Category Archives: Ramble

On Writing Advice and Whether It’s Bulls***


I write a lot.

(Well, that’s relative. But let’s roll with it.)

And when I’m not using my writing time for writing, I’m often using it to browse writers’ websites or writing hashtags on Twitter. In that endeavor, I read a lot of writing advice. On Twitter especially, I read a lot of responses to said writing advice. And there’s a movement, particularly visible on writer Twitter (but present everywhere), that says all advice on writing is BS. Do what you want, write how you want, whatever you’re writing is all good and a-okay.

And maybe that’s appealing to a certain sort, I can see that. In our post-truth world, authority and expertise are dead, and the opinion of any schmuck with a cell phone and a Twitter handle can gain as much traction as that of a Pulitzer-prize winning, New York Times Bestselling author. And the thought that anybody can do whatever they want, be whatever they want, is certainly in vogue right now.

It feels good to flip the middle finger at the people telling you all the things you can’t do.

And I’ve certainly been guilty of a bit of that middle-finger-flipping myself from time to time. Heck, it’s a core belief of mine that nobody knows what the hell they’re doing, that we’re all making it up as we go. Sure, we pretend to be experts. But none of us really knows anything. Just ask any parent. Nobody knows a damned thing. We’re all stitching our own parachutes as the ground rushes up to meet us.

But when it comes to craft? Sometimes the people who have been there actually know what they’re talking about.

I know. Hard to believe. And not very millenial-mindset of me. But it has to be worth considering — doesn’t it? — that the people with publishing credits, to say nothing of accolades, to their names might, maybe, if viewed in a certain light, know what they’re talking about?

Take the perennial conversation around adverbs. Popularized, possibly immortalized, by none less than Stephen King:

Image result for stephen king adverbs

Bloody avoid them, in other words. But this admonition is the source of endless strife in the writing community. Why? Because we love our adverbs. Tenderly, gently, softly, the way perhaps we love a pastrami-on-rye late at night. Look at that, three adverbs in a single sentence! Use all the adverbs you want, says the anti-advice crowd. Who the hell is Stephen King to tell you how to write your masterpiece?

Well, among other things, he’s a literary giant with scores of books and dozens of film credits to his name. Is he right? Is he wrong? Bugger all if I know, but he seems to be doing something right.

No prologues, says another writing “rule”. Why? Because a prologue introduces actions and locations and whatever else that may not be central to the story you plan to tell. Prologues are a distraction, a diversion, a spinning of the wheels when what we really want is to dive right into the story world.

Hell with that, crows the anti-advice mob. Write all the prologues you want to. Hell, have two prologues. Have a prologue to the prologue, why the hell not? It’s your story, do it your way.

This is massively empowering to the author just starting out. Especially, if I may say it, if they are of a mind to include a prologue in their work. Or gobs and gobs of adverbs.

Oxford comma, yay or nay? Which POV is best? Write every day or only when the mood strikes you? Outline the entire work or make it up as you go? There are as many rules and variations on rules as there are writers, and when you combine all the permutations — this one does it this way in this situation, that way in this other situation — then the variations of what “works” might as well be endless.

And for as much as the writing community argues for one way over another, you’ll find as many outspoken critics arguing the other way.

There are no rules. Write your story your way.

It’s all so alluring, innit? Taken to its rational conclusion, whether you follow every rule to the letter or you throw every rule out the window and blaze your own trail through the fire and flames, you’re a winner.

And on the one hand, I’m very much for that. If you have a story to tell, then by science, tell that bloody story.

But.

If your stories are to be anything more than your own musings into the void — your own pile of electric documents moldering on your own hard drive — then I humbly suggest that you take the voices of the dissenters, of the eff the rules, do it your way crowd, with a grain of salt.

But Pav, I hear you cry, if we adhere mindlessly to the roles set down by our forebears, how shall we innovate? How shall we craft our own paths?

A fair question.

Consider driving, for those of you who drive.

When you got your license, you started with that little booklet that contained all the rules of the road. All the variations of traffic lights and traffic signs, all the on-the-road situations that might come up. You studied them, internalized them, took a test, and forgot all about them. These days, you know what’s safe, you know what will get you legally from point A to point B, and you know how to bend the rules when your situation calls for it.

But you wouldn’t throw that manual out the window. You wouldn’t just decide, flip what my forebears said, I’m driving on the left side of the road from now on because that’s how I choose to do it. I mean, I guess you could. But you’d be arrested or dead very, very soon.

