A Documentary, a Podcast, and a Dark Confession

First, I want to briefly discuss a surprisingly good documentary (well, more of a docudrama, since it features actors and fictionalized versions of real events). Earlier this year, Netflix released a film called The Most Hated Woman in America, about the life and death of outspoken atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair (this was before the Casey Anthony thing).  Although over 20 years old now, the case is one of those so bizarre in a “I couldn’t write this stuff” kind of way that I’m surprised it hasn’t received more media attention. The narrative cuts back and forth between Madalyn and her family after their 1995 abduction and her past as a single mother in 1960s Baltimore, where she became an increasingly abrasive advocate for religious freedom. Melissa Leo does a great job of portraying O’Hair at different ages, and together she and the writers manage to humanize someone who was by almost all accounts a difficult, unpleasant person. Vincent Kartheiser (smarmy Pete Campbell, for those who have watched Mad Men) plays her estranged son and the talented but somewhat underused Juno Temple plays her loyal granddaughter. Then there’s Josh Lucas as bitter former employee turned kidnapper, who projects a kind of menacing charisma and, in the scenes with Leo, creates an almost palpable tension. The narrative strikes the healthiest balance it can between “this woman has enemies? I can’t imagine why” and “okay, that shouldn’t happen to anyone.” I’m tempted to say more about it , but I have other things I want to get to without being too long-winded. So my suggestion is to Google the case to get the basic facts of the story, then watch.

I’ve also added Writing Excuses  to my ever growing podcast list. Each episode is a concise 15 minutes, full of great perspectives on writing. Then the hosts yell at you to get back to work at the end of each. Also, I checked out Last Podcast on the Left. It’s a sophomoric, tasteless comedy podcast about true crime and unexplained events, and when in the right mood, it’s hilarious. It makes me laugh, then feel ashamed.

So, the thing I’m really here to talk ab0ut today is the “dark confession” alluded to above. I’m a writer, and I hate world-building. In fact, world-building can go right over and stand next to cooking on my “it improves my quality of life but I still kind of loathe the process” shelf. I have a theory that some writers start by drawing a map–or perhaps just a tastefully decorated sitting room–and then people it with characters. That’s great, but it’s just not me. I’m more likely to stumble into a character who insists on being written about, sometimes with a filament of plot attached if they’re  being charitable. Then some other characters emerge from the shadows, and oh wait, two of them are fighting, and one of them is hitting the other with a chair. So, um, I guess my setting needs chairs now. I don’t really draw maps, and naming fictional cities, countries, rivers, and mountains makes me want to rip my eyelashes out. Every time I realize that a proper noun is required, I have to spend a good twenty minutes rejecting city/river/coffee shop names, all while my characters are getting impatient for the actual scene to start.

Now, at this point, you should all be asking, “But, L.R., why don’t you just use real world locations? They come with names, maps, and descriptions, no assembly required.” First of all, it is entirely possible that one day I will use a 100% real world setting, when the characters and plot seem to demand it. I think the reason that I’ve been using not-quite-real world settings (a few dimensions down settings?) is due to the fact that A.) I feel weirdly self-conscious about writing about real places, for fear of Doing It Wrong somehow, and B). as much I dislike flushing out my settings, I’m also very picky about them in some ways. I want every aspect of my story to feel like an organic part of a whole, and if my plot and characters can’t be plopped down into a real setting without feeling forced, then I have to come up with one that will fit them.

Now, I could get away with sparse world-building in my first novel, since the majority of the action took place in one city and the plot demanded only vague references to other places. Recently, however, I’ve been working on a project that is clearly going to demand more development in that regard, so I have to confront my distaste. How am I doing that? Here are some methods I am trying.

A. I already have some characters and loose plot points sketched out, so I’ve created a separate document listing every city/region/geographic thing I might need, with a few lines of description. I’m not trying for too much with these descriptions, at least at this stage. I start with something simple like “it’s near the ocean.” Then: “Because of this, it’s heavily dependent on maritime trade.” And then: You know what would totally ruin this place’s week? Some kind of embargo or blockade. This could be a point of conflict.” Then I start trying to think of how some of these things might be relevant to the characters and plot points I already have. The names usually come last, and yeah, I still hate coming up with them, but there are random generators.

