Writing: Subjective, Objective or Something Else?

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You don’t have to look far in writing discussions to come across some form of disagreement. Whether about writing ‘rules’ some specific feedback or comparing different plot points. It’s also not unusual to see these discussions eventually peter out to a hand wave of ‘well writing is subjective.’

Granted this may well be a suitable way to politely finish a disagreement, but it does beg the question, if writing is so subjective why then are there all these rules and guidelines? How is one to make sense of the subject?

For me I think fiction sits in a strange place not exactly between the two subjects but in an interactional position, whereby the objective fact of the work interacts with the subjective experience of readers.

I better explain this in less airy fairy gobbledygook!

Because objective is described as something based on ‘fact’ and putting aside the subjective feeling or experience, most art is often assumed to be a subjective thing. However in my opinion there is something hyper-objective about fiction. A book after all is what it is, no matter who reads it, the words are the same. Sure the experience of the reader is vastly different, but the actual work and the words therein are objective.

Ergo some discussions about writing advice could be conceivably considered to be objective.

Now as to the subjective part, this is where my philosophy on this gets a little weirder. Obviously when readers pick up a book there is a subjective response, and the collective subjective response determines largely whether a book is considered ‘good’ or not. So I’m not going to get into all the different ways taste, culture and individual responses shape this, other than to say that the quality of a work of fiction is determined by the interaction between the objective work, and the subjective experience of the audience.

Ignore either aspect at your peril!

To really dig in deep, part of this theory is to explain how books can be judged differently over time. Old classics often have a style that doesn’t fit with today’s readers, whereas some older books become more popular in later generations! The book doesn’t change but the audience does.

 

So team, what do you think of my theory, complete garbage, half garbage, objectively garbage but subjectively something else?

 

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Off Topic: Sociopolitical Rants

So I’ve had a bit of a writing hiatus over the last 1.5 months with various flu symptoms and other obligations and one of the things I’ve been doing in my convalescence is spending altogether far too much time online reading and ‘talking’ (arguing) about political issues.

You see it’s problematic because while I care a lot about a lot of things seeing other people’s opinions on issues eventually results in me becoming a seething mass of angst, and unfortunately for you poor soul – I’m now going to use this medium to expunge said angst.

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Harvey Weinstein

Weinstein is the latest of powerful people being discovered to be powerfully perverted. To be fair it seems most people are pretty anti sexual harassment however there are some stances which irk me a lot e.g.

“Have you seen how these women dress?” or “I dress modestly and don’t flirt and I’ve never been harassed”

First of all as an analogy, this is like telling school-age Thom that if he doesn’t want to bullied he should try not looking skinny and nerdy, and perhaps just not leaving the house, maybe just don’t go school at all.

Second of all I hate this argument because it buys into this idea that men are basically uncontrollable animals who see a good looking woman and have to ‘resist’ doing something sexual to them.

Now to be fair I have to say if any individual (like the quoter above) does decide to dress modestly and not flirt to avoid harassment, that is entirely their choice and I’m not denying that it may work – it’s not victim blame to say that dressing sexy is going to garner attention which statistically increases your chance of getting attention from pervos. However this argument seems to draw a line between what ought to be, and what appears to be actually happening. Neither women or men should have to consider appearance in case of harassment, we’re all human beings for goodness sake!

Abrupt topic ‘change’

When it comes to climate change I will very quickly preface why I believe that the climate is changing due to human produced emissions:

  • It’s a lot of scientists to be wrong
  • I don’t believe that the human race can produce so much greenhouse gas into the air with some sort of effect
  • I’m actually getting old enough now to see the effects for myself such as changes in local climate disappearing lakes etc

So here are some denial argument that also make my blood raise in temperature (to boiling point)

It’s all about lefties getting political power

The problem this this argument is climate change stinks politically. It’s a divisive global issue with few gains for individual voters, even your typical leftie is usually more concerned with healthcare etc. I have yet to see any politician sail into power using climate change as a platform. Yet the issue has persisted in the public arena for decades, so if this rebuttal is correct either politicians are awfully slow OR the issue has nothing to do with seizing political power.

