bad advice, part 2

On Writing

BAD ADVICE: “The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply.”

— Will Self

I take serious issue with this perspective.

Okay, so there’s this cultural picture of the writer, holed up in her study, bent over her keyboard blinking away the need for sleep because her muse is on a roll. And yeah, sometimes that happens. But that is not ‘the writing life’, at least not in my (admittedly limited) experience, nor do I think it should be.

That’s something that happens sometimes. Scratch that. Something that happens rarely.

So rarely, in fact, that you crave those days. They’re some of the best writing days. You don’t bath. You forget to eat. You don’t even notice the sun setting…or coming up…because you’re too focused. The words flow from your fingertips like the nine original Greek muses are all right fucking there, feeding you line after golden line.

But most writing days are nothing like that. And, believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

To quote Auguste Rodin, “The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.”

A life lived in isolation is a life wasted. We’re here for connection. For relationship. It’s a basic component of how humanity is wired. How ironic and tragic that any artist should attempt to capture the human condition with paint, stone, word, or verse while failing to experience it for himself.

No, thank you. Not me.

I want my fiction to flow out of a full life. The day my art leads a coup, demanding that I sacrifice human connection for its sake, is the day I stop writing.

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bad advice, part 1

On WritingBad advice can impart wisdom just as easily as good advice. You know, provided you know it’s bad.

With that in mind, I’m going to spend a few weeks (I honestly don’t know how many yet) picking apart the bad advice of a few published writers.

But first, a side note/admission.

Yes, I know it’s nothing short of audacious (and maybe even borderline rude) to call out my peers (or betters, as the case may arguably be) for doling out less than stellar suggestions. My goal isn’t to tear people down or to deliver something sensational by going after big names.

Nope. My goal is to point out that not every writing tip is worth adopting.

The ultimate test is a simple one. Does it work for you? If it does, do it, and don’t let me or anyone else tell you otherwise. If not, ditch it and move on. The stuff I’ll cover in the next few posts is stuff that doesn’t work for me.

If it works for you, we can still be friends.

BAD ADVICE: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

— Jonathan Franzen

Franzen’s ruffled a few feathers since publishing his first novel. He had that feud with Oprah, thinks the ebook is a lesser literary vehicle, and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about your Tweets. Granted, he’s a published author who’s received his fair share of critical praise, but the advice above is pure nonsense.

Maybe internet access is a major distraction for him, but that doesn’t make it a major distraction for every writer. I use the internet during writing sessions with fairly consistent frequency. It’s particularly handy for quick, on-the-spot research. (And thesaurus.com. I know. I’m a philistine.)

When I’m in a writing frame of mind, it’s not really a struggle for me to avoid Facebook. I get lost in my own stories, and I tend to stay on track. While I could certainly be productive without an internet connection, I much prefer having one.

Franzen’s sweeping assessment takes what could be good advice too far. For some people, the internet is a very real distraction. That’s why there were approximately 249,976 articles written last year on ‘distraction-free writing’, and there are more minimalist writing programs than you would ever guess.

Note, however, that I did not use my internet connection to verify that number. I pulled it right out of my ass. Presumably, Franzen would be proud. Or disgusted.

Probably disgusted.

My point is, if your web browser makes it tough for you to maintain focus, isolate yourself from the interwebs when you’re working. If it doesn’t, don’t freak out. That doesn’t mean you’re writing bad fiction. It just means we don’t all struggle with the same thing.

the horror

The Horror

I recently watched three horror movies on Netflix. Two weeks back-to-back, I hosted out-of-town guests who were, like me, horror fans. Hungry to watch fright flicks together, we combed the Netflix catalog for lesser known films we hadn’t seen.

I was less than impressed with what we found.

One of the films had an interesting premise that was, unfortunately, thoroughly mishandled. One was good until it forced an unnecessary and unlikely plot twist that pretty much unraveled the whole thing. And the last was a hodge-podge of scary imagery with no coherent story at all.

With each film, I felt fear rising. Not the kind the makers of the movies intended. Rather, a fear that good horror is becoming increasingly rare.

As with any marketable concept, there are plenty of people out there interested in making money or making a name for themselves. There are precious few invested in the craft. You could say the same thing about literally any genre, and all of them have immeasurable value.

Horror is one of my favorite modes of fiction. When I see it bastardized for a quick buck by the lazy or the thoughtless, it pains me.

Of course, there’s little you can do to make horror writers/directors take their stories seriously.

But what you can do is take your own stories seriously. No matter what kind of fiction you write, always remember that you’re contributing to something far greater than yourself. Something that extends beyond your own tales.

