Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Sex Scenes

In Uncategorized on June 19, 2015 at 10:00 am

So, over on tumblr I’ve started doing a sort of informal advice column, and one of the questions the other day seemed like a good topic for an Extribulum blog post. The question was:

When writing a novel that you plan to self-publish do you think it is better to include explicit scenes or not? While sex might not be extremely important to the overall plot the idea of cutting to the window is kind of cliche. Your thoughts?

This is actually something I thought over a lot when I was publishing Trace, which is still my only novel with a sex scene in it. I was really torn about whether to make it explicit, and I discussed it with my readers, both the positives (mainly narrative) and the downsides (mainly emotional, looking back). I ended up leaving it in, mellowed down a little from the original, but I think it is as valid to leave sex scenes out – it really depends on the story.

A lot of writers do “cut to the window” either because the sex wasn’t super necessary, because they think explicit sex will restrict their readership — not unlikely, depending on the demographic — or because they’re not comfortable publishing explicit sex. Publishing explicit sex can be a little harrowing; it seems like a window on our desires as writers. You can feel very exposed, putting something so intimate on display for everyone to judge. Besides, believing you’ve written a bad sex scene is pretty embarrassing, especially if it’s been out in the public eye for a while.

For Trace, the sex actually was kind of necessary to establish the characters’ relationships with each other, and I wasn’t especially concerned with the wider audience. While I’m less comfortable publishing a sex scene in a book that’s not packaged as specifically romantic or sexual (as with The City War, which was done through a publishing house where erotica is common) I still didn’t find myself so uncomfortable I was willing to cut the scene.

So I think, and this is very hard to do, with a sex scene what you need to try and do is take the personal out of the equation, that association of sex with intimacy and vulnerability as a writer, and ask yourself what’s best for the story.

The balancing act, generally, is between “information necessary to the story” and “acceptability of sexual material”. Those are two very broad umbrella terms, however.

Information necessary to the story doesn’t just mean exposition or explanation. It includes things like atmosphere, detail, and effect. Whether a sexually explicit moment contributes to the general atmosphere of the story, whether the story is the kind of story where detail about this would be included, and whether the scene functions to inspire specific feelings (arousal, delight, disgust, even offense) in the reader all come into play under the guise of “information”. Would removing the explicit scene leave the majority of readers feeling thwarted? Is thwarted, in itself, a feeling you want to inspire? There is a famously terrible sex scene in David Thewlis’s “The Late Hector Kipling” that actually won an award for being terrible, but if you’ve read the rest of the book you know that it’s intentionally awful, which rather spoils the award.

Acceptability of sexual material, likewise, isn’t just how acceptable it is to the reader. It’s how acceptable it is to the writer — to put that out there in the world, to push boundaries if writing sex would be boundary-pushing for a writer, to deal with people who may not like its presence in the book. These are things to take into consideration, for sure, even if the idea of considering a reader’s reaction may seem like conceding to censorship. I don’t think it’s quite that at all, but different people have different lines.

I’m a very utilitarian writer. I’m always looking for what a scene will add to a story, before I include it. This isn’t everyone’s style, but for me, the easiest litmus test of whether to leave something in is “What does this do for the narrative?” Not all writers are interested in using every scene to advance the narrative, but usually there is a goal you have with your writing, and you have to ask yourself how this scene or that scene fits into the goal. (Figuring out the goal often clarifies a lot about the story for me.)But in the end, it’s a personal decision – there are a lot of factors in play on any creative work, and part of being an artist is wrestling with questions like this when they appear, rather than just making a snap decision without much examination. I think the instinct to examine is good, and I hope this post has helped clarify where to begin with that examination.

Fucking Up

In Uncategorized on June 12, 2015 at 10:00 am

I’ve been trying to work out how to talk about fucking up for a while. I think I’ve finally managed it, but the discussion comes with some subjective clauses, particularly at the end. My defense is complex but my thesis is simple:

If you work in the arts, any of the arts, you are eventually going to fuck up.

Scientists and mathematicians fuck up, but they’re trained to fuck up, because they’re dealing with the natural world outside of their control. So when an experiment goes wrong, they generally say “Well, dammit, the physics/numbers/gorillas/particles didn’t do what I thought they were gonna” and while they might feel bad about getting the science wrong, there is an entire system of thought that goes “Science is writing down what happened when you fucked up” which forgives them. I’m making a vast generalization here, and I’m sure there are special science snowflakes who for whatever specific reason don’t get quite that much support for fucking up, but in a general sense, the STEM fields are a lot more forgiving of fuck-ups on the back end. They are in direct pursuit of knowledge, and covering up an error does not contribute to knowledge; in science, there are fixed and permanent provable things, and getting to those sometimes requires missing the pitch a few times.

