Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Changing your voice

Voice is often described as one of the most elusive, most important qualities for writers to nail down. It's the stylistic thumbprint that sets us apart from one another, and it's often a big part of what makes the best writers so enjoyable to read.

One journalist's story of changing her speaking voice has a few lessons for those of us developing our writing voices.

Jessica Grose writes in the New York Times about her experiences trying to change the way she's perceived by changing her voice. For years, she says, she was assumed to be younger and less experienced because of the way she talked. She spoke with a rising inflection and what was described to her as "a sing-songy quality." Those traits, combined with the frequent use of filler words, garnered criticism from podcast listeners who wrote her off as young, fake, and unprofessional.

Then, she tried to nix these habits. She stopped receiving questions about her age, but she also stopped feeling authentic, and she stopped receiving the uninhibited responses she was used to from her interview subjects.

So she compromised. She modulated some of her habits but accepted that her natural tendencies have their advantages (like encouraging interview subjects to open up). And she realized that voice, like everything else, changes. As her speech coach pointed out, generational peers who share her speech habits are moving up in the world, and as they do, habits that were once anomalous may become commonplace.

Her experiences provide three key lessons for writers.

  1. Know the audience (and the narrator). It seems obvious, but things like word choice and pacing will often depend on the intended readers. How old are they, and are they reading for fun or for information? Do they like Isaac Asimov or William Gibson? And who's telling the story? Character narrators should have their personalities and backgrounds reflected in the way they comment on events.
  2. Keep it genuine. Most of us, like Ms. Grose, can only change our voices so much before they start to seem forced. Fortunately, there are many ways to tell a story, and trying different ways is part of what keeps literature fresh. 
  3. Everything in moderation. Not all habits are good habits, and some good habits go bad when they're too often repeated. There's nothing like a critique partner for pointing out oft-repeated words, overused sentence structures, overworked gestures,* and other personal cliches. Literary agent Janet Reid had a really great quote on her website not too long ago from poet Billy Collins: 
"You come by your style by learning what to leave out. At first you tend to overwrite—embellishment instead of insight. You either continue to write puerile bilge, or you change. In the process of simplifying oneself, one often discovers the thing called voice."

*Mine often involve eyebrows. Or grins. Does anyone else default to these?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Playing nice

Phil Fish has recently declared that he is through with the world of game development. While I haven't played Fez, and while I haven't followed the many publicity debacles involving Fish, I did read an article by Ben Kuchera on Penny Arcade that makes some interesting (and disturbing) observations about what it's like to create things for public consumption.

For many people, it seems downright scary.

To be clear, what Kuchera takes issue with isn't the presence of negative reviews, nor even of extremely negative reviews. It's hate speech. It's threats of physical violence. It's threats of physical violence coupled with searches for a developer's home address.

That's why I was surprised to see a few responses to Kuchera's piece suggesting that this isn't a big deal, or that it's the kind of thing people just need to take in stride. It's long been understood that anyone who creates anything--whether a book, a movie, a chocolate cake, or a home insurance policy--opens themselves up to, and should steel themselves against, criticism and feedback. Fine and good, but I'd hope we can all agree that a list of angry reviews on Amazon is a separate thing entirely from an inbox full of rape threats.

But some have noted that there is no "internet war on the creatives" because plenty of other people face online harassment and bullying. It's true, and to his credit, Kuchera never denied this; rather, his article dealt specifically with Fish's departure and the surrounding context for creators. That's not to say that these problems don't also exist for online gamers, junior high students with social media accounts, or basically anyone who wants to say anything online.

If that's the case, how did we get here? A couple thoughts.

First, there's the idea that anonymity (even semi-anonymity) encourages people to act without restraint, to write things they'd never say to anyone's face. Or, as the Penny Arcade guys like to call it, the "Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory." It's road rage intensified; you're in a protective bubble of technology and surrounded by other people in their own protective bubbles of technology, and those bubbles make it easy to believe that none of you will ever have to look each other in the eye and that nobody will actually get hurt by whatever goes down.

