Doing Star Wars Right

It should come as no surprise to any of you that I love Star Wars. It has shaped me as much as any other work of art or literature I can name and viewing its films (specifically episodes 4-6) count among my oldest and fondest memories. Which is why I want you to listen very carefully to what I’m about to say to you:

90% of modern Star Wars franchises suck. SUCK.

This was a seriously great season finale. So much fun.

This was a seriously great season finale. So much fun.

Yeah, yeah, yeah – go ahead and throw your exceptions at me. Bullshit, I tell you. Just about none of them are any good at all. Since Return of the Jedi, I have only seen/read one single solitary iteration that does true and honest justice to the original. That iteration is a current Saturday morning cartoon on the Disney Channel called Star Wars Rebels.

What does it do right, exactly? Well, to do that, perhaps it is easiest to explain what I think everything else has done wrong.

Misconception #1: The Star Wars Universe is Fascinating

Incorrect. Sorry guys, but it just isn’t. One of the errors made by most of the Expanded Universe and by all the sequels is the presumption that we actually care that much about the continuity and complexity of the Star Wars Galaxy. Folks, there really isn’t much there to be fascinated with.

No, I mean it! What’s the one thing that everybody complains about in Episode1? It’s that the primary conflict is over a trade dispute. “Trade Dispute?” we scoff, “how boring is that?” Well, you know why it’s boring? Because we don’t give a crap about the Star Wars Universe. We. Don’t. Care. If we did – if we actually found the Star Wars Universe interesting all by itself – we would be riveted by a tale about a trade dispute. We would be aghast at the predations of the Trade Federation and proud of the noble people of Naboo. However, since we don’t know these people from Adam, we don’t give a shit.

The world of Star Wars has always been one of larger-than-life stories and over-the-top settings that really require no practical explanation. It’s a city in the clouds – that’s all that really matters! The world is just a colorful, exciting backdrop to what happens with the characters, which is really where it’s at.

In this regard, Star Wars Rebels does a great job – it gives us fun and engaging characters with just enough backstory to make us love them and keep us watching. The world exists only as backdrop, not as main show. You don’t need to know much of anything about Star Wars to enjoy it, and those things it does reference are only relevant to the characters themselves.

This. Always more of this, please.

This. Always more of this, please.

Misconception #2: The Rebellion Against the Empire is So Done.

No, no it is not. Star Wars was made great by telling the story about a team of underdogs who took down a big evil Empire. Every other story that has tried to tell something else has been missing something essential. This is related to misconception #1: we thought the Star Wars universe had other magical stories in it, but it doesn’t, or not really, anyway. It always, always comes down to stormtroopers bearing down on our heroes as they try to find some desperate avenue of escape. The Jedi of the Old Republic? Boring. The Clone Wars? Boring. The New Republic and its flavor-of-the-month villains? Boring!

Every one of those stories is trying to recapture that lightning in the bottle when it was Han and Chewy and Leia and the droids against the whole Imperial Fleet, and it never quite works. Star Wars Rebels simply shows us the rebellion again, except from an earlier point in its history and with a different group of freedom fighters. It works, because it is doing what we originally loved all over again.

Misconception #3: Lightsaber Battles are Inherently Interesting

I sometimes wonder if people who say this actually watched Episode 2 at all. There were about a billion lightsaber duels in that movie and they were all spectacularly dull. The reason? You need context for battles to be interesting. Just fighting some random guy for the heck of it is not interesting. Darth Maul? Who is that guy, anyway, and why do we care that they’re fighting with him? We don’t.

Go back and watch the lightsaber duel between Vader and Luke in Empire. It wholly lacks the kung fu acrobatics of the modern lightsaber fight, but it is twenty times more riveting than any other. Why? Because we desperately care about Luke and we are actively terrified of what Vader has planned. Without that context, we just don’t care.

Again, Star Wars Rebels does this well. We come to care about the characters before they go into deadly duels with the villains (whom we also know and despise).

All this, coupled with solid characters and fun action sequences and broad, larger-than-life storytelling makes Star Wars Rebels my favorite Star Wars franchise in ages, despite the occasionally clunky dialogue and mid-level CGI animation. It’s fun, and that’s what Star Wars is supposed to be: fun and fast and painted in broad strokes.

You know, just like a Saturday morning cartoon.

Interview by the Dorchester Reporter

Hey, folks!

I’m in my local newspaper.

