Monday, January 30, 2017

Let the Bad People Talk

I’m not asking for me. If people let me talk, I wouldn’t have this blog, and then what would you be doing with yourself?

The first time this idea occurred to me was last year when I came across the article, “The Benevolent Stalker.”

In a weird moment of the universe toying with me, I was looking for a sign if I should continue pursing someone who had been hot and cold or if I should focus moving on. I believed that if I could find a concrete answer, something that truly made me stop doubting—“What if I could do more?”—I would finally be able to let it go.

But I, unlike my bastard of a love interest, believed in persistence and chasing, fixing problems and rarely quitting. I was unable to tell if my actions were insane, stalkerish, or if giving up was wrong.

So I decided I would look for a sign. At one o’clock the next afternoon, I would be “given” a hint if I should give up or try harder.

Then, right at one, I was in the middle of reading that article.

“The Benevolent Stalker” is the personal anecdote about a man and his obsession with a woman. At first he is just overly flirty and complimentary (albeit in ways that would have creeped me out), but then he starts to invade her space. He goes to where she works, sends her letters to an address he got off of a form he shouldn’t have had, and even after she asks him to stop talking to her, has the police ask him, gets an official restraining order, and then even moves away, he still pursues her.

During this time he does begin to realize his behavior does make him a stalker, but he continues to legitimize it by suggesting he is “benevolent.” His stalking isn’t the same as those who have malicious intent, his is true love, just unrequited.

But after posting, his blog went viral. He later discusses just how much vitriol he received and it helped him to realize how wrong he was. Type in “Richard Brittain” on Google and you’ll see all the responses people had to just how disturbing his thoughts were.

The problem?

Brittain’s honesty into his own mind teaches us, better than anything, how people can stalk. It doesn’t just show us why someone would do that, but, more importantly, it lessens the divide between him and us. The scariest thing is not the insanity of his logic, but how easily common desires can lead us to step over boundaries. I wanted to show up where my ex worked, I wanted to send him messages despite his sporadic responses, to try and make him talk to me. I wondered if there was a reason I had feelings for him like that, for the first time I had an intense feeling of loss when someone was suddenly out of my life—if maybe it was meant to be something more. And, most importantly, I struggled to determine what was effort, what showed them you cared, and what was being a doormat, or even, in Brittain’s case, a stalker.

But unlike Brittain, because I didn’t know where the line was, I refrained from acting on most accounts.

Yes, I did send him windy messages, I did humiliate myself more than I should have, but I never actually stalked him, and he never told me to leave him alone. After we got together, he said it was a storm of issues; he liked me, but wasn’t over his ex-wife. His roommates didn’t want me around because I didn’t drink. I couldn’t read his signals because he was conflicted.

Years later, in hindsight, I realize that it didn’t matter whether or not he liked me. The red flags that caused the hurt and confusion were still problems when we got together. He didn’t think I was stalking him; he did appreciate the effort I made to make us work, and it eventually succeeded. But there was a reason I had to put in all that effort. Many reasons, in fact.

Many of the questions Brittain had were the same ones I did, but I didn’t act on my crazy impulses, partially because I had the sense to recognize they wouldn’t work. Yet, through the eyes of Brittain, I could see how I might one day fall into the category, how I could cross the line. All I had to do was think that showing randomly up at his house would actually be successful—or desperate enough to try it—and I’d be one of those obsessive nutcases making people I’m supposed to care about miserable. I knew better because I had learned better.

By immediate shutting up people we don’t agree with, we destroy the best possible way to understanding them. Letting them talk, even when their opinions are scary, deluded, and problematic, is the best way to finding a solution.

Brittain’s stalking could be prevented by, instead of villianizing and dehumanizing stalkers, amplifying the difference between typical desires and actually acting on them.

Preventing evil is just as much about teaching us how to recognize it in ourselves. We often portray Hitler and Putin and Manson as insane, abnormal people who are just evil from the start, but that just gives them less reason to control it (If I am this way just because I am this way, then I can’t fight who I am), and makes it harder for people to relate to them, therefore recognize and alter the behavior in ourselves.

When I teach kids, there are often those who gang up and bully someone, just to turn around and denounce bullying themselves. They are too victims, and yet they don’t put the correlation with how they treated their fellow peer and how they are being treated now. In their mind, their victim deserved it.

Hypocrisy is so common with our flaws, more common, I think, than when we criticize the flaws we don’t have.

And, on another side, you wouldn’t believe how much more people listen when they’re actually allowed to speak first.

Out in the recesses of the internet there is a list of questions authors hate to be asked or the comments we hate to hear.

“What have you written?”

“I always wanted to be a writer if I had the time.”

“Have you been published?”

Partially because we’re sensitive, also because we hear them all the damn time, there are a lot of things that you can say to a writer that will make them offended, yet I always recommend to my fellow linguists that most times it comes from curiosity or legitimately trying to make conversation. So, yes, the implication that writing would be so easy for you if you just sat down to do it is legitimately offensive, if it came from the person being oblivious to how rude they are, then it might be better to take the higher ground and continue the conversation. Respect them even if they don’t respect you, and they’re more likely to change their minds.

By being irritated with fumbled words, it encourages people to just not talk to you about it rather than encouraging their curiosity and desire to understand.

Even when dealing with someone of grossly different opinions, you can always find some common ground, and that common ground is where the truth and solution lies. On Facebook the other day someone posted an idiotic comment a politician said to which someone else actually commented, “This man is such a moron. I’m not even going to read the article.”

Whenever I find a quote that requires the speaker to be unbelievably stupid, I assume I’m missing something. And I always have been. While I don’t always agree with their logic, when I get a fuller story, the logic at least seems to exist.

