writing

Writer's Block Exercises (1-10)

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1. Pick a guilty pleasure sort of story that you like--buddy cop, vampire romance, couple adopts a wacky misbehaving dog. Write five pages of the most deliberately bad text you possible can. As hackneyed as possible. The story does not have to have a beginning middle or end--the point of it is to be as ridiculous as possible. [This is to untrain you from the idea of "I can't write unless it's good"]

2. What is the last movie/TV show/book/restaurant that you hated so much that every time it comes up your friends cringe away from you a little because you get so heated? Write a really compelling review of this thing, whatever it was. It has to be well-articulated in terms of its analysis. [This is to flex your critical thinking skills without creativity being as central.]

3. Write an approximately 100 word description of the room you are currently sitting in, making sure that you capture not just what it looks like, but its mood as well. Once you're satisfied, cut it down to 50 words while still retaining the same components: a sense of what it looks like as well as a sense of what it feels like. Then cut it to 25 words. [This is an editorial exercise to make you think about conciseness.]

4. Make a list of your top 5 to 10 villains, listing adjectives that describe each. See if there are patterns that emerge. [Gets you thinking about characters, or if there are implicit patterns underlying what appeals to you.]

5. Put the word "Aleppo" into Google image search and then write an essay about first world problems. [This is to put things in perspective. Writer's block is not a disease, it's a choice.]

6. Take a horoscope from three different signs and write a scene where each person is dealing with a situation described in one of the horoscopes. No one can explicitly say what their problem is, however. [This is to get you focused on a scene, not a larger work, and how you can do things indirectly. ]

7. Write a query letter for your book/ story, even if you have no intent of eventually using it. [Query letters are awful to write, but actually make you think about where your book fits in in the market and what the essential nugget about it really is.]

8. Write a synopsis for the thing your working on. It has to follow the rules of a good synopsis: ie, is not a "first this happened, then that happened" list. It should explain the plot, but be entertaining, and carry to essence of the story. [This is because a shocking number of books have enormous plot holes that authors don't realize until after the book is written and then they are really resistant when readers try to point them out.] 

9. Write a completely serious letter (multiple paragraphs) to a company about a product. I wrote a letter to Batiste (the makers of the best dry shampoo out there) questioning why they carry three colors (brown, red, and blonde) but do not carry black when black is the most dominant hair color on the planet Earth. [This is to not take yourself too seriously, but to still work your ability to put together sentences in a way that is compelling.] 

10. Write a good ending for the TV show Lost. [Because someone should fucking have to.]

What do I do if someone says my pacing is off?

a glacial pace...

Maybe an agent said your pacing is off. Or an editor, or a reader did, and you're not sure exactly what they're talking about, or more importantly how to fix it. 

Pacing is something that is difficult to detect in your own writing.  It requires an ability to look at your own work from a psychological perspective that's far away, which is difficult to do when you are literally sitting in it--kind of like detecting your own B.O.  Happily, other people will point it out for you if they are kind, or at least, really blunt. 

Although sometimes people sense pacing is off but can't quite articulate it as the reason--they might just have the sense that "the middle lagged" or "the ending felt rushed" rather than knowing to pinpoint the word exactly: pacing. 

If someone tells you the pacing in your book is off, that it's too slow, in particular, the first thing to do is look at your word count.  If you are over 100,000 words, in any genre, I think you want to take pacing very very very seriously.  Every book that I have beta read/ edited that was over 100k could have been a lot tighter and all had pacing issues. There are good books that are legitimately over 100k words, but there's also a very good chance that your 100k+ book doesn't need to be that long, and if you're book is really long, pacing is a bit harder to sustain. Sometimes length is justified--when I saw the run-time for Avengers Infinity War I assumed it would just be wallowing around it it's own wealth, but that movie is super-tightly plotted and well-paced. Which is why people say "that didn't feel like 3 hours." 

Diagnostics: what does "your pacing is too slow" even mean?

Problem: There are too many segments where nothing is happening.  Sometimes something appears to be happening when actually nothing is happening.  I have a method for telling when nothing is actually happening that I will get into a bit.  My sense is that this often happens for scenes that purely exist for characterization's sake, for the sake of world building, or for the sake of looking at your own pretty words. 

Solution: This is tedious, but it works (and I have written about this here). You get an index card for every single scene. Draw a line down the middle.  On the left, write (briefly) what happened in this scene that actually moved the plot forward.  On the right, write the auxiliary stuff that was also in the scene that has to be in the book somewhere, but doesn't actually move the plot forward.  A plot point (on the left) could be that Frodo announces to the Council that he will take the ring into Mordor.  The fact that he does this somewhat reluctantly is characterization--stuff that goes on the right.  Even things that are almost entirely character driven still have plots.  It's hard for any type of writing that requires a lot of world building because that stuff just takes of so much space.  But you know when you are reading something and you get to a huge chunk of description or history--an infodump?  That's what happens when there's nothing on the left side of the card, and all world building on the right side.  Another thing that might be auxiliary--even though it is really important--is to show an important relationship.  That X and Y don't get along. 

You might do this exercise and discover that there are a lot of cards that have nothing on the left.  (If, for example, we had one scene where Frodo agrees to take the ring to Mordor, then a separate scene that consists solely of him worrying about this decision). Any true plot point can be written in a scene in such a way that you can fold in all that auxiliary stuff.  A scene where a CEO sacks every single person in the company (plot) can be combined with the fact that Becky and Miranda are besties (demonstrating relationship), the fact that the CEO is a crazed visionary who thinks technology will destroy the world (characterization), or the fact that this is a company that manufactures fax machines in 1995 in Detroit (world building).  Ok, not very interesting world building-- say it is a company where they illegally manufacture pencils, because writing is outlawed in the future. You don't need a big chunk about the legality of pencils.  It can be interspersed throughout the scene, a scene which is moving forward. When I'm editing someone else's stuff, the most dominant problem that contributes to pacing that is too slow is too many scenes where technically nothing is happening. 

Problem: Too many examples of the same thing. Say you have one card where Becky's terrible husband does something terrible, and she forgives him.  Then you have another.  And another.  We get it.  If you did it right, we got it the first time.  The best example I can think of this is when I tried to read Les Miserables.  There's a scene (it might even be multiple chapters) about a a bishop (Monseigneur Bienvenu, if I remember correctly) doing something really kind.  Then another scene about him doing something kind.  Then a third.  Point being, that this is the religious man who does something incredibly kind for Jean Val Jean in a moment when he could have punished him.

Solution: I would argue that you could jump straight to the scene where Bienvenu does the thing relevant to the plot--helping Val Jean--because otherwise a scene where he is just helping some random person serves only to characterize him, and not to move the story forward.  (Les Mis is a great story.  It is nine million pages and ain't nobody got time for that.  My favorite musical though.). If there is one scene of Becky's husband abusing her and her staying with him, and then another scene where that happens, there needs to be something substantially different and/ or meaningful about that second scene in order to justify its existence. The second instance could be combined with some other plot point. You might think "piling more on will make this more intense." It doesn't--people want to move forward, not down. (NB: Be aware that if cyclical behavior is part of your plot (a woman who keeps going back to her abusive husband) the plot will feel meandering unless you are able to somehow instill a sense of forward inertia.)

ProblemToo much physical space has been spent on the page for the amount of things occurring. You know when a bad Saturday Night Life sketch overstays its welcome? Don't do that. (Go back and watch Key and Peele instead: these guys get right what SNL still can't. Not only do the sketches end at a reasonable amount of time, but they often end on a weird, out-there funny hook rather than a slow descent towards "Okay, I'm going to run to the bathroom while this winds down..") 

You write dialogue that goes on and on.  Cut out the sentences that don't actually move the conversation forward.  Cut out the stuff that repeats.  For the love of god, cut the "As you know Bob" speeches. Unless you are really, really good at dialogue, use it sparingly and efficiently. 

A relatively small plot point is dragged out.  This is kind of hard to tell on your own, in part, because it is related to the pace of things that come before this.  If you're entire book is written at a fast clip, like an airplane thriller, and then you get to a part where someone gets in her car and takes a phone call AND THIS TAKES FOUR PAGES people are going to pull their hair out.  You need to keep reasonably true to the rules of pace that you have set elsewhere in the book.  If it's a small plot point, it doesn't need tons of space.  And the fact that it doesn't take much space doesn't mean it isn't important.  I would rather have one tiny chocolate truffle packed with flavor than a large cake with that same amount of chocolate in it.  If you have trouble telling how long a scene should be, figure out some sort of score: a combination of how important a scene is (1-10) and how complicated it is (1-10).  The higher the number, the more space it gets.  Every line is real estate, and real estate is precious. 

A scene is physically or logistically complicated.  This is hard.  Really hard.  Because you don't want to be so scant as to be confusing, nor do you want a blow by blow of every little thing.  I think this happens most when writing action scenes.  Action scenes are hard to write without being confusing.  People either say too much (way too much detail, like four paragraphs describing in detail how someone falls to the ground) or not enough (reader gets confused and doesn't know where things are physically or what has happened in the literal sense).  Think about size.  If you're writing the major bout between Rocky and Apollo Creed, which the entire movie has been building to, you can do the blow-by-blow.  If you are, however, writing about an entire battle with thousands of people, you can't really do blow-by-blow.  If you've read the original Lord of the Rings books, there's tons of battle scenes with lines like "Aragorn slew an orc."  For a scene that has a lot of action, but is supposed to be suspenseful. I'm deeply flattered that several people told me I write action sequences well. If I had to guess, this is how I would say I do it: 1. You increasingly build the tension as you get close to the big action scene, which then justifies the amount of space it takes up. But the pace must be at a fast clip. 2. Literally nothing can be confusing. No ambiguous language. Read the text for unintended double entendre. Pronouns and you're not sure who they refer to. Passive voice. 3. View the scene in your head as if you were watching a movie. Then write what you would want the reader to see from the camera's perspective. "Cinematic" writing works really well because we've all grown up watching TV and movies. I like to think of actions scenes from the perspective of a director: what do I have to show so that this makes sense to the viewer? Related to this... 

what about pacing that is "too fast"?

