Archive for May, 2011

Everything I Need to Know About Character Development I Learned Pretending to Be a Vampire

My social circle in high school mostly consisted of nerds.

For those of you that weren’t, I’m not talking about the modern television interpretation of the nerd here.  These were not charmingly inept people who were still kind of adorable, just also a little too smart for normal people to feel comfortable around.

Neither of these people was ever, ever actually a nerd, for example.

What I mean when I say “nerds” is “once a week we would get together and pretend to be vampires.”  With costumes.

If you don't immediately recognize this image -- on a deep and primal level -- you don't fully understand what I'm talking about.

So it wasn’t uncommon for people to laugh knowingly and say things like “Oh, Geoffrey.  You’re such a Clan Giovanni!”  What they meant by that was “you’re kind of a jerk to us sometimes,” although more literally it means “you fuck dead people and also possibly your relatives — maybe dead relatives; we’re not honestly sure how messed-up it gets,” and it’s possible my reputation in high school was even worse than I thought.  And I would usually laugh and nod in cheerful agreement.  I even had (have) cufflinks with the clan sigil on them.

In my defense, it's also my first initial. It made sense to hang onto 'em!

But I bring all this up because in my heart of hearts I never agreed with them.  I always knew — deeply and secretively — that if we broke the whole world down into the archetypal vampire clans from this game we all played I was a Toreador.

The pretty ones.

I was passionate, romantic; beautiful in word and deed — an artist with the whole world as my canvas.  (This was high school.  Drama did not need to be restrained.)  It was my special privilege to be externally practical, even ruthless, while inside my secret soul would stop and listen entranced as soon as someone put on Madame Butterfly.

This is something that the vampire game — and most games like that — actually got pretty well.  The “character sheets” that told you everything you needed to know about the vampire you were playing always had both a secret “Nature” and an outward “Demeanor.”  I don’t think they ever really matched up, except for the insane characters.

I think writers, who live in their character’s heads, can take a lesson from that.  We’re all very in love with showing not telling, but it’s really very implausible for anyone’s internal motivations to actually be clear from a brief observation of their behavior.  If your reader knows what makes a character tic after a chapter or two of descriptive, factual narration, you might be doing something wrong.  Or maybe you’ve just written a genuinely transparent person — they do exist.

Nature and Demeanor.  There’s lots of words that work; pick your favorites.  But remember that they’re two separate things.  In novels and in dress-up games where you pretend to be a vampire.  You should try one some time!

Possibly whatever one they're in. I have no idea; I just did a Google image search.

Blogging Basics: Write Every Idea Down

I came up with the clever subject for today’s blog after staring at the screen for a good half hour, saying “what the hell was I going to write about tonight?” over and over again.  I know I had something, but it’s gone like a midget in a slam-dunk contest.

Which brings us to the all-important lesson of writing every idea down.  Blogs are an insatiable idea-munching monster.  Coming up with something new to say every day, or every other day, or even every week — whatever your schedule happens to be — is eventually going to get hard.  You’re going to end up staring at the screen and dreading the deadline sooner or later.

Most of my ideas for the blog aren’t actually that good.  I tend to have them, think “eh, it’s crap,” and move on.  But they’re better than nothing.  The problem is that I have them all sorts of different places:  at home, at work, in the grocery store when I see jars of horribly suggestive preserves and contemplate sharing them with you.

Maybe you’re not missing much.  What I really need is a single writing journal carried with me at all times, useful for blog ideas and story drafts and anything else I needed to write down, which is never going to happen.  Failing that, writing them down anywhere would still be good — on the grocery wrist, the back of a hand; the label from a can of Spotted Dick.  Or something.

If you’re organized enough to do something like that, do it, and transfer the ideas into drafts saved with your blog’s website as soon as possible.  That way you’ll have a list of titles and ideas waiting when you can’t come up with anything else.  Do it even if you think you’ll remember whatever terrible idea happens to pop into your head without writing it down — there’ll come a night where it’s late and you’re tired and all those decent-but-not-great ideas just won’t come back to your brain.

