A Night of Subverted Expectations

This is a sort of pop culture wrap-up for my Saturday (and again, my Saturday=your Sunday). I finished the book I was reading and my wife and I squeezed in three—count ’em, three—movies, and it turned out to be a mini James Gandolfini marathon. Aside from the movie Thirteen, starring Holly Hunter and a teenage Evan Rachel Wood (which was a good fly-on-the-wall look at a good girl’s turn toward the dark side, and is BOJ certified as recommended, but didn’t knock my socks off), the book and both Gandolfini movies subverted my expectations, for better or for worse. I’ll start with the ‘for worse.’

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Killing Them Softly had been on our DVR for quite awhile—if you couldn’t tell by now, I’m a sucker for gritty crime drama, noir, hitmen, etc. When you have a cast as strong as this one—Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, and Ray Liotta—I’m in.

It wasn’t a bad movie by any means, it just seemed to miss the mark a little bit. The plot is as follows: three men are responsible for knocking off an illegal gambling ring, knowing the head of said gambling ring (Liotta) will take the fall. Pitt’s character is brought in by an attorney to the mafia (Jenkins) to figure out what happened, who’s to blame, and who’s going to die. Gandolfini’s character is brought in to help carry out one of the hits.

What seemed like it should’ve been a pretty straightforward plot was unnecessarily messy and hard to follow, ending rather abruptly and leaving my wife and I with questions like, “What happened to ____?” and “Who the hell was _____, anyway?”

It was also a bit heavy-handed with political tie-ins—the movie takes place during the McCain-Obama campaign run, and ends on election night. At the very end it becomes more clear why the tie-ins are there, but it still could’ve been handled with a little more subtlety.

It felt at times like a Tarantino/Scorcese-light kind of movie: aiming high but falling short. If you’re into these kinds of movies like I am I would still give it a go. It’s well-shot (with some stomach-turning graphic violence handled nicely, in my opinion), and well-acted. James Gandolfini is awesome (if ultimately irrelevant to the plot) as the unhinged, unstable hit man brought in to help Pitt’s character. If you don’t typically like these kinds of movies, you probably won’t care much for it.

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Chuck Palahniuk seems to be what I’d call an “avocado” author: people tend to either love him or hate him. I can’t fully fall on the love side, but I like a lot of his work. I’d heard Rant was really good without really knowing much about the plot at all, so when I got the chance to check out the e-book from my library, I took it.

**(side note: did you all know you could recommend e-books to your local library for them to purchase using the Overdrive app? I don’t know about other cities, but the lovely folks at the Wichita Public Library have bought two books on my recommendation, and I think that’s downright awesome)

It starts as a character study of Buster “Rant” Casey, a backwoods country bumpkin who as a kid has an affinity for getting bitten by insects and vermin, picking his nose and sticking the boogers on his wall, and finding valuable coins.

We follow Rant to an early diploma from high school, where he moves to the city and the story takes a turn into sci-fi territory, as we learn society has been divided between the respected “Daytimers” and the lowly “Nighttimers”, with a strict curfew to keep the two groups from intermingling. Rant falls in with the Nighttimers and into a social circle known as Party Crashers—an organized sort of after-hours demolition derby that takes place on the city streets. To give much more away would ruin the book.

About 2/3 of the way through the book I was interested in the story, but starting to get a little bored. After reading the last third in one long stretch, I felt dizzy. The book goes from taking a turn here or there to spinning like a top until you don’t know up from down, left from right, or father from son.

The “hook” of Rant is in the way the story is told. The official title is Rant: An Oral History of Buster Casey, the key words being ‘an oral history.’ The book constantly changes perspective as different characters give their accounts of the events that unfolded in Rant’s life, sometimes outright contradicting each other. Kind of like a documentary or a special on TV, the way they jump from one talking head to the next. It’s used to great effect, but also made me wonder—

Where’s the line between originality and gimmickry? One of the complaints I hear about Palahniuk is that he’s a gimmick writer, with nearly every novel using some kind of cheesy narrative device to tell the story. There’s no denying he uses different techniques to tell his stories, and I can see the ‘gimmick label’ being applied. The thing is, is it only a gimmick if it doesn’t work?

