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

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How to Succeed in Writing VII: Being Authentic versus Being Entertaining


authenticity_strengthIn a previous post, I wrote that being entertaining is far more important than being honest when writing fiction. {1} That thesis has recently been challenged in a blog written by Diane McKinnon called Writing Authentically.  In her blog, Ms. McKinnon suggests that: “It’s better to write it as authentically as possible, and decide not to share it, than to write a sanitized version of it and have it move no one, not even me.” {2} Ms. McKinnon writes that those that have read her “sanitized” versions have found something lacking.  “The story’s good, but there’s no emotion in it,” one commenter said.  “How did you feel?  We want to know,” said another.  The insinuation that Ms. McKinnon leaves with these comments is that she wasn’t able to achieve an emotional truth in her piece without, first, writing the total truth of the matter in an original version.  She writes that she would never publish the unvarnished truth, for she wouldn’t want to hurt those involved in the truth, but she felt the need to write the truth, so that she could get to the inner core of the matter, before eventually revising the truth out in the final, published, and sanitized version.

How does a fiction writer avoid the truth, is a question I would ask her, even in a sanitized version?  If you’ve been a writer for an amount of time, and you’ve mined your soul for depth, I don’t know how you avoid the truth.  I do know my truth, I would argue, and I probably know it better than those that experienced it with me.  I feel it incumbent upon me to know the truth, and to study it from every possible angle I can think of, if I ever hope to embellish upon it properly, and I don’t think I need to first create an “authentic” version first to know it better.

My job as a writer, as I see it, is to take the experiences of my life that I’ve found entertaining, and combine them with a degree of creativity to create a fascinating story.  As I’ve said in previous blogs, some of the best writers I’ve ever read were also some of the best liars, and for a liar to become a really good liar they have to know the truth, and for a really good liar to become a writer they have to know the truth better than anyone else involved.  If a liar is just an outrageous liar, with no fundamental basis of truth, they’ll get called out on it, and most of us have, so we adapt and evolve, and we become intimate with the truth before moving onto the lie, and then the eventual fabricated story about it. For a liar to become a really good liar, they have to take the truth, combine it with their fabrication, and twist it around so that even those that shared the experience with us begin to question their memory of it.  If the liar is going to achieve this optimum level of confusion and believability, they will have to eventually reach a point where they twist the truth around so often, and so artfully, and with such conviction, that they accidentally convinced themselves of the story about it.  After doing this for a significant amount of time, the really good liar learns to channel that gift for lying into something that doesn’t cause embarrassing ramifications or harm to those affected by the lies.  They learn that writers tell lies that make people laugh, and it’s usually the reason why they became a writer in the first place.

The lies of our character.  When writers write characters we want to write the most entertaining characters that have ever graced an 8 X 11, but for these characters to achieve life-like qualities, we’ve learned that they can never stray so far away from our core that we feel lost within the characterization.  Even when we write bad guys, we may achieve some distance, but if that character strays too far from who we are, we lose touch with him.  That character may be based on that surprisingly uncaring friend we have that is capable of causing some people harm without conscience, and we may even take our characterization of him out to a limb that that even he couldn’t contemplate, but for those characters to move us, and others, we will eventually run into some element of our truth.

Larry David (Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm) states that the show Curb Your Enthusiasm is based upon experiences that have occurred in his life.  The difference, says Mr. David, is that the character says and does things that the real Larry David wishes he could’ve said or done.  Larry David is writing a character that is the complete opposite of him in these given situations, but that character still has a truth about him that Larry can identify with.  He has his character do things that tick people off, he has him do things that are occasionally immoral and spiteful, but he also has this character do things that entertain him, and in doing so he may be saying more about his personal character than the real life Larry David that couches his personality to be polite.

If you’re a writer that has written at any length, or with any measure of depth, I don’t know how you can avoid the truth of who you are.  I don’t know how you can write a sanitized version of the truth without complete exploration of that truth.  I don’t know how you can write a complete character, a decent setting, or a captivating conflict without exhaustive reflection of the way you see the world, or your truth, and I don’t think you have to write a “true” version and an “embellished” version to achieve it.