Are there alternatives out there?  Smart phones, perhaps, or else memories that are less sieve-like than mine.  Feel free to share your secrets here, as long as they’re not about your experiences with spotted dicks.  Some things we just don’t need to know.

Post-Rapture Etiquette for the Considerate Skeptic

So The Rapture Didn’t Come This Weekend

Non-believers (or just believers of a less insane stripe) may see this as an opportunity for unkind words.  But there’s no call to rub pillars of salt on wounds here — co-workers and colleagues of yours may be feeling real disappointment and doubt right now!  After all, there’s always that nagging suspicion that the Rapture has happened and there just weren’t many people who made it.  Please be considerate, and in the weeks to come try to follow these simple steps to a courteous post-Rapture experience:

1.  Try Pretending You Can’t See True Believers

Do you know someone who was counting on going to Heaven this weekend?  Try to avoid awkward conversations by just pretending they’ve been Raptured!  Make a point of looking around the office and loudly wondering where Jake went.  Look haggard and ask if someone else can cover his work for him.  You’ll know your technique is working when the believer in question stops looking irritated and saying “I’m right here guys” and begins to wonder aloud if he is truly a lost spirit freed from the mortal coil of the damned.

2. Imply Suffering on Your Part

If you can’t convince the faithful that they’ve been Raptured, at least try to assure them that you’re suffering from apocalyptic punishments of your own.  Make a show of calling an exterminator from work, explaining to whoever’s handy that you have this crazy nest of scorpions living in your house all of a sudden.

Most of the Google Images results were actually for the Mortal Kombat character.

Consult the Book of Revelation to see what other dramatic plagues you should personally be suffering from.  Bemoan your suffering and make a point of asking “what’s next?!” as often as possible.

3.  Avoid Suggesting Possible Explanations

People suffering from crushing disappointment don’t actually want to hear that maybe they just forgot to carry a one somewhere.  Resist the temptation to offer mathematical explanations, even if you’re very sure of your math!

4. Provide Tactful Help

Do you know someone who took unnecessary Rapture precautions?  Try to provide an “out” with dignity.  Mention that you’re going camping soon and could really use some canned goods.  Many Rapture-believers will have a stockpile that they’ll be happy to get rid of!  Or offer to start a local food bank — the evangelical are often charitably inclined!

5.  If All Else Fails, Remind Them That They Can Still Get Rapture-Ready

Sometimes you just won’t be able to cheer the disconsolate left behind up.  But there’s hope for them yet — after all, with no earthquakes or other apocalyptic signs, there’s no reason not to believe that the end of the world is still on its way!  In fact, false prophets might even be an apocalyptic sign, giving further evidence that the real Rapture is right around the corner.  Bizzarrely, some people really will find this to be a cheering thought.

So there you have it.  Greet the new week and the same old world with courtesy and dignity — give the disappointed their time to grieve.  After all, everyone they know wasn’t either torn from their very living flesh or punished with fire and torture, and that’s a very sad thing to some people.

Ms. Spelling and Other Adorable Correction Marks

We’ve almost moved beyond the age of handwritten correction marks, which is too bad, because I’ve come up with my new favorite.

I realize that proofreading was at one time an art with a trained style.  I think we even learned some sort of Manual of Form and Style approved marks, very early in school, but it was only the once.  Even my teachers tended to use their own odd, idiosyncratic correcting styles.  Some of the acronyms were downright incomprehensible — “WC” for “word choice,” for example, told me nothing except that my teacher needed to use the toilet until she explained it.  And then there was the professor in college who simply put a diagonal red slash through everything that needed fixing, being of the opinion that good scholars like us could figure out what was wrong.

But all these variants gave me my favorite word.  Someone, and I have no idea who, liked to use “MS” for “misspelled” (rather than the more common “SP”).  And somewhere along the line I combined the two, deciding that misspelled words were just words that were still starting out in life and hadn’t settled into a defined role yet.  Therefore, they were “Ms. Spellings.”  Unmarried lady words.

This also works for other errors.  You can have Ms. Spelling and Ms. Use and Ms. Attribute all in the same paper.  If I were a better artist I would draw them all with different, tiny hairstyles in the margins of people’s writings.

