Friday, January 25, 2013

How to Get the Most Out of a Writing Class

Despite having decided on the career in middle school, I didn’t take many writing classes outside of the mandatory English. I had my typical, fearful, egotistical, and disenchanted reasons for doing so. It’s why I became a theatre major instead of something that would be more useful, like English. (Joke intended.)

I believed that writing classes were filled with egos, that they taught the professor’s closed minded opinion, that they would illustrate to me just how many people were doing the exact same thing, that they would prove I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, and that it wouldn’t really improve me as much as demoralize me.

Over time I’ve come to realize that I was pretty much correct.

Nevertheless, one of the things I regret is not utilizing the lessons I had. The reality is that though a classroom is not a pure entity for art to be discussed openly, honestly, intelligently, and thoroughly, it is one of the few places the discussion can happen at all. Once outside of it, you are really alone.

-Don’t waste energy trying to impress.

Being impressive has its rewards, but it tends not to be worth it when you’re in a room full of people who not only have no effect on your future, but would rather be ghost writers for teenage romance novels than be impressed by you.

Looking good is hard enough for a neutral audience, let alone a competitive one. Of course, having a teacher think that you’re talented may encourage him to help you, but, discounting extreme exceptions, the best he can do is a good letter of recommendation and a grade. But, and more importantly, the professor is not immune to feeling in competition, and even the honest, open minded, friendly ones have trouble trying not to impress their students. Being impressed by those same students is counterproductive to being impressive.

This doesn’t mean not to do your best work. It just means that a student who fixates on impressing will divert a lot of energy to it, be more susceptible for offense, and have a harder time to objectively take in information being given by the unimpressed. The hard work should be oriented towards potentially impressing readers outside of the classroom, utilizing those in the classroom to get feedback on how to make that happen.

In that context, peers’ opinions only matter as far to help the student learn. The only reason to care what they think is so that he can prepare himself for like opinions in the future. Of course, people’s feelings and thoughts are important in general, but inside a learning environment they don’t need to be kept wholly intact.

The best way to learn is to look at feedback objectively, dissect it, and throw away the useless bits to keep the good parts. The fact of the matter is that in a classroom setting, there’s going to be bad advice, cruel advice, advice far too focused on being clever to be clear, biased advice, and misinterpreted advice. But, unfortunately, it doesn't mean it is useless advice. There are idiots in the real world too. When someone is a jerk, as it is likely someone will be, the writer can think about it with clarity, as long as they’re not too fixated on disappointment.

-It’s not going to make you write the best work possible, it’s about teaching you how to make the best work possible.

You’re going to be asked to do something ridiculous. It will be busy work, it will be contextual tools, it will be above your head. Sometimes it will even be something that the teacher wants to teach because he wants to talk about it or because he thinks it makes him look good. Whatever it is, whatever reason there is for it, it might ruin your work.

One of the hang ups we get into is this scenario. The teacher asks for a change and we don’t want to make it. We think, or even know, it will diminish the ending result. However, the number one way to learn is by doing. Most tools and techniques are contextual, meaning that this book might be best made without an outline, but to get through that one, the author needs to start planning it out. This means that often your story is better off without utilizing a technique, but practice using it while you still can get feedback on it helps the author to do it later when another story needs it. Experimenting is best for a time when you are being forced by outsiders to work but not being obligated to come up with anything good.

Of course, most teachers do not think that they aren’t trying to help you make this story the best it can be, but their motive doesn’t change yours. Honestly, the number one problem in classes is when the professor tries too hard to make the story “good” and disregards what the author is going for. But if the writer knows all of this and sits there remembering that this does not have to be The Story, at least not while in the class, he can experiment without fear of how it’s going to come out.

If you like the story how it is, keep the draft and make a copy to play around with. Class is a rare moment in which the author can screw around and be creative with his work, get feedback, and have no real ramifications. I know that this can often feel like wasted effort, but the reward will come later on.

-Write a lot before signing up.

This isn’t a requirement, in that if an author wants to take a class on a spur of the moment, he should go right ahead. Don’t allow arbitrary excuses to stop you from taking opportunity.

But, writing class is a lot like math class: you don’t know what you don’t know until you try it for yourself. No matter how much the teacher explains how to do it, until you actually attempt the problem, you won’t realize what you don’t get.

Each author goes into the art world with some sort assumption, right, wrong, superficial, philosophical, judgmental, etc. Becoming aware of, understanding, utilizing, confronting, changing, or circumnavigating those assumptions often requires experiencing, not just being told.

Controversial concepts like writing by inspiration versus planning, balancing artistic decisions with business decisions, keeping up appearances, and basic suggestions like “Show, don’t tell,” are best understood from an experienced perspective, not a theoretical one.