B. I shamelessly copy, paste, and recombine real places and events. I did this in The Foreigner,  I’m going to keep doing it, and honestly I suggest everyone do it. This suits me, since I’ve never gravitated to fully invented languages and cultures–I prefer my characters to dress, talk, and be named like real people. So world cultures and history offer a near-endless yard sale of props.

C. Lastly, to come full circle, while I’m trying to keep my writing weaknesses from becoming a full handicap, I’m not going to develop them at the expense of what I really want to accomplish with my story, either. I’m going to write the book I want to read, and I’m only going to develop the setting as much as I need to make the story that needs to be made. I’m going to expand my comfort zone, but not abandon it.

 

What about everyone else? Does anyone else struggle with some of these same issues, and if so, how do you deal with it?

On Introverting Badly, and Why No One Should Care (plus some links)

When you’re writer–or even just someone with basic awareness of their social surroundings–it’s difficult to avoid references to personality typing. A given scroll through the recommended pins for my pinterest board will reveal several infographics about the various Enneagram,  Myers-Briggs,  and Big 5 categories that a person might fall into (the last is, in my opinion, the most likely to be accurate, not that it matters much at the moment). Now, I accept that personality typing is not and never should be an exact science, but the topic intrigues me enough that I’ve learned more about the ingredients of personality than I probably ever needed to.

One pair of opposites that comes up a lot is the introversion/extroversion gradient, and where it’s mentioned, a flurry of what I can only describe as “introvert apologia” is never far away.

Now, I am without a doubt an introverted person. Typically, my idea of a great night involves me, my cat, and a Jane the Virgin marathon on Netflix (although I should add that not all nights are typical ones). My amazing fiance was gone all last weekend, and so I sat at home listening to nothing but some new podcasts and the rain on the roof and it was the best weekend ever. I do not regret being this way, and I am in total agreement with the basic premise of every “misconceptions about introverts” post, that is, that there’s nothing wrong with being one.

However, I have some points of contention with how introversion and extroversion are discussed and how these constantly repeated truisms are becoming accepted as gospel. So I thought I would share some of my own observations just to add some perspective to the topic (not to pick fights with anyone).

First of all, introversion and extroversion are matters of degree, not type. Even though most psychology texts essentially state this, the public interpretation seems to tend towards polarization. For instance, take the x000 “how to care for your introvert” things I see bandied about pinterest and Facebook. “Respect boundaries” “avoid passing judgement” “don’t interrupt” “don’t spring things on the person at the last minute.” Excellent advice, all, but mostly indistinguishable from basic courtesy. I’m willing concede that having these guidelines violated might be especially troubling to an introverted personality, but am I really supposed to deduce that an average extrovert loves being interrupted, enjoys having important information dumped on them at the last conceivable second, and sits around itching for someone to disrespect their boundaries?  Introverts, extroverts, and the many, many people who fall somewhere in the middle are all, you know, people, and are not that fundamentally different from one another. We’re discussing variations in the human personality, not two different species.

The other point that I want to address is that, while there is nothing wrong or even unusual about being an introvert, to put it baldly, there is nothing special either. For myself, I do not believe that being an introvert makes me any smarter, any kinder, any more responsible, or any more loyal than I would be if I was more of an extrovert. These are all separate qualities independent of my preferred Friday night activities. Some of the things that seem to come up over and over again in descriptions of introverted personalities are “liking one-on-one interaction” and “having few but close friends,” and neither of these are especially true of me. One- on-one conversations are actually the most tiring type of socialization for me, because I have to carry the burden for a full half of the conversation rather than distributing it evenly among, say, three to five people. And, although I certainly have some great friends, I still think that “gets along with almost everyone but doesn’t really have a  BFF” is a better description of me than “having few but close friends.”

Happily, as far as I’m concerned, none of this matters. The vast majority of people have both extroverted and introverted qualities, and neither extreme represents some sort of elite secret society with stiff standards for admission. Act as you see fit (with the standard legal and ethical qualifiers).

In absence of a snappy conclusion that isn’t a retread of what I’ve already written, I’m going to switch gears and turn to my fall back topic: Things that I Find Interesting that You Should Check Out.

I’ve discovered a great new podcast (shocking, I know):  The Strange Matters Podcast . It covers anything that qualifies as a strange matter (unsolved crime, theoretical science, claims of the paranormal) and does it in a very informative and entertaining way. Don’t worry, I’m a strong skeptic about anything paranormal, but I’m still curious enough to enjoy hearing about it. They cover a wide variety of interesting cases and I can’t believe it took me this long to stumble across them.

