Friday, October 14, 2011

On Writing: Part Eight

Is literature art?  Is writing art?  Are you an artist?  Put simply: yes, no, and no.  Whenever a writer first loads up Microsoft Word and stares at the blinking cursor* I feel like they imagine that they are the only person around the world who has ever done so.

That sums up the last question in my eyes, but the first two are more complicated.  You can define art however you want to (no, really, you can, according to the “Art World”, the definition of art has, apparently, become as amorphous as the pink ooze beneath New York City) but literature has always existed in a strange little zone of its own, so we will go back to that question in a moment.

More important is the issue of whether “writing” is art.  I steadfastly maintain that it isn’t.  I enjoy reading Jackie Collins or Katie Baker, but I would be hard-pressed to claim that either produce much in the way of “art” unless you have a gun to my head**.

My general rule is this: count the number of adverbs that appear in the text in question.  If the number is more than 0, it probably isn’t art (this does, sadly, mean that almost all of my work falls into the “not-art” category). 
I’ve read well over nine thousand books, and several thousand (honestly, probably millions) more articles, poems, funny photo captions, and back-of-the-DVD enticements, and I can say that only Finnegans Wake strikes me as being an artistic work of writing.  I’m exaggerating.  But only slightly.

The most explicit point I can make is that writing is an activity that almost everyone can do.  For that reason, almost everyone cannot produce something that I would consider art.  I’ve been critical of the kind of writer who attends workshops, or posts their writing on their “blog”, or prints their novel through Xlibris (I may not have mentioned that yet), and the reason I am so critical is not that I don’t enjoy the writing (although I very rarely do) but instead because it allows criminally inept hacks to indulge the illusion that they are artists. 
I have actually published stories, poems, and articles, and yet, I never, ever, make the mistake of claiming to be a writer in public (except when someone forces me to, usually by paying me). 

If this makes you wonder why I have a daily column about writing, so be it, but keep in mind that the website still isn’t “live” (after almost four months) and they’ve given up on editing my parenthetical asides.

When you get down to it, very few people engaged in the business of constructing sentences for money are even writers.  Less than 1% of them are artists.  That shouldn’t stop any single person from trying, as my goal is to encourage more people to write better, but it is meant as a realistic “shut-the-front-door” for anyone believing, just because they own a beret and know the difference between a cappuccino and macchiato, that they are producing “art”.

*How incredibly depressing is this sentence?  I asked three writers:

“So fucking true.  Damn.  It’s pencils and cassette tapes.  My kid has worse handwriting than I do, and I’ve worked for fifteen years to perfect my scribble.”

“I don’t know if this is depressing.  I doubt anyone cried when the typewriter was invented.  Do you think typewriters are somehow better than word processors?”  (My response to this was: “Who the fuck uses the term, “word processor”?)

“The cursor haunts my dreams almost as much as everything that seems underlined in squiggly red or green lines.  Why doesn’t it know that I am writing dialogue?  It’s horrifying.  I don’t need your judgement, Bill Gates.  And yes.  I can spell judgement with an ‘e’, no matter what you tell me.”  (This is true.  MS Word prefers dropping the ‘e’, but really, it’s a judgment call ::drum roll and cymbal crash::)

**Note: the number of things people will not do with a gun to their head drops 100% in the actual situation of having a gun to their head.  Writers, please keep this in mind the next time your character refuses to do something they don’t want to do out of principle even with a loaded 9mm pointed at their temple.  Real human beings will do whatever it is 999 times out 1000.  (Exceptions include sociopaths, psychopaths, and other forms of severe mental disease, only very rarely including “love”)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

U/W Combo for Champs 2011

There are actually a few things to take into consideration if you are planning on playing this deck either at FNM or the 2011s.  This article assumes you read the first, hastily posted version from Monday, so if you haven’t, please take the time to go back and do so.

Although I don’t usually like using lists, this is meant as an overview of some of the things I didn’t discuss on Monday, so it appears in relative order of importance.

On Writing: Part Seven

                I’ve alluded before to the horror that is the amateur writing workshop.  The kind where you pay $500 to hang out on a college campus while the kids are all on spring break, and you sit around listening to variations of the “I overcame impossible hardships” or “I swear I’m not gay, but maybe I’m just afraid” themes along with every impossibly bad Young Adult Paranormal Teen Romance manuscript that the writer swears is the next you-know-what.   Essentially, you can figure out the content of the manuscripts you’ll read at a conference by checking the bestseller lists from six months before.

                You’ll also have to deal with pretension masquerading as self-deprecation at levels that rival your local coffee shop’s open mic night.  For whatever reason, everyone will be convinced that they are TNBT and you are some Neil Gaiman fan-boy who doesn’t comprehend your own insignificance.  Only they’ll pretend that you should become best friends.