{1}https://rilaly.com/2012/05/10/how-to-succeed-in-writing-part-ii-the-search-for-the-great-story/

{2} http://nhwn.wordpress.com/2013/01/31/writing-authentically/

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?

How to Succeed in Writing V: Anton Chekov’s guide to the editing process


“Throw out your first three pages,” Russian playwright Anton Chekov advises writers.  Writers are a romantic, emotional, and sentimental lot, and they love every single one of the pages they’ve written, but they tend to be most sentimental about the first three pages of their stories.  Those pages are their babies, as beloved as any humans they happened to create.  They’re the pages—more than any of the others—that were the most fun to write.  They were the pages where their incredible idea—that magically turned into a story—was borne.  They’re crap, says Chekov, and they’re boring, and they amount to nothing more than circumlocution.

Circumlocution, for those, like me, who need to look up such a word, means using an excessively large number of words to express an idea.

Chekov also advises writers to delete as many adjectives and adverbs as possible, for “art must be grabbed at once, instantaneously.”  But Chekov’s most prominent editing advice for writers, regards deleting those first three pages.  Writers will call this bit of advice Chekov’s razor, and it’s well known in writer communities that take the goal of attempting to achieve literary perfection seriously.  If you have a friend that is a writer, and they have never heard about Chekov’s razor—and you’re feeling particularly nasty—let them know about this piece of advice, and you might be able to see a grown man cry.

Writing a great story, one that pops off the page, is hard.  If you call most writers to task, they will admit that very few of their stories pop off the page. It’s hard to do, and it doesn’t happen often for us.  When it does happen, it’s our natural inclination to try to inform our readers of some of the process involved in that magical moment.  It’s a selfish conceit we have to introduce our colorful cast characters that were borne entirely out of our imagination.  We want you to see how brilliant we are, but more than that we want you to experience the joy of our creation in the manner we did in creating them, and we have a difficult time trying to separate ourselves from that joy of creation and perfecting the story for your enjoyment.  We want you to feel the magic we felt in the process, because we loved the process, and if you ask us about our story we’ll probably concentrate our summary on those first three pages, because that’s where the twinkle in our eye was borne.

Objectivity was the point Chekov was trying to assist writers in achieving with this timeless advice he offered.  Objectivity that he presumably hoped would allow the creator the vantage point of viewing their material from the reader’s perspective.  Objectivity in that it should be a writer’s goal to distance themselves from the story just a tad to make it more palatable to a greater audience.  Writers, of all forms, attempt to send a message with their words.  Their stories are snapshots of the their view of the world, but it can get muddled in the closed perspective of personalization, and the first three pages, says this logic, is where most of this personalization occurs.  Take these pages out and you take out most of your personal entreaties into this world, and you’re more apt to leave a reader with the feeling that this story may apply to them too.

We’re trying to figure out what’s going to happen in these first three pages.  We trying to lay a foundation for a the story in these first three pages, and once we achieve that foundation we leap into an actual story world.  That foundation is, more often than not, where most exposition occurs, because we’re trying to explain our story to us.  If you’ve ever heard an experienced writer talk about the word exposition, you’ve usually heard them refer to it as the ‘E’ word, as if saying the full word aloud is equivalent to a Catholic saying the ‘F’ word in a cathedral.

“Exposition can be one of the most effective ways of creating and increasing the drama in your story,” says Robert Kernen.  “It can also be the quickest way to kill a plot’s momentum and get your story bogged down in detail.  Too much exposition, or too much at one time, can seriously derail a story and be frustrating to the reader or viewer eager for a story to either get moving or move on.”

Exposition is basically explaining.  Explain too much, or provide too much exposition, and we’ll get sad faces in the margins from our editors, our readers will yawn and mentally scream at you to get on with the action for the love of St. Pete, or they may not even read your story, because you’ve lost pace before you even started the story.  To paraphrase Chekov there’s too much circumlocution going on in there.

Have you ever read through your story and reached a point where you want to skip through parts?  Chances are those parts contained too much exposition.  Delete them now, says Chekov, before anyone else sees them…especially those instances that occur in the first three pages.  You’ll have most of what you need to have in an interesting story—if it is an interesting story—figured out by page four.  The first three pages were for you.

