Archive for October, 2010

A Halloween Homage: Edgar Allan Poe

Mine was a literary family:  Christmas had its readings of Charles Dickens and Dylan Thomas; Halloween had Edgar Allan Poe.  Poe remains my favorite.  Hopefully many of you are already breaking your copies out for the holiday.  If not, many of his works are online for your pleasure.

For American writers, I think Poe remains a patron saint in a high, Catholic sort of tradition — the kind of saint who was drawn and quartered and then grilled on a hot iron so that you didn’t have to be, that sort of thing.  He was one of the first professional writers in the former colonies, and (take heart) he suffered miserably for it.  “The Raven,” now one of the most famous poems in the English language, brought him a grand total of $9 — lousy pay even by the standards of 1845.

It should come as no surprise that I adore the popular perception of Edgar Allan Poe.  He is, after all, the quintessential alcoholic genius of American literature, never mind that he may well not have been particularly drunken or drugged at all during his lifetime or during the composition of his various works (he certainly never indulged in absinthe, despite romantic portrayals to the contrary; that particular perversion would not dog American writers until they expatriated to France several generations later).  But he certainly had his troubles, most of them probably stemming from trying to get paid for a product that no one wanted to pay for.  Sound familiar to anyone?

So when you recite your Poe this Halloween (and you still have two days, if you don’t have at least The Raven memorized — get cracking), be sure to pause and think fondly on one of the original men of American letters.  Remember him fondly as the man who died frothing in the gutter in a borrowed suit of clothing, but remember him too as the painstaking artist who detailed his thoughts on poetical rhythm and meter in exacting detail. Could we have had one without the other?  You already know where I stand (lie frothing) on the issue.

Writing on a Roll

The realist in us knows that writing is a messy and ofttimes tedious discipline consisting mainly of revising, and then revising the revisions, and then revising that.  But every once in a while the frustrated artist becomes un-frustrated and has his or her moment of glory — the days when you just sit down and words start pouring out, good words rather than drunken-frenzy-gibberish words you delete the next day; when your ideas are outpacing your fingers and you leave the typos in as you dash it all down.

Then the alarm goes off and it’s time for work, or the kids come home from school, or your own personal O Best Beloved calls from the cornfield where she’s lodged the car in fourteen inches of mud.  And that’s often that.

Keeping the magic going — staying on that roll — is a skill.  It’s a delicate balance of scribbling good notes before closing the program/notebook so you can remember what was so inspiring, mumbling to yourself as you go about other tasks to keep the words turning over in your head, and not letting mundane details like whether the jumpstart goes black to black or black to red take over your brain.  (It’s not either, incidentally; please don’t hurt yourselves.)

Everyone has their own personal trick, so I won’t do one of my usual lists, but I will stress writing things down before you dash off to do irritating real-world things.  An idea that seems so brilliant you could never forget it will slip out of your brain amazingly easily once you start thinking about whether salt gets cat vomit out of the carpet or not.

I’ve actually had this happen to me enough times that I try not to sit down on an important project except when I have a mostly-unlimited run of time to work on it, just in case — this is a large part of my nocturnally-inclined schedule, since I get just enough good runs to keep my body trained to a 2:00 AM-or-later bedtime.

What’s your solution?  Drop a comment and let me know…and come back Friday for more as usual!

A Picture is Worth at Least a Couple Hundred Words

My editor recently approached me about the possibility of adding some graphics (infographics, in fact) to my work.  Being entirely a writer with only some schoolboy HTML and a few YouTube videos to round out my entire multimedia palette, I naturally reacted with all the good sense I can muster at 8:00 in the morning and said “sure, no problem.”

A short nap and some hyperventilation later, I’ve realized that things aren’t as bad as they might seem.  Sure, my first attempt to illustrate four different articles of clothing and the different outfits they could combine to form looked like this:

Well, shit.

But I’ve got a week to work on it, and hey — I’m learning a useful skill.

The reality is that writers often need something else to bring to the table.  A lot of people don’t perceive really well-crafted words as being inherently valuable, and the people that do are often pretty well-versed themselves (and therefore less likely to need your services).  Being a “multimedia content provider” sounds kind of shirt-and-tie for a lot of artist’s taste, but it also demands better pay than being a “writer”.  Pick your battles.

On that subject, anyone know what the heck people charge for this sort of thing?  By-the-word is such a nice, measurable metric.  I think I’m going to miss it.  But please don’t tell me what you think the drawing above is worth.

