Friday, June 29, 2018

The Avid Stripping of Writers’ Personalities



“Observant and unobtrusive is not who you are,” I told my friend after she asked me to read her writing sample. “You are loud and opinionated. You are in people’s faces. You take presence in a room. You are funny. You are insightful. You are passionate. You are not ‘neutral and objective.’ You know you’re a genius and I know you’re a genius, so why are you so hesitant to show that?”

Amongst our group in high school, she had a bit of a reputation for snobbery when it came to things like music and literature, the sort of person who would dislike a band because it grew popular. I love her deeply, but over time we’ve had some clashing of opinions on what constitutes good art.

I don’t take much heed in reputation, and I really can’t stand when someone likes to like something because of the way it makes them seem.

She refuses to read Stephen King because ‘it’ll affect how she writes.’ She won’t read Hunger Games because after reading Hemingway, ‘everything is lackluster in comparison.’ Later, she admitted to me that, "No body likes to read," and I would put money on the belief that she’s never sat down with The Old Man and the Sea on a leisurely summer day.

A screenwriter, I once asked her opinion on what a screenwriting teacher had once told me. The professor in question hadn’t actually written a full-length script, his claim to fame working as a spec reader for Disney, choosing which scripts in the slush pile to pass on to the big guns. A fellow student wrote the lines:

“She is running late, headed to the airport. She hails a taxi.”

…to which he said that you should not ever put in the direction something that isn’t easily shown. Makes sense. Instead of saying, 'heading to the airport,' it’d be better to write, “She snatches her passport off the nightstand.”

But the question comes of “She is running late,” and my professor’s emphatic insistence that little details are left for the director and actor to choose. Perhaps painting a picture of, “She looks at her watch and taps her toe, arm stretched out at the street,” would be more immersive, but even little things like, “Arm stretched out at the street,” could be misinterpreted in text form while, “Hailing a taxi,” would be obvious on screen when the actor clearly understands what she’s trying to do, even though it's telling intent. In my opinion, it’s easier to do and show something visually than it is to say and explain it. People can infer from the nuance in an image better than the limitation of a description. Which is to say, if I told an actress, "You're running late," she is more capable of showing it than if I were to give a play-by-play of how to show it.

My friend immediately, without thought, stood by the rule. Only talk in visuals. Okie doke then.

When she gave me a script to read at a much later date, I found it incredibly inhibited for this reason. In her insistence to “show don’t tell,” some information struggled to be conveyed. An easy example, one minor character she gave a name instead of calling, “CAMERAMAN,” which she refused to do because it would require inference.

Except that audiences are smarter than we believe, and visuals are easier to remember than names. While ‘Jared’ was forgettable in the script, in the short ten minute film, his face, and presence as a background character, would be accepted. By calling him CAMERAMAN, it’s a simplistic way of clarifying for the script reader what is going on, while the director would be intelligent enough to convey who he is through images, or decide that the “CAMERAMAN” label wasn’t important for a visual audience. In essence, I, a reader, forgot who Jared was frequently, but I would remember a face, and I would remember the dude carrying around a camera.

This is not uncommon in screenplays, nor was it the only time in her script in which I felt the consequences of objectively describing visuals outweighed the benefits of trusting the director’s ability to translate it to screen. It was unclear and impersonal, perfunctory and objective.

She later gave me another script that had decent pacing and striking emotions, but the same issue of her descriptions made it difficult to understand what she was going for. How much time had passed? Are we supposed to be creeped out by this suitor, or is he charming? Is her bed empty because you're saying she needs to fill it, or are you saying how the man from the last scene left? A lot of these story-based questions would have been easily understood if she added more visual details in her highly visual script. Yet, when I suggested it, not only did she claim that "it's not my job!" but inferred that I was saying the script was complete crap when all I told her was to describe the scene as she saw it more thoroughly. "Well, people who read scripts like my writing!" I never said I didn't like your writing.

I told her that the impact of her writing was lessened by her refusal to explain herself, and that she did not come off as this magnanimous writer who was letting the director make creative decisions, but rather as someone who didn't understand how well or poorly she was expressing her ideas to someone who couldn't read her mind. The script was almost unproduceable unless you had her standing there to tell you what she meant, and any director who picked it up to do whatever he would with it wasn't going to care if she talked in specifics or generalities. He didn't need her permission to change ideas.

Conversely, I find that most people who believe in simplicity, technical accuracy, and writing rules tend to be pretty clear and easy to read; that’s the benefit, it’s often why they do it. It’s one of the compliments I offer before encouraging them to take more risks. In reality, the rules are for people like me, overly opinionated, anti-authority, and convoluted thinking, helping us trim down the density, lecturing, and peculiarity in order to accurately convey what we mean. I believe in the writing rules as excellent tools to fix things… just not the default.

At one point, my friend told me her biggest complaint as a writer were her lack of motivation in writing at all and her minimalist descriptions.  Her writing sample, an essay written for school, was easy to read. It wasn’t based on the principle of show don’t tell, but just a summation of events of a movie. She wanted to know if it was a good sample of her writing.

Truth was, I had been sort of holding back my opinion up until that point. We had different tastes in literature, and I was skeptical if what she said she liked was really her thing at all. It’s difficult to help someone ‘improve’ when you don’t have a clear idea on what they consider improvement. I can always help someone write something that I would like, but what I like isn’t always what is best for their audience. I like a little bit of challenge and poetry, passion, and personality. Hemingway doesn’t work for me and I have a hard time even empathizing with someone who sincerely finds him interesting. I can’t tell you how to successfully write like Hemingway because it would be removed speculation on why he worked for others.

I knew why she had chosen that piece of writing for her sample though—because she had it on hand. Through her own admission she struggled to get things out there, and my full opinion is that she just needs to sit down and write something she is passionate about if she wants to improve herself. Practice, self-trust, and experimentation. She needed less advice from people and more genuine reflection of self.

I have never told her this, and unless she happens to read this post, I probably never will, but I consider a great deal of her foundational rules to come from idiots: inexperienced professors community college professors who don’t believe in their students, rule-abiders telling the ordinaries to keep their heads down.

Those who spent a little too long in academia, those who listen a little too well, tend to lose themselves in the process. Some will create perfectly fine works with no complaints from their partners, nothing wrong with their pieces, yet lack enthusiasm and novelty. Others will strive to hide themselves from every word, removing their perspective and personality for the sake of “immersion” and accuracy. Their writing will be perfunctory and succinct, cold and dry, detailing events without imagination or energy.

Writing rules tend to homogenize styles, often advocating that “no style” is what a person must learn before he can toy around with wording and voice. But of course this is ridiculous. There is no such thing as no style, only means to redirect focus. You keep making ignorable choices, there will be nothing to direct that focus to. The tools are intended to help you not distract from the important things, but you get to decide what those important things are.

You will never learn how to sew couture by perfecting the black T, and you will grow bored if you’re not making something that you’re excited about. Don’t churn out the same cold, objective fiction in hopes of being able to write something amazing eventually. Aim to write something amazing and then reflect on why it was or wasn’t. Write from the heart before turning to the advice of others to fix what went wrong. Don’t write for acceptance and then try to insert passion later. It’s incredibly difficult to get passionate about something that just gets the job done.

My friend is an interesting person. She has great insights and a vibrant personality. She puts energy into the room, is emotional, intelligent, and has a lot of astounding experiences. None of that shows in her writing. She tries to describe events as they occurred, around characters who act without clear internal life. Sure, they have motive, but only as the formula says so. She tells a story through what happens, never hinting at the thoughts of the participants or the viewers.