Microsoft Word’s editing toolbar will, of course, take all this away from us, eventually.  I don’t know if children in school still have to turn their papers in by hand or not, but if they do, they’re the last generation that will.  So Ms. Spelling may not be long for this world.

But I think she’s awful cute.

America’s Favorite Kink

I’ve decided that American politics are kind of kinky.

Not the perennial sex scandals, so much, though those are entertaining, but the way we talk about them — or don’t talk about them.  It bears a remarkable similarity to the way “lifestyle fetishists,” as boring people with no hobbies outside of the bedroom like to call themselves, go about their kinky business.

The way I see it is this:  most people — mainstream America, call ‘em — don’t get involved in the political process.  They know it’s there, it’s on TV whenever something big and scandalous happens, but mostly they’d like to pretend it doesn’t exist.  Asking people about political things is pretty much taboo.  How often have you heard the advice “just don’t bring up politics or religion” in reference to social interactions?  It’s like getting spanked in bed — most people are probably doing it, or something like it, but it makes people feel awkward if you tell them about it.

Then you have the people who get into “the scene.”  They wind up hanging out with the same tight-knit group that’s seriously focused on minute differences that ordinary people can’t tell apart.  Are you a compassionate conservative or a conservative fundamentalist with social compassion?  Are you a balloonist or just a regular vinyl fetishist?  (Don’t Google it if you don’t already know.)  No one outside the niche cares — but everyone inside the niche cares a whole freaking lot.

And then there’s the internet.  Ah, the internet.  Where once a single-issue political junkie had to go to larger, umbrella groups to get his/her fix — mercury fearers tagging along with the Sierra Club when it lies down in front of bulldozers, say — now there are whole websites dedicated to nothing but fighting mercury.  You never have to leave the specific enclaves if you don’t want to.  And people outside those enclaves will largely leave you alone, apart from the occasional internet troll writing something mocking that links to you.
Then of course we have the people that are actually big in the scene — the porn stars, I suppose, in this metaphor.  And occasionally our political leaders turn out to have actually been in pornos, at least of the homemade variety, so I think the metaphor is solidly clinched.

Leaving me with high hopes for Yulia Tymoshenko's future career.

Am I off the deep end here?  Or have politics really gotten just a little bit kinky — even when it’s not all about badly-concealed infidelities?  You tell me, and tune in on Friday for an adorable new word that I have personally invented.

Targeted Writing: Remember Your Audience

If you’re in the communications business you’re already familiar with the idea of “audience” as a component of marketing.

I should rephrase that.  Writers, you are in the communications business (like it or not), and if you haven’t happened to work with someone who taught you this concept yet, it’s one that you should be familiar with.

Audience is not the general hope that everyone in the world will read your writing.  Audience is a specific group that you’re trying to reach.  You should ideally be able to define a single person as the audience for everything you write, in fact:  This blog post is for a writer who reads personal writing blogs but has not had formal marketing/communications training.

You can get more obsessed about demographics if that’s particularly relevant.  It often is; in this case the little blog post works just fine for all genders and most ages — and, more importantly, it’s trying to reach all genders/ages.  Audience is who you’re trying to reach specifically, so a book that anyone can enjoy but has (in your mind) a message specific to teenage women has a female audience with a fairly basic reading level.

Why does this matter so much?  Expectations.  Expectations, expectations, expectations.  If you know who you’re writing for you know what they’re expecting, and stray from that at your own peril.  Novelty is good!  Something new and different is always interesting.  But you need to stay within comfort zones to stay vaguely marketable.  Experiment dramatically when you audience is a snooty yuppie in New York who likes talking about books no one else understood at dinner parties.  That is a rich and profitable audience, if you can speak to it, but if you’re not speaking to it — behave yourself.

This springs to my mind because I occasionally read books that weren’t meant for me and find flaws that aren’t necessarily flaws at all within the context of the intended audience.  A recent YA read seemed well-written in terms of language — beautiful in parts, even — but frustratingly heavy-handed and predictable in story and particularly in emotional progression.  That’s a fair judgment to make if I’m reading the latest lit-crit review phenomenon; in the context of a book clearly meant to portray stages of grief and methods of coping to a pre-teen audience, it’s just not relevant.  The book was an effective medium for its message — to its intended audience.  Less so to me, but that’s my flaw as much as the authors.