But it also relates to the fundamental way many of us (whether we mean to or not) tend to look at the world. We often see other things and people in relation to ourselves. Even with the best of intentions, it's really hard to avoid this. After all, I call my own mother "Mom" because, well, that's what she is to me. At work, my boss is the person ahead of me in the food chain, and my co-workers are the people next to me. As for the guy who served my dinner last night, I will probably not run into him in a context where he is not acting as my waiter.

That's not to excuse selfishness, and it's not to say we can't still be thoughtful with other people, it's just a recognition of the fact that, wherever we go, we're stuck in our own perspectives. That can't be helped, but it can be circumvented when we try to think of other people with the same sense of flexibility and subjectivity with which we think of ourselves.

And people are easy to abuse when they simply become "that guy who ruined the franchise for you," "that girl who said something you disagree with," "that lady whose book disappointed you," and "the digital avatar whose FPS skills you find annoying." Which is ridiculous because we're all plenty of other things, too (breathing, feeling humans chief among them). Attack products and ideas, not people. Everyone is entitled to a little privacy and decency, even when they create something we don't like.

Cogito ergo tweet.

Monday, July 29, 2013

There will probably never be a book like The Room

I saw The Room this past weekend, and it gave me a strange admiration for director/scriptwriter/star Tommy Wiseau. While I would never want to emulate him, I can't help but appreciate his persistence. He had a story he wanted to tell, so first he shopped his script around. When no studio wanted it, he turned it into a novel. When he couldn't get a publisher to pick it up, he went back to the screenplay idea and shot and marketed the movie himself.*

At first, his movie was ignored and ridiculed. After a while, it started to receive a following, but in the same way that Plan 9 from Outer Space did. Suffice to say that most filmmakers don't want to be known for something like this.

But Tommy Wiseau embraced it. This made me wonder, if I wrote something that became famous for being hilariously awful, how would I react? As I thought about it, I decided that, as long as I'm sticking to novels and stories, the chances of getting that kind of notoriety are slim.

So-bad-they're-good movies have an appeal that similarly awful books (probably) never will, and I think the reasons for that are threefold.

First, there's the time commitment. I can spend ninety minutes laughing at something like The Room, but if I had to spend the hours it takes to read a horrible novel, I would eventually remember that I'm only laughing because it's bad, and then I would wonder why I'm spending so much time on it.

Second, there's the effort. Bad writing can be difficult to read because it often doesn't make sense. Unclear action and mixed-up sentences are a pain to interpret, and it's hard to laugh when you have a headache. This kind of things-out-of-sequence badness is easier to absorb when you're watching it on TV.

Thirdly, and most importantly, comedy is often a communal experience. Everyone has probably experienced this to some degree--movies are funnier when you're watching them with other people who are laughing, and comedy shows are so much better live and in-person.** That said, reading is usually a solitary experience. Movies are easy (and more fun) to watch with people. So, unless live readings become more of a thing, we're probably not going to get this kind of train wreck comedy out of books any time soon.

So that's one less thing I have to worry about.

Has anyone out there read a terrible novel just for the humor?

Criswell predicts hilarity.

*Of course, the other side of this is you wonder how seriously he sought out instruction and critical feedback (probably not very). The downside of indomitable confidence is lacking the humility to learn.

**Sure enough, the funniest part of the movie was probably the guy one row in front of us, who had a formidable supply of one-liners. "Take her to bed, bath, and beyooooond!"

Friday, July 26, 2013

WTFriday: Choice, feminism, and Huma Abedin

Lately it seems that Huma Abedin’s decision to stick with Anthony Weiner is receiving more criticism and attention than his decisions to send inappropriate messages to other women.  What’s wrong with this picture?

In the wake of a scandal, people always want to know how the spouse (usually the wife) will respond. Morbid curiosity is all too natural for us, as anyone who’s ever sat in traffic behind rubberneckers can attest. But what’s concerning is the editorializing that seems to accompany the questions and the speculation. People want to know why Huma Abedin is staying because, it’s implied, she should be leaving.

The problem isn’t that she’s making the right decision or the wrong decision. It’s that notions of “right” and “wrong” have no place in a discussion about such a private, personal choice.

