Monday, February 19, 2018

The Worst and Most Important Writing Checklist

Start something.
Finish something.
Edit something.
Like something.
Distribute something.
Submit something.
Publish something.
Promote something.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, “If it were only so simple, jackass!”

My roommate in New York city chased me out after regaling me in all her opinions about how I should be a writer… and it was pretty much this. She told me I should try being a writer. I should starting small. I should try focusing. I should try blogging. I should try the newspaper. On and on about obvious stepping stones for an author’s career.

And every time I attempted to explain to her that I had done all that she suggested—with mixed results no less—she turned around and criticized me. It became quickly clear that she was just looking to find easy solutions to my problems, and I wasn’t helping by being active in my own life.

The problem with the above list is that very rarely can you jump from one to the next. You’re not going to finish everything you start, like everything you edit, publish everything you finish. You’re probably going to start sixteen-hundred novels in your lifetime and you’ll be lucky if you complete six.

But that’s exactly my point.

Of the above list, it took me years to move from one check to the next. I began seriously writing in 2003, but didn’t attempt to publish until 2008. I wasn’t published until 2012 with a short story in an e-zine. It wasn’t until 2017, fourteen years after I wrote my first book, that I have actively worked to try and get a novel into readers’ hands.

You know who tends to be successful? People who do all of the checklist.

It’s those who write. It’s those who don’t just keep starting over. It’s those who actually put their books out there for the public to see. It’s those who submit and submit and submit despite all of the rejections. It’s those who talk about themselves and their books that make sales. And, of course, the best writing is created by those who push it. Those who edit their work, get feedback, and just revise until they like it are the ones doing great things.

This checklist is a pain in the ass. It takes a long time to get one item done, and even when you do finally put the X through it, you might realize that the next step requires you to start from scratch—To like something, you might have to write something new.

But, it’s useful in that not splitting your time between these activities can create a blockage in your career. Criticizing yourself for not being successful when you haven’t even attempted half of the actions on the list is misappropriating the issue.

Checking off each item won’t necessarily put you where you want to be, but until you have at least actively and efficiently attempted to do each one of these, you can’t complain about how bad your writing is. You haven’t tried everything.

This might be the most autobiographical advice I give: You cannot be a writer if you do not start writing, if you do not finish a manuscript, if you refuse to edit, if you don’t trust your own tastes, if you try to do it all on your own, if you never audition yourself, put it out the public, or tell people what you’re doing.

I know that there’s something on this list you’re avoiding. Could it be the thing that’s holding you back?

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Friday, February 16, 2018

The Man Who Ineffectively Gave Up Everything to Be a Writer

Upon arriving in Laramie to visit my good friend, she thrust at me a book and said, “Tell me what you think of this.”

Let’s be honest. When I’m asked that, what they’re usually saying is, “I want you to rip this a new one.”

But I, constantly oblivious to the cynical light my friends put me in, looked at it with an open-mind, the cover being actually interesting, unique, yet professional looking. I didn’t realize it was self-published until I started to read the back. As I looked through one of the least informative summaries I’ve ever seen, my friend started to tell me the story behind the book.

The author was married to a beautiful wife whom he loved and who loved him. He had several kids with her, a good paying job, and a great house. According to him, his life was perfect, but he was not happy. He had always wanted to be a writer, to travel across the states peddling his book. So, one day, he decided to give it all up. He told his wife he wanted a divorce, quit his job, printed many copies of the novel, and left California to seek his fame, traveling across the states. He wanted to get to the East coast.

He had stopped in Laramie, Wyoming, for no other reason than because it was there. It wasn’t as though he had a signing or reading. If you know anything about Wyoming, it is a state predominantly inhabited by cows. While being one of the bigger land masses, there is less than a million people in its boundaries.

I don’t understand this man.

