Monday, November 30, 2015

I’m Writing about a Horrible Character Who is Too Much Like Me



Back when I first arrived in Laramie, Wyoming on my cross country road trip, as we dumped the boyfriend off at my friend’s house and proceeded on a night of wild debauchery that, being Laramie, involved Walmart and pricey pizza, I sat in her car to see her smirking at me in a strange way.

“Look at that book,” she said. “And tell me what you think.”
                                                  
Now, I’ve come to realize over time that when anyone asks me directly for my opinion, it tends to mean, “Tell me why I should hate this.” I don’t like to think that I am so drastically negative or harsh, but rather a proprietor of truth and passion that results in entertainment that can’t be found elsewhere. No one, as of yet, has agreed with me on that, however, so I’m going to have to believe they’re all idiots.

It was a well-made book with an interestingly unique cover yet not too far from traditional standards that it seemed homemade. I realized it was self-published by the, we’ll say, unconventional, punctuation on the back and the horrific summary that told us “This is a story about,” three times yet never once revealed character, plot, or setting, but just explained all about the heartache and feelings you will have upon reading.

But then she told me the backstory.

The writer had abandoned his wife and children to go out into the world and promote his book. He had felt divorce was necessary to pursue his dreams, and he, according to my friend, deeply regretted it. I didn’t understand his decisions, being that a road trip would, at very, very most, take two years, and then what? Go back and get remarried? Why divorce in the first place? Unless it was not about that, which I think was the missing link. I’m seeing it being less than six months if we were to be reasonable about how long a book tour should reasonably take.

But, my friend, being friendly and gorgeous, was probably being offered the free book as a form of flirting, and his claims of his relationship status were more about making her accepting of his come-ons. Later, when I went to his Facebook page, I found, “In an open relationship,” so who knows what it means.

His story fascinated us, proving just how much being personal can benefit authors, and we proceeded to read the first couple of chapters. He was, I will say, amazing when it came to the prose aspects, and both of us felt his pain and our cynical criticism was tuned on end. On the other hand, I found his desire to hide information from the audience irritating; it feeling more like a college student’s attempts at being literary with poorly formed concepts, dancing around the ideas instead of explaining them. While I loved the way he said things, I found what he was saying to be a little airy, the actual point being more simplistic than how he explained it.

Something about him struck me hard, and I continued to think about his story as we left Laramie and made our way to Phoenix while I listened to The Lovely Bones on tape. When the mother (spoiler alert), decided to abandon the family, attempting to rejuvenate her dreams, my mind began to whirl.

I have always admired people who go after what they want, to dream big and take great actions towards them. The idea of leaving home to travel the States, nothing but a few small items at your back, intrigued me. Last year, before I decided to (and subsequently did not) go to New York City, I considered taking the money I had saved and riding around America to promote my writing. It was the only time, I had thought, I might be able to do it, if I later started to develop a family, could I possibly leave for a few months to spend a lot of money on a tour?

In this, “Ronny” began to manifest. In a parallel universe, I had made different decisions. I had gotten married young, deliberately chose to have a child immediately, and yet continued on my path of writing. Like in real life, Ronny went through several years—after being prolific—of never writing at all, though this time it was due to her son and exhaustion, not just my lack of motivation and discouragement. She has gone through similar events as me, graduating college early, reflecting on actual criticisms that I have witnessed (mine or other’s), same financial situation, save for an up-and-coming lawyer husband, and similar writing career.

But there are some major differences. She didn’t major in theatre, but rather screenwriting; an important distinction because, while all writing attracts egos, screenwriting is “serious business,” and tends to more stringently follow rules. I believe, and I think screenwriters would agree with me most, that films have the most opinionated, self-assured people drawn to it. Theatre tends to have “artistic” types who sway in the opposite direction towards weird for the sake of being weird. She is not artistic in other areas, not a painter or seamstress or actor or teacher, only a writer. Unlike me, she dated in high school, mostly because I didn’t want Chris, her husband, to be her first and the timeline didn’t allow for her to wait until college (I was interested in dating, but coming from a small school, didn’t really like anyone particularly.)

Mostly, however, there are two values that Ronny and I differ drastically on, both of which I find make her incredibly unlikable.

Her decision to leave her child is inexcusable. While anyone who is able to remove themselves from a relationship they no longer want to be a part of is courageous (No, divorce is terrible and never be taken lightly, but I truly think that when someone understand they’re not happy and takes steps to fix that, it is a choice to be respected) but that’s different than abandoning your child to your spouse. Whether or not you are the mother or father, you owe it to everyone involved to take responsibility.

But worse, because it’s about writing, she is a literary snob. Her philosophy on the craft is the opposite of mine, Ronny believing in heady, intellectual prose, looking down on fantasy, science-fiction, and comedy, and wanting to write the next Great American Novel, which must be like Steinbeck or Kerouac, or any of those names casually dropped in an English class.

Why did she do this? Well, like all of my characters, she developed on her own without too much inorganic input from me. While she started from a question of how my life would be different—what would I do if I was already married with children?—and is the first character directly based on myself, taking events right from my own life, she is still starting to develop a personality outside of mine… and I don’t like her very much.

