Monday, January 29, 2018

Mastery is in the Details. Except When It Isn’t

I’m not much for proofreading, not a particularly precise person. I call my painting style “stabby art,” where I mostly just blot the canvass with color until I get something sort of in the right place. So when I was in the position of proofreading someone’s short story, it was sort of odd for me from the jump.

In this context, I restricted myself to proofreading only. No content or line editing. No developmental. Just fixing the black and white mistakes of grammar and punctuation. It was obviously easier than anticipated, and I realized a part of my problem in the past was not separating out revision from copy editing. Focusing on one thing made it easier to catch that one thing. Shocker.

But the short story in question was awful. As someone who preaches that quality of writing isn’t linear, this work in particular surprised me with its juvenile prose and cold, simplistic summation of boring events around whiney and obnoxious characters. It was someone who I knew too, though admittedly not very well. I had all intention of being supportive, instead finding myself highly judgmental.

“Stop being such a shithead,” I told myself as I had to put down the manuscript for the third time in a row.

Truth was, if anyone had a reaction towards my manuscript that I did for his, I would be humiliated. Mortified. It was my worst nightmare.

But the real events that shocked me was not my reaction as much as what occurred when I sent back the changes in the manuscript.

He sent me an email with even more minor fixes… that were completely ineffective.

Out of five lines he wished to alter again, only one of them was an actual typo. The others were strange changes that seemed more like a frustrated writer’s critique of his competition than an honest-to-God opinion.

But here’s what got me. In the short story, one line stood out to me far above others. I don’t know what it was about it, but it noticeably pained me to read it: “Finally the waitress came, and they ordered.”

It was in a series of events that took course over dinner, more of the same summation. In the edits he sent back, he wanted to alter it to, “Finally the waitress came, and they placed their orders.”


I imagine there might be some sort of archaic or pedantic grammar rule here I’m not aware of, sort of like when he changed “There’s cars out there!” to “There are cars out there!” Maybe he just liked the cadence a little better. I can get behind that.

I suppose what shocked me, more than anything else, was that he absolutely insisted on this seemingly irrelevant change when there were so many other issues with the paragraph at hand. In fact, I would say that the duration and over explanation of the description was the biggest issue, and making the sentence longer and more spelt-out was adding to the fire.

It's common to focus on the details when trying to fix something. It's common for others to say it's irrelevant. I remember when I was creating a lassoing cowgirl and I couldn’t figure out where she would be distributing her weight. When I made a comment to my coworker who was self-proclaimed as a non-creative person, she became dismissive and indignant I would ever care. “It doesn’t matter!” she insisted.

Of course it does matter. Subtle details affect the bigger picture and are often the difference between a masterpiece and just something with a good concept. Execution is all about how each tiny decision adds to the whole.

But sometimes people spend way too much time nitpicking and not enough working with the foundation. It’s like how I complain about suggestions of “If you want good dialogue, only use the word said!” You need to make sure your subtext works before you start worrying about the sort of dialogue tag.

Previously I complained to a friend about a manuscript of mine (which he hadn’t read) about how it had no impact on people. They liked it, thought it was well written, but didn’t particularly care. He thought about it a moment and said, “Have you ever considered doing a complete rewrite?”

“I might as well write another book all together.”

I had, and many of my critique partners had, focused on the details, the word choice, the pacing, the clarity, the obvious little fixes here and there, creating a book that made people confident in my ability. That wasn’t the problem. The details weren’t the issue. It was the bigger picture, the concept, the pitch, the emotional stakes and pulling them in earlier on. I knew that I could enhance the experience through fixing smaller errors, altering pacing, adding scenes, but the truth is, sometimes you just have to gut the whole thing instead of worrying so much about polishing.

I often don’t agree with the smaller edits many authors impose on themselves, but especially right before publication. A woman once wrote a blog post about how, at the very last minute, she went through her manuscript and changed a line from, “He went to stand and she shoved him back down,” to “He stood halfway and she shoved him back down.” It was a very odd change, not one with a huge effect, and if I had to pick between the two, the first conveys the intention far better than the second. People are shocked when I say that a second draft isn’t necessarily better than the first, but that’s the truth of things. Sometimes you can be too heavy handed with the red pen and not only make alterations that really don’t do much, but are actually a step backwards.

It’s sort of frustrating, I guess, to see someone spit-shining a car without an engine, but I will admit that I’ve had people accusing me of doing the same thing. My only advice in this matter is to step back and look at the larger issues before worrying about the little details even though it’s true those little details can matter a lot.

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Friday, January 26, 2018

How Not to Build a Twitter Platform

I made a mess of my social activities, and no, I'm not referring to being a massive shut-in.

Back when I first decided to actively pursue publication, agents and editors insisted on the importance of having a platform. Showing them your ability to gain followers would be a real foot in the door. It, of course, wouldn’t compensate for poor writing, but it demonstrated your ability to market yourself, and showed off what you could do for the publication company.

I didn’t really understand Twitter that much, but I became active in it. It was the summer when my ex-boyfriend first started to jerk my chain around. I felt a great deal of heartbreak and tried to distract myself through work. I looked around the internet and found other writers who had successful Twitter accounts, and it became very clear the simplicity of it; you merely followed other writers and they would most likely follow you back.

It was a good distraction that made me feel like I was doing something. Publication and writing were all going very slow, and I felt stagnant, almost in a perpetual loop. Every day I looked for followers of larger accounts or people on writing hashtags or groups and followed a group of them. I would follow back anyone who decided to follow me. Within a year, I found myself with 40K Twitter “fans.”