Look! A bunch of real dead and reprocessed trees bears print speaking my name!

Look! A bunch of real dead and reprocessed trees bears print speaking my name!

This is especially cool because it is a newspaper actually printed on paper and stuff. This makes it likely my mother will read it because, to her, it will be a real thing. Everything online is imaginary, you see.

(just kidding, Mom.)

In all seriousness, the interview was great and this is a wonderful piece. Go and check it out!

The Right to Make You Feel Icky

I quote from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols:

Let us finally consider how naïve it is altogether to say: “Man ought to be such and such!” Reality shows us an enchanting wealth of types, the abundance of a lavish play and change of forms – and some wretched loafer of a moralist comments: “No! Man ought to be different.” He even knows what man should be like, this wretched bigot and prig: he paints himself on the wall and comments, “Ecce homo!” But even when the moralist addresses himself only to the single human being and says to him, “You ought to be such and such!” he does not cease to make himself ridiculous.”

Today’s news has brought to my attention two things of which I feel you lot ought to be aware. First, there is Indiana’s terrible, terrible law just passed by the state legislature, known as SB101, which would basically allow establishments to discriminate based off of sexual orientation or religion. Second is this app called CleanReader, which is an app that would censor out naughty words from books.

I’m going to be frank: if neither of those things bother or offend you in any way, it is very unlikely we can be friends. Sorry.

Fortunately, the writing and geek community at large is with me on this one. GenCon is threatening to leave Indiana if SB101 is passed into law, while Joanne Harris and Chuck Wendig have some very pointed words for the creators of CleanReader. As you can imagine, Wendig’s argument is rather…vivid.

But so what, though? So what if Wendig says “fuck” a million times? They are his words and he gets to say them and that, so far as I’m concerned, is the end of the conversation. This extends to Indiana: so what if somebody likes to have sex with their same sex? So what? What, it makes you uncomfortable? Who gives a shit if you’re uncomfortable? You know what? People who sneer at gay people make me uncomfortable, yet you don’t see me parading laws through Congress to make pricks like Jerry Falwell inadmissible to Pizza Hut. If I own a restaurant and some little shit comes in spouting racist bullshit and makes distasteful jokes about gay people to his buddies, he still gets to buy food there. Yeah, he makes me uncomfortable and I don’t like him, but it’s a free country. So long as he does no actual harm (like harasses other patrons) and commits no crimes, he gets to stay.

I try not to wax political on this blog – not my purpose – but some discussion of morality is apropos to my book (The Iron Ring – see sidebar), so I’m going to wax moralistic for a spell.

Bear with me. Nietzsche, I feel, has a good argument (up to a point): Who the hell appointed (insert group here) as supreme arbiters of what is right and wrong? Now, both sides of our political and moral landscape are operating under the assumption that the other is the group inside those parentheses. Liberal secularists think that Christian conservatives are trying to dictate our behavior and vice versa. The thing is, though, that the things each side are trying to control are different. Speaking broadly, liberal secularists wish to make it illegal for people to inflict harm on others in the form of prejudice, discrimination, and mistreatment. Conservative Christians wish to make it illegal for people to act or behave outside the bounds of what they consider to be proper. Yes, there is some variation there – neither side is like that on 100% of the issues – but the characterization, I feel, is generally fair.

Here is the operative difference between those two positions and why, for the most part, I take the side of the liberal secularists: One is defending people against actual harm, and the others are defending themselves against feeling icky. The first category is what I would categorize as legitimately moral and the second I characterize as illegitimate morality. Seeing two dudes making out does you no harm – none, zippo, nada. Letting those two dudes file taxes jointly and letting them inherit each other’s property and letting them adopt children also does no one any harm (seriously – zero evidence to the contrary). So, other than the fact that certain people behave in a way that irritates your virginal sensibilities and contradicts some words you got written down in some book you think is from a god, we aren’t actually talking about anything important. Sure, you can still believe these things (and maybe make me feel uncomfortable about it), but you can’t force everybody else to stop making you feel icky. No.

What you can do, however, is prohibit people from harming others. What constitutes harm? Well, harassment, social discrimination, prejudice, and abuse based upon sex, creed, race, or orientation. Censorship of an author’s work without consent. Curtailment of public discourse. Physical incarceration or financial penalties on the basis of the above. That is not okay. You do not get to make me into a criminal or pariah just because I make you feel icky or uncomfortable. Nobody is saying you have to buy my books, but if you do, you are going to have to read about all the gay sex and profanity I feel is appropriate to the story. Suck it up, cupcakes. You don’t like it, then I guess that’s fine – don’t read my stuff. It’s a free country.