I spent the good portion of my childhood being told basic and seemingly inane demands in art classes, like singing with my mouth wide enough to fit three fingers in. These “rules” which are sometimes right and sometimes wrong, but most often sometimes right and sometimes wrong, are extremely hard to understand when the student is not aware of why. Yes, the teacher can try to explain it, but that’s not as easy said as done. For one thing, he might not know. For another thing it is often based off a complex series of problems that, not only would take a long time to go into detail on, but take even longer to convince them each problem really exists.

Lastly, having written a lot, it combats the idea of this story being The Story. The more an author writes, the better he is at compartmentalizing, experimenting, and looking at it objectively. While he is still trying to make The Story, his priority is perfection (which doesn’t allow for creative risks) and to utilize a mass of ideas that may not fit in it. Having already written The Story, the author can now be satisfied with writing this story.

-It’s not about whether it’s right or wrong, it’s about why it’s right or wrong.

Sometimes it’s hard for students to get past that a teacher can be wrong. Sometimes, while being fully aware that he is wrong, it’s hard to believe he is malicious.

Of course, there are thousands of good, honest, and helpful teachers in the world. There also just happen to be a good number who are horrible people. Good professors can be wrong and bad professors can be right, and it’s hard to tell each time, especially because right and wrong is usually not black and white.

When someone gives a suggestion that seems false, the usual instinct is to just question it outright. He says, “The sky is green.” Clearly it isn’t. End of conversation.

But why would he say that?

Either he is lying or he is mistaken. Or a weird mixture of both. Why would he lie? Why would he believe what he is saying? To qualify the advice, we answer these questions.

In this example, he might be trying to make some sort of point you don’t understand. He might be colorblind. Suddenly, realizing that, the author is benefited in two obvious ways. First and foremost, the next time the teacher says to her, “You have too much green in your painting,” and she’s looking at it and remembers that her professor is colorblind, then she can think, “Is there too much blue here?” Secondly, she becomes aware of colorblindness in general, that not everyone will see it in the same way she does, and she can take that into consideration where she’d never thought about it like that before.

Even when lying or mistaken, it doesn’t mean that it’s completely useless. Often it is only partially wrong or contextually wrong. Sometimes it is actually wrong and superficially correct. And, as I’ve said before, there are moments the wrong answer is the best one. Thinking about “why” clarifies the usability of a concept, going past just the “that doesn’t make sense” stage.

-Understand the teacher.

I’ve discussed several times in the article that teachers come in many different shapes and sizes. Having a great, intelligent, and talent professor is fantastic. It’s also unlikely that he won’t have some flaws. And is more unlikely that, no matter how horrible, idiotic, and hack-like he is, he won’t have something to teach you.

But understanding the levels of knowledge to maliciousness allows for the student to take into consideration the biases that leads him to the “why” of what he says.

Knowing his pet peeves—what he is always going to say is wrong no matter what—his crutches—what he always is going to say what is wrong when he doesn’t know what—and his biases—how much he hates the whole lot of you—will help you take his advice with a grain of salt, and separate truth from contextual opinion.

As kids, students often look up to teachers as different entities. It’s hard to be empathetic with someone you’ve removed humanity’s flaws from. Teachers can’t be embarrassed, bitter, or ignorant. Sure, we can describe those traits, but, at least when young, it’s still not the same form of embarrassment as we feel. They’re past it. Of course, when young, often our problems are ours alone anyway, no matter the age of the outsider.

The why is such an important part of understanding that trying to be apathetic to who the teacher is is like trying to learn through osmosis. It can be done, but, since you’re there, you might as well get the best of it.

It is beneficial to be respectful and attempt to be on the teacher’s good side. Understanding that he is a malicious idiot allows you to take that into consideration while getting his advice, but doesn’t mean you should treat him like he’s out to get you. It will just cause problems for yourself.

-Pretend you are already the author you want to be.

The best way to use advice is to not take offense. The biggest reason for offensive is insecurity. Now I am the first person to believe that if someone feels they should be offended, they’re right. Being insulted is not wrong, it’s just useful to overcome.

Everyone feels like a hack. If not constantly, at least at one point in their life. Especially when they’re just starting out. Especially when they’re being surrounded by competitive assholes who are trying to prove why they’re winning.

Self-respect makes ignoring the tones for the sake of content and utilizing insults as tools a whole lot easier. Instead of using classmates as proof “I am meant to do this,” already believing it will make their attacks meaningless.

Of course, getting self-respect is easier said than done, which is why I say “pretend.” Imagining yourself as the person you want to be is more powerful than we would think, as long as you commit to it. It won’t be easy, and it won’t always be successful, but it can be a lot more beneficial than doing nothing. Especially when you’ll probably be seeing yourself as a hack even with three bestsellers and a Nobel Peace Prize.

