Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Immaculate Conception

For those of you who clicked on this with understanding this related to religion, I am sorry for disappointing you. Or relieving you. But this is a writing blog, and thus when I say “Immaculate Conception,” I am talking cheekily about artist conception.

The Immaculate Conception is a term I use for those people who believe that writing needs to come from a pure place, that true art is conceived without worldly sin. What that pure place is varies from person to person, but it can be anywhere from expression of self, catharsis, or even “a love of fiction” (whatever that means.)

But, like a real immaculate conception, that shit doesn’t happen nowadays. Unlike the real immaculate conception, I know for a fact it never has.

For starters, even if a book were to be born free from sin, no one would ever see it. The reason why we write and the reason why we get published are two very separate things. If an author is not trying to get some sort of recognition, whether it be money, love, or respect, there’s no reason to get published. Sure, we might say a writer wants to expose a problem to the world, but that just makes his goal even more about getting readers to like and love his work. He might be doing it for the “right reasons,” but it does not change that a person must have some form of narcissism to believe that he’s the one who should make the change. Though I personally applaud that, if it’s a question of being born without sin, then ego is a big one.

Furthermore, it’s important to recognize why people want to believe in the Immaculate Conception. There we’ll find another reason why it is impossible for a book to be born without sin; the definition of sin keeps changing. One of the reasons why this idea is so frustrating is that it is about snobbery, not quality. People enjoy believing in the elitist world of the artist, thinking of them like kings of yore. The true author has a God-given right to rule. They are meant to be great, and those peasants who were not born into it (e.g. with innate talent) should not try.

Of course, that is an exaggeration of magnitude, people’s belief being less exaggerated than my dramatization, but the sentiment’s still there. We like to utilize motivation as a reason why a person shouldn’t be trying: “You’re doing it for the wrong reasons and so you’re doomed to failure.”

But what that means is that “the wrong reasons,” are centered around a post-excuse, not a preexisting truth. Like someone trying to legitimize why they don’t want to wear their seat belt, the feeling of “wrong” is there first and then they try to explain why. Thus it is impossible to prevent judgment because the judgment is already there and the excuses arise to fit the circumstance. If the author says he is writing as a catharsis, the reader says that it should be for a love of fiction. If the author says he is writing for the love of fiction, the reader says that it should be to expose a problem in the world. There is no right answer, which is why that same person who says a book needs to only be made for the right reasons will also be the person who denounces self-publishing. The contradiction, from my eyes, being that if the author does not have any foul intention of making money and receiving respect, then self-publishing might be the way to go.

Now, I actually do believe that when a person feels something first and then tries to gather evidence proving their point, it’s a viable way to go. In an argument, the problem isn’t that they are trying to prove what they already thought, but that they are leaving out their real reasons in the argument because they know it isn’t convincing: “I don’t want to wear my seatbelt because it is uncomfortable, a nuisance, and I don’t think anything is actually going to happen.” Instead they say something that is, if not more irrational, less arguable: “What if I am in a lake and I can’t get my seatbelt off?”

But the issue here is that, though an author’s motivation can affect the story, it is rarely noticeable enough to be criticized before the author admits to the why. And it’s not the big picture motivation that affects it the most. A story with forced dialogue isn’t bad because the author wanted to make money; the dialogue is forced because the author’s only trying to deliver information.

Lastly the assumption behind the Immaculate Conception is that people only have one reason for writing. A person who finishes a book has thousands. People who only want to make money won’t. A person who only loves fiction won’t. A person who only wants to get it off his bucket list won’t. In order to write a full book the author has to enjoy writing just a little. He has to feel proud and anticipate feeling pride. He has to foresee wondrous rewards forthcoming. He has to have something he wants to say that he can’t anywhere else, and he has to believe that no matter how crappy it’s coming out, he can and will make it better. Making money may not be a priority, getting fans may not even be in the top ten, but the desire, no matter who you are or how much you write, is still there.

But this article is not for those people who have faith in elitism. It is a form of comfort that we utilize to say, “I am different.” Many do it. Most of us don’t even realize when we’re doing it. And, quite frankly, someone’s belief in the Immaculate Conception does not affect why I write. The point to this article, and what I hope to achieve, is to reveal to ever author and aspiring author, that people think this way, and we have to take that into consideration while writing.

Now what you do with this knowledge is up to you. You may even believe that there is good that comes from this exclusiveness; that better books will come from it. My opinion is, however, that we should do unto others as they would onto us, but that we should not expect the same in return. Which is to say, if an author writes a book without the purest of intentions, he should forgive others for doing the same, but he should also remember that there are those who will judge him when he announces, “I want to write a good book.” Sometimes he should just keep his mouth shut.

I do not believe that people should try to change or ignore their motivations in doing something. If a writer prioritizes being finically successful more than critically (of course he probably wants both), then it helps him make decisions that will lead to his goals. Trying to lie to himself and say, “I am a true artiste, therefore I shouldn’t want money!” will only lead down a path of not getting any, and then he will either be a starving artist for life or a contradictory hypocrite or both.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Book is Like a Toy

In the spirit of Christmas, I’ve decided to talk about an idea that I’ve been keeping on the back burner: books are toys, stories are playthings, and we use novels to replace games as we grow too embarrassed to be talking to ourselves in public.

However, the analogy that a story is like a toy is not entirely just an analogy. A toy and a book are of the same family; maybe even identical twins. We pick them up for the same reasonwith the hope to solve the same problem of boredom and fugue of fantasy.

That being said:

-If they think they can make it, they’re not going to buy it.

The most common critique of abstract art is, “My five-year-old could make this.” We look at these paint splotches selling for thousands of dollars and we wonder, who does this scam artist think he’s fooling?

While there is no concrete “qualities” of writing, this idea comes pretty close. When reading a book that we consider poorly written, one of the more common reasons is that it is an idea or execution worse than anything the reader thinks he could make.

A self-pandering fantasy that is clearly just some daydream the author decided to put on paper, a continuity breaking, unconvincing scheme that only fits into the theme of “look how great I am,” will not fair very well. It is the job of the writer to do things a layman can’t, to be more clever, to be more consistent, to punish the beloved characters, and to refuse to give up the good parts until the audience is so frustrated they’re about to burst. If a book doesn’t seem like it took more thought out than what an average person could blitz out, they’re not going to buy into it.

The operative word, of course, being seems. People do buy these 10,000 dollar paintings. The reason being that it isn’t something they could make. If we take it with a judgmental view of the art world, then it is just because saying, “I painted that,” and “That's a Monet” isn’t the same thing. If we take it with a positive view, some of these geometric shapes are impossibly difficult to create. When I was told, as a child, that a man took six months painting a line, I couldn’t even conceive as to how—until I did it for myself.

It’s important to remember that as many parents stare at a rag doll falling apart in the department store, they will often think they can make it. Then they go home and realize it’s a hell of a lot harder than they believed it was going to be. Most of your audience will be under the impression that they are of “professional average,” because professional and published books are what they are exposed to. That means that they won’t be aware of exactly how hard it is, especially when you did it well.

-It is used to create tangibility of fantasies by creating boundaries, not removing them.

I work in theatre, so the comment of, “It’s about what you want it to be,” is more common than the other writing mediums.

Many artists will have no idea what their work is about, and there’s nothing wrong with that. How an author wants to work is his own damn business, and if he wants to make a statement for something, solidify a story with a unifying idea, or just explore his subconscious with no specific theme at all, it lends to a diversity of stories in our culture. Insisting that a writer must teach something, and something specific for that matter, just homogenizes our work and opens up more space for meaningless gibberish to take the stage, in the way Absurdist theatre was able to thrive in the mid 20th century.

However, there still is a difference between not knowing what it’s about and bullshitting what it’s about. If we wanted to let our imagination flow free we wouldn’t want to use a doll or read a book; we’d pretend on our own. Part of the reason why we read—and even write—is to make those free forming ideas more concrete, more real. Our imagination is limited by its fluidity and its abrasion to rules which makes the things we make up fake. When we have a doll or a book, it creates boundaries, like a bucket holding water, and that allows it to take shape, to seem more real.

For an author trying to write a “good” book, which no matter how innocent and pure an artist pretends to be, he is always trying to write a “good” book, he must keep in mind what the reader hopes to get from him. They want the most tangible world he can give them, and he gives it to them by concrete decisions.

