Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Three Reasons Why I'm Done Dissing NaNoWriMo

Yes, that's a Viking cap being associated with pens, a laptop, and coffee.

This year, I chose to try my hand at NaNoWriMo. (This may have been a terrible decision.)

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, NaNoWriMo is the pastiched name for National Novel Writing Month. The idea, unsurprisingly, is to write an entire novel of ~50,000 words in 30 days. This works out to writing, on average, 1,667 words every day. Rain, shine, sickness, health, schoolwork, boredom: no matter the circumstance, at the end of the day, you need 1,667 words.

I don't recall for certain when I first heard of it. The earliest I can remember was seeing a status on Facebook that went something like, "Buckling down for National Novel Writing Month!" I did a bit of research, found the basic idea, and promptly concluded it was stupid.

"Hacks," I thought. "Talentless hopefuls vainly seeking self-validation so they can lord it over others." The image came into my mind, distinctly not unbidden, of someone sitting at Starbucks, curling a wispy mustache and chuckling to himself as he says, "I have written a novel, ho ho ho, and ain't I just so chuffed to have done it."

This character, whose name developed to be Humbert, would proceed to attend parties where he would say, with magnificently affected humility, "Oh, yes, I'm a novelist, wouldn't you like to hear about my novel?" and would then proceed to tell you about the novel whether you answered yes or no or by screaming.

Humbert chuckled in literature classes, speaking about Shakespeare and Tolkien and Poe as contemporaries because, of course, he'd written a novel, wouldn't you like to hear about it? 

Humbert would let no conversational opportunity go wasted: if he could redirect it to his artistic pursuits, he would do it. His favorite words were novel, writing, and me.

Humbert had no thought for editing, or for training, or for learning. Humbert writes novels. Let someone else take care of those other little chores.

Most despicable of all, Humbert had no doubt in his mind that this grotesquerie he finished over thirty days at Starbucks would be published, take the world by storm, and leave Humbert in a cozy position from which to tell us even more about his novels.



I hate Humbert—I can't emphasize that enough. I hate him for three very distinct, but interrelated, reasons.

  1. Humbert is irritating, self-obsessed, and jerkish. The most obvious reason I don't like Humbert is because Humbert is positively a goober. Humbert is a nerd about stuff he makes himself. He thinks himself an artist and is proud of it. America has a pre-existing cultural concept of the proper artist: he ought to be ashamed that he isn't doing real work. Whether we agree with that idea or not is irrelevant; the facts stand that nobody likes a conceited artist. (Content warning if you click that link.)
  2. Humbert is profaning what I perceive as my profession, or at least my desired profession. I'm spending four years and far more money than I have trying to figure out how to write things people won't hate reading. Humbert, who is a toolbag, presumes to do—on a whim, without training or preparation or any level of skill—what hundreds of geniuses have labored over for years.
  3. I am convinced that I could become Humbert if I stop thinking of how much I hate him.
Because I hate Humbert so much, I instinctively avoided the things he would do. Among those, obviously, was NaNoWriMo. My determination not to do so was bolstered from a few sources, but mostly from my satisfaction at avoiding the transformation into Humbert—or, rather, at my persistence at being a real writer. I felt confident in the assertion that real writers had no need of petty crutches like NaNoWriMo.

It wasn't until quite recently that I noticed something disheartening. As much as I hate him, Humbert is a better novel-writer than I am.

I don't mean to say that Humbert is a better writer in all respects. Odds are good that, since Humbert never lets anyone critique his stuff, I've evolved a bit more, at least in some aspects. I've got good, strong training in how to communicate; I know the difference between large-scale editing and copyediting. I know how to look at the metaplot of a story and gear it down to something rearrangeable.

But I've finished, in my time, exactly one actual "novel." (It was in tenth grade and no, no one else will ever see it, because it is shameful.) Humbert, for all his faults, has finished four, or five, or six of them in his time.

Let me be clear: Humbert's novels may not be good, but they exist, giving them one very substantial point of superiority to mine. I've started a dozen long-scale stories, and of those, finished none. I've never learned to slog through the points where the book sucks. I've never had the opportunity to edit a novel of my own because I've never made one.

So, in the spirit of humility, and also the spirit of can't-beat-em-join-em, I've signed on for NaNoWriMo. Why?

#1: Because I've proven, time and again, that I need some serious deadline threats in order to get crap done.


#3: Because NaNoWriMo's slogan is completely wrong. 

If you clicked on the link above, you might notice that the blue banner at the top says, in clean white letters, "The world needs your novel."

Gotta be honest: I think that's a load of crap. The overwhelming majority of novels written in a single month will not be things that the world needs. If anything, the world needs fewer of those. We can't be having with a constant influx of terrible stuff. Half the people doing it are working on half-baked fan-fics, for crying out loud, and the world does not need more of those. (They're a fine place to start, I'll grant, but a poor place to stay.)

I think, maybe, that the more appropriate slogan is, "You need your novel."

Nobody gets by purely on talent. No one ever got good at anything just by being born. We have to develop skill in it, and for that we need practice, and for practice, we have to love it. We have to love it enough to suck at it for a really, really long time. Enough to keep hacking away at something that doesn't feel right so that we can learn how to finish. Enough that we'll work at a grueling pace for way more than just one month on a single project that could, at the end, turn out to have been nothing except practice. 

I misunderstood NaNoWriMo for a long while. Its purpose—at least, its purpose as I understand it—is for participants to tear through something, to get a taste of the donkey-work of writing so that they have a shot at trying the donkey-work of editing. I've heard that you can't really understand your book until you've written it a few times, and for all I know it's true—I've never reached that point. There's only one way to find out, I guess.

NaNoWriMo isn't about writing a book. It's about finishing.

And I could really use some of that.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Dream of Smiles

Anne Elisabeth Stengl challenged bloggers to write a spooky story about a childhood fear. Happy Halloween!

The first time I saw it, I was six.

It was late. Later than I was supposed to be up. My parents had sent to bed hours ago, and I stayed up. They couldn't tell me what to do. I was my own man.

And I lay there, in the dark, not sleeping because I didn't want to, and I heard the door open with a soft click.

My parents, I assumed, were checking on me, so I closed my eyes and stirred convincingly. No sense making them angrier.

The door closed. I stayed still, figuring they would be listening for telltale sounds of movement. I was too smart for that. So I waited, and waited, and waited, until I was sure they were gone. Proud of my ruse, I rolled over to turn on my lamp, and felt my heart leap into my throat.

There was a man in my room.

Not a man, exactly. It was as tall as a man, but where its face ought to have been, there was only shadow. It wore a tall, silk hat, and when my eyes fixed on its face, a slow smile slimed its way open. Its teeth were very bright.

I wanted to scream, but it held a thin finger to its lips. I could only tell what it was doing because the finger eclipsed the gleaming of its teeth.

Someone's been bad.

I heard the words in my head, but the creature's lips did not move. It held up three fingers, and slowly curled one downward. It laid its fingers on my eyes, and I fell asleep.

*

I did not disobey my parents again after that. I went to bed on time, I followed orders, did my homework. Someone had been bad, and I wouldn't be bad again.

When I was nine, my sister and I got in an argument. She called me stupid and I called her fat, and then she said I would die alone, and so I hit her. My mother told me to go to my room, and I retreated. My palm was red where I'd hit her, and the blood pounding in my head made my anger fiercer. I could have boiled water by touching it. It felt like being on fire.

When I went to sleep, I was still angry, still throbbing with the energy of hitting something. It felt so good, I forgot what was coming.

It was midnight when I heard the door open. I woke up just enough to think my parents wanted to make certain I was sleeping, and then I heard the breathing.

Someone's been bad.

I creaked my head backward, and there it stood, with that gash of a smile in its shadowy face.

Very, very bad.

It held up two fingers, and curled one down, and then it left.

*

I've tried to live by a law since then. I never swear, cheat, steal, lie, or lust. I've never hit another person. I speak soft, when I speak at all. I'm a good boy. When the anger rises in my throat like bile, I swallow it back down. It collects in my guts, weighing in me. Better than the alternative.

I have been researching my visitor, trying to find evidence it has been seen before. There are no legends about such creatures. No one else has seen one. How could they, when there are so many bad people? It would have found them all, if it were looking at them.

But it isn't looking at them. It's looking at me.

I am writing this in hopes someone will find it, since it will probably move on soon. Find someone else to torment.

You may wonder how I know. That answer, at least, is straightforward. I say I've tried to live by a law. But I can't be perfect.

It always comes at midnight. It is 11:59, now. I suppose I haven't much time.