It’s our habit to shut out people who don’t have the same opinions, especially those who we would define purely as evil. But sometimes it’s more important to give them the freedom to speak than to immediately correct them. Most people have reasons behind the choices they make, and you might realize you’re closer to them than you think.

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Friday, January 27, 2017

The Best Lies I’ve Heard in Constructive Criticism

It’s rare to have someone knowing lie about their opinions. Or, at least, I would assume it is. I’m a pretty good judge of character, but after a jaunt with a certain boy, I do have to question my naivety on the existence of good and evil. I’ll admit I’m not much of a believer in stupidity or true malevolence, attributing most conflict to miscommunication, necessity, or impulsivity. Because I’m not much of a liar, it is rarely my first conclusion.

Loyal readers of this blog hear me claim that the first step in vetting the usefulness of criticism should be determining whether or not the speaker believes what they’re saying. Not because it’s common they don’t—again, I think it’s incredible rare that it doesn’t have at least a foundation of truth—but because if they don’t even trust what they’re saying, you know it won’t be of any use to you. It is one of the few occassions I would recommend just throwing something out.

But why would someone lie? Why would someone knowingly make something up when they’re trying to help?

It doesn’t happen often, it does happen.

“Superman is a well-written character because he has weaknesses.”

The lie isn’t that weakness make a well-written character, it’s that Superman is one. It’s the implication he’d ever read a Superman comic or watched a Superman film or done anything that would remotely familiarize him with the character.

As a child, I liked Batman. Partially because of the animated series, but even when Justice League came out, Bruce Wayne absorbed my interest far more than Clark Kent. Full disclosure, the Martian Manhunter was actually my top choice, then the Flash, then Batman. Both Wonder Woman and Superman didn’t interest me much because they were too good, lacked personalities, and almost always did the right thing. (Although I didn’t dislike Diana, and she too had her moments of fallibility.)

Because I didn’t like Superman, I didn’t watch much that featured him, but I did still watch plenty, (and read a few early comics) and he is rarely well-developed. In the early comics he’s more vicious than later, but still, there’s a notorious black and white issue with his morality. He is a good person through and through.

As for his supernatural weaknesses, kryptonite is a pretty painful choice. He’s either a god, or he’s an infant. There’s not a lot of mobility in the process of taking him down.

I would rarely consider Superman a well-rounded character, nor do I think his “weaknesses” should be emulated by other writers, if for the sole reason the all or nothing power set-up is difficult to do right.

Why he lied about it:

At one point, this man in question admitted he didn’t read much. He actually was just starting out as a writer, and as far as I know, he only wrote six pages into a memoir before he vanished from the writers group. He came in a lot, but kept redoing the same beginning pages.

A woman who had been writing a detective novel had a scene in which someone had gone through the protagonist’s hotel room and left a bug. The protagonist proceeded to seek out answers as to who had done it. Our male peer believed she should have gone to the police—it was the only natural thing!

I couldn’t say as I wasn’t far enough in the novel to know the detective’s backstory, why someone would bug her, or, more importantly, what she thought was going on. I didn’t question her reaction, and after he did, it seemed to me there would be many logical reasons she might not wish to go straight to the authorities. But our peer was insistent.

The writer didn’t argue, just listened to what he had to say, but didn’t gush over his brilliance. He scrambled for more and more arguments to prove himself correct, finally announcing the truth of things: “I don’t believe a lone woman wouldn’t turn to someone else for help! Don’t women turn to each other for help on everything?!”

Women don’t have to be strong all the time, he said, in a group of women. Strong characters are created by having weaknesses.

“Superman is a well-written character because he has weaknesses! He’s not strong all the time!” he stammered.

There was true faith in his opinion, he just didn’t know how to prove it.

“There is no backstory in the first act of Star Wars.

In the same vein as above, an older mystery writer found herself out of her area of expertise when reading my science-fiction novel. My real speculation is that she was new to criticizing in general. It wasn’t her first time, but she definitely exhibited some behaviors and ideas that are typically groomed out of you once you’ve been collaborating for a while.

After handing me a worksheet on proper plot structure, she explained to me that backstory shouldn’t ever be in the first act. What surprised me most by this gesture was how seemingly oblivious she was to the possibility I wouldn’t take it well. Many people vehemently don’t believe in formulas or writing rules and anyone giving criticism should be savvy to that. She acted as though she spoke of a scientific law, as true as the existence of gravity, when, in fact, it was more like overly-simplified, general suggestions.

I didn’t say much to this. It wasn’t until she continued on, stating, “If you watch Star Wars, there’s no backstory in the first act,” that I became noticeably unconvinced. 

“What?” she said.

Star Wars starts with backstory.”


“The big scrawling credits it’s famous for?”

“Oh. Well, that doesn’t count.”

Why she lied about it:

Name dropping is a common tactic in issuing criticism. It’s easy, inarguable, doesn’t take self-reflection, and actually can be helpful. Don’t know how to write an action sequence? I don’t either, but read this book. It  has excellent ones.

The problem is, if you don’t actually read the genre, it’s not easy to offer up examples of works that were successful for you, and in many, many cases, it’s not that the book didn’t do something, but that you didn’t notice. Maybe it’s because they did it so well it was virtually invisible. Maybe, just as frequently, you just didn’t think to question it because that was THEM and this is US. Reputable “experts” are not inherently questioned, so their mistakes have to be grander and more cut and dried. Or, in this case, what she meant is Star Wars didn’t revealing backstory in the way I had—my “backstory” was a visual attempt to build the world by describing the protagonist’s first impression of his new home one year prior, a very successful 11th attempt at painting the culture early on.

