Rock Critics Are All English Majors

A couple things came together in my head to create this post:  mostly O Best Beloved’s perennial confusion as to what exactly I studied in college and a late night of listening to too much Titus Andronicus.

(That’s the band, not a recording of the Shakespeare play, just so we’re all clear.  I’d have italicized it if I meant the play, obviously!)

So let’s start with what I studied in college.  Other than the exact metric fluid capacity of my stomach, as measured in Imperial Standard PBRs, what I learned in undergrad was mostly what they call “critical reading” skills.

O Best Beloved remains confused by these.  She calls the papers I wrote “playing DaVinci code,” and if you’ve ever read critical literature you know what she’s talking about.  You read between the lines, you find these weird clues, and BAM! you’ve proven that Shakespeare was a lesbian Eskimo from Trenton, NJ.

(Remind me some day and I’ll explain to you all how Princess Celestia, of My Little Pony:  Friendship is Magic fame, is clearly Milton’s Satan.  True story.)

"If then his Providence/Out of our evil seek to bring forth good,/Our labour must be to pervert that end,/And out of good still to find means of evil"

So that’s one thing that was on my mind.  The other was the rather excellent sort-of-concept album by Titus Andronicus, The Monitor, which is sort of three parts Green Day to one part Ken Burns’s The Civil War soundtrack.

Pitchfork’s review of it kind of speaks for itself.  It is every bit as DaVinci code as my infernal ponies theory (seriously, it’s there!).  Says reviewer Rob Mitchum:

In the end, the Civil War is just a recurring theme, and one that’s more personal than political. For stadium-rock inspiration, Titus Andronicus look no further than their home-state hero, paraphrasing Bruce Springsteen in the first song and name-checking him in the last. And while the central muse is obvious, there’s a full menu of influences on display. There’s the Hold Steady in its mythology of intoxication, the Pogues in its cathartic singalong gutter-punk, and Conor Oberst’s Desaparacidos in its brazen earnestness. There’s also the fatalistic fuck-all of early Replacements and the brutalist thrashing of east-coast hardcore in its violent instrumentation and apocalyptic worldview.

He goes on to poetically conclude:

Catharsis is [singer] Stickles’ fuel, and The Monitor is a 65-minute endorsement of angst and opposition as the best way to present that combustible sorrow: Light it with footlights, throw a giant shadow against the back wall, and rock the fuck out of it.

I sort of have to wonder if this is how O Best Beloved feels sometimes.  I mean, I like the album just fine, but I’m not sure I can listen to, say, the opening track (posted below so you can give it a try too) and get Bruce Springsteen, the Hold Steady, the Pogues, and Desaparacidos out of it.  Extrapolating a detailed emotional level is even further beyond me.

But I’m okay with this.  It gives me comfort to know that other English majors have found secure employment connecting the dots with very, very long lines.  The shortest distance between two points is sometimes across a few thousand years and maybe just around the bend from an Oxford concordance or two.

Know any employed English majors?  Got strong feelings on Titus Andronicus or the possibility that Princess Celestia is in fact the Great Satan?  You know where the Comment button is…

“Self-Published” Isn’t “Published”

Today’s thesis should be clear, I hope, from the title.

But don’t panic; it has nothing to do with what the best way to publish a book might be.  There are a number of paths to authorial fame and fortune, and I really do not begrudge anyone their preferred methods.  (Frankly, says I, try them all.  Anyone who makes his or her daily bread by writing knows it doesn’t hurt to have a few different money-making projects out there at the same time.)

Still and all:

A self-published author is not the same thing a “published author.”

This has nothing to do with judgments of value.  It is about meaning.  A self-published book can become a runaway bestseller, earning the author well-deserved fame and fortune for producing what is an undeniably fine piece of literature.  That person is very surely an author, and his or her book is unquestionably a real book that people can pay real money for.

But a rather specific (and on the whole unpleasant) experience has not happened to the author.  He has not, in fact, “been published”; the publishing has not happened to him.  It happened, in a new and unusual sort of way, to the book, but not to the author.

This has nothing to do with what publishing system produces the best books, or best rewards its authors.  It is simply the reality that the traditional road to publication (agents, submissions, contracts, reviews, etc.) is its own job, largely separate from the actual experience of sitting down and writing a book.  It’s a skill that you have to practice and perfect just like any other.

