Monday, August 22, 2016

10 Things I Learned about Writing from Dungeons and Dragons



Dungeons and Dragons has been an obsession of mine ever since I actually got more than one friend. The unfortunate thing about the game is that it’s the sort of thing a player has to learn by doing. Doing, furthermore, with people who already know what they’re doing. It’s hard to sit down and just read the book, the rules being way too complicated to really fathom in a theoretical form.

In my late group, I had my complaints, as I’m sure all do. But towards the end, the experience was overwhelmed by grievances with little positives to make up for it. Part of the problem was our Dungeon Master, a man with the body of a stereotypical thirty-year-old nerd and the mind of a stereotypical ten-year-old boy.

Now, I must clarify right here and now that I am judging him. I judge him because I’m bitter, but
I do not necessarily judge others for what I judge him. It is that special brand of judging that we do when we want to be judgmental and does not always apply to others. Certainly not ourselves.

Anyway, needless to say, the game had its problems. And part of the problem stemmed from his refusal to let anyone else DM. Of course, he was far too passive-aggressive for an actual argument, so instead he’d intentionally mess with the game as much as he could under the guise of “playing his character.”

Which meant that for six hours once a week for over three years, I was face level with this man’s improv’d psyche. But I have a lot to thank him for; it was a direct view into the writer’s mind, uncensored, unedited, too quick (and egotistical) for there to be any room to hide motivation.

Over the years, from his mistakes, I learned several important things about how to deal with an audience.

1. Treating readers like they’ll be hostile will make them hostile.

His games were successful because no one tried to make them fail. The group pandered to his fantasizes, accepted what he threw at them, and hardly ever attempted to fight against the grievous wrongs he deliberately punished them with.

Once upon a time a fellow member attempted to DM a game. Not only did she have to contend with Mr. Dungeon Master himself, but the rest of the group, because unlike their respect for our Long Living King, they thought she was an idiot.

The story began with everyone in the town disappearing. Mr. DM robs a bank. The game lasted only a few weeks.

After the woman quit, Mr. DM took charge again. He started it off with everyone from the town disappearing. No one robbed a bank.

Now, of course, if called on it, he would claim it was a matter of skill, not the power of a friendly versus hostile audience.

 Yet, he seemed terrified of what would happen if we did, in fact, become hostile. He would make super powerful NPCs to stop and lecture people from doing what they wanted, his fear that they would destroy the game by, oh say, robbing a bank. When he didn’t understand a the player’s motivation in doing something like taking a useless but entertaining object from a treasure split, he would assume it was sabotage and punish them.

The more afraid he became of his own medicine, the worse he got. People started abandoning the game. After years and years of playing together (the group having formed long before I got there), these childhood friends started to hate each other.

They didn’t quit when there were just overbearing Christian overtones or unbalanced power gaming or favoritism or passive-aggressive punishments. Those were there since I first came. The real issue came from the “narrator’s” defensive hostility towards his audience.

HOW THIS AFFECTS WRITING

Of course, being treated like a traitor as a player is much different than being looked at like an idiot as a reader. Yet, there are things that we can take from it.

A narrator behaving like the audience is the enemy could be funny—as long as the audience perceives it as intentional. However, sincerely treating the reader she’s trying to hate the story will lead to an undesirable conflict, that the reader will, of course, side with herself on.

If the writer constantly explains the joke, or prematurely rationalizes a character’s actions, or gives the attitude that he doesn’t trust the reader to understand, be patient, or see the world like he does, she’s not going to enjoy herself. Over-explanation or an insecure condescension never reads well.

2. The need for a balance of satisfaction and frustration.

The players had to walk for a “year”. Our town’s wizard was dead, we were low level, and even when we came up with ways to teleport, Mr. DM told us it wouldn’t work. There were no towns in between ours and the next, and, for some reason, we had absolutely no way of contacting anyone outside of that singular wizard. So, when the inevitable disaster happened, we lynched the town leaders for not thinking ahead and left.


It was pretty boring. We were being controlled by bossy NPCs, we couldn’t buy any items, the game balance was so skewed that bonuses from leveling up meant nothing, and the only goals we could make for ourselves was to get to where we were headed. About three months of real time later, we arrived.

And a giant beast walked by and destroyed the whole town.

What was strange is the actual joy that seeing the city’s skyline had for us. The players were actually rejoicing. We truly, honestly felt the accomplishment. We were proud and relieved. There was a catharsis, there was an end. And before we could even see the fruits of our labor, he tore it away from us.

I stopped playing that very game.

HOW THIS AFFECTS WRITING

Like regular stories, this frustration directly created that sudden joy. For such a long time we didn’t get what we wanted that we it actually came, it was a greater pleasure than it ever would have been if it’d been easy. Refusing to give people what they want—the lovers together, an answer to a question, the crap beaten out the villain—will make it all the sweeter when you give them what they want.

That is, unless you don’t give them what they want.

It is important to note that many great books have ended this way. There is a place for it. But it is also something that needs to be used wisely.

In the case of the town crushing giant, it was a mistake. The benefit of the year long walk was that feeling of relief at the end, but it, in itself, had no merit. He taught us quickly that if we worked really hard, dealt with the agony (of boredom) and kept working towards our goals, we would get… huge disappointment.

If the rest of the story had been enjoyable—the reader’s frustrated because the characters aren’t together, but there’s a hell of a lot of action sequences and humor to keep us entertained—it might have been okay. We would have still had something left to “live for.” But when our only life was about the goal, and he established that he was never going to give us what we wanted, there was no point in playing.

Having a good balance of satisfying and frustrating the audience leads to the widest variety of feelings, having a bad balance of being too giving or too withholding makes no one care.

3. Metagame physics.

Sometimes it makes sense to split treasure loot outside of the game. Sometimes it can be the best way to avoid arguments if we discuss plans with players whose characters are technically in another room. Sometimes looking up items to buy instead of asking what the shop keep has saves time and the DM’s mind. Yet, on the whole, metagaming is no fun.

The Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook describes metagaming as the players making decisions with knowledge that they are playing a game. The example it uses is something like, the characters come to a portion of the dungeon where there is no clear path to go onward. Metagaming is where the players say, “Well, there has to be a lever somewhere because the DM wouldn’t have this end as a dead end,” versus saying, “There has to be a lever because the gnomes who made this wouldn’t have it as a dead end.”

