Archive for the ‘Writing Exercises/Short Stories’ Category

Writer reality


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A couple weeks ago, The Guardian published an essay that got the reading and writing world buzzing. Author Kathleen Hale received a particularly negative semi-review of her novel No One Else Can Have You and she kind of lost her mind over it.

Hale scoured the Internet for information about the reviewer and eventually showed up at the reviewer’s home and then called her at work under false pretenses. Hale did not threaten the reviewer, nor did she actually harm her physically. But it’s still just slightly creepy.

In another case, self-published British author Richard Brittain, known for bullying behavior on Wattpad, traveled to Scotland to assault a woman who left a negative review of his book on Goodreads. He sneaked up behind her and bashed her in the back of the head with a wine bottle.

There exists a website called Stop the Goodreads Bullies that takes on a number of reviewers and bloggers who criticize literary (and I use that word loosely) works. The site has given out some of these reviewers’ addresses and daily habits, encouraging members and blog readers to track them down.

More benign, but in the same vein and more to the point I’m coming to, the latest trend is that people are not allowed to give honest reviews of books if the honest review is negative. The common criticisms of such critique are, “it’s subjective so you can’t judge it”; “I admire anyone who can finish writing a book”; “the author worked really hard on it and it’s like a baby.”

Let me take these on.

First, “it’s subjective.” Whether a particular reader enjoyed a particular piece certainly is subjective. However, there are some very specific elements that make a literary work good or bad. These include grammar, avoiding alliteration (unless it’s purposeful and works), avoiding redundancy, using words correctly, pace, plotting … There are many more, but I won’t list them all. Some current popular books lack one or all of these elements, yet people give them five-star reviews. Those five-star reviewers, whom I suspect wouldn’t know good writing if it climbed up their rear ends, attack anyone who disagrees with their assessments.

Personally, even if I didn’t enjoy a particular read, I will never give fewer than three stars if I recognize it’s well-written but just wasn’t my thing. If you go to my Goodreads page and see one or two stars, it was a BAD BOOK. That doesn’t mean others can’t enjoy it, but call it what it is!

There is a scene in Mel Brooks’ comedy History of the World Part I where the first artist paints on a cave wall and immediately after, the first critic arises. In other words. critiquing art has been round as long as there has been art. People make entire careers of it. They critique books, movies, television shows, visual art, dance and even each other. If you search through Goodreads, you will find thousands of one-star reviews of Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain … If those legends garner poor reviews, what makes someone like Hale think she won’t?

I long ago learned not to choose books to read based on Goodreads star ratings. I have utterly despised books that had average rating above four and loved books with much lower ratings.The average reader doesn’t know anything beyond, “I enjoyed that.” And the average reader probably isn’t nearly as critical as I am. I also question the quality of books the average reader is reading, based on the average quality of professionally published books in the last ten or so years.

For that matter, I just yesterday finished a novel I bought solely because it boasted a positive review from George RR Martin on the cover. (For those who don’t know, Martin wrote/is writing the A Song of Ice and Fire series that the HBO show Game of Thrones is based on.) The book? It sucked. It was dull, poorly-plotted. The character development was beyond bad. And that’s terribly frustrating.

But what is this trend of not being allowed to criticize something because someone worked hard and finished writing a book? Why do we admire a poor end product because someone “worked hard” on it? I admire writers who take the time and effort to perfect their craft. I admire writers who learn grammar and punctuation and who follow or break writing rules in a deliberate way that improves the product. I don’t admire someone who just slaps words onto paper and calls it a book and demands praise. I cannot support the popularization of terrible books.

To be clear, I am not criticizing subject matter or content. You like erotica? Great! But skip EL James and find something someone actually wrote WELL. Something with plot and character and, well, that’s written in a recognizable form of English. I’m not a fan of dystopian literature. It leaves me feeling very dark. But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize that The Handmaid’s Tale is a brilliant novel. I’m not so sure about The Hunger Games, though. I only got through chapter six. It bored me and the writing, well, it wasn’t all that wonderful. I also suspect she stole a lot of the story and ideas from other authors.

