The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

What We Mean When We Say You Can’t Break the Rules Until You Can Follow the Rules

peanuts lucy psychiatrist booth writing advice

One of the pieces of advice I often hear about writing is that you need to learn to follow the rules before you can break them. All writers do it. Choppy sentences, passive voice, fragmented sentences, consistent point of view, infodumping, starting with a character waking up, use of adverbs. Bestsellers and classics like Jane Austen, James Joyce, John Green, Suzanne Collins, Stephenie Meyer, John Scalzi, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King. There’s no work where at least one of the basics isn’t twisted.

Now one could say that it’s because, in any art form, there are no rules, only guidelines. Suggestions. Good advice. They’re smart plays, but not written in stone.

I think part of it is that, if the rest of the work is good, you’ll be able to ignore or forgive the occasional bad. Like they say on the YouTubes, there is no movie without sin. Same for any story. There is no work that doesn’t have some flaw, either in mechanics or execution. A plot hole, an inconsistency, an error in geography, or anachronism.

But I was thinking of a way to explain this to younger, newer writers (like myself). How do you know when to break the rules? How do you know when it’s all right to use passive voice of if you’re using it too much? How do you know when it’s okay to make a bad sentence when the good sentence sounds awful?

Remember when you were learning how to drive? You probably followed all the rules to a T. Any law you broke was due to mistake, not purpose. You drove under the limit, stopped two feet behind every stop sign before crawling forward, stressed about how far was 100 feet, 200 feet, 500, etc. When you follow all the rules, everyone passes you. They ignore you. And knowing which way turn the wheels up or down a hill is made a lot more important than it really is.

I remember when my sister was learning how to drive, and we all went up to my grandparents’ cabin, 114 miles. It’s usually a 2 to 2 1/2 hour drive. She drove the whole way with her learner’s permit and it was SO SLOW. I thought I was going to go insane, start banging my head against the window like a padded wall.

Then you get comfortable. You get used to driving. You’re no longer using your hands to turn a wheel to turn a car–you just turn the car. You become the car. Like how you don’t think about pressing a button on a controller to make your character move left.

You learn how to use cruise control, you forget where your four-way flashers are. You follow other cars closely. You speed through a yellow and only mildly worry about cops. And most importantly, you never go the speed limit.

But you also don’t go very much faster than the speed limit. About ten miles over or so, probably (depending on where you are). Because you go faster than the rules, but you never go faster than you can control the car. Cause that’s the key–are you in control. The moment you’re not in control, that you don’t know what you’re doing, you return to the rules.

It’s experience that gives you that control. Knowing what you’re doing, knowing what your car is capable of (like how fast it can accelerate down the ramp, whether you’re going to be able to merge behind this car or that car). So yes, when they say the first rule is that writers write, remember that metaphor. Drivers drive. They learn how to drive by driving. They learn the rules by driving, and they learn which rules aren’t so crucial by driving.

chain break the rules

The Books I Read: September – October 2013

bookshelf books

Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

Jim C. Hines is good at set dressing, but less so with character + plot combos. I wish I could come up with overall ideas like him, but that’s about all I wish for.  The story, like his other stories, are very linear and take all place in the immediate present with little thought to backstory or contemplation. I feel like his characters don’t drive the plot, events do. And the result is I don’t have much sense of character. No sense that this matters to the character personally, only immediately.

So there’s no literary devices, no foreshadowing, no flashbacks, no Easter eggs, no moments where the character sits and talks. I could read the last 25% without needing to know the first 75%. The character maintains his personality from beginning to end, like an action movie. And I don’t read books for action. This was part of my problem with the Uglies books. I don’t like reading descriptions of car chases and shoot-outs. I like plot turns and character revelations. That’s what drives a book, IMHO.

I don’t like the books, but I like the man.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

This is one of the few classic sci-fis I’ve read that kept me motivated. I think it was the Canterbury Tales style of story-telling. You had a nice linking frame, and each story exists in a digestible form. And the character’s problems are interesting and diverse, so it’s like a nice multi-course meal.

The problem is the world-building contains zero infodumping, so it’s difficult to gain what is going on in the complex world. Lot of chess pieces moving. Especially with the classic sci-fi vocabulary influx. And there’s no ending. There’s nine people going on a religious pilgrimage where one of them gets a wish and the others get dead and no one knows how or why. And you don’t write an ending to that? You spend one book with character development, like a prelude? And now I’ve got to read the next book? Blasphemy!