Make your stories matter. Make them something you’re proud to contribute. Even if you never intend to publish, tell stories worth telling. 

To shoot for less is…well, frightening. And not in a good way.

plot holes

Star Wars

I haven’t had a good rant in a while. Buckle up, kids. This one’s overdue.

First, yes, I’m writing about Star Wars: The Force Awakes. Even though the movie’s been out for weeks, you won’t find any spoilers here. If you haven’t seen it yet, see it. In the meantime, you can read this article in safety.

You won’t find any conspiracy babble here, either. I have no desire to add to the cultural noise that SW:TFW theories have become. Seriously, I’m fucking sick of the hair-brain, stupid things people are proposing about possible plot twists (just to get clicks and page views).

Instead, this article is about something (else) that’s driving me nuts. Namely, the number of people claiming the most recent installment of Star Wars is chalked full of plot holes. I’ll happily concede there may be a few. Rare is the story that doesn’t break down when analyzed to death. However, most of the stuff people I’ve seen people pointing at aren’t disconnects in the narrative at all.

They’re unanswered questions. You know, the kind that build suspense. The kind that you’ll find in literally any decent story, and certainly in any tale that spans multiple volumes.

But there are an alarming number of people losing their shit over alleged holes in the narrative. It’s as though every story they’ve ever heard ended wrapped in a neat little bow, even it it was a part of a series.

Every movie can’t be Twilight, thank God.

[insert belabored sigh here]

Part of a writer’s job is to create intrigue. The only reliable way to do that is to withhold information from the audience. Sometimes that information is disclosed later. Sometimes it’s never disclosed.

Take Pulp Fiction, for example. We have no idea what’s in the briefcase Vince and Jules recover for Marsellus. Sure, you could call that a plot hole, but calling it one won’t make it one. Not knowing doesn’t break the story. It’s not a weakness. On the contrary, it makes the story stronger. All we know is that people are willing to risk their lives for the contents of that case.

That’s it, and that’s more than enough.

So why all the uproar? Part of it’s for attention. Like wild theories about new Star Wars characters, any hardcore critique of a well-received movie is likely to draw in a few on the basis of morbid curiosity alone.

But I fear there’s something else at work, too. I’ve seen more than a few Facebook posts from non-critics that rip Episode VII to shreds. They aren’t trying to drive traffic to their walls. What’s the deal there?

Laziness.

Any reader/viewer who expects to be spoon-fed every detail leaving no unanswered questions is one sadly apathetic soul. Good fiction prompts more questions than it answers. That’s why we’re still enthralled by the original Star Wars film almost 40 years after its release.

For the sake of contrast I’d really like to name a movie that didn’t leaving me asking questions when the credits rolled, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head. And really, that’s kind of the point.

Don’t be a lazy audience member. Be okay with mystery. Know that it enhances virtually any tale.

And when you write your own stories, resist the temptation to tell your readers everything you know. What you don’t say is every bit as important as what you do say.

ill-advised

On WritingI shouldn’t do it. I shouldn’t weigh in on the Starbucks red cup controversy. I really shouldn’t, but I’m going to.

It’s all bullshit. There.

I’m sick to death of the irony. And hey, I’m a fan of irony. I dig on it. I think it’s great in stories, and mostly entertaining in actual life. Occasionally it’s just a little too bitter to be anything but tragic, and every once in a while (like now) it’s so poignant that I kind of want to kick an elf’s ass just because. Any person of any faith who turns sour, angry, indignant and/or mean because other people aren’t representing love the way they’d prefer is so clearly in the wrong that I’m shocked we’re even pretending to indulge these ridiculous debates.

And yet, here we are.

It’s as predictable as death and taxes. So much so that someone needs to change that saying: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and people spitefully losing their shit every December in the name of love.” (Benjamin Franklin, with special guest appearance by AR Martin). We could get U2 to do an update of their song by the same name. “One man sips from a vile red cup; one man, he resists…” We’d have to have Bono sing a duet with someone much younger, of course, because no one under 20 gives a rat’s ass about good music U2. Maybe we could even get Starbucks to sanction it. No publicity is bad publicity, right? It could become their new annual thing. I mean, plenty of other businesses are focused on love and good cheer. At least one major corporation should be all about seasonal discord.

And before you say I’m taking this too far, consider how far it’s already been taken. People are accusing Starbucks of intentionally taking philosophical military action against Judeo-Christian ideals. That’s what a so-called ‘war on Christmas’ is, and it’s absurd.