For now, anyway.  

For the Love of the Game

I was interviewed recently by my local newspaper regarding The Iron Ring (psst! Buy it! Review!) and also about my win in the Writers of the Future Contest (pre-order!). It was a great interview and the reporter did a really thorough job (I’ll post here when the article is in print, never fear). I enjoyed it immensely. One of his first questions, though was a question I get a lot and a question, that, I imagine, a lot of writers get asked. The question was this:

Does it hurt when you get a rejection?

Everybody wants to know this. They hear famous author X had their brilliant manuscript rejected Y times and they wonder “how did they keep pushing? How did they know to keep going?” The odds of being successful as a writer seem so bleak, so hopelessly improbable, that each rejection seems like it ought to be another nail in the coffin of your authorial aspirations. Yet, somehow, we press on. So, again: doesn’t it hurt?

This question, I feel, has an answer in two parts. Firstly, yes, it does hurt. It hurts less and less the more you are rejected, mind you – you build something of a resistance to that unique kind of pain – but it always knocks you off your kilter a little. The longer you’ve had to wait for that rejection and the more of yourself you’ve poured into the thing being rejected, the worse the pain. It ranges from something like a slap to the face to a full-on punch to the guts so hard it makes your breath whistle through your teeth.

The second part of this answer goes like this: It doesn’t matter if it hurts. Anybody seriously considering writing knows that it is not a path to fame and fortune. Pick any ten authors out of modern book store and at least eight of them still have day jobs. They take up all their free time writing not because of the glory of it all, but because they simply must write. They aren’t going to stop just because somebody said they stunk. They’re going to get back on that horse to get knocked off again. And again.

Keep running!

                           Keep running!

And again.

Even if you do get to the “yes” and score yourself a book deal or get an award or something (so, like me), you haven’t succeeded yet. You aren’t done. The real work is just beginning. I’ve still got a day job and I’m working on two separate novels at the same time. In the next two weeks, I need to read 3 novels, grade about 140 pages of student work, teach full time, and turn around the revisions and final copy edits of Book 2. I’ve also got a wife, two small children, and a dog who deserve a little attention. At some point I should sleep and perhaps eat.

And I haven’t, by any stretch of the imagination, made it.

Some people seem to think that writing has some kind of finish line, that it’s a race you can win and then stop. That isn’t how this works, folks. You aren’t writing to win a race. You are writing because you love running. You can’t expect to stop.

This reminds me of a little story I read in Nick Evangelista’s The Art and Science of Fencing. It goes something like this:

A student of fencing traveled a great distance to meet with a great master to see if he had what it took to be great. The fencer showed the master everything he knew, pushing himself as hard as he could. When he had finished, he waited to see what the master would say.

“You do not have the fire.” The master said.

This was like a dagger to the student’s heart, but he could not contest the word of a master. The student gave up the blade and moved on with his life, eventually prospering in business.

Years later, the student encountered the master again. He took the opportunity to ask him how he knew he lacked “the fire.”

The master shrugged. “I didn’t, but if you did have the fire, it would not have mattered if I said you did not. You would have continued learning, no matter what I said. That is the fire.”

I think I have the fire. To be a writer, I think you need it. Rejections be damned.

You’re Invited to a Scifi Party!

Hey, you! Yeah, you, with the face and the arms and such – I’ve gotta message for you, my good human! You are invited to attend an awards ceremony and reception in sunny Los Angeles for the Writers of the Future Award!

No, seriously, you can all go. Yes, you have to wear pants. Or a dress. I guess a skirt is okay. No shorts – c’mon, man, have a little self-respect. “Black-tie optional” doesn’t mean “I can come in a tank-top and yoga pants.”

Anyway, dress code aside, you can come see a bunch of up-and-coming young writers (<cough> ME <cough>) and illustrators receive a fancy award, give a little speech, and get talked up by more established writers. Then, afterwards, there’s a book signing and a party! You’d get to *literally* rub elbows with big name authors like Dave Farland! Sweet, right?

