Monthly Archives: November 2014

Novel-vember; Being Brilliant Some of the Time, and Being Okay With That

NaNoWriMo update; success! I just got to 50k about three minutes ago, and I wasn’t going to let myself post this until after I had won. This was a good strategy because I couldn’t tick “post final November blog” off on HabitRPG, which in turn would give me enough gold to buy the right to get the NaNo winner’s shirt… and I’ve just realized that my internet reinforcement systems have become recursive. I see nothing wrong with that.

As a writer, I have many fears. I fear that the stories I write won’t be good. I fear that they will be good, but unrecognized. I fear failure. Most of all, though, I fear becoming one of those writers who has a hit, but then fails to live up to it afterward. To be briefly good and then reviled for the rest of your career would be so much worse than simply being unknown, because at least the mistakes of an unknown writer are unseen.

In short, my worst nightmare is to become M. Night Shyamalan.

His story is fairly well known by now, but I’ll recap it. He made a few small, obscure films, and then made The Sixth Sense, a financial hit and genuinely brilliant piece of artwork. From there, though, things went steadily downwards. Unbreakable and Signs were still generally liked, but each one more criticized than the last, and since The Village every one of his movies has been a flop. He’s now regarded as a hack who somehow managed to churn out a good film once. Furthermore, he’s become infamous for having a “woe is me,” attitude towards his own failures. He says he doesn’t understand what’s wrong with audiences and that critics are out to get him.

Personally, I don’t think he’s a hack in the sense of a talentless person just out to make money. I think he has real writing ability. I also think he genuinely wants to create great works of art, which is why at times I feel a bit sorry for him. What I think is that his declining quality of work and his attitude toward that declining quality of work are tightly bound. Over time, I think he lost his ability to be objective. His art became inseparable from his ego, and as a result he lost the ability to accurately evaluate his own work.

George Lucas is another famous fallen artist. The original Star Wars trilogy was not only entertaining, but very good in an artistic sense. It used archetypal ideas and plot structures to build a science fiction story that felt both mythic and modern. The recent trilogy was terrible, too trite and childish to be entertaining to anyone older than ten and, from a more writerly perspective, a sloppy mess of plot holes and wooden characters. Again, when you listen to him in interviews, an incredible arrogance about his own abilities comes through. He refuses to listen to any criticism, whether it’s coming from critics or fans.

To some degree you do need the ability to brush off criticism in order to continue to create art, but it’s another to never listen to anyone who says they are disappointed by what you made. No writer, or artist of any sort, is equally good every moment of their career. Every artist starts out bad, gets better, and then goes through relative peaks and relative troughs their whole life. One of my favorite learning how to write resources, the Writing Excuses podcast, makes a big deal of this. The writers are very open about their highs and lows as writers, about the drafts their works go through that are terrible and the times that they struggle with a work because, in order to write it the way they want, they need to work on one of their weak areas some more.

I like to think that if you are able to take this attitude towards your craft, you might rise and fall, but you aren’t likely to truly slump. As evidence for this, may I present Joss Whedon. Buffy was wonderful, but had some rough seasons. The same goes for  Angel and Dollhouse, and if Firefly hadn’t been tragically cancelled it probably would have had its moments (I know, blasphemy). However, none of those rough spots have signaled the beginning of a terrible spiral downwards. If he creates something bad, his next work will probably be much better. Now, look at this interview he did about The Avengers. He’s talking about one of the most well received, financially successful works he has ever made, and his reaction is, “I could have done better.” He doesn’t trash his work, and he expresses some personal love for it, but he’s able to admit its flaws without flinching, with an intention to do better next time.

I think many writers, published and unpublished, are stuck in a mentality that being brilliant is a thing you are rather than a thing you do. Or perhaps the mentality is that being brilliant is like your video game character achieving a level. You can start out not brilliant, but once you have achieved brilliance level work you are just there, and failing to write in a brilliant-consistent manner is evidence that either you have somehow died and gone back a level, or that you had never really achieved brilliance level to begin with. Real life isn’t like that. In the real world, masters of their craft, in all fields, still have really bad days. That’s okay. Those days suck, but they are also learning opportunities that will help you get back to the days when you’re brilliant again.

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Novel-vember; Four Camps of Writers

One of the things I’ve learned, as a student of writing, is that you don’t need to limit your teachers to those who are teaching your medium. I’m an aspiring novelist, but two of my favorite books on storytelling aren’t about novels. First there’s Robert McKee’s Story, which is about film scripts. Second is Scott McCloud’s Making Comics, which, as the title suggests, is about making comics. It could make the list solely on the strength of his chapter about understanding yourself as an artist.