Pygmy, Palahniuk’s widely hated 2009 novel told via the journal entries of a 13 year-old foreign exchange student/terrorist in badly broken English, is downright tough to read (I think I liked it more than most), and dismissed as a gimmick. Rant, on the other hand, is held in much higher regard, and the ‘oral history’ gimmick isn’t mentioned as much. I don’t necessarily think every book by an author has to have some kind of gimmick to tell its story (I sure hope not, because my storytelling thus far is pretty straight ahead), but wouldn’t the literary world be a boring place if there weren’t people like Palahniuk taking chances with their stories?

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The last subverted expectation was also the most pleasant surprise. I suppose it would come as no shock that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of “chick flicks,” but I try not to discount them altogether, because I know there are some good ones out there. I’ve confessed before my liking for my wife’s favorite chick flick, Return to Me, and last night found one I liked just as well, if not better, with Enough Said.

The film takes what on paper sounds like a fairly standard chick flick or rom com plot—masseuse meets a man and woman separately, begins dating the man and takes on the woman as a client/friend, only to find out they’re ex-husband and wife—and handles it fairly realistically, playing it straight for the most part, but with plenty of chuckles thrown in (and one moment involving a baseball in a drawer that had me laughing so hard I nearly fell out of my chair, thanks to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s impeccable comedic timing and delivery).

All the characters in the movie felt like real people, not one dimensional and flat or caricatures like in a lot of movies (and books, for that matter), and the dialogue felt realistic and smart. There was also a subplot I liked with Dreyfus’s character subconsciously replacing her daughter, who was preparing to move off to college, with her daughter’s friend. None of the characters were perfect, none of them were total a-holes (although I must admit I didn’t care for Catherine Keener’s ex-wife famous poet character—I’m beginning to wonder if I just don’t like Catherine Keener), they were just fairly normal people with flaws like anybody else. It was well-written and wonderfully acted, and I was glad I watched it. I had expected to look up from Rant every so often to make sure I was following along with the movie, but found myself with my book (phone) in my lap, all my attention devoted to the movie.

 All in all a great night with my favorite person, and a good way to recharge the batteries for writing and some very likely overtime in the coming week.

The BoJ Quarterly Book Report: Summer Edition

I’m staying just about on pace for my new year’s resolution of reading a book a month. I got ahead at one point, but between running into a couple of books that were hard to make myself read and other stuff that made me not want to read at all, I slowed back down a tad. I have four reviews here, though I’ll actually be talking about five books. Not that it makes a lick of difference to you, but I’m going in reverse chronological order, starting with the book I just finished. Alrighty then, let’s get to it.

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Sharp Objects — Gillian Flynn (2006)

I liked Gone Girl quite a bit (though I understand some of the backlash it received) and was curious to see what Flynn’s other work was like. I was not disappointed.

Her debut novel centers around Camille Preaker, a talented-but-not-living-up-to-her-potential reporter living in Chicago, who is sent back to her hellhole hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to cover the murders of two young girls, apparently the work of a serial killer—both girls had some (or all) of their teeth pulled out prior to disposal of the bodies.

Camille is not entirely mentally stable herself, as it’s revealed that she’s a cutter: she takes pleasure from carving words into her flesh, and is fresh off a stint in rehab to try and cure her of her condition. As the story goes on, however, and we meet Camille’s mother, stepdad, and half-sister, we see that Camille may be the sanest one in the family.

Thoughts as a reader: This story is dark. As in, near pitch black. It paints an ominous picture of small town life that gave me the feeling it hit very close to home for the author (who, I know from reading about her, also lived in Missouri). Most—though it should be noted not all—of the characters are really screwed up, which of course makes them interesting to read about. The ending, while I did predict it partially, still made me grin at the sick twist of what happened to the victims’  missing teeth.

Thoughts as a writer: I really enjoy Flynn’s writing voice. It’s easy to dive into her work and lose yourself. Her characters are vivid and easy to picture in your mind. With only three books under her belt (and movie deals for all three books), she has already established herself as a force to be reckoned with. Also, reminding myself that Sharp Objects was her debut is incredibly intimidating as I continue to write and rewrite the story I finally decided on to make my own first novel. It reminded me of when I was first learning to play guitar and thinking I was making some progress, then listened to BB King or Eric Clapton and realized I was only a few steps down this new path, and the masters were so far down the road they were almost out of sight.

My rating: 4 stars

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The Haunting of Hill House — Shirley Jackson (1959)

Shirley Jackson is a legend in the literary world. There is even an award named for her given to writers “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.”