When you’re an artist, you are told that you’re a Creator, that you control everything, and that’s heady and spectacular. And also the reason so many artists and writers have drinking problems and a history of divorce.

Nobody explicitly tells you that you can fuck up, though. Like, you know through common sense that not every artist is perfect all the time, probably even Jackson Pollock sometimes went “No, no, these particular splatters are all wrong” but the fact that you can fuck up and still benefit from fucking up is an apparently closely guarded secret none of us want to talk about because all Creators are also secretly super insecure. (This probably says a lot about my relationship to religion.)

So here it is: In the creative arts you can fuck up in school and you can fuck up in life, and here’s how you deal.

In any arts-based course, if you fuck up, it’s a chance to talk about your process and to get advice from teachers, who secretly love to give advice. If you like your work, or even if you don’t but you know it doesn’t suck, you should own that, no false modesty. Be proud of the good work you do. But if you don’t like your work because it’s genuinely bad or you know you fucked up or you didn’t get what you wanted out of it, school is where you get to say “Oh man, this is AWFUL, here’s what was going through my head, how wrong was that, right?” and then either “So here’s what I learned from it” or “Please help me, Professor, I fucked it up.” And then you either get points for learning or you get the help you need.

This whole process, the process of owning what you do whatever the quality, is what prepares you for when you get out into the post-academic world and no longer have a safety net. Because at that point you are educated and experienced enough to yell OH SHIT I’M FUCKING UP at yourself, and immediately stop and think about why you’re fucking up and how you can fix it.

I mean, the system isn’t perfect, but by the time you’re my age, as the saying goes, your motto is “It’s okay, I’ve fucked this up before.” Plus at 35 you’re too tired to stay up all night fixing something, so your best bet is to make sure you catch the mistakes before 6pm. For real, I need me some sleep.

Now of course there are exceptions, because some people have depression, or manic episodes, or anxiety, or other mental issues that mean that you cannot fuck up, ever, not even a little, not even privately, without suffering your own emotional self-abuse, and I get that. I do. But the above is meant to help stave off that thinking as much as possible. The rest is up to you, to find a way (be that medication or cognitive therapy or something else, what works for you) to tone that down to levels that your more rational mind can at least shout over.

And I don’t think artists are told any of this nearly as often as they should be.

So this is my message to you, creators, this week: it’s okay to fuck up. It has to be okay to fuck up. It’s okay to own that you fucked up and to ask for help.  In fact, it’s what makes fucking up okay.

Go forth and create (and fuck it up once in a while).

The Difficulty Of Beginning

In Uncategorized on June 2, 2015 at 10:00 am

Nearly everyone who writes has a different way of writing, and a different method of getting to the end — or getting to the start. I used to avidly read the kind of puff internet article people post to draw eyeballs to their site — quotes from writers about how to write, advice from writers about how to write, lists of techniques for writing. Even when I was reading them, I spent most of my time attempting to extract one or two useful things from a list of twenty. Which is why I eventually stopped, about five years ago now.

Peter Brook, who wrote one of the best handbooks I’ve ever read for theatre in specific and creativity in general, talks in The Empty Space about how incommunicable the art of creation can be:

One of the greatest actresses of our time who seems in rehearsal to be observing no method whatsoever actually has an extraordinary system of her own which she can only articulate in nursery language. ‘Kneading the flour today, darling,’ she has said to me. ‘Putting it back to bake a bit longer’, ‘Need some yeast now’, ‘ We’re basting this morning’. No matter: this is precise science, just as much as if she gave it the terminology of the Actors’ Studio. But her ability to get results stays with her alone: she cannot communicate it in any useful way to the people around her.

It’s true of writers, as of any creative, because we develop our own paths to the finished product. Conveying technique is hard not just because we as humans don’t have a great vocabulary for the intangibles of art, but also because our technique may be irrelevant to someone else’s life anyway. And unfortunately, standardizing language about creativity wipes out a grand diversity of technique that simply can’t be easily put into words. So when I started to think about talking about writing beginnings, I found the above rather comforting.

Honestly, I don’t often remember how I begin a story. Sometimes because the writing takes a long time; Nameless was something like four years start to finish, and the original fiction I’m working on now I began in January of 2014. My memory is a bit of a sieve at the best of times, and because I start so many stories, the start doesn’t often seem relevant to me. So sometimes, even talking to oneself about creativity can be difficult.