These scientists have been wrong before.

Wow, ok I get it. Yes scientists can get these wrong, and its the very nature of scientific process to question theory and always be skeptical. However its one thing to be skeptical, its another thing to essentially insert your own belief that ‘there isn’t a problem’ and continue with potentially destructive behaviour especially at the expense of others.

This kind of denial isn’t like deciding to smoke because you don’t agree with the warnings and ‘its your body’ this is like dumping your rubbish on the street and claiming you ‘disagree’ with the evidence you’re making a mess. Even if for the sake of argument the rubbish isn’t as bad as other people make it out to be, is it really ethical to keep dumping?

‘Racism

Finally (don’t worry the rant is almost over) Race seems to be the issue ‘du jour’ online and I have seen some truly weird opinions about the place.

“It’s not racist if its statistical”

To be fair this is a confusing issue for many people, how to not be ‘racist’ but still acknowledge that disparities exist between different ethnicity some of which are not good (i.e. imprisonment) I think the issue is that ultimately racism is about fundamentally treating people differently due to their race.

For example: treating the behaviour of individuals or smaller groups as representative of that ethnicity. Basically if you see a black dude stealing a car and think ‘geeze these black dudes’ rather than if you saw a white dude and thought ‘geeze that car thief’

I think racists love social justice warriors because they try to use their passion to trip them up on thorny issues, but seem to forget that just because because they manage to flummox an advocate for egalitarianism doesn’t mean they aren’t racist.

“There is no racist legislation therefore there is no systematic racism”

It’s a common stance in rational reasoning that whoever makes the most outlandish claim is obligated to provide the equally compelling evidence. And to be fair evidence of systematic racism (in any country) should be robust, but the idea that as long as legislation is even there won’t be systematic racism blows my mind! If only.

“Racism and anti-racist are just two sides of the same coin”

What, just what. Granted some people engage in deplorable behaviour in the name of progressive ideals, and also granted there are individuals and groups of all kinds who really are just promoting themselves not general equality. But to equate decades and more of lynching, land grabbing, systematic prejudice as being the same as that person who dissed Trump for being White seems purposefully obtuse.

Anywho the rant is getting a little long – back to on task type blogging very soon I promise I just needed a ranty purge. I will resume yelling at clouds again and writing about writing forthwith.

 

Not to open any cans of worms – what are your guys thoughts on these issues, or what issues burn a hole in your head?

 

Writing and Depression

Depression and writing is a topic I’ve been sort-of simultaneously hesitant and motivated to discuss. My friends and family are affected by depression, and its something I come into contact with through work more often than not. And I think the topic is something most if not all people have some familiarity with one way or another.

It’s also a common thread and discussion point online, people asking about the relationships between writing and depression (and anxiety) how to write on despite the black dog, questioning whether anti-depressants will curb creativity and so on. The hesitation I mentioned above stems from wanting to discuss, but also being a little uncertain about whether I can address anything on such a complex and nuanced topic.

Well, here we go. Please note that nothing here is intended as professional advice, it is intended to be legitimate and helpful, however a blog post simply cannot take the place of individualized 1:1 professional help. (accountability statement done)

The Tortured Artist Stereotype

Writing and depression, and other issues have long been associated. Many professional writers past and present have had struggles, often to the point of substance abuse and addiction. Yet how exactly these issues fit together is a cause for some controversy. For every Stephen King (long history of alcoholism) there’s a Kathy Riechs (generally successful academic and professional and no substance abuse as far as we know).

Personally I think there is a double-edge to writing for anyone struggling with depression. Generally speaking simply writing as a pastime, hobby and/or form of expression is something that is very good for a person – especially for those of us without any other outlet, or perhaps who experience invalidation from those around us and need a blank page.

BUT, and it’s a big but. There is a risk with the idea of the tortured artist stereotype. Self-acceptance is a very good thing. We’re all only human with all our faults and foibles and there is little point to beating ourselves up constantly for them. However there is also the potential of going too far and becoming self-excusing. What’s the difference? Think of acceptance as being the acknowledgement of past mistakes – say like forgiving oneself for having a relapse after past drinking problems – whereas self-excusing is justifying or making an excuse for continuing to commit mistakes (oh I’ve had a hard day I’ll just have another drink).