It is important to take the power into your own hands, to be in charge of yourself, to respect yourself, and to believe in yourself. Few people will push you. Some will not want you to succeed. You can't always control what you are told and who you are hearing it from, but you can say how much you'll get out of it. Getting feedback, and good feedback, takes a lot of effort, more than the writing Wiki’s would like to indicate. So, having it be so rare and hard to find, it is important to get the most out of it, no matter how terrible the quality.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Why a Good Book is Hard to Write

We all know that a good book is hard to create, but when it comes to the reasons why it tends to be treated as self-evident. Mostly it takes a genius to do it, and who are we to understand how genius works?

Of course, for those of us who do not recognize our own genius, the question as to what’s hard about it is an important one. Understanding the complexities and challenges an author has to overcome gives him more control than blind dependence on luck.

Problem 1: Good is too broad a target.

Anything can be good, but not anything is. If you’ve ever looked at a popular book, whether it be a best seller or classic, and gone, “What the hell?” you’ve experienced what I’m talking about.

It is very difficult to predict what will be successful, which is why Hollywood’s business plan is based off of nearly every film losing money. Good can be any emotion, lack of emotion (for that roller coaster ride we all crave), different from person to person, different based on moods, different base on fads, and based from things out of the author’s control, such as the book he’s being compared to and the perception of himself as a person. So can bad. It cannot be quantified in a concrete manner, nor can it be narrowed down by mistakes and successes others have made.

Part of the problem in predicting what is successful is that there’s a thousand choices and their opposites that, in the right situation, will be beloved, and in the wrong one, will damaging.

The simplest example to express this is comedy versus drama. A scene that makes you tear up in laughter is a good moment. One that makes you tear up in grief is a good moment. Sometimes, a scene that makes you laugh will be inappropriate in a spot, or just irrelevant. A common argument editors and writers get into is, “You need to delete this scene,” and “But it’s funny!”

Being funny can be a right choice, and it can be a wrong choice, and that same situation can be differently viewed by two separate people.

As an author, you will (or do) constantly find yourself asking, “Should I change this?” The issue that it could be good, that though you personally don’t like something doesn’t mean other people won’t, makes it really hard to decide. Editing is a lot more difficult than indicated because you may very well hate your own work and have the rest of the world disagree or just the opposite.

Problem 2: What readers like, say they like, and want to like, are three independent things.

One of the reasons I have a problem with Absurdist theatre (a style of plays similar to that of Dadaism or abstract art) has more to do with a small sampling of enthusiasts who gush about it, laud it, copy it, insist upon it, and then refuse to go see it. I could find the type more appealing if I didn’t feel that there were a whole bunch of con artists who wanted the emperor to actually be wearing the clothes.

We define ourselves by our tastes, whether it be books, movies, music, or clothing. So, there becomes this problematic catalyst in which either our self-loathing or our society-loathing leads us to think that that fluffy romance book that we are in love with says something bad about us, where as that boring Russian novel about a cockroach getting out of bed says we are intelligent.

Now, of course, though these three factors are independent, they can also overlap. We can actually like something that makes us look good to like. An author could, thereby, write an entertaining intellectual work all in one. The problem is that part of “being unique” means not liking things that the masses do. So even when you manage to write something meaningful and entertaining, there’s going to be a good portion of the population saying, “look at me! I hate it!” (Which is not to deny the fact that there will be some honest readers who actually don’t find it meaningful and entertaining.)

Problem 3: Readers demand for realism and style all in once.

Sometimes we have to choose; do we want to say what people believe or what they want to hear? The answer isn’t obvious, for those of you who are thinking it should be, because, for one thing, I didn’t give enough information.

Because we need a good balance, because we can’t enjoy something we don’t believe, and because we don’t care about something that doesn’t have some appeal to it, then the decision isn’t one sided. And that’s what makes it hard. Though we can sit down and try to write something truly realistic, unless that is your artistic goal, most books, and most of the best books, combine the story that we want to hear with anchors to reality. Though I say that appeal is a priority, the balance varies from work to work based around the intended goal.

This makes it really hard to sit down and decide something, oh say, whether or not to murder a character, because, like my experience with the Harry Potter books, killing off the wrong one may just as well ruin the book for the reader. Because though a death in a dangerous situation is more realistic, it is not usually more enjoyable.

Problem 4: The reader’s understanding of fictional reality is different than actual reality.

Our subconscious mind constantly tries to organize facts into a “normal” category, which really translates to an “assume therefore don’t have to think about” category. Despite this laziness, the subconscious is extremely intelligent—it is what allows us to multitask. It is able to have several normal categories for different contexts, and one of those contexts is while reading a book.

There’s too many of them to list, but a few examples are lies, heroism, and success. Characters rarely lie in fiction. When they do, it’s for an intended point. Where as in fiction the assumption is that they’re telling the truth until it’s indicated otherwise, in reality, we are more suspicious, and recognize that people will lie for no reason. When there is a burning building with a baby inside, it is not a shock when the protagonist rushes in, despite not being a fireman or even superhero. In reality, however, when there is an accident, many cars will pass them by without even calling. When a character applies to a poetry contest, it is weird if he doesn’t win. When a friend of ours decides that she’s applying to Vassar, she’s told it’s a waste of time.