Considering she stuck to tired and non-subjective clichés for advice—systematically pointing out each adverb I had—and lacked a sense of sarcasm, humor, lie detecting, or hyperbole, I believe she was  name dropping successful works, which would have been an effective argument for her as a writer. She was talking in the way she would be convinced, but didn’t have the resources to seek the best examples for her points, so she pulled one out of the recesses of her mind and assumed both she would be correct, and I wouldn’t be more informed than her.

Past versus Passed.

A Facebook post some years ago asked, “What’s the difference between past and passed?” About 100 people commented. They all disagreed. Adamantly.

In one humorous case, a woman commented in a long winded version explaining the difference between the two using parts of speech and other grammar jargon. Another person agreed with her, simplifying her answer. They said the exact opposite things.

Each person staunchly stated the right way to use the sentence in question, despite the next comment staunchly asserting the opposite. At least a half of them had to be wrong, but no one was even hesitant to believe their choice.

Why they lied about it:

Because they thought they were right.

Being wrong isn’t a lie, but speaking from assumption rather than education and then not questioning it when many others disagree is negligence; you’re willfully spreading incorrect information you haven’t fact checked.

I question a lot of things in my life; it’s the cause of my anxiety. My conclusion jumping is flawed, and I hate making mistakes. I want to find the truth of things, which often requires me to reassess my assumptions.

You can’t live like that.

While questioning what you assume to be normal or true is an important factor of being a good person and being successful, sometimes you do need to just trust yourself, act on impulse, believe you’re right, and take action when the getting’s good. You literally do not have the time to question everything. I am not sitting here saying, “Does ‘while’ mean what I think it does? Does ‘questioning’? ‘What’? Will my readers agree with me on those meanings?” I do often come across words that don’t actually mean what I think they do, (words I use a lot even) but I can’t always second guess myself if I want to complete a blog post in a reasonable amount of time. Most of them I’m right about.

I personally thought I understood “passed” versus “past” until I worked with an editor on a short story and realized I very much didn’t. I had believed “past” was only a noun in reference to time. But it’s also a preposition. To walk “past” something dictates where you are. To “pass” something is an action. You pass past.

The best time to question yourself is when someone else points out they’re disagreement. If 50% of people answer wrong, you would benefit from doing a quick Google search before throwing in your two-cents.

“Don’t end your sentence in a preposition.”

Let’s be honest, the reason why this is on here is due to the competitiveness inherently attached to this statement. What’s the non-WASPish benefit of not ending a sentence in a preposition? Perhaps clarity, in some cases. Outside of that, I have found attempts to not use a preposition to be far more invasive than just using it.

“Wake,” or “Wake up,” that is the question.

Rundown: Prepositions are “locations” of two objects relative to each other.

It is on the chair. It is under the chair. It, due to a freak accident, is in the chair. On, to, about, in, under, above, through, and even, for some reason, “for” are all prepositions.

Of course when you end a sentence in a prep, the second object is typically implied: “He walked by (you.)”

However, this isn’t an actual English grammar rule and has never been. Back in the late 1800s, there was a push to make English more like Latin. No official grammar editions were convinced, but the masses heard this and just assumed it was correct. Today it is pushed by many people, including highly successful writers and editors, but the fact is, it’s not a fact.

Why they lie about it:

Considering that most people think this is true, it’s not really a lie. But for the same reason not checking your resources on “passed” versus “past” is deceitful, defending any rules with guns blazing before really understanding why is problematic.

More so, since there’s not a lot of artistic or linguistic benefits the change, often insisting on no prepositions can come down to a sole attempt to sound intelligent. The lie is continually propagated by people who want to believe it because it makes them feel like they know what they’re doing. Whenever you see an article about this very subject, you see many comments that insist ending a sentence in a preposition is wrong, despite not offering any argument as to why, suggesting to me they just like believing in it.

“Science-fiction novels are supposed to be short.”

She was my elementary school teacher who ended up in a writers group with an adult me (years later, of course.) She wasn’t the first person to say this, and I know she believed it. I have a high level of respect for her, mostly due her respect for those around her.

But again, there was a moment in which she insistently said something untrue due to her lack of experience.

Why she lied about it:

She was older, which contributed to this. Back in the 1960s-1980s, science fiction was notoriously cheap, mass paperbacks. Due to the methods they were sold (via grocery stores mainly), smaller books would fit more copies on the racks, which meant more money for everyone involved. ‘Cept the author, of course, but who cares about them?

In the recession of the 80s, the publishers needed to up their prices, but the grocery stores refused to charge more for the same “weight,” so publishers began to pick up larger manuscripts.

Adding into the gradually growing popularity of secondary worlds (instead of magical/high tech elements on Earth) caused by Lord of the Rings in 1954, science fiction and fantasy books have slowly grown in size for the sake of developing the worlds as well. Then there’s the improvement on science fiction’s reputation as more of an intellectual piece of literature rather than silly fluff, which makes “serious readers” drawn to it, who typically enjoy longer books.

In any case, since the 1990s, most science-fiction books are around 90-100,000 words, a debut author able to sell at 120,000 more easily than someone of another genre.

I include this on this list, not because she was intentionally lying to me, but because this woman who I had high respectful for was delivering me faulty information—right after I had informed her the opposite was the truth.

And that’s the underlying theme. These lies stay in my mind, not just because I’m obsessive and neurotic, but because they acted so certain about what they were saying despite their information being incorrect. To the extent that they didn’t even waver at disagreement, they pushed their beliefs as fact, and the simple truth is, had I not known any better, I probably would have believed them.

Don’t believe everything you hear, and don’t be convinced by confidence. As much as you question yourself, make sure to question others because some people can tell you lies, assumptions, and fabrications without even flinching.

