Monday, August 29, 2011

Odd sentence edit

I wrote this sentence and it felt wrong for what I meant:

She stayed, but her reply was reluctant. 

What I meant was that -she stayed-.  She was reluctant, but still she stayed.  I know it's a little odd, but for xome reason, I felt the above made it sound like the reluctant reply was the most important thing, but in my head, what was important was that while she didn't really want to, she stayed.

Minor point, but it just felt wrong, and I realized it was because "but" makes these both independent clauses (each could be a sentence in its own right), and thus of equal syntactic "weight." One is not more important than another; neither is the primary thought.

But in my head, the important thing was... she stayed. And so I kind of let myself feel how that should be worded-- let instinct and sound-sense take over, and changed it to this:

She stayed, though her reply was reluctant. 

 So much of this, lol, is instinctual.  And when I stopped and analyzed why, I realized that "but" and "though" mean the same thing (presenting a contrast of some sort to the first clause), but "but" makes the second an independent (equal) clause, while "though" reduces it to a dependent (lesser) clause.  And that means the second is of lesser syntactic weight, so the reader will subconsciously understand it to be of lesser importance, and the "she stayed" is the important thing.

Now the question becomes, why do I put the main action/clause first in the sentence? When would I put the "though" first?"
Though her reply was reluctant, she stayed.

Hmm. Usually I think when "though" comes first, I say "although." (I don't know why. Sounds better.)

I think probably I'd put the dependent clause first when it sounded better (like if the rhythm was better when mixed with the adjacent sentences).  That is, I don't feel a great deal of difference in the change in sentence order, nothing like the change from "but" to "though."

I know, I know. Picky. But nuance matters in sentences. Readers can pick up consciously or subconsciously such subtle changes in meaning. How important is this to you as a writer? Is that sort of pinpoint meaning accuracy something you spend time on? And have you any examples of that sort of subtle shift in meaning I can borrow for a workshop I'm doing on sentences? :)


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Exploiting Orphans

Jenny and I got into a discussion once about how so many historical novels use "helping orphans" as a shorthand technique to supposedly make a jerky hero sympathetic. I always had a mental image of rakish looking hunks lining up outside an orphanage door,  checkbooks in hand. Anyway, I don't think that works!  I think that readers sympathize with interesting character confronted with interesting conflicts.  That is, "doing nice things to poor benighted orphans" isn't necessarily going to make him sympathetic. (And why is sympathy the reaction we want anyway? I do think "reader involvement" might more important, and allows for characters who are more or less than sympathetic.)

What I think I’m discovering is that character development sort of depends on these particular circumstances (the opening situation and then the plot events) causing a change in his behavior. If your hero already supports a dozen orphans because he's just such a doggone good guy, then his taking care of this new orphan is not only effortless (he’s got the whole system set up already), but also, in a way, nothing special. He always does that. All you’ll end up doing is showing that he’s a wonderful, charitable guy—and always has been.
Consider what would happen if he has no history of supporting orphans, and this kid shows up, claiming to be the orphan of the hero's former girlfriend. And... worst possible time... he's about to marry the beautiful and moralistic daughter of his wealthy boss, and she's righteous and jealous and boss is the Old Testament type. So the arrival of this orphan kid is a catastrophe, a conflict, not just the latest in a long line of orphans Hero has helped, but a problem he doesn’t know how to solve, but has to solve anyway. In other words, dealing with this orphan makes him grow, in compassion or empathy or generosity—doesn’t just display those virtues for all to see.
And if he’s embarrassed and mad at himself for doing the right thing, If he’s not sure it’s the right thing, and if doing it gets him into trouble, all the better.
What do you think? Maybe I’m misreading the attitude of the reading public, but I think a bit of curmudgeonly spirit, when coupled with eventually good actions, really does increase the sympathy factor.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Talking Heroic Characters at RU

Today at Romance University, we're talking about a technique to give a character flaws without undermining their heroic nature. We're talking about it from the romance perspective, but this technique applies to any type of heroic character. Come visit!


