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

Friday, March 27, 2020

Feel How You Feel

We're going to toss our regular schedule, and do a couple of weeks of "Elephant-In-The-Room" posts about Coronavirus/Covid-19. They might be a little roughshod (as I'M a little roughshod right now). They might be a bit stream-of-conscious-y for what you're used to. They may be "about writing" in only the strictest sense.  

Starting today with a big ol' affirmation.  

It's okay to feel HOWEVER you feel.

It's okay to be anxious.

It's okay to not be anxious.

It's okay to be terrified.

It's okay to be serene.

It's okay to be worried about your income, even though "people are dying," and it doesn't make you a terrible person who should be more grateful.

It's okay to have your childhood trauma response kick in and be unable to feel anything except a cool and collected icy rationality that seems made for such a moment. It is okay if your reaction to strong emotions is to close down because you were taught that it wasn't okay to have them. So they go in a box and you'll deal with it later but right now there's shit to do. It doesn't mean you don't care. It doesn't mean you're a monster. It just means you're different and it's okay.

It's okay if it turns into hitching sobs that send you to back to therapy for the first time in years the minute the crisis is over.

It's okay for you to be happy that maybe you and everyone you know is hunkered down and safe. It doesn't make you a horrible person not to wallow in angst at the fate of everyone else.

But just for the record, it's okay to wallow in angst at the fate of everyone else.

It's okay to grieve. For the world we once knew and what is coming. For that feeling of normalcy that is fading from memory and seems to exist only beyond our reach. For the changes we can't stop.

It's okay to be angry.

It's okay to be sad.

It's okay to be desperately lonely, even if your friends with roommates can't get them to stop going out and take this thing seriously.

It's okay to be frustrated with your @#$*ing roommates who won't take this seriously even if your friends who live alone are getting desperately lonely.

It's okay to be horny as fuck. Like, someone just told you NOT to think about the color green. It doesn't make you petty or self-centered.

It's okay to feel dread. (Because every health professional and person who is not a heartless Republican is telling us this is just getting started and is going to get much worse.) It's okay to feel the growing "That's not a moon," feeling as you realize you can't just wash your hands and "be smart."

It's okay to dig through the news from everywhere like you're scratching an itch. (Unless it makes you worse....then maybe try a little less.)  It's okay to treat information like the understanding itself is giving you some measure of control over what is happening.

It's okay to avoid the news for self care. (Unless not knowing is making you worse...then maybe try a little more.)  We pretty much have the bullet points being beamed at us from every media. We don't need to read grisly descriptions, every single person's predictions on how this will unfold, or a government trying to downplay the risk because the ONLY number our president is capable of reliably keeping track of as a bellwether for how he's doing is the stock market.

It's okay to be whatever the emotional equivalent is of that moment when you're about to throw up and your hands are clenching the sides of the toilet and you know it's coming and there's nothing you can do about it, but you haven't yet, but god is it ever coming any second now....but like, emotionally speaking.

It's okay to cycle through these emotions so quickly and powerfully that you are exhausted by ten in the morning.

We're deep in uncharted waters and someone used the map back to shore as a quick fix to deal with the toilet paper situation.

A lot of people feel a lot of different ways. And that's all okay. There are no wrong answers when you're sheltering in place, worried about the entire world but especially Nana and your friend who had chemo and radiation for Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma five years ago, and watching your leadership strategically NOT CARE how many people are going to die so that Game Stop and Starbucks can open back up right away.

It's okay to not be okay.  In fact, you probably shouldn't be okay.

(But it's also okay if you strangely are––don't waste any energy on guilt––you just process differently.)

Over at the Writing About Writing Facebook Page it's very common for me to put up a "You should be writing" meme about the time each day when I'm sitting down myself to get a little bit of work done. I try to make them topical and mix things up. A slightly altered catchphrase here. A popular meme reworked there. And there have been a lot of things lately about writing while sheltering in place. What a good time to get that novel done, right? Hey, Shakespeare wrote King Lear when he was staying home to avoid the plague, right? CovidWriMo. Let's do this thing!

And if that's you? Great. If you are drowning in a gush of creativity in spite of (or perhaps BECAUSE of) everything that's going on, that's awesome. If you can write, rock out with your.....well whatever you've got out. Invent calculus. Become a five star chef. Write your entire trilogy.

Those posts are a gentle nudge to the "I want to be a writer more than anything ever in the whole wide world!" crowd and a reminder to anyone who means to be writing but maybe got caught up in taking a quiz to figure out what Kazuo Ishiguro novel they are. ("I wanted to be Remains of the Day, but it turns out I am Never Let Me Go...what a pisser!") It might be a blink and an "Oh yeah!" moment to a few of us working writers who are just as human as everyone else and do not have ice in our veins.

However, if you can't write, that's okay too.

If the words aren't coming at all, that's okay.

If you find that you can't do a whole lot more than spit a few angry sociopolitical paragraphs onto Facebook and can't really focus for more than a few minutes (so just fucking FORGET your work in progress), that's also fine.

If you can kind of manage to get bowls of Honey Nut Cheerios put into your face with enough frequency to not die and watch Star Trek: The Next Generation through for the tenth time, that's...hey, that's pretty great. Two pandemic thumbs WAY up. We regress under stress. We downshift into a mental state that is easier to maintain. We conserve our energy knowing that we might need to outrun a group of survivalists out of The Walking Dead instead of debate the finer points of Jon Snow's characterization in novels vs. movies.

And of course, of course, of COURSE this a little thing like half the planet getting sick and 3% of THOSE people dying is going to stress us the fuck out. So give yourself permission to feel how you feel.

Okay....so you're watching "too much" Netflix and eating "too many" carbs. It's okay. It's conserving your energy....because you don't feel safe (and you might very suddenly need to be the adult in the room so you want all the energy you can conserve).


And if you are in crisis, and need outside help, that's okay too.

"Productivity" and a culture of produce-or-die is a byproduct of our fierce capitalism and consumerism. If anything, we're learning in real time how dangerous it can be to have layer upon layer of the economy so dependent on our constant, pulse-pounding PRODUCTIVITY that we can't stay home and NOT DIE without our leaders shitting the bed.

"Global pandemic" is a pretty fucking reasonable excuse that you had a not-so-awesome March on the writing front. Hell, it'll probably work for April too! Sure, some of us working writers have had to try to find SOME kind of focus with a pickaxe and a miner's hat (the kind with the light), but I guarantee we're not like: "Ah...finally some QUIET around here!"

You know what I thought when we got the Shelter in Place order? I thought a few frozen pizzas, some PB&J fixins, maybe one of those giant jars of pickles and some canned soups, and I was going to sit down and basically KNOCK OUT a novel before they told us we could go fuck people again. (Can I just say that global pandemics fucking SUUUUUUUUUUCK for the person who has several partners that they don't live with.) I figured I was born for this moment. A distraction-free, introvert wonderland with no obligations but the blank screen. "Why don't they just GIVE licences away*?"

Want to know what actually happened?

I experienced the same shit as everyone else. I was moody. Distracted. I couldn't focus. I scrolled Facebook for hours, sometimes writing reactions to news stories but desperately unable to focus for the time it took to focus on a work in progress. I would go to get a link for something I was writing, and end up spending two hours looking at exponential growth curves for every single country. I felt sad in one moment and kind of twisted into glee the next at the vast expanse of writing time available and my relative good fortune at finding toilet paper and bread before I pulled the hatch closed behind me. But then I felt terrible about people who can't work from home and other people who have simply been laid off. I felt guilty about feeling glee. Then I found myself checking on Facebook ten times more than my USUAL "way-too-much" pace and reading everything about this virus. I did this not out of any sense of actual curiosity, but just a compulsion that couldn't be sated that maybe one more article will be the one that gives me enough understanding and sense of CONTROL to feel like I can focus on something else for a moment. By then I was exhausted, so I took a nap that was not a quick thirty-minute thing but one of those behemoth three-hour monsters that have you wake up wondering where the day has gone. I stared at some TV, but I couldn't follow anything I hadn't already seen.. It just took too much concentration. So I just put on an old show and kind of zoned out. I ate those Hostess donettes (the little mini-donuts with the chocolate covering that feels more like wax than actual chocolate) until I felt sick. And then I realized it was after ten and I was exhausted.....somehow.....from a day of doing nothing.

