The Suitably Anti-Social Writer

I used to think it was a huge liability that I don’t get along with a lot of people in casual, everyday conversation.

Turns Out, I Just Like Getting Work Done

It’s not that I can’t so much as I find it kind of sort of a complete waste of time. Unless, of course, I’m practicing my group management skills or researching character types.

I just hate casual chitchat. Such a waste of time. When I was a kid, I saw how people did this weird thing where they “hung out”, or just, you know, sat and talked about nothing at all and seemed happy about it.

Shooting the Breeze

Like a naturalist among an alien species, I hunkered down to figure out what the shit was going on.

Because why didn’t each of those individuals peel off from the nonfunctioning social group and go into a corner to write? It was so strange to me.

That’s What I Liked Doing

I went through a long period as a young person where I decided there was something wrong with me for not taking satisfaction out of wasting time, so I tried really hard to fit in and do like the other people did. I tried to waste time, you know, and talk about popular whatnot.

It was so boring. Also, I got very little work done. Ugh.

Super Non-Productive

Then I got more into directing and found out (hurray!) that it’s a lot more interesting to play God in a group, and that most people are also bored and want to play that sort of conversationally-directed game.

When I say play God, I really just mean that I took control of the conversation whenever appropriate and made it functionally useful. You know, like actually about reality, and/or about actual emotional phenomena inside me or the other people present.

Like Public Improv

That turned out to be great for character research, for making lasting friends, and for being not-bored. Plus, after a long conversation like that, writing is exciting and fun (because you’re all revved up from actually meeting new people and knowing what they’re like on the inside.)

Anyway, the point of today is that if you, like me, find social groupings sort of useless, perhaps you will also find, like me, that going with the general flow of boring, staid behavior leads to an enormous drop in your writing production.

Like, A Big Drop

In short, if I try to be conventionally social, my word count plummets. And I don’t mean, “oh, I got a few less words written today!” I mean, like, “Oh, my usually quota just eked out to a measly ten percent, and I don’t even care because life feels meaningless.”

Which, over the course of several days, adds up and means a lot less completed work. Ugh.

And Less Usable Work

If you’re wondering why I talk about writing so much, and I only have two books out, that’s because I want to make a good impression, and I have twenty-some-odd complete manuscripts that I’m sitting on that are, for various reasons, not yet satisfactory for public consumption, and I’m tinkering on my official publication style. Luckily, I have an excellent editor.

Anyway.

So, In Conclusion

Avoid other people at all costs, unless you’re prepared to take charge of your interactions and use them to further your craft. Investigating human nature, discussing reality, or actually getting any kind of relaxing social good out of interaction is great, but if you’re just hanging around because you’re supposed to, out of some perceived need to fulfill social obligation, run away!

You’re reading Victor Poole, and no, I’m not really a hermit, but maybe I will be when I’m old and rich. Tee hee. In my current book, I think Gilbert’s gang trial is not going to go super well today.

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Abuse Handled Incorrectly In Fiction

Abuse works when it’s explained.

I was reading someone’s story today, and I put it down after the first chapter because the key moment, the whole pivot of the character development, fixed around some badly framed child abuse, and I didn’t want to read a story that had such a clumsy approach to abuse.

So As A Reader, I Jumped Ship

My current series has a lot of abused characters. I’ve got a man who was neglected and beaten as a child, and several old men who were used as sex slaves when they were teenagers. Their backstory shapes a lot of the action in the book, and has everything to do with the choices they make and the way they turn out in the end.

Plus, They’re Gangsters

I have no problem with reality; I have a big huge problem with stories where abuse is handled with implicit approval, or is handed on towards the reader without any groundwork or framing at all. For example, in the story I was reading today, a mother slaps her child, and it forms an awful root of shame in the kid. The slap itself should have been fine, but the mother had been framed previously as a good character (a protective, helpful person to the child).

That’s Terrible Writing, And Poor Storytelling

Changing lanes in the middle of a scene, and giving previously protective characters actions that are outright damaging and abusive, without any framing or contextual buildup to the harsh action, is disruptive and bad storytelling.