Widely regarded as one the all-time classic horror novels and the be all end all of haunted house stories, I was thrilled when I happened to find Hill House at my local library. I thought I owed it to myself as an aspiring horror writer (or maybe more accurately, a writer who occasionally writes horror) to check this book out and read it ASAP.

Hill House is an old mansion with a troubled past. Doctor John Montague is an investigator of the supernatural who rents the house for the summer to see what (if any) evidence can support the legend of Hill House. He and three guests occupy the house and…well, you know. It’s a haunted house story, after all.

Thoughts as a reader: I’m afraid to write this. I want to just come up to you all one by one, look in all directions to make sure the coast is clear, then whisper this to you: I did not like this book. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. Seriously though, I don’t know what to think. This isn’t a very polarizing book that some people like and some people don’t. It is unanimously praised as one of the greatest scary stories of all time. To disagree means you’re stupid or you just don’t get it. I’ll leave it for others to decide on which side of that I fall.

The scares are subtle. Very, very subtle. So subtle they’re not even explained, and sometimes barely mentioned. But that’s not my problem with it. This book lost me before it ever got to the scares. This is a very short book, and by the 50-60 page mark I was pleading for something to just happen already. 

Thoughts as a writer: After having it hammered into your head to avoid adverbs like the plauge the majority of the time, it’s a bit distracting to read something that has them peppered in so liberally. One character “stretched luxuriously.” What the hell does that even mean? I know I’m not the smartest guy in the room a lot of the time, but seriously, what is that?

Maybe this book is too understated, too subtle for me. I just don’t know what else to say. I literally fell asleep reading this book. I will almost certainly read it again sometime, just to see if anything strikes me differently the second time around.

My rating: 3 stars (because I’m afraid to give it less, otherwise the writers’ mafia might come see me and I might meet with an unfortunate accident, capiche?)

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Double Feature — Owen King (2013)

Another find at my local library. Owen is the youngest son of Stephen King (and brother of Joe Hill), so naturally I was curious.

A novel about a young filmmaker trying to make a name for himself in his B-actor father’s shadow. Sounds vaguely familiar.

This is the only book since I started really reading again that I haven’t finished. It was a little slow (albeit interesting) from the get go, with lots of big words I had to skip over or look up. That’s okay—if you have a big vocabulary, by all means use it; it’s good for me. No, where I finally gave up was about 60-70 pages in, where I encountered something I hadn’t seen before:

A sixteen-page-long paragraph. Sixteen pages. One-six. I knew then I wouldn’t be finishing the book in the allotted 14 day period I had from the library, since it was a “new release.” I know I could’ve gotten more time, but I had also checked out Hill House and was excited to read that. I very well may come back to it sometime.

My rating: Incomplete

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Pygmy —Chuck Palahniuk (2009)

I didn’t know anything about this book before I checked it out of the library. I’ve read/listened to audiobooks of three of Palahniuk’s novels; some I liked and some I didn’t, but I would consider myself a fan of his, by and large. Earlier I used the word polarizing—you want polarizing? Here we go.

Pygmy is the tale of a covert terrorist agent from an unnamed country, sent (along with a handful of his comrades) to America under the guise of being an exchange student. He’s 13, a complete genius who has encyclopedic knowledge of science and literature, and is extensively trained in some sort of krav-maga style of martial arts—his entire body is a deadly weapon.

Oh, and did I mention: The entire book is written in broken, ‘foreigner’ English. Some people can’t deal with it; it’s distracting, to say the least.

Thoughts as a reader: I read three pages before putting the book down and saying to my wife, “I’m not going to be able to read this crap.” It kept calling me, though, and the next day I picked it back up and made myself read the first two (very short) chapters. That did it. I knew then that come hell or high-water I would finish this book. And believe it or not, I’m glad I did. It takes some concentration to get into the weird, broken English. (Sample sentence: “Here worship shrine, all male neck must bind around with knotted banner, silk banner knotted at windpipe so dangle two long strands down chest to waistband trouser.” Okay, all the men at church are wearing neck ties—got it.) And why is it that this child genius who knows how to kill people with one finger, build bombs and quote famous authors hasn’t yet gotten a grasp on basic English? You just have to suspend disbelief there, as well as a lot of other places.

