Friday, April 29, 2016

When Your Lovely Writer Spouse Has a Full-Blown Nervous Breakdown

Contrary to popular opinion, I am not having a nervous breakdown. This is just my face. But I can relate to having one, in fact, the empathy can make me sick.

So when I read about a man’s plight on his girlfriend throwing away her dreams in a memory stick, asking him to do the deed of disposing of it for her, I had to tear myself away from the computer to remove a sudden burst of anxiety.

He was asking on a forum what to do now that his girlfriend found the thumb drive and was trying to leave him.

According to the post, she had written numerous novels and been seeking agents for years. This search led to nothing, and the comments from the agents made her feel like she was just not good enough as a writer. At 30, she felt she had put everything into this childhood dream and had nothing to show for it. She abandoned her author friends, stopped writing, and put all her files on the one thing she used to back-up her work for the last ten years.

When she found it, she yelled at him for lying, grabbed her things, and moved in with her friend. She claimed she could never trust him again.

He explained he couldn’t bring himself to throw it out, heartbroken seeing her dreams destroyed, but she told him he didn’t know better than her.

It’s a common feeling. You think, especially when you are young, that if you try hard enough and in the right ways, you will one day succeed. Getting constant rejection, even just knowing how competitive a situation is, can make it impossible to push send on any submission. Feeling good, and the hope of feeling good, controls most of human motivation. So after years of having the reality of just how hard it is to get published pounded into you, there can come a moment in which everything hurts, looking to the future doesn’t bring excitement of possibility, but a cold void with only failures in it.

It’s something like a midlife crisis, really.

I went on sabbatical earlier this year for similar reasons. It wasn't the rejection, but the lack of progress. I knew that I was stressed, but I didn’t realize the depths of the depression that I had plummeted in until my family came to visit and we took probably the first real vacation we’d ever had, traveling all across Australia in a relaxed and smooth, non-stop barrage of activities. I had no idea the full extent of my apathy until I came out of it.

I’d say it had a lot to do with the changes in my life, but not really writing as much as I had wanted. Some, it became apparent, thought I was quitting and sent me encouraging emails telling me to absolutely not do so, which I appreciated, but didn’t particularly understand why. I’ve never had the urge to officially quit writing; I felt like if the dream did die, it would go softly in its sleep. As it should.

And for a time, I couldn’t even begin to imagine why someone needed to just quit. What benefit did it do them? I think I talked once before about a blogger who posted loyally every day until I found her, a year after her last one, saying she was done.

In her case, the announcement was necessary, but heart wrenching.

As I get older, I start to see the relief that may come with saying, “I’m done, I’m a failure, get this out of my life.” But honestly, that feeling would be the catharsis of throwing a tantrum, not actually the joy of letting go. The desire to just let yourself throw a hissy-fit is strong, especially in an emotional environment like this one.

What’s worse is for the loved one who has to deal with that, and what’s even worse is for him to be put in charge of actually doing the deed and destroying it.

What do you do when someone you love is giving up their dream? Do you let them?

Had it been me flipping out and threatening to end things, there would have been one simple response I would have wanted to hear:

“I’ve read your writing. You’re being ridiculous. I love you and am here no matter what you want to do, but I’m not throwing it out.”

Of course, he was terrified she was going to leave him. It’s funny how relationships seem from an objective standpoint. In my mind, there was no way she’d actually break it off with him over this; obviously she was taking out her pain on him, looking for something to be angry about to ease the hurt over her perceived failure. It is possible that she strongly hated her life and was, even unconsciously, seeking a means to get out of the relationship. Perhaps she hated him for other reasons. It’s easy to say that, “Well, if that’s the case then it should probably end anyway,” but when you’re in that situation that cold logic isn’t going to hold up against love and pain.

It can be hard to see a loved one quit something they’ve worked so hard at, to see them suffer, see them have a nervous breakdown, unable to emotionally handle the fear and rejection that comes with passion. It can be terrifying to think what they might do in that fit, how they could ruin the relationship that you have together. What do you do?

As an artist soul who has been overwhelmed, fearful, and can throw herself an epic tantrum that’d make a beauty queen flinch, here’s what I have to say to any person whose doesn’t know how to help their friend, lover, brother, sister, child, parent:

Don’t put up with that shit.

The no nonsense attitude isn’t just for your sanity. For someone who is hurting, who feels like she’s going crazy, who is taking out her pain on others, being told to knock it off can actually make the situation seem more bearable. If you act like she’s blowing it out of proportion, it confirms her hopes that it is just an emotional roller-coaster.

Of course acting as though she doesn’t have agency over her dreams is insulting and part of the problem, but if I were her, the best thing he could have said would be, “Call me if you need anything.”

And when she argued?

“I can’t trust you!”

“Nope. You can’t.”

“You don’t know better than me.”

“You’re right. Still not throwing it out.”

In a vein similar to what I do whenever dealing with a competitive asshole in a new environment, not engaging is the fastest way to shut down petty behavior. Arguing is cathartic. Making excuses shifts blame.

It’s like when I watched a woman from my spot on a tour bus. Her child was having a tantrum, an epic sobbing fit of legend, while she continued to smoke her cigarette and watch the people pass by. Then she checked her watch as the end of the world tore out her son’s heart.

Artists are sensitive, emotional beings, but if they act like a child, treat them like a child. We’ll appreciate you for it in the long run.

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Friday, April 22, 2016

I Don’t Like Being Told Readers Are Stupid

“I understood it. I just don’t think anyone else will.”

I can remember three specific times someone stated it in that exact way, and am sure of several more occasions that have lost details to the recesses of my mind. Point is, it’s an odd statement to be repeated so frequently.

What does that even mean?

I’ve never wanted to be a dense writer. I’ve never wanted to be pretentious or unapproachable. I aimed for readers to fall in love with characters in the same way that I fell in love with some of my favorite books’.

But simplicity can be just as jarring as purple prose.

I read most as a teenager, and predominantly chose books from my high school library. Many were, obviously, young adult, and I loved them, but I found myself often feeling talked down to, having obvious things explained to me, and seeing clever jokes, awestriking settings, inspiring ideas, and exciting characters ruined by the writer’s belief I was an idiot. Over explanation was the bane of my existence. Even before I began to examine fiction from an author’s perspective, way back in middle school, I remember thinking, “I get it already!”