Anyway, the information is on this here flyer:

2015 WOTF InviteGot it? You coming? Want to find out what a good hand-shaker I am? Welp, you know where to find me!
Also, in related news, C Stuart Hardwick continues his quest to interview this year’s winners. Check them out:
Sharon Joss 

Amy Hughes

Auston Habershaw

Tim Napper

Scott Parkin

Martin Shoemaker

And more to come, too!

Vrokthar Demands You Critique His Story!

Greetings, miserable slaves! Vrokthar the Skull-feaster, Scourge of the Northron Wastes, brings your weakling ears glad tidings! You muck-dwelling wretches are literate, or so Vrokthar’s thanes inform him. So it is that you have been chosen to workshop Vrokthar’s latest work of literary genius: “Vrokthar the Skull-Keeper.”

Behold my previous critique groups!

Behold my previous critique groups!

Yes, I see you tremble in delight at this mighty opportunity to strengthen your anemic minds upon the mighty words of Vrokthar’s dream-vision. However, the tale of this fictional barbarian slaughtering his fictional foes in numerous, spleen-wrenching scenarios is not yet perfected. Vrokthar was told that he needs “a new perspective” and “narrative objectivity” to judge his work. Naturally, Vrokthar immediately slew the incontinent fool who dared suggest such a thing, but upon drinking the imbecile’s blood, Vrokthar now believes he may have been hasty. So, I have searched my slaves for those worthy to read my opus.

Be warned, however! Vrokthar has tried several groups before yours, and each has been a more bitter disappointment than the last. These mewling Wetlanders have made unreasonable demands of Vrokthar, and even sought to embitter him towards his own word-hoard. So, they have died. This is where you come in.

Between now and when I am satisfied with your literary offerings to me, you will no longer eat nor drink nor sleep. Vrokthar’s art requires your fullest attention. Those who seek to leave my yurt shall be devoured by my hunting dogs, who even now wait in the dark in anticipation of your cowardice. Oh yes, your devotion to this task will be complete!

I shall remain here while you read, watching your blood-rimmed eyes devour every word with what I will assume to be rapt admiration. I furthermore demand that you inform me of the motivation for every facial expression you make. If you giggle, I must know why and, if the part you read was not intended to be funny, your life will be immediately forfeit. If you smile, I shall also demand explanation, and that explanation ought to be your grim appreciation of the new forms of slaughter the fictional Vrokthar hath delivered upon the deserving foe. Failure to do so will mean I shall flay you alive and then salt your flesh, so better preserve your corpse for the feeding of your fellow slaves.

Upon the mighty conclusion of my 22,000 word short story, once your long-lasting applause has lapsed into exhausted silence, we will begin our work. Each of you shall offer your opinion of my work. I demand honesty, for Vrokthar cannot perfect his manuscript without your courageous truths. Some of you, at this juncture, may be tempted to propagate vile falsehoods about Vrokthar’s story. For instance, that there “seems to be no plot, setting, or character development” or “the protagonist is never in danger.” Such fools shall be fed their own entrails as the others watch. To avoid this, as that manner of death is time-consuming and Vrokthar cannot spend all day screwing around in his yurt, here are explanations for your concerns in advance of your reading, so that your feeble minds may realize your errors before you make them:

  1. Vrokthar’s character need not be developed, as he is already perfect. Yes, at everything.
  2. Where Vrokthar slays his foes in unimportant, only that they are slain.
  3. The plot is obvious – Vrokthar kills his enemies. How is this not obvious to you?
  4. How can Vrokthar be in danger if he is perfect? This tale is meant to be realistic, you slavering baboon.
  5. No, I will not change the POV. Go to hell.
  6. Vrokthar uses commas when and if they suit him. The commas serve Vrokthar, not otherwise. No decapitated semicolon will give me orders, of that you may be assured.

Again, honesty is key to your survival.

Should you give Vrokthar the feedback he deserves, you shall be freed of your chains and set loose into the world once more. However, should you ever write a story about a barbarian named Vrokthar who slays his enemies, I will come for you again. You will pay me royalties or I will take your head. So it is written, so shall it be.

On Titles and Originality

Before I start, just a publicity update: Go to Barren Island Books to read an interview with me just before I am banished to a desert island. Fun times, and many thanks to A.F.E. Smith for the opportunity!

Now, let’s to brass tacks.

You know what I find the hardest thing, ultimately, to do for a novel or story? Give it a title.

