How to Succeed in Writing X: Blog Writing


Rule#1: If you have any respect for comedy, you should avoid trying to be funny.  Comedy should almost be an accidental afterthought.  It should be what happens in the course of numerous rewrites.  A good one-liner is hard to find, and it usually falls in the lap of the unsuspecting.  It’s rarely among those first thoughts that occur in a first draft.  Those one-liners are usually born and bred into you; it’s usually what those that know your sense of humor find hilarious; it’s usually based on what you do for a living; and all of experiences you’ve had in life.  Some of us may see where you’re headed, but most of us don’t … not to the point of comedy.  Those jokes that you write that are more universally hilarious are probably either directly, or indirectly, ripped off from some other, more universally accepted vehicle.  The path to the more honest, organic place of comedy is usually found in trying to write a serious piece that takes twists and turns before that piece can be declared complete.  It can also be found in bits that you add after rereading your completed, serious piece so often that the words bore you.  It is also usually found the day after, the week after, the month after you’ve achieved the degree of objectivity necessary to land an honest and pure line that is funny in a more universal manner.

We all think we’re funny, but even the best of the best stand-up comedians will tell you that they rarely get it right in their first draft.  They test their material before live audiences, and they shape, craft, and hone it based on the audience’s reactions.  A writer usually does not have this luxury, so they must trust their instincts, and as any experienced stand-up comedian will tell your instincts are almost always wrong.  As a result, you need an audience, and if you’re unable to find one, the only substitute you have is an objective perspective that can only be gained through the amount of rewrites it takes to achieve it.

femisphere_mommy-bloggers1Rule#2: If there any writers reading this blog in search of one useful nugget, let it be this: We don’t care about you, and we’re not interested in what you think.  Your modus operandi (M.O.) from this point forward should be to manipulate your reader into believing that they’ve arrived at your opinions independently.

Uninteresting way: “I like fruit better than candy.  Who doesn’t?  You put a strawberry Twizzler in front of me, and a beautiful piece of nature’s own, and I’ll take the piece of fruit every time.  It’s healthier, it’s succulent, and I would much rather support the strawberry growers association than some huge monolithic, candy corporation that doesn’t give a fig about my health.”

Interesting way: “Thanks to the innovations made in chemical enhancement, and the machinery on the production line adding a precise quantity of these chemicals to every licorice strip, every single Twizzler you eat is going to be perfect.  Twizzlers, therefore, have the advantage of consistency, but what does this type of consistency achieve for the consumer?  Is a twenty-seventh Twizzler licorice strip going to taste any better than the first one you eat?  A strawberry, on the other hand, has a certain inconsistency inherent Mother Nature, and that inconsistency may lead to a greater belief in the quality of its gems, through scarcity, but I find it hard to believe that anyone can eat a perfect strawberry without thinking it’s better than anything man has attempted to reproduce in a lab.”

Both of these versions contain variations of an opinion, of course, but one is so over-the-top that it does it little more than tell us what the writer thinks.  The attempts to persuade are so loaded with an agenda that some readers may rebel, and those that agree will only have their biases confirmed.  No reader will leave the piece believing that they have learned something new, or that the writer has used some ingenuity to express a point.  By limiting the piece to what the writer thinks, they are telling us that don’t care what we think.  The import some readers will have is that the writer is a wonderful person, and they’ve finally found a vehicle for spreading the word.

Rule#3: We are not interested in your process.  “You may be wondering how I came about this brilliant blog … ”  We’re not.  “A friend of mine asked what I thought about some take a famous person had on an extremely controversial topic, and I said this, and she said that, and this ingenious blog is my response to that.”  Some people are curious about the creative process, I’ve seen them ask about it in various replies.  Most aren’t.  If you become famous, or you create a piece that generates a lot of interest, there may be some call for the minutiae regarding your process, until then try incorporating the delete button into your process a little more.  It may help you get to the point a little quicker.

Rule#4: Try to be succinct.  Though I’m sure that some may find it hilarious for me to tell anyone to be succinct, my M.O. is to express my thoughts as succinctly as possible.  I do have trouble limiting the number of words in my pieces, and that may be my failing, but I do make that attempt.  Venture out into the blogosphere and you’ll find numerous bloggers that do the opposite.  They stretch a point out to the 1,000 to 1,500 word, universally agreed upon length of substantial pieces.

These blogs, make me think of that scene where a TV director signals the news anchor to stretch a segment out, with banter, to fill time until the next commercial break.  Sports radio appears to have been founded on this concept.  These venues attract people that can blather in such a seamless manner that the audience doesn’t even know they’re being blathered.  One of the keys to being considered talented enough to fulfill such duties appears to involve being able to say the same thing over and over with varying inflections to keep the key demo watching through the twenty minutes of commercial breaks that occur in any given hour.  Me thinks that some bloggers get caught up in this definition of talent, and they attempt to duplicate it with banter and blathering.

Rule#5: Be provocative.  Some may read that word and believe that it is specifically devoted to shocking the reader into questioning their moral fiber, but I prefer to focus of the base of the word provoke.  Provoke your reader into thought by leading them down a road that they may have never been down before.  There’s two schools of thought on this.  One is to come up with a breathtakingly original idea that no one has ever considered before, but this one is difficult if not impossible to do on a continual basis.  The more opportune avenue is to take a relatively common idea and put a spin on it that few have considered before.

The most common avenue for achieving this is to take an event from one’s own life and attempt to provide a unique spin on it.  If you are going to include your personal opinions of these events, you should do so within the context of the narrative.  The best role I’ve found for the ‘I’ character in these pieces is that of the straight man looking out on the madness that surrounds.  Your thoughts, if you feel the need to include them, should occur soon after the reader has arrived at that opinion.  At that point, you can decorate with jokes of obviousness, or extreme analogies that exaggerate the already arrived at opinion.  The latter should not be done from the new age, clever “I’m so dumb it’s entertaining” perspective that so many bloggers now obsess over.

We’ve all read those “A Day in the Life” blogs that are specifically not provocative, go nowhere, and contain nothing funny or substantial.  Judging by the hundreds of replies that say nothing entertaining in return, they’re quite popular.  I’ve often wondered why people read these blogs, but they have apparently tapped into some sort of universal appeal that I cannot.  The basis for these otherwise mundane blogs is to set a base from which the author can make leaps into humor or ingenuity, but the reader has to click on the blog first, and they do, and the whole cycle proves that I may be so dumb that it’s entertaining, because I don’t understand why anyone would purposely click on the 101 things my cat did when they heard the can opener blogs.

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James Joyce: Incomparable or Incomprehensible?


Those of us on the lookout for edgy, racy content have heard the term “Joycean” thrown about with little discretion over the years.  Critics appear to be more interested in using the term than they are in properly using it to describe a product.  The question that those of us driven to the source, would have for Joyce, if he were still alive, is: Were your final two works the most erudite, most complicated pieces of fiction ever written, or were they one of the greatest practical jokes ever played on the literature community to expose its elitist, scholars for what they are?

James Joyce

James Joyce

Most readers that have attempted to up their erudite status by reading difficult books, have heard of Joyce’s final two works: Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.  We have heard that these are two of the most difficult, most complicated pieces of fiction ever created.  Some of us have attempted to tackle them as the challenge that they are, others have attempted to read them for entrance into their subjective definition of elite status.  Most are confused and disoriented by the books, but some have the patience, the wherewithal, and the understanding all of the references made, and languages used, in these books to comprehend them.  Those people either deserve a hearty salute, or the scorn and laughter that Joyce provided, as a gift, to the havenots, that openly admit that they don’t understand these books.

I don’t understand either of these books, and I have gone back numerous times to try and further my understanding.  Some have said that Ulysses is the more palatable of the two, but I have found it to be too elliptical, too erratic, and too detail-oriented to maintain focus, and I have purchased three different aides to guide me through it.  Some of those same people readily admit that Finnegans Wake is ridiculously incomprehensible.

Most people enjoyed Dennis Miller’s tenure as an announcer on Monday Night Football, but most of those same people complained that they didn’t understand two-thirds of the man’s references.  I didn’t keep a journal on his references, but I’m willing to bet that at least a third of them were Joycean in nature.  Miller stated that his goal, in using such obscure references, was to make fellow announcer Al Michaels laugh, but any fan that has followed Miller’s career knows that he enjoys the motif gained by using complicated and obscure references to make himself sound erudite.  There are, today, very few references more obscure than those that recall the work of James Joyce, a man that described his last book, Finnegans Wake, as “A book obscure enough to keep professors busy for 300 years.”

