The not-entirely-random thoughts of Chris Brecheen about writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Best Y.A. Book (Poll Results)

Many thanks to all who participated in our Best Y.A. book poll. It was close for a while but after I called for more votes yesterday, The Hobbit's small lead turned into a gigantic, crushing one. The Phantom Tollbooth just couldn't hang on.

Most of the ties were broken in the last 24 hours, but we may never know if The Neverending Story could take Talking to Dragons in a straight fight. Perhaps if/when a Y.A. poll comes around again, their "Who-Really-Deserves-Seventh-Place" rivalry will be resolved.

We will start our semifinal round for the Best Y.A. series from your nominations tomorrow, so if you have one last nomination or a second, please head over to that post and get your input in.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Vote! (Best Y.A. Novel)

The Brain and Sonic Gal got back last night from Seattle right on time. They even gave me an impromptu day off from watching The Contrarian. Of course, four days of running around after a proto-toddler means the other chores in the house fell a little behind. I just walked past the sink and a film of mold asked me if I wouldn't mind terribly waiting until it had evolved legs before I cleaned the dishes. Naturally I calmly unloaded eight cans of Lysol into the mold while screaming at the top of my lungs.  

Tomorrow our "September" poll will end, so you have one last day to vote for the best young adult novel.

Shortly after that I'll be putting up our poll for Best Y.A. Series. (There is still some time to nominate series or give them seconds but please do so at the original page.) At this point it's going to need its own run off semifinal polls and is obviously going to go on through November, so I'm not even going to bother continuing to try and call it our "October Poll."

So if you haven't voted, vote. And if you have voted, vote again (because the IP tracker only locks you out for a week and I might as well run with it). And tomorrow we'll find out if The Phantom Tollbooth can take The Hobbit down a notch.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Showing My Work: Schedule Needs

Day four of watching The Contrarian. Neither of us had died horribly, so I'm daring to feel optimistic.

Of course, now, "Dared to Feel Optimistic" will be my epitaph. I have tempted fate by publishing my lack of Raiders of the Lost Arc face-melting horror. It's been nice knowing you all.

The Brain and Sonic Gal get back from Seattle late tonight, and I hope to be back on a regular posting schedule by tomorrow.

However, I hope to be back on a regular posting schedule SUCH AS IT WILL BE.

As you know, those of you who've been keeping up with Writing About Writing, I've been threatening a major, fundamental change to my posting and updating schedule. Not a small little tweak like I've made in the past to help squeeze out an hour here or there, but a huge overhaul that requires me to put on pants that insufficiently cover my butt crack and insist that parts can't be ordered any sooner than next Tuesday. Then I'll try to scratch my balls with my wrench, but subtle like so no one can tell that's what I'm doing.

Of course, it was with no small amount of irony, my ability to post my old schedule completely broke down the day before I was about to do a big post about what my new schedule was going to be.

For now writing still involves grabbing my laptop when milk-induced comas provide me with 45 minutes or so to punch out a few words. Provided, of course, I am not watching Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood with a thousand yard stare or remembering that I haven't had anything but powdered crystal light over stale corn chips in the last thirty hours and trying to hoover in something with cellulose.

What I have done today is to work out what my old schedule was lacking that my new schedule needs to take into account. These are the critical failures of the old schedule getting more broken as time went on. Many of them have been creaking and groaning (or maybe throwing off showers of sparks) since the baby came along, but I just kept thinking, "It's just for now. No need to pull emphasis away from the blog."

That was eleven months ago.
  • Fiction This whole thing started with someone wondering about my process and me realizing that my current regimen is really preventing me from getting in some good time on my own fiction.
  • Reading Writing without reading is like trying to only exhale. I need more time for the essentials of "breathing in."
  • Better proofing I don't exactly LIKE realizing that I've posted articles with incomplete sentences and missing words.
  • Account for other blogs Remember how I write for blogs like Grounded Parents and Ace of Geeks? Yeah, so do my editors. And just trying to write two or three articles a day on the weekends was driving me nuts, and wasn't getting done.
  • Account for thank you notes At least once every couple of months, I need to write some thank you notes to the marvelous donors to whom I owe unending thanks. Since I hate doing form letters, each one takes 15-20 minutes. That adds up fast. Like most things on this schedule that don't fit, I tried to just squeeze this in without making room for it. Results were....predictable. 

