Weighty Topics And No Excuses

I don’t know about you, I love me some podcasts. There are some great sport related ones that I follow, and others that are completely unrelated. An excellent example of the latter is “Writing Excuses” which from my perspective is a “Brandon Sanderson and friends” kind of deal. I learned of this podcast quite recently (as in sometime in 2018. You’ll have to excuse me, at my age one starts to forget details), and for the most part, I really enjoy it. It’s kind of short (which is the point really) and focuses on a specific writing related topic in each episode. It’s also ordered by seasons and episodes, which I find fun, and while I’d never recommend to take any podcast as a bible, one thing this one offers is some perspective. Out of what the team has to offer, I may or may not take advice, but even if I disagree with some things (and I do), I still enjoy the contrast, even if only as a test to my current held position. You should definitely check it out if you’re interesting in the topic of writing at all.
Having said that, I listened to the episode “How To Handle Weighty Topics” from Sunday, August 12th, 2018 on my way to work and it (as it often does) made me think. I’m not necessarily challenging anything said on the podcast, or saying “you’re wrong”. I merely offer my thoughts on the topic.
As the topic of weighty topics is… weighty… I’d like to break it down a little (well, more than a little). First, what did they mean by weighty? My understanding is – At any time one writes about a person or persons who are not of his “group” (we’ll get to that), or something that is outside of his existence which is of sensitivity to one or more groups, the topic becomes weighty. Of course I could be misunderstanding, but that – in itself – doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
With the above assumption in mind, let’s start touching the weighty topics.
One of the best questions asked during the podcast was “Why is it so important for the writer?” and I think that this is the fundamental question each of us should ask ourselves before embarking on the project. Are we writing about racism because we want to “be cool”? or perhaps because we “have a message”? Are we writing about racism, or is what we write racist (or can be perceived as such)? mind you, this applies to most all isms. Is one of our characters racist? “just a little”? Outright obnoxious, racist, pig? and if so, what does that mean for our story? Do we write that character in “to have a racist character”? There are a lot of “whys”  we should ask ourselves before even going into a weighty topic (more on that later).
For me, the decision is made based on one question – Does it  serve the story in any meaningful way? whether it’s the plot, character or settings. If the answer is yes – you will see some ism in my book. If not, I’m not even going there.
Another question that really interests me, and I’m hoping some of you may want to give me possible answers (I’m really asking) is, do we really need to address the isms every time? What I mean is this – If I’d elect to write a story featuring, say… a gay person. If I illustrate the discrimination and suffering that person may experience, I may be misrepresenting it, or perhaps worse, over simplifying it. If I tell a story, in which a character just happens to be gay, why does he have to be gay? (and excuse the usage of male, that’s just my habit). How does the character, being gay, contribute to the story, other than to be a “hey, I included a gay person in my story” (Do we really have to choose a “pet minority”?). And If I chose one group, or three, and not others…
What I’m trying to say is, inclusiveness is fun, and I go back to that question – does it serve the story in a meaningful way? if so, why the hell not. As a reasonably new writer, I tend to write more of what I know, and I do not know enough yet to pretend to get in the head of some groups. I feel that, until I’ve spoken to, learned about, understood people better, I’d rather stay away. That way I am – at the very least – significantly reducing my chances of falling into the trap. One day I will know more. On that day, I may take the plunge.
The most insightful and meaningful comment I heard on the podcast (and excuse me, I don’t remember who said what – they are all interesting) was regarding the fact that, though we all may be (whether we want to or not) part of certain different groups, we have so much more in common than we are really different. I totally agree that, from a writer’s perspective, if we write our characters with that in mind, the chances of our writing being offensive, or perceived as such, are reduced. I want to say it clearly again – there’s a huge difference between writing an offensive character (which is perfectly fine) and writing offensively (which I don’t recommend).
So far I focused on the writing itself, as it relates to weighty topics. But There is still the question of what is the writer’s role in the discussion of a certain weighty topic. My personal opinion is that it’s up to the writer. Some may feel a burning need to address a weighty topic because it may hit “close to home” for them, or perhaps the opposite – choose to stay away from one, for the exact same reason. I don’t think that everyone should necessarily write about them, but I do expect from any book that I write to be true to its reality. If a character in our story is of a group that suffers blatant discrimination, I expect to see him as such. I don’t need a militant activist of any faction for that. I just expect that the character will not be “just another guy”. Otherwise I will ask again – why does he have to be part of a specific group?
I’m not a big fan of preachy fiction. I identify with causes, but I do that in real life. In fiction I’d like to read a story that is informed by whatever reality it exists in. I can identify with a suffering character, as long as it’s not meant to “educate” me. It’s more about empathy to a character than a “message” that the writer wants to send.