And the next day the same thing happened. I kept thinking for the entire day that I should at least play some video games. I wanted to turn on my new PS4 and play Horizon Zero Dawn. Instead I watched one episode after another of shows I have already seen multiple times.

And the day after that.....I managed to take an entire day––eight hours––and write a page and a half newsletter.

Because it had nothing to do with where I work or my usual lifestyle. It's not a "quiet getaway to work on the novel." I'm not in a remote cabin choosing to only have wifi if I go down the hill to the diner. It's a little different when you can't leave the house, even if you want to, and there's a ticker adding up the death toll in the other window.

This is something different and it's okay if you don't spring into action and churn out your magnum opus on day ten.

I'm writing (today).  I'm writing, but I'm not "better." I might be right back to cramming doughnuts in my mouth and Supernatural in my eyes tomorrow. I may hit news at 2pm after a great start like running into a mine at sea. This is a lot like grieving. (In many ways it basically IS grieving.) I know my "getting better" curve isn't going to be a linear or smooth process. I'll have some good days and I'll have some shitty days, and I have to leave myself some space for the shitty ones. They're out there.

And I know at least a few of those days are going to be saying goodbye.  To whom I do not yet know, but friends are already reporting deaths of people they know. Right now it's like that first pop of popcorn. (Just like the announcements of "I think I have it" were a week ago.) More are coming. And my love is not going to magically protect the people I care about.

Write if you want to.

Write if your heart burns for it.

Write if the forced time alone is doing for you what discipline could not.

Write if you feel it. (And if you don't feel it, that's okay.)

But don't write (or hate yourself if you can't write) to stay “productive” or because any moment not filled with work feels uncomfortable. Those are cultural messages from a different place that has nothing to do with art, creativity, or writing. And if anything, we’re about to learn how broken they have always been.

This isn't going to go away tomorrow.

This isn't going to go away next week.

And maybe the worst part is, we don't know when it's going away. Two months? Three? Surely four or five......right? RIGHT? If bottom line wanks who care for nothing but the economy don't flatten the curve, it might be a pretty long time.

And at some point in this, it is almost a statistical certainty that we're going to lose someone––maybe a few someones. There will be grieving. Not this "anticipating throwing up" grieving but the kind with the fat tears and the hitching breath and the wails that do not sound altogether human. And it will be okay to feel how you feel THEN too. Numb. Overwhelmed. Devastated. It will be okay.

When this is over, you don't have to have written your novel or invented calculus or have six pack abs or be a concert pianist. It will be enough just that you made it.

This is not a time you don't have a "right" to feel some way or you really need to pull yourself together. This is some WILDLY FUCKED UP SHIT, and it's okay to feel however you feel.

(*This 30 year old reference is from Licence to Drive, the cinematic masterpiece with Corys Haim and Feldman where the first question on the driving test is SO easy that Les Anderson wonders why even bother taking it at all.)

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Best Classic Science Fiction (Semifinal 2)

What is the very best sci-fi book (or series) written before 1975?  

If we can go without another global pandemic breaking out, the second semifinal round should go much more quickly than the first, and we'll be looking at the final round by in early April. And if there are sharknados or something next week, then I give up and this will likely be the only poll for all of 2020.

Let me just make ONE caveat. This poll is about BOOKS. It's about writing. If you loved watching Sting play a Harkonin brother, but otherwise find Herbert to be dry and way more white savior than you can stomach, then find another title.

I'm working on a series of Coronavirus/Covid-19 themed posts and I hope the first one (tomorrow) kind of makes it clear why we got knocked back out of the productive tree again and have had to start climbing our way back up. In the meantime, huge shout outs to my friend LeeAnn who is piggy-backing two families and change (it's me--I'm the change) of grocery shopping together and keeping me flush in Cheez Its Grooves Sharp White Cheddar flavor so that I can have a couple of creature comforts while I try to convince my creativity to put down "disaster mode" and come over here to do some writing. She is the hero of my village right now.

Oh and do remember that half the titles were already voted on (from your nominations) before you let me know how derelict I have been in my duty not to include your fave.

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.

IF YOU CANNOT SEE THE POLL- You are part of a small but non-zero group. The free polling app I use recently changed hands and there appear to be some growing pains.  The following link should work for you:  https://poll.fm/10526604

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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Best Classic Science Fiction (POLL RESULTS)

The results are in!

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

I'm not going to post part two after 9pm on the west coast, so I'll be putting that up tomorrow (and taking advantage of the extra day to do some Covid-19 themed blogging). Stay tuned! 

I was a little surprised at which titles didn't make it, but there were nothing but amazing titles on this poll. You'll see the top four results on our final round.
Text results below

Going on to finals
Dune- F. Herbert 38 20.65%
Earthsea trilogy(the before '75 parts)- U. Le Guin 31 16.85%
A Wrinkle in Time- M. L'Engle 29 15.76%
Foundation Trilogy- I. Asimov 28 15.22%

Get a lovely copy of our home game
Frankenstein- M. Shelley 24 13.04%
Slaughterhouse Five- K. Vonnegut 15 8.15%
The Martian Chronicles- R. Bradbury 12 6.52%
Ringworld- L. Niven 7 3.8%

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Best Classic Sci-Fi [Semifinal 1-Last Call for Votes]

What is the best classic science fiction book (or series)? 

Now that Facebook can see my page's posts again, it's time to finish up this poll and move on to the second semifinal. All of these are from YOUR nominations.

As I work today on a series of posts about writing in the time of coronavirus––a series that will subvert our usual schedule for a week or so––I am reminded of our poll that I put up a million and a half years ago before FB did their "You're invisible now, but we won't tell you why," thing and before shelter-in-place orders and before The Weirdening™. We totally need to get on to part two or this thing is going to take all of 2020 before we're done.

Please remember there's a second half to this poll before you snark it for missing the title you feel should totally be on there. (And remember that if you want to see a title on ANY poll, you need to nominate it during that part of the process.)

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

I WILL POST RESULTS TOMORROW and fire up part two of this poll as well.

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.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Limits Have Been Placed

Nice passive construction there. "Limits have been placed."
As if we don't know WHO is the asshole here.

Hi folks,

If you are following WAW somewhere other than Facebook and do not have at least a dollar a month Patreon set up, you might be wondering what happened to us. Rest assured that Covid-19 is disrupting my life as well as anyone's, but we've not gone quiet because of that.

I will cut and paste a post I have been putting up (and adding to as updates occur) from our Facebook page, but the shortest version is that Facebook sent me the notification above on Sunday night, and until this is lifted, there's very little point in posting HERE. (I'm still writing. It's just for other places and for the posts I'll be putting up once we're back on track.)

Copy/Pasta from FB.

[Update 4- (Thursday) Ironically this was probably a good week for this to happen. I'm in the Bay Area and we got a Shelter In Place order that went into effect on Monday. That's basically the next step down from a full quarantine. Only people needing or providing "essential services" are supposed to be out and about. So a lot of people are working from home and really aren't supposed to leave the house to GO anywhere. (You can go out and walk around as long as you stay six feet from anyone you see.)

Now, you might think a working writer would continue on in a situation like this without so much as a hiccup, but I'm experiencing a lot of the the same difficulties transitioning as everyone around me. Difficulty focusing. A mood slump. I feel like I have less time instead of more. Days slide by and I sometimes look up shortly after lunch only to find out that it's after 10PM and I've really gotten nothing done but stress reading a thousand CV-19 articles. Getting ONE thing accomplished is a pretty good day.

Update 3- (Wednesday)- Remember we will be back MONDAY MORNING my time.

Update 2- (Wednesday) I'm pretty sure this has nothing to do with the Facebook glitch that happened yesterday with various overzealous algorithms. I was down days before that started and the message I got was not related to any specific posts.

Update 1- (Monday) I'm not sure why some of you are still able to see my posts on your feeds. Do you have Writing About Writing set to "See First"?

I'm going to make sure I keep putting news about this as the top post. For reasons I do not understand, SOME of you will see this post in your feed, but the engagement numbers are indeed super low. A really good pun on a page of a million should be making 2k-3k (even after the great throttling of 2018) not less than three figures.]

Apparently nothing I post here will appear on your walls for [FIVE] more days. I do not know what policy FB thinks I have broken, but I'm currently trying to appeal to no avail. I know we all could have used some levity right now, and what a shit time this is to get Zuck'ed, but it is what it is.