Recently, HBO aired a documentary called Mommy Dead and Dearest. The story is as morbid as it sounds, and it’s well worth watching.  The Brain Candy Podcast (another good one!)  discussed the documentary in a recent episode. Before watching, though, I suggest reading this article about the case first. It deals with a likely case of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, and it is one of the most fascinating and disturbing things I have ever read.

That’s all I have for now. Best wishes to everyone!

 

 

 

 

Welcome to the Night Land

When even the fans of a particular book have been known to describe sections of it as “virtually unreadable”, there is, at the very least, something worth talking about. And someone  really does need to remember William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, a rather obscure book first published in 1912 by one of the early masters of the genre now most often referred to as weird fiction (also the “dying earth” subgenre, if genre classification is your thing).

What happens in it? Well, a young man in the 17th century falls in love with a young woman, but she dies. The grieving fellow then falls asleep one night and wakes in the body of a far-future incarnation of himself. This incarnation lives inside a gigantic pyramid (called the Last Redoubt) with the remnants of the known human population. Outside, the sun has gone dark, monstrous living forms  called Watchers creep ever closer to the Redoubt, and strange beings scuttle across a landscape lit only by volcanic fissures. Future Narrator hears a telepathic call for help from none other than the future incarnation of his lost love, and, like any good protagonist, he sets off across the nightmare-riddled terrain to find her.

Yes, there are sections that are more or less unreadable, but I’m encouraging you to well, read it. For one, you can honestly tell your friends that it’s like nothing else you’ve ever read. For another, I think there are some legit writing lessons to be gained here, although if you try to copy the style you have probably learned the wrong ones. One that we can appreciate is that what isn’t seen or described in detail can be a lot more unsettling than what is. Take, for instance, the House of Silence, one of the many sinister places our narrator glimpses from the top of the Last Redoubt before setting off on his journey. Lights burn inside it and always have. No sound escapes it, and no one that enters ever leaves. The reader never learns what the House of Silence is or what’s inside it, and doesn’t need to. Its pall has been cast across the entire narrative, and no amount of explanation in the world could imbue it with more dread than it already has. (Obviously, this is a a really important  lesson that anyone attempting to write on the edges of the horror genre should know, and WHH is not the only one to learn it from, but I think we can mostly agree that the early writers did suspense better).

One day I’ll re-read it, but I’m not quite that bedridden at the moment. According to the Wikipedia entry, an author named John Stoddard has essentially re-written the novel as The Night Land, a Story Retold,  in a more palatable style.   I have not yet read it, but I already want to give this man a cookie because someone needed to do it.  Hodgson himself also wrote The House on the Borderland, which some readers might find a bit more accessible, but which never personally resonated with me as much as The Night Land did.

Oh, and there’s a website. Complete with fanfic, naturally.

Writing Lesson From How I Met Your Mother: So Many Ways to Tell a Story

Below, I discuss spoilers for Season 3, Episode 7 of How I Met Your Mother (I mean, it aired back in 2007,  but I’m sometimes really  late to the TV party myself so I’m trying to be courteous. Seriously. I watched my first and so far only episode of Gilmore Girls three weeks ago).

As popular and well-known as How I Met Your Mother was, and for all the flaws it did have, I still don’t actually think it gets enough credit for some of the clever narrative techniques it employed. One of my favorite episodes is “Dowisetrepla”, and what makes it memorable isn’t what the episode is about. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, it’s how it’s about. All that happens is that my favorite fictional couple, Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshal (Jason Segel) buy an apartment, despite the fact that Lily is neck-deep in credit card debt and hasn’t been able to bring herself to tell her husband. He finds out. They fight. Then they make up.

Now, here’s the thing. We never actually see the fight. What we see instead is three of their friends stopping  by their apartment and concluding, ominously, that a fight happened. A water bottle with the label peeled off? Lily peels the labels off things when she feels guilty about something. An empty quart of ice cream? Marshall eats when he’s mad! The calendar on the wall is crooked because someone slammed the door! By using this technique, the writers actually accomplish several things. For one, they avoid boring the audience with things the audience already knows. We know why Lily and Marshall are fighting. We know, or can safely assume, that Marshall is shocked and angry and that Lily is guilty. We don’t actually need to waste five minutes of screen time hearing them verbalize these feelings (and perhaps becoming less likeable in the process), when we could be watching the impromptu film noir parody instead. Secondly, it gives the other three members of the main cast something to do in a story line that mainly hinges on Lily and Marshall’s actions, and do it in a very funny way that still conveys the main plot points. We know exactly what we need to know about the argument without seeing any of it.

