…and the philosophy behind her book limit.
(Not that she needs me to defend her.)
Wow, it’s like deja vu. A snippet of Kondo’s tidying advice has gone viral and a lot of people are reacting to -- from joking and memes to more serious responses -- without actually knowing the context or Kondo’s tidying philosophy that goes behind it.
A few years ago it was about only keeping things in your like that spark joy. Now it is her comment from her new Netflix show (or promoting her new Netflix show… I’m not sure of the source of the screenshot) about only owning thirty books.
Now look… I’m a librarian, a writer, a reader, and a booklover, and maybe if I hadn’t had a previous experience with Kondo’s work I would be reacting like the rest of the book-loving internet, but have had previous experience -- positive experience and an emotional emotion -- with her work. Needless to say, I’m a Kondo fan and I’m defensive and I’m going to get into it right here.
I have not watched any of her new Netflix show, but several years ago I read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and, more importantly, used her methods to clean out my childhood bedroom. When I say childhood bedroom, this was the room I had lived in since I was a toddler through my mid-twenties. It had a closet I didn’t even go into, built in cabinets, shelves full of knick knacks collected over the years. I could never keep it organized and tidy, and I would often lose things in the mess that would take me a long time to find. I had a lifetime of stuff in there: toys, collectibles, magazine clippings on my favorite actors from various times in my adolescents and so on. Almost all had nostalgic memories attached.
Kondo’s method helped me sort through this childhood of accumulated stuff, pare it down, and get organized. Which is not as easy (or un-emotionally fraught) as it sounds.
Kondo’s method is built on a couple tenants.
The first is that the reason you can’t get organized and stay tidy is that you have too much stuff and you need to get rid of some of the stuff.
The second is that you get rid of stuff by categories (as opposed to a room by room process). In the book (and in her cleaning method when she works one-on-one in people’s homes), that starts with clothes, goes through several others (including books), and ends with sentimental items.
The third is that she uses an emotional gage for judging what items you should keep and discard. This is where the ‘sparks joy’ thing comes in that so many people make fun of or just don’t plan understand. She defines joy broadly, and honestly, it is not until you are going through the mountain of stuff you have that you realize how so much stuff that you keep is because of negative or neutral emotions. It’s obligation or guilt, because it was a gift, because you spent a lot of money on it, because you used to like it, because you really meant to get around to using it but never did, and so on and so forth.
Look, if you think ‘sparking joy’ is kooky, then you’ll think the part where Kondo suggests you thank each item you are getting rid for the joy it gave you in the past really kooky. Which I did think when I read it, but ended up being very useful in practice, because getting rid of your possessions can be very emotionally fraught it turns out. (Especially ones you that attached guilt to.)
Please note that Kondo, in broad strokes, is not one of those minimalist that usually ascribes numbers to the amount of this and that possessions you should have. The nature of sparking joy is very individual. We have different interests and tastes, so where on person may have a lot of… sports memorabilia that sparks joy, some others have none of that but have a lot of cooking supplies that spark joy, and someone else has a lot of, say, books.
Alright, books. We’re moving onto books.
Books is one of the categories Kondo has in her process of purging and tidying. I don’t recall -- although it has been several years since I read it -- Kondo giving that ‘30 book’ ideal in The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. What I do remember her writing about winnowing down your books collection was this:
Imagine looking at a bookcase and it is just filled with books that you love. Imagine how good that would feel.
Seriously, just take that idea and seperate it for the rest of the conversation here for a second. Isn’t that a lovely image in your head? Doesn’t that fill you with an inner warmth?
Maybe you say you love every book in a 300 book collection, and maybe you do. I know I love more that thirty. But I also know that there are many on my shelves right now that I don’t.
Anyway, yes, I did purge a significant number of books from my collection, selling some via amazon and others at a new and used books store. (And then used the store credit to buy more books :P.) Many of them were books I had acquired at used books stores and had never read. Others were books I had acquired (as gifts or purchases) as a young person. I may or may not have read them in the past, but had no attachment to them in the present.
Did I keep more than thirty books? Yes. Could I purge that book collection I have built up again since then? Yes. Would it still be more than thirty books? Yes.
But booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers may very well have more books that they L-O-V-E love than the average person. I know that between just a few book series that I do. But booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers might like to remember than not everyone reads as much as they do or loves as many books, and that is totally okay. Thirty books might be a lot for some people and a little for others. Marie Kondo, who clearly greatest pleasure in life is tidying, may be part of that second group.
(And also, just because you don’t own a physical book doesn’t mean you aren’t reading. There are e-book and audio books people. People that use this thing called libraries that lets you borrow books. People that purchase books and then, once done, resell, give away, or donate.)
