Tuesday, June 28, 2016

You Can’t Sit in the Shower in Queens: The Jackson Hole Writers Conference

It’s difficult to be who you want to be when surrounded by people who know you as you are. The last two times I went to the Jackson Hole Writers Conference, I had no idea what to expect, was consumed by an irrational fear of strangers, anxiety in crowds, and had as of yet to comprehend the “click” of business partners and how niche sci-fi really is.

Despite all that, I managed to make some friends many of whom, through the course of this last weekend, promptly introduced me as painfully shy. “A heart of gold with a bitch exterior,” they said. Fantastic lead in, guys. I’ll call you when I need an introduction to my acceptance speech.

While in the last year I’ve grown in confidence and savviness of strangers’ tendencies, having people act like you’re going to be awkward tends to encourage it, and it became a game of seeing how much of my weight I needed to lean on their foot as they enthusiastically revealed the truth of things.

Being that this particular writers conference catered to other kinds of authors—memoirists mostly, nonfiction, travel, a few “literary” seekers, with a variety of contemporary “commercial” works, and not anyone dying for something in the speculative fiction category—I did not concern myself in the least about what these agents or editors thought of me personally this time around. Rather, my predominant focus was to catch any tips for the final polishing stages and practice socializing. My biggest hope for the conference was to find some long-term peers, to just talk to people like I was a normal, functioning human being.

A friend of mine was signed with an agent over the last year. He came to the conference with similar goals—to socialize, learn some things, enjoy himself. He, however, has always been a social butterfly, and had already inserted himself into a group by the time I walked out into the cocktail party at the end of the first night. I positioned myself next to him (haven’t had seen him in over six months), and found myself engaged with two friendly women. Turns out, I had accidentally entered into a group of agents and editors. Leave it to him to talk to them like they’re regular people.

Now, they’re not always excited to talk to you. At the same conference two years ago, the speakers refused to engage with anyone. But this time around, they were all ready for conversation, seemingly aware that they had to do a little hand holding for the new, terrified folk. My friend talked everyone into going to his favorite restaurant, and suddenly there we were, in an intimate setting, in which I could speak with real New Yorkers about the city and Star Trek and Hamilton the musical without feeling extra aware of the weight of my limbs.

At that table, as we talked about random shit people do, an editor told us, completely unintentionally, the most important thing I realized from the conference this year. The one thing that could sum up my experience in those three days. It was about a showerhead.

In most showers, the showerhead sits on the thin wall, facing the length of the bathtub. In hers, it is positioned directly in the middle of the long wall. Her friend, who had a problem with the borough in the first place, came out of her bathroom announcing, “I could never live in Queens. How do you sit down when taking your shower?”

“It never occurred to him,” she said, laughing, “that not everyone takes showers that way.”

Most our time was spent in the main auditorium, luxurious red curtains hanging behind the podium, successful authors giving us motivational talks. The first guy had the audience laughing, inspired many of my friends, but he was very opinionated about how art should be, what your goals are, and disparaged things like ego and expressing yourself. It is more so, he claimed, about listening to others.

Which I can’t disagree with. Not out loud anyway. But like many, he had not lost his ego in his youth like he claimed. He still had this sense of ego about him—and that was part of his charm. There is something to be said for focusing on story rather than showing off prose, but there are too many books in the world to insist that everyone needs to fixate on the same aspects. In an infinite number of options, some books can be good for their turn-a-phrase instead of immersion. At the very least, we want people to try to tackle the assumptions of what a good book is, to do something different than what conventional advice insists is true. And as for “listening” being superior to talking, that’s not a conversation. Every introvert has been told that people love to talk about themselves, but the truth is you’re not going to get someone going until you’re willing to open up a little bit too. As someone who saw a huge influx in the number of business cards she handed out this year, my best advice to anyone trying to socialize is that you must be willing to do some of the talking too.

It never occurred to him that not everyone works that way.

We had several speeches, and though I have long learned that these things tended to be autobiographical, that the “it’s not that big a deal, just do fucking it already” attitude is usually being directed to their past stubborn selves, as I listened to the variety of writers on their advice and their opinions, the more I realized that what we think is normal, what is true for everyone, might be our own little freak ticks.

Obvious, I know. Still. It seems obvious that not everyone would sit down in the shower, and yet…

At this particular writers conference, you can pay for critiques. When I first heard of it, I thought, “Well, that sounds a little scammy,” but I later found it to be the best part of the program. And I say that as a negative asshole, so take it as you will. It is, bare minimum, enjoyable, but it is also a time to really see the diverse ways authors, editors, and agents look at something. Plus, it’s a critique you can count on, and that’s rare in itself.