Andy Kaufman often referenced James Joyce when trying to describe his method of operation.  Kaufman wanted to be a comedian’s comedian, in the manner that Joyce was a writer’s writer.  He wanted to perform difficult and complicated acts that the average consumer did not understand, and the very fact that they didn’t “get it” is what invigorated him.  He wanted that “insider” status that an artist gains entrée into when only those “in the know” get it.  After achieving some fame, audiences began laughing with Kaufman in a manner that appears to have only bored him, and he spent the rest of his career trying to up that ante.

Anytime an artist creates a difficult piece of work, there is going to be a divide between the haves (those that get it) and the havenots.  When Mike Patton formed the band Fantomas, he never did so with the illusion that he was going to unseat the Eagles Greatest Hits, or Michael Jackson’s Thriller, atop the list of greatest selling albums of all time.  He knew, or should’ve known, that he was playing to a very select audience.

What is the audience for such difficult subject matter?  Most people seek music, as either background noise, something to dance to, or something to tap their finger to.  Most people read a book to gain a little more characterization and complication than a movie can provide, but they don’t want too much characterization, or too much complication.  Most people only buy art to feng shui their homes.  Most people don’t seek excessively difficult art, and those that do are usually seeking something more, something more engaging, and something more provocative that can only be defined by that individual.  The audience for the difficult generally have such a strong foundation in the arts that they reach a point where their artistic desires can only satiated by something different.

Different can mean different things at different times to different people.  Different can be complicated, and discordant, but it can also be limited to style.  At this point in history, it’s difficult to be different, in a manner that cannot be called derivative of someone or something, so most people seek whatever separations they can find.  When the latest starlet of the moment twerks in a provocative manner, has a construction worker find her pornographic video, or accidentally has her reproductive organ photographed, we know that these are incidents created by the starlet, and her people to get noticed after they have exhausted all other attempts to be perceived as artistically brilliant and different.

There are also some other artists that are different for the sole sake of being different.  This is usually less than organic, and it usually disinterests those of us seeking a true separation from the norm, because we feel that this has been thoroughly explored to the point of exhaustion.  Andy Kaufman created something organically different that can never be completely replicated, in much the same manner Chuck Palahniuk, Mike Patton, David Bowie, Quentin Tarantino, and Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.  Can it be said that James Joyce’s final two books were different in an artistically brilliant, and cutting edge manner that all of these artists were creations were, or were James Joyce’s writings more symbolism over substance?  Put another way, was Joyce a substantive artist who’s true messages need to be unearthed through careful examination, or was he simply twerking in a provocative manner with the hope of getting noticed by the elite scholars of his generation after exhausting the limits of his talent in other works?

Judging by his short stories, James Joyce could’ve written some of the best novels in history.  Those that say that he already did, would have to admit that his final two works were not overly concerned with story, or plot.  Those that defend his final two works would probably say that I am judging Joyce’s final two works by traditional standards, and that they were anything but traditional.  They would probably also argue that the final two works sought to shake up the traditional world of literature, and anyone that dared to take up the challenge of reading these works.  They would probably say Joyce sought to confound people, more than interest them, and if they did concede the fact that the final two works were different for the sole sake of being different, they would add that he was one of the first to do this.  Those that defend his final two works say that they are not as difficult to read, or as complex, as some would lead you to believe.  These people suggest that reading these two works only requires more patience, and examination, than the average works.  Anyone that states such a thing is attempting to sound either hyper intelligent, or hyper erudite, for it was Joyce’s expressed purpose to be difficult, complicated, and hyper-erudite.

To understand Ulysses, one needs an annotated guide of 1920-era Dublin, a guide that describes the Irish songs of the day, some limericks, mythology, and a fluent understanding of Homer’s The Odyssey.  If you don’t have a well-versed knowledge of that which occurred nearly one-hundred years prior to today, you may not understand the parodies, or jokes Joyce employs in Ulysses.  Yet, it was considered, by the Modern Library, in 1998, to be the greatest work of fiction ever produced.

“Everyone I know owns Ulysses, but no one I know has finished it.”  —Larry King.

To fully understand, and presumably enjoy, Finnegans Wake, the reader needs to have a decent understanding of Latin, German, French, and Hebrew, and a basic understanding of Norwegian linguistic and cultural elements.  You will also need to be well-versed in Egypt’s Book of the Dead, Shakespeare, The Bible, and The Qur’an.  The reader also needs to understand the English language on an etymological level, for one of Joyce’s goals with Finnegans Wake, was to mess with the conventions of the English language.

Some have opined that one of Joyce’s goals, in Ulysses, was to use every word in the English language, and others have stated that this is a possibility since he used approximately 40,000 of them.  If this is true, say others, his goal for Finnegans Wake, was to extend the confusion by incorporating German, French, Latin, Hebrew, and other languages into his text.  When he did use English, in Finnegans Wake, Joyce sought to use it in unconventional and etymological ways to describe what he believed to be the language of the night.  He stated that Finnegans Wake was “A book of the night” and Ulysses was “A book of the day”.

“In writing of the night, I really could not, I felt, use words in their ordinary connections . . . that way they do not express how things are in the night, in the different stages – conscious, then semi-conscious, then unconscious.  I found that it could not be done with words in their ordinary relations and connections. When morning comes of course everything will be clear again . . . . I’ll give them back their English language.  I’m not destroying it for good.” —James Joyce on his novel Finnegans Wake.

This use of the “language of the night” could lead one to say that Joyce was one of the first deconstructionists, and thus ahead of his time by destroying the meaning of meaning in the immediate sense.  It could be said that Joyce had such a profound understanding of linguistics that normal modes of meaning, bored him.  He wanted something different.  He wanted to explore language, and meaning, in a manner that made his readers question their fundamentals.  Readability was not his goal, nor was storytelling, or achieving a best-seller list.  He sought to destroy conventions, and common sense, and achieve a higher realm of perfect, in which timeless abstractions that cannot be communicated to those that adhere to common sense.  This makes for an interesting conversation on high art, and philosophy, but does it lend itself to quality reading?

“What is clear and concise can’t deal with reality,” Joyce is reported to have told friend Arthur Power,  “For to be real is to be surrounded by mystery.”

In the modern age, there is much discussion of the widening gap between the haves and the have nots.  That particular discussion revolves around money, as it has for time immemorial, but in the Joycean world, the gap involves those that “get” his works, and those that do not.  Those that get it usually prefer to have deeper meanings shrouded in clever wordplay.  They usually prefer symbolism over substance; writing over storytelling; and interpretation over consistent and concretized thoughts.

The two schools of thought between the haves and the havenots can probably best be explained by breaking them down to the Hemingway manner of writing and that of Joyce.  Hemingway wrote clear and concise sentences.  Hemingway stated that his methodology was to write something that was true:

“The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.”—Ernest Hemingway.

Putting Joyce’s final two works through the Hemingway school of thought, one could say that Joyce’s methodology was: “Some of the times, it’s easier to make it false and let others define it as true.”

“Though people may read more into Ulysses than I ever intended, who is to say that they are wrong: do any of us know what we are creating? … Which of us can control our scribblings? They are the script of one’s personality like your voice or your walk.” —James Joyce

Have you ever had a deep discussion, on a deep, multifaceted topic, with a deep thinker.  Have they ever told you, after you have stubbornly refused to agree with them, that: “You don’t get it, and you probably never will?”  If this has happened to you, then you know what it feels like to be summarily dismissed as an anti-intellectual by a deep thinker? Those that aren’t snobbish in an anti-social manner, often avoid openly dismissing you, but even the polite snobs give you a vibe, a look, or that chuff that is intended to let you know your place.

“Well, what do you think of it then?” is the response some of us have given, after being backed into an anti-intellectual corner by deep thinkers.

If they are an anti-social, elite intellectual snob, they will say something along the lines of: “I simply choose to think deeper!”  It’s a great line, and it purportedly puts stubborn types in our place, but it’s a non-answer.  Those of us that are more accustomed to interaction with deep thinkers, will then ask them to expound upon their complicated, deep thinking?  More often than not, if you push them, you’ll realize the answers were not nearly as important to them as the deep thinker cap that they place on themselves, and you usually find that there isn’t much substance beneath their piles of style.