Problem: Reader is confused or feels cheated. I think the former happens with action scenes when it isn't clear what has happened. The latter is when the reader feels emotionally cheated--this is often because of a mismatch between set-up and pay-off. If you've spent an hour of movie time hyping up the fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed, and the fight is Apollo punching Rocky twice before Rocky falls unconscious, people are going to be annoyed. This lack of pay-off might be the point in some particular cases, but this would still violate expectations. Sometimes this is done well in meta-fiction. An excellent example of this is in the movie remake of 21 Jumpstreet. The two cops have several instances of small collisions (a car hitting another car) where they then cringe, waiting for the huge explosion that would normally occur in a movie even though it likely wouldn't have in real life. They comment on how weird this is. Later on, something does inappropriately and unexpectedly explode, and it's really funny. But more commonly, this is something unintentional, where the writer wanted the reader to feel the pay-off, but the pay-off wasn't full enough. A good example of this is Helen Simonson's The Summer Before the War. She spends the entire novel building the potential of this couple, you're really rooting for them, and you are just waiting for that moment for them to finally declare their love/ be together. . . but it just sort of happens. Like, "oh, we're together now." Especially in context with some other things that happen at the end of that novel, you needed a big emotional pay-off in their finally getting together. This is also the perennial problem of the "will they won't they" romance. If they get together it often isn't satisfying for some reason--the reason for this is the amount of tension put into the equivocating far outweighs the emotional pay-off of them actually being together. (I actually don't think there's a solution to the "will they won't they" problem-- I think people like seeing the perpetual tension.)

Is writing the best form of therapy?

No.

Imagine a guy gets into a horrible car accident and breaks a leg and some ribs and had blood coming out of his face. People see the accident and watch him drag himself home. No one calls 911. No one tries to help him or even attempts to assess if something is wrong. They just assume he is okay and that he can splint his own leg, cure his own punctured internal organs, and wipe the blood off his face without wondering what’s causing the bleeding or if he's even capable of doing any of these things. Obviously this is stupid, and in this situation we would call 911 and be morally outraged by a bystander who refuses to call 911 because they think this guy should fix his own broken organs and body parts. For some reason a broken leg is seen as “injury that should be attended to by a professional” but mental health issues are not. Not only do many people believe that mental health isn't a part of physical health that needs to be attended to in the same manner but also that professionals need not be involved. Maybe this has something to do with how many shootings we have in this country? (One large mass shooting at the time I’m writing this, sadly more will have happened by the time I post this).

I have a rotator cuff injury. At no point in time has anyone ever snorted at me and said “why don’t you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps?” It doesn’t matter if the problem is genetic (I can rotate my arms further than most people) or created by something I did (I lift weights a few times a week.) here’s a problem- it hurts and it won’t stop hurting and I need to see a professional. 
I think writing can be very therapeutic but it should never take the place of seeing an actual professional (as in "I'm going to journal out all my feelings and figure this shit out on my own.") I don’t know why people snort at the idea of a therapist. Look at the statistics about mental health and come talk to me. US soldiers are more likely to die of suicide than they are to die in combat. At least once a year a young man walks into a crowded area and commits a mass killing. People unable to cope with something turn to substance abuse or self destructive behavior or to abusing others. 

For some reason, psychologist and therapists are viewed with more derision than are MDs. Because “anyone can just listen to someone talk.” 1) "Listening to you talk" isn't what therapists do, 2) seriously, no one listens to you fucking talk anyway, so what are you complaining about? No, really, being serious. Many people literally do not have someone who will listen to them. Or there are people who ostensibly listen, but really, we know they are not: the are judging, screaming at us, using the information against us, etc. So yes, you do need someone to listen in the particular way a professional would, but that isn't all they do. (If what you think they do is so simple, please apply to a MSW, PsyD, or Clinical PhD program, get in, succeed in it, do your internship, then come talk to me about how simple it is.) 

But I went to a therapist once and they sucked! Therefore therapists don't work! Why would you think therapists would be any different from medical doctors, handymen, or chefs? Some are going to work for you, and some aren't. One does not represent all. In the case of therapists, the type of chemistry you have with that practitioner is a lot more important than for say, a dentist. You need someone you can trust. You need someone who is capable of seeing what you're going through, and calling you on your shit. You need an outside perspective, because sometimes you can't even see the hole you are digging for yourself, and sometimes some part of you is really, really committed to digging that hole as deep as possible. 

Where does writing fit in? Journaling, or writing through your feelings, or whatever, is fine, but will never take the place of seeking professional help if you really need it. Writing can be a tool you use, but much like I can't write away my rotator cuff injury, you can't write away your depression. 

Where writing can be really useful is if you're someone who has a hard time articulating their feelings. Things can get lost in the chain between heart and words: sometimes people are not even aware that they are feeling something at all. This can happen when someone has emotional numbness. There's something under the numbness, but it hasn't come up to the surface. Or they might be aware that they are feeling something, but not what it is. Some people experience depression by feeling so dejected they cannot leave the house--others who are depressed can still go to work and go about their daily lives, but still also be depressed. One of my anxious friends has described the feeling of anxiety to me as feeling so stressed about social interactions that they are avoidant of them. I sometimes have an adverse reaction to caffeine that makes me extremely anxious but it looks really different: I still go and do whatever it is I have to do but I feel an intense panic, like I might go crazy at any second. Not everyone would think to label that emotion as "anxiety."

Where writing is really useful is when someone doesn't do a lot of emotion regulation, or isn't really self-aware or articulate about their emotions. Not everyone will realize that the bad day of work made them yell at their spouse, but writing it down and looking back at it might help you see the connection. Not everyone will see that a pattern in their behavior is occurring until they see it written down over and over in their own handwriting. Articulating emotions is hard, particularly if you are not articulate in general, or are not in touch with your feelings, or are not a very verbal person at all. It is a skill set, and one that writing may help, particularly if you find it easier to work out exactly what it is you think by writing, as opposed to just talking or thinking to yourself. Writing can help you see patterns and help you work out what you actually think or feel about something, which can be useful for treatment. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has a number of practical exercises you can do in written form, like challenging negative cognitions. But if you need treatment, don't diagnose yourself and just assume "if I sit down and think hard enough, I can solve this on my own." 

Who is writing what now..?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Specifically what would have happened if that book came out now, and not in 2002. The book received high praise and won the Pulitzer Prize that year. I read it a long time ago, thought it was well-written, and never really thought much about the identity of the author, other than the fact that he seemed looped in with Greek culture. If this book came out now, there would be open questions about a non-intersex person writing about an intersex main character. On the one hand you have the "anyone can write about anything, otherwise this isn't free speech"sombrero camp and on the other side you have the "should he be the person to write this story?" camp. (Some in the latter camp don't write it at all, while others in the latter camp aren't saying don't write it, but"if you do write it, prepare to be scrutinized," or "write it, but should this get preference in terms of publication?") My gut feeling about this of late is something like, Eugenides can probably write about a variety of things really well, so why write this particular thing, and we can consider that having an actual intersex author writing about an intersex character does two things: it checks the "representation box" in terms of diversity but also--and I wish people talked about this more--they would bring value-added that no one else can, even a smart person who is a great writer and how is really empathic. I'm not arguing that any minority writer writing about their own group--regardless of level of talent--is better than an incredibly talented writer writing outside his group. I'm actually making a point about due diligence, taking up space in a market that has limited space, and just plain demographics. 

I think anyone can write about anything as long as they are willing to do the homework.* Did he do the research? Did he read stuff by and about intersex people? Did he get intersex readers? Did he write responsibly (ie, not falling back on lazy stereotypes) and with good faith (ie, not assuming automatically that he already knows everything there is to know)? If you're writing outside your own group, particularly if you are writing about a minority group, obviously the answer to all these questions should be yes. (*Apparently this isn't yet obvious, given that we continue to see truly cringe-worthy instances of stuff getting through multiple hoops of the publication process with serious issues). 

My take on this is that if your elevator pitch of the book includes the identity, the question isn't "Can I write about this?" but "What do I add to this conversation?"  The elevator pitch of Middlesex literally revolves around the main character being intersex. Does the value-added of Jeffery Eugenides go above and beyond what could have been provided by an intersex author? It's the difference between someone writing about their own real world experience and the very real hardships of their life, and someone who is just imagining it. Someone who is thinking, "Ooooh, you know what would be neat to write about?" Identity as a jacket that you can put on and take off when you're done. But some of us can't take off our jackets. I'm not saying an author shouldn't do this at all--the guys that wrote The Wire were often writing about people who were not like them. But they were writers who really, really knew the environment (one was a former homicide detective and the other a former police reporter), and wrote the characters with multiple dimensions. The problem with making this call--Do I know enough?--is that people who are not competent often have no idea of how incompetent they are

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Here's a completely arbitrary diagram about writing outside your identity about other people's groups.

Given that we continue to live in a world where people say "I already have a [insert minority] client" and "I already have a [insert minority] book," I'm going to look at the top left corner here and think, no. I was recently listening to a podcast of people who work in the publishing industry and the hosts were really excited about ARCs of some new books they had just gotten which had diverse characters (they had specifically wanted to read more diverse books). Then a few moments later they realized that they were not books written by people from those groups. It's fine to write about people from other groups if you do it well, but it's not fine for us to be pleased about increased diversity in books if it doesn't mean actually making publishing more diversely (accuracy [sensitivity] readers make money being accuracy readers for other people writing books about the groups they belong to, rather than the industry actually publishing books by people like the accuracy readers themselves). If a book is fundamentally about identity, there's still an issue of "There can only be X number of books about that" in any publisher's given catalogue for year. Are you taking space away from someone else? Is it the case that your book about--I don't know--blackness, written from the perspective of someone who is not black, is a little more palatable to non-black gatekeepers, because maybe there is content from actually black people that might make them uncomfortable, that might be a bit too dark, that might be a bit inaccessible?  I'm not here to read a Toni Morrison book to have everything be accessible to me--it doesn't have to "speak to me"--it's not about me. (Incidentally, there seem to be a lot of fantasy and scifi books where there is some arbitrary category that serves as a stand-in for race wherein the reader, often so someone who doesn't belong to a particular group can learn an important, ham-handed lesson. But at least right now I think there are some very real lessons about real groups in the real world that not enough people know about.)