12:00.

Please, God.

There is a breathy sound behind me, just outside.

Please. I've been so good....

Click.

Prince of Graves

In the dark the boy walked, climbing toward the gate and wishing he were somewhere else.

The wind came, so cold he felt it touch his bones. He shivered a shiver that went all through his body, from his toes to his pitter-patter heart. He wished he had gloves, or a coat. Anything to keep warmer.

In the dark hung the moon, and it was old and lifeless, its leering eye reflected by hoarfrost and ice. The boy felt its stare in his brain, and wished he were brave, and knew it would not have mattered.

In the dark he walked, and wished he had not come.

He could see the top of the hill now, and the gate that stood there. It had five prongs, like the grasping finger bones of a long-dead giant, thrust through soft dirt. He wondered if they would curl inward when he touched them, and crush him with their deadened strength.

He scrabbled the last hundred feet and he was there, staring through the finger-bones at the silvered land beyond it. The plaque on the gate said Westminster Cemetery, but the kids in school called it Old Bill’s Graveyard.

Old Bill was William Friesen, the caretaker, and he was legend. He lived in the house at the bottom of the hill. He hated children, particularly the sort who sneaked into the cemetery late at night for dares. The stories made him out to be terrifying: seven feet tall and thin as a rake, with a face like a crocodile’s and eyes that could see in the dark. The boy doubted these were truth, but all the same he was glad that Old Bill didn’t like coming out on cold nights. It hadn’t stopped the man from leaving signs all the way up the hill: NO TRESPASSING.

The boy gripped the bars of the gate. Cold, he thought, so cold his fingers burned at the touch, but he couldn’t focus on that. The only way to stop Tommy calling him chicken was getting into Old Bill’s, and the only way into Old Bill’s was climbing the gate.

He swarmed up the bars, clambering like a spider, pushing against them with his shoes. His fingers were already blued, and his breath came harsh and sharp, but he could not stop. Relentlessly he scrabbled upward, gritting chattering teeth, until he achieved the top. The bar was thin, and he could not feel his fingers, but he balanced there for a moment, thrilled.

I made it, he thought. I made it—

His fingers faltered. He shrieked, but only briefly, as he tumbled over the gate.

*

The boy woke because someone was touching his face. His eyes opened, weakly, and he couldn’t be sure if the stars he saw were really there or merely pain-points, shunted to the front of his skull.

“You okay, kid?” said the voice. “Kid?”

The boy sat up, and the one who had woken him skittered backward like a beetle. From the new vantage point, the boy could see his leg, twisted away from him at an absurd angle. Seconds after the sight came the pain, and he sucked in a breath.

“So you aren’t okay,” said the other one, eyeing him warily. The boy did not recognize this Other One; he was skinny and pale, with wide, lamp-like eyes.

“What happened to me?” asked the boy.

“You fell,” replied the other. “Off the gate. I saw it. You slipped and your leg got all tangled up beneath you and it’s twisted weird. I saw it,” he said again. “Are you very hurt?”

“Yes,” the boy moaned. “It hurts.” But the pain was fading a little, numbing. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“This is my place,” said the pale one simply. “I’m Charlie, by the way. It’s not my name, except it almost is. You can call me Charlie, I mean.”

“Your place? That’s silly, it can’t be your place. It’s Old Bill’s Graveyard. Everyone knows that.”

“Old Bill?” Charlie laughed. “I know Old Bill. Old Bill knows me. We don’t like each other much. Actually that’s not true. Actually he hates me. He hates me because this is my place, not his. He can’t change that, no matter what.”

“Why is it your place?”

“It just is,” said Charlie. “What about you? Who are you?”

“I don’t think I should tell you my name,” the boy said. “You shouldn’t have told me your name, either, Charlie. Everyone knows you don’t say your name in a graveyard, or the ghosts will crawl out of the earth and swallow it up, and then you’ll never have a name again.”

“Well, you know something. But don’t worry about me. The ghosts don’t want my name. Wouldn’t do them any good, neither.”

“Why?”

“It just wouldn’t. They can’t take my name away. It’s mine.”

“Oh.”

“Will you at least tell me why you’re here? You ought to do that, since you won’t tell me your name. It’s only fair.”

“I have to spend the night here,” the boy said quietly.

“What? Spend the night?” Charlie’s eyes got big. “Why?”

“A dare,” said the boy. “It’s something the kids do around here in the summer. They tell their parents they’re sleeping over, and they sneak in here and they spend a night in Old Bill’s Graveyard. And if you don’t, then you’re chicken.”

“Seems silly,” said Charlie. “Why didn’t you do it in the summer?”

“I only just moved here. For Dad’s work.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that like?”

“I hate it,” said the boy flatly. “All of it. I hate this town, and I hate my school, and I hate my house. It’s all awful.”

“If it’s so bad, why are you doing this?”

The boy paused, and slowly said, “Rachel, I guess.”

“It’s always a girl.”

“She’s the only thing I don’t hate here. She’s so nice, and smart and pretty. She has big brown eyes and red hair. I want to grow up and marry her.” He didn’t go into detail about how much he liked her laugh, her skin, her smile. He wasn’t a wuss, after all.

“Best of luck on that one,” Charlie said in a low voice.

“She doesn’t like me, though,” he said. “She likes Tommy.”

“Ah. Tommy, eh? I’ll bet he’s impressive, ain’t he?”

“Not really,” the boy said. “I sure don’t see why she would like him.”

“’Course not.” Charlie looked thoughtful. “This Tommy kid. What’s he look like?”

“Big. He’s as tall as Martha Ann, and she’s two whole years older than us.”

“Dark hair, blue eyes? Sort of look like a dog that figured out how to walk upright?”

“That’s him! How’d you know?”

Charlie laughed harshly. “’Cos I seen him. He came to my place a few years ago. But I’ll tell you a secret, seeing as how we’re friends and all: he didn’t stay all night. He got scared. He snuck out.”

The boy’s face lit up. “No!”

“Oh, he did. He did. He couldn’t see me, but I was there.”

“How’d he get out?”

“There’s a door in the wall, near the back,” Charlie said. “Old Bill doesn’t know about it. It’s as the hill goes down so it gets all covered in snow and nonsense, you know, so it’s hard to find. This Tommy boy, I remember him. He came here one day with his big brother. Did some exploring, adventuring, he found that little door and next week he comes here in the night. Bet you anything he started that dare thing you’re doing.”

“You’re lying.”

“Am not. I’ll show it to you. Come on. Your leg getting better? I bet you can walk on it now.”

Charlie was right; the boy’s leg didn’t hurt near as much as it had. All he could feel in it was a sort of dull ache, numbed by the cold. He felt uneasy about that, but the uneasiness was nothing compared to the excitement at the thought of the door. He could go home, could get warm, and he would have something over Tommy. What would happen if he told all the other kids that Tommy had chickened? Maybe Rachel would stop liking him….

Charlie grinned at the boy’s mounting excitement and held out a hand. “Good then. Come on, kid, I’ll show you. You can lean on me.”

The boy took Charlie’s hand, and Charlie pulled him to his feet. They leaned on each other, the nameless boy favoring his weirdly twisted leg, and Charlie led them to the back of the graveyard, navigating around snow-encrusted tombstones.

“What do you mean this is your place?” the boy asked again. “How did it become your place?”

“It’s just mine, that’s all,” Charlie replied. “You stay somewhere long enough, eventually it becomes yours.”

“You stay here? How long have you been here?”

“I don’t know. A while, I guess. Since I left.”

“But how did you get here? Why doesn’t Old Bill kick you out?”

“He can’t. He can’t do nothing to me. Told you, didn’t I? This is my place. Not even Bill can throw me out if it’s my place. Nobody can.”

“I wish it was that way with me,” the boy said. “Then we wouldn’t have had to come to this stupid town.”

“Grown-ups.” Charlie sneered. “They’ve got no respect for us. They don’t ever care for anybody but themselves, kid, and don’t you ever forget it. That’s why I’m here, you know? That’s why I made this my place. My papa didn’t care for no one but himself, so I just . . . you know, I left.”

“You live here alone?”

“Not alone,” Charlie said. “Not all the time.” His voice was low and final, and the boy could tell Charlie didn’t want to answer the obvious question.

They hobbled in silence for a minute, until Charlie said, “Here it is.”

Charlie pushed aside a mound of old snow to reveal a door built into the wall. It was painted gray, and covered in intricate designs that reminded the boy of spider-webs. There seemed to be a pattern to them, but he couldn’t quite find it: following one strand inevitably led to following another, and another, and another, until he couldn’t tell where he’d started or how long he’d been looking.