 

I also don’t view the writer as a pacifist. What I mean by that is that, I am not actively looking to offend people. As I mentioned, I do not intend to write offensively. But I don’t believe a writer should “hold back” when it comes to writing about weighty topics. It boils down to target audience I guess.
If the story justifies it, a character will say the most horrific racist slurs and will behave in a despicable manner. Because the character is not the writer. That character may even be successful in his endeavors, because – it’s fiction… and yes, some people may be offended.
Beside the fact that people get offended more easily these days, there’s also the question of why should the writer compromise on a story that could be stronger should it included things that might offend some people? Again, target audience aside, I think the story should be told, IF – and I will try to close a little circle here – the writer has a satisfactory answer to that question: “Why is it so important for the writer?”
A Facebook friend of mine posted a couple of days ago about people who say that, when it comes to people, they are “color blind”. Meaning, we don’t see a black or white or whatever person as a black or white or whatever person. She challenged them, and I agree with what she said. This color blindness is mostly reserved to the privileged, to people who are part of stronger populations. Because it’s much easier. Like her, I choose to see colors, and religions and sexual orientations and other points of conflicts.
Is it not the ability to recognize the differences and yet look past them, understanding that indeed, these are far less than the things we have in common, and kill our prejudices the way to get rid of racism and other isms?
And also, how do we expect to empathise with a person who is marginalized, categorized and mistreated if we fail to recognize that he is? by being blind to the differences, we also have to be somewhat blind to problems that need to be addressed.
Now, I don’t see a gay person ONLY as gay, of course. That’s part of the problem. But I’m not going to ignore the fact that he is. Not as a person and not as a writer. As a person, by doing that I’d be ignoring the issues and basking in my privilege. As a writer I’d miss – at the very least – on two of writing’s most valuable aspects – conflict on the one hand, and empathy on the other.
Hopefully no one’s offended. You know no offense was meant.

Mission from god – The Missing Pieces

Last week the muse struck me, as I was listening to some music. I wrote this post, drawing lines between writing a novel and making music. I hope you liked it.
But after submitting that post, it dawned on me that I’ve omitted a few critical puzzle pieces. I alluded to them in comment, but they are far too significant for me not to address with a bit more depth.
So, we put the band back together and we’re thinking about new materials, recording and with some luck, live concerts. We have everything we need for people to hear music. But there are just a couple of things we really should’ve thought about earlier…

Lead singer!

Extremely rare, are successful and popular ensembles which are not identified with a strong lead singer.
We’d love our fans to have a face for our band, don’t we? In literature, that is our protagonist, our hero. Our Kurt, or John, or Freddie. You get the picture. Someone to root for.
When Nirvana recorded ‘Nevermind’, the producer – Buch Vig – wasn’t happy with Kurt’s vocals as he did them. After some thought, he “tricked” Kurt into adding Dave Grohl’s backing vocal by telling him (the truth, I might add) that’s what The Beatles did. And the result? Kurt’s raspy, screech-y voice, layered with dave’s high pitched, downplayed backup. That in itself made that album as legendary as it is.
The same goes for our novel. One character does not a novel make. One needs some backup. And it could be a friendly figure, like little Steven to Bruce Springsteen – you know, to make it fuller. But it could be an antagonistic relationship – in fact, we must have that element. Axel without Slash and Duff? Give me a break.
But one thing’s important. Our band must have a clear voice. There is one, and only one lead vocalist.
Yes, The Beatles featured at least 2, but here is my reply:
  • The Beatles are legendary.
  • John sang this song with Paul backing and then Paul sang another while John backed him up.
  • John is the undisputed lead singer, and whoever says differently should be shunned! Or maybe not. You get the point.
with-the-beatles-3
Ah! But what about boy/girl bands?
Well, first of all they suck.
Besides, when everyone sings together, it could be harmonious, but it is normally either confusing or sounds downright bad. And even within these bands, every singer has his lines, his spots. Even in great choruses, there’s a lead.
I think we got that down.
And, perhaps the most important thing left to do… Write some damn songs! Put words in the mouths of the singers, teach the band members how to play, decide which style of music we want to do next.