I tend towards a young adult tone of voice, especially in my earlier fiction when I was officially a young adult. It is often presumed, sometimes accurately so, that I write for children, and find myself often being told that they can’t understand whatever it is I’m saying. Which is a fair point because neither do I usually.  

But, actually, that seemed completely incongruent with my personal experience.

I began writing prolifically when I was 12. I didn’t edit much, just wrote, but eventually I started to really go out and seek criticism, around 20, and I finally worked some of the past manuscripts. And, at 20, I was not much older than my (presumed) target demographic, and yet was being told that my writing wasn’t obvious enough. I also found that the people who struggled to understand them weren’t my peers—fellow classmates, friends, or younger critique partners—but were of the older generations, 40 at the youngest.

It seemed to me that young readers, when coming across a word they didn’t understand, were more prone to making an assumption about what it meant and continue one while the older readers were more inclined to say, “I don’t know this word,” and shut down.

It also might have to do with an issue of “authority” and respect. In many cases I found the person who told me that I couldn’t do something because my audience wouldn’t understand it tended to be The Writer of the group, the person who took him/herself very seriously, who believed he was more competent (sometimes accurately so, sometimes very much not) and knowledgeable than the rest of the room. Our arrogance bounced off each other like magnets, and I felt like they had a very low opinion on everyone else’s ability to comprehend, so it could be hard for me to be unbiased. In some cases, I could see frustration and, at least on one occasion, I watched a sixty-year-old man seize up just like I’ve seen a child do when confronted with a very hard math problem. To me, it felt almost as though he was annoyed that he was struggling with the words of someone one-third his age. I can’t say for certain, but I speculate he was truly annoyed that he didn’t know more than me.

I understood it…”

Did you really? Because if so, that’s all I care about. I too can speculate on how I think others would react. What I need is to see what those actual reactions are. Criticism works better if people told the truth, the whole truth, from their point of view.

It was often the same people who, when I finally revealed to them that I was getting conflicting advice, would tell me to just “listen to me.” Those who contradicted them were wrong. “You can trust me.”

I didn’t like to be told to simplify.

Here’s the thing, and I knew it even in the beginning. I am a confusing writer. Or I can be. Some of it is “ingenuine” in that I toy with words and see what I can get away with—for variation, to explain a complicated thought without preconceived notions, to solve some sort of problem, or, yes, to be clever—and sometimes it’s very natural. I’ll use words I know, ones I don’t think twice about, to be told that I’m being pretentious and no one uses it. To be told by only one person no less. Which is to say that there are those who will claim their vocabulary is everyone’s, however, when a manuscript has been read by many people, it often proves true the “big” word for one individual is not a big word for someone else.

You can see my conundrum. As a twenty-year-old girl I was being told that my natural vocabulary could not be understood by an eighteen-year-old because a sixty-year-old didn’t know it. Or I was being told he did understand it, but then why, if I knew the word and he knew the word, would he question if others understood it as well? Wouldn’t you think that having someone my age say it lead him to believe he was mistaken?

I could only think of so many things.

1. He did not understand it—and lied about it.

2. He thought I was trying to use the biggest word I could find.

3. He was misleading me about why he wanted me to change it.

4. He did understand it, but it took him too long to have the intended effect.

I was dealing with the issue that people’s most common complaint was a vague, “I’m confused,” unable to really clarify how they were confused. When people told me specific words to change, no one agreed on which ones. Having been talked down to throughout my entire reading career, I couldn’t tell if these older people assuring me that I needed to explain something wasn’t just the fallout of adults’ ignorance to children’s understanding, or if I truly was being far more complicated than what was effective.

I knew from experience I did not want to over explain anything. To do so would be death. But I got so much excitement, a thrill from understanding something difficult, when I put two and two together and solved a problem. I loved books with wordplay, poetry, interesting and clever phrasing, a voice unique and distinctive of the author. I loved Calvin and Hobbes, Jane Austen, Douglas Adams, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Buffy the Vampire slayer, all of which have their own noticeable rhetoric. I also knew, having read my own writing, that I could jumble up words, poorly explain visuals, wrongly assume assumptions would be the same as my own. Yet, I have been lied to about words unknown, misled about what the problem really was. All of these things combined suggested that I did want to use larger words in new ways, balance a genuine sense of voice and immersion, but I couldn’t be sure if I wasn’t successful in doing so, hence the complaints, if the complaints were a matter of taste (perhaps the critics enjoyed simplicity), or if they came from competition and a lack of faith. “You can’t do what the experts did because you’re not them.”

The solution wasn’t easy. Nothing needs to be explained fully to be explained effectively, and you can certainly go overboard. I wanted to explain just enough, no more, and so if people lied to me about what enough was, it ruined my gauging of balance.

Over time, I let the comments get to me. While in the beginning I took the time to understand each individual suggestion, hoping to separate my bias from theirs, the ideas started to merge together. Then I went through cutting a manuscript down to a more reasonable size, slashing any word that could be considered excess and many embellishments, and my resistance to simplification slipped away. Good things came of it, of course, but it isn’t all beneficial, and I always wonder if I went too far—and if I’m still confusing.

And then I picked up a book. As some do.

It was the beginning of a series I always intended on reading, but found myself bored every time I started, even in the movie and the television show. I’d already read another book by her and loved it, but it had its problems. The author didn’t push herself much, and I knew going in that she was considered one of the mediocre young adult women who got away with sloppy writing. Normally, my judgment is reserved for everything that ever existed and therefore meaningless, so I usually ignore it altogether and at least try to be open minded.

Turns out, I do really like this too, and I understand what the hype is all about. Except…

God, she thinks her readers are stupid.

As some people point out, being 26 might factor into why I find a book for teens so patronizing. I thought that too, but then I remembered the truth of it: that has always been my problem with young adult books and the problem for many of my peers when discussing young adult books.

Besides, the way the author makes a joke and then explains it, the way she shows and then tells… it’s not as if she’s merely writing with the assumption people won’t understand her; it’s that her efforts make it completely moot.

If they didn’t get the joke, it wouldn’t be funny. If they did get the joke, after reading the explanation, it wouldn’t be funny either.

I’m currently switching back and forth between The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and this series, and nothing has helped me understand the issues I had with young adult fiction and having a writer act like I’m an idiot like comparing the two. It also reminds me what I loved about young adult works, some of the “sillier” crap that adult fantasy authors often don’t allow in their work.