So never forget your audience.  Remembering them is the difference between a book that speaks to people and a book that speaks into a void.  And, of course, there’s the sales consideration of a well-targeted book versus a hard-to-define oddball…but we’re above petty considerations like money here, right?

No, seriously, I’m so broke this month.  Send a check or something.

Hail to the Bus Driver

Have you ever had one of those moments where a single image creates a cascade of thoughts and ideas?  It gives credence to the claim that a picture is worth a thousand words, a notion that I as a writer habitually view with disdain (particularly when an editor has asked me to “just find some images” for a story).

But as I dodged through the colorful near-collision of a hunter green Jaguar and a bright yellow school bus this afternoon, I caught sight — briefly — of the bus driver’s harried face.  It look like a bus driver’s should, in our minds:  round, jowly; florid.  Bald pate above and checked shirt collar, open, below.  A few stray strands of curly chest hairs — it’s eighty degrees today; everyone who can undo their top button has.  He was the Bus Driver Man.

I did not ride the bus in elementary school.  My older brother and I walked, often in the company of our mother, who I’ve come to realize taught us the hilliest, least direct route that could still be vaguely considered “direct,” presumably in the hopes of wearing her two hyperactive sons out a bit.  Bus drivers were figures of legend rather than realities of my daily life.  I knew that they drank, cussed, and generally offended their passengers with poor personal hygiene, and I had a great collection of suggestions for what they might do, in triplicate, during “The Wheels on the Bus.”

It occurs to me now, many years later, that our derision as small children was already very class-based.  The objects of fear differed somewhat from school to school, even grade to grade, depending on which teachers exercised their authority in the strictest (or just the most arbitrary) ways, but the targets of mockery were always the same.  The bus driver:  sweaty, shouting; impotent against pranksters.  The cafeteria lady:  dirty, gross; charged with secretly liking to poison kids.  Janitors:  creepy, dirty again; likely housing implements of murder in their mysterious closets.  These were universal legends.

These were all people who, in one way or another, were servants to us as small children.  They provided a service; we — through our parents and their fellow taxpayers — bought the service.  Unlike our teachers, who we labored for and to some degree feared, the people that labored for us were targets for mockery.

Does it start that early?  Is that why service-sector jobs remain so very, very bad?  It’s startling to look back and see how starkly divided my early childhood power dynamics were between people that provided a service and people that required me to provide a service.  (And yes, technically the teachers were also being paid by the state to provide me with a service, education — but believe me, it doesn’t seem that way when you’re in grade school).

All this from a passing glance as I crossed the street.  Sometimes a picture really is worth…well, looks like about five hundred words, this time around.  Do you ever find yourself moved by random images to reflect on the inequalities of childhood, or other weighty topics?  Were you actually nice to your bus driver?  Leave a comment and share!

Internet Writing: Never Read the Comments

Do you write for an online audience?  Congratulations!  Now don’t read the comments.

I think this is a simple enough thesis that I don’t have to expand on it much.  Something with a small, friendly audience (like a blog, say) — fine.  The people commenting are probably mostly going to be saying decent, relevant things.  But as soon as you start talking about, say, a thousand page views, you’re talking about comments calling you a “mexican jew lizard.”

The subject of your writing does not matter.  God help you if you’re writing about any sort of politics, including local ones — if you cover a school board meeting that voted to add apples instead of tinned pears to the lunch offerings, expect to see something in the comments asking why libtard fags like you voted for a “moslem nig-bitch.”

But other topics are not safe.  In the interests of good reporting a took a deep breath and plunged into the Comments section of articles I’ve written on things like classical music and movie history.  Some winners include:

  • I call bullshit on a lot of this article.
  • the pretty girl [reference to an article photo] had smaller tits than an anorexic gazelle
  • *cough*douche*cough*
  • actors are all pussies
  • 8==8===D I have 2 penises!!1
  • Unions are just as socialist as that Kenyan motherf**ka Obama.

