Review of The Pursuit of Perfection and how it Harms Writers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Pursuit of Perfection: And How It Harms Writers (WMG Writer’s Guide) (Volume 3) is one of the best — though brief at 46 pages — writing advice books I’ve read in some time (click either on the link or cover image to purchase at Amazon.). It’s especially valuable to those of us who are perfectionists, either by nature or training or a mix of the two. (I think most of us get a little of both along the way. Or perhaps the training reinforces the nature?) It’s also a nice introduction to thinking about writing in terms of a business pursuit as much as an art or craft.

The business side of writing is an area I’ve only recently begun to explore, so I won’t at this point talk too much about trying to tackle the business side of freelance writing. That area is regrettably one I’ve cast aside for far too long and have much to learn.

On the nature side of things, I think some of my perfectionistic tendencies might be rooted in psychological fears about money learned at an early age and reinforced in later life by negative experience and accepting some myths about writing, myths Rusch explores in the book. I wonder how many of you have had similar backgrounds when dealing with money and business education?

What I want to concentrate on in this review are some of the myths Rusch brings up. In particular, myths from the world of the MFA in creative writing. Now, I sheepishly admit there’s a bit of me — the ego protecting me — still touchy about not getting into an MFA program when I entered graduate school eons ago, so I tend to get a bit giddy about critiques of MFA programs in general. But, for me, I saw the MFA as a route to becoming a fiction writer — as a way other than publishing that validated my fiction as valuable. Isn’t either Stephen King or George Orwell who says writers write to get published because a publication is a validation of existence?

While I didn’t get into my school’s MFA program, I did get into its graduate program in English — barely. At least I would be around the MFAs, right? Maybe I could absorb some of those writers’ wisdom? (Of course, there are other reasons I went to grad school: I was deeply afraid of engaging with the real world. Fear is always a constant bugaboo, isn’t it?).

So, here is one paragraph from Rusch’s book that dug into my brain like a hungry worm:

Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional who makes her living at the craft described in the title of the degree. In fact, in most universities, creative writers are told from day one that they cannot make a living at their chosen profession.

And that’s just bullshit.

What hit me so much about this passage was that it seemed outside of being a scholar and teaching (whether in secondary schools or at colleges or universities) there was nothing offered of how my English degree could help me make a living. It wasn’t until I consulted a school counseling service for other issues that I even thought I could be an editor. Still, I had no idea how to go about becoming an editor. And for that matter, an editor of what?

Scholarship seemed to be for scholarship’s sake as getting a creative writing degree seemed to be for the sake of producing more MFAs. On the other hand, the journalism department at the other end of campus taught their students to be journalists. You learned how to get internships at a paper or radio or TV station. You learned marketable job skills.

There was also a sense in grad school that a career of some sort, that pursuing a profession was something of a betrayal of art or politics or even self. Now, this was the ’90s and I know now there are classes in editing, and degrees offered in technical and professional writing. So, things are changing. Maybe? But how many people are getting their MFAs just to get them?

Anyhow, this isn’t to disparage my graduate school experience: I learned great research skills, I read a lot of literary works that I had missed or avoided in my reading life and my critical thinking skills are stronger than say the average bear.

But, I’ve had to struggle with the cannot make a living at writing thing for a long time — about two decades. I would write stories and take two or three months and polish them to perfection then submit them to one or two usually non-paying literary journals or magazines, get them rejected and pretty much give up on them. I still go through this. I’ve brought my perfectionism to my journalism and to my fiction writing still.

It’s something I work through and hope to overcome. Some of it’s rooted in fear, which I think is part of the perfectionist’s nature. But, Reading Rusch’s book has helped even with that part of me, giving me a different way of thinking.

— Todd

 

Writing short

If you’ve read my story collection, The Arc of the Cosmos, you know I’m capable of writing short short fiction. And yet, I have a hard time writing short, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, although stylistically I tend toward writing lean. I just seem to have a lot of story to tell.

I am currently in the process of revising a longish short story, “Earl,” the original draft of which runs just a little over 6,800 words. As I revise, that count keeps moving up. And as I revise, I wonder if the story will end longer than it started. Which makes me wonder if my original idea is too expansive for a short story.

I love short stories, love learning how to write them. I like the “window of the world” stories present, as much as I like the expansiveness of novels.

I’m not averse to stories like Joan Didion seems to be in  this essay from Brain Pickings.  Like Didion, I like having “room in which to play.” But am I playing with too much room?

I think about this too after a recent interview—due out next month—with science-fiction writer Lou Antonelli, who is known for writing lean, swiftly moving prose. He told me his revisions tend to shorten his stories.

How much expansion is too much expansion? How much tightening is too much?

—Todd

Let the Tale Tell the Tale

Sodiviner's script, like many of my scribbler friends, in November I started a story-a-week project that resulted in me finishing two stories and getting them into slush piles (and one rejection; sent that story right back out.) I finished a third story the third week that is in the hands of my beta reader.