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Monday, January 23, 2017

Romantic Comedies Make for Horrible Relationships

No, it did not take me 27 years to come to that conclusion. Though I will admit to just recently finding out it isn't spelled "duck tape," so that's not a bad guess.

Last summer, in attempts to get over my breakup and put myself out there, I gave a complete stranger my number for the first time. Upon texting me, iMessages put my email instead of my phone number at the top, to which he decided I had done something shady and he flipped out on me.

I know how women can give out fake numbers and someone might be sensitive to that, but this was ridiculous.

It comes up every once in a while: “Shit testing” as the internet likes to call it, where women intentionally reject a man in order to see how much he truly cares about her. In my experience, rarely do women consciously shit test in real life. Sure, you learn a lot about a guy when you reject him, but it’s unlikely for a woman to say to herself, How can I tell him no in an awful way and see if he sticks around? Honestly, I would be more annoyed he didn’t respect my wishes or himself.

I know some bitchy, manipulative women, yet true-life examples men describe as ‘shit testing’ is often more a girl being uncertain about her feelings and reacting to the pressure to make a decision quickly. Most women will say ‘no’ when she means ‘maybe’ because it is always, always easier to change your mind to a yes than from it, (and it’s highly likely ‘maybe’ will be received as a ‘yes’). In these cases, persistence will not only do you wonders, it is flattering and reassuring for the other person to say, “Your logical anxiety is less important than our feelings.”

Is that the man’s job? No. You don’t have to put up with wishy-washiness, cluelessness, or comfort her anxious resistance; I only think dating would be a lot easier if we all offered each other some true empathy and the benefit of the doubt rather than prematurely villainizing the objects of our affections. (And I say that auto-biographically.)

Sometimes, of course, their perception of shit testing is also just a gross delusion against rejection. “I have a boyfriend” is either the truth or a lie, but in any case, it will never be a challenge. It means no. She might change her mind (about lying to you or how important her boyfriend is), not impossible, but this is where self-respect comes into play.

After my breakup, I also became extremely easily triggered by romance and sexual images. The bad experience had completely warped my view of these things and I struggled to feel any yearning for love. It seemed like a false, shallow entity that meant nothing. Mostly, I was hurt any time I saw men portrayed as feeling love and devotion; it all seemed like such a lie, completely fake, about as real as vampires or resurrection. Might as well as look forward to going to Middle Earth.

I started to more deeply understand why some women hated the way that men were portrayed in romance—the backlash against Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey in particular. I have always defended these novels, saying that fantasy does not always have to be healthy—fiction is a way to toy with danger in a safe place—and women do not always need to be the keepers of morality, as characters, readers, or authors. But in recent months I would see these smug “Alpha Males” all over romance, these dehumanized guys who dehumanized women, whose confidence came from condescension and “love” is portrayed via possessiveness, and I couldn’t help but wish someone would knock these assholes down a peg.

More and more I’ve been pulling out of my depression and being able to enjoy things again. Just recently I’ve started to watch romantic comedies after about two years of not being able to stand the stuff, and I have to say how things have changed.

Not only do the guys smug smiles grate on me a little more, but the woman are deranged and shockingly callous.

I watched Failure to Launch, a sometimes funny, sometimes painful chick flick about a woman whose job is to help older men move out of their parents’ house by improving their confidence with the love of an attractive woman.

The morality was questionable on all accounts.

The male hero was a man-child, having problems with intimacy. He would bring the women who were getting too close home to convince them to break up with him. Unable to tell a hot girl he loved her or commit, he was the quintessential “guy.”

The female protagonist was a perfectly calculated control freak who would use a formula to pick up guys, help them feel better about themselves until they moved out, and then… I don’t know. Break up with them somehow. All without having sex with them. She lied about who she was, played mind-games, and was the quintessential “girl.”

I enjoyed watching it. Not that I was paying extensive attention (I like to have background noise when I’m drawing). But I did remember thinking, “These people are supposed to be romantic?”

There’s a lot of lying in chick flicks. Lots of mind games. Lots of working to change the other. The man is always incompetent in some form, the lady always superwoman. I don’t care what people say about Fifty Shades of Gray: Rich successful, perfectly groomed, “good-looking” guys tend to be the shitty boyfriend in most films. It retains our current atmosphere’s attitude—ambition and effort or for evil advisors.

You want to be the hero? You sit there until someone informs you of your greatness. Then they will push you, but you do not try to be anything more than you are now—you might just be ordinary, after all.

I can’t say that I’d ever want the love portrayed in romance. It all seems to be thoroughly toxic, selfish, and competitive.

Strange, being that my argument why everyone loved Harley Quinn—the female counterpart to Batman’s the Joker—while dismissing all the other female counterparts in superhero comics, was due to the unhealthiness of its relationship; Joker does not have to change when in a relationship because he doesn’t care about Harley one bit. Her flawed obsession with a sadistic asshole is part of her charm. It’s the flaws that make their story so interesting.

Of course, few of the writers attempt to pass it off as moral or idealistic—though some certainly try.

How do you write a love story in which the people aren’t exhibited humongous red flags of sadism, narcissism, or even just problematic immaturity that’s not incredibly boring to watch?

Well, that’s simple enough. Don’t make the conflict the love story. But then it wouldn’t be romance, would it?

I love “Fitzsimmons” from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., two flawed but loveable side characters, Fitz and Simmons, who truly connect with each other in each line. But the writers had trouble pairing them off, trying to make Fitz go for the silver-spooned “Skye” first despite a complete lack of chemistry. Neither of those characters are the plastically attractive, perfect save for one inconspicuous flaw types that Hollywood deems worthy of a true love story, and that’s what makes it great.