TS Eliot talks about the difficulty of beginning to speak in The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock:

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

I’m sure there are many learned ways of interpreting this, but as a writer it illuminates that terrifying moment when you have to be arrogant enough to believe someone wants to hear what you have to say — and where do you start when you have so much to say?

I do know that nearly every time I’ve run a novel past my readership, I’ve had to move the start of the story. I don’t tend to open a story with excitement, which is generally an error on my part. Novels need a hook to keep people interested, and I’m a contemplative writer, not an action-oriented one.

I’ve made my peace with the beginning I write rarely ever being the actual beginning that makes it to the final print. Every kind of writing has a time and place, within a story, but the nice thing about first drafts is no specific form of writing has to be in a specific place. So I often still start stories with the “wrong” kind of writing, and go back later and fix it. The important thing is to get the story rolling.

But I can never remember how I do that. I don’t remember opening a new document and staring at empty space, waiting for words to come — nor do I remember, at least not often, having the words and waiting impatiently for the new document to open. I suspect I usually begin stories elsewhere — in emails to myself, as notes on pages of a notebook during a meeting, in random text documents I happened to have open at the time. But I also suspect being conscious of Beginning would ruin the story from the outset. It’s important not to put too much stock in the quality of the Beginning. As I have learned, it might not be there for very long.

None of this is of much use to you, the reader, of course, especially if you’d like to be You, The Writer and are just looking for advice on a way to begin.

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …
Eliot talks of being insignificant, choked by his own fear into silence, unable to begin, and of wondering if beginning would even have been worth it. I think he understood the fear of the Beginning. But I think that is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to starting a work: the fear that when you show it off, it won’t be worth it. And while it’s very common, it’s also absurdly human: no one will see it for ages, so why do we fear? But we do.
So perhaps it is best to start stories on scraps of notebook paper and in emails to self. It’s hard to imagine ever showing those to someone else anyway, and it gives you the space and privacy to begin.
The architect Daniel Burnham said “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood”, and while I love the breadth and scope of beauty in creation that his words imply, “little” is a word for architects, not writers. Architects are circumscribed by physical space. Writers can make little plans to their heart’s content — they don’t need anything to grow from a Beginning except time and thought.

Reappearing as A Writer

In Uncategorized on May 29, 2015 at 10:00 am

Poof! Like magic. Hey, I’m writing fiction again.

There are two problems with not having written in a while, whether it’s because of writer’s block, or other distractions, or a conscious break you took that may have gotten out of hand.

One is admitting you haven’t written in a while. There’s a lot of shame that’s attached to it, because it’s seen as an essential failure of a creative person to do their job. Creative people don’t contribute tangible, quantifiable value to society; it’s difficult to measure the worth of an emotion, or of a revelation. So if we don’t contribute something — a painting, a piece of music, a book — on a regular basis, then are we worth anything to our society at all? Why should society foster or support us? The creative process can take years to produce work which then can’t be valued easily, but after a year or two of nonproduction, people start to point and whisper.

It’s not like writers don’t do this too. Particularly those who make their living off of writing have very little slack to offer people who take longer to produce less. One of the most popular stereotypes for the creative person in media is the guy who’s “working on a novel” — who’s been working on a novel for seventeen years. The frustrated writer looking for a revelation who hasn’t done any real work since his (invariably his) big one-hit wonder is a popular trope in cinema in particular. Perhaps this is because writers who make their living as writers are immersed in the idea of commodifying creativity, and it twists them up. Perhaps they’re just scared of what happens if the writing goes away, and fear motivates them. It’s not super healthy, but then nobody has ever called writers healthy.

And yeah, it’s a little funny when someone who’s been working on something for a decade plus has little to show for it. But we shrink that time frame and we enlarge what “little” means until it feels like if you don’t write a novel every year, you’re behind on your output. I wrote four novels in four years, and then I didn’t write any novels for two. But that’s still averaging better than a novel every eighteen months, and that’s not chicken feed.

Still, it is hard when someone says, “What are you working on?” and you answer, again, “Nothing.” So, as people who basically tell stories for a living, which are kissing cousins to lies, we temporize. Nothing solid yet. Nothing right now. Got some irons in the fire, waiting to see what pans out. I’m brainstorming. Really cool idea, just not sure where to take it yet.

