Whiplash and the Externalization of the Resistance

Steven Pressfield wrote a book called The War of Art back in 2002. Since then, it has risen to cult classic status in various art circles. The book spends some time defining something called the Resistance, and then it turns into a drill sergeant to push you through the Resistance. I want to argue that the movie Whiplash is a direct externalization of this concept.

The Resistance is that internal force that tries to prevent you from doing work. If you’re a runner, maybe you tell yourself that those mile repeats you have to get up at 6:00 a.m. to do before work aren’t going to benefit you that much. Sleep would help you be more productive the rest of the day. That’s the Resistance.

If you’re a musician, maybe you tell yourself doing scales with the metronome on one more day in a row won’t be that helpful. You could just play through some etudes to work on your “lyricism.” That’s the Resistance. Maybe you’re a writer, and you want to read one more book on ancient Rome to make sure your setting is completely accurate before you waste words writing something wrong. That’s the Resistance.

Most people that read Pressfield’s book can really identify with this and understand it from personal experience. Where he got some criticism was in how extreme he took this idea. He basically says the better you get and the closer to great art you get, the worse the Resistance will get. How bad is the Resistance? Well, it was easier for Hitler to start WWII than to face the blank canvas.

I get how people took offense to this historical inaccuracy, but the point wasn’t accuracy. It was to emphasize, metaphorically, just how devious and strong the Resistance can be. People will look for any excuse to not work.

This brings me to the movie Whiplash. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. This movie is so fantastic. It is about a drummer who wants to be the best. He, of course, encounters the Resistance.

The way I interpret the movie is through Pressfield’s book. The movie makes the Resistance external, so that everyone can see exactly what this kid’s excuses could be if he succumbed to them. As he gets better, the Resistance gets worse and worse, until pretty much the most ridiculous thing ever happens to him (I’ll spoil it later with warning).

Here’s an example from early on in the movie:

Oh, you practiced so hard that your hands were bleeding? Guess it’s time to stop and heal up. No! That’s the Resistance. If you really want it bad enough, you won’t let something tiny like that stop you. He comes up with the idea to dunk his hands in ice water to numb them and lessen the bleeding so he can keep going.

I know what you’re thinking. Plenty of people become the best in the world in their art form or athletics without going to these extremes. But I think this misses the point the movie is making. Like the Hitler comment above, the point isn’t to be “literal.” The movie is metaphorically externalizing the Resistance.

Imagine how ineffective it would be for this scene to have the Resistance appear internally. His internal voice-over says, “This is hard. I want to stop.” Boring. Unenlightened. The Resistance will always present itself as legitimate excuses, which is what makes the movie brilliant.

BEGIN SPOILER (highlight it to read)
At the climax, the kid is in a car accident and gets whiplash. He is basically trapped inside an upside-down smashed car, bleeding from tons of wounds. If ever there was a legitimate excuse to stop, this would be it. But no, he claws himself free from the car and runs to the concert where he is supposed to perform and starts playing on stage.
END SPOILER

It would again be a mistake to write this off as totally ridiculous. The point is that the Resistance will keep getting worse as you get closer to being the best. The movie had to up the Resistance to these levels to show just how strong the feeling of having an excuse will get. It’s metaphor; it’s not literal. And I think people’s problem with the movie and Pressfield’s book is they don’t understand that the only way to teach people this lesson is to go over-the-top like this.

Structural Analysis of Bag of Bones: Chapter 1

Last week I was somewhat disparaging about opening hooks of novels. Today I want to do a thorough analysis of the structure of Chapter 1 of Stephen King’s Bag of Bones, because I think it is an example of an opening hook done well.

I read enough books on writing and listen to enough podcasts on writing that I might conflate a bunch of terminology. Some of this will be Story Grid or Writing Excuses or classical Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Sorry for not sticking to one style of analysis.

The chapter consists of seven scenes or segments (some are quite short, so “scene” might not be quite the appropriate term).

Scene 1:

The first paragraph let’s us know the narrator’s wife went out for routine drugstore supplies and wound up dead. This is the inciting incident for Act I, but also for the chapter and the scene.

King doesn’t tell us how it happens, and this is the hook. What makes this a good hook is that this opening starts at the beginning of the story. This isn’t some artificial action to draw us in. He doesn’t tell us how she dies, and that is the driving force behind keeping the reader interested. It’s the removal of information rather than the giving of information that makes this work.

The scene rounds out by the narrator looking at what his wife purchased. He ends on a cliffhanger. He sees something that indicates she might have been living a double life, but he doesn’t tell us what it is. Now we have removal of information again. We want to know what the item is, and we want to know how she died.

I find it hard to imagine someone reading this first scene (less than 1000 words) and being able to put the book down. This hook is really, really good without being patronizing or condescending.

Scene 2:

It opens with the wife leaving the drugstore. He establishes the narrative voice by indicating the narrator is a writer, and he’s only re-imagining what the scene looked like. He foreshadows the death of the wife being a car accident.

“…there was that shrewish howl of locked tires on pavement that means there’s going to be either an accident or a very close call.”

It shifts to two old women in their own car and a large truck barreling at them. What’s brilliant here is that Scene 1 set a lot of expectation. We know the wife dies, but she doesn’t appear to be in the oncoming accident. This is how King creates tension in the scene. He prolongs telling you what actually happened by describing tangential things. This gives the reader the chance to imagine her own scenarios: truck veers off into wife?

