#17 – Don’t Bend Over and Take that Advice

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

I’m not in the habit of taking advice. Of any sort. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure a lot of advice is wonderful, applicable in a variety of circumstances, and sincerely helpful. And it’s not even that I don’t think it applies to me, or I know better. Cause I damn well don’t. I just choose not to take it. Why? I’ve a stubborn streak a mile wide and I grew up telling myself I’d never let anyone tell me what to do, or how to do it. I’d find my own way – good or bad, hard or easy. My boss of the last twenty years used to growl that he may run the company, but he didn’t run me. I think he’s dead now, but it’s not my fault. I don’t listen to my wife’s advice either, though some consideration must be made to prevent marital Armageddon and all out thermonuclear war. Friends? Colleagues? Authority figures? Smile and wave boys, smile and wave. Of course, you can only pull it off with an excessive level of insanity, be willing to ignore any and all dire consequences, and have a cavalry worth of horseshoes up your ass. Your own results may vary.

But I’ll come right out and say that everything amazing comes from not listening to advice. Cases in point:

“Don’t eat a hotdog from the back alley food cart in Mazatlán at 2 a.m..”
“Don’t drink behind, under, on top of, or in that burning dumpster.”
“Don’t run a hundred miles in eyeball melting heat without pickle juice.”
“Don’t pet that beaver. Even if it’s a porcupine. Especially if it’s a porcupine.”
“Don’t stick your arm in that hole.”
“Don’t start that publishing company.”
“Um, you should see a doctor about that.”

Advice given. Advice not taken. Stories for the ages.


That’s life though, and we’re here to trash talk and throw shade on more literary pursuits. Now you’re probably thinking “But Noggy, we already know better than to become a poet-musician.” And you’d be right. But that’s just common sense.

I’m way more interested in thrashing the pile of advice you’ll find spouted from many a famous author and quoted from many a writing craft tome and lapped up by the desperate and sycophantic masses.

And I understand the irony of providing advice about ignoring advice. Please ignore everything I’m about to say. Trust me, it’s for the best.

The Road to Hell is Paved with Adverbs: Sure, sure, adverbs can be lazy crutches used to hobble through flowery prose where stronger words, built up through years of soul sucking thesaurus drudgery, might be considered better. But if adverbs weren’t useful, they wouldn’t exist. There’s what, literally a thousand adverbs in the English language? So, if you feel like using a fucking adverb, use a fucking adverb. If you use too many? Well, then you’re probably a poet, in which case all bets are off anyways. Besides, you need to give your editor something to bitch about.

Show Don’t Tell: Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Sometimes it’s just the moon. And it’s shining. This is the reason people write two hundred and fifty-thousand-word fantasy novels where absolutely nothing happens. They’re too busy showing you every god damn thing. Yes, yes, a story that’s all telling reads like a Pontiac Aztek repair manual, but when your character walks out of the house into the rain, you can just say “Jesus, it’s fucking raining again, where’s the damn umbrella? I’m going to chug a gallon of whisky and call in sick.” instead of “The splash of God’s tears washed away my anxiety and fear, leaving me cleansed and refreshed as I made my way to the bus stop to be whisked away to my dream job as a Walmart greeter.”

Kill Your Darlings: Why? I swear this advice is half the reason most writing is so wretchedly dull. Yeah, kill all the cool little bits that you love and may or may not need to be in the story just because some rich, famous mansion dwelling uber-author tells you to. Then again, my definition of darling may vary from the norm. Cause honestly, if something great in your story really needs to go for the good of the entire story, then it’s probably not that that darling to begin with.

Write What You Know: If everyone wrote only what they knew, all writing would be memoirs and grocery lists. All literary – all the time. How many writers have been to a galaxy far, far away, or Faerie, or belong to some super-secret spy organization that regularly assassinates brutal dictators with weapons that can’t possibly exist? Sure though, if you have some cool personal experience or skill or knowledge you can transfer directly to your story to make your Arby’s meatcraft salesman more authentic, by all means give him that Hentai tentacle fetish. And be specific. Most writers like to think they’ve had an extraordinarily cool life they can draw upon. ROFL. Pulease. So, write whatever the hell you want as long as you’re mindful of your subject. Expropriate and die. Simple as that.