Writing is about imagination, communication, and sharing a perspective or interest. People care when others care, when the writers care, when the characters care. People care about passion. They care about new ideas, new takes on the old.

Sure, being an unobtrusive writer is a great style, one that can be successful, but it should be written by unobtrusive people, observers who notice things others don’t, who may be subtle about their insights, but still have their reasons for describing what they see, reasons that become apparent to the savvy reader. Can you become this person? I think so, but do you actually want to?

I wouldn’t have my friend any other way. I wouldn’t call her an observer or objective, but that’s why I love her. She has a lot of interesting things to say and the ability to make you listen, but she throws it all away in the name of some ‘rule’ that even the speaker admits isn’t going to be true later on in your career.

A lot of new writers try too hard. They distract with flamboyance, fall back on laziness, and don’t have the precision to keep the reader’s attention on what is actually important. And though the writing rules effectively teach you how to tackle those problems, good writing is still about being yourself, it's about being honest. Do not strip who you really are or what you really care about because no good will come of it. People will like you for the qualities you’ve been naturally developing your entire life.

Take risks, have imagination, be yourself.



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Monday, June 18, 2018

Young Adult Books are Not Children’s Books



As much as I love to quibble about definitions, I’m already long winded, and it’s beside the point. Are teenagers children? What ages are young adult books aimed towards? I once even read a Facebook post by an indie author claiming that young adult books weren’t named for the age of the audience, but the characters’, just after reading the first Game of Thrones book.  When it comes to genres and marketing, there’s not exactly official rules as to what constitutes as what.

If you don’t know me or my current predicament, one of my current struggles is the question whether or not I am a young adult writer.

I did a great deal of my writing as a teenager, highly influenced by young adult books and my own mind. To this day there are tropes, themes, and styles that naturally appeal to me. However, as I’ve said many times before, I never liked being talked down to, and often felt my teenage books didn’t push their plots or stakes or intellectual challenges far enough for my liking.

I’ve met with agents in casual settings along with writers and a few editors and have been told, upon explaining my uncertainty as to where my books fall in genre land, that yes, my voice has a higher level of sophistication than what you’d expect for a young adult novel.

I braced against pitching my work as young adult as well due to the constant insistence that my readers need my work dumbed down for them. I’ve been told numerous times, “I understood it, I just don’t think anyone else will.” For a wide variety of reasons, I find this criticism to be inaccurately dismissive, but still just as frustrating. I don’t try to be confusing, but I don’t have any intention on being condescending either.

While driving my things from Wyoming to New York City, I finally finished up my A Wise Man’s Fear audio book. The sequel to Patrick Rothfuss’s widely praised novel, The Name of the Wind, the adult fantasy novel has some excellent writing in the ignorable, noninvasive sense.

Many people advise authors to fixate on immersion over prose, and writing a scene that paints the world without distracting the audience to the words themselves takes colossal skill while looking like it was effortless. Despite my assertion that not all books benefit from this immersive style, I cannot praise Rothfuss’s ability enough.

After it was over, my mother and I sought out another audio book out in the boonies of Nebraska. We were offered one by our friendly Walmart, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. This wasn’t the first time I’d compared Rothfuss with a young adult writer, and it became a lot harder to ignore the myriad of criticisms I’ve heard about the young adult genre period and the masses’ presumption about authors of young adult books lacking in skill.

At the time, I was still recovering from my break up at the beginning of the summer, though each day the weight lifted off of me as I begin to forget the good and bad and start getting excited for the future. In any case, I can attest that my disinterest in the last few young adult books I’d read has at least a little to do with my inability to romanticize romance and all of the negative associations reminding me of how small and disappointed I felt throughout the last two years. Also, due to my stress and depression, I struggled to enjoy anything period, all to give credit to the three young adult authors who I found lacking in the last three months.

But Peculiar Children irritated me in clear, cut ways the other two did not.

I went in expecting to enjoy it, but had to stop the tape several times to rant.

I suppose my biggest criticism I have towards any book—and perhaps why it irritates me so much when someone tells me to, and I quote, “Dumb down my work”—is when the author doesn’t trust the reader.

The first half of the book is waiting for the protagonist to catch up with the audience. We know, for a lot of reasons, from the beginning that the “peculiars” are really, yes, actually magical and his grandfather telling him the stories is not insane. The protagonist, of course, doesn’t know that for certain, and goes out on an adventure to prove their existence (or at least find some closure.) The story takes a great deal of time until he actually comes across the home, and it’s truly not that interesting. Mostly because you know magic is real as there would be nowhere to go with the story if it wasn’t, and because the book followed a pretty common young adult formula in multiple ways. In fact, while I argue a good book does not have to be original, the ideas the author presented weren’t especially wondrous, the style not especially personable, the plot not particularly tense, the theme not particularly meaningful, and the characters not particularly memorable.

In fact, Jake the protagonist is thoroughly unlikable and fairly dense. Unbelievably stupid in some parts. I would say that the author portrayed a teenager genuinely in attitude and desires, but not a teenager anyone would want to be around. As for his—and everyone else’s conclusions—he seemed really slow on the uptake, such as when he suddenly had the epiphany that he could use his phone as a flashlight! The way the author described his excitement at the idea was laughable. It wasn’t the only time either that I was waiting for the character to catch up to me, and, as I said, reading half a book on him trying to prove something you already know is true is incredibly boring.

The narration didn’t help either, and I have to wonder if the character’s stupidity had to do with the slow, measured way the actor spoke. I was highly disappointed with his reading after hearing the immersive voice acting in A Wiseman’s Fear. All of the characters sounded the same—boy and girl alike—he paused at strange places, spoke incredibly slowly, and enunciated things like a librarian reading a picture book to five-year-olds might. In fact, I think a great deal of the condescension and the character’s denseness came from the reader’s tone of voice over the writer’s.

I think the strange pauses was actually a successful attempt to cold read, the actor catching up with his thoughts. You could hear the theatrical direction in the way he spoke; raising your voice at the end of a sentence instead of letting it drop off is a common actor’s note. But this made it seem like Jake was asking questions a great deal of the time, like he was shocked almost, when really his conclusions should’ve been obvious. MY grandfather, who grew up in the home for peculiar children might be a peculiar?! Oh, he was, “like me?” Well, I’m going to promptly forget about that intentionally obtuse answer so I can spend two pages figuring out the cliche and simplistic principles of time travel.

HAVE YOU NEVER WATCHED A SCI-FI FILM, JAKE?!

The voice actor hadn’t practiced, didn’t know what was going to come next, and that was actually sort of impressive, but it didn’t do the stories any favors. Mostly though, him getting really excited over inane things, exaggerating and instilling a gasp into his voice to really punctuate his words and energy, was trying too hard to be entertaining and ignoring the fact that this book—filled with swear words and teenage characters—was meant for people 15-20, not kindergarteners.

In fact, as I complained, my mother said, “Well, this is a book for children…”

No, it isn’t. Why do people keep saying that?

I will admit, people give children little credit anyway. They’re much smarter than we think they are, much more capable, and take in more than we know. But besides that, teenagers aren’t children—not exactly. Sure, I’ve worked with sixteen-year-olds, I’ve seen the difference between 18 and 23, and I realize that writing a book to keep the interest of a teenager isn’t always going to be the same as someone who just hit thirty—in fact, that’s what some of this post is about. I am getting older, and perhaps the focus of my interest is now different. Perhaps I’ve read too many similar books by this point and am looking for something new. Perhaps my negativity is still getting to me more than I thought. Perhaps I think too much like a writer predicted it from a meta standpoint. Perhaps I’m too no-nonsense these days. Perhaps it is a thousand times better with the pictures. All possibilities.