The narrator shifts to the truck driver telling him about the accident. This really ratchets up the narrative drive. If the truck driver kills the wife, would he really be on friendly terms, talking about it to the narrator? Then bam. The truck hits the car with the two elderly women, and both are fine and the wife is fine!

This is a reversal of expectations. The wife watched it happen, but then she falls down when going toward the accident. The tension in the scene increases as no one pays attention to the down wife. This is narrative irony at work, because we, as readers, already know she dies, but we still get mad when people ignore her. It’s as if we think she could be saved if someone attended to her.

The scene, of course, ends with another cliffhanger. We’ve resolved one mystery: how she died (brain aneurysm). As soon as it gets resolved, another is introduced. At the coroner’s, the narrator reminds us of the other unanswered question.

“I told him what she’d purchased in the drugstore just before she died. Then I asked my question.”

Now we doubly want to know the item, because it prompted the double life comment and a question for the coroner. Dig that hook in deeper.

Scene 3:

The funeral. Because this is such a departure from the first scenes, there is a new, minor inciting incident for the scene. One of the relatives argues with the funeral director over the price of the casket. The narrator argues with this relative.

It gives conflict, but it is mostly a device to direct our attention away from the earlier question. In that conversation, the narrator tells him the wife was pregnant. This is the turning point of the whole chapter. This reveal is made more shocking by distracting the reader right before giving it.

Our first questions have been resolved. The unknown item was a pregnancy test, and the question to the coroner was to find out if she was actually pregnant. But now we’re left with a new unknown. Is the child the narrator’s? Our guess is no, because of the earlier double life comment he made. We’ve also learned they were trying for eight years with no success.

Scene 4:

We’re still at the funeral. Some standard funeral stuff happens, and we get moments of grieving. Earlier, when King strung the reader along, I called this increasing narrative drive, but because of the resolution of the most pressing issues, this isn’t the case here.

This scene serves as a reprieve to the tension of the first three. It offers character development and empathy for the narrator. The main conflict is the narrator discussing with his siblings what to do about their parents descending into dementia from Alzheimer’s.

The scene ends with the brother of the wife not knowing she was pregnant either, and that the baby was a girl. We end with same questions as the end of the previous scene.

Scene 5:

We get more dialogue as people leave to go back home after the funeral. This is more character development (learn how stubborn the main character is and won’t ask for help etc).

In the middle of the scene, an ominous warning is dropped. “And be careful.” “Careful of what?” “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know Mikey.” In normal circumstances, we wouldn’t think too much of this, but it’s Stephen King. This serves as the next unknown source of tension. Who got the wife pregnant? And now, what should the narrator be careful of?

The scene closes with more symbolic foreshadowing. There’s a description of dark rumbling thunder in the distance as night falls.

To take stock, we built and built and built the tension and unknowns all the way to the turning point, roughly halfway through the chapter. Then we get two segments where we came back down for a bit. But now he’s starting to turn the tension back up.

Scene 6:

We are again in a totally new segment: the narrator, by himself, after the funeral. So we get another minor inciting incident to get things moving again. The scene opens with the narrator having a crying fit. He calls it his “second crying fit,” which implies there’s going to be more.

The narrator hires a group of people to scrub his house clean. He keeps repeating that he feels like he’s in a dream. Up to this point, it seems the obvious way to describe mourning. But now the words have appeared a few too many times to be without significance. The scene ends by reminding us of the pregnancy test. He wants to rekindle that desire to find out what exactly happened.

Scene 7:

New inciting incident. In pre-cleaning for the cleaners, he comes across an open paperback the wife had been reading: The Moon and Sixpence. Side note: This book is about a man who abandons his wife and children to become an artist. Coincidence? Are we to believe the narrator abandoned his wife to be a writer?

What’s interesting is that every one of these supposed “clues” could be to throw us off. The narrator is grasping for anything to help him figure out what happened. But this doesn’t diminish their role in creating a strong opening chapter hook.

We find ourselves thinking: the book, the crying fits, feeling like in a dream, the pregnancy, the coming storm, what does it all mean? The book takes on much greater significance, because the narrator looks at the page, reads some of it, recalls time with his wife in college when they first read it. So many words are devoted to this that we can’t help but feel this is the strongest clue we’ve gotten so far.

He goes into another crying fit and falls asleep. In his dream, he tries to put the book back where he found it, but his wife is there. She calls the book her dust-catcher. She’s wearing what she was buried in. He wakes up. He checks for her, and she isn’t there in real life.

The chapter ends.

The overall structure is two builds with a turning point in the middle. There is a main hook that takes most of the chapter to develop: what happened for her to become pregnant? But he starts with smaller more immediate hooks to get the reader into the story faster. The main question doesn’t make sense without the context of the characters being developed a little first.

The chapter has an “ending payoff” when he finally links the ideas of being in a dream and the book and the wife in the last scene. Since this is King, we also have one extra cliffhanger for the end of the chapter. Was the last event a dream, or did he actually communicate with the dead wife somehow?

