becoming an artist: blundering vs. style

| Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Today's Tune: Neutra Face

Sometimes the life of a writer can get pretty numbing. Okay, a lot of the time. There are so many things to keep in mind while we're creating in order to produce a functional, quality work. It's hard. Rewarding, but hard. Any literate person can write, but not every literate person can create. Creative writing isn't just about stringing words together in a functional way. It's art. It's crafting images and emotions in the medium of text.

But sometimes writers get a little too caught up in their "artist" mindset. Sometimes "art" becomes a wall to hide behind; an excuse for laziness or unwillingness to hear criticism. There's a fine line big, bold gap between intentional style intended to illicit a response in the reader and claiming you're using comma splices because IT'S JUST MY STYLE, SHUT UP, I'M AN ARTIST. I'm not about to go all SnobFace and insist that only certain types of art are "real" art, but you cannot couch lazy crafting in the guise of artistry. That's not how it works.

Let's talk about the difference between artistic style choices and doing whatever you want without caring what the "rules" say because you don't know them/don't care enough to learn about them.

The Rules Exist for a Reason...


Grammar has a purpose. Writing rules exist for a reason. They're not intended to keep you down or stifle your creativity or tangle you up in menial editing. They exist to set the standard for communication. Unless you are keeping a personal diary, when you put words to paper, you intend them to be read and understood by other people. Sloppy punctuation, misplaced modifiers, homophones... these are all obstacles that muddy your meaning for the reader.

You cannot claim artistry and mastery of a medium until you have learned as much about it as you can and truly understand what its "rules" are meant to accomplish. Ignoring or being ignorant of the rules of writing is not art. Art is intentional. Unless you wrote a run-on sentence with a specific intention in mind, it's just a run-on sentence. You cannot defend sloppy craft by claiming it's your "style."

There is no excuse for ignoring the foundation of your craft. Understanding the rules is the key to breaking them with grace and intention. You do not have to be perfect -- we all have our weaknesses and blind spots -- but you absolutely cannot claim to be an artist if you refuse to put in the effort to learn.

This is not art:

"Sally was like a flower and Emily, was like a thorn; two sisters; one stem."

This is not art:

"The air -- it was so hot -- sizzled around me, and Jordan screamed 'DON'T PANIC!!'"

This is not art:

"When my grandma was a little, girl, she wanted to be a singer and I know how she felt because I wanted that too with all my heart, just like her."

Why aren't they art? Because there's no purpose behind my word and punctuation choices, except perhaps being intentionally bad (maybe that's an art in itself, har har har). I made up sentences off the top of my head and didn't intend any special meanings with the choices I made. The commas aren't supposed to signify pauses, I'm not trying to put a specific image in anyone's head with my phrasing, there's no reason for me to leave out or insert the punctuation I did. It's not art. It's just slapdash.

... and the Rules Were Made to be Broken.


The first part may have made me seem like a stickler for THE RULES, but I'm really not. I love it when the rules are broken, so long as it's done intentionally and well. This is why knowing how writing functions and breathes is so important -- it allows us to bend the medium to our own whims. It allows us to use our knowledge with purpose.

This is where artistry begins. Ask yourself WHY. WHY did you choose to use that word or phrase? WHY are you placing a comma there? WHY is that sentence a run-on? WHAT IS THE REASON behind your choice? You should be able to explain confidently and exactly why you made the style choices you did. THAT is your style. Intentional brush strokes, not haphazard splashing.

I use run-on sentences to indicate urgency or stream of consciousness. I use short, blunt, or fragmented sentences to indicate confusion or because I like the way they sound to the ear when they're broken up. I like to use round, soft words for touching moments and hard-sounding words for emotionally turbulent moments. I sometimes incorporate onomatopoeia for ambiance. This is my style. I understand that if I want to break a rule, I need to have a reason. An intention. A goal.

Our greatest literary minds broke rules and thought outside the box. You can, too... so long as you know what you're doing.

I'll leave you with a few atypical quotes to ponder over. Can you see what the author intended and how they crafted these words to give you that image?