More importantly, at least consider the question, what is your value-added as an outsider? I am unabashedly a huge fan of all the Rocky movies. So when I heard Creed was coming out a few years ago I was super excited. I didn't want any spoilers so I consumed no media about the movie whatsoever. I'm someone who, when I'm watching a movie, completely gets absorbed in it (as long as some asshole in the theater isn't chewing loudly) and forgets about my own existence. But then something happened that completely broke me out of the reverie. It's a scene where Michael B Jordan is talking to Tessa Thompson and they're flirting. I was completely pulled out of the movie because I suddenly realized, Oh, a black person wrote this. I had assumed that Sly Stallone had written it, because he's written all the other Rocky movies. This isn't a dig about the movie--it's just that I saw the movie with the expectation that Stallone had written it and there was a cadence and feel to the dialogue that was so distinct to me that I suddenly had that realization. The writer was Ryan Coogler, the same guy that just made Marvel nine babillion dollars with Black Panther. Maybe having black people write about black people works? As the child of parents who immigrated to this country from the Subcontinent, there are parts of Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss about leaving home and immigration that were so acutely accurate that they were painful, and in a specific way that I think non-immigrants might have just felt "that was sad" and not "you're poking an awl straight into my soul in a place where I can't even articulate." There is stuff about being female in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels that just describes the intersection of all the roles you have to play as a woman so perfectly, I don't think someone who wasn't female could have written those books and I don't think any man reading them would have shouted "Yes!" when they got to those parts. I can always, always tell if an author actually has a dog because they will write about a character with a dog where either the dog does some weird, very specific doggy thing, or its human interacts with them in some particular odd interaction--verisimilitude-- I guess that is the word I'm looking for. There is a peculiarity to verisimilitude, a specificity you can't hit sometimes unless you really really know that life. 

So if you're not in the group, and your work is focused on identity... I have to ask, what is your value-added to this conversation? If the group is small on top of that, who are you displacing? 

The population of America is roughly 325 million. Let's just say arbitrarily that 10 million are writers. Most traits fall into a normal distribution (bell curve) where the bulk of people are average, and a small percentage are exceptionally good. Note I said percentage, not number. Let's take the top 10% of talent and say they are the contenders for publication. (In reality, it's probably more like the top 30%. You have people who are almost universally recognized as talented way at the top, but then you have people that are just good enough to tell a story and sell airplane books.) 

So you have 1 million writers who are exceptionally talented. Let's consider a small population-- Native Americans, 1.3% of the population according to the Census. Assume (for the sake of argument) that they are randomly distributed in terms of talent (ie, that there is no reason to believe that Native Americans are exceptionally good or bad writers.) That leaves you with 10,000 Native American writers who are exceptionally good. So for the 990,000 other exceptionally talented writers, you're good enough to get published anyway, do you need to tell a story that focuses on Native American identity? But then go back and consider that they might not be proportionally represented in the population of writers because of lack of access to good education, health care, etc., which would take some out of the pool of potential writers. So there's even fewer of them. Consider that Native American writing about identity might literally be focused on displacement and erasure. At least consider it. 

The larger the group gets, the more absurd it seems to question whether or not people should write outside their group. Plenty of men write women well, and vice versa. I'm more likely to roll my eyes or laugh when they get it wrong than I am to be offended. (Unless they do a shitty job and people congratulate them on how good a job they did--not naming names here ;) I write male characters, but have no interest in writing a book that fundamentally revolves around maleness. Probably just because I'd be asking myself what I would be bringing to the table. Different if you are literally an expert in that thing: I had a friend once who got her doctorate in history about a very specific period in Vietnam's history on the interaction between the French and the Vietnamese. She spoke French and Vietnamese but was of neither descent. She read historical texts about that time period in three languages. She had lived in Vietnam. Had she been a writer, I'm convinced she would have both done a good job representing the culture and--because she is reasonable--would have gotten herself the appropriate readers. She wasn't saying, "Oooh cute!" and pulling on a jacket. She had her doctorate in that jacket. She did the time, that is to say. 

Jonathan Franzen once gave this interview to Slate where he said something ridiculous and people got so spun up about the ridiculous thing that they missed some peripheral things he was saying that were really really important. The part people got spun up about was JFranz saying that he wasn't well-placed to write about race--blackness, specifically--because he doesn't have very many black friends and has never been in love with a black woman. His lack of diversity in friends aside, he also said this: "I feel it’s really dangerous, if you are a liberal white American, to presume that your good intentions are enough to embark on a work of imagination about black America." This, exactly. Good intentions are not enough. But I also think both of his comments are basically saying this: Don't write what you don't know. And the more controversial the thing is, the more likely you are to make an ass of yourself. All eye rolls aside, I think he's right about the friends thing--not that "I have a gay friend" gives you license to write a gay character, but that you might not know what the fuck you're talking about if you've never had a gay friend. I'm comfortable writing about characters that grew up in mid-Atlantic suburbia, live in a handful of cities I've actually lived in, eat the things I eat and read the things I read--anything else and I'm going to be anxious enough to be doing a lot of research. It takes a certain level of audacity to presume you can write about an identity without actually knowing it. In the literally limitless universe of things to write about, why is that one specific thing the thing you have to write about? I'm not saying don't do it, I'm saying ask yourself the question why. 

But going back to the two by two box--the bottom row specifically. I want to make an argument for diversity for diversity's sake in stuff that isn't about identity, even if it's pretty thin. In a perfect world, all characters would be three dimensional. The reality is that some books are airplane books that are fluff fluff fluff and aren't going to talk about serious and controversial issues, and some characters--major or minor--don't have a story about identity to tell. But about that idea of verisimilitude: I have lived in several major cities that writers often write about, and I think it is unconscionable when these cities are depicted as entirely white (or entirely wealthy, for that matter). New York City is insanely diverse across every possible dimension. DC is a black city. A version of LA that does not acknowledge the existence of its massive Spanish-speaking population is absurd, and the same can be said of east Asians in San Francisco. I'm not saying just throw in a minority neighbor or something, but think about what it means if you've written an Asian-less San Francisco. Imagine writing a novel about an NBA player who is white--sure there are white NBA players, so this is fine--but imagine you depicted the NBA writ large as all-white. Why would you specifically choose to do this? 

If a minority character's main purpose is finding the treasure, killing the bad guy, whatever, their minority identity isn't really relevant. You don't need to write some deep treatise on race. I can think of two good examples where racial identity of minority characters was pretty thin and I didn't care. I read a good chunk of "James S. A. Corey's" Leviathan Wakes, which is the first book in The Expanse scifi series. James S. A. Corey is actually a pseudonym for two ostensibly white dudes. Anyhow, they have a multiethnic cast of characters, which makes sense because when the distant future is depicted as all one color, you wonder if a bunch of genocides happened (or at least I do). So there's brown people but they lack race consciousness (IMHO), which is fine because it isn't really necessary to tell that particular space adventure story. This isn't a story about the implications of race played out in the future ala Octavia Butler. 

Sleepy Hollow is a ridiculous but fun show with a very mixed cast. The main female lead, Abbie, is black, but the show isn't about blackness. It focuses on her chasing down various ghoulies with Ichabod Crane, who has been pulled out of pre-Revolution America into the present. This results in some fun fish-out-of-water scenes (eg, Ichabod is outraged by men wearing hats indoors!) At one point Abbie is sent back to Ichabod's era where even walking around is inherently dangerous for her. She could be rounded up at any moment as a random, unaccompanied brown woman, and possibly sold into slavery. The show didn't have her stay there too long--I thought there were a lot of other interesting things they could have explored but didn't. I wasn't annoyed, but if there were some nuanced nod to race, I would have been impressed with the writing. But I'm not expecting to be impressed by the writing on a show like this. 

A note about research and getting readers:

I strongly believe that we should get rid of the term "sensitivity reader." It brings to mind someone rolling their eyes and saying, "Quit being so sensitive!" I'm not being "sensitive" when I'm annoyed when a popular author, writing through the POV of an Indian woman, references the fact that she "speaks Indian" (sidebar: they speak hundreds of languages in India, none of which is called "Indian." A quick Wikipedia search could tell you that.) This pulled me way out of the story in a bad way. It made me think about how the author's readers, agent, editor, copyeditor, and god knows how many other people never bothered to Wikipedia that shit. This is a petty example, but there are worse ones out there. It's the lack of humility and intellectual curiosity to at least wonder, "Hey, did I get this right? Maybe I should ask someone who would know..."

I wrote a novel that takes place in Boston. I visited a few times, took pictures, looked stuff up, poked around MIT. It's called due diligence. If you're writing about cops, you should research ops. For some reason, saying "don't be sloppy writing about cops" is okay but if you're accused of being sloppy writing about race or disability or whatever, suddenly it's censorship and an infringement upon your rights. We all have permission to be sloppy, we just don't have the heart to be criticized for it and talking about these really awkward things is something America is not good at. In fact, we are catastrophically bad at it. On the other side, right now I don't think people have the emotional energy or patience to be kind in their criticism sometimes. Malicious intent is often assumed; I'm not a believer in the "intent doesn't matter" argument because this likens manslaughter to first degree murder. This makes for a lot of skirmishes.

Repeated rejection can be soul crushing, resulting in even exceptionally talented writers giving up. Imagine if on top of that standard level of soul-crushingness you were told "Black people don't buy books" "This book is too gay" or "I already have an Asian book." (Yes these are all things that have actually been said to people.) All of these things are either factually incorrect or subjective judgments not backed up with meaningful data. Not only are they offensive to people in those groups, but offensive to the assumed straight white reader. Straight white people bought The Kite Runner, The Hate U Give, and Sing Unburied Sing by the millions. Are we to believe that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly would never sell because there aren't enough bed-ridden eyeblink people to form a market?? 

This failure of imagination is the same reason why we keep having the same dumb movies rebooted over and over while for decades people didn't have faith that a woman could direct a big-budget action movie (like Wonder Woman), or that audiences would be willing to get behind black leads (like Black Panther). Think of all the original material we could have consumed, and that people could have made money off of if they hadn't had that failure of imagination. 

Further reading: 

Kaitlyn Greenidge's essay on this, if you haven't already read it. 

Two articles on this cluster: Vulture and WaPo

One of the most bizarre hoaxes and a case of appropriation, the story of "JT LeRoy" also made into a good documentary you can stream, Author: The JT LeRoy Story.

Humorous article about women responding to how men write about women.

Scientific-ish ways of dealing with rejection

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Lately I've been thinking a lot about something I heard at AWP. One of the panelists, who had gone to the MFA program at Iowa, said that a few years after he graduated, about 70 percent of his class had stopped writing. I had heard stuff like this  before, but it was still surprising.  There's life, and day jobs, and everything else, but there's also the fact that dealing with rejection is a separate skill than writing is. I don't find producing, editing, or the admin part of writing hard-- all of these are doing skills, but I'm not good at the rejection part because basically it is dealing with a ball of unpleasant emotions. So these are some strategies I use to deal with rejection, some of which are at least remotely associated with something science-like. 

1. Label the emotion your feeling right when the stimulus comes (eg, when you first receive the rejection letter.) I'm talking about using very specific words (ie, not "I feel bad") but really try to articulate what you are feeling with the caveat that you are articulating how you feel right now about what happened, but not making an evaluative judgment about who you are as a result. Feelings only --no associated cognitions. Maybe it would be something like this: I feel really disappointed. My heart is heavy. I thought that press was a perfect match for me. I was really hoping it would work out, and how I feel let down. This is okay-- but what is not okay is then drawing radical conclusions: "I must be a shitty writer. I'm a bad person. Nothing good will ever happen. This is just another piece of evidence that I'm a failure." 

