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

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Armor I Wish I Didn't Need (The Renown Margin)

Reminder: I'm not famous. You probably haven't seen me on TV.

But there are a few places where the edges of my experience have begun to crinkle in that direction. I'm closing in on a million Facebook followers and though most of those people are there for the puns, and wouldn't know me if I were standing next to them comparison shopping for Bugles vs. generic "corn chip horns" at Safeway, I've been recognized on the street, had my work recognized by fellow passengers on trains and planes (and technically automobiles, but usually those were my friends), had weird offers of marriage from strangers, been sent unsolicited sex pictures, had people I've never met talk to me like we were old friends, had people who were not mentally well fixate on me and frighten me, and even recently been like gushingly insisted upon by a fan who recognized my picture and happened upon my on OKCupid profile that Oh my god will I ever be swamped [I have not been] because the line is out the door and down the block [it's not even AT the door]. 

(And don't think it hasn't escaped my notice that becoming "famous" as a guy means that my experience has begun to resemble that of basically any woman who dares to exist on the internet.) 

This is the latest in a series of articles examines both how my life and perceptions have changed with the approach of something resembling fame and also maybe once in a while something I see that famous people (the actually famous kind) do that starts to make sense to me. 

I'm starting to notice that I have armor.

Not the personal leather that fits close to the surface and cushions the unintentional blows or a coat of mail that writers need to cultivate to get peer review and withstand criticism.

I'm talking about the big honking plate shit that deflects intentional blows from swords meant to take off my head. The kind that won't let you feel a human touch unless you've retired to someplace safe and are willing to spend minutes deciding to be vulnerable by taking it off.

The thing is, I don't want it. I wish I didn't need it. I don't want to be that guy. I don't want to be the person who isn't listening because someone isn't already my friend or hasn't sufficiently blandished themselves into a position where I don't feel threatened.

But I need it to survive. And I don't think a lot of people who don't need it realize how impossible it would be to be in the public eye without it. Especially in these days where we're still finding our cultural footing with the privacy of the internet.

There's a thing I've noticed over the years: celebrities and artists on social media no matter how cool they seem on some issues and how genuine and how willing to help and how sincere and maybe even how genuinely kind and possibly even be philanthropic they are, when they get hit with some criticism about something from a LOT of people, it's like teflon. They peel open their chests and put their organs and souls on display and seem to have nothing but love for the world, but if someone comes at then from a place of anger, it's like they hit the invisible shields in a campy sci-fi movie. The criticism, if they register it at all, doesn't even seem to cause an eyebrow to twitch, even as it piles up.

These aren't the arrogant, cocky assholes who you would expect to ignore criticism either. I mean big surprise that the writer who weaves Objectivism into high fantasy turned out to be kind of a snotglob about collective effort. Or that the guy who plays nothing but assholes is kind of an asshole. Shocker.

And I'm sure there's a lot of continuums and complexity and nuance on everyone else. Life is messy and even most activists don't get intersectionality right. Some celebrities have clearly bent a certain direction in some sort of raging controversy where they believe they ARE moral actors. If a celebrity has decided that trans women are "men trying to colonize women's spaces" or that "prostitution is always about the subjugation of women for profit" and that holding that line IS "fighting the good fight" for feminism to them, a trans person or sex worker probably isn't going to convince them they're being hurtful unless they're already pretty close. Certainly not by showing up and yelling––even though I must stress that the celebrity is not OWED a reasonable, calm tone.

But for me, it's a place of particular self-contradicting, multitude-containing, messiness. I need to have this armor more and more and I also hate it. So I imagine with people more famous more scrutinized, and more challenged, it has probably probably become exo-power armor with hydraulic servos even as they hold multiple truths and checkmarks in a lot of ticky boxes. Which is why so many folks in the spotlight can at once be simply spilling over with compassion and be paragons of empathy but then suddenly, surprisingly snap into brick wall mode.

I'm not even actually famous yet. But what happens if I don't wear my armor is worse than what happens if I do.