Thursday, August 25, 2011

The fault, dear Brutus... personal issues manifest as writing issues

I did a guest blog at Denny's place, and Carlene asked if we ever manage to learn enough from our mistakes in drafting so that we don't keep making them in subsequent books. She identified as an example POV issues that might keep recurring in an author's first drafts. So I took this as an opportunity to go off on the dark confluence of deep psychological issues and writing issues:

I suspect there are two kinds of "opportunities for revision." The first we'll learn our way out of as we get more experienced. Like I've been working a lot on scene endings, and I think I've learned (forever maybe!) to end a scene on conflict and never (except at the end of the book, of course) on resolution, so that the story (and reader) are always propelled into the next scene.

But there are the other issues which are more intrinsically bound to who we are and what we are and what issues matter to us in life and art. And those, I think, we won't learn our way out of in our fiction until we learn our way out of them in life. We keep "making the same mistake" or encountering the same issue because we're subconsciously seeking to revisit it, to worry it, to debate it.

For example, I'm revising much of my backlist preparatory to offering it on Kindle and Smashwords. I'm editing a lot, partly because of course I want the stories to be the best they can be, but also because I want to make enough change that I can justify new copyrights. (Note to self, look up the rules on this.)

Anyway, here I am, confronted with the product of my 1992 self, you know? The one who felt helpless and overwhelmed (little kids, sudden career success, major decisions to make but no real power to make them with, all that young mother time trouble). And I realize that I have several incidents of heroine action where she acts impulsively and perhaps recklessly, for no real purpose.

Why? What does this say about ME? What issue would have had me-- the back-then me-- continually having a heroine who would behave without the sort of right-there immediate motivation that I would counsel other writers to show?

Well, I don't want to get too personal-- I'm still married to the same guy, still have the same kids, still even-- I am so boring-- teaching (again, actually, not still) at the same school, so I probably ought not to remind myself of all that stuff back then. But let me just say that back then, I never behaved heedlessly. I never did anything I thought maybe I'd regret later. I spent those years being really, really careful.

And it showed paradoxically in my creation of a few heroines who did behave recklessly, who acted spontaneously without regard for consequence, who jumped out of airplanes without a parachute (figuratively... these took place in like 1815 :). IOW, they could afford to be stupid when I couldn't.

This was an issue in my life that came out in my writing. And I wasn't going to resolve it in my writing without resolving it in my life in one way or another.

So here it is, jeez, 20 years later, and I've given up that need to control, or at least that dire suspicion that if I said the wrong word or opened the wrong door, terrible things would happen and It Would All Be My Fault and I Can't Let That Happen.

I also-- age does this to women, thank goodness-- gave up on any real aspiration to be so adorably cute and unexpected like a kitten and decided to be a grown-up at some point.

Anyway, for whatever reason, that issue seems to have mostly resolved in my life, and I can look at my earlier book and see not a heroine who is insufficiently adorable (so that I must up the madcap-heiress ratio, which is what I'd have done back then), but rather insufficiently motivated to act and thus I must give her a good reason to do that madcap-heiress cute thing. (That is, I'm keeping the cute action, just giving her more reason to commit it.)  Here's how I did it.

1992 heroine, too stupid to live, too adorable to resist, is with hero in enemy territory, at the market fair of a French coastal town, across the Channel from Dorset (where he lives).  They are trying to get past the big contingent of French soldiers who are patrolling the docks to slip onto the smuggling sloop which by arrangement is going to sneak them out of France and back home.  Heroine espies Cute Plot Trick (a hot air balloon) and takes off in that direction and adorably madcappedly ends up in the air over the Channel with hero. (Their passage is in contravention, btw, of the whole prevailing winds issue, but that I dealt with mainly by having the hero marvel that, given the usual prevailing winds, the gods had favored them and sent northerly winds.)