I’ve been having re-revelations recently as I delve back into the world of my writing career, typing up pieces of fiction in abandoned notebooks from years prior. I never realized how much I wrote my younger self off, funnily enough, for being an idiot. I constantly tell others that your younger self had her reasons for the decisions she made, not just out of naivety, and when you forget those reasons, or claim that you had no sense then, you tend to make the same mistakes, thinking the situation is different when it really isn’t. I can’t say I am entirely shocked to be proved a hypocrite, but I didn’t think I’d be about this.

It’s easier, I think, to believe that your readers are stupid and want everything explained to them. It’s easy to just cut down sentences, not take risks, and censor your words for fear of looking pretentious. But easy and effective are two very different things. Simplicity and frank writing does not immerse me necessarily. Not trusting your audience, treating them like they’re stupid… I’d forgotten how much those rules had rung true for me as a reader.

I don’t believe readers are stupid. I don’t believe young people are stupid. My work can be pretentious, it can be muddled, it can be challenging and unexpected and work for some when it doesn’t work for others. It can be many things, and it is hard to determine when it is what I want it to be. It does depend on what other people think—or rather, how they think—and so it is of the upmost important that my critique partners are honest with me.

If you did not understand it, that’s all I care about. I don’t care how you think other people will react. I don’t share your pessimistic view on society, and that’s surprising considering I see glasses as half-empty when they’re completely full. If I’m not showing off, if I’m just being me, if I’m using words I know and saying things I think and you tell me that I’m unnatural, it’s going to confuse things. If you say it because you believe it—if I can trust you believe it—it’s one thing. I can then examine what happened to make you think that way.

But I can’t stand being told readers are stupid.

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Cry for Adult Young Adult

“It’s by the same author who wrote that book you read to me while I had a migraine?”

“I don’t remember,” my mother said, fixing the knots in my crochet “scarf.”

“And you went to continue reading it until Chester admonished you, claiming it was a book for kids?”

She looked up and frowned. “I can’t believe I would let him shame me like that.”

Well, she did. And many of us do.

The one successful method I’ve used to pitch my work to friends and coworkers, something that intrigues them beyond the morbid interest of the possible shit show that is my writing career, is to say, “It’s like young adult fiction, but less watered down.” Gaining their interest was not my intent, but it was successful nonetheless.

When making decisions on my work, I often consider what I’m looking for when I go into a bookstore, what I really hope to find. I struggle each and every time, no matter how often I do it. Do I go for the fantasy section first, or the young adult?

Even when I was a teenage girl—which I have only just recently accepted I am not—and devoured those books within my demographic, there was always a part of me that craved more. Some, certainly, had meat to them, but by far the majority, even the ones I loved passionately, felt comfortable, safe, and naively optimistic. Many were condescending.

And, as I grew older, some of the themes and tropes started to grate on me. I was sick of the pseudo-high school (or sometimes actual) setting in which the characters were imprisoned by authorities training them for some big battle. The young, na├»ve lust often wasn’t developed enough for me. The writers clearly felt as though I couldn’t understand certain words or appreciate a good turn-a-phrase. Sometimes they forced a younger age on a character to better mold to the expected audience, hurting the storyline’s believability.

But in the fantasy section, I was hard put to find what I wanted either. While I enjoy a good adult book from time to time, and they certainly proved more challenging reads, they also tended to take themselves very seriously. You’d get a good, funny character here or there, but the problems are often epic, external, graphic, and political.

Young adult fiction focuses on emotional, personal problems. Books for children are more oriented around character and relationships while books for adults tend to be more about plot, conflict, and concept.

It became clear to me the difference when I was talking to my brother—the aforementioned Chester—about literature. I complained because the young adult book I’d read had been told from the point of view of a mind reader and yet the author obviously had no comprehension on how people think. She had a scene in which she describes the nice girl as nice, someone who never had any negative thoughts and was perfectly loving and selfless. She was good because she lacked basic human urges.

Why tell the story about thoughts if you aren’t going to critically analyze them?

My brother took it in a different direction. While I wanted to know the effect mind reading would have on someone—Would you be more confident? More insecure? More forgiving of faults? More hate-filled of humanity?—my brother said that a good book was not about how mind reading affected the mind reader, but how the existence of mind reading affected the world.

My overall conclusion was two-fold: One, subjectivity and why people read is very real, and two, a good book usually develops both.

I have two lists, and on the first list I wrote out all of the stories I loved—books, movies, plays, and T.V. shows that were fun and exciting to read (watch), ones that made me feel things and love the characters—but not necessarily respected. Some of my favorite novels I don’t believe are well-written or tried hard. On the other list was books that I admired—stories that impressed me with their ability, I felt proud and accomplished for finishing—but perhaps not actually liked. I have a high respect for Samuel Beckett, but I do not read him because I enjoy it. Titles going on both lists, what I liked and admired, I paid extra attention to.

This list helps me understand what I want to be doing and why I made the choices I did. I’ve had, in the past, people tell me, “No one likes that,” in reference to a stylistic (or even just unusual to them) decision. Sometimes it can be hard to say if you’re not protecting your ineffective darlings, if it’s a matter of tastes, or even if they are initially rejecting the atypical.

If I look at the books on my lists and what they do, I can usually see if the critique is right—none of my favorite authors do it, so I probably don’t like it either, aware of it or not—or I know at least if it appeals to me—all of my favorites do some version of it, so someone enjoys the choice. The issue may be that I didn’t do it well, but it helps to be sure that it’s a reasonable effect to try and achieve.

Of course I often find that a choice is congruent with one of the lists and not the other, but what I do then is another blog onto itself.

When my brother said this, I realized something; the items of my “love” list were based on interpersonal conflicts, but my “admiration” list was comprised of more epic focus, predominately when examining the sci-fi and fantasy titles.

I can be a shallow person at times, easily influenced by the opinions around me—but better able to empathize for it and come to more fleshed out truth—and it begged the question of why I, at least subconsciously, had higher respect for works that focused on world domination than love. Seems obvious that I would, but logistically I couldn’t pinpoint why other than societal pressure.

While it brought me to an epiphany about the meat I felt my manuscripts were lacking, I acknowledged that many of the stories I loved focus on one or the other. I don’t think it’s necessary, in fact, to have a story influence both world and character for it to be good. Not only that but, at times, I’ll actively seek out those that didn’t do both. It can be exhausting.