I discussed about my concern on the critiques when I first signed up for the conference. To surmise, I had some off-putting experiences with some of my potential readers—most in situations unrelated to the conference—who I’d be paying for. Mainly it was either a disagreement of writing philosophies  or, for a few, it was their attitudes and the way they conveyed their opinion. Some of them I felt were being intentionally obtuse or vague, giving neither me nor my readers any credit. They confused condescension for confidence. Considering I had rewritten the beginning once again, and was feeling very good about it, but I was terrified of being demotivated. It wasn’t that I was afraid of being told it could be changed. Specific criticisms don’t scare me, but passive-aggressive blanket statements, or just overall apathy, can suck the excitement you have for your work in one lethargic shrug.

However, when I arrived, I ran into several of my past critique partners. I remembered something about my high school self then. Absence makes the heart fixate and blow things out of proportion. I never disliked them as people by any means, and when we were discussing pretty much anything outside literary ideology, the negative association disappeared and my anxiety left. In some ways, it was like closure, and while I had initially feared running into them, I left feeling better about our interactions.

The critiques typically allow for two writers and either an agent or editor. My first writer gave me an unexpectedly expected response. He offered up some polishing here and there, discussed dialogue, but ended by he telling me it was probably at the stage where it just needed to be submitted because “Things can be overworked.” If it didn’t go anywhere, to try something else. He said he was impressed by the piece, especially the dialogue, though I could tell it didn’t pique his interest in the way I’d like. He did offer to read some more pages if I wanted, however, which was honestly encouraging as this work had yet to receive a lot of that kind of offer (compared to some of my others.) Considering he was not a sci-fi writer and didn’t seem to be interested in the genre, I took his compliments sincerely and interpreted his logical praise and lack of connection as hope that it could find a place with the right person. In the end, his opinion of it mirrored what I had been feeling.

The next critique, an editor from Harper Collins, was like most of the reputable experts I’ve worked with and was extremely respectful of what I was trying to do despite not being too familiar with the genre. She had a very similar reaction as my first response; she admitted first off that she did not do much with science-fiction, but she was honestly impressed with the voice and atmosphere, and that I gave her faith as a writer. We discussed the demographic, whether it was targeted to adults or teens, and when I said I wasn’t sure, she felt it was too sophisticated to be marketed as a young adult. When I asked about how much I should consider information in the query or book jacket to be “conveyed” by that point in the story, she told me that she never read the queries agents sent her, but read the manuscript first. She seemed to have a good comprehension on the characters and what I was doing, but explained she wanted to understand the rules of the world sooner, especially the terminology. We ran out of time before she could go into details. I left with us both laughing.

The third was a mystery writer. She was running late and I sat down, nervous for my meeting directly after her.

She began by handing me a “three-act structure” sheet and immediately I thought, “Uh oh.”

She treated it like a workshop and explained to me certain rules of writing: plot arcs, telling me not to use adverbs, or prologues or have backstory in the first act, and all of what Google would tell you about writing.

On a positive side, she was very specific about what she didn’t understand and pointed out the exact terminology the editor hadn’t had time to specify.

On the negative side, she seemed to have a comparatively low comprehension level which, in hindsight, makes me suspicious that she skimmed it. In the process of finding obvious mistakes to complain about, she missed basic information. She asked for details that already existed in the section she’d read. She would jump to conclusions about what I was trying to say or do or had done, and when those presumptions proved wrong, she told me it should be that way, or conveniently forgot all about it. Once she told me a word wasn’t necessary, and still, from her alternative solution, wonder if she knew what “pointedly” even meant.

Initially, I took her seriously. Admittedly, the second she handed me that piece of paperwork, she had lost some credibility; it’s important to remember the context of a critique, and when someone is responding in a one-on-one to the first 15 pages of a manuscript, discussing a formula for a full plot structure feels like a waste and borrowing trouble—why, unless it’s just a stock response? There’s reading and then there’s reciting, and I felt like she was just giving me something she had memorized from teaching people how to write. And—this is where I’m talking about the attitude thing—her behaving like she was there to “teach” me rather than to critique me was incredibly insulting. I started to think, “Have you ever done this before?”

But due to these growing biases, I tried very hard to listen and be sure it wasn’t just my abrasion of writing rules and her condescension that dictated my assessment. Because the last critiques had been more about conversation, my readers explaining their reactions and trying to give me solutions to best achieve what I was going for, I made the mistake of discussing things with her and quickly realized she wasn’t actually hearing what I said. I told her twice that the book was finished before she asked me if it was finished and then to talk about what I would learn when I finished it. When I mentioned that the specifics of her confusion were very useful as people had said similar things before, she latched onto it and kept bringing it up at random intervals: “But if people keep saying it!” And not in response to an argument either, more like an explosion of Tourette’s in the middle of her sentences. I think she was nervous.