A number of attempts at reading Joyce have led me to believe that he probably didn’t have much substance beneath his piles of style, so he muddied the waters of his message with puns, songs, gibberish, abstractions, foreign languages, and overly complicated complications.  He did this, in my opinion, to conceal the fact that when compared to his colleagues, he didn’t have all that much to say, but that he was artistically accomplished in saying it.

Who can forget the many sayings that Finnegans Wake has dropped on our culture, such as the transcendental sound of the thunderclap that announced the fall of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden:

“bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-nuk!”

Or, how about the catch phrase:

“A way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” 

Or the ever present: 

“(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curios of sings (please stoop), in this allaphbed!  Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world?” 

If you just read those sentences three or four times, and you still have no idea what it says, and you just went back to read them again, because you want to be a have that “gets it”, you’re not alone.  If these passages were merely anecdotal evidence of the difficulty involved in reading Finnegans Wake, that would be one thing, but these difficulties litter just about every sentence of every paragraph of the book, as evidenced by the assistance the site Finwake.com has provided readers to guide them through the book.

Finnegans Wake is reported to be in English, but it’s not the standard version of English where words have specific meaning.  The “language of the night” was intended for linguists that are tired of reading words that have exact meanings, and it was intended to be playful and mind-altering, and rule breaking.  He made references that were intended to be obscure even to the reader of his day that may not have Joyce’s wealth of knowledge of history, or the manner in which the meaning of the words in the English language have changed throughout history.

“What is really imaginative is the contrary to what is concise and clear.” —James Joyce

James Joyce was a stream of consciousness writer that believed that all “mistakes” were intended on some level that superseded awareness.  In the 500+ page book, Finnegans Wake, Joyce found 600 errors after publication.  He was informed of some, if not all of these errors, and he was reported to have fought his publishers to keep them in.  Later editions were written to correct many of these errors, and provide readers “the book in the manner Joyce had intended.”  If Joyce didn’t believe in errors, however, how can those that corrected them state that the corrected edition is the definitive edition that “Joyce intended”?

“The man of genius makes no mistakes, his errors are volitional and portals of discovery.” –James Joyce

Throughout the seventeen years Joyce spent writing Finnegans Wake, he began to go blind, so he had a friend named Samuel Beckett take dictation over the phone to complete the novel.  At one point in this dictation, someone knocked on Joyce’s door.  Joyce said, “Come in!” to the knocker, and Beckett wrote the words “Come in!” into the narrative of Finnegans Wake.  When this error was spotted by Joyce, and the confusion was sorted out, Joyce insisted that Beckett, “Leave it in!”  On another occasion, when a printer’s error was pointed out he said, “Leave it.  It sounds better that way than the way I wrote it.”

There are three different versions of the text: The first and second are the editions that Joyce had published with all of the errors intact.  The third edition has the errors that the editors located, and the 600 corrections that Joyce spent two years locating, corrected.  Some would have you believe that first two editions are the definitive editions, but you have to be a Joyce purist to appreciate them.

Can it be called anything short of egotistical for an author to believe that his subconscious choices and decisions, are somehow divine?  If, as Joyce said, and Picasso later repeated in his paintings, mistakes are portals of discovery, then we can say that’s great, and incredibly artistic in the process of creation.  To leave it in the finished product, however, and subject your readers to the confusion, just seems egotistical.  “Here’s what I was thinking at the time,” Joyce is basically telling his readers.  “I don’t know what it means, but this is a higher plane of thinking than just conscious thought.  Isn’t it magical?  Maybe you can make some sense of it.  Maybe you can attribute it to your life in some manner.”  This method of operation may say something profound about the random nature of the universe, but when we’re reading a novel we don’t necessarily want to know about the randomness of the universe, we want order.

Not everyone can write a classic, and some realize this after a number of failed attempts.  Once they arrive at this fork in the road, they can either write simple books that provide them and theirs an honest living, or they can grow so frustrated by their inability to write classics that they separate themselves from the pack with obscurity.  The advantage of creating such a contrivance is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder can assign their own relative beauty to it.  Some would say this is the very definition of art, but others would say even that definition has limits.  Some would say that the most obscure painting is art, because they “see it”, where others see only schlock for elitists to crib note to death, until meaning is derived.

James Joyce is considered the exception to this rule, fellow writers have told me, and if you are going to attempt to write a novel in the 21st Century, you had better be familiar with him.  I’ve tried, and I now believe that I’m destined to be a havenot in the Joycean world … Even with Ulysses.  The question that arises out of these ashes is, am I going a long way to becoming more intelligent by recognizing my limits, or should it be every aspiring intellect’s responsibility to continue to push themselves beyond any self-imposed limits to a point where they can finally achieve a scholarly understanding of difficult material?  If this is a conundrum that every person encounters when facing challenges to their intelligence, is Ulysses, or more pointedly Finnegans Wake, the ultimate barometer of intelligence, or is it such an exaggerated extension that it had to have been a practical joke Joyce played on the elitist literary community to expose them as the in-crowd, elitist snobs that so loudly proclaim that they “get it” that they are, in fact, falling prey to Joyce’s clever ruse to expose them as people that “get” something that was never meant to be “got”?

Post 400


Posted by Muyiwa Okeola

Posted by Muyiwa Okeola

This is the 400th post written on Rilaly.com since May 2009.  That’s almost 100 posts a year, and if you knew of this blog’s inauspicious beginning, you’d know that’s quite an accomplishment.  To celebrate this milestone, I will do my first jig in the comfort of my home, or the first jig I do in relation to Rilaly.com anyway.  I will make mean faces when I do it, and I may even slap my ass a couple times.  This is not to be misconstrued as sexual in any manner.  This is purely celebratory.  You’re welcome to join me, even if we’re not dancing simultaneously.Political columnist George Will says that he does not reflect on his career.  I do. He states that he is always looking forward. I’ve met a number of people that have accomplished far more than I have, and when I’ve congratulated them on their list, they usually shrug it off and qualify it in some manner.  While I wish I had their list, there does seem to be a part of them that hasn’t enjoyed the process.  Although my list may be comparatively meager, especially when stacked up against Will’s, I enjoy reflecting before I move forward.

“We do not live in the past, but the past in us.” (U.B. Phillips)

My favorite posts are those I’ve written that are not related to current events.  I’ve written political posts, news-related, music, and sports related posts.  I’ve really tried to limit the latter two categories, as I don’t want this to be a place solely for music and sports.  If I started down that road, that might be all I write about.  So, on the rare occasions when I’ve written about them, I’ve tried to do so in a creative manner.

When I get a number of ideas that all lock into place, under the general heading of psychology, but more specifically listed under a “strange things that we do” category, I approach the keyboard with adrenaline.  I think normal people can understand a lot about themselves by studying the strange. and sometimes aberrant, creatures that surround us. Psychology, as a whole, intrigues me, but the “look at this Escher painting and tell me what you see, and that will tell you a lot about perception” line of psychology is just boring to me.  The “why do you stop at a stop sign, why does a dog salivate when it hears a bell, and why do we call a table a table” broader questions of psychology and conditioning bore me.  I’d much rather study why some people are sexually attracted to balloons in the The Balloonophilia Conflict.  How, or why, did a division occur in the balloonophilia universe, between poppers and non-poppers, and is there anything in this particular story that says anything about us?  These are a few of my favorite things.

Why do some people try to box us in to who they think we should be based on who they are, and their limits, perhaps it has something to do with the Thief’s Mentality.  How are we attracted to one another, perhaps it has more to do with our natural, biological scents than those colognes and perfumes we buy: Every Girl’s Crazy About a Faint Whiff of UrineWhat happens when we’re afraid, and what happens when we’re not respectfully afraid enough in a given situation?  Fear Bradycardia and the Normalcy Bias.  These stories do not necessarily have tie-ins, as a sports, music, or political post would have, and the fact that I’ve received compliments on them tells me that they’re just well written.  The following is a top ten list of those most popular, according to readers, of these 400 posts.  Some of them have tie-ins, but they contain a loose connection that could be said to be more psychological rather than a straight news story.  I love top ten lists, and I’ve been dying to write my own, so here it is.  Enjoy!