He groups writers into four camps, based on their priorities in their writing. First are the Classicists. They are primarily interested in creating works of art that are beautiful. They want to stun readers with pure aesthetics. Second are the Animists. They are the purest storytellers. They want to move people with the content, the story and characters. Third are the Formalists, who enjoy playing with the art forms themselves, breaking the rules and reinventing the medium. Fourth are the Iconoclasts, who are interested in using stories to spread or deconstruct ideas, and honestly portray life as it is.

He doesn’t treat these as rigid, exclusive categories. Most people would like to create art that is beautiful, moving, inventive and profound. That said, writers often come into a situation where those values come into conflict, and they will tend to be drawn to pick one over the other. It’s relatively easy to be someone who treads the borderline between Iconoclast and Formalist, because both camps prioritize revolution and invention, while Classicists and Animists tend to fall back on the traditions and archetypes of the craft. Classicism and Formalism are also extremely compatible, as they both focus on the medium itself, while Iconoclasts and Animists are more focused on the medium as a means to transmit feelings and ideas. Being a Classicist and an Iconoclast is more difficult, as the need to tell a beautiful story can get in the way of telling a story that is baldly honest about the ugly sides of life. Likewise, dramatically experimenting with the form, as Formalists do, can distract readers from the content of the story, which is anathema to most Animists. This does not mean that you can’t be a Classicist whose primary secondary concerns are spreading ideas, or an Animist who also wants to experiment, just that those pairs of camps come into conflict most often.

In my last post I wrote about objective vs subjective story issues, and I talked a bit about how the lines between the two can become blurred when a writer prioritizes one aspect of storytelling over another. As you improve one aspect of your craft, it’s easy for others to get neglected over time. I am an Iconoclast with strong Animist leanings. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to tell stories with strong, complex themes and compelling plots. It also means I care less about my prose style and I’m liable to neglect that aspect of my writing, as well as the descriptions of where the characters are and what is around them. I never want to take enough time away from my characters to properly describe where they are, and as a result my settings suffer somewhat. Everyone makes these kinds of tradeoffs. Given a finite amount of time to improve your craft, and a natural bias towards some elements of good writing over others, everyone will have weaknesses.

That’s all fine. Truth is, I think this art form would become boring if you could truly master it. Knowing that I can always improve keeps me challenged and interested in the craft. I am working on my prose, and I’m trying to learn how to world-build more effectively. In the meantime, I have this comfort; writers don’t have to be perfect at all aspects of storytelling in order to provide meaningful, enduring content.

Take J. R. R. Tolkien, for example. I can acknowledge that he’s good, but I don’t care for him. He spends too much time on pretty sentences and elaborate world-building, and too little on making complex characters or giving the moral aspects of his world shades of grey. To put it in McCloud’s terms, I don’t enjoy his work because he’s too much of a Classicist. That doesn’t matter. For those who do enjoy poetic language and breathtaking fantasy worlds, Tolkien is perfect. He means something to them, and my lack of appreciation for that doesn’t take away from the relationship he has with his fans at all (I say has, not had, because I think the relationships readers have with authors can continue to exist after that author’s death. The book is a little piece of the author that stays after the rest of them has gone).

Furthermore, despite those caveats I mentioned, Tolkien isn’t a bad writer even at his weakest points. There are more complex characters in other works, but Gollum/Smeagol is fascinating, Merry and Pippin have wonderful character arcs, and even the more flat characters, like Legolas, are well written enough to serve their function in the story. He doesn’t break new philosophical ground either, but he uses the classical battle between good and evil in a way that has enduring, archetypal strength.

My previous post was all about recognizing what good writing is, and distinguishing that from what you like subjectively in other people’s work. The point I’ve been leading up to here is that it’s equally important to distinguish between what is bad in your own work, and what is simply not the kind of story you want to write. I think it’s acceptable, even desirable, to write based on your values as a writer. I think it’s fine to care more about plot than character, or character than plot, or setting than either. This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to work on your weaknesses or leave the type of story you are most comfortable with, only that it is all right to decide which areas you want to flourish in and which ones you are contented merely to pass in. You are the only one who can decide what kind of artist you aim to be.

Novel-vember; Objective vs. Subjective Problems

Well, there’s a title that’s liable to get me in trouble.