On Self-Publishing

I sometimes sneak in my opinion about how self-publishing is the wrong path if done for the wrong reasons. Today, I’m going to talk about when I think it’s the right path. This is because I recently self-published my first novel: Sifting Out the Hearts of Men (I won’t promote it anymore than that—you can read the description by following the link if interested).

For context, I started writing this novel in 2010. I was in grad school, so it happened sporadically. I finished the first draft in late 2014, and I had it fully edited (professionally) and submitted to a slew of agents about a year ago. For the past year, I’ve submitted to a ton more agents with pretty much no reply.

Back to the post.

Publishing is a business. Businesses have to make money or else they will cease to exist. This means the traditional publishing industry isn’t interested in difficult or complicated or literary books.

There are, of course, exceptions. These exceptions are almost exclusively in the form of name recognition or knowing someone. I want to reiterate here that I fully understand their predicament. They have to make money. This isn’t a value judgment or moral condemnation. It’s just a fact about the world. You can’t buy books you don’t think you can sell or you will go out of business (this applies to agents as well).

There are a few things that an agent or publisher will look for to determine if it will sell. The first is a hook. Does the first page hook the reader into wanting to read more. This trend is fairly recent, and my guess is that it has to do with being able to read the first few pages for free on Amazon. The first page is part of the advertisement for a book nowadays.

If you look at something like the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, half of them wouldn’t be signed in today’s publishing world based on the hook: Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, The Grapes of Wrath, etc.

I think my novel actually has a reasonable hook, but it doesn’t happen right away. This means most agents won’t make it to the hook if they only read the first three pages. And I didn’t do it merely to break this “rule.”

I hate books that start in the middle of some action. I find it patronizing and condescending when an author feels the need to start with: Jack double back flipped through the air towards the nuke that would go off in thirty seconds and destroy the world. Start at the beginning. This obviously isn’t the beginning of the story.

Another thing an agent or publisher will look for is an easy summary and pitch and conventional plot that fits into pre-existing bestsellers. It’s easy to sell a book when you can say it’s Superman on Mars smashed with Fifty Shades of Grey. It doesn’t matter if the book is good or deep. Everyone wants to read that book, so it will sell.

I did come up with a reasonable sounding plot summary, but it’s pretty misleading (as any agent would quickly find out by reading it). The novel is highly symbolic. There are tangents on things like the Gettier problem in epistemology that, at first, seem to be irrelevant, but end up playing important roles later on.

This, in turn, gives the novel a bit too complicated of a structure to be easily grasped from the first chapter. Recall that I used to blog a lot about Barthes and postmodernism and critical theory and Lethem and people who valued this type of writing (I’ve changed quite a bit since then).

Needless to say, I’d be scared to take a chance on the novel if I were an agent as well. Again, they need to make money, so I don’t blame them. Also, I don’t think many of the greatest novels would be published today for these same reasons. What’s the two sentence plot summary of Les Miserables?

All of this can be overcome if you already have a following, because if you’re famous, you can advertise your book and your followers will probably buy it. Alas, I am not famous.

This brings me to why I decided to self-publish. It seemed I had two options. It’s pretty clear to me that no one will publish the book in the traditional sphere for the reasons I gave above. I could gut the whole thing and rewrite it in a more conventional way.

I’m confident I could do it (I’ve published a few genre novellas under a pseudonym, so I think I’ve got a grasp on what they’re looking for). But I’ve moved on to several other projects now, so I didn’t want to put those on hold to sink more time into something that had already taken up many years of work. This rework option was not a real option, and it still would have no guarantee of selling.

The other option was to self-publish. I wrote the book to be read, so if even one person reads it, that’s better than languishing indefinitely in fifty slush piles for the next three years being read by no one. This is a good reason to self-publish; the novel doesn’t conform to what traditional publishers want.

My next novel, which should be through edits by the end of the month, does fit the traditional publishing mold much better. It has a pitch. It starts with a hook. It has a normal story arc. It has some cool speculative fiction ideas in it. This means I haven’t given up going traditional. I’m going to try again with my next one.

The Difficulty of Invisible Description

I’ve been reading Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, the second Dresden Files novel. In the middle of a fight with a werewolf, the narrator uses this simile:

I was flung back through the air like a piece of popcorn in a sudden wind …

I loved this image at first. It conveyed a vivid image of what happened. It did so with a completely original bit of description. In a sense, it seemed to follow all the “rules” for good writing. It shows instead of tells. It avoids cliche. So why did something feel wrong about it? Why did it pull me out of the story?

And that’s when it struck me. In a sense, the description was too good. It wasn’t invisible, which is why it pulled me out of the story. This is one of those things that no one wants to tell you, but sometimes writing can be too creative to serve its purpose.

Eventually, I realized I could pin the problem down even more. The word “popcorn” is the word that jumped out too much. In a fight scene with a werewolf, the word popcorn is too unexpected. I talked a bit about this in the post on tonal consistency. It isn’t the right tone for the moment.

As readers, we have baggage surrounding werewolves, and we have baggage surrounding popcorn. There is no overlap between these two histories. Sometimes this stark contrast can be done purposefully to achieve a desired mental state in the reader (comedy or Lynchian horror to name a few), but this was not the place for such a thing. A fight scene needs to have invisible description, and that’s often harder than the creative thing.