Tigerheart by Peter David
(re-read)

A re-read to get ready for the sequel. I didn’t even know there was going to be one until it showed up on Peter David’s Twitter. My original review stands, but for the second time around, I got a bigger appreciation for the writing style, the world, and that I know a little more about Peter Pan now. What the changes he made. Plus I can appreciate all the foreshadowing and mystery placed in the beginning of the novel.

Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham

This book is twenty years old and it’s showing its age. Bickham spends a large portion of the message dedicated to slowing a story down. I’ve never heard of doing that. That’s not a problem these days.

This is a good book for those people who have read other books on writing, and are looking for more advanced techniques or more specific approaches. More than the simple “show, don’t tell” and “don’t use adverbs”. This books takes more detail into the “kill your darlings” message and how to structure a novel piece-by-piece, scene by scene. This book breaks it down to its molecules and restructures it back up.

The problem was I kept drifting off in the middle. Maybe the book was too detailed? Maybe it was trying to give too much information, too specific. The entire last chapter is a formula/outline for a novel, with things like “the main character attempts to solve his problem here but ends in disaster” or “POV of the romantic interest, the thing stopping her gets bigger” and “this chapter is where the good guy lays it all on the line”. At that point, if you write every novel this way, don’t you lose the spontaneity of the story? Doesn’t it restrict the craft?

Cycler by Lauren MacLaughlin

This one may have been the longest on my “to-read” list. All I knew was that it was about a girl who turns into a boy for five days every menstrual cycle. I was expecting a different story, one about girls versus boys. Differences between masculine and feminine. Today’s societal issues. I thought it was going to offer some enlightenment and insight into how we treat each other based on gender. But this is more like a comic novel.

The girl is obsessed with prom. Right off the bat, I was disappointed. How shallow can you get, starting with a girl who has this gift that provides incredible perspective on a giant issue in high school. And all she cares about is the most asinine thing secondary education has to offer. I really couldn’t tell you one more thing she’s interested in besides prom.

And when she’s a boy, they trap him/her in his/her room for five days, where he has his own fridge and porn. There is no plot in this story until halfway through, when the boy decides he’s in love with his/her girl-ego’s buxom best friend. Not to mention the unresolved storylines, like her family’s dynamic with a mom and dad who are living separate lives in the same house. And that she doesn’t tell her two best friends her secret until the very last line. Dude! That is not where you end your novel, that’s where you end your first act!

There’s a fantastic commentary locked in this story concept and it’s wasted on petty YA junk like making plans for how to flirt with boys and shallow stereotypes and the importance of popularity. It focuses on what some Hollywood executive thinks are problems.

Fearless by Peter & Caroline David

When Tigerheart ended, the main character came back with a baby sister. This book is about that sister and how, in a feat typical of this fantasy-adventure children’s literature, cannot feel fear (hence the title). Mary grows up quite precociously (as one would expect from a fearless child) and has a great imagination and a best friend to share it. But one day, her friend’s imagination runs away, and Mary must use her refrigerator box to find it.

Where Tigerheart evokes Peter Pan (and quite obviously), this one evokes The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland or The Phantom Tollbooth or Labyrinth, but without direct parallels. I like that David made it a new character’s story (you could read this if you haven’t read Tigerheart). There are a few mystical companions, dangers both supernatural and political, divergence from the main story that never goes too far.

It’s nice to see a mostly-female cast that doesn’t make a big deal out of it. The characters are fun, and the narrative retains the same charm and cleverness that Peter David is known for. My one beef with it is that it doesn’t stray too far out of the boundaries of “children’s adventure” tropes or push its limits.

But you know? The thing is they don’t make novels like this anymore. All children’s literature these days is YA Vampire Academy and Harry Potter knock-offs. No one has an adventure anymore.  Bless Peter David for making a novel like this.  If you like any of the classic works that I mentioned above, you will like this book.

The S-Word by Chelsea Pitcher

This book was different than I expected. The style feels like a film noir, with short sentences, an investigation, a troubled personal life. It reminds me that I need to work on my own style, updating it to be sharper and shorter.

