Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Tool of the Trade

My dear writers,

As one who is off and away with far less free time than she used to have, I must inform you of something:
Writing what you know is significantly less important than reading what you write.

Nonsense? Incomprehensible? I think not.

I've gone through the years reading voraciously, and it never quite registered until recently that it was really and truly helping my writing. I realized it in a conversation I had with a friend during one of our near-daily late-night food runs (because we are writers and therefore crepuscular creatures).

"You know... I haven't read a book in so long. The last book I read for pleasure was in January," she said.

"Jeeze. I'm doing a little bit better, but I used to go through at least a book a week and now I'm lucky if I get one a month—outside of Books, I mean."

We sat there for a minute and pondered our sudden reading demise.

"I hate to say it, but I'm almost glad that class is over," I said. "I had so much trouble turning things in for workshop because I didn't like them... I know I don't think too highly of a lot of the other people in the class, but I feel like my writing's slipping. I don't know if it's because of them, though..."

"When was the last time you finished a book outside of class?"

"Couple days ago, but I spent a couple months reading it."

She waited while I put two and two together.

"I think this whole not-reading thing is really detrimental to my writing."

"I know! And you know, a lot of the people in the class, they don't read much if they read at all!"

We went on to discuss the pros and cons of the various writers in the class, but that's a very clear digression from my point.

The class entitled Books That Make You Want To Write Re-Reloaded: Tokyo Drift, Die Hard With A Vengeance (here abbreviated as Books) was the equivalent to my ideal class and embodies the point I'm attempting to make in a more academic fashion. The idea behind it is that we will read books, one a week, that make us want to write and then discuss them and try to analyze why, exactly, they draw out our muse. This semester we used a point-value system to determine which of five elements of fiction the author was banking on to get us to read the book—character, conflict, plot, dialogue, and setting.

The key behind this class is that no book was designated as being awful; the "good books" were subjective and the "bad books" were just as subjective. Yes, reading Bridges of Madison County was met with a good deal of derision, but even books like Marguerite Dumas' The Lover were literary but didn't necessarily lead to good discussion. Literary books, good books, mediocre books, and downright awful books that had no right being published ought to be read to expand the facility of writing. Genre fiction can be just as highbrow as Dickens when it's being read as an example of writing that one wants to achieve.

Frequency and variety are good things to have. Proper grammar, formatting—both of which are handy so that any critiquers of your work aren't compelled to gouge their eyes out at first glance—and linguistic fluidity are all attained, all of which lead to a better storytelling experience.

If you are floundering in a sea of literature, the book list for Books of Spring 2009 follows:
The Lover, Marguerite Dumas
The Fur Hat, Vladimir Voinovich
The Box Man, Kobo Abe
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
The Hanged Man, Francesca Lia Block
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk
Jesus Saves, Darcy Steinke
The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller
Home Land, Sam Lipsyte
Feast of Snakes, Harry Crews

Read, my pretties, read!


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Deep, or just Memorizable?

Quotes. They plague our society. No matter where you turn, there will be someone waiting to show how clever they are by repeating something someone else said.
As writers, though, that should be a good thing, right? I mean, the goal for the majority of us here is HAVE our words repeated for decades to come, and as a result, stay in the public consciousness. Well, that's all very well, but notoriety should not come as a result of being quoted.

This is not because quotes are somehow bad. They really are no more than snippets of someone's work, brought out of the metaphorical cigarette case, when relevant, to be waved around. It's not the idea of a quote that I object to, it's the way they come about.
Perhaps an example would be nice. Let's suppose that you recently came up with a nice little saying that is infinitely applicable and rolls right off the tongue. You naturally would like to share this insight, and hopefully have it become one of those things that your aunt tells you when you complain that you don't own a Labrador/parakeet mix.
The questions is, how do you get your quote out there? There aren't tons of options.
One way would be to slip it quietly into a different piece of writing, and hope that your Trojan Horse will be accepted into the public consciousness, and then, by proxy, so will your quote. That is really just another sort of luck, however, because getting one specicifc piece of writing to become popular is about as easy as enjoying a popsicle in The Hindenberg. There are ways to cheat (like writing about Chuck Norris and his incredible strength), but the sort of people your writing becomes popular with are not people you want quoting you anyway.
Or, you could start saying your quote to people, in the hopes that they will repeat it because of its sheer applicability. Think about that one for a moment. If someone used a completely new "saying" to you (For instance "A popsicle is best enjoyed outside of The Hindenberg") then your first reaction is not going to be a thoughtful nod. After all, since there is no one that could possibly be so arrogant as to quote themselves, you must assume that the quote is from someone of note, and that leads you to ask who it is. When this person tells you that they came up with it, then your Arrogant Prick deflector will kick in, and you will forget you heard about it.

