Reading: A Passion, Not an Assignment

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Much prettier original image by Thomas Le Febvre, via unsplash.com.

Reading as a Passion, Not an Assignment

I see it more and more here lately. The trend of ‘shelfies’, where book lovers posts pictures of their bookshelves so eeeeveryone can see just what they’re reading (just as contrived, of course, as the actual selfie. And a good deal more full of intellectual back-patting). A quote from Ovid, culled lovingly and out of context for a Facebook profile. And any more, if you DARE misuse an apostrophe in a comment thread, God save your soul from the grammar Nazis lurking in the next comment with a Final Solution for you.

Hurr, hurr. Aren’t you all very clever.

I was an English major in college (no, I didn’t graduate). I’m not well educated, but I’m not poorly educated, either. I’m not a literary genius–however, I’m pretty far from being an idiot too. What I am is a writer. What I am is a lifelong lover of books.

So let me ask you this, earnestly and directly:

Please stop using my lifelong passion as your selfish intellectual coup de grace. Please Jesus. Please, please, please.

Every book website I check into, EVERY ONE, has a list of ‘Classics To Read Before You Reach This Arbitrary Age.’ Because, tee hee, you’re nothing if you haven’t read Anna Karenina by the time you’re thirty! How on Earth can you ever hope to fit in with your well-read friends and eventually marry a well-read man if you don’t know shit about Dostoyevsky? (Also, here’s a list of thirty really popular romance novels you can sneak on the side while you finish those Russian monsters. Don’t tell your lit teacher.). But reading like totally benefits you and makes you a better person. It’s like Echinacea. Feeling foggy today? Take a book!

When the fuck did reading ‘great literature’ become a task we completed so our family and friends could give us approving nods, or so we could be one step closer to realization on our self-improvement programs? When did this awful self-perpetuating trend of doing ‘smart things’ just so you can benefit begin?

(For that matter, when did everything become a matter of self-improvement and lifestyle affirmation? Part of life is learning to roll with the punches, and if everything you surround yourself with gives you a warm glow inside and a friendship with likeable characters then you, sir or madam, are not learning to roll. Folks need to learn how to enjoy disagreement, how to debate and dissent without personal hard feelings. But that’s neither here nor there.)

We need to de-mystify the purpose of reading, especially reading classics. I might argue we need to de-emphasize the importance of ‘classics’ altogether. You read Ulysses? So what? I can read Ulysses too. So could any child old enough to know most of the words. The question is, really, did you enjoy it. Did you connect with it. Not did you read it. (We won’t even enter into the stratosphere of ‘did you understand it’. I’m not even certain Joyce understood it).

I have never read Anna Karenina. I haven’t read it because I’m not a big goddamn fan of Tolstoy. I like his shorter stuff, but I made it like halfway through War and Peace, got tired, and took a nap. I never even made it to Anna. Does this mean I’m an idiot? Um, no. Does it mean I’ve missed some vital piece of my existence? Maybe, but if I have I so far haven’t noticed it. If I ever feel it calling to me, I’ll try again. But so far, I haven’t. Kreutzer Sonata, on the other hand–there’s a great damn story. I enjoyed it.

I repeat: I did not read this great classical work of literature, Anna Karenina, because I wasn’t interested in it.

I repeat, also: reading is my passion. I love books. Like, looove them love them. The first men I ever loved were men in books, the first women I ever wanted to be ‘besties’ with were characters on paper. I read hundreds of books a year. Hundreds. Not because that’s cool (it’s, um, not) or because I have a set number of books I need to read to feel literarily educated. I read them because I’m interested. I read them because I like to read and I get caught up. Could I tell you exactly how many books I’ve read this year? No. Fuck, no. Because I don’t keep count. I’m too busy reading.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying reading can’t improve you as a human being. Reading a book, after all, is a great way to see places you’ve never been, feel things it is otherwise physically impossible for you to feel. A great book is an uncomfortable experience. It makes you feel things, sometimes, that are taboo, inappropriate, misunderstood. It makes you question your own value system and what you know about the world around you. It lets you into other peoples’ lives, other times, other cultures. And, sometimes: it’s just plain good. You just plain liked it. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

So. The short version of what I’m saying: never read something because it is expected of you to read it. Don’t read for the promise of life change. Don’t read for the promise of learning.

Read because you’re interested. Read it because it’s a good book and you like it. If the only thing you like is Harlequin romances, well, so what? They might not be putting your portrait on the wall at Columbia anytime soon, but you’re going to be a happy camper. Maybe not the most empathetic and educated camper, but again, so fucking what?

Otherwise, with every volume you dry-swallow because you’re supposed to read it and it’s ‘great literature’, you’re on the road to becoming one more person, in a world filled with these people, who doesn’t enjoy reading. With every sentence you underline because you ‘feel it relates to your problems’ and it’ll make a great facebook quote later you are becoming one more cog in the great grinding self-involved culture machine. Let a book take you outside of yourself, not farther in. The world isn’t all about you, and your reading shouldn’t be either. Not everything written ever is going to validate your lifestyle and your beliefs, and you shouldn’t expect it to.

When you’ve finished a good book at four AM, and the house is quiet, keep staring for a few seconds at that final page. Take a deep breath. Put it down. And if it’s a good book, if you really cared about it, for the rest of the day you’ll catch yourself thinking about it.

Not because it’s Great Literature and you know you’re supposed to. Because you can’t help yourself. Because it’s part of you now, and you have to.