Whenever I watch a movie or read a book, only half my mind is approaching the work as an audience member. The rest of it is looking at it as a writer. I am constantly asking myself, “is this good? How does it compare with what I’m doing? Can I learn from what they are doing?” The hardest part of answering those questions is figuring out which reactions I’m having are subjective and which are objective.

By objective I mean issues related to pacing, character development, use of archetypes, believability of plot and so on. I’m asking if the story is good based on the principles that can improve the quality of nearly every story. In other words, can I take the problem I’m  having with a particular story and generalize it into a lesson that I can apply to writing as an overall art form?

By subjective I mean elements that are really down to personal taste. When language is so flowery or so terse that it is difficult to clearly understand what the writer is saying, there is an objective problem, but within those boundaries is a broad spectrum of writing styles that some people might like more than others. Similarly, whether a joke is funny or not isn’t something that can be predicted by logical rules. If it made you laugh, it was funny to you, and if it didn’t make me laugh, it wasn’t funny to me, and there isn’t much more to it.

I should say right here that I’m not talking at all about reasons why you should or shouldn’t enjoy something. It is fine to like something or dislike them for either subjective reasons or objective reasons. For example, I can acknowledge that Matt Smith’s seasons on Doctor Who tended to have a frenetic, poorly balanced pace to their story arcs. However, I still enjoyed them because Matt Smith was delightful. His stories had an objective flaw that did not stop it me from, subjectively, enjoying him. On the flip side, I enjoyed Frozen because I appreciate how skillfully the plot, character and thematic elements wove together. My friend Rebecca did not like it. She didn’t like the music, and she’s annoyed by stories where a good part of the plot problems hinge on misunderstandings. Whether the subjective or objective elements of a given story matter more to you is in and of itself a subjective question.

As I said in the beginning, though, when I watch a movie or read a book, only half of my mind is actually in audience mode. The rest is trying to figure out if I can learn something from this story about how to be a better writer. As writers, the subjective elements are out of our hands. Any individual audience member might dislike or like them, depending on who they are and where they are in their lives and what is currently in style. The best we can do is write to please ourselves, and hope that at least some people will like the same things. The objective elements, however, are in our control, and by writing them to the best of our ability we can maximize our chances of making art that really moves people. Subjective elements are good at making works fashionable, if you’re lucky and happen to like things that many other people like. Objective elements are good at making works that outlast their creators.

One of the first stories that made me think seriously about this was the 2008 film Easy Virtue, based on a Noel Coward play. It’s about an American racecar driver who marries into an aristocratic English family in the 1920s. Her personality and values clash with those of the family she marries into. In the end she becomes fed up and leaves with the father of the house, who has felt constrained by the upper class English lifestyle for years. Her ex-husband is left with his childhood sweetheart. The first time I watched it, I was angry. I felt like the protagonist was stubborn and arrogant and that while at times her family was certainly bigoted and rude, she could have tried harder to make it work than she did. I rewatched it, pen and notepad in hand, ready to tear it apart.

I couldn’t. Every scene made sense, in light of who the characters were. The acting was excellent, the structure of the scenes was good, and while I could imagine myself finding common ground with the English family, and eventually gaining their acceptance, that wasn’t something the protagonist could do. She was an extremely independent, self-assured person, a little too stubborn at times but not to the degree that she was mean-spirited or domineering. At the end of the story, everyone was better off, because even though the separations were painful, everyone ended up with someone who would make them happier. The choices she made were different from the ones I would have made, but that didn’t make her a bad person or the story a bad story.

So why was I so angry? Probably because I had just come out as transgender and was living in my friend’s guest room, on extremely strained terms with nearly everyone in my family. I was not in a good mental place to see a story about someone picking up a family and then abandoning it. No matter how objectively well-crafted that story was, it couldn’t have been written in a way that I would have enjoyed in at that moment, in that stage of my life.

Let me get away from that darker point and give an opposite example; Pitch Perfect, a sleeper hit from 2012. It’s a motley-crew-of-underdogs-learn-to-cooperate-and-win plot, with the sport being competitive a capella singing. I certainly enjoyed this one a lot more than Easy Virtue, because I’m a sucker for a cappella covers and underdog plots. However, I can’t say it’s objectively good. It has more story problems than I can fully explain here, but I’ll explain the worst one, in my view. The central obstacle of the plot didn’t make sense. The group of protagonists, the Bellas, were failing because they have been singing the exact same song the exact same way for years, and judges are bored with it.