Yes, that is you, the writer.

You decide what kind of music gets played. Is it upbeat? Slow romantic, perhaps classic? Is it loud? What kind of lead singer do you want? You’ve got to know this guy very well, you don’t want him to stop showing up for concerts or surprise you with uncharacteristic behavior – well not to the extent he breaks up the band at least.
Who are his backing vocalists? What do their relationships look like? How do they help him grow?
What are the songs about? Are they very personal? Are they politically infused? Is there something the band stands for?
There you go. Now we have the complete package, and once we’ve hired some vocalists and wrote the lyrics and the tunes, we can finally see the stage lights waiting for us to come up.

I hope you all get standing ovation.

Putting The Band Back Together (Mission from God and all that)

When I sit down to write, I normally play some of my favorite “writing music”. Examples? Any Pink Floyd (Atom Heart Mother being in the lead), some unplugged rock albums (Nirvana, Alice in chains), Neil Young’s Harvest and Harvest Moon and so on and so forth.
While sitting down to write the other day, I started thinking about writing – as in writing fiction – and music.

But let me take you on a brief bunny trail first, before I start making my point (this is not fiction after all).

When I first attempted playing guitar, I learned a few chords and sat with a couple of guys who already played. I listened and I remember the realization that the guitar does not actually mirror the tune the singer was singing, but rather accentuating it. Lennon and McCartney aren’t singing C, F, G or whatever the heck it is. These chords draw the broad strokes of the song. So maybe it isn’t as complicated as I thought? How about solos then? Some songs are identified with the guitar solos. But these don’t define them either. They are decorations. Some really fancy ones, but decorations all the same…

Back to our little discussion about writing fiction and music.

If I think about a novel as a song. An Epic if you’d like. A stairway to heaven. Sure, you can learn the main riff, and pull off a nice home-made rendering of this song. But you still did not create that masterpiece that withstands the tests of time.
When I plan a novel, I (so far subconsciously?) think about the end result and I want it to sound like a complete package. That means, putting the band back together.
Let’s see here.
Before we can even entertain writing a novel (especially a novel), we must hire the drummer. Without the cool guy in the back, you might as well write a comic strip. Why? Because your novel must have beats.
You absolutely must have a bass player. The drummer may be cool, but please… show me a rhythm section that produced anything really good without the bass player. Bonham/JP Jones, Chad Smith/Flea, Ulrich/Butron/Newstead/Trujillo? Need I say more? These guys help make the beats more… pungent?
Then come the Rhythm guitar. Because your story doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Or maybe it does… then leave this guy and get started. The point is, your story happens in a place and a time. It – if you will – sings to the tune of its background. It adheres to its rules. It makes sense.
With the above, you most certainly can start a novel. It may be a minimalistic one. But these may be the bare bones of the band we need for this task.

But if you want to write a bigger one. If you’re on a mission from God!

band-back_-together-thumb-900x900-193613-777x437

Then you must add the solo guitar guy. This guy will make your language dance, your imagery fly and your scenes come to life.
The Saxophonist is needed for love. You can have the cheesy tunes, or the classic. Down and dirty or implied. The Sax can paint it anyway you want.
How about a brass section? Want your climax and other turning points to reach that dramatic peak? You have the option to let ‘em rip.
That’s all I guess… You could take this imagery to the classical world and build an orchestra (and some already have). In art, there’s no limit. Only what works for you.

So pick up the phone (or your laptop), and put the band back together. I know I will.


