Monday, September 5, 2011

Am I Just Not Cool Enough?

Here's a secret: I'm a weirdo.

Rarely do I ever find myself in the position of the conservative or traditional voice on things. It doesn't matter what, I'm usually progressive and pushing envelopes (not literally, though, part of my progressiveness is a refusal to use the postal service!). Why do I always seem on the fringe? Because I think I'm cool? Because I like it there? Because I hope if I try hard enough to be really, really hip, then the power of positive, wishful thinking in accordance with the science of The Secret then I will attract and create hip with my very thoughts and efforts of hipness?

Hell no on all accounts.

I'm cool and hip only when it's cool to not give a shit and not constantly try to prove how cool and hip one is. Basically, Grunge. Man, for like a year before the wannabes trying to be cool took it over, I was awesome. My hand-me-down clothes, previously hillbilly flannels and shoddy general appearance suddenly put me at the forefront of cool! And I didn't care, which was even cooler!!!

This wasn't so much the case in the 80's (though, in my defense, I was thankfully barely alive back then). No so much in whatever abomination came after the Grunge movement, when I was told, once, that the weird little goth boy clique thought I was awesome, which of course mortified me, because the second I was labeled as goth (or something like it) that meant people thought I was trying to be something, when really what I was trying to be was: leave me the fuck alone.

Now, though, as an abjectly failed writer fighting to figure out how to work my way up to at least just being a failed writer (baby steps!), I find myself wondering if I'm just not cool enough for this generation. Everywhere I look I see increasingly numbers of stories that are full of self-centered, look-at-me gimmicks and methods. Stories that seem more interested in soliciting compliments on how edgy, how innovative, how different all the things that, in reading the story, you have to acknowledge the writer is doing.

Yes, writers write stories. It's a usually unfortunate fact. Thankfully for me, I was blessed with the [I believe true] advice that nobody gives a shit about the writer, so the sooner I get over myself, the better. The better what, though? Well, the better story, of course. Sure, the instant-gratification-nation we live in probably what pushes most young writers into doing what will get them attention NOW; it's just now that seems to be increasingly rewarded. If they try really hard to make something edgy, oddly formatted and full of formatting gimmicks, then, BOOM, people will notice you, the writer, screw the story, YOU wrote it, afterall! Bask! You're almost a star!

I guess I've also been blessed with the [I believe true] advice that writing isn't a race. I especially don't believe it should be a race to gain attention, especially of the look-at-me, I'm a writer, variety.

Ah, but see, that's perhaps the problem. In an age where every writer ever has a blog and publishing credits and a Facebook and oh, look, I've done INTERVIEWS (on the blogs of other writers, since we all have blogs and nothing better to do), and oh, look, I've done EDITING (at one of the slew of journals only known by the people writing and editing for those journals, as they basically create their own self-validating sub-culture of on another, being validated because they're being read and published by each other). Oh, look! Look at me! I'm a writer! A writer! (I think this is where you're supposed to, like, swoon or something).

We live in an age where everyone at every turn is expected to present not themselves, but an idealized image of themselves (and writers are people too, sometimes). Facebook, social lives, reality tv, at work. Just about everywhere these days we're told to be yourself, as long as it's the positive, expected version of yourself others will like! Hrm, wait, I'm not convinced you're cool or happy enough, so try to put on a a better show of self. Yes, even if it's fake and contrived and you're obviously trying too hard to convince us you're you, because just being yourself is only convincing if being yourself is trying really hard to be yourself! Wait, so really, don't be yourself. CREATE an image of self that demands notice, and people will notice you! You'll be a star! You're an artist, create, create, create... yourself and attention, and then, according to the science of The Secret, the you you're bullshitting everyone and faking will be the REAL you, then you can just be yourself (and judge others for trying, or for not being self enough as themselves).

But, what about the writing? I know, we keep forgetting about the actual writing in this post!

What I see in increasing numbers of writers who don't really care about what they can do for their writing, but what their writing can do for them. Look at us. We're writers! We're sitting in the coffee shop with our hipster glasses and a mug of something we're too cool to admit tastes like shit without a pound of sugar and milk and whipped cream and cinnamon or nutmeg or who the hell cares what I'm shaking into my glass, it's sure to make it taste better... because we're WRITERS! I'm a writer, look, I have a website! I'm a writer, look, I have a blog! I'm a writer, look, my story counts down backwards and is told in reverse, or is in the format of commentating a boxing match, or is just a description of a door! Yes, look at my writing, then look at me, quickly, because I'm a writer! That story I wrote? That story didn't do shit! I'M THE WRITER!!!