Example

Terrible Writing:

Lena made the soup and laid out four little bowls. The children came in from playing, and she helped each of them wash their hands at the kitchen sink before ladling out the stew and giving each tyke a lump of bread to dip in their soup.

“Martha stole all the pebbles,”  the oldest child explained.

“I didn’t!” the littlest one snapped.

“She did, and she ate one of them,” a middle kid proclaimed.

“Martha, give me those rocks,” Lena said, her voice stern and kindly.

Martha delivered up colored glass pebbles with an impatient sigh, and Lena … (add in violent action that I am unwilling to write because it damages the reader to drop unframed abuse into a scene).

Good Writing:

Lena stirred the soup and leaned out the kitchen window.

“Martha!” Lena called sharply.

“He made me!” a childish voice screeched back.

“Put the rocks down, Martha. Don’t! No!” Lena said. The sound of high-pitched squeals, and a long, drawn out shriek of indignant agony flooded through the air. Lena sighed and put down her spoon. She went out of the kitchen and returned in a moment, holding a struggling girl of three.

“Jill said all the blue ones are mine! She traded me!” the little girl shrieked.

“You cannot throw rocks at people, sweetie,” Lena said.

“I will kick you in the face, Nana!” the girl cried. Lena sighed and carted the child away to a farther room.

When the kitchen was empty, a boy of nine poked in his face and looked around.

“She’s gone,” he hissed. He and another little boy with very dirty hands crept into the kitchen, laid hold of a basket of rolls, and departed with stifled giggles.

Lena came back into the kitchen, glanced at where the rolls had been, and went outside.

In Conclusion

Reality is better than artificially contrived abuse, and violence is always acceptable when framed appropriately, and when it is either coming from an immature person or an evil, depraved entity. Unframed, floating abuse does not make for compelling backstory, and characters really perform poorly when made to do violent acts purely for drama in the plot.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current project, Crikey’s uncle Pops is coming to visit today. Pops is in the bad practice of mixing barbiturates with alcohol, and Crikey doesn’t know Pops is a booze hound. I think Crikey is going to find out today, and Crikey and Pops are going to have a falling out. I’m excited about that.

Are You Building A Bridge To Your Readers?

Is there a disconnect between your intention and the reader’s understanding? If so, here are a couple of approaches to bridge the gap and make clarity sure.

Back in the old days, when I taught acting, I developed a reputation for lecturing actors about gender and sexual presentation in theatre. Most of my actors were adorable messes of gender confusion, which is perfect for normal life and disastrous for live stage performance.

One time, I had a meeting with several of my actors and one young woman (brown hair, moderately tall, svelte), said something to the tune of, “Oh, no! Now Victor Poole is going to make me feel guilty for not wearing high heels and makeup all the time!”

A Disconnect Between Writer and Reader

This female actor was hearing something that I wasn’t saying, and, being a diligent person, I took note and adjusted my phrasing to suit her mind.

Yesterday I read a scene to my editor, and I’d phrased one sentence in a way that led him to completely visually misinterpret the remainder of the scene. We had a laugh over the misunderstanding and I added two more sentences, which made my original intention completely clear.

When You’re Writing, Make A Bridge to the Reader

  1. Readers are coming from a different planet, most of the time.
  2. Luckily, their planet is connectible with your planet if you build a bridge.
  3. Only 1% of readers will bother to build a bridge to you, so you have to take responsibility for making the bridge to them

You Are the Builder of the Bridge

Here are some easy tricks to help you successfully connect your writing to the understanding of the reader, with as few hiccups as possible.

A bridge has some method of support that holds it up. A bridge also has a foot-path upon which the reader crosses over. The supports are underpinning writing qualities, and the foot-path is the plot.

Here are some of the heavy-duty methods that support a bridge between the intent of your writing and the received understanding of the reader:

  • described visceral, sensory input (sight, hearing, smell, etc.)
  • realistic physical mammalian response common to human beings
  • psychology
  • universal emotional experience

One You Have Supports in Place, the Rest of the Bridge is Story

It’s possible to have functional supports, but no plot, and it’s possible and common to have a plot, or a foot-path of a bridge, without the necessary supports to make it walkable.

My earlier snafu with my editor was due to some missing visual description; once I added in a couple of clarifying sentences, we were off to the races again.