Many who say we shouldn’t criticize call anyone who does “jealous.” Do I want to be a successful author? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean I am jealous of others who already are. If that were true, I would hate JK Rowling, Stephen King, Amy Tan and many other talented, published, successful writers. I don’t. I only have a problem with books I think are not up to par, that don’t live up to the wonderful works those authors have put forth.

Read The Shining, then read 50 Shades of Grey and tell me again that EL James is a great writer.

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Writing Hurts

Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.

– Neil Gaiman

Today was a good writing day. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I’m having a difficult time finding a balance between my regular life and my artistic life. I often feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

The gathering storm clouds of my artist’s mind. (© 2012 Renee M. Liss)

Mrs. Thor and I held our “meetings” once a week for two or three weeks and I managed to fit in an hour of writing every day of that time, like I promised I would. But then we had company and went out of town and I stopped writing and I stopped journaling and when it was all over, we didn’t start back up. And until today, I didn’t do much writing at all.

But today, tonight, I sat down and wrote for more than two hours and I wrote two thousand words. And I fear that it won’t matter in the end. I fear that I will write and write and write and then I will decide it isn’t good enough and start all over from word one and in the end, I’ll die without ever having completed a novel.

I don’t want to do that. 50 Shades of Grey got published. It’s a best-seller. And it’s horrible. I can write circles around that woman. I’ve only read the Kindle preview of the first two books, which is the first two chapters of each. I wanted to at least have some idea of what it was like. Her writing is full of clichés and repetitive words and horrible dialogue. And she got published. And it’s a best-seller. And I’m better than that.

I don’t know what to do, though. I mean, I set this hour a day goal, which gets me sitting in front of the computer and writing words. But are they quality words just because I’m writing them? Tonight, I actually enjoyed the world I was creating and the characters who came from my head. I got lost in it. I stopped because I’m starting to fall asleep and can’t think clearly anymore (apologies if that’s obvious in this post!). I want to go back and create more. I like it. Right now. I don’t know if I’ll like it tomorrow. I don’t know if I’ll write myself into a corner and have to stop. I don’t know if I’m good enough.

Based on what’s “out there,” I’m more than good enough for publishers. But am I good enough for me? That’s what really matters. I want to write a quality novel. I don’t want Stephen King running around saying what an awful writer I am. Even if I’m bringing in millions, I don’t want to be known as a bad writer.

So what do I do now?

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Last month, a friend on Facebook told me about Roku. This is a little device — not too pricey, either — that one hooks up to one’s television and it uses the house wireless connection to stream Netflix, HuluPlus and several other entertainment services for which one might otherwise use a computer.

The recommendation was in response to my complaining that my little netbook takes forever to buffer Netflix movies and I had to constantly restart until they played smoothly.

The Book Group

So I’ve been watching all sorts of things on my little Rokus. I adore British anything, particularly British television shows, so Netflix gave me a list of shows I might like. One of them is called The Book Group. It’s about a woman (Claire) from Cincinnati who moves to Glasgow, Scotland, and starts a book club (or “group” — she insists there’s a difference) in order to make friends.

The people who show up include a man in a wheelchair to Claire’s third-floor walk-up apartment with his brothers in two to carry him and his chair up all the stairs and three women married to professional soccer players, two of whom are from the Netherlands, among a few others. It has the makings of a very sarcastic, funny series. But instead, it’s a black comedy and very subtle. One of the group members dies of a drug overdose and his cat nibbles a bit on his body before his brother finds him. Contrast that with the line from the first episode that On the Road by Jack Kerouac would have been a much shorter book if it was set in Scotland.

I admit, I giggled. It worked.

Inspiration from Pinterest.com.

As a writer, though, I’m enjoying the show. Wheelchair man writes a novel and it’s published. But it’s, apparently, not a good book. The publisher tells him so. The publisher goes on and on about how terrible the book is right before saying there’s a market for it and he’s going to publish it. He says all one must do is look at the best-sellers list to realize that the majority of the ready public is “very stupid.” He’s disgusted by what sells, but his business is making money selling the public what it wants. This was particularly apropos after a Facebook conversation a few days ago about 50 Shades of Grey. I have to wonder how many editors and publishers feel that way about some of the books they put out there. Because, let’s face it, there are a lot of terrible books selling like hotcakes. I’m glad someone finally had the nerve to say it.