Here are fifteen books that’ve done this for me. Some of them are classics, because, y’know, classics tend to be pretty good. Check ’em out if you want, you might like them as much as I did. I’d leave a note here that some of these books might not tally with your personal value system or your view on the way the world should work, but frankly, I don’t give a good goddamn. Some of them don’t tally with MINE. And I liked them anyway. Words are words. They can’t hurt you.

The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. LeGuin)
Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie)
A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. LeGuin)
Dead Souls (Nikolai Gogol)
Native Son (Richard Wright)
The Twelve Caesars (Suetonius)–sooooo much more entertaining than Tacitus. So. Much. Make yourself some popcorn and learn about the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Alison Bechdel)
Women (Charles Bukowski)–I know what you’re thinking here. Lewd bunch of crap. You’re thinking that because you had a strong reaction to it. Therefore: read ESPECIALLY if you are NOT a chauvinist pig.
The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)
The Woman Warrior (Maxine Hong Kingston)
The Darling (Russell Banks)–A book all Americans who feel woefully exposed when they travel should read right about now. If you read it and you don’t understand why I said that, message me and we’ll talk.
The Secret History (Donna Tartt)
McTeague (Frank Norris)
The Monk (Matthew Lewis)–this is hands-down the best Gothic novel ever written. It has monks, a pure young heroine, crypts, foreign locales, the Devil–screw you, Ann Radcliffe. Screw you.
The Immoralist (Andre Gide)

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Writing: My Process

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WRITING WEDNESDAY: MY PROCESSES THAT AREN’T POOPING

WARNING: This post is more fun process-related ramble than educational, or even really about outlining. But I never tell you guys stuff about me, so here goes.

I would like to take this moment, random internet viewers, and lie to you.

I would like to tell you I wake up at five in the morning, so I have a few hours to drink coffee and let my day begin before work. I’d like to tell you I’m typing this in some super-fancy writing room (we’ll call it ‘The Solar’,) in a lovely Frank Lloyd Wrightesque split-level somewhere picturesquely deep in the woods.

I’d like to lie and tell you I’m wearing a smoking jacket and a fez, I have my life in order, and most of all, I would like to lie and tell you I use outlines.

However, none of this is true. I’m wearing a work dress and shoes that are, even by my approximation, shitty (and they’ve been broken down and shitty for two years). I am literally typing this up with tablet on knee during an hour-long inter-city bus ride into Raleigh. And I have never–never in my LIFE–seen any point to a fucking outline. Outlines are the devil. Outlines are a plague worse than diphtheria, malaria, and typhoid combined into one Victorian heart-of-darkness-style masterfuck.

Some people disagree. Some people–probably people who make dinner at night instead of throwing up their hands and going ‘eat whatever we have’–like them, even need them, to write a good story. And that’s all well and good. Different strokes and whatnot. I’m not saying everybody functions like I do.

However, in high school, I was that kid who groaned whenever I saw I needed to write an outline for a paper. I would do it–for the graaades, honey–not even save it, and never look at it again. Because it was a useless piece of paper.

Because I pants harder than Wrangler Jeans. (More on this subject can be found here).

I wanted to take a moment and discuss why it is this works for me, and why I believe in pantsing as opposed to the traditional outline-and-elaborate method. There are, as best as I’ve been able to figure out, two main reasons this works for me. And they are:

1) I am Pygmalion, and my characters are like hideous Galateas..

I approach writing more as a sort of sculpting than a linear a to b style undertaking. I slosh down my first draft with all the abandon of a frat boy at an end of year kegger. I get it done, more or less. I get the plot hashed out as best I can. And then, when I have the tangle of words that serves in this extended Pygmalion metaphor as rough rock, I start chipping away.

Because a story, I feel, is a thing best approached from both ends. When I’ve already written my ending, I have an idea of where I want the beginning to go, and how to flesh it out so it goes there better. I’ve a rough idea of all the little things that are going to make my Galatea lovely, and once I have the whole body of work to move over I can pay them proper attention.

When you employ this method, there are reasons for you to stop and think, even in the creation of your rough draft roughage. And outline, on the other hand, lulls you into the mistaken idea that you’ve already figured it out pretty well (you haven’t) and you know exactly what needs to happen (you don’t). It gives your characters a little room to take on life–I’ve had moments where my characters, instead of doing what I’d like them to do, what would make the plot turn out how I want it to turn out, decide to go do something completely crazy.

If you think this is pointless romanticizing of the writing process, you’ve not been writing for very long. It doesn’t happen because omg mysterious creative juices or anything: it happens because, whether you realize it or not, something you have planned for your plot doesn’t jibe with the way you’re writing your characters. I had this problem in Aurian and Jin, when Jin’s leaving Dern Darien for the last battle with the Bonemaker–in my first draft (and in my head) she let Aurian go along with her, and it just never worked, because Jin’s high-powered controlling ass wouldn’t do that.

It took me about three weeks to realize exactly what was wrong, and I was glad I did. Because it’s an important developmental moment for both Jin and Aurian (spoiler warning!)–Jin needs to learn that needing people doesn’t involve yeast and a floured surface, and Aurian’s passive ass needs to learn that he can be needed, and that Jin can be wrong. Without that developmental milestone, both characters would be flatter, and the climactic scene, where Jin and Aurian kill the Bonemaker together, would lack the emotional resonance of two people, one entirely too independent and one entirely too dependent, creating an equalized unified front.

Had I used an outline, I might never have caught that. Because, instead of writing the story to fit the characters, I would have written the characters to fit the story–which, if you want great characters, is a cardinal sin.