Partially, of course, this is a part of her character arc, learning over time that her image of the perfect life doesn’t have to be exactly as she pictured it. Leaving her family was her form of the quarter-life crisis in which she realized that she truly was an adult and it wasn’t how she pictured—but via close encounters with death, she starts to accept that she can’t just start over every time she isn’t happy with her life. Of course she’ll learn to be more open minded about writing philosophies, because she needs to redeem herself somehow.

But my real concern is that I am putting in no effort to fig leaf this shit.  In the past when any time a character got anywhere close to looking that they might be a remote avatar for myself, I covered that up with all kinds of gender-infused paint. Previously, I hated when people ask if a character was supposed to be me, often because they weren’t, at least not on a predominant level, though they of course had aspects of myself. If a character did seem too similar to me, I’d make him a guy. Or black.

Now that I’m writing a protagonist with no attempts to change my story to hide the fact that, yes, this really happened to me, and yet she isn’t particularly likable and has beliefs and takes actions that are against my own morality (which is kind of the point), I have to wonder if, one, the hatred of her will prevent people from continuing the read, and two, make readers confused about my actual beliefs. Some of her opinions I am making fun of, a commentary or point on that type of person or a previous version of myself, and sometimes it’s something I agree with; I want her to be diverse and complex, not always bad or good, not always agreeing or disagreeing with me. I fully intend on giving mixed signals about her abilities as a writer, showing her rejections, acceptances, fans and haters, and letting the audience know, without allowing for any examples of her actual style, just how hard it is to determine your skills from the feedback of others. She is not obviously good or bad in any way.

From personal experience when it comes to Gone Girl or Chicago, unlikable characters can make for great reads—as long as the audience is aware they’re not supposed to like her. The main question becomes how do you make that readily obvious from page one, especially when a character features main attributes of the author and that authors are obviously narcissists who would never condemn the actions of that Mary Sue?




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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Why Authors Die Alone



I’m not good at sharing. I’m good at giving and I’m good at hiding my stuff and myself so it doesn’t come up, but trying to balance my needs with others is difficult. Having spent most of my life isolating myself, being pretty poor at letting others in and, honestly, not really feeling too remorseful about it, it came as a shock when my boyfriend moved in with me this summer and I had to adjust.

It didn’t matter that he was perfectly content minding his own business. Although a portion of it was that he wanted to spend time with me, go out and do things, a bigger issue was that just by having him in the room, I felt stilted. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t written in public like the library or Starbucks, but I suppose there is a certain anonymity there that helps you get lost in your world. Yes, other people are technically around, but they’re not really people just background noise.

While traveling from America to Australia this week, I realized several things: I can’t write with someone looking over my shoulder, especially if it’s a guy. My brother and boyfriend are—and I say this as affectionately as I can muster—judgmental whores.

“I can see why you don’t want like writing with me right here,” my boyfriend said the other night. “Because that sentence is terrible.”

I ignored him, but it didn’t help me be immersed in the visualization.

For many the hard part is bringing writing into your family life. A lot of writers start in their later years, or just put it down for a time when they needed to step into the “real world.” For me, I put off the real world as long as I could (hence my writing of science-fiction). I had a boyfriend all throughout college, but we didn’t live together, Skyrim came out, and I was deeply discouraged and uninspired due to my professors’ competitive and insulting nature when it came to art. I didn’t write much then, but I didn’t attribute it to my dating—too much.

My real only scheduling conflicts have been school and work, and in many cases, I can get a little done at my jobs. These work hours, at least, are consistent and predictable; you know you’re going to have to leave at 10 a.m. so it can help propel you when it’s nine and you’re like, “Oh shit.”

I discussed previously how having less time can actually be more productive sometimes than having all the freedom in the world, and it still remains true, especially for those of us who work best under—as Calvin and Hobbes says—“last minute panic,” but that only seems to work if the time is scheduled.

When it comes to family, it’s less predictable.

When, as children, my brother and I complained about our parents asking us to help them, one of our main issues was that they gave us no warning. (Our secondary issue being that we didn’t want to.) It was frustrating to be asked to drop everything to come “now,” instead of having been informed earlier in the day that they wanted us to do something. In some cases, it was obvious as to why my parents didn’t give us a heads up—they didn’t know. And, yes, we were being spoiled butt-munches, if I were to be honest. But it wasn’t entirely undue when you planned out an hour to write and then suddenly, when you finally get into a scene, there’s a knock on the door asking you for “Happy fun crap moving time” as my brother likes to call it.

After I came back from college and learned how to communicate rather than whine, and my parents started to listen instead of assuming I was just being lazy, we developed a better way for us to work as needed. My parents would give me fair warning if they wanted something done, and, in most cases, as long as I did I within a reasonable timeframe, I could do it when I had a moment instead of being limited to their schedule. More importantly, I had my own space in which I could shut the door and block out the world and wasn’t constantly exposed to others.

