Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A few words

The more acquainted the interwebs and I become, the more I realize that there are, like, millions of fiction writers out there. Maybe. I’m the kind of person who’s never had a secure grasp on numbers. A million, I’ve been told, is a lot. Like, it would take a long time to count to a million, maybe half a million seconds. And half a million, too, is a lot. I think. (How long is half a million seconds? I’m going to guess 4 days.*)

Anyway, the sheer number of fiction writers out there depresses me. Because out of every million, 999,910 of them are crappy. (This is a scientifically derived number.) Or even worse, mediocre (why is mediocre worse than crappy? Because you can’t really make fun of the mediocre). And there is a much, much more depressing and urgent assumption to be extrapolated from that number, which is as follows:

I could be one of those 999,910!

I know, you didn’t want to hear that, but I don’t sugarcoat.

When I was young and idiotic**, it was easy to assume that there were two breeds of writers: the published (good), and me (shitty). Presumably, there were other unpublisheds like me, but not that many; after all, I didn’t really know any writers. Unpublished and semi-published and self-published writers didn’t have blogs where they lamented every step of the process. So, it seemed, if I was good enough I would make the jump to published (and, hopefully, not that breed of published that sat on the dollar shelf at the B. Dalton entrance), and since I wasn’t published, I obviously sucked.

Now, I am aware of the many levels of writers. There are shittier, more successful writers than me, and there are better, less successful writers than me.*** This is helpful because it gives me hope. It is unhelpful because it makes me jealous and I can witness firsthand the competition.

In 1993 my competition was sitting photocopied on a zine rack in an indie record shop, full of typos and sharpie drawings. Now? My competition seems a lot more formidable. I should just give up. What the fuck am I doing? What right have I to make my thoughts known? None, just an inexplicable desire to stand naked in front of humanity and scream my most disturbed thoughts. Which, in the end, is what writing is all about.


*I just calculated the actual amount: about 5 3/4 days. I don’t recommend trying to count to a million.
**One should not conclude from this statement that I am no longer idiotic. 
***Just kidding. No one’s less successful than me, shitty or not.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Torso Script

In the absence of time to create any wondrous new blog posts, I am posting the script of a mini-comic I did for an anthology, like a year ago. (No, this is not the most recent thing I wrote. I keep very busy writing new shit.) It was illustrated by the illustrious Ryan Kelly. Anyway, if you like it, see a preview of the art and/or buy the Side B Anthology here. Lots of other good shit in the book too. Enjoy.






By Kat Vapid





PANEL 1: Outside of dingy club, √† la Fireside Bowl or some shit. We see the sign: INSURRECTION ALLEY, and a brick building, maybe grain elevators or downtown in the distance. It’s snowing hard and the streets are lined with cars and outside are one or two punks smoking.

PANEL 2: close-up of flyer on door:

Friday, January 18, 2008






DOORS 8:00

MUSIC 9:00

18+ FUCKERS!!!!!!
smoking preffered

PANEL 3: Inside of club, maybe throw in some panels of the show winding down, people drinking, etc.

PANEL 4 Backstage. The Torsos have just played and are sitting around drinking. There are guitars, ripped flyers, all the usual trappings.
Band members are: Gina (lead), Jason, Max, Saul.

Gina swigs from her giant Newcastle bottle.

GINA: Fuck! I’m sorry, but we kicked ass!

PANEL 6: Rest of the band sitting around quietly, looking down.

MAX: You thought so? I fucked up during “Empty 40.”
I mean, the set was all right…

GINA: Waaayy better than 7th Street. More people, too. 


JASON (to Max, quietly): You gonna tell her, Max, or should I?

MAX: Uh….

GINA: Tell me what? You’re pregnant?

JASON (looking pissed): You’re out of the band.

GINA (jokingly): Oh, right. (drinks).

PANEL 4: <Maybe like a horizontal strip across the page?>
We see the three band members from Gina’s perspective; they are all stone-faced.