                This problem, so far as I can tell, stems directly from the well-fertilized soil of the Internet.  As some of us have learned, if you give everyone a voice, you have to be prepared to shift through a lot of dubstep before you find something worth listening to.

                If that whole rant seems pretentious to you, I’ll bow and beg pardon.  I do enjoy generalizations.  On a microcosmic level, I do read every essay, poem, and manuscript with an open mind.  I just read really fast and am difficult to impress.  

                Very few writers are worth the time it takes to read what they have written.  Fewer still are good enough to consistently produce work that continues to excel.  For example, I enjoy Nicholson Baker, and much of what he has written is astounding.  House of Holes, though, is sneaky-bad.  When you read it, you are convinced—because it is Nicholson Baker—that you are reading something brilliant.  I would never have even realized that it is secretly terrible except that it happened to be a book I got stuck re-reading while driving a long stretch of I-35 and the broken experience of balancing my eyes on the road and on the text created a juxtaposition that ended with me tossing the flaccid volume in the rear of my car. 

                On the other hand, I’ve never read or even heard of a bad Malcolm Gladwell essay.  Suffice it to say, you will probably never meet Malcolm Gladwell at a writer’s workshop.   If you are lucky enough to be accepted into a prestigious literary gathering—think the IWW, for example—then you can dodge most of the crap being flung by author-monkeys in the Internet zoo.  My point remains that most of the time?  You can expect to get hit in the face.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Canned Ham and Oysters" Part One of A Short Story by Ben Snyder

                I was taping a family of four on an afternoon picnic when it happened.  One of those $50 an hour jobs that you pick up from the bulletin board outside the labs in the community college.  Tell a few stories about some weddings and that reunion when your buddy Jack got back from Afghanistan and its pretty easy to convince a forty year old white guy with a permanent five o’clock shadow that you can shoot two and a half hours of an idea three reality show producers had rejected a half dozen times a piece.

On Writing: Part Six

                “If we do not understand what would happen if everything went right, we are not going to care if everything starts going wrong.”  You may not have realized it yet, but one of my goals in this series is to explore common misconceptions about “good” writing and to try to explain why I find it so completely asinine to attend workshops or read the large majority of unpublished work (or even published work).

                I’m paraphrasing a quote that I cannot, unfortunately, place, but it is central to quite a few arguments regarding “background” in literature.  The idea seems to be that the reader must establish a logical attachment to the characters in a story based on the author’s ability to convey subtle contextual clues in a manner that is internally consistent and plausible—i.e., if you have enough money to build an immensely powerful space station, you probably have enough money to hire someone to double-check that there are no air-ducts that firing a proton torpedo into would result in the destruction of said station.

                In fact, the Star Wars corollary is particular apt because of its multitudinous plot holes.  Is the story “bad” as a result?  If you say yes, George Lucas has a few billion dollars that says you’re wrong.  The simple argument would be that we do know what would happen if the Death Star functioned, so we do care and cheer when the Rebels throw a spanner in the works.

                What about more egregious errors in literature, the hackneyed stories you read in your freshman creative writing course where the main character lacks even simple motivation and just gets thrown into situations beyond her control and responds to them like a third-grader muddling through his first Choose-Your-Own Adventure book?

                That is where it becomes more complicated.  To me, the best “inciting incidents” are fairly simple.  A character is driving his boss’s daughter to school but is car-jacked and forced to play the role of a get-away driver. 

Problems arise when you have a situation where a courier is carrying an unknown MacGuffin, but gets hit by a car and dies tragically.  This sends ripples through a chain of the police who process the hit and run, the crime lord who needs the MacGuffin to build his Earth-Destroying Laser of Deadly Doom, the unwitting private investigator who was trailing the courier on assignment from the courier’s wife who suspected an affair, and the brilliant but tortured inventor of the MacGuffin who had a change of heart and was trying to get it back for herself.  What would have happened if the courier did deliver the package or at least hadn’t been hit by the random car?  Who the hell knows?  I doubt the author of that story could even figure it out with so many moving pieces.*

                Still, I bet the second story would be awesome and Michael Bay would definitely buy the movie rights and it would probably involve Shia LaBoef and a Victoria’s Secret model. 

                The problem does not lie in the missing or complicated motivation, but in the execution.  Why didn’t the Eagles just fly Sam and Frodo to Mt. Doom?  Labyrinthine ret-cons aside, there really isn’t a good reason, but the execution of the story allows you to forget about the problem and enjoy the ride.  In the end, that’s the difference between “good” and “bad” story-crafting.  I don’t really care what would happen if it all went right; just make sure you do a damn good job of taking me down the path of how it went wrong.

