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The not-entirely-random thoughts of Chris Brecheen about writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Best Heroine Poll Results (Quarterfinal 2)

I'm behind on everything today, including sleep and housework, so I'm going to post the results of our second quarterfinal poll today, and our third quarterfinal poll tomorrow.



Say good-bye to Alana of Trebond, Janie Mae Crawford, and October Daye. Everything from Katniss Everdeen up will go on to our semifinal poll.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Reminder to Vote (Best Heroine)

Today I'm working on some stuff for the other blogs I write for, so I just wanted to take a quick moment to remind people to vote. The turn around on the Best Heroine quarter final polls is going to be very quick. (A week slips away faster than the logic in a Scooby Doo explanation.) Tomorrow I will be tabulating the results and putting up the second round quarterfinal poll. So please take a moment to vote if you haven't. Things are still pretty close.

This picture to the right is just a screen shot. The actual poll is at the bottom left of the side menus.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Different Sorts of Writing (Mailbox)

Different kinds of writing.   

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Project 2nd weekly mailbox will begin this week.]   

Lou asks:

Do your writing tips meaningfully differ for different sorts of writing? Journalistic, poetry, script writing, etc.

My reply:

Totes yo!

I mention this in my disclaimery stuff. However, it's not as if I expect more than two or three of my readers ever went spelunking far enough into the hidden bowels of this blog to find it. Writing About Writing is mostly about creative writing, and usually about fiction.

There is a lot of overlap in every kind writing. Vocabulary, structure, imagery. I've yet to meet a capable poet who couldn't write a damned fine sentence. I've never even heard of a (serious) journalist who lacked the ability to construct a compelling paragraph. Every fiction writer who has ever taken on an expository subject, wrote quite well–if perhaps with a somewhat florid prose.

But there are differences too. If I were hired as a tech writer and I wrote how I blogged, I'd be looking for a new job before lunch. Journalism doesn't worry about the interaction between character development and theme. You have to let go and let the director decide how to block and emote when you write a play or a screenplay. These different ways of writing have their own skill sets. And while there is some overlap that makes one writer competent at other writing styles, there is enough divergence to easily see the difference between competent and exceptional.

Some advice would stay the same especially linguistic advice. Don't dangle your modifiers. Maintain your tense unless there's a reason not to. Don't go overboard with cliches. Other advice would be like arriving in Bizarro world. (You do NOT use concrete description of scene to describe the setting in a play or screenplay, but it's one of the most important parts of fiction.) In formal writing (higher-brow journalism or tech writing) it would be egregious to write how you spoke, but in blogging or some more folksy fiction, that is the preferred style.

Many of these differences are so huge they are not even "genre" per se. They are disciplinary. Chances are if you're on a college campus, the school of journalism is not  even in the same BUILDING as Creative Writing. And you have different degrees for C.W. and expository writing. If it were all the same, we'd all be getting a "Writing" degree and crammed into the same gigantic lecture hall.

Lots of writers move across these various disciplines, but there are often some growing pains–especially if they don't think they'll have to change. Though on the other hand some really fucking awesome books have come from writers who brought their strengths from other writing types into their fiction. My favorite example of this is the travel writer who wrote a fiction book in almost exactly the travel writing style: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

So yes, many many big difference, even though there is some dovetail.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

You Forgot About Pain


[My ongoing series of writing advice inspired by Live Action Role Playing a vampire.]

Last night the gathered vampires participated in a chess game where each of the pieces was a vampire. Two chess masters had to play the board, but there were a couple of catches. Each piece had a "power" that the chess masters could not control (like switching with another piece or ordering the chess master to do something different than they wanted to for their next move). Also capturing involved WINNING, so it was entirely possible for a bad-ass pawn to NOT get captured by the queen simply by using some kind of vampric power or just throwing a punch.

Since this isn't True Blood, there was a deplorable lack of fucking.

It meant the chess masters had a more complicated game to play than just how to move pieces, but also to consider what each piece was good at. I was playing a pawn, but my chess master moved me into a position where a Brujah (fighter character) could take me, so I didn't even put up a fight when he came to capture. I just walked away with an, "Oh HELL no!"