This gives the hero a chance to Sternly Chastise Her and her a chance to be Suitably Adorably "sulky" (I swear, I'm going to do a Control-F and find every "sulk" in there and excise it, and "pout" beside… really, there's a limit to how adorable a non-kitten should be). But it doesn't make much sense, because they're in great danger, she's not actually that stupid, and the sloop they'd arranged is captained by his very own brother, of whom they're both pretty fond, and I don't think they'd put him in graver danger if they could help it.  Here's how I resolved it—I gave her a reason to do what she does, a reason beyond "I am so cute I can get away with being an idiot! In fact, the bigger idiot I am, the more proof it is that I'm adorable!"  Once I'd identified the 'need,' (that is, for more immediate external motivation), I had the answer just like that:

Michael (hero) is cognizant above all that his duty is to protect this princess he's bringing to England to marry a prince and cement an alliance. (It's a Lancelot-Guinevere story, natch.) And he knows his bro and knows that John, ever resourceful, tends to find a way out of bad situations. So he's more trusting than Tatiana (heroine) that they just have to get over there to the sloop and all will be well. Tatiana is, in her adorable way, less trusting of fate and less aware of how John has always managed to squirm out of every dilemma ever. So… here's the big change. They get close to the sloop and the military commander isn't just hassling John. He's about to ARREST John now. And so Tatiana runs off to steal the balloon (set up as an attraction for the fair—okay, dumb, but it's not HER dumbness at least ) to act as a diversion so that the military is drawn away from the sloop.  Might not be Wellingtonesque in its strategic brilliance, but hey, effective—she gets on the balloon, Michael, cursing, follows her to try and get her off, she gets it to ascend in order to have everyone down there (including military people) turn to gaze up at the balloon.  John takes advantage of the distraction to heave the military commander into the harbor, and he raises anchor and scoots out into the Channel.

There! Her adorable action is now to some purpose! 

And this actually solves another issue, a coincidence (groan) I'd forgotten about.  This town actually is directly across the Channel from his own estate. This isn't the coincidence part.  He and John have arranged to meet here because as boys (before the war) they used to sail down here to pick up chicks, or whatever boys did back then (they probably still picked up chicks, or tried to), and know it well.  The coincidence is that the balloon is going to end up crashing into his own land 32 miles north, direct hit, no action needed. Well, now, duh, I have John escaping from custody and sailing out into the Channel, and above are Michael and Tatiana. So John could point the sloop in the right direction, kind of like an arrow, and Michael can follow that and figure out a bit how to maneuver the craft (he's an experienced sailor, so understands winds). And with John's example below, he doesn't just happen onto his own land, but aims for it because he knows he can land in an open field there and not on the brow of a cliff.

So much more purposeful and directed, but without that terrible fear and insecurity I had  when I first wrote it!

I really don't think I could have resolved that so quickly  back then. Oh, maybe I could have done it deliberately, like if the editor pointed it out and suggested how to fix it. But I really don't know if I would have identified it as an issue. And I certainly wouldn't effortlessly-- as I just did-- have come up with the right solution, or at least a workable one. I guess I'm saying I had to grow up. :)

So... armchair diagnosis here, or at least armchair speculation. If I were having POV issues that I couldn't learn my way out of, well, I probably wouldn't know what the problem is. But as an outsider, and if YOU were having that recurrent issue, I might ask if there was some identity issue going on-- POV is -usually- about identity. For example, and we're just using this and "you" as examples, okay? I'm not actually trying to delve into your personality . Do you think maybe you have a bit of trouble "escaping the surly bounds of self," maybe, and "becoming" someone else? (Due to, perhaps, too much encroachment by family, or too little regard earlier in life for your own feelings so now you are more careful to assert "what is me and what I value".) This could result in shallow POV, the inability to get too deep into a character.

Or is a recurrent POV issue more a problem with too quick identification with others, too much empathy almost? That can lead to headhopping, maybe, because everyone's opinion seems equally important in this scene.

Just a thought. This isn't therapy, but it might be interesting to look at the issues that keep arising in our stories and speculate about what IN US might cause them. That is... the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our plotting, but in ourselves. :)

What do you think?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Um and Uh

This article discusses "disfluencies and discourse particles" (aka "uh and um") and posits the interesting notion that no one mentioned them as a problem until phonographs were invented and could record speech for playback later. That is, in "real time" we generally don't notice the little space-fillers that give the speaker a bit of a pause.