But young adult books are not “children’s books.”

They do not need to be dumbed down to get ornery little idiots to pay attention. Adults don’t need to be ashamed for reading them in public. Writers aren’t off the hook just because kids are more accepting and less grumpy. I think the author missed the mark because he had some pretty interesting ideas shoved into the background in favor of showcasing the stereotype of EVERYTEEN PORTALS INTO MAGICAL SCHOOL. Why not tell the grandfather’s story: a polish boy fleeing from the Nazis and stumbling into a school for “peculiar” children? That seems far more interesting than rich Florida teen goes on vacation to enter into magical world.


I often ask myself why I feel a pull against young adult novels when it is the first part of the bookstore I head to. Is it because of snobbery? I hope not. But if I’m going to write what I want, then the insistence that I must overexplain things, that I write about the Everyteen in Modernopolis meeting Manic Pixie Dream Monster, and have adults feel shame for being interested, it makes me think I don’t belong in that world anymore.



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Friday, June 15, 2018

When Stagnancy Looks Like Hard Work


Three months. It’s been three months since I last updated my comic. How did that happen? I’d been going good for about a year now, and then, all of the sudden, I just forgot about it. Like honest to God spaced it. The fuck.

It started on a good note. I think. Once my two-weeks around America took place, I allowed myself to forget, for the first time, any obligations. Since then, it didn’t occur to me until May that there was something I was supposed to be doing. I allowed myself to relax, have fun, and that was obviously necessary.

But I thought it would jump start me again. I feel like the last few years of my life have been—while informative—not progressive. I’ve been stagnant, hitting a simultaneous wall of unproductivity and the expected glass ceiling of career growth. Not that I’m being kept down for any particular reason, but that the avenues I have been taking aren’t necessarily the right ones. Or possibly I’ve been approaching them wrong. Or possibly I just didn’t hit it hard enough to crack it. Who the hell knows.

But the real area of concern is how I didn’t realize the time passing me by. It wasn’t due to fun—certainly not. In fact, I’d say what snapped me back into reality was being released from (what was supposed to be temporary) a high stressed position with, what I consider, a raging dipshit for an immoral teammate. And I don’t say that lightly. The second my hours became routine, the responsibilities much less, and the expectations lower, I could bring my focus back to what matters and get something done this week. Focus has been the issue for a long time now, a weakness I’d never felt in the years before my stress levels went through the roof.

A part of this was how important reputation became to me. I knew, in college, that first impressions were everything. A professor literally said to me at one point that in all his years of teaching, only one student left the university with the ability to direct: the kid who came in talented. It says a lot about credibility. I learned there that the only thing needed to destroy a god was to make him bleed and seeing you at your least successful can warp people’s views of you. Or vice-versa.

Which brings me to my current fixation.

My lovely coworker, who better hope never runs into me in a dark alley, screwed me over on several occasions, and despite getting paid more to be the “manager” would often try to slip his duties onto others. After a series of hell days in which his lack of foresight and inability to react to the situation left me drowning in responsibilities, I quit the place. The upper management to ask me to stay for his days off until they hired another assistant, and then I’d be moved to a less demanding situation (and giving me time to create and, of course, actually sleep.) During his days off, he left stations a mess and tried to delegate tasks to me that he could have easily done himself. I did what needed to be done, what should be done, and told him off via text, to which he never responded, but shaped up for the next couple of weeks. (To then, of course, start slipping.)

Well, about two weeks ago, he left such a catastrophe for me, planning nothing for the ridiculous day ahead and refusing to warn me about how he didn’t meet with the requirements. Kanye West had his album launch in my hometown and I found myself with an order for 100 people without having any of the resources to do it. Luckily, he never actually confirmed with her as he was supposed to, and the order was canceled for lack of contact on our end, unbeknownst to me until a fourth of the way through it.

I was humiliated. Yelled at by numerous clients at three in the morning when I could do nothing to compensate for the five a.m. order (originally requested 11 o’clock the night before and inexplicably confirmed by my coworker for five). Struggling with how to phrase, “I’m pretty sure my coworker was blitzed out of his mind when he got the order and blew it off,” to the answer, “WHAT HAPPENED?!” I don’t like making mistakes. I don’t like being yelled at. And I don’t like being taken off guard by problems that could have been solved, even if he had communicated with me that he had no intention on doing his job.

I struggled to come back, talking to my family, friends, coworkers, and even counselors about how upset I was. All of them responded the same way: “What would happen if you didn’t do his job for him?”

What would happen? The job wouldn’t get done. “But that’s because you do it for him!” No. It’s because he doesn’t mind sending out the orders wrong, it’s because he could procrastinate, make mistakes, and ruin his reputation without a care in the world. It’s not as though he would start doing all the things I do to make sure I do it correctly. It would just be we’d both be doing lousy jobs. And if, God forbid, the man who had demonstrated a tendency of dishonesty before, decided to push the blame on me, saying, “Well, I was just doing the amount of work he was!” wouldn’t be an acceptable answer.

And he did start telling people I was the one getting the orders wrong. Which, let’s be fair, I’m not immune to mistakes. But in his childlike way, when I began to voice my complaints on his accuracy in his orders, he tried to pass the buck to me, just like I was afraid of. It was obvious.

My saving grace? Reputation.

Because I hold myself to my own standards, not the standards of those around me, I am considered reliable, hardworking, and honest in a company with less than invested employees. My boss knows that I plan ahead. Because my dear, sweet coworker and I work together more than anyone else, I doubt if others see the same frequency of his lies, but upper management has caught him in it at least once or twice. And, despite my boss’s discreteness, I’ve gotten the sense that she too was getting worried about him. My complaints weren’t helping. Maybe his damaged me; some people seem too eager to believe anything they’re told, but what else to do about it except for keep strong?

Yet, the word of wisdom criticized me. Everyone I talked to told me the same thing, “Stop doing his job for him.” It was thick with implication. The trouble is, you’re not standing up for yourself. You’re not handling this correctly. You have no spine. Most importantly, you’re investing too much. Stoop to their level and they’ll rise to yours.

Bullshit.

Throughout my relationships, the story has been the same. The level of default compassion and respect I believe the average person deserves, the amount of work you should put into any project, are higher than men I’ve dated. They believed, I’ve realized in retrospect, that support and kindness was something you showed to your superiors, a weak plea for approval. “Love me!” you’re saying as you expose your soft stomach. They would then think they had leverage and start making one-sided demands for how the “relationship” would be. (Basically, exactly the same with no expectations of loyalty, support, or accessibility on them.) When I took the threat seriously and walked with relative ease, they were unreasonably shocked that I didn’t want to negotiate the terms. In a weird way, I don’t believe that they truly wanted a ‘not-relationship,’ but rather thought they could get me to beg them for it. Or maybe they thought they could sleep around without guilt for a while, which is a gross misinterpretation on their part. But I’ve never been in a relationship in which they used me for sex; always, always used me as their emotional pack-mule. So what would a casual relationship with me get them?

They were left confused and hurt, I was left insulted and humiliated.

Again, people believed that I was putting too much work into the wrong places. I can’t say I disagree. But suggestions like, “Why don’t you try casually dating?” or “Sit back and wait for them do to the work,” missed the point.

Casual dating is the worst of both worlds. You’re still obligated to a bit of small talk and making yourself go out when you don’t want to, being sort of responsible for the emotions of the person you’re with, but you don’t get the reward of developing closeness, understanding each other, and having physical intimacy mean something. Dating someone who you like is awesome. Dating someone who you don’t know—and don’t want to get to know—is boring as hell.