Imagine that the emotions are like a giant teabag that has been soaking in water. You have to sit with it. It's sitting on your lap with water seeping out of it and the fact that the water is seeping might be uncomfortable, if you're the sort of person who likes things tidy. This is really a form of mindfulness, where essentially you are saying, "I feel sad and this is where I'm at right now." What goes along with this is the temporal nature of that feeling-- you feel sad right now, you're letting yourself experience it, and it won't last forever. There's nothing evaluative about it. You're supposed to be sad sometimes. Maybe you're like me and you spend a lot of time trying to tamp down on your emotions--or you bad cognitions that run away and you spiral downwards into those evaluative judgments like "...therefore, I am bad." I'm a big believer in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)--where you combat negative and illogical cognitions. But there's other ways of dealing with negative emotions and some ways work better depending on who you are. The "sit with your feelings" thing is closer to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which has some elements of mindfulness to it. I've been doing it for a couple months now and am finding it surprisingly insightful for me. So give it a whirl, but remember--sit with the feeling, but don't jump into evaluations.  Beyond the therapy stuff, there's some evidence from social and clinical psychology that suggests that labeling emotions is a critical part of both understanding them and lessening the pain associated with them. If you're interested you can check these out. 

2. Have an arbitrary trigger for your next move. This is something practical you do right after receiving the rejection. It could be going for a run (I remember sprinting like a crazed idiot after the third consecutive time of coming this --> <-- close to getting an NSF fellowship). It could also be something you do automatically related to your project: get something rejected, send out another submission. Every time you pull back from putting yourself out there, you're one step further out the door. But one thing to note: Do something that has a finite end within one session. "Go for run" has a finite ending in one session; "work on book" does not. The point is to give yourself something productive where you feel completion. 

3. Create a tag or folder in your email. Mine is called "props." When I receive a meaningful complement about my writing, I send it there. No, not positive things editors said in rejections--stuff not attached to rejections at all. My folder includes (each as a separate email) things like: a note from a friend of mine (not a writer) who was a beta reader for my novella who said that it made him awkwardly sob at the gym, notes from my critique partners that were complementary and made me think "I've conveyed what I wanted to convey." Also included are emails I send to myself as a deliberate form of note taking: something someone said verbally at a workshop. An offhand comment someone made at drinks. Anyhow, the point is to have a folder that you can go through and say, oh hey, this is why I do this. This is to take the focus off "success" and put it back on reaffirming a value that you have--that creating something is worth doing. Focusing on publishing, or awards, or fellowships can take away from this. 

4. Stop daydreaming it about making it. This includes imagining other people you think have made it swimming around in their money bin Scrooge McDuck style.  Do you remember The Secret? It was an awful self-help book that came out in the 90s that said if you want something, you just have to visualize it really well, and this helps it manifest somehow. This is very stupid. It is a waste of time and seems outrageously classist. There's even some evidence that visualizing saps away the energy you'd use to actually achieve your goal. Part of the problem with such daydreaming is that there's a part of you that might be thinking "If I just had this one thing everything will be all right" or maybe it's "if I just had this one thing, that'll show them." Or maybe it's about proving your worth. Art isn't a meritocracy, so don't hang your self-worth on it. That thing you just applied to won't make you whole. If you're going to daydream about anything, daydream about what your characters are doing. Or Michael Fassbender. 

5. Side projects, obviously. Always be working on something you care about, that way everything doesn't hang on one thing. 

6. Stay off social media. When it isn't filled with things exploding on the news, it's filled with friends with wonderful news and well-behaved beautiful children and perfectly curated lives seen through Instagram filters where nobody has ingrown hairs. It isn't always a good time for social comparison. 

And for your viewing pleasure, my absolute favorite clip about how to deal with emotions "effectively." 

Literary Markets for Novellas and Long Short Stories

As someone who has had the misfortune of writing longer short stories/ novellas, I sympathize with anyone who has tried to publish them because I have spent so much time scouring the internet screaming WHY WONT YOU TAKE MY MASSIVE TOME THAT ISNT QUITE MASSIVE ENOUGH TO BE A NOVEL. Below is a working list of literary magazines, contests, and small presses that publish longer short stories and/or novellas. This is a list for literary fiction, not genre fiction and of course those lines can be blurred but if you've written something that can be considered genre you should probably familiarize yourself with the magazine because these markets are indeed different than the stuff I see in genre magazines. This is not a exhaustive list, it is a working list I will update, and mainly includes magazines I know to be well respected and presses I have seen with my own two eyes. (I have submitted to many of these.) [links and content updated 4/19]

Magazines and Small Presses

Alaska Quarterly Review, up to 50 pages. One of my white whales! A great magazine that has been beloved for so long. They only take hard copy submissions. 

A Public Space doesn't list an upper length limit, and specifically says "novellas and novel excerpts are always welcome." 

BatCat Press takes stuff of any length. They publish weird, beautiful books; this is not a standard market--I think they are looking for stuff that is "out there." 

Blackbird is a well-respected online magazine. If you have a piece that is 8k or over, you can query first to see if they're interested. (that said, the magazine sometimes is on the higher end of how long it takes to get back to writers.) 

Big Fiction, 7,500 – 20,000 words, fiction in any genre (except children’s and YA) with a clear literary intent, and essays as narratively straightforward or as experimental as you envision.

Boulevard takes stories up to 8k

Conjunctions is one of the most well-respected magazines out there. It has no official restriction on length, but does not take simultaneous submissions and submissions are hard copy. 

The Collagist (a magazine run by Dzanc Books) takes stuff up to 8 k

Online magazine failbetter says they publish novellas, but given that it is online, I would page through to see how long their stories actually run. 

Fiction is old-school respectable. Their website says they prefer under 5k, but would consider longer works. (read: long shot)

Gettysburg Review up to 10k. Interpret as you may: "We do not publish genre fiction—mystery, crime, science fiction, fantasy, and the like—but are certainly not opposed to considering work that self-consciously employs the tropes of more formulaic writing for more sophisticated literary ends." They take about half a year to get back to you, but are a great market. 

Malahat Review up to 8 k, Canadian lit mag that discourages simultaneous submissions. They also run a novella competition every other year for submissions 10-20k

Massachusetts Review takes stories up to 8 k, but they also have a digital release program called Working Titles that has a 7-25k limit. 

Missouri Review "While there are no length restrictions, longer manuscripts (9,000 to 12,000 words) or “flash fiction” manuscripts (2,000 words or less) must be truly exceptional to be published." Extremely competitive market. 

One Story 3-8k, this should be one of your top markets. Given that they only publish one story per issue I wish they would take longer stuff :( 

Paris Review does not have length restrictions; that said, they take hardcopy only and I don't know anyone who ever got in there off the slush pile. 

Ploughshares Solos 7,500-20k, extremely competitive market

New England Review 20k

Nouvella Books 10-40k. They publish beautiful little (literally) books. This isn't run like a standard literary magazine (because it isn't one), but they view their novella line as a way of investing in and launching emerging writers. 

Puerto del Sol, up to 10k

Seattle Review, at least 40 pages. Recently they stopped having a print edition in favor of an electronic edition only.

Tin House up to 10k. A top market but I don't know anyone who's ever got in off the slush pile. (for the magazine- for the blog, yes.) You can submit, but it's one of those "submit it and forget it." Seriously. You might not hear back for more than a year so it's not a "they're taking a while so I must be making it up the decision chain!" thing. 

Yemassee, up to 8 k

Incidentally, and I'm thinking of one magazine in particular, don't submit anywhere that has a $20 or higher submission or reading fee. Magazine submission fees and contests are two different things. Submission fees are controversial, but a few bucks doesn't seem unreasonable to me given how literary magazines are struggling. For more than a few bucks--you do the math, it isn't ethical.

Prizes

All of these prizes are yearly or close to it and have entry fees. There are of course more contests than just these, but these are the ones I know of that I would call good. (ie, the entry fee/ prize ratio isn't eyebrow-raising, the judges are well known literary writers, the winners go on to do well in their careers). Maybe this is an obvious tip, but if you're submitting to a contest you should wait until a few days before the deadline. When submitting simultaneously, if you submit to a contest in January that doesn't have a deadline until March, there's a chance your piece will get picked up somewhere else first and then you can't get your entry fee back from the contest when you withdraw. Submitting early doesn't help you in any way. 

Heritage Future Great Story Project (formerly 1888, formerly Black Hill Press) Plaza Literary Prize, 10-40k (you have to dig through their terms and conditions page to find the word count). They publish beautiful books--I love the artwork they use. 

Black Lawerence Press  small press that publishes full length novels, poetry, collections, anthologies, etc. The Big Moose prize is for "novels" but their submission guidelines say 90 to 1,000 pages--90 pages would put you within the range of a novella. 

Miami University Press novella contest 18-40k

Texas Review Press Clay Reynolds Novella contest 20-50k

Money, that awkward part of the MFA vs no MFA argument I wish more people were talking about.

When I'm rubbing elbows with writer types at conferences and the like, sometimes the breakdown feels like 80% "full time writers" and 20% "other." The full-time writers include no one who writes full time (as only the James Pattersons and Stephen Kings of the world actually sell enough to do this.)  More likely, these are typically MFA or PhD students; people who teach creative writing full time or part time as adjuncts; people who work in publishing in one form or another; or people who are writers but are more or less subsidized by family wealth. The 20% "other"--of which I am a part of--is a motley crew--some are people who hate their "day jobs" and are just doing them to pay their bills, some are people who have a career that they like or love but who also write. I'm in this last category.

I lean pretty strongly towards the "Don't get an MFA" camp. It's not that I don't think writing can be taught--I definitely learned a lot from the workshops I've taken. But generally speaking, I think such classes can make a good writer better, but not make a bad writer good. I also think there are diminishing returns from workshopping. After you've done it enough, I'm not sure how much you're gaining from it. For me, going to a workshop/conference/retreat is more about making connections, reading and critiquing others' work, shoptalk, etc. But mostly where I'm learning at this point is by reading a ton, consuming media in all forms, and writing, of course. I also find that sometimes people take workshop (or the advice of their mentors/teachers) too seriously: at some point you have to be able to send a story out without workshopping, at some point you have to be able to completely disregard something someone smart said after reading your work because there's a voice inside you that just knows they're wrong. Don't keep going to workshops because you don't trust your own judgment and need some validation.  

