Author Archives: TheWritingGeek

Okay, but how many books have you written?

4.

Four.

FOUR.

And I’m deeply ashamed of all of them.

To be fair, nobody actually asked me this. I just counted one day and was gobsmacked. Side note: gobsmacked is a grossly underutilized word. We should use it more.

The term trunk novel is like the best thing that ever happened to writing-dom because it normalizes and validates a thing that is both normal and valid but that feels like a steaming pile of crazy-shit. Because there is nothing normal-feeling about spending months (or God, years) of your life writing The Next Big Thing, only to realize that it’s crap when you finally make it to the end (or when someone tells you. To be fair, I’ve had to be told…more than once. I’m vain, okay? It’s embarrassing.). The only thing more crazy than that is do it all over again. Four times.

Is now a good time to mention that I’m going for five?

The thing is, writing is hard, and I’m actually pretty terrible at it. Like, I’m good at the writing part. I can write a lot of B.S. for a long period of time, but I am not good at the story-making parts of it, or like the overall plot and character parts. But the only way to get better at is to, y’know, do it. Not doing it is like saying you want to be an embroidery artist but then never embroidering. Writing only feels different because the efforts and the results are so hidden. A good story looks effortless, and the shitty ones don’t get shared (too much). So the phrase ‘trunk novel’ let’s all us hopeful, naive, novice writers believe that someday, in a not-so-distant future, we’ll be able to write an on display novel. A shelf novel, if you will.

Is This Good?

If you befriend a writer, they’ll ask you, “Am I any good?” Writers are desperate for validation and obsessed with the idea of “good”. Sometimes, I think we want the answer to be no, we’re not good, so we can give up on writing. It’d fulfill our natural desire for conflict and tension, and it would mean we could quit guiltlessly.

This morning I realized this kind of thinking is hella flawed. First of all, good is a subjective thing, and there are a lot of metrics for good. Plot, character development, themes, cohesion, scenes, descriptions, word choice, pacing. You could be good at any one of those things and bad at another. There’s no guarantee the person reading your piece will zone in on what you’re good at. You might also be an amazing fantasy writer, but the reader likes mystery stories. Are you good then? It depends, which is an irritating answer, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say we’re asking the wrong question.

So how about this one: “Am I working hard on this piece, and is this the best I can do?” Alright, so that’s two I slammed together. Sue me.

The difference here is that your best is both a measurable thing—you know when you’re working at your highest level—and something to aim for. If you’re always striving to do your best work, you’ll always be improving, and that bar will constantly move. It also takes the measure of your success out of the subjective hands of someone else and puts it back in yours. It makes you responsible for your own work. Only you know if you’re doing your best.

So stop asking, “Is this good?” because I can’t tell you that. Instead, start asking, “Is this the best I can do?” If it’s not, work harder.

So You’re an Author, Now What? The Drinking Game, Round 1

Someone once pointed out that, not getting a paycheck biweekly or a promotion or a bonus, it’s hard to know when to celebrate successes in my job. Say what? So I created this. Because I’m a boozer and life should be a drinking game.

champagne-1500248_960_720

In case you didn’t know, this is champagne. It’s labeled so we know it’s real.

Drink…

-the first time you’re published. And drink hard because that’s amazing.

-the third time you’re published because doing something once is amazing, but doing something three times is becoming a habit.

-the first time you get paid. That’s validation and a beer!

-the first time you get paid more than $5.

-the first time you get a personalized rejection. C’mon, that feels almost as good as  an acceptance

-the first time you come out in print. Actually, take that mag and have a whole drinking party with it. Get wasted together and caress it and love it, and then wake up in the morning after you’ve spilled all over it and wonder what has become of your life. Return whatever nominal fee you may have been paid getting another copy. (Or, you know, be smart and put that sucker under glass when it comes in.)

-when you get paid over $100. Now you can afford a drink and a meal!

-every time you hit a factor of five from here on out. The fifth time. The tenth time. The fifteenth time. You get the picture. And if you’re bad at math, because we’re writers, drink every time! This’ll get the party going.

-get totally wasted the first time you finish a novel draft. In the morning, you can hate yourself and your writing.

beer-199650_960_720

This beer’s having an existential crisis, just like you.

