extribulum

Posts Tagged ‘advice’

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.
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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.

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.

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:

Practice

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.

The Trouble With Communication

In Uncategorized on August 8, 2014 at 10:00 am

So, this past weekend I went to Las Vegas and looked at a lot of powerpoint slides with hyperlinks in them.

(This is not an entirely fair assessment of my time in Vegas, perhaps. I also sprained some terribly important muscle in my foot, and was nearly assaulted by a man in a Bert From Sesame Street costume.)

Other than the genuine learning about my day job that I did at the conference, my “take-away” from the conference concerned communication, how we engage in it, and how far behind some of us are in technique for it.

I attended a lot of basic skills sessions, being relatively new to certain areas of research, and I didn’t much care for many of them. I’ve done college and grad school and literary criticism and social analysis, so when I attend a learning session I look for concept and innovation. I’m not looking for data, except as it supports the concept.

This is a little difficult to vocalize, so bear with me.

Once upon a time in the 1980s and before, you saw your colleagues in the field (any given field) once or twice a year at conferences. It was a time to come together and network and socialize, but also to share information and resources. Before the internet took off, communicating data at a mass assembly was really the only way to communicate data at all, if you didn’t want to use some kind of terrible phone tree. I’m talking here about hard data: resources, facts, terms. In my case, a lot of demographics and resources for valuating non-cash, non-stock goods.

But we have the internet now, and we have the capability both to build webpages and to mass-communicate in private through email. My discipline even has a mailing list on the old “-L” mass mail system.

So a lot of the presentations I saw this year didn’t really need to happen. And I hate to say it because people worked hard on them and the information in them was important. But it wasn’t information that needed narration. Many of the presentations I went to could have been posted online as a list of links. Many of them should have been — they’d have drawn more attention to the creator as a blog post than they did as a mediocre conference session, and the interaction surrounding the links page would have helped to make the presentation itself a lot more dynamic. (I am currently watching this happen with a colleague who, rather than present a glossary of foreign-language terms we use, put up a web glossary and is getting all kinds of kudos beyond any session attention she would get, because she’s providing a resource and not just presenting knowledge.)

The way we communicate is changing, everyone knows that, and a lot of the methodology has already been incorporated. You can livetweet a keynote speech now and your tweets will show up on a board behind the keynote speaker. You can exchange email addresses with a newly-met colleague at another institution. My colleague with the glossary had business cards made up for her website, which was a brilliant lifehack considering business cards are still the currency of choice at these conferences.

But there are subtle infrastructure issues we haven’t yet addressed — like the fact that information presentation isn’t as important as it used to be. Concept presentation is where it’s at now, since the information can come to us much more quickly and openly online. One of my internet colleagues, Lex, pointed out that after your first two years of a given conference, you’re really just there to network anyway.

(This made me want to create the Shadow Conference for next year, where those of us who don’t need certain sessions blow them off and meet in secret to do intense, Illuminati-style networking. I may yet arrange it.)

In thinking about all this, I was trying to relate it back — as I do basically everything — to my writing, but I think given that I’m running low on ideas for blog posts, I’ll handle the relationship between digital communication, brickspace communication, and literary communication in a digital world for next week.

The Book That Saved My Life

In Uncategorized on August 1, 2014 at 10:00 am

NOTE: This post contains frank and in-depth discussion of depression and suicide. If these are likely to affect you negatively, you may wish to consider skipping this one.

About two weeks ago, souridealist on Tumblr asked me about the process of turning Animagus Winter, a made up book in a Harry Potter fanfic, into Nameless.

I scratched my head a little, because I honestly remembered almost nothing of the process, and then I realized that I had so little memory of it because depression can affect memory, and I was in the middle of a major depressive episode when I wrote Nameless. So I wrote about that, and I thought I’d archive it here for folks who don’t follow my tumblr.

For those of you who don’t have all the context on this, it goes like this: I wrote a fanfic, Cartographer’s Craft, in which there is an original character named Ellis Graveworthy, who, yes, the E.G. of Dead Isle stems from. He was a novelist who had written several books (you can read about them here if you don’t want to read 43 chapters of Harry Potter AU fanfic). One of those books, Animagus Winter, became the skeletal structure of my first original novel, Nameless.