Of course there are places for “not showing the monster,” and not answering questions, but it still needs to look as if he knows what the answers are. The descriptions of the off screen beast should have a consistency; it should appear as though the creator knows exactly what the creature is and chooses not to show it. Not that he is being cheap or uncreative enough to think of anything interesting.

It’s important that we believe in the monster, and we can’t do that if we think “he’s whatever we want it to be.”

-The prime goal is not realism but appeal.

Barbie cannot exist. She wouldn’t be able to stand, for one thing, and not just because her feet are shaped for high heels. And even if her anatomy could be replicated, if someone was to look like that in real life, it would be creepy.

Every time I get a new group of theatre kids we always have the same discussion: “No one speaks that loud.”

The problem is that if an actor talks in a normal conversational voice on stage, the audience won’t be able to hear him, and the students always find it weird to be projecting. But at least in that circumstance they can understand why they need to speak louder, even if they think it sounds stupid. Yet the conversation bleeds onto other similar subjects in which explaining to a group of children always proves difficult (at least for me.) They believe that the best acting is realistic acting.

There is a place for it, of course. There is a place for any choice really. But aiming for realism is a decision that needs to be made with commitment and reason, not something that we should fixate on as a default. We could make Edward Cullen sleep with a bunch of women over his 100 year existence, we could make Buffy one of a million vampire slayers, and we could have Harry Potter die on his first conflict with a wizard whose butchered hundreds of the greatest wizards in history, but who’s reading that book?

Putting what we believe versus what we want to happen is the most common issue the author has to deal with. It, of course, requires balance, and a good balance, because people need to believe it to be happy about it. But readers are more inclined to have faith in fiction than they are in real life—for obvious reasons—and, to that point, will often not be convinced by reality when they see it, such as the sound of real gunshot sound in a movie. They want the dramatized fake stuff.

People want to see love that transcends time and space, that is worth overcoming the most impossible obstacles. No one wants to read a book about a guy who liked a girl because she liked him but when he found out she was moving away to go to school he was like, well, there’s more fish in the sea, and then they broke up.

Reflecting reality is a powerful tool for the writer, but it is not a necessary requirement, or a benefit, to a good book.

No matter how serious, dramatic, or pompous a story strives to be, it is still about entertaining ourselves. We use it to imagine things and to play, to relive the possibilities that we knew in childhood, and to be able to escape from our world as best we can. When remembering that motivation, the author creates boundaries for himself and thereby makes it easier to know what goals he is trying to achieve.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

5 Tips to Making Your Story Weirder

Originality, creativity, peculiarity, just plain freaky, are all adjectives for one thing every author wants to have: a unique perspective.

Now, to truly be a special individual with thoughts and traits that few others have assembled in the same way would actually be the definition of insanity. A person who thinks too differently than “the norm” is impossible to communicate with for those who think relatively similar thoughts. Not only would they be hard to understand, but we wouldn’t be able to relate to them, and the emotions and concepts important to the author would be irrelevant to anyone else.

But, that all being said, every writer wants to create a book that delivers something other books of similar backgrounds, settings, genres, and plots don’t. In order to do that, it has to be a little bit weird.

1. Notice assumptions.

While writing, a person makes a thousand decisions with each and every paragraph. Whether it be the word choice, what happens, why it happens, how it happens, who makes it happen, what are the consequences, where it happens, the characters, the setting, the thematic elements, and even some hugely inane choices like the color of a dress, an author can’t physically sit down and conscientiously think about each and every aspect that he is inputting.

The subconscious takes over. It fills in the blanks like a background color, putting in what it thinks “should” be there. Imagination works in a way similar to basic eyesight. We’re not actually seeing all the images, and when we need something we haven’t previously thought about, it is common for the mind to just stick in what feels right.

This is an assumption, and assumptions tend to be repetitive, personally and culturally. This means that every time the writer makes a bartender, it will likely be the same bartender as in the last book he wrote. For that matter, people in the same demographic will be likely to attribute the same traits to the same things, such as American writers putting families into suburban households versus an apartment, a log cabin, or yurt.

Recognizing assumptions can lead directly to a place that is open to creativity or simply more detailed choices.

2. Question why choices were made.

Sometimes we want something to happen a certain way. Sometimes we don’t know why we want it to happen that way. Similar as to the above, an author looking at a direction he has  taken and understanding why allows him to realize the places where change is acceptable to him.

It is common for artists to be attached to an idea. Sometimes it is legitimate and should not be deviated from. Sometimes it is a mistake and needs to be fixed. Sometimes it is only neutral and is up to the creator to utilize that fact.

While keeping in mind that many decisions we make are assumptions, it does not mean that they do not have a purpose for being there. The question becomes what that purpose is, and how important that is.
Authors tend to be attached to their original vision, even if, in reality, the original vision isn’t the best they can come up with. If the writer can pinpoint the reason why he had the original thought the way he did and can come up with why he is so attached to it, he can figure out a way to slough off the cliché parts and maintain the integrity of the thought.

Let’s say he decided he wanted to write about a girl getting transported from our world into a supernatural one. He realizes that he liked the idea that she a) didn’t know any of the rules and b) could defy the flaws of the society because she was not a part of it. Thus, he creates a setting in which the government has exiled magic and cuts off the regions that used magic, thus having a place like ours and allows her to be brought to this new culture, but still not have it be the common story that we know and love.

Of course, remember, it is your book and you can do whatever the hell you want with it, and even after realizing that you have no good reason for doing it a certain way, and nothing can be gained from doing it this way, you still have the right to do it because you’re in charge.

3. Problem solve.

The most creative choices an author will make are those that he has to make. With the big, wide, open world of imagination, anything can exist, so it’s often hard to know what should exist.

Boundaries can often illuminate more options just by cutting out others. Specific goals give a direction and a clear indication of success and failure. Therefore, being restricted by a problem, such as a breach of continuity or length issues, can give way to some abnormal techniques in which, had you been free to do whatever you wished, wouldn’t have come up.

Instead of taking the easy or more common route of removing a problem, such as cutting it all together, contending with it can lead to that which makes a story unique.

For example, say the author has a very small amount of time to say something, such as in a short film. Instead of reducing the amount of information he is trying to deliver, he gives quick snippets of shots illustrating an event instead of having long monologues and dialogues that describe it, thus creating an abnormal form of storytelling.

4. Put in details that have no apparent reason for being there.

A political rights activist said something once that stuck with me for a long time. He announced that we knew racism would be over when there would be a black man in a movie when he didn’t need to be.

The thing about minorities, women included, is that their existence tends to bring the audience out of immersion. Even though it’s only for an instant, readers look up and consider, “Why did the author make this person a woman?”

This is true for anything remotely atypical, whether it be a female cab driver or pink walls in a schoolhouse, which is an unfortunate aspect the author always has to consider. That being said, having a world where everything is just normal and is motivated seems made up.

By having your family live in an unfinished house or a character who has shopaholic tendencies risks the reader being distracted if you don’t refer to it and it doesn’t affect the plot. But not having those things is indicative of a “this is fiction” style. People often try to be original in the big picture but ignore being unique in the details.

5. Take from personal life.

Few people need to be told to do this. It is impossible to completely disregard your own life and remove all affects personal opinions and history has on it. An author is equally affected by television, books, and cultural opinions and history, which means that it is common for him to disregard the normalcy of his own life for the allegedly normalcy of others’ lives.

For instance, though he has a single mother, he might still write all his families with both parents.

This piece of advice, as all advice, should be taken lightly. Readers tend to assume that the protagonist is a secret manifestation of the author, which, fine, has been true before and will be true again for many people. (At least for their first book.) Mostly using personal details is a balancing act; we don’t want all the characters sounding like versions of ourselves, we don’t want everyone to have the same views on morality, and if the point is to make a story a little weirder, then throwing a blanket of “you” over it doesn’t help.