The book is about what happens after someone’s best friend commits suicide after being slut-shamed into a pariah. The main character starts investigating how this came to be and starts uncovering some dark secrets about the people in her high school.

But that’s just the hook. This book invokes just about every after-school special trope — monstrous teens, the too-smart bitch, the attention whore, the handsome sex-crazed jock, cheerleaders, gay/not gay, date rape, the wild teen party, climbing through a bedroom window to see your girl, “Dude, she’s like in a coma”, defiled forever, driven to suicide, rape leads to insanity, self-harm, sneaking alcohol in high school, “secretly a lesbian”, divorced parents, secret molestation, overly Christian parents, the big reveal, and of course, slut shaming and finishes with a decoy protagonist/killer in me combo.

I’m not trying to say a story with lots of tropes is bad. All stories have them. But the problem is that all these tropes are front and center. Like a Lifetime movie.  They’re all part of the plot turns and revelations. Which means that the characters herein are stereotypes, much like I talked about with Speak and Cycler. My beef is that it keeps painting high school with the same brush that all movies and YA books paint it with. Like how no one has academics to worry about. How does the main character get all this “investigating” done? Between passing times?

Don’t get me wrong, I like this book, but it’s controversial simply because the characters demand it.  To the point of being ridiculously implausible. One of the characters is gay.  So gay he wears a skirt to school.  And of course, the jocks beat him up for it.  But then he tells the main character he’s not gay, he’s just acting like it.  Because… reasons?

I was fooled by the summary in its Big Idea piece. I thought this was going to be a book about a girl going vigilante revenge for her friend who got slut-shamed into suicide, and then the revenge starts to consume her, where she couldn’t stop. That is most definitely not this book. This book is much like the high schoolers it’s portraying — a hot mess.

It did keep me reading. It was a completely acceptable story with a great style. It’s powerful. But it’s trying to be a ‘super YA novel’. It simply has too many ingredients, like a hamburger with forty things in it. You don’t need that many to make a good hamburger. Too much stuff, and it becomes too rich to digest.

The Books I Read: March – April 2013

bookshelf books

Seven Seasons of Buffy: Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Television Show edited by Glenn Yeffeth

Like “The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy” edited by Leah Wilson et al., a lot of the essays in this book start getting samey. The power of friendship, sexiness of vampires, who should Buffy be with, wiccan good, love the earth, woman power. It starts feeling like refined versions of online editorials, only by professional authors.

And that’s saying something because, unlike most things, I did not lurk on Buffy web sites. I didn’t read the analyses or identify with a main character or get into discussion groups. Mostly because I wanted to avoid spoilers, but because I thought the TV show, by itself, was perfect. Anything extraneous would sully it, like dumping a bunch of toppings on ice cream.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
(unfinished)

I just could not get into this book. It starts strong, with a steampunk driller and a blight that causes zombies and a part of Seattle walled off into a “Quarantine Zone” and it’s all in 1899. But then the scope changes and it never gets around to anything interesting. It’s like buying an album based on the single, which is the first track, but every other song sounds nothing like it — plodding and missing that energy.

There aren’t really any plot twists. No realizations. It’s just straight-on action. Fast-paced action, slow-paced style. Every little thought, every little sound is dragged out. To the point where the action sequences have no point, because you know they’re not going to kill off the main character. You know no consequences will happen. So I ended up skipping whole pages just to get to the next plot event.

The central “What if” is good enough, but the author didn’t make me care enough about the characters to not skip to the end. And the central question doesn’t get resolved until the last two pages, so it makes me feel like the middle was filler. It felt like a screenplay — lots of visual action (which I don’t like in a book). Maybe it’ll make a better movie, which it will be.

Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by David Gerrold

It’s hard to say whether I should recommend this one or not. On one hand, I was looking for science fiction and fantasy-specific advice, and this doesn’t have it. It’s really just another book on writing, which I’ve read enough of.  And I’m starting to get the same advice over and over. There wasn’t much here I didn’t already know.

On the other hand, I like Gerrold’s style of writing. This was definitely better than Bird by Bird and comparable to “On Writing” by Stephen King.  He makes the book fun to read.