The law of large numbers and the instant gratification of the internet affects people who are online in the public eye in some chilling ways.

Thought experiment!   

Imagine having a hundred people you interact with on a regular basis, and having to deal once every week and a half or so with ONE person who took something wrong or didn't give you the benefit of the doubt or assumed your motivation about something to be kind of shitty when it wasn't and skipped ahead to the part where they tore you a new one. Just .1 percent per day. One person every ten days.

That's life right? People overreact. They bring their bad day with them and hit you in the face with it. They don't read or react to something in good faith. They project something you didn't say into an interaction. They wonder "what you meant by THAT"? They're hangry. They need a nap. They just had a brutal therapy session and are touchy as fuck. What they heard is more about the last thing that upset them than what you actually said. It's annoying but you cope. You clarify. You talk to them if you're friends or loved ones. Maybe it depends on how much energy it takes to ask what they're talking about or if they meant to be so hostile. Perhaps if you've had many more negative interactions than positive ones, you decide that's the last straw and you walk away if it's a more casual relationship, but that is rare and a decision made with great gravitas and in the name of self care..

Okay now imagine we're talking about the Internet;

and people don't have to see your face react to what they're saying or deal with you interrupting them if they're way out of line (they basically get to do the text version of the speech they worked on in the shower because there's no one to stop them from writing it all out before hitting "Send");

and you've never had ANY interactions with them before that are positive and which set the stage for relating to each other as two humans;

and the current trend is towards ever more hyperbolic descriptions of how much something angers/enrages/upsets/devastates them;

AND the gratification from impulse to "Send" is only as long as it takes to fire off a comment (long gone are the days of having to hand-write out a letter and maybe think about whether or not one is possibly being rash for a few hours first and then a couple more days until the postmaster comes) and click a couple of buttons;

AND they get to project on you all manner of unkind things as regard to your character and motivations that are typically callous and cruel because they don't have that face-to-face interaction or any sort of feedback to realize that if you made a mistake it was probably either misinformed or unintentional;

AND you are a high profile and convenient target for any amount of preexisting emotions, mental or psychic baggage, misunderstandings, propensity for seeing you as The Issue™that they think you're on the wrong side of, and treatment of as an allegory for all the bad rather than a complex person, as well as any other bad faith they've brought to the table.....

And......you have a thousand followers, so SOMETHING like this––maybe not quite so bad every time, but SOMEthing like this––is just about a daily occurence. 

Not so bad yet. Once a day you have to deal with someone who requires a little extra time and energy and a little bit more TLC to talk down. Usually it's not that bad. If you're me, you probably read things carefully, consider your actions, evaluate how you might have been misunderstood. Try to make things right. Apologize if it was your fault––even just a little. Try to find a connection with them as a human and see where the disconnection happened. Tell them how you're feeling if they're really bringing some bad shit to the table or putting something on you that you don't deserve and maybe talk a bit and walk away, both feeling more understood at least. You open up a dialogue. You proceed carefully, being very nuanced with your explanation. And only if that person seems to bring their own shit to the table over and over again in toxic ways would you consider ignoring them or just walking away.

Okay, now let's kick in the law of large numbers....

Imagine you have a million followers, and no matter how careful you are, no matter how you proceed, no matter what you do, no matter what you say, just based on the sheer chance that you are (virtually) in the same room when someone is having a terrible moment or just based on other people's mercurial natures and human failings (possibly including your own), something like what I described above will happen, on average, a hundred or so times a day.

You're too this for some people. You're too that for other people. Too liberal. Too leftist. Too capitalist. Too communist. Too conservative. Too moderate. Too gentle. Too harsh. Too antifa. Too bootlicker. Too prescriptive. Too descriptive. Too nuanced. Too activist. Too academic. Too anti-academia. Too much like the conversation they just had with someone they aren't in a position to argue with. Too political. Too apathetic. Too basic and 101 with concepts. Too esoteric and not educational enough of the fundamentals. Too much like someone who just made them feel bad that they couldn't give what for. Too long in banning people who needed it to keep the space safe and clear of their bullshit. Too short in banning someone instead of trying to reach them.