For the time being, I'm taking a break from posting here [the Facebook page]. There's no sense putting on the full jazz hands/hairography show to be seen by .00001 percent of my audience. I'll save up all the great memes I'm finding, and post them when my outreach gets turned back on. Hopefully they aren't TOO stale by then.

The blog is still there and I will keep writing. Later today, I'll put out a letter to my Patrons about what to expect in the next five days. My public account and in the "Writing About Writing––Just the Blog" Group are still up and running though each has a different pattern of posting/types of post. I'm also using this opportunity to get started on other projects.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Sketch Comedy Blogging Advice (Mailbox)

Michelle asks:

Hiya Chris,

Thank you for your blog; it's been very useful to me. I have a question about a situation I keep getting mired in:

I get about a chapter into a story, realize I want to make major plot/setting changes, and there doesn't seem to be any good solution. I can (a) JUST WRITE, ie write the original. hating it and knowing I'll have to change it all later, (b) start writing from where I am with the new version, and maybe getting into a terrible habit of making huge changes on a whim and ending up with something totally disjointed, or (c) restart from scratch. Over and over. 

I've tried all these and they all suck. Which leaves me paralyzed, overthinking, trying to make my story perfect in my head without actually writing it down. Until I'm so exhausted by it I slink off in defeat.

Do you have any tips on how to deal with this?

Later in my inbox: 

*sigh* Never mind. I wrote this in frustration. You've already answered this question in like 10 different ways on your blog. Guess I was hoping for some magic formula. 


My first reply, 

It's up to you, but I'd be happy to try, even if it's "again." The mailbox is kind of like a serial show. It's really only the same dozen or so questions dressed up in different costumes (with an OCCASIONAL guest star). 

Good luck either way <3, 


And the response:

Hey, thanks. I mean, I'm going to keep dealing with this problem so I'm sure an answer would be helpful, but I know your mailbox tends to overflow and I'm pretty sure you won't be offering me the Elixir of Finished Stories anyway, so no worries either way. :)

Anyway, searching your blog for answers did compel me to roll my eyes, mutter a couple curses, and then go back to my story to bang out a few angry paragraphs. Which probably IS my answer. So thank you. :P

My blog post reply:

It's true. The mailbox is a lot like a serial comedy sketch show.

Not only do we badly need a recurring gag like The Spanish Inquisition or Land Shark, but we sometimes get stuck in a cliché where we're doing the same thing over and over again. Like spectacular guest stars on such shows, occasionally we get the really unusual questions and I might even have enough grammar questions, for God knows what reason, to scrape together another grammar questions post––seriously why would you ask me this? I'm terrible! However most of the time it's variations on a theme.

I don't just mean F.A.Q. type stuff either. Those are more like......reruns. Like when your show is young but in syndication and every five days you think "Didn't we JUST watch this one?"

But you can only tell people that the best way to get better at writing is by reading a lot and writing a lot so many times before you have to throw a game show shtick in there. You can turn it into a listicle. You can make an ironic satire post of the person who thinks they're going to get there WITHOUT doing those things. You can pull out studies. You can share personal stories. But in the end you're really just telling people "No really. No really! NO.....REALLY!!!"



Pretty soon, no matter how original the skit is, you start to notice that Carol Burnett brings a certain "Carol Burnett-ness" to all her roles. ("Hey, wait a second! This cyber techno ninja pirate is pulling on her ear and CLEARLY trying not to laugh!") And in much the same way, many of my articles are just me trying to find some new way to tell people the same thing.

So...sure. Let's do it!

There are a lot of different metaphors for your "muse" that are simultaneously accurate and useful (including the very idea of a muse) but for right now, it's going to be very important for me to talk about it like it's a 20-year-old. Not a 20-year-old who knows what they're doing in life, but one with no ambition.

It loves ideas. It loves The Big Picture™ It's passionate! It gets stirred up by inspiration! It talks a lot about where it's going and how it's going to get there. But any time anything starts to actually look like work, it's going to do everything in its power to get out of it.

Including try to inspire you to do something COMPLETELY different. Because if you scrap and start over enough times, you will eventually give up. And your 20-year-old-with-no-ambition muse knows this. (Just like the actual 20 year old knows if they screw up a chore enough times, Mom will stop asking them to do it.)

So you have to make it clear that the work IS going to happen one way or another and it can either show up with the fairy dust or be miserable, but you're not going to let it dictate to you that it's time to give up.

Sit down with your original story and keep writing it. If your ideas about changing it are epic and mind-bending, you can jot them down as notes and either incorporate them or promise to hit them during your rewriting process (which you absolutely WILL have to do so best just plan for it now). If it's utterly far afield, jot down a quick note, continue writing, and then take a bit of extra time to start a second story where you're exploring the idea you had. But no matter what happens, don't stop the original.

Wait, your muse will think. Wait did I just give myself MORE fucking work????

VERY quickly, your muse is going to realize that the games aren't working––that it can't get you to stop putting in effort (which it hates) by getting you so excited about other ideas that you quit in frustration. Once it knows that the work is going to happen regardless, it starts to settle down and show up when asked. (At this point I would switch to more of an animal-taming metaphor....) You may find that it is as short as only a few days before it starts to play nice, go where you point it, and offer you up good inspiration for what you're working on. Although I have (rarely) heard of folks still grinding their gears a bit, even after a couple of weeks.

Once you've settled in to this routine of work, you'll be much better able to tell the difference between an idea being thrown out to distract you and an idea that really is a complete lightning flash game changer.

In the meantime:

**knock knock**

"Who is it?"


**opens door** 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Best of Feb 2020

Best of Jan 2020

You can go ahead and say it because I know we're all thinking it. February suuuuuuuucked. I had a wonderful month with an amazing opportunity come out of nowhere. And by the end of the month I was living in my own place. But in between those two things there was illness, injury, moving, and politics. So even though I wrote, a lot of it ended up in other places.

However, we did emerge with a few front-runner articles that will go on to fame and fortune in our Greatest Hits menu.

F.A.Q. How Do I ACTUALLY Start Writing?
So there you are looking at a blank page. How do you actually start?

F.A.Q.  What Advice Is There OTHER Than Write Every Day?
Is there some OTHER advice in there I can talk to?

The question of whether or not the "stakes" of a story require a body count is not so easy as yes or no, but the short answer is, there are other ways to raise them.

Honorable Mention

Once again my appeals post does better than anything else. But I don't usually post the appeals posts (or polls) as greatest hits. But if you're trying to make an appeal, this is the way.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Best Classic Sci-Fi Book (Or Series)

What is the very best sci-fi book (or series) written between before 1975?

Our latest poll is live!  Come vote!  

Our poll was pulled from your nominations, and now you get to decide which one wins. This was a popular topic for nominating so I only took titles with three or more "seconds"? Thanks to all the others.

Let me just make ONE caveat. This poll is about BOOKS. It's about writing. If you loved watching Sting play a Harkonin brother, but otherwise find Herbert to be dry and way more white savior than you can stomach, then find another title.

I know I don't usually post on Mondays, but I got swallowed by elections last week and wanted everyone who follows Writing About Writing, but not some of the other places I drop my more political writing, to know I'm totally still here (and totally still writing). Plus, I have a very weird looking work week at my nanny job this week. It's more hours than I usually tolerate and includes two sleepovers so that I can be there bright and early the next morning to get older smol off to school, as well as a full day with an evening off but then I have to be back later to sleep over again.

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.

IF YOU CANNOT SEE THE POLL- You are part of a small but non-zero group. The free polling app I use recently changed hands and there appear to be some growing pains.  The following link should work for you:   https://poll.fm/10517962

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.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Brain-Eating Primaries

Of course I would discover, as I looked for an image,
that there are actual brain-eating parasites.
Because of course there are. 
I just want to remind anyone following Writing About Writing, but who maybe doesn't follow NOT Writing About Writing that even though I pretty predictably write content three or four times a week, I don't always do my writing here. Sometimes my brainmeats, and thus my regular schedule of WAW updates, gets just a little bit eaten. Elections (primaries included) are definitely one of those times. 

I was going to put up a poll today. I woke up writing a rant. (Writing while still in bed involves forming sentences and choosing words and sometimes even my fingers moving as if they're on the keyboard.) So I wrote the rant instead.....just a few words. A few more. Okay now it's 3pm and time to go watch kids. One of the things you get to see (that I WANT you to see) when you watch me "be a working writer" in real time is the days that eat my brain. The days I wake up and end up doing Plan B or C. The days I write (for I write every day), but my passion pulls me away from the "sensible" work and says "You will write THIS."

