Sunday, January 22, 2017

Fearless Fiction

Write for oneself, write what you yourself would most identity with, write honestly and unsparingly and fearlessly.

Lawrence Block
from Spider Spin Me a Web: A Handbook for Fiction Writers

Yes! Give me a fearless fiction! I have no interest in the nice, polite, easy, comfortable, comforting kind of story that lulls the incurious mind to sleep. No interest whatsoever in the opiate of happy endings, or the numbing oblivion of cozy genre tropes. I care nothing for the kind of writing that validates the childish prejudices of prudes and prigs, or coddles the self-righteous in their frigid cloisters. Spare me the company of writers who hire themselves out as glorified babysitters for the willfully ignorant and the easily-amused.

Picasso said that ‘true art can never be chaste’ and this is true, as well, for writing. Great writing bares all. A great writer cannot be body shy. Fearless fiction teaches us to face the things that terrify us most, even as we stand naked before the world in all our brazen brokenness, seared but unconsumed. For one cannot live a full and true and meaningful life in a state of fear. If we would use our past hurts and present fears as an excuse to self-censor, even as we would shrink from life, in the end we may find that we have never truly lived at all, let alone written anything of lasting value.

We must venture to upset and unsettle. We must dare to disturb. And we must begin with ourselves.

One encounters far too many uninspired erotic passages with all the allure of a checklist for an oil-change or a pathologist's notes on an autopsy. I suspect that much of this clinically repetitive claptrap can be explained as nothing more than bad writing, plain and simple. But much of it, I think, is the product of people who are ultimately afraid of losing control, who fear the dark depths of their own sexual imagination—or, more likely, the disapprobation of others, and so insist on keeping their fantasies bottled up and under control. In aspiring to create a fresh, fearless fiction, it may be helpful, first, to write down everything—get it all out on the page, whether or not it's worth polishing or publishing—and once these fantasies have been brought up into the light—the bizarre, the weird, the dark, the perverse, the downright sick—once the writer truly knows themself and what they are capable of creating, there is a basis for something good, if not great.

Note that sincere creative courage is not the same as merely venturing to outrage or shock an audience. Many beginners, infatuated with the forbidden or the sheer novelty of naughtiness, assume that erotic writing is naturally extreme in its depictions and must be ‘over the top’ in order to stand out. But these are the illusions of a novice. What makes a story about sex interesting isn’t so much the act itself; it’s the characters who come together to have that sex. Before you can tell an exceptional story about sex, you need to tell an extraordinary story about people; their thoughts, their feelings and their fears, their histories, hungers, hopes and hang-ups; ambitions, jealousies, obsessions, eccentricities, perversions, machinations, nightmares, daydreams and despairs. And, above all, the way these things are imagined, conveyed in language and in gesture.

Eroticism is impossible without imagination. As a physiological phenomenon, sex is neither extraordinary nor particularly interesting—after all, human beings can only ‘fit together’ in so many ways. Fortunately, our sexuality encompasses a great deal more than what lies within the limits of our finite physicality. What makes sex glorious and unique and endlessly fascinating is the way humans apply the infinite power of their imaginations to it.

Writing itself is like sex in this regard: in theory, anybody can do it, but, in practice, relatively few are capable of creating art with it. Doubtless, any half-witted hog can master the basic mechanics of what goes where (and I suspect that almost anybody could write rudimentary porn were they to put half or less of a mind to it); but it takes an extraordinary, thoughtful, sensitive human being to make love or move the world with words.

No. There’s nothing unusual about the ability to write—there’s no great mystery about it at all. This is why people tend to think that writing is easy, and balk at the prospect of putting down a few dollars for a novel or a short story collection—‘after all,’ they say, ‘why should I pay good money for something that anybody can do?’ It’s true, anybody can write, but few truly write well, and only the rarest handful write anything worth remembering.

If our sexuality is microcosm and metaphor for life in its vast complexity and bewildering abundance, those who would write about sex with insight and power must know something of and about life. Indeed, too much ‘serious’ literature envisions a life without sex. At the other end of the spectrum, porn gives us sex without life.  Somewhere in the middle, erotica endeavors to show us a real, human world in which life and sex are unimaginable without each other.