The latter line is important to those creators in the process of creating, for in the process of creating you need to know what you’re doing with this story, who your characters are, what your setting is, and where you’re going.  With that in mind, you may not want to delete these first three pages, until your story reaches the final stages.  Once you’ve reached that point, you can use Chekov’s razor, then go back in and add the germane sentences of those first three pages throughout the body of the work, and it’s at that point that you’ll begin to see that most of the information for what it was.

“Starting a story, we all tend to circle around, explain a lot of stuff, set things up that don’t need to be set up.  Then we find our way and get going, and the story begins … very often just about on page 3.” — Ursula LeGuin.

But the first three pages contains the thesis statement, you argue, that beautiful opening line that it took you a week to write properly, and the defining moment that crystallized who our character was going to be once this story got going.  Sure, my story takes off on page four, but the reader has to know the backdrop before the takeoff.  My story is the exception, you say, it just wouldn’t work without those first three pages.

Most people think that their story is so exceptional that it is the exception to this rule, but if most people think this way isn’t it reasonable to think that we might be able to separate ourselves from the pack by not thinking we are the exception to the rule?  It will break your heart, in the manner it broke your heart to dump the first lover that you liked a lot, but with whom you knew you had no future.  You knew that lover did nothing to advance your life, and you knew the two of you were wasting each other’s time in the greater sense of the word, but you liked being around them.  Once you dumped them, and you moved on, you realized that it was the best thing you ever did.  If you think there’s any merit to Chekov’s advice, try cutting the first three pages and placing them in a new file.  Once you’ve done that, try reading your novel without the first three pages, and you’ll find that you can place the germane material in the first three pages in a couple of sentences here and there throughout the body of the work.  Doing so will show you the idea that Chekov was trying to get across with his advice, and you’ll learn the true definition of exposition, and your readers will thank you for your efforts.

A short story would be an exception to the rule, of course, as some short stories are only three pages long.  If this is the case, you may want to try deleting the first three paragraphs, or any sentences that introduce your readers to the essay, or non-fiction piece, you are creating.  The important part of Chekov’s razor is that we delete the exposition that we have placed in the story to helps us understand what we’re trying to say in our artistic creation and get our readers straight into the story.

Chekov’s razor is, in my opinion, intended to assist writers in the process of attempting to create entertaining material, regardless what it does to your love of the creation.  It is also intended to provide the writer the tough love necessary to progress from a writer that loves to write to an author that readers love to read.  It is heartless advice that doesn’t take our romantic, emotional and sentimental needs into account, but like a child that exhibits some discipline problems writers need tough love too.  In the end, Chekov’s Razor may not work for your story.  It may be that your story is, in fact, the exception to the rule, but is has proven to be very helpful advice for writers all along the aisle.

How to Succeed in Writing part IV: Steal your Way!


“Where do your ideas come from?” has to be the dumbest question a reporter/interviewer can ask an author.  If they asked the author where did your idea for this particular novel come from, that might be a question that could yield some interesting results, but if an author were to give an honest answer it might take some of the mystique away from the piece their trying to promote in the interview.  The honest answer, most assuredly, would be that these stories had humble and inconsequential origins.

The more general question is a dumb one, because no writer has a personal vault of ideas from which they draw inspiration.  They’re just making stuff up as they go along like the rest of us.  They’re no different than us, they’ve just focused their energy in one particular area for so long that some ideas popped out. I don’t know what the interviewer expects, but the answer they receive is usually vague and long.  The author usually doesn’t know anymore what to do with the question than the interviewer.

Some authors use the question to mystique their piece up a bit, but most of these mystique oriented answers are as fictional as the writer’s pieces.  Hemingway liked to tell interviewers that he traveled to exotic hotels in Paris, France to write his novels.  It could, quite possibly be true, but I’m thinking that the birth of these novels was a lot more mundane.  I’m thinking that the truth is that his novels were born in dark, dusty basements where he sat alone thinking about all of his adventures.  I’m thinking that most of his grand ideas came from the same place most authors’ ideas come from: long, laborious hours spent doing nothing but writing–only to have some little gem pop its little head out of all of the clutter that he’d written through the years.  He did, after all, say that 99% of what he’d written was wastebasket material.  The truth, that is not as mysterious as most writers want to admit, is that great writing leaks out the cracks of laborious hours spent alone, reading and writing, and crafting, editing, and editing again.  That’s how it’s happened for me, anyway, and I think if you stripped away all of the promotion and mystique writers try to add to their productions, most writers would agree, but writer Austin Kleon doesn’t agree.  He says that all ideas come from other people’s ideas, and if you’re not stealing them now, you probably should be.

