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.]


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?


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."


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.