Once again, these are not particularly controversial articles.  They are humor pieces about entertainment.  Comments from actual news stories are by and large not reprintable.

Don’t read the comments.  I’ll leave you with that thought and with Mr. Period’s sage advice, courtesy of Penny Arcade:

It’s Okay If Your Sausage is Disappointing Sometimes, Fellas

For someone that keeps late hours and eats a lot, I like to think I do a pretty good job of not wandering the darkened streets muttering about sausage.  Most nights I raid my own fridge like a civilized human being.  But when the urge for something smothered in hot cheese that I did no work preparing strikes, damn does it strike hard.

Imagine, then, my dismay when the 24-hour convenience store mere blocks from my house turned off its rolling grill before 1AM.  I’d actually only discovered the magic of the rolling grill recently — apparently, anything you can fit on your bratwurst comes included at the rolling grill, so long as it fits in one of those cheap cardboard hot dog trays like they use at ballparks.

These things. But with lids.

I can get a buck’s worth of extra stuff into one of those pretty easy.  This was a happy, happy discovery.  So happy that I’ve actually been looking forward to an excuse to get hungry late at night, just so I can go load a bratwurst down with an absurd amount of toppings.

And here is the tragedy of human emotions.  When what you really want to do is put together a crappy build-your-own-brat for ninety-nine cents, nothing else will do.  An early rolling grill shut-down introduces a problem that cannot be surmounted by walking across the street and getting a sub instead.  You were going to build a brat.  Now you’re not.  Your day is ruined, and it’s only a few hours old.

Our brains are good at this betrayed, disappointed feeling.  Probably it’s some instinct that encourages us to do better and strive harder, or something like that (no wonder it mostly makes us feel shitty).  I find writers are most susceptible to it at the editing stage:  the oh god did I really write this crap moment.

Yes, you did, but it’s probably not as bad as all that.  Your brain just wanted a bratwurst — the Great American Novel — and had to make do with a bag of chips and some really fake nacho dip instead.  I’m not sure what the nacho dip is in this metaphor, but I like nacho dip, so bear with me and take it as a good thing.

The orange dye really gives it flavor.

Turns out that this is not the end of the world.  Come morning your brain will happily settle for something as mediocre as O Best Beloved’s super-high-fiber cereal (tastes just like taking a massive, elephantine crap in six to eight hours!), and never even think about that delicious bratwurst you never got to make.

Okay, obviously I’m still bitter about the brat, so maybe not.  But chin up and soldier on, and get a few other pairs of eyes on your work before deciding that it’s worthless.  Chances are it’s pretty good — just not exactly what your brain imagined it would be.  And we don’t react well to that as people.

Has your writing disappointed you lately?  Do you know where you can get a bratwurst after 1:00 AM in west Madison?  Leave a comment…

So Your Mother Reads Your Blog…

I recently had the chance to visit with my mother and her best friend from college, a woman whose family is good friends with my family, and whose high school-aged son I have known since infancy.  We were walking along talking about books and television and the usual casual sorts of things when someone — I think it was my mother — said “Oh, I liked your post on stealing Game of Thrones.”

“Yeah,” her friend agreed, “and my son and I loved the one about porn.”

My brain froze in panic, for obvious reasons, but apparently my mother was undismayed.

“You mean the yoga pants?” she asked.

“I think she means the one about the parody porn titles, Mom,” I said, putting my foot firmly in my mouth.

“No no,” her friend corrected, “I meant the one with the football player butts.”

There was a long moment of silence while we digested the filth that was, apparently, my blog.  No one quite had the heart to say “It is supposed to be about writing, isn’t it?”, but I imagine it was on everybody’s mind.  And it gave me some food for thought, since this blog is certainly one of my more public faces.  It’s safe to bet that anyone I approach about a writing job is going to wind up here one way or another.  Perhaps there should be less naked football players.  Or perhaps future, hypothetical publishers will understand.

Can your mother read your blog?  Does your mother read your blog?  And perhaps more importantly, should your mother be able to read your blog, or is a little scandal business-appropriate in your world?  All questions worth thinking about as you write…

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