Metagaming takes out the imagination of the world, and it was something that not only did the DM do, but encouraged. Mostly when it benefitted him. When a player would try to explain his actions by saying, “But my character doesn’t know that,” he would respond with, “But you do.”

HOW IT AFFECTS WRITING

There’s a lot of ways that metagaming (metareading or metathinking) can affect a book, the most obvious being the narrator talking like it’s a fiction book.

“I can’t die! I’m the main character and we’re only two pages in!”

It can also be in the way a character makes decisions. If we were to take, for example, the ending scene from Captain American, we would see him careening down to the Arctic, about to crash land into a pile of ice where he will be frozen in time until he can be brought back in the future (i.e. today) for the purpose of being a part of The Avengers.

Of course, he knew nothing of this. All he knew was that the plane would blow up, possibly killing millions, and his only plan was for it crash in an uninhabited area. After setting all of this up, he sat there and had a sad conversation with his girlfriend on the other side.

My problem? He behaved like he knew it was hopeless.

In any other hero movie in which the writer, the audience, and the fans don’t know that the character is fated to die, or rather, know he isn’t going to die, the ending is very similar with one little difference: when all looks hopeless, they keep trying to fix it. Until the last minute they are rushing around, ignoring the ticking clock, pulling out wires and jumping in refrigerators, and finding some way to survive.

Captain America was not going to survive. Or, at least, he had to be frozen. And he acted like he knew it.

When the author knows what is going to happen, he will often telegraph it through the character’s behavior. Characters who are going to die suddenly get mean. The character is going to succeed, so he keeps trying. The character is going to fail, so he doesn’t try. The characters are going to end up together, so they get into a fight, etc.

It’s hard to prevent this because we often aren’t aware we’re doing it. Yet, like Dungeons and Dragons, metagaming is not as much fun as playing pretend, and, though there are benefits to knowing how things are going to turn out, it is much more believable if the characters don’t project it without their knowledge.

4. Reader’s goals are important.

As in the scenario with the year-long walk, players have goals of their own. The more goals they have, the better and the more fun it is for them.

In my late group, each time we came up with a goal, the DM would actively try to destroy it. We’d want to get vengeance, he’d have an NPC kill the villain instead. We’d want to be a thief, he’d have NPCs magically know when we stole and decide to give money to the other players. We’d want to build a house, he’d hand us one. Or destroy it. But, as with the walk, if we don’t have a goal that we don’t think we’re going to get, we don’t care.

HOW THIS AFFECTS WRITING

Readers have goals too. Yes, they are different than a player’s, being that they have no real control over what happens, but they do want certain events to transpire.

They’re usually very simple. In Twilight we want Edward and Bella to get together, in a Mousetrap we want to find out who is the murderer (and we want it to be the person that we thought it to be), in Taken we want to see the evil kidnappers butchered—as well as some sort of punishment for the idiotic friend—and in The Pursuit of Happyness we want to see Will Smith becomes successful.

Now whether or not a singular individual actually cares about any of those things is a different matter. Why someone does or doesn’t care about the high school love story of a sparkling vampire and his klutz is an important and interesting matter for the writer, but irrelevant on this point. The important thing is that people who don’t care—who don’t have any personal goals—don’t like the book. Those who do, do.

5. The importance of basic knowledge.

To describe Mr. DM as ignorant would be an insult to anyone who’s ever lived under a rock.

There are several instances that makes his naivety laughable (how voting works) and more that are just plain scary (how conception happens), but, for the sake of time, I’m only going to elaborate on one.

Everything quantifiable was “the biggest thing ever.”

In the normal DnD (3.5) you’re not supposed to surpass level 30. In fact, in some versions, as soon as a character hits level 30, he becomes godlike and ascends to heaven.

The last game I played I was level 93. My then boyfriend who had “double-class” was considered level 188.

This need for “big” (which I believe resides precisely in Freudian rational) affected every aspect of his stories, including the size of the planet we were on.

The planet had a circumference of 1 billion miles. To just illustrate this picture, the earth is 25,000 miles around. Let’s put that into numbers.

Imaginary-1,000,000,000
Earth-                    25,000
Sun-                     435,000

So of course the question of gravity came up.

Now it took a while because no one was trying to hurt the game, but it was a really big problem. Not just because he was making a hostile audience out of us, but because it was completely hard to believe and conceive.

And when we finally asked about gravity, he just ignored it, saying it didn’t matter. But it did matter, because the whole thing reeked of a child stating the biggest number he could think of.

His games had a hell of a lot of continuity breaks because he was completely na├»ve when it came to biology, physics, and life in general. He always wanted things to be the amazing and didn’t care for any ramifications or research.

HOW IT AFFECTS WRITING

His naivety is not that unusual. I had to look up how big earth was; I didn’t even have enough of a clue to guess. When it comes to a lot of aspects of life, we don’t know much. But the writer needs to know what he’s talking about if he wants the reader to feel safe in his hands. People do not need to know the answer to know if you are wrong. Your only real job is to look like you’re not making things up.

Now, again, in Dungeons and Dragons he had a little bit of leeway because it is mostly improvisation, yet he didn’t have to tell us how big the world it was; he decided it. He didn’t think it was important to know the actually size of earth because he just wanted it bigger than Earth.

And hey, it’s fiction, an author can make whatever he wants as long as he sticks to his rules.

Except a good book is a convincing book. It might be completely irrelevant that the planet is big and has no additional gravitational force, but it’s still going to bother the hell out of the readers. Something like that sounds like a child telling a story, saying, “He’s the strongest man in the universe! He’s a gazillion times stronger than Hercules!”

One of the things a writer has to deal with is that readers will reject something without knowing why. They don’t always give the benefit of the doubt, even if they want to. It is very common for them to not believe something and yet not be able to say what is wrong with it.

Details are extremely important in being convincing, and being convincing is extremely important in drawing people into your world. They may be able to get passed the fact that you didn’t consider your giant planet would crush people with the gravitational force, but it still doesn’t mean they won’t think you’re an idiot.


6. Moderating the death toll.

On this same point, moderation is everything. It was typical for him to claim wars had killed trillions of people.