To generalize: pantsing lets your creation magnifique take on a life of its own. And that’s what you want in a story, isn’t it? Life.

2) I spend a lot of time thinking about this shit anyway.

When I say I don’t do an outline, that may not be entirely true. No, I never write it down. No, it isn’t color coded and appended like my grocery lists (I’ll say this for me, I write a helluva grocery list).

But when I’m doing something mentally non-taxing, like cooking dinner or cleaning the house or taking a nice long walk, I let my mind wander. And it wanders, invariably, to whatever I’m writing (a sign, probably, that I don’t have a very interesting life). And I think through these things. I picture my characters, picture what they’d be doing right now, what they wear, who would play Jin in the move (I’m feeling Tilda Swinton, but I think she’s too pretty). I visualize my scenes in living color, pick out scene music.

This might sound a little woo woo New Age write-and-do-yoga to you, and it probably is. But I’ve found light motion helps me think–even restless pacing, if I’m stuck in the house. This might be because I’m tie-me-to-a-jungle-gym levels of ADD. Or it might be because I’m overall a visual sort of person, and seeing the words on the page actually blocks me up a little bit.

In fact, the only thing that helps me with a big block is time to sit back and mull it over. Some people call this writer’s block–unfairly, I think (I’ll do a blog soon on why, precisely, I think the idea of writer’s block is stupid). You’re still performing the writing process, you just aren’t writing any words down. And, just like ninety percent of what you know about your world never makes it to your manuscript, ninety percent of your writing-thoughts never get written down.

This doesn’t make them any less important or useful. It just means they weren’t the best ideas.

If you have the sort of shaggy, visually-focused thought processes I have, an outline quickly starts looking more like a football play would look if Wilkie Collins vomited laudanum all over it. Not a terribly useful document for anybody, even the person who wrotedrew it. So you might as well cut that step out, right? Because The Moonstone, that’s why.

Anyway. This isn’t one of those posts where I give you good advice, or try and tell you what to do. This is just a little glimpse into my process, if there is indeed a process. I don’t need a lot of prewriting, fancy writing tools, etc., and I certainly don’t need Scrivener. What I need, for the most part, is a little bit of time and a repetitive task. And then, at some point, word processing.

Happy Wednesday.

Writing: The Production End of Your Business Plan

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WRITING: Writing as a Business

So, obviously, I don’t have enough to do today. You’re getting two blogs, you KNOW I don’t have enough to do today.
As a result of my laziness, I’ve been online googling and Pintresting things related to writing as a business. My sales are down, I’ve got a mini-launch coming up. I need to be thinking more about the business side of things.

I’m not the best person at businessing (yes, I just turned that noun STRAIGHT UP into a verb), but I try. When I DON’T sell, I generally know why–I’m not putting enough effort into advertising my wares. I can say this, of course, until I’m purple, but the fact remains: I have a full time job, a long transit time. I have people in my life who want to see me periodically. And…

And.

I HAVE SHIT TO WRITE.

The reason this is in all caps is simple. Paging through suggested business plans for indie authors, I saw a lot of what you’d expect–use social media x number of times daily, make  number of public appearances, set advertising budgets and goals, take the business side of this seriously, save your goddamn receipts. All the stuff you’d expect. And, then, some stuff you wouldn’t: spend a few minutes each day clearing off your desk. Give thanks to the Lord for your successes every night. Once, memorably: don’t forget about your family.

All right, that’s all well and good. Very thoughtful. But there is one thing–ONE THING–almost every single one of the ‘plans’ I checked out neglected.

Can you guess what it is? I bet you can.

It’s the production plan. You know, your manufacturing end of the business spectrum. You know. WRITING.

Not a SINGLE ONE of these plans (and I looked at five or six before throwing up my hands) allotted time, or even SUGGESTED time, for WRITING A BOOK.

Once I realized, I was horrified. Have we gotten so involved in social media, patting ourselves on the back and looking like internet-educated professionals, that we’ve forgotten how important it is to ACTUALLY WRITE A BOOK?

Don’t get me wrong. If you want to sell copies, you absolutely DO need to treat your writing endeavor as a business. You need to have selling goals and ideas. You need to advertise. You need to tweet your little heart out.

But before all of that, you need to sit down and write something.

And if you want that thing to sell, you need to not be thinking about how many social media likes you’re going to get, what suit you need to wear to your book signing, whether or not you’ve given thanks for your successes today, whatever. You need to be thinking about your story, your characters. You need to be writing, at least a few words a day. And you need to enjoy it. Because otherwise, why are you doing it? For fame? Gosh, good luck getting famous with a self published novel on the internet. I know, I know, some people have done it, but they’re few and far between.

And their books were good. Because they took the time to make them good.

I promise you, before they started coming up with elite social media strategies, these people wrote. And they enjoyed it. Because they’re writers, and that’s what they do.

A lot of ‘writing as business’ blogs tend to shame writers a little for ‘not treating their writing venture as a business’, and this, frankly, is toxic and unwise, and IMO part of what kills indie quality. It isn’t a damned business. It’s a book. What happens AFTER is the business, and yes it’s part of your business plan, but so’s production. Can you imagine a toothbrush-making company’s business plan without x number of toothbrushes required for success? No? Of course you can’t. Because in order to sell, they need a PRODUCT. So do you.

I’m begging you guys. Don’t lose sight of your writing for the sake of ‘business’. Selling copies is important if you want to make a living, yes–but it’s a means to an end. It comes after the product. And, while it should be respected, your writing deserves the first respect.