Another What to Write When…

…your internet only works for five minutes out of every twenty, and there’s no real predicting which those will be:

An apology to your readers.  Sorry, guys.  I’ll try to get a second post about real things up this evening (or about pretend things).

What to Write When…

SCRIBBLES FOR EVERY SITUATION

The writing life is full of its various trials and tribulations.  You never know what’s going to come next, but like a good soldier you press on anyway because that’s just how you do. Today’s Misanthropology 101 takes a look at some of the writer’s worst-case scenarios, and lends a helping hand with our advice on What to Write When…

…you’re hungover like bajayzus.

The Challenge: Writers sometimes have a problem, and sometimes that problem results in the mother of all hangovers.  Thinking hard about anything more than where the cat hid the aspirin bottle becomes a serious issue in this state.  Full-on creative genius is right out — you’re doing well if you haven’t vomited on your keyboard.  But the writing still has to get done, either because you have a deadline coming up or because your pride/word count goal/encouraging supporters/rabid fans demand it.

The Solution: Bring your writing down to your mental pace, instead of trying to rev the flooded engine of your brain up to speed.  Short sentences become your friend.  Commas vanish.  The world reduces to Dick and Jane simplicity.  (You see what I did there?)

This style lends itself well to:

  • Children’s stories
  • How-to manuals or articles
  • Recipes/cookbooks
  • Pretentious post-modern fiction
  • Poems that use the word “gray” a lot

…you’ve had way too much coffee.

The Problem: At the other end of the chemical spectrum (and often as a direct result of a hangover), caffeine or stronger amphetamines throw the brain into overdrive.  You may feel like a spewing fountain of unbridled creativity, but the likely reality is that you’re just spewing in general.  Some part of your brain may even realize that you’d do a better job on the project du jour another time , but you just can’t stop writing.

The Solution: Recognize that you sound like a squirrel having a seizure and choose an appreciative audience.  Hyperactivity is a group buzz, so you are guaranteed to thrill fellow twitchers — as long as you keep it within their goldfish-like attention spans.  Let your sentence length spiral as far out of control as you like, but keep the overall piece short.  You’ll be inclined toward hyperbole as well, so pick audiences that like to watch things go sailing over the top and on into geosynchronous orbit.

This style lends itself well to:

  • Political blogs or editorial columns
  • Reviews of things people get excited about
  • Anything at all about video games
  • Anything at all about computer games
  • Anything at all about the internet
  • Gossip columns

…you’re obsessed with something.

The Problem: Doesn’t matter what it is, something’s in your brain and it’s all you can think about.  Maybe it’s a new love interest or the dramatic end of an old one, maybe it’s a stupid browser game, and maybe it’s just porn.  The point is that you’re fidgeting and tabbing out of your writing every five minutes to do something related to your obesession.

The Solution: Accept that your writing is going to be disjointed.  You keep putting it down and picking it back up, and your brain’s focus has changed during that time, so there won’t be a consistent voice.  Write something where the flow is broken up anyway, ideally by a lot of headers, sub-headers, and bullet points.  Distract yourself from your obsession by searching for images to sprinkle throughout the piece, if it’s going online.

Alternatively, just write creepy, obsessive poetry and hide it in your drawer forever.  But if you’re not going to do that, consider:

  • Blog posts
  • Consumer Reports-style product comparisons
  • Sports recaps and analysis
  • “Top 10″ (or however many) lists

…you’re supposed to be working.

The Problem: Let’s face it — a trained monkey could do your job, and would probably shit on the floor less than your retarded co-workers.  So you tuck a notepad under your clipboard of Q-9 sheets and do a little pre-writing on the sly.  Of course, if you get caught, you’re canned like tomatoes.

The Solution: Realize that even if you’re not sure your supervisor can wipe his own ass without thinking it through, he’s probably smart enough to guess that a tightly-packed notebook page full of indentations and quotation marks probably isn’t work-related.  You might be able to get away with “writing a personalized note to a valued customer” once, but for day-to-day purposes you’re going to need to work on something with a little more white space.  Work on projects with lots of line breaks, indentations, and busy-looking margin scribbles.  Cross some things out now and again, just to make it look like you’re scratching items off a list.