On the other other hand, the examples that Gerrold cites are all his own works. And they are looooong examples. At a certain point, it makes me wonder whether this volume was as self-promotional as it was self-help.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
(unfinished)

Geez, I haven’t given up on a book since May-June 2012 and suddenly there’s two in the same reading period?

I gave it 100 pages, then decided it was just not for me. I wanted to like it — it was the only “Top 10 Books of 2012” that looked interesting to me. But it’s just too post-modern literary realism. The story just kept spinning its wheels, retreading over territory. I got bored.  It’s all literary and poetry and the plot never moves. I guess it’s more character profile than story.  I’m sure it’s a good book, it’s just not for me.

The Books I Read: November – December 2012

bookshelf books

room emma donoghue

Room by Emma Donoghue

Oh my god. This might be the best book I ever read. Certainly the best book I read this quarter, and maybe the best all year. From the moment I saw its description, I was too intrigued.

Room takes place in just that: a room. The entire novel revolves around a woman locked in this 12×12 space that she never leaves.  Just that alone had me hooked — what happened?  Was there an apocalypse?  Is this a survival story?  How do you write an entire book that takes place in one room? Much less a book that keeps getting onto “best of the year” lists.

How do you keep that intriguing? How do you keep it from being claustrophobic torture porn? Answer: you make it from the POV of a five-year-old boy. Everything is fascinating to a five-year-old. (As the parent of one, I can attest to this.)  And this boy has lived all of his life in “room”. Every inch, every crack.  Can you imagine what would happen if he ever got outside of it? Would it be like Tarzan? Would he just freak out? Would he need to be fostered?

Somehow, even though the walls never change, you are never bored. The novel is intense, psychological, full of horror and despair and optimism. I had to re-read the middle-of-the-book climax because I was too afraid of what was going to happen, so I was speed-reading to find out. I never do that. Only once I found out, I had to go back and re-read it.

Sometimes I just had to stop reading altogether because it got too intense. Some of that probably comes from being a parent myself, and part of it from my own life. In college, I rarely left my dorm room. That year I spent without a roommate was one of the best of my life. I’ve often thought I might be happy if I could just live in a single room with just the computer and a bed, etc. But then, there’s a difference when you get to choice versus no-choice, no matter what the contents of a room are.

Definitely read this book.

bill cosby fatherhood

Fatherhood by Bill Cosby

It’s a short book. Most of its material is from “Bill Cosby: Himself” which I’ve practically memorized. And reading it in narrative form tells you how good of a comic Bill Cosby was. But mostly that he was a performer, not really a narrative writer. If you already know his material, it’s highly skimmable.

The mediocrity gets compounded by the fact that it’s remarkably out of date. At the time, it had a lot of forward-thinking ideas about the presence of the father in a child’s life. It’s nice to know that the things he was fighting for in 1986 are common  today. But it remains a book  written in 1986. And there’s no way around it. Stick to the albums.

robert cormier i am the cheese

I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier

This book was on my “to read” list for quite a long time. So long, in fact, that I forgot why I put it up there in first place. I think it had something to do with “Looking for Alaska”, but I’m not sure. My point is that I went into it with no expectations, besides a silly title.

And after reading it, I’m still not sure what I thought of it. I felt like I needed to read the book twice, because it’s one of THOSE books with the twist ending like “The Usual Suspects” or “The Sixth Sense”. So a second read lets you see all the signs and understand what was really going on. The good thing is that it’s short, so it’s easy to do. That or you can just read the cliff notes.

It’s also an old book with some archaic elements. For instance, the witness protection program was a new innovative thing.  It wasn’t even named yet.  And the other anachronisms, especially the way mental health is treated, seem downright barbaric now. It feels like watching those racist Bugs Bunny cartoons as actual entertainment, rather than a historical reprimand.

If you need to complete a collection of some kind, then go ahead and read it. It’s not horrible. But I didn’t feel more fulfilled by adding it to my library.

self-editing for fiction writers

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King

As I read this book, I didn’t think it would be useful. Then I got to the second half, and it got a lot better.

The first discusses a lot of standards that orange-green belt writers should already know. Like “showing vs. telling” and point of view. If you’ve read the good writing books like “On Writing”, “Characters and Viewpoint”, and “Dare to Be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction”, then you know those basics.