My experience is predominantly in theatre and short stories, so I can’t give advice to selling novels, specifically, but I will say that I have attempted to promote myself, and my biggest successes comes not from the internet or functions, but rather personal, one on one connections, which is clearly what he’s trying to do. And it worked to some extent. He gave my friend the book for free, but her boyfriend, interested in writing, bought one too, and it was through her word of mouth that it came to me. If it had been my genre and the back hadn’t contained so many errors, maybe I would have stolen if from her. But I believe that you don’t need to travel across the country to do it. What’s on the east coast specifically? Why couldn’t he have started closer to home where his children and wife were, the one he complained about missing so much? Why did he need a divorce instead of just going out to the bars in one town over and doing the same thing?

I mean, sure, I understand why it is easier to pitch to stranger than people you know; I feel that. But even still, go two hours over and get your name out in a specific town. What you want is for a core group of people to start talking. It’s better to be the big fish in a small pond than to randomly grab random fish from different ponds. Having people talk about your book, two people who know something about it, is incredibly useful.

I think the obvious answer here is that he wanted to do a road trip. I know I do. I want to grab a motorcycle and ride cross country ala King style. I don’t blame him for that. So why does he need to divorce his wife to do it?

Couldn’t he have just talked to her, said, I need to do this for me? Give me six or eight months to try and sell my book? According to my friend, he didn’t have that discussion, but just informed her he wanted out.

“Sounds like a mid-life crisis to me,” I said.

Perhaps he wanted to start over. He regretted his decisions and thought this would make him happy. Maybe he was lying, or there’s an issue of miscommunication. Maybe his wife said, “If you go, I will divorce you.” Who knows? Something is off here.

The whole strategy seemed desperate and poorly thought out. It’s like when you get rejected by literary journal and think, “Well, if only the readers could see it, they’d like it!” So you take to self-publishing to find no one else cares either. Or, in my case, when I couldn’t find producers, I produced myself. You can’t make your friends buy your books, so you turn to strangers. You can’t write because you are too busy, yet when you find yourself unemployed, you still can’t work. These are not bad decisions. It’s just that we often, when most lost, will seek out big changes in our situation to help us only to find that it didn’t change the results at all. And in his case, he risked everything, putting all of his energy into misguided places.

I want him to succeed. I can’t be angry with him (though I kind of want to be) because I honestly don’t know the whole story, why he left his family like that—maybe it was their idea. Maybe he thought he’d come back with more money. I have a feeling his happiness there was a lie, or a “grass is always greener” reflection on the past. But he put a lot into his work, and that is too be admired.

I just think he put it in the wrong place.

His summary needs work.

He has a few (albeit less common) grammatical mistakes. He inadvertently criticizes his own cover by negating the childishness of it and spelling out for the audience the book is for grown-ups. He spends the entire summary describing the kind of book it is, vague, “deep” thematic connections, and making promises of emotional investment and payoff that he can’t necessarily keep. He misled me into believing it was nonfiction by claiming it was a “faithful documentation” of… insert winding and vague description here.

The reason he never explained what the plot was because it turned out to be disjointed short stories with characters of hugely differing ages, different time periods, and no real through-line. Keeping in mind that random, unconnected tangents tend to be the ineffective work of an inexperienced author. This didn’t give me anymore faith.

I wish I could follow his story. Perhaps if I examined the book better I could find a blog or something detailing his experience. It’s certainly something I’d be interested in. But it was a lesson for me in a big way. Not only do we not have to give up so much to be writers, sometimes it’s not in our best interest. It’s possible if he, instead of handing books to random strangers in random places, had been more precise about his audience, attempting to pick his location better, studied effective and non-effective book backings, and had realized that changing his scenery wouldn’t necessarily change his outlook, it’s more likely his energy would have achieved more than—or as much as—the depression he felt drinking in that bar that day.

It’s difficult for all authors to know where to direct their effort, what will be fruitful, and what sacrifices will result in success, but I will remember from now on that the harder and more effective venture is often about working with what you have and not running to the other side for greener pasture.

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Monday, February 12, 2018

The Controversy of the Novella and What to Do about It

A friend of mine expressed interest in writing a book.

“A novella, I think,” she said.

I cringed inwardly a little and suggested, “You might try to see if you can’t flesh it out into a more conventional size.”

“I was told by a professor to never force a book into being something it isn’t.”

“True,” I said. “But it isn’t anything yet, is it? It can be whatever you want.”