People who are smarter and more well read and a whole variety of other things have already written about attending an MFA program while being a minority, so I will skip over that. But some of those arguments tie in to things I'm about to say about money. 

There are two main arguments (other "I want to be a better writer") for people who are considering getting an MFA. One is that they are imagining a career track in academia, and the other is that they are specifically not imagining a career in academia but just want the time to focus solely on their craft/writing. Let's take this conversation away from the arts to the sciences for a sec: I finished my doctorate pretty close to when the Global Financial Crisis reared its ugly head. Tenure-track jobs that had been listed started getting pulled. People were panicking. At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I went to a top-rated doctoral program for my field. This is how it shook out for my cohort, and I can tell you with hindsight now that a good number of years have passed.  None of my friends from my program are unemployed and destitute. All of them found something one way or another. But what happened was that the hierarchy of candidates shifted down and was spread more broadly across time. Golden students who normally would have gotten tenure track positions--maybe even a choice of them--ended up postdoc-ing, then looking for a job afterwards. Postdocs sometimes did more than one postdoc. Then the freshly graduating PhDs couldn't really compete for the tenure track jobs because they were being compared against people who had been postdoc-ing for a while and therefore had better publications and connections. So everything got shifted back, timewise. What also happened is that tenure track positions that wouldn't have been appealing to top candidates a decade ago were now desirable. If this was happening at a top-rated program, imagine what was happening far down the line at programs that weren't as competitive, didn't provide funding, and didn't have as good connections. What I told undergraduates who were thinking about getting a PhD in psychology was this: If you can get into a well-rated program that's very competitive and has good funding, go for it. There won't be a pot-of-gold/ tenure track position waiting for you at the end, necessarily, but your prospects are reasonable for something if you're going to a competitive program. Sadly, academia has continued along the path of offering fewer tenure track jobs and just hiring adjuncts and lecturers that they don't have to provide benefits for or who sometimes do not even have the right to unionize. I've seen people in both the arts and sciences struggle to piece together their finances with adjuncting and no health insurance. I feel for them. 

Here's my bit about the "I just want the time" argument. After leaving your MFA program, you are never going to have "the time" in your life for writing--you might as well start learning how to write without the time right now. Having the time to focus solely on your writing is romantic and lovely, like taking a gap year to travel the globe. It also exists on an economic plane of existence that does not make sense to me. Worst case scenario: you go to a program that doesn't fund you and rack up 30-60k a year for 2 to 3 years. Teaching afterwards will be super- competitive (if that's what you want to do) and you'll be competing for jobs against people who went to programs that funded them. Best case scenario: you got funded--great. Most people think of this in terms of gained benefits-- you gained "the time" for free and got 2 to 3 years of time to focus on your craft and the connections you make there. ***

**slight tangent. Notice that the benefit of going to the program is the time to improve your craft, but one thing I did not mention is anything related to the business side of writing. Yes, there are grad degrees in publishing, but I'm talking about MFAs in writing. Not a single person I know with an MFA says that they received decent training or guidance in submitting or selling their work, getting or dealing with agents, business networking, marketing, or paying taxes and the financial side of the publishing world. In fact, several of them have complained that they wanted their program to cover these topics and were annoyed that they didn't. I guess this is based on the idea that one does not want to sully one's art by thinking of how one will pay the bills. Here's the reality: we all have fucking bills. For some reason, the artistic world likes to pretend that money does not exist. Female writers do not want to acknowledge their corporate income husbands. No one talks about money management. There's a lot of hullaboo about the small percentage of writers who get six-figure advances, but not much about the cost of being one of the people who don't. end tangent ***

So let's say you got funded and went away for 2 to 3 years and had a great experience. But there's an opportunity cost associated with that time. My incredibly unsexy proposal: you could have spent those two or three years getting a degree in something else that would result in stable (or at least more stable) work in another field, one that would get you jumpstarted into a career in a way that an MFA might not. (hold on a sec before I get to the "artist as a singular sole-focused thing" argument). 

An adjunct lecturer could have a 2-year masters or a 6 to 8 year doctorate (and may or may not have 5- or 6-figure debt) and make about 24 k, likely with no health insurance. An editor at a New York publishing house is probably someone with a BA, but possibly a Masters as well. According to this article, the average salary for an editor at a a New York publishing house can be about 55 k-- the editor in chief positions are in the mid-70s. Here are some other salaries for people with Masters-level education (these are medians): Electrical engineering 121 k, Economics 114k, Com Sci 109k. All my degrees are in psychology, which people think of as a "soft" science (maybe it is, but I've done well for myself and minored in quant.) 

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You can hope to be James Patterson, but, statistically speaking, you probably won't be. It would be nice to get a tenure-track teaching job, but are the odds in your favor? (they might be! they might not be.) If you're going to teach piecemeal, or freelance, or work in the publishing industry, you had better really really love the work. The people who do it, do it because they love books, and from the sounds of it editors and agents are taking home stacks of manuscripts with them at home at night and working long hours. Editing and agenting aren't writing though--you would be working in a related field, but one that is demanding of a lot of your "free time" outside of work to catch up on reading. 

When I first started getting interested in speculative and science fiction, several people told me I had to check out the Clarion workshop. It sounded like a great opportunity... except it costs 5 thousand in change (not including travel). They offer scholarships, but they average at 1,500. Beyond that IT'S SIX WEEKS LONG. Yes, I love the dream world were you could go off on a six-week eat, pray, love, sci fi thing, but who the hell has six weeks off work to spare? People who don't work but have a lot of money I guess from being independently wealthy? People who are being financially supported by a loved one? People with unstable work who can squeeze the workshop in between one contract or gig? But very few people with a standard 9-to-5 in a country where we don't even get maternity leave are going to be able to swing six weeks away from work to write sci fi. It's a dream. Thus, you end up with a really specific population of people who can attend. 

Like many second-generation Asians, I was pressured by my immigrant parents to pick a career which would involve a graduate degree followed by relatively high income work. I didn't fit into the standard doctor/lawyer/computer science mold, but I did make my way to getting the Asian parent stamp of approval. This did not result at me toiling away at some soulless job that I hate. It didn't result in my giving up my hopes and dreams of becoming a writer--I have a genuine love of psychology and methods and there is a certain satisfaction I get from solving high-level problems that, as much as I love writing, I do not get from anywhere else. I've noticed that when I'm at writer's conferences there's very little conversation about people's "day jobs." I get the sense that this is because the "day job" is not considered a career, and the thing that truly defines you is your identity as an artist/ writer. There's an unstated feeling--at least in my opinion--that the art is the higher thing, and the other thing is just the unseemly thing you do to pay the bills. Work is what takes away from your ability to be a writer. I really strongly, ardently disagree with this idea. 

First let's talk about the thing that's terrible. We live in a country that does not have a good social safety net and what little safety net we have is increasingly being taken away. Like the adjuncts I mentioned above, more and more stable work is being transformed into contracting work that's less stable and offers few if any benefits. For some reason millions of people in this country don't think that health care is a basic human right. The cost of this lack of safety net is debilitating. Do the thing you love and the money will come?? The people writing those inspirational articles have apparently never had to pay for cancer treatment. They are, I guess, unlike the average American, who is  one $2,000 emergency away from serious financial problems. 

So when I hear someone contemplating whether or not to get an MFA, or whether or not to "follow their dream," I can't help thinking, no, do the thing that puts you in a place where you are financially secure, and you'll be all the closer to that dream. You are not a lesser artist because you decided to become an accountant. Consider the financial cost of "taking the time." The longer you delay being at the point where you can save for retirement, or for that $2,000 emergency, the more of a bind you might find yourself in down the road when that social safety net is increasingly eroded.  

Here's the part about "the time" I find mystifying. There's this notion of your day job taking away from your life as an artist. In terms of time and/or energy or, I don't know, artistic street cred. I would argue that it isn't an issue of time so much as efficiency, and the very fact that you even have a day job adds to the richness of someone's writing, rather than taking it away.  Say you work a 9-to-5. This means you more or less have from 5 pm to 10 or 11 pm to find some time to write. Okay, take some time away to take care of the dog, cook dinner, go to the gym, whatever. Writing does not actually take that much time.  I write pretty quickly. I'm not on drugs and I don't really drink coffee. I don't wake up before the sun rises, I don't write during lunch breaks or stay up until 1 am. Generally speaking, when I'm working on a project I finish my work that day, watch about an hour of the crappiest TV possible (The Bachelorette, for example), then I write for an hour or two before heading out to the gym or to social engagements. I write some on the weekends-- ranging from half an hour to maybe 4 hours total, but definitely not more than that. 

How long does it take to write a novel? Say you type 50 words a minute. If you wrote for half an hour every day, you'd have 1,500 words a day--that adds up. How much physical strength does it take to write a novel? You know, because you're exhausted when you get home from work. It's sitting down at a table.. It's not as exhausting as cleaning the house, cooking, or lifting weights or any variety of things one does after one comes home from work. Toni Morrison was a single mother. Stephen King wrote Carrie while working full time as a teacher in addition to doing laundry at an apparently disgusting hotel. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly guy wrote a motherfucking book by blinking. Might it be a reasonable argument that having a separate career might help you manage time more efficiently? (Let alone, in the case of literary fiction, if more of us had jobs there would be fewer books about English professors having affairs with sexy manic pixie undergrads, because we would have a broader world to write about.) 

Wendy J Fox, in an article in The Millions, writes:

We all know it’s hard to make a living as a writer, yet when I received the largest sum I’d ever been paid for a single essay or story, I didn’t share about this, because it was a kill fee. That’s something other writers should know. Again, it’s an unpredictable business. Any of us who have been doing it for a while have pages of anecdotes like this, though as authors in the contemporary landscape, we’re told to develop our platform, to promote ourselves, to broadcast our wins, not announce our letdowns.

I'm a weightlifter and oftentimes I hear people say something like it's 10% lifting and 90% what you eat. Maybe writing is like 10% writing and 90% dealing with rejection. All I know is that I don't think there are frank, open discussions about money amongst writers, and that I'm eternally grateful that I'm not doing this to put food on my table. Being rejected over and over can be disheartening to the point of depression--imagine if your next meal depended on it. 

wow that was kind of a downer.. Next week: a primer on puppies!

Fiction is not nonfiction

I don't know how this person types with both rings and bracelets on.&nbsp;

I don't know how this person types with both rings and bracelets on. 

I have been thinking a lot about this issue lately. 

