Self (Publishing) Help: The Artless of the Flashback, and How to Tell if It’s Okay.

from flickr user jumpinjimmyjava

Flashback scenes are tempting.  They can solve a ton of problems.  You’re writing along and you find you’ve written yourself into a corner, and your character has no reason to feel the way she does about the way her boyfriend/boss/sister is confronting her.  So instead of slowing down and reacquainting with the character, a writer will decide that this would be a terrific opportunity for a flashback.

The flashback will inevitably be something high drama  like being in the back of a car with a drunk college boy and getting raped or watching a mother get run over by a car something.  There, thinks the writer, brushing her hands together, I’ve done it.  I’ve explained everything.

This speaks to a thing I notice in a lot of the writing I read for money, and a thing that really has no place in published fiction: writers think their readers are stupid.

It’s best to think of your reader as the smartest, sneakiest fox there is:  Someone who will get it no matter what you’re doing;  the jerk who always knows what’s going to happen in the first scene of the movie.

You need to write on your A-game.

Writing on your A-game means writing a lot of stuff that doesn’t get into the book.  It means recognizing that it takes a villiage, and the village ain’t cheap.

It also means that there’s a lot of other stuff to consider in terms of your self-promotion gene, your chutzpah, and your commitment to all the stuff that comes along with the writing life, both before and after you have a draft.  (Comments here are as helpful as the post).

I find flashbacks to be particularly vexing when the author has carefully peppered the exposition and rising action with all the pertinent details that they then proceed to bludgeon me with in the flashback.

Okay, but what if a flashback is the only way?

I doubt that is the case, but if it is, there are some tips at the end of this post.

Here are some things to do if you find yourself in a situation where you want to flash back.

1.  Do a free write with the character in whose point of view the flashback would occur.  Write in first person, and answer the question that spurs the flashback in your prose.  If you are stuck and can’t figure out why, start answering the mundane questions like what your character does for work, how she feels about her parents, whether she’s ever had an eating disorder.  Flash back with your character, outside of the context of the story.  Your character may show you the way, if you let her.

2.  Really look at your plot.  Plots generally have an arc structure:  roughly rising action, climax, then denoument.  Maybe you’ve got a dip in the rising action and you need to up the ante.  Maybe what you thought was the climax is really the inciting incident.  You have to open your mind about your story.  You have to be ready to let your characters foil your plans, however well-laid they are.  You have to be ready for your characters to do something you find to be deplorable or abhorrent, and still love them.

3.  Talk it out.  Call your favorite writing buddy or critique partner, and give them a synopsis.  They probably will not need to say anything.  Hearing yourself tell it out loud will likely do the trick.  If not, maybe your buddy can help by asking you pointed questions about what else you need to show your reader to earn the thing that makes you think you need a flash back.

4.  Do the flashback.  Let it in the draft, then keep writing.  When you’re revising, figure out how to chunk that flashback up and give whispers of it throughout the exposition and rising action, letting out one crucial detail at a time.  Giving it all up too early will be like feeding your reader sleeping pills.  You have to give your characters dimension along the way.

How to Tell if You Can Keep Your Flashback

1.  Your flashback gives information (i.e. specific details about an event in a character’s past) that is crucial to the story, and that it’s nor appropriate to give in any other way (when you character was a child they had a particular experience that they’ve repressed or something).

2.  Your flashback propels the plot.

3.  The flashback gives a bit of the story that isn’t or can’t be mentioned in any other context of the story.

4.  The flashback contains its own narrative arc (exposition, rising action, inciting incident, climax, denoument) that is 100% necessary to the rest of the story.

For each of these, I would caution that you or people who love you or are related to you should probably not try to make the assessment.  Ask for help from an editor or professor or casual, writing acquaintence.  Get yourself some beta readers (they are generally inexpensive, can provide stunning insight, and are typically pleased with an extremely small stipend or a copy of the book once it’s published, if it is).

Have any great stories about overcoming the urge to flash back, or can you remember reading a story that made you feel like the reader thought you were stupid by telling you what she already showed you by throwing it all into a flashback, too?  Or in some other way?