You know what? I just want good stories. I don't want stories to seem like a movie trailer introducing a writer. I don't want stories so full of formatting tricks and gimmicks it almost begs contact with the writer just to ask what they were thinking (which they hear: 'oh, embodiment of genius, how did you come up with this?' instead of what I mean in 'what the fuck were you thinking?!'). I don't personally want anyone to have to be so annoyed or confused by my formatting or the gimmick of a story they ask me "what the fuck is this?" I want them to be so moved and enthralled by my story--my STORY, not the layers of lipstick, gimmick, perfume, hipster glasses and effort to be super cool that I've smothered my story with, but my STORY--so moved that they ask "who the fuck are you?"

That's how it should be: Who the fuck are you? Oh, you're the writer! Sorry, didn't see you there! Not: What the fuck is this? Oh, it's a story! I should have guessed you actually had a story somewhere, since you're constantly bragging and bringing attention to the fact you're a writer... even in that thing I didn't even recognize as a story, so much as a personal advertisement for a writer of obviously infinite genius.

And so, I find myself feeling conservative and traditional. It's new, and I sort of like it, because the more I've learned about the writer industry (different from the writing industry!), the more I've realized the more marginalize and irrelevant I feel, the more I can be assured I'm doing something right.

Not trying to write, just writing. Not trying to be edgy, or innovative or trying to be anything, just writing stories. Not trying to be hip... okay, well maybe not just being hip. Not until not giving a shit about how cool I am becomes cool again, which the way our society is going, will be a sign of the apocalypse.

Here's a joke stolen from people making fun of hipsters screwing in light bulbs:

How many of these new look-at-me generation writers does it take to figure out what purpose the extreme formatting, hyper-stylizing and slew of gimmicks are serving?

Maaaan, if you have to question it, you're obviously just not cool enough to understand!

In the meantime, I'll continue to feel old and irrelevant, too conservative, painfully tradition, as I keep seeing the tragically hip prop themselves up (now increasingly in actual publications!) on the egos of one another. And I'm sure I'll keep reading these stories and having to ask what the fuck is this?! Only to realize it's little more than an attention seeking advert for the writer. But where's the actual story...? The story?! Oh, god, you're so uncool!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Are you over-crotching your story's meaning?

There's a problem I've seen in plenty of amateur writing (and some professionally published writing to, I suppose, if we're being honest, which isn't allowed in literary industries, so NEVAR!). A writer will be going along fine, building motifs and characterization and rising action and other buzz words thrown around in shitty Lit classrooms. Then all that crap builds to a point where it solidifies into a grand insight: the meaning of the story. Fireworks go off, you're moved as a reader, wow, what a story.

Errrhhhchchch (record skipping)

Then, just to be sure you got the meaning, the writer then explains it in plain speak, you know, in case you aren't smart enough to have followed along with the story.

This is bad because it can feel like the author is rubbing your nose is the meaning. Great for training cats not to piss on your carpet, but terrible for training writers to trust you can deliver a meaning without a final mission statement explaining what you just already understood as a reader, on your own, by way of that ol' reading comprehension thing.

What I'm henceforth calling this phenomenon is over-crotching. You know, when two lovers are finally united after so much has kept them apart and now, in each others arms, it feels as if the world is finally right, they're safe, happy. We understand the power and emotion of this moment... and then the writer over-crotches the meaning by flat out stating: they felt the wold is finally right, as they're safe, and happy. Yeah, no shit, Sherlick.

Oh, wait, I just realized I explained the phenomenon, not why I'm calling it over-crotching.

Ever watched So You Think You Can Dance? It's a great show (well, not really, but whatev). It's got sexy young dancers dressing sexy and dancing sexy and being sexy and dancing is sexy (if done at all right) and the show IS sexy. Sexy everywhere! Everyone understands this after watching the show. It's hard to miss. It's part of the experience. Part of the meaning behind dance (even Bollywood dancing has been sexy once or twice!). Got it, sexy?

Yeah, of course you got it! That's my point.

So, why are the slow motion rehearsal shots so often of female dancers as their legs are spread wide wearing skimpy shorts, or more often, tight dancing spanks. I mean, I'm a reasonable person and like a sexy body as much as the next reasonable person. Hell, we get plenty of regular, in-the-course-of-a-dance legs open shots that aren't gratuitous or lewd, just sexy, because they're part of the inherent sexiness of the dance.

But the slo-mo camel-toe? Over and over, show after show? Sorry, SYTYCD, we understand the show is sexy, but you're over-crotching your meaning. We don't need the idea the show is sexy so explicitly rubbed in our faces (ouch, a particularly meaningful analogy considering the context). [I'm told adding pictures is a practice of good blogging, but, umm, not this time, as I fear I'll over-crotch my point]

For those scoring at home: an occasional long legged split-lift is sexy. Inherent sexiness is good. Over-crotching the sexiness just becomes lewd. Slo-mo camel-toe is bad.