However, some of the later tips do come in handy for reaching that blue belt, like proportion, unsophisticated prose, and the writing exercises. You’d be amazed how often you write something, know in the back of your head that it’s stupid, but still fail to fully recognize it. That’s why I still check out the writing books from time to time, even though I now see that “On Writing”, the first and basically my bible, has screwed me up somewhat.

It’s certainly better than “Bird by Bird”.

bioshock rapture

Bioshock: Rapture by John Shirley

This is… not terribly great prose. It reminds me of when I wrote “Mortal Kombat”, my first fan fiction. And actually the first thing I ever wrote. This is not a compliment.

The structure is all over the place. Characters get introduced, then forgotten about. There’s about a thousand stories happening at once. In a book like “The Stand”, each character was introduced slowly. Here there’s no slow development. It feels like they’re thrown in when they need to be. There’s no quest, no viewpoint character, no antagonist. This really feels like badly fan fiction, written solely to make money. I think the author literally read the BioShock Wiki, all the dialogue and audio diaries, and simply wrote a story in a way to include all those bits.

The thing is there are more than a hundred diaries in Bioshock alone. And the author tries to include every one. It’s character soup — a hundred stories, plotlines upon plotlines, crossing over characters. There’s simply too much here to make a novel, unless you’re making “Les Miserables” or “War and Peace”.

There’s no interlocking, no crossover. The “Finding the Sea Slug” event is written basically word-for-word. No attempt to incorporate or connect events or make story flow non-linearly or give some flesh to people that otherwise only exist in snippets of spoken dialogue.

No attempt to innovate or enhance the storyline like good fan fiction should do. I was hoping for some explanation why everyone’s walking around carrying giant tape recorders, or why society didn’t immediately collapse when people discovered they could have psychic powers.  It brings nothing new to the table.

The thing about Bioshock is that it’s up to you, the player, to connect the storylines. And the more I read this book, the more I felt I could do better (that is, if I could handle the historical aspect). The culture is great, but the characters and story are practically plagiarized. The people who didn’t play Bioshock won’t understand anything and the people who did would be better off playing the game again.

the giver lois lowry

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Like “Remember the Stars”, this kept catching my eye on those wire swivel racks in my elementary school library. But I never wanted to check it out — what nine-year-old boy wants to read a book about an old man and “giving”? Plus a stupid, pretentious award? No thank you.

And again, like “Remember the Stars”, I finally got around to reading it now. The result? Well, it has good points and bad points. It’s easy to read, but the story doesn’t start until almost at the halfway point. Before that it’s all world-building. Once you get into the “giving” that the complications start setting in. And they are good complications.

But that ending… Oh, that ending. I hate, hate, HATE ambiguous endings. That stupid “was it a dream or wasn’t it?” that belongs in art films and stories with no plot. 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, The Matrix, The Black Hole, Inception, Half-Life. There’s only two reasons to do that: the writer doesn’t know how to end it and gives up or the writer wants to fuck with expectations — to create arguments and analyses. In either case, it’s disrespectful to the reader. Do I truly believe Lois Lowry set out to do that? It’s not outside the realm of possibility.

But I’ll say this. That ending soured me on reading any further books in the “Giver” series, and any books by Lowry herself even. Think about that, authors. A carefully, crafted exciting ending isn’t as necessary as you think. The fun is in the journey, not the destination. But that journey does need to conclude.

(Bonus note: while searching through the archives, I found this gem.)

the forever war joe haldeman

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

This is really good. Much better than I expected for a space opera novel in the seventies. It deserves all the accolades it got. Still extremely readable, extremely entertaining. It’s like reading proto-Scalzi. The best thing about it is, like Halo, it delivers what it promises and doesn’t add anything unnecessary. No stupid romances, no bureaucratic filler. It doesn’t bore you with constant space battles, idle thinking, or meaningless conversations that go on too long. It gets the battles right, it makes the science entertaining and understandable. I feel smarter for reading this book.

One thing I wasn’t sure about was the themes of sexuality. In the beginning, soldiers are expected (even required) to have sex with each other about every night (the army is now co-ed). As time goes on, the world’s polarity swings away from natural breeding towards heterosexuality becoming the deviant behavior. I find this twist delightfully ironic, but does it really have a place in an allegory about war?

