Sunday, October 1, 2017

"Stranger and Better" Q&A: What Didn't Make the Cut?

When you write five drafts of a book, like you did with "Stranger and Better," and also cut 70,000 words from the original version, there must be a lot of material left behind. What kinds of things didn't make the cut?

 A lot of things, obviously. Most of it junk, too. When I'm a little uncertain I tend to ramble, hoping somehow that the volume of my words will fill the space with an adequate uncertainty, and that maybe if I say enough of them, one or two will resonate. I'm terrible about writing a full page, realizing the entire thing is boring and pointless, rewriting it as a paragraph, and then recognizing that what I really need to do is delete that and replace it with a single sentence. This is particularly bad with openings (setting the scene before getting to the action), or transitions, where I know I need to get from A to C, and to do so I wedge in D-Q, while forgetting entirely about B.

That said, there were other points that I actually liked, but which I took out of the book because they weren't quite pertinent enough, or the shifting nature of the book over five drafts eliminated the point. Examples include:
  • Simpsons references. Back in 1999 I was really into the Simpsons. They are still a popular item 18 years later, but I didn't feel like I needed to use them anymore to make my own points. The only thing I kept was Polly calling Martin a kwyjibo.
  • The idea that I would start and end each chapter with two halves of a scene, or two iterations of a quote. It didn't always work very well, and was hard enough to do with 9 mega-chapters. Trying to apply the idea to a revised 40-chapter book seemed terrible.
  • Physics references. I personally studied physics in college, and it crept in to a lot of Martin's points, such as using a metaphor of billiard balls getting knocked around, and some references to the three-body problem. I had even invented a joke walk that Martin would engage in, called the Martin-step, but while it's something I could demonstrate visually, it didn't make much sense verbally and mostly confused readers.
  • I used the editorial interference to gloss over or shorten some scenes that had seemed funny, but which ran way too long. (In short, the humor density wasn't high enough, and it wasn't pertinent to the plot.) For example, the original draft had a detailed, mistake-ridden explanation of Martin's first shower, a very euphemism-heavy version of the Great Masturbator scene, and the original "how do you fold your laundry" joke ran about four times as long as the final draft. It wasn't pithy or snappy, so I either chopped it way back or just cut it.
  •  Oberlin inside jokes. I put a lot into the first draft, because I was writing for a fellow Obie. But much of it didn't make sense to outsiders, or, as time passed, was even forgotten by my classmates. Points include: the microburst of 1996, "strenuous objections" vs. regular objections, the transition between Starr and Dye as presidents, the fall poster sale, details about graduation requirements, popular local bands like Bippy and Package from Sally, jokes about the mail room, and a lot more.
  • Martin's desire to be a writer. The first draft had him wanting to get into creative writing, and finding a redemption of sorts by putting together a book while left behind after graduation. I have since been convinced that writers writing about wannabe writers is about as cliche as it gets, and in my years of noveling I'm only going to allow myself one such story, but not yet. So his failure to get into the program, his aggravations and eventual accomplishment, (some of it in a "can I win over Ginevra this way?" fashion), all got dropped. His first adviser, H. Royden Jones, was supposed to be a famous author who was trying to help but accidentally shames Martin badly in a discussion about creative writing interests, much more dramatic than the eventual conversation the two have, but so it goes.
  • A lot more drugs. There were originally multiple trips, different bonding moments with multiple friends, lots more scenes of strangeness and confusion. But while those were originally written to add in humor and fun, creative impulses, they filled too much of the book. Also, the scene with Mudd as a fractal was the original conclusion - a vision of a multitude of universes, of transcending levels, but also an acid trip. I didn't want the story to be just about the drugs, and I definitely didn't want the primary insights to come from them, so they got pushed into the background, in favor of more intellectual pursuits, like the meaning of life.
  • Play-within-a-play moments. I had an homage to James Joyce in one part, and Ish writing romantic comedy in another place. It seemed like too much material, too much of a diversion, and honestly I kind of groan every time I'm forced to read that sort of thing anyway.
  • Characters. The original version was aswarm with one-offs, cameos, freshman-vs-senior friends, and more. It might have been realistic, but it was confusing, and most friends didn't get a lot of time on the page. Ish, and Ginevra were always fairly independent, (and Leon, to a lesser extent) but among the other friends, a pool of 7 eventually turned into Polly, Seth, and James. (Poor James. I think I changed his name at least 20 times as more and more roles landed on that one character. That's more than once per year.) The tradeoff is I lost a little sense of transition, because you rarely meet your four best friends on Day 1 and keep them the whole time, but from a narrative standpoint it's a little more cohesive than adding and dropping new characters every semester.
  • Believe it or not, I really toned down Martin's lust for Ginevra. I would have said two decades ago I was pretty sensitive as to how he wrote about her, but either times have changed, I've grown, or being a father to two girls has shifted my perspective, but looking at the first draft, I feel like he was drooling all over her constantly in a fairly crude manner. At least one reader argued I ought to pump up the final draft a little ("He ought to want the girl more than anything in the world.") and I can see how that's normally part of a modern love story, but in the end I wanted Martin to be more in love with ideas than the girl, and on more than a couple of occasions he shoots himself in the foot because of his love of the truth. Such honesty might mean Stranger and Better will never be a best-seller with movie rights, but it sure as hell knows what it's about.
  • In the original version, when Martin and Ish have their final argument, Martin gives in and Ish finally calls him Dale. I liked that, but in the final draft, Ish is honestly more important than Ginevra to Martin, so he's had his "I need to be true to myself" moment before the final showdown. It hurt me to take it out, but it made more sense that way.
  • A whole bunch of deliciously crafted lines that were just too off-topic. (I've got enough of those, that may be a separate post.)
  • The Ginevra kiss scene was totally different. Originally, Ginevra tells Martin not to say anything, but he can't help but sigh her name, and that triggers a breakdown. Then in the follow-up scene, he hears a phone tick just before it starts ringing (something Oberlin dorm phones actually did), and he has half a second to hate the entire universe (running to a couple of pages) before Brent's call comes through and ruins the rest of the night for him. I intended to keep the moment that way, but in a very rare instance of characters acting up and doing their own thing, (Seriously, I don't believe in the "I want X but my character refuses to cooperate" kind of thing you'll hear a lot of authors say. I would have said I subscribe 100% to the belief the author is in charge. Now I guess it's 99%.) but in this one instance I was trying to tweak Martin's guilt about Antioch, and after I'd tuned that, I could not see anything else but the more comic kiss they engage in.
Yes, this has gotten long enough. I'll definitely save some of those quotes and a final few editorial changes for a later post.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Q&A: Generating Plot Points From Painting Titles