Not only is this unconceivable (there’s only seven billion people on Earth right now), but unfathomable. It sounds made up, and the more it sounds made up, the less people take it seriously.

HOW THIS AFFECTS WRITING

Having large numbers like this has the same problem of telling instead of showing. Instead of making us feel something by word choice and events, he’d just express the horrors in the most obvious way possible. “A lot of people are dead. You should care.”

There’s a psychological theory that the more people there are in a tragedy, the less it influences us. Sure we care when a war slaughtered two trillion people, but, to us, it’s the same as a billion people, or a million people, or even 1,528 people. Not, of course, when I am comparing them side by side, but if I were to write a story about a battle that took the lives of 2,000 warriors, the picture is the same as if I said 4,000.

Moderation of death makes death more meaningful. Proximity also helps. The death of Spock is more horrible then the death of five redshirts.

Trying to get people to care takes talent outside of plain events. Authors (or DMs) will try to play our heartstrings by murdering people, but doing so more often reads as trying too hard.

7. Moderating powers.

Mr. DM tried to make us happy. But, unfortunately, he tried to make us happy in a way that would prevent us from actually having control in the game. He did so by giving us ridiculous powers, calling it “power gaming,” and then finding elaborate ways to make those powers mean nothing.

Why were we three times the level we were supposed to be? Because every time we got disheartened, he gave us Experience Points. He combated that by making every NPC five times the level they were supposed to be.

This immediately became an issue. Items stopped meaning anything, so people started hording their money, which made story conflicts too easily solved. “We have to sail across this sea? Well, I have a million gold. I’ll buy a boat.” He gave us powers like teleporting, but then had to deal with us teleporting. He solved these problems by having a huge shift in economy (“Well the only boats they have cost a billion gold.”) and just removing the ability to teleport where ever we went, which meant the power was completely useless.

HOW IT AFFECTS WRITING

If your character can teleport, how do you stop them from just teleporting away when crisis arises? Of course, the author can take a card from Mr. DM, but that’s rarely the best solution. Just saying, “You can’t,” is irritating and frustrating, not to mention a cop out.

It can be used to the author’s advantage, having the character not able to teleport until he finally smashes the item that stops him, leading to that satisfaction that we discussed earlier. But, the author can only do it a few times before readers catch on.

I can’t imagine writing for Superman for this very reason. He is practically invincible until he’s practically dead. Giving the character too much power makes it hard to have a reasonable challenge, and removing all his power still doesn’t solve the problem.

8. Falling in love with the wrong character.

Mr. DM had a hard time separating characters from players. Whenever we actually did “play our characters,” such as pretending to go through a grieving period, getting mad at someone, or picking an inane trait (I was a pixie obsessed with shiny things), he did not understand that we were playing and thought that we were metagaming. He’d wonder why we were really mad, wondered how we were trying to manipulate him, and do his best to get us to stop doing anything that might ruin his game.

It was worse, however, with him. As I said before, his “playing the character,” meant “having no self-control.” Because he did not fully understand the pretending part (possibly because it didn’t want to), he could not separate himself from his characters. He was his character, there was no pretend about it. This is a problem when he is controlling every NPC in sight.

The majority (and by majority, I mean all but a few accidents) we tied every battle. He would, abiding by his “big” demands, have a battle with an infinite number of orcs, and several high level NPCs on each side. We would fight until he got bored and then one side (or both) would run away, nothing changing.

See, no one could win, because either way he was losing. If we beat the villains, we beat the DM. If the villains beat us, the DM beat the DM. He fell in love with each of his characters which made it a problem every time they were a useless jackass.

HOW IT AFFECTS WRITING

Falling in love with any character is a problem in itself. However, the reason why I say “wrong” is that DnD specifically taught me the downfalls of siding with the character your audience isn’t.

Now, I’m not talking about motivation and understanding unlikable characters. Seeing the point of view of the enemy is an important part of a well-rounded story. When I say fall in love, I mean when the author is obsessive about a character the readers don’t root for.

Like actually being in love, writers tend to give gifts to the characters they admire, whether it be in the form of actual items, abilities, or luck. And it reads like that’s what they’re doing. We can get away with it better when it’s the protagonist. When the audience likes the character, they don’t mind as much. (Although, too much favoritism will become obvious and unconvincing. It is helpful to notice when falling in love with a character that the others aren’t because they will immediately turn on him.)

9. Maintaining house rules.

The worst part of the game was the constant rule bending. One minute we could spend three million gold without ramification, the next be asked, “How are you carrying that?”

Now we could give him the benefit of the doubt and say he just forgot, but remember, there is a specific pattern here. He constantly changed the rules to tell the players they couldn’t do something.

“House rules” or what I’m now calling “anything that the DM thinks he can change” are rules that vary from group to group. Constantly changing them when it suits destroys the believability of the world, especially when someone changes them to fit his needs.

HOW IT AFFECTS WRITING

In fiction, there are universal rules for things, whether it be the law of gravity or that vampires can’t come out in the day. By universal, I don’t mean absolute. There are just general rules and assumptions that people (at least those who know anything about the topic) just default to unless told otherwise.

These universal rules are up for breaking. If the characters were to, say, explain that they didn’t need air in outer space because they had special implants in their lungs, then fine. Most people would accept that.

The house rules, however, are not so easily changeable. These rules, being anything that the house has decided is a rule, cannot be broken without good cause. An assumed, pre-existing rule might change to make your world different or to fit in with your vision of the world, not necessarily to benefit you. But if you’ve established that’s how your world is to change it, it ruins the reality of things and makes you untrustworthy.

10. Stealing ideas is introducing competition for yourself.

Mr. DM introduced a detective. He smoked a pipe and looked like Robert Downy Jr. In the act of trying to describe him, he spent a long moment “thinking” as to what actor would be most similar in appearance. “But not like in Tropic Thunder,” he said pointedly.

The most innocent of us then turned and said, “Sort of like Sherlock Holmes?”

And he pretended to be surprised at the perfection of it.

We met Sherlock Holmes, Hercules, most of the X-Men (all by different names of course), the Greek gods, and pretty much anyone from a movie he’d seen recently.

One of Mr. DM’s talents was characterization. And I say that sincerely. Though he had trouble getting into the minds of his characters, he had no problem getting into their bodies. He was a good actor, and fun to watch. Except, and here comes the underlying problem, he was no Robert Downy Jr.

