Tag: navel gazing

Things I have tried having opinions about

  • Things I’ve read multiple news articles on, and therefore consider myself vaguely informed about: Like most things, this is a mixture of fun and anxiety. More so these days, when there’s so much news and so much bad news.
  • Entertainment I’ve consumed: This is fun when I think I’m learning something useful about storytelling and art. It’s less fun when I disagree with other people’s opinions and get bogged down thinking about stupid details. The nice thing about having a blog is that you can just bitch at the blog and feel vaguely accomplished.
  • Entertainment I’ve never consumed, e.g., TV series I’ve never watched: I swear I’m not kidding. For some reason, several years ago, I thought it might be relaxing to skim the TV forums, read other people’s thoughtful and impassioned arguments over some random show’s storylines/characters/romances/fictional moral quandaries/offensiveness/quality of writing and direction/spoilers/promotional trailers, and mentally sift out the most defensible positions for myself. There is a certain show, which I refuse to name, of which I have watched maybe sixty seconds total and about which I still hold ridiculously strong opinions* that I obtained, magpie fashion, from total strangers. In retrospect, this was an inadvisable method of relaxation.
  • Word choice in translations of languages I don’t read, write, speak, or comprehend: I even have a tag for this.

*The storyline with the baby? Gratuitous, sexist, formulaic, pandering. Don’t get me started.


What to call your notebook if you are one of those writers who still carries around a notebook

Pretentiousness level People who call their notebooks this Connotations
Notebook Low Harriet the Spy, Nicholas Sparks characters, pretty much everyone in between None, really.
Journal Low to moderate You write non-fiction. You are a serious person.
Sketchbook Moderate You’re an artist. You draw things. Also, you will draw things for people on request.
Scratchpad Low To those in the know, this sort of term suggests that you have a realistically low expectations for rough drafts. To the less perceptive, it suggests that your work is worthless and you know it.
Scrapbook Low (it’s not cool if women do it) You are a kitschy, harmless stereotype with no secrets whatsoever. Your notebook is full of photos and archival-quality craft-shop geegaws.
Memory book Moderate Like a scrapbook, but more dignified. Fewer polka-dot ribbons, more yellowing news clippings.
Diary Low (it’s not cool if girls do it) You write non-fiction about yourself. It is super private. It is probably both introspective and sentimental. It might possibly be enclosed in puffy lavender covers with a ten-cent padlock.
Die-ary Depends Johnny the Homicidal Maniac You like to write dark, violent stuff, but you’re actually just a nice dork. I bet you shopped at Hot Topic when you were a teenager.
Cahier Ultra-high, unless you’re a native speaker of French Patricia Highsmith You like feeling like an expatriate and/or snob.
Jotter I don’t even know Does anybody actually use this word? I found it in the thesaurus. ?
Logbook Depends Ships’ captains This one sounds like a straightforward synonym for a journal, but it also subtly suggests that you have your own ship.
Journalog Low (nerdtastic) Nobody, but it’s the label used for excerpts from Mindfang’s journal in Homestuck You like to distance yourself from reality using imaginary game constructs? Or maybe you just like inventing names for things by mushing two aliasynonyms into a single verbiageword?

On “realistic fiction”

I’ve been resisting the urge to add a “realistic fiction” tag, because the term seems to be fraught with historical baggage and stupidity. Realism seems to mean at least two unrelated things:

  1. Not speculative. That is, the world of the story is essentially supposed to be like the real world; the events of the plot are plausible in the real world.
  2. Straightforward, conventional, in the manner of pre-modernist realism. Does not question what reality is, or how best to represent it. Not written using the box model. Not metafictional or formally outlandish in any way. (Does not include psychological realism, either. Like how dwarf planets aren’t planets.*)

I hereby adopt this awkward two-part definition for future use. If necessary, I’ll divide it into two separate tags, I guess, if I feel like it.

*Edit: Definitely does not include magic realism. Actually, magic realism is a double strike: it includes speculative elements, and it includes them in a way that leaves the reader to figure out how they represent reality.

The value of reading

Apparently, “Read a book!” continues to be a popular cliché piece of advice. It means something like “Improve your mind!” and possibly “Improve your life situation!” This is the kind of advice that makes me roll my eyes every time I hear it.

Why this cargo-cultish preoccupation with books? Nobody ever uses that preaching tone to say, “Watch a movie!” “Play a video game!” “Consume media of some kind!” It’s even become routine to defend bad books by saying, “At least people are reading,”—as though reading a bad book were better than reading a good Facebook status. Maybe in previous generations, reading a book was, in itself, a shortcut to social mobility. Today that seems laughable.

But it occurred to me recently that I’m probably approaching the issue from the wrong end. For me, reading is nearly effortless. The skill involved is something I take for granted. It’s possible that for somebody else, reading a book means altering their state of mind, focusing in an unaccustomed way, forging new mental connections. It’s possible that that experience actually does improve people’s lives in a way that other media don’t. It’s possible I am a cranky out-of-touch snob. These things happen.

