Life Beyond “Good” and “Bad”: Off the Cuff Review of Reviews

When I first started my journey through reading 52 books this year, I only had one criteria that I thought needed to be sated: did I enjoy the book or not? This is the simplest, most direct way of deciding whether or not a book is “worth” your time usually.

But, as with many things I do, it’s become more complicated than that as the weeks have bore on. For everything that I do in my life, there seems to be an ever changing criteria sheet which I use to make value-based judgements on my performance. I believe I inherited this from my father. The 52 books challenge has been no exception, and of late I would probably afford myself a C. Despite being proud of how my writing is progressing, I think my main concern was immediately noticing how I was following a set pattern.

The structure is as follows:

> I didn’t know if I’d like this novel or not.

> But I did end up liking this novel.

> Clever one liner for personality flare and points for style.

> Light analysis unsupported by evidence.

> “Ultimately I liked this novel but it might not be for you, I don’t know.”

Knowing your structure isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to writing, but for me the fact is that I’m essentially saying the same thing for each book. Perhaps the pitfall with reviews is that we get caught into that trap of deciding whether or not a book is good enough in our opinion to be worth someone else’s time on a grand scale. That is, I’m tasking myself with the responsibility of deciding whether or not a book is suited to everyone who may or may not read my reviews.

The answer to the question of if a lot of people will like something is almost always going to be yes. When you try to wrap a piece of literature into a neat package of objectively “good” or “bad”, it almost always ends up being good unless it’s a complete train wreck.

Besides that, for as much as I talk about avoiding homogenising culture, literature, society, etc., I end up homogenising my own content in following my review structure. This is the final irony which does not escape me.

In my life as an under grad I got to a point where it was less about whether a text was “good” or “bad”, or if the story was enjoyable or not. Every part of the process was enjoyable for me. When you penetrate a certain level of analysing literature, it becomes less about the thing as a whole and more about tiny pockets of what it is that you’re looking at.

Recently, I read a fabulous Musing from Dirty Sci-Fi Buddha on my WordPress reader. In his Musing, he reflects on the need to approach people’s actions as neither “good” nor “bad”, and rather to approach them instance by instance. I of course, being me, misread this entirely and for whatever reason thought he was talking about books at first glance. This is the price I pay for constantly being focussing on creating content: many things are slipping through the gaps unless they appear immediately relevant. I’m learning to closely re-read again, little by little.

I think that the advice given in Dirty Sci-Fi Buddha’s musing can be applied to what it is that I’m trying to do. Perhaps it’s time to not look at each book as another point towards my end goal. My reading chops are back up enough again that I don’t need to look at the big picture of a novel anymore, and I can take the time to appreciate all the little parts of it that make it interesting or compelling.

We’re in a constant state of evolution and appraising what we can do better. Or at least, I know that I function that way. And so I find myself in the wonderful position of loving everything I am learning through this process, getting to read a lot of great books, and getting better and better at my craft in my own eyes.

I WRITE THINGS: On using “The Snowflake Method”: moving from stabbing in the dark to stabbing in a pleasantly lit room

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I am not an effective planner. That’s not to say I don’t plan things – this is an essential part of being a teacher. It’s that key word “effective” that most often trips me up.

However, as an analytical person who is solutions based (use this information as you will), I am particularly adept at finding things I’m not good at and figuring out how to fix it. Again, the application of this skill is often also not very effective.

In the past two months I wrote two first drafts of two different novels. These were both roughly 30 pages long, with about 15 pages devoted to a really compelling and engaging exposition to the novel, and then the remaining pages being akin to the story telling skills of a five year old telling you about a birthday party they went to. The “and then” story telling structure is strong with this one.

With both of these first drafts, I have done what some would call “diddly squat”. I didn’t plan for either of them – I wrote them by the seat of my pants. This has been my method for most of my writing career. I get an idea and I just sort of go for it without stopping. What I end up with is great little bits of writing amongst an otherwise on fire manuscript where the fire extinguisher is also on fire.

Herein lies my problem: at the end of writing something, I’m usually staring down the barrel of something that’s gotten way out of my control and I don’t know how to get it back under control. That sentiment in itself is one I have trouble wrapping my head around. Every time I’ve written something, there comes a tipping point where it feels as though I’ve relinquished control of the narrative and I don’t know how to reign it back in. Here I am, the God of the universe I have created, with no idea how to actually write a compelling plot.

Herein lies another problem: my longer pieces of writing tend to not really have a plot. Or at least, their plot isn’t strong enough to carry the whole novel. I would liken this to playing an RPG game the likes of Fallout or Skyrim: after five hours of game play, I’ve suddenly remembered there’s actually a story buried in there, somewhere.

In the past when I have encountered a problem, I have chosen the Quit and Accept Futility Method, which is 100% ineffective and does nothing to serve me.

Recently, I have been trying a new method, called the Find Help From an Outside Source and Accept That You Are Not Perfect. As a result, I’ve found out about another method, the Snowflake Method. I’m not going to explain it to you because I assume you can read, but I’ve found this planning method to be invaluable to me in my current writing endeavours, and also to stop me from my aforementioned use of QAFM.