Sometimes I feel the booklovers, bibliophiles, and enthusiastic readers put a little too much stock into owning books for just the sake of owning them. I may be saying this as a perspective of a librarian who borrows most of the books I read (and then only buys the ones I love after reading… I rarely purchase a book before reading it unless it is in a series or from a beloved author). Maybe I say this as a person who has purged books via the Marie Kondo method and doesn’t regret it (it sure made moving easier a year later), and as a librarian because weeding (aka removing books from the library collection) is literally part of my regular job duties.
I suppose from the librarian perspective I believe that a book’s value is in its use. It is meant to be read and referenced, or to store important information, and even to be aesthetically appreciated. (I wouldn’t own multiple version of Lord of the Rings with different cover art if it wasn’t for aesthetic appreciation… And, yes, they all spark me some joy). A book isn’t sacred because it's a book. A books is important because it is useful. For information or pleasure or entertainment or artistic enlightenment.
I feel that a book stuffed in the back corner of a bookshelf that is unread, forgotten, and unwanted is not, well, fulfilling a book’s purpose. And maybe that same book could be filling its purpose on someone else’s shelves.
I guess I am one of the rare booklovers that thinks it is okay and even appropriate to purge and weed your personal book collection every so often, the same way you would purge your wardrobe or any other collections of stuff you have. Most people are going to have to purge it at one point anway. Books are heavy, take up a lot of space, and are difficult to move. So whenever you move house… Just think about it.
So before you make reactionary posts about Marie Kondo’s thirty book comment, please consider the following…
That it is not a dictate or a judgement. It is just part of her tidying philosophy.
That the 30 books is just a suggestion for the average person, but that numbered dictates are not really a cornerstone of her philosophy. The ‘joy’ is. If you have more books that give you joy, than more books for you. But many people hold onto books (and other possessions) for negative reasons.
That if you ever need to weed down a book collection (such as for moving) rather than just spring cleaning, that her practice might be a guiding light.
And that if you prefer maximalism to minimalist, then that is your right, your prerogative, and more power to you. Kondo is there for the people who are seeking to organize and tidy, and her first step is purging. If you’re not looking for organization tips, then this has nothing to do with you and your life. Let the water roll of your back and please don’t engage in internet, snobby, booklover elitism or condensation that makes all of us books nerds look bad.
Please and thank you.
P.S. - Kondo’s method for folding clothes and how to fit them in your bureau draws is life changing. If you are constantly digging through your drawers unable to find the thing you’re looking for, messing up all that folding you dig, or otherwise have overstuffed drawers… seriously, look it up. There are diagrams and youtube videos. If you disagree with everything else here, please just do yourself and your drawers a favor. It’s so great. I’m serious.
P.P.S. - I’m just really passionate about how Marie Kondo changed my life, okay?
My “New Year's Resolutions” for the last several years have revolved around the same topics. How much I’m going to write. What writing projects I’m going to finish. How many books I’m going to read. Improvements in diet. To stop biting my goshdarn nails.
Some I’m more successful at than others. I’m least successful at stopping the nail biting.
As you may or may not have heard before, you are more likely to achieve your goals if you come up with specific plans on how the achievement them and to make the goals measurable. So, I will not just be blogging my resolutions, but how I plan to make it so.
I have written done my goals like this for myself the last two years and it has been a successful experience. Now I’m sharing them online so that is an extra level of accountability, ha.
Goal 1: Read 100 books
Why: I topped off at 79 this year. Which is pretty high but that includes a manga series I’m chugging through. I just want to hit that one hundred mark. I just always have such a long To Be Read list, and I want to get through more of it.
Please note I count audio, graphic novels, and children’s chapter books as books toward my goal.
Read during my lunch break instead of playing app games and scrolling social media on my phone.
Listen to more audio books (in car, while doing chores).
Always have an in progress ebook on my phone for when I am at places without a physical book. Sneak in more reading that way.
Dedicate at least a half an hour (ideally an hour) a day to reading either before or after work. In alternate measure, at least fifty pages of reading (ideally one hundred pages) of reading a day.
Dedicate at least an hour to reading on weekends and days off work.
Keep track of progress on Goodreads.
Goal 2: Write 300,000 creative words.
Why: Because I did it in 2017. In 2018 I made it to 250,000 words. Giving myself this goal has produced better almost-daily writing habits in me, pushed me to finish projects, and gotten me over so-called “writers blocks.”
Write a little everyday, with the goal being a little over 800 words a day. This counts original fiction, fanfiction, and blog posts for this website. This does not include school work or work work.
Stop trying to write in front of the television all the time. Actually use your writing desk.
Prioritize writing time before leisure activities.
If I’m too busy or too mentally drained to write on a specific day, I’m allowed to have a no-guilt skip day.
If I’m in the groove even after hitting the word count, keep going.
Keep track on writetrack website.