Admitting you’re not writing, however, is implicit in admitting you’re writing again. Which is the second hard part of reappearing as a writer. It’s a bit like saying you’re quitting smoking or starting a diet; there’s a lot of “Oh, isn’t that nice” with an underlayer of deep skepticism. And you do feel foolish taking the risk; what if you start writing and then can’t get anywhere? Better to wait, right? Keep the pressure off until you’ve got something to show for it. But the positive reinforcement one does get, when other people know you’re writing again, that can be a huge boost to creativity — without it, you might just keep…not writing. So there’s no real good way to play it.

Creativity is a process, and that process includes peaks and valleys, periods of high activity and lulls. I don’t really have a fix for either of these problems; they’re issues I face just like any writer does, especially a writer who is very public about their craft. I just think it’s important to talk about them, not only so people can see their fellow writers deal with it too, but also so that writers who may not have been able to put a name to their worries have a little more data to work with.

Saddling Up and Building A World

In Uncategorized on May 26, 2015 at 10:00 am

So, what does one do, after a long break from writing, to start again? Honestly, it’s a problem I’ve never had before.

Nor, truthfully, is it really a full problem now, because I’ve been writing in the past two years, it just hasn’t been original work. I’ve done a crapload of fanfic. I’m not starting from scratch, either; I had plenty of beginnings written when I drifted away two years ago. And I won’t lie, one of my favorite things to do is re-read old work and fix it. That’s how I got started again with Nameless, after all, two years after I’d given it up as a bad book.

But it is difficult to get back into the worldbuilding aspect. One of the major differences between fanfic and original fiction is that your audience, in fanfic, has certain touchstones. Everyone knows who the essential characters are, everyone knows the basic rules of the world, and even if you’re messing with those rules, you’re starting out with a foundation to build on. The alternate universe only functions fully when we know what it’s an alternate of. Otherwise it’s just weird.

With original fiction, unless you’re working on a series and you’re past the first book, you have no foundation. You have to build it yourself, and foundations are hard. It’s a lot of explaining. One of the most important things I have to do, pretty much every time I start a novel, is re-train myself to build a world without resorting to cheap exposition or descending into the madness of minutiae. I am a person who loves exploring the ramifications of every rule; if given a set of arbitrary laws, I will immediately explore every aspect of every one of them and usually break quite a few in the process. As a teen I was infamous for my ability to wreck programs and even operating systems in record time. I wasn’t doing it on purpose, I was no kind of hacker, I just had an innate skill for pushing boundaries, and the old Windows and Apple operating systems were a lot less robust than they are now. (I still managed to bust my first iPhone twice within twenty four hours of purchase, but it was an iPhone 1, that almost doesn’t even count).

When you’re building a world, that’s not the time to push boundaries; you have between 200 and 600 pages in your average novel to do that. Learning how to plant the seeds on page one of a revolution on page 209 is still something that I’m working on.

Still, one thing I am good at doing is muttering “I’ll fix it in the second draft” as I tap madly away on a scene I know is probably crap (or worse — boring). Suspending one’s sense of perfectionism is something most writers have to learn, and most don’t learn easily. It’s one of the toughest to acquire but most useful skills a writer can have. You have to be able to say “I’ll fix it later” and not worry about remembering it later or how you’ll fix it. Accepting that you may not remember it later, because it is in fact just fine and you won’t notice it on a re-read, is also hard.

But those are the two big skills I think you need when you come back to writing: how to build the universe of your story, and how to acknowledge that your first try is going to be flawed without freaking out and trying to fix it immediately. They’re not easy, but they are very, very useful.

Back In The Saddle

In Uncategorized on May 22, 2015 at 10:00 am

For about two years now, I haven’t done much original writing.

After a while it seemed a little pointless to bang on here about original writing when I wasn’t doing any. Plus, it’s tough to do a twice-weekly column on writing; there’s only so much to write about. I didn’t want to become one of those blogs that just recycles content or hammers at one specific message.

I wasn’t honestly that concerned about having stopped my original work for a while, even for a long stretch. I’d just been promoted at work, so I was growing my career, and I had two major surgeries in two years, which takes it out of you. My life was a bit of a mess, and it was better for me to focus on other things. And because I’d had a pay raise, I didn’t need to hustle the writing for money in quite the same way I had before. When I was earning thirty thousand dollars a year, writing was a genuine supplementary income. Now that I earn almost twice that, the desperation is gone, and desperation is sometimes one of the greatest drivers of creative instinct. (Sometimes not. It’s always better not to be desperate, I think, but it can be great motivation.)