Let’s workshop how my own thought process goes for description. Say I’m writing a fight scene, and the antagonist yells an insult at Bob, our protagonist. My first draft has the sentence:

Bob was angry.

It’s such bad writing, but that’s what first drafts are for.

On revision, I think about the advice “show don’t tell.” I need to come up with some description that shows the anger. I replace the sentence with:

Bob’s cheeks flushed red with anger.

It’s an improvement but not by much. I call this “fake showing,” because I’m still telling the reader “with anger” and I’ve only put in a shallow, cliche idea.

How did this happen? Well, I heard the word anger, and I thought the color red. I also thought the phrase “hot head.” The description came out as something red on the person’s head. It’s dull and uninformative.

Here’s a technique I learned from one of Orson Scott Card’s books on writing. The first few things you think of will always be cliche and ordinary. That’s why you thought of it first. So make a list of 10-20 descriptions, and only start working with ones that fall near the end of the list. This forces you to exhaust all the common tropes. Don’t worry about sentences. Get the idea for the sentence down.

Anger welled in his gut. (cliche)
He shook with anger. (cliche)
Balling of fist. (cliche)
A low growl of anger in his chest. (semi-cliche, but better)
Tightening of muscles: face? neck? chest? (getting somewhere)

We could move to even more ideas, but let’s stick with this last one. I wanted to get away from the head, so let’s not use the face. There’s too much danger for cliche there. I like neck, because it isn’t so inventive as to automatically draw the reader out of the scene. I can’t recall ever reading this description for anger, but it strikes me as something everyone will immediately relate to: the tightening of the neck muscles.

Let’s try it.

The muscles in Bob’s neck coiled into a tense knot.

It’s okay. It’s a bit general and vague. Which muscles? How did it feel? We’ve replaced telling of the anger to telling of the feeling of anger.

Also, I’ve sort of lost that we’re talking about anger, and it’s cheating to tack on “of anger” to the end of that sentence. I even see this in established authors. It makes me cringe, because if it’s needed, you haven’t used he right description. If it isn’t needed, why is it there?

Let’s make it a bit more descriptive in a way that edges us back toward the anger.

The long muscle running down the left side of Bob’s neck snapped to a rigid knot and pulsed with a fiery violence.

I think the anger has come back a bit. It walks up to cliche with “fiery violence,” but I don’t think it crosses the line.

Are we done? No! Now we have to do the hard part. Will it be invisible in the scene? That’s hard to say without the context of the sentences around it. But there is a major danger with the way it is written now (I did this on purpose). It personifies a muscle by giving it an emotion. Like the simile I started with, this is a dangerous thing for invisible description. Any simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration, (insert word here)-ification, will draw attention to itself.

There are tons of situations in which description doesn’t have to be invisible, like setting a scene. In those situations, the literary techniques can run wild with creativity. The middle of an action sequence can’t pull the reader out of the story, so invisibility is more important.

Now let’s try to do one more revision where we tone it down without losing the essence. I first notice some excessive wordiness, which I’ll try to contract and simplify.

A fiery pain jolted through the left side of Bob’s neck as the muscle tensed into a knot.

This is close to done. It will probably need some more tweaking in context to make sure it is invisible and conveys the anger in the appropriate amount. Good luck on your own invisible descriptions!

P.S. My parents complain that it takes me too long to write a book. Here’s a 1000-word thought process in an attempt to edit a 3-word sentence. How long does it take to edit a 90,000-word novel? Do the math.

On Experiencing Bon Iver at 20

Bon Iver announced a new album to be released later this year. I thought I’d take some time to reflect on what it was like to hear his first album when I was twenty.

I think most generations have some major cultural experience that it is hard to understand if you weren’t experiencing it in a particular age range, in a particular setting, and so on. This age range is probably about 16-24, maybe a little bigger depending on what it is, how much maturity the person has, and other circumstances again.

The reason you can’t be too young is that you’ll miss the “original,” and then those influences will permeate across a bunch of other artists, making it hard to understand what was so good about the original. I can’t for the life of me understand what is so great about the Beatles, but I imagine a young adult hearing them for the first time would have been as mind boggling as when I first heard Bon Iver.

There are a few reasons you can’t be too old. First, you get a little cynical about culture and art. Even when something groundbreaking comes around, you’ll find ways to compare it to other things you know: nothing original can be created. Second, life gets in the way. Maybe you listen to music while working out or driving, but you will rarely go in a dark room by yourself for 45 minutes when family, pets, children, jobs, housework, etc all demand something from you. This distracted listening won’t let you get in the right frame of mind for the experience.

Let’s set the stage. I was in music school for a while leading up to this. At the release of the album, I had changed majors, but a large portion of my friends were still music majors. We mostly listened to pretentious underground indie music: standard band instrumentation but using interesting, high-level composition techniques we liked to experiment with in our own music writing.

Before Bon Iver, the scene consisted of bands like Arctic Monkeys, TV on the Radio, Radiohead, Arcade Fire, Of Montreal, Animal Collective, etc. If you haven’t heard of some of these, they have big, highly-processed sounds. They use sampling and electronics. They tend to be bombastic and even grating.

The story behind Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, is that he had a very bad breakup, fell ill, and in general was depressed about his life’s prospects. He went into the woods of Wisconsin in total isolation (think Thoreau). Over the next year (I didn’t look up the exact time frame), he wrote and recorded the songs that would make up his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago.