Polls are not quite as time consuming as writing a post from scratch, but going through and tallying up all the nominations and seconds (and thirds, fourths, whatevers...) does take a good hour or two. I sort of blew the day on my rant. And I know if I put this poll up after business hours––that's here on the west coast for some reason––I'll be chasing after folks to come vote for a month before there's good turn out. If I drop it tomorrow as early as I can, it'll get a strong showing right away.

Apologies if my political rantings are not your cup of tea (but you should follow NWAW if they are). Rest assured that I am clacking away at the keys, and we will be back on the regularly scheduled WAW schedule in due order.

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Post That Only Kind of Was

If you've been following me here or my public Facebook page or really almost anywhere, you know I've been dealing with some pretty big life stuff these last few weeks, and so the post that would normally be here, isn't going to be here. 

It's GOOD life stuff (a move to my own little place in Richmond, Ca) but it has definitely kept me busy. And away from a proper writing schedule for much longer than I'm comfortable with.

Normally, around this time of month, I would ask you all for money. I've got the same bills as everyone else to pay, including a bay area rent, and so it's because of all of you that I am able to keep writing. There would be an impassioned plea. I would lay out all the benefits. I would probably ask people to GIF party in the comments, and start it with something click baity like "Well this is embarrassing..." to bring in lots of folks who want to find out what I'm talking about. I would tell you Patreon is the best because I can budget with ongoing monthly donations, but one-time donations are always welcome. (And I have Venmo at chris.brecheen@gmail.com and can also be sent snail mail if you PM me for an address.)

Here's the thing though. I hate doing appeals posts after a slow period. I want to drop them after a kick-ass period of one amazing post after another when everyone is thinking "I *HAVE* to keep this guy writing!" It is so difficult for me to pass the hat when I feel like I haven't done anything.

I realize the irony of course. By writing a post about how I'm not going to write a post, I have, in some ways, written an appeals post. (This is a rhetorical device called apophysis, by the way.) For folks who want to support my work (even when it gets a little chaotic, I'm off my regular update schedule, I'm writing a lot in other places, or I'm just needing to skip more days than usual) I want them to know how they can help.

I could always use your support (ongoing or one-time). I don't split wifi, utilities or rent. I have taxes coming (and I pay them as self-employed/freelance––always owe; always a lot) and my expenses have gone up a bit now that I live alone.

Also, breaks like this are due in part to my financial situation.

It's true. I had to do this whole move myself (and with a few angelic friends to help with the heavy stuff). If I could have hired a moving company (or even just six local starving art students), I could have done this whole process in five days instead of two weeks. And that would have given me more time to write. Money isn't everything, but down at my strata of income it is a Swiss-Army-Knife of problem solving. So even though I'm not going to go through the whole process, I will quietly point to the hat and say that if you want to help, it would be more than welcome.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Chris and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No Good, Awesome, Dudical, Completely Epic Month

He really has great teeth, doesn't he?
Well....the spirit of Nicolas Cage never showed up. I waited all night for the ability to go wide eyed and power through like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin, but it just didn't happen. I guess those lines of coke are a more important part of the equation than I first thought.

So I have to write a different kind of post.

I'm tired. I'm aching from lifting shit. I dealt with illness and kept going. My cracked rib still hurts (especially when I cough or sneeze). I haven't worked a day that clocked in at less than 12 hours since before the 15th. Building furniture is a lot more time consuming than even the most liberal estimates. I still need half a dozen things including, like, A PLATE so that I can actually live here. I really want to get done with unpacking and sit in my then clean and organized new apartment for several hours and just stare at a wall and sigh contentedly.

I was high-key trying to nail a couple of last articles for the month. Just go out on a high note and make sure that all my patrons didn't get their monthly notice that they were about to be billed (for March) and think, "Wait, what has this guy even DONE lately?"

In the end, I'm just going to have to let February 2020 be the month that got eaten by life––the worst blogging I've ever done (even compared to months with cancer and breakups). The illness. The injury. The time crunches. The false start on a familial visit. The nanny hours that I couldn't say no to because moving costs turned out to be sneaky little fuckers who could grow right in front of you without you ever noticing.

In the grand scheme of life, however, this was a spectacular month. The golden opportunity that fell into my lap. Grabbing it and going full throttle. Why, even now, I'm not waking up from dogs and sixteen-year-olds outside my door or trying to time meals or bathroom breaks to coordinate with others.

Still.....I shall take this moment to add in some writing advice. Sometimes you can write every day just like you're supposed to, but there's still too much shit going on to deal with deadlines. Either you're just distracted from the writing you "ought" to be doing (true for me right now) or you have the time to sit down and do a little writing, but not the time to sit down and write entire articles (also true for me right now). We all need to take a few days OFF to move.

Plus a lot of my writing during political turmoil-y times ends up in chunk thoughts on my Facebook Page. Primary season and Covid-19 have put some bees in my bonnet. I tend to spend an hour writing up a multi-paragraph status, do that multiple times a day, and then think my Facebook writing doesn't "count," but I'm trying to be better about that (including pointing people to it when I am not the best about the Writing About Writing update schedule)

The good news is, I haven't stopped writing. I'm just not going to be able to get a completed blog post up before everyone goes home for the weekend and by Monday it'll be March. There are a handful of half-done and almost-done articles (the ones I thought I could Nicolas Cage today and tomorrow), my Internet is officially hooked up here as of this morning, and I've had more time to sit and write each day since the week started, so I still have big plans for March.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Best Classic Sci-Fi (Nominations and Seconds Needed)

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

You know....I love this job, but there's this part of doing the polls that annoys me: every single time these polls go live, someone gets all incensed in the comments with a righteous, "How can you have Suchandsuch poll without Soandso title? It negates the entire validity of the poll."

So put it on there, n00bsickle! Don't just complain after the fact!

The thing is, these polls are always based on YOUR nominations. So nominate. And also second. (And third...and fourth.) Because I am going to take between 8 and 24 titles maximum, and there are a LOT of great books to choose from, so I just take the ones with the most seconds (and thirds and fourths...). 

I'm unpacked from the move JUUUUUUST enough to start sitting down and writing more than just an hour or two a day (more like the usual six to eight), and Sonic is supposed to be coming to hook up my Internet tomorrow (so I don't have to keep going to my clients' house to get any work done). I really want to end February with a couple of hard-hitter articles so that the month's "Best Of" is not the only three (non-poll/non-appeal) articles I wrote. So I may end up posting on Saturday. But I also have to work late tonight and tomorrow as well as go in early today, so it's going to take a lot of channelling Nicolas Cage wild energy to make it.

Also....a few of you need to check the publication dates of your nominations. If it's not before 1975, it goes on a different poll.

Check out the rules in THE ORIGINAL POST and also remember to go THERE to nominate or it won't count. Don't nominate a book in a comment on this post. Don't nominate on a comment at Facebook. Not Tumblr.


Monday, February 24, 2020

We're BACK! (The Train Leaving The Station)

New electric/diesel trains just sort of start moving, but in the old days of steam, if you tried to go too fast, too quickly, you'd those full power turns on the drive wheel where the piston rod would be going, and the wheels might even spin, but that train would still barely move. And then slowly, after several turns, it would finally begin to lurch forward.

So......that's like a metaphor.....

For the next few days I have to come to my clients' twice a day to feed the kitties, and as long as I'm here, I'm going to sit down and get some writing done on their Wifi. Pretty soon Sonic is going to come to my new apartment, and satisfy my Pakled need to find "things that make us go," but at least, until then, I have some half-measures.

As we start up this week, we are not quite full steam ahead yet, but I should be able to start getting some writing work done as I return to a full clip. By next week, you'll all be back to singing "How does he write like he's running out of time?"

By tomorrow my $3 Patrons should see the February newsletter. I know it eats a regular post each month, but it is a small way of saying thank you for not only keeping the lights on and the rent paid, but making sure I know that I have a way to handle NEXT month's power bill and rent too. Wednesday you're going to get a post (even though I said no Wednesday posts this month) though it will be sort of a small, admin thing. By Thursday, we'll be up to speed (I've already got a mailbox partially written).