And you break the “rules” of writing at your own peril. Death may not be on the line, but readability certainly is.

Does this mean we must subscribe to the tyranny of what the masses cry for, what the gatekeepers demand?

Well, if we want our work to reach people, to find success? It kinda does.

It doesn’t mean we have to like it. Fifty Shades of Grey was a bestseller. That doesn’t mean we have to hold it up as the gold standard of literature. But we have to recognize that, maybe, it did something right. Ditto for Twilight or Divergent or whatever other series you think was hacky and awful. Fact is, something in those works appealed to the masses. Was it right that they were appealing in whatever way? Who knows? Who cares? It is what it is.

This is where we bump up against the real world the way everything does eventually. Incidentally, this is why we get frustrated politically, and religiously, and any other -ly you can think of. Writers get frustrated because the world we live in perhaps isn’t the world we feel it should be. Vampire fanfiction shouldn’t, we feel, top the NYT bestseller list. And maybe in a cosmic sense, it shouldn’t!

But it did. We live in a universe where some truly awful writing reaches the pinnacles of success.

Does that mean that we shouldn’t write our own stories based on whatever rules we want?

Of course not! You want to write your story using an adverb in every single sentence, then you write that story. Prologues? Write five of them. Flashbacks? Have one every single time a character opens their mouth. Oxford comma? Use them at random. Throw the rule books out the window, but not before you’ve torn them to pieces, thrown the pieces into an oven, and detonated the oven in a supervolcano as a meteor strikes from the heavens.

You are a beautiful snowflake, and so is your story. And if telling that story means breaking every rule in the book, then by all means, break the rules. Every single one of them. Commit your own personal holocaust on all the so-called rules of writing.

But don’t expect anybody to read or enjoy your story.

We have the right, as storytellers, to tell our stories however the hell we want to. Rules and preconceived notions about storytelling be damned.

But our audiences are under no obligation to accept those stories, and we would do well to remember that.

Rules are there for breaking, no doubt. But the fact is, we have to understand the way the rules work together, we have to know what it is we’re rebelling against if we want to rebel effectively.

TL;DR, we have to think. Creatively, critically. If we’re going to break these “rules”, we need to be doing it for a good reason, and not just for the sake of breaking rules.

Authority and expertise may be dead, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them.

Go forth and write your stories. But maybe assimilate a little bit of knowledge from the people who have gone before you along the way.

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The Hideout Needs a Name


I don’t usually do this, but I was editing and adding a much-needed section to my novel-in-progress and enjoyed it so much I just thought I’d post it. (Incidentally, it allows me to update the site and prove that I’m not just wasting time over here. Well… not all the time, anyway.)

It may not make the cut in the final version, but it was fun to write, and, you know, sometimes that matters.

This passage inspired by the replies to a question I asked on Twitter.