* * * A DEFINITION NOT FOUND * * *
IN THE DICTIONARY
Not leaving: an act of trust and love,
often deciphered by children

-- The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

"CORALINE'S STORY
THERE WAS A GIRL HER NAME WAS APPLE. SHE USED TO DANCE A LOT. SHE DANCED AND DANCED UNTIL HER FEET TURND INTO SOSSAJES. THE END."
-- Coraline (Neil Gaiman)

"We enter a time of calamity. Blood on the tarmac. Fingers in the juicer. Towers of air frozen in the lunar wastes. Models dead on the runways, with their legs facing backward. Children with smiles that can’t be undone. Chicken shall rot in the aisles. See the pillars fall."
-- Feed (M.T. Anderson)




Mark Reads/Watches

| Monday, March 28, 2011
Today's Tune: Be Prepared

I missed my post on Friday - sorry about that! I took a trip to San Francisco with my boyfriend for our 3-year anniversary. It was niiiiiice. We had Dynamo Donuts and Humphrey Slocombe ice cream and walked around the Mission District and Chinatown and Union Square and saw a show and generally had a lot of fun. But! Now I'm back :)

So, we all have our little internet distractions, and for the last several months, Mark Reads and Mark Watches have been one of mine. The premise: he reads books and watches TV shows one chapter/episode at a time, then shares his thoughts. He only reads/watches things he hasn't done before, so he has a very strict no spoiler policy. They're very addicting blogs to read, especially because he keeps insisting on doing books/shows that I ABSOLUTELY LOVE, and his infectious enthusiasm always makes me smile. A lot of the reviews are funny and silly, but he also occasionally goes really in-depth with his analysis. He's currently reading The Book Thief, which is one of my favorite books in recent memory. Check him out if you haven't yet!

Though, fair warning, he is very liberal in his use of profanity. Just FYI.

Of course we should all be writing, but... a little fun time doesn't hurt. A LITTLE. What internet distractions have you been enjoying?

99-cent ebooks: yay or nay?

| Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Today's Tune: Sea of Love

Aaaaaaaaaaaand TODAY I'd like to discuss this interesting interview about how low-balling one's ebook prices might not be the best idea in the world. Excite? SO EXCITE.

Winters touches on a lot of points in this interview that I myself have been concerned about with the emerging ebook market. Is selling 99-cent ebooks a sustainable business model? Does such a low price devalue or color the expectation of the work (aka, "So what if it sucks, it's only 99 cents")? Can you actually make reasonable money selling ebooks for so little? Do people who buy "cheap" books display an attitude of entitlement and expect more for less?

All totally valid questions. Another big concern of mine is the "hoarding" aspect she mentions. People often compare ebooks to the evolution of music purchases, which is a reasonable comparison to make, but I don't think they're as similar as they appear. Music is easily consumed. You can listen to 100 songs in a few days. You can't read 100 books in a few days. Unless your super power is Speed Reading. Are you The Speed Reader? I'm not The Speed Reader. I'm fast, but I'm not that fast. So what happens if people develop the "99 cents, why not" attitude? Will they buy buy buy, but never read? If you can get 30 books for 30 bucks, how fast will you read them? More importantly, will you read them at all?

Personally, I'd rather not boil down years of work into something that can be purchased for 99 cents. I think my work is worth more than that. IT'S WORTH A MILLION CENTS just kidding. But really, I think it's worth at least $4.99. I worry about authors undercutting one another for numbers, rather than trying to find a good, sustainable model that will benefit all. Sure, we can pull out our Amanda Hocking examples, but she's the exception, not the rule. She's also not making her money on one or even two books - she has several currently available.

What do you think, gentle readers good buddies?




IT'S A TRAP: Purple Hair, No Personality

| Monday, March 21, 2011
Today's Tune: Fluorescent Adolescents

Time for IT'S A TRAP! These posts are intended as somewhat humorous (but true) tributes to traps that we writers occasionally find ourselves falling into. Disclaimer: there are always exceptions to every rule. Sometimes, even the worst writer "traps" can be pulled off with style in the right hands.

But they're usually a bad idea. MOVING ON.

IT'S A TRAP! - Unusual Physical Appearance in Place of Personality

If you read genre fiction or fan fiction, odds are good that you've come across this trap at least once. It's pretty easy to spot: a character has a striking, weird, unique, unusually beautiful, or otherwise notable physical quirk, but is otherwise lacking in personality.

This tactic is a favorite of beginning genre writers, particularly in paranormal, fantasy, or science fiction. It's essentially a crutch - a way to make a character stand out without delving into any real characterization work. I wouldn't necessarily call it lazy writing, at least not at first. When one is new to fiction, one is also new to building multi-faceted, three-dimensional characters. It's totally understandable that "make your characters stand out" is translated into "make them look unique."

So we give them purple hair. Or unnaturally-colored eyes. Or a huge scar over some noticeable-but-not-disfiguring area of their body. If there's one thing I've noticed about this trap, it's that these physical attributes always manage to make a character somehow beautiful, rather than unattractive. Because no one wants to read about UGGOS, right, right, right?