And at that point we should be up to speed. I appreciate everyone's patience during my move. Getting my own place might not directly give me any more time to write, but there are a lot of little things that kind of "nibble" at writing time and energy that I think are going to be a LOT better.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Best of Jan 2020

I held back for a couple of weeks on posting some of my January admin posts, so that I had some "jazz hands" to put up during my most labor intensive moving days (which are happening right now). The weird irony from January is that at the time I had NO idea I was probably going to be building more Ikea furniture very soon.

Ikea Furniture Assembly, Writing, and You
Writing is a lot like building furniture. Wait, what?

"The 'Writing About Writing' Guy"
After eight years, the bio was badly in need of an update.

Internal Critics and Other Voices [Part 2 of 3]
Though parts one and three were in other months (the very end of Dec and the very beginning of Feb respectively), part 2 came in as one of the month's best.

Honorable Mention
A Bump In the Road

Apparently, I'm getting pretty good at writing appeals posts. This would have been the #1 slot if I allowed appeals posts to "count" for the month's bests (I also ignore the polls and all the various nomination and reminder posts). For those of you trying to get the wording right on an effort to crowdfund something––or those of you who are hoping to help Writing About Writing struggle on with it's limited success––this might be a decent post to check out.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

F.A.Q. What Advice Is There OTHER Than Write Every Day?

TL;DR: There's a LOT of advice that isn't "write every day" even about how frequently one OUGHT TO be writing, and you certainly should write only as much as you derive meaning and satisfaction from, but the reason you're likely to hear this one a lot is because people who are unhappy with their lack of writing career constantly ask working professionals how they "made it," like there's a trick to doing something professionally. Read a lot, write as much as you can, trust the process (particularly including peer review), be deliberate with your writing (and reading), and check in with some folks who've gone before you so that you're not spinning your wheels quite so much.

Longer answer:

The devil's due:

Even as an explicit question about advice that is NOT write every day, it is worth taking a moment to explain why this is such common, such good, and such conventional-wisdom-esque advice among working writers. Basically, I can't give you all the "other" advice without a massive, thirty-foot-tall disclaimer with flaming letters that the best damn thing you could possibly do if you want to be a novelist or some kind of working creative writer is to set aside as much time a day as you possibly can at the same TIME every day and sit down and write.

1) Because it works. There are few skills at which one can improve so quickly and predictably as writing, and there are really NO paths to prose improvement that do not involve consistent work. Creativity is like a muscle. With the exception of some folks with neurological limitations, if you set aside the same time each day to do something creative, you WILL get better at it in an entirely predictable way––starting to have ideas about 10-15 minutes before your "session" begins. You can kind of "aim" it and it sort of obeys your command, but it's not entirely under your control. (This is why I sometimes call it The Force. "You mean, it controls your actions?" "Partially. But it also obeys your command.")

I could wallpaper a room with all the testimonials I have gotten since I started blogging that writing every day turns out to work amazingly well, that people found their muse, finished their shit, and were able to write consistently when they sat down. (Though, admittedly, if I kept it in 12-point font, it would have to be a very small room.)

2) Because it's metonymy. Look, if you don't tell the writers' cabal of my transgression, I'll let you in on a little secret. You don't have to write EVERY day. "Write every day" is just an easier slogan than "Write five or six times a week unless you're sick, but it's really good to do a little something on those off days if you can, and....." Well, you get the idea.

Most of the writers with careers that people envy write every day, but you can make a living doing six days a week. Maybe even five (though by conventional successful-writer wisdom, that's REALLY pushing it). You can spend a couple of days a week writing for a couple of hours instead of five or six. (This is what I do. I have weekends.) You can take a couple of hours writing three really long emails and call it a day. You can be distracted by the news, write six hefty Facebook posts, and then give up on doing something on your novel or blog. (It was still writing even if you were distracted.) What you're going for is the practice; it doesn't have to be a five-hour session on your work in progress. But also you don't want to lose that mental connection you have between ideas and the words that bring them to life, and like anything we practice at constantly where we are using a skill to turn our ideas into an expression other people can experience (say, like a musical instrument), you'll get rusty faster than you think. That's quite a mouthful; "Write every day" is easier to remember.

3) Because no one ever asks working writers how to be contented hobbyists. What working creative writers get asked is how the questioner can also be a working creative writer. Our success gets "probed" by people wondering about agents or publishing nepotism or our social media marketing strategies like there is a secret. Yes, there are influences that are unearned advantages of birth and cannot be controlled like being white, raised middle class or higher, having formally educated parents, being cishet, being male, and being from an anglophone nation (the last really only because of the sheer amount of publishing that comes out of New York). There are a few things that are like "force multipliers" like having social media outreach, nepotistic connections in publishing, or some entirely-unrelated-to-writing fame, but no one ever EVER got there without working outrageously hard and probably pretty close to daily.

Writers actually have a very "Do as thou wilt!" approach to other people's writing. You do you. You decide your own level of involvement. If you don't want to write every day....don't. I'm very clear that creative writing is not a path to riches or fame for 99.999% of those who love it. At best it is a long and arduous path to a very modest but fulfilling living where you will be tempted by the kinds of writing that pay better money (like technical writing, ghost writing, and even content writing). You can ARGUE with the fact that we writers have consistently noticed that every one of us who's crested the more-than-a-cell-phone-bill plateau or "made it" in some sense that the world considers meaningful tends to write daily or almost so, but it's not going to make it UN-true. Our advice is descriptive and empirical––we're not, like, holding back on folks until they haze themselves with daily writing. (And those that do treat this advice in this way are probably being ableist.) The fact is, most writers who make a tidy living (and particularly the ones that make a splooshy one) are the folks who are out there fiddling with their schedules, trying to find and justify MORE time writing, not less. But hey, you know, maybe getting mad might work THIS time.
The more you think of your brain as akin to a musical instrument, taking your ideas and emotions and converting them into a form others can appreciate, the more quickly you will realize that it is a skill that will atrophy with disuse, that you need lots of practice to be proficient, more to be "good," that being a hobbyist is okay if it makes you happy, but that being exceptional or "making it" will take constant training like most folks wouldn't believe. 

Remember, this isn't advice that's exclusive to people who can't write every day. It's just the other Very Important Advice™ that will create working writers. So if you can get to the page every day and ALSO do these things, you will advance even faster.

Write as much as you can: Okay, you can't, won't, or don't want to write every day. Fine. Do it as much as you can. Come close. You don't get better at anything by NOT doing it. If you want to get better at writing, write MORE. Write five days. Write six. Write as much as possible on the weekends but at least a fat paragraph during your lunch break three days a week during lunch. Whatever, just get as close as possible.

Read (or keep reading): A lot of writers stop reading. Like they kind of figure they read all the books they'll ever need early in their life and now it's time to just do the writing part. Don't do that. Trying to only write is like trying to only breathe OUT.

Occasionally read things you wouldn't normally: Tough books. Nonfiction. Western canon lit (if that's not your normal jam). A Pushcart anthology. A genre you don't usually dig. Once in a while take a stroll on a new path and see some new sights. You might learn a few things and get some WONDERFUL ideas.

Think about writing: Let me be honest with you. I hate this advice. Even though I have to grudgingly give it a half nod. I hate this advice because it has fueled so many fucking "Why don't I have a book deal yet?" entitled a-holes who tell you in that supercilious way that they don't NEED to write every day because they THINK about writing. (For some reason, I always imagine them taking a drag of a cigarette right between those two clauses.) And every last one of them was exactly the sort who was turning in that same retooled vignette in their capstone classes that they showed up with and workshopped on their first class of the program. This is just way too many pretentious wankers' "out" when it comes to applying their ass to the chair and doing some goddamn work. And I just fucking HATE that it might be tempting sincere and dedicated writers into losing a valuable habit. So if you can't write, think about writing. If you have a choice, though, pick the actual writing.

Also, this is not "I had a passing thought about my writing earlier today, so now I'm good." You want to actually spend 10-15 minutes considering word choices and elements of craft. Consider a character arc. Think about how exactly your setting could subtly reinforce your theme. Think about how to have emotional and personal stakes in your climax instead of just external ones.

Figure out EXACTLY why you like writing that you like: One of the reasons literature majors and creative writing majors spend about 90% of their time in the exact same classes is because the "close reading" of literature and the "how did the author make me feel this way" of creative writing are basically the same skill set––you get down into the guts of the sentence structure and specific word choice and see what made that meaning happen.

