Literary Criticism

CaptureThis is a picture of a post I shared on Facebook the other day. It’s funny, but I think it would be better if it substituted “literary critic” for “teacher.” Not all teachers are literary critics, and some of my favorite teachers were responsible for the foundation of what I know about language, so I don’t want to insult them unduly.

Literary critics, though, are a different story. Besides the obvious question of, “Who died and made you the arbiter of things artistic?” there is the issue of destroying art via deconstruction. Sure, it’s fun to do sometimes, but if you’re really enjoying something, be it a painting, a book, a show, whatever, delving into the details of how it’s made will only take away the attraction. And, that’s what happens, a lot, especially with movies, or movie-like entertainment. That “Look Inside the Episode” at the end of each Game of Thrones episode is worthless for anyone wanting to write good drama for themselves, and it does absolutely nothing to advance the story, characterization, or plot. It is, in short, a waste of electrons to watch.

And this is not a modern phenomenon. Way back in college, in a previous century, I read an article by John Ciardi explaining what Robert Frosts’ poem Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Day is all about. You know the one: it ends with For I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep. I imagine that you, having at least the brains of a hamster, can figure out what Frost is saying with those lines. It, as they say, ain’t rocket science. (Truth to tell, some of the rocket scientists I’ve met haven’t seemed all that bright, but that’s another story.) But Ciardi goes into excruciating detail about the meaning of each line, his description of the area, the deep, metaphorical significance of it all. By the time I’d finished reading the explanation, I didn’t want to see that poem ever again! I have since recovered, because the art endures long after the taint of deconstruction fades.

For an artist in words (that’s a writer, you know) the moral is simply that you must make your meaning so clear that even a detailed analysis of your work will fail to make people fall out of love with it.

As for the critics? Deconstruct ’em!

So, You’re Having A Bad Writing Day

You’re having a shitty writing day. It happens. I get a crap writing day at least once a week. Maybe twice. Once in a while, I get a whole bad run of writing days, like I’ve got some ki…

Source: So, You’re Having A Bad Writing Day

Here I am retweeting this guy. Again. He’s, um, demonstrative, and his advice is good. Remember, smart people use more profanity than normal people. Click it and read, it will help you to write!

Who’s on First?

Fog off the Coast near Monterrey, California, 2010
Fog off the Coast near Monterrey, California, 2010

It can be hard to tell sometimes who is where and doing what, but even though I really wish that our President had remained merely a reality TV host, and that, oh, you could recite the litany, right? But none of that carping gets you anywhere. Thing is, screaming and yelling and acting like the asshole you hate is a good way to become the asshole you hate. Better you should take the advice of Tolkien’s Gandalf, and remember that little acts of kindness, of being good, and kind, and loving, are what defeats evil. Not great armies. Evil has lots of great armies; it can always raise another great army. You’ll never beat it that way. But good deeds, and love, get passed along, and always under the radar. Yes, unnoticed by news outlets and other media, and that’s good. The news may not be evil, per se, but it does evil’s work by making people upset enough to forget about loving kindness, which leaves evil looking undefeatable. Evil likes that, you can bet the farm on that fact.

So, as a writer, the best way for you to maximize your loving kindness is to write loving, and kind, material. Even if it’s full of terrible shoot-em-ups and horrid monsters, you can infuse it with love and kindness. Not polyannishly, you fool! I mean that even loving kindness has to overcome all sorts of terrible things in defeating evil, and, in fact, that’s loving kindness’s job! So, sure, terrible things happen, but love prevails. In the end, that is always the case. And to practice, all you have to do is spread good deeds around in your personal, real-world, life. Do that, and your life will get better, and then your writing will get better. Good things, you see, come to them that fights evil through acts of loving kindness.

Later, gator!

Aaaaaand, It’s Off!

Nawlins, 2012
Nawlins, 2012

Besides my sense of humor, what’s off is a manuscript. It was requested that I send it, “when it’s done.” Hell, when is a manuscript done? Beats me! But this does open up my topic for today, which is, simply, following the directions, and looking professional. Now, many people these days self-publish. Heck, I’ve done it, so I’m not one to criticize, but then again, there’s something to be said for letting someone else handle the final editing stages, cover selection, final title, release date, all of that. In fact, if you publish your own work, you still need to pay for all that, so you assume the risk. That’s why publishers can seem so shy; because they’re assuming a risk every time they pay out an advance. If the book doesn’t sell well, they never get their money back. And it’s why agents can seem so picky; they need to sell to those publishers. So, my points are as follows.