“This place really needs a name,” Dina says.
Linc peeks out around the potted ficus he’s managing. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s lame to just go on calling it ‘the hideout’ or ‘the lab’ or whatever you’ve been calling it. You’re a proper villain now. You need a name for your place. You know. Fortress of Solitude, or whatever. But for bad guys.”
“That’s stupid.”
“No, it’s practical.” Tonya sets the couch down in the corner, blinks to the fridge for a soda, and blinks right back onto the couch, kicking her feet up over the armrest. “Besides, I agree. So that’s two to one. We gotta name it.”
Dina shuffles off to the kitchen herself, kicking her shoes off on the way. “Two to one.”
Linc wants to point out to them that this isn’t a democracy, to remind them that this place is his, that Vector is his, that the plan to bring the Academy low is his, but it doesn’t seem worth it. “What do you have in mind, then?”
“You’re a nerd, so it’s gotta be nerdy sounding, you know? Strike fear into the hearts of everybody with an IQ below 150. Something like … The Motherboard.” Dina tosses Linc a soda. He fumbles it before catching it by his knees.
“Why The Motherboard?”
“Because it’s where we keep our chips.” Dina rattles a bag of tortilla chips at him before gashing the bag with her ring and spreading a thick layer of chips on a plate.
“That’s terrible.”
“I kinda like it,” Tonya says. “It’s got some kind of ring to it.”
“Nope. The two of you can vote to name it, that’s fine, but I’m holding out veto power over the name. We’re not calling it The Motherboard.”
Dina has sprinkled cheese over the chips and tosses the plate into the microwave (stolen, along with the 70-inch television, from a Best Buy a few hours away). “That’s okay. I got a bunch of ideas. How about The WreckTangle?”
“The Rectangle?”
“No, the WreckTangle. As in, Wrecked Angle. Get it? Because math, right? Plus, you know. Get wrecked.”
“Nice.” Tonya lifts her soda can in salute.
“I dunno.” Linc leans against the counter, scanning the bank of monitors for news, or updates. Vector’s display shows the robot cheerfully making rounds on the mountainside.
“I got one,” Tonya says. “The Trapezoid.”
“I don’t —”
“Ooh, I like that.” Dina flings the microwave open for her plate of nachos.
“Right? Because it’s a trap. Plus…” Tonya glances around. This sounded cleverer in her mind. “Plus it’s got that z in there. That’s cool.”
“There’s nothing in here that’s even trapezoid-shaped,” Linc points out. “And by the way, I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me what a trapezoid is.”
“I don’t know that.” Tonya crumples her can in one hand and tosses it at Linc. “Who even needs to know that after high school? Or in it, for that matter?”
“If you’re going to call your hideout The Trapezoid, you should at least know what a Trapezoid is.”
“It’s your hideout, not mine, damn!”
Dina raises her voice around a mouthful of nachos. “Vector, what’s a trapezoid?”
Vector’s screen types out an immediate response.
Trapezoid: a four-sided shape with only one pair of parallel sides.
“That. It’s that,” Dina says, pointing. “You owe me a dollar.”
“That doesn’t count.”

nicolas cage shrug GIF

Birthdays Don’t Matter After 21


It’s my birthday today, so naturally I spent the morning getting my gums gouged at with shiny metal implements.

The best part of turning 39, I’m fairly convinced, is that I’m not turning 40.

Lots of writing going on lately, just not as much blogging. But I’ve got a good post coming soon.

Thanks to all the readers out there.


The Dawdle


She wanted to write a story, so she sat down at her desk to do just that.

“I can’t possibly write without the right tools,” she thought, although she had an entire desk full of pens and pencils. (Just not the right ones.)

So she loaded up her car and her cash and went to the store to buy pens and pencils and new-and-improved ink that were just right for this story and special paper made in the tradition of ancient Egyptian papyrus which wasn’t particularly relevant to her story but the thought of which appealed to her mightily. These things she took home and, just to test them out, wrote her grocery list upon them, and they were as lovely as she had hoped. So she sat down to write.

But the temperature in the room was a little bit stuffy.

“I can’t possibly write in these conditions,” she said. “What if I begin to sweat? And the sweat drips upon the paper and the ink, so carefully picked out and perfect for my purpose, smears, leaving what I’ve written unreadable?”

So she got up to adjust the thermostat. As she did, she happened to glance out the window and see the weather. Delightful! Sunny and breezy and oh-so-inviting.

“Actually,” she said, “It would be such a treat to sit outside, surrounded by nature, to feel the breeze upon my skin and the sun upon my face. Such things would surely bring me even greater inspiration and make my story that much more perfect.”

So she gathered her belongings, her new pens and perfect paper, went to the front porch, and there sat down to write her story. But as she sat, she found that the outside was not at all like the comforts of her writing desk, and was perhaps not suited to the task at all. There was no place to rest her special paper except for her lap, which she felt was not the most conducive position for writing, and her pens, when they were not in use (which was often), tended to roll off her leg and clatter upon the woodwork with a noise not at all restive to her ears.

For that matter, come to think of it, while the sun did feel nice at first, it made her uncomfortable after a time, and she found herself wishing for shade. The breeze, when it blew, alleviated this, but also whisked her pages away, so that she had to chase them into the yard and down the street.

Also, there were bugs, which were not especially helpful to her practice. So she went back inside.

As she sat back down at her comfy, perfect desk, though, she made another unhappy discovery: the thermostat, previously adjusted, had cooled the room rather too much. She adjusted it again, and was again distracted by the lovely weather outside, even though she knew it hadn’t worked out well previously.

The temperature fully suited to her creative needs, she sat down, finally, to write. But there was something else.

“What if I get thirsty?” she wondered. Truly, it would be a shame to begin her task only to be interrupted by a minor physiological annoyance. Luckily, she had an entire assortment of heated caffeinated beverages to alleviate this problem. She spent the next twenty minutes brewing the perfect cup and waiting for it to reach the perfect temperature.