Why do the Kim sections have Dali painting titles instead of numbers? Or, is it true you auto-generated an entire relationship based on Dali paintings?

There are a whole series of funny twists and turns here. When I first dreamed up Dale Martin, I wanted a character who was often misunderstood, and decided it needed to be as such a fundamental level he didn't even get to keep his name. (Some of this may be personal projection. Aaron Rath is a pen name; my real name isn't a secret, I just opted not to use it because it confuses people. My first name is a common last name and my last name is a common girl's first name. I'm forever flipped backwards, and into the wrong gender.) I'm honestly confused now why I picked Dale Martin -> Martin Dali, since it's not even a proper spoonerism, which it ought to have been to fit the book's theme.

At that time, I knew nothing about Dali, other than melting clocks from The Persistence of Memory posters. But if there's one thing I'm good for, it's that after latching on to a joke, no matter how offhand, I will then pursue it tenaciously. So I started buying books of Dali collections, and read a couple of biographies, until it became a research project that for a year or so took up more time than I spent actually writing, even though for the most part I didn't even have anything in the book about him, except for an "Any relation to the artist?" running joke, and Ginevra's offhand comments when she first meets Martin.

I wanted to work in more, but didn't really have a place for it, until nearly at the end. One of the last sections I wrote was Martin's relationship with Kim. (In the original version, Kim was concentrated into one chapter, all of it supposed to be a unified theme, rather than mixed in chronologically with the rest of junior year, the way it is now.) I kept putting it off in part because at age 23 I still hadn't had a significant relationship and felt I didn't have much insight into imagining one for Martin, and beyond that I simply didn't have any ideas for how it would rise and fall.

Finally, one day while flipping through one of my Dali books, I noticed the title of one, The Great Masturbator. I laughed to myself, thinking he had a knack for really catchy titles, and thought it might almost make for a great story. Well, why not use it for myself? If there's a great masturbator, obviously that has to be Martin. Why's he masturbating so much? Again, obviously, it's because he's trying to get the relationship started, but something isn't working when it comes to intimacy. Okay, that's a start.