When I wrote the manuscript, The Dying Breed, I considered it a romance novel with sci-fi elements. About halfway through, I very much realized it wasn’t. As time went on, going through more and more drafts, the characters’ relationship grew less idolized and more real. I wrote it in five months four years ago, and it’s only now that I look back on that I see how typical their arguments are—despite fleeing from the hordes of bounty hunters in a dead landscape.

Currently, I’m still working on a piece temporarily called The Plane in which not only were the two main characters, Soel and Sanya, not supposed to be romantically entangled, I went out of my way to make it so. Yet something about them clicked, and without my permission, it was clear they had a natural chemistry upon their first meeting:

            “It is there I will need you to travel into the middle of the rainforest to the largest conglomeration of the locals and retrieve something from their temple. Something no Station man has yet achieved.”
            “Retrieve ‘something,’ huh? Like drugs?” Sanya asked. “Cheap hooker? Patent infringement?”
            But Soel focused on other things. “Somethin’ Station man hasn’t done? And y’r sendin’ us? I don’t know if a’yone’s told y’, but you don’t got the most socially talented people here.”
            Sanya shook her head in agreement: you don’t.

The more I allow them to develop their relationship at their will, the more their sarcasm and antisocial behaviors brought them together against the rest of the world. In short time, they organically became a team. Neither of them deny their feelings, they just don’t talk about it much.

            “Don’t listen to him, Soel. It’s sexy.”
            “Buzz off.”
            She grinned. “You need to learn to take a compliment.”
            “I’m sure t’won’t come up again.”

Their relationship lacks the typical conflict and possessiveness that marks the sensual arousal of the romance novels, the yearning that people have for being truly wanted. Good thing too as The Plane was never intended to be about love, but I suppose stick two people in a small aircraft together…

I still begrudge the lack of romanticism—and I don’t just mean love—in my works, enjoying a good will-they-won’t-they plot, but I’ll admit there’s something nice about seeing people actually appreciate each other’s presence. As much as I’d like for a passion for the ages, there’s something to be said for seeing characters in long term relationships that work on a more feasible level.

In truth, I am jealous of my characters’ bonds at times. Sure, they might be clinically depressed, alcoholics, wanted criminals, and brainwashed cult members, but they do have each other, and there is a certain level of loyalty to one another that I can’t help but be proud of.

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Friday, January 20, 2017

The Quality of Predictability

While home for Christmas, my brother and I were sent into the grocery store after a dinner out to grab a few things. Stuff kept getting tacked on, and by the end we had seven items that we needed to get. We couldn’t remember the seventh.

“Remembering seven new pieces of information is supposed to be average,” I said. “More than that is supposed to be intelligent. I guess that explains why mom would never let us see our IQ tests.”

My brother was miffed by the comment.

“I just wasn’t listening,” he replied.

There actually some truth to it. People only have a limited amount of ability to process brand new information, our short term memory far less flexible than long term. We can remember more if there seems to be a connection between the objects, which is why mnemonic devices like My Very Excellent Memory Just Served Up Nine Planets work so well to train us in non-related pronouns of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and the ill-fated Pluto.

Familiarity breeds investment.

In the book I’m shopping around, I had two major parts in which the plot lagged and people—myself included—had a hard time of pushing past. It took me at least a year of being aware of the problem before I finally came up with a successful solution: Connections and familiarity were key.

Instead of having this fight scene between the protagonists and a “faceless” bounty hunter, I reorganized the plot so that it would bring back in a character people had wanted to know more about, killing two birds with one stone. Taking basically the same sequence of events, but adding in a connection with previous parts of the book made the moment more interesting, look like the plot progressed, and enabled readers to stay engaged until they got back to the already successfully flowing parts.

People struggle to compartmentalize too much new information.

In that same manuscript, I was also told that my beginning was confusing, but no one could really explain what they meant. I had one woman go through the section again with a highlighter to note each moment she got lost, and she finished without a mark on it. “Well, I guess I understood everything.”

Over four some years, I struggled with figuring out what people meant by “not understanding” before I realized they meant they were overwhelmed with new information. Many of my readers did not read the science-fiction genre—my peers in my small hometown of Wyoming predominantly memoirists and contemporary literary writers—which was part of the problem, but also that I threw one-too many “curveballs” (unintentionally of course) with the building of my world.

The initial version started in a hut filled with mechanical parts like a stripped car engine. It was a secondary world—in later drafts confirmed to be a completely separate planet—and people struggled to figure out things like the “time period,” the location, and just the type of story it was. The cult of the female protagonist’s upbringing was not the primary antagonist, but the backdrop. Were we on Earth? Outer space? The rules followed expectation on some parts, but not in others, which of course I assumed was a good thing. But that made it difficult to note all the little details, the tiny objects described, the strange items and fashions that diverted from a seemingly typical dystopian reality. The readers didn’t know what they needed to remember for plot points because so many of the aspects of this word subverted expectation. Shouldn’t that be what’s important?

Obviously it all made sense to me, none of it being throw in intentionally to throw a kink into things. I envisioned the world how I envisioned it, focusing little on originality or cliché. But, as I say, my common sense isn’t so common, and if I tried to write something that had never been done before, I would never get to write what I want. So in the early drafts I try to stay out of the heads of my readers and create what feels right, make the story in the way I see it, meet my vision as accurately as I can. Later I’d determine if it worked for others. I would struggle to objectively say, “This idea is cliché, while that idea is unexpected,” because I typically do what makes sense, what feels right. Some of it will be assumptions created by the genre itself, others will be random conclusions formed in my mind. This rarely happens consciously, and so I can’t easily separate them out.

It was too my shock I found that deleting information rather than adding information helped draw focus to what was important and allowed people to feel comfortable in their conclusions.