I beg you, writers of the world (and producers of SYTYCD, since I know you're reading), keep this in mind the next time you're crafting your story. The subtle, naturally occurring meaning and emotion is good. Slo-mo camel-toe is bad. If you're a writer, resist the urge to explain your meaning. If you did your job it'll be there in the action and interaction of the characters. If you explain the meaning, or step in as a writer to nudge the reader, "eh, eh, that's what I'm talkin' 'bout," it's not only condescending, but can turn good meaning sour; drama into melodrama; emotion into sentimentality; sexy into lewd.

So, the next time you're writing a particularly meaningful scene, keep in mind you don't want the meaning to be half-baked and unclear or unrefined. But you also don't want to over-crotch the meaning by rubbing it in the readers nose like so much slo-mo camel-toe on So You Think You Can Gag.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

The writer's guide to not settling.

There are hundreds of blogs and how-to-write books and classes and courses and workshops all peddling a million and one ways to become a better writer. I've see them all, from worthless throw away nonsense like 'show, don't tell' to the helpful suggestions that really do improve one's technical ability to produce words.

But sometimes it's not enough.

There are also hundreds of journals, magazines and books featuring amazingly well crafted stories that, despite their technical prowess, are disingenuous or don't resonate or are instantly forgettable. The worst of these stories are from writers transparently producing what they think is expected of them. But even the best, most competent, even acclaimed stories, can still feel sterile, like a perfect Stepford Wife in literary form, feeding you what you wanted to hear, but all he while not truly being alive.

For many readers and writers it's good enough. Others, myself included, expect more. That 'more' is often credited to the intangible cliche of 'be yourself' that gets peddled with all the other writing advice that can drown aspiring writers. But what does that even mean? It should be easy, right, because who else would you be? Or what if who you are is a faker and a sell-out, then isn't that simply who you are?

I don't have answers, particularly to the last one, as that seems fair enough logic. If you're the kind of writer who wants to sell-out to make a buck, then that's perhaps just who you are, and I can't say I'm not jealous. I want to pretend there are many more people than not who will see through the act, but we all know that's not true. Pandering has become a way to success for many, and I don't blame you if that's who you want to be, the path you wish to take.

For those of us who struggle with questions of who we are, who we want to be, and how to embody that in their fiction, I hope to offer some answers. The first answer, and probably most right, is that I have no answers. What can I possibly know about you or how you work? You'll have to figure it out for yourself. How's that for an unhelpful, pseudo answer?

I've found the real trouble with people (and writers are people too, sometimes) isn't understanding who they are, but accepting it. So what I can do is share the best advice I've heard in this regard. Of all the amazing writing advice and lessons I've learned from Alan Heathcock, both from his classes and reading his book, I've found his best insights often has less to do with the technical aspects of writing fiction, and more to do with the writer, as can be demonstrated from this interview at the Fictionaut blog:

What’s the best advice you ever got?

Do not look beyond yourself for validation. Be brave enough to take yourself seriously. The moment you decide to look fearlessly inward, to take yourself seriously, you will stop imitating others and will become original.

(click the link to read the full interview, which, as always, is awesome)

Find the courage to take yourself seriously. Don't be afraid to be yourself. Strive to become the best possible version of yourself. These are the kinds of things Alan Heathcock has said that stuck with me, and the sort of writing advice (among a lot of great technical stuff) that has helped me the most as a writer (and also produced the most head scratching and blank stares, at times, as young writers expect to finally have the mysteries of 'show, don't tell' revealed to them. Thankfully, I already did that for you all in this blog post).

The writing world is spilling over with advice on technique, and the competence of writers is arguably at an all time high. But this sort of 'be yourself' advice seems to be exactly what's needed. So much of the fiction I read these days, both professional and amateur, displays writers who are competent, but simply don't seem to know who they are or what stories they want to tell. And the writing suffers because of it. Even when masterfully produced, stories can end up feeling like something is missing, a risk not taken, passion not conveyed, a writer themselves seeming momentarily disinterested, perhaps thinking about that story they were truly compelled to write, but instead kept working on this one because they thought people would like it more, or be more willing to buy it.

I guess I'm lucky in this regard because I can't help being myself. Even despite myself, which is often how it feels in regards to being a writer, and it's something I struggle with constantly. Everywhere you turn these days you're not only being told your work isn't good enough, but that YOU aren't good enough. We live in a society that props up the writer as much as the writing, where our judgments are informed as much by a performer's sympathetic story as by the actual performance, where who you're perceived to be often seems more important than who you really are. It's hard to not at least try to be the kind of 'who' you think is expected and wanted, that will be liked.