At the stage of “mulling around” it had endless potential to be either broadened or cut back. A story is going to be what it is going to be, yet you have some control in the beginning. I can tell if I don’t have enough ideas to write so many words about, and can begin to tie in other points, subplots, character arcs, events, etc. and making a plan to include them. Many times a story’s original incarnation was nothing more than a line of dialogue, and I had to make other goals and inorganic decisions before it could start forming in the ethereal of my mind. But even then, it had taken me years of writing to begin to accurately predict how long it would take me to tell a specific story, and I’m still off a lot of the time. I didn’t believe she wanted to write a novella because it was best for the book. I believe she wanted to write a novella because it seemed like a manageable choice.

The conversation had me thinking though about reasonable arguments against her, but then an even bigger question: Why the hell does this bother me so much?

The rise of the novella is one of those things that I don’t care about caring about. There is an infinite number of books out there, many more to the size that I want to read. You’re not going to convince writers to not write 90k or even 200k sprawling plots, especially when publishers aren’t involved. Why does it matter if so many people are writing short novellas these days? Why does it bother me that, when five years ago 60,000 words was considered a short novel (and only for certain genres), many consider 40k a perfectly normal size?

This doesn’t affect me.

I don’t believe in authors making brash statements against the way others write. I’ve seen Facebook status upon Facebook status complaining about the decision to write series, the decision to write standalones, the decision to produce quickly, to produce slowly, to outline, to schedule, to writing in first person or third. Anything you can do as an author will be criticized by the people who should know better.

But it makes sense for us to feel so passionately about these things. Not only can a diversity of decisions make people question their own, but being critical, recognizing your feelings, and finding arguments to prove yourself right is how we understand reality. It’s not a bad thing in itself; we just need to not be assholes about it. Mostly, we need to pick our battles.

To examine my disdain for the popularity of the novella, I had to be honest with myself.

First, I found a pretty valid reason: I don’t like reading them. This means nothing to anyone else, but at least I knew it wasn’t just a hatred of change (which was entirely plausible). I would rather read a wonderful 90,000 word book than a wonderful 30,000 word book. Once I like the story, I want to live in it, spend time with the characters, understand the world. I have read good novellas and believe that they would be for worse if they tried to be made into a regular full length. But if I had to pick between two books that I psychically knew I would enjoy, I’d choose the longer.

Was that just me? I had heard for years from publishers—prior to the ebook revolution—that short novels had a harder time of selling. Anthologies too. They were harder to get published because they were harder to get the readers interested. Plus, based on the costs of publication, there became a line of profit-cost margin. People didn’t want to be spending the same amount on a novella that they would be on a novel, but to compensate for certain price of productions, there was a minimum bar you could charge to make it worth your while.

Now that self-publishers don’t have to concern themselves with distribution costs for ebooks and the current market has plummeted the value of literature, maybe that has changed. People will spend the same amount on a single short story that they will a full-blown novel, but that’s because they expect everything to be a dollar anyway. Longer stories aren’t worth more than shorter ones.

You have two factors to consider when looking at the rise of the novella; the way we read is shifting, but also what is being produced isn’t necessarily a reflection of what is selling.

It could be that the availability of novellas has removed the stigma and they aren’t so hard to sell anymore, or it could be that people are putting up their books whether they sell or not.

There is tremendous motivation for an author to write a novella.

I could write a 40k manuscript in about two weeks, where as it would take me a full month to write an 80,000. A month and a half for a 100,000. And that’s if I remained diligent the entire time. It is easier to be dedicated for a shorter period of time, and personally I find that the first 30,000 words are always the easiest. I actually call 30k my first hurdle, because it’s where the shiny new packaging starts to get worn off. The honeymoon stage is over. In the past, it’s usually around three months for me to finish a manuscript, but I have written plays (15 to 20k) in less than a week because it’s easy to stay focused and inspired.

Editing takes much less time. I can read a 90k book in one day, but it is difficult and I usually give myself three. A 40k would be easy to get done in eight hours. By cutting the word count in half, you can cut most of the time it takes for everything in half, or less.

