Ten Thousand Forks

Perhaps no word in the English language is so abused as poor irony (‘like’ is up there). It’s the rallying cry of hipsters who drink PBR and wear T-shirts ‘ironically’. And little needs to be said about that song, which contains nothing which is actually ironic, which, if intended, makes it actually ironic. So it is either brilliant or dumb. In any case, irony has suffered much.

And not only has its true meaning been diluted, its actual use has. We take irony- even as defined – to be brief, pithy and generally humorous in some way. But, my dear readers, but, irony is so, so much more than that. It is a great tool in writing, and is not particularly complicated to wield. All you have to do is understand what irony is, and what its intent is. To the first, we turn to the dictionary:

the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.

Italics mine in there. Note that is not just for humor. And we thus establish it is using the opposite to get your point across- which is where intent comes in. But that is the 1 definition. Mark this:

a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.

So it is not even novel to use irony in writing- in fact, it is ancient. So how do we use it in our story? There are, of course, myriad examples in literature, but perhaps none better – or, at least, more apparent – than in The Cask of Amontillado, by Edgar Allen Poe. If you haven’t read it, do so now. It’s available for free in a few places, and is a quick read. I’ll wait.

Read it yet? Good. Let’s continue. The best place to start is with the very obvious ironies: Fortunato is easily apparent- he is far from fortunate, at least within the bounds of our story, but in other areas of life is successful. His demise- unsuspected, and likely unwarranted (more on that in a second), is as unfortunate as can be.

cask.jpgHe wears a hat with bells – in Victorian times, bells were put on bodies being buried (or even atop their graves) to prevent burial of people who weren’t actually dead and were just in a coma. Fortunato’s hat, however, provides him no such favors, jingling away, the only one to hear being his murdered.

So there are myriad obvious (Fortunato is implored to turn back; his health is showed concern for; the Mason joke)- yet effective ironies in the story. This is, of course, the easiest use of it – and there is nothing wrong with doing so. It fulfills the definitions above, telling your reader something  by using opposites to make the point.

But the story, in its entirety, is one of irony. We begin with

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but
when he ventured upon insult..

Yet we never know what the insult is- or if there even was one. Based on my experience, anyone who is willing to plot a years-long revenge is also the type of person who will take insult at almost anything (but I know very few murderers; I may be mistaken). And even if Fortunato did insult the narrator, does it justify his end? There is no way it could. So while the narrator is often called unreliable in this story, I don’t know that that is the best way of putting it. No, he is the opposite of moral sense- any of us (GG’ers will disagree) deem murder wrong and criminal. But to the narrator, it is his duty and morally right and justified. There is an overarching irony to the fact that the tale is from his point of view, and one that is unblinking in his assertion that he did the right thing.

This does something interesting to us – think of a book or movie that follows the ‘good guys’ through a murder investigation. The one that leaps to my mind is Se7en (UGH that name), which is a fantastic film. But throughout it, we are repulsed by the nature and crimes of John Doe. And even though we recognize that he firmly believes he is right, we never sympathize with him.

The narrator in this story, though- we never sympathize with him either, but we are more and more repulsed by him because it is told to us in a sympathetic tone. It is the irony of the story that drives home our feelings about his actions. Imagine it as a conventional crime story- the body is discovered, there is an investigation, it is revealed at the end that he was tricked and lead to his death. Bad enough, right? But by spending the whole time in the mind of the killer, and him proclaiming not his innocence, but that he is in fact just, there is a different feeling. It’s not a shock, not a jump scare or dramatic reveal, but a growing sense, knowing what is coming and being forced to watch it. It is the irony that draws you in and forces you to be a voyeur to an act you despise – and thus the reader shares in the irony.

DESR

In Praise of Subtlety

Do any of you have that word that you use all the damn time, but can still never spell correctly? And you usually go so far astray that autocorrect looks at it, looks at you, back at the word, and kind of walks away with a defeated shrug, muttering to itself?