For that matter, half-assing things, even if not stressful, is incredibly tedious. Stooping to the low standards of everyone around you is part of the reason my generation is so frustrated. Having meaningless small talk and meaningless sex in your undecorated, temporary apartment with a mattress and a pile of dirty dishes as you wait to go to your unstimulating job is obviously going to cause emotional dissatisfaction. Sometimes, your life is what you make it, and investing into relationships, making your personal space personal, cooking, cleaning, and putting effort into doing your job well can make the daily aspects of life more interesting, not to mention more rewarding. Caring about something, taking pride in something, and working hard against the risks and being victorious in ways you didn’t think you could, are what get you peaks in life.

It’s clear the real issue is that there was a pattern in my relationships, a pattern that I was creating. My decision to be accessible, supportive, and giving early on was not the issue. The issue was who I was surrounding myself with.

I also believe in making the world a better place. You do that through communication, honesty, and, yes, setting boundaries, but you wouldn’t know that through the sneers of 20 somethings annoyed because you aren’t prioritizing the bare minimum like they are, or the way that people act like you’re “trying too hard” due to insecurity.

I won’t deny that putting in 100% makes me feel safer. I hate guilt and embarrassment, and I decided to do the best I can after having my senior thesis go south because I couldn’t call my professor out on his shortcomings without addressing mine. But I work hard because it is mentally stimulating, because you are your reputation, and because everyone’s life is better when you actually try. I care about people, the project, and myself. That’s why I try.

The good news is, I learned a lesson in all of this. As everyone I knew second guessed me in my decision to do the job the best I could, regardless of what my coworker was putting in, I saved myself in the game of “He said, she said.” I am reminded of all the times people say, “Invest less. Put in less,” and I look at their lives, their own satisfaction, and remember that we all have different beliefs, sense of right and wrong, and priorities and each have their own pros and cons. I don’t believe in doing worse because someone else is putting in less, and there’s a reason for that. I need to trust my instincts.

I was recently told that my writing was “trying too hard.” So often, people complain that the words I use (what I perceive as very common) are pretentious, inaccessible to girls my age. In my view, I am speaking openly. In that play, for the first time, I directly painted the impact of depression and pushing yourself too hard in a humorous, bittersweet way. In light of these last few weeks, there’s something funny in that.

I agree that chronic stress does not belong in someone’s life, and that you should surround yourself to people who want to match your efforts. But don’t ever let anyone tell you that your passion, your goals, or your work ethic is “too much.” Don’t feel like kindness, even if it was met with disdain, unappreciation, or rejection, is a weakness. It is hard to be a good person, but it’s not wrong just because it didn’t work out, or because someone took advantage. Be who you want to be and don’t let someone talk you out of your beliefs.




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Monday, June 11, 2018

If You Don't Have Anything Personal to Say



Let’s face it, you’re alienating readers based on the genre you choose, the amount of swear words your character feels an affinity for, the frequency of your cat posts, and even your hairstyle. Alienating readers shouldn’t be at the forefront of authors’ minds because people can be very particular in their dislike of something.

I’m not here to shame talk of adverbs, but I think that there are far better, more accessible, creative ways to discuss writing rules that people should be aware of.

We’ll start with some honesty; if you begin advice with “Don’t use adverbs,” you’ve lost me.

A few years ago, a critique began by handing me a "story formula," telling me that I wasn't allowed to have backstory in the first act because "Star Wars doesn't," and then spent the rest of the the few minutes we had together pointing out each adverb I used and telling me that all were "fine." What started off as a good day filled with insights ended with a woman who I now sincerely believe skimmed the first fifteen pages of my manuscript for adverbs and then called it a day.

What was most shocking to me, I suppose, about the whole experience was not that she presented me with every generic writing rule on the face of the planet, but she did so without a second of hesitation—it never occurred to her that some people might vehemently disagree with her philosophy.

It was something like sitting down and having a stranger bring up God in the first sentence, not only assuming that you are religious, but behaving as though it was the most natural, least controversial thing in the world. He acts like you would immediately agree with him, sense the right in what he was saying, and never for a second thought you might be stirring up an argument.

Which begs the question: Are you really well informed about this topic if you have never experienced talking to someone who doesn’t agree?

Writing rules are fairly controversial, and for good reason. We want a variety of different philosophies in the literary world. Not a single person believes that a masterpiece is created from strict adherent to these restrictions—even those who push them on unsuspecting victims will admit that there are different standards for the greats. The comments are repeated for a reason, of course. If you don’t like your sentence, try getting rid of an adverb and see how it improves. It's easy and will have an impact. But it can be frustrating to see someone adamantly insist that there is no place for them, moreover thinking it is the only way peons are allowed to write.

Anecdotally, people who focused on dialogue tags—the use of said and its synonyms, or the adverbs connected to them—typically have had a lower level of comprehension on my characters’ emotional states compared to those who focused on bigger, more abstract criticism. They were less likely to pick up on sarcasm, lies, or jokes, this particularly critique partner especially. Those who did not worry about whether or not I used “said” yet still claimed they didn’t know who was being sarcastic were more likely to pick up on the sarcasm overall; they followed enough to realize what they weren’t getting. Those who focused on adverbs struggled to comprehend the intent of what they've read, what actually happened in the story.

For example, during the four critiques at the Writers Conference (three of whom believed my dialogue was my strongest skillset), one man told me he was uncertain about who was actually religious and who was being sarcastic. When I told him, he said that he thought so, but I could make it clearer. This is a good piece of advice and shows he read the work, attempted to understand, and then specified what I could do and why.

The woman, however, seemed to miss the sarcasm all together. She was extremely literal and was confused when characters said something that they didn't fully mean. This is in contrast to the other people who'd read the work. Most recognized jokes and understood there was conflict between the two people, even if they weren't positive who was being serious and who was making fun. She missed all of that and behaved like an robot who doesn't understand subtext.

Most of our communication is tone and body based. Many people say that you shouldn’t use words other than said because mood should be conveyed in the quote itself or through descriptions of action—and if you can do so, I agree. But sometimes the nuance to pick up on things in real time are too small for us to describe it in a natural, succinct, clear way. In some cases, it’s not worth it. And you try too hard to detail the action, you risk the chance of “explaining the joke.” The funny part is, she would have understood the characters' intentions better if I had used adverbs instead of trying to convey information through contextual banter. "He said sarcastically."

I would argue, in fairness, the reason most who focused on adverbs struggle with subtext and character’s inner life is likely due to not actually reading. They were too busy looking for surface level mistakes to listen to the words themselves. It’s also possible that they are less inclined to play games in their everyday speech, like sarcasm, joking, or basic manipulation of phrasing. They are literal, upfront people. Maybe they don’t notice body language and tone in everyday life. I will say, with certainty, there is some reason that people hate and misunderstand adverbs so much while others don’t.

It’s all reasonable though, and I am not suggesting for a moment that people don’t discuss whether or not “said” is better than “goaded.” Some people, for whatever reason, genuinely hate it, and more importantly, I have seen people use them to an extent or in a way that was purely cringe worthy for me. You want to know why a writing rule exists? Read amateur fiction.

What brought me to write this post was when I was exploring the blog of an aspiring author/creative writing teacher, and I came across her advice on writing dialogue. After casually looking through her free short story (a succinct and to-the-point style), I moved on to her opinions. Truth be told, I knew what she was going to say before I opened it up. “Don’t use adverbs,” she insisted adamantly.