Her specific solutions were really, shockingly terrible. She struggled with sarcasm and nuance of the language, shocked when she kept finding out that a character was lying or joking. This normally I wouldn’t fault her for and consider my failing, but she really seemed to have a harder time than other readers had. (Again, I suspect due to skimming and focusing on looking for easy complaints.) When she found out what they were trying to do, she would tell me to say things like, “He asked, already having an opinion on the answer but wanting to hear what she had to say about it.” I wrote it off as her pulling it off the top of her head, though still annoyed that she thought the answer was so obvious she could pull a ridiculous solution like that from three seconds of thought and it would be superior to something I’d spent a considerable amount of time deliberating and tweaking. (Though, as I said, she worked from the assumption that I was inexperienced and uninformed.)

I didn’t realize how little she understood until after the critique in which I read the actual words of her notes. When actually talking, she had mentioned something about the character being stated as “unfocused,” telling me what I should say instead. When I explained what the line was supposed to mean, “He’s thinking of other things,” she went wide-eyed with shock and said, “But that makes him seem hard!”

I nodded. It was kind of the point. Like the entire point of the scene.

“Well, that might make me not like him!” she said.

When I read her actual comment, she told me my words “made it sound like he wasn’t mentally present” where clearly I meant to say “his expression was blank.” When she realized I meant exactly what I said, she was appalled.

It never occurred to her that I might not want what she did.

Afterwards, I looked up all my critique partners and found her website—which Mcafee warned me might have a virus—where since 2002 she had written four books published by a small press, and reviews complained of typos and simplistic, “recommended for younger audiences” language that lacked in subtly.

None of these things proved anything on their own, but the critique was uniquely interesting in that had she held more respect for me and not accepted her own assumptions so readily, she wouldn’t have lost so much of my faith in the first place, and I wouldn’t have taken a look into her credentials. Her attempts to endow me with her wisdom while disrespecting any of mine made it more difficult for her opinions to work with mine harmoniously.

She did take a half an hour instead of the 15 minutes, which was generous, and we left with polite thank yous as I ran out the door to catch my meeting. Luckily, and I should have expected this, the guy I had an appointment with was already running late too and our times merged perfectly.

Shawn Klomparens is the writer of Jessica Z, a contemporary love story. When I was contacted by the head of the Writers Conference asking who I wanted to do the extended manuscript critique, I felt a moment of panic. The critiques were extra, and the extended put me over 500 dollars at a time when I was completely broke and borrowing the money from my brother. Critiques, classes, partners, beta-readers, editors, workshops… they have always been a game of high stakes Russian Roulette. Depending on you get can change everything. Have someone good, and it can be irreplaceable, have someone bad and it can hurt your work badly.

Lucky for me, Shawn was the jackpot.

The only option of my possible readers who dealt with sci-fi was someone who’d already read the beginning. I went through the list and not one of them was ideal; I couldn’t gauge who would like my sort of thing at all. Seemed like none of them would. Who would understand basic tropes and assumptions? Who would be interested in an inner personal sci-fi story?

I picked Shawn for the sole reason that Jessica Z appealed to me the most out of all the books.

Shawn started by asking me the rest of the story, and I was surprised at how terrible I was at telling it. I don’t talk about it much and so did the typical ramble you’d expect.

He expressed great appreciation for what I had done, claiming I had some “major tools.” As we went through the manuscript, he was clear about why he felt the way he did and used reasoning that worked for me. He was excited about my dialogue and made the personal point that, as conversation came fairly easy for him he tended to use too much of it, and having several pages of it started to make a stagnant pacing. Had he straight up said, “Don’t have more than three pages of dialogue,” I would have been annoyed and conflicted. His critiques, however, made sense to me.

More importantly, his respect for my choices made me more confident in his opinions. Plus, he had read the first 40 pages instead of the first 15, including the prologue, and he seemed to comprehend not only what I was going for, but the actual words themselves. (The novelty!) Sci-fi was something he’d read in high school, but stopped, considering it geekish. He followed the typical pattern of my past readers—those who read more than the first few chapters stopped complaining about being confused. I am afraid the early confusion will make someone put it down and hope that clarifying terminology as the editor said and the hierarchy as the mystery writer said will change that.

The best thing I got out of it was the discussion of the prologue. He himself didn’t have problems with it, didn’t bring it up, and said, when asked, that he had no problem with them in general. When I explained the situation, he gave me some valuable insight:

The prologue was intentionally unsettling.