They mention the doubtlessly invaluable organization Toastmasters "fining" their speech-making members a nickel for each um. That actually solved a bit of a mystery for me. Hands-down, the greatest lecturer I've ever heard (and I went to a university with scads of great lecturers) was the writing seminar leader Robert McKee, who combines a hipster's insouciance with a cinephile's obsessive command of his material and a storyteller's sense of suspense. I've been to a couple of his all-weekend seminars, and really, he's so good that IN HOLLYWOOD, all these petulant Colin Farrell lookalikes and dead-eyed zombie gorgeous people TURN OFF THEIR CELL PHONES AT HIS COMMAND, then sit there in a college classroom for 20 hours or so listening to him and assiduously taking notes and then, at the end of the weekend, rise spontaneously to give him standing ovations. This guy really is great, and I say this as someone who has given many, many writing workshops myself. I wanna be him when I grow up, only I think we're both running out of time.

Anyway, I was talking to another writer after we saw McKee in another venue (at another organization's conference). He was typically awesome, mingling casual anecdotes about his golf buddy Paul Newman ("Yes, ladies, he really was what the rest of us guys call 'unfairly handsome'") with tossed-off brilliant analysis of scene design (one I always use now: "The end moment in a turning point scene should reflect the type of story it is, so the first scene in a romantic comedy should have a romantic comic ending event"-- sounds simple? Well, try it if you've ever been told that your romantic comedy just doesn't feel like a romantic comedy, try making sure that the very last bit of the first scene is romantic and comic).  So when I marvelled at the insightfulness, this writer said bitterly, and, to my mind, obscurely and oddly, "Can we say 'um' and 'uh'? I wish I had a nickel for every time he said one of those!" Later she told me she'd been president of her local Toastmasters chapter. Anyway, this article mentions that Toastmasters used to fine members -- you got it-- a nickel for every "disfluency".  (Way to miss the point, huh? :)

Anyway, linguist John McWhorter points out that these show up in most every language, and the  "tone" determines whether "un-uh" and "uh-huh" are negatives or positives. And they're mostly vocalisms (though there are some equivalents in written language, n'est-ce pas?).  And they are actually more "fluencies" (easing discourse) than "dis"fluencies. But interesting anyway, and if Robert McKee does it, that means it's cool. :)


Groovy article about slang

Groovy article about why "cool" is always cool, and groovy isn't.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Flotsam and jetsam

Here's a newsletter about words, the origin of them, I mean.  I'm enjoying the current issue, which explains how "flotsam and jetsam" are actually legal terms for material lost off cargo ships, and there are two other categories, and they indicate whether you can legally scavenge them, which would be useful, no?


This e-magazine is also available as an RSS feed, whose source is
at .

Back issues are at .

Friday, August 12, 2011

None of this is a moral issue....

Been accosted the other day by a couple questioners who made me think about morality and writing. That is, I don't think most writing issues are moral issues.  It's not a moral failing, goodness knows, to use adverbs, or not to use adverbs.  You don't need my permission or a saint's benediction to use omniscient POV, and headhopping is not a "sin". 

None of this is a moral issue.  How you choose to write your story is personal and practical, but not moral, as long as (here I get moralistic :) you do your best and never forget the reader.

That said, just about anything can be done well or done badly. I am continually perplexed by the notion so many writers have that someone else doing something well gives them permission to do it badly.  You know: Tolstoy headhops! Why can't I?  (Well, maybe, just maybe, Tolstoy does it better? Just a thought.)

All that counts is results. If you do headhopping in a way that adds to the quality of the story, zoom! There goes my bias against headhopping!  But if, as most writers find, headhopping detracts from the quality of the story, then all you've done is give me more reason to mutter darkly about how dangerous such weapons are in unskilled hands. (You seriously don't want me muttering darkly. Maria Callas, I ain't.)

We are both of us analytical, and we've seen about everything in submissions and contest entries. We've seen all sorts of writing choices done well, and done badly,  We try to warn off writers from the choices that tend to be done poorly, and/or suggest ways that some writers have done this exact thing well, or that we think might work around the icebergs and sandbars. But always, always, the trick here is to do something well, and you know what? The reader is the one that gets to judge that. Not you. Not me. Not Tolstoy.