The problem is, in the same way that we have to sacrifice some realism to give people what they want, we can’t just use our knowledge of reality to fix problems in a script. We have to know some of the “rules” or expectations that are only in existence because “they just are.” Either to change, circumnavigate, or meet with the reader’s assumptions, it becomes important that the author learns “literary reality” just as much as “actual reality.”

Problem 5: The author is required to follow expectations, including the expectation of defying expectation.

For the reasons above, we have to “learn the rules to learn to break them.” And what that actually means is we have to abide by expectations to look like we know what we’re doing. If you think that is idiotic, then you’re right. If you don’t want to deal with that kind of pandering, then you have the right to be proud. But, the writing world has a culture of its own, and in order to start making changes, an author must prove he’s an expert. In the same way that an American needs to learn Mandarin if he wants to be successful in China, simply knowing a rule allows him to use it when important, even if he still mostly speaks English.

The problem is that a good book doesn’t just abide by the expectations, it goes beyond them. It takes chances, risks, and does things that other people (seemingly) haven’t thought of. In some cases, in fact, the book doesn’t go with any of the rules.

Which is the question that gives us authors a headache. When so many people are not only convinced, but willing to be convinced by pretty cons passing off as intellectual gibberish like Gertrude Stein, and yet the other half of the readers are utilizing blatant disregard of the rules as a way to criticize, trying to edit a book becomes a pain in the neck. (And if you are a fan of Gertrude Stein and you understand her, then just seethe in your superiority because I’m not changing my mind.) How do you know what to fix when so many people are getting away with spewing thoughts on a page? At least with regular and consistent expectations the author gets to know what the standards are, but because the traditions constantly shift, the question of “should I change this” becomes harder.

Problem 6: Maintaining a reputation as a genius.

Though writers hardly are celebrities, even the ones like Stephen King, and we’d be hard put to know the name of who wrote the book, let alone anything about them, the problem of reputation is still there.

It’s like this: Someone reads a story that really speaks to him. It is beautiful, philosophical, and says exactly what he’s been thinking. Then he finds out that it was a self-published book by a 17 year old Goth girl. Does it change his opinion of it? It might. Or it might do the opposite and make him think that the girl was a prodigy. The point is that either way, in order for a reader to admire a writer, he must feel that the everyman couldn't duplicate it.

This is one of the reasons that pure self-expression rarely works, because admission of faults makes the gods bleed. Of course, the assumption is that a true genius will express himself and have no faults, so if an author must play by the rules and do a second draft, clearly he isn't mean to do it. Which is part of the rationale on why most successful artists view themselves as hacks.

All of the authors with flaws and normal human motivations must pretend like those troubles don’t exist. That they don’t have a silly view on something, that they’re not trying to make money, that they don’t care what other people think, etc.

This makes it hard to create a great book because it is an expectation that encourages bullshitting. We demand that fantastic stories be a form of pure self-expression, but then demand that only superior, god-like humans are allowed to do it. And, as anyone knows, no real genius actually recognizes without being told what is genius about him. Before then, his genius normal to him. Though, of course, the world is filled with open minded and intelligent people who don’t expect celebrities to be perfect, they are usually not the ones reviewing. So, for someone who does believe in the "right way to write," he will have to reveal his flaws, and be criticized. Or, more likely, he will think he is not worthy and quit when he got two pages in. Like when a woman asks if these pants make her butt look big, people expect pure honesty, but only the kind they want, which means that either the only writer accepted is Jesus or a con artist. A good writer has to be a little bit of both, and that's quite a high demand.

Problem 7: The definition of quality constantly changes.

Not only does “what is good” change by person to person, society to society, mood to mood, but once a great book is made, its qualities becomes untouchable. While, say, building a car, the engine that works will always work, at least discounting certain concrete variables like weight. While building a book, the plot has already been used and cannot be used again in its entirety, even (or especially) if the contextual variables stay the same. You could write Star Wars in Atlantis, but people are pretty much going to catch on and be unamused.

Every time we try to put down on paper exactly what is “good,” it immediately contradicts it. If everyone wrote short, succinct, simple, and clear sentences, then the author who is poetic stands out.

A story is like a picture, the work being the image, the works it’s being compared to the background. Though all we can control is the image, the background color affects it. As books shift in popularity and notoriety, it changes how your book is seen.


Problem 8: Writing fiction is lying, thus it taints everyday word and tone.

This is the greatest issue when it comes to pure “self-expression.” When writing a fiction book, we are making it up on the spot. When writing it without any self manipulation, we will tell the absolute truth—the truth that it is being made up.

