the narrator is not the main character throughout the entire work.

Fitzgerald is a lot of things, and probably Americans need to get him off that fucking pedestal and talk about a few of them (his treatment of Zelda for example), but a shitty writer was not one of them. He was ABSOLUTELY, consciously playing with the relationship between focalizer and narrator at a time when that sort of literary play was at the peak of its avant-garde status. You see a very analogous floating narrative in Mrs. Dalloway (published the same year) where the narrative is third person, but the focalizer keeps jumping around and creating almost a dreamlike quality. And you see the same sort of Focalizer v. Narrator in the stream-of-consciousness of Ulysses (published three years earlier) as the focalization jumps around while the narration remains with Leopold Bloom.

So yeah, Fitzgerald is fucking with his readers. He's breaking those conventions. The 20s were a time where the general take on society was that the "rules" from the 19th century turned out to suck, and artists were gleefully smashing them with hammers. Fitzgerald is no exception, and not particularly "experimental" among his peers. He's having a grand old time playing with the narrative conventions of the generation before just like a lot of other writers of the time: "Focalizer....just kidding, narrator. Or AM I??? Focalizer!  Psyche....gotcha again, just narrator."

And in the end, Fitzgerald "gets" us one last time because even though he has definitely shifted the focalizer status to Gatsby when he does things like tell the backstory through the latter's point of view, it ends up being Nick who is the character capable of a narrative arc and change (an essential quality for a main character). Gatsby doesn't change. Gatsby is just killed. In fact, Gatsby is so inimical to change (that doesn't benefit his transformation from James Gatz) that he wants to preserve a moment with Daisy forever and literally CAUSES the climactic conflict by demanding that there be no change. Gatsby never stops being an analogue for "The American Dream." It is NICK who changes, who realizes that the whole "fast life" covers a moral emptiness and learns a valuable lesson to become a better blah blah blah.

Not Gatsby. Nick.
Here's to bitter disillusionment that I never actually personally deal with.
That wasn't a massive non-sequitur so that your ol' blogger pal Chris could relive some of his glory days of literary analysis. (*flexes muscles like he's throwing a football*) I mean it was, but that's not JUST what it was. We're gonna use this as we unpack this question.

What we're looking at here is a question at the intersection of Character and Point of View and a great clapback to last week when I pointed out that all the Elements of Craft kind of blend together. In general, you do not want a character who wants nothing. They become boring, flat and uninteresting. They have to want something (anything!), even if it is simply a glass of water. (Readers must also know what the stakes are or they won't care.)

In old-timey fiction it was fine to have stock characters that kind of fulfilled an archetype niche and walked around inside a plot-based story. These days you can't get away with that stuff. The hegemony of character has dominated the entire world of literature (including genre). You can no longer just have a compelling mystery. Your detective has to be a zombie or an addict super-doctor or something else.

Really you don't want motivationless characters ever: if minor characters who want nothing populate the edges of your story, it can make things feel railroaded. The world will feel populated by stock characters and only the main characters will feel like they have ambitions––the literary equivalent of a picture with only the subject in color and the rest in black and white. (Possibly interesting if done well and intentionally, but otherwise.....) For a major character to have no wants means your narrative arc is "plot driven" instead of "character driven" and that can be kind of a no-no in modern fiction.

But here we are. Other characters can't carry the POV. So let's fucking do this thing!

1- This "rule" is like all other "rules" of writing.

Meaning, chuck it in the fuckit bucket if it's not working FOR you. I once read that a famous author saidd, "Don't write about kids, alcoholics, or politics," and I was like, "What, were you fucking sick the days they taught 19th century European literature in Literature class? Have you EVER read a Y.A. novel? Like EVER???? What the literal hell kind of advice is that?"

Much like Fitzgerald, you can bend, break, and eventually dance a peppy Irish Riverdance jig on this rule if you want to. The only real "rule" in writing is what you can earn and then get away with. Let them tell you you "can't" do it while young writers crawl over each other to beg you for your secret ingredient to success.

Laugh at their bemusement. Drink their tears. Delight in their screams of anguish to an uncaring god.

Is it a little unusual for a work with high ambition to follow a character who doesn't want anything for a while? Yep. You've got your work cut out for you. But there's no reason to think it can't be done.

In the great words of Westley when Buttercup said they would not survive: "Nonsense. You're only saying that because no one ever has!"

2- POV and Focalizer

As I just wrote, you can have a focalizer not be the POV character. You don't even have to do triple reversal bait and switches like Fitzgerald was doing. ("If you put the focalizer as the main character, then I can clearly not choose the Point of View in front of ME!"  Sorry....still on The Princess Bride here.)