An Audience of One

I’ve taken this idea from John Irving’s “Until I Find You.” I didn’t make this up, but I love it.

There’s a lot of talk about readers in writing, and whether or not you should write for them. In my (albeit limited) expertise, the debate breaks down along the same divide as almost every writing debate: literary guys on one side, genre gals on the other. (There was no reason for that sentence to be gendered. I could un-gender it, but I didn’t.) Folks in the literary community say, Write for yourself, the rest will follow, or something along those lines. Folks in the genre community say, Know your audience, or never get published. And me? Well. I say write for the one person who really needs it.

This is kind of a lofty idea, and like lofty in the “look up there in the sky, someone threw a ball too high, is it ever gonna come down” way.

It goes like this: when I’m writing and I get stuck, I don’t think about a crowd of faceless people. For me, these are the “readers” that are so often spoken of, and I can’t picture them. They’re faceless and intimidating, and they’re just as likely to eat me alive as read me. (I’ve always thought ‘read me’ sounded like a sex act. I think I’ll make it one.)

kodoma

Oh look. A bunch of faceless nobodies.

I also can’t write for myself because I’m stuck. If I was writing for myself, I’d just stop. But if I imagine that one person that really needs it (or okay, more realistically, wants this story), then yeah. Alright. I can do it for them.

Shit gets weird when I start picturing them. Honestly? It’s usually a younger version of myself. Sometimes, it’s my mom. (Sorry, Mom! Or you’re welcome, Mom. You’ll never know.) It can be a friend or an ex-lover, and once in a while, it’s someone I make up. The fact is, they’re out there, somewhere, and I’m creating this thing for them on the off chance that one day, they find it. (And I want everyone to notice that I gendered literary and genre up there, but then used ‘they’ for s/he down here. Suck it.)

My number one goal as a writer is to one day meet the person who I wrote a piece for. I just want someone to walk up to me and say, “Yo, K. That piece? That one was for me.” And, if I’m really luck, they’ll tell me why. (And people say I’m not a romantic. Psh.)

Bonus little me. I needed a lot of stories to make it through.

Bonus little me. I needed a lot of stories to make it through.

 

On Learning without Knowing & the Meaning of Hay

There’s a lot to learn when you start taking photography. My professor insisted we start with film, preference on an SLR. This meant we were in control of the f-stop, shutter speed, and had to have a working knowledge of ISO. There was no immediate review button to see if we’d gotten something right, so we had to learn how to work our settings and focus fast, and then hope we nailed it. We shot on slide film, and we’d load our best shots into the wheel at the beginning of class, and Billera would flip through them, critiquing them out loud for everyone. Was our shutter speed too slow, so our images were blurred? Was the foreground out of focus? And if, by some miracle, we’d nailed everything technically, he’d talk about our artistry. How was our composition and our understanding of light? Would the picture have been better if we’d shifted the camera two inches to the right? Or shot from a different angle? Or set our f-stop lower and our shutter speed higher?

When photographing, there’s rarely more than five seconds when the image is available for you to take. So the trick is to learn to recognize that which is noteworthy, compose the image, set the f-stop and shutter speed, and click. That’s it. Done. The moment’s passed, either the girl you’re photographing has moved on, the light has shifted behind the cloud, or the beat of the sidewalk has swept you away. You’ve either got it, or you haven’t.

We spent hours and hours in the classroom learning theory, pouring over photography books, and critiquing our own composition and others in the hope that when we went out into the real world, this knowledge was so internalized, we no longer had to think about it. Billera told us to leave everything we learned in the classroom at home and go out and photograph with the soul. Don’t think, he said, just click. If you’ve done your job in the classroom, you’ll do your job out there.

And it started to work. First I had to learn the technicalities of the camera. I started to guess f-stops and film speeds wherever I was for whatever lighting conditions there were. This took weeks of nearly constantly thought, but I started to get the hang of it, and I got fast at it. Then I had to learn about composition (the oft talked about “photographer’s eye”), and then I had to learn to trust myself. Trusting myself was probably the hardest part because there isn’t always an easily understood why in art.