They will demand you engage them even though they're not making sense or they clearly read something wrong or they are enraged about something THEY'RE bringing to the table. They will read something you never said into something you posted. They will fill in the blanks when tongues are in cheeks with the worst possible interpretation. Jokes lacking pages of nuance go awry not because most people don't get what you're saying (or not saying) but because one person needs to get in an aggressive "Well, actually..." They are projecting a personality onto you that isn't really you. They're just having a bad day and you're there. They are a ticking time bomb of fury who forgot their squeezy ball and taking it out on you because that's better than yelling at the kids. They just spent two hours dealing with shitty, not-nuanced versions of the same argument and they can't really "hear" your disclaimers and exceptions. They just walked out of a meeting where their hours were just cranked up to 65 a week and they're never going to have weekend to themselves or free time again, and see a "You should be writing" meme, take it personally, and go off. They have read ten articles already this morning, see one of your posts, slide past the nuance, maybe don't even make it all the way to the bullet points, and go on a tear about the title.

Someone out there––someone––is going to bring the worst possible faith to everything you ever say.

How many of that million skipped lunch? Didn’t get a good night’s sleep? (Both?) Just had a fight? Are not managing their mental illness? Are in an activated hypothalamic state? Are bringing their unresolved trauma to your issue? Are just “edgy assholes”? Have a hypersensitivity to one TYPE of oppression and have determined that calling out everything they see, no matter how slight, is the way they make a difference? Are under the influence? Are distracted? Are rolling the shit downhill? Just don't like you, never really have, and want you to misstep? Are abusive and have simply learned a way to justify ignoring boundaries in their online interactions that isn't typically CLOCKED as "abusive."

They will examine your every word. They will scrutinize each turn of phrase for fallibility. They will yell at you for posting a Calvin and Hobbes comic that makes fun of academia because how dare you encourage anti-intellectualism. They will yell at you for posting pro-academic articles because how dare you espouse an institution so rife with systemic racism and sexism. They will yell at you for being pro or anti NaNoWriMo (even if you're both and neither). They will demand your retractions and your apologies. They will demand you do as they say––post exactly what they want you to post in exactly the way they want you to post it because they assume you do not really know what you are doing.  If you do what they want, you did it too late and/or only to "save face." If you don't, you are Satan. If you apologize for something, it is not good enough. If you apologize with all the markers of a good apology, you're just offering a scripted reply. It's never enough. If it is enough for most, you only did for the optics of your public image, and they know you didn't really feel it. Because if there's one thing they definitely know, it's how you FEEL. And even if almost everyone thinks you were absolutely sincere about an apology, someone out there won't because the person they REALLY need to hear the apology from......isn't you. And that is if you owe anyone an apology––if you weren't just doing your thing and someone decided that pissed them off.

And if you reply with anything other than obsequious contrition, most will see it as escalation. If you point out they misread something.... If you suggest they don't seem to be getting you.... If you simply disagree.... If you agree but offer nuance....  You're off to the races.

A Hundred. Times. A Day.

(I'm not there quite yet. I don't have a million "fans." I have close to 900,000 followers on Facebook, (roughly 890,000 of whom are filtered out from any one post because of the FB algorithm), and most of them are just there for puns and memes and have little interest in anything else I post. I'd say on an average day I see twenty to thirty people try to pick a fight with me of SOME stripe or another––usually in the comments. Often it's pretty low key. They just want to say their piece and if I ignore their comment, it's over. But we're getting there. A little more every month.)

I've already written about every reason someone might unfriend me. I can't really let that ebb and flow get to me or it would tear me apart as a person who imprints on Roombas and wants everyone to love him. People pick fights with me for almost all of the same reasons, but if I got into twenty fights a day, even if I could find that human touchpoint and make peace with 95% of them, I would A) only be conflict resolving and never writing, and B) be a hollowed out husk of a desiccated human being who knows only empty sorrow and frustration.