Many writers complain about family members not understanding that they are really working, and even though we can pick our own routines, sometimes we need to, well, stick to what we picked. One author blogged about how a neighbor was furious when he asked, since she stayed home the whole day, if she could come and wait for a package for him. He didn’t see it as being real work, and didn’t know why she couldn’t just drop everything if she didn’t have a boss to be mad at her.

The story stuck with me because, as a one-time event, you could see where the neighbor is coming from. “You can’t postpone writing for a few hours to help me out?” But what people don’t realize is that the constant expectation for you to ignore writing for “just this one thing,” can extremely screw with your productivity. Authors know themselves, and some of us are most productive at certain times a day, sometimes we need a strict routine to make it a habit. Other writers don’t, but it’s hard for anyone who has never been their own boss, especially when it comes to something as “superfluous” as art, to really comprehend why we need to be stubborn when it comes to our methods.

And, to be honest, sometimes it’s not fair for the writer to ask for a lot of personal time and less responsibilities just so they can write. A friend of mine married a potential writer, had a baby, and wants to encourage him in his dreams. On the other hand, he would come home and refuse to take their son on the guise of “working,” but then she’d come in and see that he was just watching random videos.

I didn’t exactly know what to tell her. I’ve been in that position many times when I said I needed to write and then was caught screwing around on the internet. I was really writing, just sporadically. While many times I tell myself to knock it off, and I would argue it’s more productive to not do that, it somewhat has to be the writer’s decision. Sometimes you do have to ease back into the story when at an especially frustrating part, and it’s not going to do anyone any good to have someone at your back making you feel bad for screwing around. But, then again, there’s often the reality that I am just screwing around and I really should be doing more.

What do you do when you are asking your significant other to a lot you this extra luxury that means more work for them? In the case of my friend, who has a job as well, it meant that she had to come home and take care of the baby while he got alone time. This wouldn’t have bothered her if he was actually writing, but she felt a little used. I didn’t blame her.

I think it’s important to do what you can to help your spouse’s dreams, but she was under no obligation to pander to his delusion. He didn’t deserve an hour of undisturbed free time (unless perhaps she received one too) under the guise of doing work when he wasn’t. Yet, I know damn well that forcing yourself to work constantly isn’t successful, and especially when you’re trying to develop a habit of writing, it’s likely that you’ll have unproductive slip ups, and on occasion you need that.

My solution was to give him about an hour of “nag free time.” This has nothing to do with gender roles despite that we don’t use the word “nag” so much as “be a dick” when it comes to husbands, but a means of compromise for an artist and his/her spouse. Give me an hour of “writing” and don’t check in to see if I’m actually doing it. If I screw around, I screw around. If I write, I write. After that, the non-writer is allowed to access if the writer is actually working; if he is typing away and she doesn’t mind babysitting longer, then let him at it. If he seems to not be doing any important, she can then demand, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! You’re done. Take the baby.” At the end of the month, agree that he’ll show her the document with his word count. This allows him to pace himself, yet still require results, which actually might be preferable to everyone involved. If it proves that he’s only been screwing around, it becomes his obligation to find the time to write around the baby and his job.

Mostly I believed that they had to work it out for themselves and that it depended on how his own work preferences, but I knew her husband had the tendency to be lazy—a huge writer’s fault—and if she was going to support him in pursuing his dreams, he needed to actually be pursuing them. While I understand screwing around, I have no patience for writers who refuse to write, especially if they’re making my best friend pick up their slack.

The problem I found with my new live-in boyfriend was the struggle of even just having him in the same room as me. I was alarmed at how I could not escape into my mind. We lived in a studio and couldn’t really get away from each other—plus my computer was a desktop. I did most of my writing while he was away at work, but that was usually when I had gotten home from my job and was exhausted. I would try to do it in the morning while he was asleep, but he started to adapt to my patterns and wake up when I was loudly click clacking away.

Traveling made it much worse. It was hard for me to ask if he could just leave me alone in Starbucks for an hour—go entertain yourself. How could I explain that I needed to write during lunch instead of talking to him? I was the one doing the driving, and even if I wasn’t, I get car sick, so writing as we went was an unlikely proposition.

Worse was when his computer broke. Something got disconnected a few days ago and we’ve been sharing my laptop ever since. I feel bad for asking for it, (This is what I mean about not sharing.) but if I’m not using it, he (reasonably) assumes it’s up for grabs, and I’m like, “Well, I know I wasn’t actually using it, but I was strongly thinking about it!” I’m definitely the kid who wants the toy you’re playing with, and so I tend to stop myself from saying, “No, I need it,” because, let’s face it, I probably wasn’t going to be writing for the next few hours if he hadn’t picked it up.

Having lost a day due to time zones, another day due to jetlag, and another day to meeting his father and actually, shock, spending time with them, I am very behind. I am not too hard on myself for obvious reasons, but I’m struggling with balancing a new reality of family obligations. I feel a little frustrated and down in the dumps. I had been doing so well too! I haven’t really picked up on the routine of living with this other human being, and I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to try and introduce writing into a family life than it is to introduce a family into a writing life.