Goal 3: Submit to at least five writing opportunities a month (literary magazines, anthologies, queries, contests, etc.)
Why: Because you need to submit to be published. Because regular submissions means you have to look for new and diverse opportunities and that you catch submission periods that are only open for short periods.
Keep track on excel spreadsheet.
Submit stories on days/nights when you don’t have writing time or energy.
Make up for accidental shortages in one month with more submissions the next.
(I successfully have done this -- or a variation of this -- the last two years with good results in that I have consistently gotten several short story acceptances the last two years.)
Goal 4: Build my writer social media presence.
Why: Because I’m the odd millennial who is not a natural oversharer online. Because this is the way to network, connect with potential, and be part of the literary community.
Set aside time on weekend/days off to schedule posts.
When casually on social media, be more interactive with shares and comments.
Tweet once a day in the morning as part of morning routine.
Be more active/interactive on tumblr. I’ve been hanging out there for years, but not building a community.
Goal 5: Stop Biting Nails!
Why: Because I want to stop biting them. Because I want them to be long and pretty. Because biting them probably looks unprofessional and gross.
Take time to manicure and paint them when I’m not rushed so they will have proper time to dry and thus I am less likely to pick at messed up paint.
Use bad tasting polish to deter nail biting.
Keep track of nail biting on chart as to measure success and failure.
(Note: After writing, but before posting, I actually already started on this goal. This has involved youtube stop nailing biting hypnosis videos -- I kid you not -- and I am seeing some progress, albeit during a week while I’m wearing acrylic nails. Maybe 2019 will be my stop nail biting success year?)
Do you have any ambitions for the new year? Remember, the first steps are to write them out, make them measureable, and come up with plans to obtain success. Then -- start at it and start keeping track. Good luck on your new year’s resolutions!
2018 was an up and down writing year.
Five short story acceptances and five short story publications... Yay!
(I know this sounds like the same five stories, but it’s not. Some stories were accepted in 2017 and not published until 2018; somewhere accepted in 2018 and will not be published until 2019.)
Falling short of my yearly writing word count goal... Boo!
(Yearly writing goal was 300,000. Had to be lower to 250,000. Will likely make that.)
Getting to read my second place winning short story on a panel at a Sci Fi conference (and getting to attend that conference for free)... Yay!
(The Pawnshop of Intangible Things got second place in the 2017 Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Ametuer Writing Contest. Later it was published in Deep Magic, my first professional sale, thus making me not an ametuer anymore. The con was Balticon. It was really cool.)
No one showing up for the panel… Boo!
(Except the readers, the panel moderator, and one other panelists three family members. Still worth it though.)
Establishing official social media author accounts on facebook and twitter… Yay!
(Find me on facebook @margerybayne and on twitter @themargerybayne.)
Not really knowing how to use twitter… Boo!
(WTF is a subtweet?)
Learning much from my ‘write 1000 words a day for 30 days’ challenge… Yay!
(This wasn’t NaNoWriMo. Podcast on my experience to come.)
Struggling with original fiction… Boo!
Still making progress with original fiction despite the ups and downs, changing jobs, and making my halfway point through graduate school… Yay!
With great aplum I would like to announce that my story “Another Life” has found a home in Vol 3 of the sci fi anthology series Future Visions.
Buy it here.
“Nothing’s been right since Dana awoke from 23-year long coma: she hasn’t aged a day, her memories don’t feel like her own, and her husband Ben is having locked door meetings with her doctor. Secrets are being kept from her, and she’s going to figure out what they are.”
I don’t want to spoil this story, a la the secrets Dana is seeking out, so below in “Behind the Story” I will only talk in broad strokes about “Another Life”
What makes us human? This is a question proposed in a lot of science fiction as technology encroaches on our lives, for good and ill, and as technology advances in intelligence and human capability. Is our memories downloaded into a computer our continued existence or just a computer with memories? Can artificial intelligence reach the point of humanity? What standard even is that? What about androids? What about clones -- separate individuals or the same? How much of us can become technology and still be us? Are we bodies or brain or souls?
I took that classic quandary of what makes us human and what defines are personhood, and grafted that together questions of womanhood. At the time of writing, I was having a lot of personal anxiety about my personal identity and role in the world as a woman in terms of the set roles that are often expected of us. Motherhood, marriage, taking your husband’s last name, etcetera and so on. This definitely comes across in this and some other short stories I wrote about the same period. I think those themes of sci fi personhood and female identity converge as natural metaphorical partners.
It sounds so deliberate and grand when I explain it like that, but it was a lot more intuitive in the actual writing. I’ve realized certain anxieties and opinions that have influenced by writing after the fact.