Write Every Day: Nice thought. And yes, actually decent advice. I’d love to be able to write every day. And I do when I can. But I’m not going to beat myself silly trying to make it the #1 priority that trumps all others. I got a bloody life that’s full of frankly other priorities, some of which I’ll write a book a book about when I’m dead.

Write Drunk, Edit Sober: While this quote is attributed to Hemmingway, I think it was Faulkner who actually subscribed to it. Good ole Faulkner. A legend really, I’d call him a demi-god if he hadn’t dabbled in poetry, but nobody’s perfect. Could have went further though. Write Drunk, Edit Drunker, Publish Drunkest. Best to dull the pain at every step. And writing is pain. A good bottle of Blanton’s or Hibiki 17 or Oban is medicinal, take that from Dr. Noggy. Look, I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with being sober. I’ve heard stories about sober people being healthier and happier and such. I’ve also heard similar stories about Cryptids. Can’t believe everything you read.


So, yeah, whatever. Just remember this isn’t advice. This is opinion, written for promises of ice cream and beaver petting. It’s all about the priorities, man.


Detonation #14 – Such Times

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield


“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I’ve always loved those lines, and they’ve never been more apt. Such times indeed, and so true. We all have to decide what to do with the time that is given us.

So, of course, we’re totally wasting it. And I’m not talking about the last couple of months, trapped in our homes and clinging to sanity with alcohol and Netflix. Nobody is going to begrudge a little demotivation and aimlessness right now. It’s an unusual and uncertain glitch in the matrix.

But it will end and there will be a new normal. What will you do then? Try to wiggle back into your old life? Because, really, who’d want to live in those boring old times, doing the same thing day after day, year after year, living on the dying carcass of global free market capitalism? 

Well, regular people, I guess. And there’s no shortage of them. In fact, in an informal poll where I browsed both Facebook and Twitter for a six and half hours every day for ten years, it was obvious that a majority of social media users, which is to say everyone on the entire planet, is so bored and boring and unenlightened they’ve outsourced their life to a drinking bird. Like clockwork, the bird dips and another meme blasts forth, another tweet is retweeted, and the noise cloud that is our reality gets slightly noisier.

Of course, at the moment, most of this is complaining or fist shaking. Life is shit. You’re making my life shit. Don’t you know you shouldn’t do this? That you can’t do that? And now, because people are nasty, we have snitch lines. Is this the fucking Spanish Inquisition? If you see a few people walking down the street, less than two meters apart, don’t fucking call the cops. Don’t write letters to the editor. Don’t complain about it on Facebook. Look, I get it, I do. Every time I wander out to the park for some fresh air, there are milling groups of people with t-shirts that say “Oh no, the Economy” or “Cull the Weak.” Every time I go to the grocery store I see people going the wrong direction down clearly marked aisles. Makes me wish I’d brought the woodchipper. But I smile and wave and maneuver far around them. I don’t call the cops. Or complain. At least about that, complaining about complainers currently consumes most of my free time.

Damn the irony.


Right. Interesting times, which doesn’t have to be a curse. I’d posit that if you pull your head out of the social media Khazad Dum, you’ll notice there’s a damn remarkable world both inside and out worth writing about.

And I’m not talking about poetry.

Please do not write personal plague poetry, or as Lola so elegantly puts it, “Poetic observations of a nature so shallow they appear to be fathomless.” I’m not saying it’s impossible to write decent poetry about living in your kitchen, baking bread, and calling the cops on some poor neighbor who happens to break the two-meter rule, but… yeah, it is. Same goes for plague prose. Give it time. Give it a year or two. If we need to flatten the curve on ANYTHING, it’s to make sure everyone doesn’t write about the exact same thing happening to everyone, regardless of how much nightmare fuel is being poured on the fire. You think the emergency wards are taxed now? Wait until everyone is forced to read about the horrors, or possibly pleasures, of social distancing, or about what happened to all the toilet paper.