Some chiding Abedin do so in the name of feminism, claiming that a woman in her position should demonstrate her strength and independence by leaving a serial scoundrel.

Feminism has gone through waves and changes since Seneca Falls. At its heart, feminism is about giving women choices: the choice to vote, the choice to work, the choice to maintain a separate name and identity. Unfortunately, adherents to a particular strain of feminism have simply replaced old imperatives with new ones. The point of feminism isn’t to dictate that a woman must keep her own last name, must vote for the candidates most focused on “women’s issues,” must maintain an upwardly-mobile career after having children, or must leave a man who’s been unfaithful. The point is that she’s allowed to make those decisions for herself.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

For just a second, I thought this might be real...

Shelf Awareness had me thinking that Skylight Books (which we all now know is part-owned by Jeffrey Tambor) was going to carry The Man Inside Me, the (fictional) autobiography/self-help book from Arrested Development. Which had me excited because it meant that said book might actually exist in the real world. Oops.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

If only Superman weren't so super...

Spouse and I saw Man of Steel a few weeks ago; we'd read mostly positive reviews, and positive reviews always get a multiplier when you're talking about action movies.

We saw it at one of the local venues that serves adult beverages (also food), and we were left wishing we'd ordered more beer. The movie was disappointing.

In short, Superman is too perfect. There's not much room for tension in a fight scene when Superman can survive the planet-transforming power of the World Engine. So what if he gets thrown through a barn? He can take it. Big explosions and meticulous fight choreography don't mean much, in my opinion, without a credible threat.

(This is, incidentally, what made Pacific Rim much more enjoyable for me as an action movie. The jaegers were powerful, but they were kind of slow, and they could be destroyed. Controlling them appeared to take enough effort to make the fights tense.)

It's not only that Superman is too strong. He's also too good. The movie sets up what could have been a really interesting conflict--does Superman restore his own species or preserve humanity?* But instead of engaging with that question and making me wonder (maybe) what he'll actually choose, Superman makes the decision almost as quickly as it's raised. There's a reasonable conflict there,** and there's a chance to see Superman develop as a character as he makes his decision, but instead we're told the he chooses humanity without hesitation because he's good.***

Maybe I'm a product of my times, but that's just boring. 

*Assuming, of course, the Kryptonians couldn't just take Mars (or anywhere else, really). Seriously, that was never explained, was it?

Just hanging out in the habitable zone, guys. Don't mind me.

**Sure, Superman reasons that the Kryptonians had their chance and destroyed their planet, but it never seems to cross his mind that we're not doing much better with ours. I was quite surprised this never came up.

***greekgeekgirl over at Insatiable Booksluts has a thoughtful rant on why Batman's flaws make him the most interesting of superheroes. Yes, what she said.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The secret sauce of success

In the wake of the J. K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith reveal, one of the more interesting aspects to consider is how many publishers turned the manuscript down.

One editor, Kate Mills of Orion Publishing, 'fessed up on Twitter:
The ensuing discussion recalled a similar incident in which Doris Lessing published as Jane Somers, ostensibly to demonstrate the challenges of getting published without a famous name and possibly also to show up reviewers who had demanded a departure from science fiction. Bob Greene recounts the story of a writer who, as a test, copied and submitted a National Book Award-winning novel to several publishers (including the original publisher) under his own name.* Each of the fourteen publishing houses to which he submitted rejected it, and none appeared to recognize it as an existing work.

On the one hand, these stories are encouraging because they demonstrate that even talented writers face rejection, ergo a writer facing rejection should not deem herself talentless. On the other, they are deeply disheartening because they accentuate just how unpredictable success can be. It's a secret sauce made of variable parts skill, promotion, right-place-right-time, serendipity, and yellow dye no. 5.

*This stunt has also been tried with Pride and Prejudice and, I'm sure, other books as well. Depending on your assumptions, it either demonstrates that (1) industry professionals don't have good taste; (2) industry professionals may or may not have good taste, but they don't expect something written in a 19th century prose style to sell; (3) industry professionals don't necessarily recognize the opening pages of classics; and/or (4) industry professionals may or may not recognize the first pages as a rip-off of a classic, but everyone gets the form rejection. The downside of this test is that, rightly or wrongly, it tends to annoy agents and editors, so it's probably not a great idea if you want to make inroads in the world of publishing.