Gina’s face is in shock as she realizes they are serious.

GINA: Oh…you’re fuckin’ serious.

GINA: Well, who the fuck is gonna sing? I am the Torsos. I am the Torso.

JASON: Julianna, from AK-77.



GINA: Julianna? What the fuck, man? If I have an archenemy, it’s her! I mean, she’s talentless. She has no stage presence! Why her?

SAUL: She’s a good worker and she’s really nice.

GINA: Did you just say nice? I’m not sure how that’s relevant. I mean, I add so much to this band. All the reviews of our music, they all said I have a great voice.


JASON: Gina, you think you’re a good member of the band? You’re combative. And always drunk.

GINA: Combative? That’s the whole point of punk rock!

JASON: No, it’s about helping each other out and building an  alternative community.


GINA: Did you seriously just say that? All you care about is being featured in Punk Planet, in headlining at 7th Street. Community, give me a fuckin’ break.

JASON: You see? You don’t get along with anyone. You need to respect people more.


GINA (pointing to self): Stage. Presence!

PANEL 5       

JASON: I mean, you need to go somewhere and get your shit together.

GINA: You don’t make any fuckin’ sense. Do you wanna make kick-ass music, or do you wanna have a fuckin’ hippie love-in? Christ!


GINA: Max, are you on my side? Or you agree with this bullshit about me being combative?


MAX (not looking at Gina): Um…you can be – a little on the argumentative side. I mean, it’s not all bad, but…we all gotta work together in a band.

MAX: We all like you, Gina. It’s just – professional. You know.

GINA: All right, man. Fuck this.


Gina picks up her bag.
GINA: Enjoy your new fuckin’ lead singer.

PANEL 2 Large panel? Outside, Gina shown from behind and above as she trudges through the snow. As she walks away she mumbles to herself, lights cigarettes, drops shit from her bag, etc.)

GINA: …alternative community….combative….don’t make me fuckin’ laugh

GINA: …drunk……respect…get my shit together….fuckin’ bullshit.

PANEL 5 Gina sees exterior of bar that says:



GINA (smiling): Oooh…


PANEL 1: Interior of bar; Gina framed in the doorway, wind & snow whipping inside; it’s sort of a record-scratching moment, as the mouth-breathing locals turn to look at her.

PANEL 2: Guy is onstage singing
I got friends in low places, Where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases my blues away.

PANEL 3: GINA sits at table while guy sings in background:
I'm not big on social graces, think I'll slip on down to the oasis….


UNSMILING WAITRESS: What can I get you?

GINA: Surly Furious, please.


WAITRESS: We don’t have that.

GINA: Summit?


GINA: Grain Belt?


PANEL 6: Gina looks at karaoke book.

PANEL 7: Waitress sets beer on table.


PANEL 1: Gina sips.


KARAOKE GUY: Okay, folks, we got a newcomer comin’ on up here. Let’s welcome Gina to the stage!

PANEL 3: Onstage. Music is playing.

PANEL 4-5:

GINA (singing): My dream world tumbled to the gro-ho-hound….the one I love has let me down….

GINA: …Oh stop the world and let me oo-oo-ooff!

PANEL 6: Crowd cheering.

PANEL 7: Gina walks to table smiling.

KARAOKE GUY (unseen): Wow, great job by newbie Gina…okay, we got Judy comin’ back up here, Captain Ken is on deck, Mike’s in the hole…

PANEL 8: Gina sits at table and drinks beer contentedly.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

So Long, Ari Up

Oh, man. Ari Up is dead.

The Slits released their first album, "Cut," in 1979, when I was two years old. I didn't become aware of them until I was well into my teenage years, around the time Bikini Kill was busy revamping the Slits' influence. I heard Bikini Kill before I heard the Slits. I was floored when I first heard Kathleen Hanna screaming about issues as big as incest and as little as feeling awkward in a room full of guys. My God, that glorious screaming! You can do that? Sure, I had heard many of the great screams of rock, from James Brown (soul, whatever) to Axl Rose. But to hear girls screaming, and ferociously embracing the femininity of their screams: this, to me, was novel. This was something I could hope to replicate.