Here’s the thing: it’s not bad advice. And if you believe in it, and you utilize it, you should discuss it, offer it to people, stand by it.

But keep in mind that it is controversial, that it is overly exposed, that no one likes being told what to do, and no one should do everything the same way anyway. Instead of repeating verbatim what you've been told, discuss the pros and cons—it’s not all bad and realize that if you have spent a lot of time thinking about it, there’s more to say on the subject. Generic one-liners are indicative your are not speaking from experience.

Every author has heard 'don’t use adverbs.' If you're a believer, and they chose not to listen the first time they heard it, then saying again in the same way won't do anything. You’re going to have to come up with another angle, that angle will come from your experience, in your own words, via the way that you realized the importance of that rule. Before telling someone not to use them, really consider if that’s the most useful piece of advice you have to offer, where it’s coming from, and the fact that people may not agree with you. Not even (just) because they’re petty, self-involved, or stubborn, but because some people genuinely like adverbs. Or, at least, don’t give a shit about them.



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Friday, June 8, 2018

Yes, Criticism is Sometimes Personal



Pretend you have a child. If you do have a child, pretend that child is in front of you instead of this computer screen. Now pretend that child tells you last minute you need to bring some sort of baked goods to whatever meeting you’re about to go to. If you have a child, this probably isn’t difficult to imagine. It probably happened yesterday.

So you run to the store, you grab the first batch of cookies you see, throw them on a plate, and go on your merry way.

The cookies are terrible. I mean, people are polite about it, but you can hear the murmurs. You look in the trash and the top is layered with them, one bite taken out of each. The rest of the cookies go uneaten.

Now, it’s possible that you don’t feel bad, that this isn’t worth your time in the least, but we can all admit that there’s a chance we do feel just a little embarrassed. The right time, place, and mood, anyone could feel rejected, downhearted, foolish, despite the fact that we did not make the cookies, we didn’t even choose the cookies, not really.

Or, if that doesn’t work for you, think of a time in which everyone in the car was hungry but no one wanted to decide where to eat. So you throw out the first restaurant you think of—not that you particularly want to go there—and everyone immediately goes, “Ew! No!

Or when a man starts laughing and mocking everything you do and logically you know he has a crush on you, but that doesn’t stop you from slamming the cash register drawer into his knee.

Even the most level headed of us have felt rejection when we really shouldn’t. In many cases, the embarrassment has more to do with the reaction than the actual events. People can shame you just by behaving as though you should feel shame.

Rejection hurts, and the worst part is it’s not always logical. You rarely can talk yourself out of the grief of rejection. Once you feel it, no matter how stupid it is, you just have to bear through it.

Yet, that doesn’t mean we don’t try to argue ourselves out of it. It also doesn’t stop our significant others from trying to reason with us either. They hate seeing you in pain, they hate feeling helpless, so they try and give you advice that, unfortunately, sometimes makes it worse.

“When people criticize your book, they’re not criticizing you.” I hear it more from authors telling it to themselves than anything else, and if it works for them, fantastic. I don’t mean to poke holes in something that can soothe irrational emotions. But the statement, while seemingly true on paper, actually promotes a problematic mentality, and can leave people feeling more helpless.

The idea is first that rejection has to be personal to hurt, that it has to be a criticism of who you are as a human being for it to be painful. It falls under the same category of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.” Not only can words hurt, but so can thoughts. Being judged as being inadequate, even if it has nothing to with who you are, even if it has nothing to do with what you want to be doing, can still leave you feeling inferior. The desire to be a keystone in society is what makes society work. We all want to be important and when we prove a failure in even stupid things, it touches on our fear that maybe we truly are that insignificant.

On a more logical level, being considered a failure in anything can be detrimental to our reputations. We tend to dehumanize the greats, see their qualities and flaws different as ours. “Everyone shits,” is an image we use to remember that King Arthur and Gandhi and Donald Trump are just people, and it expresses the issue nicely. You can take someone down a peg just by remembering that they have normal everyday functions.

We are the sum of our parts. Our actions are not defined on an individual basis; they are the accumulation of each other. If, when we first meet, I prove ignorant on the subject of geography, when you then find out that I’m your therapist, for many it doesn’t matter that I don’t need to know if Australia is a continent or a country to be able to analyze your personal problems with your husband, I’ve still caused you to start questioning my judgement.

So, yeah, just because something isn’t a personal attack doesn’t mean that it’s not going to affect me. It still means that I was inadequate in someone else’s eyes. And what if they’re right?

The second problem is when people say criticism isn’t personal, what they really mean is in the context they are thinking, but that’s only theoretical. In practice, it very much can be.

When I was in high school, we discussed the issue of illegal search and seizure. One boy argued that if you didn’t have something to hide, then why did it matter? If you refused them, obviously they knew that you had done something wrong.

At the time, I argued that you may not want someone going through your personal belongings, you might have something on you that, while not illegal, you didn’t particularly want other people to see. Maybe you were carrying around a pack of condoms or a diary or animal scat. Who knows?

After that argument, I spent a long time considering it, and it wasn’t until several years later that the most obvious argument occurred to me: you are assuming the cop is a good person. I, too, didn’t believe that there could be selfish and corrupt authority figures. I trusted my teachers, for instance, and it wasn’t until college that I realized you could have a professor who actually wanted you to fail.

I do still have the tendency to trust officers and teachers, but I am far more aware of why we can’t bank of self-policing when trying to solve problems. You can’t just make laws assuming that the criminal is always wrong and the cop is always good. You can’t just be obedient when a teacher spends all his energy telling you you’re going to fail and you should quit. Questioning motivations is a big part of understanding truth, and the truth is that sometimes criticism is personal.

There’s the obvious ones: “You’re fat.” If you look on Goodreads or Amazon, you’ll come across these sorts of reviews, where the reviewer goes off on the author’s appearance, race, and/or gender. It doesn’t have anything to do with the book in many cases, it’s just an insulting rant.

Then there’s the not so obvious ones, where you start to get the feeling that they have some sort of issue with the writer, but the criticism isn’t exactly insults. Their hatred is hidden by actual literary complaints, it’s just that those complaints seem a little petty, irrelevant, and maybe even contradictory to the person’s other reviews or comparisons.

Last you have the worst kind, where the criticism is intricately tied into their hatred of the writer. The reviewer genuinely believes that the author is a horrible, disgusting person because of the things the writer chose to discuss, the opinions the writer had, the things the writer cares about.

We try and separate our work from our personal selves to help us compartmentalize criticism and rejection, but to say that they are independent is inaccurate. Our books are a part of ourselves, they discuss our perspectives, examine our reality, express our desires and fears, and communicate with each other in a highly intense and difficult way.

A person criticizing you may not hate you. They may not even judge you. It’s possible that they have put you up on a pedestal so high that they have no ability to relate to the pain they’re causing you. They might just feel they’re speaking their opinion, not expecting you to take it too seriously. They may just be retelling the experience they had. They also may be assholes, trolls, bullies, or frustrated writers trying to strip your freedom down to their unrealistic standards.

In whichever case, the last thing you should do is feel guilty for the way they made you feel. You might be irrational, but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to talk yourself out of it. Let yourself feel bad about the criticism, and if you feel like they’re being an asshat, they probably are.



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Monday, June 4, 2018

It Was Interesting When I Said It



A group of actors sat in a circle and the nicest one among them (the sort of woman who probably receives domestic help from birds), admitted her biggest flaw: “I just bore the living shit out of myself.”

It was a weird thing to hear someone say, and I remember feeling a vicarious grief for her. She was so awesome, and though it had previously been distinctly clear she didn’t believe it, it never occurred to me that someone could find themselves so boring.