Oh, there's also too dogs in my new place.

Don't even get me started on dogs.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

When People Hard to Respect Are Demanding Even More

I was once out socializing (don’t judge me) in which one specific gentlemen became totally trashed. I was stone-cold sober. Our fellow tablemates got up to leave, meeting us at another activity. I saw them walk out, then told my friend I would drive him.

As we left, he said to me, “Call M.”

“What?”

“You need to call M. She’s pissed. She and C are fighting,” he insisted.

I hadn’t seen these two tablemates arguing, but I believed there was a possibility I missed something.

“About what?”

“Just call M!”

“And say what?

“They got into an argument!”

“We’re going to see them in two minutes.”

He stared me in the eye, a complete, an almost comical severity in his expression. “Call M.”

“And say what?!”

I gave him my phone, telling him to call her if it was so important. He stared at it for a moment, then refused, saying he didn’t know how to work it.

“I’m not calling her. We’re seeing her in two seconds.”

“I don’t understand why you don’t just trust me!”

Really? Because, for starters, you’re drunk off your ass and I’m not. We are having to dividing opinions what we saw, and not only does it seem reasonable for me to trust my eyes first, it’s especially expected giving the circumstance.

He wanted me to believe him over myself, ignoring our vastly different states, make me take action without explaining what exactly it was I should do. He demanded I respected his reality more than he was respecting me. Yes, he was drunk. We assume that inhibits your logic, but is that really why someone wouldn’t reconsider their stance? Would someone sober always realize the context in which the person their speaking to is considering?

And no, she wasn't mad. She had no idea what I was talking about. By the time he got there, he'd forgotten too.

I work very hard to be open-minded and respectful (in the ways I think a person should be). Sometimes I fail (completely), but for the most part, when a person approaches me with his opinion, I spend a lot of time figuring out where he's coming from, why he believes what he believes, and determining flaws in his conclusions or differences in our priorities before deciding if his opinion doesn't work for me, rather than just going with my immediate reaction. I can be prideful and lazy, and so I make a lot of effort to determine the difference between my gut and my ego before making a decision. My gut has been good to me, and it's not fair to completely write off my instincts just because my pride poses as him on occasion.

Sometimes, I don't have the time to understand before I make a choice. Sometimes I take the time, but I just can't figure it out. In these cases, I will always trust my own perception first. It makes sense, especially if I know nothing about the speaker. Even more so when I was already struggling to have any faith in you in the first place.

Because some people are harder than others. I still do it when a writer doesn't oblige me the same courtesy; I believe that being open-minded is about listening to closed-minded people. But it seems like people misinterpret my choice to hear them out as an agreement that their opinion is law, and they should continue to tell me what to do. While I’m struggling not to insult them back, they, blissfully unaware that I am offering them the same amount of respect I would anyone, not because they are especially inspiring, feel encouraged to give me their opinion without any argument or proof as to why I should take it. I just should.

For months a man would post comments on my jokes and anecdotes how I wrote was wrong (even though he'd never read anything I'd written, and I wasn't even discussing writing philosophies.) I know he was trying to be friendly, unaware how he was coming off. One day, while informing me how I should work on a short story, he sent me his unpolished, unpublished piece as an example, which seemed to not do anything that he was telling me it should.

An online friend, for who I incorrectly believed English was his second language, gave me pedantic, archaic, and sometimes untrue grammar criticism on Facebook statuses, telling me that correct grammar on social media how he made his writing so good, showing me his overly written, formal poetry.

The other day someone interrupted me in the middle of a story to tell me that it's "So-and-so and I" not "So-and-so and me," and when I explained that you still use "me" when it's the object of a sentence whether or there is also another "object" ("My mom gave gifts to me," not "My mom gave gifts to I," so it's "My mom gave gifts to Kyle and me."), he grew furious, telling me not to be such a Grammar Nazi.

I found a woman in my old writers' group to be arrogant and condescending (especially to her readers). I didn't agree with most things she said. Because I knew I was biased against her opinion (I wanted her to be wrong), I spent an extra effort to analyze her feedback and make sure that I actually didn't agree instead of writing her off. At one point, she gave me some criticism that contradicted what other readers had told me. When I clarified to her what they said, she insisted they were idiots and I should just trust her. "You can't believe everything you hear." She didn't seem to realize that if I was just going to throw out anyone's advice, it would have been hers. I was trying so hard to consider her opinion, which I felt was restrictive, simplistic, and shallow.

Someone posted on the question, "How many books do you publish a year?" bitching about other authors' decisions to produce a lot, how they had to suck, and how he had worked on his manuscript for ten years, it was picked up by a traditional publisher, and it deserved to exist; "Does yours?" If you have to self-publish, he said, then it's probably not good enough. On his book, he had a homemade cover, a typo in the summary, and two weeks later, after complaining about selling only four books and insisting he'd never write the sequel, his publishers stole his royalties, he bought back his rights, and ended up self-publishing.