So, what can you do? Well, you can fake it 'til you make it (a catchphrase that I cringe at seeing gain legitimacy in self-help circles). Or, you can find the courage to be yourself. And it not only takes courage to look within and be honest with yourself, but it also takes courage to be yourself as a writer in an industry where that won't always be rewarded.

And, yes, it does seem to create a paradox since being yourself may be good advice to becoming a better writer, but perhaps terrible advice to becoming a success (in our society in general, whether as a writer or otherwise). In the end, I think a writer has to decide how, not just if, they want to succeed, and define, for themselves, what it means to be a success. Do you want to succeed by writing stories you're proud of because they're paying your bills, or do you want to succeed by writing stories you're proud of because they demonstrate the truest, best possible version of yourself?

Like I said, for me the decision was easy as I can't help but be myself, despite myself, even when I know putting on a mask and pretending I'm someone else would be the smarter career move. I think my fear stems from a brilliant line in one of my favorite T-Bone Burnett songs "Over You": what started as a mask becomes a face.

If you try to delay being yourself in lieu of an act, what you are is a person who puts off being yourself in lieu of an act. It seems simple, and perhaps to some harmless, but is it? People rationalize it's worth it, and I often hear the advice to just pretend I belong until I do, to do whatever is expected to get my foot in the door. And then... and then, what? And then you'll get to be yourself? And then you think you'll be accepted if you do? And even if you are accepted, to me, who you are will always include having compromising yourself.

If you write what you think others want to read, hoping some day you'll get to then write what you want to write, what's true to yourself, you risk the mask you wear becoming your face. The only thing anyone will ever want to see. The only version of 'you' that others will ever accept. Is that worth the risk to you personally?

Is it even the best thing for you professionally? To delay writing what you want to write, the stories that compel you to write, that are hopefully great because they're stories only you can tell. Not some version of you that waits to be yourself, but stories that can only come from you, from the real you. From the you that found the courage to be yourself. From the you that didn't look beyond yourself for validation or definitions of success. From the you that decided to take yourself--not some compromised, alternate version of yourself--but your real self seriously. Is it worth not starting, right now, to write the stories that allow you, through your writing, to become the best possible version of yourself.

To me, it's not worth not being yourself. And look around. There are hundreds of writers doing what's expected of them, writing what they hope will sell, what they're told will be liked, what they're told will be good. Stories that are competent and technically sound, but often little more than what the hundreds of these other writers are also writing. These writers aren't themselves anymore, each wearing another's face as a mask; all ending up wearing the same, collective mask.

And then there's you. Are you going to hide in the crowd? Take comfort in meeting the expectations set by those that manage little more than to live in expectation? Are you going to don the same mask as all the others, the mask they want you to wear, the mask they expect you to wear, the mask they threaten and demand and insist you wear--or else!--knowing anyone different, any unique voice that rises above the writhing, mediocre masses, is a threat. Because each lone voice is an affirmation there is something better to be had, something better to be. Are you going to succumb to the safety of conformity, the security in being just like everyone else, or will you put on a brave face and find the courage to be yourself?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Young Writers, Sycophants and the Big Picture.

I love nothing more than young writers being given a chance. It's also a bit of a shame to see work published that isn't quite ready, particularly when the writer is young. It's a tough situation, though, because on the one hand I think young writers should be treated like anyone else, and usually want to be. On the other hand, even if a young writers work is 'good enough' I believe they may gain more from a carefully worded rejection letter than the validation of having their work published when the work, and probably them as well, just isn't ready (keeping in mind, good enough to be published these days doesn't mean good enough to succeed as a writer).

And I'd like to clarify I'm not talking 'young' strictly in terms of age, but more like writer-age. Though, even without a bio it's often clear a piece is by a writer without much experience, and one can often guess correctly if they're young, as adults who want to be writers have usually had a bit more time to read and soak up the world and learn some writing instincts. This isn't always true, as some young people have had plenty life to soak up, and more importantly time to read, but it's often an accurate generalization.

What's particularly tricky is the world of writing is full of sycophants and nepotism and well-meaning praise. It's particularly bad with short fiction, I've found. If you write a mediocre novel, or hell even a mediocre novel query, chances are it will never see the light of day. If you write a mediocre short story, chances are some publication, somewhere (probably online) will publish it. And no matter how bad a story is, chances are some reader (probably an aspiring writer themselves) will be ready with praise and congratulations and who is anyone else to question the work... it's been published.