[I only mention the Slits and Bikini Kill together because, in my memory, they are nearly inextricable. A listen-to-the-Slits kind of day was always a listen-to-Bikini-Kill kind of day, and vice versa.]

I wasn't aware at first, listening to BK's horror-house shrieks, that they were following in Ari Up's footsteps, but I soon discovered the Slits as well, and fell in love with their sloppy blend of punk and reggae. The Slits were gleeful in their rebellion. Their political stance wasn't informed by hopelessness; they were subverting norms by the simple act of enjoying being anti-norm, of injecting fun into their music. Ari's scream on "Shoplifting" is not so much one of anger or despair but of pure joy at fucking things up in small ways. (A sentiment that Hanna reiterated over a decade later, when she sang about the "radical possibilities of pleasure.") You can improve your own situation in a series of moments; monolithic change is optional.

      10 quid for the lot/we paid fuck-all
      Babylonian won't lose much/and we'll have dinner tonight

Eventually, I joined a band myself and stood screaming before a crowd (usually, though not always, a sparse one), singing horrible lyrics about the worthlessness of money and religion, rolling around on stage, taunting the audience lovingly, getting taunted back, getting a drink tossed in my face at my last show by a guy who I then chased down the street, in heels, wielding a pool cue. It was never a way of life for me, but it was a way of capturing naked joy and reveling in a moment and loving the sweet scream of it all. Did the Slits make all that possible?

This morning I played the Slits' live album, "In the Beginning," at breakfast. My kids were dancing at the table even as they told me the music was too loud, and marveled over the screams: "This is crazy!" Ari Up continues to amaze even the prematurely jaded youth of the 21st century. So long, Ari Up.

Monday, October 18, 2010

No, I do not have the responsibility to be privy to the same set of facts that you are

The tweeter who chastised me for being unfunny is proving to be quite humorless himself. His latest tweet, which I'm sure was directed at me (apologies if it wasn't; I am pretty stupid, after all) referred to smart* people who think they "shouldn't have to know better." He also tweeted a link to the Postmodern Generator, presumably to prove that I was being unoriginal.

Seriously? That's all you've got? What is it you feel I should "have to know" about? You think I should be aware of some obscure website that had previously told the same joke I did? Are you actually faulting me for being unaware of a single website's existence?

If that is in fact what you're trying to say (that I should "have to know" the same set of facts that you do), well, that's an awfully hegemonic view of knowledge, and you should know better than to insist that my knowledge align exactly with yours.

If that is not what you're saying, and by saying that I should "know better" you are referring to something else, then tell me. Supposing I am stupid or ignorant (believe me, I do my best to not be willfully ignorant. Any ignorance on my part is due to lack of opportunity or experience, which you should not fault me for). Try to inform me. Try to enlighten me, instead of sitting there in front of your Blackberry and mocking me.

There are a million jokes without punchlines. Here's one, from the "The Rutles"; I think it's funny:

Listen, looking at it very simply musicology and ethnically, the Rutles were essentially Imperical maleonglece of a rhythmically radical yet verbally passé and temporally transcended lyrically content welded with historically innovative melodical material transposed and transmogrified by the ankus of the Rutland ethic experience which elevated them from essentially alpha exponents of in essence merely beta potential harmonic material into the prime cultural exponents of Aloin condensic comic standard form.

There's no punchline there, pal. Comedy can be a literary mode (read Northrop Frye) as well as a funny ha-ha moment.