There is some discussion of the process of writing Nameless in the afterword of the book, which you can read for free here. (If you like the book, consider buying a copy!) But how did Animagus Winter get to be Nameless?

Here’s the thing about Nameless: it literally saved my life. I probably would have killed myself if I hadn’t written it. I have clinical depression and that was certainly part of the headspace I was in at the time, but I was also going through a lot of external pressure: living at home with my parents (who are lovely people but dysfunctional to live with), in a Texas suburb, job hunting after grad school, and generally feeling like a failure. I couldn’t support myself, couldn’t help my parents as much as I felt I ought, and I felt like I had done no actual single concrete useful thing with my life. So I thought, I’m going to write this fucking book, and when it’s done at least I’ll have done something. I worked on it from ten to midnight, every night, and sometimes the promise of those two hours was all that got me through the rest of the day.I want to stress two things here:

1. If you have not “done anything” with your life you are not a failure. If you’re living with your parents or unemployed or both, you’re not a failure. It’s just that when you are in a major depressive episode, everything you are and do makes you think you’re a failure. You could be curing fucking cancer and think you’re a useless waste of oxygen; being an unemployed boomerang child just makes that feeling much, much worse.

2. I had friends, lovely friends who were helpful inasmuch as they could be considering I didn’t tell them I was dying inside. I was lucky to have a safe place to live and food to eat and the support, however difficult, of my parents. It’s just that when you’re in that deep, nobody else can pull you out because you won’t let them. So you have to climb out yourself. It sucks more than anything else in my life has ever sucked.

Back to our story.

Nameless had a lot of iterations. Changing over from transformative to original work is really hard. Not to say that fanfic is only for children, but seriously, moving from writing fanfic to writing a novel is like going through puberty. It’s hideous and awkward and you’re not really aware of how hideous and awkward it is until you’re on the other side. As a bonus, however, it will make you a better fanfic writer.

So, I wrote the first draft of Nameless following the basic structure I’d laid out for Animagus Winter; I just set it in a world where magic, as far as Christopher knew, didn’t exist. I polished it, rewrote some bits, and sent it to agents. I was still miserable, but at least I now had two irons in the fire — I was being rejected left and right for jobs, but I also was sending out this thing that I had made up out of my own brain, and getting a literary rejection letter made me feel less like a failure and more like Jack London. (I had seen Jack London’s case of rejection letters at his museum, as a younger man, and admired his guts in keeping them all around. I kept mine for a long time, but I’ve since thrown them out.)

But the reason it was getting rejected was, of course, that this book blew. It was terrible.

In the meantime, however, I had scraped together enough money (with a small loan from my parents) to get my ass to Chicago, where I got a job. It was terrible and abusive, but it was a job. Then I got another less terrible job, and I started to both come out of my depression and pull my life together. I mean, it wasn’t a perfect life, but it was mine and it was self-sustaining, so I stopped thinking about killing myself a lot.

Eventually, I got bored and dug Nameless out for no real other reason than I thought it might be fun to share it, since (rightly) nobody wanted to publish it. I was able to see how bad it was by then, so I rewrote it, then I posted it, and then I got this huge outpouring of critical commentary which eventually became the basic pedestal of the Extribulum process of crowdsourced peer review. I rewrote it again, a few times, and then self-published it, and it’s gone very well for me since.

So Nameless is the product of Animagus Winter, indisputably, but there were other factors at work — my wrestling with my own depression, which you can see a lot of in Lucas; my wrestling with my abilities as a writer, which are evident in the prose; my struggles to get to a place where I was self-sufficient financially and stable emotionally and balanced between the two, which you can see in the journey that Christopher took, pre-novel, from being this young urban power suit with a literal broken heart to being a small-town entrepreneur who has a specific, much-loved place in the life of Low Ferry.

That’s the story of Nameless, with the benefit of about seven years of hindsight.

The Bonkers School

In Uncategorized on July 25, 2014 at 10:00 am

A couple of weeks ago, I screened a copy of Room 237 for myself and a couple dozen friends. When I talk about Room 237 I call it a “documentary” in quotes, because it’s one of those narratives that is technically nonfiction but realistically not quite rooted in reality. These are, admittedly, sometimes my favorite form of documentary. Not only are they entertaining, but they offer endless opportunity to sharpen critical thinking skills.

