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.

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.

you are

You Are

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.

with fury

Self Doubt

Working through the editing process of my first book feels a bit like therapy at times. Let me give you a prime example.

My publisher likes my manuscript. She better. She’s publishing it. However, she’s been candid with me about a couple of flaws in it. Like me, she wants to make it as good as possible before we release that bad boy to the general public.

One of those flaws is this. She told me early on that there are times in the book when I explain myself too much. Instead of just saying, “[insert opinion] is true,” I prattle on for pages defending my point of view.

“It’s like you don’t know what a badass you are,” she told me. “You don’t have to do that. Just say it. Say it with confidence.”

Therein lies the rub.

Like so many writers, I have things I want to say, but I also wrestle with self-doubt. However, as the wise Sylvia Plath (and my brilliant publisher) pointed out, self-doubt will kill an otherwise good book. It doesn’t matter if it’s fact or fiction. Leave the reader feeling like you finish every sentence with a question mark and you’ve undermined yourself.

Maybe, like me, you don’t want to come off as an arrogant asshole. I get that. It doesn’t matter.

When you write, bring it. Bring it with fury.

Yes, I know that sounds like a line from a coming of age movie about cheerleading. Whatever. They’re still words to live by.

There’s no place in writing for an apologetic approach. If you have a story to tell, fucking tell it. Leave the apologies to those who doubted you had that kind of courage in you.

you can make anything

Make Anything

Dissatisfaction is an inescapably part of the human condition. Life is full of realities that fall far short of ideal. No matter how happy you are, how fulfilled, you can probably think of five things off the top of your head you’d change in a heartbeat.

Me, too.

And if that seems harsh or cynical or way too fucking deep for a Tuesday morning, hold up a sec. It gets better.

One of the many therapuetic gifts of writing is this: you can create any reality you want. There are no rules when you sit down to write. If you don’t like something about real life, you can change it. You can unmake it. You can turn it on its head.

Sure, the story has a will of its own, and your characters, like mine, are probably real people in your mind. I often feel like I’m only recording what they say and do, not inventing it. But the simple fact remains that all of it–the plot, the people, the purpose behind the tale–all of it originates in me.

So I bring my dissatisfaction with me when I sit down to write.

I don’t bitch about what I don’t like. I just remake it. I can be anyone, do anything. Sometimes I solve the world’s problems and sometimes I merely unravel them. Both end up being cathartic.

My point is simply this: writing is creating. It’s an opportunity to escape the bonds of reality. Think of it as daydreaming on crack. Don’t miss out on the pure, unadulterated rush of using your fiction, at least occasionally, to edit life so that it better suits you.

When you sit down to write, you are a god. If you don’t revel in that power, you’re doing it wrong.

your writing self

On WritingI wrote under a pen name for years.

In the beginning, it had a lot to do with anonymity. I knew many of my conservative friends and family would take issue with my stories. I like to romp around in dark territory. Not everyone is down with that.

But in time I cared less and less what the disapproving might think. And yet, I held to that pen name for a long-ass time.

Why?

Because it became more than a name for me. It became a persona. It was the writing me. I settled into that identity, freeing my mind to wander wherever it wanted when I assumed that name. I thought of it as a character, really.

When it came time to decide what name would appear on the cover of my first book (due out this year, hopefully sooner rather than later), I had a real dilemma on my hands. Use the pen name or my name?

On the advice of my publisher, I chose my own name. But I kept the persona.

In many ways, that persona is the badass me. The real me. The me I aspire to be. Why would I ditch that? Hell, I want to live that as often as I can.

So I ask, fellow writer, what’s your writing persona? Even if you don’t write under a pen name, you likely have one. Why is that identity important to you, and–here’s the money question–how can you pull the bassassery of that identity into your real, non-writing life?

I know. Deep stuff.

But please, give it some thought. The identity you write under matters, and whether you use your own name or not, it says a lot about you. The person you want to be as a writer is the real you.

Who is that person, and how can you be more like him/her all the time?

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