Until I started to think about it.

Sometimes, when frustrated, I have a hard time being interested in anything at all. Instead, I go to “mental chewing gum” like iPod apps and Reddit to devour meaningless and potentially exacerbating drivel to feel more exhausted than I did when I started. These days are bad when I planned on being productive.

Today is one of those days. After weeks of living out of boxes, finally getting the walls of my living space taped and painted, I’ve been able to set up my tools the way I want them. For the first day in weeks, I had no rehearsal, no work, no meetings, no nothing. And now I sit here, aggravated at the fact that I don’t want to do anything at all, including just starting abjectly at a T.V. Mostly because I can’t focus.

I haven’t worked on my novel in a long time. These last few years I’ve questioned all the things I want in life, from family to being a successful novelist. I haven’t felt compelled in life in general since I spent everything I had in one emotional fell swoop and lost it all. At one point, knee deep in depression, I said to someone, “I don’t feel like I have a personality anymore.”

“Just be yourself!” they chirped back.

“Okay,” I said. “Nothing’s happening.”

Impulse, I believe, is a key to joy. Not just acting on your whims, but having those whims in the first place.

I don’t feel funny anymore. I don’t feel insightful. I bore myself.

As I read through the first pages of my work in progress, attempting to rewrite the 30k into something more intense, I just don’t care. And then I cringe inwardly as I think of all the times I didn’t hook people, that they didn’t care, even when I hubristically loved what I’d done. I remember when they told something was too long, too confusing. “Nothing’s happening.” “You’re telling a story, not just talking about stuff! ”I bored people. Well, I’m boring myself now. Yet, I have to remind myself, not much else interests me either. That’s what depression does.

When I write things, or say things, they’re interesting to me. I dig deep and passionately. I recently received a rejection from a local contest in which one judge told me I was, “Trying too hard.” This usually means, “You’re trying too hard to make me like you.” Or “You’re being fake.” It was probably the most honest piece I ever written where I really went balls to the wall. I don’t often write something to win, and this was me attempting to get back to that c’est la vie attitude I had in high school that seemed to touch people. Sometimes (often) I feel like when I’m truly being myself people are like, “Stop being so weird and just be genuine.”

How can you tell what’s interesting if nothing is interesting to you? How can you tell if you’re expressing yourself honestly when others insist you’re lying?

When I’m feeling anxious, I remind myself of what I don’t know, of assumptions I make that aren’t founded in fact, but fear. When feeling depressed, I remind myself how often it lies, how your view of self and life becomes warped. Logically, how could you know this? You can’t. You know you can’t. You know you don’t have enough information. You know how you feel differently when you feel differently, feel better, feel more in control.

How do you bore the living hell out of yourself? Maybe it’s because you’re stuck in a rut. Maybe it’s because you’re clouded by negativity. Maybe it’s cause you’re a big ol’ whiner and even you can’t stand it.

Probably the latter.

But in the case of the Snow White of our tale, she probably had some truth to it—some of her unspoken thoughts possibly are repetitive, boring, and whiney. Whose aren’t?—yet I know as an outsider there was more to it than just that “she is boring.” It is far, far more likely that our feelings towards ourselves and the world come from a variety of factors, from self-awareness to diet to situation.

What is the situation that caused my first lines to aggravate me so? It’s entirely possible it’s the lines themselves. Yet, before I call myself boring, I have to remember that it was interesting when I said it, and though the context may have changed, it doesn’t negate that fact that when I wrote it, I was interested and invested in what I was saying. The thought, regardless of how it reads now, at least once served a purpose.



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Friday, June 1, 2018

Confusion, Poetry, and Overwriting


Back when I was throwing out most of my possessions to make the world my oyster, I came across a stack of papers I had been saving. I’m the sort of person who writes every time I have ten minutes (or I used to be), and would constantly collect napkins and post-its and notebooks and not always type them up. I soon learned, especially as I would start to work on more projects at a time and didn’t always have a notebook with me, to start labeling them very specifically: Title of book, date, document location in which the story last left off (if it was on my computer, in my notebook, or on another piece of random paper), and a page number.

I wasn’t good about getting them into the original right when I got home. I also quickly learned to start keeping them in one place, else I’d spend hours searching for that one section of a manuscript to eventually end up rewriting it all together.

My plan was to type up the papers so I didn’t have to carry them with me when I traveled halfway across the world to Australia. Instead, I ended up shoving them all into my suitcase last minute. Because of course I did.

One day, alone in a giant house, I decided it was finally time. I sat down with my papers, knowing that many of them would be useless and out of date, and began typing. I didn’t expect it to be interesting, and in many ways it wasn’t, but I also didn’t imagine I’d be surprised by what I found. Many of them were from three years prior, before I had learned the importance of documenting in the above manner. Some were scenes from long finished manuscripts, preceding changes, original versions that I had forgotten were once even a possibility. Others were ideas I had no memory of even having.

But mostly, as I read through them, amused and reminiscent, I also noticed something else; I liked my writing more back then.

I could tell by the time-frame that they were created before I started to receive massive criticisms on my work. I knew that it had affected me in some ways that I wasn’t entirely sure of, but I hadn’t realized how much until I actually read through those unpolished versions.

My writing experience truly started when I was around 12. I began to create prolifically, about one novel a year for every year up until college. The year I graduated, I completed four.

The transition and unhappiness that followed me at my university dropped my productivity. I have written about five novels since I left high school in 2008, and started many unfinished ones. Which is actually not as bad as I thought. I also, while living in L.A., focused on playwriting and producing, and got a decent number of short stories printed, so as I say this, I’m doing more than I thought I was. Considering that this book I just finished took me several years when my average used to be three months for a first draft, I have been feeling like slacker.

In any case, back in high school, I just liked writing. I didn’t like editing, I didn’t like submitting, I just wanted to write. So I wrote. For the first four novels I didn’t bother to read anything I made, didn’t bother to give it to anyone, do anything with it. You can see the vast difference between the first four and book five—when I did decide to go back and look at my own work.

The fifth novel I ever wrote (a standalone, as the rest) was a turning point for me. It was the first book which I really enjoyed what I had done. I was truly proud of my writing ability and thought it could make it. Freshman year of college, I did query to five agents and a couple of publishers, receiving only one response—a rejection, of course. I planned to do more work, cutting the 140,000 word book down, but instead I lost interest. I worked on other things. One year, I focused on publication of short stories. Then the submission of plays to local theatres. But other than that, not much.

A little before the short story splurge, I began my journey to really, honestly improve my writing. Some of my delusions of grandeur and potential from youth had dwindled, and instead of wanting to be a good bullshit artist—someone who is immediately recognized for their genius of their raw, inherent talent—I enjoyed the process of pushing my fiction further. Prior, I just wanted success. Now I wanted stylistic control and skill to craft the book that was in my head.

It has been a hard journey.

For one thing, I had full trust that my teachers always meant the best for me. There was a weird conflict of ego and faith that I’ve seen in hindsight many times: Someone would tell me something, I would think they’re wrong, but deep down, secretly, I assumed it was just my stubborn pride telling me so, and really I was the one who didn’t know what I was talking about. And sometimes they were right. And sometimes they weren’t. And other times we were both right in a way, or it didn’t really matter.

The point is, I never believed in a teacher being selfish when it came to conveying information, even when I didn’t agree with their ideas.

I didn’t have a problem discussing my concerns, of course. When someone said something that didn’t make sense, I was the first to go, “THAT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE.” But I believed they had an answer, that I just wasn’t understanding. I was actually a pretty good teacher’s pet even though I was argumentative. Honestly, most were just happy I was participating and engaging. Many knew I was doing it out of curiosity, not to be a little shit. My high school was a great education.