I flipped through the books, writing down all the other titles that I really loved, or that seemed to fit with a relationship, or were attached to images that I liked. I won't list them all, but some of the favorites included:
  • Paranoiac-Critical Solitude
  • Couple with Their Heads Full of Clouds
  • The Unsatisfied Desire - obviously goes with the Great Masturbator
  • The Wounded Bird
  • Metamorphosis of Narcissus
  • Autumnal Cannibalism
  • Sleep
  • Swans Reflecting Elephants - a nice reversal of Narcissus
  • The Persistence of Memory
Those plus a dozen more, all powerful titles. I shuffled them a bit, and started to detect certain themes: desire, struggle, a transformation, a restful peace, then more transition and a wistfulness. If that didn't spell out the full course of a relationship, nothing did. Given that auto-generated structure, actually filling in the details after that went really quickly. It was universally recognized as the strongest chapter of my first draft (and rated as surprisingly realistic, from a number of people who knew I wasn't writing from experience, but who had been there themselves), and in fact when it was over I spent a bunch of time wondering if I'd done it all wrong, because Martin clearly needed to end up with Kim after everything they'd been through. I had to really pump up the subsequent Ginevra chapter to make it convincing why he'd want to pursue her instead.

All of this was long before I thought up section numbers for the rest of the book. During the rewrite where I added them, I debated for a long time whether I should keep the Dali theme in the Kim section or convert them to numbers, too, and ultimately decided if I dropped the Dali titles I'd be cutting out too much of the original vision. So those stayed with Kim, and then that gave me the leeway to add in a few other joke titles (????, the infinity symbol, 3.14159, 2.71828) plus the Greek letters on some other sections, but that's a topic for another entry.

This technique isn't uncommon. You could just as easily generate ideas with a deck of tarot cards, or pull slips of paper out of a hat, or throw a dart at a grid of ideas. I think I've even seen plot spinners. Using Dali paintings seemed like a way to work in a little tribute and reference to the artist whose name I was borrowing.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

“Show, Don’t Tell” Must Die

If we could obliterate the commonly used critique, “Show, don’t tell,” today, it wouldn’t be soon enough. Why?

It’s pithy … too pithy.


The phrase is short and sweet, a three-word Band-Aid that can be applied to many different failings. It may seem useful to have a versatile phrase which quickly encapsulates the issue and suggests a fix. Problem is, it’s so dense it tends to require extensive follow-up explanation. I’ve read lengthy articles on the topic, page after page, as a supposedly competent writer tries to unpack what “show, don’t tell” really means.  

Worse, there’s a great divergence of opinion on that subject. Some say it’s a call for more detail or vibrancy, as in the apocryphal Chekhov quote, “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Sometimes it’s a call to make a passive moment more active. Others suggest the rule really only applies to emotion, where you need to demonstrate realistic feeling rather than flatly indicate that it’s happening.

But if your three words could be indicating any or all of the above, how is the writer to know? From context, maybe. Or maybe it’s a vague and lazy panacea, when something more specific would be appropriate.

It’s most often said to those who understand it least.

Due to lack of experience, beginners are the most prone to all of the faults listed above. If they knew how to do it better, they would. Delivering a deceptively simple catch-phrase about showing instead of telling doesn’t really explain the complexities of what needs to be fixed. It may be fine to nudge an experienced author on occasion if one of their scenes is flat, but there’s a good chance a new writer’s whole story suffers from multiple different show-v-tell flaws. Giving them three words is frankly almost no better than giving them nothing.

It’s the hammer of the critique world, and it turns all problems into a nail.

There’s an expression, if all you have is a hammer, then every problem starts to look like a nail. “Show, don’t tell,” is likely to be the first and most common of all criticisms for beginning writers. It becomes the first tool applied to their work, and then in turn is the first tool they lob at someone else when they get a chance to critique, repeated ad nauseam until more subtle tools have been learned.

By golly, I’m going to stick someone they way I got stuck.

Maybe I’m venturing too far into psychology here, but I’ve seen critiques get a little … shall we say competitive? I think there’s a lot of writers who, when first jabbed by “show, don’t tell,” particularly if it’s delivered in a snide tone, hold on to that moment and then pay it forward with a certain amount of vengeful relish. “My drill sergeant pounded it into me, and now I’m going to pound it into you,” I can almost see in their eyes, hear in the tone of their voice.

I could be wrong about this one. Maybe I’m just personally lousy about showing too often, and well-intentioned advisers really needed to hammer the point home to save me. But I’d swear at least some of the time I could see the “gotcha!” in their eyes.