If you wanna hang out and talk more about this kind of stuff, and do some writing, too, you should look into my workshops.

Do Literary Authors Need a Social Media Support Group?

from flickr.com user pedrosimoses7

Whenever I am not sure where to take my blog post for the day, I spend a few minutes with Twitter before getting out of bed.

This is one of the many things on my smartphone that make my job as a writer better, easier, or more efficient.  This morning, my friend and former teacher Cathy Day tweeted about her female #amnoveling students being pissed about some things that were pointed out by a particular op-ed by Meg Wolitzer about women literary fiction writers, and differences between the ways books by men and women are publicized.

So of course, I Googled that shit right up.

And of course, it’s not shit at all.

It’s a beautiful essay.  It’s a thing I love about the New York Times (And the L.A. Times), the writing is just gorgeous.  There seems to be a pervasive notion among the newspaper set that the writing does not have to be good, it has to be fast.  But it’s nice about the digital age: the writing can be.  The web gives us our poorly-written, instantaneous news, and in the print media we can slow down a bit.  Thanks, New York Times (and L.A. Times) for understanding that.

And as I read the beautiful piece that talks about literary fiction like it’s something people talk about, I got sad, because it’s true that in the literary fiction world, it does seem like people are talking about it.  But even Jonathan Franzen’s popularity is nothing next to, say, Neil Gaiman’s or Stephen King’s or Norah Roberts’s or J.K. Rowling’s.

I was talking to Sari Wilson at The Wildcat Comic Con about how Literary Fiction is sort of atomized or ghettoized, and that there are all kinds of irritating preconceptions about it that are moshing around in the mass market.  Sari Wilson, though also an educational writer and collaborator with her partner Josh Neufeld, who is a graphic novel artist and author, is a literary writer herself.

So I offer that the unceremonious labeling of literary fiction by women as “women’s fiction” is probably the action of someone who’s noticed this odd ghetto and wondered, from a book-sales (not academic) standpoint, what could be done about it.

Enter the clumsy semantic.

And Wolitzer observes, rightly, that it’s problematic.  But she also acknowledges that women are the biggest consumers of fiction (all types), and that “as readers they are attentive and passionate.”  My friends who write romances experience this generosity. Plus, they are superstars.  Everyone in their world knows them.

But you know what about commercial fiction writers?  Something HUGE that’s different from literary writers?  They give back (to their fans).  I’m not talking about giving readings at colleges and signing books or answering questions after, showing up at AWP (though the commercial fiction writers I know do that, too, only with a different conference).  I’m talking about blogs–they do blog tours about their books, blog about their processes, their offices, their characters–they are active on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.

I’ve linked to this piece from Justine Musk a million times, but she really says it eloquently.  She says that the world of publishing and marketing and authorship has changed, and that fans want to be able to connect with authors, online, immediately, without having to go somewhere or be a student.  Even readers of literary fiction.

It’s true that commercial fiction authors don’t often have mountains of undergraduate papers about killing the first buck to read, but they do often have other careers, children, partners, homes.  And oh yeah: book deals.  They’ve promised a publisher they can write four of them.  In eighteen months.

Of course, writing literary fiction is totally different from writing commercial fiction in terms of time.  Language does not make itself beautiful, and conflicts do not complicate or render themselves, and characters do not deepen without major intervention.   Probably the average literary fiction novel is about two to five years in gestation.

What’s the deal?

The thing that defines what you think about the literary fiction world is where you sit in relation to it.  If you are within it, there is nothing more important, even though the reading audience of literary fiction is much smaller than that of mainstream (or commercial or genre or whatever you will call it) fiction.  I can’t find any hard numbers on this, but go to a book store, and compare the number of genre labeled shelves with the contemporary fiction shelf and you’ll see how it just can’t not be true.

But if you’re outside of lit fic, there’s nothing less important.  It’s like this fuzzy blurb of hoity toity on the periphery of culture that the Amazon Bestseller list ignores, that the New York Times has a special bestseller list for, and that’s slowly getting smaller or getting absconded with by other genres.