The Extremities Of The Feedback Loop

Welcome back folks.
Very soon I will update with things such as “where the heck have you been?”. For now, I’ll just say – here, there and everywhere. Life has thrown a couple of curve balls at me, so I decided to make Lemonade. Or something to that effect.
I wanted to say a few words today, about the writing experience as I’ve witnessed it with other writers, as well as myself.
As a participant in writers groups, workshops and other such forums, one thing was always clear to me. No matter what kind of feedback one receives for one’s writing, it’s up to the writer to decide what to do with it. It sounds simple. Trivial even. But it is not as simple as it sounds to many writers, especially in the early stages of writing.
There are many kinds of feedback one can expect to get. In my world, the only rule is – discuss the writing, not the writer. Of course, honesty is appreciated, though cannot be expected. Which is part of the problem I’d like to talk about here.
Many writers are quite sensitive about their writing (speaking from personal experience here…) and it takes time for some to develop thicker skin, or as it really should be called – willingness to receive criticism.
Otherwise, we may fall into the trap I call the feedback loop.
What is this loop? It’s the cycle of feedback and response, that traps certain writers in an unproductive situation.
There are two types of feedback and responses that create this loop (as far as I can tell at this point in time):
  • The biased feedback: The kind you get from your family and close friends who are either afraid to hurt your feelings, or simply not equipped to provide the kind of feedback you need.
  • The ruthless criticism: The kind that is (sometimes) given with sheer honesty and no constructive value, or simply mean-hearted feedback (which many times comes from other people not really equipped to provide the kind of feedback you need).
These are the types of feedback that may start this loop, but the response is more important to the creation of this predicament.
Let’s discuss the second type first. What happens when we receive negative feedback? Well, for most of us, this is an unpleasant situation, and we deal with it in different ways. When we receive feedback that may be important, even if it comes in a negative way, mean even, what do we do? What I’ve noticed with quite a few writers is that they tend to respond to this in one of two ways – A “reboot” or complete “shutdown“.
Reboot, as in “Oh, you don’t like it? Here, let me throw all this garbage in the bin and start all over from scratch.”
Shutdown, as in “I’m no damn good. What was I thinking? I better find another hobby. Perhaps Macrame.”
What good came out of either one? The writer either gives up, and we may lose a few very good books sometime down the line, or, the writer may start something new, without learning what was wrong with the previous piece of work – which could have turned into something really good.
Not productive.
The second type of feedback loop starts with the biased criticism which, to certain writers, mean – good job! keep doing exactly what you’re doing.
This, of course does not teach us anything. Nobody’s prefect. A first draft isn’t call “first” without the expectation of having – at the very least – a second. It’s not called final, is it?
The result is at the best of scenarios – a completed draft that is far from where it could have been. In most cases, it leads to the never-ending writing of a never finished product.
Not productive.
So what do we do?
Before getting feedback on something I wrote, I ask myself – what’s the worst that can happen?
The worst that can happen is either hearing “Great job! I wouldn’t change anything! It’s perfect! You’re such a good writer!” or getting verbally abused for an hour about what a horrific piece of junk I just scribbled.
Either way – it is up to me to decide what to do next. So many questions are available to us in order to qualify the feedback we receive. Who provided this feedback? What is my opinion about his qualification to criticize? Have I received good feedback in the past from this person? Was it constructive? There are many more, and of course we need to ask and answer these honestly, otherwise we’re cheating no one but ourselves off a chance to make our work better.
Whatever we choose to do next, whether it’s to make changes to our work based on the feedback, or to ignore it all together, we must make the choice to be productive. Writing as a hobby is just nice and dandy, but if your goal is to publish something, this thing needs to be written.
  • Did you ever get one of these types of feedback?
  • How did you handle it?
  • Any other advice on how to avoid this trap?
Until next time,


5 Tough Decisions Facing Fiction Writers (Guest Post – Christina Ranallo)

Hello everyone,
I will be back on a somewhat regular basis soon. Currently there is a combination of a lot of work, a lot of writing (Yay me!) and some really big changes, which I will share in due time…
The next couple of weeks will be all about MMA, with 3 great cards to predict and dissect. After that, I hope to have something special (I’ll “tease” that soon). This week…
This week, this week, I want to share a post written by my writing coach Christina Ranallo (See the original and more at penpaperwrite):

Continue reading

Mixing Business With Pleasure (Bloodline on Netflix – No Spoilers)

Hello world.
Netflix could be really irritating. There could be six months stretches of nothing new but semi amusing stand up comedies and straight-to-video “blockbusters”, during which I find other things to do with my time. Then, there could be bursts of releases that make it difficult to find the time to handle all that wealth…

Continue reading