  1. Indigo Children
  2. Let Your Freak Flag Fly
  3. Thief’s Mentality
  4. The Balloonophilia Conflict
  5. Every Girl’s Crazy About a Faint Whiff of Urine
  6. Fear Bradycardia and the Normalcy Bias
  7. I Hate Guitar Solos
  8. The Psychology of Being a Super Fan in Sports
  9. Kinesthetic Learning in Sports
  10. Charles Bukowski hates Mickey Mouse

I must admit I was a little surprised that the Indigo Children post did so well.  I guess it had more of a tie-in than I thought, but I’ve found that you can never predict these things.  The others were not a surprise to me, as I knew when I wrote them that they were quality posts.

The following is a top fifteen list, listed in chronological by the number of hits they’ve received, of the posts that I believe have been largely, and in my opinion criminally, ignored.  I was going to write another top ten list, but that would’ve meant excluding two of my favorite posts Mechanical Animals and Would you eat something someone cared about?  I honestly think that the top five listed here are some of the best posts I’ve ever written, and I would include Nobody Cares About You and Eat your meat! How can you show appreciation for life, if you won’t eat your meat?  It’s really tough for me to say that one of my babies is better than another, but this is a condensed list of my favorites.

  1. He Used to Have a Mohawk
  2. Chances are you’re a lot like me and my life with alcohol
  3. Oh! Our Electromagnetic Minds
  4. You Don’t Bring me Flowers Anymore!
  5. Groundhogs, Led Zeppelin, and our Existential Existence
  6. Building the Better, Happier Person
  7. The Mythology of You
  8. Nobody Cares About You
  9. Eat your meat! How can you show appreciation for life, if you won’t eat your meat?
  10. The Wicked Flames of the Weird
  11. Food Glorious Food
  12. Mechanical Animals
  13. Do the Apophenia
  14. Details, Details, Details
  15. Would you eat something someone cared about?

How to Succeed in Writing IX: The Influential Writers, and other influences


Like any other person that has attempted to create something artistic, an artist’s appreciation of another’s work is limited and unique.  An artist’s appreciation of another’s work is similar to an athlete studying game film on a future opponent.  After repeated viewings, you understand their modus operandi.  You are able to pinpoint what they do well, and their failings, and you’re able to learn from all of them.  One author’s ability to characterize may impress another artist in one reading, and another may impress them with their particular brand of engaging dialogue.  After another artist gets it, they’re usually bored with it, and they move onto another author.  To use the sports analogy once again, the artist can usually spot the stitches on another’s fastball long before the casual observer can.  This isn’t what artists are trying to do, it’s who they are.  They would love to simply read another’s work and appreciate it in the same manner a casual reader would, but they can’t turn that portion of their brain off.  An artist reading another’s work can get so hypercritical and appreciative of the little things another author does to move a story along, or characterize, that they can’t enjoy that simple, little story in total until they have thoroughly explored, and drained, whatever value they believe another’s work has for them.

Most writers will claim that their writing is now entirely free of influence once they’ve found their voice.  Some would judge this self-promotion, and others would say it’s just impossible to believe.  As any writer that’s written a great deal knows, it’s almost impossible to escape influence.  Whenever a writer turns a phrase, completes a block or dialogue, or characterizes, there was some influence there.  If it wasn’t Chaucer, or Hemingway, that influenced the writer in this manner, it may have been their freshman Composition 101 teacher.  If it wasn’t Stephen King, or Faulkner, that taught them how characterize, it may have been a movie or a television show that embedded that particular brand of characterizing deep in their brain.  Something, somewhere influenced them in some way they may not know now that they’ve reached their twentieth year of writing, where their writing material that is so fresh, and unique, that they can’t even spot the influence anymore.  They may have worked so hard, for so long to achieve a unique voice that they feel they’ve achieved it, and they may have to some degree, but there was a starting point that formed a foundation that is now so embedded in the manner in which they write that they can’t see the influence anymore.

If you belong to the latter group that believes you have reached the pinnacle of individualistic style, that contains no influence, you may dismiss this article as nothing but a point of curiosity, but if you are a new writer that wants to learn how one writer got to point D in the process, the following is a list of those influences that lubricated the slide:

10) Brevity. If “Brevity is the soul of wit” no one was funnier than Ernest Hemingway.  An economist of words, Hemingway avoided complicated syntax, and it has been determined that seventy percent of his sentences were short, simple sentences.{1}  Hemingway was the anti-Joyce (James Joyce) in this regard.  Whereas Hemingway “KISSed” us (keeping it simple for we stupid people) with his prose, Joyce dangled complicated, multisyllabic, and invented words before us, and he often teased us with a carrot on the stick of his words’ meaning.  Whereas this may have made Joyce’s fiction wonderful, historic, and transcendent, most of us didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.  Whereas most readers need translation, transportations in time via a well-written guide, and a degree in Joyceisms to understand Finnegan’s Wake, Old Man and the Sea can be enjoyed in an otherwise carefree afternoon. This isn’t to say that Hemingway’s prose is not complicated and carefully structured for meaning, but with Hemingway’s fiction, meaning is derived upon reflection and through personal interpretation.  The meaning of Hemingway’s prose is established through dialogue, action, and silences —a fiction in which nothing crucial or at least very little— is stated explicitly.  He purposely avoided outright symbolism in what he called “the theory of the iceberg”.  This theory stated that facts float above water, and the supporting structure and symbolism operate out of sight.

Hemingway“No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in,” says Hemingway. “That kind of symbol sticks out like raisins in raisin bread. Raisin bread is all right, but plain bread is better.” He opens two bottles of beer and continues: “I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks.  But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.  The hardest thing is to make something really true and sometimes truer than true.”

Hemingway was more of a storyteller than he was a writer.  The interested reader, that doesn’t have a whole lot of time on their hands, may want to consider reading either the short book Old Man and the Sea or The Short and Happy life of Francis Macomber.  The latter is a short story that captures the essence of Ernest Hemingway, and it teaches every writer the greatest principle every writer should employ in their daily activities: Story is sacred and flowery prose is largely self-indulgence.

Carver9) Images. Raymond Carver was also a minimalist.  Most of my favorite writers were.  Carver employed evocative and provocative images to tell a story.  Short stories were his forte.  The short story Feathers captures the essence of Raymond Carver, better than any of his other stories in my humble opinion.

Carver’s stories, and poems, focused on misery and dirty realism.  His characters are low class, beer drinking, hardworking, slobs that readers can’t help but picture in stained tank-tops.  Carver claimed that he was inclined toward brevity and intensity.  His writing focused on sadness, loss, and alcohol in the everyday lives of ordinary people —often lower-middle class or isolated and marginalized people.

8) Characterization. John Irving does engage in the flowery prose of his mentor Charles Dickens, but he does so (for the most part) effortlessly.  Irving is not a minimalist in other words.  Irving’s John_Irvingworks teach us, more than any of the author’s listed here, to work your tail off to hide your effort.  One read through his magnum opus The World According to Garp teaches us that it shouldn’t be a chore to read through one’s work.  No other authors listed here, save for maybe Hemingway, hides his brilliance better than Irving.  The reader gets to know Irving’s characters in what I call a “Holy Crap!” manner.  Irving doesn’t use physical characteristics to describe characters, and he doesn’t use the inner voice techniques that most of us do, yet you learn their characteristics in a story after story and a passage after passage manner, until you know them so completely that you say, “Holy crap, this author’s brilliant.”  I realize this methodology is borne of the “show don’t tell” basic of storytelling, but in my humble opinion, no one does it better than Irving.

Irving has chapters of setting, primarily in the Northeast, and his settings can appear a bit laborious at times.  Unlike all of the authors on this list, there can be large chunks of Irving’s narrative where nothing happens, as he frames you up for what’s about to happen.  Irving does “a story within the story” as well as anyone in the business.  As I said, though, Irving achieves his stature in the world of literature through effortless characterization.

It appears, unfortunately, that the drive to tell a story no longer drives Mr. Irving.  His more recent books have become more and more political.  Some could say that Mr. Irving has always been political, and if you read A Prayer for Owen Meany and Garp again, you’ll see that.  If that’s true, he used to be a lot more subtle.  Story used to be sacred to him, and politics used to be a secondary concern to him.

It’s almost become a cliché that writers of my generation claim Irving as a primary influence.  Like most clichés though, there’s a reason claiming Irving as an influence has become so prevalent among those in my generation.  It’s because he has achieved the bestseller list through almost effortless, beautiful writing, and by not conforming to current norms.  Irving just does what he does, and we have all accepted this to a degree that he can do whatever he wants, and we’ll all greet him with open arms.  Claim King or Koontz as an influence, and artistic writers will dismiss you with a yawn; claim John Grisham, and they’ll dismiss you with a laugh; but Irving has managed to keep a foot in both the literary and best-selling world, and he does it with rich, rewarding, and effortless characterization.