Yeah, so my joke (or whatever it was, blank-faced satire, say) came 30 years too late. Woody Allen, in "Annie Hall," repeated jokes by both Groucho Marx and Freud, who died nearly 40 years before "Annie Hall" was made. And you know what? The jokes were still funny.**

As for your comment about my "excess hostility," um, dude? You are the one who tweeted a link to my blog and said it was unfunny. You started this shit; you tried to put a woman in her place for attempting comedy; I merely responded. I'm guessing you, too, would be pissed if someone linked to your blog, unprovoked, with a nasty comment next to it, simply over a disagreement about whether something was funny. And I can't help but feel that if a man had made a stupid joke on a little-traversed blog, you would have ignored it, rather than publicly mocked the person and condescendingly told him that he "should have known better."

I will continue to defend the right and the necessity to fuck up occasionally (fucking up includes making substandard jokes), as there is no human on earth who does not fuck up occasionally. 

God, this discussion of what is and is not funny is so fucking unfunny. I have to go watch Catherine Tate now.

*So, I am smart? Or am I not? Shall I take an IQ test to determine the matter once and for all? If you first referred to me as not that bright, and then later as smart, then you are guilty of the exact same thing you're accusing me of: making a mistake. This is a blog with a disclaimer at the top (it's for me); this is not a peer-reviewed journal.

**Your original response to my original post said that my joke "stopped being funny in 1997," indicating that it was at one time funny. If it was at one time funny, then whatever, you just happen to not like repetition, which many great comedians would disagree with. If it was never funny, then your quip about it not being funny was your own attempt at being funny/ironic, via a punchlineless joke, and you should have no problem with me attempting the same type of joke.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fuck What You Think You Know

I wrote a post a couple weeks ago about how you shouldn’t try to veer too far from what you know when you write. That contradicted an earlier post, in which I admitted I don't always know what the fuck I'm doing when I write (this is probably true most of the time).

Then some jerk on Twitter took umbrage at a completely stupid, humorous post I put up, throwing my own words back at me and implying he was more intelligent than me and I should just shut the fuck up because I’m unfunny and behind the times.

Dude, my posts are not meant to be erudite or enlightening. I see this blog as writing practice, a way of dumping out ideas I have without really thinking about them, before I move on to my real writing for the day. You know what I do when I think a blog is uninspiring, stupid, pompous, or boring? I close the window and find something that does interest me. I don’t waste my time berating people on Twitter who I think are less intelligent than me, unless they are Sarah Palin. That’s an asshole thing to do. And don’t assume that I don’t know anything about critical theory. It was my fucking major in college, though I admit I could never be as intimately knowledgeable about Derrida as you must be. Just because you get a hard-on from deconstructing Pynchon doesn’t mean you have to be all sensitive when I make a joke about theorists. It’s a fucking joke!* Since you’re a brilliant philosopher, I assume you’re acquainted with Henri Bergson, who referred to comedy as the “encrustation of the mechanical on the living.” If the passage I wrote, along with many of the artless academic articles written by some of Derrida’s acolytes, is not an example of mechanical encrustation, then fuck me, I’ll get out of the fucking comedy business, okay?** I admire Foucault and Lacan, but I’m against some of their humorless intellectual heirs who mistake obfuscation for good writing (and I think that the word “to-be-looked-at-ness” should never have been coined). And congratulations on never having made a mistake or said anything stupid in your life, Tesla.

Anyway, overreaction, sorry.

Back to my original point: I enjoy writing what I don’t know about. I get hopelessly bored writing about my own life or people who are like me. For the most part, I’ve led a boring life, except for a brief phase between the ages of 12-25 when I purposely sought out dangerous situations as a way of combating the stasis of my middle-class Midwestern upbringing. So, yeah, I write about things I've probably no right to. I just wrote a story that involves a professor I describe as “brilliant” – a big no-no, according to my own rules, but I hope the result is at least kind of funny. It’s not a story that will go anywhere, but it’s a departure, and thus something of a challenge. It’s play, which is fun and useful.