But just remember this: That Tolstoy could do (whatever) well doesn't grant you absolution to do it badly. Serve the story, not some weird writing commandment or mutiny.  This truly isn't about you. I am not your reader, not your editor, not, heaven forfend, your boss. Do what you want. But never forget the whole purpose of this enterprise is to give the reader a good experience. Ignoring that commandment is the only sin we've got in this free-wheeling art of ours.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Good Article About Writing Productivity

This is a good article that looks more closely at the old rule of thumb that we must write ten thousand hours before we achieve anything approaching mastery. Worth a read.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

To no real purpose (of course, a poem should not mean but be), I've been reading and re-reading this Elegy. It's "for Fortinbras" but it's actually Fortinbras elegizing Hamlet. I'm altogether fascinated by the enjambment, the poetical technique of flowing the syntax of lines together to create a dual meaning, something we don't do much in prose (but Your Fearless Blogger determined to make it so). Anyway, I take this back to the notion of "form as metaphor."  The emjambment, that flowing together, amplifies what Shakespeare did in the play between these two, where Fortinbras the bold soldier-prince is a foil for Hamlet the thoughtful philosopher-prince.

That is, the formal technique of enjambment is a metaphor for the complex relationship between these two. See that Herbert goes between stressing the differences between the two (separate "sentences" in enjambment) to stressing the similarities (the flowing together in lines).  The relationship between the two isn't even clear, but it's a relationship-- are they lovers (I could never think of your hands without smiling) or just fellow princes (Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man) or opposites (You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier/the only ritual I am acquainted with a little, or each other's futures (both will be "black ants).  Enjambment is a physical, concrete way to show that intangible connection.

Form doesn't just follow function, as the architects say. Form reinforces the message. It's a metaphor for the message. This is, if possible, even more important in popular fiction, which relies on the traditional storytelling forms to reflect something deep and essential and universal about the human condition or human nature.  The form of a genre or tradition is a manifestation of the underlying theme or message. So the battle between the doctor and the monster in Frankenstein, for example, is a common metaphor in horror for the battle between the "good self" and the "bad self" within each of us.

What is the "surface" metaphor in your storytelling tradition, and what does it reflect? I really believe thinking this through might help us deepen the subtext of our stories.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants? Or We Prefer Pipsqueaks?

In recent months, I've heard writers diss or dismiss these "giants":

Here I don't mean a reader expressing personal taste ("Dickens doesn't do it for me") or analyzing and finding some issue ("Dickens's plotting so often relies on ridiculous contrivances"). But rather the dissing is (I think) as much about the writer's own writing than reading: "Dickens has nothing to teach me about writing."

I keep hearing variations of this, probably because I am too much the blowhard about how great all these guys are, or because of lingering resentment of "the dead white guys" (of course, Austen isn't a guy, and they're all dead because it's been centuries ...), or because the speaker thinks I'm the elitist talking about stuff I learned in grad school (actually, I was reading most of them in middle school, but that sounds even more elitist, doesn't it? But MOST of us were reading them in middle school, because that's when they're taught).  

And you know, really, you can make a case for any of that, and if you want to make that case, go ahead, I'm listening (and my arguing back with you doesn't mean you're wrong or, conversely, that I'm stomping on your freedom of speech).  But now I'm talking as a writing teacher, and WTF?

Yes. Categorically. Every writer has something to learn from each of them. You don't HAVE to learn from them. It's entirely possible to be a great writer without ever having read any of them.  It's possible even to be a great writer in English without reading any of them.  However, that doesn't mean they've nothing to teach you, only that you might not need to learn it, and/or that learning it would cramp your own style. (And this would be a much better case if writers who dissed them were more obviously great writers on their own.:)

But the real point here is: Don't come to a writing teacher and then get all patronizing about how wrongly my advice was formed (I rely on the shoulders of giants, etc.).  For that matter, don't ask anyone for advice and then dismiss it to their faces. You don't have to take it, and you can even argue about it, but it's plain rude to be patronizing to someone that a minute ago you thought was worth asking for advice. What's a good response to advice you have no respect for?  "Thanks so much for your time. I'll definitely have to think about this!" Then don't think about it, and go ask someone else next time.