But we are weirder than we think we are, and noticing that, admitting that, and utilizing that allows for more interesting decisions to be made. Truth is stranger than fiction and when you have a buffet to choose from, you might as well get what you paid for.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Wrongful Disregard of Wasted Time

I have often discussed “idyllic reality” and how a good portion of advice pretends that we live in it. For instance, we believe that art should be created as a form of communication, expression, and sheer love of its own beauty, not for personal gain. So we criticize anyone who indicates that they want to write something an audience would like. Except, of course, the reality is that we all need to make money, one of the many reasons we create is to gain respect, and though the idea of the starving artist is magical, is not exactly a fun, or even necessary, existence. So, when someone jumps all over you for playing the game, or “selling out,” it is a gross inconsideration as to what an artist needs to be happy and successful.

The concept of wasting time is a victim of this ideology. People, we believe, should be ambitious, driven, and hard workers, willing to go the extra mile to get what they want. Therefore, anyone who doesn’t want to do hard labor doesn’t deserve to be successful.

I once read an article by a past teacher who said that whenever his students said, “Do I have to?” the answer was, of course, yes.

Here’s the problem. The main reason why an author avoids using a certain technique has to do with time management, whether or not it should be his priority. We are, innately, lazy creatures, and an advisor has to take that into consideration otherwise he is disregarding a main element in his persuasive abilities.

It’s like on the television show What Not to Wear. Every episode the two hosts bring in a guest who has been betrayed by their friends and family in order to have their fashion “fixed.” Often times the hosts will bring in an “appropriate” outfit of things that the guest should look for considering her style, height, age, and weight.

Regularly the guest will not like what they are showing her. They will ask her why. She will try to explain. They will tell her why her reasons are wrong.

But, no matter how true it is that her objection to primary colors is irrational, the fact of the matter is she doesn’t like it. For whatever reason, she won’t wear it, and telling her why she’s wrong will not convince her to wear it.

So, if you are a writing teacher and you are telling your students to outline, then considering the that outlining feeling like a waste of time will help aid you in persuading them to try it. Saying, “Suck it up,” will just cement their beliefs that you are wrong. Explaining it in a way that addresses their concerns will be far more convincing of your point than trying to persuade them their points are invalid.

More to the point, however, it isn’t just about how we talk to each other, but the way we talk to ourselves. An author will often struggle with whether or not he should make a change, and sometimes the right answer isn’t so clear.

For him to ignore his not wanting to work hard would be disregarding a factor. If he doesn’t want it to be the case, he still needs to take it into consideration. Often times, the reason why he might be against the change is because of the hard work involved and nothing else. Rather, not even the hard work doing the change, but deciding how it should be changed. If that is the case, then recognizing that his hesitance has to do with his uncertainty on how to fix something will allow him to make the decision. Pretending it is not about the overwhelming frustration will only be more confusing.

For that matter, the opposite is also true. People can believe that the harder way is the right way, for the simple reason that we tend to avoid it. When I tell a group of students that something is harder to do, say write an internal conflict than an external conflict, their first inclination makes them all want to create internal conflict. But, in the art world, decisions need to be made on what will best achieve our goals, not on what is easier or harder. Therefore, refusing to take an easier route because it is an easier route is just as bad as avoiding a harder route. Pandering to our laziness can often cause the greatest moments of creativity. Instead of doing “what we should do,” and, say, cutting huge chunks of scenes and characters from a long play, we make a montage of action which allows for delivery of information that people didn’t expect.

Essentially, to make the best decision, it is important to remember all the factors that go into that decision including personal abrasion to labor and the desire to look good.

Lastly, it’s important to take into consideration people’s disregard of “a waste of time.” It’s a useful factor in understanding them, and more over, it helps the writer to ask the right questions in the right way. Instead of asking a teacher, “Do I have to?” which will always solicit a yes, the student can say, “Should I make this a priority?” which will give a more honest answer about just how necessary it really is.

There are no shoulds in writing, and writing is a place that we want to confront the shoulds of the world. But that makes it all the more important that we know what those shoulds are and address them. Pretending that people don’t judge a book by its cover, that people will give an author the benefit of a doubt, and that communism will work only leads to a more futile waste of time than trying to take basic human flaws into consideration.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Subjectivity of Writing

If asked, every American would admit that art is subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, one man’s trash is another’s treasure, etc. Then they proceed to identify a series of movies, books, and authors who are “just absolute crap.” When analyzing and considering the writing world, this shift of judgment leads to problems for the author who actually cares about improvement. The subjectivity of subjectivity is one of the more confusing aspects when it comes to working to be a “better” writer.

I say there is no such thing as quality. “Good or bad” is better said as “effective or not.” Upon telling my teacher that senior year of college, his immediate response, similar to most’s response, “Then how come the other professors and I can watch the freshman’s auditions and agree on who is good or who isn’t?”

My response being, “Way to be supportive, you abusive hack."

The response, of course, being a silent one.

There is an obvious answer; the three faculty members were notorious for not having their own opinions or defending them, each being a special brand of yes man. So when discussing the talents or lack thereof of the students who paid 100,000 dollars to be there, they would systematically start agreeing with each other without even being aware of it.

But to just leave the answer at, “You’re just easily influenced,” would be lying about the reality of the situation.

You could bring several individuals into a room and give them a “bad” story, and, without having any prompting, see them agree on not liking it. Though I don’t believe that there is such a thing as actual quality, I recognize when a story is not up to my standards. In fact, if I truly believed that there was no such thing as good or bad, I would never edit a story because that would be a form of concealing the truth. My first draft would be what my mind is telling me to write about. The child-like view I sought to get rid of is how I truly perceive reality. The typos and grammar errors and Freudian slips reveal more about the English language than anything consciously accurate. The long, boring tangents into daily activities illustrates what my concerns are. Making changes to a draft to make it “better” wouldn’t make any sense.

There are two aspects that control the quality of a work and combat the subjectivity of "good."

One, culture; two, purpose.

Every book is written for a reason. It has a purpose onto itself, an intended point, a goal it hopes to achieve, whether or not the author is aware of it. Even stories of conversation, recollections, and gossip, have some sort of motivation. That intention could be as simple as being entertaining or as complex as enlisting help for the starving children in Africa.

No one writes, speaks, or even acts without a motive. We may not notice it consciously, but it’s still there. A book wants to do something—make the reader laugh, like the main character, or even just provoke thought. In that sense, a bad book does not achieve its goals, a good one does.

This, of course, still creates subjectivity in two parts. Not all authors have the same goals and not all readers will be affected by the same things. If, for example, the goal was to make someone cry, a style that is incredibly accurate for one soul is a waste of time for another.

But, it can be agreed that a book should do something for the reader, and stories that barely affect him at all isn't worth a read.

It gets complicated, however, because if we start defining quality by success of an objective, we would have to first and foremost know what the author’s objective was and assume he’s not lying about it. Secondly, just because an author did what he sought out to do, does not mean that it will be a fantastic book. If he paid only attention to exploring a problem and none to being at all interesting, he’s hurt himself pretty badly.

Of course, we could look at it as entertaining people and getting them to read the book would help fuel his goal, but either way, you get my gist. If an author wants to do something (say, make money) and he does it (say, by using them to transport drugs across the boarder) you're not necessarily going to get the noble prize for that one, nor should you.

The second aspect of agreed about “quality” has to do with culture.

Let me put it this way: If a person were to walk into work at Wall Street wearing sagging jeans and a football Jersey, would the majority of the population recognize it as weird?

I’m going to finish that rhetorical question as absolutely yes. They may not say it’s weird, they may not even think the actual word “weird,” but they would notice, and, with the exception of a few open-minded liars, everyone would agree that it is unusual.

But why? What is the practical use of a suit that makes it fit for that situation? Little, outside of simple appearance. We expect it because so many people follow that trend, and they really only follow it because of the expectation. Who’s going to buy 10,000 dollars of stock from a man who looks like he is waiting for the super bowl? Unless, perhaps, he actually going to be playing the game, but that's a whole other issue altogether.

Yet, it’s not some concrete rule of the universe. You bring someone over from a village in Zimbabwe whose culture has its own fashion laws, he’s not going to immediately know that the outfit is inappropriate, and he probably won’t be able to tell you what the man “should” be wearing.

It’s the same for art. The brain incorporates certain things as normal and has certain expectations to maintain that normalcy. Of course, and here's the problem, no one wants to read a book that can only be described as “normal;” readers demand for the author to defy expectations constantly. So an expectation is to defy expectations.