I still haven’t discussed what “Dowisetrepla” means, and I’m not going to here. If you don’t know, you’ll have to watch it and find out. If you just plain don’t care, that’s fine too, and probably healthier.

My point here? There are a lot of ways to tell a story or script a scene. If a blow-by-blow account of events in your story just isn’t doing it for you, you might want to explore an less conventional approach. Narrate the same scene from a different character’s point of view, or summarize what happened by showing the impact (“In the end, she got the house, I got the car.”)  You can even skip to the next part of your story and include the missing scene as part of a character’s flashback at a point when it has new relevance (Mad Men has also made at least one good use of this technique). Step outside the stubborn scene or plot point, figure what really needs to be said, and try new ways of saying it.

Best of luck with that!

Come Share in My Sudden and Likely Short-Lived Enthusiasm

So, I have this yen to do some kind of serialized online novel. As in, I put up a new chapter every week or so and anyone who follows this thing screams encouragement for me to continue.

I have a few ideas, but I’m still at the really, really early stage where I’m about 98% enthusiasm and 2% structure (if only that were all that was required).  So this thing could be any genre, or several genres, and go on for as long as I feel necessary.

Of course, this could all be a temporary madness on my part. Alternatively, it could be an exercise in forced creativity. After all, nothing motivates productivity like deadlines and an enthusiastic audience (or at least an imagined version of the same).

I should note here that any future projects I undertake will not be a sequel to The Foreigner, or anything related to The Foreigner. I have never seriously wanted to do a multi-book series, for several reasons. Prime among them is I don’t want to be locked into a very long project past the point where I myself tire of it. Plus, I have read too many series, some of them written by fantastic authors, that simply start to collapse under their own weight after Book 4 or 5*, and you can almost feel the writer’s enthusiasm waning. And I I really don’t see a reason that I would be any different under the same circumstances. Plus, in the case of The Foreigner, does anyone really want to see me do more horrible things to Adeline Rook? By the end of book, I sort of got the feeling she could use a  break and perhaps a nice long bubble bath. If anything I write in the future has a connection with my first novel, it will be a blink-and-you-miss-it reference that will have no bearing on the reader’s understanding or enjoyment of the story (hmm…..)

So what I’m talking about here is leaping into some new story and seeing if it holds anything that interests me. And I’m excited about it. I just have to see if I can make the excitement (and a plot) last.

Suggestions welcome, but no promises!

*Here, I’m not really talking about one-shot novels set in the same universe with the same characters (i.e a lot of mystery and detective fiction), but books in series with an overarching plot that demands an endgame.

 

A Few Favorite Writing Books

I’m going to be open about the fact that I’ll be sharing a lot of recs, random trivia, and assorted oddities here. I really don’t feel compelled to talk much about my personal life, not because I’m guarding any deep, dark secrets but because doing so simply does not interest me, and probably would not interest that many people reading this, either. Right now, I want to keep the focus on the writing life, and there’s only so much to say about my writing life at any given point. So…have some books.

Robert’s Rules of Writing: 101 unconventional lessons every writer needs to know by Robert Masello

First of all, there are actually 102 lessons. The last one is “break the rules.”  Masello’s guide is witty, refreshing, and often hilarious. It’s unashamedly self-contradictory (Rule 30: “Pile it on!” Rule 31: “Reduce clutter.” It’s great to be told that in some circumstances it is totally fine to tell rather than show. It’s also great to be to be told to “Stop reading” while deep in a writing project, or at least to stop reading things that are too similar to what you’re writing. Most of all, it’s incredibly fun to read. Apparently, Masello has written several thrillers, too, which I have not yet read, which you can see on his author page.