Friday, July 19, 2013

WTFriday: Literature is dead, long live Literature

Every so often, we get another article in which some author complains that Literature is in decline. Sometimes, it's a complaint that nobody reads anymore, but frequently, it's an opinion that nobody is writing anything worth reading anymore. It's a curious sentiment coming from someone who writes for a living.

But Joel Breuklander's article in The Atlantic takes a closer look at some of these naysayers and their naysayings and reaches three conclusions: (1) all of these naysayers are white males, and they almost all are (or seem to be) heterosexual; (2) their complaints seem to center on contemporary literature no longer feeling sufficiently straight, white, or male; and (3) in bemoaning the lack of poets and authors writing about Big Issues and the Stuff That Affects Humanity, the naysayers ignore a host of female/minority/non-straight poets and authors writing about those very topics.

If I love reading all of the back-and-forth in an argument like this, it may be because I love a good fight. Honestly, though, I'm leery of talking about Literature, Art, etc. in all-inclusive terms because, really, how many people have the time and exposure to have a solid grasp on everything in the field? Most of us read what we read (which is, in part, a function of what we like, what/who we think is important, and who we spend our time with), and any broad opinions about literature as a whole are necessarily based on those samplings, which are necessarily a small slice of everything in the field. This is part of Breuklander's point.

Beyond that, though, I wondered. To the extent that Breuklander's analysis is correct, that the doom-and-gloom crowd are all from a demographic that has been historically privileged in the literary arts, to what extent is this because the literature-is-dead perspective is exclusively the bastion of white male writers, and to what extent is it that we simply hear it from them because it is white male writers who most often have their opinions and essays published?

Regardless, the point I found most interesting in the discussion was where Breuklander referenced the complaint that writers (specifically, poets) no longer write about "universal truths," that someone who "doesn't speak as everyone must not have anything to say about the human condition" (Breuklander's paraphrasing).

How do you know when someone is writing about universal truths or saying something about the human condition? Do you find it in ham-fisted authorial asides expressing as much? Do you recognize it when protagonists look like Willy Loman or Harry Angstrom, who obviously represent the "everyman" in their straight, white, male, middle class perspective? Do you recognize it when the author has a masculine, European-sounding name? It reminds me of Jennifer Weiner's complaint about the Franzen-love when Freedom came out; she contrasted female novelists "who write books about families that are seen as excellent books about families" with "a Jonathan Franzen who writes a book about a family but we are told this is a book about America."

Part of the joy of reading is stepping into someone else's experience. Sometimes a it looks a lot like mine, and sometimes it doesn't. And sometimes, even when it doesn't, I can still recognize another character's hopes and fears in myself. Even better, sometimes I learn something about someone who doesn't seem anything like me.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

How do you pick a winner?

Lately I've been going through my Hugo voter packet, trying to read as much as possible in the different fiction categories before I cast my ballot at the end of the month. And as I'm forming opinions and making evaluations of the various works I'm reading, I'm also exploring another question.

How do you single out a work for special praise and recognition? Do you pick the one that you enjoy the most? The one that's the most polished? The one that breaks new ground?

The website for the Hugo Awards is fairly vague on that point. It simply states that the Hugos are awards for "excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy."

Alongside the question of excellence, however, is the question of the purpose of such an award. Is it to recognize the award that is "best" (however defined), independent of whatever else is happening in the genre? Or is it a statement about where a genre should be headed, or even how people want to see it represented?

Big questions. And, not surprisingly, plenty of other folks have been commenting on this since the list of nominees came out. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The pull-up principle

Every once in a while, when I'm talking with other writers who are beginning to write a first novel (or putting it off), I'll hear someone say that they'd like to start a novel, but they don't think they're prepared enough as writers.

What sorts of writerly skills does someone need to pen a novel? Familiarity with basic language mechanics, ability to plot, a sense of pacing and rhythm, a feel for characters, and the ability to write dialogue, description, action, and exposition with clarity.