For example, I read “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” by Kelly Link in an anthology of Zombie stories, fully expecting the poor writerly discipline I’ve grown accustomed to in commercial fiction, and was pleasantly surprised.  I can see it anthologized like “Trauma Plate,” by Adam Johnson, because it’s doing a similar sort of cultural commentary thing.  It’s asking why we value what we do, and when stuff is important, and maybe it’s even indicting the way we handle the mentally ill.

I wonder how many other little anecdotal literary stories and novels have been absorbed by the mainstream, that nobody in the literary world even knows about.  In my experience, the literary world is incredibly insular.  It, like its mainstream counterpart, posseses a great number of biases and misconceptions toward the mainstream literary world.

So we have a genre which is itself other, within which women’s fiction is acknowledged to be equal but is still other, and we wonder why people look poorly upon the academy which–as my friend Carolyn points out in the comments of my post about MFA vs. PhD–does within itself that which it proclaims to abhor.

I’m still concerned about literary fiction and I still think that something needs to be done to make it more visible to more people.  But what I’m starting to think, as I read and study this topic is that–while marketing and publicity efforts would surely help, literary fiction authors need to help themselves.

Like Cathy Day and probably a small number of other literary authors have done, they need to figure out Twitter and Facebook and Blogging and build themselves a platform.  I suspect that if they build it, their fans will find it.  And that will happen without additional effort.

But somebody needs to figure out how to put it in terms that are adequately academic such that they take notice and actually do it.  Jane Friedman’s blog is going a long way toward this end, but I don’t know if a blog is the medium that can get through to enough literary authors.

Maybe that’s the scholarly thing I’ll do for my MFA:  Social Media for Very Brainy People Who’ve Written Beautiful Books and Are Perfectionists And Who Think Social Media Will Ruin Their Lives (and It Might, but More People Will Read Their Books).

The Reading Life: The History of My Body

The thing that struck me most about Sharon Heath’s The History of My Body is the deep authenticity of the protagonist’s voice.

The story is told in first person by Fleur Robins–daughter of an extravagantly wealthy fundamentalist nutjob politician father and alcoholic mother–who, at first, exhibits signs of being touched neurologically (never officially diagnosed, her disengaged parents and their far-more-engaged staff assume that she’s autistic).

Though we meet Fleur when she’s barely pre-pubescent, she recalls her early childhood for us, including her propensity for list making and journal keeping, her friendship with a small, imaginary man named Uncle Bob (from the phrase Bob’s your uncle), with her comatose grandfather, and with language and increasingly difficult books.

When she’s eleven, after her grandfather’s death, she gets a seventeen-year-old male tutor, called Adam, who is also the son of a politician and so a kindred spirit, who turns her on to physicists and philosophers and literature, and from there, Fleur’s life improves, with some wrecking ball detours that I’ll leave to you for the reading.

As the story unwinds, Fleur supplants her masochism with masturbation, finds a remarkable mentor, solace in Campbell’s Chicken Soup body odor, doubt, a relationship with her mother, and finally friendship with a girl her own age.

Somehow, the protagonist’s voice is so genuine that it manages to obliterate any potential pretension in her precociousness, or in her love and grasp of quantum physics, or in her references to Sartre and any number of other famous (and not-so-famous) philosophers, scientists, and authors.   Even as the story lands her a highly prestigious scholarly award at a very early age, Fleur is chronically sympathetic.

I will attribute this unlikely success to Sharon Heath’s unbelieveably graceful rendering of Fleur’s very believable cadence, even despite her unthinkable intellect and constant personal and social blunders–at least as she perceives them–, her unique personal lexicon which includes semantic doppelgangers such as tweeter, flapping, ugga-umphing, voidish, Sister Flatulencia, etc–endears her to the reader again and again.

Too, the vividness with which Heath conjures the emotional experience of being a young female is unfailing.  The book is often funny, even when dealing with the dull ache of adolescence, rejection, death.

Heath weaves in social issues like abortion and alcoholism and political issues like war and big oil with equal light-handedness.  The narrative never gives the reader a sense of being judged, nor does it indict anyone.  Heath manages to garner good will for parties on both sides of each issue (if not for each issue).