For a casual reader, it's fine to just read something and sigh wistfully. (Such beauty. Much prose. Wow!) Who amongst us hasn't pressed Victorian literature to their chest in desperate wanting? Well, actually I haven't but whatevawhoodles. However, to read "as a writer" means to pause when a passage takes your breath away,  take a moment to look at exactly what moved you, and THEN ASK HOW? How is it doing what it's doing? Is it the language? If so, which specific words? Is it the sound it makes in your head? Is it the imagery? Is it the sentence construction? Or maybe the way long and short sentences weave together? Consciously notice what is going on. Unlock its secrets. Let that author teach you their tricks. Be the ready student, and the master that is that writer will reach across space and maybe even time and give you your very own private writing tutoring session. Read consciously.

Practice outside your comfort zone, but also practice writing that plays to your strengths: I love writing dialogue, and really hate trying to write about FEELINGS. So I often pause when I read good descriptions of feelings (above) and pay attention to that. I try to emulate it in prompts or when I'm writing on some draft.

However, when I'm writing for publication (especially a stretch goal publication and not a "safe" publication), I TEND to focus more on dialogue because I want to go where I'm strong. Consider some of the writing you do like practicing for a sport. If you suck at speed but are super good at endurance, you definitely want practice sessions to include speed drills so you work on that weakness and get better. However, in a competition with your crosstown rivals, you'll want to play to your endurance as much as you can and avoid situations requiring raw speed.

Start wherever (beginning or maybe not): Perhaps the weirdest thing about starting writers is they know but still refuse to accept that they're absolutely NOT going sit down and write their magnum opus book from beginning to end and then just go "clean up the grammar."

They know it, but they still don't....GROK it. They still insist on a contiguous experience and have the hardest time making cuts. It's okay to sit down and write the ONE scene you keep thinking about, even if it's near the end or even if it's just floating around and you're not sure when it will fit in. Just get it out. Perhaps it's future fodder, but maybe it's just practice. But the likelihood is as you start to get THAT scene out, that fucking loop in your head will stop, and suddenly you'll be thinking of ANOTHER scene. By the time you have finished writing scene 4, scene 13, and scene 22, you've probably thought of scene 7, 3, and 12. Then you can work backwards, sideways, upside down, or whatever timey wimey way you want.

Writing is a recursive thought process because it is literally impossible for you to write faster than you think. You will have ideas as you write, and some of them will be really good.

Routine!: Try to develop a daily routine in as much as that is possible for you, even if (or perhaps especially if) that routine involves a lot of rest and relaxation. It might be counterintuitive at first, but the more sort of...BORING your outside life is, the more your creative life tends to flourish. That doesn't mean you can't go on a vacation or something (though maybe you still try to wake up and do a half an hour every morning except for the day you're actually GOING to Disneyland). It means you embrace as much routine as you can. If you can come to the page at the same time every day, it's going to turn your creativity up to eleven. That's just the way our brains work. There are options for those who simply don't have the life that fosters routine, but getting as close as possible to one is the better choice.

Treat yourself well: We treat our brains like they're these psychic entities that live on other planes of existence that can only be reached by astral projection from the psi-vortexes within our skulls but our brains are right there with us not getting enough sleep, hurting from stress, and feeling kind of overloaded after that triple cheeseburger with greasy fries and a shake. Exercise a little (if you can). Eat decently (if you can). Drink enough water. Take your meds (if you can). Your brain is an organ. It's pretty awesome, but it has never NOT been a part of your body.

Trust the process––no, REALLY: This one might be the hardest for starting writers. Half the reason they sit frozen at their opening sentence is because somewhere inside they don't actually believe that they'll end up changing everything. They want to nail it on the first attempt.

You're going to have to write many drafts. You're going to need peer review. You're going need to change some stuff.  You're not the chosen one who won't need to rewrite your book and make huge changes. You're not the special snowflake who won't get some harsh feedback. You're not the messiah of writing who won't have to practice for years. The process is long, messy, and sometimes really painful but the less you trust it, ironically, the more it gets longer, messier, and even MORE painful.

Do peer review: A special shout out to the part of the process people tend to trust the least. It's gonna sting. You won't like it at first. You're brilliant and why can't they see that? Seriously, they didn't notice that thing you did? Who are these clowns anyway? But you have to get you some, and even more importantly you have to GIVE you some. In the getting, you will see all the things you think you're doing well that you're not. You'll learn what you need to work on. In the giving, you'll learn more about how to make your own writing deliberate and conscious and the most common mistakes to be wary of in your own writing.

Read this blog: No, I'm not kidding. That's why I'm here. I write a blog about writing––maybe you've noticed. Given that this is literally what I do for a living, and I make enough to not die, I can't recommend me enough. Poke around. Put your feet up. Try the roasted vegetable polenta I just made for lunch. There's LOTS of advice here: writing prompts, craft advice, many many questions for the mailbox. You can't avoid hard work by reading a blog, but sometimes I can point out a pitfall or a shortcut and save you some time and frustration.

Okay, fine, or a blog LIKE this one. Or really any deliberate writing advice. The point is that you probably don't want to just write while sequestered away. You'll make the same mistakes over and over again, and while you will get better, your learning curve will leave a lot to be desired. You want to practice (as much as you can) but also try to make your progress deliberate. A self-taught writing expert isn't quite the anomaly that a self-taught concert pianist might be, but both probably could have saved themselves hundreds of hours of practice back at the beginning if they'd had someone show them a better way to do something basic.

For the would-be working writer or the ambitious hobbyist who dreams of one day "making it," there is no advice BETTER than "write every day," but there is a bit of advice OTHER than "write every day." I hope this helps. While it is likely to be a lot slower if not combined with the daily part, it may even get you where you want to go.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Best Classic Science Fiction Book (or series) Nominations Needed

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

We're still grinding through the giants (S/F, Fantasy) since the sheer number of nominations last time around meant I needed to separate them by time frame. Yes, I know I have a long day ahead when I finally compile the results. My tightening budget means I can't farm some of this busy work out, and I'm back on the hook for it. Alas. That weekend is gonna suuuuuuuuuuuck. But I'm moving the next couple of weekends, so I'm going to have to keep doing jazz hands for now.

In the meantime, we need nominations. (Be sure to leave them on the blog and not as a comment on the social media where you saw this cross posted.)

We have two "slots" left in our more-comprehensive sci/fi and fantasy polls.  (This one and contemporary fantasy). Then we'll mix it up with some other genres.

The Rules

  1. There is a new category of nomination. It is NOT a nomination for the poll. It is an UNDERSUNG HERO nomination. Basically it is for books you think are great, tragically overlooked, NEED to be read by everyone yesterday, but maybe not necessarily the besty bestest best. I will be listing these books along with the poll results. However, if you nominate a book for our poll it will not be considered for the undersung hero list and if you shout out something for an undersung hero, it will not be counted as a nomination for the poll. (Someone else can nominate it.) Think about if you want to give a book few seem to know about a shout out or if you're tossing your fave into The Hunger Games.
  2. As always, I leave the niggling over the definition of genres to your best judgement because I'd rather be inclusive. If you want to nominate Sarah Canary (and I'd be with you on that one), you have to show your work that it's not fantasy if you want to convince others to second the nomination, nevermind to do well in the poll.
  3. Your book must be copyrighted 1975 or earlier. If it is a series, the ENTIRE SERIES must have been written before 1975.  Of course you can nominate the earliest novel in a series if you are trying to work around the rules, but not the series itself unless it's entirely published before '75. No small number of shout outs to Discworld have included only the books from the appropriate time frame. Why should we stop now? There will be other polls for newer books.
  4. You get to mention two (2) books (or series). That's it. Two. You can do ONE nomination for the poll and ONE UNDERSUNG HERO.  Or you can do TWO nominations. Or you can do TWO undersung heroes. But two is the total. If you nominate three or more I will NOT take any nominations beyond the second that you suggest. I'm sorry that I'm a stickler on this, but I compile these polls myself and it's a pain when people drop a megalodon list every decent book they can remember of in the genre. It is up to you how to divy your TWO choices. TWO.
  5. Did I mention two?
  6. You may (and absolutely should) second AS MANY nominations of others as you wish. THEY WILL NOT GET ONTO THE POLL WITHOUT SECONDS. You can agree with or cheer on the undersung heroes, but they won't "transform" into nominations unless someone else nominates that same book as "best" (and then they get a second). Also stop back in and see if anyone has put up something you want to see go onto the poll. 
  7. Put your nominations HERE. I will take nominations only as comments and only on this post. (No comments on FB posts or G+ will be considered nominations.) If you can't comment for some reason because of Blogger, send me an email (chris.brecheen@gmail.com) stating exactly that and what your nomination is, and I will personally put your comment up. I am not likely to see a comment on social media even if it says you were unable to leave a comment here. 
  8. You are nominating WRITTEN genre fiction, not their movie portrayals. If you thought Blade Runner was a spectacular movie, that's great but thought the Alan E. Nourse book was not that great except for as inspiration source material.
  9. This is probably well known by vets of this blog by now, but there will be no more endless elimination rounds. I will take somewhere between 8-20 best performing titles and at MOST run a single semifinal round. By "performing" I mean the "seconds" to the nominations. So second the titles you want even if they already have one. (Yes, I guess that would make them "thirds," "fourths," etc...) The competition on this poll might be fierce. You may have to get your friends involved. Buy them a pizza. Make it real. 