Because, as a retail veteran and not as a writer at all, I will tell you–if the product’s no good, or just plain isn’t there, no one will come back for seconds.

So, when you’re coming up with your business plan, please take a few seconds and allot some time to creating the product you plan on selling. Because, if you’re really busy, that’s the thing that should come first. You might want to consider adding a ‘production plan’ section to your business plan, detailing roughly how much and when you need to write to stay on track. You might not stick to it, I know–but this way, at least you’ll know when you haven’t. And just having it in there will remind you, in all of this mess, about what’s really important.

Because you aren’t writing to get famous (and most of us aren’t doing it to pay the bills). You’re writing to write. Because you have to write. Because you’re a writer.

Thanks,
EFR

Writing: Truth in Fiction

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I want to tell you guys a story. It’s about German-born pianist Hans Wegener.

In 1939, when he was only 24 years old, Wegener was recognized as one of the greatest concert pianists in the country. Leaping into the gap provided by the absence of many Jewish entertainers, he was able to rise quickly to prominence, playing in the grandiose style of the nationalist movement.

He was heavily favored for private parties, in fact, by many key members of the Nazi party, including Goebbels and Seyss-Inquart and, on occasion, Hitler himself. It was Goebbels, the great propagandist, who said of the man: ‘only at (Wegener’s) fingertips do the German people return to their old musical might.’

What none of them knew: Hans Wegener was also a British spy. He had been feeding the British intelligence through letters to his mother, a British national, since Hitler’s ascent in 1933.

There are many stories about Wegener, but the one I’m interested in telling here is the one that ended his career: the story of his concert at the reintegration of Danzig, after the Polish campaign that would later prove to be the beginning of WWII, into Germany.

Wegener played a legendary four hours that night. He played for the German military leaders of the campaign, including General Heinz Guderian, all of whom were flushed with success. He played classical songs of German composers long dead, nationalist tunes churned out by Gobbels’s famous propaganda machines, and, as the night wore on and the military leaders grew drunker, maybe just a little swing, just a little jazz.

What none of these peacock-proud generals realized: as Wegener played, Wegener’s luggage was making the rounds.
When Wegener and his twelve suitcases, previously full of outfits for every occasion on the front, left by train in the morning, he was not headed back to Germany. He made it, in fact, all the way back to London before anyone realized something was wrong.

Wegener, realizing the outbreak of war was now inevitable, had gotten himself to the safe harbor of England as soon as he could. With him, hidden in his suitcases, were twelve Polish children of Jewish descent. Over the course of the war, Wegener would apply for and be granted British citizenship, and adopt all twelve of the children. He never returned to Germany again, but made music on several occasions for British high command.

Why am I telling you this, you might wonder? Am I about to make some sort of moral point about the bewitching value of music, the blind eye even the most choking of dictatorships often turns on its artists and writers?

No. I told you this whole story, in fact, because it is a big fat lie. It’s bullshit. It’s fibbery, frippery, etc. And the theme of our Writing Day is, in fact:

WRITING: HOW TO LIE WELL

This might not seem important to you. It might not even seen moral. But trust me: if you want to write fantasy/sci-fi, you want to lie like Chikikiri, silver-tongued folk hero of the Himalayan Montep people. There is an art and a science to lying well. And it is the same art and science you should take to worldbuilding.
We’ll explore this in five parts:

1) Tone.
Let’s look at this story. A British spy in the German intelligentsia, a concert pianist, children smuggled from the Eastern front in suitcases. It’s not a real story–there was no such person as master pianist Hans Wegener–but the elements sound like a lot of WWII stories out there. Unlikely heroes, simple people doing their part, a great bolshy nationalist regime. We’ve all seen some of the movies this lie takes its tone from–The Pianist and Inglorious Basterds are two more recent ones that come to mind. (And there was, for your edification, a British man who smuggled a lot of Jewish children out of Eastern Europe in a similar fashion–check out his real story, which is much more inspiring than my fake one, here).

So we’ve managed this: creating a lie that feels the same as the truth, or at least what the general public sees as the truth. And, when you’re writing up your fictional world, this should be your first step: setting up a TONE. Is your world a heraldic one, icy and Vikingesque and brave? Is it a Byzantine courtworld, full of trickery and subtle deception? Study up on the real life places your world resembles. Get the feel of them. Because, lemme tell you, you need to keep to tone. If you don’t do this, in fiction or in lies, your whole story falls apart. People like a story, even if it’s supposed to be true, and can sense when the facts fall out of kilter even if they weren’t facts at all. So learn tone. TONE. TONE.

2) A Little Bit of Truth
Some things in this lie were absolutely factual. The Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, and the campaign was begun, through some lovely German lie-spreading, over the Germans wanting the Polish city of Danzig ‘back’. Goebbels was the prime-time man for German propaganda, and there WAS a great demand for German musicians after Hitler’s ascension in 1933 (due to the dearth of Jewish entertainers. Hmm, wonder why.). There WERE some German national spies for Britian in Germany at the time of the Reich, and musical interest in such ‘degenerate’ things as swing and jazz were discouraged heavily.