Fleur often finds herself personally sullied on both sides of issues, but she does not whine.  She introspects.  She wallows a little. Then she emerges stronger and just as clever.

Heath renders the crass and the philsophical, the olfactory and mundane with equal aplomb.  I have rarely read a book that was so consistently beautifully rendered, and I would implore you all to order a copy today.

Sharon Heath, image used with permission

I leave you with the following passage:

For the next week or so, I was forced to go about my daily routine with the handicap of keeping at least one hand covering my chest (which is not so easy to do when you need to eat, drink, pet Jillily, and wipe your poo and pee) just to make sure Grandfather’s ghost didn’t leak out and float over to Father’s house to haunt him forever for killing our tree–in some respects not such an unsatisfying prospect but for the fact that it would leave me with a chasm in my heart I could never hope to fill.

Sharon Heath is a Jungian analyst and novelist residing in California.  Visit her online at http://www.SharonHeath.com

This post is cross-hosted at http://www.billtownbluelit.wordpress.com

One Week to Geek: The Walking Dead

This is the source link: http://www.fanpop.com/spots/the-walking-dead/images/17116731/title/walking-dead-comic-wallpaper. I think it is fan art? It's pretty righteous, though.

The thing I am most excited about at Wildcat Comic Con, besides meeting all the cool people I’ve been talking to over the past several months (and trying to sell stories about), is the Zombie panel I’m moderating.

The subtitle for our panel started out as something like, “A semi-serious conversation about Zombie Apocalypse.”  The suggestions for questions were mostly about positing hypothetical apocalyptic scenarios and analyzing the morality/ethical issues.

Trouble is, somewhere along the line, the panel presentation scored professional development credit for educators, and two of the panelists are educators themselves, so we decided the panel had to be a little more than “semi-serious.” So instead, I get to ask three incredibly smart people about zombie art & literature that has stretched or defined the boundaries of zombie representations since like 1960 (even earlier, but that bit of it is a secret).

I am most excited about the movie, Pontypool.  If you haven’t seen it, do.  Prior to Pontypool, the Zombie movies I’d seen were Night of the Living Dead, Shaun of the Dead, and The Serpent and the Rainbow.

Today I started my Zombie Lit Binge with none other than The Walking Dead.  I read the first and second volumes of the graphic novel series, and I have watched the full first season of the AMC show.  I’ve written about it here.

Next up is World War Z, and I will finally read 1that Lovecraft Story (ugh), and anything else I can get my hands on that the panelists will recommend.  I have some scholarly journal article titles from them, and I’m pretty sure I’ll get more excited the more I read.

The Comic is not bad…

**Style Side Note:  See what I did there with that ellipsis?  That’s the right way to use an ellipsis, to intentionally suspend gratification for the reader, or to signify halted speech in dialogue**

Listen, I’m new to graphic texts.  Maybe I’m getting it wrong, or my snobbery is carrying over or something.  But Here’s what I think about the graphic novel series based on the first two issues:

Compelling characters, pretty poorly written (in terms of literary chops), and a riveting, endlessly developable premise.  I dig how it brings brass tacks of post-zombie-apocalypse life to bear.

And listen, I get it about how writing a comic book is more like writing a script than writing a novel, and about how the comics market calls for non-pretentious dialogue, and I also get it about accessibility.

But something that bugs me all the time is when writers overuse bold and italics to help me hear the characters in my head.  I’m a reader.  I will hear the characters in my head regardless of how the writer does, and if I hear them differently, then their italics and bolds will be totally distracting, and totally unnecessary, and for me–totally off-putting.

In The Walking Dead series of comics, the written emphasis is totally overdone.

Besides that, they over-tell me stuff.  The real finesse of doing a graphic text is not over-writing, and not over-illustrating.  The two halves of the thing must be symbiotic, and they must guide me, but they mustn’t bash me over the head.  Here’s an example from the text:

Should be obvious how it’s over-written, but let’s just say this:  On the page before, we see these well-clad, healthy people approaching our group.  We already saw (in the last book) Rick and Shane wind up in fisticuffs, and not re-telling that story here wouldn’t do anything detrimental to the story in Vol 2.  Also, readers who begin a serial somewhere other than Vol. 1 expect to have to deal with some story swiss cheese, you know?