This only seems to magnify when someone is a sympathetic character themselves. A teenager? Readers will be more kind, and I wonder if editors more lenient. Some cute old grannie? Aw, shucks, how can a cute old grannie write anything bad? And what kind of monster would say anything negative or dislike a story from a cute ol' grannie?! Nobody wants to be the guy in a beginning poetry class with mostly girls writing poems about their boyfriends to have to break the bad news that no, the 'it was good, I liked it' feedback all the other girls just gave may not be completely honest, or helpful. It's usually easier to just board the sympathetic train, or watch the train leave the station, than be the one to point out some young writer is a stowaway on a journey they may not be ready for or deserve.

I've found many readers, online especially, are also just writers hoping for any praise and validation they can find. Like the poetry class, they see themselves in the writer, or see a sympathetic writer and don't want to be the one to crush spirits. You compliment your friends hair, hoping they notice your own new hairstyle. You cringe inside at your friends new hairstyle, but don't want to be mean, so say it looks... sporty, trying to be nice. Right or wrong, this also occurs in the writing world (writers are people too, sometimes). A young writer gets something published, and friends, family and the odd amount of complete stranger sycophants online praise it, congratulate it, say your writing is just so... interesting, and might you want to check out their self-published e-novel?

Some smart writer should write a book called: So, You've Been Published, But Now What?

Really, what now. You're a young writer. Some editor has deemed your writing good enough to be published (though perhaps not good enough to offer a few hours of editing first). Your story is now published, online for the world to see, for everyone to read, forever.

In the worst case scenario, the young writer thinks they've finally arrived. Finally gotten what they deserve. Finally gotten their career off the ground. I mean, they're now published. And who are you to say anything? What have you done lately?

Well, personally, I've been continuing to read and write and improve my craft because I'm naturally jaded enough to know that being published doesn't mean squat. I'm also lucky enough to have started writing relatively late, and spent years reading (decades! If you assume I learned to read around age 6), getting a feel for not only what does and doesn't work in fiction, but what kind of writer I want to be. And it's surely not one that thinks that even if published, the stuff I was writing as a teenager, or in the first few years of my 'trying to be a writer' was anything close to a good place to launch a career.

My plan may not be for everyone, especially as I see my own generation of writers all chomping at the bit, impatiently wondering why their time isn't NOW and their success not starting yesterday. My plan: wait, watch, work. Some day I'll hopefully be published. Not because I can (people say it's hard, but is it really that hard?!), but I'll be published because my work, and myself as a writer, are both where I want them to be, which is a specific state constructed over years. And I surely wasn't ready to start being the writer I want to be as a teenager, and probably am still not quite ready.

If lucky, the young writer gets excited, woohoo published, and rides the high for a few weeks, but is then able to see through the sympathetic chatter to notice the shrugs, the luke-warm comments, the silence. The jading process starts (and the sooner the better) and they realize they haven't done a thing. If they're really lucky, they learn a valuable lesson and realize they just weren't ready, their writing wasn't ready, and they'll wait the next time, spend more time watching, putting in the work, and then the next time hopefully the praise and adulation will feel more deserved, will mean something, will be the kind of thing to start a career.

But, who is going to tell a young writer to turn down publication? That the smart thing may be to wait, and keep working? Who thinks more work is ever the answer these days? And we can't trust most friends or family to tell a young writer the truth, sadly. I think good teachers may have the tough you're-just-not-ready talk with students, but not often enough. Maybe they'll read some blog like this, gain some perspective, find the wisdom of being jaded without the pain of first-hand experience.

I dunno, it all seems, in my experience, like it's very easy for a young writer to go a very long time without gaining much perspective into this sort of thing, and it's only getting worse. The internet doesn't help (I wrote a blog post at some point about the devaluing of the word 'published' by the hordes of online journals that have to publish something, and in some cases seem to publish anything). Nor does our society, which seems to value being nice, even if it's empty praise, far more than being honest.

In the end, those who publish writers are responsible for what they publish, right? I know editors don't usually have the time to actually provide one-on-one editing these days, much less take on every young writer in a mentorship role. But at some point, I believe editors in some ways are like the foster parents of writers. Good parents learn to say no to children. Good parents learn to understand that it may hurt denying your baby, but have an eye on the bigger picture. Good parents want the best for their children, and will take the time and care to walk that fine line between letting a child have what they want, and insisting on what is actually good for them.

Now, I know I do just about everything differently than many/most writers think should be done, and I'd be no different as a parent, teacher or editor (I'm no stranger to the 'why on Earth are you doing that, oh, wow, that worked perfectly' experience). If a young writer submitted a story to my hypothetical publication, unless the work really was perfect and spectacular, I'd suggest maybe more time and work would be of a greater benefit than a young writer seeing their name in lights, only to see those lights fade so soon. Even if it meant losing a 'good enough' story I could publish. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should (wow, I sound like a parent!).