I asked him what he’d do if it were his manuscript, and he said knowing what he did about agents and readers, he’d start with the first chapter and slip the prologue in later. The first chapter (this being the newly revised one) was extremely accessible while the prologue probably put people off, if he had to guess. I knew many people had struggled with it, but no one would/could be specific about why. I could only speculate that it was a “rule” issue—and for some I think it is. But when he talked about accessibility, especially after offering several thoughts and solutions, it really rang true to me. The prologue is unsettling, and it never occurred to me that the negative, unsolved issues introduced there would cause an undesired discomfort. Now it seems obvious.

He offered to read the rest of the manuscript. I told him I’d make the corrections and send it to him.

At the conference, I also happened to run into an aspiring writer who loved all of the books I did, was writing young adult fantasy and was extremely easy to talk to. I got her email and felt like she’s someone I’m really trying to target with this book, so I actually have to say by that alone it was a success. Having someone who I see as my “reader” brings me a great deal of excitement, and after talking to her for some time, I knew she could be an excellent critique partner.

Writers conferences could easily be a waste of money, and all critiques have a chance of going poorly, but having gone to three of them now with the same manuscript, I can see the alterations in people’s opinions and take their word on where I stand seriously. The book is about nearing ready for submission, three out of four felt that way. Instead of being left with apathy, I feel rejuvenated and more prepared to take the next step.

Meeting with the agents and editors, truly connecting with fellow authors, having a better sense of trust in where I stand, I would have to say that this year the Jackson Hole Writers Conference was a priceless experience. If you’re ever in town in June, I highly recommend attending. It is worth every cent.

Agents Panel

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Hope, Doubt, and Accidental Plagiarism

Aristotle describes tension as doubt as to outcome.

While Poetics reads exactly like it is what it is—a scientist’s attempt to dissect a story into little bits of universal truth—this statement has always rung true for me. Most times it’s about how doubt isn’t the same as just waiting around for information to be revealed, that doubt—and therefore tension—requires some prediction, a few possible outcomes for it to really exist. The important part is that tension will not exist if you have no idea what may happen next, but rather have some idea and doubt it.

Moreover, you have some possible outcome that you’re hoping for, but aren’t sure if it will ever come to pass.

As I’ve been trudging through the television series, Supernatural, I’ve been asking myself why I’m not as excited about it as some other people, why it doesn’t do it for me. As I’ve said, I always assumed I would like it, but kind of avoided it because it seemed a little derivative and could be a huge disappointment.

Excuse my hypocrisy. When I first started writing Storiesof the Wyrd back in 2010 (then known as Silver Diggers) I wasn’t too focused on writing a new dynamic of supernatural fighters. I had already learned my lesson with fixating too much on originality instead of writing what I actually wanted to be doing. As long as I wasn’t stealing ideas, ruining other people’s hard work, boring people with expected decisions, as long as my stories did something for people that was hard to find—combining old elements until they made something new, exploring an idea in a new way—I would consider it a success.

I knew as I wrote it that the idea of two people chasing down and saving their fellow humans from supernatural beings wasn’t much of a concept itself. I considered it sort of a
background premise: a setting and motive I wanted to write about, but that would, at some point in the development, have more to it.

I started writing down the ideas I had and tied them together into a story and rarely ever worried about the pitchability of it. That was for later drafts, and after I finished the first—or rather stopped some 30 pages from the end—I moved on to the next manuscript and almost left it abandoned.

It wasn’t until 2014 that I was considering creating some sort of free examples of my writing. As I focused on my career more and more, I started to develop my online presence and the frequency of questions about where people could find my fiction increased. I had short stories available in a few literary journals, but many of them were different than the style of storytelling I consider my concentration.

Combined with other factors, I decided to take the characters from my old manuscript and rewrite them as a serial.

The characters, a brother and sister, travel a secondary world in search of monsters, offering protection to anyone who needs it.

Of course, unlike most heroes of their kind, they ask for money, make things up, and at least Kaia is far more interested in learning about the other realm of the Wyrd.

Truth is, even though I considered Supernatural a fairly unnew idea, so do I consider Stories of the Wyrd. In both cases, I didn’t exactly think it mattered. While I avoided watching the series, it was more so because I don’t like change, I wanted Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it’s always hard for me to trust anything, especially a new show. Usually, after I commit to something, I fall head over heels, especially something that was popular. Not to mention that I tend to shy away from popular things worse than a teenager in eyeliner, and it always takes me a while to try it out.

I expected to like it when I finally started watching it, and it’s not terrible. I have gotten six seasons in now and it hasn’t been too much of a slog. I haven’t stopped, anyway, though I usually try to finish something once I start it. Probably part of the commitment issues.