Also, about the art?  I liked the art in the first one more than the art in the second one.  The first volume is drawn by Tony Moore, the second by Charlie Adlard.  I was disappointed as a reader by the non-continuity. While there were aspects of the second edition’s art that were darker, more intense, I was kind of thrown off by the slightly different faces of the characters, the differently rendered facial hair.  Even the characters behaved differently.  For example, in the first book, Donna’s kind of a judgy jerk, in the second, she’s sweet and round and everbody’s sad when she dies.

Here’s rick from Vol 1 and Vol 2:

Walking Dead Vol 1's Rick
Walking Dead Vol 2's Rick

The TV Show is Fun

I think the thing that gets me is how Andrew Lincoln so beautifully disguises his British accent to put on that podunk one.

But I also think that the characters’ intensities translate really well to the TV medium, and that the show has made some pretty excellent choices about the plot of the book.  For example, In the graphic novel series, Alan is a more sympathetic character than Donna, but in the TV show, it’s Alan who’s a jerk (an abusive one) and who gets killed.

In all, I think that The Walking Dead–both TV and book–buck the focus-on-the-final-hours schtick of most Zombie stuff.  I think that after cultural Zombie Mania dies out (will it?), perhaps people’s interest in The Walking Dead will, too, because it will certainly become (more than it already is) a Soap Opera with Zombies.  Which will be cool for the final episode… I mean, Zombies really don’t require an inciting incident to descend and feed.

What Will Become of Weeks to Geek posts?

I don’t know yet.  I’d love your input.  I have lately considered starting the week after the Con with 51 Weeks to Geek and reading a graphic novel every week until next year.  There are certainly plenty to read, we probably have half that many here in our house, and some I’ve become extremely interested in as I’ve done these interviews: Maus, Persepolis.

I’d basically review the graphic novel and talk about whatever else it makes me think about or how it correlates with my life…

Anybody say yea or nay?  Other ideas?

For Writers and Wannabes and Bloggers, and a Serious Question.

This is a drawing by Harry Clarke for Edgar Allen Poe's story, "The Premature Burial." It is from http://www.publicdomainreview.org

Yesterday I wrote that you have to read in order to be a great writer.

It’s true of blogging, too.  I decided about 2 months back that it was time to try to take this blog to the next level.

As I began to read about others’ ideas about blogging, things have more-or-less fallen into place.

Here are a few highlights of the things that have set the ball in motion for this blog, and for my future as a person who makes a living doing social media:

1. I finally focused.  Not hyperfocus or microfocus, but I figured out what I write about most often, watched my hits by varying post types, and paid attention to tweets & retweets & comments.

2.  I’ve got a schedule–sort of.  A loose one anyhow.  I (almost) always write for my blog first thing in the morning, and I post at least 5 days a week.  I don’t find this to be terribly difficult, but some folks would and do.  You do what works for you, okay?

3. I am a read like a crazy person–at least one blog post or resource a day.  It’s paying off.

Next?

1. Reorganize and purge my categories and labels.

2. Get some material in he hopper for weeks I have big projects.

3.  Post two reports for sale (hopefully by end of April): one on How to Start a writers’ group (post on the topic on Friday), and one on verb tenses.  Both inexpensive and well worth it.

4.  Figure out some kind of email subscription service (a la feedburner) and do a newsletter.

5.  Post a survey.  That’s next.   If you read here regularly, or if you’re in new blog love, please take eight seconds to click your answer or write one.  I don’t feel like I have to ask people to vote if they hate it, because haters like to hate.

Blogging Resources

279 Days to Overnight Success is an amazing resource.  And it’s free.  Read it.  That’s all.  Any type of blogger with any goals would benefit from the 12,000 words (which is not a huge time committment, either).