And yet, the story managed to get its hooks in me and by the end I almost laughed out loud a couple times. I don’t know if this will make sense, but I felt like I was reading the novelization of an as-yet unmade John Waters movie—characters that were absurdly satirical, and lots of lame sex jokes.

Thoughts as a writer: This took balls. To be honest, I don’t know who has bigger balls: Palahniuk for writing the book, or his publisher for agreeing to put it out. I guess it’s easy to have such testicular fortitude when you’re already a best-selling author, versus some (mostly) unpublished schmuck like me. It may never make my list of best books ever, but I admire the work it had to take to make it happen, and I do have a soft spot for it. And if John Waters ever makes a movie version, I want a producer credit.

My rating: 2 stars (although my view has softened and I’m tempted to bump it to 2 1/2 or 3)

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The End of Alice — A.M. Homes (1999)

Another book I had heard a lot about. This one makes me feel weird, in both good and bad ways. I saved this one for last for a reason.

Alice is about a convicted pedophile doing his time in prison while hoping against hope for parole, when he unexpectedly becomes pen pals with a 19 year old girl. She knows who the man is (he is quite infamous because of the crimes he committed against the titular Alice, which is what put him in prison), and confesses to him that she is having similar thoughts about a 12 year old boy in her neighborhood. He is both aroused by the girl’s desires and jealous of the attention the girl gives the young boy. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that the girl serves as a catalyst to make our convict remember things he’s tried to forget while in prison: his primal urges, his penchant for violence, and what ultimately was ‘the end of Alice.’

Thoughts as a reader: If you’ve been reading the blog for any length of time, you’ve probably realized by now I’m no prude. Quite the opposite. I actually like stories that are weird, strange, dark, violent, disturbing, you name it. Very few books or movies get a very big reaction from me. That said, The End of Alice made me want to run screaming into a Silkwood shower and scrub myself with a Brillo pad, crying ‘unclean…unclean…’  Yeah. It’s that bad. But it’s good…if you can take it.

There is incredibly detailed description of pedophilia and horrific violence, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. But the thing is, it’s written so eloquently that it sucks you in (again, if you can take it) to the point that you almost start to empathize with this monster. I doubt many of you have seen the movie Happiness, but it reminds me of Happiness if it was written by a sex-crazed version of Hannibal Lechter.

I actually liked this book a great deal, but I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone because I don’t know many people who could stomach it. If you’re not sure if you can handle it, you probably can’t. If, on the other hand, you can get through the vile acts described in the book, I found it quite good. My only real complaint is that the story was a bit anti-climactic. I thought the story was building toward what was going to happen with the girl and the 12 year old, when instead the climax of the story if finally finding out what actually happened to Alice.

Thoughts as a writer: Again, the balls it took to write something like this. And I hope this comes out sounding the way I mean it to, but I’m astonished this book was written by a woman. I’d love to know what kind of research she did to get in the head of such a despicable, evil person so completely. As sick as it is, I would read this again, even though I half-jokingly wondered once if buying it or checking out of the library put me on some kind of watch list.

My rating: 4 stars

Well, that’s it until the fall book report. I’m currently reading The Ruins by Scott Smith, and despite being intimidated by its size (not to mention having already seen the movie), at 60 pages in I’m beyond hooked.

I’d love to know your thoughts on any of the books above, whether you’ve already read them or plan to go and read them—or avoid them—because of my review. Let me know! Other than that, what about you? Read any good books lately?

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My Writing Resolutions for 2014

2014

Lose weight. Quit smoking. Exercise more. Stop drinking. It’s that time again, when people use the new year as a chance to wipe the slate clean and hit the reset button. Stop their bad habits and start over fresh January 1st with a new beginning. They share many of the same resolutions; some manage to keep theirs for good, while others may last a few months. Some will only last a week or two before saying ‘screw it’ and falling back to their old ways.

As the year comes to a close I’ve been reflecting on my writing—what I’ve accomplished, what I still want to accomplish, and how I can go about getting there. Hence, my writing resolutions for the coming year. I’m curious if any of you other writers out there share some of these same resolutions the way ‘normal’ people share theirs.

I will devote time to writing every day.

As writers, the phrase “Write every day” is engrained in us like the literary Pledge of Allegiance. Lately, though, I think that piece of advice is part baloney. I’m not necessarily saying someone should actively choose not to write, but I don’t believe forcing yourself to put words on paper (or on a screen) is always the most beneficial thing you can do.