So, if you can't try and spread a quote the natural way, then what can you do?
Well, we did not start quoting people before they became famous, unless that quote happens to be "don't taze me, bro!" or something equivalent. And no one wants THAT kind of fame.
So, the key to being quoted is being well-known. Shakespeare is someone that you may have heard of before. As is George Carlin. But they became famous before they were quoted. See how that works?

So, the very idea of having a quote is a frustrating one. It is an option that is open only to people that are already popular, and the very idea of a quote is that what remains important is the words, not who spoke them. (Spake them? Spaketh? I have no idea.)
If you have to be important before you are quoted, then the whole system is a little bit flimsy, eh? Worse still, there are those that says things specifically because they want to be quoted, not because they have any actual meaning. Suddenly, it becomes more important to be quoted than to say something with a point. It irritates me.
Just remember this:
When it comes to thoughts, it is far better to use your own than those stolen from another.

I am a tremendous wiseass.

--H.P. Pseudonym

Bottles in Messages

Me again. I caught myself pondering the characteristics of Metaphors, and since this blog is about as active as a blind, one-legged Lhasa-Apso in a bear trap, why not talk to the big friendly internet for a while?

Metaphors. The way for clever people to say things without saying them.
Naturally, I'd love for this entire post to be an extended metaphor on the strategies of donut*
sales or somesuch, but I personally believe that substance should be taken over flashy displays of creative prowess, (just because a book is written without the letter "e" does NOT make it a good book), and so therefore I promise you that looking for any extra meaning here is completely futile. Anyway, that passage kind of got derailed there, so I'm gonna start again.

Metaphors. The way for a witty personage to make a bad story into confusing story.
See, in a lot of ways, that's really the main purpose of Metaphors: to distract. I'm not saying that they are to be used only by bad writers to conceal bad stories, not by a long shot, but the very idea of a metaphor is an interesting one. After all, unlike the more straightforward similes, it relies on the fact that the reader is paying enough attention to notice that the purple haddock nailed to the wall of the third cabin in the woods actually represents human suffering. A metaphor is a deeper level of meaning that has to be buried deep enough to be seem profound while still being discernible. A reader that realized, with a start, that the latter half of the Star Wars trilogy is actually a comment on the current status of the Cold War (and it is not) is a reader that gets to sit there in bed at three AM feeling very smug. It is a payoff that most writers have the ability to take advantage of, and we all know that. I'm not explaining what a metaphor is, I'm just pointing out that it's really the only part of artistic writing that gives credit to the reader.
There is probably someone irritatedly tapping their foot right now, getting ready to email me and say "what about symbol or allusion?" To which my answer is: symbol and allusion ARE metaphor. Seriously. They are put in a story as a deeper level of meaning and interpretation, and whether it is a nod to a different writer or idea or a way of using one thing to show something else, they are all the same in that when taken at face value, they are NOT required for the story.
You don't need to know that the beauty mark on Jack's left cheek is a sign of his hubris! When he gets it removed in chapter eight, you are fully allowed to pass it off as cosmetic preening, and keep reading! And the fact that his sweatervest is embossed with the infinitely geeky "THX-1138" is not actually a vital plot point, it is a nod at George Lucas. I bet George is thrilled.