Not only did stealing ideas from other places make believing in his world even harder, but it also made him “follow their act.” Little problems with atmosphere and details became a hell of a lot more apparent. Even perfectly fine choices were wrong when they were trying to embody a previous idea.

Now I’m not entirely booing the use of other ideas. It is not only impossible to be completely original, but unnecessary. If an author writes for fun (and all authors who actually manage to write write for fun) then to refuse the use of ideas that inspired him diminishes the enjoyment he can actually have.

But there is a difference between using another idea and stealing it.

If Mr. DM loved Sherlock Holmes so much, he could have easily figured out the why, kept the basics, fix the mistakes, and made it his own. We love how Holmes is cocky, passionate about his work, and does not care about the means so long as he gets the ends he wants. We might even like the time period or the career. But even if you were to take a whole lot of things you could end up with a whole new story. House is a great television show for a reason.

HOW IT AFFECTS WRITING

I’d argue stealing ideas is much more tolerable in DnD than it is in a novel because Dungeons and Dragons is just for fun and on the spot. However, blatant character and concept snatching is something that takes an expert to pull off.

For regular writing, you want to be much more careful of plagiarism, not just because people hold you to a higher standard when you’re holding their hearts in your hands, but because when people know exactly what you’re trying to do, it’ll become much more obvious that you’re not doing it.


Dungeons and Dragons is a great game for any writer to try out, especially when interested in fantasy. That sort of unrestricted improv allows for the author to really sort through his ideas fast, thoroughly, and get reaction from readers without having to deal with any sort of agent.


Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll be free of angry critics, but you do learn a lot.




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Monday, August 15, 2016

I See the Glass Half-Empty, but Not a Drought

by Charley Daveler

I’m a territorial person. I like to bark at strangers who pass by, hide in my room when guests arrive, pee on things to mark them. You know.

Mostly, I feel most comfortable in “my” space. I suppose one of the reasons the Jackson Hole Writers Conference was less intimidating this year was because I knew the location, I’d attended the event several times, and I probably knew more people than most of my fellow writers.

Today I have no space. After leaving Australia, I camped out in my parents’ house for the summer in hopes to rebuild my savings before moving on again. Planning to leave in a few months makes it hard to settle, much more so when you consider the fact that I don’t actually have a bed right now. I’ve been staying in the R.V., the couch, and sometimes my brother’s room, depending on what was available to me at the time.

Even if I did have a place of my own where I could stash my stuff without fear of the gremlins shifting it about, moving, and preparation of moving, stresses me out beyond all belief.

I actually have more people to talk to this time around—all my high school friends having run off to oblivion, yet I like my coworkers—but I’m still holding back to attachment with anything. People, places, things. Everything will probably go, and I’m still left with the feeling I have nothing. I have my projects, and that’s about it.

The stress of living in a foreign country without truly trusting what my future would hold is gone. Work is fantastic, the nagging problems of potential mistakes have disappeared, and I feel a lot freer than I did even four months ago.

But I don’t seem to like anything.

Supernatural has been holding my attention decently, but not to the extent where I can pay all of my attention to it. In fact, I remember the oddity of an episode coming on and me thinking, “Wait, I actually want to hear what happens!” rather than just leaving it on for background noise.

Videogames don’t excite me. Books are pains to get through. Conversations, prospects of dating, future trips… Finishing some sewing projects have done better for me, but if I’m not absorbing myself in work or creativity, I struggle with caring about something. And most of my projects—the webcomic, the quilts, the painting—allow for a lot of thought while working, which seems to pull me back into the negative. And, unlike most writers, when I get angry or miserable, it doesn’t inspire my creativity, just makes it impossible to focus.

A few weeks ago I had a guy harass me in the typical obtuse manner. He wasn’t mean, just unrelenting, putting me in the awful position of trying to say no in a polite but clear manner. But when someone doesn’t want to understand something, they won’t, and even after he firmly was told I was uncomfortable, he merely apologized before continuing to behave in the same manner. I tried ignoring him, but it only led to late-night calls. Not even booty calls. The one time I answered, he asked to take me to dinner later that week. You couldn’t have waited until daylight? I ended up having to bluntly state that he had proven incapable of respecting my boundaries, to which he told me he understood. Then he argued with me.

I ignored him after that. The point seems to have been made, and I hope for his sake it has because I’m not sure I can play nice the next run around.

But I’m furious. I am angry at the way he made me feel, the constant pressure he put on me to “decide” if I liked him or not, the overzealous interpretation of any acceptance as affection, and the refusal to listen to anything I said. I felt helpless. I could either be an asshole—ignore him, perhaps tell him off—or I could play nice and be forced to be in more uncomfortable situations in which, despite his claims there were no expectations, I knew would cross the line the longer it went on. When I tried to tell the polite aspects of the truth—we had nothing in common—he tried to deny my reality and make it look like I was insane for being offended when he claimed, he “hadn’t thought that far ahead.” Like I was the nutjob for considering our compatibility so soon.

I could tell you hadn’t thought that far ahead. Your abundant crushes on every woman who walks the Earth is apparent to anyone in the same room as you. This not really giving a shit about who I actually am or your complete lack of vetting girls before choosing? Anyone who’s hot and willing, huh? Not attractive. Way to make me feel special.

I spent all day angrily running my mind through the things I could have said to him, how I could have responded as he acted like we were just “speaking a different language.”

A lot of my thoughts were insults. I felt inhibited by my need to take the higher ground and not point out that brushing your teeth is a good way to show a stranger you care. I felt helpless knowing he would argue with any of the obvious but unprovable speculations about his intentions. He’d deny any interest in me the second he found I didn’t feel the same way, and how do you turn down someone who won’t admit they’re asking you out? And you’d think you wouldn’t have to state his intentions, that you just say no, he’d argue it wasn’t what he’s doing, and you say, “Oh. Okay,” then go on your way. But it’s like they think they’ve tricked you or something, like, “She believes that I wasn’t hitting on her. Now’s my chance!”: “So do you want to go still?”

NO.

And they will try to kiss you if you do agree, as if your inability to tell them to fuck themselves (because you don’t want to embarrass or hurt them) is the same thing as changing your mind.