7) Asides.  Some may dismiss Chuck Palahniuk as a splatterpunk writer that engages in shocking prose that grosses out and titillates the reader.  It is true that Palahniuk goes for the jugular in much of his writing, and some may say too often, but anyone that has read, or seen, Fight Club (they’re strikingly similar) knows that Palahniuk (almost) always has a story to tell amid the chaos in his works.

PalahniukPalahniuk may have some of the best, most interesting vignettes and asides in the business today.   He is heavily influenced by Stephen King, as evidenced by his heavy use of refrain style use of repetition, but one should not mistake this influence as outright mimicry.  Palahniuk has carved himself quite a niche in the literary world, with works like Fight Club, Choke, and RantRant proved to be especially valuable to those writers on the lookout for a new way of telling a story.  While the style is not unprecedented, Palahniuk used it in such a unique manner that those that have read the story considered it revolutionary.

Chuck describes his style of writing as “transgressive” fiction.  Transgressive fiction, as defined by Wikipedia, “is a writing style that focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual and/or illicit ways.”

After the novel Lullaby, Palahniuk began writing satirical, horror stories.  His work is big on unusually dark and absurd philosophical asides that are so farcical that the reader can help but think of them as true.  These asides are non-fiction factoids within his fictional works that, according to the author, “Are included in order to further immerse the reader in my work”.” {2} This author hates metaphors and similes.  This author loves to mess around with the traditional styles of storytelling to presumably keep it interesting for him and us.  Some of the times this methodology works, as it did in Rant, and some of the times it doesn’t, as it didn’t in Pygmy and Tell All.  His forays into illogical, but fun, splatterpunk writing, works in most of his books, but anytime a writer puts their stock in shock they are going to try outdo themselves every time out, until they produce a book like Snuff in which the novelty of the over-the-top shock wears thin quickly.

6) Pace. No writer, in modern fiction, displays the virtues of pace better than Dean Koontz.  I challenge anyone to read the first half of his book Intensity and say that this man is not in the upper echelon of thriller writers today.  Koontz knows all he needs to know about architecture, gardening, and all the other minutiae of his Southern Californian locale to make his setting interesting, but Mr. Koontz can get you flipping pages on pace with any of the great suspense/thriller writers of our day. He may also be the safest writer on this list.

Dean-KoontzWhy is Koontz safe?  He strives for the mainstream.  His books have mass appeal to most age groups and both genders.  He is a publisher’s dream in that he knows how to knock out a best-seller on an annual basis without offending anyone.  If you’re a writer that seeks the formula to mass appeal, and the bestseller list, I can think of no better author to read … this side of James Patterson.  That having been said, there is a formula to Koontz’s writing.  How can there not be in a catalogue that lists 112 titles, with twenty-eight bestsellers among them, without an inoffensive formula?  A formula is good to some degree.  To some degree, a formula will provide a reader a solid foundation of comfort that the author can shatter in the pages that follow.  There is a formula, and a relative level of comfort that Koontz readers have come to expect, and while we should try hard not to dismiss Koontz on this basis alone, it’s difficult not to do so.  All of his characters are much too safe.  His female characters are safely intelligent, and his male characters are safely reliant on their intelligence and ingenuity … Even his bad guys are safely bad.  Then, Koontz exasperates whatever problems his works have in this regard by trying to be funny.  His humor is so safe, conformist, and pedantic that it almost seems to be self-effacing, nerdy humor, until one reads enough Koontz to realize that this is simply this man’s sense of humor.

If you’re looking for edgy, offensive, different material that most people are uncomfortable reading, Koontz probably isn’t your guy.  He does write some edgy material, but he doesn’t do so on a consistent enough basis.  If one were to gauge mental health by a writer’s fiction, Koontz would likely score higher than any of the authors listed here, but that has resulted in less dangerous, less angst-ridden material.  He’s mainstream, and there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re looking to write mainstream fiction.  One of the other exceptions to this rule, aside from Intensity, was the novel Life Expectancy.  These two books are the must reads in Koontz’s catalogue for any writer seeking the edgy and different.

5) Writing fiction. What can be written about Stephen King that hasn’t already been written?  If you are a writer that hasn’t read King yet, you’ll probably want to get on the train.  He’ll teach you the good, the bad, and the ugly of writing.  While it’s almost impossible to read everything he’s done, most writers have an extensive King library.  If they don’t, they should probably have at least ten of his books.

KingKing has it all, and most honest, seasoned writers will begrudgingly admit that he has had an influence on them at one point in their process.  If The Stand is too long for you, then the writing community will require you to read Misery, Gerald’s Game, It, or any of his classic, early works like The Shining.  Some artistic writers may scrunch their nose at King, because he is so ubiquitous, but his influence on modern fiction cannot be denied in just about every novel written after 1990.

Some say that King invented the common man horror, but many say that almost every piece of fictional horror involves the common man.  King did work the working joe into his fiction more than most however.  As stated earlier, King builds horror through repetition.  He usually has a nickname for his monster that gets repeated often enough that the reader feels a horrified endearment to the monster.  He also may have not been the first to work music into his horror, most notably nursery rhymes, but he did it more often and with more mastery than most, and it influenced a generation of horror writers.

4) Hodge Podge. As written in the introduction of this piece, writers read other writers in a unique manner.  There are so many varied ways that a writer can reach point D in the process that attempting to catalogue all of the influential writers, and their influential moments in fiction, would be book length, and very few readers would be interested in all of the ways in which this writer achieved that point.  So in the interest of interest, we will try to whittle these moments down to a few of the most prominent.  In the area of the influentially absurd humor, there have been few that captured it as well as Robert McCammon did in Gone South, or Gary Shteyngart in his work Absurdistan a book that was heavily influenced by the monumentally influential book A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy O’Toole.

As for horror, there have been few, this side of King, that have been able to capture common man, suspenseful horror as adeptly as Scott Smith did in A Simple Plan and Ruins.  Smith’s ability to build to horror in a casually sequential manner is almost unprecedented.  The only problem with Smith is that he has only written two books in twenty years, and while there is nothing wrong with the man’s quality, his fans would love a little more quantity.  Although Thomas M. Disch’s M.D. was not the greatest horror book ever written, and it ebbed and flowed more than the other books on this list, the work provided moments that have influenced this writer as much as any of the pieces described previously.  Some of the imagery Thomas Harris created in the Red Dragon book, and in Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (not a horror but just as laden with images), have led many writers to pound the table in frustration with their attempts to duplicate their provocative imagery.  For various reasons, and in various ways, all of these authors had a huge influence on this writer’s attempt to get to point D.

3) Mood. Nothing influences mood better than music.  Listening to music gives the writer a certain setting from which “different” fiction can be achieved.  If a writer wants to write a period piece, for example, they can select the music from that era, and attempt to achieve that mindset.  This is similar to the attempts that the main character in Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time to achieve time travel.  In this story, the main character wanted to go back to the year 1912 so badly that he attempted to hypnotize himself into the belief that he was.  He surrounded himself with 1912 in his hotel room, and he wore 1912 clothes, listened to 1912 songs, and ended up believing he was in 1912.  Music affects me in the same manner.  I prefer non-traditional, non-linear music to shake my brain out of the patterns it might fall into in long settings, until I can convince myself that I am non-traditional and non-linear.  I, of course, do not make the conscious efforts to do this in the manner Matheson’s character did, but through repetitive listening of certain music, I have been able to achieve something “different” on a number of occasions.

I listen to a wide variety of music when I write, always switching to keep it fresh, but some of my favorites are Mike Patton, John Zorn, and Trey Spruance’s Secret Chiefs.  These musicians (not rock stars) create an aura I find conducive to writing edgy, “different” material.  These artists, like so many of the authors described above, created something that that seemed impossible before they did it.  They are truly skilled in making the listener feel different, and that anything can be accomplished in a certain setting.  Miles Davis creates an aura that allows you to focus at times, but his music can be a little too aural at times, and David Bowie’s music can be a little too focused, and this causes me to be distracted when I listen to what his music is doing.  The band Pavement can create some chaos in your mind and shake you out of your doldrums, but they, too, can be a little too focused at times for that atmosphere writers need to create.