Then I went out to lunch with a friend of mine and her boyfriend. He was a special kind of competitive, and though I liked him fine at the time, in later years he proved to be a real self-serving ass. It’s not uncommon for my friends’ boyfriends to poke holes in any of my accomplishments, I’ve begun to realize. The majority of them found things to criticize in even achievements I am actually proud of. In fact, I am under the impression he was the aspiring graphic designer that led said friend to sending me a vague yet total tear-down of the literary journal I had produced, insisting I needed to hire “someone” for my graphic designs. It was uncharacteristic of her to deliver an opinion like that to me - out of the blue with no helpful specifics, hostile and disgusted - and her “I just don’t like anything!” diatribe caused me to distance myself from her for a while. I felt incredibly betrayed for the first time in my life, and she was almost the first friend I really lost. We made up later, after she got back in contact with me, and her attitude about the journal and everything else changed drastically once the boy was gone.

But while sitting in a restaurant booth out in the boonies of Tetonia, he turned to me and asked, “Did you just buy followers?” It was actually an enlightening moment. I didn’t realize until that point that having a huge number wasn’t really the point of it all. I liked how it gained me some credibility, but having 40K followers and only 20 likes on a good Tweet actually looked suspicious. (Ironically, when I mentioned this conversation to my friend about her ex, she laughed and said, “That’s because he does buy followers.”)

Having a platform isn’t just about looking popular, it’s about connecting with people. As soon as I stopped following a whole slew of new people, my favorites and retweets went down. Tweeters were only looking at my page when they first had seen I followed them. I realized that if I wanted to have a successful social media presence, I needed to actually make people feel an affinity for me and my work, not just throw a cursory ‘follow’ at each other and call it a day.

Then came a problem. I recognized that social media was just a virtual form of networking. The most successful authors that I know are personable and friendly. I mean, just last week I read Girlboss and had the CEO of a self-made company explain how her success came from making friends online. Cassandra Clare and E.L. James both got their start by publishing work online and interacting with a community. The way to make yourself stand out is to be familiar and have people develop positive associations with you.

I came across the obvious issue of it being more than a numbers’ game.

Now I always attempted to create good, interesting content in a timely fashion. I constantly think about how what I’m writing could be more effective. But at the end of the day, my most successful pieces were always what got people talking about me, and more returning fans have been the ones that I interacted with. It is about quality, but it’s also just about personability.

The issue? I had around 40K of people I was following, and most of the Tweets were crap. Sure, I had limited myself to following other authors, but I followed back anyone, giving me probably thousands of people who weren’t even posting in my own language. Plus, the number of just spammy tweets were ridiculous. Porn, clickbait, massive amounts of senseless retweets by people who were trying to get retweeted themselves.

At first, I just read through hashtags, #amwriting and #writerslife and the like, but it immediately brought up the issue that I was interacting with people, yet not the same ones. I created a group of “social writers” so I could just go and read what they have to say, yet many of them also turned into retweet junkies. Even when I vetted for people with original content, I still struggle to get a feed of original content.

It became pretty obvious. I had made a mistake in not better controlling my content. If I wanted to be entertaining… I would need to use Twitter for entertainment.

I actually do wish, somewhat I could start all over from scratch. On the other hand, I still get quite a few blog hits from my Twitter, and I really am meeting and interacting with new writers that I wouldn’t have met if I didn’t expand my resources.

I slowly began to unfollow people. Full honesty, it actually started with followers of a certain distasteful person I truly consider to be evil. All his methods and ideologies are what not to do in a society that hopes for improvement and community. From there, it became sort of easy.

I found a Follow Manager. For a while I just went through my feed unfollowing anyone who posted spammy messages, but that was slow going. I was searching for a way to cut out anyone who didn’t post in English when I found a wonderful app that filtered so much more. I used it to find “egg” accounts that really had no one behind them. I unfollowed follow-happy people like myself who probably didn’t read anything in their feed. I unfollowed people who posted gibberish, non-relevant retweets, and anything with hashtag blindness.

Soon I cut it down to 6,000 follows, and I have to say my page is much better. It is still filled with politics, but at least coherent messages. In between book sales, people make jokes and talk about their day.

I’m still not entirely sure what Twitter is actually for when you’re not being a number junkie, but it’s far easier to connect with people now. I actually hope that my unfollowing will lower my numbers to more natural degrees and that I can begin to efficiently utilize the app as a tool to get people interested and the word out there, rather than a quick glance for credibility.

If you’re considering starting work on your social media page, there are benefits to following and friending people you don’t know just to get a bigger platform, but use everything in moderation and always keep the main goal in sight.

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Monday, January 22, 2018

Have You Ever Considered Being a Writer? She Asks the Writer

“Have you ever considered being a writer?”

So began a painful night in which I bit my tongue for a friendly woman who offered me a clam thinking it was an oyster. Proverbially speaking. It was the start of when I realized I needed to move out of New York and get away from this roommate.

Conflict is hard when the other person doesn't think they're being confrontational. A direct insult, hostility, any sort of overt aggression is easy to handle. Fight fire with fire. But someone who has no idea that they were spewing fireballs will never get why you threw a burning log at their face.

Kind people are more damaged by outright cruelty, and they really don’t deserve it. You want people to feel like they can give you their honest opinion, to hear unsolicited ideas and criticisms so that you don’t have to spend all of your time seeking it. On the other hand, naïve advice can be demoralizing or counterproductive, and it’s very difficult to have a useful conversation about it when they don’t really understand what they’re talking about. Especially because examining an alternative P.O.V. is a learned skilled which often takes a certain level of prior education on the topic.

This woman was just talking, just trying to be helpful, but all the while she wasn’t listening. She would make a shallow, simplified suggestion, posed as a question, and when answered, contradict herself and criticize me.

“You should try blogging.”

“I have a blog I post bi-weekly. It's called What's Worse than Was, and I started it about six years ago.”

“Well, you need to focus. Sometimes people have too many projects and just need to have their passion.”

It was a series of do this, why would you do that? She wanted to help me live my life, but she had no idea the difficulties or time required from what she suggested. She acted like it was easy, like all I had to do was walk into the newspaper office, get a copyediting job, and my career as a novelist will take off!