But this pressure to challenge the standards of protocol still has a great deal of regulations attached to it. The “weirdness” must be deliberate and it must have a reason. Why? Because someone who walks into Wall Street with a gold and green jersey to make a statement about individuality is very different than someone who doesn’t know how to dress properly. Unfortunately, sometimes it's hard to identify a statement from naivety, which can often lead to the credit of those who don't deserve it and the detriment to those who do.

Quality is contextual. There are too many people with too many personalities and too many different expectations to appease all of them with one concrete rule. Art cannot be classified as right or wrong, it just appeals to the largest number of people it can. In order to do that, it requires the upkeep of appearances and consideration of basic sociology. An author must be willing to use and manipulate preexisting notions unless his plan is to just depend on dumb luck.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Utilizing Normal and the Abnormal in Writing

Both these words have negative connotations to them. The label of “normal” indicates that there is such a thing as “should” in cultural and personal traditions and decisions. That people who are abnormal have something wrong with them, and that, at least in America, being normal is the same as being bland.

While writing, however, normalcy is a powerful tool that can solve a whole grouping of problems once an author understands it.

In a story, “normal” is what the reader ignores. “Abnormal” indicates importance.

For example, let’s describe a bathroom:

Jack opened the door and looked inside. The room was quaint: a white toilet, a white sink, and pink tiles spanning across the floor.

What is the reader going to think is the most important aspect of that description? The pink draws attention. The atypical coloring says more about the owner of the room than anything else described. We have a good indication that not only is it not John’s house (partially because of the words “looked inside”), but it is probably a woman’s, or a woman dominated household. It gives the reader a good image that bleeds out from just the room, that allows for details of life besides just what he’s seeing.

Which leads us to the first use of abnormalcy. When the author defies some expectations, the world seems more vivid. When the author only operates within the "norm" the reader starts to remember that he is making this up on the spot.

It is also important to notice how normalcy affects image and “abstract space.”

If we were to describe a different bathroom as:

Jack went to the restroom and looked inside. There was a toilet. He stared at if for a moment before shrugging and walking in.

The important information seems to be that it was only a toilet, the importance not being placed on the object itself, but the absence of others.

If we were to say, however:

Jack went to the restroom and looked inside. There was a coffin. He stared at it for a moment before slowly shutting the door and walking away.

The important part is clearly about the object. A reader is likely to picture the rest of the room with it, but what is vital for her to know is that there, for some reason, is a coffin in the room.

Where does this come into play? How is this remotely beneificial?

It is a great tool to get readers noticing and remembering things that they might not later, which, often times, will be a problem. Subtle foreshadowing can often be forgotten, especially in the world of the novel where the reader will put a book down for days before picking it up again.

When I was in college, the university did a staging of Hamlet. Now what is important to know about Hamlet is it is big. In all forms of the word. Four hours long with a thirty person cast and settings that range from Denmark to England, it can be a beast to put on.

Of course, most people cut it down, removing the whole plot issue of Ferdinand, and cut out the third time it delivers the same piece of information.

In order to do the show, the directors double casted a hell of a lot of people, especially when the few actors were dropping out like flies anyway. This meant that when we’d see someone one minute trying to kill Hamlet, then consoling him the next. Or that might have been an actual plot point. I don’t know.

Anyway, the director had an idea. At the end where, spoiler alert, everyone is sprawled out dead, a Player (one of the actors hired by Hamlet) walks on stage, picks up the crown and puts it on his head. Which apparently makes him the king now, because that’s how crowns work.

There were many reasons why the audience didn’t get it. It was Shakespeare, for one. Half the script had been removed. Most only snuck in the back ten minutes ago to pretend they had been there the whole time. And of course, mainly, no one knew who he was supposed to be because he had played six other characters.

But, even if they had single casted the show, and they hadn’t cut the script, and the ending bit did have a logical flow, it is important to realize that this “Player” was a tall, white, brown haired man in a cast of 20 other tall, white, brown haired men.

The audience would not have remembered him from his three seconds on stage to know who he was.

This is where authors can abuse the wonders of racism, sexism, and all forms of visual stereotypes, utilizing it as a tool to maneuver a plot point.

Had he been the only black man in the cast, they would have remembered him.

Partial joking aside, this is something important to realize. Authors and filmmakers have the tendency to assign “normal” traits to their characters, with exceptions of deliberate choices, jokes, and niches being filled.

For instance, when we watch a movie, the protagonist and the guy who gives them their coffee could easily be mistaken for one another, as long as that protagonist isn’t of Gerard Butler fame. There will be few stocky, balding men, but only as the funny sidekick, rarely any random extra.

Extras, of course, need to fade into the background, so it can make sense why we wouldn’t want a “strange” looking man on the subway; it would sidetrack from the action.

Of course, part of the idea of normalcy is that it is normal to have abnormalcy in certain situations. Basic stereotypes come into play, so it is common for us to see Persian taxi drivers with no lines or motivation for the racially insensitive casting. (Allegedly insensitive. Alleged by me. Because I've never heard an Persian actor complain.) Normal is contextual, obviously, and that needs to be considered as well, which requires us to examine our more insulting thoughts. It also becomes a huge problem because “normal” for fiction and “normal” for reality is often very different.

So, when I say others have the tendency to make their characters all similar due to “normalcy,” it is, of course, a generalization that only requires a casual glance to keep in check. It is also more important in visual arts, because often a novelist can get away without describing a good portion of their characters, and it is even more important in drawing than movie making because, hey, you’re not going to find a hundred actors who look exactly as we think they should.

To reiterate, there are three ways to utilize understanding normalcy:
            1. Draw attention to something.
            2. Draw attention away from something.
            3. Create more diverse and detailed worlds.

Our brain’s efficiency is dependent on this ability to gloss over ordinary in favor of the new. It works by filtering in thousands of pieces of information, and learns to recognize what it can ignore and what it should think about. For an author who wants to manipulate feelings, deliver information, and tell a story in the best way possible, he must consider the controversial and contextual concept of what we perceive as normal.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Choice versus Mistake

When sitting in a creative writing class, or any sort of formal group discussion, a common problem is the fixation on what makes a work unique. Such as the sparkling vampires of Twilight, duel titles, or the decision to kill off a beloved character, the lines of choice and mistake are blurred. Is the Styrofoam Edward something that “ruined” the book? Or is it just something noticeable, ignoring the more subtle mistakes in favor of the obvious?

Choices can destroy a concept, easily, and changing a decision like a disco ball vampire could be the easiest form of improvement. However, that doesn’t mean it is the best form. People lean on criticizing choices and risks over subtler and maybe more influential details.

To give a less controversial example than Twilight, let’s talk cursing. Swearing is the immaculate version of a preference that zaps all attention to it.

When reading the play God of Carnage for the theatre I worked at, I found the (irrationally popular) play boring and painful. There were many things to be said as to why, such as its predictability, its point being to hide the conflict for the first half, and its unlikeable and stereotypical characters, but I found one very interesting thing when the members of the board had to talk about it. They only gave a fuck about the “fucks” given. Twenty minutes of people complaining about the language and nothing else. The play was rejected for the season and that was the end of it.

Can swearing hurt a book? Absolutely. But it is still a matter of taste. It will hurt a story in that people will not like the choice being made, not because of the negative consequences swearing has.

Mistakes are things like typos, breaking continuity, sounding like it’s being made up on the spot, and essentially anything that directly leads to an undesired response from the audience, of which there are five: boredom, confusion, wasted time, insult from pretension, and expulsion from immersion.

Some of these are more subjective than the others. An author will never want the audience to be bored, but every once in a while confusion can be fun.
What does swearing do for the audience? It makes them mad that the author chose to swear. What does sparkling vampires do for the audience? It makes them mad that the author chose to make the vampires sparkle. Neither are dull (unless we were to go on and on about it), neither ruin the clarity of what is happen (except as to the reason why), these tiny details don't distract from the point of the story, and it's not like the audience is complaining about being condescended to. It could be that it's just unconvincing and jarring enough to remind you that someone is choosing these things, ruining the consistency of the world, but really, if you're so far into the book and you find that hard to believe with no qualms for anything else, you're not going to care.

Like most things in writing, there is no obvious line between the two. Sometimes a choice is also a mistake, e.g. infusing the token female into a script may led the audience to be expelled from the story, thinking only about why the author chose to make the character a girl. Often, what makes the book unique from others of its kind may not be benefiting the audience’s reception. Thus it becomes harder to decipher the difference.