Everyone’s mom told them that distraction-free silence was conducive to concentration.  Yet, every mind works differently, and I have found —much too late for success in school— that I need distraction to achieve focus.  It may not make sense to those blessed with normal brains, but I need a Goldilocks amount of distraction —not too hard and not to soft, and not too aural and not too structured— for me to concentrate and focus.

2) Movies.  Most of the best storytelling being done today, we have to face it, is being done in the movies.  If a Quentin Tarantino were born in the late nineteenth century, he probably would’ve been a novel writer.  He, like all great movie makers of this era, has the storyteller’s bug, but he doesn’t have the patience to sit behind a typewriter/keyboard and compose prose that can take months and years to produce.  These storytellers of our era are taking advantage of the technology offered them and telling their stories on screen.  One thing movie makers can teach aspiring writers, that reading the Russian authors won’t, is to get to the point.  Their audience, our audience, and the audience doesn’t have as much patience for brilliant prose as previous generations.  We have a short attention span, and with a few exceptions (David Lynch, Wes Anderson, and Tarantino of late) most movie makers whittle their scripts down to the germane.

1) My writing.  Most readers would consider it egotistical to list “my writing” as the greatest influence on my writing, but that is not the intent.  It is only added, because I hold my best writing out as beacons in my career that I want to smash the next time I write something new.  It is important that every writer examine what they’ve written on a consistent enough basis that they always try to write better, and different, stories every time they sit behind their keyboard.

{1}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway

{2}http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuck_Palahniuk

How to Succeed in Writing VIII: Elements of Style


One of the questions a writer answers throughout his writing career is: How am I going to write?  What is going to be my style?  Most writers will not discover “their style” until they are well into the process, but that doesn’t stop them from talking about the process of writing.  When I was a new writer, I spoke about the process all the time.  I told people about my artistic mindset, my artistic setting, and everything but my work, because I didn’t have a lot of work to speak of at the time.  Talking about the process was fun though, because it made me feel like a writer.  It gave me a complicated characterization that my friends couldn’t understand at times.  I was purposefully moody and sullen, but that was all a part of “my process”.  There did come a point, however, when this mystique I created was counterproductive.  I wanted to be a writer more than I wanted to write in other words.  Every time I wrote, I received more evidence of the fact that I probably wasn’t as good as I purported.

A lot of new, and longtime, writers write, speak, and hypothesize about the process of writing.  They speak about having post-it notes all around them to capture the ideas of the moment, or a moment, before they forget them.  They talk about the tools they use to create, the mood they need for proper creation, the setting, the mindset, and everything that they’ve defined as the characteristics of being a writer, but are they writing?

One thing I’ve found in the course of my writing is that a true writer doesn’t need post-it notes, recording devices, or anything more than a well-honed brain to record that which is memorable, or noteworthy, material.  If it is, in fact, noteworthy material, it will stick.  It will gestate in your brain, until you have a completed idea of that which you have experienced.  Post it notes and recording devices are for people that enjoy the process.  “Why do you have that recording device on when we speak?”  True writers only need a honed brain that continually processes information for years to retain, process, and germinate all that great material we experience in the course of our days.

james-joyceAre you Kerouac or Joyce?  One style of writing that new writers, and complicated artiste writers, laud is the Jack Kerouac and James Joyce style of writing called stream-of-consciousness (SC) writing.  SC writing is a style of writing that plays out exactly as it sounds: An author sits down and composes 300-700 pages of prose in a matter of months.  The SC author does little to no editing and revising, because in the strictest definition of SC writing there is no such thing as mistakes in a contextual or conceptual sense.  Contextual mistakes, according to those that pursue this form of writing, and the painter Pablo Picasso, are subconscious leads.  What could be seen as an errant stroke by some was something to build on for Picasso…and Joyce, and Kerouac when it came to writing.  They saw mistakes as the subconscious guiding them down a path they hadn’t consciously considered before.  Both of these writers were forced to fight off editors and publishers in the belief that their works should remain as is.

kerouac“I write to entertain myself,” those that adhere to the Joyce/Kerouac style would tell you.  “If anyone else is entertained, that’s gravy.”  The reason we started writing in the first place was to see if we could take all of our influences and combine them with our inner voices, to achieve stories that would entertain us.  Too much editing and revising takes the spontaneity right out of an artistic creation, and trying to make my pieces relatable to all is impossible, so why would I spend too much time trying to correct conceptual and contextual mistakes?

Have you ever attempted to read James Joyce’s Ulysses?  How about Finnegan’s Wake?  Most normal humans, of adequate intelligence, need a guide to help them understand all of the references and allusions Joyce makes in these works.  All of Joyce’s jokes and provocations were “in-house” references that he understood, and that you can understand too…with a reference guide that’s almost as lengthy, but they’re not enjoyable books as a standalone.  No one will know what the heck you’re talking about, in other words, when you write in Joyce’s SC manner.   You will know, as Joyce and those that lived in Ireland at the time knew, but your reader won’t know.  You will get frustrated with them.  “Can’t you see that A led to B, and C was the result?”  Oh ok, they say, now I get it.  As frustrated as you were with them, it wasn’t their fault that they didn’t get it.  It was yours, and you need to edit and revise more.

Most new writers should be advised to follow the editing and revising school of thought for just this reason.  This line of thought suggests that a story matures in the editing process.  It suggests that the framework of a story can be borne in the stream-of-consciousness (SC) stage, but that the marrow of a story is created when we go back and live through the story again and again, until we reach a readability stage.  This theory also suggests that editing and revising stories gives the author greater objectivity than he can achieve in the creation process.  Objectivity gives the author the chance to attempt to read the story in the manner a reader may read their story.  It gives the author some distance from the relatively narrow position one is in while creating the piece, and they can correct some of the errors of flow and characterization that may not be apparent in the creative process.

We “editing and revising” writers find it hard to believe that Kerouac and Joyce were able to develop their story, their characters, their pace, and their setting on the fly in the manner they suggest.  It just doesn’t seem feasible—no matter how brilliant they may be—that they could make all of the connections, and all of the asides mesh well into a story on the fly, but if you believe the Kerouac myth—that Kerouac created—he wrote his classic On the Road in a drug-frenzied three weeks on a scroll of paper.  How much of this myth is true should be left up to historians to debate.  What cannot be debated, however, is the fact that Kerouac and Joyce submitted relatively raw pieces of work that achieved historical status.  What also cannot be debated is that—if everything they’ve said about their process is true—they should be held out as the exception to the rule that editing and revising are the keys to achieving a complete and readable story.

Most of us are not a “Man of Golden Words”, to borrow a phrase from lyricist Andrew Wood.  Most of us write stupid things, bad scenes, flat characters, sloppy sentences, too much setting, unnecessary asides, and our flow isn’t quite right the first time through.  We also write “great scenes” that appear foolish in revision.   Most of us need advice, a second reader, and a vocal read-through.  Most of us are not spontaneous, artistic geniuses, and our work could use a lot of sprucing and pruning.  If you are an artistic genius—and I’m not one of those that claims that no one is, out of spite for not being one—God love you.  I wish I was one that could create spontaneously without having to work so hard at it.

Editing and revising are definitely not the fun part of artistic creation.  They are, for the most part, tedious activities that require training and discipline, and training and discipline are not the artistic principles that complicated, non-writing writers want to endure when they think about, talk about, and write about the process of their creations. The Joyce/Kerouac process appeals to them, because it makes them feel more like an artistic genius.  Writing should be about writing, they are likely to say.  It should be about spontaneous creation, and when they can’t spontaneously create, they tell people they have writer’s block.  Writer’s block is a fundamental element of the complicated, non-writer’s writing life, and they all have their processes to help them out of it.  True writers, in this writers’ humble opinion, never experience writer’s block.  They may have moments in which they are more inspired than others, but to be unable to think of anything to write just seems impossible to those of us that have written so much that we’re now disciplined enough—after hours of exhaustive training—to always write something.