It is easier to get a beta-reader to get through it quickly, not feeling so guilty as when you hand them 120k beast and expect them to trudge on.

Publishing quickly is a great way to gain fans. If you take your time between books, they’re more likely to forget about you or lose interest. Having five novellas up versus one standalone, readers are more likely to subconsciously trust you (clearly you’re an experienced author who will continue the series), but you can also charge a buck for each whereas you’re lucky if you can get away with two dollars for the one.

You can write faster, produce faster, and make more money. It’s easier to keep track of plot arcs and big picture issues. The book hasn’t gotten so disgustingly ugly to you that you rather throw your $1,000 laptop out the window than look at it again.

And no, I do not believe that writing quickly makes for terrible writing. Necessarily. Some of the best and worst things I’ve written were made in haste. Some of the best and worst things I’ve written took forever. The speed in which you write can influence what comes out, but it isn’t directly connected to quality.

But I will say that you can read these motivations in some books. There are those that sound rushed, that sound impatient, that sound like the author isn’t willing to take her time and smell the roses.

I do read novellas. I do it to support authors who I like. It makes it easy if you just want to help your peers by buying, reviewing, and reading. As I said, I can read a novella in a couple of hours. If it’s painful, it’ll be over soon.

What I’ve found, however, is that not only could many of them easily become novels, but would actually be improved by it. A part of my frustration towards these shorter books is when it doesn’t read like it’s for the integrity of the piece at all, when it’s not about telling the story in the way it wants to be, but telling it in the quickest manner possible.

Of the novellas I’ve read in the last few months, only one didn’t have an issue with pacing, and it still should have been fleshed out. The scenes placed you right in the action, made you feel the ambiance of the moment, the visuals of the world without boring you, but the overall plot was too quick. I not only wanted to hear more about these characters, but the satisfaction at the end was unsatisfying because of a lack of clarity. Was the main character just using his lover? Was he actually in love with him? We only see their sexual encounters and the ramifications of those, but the reader didn’t bear witness to any of their conversations, the protagonist’s feelings. There were moments and answers that I wanted to see or hear. There were some contradictions that weren’t established well enough that they may have just been me misreading or it may have been the writer forgetting what she originally said. This seemed like a weird mistake to have for a book that I read in less than an hour. How had she not caught these things if she hadn’t read it through herself? And why wouldn’t she have read through it several times, when it took less time than watching an episode of Supernatural?

When it came to the others, I found the writing to be perfunctory. It tended to be summation and editorializing. It didn’t build on the tension, didn’t live in the moment, did nothing but succinctly informed the reader of event and description.

Many of them were pure out porn—and that’s their point. A lot of successful novella writers are involved in erotica, and it actually suits the medium, allowing the authors and readers to get straight to the good stuff without wasting time with any actual character development. And I don’t mean that as an insult. When you want to just get off, an erotic novella is actually your best bet.

Most of the novellas I read are serials. This is less enjoyable. I don’t mind cliffhangers as long as there is a full plot line behind it, something satisfying and complete before the big surprise. But when I feel like someone’s sliced up a bigger story into little pieces, I take into consideration what I, the reader, get out of that, and then what they, the writers, get out of that. Why would someone do that except to either a) publish faster, or b) make more money? Even long, traditionally published series have a reputation for never answering questions (Lost anyone?) or satisfying the readers, and so if you can’t prove to me by book one you are capable of a great ending, I’m not going to keep buying. This is extra true if the series isn’t finished because I have no guarantee the author will ever complete their storyline. At least in traditional publication, there are contracts involved.

On the other hand, I think there is definitely a market for periodically published works, Dickens’ style. If I do get through a novella and I enjoyed it, I am actually happy with following those characters through several short books. If each has title own fully developed plot arc, if I love the characters and feel the scenes around me, if I trust the author won’t abandon the project, a serial novella can be fun and endearing.

I had to wonder how much my disdain for novellas was typical and how much was just me. It can be hard to tell how well other people’s books are doing.