Even though it was over, I kept thinking about it. I hate being angry. I hate the negativity.

I’ve realized over time that pain is important. It’s a warning sign, it helps you predict future problems, and running over situations in your head again and again teach you how to better react the next time around. But sometimes you just need to let go. Live in the moment. I don’t know how to do that.

I was trying to go with the flow when I let him text himself from my phone. “I don’t like him, but does that really mean I need to shut him down immediately? Nah. Just live day by day.”

Yes, Charley. There’s a reason rejecting him immediately was your first instinct.

I consider myself a negative person, but an optimist at the same time. I may see the glass as half-empty, but I never fear being able to get more water. I truly believe things will end well, everything happens for a reason (even if that reason isn’t for your benefit), and I don’t mind seeing the flaws and puzzling out solutions.

But I’d like to let go of some of my anger. I’d like to think about good things. I’d like to feel joy more often. I’d like to get excited about television and books again. Mostly, I’d like to let things stop bothering me, stop worrying about the future, and tell a jackass off once and leave it at that. A coworker asks me often if I’m happy. I always say no.

“Why not?”

I shrug. I haven’t been happy in a long time. But I would like to be.

From now on I am going to…

1. Name two positives for every one negative thought I have.

2. Carry a water bottle because hydration benefits mood.

3. Snap a rubber band on my wrist every time I start to think of past conflicts.

4. Create a personal space in my current residence.

5. Find positive stand-up comedians (then judge them.)

6. Spend at least an hour out in the sunlight.

7. Do something outside my house each week.

8. Get my cat to forgive me.


I do believe that being angry is a choice, but I think that you have to replace it with something. I strongly hope I can find what that is.




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Friday, August 12, 2016

If You Could Successfully Mimic a Great Writer You Dislike, Would You?



My answer is already no, before you think I’m actually asking. But this is not a rhetorical question. Many of my friends and peers have told me to write like someone else in hopes of obtaining their success, and I’m curious as to the diversity of reactions authors give. How many writers would abandon their voice if they could write better with someone else's?

Even if I love someone, it doesn’t mean I want to write like them. Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, but he prefers urban and contemporary fantasy—supernatural that takes place in the real world, magic that almost could exist—and I much rather read about secondary-worlds and alternative universes, completely new cultures and laws of physics. I wouldn’t change anything about his writing as a reader—I am enamored with him as a reader—but if they were my manuscripts I’d written, there would definitely be different directions I’d want to go in, just because that’s who I am. Because my work represents me. It's not about only about affecting people, it's about affecting them in certain ways.

I get told to do things like George R.R. Martin a lot. While I am impressed with his writing and enjoy his books, his choices are so drastically against what I want to be writing I can only feel belittled when someone suggests his way is the best. And regardless of what I do, I don’t want anyone else to write like him either; in some ways his choices are successful because few others were doing the same. Personally, I’m starting to get sick of things where everyone dies, where trauma follows drama, where no one is ever happy. It’s great on occasion, but not every time. Not every fantasy book needs to be A Game of Thrones, and I don’t see the benefit of trying to homogenize them. I read Martin to read Martin, Gaiman for Gaiman, Rowling for Rowling, Rothfuss for Rothfuss.

In one case, I was told to write a prologue like George R.R. Martin, but found the criticisms given to mine could easily be said for A Game of Thrones’ as well. I felt like the critic was pushing the book’s reputation without thinking about what Martin had really been doing, without thinking what I was doing. He just assumed Martin was a better writer than me and by mimicking his choices, I’d improve. It doesn’t work like that.

The other day, I was working on a query letter and sent it to a friend of mine. He discussed the in-skimability of it, (is too a word) and gave some good reasons why it wasn’t as catching as it could be. It had been demoralizing considering I had written over ten completely different queries and kept returning to the third, but I saw his point and decided to make another version. As I worked and reworked the first sentence my eyes started to bleed and I couldn’t understand what I had written.

I sent another friend a text, asking, “Does this make any fucking sense to you?”

“Um… no.”

Back to the drawing board.

But she didn’t leave it at that. My friend, who I had long worked with creatively, who very well knew my feelings about, “Just write like…” criticism, told me, “Why don’t you try writing like Hemingway?”

Hmmm… Why don’t I just try writing like a writer that every college student has tried and failed to write like since the 1960s? I’ll get right on it.

Why don’t I just try to write like a writer who I’ve expressed a distaste for since you first started obsessing over him?

Why don’t I just try to write like a writer notorious for exposing great emotion through extensive description of inane objects and dialogue in the real world when I am trying to excite people by a single sentence summation of a completely fabricated world?

Hemingway is not the first writer I’d ask to help me pitch a science-fiction novel. I have to wonder if you had any other more specific authors in your arsenal. When telling me to write like someone else, how many other writers do you know about?

I respect him, I wouldn’t change what he’s done, but I’m not a fan. Fact is, even if I could emulate his style to a wondrous success, I wouldn’t. Not just because I want my own unique voice, but because I wouldn’t enjoy reading my own writing, I wouldn’t be satisfied with it, I wouldn’t like it period.

As much as fame and acceptance in the literary community would be nice—although, Hemingway has his share of critics—restricting myself to being simplistic because it’s impressive is just as much selling-out as begrudgingly writing a romance novel when you really want to be doing poetry.

Admittedly, I felt a little betrayed. I had asked her opinion because I respected it, she gave me the answer I needed, but then proceed to admonish me for the choices I made. I don’t know how she expected me to react to her statement; I had talked to her extensively about my main distaste for Hemingway has to do with the teary-eyed gushing of his fans, the insistence that his way is the only way. Despite that no one can mimic him without looking like that’s exactly what they’re doing, despite that he is the only one who has managed to write like him and get away with it (which suggests to me Hemingway’s success is the sum of his parts and cannot be emulated in pieces), I get told constantly that I should write like him. People ignore what I’m doing to spout off easy writing rules. They give me simplistic and often poor solutions for problems they haven’t thought through.

Why write like a writer you don’t enjoy reading? How could you do it well? It could also, possibly, propagate a shallow lie. Not necessarily in Hemingway’s case, but when a population starts to think a certain way, people who disagree need to voice their opinion to better encourage the truth. You’re more inclined to understand why the art works for some and not others, and if it’s a case of people just agreeing to fit in, the truth is more likely to come out after someone voices their disagreement.