Another underlying cause for this trick comes from Special Snowflake Syndrome - our inherent desire to make sure our protagonists in particular are UNIQUE and SPECIAL and ONE OF A KIND. However, this approach almost always falls flat, especially when only select characters have "special" features and there's very little deeper character building going on. It's a parlor trick. HEY, CHECK IT, THIS CHARACTER LOOKS DIFFERENT. THAT MEANS THEY'RE SPECIAL. SEE THE CRAZY HAIR? SEE? SEE?

How To Avoid This Trap

Easy enough: make sure there's more to your character than some shiny physical attribute. More than that, if you're going to give someone under 30 silver hair or feature a character with a robot arm, make sure there is a real, sensible reason for that quirk to exist. Don't throw confetti in your audience's face and expect them to be distracted from a flat character.

Avoid the temptation to give someone an unusual physical appearance if it doesn't make sense for the world you've built. It doesn't make sense for your character to be the only person in the world with orange eyes. It just doesn't. You're cheating at character building. Stop it.

Don't stop at a character's outsides. You have to develop their insides, too.


so you want to self-publish.

| Friday, March 18, 2011
Today's Tune: The Future Freaks Me Out

So you're thinking of going the self-publishing route. More power to you.

No, really. I'm not being a smartass. More power to you. Taking your published status into your own hands can be empowering and rewarding, but it can also be terrifying and draining. In the current fluctuating publishing market, it's still a pretty big risk, and one that self-publishers need to be realistic about.

While self-publishing is (very gradually) becoming a more and more accepted alternative to traditional publishing, it's still far from perfect and it still carries a heavy stigma with it. It should not be done on a whim. A fair amount of research and determination goes hand-in-hand with the decision to self-pub. There are a number of important factors and tips to keep in mind if you're considering the self-published path.

1.) Possibly the most important: there is no secret, untapped route to making money, money, money with your books. Whether you go traditional or self-pub, you cannot guarantee that you're going to make seven figures, six figures, or even four figures. You can increase your book's exposure through a number of marketing methods, you can go on foot and sell by hand, you can donate copies to libraries, offer the first chapter for free, and try many other methods of getting your book into hands to be read, but none of these things will guarantee sales. The only thing you can count on is that people buy books they want to read, so make sure yours is one people want to read. Even so, good books are still overlooked every day. So don't view self-publishing as a secret cash cow. It'll hurt you right off the bat.

2.) Do not choose self-publishing because being rejected is making you cranky and/or you're tired of waiting. Traditional publishing is a bitch to break into. All aspiring authors know this (or should know it). It has its flaws. It's not perfect, either, and it's changing rapidly. But the decision to forgo it should be made after carefully weighing the pros and cons of each method, not because you're frustrated with your 50th rejection and just want to be PUBLISHED ALREADY. Both methods have their good and bad qualities, and you need to be aware of them before making the leap. What's important to you?

3.) Choose your publisher/press carefully and do your research. There are a number of available methods for self-publishing these days, with more cropping up all the time. Some big ones include FastPencil, LuLu, CreateSpace, and more. Don't close your eyes and throw a dart at a dartboard. Whichever service you choose, you need to make sure you know what you're getting into. Talk to other authors who have published with X service. Read reviews. Read some of the books available. Know which ones can possibly help you get into bookstores and which can't. Know which require you to buy X amount of copies up front and which are print-on-demand. Know which are intended for smaller, personalized runs and which are capable of wider distribution. Look at average sales numbers. Don't be scammed.

4.) If you choose self-publishing, everything's on you. Unless you choose to invest more money in various editing/marketing services provided by some of the presses, that is. Otherwise, consider your investment and start-up costs. Consider this a business decision. You will be your own editor, bookkeeper, contract negotiator, agent, seller, and marketer. Getting this book into book reviewers' hands, buzzing on Twitter, written up in the local paper, sold to independent bookstores - it's all up to you. Can you handle it?

5.) Do not get complacent - to stand out, your book must be as polished and presentable as any traditionally published book. Self-publishing is widely regarded as a catchall for authors who are too stubborn, too lazy, too terrible, or too impatient to go the traditional publishing route. That stigma is slowly changing, but in order to change it even further, you must be diligent. You must produce quality, sparkling work. Editing mistakes, weak plots, poor layout, overwriting, and mediocre characters will be judged twice as harshly in self-publishing, because people are looking for it. Prove them wrong. Self-publishing is, in part, about the freedom to control your own work, but that doesn't give you a pass to ignore craft.

6.) Good luck. Genuinely, I mean it. This is not an easy path. It has a number of incredible benefits, but there are also a lot of obstacles to overcome. It's a commitment and a risk. If you're ready to take it on, then good on you.




writing sorrow.

| Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Today's Tune: What Sarah Said

I'm struggling a little with writing human pain and tragedy today. Not that I don't know about it - we all do - but that I can't figure out exactly how to convey the pain in words.

