I have focused a lot recently on the aspects of storytelling like subtext and narrative– the elements which are not committed directly to the page, but are nevertheless understood. There are, to me, the most vital elements, for they transcend the story itself. For the most part, this is a positive thing. Generally, we plan for these things, what we want a story to be, what we want it to say – but there is another side to it.

Just as much can be said by what is not there as what is, and how what is there is treated. I have poked at the notion of “write what you knowbefore, and this is basically why. We are, obviously, limited in the experiences we have. They are ours, they shape us. But we are not limited to them.

Allow me to speak more plainly: if you are the average white person, and you make no effort to include experiences aside from those of an average white person in your writing, it will really show. Maybe not to me, I am a fairly middle of the road white dude, demographically speaking, and for those of us in that ‘majority’ or whatever, it is very easy to gloss over it. After all, it speaks to us, it is relateable to us.

sarahAnd, frankly, that’s a problem. It’s a problem in publishing. I don’t think the majority of editors and agents primarily accept books from straight, white people (mostly men). I think they read it, relate to it more than the book by the queer person of color, sign off on it and move on. But it comes back to effort. Did you ever read something you really can’t relate to? It is just so alien to your own experience that it makes you uncomfortable? That’s what we do when we make no effort to include other voices.

There are those who decry this as ‘diversity for diversities sake’. I reject that notion. For one thing, we are richer as a culture with more diversity, even in small increments. And we are going to need all that we can get over the next four years. And secondly, hell, just look at it economically. All it does it open more readers to you, and how is that a bad thing? And if you lose readers who refuse to read you because you make an effort for diversity, well, do you really care?

But there is an inherent danger in just jamming characters in there, and that is again linked to our experiences. We have these narratives in our culture about different races, genders, religions, etc. Please, please, please, stop falling into these. There are any number to pick from, but the Trinity Syndrome/Hyper-competent female sidekick is probably the most common (via this must-read article):

magician4

I have covered Leia before, but holy shit when you look at it like that. That’s not even all of them. And you could name ten other ways characters of a certain demographic are consistently handled before you take your next breath. Put some effort in and treat these characters differently. Stop pigeonholing them into the same tired roles. Does it take effort? Yeah, it does. But what in writing doesn’t? But it’s worth it. Maybe it doesn’t make you millions, or get greenlit as a Hollywood blockbuster, but I promise you it is worth it to the person who reads it and has seen nothing but the characters they can relate to marginalized in every work of fiction.

DESR

Your Author Social Media Policy

Allow me to sound old for a moment*. Nowadays, it’s so easy to connect with authors you admire and/or have read. What we forget so often, though, is the old adage: Never follow your heroes on Twitter. Because guess what? They have opinions. They have opinions about politics, religion, sports, or that goddamn dress. They share stupid shit, and seriously. They’re people, too, it turns out.

Allow me to digress for a moment. I, clearly, like social media. I have had the most meaningful relationship of my life because of it. I have made life-long friends because of it. But if you’re an author, you’re aspiring to something more public, putting you in the category of the paragraph above. You will be someone hero, and meeting you will be a letdown for them.

Never thought about that before, didja?

I certainly claim no fame, nor to be anyone’s hero, but there is one thing I learned early on in this silly career:

Never. Reply. To. Anything.

The more you write, the more you put yourself out there, the more opportunities to reply you will have. Do not, repeat, do not, under any circumstances, take them. For example:

  • Someone gave you a bad review.
  • Someone made a negative comment
  • Someone made an erroneous assumption, and is broadcasting it
  • Someone had a problem with your book because it was too diverse/not diverse enough
  • You were rejected by an agent/editor/reviewer

I gotta get out in front of this! you think, stifling your anger, and composing a very professional response. Except, that does no good. None. At. All. Press delete, and move on. But, DESR,, you’re saying, they were wrong! I [had people proofread it/need to correct them/just say thank you for their opinion/whatever]. Well, you’re wrong. Literally no good will come of what you’re typing. If they are wrong, well, when was the last time you changed your mind due to being explained to over the internet? Yeah, exactly. If they said negative things before, what do you think they’ll do after you condescend to them? No, shut up, I know you’re not trying to be condescending, but that is how they will take it.