It’s easiest to get away with things like:

  • Drafts of poems or plays
  • Your grocery or to-do lists (hey, gotta write the boring stuff some time)
  • Writing down and comparing all the possible names for your book/website/whatever you need a name for currently
  • Sentence drafting (writing multiple sentences that express the same idea in different ways and picking the best for your work)
  • Your inevitable resignation letter, because seriously, how much longer can you put up with all those stupid policies dreamed up by some mouth-breathing jack-off manager with an ugly car and a B. A. in Communications?

Got other problems?  Want to know what to write in your particular situation?  Drop a comment and I’ll tackle it in the next “Scribbles for Every Situation!”

Non-Helpful Links: Word Bubbles

This is actually a really cruel thing to link to.  If you were planning on getting work done today, don’t click on it.  Seriously.

Ready?

You were warned.

Word Bubbles is just another of those repetitive browser games, really, but it’s one that’s all about thinking up words quickly.  It has the same general appeal as Boggle (I was a Boggle master, to the surprise and dismay of my parents, who expected me to use my verbal and pattern-recognition centers for silly things like remembering my best friend’s last name or the like).

And I’ll go ahead and blame it for the short post!  Although that has a lot to do with various works, too.  But Word Bubbles is more fun than work.

Enjoy!  And get your revenge by sharing your own addictive word games in the comments section, if you like…

Skipping NaNoWriMo with a Clear Conscience

“Oh God,” you’re thinking, “another post about NaNoWriMo.” Unless you’ve never heard of the National Novel Writing Month, I guess, but I’m assuming most of my readers know the drill:  everyone sits down to try and write a completed, 50,000+ word novel during the month of November, and in many cases blogs about it ad nauseum. But fear not, this is a post about how I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year (it’s reasonable to hope that it will therefore be my only NaNoWriMo-related post this year, but I’m not making any promises).

I thought this one through for a while (the decision, not the post.  That I banged out in an exhausted half-hour before work; see my post on how to decode post times.)  NaNoWriMo’s pretty near and dear to my heart.  Once upon a time it was a valuable lesson in sitting down and banging out 1,500+ words every night whether I wanted to or not (chump change these days), and it’s still a good tool for overcoming my usual tendency to fiddle obsessively with the prose instead of advancing the story.  But (and there is no way to say this that doesn’t make me sound like a total dick, so just be ready for it please) the harsh reality is that the NaNoWriMo experience doesn’t really have anything to offer me this year.

I know, what a dick, right?

But I’m currently lucky enough to have employers that want to buy more writing from me, not less, and motivation to pound out word-count is not an issue when you’re paid by the word.  And all the time spent on that has shoved some more personal projects to the back burner, so I’m not short on ideas or looking for something to jump-start the creative process.  At the point where you’ve got a reason to sit down and write every day and plenty of things that you’re dying to write about, the imaginary pressure of NaNoWriMo just doesn’t add much beyond stress.

I think this is a good thing.  I think it’s a sign that my life is great, not that NaNoWriMo is bad.  I’ll probably still send them money.  But it was a pretty sobering little while there of staring at the website and going Huh, I really don’t need to do this this year.

I’ll be back, though.  And in the mean time, I imagine I’ve got readers who are just dying to tell me about their upcoming NaNoWriMo plans…hit the “Comment” button, folks!

Look, I Did a Thing with Words

Among other impractical and expensive hobbies (writing), I enjoy a bit of entertaining now and again.  I’m no Martha Stewart, but I like to put on a good spread.  And O Best Beloved has this thing about themes, so there’s usually a theme.

This is dangerous.  Themes are an excuse for the writer in your life to make lists. Decorations, music, whatever; it’s basically a giant game of categories until the party’s over.  Let the word games begin.

Last night, for example, we hosted the “Burning Down the House” potluck (and if you’ve ever tried to deep-fry on an electric stove with no hood, you’ll know why).  O Best Beloved left me in charge of the music.  Chaos ensued:

  • Burning Down the House by The Talking Heads (obviously)
  • Love the Way You Lie by Eminem
  • Burn Down the Mission by Elton John
  • The Sun is Burning by Simon and Garfunkel
  • Disco Inferno by The Trammps
  • I’m on Fire by Bruce Springsteen
  • Light My Fire by The Doors
  • Fire Water Burn by Bloodhound Gang (the roof…the roof…the roof is on fie-yuh)
  • Fire by Kimya Dawson
  • Too Darn Hot by Cole Porter
  • Old Flame by The Arcade Fire
  • Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash
  • Fire by Jimi Hendrix
  • Fires at Midnight by Jethro Tull

These do not actually “flow” all that well musically.  The listening experience is decidedly odd.  But the word part was fun, especially since the list was created about ten minutes before people showed up.  I’m not actually sure any of them noticed the theme anyway.  But feel free to add suggestions in the Comments section, since I might host another of these!  Any good fire-themed songs I missed are always welcome.