I started a fourth story in the fourth week. That story is still being written. It’s moving past story length into the territory of novelette or possibly novella. In some way this is discouraging because it doesn’t fit at all into the goal of writing a story a week, much less a story a month.

Still, I am determined to finish it, whatever its length, and found encouragement to carry on after reading an essay by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who wrote “But most of all these writers [referring to writers such as George R.R. Martin, Connie Willis and Robert Reed] are spectacular storytellers. They tell long stories and short stories and medium length stories and short punchy stories. They let the tale determine its own length, and they continually add to an already rich field.”

Not to say I am a spectacular storyteller by any means, but I am determined to finish this story and let the tale determine its length. Is it a good story. I hope so. I know I’m enjoying writing it. And I look forward to its outcome, whenever that comes.

The First Rule of Beginning a Story . . .

. . . don’t start with strangers bashing each other in the mouth or the nuts or anywhere else. “[I]f you plunge instantly into the action, you risk losing the reader,” writes Damon Knight in Creating Short Fiction. “It is hard to take much interest in absolute strangers, no matter how enthusiastically they may be bashing each other.”

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules of Write Club, as Chuck Palahniuk demonstrates in the opening of Fight Club:

fight 2Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.

Why does this beginning work, though the narrator has a gun shoved in his mouth in the hook? (Also note the comma splice. Does that work for you? Why? I like it; it speeds the beginning, alerts you to the roller coaster ride you are about to begin, and tells you you’re about to get your nose bloodied, or worse, much, much worse.) I think Palahniuk’s beginning works, because, if you are like me, you’re suddenly asking who is this person who gets you a job then shoves a gun in your mouth? What kind of psycho is this? It raises suspense.

But Knight is probably right. You have to begin a story and make the reader care about the narrator. And unless the narrator has a gun in his mouth, you probably won’t be interested. You don’t have to have someone in such dire straits to get your money for  nothing and your beginning for free. You do need tension and suspense or provoke interest, as  Knight confirms, “The opening must establish character, setting, situation, the mood and tone of the story; it must provoke interest, arouse curiosity, suggest conflict, start the movement of the plot—all this in about two hundred words.”

What do you think? What makes a good beginning?

—Todd

Copy editing conundrum 6: Shady Cliche and Stunted Emotions

Episode 6:

It’s been some time since I last posted a Copy Editing Conundrum. So, welcome new readers. Hope you enjoy, and are informed, as well as entertained. Although, technically today’s episode has less to do with copy editing, and much more to do with substantive editing, or perhaps injecting bad substances into published work like Hunter Thompson injected, well, everything, rather than pumping those substances out.

I found this cliche-ridden gem quoted in a Writer’s Digest article on what makes novels sell, and the excerpt is from a novel, or series of novels, that’s making the writer a J.K. Rowling-rich hack. (I write for money; I think writers should make money and a lot of it, but it still irks me that bad writing can make so much money and sell people on cheap emotions.) Anyhow, here’s the passage in question:

Okay, I like him. There, I’ve admitted it to myself. I cannot hide from my feelings anymore. I’ve never felt like this before. I find him attractive, very  attractive. But it’s a lost cause, I know, and I sigh with bittersweet regret. It was just a coincidence, his coming here. But still, I can admire him from afar, surely. No harm can come of that.

Every line is a cliche. It reminds me  of a teenage girl’s diary, or even a prepubescent girl writing about her first crush. And yet, the character is supposed to be an adult woman, confessing her darkest erotic desires. An apparently emotionally-stunted woman. (Have you guessed the bestseller?)

This is bad writing at its finest, reveling in its shiny badness. And I’m disappointed in Writer’s Digest for providing it as an example of tension-filled writing that will make your novel sell. It may help sell, but it’s not tension-filled. It’s not remotely satisfying, at least for this reader. Is this the kind of writing modern readers want, even if it is meant as escapism? I hope not. I hope it’s a passing fancy.

My advice would be to send this passage back and tell the writer to rewrite it until a real character, a real woman with genuine desires emerges from the prose.

Of course, if the whole novel reads like this one passage, the writer could churn out a novel a month, which will make the writer’s publisher happy, as long as readers are buying. And the hack will laugh all the way to the bank.

—Todd

Copy Editing Conundrum 2: Comma Karma

Episode 2

*Here’s the latest Copy Editing Conundrum: it comes from an excellent book on graphic design, The Elements of Graphic Design.

Sequencing information should logically and clearly lead from the primary visual to the headline, then to the secondary visual, caption, subhead, and finally to the text. Each of these pieces should be chosen or written as one part of a single continuous message the purpose of which is to reveal to the reader what the article is about and why it is valuable to them.

My conundrum is this: in the second sentence should there be a comma after “message”? I would insert a comma. So copy editors, what would you do?

___

*Note: This is by no means a criticism of the book or its contents. As I say, it’s an excellent book.