The point I’m trying to make is that writing can be a great form of expression and has been shown to help with depression, however there is a risk of clinging to the idea of being a tortured writer – and perception, especially self perception is significant for emotional health.

Which brings me to the next point:

Wellness needs to be a goal

One of the common threads for those with depression, writers or not, is that people have put aside their own wellness as a priority. Whether its through a belief that one simply cannot be well, not believing one is worth the effort, or simply everything else has been put first, often one of the main “treatments” (scare-quotes used because treatments sounds scary but really isn’t) is simply to convince a person to put their own wellness on top again. As a side note its almost funny if it wasn’t a serious topic, how many people that suffer depression who have other people as a huge priority, people who will honestly throw themselves out of bed first thing in the morning to help a friend out, yet won’t eat because they just don’t see the point of caring for themselves. (To which I always say you can’t take care of others if you don’t care for yourself).

Back to the topic at hand however, writing can overwhelm a person’s priorities. I think particularly when people are looking to do more than ‘just write.’ I confess I’m often alarmed when I hear about people struggling with depression and anxiety who are keen to get traditionally published, not because I’m being judgmental but in my opinion writing for publication is incredibly stressful, and often lonely – not exactly the best recommendation for those with depression and anxiety!

So you can see how there is another double-edge here: writing is good for the soul, but aiming to succeed professionally requires a lot of solitary and stressful work. I think that anyone embarking on a journey towards traditional or self-publishing needs to put their own wellness as a top priority, as even the most resilient brain can be pummeled to mush by the pressures of publishing.

What about creativity?

To be perfectly honest I don’t know the answer to whether medication like anti-depressants, or seeking treatment for depression will curb creativity. Personally I think there is no real trade-off here. Yes sometimes being in a tough space creates a strong motivation to create, however I find it hard to believe that depression could be an asset beyond that initial angst, successful writing after all requires perseverance and a thick skin. It also maybe true that seeking wellness may take time away from writing, but again I would argue that it’s worth it.

 

In summary I think that writing has some dangerous allure for those of us struggling with depression – it’s a typically solitary task that the compelling idea of a ‘tortured artist’ could help drag a person into more isolation – equally however writing has been shown to be good for a mind in need of an expressive outlet.

Finally I think if a person’s goal is to achieve some outside success with writing, the rigors are very real and one needs to keep well first and foremost to endure the challenge.

 

That’s my (tricky and controversial) post for today – I hope that it reads with the sensitivity I wanted to present. I was somewhat prompted by a recent famous (that I have never heard of until then) kickboxer who declared on Twitter that depression doesn’t exist – and felt the topic was timely.

 

As always it would be great to hear you thoughts, experiences, and insights. Take care of yourselves people 🙂 🙂 🙂

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Remember: Writing is a Positive and Constructive Process

I know it doesn’t feel that way…

 

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Just look at all the pithy advice: show DON’T tell, DESTROY adverbs, KILL your darlings. It really shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that forums are filled with people panicking about all the things that could be wrong with their writing.

Now I’m not saying that writing doesn’t require a thick skin, that producing some good material isn’t going to require some combination of wrecking balls, flame-throwers and/or hacksaws.

BUT

I am saying that its easy to forget that the whole point of merciless editing and critique isn’t exactly to purge all evil from your draft or WIP but to polish that which is good. I’m sure some folk will read this and go “waaah thanks for reminding me there is noting good about it!”

My point is not to really rub in the harsh critique, what I’m trying to get at is: stories work because there is a powerful, enjoyable, heartfelt whatever tale in there that people like to read. Because us writers tend to hang with each other and because our concerns are often ‘what’s wrong’ with our WIP its easy to get into a mindset where writing isn’t about doing something good, its about avoiding all those nasty problems my last pieces had.