People love studies about making an elephant’s painting a centerfold in an art exhibit, hearing all the fancy-pants critics pass adoring praises on the creator’s genius—the intention of the stroke, the conceptual meaning. The art world is rife with bullshit, and I think it’s the responsibility of every artist to take his own tastes seriously. Participating in something we don’t actively enjoy diminishes the opinions those who do like it, and wonks with our B.S. detectors.

I asked a while back if you could have the acclaim, the financing, the artistic freedom, and fan-base of E.L. James or Stephenie Meyer, but despised and trivialized at the same time, would you? Most answers obsessed over how those specific writers deserved it because they just were terrible, but the real question for me was if I could affect someone strongly in the intended way while alienating others, would that be preferable?

What kinds of writers do I really want to be like?

I know that Hemingway is not the kind of writing I want to be doing. Truth is, I’d love to be able to capture an emotion in an everyday moment like he does; I think he is a skilled and masterful author who does shocking things and makes it seem easy. But wanting his ability doesn’t mean I would use it in the same way. I am not a manly man. I’ve never been to war. I didn’t live post-war 1950s, didn't experience same cultures, the same problems, the same existential crises. I don’t have a larger-than-life persona. I’m not adventurous. Not a fan of the outdoors. I didn’t have a start in journalism. I have a vastly different view of the world, different interests, different desires, opinions, and personality. I am different than him, so it makes sense I wouldn't write like him.


It’s not to say we can’t learn from authors of all genres, or that I can’t apply any of Hemingway’s style to my own. But it is asking that when talking to writers, be careful of telling them to “just write like BLANK.” It’s insulting to the greats, for one, implying that it’s easy. It’s disingenuous to the individual, for another, telling them their own personality is a mistake and unappealing. There is room for diversity in literature… a lot of room. So when critiquing, there’s no reason to limit it to “Well, so-and-so doesn’t do it that way, so you can’t.” We need better reasons than shouldn’t. Personal reflection, reaction to the actual text before you, and being open-minded to what can be leads to more organic, more unique choices than to just try and copy someone else.

I love money. Fame would be nice, in moderation. Freedom brought by a good reputation would be excellent. But I write for a lot of reasons, and one of them is to express me, in my way, to my own satisfaction, and achieving success by being someone else doesn't interest me.



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Monday, August 8, 2016

Rejecting Artists and Other Individuals



“I hope you don’t regret your choice, and I wish you the best :)”

It was better than when I got cussed out for telling a guy he was being annoying.

Feeling rejected isn’t one of our most rational moments. It’s valid, it’s relatable, it’s natural, but the reasons and events we feel rejected for don’t always follow logic.

“You don’t want me to be your juror?! Why? What’s wrong with me?”

People’s poor reaction to rejection is probably the most universal experience in the human condition. You can learn to accept it gracefully, it does get easier with time, but we all know what it’s like to be hit with someone saying, “I don’t want you.” That makes it all the harder to say it yourself.

Writers ask me all the time how to deal with breaking the bad news to someone. How do we approach giving a bad review to a person who asked to rate it? How do we give our friend or lover or mom constructive criticism? How do we tell our cousin he can’t design the cover? How do we tell a freelancer they didn’t get the job? When we hate getting rejected ourselves, how can give it out? How would we like to hear it? Not at all, really.

The lady in question offered up her proofreading services some months back, contacting me via Facebook. At the time, I was mulling over whether or not I wanted to hire an editor or proofreader before submitting to agents, so I told her the truth: “My manuscript isn’t ready for that stage yet, but I’ll keep you in mind.”

She kept in touch since then, which I consider commendable. Had several factors gone differently, she made herself a forerunner in my options.

Except…

When the work did start to get to the point where I really starting to consider hiring a proofreader, I looked through her portfolio—a list on online books she’d worked on—I was not impressed. The first three had several errors early on. Subtle, nothing too distracting, but still there. It was entirely possible that the writer didn’t take her advice, but at that point, I don’t think it’s my job to do a second consideration for her if she didn’t check. Truth is, most freelance editors out there are still learning, starting their business with no professional experience.

That, for me, makes it more difficult to say no. As someone who was never very good at looking credible and following traditional paths, I respect those who do the same, and try and give them the benefit of the doubt as I would want. I myself have learned grammar, editing, and submission format from pure, unofficial practice and personal research. After writing every day for more than a decade, I’ve gotten good at it, but I don’t have the resume to show it. In fact, my writing resume is very thin despite how much I claim to know. It would be doing a disservice to my people to say, “You don’t have any experience in a publishing house, so you can’t possibly be good.”

I also knew, the more I read through this manuscript, that it’ll get rejected for its adverbs before its grammar. I’ve been working on it for years now, it’s in its eleventh draft, many people have gone over it, and it’s pretty damn clean. Not perfectly so; I found yesterday a weaker place, and I still come across some typos here or there—if I was self-publishing I would hire a proofreader. But, if I was self-publishing, I would hire a full-blown edit with content and copy editing as well.

Paying for a proofreader now would be a lot of work trying to find the right person and an excess expenditure that I think don’t tackle the real reasons an agent would pass me up. I do decent work even without a lot of polishing—my blogs undergo one or two reads before going up, and so are a good example of about how many errors I make without meticulous comb overs. If I got someone anal enough to say no to a typo on page thirty-six, there’s a lot of writing rules I don’t strictly adhere to long before that. I would argue my big words and confusing sentences are way more frequent. I would argue the fact it’s dystopian right at the tale-end of a fad would be reason enough to say, “NOPE.” So spending several hundred dollars polishing it just rang foolish.

I knew she was going to contact me in August because I informed her I had hoped to be done by then. Which is true, more or less. I find now I want to do one more overhaul of a middle scene—one I’ve always struggled with—but I’ve fixed all other important complaints I could do on my own. It’s at the point where I need to put it out there. I’m confident in it. There are obvious reasons it might not sell—mostly the whole genre thing—but that, at least, will not lead me to that painful point of, “Rewrite, resubmit, write something else?” I feel if it doesn’t do well in this form, it’s just not marketable enough.

