My friend Kathleen posted this to facebook yesterday and it’s one of those articles where I find myself reading and nodding enthusiastically.
Artists frequently hide the steps that lead to their masterpieces. They want their work and their career to be shrouded in the mystery that it all came out at once. It’s called hiding the brushstrokes, and those who do it are doing a disservice to people who admire their work and seek to emulate them. If you don’t get to see the notes, the rewrites, and the steps, it’s easy to look at a finished product and be under the illusion that it just came pouring out of someone’s head like that. People who are young, or still struggling, can get easily discouraged, because they can’t do it like they thought it was done. An artwork is a finished product, and it should be, but I always swore to myself that I would not hide my brushstrokes.
So two lads with cellos do a pretty kick-ass cover of Guns’n’Roses Welcome to the Jungle in this youtube clip. As a fan of string instruments and the Gunners, I encourage you to check it out before we move on, ’cause it’s going to be relevant:
Let me be completely honest here: this kind of thing rocks my world, and it kind of demonstrates one of the sneaky writer tricks I often mention to people in writing workshops: try to find a way to make the familiar strange.
Everyone has their own definition of what makes great art, but mine has a lot in common with a Russian theorist named Victor Shklovsky who basically said that the role of art was estrangement – taking something familiar and making it alien so that the viewer is forced to re-examine it in a conscious way.
Shklovsky essentially argues against the automatism of perception – the process where something has become so familiar that we no longer after actually think about it – and uses art as a disruptive force against it (if you’re interested, I wrote a longer post about this back in 2009, and you can find Shklovsky’s original essay reprinted online in a whole bunch of places).
A good cover version of a song is essentially the modern manifestation of this theory – they take a song that’s become so familiar that it blends into the background, then make you revisit it and re-examine it. It’s one of the reasons my all-time favourite song is The Paradise Motel’s cover of The Cars Drive, which takes one of the most twee three minute pop-songs you’ve ever heard and lays out the heartache and longing at its core by using muted vocals and slow, sweeping string movements.
It’s rare that I actually sit down and think about this in a conscious way while drafting, but it has happened. Mostly it’s a useful tool for figuring out when something is generating the necessary…well, for lack of a better word, let’s call it juice. If you can get people caught up in a familiar trope or activity, getting them focused on engaging with the familiar, you can generate more interest in what’s going on when the familiar elements are disrupted in some way.
On a macro level, a disruption of whole-scale expectations that forces an interesting re-examination of can power a whole story if you get it right (see Horn). On a micro level, taking the familiar and making it alien can give momentum to a scene where the action is otherwise small-scale and seemingly unimportant (see the opening paragraph of The Birdcage Heart).
It’s also a pretty kick-ass writing exercise, if you’re finding yourself stuck and unable to get into a scene – look for the ritual or unthinking behaviour. Getting dressed, cooking dinner, sitting down to watch a movie after a hard days work. Hand writing. Driving the car. It doesn’t really matter. Just sit down and start describing the things a character does without being conscious of it.
Sooner or later, you’ll find a moment where something goes wrong and disrupts the activity, and that’s where things start to get interesting…
I’m hopped up on a combination of cold and flu tablets and the first full night’s sleep I’ve had in about five years, courtesy of the CPAP machine, so you’ll have to forgive me if I’m feeling a little punchy today.
There’s this “How to Survive a Relationship With a Writer” meme going around on Facebook at the moment – hopefully the link above will take you too it, but Facebook is always hit and miss on such things. Said meme is full of 10 points designed to make living with your writers SO easier and, like most such memes, is basically played for laughs.
But it’s appeared in my feed three or four times now, and every time I lose my shit when I hit point ten:
10. Leave your writers a lone when a rejection letter arrives. After the deadly silence, screaming, crying, moaning, and muttering have subsided, offer your writer a cup of coffee or tea. And a cupcake. And a hug.
People, we need to stop doing this. Rejection letters are not the enemy. They are not something that should be sending you into a screaming, crying, moaning, rage. They are not something where your significant other should be coddling you and trying to make you feel better about the world.