So if you haven’t done all those steps, don’t use the phrase that makes people think you have.  Have a little pride.  Say you’re a self-published author.  Then talk about why, if you like.

I’m very tall, so people often ask if I played basketball in college.  The answer to that question, technically, is yes:  I shot some hoops with a few guys from the math department now and again.  But if I answer “yes,” what I’m telling them is that I was on my college’s team.  And that’s just a whole different set of skills, responsibilities, and time commitments that I never made.

Self-publishing can produce very good literature.  It can even produce solid profits for an author, perhaps more than a traditional contract would have.  I don’t think that one method is inherently better than the other.

But they are different jobs.  Please — use the different terms.

The Audubon* Field Guide to Unpublished Writers

Ahh, the unpublished author!  These majestic creatures are surprisingly common, but often overlooked due to their camouflage strategies and adaptive behaviors.  If you’ve been lucky enough to spot one in their natural habitat (cheap bars and shallow, filthy gutters), consult your Audubon* Field Guide and see if you can identify the specific subspecies!

Authorial Nymph (Scriptor juvenilia)

The undeveloped author is a charming creature!  They lack the distinctive plumage of their fully-developed cousins and must be identified by behavioral cues.

With wide-ranging habitats and migration patterns circling from their parents’ nest to semi-abandoned buildings and slums and back again, they can be observed in many different settings.  Learn to recognize:

  • Self-deprecating references to “maybe writing the Great American Novel some day!”
  • Part-time, minimum-wage jobs.
  • Long-suffering spouses.
  • Blogs with only two posts from like three years ago.

The S. juvenilia is a harmless and unaggressive creature by nature.  However, avoid provoking them by asking “what do you plan on doing with your life?” or “are you still at Wal-Mart?”  They can become vicious when intoxicated and depressed over their failings in life!

Common Aspiring Author (Scriptor domesticus)

The Common Aspiring Author is a migratory creature, and can often be found switching between genres, publication methods, and social media.  Developed adults may have begun to show distinctive plumage, though many retain the camouflage of their nymph state and prefer not to tell their parents yet.

Look for S. domesticus in its natural habitat of small apartments, blogs with daily readerships of <100, and long-term relationships with people who earn a real salary.  Distinctive features may include:

  • Social behaviors, primarily with other S. domesticus, including mimicry of S. pactum (see below).
  • Foraging among blogs and Twitter accounts for helpful links.
  • Displays of plumage at social events:  “Oh, I’m a writer.  You know.  Just little stuff.”
  • Periods of hibernation, during which S. domesticus locks itself in its room and drafts/edits obsessively

S. domesticus is the friendliest and most easily-trained of the aspiring authors.  It can be taught to mimic specific behaviors, especially when rewarded with small paid-by-the-word salaries.  It can, however, become irritable during hibernation periods, and often uses these as a way to end a courtship or mating period.

Authors Awaiting Reply (Scriptor neuroses)

This less common species has distinctive plumage (frayed), habits (unpleasant), and life cycles (submission – rejection – submission – rejection).  It is distinguished from its lesser cousins by a more evolved writing style and a more extended social network, which it cyclically alienates.

S. neuroses are most commonly found in bars, face-down in gutters immediately outside bars, or huddled into a small ball in their blankets, rocking back and forth.  They typically go into intensive periods of revising in between submission and rejection cycles.  S. neuroses is a very distinctive creature!  You will recognize its hallmarks easily:

  • Semi-permanent abodes (until the rejection cycles exceed the rent cycle).
  • Strained but sustained relationships with stable partners (sometimes).
  • Obsessive collective of trade journals, agent and publisher business cards, and slightly shady How-To books/websites.
  • Life cycle typically ended when a S. pactum (see below) replaces them, or they drink themselves to death.

S. neuroses are delicate and nervous creatures!  They should be handled with care, primarily by never mentioning their agent/publisher/periodical search or how it’s going, or by doing anything that could possibly jeopardize their latest pursuit of the aforementioned agents/publishers/periodicals.

Contracted Authors (Scriptor pactum)

The contracted author is a rare and splendid creature!  It frequently fans its vibrant plumage, reminding everyone nearby that it has a solid contract and can in fact expect real wages for its work.  S. pactum has an unusual relationship with other species of unpublished writers, which both imitate and envy it.