Seriously, what the hell do you call the whole thing? Me? I don’t know. It always seems like the best titles are already taken. Anytime I come up with a good title – a real zinger, you know? – I make the mistake of Googling it. When I finish, this is my face:

But...but I was being so *original!*

But…but I was being so *original!*

Yep – somebody else had used it. Sometimes numerous somebodies else. Super lame.

You know that book I’ve been telling you all to buy – The Iron Ring, remember? Well, even though it wasn’t my first choice for title, it was the one my editor liked best and, as it turns out, Lloyd Alexander liked it, too. Dammit!

So, anyway, after much hand-wringing and nonsense about the titles of the various books of The Saga of the Redeemed (that one’s original – take that ye gods of Google!), I came up with a system that I felt would create decent titles for my fantasy books. Namely, I’d take a common saying and chop it up. Books 1 and 2 (which are really the same story) were/are titled The Oldest Trick, for instance. As in “the oldest trick in the book.” Right? Get it? Huh, huh? Neat, right? Google that one and you come up with nothing – it’s all mine, baby!

Fast Forward to Book 3 (or Part 2, depending on how you look at it). The working title has always been All That Glitters, as in “all that glitters is not gold.” Pithy, clever, thematically appropriate – I love it. Google it, and all you get is a short-run sitcom in 1977. Ha!

Oh, but wait, it’s also:

  • A VC Andrews novel from 1995.
  • A Michael Anthony novel from 1981
  • A memoir by Pearl Lowe in 2007
  • Some kind of documentary/reality show set to air this year.

And about a million other titles. Bye-bye that title.

Turns out, though, that no matter what I pick, odds are I’m going to step on somebody’s toes. You have to ask, though, whether that’s such a big deal. Like, if the last time somebody used the title was in a different medium (movie, not book) for a different audience (crime thriller, not fantasy) a couple years ago, does it really matter? How much of a chance of confusion is there, really?

In bouncing potential titles back and forth with my editor, the one she liked best was No Good Deed. Yes, yes – it’s the title of an Idris Elba thriller released last year, I know. It isn’t as though anybody’s going to be confused, though. It would be one thing, I guess, if the movie were a big hit (nobody’s walking around titling their novel The Empire Strikes Back or Platoon, I suppose), but even then one has to wonder. What’s in a title, anyway? It’s just one of the umpteen billion handy devices by which we convince people to pick up our books and read. Perhaps the “perfect originality” standard is a bit too stiff for so modest an element.

Or maybe I’m just lazy. That’s also pretty likely.

Nevertheless, I’m going to stick with No Good Deed for now. I’m calling dibs, everyone, got it? It’s mine! Well, for now, anyway, and unless I can think of something better.

 

Killing Your Babies: In Memoriam

When you have to cut a 124,000 word manuscript to something closer to 95,000 words, you are past the point where little line-edits and cutting the occasional paragraph of description will actually make much of a difference. To cut those 30,000 words, you need to actually make substantive changes to a novel. Plotlines need to be dropped. Characters need to disappear.

People will tell you that this is hard because you are so attached to these sequences, and this is true. With practice, though, that isn’t the part that bothers you so much – what needs to go, needs to go. What bothers you is how you can replace what was there without taking up the same space. You need to figure out how to stitch together the remnants of the work so that everything still works. You need to build a smaller, sleeker Frankenstein, but one that can still rip down houses and bellow warnings about fire.

Book 3 of The Saga of the Redeemed is undergoing the cut I mentioned above. Right now, I’m really sweating getting it to come under the 100K maximum limit, since I’m finding a lot of the stuff I take out still needs to be put back in somehow, and doing so while making everything shorter is worrying me. I plan (plan) to have this draft done by the end of the week and then have it sent off to beta readers (who hopefully will read it in short order). This edit has been a brutal process, and so I wanted to pause for a moment to memorialize the people I’ve deleted to make this edit possible.

Picture Giamatti here in a powdered wig, dripping in jewels, and wearing platform heels.

Picture Giamatti here in a powdered wig, dripping in jewels, and wearing platform heels.

Aeschen O’Deva, Devious Ihynish Trader

Aeschen used to be a major villain in the book until the editing shears came for him. He was cartoonishly short, indulgent of all vices, overly fond of slurping sardines, and afflicted with a wildly unsettled stomach and, possibly, an ulcer. He walked around with a deathcaster up his sleeve and had a bad temper. Fond of insulting and humiliating his henchmen, he was to eventually come to a bad end.