There is something about it that I can’t put my finger on, something that Buffy or Charmed or Lost Girl or any of the other shows of a similar premise doesn’t have.

It might be the characters. Both Sam and Dean Winchester are so serious, and even with a few jokes by each here or there, they very much fit the stoic, angsty hot guy thing—both of them. Every time I do encounter a character I actually like, they usually end up dead, the show’s obsession with returning the status quo fairly annoying.

Which brings me to my point. Everyone dies. Everyone is hurting. Survivors are usually only that. They survived, but they lost a lot in the process. Things never end up better for all of the pain. It just gets worse and worse. Sam and Dean are both miserable with nothing to look forward to. They have no friends, no one they can trust, and even their bond to each other is afflicted with betrayal and secrets and isolation. There’s no love story—not any that you actually think will ever work out, will ever be long term. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. They’re never rewarded except to be given back what they’ve already lost. And only some of the time.

As I’m sitting here at the beginning of season six, there’s nothing that I hope will happen, nothing I’m looking forward to on their parts. Anything I do want for them, anyone I do hope will survive, I already know will die because, honestly, it would change things and that’s exactly what the writers don’t want, even if it’s exactly what would make me enjoy the show better.

The possibility of having things actually go wrong is an important part of tension, but you really want to successfully make me sit on the edge of my seat? I need to hope things might just go right.

But as I watched, there was one thing that made me wish I hadn’t picked up the show, and that had nothing to do with Supernatural’s quality.

In 2010 I had never seen a single episode. Up until around eight months ago, I could honestly claim that any similarities between Supernatural and Stories of the Wyrd was unknown to me. Would that mean I would really be able to stand my ground against anyone who noticed? Not necessarily, but it would fulfill my own morality.

But now I do know. And perhaps I could say that I realized that many important choices were comparable and decided not to do anything about it, but the truth is that’s not the only problem. Whenever I find myself in this situation, I always pretend that my readers have seen both the successful work and my own. I ask, does the existence of one taint the other?

In this case, I say the answer is yes.

The resemblances are superficial at best, and I feel logical in their choices.

Two siblings are taught this life by their father. The elder brother has daddy issues. The younger sibling is fascinated with studying and doesn’t remember their mother who died when they were little.

Mostly though, Rasmus started to become a little too similar to Dean for comfort.

It makes sense as to why. I never exactly wanted Rasmus to be a lady’s man, but he’s started to go in that direction because by far the majority of paranormal monsters are sex based, preying on men especially. It seems that women, in legends, are sexual victims period—more so the more resistant they are—but men are victims of their own stupidity.

When I first realized the parallels between their dynamic, it felt obvious as to why. It shouldn’t have been threatening to me being that they weren’t the most pivotal points or the most original ideas either. Yet, I never liked Rasmus toying with the hearts of women. I think the way you treat someone you are intimate with is a true sign of character. Not how you treat friends or enemies, not how you treat waiters, but how you treat the ones you want love, sex, or validation from—that’s who you really are. And to see him use women like I’ve been suggesting, well, it wasn’t something I could forgive easily.

I’m not going to change the published stories. I don’t believe in that really. I think freely altering events that have already been in the hands of readers ruins their sense of the reality of the world. Besides, I don’t think it’s necessary.

Rasmus’s tendency to love them and leave them doesn’t have to be a ploy on his part, him being fake, lying to them, or knowingly letting them act on misinformation. I can still play up the idea of “hell hath no fury” and the lure of the siren’s call without making him like Dean Winchester—love ‘m and leave ‘m in refusal to gain true intimacy.

Unintentional similarities with popular works happen. Every author has a story about a book halfway done when the concept is in the next bestseller, a screenplay that just about sold when an eerily familiar blockbuster hit. We’ve all walked into a bookstore and grabbed one book to find the summary the exact same as our outline.

It’s doubtful that we’ll ever find anything truly original, but we can always hope for the best.


So, I just got to the end of season seven.

Meet Charlie, the girl with the Dungeons and Dragons tattoo.

In case you haven't made the connection, meet Charley, the girl who runs the blog:

I'll let you decide who's copying whom.

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Monday, June 13, 2016

Things to Consider Before Saying You Don’t Write for the Money

Emphasis on saying.

Yesterday a blog post by an indie author popped up. It was a rant about the horrors of the self-publishing process, and in it the man said:

This is the same guy who said:


All within a span of a few days. So of course it's on his mind.

What's wrong with any of this? Nothing, actually. I am not criticizing these feelings.

I am not saying that “writing for the money” and wanting to make money off of your writing are the same things. I can see that, with the complexity of these issues, he isn’t really contradicting himself, and that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

The fixation on whether or not you “write for the money” is counterproductive.