This isn't common or frequent, but it isn't unheard of or anything. I myself have a story (as yet unpublished) where a "bardish" storyteller character is the point of view character telling the story of a more outgoing "warrior" type who is the main character. (They are both aspects of me, and even as I write this, I realize that it has a lot to do with the fact that I think of myself as more the narrator, and when I am doing cool things that I actually admire and think are worthwhile, it's almost like I'm watching myself do them and it's not really me.)

Perhaps the most famous example of this (that ISN'T on 90% of high school curriculums) is Watson. He dutifully chronicles the stories of Sherlock Holmes and only occasionally do we know anything about his own wants and needs, other than perhaps to understand how the heck Holmes figured something out. Modern reinterpretations have fleshed him out a bit as an adrenaline junkie or having a romantic interest that conflicts with helping Holmes, but very little of any of that can be found in the Doyle stories. Now, detective fiction might not be considered "literary," but Sherlock Holmes is the only character other than Arthur of the Britons to have their own literary journal, and Holmes stories have thousands of adaptations and derivations. So....maaaaaaaybe suggesting that there's "never" a good POV character who just kind of passively reports what the focalizer is doing is just a wee bit of that "high art" elitist, gatekeeping snobbery.

Having a point of view character who cares about nothing and NO focalizer might be a difficult choice. (Purely objective narratives where no character is given sympathy or primacy are unusual but not unheard of.) But you can have your POV character focus on your focalizer and the "sin" of having her not carry much of her own motivation will be smoothed over. Or maybe THAT can be the thing she wants. To tell the focalizer's story as clearly as possible.

3-It's not the whole work.

Characters who could NOT carry the narrative can often carry chunks of it, especially when needed. It's one of the reasons you get more traditional narratives in novels, but all KINDS of "play" in short stories. Those shorter chunks of investment mean readers will put up with more unconventional shit.

No one would read an entire book from Big Wig's point of view, but Watership Down is arguably a much better story for the fact that it sometimes leaves Hazel and goes into other focalizers for a chapter. No one will slog through five hundred pages to find out that the point of view is from a character who has no narrative tension, but if the central character's tensions are still being carried while this other character merely picks up the job of basically being a "recorder" for a few pages, it'll be fine.

You might be overthinking this. Twenty pages is not the same as two hundred.

4- Authors essentially do this all the time.

A lot of authors have fun doing EXACTLY this. You might run up against some of those "rules," but if you earn it, I wouldn't worry about them too much. Think of how fun it is to occasionally have a situational comedy from one of the side character's points of view. Those characters are often flat, cliché or "one-trick-ponies" who are hardly good examples of literary characters with arcs, but for a single episode, it's kind of fun to see how Smithers or Willy or The Janitor or The Todd sees the world and that they've got more to them than they let the world see.

Readers find this DELIGHTFUL. It's like this whole different perspective for a few pages. It's a treat to see the world from another's view especially if there's something they notice from that perspective that they would never have noticed from just the original.

Like standing on a desk. O captain! my Captain!

5- GIVE her motivation. 

Of course, you could side step all of this if you thought about what she DOES want. Even if it's just a glass of water.

She doesn't have to share the motivation of the focalizer character in order for her narrative arc to be interesting. She can have her own wants, needs, goals. Maybe she wants to impress someone back home. Maybe she wants to be violent. Or maybe she doesn't, but we don't know that it's all an act until we're up in her head and seeing how she pretends to be a bad ass to cover for being terrified. Or maybe she really wants a tiny house with a white picket fence and where the hell did it all go so wrong?

Maybe, and this is a little meta but I could see it working, she wants everyone to know JUST HOW FUCKING MUCH SHE DOES. NOT. CARE. And that becomes its own driving pulse for that character. I wouldn't read a whole novel of that, but for a few pages, the irony of a character who was passionate about being blasé could be fucking hilarious!

Mostly I'm just going to keep hammering #1, though. If you've been around a while (and you have, The Movie Chann TMC), you know I really hate saying "if you have a good reason" because everyone thinks their reason is spectacular. Instead I say Earn It.

If you earn it, the only "rules" are what you can get away with, and while a lot of process and craft advice has some really good basis for being advice in the first place, some of it still needs to be punched in the face. And as you move even further away and leave behind good, solid, oft-agreed-upon process and craft advice and go out into the world of narrative arcs and "what makes for a good story," you're deep into the territory where A) there are LOTS of exceptions because no one tells writers what they can't fucking do, B) they're really more like helpful suggestions to keep things a bit easier for beginners, and perhaps most importantly, C) some of the best stories you can think of took some "rule" or another and fucked with it––and that's exactly the reason they were so remarkable.