No.

There are far better uses for that pent-up wellspring of emotion, both now and into the new normal. Whether your life is currently a smoking crater, or not, you’re experiencing something novel that hasn’t happened in a hundred years and probably won’t happen like this again. There’s a lot of passion out there, generated by wanting to see other people punished for doing things you don’t understand aren’t technically against the law. Capture that passion. Capture the fear. Capture the determination to make them pay by killing or torturing them in your next story.

Let that passion infuse your work.

When this does end, don’t flush that passion away and go back to your old life. You only have so much time, you know, and you’ve probably wasted enough of it writing poetry.


Detonation #12 – Subversion Recursion

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield


Readers expect if they pick up the twenty-second volume of their favourite thriller series it’ll be more of the same, a creaky wheezing corpse dragging itself forward with rotting fingerbones. These sorts of books are where the money is. The boilerplate of the industry. Month after month, year after year, these books are churned out assembly line style for the public to ingest, absorbing three sad calories of literary enjoyment, before shitting them into the trash or closest used bookstore. 

It’s an ugly cycle. At some point people started buying these books based on firehose marketing and celebrity endorsements and in response more books were written to cater to those buying tastes, ad infinitum. It’s not a secret, far from it, authors know there is a certain magic formula that if they are talented enough, or lucky enough, to master, they can join the ranks of the serializers.

Not just the serials either, the entire mass market oozes sameness. The books look the same, the titles sound the same, the plots are indistinguishable except for the anti-hero’s cup size and eye colour — blue steel or smoky aluminum. Writing by rote. Writing by formula. Everyone wants to be the next James Patterson or Steven King or J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin. Rich and famous, with terrible movie adaptions and mansions full of dirty money sex dungeons.

Hmm, that actually doesn’t sound so bad. Where the hell was I going with this again?

Oh right, total lack of imagination in the pursuit of sell out success.


The ability to conjure ideas from the billion facets of existence and assemble them into unique works of music, art, and writing is a superpower with unlimited potential, so it really grinds my gears when writers, who have the entire universe of possibilities to play with, take the same old tired elements and assemble them in bloody identical ways. Sure, they may brighten or darken the paint some, and give the work a clever name and twist the marketing, but it’s typically a clone of a seminal work, and a shittier one at that.

Stories in a particular genre and sub-genre are going to have similar and even required elements. A murder mystery, by definition is going to have some sort of murder and quite possibly a mystery. A thriller should thrill. Noggy loves heist stories. Lots of people love zombie or werewolf stories, half the world either loves or hates vampire stories, traditional or glittery. There are haunted house stories, cosmic horrors, cryptids, occult detectives, you name it. Some sub-genres are narrow, some are wide, but they instill a little order to chaos that is the literary landscape. As I mentioned, there is an expectation that if you pick up a book in that sub-genre it should actually, you know, not be false advertising.

That’s not what my little rant is about though. What I am talking about are overused tropes and by-the-number formulaic bullshit. 

Sure, it’s easy to write yet another school for bizarre weirdos novel, packed with bullies and not-so secret secrets and angry, clueless teachers — sorry teachers, you know how it is. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Does every supernatural detective story, mine included, need to pay homage to a certain hard drinking, chain smoking, trench coat and fedora wearing reprobate from the 30’s? Does every epic fantasy novel have to involve an orphan from a purged royal family who grows up to be an assassin with legendary abilities because their father was king of the horny gods? Does every single heist series have to start with a book that’s entirely about putting a misfit, yet oddly exceptionally uniquely talented crew together?

FUCK NO.

Subvert those tropes. Do it!

We already discussed in a previous episode that if you want to write, you need to read. Period. And it often helps to read the sort of stories you want to write. Subverting tropes requires intimate knowledge of them. You need to know where the boundaries are and what you can twist, and hollow out and fill with explosives, and, in the end, completely break.