‘Subtlety’ is that way for me. And I use that word a lot because it is a word, like irony (more on that later), which is having its meaning eroded. Not in the same way, of course- people use irony to mean all manner of things which are not, in fact, ironic. No, subtlety is simply being lost.

rain

Pretty, POTC, but not very subtle

 

 

“Show, don’t tell” is an all-to-frequently repeated adage of writing, usually accompanied by some quasi-poetic, insufferably pretentious statement like “don’t tell me it’s raining; make me feel the raindrops (this post might be insufferably pretentious, I realize). It’s not wrong, but it is over-repeated, to be sure. While there are a whole bunch of authors who go out of their way to make sure you feel raindrops, it gets shoved in our faces a lot that it is f**king raining – rain which does not connect to any greater purpose.

 

How so? I talked about it earlier – the gut-punch moments of trauma, for example. It propels the plot, sure, it makes the reader feel something, but is it in service of anything greater?

Personally, I deplore writing a word that only means one thing. And so much of literature these days is just that- one thing, a story, it goes from point A to point B, and along the way some shit happened. I loved, I laughed, I cried, I forgot about the story two weeks later.

Perhaps the preeminent example of this is The Raven, by Edgar Allen Poe. In it, Poe doesn’t really try terribly hard to make you care about Lenore, but by the time the door is open – a mere four verses in – we feel apprehension as well:

here I opened wide the door;—

            Darkness there and nothing more.

We, of course, know what is coming, but subtly apprehension is built. What’s more, we know what’s coming- in fact, if there is one thing every person knows about Poe, it is that the word nevermore appears in this poem. But let’s talk about that word; or, rather, half of it- more.

raven

By Adam Flynn

 

The word more closes every verse in the poem, which may not seem terrible subtle, but note that the simple repetition takes the narrator through the gamut of emotion. At first, it cheers our narrator, but drives him madder and madder at the repeated answer. But to us, the repetition is not maddening – it serves another purpose. It keeps a steady beat throughout the story, so that we anticipate that word coming, building to it.

 

But not the subtle shift in tone – the second verse closes with evermore – he is haunted by her. Then five verses of merely this and nothing more – the interruption, at those points, is inconsequential, and those words convey that nothing changes, for us or the narrator. But then the rest of the verses close with nevermore, with no variation. I think of this poem like the drumbeat that builds tension- slow at first, beating faster and faster and setting out hearts pounding and adrenal glands into a frenzy. Movies use it all the time – Poe writes it. So that beat starts neutral, and beats faster and faster as we anticipate it more, until the crescendo:

And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
            Shall be lifted—nevermore!

 

Because this time- it’s not the Raven speaking, it’s the narrator. Every subtle layering throughout has led to this – the ultimate resignation of the narrator, and thus, ourselves.

Each use of more serves something larger- not just to convey the feelings, to make us feel, to tell us it is raining, but to set up, build to, a conclusion.

One of my favorite insults of all time is an old British one, that, presumably, has fallen out of use, but goes “what are you for?” which is to say, “what is your purpose?” Ask that of your words- what are they for, what is their purpose? How does it serve, not just the scene, not just the plot, but the entirety of the story and its ultimate payoff?

DESR

Something Clickbaity About the Secret of Publishing Success

Publishing is a weird, weird game. You can’t swing a dead cat on the internet without hitting no less that 4,572,901 articles on How To Get Published, How To Get An Agent, How To Get a Book Deal and How To Attract Perverts By Swinging Dead Cats. The thing is, those articles are universally bullshit (except for the attracting perverts one. Those are pretty accurate). Because the only secret is there is no secret. There is skill, and there is luck, and there is timing, and all are involved in some measure that isn’t the same from one book to the next.

weirdBut, man, do people rail about how their way is the best way- and with good reason, if not good information. If you are an author, likely you want your book out there. And just as likely, you have a fair amount of skill and at least a working knowledge of language, but you probably aren’t an expert of publishing. So you start googling, which leads you down the rabbit hole mentioned in the previous paragraph.

It used to be fairly straightforward- You found and queried an agent, in turn to the big publishing houses, and then you got a book deal or you didn’t. The waters, to say the least, are muddied now. There are sill the big houses and their myriad imprints, there is self-publishing, and seemingly endless small presses in the middle.