You need both supports for the bridge (sensory description to allow the reader to ground their mind, emotional scenarios that resonate with the reader’s lived experience, etc., etc.) and you need a plot, or a surface upon which the reader can cross over from their mental world into theirs.

In Conclusion

If you are finding that your readers aren’t always hearing what you’re saying, look at your material with the analogy of a bridge in your mind, and separate the parts of your writing into two general camps:

  1. Supports to the story, which, again, are things like: sensory descriptions, usage of proven psychology, emotionally evocative scenarios, etc.
  2. Plot, or story, which is the actual foot-path upon which the reader crosses from their mental planet into yours

If you remember that you are ultimately responsible for building and maintaining a useable and attractive bridge, and you keep in mind the two very different and totally necessary parts of said bridge, you will be able to share a marvelous common experience with the reader, and both of you will be deeply satisfied by the experience of  sharing and understanding your work.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, poor John, the fabulous handsome man of yore, is having his heart broken on a stairwell in his adopted son’s building this morning. I pity John, who has been ill-used, and is due for a happy ending. I intend to give John an overwhelmingly happy ending.

Does Your Writing Seem To Come From Inside A Cynic’s Heart?

 

If you have a hard time writing sincerely, here is a quick kick to the pants to get you out of the habit of cynicism.

When I produced theatre, a constant problem was that actors were used to being callous about love. Try producing a romance when the main characters keep sneering over the love speeches. Hint: It doesn’t work. The audience gets tired after about thirty seconds, and the play turns into a mean snark-fest about how idiotic love is.

Cynicism kills adventure.

The first problem, then, was to break down the actors and convince them to be sincere. This means exposing their hearts, which means you have to expose your heart, first. As a writer, you need to be able to consciously write with sincerity.

Story Time:

Once upon a time, in a far-off kingdom, I had a director who really thought he was a deep romantic. (Spoiler: he wasn’t.) His key to making the in-love characters work was to sit down with dolls (I’m serious) and block out the entire show before rehearsals. Now, this method does work if you have sense and discretion, but this director was an inveterate cynic, and so the technique only made rehearsals stiff and endless. He gave the actors detailed notes on how to move, and where, and gave impassioned speeches about prompt line delivery.

This behavior was supposed to make the love elements work. It didn’t, and they didn’t function, and the director’s rooted cynicism bled through the blocking, the rehearsals, and the final performances of the show. The audience could tell, and the show failed.

Don’t Let Cynicism Ruin Your Novel

If you’ve ever done any improvisational exercises at all, you’ve likely heard the Yes Rule, which, boiled down to the essentials, is this:

The Yes Rule: When any person on stage introduces an idea, every other person must say yes, either metaphorically or literally.

Example: Bad Improv! Wrong! No!

BETH. Here I am in the supermarket. The apples are on sale!

JOE. Oh, no! A tyrannosaurus rex is stomping through the ice cream aisle! Aiee!

BETH. I don’t see any dinosaurs here. We’re in a grocery store, for *&^#’s sake.

The scene is destroyed.

Fail! Bad, naughty Beth for breaking the Yes Rule and saying no.

Example: Yes! Right! Good!

BETH. Here I am, buying apples at the store. Oh, look! Overripe bananas!

JOE. Oh, gosh! A stegosaurus stampeding through the dairy aisle! Help! Run! Aaaugh!

BETH. No! Not dinosaurs again! Curse Professor Gumbly-Fish and his time travel vortex!

JOE. Hurry, Beth! Let’s fashion a rudimentary trebuchet from these carts and pineapples!

BETH. Okay! Take that, you naughty stegosaurus! Pew! Pew!

Etc., etc., and the rogue stegosaurus is defeated, carved into dino-steaks, and roasted over the rotisserie chicken island. Chaotic fun is had by all, and the improv scene succeeds.

But Victor Poole, That Scene Was Silly!

 

All you need to do in order to make your writing pure, strong, and free of cynicism, is to say yes continuously.

That doesn’t mean you can’t edit, but it does mean you need to maintain and preserve a chain of yes, yes, yes, throughout the body of the whole piece.

Now, let’s see how this applies to actual fiction.