One man constantly complained about how no one wanted his novella. I could have told him why I didn’t want to buy it. Size was a big component. I’m not going to buy a forty-page book when I could get a quick short or something more time consuming. I would have to be really interested in the plot, which he didn’t really describe in the summary. His cover was an aesthetically fine looking photograph, but uninformative about plot or character or voice. In one little part of the Amazon page it read that it was for 12-18 year olds, which was not suggested by cover or summary or subject matter. His Facebook posts were all very negative, talking about how poorly his story was doing or belittling other genres.

For many authors, if a book isn’t selling, I would suggest looking at cover, summary, and size. Those were the first three factors that could put me off from buying.

Was that just me? How many other people actually cared about size, and was I just some anti-change author who was preventing literature from evolving into what it wanted to be?

Today I got my answer. On Facebook, a popular author asked, “Which do you prefer, short books, long books, or depends on the moment?”

There was an outpour of agreement. Out of 200 comments, not one said they prefer shorter works. Many suggested that they would test out and enjoy a shorter work from an author they already love, or if they wanted to support the author they knew. Some said medium. Many reported “C,” that they could enjoy shorter novels at certain times. A lot bemoaned the novella. One man stated that he didn’t look at size at all, only reading books his friends and family suggested.

I suppose what irritates me is what I presume the reasoning behind the choice is. It’s not that a novella can’t be the best form for a story, it’s that I don’t believe it often is.

As self-publishing becomes less and less stigmatized, writers become freer from the market. We see great things coming from indie authors who are not restricted by some investor whose focus is making his money back: more diverse female characters, more diversity in race of both characters and successful authors, more risk taking, more genre bending, more unique styles and subject matter, more niche markets… but at the same time it can feel people are using that freedom to take the easy path.

Write the book you want to exist. Don’t take my or anyone else’s naysaying too seriously. If you wrote a beautiful novella, be confident in it. If that’s what your story wants to be, then let it be that way. And, in many cases, no one is criticizing a novella that is well-written. But it’s not uncommon to be asked, “Should I make my novella longer? The prose is fine and I don’t want to fill it with unnecessary scenes,” and I think, “If the best thing you can say about your book is ‘the prose is fine,’ then you need to keep working on it, size be damned.”

I find some legitimacy in my frustration. What the right path for each writer is can only be defined by the writer himself, yet you can feel responsible for the disheartened. Sometimes I see someone making a choice because he thinks he can get away with it, only to have him come back and wonder why the results are as expected. I see writers’ dismay on a daily basis, their frustration at not understanding why no one reads their books, not really wanting to hear, “I’d be more likely to trust it if it was longer.”

“But it shouldn’t be that way!”

No. You’re right. It shouldn’t.

When you write a novella, don’t expect people to naturally know it is a fully fleshed out, beautifully written piece of fiction. Expect them to assume you were impatient. Expect them to not be as interested in it. It is a harder sell. You write it that way for the integrity of the book, despite that it will be harder to convince people to like it. Don’t expect to be the exception. Don’t set out to write a novella just because you can.

And letting the book be what it should be goes two ways: trying to cram a big story into a shorter time frame is just as big of a mistake as the reverse.

When writing a novella, ask yourself why that size? Is it because of the story or because it’s easy? Look for pacing, look for ambiance, look for setting up the scene. Look to see if you’ve satisfied your reader on all fronts. Look to see if you sound impatient. Take your time in editing. Make it the best book it can be. And if that is as a smaller story, then great. You did your best job, be confident in that. If you realize it should be longer, take the time to make it so.

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Friday, February 9, 2018

Writers are Dancing Monkeys

While pushing buttons for a theatre show's lighting, I had the pleasure of being seated right next to the director. In most occasions, the director is not in the tech booth, some shows the director not even being allowed in the theatre after opening night. But in this case, we couldn't find a sound tech (re: button pusher), and so I had to endure his presence all seven shows.

"Don't do anything else!" he demanded when I tried to write. (Button pushing is one of the great ways of making money while writing.) "Don't do anything else!" he insisted when I did a few mild exercises.

The show had probably less than 20 cues, at fairly obvious points as well. I'd been the stage manager, to all rehearsals too, so I could have preformed the damn thing if asked. Finally, I turned to him and said, "Look, a monkey could do my job. And the only reason we don't have a monkey doing my job is that he'd cost more."