My personal interest in young adult books ties into several things: they are more able to bend and mix genres, their “genre” actually being a demographic; sex is more sensual and feeling-centric, less graphic and/or hardcore than most adult fiction; stakes can be emotional and not just physical; and the mixture of comedy and severity and normalcy works better for me.

“You like campy,” my brother told me once.

I thought about it, and it’s true. I like televisions shows Doctor Who and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost Girl—paranormal situations with a wide range of severity of situation, self-deprecating humor, and emotional stakes carrying the “end of the word” scenarios that you know are going to turn out fine.

You’d think this would be easy to find in literature, but grabbing a random book from the shelves usually doesn’t yield successful results. Speculative fiction is still very much a boy’s club in many ways, most genre books fitting squarely into the epic struggle you’d expect. They rather focus on impactful and active problem solving over conflict in relationships. The good ones, of course, have great characters and an underlying tone of intergroup conflict, but the main focus is death, destruction, and pain from external forces. Sure the characters experience a great deal of loss and hurt from the people in their lives, but it is often to extremes—left to die—and many times the characters are isolated from each other for the majority of the story.

You see something like Harry Potter in which Ron, Hermione, and Harry have each other’s backs throughout the series versus A Game of Thrones in which the characters are constantly torn out of the relationships they’ve developed, either by literal space, death, or betrayal. I’m halfway through The Name of the Wind (a fantastic) fantasy novel, and while the storyline does not follow a whole slew of different characters, the protagonist is a lonely person whose friends come and go, often within a few chapters. It starts with his self-imposed exile and features one apprentice living with him, so you know, at the very least, no one will remain in his life long-term.

There are exceptions, many exceptions even. I know fully well there is a wide variety in fantasy novels. It is just that the expectation of traditional fantasy usually rings true, and the fact is I am more likely to grab a random young adult book and like it than a regular sci-fi one.

But for whatever reason, I feel young adult books are not only allowed to be sloppier in their writing (I mean, I do certainly remember that I judged stories much less than I do today, so teens’ eager willing suspension of disbelief factors in), but are encouraged to limit themselves.

When I started writing at twelve, I wrote for myself without concern for genre. I wrote and wrote and didn’t bother with editing, criticism, or submissions. At eighteen, I decided to start attempting to publish and the question of my genre became very important. Was I young adult? If I truly wrote for me, probably yes.

Over the four years in college, whenever I brought in my work it became apparent people believed it was. Was it because I had female characters set in fantasy elements? Was it their age? My biggest complaint against this assumption was that people told me I needed to dumb the writing down because people (my age) wouldn’t understand it.

Genre works are never taken seriously, but young adult seemed to be worse. I struggled to identify where my books fit, and wanted the respect that came with writing “real” speculative fiction rather than for young people. More importantly, I hated being told my audience was stupid and felt restricted to have appropriate language, themes, and role models.

Nowadays, I realize just how graphic young adult can get and feel significantly less inhibited by it. However, you still have to be careful about “promoting” the wrong ideas, and there will always be complaints that the books must be watered down, easy reads.

I started writing the book I’m editing three years ago. Just at 23, I had decided this one would be an adult and had to analyze what that actually meant. More violence? More sex? That’s what it felt like at least.

For a time, I thought the choices I made couldn’t be acceptable as a young adult novel, but now maybe so. Due to the character’s age—though it is never specifically discussed—but mostly the tone of the beginning, many people presumed that’s what it was supposed to be. In my mind, first it was romance, but then it was science-fiction.

So what do I pitch it as?

Most of my beta-readers perked up interest when I described as what I wanted it to be. It was young adult intensified, really.

I think I’ve said this before. I know there’s a market out there, but I can’t think of a way to spin it, because, let’s face it, no one really wants to admit they read it. It’s look down upon. “Children’s books” as some say. Claiming, “It’s young adult for adults,” on a cover doesn’t ring right for me.

It is sci-fi, but maybe it would do better as Y.A. The book I’ve just finished and plan to edit next is definitely young adult, no question. The book I’m writing now is not.

It may not matter much in the end, but I rather stick with a brand, all the novels in one section, readers knowing what they’re getting.

I’m collecting the names of agents who represent both regular sci-fi and young adult and see what they have to say, calling it science-fiction until they correct me. I know I’m going to need to make a choice eventually, but I really rather we open up to the fact that there are adults who want to read young adult and learn how to tell everyone about it instead of being pigeon-holed.

But I suppose that’s what genres do in general.

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Friday, April 15, 2016

Fracking Prologues

This manuscript didn’t originally have a prologue. In fact, prologues were something I tended not to do. I was (am?) a staunch believer in keeping an open palate and never just outright ban something save maybe to challenge myself. I claimed it is never a question of if you have a prologue but if a prologue works. Up until that point, I just never felt I needed one. Then, after I did, it made me never want to have one again.

The prologue of my current piece came into existence mid draft one. I struggled with the beginning even at that point because it was slow and I didn’t particularly like it. But I often write the introduction with the intention it will be rewritten by the end. Because I don’t know where the story is going and I like the beginning to foreshadow events and theme, I often end up writing best after the first draft is done, but obviously I can’t finish if I don’t start.

My first attempt was to add another scene. I had several problems I was contending with.

-I needed to establish the reality of the calm and sheltered world the characters began in, though it was an exception to the rest of the planet. “Normal” everyday lives, but in an interesting way.

-While it was a protected location, there was lurking menace. How do I show a dangerous world through the eyes of someone oblivious to it? If the main character is blissfully unaware of any conflict, empathy isn’t a means to up the stakes, and any mention of a problem needs to be subtle enough that she’s not a complete idiot for not seeing it.

-Prior to setting up the female protagonist’s little slice of safe exception, I wanted within the first few paragraph to tell a reader what sort of setting he was going to be experiencing for the majority of the book. This was not going to come in for several pages. The original beginning did not establish the actual tone of the rest of the story.

I had already known of people’s complaints about prologues, so I examined their arguments and my own personal feelings to attempt to do it well. From what I remembered, any prologue I took issue to featured characters who obviously weren’t part of the main storyline, or at least weren’t close to the protagonists. I also knew, from reading unpolished fiction, that often times prologues existed because it was just an obvious place to begin, an answer to the question, “How does a book start?” Lastly, I felt that most complaints about them were just complaints about beginnings in general—slow starts, info dumps, starting way too early.