Originality is dead, Long Live Creativity

Austin KleonAuthor Austin Kleon has a book out called Steal Like an Artist.  The book declares there is no way to be original anymore.  It’s all been done before, so why is everyone climbing all over themselves trying to be original?  “Get over yourself,” he says, “and this idea that you’re a creative genius, and get busy writing something good.”

Author Christopher Booker’s book “The Seven Basic Plots: Why we Write Stories states that there are only seven basic elements to stories: 1. Overcoming the monster.  2. Rags to Riches.  3. The Quest.  4. Voyage and Return.  5. Comedy.  6. Tragedy.  7. Rebirth.

The Internet Public Library lists seven different types of conflict:  1. Man vs. nature. 2. Man vs. man. 3. Man vs. the environment.  4. Man vs. machines/technology.  5. Man vs. the supernatural.  6. Man vs. self.  7. Man vs. god/religion.   Some have listed addendums to these basic plotlines and conflicts, but the gist is that all of the basic plots and conflicts that can be dreamt up have already been dreamt up hundreds of thousands of times before, dating back to Homer.  Your voice should be in great supply in your novel, of course, but you can stop driving yourself up a wall trying to be brilliantly original.   It’s almost impossible.

Austin Kleon’s method of stealing is to take single words from newspapers or Google.com and use them as idea building blocks.  He chooses a word, at random, and he blocks out the rest.  He then tries to build an idea from a series of these words to try to create an image.  The incredible and Bowieincomparable Thin White Duke, David Bowie, used this method, as did William S. Burroughs.  You can get visuals, and a more thorough explanation, of this method on Kleon’s website in the link below.{1}

Have you ever read a novel, a plotline, or a scene that you thought you could do differently?  Have you ever thought:  “I loved that scene, but I wish they would’ve done this…”  We’re not trying to do the author one better when we do this, we’re just trying to personalize a scene that touched us in some manner, and every author that we steal from should be complimented by our theft.  Their brilliance inspired thought in us after all, and if someone stole from us in this manner, we know we’d feel complimented.  While it’s not important that we avoid our influences in this manner, we should do everything we can to conceal them.  We do want to edit them out as much as possible, so that they might not even be able to spot the influence

Where do my ideas come from?  My favorite brand of fiction involves idiots doing stupid things, and in that regard, I have found that I am a font of inspiration.  My friends also provide me great material, as most of them are as stupid as I am.  We all do stupid things.  TV shows have capitalized on this.  YouTube went from being a video-sharing site to a staple in our daily life based on this principle.  Phillip Roth once considered retiring from fiction with the idea that even his creative mind couldn’t top the non-fiction out there.  We can still write great fiction though, we can steal great fiction, and lift from life.  We just need to see it when it smacks us in the face.

I’ve stolen stories from the water cooler at work, from within the walls of my humble abode, and the bar where I sat trying to escape the walls of my home and the water cooler at work.  They’re dumb stories that no one wants to read.  They’re senseless stories that no one will care about, because they’re so senseless that no one can follow them.  They’re accidental stories, that no one will want to read unless we put enough pluck and circumstance into them to make them illustrative, intelligent, and hilarious stories about human nature and life in America today.

SeinfeldThese little stories are everywhere in life, they’re the minutiae that Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld opened up for the world.  Those two weren’t the first to do this, and they obviously won’t be the last, so we all need to jump on board and tell the world how stupid we are.  Stupid, little stories like “The Leans”{2} are the stories I’m talking about that we ignore in our attempt to write the next The World According to Garp.  There isn’t much to them, and they don’t necessarily feed the ego that writers have of being the next great writer, but there are times in our writing careers where we need to walk softly with our big stick.

