Who is Ellen in Synecdoche, New York?

I’ll warn you up front that this is going to make extensive reference to the movie Synecdoche, New York. It’s not so much a spoiler warning, because this isn’t the type of movie that can be spoiled. It’s more to warn you that you will have no idea what I’m talking about if you haven’t seen it. This is one of the best movies ever made, so go watch it if you haven’t. I’ve tried to watch it at least once a year since it came out.

Background material: The movie follows Caden Cotard, a middle-aged director of plays who wins a MacArthur grant. He decides to put on a gigantic semi-improvisational play about death. This ends up getting super meta, because he hires actors to play people in his life, including himself. Then there has to be actors to play those actors, etc.

Early on, Caden’s wife, Adele, leaves him and takes his daughter along. Ellen is introduced as Adele’s cleaning lady late in the movie.

Caden is also a hypochondriac. He believes he has a million things wrong with him throughout the movie and that he is about ready to die at any moment. This amount of background should suffice. The key is to know the names Caden, Adele, and Ellen.

This is going to be a complicated argument that involves seemingly unrelated concepts. So I’ll start with the conclusion so you know where I’m headed.

Conclusion: Ellen is Caden’s true self.

Concept 1: Caden only experiences his true self while cleaning.

Because of all his anxieties about art, being remembered, dying from a random disease or freak accident, and so on, he can’t ever clear his head enough to find himself. One way the film shows this is through the TV. Caden often appears on the TV screen in cartoons or commercials, and these give voice to the anxieties in his head at the time.

There are several scenes where Caden obsessively cleans things. As soon as this happens, the TV fogs over, and the anxious thoughts disappear. He becomes so consumed in the mindless activity that he can exist as his true self, sort of like meditation.

Concept 2: People see Ellen inside Caden when he is his true self.

There are quite a few moments where Caden gets called Ellen on accident early on in the movie. I interpret this as a Freudian slip. Everyone knows this person is beneath the layers of anxiety, but they don’t consciously know; it merely slips out on occasion.

The more compelling case comes from later in the movie. Caden goes to Adele’s apartment, and the next door neighbor asks if he is Ellen. He says he is, and then goes into the apartment and cleans for the whole night.

The deepest argument for this is that when Adele paints Caden’s portrait, the image is of a woman, Millicent, whose role in this argument is quite important.

Caden’s portrait:


Millicent playing the role of Ellen:


Since the whole movie is constantly about how art shows us things about ourselves we couldn’t see, we should interpret this as the painting showing us the person beneath Caden’s surface.

Concept 3: Millicent is the physical stand-in for Ellen.

Millicent gets hired to play Ellen in Caden’s play. This is already telling, because her lines are, of course, the ones that Caden said already. This is because Caden claimed to be Adele’s cleaning lady, Ellen, in order to be in her apartment.

Later, Millicent recalls a story from Ellen’s childhood. She cries at the end of it. I interpret this to mean the story is from her own childhood. She even cries out about failing to fulfill her promise to her mother, which would make no sense if the mother in the story weren’t her own:

Concept 4: Caden becomes his true self at the end of the movie, and the false, anxious exterior becomes the hidden self.

This is shown metaphorically in the movie by having Millicent stop playing the role of Ellen and start playing the role of Caden. The voice inside Caden’s head literally becomes the voice of Millicent/Ellen through the use of a earpiece.

But if this doesn’t convince you, the last piece of evidence is the final scene. The woman who played Ellen’s mother in the dream appears. What? This is extremely easy to miss and write off on a first viewing. The movie is over 2 hours long, and she only makes a 30 second appearance in the last 10 minutes in a dream sequence.

There is literally no other character with such a small role. Why would a meticulously crafted movie end with this character other than to stand out as vitally important? This woman holds Caden as if he is her baby. But we only know this character as Ellen’s mother. This makes Caden her child, Ellen.

The voice in Caden’s head even blurts out “You are Ellen” on the walk to this encounter.

On the couch he says, “I wanted to do that picnic with my daughter.” That was what Ellen wanted to do. He has fully become her/his true self at this point. Without this interpretation, that line makes no sense. They converse as if they are mother and daughter here.

In a sense, this means the whole movie is the journey of Caden to find and become his true self.

Year of Giant Novels Part 8: The Eye of the World

This is probably my last giant novel for the year. I really wanted to do something complicated and serious like Gaddis’ JR, but it was getting kind of annoying to find a reasonable copy. Anyway, I already covered the epic fantasy giant novel, so this will cover a lot of the same stuff.

I think I read at least part of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World around fifteen years ago, but I recalled none of it at the time of starting it this time. I’ll tread lightly, because I know a lot of people really love this series, and despite how this post comes across, I didn’t hate the book.

I’d probably never recommend it, but I don’t regret reading it. There were a lot of “problems,” but none were major. I’m going to tear into the details, because that’s how we discover what works in our own styles. That’s how we get better at writing. But these are mostly style things, and if I had read the book shifted by six months either direction, I might not have seen these as problems.