But what if they have a big, ethical problem with your book, and they are making some assumption out of left field, and did they even read the whole thing? You just need to point out one little detail and, man, sit down, calm down, have a drink. They will still have the problem. Even if they don’t, someone else will. Let me tell you another big fuckin’ secret about this: your book(s) are not for everyone. Maybe they even have a point! But, seriously, move on. If they have a point, learn and move on. If they don’t, let them be and move on.

Real quick, about the review thing. I just want to say thank you for the one-star review/rejection. No you fucking don’t. It might seem polite, but these people are just doing their job, and you seem like a smarmy ass doing this. I get five rejections before breakfast (hyperbole, people), and I know several editors I regularly submit to, and I don’t reply to those rejections. Because editors HATE it when you do that. With reviewers, just stop. The exchange is over, you said thank you when you sent them the piece, they reviewed it, they hated it, the exchange is over. Saying thank you for taking the time seems disingenuous and like you are buttering them up for next time.

Use social media to be social. Not to make points or correct other people.

-DESR

*Pretty much always

Obligatory Horror Post

There is a lot of discussion about horror right now – it is October, after all, so I suppose it to be appropriate. Oddly, though, much of it centers around why we read or watch it, should we, etc. Do crime fiction writers deal with this? Because it seems every genre these days has a persecution complex – YA, Romance, SciFi, grow some skin already. But I digress.

I’d like to avoid those issues, though, because they are subjective and immaterial. Horror is not my personal favorite, because all to often it is cheap, and depends on shock more than it does on actual art and talent (before horror fans and authors start piling on me, this can be applied to most genres, I am not picking on you). Follow the clichés and pump the stories out like machines, and they sell a bunch around Halloween.

But, of course, there is another side to it, the side with talent and artistry. What makes something horrific, scary, or creepy?

I’ve written a lot recently on subtlety, irony, and narrative within a story, and this is really just another facet of that gem. Because horror, at its core, is playing to our emotions, fear in particular. But is it enough to just scare someone? Sure, if that’s all your going for. That’s why there are so many jump-scares and gore splatters in horror movies. It makes you jump, or feel revulsion, but then it passes. Horror – to me – should be about more than that.

There is a movie called Synecdoche, New York, and it is not a horror film at all, but go and watch it right now because it is amazing. The thing this movie does, though, is it grips you and tears you apart in a million ways. The thing about it, though, is Charlie Kaufman, who wrote and directed it, said he started out to write an existential horror. And with no blood and bodies and monsters, it is that, because it addresses other emotions than fear – yet, those emotions are ones we fear of themselves.frankenstein

Which is the more relatable fear? The monsters under our bed – which we all know to be imaginary – or feeling lost, trapped, alone, helpless, and/or sad? None of those feelings are imagined, and we have all felt them, at least to some extent. The great horror writers use this to their advantage. I have used Poe as an example a lot lately, so we’ll let him rest, even though he certainly does this.

Stephen King is a master of this. Why are so many of his books so deeply haunting and terrifying? Because they are also frequently sad as hell. It amplifies the effect of the actual fear. Carrie isn’t a scary story because she has blood dumped on her, or burns the gym down. It’s because we know Carrie. Because no matter what the quote says, we don’t fear fear itself.

Perhaps my favorite example of this is a work that probably isn’t horror at all, but because of this effect, it’s subject is universally associated with horror: Frankenstein. Why is Frankenstein’s monster always treated as a monster, a subject for Halloween decorations? Because the book Frankenstein is one of the most emotionally powerful books ever written. It takes us through every single emotion, but it bookends the feeling of despair in an incredibly powerful way.

It begins with the creators desperate search for his creation, and he has despaired of hope – of finding him, of doing anything else in life. But then we get to know the creation, the monster, the unlovable figure with a very human heart. We know his hopes, his joys, and finally his despair at the sure knowledge he will never belong. We empathize with his despair at the end more than we did with his creator’s at the beginning, because we know who the guilt belongs to. And we are horrified, because guilt belongs to man, not the monster.