This attitude, however, took my college professors back. They were used to students agreeing with them, listening, and obeying. My peers were much more trained in the ways of “listen to your elders,” much more respectful. They, like me, believed in the knowledge of their teachers, but unlike me thought that if they didn’t understand it, it was best just to agree.

The problem was when the professors’ arguments didn’t pan out. For one thing, after years and years of just being listened to, they weren’t practiced in actually proving their point. They hadn’t thought about why something was true because they never needed to before. I felt like that was the kind of L.A. mentality; you just said (or even believed) whatever the person in charge wanted to hear. That was how you got ahead. No questioning, just being likable and obedient.

Of course, this didn’t garner respect, and there was this weird sense that to get respect you had to not only be a dick, be the right kind of dick to get anyone to listen to you. You could be nice and have no one actively try to screw you over—but they wouldn’t listen to you—or you could be a force to be reckoned with and have everyone looking for ways to make you fail. The only way out of those two horrible options was to come up with some sort of credibility, like being a teacher or gain the teachers’ admiration—which seemed to be contingent on looks and talents that only benefited those teachers.

In other words, be a good, sexy actor with no intention on directing or writing, who is only dismissive of the other actors around you and awe-struck by the professors before you. Actually seems pretty Hollywood, looking on it in hindsight.

This means to determine credibility was my biggest heartache. I didn’t fully understand it at the time. I wanted to make my professors proud. I fully examined the plays they praised and the ones they hated, and while my skepticism has been a constant within me, I believed there was a truth in their opinions that stemmed from honest artistic integrity. But no matter how I searched, I couldn’t seem to find it.

There looked to be no correlation between the scripts they loved. There was no through-line between the ones they hated. No common denominator. No constant logic. The only thing that seemed to connect their opinions was something superficial, something foolish, snobbish, and impossible to circumvent: They loved plays that made them look good.

Anything written after the 1970’s is garbage. Neil Simon is garbage. You don’t need to read him. This obscure play that no one has heard of? Brilliant. This rambling four-hour mess of a buzz-wordy concept that my best friend wrote? Wondrous. This half an hour rambling mess of a buzz-wordy concept that my student wrote? Shameful.

I was good about not writing for the praise. I can’t even begin to describe how assured I was of myself. I did a lot of work being completely oblivious to how it could have gone wrong, unaware, unconcerned, of how few people had confidence in me. If someone said that I couldn’t do something, I just thought they were naïve.

I did a lot of stuff out of being oblivious.

But it wasn’t all that great. In fact, I knew my writing wasn’t meeting its potential. I had hit a wall. My writing was decent enough, but it wasn’t to my standards. I knew that. I got a lot of wonderful compliments in locations that people didn’t expect the writing to be great, but wasn’t getting far in the actual competitive field. I wanted my writing to be more, but I couldn’t fully understand the obstacle. What was I missing?

That was why I turned to others for advice, and why I wanted to understand what made Antoine Artaud so great for his fifteen minute, impossible to preform nonsense while my peer’s emulation of him—done strictly because my professors' praise of Artaud consumed our classes—was “just trash”?

Now, I have an opinion on some differences, and I could legitimately provide my own reasoning why Jet of Blood worked better than the homeless-Rubik’s cube piece, but more so, if I had sat down and watched those plays one right after the other with no knowledge of who the playwrights were, I would have written them both off to be meaningless, weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird gibberish. The only reason I could see a difference is because I put the effort in. That begged the bigger question of, “How do I know if a play is over my head and needs more consideration or if it’s just stupid?”

“You learn with experience,” my professor told me.

“I learn what with experience?”

“I will never give you a play that isn’t any good.”

“If I believe that I wouldn’t be asking.”

I’m a good bull-shitter, and I knew that I could argue the artistic value of pretty much anything. My gut reaction to a work was not always right (I’ve hated a lot of my now favorite shows and books when I was first exposed to them.) In fact I'm terrible at vetting by first impression. Not just art, but people too. I started to develop the philosophy that there is no such thing as good and bad writing. Not this universal truth, at least, like I suppose I had been thinking. If a book appears in the woods and no one’s around to have a feeling about it, it isn’t good or bad.

It started to feel immensely like how you write didn’t seem to matter as much as how people thought you wrote. Reputation, confidence, and charm seemed to be more important than skill and style.

Even though I was putting my work out there more, I was still struggling to get feedback. The people in my writing classes were often either brand new—an undeveloped ability to analyze and communicate their feelings—or competitive aspiring authors with tainted opinions hand fed to them by their professors. While I couldn’t get the reaction I wanted, I didn’t feel like anyone was zeroing in on the actual reasons it wasn’t working.

As for my professors, even the ones I still respected towards the end, seemed to be lazy. I don’t blame them, actually, but if you agree to read something, I think you need to make a point to do it. Know your schedule and learn how to say no. I had a creative writing teacher who told me he would read my senior project, for instance, and after telling me he’d get to it many times, he eventually said he wouldn’t be any good because it was a script, not prose.

I said, “But I want you to focus on the plot and character arc,” I said, “which is pretty much the same as a novel.”

But really, he just didn’t get around to it.

He also was great at discussing writing concepts, but I don’t believe, looking back on it, good at actually editing. I don’t remember much, but I knew that he tended to write off works that weren’t in his comfort zone and never really considered what the authors were going for. I actually feel like I got a lot of good ideas about writing from his class, but never anything specific to my issues at hand or the type of writing I wanted to be doing.

The head of the theatre department would love to push me off onto other teachers. I was always a little offended because while I was working my ass off, struggling to get anyone to read and give me feedback, demoralized, stressed, and pained by it, he acted as though my problem was I was just too egotistical to think I needed it. He seemed completely naïve to how hard it is to get someone to read and comment on your work—as he sat there refusing to do so. He wasn’t commenting on me specifically or what I was doing. He just made assumptions about the hubris of young writers and gave untried advice. In a month where I'd printed and distributed at least a dozen of unread copies, (and in a year of so many more) he was telling me my biggest problem was refusing to distribute any.

When he told me I should give it to another professor in the department, I explained I had given him several, he doesn’t read them. He replied, “Well, he claims you can’t take criticism.”

“How would he know? He hasn’t given me any.”

And that wasn’t just some flippant argument. The professor in question never gave constructive criticism. I had taken his screenwriting class. He liked to be liked, and he only offered up praise. He never did thorough edits, never did say, “This is what you should change.” I couldn’t remember a criticism he had ever given anyone.

When I talked to a fellow student about it, as we sat there one sunny afternoon bonding over our growing loss of faith in the department, she told me, “He’s probably referring to the fact that you argue with them about their lessons.”

My non-writer friends, after I tell these kinds of stories, always ask, “Do you think you’re good at taking criticism?”

This is the sort of question that no matter what you say, people are going to think it’s a lie. Or you’re stupid. I always answer, “Depends on who you ask.”

It wasn’t until after college that I truly managed to get real feedback. I went back to Wyoming and attended the Jackson Hole Writers Conference. I felt uncertain about it because to pay 30 dollars for three 40-paged edits seemed a little scammy, but the experience gave me far more understanding than I had had in years of classes.

It wasn’t super fun, to be clear. The first real criticism I got was the worst one I have ever received. Not, ironically, because of the quality. There were some comments that were dead on, super smart and insightful. There were others that were stupid beyond all belief:

“He clamped his mouth shut.”
“With what?”