I also knew expositional background has never been a flaw of mine. It has often been the opposite in which I was asked for more straightforward, immediate explanations as to how the world worked. Nowadays, if I’m accused of an info dump of background details, it was usually added in a later draft in (poor) attempts to clarify things.

The prologue features the male protagonist’s life long before he ever came to the safe exception, a pivotal moment that started everything.

And I liked it.

This scene between the protagonist and his brother exemplified exactly the tone I was going for. The emotional scene showed me something more about this character and created a massive subplot, completely altering the story all together (we’ll get to that later.)

I finished the novel some time later, this history of the protagonist that was then interspersed throughout the manuscript being some of my favorite scenes. I am not one who minds flash backs in general, and I genuinely enjoyed reading those parts each time I came across them. And while comments on the prologue were… constant, no one complained when I re-entered the time of the subplot.

The manuscript, in its final form, was about twice the size of an average book. Not only did I know it needed to be cut for marketing reasons, I also was aware that it could and even should be cut in many places (see slow beginning). As I slashed away 60,000 words, rereading it many times, and these background scenes remained interesting to me even after I’d seen them more than I’d ever wanted. The balance of the story became more and more focused on this brother who was long gone before the current events even began. I had a constant admiration of these memories and how they affected the overall ambiance, tone, and understanding of the protagonist even after I already hated the book with every fiber of my overexposed being.

When I gave it out to others, the complaints about the prologue were expected. I had experienced enough criticism sessions, read enough writing advice, and heard enough anecdotes to be fully aware of the bigotry against prologues in general, and I didn’t expect that to go away. But I wasn’t fully prepared for the magnitude of the complaints.

To be clear, a lot of my readers only ever received the first few chapters, and my writers’ group would read three pages every two weeks. For those of you who haven’t experienced it, criticism on the beginning of a book is very different than the rest of it, especially when the feedbacker only has that little bit to go off of. You will often see their criticism be very nitpicky and surface level, focusing on line edits, typos, and noticeable pet peeves. If your book has an amazing beginning that immerses them immediately (which I didn’t exactly), this won’t be the case, but even good stories often have their voices fixated on until the reader starts to get the hang of things. Then, after they grew invested, they forget to be looking for what’s “wrong” and start to react as a regular reader. It becomes far more about big picture issues, in-world criticism, and general feelings.

Simplified, my first pages were covered in red ink discussing whether or not “slightly” or “lightly” is the best word, but my last pages would point out a typo here or there and maybe a comment at the end if the events should happen before the previous chapter or not. This is fairly common, and I’ve even caught myself doing it; before you’re committed to a novel and are looking for things to say, you spend a lot more time scrutinizing subjective details.

When I say people fixated on my prologue, I mean that it was the main topic of discussion. Though not everyone brought it up, it came up often enough, and it would usually be the only big picture aspect anyone would say. I was only getting two pieces of feedback: the vague “I’m confused,” and the “You’re not supposed to have a prologue.” Those who did not mention it usually just have a list of words they thought I should change. More noticeably, it was the label prologue that they paid the most attention to and not the influence of it.

People tended to be vague. One most memorable gentlemen asked, “Do science-fiction books usually have prologues?”

“Sure. I guess.”

“Well, I’ve read a few and I didn’t see any.”

“It’s not a staple or anything.”

“What’s a staple?”

“You don’t have to have one.”

“I was asking do you have to have one.” He continued. “You should read other prologues and see how they do them.”

“What am I looking for exactly?”

“I just haven’t seen one done that way before.”

“Thank you?”

A woman in the group who I liked immensely added, “I have heard you’re not supposed to have one.”

And that’s the way the conversations always went.

No matter how much I asked him, he would beat around the bush, refusing to answer direct questions, even when I flat out asked, “What is the problem you are trying to solve?” he said, “Oh, no problem…”

I knew him decently at that point. He was the sort of person who went home and took every piece of criticism. He was a “supposed to” kind of guy, and if it were just him, I would have long written it off as a “You’re not supposed to have prologues because you’re not supposed to have them” and leave it at that. I got the vibe that his abrasion was nothing more than the aforementioned bigotry. His problem, while a real one to him, came strictly from being told it was a problem.

The other people who fixated on it weren’t much different. I got very little in the way of information. I was looking for reasons it was a bad way to start out and I couldn’t get straight answers.

My brother was a straight A student. I was not. If you were to make assumptions about our personalities from our abilities to do well in academia, you would see what I mean when we have very different priorities. I’d consider us both intelligent, both cynical and critical, but I’m the sort of person who doesn’t trust reputation, only arguments. If you tell me someone’s novel is great, I’m going to have to read it myself to believe it. It is both a flaw and a quality. As for my brother, if a book receives an award he trusts, it is good, no matter what. Because I am his sister, the girl who chewed our cat’s whiskers off, I will never be a good writer in his eyes. I am not a respectable expert no matter what my actual writing is like.

The last time I’ve ever requested his feedback, I brought him this manuscript and ask him for his opinion on other people’s responses.

Knowing how I am about “banning” rules such as “don’t use a prologue,” I also, ironically enough, didn’t trust my speculation that those who had brought it up were only saying so out of “supposed to.” It was possible that I wrote off the vague explanations prematurely due to confirmation bias. I had long learned that just because someone can’t articulate their thoughts well doesn’t mean they’re wrong, and it was in my best interest to try and truly understand their reactions. If I did determine their opinion came merely from an expert saying so, then I could let it go. I had, in my opinion, addressed most of the complaints that experts warned about, and if they couldn’t point out anything negative my prologue actually did, then I could assume my critic followed the letter of the law, not the intent. But I wasn’t sure that’s what it was, especially because it was one of the few things more than one person mentioned. At that point, I knew people weren’t reacting well, but didn’t have a lot to go off of as to why. (My first few chapters, by that point, had been completely rewritten a couple of times, and the current version had been edited many more.)

My brother, who is a much more prolific reader than me and enjoys very traditional sorts of sci-fi and fantasy—what you would expect when hearing the words—was the sort of reader with experience and insight that I thought he would be a good person to help me see if I had my blinders up. He has no problem being critical of me, voicing his opinion, or knowing how to explain his mind.