If I had to ask writers to do one thing, it would be to understand that your voice is only one of the many that your fellow authors are getting. Know that your perspective isn't always obvious, and don't grow upset when someone doesn't inherently trust you and wants you to further your explanation. Understand that if they are listening to you, it's because they're trying to hear you out, not that they don't have an ego. And don't think that, by listening, they're necessarily agreeing, that you're necessarily saying some great truth. Many times it’s something cliché and hackneyed, and that just makes it harder to not just reply, “You need to write more.” It makes sense for a writer to believe in the reality he sees first, and for those of us who have been writing thousands and thousands of pages for many, many years, it can be incredibly insulting for someone to come up and start pushing their opinion without considering ours. Before saying you someone else is wrong, keep in mind that they are probably making the effort to not just write you off, and that it's possible they think you are wrong, but believe in giving you the benefit of the doubt rather than pushing their agenda. They are setting aside their ego to consider an outsider’s perspective.

And please, for the love of God, do not insult me, give me your writing as example of greatness, and expect me not to feel pissed that I can't go, "Yeah, but that sucks." Don't give me a reason to be a bitch, I'm already trying hard not to.





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Monday, November 9, 2015

The Undue Importance on Number of Drafts

I like arbitrary guidelines when it comes to writing. Saying something like, “I have to delete 20,000 words,” or “I have to go through five drafts” takes off the pressure of determining if it’s ready until after I’ve already familiarized myself with the book thoroughly. I give them to myself all of the time, so when someone decides that they have to go through a certain number, especially having written for a long time, I consider it a good move.

Yet while I don’t criticize people for giving themselves a specific amount of drafts they must do (as long as they are aware and willing to admit when they’ve started to overwork something), I do think that this obsession and importance on versions is highly overused.

I tell the little fable about my three feedbackers at a writer’s conference. 

The first was an agent who said to me that while I could use a little more world-building, she loved my writing style and told me to send a letter to her coworker who represented the genre. “You can use my name,” she said.

The second was a writer who said that, though she would like to understand the setting better, she thought I was a competent writer and felt safe in my hands.

The third told me it as obviously a first draft.

“No,” I said simply.

“Is it finished? Yes? It’s your first book then. Your first science book then. Well, you don’t read the genre…” She spent probably seven minutes out of my little time with her running through her options, all the while, I was like, “Does this matter?”

If it reads like a first draft to you then it’s irrelevant if it actually is or not. End of story.

While living in L.A. several years ago, I produced a play that I wrote and directed. (Some people have their qualms against this hubris, but if you’ve ever tried to hire a responsible director for cheap, you know that it’s not always about ego.)

The lead actress approached me a day before the performance, claiming that I should have gone through more drafts. She hadn’t learned her lines, and she suggested it was because they didn’t make any sense. Now, this could have been true, but she obviously had a reason outside of maintaining high standards for the criticism.

I gave her no sympathy, saying, “It’s gone through five drafts. What confuses you?”

Upon hearing this, her tune changed. “Well, you should have told me what they meant!”

“I didn’t know you didn’t understand them,” I told her. “You’re very good at acting when you don’t know what you’re talking about. It was your job as an actress to make sure you knew what you were saying. If you really do feel that way, may I ask why you’re bringing it up now instead of while we were rehearsing them?”

She didn’t have an answer for that, so I basically told her tough shit, too late, go learn your lines.

What annoyed me most about that whole discussion, however, was how “it’s gone through five drafts,” was a legitimate argument. She seemed convinced that she was wrong, when, if someone had said that to me, I would have responded, “Then you should have done another one!”

Let’s disregard the fact that I could have been lying (I was not), but what a “draft” is isn’t well defined. By five drafts I could literally mean I changed five words. And even if it was the truth that I went through detailed, painful edits, if it didn’t make sense to her, it didn’t make sense. Why does the number matter? Of course, it’s likely that she knew she was in the wrong already and the only reason she shut down was because she knew her arguments were shaky, but it’s not like it was uncommon.

In a class called Page to Stage in my college, we would read scripts and go to theatre shows in Los Angeles to see them performed. One of these was a play written specifically for the theatre, which all but one student hated.

I said that it seemed the writer came up with a premise, didn’t know where to go with it, kept writing until it had run long enough, and then quickly ended it.

My professor said, “It has gone through twelve edits.”

“So?”

While people constantly claim that first drafts are always garbage, really having gone through so many drafts doesn’t mean it’s good, and sometimes even worse. No, I don’t agree all first drafts are terrible (though they’re bound to have at least a few mistakes the author would want to fix), but not only that, sometimes the first draft is better than the twelfth. Or the sixth is, or the third.

Anne Hathaway insisted on doing a huge number of takes (I heard 30) for her song in Les Miserables; they ended up using the fourth one.

If writing well was just about editing a lot, publishing would be a lot easier. “I want to see twelve drafts of this, stat!” But doing a good draft is about fixing errors, considering results, and judging the manuscript on quality, not work ethic. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a first draft or a millionth, what matters is does it work?