What should we do instead?

I stand by my headline. I think the phrase “show, don’t tell” should die. It would be better for most writers, and especially beginning ones, to get a much more targeted criticism instead of an inscrutable mantra. If it’s too passive, tell them it’s too passive. If they’re glossing over details that would be more interesting if depicted thoroughly, say that. If you don’t think the emotional content is believable or gripping enough, explain how it could be more vibrant.

Besides, if the person delivering critique is supposed to be enough of a writing hot-shot to give advice to anyone else, shouldn’t they be able to do more than just repeat the same three words over and over? Where’s their originality?

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Q&A: What Does Fractal Storytelling Mean?


What is the "fractal storytelling" from your novel Stranger and Better supposed to mean?

Short answer: your guess is as good as mine. Heh.

Longer answer: from the beginning, the idea of patterns was laced into the book. There's "The Pattern" (an acid-induced vision), Ish's Zen rock garden pattern, metaphorical patterns of Martin's stay at the school, and a lot more. The ultimate pattern was supposed to be a fractal, a self-repeating pattern that was particularly popular during the years of the book (1992-1998, roughly). You could get posters and screen savers, and it made little appearances in pop culture (though its most famous moment is probably a lyric in Frozen's "Let it Go").

I thought I'd try to adapt that concept to the narrative itself. My early interpretation was that the book would often start a scene or idea, delve into a different scene or series of concepts, and then slowly work its way back out (in other words, sort of like the Seinfeld backwards episode, but in two directions). Each chapter would open and close with two halves of the same scene, and lots of other moments would zoom in or out between layers - the same way if you're looking at a fractal, you can zoom in and out, because it repeats itself.

Later, I decided it wasn't working very coherently, so I straightened out the entire story to be chronological, thinking I needed to look at it in order, before I could choose how to artfully pull it out of order. Eventually it seemed that it was better to tell the story mostly chronologically, and I needed to come up with another way in which a story could be fractal.

My next idea was that certain themes would repeat themselves. Scenes would parallel each other, sometimes direct repeats, sometimes mirror images, or occurring in other variations. For instance, there's one paragraph that appears three times, verbatim, but it comes as a response to three totally different scenarios, and then triggers three totally different results. Certain locations are revisited with different combinations of people, certain conversations are rehashed with different friends, or in some cases the same point is rehashed with the same friend, to a different conclusion. There's another scene where Martin's friend Leon ends up running away from him while standing in a park; in a much later scene, Martin ends up running away from Leon at that exact same spot.

Originally, briefly, I thought maybe I could make an entire book out of four themes: drugs, angst, lust, and competition, which would make up the four sides of the squared-off spiral that recurs as an image in the book - call it the four walls of the structure, or the four cardinal directions. Even further, I thought maybe I could even rotate through them, always in order. Probably two-thirds of the scenes do cover one of those four elements in some way, but as a guiding structure for a novel I couldn't make it work. It's on my wishlist for things to try again when I'm more skilled.

I dropped the four directions/themes idea, but the repeating scenes angle did make it into the final draft. Still, it didn't seem enough by itself to make things really "fractal." To add another dimension, I decided what the book needed was layers of commentary. So there are points where Martin comments on himself, on his writing, and on the writing process. But then I've worked in a kind of editorial train-wreck, where the characters who are supposed to have been assembling the book for publication start making comments about the narrative, and in some cases begin to bicker with each other and provide meta-commentary and meta-meta-commentary on the text. This culminates with a final layer, mostly revealed in the book's conclusion, which I won't explain to avoid spoilers. 

  Stranger and Better is available in digital format from Amazon ( https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06ZZKVT62 ) and in print from most major online retailers.

Monday, September 11, 2017

'The Eight-Bit Bard' Now on DriveThruFiction

I'm branching out and trying The Eight-Bit Bard on DriveThruFiction, sister site to DriveThruRPG, a place full of role-playing-gamey goodness. It seemed like a great location to try out my fantasy novel, which is full of subtle nods and rich parody of computer role-playing games and role-playing in general.

https://www.drivethrufiction.com/product/218202/The-EightBit-Bard

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Q&A: The Five Drafts of "Stranger and Better"

The dedication in Stranger and Better indicates that parts of the novel are 18 years old. How does that happen, and what changed in the interim?

I wrote the first draft between 1998 and 2001. It took that long in part because it was my first effort and I was still learning how, but also because it was 200,000 words, nearly twice as
long as the final project. Some of that was lack of focus, some of that was inability to condense, and some of that was my habit of reading 600-page novels and believing mine needed to match.