But readers aren’t looking for a perfectly polished story, editing isn’t about (or in my opinion shouldn’t be) preventing criticism but rather ensuring the goodness has as much oomph as it could.

There are two reasons I think this is important to remember – 1: It’s easy to get lost on the path of ‘no mistakes’ and lose what makes a story good in the first place. and 2. I think the general culture of ultra-criticism (i.e. honest trailers, cinemasins and various literature critique posts etc) which I confess I do indulge in myself, is a great recipe for writers block.

None of this is to say that I think we should all go full hippy-dip and just celebrate the beauty of our writing without any consideration of critique – after all all these writing critiques exist for a reason. What I am saying is remember the reason for editing and critique is to give the most POWER to your story, not a pointless exercise in trying to avoid criticism.

 

Best of luck with your writing projects everyone, thanks for stopping by and – as always – let me know your thoughts! 🙂

 

 

Q&P Episode 6: Agent V

Someone rep this guy’s book, he deserves it after all this analysis 🙂

C. Hofsetz

In the publishing industry, many badly-written queries are considered especially heinous, and they are probably the reason why you didn’t get published yet.

The dedicated people who reply to query letters are members of an exclusive elite squad known as literary agents.

These are their stories.

A big thanks to agents who take their time to tweet their queries. This series would not be possible without them.


Agent Analysis – Part 6


Previously on Query and Publish…

Navigate to posts in this series:
Part 5:Agent W.
All parts here.


Agent V

Agent V a literary agent that posted information about 222 queries on twitter over the last few years. I usually limit it to 200, but I couldn’t remove 22 queries easily this time (e.g. in chronological order), so I didn’t.

She’s looking for Romance, Science Fiction, Mystery, Thrillers, Action Adventure, Historical Fiction (not WWII) and Fantasy

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11 Things You Should Never Say to a Writer

Hmm no-one has ever asked to be in any of my writing (I think they’re onto me!)

A Writer's Path

by Annie Earnshaw

As you can tell, I was pretty irate while writing this post and I’m not even published yet.  (I have to say “I’m not even published yet” because I’m trying to be positive after writing this excessively salty post).  Putting my personal vendettas aside, here is a comprehensive list of eleven things you should never say to a writer:

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On “The Narrative Path”

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So I’m always keen to identify writing tips and such that I don’t see talked about that often, and I’ve noticed something that really good books seem to have.

Something I’m going to call The Narrative Path.

Fiction is somewhat unique among other arts in the nature of how the subject is presented to us. Aside from skipping ahead, and people (like me) who sometimes accidentally skim other pages and ahead during reading, written stories are presented to us sequentially and in a piecemeal fashion. Granted great writers often manage to pack large amounts of meaning into brief sentences, but unlike film where you are given entire images with accompanying music and dialogue to digest, and music where any particular beat may have any number of notes or individual instruments playing, or even a drawing which you are just giving an image as is and the way you scan it is entirely up to you, writing comes at you word by word, sentence by sentence and so forth.

This is really important for how you present stuff to the reader. What I’ve noticed in books that I often find myself getting lost, and struggling to keep track of whats going on (as a side note I always have this thought that I’m not reading well enough when this happens!) is that the narrative is often shonky, introducing material in orders and ways that are hard to absorb.

For example in one novel which will remain nameless there was a scene where the MC describes the scenery, mentions their sister walks in (in the middle of the paragraph) and goes back to observing the scenery. I can kinda see what effect the author was trying to create with this sequence, but for me it was easy to miss the appearance of said sister and the confusion compounded when the MC started talking assuming the reader had remained conscious of said sister.

My plan of mentioned that example is not to completely poo poo that sort of sequence, but to highlight how a reader traveling through the words of that novel could get disorientated, I’ve noticed several other typical Narrative Path errors in various other works too:

  • Laundry list introductions – especially characters
  • Head hopping
  • Scene hopping
  • Scenes that feel like the author has flipped a coin for whether each sentence is going to be told or shown

Again my point is not to slam any particular sequence, after all some authors pull off all of the above brilliantly. Like all things writing its about being mindful and intentional about what we’re doing on the page to create the best story.