“This’ll take me out?” he asked.

“Right in one,” said Charlie. “You’ll be all set.”

As he spoke, they heard a high screeching of iron against iron. They turned to the gate, and the boy’s heart stopped.

“Old Bill,” he said.

“Hurry,” said Charlie. “Hurry, get the door open. He can’t punish you if he can’t catch you.”

The boy grasped the metal handle and yanked with all his might. The door was barely taller than him, and should have opened easily, but it was fused to the wall with ice and rust. He yanked harder.

“You!” shouted a harsh voice. Old Bill had pushed past the rotted old gates and was stampeding through the graveyard, hair trailing behind him, fiery white—

“Hurry!” Charlie urged. “Hurry! You got to!”

“Don’t open that door!”

The boy gritted his teeth and pulled in desperation, frenzied. His lip must have gotten caught in between his teeth—rivulets of blood were trickling down his chin—

The door gave way. He tumbled through it, moving awkwardly on his bad leg but feeling no pain in it. He cast a glance over his shoulder to pale-eyed Charlie, who stood at the door with an eerie grin.

“Are you coming?” asked the boy.

“Nah,” said Charlie, still with that narrow smile. “You go on ahead. He can’t hurt me. Bye, kid. Thanks.”

And he slammed the door closed before the boy could even ask, For what?

*

William Friesen carried the boy out himself, hefting him effortlessly, like a sack of potatoes. He carried him all the way down the hill, to his lonely little shack, and wrapped him in blankets before calling 911. His teeth chattered and he missed the numbers twice before he managed to get the line active. The girl on the other end sounded youngish, and very serious.

“What is your emergency?”

“A boy,” Old Bill stammered. “Erm, young boy. Sneaked into the cemetery. He’s hyper…hypo…he’s cold. Colder’n he ought to be.”

“Where are you, sir?”

He told her, and went on, “You need to hurry.” He hung up.

The boy was shivering beneath the blankets. Old Bill sat beside him, thinking he ought to pray, knowing it would not matter. He did so anyway, babbling out words his grandmother had taught him, words they used to say before science made the world a simple place. He didn’t remember what they meant. Only what they were meant for.

The ambulance arrived quickly, lights flashing, eager medics stampeding all over Bill’s home. They wheeled the boy away on a stretcher, and Old Bill followed, chewing his lip to ragged bits.

Before they pushed the boy inside the ambulance, his eyes opened. Moonlight shone in them, made them milky. They roved, briefly, before landing on William Friesen.

“You saved me,” he murmured, speaking past a leaden tongue. “Thank you, Mr. Friesen.”

The paramedic beside him checked his pulse, moving with old-hand efficiency, and signaled a discreet thumbs-up to the caretaker, mouthing, he’ll be okay. He turned to the shivering child. “How are you feeling, kid?”

“Good,” the boy muttered. His eyes were still fixed on Old Bill, and they shone, lamp-like. “Really good. I feel like it’s my place.”

Saturday, August 10, 2013

I Must Not Be Batman

You know what's really cool? We're gonna talk about deontology vs. utilitarianism in terms of superheroes, and you're going to understand
Aren't comics awesome?!

For those of you who don't notice the logos that precede the blockbuster movies you've been watching recently, in the world of comic book superheroes, there are two giants: Marvel and DC. Now, upfront, I'll cop to being a Marvel fan more than anything else. Spider-man is my spirit animal and I've never really connected with any of the characters in the DC Universe.

There is, however, a reason for that. You see, Marvel makes characters, and sometimes they make heroes. We can connect to them because they're flawed, and human, and they're often losers. But DC is different. DC makes ideas.

Hang with me on this. We'll start with Superman.

And I love you, Random Citizen! *

*Not actually Superman quote.

Superman is maybe the most famous superhero on the face of the planet. In case you haven't left the shelter of your rock since 1938, he's an alien who escaped to Kansas when his home planet exploded, leaving him the last of his race. It's fortunate there's only one of him, because Superman is terrifying. Superman is a physical god. He's faster, stronger, and more resilient than anything Earth has ever managed to crank out. Compounding that, according to All-Star Superman, his brain is super, too. He can see wavelengths humans might not even know about, and his mind operates at a swifter pace. Basically, he wins at everything, always.

On a story theory level, this is a serious problem, because people rarely take an interest in god-level characters. God-men don't struggle, and stories without struggle aren't interesting. So the problem the writers of Superman are faced with is how to make Superman somebody worth reading about. Clearly they succeeded—if they hadn't, we wouldn't be churning out movies, cartoons, and songs (and songs, and songs, and songs) about the guy. And Bill (the guy who gets killedwouldn't spend three solid minutes talking about him.

The trick is that Superman's struggle is all to do with his monumental choice. Given what power he has, he has to decide whether to save the world or destroy it. He's a giant walking among ants. He can do whatever he wants. So he decides he wants to save it. (Check out this video for a much more detailed look at this aspect of his character.)

Of course, the thing about being a giant is that you have to be very, very careful where you step. So Superman is always following his own unbreakable code of ethics. He doesn't lie, cheat, steal, or play dirty at any step of the game. He's a dyed-in-the-wool Boy Scout.

Batman could not be more different.

Taking a fiercely contested second place to Superman for most-recognized-superhero, Batman makes up for it by being, perhaps, the most butt-kicking. In direct contrast to Superman (who has ALL the powers) Batsy has no superpowers at all (except his budget). He's a master fighter, a spectacular detective, and generally a terrifying ninja. But he does it without any supernatural powers. Where Superman is godlike, Batman is wholly human.

To make up for his lack, though, Batman has no limits. He has exactly one rule ("Thou shalt not kill") that he won't break, but short of that, anything and everything is fair game. He will do whatever it takes to stop the bad guys, from psychological warfare to breaking bones to spying on an entire city. From his perspective, these are necessary—he has nothing else to fall back on. Superman can afford to be a Boy Scout because he has enough power to back it up. Batman doesn't, and therefore can't.

Loosely speaking, Batman embodies a utilitarian ethic ("the end justifies the means"), while Supes personifies a deontological one ("the means justify the end"). This delineation defines almost every aspect of their personalities. Superman is associated with truth and justice, while Batman is known as the Dark Knight. Superman is polite, well-intentioned, and cautious. Batman is gruff and he will slam your face into a table.

He is the night, and he does not have time for your nonsense.

You can learn a lot about a culture by looking at the heroes they immortalize in stories. Greece had Odysseus, Rome had Julius Caesar, France has...erm...I'll go with Jean Claude van Damme. And America has Superman, Batman, and all the characters falling in between.

For a long while, Superman was considered our biggest cultural icon. He was the principal figure of the Golden Age of Comics, when men were men, ├╝bermensch were ├╝bermensch, and women were just...sort of...there. (Because there had to be some diversity, right?)

The Golden Age of Comics, though, eventually gave way to the Modern Age (where we are now). In the Golden Age and most of its successors, comics leaned Superman-wardly, because America thought of Supes as our avatar in fiction. Like Superman, we were powerful and responsible. We needed to be careful where we stepped. Most of all, we were required to be righteous—to do the right thing, no matter what it cost in the long run.

But in the Modern Age, that zeitgeist has vanished. Comics have shifted away from Superman's rosy perspective to the grittier world of the Dark Knight. The 80's saw the deconstruction of the superhero-as-a-nice-guy. Now we have Jack Bauer, Gregory House M.D., Ozymandias and Rorschach, and the Doctor. We've crawled sneakily away from the shiny ethics of Clark Kent to the far more frightening, far more efficient world of Bruce Wayne. We care more about competence than compassion.

This isn't just evident in our stories, or in our politics (looking at you, U.S. government). Look closely enough and you'll see it everywhere. The temptation is to buy into Batman's worldview, because, let's face it, Batman gets the job done. He does the only thing that makes sense. His world doesn't have rules, and even if it did, there's no one to back them up—except him. He does what's necessary because no one else can. Compassion is well and good, but he'll take competence every time.

I worry that sometimes I tend to think that way, too.

I'm the guy on the left.

For a long while, I've had a serious issue accepting the Christian subculture, because for the most part, it is just that: sub-cultural. Our attempts at making art are generally not very good. (I'm looking at you, Facing the Giants. And you, Fireproof. And you, Family Christian Bookstore.) Our church services can often really suck. So, too, can our church communities. As a widespread rule, I did not find the church able. They weren't competent. They had a job to do and they were failing to do it.

I couldn't forgive that.