Anyway, this dismissal of my advice isn't any big deal (I give bad advice all the time, I'm sure, to judge by how many politely reply, "Thanks so much for your..." :).  But it does trouble me how frequently this dismissal is not of me (fair game, and hey, I can take it), but of the relevance of the above to writing today. Let me try to enumerate what and why--

1. Well, first, it's wrong.  Dickens has a lot to teach modern writers; so do all the others. They are by no means the ONLY ones who can show modern writers something, and definitely we can discuss what Racine might have to offer, or Zadie Smith, etc.  But yes, Shakespeare's examples of comic plotting are just as useful today as they were in his own time-- more maybe. These writers are a large part, or representative thereof, of the cultural soup that we all imbibe before writing, whether we admit it or not, and didn't just imbibe it, but contributed ingredients for it.

Even the writers (from Keats to Joyce, particularly) who consciously tried to push away, say, the overwhelming bulk of Shakespeare influence, were pushing away FROM Shakespeare. Shakespeare gave them something to rebel against; he was the big daddy who started the buggy company whose domination made you decide you had to invent the automobile just to show him.  That is, whether we admit it or not, if we write in the English language (or the large genre of fiction in almost any language), we're going to be influenced by these guys and many others. Why be so delighted to be misinformed enough to dismiss it?

2. It's a sign of limited understanding. There's a great moment in Woody Allen's Annie Hall where he suddenly produces Marshall McLuhan to wither a debater's phallus: "You know nothing of my work!" McLuhan pronounces.  And in fact, so often when I hear the sort of "nothing to learn from (name of giant guy)" it's rapidly clear that the speaker "knows nothing of the work". (Hey, I've taught college students for 20 years. I can tell when a student hasn't done the homework. :)

As I said, real disagreement is worth expressing, but you might actually have to know something better to diss it than to celebrate it. TS Eliot studied Hamlet for years and years before deciding that it was an "artistic failure," and his criticism is cogent enough that we can learn from that. (In fact, I think to some degree he's nailed it-- an essential problem with the play, and maybe a clue to the reason it's so long-- because S was aware something was wrong and kept writing hoping to figure it out.)

And it helps a diss if you're scathingly hilarious at it, like Twain on James Fennimore Cooper. Of course, that requires even more work!  It's actually a lot less work to look for and find one of the many things you can learn from Shakespeare ("You know what I just learned? Foils. Shakespeare really did a great job using foils to show character journey"). If you want to diss him, you have to maybe read a lot more of the work, and why read a whole lot of something you don't like?

3. It's pretentious. Woody Allen again-- I think probably he is a genuine enthusiast surrounded by "fashionable pessimism," as he terms it, so he keeps encountering these pretentious "Van GOCH" people most of us would avoid. But he comes across a couple -- the man is named "Yale," which just goes to show something, at least his unfortunate choice in parents-- who proudly declare that they keep track of people they think are "overrated".  And Allen is left sputtering, "Mahler??? Mahler is overrated? Bergman? Where the hell does this little Radcliffe tootsie get off spouting that Scott Fitzgerald is overrated?"

This kind of dismissal is just cheap. It's really easy to do, and when you do it without, you know, Eliot's erudition or Twain's acid pen, you might come off as, well, jealous. Heck, Eliot, erudite as he is, comes off as jealous.

4. It's narrow. "I'm sure Euripedes had lots of influence on Greek theater, but I write fiction, not drama, and anyway, I'm not Greek."  Cough. Choke. Greek theater probably has more to teach us fiction writers than ever, because fiction is getting more visual (we live in the age of cinema and TV, after all). Even if you're Italian.

I remember -- I guess I know some pretentious people myself! Hey, Woody! My bro!-- hearing some contracts lawyer say dismissively, "Clarence Darrow might have been a crackerjack defense attorney--" (I love that "might have been" :)-- "but he knew nothing about contract law!" To which I replied, "WTF?"  (Or something like that.) (In fact, the dh reminds me that Darrow started out in contracts law.)

"Michael Jordan might have been a good basketball player, but he couldn't hit a fastball!"

Greatness in any form is worth learning from, or at least acknowledging. And being great at one thing does suggest that you might have insight into other things, if only "why I'm not so great at that other thing." (I bet MJ has some good theories about fastballs.)