Aeschen was hard to cut, if simply because he was so central to the plot and much of what he did needed to be replaced by others. Sadly, he had to go. Too many scenes of him plotting in coaches while hitting people with his wig. Alas, you will never get to hear him call his underlings “mud-sucking shit goblins.”

I know. I know.

"Tyvian Reldamar gave me the finest beating I ever took..."

“Tyvian Reldamar gave me the finest beating I ever took…”

Uwin Voth, Thostering Mercenary

Voth was O’Deva’s hired muscle – a mercenary of such quality that his asking price was astronomical, but his loyalty and honor was without stain. Sadly, he was stuck working for the greedy, underhanded O’Deva, whom the mercenary himself referred to as an “arse-stain of a human being.” Voth was a match for Tyvian’s formidable dueling skills, as good a hunter as Hool, and a consummate professional. A man pitted against our heroes, but one whom demanded respect anyway.

Sadly, there just isn’t enough space in the novel to watch this noble creature get belittled and wig-slapped by O’Deva over and over again. His final vengeance, likewise, is now lacking. Too bad, too – he had a damned fine moustache.

What? No old man to insult Tyvian's character? Say it ain't so!

What? No old man to insult Tyvian’s character? Say it ain’t so!

Hemrick, Saldorian Famulus to the Reldamars

What is an ancient sorerous family without a live-in assistant (or famulus)? Hemrick was supposed to be the Alfred of the Reldamar family – loyal, hyper-competent, fittingly sarcastic, and appropriately mysterious. The thing is, though, that he was a bit part, ultimately. We just don’t have time for such clichés, do we? Why would Lyrelle Reldamar employ a living, breathing famulus when she can summon djinn and daemons to do her bidding, instead. Blame sorcerous out-sourcing, but Hemrick had to be let go. We thank him for his service and hope he will send us a note when he lands safely elsewhere.

Honestly, I don’t miss this guy. Neither will you.

Anyway, there they are, together comprising a *lot* of words that are now not in my novel. Hopefully it will be enough and perhaps – just maybe – these fellows will work their way back into the series at a later date.

Well, all except for Hemrick. Sarcastic butlers are sooo done. Shame on me for even putting one in.

Blog Tour is Winding Down…

We press on!

We press on!

So, the blog tour is more-or-less over, now. I’ve got a couple more things to trickle in over the next few weeks, but I should be returning to my regular posting habits next week. That said, here are some entries:

An Interview with me by C Stuart Hardwick (fellow WoTF winner and author)

My Book, The Movie (wherein I was asked to cast The Iron Ring, and did so)

Writers Read (wherein I discuss precisely what I’m reading right now)

And a pretty good review (3.5/5 “sheep”, points off for it being half a book) from I Smell Sheep

Overall, the reception to the book has been good. It’s been getting very good reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads (and many of them from people I don’t even know!), but it is still a small book in a great ocean of books. It’s being compared (in tone) to the work of Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson, and that is pretty gigantic praise. On the other hand, I’ve also been taking a bit of flak for the book ending, essentially, in the middle (don’t worry – the sequel wraps up that plot arc, and it’s coming out in June!). For a debut novel, though, it is being received very well!

I do, however, need more attention for THE IRON RING. If you’re read it, please review it (somewhere). If you want to run a feature on it on your blog, drop me a line! If you want to interview me, I’m happy to do so! If you are interested in my writing a guest post for your blog, I’m game!

I should also point out, as a means to drum up buzz about my book, the price on Amazon is temporarily reduced to $0.99 – a steal! So, if $2.99 was too rich for your blood, now’s you’re chance, America! Go buy it! Read! Enjoy! Review!

Thank you all for your support! I press on (and Tyvian presses on, too, though with markedly less enthusiasm).

Me and My MFA

I earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College in 2005. It was three years of non-stop workshops in screenplay, novel, and short fiction as well as literature classes, teaching pedagogy, and a smattering of other stuff. I don’t talk about it much, really. I’ve been taught, through gradual experience, that nobody really wants to hear about it.

When you get an MFA, you find yourself situated with a foot in two very different, very adversarial worlds. On the one hand, you are a “writer” among many other people who are also writers and many of whom chose not to spend the money and time to get an MFA. I’ve found, generally to my surprise, that when I mention that I have an MFA among writers, the response (more often than not) is prickly defensiveness. They, more often than not, look at me like this:

I promise you that I don't. Really.