When I told her I had been doing this for fifteen years—as in, I’ve tried or considered all that, my dear, sweet friend—she said, “Well you have to start somewhere! Just because you’ve been doing this a while doesn’t mean—”

I finally stopped the conversation with an abrupt wave of my hand. She was shocked that my typical attentive demeanor had suddenly disappeared as I excused myself from the conversation. This was not my first rodeo, and she was not the first woman to criticize me when I tried to suggest that maybe I did have some experience in what I was doing. Her tune changed, unsure of what boundary she had crossed, but knowing one had, indeed, been crossed, and as I left she said, “I would love to read some of your writing sometime!”

I ignored her. Why would I give someone a story to read after she's demonstrated zero respect for my ability or what I’ve been working towards for over a decade? Maybe if she even liked the same sort of fiction, but no. She was not in my target audience, and even without reading anything, I knew she did not think I was any good at what I did. The older woman saw me as someone to shape and mold and didn’t really care where I was starting from or where I wanted to be going.

It reminded me of when I was in college and after pushing my plays on many professors and peers, I had a teacher who, after refusing to read it himself, lectured me on needing to get outside feedback and giving me a list of names. Of the teachers I’d recognized, they’d had my work sitting, untouched, on their desks for months.

“You should get Sean to read it.”

“I did. He has a couple of my plays now he hasn't looked at.”

“Well, he says you’re not good at taking criticism.”

“How would he know? He hasn’t give me any.”

And as I say, that wasn’t just a flippant remark. Outside of the fact that he’d never read any of my work, my professor didn’t give anyone criticism. He was nervous about conflict. He always praised, never condemned, and the only student I’d ever seen him actually give any negative feedback was a headstrong girl with killer pipes who continued to do musical theatre even though they told her “NO.” Why? “She isn’t ready yet.” But really, in my view, musical theatre was their thing, and they didn't want the students to have it.

When criticized, she smiled and nodded, taking it like a champ, and then completely ignored them. They knew she wouldn’t flip out, but also were irritated with her.

She and I once talked about my professor's statement I was bad at taking criticism, and she speculated that maybe he was referencing the fact that I asked questions and disagreed in class. He was fairly sensitive and had a hard time standing strong in the face of any adversity. And I’ll admit I can be intimidating when I let myself, and don't agree with anything for the sake of it.

You’ll have to believe me when I say that I respected his opinion, and the opinion of my professor who suggested him, when giving them these scripts. Even when arguing in class, I believed they had logical ideas behind their otherwise confusing statements, and I never intended to make them feel stupid or prove myself right. I honestly didn’t understand.

But I had this teacher sit there and lecture me, as I’m struggling and struggling and struggling to get feedback, that I need to put my ego aside and just go out and get people’s opinion. As if it was just as easy as that. As if the reason I wasn’t getting it was because I thought I was too good for it, not because I’m at the mercy of those people who have agreed to do me a favor.

He had no idea what I was going through, assumed the worst of me, and gave advice that really just proved how naïve he was about my life.

And what do you say to that?

I think most advice results from an autobiographical standpoint, and that helps to suck up some of the insult when someone assumes the worst of you. The older woman, a retired make-up artist, told me several times she has an issue with checking her ego and tends to get into fights with… well, everyone due to her opinionated ways. She’s not stupid, and a lot of time’s she’s right about what she’s saying, but has admitted herself that her pride holds her back and makes her difficult to work with. As for my professor, well, he was a perfectionist, an old man on the bridge of retirement, who stuck with academia instead of taking risks on his art. He had all kinds of opinions about what he would do as a writer if he ever did write anything (which he hadn’t since a few poems in his twenties), but couldn’t take the blow to his ego if someone didn’t like it. He never did anything he wasn’t ready for, and recommended the same to his students.

It’s come up enough times in my life that I should find a clear way to disengage, but how to do so without sounding petty, mean, or butthurt? A conversation about alternative solutions go south when the person, new to the issue, fixates on the merits of the first thought they ever had and condemns the listener if there's any semblance of criticism.

I have to keep in mind that I don’t have to explain myself, and unless I actually have reason to believe someone has a special kind of insight, a good, “Not interested,” will suffice. Explanation leads to argument and denouncement of all the work you’ve put in so far.

It's difficult to hear the lack of faith that others have in you, but sometimes we need to remember that it might not be about you. Even if it is, their assumptions about how easy something would be if they ever got around to it, or how you obviously must be self-sabotaging yourself, does not change the reality of the situation. You know how hard you’ve worked. Don’t let anyone take that from you.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

Focusing While under Duress

I have only two methods of self-soothing that seems to work nowadays. One has to do with the purring of my cat, but he has a sixth sense for when I need him the most, and that usually ends up with my face getting bitten. He’s a little shit only in the way cats can be. You know the type.

The other is generally writing. It’s a staple in my life, something that gets me through the hard times. I can often use it—and the fantasizing about my career—to pleasantly distract me. I am most productive when I’m going through some hard times.

But recently it’s been different. For the last few days I would have done anything to focus on something else. I would love to tell you why I’m under duress—I want to bitch to the world, believe me. The need to keep it to myself is killing me. But the duress sometimes comes from nothing at all. Maybe blood sugar levels. Maybe being a bit too isolated. Maybe I’m more bothered by something I wasn’t aware of.

I just wish I could move on. That I could look forward to my career, write, meet my deadlines, and finalize some progjects.

Yet the duress hasn’t inspired me at all. It has made it impossible to focus, to sooth myself. I can’t even play videogames or watch T.V. I can’t sew, I can’t draw, I can’t even sleep. I don’t even feel like talking about it anymore. I’m just done, tired, and apathetic.