It’s hard to explain just how shocking this album was. All the top bands kept shifting towards more and more technology as the technology got better. Each album had to be bigger and more grandiose than the last. Bon Iver went backwards. It is low-fi recording equipment, and acoustic guitar, and his voice. You can hear the creak of his floorboards at points. The whole thing is done falsetto, creating an even more fragile sound.

He poured everything into the album, and we understood it. We felt it. It sounds crazy, but I might have cried the first time I heard it. Ten years later, I still get chills listening to it. We talked about it all the time. We said: this is what music could be. This is why we love music. It can change people.

I know it’s one of those idealistic things people say that are rarely true, and that’s why it’s so hard to explain the moment. If you weren’t there under the right circumstances, then you missed it. I know people now that listen to it and say, “This is the most terrible crap I’ve ever heard.” I honestly get that. Even if you’ve never heard of him, Bon Iver forever changed the landscape of music. His influence is everywhere, and that makes listening to the original album sound dated and unoriginal.

Here’s one of the greatest moments on the album:

The album steadily builds to this track. The song itself talks about his pain. It builds into a climax on the line “What might have been lost.” This is a sentiment everyone can relate to—wondering what could have been, what if I did this one thing differently, how much is gone forever.

The subdued nature of the album up to this point doesn’t prepare you for how big and wild and raw the climax will be. This line leads into a powerful, dense chord with his primal wail of agony over it. One might say it is like a howling wolf.

This isn’t Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” where the words are sad. It isn’t just lip service in the form of a song. Vernon lets it all out in that moment. It’s almost tempting to turn the song off, because it’s too personal. It’s almost too embarrassing to witness that raw emotion to keep going.

That’s the connection he made with us. That’s what it was like to experience Bon Iver at twenty.

The Fine Line Between Original and Nonsense

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is…the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

— Mark Twain

I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, and it never ceases to amaze me how good she is at crafting original sentences and plots. She has fast become one of my favorite authors. Each book shocks me with how completely different it is from the last.

Anyway, that’s beside the point of this post. I’ve also been reading a lot of first-time writers in an online critique group. Conventional writing advice says to convert cliché and boring descriptions to precise, original ones. This post is going to be about how this advice can lead people astray.

To me, it is better to have a cliché description that is correct than some original bit of nonsense that actually leaves the reader more confused. It is really easy to fall into this trap, because flowery language can sound really good until you think about it (and whether it is the “right word” as Twain put it).

I won’t embarrass anyone by using a real example, but these are pretty easy to come up with. On the first draft, Writer has the sentence:

I wanted to punch him with every fiber of my being.

Writer recalls the advice and decides to take this vague, cliché statement of feeling and “show rather than tell” a more specific and original description. After a few revisions, they are proud of the new version—confident in its detail and originality.

My balled fist seethed with fury, a red flare arcing from my evaporating essence toward Bob. The hum of rage deafened my senses to a pulp of what I used to be.

Hold on. What is going on here? We’ve gone from simple cliché to overly melodramatic. First, we should ask ourselves if this level of drama is necessary. Maybe the correct solution was to just delete the whole sentence, because it was clear from context that the character wanted to punch him. If not, maybe the correct solution was change it to “I wanted to punch him.”

Whenever you start to change things, you should ask yourself: have I made it more correct or less? This question must override any concerns of originality. Rather than draw a reader in, incorrect flower language can push a reader away. This is the point of this post. Sometimes the more original phrasing can be nonsense. It’s a fine line (as we’ll get to in a second).

What does “evaporating essence” mean? This is one of those things that sounds fancy on the surface but is nonsense once you try to think about it. What does “deafened my senses” mean? It is another fancy but partially incorrect phrase. Only one sense can actually be deafened, and though in some circumstances this might work, why not use a more accurate fancy word like “enervated” if we’re going the nonsense route. “What I used to be” isn’t the proper ending. It sounds semi-deep but it’s incorrect and confusing grammar at best and nonsense at worst.

What’s scary is that there are probably first-time writers out there who read these two and would pick the second, when it is clear to me that the original cliché is infinitely better. The cliché gives a “correct” description whereas the creative description is a mess of nonsense. It sounds better, like something a sophisticated writer would write, but no great writer would let that nonsense through the editing phase.

This is going to sound mean, but when agents say they can tell in a few paragraphs if a book is going to be any good, this is the type of thing they’re looking for. A trained eye can easily tell the difference between this fancy nonsense and good creative writing. First-time novelists might think they’re imitating how a professional does it, but they can’t tell the difference yet.

Since the Olympics are on, here’s an analogy. Many people watch gymnastics in awe and think certain routines are absolutely perfect, yet the trained eye of the judges still find over a point in deductions. One must train the writing eye to see the nonsense descriptions even if they sound fancy.

I’ll just caution anyone considering self-publishing in the face of massive rejection by the publishing industry that the rejection may be for this reason. Some people choose self-publishing and hire excellent editors and do it the right way for the right reasons. Self-publishing because it is the only way to get something bad out there is the wrong reason (and glancing through Amazon’s self-published stuff tells me that more than a few people have chosen to go that route for the wrong reasons).

