Guess who’s back, back again

Allo! Did you have as fantastic a summer as I did? Probably not. My summer is what I like to call “fucking glorious”. I was more than a little disappointed when I realized it was over and I have to go back to being an adult with responsibilities and gross stuff like that. But hey, there’s still rum, right? Silver lining.

The semester for me started yesterday. It’s going to be a long one. I can tell.

I don't know why I don't have a giant book labeled "Excuses". Maybe Borders has them....too soon.

The first day of workshops is always the most boring. I constantly consider skipping them. I don’t because a lot of the time the workshopping schedule is decided and never want to be stuck on a terrible day (in this case, she made up the schedule which was annoying because now I have to go through the hassle of changing one of my days since I won’t be there). Inevitably, your professor is going to make you go around the room, say your name (Yermama), why you’re there (because I had nothing better to do with $1500?), and what you like to write (fanfiction. Always fanfiction). Sometimes you’ll get asked what you’re working on (An EPIC Doctor Who fanfic in which I’m captured by Daleks and the Doctor has to save me. He doesn’t know that I’m secretly his wife from another dimension) and/or what you like to read (Playboy magazine). If you’re in a program, as I am, then you’re going to end up hearing the same shit over and over again about your classmates.

Workshop first days are rapidly becoming a study on what I’m not going to do on my first days when I become a professor. Because no one cares what you’re saying, we’re busy thinking about what we’re going to say. Or we’re thinking about what we have to do when we finally get to leave. Melissa Bank did it the best I think, she had us email a mini-biography of sorts about ourselves to her before class, because this “go around and tell everyone about yourself” business is really just for the teacher. And for the shallow people who like to talk about themselves. The rest of us either want to learn something or go home. Or not travel 2 hours by train just to hear that Joey Kissass loves the works of Pretentious Author Mcgee.

I’m going to try hard in this class, I promise. I try hard in all of my classes. I’m not as slackery as my laziness would suggest.

Anyway, out of all the things we talked about in class (besides my not being able to use my thesis for workshopping and having to do an in class exercise), one thing I noted in particular was word choice. Being quite a fucking wordsmith my damn self, I think wit mah headstuff this was an interesting topic.

At the time, the professor was picking on a dude who used the word elegant in his scene. A word I’m pretty sure no one else paid attention to aside from her. And when she made him read the sentence again, it, again, didn’t strike me as anything special.

But that was the point. What does elegant mean? What do you picture when someone says “Jackie had a rope elegantly tied around her neck”? Nothing remarkable. I just see a woman with a rope around her neck. Telling me it’s elegant, isn’t exactly telling me anything. Professy Wessy also said the same goes for words like beautiful, handsome, etc. They’re not helping the reader picture your scene. Because beauty, elegance, and the like mean different things to everyone. For example, I think this vampire is hot. Others think this vampire is hot.

There’s no accounting for taste.

So yeah, choose your words wisely. I mean, I know it’s difficult. I just did a search on my complete thesis document (over 300 pages, what whaaat) and I used the word beautiful 17 times. Granted some of it may have been within dialogue, and my professor said you can say anything in dialogue. Then again she told someone that she didn’t think one of the characters in her scene would say a particular thing. After hearing the character say one line before that. And not knowing anything about the character. But whatever. Say what you want! In dialogue! Exclamation point!

My professor says those words are lazy.

(She also said pop culture references are lazy. I, for one, like pop culture references. Yeah, it dates the material or whatever, but I like to feel like my characters are in a real world. Pop culture is in the real world. So, take that as you will. I’m not a bestselling author, she apparently is. Who you gonna believe?)

I don’t think those words are lazy, I think they’re a product of you either writing too fast and not knowing exactly what you want to say or you have an image in your mind that is difficult to translate onto paper. I’m completely terrible at setting up scenes (and, somehow through 4 semesters of the MFA program, I have yet to get better at it) so I know that images can be hard to write. D$GJ is the master of imagery, talk to him if you want help. He might not help you, though. He’s busy.