But upon reading the first sentence, he quit because he couldn’t figure out how to mark it up with a line edit. Instead, he took the little he knew about it (from my explanation), told me he agreed with the criticisms I asked him about, and then suggested I read A Game of Thrones and see how George R. R. Martin did it.

My brother criticized how eight years had passed from the prologue to chapter one, suggesting that no one could be affected by something that long. Some people had managed to say they didn’t like not knowing what happened to the brother who was absent in chapter one, but that criticism was muddled by their follow up of, “Oh, yeah. I don’t need to know now, just eventually. Some enthusiastically praised how it effectively piqued their curiosity. The real complaint seemed to be about their mistrust of the author ever answering it. Prologue complaints was not a criticism I received from people who had read the whole book. But would the distrust stop someone from getting that far?

If you’ve ever read A Game of Thrones, you might not even remember the prologue. It features several characters all of whom die within it save the one only to be beheaded immediately. How this scene ties into the lives of the characters doesn’t become clear until something like page 500 in which one of them is mentioned in passing, an easily missed reference. I would argue its purpose is more to demonstrate the magic and danger in the world when the majority of the book takes place where the supernatural doesn’t really happen. A Game of Thrones is called low-density fantasy mostly because the region hasn’t seen most magic for many, many years.

So you can understand my skepticism when my brother suggests I write a prologue like an expert whose prologue already has a parallel purpose and contains the same criticisms he’d just given me. This only served to confuse me more. Was my brother’s feedback an honest reaction to a problem, me being incapable of seeing the subtle differences between why Martin’s prologue worked and mine didn’t? Or was it simply an issue of reputation?

Don’t have a prologue because you’re not supposed to, unless I already trust you.

It’s definitely a philosophy that people have, and my brother does have the habit of saying I’m wrong no matter the context.

I focused my attention on the things that were solvable. People were confused. They couldn’t tell me why, so I struggled to blindly tackle the issue. “What are you confused about?”

“I don’t know.”

When I asked someone to mark up right where she stopped understanding, she read through it again and said, “Well, I guess I understand it all.”

I had another person, who was absolutely disgusted with how confused she was, tell me back the story as best she could. Despite claiming she had reread it several times, it turned out she had misread the most simplistic straight forward sentence in the prologue, “I saw her stab you,” included in hopes to help people understand.

I examined carefully the words people asked me to change. As I said, it was weird for more than one person to make a similar comment. Only one sentence did most people agree they didn’t like, and that was an easy fix. Other than that, out of twenty different copies, the words that were so important to one person no one else would mention. I have for a long time gotten comments on my writing saying, “I love the way you write, but sometimes it’s jarring,” and so, because I only knew people were confused by this script and had been jarred by others, I strove to find the reasons behind each individual complaint. Some critics would be very helpful, listening to my questions and answering best they could, but others would feel hurt or flustered when asked to explain their opinions. I often found myself having to slough through each piece of advice on my own. They could be infamously making me write like them, they could have their own unique connotations. Or maybe they were just noticing/pointing out something that others missed.

At the same time that I was getting people telling me not to use a prologue, notorious for history dumps, at times it seemed some were annoyed my prologue didn’t have a history dump, some just wanting a straightforward explanation as to what kind of world this was. This were primarily people who didn’t read the genre, but it wasn’t just limited to that.

Over the following months, by asking questions and thinking critically, I started to realize that when they said confused, they really meant overwhelmed. My readers were expecting things that proved untrue. In the beginning, it was, I suppose, low-density science-fiction without a great deal of technology or space travel. Being a sci-fi reader myself, I had read many books that don’t fit squarely into the stereotype and didn’t realize just how jarring it would be to have an earth-like planet with motorcycles.

Then there were some objects, used to demonstrate the kind of world it was, mentioned because I knew they weren’t the sort of thing the reader would immediately assume was in that sort of world, that the readers fixated on. “What’s with the stripped engine? Why is it stripped?”

Why indeed?

Even though they were asking the questions I had wanted, I realized that there were just too many things to consider left unexplained, and my readers couldn’t tell which ones were important. Things I assumed they would just skim over and ignore, writing off as a detail of the world, they found extremely relevant and couldn’t let go off it. Combine that with the questions they were supposed to hold onto, and they found themselves unable to latch onto any truths, incapable of predicting the patterns of the world. It was unnerving and difficult to read.

I changed the setting of the prologue from the protagonist’s childhood home—a fallen down hut out in the middle of a waste—to one of the few technological advancements on the planet. Unlike the hut, the terraformer told the audience that this was not Earth and met with their expectations of sci-fi.

This one little change stopped a lot of the complaints.

I also went through and simplified the prose around any complex idea. It was my solution to the vague suggestion of “Just simplify everything!” and inconsistent line edits.

In order to solve the issue of my readers not trusting me—many’s discomfort having to do with the belief I might never answer any of the questions (which I find deeply insulting, but writers do it, especially in unpolished works, so it’s to be expected)—I made a point to give some answers before the chapter is over as an offer of peace.

The beginning had been completely rewritten over six times, the most editing of any scene in the book. I had cut down on the entire manuscript by a third, and though I considered the second half to be far better than the first, it was very much starting to come together.

Yet still the prologue remained an issue. While the feedback of “I’m confused,” grew less and less and more specific when it was given, the complaints about the prologue was still the same. On the one side, I personally thought it was great. Was that just evidence that I am choosing to be blind to its errors? Yet I’m the sort of person who has a wide variety of judgment on my own writing; being that it was one of the few parts I very much liked, there being others that I was very much critical of, I would say that it was a feeling I should take seriously. On the other hand, I knew people were struggling with my beginning, even after having addressed other complaints. And even if it is just a bias created by our society’s tendency to come up with inorganic rules to easily judge others by, does that necessarily mean I’m willing to shoot myself in the foot? Is it really that important?

By that point I wanted to remove it. I was sick of it drawing attention to itself and wanted people to talk about their reactions. It was constantly the subject of discussion, and I considered it to be useless.

I began to re-research what people had to say about prologues. I found some new criticism that applied to me, such as writers trying to take on a high-stakes scene in a prologue to compensate for a slow chapter one—which is exactly what I did. But other complaints weren’t relevant. I found my confirmation bias shifting; instead of looking for proof I should keep it, I started to look for permission I could get rid of it. Give me proof that it sucks so I can cut it and move on.