But more than that, the world and especially creativity are full of patterns that replicate in different media. One of the tenets of modernism (a "school" across several art forms) is that writers can learn from artists and vice versa. By narrowing the perspective so much in order to dismiss a possible influence, we have to deliberately ignore the reality of the wide scope of creativity.  Frank Lloyd Wright, for example ("just some architect" of course :), drew a lot of inspiration from Japanese woodcut artists who were in their turn influenced by, get this, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The "Greek dramatist" similarly drew widely from other influences like epic poetry and legal philosophy, which should be a lesson to us all. To create something really new in our medium, we might open our minds to another art form or genre and see what we can steal. I mean, learn.

5. It's insecure. Sometimes I get the idea that the dismisser is insecure about his or her work, and that shows in the dismissal especially of contradicting advice, wisdom, or example. Someone doing something differently from me doesn't make my own work crumble to dust, however, and I shouldn't fear that. What I might be afraid of, however, is that when someone points out, say, that Shakespeare had "negative capability" -- that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason--   I might realize that my personal need to have everything calm and complete has resulted in a sterile story... and I really don't want to realize that. I mean, what am I going to do about it, but give up writing forever, huh?

Well, I guess now I've realized it, another possible option is to explore how I could experiment with leaving something ambiguous in my story, maybe go with a bittersweet not happy ending, or quit striving for a contrivedly "perfect" match of conflict and character need and instead go into the character and see where that leads.  We might all benefit from a bit of "negative capability" about our own work, allowing ourselves to be momentarily uncertain of its universal and constant "rightness".

Something I've always noticed is that writers who are good or on the way to being good generally aren't this way. They might "protect the work" by deliberately shielding themselves from influences-- many writers won't read fiction while they're writing fiction, frex-- and they might be resistant to wasting a lot of time in cafes and blogs talking about writing rather than writing. (Harrumph.)  I get that. (I even sort of admire that, I say as I head out to hang with some other writers at the coffeehouse where we're going to totally diss JK Rowling-- wanna come?) But they aren't dismissive of the value of others' examples or advice. They just don't want, for a number of reasons, to learn that way. They learn better by doing, maybe. And some, of course, learn by learning, and like to study what others have done.  (I happen to be, I learn so late in life, more analytical than creative, and it occurs to me that there are some who are more creative than analytical, and might not benefit so much from analysis.)

Just dismissing ("Dickens has nothing to teach ME about writing") is a sign that the writer has a way to go towards confidence in his/her own work, or rather, having work good enough to legitimately inspire confidence. And often, you know, I get the idea that if Dickens agreed with this writer ("See? Dickens's narrative roamed back and forth across the continent, and if he can do that, I can do him one better-- mine zips all over the cosmos!"), the writer would not be dismissive of Dickens's relevance. Again, that's a sign of insecurity, accepting wisdom only when it correlates with what you've already thought.

(Once an attendee at one of my 8-hour workshops came up to me afterwards and said proudly, "I've already thought everything you said!" And he meant that as a compliment!  How smart I was to think the same thing he's already thought! I felt like a big rubber stamp. "Approved!" That's all I was good for to him. And I suspect-- or at least I hope-- I didn't in EIGHT HOURS -just- replicate his pre-existing brilliance, or he should be the one getting paid to share it, right?)

6.  It's short-sighted. When I started working at the writing center, we frequently observed the "varied voices" dynamic of teaching. Some student would come in and stubbornly (I'm always making personal value judgments, unwarranted no doubt, about people who don't take my advice :) resist what I had to teach about, say, topic sentences.  And then the next week she'd come in and pointedly request another tutor, often that one with the cool Aussie accent-- hey, Belinda, miss you-- and I'd overhear that tutor talking about "idea coordinates" and the student would say, "Oh! Is that like that topic thing Alicia was blathering about last week?" and go away and now happily write effective TOPIC SENTENCES only to call them "idea coordinates" forevermore.  Many voices. We can never know what voice will get through our thick skulls to the grey matter underneath, and that is quite enough of that mixed metaphor, I promise!

And I can't tell you how many students-- well, two-- came back after a semester or so to say, "Oh, Alicia, now that I am more experienced, wiser, and older, I  get what you meant about using the last sentence to make a final point about the significance of the thesis! Wow! That was brilliant! I'm glad I've lived long enough to realize just how brilliant you are!" (Okay, maybe the students said just a few of those words, and not necessarily in a row like that.)  We don't always know what insights will resonate for months, like the tune to a country song, and suddenly make perfect sense when we're presented with the right opportunity to make use of it. ("That Garth song about friends in low places! I so get it now that I've got my own favorite dive named the Oasis! It RHYMES! I can do it in karaoke!")