Writing advice as a science

I’m convinced that most writing advice is bullshit. Part of the trouble is that I suspect that writing well could be reduced to a science—not an exact science, but a sound one nonetheless. Here is an experiment that, as far as I know, has never been done.

Gather some aspiring writers for a sort of seminar. Have each writer submit for evaluation what they consider to be their most accomplished work.

Divide your writers at random into multiple groups. The control group will simply write, without guidelines or feedback. Other groups will get the benefit of general guidelines (a different guide for each group) and/or individual feedback (a different set of readers for each group).

At the end of the experiment, the writers will once again submit for evaluation what they consider to be their most accomplished work. Each “before” and “after” writing sample will be reviewed blind by a panel of professionals who are comfortable with the genre and style, and assigned quality ratings. The writers will complete a survey on the experience.

We can all agree that good guidelines and feedback will (on average) cause improvement in writing quality, as determined by ratings. (Yes, the ratings will be highly subjective, but on average they should be good enough for our purposes.) Here are some additional hypotheses:

  • The most significant factor in improvement will be the writer’s initial writing quality and experience level. Beginners will improve the most, even in the control group.
  • The next most significant factors of improvement, even in the control group, will be (in no order) individual talent, motivation, time spent writing, and number of words written.
  • Bad guidelines/feedback will actually cause some groups to get worse. The worst guidelines/feedback will be bad because they’re confusing or genre-inappropriate.
  • The quality of individual feedback will have more effect than the quality of general guidelines, because guidelines tend to be harder to apply and easier to ignore.
  • The guidelines/feedback do not need to be reflected in the final writing sample in order to have caused improvement or worsening. It is possible for a writer to be inspired by a piece of advice, or rendered painfully self-conscious by it, without following it.

Regardless of whether any of those hypotheses are correct, it would be tremendously valuable to have solid evidence to work with, instead of anecdata and pseudoscience. Then we could confidently answer questions like these:

  • Which guidelines are the best?
  • What type of feedback is the best?
  • For the average beginning writer, which approach causes the most improvement on sentence-level writing quality: memorizing nearly mindless grammatical rules, studying actual grammar, reading one’s own work aloud during revision, reading others’ work aloud, or writing prolifically? (This isn’t meant as a rhetorical question. I can see potential value in each.)
  • For the average beginning novelist, what’s the best way to get better at novel writing: working on short stories first, following an outline, writing as many chapters as possible, or working on the first chapter first? (Again, not rhetorical.)
  • How often should the average writer get individual feedback? Presumably the benefits of good feedback reach a plateau or even reverse at some point, but when?
  • Is it helpful to get feedback from readers who aren’t familiar with the genre? If so, what should be the proportion of familiar readers to unfamiliar ones?

Books read in 2012, presented without comment

Screen shot 2013-01-07 at 11.03.08 PM

  • Things on my to-read list: 23
  • Other stuff by writers I admire: 15
  • Other perfectly respectable classics: 6
  • Misc. short story collections: 4
  • Writing craft and advice: 3
  • Misc. murder mysteries: 7
  • Misc. non-fiction: 11
  • Various kid/teen books: 4
  • Books in the late nineties teen series Animorphs: 31
  • Picture books: 4
  • Misc. erotica: 1


The world keeps not ending. I guess I should try and get used to it.

I feel vindicated

“Rand, of course, insists that Atlas Shrugged is a love story. Which, okay. I was happy that Hank Rearden cheated on his horrible wife with Dagny. I was kind of happy for Hank and Dagny. Dagny clearly has a lot of shit to put up with at work, and Hank is surrounded by losers, so it’s nice they found each other, prior to John Galt weirding everything up.”

—Nicole Cliffe (on The Awl)

And here I thought I was the only non-Objectivist who found Ayn Rand unironically entertaining. The comments on this post are great.

(For the record, I did skip most of the speech.)

Questions no one normally asks or answers when discussing a piece of written fiction they like

  • What is the word count (exact or approximate)?
  • Is this a complete story (or some other fictional form)? What makes it complete?
  • How is the plot structured? (Epiphany plots and other “literary” plots included.)
  • What was the initial attraction of the piece, i.e., the first point at which I felt compelled to keep reading?
  • Almost all fiction has some gripping parts and some slower parts, like exposition. During the slow parts, what kept me reading (besides the promise of the gripping parts to come)?

I’m not even sure if the above things are all that important to what makes fiction work. I suspect they are, but who knows?

Others are likely to be asked only by writers, god help the poor bastards:

  • Where was it published, or where can it be published, and with the help of what agents or editors?
  • For how much money?
  • What kind of prestige is associated with this publication?
  • How many people can be expected to read it? What sort of people?

On coming up with opinions

“[T]he prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books […] involves […] constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever.”

—George Orwell (essay here)

Not having enough opinions is an embarrassing problem. It’s possible to have a stupid opinion and still feel yourself an expert, if only an expert in smug bad taste. In fact, if you have a stupid opinion of a literary classic, one that you clearly remember reading, you are already better informed than nine tenths of the literate public.