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6 Strategies Every Writer Must Use To Be Successful

It’s been a while since I (Brad), the owner of this blog, sat down to churn out a new post. While I didn’t expect that to be the case, I have to admit, I have been less-than-organized about my approach here for some time. That will no longer be the case. 🙂 It’s not a […]

Rax King Is Not Going to Let You Blow Smoke Up Her Ass

In our series “Can Writing Be Taught?” we partner with Catapult to ask their course instructors all our burning questions about the process of teaching writing. This month we’re talking to Rax King, who’s teaching a six-week nonfiction workshop on the personal essay. (Rax’s excellent Electric Literature essays on teen romance novels and Meatloaf should convince you she knows what she’s talking about!) We asked her the same ten questions we always ask, and she favored us with some gems about when to take a break from your writing, when to send in the Catholics, and when to eat an entire loaf of bread.


What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?

I took the excellent Tony Tulathimutte’s CRIT workshop, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Tony is a hardass Virgo and will not let you get away with any of your shit, writing-wise, and also he gave me a sick coffee table once. But the most eye-opening thing he did for me was point out that when I don’t know what to make a character do, I always have them smile. Like, I was devoting hundreds of words of fluff to people’s smiles, and I had no idea! Stuff like this is the best use of a writing class or workshop for adults who know basically what they’re doing, I think. Of course, there are lots of useful lessons about craft and writing practices that teachers can impart, but students will get the most use out of a good teacher’s experienced close reading of their work.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?

We leave all these narrative stones unturned, because we’re still stuck on the story we thought we were telling about ourselves.

I took a real weird writing workshop when I was in high school. I was the youngest student in the room by a country mile. The teacher was this pipe-smoking Robert Frost devotee who wore a lot of tweed—it was like he’d Googled “retired poet outfit.” And I’ll never forget that his big piece of advice for us, this advice that he teased us with week after week but never actually revealed until the last session, was “send in the Catholics.” As in, if a piece of writing isn’t working as is, make it a Gothic-type story about Catholicism instead. It was the worst thing I ever heard in my life, and to this day, anytime I’ve hit a wall with a piece of writing, I hear that smug mutherfucker in my head saying “send in the Catholics.” I hope that guy’s having a bad day, if I’m honest.

What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?

If you’re stuck, don’t keep hammering away at whatever section is stumping you. Go do something else for half an hour and then look at the piece holistically. Grant yourself entry from another angle. I’ve never had any luck pushing through writer’s block with sheer brute force, but by focusing my effort elsewhere in the piece, I can usually open it up for myself that way. I think this is especially useful advice to my fellow personal essayists, because we fixate on the memoiristic precision of what we write—we struggle with structural or narrative overhauls. We pick and pick at the sentence level and leave all these narrative stones unturned, because we’re still stuck on the story we initially thought we were telling about ourselves.

Does everyone “have a novel in them”?

I’ll put it this way: I’ve written a novel myself, and I in no way “had a novel in me.”

Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?

To give it up outright, probably not. To come back to it some other time, yes, absolutely. If your manuscript has stopped being a labor of love and is just unceasing thankless drudgery, put the damn thing down before you hurt yourself. And if all writing has started to feel that way, again, put the damn thing down before you hurt yourself.

What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?

It does nothing for me to tell me my story sucks shit if you’re not going to help me fix it.

They’re equally valuable! It is, to me, of exactly equal value to know when some aspect of my manuscript is working and to know when it isn’t. What isn’t valuable is nonspecific praise or criticism—it does nothing for me to tell me my story sucks shit if you’re not going to help me fix it, and it does nothing for me to tell me it’s perfect when we both know I hate myself far too much to let you blow smoke up my ass.

Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?

Absolutely not. For many reasons, but practically speaking: you’re going to hate everything you publish five years after it’s published anyway. So you might as well write stuff you’re proud of, not stuff that you think is going to make some slush reader cream their jeans.

In one or two sentences, what’s your opinion of these writing maxims?