Why would we bother though? What is important about identifying a choice or a mistake? Nothing much in the writing process, but when it comes to editing, it can solve a lot of internal dilemmas.

What is the difference between being yourself and brashly being stubborn? What is the difference between selling out and playing the game? What is the difference between keeping your voice and being arrogant?

Recognizing that people will often comment on the obvious before the important is a clear indication of what direction we need to take, if the advice is unusable, if it just needs to be dissected before it can be implemented. It says that "if I am offended by this, then I don't have to use it for it to be usable" and that pushing further into the conversation will bring out more important options from the reluctant critic.

Let’s take a more convoluted example into consideration. A story has a lot of characters. That in itself is a stylistic choice that has no direct consequence or reward without context. When receiving feedback, the author hears, “You have too many characters.”

Now, as a choice, it means that it’s a matter of tastes, which indicates that she will receive the opposite response from a secondary critic. This flaw in one man’s eyes may be the virtue for someone else. So it isn’t a “problem” per se, but it certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t one. A mistake needs to be changed, a choice doesn’t. In this case, as the number of characters is a choice, finding out the problem (“I was confused by all the characters” or “I was bored because of all the different back stories”) will allow for the author to take that specific suggestion or solve the problem in another manner. It may not be optimum to remove cursing from the novel on the grounds that having a bunch of people in prison speaking like they’re in a book club won’t particularly benefit the atmosphere, but, it might behoove the author to have a character who doesn't swear and gives legitimate arguments why others shouldn't. It also, of course, might be a hopeless cause that the writer realizes he's not going to win.

Actually utilizing feedback is not as easy as the outsider tends to believe. It is not just about eschewing egos or emotionlessly analyzing the advice. Quality is subjective; it constantly changes, not just by each different viewer, but by their moods, their ages, their cultures, their perceptions, and by comparisons. Not only does accurate editing require a great understanding of self, but of others, and often, feedback is not cut and dry. If my fellow writers in my peer groups and classes were to take every piece of advice they got, they would create the most homogenized work this side of binary. But if they were to ignore it, there would be no reason to be there at all.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Writing is Not Like Losing Weight

From fairy tales to modern media, from the Ugly Duckling to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from Ratatouille to Star Wars, stories make praises of innate talent over any sort of hard work. There are obvious logistical reasons for this; it is easier to write a story that says success is due to ability rather than one that says "this is how you succeed." A novel’s plot line, in fact, goes, “a character is trying to do something,” and “this is why it is hard,” e.g., in literary terms, is the objective and the conflict. In many circumstances it is something that not everyone could do, and, if the author wanted to indicate success was due to actions, not fate, the character would have take actions things that other characters wouldn’t have thought of and done themselves, and, furthermore, things that the readers haven't tried themselves.

American culture is strange because it is supposed to be “where the streets are made with gold,” and where anyone can build themselves up to a better life. If you ask one of us if we depend on fate, we will say no. If you ask us if practicing is important, we will say yes. And yet if we were to be told that we are terrible at something, we will give up. Teacher will make horrible claims: out of all their years of teaching, I’ve only seen one student who could direct. Stephen King says that a bad writer will never become a mediocre writer, a good writer will never be a great writer, but maybe just maybe a mediocre one can become good. Discouragement, and legitimizing discouragement through "you're not meant to succeed," is too popular for its own good.

The main reason it is so hard to get students to go the extra mile in art is because of this subconscious belief in fate. If we are meant to do something, then we should have been given the talent. The greats, the elites, the Gods who have succeeded, are not the same as us. They make it look easy. “Are you telling me that every actor on Broadway sits down and marks where he wants to speed up and slow down?” a student asked me once.

And there is the problem. We consider bettering ourselves at the arts like losing weight. You eat right, exercise a lot, and, with a great deal of effort, willpower, and care, you manage to get to the place where you want to be. But, then, if you want to stay there, you must keep it up. You start to slip, you go back to your old ways, you go back to your old weight. If you don’t put in the same energy into it, you’ll be back where you started. Once you begin to try, you must keep trying. You will be held back by your own genetics, forced to try just as hard to keep up, let alone surpass, those with higher metabolisms.

This isn’t true with practicing. We practice so we don't have to practice. An author who requires a lot of extraneous, outside work, who needs to sit down and diagram sentences, making luxurious outlines, conscientiously motivate characters, and spend hours making the right word choice, will not have to do that for the rest of his life.

Say, for instance, the writer overuses words too much. He takes the subject of the conversation, in this case, “writer,” and proceeds to repeat it in every sentence. He does not bother to think of synonyms or assume that the reader will know what he is referencing. It sounds like he did not carry the last thought to the next sentence. In reality, it sounds like he is writing rather than speaking. This is a common problem and one readily solved. Usually fixed in the editing process, a writer will begin to watch for it. Then he will begin to hear it without thought. Over the years he will start to do it for himself without even having to pause. Though in the beginning he needed to reread it, circle it, look it up, and change it, towards the end it will be likely that he doesn’t even need to take a moment to consider it.

Of course the problem won’t vanish entirely. Every once in a while he’ll happen across the mistake, or will have to spend a long time thinking of a synonym, but my point is, the effort won’t nearly be the same or as constant.

If someone is a terrible writer, they can get better. Everyone does get better. In fact, everyone starts out terribly. If they didn’t, publishers would just go to kindergarten classes and take samples. Now some people will take longer to get better. Some people will quit before they can. Some people will refuse to try to improve. And some people have further to go than others. But if this is truly a passion, it shouldn’t matter where an author starts out. Talent isn’t a gauge that some people get a head start on. Talent isn’t something that a person can bank on. Art is too subjective to sit there and say, “Well, he’s already ten points on you, so you might as well not bother.” Not everyone works hard, not everyone likes it, not everyone has your point of view. Art is about a variety of styles, subjects, and perspectives, each of which require different abilities, which no one starts out with all that’s required. The problem with fatalism is that it discourages trying for those with talent or not, and sometimes, trying is the only real talent that stands between success and failure.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Writing Cross Gender

The comment, “I can’t write for women very well,” surprises me every time I hear it. The complaint is legitimate in some ways, as much as I’d like it to not be, so I suppose it’s the admission that shocks me more than the intent. Girls and men alike are likely to worry about how realistic the characters of the opposite sex are to come across, so, unlike what I believe, it does not just have to do with the difficulty of making a female in general.

In the beginning, I didn’t worry about such things, and so I had a hard time relating. Today, it is still not a huge concern of mine, but I will admit that every once in a while I look at my men and think, “My God, you’re a pansy.”

I listened to an argument between a male playwright and a group of female actors which expressed the problem decently. The man is not what I would call, “enlightened,” (though I’m not saying that is typical for everyone dealing with this issue) and he had very limited views, not only for women, but people in general. His characters were superficial, their motivations one-layered and obvious, and though they could be interesting and funny to watch, they had no depth. Because the plays produced were done so by his own hands (he was the writer, director, and star), he had the opportunity to write the characters for the actors who would play them, and so he would take the biggest flaw of that particular person (I was the bitch), emphasize it, dramatize it, and remove all other substance from their personality.

It was fascinating from a psychological and authorial point of view.

He would always write in a love interest who would, in essence, have no personality. Played by either his girlfriend or his potential girlfriend, she would sit around and be the only one concerned with where the playwright/director's character went. She would be the straight man in the scene.

My friend was engaged in a long term relationship with this man, and has been for about three years. Recently, she came up to me bragging that no longer was the playwright writing with the actors in mind. He gave her a different sort of part. This time she was not the idyllic lover, but would now play a dumb, ditzy blonde. I refrained from asking if she was sure it was his style that had changed.

So several years ago, while in a production of his, he stated before this gaggle of women of his issues on trying to write for female characters. One girl responded, “Why? They’re just people.”

And there is the gist of the problem. Where does the conflict stem from? How much different are men and women? Certainly there is a cultural divide, if not a natural one. And, when a character diverges from the stereotype, how much can we attribute to her personality and how much to the author's mistake?

I certainly have found that people claiming this strife tend to be more gender-focused, but it could be that they’re just the ones who are more aware of it or even just the ones who are willing to state it. In my experience, girly girls and manly men have been the sorts who expressed writing opposite genders their biggest concern, which says something about the issue, but it’s hard to say what.