S. pactum is usually unmistakable in its natural habitats (bars, gutters outside bars where it mumbles happily to itself, and anywhere else that people have to listen politely to self-centered babble, such as therapy and the confessional).  Look for its bright plumage and its characteristic behaviors:

  • Name-dropping (publishers and fellow authors, mostly).
  • Repeated crowing on its blog.
  • Brief panic attacks when contracts appear unstable.
  • Dispensing advice with extreme confidence and authority.
  • Being able to speak to their parents again.

S. pactum can be a difficult creature to live with, but offers more stability in its environment than the other aspiring authorial species.  It makes a good long-term companion for anyone seeking colorful character and elaborate preening behaviors!  A steady diet of congratulatory cocktails is essential to S. pactum‘s health and happiness.

*The Audubon Society had nothing to do with the publication of this guide.  However, we like to think that James Audubon could have made a pretty sexy sketch out of our editorial staff’s portraits.  Now, which species are you?  Leave a comment!

In Praise of Working Late: 10 Reasons to Write at Night

If you came looking for your Wednesday morning MA101 fix and found it missing, I’m incredibly flattered.  Seriously, don’t you have anything better to do with your life?

But this is indeed somewhat late in coming, as I continue to adjust to a Wednesday morning commitment that gets me up at an hour when I prefer to be going to bed.  Some of you may recall a post a while back about when these blog posts go up, and what exactly it means — much of that still holds true.  MA101, like most other things I write, tends to happen in the small hours of the morning.

There are reasons for this.  I realize that professional writers like to think of themselves as, well, professionals, and keep schedules that vaguely match with the rest of the world’s, but allow me a moment of evangelicizing:

  • All the best distractions are closed late at night.  Hell, you can’t even get a bratwurst after midnight.  It’s much easier to maintain the high level of introversion needed for successful writing in the early AM.
  • Kids, spouses, and other needless distractions are asleep.  Good riddance!
  • While drinking first thing in the morning is frowned upon, drinking after a hard day’s work is never seen as a “warning sign” of some exaggerated “problem” that you might or might not have.  Evening writers can drink on the job.
  • Darkness is controllable in a way that daylight is not.  If you like a bright, vibrant workspace, turn on more lights.  If you prefer a contemplative dimness work with a single small lamp.  Beats the hell out of pulling the curtains and squinting.
  • Working until around 5 or 6 AM means that you’re going to bed just as the most obnoxious sorts of people are all waking up.
  • Shaving doesn’t happen until mid-afternoon or later, allowing you to maintain an appropriate level of disreputable scruff during all daytime interactions.
  • You become completely acclimatized to a schedule that makes regular, 9-to-5 sorts of jobs impossible, heightening your motivation to “make it” as a writer.
  • You develop startling friendships with people in very different parts of the world.
  • You’re always the first to catch the early-morning news…though you won’t be able to share it with anyone until you wake up in the afternoon.
  • A healthy pallor is only becoming more and more valuable as fashion turns away from carcinogenic orange as the ideal skin tone.

With all that said, I’ve been up since a reasonable hour, doing reasonable things all day long, and I can’t say that I’m that much the worse for wear for it.  Perhaps there’s room for change yet.  But when are you doing your writing?  And why?  Inquiring minds want to know…

Word Count Goals: How Much is Too Much?

You read writing blogs, apparently, so I know you’ve heard this particular piece of advice before:  have a daily word count goal.

The idea is that everyone does better with benchmarks.  Teachers know it, parents know it; the makers of addictive online flash games know it.  If you have an arbitrary benchmark for “success,” you’ll push toward it.  Because failure sucks.

Unless, of course, you have created a for-profit website that does nothing BUT collect human failures.

Writing can work the same way, right?  Just like an addictive little browser game, you can set the initial benchmark low, then as it becomes routinely achievable raise it slowly, never outpacing your learning curve.

Lifting weights works the same way, but it didn't seem like a metaphor most writers could identify with.

The problem with this strategy is that anything that keeps you from meeting your benchmark — walking the dog, say, or cooking supper for your spouse to apologize for not walking the dog and letting it crap all over the carpet — starts to make you feel like a failure.

I’m somewhat fortunate in having a “daily word count” goal of as much as humanly possible, since I’m paid by the word — stopping short of “my eyes are bleeding and this computer screen is definitely giving me cancer, possibly right now” is a luxury for months when food prices were low, so motivation is not really a problem.  But for a time I did try to balance that with a word count goal for fiction as well, and it got stressful very quickly.