My in-character impetus for this was that I didn't particularly want anyone knowing what I could do or how well I could do it unless I was in an actual situation of dire straights. I would much rather people sit around and think "Shit I'm not sure WHAT would happen if I attacked Max! (That's my character: Max Winters.) Would he disappear from plain sight and use his mortal contacts to burn down my haven the next day, unload level five Dementation into my brain to make me crazy, or just posses my body and walk into a sunrise?" After I left the board, there were fist fights, near death combats, flame throwers, and more, not to even mention uses of social and mental powers.

I spent some time thinking about how cavalier characters are (and writers are with THEIR characters) about pain.

Pain.

Pain is a big, big deal to humans, and from what I understand it's not particularly enjoyable to vampires either. Half the fucking reason we have nerves instead of thick, leathery skin, is because sensing and avoiding pain turns out to be better for our survival than just shrugging it off. Most of us go out of our way to avoid pain, especially the levels where we start to become injured. And even though some have a slightly different relationship to pain (or risk), it is almost always careful and controlled. And if someone threatens to hurt us (especially if we know they have the capacity to follow through on their threat) it is generally terrifying--even if we somehow don't run away yiping like a dog.

Our ability to heal injury is not an intellectual factor that we weigh passionlessly in an equation.

It's important to remember this. We can only actually conceptualize pain in the abstract unless we're actually IN pain at the moment. We lack the ability of remembering pain. We can remember having had pain, but we cannot re-experience the pain itself. This becomes important for writers if they want to make realistic characters, and it's one of the reasons that writing about pain can be so hard. When we assess risk, take chances, or consider our approaches to problem solving, most of us consider pain heavily in our calculus.

It's not that I think every character last night should have fallen down in a Lawrence Olivier caliber scene of agony or no one should play a character who dives into a fight with a masochistic grin or shrugs off injury until/unless its life threatening. There's a huge element of wish fulfillment in LARPing. However, characters who were more social or mental probably wouldn't have thought, "What the hell; maybe I'll get lucky." The fact that we probably won't die or will be able to heal wouldn't erase the fact that it's going to hurt and we're hard wired to avoid hurt.

Think about how careful people are in kitchens to avoid burns. Small, first degree burns will heal without any scarring in only a week or two, but we go to GREAT LENGTHS to avoid them. Why? Because they FUCKING HURT! It's not that we're paralyzed with fear or would fall over screaming if our wrist bumped the oven's heating element. It's just that we put on mitts and don't fry bacon in the nude.

I remember looking over a dirt hill for hours on my bike, afraid to go off the edge. The incline was very steep, and I knew that it was very likely that I would lose control of my bike. But it never even crossed my mind that I could DIE or end up with brain damage or anything like that. What I was worried about was getting hurt.

Where's the writer's lesson in all of this? Well, it's important to remember that pain can only be abstract to the writer, and a writer who isn't being careful can quickly have their characters coming off like suicidal swashbucklers. However, avoiding pain will be a very real concern to all but the most self-destructive, overconfident, or possibly well-trained characters. Writers sometimes tend to crutch on physical altercations to portray the emotional stakes of a situation. If there isn't a fight, maybe it wasn't a big enough deal. It's fine to have a character make a decision that risk is worth it, or to have one or two who don't seem to regard a very real possibility of injury as a good reason to exercise caution, come up with a careful plan, or just solve their problems without violence. Yes, of course some people have trained themselves to ignore pain. However, having many or most characters simply disregard the chance they could get hurt just so that a writer can cram in more "cool" fight scenes tends to actually lower the emotional stakes because the reader can't really relate to that sort of personal disregard. Normal people just don't toss each other into walls as part of conflict resolution.

As Jayne says, "Pain is scary."