  • Account for the insanity of Wednesdays On Wednesdays I watch the kid for five hours, teach for four hours, commute for three hours, usually end up cleaning for an hour or two, and do the weekly trash rituals of cat boxes, gathering little trash cans and getting dumpsters to the curb. Yet, for some insane reason that was the day I tried to put up a "meaty" article. The thinking was that I would have it done by Wednesday by working on it the days before. The thinking was wrong. The thinking needs to be driven off a cliff in an exploding car with a javelin through its face.
  • Account for the fact that I have 40+ hours of other work I can post a little something every day. I can post significant articles. What I can't do, is with my current life of househusband, teacher, daycare and writer, is to do both every day.
  • Account for Unsupportive Girlfriend Unsupportive Girlfriend likes to keep me on my toes by switching around my schedule or asking me for favors and making it impossible to write at the same time every day. The more my schedule is precision packed like a Tetris game, the more she's going to screw me over when she gives me the Z piece instead of the I. 
  • Time off  I write every day just like I tell writers they should, but blogging every day is a bit different. That's writing under deadline and it's less whimsical and more stressful. These last few months I've often realized I've been working 60-80 hours a week and I'm still falling behind. I might post content every day, but I need to be able to write it in a way that I have extra in the hopper and can take a day off.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Stop. Baby time.

Power to the people.
Right after my nap.
Kid grenade alert!

I know this is inauspicious timing, what with the new schedule roll out poised to hit and everything. But this can't be helped.

This is a strange story.

An ebola task force has been dispatched out of the local hero comitatus in Washington D.C. There not going to do much more than free up some local forces by keeping their eye on a few unsavory villain types in Sierra Leone.

Several superheroes from Seattle have gone to D.C. to shore up their front lines, and since the Temescal has been quiet, Sonic Gal, The Brain and another hero from West Oakland known as Codex have gone up to Seattle to make sure no one takes advantage of the light superhero presence up there. Wrecking Ball, Uber Dude, and a few other heroes have taken on extra patrols for the time being.

Sonic Gal and The Brain were going to take The Contrarian to Seattle with them. But then he started cutting a molar and looked like he was getting a cold. Even if Seattle sent down their stealth troop transport (The Fapper) the poor little guy would probably not be a very good passenger with all that sinus discomfort already going on.

So....I'm watching him. Alone. For four days.

I'll write when I can.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Does Talent Exist at All? (Mailbox)

Is there such thing as talent?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Seriously, we need more questions. I'm dying here.] 

Alexis asks: 

So....I've read your D&D talent thing [Author's note: Talent: A +5 Sword You Could Do Without] and bits here and there on your blog that make me think that you don't really think talent exists–that it's all just hard work. But then I read so many other people who seem to believe that there is some ineffable quality that makes writers good, and without it the struggle is pointless. So let's have it out officially, right now. Do you think there's such a thing as talent?

My reply:

A very (very) qualified yes.

Two quick logistical disclaimers before I dig into this.

1) I'm almost out of questions.


If you've always wanted to have a question answered by a washed up, over-the-hill writer who can't even say he's a has been because he never even was, now is your chance! I think I have one more week's worth, and then I'm going to have to start making stuff up from conversations I have in Taco Bell. (What sauce is writing like? PICANTE!!!)

2) This off-schedule mailbox has been brought to you by a surprise day off from child care. Dad was home on Wednesday and I got the morning off and was able to get this started (though not finished until Friday night, it seems). All the stuff I said on Monday about doing a major rework the posting schedule still applies, and The Mailbox will no longer be on Fridays after tomorrow's roll out.

Tomorrow I'll do photos of the little calendars I've been drawing. It's epic.

But on to your question, Alexis...