Mainly, I keep seeing this exact series of thoughts in the feeds of new authors. I’ll witness someone complain constantly about how poor their sales are doing, then make some sort of inane announcement about it’s not about the money. They do it for the love of fiction. Then perhaps they proceed to insult other authors directly, complaining, “Well, I’m a good writer, but just because I don’t sell out and do romance…”

It shows an inexperienced and judgmental attitude towards other authors.

The insult in the initial statement is implied, and that’s problematic in itself. The idea that it’s unusual for an author to not write for money, that somehow this new writer is unique, therefore, worthy. Typically, the staunch insistence, “I don’t write for the money, I write for the love of fiction,” without any provocation can only be motivated by bragging (or self-soothing). It’s akin to a doctor fresh out of med school walking into his residency the first day and spontaneously announcing to the whole class, “I do this to help people! Not for the money!”

What does he expect the response to be?

People aren’t really interested in why you write until you write something they love, unless it’s to judge you for it.

If I were to be perfectly honest, the main reason this bothers me is the incongruity with how they expect me to feel and how I actually feel.

Okay, so I consider this usually to come from a place of catharsis, someone attempting to make their self-perceived failure more tolerable. It can be written off like any brag; they’re saying it to feel good about themselves, and in most cases I’d say to support that.

Except the aforementioned insult.

The basis on the brag is the assumed rarity of it, when it is actually something that the majority of authors believe true for themselves. Everyone says they write for the love of the story. Now a new writer approaches them exclaiming proudly that they write for the same reason like it’s a huge accomplishment people should acknowledge.

A Facebook friend posted, “If I ever make a profit off my books, I’m going to donate all of it. I don’t write for the money.”

Call me Scrooge, but I don’t particularly care—in the same way that I don’t care that you’ve eaten a healthy breakfast or helped an old lady across the street. I mean, it’s a good thing to do, and if I happened to see you doing it I might think highly of you, but for you to announce it to me—and only hypothetically no less—I genuinely can’t imagine what the expected outcome was.

My reaction? You’re hurting. You see yourself as a failure. And I’m sorry about that, I really am, but he lost some sympathy when he turned to a rhetoric commonly used in arguments against fellow writers.

There’s a negative association with it.

“You’re writing for the wrong reasons,” we tell each other.

Now the specific writer in question wasn’t insulting, I’d say. The only person he criticized was himself, and his question of “Who really writes for the money?” was admittedly projecting. Full disclosure, I like the guy.

But when he said, “I wrote for the wrong reasons,” it struck a nerve for me.

You will see this comment in almost every writing forum on the internet. People love to misdirect a question to a more simplistic moral high-ground. Instead of answering, “How do I get an agent?” they’ll say, “Just self-publish.” If you ask, “What self-publishing platform should I use?” they’ll say, “NEVER self-publish!”

“How long can my prologue be?”

“Don’t write a prologue!”

“Do you think I should do A or B?”

“Rewrite the entire thing.”

Writing for the “right” reasons is an incredibly common tactic in controlling our peers, dismissing their concerns, and bringing a debate to a screeching halt. Few people are likely to respond to, “Well you’re doing it for the wrong reasons,” with “The fuck I am. Just answer the question.” As I’ve stated, pulling the Artistic Card is a cheap but guaranteed way to win the discussion.

For example, a woman posted a blog against National Novel Writing Month, dismissing the activity as the “wrong” way to go about writing a novel. The program, a fun, nonthreatening deadline to get most of a book done in the month of November, is controversial in that in encourages writers to work fast and tends to have an “after school elective” feel to it. She received a great deal of venom for her hatred, and several years after posted a new piece apologizing and saying how she needed to stop worrying about what how others write.

The first comment was, (sic)
“I think that NaNoWriMo in some ways still produces people that are using it for reasons other than love of Fiction. It produces a lot of really bad literature and encourages bad writing. I do NaNoWriMo and for my own personal reasons I like it. However, sometimes when I read some of the writing that exists it makes me want to give up my passion for writing just because I get so frustrated.

Don’t use National Novel Writing Month because it encourages you doing it for the wrong reasons. But it’s okay that I do because I have the right reasons. The problem with stating you write with the appropriate purposes is that too many times do writers see that stated in a poor context. Even if you genuinely don’t mean anything by it, it still has the negative association with controlling and judgmental people.

There’s often some hypocrisy.

In the case of the first commenter, I believe his obsession with whether writing for the money versus the love of the story comes from his original desire to be famous. When he realized that priority might not become a possibility, he turned his attention to other goals. Which is all great.  But his fixation is still on judging his past self and how “wrong” he was to do so.

The donation guy constantly complained about lack of sales, and later offered up his services as a ghost writer, with a fee, of course.