If we dismiss advice out of hand when we first hear it, we might never get the echo later when we need it. And now that we finally recognize the brilliance of the adviser, we might have alienated her so much by our early resistance that she won't give us any more time-release wisdom.

7. It's mean. "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach."   Okay, maybe, sometimes. Teaching is itself an skill worthy of respect, I think (I would think that, though, wouldn't I?). And sometimes brilliance in doing doesn't translate to brilliance in teaching. (I'm reminded of Larry Bird, great great player, not very good coach. Same with Bill Russell.) Vice versa too. Often the middling player is the one who studies the game most (hoping maybe to get a bit of advantage) and shares it best. (For some reason, perhaps traumatized by the prospect of an NBA lockout, I'm thinking in basketball analogies today, but really, has anyone else noticed that the championship-less Indiana Pacers-- yes, they had championships in the ABA, lest we forget, which is a lot cooler-- turn out disproportionate number of good TV basketball commentators-- Jalen Rose, Chris Mullin, Clark Kellogg, Mark Jackson-- and only one of these could be universally acclaimed a great player?  Hey, diss Shakespeare all you like, but don't you diss my Reggie! And no, Mullin wasn't better; stop smoking that funny weed and watch some highlight reels.)

After all, Aristotle didn't write great drama, but he wrote great drama commentary. Distance can help with analysis, and we can learn from that, especially when we're down there in the creative muck with no distance at all.

And and and and! You know what I really love? When someone else first makes a mistake so I don't have to make it myself! I was just noticing this in the comments to an agent's blogpost about how self-publishers need agents too. Anyway, along with all those current and would-be clients who, not being stupid like I have been in the past so they didn't have to be, averred often and enthusiastically how utterly wonderful the agent was, were a few grizzled veterans of various publishing wars who were willing , nay, eager, to share what they learned from their many wounds--loudly and obnoxiously, perhaps, but honestly. (As the proud possessor of seven count 'em seven former agents, I tend to get obstreperous on this subject myself, though not on an agent's blog. I'm not THAT helpful.) You know, some of us learn best by trial and error, emphasis on the "error," and in fact, the method of acquiring the knowledge might make it even sounder. Frex, when some guy who took his then-agent's advice and turned down a million-dollar advance for his history of the toilet because surely somewhere in publishing was an even bigger fool who will offer him two mill says now, "Don't listen to your agent! Grab that bird in hand and squeeze it till it poops!" well, I don't know about you, but I pay attention. This guy knows whence he speaks! There's something about a veteran's woulda coulda shoulda that gets me where I live. And I like the generosity here, the "I was stupid so you don't have to be," the willingness to admit mistakes and share lessons learned, like "I learned that all agents aren't all-knowing all the time."

Of course, then other commenters inevitably respond huffily, "I don't know why on the internet there are so many whiners and complainers who just want to tear everyone else down and destroy dreams and impugn the integrity of the Greatest Editor/Agent/Publisher/Human Being Evuh!"

Oh, then there's the priceless, "And notice he didn't sign his name! 'Anonymous' is a big coward! See, I signed MY name when I said proudly that (blog owner) is the greatest writer since Euripedes, no! Even better! She's not GREEK!"  Uh, yes, when we're sharing horror stories, we might be a bit less likely to use our names than when we're kissing up. Just a thought. Maybe when you're a bit older and no longer blinded by Justin Bieber's smoldering gaze, you'll understand how a writer might be disenchanted with Big Publishing and still not quite ready to destroy any potential future in it. 

Anyway, scoffing, "And what NYTimes bestsellers have YOU penned lately?" works only if you yourself have had a NYT bestseller lately.  And generally those who have had bestsellers know it's bad form to insult someone trying to help. Don't forget what that non-NYTimes bestseller John Lennon used to say, "Instant karma's going to get you, gonna knock you upside the head."

First rule of life: Don't be mean. Or rather: First rule, flush. And second rule, don't be mean.

"Thanks so much for your time. I'll definitely have to think about this!"