Tone is based around motivation. And though tone is hard to read in text, it is still there. As an acting teacher, I have constantly had students insist that if the character is just talking, then if they just talk, it would be good acting. However, a listener can tell when someone is speaking from memorization or when they’re speaking off the top of their head. Your voice changes. It's the same with text.

Dialogue should be the easiest thing for the author to write, but for many, it is the hardest. When writing from an honest perspective, the characters sound forced, like they are lying. And the reality is, it’s because they are.

Problem 9: We don’t notice reality.

This isn’t to say we’re stupid. Our mind just focuses on what it thinks it needs to and ignores the rest. In the same way we can’t remember the words to our favorite song without the music, draw the shape of Africa without looking at a map, or know the size of the Statue of Liberty, things that we feel we should know, we don’t.

Not only does Hollywood have its affect, such as using fake sound effects for gunshots, but simple lack of attention does its part. Again, this is not an insult. A person who tries to notice everything, especially inane everyday things, will drive himself insane. There are only a few who have photographic memories, and they are usually autistic-savants.

This, of course, affects the whole “self-expression” issue, in that a person who writes without conscientious thought will often gloss over or misinterpret how the world works, even when they are writing what they know. But, more importantly, there is a web of problems. The author is trying to write a story that is convincing, but first, not only does he not necessarily know what reality looks like, but neither does the reader. So even when he gets it right, she’s not necessarily going to believe him, especially considering that readers do have different expectations of fiction than reality.

Problem 10: Nothing is wrong until it starts affecting other aspects.

Think of the times in which a teacher, peer, or article has told you a piece of advice that couldn’t be true. Part of the problem, often, is that they use the word never, as in “never use adverbs.”

The reason why “the rules” are made to be broken, is because nothing is wrong until is in the wrong context. The use of adverbs is not about the use of an adverb, but the number of adverbs it’s been paired with. It is about the forced dialogue with a forced passion. It is about a beautiful dialogued ruined by the forced passion. The adverb isn’t the enemy, the result is.

What this means is that often times the author can’t be sure of a mistake, or a way to fix that mistake until he looks at the end result. And even then, it is not necessarily a mistake, but a direction it took. Most writers aren’t not fully aware of the direction they want to go, or are committed to that direction. Because the direction they chose might not even be the best way to go, it makes that question of “should I change this?” even harder.

Problem 11: Sometimes the wrong answer is the right one.

A gunshot, in a film, is not actually what a gunshot sounds like. If a movie was to do the real sound, it is less likely to confront people’s assumptions as to what guns sound like and be more likely to distract them from the action.

At some point in your writing career, someone will tell you “you’re doing that wrong.” Odds are, you’re not, or, more to the point, it doesn’t matter. In the same way that the argument on whether a comma goes after an "and" in a list or not, there will be times when someone insists that something inane be done another way. And sometimes, it’s best just to abide by it, even when it’s wrong.

It’s hard to tell when to do it as it really is done and when to do it how we think it's done. Of course, the correct way is usually the best way, but in certain cases, such as the gunshot, it is just best to meet with expectations so as not to distract from what’s important. Sometimes, however, it’s best to tell them to go to hell. Every author needs to learn how to tell the difference.

The point is that some of the greatest books are those that cheat, and those that refuse to cheat are just shooting themselves in the foot. And being surprised by the sound that comes out.

Problem 12: People are different.

As everyone knows, what one person likes isn’t what another person likes. What one person believes, what one person understands, what one person assumes, and what one person imagines is not necessarily what anyone else does.

When it comes to the question of “What should I change?” the fact that some people will disagree with you, about whether or not it should be changed or what it should be changed to, makes it all the more confusing.

We don’t know how unique we truly are. Sure, we have ideas, but it’s not something that can be depended upon, especially when we know there are people out there who disagree with us, we just don’t know how many.

Subjectivity is a beast unable to be slain. These problems, inane or not, will never have a right answer. It is possible, however, to utilize the knowledge of why something is so hard to better combat frustration and acknowledge the time to sacrifice and the time to stand your ground. An author's goal may not be specifically to write a good book, it may not even be about being successful, but, for the majority, no one wants to write without readers, and the best way to get readers is to write a good book.

Friday, January 11, 2013

How to Judge Your Own Work

A long time ago, while pretending to write, I was surfing the internet, reading writing articles, when I came across one that insisted that it is impossible for an author to know how good his own work is. If this is the case, not only does it discredit the creator’s ability to understand himself, but it makes editing impossible. The point of the article was to tell an aspiring writing to get feedback, yet it was a gross inconsideration on how unlikely getting good feedback is. The average unpublished author would be lucky to get one person to read his novel for free, let alone get a response. Let alone get a useful response. The fact of the matter is, until that book gets picked up by an agent, for most of the journey, you’re on your own.

That means that in order to get the book good enough to be looked at, he needs to make some judgment calls for himself.

-You know how you feel. Trust it and ask why.