The Writing Month woman took a method she herself uses and criticized it.

This is all pretty typical.

Full truth, I have seen plenty of people state that they don’t write for the money and mean it. Most people mean it in part—through their very specific definition of “writing for the money.” Some are talking out of their ass.

People who have a black and white idea of what selling out is—a thick, neon line between it and the “love of the story”—are more prone to making statements that at least seem hypocritical. It appears, from an anecdotal standpoint, common for them to talk more about sales and money than the average writer.

We tend to harshly judge others for our own mistakes, and so this claim of altruism and pure artistry usually comes hand in hand with a closed-minded naysaying on other people’s methods.

Lying to ourselves doesn’t work.

I’d say that the actual consequence of this mentality, outside of just being annoying, is when it discourages pushing your story to its fullest potential.

Both first commenter and donation guy had typos in their summaries. Many times people will blame their genre and people’s poor taste for their lack of success when it can be attributed to quality, or even just easy, superficial fixes. People will disparage the advice of traditional publishers under the guise of remaining true to themselves and produce a half-baked book.

I’ve had people tell me that spelling and punctuation errors were “true to their voice.”

How does “Dont” with a capital ‘d’ differ in sound from “don’t?”

I’ve had people rant about how size shouldn’t matter, that novellas can be just as good as novels.

And I agree. But not when your novella has terrible pacing, lacks an ending, and is a series of summation instead of illustration.

I’ve had people claim that they don’t care about sales, reject all conventional advice as being a sellout, and then mope around on social media about why no one is giving their book a chance.

And their logic isn’t wrong. Not completely. It’s important to be true to yourself. It’s incredibly difficult to tell the difference between keeping your voice genuine, not being swayed by peer pressure or judgement or trends, versus refusing to acknowledge pertinent criticism, difference of perception and tastes, and when “being true to yourself” crosses over into “being too lazy to work on yourself.”

When it comes to writing, I care about two things: if the book is good, and if the author is satisfied. If you’re not satisfied, you need to be honest with why. If your book isn’t selling, then look to conventional advice as to why. You can pick and choose based on integrity, but there is nothing wrong with doing something eye catching if it doesn’t detract from the meaning.

It’s not black and white.

Having a good cover does not take away from the writing. Is it unfair that a poor cover can hurt a wonderful story? Well, it certainly isn’t desirable. But “fighting” it by intentionally cutting corners with it, knowing how important it is to readers is self-sabotaging. Are typos indicative of a poor storyteller? Technically, no, but what’s the benefit outside of less work?

The “love of fiction” and “writing for the money” are fairly simplistic ideas that could mean many different things. Is wanting to get as many readers as possible “writing for the money?” Is wanting to be paid for the work you do “writing for the money?” Is putting out work in its “purest” form the love of fiction? How much should you care about “what other people think?” Where is the line between caring about their experience versus caring about their judgement?

Critically analyzing our choices without prematurely writing them off helps us be happier, write better, and make more effective decisions. If you want to be famous, if you want to make money, that doesn’t necessarily contradict your desire to touch people emotionally, to tell a good story. There will be times you have to prioritize one over the other, and it’s your decision which one gets chosen. We don’t want everyone to promote artistic decisions over appealing to the people every single time. We want diversity. We want sincerity.

If you want to be true to yourself, you have to admit that sometimes yourself wants money. Or at least enough to be able to do your art. And sometimes you have to admit you don't give a shit about the money, but you may rethink if you really need to tell everyone about it.

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Friday, June 10, 2016

How a Reader’s Inner Life Controls the Quality of Your Writing

My boyfriend and I broke up this last week.

It’s not just my story to tell and I only mention it because I want to limited the questions about what happened to moving to Australia. I’m not happy about it, and it’s hard for me to discuss.

But as I sat back this week and reflected on it… What could I have done differently? What could I do differently? Something hit me in the back of my head—a memory, a sudden understanding of a song. A song I use to judge.

I rather talk about that.

I was originally very critical of the Black Eyed Peas’ “Meet Me Halfway.” Mainly I had a problem with the chorus:

Can you meet me halfway, right at the borderline
Is where I'm gonna wait, for you
I'll be looking out, night n' day
Took my heart to the limit, and this is where I stay
I can't go any further than this
I want you so bad it's my only wish””

The song as a whole could be considered a pretty typical breakup piece about missing someone, thinking about them constantly, grieving over the things that once were. To relate to that wouldn’t be a shock in itself, but what surprises me is my complete change of heart towards the meaning of the lyrics.