First and foremost, it is important to realize that authors who write dialogue well in general can break against the stereotypes believably; the question is how likable that character will be. As much as I’d hate to admit it, we attribute certain traits to each gender, and though abiding by those assumptions will not necessarily make an appealing character, it will attribute to a certain amount of diversity that we come to expect. But, like anything, too much “feminine traits” will come out as a stereotype, and then again too many “masculine traits” will just be distracting if not annoying.

Thus, here is the philosophical problem: Am I (the hypothetical author) just making a character and thereby confronting any cultural assumptions we have, or, am I just limiting myself to my own ignorance?

Which is why the question is about how good the writer is at “voice” is important. It is very much possible for a woman to have masculine traits and a man to have feminine traits, and if the dialogue sounds believable than the audience will accept it as a personality, not as a mistake. So it is my conception that learning to motivate speech in general will overcome the issue.

But I will admit that “bad” writing can get worse when a person of another gender is speaking, especially when the author has a specific view of that sex.

I once edited a novella in which the writer clearly had trust issues with women. At the time, I did not know him very well, but I noticed that whenever the love interest spoke, particularly when claiming vows of devotion, she sounded like she was lying through her teeth. Over time, as his relationship with my friend took flight, it became more and more obvious exactly how he perceived girls. He idolized them, put them on a pedestal, dehumanized them, and saw them as this powerful force that really only wanted to manipulate men, being incapable of love themselves. But he was a romantic at the same time, which caused most of the conflict in his life.

He was an extreme when it came to this sort of problem, and it must be pointed out that when it came to the dialogue it was all pretty unconvincing. The author had issue with making characters in general, and when he develops the ability over time, I would like to see his female leads and if the insincerity remains. Characters who sound like they’re lying is very typical for inexperienced writing. As fiction is making up a fabrication, of course, when not done right, it will sound like a fabrication.

For those who write dialogue well and do come up with complex characters, the issue of “writing cross gender” can still remain, but I think in a different form. Instead of having stilted and forced conversation, it is more along the lines of the audience disliking or just having no interest in the character.

Writing a female character that women will like is hard (for authors of either sex). In fact, I personally believe that writing women is harder than for men in general, though I haven’t done studies. When it comes to a female lead or love interest, we have to contend with two main problems:

1) Many women don’t like women.

We love to say things like, “I mostly have guy friends. I don’t get along with girls.” I am interested to know the reason for this is, in all honesty. I think that society as a whole has problems trusting women, but I also would like to think that is isn’t true. I know that I personally tend to be far more critical of the women on screen, but I also know that my attention is always drawn to the women on screen. Perhaps it is because of the rarity, or because all the characters tend to pay attention to her. An important field of study for the literary world is whether or not our common perception of women is due to the author’s or the audience’s view.

2) How a woman “should” be is controversial.

Men have to deal with the complications of strict expectations. What we expect out of a male character is very clear and to the point; we want to see someone either strong, brave, or intelligent, or a combination. If a guy can obliterate competition by means of physically or verbally, he is appealing. However, if he diverges from those expectations he has a harder fall. A weak, stupid, and cowardly man is undesirable, only likable when a foil to the protagonist. Women, on the other hand, have split expectations. We could make a well-written, strong woman, (we will assume that all of these characters are well made) but that doesn’t mean that the girls in the audience will like her. Just because she can kick ass doesn’t mean that her movie will be appealing. Even if she kicks ass verbally, she may not be likable. By either gender.

What society wants from women isn’t clear. There are those who like the idea of the kind, innocent virgin. There are those who would find that to be an irritating stereotype. Often times, it’s not even about the woman’s traits that make us like her or not, but the situation that she’s in. I love Buffy the vampire slayer and Xena, despite my natural distaste for the “warrior woman.” I hate Pepper from Iron Man, even though she’s not illogically a badass (a huge pet peeve of mine). I hate Zoey from Firefly even though she’s written by the same person as Buffy. Part of this has to do with the actors, part of it has to do with the difference between being protagonists and supporting characters, and a great deal of it has to do with their relationships between them and other people.

In the end, I’m not sure what my ideal female character is. It is easier for me to say what I am looking for in a man. And we might believe this is due to my being female and therefore more consistently thinking about appealing male traits in real life, but it is actually that lack of thought that makes writing cross gender so problematic, e.g., people don't know what they want someone of the opposite sex to say to them, therefore they don't say anything right. (I'm not going to go into homosexuality because a gay author's view on gender is a long blog in itself.)

I think these two factors also affect men, to some extent. Male readers tend not to consider the female character nearly as much as women do, and female readers tend to ignore the male characters much more than men. But trying to know what personalities to give a woman for guys to like is hard in itself. Because though there are those who love the “virgin” stereotype, there are few who will accept a straightforward, dull virgin character. Though they (some) still want nice and innocent, they don’t necessarily want doormat and stupid, and they demand her being an in-depth character just as much as anyone else. And there are many men who the virgin doesn’t appeal to.

When it comes to writing male characters, however, the gap between male and female readers is larger. For one thing, protagonists can get away with having very little personality, but making a main character a woman gives her a huge characteristic. This means that a male character who starts out as a blank slate really is a blank slate, but a female character now has some weight on one side of the scale, so we need to give her some traits on the other side if we want to be level (and though we can become balanced again, it will never truly be zero). As good news for writing male characters, that means that the male protagonist could be appealing to both men and women as long as we give him no details, but a female character can’t.

Now the likelihood of him being appealing with no traits is small, and few people actually want to write a character like that, which is where the gender of the reader becomes important. Men are more accepting of men than women are of women. Men also tend to be readers who perceive themselves as the character rather than with the character, which is why Mr. Mary Sue can survive better than a Ms. Mary Sue. (It is also important to note that we are not likely to identify a Mr. Mary Sue as often as a Ms. Mary Sue, which is why we call it a "Mary Sue" and not "Steven Lou.") Secondly, as discussed before, because we only really expect strength, bravery, or intelligence from men, characters who are convincingly strong, brave, or intelligent will be appealing to the male audience. If the guy can kick ass in one manner or the other, the audience is happy.

When trying to make women like men, it’s more complicated. In American culture, it is not typical for people who see themselves as the characters to relate to cross gender characters. Though women will often root for the male protagonist over anyone else, it is not typical for her to be sitting their fantasizing about being him (though it is more typical for women than it is for men). Therefore, though women also expect the three main qualities, it’s more complicated than that, chiefly when it comes to the male love interest.

Love scenes can often be the hardest moments to write, whether that includes sex or not. It is a moment, for the author, of raw honesty, intimacy, and passion. We are admitting to our deep down fantasies, and that can be embarrassing.

Many times when love scenes come out badly it is because the author is not “in touch with his own feelings.” People will often put up walls before they can get too emotionally deep, and this is a huge problem for artists. I once worked with an actress who wanted to cry on stage, but she had spent her entire life concealing her emotions. This disabled her from being able to show them when she finally wanted to. She, like many others do, had put her feelings to the back of her mind and done her best to never think about them. She never considered why she had them, how they felt physically, where she felt them, or how to prevent them in the future. Often times, it is hard to write a love interest because we are simply not aware of what we want that person to be.

When I try to understand why people are so concerned with writing cross gender, I think of this context. It is very hard to write a lover who the readers will love.

Part of this has to do with everyone’s perfect someone being different. Part of this has to do with our desires for inappropriate relationships. Part of this has to do with our uncertainty by what we actually want.

If we could have a lover say exactly what we wanted to hear, what would that be? What traits would that person have? Even when we know how we think we want them to be, it’s common to try and write that down and be unable to come up with anything; it’s not specific enough or not accurate enough. Plus, fantasizes can be “wrong,” what society wouldn’t approve of, like abusive relationships with insane men, sleeping around, polygamy, bondage, and other flights of fancy that we probably don’t even want in real life. Sometimes the hardest part of writing a love scene is simply revealing the dark secrets of what we fantasize about love being like.

But, despite the gender imposed on the statement, sometimes, “It’s hard to write for women,” just means, “I can’t get this character right.” Sometimes, by just being worried about it, we can stifle our own abilities, and sometimes it just isn’t working.