I recall having a very specific vision for “Another Life” with the ending known and very specific beats imagined along the way. So I wrote it, beginning to end, hitting those beats and coming to the end in a pretty painless experience. Reviewing it, however, I quickly saw that all that emotional beats I had imagined weren’t enough to support the entire story. The ‘twist’ reveal of the end came out of nowhere and needed better set up. My rewrites of “Another Life” were, in this case, mostly additive.
This experience speaks a lot to my process of writing. What draws me to the story is the characters, the themes, or the emotional beats. Plot is of secondary interest. Plot is something I have to work on and build more deliberately.
“It was just there. Like paint on the wall.”
Sorry, this post is long enough, but I can’t help to stop and highlight one of my favorite, perhaps innocuous lines. I remember writing this line. I remember where I was when I wrote it. That’s how much I like it.
If you haven’t read “Another Life” yet this line drops when the main character Dana comes to a certain realization. She is lying awake in bed, on her side, back to her husband. I like this line because it implies a lot, it is a metaphor so integrated in the scene it is barely a metaphor. Like the wall she is staring at and finally noticing the paint color that has been there surrounding her the entire time, so to does she this revelation come to her. Just there. Like paint on the wall.
This and “The Pawnshop of Intangible Things” are two of my favorite short stories I’ve written. I have been shopping around “Another Life” for a while and have never wanted to give it up to a throwaway magazine. I’m excited that it found its place in this rather cool indie published venture of Future Visions and editor Brian J. Walton. I’ll probably write a blog on that experience when I’m a little farther down the road with it than now.
There is limited time discounted pricing on the ebook for launch week only, so check it
Cue the Inception soundtrack. How many metatextual layers are on this subject? (Three at the most; I need to stop being dramatic.)
I’m a bit of a connoisseur of writing advice. (Alright, here I am being overdramatic again.) I read, watch, and listen to a lot of it. I believe in it as equally as I believe in having a healthy skepticism of it.
And yes, I say this even as I put my own “writing advice” up on this blog. However, a lot of my “advice” is my perspective on adages that are being thrown around and some are for my own edification. There are answers to these questions: Can I explain my own process? In doing so, can I better said process better?
But this blog post is not about the value of writing writing advice, but about the value reading it. And all that comes from reading it, processing it, and learning from it. This is about what to read, and what is the best way to read, and why.
So, without any further ado...
The first advice of writing advice is… all writing rules are more like guidelines than actual rules. (Yup, Pirates of the Caribbean reference). Creative writing is… just that, creative. It is an artform. Language itself is an evolving thing. Favored forms of storytelling changes over time. There is no rigid formula, format, or checklist that all stories must match or that you must adhere to. Or that you can adhere to for perfect success.
We might call writing rules “best practices but use your judgement” situations. We might call writing rules “you do not have to follow these, but if you aren’t know why you’re not” type of things. What writing rules are not are laws that you will get thrown in prison if you break.
The second advice of writing advice is… Writing advice can come from a lot of sources. Embrace the sources. Read blogs and books. Listen to podcasts. Watch youtube videos. Good advice can come from multiple sources. I do not prestige one format of writing advice over others, because they are all coming from different places and times. A book of writing advice might seem more official, but it might just mean the writer is better connected. A successful indie author might share more about their writing process on a blog or in youtube videos than in a formalized book. Or that the book is just older from a time before the explosion of the internet. On the flipside, just because someone makes a well-edited youtube video does not mean their advice is sound.
No format is inherently more valid than another, it is just the avenue for delivering the information. By opening up to multiple sources, you get perspectives from new talent and old hats, indies and traditionals, and all that jazz.
If fact, I learn a lot about writing novels from watching youtube film critics. Film is a different medium than writing, and it uses different tools and techniques than novels to tell a story, but it still something that tells a story. Analyzing why or why not a story works is very helpful at understanding the structure and impact of stories as a whole. (Just a voice plot hole focused “film criticism” and instead look for stuff with more meat and analysis on the bone.)
The third advice of writing advice is… Don’t follow one person’s advice religiously. Do read writing advice that contradicts. This is a two sides of the coin thing. This builds off the last point of going to multiple sources. Writing is an artform and extremely personal. We all have different methodologies that click for us, or different styles. It is good to get a well-rounded perspective on writing and publishing that are provided on the internet, and through other sources. I am a regular to several writing blogs that have different advice on multiple issues (writing fast, rewriting, and traditional vs. indie publishing for prominent examples). Sometimes they react very different to the current event of the day in the writing/publishing world, and I can learn something valid from both perspectives. Sometimes they even indirectly respond to each other’s points in opposition. I, and you, do not have to take sides, and most of them time they aren’t asking you to. They are just trying to share their perspective and often hard-earned knowledge with you, the reader or watcher. It’s up to you what you do with it.