Yet- the monster’s face adorns Halloween decorations.

Anyone can jump around a corner and scare someone, or tell a story about the man with the hook for a hand who roams the streets to this very day, or create a shower of gore. But if you want to keep someone up at night, use emotions other than fear, and make people fear them.

DESR

Let’s Talk About Assholes

Not like that, you pervert. Get your mind out of the gutter. “Asshole” is the catch-all phrase we use to describe someone with less than desirable traits. It’s a label it get a lot, since I have the personality equivalent of “resting bitch face” (which is ALSO a thing I have. I hear “smile” an awful lot). But to your average person, I am standoffish, sarcastic and often cold. This buys me the asshole label, usually sarcastically, but hey, it’s a catch-all, right? More accurately, though, I am just not a huge “people person”, and buy and large, most people are OK with that when you’re polite and funny.

I try not to be an asshole.

starfish.jpg

It was this or a cat’s butt

But sometimes that term gets tossed around as an excuse. Not as a label for someone like me, who forgets to reply to your email for two weeks (sorry), but for truly unacceptable and reprehensible behavior. When someone is a serial abuser, but they haven’t abused you. “Man, he sure is an asshole.” No, an asshole cuts you off in traffic. An asshole takes too long to reply to your text or email (seriously, I’m sorry). Asshole behavior is the behavior that there is probably a reason for. They really needed to get over to make that exit. They were really busy and their dog died so they took a while to reply. Asshole behavior is not abuse, gaslighting or anything of that sort.

 

Because those people, abusers, they are nice people. They are people that everyone likes. Because that protects them. “There’s no way that could be true! They’re so nice!” That’s what those people do. They are very careful to not be assholes. Because when their abuse comes to light, there is a collection of people saying “They were always really nice to me. If that’s true, why aren’t you spelling out their abuse in graphic detail?” It may not be the same person saying those things. It might be a few people just whispering them, or pretending to under the guise of  “I’m just sayin'”.

Or just lumping them in the basket of “well, they’re an asshole. That’s not a reason not to be friends with them.” Except, no. Assholes are those people who you wonder about at first, and then you get to know them and they are deep, warm people. Or maybe, they’re just not for you and your personalities don’t line up, so you keep calling them an asshole. But don’t use it as an excuse. It’s not like being friends with an asshole driver: yeah, sometimes they cut people off and drive too fast. It’s like being friends with a drunk driver: they put people in danger, and need professional help, and you should not get in a car with them until they can prove that behavior has changed.

DESR

 

 

Time Enough at Last

If you want a good laugh and also to be depressed, tell someone you are a writer. There are only about five responses people give to this revelation, the most obnoxious being “Oh yeah? I’m going to write a novel one day, when I have time.” I used to reply to this with a polite chuckle, now my response are words to effect of “bullshit“. This gives them a lovely shocked look on their face, and affords me time to explain to them why it’s the stupidest statement this side of  “I am voting for Trump.”

You see, despite the plurality of writing clichés and platitudes, one holds true above all others: Writers write. There is a whole ton of other stuff you have to do it if you want to be a prolific writer, or a published writer, but if you want to write, well, buddy, there is only one thing you have to do.

That statement annoys me on so many levels. For one thing, it implies that I have nothing better to do with my time. First off, I have a million time-consuming, expensive hobbies I already don’t have time or money for, and they get pushed farther to the side to make room for writing. I love tabletop games. I play one, mainly, now, occasionally, and the miniatures are pre-painted. I used to have Warhammer armies, and paint them, and play two or three games a week. Hell, I used to read books just for the fun of it! Now reading turns into blog fodder. Oh, yeah, and I have a day job, because no one is throwing seven-figure book deals and Hollywood blockbuster contracts my way. You don’t have time to write? Yeah, me either pal. Make time.

And another thing – what, exactly, is your idea for the Great American Novel? You don’t have one? Do you have any clue what goes into writing a novel? I think the average fantasy goes something like this:

You sit down at your desk, elegantly cluttered with reference pages and an assortment of classy pens. A gentle breeze rustles the spring air outside your open window. You gracefully sip your tea before stretching your fingers, and begin typing at a furious pace, crafting your masterpiece.

read.gif

Post-apocalyptic tragedy, or a career in writing?