Maybe it’s just me — I’ve never been in a war — but including this sort of thing seems extraneous. I don’t get the associations of war or of evolution losing its sexual identity. It reminds me of when every future story thought we’d be taking our dinner in pill form by now. If anything, I think sexuality would end up becoming more extreme, more carnal. As mankind’s brain reaches higher planes, the body will need to satisfy its natural instincts harder. That’s why we have all this weird stuff today like furries, futanari, and porno that would make a sailor blush.

But that hardly ruins the book. I highly recommend this one.

My Philosophy on Writing Women Part 3 — The Conclusions

constance woman making art by window

I don’t think anyone knew this, but I was extremely nervous releasing “My Philosophy on Writing Women, Part 2 — The Debate”. For many weeks, I scrutinized each line, tried to be fair, but drew on my own experiences, exercised my critical thinking.

Several times I almost erased the whole damn thing, thinking it would be easier on myself to avoid the potential controversy and heartache. I foresaw the same sites and people that targeted me before saying “Oh, here goes this douchebag again, making blanket statements. Let’s rage-sult him mercilessly and make him feel bad for shit he didn’t even write.” But I continued because that would be cowardice, a waste of hard work and an opportunity to learn.

And not one comment. I threw a war and nobody came. I suppose it figures.

But as they say in South Park, I learned something today (or rather, that day… or really over the past few weeks). Like fellow budding writers, I keep asking the question of how to write women. How do I write the unknown?

But then I realized, I’m writing the unknown all the time. I’ve never met a mermaid or fired a gun or set someone on fire with my mind. Unless you’re writing non-fiction, you’re doing nothing but writing the unknown.

That’s not the entire equation though. You can’t just write the unknown, you have to write the unknown plausibly. And for that you need knowledge and experience. So you ask the question of how do you write women characters.

But that’s the wrong question, because that’s not how it works. You don’t just write women characters. You write characters. And those characters are recipes composed of several elements, including gender, history, back story, family, fears, likes, wants, and so on. We keep asking a question that cannot be answered.

You may as well ask, how do I write a disabled character? Obviously, being disabled is going to have an effect on the character, just like being a woman or a man would. The question is, what is that effect? Because each character is going to be different. One might see it as an obstacle to overcome, and remain perky and optimistic. Another might feel ashamed and hide from the world. Another might not care either way. Another might be totally secure about it. Another might resent everyone and everything. Lots of different ways you can go with it, all of them could be correct, as long as they’re justified and based on the character’s back story and experiences.

Of all the books I’ve read about writing advice, tips, and suggestions, none of them had a chapter on how to write women characters. There are notes about characters, but not about any specific type. I think that’s because it’s impossible to detail that far. There are tropes and there are parallels, but there’s no template for a character with a certain physical feature.

The setting and characters make your plot. Change one and the whole thing changes. Alice in Wonderland would be different if it was a boy of the same age. (Of course, Charles Dodgson wouldn’t have been as interested. HI-YOOOO!)

The goal is not to make stories about strong women. For one, I think “strong women” is a misnomer. If you always write about strong women, you overuse a cliche archetype. They can’t all be Lt. Ripley. And strong women don’t always equate to likable characters or identifiable characters, which is what you should be going for. There’s plenty of stories about weak men — Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, “1984”, “The Catcher in the Rye”, “MacBeth”. And most stories are about a weak character growing stronger anyway, like “The Wizard of Oz”, “Harry Potter”, even “Twilight” (sorta).

So, in conclusion, here’s why you, as a beginning writer, shouldn’t worry about asking this question. Because the thing is, I don’t think you’ll ever be called on it. For example, “Twilight”. There is a ton of criticism about Bella as a character. How she’s weak and obsessive and wimpy and inexpressive and dull — which boils down to saying it’s not how a woman should act. But I’ve never heard a criticism saying it’s not how a woman would act.*

* The same does not apply to men. For example, this scene from Airborne, a teen rollerblading movie, where two teenage boys put on a Fashion Show Montage. Played STRAIGHT. No guy does that.

Finally, I’d like to end with this quote I found (sorry, I totally don’t remember where I got it from — I suck at note-taking). I think this quote can give the answer that the beginning writers, like myself, are looking for. Because I’d like to be optimistic and think that the reason we want to “get it right” is because we don’t want to be like our predecessors and cement women into stereotypes or scantily clad nymphos or token victims.