And it’s that middle group that needs to be addressed. Before I go on, a small disclaimer- I am not stating anything dogmatically in this post. I self-published. That doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t go the traditional route, or even that I won’t at some point. Self-publishing is not for everyone- hell, a lot of days, it isn’t for me. Nor am I condemning anyone- anyone who doesn’t deserve it, anyway. But more on that in a second. My point is, none of this is meant as an attack on what you do. It is to bring attention to a problem- a big one- in publishing, which doesn’t get talked about very much.

That problem is ‘small presses’ which are either a) Vanity Presses or B) Completely useless. Thanks to Amazon and the like, publishing is easier than ever. Literally a few clicks, and your book is available to the world. This means anyone can do it, an that carries with it the painfully obvious fact that anyone can do it.

This also means that anyone can be a publishing company. Email me a word document, and I can ‘publish’ it for you. I’ll give you 50%. If the book sells for $3.99 on Amazon, I make a tidy 20% (Eighty cents, baby!) for doing very nearly nothing.

Because of that accessibility- either through design or ignorance- people start ‘publishing companies’, and boy do they make promises. Peruse a few small press websites, and you’ll find so many buzzwords, you’ll think you showed up at an SEO conference. But really read what they have to say, and you’ll find there are a lot of words that don’t actually say anything.

Not a great look for a book publisher.

Even worse, they do, you know, buy books. Which, on the surface, should be good. But when authors regularly receive little-to-no support in the areas of editing, design, distribution or reviews- you know, the things you give up a percentage to GET- what’s the point? If an author has to do everything themselves, why shouldn’t they just do it themselves?

What these individuals thought process is, I have no idea. But when this is a story I have heard from multiple people- people who are very good authors- that they signed a contract, signed over rights, and received nothing in return? Just… why?

Maybe it’s well-intentioned ignorance on the part of publishers. How hard can it be to sell ebooks? Frank can design covers, Susie can edit, and we’ll tweet about it and it will sell. This is also the mentality of 75% of self-publishers. So they make grand promises, and have no clue what is actually involved. And so the author loses rights, sales and time.

Maybe it’s malicious, in which case it’s worse and less understandable. I don’t know why one would spend several thousand dollars to purchase rights and do worse than nothing with them, but the internet is full of examples of hate which I don’t understand, so, whatever.

In any case, if you’re an author, with a book to sell, seeking a book deal, let me tell you a secret word to use:

minion no

Say it with me

NO.

It’s a very powerful word. Because, plain and simple, you have the product. Without books to sell, a publishing company is Starbucks without coffee. There’s a lot of fancy marketing and pretty colors, but the product is what they need. And they need it.

So you can tell them no. Even if you really, really want to say yes, because no one else offered you a contract. Because this is your dream. Well- and I hate to sound like a motivational poster- your dream deserves better than sitting on someone else’s shelf.

And if you are inclined to say yes, get everything- everything– in writing. Because all that crap they promised you over the phone or over email? Doesn’t matter if it’s not in the contract. Make them put it in, and if they won’t, walk away. It might not feel this way, but they need you more than you need them.

DESR

Why I Write

I went to the library that I used to go to when I was a kid the other day. I’m not one to be married to the past, by any means, but it had certainly changed. It’s not a city library anymore, but county, so the dusty, smelly old books that used to crowd the shelves are replaced with sleek latest editions, and only enough of those to fill half the shelves. You can request any book you want on the computer. I expected as much, just from the rise of the ebook, but still. Gone are the days of staggering out with every book that interested me (which was all of them), precariously balancing a stack, while trying to read one of them, all the while being grateful for automatic doors, which likely saved many concussions for my 10-year-old self.

I lived at that library growing up. The librarians were amazing, and always had wonderful suggestions for me. The more I read, the more I wanted to write. I wanted to tell stories that gave people the kind of enjoyment I get from reading them.

That, right there, is the best piece of writing advice I ever received. Know why you write.

It’s not the same for everyone. Maybe you have an agenda, or a message. Maybe you want fame and glory and awards (more on that in a second). Maybe it’s a hobby. The list is long and varied.

A funny thing happens, as many of you know, when you go from one day I will have a book out to I am a published author, or somewhere in the middle, anyway. In fact, it happens earlier and earlier, thanks to the internet and social media. Things crowd out why you write. Twitter activism- if you follow a bunch of writers on Twitter, you are basically walking into a high school of very vocal, very opinionated people. Suddenly, you care about awards. Not just awards, but the process, the categories, and goddammit I want one.