And before you say the other thing, yeah, I know this was all over the news a few weeks ago and I’m a little late to the party. Hey, I made a U2 reference two paragraphs ago. Obviously I’m all about hitting these cultural phenomena at the height of their popularity. Besides, I hate how early we’re ‘celebrating’ the holidays now. Christmas decorations start showing up in August. I refuse to focus on one holiday until the one before it has passed.

And before you say the last thing, yes, this is related to writing. No, not directly, but if you’re even moderately familiar with my site you know I don’t mind taking the scenic route. Recently, I’ve had more than one friend/invited critic tell me that if my writing is weak anywhere, it’s weak in the following regard: sometimes I don’t have enough confidence in my opinion. I hem and haw, justifying my reasons for thinking this way or that for far too long. Instead of just speaking my mind, I beat around the bush.

It comes through more in non-fiction than fiction, but I’m pretty sure there are traces of it in both places. I don’t like that. I’m committed to weeding it out.

Hence this rant about the war on Christmas, which, again, is bullshit.

In your writing, be bold. Say what you think. Don’t hold back. Part of the magic of the page, whether relating fact or fiction, lies in the writer’s ability to be candid at an insane level. No-holds-barred content feels more real. Yes, you might piss some people off, but that feels more real, too. Don’t walk on eggshells, my friends. Not here. Not when you sit down to write.

No, speak your mind. Embrace your inner bad ass. And while you’re at it, fuel your writing sessions with demon juice Starbucks coffee, because damn if that red cup doesn’t symbolize anarchy in all possible forms.

think you can

Think You Can

I both love and hate that quote.

I hate it because it’s overused. It’s become trite. It’s the kind of thing money-grubby sales managers scrawl on white boards before sales meetings. It makes me want to rolls my eyes and reply with something bitingly cynical. I get annoyed every time I hear someone repeat it because I’ve heard it so much.

And because it’s true.

That’s the worst of it. No matter how much people over-apply it, there’s still an enormous amount of truth in it, especially as it applies to writing. Which, of course, is why I love it.

I’m not saying self-confidence can overcome a complete lack of talent or preparation or real effort. That would be insane. But assuming you have some degree of aptitude, the degree to which you believe in yourself will dictate significant elements of the outcome.

I know. That sounds like the moral at the end of an after school special. Roll your eyes if you want. I’d roll mine, too. Just be sure when you’re done with all that eye rolling you consider the truth of it. While there are a ton of other things you can and should to do better yourself as a writer, the one step you simply cannot avoid is believing you’re up to it.

See? Now you love it and hate it, too.

hateful

On WritingI’ve written many times about the fact that our stories carry a message. My thoughts on that have always been the same: think about the messages baked into your stories. Even if you don’t intend them, they’re there.

It’s not really my style (with fiction or much of anything else) to rail on the messages others propagate. If I don’t like your message, I’m likely to ignore it. Nine times out of ten, that’s the way to go.

But today, the long-shot 10% odds won out.

This morning, a ridiculously offensive game found its way onto Steam, an online gaming platform. It was called (I swear I’m not making this up), ‘Kill The Faggot’. It’s a first person shooter game, the object of which is to gun down homosexuals. You get extra points if you manage to slay a transgender person.

Yeah, disgusting stuff. You can read more about it here.

You may not know this, dear reader, but I’m a gamer. I use Steam all the time. (Incidentally, the game was uploaded via Steam’s “Greenlight” program. The company did not endorse the game and removed it swiftly.) As a gamer and a writer, I would argue that story is a significant component of many games. No, not all games. You won’t find me waxing poetic about Mario’s struggles to save Princess Peach. But there are a lot of games that incorporate story and message into gameplay, sometimes even in profound ways.

The aforementioned offensive game (I refuse to include the name again) is one such game. There’s clearly a message there, and it’s a hateful, mean-spirited message. It got me to thinking about messages in all kinds of art mediums–novels, stories, movies, music and, yes, games.

Before you say it, yes, I know this is America. I’m a fan of free speech. The (close-minded, bitter) individual who made and uploaded that game earlier today has every right to be hateful. He even has the right to make a game centered on his hate. I’m not arguing that he doesn’t or shouldn’t.

That said, I’m of the opinion that hate is never a good message. Even when I write horror, I don’t want my readers to think I’m promoting hateful attitudes. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

I can’t mandate that you avoid hateful messages in your art. That’s not my place. It’s your art. They’re your messages. I will, however, strongly encourage you to think long and hard before you write any story that advocates injustice, scorn, disdain or enmity. It’s not that such feelings and thoughts don’t have their place. Rather, they are like poison. If used carefully and only in very specific situations, they can be useful, but if used freely and carelessly, they kill.

To quote another great man (who is great despite being fictional), “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it,” (Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore).

Please use your words carefully.

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