  • Kill your darlings: As advice, this has some value, but I always get stuck on the fact that it sounds so goddamn good to say out loud! “Kill your darlings” is the “cellar door” of tired writing advice.
  • Show don’t tell: If I never hear this shit again, it’ll be too soon. What does it even mean?! You want I should draw you a little picture so you don’t have to read my book? Is that it? A little diagram?
  • Write what you know: I’d amend this to: write ideas and perspectives that you’re confident you understand. Don’t talk out of your ass. Know when to cede the microphone.
  • Character is plot: I never heard this one before! It sounds silly as hell, though.

What’s the best hobby for writers?

I don’t know how to even begin to answer this, so I’m going to make something up. Embroidery. All writers should do embroidery.

What’s the best workshop snack?

An entire loaf of bread, consumed over the course of the workshop with butter. And I won’t share.

The post Rax King Is Not Going to Let You Blow Smoke Up Her Ass appeared first on Electric Literature.

Why Fiction Like Brussels Sprouts Feeds Your Soul

YA author Hanna C. Howard shares why she feels fiction is a bit like Brussels sprouts, especially when sautéed with olive oil, salt, and pepper: good for your health and soul.

Every now and again I meet someone who, upon learning that I love to read and write fantasy, says something like, “I don’t really read fiction. It seems like an indulgence when there are so many other books to read.” By ‘other,’ they mean nonfiction: business books, or self-help, or history, or some other overtly productive genre.

(Hanna C. Howard: Keep Submitting, Writing, Working, Trying.)

The words are always offered ruefully, as if the person is vaguely sorry for them and wants me to know they mean no offense. But they invariably stir the embers of my storytelling passion into a flame, because I think people (adults, especially) very often miss the boat when it comes to fiction. 

I can’t suppress the suspicion that these folks might be imagining made-up stories to be something like daytime television soap operas: high on nonsense and low on value. But the truth is that most fictional novels are just as edifying and educational as your average nonfiction tome; they just wear it differently. 

*****

You’ll learn everything you need to know for writing young adult fiction, including what readers look for, the importance of plot, theme, and setting, how to craft entertaining dialogue, and much more. Plus, gain insight into the submission process and what it takes to succeed in publishing. You’ll come away from this eight-week workshop with the skills and know-how to craft a successful young fiction novel!

Click to continue.

*****

Fiction Like a Brussels Sprout

They are like Brussels sprouts sautéed with olive oil, salt, and pepper: perhaps not as healthy as raw or boiled sprouts, but the point of eating them that way is to enjoy the experience, not to get healthy. And yet, you may get healthy along the way regardless. (By the way, if you’ve never eaten Brussels sprouts prepared this way, do yourself a favor and whip some up tonight.)

Here’s an illustration of what I mean: If you’re feeling down and are looking for hope, you might head to your local bookstore and check out the Psychology section. You might come away, like I did years ago, with an anxiety workbook that asks you to assess various symptoms and feelings, and then gives you exercises to work through them. This can be very beneficial, of course, and sometimes necessary, but in the short term it may not leave you feeling much better. 

(Blessed Are the Legend-Makers: 11 J.R.R. Tolkien Quotes for Writers.)

But let’s say you go to the fantasy section of the bookstore and take home a copy of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Say you binge read your way through Frodo and Sam’s journey to destroy the One Ring, and you arrive at the end of book three, when Sam himself is beset by heavy despair. And you read this:

Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West, the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. (Tolkien, The Return of the King.)

What happens when you encounter something like this, experience something like this through the lens of another character in another place and another time, is multi-layered, complex, and beautiful. You might be comforted by the conviction that you are not the first person to have felt the weight of your own sadness and hopelessness to the extent that you now feel it. 

You might suddenly understand something new about the heaviness you feel. You might discover a reason to hope that you didn’t have before. You might find that the beauty of the narrative actually brings you joy. You might find your burden becoming slightly less difficult to carry.

Escaping Into the Magic of Fiction

All this in the space of a few sentences, simply because you are engrossed in something that is not your own life, your own sadness, your own pain, your own fear. You are giving yourself a safe escape out of yourself, into someone else. 

And to me, this is the incalculable and alchemical magic of fiction: that it can teach us and inspire us and change us in ways that overt instruction sometimes cannot, because it gifts us with experiences we could never have on our own and lets us be the ones to make sense out of them. It isn’t like arithmetic, where one plus one always equals two; it’s like a painting or a symphony, which seems to arrive at a different solution for every individual, depending on their need.