“Yes, we live in a sexist culture, in which women have no good choices when it comes to our bodies. We live in a sexist culture in which women are valued primarily as sexual objects, and at the same time are shamed for our sexuality. It seems to me that we have two choices as to how to respond to this. We can try to navigate the narrow, essentially impossible shoals of these contradictory expectations, and try to find that perfect, socially acceptable line between slut and prude.

Or we can say, ‘Fuck it. There is no way I can win — so I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want. I’m going to wear overalls, or I’m going to wear high heels. I’m going to have sex with twenty strangers in a night, or I’m not going to have sex with anyone. I’m going to dress conservatively and professionally in public at all times, or I’m going to sell naked pictures of myself on the Internet if I bloody well feel like it.’

And in saying, ‘I can’t win, so I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want to do,’ we can create the beginnings of a victory. We can create the beginnings of a world where we really can win. We can create the beginnings of a world where we’re a little more free than the women who came before us… and where the women who come after us are a little more free than we are. We probably can’t create a perfect world, where women’s bodies aren’t commodified in the slightest (not in this generation, anyway). But we can create a better world: a world where women’s bodies and minds belong less to the patriarchy, and more to ourselves.”

Daily Farland’s David Kick

I subscribe to David Farland’s Daily Kick, which is not so daily or kicky. It’s basically a mailing list for writing tips blog. I can’t remember how I first heard of this — I’ve never read any of his books — but sometimes it has good articles, like how to sell to new markets and things people miss when writing female characters. But lately, there are two trends that have really been bothering me. Things that are making me think about unsubscribing.

One is probably due to what’s on his mind — eBooks. He’s written a lot about the failings of the paper industry and the advent of the eBook (some of which I’ve written about, citing his content). Granted, some of it’s exciting. But he’s also fond of the topic because he’s created his own eBook company. And its first publication is a book he wrote.

Of course it’s in his best interest to promote the future of eBooks — his company sells them! I understand that eBooks are awesome, but I’m still learning how to put scenes together. He’s writing about post-modernism and fine art and stress diagrams — things that are way beyond me and beyond the act of putting words on paper (or a screen that looks like paper). It’s nice to put this kind of thing in the back of my head, but it doesn’t help me get an agent.

The other is that he’s constantly praising Stephenie Meyer (writer of the Twilight books), but never seems to say why. Guess what? He was Meyer’s writing instructor in college. He says he remembers considering her final grade and thinking, quote: “This young woman has a very interesting and unique voice. If she ever really gets consumed by a tale, she could go very, very far.”

In another e-mail, he talks about how all authors are disdainful of others’ work. Case in point: Stephen King’s famous quote “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.” Farland says King doesn’t understand because Meyer isn’t writing for people like him. Her themes of teen love and sex are why Twilight is reaching so many people (you’ll note that he doesn’t say that Bella makes all the wrong decisions regarding those issues — being manipulative, emotionally blackmailing people, and being an all-around monster. She’s like a housewife of Orange County.)

Let me tell you, I’ve never read the Twilight books, but I’ve read a lot of analyses of them, with intelligent arguments by critics I respect. There are a lot of theses that tear down her writing, but I haven’t found any that praise it. And frankly, from the passages that have been cited, I don’t see how you could. And I’ll stop here before I get into a Twilight rant — I wouldn’t be saying anything that other, better people have already said.

So I find myself getting sick of Farland pushing his own agenda. I’m sure he’s a good writer. I’m sure he’s terribly good at what he does. I’m sure he’s a master storyteller. He’s treating writing as more of a business instead of an art. Which is fine — it is partially a business. But he seems to be advising you to be like Meyer, and look at how much people hate her. I’d rather not leave that kind of legacy.

Don’t Listen to Me

bad advice sign homeless

All right, it’s time to put out some more important writing advice. Over the years, I’ve made a series of tips (which I then promptly forgot about), critiqued various works of literature, cinema, & video games, created software to make better writing easier, and I frequently beta read at FanFiction.net and Critters. I’ve been published a few times, and I’m working on my second meant-to-be-published novel, which means I’ve got some experience. And I’ve figured out the best thing I can tell you people.