Writing Sample

 

Bad Writing (Saying No):

Celia tore across the page in the book and put the edge of the thick vellum into the flame of a candle. The page took a long time to catch fire, but at last it burned with a reassuring permanence, and at last was reduced to a pile of destroyed ash on the thick wooden table.

Celia wished she had done something different with the book, now that the destruction was accomplished. She had wanted to keep the ugly spell, but couldn’t risk Lord Venerous ever getting hold of it.

Luckily, Celia had copied the dangerous magic onto a private notebook using invisible ink, and so she would be able to read over it again whenever she liked. She was sure that Lord Venerous, despite his personal history as a famous spy, would never think to check for the use of invisible inks.

I may as well destroy the whole book, then, Celia thought, and she went and tossed the whole thing into the fireplace, which was blazing hot and only a few feet away. She watched the unique and ancient book burn up and prodded at it a few times with a fire iron until the spine curled up and crumbled away.

Good Writing (Saying Yes, and incorporating the Yes Rule):

Celia studied the page, reading over the words again and again. She closed her eyes, her fingers on the thick vellum and her nose full of the distinctive smell of ancient binding, and reviewed the spell. She opened her eyes and checked each ingredient, and then went over it again.

She studied the spell for two hours, and when she could see every splotch of ink and aged mark in her mind, and had repeated the instructions word-for-word in her own mind three times without a mistake, she drew her spell-working knife and began to cut the page from the book.

She was extraordinarily careful, for Margen had warned her that Lord Venerous was after the book, solely for this spell, and Lord Venerous had been a famous spy and would likely check for missing pages.

Celia examined the sliced-away page and turned the book several times before cutting again with the sharp knife to get the last sliver of visible vellum cut out. She opened the book to the matching page and loosed the opposite half of vellum out from the sturdy stitches.

When she’d made no sure no mark at all remained in the ancient book, she carried both pages and every scrap of vellum that she’d cut to the blazing fireplace, and fed the pieces in until they were obliterated. Soon there was no trace that any reanimating spell had ever filled one page in the magical book, and Celia sighed and began to apply a careful layer of dust to the book, to make it match the others on the wooden desk.

In Conclusion

To root out cynicism from your work, make sure to:

  • always say yes, either metaphorically or literally
  • retreating from new topics is saying no
  • contradicting previous-introduced details destroys the feel of adventure
  • unconscious and rooted cynicism makes for lousy writing

Remember, cynicism rejects introduced topics or suggestive details, and embrasure builds on them.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and my children have been learning about dinos from that Dinosaur Train show. They say complex dinosaur names in the evenings that I do not recognize. I need to take down my Christmas tree pretty soon.

 

The Grey Cat Analogy To Fix Your Flow

You may, if you are anything like me, have experienced that disconcerting moment when someone is reading your story, or your book, or your what-have-you, and they run across a part that they clearly don’t get. At all.

A Disconnect

It’s usually a part that you like, because fate is like that, and you might feel sort of like the person who has reacted in such an incongruous manner is an idiot. You may even want to tell them so. Loudly.

Because You’re Mad

However. Here we come up against the golden rule of performance, which is that whatever the audience sees is a valid interpretation (unless they’re drunk or on drugs, or otherwise incapable of perceiving a generally accepted reality through the normal methods).

Presumably, you are not thrusting your writing into the hands of crazy people. Most likely, the people you are giving your good stuff to are friends or near relations, even. In such a circumstance, what is to be done?

Aside From Shouting

You could, of course, become a writing hermit and never speak to the person again. That works, but it doesn’t usually make your prose flow better.

Grey Cat Hiccups

People, readers, get lost from the internal action of your story when you haven’t provided enough information for them to inhabit and understand the characters.

For example:

There is a tidy grey cat who lives in my house. She is mostly nice, except for the moments when she gets a wild urge up her ass and starts thrashing around like a crazed hamster outrunning death himself. Those times, she’s sort of irritating.

Because She Claws The Furniture

If, however, I put myself into the tiny grey body of said cat, and imagine myself living in the house, and having no furred friends or consistent prey to socialize with, I start to sympathize with her occasion bouts of hair-raising insanity. If I imagine myself really as the little cat, I almost look with fondness on her escapades, with an air of, “Oh, yes, that thing you need to do so you don’t claw my face off in boredom.” (And yes, she has toys, and attention.)