Does your haunted house story require a gothic New England farmhouse complete with a vengeful revenant left over from the original occupant’s penchant for baby ear soup? Nope. There are a thousand elements ripe for subversion. And I’m not talking easy ones like making the house a brownstone apartment in Manhattan and the ghosts aliens. Who says the house needs to be a regular house? And who says the ghosts have to be regular ghosts? I’m not saying write a story about a construction site porta-potty possessed by ghost pepper hot wings, but I’m also not, not saying that.

Find an angle, run naked with it. You know you can. Don’t be afraid that you’ll never get published by the big five, or one of their imprints, and get that sex dungeon. Write weird, terrible shit, that has its own unique soul and flavour, and take that unoriginal WIP, wrap it in a tarp and stash it under the Aztek’s trunk liner next to the trencher and gasoline in anticipation of the next wolf moon and a satisfying internment.

It’s for the best, it really is.


Detonation #9 – First Impressions

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

People are boring, living their monochrome little lives at their monochrome shitty jobs in their sad monochrome existences. Endless lists. Vague descriptions. Random numbers.

Devoid of personality.

How do I know? Because Noggy just spent the last two days reading hundreds of resumes, that’s why. And if I have to judge people, which I’m emphatically willing to do whether I get paid to do it or not, then I’m going to give it to you straight. What the absolute fuck? Does anyone ever take a step back, look at their resume, and think “Wow, amazing! I’m amazing. People are going to read this and shit themselves trying to hire me.”

Short answer: NO.

There’s blame to go around of course, all the job site optimizers and expert self-help influencers that tell you how to game the system. How to include every damn industry buzzword, stat, skill, tool, process, and methodology which, I discovered, almost always involve the word ‘cucumber’, so to better fool the modern yet stupid AI enhanced job placement fit scanners. These sorts of resumes don’t give you an actual picture of the person you’re looking to hire, they’re more like D&D character sheets without the bio and background part filled in.

But I guess there’s no room for colour when the ‘experts’ insist on mashing your life into a single page, reducing ALL resumes to the SAME resume. Which means that once it does get picked out of the labour carnival bin-o-fun by the claw and deposited on my donut crumb crusted desk, I get riled up enough to write another one of these fucking articles.

Look, I’m not saying you ARE necessarily boring, but your public business persona probably is. All I ask is that you find ways, even simple and subtle ways, to give me some idea about who you are and why I should spend any energy hiring you. Give me an interest, give me something you’re proud of that doesn’t involve this particular capitalist self-sacrifice. Present yourself differently. Show personality. If I see a flicker of light, where you casually mention in your soft skills section, that you’re drilling a hole to the hollow earth in order to find a dinosaur husband to add to your polyamorous collective, I can guarantee, given a minimal required skill set, that I’ll be booking an interview.

***

I’m sure you’re asking what the fuck this has to do with writing and why the hell you forced yourself to suffer through four hundred words of old man yelling at clouds?

Everything. It’s exactly the bloody same.

I have a question for you.

“How do you present yourself to first time readers?”

Unless you are already an established author with a solid fan base, or a true phenom, you’re constantly mining for one of the most valuable commodities on the planet. I’m talking, of course, about attention. Every author desires it. Every author strives for it. Few get more than a few grains, sluiced from the meandering, braided river of current public trends and interests. A river brimming with other prospectors, elbows up, trying to stake their claim and eek out a passable existence, hoping to hit the mother lode and strike it rich.

Let’s, for the sake of simplicity, focus on one particular type of author: the eager up and comer, one with a couple of stories ‘out there’ in the weird wide world, one who doesn’t have an agent or a contract or a big-name publisher. An indie author. Our aspiring literary star wants to gain attention, has to gain attention if they don’t want to get washed away.

As with resumes, authors fling themselves and their creations into the world. They toss the dynamite and thousands, if not millions, of eyes see the resulting explosion.

Boom!

Then what?

There are a couple of co-mingled elements at play here. The author and their writing. Not the same thing, though they eventually merge together as time goes on.

But the important part is the First Impression.