Write sincerely. Write beautifully. Write hopefully. Write fearlessly!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Bread and Fiction—A Recipe for Writers

Let’s have some fun, shall we? January is the blue Monday of the year, and this January especially, there are a lot of folks who need cheering up. As it will be several weeks before I can finish reading the first books slated for review this year, I thought it might be enjoyable in the interim, to do a few articles “off the beaten track” just for the sheer pleasure of it. Enjoy this one! (TAS)

To make pumpernickel rye, you will need the following ingredients:

4 cups lukewarm water
2 tablespoons dry yeast
2 tablespoons salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup oil
1/4 cup caraway or anise seed (optional)
6 cups rye flour
4 cups white flour (with 1 additional cup held in reserve)

Place dry ingredients (yeast, salt, sugar, seeds) plus oil in large mixing bowl. Add water and combine. It is essential at this stage to make sure that all measurements are precise: the water must be exactly four cups—no more, no less—and it must be perfectly luke warm—if you place your finger in it, you should not be able to feel either heat or coolness. More than anything else you do or don’t do along the way, getting this fluid base exactly right at the start insures a satisfactory outcome.

Slowly, carefully, one cup at a time, add six cups of rye flour to the fluid base. Stir and combine. (I like to whip the batter at this point, as it results in a nice, fluffy texture when the bread comes out of the oven.) Then, slowly, gently, one cup at a time, add four cups of All Purpose flour. Note here that the stirring gets tough; the dough is thickening and coming together. (Optionally, you may imitate a dalek from Doctor Who exclaiming “Agglutinate! Agglutinate!”). The dough will begin to adhere into sticky clumps: with the mixing spoon—or clean bare hands as need be—work these clumps into a rough mass. Spread a little extra flour on the bench or table before turning the contents of the bowl out onto the bench. Cover the dough with the dome of the upturned mixing bowl, and allow the dough to rest for ten to twenty minutes before kneading.

Once the dough has had a chance to rest, it’s time to knead it. This manual process squeezes voids and air pockets out of the dough. Depending on conditions of ambient temperature and humidity, the dough may be quite sticky at this stage. Use some of the reserved “bench flour” to apply to these sticky areas. Slowly turn the dough and press at it with the heels of your hands—not your fingers!—turn, press and fold, sprinkle flour as needed, turn, press and fold, until the dough surface is consistently smooth and “silky” to the touch.

Press this nice smooth chunk of dough into the bottom of a clean mixing bowl. Cover the bowl and set it in a warm place. The best weather conditions for bread-rising are hot, muggy summer days, but you can simulate these conditions at other times of year by placing a pan of hot water under the mixing bowl, and covering both with a heavy towel. Let the dough rise—that is, allow the yeast to do its work—for one hour and thirty minutes.

When the bread has completed its first rising, dump the risen mass onto the bench, after putting down a little flour. With a clean serrated knife, divide the dough into four equal parts. The dough may, once again, have become sticky in places—as before, use small amounts of flour to “heal” and dry out these areas. Form each quarter into a small round loaf, rolling it steadily in your hands, tucking the dough underneath so as to form a beautiful smooth top. Set these quarter loaves onto a greased metal cookie sheet, cover with a heavy towel and allow to rise one more hour. (The pan of hot water is no longer needed.)

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees. After the second rising, place the sheet with its loaves into the oven for forty (40) minutes. Remove the baked bread and transfer the loaves to cooling racks, baste the tops with butter, and allow to cool before cutting yourself a nice warm slice…

Some of you may be asking what any of this has to do with writing fiction … and I’m going to tell you. The recipe I’ve just shared can be seen as a pretty good metaphor for the process of writing fiction. Let’s explore. Remember how I said that the fluid base needs to be just so in order to ensure that something good ultimately comes out of the oven? In writing, too, you need to have a solid grasp of the fundamentals, grammar, spelling, punctuation. The more precise you are—the greater command you have of the fundamentals—the better your work will turn out, regardless of what kind of story you wish to tell.