Too much and it's melodramatic.

To little and it's emotionless.

Where's that balance between quiet pain and screaming at the world? How do we convey it in words without making our audience either bored or feel like they're being told to feel something they don't feel?

This is where I am right now. My character has lost someone very important to her and she's not sure exactly how to react. She's confused, angry, and in mourning. I keep waffling between having her react in an overblown, melodramatic way, or going completely numb. Both are a little too far to either end of the spectrum.

I try to recall how I reacted to pain. I tend to go it alone; putting on a brave face while quietly seething and weeping in a corner somewhere, occasionally screaming into pillows. As I've grown older, I tend to seek out the comfort of a friend or two.

Then I think about other people I know; people who yell and punch walls and rage at everything. That hot, molten, frightening sort of angry sorrow.

In the end, I suppose it's about analyzing my character and figuring out which emotion is at the forefront of her personality, and channeling her grief through that. Anger, or strength? Confusion, or losing her faith? Is she the quiet private mourner, or the loud public mourner? More exploration is necessary, I think.

How about you, readers? How do you write intense sorrow and human tragedy?

the goals we set.

| Monday, March 14, 2011
Today's Tune: Falling Slowly

How do you set your writing goals? By word count? By time frame? Loosely? Ambitiously? Strictly? Lazily? Can't quit till you reach a certain point? No idea?

In the end, it doesn't really matter how you set your goals. It only matters that you aim for them and stick to them. Find what works for you. Really study yourself - your personality, your limits, your drive, your willingness - and set appropriate goals.

Here are some tips:

1.) Set achievable goals. - Don't set yourself up to fail. Sometimes you have a great day and get a TON of work done. The words fly, and before you know it, you have 5,000 words or six chapters or three new character diagrams or whatever. That's awesome. Don't make it your daily goal. Find your "sweet spot." Give yourself a realistic daily goal you know you can hit. If you exceed it, awesome. If not, at least you've met your minimum, and that's cool, too.

2.) Allow yourself a break. - I'm not advocating taking a "break" that includes putting your project off for a week, a month, three months. The more space you put between one word and the next makes it that much harder to get back into routine. But you are allowed a break once in a while. And you don't have to feel guilty about it. Take a day off. Let your creative mind rest. Veg out. Then get back to it tomorrow.

3.) On that note, don't beat yourself up. - Sometimes, even with a generously set goal, you may miss the mark. Do not allow yourself to get discouraged. Don't go into "failure mode." It happened, it sucks, and maybe you need to reevaluate your goals and make sure you do what you need to do to meet them in the future. Save the self-doubt and teeth gnashing for when you're really being lazy.

4.) Which leads us to: don't be lazy. - Okay, so you're allowed to make mistakes. You're human. This doesn't give you license to edge into procrastination or laziness. Shake yourself out of these habits as soon as you can. Which is now. Do it now.

5.) Be malleable. - You've noticed your original 2000-words-a-day writing goal is waning. It's mentally draining you and you're cranky and pissed off all the time. Maybe it's time to switch it up. Try a different approach. Time frame goal isn't working because you're spending 50% of your two-hour block staring out the window? Reassess and try something else. Perhaps that method doesn't jive with your personality. Find what works for you.

6.) Stop making excuses for not meeting your goals. - You want to be a writer? You need to do writer things. That means discipline. It means carving out time to write whenever you can. It means shutting up and doing. If you cannot shut up and do, you are doing it wrong. This is why it's important to set doable goals - so that you cannot make excuses for when you can't complete them. This is on you. If you want this to happen, you have to make it happen. No one else will do it for you. Mistakes are one thing. Excuses are another.


Writing is personal, which means what works for one writer won't work for the next. It also means that you're responsible for your own writer self. How do you set your goals? What do you do to make sure you meet them?




talk to me about what you're reading.

| Friday, March 11, 2011

Happy Friday, dudes! Or potentially Saturday, for my friends in Europe/Asia/Australia, I suppose. What have you been reading lately? I've been churning through the Kindle books. I bet you'd like to know my thoughts, right? ;)

Zombies vs. Unicorns
edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

An interesting read. This is an anthology of short stories about... zombies and unicorns OMG YOU'RE SHOCKED I KNOW. The stories switch back and forth, with little asides by Team Unicorn (Black) and Team Zombie (Larbalestier) in between. Some very recognizable names are featured in the anthology, such as YA authors Maureen Johnson, Margo Lanagan, and Scott Westerfield. The stories themselves are a mixed bag - they range from emotionally powerful and well-written to "meh." Darkness and silliness abound, though not always together. Some of the stories were worth the read. Might be worth seeing if you can find it at the library.

