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

 

Review: The Raw and the Cooked


The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand

It was a bad week for meat.

The World Health Organization, as NPR relates, “deemed that processed meats — such as bacon, sausages and hot dogs — can cause cancer.”

The story continues:

In addition, the WHO says red meats including beef, pork, veal and lamb are “probably carcinogenic” to people.

A group of 22 scientists reviewed the evidence linking red meat and processed meat consumption to cancer, and concluded that eating processed meats regularly increases the risk of colorectal cancer. Their evidence review is explained in an article published in The Lancet.

The conclusion puts processed meats in the same category of cancer risk as tobacco smoking and asbestos. This does not mean that they are equally dangerous, says theInternational Agency for Research on Cancer — the agency within the WHO that sets the classifications. And it’s important to note that even things such as aloe vera are on the list of possible carcinogens.

Jim Harrison would likely shrug the WHO’s research off, probably by snarkily calling them nutritional ninnies. At least I believe he would from his essay collection The Raw and the Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand, which I re-read this past week, mostly taking a break from fiction, and because I was craving nonfiction to fuel my journalist’s brain.  Plus, it never hurts to get a shot of Harrison in your veins.

As with his fiction, Harrison is a robust stylist in his essays, worth studying for his original metaphors alone, as he demonstrates here: “Of course, an older fool should be able to counter the emotional claymores brought about by the change of seasons and the pummeling of fortune’s spiky wheel.” A lesser writer might have opted for the cliched “emotional landmines,” but Harrison gets specific and chooses the concrete image. Claymore mines are particularly destructive, flinging steel balls into an unwitting enemy to shred them to bits.

But, Harrison is more than just a writer to study, he’s a fun, witty read, an abundant mind to explore. These essays, many of which were columns written for Esquire in the ’90s, are true essays — attempts at writing down what’s in the mind and tying it to a idea or theme. These essays rove from food and friendships to politics and poetry, all neatly of one piece.

They are also essays rich with a mind that sees abundance. Some are tongue-in-cheek about Harrison’s quest for great meals. Almost all are fun to read. And make you hungry for life in the same way Henry Miller makes you hungry for life. And hungry for good food and drink. They have made me hungry for hot dogs, which I want to cook up in the next hour or so and gobble down with a glass or two of wine. The WHO be damned.

— Todd

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Cookbooks and chefs mentioned in the book (click thumbnail to purchase):

The Martian: A review

So, I must admit I am apparently the only person — at least on this planet — who hasn’t seen The Martian on the big screen, but I’ve finally jumped on the bandwagon and read the book.* (A nice review of the movie by Melinda Snodgrass is here. She reviews the movie and book and includes some of George R.R. Martin’s commentary about book/movie adaptation. I’ve written some about book/movie adaptation in a review of Sideways.)

Like most readers, I loved book. It’s the kind of SF I think even Sad Puppies might enjoy, given it has space ships and white guys sciencing the shit out of stuff. It does, I suppose hearken back to classic SF — whatever that is.

But, its appeal is Mark Watney’s voice and the gallows humor Andy Weir has bestowed on Watney’s character. (It almost seems as if Weir had Matt Damon in mind as he was developing Watney’s voice. Of course, that could simply be the hazard of reading a novel when a movie is out that makes the voice sound like Damon’s. Or could it be Matt Damon lives inside my head?)

The book also serves as a really good study of keeping the tension flowing in a story, although there are moments when you want Weir to let up a little, and maybe let someone have a picnic at a peaceful beach or something.

For a non-science guy like me, the science in it is readable and I have to commend Weir on that. Given he has a science background — computer science — I’m pretty sure he knows how to science the shit out of stuff, or at least research enough to make the science sound plausible. The science even got Neil deGrasse Tyson approval, and that’s no small feat.

So, read the book. It’s good fun. And eventually, I will launch out at some point to see the movie.

— Todd

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*Editor’s note: I hope you will consider buying the book through this Amazon link. While I don’t want to be too agressive of a marketer, I would also like to monetize this blog a little. Thanks for your support.

 

Creating Short Fiction


In rereading Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction, he provides one of his annotated short stories, “Semper Fi,” for study. In the annotations, Knight mentions his third paragraph marks the moment where the action really begins in the story.

Is this a pretty good measure of when to begin action in the short story, or is it just another arbitrary point in a story?

How soon in a story should the action begin?

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.

Origins: Karen Harrington on Sure Signs of Crazy

SSOC final cover (441x640) (2)

I don’t recall how I first discovered author Karen Harrington, although it was probably through following a link to her blog Scobberlotch. However it happened, I’m glad I did. Her first novel, Janeology, is a moving exploration of mental illness and family, and a riveting legal thriller.

Karen’s follow-up novel, Sure Signs of Crazy, a middle-grade/YA story of Sarah Nelson, surviving daughter of Janeology’s Jane Nelson, is a moving and touching story of a young girl’s quest to understand herself, her family and her relationships with her father and especially her mother.

I recently emailed Karen to tell us a bit more about her new novel:

TG: What made you write the story?

KH: I wrote this story in large part because of a letter I received from a reader of my first novel, Janeology. The letter asked questions about Jane’s daughter, Sarah, and wondered what it would be like to grow up with an infamous mother. I couldn’t get that idea out of my head! I thought, Wow, I’m now thinking about that young girl, too. That was the genesis of writing Sarah’s story. I wanted to understand how she would cope, how she would see herself in the world.

TG: You’ve mentioned the novel was originally meant to be a more adult novel, a sequel to Janeology, rather than a YA or middle-grade book. How did the change come about? Was it difficult to adjust the manuscript?

KH: This was an interesting adjustment, but one I’m quite happy about. I really thought the themes of mental illness and fears of inherited traits were darker and heavy, and, therefore, more suited to an older audience. But since that time, I’ve read many terrific books in the middle-grade category and find that there’s lots of space for stories that are realistic and depict big problems in the lives of young kids. I like that these stories sort of provide hope and an example for real-world kids to follow. That’s what I’d like readers of Sure Signs to take from Sarah’s story.

TG: Why did you choose To Kill a Mockingbird as the novel that guides Sarah?

KH: I don’t even quite remember the part of the writing process where To Kill A Mockingbird came into Sarah’s life. It just happened. Then I read a lot of biographies about Harper Lee and lit upon the fact that Lee’s mother possibly struggled with mental illness. I knew then that this book would be a huge part of Sarah’s life. She would find that connection in the characters and with the author that would allow her to know she wasn’t alone. Sarah also related to TKAM so much because like Scout Finch, she too is being raised by a single father.

TG: You have a tween’s voice down very well. Was it difficult to develop Sarah’s voice?

KH: Thank you for saying that. This might sound odd, but writing this story was so natural. Sarah came to me fully formed and I followed her. I remember days when I’d open my manuscript and think, “I can’t wait to talk to Sarah today.” So it was really like having a conversation with a young person.

TG: What are you working on currently?

KH: I’ve just finished up final edits for my next middle-grade book, Courage for Beginners, due out in August 2014. It’s another coming-of-age story that follows the life of a Texas seventh-grader during a dramatic change in the life of her family and how working on a Texas History project plants the seeds of courage in her life. An early reader told me this story is “a love letter to Texas” and I hope others see it that way, too.

—Todd

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Editor’s note: This is the first of what I hope to be a series (tentatively titled Origins) of author interviews, guest posts, etc., of recently published novels nonfiction or other creative projects. If you would like to participate, please comment below or contact me through this site.  I will follow-up with guidelines in a later post.