Stanford at Pushing Social writes a lot about how to use blogging to build your own business or brand.  I find some of his tips to be too sales-y for me, but he is not over-the-top.

Penelope’s advice about blogging which was the first place I went.  That was not–though I do love Penelope–100% all the best advice for me.  You really have to find what works for you, what’ll make you feel like doing your blog.  Now, I’d say about in the middle of my journey, I’m reaching a spot where I synthesize the voices I hear.  Pluck some advice from one, and other advice from another.

My Name Is Not Bob is Robert Lee Brewer’s blog.  RLB is an editor at Writer’s Digest which is a terrific publication.  He writes about other stuff, too, but his thoughts about social media for writers tend to be more about sharing than about bossing you around.  I dig that.

Copyblogger is more about the business of copywriting and web marketing. But they’ve got loads of free info on SEO and Keyword stuff that I’ve been meaning to get back to.

Brian A Klems is one of the bloggers and editors for Writer’s Digest.  Most of the time I dislike his posts, but this one is truly excellent, and a pretty solid distillation of all the best blogging advice.

Of course, Jane Friedman’s collection of voices and solid advice is an invaluable resource for any blogger, writer, social media afficionado, or 21st century human.

Resources for Writers, Novelists, Self-published, and Wannabes

A note here:  You can tell when these various folks have done their due diligence about blogging and are doing it well.  Reading at these sites–though they are not as universally well-blogged or well-designed as above, sometimes they didn’t have to because their readers came before their blogs–can be educational on the point of what looks most professional or badass.

Justine Musk writes about creativity and authorship and being a badass.  I really dig her.

My friend Jamie writes about being an editor.  She gives great tips about excellent stuff to read, writing pitfalls and grammar issues to avoid, and has a generally enjoyable voice & aesthetic.

These two gals are @duolit on twitter, and their website is all about self publishing.

Julianna Baggott’s blog is probably weighted heavily toward being more entertainment than advice, but she does have an advice to writers section that she updates whenever she posts on the topic.  Always, the posts are beautifully written.

The Rumpus is great.  I haven’t spent enough time there, but there’s a lot of entertaining, smart writing.  Entertaining, smart writing is good stuff to know about if you wanna be a writer.

Kristen Lamb’s blog is all about writing and authorship.  Her voice is also spunky and fun.  My favorite thing she’s doing right now is her series of posts called “Don’t Eat the Butt!”  It’s about bad–but prevalent–advice to writers and how to avoid being bogged down.

Cathy Day is a force of nature, and her blog is pretty great.  It’s more academic than anything I’ve listed above, but reading her blog is an experience that’s a little like taking her class or being engaged professionally by Cathy.  Cathy is one of the academic authors who “gets it” about social media.

I just love this one.  I found her yesterday, via 297 Days to Overnight Success, and she doesn’t offer writing or blogging advice specifically, but boy oh is her site a fun place to be.

Coming Attraction

Tomorrow is the Weeks to Geek post.  It’s going to be a little bit headier than you’re used to, but the whole component of the event that’s for librarians has gone–so far–unmentioned in the press & on this blog.  And well, I’ve always been a softy for the underdog.

Thanks, people, for making it real.

How To Be a Great Writer

public domain image from http://www.public-domain-image.com

First, a writer should live some life.

And I don’t mean the pansy, TV-watching, under-mom-and-dad’s-protective wing sort.  The sort that almost all high school and college kids–and even some grown-ass people with children of their own–are guilty of living.

I mean the real stuff: having to go to a horrible job because if you don’t, you don’t eat.  Fill in your own personal blank of hell here__________________.  Then do that.  For at least a year.  Five years is better.

If you don’t emerge still wanting to be a Great Writer, you will learn much about the world and yourself.

A writer should try to live.  A writer does not necessarily have to make foolhardy decisions that have a lasting impact on her life, but it probably would help.

I read this terrific, acerbic (almost to the point of hatefulness) article at Huffington Post by Ruth Fowler.

Ruth Fowler has lived.  I get why she has little patience for tales of (and by) inexperience!