The Mockingbirds
by Daisy Whitney

Just as a disclaimer, I tend to be extremely picky about the portrayal of rape in fiction. I have Very Important Opinions, and there is little that gets under my skin worse than an author who misuses rape or attempted rape for added tension and sympathy. That said, I found Whitney's issue novel to be incredibly realistic and moving in its portrayal of date rape. According to the author's note, Whitney herself experienced a date rape while away at college, and her background is clearly evident in the protagonist's honest and heartfelt situation. I did have a few personal nitpicks over Whitney's writing style and I found some of the other characters to border on unrealistic, but overall I felt this was a well-done issue novel that treated its topic with care.

Tender Morsels
by Margo Lanagan

Oh, this book. This book is rough. Beautifully written and filled with genuine emotion and painfully lovely prose, but freakin' rough. It's easy to see why there was such outcry over this book - its unflinching portrayal of sex, rape, lust, and incest is at times difficult to read. One scene in particular left me feeling physically ill. If such topics are disturbing or distasteful to you (I mean, I *hope* rape is distasteful to you, but if you don't want to READ about it), you may want to skip this one. That said, this book is beautiful and painful and I'm not at all sorry I read it. At its core, this is a story of love. Unflinching, slightly naive, gut-wrenching love, sacrifice, and what we do to protect those we love most. There is tragedy, but there is hope, too. A really powerful read, any way you slice it.

***

So, what have you read lately?

fyi: universal popularity is a myth.

| Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Today's Tune: Heads Will Roll

HEY DUDES AND LADIES HOW'S IT GOING. I feel like I'm super out of the loop. NOT BLOGGING FOR A FEW WEEKS WILL DO THAT TO YOU. I hope you're well! I hope you're writing lots and lots! I feel that I have a bit more breathing room lately, so hopefully I can get back into regular blogging, yeah? We'll just test that theory out for a week or two and see how it goes :)

I thought I'd ease back in with a post on the importance of being able to accept criticism, which I believe I've spoken on before, but what the heck.

Let's just get this out of the way right now: there will be people out there who don't like your writing. They may even hate it. They won't like the tone, or the style, or the voice. Your writing tics may annoy them. Maybe they won't connect with your characters, or find fault in how you portray a certain topic. Bottom line: not everyone will love you.

They may be completely justified in their criticism (maybe you really DO overuse adverbs and need to dial it back), or it may just be a matter of personal opinion. But that's 100% their right. Opinions differ. If we all liked the same things, then we'd all be the same person. Sounds like a dystopian thriller waiting to happen amiright.

Here's the thing: criticism hurts, sure. Especially when you feel it's mean-spirited or unfounded. Ultimately, though, we have to understand that it will happen. It will happen to us. Not everyone abides by some secret code of "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." Nor should they have to. Criticism may not always help you grow, but I think it almost always makes your work stronger. It reinforces the opinions of those who loved the work, and causes them to reconsider what made them love it so much. If you can stand up to harsh criticism and take it in stride, it makes you that much stronger and more prepared for your next adventure.

If you feel you need constant praise and reassurance that your work is wonderful and amazing and perfect, I feel like you're actually cheating yourself. The greatest literary minds in history have suffered endless critique and criticism, often during their lifetimes. Not that I'm saying everyone who receives criticism is a literary genius or anything (I am REALLY not saying that), but the greats did persevere through that adversary. They took it. Some of them shrugged it off. Others were deeply wounded. But they kept on keepin' on, because that's what you have to do in this profession. You have to take the good with the bad.

Take criticism. Take critiques. Learn from them. Even if the only lesson you take away is "people can be jerks," it's still a lesson worth learning. Don't limit yourself or discount the opinions of others just because it's not all happiness and light all the time. You do yourself no favors by surrounding yourself with a golden bubble.

So, let's all say it together: it's okay if people don't like my work. It's okay if they're jerks and give me a nasty review. It's okay if they say my characters are flat and my plot is uninspired. They're allowed that opinion. If their comments have merit, then I can take that to my next project. If not, then I'll hold my head up high and keep on rolling. Or I'll pack it in.

Because no matter what people say, if you're doing what you love, more power to you. Just don't be that person that sticks their head in the sand because they think they're untouchable. No one's untouchable. Not even the greats.

Ultimately, if someone reviews your work? It means they care. In some way, they think it's worth their time to talk about your work. So take that for what it's worth.




 

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