It’s forced me to stop and really think about what’s going to happen next in my stories instead of just panicking and hitting the “fuck it” button. Usually, my writing technique is to go with whatever idea pops into my head first and assume that it’s the right one. Have human sized crabs featured in the story up to this point? No, but okay brain, let’s do it!

There’s a lot to be said about the value of writing for the sake of writing and just enjoying the discovery process, and that certainly has it’s place, but I’ve come to realise that the issues I ran into when I first started writing haven’t changed, and that’s because I didn’t plan then and I certainly wasn’t planning when I first picked it back up a few months ago.

There are only so many times one can hit their head against the wall, and I suppose I reached my limit.

So, in adopting the Snowflake Method, have I got a best seller novel on my hands? Probably not. Have I found the hack, the “easy” way to write a novel? Also, probably not. I think what I have got though is a greater understanding of how to construct a novel. I’m being forced to stop and think about my characters more. I’m forced to have to think about, what’s actually going on in this story?

Stephen King once famously said that writing ideas down is a good way to immortalise bad ideas, and maybe he’s right. But an even better way to immortalise bad ideas, I have found, is to write without thinking and excuse it as getting into a “creative” flow.

Change is difficult. It is not easy to change something about yourself. It is not easy to change my mindset that I just can’t write novels, that I have no good ideas, and that what I’m doing is not worth my time. These are all difficult things. But the difference between people that do and do not is just that: it’s up to whether I chose to write or not to write. There isn’t really an in between.

Anyway, I have a head cold so I hope some of this is lucid and understandable.

I WRITE THINGS: Things I’ve learned so far in trying to write a novel and Toni Morrison

I knew when I started this website that, ultimately, I would want to eventually get to a point where I was able to produce something that was at an acceptable length for publication. After all, that is typically what writers want – to put what they have made out into the world for public consumption. What I have found immediately is that an extended piece of writing is a lot harder to produce.

 

When I first started writing seriously at the age of 19, I used to have idea after idea after idea present itself to me. Like apples on the proverbial idea tree, they were all just as delightful and engaging as the last. Then one day, I stopped getting ideas. This happened right around the time I finished writing my second full length novel and promptly decided it was unreadable garbage.

 

In the painful process of having to become the person I am 4 years later, I didn’t have the capacity to even think about writing. As I mentioned in my other post of a similar topic, for the past four years I’ve been drawing a blank. Especially going into my first full time job in an intellectually and emotionally demanding field, it’s hard to be distracted enough to imagine these ideas.

 

And so, moving ahead and taking the first step to write a novel is difficult. To date I have two half-baked first drafts that require far more planning and forethought. These were products of feverish discovery writing, where I took a character and went with it. These will require work. Hard work. They will take time, because I do not have all day to write. They will take a commitment to writing, even when I don’t feel like doing it.

 

Luckily, I have more of patience with my writing, and more of a tolerance for the fact that, frankly, ideas don’t just pop into my head. I may be lucky enough to be given a scene, or the portrait of a person, or even a desire to write about a particular theme or topic, but for the most part I’m on the front line alone while the ever elusive muse is off in another field.

 

Perhaps my patience comes from the knowledge that if I don’t just sit myself down and start writing, I’m going to blink and have missed all the time I could’ve spent on something I am so passionate about.

 

For what it’s worth, I don’t put a lot of stock into the idea that I don’t have any ideas. Of an evening, I may only have 2-3 hours to write stuff, and that is not time I can spend feeling sorry for myself that I haven’t had a whole story jump out in front of me ready for my willing hands. One very important lesson I’ve learned in these four years is that if you want something, you have to work for it. This can be applied to writing, too.

 

And so, I watch YouTube videos interviewing my favourite authors to see what they have to say about the topic or motivating yourself as a writer.

 

Tonight I watched an interview with Toni Morrison, who is arguably my favourite literary fiction author. Morrison writes about the plight of African American women navigating their lives as the least privileged members of society. Her intent was to make people feel that hurt experienced by the group she belonged to, and time and time again she has achieved this tenfold. Hurt is a word she uses quite a lot, and it is a powerful one at that.

 

She reflects on the African American literature of the time when she was first coming up, about how focussed on being empowering it was, and how she saw a gap. Morrison stated to the interviewer, “They’re going to skip over something. And no one’s going to remember that it wasn’t always beautiful.”

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I WRITE THINGS: Representation and Me Talk

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In my last blog post about Mission Impossible: Fallout I touched on something that I haven’t ever really engaged with before, mostly because in the immortal words of Rick Springsteen, the point was probably moot. By which, I of course mean, contrary to what Springsteen thinks he is singing, there is almost too much to say on this particular topic. I don’t feel that I am able to adequately address it in a way that I’m comfortable with in a 500 word blog post.

 

The topic is, of course, representation.