First this created a suspension of disbelief problem. Anyone familiar with performing arts knows that performing the same thing over and over again is boring. If the Bellas had a whole show, fine, I could buy them doing that for several years because at least the different acts within the show would provide some variety, but the same two minute song at every competition for year after year? When audiences have clearly lost interest? Every time someone brought this problem up, it jerked me out of the story. Unfortunately, being the central conflict, it came up a lot.

Second, it didn’t feel natural to the characters. The leader of the Bellas wanted to win, she wasn’t winning, and everyone knew the reason her group was struggling was because they kept boring the judges. So why didn’t she change the act? She was not characterized as stupid. In other scenes, she sang and enjoyed other songs. She was controlling, but a controlling director who knew there was a problem would still try to fix the problem. The writers tried giving her the trait of randomly projectile vomiting because of her “anxiety,” so perhaps their justification was that she was too anxious to leave her comfort zone and try a new song. That just made the problem worse, because in no other scenes did she seem like someone with a real anxiety problem. Those bouts of nausea looked nothing like a real nervous meltdown. They looked like an actress spitting out something the special effects team gave her. I didn’t connect with her, an important main character, because she wasn’t written like a real person.

You could ask, why does all this matter? Pitch Perfect still did well, so why did it need a better conflict? Well, maybe it didn’t. Maybe the writers were just having fun with a premise and weren’t looking to create something profound and lasting. If that’s all they were doing, there really isn’t anything wrong with that. However, most of us as artists don’t aspire to that. Most of us want to create something that is good as well as popular, and many of us would rather be poor but making works we care about than rich hacks. If our stories are objectively crafted, but disliked because the subject matter is currently out of fashion, most of us can live with that. We all want to be Shakespeare, both popular and classic, but if that’s not on the table, if that’s off the table, most of us would rather be Poe, brilliant but unrecognized in his time, than someone who writes ephemerally popular drivel.

Which leads to a problem, because we would rather believe that others dislike our work for subjective, rather than objective reasons, it can be very hard to overcome that bias in ourselves. It’s very easy to convince yourself that your Mary Sue is perfect and anyone who dislikes her just doesn’t understand. Furthermore, critics and audiences often don’t give their criticisms in forms that are easily deciphered. When some smart-assed reviewer calls your work a beige calf sacrificed on the altar of blandness, is that because your work was actually boring, or because they wanted to read an action thriller instead of the suspense novel you wrote?

I think there are two things writers can do to help figure out the difference. First, there is the practice of asking yourself whether you disliked a particular story for objective or subjective reasons, and trying to be really honest with your answers. This can train you to recognize whether someone else is saying, “I didn’t like that plot twist,” or “there was a big logical flaw in that plot twist.” Second, there are the alpha readers, the ones who read the work before you publish it or even send it to a publisher, who can tell you how the story works from another person’s perspective. Choose readers who are very intelligent and frank, but who also happen to like the sort of stories you want to write. Then, take their criticism to heart, because they know what they are saying.

Now, I think the distinction between subjective and objective is a spectrum, rather than a dichotomy with clear dividing lines. Writing is a complex skill, and many aspects of storytelling come into conflict for each other. If a writer sacrifices a good plot twist for a moment more authentic to a particular character, is that better or worse? What about someone who writes something experimental and new, but because it’s untested it alienates some audience members? If a writer has beautiful prose but relies heavily on simple, archetypal plots, is that better than having acceptable but unexciting prose and complex, twisting, multifaceted plots? All those could be considered objective elements, because they are related to key elements of storytelling that transcend genre, but whether these tradeoffs are ultimately worthwhile is an entirely subjective question.

But that’s a topic for the next post.

Novel-vember; Talent or Craft?

A couple years ago, I had a conversation with a friend while we were both working on writing projects. We were giving feedback on each other’s work, and I was talking about some principles of writing I had gleaned from all the books, podcasts and articles on storytelling I have read or listened to over the years. He thought it was odd that I considered storytelling something I could learn how to do better by reading books on writing. In his mind, writing was largely a matter of talent, while I thought, and still think, writing is a craft that you can get better at by a combination of practice and study of underlying principles.

I had encountered the writing as talent perspective before, and I have encountered it since. When I was a kid it worried me a lot, because there were times a story just wasn’t working for me, and if I was talented I shouldn’t have that problem, right?