Plot Perfect: How to Build Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene by Paula Munier

A fantastic read with lots of great examples to support its points. (You may want to read The Maltese Falcon before this book to avoid spoilers, if you have any interest in reading it at all. The author really likes The Maltese Falcon). There are some great tips here for starting or structuring a novel, from building a complex character through their contradictions to plotting a novel based on its pivotal points.  I’m particularly fond of the index card trick for plotting discussed on page 94, and even if you don’t find some of the techniques here especially useful, the book will at least help make you more aware of the sort of story you’re trying to tell.

Steal This Plot: A Writer’s Guide to Story Structure and Plagiarism (Classic Wisdom on Writing) by William and June Noble

Yes, please. Actually, I think I’ll steal two or three and then throw them in a blender together. And then maybe add a shot or two of tequila, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I often find that books and articles discussing the “29 basic plot templates” leave me cold, and not because I particularly disagree. Almost all stories do tend to be about one of those 29 things (revenge, transformation, the riddle, etc.), but I do not think that stories are or should be only about one of 29 things. In fact, as I sit here writing this I can readily invent one in which there is an underdog main character involved in a bitter rivalry with another character, but then the rivals have to team up to rescue a third character. In the process, they develop some sort of love, romantic or otherwise, for one another. Except it’s a forbidden love. One of the two (probably the original underdog) goes through a process of maturation, while the other heads down the road of wretched excess. Meanwhile, what about the character in need of rescue, whom we have sadly neglected up to this point? Would it be too much to suggest she is trying to escape while this horse hockey plays itself out? And nothing about what I just wrote sounds terribly original or unusual, so you see my point.

But the approach that William and June Noble take here is fantastic. Instead of attempting to reduce plots to one of 29 templates, they celebrate the diversity that any one of these basic ideas can render. They draw on numerous literary examples (really, this book could do the job of several Cliff Notes books), and provide some great inspiration regarding just how much can be done with a single plot as a starting point.

So go ahead. Steal a plot. Just, you know, add some stuff.

Your First Bestseller: How to Self-Publish a Successful Book on Amazon by Mike Fishbein

I found this at the exact moment I needed it. While not as entertaining of a read as some of the others on this list, it is incredibly useful for anyone trying to self-publish. Fishbein has written an easy to follow guide that covers just about everything the would-be author needs to know, from book covers to marketing to the actual process of self-publishing. Since the whole process can be very intimidating, I find it very reassuring to have this concise, straightforward booklet at my side.

MASTER LISTS FOR WRITERS: Thesauruses, Plots, Character Traits, Names, and More  by Bryn Donovan

This one doubles as a prompt collection if one is desperate—I can go through the lists and choose one from column A, one from Column B, a few from Column C and it’s enough for the root of a story. All of the lists are long and highly specific (Ways to describe eyes! 100 interesting settings for scenes! Motives for murder!). The only problem is that you may find yourself spending more time reading through the lists than on the actual writing. Enjoy, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!

On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft by Stephen King

Most people are familiar with this one, but it’s worth recommending again here. I’ve actually only read a handful of Stephen King novels, and while I don’t dislike the author, none of his work has stuck with me enough for me to really consider myself a fan (note to self: I still really must read The Stand at some point). But this memoir is pure gold for any aspiring writer. His “finding the fossil” analogy for developing a story is as good as any I have come across to describe the writing process. I say this as someone who has chased a lot of false fossils in the past months. Enough to construct an entire false fossil Diplodocus, to be honest.

Please feel free to share your own favorites. And yes, I know I should have read Bird by Bird by now. I just haven’t yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction

Hello, and welcome! My name is L.R. Gordan, and I am a recently self-published novelist.  You can check out my first novel, The Foreigner, on Amazon. I plan on using this site to reach out to readers, as well as to connect with, learn from, and encourage other writers. I will also be sharing a lot of whatever I happen to find interesting at any given moment (I’m on an ancient Egyptian kick at the moment).  I’ll be recommending books, podcasts, shows, and articles as I see necessary. I am especially interested in things that I find helpful in the writing process, although I have discovered that any writing tip will only work for some people, some of the time.

The two true rules when it comes to writing ? Many others have said it better, but here you go: 1. Keep writing 2. Write the book you want to read and worry about all the other stuff later (and there’s a lot of other stuff. But seriously, worry about it later). Also, please use Times New Roman font. I’ll like you better.

My goal is to post updates at least 2-3 times a month. Feel free to leave me questions or suggestions in the comments. I am really looking forward to connecting with readers and writers alike.