I promise you that I don’t. Really.

Now, maybe this reaction is because of all the MFA-holders who are douchebags (more on that later), but generally I think the fact that I have an MFA and they do not makes them doubt themselves somehow and they resent me for being the impetus for their self-doubt. When you’re trying to become a writer, there is an almost constant worry that you’re doing it wrong, somehow. You worry if you’re ever going to make it and if your plan is just so much pie-in-the-sky dreaming and then along comes me, with my fancy-shmancy MFA, and oh I must think I’m so special…etc., etc.

Then, on the other side of your post-MFA life, you’ve got the academic world. An MFA is a terminal degree, technically equivalent to a PhD in other fields, and entitles you (should you so choose) to dive into the world of higher education. The thing is, though, that nobody in the academic world really thinks your MFA is equivalent to a PhD because, let’s be honest here, you just made shit up for your dissertation and you basically earned a degree for talented lying and now you think, for some reason, you’re entitled to have opinions about things happening at an actual college with real academics. I’m one of the only professors my students have who does not have the honorific “Doctor” in front of my name. I keep picturing Sheldon Cooper sneering at me over my shoulder at faculty meetings sometimes. I think, probably, in this instance it is me having a degree of self-doubt about my worthiness to be in higher ed – probably very few of my colleagues actually look down on me – but the feeling of Impostor Syndrome is often very strong.

So, I don’t bring up my MFA if I can help it. I let my work and ideas speak for themselves, since the degree itself seems more of a divisive thing than otherwise. All that said, I think my MFA was a valuable experience for me and its capacity to get me into teaching higher ed has been an invaluable benefit for my life and career. I did learn to be a better writer in my program. Do you need an MFA to become a better writer? Of course not! You can take the same number of workshops and classes in your free time from any number of programs and probably for less money. My MFA didn’t make me any more publishable and didn’t give me an inside-scoop on the publishing world by any means – I came out of my program a better writer, but just as unprepared for the publishing end of writing as anybody else. And, furthermore, everybody’s MFA experience likely varies a wide bit just based upon course selection, the school you attend, and even the individuals who happen to be in workshop with you. As with so much else in life, Your Mileage May Vary.

Which brings me to this op-ed piece in The Stranger by Ryan Boudinot which discusses the things he, as an ex-MFA teacher, believes about writers and MFA programs. This article has caused a bit of a stir in the writing community, with people reacting very poorly to Boudinot’s tone and argument. In particular, Chuck Wendig tears the guy a new one on his blog. I, personally, did not react quite so negatively. I mean, I don’t fully agree with a bunch of things he says, but the spirit of much of what he says I feel is accurate and, furthermore, very much reflective of what goes on inside MFA programs. Now, is he being an arrogant, elitist jerk about this stuff? Well, yeah. But, then again, maybe it doesn’t bother me that much because, having been through an MFA program, I got kinda used to listening to arrogant elitist jerks (both teachers and fellow students) spout off and I got good at finding the kernel of truth behind all the BS. I mean, you have to understand that, as a science fiction writer in a MFA program, I was basically considered to be some kind of dumb, half-wit cousin to “actual writers.” I was very commonly in an atmosphere of disdain and dismissal when I discussed what work inspired me and what I liked to read. A number of workshops forbade anything they termed “genre literature,” and when I offered up a page of William Gibson’s Neuromancer as good writing, a bunch of people refused to read it on the grounds that “they didn’t read that kind of thing.”

It was all crap, I know, but I learned how to sift useful information out of that crap. That, in and of itself, was an education worth the price of admission, since so much of writing is listening to nonsense about your writing with tiny kernels of useful truth. You gotta learn how to find it.

Accordingly, here are the kernels of truth that ought to be taken out of Boudinot’s piece, and what I instinctively took his points to mean:

Assertion #1: “Writers are Born With Talent”
Yeah, I agree that writers aren’t some kind of elite genetic sub-class. That said, people clearly have varying levels of talent for doing it, and the most talented people who work the hardest have the best chance of succeeding. I can see how Boudinot, after years of wading through reams of indifferent prose, might grow embittered towards those students who weren’t very good at writing. That said, I feel as though this assertion is a non-entity, a non-statement. Yeah, we all have certain talents. We can hone what talent we have and get better, yeah, but some of us will never be prima ballerinas, try as we might. I mean, right? Is someone going to kick down my door and tell me I could be greatest kung fu master who ever lived if only I wanted it enough? I kinda doubt it. Desire is arguably more important, yeah, but to say talent is irrelevant seems odd to me.