At long last, it was well and truly time to write. She sat down, sipped her heated beverage.

Unfortunately, she could think of nothing to write.

“What I need,” she said to herself, “is some inspiration.”

So she set aside the story she had not yet begun to write and went in search of other stories. She started with a book she hadn’t yet finished, working her way through a few chapters. She then moved on to an old favorite film whose concepts and themes had always intrigued her. True, she’d seen it before, but a fresh viewing was sure to send up some creative sparks. Then, finally, to a TV show which she didn’t have a particular personal interest in, but she had heard good things.

Fully saturated with inspirational material, she returned to her chair. But by now, the sun had gone down.

“This will never do, the light is not quite right,” she moaned. She adjusted the lamp so that the light fell, not so much directly upon her and her work, but rather against the wall, sort of splashing down almost by accident across her desk, and this, she felt, set the right ambient mood, and she was pleased.

“Well, the light is right,” she thought, sitting down once more, “but the silence is positively unnerving.”

She turned on the radio, but the music and the lyrics soon distracted her; what she needed was the right music, so she began to search and search, curating just the right playlist to suit the ups and downs and dramatic swells for the story she was now sure to write.

The playlist was 78 hours long, which she felt might be a bit excessive, but she could always audit it later.

Everything was, now, finally, and without exception, perfect.

She sat at her desk. She drew back her sleeves. She grasped her pen. She checked her watch.

Good heavens.

Well, it had been a good effort, but it was simply too late to write tonight.

“I’ll try again tomorrow,” she said, laying her pen down on her blank pages and turning off the lamp.

Image by Voltamax at Pixabay.com.


On Mindfulness and Depression (or, a Superpower You Didn’t Know You Had)


So here’s a dirty little secret: I’m off my meds, and have been for several weeks now. I didn’t go off lightly, and I didn’t go off without a plan, but from the moment I started taking meds I planned to go off them. And though I accept that I may, in fact, need the brain pills for the rest of my life, I don’t want to need them, and want to give myself a chance at being normal without them. Which is to say that going off them is a thing I view as an experiment, more than a man-I’m-glad-that’s-over step into a new chapter.

Several weeks in, though, I’ve met my first challenge: last night, for whatever reason, I felt the chasm yawning open beneath my feet, felt the old familiar monster beckoning me into the dark. True to form, I couldn’t point to what was causing it; I was fine one moment and overcome the next, the way a shadow slips, without notice, into existence when the clouds part and the sun shines down. Maybe it was the novel work I’d failed to get done over the last few days (even though my days of late have been extremely productive). Maybe it was the episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale we’ve been watching, poisoning my thoughts and my outlook. (Good TV, but man is it bleak.) Who knows.

Point is, the anxiety / depression / spiritual dread was there, unmistakably so, and I felt its pull. Walked right up to the edge, peered down into the dark, saw it there. Not terrifying, not menacing, just dark and vast and empty, like the ocean at night. And the messed up thing? I wanted to dive in.

Here’s where I need a detour.

One of my fascinations (I know, I know, add it to the list) of the last couple of years has been mindfulness. And it’s one of those fascinations where, like, I admire it at a distance, the way you admired your first crush from across the lunchroom but never actually had any plan for approaching them, let alone speaking to them. I haven’t done any real reading on mindfulness specifically, in other words, only brushed up against it in passing, thought “wow, that looks awesome, I should learn more about it,” and moved on knowing just enough to get me into trouble (as I do with so many other things in this life).

What I know about it is this: mindfulness is a superpower. And I say that not to exaggerate and overstate but to communicate how powerful it actually seems to be.

To fully explain THAT, I need another detour.

A fact of this life is: we’re ruled by our emotions. Mark Manson’s Everything is F*cked details this a lot better than I can, but essentially we have two brains: the rational brain and the emotional brain. We like to think that the rational brain drives the bus, but it doesn’t. Our emotional side drives, and it sometimes allows itself to be influenced by the rational side.