I've been confronted, though, with the fact that God does not go looking for competence. In fact, "competence" is somewhere near the bottom of the list of divine qualifiers. If memory serves, God picked someone for competence once. Once. (It's in 1 Samuel. The candidate is good-looking, a powerful warrior, a compelling speaker. He's the king Batman would choose. He tanked the job so bad that God picked his successor halfway through his reign. Nothing like meeting your replacement, especially when he's a scrawny, metrosexual, seventeen-year-old shepherd with a thing for the harp.)

Missionary to the Gentiles? Started out as a religious persecutor. Apostles? Mostly uneducated fishermen, plus a slimy money launderer and a terrorist. Best-known Jewish king in history? Promoted from "sheep-herder boy." Savior of the human race? Born amongst pigs and cattle, to a disgraced 16-and-Pregnant mother and a seemingly-cuckolded carpenter, in a backwoods town in a downtrodden nation of failures and former slaves.

God does not pick based on competence. It's not His style.

With this in mind, I'm making a resolution: I must not try to be Batman any more.

Let competence live and die on its own.
Let the Christian cool factor fluctuate.
Let my instinct to be awesome—to do awesome things that would make God proud of me—starve to death.

So Christians really suck at making movies/music/what-have-you. Our competence isn't what saves the world.

That's Jesus' job.

Time to leave it to Superman.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

So What Is a Writer, Really?


What is a writer?

Are you ready for this? I'm going to blow your mind.

A writer is one who writes.

Take note of the present tense, as it is the most important part of that definition.


I think most aspiring writers have adopted the mindset that "writer" is an adjective written on our hearts from the day we were born. It means deep thinker, and storyteller, and wordsmith. It almost always means lover of books, and words, and ideas. It can mean poet or newsman or novelist. In popular thought it rarely coincides with "mathematician" or even "able to add things." But we view it as irrevocably and undeniably a part of who we are. Whatever else may happen, our identity is firmly lodged in two things: "I am human," and "I am writer." Nothing removes that.

This, I think, is wrong.

One who writes. That's it. That's all there is to that definition. It doesn't have to mean published. It doesn't even have to mean good. But it connotes a necessity of persistence.


A writer is not "one who wrote while in high school, but recently has been focusing on other projects." A writer is not "one who got good grades in English class and has a brilliant idea for a book." A writer is not "one who dreams wistfully of becoming J.K. Rowling/J.R.R. Tolkien/C.S. Lewis/K.A. Applegate/Robert Heinlein/Patrick Rothfuss/what-have-you."

It can have those things. But they're all useless to you unless you're doing. Wanting to write, having written, trained in writing—these are all good things. Wrote a novel once. Have a great idea for a book. Love writing.

Those are excellent, in fact. But they are useless to us unless we are writing.

Someone who claims to be an athlete but never sets foot in a gym is not an athlete. A carpenter who never touches wood is not a carpenter. A practitioner who doesn't practice is a liar or a fool. The practice—doing the thing—is built into the word.

You may feel that writing is a thing etched into your soul. I wouldn't be surprised if it is. Communication is one of the great human purposes. It's how we brush up against the soul of other humans.

But what use is a thing in your soul if you never pour it out through your hands?

*

I must be honest with you: I'm dogmatic on this because I can't afford not to be.

By my own stringent definition, I've not been a dedicated writer for three months. When I wrote the 64-Day Hypocrite, I fully intended to get back to writing. To get back in touch with the wild thrill of making things up and writing them down. And, to an extent, I have. But not yet to the same degree I had in January. It's hard to gain the momentum back. I know it's possible. I just haven't had the requisite willpower to do it, and now school has fallen on me like a granite block and I can't wriggle out long enough to scribble a single meaningful sentence. All my creative energies go toward school and people. Even this blog post is an assignment.

So, in a sense, I have an excuse, and that's the most dangerous place in the world.

I can't afford to have excuses for very long. Even less can I permit myself to buy into the idea that we're defined as writers by our passions instead of where our passions drive us. If I shift the definition of the word so that it will always include me, no matter what I do with my time, then I have no need for relentless creativity. I'm still a "writer" if I lay in bed all day and do nothing. I'm still a "writer" when I while away my hours on video games. In short, folks, I would have no need to DO anything.

That's what matters, really. It's not what you are. It's what you do. It's where your time goes. It's where your passions lead you. You can make claims all you like, the way I've done for so many years—being a hobbyist writer talking about how awesome things were going to be when I finished the writing that I wasn't really doing, instead of a dedicated and purposeful maker. That's the difference. That's the knife edge separating fulfillment and bitterness: while self-important hobbyists wax eloquent of the things they'll do when they have the time, the ones who care enough to succeed are busy doing it.

What are your thoughts, reader? What is a writer, really?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The (In)Complete List of Tips to Stay Creative

One of the most miserable questions with writing is the inevitable one of creativity: "How do I stay creative? How do I avoid writer's block? How can I keep writing?"

Personally, I'm of the opinion that writer's block is just creative fatigue (or sometimes fear), and the best way to keep writing is just to grit your teeth and move ahead—it's easier to edit a poorly-written page than an empty one—but even so, it's good for creative muscles to stay limber. So I'm gathering as many tips for staying creative as I can, and leaving them here. It will probably grow. For now, I'm organizing it like an exercise regimen, because it's the closest metaphor I can think of.

Let's get straight to it, then, shall we?*

Stretches

Cramps happen in the body, but they can happen creatively, too. Limberness can help prevent stiffness in your creative output.
  • Make lists.
  • Make charts.
  • Make maps.
  • Make diagrams.
  • Sketch things.
  • Have a way of keeping track of ideas, even if it's just jotting them down on your cell phone or in a notebook. (Actually, notebooks are great if you're into the romanticized writer trope.) This isn't initially a way of getting great ideas, at least not at first. But it's helpful in the long run. If you don't treat any ideas as worthwhile, you train yourself not to have any more of them. Quantity's no guarantee of eventual quality, but it can certainly help.
  • Think deeply about things—even silly things (especially silly things). Why do you believe what you believe? Why does culture function this way and not that way? What would happen if—?
  • Entertain every idea to the fullest extent you can manage. Even if the idea amounts to nothing, you've made your ideation more flexible and robust.
  • People-watch in the least creepy manner available to you. Make up stories about what they're doing, where they're going, and why—always why.
  • Surround yourself with creative people. Make them your friends. Bonus points if they're actually fun to be around.

Diet

For a while, I thought I was really good at this. Put simply, I'm an art glutton. I can watch TV all day if you let me. I sucked, though, at thinking about the art I kept ingesting. There was no consideration in my consumption. That's crucial. You can't just watch things or read things and expect it to make you a better writer. As in love, so in art: engagement is a big deal. (That's a horrid joke and I'm ashamed of it.)
  • Ingest art you love. What about it appeals to you? Why does it resonate? Try to see past the curtain. What's going on behind the scenes?
  • Consider art you hate. (Don't do too much of this or it might seep in.) Why don't you like it? What about it conflicts with your own artistic sensibilities?
  • Analyze successful books, movies, or shows. Pick them apart mentally and with friends.
  • Try to think in archetypes. Break stories down to their tiniest parts and see what they really are. A good way to do this is to transpose stories. "This is about a football team in west Texas, but what if it's just the same as King Arthur's court?" Alternately, check out this compilation about how Taken and Finding Nemo are almost the same movie, in a way.
  • Find some music you can listen to without becoming distracted. I'm partial to ambient music, like Embers, the Album LeafExplosions in the Sky, or Port Blue, but that may not be your style. Peers of mine will often listen to music that reflects the mood they're trying to write in, be that slightly frenetic or folky or stately or whatever. The key is that it not distract you from what you're writing.

Workout

Once you're limber and well-fed, the really tough part of actually doing stuff comes around. This is where most of us get a bit gun-shy (or maybe that's just me). It's necessary, though. We must work at it. It's not enough to be a creative genius or an incisive thinker if you never do anything with it.
  • Write.
  • Keep writing.
  • Take a break—but try to do this only after you've actually done something. Creativity is like a muscle. It's good to rest it after a workout, but if all you do is rest it, nothing gets done.
  • Write some more.
  • Get feedback from some of the creative friends you made back in Staying Limber.
  • Keep writing.
  • Finish things.
  • Edit the finished things.
  • Edit some more.
  • Believe in what you've made.
  • Get more feedback.
  • Remember: no one is obligated to care about your story, so it's your job to make it as brilliant as it can possibly be. Edit some more.
  • Stay focused.
  • Write.