Monday, February 10, 2020

Drumroll Please

Mondays (and Wednesdays for the month of February because I am moving) are not normally posting days, but I owe everyone the post that was supposed to go up on Friday. I finally got around to compiling all the 2019 greatest hits. It took less time than I thought (I always dread it more than it deserves––it's like doing the cat box that way). Still it takes a couple of hours at least, and even though it took me seven years to learn the lesson, it's one of the many admin things like newsletters that I should take a day off from the regular posting schedule to take care of. Let that be a lesson to all of you about going professional. You might think it's just going to be even MORE rainbow unicorn love, but actually there ends up being a lot of stuff you have to do that ISN'T writing.

So here are 2019's Greatest Hits by Month

And here is the Greatest Hits Menu updated with 2019's results.

Friday, February 7, 2020


Today's post (besides this little thing) will go up on Monday. Not that I'm procrastinating, but the work that needs to be done is all "behind the scenes" and admin crap. It's going to require about three hours and change of collating data down inside the guts of Blogger's analytics, me with a pen and paper matching up five figure numbers that are only different by one digit until my eyes cross, and finally hours of cutting and pasting the end results into their proper format.

See, there is ONE more thing I need to do to wrap up the 2019 year, and that is dig through ALL the best articles by month, REMOVE the 10 best articles of the year, and then figure out what the NEW three best articles are for each month. I hate this part and I always procrastinate. One year it was March before I finally got it taken care of. I could probably farm it out to a computer program, but it would have to be able to "skip" appeals posts and polls, and sometimes I have to decide whether something that was really a throw away post ("I'm sick. See you tomorrow.") but somehow did really well is worth immortalizing in the Greatest Hits menu.

But this year, with February barely getting started, I'm practically early.

If you're watching VERY closely, you might notice some menus getting updated in real time, but on Monday I'll make a very simple post with some links pointing out where all the updated shit landed.

However, as long as I've got you here, let me also mention that I'm going to need an extra day off each week through February. Probably easiest to just declare now that it will be Wednesday.  That means a maybe post (or possibly NWAW) on Monday. Something admin/short/meta/etc on Tuesday. Then a mailbox on Thurs, and something heavy on Fri.

I'm moving. (And I'm moving into my own place!!!! *SQUEEEEEEEEE*)

All the "YES!!!!!" 
The extra days are for packing, moving, hooking up utilities in the new place, and stuff like that. Fortunately, being a writer, I don't need to take off the EXACT days that I'm doing whatever the thing is, unless I'm up against a deadline like a baryon sweep. (I'm doing rather well on that front since the new schedule kicked in.) 

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! (Mailbox)

[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. Let me know if a question is urgent because the queue turn over is getting up around months right now.] 

Hey Chris,

I’m writing the climactic battle at the end of my WIP. My crit group says I have to kill a good guy to underscore the danger of the climactic battle. As a note: my WIP is set in Latin America and all of the characters are Latine. I’m a white US citizen.  

Problem is, of the 10 good guys in the battle, three are walk-on characters and the others are significant, named characters, most of whom I need for the sequel. At this point it only makes sense for one of three characters to be killed.

1)  A black, female walk-on character

2) A black, male significant character

3) A significant Latina character

I don’t want to kill either of the black characters because I don’t want to use a black person as the sacrificial death. It makes me uncomfortable as a writer. If there was a situation in which a lot of good guys died, I’d be okay with it, but just one? No.

I don’t want to kill the black woman because she is a walk-on and it wouldn’t be emotionally significant to my readers. I don’t want to kill the black man because I want him in the sequel. I don’t want to kill the Latina because she had this huge arc regarding healing from trauma and this is the first time she’s been seen as anything other than ‘trauma-chick,’ and to kill her now would send a message I’m not sure I’m comfortable with.

So here are my questions.

1) Is killing a character the best way to underscore the danger in the climactic battle? Is there anything else that I could do instead?

2) Am I overthinking this?

Sign me,

Uncomfortable with my own writing

My reply:

Hi, Uncomfortable.

You're right. That's a lot to unpack. But I don't make an average of roughly minimum wage for nothing!

*finger guns*

First of all, I don't think you're overthinking it. I wish more writers took a moment and considered what they were doing with this degree of care. I think this is exactly what writers should be thinking about. How do our stories contribute, in whatever small way, to the zeitgeist of cultural perceptions and to a gestalt of bad representation. Writers have a tremendous amount of power when it comes to reinforcing or questioning storytelling conventions, tropes, and representation; these things, in turn, shape cultural perceptions and have a very powerful impact on how we treat folks.

Not a racist who walks this Earth does not justify their behavior with STORIES. Not a single misogynist. Not a single transphobe. Not a single bigot. It might be stories their parents told them. It might be lies repeated so often they accepted them as truth. It might be narratives they never unpacked that come from poor representation in media. But it's stories all the way down, and that is part of the reason fiction can be so fucking powerful. (It's also the reason bigots somehow all magically know precisely when to start complaining about "everything being so PC" when something has really good representation of oft-marginalized groups. They know EXACTLY how dangerous good representation is to their world view.)  And if we're not taking that charge seriously and letting our stories perpetuate tropes with an unexamined nonchalance, we are upholding the status quo with a LOT of power.

So I kind of agree that you don't have a good sacrificial lamb of the three characters you mentioned. Particularly, you probably want to be very careful about anyone who just showed up. Don't forget that killing characters JUST to raise the stakes has kind of a dubious literary precedent, especially if they aren't very well developed characters. (And especially especially if they are women or BIPOC.)

You might have to have no character deaths if you need all your characters in place for your sequel. And that's okay. If you want to sit with your reasons for needing the other seven characters to live, that might be worth a good think or three. Are these your darlings? Do you need to be killing them? Wanting them from a significant literary point of view might be different than just having you picture a handful of cool moments they have coming up. (The latter you can almost certainly figure out how to give to another character.) The most tragic and heart-wrenching deaths in fiction are the ones that happen to characters who are A) ABSOLUTELY on a character arc (in other words, not "walk-on" characters) and B) who never get a chance to finish that arc. The cliche of this is of course the person who finally decides which person in a love triangle they want to be with right before a toilet falls from orbit onto their head, or someone who realizes the error of their ways and goes for redemption but gets shot by a kitten trebuchet moments later. So it might actually be BETTER for the tragical tragidiferousness of it all if one of your other seven characters bought the farm.

All that said....the ass I'm really going to kick today is the crit group's. Okay, I know you like them, so I won't ACTUALLY kick their ass, but I think they're giving you advice that is more mainstream Hollywould-quickfix wisdom than actually good literary writing advice.

Death in fiction can be emotionally wrought or a casual throw-away sentence. It can rip you apart or barely make you blink. But outside of a murder plot point, if a writer has to kill someone to properly reflect the emotional stakes of what is happening, then they have already failed. You shouldn't need a body count to underscore that your climactic battle is srs bzns.

Will your reader feel that your characters were never in any real danger? Sure.....if you never put them in any real danger. But that's also going to be true if you basically fridge exactly one character but never put the other nine in any real danger. How your readers will receive that will be to think that the character died to emotionally manipulate them. And they will be right.