So yeah, I tended my other gardens and let writing go its own way for a little while. And I wasn’t displeased; I knew it would come back.

And apparently it has, because a few days ago I had a little epiphany. I’m somewhat short of funds this month — not seriously, just not quite as well-cushioned as I like to be — and I was sitting on my couch, thinking that I’d really like to order a pizza but I didn’t really have the money to spare for that this month when I had perfectly good food in the fridge. And literally as I thought that, an email arrived in my inbox, telling me that Lulu.com had deposited my monthly royalties into my paypal account.

Some of y’all were busy book buyers last month, I guess, because it was $42, which is about twice the normal. And well more than enough for a hot pepperoni pizza.

And I thought, well, one, I do miss writing. But I also miss getting that royalties check, not even because royalties are so great but because it’s proof that other people like what I do enough to pay for it. That’s a really delightful feeling. While I don’t like capitalism I was raised within it, and being paid for my work lights up my brain whether I want it to or not.

So I thought, I’m going to write again. And I got started writing.

Mind you, I did decide to ease into it. I’m working on a piece that I had about a quarter finished, and it’s not that far from fanfic. It’s about the Monuments Men, the soldiers during the second world war who followed (sometimes preceded) the Allied troops in order to secure and protect great cultural works endangered by combat, as well as locating and securing art the Nazis looted. It’s a topic close to my heart and one I find easy to write about, so it feels like cheating even when it’s not.

And, honestly, it’s erotica. It’s for my publisher, which in some ways makes it easier, because I’m finally working on something I promised them two years ago, even if no deadlines were discussed. Plus they’ll do all the typesetting and graphic design which, while satisfying, is not always something I look forward to.

So, I’m back to writing, and I’m hoping to do a series here about getting back into writing, and how to work on things that have lain fallow for a while.

Hi, everyone. :)


In Uncategorized on September 19, 2014 at 10:00 am

Writing a weekly column about writing is hard.

And I know this, because I subscribe to other weekly columns — or I used to, until I realized a lot of them, like me, struggle with not just saying the same thing over and over again. I mean, once you have your message across, how many ways are there to say it?

My buddy R, who is a man of letters in the strangest of ways, has a name for the phenomenon of artists engaging in mental masturbation: “Actors talking about actors.” His other favorite is “Directors talking about directors” but he does not limit his skepticism of ego stroking to one industry or indeed to the creative arts; my favorite was the time he drily groaned “The English talking about being English” in response to Downton Abbey. (His grandparents were Irish.)

I try not to ride just one hobbyhorse, but of course, having a single hobbyhorse is what most of blogkeeping in the professional sphere is about. Pick a thing and talk about it; find a demographic and feed it; that’s branding. It’s not bad advice, just somewhat limiting, after a while. It’s why so many of these posts are reactions to news articles — at least it’s something new.

I’m rummaging around in my “wordpress essays” file for new subjects to talk about, so the coming weeks should be interesting. There will also likely be a hiatus in November as I recover from surgery — but then again, given how much time I’ll have off and how well painkillers loosen the tongue, there may be a flood. At any rate, if you have questions about writing or topics you’d like to hear me talk about, now would be an exceptional time to suggest some.

Otherwise it’s back to the creaky hobbyhorse of selfpub and crowdsourced editing…

A Better Place

In Uncategorized on September 12, 2014 at 10:00 am

One of the things I did while in Boston in July was take a lazy couple of hours and watch some television, just for entertainment’s sake. I often watch documentaries, usually without knowing much about them, and I caught hold of one called The Internet’s Own Boy, about the activism and untimely death of Aaron Swartz. Most people are aware of him in some sense; he was a child prodigy, programmer, and political strategist who was instrumental in helping defeat SOPA and PIPA, and he was harried down by the grinding machinery of US federal law enforcement for his hand in it.

The documentary is extremely well done, and while it’s clearly not without bias, it’s an informative retrospective of what was (what still is, really; Aaron committed suicide in 2013, at the age of 26) a very confusing time in terms of digital rights and the conflict between big business and personal freedom. It’s not without its triggers; it deals very heavily with suicide and survivorhood in a way that offers a pretty deep emotional impact. But it’s a good piece of film.

Regardless of all this, what stood out for me was the use and re-use of the phrase “make the world a better place”. It’s used at least three times in the documentary, first by Aaron himself as a young teen in his blog.