The original version had only 9 chapters. They were theme-based rather than chronological, so you'd have a chapter about Ish, a chapter about Kim, a chapter about Ginevra. All the subcomponents were mixed up, but that was supposed to be okay because it was fractal, which in the early version just meant "jumped around a lot, while folding in on itself." Each chapter began and ended with the same scene or idea, book-ending the other events. Each chapter also had a theme (quintaphones, spoonerisms, Dali paintings). Those items are still in the final product, but more scattered rather than concentrated. So those ideas broke down a little, but I think it ultimately made sense, because chronological continuity really helps follow the rest of the story.

The last chapter in particular was problematic. I had front-loaded a lot of the difficulties and angst that Martin feels, and the final chapter was supposed to be a combination of acid trip, flashback, and total re-assessment of his experiences. It was fifty pages long, two thirds of it in italics for the flashback, and very jumbled. Also, after a lot of reflection, it just felt dishonest, to paint a miserable picture and then say, "Oh, by the way, here's all this other stuff I kept from you." Some of that was supposed to reflect Martin's mood, so it wasn't so much a total lie as just what he was focused on, but it still didn't seem right.

For most of the next decade I didn't know what to do with the book. I knew it wasn't polished enough, but I didn't know how to self-edit. Maybe I still don't (maybe it's not even really possible), but I started and stopped a couple of times. Then my brother (who is an editor) gave me notes on the first chapters, and I started up again. But that still left me 7 chapters short of a final product.

In the meantime I'd been writing other books, and eventually published Chicagoland in 2013. Working with an editor on that project taught me a lot about brevity, coherence, and making sure everything in each scene is actually relevant to something.

I finally decided I wasn't doing "fractal storytelling" right, and figured the only way to sort it out was to first write the entire book chronologically, and then figure out how to interleave the sections meaningfully. So I completely straightened the narrative and cleaned it up. That was Draft 2.

Somewhere around there I realized that Martin's philosophy major needed to take a more prominent role, and decided on a quest for the meaning of life as the main thrust of the book. On top of that, I'd learned to recognize junk scenes and pointless digressions, letting me cull about 30% of the old book, while adding a new 25% in meaning of life sections. I did the same thing with a whole bunch of other scenes that were passive discussions, which were re-written to be more active. That was Draft 3.

Then I read a lot of Vonnegut one spring, and decided to introduce the concept of fragments found in a library. That introduced the section numbers and pulled the story further into pieces. Around this time I also realized the chronology had problems. I had to make Martin start college a whole year earlier in order to line up events, and then for pacing and narrative development about a third of the book shifted order, changing semesters and years until it all fit again. Thus was Draft 4.

Around there I roped in a couple of test readers, who noted the book still wasn't coherent enough and started kind of slowly. So I really played up the meaning of life, took out some more scenes that I liked but could finally recognize as not useful to the story, and then also re-inserted a flashback into the first year, so that I could open with an acid trip rather than letting the book start slowly. That made the fifth and final draft, and is where I decided to polish, beta-test, and publish.


Stranger and Better is available in digital format from Amazon ( https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06ZZKVT62 ) and in print from most major online retailers.  

Friday, September 8, 2017

Koala's March - A Story of Pocky and Bad Translations

This is not my creation. It’s something from the internet a friend shared with me so long ago it’s not even on the internet anymore. I am doing my job to repost it, because it is in my top ten favorite poems of all time.

Koala’s march:
The flavor of strawberry, of Koala’s march
Do you know?
In the inside of Koala’s march
A part of chocolates tastes of its flavor of strawberry.
Eat it,
And you taste giant strawberry pocky.
Therefore, next time, part 2 (last time)
I wish you are looking forward to.
I have what it must say to you by all means.
The koala’s march, the flavor of strawberry,
Is not sold in Hokkaido regrettably.
The taste was written last time.
But its koala has eyebrow,
And you may feel tasteless.
Bye.

Interesting addendum: I've loved this poem since about 1998. At the time, I thought the word "pocky" was a mistranslation, or a typo for "pocket" or something. Eventually I learned that pocky is an actual thing. Just this spring, in April 2017, I was in New York City and found pocky on the shelves of a convenience store. I bought some (strawberry, even), and it was delicious. Since then I've also had some chocolate pocky. I'm now a huge fan, both of the food and the poem.