A WWII historian could probably take me apart like a mover trashing IKEA furniture, but the likelihood of the person I’d tell this to BEING one is relatively small. Therefore, in conversation: worth the risk. I once told Definitely Not Dave, a native Bostonian, that the town of Chapel Hill was founded by Mennonite dissenters Jebediah Chapel and Isiadore Hill in 1789. If he didn’t believe me, he could check out the Statue of the Founders on Estes Drive. To DND’s credit, he only believed me for about five minutes, but what made it work is the little bit of truth–being from Boston, he wouldn’t know the story of Chapel Hill from Adam, or the fact that there may not be a single Mennonite in the state–but there IS an Estes Drive, and he knew there was, and this is absolutely the sort of tiny snotty town that would have a Statue of the Founders somewhere.

There should be basic truths to your story, and you should deploy them with care and attention. In my novella The King’s Might, everybody swears by the Allking, a man named Telhir who came down from the Northern mountains some six thousand years ago. The swears are scrupulously footnoted and explained. The history of the swears, in fact, gives a history of the nation–and the built myth of the folk-hero Telhir explains a lot about the people.

3) But Not Too Much Truth
However, if you drown the reader in detail, your story will be JUST as unconvincing as it would if you included none. We don’t need to know Hans Wegener’s height, his hair color, his just-ended relationship with a rotund but fetching cafe waitress. We don’t need to know a TON about the German invasion of Poland, the history of British intelligence in Germany. I may’ve even been stretching it with what I DID add in there.

A good reference point: what do you think people will WANT to know? In the lie’s case, background information is added because the reader might not actually know some of it. (Polish invasion date, bit of background on Reich’s musical history, etc). Some is added for flavor and character (Herr Wegener’s suitcases, his age, the Germans possibly listening to forbidden jazz) and some is added for faux authenticity (my fake Goebbels quote). So there you go: EDUCATION, FLAVOR, and AUTHENTICITY. The three things your worldbuilding should provide for your readers.
And, last but not least, though we’ve touched on it a bit already:

4) Know Your Audience.
I’m trusting you’re probably not a WWII buff, when I tell you this lie–though I’ve provided enough care in my lying to cover myself if you’re a dabbler. I’m trusting you aren’t into British Intelligence. I’m praying, PRAYING, you aren’t a Nazi sympathizer.

In a low-profile writing blog, my chances are pretty good. When I told DND the story of Jebediah Chapel and Isiadore Hill, because he was from Boston and not an NC native, my chances were pretty good.

When you’re building your world, what do you THINK your audience would want to hear about? Do they need a lot of this world’s history to understand the plot? Or will they be more interested in the theory of magic? Customs of love, childbirth, and marriage? People pay more attention to things they want to hear.

And, lastly for really reals this time:

5) Know more than you use.
I actually learned quite a bit, to tell you this lie. I learned about the Eastern Front during WWII, the German occupation of Poland, got a good general Reich timeline going, learned some great stories about British heroes of WWII, and found out who the FUCK Heinz Guderian was. Did I use all of it? No. Because, again, Rule Three. Too much fact ruins a lie just the same as it ruins a story. But the facts guide you. They show you where the story SHOULD be going. And they’ll do the same for your fictional world–you might only need to MENTION the Brondisian War, but you should damn well know who fought it, what it was fought for, the rough shape of it, and who lost and gained what. Otherwise, you don’t know WHY it was mentioned. And this is the sort of lack of understanding, the sort of communication breakdown, that kills a story.

Because people might not know how much you know, or what precisely it is. But trust me–when you don’t know these things, it comes though in your writing.

There y’go: how to lie. Sorry for the long post, guys.
EFR

PS–Just to be clear: I am not encouraging you to lie about anything that matters. That’s, frankly, despicable. But a few tall tales here and there, lying for the aesthetic art of lying? It’ll be good for you. Promise.

WW: Extirpate All Pirates

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Writing Wednesday: Extirpate All Pirates!

So I’m through with Mistborn now, and I’m on to Piers Anthony’s Bio of a Space Tyrant. First volume, of course. Refugee. It’s–entertaining. It’s certainly that. There’s a lot of blood and mayhem and people getting raped and killed and such, as well as some awkward allegory concerning America’s immigration issues. Very sensational.

And, ultimately, very ineffective.

I should preface this by mentioning I’m not the biggest Piers Anthony fan. (Yes, this will be a writing post. Give me time). The reason for this can, in fact, be summed up in a little nugget about three quarters of the way through the book (if you want to read it, and haven’t yet, stop here, because I’m about to spoiler the SHIT out of it).

Some background: the narrator, who had very few interesting traits save for what Anthony TELLS us but doesn’t bother to SHOW us is interpersonal and leadership ability, has lost his entire family, save for one sister, to space pirates on a lackadaisical and rather drawn-out refugee ramble through the orbit of Jupiter and its moons. He has also, mere pages before, lost his One True Love, who is startlingly beautiful in spite of being in drag for most of the novel, by forcing an airlock open while she is unsuited. He did this knowingly, coldly, for the betterment of his small surviving group. He’s Mighty Fucked Up about it. And, howling his vengeance into the vacuum, he makes this chilling statement:

I remembered my oath: to extirpate all pirates. They surely deserved obliteration.

And, right there–and I was on public transportation, mind you, while I was reading this–I giggled.

Yes, you read that right. I giggled.

Because COME ON. Extirpate? REALLY?

He also, earlier in this novel about the narrator’s fifteen year old self, uses the word ‘pulchritude’ in reference to a sister. Aaawkward.

I have to mention this because it ties in so very well to what I was saying in a previous post, The Right Words, which more of you should’ve read, because ENGLISH. I think I even TALKED about pulchritude. As one of those words which is, overwhelmingly, probably not the right word.