Now let’s look at some original ways to describe things that are not nonsense. This is where Margaret Atwood comes in. She is so good about this. She is inventive with her language, yet the descriptions are correct. They enhance the reader’s experience rather than confuse them.

The orange tulips are coming out, crumpled and raggedy like the stragglers from some returning army. I greet them with relief, as if waving from a bombed-out building; still, they must make their way as best they can, without much help from me.

She makes an original comparison of the tulips to a returning army. The simile is apt and vivid, making it a good one. It puts clear images into our minds, and she reinforces the idea with adjectives that help tailor the comparison toward the elements she wants us to think about. This is a correct way to do original description.

But then it gets even better, because she doubles down on the simile and keeps it going. The main character greets the army of flowers, and she imagines her own building caught in the war. She can’t help them, though.

This conceit is almost too much for mere flowers, but the consistency in tone and image help it cohere into a truly original description that hasn’t gone over the line into nonsense. Context would help here, because the main character is aging and can’t kneel to do her proper gardening. The sadness in the image helps give the reader some empathy for how the character feels, and her inability to help the army enhances her feelings about her inability to help the flowers.

It takes a lot of work to write this way. Atwood came up with a fascinating and original description of tulips, and then took the time to make the entire passage reinforce the simile and shed light on how the main character felt. Too often writers think that originality means taking a cliché and then using a thesaurus to merely replace the boring words with less common ones. This often leads to nonsense.

Literature, Genre Fiction, Pulp, &c.

I’ve been working my way through Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I have this really bad habit of reading negative reviews on Goodreads while reading a book. If I love the book, I can make fun of the idiots who “cant even right gud.” If I hate the book, I can commiserate with the brilliant like-minds who saw through the crap. The negative reviews of this novel got me thinking about a few things related to genre.

Some people claim all the 80’s geek and pop culture references make this a trashy genre novel. Some say it even stoops to pulp fiction levels. Some call it nostalgia. I want to first show why this isn’t a good argument, but then I want to try to clarify how I define these different types of books.

We start with the excessive references. I don’t think Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow would be considered genre fiction or pulp by anyone. It is a monster of literary fiction if there ever was one, but the novel is full of pop culture references (from a specific period). The purpose there is not nostalgia or to make it “more entertaining” or whatever else the negative reviews think Cline is doing.

I’ll cover my bases here and say that I don’t think that Cline’s use of pop culture is the same in intent or effect as Pynchon, but the fact that such literature exists shows that one needs a more complete argument than the mere use of pop culture references. Is Infinite Jest genre or pulp fiction? What about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay? This technique has been used in literary fiction for a long time with great success.

To me, the term “genre fiction” merely refers to a novel that stays strictly within the accepted genre conventions. This means the plot follows a known formula. In modern days, the characters fit into a few tropes, and the tenor of the prose is pitched at a certain level.

This means that something like “romance” genre fiction could be extremely well-written and explore serious literary issues and be worth everyone’s time to read (I’m thinking of something like Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady). Genre fiction doesn’t automatically mean pure fluff and vacuous entertainment; genre means it follows a formula, and these formulae have a lot of give to them.

I think a lot of people conflate genre fiction with pulp. Pulp fiction, as I see it, is pure fluff and entertainment. It is often poorly written, not as a matter of definition, but mostly because the authors of this style need to pop out a large number of words per month in order to make a living. Pulp is pretty much a subset of genre fiction, again, not as a matter of definition, but because it is easiest to write quickly if you follow a formula.

To recap, genre fiction can be literary, but it can also be pulp. Genre fiction doesn’t tell us much about the quality of writing or redeeming characteristics or depth or content. Someone could spend a life reading high-quality genre mysteries without encountering pulp.

And before continuing, I don’t want to place value judgment here. I’m not saying it’s “bad” to read pulp. You probably won’t contemplate your own mortality, but escapism is healthy in moderation. No one thinks working sixty hour weeks with no vacation is healthy. It’s sort of weird that people think reading only heavy literary fiction with no fun mixed in is healthy. So go relax with a fun novel every once in a while when you feel that urge to veg in front of the TV.

What I think I’m trying to say is that often times there is a ton of crossover between all of these things, and it isn’t easy to tell. The one certain takeaway is that pop culture references do not make something pulp. Pulp is pop culture but not the other way around. In fact, if there are lots of references, it is probably a metafictional device, and this pulls you clear out of pulp.

That being said, I think Ready Player One actually is pulp, because the references do seem to be purely nostalgic. The book has few themes, and all are thin, classic good/evil tropes. I’m not sure I can call it genre fiction, because I can’t pin a genre down. I guess it falls into dystopian fiction. I don’t often hear this referred to as a specific genre, but it clearly has a form: one person, in a horribly oppressive futuristic world, must fight through a series of trials to take down the oppressor.

This wasn’t meant as a book review, but I’ll end by saying Ready Player One is pure entertainment through and through, and it really works at this level. I don’t recall the last book I enjoyed this much. It is so much fun for people around my age who grew up the geek. I highly recommend it if that sounds interesting, but don’t expect anything deep to come from it or you might be leaving one of those one star reviews.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 11

Today we’re going to look at the prose of J. M. Coetzee. He is a South African writer and is known for his controversial topics. His 1980 work Waiting for the Barbarians is about a town magistrate that takes on disturbing power by preying on the fears of the people about an incumbent attack by the barbarians. This novel is now seen as an eerie and accurate premonition of the events in the U.S. after 9/11 that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the forfeit of our freedoms in the name of safety.