First and foremost, focus on that specific character rather than the gender as a whole. Who is this person, and how does gender affect him or her?
            -How much does the character subscribe to gender roles or how much does he rebel?
            -Does the character think that men should be manly and girls should be girly? Does the character try to do what he or she is “supposed to”? Does he do the exact opposite? Does she just not care, landing somewhere in the middle?

Next, assume about similarities and choose differences. This is true for all characters. It is typical for authors to go through a self-rejecting stage in which they say, “this person is different than me,” and attempt to start with a blank slate. This is how superficial and insincere characters are made. It is much harder to recreate the complexity of a human being from scratch than to utilize a blueprint (you). The author’s subconscious will make many decisions for him without him knowing, and working with that, rather than against it, will give him a background color to make choices onto. Saying, “This character is nicer than me, “she cares about appearance more than me,” “she’s had a lot harder of a life than me,” will allow the writer’s instincts to do its job, but also give him the opportunity to make that protagonist the way he wants her to be, and not just a replication of himself. Saying, “She is nice, appearance-oriented, and comes from a bad background,” doesn’t compensate for the thousands of other traits and experiences she has had. Everyone has similarities, and so the author does with his characters. Worry about being completely different from her will just give him a headache.

Thus, sometimes it is hard to write cross gender because we are assuming they are different from us and simply not knowing how.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Pain of Fixation

When I write, it looks like I’m having a seizure. So perturbed by certain words, I have a physical reaction every time I feel inclined to use them. Expressions like “just,” “was,” and “very” cause an eye twitch, despite my own personal belief that these are not something that can break a story. This blog is called “What’s Worse than Was,” for a reason. Yet, no matter how much I realize it is not only ridiculous to write an entire story with no adverbs, but not appealing either, I still can’t help myself second guess with every “was” uttered.

External input and how to receive it can be the hardest part of the writing process. It’s just as wrong to blatantly take advice as it is to blatantly reject it. In college, I had a professor try to simplify the problem by saying, “Just decide to take it or don't.” But it was not something he had a lot of experience with, and so did not realize why that wasn’t really viable.

In the beginning, few of us are trying to improve as much seeking the thrill of achievement. In this first stage we want to show what we’ve done, to get some emotional reward for all the hard work. This is often disparaged, especially how, as we are not yet looking for criticism, we can take it badly. But there is nothing wrong with seeking approval, as much as we like to say it is. An artist needs to gain confidence, feel the pleasure that comes from someone else reading their work, and really understand how good the feeling can be before they start to actively work to being better. People often give up because they don't remember what the reward will feel like after the years of work.

But, after a while, we want bigger things than just a couple of compliments: publishing, admiration, large scale readers, and though the need for approval is still there, we can sacrifice our egos in order for a bigger payoff.

My professor, who had not yet even completed an independent work in his life, had not come to the point in his life where he actually wanted feedback, so he did not understand why a basic do or don’t attitude doesn’t work. I know because there would be a hell of a lot of postmortems ending abruptly when he was the director. For those who are seeking honest ways to better themselves, the question becomes a lot harder.

Say, for instance, someone says, “Don’t use adverbs.”

Now, we might logically know several things. This is a common piece of advice that repeatedly circulates. Its well versed nature means that it may be good on the grounds that many people agree with it, but it may be bad on the grounds that it takes little thought to parrot it. The author is aware that he would be hard put to find a “great” book that doesn’t use adverbs, and that a bad story does not immediately become good after having deleted them. Does that make it untrue?

To simply reject it as a lie seems too simple too. We then have to consider why the person said it, and what it actually means. They say “don’t,” “never,” and “always,” which sound as if they are absolutely true, but everyone knows that’s not right. So learn to interpret it. “Don’t use” means “don’t over use.” “Never” means “use less,” and always means “use more.” Then, we think, the person is probably saying it because they feel like you did overuse adverbs and they want you to use less, but in order to avoid explaining exactly how much less, they utilize the assumption that you’re not really going to listen to them completely, and hope that you will end up with a good balance. Plus, the ramifications of you actually listening is now you have no adverbs at all, which doesn't seem like a big deal. There is a clear benefit to just telling the author to go overboard rather than really trying to figure out the "appropriate" amount.

The next question we have to consider is if they thought you overused adverbs because of what you did, or because they were looking for them. Getting feedback is a little problematic because people don't necessarily know what "good" and "bad" is, probably because, in my opinion, it doesn't actually work like that. So they often will clench onto some sort of pet peeve and utilize that to define quality, such as if "I look to see if you have an inciting incident on page 15 of a screenplay," or something equally as arbitrary. It's important to watch out for these because trying to abide by these Calvinball rules will just make you crazy.

It’s like Neil Gaiman says, “When people tell you something is wrong, they are 100% right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are 100% wrong.”

When actively trying to improve work and ourselves, if we ignore what doesn’t make sense or what isn’t true, then we will have little to go on. If we were to just delete all adverbs, than we'd be limiting ourselves to an extreme amount for an guaranteed (and unlikely) benefit. If we were to just leave them, we are ignoring an opportunity that is rare enough as it is. Getting someone to read your work and respond to it is nearly impossible; we can't afford to ignore the less-than-perfect critiques.
This analytical turmoil is not just a problem during a criticism. It is much worse when the author sits in his home, alone, staring at his computer screen with only himself to discuss the problem with, and he comes along an issue that he’d thought he’d come to terms with. We sit there, unable to get external advice, freaking out because we're not sure if it is acceptable to have eight main characters or if that's a huge ding on our book.

It is common to overuse “be” verbs and adverbs and saids and overwrite and underwrite and passive-sentences and all the things that people say are overdone. But if we were to try and prevent ourselves from using any of them, we wouldn’t be able to write at all. Fixating on these inane, if not accurate, restrictions causes a lot of frustration.

It’s a hard point to balance on, the difference between trying know what to change and to know what to keep the same, to know what is legitimate judgment and what is ridiculous. There is no reason to cling to decisions that hinder us, but actively trying to change rules of the writing world that don’t matter is just a waste of time. The only advice I can give when being faced with arbitrary rules is to not worry about it. Easier said than done, believe me, I know. But sometimes knowing that’s okay to not give a damn, even when we realize that giving a damn might lead to insight, is exactly what we need to move on without needing to hold our tongue down. Fixating on the little details may be helpful, but it's too painful to deal with constantly.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Inspiration or Perspiration


Every time I’ve entered a book store during the last year, I would immediately be drawn to one singular book. A gray cover of a singular tie, I would snatch up 50 Shades of Gray and look at the back before immediately remembering having done the exact same thing seven times before. Before I knew of the reputation of the novel, I would keep being intrigued by the cover and deterred by the summary. The sad part comes from the very good chance that if I ever committed to reading it, I have a decent idea that I would like it.

Why do I keep putting it down? One single word: “Intern.”

Something that is unique to me (meaning uncommon to the majority of your readers) is my distaste for the realistic modern America setting. I hardly can enjoy supernatural modern America. I have and can overcome this small distaste, but it has to have some other element to compensate.

The problem is not, of course, how it affects my reading, but my writing. Considering that this disinterest in anything, well, relatable, is not a popular thread of thought, it makes it more difficult for me to understand the appeal and therefore connect with them. All authors have this problem, of course (though not necessarily with this subject), which is why I bring it up.

The first issue comes from my foray into theatre. I feel inclined, and not entirely mistakenly, that critically respected theatre is the one that deals with small modern issues. If we look at most of the Pulitzer prize winners since the turn of the century, they mostly consist of mundane and dark family issues, whether it be Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman to David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole or anything Sam Sheppard’s ever written, despite how surreal things tend to get.

Now, though having a good reputation amongst the “intellectuals” is important to me, it is not a priority. I am not the sort of person to compromise myself just for success. In fact, I often tend to err on the stubborn side for very inane things. But when I would try to put my characters in this setting so dull to me, I didn’t perceive it as (for lack of a better term) selling-out. Being well versed is a goal of mine, and I don’t want to be limited.

So what would happen? Plays gave me the worst cases of tedium. I would form a concept that didn’t require a specific world and so, for whatever reasons, I’d decided that they lived a very normal modern life. And I couldn’t care less about any of it.