It’s not helpful, and so today I’ve come up with some methods—that appear to be successful considering this blog actually got up—to overcome my inability to focus when I’m upset about something I have no control over.

1. Fix your surroundings.

It often feels like we use “cleaning the house” as a procrastination tool, but it is a great way to get yourself up and doing something. Cleaning is a mindless activity, but, also as a visual one, it leaves you with a sense of satisfaction and better comfort. When you’ve finished cleaning, you feel like you’ve done something, which will inspire you to do more. It also makes you feel physically better.

2. Start one step at a time.

While under duress, you’re already overwhelmed. The panic is there, lingering below your other emotions, ready to burst at any ridiculous moment.

Instead of tackling something as a big project, find one thing to do. It’s difficult, sometimes, to not have to say, “But in order to make my bed I have to fold up the clothes on top of it and put them away, and if I’m going to do that, I need to make a path to my dresser which means I need to go get a garbage bag for trash…” If you do find yourself going backwards, when you finally find something you can do, focus only on that.

Step one: Go get the garbage bag.

Once you’ve done that, pick step two. Do not try to preplan anything. Do not allow yourself to get distracted mid-step either. You decide to get the garbage bag, get the garbage bag. Don’t stop to do the dishes, clean the litter box, or read that text message. Do what you set out to do, and then, you can decide if you want to change course once you’ve finished.

3. Stay away from what’s distressing you.

We often keep thinking of what’s bothering us in hopes to find a solution. Maybe something’s changed. Maybe you misunderstood. Maybe there’s a solution you haven’t thought of yet. There is a temporary solace in reinvestigating, but it will just exacerbate your pain, and make it last longer. It is encouraging your mind to keep thinking about it rather than start thinking about something else.

If you keep going back to the problem, whatever that problem is, stop it. Don’t keep looking at Facebook or rereading the terrible review, checking your phone, texting your friend about it, or anything else that has to do with the situation. If you can’t control it or solve it now, try to keep away from it. Stop thinking about what you will do or fantasizing about how you wish you reacted/how you’ll tell someone off, and start considering the present.

4. Fix your physical pains.

Duress manifests physically, anywhere from agitation of the skin, aching teeth (from grinding), headaches, stomach aches, a desire to cry, etc.

Even though it’s obviously not the physical pain that is the real issue, you become stronger when you fix it first, thereby enabling yourself to do what it takes to help yourself emotionally and mentally. If you can’t get invested in that movie because you have a headache, you will allow your mind to keep going back to the distressing subject every time you stop to consider how uncomfortable you are.

First, drink a glass of water. This tends to help give you energy, relieve aches, and change your internal temperature. If applicable, take medicine. This is the hardest advice to swallow for most, but the most important. I personally hate taking painkillers, but if you suck it up, you will be amazed at how much better you handle the stress when it’s not accompanied by real agony.

Ask yourself if you are hungry, and if you are, eat. If you feel grimy at all, take a shower, change your clothes, and put on something that makes you feel attractive, yet is comfortable.

The biggest problem is, of course, exhaustion, mostly because there is a difference between being tired and being lethargic. If you feel like you could actually lay down and take a nap, then do so. Set your alarm for fifteen to twenty minutes, then get up immediately once it goes off. The power nap will recharge you. If, however, you know that you wouldn’t be able to sleep, the best thing is to get up and be physically active. Moving is the best way to get rid of lethargy.

5. Finish something before moving on to the next thing.

In the same vein as taking it one step at a time, it’s important to finish each little project first. You will be tempted to jump around because you are struggling on focusing, but it will help you become immersed in an action if your goal forces you to complete that action. Once you decide a step, like throwing all the trash in the room away, you are not allowed to change your mind until all the trash is thrown away.

Not only will having one task keep you in the moment, it will help you not become overwhelmed and frustrated. Strangely enough, when you are upset, your mind is prone to boredom and seeking out the action that will make you feel the most good. But nothing is going to make you feel good right now, and so you go from T.V. show to T.V. show, article to blog post to making your bed to doing the laundry, each time your mind hoping the action will sooth you, and when it doesn’t, you become frustrated.

Finishing one thing at a time will help you feel productive and force your mind to stay on one subject. By focusing on the singular task at hand, you’re more likely to actually focus.

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Monday, January 15, 2018

Easy Ways to Screw Up a POV Character

I found a self-published work with a beautiful cover that I just couldn’t pass up. The characters on the front had great expressions, their personalities glowing through a moment of high action. Regardless that it didn’t necessarily reflect the prose inside, I still thought of it some months after I first saw it, returning to the author’s blog multiple times. The more that I learned about what he was doing on a superficial level, the more that I wanted to like it. Massive world, several sequels, it was the sort of thing I wanted to obsess over.

However, upon reading it, there’s some problems.

The book is beautiful, formatted well, polished with nary a typo in sight. The characters have their unique characteristics, the wording and flow is fine, and there is still hope for it yet.

It’s just that the narration, and more importantly the opinions of the P.O.V. character, is annoyingly, unintentionally objective.

For this post, what I refer to as the P.O.V. character is the person’s perspective which dictates a) what gets described, b) in what order, and c) how.

If the story is told in first-person (I, me, mine), the P.O.V. character is obvious: Watson in Sherlock Holmes, Bella in Twilight. Most novels in third-person (He, she, they) tend to follow the protagonist and explore his view on the world—Harry in Harry Potter. Even though Harry isn’t technically the one telling the story, the way things are painted how he sees them. Uncle Vernon probably wouldn’t describe himself as “a big beefy man with hardly any neck.” Sometimes you’ll find an omniscient Point of View, in which the telling of the story is either multiple P.O.V.s (also known as head hopping) such as in Pride and Prejudice or The Stand, or where the narrator has a different character onto itself, such as in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or (in fleeting moments) The Hobbit.