Don’t listen to me.

Seriously, if you’re looking for tips about the industry, about anything really, don’t listen to me. I’m not a published author, in any meaningful way. I mean, I’ve sold a few short stories to some online magazines, but I’m not a professional. I’m an amateur. I don’t know everything. In fact, I know very little. I’ve wrote one novel that’s been through 40 queries, and not one bite yet. And I’m working on another that’s better, but frankly, I would be surprised if it gets an agent. Not because it’s bad, but because of the state of publishing, and how everyone is reluctant to pick up new auteurs.

I’ve only been writing with intent to publish for four years. Before that, I was writing fan fiction mostly. That means no feedback, no advice, no peer review, no editing, no studying the craft, no tips, no bookmarked grammar sites, no good advice on starting a story, and adverbs as far as the eye can see.

It’s like practicing karate in your house. There’s no teacher to correct you. You could be doing the wrong stance, the floppy punch, you may not even be blocking at all. And you certainly aren’t going to survive a fight, unless it’s with another book. There’s no one showing you the subtle things you’re doing wrong, tweaking performance, adjusting the power behind your punch. It’s like drawing a line without a ruler. Eventually, you lose the hard edge.

So beta readees, Critters, and anyone looking for me for advice — I am just as dumb as you. Even dumber. I may have a sword, but that doesn’t mean I have the skills to wield it well. And I don’t know how to teach you any more than what I already know about swordsmanship.

John Cleese (the best guy from Monty Python) Talks About Creativity Best Practices

Here is John Cleese, the funniest guy from Monty Python IMO, explaining how he analyzed his creative process, and what it needs to flourish.

The two main points he makes are that you need boundaries of time and boundaries of space. Basically, this means you need to separate yourself from the world for an hour or so and write, without interruption. Interruption is devastating to the creative process.

I agree with the points he makes, because I’ve found his advice true from experience. Ever since I set up a designated time each day to write, my writing is improved. When I write in a quiet place away from people, I write well. But if I’m upstairs in the family room, even if the TV’s on and even if I’m just revising, my quality takes a noticeable dip. So heed the words of the minister of silly walks.

Fossils

In “On Writing”, Stephen King talks about discovering the story as akin to uncovering a fossil. You brush away a little bit at a time, a little bit at a time, a little bit at a time, not quite knowing what you have until you’ve unearthed the whole thing. And you shouldn’t try to discern what it is until it’s all unearthed.

I didn’t used to subscribe to this metaphor because I am a plotter. I like to start a story with lots of pre-writing. I spend some time incubating that idea, thinking of neat things I want to include in that story. Then I arrange my neat things in an outline, and use that to guide my first draft. I do not, like Stephen King or Neil Gaiman, start the story with no idea how it ends or where I’m trying to get to. That lends itself to overwriting, in my opinion.

But what I’m learning is that the fossil metaphor still applies. now I’m starting the understand the fossil metaphor, as I go through the first hit of revising. When you are gathering the story ideas, concepts, and neat-things-to-include, you don’t have a general idea of how the story goes from beginning to end. Not until you make the outline. This is your first attempt at constructing the dinosaur you have found.

Then you take a closer look at what you’ve constructed. You realize that you’ve put some bones in the wrong order. Your bones aren’t fastened tightly in the grooves. In your haste to construct the skeleton, you’ve left some dirt on (this is okay though, as there will always be dirt on a fossil that’s been buried so long, and if you take time to meticulously clean every single one, you’ll never get it in the museum).

So just because you can see what kind of dinosaur you’ve got after the first draft, don’t let that define what it will always be. This came to me when I was working on Mermaid Story. There’s a part in the middle, a low-key section that just wasn’t working. Part of it was the order I had put things in when I was making the outline. So I rearranged the scenes and (I think) it’s turning out much better. My dinosaur is still the same, but now the ribs don’t look so awkwardly placed.

The thing that really bakes my noodle is whether that’s because the story was meant to be in that order, or I made it that way. It’s still possible to make mistakes when your dinosaur is almost finished. Writers talk about letting the story guide you and other metaphysical bullshit like that. I don’t buy into that. I am the author, I control the story. If you let the story control you, it will get out of hand. And then you have Jurassic Park (the park, not the novel).