Now, of course it’s easier to criticize a person’s work ethic than their creative results, and many of us—myself included—want credit for all of the time we’ve spent writing, but it’s a continuing conversation that just needs to die down. How many drafts I’ve gone through should not change your opinion of the story. It does though, and it is a clear piece of evidence towards how “experienced” people’s choices are construed differently than the same choice by an amateur. Every time someone starts to focus on how many drafts you make, use it to consider how much trust is dependent on things outside of how you write, and note how much easier it is to judge a writer by numbers than by abstract quality. Then inform them it’s none of their business how many drafts you went through and get over it.




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Friday, November 6, 2015

What Do You Do When Fans Hate Your New Direction?

No, I didn’t receive hate mail. Not everything’s about me, despite the evidence. I’m not sure Stories of the Wyrd has established its current direction, let alone gotten a new one.

I’ve never read Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. From what I understand, it’s been going for about two decades now with a huge number of titles. It’s extremely popular and has been going strong since—I don’t know—its start I guess.

But back around 2006, apparently things took a turn for the worst.

When it started, it fell more under the category of paranormal thriller, a detective novel featuring murder and Blake’s attempts to understand the supernatural. People loved the characters and the underlying tone of romance. It was fairly popular.

Then Hamilton wrote the book Narcissus in Chains. The protagonist received a powerful boost to her supernatural talents called the ardeur. While it grants her great abilities, it requires her to have sex daily, sometimes even several times a day.

People had been complaining of the ease in which characters fall for Blake on a constant basis. It started to feel, according to them, that the author had fallen too deep in love with her protagonist and was flopping men her way left and right. Now with the ardeur, the books became more erotica than thrillers and it pissed off a great deal of fans.

Whenever anyone brings up the series now, it seems to be to discuss this change in direction. The people who want to talk about the books tend to be those who want to bitch.

However, the sales of the series—even though about ten years have passed since the decision—have not waned, or at least much, and there are many fans on Goodreads and in Hamilton’s presence that compliment the story line with great love.

One day the author gets onto a forum discussing her books, which she claims never to have done, and finds people bitching heavily about the change since Narcissus. Obviously hurt, she goes to her blog and posts “Dear Negative Reader,” a letter to those who hate the series new direction, telling them that she is sorry, but they shouldn’t waste their time reading something they don’t like. There are plenty of books in the sea.

This, not surprisingly, served to piss readers off even more.

However, despite the adamant hatred of the new plotline some people have, it doesn’t seem to have damaged the books’ ability to be published, sold, and enjoyed. In fact, many people joked that they weren’t at all interested in the series until after it changed towards a more erotic world.

Hamilton was clearly in a controversial situation and, I feel, any wrong move at that juncture could have destroyed her career.

Refusing to acknowledge a choice wasn’t successful for fans can lead to them abandoning ship. Like Hamilton says in her letter, the fact that these readers had more fodder to bitch about from the books after Narcissus suggested that they were still reading, and she reminds us her sales haven’t dropped. What would have happened, however, if it did cause her readers to stop reading? Would she have felt differently if, upon first receiving Narcissus, everyone refused to buy a new book? Would she have gone back to the way it was?

It also begs the question of writing for the writer versus for the readers. We know that books that just cater to readers tend to be, well, terrible. But it is still, in many ways about them. When I read about this conflict, I began to wonder what I would have done if in Hamilton’s shoes, especially if it proved to lose me fans. Is doing just what people want a good choice? Is being stubborn and headstrong any better? Obviously, like everything, so what is that balance?

I decided a few things then and there.

1. Writing is for the me, publishing is for the readers.

While I get reward from having written, and I write to enjoy myself, I produce work because I want people the feel the same way that I did when I was touched by a piece of literature. I don’t write just for me, I write to get published, and I published to make people feel, to think, to care.

Also, because it would be nice to get some sort of financial support.

The way I see it, if I want you to be affected by it and if I’m going to ask for your money, I have to take my reader’s desires into consideration. Their criticisms are important to determine how to make something that will influence them in the way desired. I don’t believe in writing off their concerns just because I want to do things my way. However…

2. I don’t believe in sacrificing fans for my enemies.

When it comes to bad reviews, books that have taken their naysayers too seriously tend to destroy the series. Clockwork Angel attempted to legitimize the love interest’s sarcasm, arrogance, and anti-social behavior through a plot point, explaining he wasn’t really that way, he just had to act that way. On speculation, I believed that the idea was put in because of the criticism in the author’s more famous books, The Mortal Instruments, in which the love interest—also sarcastic and narcissistic—was accused of being a jerk and a misogynist. Well, I loved Angel because of Will, and when I was told the things I loved about him wasn’t really who he was, a little part of my love died. From the reviews of the later books, I believe that this plot point didn’t make anyone who didn’t already love Will like him any better, and those who did like him were just sort of disappointed by the new information.

But what do you do if your enemies are your fans? What do you do if a choice you made polarizes your fans into two groups?