Purely objective P.O.V.s are not very common in successful works. It’s hard to make the book interesting that way, and can be difficult to describe certain details completely neutrally, especially if you are trying to have an emotional impact. Even the difference of “He hit the other car” and “He smashed into the other car” can be considered leading the witness. It’s limiting and rarely effective. I believe Tobias Wolff’s works might be an example, but I haven’t read them in a long time, so I could be mistaking his non-invasive prose for an objective Point of View.

In the case of the book I’m reading now, and many works I’ve looked at by newer authors, I find that there are certain choices—or rather, lack of choices—when it comes to the P.O.V. that cause the voice and prose of the work to come off as fictionalized and two-dimensional. Certain traits and flaws are important when it comes to the way we describe things, and it’s not uncommon for manuscripts to ignore them.

Impulsivity versus caution.

Another name for this article I considered was, “There is No Universal Truth,” but I didn’t think anyone was going to give a shit about my denouncing of reality. But that’s really what the vast majority of this post is about.

One of the problems the P.O.V. characters had was a sixth sense for Truth (with a capital T). They had some sort of meta-foresight enabling them to know who to trust, who to dislike, and readily make accurate decisions/opinions with very little information to support it.

This character is likable. You can tell because the P.O.V. character thinks about how likable he is. This character is impressive. You can tell because the P.O.V. character thinks how impressive he is. This character is smart. This character is admirable. So on and so forth.

The most frustrating aspect was the fact that everyone agreed with each other. For the first seven chapters, so far there is no social conflict. Despite claiming to be a racist land, everyone likes everyone, except for the one ‘annoying’ character who everyone agrees is annoying.

Problem was, the P.O.V. character’s take on things was severely incongruent with mine as a reader. I wasn’t remotely impressed with the hero he just met. I didn’t feel like he’d talk to the woman long enough to determine how much smarter she was than ‘all the other women he’d met.’

It was clear that this character was telling me what the writer wanted me to believe, that the P.O.V. was too easily jumping to the correct conclusions. Not only that, but no matter who we were following, they all did it.

It’s possible that a character can read people quickly, but that should be a defining characteristic with some explanation behind it. Sherlock Holmes, in the television series, convincingly shows an audience that he can do just that. There’s also some downsides, like his inability to empathize. It creates a character who is impressive, but somewhat alienating.

But for the vast majority of characters, it’s important not to allow them to react to information they don’t have. They can’t know that the woman in the shop is going to be their best friend, so they’re less likely to remember her name or pay so much attention to what she looks like or her racial (elvish) heritage. They can’t realize that this far superior warrior is going to be friendly and down to Earth before they’ve even spoken to him, ready to agree to join up.

A defining characteristic is how a character reacts to the unknown. It is perfectly fine for a character to be impulsive—to ask to join arms the second the badass says his name, to fall in love with a tavern girl for all her ‘intelligence’ conveyed in two sentences. Readers like impulsivity, and there is an amazing dumb luck that follows decisiveness, even in the real world. But the readers should see that. They should be aware that this character is jumping to conclusions. They should see how unnerved his fellow comrades—more cautious than he—are, how they are discomfited by his rashness. Most importantly, impulsive people make mistakes. They trust the wrong people, go down the wrong path, and when they mess up, they tend to fall harder than someone who carefully considered the options.

Confidence versus insecurity.

In the same vein, it’s important to recognize the impact that confidence and insecurity can have on your point of view.

What annoyed me most about the first few chapters was just how positive everyone was. There is this epically awesome warrior and not a single one of them—not a single one of the peasants or caravan owners—has any remotely negative reaction to him. Everyone, including the protagonists, love him. I know from reading the author’s blog that this is not some sort of set up for a villain. He’s just a really cool guy that everyone likes without a pang of jealousy or resentment.

Except, you know, me. The reader.

I wouldn’t say that I’m jealous of his easy popularity; it’s obviously fiction. I just find it incredibly disingenuous to those of us who have dealt with jealousy, messing up, and a lack of instantaneous faith. The more everyone likes him, the more I dislike him. I can’t imagine that not one other person in the world has the same sort of cynicism as me.

Now, each of the P.O.V./main characters has their own insecurities. The elf who gushes about the human warrior the most (despite being a level-headed, perceptive character), just messed up in the same battle that the human gained the most praise for. Lloyd has all the right opinions and all the right moves, and yet Glo merely is proud of the human’s overt insistence on racial tolerance. Why would I be thinking about how I almost killed us? You’re so not racist! How novel! How goodly!

Confidence and impulsivity tend to go hand-in-hand. Caution is often misconstrued (or just construed) as insecurity.

It’s not that understanding your character’s opinion on himself will drastically change his interpretation of situations, but it can make a description and interaction all the more layered. Even if you want Glo the incompetent wizard to like Lloyd the epic fighter, understanding why he doesn’t feel in competition with him, or why, if he does, it doesn’t bother him, can dictate more interesting emotions behind the P.O.V.’s opinion. It’s not that Glo respects Lloyd for announcing how not racist he is, it’s that Glo is relieved Lloyd isn’t judging him.

Optimism versus pessimism.

This is probably the most relevant and therefore the most controversial.

Ask the majority of people if they consider themselves an optimist or a pessimist, and they’ll tell you they’re a realist.

I’m not going to go into my whole tirade, but it’s extremely important that you recognize your P.O.V. character is not a realist. They are not omniscient, they can’t predict the future, rationality is not a feeling. Controlling feelings are different from the absence of feelings, and it’s important to know which one your logically-motivated character is operating on.

Sometimes, your character is going to be wrong. A lot of times, there is no right answer.

If I took your character by the hand and led him into a room filled with stuff, without telling him why he was there, what do you think he would come out remembering?

People only have a select number of items they can recall from short term memory. For very intelligent people, it tends to be seven. Seven non-sequitur items. However, everyone can remember a narrative, piecing in details that make sense with that narrative.