  1. Follow the Directions. Every publisher, every agent, has a website with submission guidelines on it. If, as in this case, you get asked to submit from a pitch, congratulations! But you still need to see what they need for submissions. You probably don’t even have to ask, just read their guidelines online. Those are your directions, now follow them!
  2. Look Professional. Your cover letter, your query, your synopsis, even your manuscript, must be free of typos, inconsistent formatting, bad grammar, spelling errors, and irrelevant information. It’s a business letter, so stick to business. Like, you asked for a submission, here it is, the synopsis is attached, and the first fifteen pages as you asked. Thank you for considering it. Sincerely, etc. Don’t beg, don’t tell them anything they don’t need to know at this time, and be polite. Simple enough, isn’t it?

I sure hope I did those things when I submitted that manuscript the other day!

 

It’s a Mystery From Me

For One Month, It Was Real!
For One Month, It Was Real!

The mystery for you this week is, when and where was that picture taken? And, did I have a Squishee?

But what I’m talking about is my latest project, which is a mystery. My protagonist is an FBI agent, who is trying (this is the underneath part) to get back at, if not get, the people who murdered her parents when she was 12. Yes, I always know the backstory of my major characters. Don’t you? Anyway, I’ve never tried a mystery detective story thing before, so I turned, as one does, to a book. In fact, to Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, by Hallie Ephron. Is it a good book? Well, for a mystery fan, probably not. But if you’re trying to make one up out of your, what is it, fervid, fetid, fetishy, whatever, imagination, it will hold your interest just fine. I do not have the latest edition; the link takes you to the edition that I do have. If you want the latest, and can’t figure out how to get there from where I’ve sent you, then don’t try to write a mystery novel in the first place, okay?

It’s been fun, so far. And this may result in my least messy first draft ever. Not that it won’t need revision, but I appear to be getting better at cutting out superfluous modifiers on the first pass. Even if I publish it myself, it will be a long time in the works, so hold not thy breath. But, it’s what I’m working on. For a while. Oh, but, you’ll love it!

 

Jake and Diana Chapter One

Head ShotThis is an excerpt from the novel Jake and Diana. It’s about 53,000 words all together, and about a couple of kids who fall in love against the odds. It has three POVs. If you like this, let me know. I am seeking beta readers.

 

One

I backed against the wall outside the gym. The bricks poked into me and I scraped my fingers in the cracks. Carlos rubbed his chin with his hand and sneered. “Hey, Chico, how about this guy, eh?”

Chico means teenage boy. Even I knew that. It’s also what Carlos called his right-hand man. His posse was like a gang, except that they didn’t have a name and they didn’t wear colors. But they hung out together and made up ways to bother people.

Chico held a soccer ball. He turned it slowly in his hands. “We can’t let him talk trash about us.”

. I say we show him how we deal with lying putas.” That was the one they called Paco. That might have been his real name. I say that because Chico’s real name is Miguel. That’s what the teachers called him in class. Paco they called Paco.

“You’re real brave when it’s six to one,” I said. I thought my fingertips were bleeding.

“Yeah,” Carlos said as he held a finger under my nose. “Kind of like you were muy bravo when five of you Anglos decided to beat up on Paco last week, huh?”

I raised my hands and shouted, “That wasn’t me and my friends!” It wasn’t. I had no idea who beat up Paco, not that I was sad about it. “And,” I added, “I’m not a whore!”

“Never said you were,” said Paco as he smacked a wad of gum. “There’s worse things than a whore. That’s what I called you.” They all laughed.

“Well,” Carlos moved closer to me, “might as well get started.” His fingers curled into a fist that he pulled back in front of my face.

“Carlos! What are you doing?” Carlos dropped his arm and opened his fist. He looked at the speaker.

Diana? ¿Que? What are you still doing here? Don’t you have, no se, homework to do or something?”