You have to feed the female dog if you ever want her to fatten up is what I’m saying.  Creating fictional accounts of what “really” happened (my definition of creative non-fiction) taught me more about storytelling than crafting original stories did.  Crafting original stories is, of course, the goal, but if you can juggle the two you may be on your way to a behemoth.

But how many original ideas strike us in one month?  How many times do we have flurried inspiration that leads us to twenty pages of excellent fiction, and how many of these stories hit the proverbial brick wall after twenty pages?  Aspiring writers need to learn how to hone that muscle that will eventually get struck by lightning.  We need to learn how to flesh out ideas.  Is there a better way to hone that muscle than stealing another author’s idea and making our own, or fleshing out our foibles and our friends’?  If there is, I haven’t found it yet.

I’m all about getting over humps.  I’m all about writing anything and everything that is entertaining.  I don’t believe in writer’s block.  When I hear someone complaining about a block that has slammed down in front of them, my first thought is why don’t you just walk around it?  It’s not like it’s the great block of China or anything that has created a border to completion.  It’s just a block, and there are hundreds of ways around it if you just settle down and look at them for what they are.

{1}http://www.austinkleon.com/2011/09/24/steal-like-an-artist-at-the-economists-human-potential-summit/

{2}https://rilaly.com/2010/01/27/the-leans/

How to Succeed in Writing III: Are you Intelligent Enough to Write a Novel?


I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of (poor fiction),” –Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the (poor fiction) in the wastebasket.”

The key to writing great fiction is streamlining your story. Cut the fat! Some of the greatest authors of all time have admitted that the best additions they made to their novel were the parts they deleted. Somewhere along the line, in their writing career, they achieved objectivity. Somewhere along the line, they arrived at the idea that not all of their words were golden. Somewhere along the line, they realized that some of their words, sentences, paragraphs, and even some of their chapters were quite simply self-indulgent, wastebasket material. These self-indulgent portions, or the “ninety-one pages of (poor fiction),” of any novel are usually found in the asides.

But asides are what we enjoy in a novel you say. Asides can provide setting, pace, and drama. Asides can also build suspense and fortify the characteristics of a character, but they can also kill your novel. Most asides are unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. As anyone who has read a novel can attest, most novels could be written in forty pages, but that’s a short story, and short stories don’t sell as well as novels. They don’t sell as well, because readers want involvement. Readers don’t usually want snapshot stories. They want a world. They not only want to know the humans that they are reading about, they want to be involved with them. They want to see them breathe, they want to hear them talk to an employee at a Kwik Shop, and they want to feel the steps these characters take from place to place. They want to know these people, so when something happens to them, they can care about them.  They want to know the minutiae of the human they’re reading about, but they don’t want to get so caught up in the minutiae that they’re taken off pace, and they don’t want to read a self-absorbed writer that thinks it’s all about them.  Cut the fat!  Get to the point already!

“I’ve met a number of intelligent people throughout my life, and I’ve met a number of people I consider brilliant. I’ve met very few that were able to combine the two.” –Unknown.

This desire to be perceived as intelligent is a strong, driving force in all of us. How many stupid and overly analytical things do we say in one day to try to get one person to think that we’re not a total idiot? This desire to prove intelligence is right up there with the drive to be perceived as beautiful and likeable. It’s right up there with the desire to be seen as strong, athletic, independent, and mechanically inclined. We spend our whole lives trying to impress people. Even those that say that they don’t care what others think are trying to impress us with the fact that they don’t care.

In my first era of writing, I wrote a lot of these self-indulgent asides that contributed little to the story. I was a new student to the world of politics, and I was anxious to prove to the world that I was one smart cookie. I also wanted to show that half of the world that disagreed with my politics how wrong they were. So, I put my main character through an incident, and they came out of it enlightened by a political philosophy that agreed with mine. In various other pieces, I wanted to inform the world of all of this great underground music I was experiencing. My thought process at the time was: “Hey, if Stephen King can get away with telling us about tired rockers that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Why can’t I tell a few readers about a group they’ve never heard before?” Copy the masters right?  I wanted the world to know both sides of my brain in the same artistic piece. After taking a step back, and rereading these novels, I achieved enough objectivity to realize that it was all a big ball of mess.