Hazards

Nomming on the Galactus Burger with an XXL packet of fries and a 72-oz. bucket of sugar water, augmented by the Double Death by Chocolate Shake, is explicitly forbidden in the codes of exercisers everywhere (even though none of the above items technically exists). Same thing with creativity: there are some things which simply aren't wise to do. They'll gum up the works hard and fast.
  • Time-waster sites. I won't list them here (since that would only give us more things to use for time-wasting), but it's not as if they're hard to spot. Odds are good that as soon as you read "Habits to Avoid," you thought of one. One helpful tool for preventing Internet time-wasting is the Stay Focused Google add-on.
  • Most video games. While I won't deny they can be fun, and even sometimes a form of storytelling, most of them are a numbing agent. They're doing you no good.
  • Mindless television.
  • Beating yourself up. Self-hatred is a pretty standard human problem, but indulging in it isn't going to do you any good.
  • Hating what you make. Also nearly universal problem, but a terrible habit to keep. If you start hating what you make, take a step back from it.
  • Shooting down ideas for not being "good enough." Doing this trains your brain never to think of any ideas. Play with any idea that crosses your mind.
  • Stopping in the middle of something. This is, by far, the hardest one for me. In my entire life, I've finished exactly 1 (one) longterm project. It was 332 pages, single-spaced, and it was awful, but it was finished. Finishing things is a critical habit to have.

Miscellaneous Encouragement


*If you happen to be a creative type, but not the writing creative type, good for you! Parts of this aren't quite going to be geared toward you, but in general if you replace "write" with "make stuff," you should do just fine.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The 64-Day Hypocrite

Some of you may have noticed a general theme in the blog of late—a sort of general purposefulness that it really lacked several months ago. Among these is the overall productivity of it. I've written more on the blog in the last two months than I have for a long time. Part of that's due to a class (I'm required to do it) and part of it's due to the excitement I started feeling about five months ago.

In October or November, I applied to go to a writing conference happening in February. I was so excited about the idea that I started brainstorming and outlining and (most importantly) writing for three solid months. It got pretty crazy—during January, I pumped out about 2000 words a day. And I was enjoying it.

There's nothing quite like the languor after doing things you love to do. Added to that was the feeling of completeness that comes when you remember that you do love it, and why. In short, it was a good month.

By mid-February, I had nearly 95,000 words of a manuscript. When I first outlined the book, I anticipated something close to 100,000 words in total; by the time I reached 95k, it was looking more and more like the book would round out at 150,000. I was okay with that, though. I could handle doing more of this. With the resurgence of schoolwork and social commitments, it had become harder, but I was willing and ready. Another 50,000 words was nothing.

*

After the conference, the writing stopped. My momentum deadened, and my zeal to complete the project petered out. I became more concerned with other, ostensibly more important things: homework, sleep, reading, video games. I kept telling myself I would return to the project and finish it, because that's what a writer has to do.

About 30 days after I'd stopped, I returned to the project and realized there were a number of things I needed to hammer out. Following an old personal tradition, I restarted the project, beginning with pre-writing. What followed was a long period of vacillating over fiddly world-building details, like the history of the setting and the mechanics of its magic, and vain attempts at character sketches. I'm not good at character, so sketches are an important step in the pre-writing.

So I hacked out the kinks in the magic system. I drafted possible character types, and supplemented those by ingesting really good character drama (read: watching the first few episodes of Friday Night Lights). And time passed, and I didn't write.

Day 40 came and went, and I didn't write.

Day 47 came, and I noticed, and I said, "I'm definitely not going to go fifty whole days without getting back to it."

(Because I needed to, and I knew that—cognitively, at least. I didn't know it in my gut anymore. I'd gone too long without it, so my body forgot ardor in favor of languor.)

Day 50 came, and I wrote...and then stopped. I gained no momentum. I couldn't have written much more than 500 words.

Day 51 came and went, and I didn't write.

*

As of this writing, I've gone about 64 days without returning to that fierce, reckless creative passion. That's 64 days of pure, stupid hypocrisy, because I've been pretty dogmatic about the idea that writer's block is an excuse, and a really, really poor one at that.

So I'm taking a more optimistic view. I'm not blocking up. I'm stocking up.

After a period of intense activity, the body must rest. So, too, it is with creating, I think, because creativity is a muscle. Going and going and going—and then going some more—is not feasible at my level. I'm not an Olympian of this craft. Not yet.

So this is a rest period, and it's temporary. I cannot allow it to be permanent. That is within my power. Continuing in the lackluster boredom—this paltry excuse for creativity—is not permitted.

Because I have found a thing man searches for his entire life: joyful effort. "Making things up and writing them down," as Gaiman says, is the first thing I've found that makes me itch.

This is the crucial thing. This is the heart of it. I have written out of shallow pleasure, out a desire to be admired, and out of a need to validate my childhood hobby. None suffice. They cannot sustain creativity, because there is nothing undergirding them—no skeleton, no true fire. They are shaped (vaguely) like the true thing, but the longer I look at them, the more they are revealed to be grotesqueries. They are not willing to endure when creation is boring, or when it is hard to create.

No, writing must come from the central place, from the nucleus of the impulse, purely from a love for creating things. It cannot be swayed by storm or, more deadly, by stillness. It will be work, and it will be lovely.

What now? That's simple.

Write.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Why Wattpad Gives Me Hope (Lots and Lots and Lots)

Some days, the Internet is just awesome.

Some of you may have heard of Wattpad, the website where undiscovered writers can fling their stories out into the ether and hope for general approval. Others might have heard of Jukepop, which is sort of the same thing except with serialized fictions. In general, these sorts of sites cater to a very particular demographic: that of people who think of themselves as writers but just can't buy a book deal. (Oh, just kidding, the Christian Writers Guild has made that possible. ZING.)

I've mentioned these kinds of people before: the ones who talk a pretty good game about all the writing they're doing, but don't tend to, you know, actually write. The ones who treat an ancient and noble artistic pursuit as a hobby that anybody can do, because...really, how hard could it be?

The thing that I often miss when I rant about pretentious hacks is that, sometimes, there are diamonds in the rough. Every author has to start somewhere, and more often than not they start as pretentious hacks. How could they not, after all? Writing—and, more directly, making your writing public—requires an interesting degree of blind arrogance. Making your work public implies that you think the public might actually like the things you've written. Putting your work out there, even if it is just a website that caters to narcissism, is a step in the right direction. Heaven knows that writing you keep hidden in your desk drawer isn't going to change any lives.

Especially since, sometimes, self-publishing your work can pay off.

Beth Reeks (pen name Beth Reekles) is a 17-year-old writer who published a teen romance on Wattpad. She did what a number of authors have advised since the dawn of the written word: write what she wanted to read. She'd grown tired of vampires, werewolves, and fallen angels; she just wanted a teenage romance. So she made one, and she made it well, and it earned her a number of fans on Wattpad.

And then Random House heard about her, and now she has a book deal.

I only get to say this once because I hate needless repetition, so I'm going to say it as loudly as I can in typed words:

THAT'S AWESOME
THAT IS TOTALLY WICKED AWESOME

A 17-year-old kid getting published? Getting fiction published? That's the stuff of legends, folks. I just want to shake this girl's hand. What a champ.

It's stories like these that give me hope for writers and for starving artists in general. See, Barnes and Noble is on its way out. Borders is dead. Some nutcase author wants libraries to die. In short, the world of the printed word is in some pretty significant turmoil. Nobody's quite sure how everything is going to shake out. Will the next generation even care about stories when they can view all their stuff through neurological implants? Now that we've mastered video technology, are words even relevant anymore? Can the world of literature ever bounce back from Twilight?


The short answer is...yeah. Duh.


The world is changing, but this isn't the biggest change the world's undergone. It's just the biggest one we've been alive for. (Every wave seems huge when you're inside it.)


Maybe printed books die out and maybe they don't. (Here's hoping they don't.) And maybe the publishing industry is going to convulse and explode (which I'm not entirely sure is undeserved). And maybe my grandkids will think of books the way I think of vinyl records: quaint and romantic, but obsolete.


I doubt it. But, even if the printed page dies out; even if the book publishing industry goes belly-up; even if the libraries vanish....


The stories live on, and the storytellers keep appearing.


The Internet and its utterly public forum gives me hope for this. These days, all you need are 1000 people who desperately want you to keep making art...and you can. Artists have always survived on the charity of people who like their stuff; it's only in the era of Indelible Walt Disney Copyright that we've gotten the idea that "artist" isn't a proper job because only a few people get to make a lot of money at it.

Until the world settles, all we can do is keep on hoping. And keep on making good art.