There are only a few ways to deal with it. If you hold absolutely, perfectly still, people will get bored and go somewhere else. If you say only absolutely, perfectly innocuous things, (most) people will not have any reason to complain. If you completely ignore your comment sections, probably only 1/50ish of those angry people end up contacting you directly in some manner (but then your comment section is a troll-haven cesspool).

Or you put on your armor.

You ignore the shitty comments. You delete things said in bad faith. You ban/block people who clearly want a fight. When they start out with "Oh so you think...", you don't even finish reading the comment/message before clicking the little trash can icon. "I demand an apology" becomes the insta-off switch to your listening lobe. You hide comments when people are clearly reacting only to the title. You ban people who come in with phasers locked and shields up before opening hailing frequencies and trying diplomacy. You assume that people will round up their friends and that subsequent floods of comments about how you haven't addressed X are more about loyalty, online cliques, piling on, and performativity than any sincere call for accountability. You assume that someone who is going to have a problem with your politics is going to be an ass in every subsequent post and just show them the door to save yourself the ongoing headache. You pretend when they share your shit and their emcee comment is "This asshole is wrong about everything" that you didn't ever see it. You walk past those fights and act like you can't hear the people proverbially screaming your name for a throwdown. You assume someone who can't be bothered with civility is a bad actor (or having a bad day, but doesn't deserve a reply in any case).

You learn to deflect it all. All of it. Except for a trusted inner circle (a few dozen, tops) or maybe someone who takes the time to really connect with you as a person first, you deflect it ALL. Because you have to. Because long behind you are the days when you could spend an hour of back and forth seeing if someone was arguing in good faith instead of presuming they weren't or asking someone "Hey, are you okay? What just happened?" Now, even if you literally had the time (you don't), you couldn't handle it. You can't deal with every flash of anger. With every person who comes at you to show they're better than you. With every fucking howler monkey who has no self-control. You have to protect yourself.

And here's the worst part. In deflecting everyone, you deflect the people who are being sincere. You deflect the people who might have a point or who might be kind if you just validate their anger. Or who might see they're being unfair if you had a conversation instead of ignoring them. You deflect the people who are right. You deflect the people you really DO owe an apology. When your armor is on, they can't reach you either. Outside of your own group of friends, family, and close acquaintances, you become this person you never wanted to be.

At least, it's not anyone I ever wanted to be.

I'm not saying that I can read the minds of all these celebrities who seem to be teflon, but I think that's half the reason they get called out by swaths of big communities to no avail, but then come back a week later and say "So I talked to my friend last night, and I owe you all an apology.... " Their friend (or loved one) was someone who treated them first like a person, and thus got to see them without their armor.

I'm sure some of them are just SWERFs, TERFs, or herding Nerfs. I'm not saying they're right not to soften their hearts. I'm not saying they "deserve" to be approached diplomatically or entitled to a calm tone and a conversation about something pleasant first. However, I'm beginning to understand JUST how many people they had to walk past who wanted to tear them down and tear them apart in order to be get where they are today, and how they would lose their sense of self to treat every person upset with them online like a reclamation project. Everyone thinks that people have some way to tell the difference between the teeming millions mercurically upset by not-really-anything, possibly projecting, probably overreacting, and possibly deliberately trolling, and THEY who are sincere and legitimate about a very important issue.

We don't.

My experience is that most folks thinks fame wouldn't change them. THEY would still be totally chill and cool.

Oh my sweet summer children.....

If fame didn't change you, you would die of a broken heart from a billion cuts, and that would be around 2pm on day two. More than anything, you want someone to see you as a human and talk to you as a person––not a projection of what they think you are (bad OR good). You want them to just see another person who can be connected with. But not everyone ever will, and if you don't protect yourself, you will be eaten alive by those people who feel entitled to the most personal parts of you, yet who will never take the time or energy of trying to get to know or understand such parts before demanding them. You would doubt yourself into a little green globule on the end of a drumstick and you wouldn't be able to do the work that was making you famous in the first place.