I was walking through a barn one day, and there was a patch of sunlight on a mound of hay. I thought, “Wow, photograph that.” I carried my camera everywhere then, so I had it. I raised it to my eye, but then paused. It was just hay, after all. The only thing I liked was the light, why take a picture of it? I did anyway because I was there, but I knew my hand wasn’t quite steady enough to hold the camera still at the shutter speed I needed, and I didn’t retake the picture with a tripod or a box to stabilize myself because it was “just a picture of hay.” In class, Billera tore me a new one. He told me I couldn’t walk around throwing away pictures like that because I didn’t feel like using a tripod. I still remember the look on his face, like I’d dropped a gold coin because I didn’t feel like wiping off the mud.

So I stopped second guessing myself, though I still screwed pictures up, and I started taking them whenever I saw them. I never quite understood what was attractive to me, but I had a friend once tell me that looking at them made her feel like she could see the world through my eyes. There was something there that she responded to, even if it was so deep in me, I couldn’t understand it myself.

Writing is the same way. You’ve got to learn everything you can about the craft and the technicalities, the way it works and how it works best, and why it fails when it fails. You’ve go to do your best to master the artistry of it. And then, you’ve got to let it all go. When you sit down to write, you must come blank, knowing nothing, and trust that that knowledge is there for you. You can’t self-edit while you goes because then you’ll never take risks. If you’ve worked hard enough, when you come back around to revise and edit, there will be something beautiful there for you to tease out. Something unique and surprising and worthwhile, a statement about afternoon light and the sheen of hay in the middle of a dusty barn, maybe, something that you didn’t even fully understand the day you sat down to write it.

 

Keeping Up with the Book World (or not)

For a brief period in 2015 (note when this blog started…), I made the decision to Stay on Top of the Book World. I would read all the books people were buzzing about from award winners to nominees to best sellers to murky basement cult classics. I made a list of Books I was Excited About. Topping it were Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things and Broken Monsters. I went to the book store and got ready to join the party…

And abandoned the party immediately because hard covers are more expensive than soft covers, and I’d conveniently forgotten that.

But the thing is, learning that there was a Book World to keep up with was kind of crushing. I’m a person who’s perpetually behind the trends, and consequently dismissive of them as stupid. Do I really hate skinny leg jeans? No, but if I keep on hating them for just a little longer, the boot cuts and flares I never managed to throw away will come back in style.

Books were supposed to be the things that didn’t let me down. They were the things that hung around, waiting for me to read them instead of begging me to keep up. I could read Newberry winners from the 1950’s or Victorian gothics or trendsetters from the 1980’s, and it didn’t matter that I missed the boat because there wasn’t a boat to miss. Trying to stay on top of New Releases and Best Sellers was participating in a popularity contest I wanted no part of. It was the antithesis of what i wanted out of reading. I wanted an intimate experience between me and the book I was reading. It wasn’t about what everybody else thought; it was about what I thought.

I read Broken Monsters and The Book of Strange New Things a year late. That year didn’t affect my reading experience at all. If anything, the build up for these two sort of made them a let down for me. I like exploring books quietly and coming to them mostly unprepared and open minded. That way, they’re the most magical. And, thanks to the Internet, all the pre-book buzz is still around to dive into. The reviews still exist. In that way, I can get excited in my own time, at my own pace, and books can still feel like a secret to be discovered, instead of a dialog to join.

Dude! I need to care to care.

While snuggled up on my couch, I hit play on the Misty Copeland documentary Netflix has been pushing for the past few weeks.

Misty Copeland, subject of “A Ballerina’s Tale,” is the first black principal desk at the ABT (American Ballet Theatre) Company. Her Under Amour commercial went viral a year or so ago. Here it is:

I’d seen the commercial when it first aired around 2013. I couldn’t quite remember the content, but I had vague memories of a triumphant underdog story, someone who had told the world, “I can!” when the world kept saying, “You can’t.”

It’s been about a month since I watched the documentary, and I can’t tell you what it covered, and I definitely don’t have the warm-fuzzies like I did after watching the commercial. Remembering the documentary leaves me pretty ambivalent about the Misty Copeland story. So what did the commercial do that the hour long documentary didn’t? Let’s break it down.