It struck me as I was watching it that it’s one of those phrases that has become a word, in the sense that we don’t often deconstruct the phrase into its component parts. “Maketheworldabetterplace” is a word, really, that implies an idealistic, apolitical, vague desire to do something that is unimpeachably good. It may carry connotations of global aspiration, but it’s not something we ever really examine too closely. Who doesn’t want to make the world a better place? Even people who spend their entire lives doing things that make the world a materially worse place can express the desire to make it a better one. Wanting to, in some sense, means never having to act on the want.

And it’s not that I think Aaron Swartz didn’t want to, or that he didn’t. He very visibly did make the world a better place. But in the twelve years since he wrote that, he modified the philosophy of it; at the age of twenty-six, at least according to his friends, what he wanted was for everyone to think about what they could be doing to improve things, and then do it. General to specific, and who wouldn’t expect general from an ultra-bright but still young teenager. It interested me that the people who said it about him — “He wanted to make the world a better place” — were often his elders by many years, and while most of them are activists themselves, they didn’t deconstruct the phrase either. It’s a tidy nip of faint praise, easily spoken.

It’s really the phrase-word that interests me. It’s such a passive first step; it doesn’t require any other action. “I will make the world a better place” demands an additional “and here’s how” on the end of it. “Here’s how” often demands attention paid to various things that nobody really wants to deal with and rightly so, because they’re exhausting: what material goods (money, office space, computers) are required to accomplish it, whether the “how” is morally and ethically correct, and if so, whose morals and ethics; who is hurt by the achievement of the how. The French Revolution is heralded as conceptually good, but was mainly accomplished by the middle class throwing the peasantry at the system until it broke under the weight of their bodies. Privileged advocates of various civil rights often sacrifice intersectionality when it becomes inconvenient. Making the world a better place isn’t a staircase; it’s an obstacle course where if you fall off the balance beam you might take a significant part of the world you were trying to improve with you.

Very few people who want world peace can name all the conflicts we’d have to end in order to achieve it. Lord knows, I can’t. That’s all right; while I want world peace, the creation of it isn’t the activism I’ve chosen to pursue. It’s all right not to be all things to all causes, even if “make the world a better place” seems to imply the opposite.

There is power in phrases and the more common they are, the more powerful they can sometimes be, because that power becomes invisible. Things become strings of syllables, shorthand (or rather, overly-long-hand) for wider philosophies that are the background white noise of our discourse.

The older I get, the more careful I am to choose not just words but phrases with care.

Fiction and Form

In Uncategorized on September 5, 2014 at 10:00 am

A note on this post: I’m going to be linking to a lot of fanfic below, not all of it appropriate for younger readers or work computers. Each link is followed by a rating in parentheses; please check the rating before you click. Teen+ ratings may be safe for work but may contain profanity or some sexual references; Explicit ratings contain explicit sexual material and may also contain violence and profanity.

Which, hey, if you’re looking for sex, violence, and profanity, does make your life easier, really.

A while back, there was a meme going around tumblr asking people to name ten books that have stuck with them, which eventually morphed into ten fanfics that have stuck with them. Maeglinhiei, who if my memory serves has been reading my stuff and hanging out in the cafe for quite a while, mentioned that one of my stories, Sublimation And The Snitch (Teen+), was on the list. In specific, one reason was “it’s the first time I encountered a fic not as ‘fic’ but in a different media, so to speak”, which is a lovely compliment, and got me thinking.

Sublimation And The Snitch is certainly not a traditional prose narrative; it’s framed as an essay about the application of Freudian and Jungian psychology to the game of Quidditch, and it uses that structure to explore relationships between students at Hogwarts school. The statement of it in that way — the first time someone encountered a story not as a story but as a narrative hung on a different framework — struck me as interesting. I remembered the first time I’d encountered fanfic that was outside the norm, and I thought about how fanfic continues to play with untraditional structures in a ratio that is far higher than published fiction.

I rarely encounter fiction written with the diversity of format that occurs in fanfic, and I think my experience in that sense is fairly common. Even so, the further out you go from the traditional Aristotelian dramatic arc, the more surprise you get. When readers encounter one of my other fanfics, A Partial Dictionary Of The 21st Century (Explicit), they usually comment on how difficult it must have been, because it is literally a story told as a series of vignettes attached to specific words. Having dicked around with fictional structures for twenty years at this point, it didn’t seem all that strange to me, but then I’d been dicking around with fictional structures for twenty years.