It bothers me how frequently readers/reviewers assume that first person novels are actually autobiographical. I don't do this because I assume fiction is fiction and is very much deliberately fiction for a reason. Surely some novels are semi-autobiographical, but the author made a conscious decision to have them be fiction and not memoir. Last year I heard quite a bit of discussion from minority writers that people assumed that because their book focused on a MC that was [insert minority], that the book was autobiographical. 

It's puzzling to me that an author can be accused of being racist if their character is--all the more likely if the book is in first person. I've read more than one essay about how Lolita is problematic, misogynistic, patriarchical etc etc-- it seems to me that there's a difference between "you must be a disgusting pervert asshole to write this" and "author writing about a disgusting pervert asshole." The character views the world in a sick way, so the author has an obligation to depict him as such, unless of course we want all our MCs to be Disney versions of reality where everyone is wonderful all the time.

There is the distinction between "you must be the sickness you write about" and "a person writing about sickness." This distinction is sometimes hard to make, and sometimes people don't make it at all. Context matters, but often words are put into the authors mouth and sometimes they are the same words that they wrote. I have been thinking a lot recently about context collapse, and how this is a problem that is getting increasingly worse with social media. It denies nuance and ignores that the people we are on social media are not really us. 

As modern media increasingly pushes authors into being public/political figures, if your character does something racist, you will have to answer for it as if it were you who was the actor. This denies the space that should exist between fiction and nonfiction. In my opinion, all novels, regardless of person, have narrators and those narrators don't necessarily give you insight into the author. 

A 1st person novel should be imbued with the values and perspectives of the character (which aren't necessarily the same as the values and perspectives of the character). Two different 1st person novels with different MCs by the same author should not feel the same. A 3rd person novel, whether mainly through one POV or many, has a sort of ghost narrator. The author, behind the scenes, is the person moving the marionettes. Things are arranged into order and a snapshot is taken. If the story is about redemption, the narrative will hit on those themes--but this doesn't mean the author believes in redemption--it was just a redemption story. 

I have a story which, thematically speaking, is very much about the power of brotherly love and how it helps the characters transcend their personal trauma. It is earnest, funny, tinged with sadness, but ultimately hopeful. I have another story, "This Isn't Happening Again," which is the bleakest thing I have ever written. There is no hope. The narrator is cruel. It is the only thing I have ever written that is intended to make the reader feel bad. If you read the first story you might assume I'm an earnest hopeful person. If you read the second, you would have a completely different impression of me. Which is the real me? 

Neither really. Each story called for something different--different tones, different values. They are their own thing; just because I created them doesn't mean I am them. 

I was at a reading fairly recently for a 1st person novel that was very much about sexuality. A member of the audience (much to my dismay) asked how autobiographical it was. Did people do this a hundred years ago? Was I the only one who felt the question was salacious and kind of invasive? Part of me thinks that with increased access to authors, we want access inside them.

Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" talks a lot about birding, and Jonathan Franzen happens to be into birding himself. Write what you know. The problem with this is the audience thinking that they know what I know. We only know Franzen likes birding because he's talked about it publicly. Birding isn't really controversial, so I don't think anyone got their panties in a bunch about the birding in that book (well I did because I find birding uninteresting.) 

I'm writing this because I've increasingly encountered this idea in reading reviews or cultural criticism where someone is upset about something. Here's a book about a serial killer who targets women because he's a misogynist (this is often true in real life). Some reviewers are outraged about how the book is misogynistic--not the character. Is this unique to writing? When a painter paints a dolphin, we don't assume the painter is  dolphin. WTF.

I feel like visual art gets more credit for being about something-- the distance between the artist and the art is respected. This week the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were revealed. The artist, through his own unique style, says something about Obama--by the expression on his face, the nontraditional setting, the flowers. The portrait is about the person, as rendered through the style of the artist. The portrait is not the artist. It's Obama. 

As a slight tangent, a few days ago I read an article about memoirs of incest. I recall the controversy with Kathryn Harrison's book The Kiss. People attacked her in a way I find surprising. The book, they accused, was salacious--like she was mining her own trauma for gold. Who can call a memoir salacious?  Here's the problem with this--it's Harrison's story. She may or may not have wrote it during a period of time where she was messed up. Or maybe she wasn't messed up, but was writing about messed up-edness. Maybe she was trying to get a narrow slice of what her life was like back then. Not every memoir should have a "The More You Know" PSA message weaved into it--I guess there is pressure for memoir to be this way, because some people think "lessons learned" is the point of memoir. Less so for fiction. 

I have no point to round this out. Just that I've been talking with writers a lot lately who are having trouble writing because they can't get the hypothetical critical reader out of their head. The one that's looking at the author, not the book. 

A (Writing) Year in Review

Someone once pointed out to me that I never take any time to celebrate my accomplishments because I am always anxiously, frenetically focused on the next thing I'm supposed to accomplish. The end of 2016 and first half of 2017 were pretty bad for me-- I was sad and didn't quite realize it, and I worried that my obsessively reading the news or working was going to cut into my ability to be creative. I don't think that turns out to be the case when I look back at what I did this year. 

In 2017 I queried two different novels, both of which continue to get requests. Regardless of what happens with them, I still love them both and they're both an accomplishment I'm proud of. 

Although I wrote a sci-fi novel last year, in 2017 I started writing my first sci-fi / speculative fiction short stories. (er.. novellas/ novelettes). Terrorcry is sci-fi noir I wrote as part of the Jenny McKean Moore fiction workshop at GW. Shortly after I finished Guava Summer which I can't really say is a sequel, but has the same characters and gets into some themes about totalitarianism. When I was at Breadloaf I attended a seminar on "Tell, Don't Show" which was SO UP MY ALLEY. I was tired of the parroting of "Show don't tell" in workshops, because sometimes telling is awesome. I became obsessed with the idea of having an entire story that was all telling, no showing. (to be fair I think the line between the two is fuzzy). I wrote Even the Precession of Earth Must Come to an End, which is all telling and takes place over about 7.5 billion years. Then one day I went to brunch and left a little drunk, wanting an ice cream sandwich. I went to this place that has good ice cream sandwiches but when I got to the counter she said they were all out. For some reason I can't explain, this is exactly the sort of thing that would embarrass me, so I ordered a cappuccino which I didn't really want. I don't drink caffeine that often (maybe once a week) because it makes me batshit, and because I don't drink it that often, it has an even stronger effect on me. So then I was pretty drunk AND really wired, and came home and wrote an entire story just based off the title which popped in my head, I Saw Goody McDerry With the Devil. 

Another awesome thing that happened? I went to VONA this summer, a writing conference for minorities. My class (genre fiction) was all girls AND THEY WERE ALL AWESOME. I had so much fun getting to know them and had so many conversations at that conference that I haven't had anywhere else. Black poets continue to blow my mind. I ate an entire Philly cheesesteak myself. I had some beers. We talked about how we were or weren't addressing race in our works and I hadn't really thought about it before. We danced really late into the night. Fun was had. 

A story that was accepted last year, The Derecho, got published. It's about a catfish catfishing a catfish, and is part of a growing pile of stories I've written that take place in DC. In other DC news, through contacts I made at various conferences, I started to meet other writers and go to readings in the area. I knew there were writers here, but for some reason hadn't tried connecting with them before. 

On the submission front, I started sending out my speculative stories, and judging from the response I'm getting from them, I'm confident they will be getting picked up soon. I wasn't sure if being a novelist (published, anyway) was necessarily in my future, but when I got back from VONA it occurred to me that I had enough short stories to form a collection. So I did that! And I like it! I'm starting to send it places! For some reason I never thought of putting them together before, but now that I have, it's interesting to see that 1) I have enough for an entire book and 2) how they fit with each other. Some of the themes are the same, even if the content is radically different. Some fit snugly into the standard literary realist tradition and some involve people getting their detached heads reattached. 

Then in the fall came the equivalent of an unplanned pregnancy. I must have been thinking of the Goody McDerry story. Or this thriller I had written a third of but put down for a while.  It took place in college and I continue to love books that take place in college.  My friend from Boston was visiting and we were walking home and I said, "What if there was like an entire school filled with psychopaths?"  I suddenly wrote a novel. It just appeared, like an unplanned pregnancy, and forced itself out with a really short gestation period. I write really quickly once I have plot figured out. The characters and voice lent themselves to a plot that seemed to write itself. I have to say, it was my first time using Scrivener, which I was initially really skeptical of. (Kind of like how I was super skeptical of anyone who bakes but doesn't mix things by hand. Only last week I bought my first Kitchen Aid). I liked the ability to move scenes around without it being a pain in the ass. The visual representation of scenes and chapters made plotting easier. I'll try it for my next book and see how I feel. The program isn't that expensive, and I definitely don't use all the bells and whistles, but I guess I would say it's worth the cost. 

So now that I think about it, I did get a lot accomplished this year. I plan on chilling out for the next two months. Doing some baking, some editing, maybe beta reading for someone. Relaxing, I guess. 

Diagram Your Plot

This is tedious, but I'm a firm believer in doing it.  

If you're pre-Millennial the below may look familiar.  These are sentences that have been diagrammed-- broken down to the most basic components (who did what-- Boys (subject) like (verb) games (direct object). Maybe they stopped having kids diagram sentences because they thought it was a useless exercise, but I always liked it and found it helpful. 

diagram.jpg
Chloe + Yess go to SAE party. Left: C sees Will. Sees C and his girlfriend. Right: SAE house. How calm she stays.&nbsp;

Chloe + Yess go to SAE party. Left: C sees Will. Sees C and his girlfriend. Right: SAE house. How calm she stays. 

After I write a book, I always diagram the plot in at least one way. It is somewhat tedious but EXTREMELY useful. I diagram every single scene this way, which makes it really obvious to discover when I have extraneous scenes. Plot points go on the left of a notecard or post-it. A line is drawn down the center, and everything on the right is information that is probably needed to be somewhere in the book, but that technically does not move the plot forward. 

An example to the left: the major focus of this scene is that Chloe goes to a frat party. Two major plot points occur: she sees Will, and she sees another boy, Charles, with his girlfriend. These things have to happen to move the story forward. To the right are things that need to be somewhere in the book, but not necessarily here (in this case, it works out well that they go here.) A description of the SAE frat house: we need to know what it looks like, but that description isn't part of the plot. (In other words, I would not have a scene that just describes the frat house and does nothing else). The second point is to demonstrate in this scene how Chloe tends to stay really calm even when a normal person wouldn't be. This is a characterization--her tendency to not freak out--not a plot point. It cannot hold up a scene by itself. 