What are your thoughts on the imminent death throes of Barnes and Noble, or the 17-year-old wunderkind publishing a book because of the Internet? Sound off in the comments!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Discovery Writing with an Outline: How to Grow the Parthenon (Just Add Water!)

According to some successful writers, there are two kinds of writing: architecture and gardening. Architect writers outline their plots meticulously before they put pen to paper. Gardener (or discoverer) writers are sometimes called "pantsers" because they write "by the seat of their pants." Both have their strong points—architect writers typically have room for more intricate plots, while gardener writers tend toward powerful ideas that they carry out well.

Both have some pretty serious shortcomings, though. Architects struggle with what some people call "railroading," where they become so desperate for their original ideas to bear out that they force them to happen, even at the expense of character. Gardener writers, on the other hand, can often struggle with their endings. It's particularly difficult if they're young, inexperienced writers: drawing every single plot thread together into a cohesive whole is tough to do, especially if the plot has wandered around quite a bit.

I suspect, though, that the two can be balanced. Steven James, Stephen King, and Patrick Rothfuss—all very talented, very dedicated gardeners—might disagree with me, and since they're way more successful than I am, you feel free to go listen to their thoughts. But here's the thing: James, King, Rothfuss, and a number of other gardener writers are geniuses. Their subconscious does most of the heavy lifting for them. Also, they don't necessarily spit on knowing where your story is going—just on planning out every single moment of it.

I propose, though, that—as the writer—you're allowed to know at least a little about how your story's going to end. No need to wait until the climactic reveal, right?

So, without further ado, here are the Three Steps to Growing the Parthenon (or, How Outliners Can Be a Little More Discovery-Oriented).

(I'm bad at titles.)


1) You don't need to know every step to know the destination.

A common misconception about outlining—or, at least, one that I held to pretty tightly for most of my life—is that it needs to handle every single event in the story. Every detail of it, from the opening scene to the last and every bit of backstory, character interaction, and stunning reveal in between.

As far as I can tell, that's just not true at all.

Knowing every single step of the story is wildly unnecessary, and frankly harmful to creativity. You've effectively drawn a box for your story, out of which you must not step. As Steven James is fond of saying, "Story trumps structure." Don't feel pressured to map out everything that will happen in the story; usually, knowing what's going on will help.

Suggested Fix: keep your outlining to the bare minimum (if you outline at all). Know how the story ends (mostly), know how your characters will be affected (mostly), and maybe know some of what will happen in between, but don't feel any great pressure to know every single detail. That's absurd.

2) Characters come first.

This was the hardest truth for me to learn. I'll be honest: I'm not really good with creating characters out of thin air. I don't have a whole crowd of people living in my head like some writers claim to. So, when I have to populate my stories, I tend toward making semi-sentient machines: they have a function in the plot, but they rarely have personalities, desires, or secrets of their own. They're an extension of the story I've made for them.

That's bad.

My inability to smite the earth and pull characters forth from the ether is my biggest weakness. (It's not just a writing struggle either; I'm not very good at understanding people.) Consequently, I need to keep forcing myself to write characters who exist independently of the story they're in; they're not just wave functions of the plot. The characters are the heart and soul of any story. Story robots don't engage readers.

Suggested Fix: let your characters behave as they want to. Give them foibles, quirks, failures, dreams. You can always make characters more realistic.

3) No outline is perfect.

Stephen King says that "outlining is a great way to immortalize a bad idea." Outliners will often get way too attached to their original outlines, casting them in stone rather than ink. Instead of letting the story be fluid and organic, it becomes forced, rigid, unyielding, and—inevitably—disappointing.

Here's a quick comparison to get across the idea: imagine that you've met someone you find interesting, likable, and at least smart enough to hold up a conversation. You decide that you'd like to get to know this person, and maybe develop a long-lasting friendship with them. The relationship will naturally consist of a sort of give-and-take; that's how all relationships work, after all. You'll jump in with expectations, and gradually discover that a number of things you initially took for granted are, actually, very wrong. This person is way more complex than you ever gave them credit for.

Now imagine that, instead of letting the person subvert your expectations, you demanded that they be exactly what you expected on your first meeting. Instead of complex and deep and interesting, they become an extension of you; they're just another thing you've conquered.

Stories should never be something you hack out easily. They ought to come at cost. There's an inherent struggle in all writing that makes it worthwhile. Without the struggle, it rings hollow. It doesn't feel right.

Suggested Fix: let the story direct itself. Give it a few guidelines, perhaps even a few road signs, but don't ever make it adhere unquestioningly to your first thought. Stories evolve in the mind; that's how it's always worked.

So, dear reader, how about you? Are you more a discovery writer or an architect? How do you balance plot, with all its intricacies, and characters, with all their needs and depths?

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Why You Should Be Reading "The Name of the Wind"

This book. This book.

My name is Kvothe, pronounced nearly the same as "quothe." Names are important as they tell you a great deal about a person. I've had more names than anyone has a right to. The Adem call me Maedre. Which, depending on how it's spoken, can mean The Flame, The Thunder, or The Broken Tree. 


"The Flame" is obvious if you've ever seen me. I have red hair, bright. If I had been born a couple of hundred years ago I would probably have been burned as a demon. I keep it short but it's unruly. When left to its own devices, it sticks up and makes me look as if I have been set afire. 


"The Thunder" I attribute to a strong baritone and a great deal of stage training at an early age. 


I've never thought of "The Broken Tree" as very significant. Although in retrospect, I suppose it could be considered at least partially prophetic.

My first mentor called me E'lir because I was clever and I knew it. My first real lover called me Dulator because she liked the sound of it. I have been called Shadicar, Lightfinger, and Six-String. I have been called Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Arcane, and Kvothe Kingkiller. I have earned those names. Bought and paid for them.

But I was brought up as Kvothe. My father once told me it meant "to know." 

I have, of course, been called many other things. Most of them uncouth, although very few were unearned. 

I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.

You may have heard of me. 

Are you shivering yet?

That's the back cover of Name of the Wind, the debut novel from incumbent king of fantasy Patrick Rothfuss. I am here to tell you that if you haven't read this book yet, your life is being wasted.

What it is: In Name of the Wind, a man in hiding from his past recounts his life story—from the day his family was butchered by demons whose names men fear to speak to his training in magic to, eventually, his immortalization as a legend living in his own time.

Why you should read it: NotW is a gorgeous piece of writing. Its main character, Kvothe, is perhaps the most intriguing character I've ever read. The prose is so lyrical you could sing it. Its world-building is on par with The Wheel of Time. And the protagonist is a ginger rockstar magician athlete. I won't belabor this point, because praising has been done.

Why you might not want to: There are only a few legitimate reasons not to read Name of the Wind. The plot is a little bit, erm, kudzu-like, and the protagonist is sometimes obnoxious and invincible. However, the more popular reasons not to read it are these:

1) You don't like reading. What on earth are you doing on this blog? May I direct you here?

2) You don't like reading fantasy. Well, I guess we can still be friends. It'll just be harder to do.

3) The trilogy isn't finished. That is technically a true statement; Name of the Wind is the first in a trilogy that hasn't been completed yet. However, if you refuse to read things because the sequels haven't been completed yet, you've got some trust issues to work out. 

4) You hate people and anything that comes recommended. Best of luck paying down the mortgage on that rock you live under.

In conclusion, folks, Name of the Wind is a master class in prose. Seriously. Just go read it.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

An Open Letter to the Internet and Its Inhabitants


Yesterday, a friend of mine told me he'd posted something of mine on reddit. Since I'm not as experienced with the Internet as I'd like to believe, I didn't immediately scream, "Why would you do this to me!? I thought we were friends!"

Can you feel it staring into your soul yet?

(For those of you who don't know, reddit is a website that caters to communities with specialized interests. Not a particular specialized interest—all of them. There are pages on reddit for things I didn't know existed. One of them is for writing, and he decided to share this post with them.)

Fool that I am, I decided to investigate their thoughts on it. In hindsight, this was the worst thing I could do.

I suspect reddit is a place for smart, creative people to go when they're listless. I know a lot of smart, creative people, and I can tell you for certain that listlessness happens regularly. Two or three times an hour for some of them. Before the dawn of the Internet, this wasn't crippling; when listlessness set in, a creative type would pace for a few hours before finding his way, inevitably, back to his work. That's harder to do now. The Internet provides cheap, instant, painless outlets for creativity. When the burden of dreaming things up and making them real becomes too heavy or frightening, or the dreams you're making feel forced and stupid and repetitive, the Internet's there, full of things to consume without needing to worry about life. Reddit's a prime example of this (so are Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Imgur, tvtropes, and dozens of other things—reddit's just a bit more extreme).