At least if I only had to have cymbals and a fez, my life would be easier.

Over the last two years I've been struggling with getting people to respond and care about my work. While in New York, I called up an old friend and ranted (cried) to her about how I couldn't figure out to give my writing more punch. "Well," she said, "when you figure that out, let the rest of us know."

It was a sort of turning point for me. For some reason, in the back of my mind, though I denied it logically, I suppose I still believe in the "extraordinary" versus "ordinary" birthright. That I was having such a hard time getting anyone to give me a second look said that I was trying to be something I wasn't.

But the truth is that everyone struggles with getting and keeping attention, even successful writers who have been getting contracts for years. Marketing and pitching are totally separate jobs from storytelling.

I often look at other writer's websites to inspire me, and as of late, I've been feeling jealous of the visuals and ambiance their stories seem to create. I wonder at the typical ugliness of adult fantasy books while fawn over the colors and imagery in young adult books. I want to create a world filled with iconic locations, names, and characters, I want a distinctive style that causes curiosity in those who see it.

Over the months, I've been examining my "blind spots" and the general areas I gloss over that possibly diminishes the impact of my work. Something I've argued previously is that fantasy and science fiction intrigues people because of the possibilities, but you can't build a story on setting. I was somewhat wrong in what I was saying; yes, it doesn't make a story in itself, but the stories with the greatest impact have these unique interesting "visuals" that lure you in. In a debate with another author, I said that speculative fiction has to be hybrid by nature. Most genres play on an inherent reader motive - mystery seeks answers, romance seeks the reward of love, thrillers the reward of justice, literary the reward of achievement, but sci-fi/fantasy, well, all fantasy is mixed with another genre in that world building isn't a reward in itself. She asked, "What about exploration?"

Nope, I said. Exploration isn't motivating enough. And I stand by it, in that fantasy books with only world building and no conflict aren't really stories. But, she was right in a way. The best fantasy novels allow the reader to explore a new culture, new rules, and things they'd never otherwise see.

I knew action and mortal stakes were something I glossed over, not being too interested in reading about them myself, but when I started to realize that I was pushing the background far too into the background, it cleared my mind about some of the concerns. My characters tend to be "normal," civilians without many powers, the worlds they travel clear in my mind, but not challenging my imagination. Higher stakes, yes, but stranger creatures too, and while I don't like writing about extraordinary people with overt responsibilities, writing constantly about the powerless has strapped me in.

My artwork was really frustrating me as well. There are creations that I am truly proud of, but my style was more or less hit or miss. They often required direct photographs for me to achieve the affect - I had to find "models" that looked exactly like I wanted, which sometimes felt like it wasn't my idea, or my characters. Rasmus and Kaia from The Stories of the Wyrd always looked different because their image was drawn off of different models.

I wanted something with consistency, and characters with more life to them than what the average model pose had to offer.

I spent a long time examining covers and artwork that inspired me. I have a general vision of what I'm going for, but execution is different matter.

Yesterday, I think I came across a general idea. I wanted a watercolor sketch, one that looked like it belonged in an adventurer's journal. And while this portrait of Kaia did not quite get there, I like the aesthetics. After creating an idea first, I used multiple photographs to get specific parts of the character correct. A nose model, an eye model, a hair model, a clothing model. Though a peasant who originally wore simple clothing, I realized that putting in more details (and giving Kaia a more recognizable green cloak) would help with both my cultural and artistic blind spots. This portrait looks more like the Kaia I envisioned, and gives me a starting point to start having facial continuity in my advertising graphics. I finally felt like I was getting on the right track.

As I researched what would have a great impact on me, something else changed too. Instead of the frustration that I was getting further and further from myself and genuine inspiration, I started to see the process as a challenge. It was real work. At first, it sucked the fun out of creation, and everything seemed to have less heart than before. But now, as I start to round out my skills, exercise those ignored "muscles," I start to become more capable of creating what my imagination wants. It shies from me at times, when I'm most concerned about impact and effectiveness, but then there are moments when I know that I'm on the right path.

