Posts Tagged ‘writer’s toolbox’

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. :)

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.

Ethical Emotional Manipulation?

In Uncategorized on August 22, 2014 at 10:00 am

One of the websites I read regularly for my job is The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which runs news about the world of not for profits: who’s getting grants, what new fundraising techniques are being deployed, who’s changing jobs. It’s not the most informative site I visit (for professional purposes that would be Philanthropy News Digest, and for general Being An Adult purposes, Fortune Magazine online) but it often has a slightly offbeat take on the activity of philanthropy which makes it intriguing. This summer it’s been running a series of articles about storytelling.

In my “day-job” industry, storytelling has a different and more specific definition than in the world of publishing, or indeed culture as a whole. Nonfiction storytelling employed by charitable organizations is extremely goal-oriented. Nobody is telling a story for fun at a charity; storytelling in this sense is a tool, in the same way it’s a tool for marketing agencies and political campaigns. That stories are fun is one reason they’re used, but pleasure is not the primary purpose of the not-for-profit storyteller.

Storytelling, from a charitable organization, toes the lines that divide journalism, performance, and marketing. Stories that are told to raise money often focus on individuals or small communities because we relate to those; nobody cares about a story that involves the entire city of Chicago having sort of crap trains. But if a single train derails, and if the news shows one wounded child from that single train, people are more likely to agitate for increased funding and safety precautions. (It behooves me to note here that Chicago’s trains may be sort of crap and I hate the new carriage design, but they’re pretty safe, in relative terms. I’m just saying.)

It can admittedly feel a little creepy, because frequently another word for “marketing” is “manipulation”. As a culture we have a pre-existing story about charities, which is that they are run by the noble, the self-sacrificing, the honest, good, and true. And it is true that most people who work for charitable organizations aren’t there because the money’s good, since it’s not. Our former managing vice president made six figures, true, but he could easily have been making eight in the for-profit sector, and I am employed at a specifically very wealthy institution.

Nobility and frankness does not generally attract much in the way of money, particularly money that doesn’t see a tangible return in the form of goods or direct services. So, like any other company, the solicitation that a charity does is based in part on manipulating you. With strong integrity and the highest of goals, perhaps, but nonetheless, manipulating you.

Storytellers do this. Most of us want to make a point of some kind; even those writing without a social agenda generally want to inspire a feeling in the reader. Often the degree of fame a writer achieves is based on their degree of skill in emotional manipulation. I’m a big fan of Stephen King, but he’s not the greatest prose craftsman of our generation — just one of the very best at manipulating us into fearing what’s under the bed.

In the realm of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the articles on storytelling have been open, if not direct, about techniques for manipulation, because they are blending narrative and marketing. Bearing this in mind, they have provided excellent tips for writers of fiction who are looking to polish their emotional manipulation skills. Next week I’m going to be featuring a series of quotes from these articles; some will be fairly basic, but I’m hoping all of them will be helpful for prospective writers or for readers who want to understand the books they read with more depth.

And remember — just because I’m manipulating you doesn’t mean it might not be a fun ride.


What I Learned From Survey Questions

In Uncategorized on June 13, 2014 at 10:00 am

There has been a tension for me, the last few months, between my work for my career and my writing. While it is nice to have climbed out of debt and to make a good wage — not just decent, but good — the increased pay and status from relatively recent promotions translates directly to decreased time and mental capacity for creativity.

Writing is precious and compulsive to me, so I’ve had to look at my life and try to decide what to sacrifice or at least wrap-up in order to have the resources, physical and mental, to continue writing. I sat down and basically mapped out my life on paper and it left me wondering how people have things like spouses and children.

The balancing game is hard. I could read less, but reading is an essential part of writing, an important tool. I could watch fewer television shows, but given I watch them in the evenings, when I’m already tired, would that help? Should I socialize less and be more lonely — more unhappy — just in order to write? That seems unwise. Do I drop side projects even though they sometimes lead to inspiration?

Do I sleep less? Could I sleep less?

The ultimate result of my examination of my life is that I haven’t removed anything yet. Instead I’ve developed a question based on survey questions that want you to make a subjective value judgement. When I’m doing something, I ask myself: Is what I am doing right now more-helpful or more-harmful to my overall existence? And if it is more-harmful, how do I stop, alter, or enhance it? Can I do something helpful during this harmful activity?

To answer these questions, I had to work out what I wanted from my overall existence, which was actually easier than it probably should have been. It’s very much in the vein of the hierarchy of needs:

1. Security: home, food, money to supply both, which means keeping and doing my job.

2. Creativity: being able to engage in my art, which is both pleasurable to me and contributory to my community.

3.  Joy: being able to do pleasurable things, regardless of their productivity or lack thereof.

Let’s not talk about how Joy comes in number three. Being fair to me, Maslow thinks it’s low priority too, compared to food and shelter.