So while he might only be able to remember seven titles of books on the bookshelf, he can remember the type of books the room had and logically recall what titles would fall into that category.

A positive person might say, “This guy is super smart and loves Russian novels!”

A negative person might say, “This guy is super pretentious and loves Russian novels!”

The opinion, or narrative, about what kind of person the owner of the bookshelf is, actually helps both parties remember more and fill in the blanks of what they can’t recall. It’s not just that the subsect of “Russian” novels ties together otherwise random books, but the categories of smart and pretentious will help them remember other “like” novels that are equally snobby despite alternative heritage.

When telling a story, the writer has to pick certain aspects to describe, and others to leave out. We can’t paint every leaf on a tree, so which leaves we choose to talk about will tie into this narrative that the P.O.V. character tells himself about the situation. Basically, we often describe what he would remember.

Is your P.O.V. character an optimist or a pessimist? Are their conclusions about people judgmental or trusting? These opinions help create the story and tone as a whole, as well as use each description to teach you something about the narrator. The important aspect of this, however, is that not everyone is going to agree with them, and sometimes their conclusions will prove faulty or problematic.

A narrator’s reliability varies depending on the book that you’re trying to write, but one of the benefits of switching P.O.V.s is that you can tell all sides of the story without having unnaturally omniscient characters.

Their type of intelligence.

I don’t exactly believe in stupidity, but I will admit some people are more discerning than others.

It’s important to consider your P.O.V. character’s intelligence, their strengths and their weaknesses, and factor that into how they see things. If your narrator is a child, as an obvious example, they’re more likely to take people at face value. He said he’s not racist, so clearly he isn’t! Immediate loyalty from someone inexperienced isn’t so odd.

If your narrator is good at picking up on patterns, but bad at reading facial cues, the reasons he knows to trust someone are going to be different (and more interesting) than if he was strong in body language. When he comes to the conclusion that ‘this is a likable guy’ isn’t going to be the same as it is for the other members of his party, but it definitely should make sense for the reader.

Whatever the P.O.V. character’s social strengths are, the author uses that to “show” the audience what he wants them to think instead of having the narrator tell the reader the Truth of the situation. If the character is good at reading body language, describe what physical cues were given that made him trust the other person. If he recognizes an intelligent person based solely on the information she has at her fingertips, have her express that information and let his response—verbal or physical—convey his surprise.

Truth is, none of the characters in this book showed any signs of social strengths or limitations. Lloyd the human was kind of embarrassed by the attention—noted by the P.O.V. character—but no one struggled with true humiliation, disagreement, awkwardness, horniness, loneliness, introvertedness, shyness, attention-whoring, suspicion, pushiness, misunderstanding, jealousy, resentment, pettiness, competitiveness, lashing out, or any of the daily conflicts we experience in real life. They had no social weaknesses, really.

No. In all their early chapters of teaming up, drinking beers, fighting orcs, traveling, only one character gives any sort of derision in a few ignored sarcastic remarks. They all get along. They are all on the same page. They all have the same goals. The only person who shows any true sort of resistance is the guy who sort of tried to haggle how much he should get paid for a job. (He never got a word out. Everyone just knew what he was doing before he could speak.) And yes, of those who witnessed it, they were all equally irritated by a completely reasonable action.

Their comfort zone.

How someone feels about a place or situation is drastically going to influence everything they describe. Understanding the mood of your character will tell you what he pays attention to. It will dictate the chaos/excitement of the scene. Telling a story from the Point of View of someone who loves the limelight and meeting new people shouldn’t be the same as if they’re dying of crowd-induced claustrophobia.

This is best left to the author to decide, but in my case, I would assume that a party lover isn’t paying as much attention to the details. He’s going to talk about the positives, the gist, the big events, the most exciting things. Someone who hates crowds and attention may be hyperaware. He might note every single person in the room, he might muddle information trying to take it all in, he might misinterpret a lot of hostility.

“Bright lights flickered across the smiling faces.”

“Bright lights elongated sharp features in flashes.”

Sometimes it’s not a matter of overall attitude of the world. Even the greatest pessimists can enjoy themselves from time to time. Moreover though, our judgments on things are affected by our fears, and whether that be insecurity about being in a new situation, your P.O.V. character might not like a perfectly fine person for reasons that have nothing to do with that person.

The characters in the novel in question kept level heads regardless of the situation. They are always respectful and open-minded, positive and friendly, handle all social interactions with successful decorum. They are perfectly perfect young gentlemen.

And they are obnoxious.

All characters are at their best when showing their flaws, but especially when it comes to your narrator, make sure to remember that, unless he is literally omniscient, he can only be the voice for his own Point of View, he can’t speak for the other characters, he can’t speak for the reader, and he should never be speaking for the author.

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Friday, January 12, 2018

Thick Skin Or Fluid?


Henry Houdini died of complications of being punched in the stomach by a fan. He had rock hard abs, known for his ability to take a hit, and was asked by a larger man if he could try socking him. Houdini agreed, but before he could brace himself, the fan struck, doing serious damage to the escape artist’s unprepared insides.

You’ll hear me say I don’t like the approach most people advocate in criticism: The antagonistic relationship between writer and reader, the succinct and sweet social politeness, the demand that you take hostility as it comes, else you’re not good at what you do.

I’m sensitive, that much can be determined from a few posts, but that’s not why I recommend against the, “Just smile and say thank you,” philosophy. Thick skin implies the author brace himself, take it at full force, and keep on trucking without a moment to heal. Good writers don’t let little things like irrational hostility phase them, right?

Wrong. It’s not even just an issue of why put up with that if you don’t have to, but that rolling with the punches, instead of bracing for them, tends to work better. You go with the motion instead of fighting it, and, by being flexible, you can guide and control the situation better.