If I was going to clean this mess up and start writing decent stories, I was going to have to divide my desires up.  I was going to have to cut the fat.  I was going to have to discipline myself to the creed that should be recited nightly by all aspiring storytellers: Story is sacred. I was going to have to learn to channel my desire to be perceived as smart into political and philosophical blogs. I was going to have to channel my desires to have people listen to my “discovered” music into Amazon.com reviews, and my stories, my novels, and my short stories would be left pure, untarnished stories with no agendas.  By dividing these desires up, I would be able to proselytize on the role of the Puggle in our society today, and the absolute beauty of Mr. Bungle’s music, without damaging my stories or boring the readers of my stories. I learned the principle the esteemed rock band Offspring tried to teach the world when they sang: “You gotta keep ‘em separated.”

There’s one writer, he-who-must-not-be-named, that never learned this principle. This author presumably got tired of being seen as just a storyteller. This author knew he was intelligent, and all of his friends and family knew he was intelligent, but the world didn’t know. The world only knew that he was a gifted storyteller, and they proved this by purchasing his books by the millions, but they didn’t know that he was so much more. This author achieved as much in the industry, if not more, as any other writer alive or dead (It’s Not King!), but he remained unsatisfied with that status. He needed the world to know that he wasn’t just a master of fiction. He needed the world to know he was as intelligent as he was brilliant, and he wrote the book that he hoped would prove it. It resulted in him ticking off 50% of his audience. 50% of his audience disagreed with him, and his politics, and they (we!) vowed to never read another one of his novels again. This is the risk you run when you seek to be perceived as intelligent and brilliant in the same work.

thomas-mannBut politics makes for such great filler, and to quote the great Thomas Mann: “Everything is political.” Well, there’s politics, and then there’s politics. If you’re one of those that doesn’t know the difference, and you don’t think your politics is politics, you should probably be writing something political. If you’re one of those who wants to write politics into your novel simply because it makes for such great filler, however, then you should try to avoid the self-indulgent conceit that ticks off that half of the population that disagrees with your politics. You’ll anger some with this, you’ll bore others, and the rest of us won’t care that you think it’s vital that your main character expresses something in some way that validates your way of thinking. We will just think it’s boring proselytizing from an insecure writer who needs validation from their peers. Stick to the story, we will scream, as we skip those passages or put your book down to never read anything you’ve ever written again.

You will need to be somewhat intelligent though. You’ll need enough to know your punctuation and grammar rules, you will need to know when and where to make paragraph breaks, and you will need to know how to edit your story for pace, but these aspects of storytelling can be learned.

“I am not adept at using punctuation and/or grammar in general…” A caller to a radio show once informed author Clive Barker. She said that she enjoyed writing, but it was the mechanics of writing that prevented her from delving into it whole hog. “Are you a clever story teller?” Clive asked her. “Do you enjoy telling stories, and do you entertain your friends with your tales?” The woman said yes to all of the above. “Well, you can learn the mechanics, and I encourage you to do so, but you cannot learn the art of storytelling. This ability to tell a story is, largely, a gift. Either you have it or you don’t.”

Be brilliant first, in other words, and if you can achieve brilliance, you can learn the rest. You can gain the intelligence necessary to get a thumbs up from a publisher, an agent, and eventually a reader, but you cannot learn brilliance. You cannot gain artistic creativity, and it’s hard enough to prove artistic brilliance. Why would you want to further burden yourself by going overboard in trying to also prove intelligence, and thus be everything to all people?

Let the people see how brilliant you are first! Gain a following. Once you have achieved that pied piper Wildeplateau, you can then attempt to display your intelligence. The preferred method of achieving all of your goals is to ‘keep ‘em separated’, but there are always going to be some who need to prove their intelligence and brilliance in the same Great American Novel. Those people are going to say Stephen King is a much better example to follow to the best-seller list than I am, and he achieved his plateau with a little bit of this and a little bit of that sprinkled in his prose. The question you have to ask yourself is, is he the rule or the exception to the rule? If Stephen King’s model is your preferred model, and these political and music parts are so germane, so golden, and so uniquely special to your story, keep them in.  As Oscar Wilde says, “You might as well be yourself, everyone else is taken.”