Fifty years ago the reigning school of thought in creative writing was that genius could not be taught and you could either write or you were wasting your time. They would even send crying people out of the classroom. "I'm sorry, but this is crap. You simply have no talent."

Then we learned more about how humans learn and really broke down what makes for good writing. (Plus crying students running out of classes is no way to populate an MFA program!) And we discovered that, lo and behold!, most of the skills that make for good writers are actually learnable and teachable. Of course fifty years ago, everyone wore tweed and liked Marvin Gaye, so I'm pretty sure I'm cool going with modern thought on this one.

Imagine what we'll think fifty years from now.

On the other hand, to say that every writer who has studied writing and written for exactly the same amount of time will produce exactly the same quality of work is absurd. Even accounting for stylistic variations, personal tastes, and the fact that not all writing is equally created for mass appeal, critical acclaim, or artistic integrity, such an assertion would be demonstrably untrue. Some writers take to craft with an extraordinary alacrity. Others (like me) have a vivid imagination but constantly struggle with the words and the language (and in my case, particularly my weakness with proofing my own copy). With the exact same amount of effort some writers will achieve great success and some will struggle to make ends meet–if writing ever pays the bills at all.

What is the X factor there? Could it be something we like to call "talent"? Do we have innate abilities or aptitudes that will simply carry us further and that's all there is to it? Are we like the snobby, tweed wearing, elbow patched professors of yesteryear who think that genius can't be taught?

I shy from the idea of talent is that it is talked about like it is some sort of secret formula that will make someone a good writer and that if one has it, nothing else matters. What really matters is work. If you work hard and write hard and read like you're supposed to and make sure you've got the basics down and are never to good to learn a little something then you will improve. It's that simple and it's VERY predictable. Almost no art can be counted on to have such a predictable and immediate learning curve as writing.

What most people say when they confer the honorific of "talented" on an artist is that the art is good. ("The wickedly talented Adele Dazeem!") They have no idea the years of training and hours of work that have gone into what they're looking at.

The problem is when you conflate these two uses of the word, and suddenly "talent" means you don't have to work.

I've seen writers who don't work every day, don't work every week, don't work consistently every month, barely have one first draft of a manuscript to their name, who have turned in the same short story in four different classes, wring their hands, bite their lower lip, and make impassioned pleas to get a teacher to tell them whether they have "talent" or not. And I mean these motherfuckers stop the whole class with a "Can you just tell me if I have talent?"

Like that's going to matter, you lazy fucking.....okay deep breaths Chris. Deeeeeep breeeeaaaaaaths.

We don't really do this with any other skill. (I mean some people do, but we roll our eyes at them and really don't lend it the credence we do with writing.) No one who doesn't go to practice and misses half the games says with a quivering lip, "Tell me straight coach, do I have what it takes?" No one who began a job last week corners their boss and says, "Am I a prodigy or should I just quit now?" No one who picks up an instrument says to their community center teacher while they're learning their first scales "Can you tell if I'm going to.....make it? Where can I find a manager?"

Because that's fucking absurd. Yet somehow in writing, we forgot about the work part.

The problem is, it's absolutely impossible to know what "talent" might actually be. Maybe in fifty years we can strap babies to MRI's and then follow the ones with the big linguistic centers or something. But right now there is absolutely no way to differentiate it from that which can be taught and learned.

Is it a family that instilled the value of books? Is it parents who used big words when you were growing up so that you not only were precocious, but you actually knew what that meant? Is it the teacher who read your story aloud to the class in first grade and made you want to feel that feeling again and again like your first hit of crack cocaine? Is it the subtle words of encouragement from a mentor to never give up that was the closest thing to a father figure you had? Is it learning the power of the written word as a formative experience by watching an intercepted note make Lisa Kulber cry for lunch? Because if it's those things, there's no real reason you can't start at twenty, or thirty, or sixty.

Or is it all just a genetic advantage in the linguistic centers of the brain, and some amino acid cocktail that adds up to writer juju? Where do the advantages that are truly innate separate from someone who works hard.