When being critiqued, have a real conversation. Listen to what’s being said, recognize how it affects you, and go with it. Instead of being strong and brave, be tactful and honest. Ask questions, try to understand, and speak your disagreements in a clear and useful manner.

But I’ve written about this before, and this isn’t just a repeat. In fact, I’m here to stand behind the opposite of my usual opinion: sometimes it is better to just stand there and take it, to move on without nursing your wounds. Sometimes you have to pretend like it doesn’t hurt you if you want it to actually not hurt you.

Truth be told, I’ve doubted my interested in becoming a successful writer for some time now. I wanted to connect with readers, to be read, but I don’t like how easy it is for someone’s hostility to influence me throughout the day. The second you get noticed, the second you are more likely to fall into a person’s line of sight at the exact wrong time. People will get angry with you (hell, I’ll get angry with you) for the dumbest, most trivial, or even non-reasons. In fact, I believe that most times someone is upset with you, it’s not about you at all.

Of course, I say that as someone who has struggled with anger the last two years. Perhaps it’s merely projection.

Guilt can paralyze me. It turns me into a doormat. The biggest mistakes I’ve made were when I thought I owed someone something, or when I thought I had made a mistake when, in reality, it was likely to be a two-way street. It is rare (although this makes sense) that I ever see a bad experience as just being someone else’s shitty day and not something I could control.

But successful people? Happy people? They don’t let their mistakes get them down. They are more likely to dismiss assholes as fools and move on with their life. Sure, they make the obvious mistakes, are less likely to be observant and are more likely to irritatingly impose their will or attitude onto others, yet it’s not as big of a deal as I like to make it out to be.

It’s not the end of the world to make someone mad. It’s not the end of the world to mildly irritate them. And, in some cases, it really doesn’t have anything to do with you. It’s not your fault, and they’ll do better if you just ignore them and move on with your life.

I say this as a warning to anyone who wants to self-improve, who wishes to be less of an egomaniac and more empathetic: sometimes other people’s opinions really aren’t your problem.

I’ve heard people say authors need thick skin since the dawn of my career, but it wasn’t until today that I really find it to be true. As I focused on letting people in, trying to understand their perspective, improving myself, and having open and informing conversations with others, I was allowing myself to be affected by them.

By wondering too much on where they were coming from, I dug deeper and deeper into the events that disturbed me. I should have been focusing on some positivity, what went right. By talking about my feelings and seeking out understanding from my rants, I kept repaving the path to those, often trivial memories.

My first really hurtful criticism took me years to get over. Today, I think back on it and feel very little. I made some begrudging changes to my style because of it, which I am happier for, but, more importantly, I learned that some of what I was told, a lot of what really disturbed me, actually was the half-hearted musings of a woman with different tastes and low patience. It really didn’t matter. I read through those critiques constantly, for months, asked others about them, reran arguments in my head, thought about why, why, why, until I was blue in the face. It wasn’t until I happened across her critiques one last time and realized that there was nothing left in them for me, that I threw them away and began my ability to move on to other considerations.

Being fluid to adversity helps with creativity and learning. Instead of just taking it “like a man,” which honestly could do some real damage (and not just to your morale), a lot of times you need to move with your critique, learn when to push back and pull away, and really think about the criticism given. But other times, you need to learn when to walk away and move on with your life, to just take the hit and then act as it never bothered you at all.

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Monday, January 8, 2018

The Short’s Story Doesn’t End There

I can be pretentious, and we all know I adore me some odd phrasing from time to time. My most common form of feedback is some rendition of, “I love your voice, but sometimes it’s a little jarring.” And confusing. And even outright incorrect.

When I was  a youngin’, however, I distinctly remember when I turned in an essay with the word “enigma” in it. Perhaps it was my love of Batman, but I never even questioned the commonality of the term. It was a word I knew as just as well as “mysterious,” “problem,” or “The Riddler.” When I received it back, I, coincidentally enough, had a huge “?” next to the paragraph with this tender little word in it.

Now, one of my most hated forms of criticism is the “?”, or “Huh?” or “What?” because of the reviewer’s expectation that I will understand what they don’t understand. That it’s just SO OBVIOUS what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense that I myself should be fully aware of its gibberish. No explanation required. But, in this case, like many cases, the issue could have been anywhere from, “This word doesn’t mean what you think it does,” to “I don’t agree with your point.”

(When giving feedback, always remember that a writer never does something without reason and never writes something that didn’t make sense to them at the time. Your job is to be clear why it didn’t work for you to help them see it from another angle. Universal claims are typically overstated, oversimplified, and vague.)

I approached my professor, asking what the question mark meant, when he blinked at me matter-of-factly, replying, “I don’t know what enigma means.”

That sounds like a YOU problem.

Knowing your audience is a talent (and debate) into itself. Some people, typically not writers, will insist that I know what words are common, that I know what words “a fifth grader would know.”

Why would I? I’m not a fifth grader, nor have I interacted with one since 2001. But not only that, I’ve found that people tend to assume stupidity onto younger people. I once wrote a manuscript at sixteen, workshopped it at 20, and was told by a 60 year old that 18 year olds wouldn’t understand the wording. Ironically enough, my younger peers understood it far better than the older gentlemen who were obviously projecting.

Quite frankly, I find that younger readers are more likely to accept words they don’t know while older readers are more likely to get hung up on them.

Today an author commented on her fifteen-year-old daughter’s writing class in which the prompt, the end of the world, lead her to write a story that was “too sad” for the professor. In order to get a good grade, the student was required to alter the ending to something more happy.

Obviously I’m only getting one side of the story, through the lens of a third-party no less. But I have definitely met some controlling people, those who thought that “teaching” meant, “do it my way.” A lot of critique partners will believe that getting someone to make a change is the end-all, not worrying about instructing the person to critically evaluate what edits can and should be made themselves.