The novel I actually want to look at is his more recent 1999 novel Disgrace. The main character is a disgraced English professor who loses his job after having sex with a student under dubious circumstances. He moves in with his daughter in the countryside to recover from the affair and try to turn his life around. While there, the two suffer a brutal attack coming from lingering apartheid tensions.

I won’t give more away, but a hallmark of Coetzee’s writing is how much he packs into so little space. This novel is short, more like a novella, yet it contains more plot and emotional content than many 90,000 word novels. And this is where I’d like to start with his prose. If you’ve never read him, I highly recommend taking one or two days to go through one of his novels. The bare and exposed prose breaks every rule we’ve been taught, yet it suits his subject matter perfectly. It is unlike anything I’ve read. I can’t even compare him to other people.

To set the scene, the professor has just called Melanie, the student, at her house. Her mother answered and has left the phone to get her.

Melanie—melody: a meretricious rhyme. Not a good name for her. Shift the accent. Meláni: the dark one.

‘Hello?’

In the one word he hears all her uncertainty. Too young. She will not know how to deal with him; he ought to let her go. But he is in the grip of something. Beauty’s rose: the poem drives straight as an arrow. She does not own herself; perhaps he does not own himself either.

The first segment is the professor’s thoughts. Part of the slimness of Coetzee’s writing comes from how he slides into and out of the head of the main character with no frills. No italics. No “he thought” to punctuate and emphasize what is already obvious. I like this style, and find some writer’s overemphasis on pointing out character’s thoughts as needless distrust of the reader’s comprehension.

The punctuation through this segment is brilliant. It also allows Coetzee to do away with excess words that the professor wouldn’t be thinking anyway. It flows quickly like actual thoughts would. It’s word association rather than something logical.

Then we get to the actual words. He notes the rhyme between Melanie and melody. But the brilliant thing is calling it a “meretricious” rhyme. This word does so much work in the passage. On the face of it, he wants the rhyme to be deceiving because he doesn’t want a melodic girl but a devious one. The word meretricious doesn’t merely mean deceiving though; it has the archaic meaning “of, like, or relating to a prostitute,” exactly how the professor views the student in that moment.

In four sentences, we, as readers, feel so much. We get to watch how the professor thinks about this student. We watch how his mind turns things around. We see how he starts to justify his actions to himself. In context, these four sentences give us a sense of revulsion at the main character’s true self that we wouldn’t get from a mere surface description of the act. There’s something deeper and more disturbing about the scene playing out this way.

After she answers the phone, the point of view shifts out of his thoughts, but things only get worse. Now we see that he understands that what he is doing is wrong. He understands that he needs to leave, but the narrator joins in on the justification. He’s out of control. She’s out of control.

As a reader, we start to feel helpless. Even the narrator is pushing the act along, and we learn that we cannot trust the narrator to show us the moral condemnation we hope for. We want to shout, “No! He does own himself! Stop making excuses for him. Lust is not reason enough to lose control of one’s actions.”

Shakespeare is quoted with “beauty’s rose,” reemphasizing the fact that the English professor knows his stuff, but it is more significant than that. This comes from Shakespeare’s first sonnet, and this is the first scene to start the plot of the novel. The full sonnet is about an older man who self-destructs under his selfish and gluttonous ways. That brief phrase “beauty’s rose” is a deep foreshadowing into the rest of the novel.

This is what makes Coetzee such an experience to read. His sparse prose strikes immediate emotional response into readers with no analysis necessary. But upon a deeper reading, we can find a shocking amount of extra information layered in through precise word choice.

Confounding Variables and Apparent Bias

I was going to call this post something inflammatory like #CylonLivesMatter but decided against it. Today will be a thought experiment to clarify some confusion over whether apparent bias is real bias based on aggregate data. I’ll unpack all that with a very simple example.

Let’s suppose we have a region, say a county, and we are trying to tell if car accidents disproportionately affect cylons due to bias. If you’re unfamiliar with this term, it comes from Battlestar Galactica. They were the “bad guys,” but they had absolutely no distinguishing features. From looking at them, there was no way to tell if your best friend was one or not. I want to use this for the thought experiment so that we can be absolutely certain there is no bias based on appearance.

The county we get our data from has roughly two main areas: Location 1 and Location 2. Location 1 has 5 cylons and 95 humans. Location 2 has 20 cylons and 80 humans. This means the county is 12.5% cylon and 87.5% human.

Let’s assume that there is no behavioral reason among the people of Location 1 to have safer driving habits. Let’s assume it is merely an environmental thing, say the roads are naturally larger and speed limits lower or something. They only average 1 car accident per month. Location 2, on the other hand, has poorly designed roads and bad visibility in areas, so they have 10 car accidents per month.

At the end of the year, if there is absolutely no bias at all, we would expect to see 12 car accidents uniformly distributed among the population of Location 1 and 120 car accidents uniformly distributed among the population of Location 2. This means Location 1 had 1 cylon in an accident and 11 humans, and Location 2 had 24 cylons and 96 humans in accidents.