I've already got a mental map in my head of people who I respect and whose criticism I'll let in. With them I still have the same rejection sensitive dysphoria and need-to-please so acute that I'm in therapy to help me with boundaries.

But with everyone else....I already notice that self-care involves walking away from most conflicts and thinking very very carefully about the ones I choose to try to resolve.  I'm "done" faster. I ban people like whack-a-mole. I simply ignore things. I don't have time for that. I leave comments in moderation if they missed the point. Those twenty potential fights have begun to push up towards thirty. And I end up thinking of more and more ways to protect my outward-facing self from being pulled down into that quagmire of anger and eviscerated.

And perhaps worst of all, I lose less sleep worrying about it. Because the armor works. It protects me well––sometimes even from the friends I've noticed are quick on the draw or drag their bad days to the table. I put it on and I am safe. And I hate it the whole, self-cared-for, safe, uneviscerated time.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Best Classic Fantasy (Reminder to Vote)

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

Our poll will only be up for another couple of days, so this is absolutely your last chance to vote.

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

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

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

Friday, May 24, 2019

Five Reasons It Was Rejected That Aren't Your Fault

This is Part 2 of 5 Reasons Your Submission Probably Ended Up In the Trash (And 5 It Was Rejected That Aren't Your Fault), and I'm going to hit the ground running without much intro, so bounce back there to see what you might have missed. 

Okay so you followed the submission guidelines to a T. And your work still got rejected. That means you suck, right? Time to have an existential crisis and drink yourself into oblivion? Maybe start making poor life choices like you’re an intern from Grey’s Anatomy? ...in the later seasons?

Not so fucking fast Hemingway.

Until you’ve been on the publishing end a couple of times, you’ll have no idea how many factors that have fuck all to do with "the quality of the writing" will come into play in your average decision to accept or reject. And while you absolutely might still be in dire need of another half decade of writing  practice and prolific reading, it's also pretty dang likely that you just accidently stepped in one of these pitfalls.

1- Your shit is too long

Look me straight in the eye. Are you looking?

I'm serious.

Listen up. Until you go behind the umbra of “novella” length and come back out the other side with a full-length novel, shorter shit gets published more often*. When you’re dealing with short stories, the shorter, the better. No shit, I have sat on the editing staff of an actual literary review, and the E.I.C. tossed in "one more" piece of kind-of-second-rate micro-fiction because we had an extra page and it was only two paragraphs. That's what went into that author getting published. ("Oh we have an extra page.....um..... Here do this too.") Half of our discussions were not about "absolute" quality, but if something was good enough to justify the number of pages it was going to take up. ("That was good. I'm not sure it was 20 pages worth of good.") We were pretty much having the exact same conversation as you might about where to eat for lunch, but with word count instead of price. ("I like their guac, but I don't $25-dollars-a-plate like their guac.")

(*Novellas are really just their own beast. They are hard to make profitable unless you’re an author with enough name recognition to make an omnibus work.)

Imagine you are a publishing a collection or journal. Your publication is 150 pages. 20 pages are ads. You lose another ten to the publication info at the front and back, title page, table of contents, etc…  Now you have 120 pages left for submissions. And you get one really good short story that is 50 pages. That’s half your publication for one author. You could showcase five or ten short stories and dozens of pieces of micro-fiction or poetry. If that 50 page story doesn't literally have a hand that comes out and digitally stimulates you, there's no way.

And what you have to understand is that this is a simple, financial calculation if you're an editor. Those twenty authors that would fit are all going to have parents and friends who will buy a copy of the review. Unless that one author is a household name or that longer story is so, SO worth it...you're losing money.

Shorter is better.