The flour is like the idea for a story. In fact, several ideas may come together to form the basis for an interesting tale. If skillfully, thoroughly and thoughtfully combined, this mass of ideas, while a bit rough to begin with, will show a great deal of potential. But, just as the agglutinated mass needs a little time to rest before you knead it, so too, the writer needs to be patient in letting their imagination begin to do its work.

Some ideas need more work than others in order to form a solid story. Some disparate ideas resist coming together—make things ‘sticky’ as it were—and a bit of extra attention is required to work them in smoothly.  Patience again, as the dough rises or as the story expands and becomes more vivid in the writer’s imagination. The story is first told inside a writer’s head—it remains only for the author to write the story down…

The dough, formed into loaves is like a first draft. Many writers—Stephen King comes immediately to mind—say that it’s important to set aside the first draft for a time before doing re-writes. And so it is with the process of waiting as the dough rises to maturity. Eventually, you get in, do the necessary re-writing, revising, and editing—incidentally, “edit” comes from the Latin verb meaning “to eat”—and you turn out the kind of book that people will want to read, just as that lovely brown bread comes out of the oven, smelling heavenly, and looking delicious. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

How to be a Better Beta-Reader (And a Better Writer)

My short story Making Hay begins like this:

Her brothers called me Blindy because of the patch over where my left eye used to be…

One of the people I’d asked to beta read this story commented that they weren’t sure how ‘Blindy’ was supposed to be pronounced, suggesting that readers might assume it rhymed with ‘Mindy’. My colleague—in so many respects an absolutely brilliant person—had apparently overlooked the rest of the sentence, which surely indicates the proper pronunciation of the word by placing it in context.

Another beta reader cited this sentence in Making Hay:

… she could do better’n some old one-eyed rambler.

This reader insisted—emphatically—that my syntax was wrong, and that I ought to have written ‘one-eyed old rambler’ instead. Yet, were I inclined to engage in debate with my beta readers over trivial issues, my question would be: Which word do you suppose bears the rhetorical weight of that sentence? Is the emphasis, as you would have it, on ‘old’ or is it on ‘one-eyed’?  In fact, ‘old’ is nothing more than a cadential placeholder here, thus, transposing it to the end of the sentence would, in effect, deplete the phrase of rhythmic momentum and rhetorical efficacy.

The point of this is that, though I certainly make my share of mistakes, in the end, I know what I’m doing; otherwise I wouldn’t be in this line of work. Like a good ship’s captain knows the minutest details of their vessel down to the last bolt and rivet, a competent author knows where they're going, why and how. As Ursula K. Le Guinn tells us in Steering the Craft:

Ultimately, you write alone. And ultimately you and you alone can judge your work. The judgment that a work is complete—this is what I meant to do and I stand by it—can come only from the writer, and it can only be made rightly by a writer who’s learned to read her own work…

Yet, there are some things—typos, misspellings, the occasional grammatical faux pas—that even the most fastidious author might miss, and this is why beta readers—that second and third and fourth set of eyes on a text—are so important to the editorial process. (I note with a certain smug irony that everyone who beta-read Making Hay for me missed a fairly conspicuous spelling error (“desperate straights” where it ought to have read “desperate straits”), which I eventually caught on my own—thankfully before sending the story to the editor.

Now, I’ve done a fair amount of beta-reading for others myself, and, admittedly, have not always been the sort of help I’d hoped I could be. It’s difficult for me not to be snarky when confronting writers who use phrases like “tussled hair” or “the table groaned under the weight of its nuptials”. My comments to these authors were, respectively, “Gosh! Did his hair get in a fight? Surely you mean tousled hair? and “I didn’t know tables could get married now! Did you, perhaps, mean to say victuals?”

I’m a stickler for accuracy in my own areas of expertise, and tend to become mildly annoyed with authors who try to write stories set in worlds they clearly know little about. I get downright pissed off with writers who show no inclination to do proper research into their topic or setting: it is not my job as a beta reader to do that research for them, even though I may strongly desire to help them make their work better. My sense is that if they come off looking like an amateur, their failure reflects on me.  