Utilizing past knowledge is a fulfilling puzzle.

Working as an editor for One in the Hole, (deadline for submissions of the fifth and final issue March 15th), I received a lot of “compilation” stories. The premise of the literary journal is for the stories, poems, and essays to all be about Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and many of the non-fiction writers would simply pick a subject and tell several stories about it: moose, buffalo, their families, etc.

I often spent time reorganizing these into a more progressive storyline, trying to find the underlying point in all. Otherwise, it was like trying to get reinvested into an entirely new story all together. It was harder to read these compilation because you wouldn’t get the refreshing new styles or voice someone different, but still forget everything you’ve learned about the last because it didn’t relate.

As a common indie reader, I find that most summaries screw the pooch by prioritizing mystery over being informative. After reading their pitch, I still know nothing about the novel because they’re so afraid of making it “predictable.”

When I was in school with required reading, I found that I was far more interested in the plays after I had read all about them on Wikipedia then when I was just introduced to the first few pages.

The brain works best by seeing patterns and connections.

Originality is a primary goal for most writers, and for good reason. It’s an excellent tool to get people to start caring again, rethink their base assumptions, and take us from the constant pelting of everyday life. Show us something new and we’ll be a limp kitty in your arms.

However, most successful works are not all that original. In fact, it can feel difficult to sell something truly different, especially as something as business oriented as film. When I wrote the post “Originality Doesn’t Sell,” suggesting originality is merely a tool to improve your work, not a quality of it, most people’s first assumption was I was writing about how difficult it is to get a truly original work out there. Which is common advice; I follow a blogger who was told that a screenplay should have 70 percent expectation, 30 percent novelty.

This seems like a whole bunch of box-filling, limiting gibberish force-fed to the masses to keep the peasants in their place. And it sort of is. I’m not advocating attempting to keep something formulaic or cliché, but rather that understanding how most reader’s minds work gives options to the author. Analyzing expectation and comparing it to reaction is more successful in achieving impact. Too many writers balk at predictability because it’s fairly easy to write something that’s been written before, and being limited to it simply because the world sees you as a fluff writer is insulting and disingenuous.

But familiarity is powerful. Sometimes it’s not just about marketing or meeting the common denominator, just recognizing why no one is invested in your truly different piece of fiction. Don’t avoid something merely because it’s easy or been done before. Predictability, acquaintance, and expectation are all powerful options in your arsenal. Without them, it’s incredibly difficult to progress and invest in a storyline.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Road to Publication: One Small Step, A Giant Leap for Me

I considered smashing a bottle of champagne over my computer, but aimed it at buzzing fly instead. I missed.

It’s hard to speculate how well you know me. I only gauge my audience by my hit counter and the messages I get in response. Sometimes I do feel like I’m submitting out into the void, but people do come up and talk to me about what I’ve written, informing me that I’m not as alone as I think. Some of my readers have known me all my life, some just follow my posts, knowing only what I say here, which I honestly can’t always remember. Then there’s some of you who are complete strangers, I know. Some of you are very aware of how long it’s taken me to get here, others not so much. So let me let you in on what I’m on about.

I finished my first novel at 13. I’m 27 now, have been writing most days since then, with a few bad periods, of course. The currently titled The Dying Breed is my 13th manuscript, which I completed the first draft in 2013, five months after starting, ending a whopping 180,000 words.

For size reference, The Hunger Games is approximately 100,000 words, almost half.

I have an affinity for all my manuscripts, but The Dying Breed was different; even before I had finished, I knew it was unlike anything I had written before. The male protagonist Raiden came out exactly as I had imagined him. He has always lent himself to the moment, his motivations and desires clear to me, even before I began to ask him about himself. He was exactly the person I had been trying to write for some time.

Libra was the opposite. She and I fought most of the way. At first, she attempted to be a mouthy, unfunny little jerk, which within the first few scenes I pulled way back on. I knew nothing about her, other than her abrasion to the world around her, but as the first draft was completed, she came into her own. Second time around, I ended up switching her character arc, Libra growing more and more opinionated and brave as the events went on, starting out as a quiet, humble person before coming into her own.

But they had a certain chemistry between them, the affection palatable no matter the changes.

The idea originally came to me when my dad was having a midlife crisis. He took me out on his brand new motorcycle, and I began to wonder if it would be easier to jump out of a car—in which you had to open the door, but weren’t as aware of the speed of the cement rushing by before you hit it—or a motorcycle—in which you were physically free, but needed to mentally prepare.

My thoughts turned to kidnapping, mostly my fearless escape, which turned to the bigger question on how a kidnapper would prevent it. You’d have to be in a location in which few people would come by, traffic lights wouldn’t be an issue, and basically drive through a barren wasteland until you got out far enough there was nowhere to run.

Then the question turned to motive—why would they be kidnapping you in the first place—and with motive, came the story.

By the time I got home, I had the first half of the book plotted out. (Though at the time I only expected it to be a third.) I wrote out the first pages, and answers came quickly. But, being currently in the middle of another manuscript, I decided to wait until the next month and start it for National Novel Writing Month (I love seeing the visual of the little graph going up and up as I write. Makes me feel productive.) That manuscript is still incomplete, though fully, in detail outlined, landing about 50,000 words at the moment. I work on it from time to time, hoping to keep it below 95,000 words, minimum of 80,000.

Right at the time of completion, I heard about the film rights of Divergent being purchased—a book I hadn’t yet read. I knew of Hunger Games already, but it hadn’t occurred to me that dystopian novels were becoming a thing of a fad… and already falling.

I had a decision to make; keep editing this manuscript and aim for publication, or focus on something else.