Sure, we are dancing monkeys. But that doesn't mean we don't get to choose the dance.

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Monday, February 5, 2018

Over Explanation Pisses on Ambiance

I once had a coworker who demonstrated to me, step by step, how to fill a bottle.

I had asked him—well no, asked the manager next to him technically—where to refill the sanitizer to which he happily obliged me by taking me through every stage of the process. We had had a strange energy between us anyway, I feeling a little put off by his asking me how long I’d worked there each and every time we ran into each other. A few other occasions where he explained something to me that really wasn’t necessary, but this was what took the cake.

As he showed me how to pour the green liquid from a giant bottle into a smaller, I gave him a look. He read it loud and clear and handed them over. We haven’t had problems since.

I’m reading a short story by a peer that… well, we’ll say I’m having a hard time with. I try not to be a frustrated writer, and for the context of this read through, I’m not actually offering advice. I won’t go into the hows and whys I’m doing it for identification reasons, but sometimes I have to step back and give myself a breather.

I mean, part of the issue is that I recognize some of the hiccups myself. Another part of the issue is, however, I just want to write, “DUH,” across half the page.

The paragraph that got me to this point, however, was a rather long play by play of someone getting into a car. The story, to set the scene a little better, was told over the course of several days, so not only was this explanation somewhat obvious, it was odd for the style of writing. Why go into so much detail here of all places?

Unnecessary detail, when it’s not boring, is just decoration. And I mean that in a good way. You need some “superfluous” information to set the scene, otherwise you’d do fine with just summary. Do scents really affect our understanding of a murder? No, but they enhance it. They affect our emotions. “So they’re necessary!” Well, you could affect those emotions in other ways too. You don’t need to talk about smells; it’s just one way to do it. Stripping a book down only to its bare necessities is boring and clinical. You want to create a mood, you talk about things that aren’t directly relevant. Sort of like how the presentation of your food doesn’t change the taste, but it does change the meal. Putting a stupid little leaf isn’t necessary; it’s just nice.

I say this because I’ve found that a lot of successful advice wants you to describe more. “Show don’t tell,” as the prime example, suggests you go into the moment, show images and actions, and have the events occur in real time. In fact, that really was the most useful advice I’ve ever gotten—to describe the actions and visuals as if the reader was really seeing it unfold.

So why is it that some excess details actually cause the exact opposite effect?

It’s actually my biggest complaint in beginner fiction: this over-explanatory, almost condescending series of sterile descriptions, giving readers a play-by-play of boring minutiae of life.

“He picked up the three inch blade with his left hand and turned to face the girl who was standing right behind him and staring at him with large blue eyes underneath blonde bangs.”

Sometimes, the problem isn’t actually the information. We want to know what a character looks like. We want to know what the room looks like. We want to have a sense of spatial reasoning. It has more to do with the way it’s described, how rhythm of speech, motive, and opinion is lost behind the writer’s obligation. No one wants to read a paragraph with the clear subtext of, “Now I will describe what the character looks like.”

But in this case, the problem really was with what he was telling me:

I know what it’s like to get into a car. I know how to get into a car.

Sure, you can have a character put on his seatbelt and not make me feel condescended at, but it serves a purpose. It’s an action in the middle of a moment that’s been slowed down due to its relevance; it breaks up the scene to enhance the flow and pacing; maybe it’s an important detail that will come up later.

But overall, don’t tell me something that I already know.

We don’t need to be told your teenage protagonist goes to high school, we need to know what his life is like that’s not true for everyone else, the unexpected truths of his reality. So, you can have him going to high school, but there should be more going on than just, "He got up in the morning and went to school because he's that's what teenagers do." You might start your book out in academia because, well, that just makes sense, but if your novel is going into detail about how he has parents and a couple of nerdy friends, but isn’t super popular and isn’t too great at school… you’re sort of wasting my time. Certainly, use the expected to emphasis the differences, but don’t just tell us how normal they are without making any sort of commentary on it. Say more than just that.