Then again, I’ve had a few beta readers who seemed more interested in taking passive-aggressive swipes at me personally than in helping me improve my work. One beta reader who KNEW that I had subsequently changed the title of the story they were reading, wasted my time and theirs typing out several long-ish paragraphs about how the abandoned title was completely wrong, and how I was imperceptive and basically incompetent. I do hope said beta reader felt better after venting, even as this outburst of impuissant bile clearly demonstrates that they’re not nearly as clever as they think they are.

Now, let us consider ways in which the author/beta-reader relationship might be more professional, and consistently fruitful. As in any healthy relationship, both parties have responsibilities and an ethical obligation to be respectful and fair at all times.

What the author needs to know:

(1) It’s important to have several people reading your work. If one beta reader complains about an issue in the text, it may or may not be something the writer should concern themselves with. On the other hand, if two or three readers cite the same problem, the author should, at the very least, sit up and pay attention.

What is the ideal number of readers to employ? I would say three at a minimum for a short story, probably no more than five. You may want more for a longer piece of work like a novel, as there’s considerably more to be ‘caught’.  Note that these are odd numbers: in case one of those “issues” arises, an odd number may be helpful in discerning a clear consensus. On the other hand, it's not wise or helpful to have too many beta readers with too many conflicting opinions: "too many cooks spoil the soup" as they say, potentially causing all kinds of  heartache and creative inertia in the process.

(2) Tell your beta readers precisely what you want them to do for you. If all you’re after is a simple scan for obvious grammatical or typographical problems, say so up front. If you want a more elaborate critique, be specific about what that means.

(3) Give your beta readers a definite time frame in which to complete their work, say “I need this within a week…” Stick to this time frame; don’t pester the readers before the stated deadline. Give the readers sufficient time to do their work. Don’t throw something at a reader a few hours before your deadline—not if you expect a thorough and genuinely helpful response. (This is rude and unprofessional in any case.)

(4) Never argue with your beta readers. Don’t waste your time getting into debates over small details—or even big issues. If you think they’re full of shit, simply thank them for taking a look and say something diplomatic to the effect that you “will take their suggestions under advisement”. If you think they have a point, ask them to clarify and discuss the issue.

(5) Never confuse criticism of your work with criticism of yourself. Don’t take criticism—even if it’s deeply misguided—personally. A true professional takes praise and criticism in equal stride.

What the beta-reader needs to know:

(1) Be prompt in responding. Ask the author for a deadline before agreeing to read and stick to that deadline. Do your work as quickly, thoroughly and thoughtfully as possible within the stated time-frame. If, for whatever reason, you are unable to finish on time, let the author know.  Don’t try to do more than you’ve been asked—but never do less.

(2) Read carefully. It’s wise, where possible, to read the text once over before making any comments. This will help avoid misinterpreting words or phrases that make sense in a larger context. Go back and read a second time, making points as necessary.

(3) Be as diplomatic as possible. Don’t be dogmatic: offer critique in the form of questions or suggestions. (e.g. Did you mean “desperate straits” here? or Suggest “desperate straits” here) It’s OK to be tough, but it’s important also to be fair. It’s one thing to tear into an author’s work—it’s quite another to tear into the author. There’s a word for beta readers who make it their mission to crush a writer’s ego or put them down personally; that word is asshole, and nobody likes an asshole.  

(4) Your job is to help the author make their writing as effective as possible. This means suggesting ways that a text can be clearer, structure more streamlined, and language more concise, expressive and powerful.  Understand, that for all the flaws you may find, the author knows more about the story they’re trying to tell than you do. Your job is to help them realize THEIR vision—not yours.

(5) Conversely, it’s not your job to impress the author with your own cleverness. This is a waste of your time and theirs, and, frankly, leads to some pretty ridiculous exchanges (see the comment on syntax above for example). If you have facts that you think might help improve the writing, by all means, present them—but don’t go beyond the scope of the mission, and don’t be overly disappointed if the author ignores your suggestions.