You might have to choose one or the other, or maybe you might try to compromise. Trying to make both parties happy will force you to challenge yourself and be your most creative. On the other hand…

3. Pandering to readers never works.

I believe that fiction is preferable to daydreams because of the concreteness of the world. Unlike flights of fancy, we can’t change the world to suit us. We are more able to experience intense, negative, and undesirable emotions, which allows our pleasure to be greater. Hamilton has a point in saying books should make you a little uncomfortable, because if we just wanted to be in a safe place, we’d stay in our minds.

If readers realize that loud criticism can affect the books, it makes that world a little less real. You can’t just make changes to make readers happy. They want those absolute rules to push against. Taking their criticism, I believe, should be done subtly and in secret. If applied correctly, all they should know is that they’re enjoying the story more.

Also, sometimes readers don’t know what they want. Like the child who asks for a cookie before dinner, the writer often has to deny her audience what they ask for a more fulfilled and maybe even satisfying payoff later. The things we hate most about our stories is often what makes us love it. I realized after watching the principle get eaten alive by possessed students on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a moment that upset me to physical illness, that because things like that could happen, and because things like that did happen, when things ended well, when things were happy and calm, it was so much better.

4. You shouldn’t write ideas you’re tired of.

Even if you want to write for the readers, writing something hackneyed, something you have no ideas for, something you’re just not interested in doesn’t benefit anyone.

She had been doing the series for many years by that point, probably over ten books in it. Her trying to only write what people liked about the prior books, especially when she wanted to be writing something else, it would directly affect what came out. It’s a part of artistic integrity to not just do what you know works.

5. You’ll get nowhere if you don’t take risks.

There’s a place for tried and true method of writing, but that is mostly for the author to determine if he wants to be there. He’ll never be taken seriously if he follows all the rules, writes the standard perfect plot structure, features a white, male protagonist, and never pushes the envelope, but there are those who would like to read him.

Taking a chance is the only thing that will make writing pop. And you know people will reject it at first. Sometimes you have to stand your ground and keep at it until people stop balking at change. Sometimes you were wrong, and it’s hard to tell the difference.


Let’s face it, the different direction may have lost her fans, and many people feel her writing is less “serious” and more pulp fictiony now, but I think it’s up to her to determine what she cares about. While I believe, from what I’ve heard, Hamilton has fallen in love with her characters, given her protagonist a silver spoon, and cares more about the people in her story than the story itself, I think she made the right decision in going in a direction she was interested in and then standing her ground. She had a hard decision to make, and while her fans are pissed, I think there is something to be respected for it.




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Monday, November 2, 2015

Casual Vernacular isn’t Just for Dialogue

When it comes to phonetically writing out accents, the readers are divided. Illustrating a character’s speech with too many apostrophes and uncommon conjunctions can be very distracting, and often does not encourage the viewer to hear it in a natural way.

On the other hand, when a writer commits to it, you can get used to it, and it can be a far more entertaining read once you get the hang of something different.

The book Dustlands, a young adult dystopian novel, features a first-person narrative from the perspective of an uneducated girl. The author doesn’t use quotations, writes in first person, and has lines like, “Because everythin’s set. It’s all fixed. The lives of everybody who’s ever bin born. The lives of everybody still waitin to be born.”

The major comment on the book is this style, and many are agreed: it’s jarring at first, but most grow accustomed to it.

Mark Twain, Uncle Remus, and A Clockwork Orange is notorious for this, and many books, done with moderation, have enhanced their atmosphere by including just a little bit of natural twang.

That is, however, not what I’m talking about.

When I say “casual vernacular,” it could reference accents and unconventional conjunctions, but mostly it talks about the little things—sentence fragments, starting with an “and” or “but” or “or,” “me and” instead of “and I.” You know, basic grammar rules that many discard in actual conversation.

Writers, when giving advice, will often harp on proper grammar, and there often is some validity to it. The mistakes we get away with when on the time-restricted activity of oral conversation are not appropriate when in the competitive field of writing. We believe great writers to have precision and a better control over their language than the average person and will hold our authors to a higher standard.

Plus, it actually does lend to better control over the language; knowing and implementing the rules can gain more trust from the audience as well as give more options to your palate. In the same way that knowing and accurately applying to difference between “walk” and “amble” can make both words more effective, so can knowing the difference between an ellipsis (…) and a dash (—).

On the other hand, we shouldn’t ignore that grammar is an easy method of proving superiority of writing ability. I can’t convince you that I can write wonderful characters in a sentence, but I can show off all of my grammar knowledge. Sometimes grammar isn’t criticized because its effective, but just because the speaker is showing off. Adding in the fact that sometimes technically correct sentences will sound strange to the local ear, it makes sense that just because someone fixates on proper structure doesn’t actually make their advice useful.

I would even argue that being technically correct and formal can become a huge mistake commonly portrayed by beginning writers.

If you read a lot of “first books” and unpolished fiction, you might notice a trend in having an explanatory tone of voice. Many writers will attempt to subconsciously work from a camera’s P.O.V., the voice of the narrator being fixated on being clear and accurate. Instead of having atmosphere or influencing the reader emotionally, they attempt to describe events unemotionally, in chronological order, without the other senses like smell or feeling. It sounds almost like a textbook.