Even movies like Office Space—all about being bored at a mundane job—take bold choices and make the characters’ conflicts specific. Not everyone lives in L.A. and has to deal with traffic on the freeway to get to work in the morning, but it’s relatable enough that most people could laugh at the exaggeration of the experience. Sure, "I am driving to work now and have traffic," isn't a novel concept, but the way that it's talked about is a good mix of satire of the expected. A new perspective in how it talks about mundane events, a new way to tell an old story.
And that’s kind of the point.

The difference between creating mood with details and killing it is the uniqueness of those details. Even if they are trivial, even if they’re surrounded by expectation, there should be one little thing that isn’t exactly like what the reader already has experienced, what the reader already knows.

It’s hard to determine the difference between decoration and clutter even in a visual sense, but a good rule of thumb, for writing at least, is to not spend so much time with information that your reader has probably already figured out on her own. It can belong in a story, but underneath the real point, the things she doesn’t already know.

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Friday, February 2, 2018

When Life Knocks You Down, It's Not Because You're Weak

My father and I are very similar people with one major difference: I self-reflect a lot. He hits life fast and hard.

Dad is ambitious, driven, and tunnel-visioned. He doesn’t care about what people think, but does exactly what he wants to with no concern about impressing others or how he might unwittingly make someone an enemy. He taught himself guitar from a young age, constantly organizes bands, starts businesses, and goes after what he wants.

However, he’s a target.

I despised college. To sum up why, I direct you back to the day when freshmen were touring the theatre department and as I sat there minding my own business, my professor pulled me in and said, “You can do your own projects! This little lady’s is premiering next week!”

He had actively been trying to sabotage it since day one.

I did several productions during that time, being like my dad and going after what I wanted. I saw the resources at hand, and I figured out how to get them. But competition for resources inherently yields hostility, even if those resources weren’t being used in the first place.

I learned that there’s a type of person who likes control even when they don’t have the desire for anything to change. It’s not that they care what anyone else is doing, but that they need to be the ones to dictate it. They need to feel like they have the authority to say no, and unfairly exercise that right when it’s freely given. But my professors were anti-confrontational, so if you didn’t give them the permission to say no, if you acted like it wasn’t even an option, they would begrudgingly allow you to do whatever you wanted, just secretly try to ruin you as you went along. I had to fight them the entire three and half years it took me to get my bachelor’s degree.

I claim that college didn’t teach me much—it was the same classes I took in high school with a little more apathetic teachers—but I actually had some hands on learning experience that you can’t buy. I learned how to deal with jackasses and I learned the importance of playing nice with others.

At one point, I encouraged my shy, kind friend to produce something with me, but when we discussed it with the professors, they directed all of their comments to her and started to apply their passive-aggressiveness into convincing her to make the project they wanted her to do, not what she had first envisioned. I realized quickly that I’d be taking on the lion’s share of the load without any respect while having to fight my co-producer the entire way. I abandoned the project right after that meeting.

After that, I had learned the need to stand your ground while simultaneously knowing how to play the game. It’s a balancing act I’ve fallen down from many times, but I have always been able to take in a saboteur’s attacks with a grain of salt.

One thing that surprises me is that even though my dad is forty years older than me, he seems to not recognize when someone is acting ridiculously.

When you go out of your way to do something, something that doesn’t make you money, something that requires herding cats, something that most people don’t have the motivation or dedication to do, you will encounter people who try to destroy your hard work, push you out of your own project, and just get needlessly involved in your life.

I see my dad do great things. He is a master musician, a retired green beret and Vietnam War vet. He builds houses from scratch, starts business and bands out of nothing, and has been a wonderful father to two children. Yet he gets screwed over by people more vicious than him and seems to think it’s because he’s not good enough, because he’s not a valuable contributor.

I may be a pompous windbag, and at times I induce the competition for the sake of my pride, but I want to say that I know many people who are talented, hardworking, and insecure, and I can only offer that if someone is actively trying to push you down it’s simply the price of going after what you want. Jealousy and control issues are common amongst the human race. Sometimes conflict arises and it’s not because you were a douche or weren’t doing your job well enough, it was because you attracted the attention of someone who wanted what you had. They’re not your problem.

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