There are a ton of what might be called noncanonical structures in fanfic. My work in these areas is not the only work out there, but it’s reasonably representative: there are fanfics as essays and dictionaries, as collections of summaries and quotes (Teen+), as magazine articles (Teen+), as illustrated stories (Teen+), and with segmented structures (Teen+) — the “Five Times” or “Four Times And One Time” formats are a quite common genre at this point. I’ve read fanfics that are the same story told from two different points of view (Explicit). Fanfics exist as lists (Teen+) and as collage collections of social media (Teen+) or letters and postcards (Teen+) written by various characters involved.

Fanfic is safe for narrative experimentation because nobody is making a living at it — not the fanfic writer or their editor, not the people who run the archives where fanfic is posted. The reader pays nothing for it and usually, because it’s free and there, reads a lot more of it than your average reader of fiction reads in books. The risk in writing experimentally in fandom is extremely low; the worst consequence is a negative comment, and the much more common negative consequence is simply not much attention, which — while unpleasant — isn’t exactly punitive.

I have a distant hope that self-publishing, as it becomes more and more common, will perpetuate this low-risk environment for experimentation. At this point, because of print on demand services, self-publishing for the author is as low-risk as fanfic; there’s no upfront cash output, especially if you’re typesetting and cover-designing yourself, and most writers who get that far were writing for the pleasure of it anyway, not an imagined financial reward.

For the reader, self-publishing is a much more high-risk endeavor. Trying to find the diamonds amid the poorly-edited vanity novels and badly typset cookbooks can be a task. It’s the old gatekeeper problem again. But at least on the back end, the opportunity for experimentation is there.

I want to find a way to uplift the idea of the nontraditional narrative structure. I used some aspects of nontraditional structure in Charitable Getting and in The Dead Isle, and I’d like to use more. At this point I have a long list of books unwritten that I ought to be working on, so the nontraditional novel will probably have to wait its turn, but I feel like creating a space for these formats in original work is an important task, and one that deserves someone’s focus, whether it’s me or a reader elsewhere.

So if you know of books written with a nontraditional structure, or if you know of any sites about nontraditional structures, please let me know! Perhaps I’ll make some kind of compendium.

The Craft Of Manipulating Your Feelings

In Uncategorized on August 29, 2014 at 10:00 am

Last week I talked about the somewhat surprising frankness with which the Chronicle of Philanthropy has been discussing the art of manipulative storytelling. Most storytellers want to arouse emotions in their readers, and not all of them know how; I wanted to share some tips and tricks from this unusually open discussion of manipulation in storytelling. These articles, not being about for-profit marketing, are a lot less distasteful than a marketing manual might be; being about nonfiction narratives, they also come across as a little more ethical.

And honestly, I wanted somewhere to stash some of this advice.

Let’s begin with the very recent “Are You Really Telling Stories?” which focused on the essential task of making people care in the first place. This is the bare bones of the narrative, but because it’s so basic, it sometimes gets overlooked, even in writing classes. They asked four questions, three of which I’m going to hit up here:

1. Who is your protagonist?

The protagonist cannot be an organization or a community or a large group of people. […] The psychologist Paul Slovic points to research that says people become numb to social problems when too many individuals are affected.

2. What does she want?

When gathering or writing stories, ask yourself or your storyteller about her needs and desires. Listen for words like “love” or “angry” or “searching”—anything that indicates the journey she’s on and where she imagines it leads.

3. What obstacles does she face?

Many nonprofits leave us in precisely this sort of storytelling hell of no obstacles, no conflict, just smooth sailing to the end. I suspect that’s partly because they don’t want to reveal their own difficulties as an organization for fear of alienating their supporters. “No, we’re doing great–keep giving us money!”

In almost every instance (Haruki Murakami excepted, perhaps) these three questions form about 80% of your story. If you can answer these, you’ve made the bare bones of your outline. If your work is fizzling, then perhaps the reason is that the answers to these questions aren’t clear. This isn’t even about manipulation yet — this is just about good basics. Also about good basics comes the advice “Mix struggle and success” from How To Turn Audience Emotion Into Action:

…too many success stories leave out the struggles that the real-life characters go through to achieve that success. […] Leave out the struggles, and all you have are pleasant “examples” that nobody can connect with and act on.

This is something I often face in my literary work. I shy away from confrontation in my life, and because I avoid it in life, I tend to avoid it in writing. It’s a major issue I’m still working on.

All this leads nicely into an article about the Essential Elements of Storytelling, which mainly addresses storytelling from a non-prose perspective — ie, what you have to do on the back end to get a good story out the front end. It is in two of their four elements where we start to see the ways you can tinker with your reader:


We think in stories, we tell stories, we hear them and read them and watch them every day. So there’s a temptation to say that the best and really “authentic” stories are those that spring fully formed from someone’s heart. Sometimes that’s true, but most of us need practice.