Here's another example from a different story: 

Left: Team is kidnapped and offered by Riley a second chance to win their stars back. Tank.&nbsp; Right: Base move occurring. NASAR (military) training. Intro Riley&nbsp;

Left: Team is kidnapped and offered by Riley a second chance to win their stars back. Tank.  Right: Base move occurring. NASAR (military) training. Intro Riley 

In the above case I color coded blue to indicate the narrator (blue= Dorian). The team is kidnapped and put into a diving tank rapidly filling with water. Obviously that is a clear plot point. Told along the way is an important setting issue--that the entire military base is in the process of planning to be moved to another planet--but technically that information is not a plot point, just something in the background. The packing boxes are laying around, and people are talking about it. Also relevant but not a plot point itself: escaping from the tank brings to Dorian's mind all the training he has endured over the years and how it could be applied to his current problem. Riley is introduced. His introduction itself is not plot--what Riley does is. 

When I've had to do serious structural edits, including needing to cut down a book significantly, doing these notecards is really useful. If you have stuff on the right side, but none on the left, this means you can take those things and move them to some other place that actually has plot points. Plot is like the skeleton in the body-- it needs to be there for structure, to literally hold the body up. Everything else can be moved around on the skeleton.  I'm of the opinion that there should not be any scenes in a novel that do not move the plot forward. Describing a setting is not plot. Describing a political context is not plot. Characterization is not plot--sometimes it seems like it is, but it should it be. "Bob is an asshole" does not move the plot forward. "Bob gets kicked out of the restaurant (because he is an asshole), getting his wife to realize that she wants a divorce." does move the plot forward. 

If I'm doing a multiple POV novel things get a bit more complicated: 

Don't bother trying to read this.&nbsp;

Don't bother trying to read this. 

On the right: You can see chapter numbers indicated on the left. This is color coded for four different narrators. Each row is one scene, each box colored in indicates one page double-spaced. This gave me a sense of how long each chapter was, how much space each character got, and how much stuff happened plotwise in each scene. 

IMG_2719.JPG

On the right: on the left page is the entirety of a book color coded by POV, with one block of graph paper per each page. The right side is the same thing, for the next book in the series. The width is the same for each. The second book stays with narrators for longer segments of time (I switched to only one narrator per chapter for thematic reasons). This gave me a sense of the "shape" of the book, who was getting long segments and where (sometimes this needed to be rebalanced.) 

TLDR: It's useful to justify every single scene, and to physically see your plot with moveable pieces. 

Trope Story Generator

List your five favorite books, movies, or TV shows. 

Cats Eye, Breaking Bad, Shawshank Redemption, Cloud Atlas, Friday Night Lights. 

List the tropes/components  in each that you like. 

Cats Eye: toxic female friendships, relational aggression, girls who don't fit in with their gender stereotype. 

Breaking Badfish out of water, close male relationships, father-son dyad

Shawshank: close male friendships, stoic males, escape plots/ "I Love It When A Plan Comes Together"

Cloud Atlas: revolution, escape plot, reincarnation, notion of doing small good in a world of bad

Friday Night Lights: small town, healthy marriage, earnest learning of lessons

Take several of the things that appear more than once and just put them in the same story. My first novel has some fish out of water stuff with both main characters, an older brother-younger brother dyad, a stoic male (and female), a hell of an escape plan, and the notion of a world of bad and what we do with that. (Is Boston a small town? Kinda.) 

A different book, the one I'm revising right now, was generated this way. I loved when Veronica Mars went to college and just wish the show could have spent years and years there--it's such a perfect environment for mysteries. I'm also a psychologist and have noticed that many people have more than just a passing interest in the field because any person can relate it to themselves. I also like stories that take place in a closed environment. And will-they-wont-they flirty friendships. Thus, I'm writing a thriller that takes place in a college, involves a large-scale psychology experiment (somewhat based on reality), and a toxic dyad at its heart. 

When all else fails, click here and pick three random tropes. 

 

How to Write Fast

1. Stop being precious. No, it is not the case that you can only write if you have 3 full hours, perfect silence, a 110 degree latte, and Mercury is in retrograde. Sit the fuck down and type. 

2. You do not have writer's block. That is not a thing. Writer's block= "I can't muster the will to write." Write something-- it doesn't have to be your current project, or the scene you need to write. Write a book or restaurant review, a character sketch, anything. 

3. Write an outline. I'm firmly against the "seat-of-your-pants" method of writing a book. Yeah yeah, everyone has their own process, but if your process is writing 85,000 words before you realize there's massive plot holes, I would argue that your process sucks. An outline is effectively a to-do list. I have a full-time career in an unrelated field--I do not have time to dawdle in front of the computer wondering what to write. I have a list I have to get through. Which leads me to...

4. Write out of order. I feel odd saying it because I thought everyone did, but I have met some people who feel like they can only write in order. That they must work on Chapter 3 before they can work on Chapter 4. Write whatever strikes your fancy and fill in the gaps later. 

5. Utilize "yaddah- yaddah". Say you're breezing along. At the end of this scene there needs to be a pretty cut-and-dry convo-- like "Why didn't you go to the police when you found the dead body?" Maybe you know the answer or maybe you don't, but right now you don't care. Just write "blah blah" or [they have the convo about the police]. Go back to it later. 

6. Establish healthy boundaries with respect to research. Either do A or B. A is research something moderately to thoroughly before you write anything about it in your book. B is make shit up. What you don't want to do is be happily chugging along, then come to the part that takes place at the (real) Mayflower Hotel in DC, then spend two hours straight learning everything about it, including what type of mortar was used to hold the bricks together when it was being constructed. Either do it before or just make it up--just make it good whether the facts are real or fake. There's such a thing as doing too much research. For example, this strange place, the McMillan Sand Filtration Site, is the location of a set piece in the novel I'm revising right now. I already knew what it looked like from having driven by it. I knew what it was basically, and spent about 5 minutes doing research to find out when it was built, when it was operational, and when it stopped being operational. Did I need to know the architect or how exactly the water was filtered? No. If the story was actually about the Site itself, maybe, but there was a level of "need to know." If you can't go to the Mayflower and you don't know what the staircase looks like there, you can either spend a bunch of time trying to find out, or you could make it up, or just say "staircase"--and the more important thing would be to have one or two details about something else that feel real even if they aren't. You're writing fiction, not history. (um, unless you write nonfiction.) 

7. Don't write what you know, write what you love. Stuff you find fun will always come faster. The harrowing tale of your own personal trauma--that's not going to come out quickly. But think of your guilty pleasures. The tropes you love in both "good" and "bad" TV, movies, and books. 

8. Don't show your stuff to people, including yourself. You need to be able to produce material even without the threat of a deadline imposed by a critique partner. You need to be free from voices which doubt your direction. (I am pro-beta reader, but increasingly skeptical about workshopping as a need as opposed to a form of socializing, and I'm not sure about critique partners while you are still drafting.) Don't go back and revise your writing--or at least no more than a page or two. 

9. Block off time when you are specifically not allowed to write.  I once heard something about psychologist Viktor Frankl. He had a patient who worried constantly. He told them, I'm assigning you to worry as much as possible between 9 and 10 am. Lo and behold, the person did their assignment so well that they were actually sort of burnt out on worrying after that.  This is the obverse of that. In thinking about your work day, don't look for time to write--block of time when you are specifically not allowed to write. For weekend days, don't let your calendar show a gaping open space all day that just says "write book." I wake up early and go to work--so no potential free time until 4:30, 5. I have a dog to take care of, my own maw to feed, and I have a specific time where I like to get to the gym. I write between dinner and the gym--I stop at the predesignated time, no matter how hot things have gotten. If I have what appears to be an empty weekend day, I block time off for things other than writing--weightlifting, leisurely walk with my assistant editor (dog), chores from 1-2:30, 2:30-3 panicking about the increasing meaninglessness in the world, reading 5 to 6, social event from 6 to 10 pm. Which means I only "get" that bit of afternoon time to write.  When you have a bunch of stuff going on, you don't have the luxury of time. You have to be efficient because you have no other choice. You are assigned to write then, and no where else. You don't have to stay home from a social event because you are (tragically) working on your novel--you'll just write faster and harder the day before and the day after. Time is a commodity. If you have too much time to write, time has no value. You won't get anything done. 

10. Think about your ideal reader.  Don't think about publication. Or agents. If you will offend someone. About Comic Book Guy tweeting about how you got some detail wrong. Your ideal reader is a lot like you. She's excited about your characters and story. Your idea writer is not your mother. Or your judgy aunt. Or Snarky McSnarkface from your MFA. This book is for you and no one else right now. The only notes to hit are the ones you want. 

 

 

In honor of NaNoRiMo-- which I'm not doing, I'm going to try to blog once a day for the rest of the month. In particular, I'd like to focus on the "I'm not a full time writer" thing and how you can still make it work. That said, I might just end up writing long blog posts that are actually just hypercritical reviews of Assassin's Creed starring Michael Fassbender. 

Not that you need to be told this but no, you don't need to write every day.

Someone published a "writing advice" article about how you need to write every day otherwise you are a fail or whatever.  "Write every day" is one of those perennial things which appears in writing advice nuggets.  I don't believe in that piece of advice, and not just because that method doesn't work for me.

I used to feel guilty about not writing every day, or having long stints of time where I am not writing and am instead binge watching Friday Night Lights on Netflix (which I've already seen) or engaging in my endless search for a lobster necklace on Etsy.  Then I did the math on my productivity.  It takes me about 6 months to write a novel.  Just the draft.  Which I then put away, then rewrite however many times.  But the actual bulk of the work takes 6 months, which is a decently fast clip.  I'm new to novel writing--most of my writing life has been spent as a short story writer.  I tended to think about stories a lot before I ever sitdown to write them, so when I did finally sit down, they more or less come out in one long stream.  However much time I have to type that day, that is.  Similarly for novels, I work out my plot outlines and just plow through it.

Which means I have a high amount of productivity during a short burst of time, then a word desert for weeks or months.  You know what though?  My productivity is fine. 

I can't find the article, but when I was training for a long running race, I read something by a marathoner who said that his absurd finishing speeds (I don't know--anything less than 12 hours seems fast to me--but I think it was 3 hours) were not hindered, but actually helped by the fact that he took breaks to walk.  This goes against logic in some sense, how can going slower help you go faster?  Even when you're doing it during a race, you feel a pressure to start running again because people are passing you.  A guy dressed like the Statue of Liberty juggling three balls is passing you (yes this happened to me.).  Ultimately, taking walking breaks became a structured way for me to complete races in increasingly faster times. 

Similarly, I'm a weight lifter and anyone who lifts weights knows that you can't work the same group on Monday and Tuesday.  Lifting causes tiny damage to your body--you need that time to recover.  And protein in the form of mediocre-tasting powder-based drinks.  Lifting more is not lifting better if it results in your being injured, or working inefficiently.  More is not better.  Ask anyone who does interval training. 