I don’t believe a fifteen year old boy, newly orphaned, his soul struggling to mature under a crunchy candy-coating of rage and depression, looks to the stars and comes up with the word EXTIRPATE. I don’t care how good his education was. I don’t care if he went to Harvard and graduated summa cum laude whilst still suckling on his mother’s teat. I don’t care if the story is actually being told by an older version of this boy. Fuck ‘extirpate’. Just…fuck it.

I do not buy an emotionally charged statement containing the word extirpate. And that ‘remember’ doesn’t help, either. Remember is a distant word, a past-tense sort of word. It doesn’t give the statement any immediacy–the fact that I keep referring to it as a ‘statement’ says something about how I took it.

And the ‘surely’. Is there a need for that adverb? Is there REALLY? ‘Surely’ is almost as nasty as ‘very’, if you ask me. Nothing leaks the immediacy out of a statement quite like an unnecessary adverb. Unless it’s the word ‘extirpate’. Or ‘remember’.

I’ll take the colon. Colons have immediacy. Especially if you haven’t pooped in a while.

But anyway, this is just me coming up from my reading with a friendly reminder and perfect example of why THE RIGHT WORD is important.

As to fixing this paragraph? You can fiddle with it all you want. It’s so awkward and redundant I don’t think anything will do much good. I might try something like this:

I had sworn to destroy all pirates. They deserved it.

But, frankly, I’d just as soon see it struck from the ranks entirely. It’s awkwardly placed, and I don’t think we need reminding that a boy who’s lost this much (whose name, for the record, is the incredibly giggle-inducing Hope Hubris) wants to destroy the people who’ve taken it from him. Especially in the middle of what is, essentially, a laundry list of activities.

Done ranting now. But take this as a living example of what difference the wrong word can make. Take it and learn from it. Learn from it. Learn.

Writing: The Chosen One Chooses

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Sorry if I’ve been a good deal in absentia here lately. I’ve been writing and reading (oh, and working). First off, I just had to finish reading everything Patrick Rothfuss has written ever (more on that later, and why it’s a good thing and a bad thing). Then I had to get through the newest B.E. Priest novella, Fire From the Ashes, which is just as worthy a read as the rest of his series. Now, thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I’m stuck with Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series–which, so far, is totally worth it, if a little frustrating for the sheer amount of Female Distress involved (ladies do things other than get raped and abused).

So, we’re reading a bit gluttonous this week. But I have time for a short blog. I always have time for a short blog.

I want to talk about the Chosen One.

Of course I do; I’ve been reading Mistborn. The whole premise of Sanderson’s somewhat dystopian world is that the Mistbornian Chosen One, that big bolshy hero in shining armor, DID NOT save the world a thousand years ago.

Note: he is not a main character in the story. At least, not in that form. The action in the story takes place a thousand years from then. Of course it does: how can you make a compelling story when the Chosen One was Chosen wrong? It becomes background, nifty set dressing (or it is so far, I’m only about halfway through the first book).

But this brings up an interesting point. Is the concept of the Chosen One (think Harry Potter, or Paul Atreides, or Aragorn in LotR, or…well, you get it) still a useful fantasy archetype?

A little background information, if you’re living under a rock, never took an English class, and don’t have the faintest fucking clue what I’m talking about:

The Chosen One (see: big bolshy hero) is a character who, by divine interference or some happiness of birth, has been gifted with singular powers, and has been destined to save/rule/otherwise generally change the world. It isn’t uncommon for the Chosen One to have a Mighty Weapon (again, think Aragorn, or redheaded Aerin from Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown). The Chosen One is usually a part of a Hero’s Journey type of story arc, often combined with Coming of Age (because, naturally, the Chosen One is unaware/not fond of being Chosen, and must learn to accept his or her place as a hero, and that goes really well with growing up and getting the fuck over ourselves).

For me, this is a writing archetype, particularly in fantasy, that is inescapable. Your character has to be central to the action of the story–it is, after all, THEIR story–so there’s got to be something special about them, right? BY THE POWER OF GREYSKULL. We can do this shit. Let’s stick some mythical abilities and divine providence in there.

But here’s the thing. The Chosen One’s power, and continued currency, as an archetype doesn’t come from BEING chosen. It comes, instead, from CHOOSING.

The important thing about Effluenza the Ordinary Peasant Girl isn’t the extraordinary powers she is currently discovering, quite by accident, on her father’s farm. It isn’t the Magical Machete in the Barn of Ages, which has been waiting for a thousand years for the arm strong enough to thresh wheat with it, and which Effluenza snags one night because she really, really needs a long blade to slice up some pears she stole from Goodman Gottson’s neighboring farm. It isn’t even the Wise Old Man, known to all the village as Billy the Drunkard, who heralds her coming and teaches her to use her Mystical Powers to cheat at Blackjack without counting cards.

The important thing about little Effluenza–about any Chosen One type hero–isn’t that she is Chosen. It’s the moment she STOPS being the Chosen One, and becomes the One Who Chooses.

There’s a moment in the Hero’s Journey–a transformative moment–where the Chosen One has to own up to destiny. It stops becoming a game, where you learn cheeky things and men in the tavern commons teach you how to spit, and becomes an earnest desire to take the Machete of Might and stop the local baron raising the rent. It’s the moment, in short, where Paul ceases being the hunted Atreides Duke, and becomes the Kwizatz Haderach. Where Harry Potter sees the real death and torment Voldemort causes, and begins taking steps to stop him. Where Aragorn, previously Strider the Ranger, becomes Aragorn the King (hard to pinpoint this moment, but I think it’s when he calls the Dead down from Dwimorberg, especially in the movies). This, and not before, is where this archetype starts to have pull and strength, where the character starts making his or her own decisions towards the positive. An old identity, which didn’t quite fit, is shed or transforms into a new one.