So when reddit saw my stuff, they sort of ripped it to shreds. Redditors are dangerous people to irritate; they have a lot of brainpower and a lot of time in which to use it. Their insults get excitingly inventive. Among other things, I'm pompous, arrogant, irritating, pretentious, stuffy, and masturbatory.

Fun stuff.

In response to these redditors, some of whom have been kind enough to go through 70% of my blog to confirm just how much of a pompous windbag I was, I have only this reply:

I'm sorry. Sincerely.

To all my friends and family and coworkers and colleagues and classmates and teachers and pastors and anyone else who interacts with me, I have the same to say:

I'm sorry. Sincerely.

I'll confess that being roasted by reddit is not the greatest fun I've ever had (although my goodness they get imaginative in communicating their hatred. Reading them is half torturous, half awe-inspiring).

But I can't deny they've got a point.

When I wrote "How to Suffocate Your Creativity," I was being pretentious, arrogant, and unkind. I acted as though I was above other aspiring writers when, frankly, I've got nothing on 'em. There are no books out there with my name on the outside. There are no articles with my name on that have been circulated anywhere I haven't personally set foot. Nothing I've written so far has had the slightest effect on the spinning of the planet.

I'm quick to forget all that, because, well, I'm a pompous windbag. That's not something I can will myself out of; it's hardcoded into me by virtue of my humanness.

The things I said in the post still stand true: it's critical to get over ourselves if we're ever going to produce noteworthy art. But I shouldn't have said it in such an incredibly egotistical manner. I've since gone through and edited it some, hoping to sand the edge off my arrogance, but it's still there. It'll take a while for me to fix the entire thing. And it's not the only post with that problem.

So I beg your forgiveness, your patience, and, last of all, a favor. If, in the course of human events, you spot me being an arrogant jerk, tell me.

And if I argue, punch me in the face. Better to enter heaven with a bruised jaw than hell with an unmarred face, eh?

I want to be better about this. There will, I think, always be some element of self-aggrandizement in what I write; any kind of artistic pursuit demands a level of narcissism that borders on daring. But that's no excuse to be a distant, unassailable prig with a high-held nose. I don't want to be that. I don't see any good coming from it, but I can see how easily I would fall into it. Arrogance is a weird thing; it's a bit like armor, until you realize it's a coffin.

So thank you, reddit, for pointing out to me what I'd wondered about for a long time, and for forcing me to confront that.

And for the rest of you, you all stay awesome.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

How to Suffocate Your Creativity and Irritate All Your Friends (A Guide for Aspiring Writers)

"Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people of the world, I mean everybody. No matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands maybe." -Neil Gaiman

I once thought about how much math I would have to do just to calculate all the people in the world who want to be writers. It was around that point that I decided math was beyond me, and I should leave it to the people who are qualified.

We've all got that one friend. Maybe it was someone in college who had a "novel" he would talk about for hours at parties. Or perhaps a coworker who regularly tells you to watch what you say around her, just in case you end up in her novel. You know. The friend who writes as a hobby and will, no doubt, one day become the next J. K. Rowling/Stephen King/Suzanne Collins.

Suffice it to say there a lot of people who want to make a living writing. (It can't be that hard, right? People just string sentences together. I could do that. I can speak in sentences.) But the thing is, making a living at writing is hard. Nobody ever quite seems to get how brilliant we are, and publishers are never wise enough to see how clever this novel of ours is. If they'd just shape up, we'd be fine. But for now, making a buck with pretty words is tough stuff.

My question is, why bother? I propose to you that we can get all the benefits of writing (sans the paycheck) with this easy-to-follow four-phase program. That's right; we can be detached, pretentious reprobates without having to work at all.

Lend me your ears, countrymen, and I'll tell you the secrets of How to Be a Writer, or Something That Is Very Nearly the Same Thing as a Writer.

(I'm not very good at titles.)


1. Talk about writing projects all. the. time.

The critical thing about Being a Writer is to make sure that people know about it. Even if you've only just met them. Even if you've never been published. You know you're a writer, and that's proof enough, but it's crucial that everybody else know, too. What use is being a writer if no one knows? 

Look at that person walking down the street! He's seen your face but he doesn't know the frightfully important truth! You may be the greatest writer of all time and he's just crossing the sidewalk away from you! Does he not understand? If Ernest Hemingway had read your stuff, he'd still be alive! F. Scott Fitzgerald would have wept great, big, effeminate tears if only he had seen your sentences! Edgar Allan Poe...(well, actually, Poe was a bit of a jerk about most things. Let's leave Poe out of this.)

This person—nay, the entire world!—MUST BE TOLD OF YOUR GENIUS.

Introduce yourself as a writer. Tell everyone about that novel project you've been working on for a decade. It'll be brilliant, obviously. Once it's finished.

(Bonus points if you threaten everyone who crosses you with "being put in [your] novel." That'll show them!)

2. Let them beg to read it.

Now that you've told everyone about your world-changing novel project, it's time to let them all see it. After all, they didn't run away screaming when you introduced yourself as a writer. That's invitation enough, when you think about it. So tell them that you have some of it written out. It's not quite finished, of course (if it were finished, it'd be in bookstores. Obviously). But if they'd like to read it, that's totally fine by you.

Once they've graciously acquiesced, don't give in. They're only being nice for now. You can't be having with that; if they really understood your genius, they would fall to their knees and plead with you, "Please, ascendant one! Share with me your art! I am but a worm, desperate for the pleasant rain of your words upon my brain-stuff!"

Whenever they finally catch on that that's the entry test, they'll do it. Of course they'll do it. They'll have to. You're a genius.

3. Do nothing without inspiration.

Alright, so you know you're a genius. (And now, everybody else ought to, too. You've told them often enough.) But here's the thing: you haven't written in a while. A couple weeks, say. Or maybe longer. Maybe two or three months.

That's okay! Inspiration just hasn't hit yet. Everybody knows you can't work without inspiration! Thomas Edison said, "Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent...umm...more inspiration. Nothing else."



Or something like that. The point is, everything hinges on that inspiration, guys! Everything! What if you started working on something and then realized it wasn't inspired? You'd have to—gasp!—throw it away! You can't throw stuff away! Revision is foolhardy! No real writer ever needed to rewrite anything!

So sit. Wait. And, above all...

4. Do not, under any circumstances, write anything new.

Someone silly once said that "Writers write." Well, yes, that's sort of true. I mean, technically. I guess it's a little implied by the word. "Writer" = "one who writes." Well, to that I have nothing to say but a great, hearty "whatever."

So writers write. That rule doesn't need to apply to you, right? All those corporate windbags are producing mindless drivel for cash, but you! You're brainstorming something that'll matter! Once the inspiration falls on you, the whole world will quake! But, in the meantime, it's important that you not add to the stuff you've already made. Don't take another new step until that wind of glorious creativity fills you up!

Ooh! In the meantime, maybe you should keep tinkering with that opening chapter until you feel ready for the new ones. As long as your book doesn't progress, you are in safe territory, my friend. Successful writers have to deal with temptations like money, fame, and vanity. Keep this up, and you will never have to worry about those. Not as a writer, anyway.

Common Obstacles

So there you have it! In four easy steps, you can train your brain to act just like a hugely successful writer might—without needing to worry about the intermediate steps of success, or even writing! Isn't that great?

Be sure to revisit this list every now and then. It'll be tempting, sometimes, to bow to the conventional "wisdom" that writers ought to be too busy writing to talk about all the things they're writing. Don't cave to the man, man! You're an artist, and artists have unlimited time.

Some people will tell you that the best way to improve your manuscript is to let people read it if they show even the slightest interest—that most people are nice(ish) and really want to help you out, and if you'd just give them a chance they'd be very obliging and would read through your whole unpolished manuscript and tell you what they didn't like. I'll tell you what: that's just a load of nonsense.  If they really appreciated you, let me tell ya....

You might even hear that pagan lie that if you would be inspired, you ought to treat inspiration like a caveman treats his lady-friend: bash her on the head with a club, drag her back to your cave, and ply her with sweets and soft music. All art is where a little inspiration meets a whole lot of perspiration? Ha! You're joking, sir!

And, last but not least dangerous: the idea that "writers write." Well...I mean...yes. Technically. But writers think! And everybody knows you cannot write while you think! Not simultaneously!

[Hint: re-read just the red text.]

P.S.

I apologize if this feels a little bit...scathing. Even, erm, "bitey." I'm not a subtle person.