Children engage in productive play unthinkingly. This is the successor to babble: it seems to have no meaning, but it is incredibly useful. Children can’t learn to talk without babbling nonsense; they can’t learn how to work or interact without imaginative play. But when you watch them playing, it doesn’t always look like play: it doesn’t look like extreme fun. They are concentrating hard, trying to figure things out without even know that they’re trying to figure things out. 

A lot of us forget, as we grow up, how to engage in productive play, so we engage in unproductive play like drugs and alcohol. I'm not knocking substance use; I love drinking, I love wine, I love being a little buzzed (but no longer enjoy drunkenness as I once did), and as a committed introvert, I love getting that extra boost in social situations, but I doubt whether this is actually productive. I don’t remember the first time I was bored, but it was probably in school, where you sometimes got in trouble for getting too absorbed in things you enjoyed, like writing or drawing (my fifth grade teacher once dumped the contents of my desk – tons of stories and drawings – in the garbage. But sorry, filling out a worksheet on major explorers is fucking boring. I had better things to do). A lot of people settle into this boredom as a matter of course, and retain it through adulthood. I haven’t experienced boredom in years. This is mostly a function of having children, but also of having a passion. When I do have free moments, I spend them writing. And I alleviate what can sometimes be a tedious process by playing as I write, forgetting what I don’t know and bullshitting my way through it. The end result may not be sexy, but I do learn from the process. Maybe. 

When I was learning Spanish, so many of the students were so afraid of making mistakes that they rarely spoke in class. The students who were willing to display their substandard Spanish frequently and brazenly, substituting words when they didn’t know the correct one, were the ones who actually improved. It’s the same with many subjects. You have to fuck up.

So, fuck what you know. Making mistakes is the only way to learn. And go ahead and contradict yourself. Only assholes are paying attention.


*Edward de Bono says jokes are only funny the first time, so I’m sorry I rehashed a joke whose form you were familiar with; I apologize that your sense of humor is obviously much more sophisticated than mine. I, on the other hand, watch Woody Allen movies and Laurel and Hardy over and over again, and appreciate their comedy every time; I laugh in anticipation of familiar jokes.
**This was a joke.*** I’m not in the comedy business, I’m an unknown nobody who writes a blog that gets 10 or fewer hits a day. Live up to your critical theory tenets and go taunt somebody in power.
***Was my joke an example of what Baudelaire called intersubjective comedy? Paul De Man described this form as being based on the “superiority of one subject over another, with all the implications of will to power, of violence, and possession which come into play when a person is laughing at someone else.” Was I in fact laughing at someone else’s superiority? Or was it an example of comique absolu, the ironic form of comedy, wherein the subject relates not to others on a hierarchical scale, but back to itself? The moment of irony creates a duality within the subject, which invites a momentary self-reflection that makes apparent the faultiness of a subject’s former relationship to and conception of itself.****
****God, I’m an asshole.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Phallogocentric Aesthetics and the Non-Oppressed Status of the Signified in Pre-Post-20th Century Art: A Deconstructionist Non-Propositional Critique

[Note: This is a sample from a paper I'm working on, to be submitted to an academic journal that addresses Critical Theory and Cultural Studies. In the paper, I discuss a well-known but unnamed work of art, for to name something is to own it, control it, and thereby ultimately destroy it.]

The female subject is here depicted as an inanimate object, albeit with an appendage that is decidedly phallic.  In Lacanian terms, this is the semiotic prerequisite for acquiring agency present in the androgynistic globularism of conception, lost the moment this wholeness of structuristic recompensation partakes of phallogocentric sexualistic castrative division while yet residing in the womb.  This duplistic lack severs its consciousness from the (in Cixousesque terminology) cathected simulacra of the societalized fissure operating as a real mode of operationalization in the patriarchalized schema of pseudorealist imaginary temptationificationalism, suppressing the biologistically phony, yet ideally “real,” (in Foucaultian terminologification), in order to reintegrate the ambisexual vulva within the electronicated parameters of spiralized ineffectual lesbianism that is the functional equivalent to, or at least repressed rebellionizationisimity for, the acted telephonic unified totalitarian condition of the 20th-century fullness of lubrification of the secondary fragmentellated, but as yet “un”-recastrated, clitoris.  Clearly, this indicates that the body itself is a social construct.