If you’re writing a Chosen One type character, this is the character arc you HAVE to follow. I’m sorry, but there is no other. There are variations– Failed Chosen One Tries Again, or the eternal falling action of Chosen One After the Great Battle–but it’s the same story. The Chosen One MUST become the One Who Chooses for this archetype to hold meaning. You can do it any way you like, but it has to happen for the whole premise to work.

Using an example from my own work (and if you haven’t read Aurian and Jin yet, and you plan to, you might want to stop reading here):

Evinanjin is the classic Chosen One, minus the boring prophecy. She has remarkable abilities, a good mind, the love of the people.

But (and here’s one of those monkeywrenches you can throw in things) she loses the abilities that made her who she is. Or, she thinks she does. It takes a lot of drinking and bad-tempered brawling for her to figure out that, in the end, it isn’t what was given to her that makes her who she is–it’s something she was born with. Aurian Sees his wife, towards the end of the story, and what he Sees isn’t her training or the Holy Bones or the Emperor’s favor–it’s an empty field and a people dying of hunger. It’s her essential peasant nature. Her determination. Her willpower.

My timing’s a little different–the pivot-point, where Evinanjin makes her decision, actually occurs in the past–but its placing in the story is spot on for the third act, where such things usually happen, in tandem with Aurian’s decision to actively help his wife destroy the Bonemaker by stealing the Sundering Sword (see how cleverly I doubled it up? See? SEE?). I like putting pivotal moments in flashbacks. It makes me happy. Character motivation reveal and whatnot. Don’t judge.

Point is, stop thinking about The Chosen One completely. Think instead about his second self, The One Who Chooses. If you write a Hero’s Journey type story, this is the person who completes your MC’s character arc, and moves the story forward.

For More Information on Common Fantasy Tropes:

The Hero’s Journey–Very good layout of the classic steps of The Hero’s Journey. Pay special attention to step 8–this is where your chosen one begins actively choosing. If you get confused at any point, just think of Star Wars. Not the new, crappy Star Wars. No. Luke and shit.
Hero’s Journey, Now With Charts!–Though for screenwriting, this is also very useful. They place the turning point I’m talking about near the end of Act II, which, okay, I’m open to suggestions.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces–You’re an epic fantasy writer, and you haven’t read this yet? What the fuck?
TV Tropes Wiki–Like all wikis, this information might not be 100% factually approved, but my God, this is fun for any media. People who’re afraid of ‘tropes’–do not read. You’ll learn just how unoriginal all your ideas are and cry like a little baby.

Related Posts:

Tropes and Archetypes Won’t Kill You–Why all this hand-flapping and trope-fearing is stupid, especially among unseasoned writers. After all, would it be called a MONOmyth if it wasn’t pretty pervasive?

Writing: The Right Words

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Original stock credit to Florian Klauer, via Unsplash. It did not originally say holy shit on it. No, no.

Writing Friday: The Right Words

When I was a little Emily, growing up in the same town I’m sitting in right the hell now, I went to college for English and Creative Writing. (At some point in the not too distant future, we’ll do a blog about my feelings towards the word ‘creative’ when applied to writing. They’re quite strong. They’re not positive.)

It was a stupid decision. Stupid for many reasons. Its stupidity is best encapsulated, perhaps, by this fact: I felt like I spent quite a lot of money for not a lot of education I cared about.

There were some great classes, of course. There always are. The one I’m thinking of in particular was, of all things, an introductory poetry class–the professor, a kind and quiet man, understood words. He understood that, in addition to being pretty sacred baubles, they were also building blocks, skeins of syllables, cloth of many colors cut from rhythm and meter as well as meaning. His class, though it was supposed to cover the basics of poetry, has helped me immeasurably in everyday writing.

Why? Because the lesson he taught is important: words are not sacred. They are not unassailable. Words are merely groups of letters, and when the letters are placed together in just such a way you get rhythm and meter and rhyme and meaning. He taught me: never use fowl when chicken is right for the occasion. Or is it a poultry situation?

Forget rhyme for a second. We’re not poets here. But think, if you will, about the different flavors of those words: fowl, which sounds vaguely French but is I think Dutch in origin (not sure, and too lazy to Google), the refined French flavor to poultry or pullet, the Anglo Saxon blunt-fuckery of chicken. You chase a chicken in a yard. You wring its neck, chop off its head. You might also eat chicken, traditional meat of the poor–your child eats chicken fingers, you get fried chicken from KFC.

A pullet is a handsome little bird. Pullets roost happily in a well-insulated henhouse, are shown off by proud owners at country fairs. And a fowl is a little strange, a little out-of-context: a fowl from the sky, fowl as general birdhood. Fowl as the impersonal expanse of a bird’s pale flesh. Poultry can be eaten, or massed for slaughter in some remote location.

My professor told us a story (an old one, and one of questionable authenticity, but a very good example). When the Normans conquered England in 1066, the Saxon people were pushed into lower life-positions, peasants who farmed the land and served the new Norman gentry. Thus, a lot of our table-words for meat have a French flavor to them: pork, beef, mutton. The Normans, when eating them, would speak of them in their own language.