Instead, what I’ve begun doing is setting aside time to write every day. If I use that time to write, that’s awesome. But sometimes, there’s just nothing in the tank. Chalk it up to a long day at work, too little sleep, or simply a bad mood/depression, sometimes writers don’t want to write. That’s different than you’re garden variety procrastination; I’m talking about just plain not having the desire to write anything. I think that as long as it isn’t happening regularly, it’s okay to not write once in a while.

What I do believe in is putting the time aside to write. If you don’t feel like writing one day, don’t, but do something at least related to writing. Maybe read a book. Read some blogs, or work on your own blog. Write somebody an email. Even if you don’t write a single word, it’s still time devoted to writing and thinking about writing. Sometimes that can be just as productive (if not more) than forcing yourself to crap out a couple hundred words of something you don’t like.*

*this is merely one random guy’s opinion, feel free to disagree. Many do.

I will learn to use Scrivener and Evernote to their full potential.

As a novice writer and blogger (which, arguably, I still am), last year I read a lot of articles and blog posts about what tools writers use to capture their thoughts and ideas, and what they use to actually get them written down. I dutifully got Scrivener and, more recently, Evernote, and now I just need to learn how to make the most of them.

I’ve jotted down a few notes on my phone when I was out and about on Evernote, but I still don’t really know what else there is to do with it. Same goes for Scrivener: I’ve used it and am using it currently, but only in its most basic capacity. I need to take the time to watch the tutorials and fumble around in my clumsy old man fashion until I can really see what that program can do. At this point it seems like it will be something I mainly use in the editing stage as I do a lot of my principal writing away from home. I initially used Google Drive to write while away, but due to some inexplicable problems with it at work I’ve begun using Zoho. It gets the job done, but I do like Drive better.

I will read more.

I read seven books this year; not exactly what you’d call a staggering amount. But now, as the rough drafts pile up and editing becomes a bigger and bigger part of my day, the time to read has seemed to shrink to a sliver. I started a book two or three weeks ago and I’m still just 30 pages in. There is so much I want to read—old books I either haven’t read or want to re-read, fellow bloggers’ books, new authors making their debut—and the list goes on.

What I need to do is crack open a book every time I find myself wanting to play a new game, or if a TV show is on that I’m not totally invested in. Because I know what happens: once I get far enough into a book, I’m in for the long haul. Once I’m invested in the story I become determined to finish the thing so I can see how it all turns out.  My goal is at least 12 books in 2014—still not setting the world on fire, but a small improvement from this year.

I will study the craft.

This year I read Stephen King’s wonderful On Writing (which I didn’t count as one of the seven), as well as the essays by Chuck PalahniukCraig Clevenger and everyone else at Lit Reactor. Together, those helped me make a giant leap in the quality of my writing. There’s nothing quite like reading something that details poor writing, only to find examples of said poor writing throughout your work.

But that’s not enough.

I still haven’t picked up what is considered by many to be the gold standard, the holy grail of writers everywhere, Strunk and White‘s The Elements of Style, and I haven’t gone back through every aspiring writer’s hero Chuck Wendig’s website for his tips on writing. Reading what I did this past year helped, but I’m not done learning. A writer is never done learning, we all know that. I’m going to study up and make my writing goddamn bulletproof.

I will be published.

God, it sounds so simple, doesn’t it? If only it were. I had seven short stories that I submitted to publishers this year, and as of this writing have amassed 11 rejections. That doesn’t shake me all that bad, honestly. Rejection is part of the game. No, what bothers me is my lack of diligence.

What happens is I’ll submit a story, receive the rejection, then do nothing for awhile. I don’t just automatically move on to the next publisher and submit again, like I should. Some stories have only been submitted once, while one story has been submitted and rejected four times. This year I’m going to be more businesslike in handling my submissions, and by god I’m going to be published.

That sounds so dramatic. What happens if I’m sitting here in late December of 2014 and still haven’t been published? Honestly, I don’t think that’s very likely but if that were to happen I’d have no one but myself to blame for not being persistent and sending out submissions regularly. A couple of the early stories I wrote may lack some of the polish of more recent ones, but I truly believe my work now is good enough to be printed somewhere, and somewhere out there is a publisher who thinks so, too.