Except I couldn’t just cut it. It was a major plot point that needed to be introduced early on. I read the manuscript looking for a place to shift the scene to so it would become just a flashback, not a prologue. People would complain about that, I know, but I have been using flashbacks for years, and the location of it—i.e. not the first thing they would see—would make it not the main topic of conversation.

And as I read more about what agents had to say on prologues, I realized there was a lot of reasons for me to keep it as well. I could come up with great arguments to keep it and great reasons to remove it.

When I went to the writers’ conference in my hometown, I received a critique by an agent and two writers. This time, I gave only the first few chapters and excluded the prologue, rewriting nothing, just not submitting it. This was by the suggestion of an agent who claimed that if you must have a prologue, when giving agents a partial, start with chapter one and if asked for a full, then explain that it had been excluded.

I received the most positive responses I had gotten on the book yet. The agent gave me the name of her coworker who represented the genre, one writer told me the best compliment I’ve ever received, “I know you know what you’re doing,” (and then one informed me that it was obviously a first draft.)

Now you might thing that this proved to me the prologue was a bad idea, considering that the most enthusiastic reaction I got didn’t have it in it, but it actually did the opposite. All of the criticism that came from it was new yet constant, solved in the original first pages. To me, it proved my instinct about what the prologue achieved had been correct, and it proved that the prologue was just a distraction, just an easy criticism for people to complain about. Comparing the difference of response from when I didn’t have it and when I did, I believed that the prologue was important and the complaints were about nothing more than “supposed to.”

It doesn’t mean that the balking won’t continue, and it could be that it has an agent write me off long before they read the actual story. I might be convinced in the future that it has problems I don’t want. And I definitely won’t be including prologue in any manuscript to come. Yet right now, it’s there, I’m keeping it, and I love it. Even though I hate it.

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Monday, April 11, 2016

Pussyfooting around Artistic License

A man once entered into my writers’ group and read three pages of his story. When he was done, people gave him feedback, as customary. He sat there quietly, staring sternly forward, eyes glossed over, until the head of the group asked, “How are you feeling?”

He shrugged, saying, “It’s good. No, it’s good. Thoughtful anyway.”

A more aggressive member (lovely, important man), demanded, “Well, are you going to take the advice?”

“I just write for myself,” he admitted.

Something we’d all heard before.

The aggressive member puffed himself up, planning on using all of his height and weight to intimidate the writer into compliance.

I asked, “So, do you like it?”

He looked at me, surprised—I hadn’t spoken much until that point—before shrugging and muttering a rambling of answers. Finally he said, “Not really.”

“Why not?”

He shrugged. “Well, I don’t like anything I write.”

An obvious subtext here is that he came in seeking validation. Another possibility is he came in hoping for solutions, then didn’t like what he got. I say there's a good chance he just needed some time to digest the feedback and trying to force him to agree so soon made him shut down.

Notably, I don’t think any of these goals are wrong. Seeking praise or validation, to me, is a perfectly healthy desire. If a person is honest about what they want—“I just am proud of what I’ve done and wanted to show it to you, but I’m not ready for criticism,”—I at least am more than happy to give it to them. Sometimes I need that, and I have specific people I go to. Demoralization, like depression, anxiety, exhaustion, or hunger doesn't just go away because you tell it to. There are those who would find this shameful, as if you’re wasting their time and censoring them by asking for nothing negative due to your ego, but these tend to be the people who are seeking validation via giving advice instead of seeking validation through literary praise.

As for rejecting all of the solutions people give you, it’s not uncommon for writers (or anyone) to struggle with a complicated issue by themselves for a good period of time and then go to someone else. That someone else summons an answer within the few minutes of first being made aware of the problem which is exactly the solution the writer himself came up within the first few minutes of thinking about it, something he has tried, and something that doesn't work. Many solutions given are overly simplified, so it’s not always that a writer is rejecting advice out of stubbornness, even in some cases where it's all of it. We should never assume that a writer has to take criticism given, or that he’s necessarily being disrespectful just because he doesn’t accept it. Or maybe he just doesn’t like it for whatever reason. Which is valid. Honestly, even if a writer is being a stubborn shithead, he has the right to reject any solution given to him (and the critic has the right to stop giving them) BECAUSE, partially, sometimes we need to sit on advice for a while before we understand and accept it. Also because it’s their work.

But despite all of this, it can be so frustrating to be on the advising end of this situation. It’s one thing to be asked for only praise; it’s very much another to be asked for criticism when that’s the last thing they want. Or even need.

It’s obvious why someone might pretend to be seeking feedback. In the story above, I know that the man’s real problem was his low opinion on his work combined with his emotional dependence on that opinion being wrong. He wanted to think his own judgment was biased because he was self-loathing. That’s why he came out that night. He wanted to prove he was a better writer than he thought he was. And when people didn’t say that, it just crushed his hopes.

But expecting to go to a criticism session and not receive any is ridiculous. Anyone who is genuinely trying to help you will be sitting there thinking of something to “fix” because we all know how aggravating it is to have people say nothing.

I think I’m expressing an inaccurate sympathy for the man though. In fact, I was just as annoyed with him as the rest of the group. He had been pretty harsh to one girl, claiming, “But don’t feel too bad, I’m too hard on myself too,” didn’t seem to like anything, and came off as a little snobbish. His statement of “I write for myself,” was one I’d heard many times before, and it falls into my stash of pet peeves when it comes to criticism responses.

The other day I considered some of the things that get me riled up, wondering why they bothered me so much, but it wasn’t until I found the common denominator that my “overreaction” made sense to me.

Truth is, when someone pulls the “Artistic” Card, the conversation stops.

Two online posts in a row I saw someone ranting about “creativity” over marketing. The feeds in which the comments were placed featured advice on how to get your book out there. They did not discuss what to write, but the how to present it to society. The rants exclaimed that you shouldn’t care what other people think, whether they like it or not.

(Part of not caring what other people think includes not caring what they’re doing, such as, I don’t know, whether they’re giving out marketing advice. Just saying.)

Have you ever tried to “improve” without caring what other people are thinking?

Reading is about communicating, conveying ideas, connecting intellectually with other human beings. Not only that, but unless you have decided exactly what it is you want to be doing down to the last word, feel confident in your judgment of hitting those goals, and honestly don’t care whether or not anyone else wants to read it or if they have completely different interpretations, there’s a good chance that you’ll look at your book and go, “Um… is this done?”