So for me the idea of Narrative Path is being aware of the journey that a reader will be taking through the words you put on the page. This is at the scene, paragraph and individual sentence level. I believe that many authors (and this is a theme that I talk about all the time) know their story a little too well, and aim simply to get all the details onto the page, which is fine as say an early draft, but consideration of what the reader will experience is vital.

Take the opening pages of Gone Girl as an example. The writing starts with a slightly odd discussion about the narrator’s wife’s head, moving onto thoughts on marriage, to the character snapping awake. Personally I find the path a little jarring, BUT it clearly executed with thought to what is being presented to the reader is a coherent fashion.

What I’ve noticed in some Wattpad works of friends I looked through recently is that the narrative was essentially all over the show, jumping between character’s thoughts, actions past present etc.

Again not that jumping around = bad writing, however often it shows a lack of thought or refinement in creating a clear Narrative Path.

Narrative Path is similar to how a movie tricks us, even though we know actors are playing characters we still have a sense that they are going through the story linearly, a good movie hides the fact that each scene is created distinctly, even shots next to each other in the film could have been shot completely separately.

I think that a strong Narrative Path is vital for any story, because without it all the good other aspects of a story can get lost and jumbled.

 

So what you do think? Have I just invented a term that is already covered by simply saying ‘narrative’, ‘style’ or ‘voice’

As always let me know your thoughts!

Is Game of Thrones SE7 “Badly Written”?

It’s somewhat of an understatement to say that the latest season of GoT has been controversial. And to be fair, ultra-popular, long-running shows tend to attract nit-picking and frustration as part of the game, not to mention that the television series has out-paced its source material and is attempting to tie together one of the most complex interconnected story-lines in recent history.

But its seems more than that, both the blogosphere, and my work buddies (my two key sources of GoT interactions) have noted something a little off about this series. Reddit in particular in a hot-bed of critiques, rebuttal, justifications and memes.

So prior to the final episode of this season I thought I better weigh in on the issue, not because I think I know better than the show writers OR GRR Martin but just to analyze some of what might be irking fans.

 

In no particular order:

Do GoT characters have TP scrolls now?

One aspect of SE7 that has bothered people is that characters have been able to zoom around Westeros at record pace. Jon Snow has popped from Winterfell to Dragon Stone to the Wall the latter being within a single episode. Davos is going to have to add speed-boating to his resume getting Tyrion in and out of Kings Landing faster than Cersei can get up in the morning.

I suspect the reason this fast travel has bothered folk is that prior seasons established that travel and distance were important parts of the setting. Many characters spent entire seasons traveling the country, distance was at times an antagonist for example preventing Rob Stark from assaulting the Lannisters to rescue his father back in season. Thusly to see characters travel without issue is somewhat jarring.

Personally I don’t find the travel too bothersome, after all as a story progresses one expects pacing to increase, not to mention that good writing means chopping out the ‘boring bits’

But one critique I could offer is that good writing adequately prepares viewers for the story they’re about to experience – not that everything has to be spoon fed, or explained however its important to realize that you can’t retcon a viewers discomfort, for example if Jon Snow zooms ultra fast to the wall, this can’t be fixed by showing that time has passed (because we already feel uncomfortable) but if beforehand we are presented with Jon planning a fast route with Davos this might ease the discomfort.

Far be it for me to haughtily ‘fix’ GoT but I thought a cool solution would have been to have someone like Littlefinger, everyone’s love-to-hate yet awesome orator talk about how ‘things are moving fast now’ a speech which would aid viewers accepting fast travel.

Dead-weight characters

Something to be mindful with a story like GoT is that the huge number of characters is likely to condense under the key players as a matter of course. This is rather obvious with Dany recruiting none other than Tyrion, Varys, Ollenna, Theon (and sis), and Dorn-lady (so sue me there are way too many names to remember). This means that characterization is going to suffer for those dragged into other’s story arc.