Lastly, I am also moving to New York City (I know you’ve heard it before. But I’m avoiding boys right now; no last minute fleeing to Australia for me this time) in October and need every penny I can save.

I debated for a while what to tell her.

The Golden Rule is strange. How I want to be treated very much depends on the context. Do I want someone to point out an error? Do I want to be told why I’m being rejected?

Sometimes no. I mean, in the case of being turned down for jury duty, there’s no need for the insult. In situations that I am not trying to improve myself, just attempting to have fun or help a person out, sometimes I could do without the criticism. If I’m feeling sensitive, I might prefer form letter rejections for my writing—it’s nothing personal.

But with something like this? Yeah, I’d probably want to know that I got turned down because of a poor sample of my work on my website.

On the other hand, I had to wonder how much of it was on the offensive side. I’ve been rejecting people more and more in recent years and I know how easy it is to get attacked for saying no. I could feel a little bit of preemptive anger and couldn’t decide if perhaps saying, “I’ve looked at BOOK and there were some errors. Can you describe what the process of working with that author was like?” was a passive-aggressive attempt to put her on the defense.

Moreover, I don’t need the argument. When I looked through her work, it was months ago, and I don’t remember what the errors were specifically. Grammar is such a fickle beast with several different standards and flexibility, and arguing pedantics has always seemed like an egotistical waste of time. The issue is I don’t trust her to fill in the inadequacies of my own knowledge, and trust is a huge part of a successful edit.

A woman sometime back eagerly asked to read this manuscript for me. She was extremely sweet, quick, and dedicated. She also didn’t know what she was talking about. Mainly, she questioned common stylistic choices, like using a dash for an interruption. I found that a third of her critiques were outright wrong, one third were debatable, and the rest were correct, but often optional or controversial (like the oxford comma). Her best criticisms tended to be small, meaning I had to shift through the “truth” of each opinion for twenty minutes to find one “the” instead of “they.” I reluctantly ended up disregarding all of the notes because when she pointed out something that I had never really questioned, I couldn’t be sure that it was my mistake or hers, and it wasn’t always something you could look up, usually more abstract or subjective. I couldn’t trust her. I needed to spend too much time doing my own research to know if I should take critique or not, and it wasn’t yielding enough results to make it worthwhile.

If I’m going to fork over an arm and a leg for an edit, I want to be able to trust that you know better than me.

I didn’t want to make an enemy. I didn’t want to be insulted. I didn’t want her to feel like she had to defend herself. I didn’t want there to be any question that the answer is no.

I also knew that saying, “I have decided I am not going to hire a proofreader at this time,” would open me for attack. I don’t believe in explaining yourself, especially unsolicited, because it suggests insecurity in your choices and makes it easy to criticize. I chewed over my words carefully and told her, “Hi! [My writing’s] going well. Right now I've been considering my options and discussing things with people, and I've decided it's not best for what I want with this manuscript to personally hire a proofreader. I will think of you in the future though. Thank you!”

It’s true, if you’re wondering. If I consider hiring a proofreader again, she will be the first to cross my mind; that’s the power of self-promotion. I would just remind myself that I already passed her up for a reason. I will also remember her response to my no.

I was not surprised at her answer. It was, more or less, exactly what I was picturing. I was more miffed by the smiley face.

I find my life is a lot easier the more I accept people are going to take rejection poorly, and instead do what I consider right by both of us whether they like it or not.

What do you do when someone approaches you and it’s not in your best interest?

-Be clear the answer is no.

I’ve learned to use the actual words “sorry” and/or “no.” Everything else can be misinterpreted. They, however, are pretty harsh, so “will not” and “decided against” are good second choices.

-Don’t explain too many reasons unless specifically asked.

Vagueness tends to result in acceptance. “It’s not best...” can’t be argued with and doesn’t illicit an immediate question other than a blanket why.

When a person solicits more reasons for your decision, I think they deserve to understand what happened, but if they don’t, I personally think it is better to take care of myself in that situation and not needlessly borrow trouble.

-You can make it about yourself to make it hurt less for them—but expect to be attacked. Or you can make it about them, be more hurtful, but possibly help them and be left alone. The right answer is different for each context.

Contrary to common sense, keeping your mouth shut and being nice is somewhat of a selfish action. By continuing to be polite, you are more likely to be abused, but are less likely to leave them with a lingering hatred. They are far more likely to insult you once and not come back than if you were rude back.

People use anger to soothe their emotional pain. We are more likely to take it out on someone who won’t fight back as well. If you’re dealing with an asshole who insults you first, you’re more likely to back down out of self-preservation. If the person takes fault, however, you’re more likely to agree.

Doing right by them could be conveying the full truth of your decision, but that means you’re more likely to end up in some drama. They’re more likely to be angry with you, to argue with you, and even go out to start a feud, but they also will learn something from the experience and be able to solve the problem for the future.

I often suggest in critiques to make it about you to minimize hurt feelings—“I wasn’t rooting for the protagonist, and it’s hard for me to invest in a book where I don’t want the main character’s success.”—but that allows for them to write you off—It’s just you after all. In a criticism of someone else’s work, it doesn’t matter because they’re the one who it affects, and it’s likely that they will realize your point after mulling it over for some time. But when it’s your work and your decision, you don’t always need to be criticized for your choices just because you don’t think someone is best for the job, so you might decide not to make it about you—“I’m not hiring a proofreader right now,”—and give them room to call you an idiot.

-Try to remember you have the right to do best for you, and their anger isn’t personal.

Surprisingly, I feel obligated to take care of people. I want to hire them. I want to explain my reasons for rejecting them. I want them to do well. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was left feeling more distraught than they were about the whole situation.

“You don’t owe these people,” I’m told a lot.

You know that, but it doesn’t necessarily help. Feeling rejected isn’t logical.

I’ve had to be the bad guy a lot lately, but it does do one thing for me. The more I have to reject others, the more I realize how impersonal it is. How they have to do right by them, and just because working with you isn’t the best choice doesn’t mean they hate you, they look down on you, they’re laughing at you, or they even think you’re bad at what you do. Most times, I reject people because of personal reasons. I genuinely decided against hiring a proofreader. I am not looking to date. I have a different vision or different tastes.