Victor, You’re Getting Off Topic Again!

No, I’m not. Your reader is me, and the writing is my grey cat. Your writing, if you’re like me, often goes on a slippery, wild goose-chase, and you’re inhabiting the vehicle of the story, and you don’t notice.

Because of authorial excitement, or inspiration

Your readers notice, very much, and they stare at the crazy, incoherent jumble of words that approximate claw marks and breathless yowls, and they say: “What the hell happened to the nice story I was reading?”

And you get mad, because why aren’t they following? Gosh! It’s almost like they’re being dense on purpose!

However, the problem is in a lack of a strong meeting place; in essence, you have a problem with flow.

Fix Flow Fast

Look at that silly alliteration. My boy has been telling me lately that bicycle and popsicle alliterate. I correct him constantly, but he’s confused about rhymes. Anyway.

Here’s That Fix:

To fix your flow, you need to learn how to inhabit the detached, coffee-sipping mindset of your reader. If you can do that, you will yourself become mildly irritated, if not downright outraged, at the grey-cat shenanigans that pop up in your prose when you go off on a sudden chase of emotional passion over some trick of words or characterization.

Then you can apply some editorial catnip and get things calmed down again, and keep your reader friends, too.

Today is Wednesday, and I’m Victor Poole, and I’m too busy to write you a sample today. Ajalia says hello, but Mary’s taking up most of my attention on editing fixes. Cheers.

The Quick And Dirty Guide To Writing Human Nature

Bad Writing:

Elton was having a very bad day. His date stood him up, his favorite hunting dog turned into a cat, and the prophesied comet fizzled out fifteen feet before it hit the appropriate mountain.

Elton had been waiting several years for the promised comet, and he had based several of his life goals around the fact of Mt. Halber being pretty much leveled, and half the population of the world destroyed.

Elton, you see, was an evil overlord, and he had been working to secure the loyalty and fear of the other half, the supposed-to-survive half of the world’s people for most of his life.

Now the comet had come, and there were all the people, going on living as if nothing had happened at all. Elton was annoyed about this. If he’d been ready for a cosmic failure on this scale, he would have built an undertone of religious warfare into the scriptures he’d been feeding his followers for the last fifteen years. He hadn’t known, and now he was scrambling for an image adjustment.

Good Writing:

Elton was having a very bad day. His date had flipped when he stood her up, his favorite hunting dog had been turned into a cat, and the prophesied comet had fizzled out fifteen feet before it hit the appropriate mountain that morning.

“If you had married that nice girl from our village, Elton, none of this would have happened,” his mother told him over the enchanted conch.

“Mom, Ellen Ripple died ten years ago of supin cough. So I couldn’t marry her, and if I had, she would be dead now. Then my life would be more of a mess,” Elton said, as he watched the bridge master torture his latest magician, who had failed to make the newly-christened Whiskers back into Spot. “It’s kind of a bad time, mom. I have to go out and get that cosmic dust from the comet. I’ll call you back.”

Elton had been waiting several years for the promised comet, and he had based several of his life goals around the premise of Mt. Halber being pretty much leveled, and half the population of the world destroyed.

“Sweetheart, that’s only a dirty old rock, and you’ve already accomplished all the goals on your sweet little checklist. I still have it on my fridge. ‘World domination.’ Sweetie, you did that one already. Just forget the comet, and get ready for Jasmine. I’m sending flowers in your name, so she’ll already like you.”

“Mom, I’m not seeing Jasmine tonight, I have a war council to run. Goodbye. I love you.”

Elton, you see, was an evil overlord, and he had been working to secure the loyalty and fear of the other half, the supposed-to-survive half of the world’s people for most of his life.

Now the comet had come, and it had fizzled, and there were all the people, both halves, going on living as if nothing had happened at all. Elton was annoyed about this. If he’d been ready for a cosmic failure on this scale, he would have built an undertone of religious warfare into the scriptures he’d been feeding his followers for the last fifteen years. He hadn’t known, and now he was scrambling for an image adjustment. His mother’s persistent attempts to hook him up with good-hearted females from her neighborhood was doing little to ease his way, partially because they were all sweet women, and partially because Elton had to readjust into evil mode whenever he spoke to them, to let them know his mom was misrepresenting the situation.