This is a worry I rarely have now, because I have begun to question my whole concept of “talent.” Growing up, I thought that talent was A. a thing that you either had or didn’t have from birth, B. the reason people became successful or not successful. I think that’s a fairly common perception, and also a fairly debunked one. For one thing, many gifted people don’t grow up to be successful, and many successful people aren’t gifted.

For another, now I’m not sure that talent comes in a tidy little binary switch. I think people can be born with varying levels of ability, but whether that natural ability turns into real talent depends largely on how much time you invest in it. Someone who has a naturally athletic build, but who rarely exercises, is never going to be as athletic as someone who plays sports every day, even if they started out scrawny, asthmatic and easily exhausted. See Teddy Roosevelt for details. Similarly, I think people can vary in how creative, observant and eloquent they are, but anybody who has enough of those abilities to be truly interested in writing can make themselves a good writer.

Furthermore, I think the idea of writing as talent, rather than craft, makes it more difficult for writers to be objective. Growth in ability, for any skill, tends to jump most dramatically when somebody leaves their comfort zone and fails. Simply retreading areas of mastery can’t result in growth. To get better, you must first be incompetent. If you are hooked on the idea that you are talented, being in a state of incompetence is threatening. It clashes with your self-image. However, if you see any ability, including writing, as a craft to be studied, you can separate yourself from your failure. You have the resilience to stay in that area of incompetence until it becomes an area of mastery.

I was a terrible writer at five. I know because I wrote a short story as a present for my grandfather that had royal guards chasing away evil robbers by calling them buttfaces. That doesn’t matter, because I was writing at five, and was still writing at ten, and fifteen, and now I’m twenty-five and still writing.

And hopefully you all think this was at least somewhat well-written, because otherwise I have set myself up for serious embarrassment.

Novel-vember; Making Your Own Clay

Happy November, writers, aspiring writers, and particularly participants of NaNoWriMo. For those who haven’t heard of it, NaNo is a month-long challenge to write 50,000 words in a month. Technically, the challenge is to write a novel, but people use it for plays, scripts, short story collections, non-fiction, therapeutic journaling and any other sort of writing imaginable. It’s often called a competition, but it’s really only a competition with yourself. Everyone who successfully writes 50,000 words wins.

There is some controversy over whether or not NaNo is a good thing, as some people think that training people to write quickly takes away from their ability to write well. I don’t agree at all.  Most writers work in three steps; pre-writing, drafting, and editing. For some, pre-writing or editing are abbreviated steps, but no writer can avoid the drafting stage. If somebody had figured out a way to do it, we all would, because drafting is terrifying. It is the moment when the perfect, beautiful message you had in your head turns into reality, and that reality is never, ever as good as you thought it would be. Which is entirely all right, because the draft isn’t the book.

All art comes in three steps. First, the artist comes up with some idea, a message or aesthetic experience that they want to convey to an audience, along with a sense of how they will achieve that in a unique or interesting way. Second, they procure unformed materials that they can turn into their work of art. Third, they make the materials into the art. Now, for most artists, the second step is the easiest. Dancers are born with their bodies. Singers have their voices. Musicians have their instruments. Paint, canvas, clay, wood, yarn, fabric, beads, and most other supplies can be bought at a craft store. Writers don’t start with any materials, just blank screen, or blank paper, and a conspicuous absence of art. They have to do the bulk of their work in step two, creating their medium from nothing.

They shouldn’t be frustrated, any more than a sculptor is frustrated when they come home from the store and see that all they have to show for the trip is a lump of formless clay. On the other hand, the sculptor only had to take a trip to a store. They can get right to the fun process of editing the clay into what they want. By the time a writer has gotten to the point where they can even begin editing, they have worked for months, sometimes even years. To go through that much work, and only have formless clay to show for it, leaves the writer feeling like they might not have accomplished anything at all.

NaNoWriMo works well for me because it reminds me that a high word count is, in and of itself, an accomplishment. It also helped me get into the habit of writing large chunks every day. Every year I have done it, for several months afterwards I have felt the itch to keep producing words at that level. It was after I started NaNo that I began finishing first drafts of novels and novellas, and not only during November. I stopped giving up on projects halfway through.

So, as is fairly apparent from this post, I’m doing NaNo again this year. I didn’t want to get behind on this blog, though, so I’ve pre-written some posts, all on the theme of writers and the writing process. I’m calling them the Novel-vember posts, because I am a dork.

Best of luck to any fellow NaNo-ers out there. Have fun building your own lump of clay!