A girl I recognized from Biology class stood a few feet away, clutching a stack of books against her chest and glaring at Carlos. “I stayed late to talk to Mister Ames about math,” she said.

When Carlos spoke to her it was the first time I ever heard her name. Our bio teacher, Ms. Waters, always called her “Miss Mendez.”

Chico tucked the basketball under his arm and faced Carlos. “What, your hermana going to tell you what you can and can’t do now?” Carlos looked at Paco.

“You sure it was him, Paco?”

Paco cracked his gum. “Now that I look at him, maybe not. They all look alike to me!” That got another laugh from the crowd.

“Carlos, if you don’t even know who he is, why hurt him?” the girl asked.

Carlos took a breath. “Mierda! She’s right!” he lowered his fist. “Okay, maybe it wasn’t you,” he said as he poked me in the chest, “but you get your ass out of here anyway, and make sure it never is you, comprende?”

I wanted to tell him what I thought of him, but I also wanted to not get hurt. The odds weren’t very much in my favor, after all. “Okay,” I said. I nodded at his sister and ran most of the way home.

 

The next day at lunch my friends and I sat, as usual, as far from the Fesskin crowd as we could get.

“I can’t believe you didn’t get your ass pounded,” Chris said.

“Turns out they were mad at somebody else.”

“And they believed you?” Cam asked.

“Yeah. They believed me. Why shouldn’t they?”

“Because they’re a bunch of Fesskin wetbacks who just want to cause trouble.”

Chris pointed his index finger at me. “I’d say you got lucky.”

“Why? I told the truth!”

“That Carlos dude has cousins in one of the Fesskin gangs,” Chris explained.

I swallowed. “Oh.” Chris grinned.

I saw Carlos’s sister walking toward our table carrying a lunch tray. She saw me and smiled as she walked up to us.

“I’m glad Carlos decided not to be stupid,” she said.

Cam and Chris looked at me with weird expressions. My face got hot. Even though she was a Fesskin girl, I had to say something. She had maybe saved my life, after all.

“Yeah. Thanks,” I said.

“Happy to help,” she said with a smile and walked off carrying her lunch. I watched her go.

Cam almost shouted. “Sheeeeee-it! That the girl that helped you out?”

“Yeah, buddy, what’s up with that?” Chris asked.

“Yeah. She’s Carlos’s sister. She pretty much told him not to mess me up, and he didn’t.” I looked them right in their eyes. “Is that a problem?”

“No, no problem,” Cam picked up a spoon.

Chris swallowed a bite of meatloaf. “Unless you call getting bailed out by a Fesskin girl a problem.”

I half stood up. “Listen, you weren’t there, okay? I didn’t ask her or anything, she just showed up. And today is the first time I ever said a word to her, okay? Now shut up!” I sat down and stared at my lunch.

Cam made a ‘calm down’ gesture. “Okay. Okay. Take it easy.”

We didn’t talk any more as we finished our lunches, and I didn’t even try to find Cam and Chris for the rest of the day.

 

 

Be a Smarty!

This Gentleman Lives in the Atlanta Zoo
This Gentleman Lives in the Atlanta Zoo

It seems to me that we, as a society, expect way too little of each other. A good illustration of this fact is the way that our media, and anyone communicating publicly, tend(s) to simplify things so that the audience can understand. We assume that the audience, even if they are literate (you know, people who read books?,) won’t understand anything that is overly complex. Consider the first Harry Potter book. The title is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Except in the United States. Here it is the Sorcerer’s Stone instead. Why? Well, the publisher (Scholastic, no less) decided that American kids wouldn’t know what the philosopher’s stone was, so they’d better change it to something obvious that stupid American children could understand. That is, unfortunately, true.

And it pisses me off greatly!

American kids, like all kids, are capable of learning. Heck, I knew, when I was a child, what the philosopher’s stone was. (If you think I’m going to tell you, you’re not paying attention!) In fact, there never was, prior to Scholastic, anything at all known as a “Sorcerer’s Stone.” What the heck would it be? There is absolutely no reason to confuse our own children with what is, after all, a lame excuse for a brilliant title. Scholastic should be ashamed!