In the loosest possible sense, Room 237 is about Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, but really it is a sort of ode to overinvestment. It was assembled by Rodney Ascher, whose feelings on The Shining aren’t made visible in the film, and it documents the critical theories of five people for whom The Shining is a large part of their life — one of them makes maps of the layouts in the film, and another has written at least one book about it. Some of them believe that the film is an allegory for genocides such as the slaughter of Native Americans or the Holocaust; one, memorably, believes that Kubrick has distilled all of history into the story and made a film about “pastness”. My favorite is the man who believes that The Shining was made to tell the story of Kubrick’s personal experiences during his faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (He’s careful to say that he thinks the moon landing happened, just that the film footage we saw is fake.)

It is evident, much of the time, that these people are desperately projecting their own wants and feelings onto the film. A ski poster turns into a minotaur; a can of baking powder indicates the broken treaties European colonists made with Native Americans. A dissolve where a handful of tourists become a pile of luggage references the death-camp train deportations of the Holocaust. What appear as continuity errors to the rest of us — a suddenly-missing chair, a set missing some of its dressing, or a bathroom that seems to co-occupy space with a ballroom — appear to the subjects of the film as precise and specific choices meant to indicate their theories are correct.

It’s not that these things can’t be true — but it’s not terribly likely. A friend of mine pointed out that while Kubrick was indeed a control freak who micromanaged every aspect of the film, he also often changed the script from day to day, meaning that the cast and crew frequently had little clue what was going on. Continuity, as with many films, was not necessarily top priority. (Kubrick was also spending much of his time terrorizing Shelley Duvall.)

The further the film runs, the more you see that these people have spent a lot of time studying and analyzing the film. It’s hard to come down on them for that; we do the same in fandom with our favorite media. It also becomes evident that perhaps they have spent a little too much time on it. One of them, whose young son is sometimes heard yelling or crying in the background of his voice-over, admits with a giggle that he thinks his life is becoming The Shining. Run far, run fast.

The interpretations offered by these people derive from what I call the Bonkers School of Criticism, where the personal desire of the critic combines with the interpretive nature of all media to create a deeply bonkers theory of the media’s deeper meaning. There’s nothing wrong with in-depth analysis. There’s nothing wrong with deliberately misreading a text, either. Sometimes it’s fun to think what things could mean, even when you know the creator probably won’t go there and never intended to hint they would. But when the desire to see a specific reading overtakes the desire to accurately represent the work — when you believe the bullshit you came up with to entertain yourself with — you get the Bonkers School.

One of the saner participants in the film seems like she potentially has some really interesting things to say about Kubrick’s use of a hedge maze in the film, a setting that wasn’t present in the original novel. The association of the narrative with the concept of the labyrinth — a maze with a monster at the center — is an intriguing aspect of the film to explore, and was almost certainly something Kubrick intended, particularly since he put the climax of the film in the maze. That’s the tragedy of the Bonkers School — you fly right past “relevant” on the road to “pet theory”.

Erotomania is the delusion that some stalkers suffer, in which they believe the focus of their obsession is sending them secret messages in the way they dress, talk, and behave — even in the way they interact with their stalkers on the rare occasions they may encounter them. It’s not that any of these people think that Kubrick was aiming the message specifically at them, but they do think Kubrick was aiming a message at people like them — people who are, it’s implied, smart and special enough to understand his true, hidden meaning.

I’m a big proponent of trying not to let ego interfere with the work, when one is creating — but until I stopped to think about Room 237 for a while, I didn’t consider the idea that ego can interfere with the act of experiencing creation as well. It’s easy to say that people who attend the Bonkers School need a reality check — but perhaps more truthful to say that the best remedy would be an ego check.

Where Has All The Reading Gone

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2014 at 10:00 am

It was a running joke in my grad school theatre program that nobody had much time for pleasure reading. We were all academics, and we read a lot, but very rarely did we read anything other than plays and theatre pedagogy. I remember encountering one of my fellow students and telling her I was reading a novel, and her sighing dramatically.

“I remember novels,” she said, mock-wistfully.