So, I ask again, “how do you present yourself to first time readers?” When they pick up your book and lick the cover, fondle the spine, devour the backmatter, gape at your bio, and leaf through a few pages, what impression are you leaving? Does your bio invoke awe? Does your writing speak for you, providing amazeball feelings? When they come across you on social media or your website or at book events or conventions, do they think “Holy fucking shit, this author is the cat’s ass, I want to be them, I want to be with them, I might even read their book if I can get it on sale.”?

You’d better hope so.

Every second another hardscrabble author picks up their pan and wades into the mayhem working on just that. Sure, you can slave away, slowly building up your claim, and maybe, just maybe you’ll eventually get lucky or at least modestly successful. But if you wait for a break or let poor work speak for itself, it may be a long dreadful bitter life.

So do yourself a favour, take a step back, look at your resume and make it as fucking interesting as possible, even if it’s only eighty percent honest. Oh, and don’t forget the cucumber.

Detonation #7 – Smart Resolutions

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

So, it’s that time again, the commencement of yet another cycle around the sun, marked by a semi-arbitrary date that doesn’t quite align with cosmological anchors. Like how hard would have been to just set New Years on the Winter Solstice? It’s the sort of thing that grinds Noggy’s OCD something fierce. And don’t get him started on why months have their fluctuating number of days.

Fucking Romans.

It’s a happy time none-the-less. A chance to wash away the sickly stains of a cursed life with overpriced and underwhelming champagne. Maybe reminisce about the highlights you captured with your goddamn selfie stick. Eat loads of crap. Socialize with friends, enemies, frenemies, or in all probability, yourself, pantsless and eating pie in the backseat of your Pontiac Aztek or garbage filled K-car.

Call it what you want. Tradition. Ritual. Self-loathing and/or self-reflection. It’s a transition, that’s the important part. From one oozing nugget of time to the next. When you crawl out of your cocoon sometime early January, you know it’s a clean slate, you know that everything that came before is last year’s news. You made it. And this year will be different.

Special.

Energized.

Productive.

You heard right. Productive. Whatever writing or editing or design or marketing or publicity or publishing you did last year, you’ll surpass it this year. More. Faster. Better.

Why?

Because you made a fucking New Year’s Resolution, that’s why.

You’ve resolved one or possibly many things. It may be a vague decree like “I’m going to write every day”, or more explicit, like “I’m going to a thousand words every day.” Or it might be ambitious like “I’m going to write and publish three novels this year.” Or ethereal like “I’m going to procrastinate less this year.”

Kinda bullshit.

I’m not saying those aren’t worthy goals, because they totally are. They’re just soft. And squishy. Moist even. Soft resolutions are like ideas. Everyone has a billion of them, but at the end of the day, rather small and limp.

The concept of “I’m going to write more” is pretty vague, and the more vague and fuzzy the resolution, the harder it’ll be to stick with. What is “more”? What is “less”? If you can’t quantify progress, if you just jam your thumb or tentacle or mating appendage in the air and guess that you may be doing more of what you said you’d do, you’ll rapidly fall into the same old lull you’ve always fallen into.

Imagine meeting up with your writing partner at the end of January.

“How’s the novel going,” asks Lola, stuffing a grinning orifice with crisp Kale salad. “You talked big at NYE before I left you rotting in the dumpster.”

“Meh,” says Noggy. “My resolution was to write more than last year. I’m spitting out words.”

“How many more?”

“Well, more… Way more… I think. It feels like way more at least.”

“So, you’ll be done by summer?”

“I have absolutely no idea. How about you? I sort of recall you mentioning you had serious resolutions of your own this year.”

Lola slides her tongue under her lip to clear out a yard of astroturf, swishes her mouth with rosé. “Yeah, got some killer ones. Turning the hot tub into an alcoholic sex cauldron three times a week for six months and drowning anyone who doesn’t like it. Then, I’m going to ruin two marriages by seducing spouses in Japanese love hotels. Targeting one every three months, but I’ve built in a month overlap contingency.”

“Uh, I meant writing resolutions.”

“Exactly. I’m taking copious notes for my book, which will be done by year’s end. Next tub is Monday by the way, you should come.”