Fruit and Flowers: On that note, for those of us that don’t constantly receive divine inspiration for artistic creations, there is a cure: “Paint fruit and flowers!”  Flipping through various collections of art, I was surprised to find so many benign and boring creations by artistic geniuses.  Flip through any Van Gogh collection, Picasso collection, or Matisse collection and you’ll find them—relatively boring and seemingly benign paintings of the sky, shrubs, trees, fruit, and flowers.  I was shocked at how many of these paintings there were in the anthologies of these artists.  Why would such talented artists waste their time painting such seemingly benign and boring paintings?  Answer: They were keeping their artistic muscles taut and honed.  They were learning color and contrast, and prominence and shadowing.  They were finessing their God-given talent.  They were becoming artists, in other words, and they were getting better, and when divine inspiration eventually struck they would be ready for it.  Some of the complicated, non-writing writers have this Hollywood image of writers that tells them they need to be inspired to write.  These writers know that their best material will occur when the Danube River is just outside their hotel’s window sill at a time when the first storks make their appearance in Petrovaradin.  These writers know they can’t be too happy, or too sad, and that they need the finest Columbian coffee scents in their nose to receive divine inspiration.  A drafty writing room with Gatorade and Diet Sunkist is just not conducive to inspired writing.  They’ll tell you that they have writer’s block, when you ask them what they’re writing.  “Well,” I want to scream at them.  “What are you doing about it?!  Try writing Fruit and Flower stories!”

“That’s easy for you to say,” will be the theme of the “complicated” writer’s reply, “But I can’t write when I’m not inspired.”  If I were to see something they wrote that was at the artistic genius level, I would have no ammunition in these conversations, but they’re usually just boobs like me that want to purport some sort of artistic genius persona.  They’re usually not writing anything at all.  They’re usually just lazy, complicated, non-writing writers.  “Write something stupid,” I want to say.  “There are fruit and flowers everywhere.  You don’t need to write Crime and Punishment every time out, but if you continue to write your Crime and Punishment may fall out from between the cracks.”

Therein lays the key to great writing, in my humble opinion, that in your discipline and exhaustive training, something may eventually fall out.  Others (most) will never have a Ulysses, a World According to Garp, or a Crime and Punishment fall out, and they may be so frustrated that they don’t want to continue.  Maybe they shouldn’t.   Maybe, they’re not cut out for all this, and they should consider quitting.

This may seem antithetical to everything I’ve written over the course of these eight blogs, but the question is a vital component to writing fiction. Do you enjoy writing, expression, and artistic creation, or do you want to be famous?  Have you created a number of good works, but none of them are of the highest quality?  How do you handle that?  Do you feel like an utter failure, or are you aching for more?  If you’re a complicated artiste that hasn’t achieved the fame you believe you should’ve at this point, you may want to give up.  Maybe you just weren’t meant to be a writer in the first place.  It’s a very important crossroads for you.  If you have the temerity to push ahead, there are a number of things that you can do to keep ‘it’ all shiny and honed until you receive divine inspiration.

How to Succeed in Writing VI: Follow guidelines, and let your freak flag fly!


Mike Patton

“There’s a right way to do things, and a wrong way!”  My Dad used to say. “And you always choose the wrong way!”  All artists have a natural proclivity to doing things the other way, a different way, and “the wrong way”.  Those who want to write a best-seller, sing a top 40 song, or sell a mainstream painting, study up on the trends of the market, and they have all their formulas for success spelled out for them in the various “self-help” guides that are available in the marketplace.  Artists, true artists, are the freaks, the odd balls, and the weirdoes of our society.

If these artists didn’t have certain predilections in life, they probably would’ve been better athletes in high school, and more popular, and less inclined to eventually have the angst that drove them to do what they would ended up doing.  They probably would’ve made better employees, better spouses, better parents, and better people.  Their people probably would’ve enjoyed their company more if they fell in line with the practiced repetitions that led to better muscle memory in all these avenues of life.  They probably would’ve been happier people and fit into society better, but they chose a different path in life.

Marcel Proust

“Everything great in the world comes from Neurotics.  They alone have founded our religion and composed our masterpieces,” –Marcel Proust.

To say that an artist chooses his path in life is a bit of a misnomer, for most artists fell into expression as a form of therapy.  They’ve usually had an incident, or a series of incidents, that they couldn’t quite get past in the accepted ways, but they made decisions on how to deal with them in their own way.  Most artists didn’t “reach out” for others to help them deal with that which plagued them, or if they did they recognized the fact that most people don’t care about other people’s problems.  Either that, or they didn’t receive any satisfaction from sympathetic responses.  Most artists internalized their pain, until it exploded into some form of expression.

Expression meant free-form expression to them early on.  It meant being outrageous, and offensive, and playing the game by their own rules.  If they had good mentors though, they learned that much of this resulted in sloppy and undisciplined work.  The whole reason they entered this field of expression was to expunge the toxins they had coursing through their veins, but their mentors told them there were rules and guidelines to doing this properly.  Most artists angrily accepted that fact.  They believed that artists should think outside the box, but they learned that true artists would eventually have to know what was in the box is if they ever hoped to violate it properly.

A friend of mine is not artistic, but he reads a lot of novels, and he knows their rules.  He also gets bogged down in details.  He circles offensive material, and he suggests that I delete, or edit, those portions.  He doesn’t know art in this sense, and he doesn’t care.  He knows the rules of society, and how those rules were applied by Hemingway and Faulkner, and he knows I’m offensive.  This friend wouldn’t be able to write one word of fiction.  He could get so boxed in by the rules that every word would be written, edited, and then deleted.  He would write a novel that would be as entertaining as an instructional manual for a park bench, or the proper use of fly paper.  He would’ve made a better editor, if he came to that crossroad.

The differences between an individual who knows the rules, but doesn’t know how to apply them in an artistic manner, are the differences between an artistic writer and an editor.  Take a look at some of the names of the people who have written the articles on developing the perfect character, or the most dynamic conflict.  You’ve probably never heard of them, for they know as little about writing an artistic novel as you do.  Some people are excellent editors and teachers, but they know little to nothing about being an artist.  The opposite is usually true of artists, and this is why freelance editors are making such a great living in the age of the rule breaking, freelance eBook writer.  It is also why the advice of most artists, such as myself, is to just do it.  Don’t talk about writing, don’t hold yourself up as a writer when you don’t write, and don’t complain about the arduous process involved.  Just do it!  Doing it, will help you figure out why you can do it or not.  The other important note on this topic is that those who teach can’t teach you how to write your novel.  They can give you general guidelines that you’ll need to know, but they can’t teach you the art of writing, and the art of letting your freak flag fly, in the vein that you’ll  learn by just doing it.  I’m not saying that their advice is without merit, but don’t let yourself get bogged down in the detail.

Writing female characters and the fear of being called a misogynist


Most male writers fear writing female characters do stupid things. Most male writers fear offending female readers, and most female readers tend to get offended when men depict female characters committing the most trivial errors. No writer wants to offend their readers, and females get offended when a male writer portrays women as anything less than a Lara Croft type of character.

The fact is that women buy more books than men do, so it is in the financial interests of all involved in the publication of books that male writers become “enlightened” and avoid the ‘M’ word at all costs. The ‘M’ word is misogyny. Misogyny, as defined by Dictionary.com, is the hatred, or dislike, of women or girls. This, of course, is the strict definition of the ‘M’ word. The loose definition, or that which is thrown at any author, be they novelist, screenwriter, etc., is that which depicts a female character as anything less than Laura Croft.

Some have said that those critical reviews that contained pervasive use of the ‘M’ word might have affected sales of Tom Clancy’s later books. Although I’ve only read a few Tom Clancy books, and I stand open to correction from those that have read a number of them, Clancy has only written female characters in supporting roles. That’s a big no-no in modern fiction. In modern fiction, an author can have a female in a supporting role, but that character is required to be an individual in a seat of authority over the main character. Anything less, the modern literary critic suggests, is misogynist. Anything less is less than modern, offensive to women, and earmarked as limited. Those female characters must also be flawless, and they must be Laura Croft. Writing the line “I don’t understand,” and attributing that line to a female character, can provide an unsuspecting author the death of a thousand cuts from critics and readers around the nation. This constant bashing of Clancy’s work, some have theorized, has resulted in the diminishment of his brand.

Other critics say that Clancy’s prose was so pedestrian, in its reliance on technical knowledge, that the “one-trick pony” of Clancy’s fiction was bound to see a slide in sales when readers tired of it. If that’s the case, and I’m not saying it is, why have modern literary aficionados dismissed Ernest Hemingway’s cannon as misogynist? After reading some of Hemingway’s stories, one could argue that although females do not play a prominent role in most of his fiction, but the females he does depict are not weak. If a reader determines that some of the female characters are weak, they should be ready to admit that they are as weak as the male characters in his stories.