For some authors the first step is to notice how they feel. People who are more guarded, reserved, even dignified, often have a wall between them and their emotions. If you are one of these people, then the important thing is to turn around and examine the thoughts you’d been trying to keep your back to.

After that, the important thing is to believe yourself. Of course, you’re going to be biased, but the great thing is that, although the lines are blurry and vague, you’re still going to be able to recognize what those biases are better than any outsider’s. You might not be able to tell how much of your feeling is to do with being prejudice, but that doesn’t mean you’re completely inept at recognizing it.

One of the damaging biases is remembering why you wrote what you did. Knowing where you were coming from puts in more information than the objective reader will have. This is why the “drawer” technique is useful. Putting it away for a while will make you forget your perspective and take on a new one.

The most useful question, however, is why do I feel this way? When the author hates what he wrote, then his immediate instinct is to abandon it. The most typical reasons for not enjoying what you made is because it turned out differently than you wanted, because you expected more of yourself, because you fear it is a sign that you weren’t meant to be a writer, or because you have a certain level of self-loathing (which most of us do).

Usually it is a mixture of things, all solvable as long as you do your best to first identify the problem.

-Treat yourself as you would treat others.

They say not to try to make love to the world; you’ll only get pneumonia. I think it’s more likely you’d get gonorrhea, but I think that’s a more modern take.

One of the problems the author faces is the fact that multiple paths can lead to the city of “good,” but indecision and attempts to split the difference will end him up just lost.

It’s important to start narrowing down exactly where you want to end up. The city is a big place, but there are some bad parts of town. Furthermore, you get there, and you might find yourself stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. An author gets a reputation for thrillers and all of the sudden his romance books can’t get published. Worse, he hates writing thrillers.

Using an individual judge versus a demographic helps to make specific decisions. When a book is written for “kids” it’s hard to predict its success before it actually sees print. Children, like everyone else in the world, have many different tastes, so just because one finds your story on dinosaurs dull as hell doesn’t mean others will. You might use a topic kids love, but, because it’s written badly, no one cares. If you have one kid in mind, thinking “would she like this?” versus “would they like this?” you have a more crisp reality of what is wrong with it.

The knowledge that people are different is actually a handicap. One of the hardest questions to answer is, “I don’t like this, but will other people?” Personally, I see this thought process as a trap. When Hollywood comes out with a bad film, it seems to reek of it. “I think this concept is idiotic, and you think it’s idiotic, but they, the common denominators of our audience, will love it!”

It can be true, and it can work. Which is why it is so commonly used. It is so hard to know what is taste and what is error that it often prevents us from making any decision at all. But indecision is the worst decision we can make. The definition of good is already so vague that the more optional contexts involved the more we compound the problem.

Unless your mind is extremely different from the norm, which you will know by your inability to communicate, you have things in common with other people. Utilizing yourself as an individual judge will help cut down on viable options, leading to a more cohesive and directed thought. Though anything can be good, it isn’t always good together, and though tastes are too varied to try and make everyone happy.

-Have a vision (and cut down options).

For the same reason as above, having a specific vision will help you cut down on the possibilities. Most authors don’t start out with a full idea of what they want, and there is nothing wrong with writing without direction. However, sometime during the editing process, it is important to start saying “This is what I want.”

When not caring what happens as long as people like it, the author has too many options to contend with to really make a decision. He knows something’s wrong with this scene, and he could do a thousand things to it, from cutting all together to changing an event one hundred pages in. How he knows what to do is dependent on what he wants the result to be. So he’s sitting there thinking, “This scene is really funny, but the humor keeps cutting into the tension in the wrong spots.” Both of those are qualities to a good work, but not together. He might realize that the scene is best for making the characters likable, thus he keeps the quips and removes the hostility from the argument. Or, he might want the very opposite and get rid of the humor to add to the tension. Whatever he does, he needs to head in a specific direction, which means getting rid of a good detail for the benefit of the big picture.

-Judge other people’s work.

School doesn’t teach critiquing or editing very extensively. They like to say they do, of course, but then their English classes are filled with teachers saying, “It’s not about whether or not you like it,” and demanding that the writer sits in silence while receiving criticism. No one gives feedback on feedback, comments on comments, or critiques critiquing. We often believe that it is an innate talent that doesn’t need practicing, and then are surprised when we ask someone what they think and all they can say is, “It was good.”

When I say “judge” I mean, “to judge,” good and bad. “Why do I like this?” “Why do I hate this?” More importantly, “Why do I hate this and other people like it?” Those popular books you hate the most are often the best study tools.

Some authors, of course, don’t need to be told to do this, and are very good at dissecting things on their own. For these people, the only thing to do is make active censorship choices. Critiquing things you don’t care about is an important part of being able to critique yourself, but sometimes it’s important to not let people know you’re doing it.

-Don’t be a martyr for things you don’t care about.