I absolutely hate it when published authors say something is lazy like the moment they got published, writing became a cakewalk. I get it, you’re hot shit, we should emulate you. Whatev. There’s so much to think about when you’re writing and also want to be published, it’s very easy for a word like beautiful to slip through. And, I don’t know, I’ve seen plenty of books become NYT bestsellers with it in there. Hell, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Beautiful and Damned and I’m pretty sure he’s one of the best authors ever. But I’m biased.

So go forth, beautiful writers! Create handsome works of elegance!

And stay away from vampires.

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A tragedy of errors

You know when you have to sneeze and it can’t or won’t come, and there’s this buildup, this feeling of needing something to happen in order to feel normal again?

Well, that’s kind of how I feel right now.

When I was driving home from class, I was convinced that I did actually have to sneeze. There was a pressure at the back of my throat and my nose tingled but the more I thought about it I realized that it was anger. And what I was suppressing was frustration.

Cover your fucking mouth.

Being workshopped is not for the faint of heart. You have to be secure in what you’re writing, you have to be prepared to answer any possible question that could be thrown at you. You have to believe in what you’re writing both in form and in content. Any sort of insecurity or vacillation will be detected and promptly harped on until you want to sit in a corner and cry.

What I’m going to discuss today is when you feel that your workshop hasn’t gone your way and you don’t know what to do about it.

So I was workshopped today. I was fairly confident the days leading up to this; my last workshopping had gone rather well, everyone asked and answered the questions I wanted, there was no uncertainty, and I walked away ready, fuck, eager to write more. This time, I picked a section that I was confident with, there wasn’t too much involved that would need explaining and I had edited it to the extend that I wasn’t embarrassed. All I wanted, really, was to be told if my POVs were distinct enough that I could carry them through the whole story. I did everything one should do before walking into a workshopping. I wasn’t even nervous to read the first page out loud.

I suppose all of that should have been a sign of things to come. Nothing ever goes exactly the way you want.

Instead of discussing the mechanics of the story–excerpt, really. The story as a whole is over 50 pages–what I got was Harry Potter.

Now, anyone who knows me knows I fucking love Harry Potter. There’s no fucking doubt about that. I’m sure I’ve said many a time that I would like to write the next Harry Potter. And who wouldn’t? Bitch is fucking richer than the Queen right now. The thing is, the next Harry Potter is something I’ll write when I want to write it. It’s not something I want to be told I’m writing when that is not my intention.

That’s another thing you probably will have to deal with if you become a published writer: people telling you that your work is something that it isn’t. Sometimes that could work for you, maybe they’ll say your work is deeper than you had intended, which is cool. Means you’re smarter than you think. But sometimes shit like that is just blatantly unhelpful.

I’m going to say that Harry Potter was mentioned maybe 10 times or more during my entire workshopping. Which, okay, whatever. If that’s the only “fantasy” you’re exposed to then whatever, everything is going to be Harry Potter to you. At least they didn’t say Twilight. I would have cut someone.

What I was basically told was that my story drew too much from other sources.

That shit threw me for a fucking loop.

Not only have I worked my fucking ASS OFF trying to create an entirely original world, with it’s own rules and constrictions and nuances (I have a fucking MAP of the CITY for christ’s sake. I created a University, a bookstore chain, my own fucking version of Donald Trump), I absolutely did not know what they were talking about. Not a clue. As I was sitting there, I tried to find places where that could be true, where I maybe slipped in the word Hufflepuff instead of something else. Where I said Muggle instead of my word for non magical people (yes, I have my own word for it. And it sounds nothing like Muggle). And I completely could not think of one instance where this would be true.

My thing was, if I’m drawing on other works and I can’t see it, then how can I continue? How am I supposed to go on when I feel like every word I write could be an accidental homage to the Boy Who Lived? What would be the point of that? It would mean I’m not myself, I’m not original, my story only works if I’m making nods to other people. That’s not writing, that’s paying tribute.