Her reaction — she was a third-year at the time, and I was a first-year — inspired me to be sure I made time for books. As an undergraduate, I’d seen an article about how theatres and graduate programs weren’t just looking at what your experience on your resume was — they were asking what shows you’d been to see recently, because theatre professionals are infamous for working a lot of shows but not seeing a lot outside of what they work on. So as a theatre kid I committed to seeing a lot of theatre, and when I transitioned into a more literary field, I committed to reading a lot of books. I’ve kept that commitment for many years, and while I don’t quite hit the magic “fifty two books a year” which seems so pleasant and symmetrical, I usually manage to read twenty to thirty.

So far this year I’ve read six, and that’s counting two that I read in very late December of last year. Mind you, I’ve read a lot of comic books, at least a few novels’ worth, so perhaps this year will simply be the year of comics. And the books I have read have been fairly intense: heavy political commentary, literary historical fiction, Lovecraft. Still, time to get back into novels.

As an adult, with a job (really two jobs) and a plethora of transitional events this year, from surgeries to moves to promotions, it’s easy to say that I don’t have time to read because I’m a little busy managing my actual life, but that’s also an excuse that will be valid forever; everyone has a busy life. It takes time and energy to commit to what in the corporate world is called Professional Development — keeping up skills, learning new ones, and understanding the trends and advances in our chosen field. In my case, professional development includes reading, both for pleasure (to remind myself what is pleasurable about literature) and as a form of continuing education. It means you make time for it, even when that’s difficult to do.

To be a writer, particularly a writer who wishes to speak to a culture or from a culture, you have to be a part of the culture, to understand what you can of it. Reading isn’t the whole of that but it is a significant piece, and it’s the easiest to achieve — all you really need is time, and either money or a library card.

Time to get back into it.

 

 

The Literary Position

In Uncategorized on June 27, 2014 at 10:00 am

One of the questions I was asked when I solicited essay topics for this blog, quite a while ago now, WanderingWidget on LJ asked me for my “favourite position” for writing in. (I’m pretty sure there was a double-meaning in that…)

But it is something interesting to talk about now for a couple of reasons — first because I recently had major surgery that impacted this, second because I got a new desk at work.

Back in April of last year I started having back pain which I assumed was just “getting older”. Never assume pain is normal; unless you have chronic pain from a diagnosed cause, pain is not normal. Pain signifies a problem. But because I assumed it was, I didn’t see a doctor about it until August, when I was starting to become unable to sit for long periods of time and when it became evident that the pain increased after eating. As it turned out, I had gallstones. Not only did I have gallstones, but once the gallstones were removed and I shared around the photo of my gallbladder and the stones therein, several doctors of my acquaintance said “Well. That’s not normal.” I basically had a bag of dice rattling around in my chest cavity.

This is gross, I realise.

The upshot is, I had to relearn how to move, and specifically how to sit, without pain. Given that by the end of my quality Gallbladder time I was in chronic severe pain, basically anything other than chronic severe pain felt like no pain at all. So it was very easy, at the time, to adjust my posture when sitting to avoid pain.

I also moved locations at work, and our new location had all-new everything, including cubicles with desks on levers that you could raise or lower in order to adjust them from sit-desks to standing-desks. Standing desks CHANGED MY LIFE.

Because even aside from all the pain, here’s the thing: I hate sitting down.

I prefer to either stand up or lie down. Sitting is strange and uncomfortable even after I fixed my posture and had an organ removed. I can’t explain it; I just don’t care to sit. So for anything, but especially for writing, I prefer not to be sitting.

Standing has the advantage of giving you more room to fidget; you can shift your weight, stand on one foot, bounce on your toes, shake your ass, roll your shoulders. Lying, of course, takes less energy and is 100% easier on your entire body, but lying down is perilously close to sleeping, and I am a fellow who likes his sleep.

Sometimes, just for the hell of it, I imagine other writers doing what I do — Steinbeck standing at a typewriter set atop a couple of barrels in some shack somewhere in the wilderness, or Jane Austen trying to keep her inkwell level on her bed as she lies on her stomach with her feet in the air, scrawling along (though I know Austen, at least, had to sit while writing, in busy sitting rooms where she rarely had much time to herself). It’s fun to imagine how people wrote, and what their mannerisms might have been.

But most of the time when I write — as I was when I wrote this — I am propped on pillows in bed in front of a laptop, probably doing dreadful things to my spine, knocking my heels together as I work.