In the commercial, we’re introduced to the ballerina while tentative music plays. As a rejection letter is read, we see her slowly rise onto her toes. So while we’re being told she can’t do something, we’re seeing her do it. She’s metaphorically rising up. The rejection letter takes apart her body as we watch it. The viewer sees a graceful, powerful dancer while we hear a young girl’s voice read why this same body is wrong. The words contradict the reality we’re seeing, and then we hear this final, devastating line: “At thirteen, you are too old to be considered.” Our emotions take over. We’re righteously indignant on behalf of the child who was told she cannot. Instantly, we’re cheering for the dancer before us.

A slow pan brings us into her mind. It feels like we’re moving from the reality of the quiet, simple practice room into what she sees and dreams. We get the feeling of a stage and bright spotlights. We see her move through different ballet moves, some slowed down to accent the grace of her body. We get the feeling that this mental image is her drive, what pushes her to keep working even after she was told no. It’s inter cut with her dancing in a space reminiscent of the practice room to underscore this mental doubling–what’s really happening, and what she’s working towards. Meanwhile, the music has become more complex, less tentative. It reflects the drive of the dancer. And then, just as the music begins to still once more, we see a wide shot of the space the dancer’s been working in. It’s an actual stage. She is where she’s dreamt of being for so long. The text on the screen reveals that this is Misty Copeland, a (then) Ballerina Soloist at the American Ballet Theatre. The final text shows the product (Under Armour) and the tag, I will what I want.

This commercial gives us more than the hour plus documentary by showing us what Copeland was pushing against (the perception that her body was wrong) and fighting for (a career on the stage). By showing her in practice attire both on stage and in the studio, it accented her drive and determination. It gave the feeling that this woman was dancing everywhere she went. Every moment of her life was filled by dance.

“A Ballerina’s Tale” never gets imparts the same feeling that failure might happen, or that it would have devastating consequences for the dancer.It spends chunks of time talking about Copeland’s anxieties and that she was the wrong “type” for classical ballet. At one point, they mention that she ate a box of doughnuts a night out of stress and that she felt out of place in the ballet world. But then it moved on. We don’t see Copeland herself moving on or moving passed it. The struggle simple goes away. Where the commercial hovers around that feeling of desire and motivation, the drive to prove yourself, the documentary skims past it. It feels like the documentary is constantly searching for a story that’s just out of its reach. It discusses the history of black dancers and the importance of Copeland in the black community, but it never talks about Copeland’s own feelings about this. It does delved into them beyond a few pat sentences here or there. It never achieves that feeling of determination that the commercial achieves in seconds. As a viewer, it looks like Misty Copland has setbacks, but that, for the most part, she’s on a rocket ship pointed up. She’s going all the way. When she finally achieves her dream of being a principal, it’s with a feeling of, “Of course she did,” instead of joyous victory.

Part of this is because Misty Copeland is a cheerful person herself. I do not doubt for one second her dedication or the difficulties she’s faced in her career, but I don’t feel them. In general, her interviews seem to skirt the trials and tribulations of becoming a top dancer, and instead focus on the things that went right. The things that went right don’t make me care. The things that go wrong make me care.

The one time when it seems unclear if she’ll be able to continue, when she’s eating doughnuts and feeling out of place, external forces swoop in and provide her with a mentor to help her get back on track. In real life, this is awesome. I’m glad someone made sure this talented person didn’t burn out. But it doesn’t make for good storytelling, and it blurs Copeland’s own drive and dedication with someone else’s success. Copeland herself never addresses how she moved past this period in her life. I got the feeling she wasn’t really sure herself.

Without seeing the self-doubt and experiencing the world pushing against Copeland as she pushed back, there were no stakes. I got the feeling that, had Copeland failed, she would have gone home and opened a dance studio or, in some other way, made dance a part of her life. As a viewer, I didn’t feel like there would be devastating emotional or personal consequences. Without understanding how low she could fall, I could not appreciate how high she rose. I needed to know what was at stake. In the commercial, I knew: her entire perception of her self. Was she wrong about herself, or was she a dancer? And I wanted her to be a dancer.

That audience participation, getting me, the viewer, emotionally invested in the story being told is the difference between remembering something from two years ago, and forgetting what I saw last night.