Why do you write?

With the recent Hugo… cluster, and every goddamn controversy in genre before that (do crime authors deal with this shit?), for as much as I am interested in those things, and do care about them- guess what? It’s not why I write. I don’t need any hardware to validate my writing, me as a person, and certainly not any of my views (*cough puppies cough*). It doesn’t do me or my writing any good to dwell on them.

What’s my point in all this? Twofold, really. I never looked for any stamp on any of those books I read- Hugo Award Winner, Nebula Award Winner– and if they had some award or not, it wouldn’t have increased or decreased my enjoyment of them. So, as a writer, I have reached a point where I genuinely don’t care. Perhaps easy to say, since no one has, ya know, offered me a Hugo, but I can say I don’t particularly want someone to. What I want, as a writer, is people to read my stuff, hopefully enjoy it, and then hopefully tell someone to do the same. If things go really well, I will get to make a living off that.

As a reader, I care even less. If that’s the validation some people need, fine, whatever, that’s their business. But if your writing is a platform for your idiotic, selfish and bigoted worldviews, and awards and the process around them serves as means to draw attention to same, you can bet your sweet ass I will not be reading your book.

Sophomore Slump

I knew this day would come, one way or another. That I’d be here writing this post, even though goddammit, I KNEW it. Basically, I haven’t put metaphorical pen to paper in about three weeks. Not due to writer’s block, which is rarely an obstacle for me anymore, but because life has been crazy. I took a new day job because, surprise, people aren’t rushing out to buy a scifi book by a first-time indie author (NOTE: Not actually a surprise), no matter how well received it has been. And, for those of you who have paid attention to me for more than three seconds, you know I am incapable of doing things at anything less than full speed.

I published a book last year under similar circumstances, so I wrack my brains trying to figure out what is different. Part of it is, I’m sure, that writing is a job now, not a distraction- one I hope will be my full-time career before too terribly long. But it’s not just a distraction from a long day anymore, it’s work, and it’s not just writing. It’s marketing, planning, etc, etc, etc. So my instinct is less to jump on the computer and write until I pass out as soon as I walk in the door. I want a distraction from the distraction (which essentially sums up my personality, if you factor in booze).

There is also my complete lack of patience, wanting it all now (buy my book already), so focusing on actually, you know, writing seems a little more difficult when I wasn’t also trying to peddle my wares. Do I work on the book? Which book? A blog post? Where should I invest money? Crap, I don’t have enough money.

Short version, no excuses. I have to focus, and it will get there. I don’t have a magic pill that gets me, or you, over this sort of hump, and I won’t pretend to (there are plenty of writing blogs that do, if you’re into false hope). It’s work, and I have to work at it.

That’s the fun part, really.

DESR

15 Books Every Young Adult Should Read

Young Adult fiction has become this sort of thing, to the point where it’s broken up even farther into young adult and new adult, whatever the hell that means. Recently, there was an article about the 15 Young Adult Books Every Adult Should Read, and I have a couple issues with it, namely: it’s not really all that good of a list, as there is not a book on there older than ten years and the issue with YA in general is that it has become shorthand for ‘poorly written, limited vocabulary and trite plot’ so adults can read it without challenging themselves. Not that this is true of every YA book, obviously- but it is certainly true of a lot of them.

I think Young Adults would be better served by reading good books that maybe aren’t directed at them. So without furthur ado, here are 15 Books Every Young Adult Should Read.

1. Kidnapped, Robert Lewis Stevenson. I have frequently cited this book as a major inspiration for me to write, because it is one of- in my opinion, anyway- the best pure adventures out there. That is something which transcends age.

2. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. If nothing else, so people will stop calling Frankenstein’s Monster Frankenstein. But truly, because it is one of the best books ever written and says more about the dark side of humanity than any book on that YA list ever will.

3. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte. One of the most beautiful books ever written, with profound statements about integrity and doing the right thing, even when it’s uncomfortable and unpopular. I’ve read it many times, and it is powerful every time.