Fowler’s theory is that the MFA is to blame for the spate of ridiculous novels that are being touted as brilliant and/or revolutionary by prestigious literary prizes or the critical journalist set.  These novels came from lackluster MFA programs pumping out competent writers.  I do not think that is true.  The MFA might be the last stop on the fail line, but we don’t get to the MFA without our overburdened, under-funded elementary, secondary, and post-secondary programs failing in some way.

A specific educational failing

I think “Hills Like White Elephants” is a shitty story to show to a bunch of aspiring writers.

I read it in high school in my honors lit course, then again in one of my first writing workshop courses in college.  I get it.  It’s Hemingway.  He’s doing something clever (or at least was then).  But he also wrote the story as a 30+year old man, and had been writing professionally since the age of 17, during a span of history in our country in which we lacked the distractions of TV, tablets, iPods, the internet; when life was a little (or a lot) harder in general.

Hemingway was dead before TV made its way into most middle class households.

What it does is tell young wannabes, who’ve probably only written what was absolutely required of them to the point at which they encounter “Hills,” is to try their hand at something that’s so far beyond their depth that they’ll almost certainly fail, and then they’ll either think themselves genius or just give up.  How is either pole desirable?

For one thing, it’s difficult to tell a whole story only in dialogue.  For another thing, “Hills” is a story that it’s impossible to tell without having lived some life.  All good stories are impossible to tell without living some life.  Perspective, wisdom, and experience make good stories.

It’s been during my tenure on our green-blue globe that there’s been this cultural shift toward prizing self-esteem above achievement.  According to a documentary called Waiting For Superman about the public education system in the US, the only thing US kids score best on worldwide is confidence.

Confidence is not helpful when there is no call for it.  Confidence is a thing that needs to be earned after years of toil.  Especially as a writer. I can think of no other pursuit in which rejection and failure are such an integral part of the process. And absolute confidence is a myth for a writer: self-doubt remains of tantamount importance throughout.

I find it to be obnoxious when writers talk about their compulsion to write as an albatross, but I can understand why some of them feel that way.

I spent about a decade living and trying to escape being a writer, because almost everything else is easier.

Here’s a truth that nothing I learned before the age of 25 prepared me for: Not Everyone Can Be a Great Writer.  It is NOT true that you “can do whatever you want.”

Also, you must read.  You must, you must, you must.

Truthfully, if you haven’t been reading voraciously as long as you could–which is something all the writers I know have in common–being a Great Writer is probably out of your grasp.

If you’ve been reading since you were a child, it probably doesn’t matter what you’ve read.

If you want to be a writer and you haven’t been reading, you should start reading now.  And try to read everything that’s ever been written that is like what you want to write.

Do this before you make it to the keyboard or pick up a pen.

Once you do, remember that the widely accepted theory on expertise is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become awesome.

The Silver Lining

I should tell you that I have practiced at writing for far many more than ten thousand hours.  I have been scribbling out sentences since I could write full words.  I remember yearning to learn to write, to create with a pen.  I did not know what that meant at the time, only that I needed to do it.

At least for the time being, our fair interwebs and its voracious appetite for content makes living life as a writer possible.  I am living my life–at least half time–as a writer.  More unpaid than paid at this point, but I am working and studying hard to flip that.

You, my blog readers, are making this possible.

And my fellow writers are telling me how.  And how not to.  For free.

So maybe the new truth is that Great Writers are a thing of the past.  Because the two sources linked above  agree that the biggest ingredient of success at making a living as a writer from your blog, with social media, and by marketing yourself, is effort, energy, and dedication.

Maybe the new Great Writers will be the most driven and tech savvy with the best grasp of SEO.

Tomorrow, a survey, a collection of resources, and a Weeks to Geek teaser.

Self (Publishing) Help: Grammar and Influence Are Important!

First a quick note: I’m going to relegate fiction sharing to every-other Friday, possibly every third.  Partially because of Stanford’s advice at Pushing Social, and also partially because I’ve got a ton of helpful blog posts brewing, that are of use to you, and sharing Fiction every Friday feels narcissistic to me.   Onward.

What is Influence?