Think about the last time you were angry, and said or did something offhanded or rude to somebody you care about. Was that you doing or saying the awful thing? Well, yes, but it certainly wasn’t a rational, clearly thinking you. The rational, clearly thinking part of you knows that the things you do have consequences, and it will keep you from doing those things that have unfortunate consequences. Like shouting at your loved one. You wouldn’t do that normally, but you were angry, and it just came out. The Pixar film Inside Out represents this pretty clearly, come to think of it. The little girl’s emotions take turns behind the steering wheel, and when Anger or Sadness is driving, well, she acts accordingly. (For that matter, Intellect and Rationality are characters not appearing in Inside Out. Pixar is cleverer than we even realized.)

Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling in Inside Out (2015)
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that these characters are property of Pixar, not of me.

Detour within detour over, let’s circle back to mindfulness-as-superpower. Mindfulness, as I understand it (and let me fully disclaim once again that I’m not an expert and don’t fully understand it), is simply the ongoing practice of examining what’s in your own head. Not trying to “fix” what’s in there, just noticing it. Moment to moment, turn a magnifying glass inward, see what’s in there.

Consider: A Jerk cuts you off in traffic, your blood pressure rises, maybe you pound the steering wheel or wave your hands at said jerk in socially unacceptable gestures, probably a few words come out of your mouth that wouldn’t come out in front of, say, your grandmother. Mindfulness says, pause, examine. That’s anger, your thinking brain will tell you. Anger is currently driving your bus.

Or: You’re at work, plugging away at a project you’re behind on, and a friend pops in, invites you to lunch. “I don’t have time,” you snap, probably more forcefully than you should, and the friend skulks away, and maybe you feel worse. If you can force yourself to be mindful in this moment, you do the pause and examine thing. That’s frustration, you realize. You’re snapping at your friend because you’re frustrated about work. Frustration is driving your bus.

Needless to say, the practice is difficult, especially when you need it most. But here’s why it’s worth practicing it (and why I am practicing it — in fits and starts and with various levels of success, but still, that’s why they call it “practice”): because emotions are no more material than fog, than a shadow, than the stinky aroma of last night’s leftovers that you forgot to put in the refrigerator. (Let’s just stick with the shadow metaphor.) The moment you turn a light on a shadow, it disappears. It simply evaporates; it cannot exist where there is light. Emotions do the same thing when faced with the harsh light of rationality.

What that means — and what I’ve experienced — is that the realization that emotion is in the driver’s seat kicks emotion out of the driver’s seat. The moment you can notice, when the jerk cuts you off in traffic, this is anger, you’re angry and that’s why you’re shouting and swearing, it suddenly feels very silly to continue shouting and swearing. Turn the floodlamp of mindfulness on the shadow of anger (or frustration, or disappointment, or whatever), and the shadow boils away. It may not fix the injustice — you still got cut off, after all — but it puts control back in your hands.

This is the superpower. If you don’t have to be ruled by your emotions in a world where everybody is ruled by their emotions, then you can act with a clarity that is denied to most people most of the time. You can literally change the way you feel just by noticing you’re feeling a way that you really rather wouldn’t.

For a bit more reference, Sam Harris also has a lot to say about this topic, though I couldn’t point you to any one particular clip or passage in particular. But this one looks good:

And here’s where we close the loop and I bring us all the way back (finally!) to myself, last night, standing on the edge of that cliff, feeling the pull of those depressive impulses, or if you like, feeling myself sliding down a crumbling dirt hillside toward the crevasse. Not thinking about the fact that I’m off my meds and that may be playing a role, not analyzing why I felt so crummy, just feeling bad and, perversely, thinking it was probably going to get worse, so why fight it?

Then: mindfulness.

This is depression, said the voice of rationality. For whatever reason, you’re feeling like sh*t. Depression is driving the bus right now. And, poof. I didn’t magically feel better, but the spiral stopped. I stepped back from the edge, I stopped sliding down the hillside. And I went to sleep thinking that was weird, I wonder what brought that on instead of thinking I feel sh*tty and everything is sh*tty and tomorrow’s probably gonna feel sh*tty too.

And I feel good this morning. Not great. I can still feel last night’s funk around the edges, but depression is not driving my bus. Restlessness is, a little bit, because I’d love to get out and do something but it’s too flipping hot. But so is contentedness, because I didn’t let myself fall into the abyss, and instead I’m writing (always a good thing) and my kids are on the sofa watching a movie together and being adorable, and I’m happy to let that feeling drive the bus for a while.

Mindfulness isn’t a cure-all. For depression especially, when you’re in the abyss, thinking isn’t gonna save you. But for the day-to-day struggles, when you feel yourself sliding? Mindfulness really is a superpower.


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