Not how it works in the real world. In the real world, you get home from that day job, hungry and a tired and the last goddamn thing you want to do is think, but you are a writer, goddammit, so you turn on the oven to throw something you (no, you don’t know what yet, idiot), and sit down in your far-too-messy living room/office/spare bedroom at your far-too cluttered desk and try to ignore the unfolded laundry threatening to envelop your couch, like a blob monster in a B list horror movie. You open your manuscript and wonder who hacked into your Dropbox and wrote this steaming pile of horseshit, and then remember oh yeah it was me at 11:30pm last night so whatever and you press on anyway, but now you’re thinking about fucking blob monsters and has there been any good fiction about blob monsters lately and no I am writing about spaceships right now, stay on task, jesus. So you manage to write and write and write and wow this is actually good and I am making really good progress five hundered words what the hell, I’ve been at this for hours. OK a little more and then shit I forgot to put anything in the oven.

 

Out of the sheer mercy of my heart, I will not address outlining or editing.

I will, however, tell you that your Great American Novel actually sucks and will be rejected until your soul is nothing but ash and you are positive no one ever loved, if in fact love ever existed. You know those stories about Famous Author being rejected by FIVE publishing houses? You will be rejected by that many in a day. But sure, take your time. Whenever you get around to it. The rest of us will be over here, busting our asses, trying to be better writers, trying to catch that break, and we will be tired and stressed and occasionally sober. But we will be writers.

DESR

Narrative v Narration

I think it is safe to say that anyone reading this blog has a healthy appreciation for the beauty of language, and words. Both the glory of words, and the drawback, is they are simple used to represent concepts – they are not things in and of themselves. For example, what comes to mind with the word shambles?  Likely “a state of total disorder”. But it comes from the Latin scamellum, for bench, which became a word for stall which lead to Shambles being a butcher’s slaughterhouse, or meat market, which quite naturally lead to the way we use it today in reference to our kids rooms being messy (not as a scene of great carnage).

Words change. The concepts they represent change. But the beauty of a thing is not in its permanence. The same is true of books, of stories, as a whole – they represent concepts and ideas. Conversely from words themselves, though, the very fact that they represent deeper ideas increases their longevity.

Because any jackass can simply recount events. They can even arrange it into a three-act structure and tell a story out of it. Doing that takes time and effort, to be sure, and might even contain some pretty words, but it will be entirely forgettable if it doesn’t express a deeper idea.

A great example of this is Fight Club. Everyone knows exactly two things about Fight Club:

  1. The first two rules of Fight Club
  2. The twist at the end

beatBut that is not why people remember Fight Club (it is Brad Pitt’s abs in the movie). Because Fight Club, for being bokers, violent, having memorable lines and the all-time best twist, is memorable because of the ideas it represents. It’s about finding your identity, while also trying to find your place in the world and accept what you can and cannot change. All of that, painted with the brushstrokes of bull-headed masculinity – which, incidentally, is part of the concept and why it works.

I’ve been rambling about Poe a lot lately , mostly because I am reading through his works again, and because he is brilliant at things like this (Confession: Poe is the only author I enjoy MORE after writing in earnest). Perhaps – picking one story to embody this is a nightmarish chore – but perhaps the story that embodies this best is the Tell-Tale Heart. Because here, we have to parse it in twain: Narration v Narrative (roll credits). Put simply:

Narration: dude commits murder and is consumed with guilt.

Narrative: We’re really just deluding ourselves, aren’t we?

It’s a straightforward story – narration – isn’t it? First person, linear, with the plot to kill the old man, his execution, and the guilt consuming him to the point of confessing to the crime. All the while, our narrator is telling us how sane his:

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded –with what caution –with what foresight –with what dissimulation I went to work!

All the while, we read it thinking this dude is nuts, because a madman is the one who kills methodically, without apparent provocation. Certainly we – I – am incapable of such madness, because we are sane!