Let’s Make Fun of Blockbusters Together

Let’s celebrate the upcoming summer blockbuster season by making fun of all things summer blockbuster. I found a short action vid on YouTube that goes through all the most common blockbuster mistakes frame by frame. I’m not entirely sure they did it on purpose, so after we make fun of this, go check out their other videos, which are well made and entertaining. These guys are wizards with special effects, which, unfortunately for this video, isn’t the same thing as being a wizard at story telling.

Go make some popcorn, then hit play. Then get your prat hat on and join me in being a jerk. This won’t take ten minutes.

(I can’t embed this vid, so click here and open it in a new tab. Then follow along with the asshattery observations.)

1) Sweeping cityscape. Always good to know where we are.

2) Cheeky dialog. Because we don’t need to know who these characters are or what they care about if the’re cheeky and young. Teenager is a character motivation.

3) I bet he’s evil because he’s talking about a device and not using it’s name. Real creators use a thing’s name. Do you think Steve Jobs called the iPhone a device? No, he called it the iPhone. And when he was alone in his Steve Jobs lair, he stroked it lovingly and called it “My Precious.”

4) Oh that person’s rich? Okay, he’s the evil one. Check. Also, he spent time doing his hair this morning, and any man that spends time on his hair is evil. Unless he’s poor. Then he’s cool.

5) Macguffins. Oh my God. All the macguffins.

6) Look the teenagers being cute and doing teenager things. Do you love them yet? They’re like puppies. How could you not love them?

7) Teleported. Who needs a story when we have special effects? But no really, why write a plot when you can just blow stuff up? Michael Bay agrees with me on this one.

8) If something’s really amazing, you don’t have to tell me that it’s amazing.

9) He got sick because he did a bad thing! This is actually a common writer thing. I can preach about this. Not now, though. Basically, he’s puking because there had to be some consequence to his actions, and the bad guys haven’t shown up yet. Don’t worry, they’re coming. See? There’s an unexplained creepy figure.

10) “I don’t think we should take it.”

“We can’t just give it back.”

“Look, I know we don’t care about taking things, but this is going to get us killed!”

“We freakin’ teleported! Okay? They can’t get us as long as we have it.”

“We don’t even know how to use it.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’ll figure it out. We’re taking it.”

“I know where we can go. Come on.”

Well. That explains everything.

10) But the bad guys look cool.

11) And the music is catchy. Whoa, punches!

12) Oh no, danger. This doesn’t really make sense because teenagers with no training are kicking the ass out of trained security guards, but danger, okay.

13) It’s really lucky these teenagers, like all  good All-American teenagers, took self-defense classes and learned how to use fancy-shmancy guns. And normal guns. And laser guns.

14) Oh look, poorly timed declarations of love.

15) SPECIAL EFFECTS.

16) Stunts. Special Effects.

17) The leader has a stripe. Derp-derp.

18) Ultimate baddie is rich and white and moves like a dancer. Also, punches have no effect have on him. Double check.

19) Time for our Good Techno Users to battle the Corrupt Evil Techno Users in a Techno Battle, ie: SPECIAL EFFECTS TIME WHAT. I can’t imagine who will win. The man who created it and knows everything about it, or the teenie boppers who just stole it?

20) Even though there are two of you, you’ll take turns fighting him instead of ganging up on him. Your mama taught you well, teeangers.

20) And the winner is…the teenie boppers who just stole it, of course! In the heat of battle, our intrepid teenagers discover new ways to manipulate the macguffin. Because that’s how teeangers react to stressful situations. No panic, just hardcore cleverness.

21) Where is it? You just threw it off a roof, dummy.

22) And we have room for a sequel. Brilliant.

So basically, blockbusters suck because they usually lack interesting character motivation, or motivation at all, rely heavily on overused tropes, and jerry-rig their plots together with a total disregard for storytelling. When something needs to happen, it just does. Or something explodes. But nobody cares because SPECIAL EFFECTS.

*I have the utmost respect for all creators, and especially makers of short films, which are an under explored and under appreciated medium, like the short story. That being said, once something’s out in the world, it’s fair game. And this film managed to so perfectly encapsulate all my personal issues with major blockbusters, I had to use it. The same things that are frustratingly obvious in this short exist in the bigger, weightier blockbusters. Once you know what to look for, you too can annoy your friends with your writer-whining.