The structure of the novel is pretty simple. The main character’s village is attacked. This causes a group of people to be on the run from these enemies. They stop at villages on the way, and inevitably something always comes up to force them to run again. Travel – village – travel – village – etc.

On the one hand, it’s a clear Hero’s Journey narrative, but it’s also a travel narrative. These are both perfectly fine choices in general, but something was off in the execution. It took me a long time to figure it out. It lacked direction and positive motivation.

In the Hero’s Journey, the hero is called to action to go defeat the evil. There is motivation. We understand his/her progress in terms of this motivation. I didn’t see any of this in TEOTW. The hero was never called to action. In fact, it isn’t even clear who the hero is, because the bad guy can’t seem to figure out which is the chosen one.

All the heroes do is run away. This is negative motivation. They continually thwart the bad guys from achieving their goals, but they don’t seem to have independent goals of their own. This means the reader has no idea if they’re making progress.

Ah. I hear the retort already. The sense of progress in a travel narrative is if they’re getting closer to their destination. This also fails. Where are they headed? I have no idea. I don’t think I missed this, but it’s entirely possible I did.

At one point, I thought their goal was maybe Tar Valon so Egwene could start her Aes Sedai training, but then they arrived at Caemlyn and I started to think maybe their goal was to get to the false dragon there. As it turns out, neither of there end up being their destination, and it’s not clear to me the characters even knew where they were headed.

This might seem like nitpicking, but without goals or positive motivation, I found the story stagnant. I had a hard time picking the book up to keep reading. If the goal was to defeat the main villain, this could have been more clear. The main villain doesn’t even appear until the last 50 pages (out of 800+). It came out of nowhere. I sort of assumed he would remain this mysterious background force for the next 10 books in the series.

My next complaint has to do with stakes. I never felt like the characters were in any real danger. This has to do with how the book opens. The Aes Sedai easily handles the Trolloc attack on the village single handed. So later, no matter how many times she says they are in danger, it’s hard to take her seriously. I kept thinking: Eh, if it came down to it, she could use those same powers to save them again. Actions speak louder than words.

This is one of those things that’s mostly a product of its time. Fantasy has been worked out and studied a lot since 1990. Writers now know that it’s more important for the reader to understand the limitations than the power of the magic system. Also, instead of continuing to be chased by Trollocs for 75% of the book, throwing something in to raise the stakes would have added the uncertainty needed for a real threat.

There are a lot of “obligatory” scenes that would have helped out here. There’s a reason Gandalf “dies” in The Lord of the Rings. The stakes get raised when the most powerful person can’t keep bailing you out. There’s also the “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene where the reader must fully believe it’s all over. The villain could end it all with no problem. The hero narrowly escapes due to a surprising (yet believable) ingenuity.

Those are the two main flaws of the book: lack of positive motivation and the stakes didn’t continually rise to create tension. As with most giant novels I’ve read this year, I think it’s too long. Trimming this by 10% might remove both of these problems. When a book feels stagnant, increasing the pace by trimming the length can do a lot to help.

The real test is if I’ll keep reading the series. I think I’ll at least give the second book a chance, because I have no idea how it will continue from here.

On Switching to Colemak

There’s this thing many people will probably go their whole lives and never know about. A ton of alternative keyboard layouts exist other than the default “QWERTY” (named for the letters along the top row of the keyboard). There is a subculture obsessed with this.

The two most common ones are Dvorak and Colemak. Last Saturday I started learning where the letters on Colemak are located. By the end of Sunday, I had them memorized. This meant I could type very slowly (3-5 wpm) with near perfect accuracy.

It didn’t take long to learn at all. Now, a few days later, I no longer have to think about where the letters are, but it will probably be another week or so before I get back to full speed.

Let’s talk about the burning question in everyone’s mind: why would anyone subject themselves to such an experience? I type a lot. For the past year or so I’ve experienced some mild pain in my wrists. I’ve never had it diagnosed to know if it is repetitive strain injury, but my guess is it’s a bad sign if you experience any pain, no matter how small.

I tried to alleviate some stress by tilting my keyboard and giving my wrists something to rest on:


[Yes, that’s Aristotle’s Poetics under the front of the keyboard.]

This helped a little, but the more I looked it up, the more I realized there was a fundamental issue with the keyboard layout that could be part of the problem. Most people probably think the layout has a purpose because of how strange it is. But we’ve outgrown that purpose.

The history of this is long and somewhat interesting, but it basically boils down to making sure hands alternate and common digraphs (two-letter combinations) have large distances separating them, so that when typing quickly on a mechanical typewriter it will be least likely to jam.

If one were to design a keyboard to minimize injury, one would put the most common letters on the home row, minimize long stretches, and make sure common digraphs use different but nearby fingers. This is almost exactly the philosophy of the Colemak layout.