So, there you have it. My writing resolutions for 2014. Hopefully I keep them all, or at least make a valiant effort. I look forward to reading all your blogs in the coming year, so keep ’em coming. Now, tell me, do you have any resolutions for your writing? Any of yours on my list above?

Thanks to everyone who follows and reads the blog. This has turned out to be more fun and fulfilling than I ever could have imagined. Putting out a new blog post is always the highlight of my week. Here’s wishing you all a healthy, happy, and prosperous new year.

‘Unpacking the Suitcase’ and The Pain of Knowing What You Don’t Know

I want to start by wishing best of luck to all the writers out there crazy/brave enough to embark on the insanity that is NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, November is designated as National Novel Writing Month, and if you sign up for the challenge the goal is to write a complete draft of a novel (at least 50,000 words) by the end of the month.

I don’t think I have the organizational skills to have a story so well thought out that I can crank out the words that fast; maybe next year (?). I’m with you all in spirit, though – I’m 26,000 words into my current rough draft, and the way I work I may need all month to finish that. So read my blog, then get back to churning out the 1700 words a day you need to hit that goal and win NaNo!

I’ve been re-reading some of the craft essays on Lit Reactor (which, again, I can’t recommend highly enough) for help and inspiration as I go, and there’s a phrase Chuck Palahniuk uses throughout his essays: he refers to ‘unpacking the suitcase,’ a term he came up with for identifying what writers need to do sometimes to slow down and be more descriptive. I have a really hard time doing that.

I sent out a tweet recently (follow me on twitter here!) saying that as I read over what I’d written I heard the voice of an annoying little kid in my head. Do you know the kind of kid I mean? The one who doesn’t know how to regulate the volume of their voice when they talk, and love telling lengthy stories as though it’s the world’s longest run-on sentence? Since my writing (at least in early drafts) tends to lack some of the details that makes a reader slow down and take in what they’re reading, it felt like I was rushing through it as I read it. When I go back on future drafts I need to slow down and ‘unpack the suitcase’ so the scene is a little easier to visualize. It’s good to leave a reader room for imagination, but you don’t want to leave it all up to them. Throw them a freakin’ bone, ya know?

A couple months ago I read The Long Walk by Stephen King (from way back in his Richard Bachman days). It’s one of his most well-liked by a lot of the die hard King fans out there, and if you’ve never read it I highly recommend it. It’s not flat out horror, but of course it’s very bleak and dark. As I read, I came upon a paragraph that stuck out to me so vividly that I went back and looked it up now months later just so I could quote it in this post. The book is set in New England during an unseasonably warm early May:

Birds sang in the high-crowned trees, the furtive breeze now and then masked the heat for a moment or two, sounding like a lost soul as it soughed through the trees. A brown squirrel froze on a high branch, tail bushed out, black eyes brutally attentive, a nut caught between his ratlike front paws. He chittered at them, then scurried away higher up and disappeared. A plane droned far away, like a giant fly.

When I came across those four sentences I stopped. I don’t think I’ve written that much detail in a single paragraph, well, ever. I’d like to think as I keep writing I keep getting better at ‘unpacking the suitcase,’ but I suppose time will tell. Which brings me to my next point.

I was thinking about how frustrating it is, knowing I’m not usually descriptive enough with what I’m writing, but at least I should take comfort in the fact that I know and don’t just keep doing it wrong without realizing it. That took me back to something I heard in high school, which I had to look up to refresh my memory, called the four stages of competence. They are (cribbed from Wikipedia):

  1. Unconscious incompetence
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognise their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.
  2. Conscious incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.
  3. Conscious competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.
  4. Unconscious competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

I suppose I’m in between 2 and 3. I know enough to recognize what I’m doing wrong, but for the most part I think I do know what I’m doing (if I do say so myself). I don’t know if many writers ever feel like they’re fully at number 4, aside from maybe King, Cormac McCarthy, people like that. I have a hard time believing I will ever reach number 4, but that’s okay – there are lots of 3’s out there who are doing just fine.

With that, I’m going to retreat back into my little writer’s dungeon, start mashing on the keyboard and see what appears on the screen. Once again, best of luck to the NaNoWriMo participants, may the word count gods be with you.