Thus, when I say there are things that make Billy-Bob a better creative writers (and there are) like imagination, intelligence, some kind of education, command of language but also linguistic flexibility, empathy, sense of pacing and story, a flare for the dramatic, or a sense of subtext, it is still very difficult to know where Billy-Bob the innate human ends and Billy-Bob the product of his environment begins.

And not to put too cliché a point on it, but if Billy Bob ends up in an MFA program or a published writer, statistically speaking, his intelligence had less to do with it than whether or not he was white.

Imagination can be cultivated by exercising it. Linguistic playfulness is nothing more than a command of language so complete one knows how to break or bend the rules for effect. Pacing and drama come from reading or even watching TV or film. Subtext can be taught. Even empathy isn't impossible to develop. Technically none of us have any of these abilities when we're born. We're all shit stained egomaniacs who couldn't figure out the symbols in an Updike novel. They're all learned skills. Only intelligence is something we're born with, and psychologists are still struggling to figure out what is genetic and what comes from our early childhood experiences.

The nice thing about talent though, is it almost always dovetails rather nicely with interests. If you have a passion, you will probably cultivate the abilities around that passion. Whether it's self selection or subtle reinforcement, you don't get a lot of talentless who really want to do something with all their free time. Tone deaf musicians aren't a pox on the industry because they don't tend to like music with the kind of lifetime dedication that musicians do. (I'm talking about real musicians now, not the deluge on the first couple of episodes of America's Got Talent.) People who have very unmathmatical minds don't burn to be engineers. The number of writers who don't have a pretty good command of the language, or some sense of pacing is usually pretty low*.

Yes, there are people who (for example) do not pick up on subtext at all, but they generally do not have the sort of relationship with fiction that creative writers do and thus don't go on to badly want to be creative writers. They might be more inclined to pursue non-fiction, where other aptitudes like precision of language are valued. But talent and interest usually dovetail.

You just don't end up with a lot of people who have real drive and passion to be writers with absolutely no sense of writer skills*.

*I mean the real writers, not those wanks who never actually write and are sure they're going to get famous one day...and end up directing movies....like Kevin Smith. (Man I really need a more up-to-date pop culture example.) There are a lot of those people, they show up in every art where you can "get big," they are tragically stupid, and what they lack isn't talent, it's a realistic sense of how life works.

What you USUALLY see is not two people who have put in equal effort at vastly different points though. What you usually see is someone using "talent" as a codeword for "shortcut." What you usually see is someone who hasn't put in any effort wanting to get the nod that they will become rich without that decade of struggle that just about every writer has to go through. They want to know what the result will be before they put in all the effort.

This is entirely the wrong question. Not because we all don't want to know if the years of toil are going to be worth it (everyone wants a crystal ball), but because the real question is this:

Would you do it anyway?

That's what really matters. If you're writing for fame or wealth or publication it's never going to be as fulfilling as you think it will be. But the writing will. The writing always will. If you knew today that you would never be published, never make money, never get a book deal, never have a fan.....If you knew that for sure, would that stop you from the simple love for the act of writing itself? Because it's the writing that will change your life.

Now...all that said, there are people who try very, very hard to improve their writing, read voraciously, think creatively, and never seem to pass a point where they get published or maybe aren't publishing more than a couple of stories a year. They succeed, but it is with very limited returns. There may not be anything teachable, cultivatable, or practicable that is holding them back. And perhaps the easiest way to understand what is going on is that they don't have as much talent as the writers of comparable work who have gone on to achieve better things.

There are also writers who eclipse us all. Shakespeare, Faulkner, Morrison, Marquez. No matter how hard we work, none of us will achieve their skill and poise with words. Ever. And it is folly to compare ourselves to them. If we were as gifted as they are we would be wunderkind and already know it.

Most of us fall in the middle somewhere. Our skill will improve with practice.  Our career trajectories will largely be based on how hard we're working. If we make money, it will probably have more to do with the kind of writing we're doing and our willingness to promote than the absolute level of skill.

But you'll never know if you don't put all that work in first, and that's the pisser of it. That's the reason why it's madness to do it if you don't love the shit out of it for its own sake.