She wrote all in caps and had rhetorical questions. “WHY WOULD YOU DO IT THIS WAY? JUST DO THIS!” Why did I do it that way? I did have my reasons, and once you understand those, it might help to convey why it didn’t work or that my priorities were off. She never really said why she didn’t like my choices, just that they were ‘obviously flawed.’ Her feedback was just a bunch of demands and orders. Do this, change that. Problem was, I didn’t always understand what she was trying to do or trust her simplified solutions would be successful.

It was her callous approach that made it difficult. I wanted to believe her, but at the same time parts of me were bracing against the criticism. Was it my pride? The way she was talking to me? Is it my instinct? Why don’t I agree with her? Do I need to get over myself or trust my gut?

I couldn’t tell.

Not all of her advice was obviously correct or inaccurate. A lot of it was vague: “Just simplify everything.” Okay. What do I simplify? To what extent? Like a Dick and Jane book? I agreed with the specific sentences she circled, but I couldn’t identify why she left alone the ones she did and why she hated the ones she did.

I even approached her after, thanking her for her advice, and asked, “How do I know where to simplify?”

“Just simplify everything!”

I didn’t want to do that. I don’t particularly like reading minimalistic writing. I liked my style. It was the one thing I was truly proud of. Even by that point, where I still didn’t have a lot of reaction to my actual writing, people had said that, “I love the way you write, but sometimes it’s jarring.”

I believe them, I felt it to be true myself. Prior to 2011, I wrote for me. I didn’t care about rules, I didn’t care if I was thinking outside the box or in it. I wasn’t trying to be weird and I wasn’t trying to be the same. I just did what I liked. With it came an organic way of speaking, a way of speaking that was true to how I actually spoke in general. I could always tell when someone took the words out of my mouth, quoting me, even if I didn’t remember saying it because I was the only person who would put it that way. I had a naturally unique voice that had developed on its own, no external pressure from me.

But I knew that this “jarring” writing was a continuous problem as well. I had personally found sentences in my work like that. Others had complained about it enough. I knew damn well how pretentious we authors could be. I couldn’t always remember why I chose a word I did, and it was entirely possible I was showing off in specific moments. “Kill your darlings,” they say. Sometimes the things you’re most proud of are the things the read the most ingenuine.

I believed her, but her solution to just go through and simplify every single sentence wasn’t useful. I have always had people assume that “you should know what words I know,” but that’s just not the case. I never write anything I don’t think my readers will get. I don’t have any desire to be dense. I think, at least at the time of writing, I’m being as clear as I can be. If I read it and I think it’s not clear, I will also change it. Understanding how your readers think is one of the hardest skills to learn. If I were to just go through and write every sentence in a way I knew everyone would understand it, I guarantee it would sound like I thought my readers were all idiots. That wouldn't go over very well.

That criticism upset me more than any other to date. It was worse than when someone was deliberately rude and you knew they were wrong, or even when someone was blunt and you knew they were right. I sort of liked her and I sort of hated her. I agreed with her at times and not at all in others. She was correct about her criticism, but gave me no more hints on how to apply it. I just didn’t know what to do with it.

It tormented me for a long time afterwards. The other feedback I had gotten was somewhat similar, but not really. They too commented on words they couldn’t stomach, but no one had any sort of consistency with each other. That would be true for many more edits on those chapters to come. Everyone had line edits, no one agreed on which lines. I changed what I agreed with, gave out the comments to some others to have them explain them to me, changed a little more, then put it aside. I would find this woman’s papers every three months or so only to have a flurry of emotions brought up again. The whole thing made me feel helpless. Eventually, I realized I had gotten what I could from it and threw them out. That was the best way to let go.

As the manuscript grew, changed, and evolved, I noticed a few trends. One was the ever-so lovely inconstancy of line critiques. The common denominator seemed to be the same response, “I love the way you write, but sometimes it’s jarring.” My best quality seemed to be my worst enemy.

Over time, I got more and more, “I’m confused.”

In the first version, the beginning was exactly as you would expect. It featured the mundane life of a girl in a cult. I struggled how to describe the danger and abuse from the eyes of someone who didn’t see it. In one example of what I felt to be a snobby write off of the above critic’s, I had the protagonist look through her closet and she reflected calmly on memories, what she wore the time she witnessed a woman beaten for adultery, for instance. My critic wrote, “YOU’RE TELLING A STORY, NOT JUST TALKING ABOUT STUFF!”

Was it a boring way to describe it? Yes. The best way to describe it? No. But was I just talking about stuff? No. That was my way of telling the story.

The agent I met with afterwards (who also didn’t care for sci-fi), and I discussed this issue when I had the epiphany that I didn’t need to tell it from the protag’s point of view. I switched back and forth throughout the book already, so why not tell it from her lover’s? A man who very much hated their community, who knew damn well of the wrongs they could do. Who while she was living a life of ease, he was running for his life.

I had done many rewrites of the intro, but none of them that I liked. This new epiphany worked really well, solving some of the complaints—except it didn’t set up the world as well.

After the change, I started to get comments of, “I’m confused.” It began to be the only consistent remark in a sea of, “I don’t like this one word.”

It took me sometime to understand this undertone because few people actually said they were confused. As I stated, most gave orders. “Do this, change that.” It wasn’t immediately apparent what they were trying to solve. I gave the first few chapters of my manuscript out to many people, I went to writers groups, and I would say that it was about eight months later that I started to get some constancy.

I practiced simplifying my language in places, looking for moments that more than one person got stuck on (which was rare). I asked a fellow writer to circle each moment she got confused only to have her read through it and say, “I guess I understand everything.”

This process, as you can imagine, was incredibly frustrating.

I continued to write in this time. Not as much as I would like. I could feel my writing getting lazier as it applied the simplicity. I didn’t want to take any risks anymore. I was fixated on what people would say with every word I put down.

My manuscript did get cleaner. In the process of receiving feedback, I also cut out about one-third of it. The last 20,000 words were just me trimming any excess verbiage I didn’t need. I became more succinct and more simplified. I also made content changes, and I think those were more effective than the altering the prose.

I don’t feel like I’ve devolved in my ability, but I do think I’m safer. As I read through these scribbled pieces of paper, I see words and phrasing I don’t even know how I came up with. Are they pretentious? Jarring? Some. In the right eyes? Definitely. Or definitely not. It’s hard to tell.

I’ve never believed in the pleas for simplistic writing. It has its place, it needs to exist, and for those who love it, they should write it. But I have always said I enjoy a good turn-a-phrase and have felt restricted by people’s assurances that you can’t get away with it anymore. We want simple and to the point. Writers who play with words don’t care about readers. People only use big words to show off. Why use a big one when a shorter one will do?

I struggled to find the right balance. I didn’t want a dense read, but a challenging one. I didn’t want to sound like a show off, but I still wanted a narrator with a voice. I wanted readers to enjoy the work. I wanted my writing to hit an emotional note. Why wasn’t it working?

As I look back over my pieces and see the evolution of my style, I won’t say that everything is better than what I do today. In some ways, definitely not. Revising old scripts, I find myself cutting a lot of standing around time. “He froze.” “She looked at him.” But I managed to do something natural, something real, something strangely charming that I feel is lost in what I’m working on now.

What this means for me, more than anything, is the revelation of the same old feeling I should have already recognized. As I realized that I did truly like my writing, I understand that, no matter what I said, I had always secretly denied liking it. I had assumed it was only my pride. I believed I was just another inexperienced asshat who refused to recognize I was overwriting.

My style today might be less jarring, but it’s also a lot more safe. I’m going to see what I can do about that.



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