An opinion piece that I’ll get to in a minute supports this, citing the 2008 Obama presidential campaign which used “Public Narrative”, a technique developed by Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, to strengthen itself and its message:

Volunteers would get together in groups and tell stories about what drew them to the campaign, how they identified collectively, and the challenges facing the country. Those stories were then used to help them connect personally to voters and build grassroots leadership. The method is now used by civic, student, and activist groups worldwide.

Practicing storytelling isn’t simply about increasing vocabulary, developing grammar, and learning how to write clearly — it’s also about working out how you structure a narrative, who you are as the writer, and what works (or doesn’t) when it comes to impacting a reader. Essential Elements went on to talk about understanding your reader:

Market Research

Suppose an advocate tells an audience that one in three black men in Baltimore is behind bars; that audience might not take that statistic as evidence of bias in the criminal-justice system but as evidence of the inherent criminality of African-American males. Research on public opinion would help inform what stories that advocate tells and to whom.

Knowing the beliefs held by those you address is important in activist writing; understanding the target audience for your story helps you work out how to impact them. Understand your genre or, if you’re not writing within a genre, identify who you are writing for, and learn about them. The more you know about who you’re speaking to, the more efficiently you can work out how to influence their reactions to your work.

Once you’ve actually begun work, there’s great advice from an article on small wins and long-term goals for constructing single scenes in large narratives:

Speaking of his “fireside chat” radio broadcasts, [President Roosevelt] said, “I want to explain to the people … so that they will understand what is going on and how each battle fits into the picture.” The president was confident that people could “take any bad news right on the chin” if they understood the larger story.

Brett Davidson […] cited the example of the marriage-equality work of the Human Rights Campaign. That organization, he says, “does a great job of highlighting small or interim victories and featuring individual stories at the heart of these battles, while maintaining a clear long-term vision.” The organization’s website features stories of victories and setbacks in individual states, and maps and other tools to show the big picture.

In a clear marketing campaign, or in a well-constructed linear narrative, every small scene, even ones that are complete stories in themselves, is part of a larger story — the ultimate goal is the large story, but the hook that keeps people interested is the momentary scene. (I am aware the HRC and its focus on marriage equality can be problematic, but lots of problematic organizations get to be big and problematic by having really well-crafted narratives.)

Now let’s revisit the fourth question from the earlier article on basic storytelling:

4. How does it end?

You owe your audiences an ending, something that gives meaning to what you’ve just told them. As story trainer Andy Goodman wrote for the Working Narratives blog, “By the time the last line is spoken, they should know exactly why they took this journey with you. Otherwise, you’ll have wasted both your time and theirs.”

I didn’t find the full answer entirely satisfying, so instead let’s leap to that opinion piece I mentioned earlier, on the purpose of storytelling in not for profit campaigns:

Last fall I attended a talk by David Simon [creator of The Wire]. I expected him to say he was drawn to his subjects by a desire to change society, but he said that’s not at all how he sees it. Instead, he’s drawn to “fault lines” in the culture. Not coincidentally, it’s at those fault lines where issues of social import lie. But social relevance is not necessarily the same as social change.


We must link personal narratives to political challenges; provide audiences with ways to take action; treat stories as one dimension of a larger effort to create change; and engage people who may be new to a cause or who disagree with us.

VanDeCarr has seen a lot of “tell your story!” and “awareness raising” projects fall by the wayside or fail to create direct action because they don’t point out a way to go or a solution to a problem. This is a dicey subject in social justice circles, because calling out the dysfunctions of our society should not require the person doing the calling-out to suggest a solution. But within a more narrow boundary, that of storytelling, your narrative will have more impact if a suggestion of action or resolution is made. Dr. Seuss knew this:

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
SO! Catch, calls the Onceler….

An ending, for an activist writer, needs to be a call to action. For a wider-band storyteller, perhaps not, but it still needs to do one of two things: provide a resolution, or challenge the reader with its lack. There’s a difference between a story that simply stops, and one that demands you provide your own resolution; the latter should cause readers to examine their beliefs as they work to answer their questions about the ending.

We always have something to learn from other disciplines, and I’m lucky that I get to learn a lot about my secret writer alter ego’s craft from my Clark Kent Day Job. The ultimate lesson of all that, above and beyond the visible, is to keep learning, and keep asking your own questions, whether or not someone gives you a resolution.