Deny with grace and care. Let the writer learn the valuable lessons of rejection in a behind the scenes way that is encouraging, not in the potentially misguiding or hurtful way that one is open to as work is published, made public, for the whole world to see and judge. Give them the 'keep it up' encouragement and high of gaining ground on their writing career, but in a message to keep working, to not settle. Foster the relationship with the writer, so the next year, or decade, whenever they're finally ready, they'll come back to you. Hopefully then everyone can avoid the temporary thrill a baby bird feels while falling, before it realizes perhaps it wasn't quite ready to fly.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book Report: Kevin Wilson's Tunneling to the Center of the Earth

The book I read for my book report is the book by Kevin Wilson called Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. I liked this book because it was a very good book and interesting. So you should also get this book and read it.

Kevin Wilson is kind of like the literary version of Data. You think he's just a man, but then, oh crap, he's lifting a frickin shuttle craft! Oh yeah, oops, forgot: Android!

It's true, Kevin Wilson is an android.

He's able to do the heavy lifting in stories that would crush most human writers. Can to compute what it takes to make compelling fiction in the blink of an eye. Ah-hah, that's a trick metaphor, because androids don't need to blink. Likewise, Kevin Wilson never flinches. Often, when tough scenes need to be written even the best, most beloved writers cop out. Not Kevin "Literary Android" Wilson. He'll see your hard-to-write dramatic scene and raise you some God damn truth and insight while he's at it.

The stories in Tunneling are often quirky (always? I'll have to check, but probably), sometimes taboo, but always moving. Even that not-as-good story--you know the one!--is still better than most other fiction being marketed today (err, sorry, meant being published today. double+err, meant being written today... stories are still written at some point in the process, right?).

He deftly captures the truth on all levels of his stories; from the smallest details to finding a distinct voice for each of the character that he represents. Kevin Wilson never resigns his stories to being just 'good enough' like so much 'literary' 'fiction' I read 'these' days, and just when you think 'eh, this is good enough, I suppose' BAM he's doing something amazing that only a literary android could do.

Kevin Wilson probably could have stopped working on stories after seeing they were finely crafted, or quirkily premised. Thankfully that wasn't good enough, and each story in this collection (except maybe the one) is the kind of story you think is the best thing you've read in years. Then you remember the last one, and soon find out the story you just read isn't the best, it's the one you're now reading (save for one, omg, sorry, I should have just pretended it was all so amazing, but I'm terrible at playing the game where you pretend everything a writer wrote is amazing! Every story absolutely amazing and one very good story is still amazing, though!).

This is the kind of rare collection that is 99% kick-your-ass-good (most short story collections being more like: oh, I remember that one good story... well, it was published in the New Yorker, so it has to be good, right?). This isn't just a short story collection. This is a manual to teach other writers how to not suck. Read it, study it, this is your Necronomicon, you creatures of the night! Or rather, creatures of the oh-it's-not-night-I've-just-been-sitting-in-my-office-writing-all-day-with-the-blinds-closed, but same thing.

Ah, but I know, what you're thinking: You compare Kevin Wilson to an android, like Data from Star Trek, but wouldn't that leave something to be desired. Androids aren't human, don't even have emotions...

Woah, stop right there! I didn't compare Kevin Wilson to an android. I revealed that he is an android. And you don't have to feel emotions to write them well. It's why 87% of writers are sociopaths! (fact!)

And, to address what else I know you're thinking, don't worry, I'm sure Kevin Wilson, like Data, is fully functional and anatomically correct:

Monday, July 25, 2011

Writers say the darndest things!

Remember that show Kids Say the Darndest Things? (and the spin-off Grandmothers Darn the Darndest Things?) Well, the basic premise--and don't correct me if I'm wrong, as I'm simply making an effing joke, sheesh--was that kids say really stupid things, which is hilarious. And for the record, I'm not joking, maaan can kids say dumb things, amirite? At least I think that was the point of the show. Anyway, in that spirit, I thought I'd write a blog called Writers Say the Darndest Things!

Today's spotlight is a story from the online journal Every Day Fiction called ...And Counting by Christopher Allen (the story isn't my favorite ever, but this story by the same guy is pretty good)

The charm of the Every Day Fiction site is you get to rank the story (1 to 5 stars) and there's a comments section where the readers (read as: bunch of writers, mostly) get to comment on the story. The real fun starts in that comments section, of course. Why? Because (and this is where the entire studio audience says it togetherly!!!) WRITERS SAY THE DARNDEST THINGS!

I recommend going there, if for no other reason than to just read the comments and marvel at how quickly a group of writers is likely to end up on a Wreck-Train express. Responding to set the record straight and explain intended techniques (or anything, really) to a reader is never a good idea. Readers get what they will, it's all subjective, blah blah.