The fourth advice of writing advice is… Take advice from people who’ve “made it” but define “made it” broadly. Read advice from writers of different walks of life. That means best-selling authors, and midlist authors, traditionally published and indie authors, from your favorite fanfic author, from the authors whose books you read and the person whose books you haven’t. From this genre and that genre. Someone who is consistently writing and producing stories that either get published or find fans… they are onto something.
I say this because a lot aspiring writers will share their perspective, but their perspective is less theirs and more reiterations of the most common pieces of conventional wisdom without much insight or personal touch. Which leads me to...
The fifth advice of writing advice is… Interrogate writing rules of conventional wisdom that are repeated so much they have become meaningless or flanderized.
A good example of this is the adverb adage (cut all adverbs from your writing) that exploded in all directions when some publishing or agent person on twitter said to cut all adverbs and adjectives from your writing completely (like that would make any sense at all.) Of course, in response a lot people come out in defense of adverbs, and ‘in response a lot of people came out in the defense of adverbs’ is one of the stranger sentences I’ve typed in earnestness.
Honestly, to interrogate this advice, and both sides of the argument, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Fact is, -ly adverbs (a specific brand of adverbs) can make awkward reading and generally can either be cut as necessary or replaced with a stronger verb. Stronger verbs often make for stronger writing… but there are tons of potential exceptions to this. (I actually wrote a whole blog post on this particular adverb issue that you can read here). But the particulars of this particular issue isn’t the point. The point is that there is usually some grain of truth that these blanket writing adages come from, but they get a little too repeated without thought put into them, so yeah, interrogate. Do not blindly follow. Heck, maybe not blindly disregard either though.
The sixth advice of writing advice is… no amount of writing advice read can replace the actual practice of writing. Do not fool yourself into think you can accumulate all the knowledge of the how-to of writing that when you sit down to write, suddenly all the words and plotting and character development and thematic resonance will come out perfectly. You wouldn’t imagine that learning about soccer from a book would make you a soccer star without practice; the same principle applies with writing.
The seventh advice of writing advice is… the point of reviewing a diverse amount of writing advice is not to find the Holy Grail that works for all writing, but to continue your writing education and find what works for you.
Those are the good days. The days when you find writing advice that just really works for you. That speaks to you and the way you think. That finally explains a concept you’ve heard explained a hundred different ways before and now it finally clicks. Not the Holy Grail, but your own personal holy grails.
So there we are. My seven pieces of advice for writing advice. Which may be something I’m more qualified for than giving straight writing advice. :P
Of course, Thanksgiving is the time of year we are called on to think about what we are thankful for. So, here I am, being thankful.
I am thankful for my new job. In August of this year I started a new job at a new library system. This was after several months of job searching after I decided I couldn’t continue with my current position due to the unsupportive and rough conditions at my place of employment. Just a few months in I am so glad of the change, of the new teamwork-oriented environment, and of how this has reflected positively on my mental and emotional health.
I am thankful of my new living situation. This October marks one year being roommates with my brother and it is a very nice situation.
I am thankful for the publications I have had this year. 2017 was a breaking point for me, getting some publication acceptances and placing second in a writing contest. That momentum has carried into 2018. I got to go on a panel at a scifi conference. I have several other publications and publication acceptances. One of them was my first ever “professional” publication, meaning the pay rate was at/over .06 cents per word. (It was also one of the two of my most favorite stories I’ve written, so I am thankful it found its place.)
I have two more publications coming out before the end of 2018. I’m thankful for that too.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
A few months ago, I was sitting in the audience of a literary panel for “Writing Characters with Agency” at Balticon, a science fiction and fantasy convention in Baltimore. During the panel, one of the audience members asked for writing advice on how to keep characters internally consistent when making them do something essentially “out of character” using an example of a lawful good character doing a bad thing. While the panelist shared many a insight, this question got my brain turning and coming up with answers that were not brought up at the time.
So I’m sharing them here.
So how you keep a character “in-character” and consistent while also working to a moment where they break that mold?
For the sake of this, I will use the audience member’s example of a character who is lawful good do something bad. (“Lawful good” is a Dungeons and Dragons moral alignment that writers, readers, and nerds all over the internet will align their favorite characters too. Learn more here.)
So let’s break down some different ways to get characters do believably do “out of character” things.
The Break Down
1 - Character Development
Character development can be either positive (with the characters become more brave, heroic, or “morally good”) or negative (with the characters becoming crueler, more selfish, or more evil). I bring this up, because many people only think of a character development in the positive direction -- becoming a better person -- but it can work in the other direction. Walter White from Breaking Bad is a great example of negative character development, in that he becomes a more morally bankrupt person as the show progresses, starting out with understandable and sympathetic motives for his life of crime, but slowly becoming more power-hungry and/or more willing to do more and more drastic things (like murder) to keep on top.