By not assuming that kids are smart enough to learn from context, or look something up (and they do have the Internet, you know) we are condemning them to staying just a tad more ignorant, and ultimately stupid, than they would have been had we assumed that they had some brains. Maybe it is an Anglo conspiracy to keep minorities down, as I’ve read, but that doesn’t explain why every single copy of that book has the wrong title on it. American copy, I mean. This is an insult to the intelligence of our children, and a great wrong to society. If we expect our kids to be stupid, we get what we expect. How about, instead of expecting good grades, we simply expect them to be intelligent enough to figure out a basic problem (like the definition of a word) and proceed from there? What if that started us on the path to being a smarter nation? Hey, it could happen!

And, for the record, it’s not too late for Scholastic to change that title back to what it is supposed to be for future printings. You listening, Scholastic?

Yeah. I figured.

Got A Message?

Well, Sure! Mile Marker 115, Arizona Route 66.
Well, Sure! Mile Marker 115, Arizona Route 66.

According to the famous Science Fiction Editor Ben Bova, then you should call Western Union. Except that they don’t deliver messages any more. The telegraph took steroids and became the Internet, so what’s a writer to do? My advice, worry about your writing and your message will shine through.

I coordinate a Meetup in Las Vegas: The Las Vegas Writers’ Group. There was a member who, in our most recent meeting, felt insulted by something someone said to him after the meeting, and began a series of posts about it on the meeting comment page. Others became upset at the tone of the posts, and I finally had to intervene by publishing a set of rules* for posting, including (in essence) don’t do anything to piss other members off. Which that member did, forthwith. So I banned him. He’s not happy, but peace is restored.

The member in question has a plan that will benefit the entire world, especially veterans and military people. Good for him. His book is about that topic, and again, good for him. I have not read it, but for the sake of this post I’ll say it’s a good one. Cool, and good for him. But, his talk was all about his plan, he brooks no criticism of his plan, and he managed to irritate normally sedate writers to the point where one of them told him off. Now he has to promote his book somewhere else.

My point being that, if his book is good, as I am assuming, then his point shines clear through it. When Twain set out to write a book about racism, he set that as his theme, but then he concentrated, for years actually, on making sure that the book was a damn good story. He is famous for saying (this is not an exact quote) that the difference between the almost right word and the right word is the same as the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening. Big difference. In the end, Twain produced a book that is entertaining, clear, exciting, and fiercely anti-racist, all without ever uttering a screed about racism, or irritating anyone, much less fellow writers, with his ideas.

If you produce a good book, your philosophy and world view will shine right through it. How could they not? In the book, you are producing a world that you want! So, please folks, if you’ve got a message, concentrate on writing a damn good book, and your message will shine through in the end!

 

 

*The rules, if you’re interested

Recent incidents in the comments section of a meeting have prompted me to promulgate this set of rules for posting comments about meetings, or in any other forum connected with The Las Vegas Writers’ Group.

First, THIS IS NOT FACEBOOK! If you want to have online arguments where you repeatedly drill your point home to those who seem not to fully appreciate the genius of your position, join Facebook and do so there.

THIS IS A GROUP OF WRITERS SUPPORTING WRITERS! We are not here to espouse any political agenda, plan for bettering society, or, well, anything other than getting better and better at writing. To quote the famous Sci-Fi editor Ben Bova, “If you have a message, use Western Union.” Or, as I said, Facebook.

So, all comments must acknowledge these facts, and follow some simple rules, to wit:

1. Comments should be about the meeting, the speaker, the topic, or the venue. Specifically NOT about fellow attendees. If you have an argument, take it somewhere else.

2. Criticism must be constructive. Don’t say something like, “That speaker sucked!” Say something like, “I wish he’d have included more examples of turning water into dihydrogen monoxide.”

3. Be kind. Always. No exceptions.

If this seems unreasonable, and you are sure that you are being mistreated by your fellows, you have some options.

1. You can complain to the coordinator (me at the moment.)

2. You can block the person in question from communicating with you via the Meetup messaging system.

3. You can stop getting any notices from this group at all (in your privacy settings.)

4. You can remember that the way the world generally treats you is the way you are generally treating the world. (Rule #1 of human interactions.)

If we judge each other, it will be in terms of constructive criticism of our writing. NOT on any political or social basis. Violators will be banned from the group, starting now.