You may write for yourself and write for catharsis and write for enjoyment or to organize your thoughts or to do something instead of your usual smoke break. You can write for yourself and not care what people think, but the second you give it to someone else to read, you are asking them to think. If you don’t care, then why show it to them?

The problem with artistic license is that it trumps everything. It’s hard to argue with because they can write you off as a sellout. Even if you know damn well that they’re just changing their measuring stick when it doesn’t give the results they want, that’s hard to prove. When you discuss success, results, or readers, and they say, “I’m not in it for the money,” you look like the philistine when you reply with “Oh, bullshit.” You know they want it to sell well. There’s been times where I knew for a fact the perpetrator believed his book was destined for the New York Times’ list. I follow one man online who constantly states so, flipping back and forth from statuses actually saying he does not care if it sells well, then later he knows it will be a bestseller.

It’s difficult to prove that someone does care what others think or does want to sell their book, or even make an impact on their readers. We can easily deny everything, claiming, “I write for myself,” or, “I don’t want a character arc,” every time someone says something we don’t like. And honestly, who cares to help them after that? Why would I waste time trying to argue with someone who’s going to spend it lying to both him and myself? Other than, you know, the golden rule.

Besides the need to be right, which I admit to be victim to, there’s also the issue of “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” Which is, if I was having a hard time admitting my book was flawed, I’d like someone to diplomatically continue the discussion and deal with my block. I can’t count the number of times a conversation had an effect on me months afterwards, when the argument and disbelief helped the idea really sink in. As a teacher, I do think disagreement can be useful, and someone refusing to listen isn’t always a sign of disrespect. I believe, at times, it’s a necessary part of the process.

Pussyfooting around the real issue—“I think you’re making choices out of laziness and possibly fear, not creativity”—is exhausting though. It’s often not best to say so bluntly because the person (and this is autobiographical) will usually dig her heels in further. Now it becomes more about defending yourself and you can completely blank what the truth is. On the other hand, if you pretend that it is true, there’s not much further you can go. The only real option for the critic is to prove the claim is false, and by doing so, it will typically end in an insult.

“Why did you come here today?”

“Because I don’t like my work.”

“Well, I don’t either. And I’m telling you what I think will change that.”

I’ve come to realize it’s the lie of it, and the inhibiting lie at that, that aggravates me so much.

If you come to me and say you need to hear what you’re good at, I will tell you.

If you come to me and say you need some ideas for a specific problem, I will come up with as many as I can.

If you come to me and say you need to know how to publish, I can state what I know.

If you come to me and ask why people don’t want to read your work, I can tell you why it puts me off.

If you come to me and say, “I am not writing to be published, but I want to improve,” I can suggest what helps me.

And if you don’t like any of my ideas, but think a dialogue will benefit you, I can do that too.

But if you pretend your goals are not your goals, if you ask me for one thing and then claim you were never interested, if you lie to me or, more importantly, if you lie to yourself, there is really not much anyone can do.

You might as well say you’re a great writer and keep on working.

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Friday, April 8, 2016

The Best Writing Advice I’ve Never Taken

 While I’ve heard a lot of good advice and I’ve not taken even more, Jim C. Hines’ personal epiphany is different than most because even though I liked it from the get go, even though I understood it, even though I agreed without having to pull my head from my ass to get a better look, I struggled to actually use it.

Back when he first began writing, he crafted a short story set in a hospital. It was continually rejected, to his dismay, but it wasn’t until he found himself staying in a medical facility for an extended period of time that he finally understood why—it wasn’t realistic.

He argued his best writing advice is to go to the location you are writing about. Physically being somewhere is so much different than imagining it.

Of course, easier said than done.

Reality for me has always been a bit of a drag. I live my life fast and furious: at home with the curtains shut, trying to explain to people that I don’t hate them, but I’m certainly not going to go out and do anything. I always knew that attitude is problematic in more ways than one. Writing about life, even when you are dealing with speculative fiction, should at some point actually involve living life.

As a fantasy and science-fiction writer, especially of worlds that are not necessarily based on Earth at all, it was hard to figure out exactly where my locations were for me to go to. And when I did have an idea, it was difficult to organize a trip. Can you go to a N.A.S.A. station? Is there anything in there that is worth seeing? Especially to the public? Are they even called stations?

Castles, of course, could be a good start, yet living in middle America, there wasn’t many of them to be found. I could go off into the desert or take a trip to a terrarium, but that would take several days and a chunk of money, even if I did it cheaply.

So, it always got the back seat.

When I begged myself the question of what real-world experiences I could apply to my writing, they all seemed so far away. England, the middle east, Asia. The rainforest. The ocean depths. When thinking of what location seemed most like the setting of my dystopian inspired planet, Mad Max was the first that came to mind. But when would I get the chance to go to Australia? I more or less gave up.

 It wasn’t until my Australian boyfriend and I decided to return to his home country that I remembered my plan on how to enhance my settings. It took five months before I even truly made any attempt to actually follow through.

This last week I’ve been traveling all across the country. I’ve seen the depths of caves, oceans, deserts, hiked cliff sides, and risked being peed on by a chlamydia-infused koala.

The experiences have not been grossly eye opening (gross in the way you’re thinking and in magnitude) or huge inspirations, but it’s never really about the big picture. Any sort of research will tell you the important things. It’s the nuance. It’s the little additions you don’t consider. It’s the details that become relevant only when you try to do something yourself.

It’s how fast exhaustion from waking early and staying up late can disappear when marching up the 500 natural steps of a canyon ridge. It’s how the bush and rock spiral around a long drop. It’s the little crowded tadpoles sitting in a singular puddle in the middle of the desert, hoping to sprout legs before it’s too late. It’s the immaculate silence a deep cave has, how heavy carbon dioxide can make someone feel out of breath when walking through the interior of the Earth. It’s when a stranger walks up to you calling out your name when you find out he’s talking to the bird you’re petting.

Charley, meet Charlie.

Living life is the unfortunate requirement of creation. Luckily, creation makes living life easier.

Here’s a sketch of how I turn reality into fiction:

An “accidental” novel I’ve been working on, I temporarily am referring to as Star Dragons, starts in a city on top a high mountain, the cliff sides stretching for several elevations.

Though Australia is not the place you’d want to go to find great heights, this side of the canyon looked exactly like the shape I imagined the cliffs in the book. Coming across this sight reinspired me, making me remember the vision I first had when seeing the city before me.

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