(Empathy vs. Sympathy vs. Apathy.)

I think this, too, is the reason that entertaining fiction can tackle harder issues in ways that promote healing and empathy. The point of a story like that is not to leave you with a greater understanding of this or that issue; the point is to satisfy you with a rollicking good tale, well told. 

But truly good stories have within them myriad perspectives, ideas, and experiences that speak to the challenge of being human, and they invite you to encounter them safely, through the eyes of someone else. Fiction does not aim to teach, it aims to entertain. Which is perhaps what makes it such a superb teacher.

Plain vegetables have their place, but sometimes what you need is a good cooked meal that feeds your soul as well as your body. Sometimes what you need are human experiences, roasted with fragrant seasoning and served over a bed of romance and high adventure—from which you may come away fuller, healthier, and more satisfied than you would on a diet of raw facts.

*****

Feed your soul with Hanna C. Howard’s novel, Ignite the Soul

IndieBound | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | Amazon

(Writer’s Digest uses affiliate links.)

Hari Kunzru Explains How Cop Shows Contribute to State Brutality

When Hari Kunzru finished writing Red Pill in early 2020, he had no idea that the summer leading up to its release would see the uprisings that followed Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd and other instances of police brutality against Black people, widespread calls to defund the police, or broader conversations about the history and present-day role of policing in American society.

Circumstances have made the fictional police drama Blue Lives that he includes in the novel, and his narrator’s concerns about the cultural power wielded by its alt-right showrunner, all the more prescient.

In the second of my two-part interview with Kunzru (you can read the first part here), we discuss cultural myth-making around state violence, whether TV audiences want police to break the rules, how to effective push back if they do, and the ways in which American policing is and is not unique in the world. 


Preety Sidhu: In the wake of the uprisings against police brutality and systemic racism, there’s been renewed criticism of the role of TV procedurals in shaping public perceptions of policing. Your fictional show Blue Lives takes it even farther, showing more extreme brutality than is the norm on American TV. Your narrator becomes convinced that the man behind it has tremendous power to shape the future. How potent do you think this type of cultural myth-making around state violence is?

Hari Kunzru: I think it is quite potent. One thing I wasn’t expecting to feel so very topical was the stuff about Blue Lives. We’ve been living through the most sustained, and actually broadly supported, civil rights movement since the 1960s. I think the vast majority of Americans want to see some sort of change. And it has been interesting to me that there has finally been a focus on the portrayal of law enforcement in television. 

In the olden days it was very simple, the copaganda. The noble policeman, the terrible criminal. But we’ve got something very interestingly cynical that has happened. It’s been happening since the 70s. You might point to the Dirty Harry movies and remember Clint Eastwood as a sort of maverick cop in 70s San Francisco. He basically opened the lid on the idea that actually what people want is for the police to break the rules. They want the police to go beyond what they’re allowed to do in order to take revenge or keep us safe. The “us” being a very interestingly defined character. Who is the “us” who is being kept safe and who is the “them” that we are being kept safe from, is the big question in all of these obviously. Culturally, there’s the enduring interest in the lawman who breaks the rules, who goes beyond what’s acceptable and makes himself a kind of terrifying executioner figure. This is where I use this slightly obscure 18th-century character, the Comte de Maistre, who was an ardent opponent of the French Revolution and believed very much in state power. I think he’s very weirdly relevant to this moment.

Who is the ‘us’ who is being kept safe and who is the ‘them’ that we are being kept safe from?

I mean look at 24. I think for Brown people in America, the success of 24 has been a very weird and troubling thing, amidst its glorification of torture, its contempt for procedure, and its presentation of any kind of oversight as being something that just hampers the movement of justice. So all those kinds of things are in the mix. 

There’s also just the straightforward thing about cable TV, you can do more and show more stuff on cable TV. I mean Game of Thrones would look very different had it had to abide by broadcast rules. So there is this edging towards an increasingly graphic portrayal of violence, and particularly torture. And there’s this interest in good characters who represent the law doing bad things, and their suffering from doing bad things. This is the interesting twist on it all, the shows are often very interested in the moral cost to the person who’s committing this violence, because they’re doing it for the “us.” 