*My guess would be that the PI would pose as the recipient of the package suspecting it was filled with evidence of the affair and the Criminal would see him.  Meanwhile, the Inventor knows that the package was delivered, so she goes to the Police to tell them about the Criminal.  The Courier goes on about his business and stops at Subway for lunch.  The Police ignore the Inventor and go to Chuck E. Cheese instead.   The PI realizes that the MacGuffin has nothing to do with his client’s affair, so he tosses it in a garbage can in the Bowery.  But the Inventor feels responsible, so she goes after the Criminal, encountering the PI accidently and falls in love with him.  After a while, the Criminal kills the PI, but not before asking him where the MacGuffin is, which the Inventor hears because she is hiding in the closet.  At this point, the PI couldn’t tell the Criminal where the MacGuffin is because he doesn’t remember, so if the Inventor just forgets about the whole thing, the story could probably end.  But of course, she can’t forget, so she starts looking for the MacGuffin, causing her to get arrested.  The Police still think she is crazy, so she gets sent to a psychiatric ward where she meets a fellow detainee who believes her.  Together they escape and go on a quest to find the MacGuffin, ad nauseum.  Remember, this is my interpretation of what happens if everything goes right in the first place instead of ‘wrong’.  You hear me, Michael Bay?  This script is a gold mine.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

“But If He Lies to Me about Being in Love...: and the Increasing Disconnect Between Logic and Reality”

Before continuing, please take the time to familiarize yourself with the website mentioned in the subtitle.  If you do not, please be aware that what follows assumes that you have at least encountered mention of the same.  (Ed. Note: We found a good, non-Rookiemag article that discusses the site here)

“If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and smells like a duck then you need to kill it and perform an autopsy before you can determine whether or not it is, in fact, a duck.”

Judgment, assumption, stereotyping, and solipsistic rationality are not new breeds of cultural insensitivity.  It is sad, therefore, that they are becoming a kind of cultural touchstone; the mark of the twenty-first century intellectual.

Rookiemag is the emerging phenomenon that purports to celebrate feminist ideology and female empowerment by disabusing high school students of their popular misconceptions.  The heart of the magazine lies in its unflinching stance on girls and the difficulty of existing in what is universally acknowledged as one of the most poisonous environments sponsored by the government and society in general. 
Hailed as a radical new voice and forum for teenaged girls to express themselves in a free-flowing context that attempts to subvert stereotypes, Rookiemag is a powerful medium through which previously ignored or sublimated discussion points are illuminated and deconstructed.

Comboing in Post-Innistrad: Not Just Heartless

(Ed. Note: By request, due to the results of two SCG Standard Opens, we are posting this article on Monday, instead of Friday, so that interested players can start testing for The 2011s using this build.  Because of this, the article is shorter than expected, there will be a “Second Part” on Friday with more detail including sample games)

I’ve been asked a few times in the last two weeks what my deck choice for The 2011s would be if the tournament was tomorrow.  I’ve advocated a few different builds of popular decks in previous articles, but in the interests of protecting people who were planning on playing the next deck, I’ve refrained from talking about it.  But, in the interest of generating more interest for the website, and also because of the strength of the deck making it resilient, I sent in the following article early.  Good luck to everyone this weekend.

On Writing: Part Five

I’ve mostly focused on meta-considerations with writing so far, I’d like to fix that today.  It isn’t that I reject the conventions of craft or turn away from main-stream conceptions of productive aesthetically appealing writing.  In fact, I actively dislike and do reject the so-called “experimental” modes of fiction that seem to channel Joyce or Borges at their best and distill them into unfathomably atrocious simulacrums that I would feel terrible wall-papering my bathroom with.  Most “flash” fiction and “hypertext” novels are as enjoyable to me as I imagine having a bowl full of rusty nails shoved up my rectum would be.

History Lesson #1: AA-Gun from Minnesota Champs 2005

Let’s take a walk down memory lane with the first in a blog/column where I’ll be talking about successful decks I’ve designed in the past, the lessons I learned from those designs, and how you can incorporate my strategies into your own tinkering and brewing sessions. 

Here is the decklist:


4 Molder Slug
4 Eternal Witness
4 Viridian Shaman
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
4 Viridian Zealot

4 Magma Jet
4 Oxidize
4 Sensei’s Divining Top
4 Tel-Jilad Justice
2 Deconstruct
1 Echoing Ruin
1 Creeping Mold

1Tendo Ice Bridge
4 Shivan Oasis
9 Forest
6 Mountain

3 Plow Under
3 Arc-Slogger
1 Rude Awakening
1 Kodama of the North Tree
3 Kodama’s Reach
4 Pyroclasm

Monday, October 10, 2011

On Writing: Part Four

This next part is important.  When you think of the modern or contemporary authors that are going to be studied in the future—assuming that anyone bothers to engage studying such a quaint and curious notion as authorship in the centuries to come, given the inevitable proliferation of the Internet beyond rational comprehension—you are probably thinking of a few dead white guys, perhaps some middle twentieth century feminists and later post-colonial writers, and if you are extremely generous you might make a grab bag of some of the authors you find in the “literary” sections at Barnes and Noble.  More than likely, of course, you’ll end up being completely wrong.