This image is much funnier when you know that these guys are blind. This is from http://www.publicdomainreview.org

One of the things I find to be most infuriating about artistic hacks is their insistence that they “shouldn’t” or “can’t” be influenced.

First of all, the assertion that real artists are above influence is both naive and arrogant.

Invariably, the person who makes this claim believes herself to be an artist, and regardless of her ability, believes that she is doing something original.  To make sure you’re with me: The claim is arrogant, and it highlights the speaker’s ignorance.

If an artist is actively avoiding influence, it gives her an excuse not to absorb other artists’ work.  Which is wrong and lazy.  Artists of all sorts need  to know, understand, and appreciate the artists that came before them.  I think classical musicians understand this best, because music must be a discipline before it can be an art.

So too with writing–though it seems that the notion that writing is a discipline before it can be an art has been largely lost to the masses, both educated and not.

So we’ll stick with the musicians for a moment: In order to play as well as Beethoven, one must play Beethoven’s complete work at least a thousand times, then interpret it with one’s own musical personality.

You still with me?

Fact is, folks, to quote my favorite dubious authority: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  Ecclesiastes 1:9

Despite all the other absurdity that gets justified on the basis of that body of religious fiction, the notion of a collective unconscious is nothing new.

Here’s the secular authority, Jung himself in a document about his theory of the Collective Unconscious.  Jung’s thoughts on the topic are decidedly denser than those in Ecclesiastes.

My point: nobody is doing something original.  What we can and should strive for is authenticity, and a unique–or at least lesser-considered–way of filtering things.

And in order to do that, we must know what has come before, we can’t escape influence–nay, we must invite influence–and we must study our craft.

What is Craft in Writing?

My friend Jamie’s blog today talks about slang and some popular slang terms she’s personally tired to death of.  That’s what got me thinking about craft, and what it is, and why so much commercial fiction is so poorly crafted.

*Haters, remember the rules about trolls.  No personal insults just because you disagree.  I welcome your cogent, considered disagreement.  Comment away!

A lot of people who read genre fiction would agree, without really knowing what they’re agreeing about.  For example, I spoke to a woman the other evening who, after sheepishly admitting that she reads romance novels, said, “But I do it to escape.”

Awesome!  I want you to read to escape.  I’m a writer, after all!

Romance Novels and other Commercial Fiction are the literary equivalent of your favorite, mindless TV show.

But reading is healthier than watching TV, and being escape for the reader is no excuse to ignore craft, and intentionally not learn things that will make you a better writer!

Now here are some things that genre writers do super-duper well: plot, chase scenes, flashbacks, internal dialogue, tropes.

Here are some things they like to make excuses about not doing well: grammar, character depth; using sentence fragments, italics, em dashes, ellipses, and semicolons judiciously; spelling,  tense, varied language, point of view.

I spent five of my best years sitting in workshops and loving the hell out of getting critiqued, a process that I have internalized to such an extent that I am incapable of evaluating my own work because regardless of its quality, I am keenly aware of what makes writing good, and what is missing from mine.

Craft is a writer’s tool belt.  It is the larger concerns of story telling like narrative arcs and characters and settings, but it is also spelling and grammar and understanding how to use point of view and tense.

I am trained in the whole enchilada.

And knowing the difference between the following tenses: present, past, past perfect, present subjunctive, and past subjunctive does not “influence” or “interfere with” your art, it makes it better!

Restricting your use of punctuation & style short hand may be more challenging than actually writing the damn book, but it will make the book better.

Just like quality paints are easier to use and yield truer hues than their budget bin counterparts, quality writing–even when it is genre writing–is worth more to more people, and will be more clearly understood.

Novelist Wannabes?  If you are in a different career now, but “have always dreamed of being a writer,” great.  But take some classes first.  I offer them.  And private lessons.  But if you don’t live near me, there are probably courses that you could take at the nearest college or university.

Watch for my “Quick Guide to Tense: Reference Pages” sometime next month.

Being acquainted with the workshop environment will make you happier to take editorial advice when you get to publish your first book, and it will also make you a better writer and reader yourself.