I need more graphics

I need more graphics on here. No, fuck it. I can't deal with that shit right now.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Without Your Love and Affection: The Untold Story of Nelson

This is a scene from a film script I'm writing. It's an epic biopic of the legendary band Nelson. This scene comes close to the end, just before they embark on their 5th comeback tour.

SCENE: A basement rec room, ca. 1998. Matthew is sitting in his beanbag chair, playing Sonic the Hedgehog 3. Gunnar descends the stairs, his purple leisure coat swinging as he walks.

MATTHEW: Hey, bro.

GUNNAR: What’s up, man?

MATTHEW (swooping his majestic locks to one side): I made it to Launch Base Zone.

GUNNAR: Sweet.

[They are silent. As he plays, Matthew flips his hair back and forth several more times. Finally, he sighs, and puts down his control. He faces Gunnar.]

MATTHEW: What’s goin’ on, Gunnar? You’ve been weird lately, man.

GUNNAR [sighs heavily]: Nothin’.

MATTHEW: Listen. You’re my identical twin brother. Now, I know when something’s up. You’ve been sitting down here for almost three whole minutes, and you haven’t once flipped, shook, or tossed your hair. Hell, you haven’t even finger-combed it! It’s like you’re not even present in your hair. What’s the deal, man? You can tell me.

GUNNAR: Look, Matthew. I know we have these signature flowing hairdos. But lately…I don’t know, it’s like I’m getting sick of having a yak coat on my head. The hair is losing the magic.

MATTHEW: Gunnar! My God! How could you say such a thing?

GUNNAR: I’m sorry, man. I can’t explain it. It just doesn’t feel like me anymore.

MATTHEW: Gunnar, have you been doing drugs?

GUNNAR [stands, frustrated]: No, of course not!

MATTHEW [sighs; scratches his left knee through his ripped stonewashed jeans, deep in thought]: I'm going to try to be understanding. It’s a phase you’re going through. Everyone goes through existential periods. That’s part of growing up. Hell, that’s part of being human.

GUNNAR: Ah, Mattie, you always were the wise one.  

MATTHEW: I think it was Socrates who said: “The unexamined hair is not worth growing.”

GUNNAR: That’s so true.

MATTHEW: It’s only natural to question whether you’re worthy of such breathtaking coifdom. But listen to me, Gunnar. Look me in the eyes. You. Are. Worthy.

[GUNNAR bursts into tears. They embrace.]

MATTHEW: It’s okay, brother. It’s gonna be all right.

[They pull away. Gunnar wipes his eyes.]

GUNNAR: Mattie, I don’t doubt that you’re right. And what you’re saying resonates with me. I’m not making this decision lightly, but –

MATTHEW: Gunnar, no!

GUNNAR: I’ve already made up my mind. I’m cutting the hair.


Friday, October 8, 2010

How to Write, Part III: 6 big things that annoy the shit out of me

You, of course, will have already read my earlier post about the Venial (sentence-level) Sins of writing. I now present to you the Mortal (story-level) Sins.

1. Writing only what you know and everything that you know

Poorer writers often explain away their incoherent plot/ending/character with this justification: “It’s a true story!” That may be, but it’s also a true story that I did a crossword on the toilet today and then cleaned hair out of the sink, but that doesn’t make it a story worth telling. 

Alfred Hitchcock said: "Drama is real life with the dull parts removed." It really doesn’t matter if something’s true: is it interesting? Does it make sense? Does it evoke an emotion or a feeling or a memory? Are the elements arranged in a chronologically interesting way? Is it at least funny? (Humorous pieces can sometimes get away without really making a big point.) If you are writing nonfiction, think of yourself as a curator, culling the most interesting specimens from your own or someone else’s life. You still have a viewpoint to promote, even if it is a factual account like a presidential biography (wake me when it’s done).