2- Not the right genre fit

You might be surprised how niche most publications can get. And if you add in the theme of ONE particular issue (or that anthology), it's even nicher. If you're submitting your cyberbiosteampunk coming of age story and the call was for cyberDISELsteampunk coming of age stories....you probably won't get in. Even if your story is totally awesome, totally cyber, totally steam, and totally punk. They want what they want, and from their perspective it's like looking for a naughty Santa outfit and you show up and say you've got a 60s Robin Hood costume which would probably look like a naughty elf if you they just wore the top and a belt.

The heart wants what the heart wants.

If the theme is something vague like "The Broken American Dream" and you offer up a story that you think fits pretty well, you might get edged out by a story that has more tragedy or anti-American angst or maybe just explicitly mentions that the meritocracy is codswallop.

If you just toss your submissions off to anthologies and magazines without checking to see what they're doing for their upcoming publication, your almost certain rejection will have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the quality of your writing. I mean your writing might ALSO suck, but mostly it's because you look like a Merry Man with no pants.

Paramount Domestic Television
Star Trek: The Next Generation

3- Too edgy

No I don't mean that you are just TOO cool for the venue, but if you want to tell yourself that, it might help you sleep at night.

The word "edgy" tends to be pretty plastic. It just means out at the edge of what someone is comfortable with. A Christian in bible study might find my non-monogamy outrageously edgy but an anarcho-socialist would find that preeeeety snooze worthy, and be more pearl clutchy about the fact that I'm not 100% sure I can visualize a world with cities but without cops. It's one of the reasons "edgelords" are usually actually just people just being super shitty about the most boring, middle-of-the-road, centrist dillholery they can champion. They're just arrogant shitgibbons who have confused their lack of convictions with having a personality.

But what I mean by "edgy" is equally plastic. The venue (magazine, anthology, whatever) is going to have a certain "view" of the world. Could be liberal. Could be conservative. It might not be overtly political at ALL, but could be skeptical or spiritual. Or maybe it's none of those things but it's aimed at younger audiences and stays away from adult themes.

Whatever's going on with a venue, no matter how into radical, boundary-pushing, groundbreaking art they think they are, it will be possible for you as an artist to step that one step beyond what they find acceptable––even if that is because you are a square-ass status quo defender. If you're gender essentialist, you may find that certain intersectional feminist outlets find you far too TERFy. If you drop the F-bomb too much and your story is all about oral sex and mescaline, more traditional venues might not want to pick that up. If you talk about sex as between a man and a woman in the holy bonds of matrimony (and that's not the opinion of a character who gets impaled on the tip a rocket ship in the climax), you may offend pretty much everyone who isn't Pat Robertson.

4- Wrong voice

I don't mean something deep and profound about your writing voice by this either. This isn't the editors sitting around and saying, "No no no. Zis writer juzt doez not have ze right....jais ne sais quoi."  (In my mind, all gatekeepers are outrageously French.)

I mean you literally might not have the right voice.

A venue dedicated to gender parity might have no more space for men. Or if it is trying hard to incorporate wider representation among its writers, it might take a pass on something from another white person. Or they might be trying to get stories from all over the country, and the west coast sent in ten times more submissions. Who even the fuck knows what goes through the minds of the outrageously French.

And, as if that weren't enough, some of this isn't even about authors OR your jais ne sais quoi. (To get the proper effect, say that in the most anglo accent you possibly can.)  It is as shallow as a the not BFF friend in a romcom. I mean they may turn around and say, "Jeeze we already have three stories in a distant first person." Or they may say "We already have two stories where it turns out to be from the point of view of the aliens."

It just might not be the right VOICE.

5-You just got edged out

There was nothing wrong with your story. In another timeline you are published, you won the Bat'leth tournament, and gatekeepers are mostly outrageously Welsh. But in this timeline someone edged you out. The publishing business IS a business and whether it is books per fiscal year a big five house can crank out or the page space in a literary review with quadruple digit circulation, they only have so much they can say yes to. There was just something else that was shorter, a better fit, a closer ideological topic, a more compelling voice, or yeah....maybe even just a little bit better from their point of view. It doesn't mean yours was BAD. The traditional publishing world is a little cutthroat, and you're not up against how good you are; you're up against everyone else who sent in a submission.