But what really stuck with me, what really is making a difference in my life, the thing I need to remind myself of every single say is this: One of the characters goes to see a published author speak about his latest novel. They end up having a brief affair and she suggests one of his books for the group and he attends to meeting. In the course of speaking about his process, he tells the group that he used to putter around the house all day waiting for inspiration and it never came. So now he sits down at his desk at nine every morning and just starts. And the words come and he writes twenty pages a day.

So I’m trying something similar to that. Since I have a full-time job that is not writing a novel, I can’t sit down at nine every morning and just write all day. But I have decided to dedicate a minimum of one hour per day to it. I’ve done that for three days now and plan to continue today.

My friend Amy over at Mrs. Thor is in a similar situation — trying to get inspired and trying to make significant changes in her personal and creative life. So we’ve started our own private little writing group, though I don’t know that’s the appropriate term. We’re going to speak on the phone once a week and set goals for ourselves (like my writing an hour a day) and then check in by e-mail each day on whether we met the goals. It’s no pressure, but it’s still being accountable to someone else and hopefully inspired by the other person’s progress.

So far, I’ve added 3,100 words to my novel and rewritten a short story from a few months ago. It feels good.

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Although a work of historical fiction, my understanding of The Paris Wife is that it’s pretty historically accurate. It’s supposed to be about Hadley Richardson, but to be honest, I’m not finding her to be all that interesting and I haven’t really been loving the book.

Still, I keep reading.

I keep reading not because the story of Hadley and Ernest Hemingway is compelling or interesting or exciting — it’s not. I keep reading not because author Paula McLain paints a beautiful, compelling picture of the places and people she writes about — she doesn’t. I keep reading because of the details about Hemingway’s writing process.

I’m learning from this book that I’m normal. I’m learning that maybe my inability to produce a great work of literature is not a lack of talent but a lack of the proper life circumstances.

Ernest Hemingway could not produce fiction while holding a job. He could not concentrate and write in his own home. He needed to be free of obligations and free of reminders of responsibility in order to produce the work for which he is famous. I see myself so much in the portrait McLain paints of Hemingway and while it could be disheartening (since there’s no way that any time soon I will be able to quit my job and move to Europe to do nothing but write) it makes me feel better. It makes me feel as though I’m maybe not alone in this solitary endeavor. It makes me feel like it will happen someday.

I can’t do what he did. But knowing the problem is half the battle. Now I need to devise a plan and fix it.

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Hadley and Ernest

He just keeps coming up, over and over. I’ve given in.

I edited a children’s story a friend wrote and as a thank you she sent me a gift card to Barnes and Noble. Then another friend gave me the same thing as a birthday gift. I finally made my trip there on Sunday because I knew exactly what I wanted.

Renee over at Motherhood, Music and Beer recommended I read The Paris Wife — she loved it and, well, it’s an historical novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage from his wife’s, Hadley Richardson Hemingway’s, point of view. So I got that and two Hemingway books: The Old Man and the Sea because it’s really short and The Sun Also Rises because it’s about his marriage to Hadley* and thought it would be a good follow-up to The Paris Wife.

Also on Renee’s advice, I rented Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris. In that movie, Owen Wilson’s character, Gil, is a screenplay writer on vacation in Paris with his fiancée and her parents. A lot of the movie is classic Woody. But the main plot is what made the movie for me: Gil goes for a walk through the city and sits down on some steps just as the clock strikes midnight. An old-fashioned car pulls up and several men beckon Gil to get in and ride with them. He does and the vehicle transports him to the 1920s where he meets, well, everyone who was anyone in the literary world in Paris in the 1920s, including of course Ernest Hemingway.

And so it goes and so it goes. I’m about sixty pages into The Paris Wife. So far, I’m not loving it. But reading Hemingway’s words about writing — about his writing — is eye-opening for me. I think I’m starting to understand why this man, this writer, this legend is haunting me.

*The book jacket for Paris made me think this, but turns out this is not the case. The book is about something that happened while Ernest and Hadley were married, but he left her character out altogether.

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