I think the problem is just that a daily goal doesn’t give you much wiggle room for unexpected timesinks.  A trip to the DMV (god help you) is all it takes to make sure you get the big “FAILURE” stamp on your forehead that day.  And it wasn’t even really your fault.

Judging by the number of Google Image results for "failure stamp," I'll go ahead and say the internet is overall a pessimistic environment.

So if you do set a word count goal — and I certainly see the argument for them — be sure to set it low enough that you can make it even on a Murphy’s Law kind of day.  Alternatively, consider a slightly different benchmark:  a weekly goal gives you some more flexibility, letting you fall a little short on your busiest day but still come out feeling like a winner at the end.  Or set aside a specific amount of time that gets dedicated to nothing but writing, rather than a word count goal.

But either way, stay away from www.failblog.org when you’re working toward your goal.  Human suffering is, apparently, addictive.

Y'know, I can kinda see where the kid was coming from on this one.

Blogging Basics: The Art of the Running Joke

Most of my readers probably already know that I love ponies.  And that’s because I’m doing something right.

Specifically, I google "fuzzy pony" like a champion

The internet is a big place.  Blogs are a whisper in a tornado.  Lots of people struggle not just to get page hits, but also to keep steady readers on board.  None of us, after all, are saying anything that absolutely no one else in the whole world could say.

So personality actually counts for a lot.  You can have the best information in the world, but if people don’t remember your blog, they’re only going to see it once in a while when someone else links.

A lot of very successful, profitable blogs have attracted their readership by just having an interesting personality and keeping it consistently out there.  Hyperbole and a Half is widely read despite its erratic updates because the erratic updates are part of the engaging, unfocused, off-the-wall image it presents.  The Art of Manliness gets away with some pretty thinly-researched content because even the worst articles are loaded down with a healthy dose of nostalgic testosterone, transporting you right back to the good old days when men were men and women were property.  And so on.

Thus, ponies.  So that if nothing else I will be remembered as “that guy with the writing advice, the one with the ponies” (or perhaps “the guy with the adorable pony pictures who sometimes talks about writing” — you never know) rather than just “one of those writing blogs.”

More ponies.

Also I just like ponies.  It’s a very bittersweet sort of sentiment, since I will always be far too enormous to ride them.  But there you have it.

Misanthropology101 has ponies.  Linda Grimes over at Visiting Reality keeps me coming back for camels every Hump Day (Wednesday).  Elizabeth Craig has, okay, let’s be honest, the enormous lists of EVERY WRITING-RELATED LINK EVER that we like to browse through.  Little, fun things that keep people coming back.  Running jokes!

What does your blog have?  If you can’t answer the question of the top of your head, it might be time to start thinking about adorable animal options…

NYC Library Offers Reduced Fines in Exchange for Time Spent Reading

So the New York Public Library has come up with a way to coax heavily-fined readers back in:  reducing fines in exchange for time spent reading.

There’s a lot to unpack from that idea, so I’m just going to bullet-point a couple thoughts:

  • The first obvious reaction is that this, at least on the surface, is a pretty cool idea.  I don’t know how endemic the problem of potential library-users avoiding the system because they owe it money is, but what offenders there are would clearly be people willing to read books.  This seems like a good appeal to them.

"They've got a name for people like you, H. I. That name is 'recidivism.'"

  • Where this gets odd is that the program is run through a third-party (and presumably for-profit) website, SummerReading.org.  No idea how that tie-in happened or what the specifics of the deal are.
  • Participants can hold materials as long as they like when they are “reading down” their fines, without accruing more fines — making it tempting to run up a 25-cent fine for the first time ever, check out a hotly-demanded bestseller, and be able to finish it at leisure instead of two weeks.  Also seems like a good way for students to save on buying textbooks that they need for the whole season, as long as the library has a copy.
  • If this works, is it going to be another compelling argument for the “let’s run our government services as businesses” camp?  Because this is a very retail-world sort of “special,” with the same focus on getting people in the door and encouraging repeat customers.
  • But at the end of the day, it’s about encouraging people to read.  That’s a good thing, from a writer’s selfish point of view, right?

Alternatively, I could be over-analyzing.  Take a look at the website and let me know your thoughts!

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