To not be a complete ass, go check out this vid by the same guys, It’s pretty cool: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3p2TZ5q9to

I Don’t Feel Like Writing Today

I’m not in the mood to blog today, so instead of coming up with something interesting, I’m going to explain the sudden influx of blog posts. Because why, Morris? Why are you unleashing your opinions on the interwebs?

It would be cool if this was some kind of galactic demand, and if I didn’t post a new blog every Friday, I’d get smited or the sun would burn up or every third person would get boiled alive in a plague. But such is not in the case. As with so many things I do, nobody really cares if I manage to finish it (though, if I’m really lucky, a few people are glad to have it once it’s done). Well, nobody except for my mom. My mom is pretty awesome. And she’d get annoyed if I didn’t blog by every Friday (re: on Friday because deadlines aren’t deadlines if you aren’t right on top of them). We made a deal a few weeks ago that we’d each update our blogs on a weekly basis. Me because I was terrible at blogging. Her because she wanted to start a blog. Yay blogs!

It turns out writing blogs is just like every other kind of writing. The more you do it, the better you get. At least, I really hope so. Otherwise I’m wasting a ton of time learning how not to blog.

This holds true for my mom, certainly, and while I’ve had years to cut my teeth on writing, she’s fairly new to it. In answer to your unasked question, I will not be debuting her blog on my blog today. That will come another time. Instead, I will point my finger at all you would-be writers and say, “Get the hell off here and start writing already! You’re wasting time.”

In other news, “Light on Dimmed Bodies,” a story I wrote in grad school, came out this week in the first print edition of The Flexible Persona. I haven’t gotten my copy yet (it’s coming, yay!), but the snippets of the other pieces I’ve seen look amazing. You should check it out here.

Words I Don’t Know

Nascent

What I Think it Means: A skinny, slimy guy with a huge, huge nose that’s always in the air, totally full of himself. Like a younger version of the asylum keeper in Beauty in the Beast.

Batb_1824

Dude looks pretty nascent to me.

What It Actually Means: beginning to exist; recently formed or developed

So like the baby asylum keeper?

Avuncular

What I Think it Means: Like a thorny, bushy tree? Or no, it can’t be a noun. It sounds like an adjective. So the feeling of being a thorny, bushy tree. Maleficent when she became the pricker garden in Sleeping Beauty.

thorn bushes

So being these thorns basically. Samson’s face summarizes how awful it would be. Thanks, Samson.

What It Actually Means:  like an uncle; kind or friendly like an uncle

Can we pause and appreciate the awesome coupling there? Avuncular means like an uncle. Nothing has ever made me so happy. That’s perfect.

Punctilious

What I Think It Means: On time. No idea why, it just sounds like being on time. Oh wait, because of punctual. So punctilious is like punctual’s whiny little brother..so the trait of someone who whines about being on time as a form of humble-brag.

cogsworth

If this guy’s not punctilious, who is?

What It Actually Means: very careful about behaving properly and doing things in a correct and accurate way

I wasn’t too far off. Being punctual is part of being punctilious. Cogsworth applies.

Supercilious

What I Think It Means: Clearly, this is punctilious’s twin sister who’s never on time.

Lumière_in_first_film

So Lumiere, of course.

What It Actually Means: having or showing the proud and unpleasant attitude of people who think that they are better or more important than other people

So supercilious is actually punctilious’s evil cousin.

Paucity

What I Think It Means: The pot-bellied father of punctilious and supercilious. He does things like order a three course lobster dinner on welfare.

iconic-princes

So I figured I’d just stick with the Disney theme and googled “pot bellied Disney.” This is what I got. Thanks, Internet. You never let a girl down.

What It Actually Means: a small amount of something; an amount that is less than what is needed or wanted

I was so very, very wrong here. A paucity of a gut would not be a pot-bellied gut. It’d be like a concave, starved gut. I think English missed a great opportunity here, though. Is there any word that sounds more pot-bellied than paucity? Well, pot-bellied. But paucity’s right up there.

*All definitions are from Merriam-Webster’s simple definition series.

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