It is common, and understandable, to want to reject rude advice, inane advice, and idiotic advice. Sometimes, however, the quality of the project is dependent on making sacrifices, especially incredibly stupid ones for incredibly stupid reasons.

The writing world is a culture on its own, a well judged one at that. There are some things, like plot structure, that people have inane expectations on. There are some things, like a male’s voice being used for movie trailers, that probably should be changed. But if it’s your movie, a movie not about feminism at all, sometimes sacrificing a moral that your film isn’t dealing with will best to support the moral it’s actually about.

This can range from big issues like racism down to little issues like if it’s okay to use a semicolon. Unfortunately knowing when isn’t that easy; an author shouldn’t always listen to what they’re told. Readers reading a published book will often not care that about the adverbs used that the readers reading the draft did. Sometime’s a critic’s stupidity is unique to him. Sometimes an inane change can surprisingly ruin the work. Sometimes it’s important not to compromise your ideas just because someone else doesn’t like them. Sometimes it is best to ignore it. Sometimes it isn’t.

An easy way to know is through objectivity, in the normal sense of the term, but, more importantly in a business wise and artistic wise. When one clearly overrides the other (it’s doesn’t change much artistically, but it will affect the likability) then you have your choice made for you.

Although, of course, usually it is not that cut and dried.

Like looking at a photograph of himself, it can be hard for an author to glimpse something that just may prove his worst fears. But, like photos, one bad picture does not mean an ugly face. And unlike photographers, authors can fix ugly. The biggest obstacle in judging your own work is taking that first step to look at it. Remember that what you see is easier fixed than it looks, and that, whether or not you suck, you’re still judging yourself more harshly than you would of a photo of anyone else. Unless you believe that an author is only allowed to write if he is an innate genius, then the first draft’s ugliness shouldn’t matter to you. You can always fix it, even if you don’t have anyone else helping you.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

It's Not about the Means

The phrase, “the end justifies the means,” is usually spewed by some dark robed, mustachioed man in movies to explain why he did the things he did, giving him legitimate motivation for slaughtering a hundred peasants. It is an opinion that is made for the pure definition of “evil,” and rarely do we accept anyone saying it in reality.

When I talk about the “means” not being important, I am not promoting murder.

A book is the sum of its parts. Unlike math, when sticking two sums, or “means” together, the ends don’t always come out the same. Two different people could write the same exact story, yet have a huge gap in quality. Unlike reality, when a writer chose to focus on the ends, the worst that can happen is that he makes a bad book, which is why it is okay to pay attention to only the ends. The sums do not matter until they are together into a total.

If you have ever been criticized, and I’m sure you have, then there has been a point where someone has given you an idiotic criticism. Worse, is that you have probably heard something that you did not understand, that seemed to make absolutely no sense, or at least seemed to be incredibly inaccurate.

For instance, let’s take the word said. Said is a controversial topic in the writing world, because you have half of the teachers preaching “We should never use it!” and the other half teaching “We should only use it!”

But, when said like that, it is obviously wrong. The arguments are sound—said has the tendency to be extremely overused, but it is also one word that people really don’t pay attention to—its flaw has everything to do with the way they phrase it.

The problem with a lot of writing advice is that it is so simplified it becomes false. Don’t ever use said really means, “Don’t overuse said.” But for obvious reasons, a teacher can’t put it that way. What is overuse? How do I know when I am overusing it? It is easier for them to assume you are overusing it, tell you to stop all together, believe you won’t listen but will start paying attention, and thus come to a better balance. It’s not actually a terrible method—it can work—but it is one that teaches the student not to trust a damn word that professor says.

Why? Because all great books use said. You will not find a single one that never has the word, and you will be harder put to find one that only has the word.

Said is a sum. Said + Said + Said = Repetitive. Except the problem is, again, unlike math, the sum does not stay the same as each extra sum is added. Eight is always an eight, but Said + Complicated and Poetic Prose is different than Said + Simple and Succinct Prose. Which is to say “too many” saids has to do with other aspects of the story, and when one of those aspects changes, what is “too many” changes as well.

So when you receive that nonsensical criticism—oh say, you have too many characters—considering that they don’t care about that sum as much as the total will help you understand it. What is “too many”? There is no such thing as “too many.” Maybe you wanted exactly “that many.” Other books will have the exact same number of characters, and they don’t have “too many.”

Critics tend to phrase things in absolutes to inspire confidence and respect. People who are unsure of themselves are often ignored more than someone who is a great bullshit artist. The problem is that “too many” is a sum, not a total, but it affects the total, and the total is what you care about. Which means that the guy who sits in the writing group and works on being the most clever ass you’ve ever seen will be wrong about you using that specific means, but may be right in that it would be the easiest (most obvious) way to affect the end result.