Writing can be a lot like drinking in that most of the experience is miserable. Whether it be having to gag down the taste in the beginning or the hangover afterwards, a drunk has about five minutes of fun (or what seems like) and six hours of discomfort. Writing while inspired, however, is that moment in between, right when the toxicity is such that everything in the world is happy. That moment of pure bliss where we drive through a scene, a chapter, or even an entire story is what we remember when we keep deciding to do it again.

My point being, of course, that if we can induce our own inspiration then we will be happier, and my problem of the setting is a good reason why we’re not inspired.

There are things that we like to read about that may or may not be true for others. For me personally, the best works are comedy in serious situations, romance in fantasy settings, and companionship in easily ignored plots. I like reading about writers, anthropomorphic cats, one-sided relationships, and happy endings. Here are the problems: Not what I like reading about is what other people like reading about, and to only write what I want to read would start creating a series of patterns that restricts me and is indicative of an unimaginative author.

However, I have consistently found that my attempts to write without considering my own personal tastes leads to abandoned projects, and the ones that I change to be more of what I would want to read has created some of my favorite works.

I find it fairly typical for authors to go through a self-rejection phase. When critiquing starting writers’ work, I have often heard them say, “I’m struggling with this character’s reactions, because I know she isn’t me and wouldn’t react like me.” We like to think that we’re unique and we have sort of an “us and them” mentality in which we don’t know how our readers will be different, so we will just assume that they’re different.

But writing shouldn’t be hard. Even if those whose goals are focused more around external rewards than internal, such as positive reception versus emotional release, won’t be hurting themselves by indulging themselves with their own preferences.

It can be tempting to err on the I’m special/I’m wrong side instead of acknowledging that there’s someone out there like me/there’s someone out there who agrees with me. Two human beings will always have similarities, despite their different backgrounds, personalities, and beliefs. It’s hard for me to understand why someone might love Death of a Salesman, and so for me to try to replicate that is harder than for me to try and replicate something I love. And not just because of knowledge, but because of passion.

Passion can be dull to people who don’t understand it, so it can be hard to commit to it. But it is important to remember that there are others who will be just as passionate, that not everyone will be interested in any subject chosen, and that if you have fun writing it is a thousand times more likely to be fun to be read.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Being Right versus Being Stubborn


I had a personality change in college. High school, the time when I started writing, filled me with confidence, ingenuity, and self-importance. College gave me empathy, ability and self-doubt.

I was a serial third place winner. And I’m not talking the sort where everyone gets a ribbon. I’m talking cash prizes. Every single art contest I applied to I would win third place or sometimes second place. Ratherly worse, never better.

Yet after the event I would have judges and spectators tell me my project was their favorite. They loved my piece.

So why didn’t I ever win? Because my work was crappy. I always had something far different and stranger than the rest, but the execution revealed exactly how much thought I put into it: the bare minimum. Because I didn’t care. I was lazy, and I thought the idea was enough. I slapped things together, thought I was fated to do well, and left it at that. My community was not big on “winning” or competition. Though I wouldn’t change all my experiences to help learn how to push yourself and play the game, I would have liked to know now, as I face failure or success, how to compete.

But then I went to college where I grew more aware of the world and myself, and the desire for success came with the understanding it was not necessarily going to happen. I started to focus less on the idea and more on the quality. I wrote with less importance on the concept and gimmick in favor of pacing and word choice. A person might think that this made me a more well-rounded author, but what it really did was take my qualities and flaws and flip them.

Balance is an extremely important part of the arts. Everything in moderation, as we say. And as I ignored one aspect in favor of getting better on another, I was not being as efficient as I could. Of course, talents don’t just go away and if I was to change my attention to the opposite, I would fair very well. But there was one portion of me that I have struggled to find again, and that was self-confidence.

We all have faced this problem before: someone gives a piece of advice that an author doesn’t want to take. If you refuse, are you being true to yourself or egotistical and ignorant?

In high school, I would have trusted myself. In college, I would have trusted other people. In different contexts, both could save me, both could destroy me, and both could do nothing at all. More importantly, I would not know which until after the chance to change it has passed.

Knowing when to stay and when to fold is the entire issue in “constructive criticism.” It’s situational, and the best answer is the one that works. This is often impossible to know. Over the course of the years, I have come across three rules I use to determine when I should hold my ground and when to hear them out.

1. Keep what you care about, change what you don’t. (And realize that you don’t care about as much as you think you do.)

If it really bothers you to make a change, then it’s probably not the right thing to do. Entertainment is about emotions, and if you’re emotionally attached than it’s a good sign. The important part that makes this harder than we’d like is understanding why you’re attached, and realizing it might not have anything to do with a love of what you’ve done. Refusal for change can be attributed to many things, some having nothing to do with how you like it. We are often stubborn because 1) it’d be hard to change it or 2) we perceive changing it as admitting you’re wrong (see below). It might not be obvious at first, but if you can admit to yourself that either of these are your main reasons (or you can’t figure out your reasons), having changed it will answer the question of what’s best for the project.

2) Sacrifice your right to be right.

Humans have an obsession with being right. This innate trait may cause a good number of arguments, but it is a part of life, and isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This need to prove ourselves is a huge reason why we might not want to make a change, especially when we’re not wrong.

A common criticism I receive is when I am using a word improperly. But I didn’t. I used it strangely.  I could agrue creativity and style in keeping it, however, I often know that the word, though prettier than its more basic sister, isn’t the best option for me.

The question becomes not about what the word means, but what are the rewards and negatives to using it. It comes down to these concepts:
  
1) What do I get out of keeping it?
2) What do I lose by changing it?
3) How common is this reaction going to be?

The last one is tough to answer, but an (honest) educated guess will probably lead you to the truth. Do you think that, for example, the critic is more or less aware of the word’s definition than the average person? If you foresee this being a common problem not worth the benefits, then it is the easiest way to know if you should get rid of it.

3. Consider who the speaker is.

The obvious part of this being, does he know what he’s talking about? But I personally don’t consider expertise as a clear indicator of truth because gut reaction from a layman is what most authors have to contend with. We’re trying to make the masses happy, not the experts.

The important aspects I consider:

            1) How do they feel about you?
            2) What are their tastes?
            3) Do they believe what they are saying?

A person who hates you personally, or worse, sees you as an amateur will change the way they judge a work. Our perception going in will drastically affect our judgment coming out, and a person who wants you to fail or thinks that you will has a very different response than the average reader. A reader who doesn’t like you will look for things to hate, which might make you think they’d be the best critic. But the subjects they choose to talk about are not usually about problems as much as choices.

“Normal,” in terms of writing, is anything the viewer ignores or pays little attention to. For instance, a kitchen described has having chairs and a table, will not be considered as much as one with a cauldron and a coffin. A writer often pays as much attention to the norm as a reader does, and rarely do we make conscious choices about innane things; our brains will insert “the normal” for us.

The point being that conscious choices that go against “normalcy” draw attention to themselves, like the coffin in the kitchen. That makes those things an easy target. So instead of commenting on more problematic and arguable topics, (“It was boring.”) they pay attention to more obvious elements (“You’re not Rocky and Bullwrinkle; you don’t need two titles”). Of course, that’s not to say they are wrong, but it is to say they are more likely to be a jerk than helpful, and jerks are more likely to stifle creativity then solve issues. On that note, it is also important to check your feelings and realize when you are not going to take their advice simply because you hate them.

When someone doesn’t think you know what you are doing, he will criticize you for small, inane (and obvious) things, often making mistake as readers and attributing them to the writer. For example, they may think a word spelled correctly is wrong. When we see something like that in a published book, then we assume it’s our mistake, but when we see it in a draft, we think it’s the authors.

Unlike someone who hated you, even those who look down on you can love you, and that makes it an even bigger problem. Their nitpickiness might be pointing out little details that most readers will be annoyed with, or they might just be driving you crazy. But if you strangely want to keep something the way it is, then realizing they’re treating you differently can give you a good reason to keep it.

Lastly, we come to lying. People don’t out and out do this for this sort of thing, but they will often give you advice they don’t believe. If you disagree with a response that a) they wouldn’t do themselves, b) they just heard from somewhere and repeated it because it sounded good, or c) they want to be true, it might be best to stick with your gut.

You know yourself better than anyone, and it is your vision you’re trying to follow. By remembering that you want to succeed above all, you can deal with your own ego and other’s accordingly.