On Constructive Criticism, Beta Readers, and Being An Accidental Fraud

Constructive Criticism

Last week I found a great new (to me) website called Lit Reactor. You may have already heard of it, but if you haven’t, it’s a tremendous resource for writers looking to better their craft (and aren’t we all?). The site is a spinoff of sorts from The Cult, official website of author Chuck Palahniuk, and features pretty much everything a writer could possibly imagine. From essays on the craft of writing to articles on how to write a query letter and get an agent, all the advice given here is from people in the field – published authors (many of which you’ve probably heard of), agents, publishers, etc.

Along with reading Mr. Palahniuk’s essays on writing, which already have my head spinning with good advice, the best thing about the site in my opinion is the writers workshop. Here, members of the site can submit their work for their fellow writers to critique and review. After reading a few of the stories other people had submitted and the (extremely detailed) critiques people wrote back, I was ready to submit one of my own and see what people thought. So that’s what I did.

Hoo boy.

By the next morning, two people had offered up reviews/critiques suggesting what may need to be fixed. I wasn’t surprised that they were offering ways to fix my story. I expected it. What I didn’t expect was that they would offer so many ways to fix it. One person even included a line by line review, where words and sentences were underlined and suggestions made as to what to change or take out altogether. I guess I just thought the story was more polished than it really is. Reading the multitude  of things wrong with my story that morning, I got a little dejected. Until, that is, I got to work.

Beta Readers

I have two people who serve as my beta readers. They don’t realize that’s what they are, but they are. I sent them each of my novellas and they would tell me what they did or didn’t like about them. The thing is, since I know them pretty well they won’t give me any honest feedback about anything they don’t like. For the most part. So if they both give me the same piece feedback, I’m tempted to think there’s something to that.

My second beta reader emailed me Friday to let me know he finished novella #2. He said he really liked it for the most part, which cheered me up some after the critiquing beatdown I’d gotten earlier, but he thought the ending was very abrupt and there should have been more resolution. I liked the abrupt ending, but having two different people tell me it ended too soon made me think. Since the story had been left open, I had thoughts not of a sequel per se, but more of a spinoff. Now I’m thinking about combining the two into one story, which would turn novella #2 into novel #1.

Here’s the thing: the protagonist is basically written off at the end of the first half, and the second half would follow the antagonist with a new protagonist. Is that crazy? I can tie in the first protagonist easily enough (they are actually ex-husband and wife), but it isn’t something I’ve seen done before, which is both scary and exciting. I hope to start the rough draft for the second half in the next day or two.

Being an Accidental Fraud

I’m turning red just at the thought of typing this, but when it comes to anything writing related I will share anything with you guys, even if it is a bit awkward, uncomfortable, and embarrassing.

Fellow writer and blogger Darius Jones sent out a quick blog post Friday announcing he had a short story being published on the Fiction Vortex website. This is the first work of his accepted for publication, and that’s a big deal, worthy of celebrating. I wanted to do my part to help spread the word and get people to read his story, so I decided to reblog his post.

I forgot/didn’t realize one tiny detail.

Via the Publicize feature on WordPress, my blog posts are also sent out on Facebook and Twitter. Even posts that I reblog. Do you see where this is headed?

I was at work when I reblogged Darius’s good news, and when I got home later I saw the post had shown up on Facebook, and one of my relatives ‘liked’ it. Surely they don’t think it was me who got published…do they? Nah… I went back about my business and tried to unwind after a long week. Read a little, played some games on the iPad, that sort of thing. A couple hours later I went back on Facebook and now had 8 ‘likes.’

Oh God, everyone thinks I got published.

I put a comment on the post trying to explain what had happened, and that I appreciated everyone’s showing of well wishes, blah blah blah. There, that should take care of it.

Then, another hour later, the death blow.

A text from my Dad: So how does it feel to be a published author?

Jesus.

So, in short, don’t worry everybody. I’m still in search of that first publication. But to right this wrong, please check out Darius’s blog, and click here to read his short story!

Now, for anyone willing to comment, a couple of questions:

Have you read/written a story that shifted the POV from one protagonist to another as the story progressed? How did you like it?

Before writing this post I took a quick look around Chuck Palahniuk’s website, and realized he’s on a book tour and will be stopping in my town! I’ve never actually been to an author event before, what’s it like? Do the authors read excerpts, or just sit there and sign books as a line files by? What authors have you met/seen in person, and how was it?