We may be playing this list for laughs, but at the core of the humour there is truth, and the truth of this one is that writers get a pass on all sorts of bad behaviour because we fetishize writing as a form of “genius” in the traditional sense – someone in the possession of a guiding spirit/god/muse who forces them to create. It comes from the assumption that every goddamnn thing that gets put on the page is like some kind of pristine, all-important work pooped into your brain by a muse so that it can be worshipped and validated.
Say it with me folks: Fuck. That. Shit.
Editors do not reject works of genius. They reject stories. Sometimes they reject the story ’cause it’s bad. Sometimes they reject a perfectly good story because it’s not right for their magazine. Sometimes they reject a great story because they’re having a bad day, or ’cause you’ve used a parenthetical aside in your opening paragraph that shit that makes them crazy.
Rejection, in and of itself, is not a bad thing and shouldn’t require special consideration from your partner. It’s part of the damn job of being a writer. Here’s my suggestion: when your writer gets a rejection letter and starts moaning or muttering or making out its the end of the world, try dating an adult instead.
So when I mentioned the sleep apnea thing back at the start of April, a whole bunch of folks were like “Get thee to a CPAP Machine.” To which I nodded sagely and said, well, yes, that’s on the list, we’re just waiting to see how bad things really are.
Last week, I took twenty-four hours off work and did my first official sleep test to see how things were. I spent a couple of hours hooked up to electrodes and other stuff while I slept. It gathered data.
Turns out, things were pretty fucking bad. The diagnoses for chronic sleep apnea kicks in at around 30+ interruptions in sleep per hour. I was averaging 60-70 interruptions an hour, with a couple of periods where I’d stop breathing for up to a minute and a half at a time. When I start doing the math on that, my ongoing feeling of utter lethargy starts making all kinds of sense.
“We should probably get you on a CPAP trial, ASAP,” the nice lady from the sleep clinic said. Then we made an appointment Monday to start a one-month trial.
I’m not sure I remember what it feels like to be a fully-rested human being, but I’m hopeful I’ll get a reminder sometime in the next few weeks. Thanks, everyone, who weighted in with their advice and experiences.
Many years ago, I heard a renowned magazine editor Gardner Dozois remark, “I don’t want just a great story in my magazine, I want a great writer in my stable.” He was talking of course about why he didn’t pick up new writers on their very first stories. He had a policy: if a new writer sent him a great story, he’d wait and see if the author sent two more fine stories, and then he would start buying.
His logic was simple. He wanted authors who wrote frequently and to the very highest quality. He didn’t want people who were just playing in the field, or trying to write one story and then use it as a vehicle to launch a career as a novelist, never to write him another story again.
I’ve been hitting Netflix pretty hard over the last month, which means I’ve blown through my broadband allowance with two days remaining before I tick over into May. With that in mind, I’m suggesting those of you with an interest in writing head over and check out DAve Farland’s writing tip for today – it’s well worth reading.
At work, we run this regular feature called the Wednesday Night Writing Race. The theory behind it is simple: every Wednesday, around 8:00 PM, we get a bunch of writers together on Facebook, fire the starter’s gun, and let them write like there’s no tomorrow for 60 minutes. Essentially, it’s like a mini write-club for people who don’t have the advantage of being friends with Angela Slatter. .
Occasionally, to spice things up (and, honestly, as a cool perk for the intern, who gets to program the guests), we bring in Guest Racers – writers who can show up and talk about writing and publishing in detail. This week, our current intern has scheduled Sean Williams as the guest, which is one of those rare occasions where we’ve got a guest that I’m well-and-truly psyched about.
The writing races are always a great opportunity to pick the brain of a pro, and in terms of Aussie writers who sustained long-term careers, there are very few writers who can match Sean Williams. Basically, on the list of writers I wouldn’t mind being when I grow up, Sean is pretty high on the list. The man is enormously prolific – he’s published 40 novels across three genres – and has been one of the nicest and most generous writers I’ve encountered in my career. I recommend going forth this Wednesday and finding out for yourself.