A character can start out good and then through a series of circumstances, conflict, and drama that we will call the plot, slowly turn into a worse person.
2 - Conflicting Motives/Trolley Problem
Another point to remember is that people are complicated, conflicted, and complex. We have multiple belief systems, motivations, wants, and needs in our head at the same time.
Say we have our lawful good character. He is sheriff, a law man, who believes all crime should be stopped and put to justice because them are the rules. But he is not just a sheriff. He’s a family man whose family is the most important thing in the world to him. He loves them and would do anything for them to protect them and keep them happy.
And now it turns out his adult son is the no good head of the gang of bandits that have been terrorizing the local towns. And it is a trusty sheriff that has been called on to stop him, dead or alive.
Opps, now our character has to choose between upholding his moral system about the law or his moral system about his family.
I like option above because it is very internal, but you can also give your characters bad and worse options in an external conflict. Give them a trolley problem. Think of all those superhero films where the villain gives the hero an option to save like their girlfriend/sidekick or some innocent kids/the entire city. Usually the superheroes come up with the third option to save everyone, but not always (Ahem, the Dark Knight.) But much better is when the character has a much more active hand in the dark, bad and worse option. The ending of season 3 of the BBC show Torchwood had one of these. Make your character’s options a trolley problem.
3 - Breaking Points
Human beings… we’re complicated. We have belief systems but we are often hypocrites. We give ourselves or loved ones a pass when we wouldn’t give the same benefit to strangers or acquaintances. Beyond hypocrisy and exceptions, we have breaking points. On tv tropes, that can sometimes be called a berserk button.
Find a character’s breaking point and them drive to it.
But this all these examples lead up to this ultimate fact of writing characters and stories:
It Needs To Be Earned
We say that a lot in storytelling and fiction writing. That… twists need to be earned. That sad deaths need to be earned. That endings need to be earned.
Relevant to here -- when a character is driven to that breaking point, you as the writer need earn that. And all the other examples listed above.
But what does that mean?
In screenwriting, because I watch a lot of film criticism youtube videos, the idea is phrased as: set up, reminder, and pay off.
In writing, we talk about foreshadowing. I had a professor in college who always called these things “rehearsals” which is a really apt metaphor that I think should exist more preventable in the creative writing discourse. When I took dance classes as a youth at the end of the season we had a dance recital, but not until we had the stage rehearsal and dress rehearsal beforehand. If you are going to have a lawful good character do something morally reprehensible, you need to hint -- and in an escalating manner -- that he can do something bad.
To remix the earlier example … you have the lawful good lawman who always brings in his guy alive because they should stand before a judge and jury. He’s never killed and never will. Then he does when his son is threatened. Now a lot of readers might find that reasonable because of our understanding of family bonds, but you want to set that up in the story. Show how close he is with his family. Have a minor threat happen earlier in the story for him to break his cool over. The reader may not straight out know the character's breaking point before it happens, but it should feel natural once they get to that point. There would have been hints. We should’ve maybe guessed a second before it happens.
Like plot twists, character twists should make sense in retrospect.
Those big, defining moments for a character, good or bad, have to be earned. They have to be deserved. These are the results of character development.
Like many writers of the post-internet era, I can point to fanfiction as the thing that made me writer.
Some people stay in fanfiction all their lives, doing it for the love of writing and the love of fandom. Some people move from fanfiction to original fiction. While it used to be embarrassing or a secret, more and more writers embrace their fannish roots.
This is not a story about that.
This much is true. I discovered fanfiction around 8th grade after a recommendation from a friend. (It was Harry Potter related because with was 2003-2004, so of course it was.) I read it. A few months later I started to write and post. I haven't stopped since.
In 2008, I graduated from high school and started my undergraduate studies, in which I was majoring in Creative Writing. So, yeah, I fanficion got me pretty serious about writing. I had to actively apply for this major, along with the school, with a portfolio of my work. In 2012 I graduated with that degree, and even won an award for the best portfolio amongst my graduating seniors in my major. (Humble brag.) A few of my short stories had been published in the lowest entry barrier online magazines.
I'm zooming past all that, although I want you to know the context. I was serious about writing. I got a degree in it. A degree that involved loans to pay for tuition, knowing it wasn't a job secure degree, and graduating into a recession economy just scraping its way back.
During that time, I had told myself more than once it was time to give up on fanfiction and focus on original writing. I said that when I started college... of course, I made an exception for my ongoing fic. Had to finish. It was be cruel to my readers not to. (It was for Gilmore Girls, because Rory and Jess were made for each other, dammit).
And the exceptions just kept coming. I mean, why deny inspiration when it hits?
Of course, I was serious when I was going to quit fanfiction when I graduated college. I needed to write original work. It needed to be literary and important. I needed to get published.