However, while I agree this is a ridiculous requirement for the teacher to make—basing a grade off of the ability to take feedback to heart instead of on effort and improvement—I think it’s a good lesson. Most importantly, it’s brought me to one wrongful assumption that writers make in creative writing classes: That their story lives in a vacuum.

As I say to any writing students, “I am not here to make you write a great story, but to teach you how.” I often ask them to ‘mess up’ their work. “Keep all your drafts. Make erroneous changes. See what happens.” I ask them to make edits that may not solve any problems. To rewrite it as all dialogue. To rewrite without any was’s. To make it a sad ending. To make it a happy one. Then, at the end of the course, submit the version that contains the best elements of each experimentation.

Being a sci-fi and fantasy writer, the conversation of academics' hatred of the genres comes up a lot. I agree with the stupidity of some professors thinking that fantasy isn’t real writing, and there are times when I suggest to stick it to the man and do what you want.

But the real use of a classroom is to get OUT of your comfort zone, to understand subjectivity, criticism, and writing for your audience. When not to write for you audience. When to stick with what works. Whose opinion you care about and what you want to happen. Do you change a story for a closed-minded grade, or do you keep it for what it is. And why? It’s a learning experience to tell you more about yourself and help you make better decisions in the future.

Most importantly though, just because you wrote something in one context does not mean it is restricted to that context. Just because your professor didn’t like something and you had to change it to get a good grade does not mean you can’t take the original version and put it out there.

I suggested to the mother to go to have her daughter submit the story elsewhere. Help her understand that sometimes writing is about finding your audience, not catering to the one right before you. And just because you have to compromise your principles when the cost isn’t worth the reward doesn’t mean that your story has been fossilized in that version, doomed to sit on a Happily-Ever-After Nazi’s desk in perpetual optimism.

For that matter, a story that did well in a classroom shouldn’t stay there either.

Get your work out to the world. Understand that context and place matter, that one person’s opinion isn’t an end all. Classrooms are not to create the perfect art’s form, but to force you to start writing, critically evaluate yourself, and learn how to deal with shit heads.

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Friday, January 5, 2018

When You Don't Measure Up On Paper

In response to a post a few years ago “Why Typos Lose You the Most Sales,” I found a comment from a woman accusing me of bashing self-publishing and saying that typos don’t bother her.

The intention of the post was more for the psychology on why typos are important for credibility. There was no discussion on self-publishing in itself. I believe in self-publishing and I don’t think people self-publish just because they couldn’t get traditionally published. But, I read indie books and as a reader I despise the mentality that typos don’t matter. They do. Whether you like it or not, having typos is the easiest and most foolish method to shooting yourself in the foot. Typos are easy to fix—tedious, not something I am particularly good at myself—but they are more black and white, never beneficial to a reader’s experience, and not only do readers use them to determine the quality of the book, it’s actually sensible that they do so. There is no reason to have them except for an author’s laziness. Sometimes people will claim artistic style, but when unconventional grammar is effective, it won't look the same as if you just didn't let mistakes slip by.

I am the first to argue that grammar is different than storytelling; you don’t need to know the rules of language to be good at making people feel things. And sometimes inaccurate grammar works better than what’s technically correct. As I said in the post:

“Many artists—and rightfully so—believe that the punctuation, grammar, and spelling, do not state their ability to create ambiance, pacing, and characterization.

However, typos suggest a lack of editing, patience, and precision. They come from either inexperience or apathy. If you don’t know enough or care enough to fix obvious mistakes, why would I believe that you can keep my attention, make me fall in love with the characters, maintain the rules of the world, and satisfy me at the end? The things that are more difficult, that take more effort? Expert writers with a great deal of experience—those who have successfully written successful stories before even—can’t always offer emotional impact, not to mention if they’re limited to the first attempt.

I don’t judge a book by a few typos. Even traditionally published books will have them, though admittedly not to the same extend as my indie reads. But it is not a good sign for your precision and care when a reader finds them in the title, in the teaser, in the summary, or in the sample pages, and yes, I will be dissuaded from buying if you have them on the first page. It’s possible that it won’t constantly bother me, it’s possible that you put all your effort into the abstract decision making involved in telling a good story, but it’s simply more likely you lack skills or patience.

Out of a morbid curiosity, I went to the woman's website and found she did in fact practice what she preached. I found a self-published work accompanied by a haphazardly photoshoped cover, five reviews, and typos on the first page.

The summary had only a few commas missing and an extra one here or there, and that, to me, isn’t too big of deal. Commas are flexible, no matter what anyone says, and I believe should be used to determine pacing and tone of voice. Again, I’m not too positive about my correct application of commas myself, so hypocrisy ahoy if I judge too much. I didn’t wish to like her, particularly, but I wasn’t trying to hate her either. I was more fueled by a morbid curiosity and sense of procrastination.

I bypassed a couple of creative capitalization choices and the poor formatting and the lack of paragraphs until I finally came across a sentence that forced me to read twice to understand.

“Caro refused to follow in her sister dancers footsteps, refused to be made a slave again.”

Now, after a only brief moment I could determine the meaning. I considered two possibilities: “Caro refused to follow in her sister, Dancer’s, footsteps,” or “refused to follow in her sister-dancers’ footsteps.”

See, the problem with imprecise punctuation is two-fold. One is legitimate error in communicating what you actually mean regardless of how much “a choir” your readers are, the other is the ambiguity that comes with being untrustworthy. If you seldom have typos, it would be easily assumed that it was “dancers’ footsteps,” less likely that you would make two errors over one (the hyphen being optional, though useful in fictional pronouns). But, based off of previous capitalization issues, it wasn’t clear that she didn’t just wrongfully leave a name in lower case, and truth was it wouldn’t be that surprising to go either way.

In writing, you have several chances to convince your reader you know what you’re doing, and therefore your story will be enjoyable, not leave me in the lurch in the end by poor forethought or haphazard stream of consciousness.

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