I get the sense that "write every day" might be something that some people need to be told in order to get their butts in a chair, because otherwise, they won't write.  Well. . . if you need to be shoehorned into doing something, maybe you don't really like doing it?  Yeah writing involves some components that you don't like--maybe it's revision. Maybe it's copyediting.  But at some level, you should want to work sometimes, and you should be able to without having a rigid structure imposed on you by some arbitrary guideline.  Often people lament that they don't "have the time" to write because [insert whatever].  Jobs.  Kids.  No quiet space.  But the fact is that people with jobs, kids, and loud spaces all find a way.  They learned to write in small bits of time they did have, or when the kids were screaming. They did it because they wanted to.  And the shape of how they did it differed. 

Do what works for you.  If it's not working, stop.  "Not working" can also mean not hitting the quality goals you want because you're burning yourself out.  Things that are "not writing" are actually writing: targeted reading, reading for pleasure, going to readings, admin stuff like sending to magazines or researching agents or publishers, consuming things--which includes TV, movies, meditating, running, baking, or whatever puts you in a thoughtful mood.

Why I Hate(d) Present Tense

 

I'm not a huge fan of creative writing that's in present tense; it has its time and place, but I'm of the opinion that it's overused.  If present tense writing is done well, you don't even realize it's in present tense; when it's done badly, it sticks out and is often jarring.  Past tense has been the default for so long that it's naturally invisible in most cases.

(Kind of an aside, but one could argue, if present tense is invisible if done well, and past tense is invisible regardless, why pick the former over the latter?)

The primary argument for using present tense is "immediacy," in the sense that you are right there along with the character, seeing everything unfold minute to minute.  I would argue that the primary reason for just how much present tense writing there is out there right now has less to do with immediacy, and more to do with what happens to be in style. I have written in it before, and still do occasionally, but my own default is past tense and I find myself irked when I'm reading something in present tense that does it badly. (Another peculiar thing is how often you catch a writer writing in present tense lapsing into past tense.)  While there are present tense genre books, as someone who passes between genre and literary fiction, it seems like there's way more present tense being used in literary fiction.  I think this is because it was solidified as part of the hyper-realistic style that dominates in litfic that we were all taught in creative writing classes from emulating the classics (see: the post WW2 white writers, typically males)  Present tense "sounds" more literary, in part because on a line-by-line basis there's something that makes it sound different than "standard" storytelling. 

Good present tense writing is immediate and never jarring.  But oftentimes when it isn't done so well, it isn't immediate at all, is sometimes grammatically confusing (or just incorrect), is often dishonest; in which case you'd think, why not just write in past tense?  (whisper: because it isn't literary..)

Historical present tense

Historical present tense makes the most sense to me.  We lapse into colloquially when we're talking about something that's already happened, e.g., "So I met up when them, and like, I go in, and everyone there is wearing rabbit ears, and I'm like, what?"

a strange recurrent instance of Bart Simpson speaking in historical present tense.

It works well for things that are extremely grounded in moment-by-moment details:

JFK and Jackie are sitting in the back of the convertible, waving. Suddenly he jerks forward, grabbing at his throat with both hands.  People scream. The car speeds up.

Although really, I could argue, is this that different from:

JFK and Jackie were sitting in the back of the convertible, waving. Suddenly he jerked forward, grabbing at his throat with both hands.  People screamed. The car sped up.

Minor lapses in immediacy... Forgivable, or moral travesty?

Here's where it gets weird, at least for me.  Take the following conversion from simple past tense to present tense.

The dog barked all afternoon until someone took pity on it and let it out.
The dog barks all afternoon until someone takes pity on it and lets it out.

The first sentence, in simple past tense, actually has two senses of time: a longer period where the dog is barking, and then a more specific time point when someone lets it out.  (You could also convert this to present perfect tense: The dog had barked all afternoon until someone let it out. In proper usage "had barked" is someone that occurred in the past-past until someone interrupted it--letting it out, which is in simple past. I can't imagine that there is any reason for past perfect tense even existing except for the fact that humans have been telling stories in past tense for centuries and our language developed that way.)  The present tense sentence violates any sense of immediacy to me--because of that span of time, I'm not "in the moment," I'm summarizing over a series of moments.  That sentence probably doesn't bother a lot of people, but I'd argue that it's more of a stylistic choice, than a choice made because it is more immediate. "Immediate" should be point-by-point, like the JFK example.

Major lapses in immediacy

Sometimes you need to summarize over large swathes of time. This is fundamentally "telling," and has to occur sometimes in regular writing, and in exceptional writing can be just as captivating as "showing". (See Italo Calvino or Gabriel Garcia Marquez).  Take the following three examples in, respectively, past tense, past perfect tense, and present tense.

Mordor recruited troops from distant lands for ten years before marching on Osgiliath.
Mordor had recruited troops from distant lands for ten years before it marched on Osgiliath.
Mordor recruits troops from distant lands for ten years before it marches on Osgiliath.

The marching on Osgiliath part is the most "immediate" part here.  You're not "there" as much with the ten year recruiting part.  In the JFK case, I'm literally describing the second-by-second of the Zapruder film. With past tense, in some cases summary is merely background information that provides context for the more important, immediate part of the sentence.  In other cases, it is a thing unto itself: the thing you are describing is so large across space or time that it can't be handled except in summary (e.g., the descriptions of the progress of the Civil War in Gone with the Wind) or you are for stylistically referring to something "large" in simple terms ("The universe expanded" or "Rome fell." --this reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut.)  The reason that present tense doesn't work well for summary is that lack of immediacy (this would be the part of the movie that is a montage of ten years of recruiting troops, as opposed to moment-to-moment), but also the timeline getting messed up.  Mordor can't be recruiting (for ten years) at the same time it is marching on Osgiliath because both are in present tense.  Unless you want to say that ten years passes after you read the word "years."  This is weird. 

Present tense memoir?

If you think of it, memoir is composed of four separate things: 1, a personal recounting of something that happened, 2, a best recollection of one's emotions at those points in time, 3, time-of-writing reflection on those events, and 4, time-of-writing emotions about those events.  Human memory is very much fallible; memories are constructed more than they are recalled like videotape that is played back.  1 is hard enough, and I find it hard to believe that 2 is really 2, and not 3 and 4 influencing 2.  I find it hard to believe that they don't.  To write about what happened to you in the past in present tense, for the sake of immediacy, is to ignore that all the time that passed between then and now isn't reflected back in that writing.  As if it isn't altering the very way you tell the story itself.  This view may be extreme.  I don't care, I'm just writing random shit on a blog. 

One thing that more justifiably drives me crazy: extensive summary and violation of one's own personal timeline in memoir.  Take the following:

It's Christmas.  I am unwrapping my three presents: a yo-yo, a watercolor set, and a My Little Pony with long eyelashes. My family does not have a lot of money. 

So far so good.  Not really though--the yo-yo promptly broke.  But then:

In 1970 my parents meet in Bombay at a tea shop.  They are different castes.  They get married and move to America.

Wait a minute.  I wasn't even alive in 1970. Worse still:

In 1978, I am born.

Dude.  No.  Not unless you are David Copperfield.  There is no immediacy to the moment of my birth.  I have no memory of it.  Changing the words and content around, I have seen this in personal memoir and it makes me want to gouge my eyes out.  These things are subjective and things will move in and out of style. 

For the love of god what does future tense in present tense even mean?

Again, this is referring to memoir.  It drives me crazy every single time because sometimes there isn't context to understand whether the meaning is literal or figurative.  Example:

My fifth year into my PhD program it occurs to me that over the rainbow, there might not be a job. I study statistics.  I do some schmoozing networking even though I don't like it.  I will get a job.

Does "I will get a job" mean that literally, in my future a job will be there?  In other words, in the past (told in present tense) I am saying that I know (in the future) the fact of what will occur (that I will get a job.)  I don't know, isn't that motherfucking cheating?  Or is the statement "I will get a job" more figurative, like me making a declaration of will or intent. (Which, literally, every time I think about this issue, makes me think of the below scene from Wayne's World.) 

 

In sum, if your writing reminds someone of Wayne's World, you have probably failed.

World Building: Draw a Map in Your Awful Serial Killer Handwriting

At one point, I was writing about a small liberal arts school in New England that had been taken over by an armed cult.  When I was in high school this was the liberal arts college I had in mind—an amalgamation of every New England liberal arts school (minus the armed cult part).  Brick buildings with ivy growing on them, huge fields of green grass, a more or less enclosed space.  Somehow every single school I went to ended up being a city campus which probably is the best match for my personality, although when I was in graduate school and had a brief flirtation with becoming a professor, it was those campuses I was thinking about.  Small, enclosed, green grass.  Quirks I saw during a brief stay at Middlebury: the aggressive sign in the cafeteria which said “Please do not take the lunch trays—THAT’S NOT SUSTAINABLE!”  (Presumably people were taking them to go sledding.)  Also there was one main street “in town” that had one bar that everyone would go to. 

For the book I was writing, why bother going with a real school when I would make up my own and therefore have all my own rules (they can take the lunch trays whenever they want!!)  Particularly in stories that take place in an enclosed space, knowing where everything is—and having your characters know this intuitively without them figuring it out on the page—is critical.  How big is campus?  Where do people live?  Where do they eat or congregate after class?  Where did that kid get caught having sex in the bushes by the campus police?  Where’d they find the dead girl?  Where would you hide a gun where no one would find it?  How far do random pairings of characters live from each other? 

Yup.&nbsp; That's a croissant stain.&nbsp; Deal with it.

Yup.  That's a croissant stain.  Deal with it.

I’ve been working on a lot of things at once recently, but have wanted to get going on this speculative fiction thing I’m writing which is sort of like a literary/scifi retelling of the Jonestown Massacre.  So I more or less know the beginning and the end.  Our heroes arrive at a commune where family members have claimed that abuse is occurring.  It’s an enclosed space.  I know that things start out fine—the commune seems idyllic and people play volleyball and have plenty to eat.  Then things go horribly wrong.  How and where do they go wrong?  I didn’t have a pre-set idea of things already arranged in my head like I did for the college story so I figured I would start to draw a map and maybe fill things out.  I mean, if I were building a commune, where would people eat?  Sleep?  Where’d they bury the dead girl?  Where’s the fence weak?  Isn’t that an incredibly small area to grow crops for a commune that is allegedly self-sustainable..?

Points for anyone who can actually read this.

Points for anyone who can actually read this.