The narrator has no opinions. It does not want to sway the audience by telling them what they should feel. Instead, it lays out the events in a precise manner—“He pulled out a three inch blade with his left hand, walking two steps forward towards his son, Jonathan.”—and will stop the pacing of a moment to explain something that no character would be thinking about at that time, destroying the tension of a little girl fleeing from a monster to go into this explanation that she didn’t use the word daddy because she considered it to be childish and she wanted to be an adult, which is why she stole her mother’s high heels that one time, all in the course of three seconds when she’s about to be devoured.

These stories often have the opposite issue of the beginning writer who tends to overwrite, (What has two thumbs?) the ones who focus on voice enough that they may not be delivering actual information as much as describing grass nicely. But instead of being too poetic, the explanatory writers are so intent on being clear that they forsake inflection, atmosphere, tension, feeling, or perspective.

They believe this is a good thing. “I don’t want to tell the readers how to feel. I want them to decide for themselves!”

Which is a legitimate desire. You can make the objective and formal narrator work for you, and it’s definitely something to be considered when you’re feeling inclined to write that way. It’s important to never just disregard your instincts simply because it is a similar instinct to what other people have, or because other people do it poorly. A writer who focuses on an objective description of events can utilize it to enhance their book immensely.

But it’s hard. Sometimes it’s not worth it, and it’s definitely a question of do you do it because it’s best or because that’s just what you happened to have done and you don’t want to change it?

It’s one of those things that I would recommend having a reason for doing outside of it could work. Telling events in a cold, formal manner can make those moments feel remote, be harder to relate to the characters, and not influence the readers emotionally, only intellectually. It is exactly the difference between watching a movie about an event versus a documentary. That may be way you want, but acknowledge what is actually happening and be honest about the reward. If you don’t see an actual benefit, realize that it’s much easier and often more enjoyable to write something with a voice.

When discussing grammar rules, some writers will argue that breaking them is a poor choice. You must speak properly when writing. There definitely is a higher expectation of grammar when it comes to the written word, and ignoring that standard can make you look like you don’t know what you’re doing. But I believe that restricting yourself to doing what is “technically correct” versus what is actually done is foolish. There are so many methods to creating ambiance, voice, and conveying meaning portrayed through officially improper writing, and it would be foolish to limit ourselves from using them just because some book says you’re technically not supposed to. Especially because most of us know those who write so correctly that they sound like English is their second language. Writing perfect grammar doesn’t mean people are going to enjoy or respect your book any more so than if you had written how you speak.

When you put it like this, most people will agree with you. I’ve gotten in several conversations about it which usually ends in their understanding of my view. But then, they add, “I think that applies more to dialogue.”

I don’t. And while I would agree that you can get away with more in dialogue, and you might even want to be more “wrong” in conversation than you’re even naturally inclined, I do not believe that using realistic vernacular in even a third-person narrative is a bad thing. In many cases, I think writers need to let themselves be less formal when it comes to description.

It depends on what you’re going for. In many high fantasy novels, the formal way of writing makes the reader feel like they are in a different time and place. Writing casual vernacular would modernize it and actually destroy the atmosphere. Sometimes you want to keep your characters at a distance, being objective and cold towards the protagonist illustrates his isolation and loneliness. It might be interesting to tell a story as though the narrator was a historian, or even the main character looking back on the events in an objective manner.

Therefore, I am, under no circumstances, suggesting that formal and technically correct narration is a bad thing in itself. It is, however, not the only choice, and it should definitely not be considered the default option. It can do great things when used in the right context, but most times, it’s very, very boring.

By applying the way we actually talk to the narrator’s voice, you have far more options in how you inform the audience of something.

Why start a sentence with a conjunction? I mean, isn’t a conjunction like “and” and “but” a connection of two thoughts? Doesn’t that mean it doesn’t make sense at the start of a sentence?

Only looking at it from a technical standpoint. From a tonal and psychological one, starting with a conjunction can completely change a thought, and even help clarify it. It implies evolution of thought, can link two sentences together without hurting the duration of the action implied by the length of the sentence, can help the reader compartmentalize complex and lengthy ideologies, and allows for lists of long actions. Why have a sentence fragment? It too implies evolution of thought and can help reader compartmentalize. It also helps the writer have more control length of sentence, allowing for shorter ones and segregating/emphasizing their points without confusing people into thinking you’ve changed subjects.

Mostly, however, it implies a humanity to the narrator. Even if you’re writing in third-person omniscient, where the narrator is never actually seen or described as a character, giving it an opinion, letting it describe a chair as ugly, a man as a douchebag, or just have its own take on words can bring out your personal color and perception, taking dull moments of necessary events and making them about communicating with a human being rather than a relay of information.


Do not be pedantic when it comes to technical grammar. Consider first and foremost the benefit of the decision; you will never prove that you are a good writer by complaining about the use of the word “anyways” or that you can’t “whisper loudly,” only that you are a frustrated one. Always be open minded to the real world, and consider making your narrator more than just a textbook spewing out information. If your story lacks a voice, consider, maybe, hearing how people really talk and focusing less on how they should be.