Yeah, I took this further. And I imagine, what does it actually say? What is the cynicism at the heart of this, about the possibility of having justice without torture and without the use of vigilante violence? And it’s coming really right to the fore. We’re speaking to the events in Kenosha. We see a 17-year-old boy who was apparently very infatuated with the police, and had been trained in some way by his local police force, some sort of course. Then he takes it upon himself to illegally acquire a weapon of war and insert himself into a very tense situation in another town and then—it seems very predictable that that kind of thing would happen. I don’t have particular sympathy for him, but I can understand how those events transpired. I think this culture of Blue Lives Matter, he’s part of that.

PS: I was absolutely thinking of 24 as I read this, because I had watched that when I was around undergrad age, about 15 years ago, and I was a big fan at the time and I did not think very critically about it. If I pull up an episode now, I’m sure that my response would be pretty different. At the time it was quite seductive to see what he’d do for the greater good.

Cop shows provide a kind of a supplement or substitute for a sense of closure or justice that real life doesn’t give us.

HK: People wanted to have the rebalancing that they felt was not being given them by real life. One of the ideological things these shows do is that they provide a kind of a supplement or substitute for a sense of closure or justice that real life doesn’t give us. Plot always is about the reduction of life’s complexity to a kind of simple structure and, if you plug in this deep desire for justice that people have—you know, off you go.

PS: Given that these narratives are so compelling, do you think that there are effective ways to push back, in a narrative sense or culturally?

HK: The way to push back is to seize control of the means of production. It’s for other people to be allowed to tell stories, for other people to be elbowing their way into the writers’ room, into the director’s chair. It’s great that we’re very, very belatedly seeing a recognition on the cable shows that Black stories are commercial. We have Watchmen and Lovecraft Country. These kinds of shows are turning up, and they’re wildly popular, and they are entertaining, and they center very, very different stories and perspectives than before. I think things are very different from what they were five years ago, in terms of the media landscape. When I look back to the kind of crumbs that we used to be satisfied with—when I was coming up and then in the 90s, we were just super excited if we saw a Brown face or a Black face on the screen.

PS: How do you think the contemporary American attitudes and media messaging about policing that inspired Blue Lives compares to other cultures and time periods you’re familiar with? Is there anything unique in the way that some parts of American society valorize the police these days?

HK: I mean, in every society there is a sort of standard right-wing law-and-order position. The idea of policing by consent, which is supposed to be the foundation of modern civilian policing, is less fictional in some places than it is in others. I think that the two unique American factors which make the situation much more volatile and much more urgent are—one is guns. I mean, just purely and simply police procedures. When the police go to do traffic stop here, they are trained to deal with the possibility that there will be a gun in this situation. Where it just wouldn’t occur to a British cop in a traffic stop that that might be a possibility. It would be a once in a lifetime—I mean many, many British cops will never encounter a person with a gun. Many British cops will never carry a gun. And because there’s so many guns in American life, all situations are potentially situations of armed violence. We’ve all watched endless depressing and sometimes very scary videos of these police stops where people are brutalized and the police are clearly in a sort of trance of tension. It’s very often because they’re extremely afraid and they’ve also been trained to think of themselves as a sort of militarized force. 

One phrase that keeps coming to mind is “bringing the war back home,” which was associated with the left in the Vietnam era. It was the idea that they would try and make the Vietnam War visible to ordinary Americans as a way of stopping the war. What’s happened since Iraq and Afghanistan, 20 years of these conflicts, is that we’ve got a huge pipeline of veterans and military equipment. The militarization of the police is an important part of this, using people who have a military mindset, who are equipped as soldiers and who treat the streets of the city they’re supposed to be policing as a battle zone. So in a very direct sense, the war has come back home and what we’re seeing right now is partly to do with that. 