And I'm sure you've encountered more than a few stories where a character's death put mortality on the table of a climactic scene, served the meta narrative almost perfectly, perhaps even gave the work a thematic catharsis, or even arguably performed a strange sort of reader interactive experience by bringing the audience viscerally along with the sudden realization that "the ride was over." And yet it STILL seemed sudden, unearned, emotionally manipulative and didn't really raise or lower the stakes of the storytelling that had been built around it at all.

And don't you just want to curse that author's sudden but.....

I recently rewatched one of my favorite childhood cartoons, X-Men. Each season they have some major overarching plot come to a massive resolution. (Crap, I think they were doing it before shows like Babylon 5 or Buffy were even on the air.) And....I want to make sure I'm clear about the following: The dialogue in this show is not that great. The fights are formulaic. The plots are simplified so that the kids watching can keep up. The animation is pretty meh even for a '90s cartoon. They ALWAYS use the same goddamn song for every episode's final fight. This is not tour de force cinema we're talking about here. Also....to get back to the topic, no one ever really dies. At least none of the main characters. (A couple kind of do, but they come back because that's how comics work.)

Yet even two decades later, these are some of the best climactic endings to story arcs I've seen. Because one thing they nail is that the stakes are clear. Emotionally, personally, and externally, all the stakes are well laid out.

In Lord of the Rings, after Boromir, not ONE member of the Fellowship dies. Not ONE. Gandalf "falls" but he gets better (*cough actually a LOT better cough*). In fact, very few named GOOD characters die at all. But did you ever have some inability to really imagine they were in danger at Helm's Deep, or Minas Tirith, or the Cirith Gorgor pass? (The only battle that was kind of low stakes was Isengard and that was probably because it was skimmed over in favor of basically saying "The Ents kicked ALL the goddamned ass." [In the books it is told by Merry and Pippin after the fact and they mention a single casualty, and in the movies it is only two minutes of Ents kicking the ever-loving PISS out of orcs that takes place after the movie's Helm's Deep climax, basically to be a part of the "hold onto hope" Sean Astin voice over montage.])

So let's put your characters in real danger, not just artificially inflated danger. Don't be nice to them. Fuck them up. Hit them where it hurts and make them face the things they're NOT good at handling. Make them deal with opponents who are definitely better than them, and they have to scrape by on their wits. Make them face their biggest fears. Jack their fucking shit UP, yo.

Plus, don't forget, death is just the final step in a series of increasingly dire "real" consequences to a character. If they are all badly wounded and maimed by the end, the danger will be plenty underscored. Rip limbs off. Tear eyes out. Break bones like woah. Plus you can pull some of the sneaky writer tricks if you want––like impale a character, have them slump over, and then move the narrative on to someone else. (But then later it turns out they are still alive, but might have to eat soup through a straw for the rest of their days.)  What about capturing one of them? How about hurting things they care about? Hit them where they live. What about blowing up the car that is the only thing Character Y still has of his brother? What about using their phobias against them? What if they've got it until the most powerful protagonist is deliberately PTSD triggered? How about if the most vain character gets their face peeled off? Any one of these characters might survive for your sequel, but part of them also died, and the danger was very clear. You're the writer. You can put these characters in SO much danger without actually killing them that your reader is screaming "LOOK OUT BEHIND YOU!!!!" at the books. You could make death a sweet release and the LEAST of their concerns.

[Full disclaimer, I know a LITTLE bit about the story in question and the author may have even MORE options to jack up the characters since they might have some supernatural healing going on.]

You can use pacing to speed up and slow down the scene for effect. Mark Watney doesn't die in The Martian, but the moment Weir begins the multi-page description of the depressurization of his potato room, you KNOW exactly how much danger he's in.

You can also raise the stakes without offing someone just by making the stakes extremely clear. Is it very, very clear exactly what happens if they lose? How bad is it gonna get? (The answer doesn't have to be world devastation or the death of half of all life in the universe––actually that gets a little melodramatic. It can be as simple as "the girl we're trying to rescue will end up with her abusive father" or something.) How many times in a story have you thought "Why don't they just leave?" or "Why would these people care so much?" These are unclear stakes.  With clear enough stakes, there is NO reason you have to kill a single character to convey how important it is that the protagonist succeed.

Though not a "no kill" example, one of the reasons that Star Wars always is listed in the top ten movie climaxes is because the stakes are so mountain-spring-lake crystal clear. The Death Star is going to destroy the rebellion, including two main characters who are on the planet, and (at the time-ew) Luke's love interest. Plus the Empire are a bunch of fart weasels and they will win, but honestly it's the "The Death Star has cleared the planet..." when they realize THEY'RE going to die (not that the rebellion is in trouble) that brings all that climactic energy home.

You can raise the EMOTIONAL stakes by investing personal stakes for the characters. Rather than just a fight scene with large-scale stakes, there is also something personal going on. It's not just about Spider-Man beating Doc Ock. It's about Peter Parker helping someone he knows isn't a bad person stop and think for long enough to find their own redemption.

You can nuance the consequences of the character's actions. Okay, I'm sure you have thought of X happens if they lose and Y happens if they win. But then, do they just line up and pound it out until everyone on one side is dead? That's basically NEVER the way things happen. What are other outcomes? What happens if the protagonists don't fight? (How might that be desperately appealing to some or all of them?) What happens if SOME of them don't fight?  What happens if Character X can't overcome her demons and face Character Y? What if one of the antagonists ties a "consequence" to their deaths? ("If you kill me, you'll never find out about your mom.")  What happens if one antagonist gets away or they all just LEAVE as soon as it's clear they might lose? Remember, most people aren't going to stick around if they hit a certain threshold of mortal danger without some kind of training or a reason like protecting their young––morale is a thing. If half of them get away, will they just start the whole nefarious plot over again from somewhere else? Do they know the location of a protagonist's family? What are the stakes to partial loss?

Or here's perhaps an even more interesting question: what about the consequences of their victory? Riding into the sunset is great if you're in a spaghetti western, but most of the time, if you are at the point where you're in a life-or-death fight with another group, "winning" is seldom going to be the end of it.

You can add a time limit. Obviously a bomb of some kind is the cliché but it doesn't have to be a bomb. It could be as simple as needing to wrap up the fight before reinforcements show up. Or before the next radio check in from the guy with the gun to the hostage's head. What happens if they win the fight but it takes too long? What happens if two knocked out characters are waking up at the same time and they both want to get to the gun in the middle of the room? You can raise the stakes basically by encouraging your reader to be thinking "Come on! Hurry the fuck UP!!!!!"

Let me remind you of a final battle scene you've probably come to know and love where no one dies. Now this is not a Disney movie (though a few of those might be good examples of how to raise stakes without death). Many MANY characters have died before this final climactic scene. What was at stake prior to this final, climactic moment was arguably more important. But in this scene you understand EXACTLY what's going to happen if the protagonist fails. Viscerally. All too clearly. And it becomes pins and needles the whole way through. THIS is the climax.

"Get away from her, you bitch."

Did you get chills? I got chills. And I'm writing the article.

Emotional stakes at maximum. No raise-the-stakes death needed. One character gets totally fucked the fuck up in the opening move (Queen takes Bishop *rimshot*  Pause for laffs.), but turns out to survive. The stakes were raised even higher than the everybody-dying-one-by-one earlier parts of the film because of the PERSONAL stakes established in the relationship between Ripley and Newt. Pacing is slowed down and sped up with MAMMOTHIAN artistic licence. (The Queen didn't say "If that door's going to fucking take ten full seconds to open and she's going to take another twenty to walk over here and drop her line, I'm just going to pop this kid with my tail a few times while I wait.") We know Ripley could probably get to the weapons cache and grab the two pulse rifles she would need to dual wield in order to win in about five seconds, but then she loses Newt who she has bonded with after the loss of her daughter. And even though they drove away from bomb-on-a-timer a scene earlier, this scene is also full of moments where delay will cost (getting to Newt on time, getting up the ladder fast enough).

Here's the rest of the scene if you need a refresher.

Ask yourself how emotionally invested the characters are in the outcome of your climax. If they are pretty much along for the ride, that's what it's going to feel like to your reader whether you kill no characters or nine. How much does achieving their goal matter to them? If they could take it or leave it, so could your reader.

You don't necessarily need a death to show your reader it's dangerous. What you need is clear, emotional stakes (not necessarily high, but very, very clear), and then actual danger.