Assertion #2: “You Need To Take Writing Seriously as a Kid to Make It”
Okay, so first off this is provably false, yes. Of course you can still make it, and at any age. The kernel of truth in this assertion, though, is this statement:

Being a writer means developing a lifelong intimacy with language.

This happens in about a million different ways, and everybody I know who is a writer has this love of language (whether consciously or otherwise) that they have developed throughout their lives. This doesn’t really mean “taking writing seriously as a teenager,” but it does mean having that connection with language since a young age. If you never read a book in your life and hated writing things, the odds that at 40 you can somehow make it as a novelist seem low. Not impossible, mind you, but low. Furthermore, for Boudinot, many of his students weren’t teenagers all that long ago. If you’re 22 and in a MFA program and you hadn’t already developed some kind of serious interest in language, you are probably wasting your time and everybody else’s in that program (and one wonders how you got in).

Assertion #3: “If You Complain About Not Having Time to Write, Drop Out”

This is one spot where I stringently disagree with Chuck Wendig. I’m sorry, if you sign up to get a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, you are well past the point where complaining about having time to write is a sensible objection. You (and the rest of us) are shelling out significant money and time to do this, and if you can’t figure out how to actually write in your writing program, what the hell are you doing there? Students like this in my classes used to piss me off. You were told we were going to workshop your story on the 10th so we needed it by the 8th and NO you can’t have an extension because my story is up next, you lazy dipshit. This isn’t high school, kid. Suck it up.

Assertion #4: “You Must Be a Serious Reader”

Now, on the one hand, Boudinot’s definition of what makes a “serious reader” is elitist BS of the kind which I was regularly exposed to while attending my MFA program. That said, he is right – you need to read and you need to challenge yourself while you read if you expect to do good work. Reading nothing but Lois L’Amour Westerns is not a roadmap to the bestsellers list, as fun as they are. Writers need to read widely and deeply to succeed, and everybody says this. They just aren’t being jerks about it, like this guy is.

Assertion #5: “Nobody Cares If You Suffered If the Writing is Bad”

Okay, is this poorly put? Hell yes. Is it offensive and dismissive of people’s experiences? Absolutely! Would I have put it this way? No, I would not. Is he right?
Absolutely.
I spend 3 years in my MFA reading a LOT of navel-gazing, pointless, error-laden prose about a person’s personal baggage and it sucked. A lot. This guy is picking the meanest way possible to say something (sadly) very true: nobody cares how good the story is if you are bad at telling it. Let’s not beat around the bush, shall we? Sometimes you are not the equal of the story you wish to tell. That’s a fact. What you need to do, though, is get better so that you will become the person who can tell that story. If you just want to get the story out on paper, then fine – more power to you – but there’s more to it than that in order to be a storyteller.

Assertion #6: “You Don’t Need My Help To Get Published”

This comment reflects a certain attitude towards the publishing world at the moment – that the Old Guard, the New York elite are not as essential as they were. Do I agree with him? Well, not exactly (I went traditional, after all), but he’s welcome to his bias. Honestly, much of the publishing advice I received from professors during my MFA program was a lot less clear than that, so I can’t complain.

Assertion #7: “It’s Not Important That People Think You’re Smart”

Here he is 100% correct without reservation. Furthermore, I can say that there were a lot of people in my MFA program trying very hard to seem smart (or edgy or sensitive or whatever) and it always came off as them trying too hard. A couple years of reading stuff like that, and no doubt you’d be singing the same tune as this fellow.

Assertion #8: “It’s Important to Woodshed”

Again, this is some of the best advice in the piece. The MFA (or any “writing instruction”) does not spit you out a ready-made hit machine. Writing, more often than not, requires time and privacy and perseverance. Showcasing your crappy first drafts to the universe doesn’t help anybody, least of all you. You can’t expect good commentary to come from unfinished work. It isn’t until you’ve got the whole something sitting in front of somebody that problems become clear and the good parts really shine. Woodshedding doesn’t mean suffering for your art, it means focusing on making the art rather than telling people you’re making it. Craft before coffee shop, folks.

But, you know, you don’t need to listen to me. I’m just one guy talking about his experiences, here.

 

 

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