It’s like this, the book did not turn out the way the critic thought it should. He believes that the best solution is to start cutting characters. He tells the author just exactly that. She, whose entire vision was wrapped around this number of characters, thinks he’s an idiot (rightly so.) However, she can still take into consideration how the critic “thought the book should turn out” and utilize that to understand the problem (i.e. what total he expected.) Then, and here’s the important part, though she does not want to start cutting characters, she can alter other sums she does not care about to achieve the total she wants. She realizes the total is “Boring.” She wants it to be “Entertaining.” So instead of cutting characters, she goes through, defines a protagonist, and puts him in more (if not all scenes) thereby making it more interesting because the reader is connected to this one character and not disjointed every time a story switches.

But then we get to the problem. Very few authors know what total they want.

It’s likely that you’ve had this exact feeling. You have no specific goal in how the book turns out, but you do know certain parts you want to put in. You write the book using these “sums” and then, at the end, you realize you don’t like it. Then you’re sitting there, stumped as to what you want to change and how you want to change it.

It’s like this: If an author doesn’t know approximately what total she’s aiming for, then it’s very hard to hit it. And, for the very reason that all the sums will change the moment she alters one, simple trial and error doesn’t work. Lastly, and most importantly, as more authors focus on thinking, “I want to use an eight,” and less time on thinking, “I want to get to 20,” they have a huge problem of calculating the right sums to use for three reasons. 1) The eight will change when we change the six next to it. 2) Eight might not be a beneficial sum. 3) Eight is an indication of the total they want to come to.

It’s like this. I have an idea for a love story. I want the setting to be dystopian (sum.) And I have this idea for this conversation that happens somewhere in the middle (sum.) Then I start writing. I have yet to have the real idea of how I want it to turn out, mostly because I want to leave my options open.

*Note that this is not a bad way to work, and I am not criticizing authors who behave in this manner. I am only trying to express how to fix the problems this specific method causes (and all methods will cause problems, so it doesn’t matter how you do it).

So I finish the book, and I don’t really like it. Now, first and foremost, having an idea of how it should have turned out would give me a clear direction how to fix it, but, like I said, most people don’t know that part. All I am aware of is I wanted that conversation.

So, first problem. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the conversation in the middle turned out exactly as pictured. But the scene before it is a little dull. So I pump it up with an action pack sequence. Yet, all of the sudden, the build up to the argument is gone and thus the passionate kiss doesn’t feel right. I didn’t change the dialogue or the events in the scene before, everything that had happened still happens, I just altered the intensity. Yet, everything I liked about the conversation has been tainted.

The second problem. Yes, the entire story was based around this conversation, but, as I’m looking at it, it is not only irrelevant to the plot, but it’s a little dull and breaks the action. Now, here’s the question: Do I change everything else to make my eight what I want it to be, or do I get rid of the eight all together? The answer is hard, and varies from context to context. Sometimes, if you get rid of the thought that the book was based around, all the desirability will run out the door. But other times, it’ll be obvious that you’re sticking to an idea because you like it, not because it is a good one.

The third problem. The conversation, the idea that inspired the entire story, gives you a hint of the total you wanted. The atmosphere, setting, relationship, and other aspects of the original conception of the scene tells you why you liked the idea in the first place and indicates what you were going for in the beginning. So, here’s the issue. Let’s say the scene did not come out how you wanted, and, really, it doesn’t matter. In order to achieve the tone you were looking for, you must delete the scene that that total is based around, which, though it is not helping the ends you are looking for, changing it gives you a bigger hole you have to fill. The scene takes you in a different direction that you want to go, but without it, the direction you did want to go is missing a huge part.

It comes down to this, figure out the general total you want. This is hard because, like the sums, the value of the total is constantly changing. It is because they are based around the other totals authors are coming up with. When twenty people use thirty, then thirty is actually six hundred, and we don’t want six hundred, we want thirty, so in order to get to thirty, we need to put down 10, which three other people have done. Of course, now that you’re doing it, that makes four, and ten becomes forty.

Quality of writing is literally that complicated. It’s subjective, always changing, and even when you know what answer is wrong, it’s damn hard to tell when it’s right.

Yet, I still maintain that creating a vision and trying to achieve that vision is the best way to eliminate a headache. Trying to write a “good” book is like trying to come up with any total, which may hit the right spot on the charts, but it is just as likely to not. It’ll all be based to chance, in the same way if you weren’t interested in getting people to like it at all. Usually with logic and gut, we can say, this is the sort of book that I like and I want to make, which is more likely to be what other people like and want to make. You are also affected by the ever changing sums, meaning your subconscious is more apt to recognizing what the current value is then logic.

Sitting down and saying “I want people to cry” is more useful than “I want people to feel something,” because it gives you a specific direction to go, and it becomes clear which “sums” are not beneficial to that mean. You want to come up with 1,273, then you know that it might not be a good time to use -590. If you say I want them to cry versus I want them to laugh, then you know that while that fart joke may be a good one, it is an inappropriate place for it.

Or maybe it is. It all depends on what other sums you’re using.