 

Representation is one of my favourite words and concepts to unpack. As an English teacher, much of what my students and I engage in is discussion of how groups or people are being represented and why it matters. As I alluded to in my prior post, representation does matter to me, and it does have an impact on my life day to day.

 

The reality of my situation isn’t lost on me. I am fortunate enough to not only have a functional literacy level to the point where I am able to write prose and enjoy myself, but also to have the means to do so. That’s a level of privilege many people are not afforded. Even as someone technically a part of a minority, I have never personally faced direct persecution or disadvantage (to my knowledge) for the fact that I am gay.

 

At the end of the day, I am a 20 something year old who writes stories for personal enjoyment and shares them on the internet. It matters to me, I love doing it, but I’m not on the precipice of some astronomical discovery.

 

However, the reason I wanted to discuss the concept of representation, and specifically heteronormativity and writing, was because something sort of funny happened to me this week. I finished a first draft of a novel (yay!) and began thinking about what sort of story I want to write next. For me personally, story almost always starts with character – I find characters more compelling than plot.

 

As I started to plan who my next story would be centred around, I had a moment of hesitation. The question that crossed in my mind was, “if I keep writing stories about lgbtq+ characters, are people going to criticise me for it? Am I being predictable?”

 

Of course, when it comes to writing I do write for myself first and foremost, but reader enjoyment plays into the equation. I was stumped by my own question, not knowing the answer. There is of course the argument that authors like Stephen King typically write about relatively similar characters in terms of those basic features – that is, many of King’s characters are straight white middle aged men.

 

I’m still genuinely stumped on where I stand on this, and whether or not it is an issue at all or if I’m overthinking it entirely.

 

So I throw the question back to you, dear reader – what do you think? What does any of this mean? Am I over thinking the value of representation? Did I leave the stove on?

I WRITE THINGS: on writer’s block and past mistakes

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For one reason or another, I took a hiatus from writing between 2014 and 2018. I had just finished writing my second novel at the beginning of 2014, and was met with a crushing revelation that the novel simply was not good enough for publication standard. My friends at the time tried to tell me otherwise, and encouraged me to press on, but something in me broke. I don’t know what exactly set me off (crippling depression and emotional immaturity), but in those 4 years, none of my ideas came to fruition.

I was writing, don’t get me wrong. I would go through periods of time where I would sit myself and force myself to write. Usually, this resulted in exhaustion on my part. I experienced feeling increasingly tired as I wrote, increasingly depressed, and all of the negative things I’d told myself about my early writing efforts was coming back to haunt me. Sometimes I would write a paragraph and then have to go back to bed, feeling I was at my breaking point all over again. Put simply, the thing that had once brought me immense joy now felt as though it was poisoning me.

Between 2014 to 2018, I decided that I wasn’t a writer and that I never would be. It had been nothing more than a pipe dream of someone not yet grown out of adolescence. Between 2014 to 2018, I went through some of the more difficult personal life challenges that I have faced to date, with many of the issues I encountered being resolved by the end of 2017.

There’s something to be said about the correlation between extreme stress and what we deem to be “writer’s block”. In many ways, I agree with Reynolds’ perspective that, “writers block is a myth” (2015). I never felt as though there was a block to my ideas. Instead, I felt as though the basin had run dry, I was devoid of all creativity, and that I had finally outgrown the ambition to be a writer.

The word itself felt like a loaded gun to me – representative of failure and inability to act, ready to blow me to smithereens anytime anyone asked me how my writing was going. Reynolds goes on to argue that many people experience “writer’s block” when they are exhausted – burned out on their work (2015). Simply put, as far as I see it, I wasn’t able to write for those 4 years. Because I was beyond exhausted – because I felt like I’d been dragged to the brink of total annihilation over and over again.

About a month ago, I read a quote from Louis L’amour.

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”

In the past I mostly found this idea absurd and akin to when people tell depressed people to just be happy. While the latter piece of advice remains certified bullshit, L’amour had a point that I can see now. The only thing that started me writing again was the act of writing. But not just any writing; aimless writing.

In 2014, all I wanted to be was a published writer who was regaled for witticism and insights into the human condition. Before that, the only reason I wrote was to impress girls (spoiler: it absolutely does not impress girls). And before that, I wrote because I enjoyed it, and because I liked to create stories and people, and engage in good old fashioned escapism.

I’ve lost the ego I used to wear on my sleeve as a badge of pride, but not out of lack of confidence – rather, because for me, writing is no longer about proving something to someone else. When I write now, it’s for me.

Put simply, there’s nothing I would change about the last four years of my writing career. I had to push myself to the point of completely hating my writing and being exhausted by it to find what I had loved about writing in the first place. I may never be published; by the time this is posted, my website may be dead and gone as far as internet lifetimes are concerned. But I guess I just don’t really care about that so much anymore.

My advice for people going through writer’s block is simple: remember why you want to write in the first place. And if you can’t remember, cut yourself some slack. I am reminded of the immortal words of Alaska Thunderfuck – it’s just drag, and this is just writing.