But if you look further back, I think the second factor that is uniquely American has to do with the history of American police forces as slave patrols. Also, weirdly sort of revenue generating operations, if you look at Ferguson. Part of the roots of the Ferguson uprising, it was that the police gave a lot of quality of life tickets to a mostly Black town. The police, as they do in so many places, didn’t live in Ferguson. They live in white cities neighboring Ferguson. They use jaywalking, broken tail lights, incorrectly stored vehicles on your property. All these things are used to extract revenue from the residents and the police are acting as predators because they’re the only revenue generating operation that Ferguson really had. The city government wasn’t going to run unless they managed to extract a lot of money from people that way. 

Of course, we’ve got thousands of different police departments in the U.S. and they have different histories, but to broadly generalize, there’s never been a sense that these police departments grew organically out of the communities they’re policing. There’ve been many attempts in recent years to make them fit better in that way, but the notion of who’s getting protected and who they’re getting protected from is highly racialized, has this particular history, and is only really being interrogated now. I mean the call to defund and abolish police departments seems, I would imagine, almost incomprehensible to a lot of people in other countries. And of course to many white people in America, who imagine that this would mean anarchy. But it makes sense in this history of abolitionist tradition, which is a counter tradition to the tradition which comes out of slavery. So there’s such a particular history of police in the U.S. and it is not a happy one.

PS: Possibly because police appear so embattled here, they may get valorized, as a response from the people who feel they are being protected or they fall in the “us.”

HK: There’s a Blue Lives Matter protest for every Black Lives Matter protest. You can see the history in the fact that those two groups coalesce around the issue of policing.

The post Hari Kunzru Explains How Cop Shows Contribute to State Brutality appeared first on Electric Literature.

Two Poems

Night Blossoms

 

Once there was this kid in the front row
Raising his hand as though he would turn
Into a ball of light and vanish if he didn’t
Answer the question the teacher was asking.
I was convinced I’d grow up to be a samurai
Back then, so I didn’t understand a word,
But before the kid could answer, another
Kid boxed the ears of another kid and it
Was chaos in the way nature is a chaos.
The rain has been lying to the sun again.
And heaven loves knives. Bathe in the dust.
Flocks of surprise descend from on high.
Grass flourishes between the words where
Sorrow is isosceles and red goes black very
Quickly in the light that increases the light.
When I quit smoking, I became scared to fly.
Needles tack in their gauges to extremes.
The sun keeps us. Infinities are a poker face
Hidden in this moment. We read a line of life
And we twitch in an iron dream that remains
Blinded by the shadows of their referent stars.
Words are drawings that will be missed
And this guy won’t answer the waitress when
She puts his order in the computer and asks
Him how many eggs he wants – he keeps
Saying: Look, just tell them it’s for Tim.
Absence affects sleep and hands bloom
In a desert in me. I kiss the voice I hear
And pick flowers from my veins.
Fog is writing a world inside a word.
Bones cannot hide their light. The original
Road runs ahead collapsing into nightfall.

 

 

 

 

 

Quietus

 

Before my memory leaves,
I would like to say, one late
Summer afternoon, daylight
Was at its peak intensity,
The lights were off inside,
Everywhere, then through
The windows, the light made
Its own light in the absence
Of light, and an effect, quite
Real, grand and ineffable –
As precisely inscrutable
As the present moment
And as quickeningly sublime –
Raked through the room.
I stood there a long time,
Alone, and had to live
With a distinct feeling,
Radiating from the condition,
Something complete had been
Filed with the terrible library
Of dreams and experience
That were about to begin.

 

 

Image © Takuma Nakagawa

 

These poems are taken from A Better Place Is Hard to Find by Aaron Fagan, forthcoming from The Song Cave.

The post Two Poems appeared first on Granta.

12 of the Best Fantasy Novels for Children

Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle Ever since the Victorians, fantasy fiction has been a huge part of children’s literature. Indeed, classic fantasy novels for children actually emerged some time before serious fantasy literature for adults – modern fantasy, at least – became popular. In this post, we introduce 12 must-read […]

A Short Analysis of Percy Shelley’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’

‘Love’s Philosophy’ is a poem by the second-generation Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). The poem was published in December 1819 and is one of Shelley’s most accessible short poems. Nevertheless, a few words of analysis may help to illuminate the poem’s meaning. First, though, here’s the text of the […]