Nonetheless I found myself being pretty annoyed at some moves. Tyrion a usual favourite has been written as a caricature of himself, winking and 3rd wall joking with the audience more than actually doing anything in the story – taking about his own drinking, Jon’s Brooding, Jorah’s Smoldering and being offended by Dany’s ‘small’ joke (serious WTF)

There were some amazing moments with Tyrion in this series – his desperation to have Jon and Dany get along, his torment seeing Lannisters getting toasted and Jamie almost die, but none of this really came to anything. There were some ripe pickings to really push the character further, mostly he just whines at Dany to do the right thing.

The Suicide Squad

Where is to start with this.

I heard a really good critique of Marvel’s Civil War where the writer pointed out that too much of what happened in the movie occurred because it needed to not because the story drove events but because the writers needed the Avengers to divide and fight with each other (with appropriate quipping).

That’s how the beyond the wall mission felt in GoT. It basically seemed like a sequence that needed to happen to achieve certain plot points, NOT because any of the characters in their right minds would decide to do any of it. Here are some examples of character problems with the sequence:

  • A zombie isn’t going to convince Cersei not to be a totally B**** (and let face it hardly evidence that their is a whole army of them approaching the wall
  • If Dany (I’m going to be honest I use Dany because I don’t know how to spell Daneries) allows this mission it suggests she is somewhat swayed by the possibility of the coming armies of the dead why didn’t she just fly up to the wall and chat to the Wildings and Night Watch – and then come to Winterfell and state her case as Queen?? The North is stubborn but not looking to attack her.
  • If Jon is so serious about respecting the Northern Lord’s wishes not to bend the knee to Dany why is he so keen to get himself killed in a stupid mission that the Lords almost definitely wouldn’t approve of, risking antagonizing the Night Knight (which they did in spectacular fashion)

It’s important to note that also like Civil War the sequence was badass, funny and hella visually appealing, it’s just it was obvious that the sequence ‘had to happen’ rather than believable happened because that’s what the characters would have done.

and finally

The Winterfell Conundrum

This plotline is driving me crazy. Like really crazy. In summary the plot is basically: Bran, Arya and Sansa are reuinted in Winterfell, however Litterfinger is scheming and Arya and Sansa are tense/murderous/counter-scheming?

The tension of the story is basically “what is everyone up to” The problem is its in that bad writing way that doesn’t so much leave things ambiguous and mysterious but just makes no fracking sense, actions and conversations just seem like random arguments and statements with no goal but to show ‘conflict.’

I’m sure people will jump to the defense and say – it’ll all make sense, Arya is tricking Littlefinger and confirming Sansa is innocent and Bran is watching everything. The big problem is though, because we don’t really know what any of the characters want (honestly NOT ONE) Sansa likes ruling but does she want to take over? Arya is revenge driven but she changed her mind to go back to Winterfell so what does she want? Littlefinger is schemey AF and wants Sansa but what is he aiming for here? Bran is gone full Dr Manhattan so who knows.

The point of the rant is with no character goals in mind we have no contact to judge the conflict going on. If we at least had an idea of what LF was up to we could see the conflict between Arya and Sansa in a context. The problem with what we’ve go so far (actually similar the traveling conundrum) its jarring and uncomfortable and you can’t retcon enjoyment with a justifying conclusion.

So in conclusion I do believe that the writing of SE7 has its weaknesses. It’s still an amazing show, and I am looking forward to the finale.

 

 

 

 

 

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The 7 Writer Types You Should Avoid Becoming

#3 all I need to do is share this and I’ll have made it

Chicago Review of Books

In my thirty years as a writer and editor, I’ve worked with, talked to, and corresponded with thousands of writers, in addition to observing their interactions and words online. Many I’ve taken as exemplary of how to lead a productive, imaginative, and ethical literary life. But, as in any field, it’s also clear that writers often work against the flow of their own efforts, create conflict where none should exist, and are as adept in their own lives as in their stories of creating narratives that are actually fictions. All of this is instructional, although you wish it wouldn’t have to be. But the truth is that people aren’t machines and we’re all a bit less rational than we let on.

Full confession: I have been some of the writer types below at various points in my career (although never the last type). And what I’ve come to find incredibly…

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