Too many times had I decided the next one would be the big thing. Too many times did I start writing something new instead of working on something old. But this book, I was proud of it. It felt right. It had been successful in a way that the others hadn’t. As much as it was preferable to prioritize new and shiny things, I knew I needed to commit. So I decided: I would dedicate myself to get this book published until I knew that it wasn’t going to happen.

Of course I worked on other things as well. In fact, I struggled for a time with the huge variation to the reaction of the manuscript completed after that and the reaction to The Dying Breed.

No one was nearly as excited for the older that they were the newer.

Thirteen drafts and three years later, five complete overhauls of the beginning, 70K+ words cut (and many added) I have a version that my critique partners, beta-readers, editors, agents, have all agreed, “Now is the time to submit.”

Outside of short stories and play productions, I’ve only attempted to submit a manuscript once before. Manuscript four, my freshman year of college, I sent out queries to five publishers/agents, received one rejection, and then unceremoniously abandoned the project. I still like that fourth book, but even then I knew that I wouldn’t want it published exactly in the spot it’s been in.

I’ve known for five months now that I was ready to start searching for agents, but with the move, working long hours, and dealing with family, I put it off. It wasn’t until I was settled that I could finally sit down and do one last run through.

“January 17th,” I decided. “That seems like a good time.”

It was originally the 15th, until I realized that was a Sunday. I don’t know if agents truly are inundated with weekend mail on Mondays, making them less precise, but that’s the word of wisdom, and I don’t have an reason to chance it.

I won’t talk too much about the process in the coming months—I think that would be like blogging about dating while trying to find a boyfriend. For one thing, no one wants to be talked about, and not a lot of good comes out of airing dirty laundry. I’ll update with any positive events, and will give an overview at the end of the year, but for now, bear with me. It’s still a business, a negotiation, and about presentation of self, so as valuable as the learning experience would be for my readers, I will keep the majority of what happens to myself until further notice.

But, I can tell you the prep work that has gone into it:

List of agents

I have a list of agents who represent not only my genre, but genres that appeal to me. While I have decided to shop the book as adult science-fiction, I read young adult which has influenced me, so I know that if an agent represents both, they are more inclined to share my tastes. Some of the agents on my list said things that really enticed me, like someone who pointed out her love of secondary worlds—an unpopular but shared opinion. I’m not a fan of contemporary settings.

I found their names through various places: writing conferences, representing authors I like (their names are often on their website or in their acknowledgements section), and The Writer’s Market.

I did research on the internet, read interviews, their Twitter pages, etc. to find out what kind of people they were and tailor queries to each.

This took years of cultivating, but if you can stomach research for long periods of time, once you know where to look, it’s not hard.

The query

A query letter is a short introduction of your book and yourself. It is like a commercial; it must be informative but catching at the same time. I probably wrote eight entirely different query letters, but I’m not sure at how many drafts.

I am not so sensitive to constructive criticism on my books—My skin is a cockroach hotel. Thick to get through at first, but once you’re under it, you’re there for life. However, getting people to read my query was the most nerve wracking thing I’d done in years.

I won’t share it, but I learned about queries from reading agents’ blogs, going to conferences, and the website, Query Shark, as well as Caitlin McDonald's blog which features query critiques.

The synopsis

This is the one I forgot about. After getting top agents in mind, I looked through their initial submission requirements to really polish the parts they would see first, when I realized after years of writing queries, I hadn’t even started writing a synopsis.

It’s a more in-depth version of your book. Unlike the query, which is only aimed to get their attention, the synopsis tells the whole story from beginning to end, showing that not only can you write well, but you can write satisfying arcs. The size of the synopsis varies, many agents not wanting one at all, so I have several versions.

The manuscript itself

When I got my first short story in print, I found a typo. Since then, I have made it my motto that I will not submit anything I would be embarrassed about if no editing happens. It’s a good way to push myself and my writing.

Most agents ask for the first three chapters or 40 pages, but that too varies. Some want nothing. Some want the whole thing.

Before submitting I had…

Gone through 13 drafts.

Had five readers who went through the whole thing—as many as I could get.

Had over 30 readers go through the first three chapters.

Gone from 180,000 words to 110,000 words.

The book went through some substantial developmental edits, predominantly in the beginning. The rest of it was tightened with merged scenes, cut scenes, added scenes, excess slack, and upping the stakes. In the early drafts, I solidified a history of the world and added in a much more enriched culture and geographical setting. Over time I realized that I’ve diverged from the dystopian world and, outside of this blog, perhaps spin it as pure science fiction set on another planet. The trendiness of the background is possibly my biggest worry, but as I look over my pitch, I think it’s not so easily categorized anymore.

I won’t talk about expectations…

Too ambitious and you seem delusional. Too small and you’re insecure.

I will say this: I’m proud of my book. I enjoy reading it. I hate putting it down at the end. There are limitations I am wary of, but aware of, and everything that I considered flawed, a deal-breaker, a red flag, I have fixed. I have done everything that I can with it by myself, and can only hope that it will find itself in capable hands. If not, there will be others, and the story has, at the very minimum, enriched my life.

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Friday, January 13, 2017

I Constantly Deny My Life’s Application

Life isn’t complete if you can’t ever be the one rejecting people. Sure, many hate that process and would love to never have to tell anyone bad news ever. Your now ex can entertain himself figuring out why you’ve stopped calling him. We’re sure all those people who sent in their resumes will get a hint eventually. Just don’t show up to work next time you want to quit and save your boss the heartache.

Okay, so life is much easier on the people who can avoid rejecting anyone ever. Yet, even though many have taken to a more evasive lifestyle in the recent years, there is some power in being on the Rejecter. So much so, I recommend it for any writer or artist; it can be a great learning experience on how rejection can often mean absolutely nothing.