I think of all writing as being part of a fictive continuum. On one end, you have pure nonfiction: a transcript of a conversation, perhaps, or a timeline of Tudor genealogy. Writing is arranging those facts into a narrative. As you move further down the fiction end, you get into realistic fiction: fiction that still references real events, or, if you’re “edgy,” brand names. Then you get into science fiction and fantasy, and so on, until you’re writing in an invented language and no one wants to read it.

Fiction is manipulation, tomfoolery, and regular foolery. Please, wow me with your Machiavellian antics, not the true story of the seat fabric on your 24-hour flight to Sydney.

2. Writing above your intelligence level.

Don’t try to sound smarter than you actually are. Because people smarter than you will see that you are faking. This is sort of the corollary to #1: Don’t write everything you know, but definitely don’t write what you don’t know at all. Write about the amount you know or can research. Tough balance, I know.

Say you got a D in trig, but you want to write an experimental novel where every character is a trigonometric function. Well, you should first question the worth of your own existence. Then you should give up writing. Okay, let’s try another example. If you speak only English, it is best not to attempt a saga entirely in Medieval Faroese. Start with Pig Latin, and work your way up.

3. Withholding pointless information.

Somebody’s name is pointless information. Waiting until the end to reveal it does no one any good. Same for someone’s race, physical abilities, age, even species (yeah, I’ve seen this last one, unfortunately). Unless the withholding of information is integral to the plot in some way (names are incidental to plot), give it to us up front. Inception was an interesting movie because we knew right away that the characters were dreaming. This was part of the plot, not a cop-out.

Now, obviously, if you’re a mystery writer, you may want to withhold, say, the identity of the killer. And matters of why are a little easier to withhold, because they lead the reader to question, which leads them to want to keep reading: Why is the dentist so bitter? Why has the orphanage gymnasium been locked since 1938? Why does the Chicago tap water supply suddenly taste like buckwheat blini? Why is post-structuralist theory still considered worthy of serious inquiry in some universities?

The same can be said for how questions, since the bulk of your story is likely to be dedicated to matters of how. Questions of who, what, when, and where, however, should probably be addressed pretty quickly. It won’t benefit anyone if you’ve been writing in a contemporary style and then tell us in the last paragraph: “Hey, the characters are actually living in 1812! Doesn’t that change everything?” No. It doesn’t. It’s still a dumb story. 

Withholding simple matters of fact doesn’t lead the reader to ask interesting questions; it simply leads to confusion.

4. Characters that don’t strive for anything.

Don’t take it from me, take it from Mr. Vonnegut; “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” [I might disagree with the good gentleman just a bit: I don’t think one man’s search for a glass of water would make a compelling novel. A poem, perhaps, in the vein of William Carlos Williams.] In order to identify with a character, we have to identify with their wants. Unless you are a cyborg or a Judd Apatow character, we all strive every moment of our lives. Striving is the basis for conflict, and conflict is the basis for fiction. Without striving, you have postmodernism. Postmodernism is boring. [Note: Striving may include the desire to not strive.]

5. Flawless characters

Flawlessness is dull at best, jealous rage-inducing at worst. I want someone I can relate to, and I am so deep in flaws I may drown in them. Even if you are writing about your beloved great-aunt who was perfect in every way, and who raised you after your parents perished in a tragic cockfighting accident, I don’t really want to know about her. A character must be lacking in some way so that s/he can either improve or fail or, at the very least, have something happen. Fiction, after all, is conflict. Perfection is the absence of conflict.

6. Lack of a consistent voice.

This can take on many forms, from inconsistent usage of slang or dialect,* to mixed metaphors, to a limited POV first-person narrator who suddenly reports on another character’s thoughts. These are not always easy to spot.