Sure, it was a catchy melody, but when I first heard it, I considered it unromantic and perhaps a little bit selfish. I interpreted it as, “I will only do my half,” a sort of quid pro quo ideology, and thought that if you loved someone, you should go to the moon and back, you should give your all.

Without revealing too much, my own tune has changed. While before I saw it as her saying, “I will only go halfway, otherwise it isn’t worth it,” I now understand that you can’t go all of the way for someone. It’s not possible. The relationship can’t work. Love can be unconditional, it can be true without receiving it in return, but just because you are capable of feeling that way doesn’t mean that you can live like that. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

I’m not exactly talking about my ex here, at least not to the extent as implied. What occurred during the end of our relationship, especially in the long distance stage, left me feeling out of control and hopeless. There was something wrong and I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t do solve it on my own, no matter how much work I was willing to put into it.

The same thing happened with an ex an another song.

“Grenade” by Bruno Mars sings:

“I'd catch a grenade for ya
Throw my hand on a blade for ya
I'd jump in front of a train for ya
You know I'd do anything for ya
Oh, I would go through all this pain
Take a bullet straight through my brain
Yes, I would die for you, baby
But you won't do the same”

At the time, I didn’t expect someone to be completely one-sided in a relationship—though I do remember thinking, “If you would really die for her, sacrificing yourself so she could live, then why is ‘you won’t do the same’ relevant? A sacrifice is a sacrifice, right?”—My skepticism focused on how the proclamations of unrealistic hypotheticals meant nothing. My then-boyfriend loved to say he would die for me, but if I needed him to take me to the airport… that was far too much to ask.

It wasn’t until this recent relationship that I understood Mars’ refrain, what it’s like to be so in love with someone that you’re bursting out of your skin to “die for them,” and yet realize their passion for you doesn’t even come close. It’s worse, in a way, than unrequited love because at least you can rip that Band-Aid off when they reject you. But when you’re actually knee deep in a relationship, it can be hard to come to terms with the great discrepancy of your feelings. Which is not to invalidate the pain of others who have been rejected, but I would much prefer that he had decided he didn’t want me within the first few months and we’d left it at that. Instead, I had to be the one to guess at his feelings, hoping all of the while I was misinterpreting what his actions told me.

When I first heard “Grenade,” I hated it. I hated when men made these great promises, thought these grand gestures of gifts and vows made up for the moments of neglect, not being there when I actually wanted them, needed them. Sure, some romantic words and presents can be nice, there is no denying that, but it’s not what I’m actually looking for. When I love you, accessibility and support is really what I need.

In the later years, I started to know what it was like to want to “jump on a grenade” for someone, what it was like to have them not want to do the same. Instead of seeing his words as insincere, shallow promises, I recognized them as indescribable feelings.

A song I had thought obnoxious and disingenuous became very true for the state of mind I was later in. My own inner life changed my interpretation, and with that changed my opinion on the overall quality of work.

I’ve seen it happen with other works as well, namely The Death of a Salesman where many of its bigger fans admit to hating it when they were younger. Something can be bullshit, boring, or unrelatable until something happens to you to put you on the same page as the author.

This is part of the problem with the way literature is taught in school these days, more so, how we teach the evaluation of books. “Good” writing is often judged on an “I’ll know it when I see it” basis, but professors will tell their students that the books those teens think are good aren’t, that you can’t trust your own judgement, and that you need to trust the teacher’s opinion until you get old enough to learn how to think for yourself—because that apparently comes at a magical age.

Which it doesn’t. Determining how you yourself evaluate good work, how other people do it, what subjectivity is and what factors into quality—What is a good book?—is a huge part of the process. It’s a struggle, and the more assured someone feels like they know what a good book is, the more likely that just don’t think to question their first impressions. These people often are hurt by criticism more than someone who critically questions his own opinion and recognizes the flexibility in what constitutes as good.

We are told that good art has “meaning.” Waiting for Godot is meaningful. Your peer’s one-act about Rubrics Cubes representing the homeless is not. The analogy of Lord of the Rings doesn’t count. Why? Because he didn’t intend for it. What did Antoine Artaud intend to do in Jet of Blood? Nothing. He was a nutcase.

I don’t think disliking something that is meaningful to someone else is a sign of poor perspective. I don’t think my original interpretations of the songs were wrong, exactly. I still believe that saying you’ll die for someone doesn’t mean as much as just putting down the controller when they need your attention, and I don’t think a relationship (in most contexts) should be split 50-50.

But there’s more than one way to interpret something, and how you see it is based on your own inner life. Writers need to remember that something meaningful may only be so for a few people who have had that experience; it doesn’t say your work is bad. Critiques need to remember that just because they found meaning, doesn’t make those who didn’t idiots. And just because you find something meaningless doesn’t say it is.

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