The Colemak layout allows you to type around 34 times the number of words on the home row than QWERTY. It’s sort of insane that “j” is on the home row and “e” and “i” are not for QWERTY. Colemak also distributes workload more evenly. It favors the right hand slightly more at 6%, unlike the massive favoring of the right hand for QWERTY at 15%. You can go look up the stats if you want to know more. I won’t bore you by listing them here.

You will definitely lose a lot of work time while making the change due to slow typing, but the layout is provably more efficient. So in the long run you’ll end up more than compensated for these short-term losses.

I’d like to end by reflecting on what a surreal experience this has been. I think I first started learning to type around the age of eight. I’m now thirty. That’s twenty-two years of constant ingraining of certain actions that had to be undone. Typing has to be subconscious to be effective. We don’t even think about letters or spelling when doing it. Most words are just patterns that roll off the fingers.

This is made explicitly obvious when I get going at a reasonable speed. I can type in Colemak without confusion letter-by-letter, but I still slip up when my speed hits that critical point where I think whole words at a time. At that point, a few words of nonsense happen before I slide back into correct words. It’s very strange, because I don’t even notice it until I look back and see that it happened.

I’ve never become fluent in another language, but I imagine a similar thing must happen when one is right on the edge of being able to think in the new language. You can speak fluently, but occasionally the subconscious brain takes over for a word, even if you know the word.

If you’re at all interested, I’d recommend checking into it. I already feel a huge difference in comfort level.

On Swanberg’s Easy

I’ve been a longtime fan of Joe Swanberg’s, going all the way back to his first mumblecore film Kissing on the Mouth. He just came out with a new Netflix series, Easy, so I had to check it out.

The show doesn’t follow the conventions we’ve come to expect from Netflix. Each episode focuses on a single relationship issue between completely new characters. There is no big story arc like Orange is the New Black or House of Cards.

The problems these couples face are familiar to any fan of Swanberg’s. They include classics like gender roles, sex, sexuality, stagnation, and change creating conflict. Modern relationship ideas make an appearance as well like privacy when posting to social media and using apps to hook up.

Lots of people consider Swanberg’s early work to be boring. This stems from the philosophy of mumblecore: capture everyday moments with improvisation that sounds like normal speech (hence some inaudible mumbling). This can make for long stretches of pretty much nothing happening.

I want to argue that Easy is a departure from, or maybe more accurately, a continuation of his early work. First, the finished product consists of thirty-minute short films. The medium forces a tightness that a feature length movie does not. And Swanberg most definitely shows this off by staying completely focused on the core idea of each vignette. There isn’t time to languish on nothing.

Still, the improvisation aspect of the acting keeps with an aesthetic from his early works. There is an authenticity to the speech and rapid insight into the characters that often doesn’t come out in fully scripted shows.

I’ve seen some reviews that claim this is the same boring stuff and it is dated and cliche**. I think these reviewers are bringing a bias from his earlier work to these viewings. They also probably don’t understand what each vignette is really about.

The thing I like most about Easy is how each episode has a surface problem that gets explored, but each also has a more complicated meta-commentary running beneath it. I’ll use the first episode as a case study in this.

The premise is that a couple thinks they don’t have a good sex life because the man stays home. He thinks maybe the wife sees him as emasculated and isn’t aroused by the thought of him doing the housework. To spice things up, they use Halloween to dress up in stereotypical masculine (a construction worker) and a stereotypical feminine (a maid?) costumes and role play.

On the surface, this does look cliche. How many times have we seen comedies and dramas examine the gender role idea. It’s old. It’s boring. It’s been done since at least the 90’s (Thirtysomething comes to mind). We should be over this by now.

I get that sentiment, but I think it misses the real and new commentary of the episode. The reason the couple thought this was the problem in their relationship was that a “study” told them. This is cultural commentary about how eager we are with our devices in hand to jump on every study as essential to our lives.

We blindly follow whatever gets reported on, despite the fact that we don’t even know anything about these studies. I certainly don’t believe catchy headlines. Studies often have small findings, and the degree of certainty about their validity is low. But the mainstream media wants clicks, so they put out catchy headlines that have little to do with the actual results of the study.

Strangely, we all jump on the headline as if it were capital-T Truth and make adjustments to our lives based on this. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has changed their order at a restaurant because they were perusing their phone and ran across a headline “New study finds link between X and cancer.” Are we really that gullible?

Each episode has these underlying issues that are not the “obvious” surface one. I can see writing this series off as unoriginal if these surface problems are all you see. But I think the show is inspired in how it takes these old tropes and puts a deeper cultural commentary underneath (many of which would not be relevant five or ten years ago, so they certainly are not rehashing old ideas). I never once got bored watching it, and I have to wonder about the type of person who did.

** Dictionary dot com claims no accent on the e is acceptable for cliche, so I’m sticking with this spelling for blog purposes. I always use the accent in more formal writing.

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.

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.