***

Noggy can do better. If he can stimulate his Bourbon soaked brain cells for two minutes, he’ll realize he just needs to be smart like Lola is. That’s smart as in SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based. While maybe the concept has been around forever, George Doran, Arthur Miller, and James Cunningham first formalized it in the November 1981 issue of Management Review. The exact definition of each element has shifted over time, but SMART goals tend to have these elements:

Specific – Pick an unambiguous writing/editing/publishing objective.

Measurable – Make it something you can quantify with a number and keep track of progress. Spreadsheets baby!

Achievable – Make sure you can actually do it. We can go into BHAG’s, Big Hairy Audacious Goal’s, in another time and space, but don’t set yourself up to fail. And don’t include qualifiers that are out of your control – specifying that you want to sell X number of stories or novels is grand, but perilous since that’s in the hands of someone else.

Relevant – It should be an actual writing/editing/publishing goal. Sometimes I wonder about Lola…

Time-based – Choose an end date, and/or dates to measure progress by.

***

Boom!

It’s not rocket science. It’s not even literary science (which, if that isn’t already thing, it is now). Now repeat after me:

“I’m going to write at least three hundred words a day for the next month.”

“I’m going to write six short stories this year and submit them to markets until they are sold.”

“I’m going to complete my novel by the end of May, have it edited by August, and query a dozen agents by year end.”

Rinse and repeat.

***

So, call them what you want. Resolutions. Goals. Objectives. Just remember to be SMART and don’t be caught with your pants down in the back seat with only pie for company. We won’t judge unless it’s Saskatoon Berry.

Detonation #6: Hustlers

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

Recently I watched a YouTube video of Jennifer Lopez taking pole dancing lessons in preparation for her role in the movie Hustlers. I learned that the only thing I have in common with J.Lo is…well, nothing. She’s a goddess. I’m a goblin. Moving on.

Let’s talk about the money. Makin’ it rain as a writer. You’re good at this wordsmithing stuff, and you work really hard. Is poverty inevitable? Is there a way to use your skills and ambition to make a bit more cash than it takes to buy a second helping of gruel?

Some writers make bank off their writing, we’ll call them Darryl, and they can go directly to Hell. Others, like Noggy, are gainfully employed in a day job where they go to an office, do business, get regular paychecks that are more than three digits, and can afford to get their kids teeth unfucked. I both respect and resent that, but I’m not talking about them either. I’m talking about Lola, and those like her. The freelancers and part-timers, Frankensteining an income through several different writing adjacent streams. I’m talking about the writerly side-hustle.

Here’s the thing. A Lola is nothing if not an opportunist. She’s been fortunate, strategic, and manipulative enough to do work that dovetails with her writing career. Like Lola, I coordinate literary events at an indie bookstore, teach creative writing, and freelance edit. I’ve also written articles, done one-on-one mentoring, and ‘assisted’ young people with their college admission essays (all ethics are situational). It’s a juggling act I perform on top of my own writing projects, publishing, running in the woods, attending to family and friends, and other…interests (see the Six Lives Theory).

I’m grateful to be a professional creative, but it didn’t just fall into my tentacles. When Auntie Octoclot was just a baby mollusk, slinging ink and dreaming of one day maybe, maybe, seeing my work in print, someone gave me some very good advice. GET INVOLVED. The writing community is not just a group of people doing what you do, they are a resource, a pool of limitless opportunity. So, I took classes, went to events, volunteered, collaborated, and worked hard at building real relationships. Finding kindred monsters is its own reward, but beyond that, when paying work comes up, so does your name, and when it does, you gotta be ready to say yes.

Jennifer Lopez is the original Lola. A creative role model. An artist with an appetite for experience and an eye for opportunity. Dancing, singing, acting, and learning to kill on a pole at fifty freaking years old. I bet both her kids have Invisalign. Making a living off your writing is great, for Darryl, but if I did that, I probably wouldn’t have the drive to do and learn all this other cool stuff, like planning burlesque literary salons, singing, acting in plays, and posing as a corpse for someone’s book cover. My writing is better for the experimentation, and while I may not be J.Lo, I’m definitely a hustler, and my back porch ain’t half bad. Just sayin’.