I wrote this initially in a notebook during a training session last week, which illustrates the occasional difficulty of identifying an action as helpful or harmful. Attending the training demonstrates to my work community that I am engaged and enthusiastic. Which I am! I genuinely like my job. But the actual training is not really informative, and is taking an entire day to convey what information it does have to offer, which is harmful. Or at least, inefficient. I counteracted the harmful by writing this essay, at least for now.

The system is new, so I don’t know how well it will work — but I suppose it makes me happier to have it, which is ultimately helpful.

Graduate Level Fumbling

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

Not long ago, I posted about magical realism on my tumblr, and I got a lot of responses, many of them asking just what the definition of the genre was. Which is a good question, and one that despite having written two books in the genre I’m still not able to articulate without a lot of talking.

I’ve struggled before to define magical realism, which is a small and slippery genre that doesn’t like being defined (which you will find apt if you’ve ever read it). The best definition I’ve found for it is that it “uses magical elements to enhance the reality of the narrative”. This is, like the dictionary definition of irony, kind of useless.  There are many good criteria on Wikipedia — fantastical elements in a real world setting, hyperdetailed description, the centrality of the reader, an active political or social agenda — but any genre of fiction is never going to fully conform to a checklist, and a lot of the components listed are a lot more difficult to wrestle with than the fundamentals of the genre.

The night that I posted about it, I ended up chatting with a bunch of friends about what magical realism is and isn’t. It is a little like the famous definition of pornography — you know it when you see it — but that is of course unsatisfyingly vague and doesn’t help people who are just starting in the genre. I believe that most things in this world, tangible or otherwise, can be quantified somehow. It’s just the how that occasionally eludes us.

There room to argue, but in general I’ve found that magical realism uses unreal elements rather than incorporating them — magic is a part of the author’s message to the reader, not a driving force to the plot. The rule of thumb I quoted in the discussion was if at any point someone explains how the magic works, it’s not magical realism. Which was sort of a joke, but is also pretty profoundly true. Luis Leal, in speaking of magical realism, said, “If you can explain it, then it’s not magical realism.” This likely stems from the influence Surrealism had on the genre.

Magical realism does not consist of systems of magic so much as it does magical things simply happening, usually for a purpose outside the narrative. For that reason it can be exceptionally frustrating to readers, especially fantasy readers who are used to formalized structures which are explained to the reader via exposition or demonstration. Unreal elements in magical realism are part of the prose, part of the symbolism of the novel — like the glasses in The Great Gatsby, or Rosebud in Citizen Kane. These are objects which represent something, if not to the reader then to the characters in the book. If that object (or person) is “unnatural”, not rooted in reality as we know it despite existing in that reality, that’s magical realism. If it is not accepted as rational, that’s usually fantasy; highlighting the strangeness of the object isn’t necessary in magical realism, generally speaking, because it stands out without the characters having to point at it. If there is a “system” of magic or an explanation of the presence of, say, fairies or whatnot, that’s also fantasy, because in that case the unreal elements are a fitted part of the world, which means the narrative isn’t set within reality.

One of the best ways to describe this entire thing is a scene from The House Of The Spirits by Isabelle Allende. This novel is set in our reality; there are no actual mermaids. But at one point one of the daughters of the family dies, the most beautiful and beloved daughter, and when they see her body, she has a mermaid’s tail. This is accepted by the family without outrage or surprise, and is meant to be accepted by the reader as a representation of the daughter’s disconnect from mundanity; her beauty and charm was otherworldly, out of the range of the ordinary.

There is another element to the definition of magical realism, which is cultural, but I wanted to make that a separate essay; I’m going to be talking about genre and race and culture, and that’s its own kettle of fish. For now, the point I want to drive home, and which I was wrestling with during the earlier discussion, is that magical realism is as much Realism as it is Magical. The stories are rooted in our existence, our reality.

One of the people in the chat asked, “So all magic realism has to be on Earth?” which I thought was a great question because it queries whether magical realism can take place in any reality as long as the basic function of the magical elements remains the same. Could you create a reality and then set magical realism within that created reality? In theory, as long as the unreal elements were still used representationally, you could. It’s a fascinating exercise, particularly for people looking to write in the genre. And I’ll be honest — I need all the practice I can get.

Credit for this article should be shared with my Socratic interrogators: Mage, Snowy, R, Knotta, Pie, Arch, and Sci.