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Two Sides of "An MFA Speaks"

I keep meaning to post something short because I need to do some cleaning on the house (now that it will stick), go to Costco, blog for Grounded Parents, catch up on non-blog writing, and indulge in some serious binge reading, but then I keep having topical ideas come up that seize my brain. First about the Diverse Author Reading Challenge and then yesterday about Leonard Nimoy. I already write about too many "current events" when they're over a month old and everyone has moved on.

I almost wrote something today about that damned dress and the colors no one can agree on. But here, I'll save myself an entire post and just hit the highlight reel:

Let that dress be a lesson to writers that different people LITERALLY perceive the world differently and will work very hard to get their perception validated, and that your characters should reflect that. Having every character be a reflection of you is critically untruthful writing.

Got the concept? Good. Now I can go clean my house, play Skyrim until my eyes bleed, read, write some other stuff and get ready for tonight when I go pretend that I am The Night.

Instead of a proper post, I'm just going to point you toward this thought provoking article that OG shared with me this morning. While I will say that I  put a lot more emphasis on hard work than talent (since I clearly have none of the latter), I have said something similar when pressed.

Anyway, give this post by Budinot a gander (especially if you're contemplating an MFA):

Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One

This article has some great points, but let's take them with a grain of salt.

I don't share every link I share because I agree with or endorse it–certainly not fully. Sometimes I just find it thought provoking, interesting, or a useful perspective. A few of you took umbrage with some of the points, and I want you to know that to a greater or lesser degree, I DID TOO!!

In some cases it was something I always thought was nuance that Budinot simply missed in writing a post designed for internet attention spans. In others, people brought me around by talking about the article.

Chuck Wendig's Terrible Minds article voices a lot of my concerns (and pees bees while doing it, so it's worth a read). Chuck's article articulated a lot of the things that were making my scalp itchy even as I posted this yesterday.

I will say this about the exchange: I think the distinction here in perspectives is absolutely vital. Chuck Windig doesn't even have an MFA vs. someone directly inside the system for decades after being beaten down by an endless deluge of pretentiousness. They are naturally going to have wildly divergent perspectives and "both be right," depending. I remember my creative writing program and I had at least one class a semester that was joint MFA/undergrad so I've met a LOT of writing program students (several hundred; close to a thousand)–most of those people could stand to hear Budinot's advice, and I'm not saying that casually. After teaching literally THOUSANDS of students who are making the same mistakes over and over again, it's got to be hard not to want to issue a few blanket statements that acknowledge the cold reality of how statistics measure up to dilettante ambition.

It really is important to understand the scope of MFA populations and the target audience of this post. I agree with most things Budinot said. I agree with most things Wendig said. It's just a question of which side one approaches the issue from.

Bro, do you even nuance?

I've also never particularly conflated speaking generally about a sub-culture's proclivities for weakness to be the same as telling a single person such things in a one-on-one context something that could be very hurtful or assumed that everything said in hyperbole was literally true. I think Wendig was just going for the throat with some of his responses. I doubt he really believes in peeing bees himself.

Additionally, I spent some time on FB yesterday talking about how I think there's a big difference between those who love writing at a young age, leave to have a career because they need a "real job," and then come back to writing as opposed to those who pick up the pen on a lark for the first time in their forties or fifties.

It's not that I wouldn't love this to be true. ("You can start any time!" would be a great recruitment poster!) I think writing is a wonderful life-fulfilling activity even if you don't ever make a dime from it. But I'm not here to blow smoke. I look at the stories of successful writers, and there are common threads within most of them. A completely new writer at a later age is not common. The narrative that you hear 95+% of the time is that the writer always loved writing.

But, hey that 5% is one in twenty. I've rolled enough critical strikes on big bad monsters in D&D to know that when you're dealing with large numbers 5% is significant. I also think Budinot citing the notable exceptions right out the gate was important to set the tone that they DO exist.

Simply put, as many exceptions as there are and though the original article could have worded the generalization more precisely, if we took out all the one-hit-wonder writers, what we would have left is almost entirely (though not exclusively) those who are pursuing a life long passion.

So yes, Wendig does a great take down, Budinot wrote a great article. Both these things are true.

Fade out with serene music and the "multitudes" quote of Whitman on the screen.