Of course, fic writing crept in around the edges. (A lot of it was for Glee, because Klaine for life.) (Please stop judging my fandom tastes now. No regrets.) It wasn't serious, but it was fun. People were reading it. At least I was writing something.
I had sort of a different experience of shame, guilt, and writing fanfiction at this time in my life than the traditional narrative. I wasn't ashamed to write it from the get go. Geek chic, baby.
It wasn't that writing fanfiction was anyway bad, it was just that it wasn't what I was supposed to write at this point in time. I was supposed to be starting my writing career. And as many people feel in their post-college early twenties, the clock was ticking. I had landmarks I wanted to hit. I needed to get short stories published and, more important, I needed to write a novel.
I struggled to write and struggled to write and struggled to write.
I lost my passion. I had definitely lost my vision. I hadn't even yet to truly discover my voice. I was trying to write to the vague shape of an idea of what I was "supposed to write" as judged by my fiction writing education from college. My complex feelings about my college writing education is another post all together.
During this rough patch, a weird dispassionate and extended writer's block of sorts, fanfiction kept me writing. It was fanfiction that gave me inspiration for some of my original pieces that had ended up being accepted for publication in literary magazines in the next few years. It was fanfiction, which I finally embraced, and wrote a lot of, and wrote to completion, that helped me hone my style, practice storytelling, figure out my genres, and just enjoy writing. Fall in love with writing again, like I had been as a teen -- uninhibited and fun.
I have since embraced fanfiction as part of my writing diet. No shame or 'I should be doing this instead of that' attitude about it.
There are other steps in my writing journey that has gotten me to the place I am today, but I think this is important and not to be overlooked. Fanfiction made me a writer and saved my writing. In between there and now, it has honed my abilities.
Maybe fanfiction was for you or maybe it wasn’t or maybe it was for just a short while. That’s not the takeaway here.
Here it is: if it feels right, if you’re passionate about it, if you’re excited about it… then write it. That sort of artistic joy is a sign. It’s intuition. Go with it.
I’m a pretty sparse social media user for a millenial. While I’m a huge computer and internet user, I only graduated from a flip phone to smartphone in the year of our lord 2016. You read that right. There were even a few years in my post-college 20s that I rarely used facebook and regularly missed event invitations.
For a long time, I only used facebook and tumblr, and both much more as an observer than a creator. I made this very author website well before I joined twitter about a month ago.
Having a smartphone has enabled me to use more social media. Instagram is pretty useless without having that instant camera to internet accessibility, for example.
All conventional wisdom is that writers’ need a social media presence. In the last few months, I got an author facebook page and now a twitter. Facebook made sense as with some recent short story publications, I had been sharing my news with friends and family through that avenue anyway. Though, to be honest, the breaking point was when one of the magazines I was being published by asked for my facebook page to link to.
It’s been a few months and pretty much everyone following my author facebook page are my friends and family (save for one who is a person whose story was published in the same magazine as me).
I ended up joining twitter because it seems like a place where you can reach people that aren’t already in your inner circle. It has already happened, so that’s cool.
I really believe that social media is not the key to a writer’s success, especially when you are a fiction writer. Nonfiction writers might have a more natural connection between social media content and their work. Just because someone likes your tweets or blog posts about the mechanics of writing does not mean they will like your fiction. I know that I follow and read blogs of various writers that I have never picked up a fiction title for.
However, social media is a good way for people to find you in the modern age. For them to be able to follow you for updates in your career, and to find like-minded souls.
If you are like me, a writer that is social media shy or hesitation, a not-natural self-promoter, or very private… I want to tell you social media is not as scary as it seems. I usually only post my facebook when I have news, a publication announcement or update, or linking to a new blog post on my website. On twitter, I use an additional app to schedule posts, and try to retweet a few a day.
What I would say is if you are a newbie, aspiring writer with no publications pending, and you feel pressured to build a social media presence when that is not your thing… I would saw hold off. Wait until you have something to say and put your energy into writing and getting published first. Build you social media at your own pace. Remember, being a writer is not the same as being a youtuber, where the creation of social media content is the job in and of itself.
Social media supplements your writing career. It is used to connect with fans and followers, business network, and make yourself visible online. Social media is not your writing career. Use it wisely.
In 2017, I entered a Maryland-based writing contest and ultimately had my short story submission “The Pawnshop of Intangible Things” place second. You can read about that more here (link). It’s been a pretty amazing experience that has involved an awards ceremony, a nice check, and free admission to a Sci Fi writing conference where I read my story on a panel. Last of all the honors, I was asked to be a judge for this year’s contest.
Over the last few weeks, I have been reading the five finalists that had been selected by the first round of readers. With the other finalist judges, I am charged to rate each story between 1 and 10, and those rating will be compiled and totaled to determine first, second, and third place. I am also able to write commentary that will be given to the authors.