Off now to scrub vegetable oil spatters off the stove.  And the wall, and the cabinets, and the floor, and the cats, and…

The Giraffe Penis as a Cautionary Antecdote

Now I’m not sure it’s legal for me to suggest this in my current state of residence, but everyone should Google “giraffe penis.”

This is the sort of search term one could reasonably expect to largely return fuzzy JPEGs of ungulate molestation, and readers may even now be wondering about my tastes, or if a search of the GXXX stock index would show heavy trading in southern Wisconsin.  But rest assured that I am neither a purveyor nor a consumer of giraffe smut.

Most of the returns for “giraffe penis” on Google are actually copies of the same Reuters news service story, reprinted in the many hundreds of thousands of publications that subscribe to Reuters and automatically run whatever comes down their wire.  In its original form (quickly, but not quickly enough, redacted) it reads:

BERLIN (Reuters) – Visitors to a tourist attraction in Berlin have been making off with an unusual memento — the 30 cm long penis of a Lego giraffe.

The Lego phallus belongs to a six metre tall model that has stood outside the entrance to the Legoland Discovery Centre on Potsdamer Platz since 2007.

“It’s a popular souvenir,” a spokeswoman for the centre said Tuesday. “It’s been stolen four times now …”

The penis is made out of 15,000 Lego bricks. It takes model workers about one week to restore the long-necked animal’s manhood at a cost of 3,000 euros ($4,300), the spokeswoman said.

The centre is now erecting a metal construction to protect the giraffe’s genitalia. (Reporting by Caroline Copley, editing by Tim Pearce)

“Wow,” the reader can’t help but thinking, “those Germans were less scary when they wanted to rule the world.”  But never fear.  What they actually meant, Reuters spokespeople hastened to assure us, was this:

09:23 25Aug09 RTRS-CORRECTED-German Lego giraffe tail repeatedly stolen
(Correcting to ‘tail’ from ‘penis’)
BERLIN, Aug 25 (Reuters) – Visitors to a tourist attraction in Berlin have been making off with an unusual memento — the 30 cm long tail of a Lego giraffe.
The Lego tail belongs to a six metre tall model that has stood outside the entrance to the Legoland Discovery Centre on Potsdamer Platz since 2007.
“It’s a popular souvenir,” a spokeswoman for the centre said on Tuesday. “It’s been stolen four times now …”
The tail is made out of 15,000 Lego bricks. It takes model workers about one week to restore it at a cost of 3,000 euros ($4,300), the spokeswoman said.

By then, of course, the original version was indelibly inscribed on the internet, like anything else you put there, ever.  And now a Google search not only returns both versions of the story, it also gets you a couple dozen blog posts (like this one) gleefully sharing the error with the world.  It’s worth noting (as part of that gleeful sharing) that this can’t just be an error by an automatic translator, either — someone clearly went through and carefully selected synonyms for “penis” to keep the text, shall we say, lively.  That someone clearly didn’t find anything odd about a Lego giraffe penis at a children’s exhibit; presumably they were German.

So the lesson here is for my fellow bloggers.  Once you have, as they say, “made it” — once people are not only reading your site but automatically reposting the content without reading it, you no longer have a margin for error.  Your obsession with ungulate genitalia, once revealed, cannot be covered back up.

The internet:  not just for porn, but try telling the people at Reuters that.

Two Takes on Dating a Writer

From time to time, I use this blog to promote people who are funnier, more insightful, or just in general better bloggers than me.  It’s a bad idea, honestly.  But I like to share good things.  So here is a touching, sentimental, and dubiously-accurate list that a writer whose tongue has clearly never even visited her cheek wrote of the 20 Great Things About Dating a Writer.

And then here is the response we all wish we had written first.

I’ll refrain from further editorializing (you can already see where my sympathies lie) and let the rest of you weigh in on the Comments page.

But not O Best Beloved.  I don’t think our relationship is ready for that level of honesty yet (going on six years).

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