I liked this proofreader. She was friendly. I respected her bravery and work ethic. When I told her no, I didn’t see it as rejection… until she criticized me with a smiley face.



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Friday, August 5, 2016

So I Have a Winner and an Idea! Good News or Bad News?



The winner of my H.G. Wells quilt is a young man by the name of Chance. He has already been contacted and accepted the quilt.

Full-disclosure, Chance is a friend of mine who I had to strong-arm into submitting. On one side, his winning is nice because I don’t have to pay shipping. On the other, I prefer when people who I don’t know—as in the last few giveaways—win because I feel it is more to the heart of the giveaway.

I started these partially to self-promote, but also because I like making things and don’t like having them around the house. It is nice to be able to do something creative, have it go out into the world and not have to look it anymore.

I am not surprised the quilt was won by someone I knew. What I am more shocked about was the huge incongruence in the number of hits on the post itself and the actual submissions. I won’t give numbers, but when I say a grossly larger number of people visited the post versus those who actually entered, I do mean gross.

It suggests to me something needs to be done differently. Was the how to enter confusing? That has happened in the past in which people thought they submitted and hadn’t. Was it that no one wanted to commit to the social media requirements? Did people just not want to give me a mailing address? Did they just want to look? Was I being skeezy?

I understand avoiding things irrationally like the best of them, but I’m not positive why someone would be interested enough to figure out what had to be done and then decide against it without reason.

For next giveaway, I’m going to add a “One Free Entry” option and see if that changes things.

But the giveaway was not a bust. I didn’t get many Facebook likes or Twitter followers, but I did receive some subscriptions to my newsletter and followers on my blog, which was really want I wanted. So I call it a success.

It’s an expensive proposition, the quilts costing anywhere from 60 dollars to 100 to make. It would be more effective to just hand the money over to Facebook. However, I make the quilts because I love to so the money really isn’t going towards promotion. And I feel the giveaway has long-term potential. I like offering it.

For December’s quilt, I should be hopefully settled after my move to New York in October, but who knows. I am going to try very hard to stay on schedule now. Moves affect me more than I realized, and for last January, being in Australia really threw me for a loop. I’m not sure I’ll be able to find a solid place by then. I’m not sure what’s going to happen at all. I’m pretty much winging it.

Next time, I plan not only on meeting my deadline, but advertising the quilt prior to raffle days, and doing a better job of preplanning the image. I’ll have some designs up first before even beginning to sew.


If you are interested in having a quilt made of a specific author or book, let me know through Twitter, Facebook, email, or even Instagram. It must be in the public domain (or you hold the copyright), but other than that I am open to all ideas.



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Monday, August 1, 2016

Deadly Sins: Two Out of Seven?




Watching stand-up comedy to put me in the mood for better jokes. I’m still waiting for it to kick in, but I have hopes. I’d take a seat if I were you though.

Unlike most writers who pull from pain and misery, I work a great deal better when in a euphoric state, which doesn’t happen very often. High energy makes my brain move too fast for my overzealous censor and some weird shit comes out.

I pick up on emotional energies around me, mimicking the attitude of someone I’m watching. Another person can pump me up more than nicotine gum chewed by a non-smoker, but it can also cause me to crash. Because I’ve been avoiding socialization—for the very reason that other people have such a strong effect on me—I’ve been wallowing in a stagnant, resentful exhaustion.

In the last few months, I’ve been filled with anger. It wasn’t directed towards anyone specific—although there have been a few men who tried to forcefully insert themselves into my life at just the wrong time and got the full blunt of it—just a feeling that lingered below all the others. The moment I got tired, I lost my focus, or did anything that didn’t supersede my attention, all my energy was sucked into finding some negative memory to rehash.

It took me a while to figure out why I was doing it. I, of course, thought it was specific to the situation I obsessed over. Why did I let them affect me so much? Then I reconsidered the lowest common denominator. Truth was, I got mad every time I got bored. I was getting angry because I didn’t know how else to entertain myself. Among other reasons, obviously, but it came from a deep dissatisfaction in new experiences. Which happened because I was avoiding new experiences.

I thought it was strange that I exhausted myself with this feeling because I love my job, get paid well, I get along with my coworkers and bosses, I am getting very excited about what my book has become, and I’m looking forward to the future. I’m moving to a new city in October, and should have an optimistic outlook.

But I can’t stop seething with resentment. About nothing.

I’ve decided a couple of things.

I will not feed the beast. There are certain things that I know will incite rage in me. Dating, right now, is a big one. Reading about relationships, gossiping about people wronged, pouring over articles on stalking and Tinder… Having a doomed relationship meet its expectation, I struggle not to shame myself for not accepting it sooner.

There are some topics or individuals that I intentionally seek out to get my blood boiling. I’m going to knock that shit off now.

I’ll expect happiness. Most of my favorite books, T.V. shows, movies, and other kinds of stories were off putting, boring, uninspiring at first. Partially because it takes some time for the information to become meaningful, partially because it takes some time for it to hit its groove, but mostly because commitment and faith are key to enjoying yourself. Having the expectation to like something, to have fun, being positive all allows you to invest your emotions with greater commitment, which always leads to a better payout.

Instead of being generally pessimistic, I’m going to try to like things.

I’ll won’t accept my exhaustion. I always blamed fatigue for… pretty much everything. I don’t like the way I hold myself, I don’t like procrastinating. I don’t like not being interesting. I just want to make people laugh. But I’m always too tired.

Now that I work at three a.m. and get home at one, I’ve actually started to feel more energized than normal when awake. But I’ve been sleeping all of the time. Right now, as I try to meet my daily requirements, I blame my inability to tell a good joke or talk about something I actually care about from a ten-hour shift, but there’s always excuses, aren’t there?

I’ve started copying stand-up comedians’ movement. They always are putting on a show in each nuance, their gestures specific, calculated, meaningful. My mind has always separated itself from my body with a pretty distinct wall, and I’d describe my physicality in one way: lazy. What’s the easiest method of getting from point A to point B? A boyfriend once characterized my jaunt as a “Charlie Brown Walk.”

Accurate; I never forgave him.

Today was the first attempt at the formerly obnoxious advice of having a positive outlook, but so far, so good. Maybe not from your standpoint, but that’s probably because you’re a pessimist. I’m not allowed to be anymore. 



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