He’d spoken to Jasmine only this morning, and she had shrieked when she learned that Elton Yurbo was actually the dread majesty Rakendo, Bringer of Death. Elton sighed, and watched Whiskers push himself, purring, against the howling magician’s leg.

You’re reading Victor Poole. This week is the feasting week, and the sky is still blue where I live. Today was not at all like a Sunday, though tomorrow will most decidedly be like a Monday. (I like Mondays.)

The Utility Of Raw Gore In Fiction (With A Sample)

dragon mockup

To see how you are handling your violence, sex, and coarse language, it is important to first examine the reason for it being there.

I imagine you’ve seen films before where a lady is unnecessarily undressed, or a person hits another for no story reason.

Because Empty Action Pads The Script (I’m Serious)

Shakespeare brought heads onstage, and severed limbs; he gored out eyes, and openly referenced incestuous rape and the dismemberment of women and children. One of his plays occurs almost entirely in a brothel, in fact, but you will find, in any worthwhile production of Shakespeare, that there is no immodesty in his language, or in his actions directed for the stage. (Embedded stage directions; it’s a long story.)

People Who Ruin Shakespeare Should Be Given Paper Cuts On Their Faces

People, shitty people (yeah, I’m looking at you, buster-oldy George) love to mangle Shakespeare, to add brazen fondling and breasts, and weirdly orgiastic violence that is not in any of the plays. They also like to add little scenes–to make the action more realistic, or more compelling to the modern viewer, they think.

All Of Which Sucks, Almost Always

Now, on to the subject of the day (or night, as the case may be): raw gore, and the manipulation of flesh in the service of whole fiction, is cathartic and pure, when it is handled with grace and modesty.

The Greeks, for all their blatant phallic pieces, had dignity and respect for suffering in many of their tragedies. The purpose of Oedipus putting out his eyes, and Jocasta hanging herself, is to bring the audience to a pitch of pity and existential terror.

The Bringing Of Emotional Climax Is The Function Of Fiction

And now, since the Greeks and Shakespeare do not always scratch the itch of contemporary genre fiction, here is some blood, and a bit of gentle violence.

A Sample, As Promised

Ethan the cyborg, having cut his metal down, is carving up a couple of his fellows, and stealing their alien inserts. Observe:

“What you are holding is a base insert,” Ethan said, grimacing as he began to wedge the other cyborg’s insert into his own thigh. Mary’s eyes widened, and her lips parted. He seemed to be working the insert in between his own muscles; the shape of his thigh moved in deeply unnatural ways as he worked. “I already have base inserts; I need the top pieces.”

 

“Doesn’t that hurt?” she demanded, watching him force the end of the insert deeper into his upper thigh.

“Not as much as you’d think. You get pretty numb, after the first four dissections,” he said. He made a small sound, like a tense man relaxing into a bath, and the insert folded neatly into the top of his thigh. Ethan sighed and pushed the bottom of the piece the rest of the way into the slit. Mary thought that it was like watching someone try to move a large piece of furniture through a narrow doorway; first the top made it in, and then the bottom was swiveled and forced into the opening.

“Are you all right?” she asked. She felt increasingly squeamish.

“I’m fine,” Ethan said. The insert went in with a strange click, and he extended his leg with a deep sigh.

“That looks so painful,” she said. The two insert pieces she held were hot and slick in her hands; she found, quite suddenly, that she didn’t mind the blood, but she minded the heat.

“It’s very good to get my old shape back,” Ethan grunted, working the metal deeper under his muscles.

And So,

Interestingly, tasteful swearing, and modest use of nudity, violence, and raw language and action opens the reader’s heart, and makes them receptive to the story, and the characters.

The gore must serve a core plot purpose, and be fully justified. Gratuitous violence, and all the rest, cheapens your work.

You’re reading Victor Poole. I have to rewrite almost the entirety of my cyborg sequel, because Vicard turned interesting, and developed unexpected backstory that I now get to incorporate through the threads of the previous parts.