While I gladly volunteered, there was a little dread when I received the attachments of the stories in my inbox. See, I have a Bachelors in Creative Writing, and if you are familiar with creative writing classes, you might know that they are usually done in the workshop model. We would read two to three of our classmates’ stories for in preparation for each class, write critique letters, and discuss them in round table fashion. I read a lot of boring, not good, and pretentious stories in my pursuit of that degree, to the point where I lost all perception of what was good and what wasn’t.
Had I just volunteered to relive that experience and read through five boring-ass stories?
I clicked on the first one, opened it, read the first line and had my fears realized. The line was outright amateurish -- bland and generic. I was back in undergrad.
Thankfully, that did not end up being the case. After reading the story in full -- although avoiding it by saving it for last -- it did improve once it got into the story proper. It was still a weak opening, but fears did not realize completely.
What I ended up doing was reading five stories ranging from decent to heart-eyes-emoji (that’s the technical scale) and learned a lot from it.
What I Learned:
Point 1: Story is King.
The story I subjectively thought was the best wasn’t the one with the best prose. It was the one with the best story. Of course, story is both concept (but ideas are cheap), and the execution of that concept.
Point 2: Execution makes all the difference.
All the stories had interesting concepts. The contest was SF/F focused, so they were ‘high concept stories.’ Listen: AI’s as narrators, folk tale demons, space-time travel, visions of the future, and werewolves. Come on. That’s a goldmine. But as I (and of course many before me) have already stated, ideas are cheap. It’s all about how you present those ideas.
As one would expect, to get this far in the competition all were competent stories. It’s that fine polish of execution that makes a difference between competent and awesome.
Language and prose are part of the execution, yes. The narrative strategy of POV, timeline, voice, and what not. When to start the story and when to end it and when to hit the other beats in between. All important.
Point 3: Setups and Payoffs are a balancing act.
Reading this selection of stories, one aspect of execution I became very aware of was ‘setups and payoffs.’
My favorite ‘heart-eyes-emoji’ story was a well-paced space adventure with the setups and payoffs interwoven from the first page to last. In contrast, there were stories with not enough setups, or not early enough, sapping the pay off of its power. There were stories that had a lot more setups than were ultimately paid off, which is like having a question without an answer.
That balance is so important to the reader because a story needs to make sense. It’s like laying out the clues in a mystery novel. All the plot workings need to be laid out for the reader bit by bit.
Point 4: Pacing is Important.
Like setups and payoffs, good pacing is essential to a well-balanced story. I saw one particular pacing hang up occur over a few of the short pieces I reviewed. The stories were… front-heavy. They spent too long in the beginning on things that weren’t the main point of the story.
One of Kurt Vonnegut’s great pieces of writing advice is “Start as close to the end as possible.” Every writer should take that to heart. I often think about this, if not in the drafting stage, than the editing stage. (It’s very common in first drafts to start too early.)
To bring back another memory from my undergrad creative writing days, I recall how often a particular fiction writing professor of mine would often instruct students in workshops that their story actually started on page three, or five, or nine. There was always some sort of silent-eyed horror that passed over the face of whoever’s story it was, because there was a lot of hard-worked prose in there they were being asked to cut, but it was an important lesson. Remember you can integrate backstory in a lot of ways without starting at the very beginning!
My heart-eyes-emoji story dropped the reader right into the moment. All the world-building and character growth were part of the actual scenes.
Point 5: The Little Things Don’t Matter (When Everything Else is Right).
There will always be stuff to nitpick. There will always be an awkward sentence, or a moment that could’ve been tweaked to be stronger.
But when a whole story is a strong, compelling, and well-balanced all the nitpicky sand falls from your eyes as a reader. Your too engaged being carried along by a well-crafted story to let the other things ruin the mood.
So… that’s what I learned. Maybe other people judge stories for competition by other criteria. Maybe they have a checklist or grid, giving out points to certain factors like this was an episode of Chopped: Presentation, Taste, and Creativity.
I read with my intuition. I can never exactly turn off my writerly brain when reading, seeing the tricks of how a writer pulls off a certain twist or thinking how I would’ve different (or even better). I acknowledge there is always a measure personal taste in something like this and any judging of the creative arts is subjective.
However, we humans are storytelling animals. We are surrounded by stories from birth on -- books, movies, television shows, the stories we tell each other, narrative in video games and other media, and on and on and on. We love a good story and absorb some feel for when a story works or when it feels off. We might not all be able to identify exactly what is off, or have the vocab for it, or be able to analyze it or write it ourselves, but we have the intuition.
I was glad I was able to use my storytelling intuition, in combination with my learned and practiced knowledge of creative writing and literary analysis, to learn about making and reading a good short.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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