And how does anyone develop those skills in the first place? Copious and attentive reading can help, as can writing short stories, and some people find classes and workshops useful. But the most direct way to hone all of the skills needed to write a novel is to... well, write a novel.

Whether or not the Malcolm Gladwell/K. Anders Ericsson "10,000 hours rule" is strictly true,* practice is important. And if Anne Lamott still admits to writing "shitty first drafts," then it follows that the rest of us can comfortably embrace the notion that our early efforts will involve lots of trial and error.

What does this have to do with pull-ups? There are plenty of fitness guides and exercise routines aimed at preparing people to do pull-ups by doing other exercises that strengthen the relevant muscle groups. And having the strength to do lat pull-downs, rows, etc. may help, and may be a necessary precursor, but it won't lead to instant pull-up mastery.

For many people, the best way to learn to do a pull-up is by trying to do a pull-up. First efforts may be disappointing and incomplete, but sometimes that's part of the learning process.

*This is the idea that, to become an expert in anything, you need to amass 10,000 hours of practice

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A time to thrill

Guantanamo Bay authorities briefly seized John Grisham novels that were being sent to a prisoner by his lawyer. The Defense Department lifted the ban shortly thereafter, but the reasons behind the initial prohibition are unclear.

Gitmo has a fairly extensive library, so what makes legal thrillers "problematic"?

Via today's Shelf Awareness newsletter and The Wall Street Journal.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The casual pseudonym

As I'm sure you've heard, J.K. Rowling has been outed as the writer behind Robert Galbraith, the author behind The Cuckoo's Calling, a (supposedly) debut mystery novel.

As you may also know, the book was well-reviewed but hadn't sold many copies. You can add me to the list of people who suspect that the publisher was behind the leak.

Friday, July 12, 2013

WTFriday: the Kindlifresser is weirder than Sharknado

After stumbling across a few pictures of airborne sharks, I found this article in Slate about the Kindlifresser, a statue in Switzerland of a man eating babies from a sack.

Why is it there, and what does it mean? No one seems to know. The article presents three theories, but you really just want to see what this monstrosity looks like, don't you?

Welcome to Bern.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

When do you call it quits?

Goodreads posted an infographic dissecting the reasons readers give up on books, the point at which they stop reading, and the top five abandoned books.

What leads you to stop reading (or do you ever give up on a book)? Perhaps surprisingly, more than one third of readers wil stick it out to the end on principle. I'm probably more-or-less in that category, but I've found that I'll often find and finish a more enjoyable book in the middle of one I don't like... which is kind of what I'm doing right now.

And the most commonly abandoned books are books we've all heard of--Wicked; Eat, Pray, Love; The Casual Vacancy; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; and 50 Shades of Grey. It's not surprising when you consider that, as popular as they are, they're still not going to work for everyone.

Since I obviously don't want to recommend a novel I'm not crazy about, here's the book I'm reading (and loving) right now:

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Reading and writing for your health

A study published in Neurology (and discussed in the Smithsonian blog) suggests that regular and lifelong mental exercise can help people stay mentally sharp as they age. In particular, the study zeroes in on the positive effects of reading and writing.

What I'd like to know next is whether there's a significant difference between reading/writing fiction and nonfiction, and between reading/writing work of different complexity. Does War and Peace give more of a boost than Us Weekly?

Either way, here's to finishing that chapter over the lunch break.

The hunter green part is the section stimulated by Jersey Shore.

Friday, July 5, 2013

WTFriday: Goats

Amazon's Japanese office is hiring goats to mow (chomp?) the lawn once a week.

This actually sounds kind of awesome.

Just don't let them near the books.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Summer reading

Looking for something to read? Check out this fantastic flowchart from

The Summer Reading Flowchart
Brought to you by

Monday, July 1, 2013

It is official

Penguin + Random House is now officially Penguin Random House.

My main source of disappointment is that, out of all possible names, they chose the least amusing option.

Consider: Random Penguin. Penguin House. House Penguin. Any of these would do.