Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Immaculate Conception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Book is Like a Toy

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

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

That being said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-The prime goal is not realism but appeal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 16, 2012

5 Tips to Making Your Story Weirder

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

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

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

1. Notice assumptions.

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

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

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

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

2. Question why choices were made.

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

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

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

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

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

3. Problem solve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Take from personal life.

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Wrongful Disregard of Wasted Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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