Everything above that P.S. is what I wish someone had said to me when I was younger. I have wasted so much time just talking about what a Writer I was instead of actually writing. Maybe you're different, but there are days when I just need a kick in the pants. If we want to be taken seriously in any kind of artistic pursuit (and I think that every pursuit is an artistic one), we must own up to the inevitable conflict: at some point, we gotta fish or cut bait. If you would create, then do it. Stop wasting your time talking about how awesome it's going to be when you finally get around to it!

Seriously. Just stop.

Your creativity is a divine blessing. Why are you wasting your efforts talking about it? Use it. All we have in life is time and creativity. That's it. Of those two, time is a finite resource; we'll run out of it eventually. Creativity, though, is a self-perpetuating investment; the more of it we use, the more of it we have. 

Genius isn't innate; genius occurs at the intersection of creativity and labor.

So go! Create! Be worthy of the gift you've been given.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Five Things I Learned about Being a Writer (by Screwing Them Up)

True that, Jake the Dog. True that.

Here's the truth: I've been writing almost as long as I've been speaking. I've got a whole bunch of years under my belt in terms of experience—more than most folks my age. And, recently, I've been doing a lot of it (producing, all told, around 150,000 words in the last two and a half months). And in all that time, I have screwed up.

Like...a lot.

It's an unfortunate inevitability that when you do something a lot, you're going to make mistakes often. And on the long journey to being sorta good at writing, I have made some pretty huge mistakes—sometimes things that cramped my writing muscles for months, even years. And, in the spirit of shared knowledge, I'm compiling a list—here, for you—of the Five Things I Learned from my Five Biggest Writing Failures Ever.


1. I'm not a protagonist.


When I started writing fiction at the tender age of seven, my instinct was to put myself into the stories.

Wait, did I say myself? Scratch that. I put everyone I knew into my stories. 

Usually, the list started with my best friend and whatever girl I liked at the time. And, of course, I was always the hero. It was only fair, right? Don't they tell us to write what we know? And am I not the hero of my own story? That's a good idea, right?

Nope.

Here's the truth: whenever I wrote stories in which I was the hero, and my current crush was the love interest, and everything else mirrored my real life as much as it could, the story was terrible. The cause is simple enough; real life isn't a story. At least, it doesn't look like a story to us, because we're so entrenched in it we can't see the larger picture. By patterning my stories after my life, I was enslaving the story to something external—something I couldn't affect in any appreciable way. That hobbled my ability to tell the story, and it crippled the story's ability to be any good.

The Failure: making my stories pale imitations of life.
The Lesson: DON'T. A story ought to be its own creature, not some farce indentured to the real world.


2. I'm not actually in charge.


It's tempting to think that, as a writer, I have ultimate control over things. I, and I alone, have constructed this little oubliette-world I'm tinkering with; I devised its laws, shaped its social structure, birthed its inhabitants from my own mind. I am become god of this tiny place, if only for a short time.

Until, that is, one of the characters starts to exercise a little free will. It turns out that making characters that are worthwhile—active, dynamic, expressive characters with real wants and needs and styles—lets them start thinking for themselves (sort of). It's an odd interplay between an author's goals and a character's needs. What I've learned is that it's simply not a good idea to strong-arm a character into doing what I want instead of what he wants.

Even if doing the things he wants will land him in jail, or muck up things between him and his friends, or seriously inconvenience the plot I had in mind. I'm of the opinion that the best sorts of stories happen at the intersection of complex plots and powerful characters. I suspect that the trick of it is to set up the world of the plot like a row of dominos, and then let the character knock them about however he sees best to do so.

The Failure: making my characters vehicles for the story.
The Lesson: let the characters do what they need to. Stories are better when the characters act in accordance with their natures.


3. I'm not a genius.


I've heard from a number of writing sources that there are two types of writers: gardeners and architects. Gardeners put some reactive ingredients in a bowl for a little while and write about what happens, letting their subconscious do all the heavy lifting for them. Architects, however, design their plots in intimate detail before they've written a single word of story. It's a continuum, of course; I don't think anybody is purely a "gardening" writer or an "architect" writer. For myself, I oscillate between the two, switching back and forth between tending the garden and planning the garden. 

It wasn't always like that, though. I used to think that I was purely a gardener: that I could just write stuff and it would all cohere later. I didn't see any need for story notes, and I thought that people who used outlines were irretrievably mad.

It took me about thirteen years to break out of the idea that I was a genius. I was sort of convinced that, anytime I wrote, there was some kind of irrepressible brilliance bubbling just under the surface of my conscious mind; I didn't make mistakes, just brilliant moves that hadn't panned out yet. But, over time, it became more and more obvious that I was just making things up as I went along. There was no higher purpose; there was no plan. I was winging it.

Don't get me wrong: there are writers who "wing it" all the time and they're some of the giants of the field. Stephen King spits on outlines. Patrick Rothfuss has yet to need notes for his sprawling, complex plot. They're geniuses.

Simply put...I am not ain't.*

The Failure: refusing to outline because I thought I was "better than that."
The Lesson: I have to admit that I'm not brilliant. I'm no genius. In fact...


4. I'm not as good as I thought.


Nowhere near as good as I thought.

One of the greatest feelings in the world is the one you have at the end of the day after writing 5000 words. They're not perfect words, not by any stretch, but they're good words, and they exist, which is important. And you're exhausted and languid and drunk on how awesome you are and you go to bed.

And then you wake up and read what you did yesterday and you do this.

It's one of the immutable laws of writing: first drafts are always bad. Just ask Ann Lamott, who wrote an essay about really bad first drafts (spoiler alert: she uses a synonym for "poopy"). There's no way to get around that. First drafts are just bad. There's no way around it; nobody produces their best words in one go. Writing is revising. That's what makes it such a fascinating art form. In speaking, once your words are out, they're out. But writing has so much opportunity for polishing. Misspeaking is unavoidable, but writing has no such constraints. Once my thoughts have been spewed out, I have the opportunity to make them better. That's priceless.

(Obviously, there are the rare prodigies who produce first-draft words that are better than other people's final-draft words. The best way to handle these people is with patience, or, failing that, a bazooka.)

The Failure: thinking I could produce perfect words and never need to revise.
The Lesson: revision is necessary, and denying that is stupid. While I may be able to write well on the first draft, the words will never be as good as they could have been.


5. I'm not allowed to make excuses.


This is the final and most difficult thing. Herein lies the gap between writers and typists.

(I've said before that there are people who identify themselves as writers who shouldn't. Truth be told, I avoid saying "I'm a writer" wherever I can, if only because I don't feel I've earned the title yet. I'll say that I'm "studying writing" or that I "write," but I'm not yet a writer. I aspire to it, yes, and I train for it, but I'm not there yet. Calling myself a writer when I've accomplished so little is an insult to a noble and beautiful craft.)

When I began writing, I enjoyed it. I loved it, in fact. But it didn't take long for me to become very, very proud of myself.

I would look over the things I'd written, surveying the miniature world I'd created and the characters I'd formed with nothing but ink and the soul-stuff I'd crammed into it, glorying in how well-crafted my little intricacies were, and I would think to myself, "You know what? I'm pretty good at this."

And then I would stop writing.

(This is the trap. This is the opiate, the little death that numbs the mind and fools us into believing we've done something worthwhile.)

I would justify it with things, of course. "I have other stuff to do today." "I'll return to it." "I have writer's block."

FULL STOP.

These are excuses. Nothing is as terrible an excuse as writer's block. You know what the best way to handle writer's block is? Writing.

Remember the beautiful thing about this craft? No matter what's been written already, it's available for edits. Nothing is sacred.

For weeks that became months, and months that became years, I used writer's block as an excuse. I had other names for it, of course—if it kept presenting with only one name, I might have grown suspicious: not knowing where the story was going. Needing to edit earlier chapters. Refusing to write stuff that was "low-quality."

I cannot stress this enough: low-quality is inevitable. The only way to beat low-quality is to spew it onto the page and then hack away at it until you've found what's worthwhile. That might be one sentence in an entire chapter, mind you. There might be 5000 words of useless drivel surrounding one single, perfect sentence...but the only way to reach that sentence is to wade through all the dreck, ripping out the pieces that refuse to carry their own weight. Using the pride I took in my work as an excuse not to work was stupid.

The Failure: getting too caught up in how much I liked my writing to actually write.
The Lesson: as cliche as it is, go big or go home. There are a multitude of techniques and styles to writing, but in the end, they all boil down to one thing: sit in the chair. Open the mind. And write.



*Father forgive me, for I have sinned. I have written "ain't." I pray that your grammar rules are more consequentialist than deontological.