Aren’t we?

Are we?

The narrator is sure of his own sanity, even as his own actions belie him. The first-person narrative (which should only be used for this reason, seriously stop writing everything in first-person) makes this all the more jarring, because we interpret it as our own thoughts. And who hasn’t reassured themselves that I am sane, look at how sane I am being right now (you guys do this too, right?).

Thus- the narration becomes the narrative. Our eye turns from the story and the very obvious madness before us, and asks, in the space of a couple thousand words, are we really who we think we are? The story, the question, then haunts us, just as the beating of the heart haunted the narrator.

If you outline, you likely write down the beats of a story – the essential narrative plot points. But do you write down what your story is, what it represents when distilled down? Macbeth said it best:

…a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

That is what is to be avoided – there is enough forgettable entries into literature. If you can represent ideas and concepts in a way that is deeper and stronger than your narration, you will end up with a better, more memorable work – one which signifies something.

-DESR

And Then What?

I’ve written before about the importance of making your audience ask ‘what next’, but let’s play with that for a little bit. There are a lot of stories out there – more and more, it seems – that only answer that question. Sometimes they play with the structure of it, or offer some crazy twist, but in the end, all they do is answer that question. Make no mistake- it is a question you want your readers to ask, but your story should do more than that. In short, your narrative should not just be narration.

Think of telling someone about your day – I got up, and then I got dressed, and then I had some breakfast, and then I got in the car, and zzzzzzzzz. Bo-ring, right? Do you see the problem phrase? “And then” – if all you’re doing is saying “and then”, you’re telling a boring story.

So let’s assume you have build anticipation for that which is to come – so what next? Two simple words to replace “and then”: but and therefore. (for the record, I know I am far from the first to realize this, or point it out, but holy hell, it makes all the difference). Apply those two words to the simplest of anecdotes – it’s instantly more interesting: I got up, but I really didn’t want to, therefore I hit my snooze button like it owed me money, but I had to write that blog post on narrative structure therefore I dragged my sorry and slightly hungover ass out of bed.

See the difference?

But you obviously can’t just say but every other sentence – it has to be woven into the overall structure. Maybe you’re an plotter; maybe not, but either way this should be on your mind. Think of the beats in Fellowship of the Ring, after the fellowship sets out:

  • They try going over the mountains
  • but there is too much snow
  • therefore they have to go through the mines
  • but goblins have killed the dwarves
  • therefore they have to fight their way through
  • but the Balrog is too much
  • therefore Gandalf sacrifices himself

And there we reach a turn of the story, when they reach Lothlórien. Notice what this structure does: not only does it build anticipation for the beats to come, it shifts the focus from the Fellowship to their obstacles. The story begins to be more than simple narration. and then they went through the mines and then they fought goblins etc, makes it just about the heroes and makes them unrelatable, because they always overcome. But, because of all the buts, there is always the possibility of failure.

Writing Prompt: Write a story about this picture.

Writing Prompt: this picture

 

But you can’t just shove obstacles and consequences in the path of your story – you sort of have to handle that well. There are a million ways to go about this, of course, and you should do what works for you, with your style, but I invite you to think of cuts in movies for a moment. A director chooses what you see, and how you see it. You have the same control the lens in the mind of the reader – and used properly, it can be even more impactful than the audio/visual a movie provides.

How so? Because a movie only has access to those to senses – you can engage all of them within your reader. Scent, for example, is the sense most closely tied to memories. Ever get the barest whiff of something, and suddenly, you’re transported to a moment in time? That is what you can do for your readers. But that’s not news, is it? Of course you can describe anything – but we want to do more than just narrate it.

So choose carefully what your reader sees, hears, smells, feels, tastes. Don’t shove it in their face, either. That’s just narrating. Give them the whiff of sent, the whisper barely heard and invite their imagination to fill in the rest from their own experiences and sensations – that is what will put them in the environment. All of that frames your story, gives it context and depth – so choose what to focus on, and how long it is lingered upon.

Do that (and a few other things) and you take your reader from simply reading a story to being a part of it.

DESR