But the words for the animals, for the living creatures who were slaughtered and petted and raised and made much of, are pure Anglo-Saxon: pig, sheep, cow. Because the servants, speaking their own language amongst themselves, weren’t going to slaughter the master’s mutton, but their very own sheep.

Using the right word in English is vital. And it’s not as easy as going to a thesaurus and looking up synonyms–frankly, if I had my way, every thesaurus in the country would be burned, and their users would be left reading desperately, intent on developing proper language skills.

Would you say beef and cow are the same thing? No, not really. But they mean the same thing, right? More or less? Sort of?

No. They’re different words. They mean different things. At least, now they do.

I mention this because, goddammit, jubilant isn’t the same thing as happy. Nor are elated, thrilled, blithe.

They are different fucking words, and they mean different fucking things.

Here are the three steps to Using The Right Word Every Time:

1) Read.
It’s the only real way to increase your vocabulary, and increasing your vocabulary is crucial to Using The Right Word Every Time. Reading gives you the opportunity to find new words in a multilayered context: yes, you can check the dictionary to get an idea of what that word means, but how is it used? Happy and blithe, for instance, have a nice wholesome context very often. (F’rinstance–did you know ‘happy’ was originally closer in meaning to ‘lucky’? If you’ve ever wondered why happy looks so similar to things like happen and happenstance, something to think about). Elated and jubilant are more grand and heraldic in nature than a mere happy. Returning heroes are jubilant, their lordly fathers on their thrones elated. Thrilled has a delightful hint of sarcasm to it (think of the last time you told somebody you were thrilled. Were you? Really? Or were you pissed off?)

2) Listen.
Maybe this is a synesthete thing, but I don’t think so. Listen to your goddamn words. What sounds like the thing you’re trying to convey? Jubilant sounds like golden clouds, triumph, and stout wide strength, thanks to that first syllable. Elated is sharper and narrower, courtesy of that nasal a. Blithe, due to that prissy th and that old-school bl, sounds like a Victorian picture postcard. This might seem a little woo-woo to you, a little more poetry than novella, but trust me, it’s important. Your readers hear your words as they read them, at least a little. And if they don’t sound good, nobody’s going to believe your story.

3) Work.
Learn something about your language. No, not so you can sound clever at cocktail parties.

English, maybe more than any other language on Earth up until the advent of global culture, is created largely of borrowed words. It’s Germanic–nominally. We’ve got those crunchy Anglo-Saxon derivatives, like shit and piss and spit, for most of our bodily functions. But we’ve gotten a lot of Latinate language from French and the brief Roman occupation of England, as well as Spanish from our neighbors to the South here in America (who’ve, after all, been speaking the Romantic language for over four hundred years). A few oddjob words here and there, like bazaar and alchemy and gauze and, interestingly enough, alcohol, from Arabic. Sprinkle in some Dutch, Russian, etc., etc. A lot of our Arabic words tend to deal with medicine or trade. Perhaps because, while we were busy applying leeches and balancing the four humors, the Arabs had crazy things like medicine and science.

It’s important to know where your words come from, long story short. Linguistic history is, for me at least, the true history of a people–where they’ve been, where they’ve borrowed, where they’ve fallen short. And it’s important to consider, as exemplified in the sheep/mutton example, how different word origins make words feel to us. You’ll find, if you look up enough of them, that words of different origins often (but not always!) have distinct sounds. Beautiful, for instance, is more or less Latinate. As are pulchritudinous, fascinating, attractive. Whereas lovely and pretty come from Germanic roots. Don’t those words feel different, sound different? Wouldn’t you use them in different contexts?
So no, using the right word isn’t easy. No, there isn’t a ‘trick’ to it. There’s just a lot of work.

Fascinating, fascinating work.

A final note:

The purpose to increasing your vocabulary and learning how it works isn’t, and should never be, learning bigger words. If you use pulchritudinous where pretty suffices, I’m going to assume you’re:

A) Sixteen
B) Studying for the SATs, and
C) Doing a very good job. Gold star for you.

However, big fat F on keeping me involved in the world of your story, and not taking me out of it with a knotty chickenshit unnecessary word. Because the point of all this, in a writing context, is the same as all of my other posts: you want to make your story believable, its world livable. And you can’t do that with the wrong language.

It would be like trying to knock in a nail with a screwdriver, or raising a barn made out of styrofoam. The results won’t be pretty, because you aren’t properly prepared for the job. Stories are made up of words, and before ANYTHING else, words are your tools and your building blocks.

So respect them, and learn something about them, before you start talking about plot holes and info dumps and all the other shibboleths that riddle the online writing community.

Thanks,
EFR

PS–I know, I know. But I haven’t gotten to say ‘shibboleth’ in years. And it is, again, EXACTLY what I mean.

Want to take a little time and play around with words? Here’s the cream of the internet crop:

Profanity Listand you thought it was easy. Over eighteen thousand naughty words–see if you can add a fresh ‘un.
The History of English–though I’m little inclined to trust anyone who uses the word ‘rollicking’, this is very informative, fun, comprehensive, etc. I’m not a serious etymologist, obviously–I’d be making more money if I was–but damn, they’re right, it’s entertaining.
Fun With WordsWhile the design of this website maddens me, it’s a great collection of all the fun shit you can do with English. Especially nice if you, like me, enjoy terrible puns.
9 Dirty Everyday Words–While I can’t speak directly for the accuracy here, it gave me tee-hees until I queefed glitter and dried remnants of My Little Ponies. Also useful if you ever wondered about the origin of ‘bollocks’, which some of us have, for entirely too long.