Alice in Wonderland was also mentioned. Which, okay, I can see that. My story titles are all characters from Alice and Through the Looking Glass. The name of the city I created is Wonderland.

That is where I thought the similarities stopped.

In fact, those aren’t similarities. Those are me making my story titles from characters of another story. And naming my city Wonderland.

I normally don’t resist criticism. I like being told what in my story doesn’t work so I can improve it. It’s easier to know what doesn’t work than what works. But I have to draw the line somewhere. It took me forever to come up with my story titles. It took a lot of careful thought and research. I’ve never read Through the Looking Glass, I did not know all the characters. I did not know that the Mad Hatter wasn’t called the Mad Hatter at all, that was Disney. So when I put all this thought and effort into titles, which are difficult for me to being with, I’m going to reject the idea of changing them.

I’m writing a book of linked short stories for my thesis. One of the other things I was told was that I needed to make the distinctions between my stories greater. That I maybe should have consider making them all separate novels.

Again, I do not resist the idea of changing my stuff, however radically. If it looks like the change in question makes sense and will improve what I’m doing, I’m all for it. And that’s important. You have to be open for that sort of thing. Nothing you write is going to be perfect right off the bat.

The thing is, though, the entire POINT of what I’m doing hinges on the format I chose. That is why I was so conflicted when I thought I should expand one of my stories. That would mean abandoning the format I’ve been working really hard to perfect. Which, I guess, I should think about the fact that maybe I am going about this the wrong way. But no one really wants to think that.

So what am I going to do?

First, I should ask, what should one do when faced with a workshop like the one I just went through?

I think I handled myself all right. I bit my lip and I listened to everything, regardless of if I knew what they were talking about or not. I answered the questions to the best of my capability and I didn’t contradict. I didn’t berate them for not reading carefully enough or for not understanding that the first excerpt and the second one were two different parts of a whole and should be treated as such. I didn’t shout at them to keep open minds. I didn’t tell them to stop comparing my shit to Harry Motherfucking Potter. I didn’t cry. Rage. I didn’t say my work was a load of crap and should be treated as such. I was calm, composed, and I really did try to see it from their point of view.

I think that’s all you can do, really, when faced with that situation. Listen to what is being said. Listen. The first impuse is going to be to defend your work. But listening is so important. Try to look at your work as a potential reader, not as the author. You’re too close to it as the author.

I don’t know what I’m going to do, honestly. I guess the first thing I’m going to do is sit down and read through my story in question very carefully. I’m going to have to mark what I think could be a similarity to Harry Potter or anything of that nature and if it is something that could be changeable, I will have to think of ways to change it. And if I can’t find anything or if I can’t change it, I’m going to have to seriously consider not writing this book anymore. I will have to stop wasting my effort and hope I can pull something else out of my ass in enough time to graduate on time. Perhaps a cookie-cutter literary novel. Or a memoir chronicling my rather ordinary life. I’ll just have to write enough to make a passable thesis, get my degree and move on.

I may not be proud of it in the end, but hell, the thing I was proud of might not work, so pride has nothing to do with it.

Tell Me You Love Me

Whether or not you take a writing class, if you want to be a serious writer, you’re going to be critiqued. It’s something you have to get used to (Yay! Ending a sentence with a preposition!). And, unless you’re fucking John Keats or T.S. Eliot, not everyone is going to be jazzed about what you write. Point of fact: you can’t please everyone.

On the flip side, there may come a time where you will have to critique someone else’s work. Ideally, you’ll love it, you’ll tell the author as much, and you can continue to live your life sans guilt and full of rum and cokes. But just as you can’t please everyone, everyone is not going to please you. Else, you’d be living in one big sweaty writerly orgy.