It's like the ultimate grading curve.

So take a week off on Risa, display a Horga'hn if that's your thing (or two if you are going for the threesome), and don't take your rejection so personally. It may not have had a single thing to do with your writing.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

2019's Greatest Hits by Month

A Special Mention

So there was a post that would have actually been (number two or three) on the TOP TEN list for 2019. But I normally don't put my appeals posts into the Greatest Hits menu. However, I figured that it might be useful to see for folks trying themselves to find a good way to ask for patrons, crowdfunding, and basically appeal for money. I seem to have stumbled upon a formula that works. Future appeals posts modeled on this have also done quite well.

Hi Everyone

BioShock Infinite as Art: Your Argument is Invalid (Part 1)
"You Live in a Bubble"
A Writer's Resolutions: A Template for Setting a Kick Ass New Year's Goal

I Need Advice! (But Not "Write Every Day")
The Working Artist and Exhaustion (Personal Update)

Social Justice Bard and The Curious Case of the Anti Identity Politics
Will You Do Infinity War? (Mailbox)
BioShock Infinite: Your Argument is Invalid (Part 5- A Swing and a Miss On Social Poignancy)

A Sick Bug
Basics of Submitting
9 Writerly Things No One is Going to Give You (But We All Need) [Part 2]

Should I/Must I Read the Classics? (Mailbox)
Five Reasons It Was Rejected That Aren't Your Fault

What We Fight For (I Am the Night)
9 Things Dungeons and Dragons Taught Me About How to Write (Part 2) 
Announcement: Speaking Engagement

Farewell to a Friend, New Schedules, And Random Assorted Things (Personal Update)
Follow-Up Questions About Developmental Editors Mailbox
I Can't Afford A Developmental Editor (Mailbox)

Proposal vs. Proposition (Mailbox)
The Lesser Writer (Mailbox)
The Elders Did It (I Am the Night) 

Writing Query Letters (The Very Basics)
Small Press or Agents First
Keep Going or Start Over (Mailbox)

11 Reasons Fame Probably Doesn't Look Like You Think It Does
What To Do With That First Novel
Self-Care, Brutal Honesty, Self-Deception, and the Writer Who Wants to "Make It" (Personal Update, Meta)

I Hope You Play
11 Reasons Fame Probably Doesn't Look Like You Think (The Renown Margin) Part 2
Most Invested POV (Mailbox)

Go Check out NOT Writing About Writing
Internal Critics and Other Voices (Mailbox) [Part 1 of 3]
Pointer Quests (Mailbox)

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Hard(ish) Sell

One of my mission statements for Writing About Writing has always been that as I discover things, I will tell you about them in real time. Here is what I've discovered about crowdfunding or trying to support yourself through donations and patrons through sites like Patreon or Paypal recurring.

Don't soften anything. Go for the hard sell. I don't mean like the mean aggressive hard sell that you get from telemarketers or car salesmen where they make people uncomfortable and kind of imply that if you liked children, kittens, or being a good person, you wouldn't even wait until later to spend the money. Rather, consider it more like public radio doing their pledge drive every season. They don't slip that shit into a show that they're doing so that you barely notice if you're not paying attention. They end the show early, take a special moment, tell you that they REALLY need your help, and that they can't do it without you. It's not a guilt trip, but they don't mince words. Plus you get the earthquake survival pack.

I've done a lot of appeals posts. Some have been folded into existing articles with little more than a note at the end. Some have been very gentle and "If it wouldn't be too much trouble...." about the way they've asked. Some have been more like I'm doing a pledge drive.

And every single time, the ones that get the best reaction are those that are direct, forthright, and candid. You can make it fun. You can make it creative. But don't hide it inside of other content and don't soften the ask.