Are those who dismiss Hemingway’s cannon, the all or nothing crowd that suggests that every female character he ever wrote must be a Lara Croft type character or the body of work is tainted? Does every writer now have to have every female character out of the house, defined as unilaterally independent and without even the slightest weakness, and never NEVER as a side character to define the writer’s main, male character better?

Misogyny is also defined in current fiction (be it in books, TV, or movies) as depicting a woman who defines herself by what men think of her. In a review of HBO’s Girls, Alyssa Rosenberg writes the following:

“(The main character) Lena Dunham is hungry for sex but not grateful for it. She has no need for (her sexual partner) Adam or anyone else to teach her that she deserves to be treated well: Hannah knows that, demands it, and negotiates her shaky way towards it.”{1}

The ironic twist that Alyssa Rosenberg doesn’t recognize in her review is that the main character of Girls defines herself through men by being anti-male in the manner her character reaches definition. The fact that Lena “doesn’t care” so strongly only shows how much she does care. She reminds one of a teenager that so strongly claims that they don’t care what anyone thinks of them, that any listener knows that this is their primary concern. When this Lena character puts so much effort into “not caring”, what Adam thinks of her, she ends up thinking about him all the time. She constantly calls on him for sexual activity, and he only shows up at her place when she assures him that sexual activity will occur. The intent of the authors of this show is that this dichotomy defines the Adam character, but the objective members of the audience believe it also defines the main character. When the Adam character treats her like crap, Lena ends up putting herself in a position of less respect by putting up with it. This Lena character is also defined as unattractive, and this is repeatedly made apparent throughout the show, so the show depicts her as one that can’t be picky when it comes to her choices in men. She’s unhappy throughout the show (as most unattractive women are in Hollywood movies based almost solely on the fact that they’re unattractive) which defines her as an unhappy woman that can’t meet a proper fella to treat her properly.

Some have defined the “traditional” feminist as being an individualist, or an individual that succeeds regardless the hurdles placed before them. Whereas the “modern” feminist blames the male for their subordinate role in a patriarchal society. If we still exist in a patriarchal society, and that’s debatable based on the changes some of us have witnessed in the workplace in the last twenty years, then the traditional feminist learns the mores of her society, whether she likes them or not, and she then learns how to succeed beyond them. The modern feminist looks at the same mores of society, folds her arms in the corner and decides that “The world stinks!” In modern feminist arenas, such as those presented in the show Sex in the City and the music of Alanis Morrisette, attempts are made to define the modern female in an anti-male world, by lashing out at their mistreatment by men. In the subtext of their material, they incidentally display an obsession with men that provides the men more power in their lives. They are so obsessed with how men treat them that they end up relegating the power of their moods to men. They also sound inferior to those traditional feminist, individualists that succeed beyond them, and the men that mistreat them.

Just about every book written after 1992 depicts female characters as stronger than men are, smarter than men are, and more independent than men are. I wouldn’t suggest that women are inferior to men, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t do incredibly stupid things too. Numerous studies have suggested that women are just as prone to do stupid things as men are, just as prone to have individuals within their gender that are idiots, and they are just as prone to fall prey to stereotypes and generalities of their gender. Writers cannot depict these truths, however, if they hope to generate sales, develop a following, and receive critical praise. If a writer were to buck the old guard and defy these edicts, they know that that piece they write and any future pieces they dare to write will receive a scarlet letter ‘M’ branding.

The question that I’m sure many readers are asking at this point is if an author knows that women are more sensitive to how fiction portrays them, and the author knows that women buy more books, why would this author purposefully set out to offend them? The point is that unless an author seeks to offend with their material, most authors do not seek offense. The point is that writers, editors, and all of those in the chain of production now have to comb through material to find any sentence that could possibly offend a female, or a critic, if they hope to make a sale. It’s also this idea that authors now have to change every general pronoun we might incorporate into our writing from a “he” to a “she” or to a “he or she”. The current incarnation of Microsoft Word even flags “theys” when we writers use it in the form of a plural generic pronoun, and they offer a “he or she” correction to assure the reader of total gender equality. One can only presume that the use of “they” because it has an ‘H’ and an ‘E’ in the word. As a result, of the inadvertent exclusion or marginalization of women that “they” appropriates, “he or she” is the correct term. Next up, is the word “the”. The correction may entail an (s), as in t(s)he, or a, an, we, etc. In these quarters, it is deemed acceptable to simply supplant he with she, however, for they deem she to be more inclusive.   

I would think that the purveyors of these claims of offense would know that they risk over reaching. If their goal were to garner more respect for women through language, and various fictional characterizations, they would stay within defined borders. They would locate examples of egregious violations, and hold them up as examples of what they declare a violation of modern characterizations based upon those borders. Unfortunately, when arbiters of an offense begin to hold sway, they begin playing king of the mountain, claiming that they can find offense in the most benign vehicles. The result of this is that valid charges of sexism, or misogyny, fall under the same umbrella in as benign offenses, and everyone that attempts to write anything is as misogynist as someone that actually is, until it’s impossible to define the borders, and no one is a misogynist in the pool of popular opinion.     

If a writer wants to write a modern, risky, and challenging piece of social commentary in their fiction that’s fine, as long as it only offends members of group A. Group A in this scenario contains the white male demographic … or is listing them as Group A misogynistic, sexist, and patriarchal? Let’s transpose the words and call them a group to avoid offense. So, let’s say that you can offend a group of people, because those people have generally shown that either they aren’t offended as easily, or if they do get offended that offense doesn’t show up in bottom line sales figures.

The problem is that writers have to have bad guys (correction: hes and shes) to define their good humans and huwomans. Writers, particularly those writing stories, also have to have some sort of conflict between good and evil, so it’s recently become advisable that a writer’s bad homo sapiens be Caucasian males, and that your good homo sapiens be those of a descent other than Caucasian, preferably of the female gender. One preferred good person duo in modern fiction, and movies, is to depict a member of the subfamily of the Homininae, the Hominidae, otherwise known as the Homo Sapiens hominid, be that of the Caucasian persuasion, and a gender that is female, battling alongside a member of the Homo Sapiens of African-American descent against the male Homo Sapien males of Caucasian descent. This will allow writers to have bad hes and shes with no one finding offense in their characterizations, or if they do find some offense, somewhere, it might not show up in bottom line sales figures.

Another problem that we readers have with these very specific, politically correct parameters is the predictability they place on storytelling. We all know by now that when a conflict arises between male characters and females characters, the female character’s rationale will always win out … for current and/or future sales. We all know by now that when a female provides a method through which the two of them can escape conflict, the female’s advice will prove correct, even if she appears to be initially mistaken. We all know by now that the male will eventually realize that his chauvinistic impulses are what landed them in their predicament in the first place, and if he would just listen to the female, he wouldn’t keep running into the scary monster of the story.

We also know that it used to be 180 degrees different. We know that 1950’s era movies depicted the female as a screaming, hysterical child that needed to be slapped occasionally to arrive at a rational state of mind, and that wasn’t right either. I’m sure I would’ve been screaming about the misogynistic parameters the hes and shes forced me to portray back then, but it flipped in the modern era to such a degree that most male writers are afraid of portraying even the smallest transgression against women. It’s tedious is what I’m saying, it’s limiting creative expression, and it’s becoming cliché.

A solution that I propose that we readers develop a universal asterisk that declares that as long as an author generously distributes these flawed, inept, and idiotic characterizations to all genders, races, and religions that we do not permit a friend to declare some sort of offense. I propose that we develop a “Get out of charge free” card for creative writers whose sole intent is to express their definitions of the human being through flawed, stupid, and inconsistent characters, when it can be determined that that author’s intent was to add definition to those characters, so that their readers might better identify with their characters. I know this is a foolish request, however, and I would not risk a career on it. I know that women no longer identify with flaws anymore, when those fictional depictions of flaws concerns a human being that the author suggests might have similar reproductive organs. They only want Lara Croft-type characters, and anything less is something they consider an insult to their gender. The thing is women always tell me that they’re tougher than men are. They tell me that the grit and temerity it takes to get through childbirth and various other events of life, just makes women stronger than a men. Yet, when the most venial depictions of a female character’s flaws lead them to start a letter writing campaign, boycott the author’s work, and to unilaterally dismiss everything a writer has done previous to that venial depiction, it leads me to wonder which gender has the stronger constitution in the long run?