In particular, writers need to remember that when a work is finished, published, out in the world, their intentions no longer matter. What matters is what the story is actually saying. You can't follow around all your readers explaining how you meant to do something, or how their perception of something is actually false because you intended something else. You write it, they read it, and in the end it's like that dumb saying how the customer is always right. It doesn't mean the customer is always IN the right, just a way of expressing the consumer has the product creators or sellers by the balls, and it's no different for writing.

Another interesting lesson is when you do something really, really well, even if unintended, just pretend you meant to do that all along. In this case, we have a very well voiced narration that really gets into the psyche and perspective of the main character Jim. It's one of the most interesting aspects of the story. The point of contention in comments ended up being over whether something was a POV (point of view) slip. So, the author argues it wasn't a POV slip, since he was working in an omniscient POV.

Wrong. I mean, right, that may be what was intended, but the smart answer is to embrace the well written single POV and just pretend the POV slip was exactly that, a POV slip. That way, instead of an awkward omni POV that doesn't seem well balanced or tapping into the power of an omni POV (in this case, I could see even a head-hopping omni POV being dizzyingly effective and awesome for a story like this, but an omni POV that only gets out of a single characters head once, insignificantly, doesn't make a good omni POV), you can just pretend you meant the lesser evil all along: a strong single POV with a slip up. There's nothing wrong with admitting to minor faults, even if based on your intentions they aren't faults at all, in order to gain greater good.

Basically, writers, learn to fake it til you make it! What, you were just having fun writing a story with lots of boobies? No, no, if someone suggests it, then admit you were providing commentary on the dualistic nature of feminism and trying to raise awareness for the over-sexualized expectations put on youth in our increasingly desensitized society! Nobody will know the difference as long as you keep pretending, and you're a writer, pretending should come natural!

In comments futher down (not a typo, people, see, that's the other problem with writers, they don't READ so much as analyze!).... Anyway, if you know me, you probably know my comments tend on the lengthy side at times. For instance, I refuse to constrain myself to the prescribed, recommended 500 words for a blog post I'm convinced word-count ceilings are only if you're a boring writer or lazy readers. If you're a lazy reader, or I'm a boring writer, please do yourself a favor and simply stop reading! Anyway, FUTHER down in the comments, a kind fellow named Mickey Mills, who writes his own blog here, provides the following comments on my commenting:

And in case anyone was keeping score, the word count here was 819. The word count on popsicledeath’s comment was 800. I can only speak for myself but I never… repeat NEVER read a comment that goes on and on like that – from anybody. I fear those may fall on deaf ears. Just an observation; he may be making good points but because of the sheer volume I never see it. (This was not an attack… it was a personal observation… take it as such.)

No problem, Mickey, my comments often fall on not only deaf ears, but blind eyes and dumb mouths. I don't take offense!

But wait... wait, so you took the time to parse out the word count of my comments compared to the story in question. And took the time to respond to my comments. By taking the time to mention you did NOT read my comments? Interesting...

And, in the same comment, Oh-Mickey also provides this perspective:

When I offer one of my stories for publication I need to check my ego at the door and STFU. I look at the comments as a buffet. I take what I can use and leave the rest alone.

To extend the analogy, do you also stand over a dish you don't want on the buffet line and tell everyone around that you aren't going to take any? Listen up, people, this dish is taking up 1/8th of the space of the other dishes, dishes I like, but I don't like this dish, so I just wanted to point out I'm not taking anything from this dish. I just don't have the space in my gut or time in my lunch hour to spend dishing up this dish and then sitting at my table regretting it and not eating the dish I didn't want. So, now that I've told you all what I'm not doing...

Err, no offense, Mickey, but just move the hell on down the line! There are hungry people behind you who don't give a shit what you aren't doing, and especially don't want a dissertation on how you don't spend your time reading dissertations; apparently only responding to them.

I appreciate your 'personal observation' that my comments are long (I remember, seeing as I wrote them!). And I respect your God given right to not read them. I even respect, though inane, your right to spend time commenting on how you aren't reading my comments (shall I be ironic and not ignore you by informing you I'm ignoring you?). But you also wrote:

I was somewhat surprised to see the author cringe and reply to the critiques posted

That's what the first bit of this blog was about, too, and I agree. But, but, but, remember what else I quoted about checking one's ego at the door (and how you STFU. Translation: Shut The Eff Up, for those of you just learning how to use a computer box on the internets).

I agree, it's bad form for a writer to respond and argue with readers offering their reading, or even critique, of a piece of writing, and such ego should be left at the door. But I also wonder what kind of ego it takes to then, in the same breath, to offer a 'personal suggestion' by spending nearly 100 words to explain to someone else you didn't take the time to read their 800 words.