My point here is that the idea of a metaphor is almost like masturbating for writers. ...Well, a different KIND of masturbating, at any rate. When I use metaphor, I get a nice artsy glow. "Mmmm... interpretation" I think. Because it's a way for me to write about things while putting myself on a plateau. "Oh, you mean you didn't realize what deeper meaning I was getting at? Pffft." And the best part is that often times, people will find a VERY profound level of meaning, and give all the credit to me! Did I intend to put it there? Who cares?

This is going to just keep dragging on unless I stop myself, so just in conclusion:
Don't feel bad if the new critically acclaimed novel seemed like a rather long description of old Mrs. Peverly walking her cat down sixth avenue while the buildings around her weep. It's not that you're not smart enough to catch the deeper levels, it's because the idea doesn't have any extra meaning for you. Writers make ever so much money off of people who strive to put meaning in things that don't have it, so that they can feel good about themselves. So use your head and don't read too far into things. Whether or not I end this post with a period is not important

--H.P. Pseudonym

*Microsoft Word doesn't think that "donut" is a word for some reason. "Donuts", however, it accepts. Damn plurals.

Writing... is a lot like a stubborn dog.

Let's take a look at that somewhat-used simile that is the title. " a stubborn dog." It's a comparison that is, while fairly vivid, also incredibly expected. A true nonsequiteur can, in contrast, be original enough to *seem* creative, while not having any kind of actual meaning. Coming up with a good simile is like hitting a mall Santa over the head with a copy of The Karma Sutra. It's difficult to set up, and by the time you're finished, you find yourself wondering if it was worth it.( Incidentally, if there is anyone out there who just nodded understandingly at that passage, perhaps with the gleam of fond memories in their eyes, then I urge them to either seek medical attention or email me.)

My point here is that the line between profound and artistic is a tricky one to tread, particularly when the vast majority of readers really WANT to feel special and intelligent at havin caught your meaning, but also want to glean something from your writing. Suppose, for instance, you wrote an extensive story about a plumber who finds himself in a search for the true meaning of life, while using plumbing as an extended metaphor. In the end, he has a monumental epiphany, ascends to a higher plane, and gets to hang out and watch Mythbusters with God.
There are a fair number of people that would understand this book deeply, and would look for multiple layers of interpretation in the words, treasuring the philosophy that it presents, because it makes so much SENSE. And *all* of these people will be plumbers.
How many people, do you think, know what a three-eighths Heynman Grommet is, and recognize its significance as a symbol for ultimate human struggle? It's not a very large number, (I am not one of those people either) so using that particular nugget of symbolism in your writing is an uphill battle. Any attempts at conveying something deep in a new, unfamiliar way is going to be lost on the vast majority of people. Any attempts at conveying something deep in a way that has meaning for people in general has already been tried by numerous authors is firmly in the "cliche" category, and is thus untouchable by any truly serious writer.
As a result, it is the writers who have enough lack of awareness of cliche -or lack of shame- to use the symbols, plots, and ideas that make the most money. Twilight, a romance "novel" that is centered around vampires, is something like the 20,000th duplication of the same plot, and has naturally sold over 25 million copies. Do you think Stephanie Meyers regularly pats herself on the back for her groundbreaking plot and characters?
Am I the only one who gets a massive headache whenever I think about this?

Any creative ideas lack enough mass appeal to justify writing about them, any ideas that HAVE that massive appeal are old and smelly and are occasionally lugged out onto a stage so that everyone can throw money at them for a while, before disappearing into the back and never being heard of again. Sometimes a movie is made as well.
The problem here, is that it puts writers who care about anything more than money in a very frustrating place. If everyone is going to be reading Eragon, a book that is essentially "ctrl + a", "ctrl + c", and "ctrl + v" in terms of originality, then why would I try and publish my brilliant breakdown of human suffering? People are too busy pointing and going "Ooh, dragons!" to pay attention to my work. Therefore, I am forced to either sell out, or hope to dear God that someone significant will notice what I'm doing and kick my book into the public eye.

That is why writing is like performing hip surgery with a tennis raqquet. It's hard to do, and even if you succeed, there isn't very much chance that you're going to make any money at it.

--H. P. Pseudonym