So. It’s important to know a good way to tell someone you aren’t a huge fan of his work. Or rather, tell him what about his work turns you off faster than Sarah Palin turns off logic. I think I’ve been in enough workshops to diplomatically go about this. And I will share this with you now. I guess.

Chicken is never wrong.

1. Determine whether or not the person you’re critiquing can actually take criticism.

Not everyone can. This is America. Land of the free, home of the PC Police. And the whopper. Anyway, a lot of people don’t want to hear why something they supposedly worked hard on was bad. And that’s understandable. It took me a while to actually be able to process being told a story of mine sucked. But then I realized that as long as I’m told why I suck, it makes it easier for me to get better. I can work harder to alleviate the suckage. However, not everyone sees it that way. People want to be rewarded for showing up, nowadays, not for doing something worthy–a ribbon of participation, if you will. So not everyone is going to take kindly to you telling him that his main character is annoying. Regardless of whether or not that character is annoying. Instead of being vague, here’s an example. From today, actually. My professor started the workshop by asking everyone what kinds of comments are most helpful. Several people said the usual “constructive” comments dealio, blah blah blah. But a few people made a point to say that negative comments don’t help. Basically, what I took from that was, they did not want to hear what didn’t work. That says to me it’s not about getting better, it’s getting off on everyone telling you why you’re awesome. And while that is rather enjoyable, I feel like that leaves you incapable of growing as a writer. These people went on to get kiss ass comments about their excerpts opposed to real advice that could help them get better: tense issues, lack of characterization, inconsistent narration, etc. What I’m saying is, don’t put yourself in the position to be the bad guy, no matter how helpful you think it’ll be.

2. Find sycophantic ways to say negative criticism.

If you really need to get your criticism in, I mean, you really feel like this author has something but tweaking is necessary, figure out a way to be that kiss ass. Honestly, writers are the vainest people you’ll meet. They’re right up there with supermodels and actors. Tense issue? “I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but sometimes you go from past to present tense.” By claiming that this embarrassing grammatical snafu could possibly be some clever writerly trick on the author’s part, you make him look smarter than he is. He’ll love that. Lack of characterization? “I really didn’t like this character and I think it’s the mark of a fantastic writer to make me dislike someone fictional.” Again, you’re complimenting his writing prowess while pointing out that the character he worked so hard on is a jackass and maybe he needs to fix that. Although, if you’re too subtle with your veiled criticism, a truly bigheaded author might not catch it. And he might go home and jerk off to your pseudo-glowing comments. But that’s the risk you have to take.

As a sort of 2.5, you could maybe talk to the writer in private, as well. It may not be criticism he/she can’t take, it might just be public criticism.

3. All else fails, don’t speak.

If you can’t figure out how to be a sycophant and the author you’re workshopping will get all emo if you criticize something, then really, you’re best keeping your mouth shut. If you have a real jackass of a professor who requires that everyone comment for every story, glom on to a comment already said. Or, pick a line in the story that you really liked (hopefully there’s at least one) and wax poetic about that. Then take solace in the fact that you’ll at least get better as a writer while Mr. Sensitive Pants will maybe end up writing Twilight Returns.

Your first instinct is going to be to want a story to be better. Your second instinct is going to be to want to tell the author how to go about this. So don’t feel horrible about these impulses. It’s when you make comments because you’re bitter and jealous; that’s when you should feel like a douchemonger. The thing about writing is, writers feel like what they do is important and terribly personal. Telling them that something that they created isn’t perfect is like telling a mother her baby is ugly. I’m unusual in that I think all that is bullshit. Writing isn’t some crazy window to my soul. And nothing I write is going to change the world. It’s fun. So yeah, I prefer being told why something in my story doesn’t work, rather than what does. Your math teacher didn’t tell you that you wrote the number 8 correctly but ignored the part where you said 8+8=23. No, she told you that you were wrong and the reason was because you’re dumb. And in the end you learned that 8+8=16 and your number 8 was perfect, as well.