We work for the county, and we take the full statistics: 25 cylon accidents and 107 human accidents. That means 19% of car accidents involve cylons, even though their population in the county is only 12.5%. As an investigator into this matter, we now try to conclude that since there is a disproportionate number of cylons in car accidents with respect to their baseline population, there must be some bias or speciesism present causing this.

Now I think everyone knows where this is going. It is clear from the example that combining together all the numbers from across the county, and then saying that the disproportionately high number of cylon car accidents had to be indicative of some underlying, institutional problem, was the incorrect thing to do. But this is the standard rhetoric of #blacklivesmatter. We hear that blacks make up roughly 13% of the population but are 25% of those killed by cops. Therefore, that basic disparity is indicative of racist motives by the cops, or at least is an institutional bias that needs to be fixed.

Recently, a more nuanced study has been making the news rounds that claims there isn’t a bias in who cops kill. How can this be? Well, what happened in our example case to cause the misleading information? A disproportionate number of cylons lived in environmental conditions that caused the car accidents. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. There wasn’t bias or speciesism at work. The lack of nuance in analyzing the statistics caused apparent bias that wasn’t there.

The study by Fryer does this. It builds a model that takes into account one uncontroversial environmental factor: we expect more accidental, unnecessary shootings by cops in more dangerous locations. In other words, we expect that, regardless of race, cops will shoot out of fear for their lives in locations where higher chances of violent crimes occur.

As with any study, there is always pushback. Mathbabe had a guest post pointing to some potential problems with sampling. I’m not trying to make any sort of statement with this post. I’ve talked about statistics a lot on the blog, and I merely wanted to show how such a study is possible with a less charged example. I know a lot of the initial reaction to the study was: But 13% vs 25%!!! Of course it’s racism!!! This idiot just has an agenda, and he’s manipulating data for political purposes!!!

Actually, when we only look at aggregate statistics across the entire country, we can accidentally pick up apparent bias where none exists, as in the example. The study just tries to tease these confounding factors out. Whether it did a good job is the subject of another post.

Year of Giant Novels Part 7: 2666

I don’t remember how I learned of the existence of 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. When it released in English in 2008, it took the literary establishment by storm, winning multiple best book of the year awards. But even so, I’d wager that most people haven’t heard of it. I know I paid attention to these things in 2008, but this wasn’t when I heard about it.

When I started the novel a few weeks ago for the giant novels project, I wasn’t convinced of its greatness. The novel is broken into five large parts, and each of these is broken into little page-length segments. There aren’t any chapters apart from these segments. These little vignettes read almost like Baudelaire stories, and indeed, Baudelaire is quoted at the start.

The first part follows five academics who study an obscure writer. They get into little love triangles and fights with each other. The stories certainly build into a coherent part, but I didn’t really see the point. There was a strange allure that kept me coming back, but I couldn’t pinpoint anything that struck me as particularly interesting or compelling.

The next two parts go off on seemingly unrelated sets of stories. I got 350 pages in, and I started to lose my grounding. There didn’t appear to be any central glue to these disparate stories. I again was reminded of Baudelaire, because something like Paris Spleen is a collection of unrelated vignettes that combine together to give a wider portrait and worldview.

When I thought in these terms, a few threads appeared. Two ordinary people quickly turn to disturbing violence when they beat up a cab driver. An artist’s self-portrait involved a gruesome chopping off of his own hand. A disturbing boxing match. Murder. Violence. The whole of human history consisting of beating each other to death over the dumbest things.

These segments made their appearances so quickly and sparsely so as to almost not be noticed in such a grand and complex novel whose plot revolves around other ideas. But they came and made their impression, and the magnitude of what they pointed to started to weigh as I approached Part IV.

I’m not sure anything can prepare someone for Part IV of this novel. Part IV is essentially 300 pages of graphic depictions of murders of women that all happened in the town of Santa Teresa, Mexico (though fictional, it is based on Juarez, a real place in which over 370 women have been murdered and 400 more have gone missing since the 90’s). To read 2666 is a powerful and changing experience because of this section.

I think we have to take a step back and consider Bolaño’s achievement here. He could have just published Part IV as the whole novel, but no one would read it. I know I would have gotten through the first few, and then put the book down as a tedious and gruesome exercise. But as I’ve pointed out, Bolaño works on your subconscious for those first three parts, and he gets you mentally prepared to experience it. It is a brilliant move to put this section in the middle like this.

The final part gives the reader a chance to decompress after the experience. I wouldn’t say it ties up loose ends or becomes happy or anything. It more gives the reader time to digest and reflect on the horror.

The novel is not a genre mystery where the murder cases get solved. In a sense, this would be offensive to all the victims and their families who don’t get closure in real life. It doesn’t offer solutions. I’d see this as giving false credence to the politicians who oversimplify issues like this and offer clean solutions that can never work.

The book remains complex and difficult, and in doing so, presents the problems and issues in the only mature and realistic way conceivable. This makes it art. The novel is a testament to what great art can be. Tidy, easy stories can still move you, but it takes novels like these to change you. It’s a reminder that “literary” and “experimental” doesn’t have to be synonymous with dull and unengaging. Sometimes breaking the traditional form is the only way shock someone into understanding what you are trying to say.