Here’s a real-life example:
As the soles of my shoes hit the soft ground, I pushed past the cottonwood trees in a euphoric cadence and meandered through the willow branches that the moose munched on.
This delightfully awful sentence was written by Lynn Vincent, author of Sarah Palin’s autobiography. There are so many conflicting images and weird states of observation that it puts Rod McKuen to shame. Which came first, the meander or the cadence? Pushed past the cottonwood trees? Who pushes past trees? How close together were they? Instead of that weird thing involving shoes and soles, can't you just say, "As I walked..."? We all know what walking entails.

Voice is the hardest to get right. It's very intuitive. The best advice I can give is to shut up, listen to voices around you (preferably the ones uttered by non-imaginary people), pay close attention to what you read.

Which leads me to:

The above 6 Things can all be avoided if you follow two cardinal rules of good writing:

1. Pay attention
2. Pay deeper attention

I could've said that at the outset and avoided all this trouble.


*Nonstandard dialects can be appropriate if the author is very familiar with the dialect. The dialect should probably be your first language or damn close. For dialog, it’s usually safe, but again, make sure you are using the nonstandard dialect correctly. Please, don’t make a Jamaican character say, “Me a go niam because I’m a trifle famished.”

Monday, October 4, 2010

Why Write What You Know?

Lookit! It's been over a week since I posted! And here I was sure the blog would last three months.

Here's the thing. I'm a very slow writer. I sabotage myself. Like, now, I'm writing a story about a woman who works in a university lab developing nanotechnology for AI. Trouble is, I know nothing about nanotechnology, or science, or how, say, levers work. I'm not a complete ignoramus: I understand that alleles and chromosomes exist, but I'm not sure what the difference is. And I know that the universe is, like, really fuckin' huge, and that if you have to ask what quantum theory is, you'll never know, and that Pluto has been demoted to a dwarf planet (I'm reminded of this last fact frequently by my 4-year-old son Harold, who is fond of saying, "Pluto's stupid. It isn't even a planet anymore.") My knowledge kind of disintegrates right at that point. My 10-year-old cousin asked me for help with her math homework last week, and to avoid embarrassing myself, I feigned an aneurysm.

Why do I do this to myself? It wasn't supposed to be a sci-fi-y story. I was kind of just sick of writing about characters that were vaguely malaise-ridden artists or maltreated baristas. I find I become more involved with a story if I write about something novel (to me): writing about a male protagonist, or a criminal, or someone who has never left the county they were born in, or a Taylor Swift fan, are all ways to sustain my interest. Also, I am full of self-hatred, so whenever I create a protagonist who is like me, I end up making her horribly unlikable.

So I have days, perhaps weeks, of research ahead of me. I'm learning about some very interesting things. Like the invention of the world's first artificial (rat) hippocampus. How did I not know about this? (Well, it happened right around the time my first son was born, so you can forgive me for not keeping abreast of developments in biomedical engineering.) And about the likelihood of Super Artificial Intelligence. For some time I've been vaguely aware of these people who are convinced that the Singularity is real and coming soon to a planet near you, but now I'm more familiar with them than I might like to be.* Kind of mindblowing. However, "bullshit," says the biologist P. Z. Myers. We have, after all, no idea how the brain works, and no reason to believe we will understand it well enough any time soon to bring about a truly intelligent computer. (For now, I will remain a spectator in the debate.)

Anyway, the truism that The More You Know, The More You Realize How Much You Don't Know, is, uh....well, true. Each element of the story I tweak in accordance with my newfound knowledge means I must tweak some other part, which means I must conduct further research, tweak a different part, etc., etc. It's sort of like when you add too much salt to a dish (let's pretend we're dealing with pasta), so then you add more pasta, then you don't have enough sauce, so you make a bit more sauce, and then it's way too saucy and you're sick of dealing with it anyway.

Oh, well. Serve it with bread to soak up the sauce. Hide the fact that you don't know what you're doing. It's only writing.

Good day.

*And then there's this insanity. Don't click on the link if you're eating.