Here's an example

Hi everybody,

I just want to remind you all that except for a couple of newsletters that I put out as rewards for certain tiers of monthly support, everything I ever write will always be free online. I might offer some longer works all in one place (instead of a hundred separate posts) on an ereader for a dollar or two, and some print on demand books are coming, but the text will at least be available for free.

However I AM a working writer. I have rent to pay and groceries to buy just like everyone else, and the only way I'm able to do that is by generous contributions from all of you.

So please if you have enjoyed our mailboxes, craft essays, pop culture breakdowns, and want to see more great content, consider giving a donation that will help me keep the lights on around here and keep writing as much as I can.

Better yet, you could become an ongoing patron through PATREON. Not only does this level of support help me plan budgets with an income I can expect to stay steady from month to month and help me with those bills each month, but you also get access to reward tiers offering everything from newsletters to occasional selfies to early access articles and more.

We lost many patrons in the months around tax season. For the first time ever, my writing income went down two months in a row and hasn't recovered. I want to keep offering you this great content and not have to cannibalize posts to work side gigs, but I need your help to do that.

Even as little as a single dollar a month (just $12 a year) will help me more than you think and get you in on backchannel conversations and news updates. For $3 a month, you'll get our newsletter that talks about what's going on and future developments. And there are more tiers and more rewards you can check out at my Patreon site.

If you like Writing About Writing––as well as all the other places I generate content (from memes to proto-posts) like NOT Writing About Writing, my Facebook page and my own FB wall,––and you want to see us keep doing what we're doing, please consider at least a small donation.

And as always, these posts are not typically "barn burners" on their own, so if you will help me defeat social media algorithms by giving them a heart react or a comment (Gif party in the comment thread!) or even a share if you have a lot of friends who follow WAW (or maybe just like giving away money to cute writers), that would be wonderful.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Admin Day––Reminders

Aug 26th update. I'm getting more questions than I have posts to answer them so if you want a question answered here at WAW, please check to see if I've answered a similar question (I'm more likely to do something brand new than rehash an old answer), and please be patient. Might take a few weeks. 

Hello this is an "Admin Day" I'm writing this so I have a page I can share when I take a day off  (once a month) from writing a fresh new blog to deal with newsletters for my Patrons, emails and PMs,  plus all the other behind-the-scenes things that tend to pile up if I spend all my time creating the "on stage" content. This is a page of reminders for people who either haven't been around long enough to know or have maybe forgotten.  

Did you know I have another blog called NOT Writing About Writing? It's where I write about social issues, personal thoughts, and review media in a way that I can't gracefully shoehorn into being about writing. NOTE: NWAW is about to move to its new home here at Blogger. So bear with us through some cut and paste of the articles I can't leave behind, and settling into our new home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Best Classic Fantasy (Final Round)

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


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Best Classic Fantasy (Semifinal 2 Results)

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

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

Text results below.

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

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

Saturday, May 11, 2019

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

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

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

Lesson learned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 10, 2019

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

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

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I am 576% here for questions so long that they do the heavy lifting of a post and let me make a shorter answer.] 

Deva asks:

Hi Chris,

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

Enter Stage Right, CAPITALISM:

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

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

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

Any insight would be appreciated :)

My reply:

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

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

Easy peasy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But in all these transactions you MUST KNOW YOUR VALUE.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Reminder to Vote (Best Classic Fantasy Semifinal Round 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 6, 2019

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

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

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

Text results below...

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

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

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

The second semifinal round is already live. 

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 3, 2019

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

Must I read old-timey classics?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I am pleased to announce I am only like two years behind in answering most people's questions.] 

Judith asks:  

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

What's your take on it?

My reply:

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

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

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

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

Should you read shit you can't even read?

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

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

Ahhhh. There we go.

That's a big negatory, Judith.

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

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

Is this relevant if you only read/write fiction?

*record scratching noise*

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

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

Like, really dry.

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

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

Should you read old-timey classics?

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck that guy. Fuck him right in the ear.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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