This is the case with my life. It’s not a bad life, as of November, it’s shaping up to be a good life. But when it comes to its application to my writing, it just doesn’t seem to make the cut. I find that to be an issue with the process, however, and not my life itself.

Previously I complained about the idiocy of a one Jonathan Jones, the art “critic” for the Guardian. Jones, a self-proclaimed poorly read individual, claimed that Terry Pratchett’s novels were nothing more than pot-boiler drivel. After receiving a horrific backlash, he rephrased it to suggest that it was entertainment, but still not art. Because Pratchett didn’t take from “real life” as a great writer should, Pratchett’s work didn’t have as much meaning as someone like Jane Austen.

Of course, that was bullshit. Because Pratchett is a science-fiction writer, it would make sense to the untrained eye why it isn’t a parallel to real life. It’s not as meaningful, some believe. But as much as I hate Jones for, what I believe to be, a confusion of judgmental thinking being critical thinking, he actually made a valid point.

It wasn’t that speculative fiction novels don’t take from real life, but rather the best ones do. When examining my favorite fantasy and sci-fi novels, I realize just how many of them are empowered by their real-life application. They discuss people they know, problems we’re currently facing. Yes, the situation seems completely different when it’s the Vogons’ bureaucracy destroying the lives of many versus the British government, but the truth is that great science-fiction is relatable on a less superficial level than setting.

But I’m saying something obvious, right?

It’s not as though I don’t apply my life to my books. The characters aren’t me in a superficial way—I’m not placing a flesh-mask over my fantasy self and trying to pass it off on someone else. Yet, each of them, of course, the best of them, represent parts of me, whether it be certain flaws, motivators, or issues I’m going through.

In the manuscript I have been preparing for submission, I very much pulled from the experiences I was going through at the time. I had written it a few months after I had gotten out of college, when I was in the process of breaking up with a boyfriend I’d have for four years. My university, I felt, was ripe for a cult, the students yearning for a leader and mentor, willing to listen to the ideas of their professors even if they directly interfered with actual goals. I remember one time in which my teacher passed around a bottle of so-called vitamin B pills, telling us we were all too tired and should take enough of them until our pee turns yellow. Sure enough, everyone popped on in without questioning if they really felt like they needed it, and not remotely worried that the left over hippie might be lying to us…

He wasn’t, and the only reason I didn’t take one had to do with my abrasion to pills after my mom forced me to eat those disgusting Flintstone’s vitamins as a child. It was more of a control issue for me; I never believed that they were anything but what he claimed.

The point is, however, that it never occurred to us to question these people, at least for the first few years. Most of us, eventually, started to recognize them for what they were—regretful older men who wanted nothing more than to prove that their lack of success was just due to fate and not mistakes. They didn’t want their less glamorous students to succeed (What would it say about themselves? Those average, ordinary men who didn't overcome their innate mediocrity?) and they would often give detrimental advice and demoralize their devoted followers.

“If they can be discouraged, they should be,” one told me when I demanded to know why he refused to let a student perform a senior project.

If they can be discouraged, they will be. What makes it your job? The 80,000 dollars we paid for you to teach us skills?

During that time, I was considering going to school on the east coast. I was hating California, very unhappy, when I briefly mentioned this to my boyfriend. He said, “So, what? We’re going to have a long distance relationship?”

“Oh, I was thinking we’d break up,” I replied, furious.

He was afraid of the world beyond California. It hurt to know that he didn’t care about me enough to sacrifice living near his mother for two years. He didn’t even consider it for a second. It wasn't until I actually graduated some time later, when we actually did break up, he suddenly changed his tune, but that just made the original opinion sound even more like a threat and served to irritate me even more.

When I wrote The Dying Breed, I didn’t intend for any of this to be in the book. It wasn’t until after even the second draft that I began to make the correlation between what I had been going through and the choices I made.

Libra, a brainwashed girl living in a cult, falls in love with an outsider. He tries to survive with the people there, but never really can be happy living in fear they might learn of his criminal past and special abilities. When he escapes, he takes Libra with him, not telling her why or where they are going, believing her fear of the outside world will prevent her from ever choosing him.

I wanted to be important to my ex, enough for him to come with me. I wanted him to be important enough to me that I couldn’t be without him. I was living in fear of the unknown; I wanted someone to help me be courageous and explore the world, not hold me back from it.

Libra and I were cut of a different cloth, her accepted and faithful, the pious and kindhearted servant to society, me a cynical curmudgeon pissing off authority figures by disobediently circumventing them. Still, there are similarities, both between her and me as well as her outsider lover who really just wanted to find someone he could trust.

Connections like that come up constantly in my books, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. On many occasions, there’s a subtle parallel to my life, but as I’m looking at work now, I think I can do more.

I’ve been feeling like my manuscripts have been lacking a certain amount of oomph. Partially, I knew it was because I needed higher highs and lower lows, combing the dark, gritty ambiance of some pieces I admire with the sarcastic real-life commentary I adore in others. But what Jonathan Jones made me realize, ironically enough, was that my speculative fiction was being held back by a lack of life’s application.

The works I adore make social, political, and artistic observations in a non-abrasive or hate-filled way. They are fun, sarcastic, and creative. They take from real life and put them into new situations.

In the past, I have refrained from talking about things I was honestly angry about, knowing I took it too seriously to be funny or entertaining. Now that I look back on it, I consider this a mistake. Yes, there are times when I said something out of sheer rage that proved to be terrible material, and I don’t mean to completely ignore my gut when I believe something is too personal to be humble. But for the next few books, not only am I aiming for a wider fluctuation of good and bad events; I am also going to start channeling more from my real life.

Now I just have to have one.

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