Mickey, my boy, you're standing at the dish in a buffet line you don't want to eat. Nobody cares if tomatoes give you gas. Nobody cares if you were traumatized by an unfortunate accident falling face first onto an artichoke. Nobody cares WHY you don't want the dish, or even that you don't. Probably time to just move on down the line.

Basically, check your ego at the door and, by all means, not an attack, just my own personal suggestion: STFU.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Point of View? More like Point of Facepalm!

Another blog post? Oh, ducky lays! And I'll keep 'em comin', fulfilling my promise of a blog post a day until I get too lazy (or find something better to do) and one day there isn't a blog post, and then a few days later I reveal no such promise was ever made and I was just making it all up.

Today's post is a special installment of Dear Crabby, where I take the sometimes inane, sometimes dumb, sometimes thought-provoking, but always entertaining questions from strangers posting to other websites and give my responses here, where they're sure to go unnoticed.

seawolf, in a post on, asks:

Dear Crabby,

Is it technically incorrect to write a novel in first person, if the character telling the story dies at the end?

I'm thinking no, but I'm not 100% sure.

Well, seawolf, you have to remember that the tense in fiction isn't a literal, tangible thing. A past tense story doesn't literally imply the events happened yesterday (and, as a side note, I was recently reminded that yesterday is not the past tense of today, lol). Also, remember that first person, depending on your approach, doesn't even necessarily mean your main character is directly 'telling' the story to the reader. I know, you're confused, but stay with me.

In a reminiscent narration the main character is recounting events from an implied point in present time. But remember, this is story time, not reality time. Meaning, the story has a timeline, and the actual time and place of the story is in the present, with the character recounting past events. This kind of story in most noticeable in the "I'll never forget the summer of '69. It was my 9th birthday when..." sort of approach. In this sort of story it is in fact awkward if the narrator/MC dies during the past events they were reminiscing about as it leaves a corpse to the reminiscing, and you probably won't get more awesome than the host of Tales from the Crypt, so why bother?

Think of it like this. There's a narrator in the present telling you about their own adventures that start in the summer of '69. Then, in the Fall of '87 the narrator dies. That means, in the story's time line, the narrator can't then be recounting past events as they sit at their desk in the Spring of '99 without some kind of gimmick that made them cheat death.

To avoid using some lame gimmick like them writing a story from the grave or inventing some contrived mechanic about you, the writer, finding a diary and this is the character's story in their own words, like way to much of classic literature when it was scandalous to write fiction so writers contrived such tales within tales... just don't use a reminiscent narrator.

But, but, but, you mean there's more than one type of POV within the designation 'first person'?! Yes, and face-palm. A term like 'first person' doesn't begin to explain the perspective someone is writing and all the things they can't and can't do. It's like asking "is it safe to drive my car 100mph?!" Well, that depends on a million things that the word 'car' isn't yet describing. A Geo Metro on four donuts in the zombocalypse, and I'm gonna say no, not as safe as a BMW on the autobon in 1997 blasting Barbie Girl.

Pro tip: first thing to do if you want to be a successful writer, or just not dumb, is learn to ask better questions than something so vague as 'can this be done in first person.'

Answers: a first person story can still be in past tense and unfold as if happening for the first time and without that voice from the future giving input (of the story's time-line future, not reality!). Meaning, a character/narrator comes to a fork in the road, you don't write: had I only taken the left fork I'd have seen a monkey, but I chose to take the right fork instead. The character doesn't know anything beyond the here and now, which isn't literally our here and now (we're real, not inside a story... sorry, but I have a feeling some people still may not be getting that concept). In a non-reminiscent first-person narration the character can't know what's down each fork, because they don't have the advantage of hindsight, so just has to guess and hope they pick the fork with the monkey.

So, yes, you can have first person, any tense, and have the character die as long as the POV isn't a reminiscent narration, and instead has the events unfolding as if for the first time. This is the easiest solution, but as mentioned, you can also just come up with some gimmick about how their story is being told from beyond the grave.

Oh, and friendly reminder that gimmicks--no matter how cool you think they are or how long you spent contriving, err I mean thinking up--are usually bad.

I'll never understand how so many aspiring writers get so confused over POV. As always, I suspect it's a symptom of not reading enough. But, in any event, there you have it, hopefully that will help clear up yet another question about POV... until tomorrow when the same thing is asked on dozens of writing forums and continues to stymy hundreds of other writers as they invent some nonsense answer because they too simply haven't read very much. All this knowledge is free, people, in libraries across the globe!

I hope that helps, seawolf,