4. The Count of Monte Christo, Alexandre Dumas. Another pure adventure and revenge tale- but the ultimate moral is that revenge is futile. Oh, and unlike every damn movie made out of it, this story doesn’t have a storybook ending.

5. Dracula, Bram Stoker If you’re going to read ONE vampire book this summer… Seriously. Read it.

6. Foundation, Isaac Asimov. The original Star Wars, except deeper and without the space wizard cop out. It will ruin enjoyment of a lot of science fiction, but open eyes to quality.

7. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. If I was going to tell a young person (I sound old) to read one book on this list, this is it. You will be hard pressed to find a book that makes a more profound statement- or one that provides more profound lessons- than this. Bonus points for the movie being equally powerful (DIGRESSION ALERT: this is why the YA list annoys me. The first book on the list aims for the same thing, but uses this as a lesson: “Good guys don’t do bad things”. Mockingbird shows us that it is wrong to harm or discriminate, particularly against the innocent and those less powerful than ourselves, and that we all bear a social burden)

8. 1984, George Orwell. Still the original and definitive dystopian novel, plus political lessons I’m guessing get left out of a lot of YA literature.

9. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. And not the version with the happy ending. It’s not a happy story, and it doesn’t have a happy ending. Might as well learn that now.

10. Firestarter, Stephen King (as suggested by Rebecca Parks). I’m not a huge King fan (horror in general, really), but King is a master of it in ways most horror writers just can’t  approach. The depth of his characters, their issues and the suspense he weaves is unparallelled.

11. The Scarlet Letter, Nathanial Hawthorne. A deep look at the divide between private and public selves, plus the first heroine in American fiction.

12. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith (as suggested by Betsy Langowski). A sobering look at life in the early 20th century, immigration and ‘the American Dream’, with important lessons about perseverance woven throughout.

13. Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Another book (series of books and short stories, really) which should be read in order to remove the misconceptions around it and the titular character. Plus, it’s the foundation for nearly every mystery since.

14. The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne. It’s kind of like Swiss Family Robinson, except not all huggy and boring (this book is on here because everyone should read the entire Verne catalog)

15. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien. It’s the Hobbit.

Those are my fifteen- feel free to add books you’d recommend to young adults in the comments!

DESR

Writing Wednesday: The Question

At last count, there were more biographies of Abraham Lincoln than there are molecules in the universe. This only seems like hyperbole until you go into a bookstore and see that, in fact, there are at least several gazillion of them. Now, fascinating historical figure that he is, why do we need so many books on the man? It’s not like each and every one of them contains unheard of revelations unless you count made up bull-crap.

Fireside bookmark

Fireside bookmark

But the upshot of writing non-fiction is you rarely have to draw the reader in- if someone wants to know about Abraham Lincoln, well, there you go. With fiction, you have to get the reader to want to know about it in the first place. You have to get them to ask the question in the first place, answer it, rinse and repeat.

Over to the right, there is a bookmark of the cover art from Fireside’s second issue. The question which my cell phone camera refuses to do justice to-what next– are the fundamental question of fiction (at least, to me).

From the outset- indeed, even sooner, the blurb, the ‘elevator pitch’- the reader has to be hooked, at least to some extent. There is a balance to be struck- they don’t have to be thrown headlong into action, or lead by the hand, but there needs to be incentive to turn the page.

3024AD: Short Stories Series One is out now: Kindle | Kobo | Nook

I’ve written nearly exclusively short stories for the better part of a year, and am working on two long-form projects right now. When I started writing shorts, it was mostly to train myself to be more concise- I tend to get bogged down in details and technical descriptions- and it worked all too well. I’m writing much longer works that will clock in at between 70 and 100k words, and I have to remind myself I can spare a few words I would cut in shorter work.

But it did vastly improve me in one area- and that is focusing on that question. Where in a short story collection (particularly this one), there are myriads of opportunities for cliffhangers and suspense, while teasing the reader because they have to read the next story, which might not actually resolve the last, or does so only partially. I find it much easier to apply that now, and keep the story progressing swiftly and making it much more engaging.

It’s a simple question, really, one we ask all the time in a wide variety of situations, and really it’s why we read and/or write. Ask it, answer it, make your reader care what happens next in the story, to each character, and you’re well on your way to a good book.

DESR