How to deal with non-writers

How to deal with non-writers

Written by WxY

During my experiences on the vast expanse that is the Internet, I’ve come across a few complaints about “non-writers”. That is to say, people who claim to be writers, and can think of extremely captivating stories, but who never sit down to actually write them. It’s curious, because I’ve never met any such people myself; but now, after years of thought, I’ve finally managed to understand them.

For now, let’s think of what a writer is supposed to do, shall we? For the purposes of this article, the job of a writer is two-fold:
One, a writer should conceive captivating stories and
Two, s/he should manage to communicate those stories in a captivating way.
And now, here is the crux of the issue: Many people are much more skilled in the first part than the second one. That is, their ability to think of a good story is much greater than their ability express it, to make the audience feel the same way about their story as they do. This is, in essence, the skill gap: the difference between what you think and what you write.

I first came across this phrase when I was browsing the Katawa Shoujo dev blog. ”None of you will ever read the real story I’ve imagined, of Rin and Hisao and all the things that happen between them, just the crude translation that I was able to vomit out onto my keyboard” said the author, and I think it’s a very succinct and accurate presentation of the issue. For a more visual representation, have a look at the difference between the image a girl thought of and what she managed to put to paper.

So, Random Internet Reader, if you ever find yourself in a discussion with someone who introduces him/herself as a writer, ask them this: “How big is your skill gap?” If they don’t know what it is, explain it to them. If they say they don’t know how big it is because they’ve never attempted the second step, have them do that right then and there. Make them write a story in 20-30 words, and see what they come up with. If they get agitated, inform them that they can’t consider themselves writers before they have at least a ballpark estimate of their skill gap.

And then, ask the same question to yourself.

WxY out.

Introducing Rewrite

Introducing Rewrite

Hey all,

I’m excited to introduce you all to Rewrite today – the next step for Hortorian and anyone who would like to use it. So what is it? The quick and simple way to think of Rewrite is as a dedicated web version of The Old Typewriter offering a richer, dedicated experience.

The gist of it is I’ve made a dedicated web editor like Google Docs that you can write in, or just copy/paste in, or upload your content (still working on that one) and then with the click of the publish button, offer you a web presence for your content including ratings, reviews, commenting, social sharing, ebook downloads for your work, and probably some other things as I get to them one by one.

On the reading side, we’ve got a nice content browser that allows you to drill down through form, genres, and various sorting arrangements such as most popular, most recent, etc.. to easily find content you like. Additionally, we’ve got a library section that allows you to follow and add work to keep track of when updates happen as well as automatically remembering where you left off reading.

Wrapping this all together, I’m working on a points system to allow authors to earn points at custom exchange rates for people reading their work (page by page) and allow readers to earn points (to pay for content) by being active in the community by reviewing, rating, critiquing, and more.

Right now, the private alpha of the site is being launched for testing and debugging with gradual roll-out for the whole member base over the coming months, before a public launch over the holidays this year.

If you’re interested in helping out with the site, let me know!

Alright, I’ll shut up and leave you with pretty screenshots – all are from the working private alpha as of today. (You can click if you want full res versions.)

The main page

 

The registration page

The online editor

 

The editor browser showing all your content.

The content browser

An example webpage for a story.

Politics in Writing: Part Two

Politics in Writing: Part Two

In Politics in Writing: Part One we examined the ways in which settings build certain types of political environments. We looked at how it provides an important reference point for moral and social questions, and creates the institutions that govern how characters interact with one another, not to mention the ideologies that prop up these institutions and attempt to tear them down. In this article, we’re going to look at another important aspect of our literary Capitol Hill – the character, and embark on a foray into the world of Personality Politics.

 

Personality Politics

Tony Blair playing music

Tony Blair, being the enigmatic and divisive figure that he is.

Human beings are political animals, an observation which doesn’t require any real explanation. We invented politics, and even when we appear disengaged from it, that can be interpreted in many political ways. This fact of life is almost impossible to escape, and it goes without saying, therefore, that characterisation plays an important role in defining the political direction of any work of fiction.

By their actions, the characters of your novel will change their world, and how they go about changing it will be influenced by their worldview. This worldview is in turn influenced by the setting, but its existence is fundamentally independent in many respects. Humans have the capacity to exercise logic and intuition, which is why society continues to advance intellectually. Society may have a great influence on the individual, but society is also made up of individuals, and they do not think like robots. They’re capable of critically analysing what they see around them, and learning from mistakes made in the past.

Thus politics has the capacity to create a number of interesting conflicts both between the individual and society, but also between individuals themselves. These conflicts can be portrayed as “live action” or metaphorically and symbolically, and the choice between the two falls down to the writer himself. However there are a number of important caveats which everyone would do well to observe.

Characters give readers important personal insights into the issues that affect the world, and this remains the same regardless of their position on any given issue. We live in a world of Personality Politics, where vice and virtue cloud our political discourse, and this is much the same in the world of characterisation. Every choice you make in building a character will send out a message to the reader, and not necessarily the one that you intend.

“Nobody is perfect,” it is often said. This may be an unprovable absolute, but by a process of logical exclusion, it’s safe to say that the population of morally perfect individuals is quite small and possibly even extinct. Nonetheless vice is scorned, and particularly strongly when it affects those in high places. This is not merely a feature of mass politics, but something as old as humanity itself. If it became known that a King slept with prostitutes, do you think that his subjects would be impressed? Probably not – assuming prostitution isn’t viewed differently to how it is in modern times.

Ad hominem may be looked upon with disdain in debating circles, but it is undeniably effective. Unsurprisingly it’s common in fiction for characters who espouse particular values that the author approves of to behave more virtuously than those who’s values the author holds to be suspect. Whether this is an entirely cynical exercise is subject to debate.

Firstly, there is a genuine fear of alienating the reader. If a character’s bad habits should invoke such disgust that the reader ignore what they have to say, then a lot of hard work is wasted. Secondly, there is a valid characterisation problem – actions speak louder the words. If the President of the USA is truly well meaning, then why won’t he stop cheating on his wife? Assuming of course, he shares traditional views of marital fidelity.

The opposite concern is also true. By giving villains redeeming qualities, the writer may legitimately fear that their ideas and methods could gain respectability. Yet however great these concerns are, there is another equal one – the creation of a Mary Sue or her “evil” and thoroughly unlikeable counterpart. Whether you like it or not, your characters cannot continuously occupy one extreme or the other of the moral platform, and it is up to ensure that this does not harm the message you are trying to put across.

Like everything else in writing, it’s all about balance and presentation – Clinton may have been a womaniser, but other aspects of his presidency might make up for these (to employ this overused euphemism) “indiscretions”. Hitler through his veganism may have cared a great deal for animal rights, but does that mitigate the murder of six million Jews? I doubt even Peta’s finest could sell that one.

Am I advocating moral relativism? Not exactly – rather that all fictional characters should be well rounded, but in political writing, this is especially essential. Make them flawed, but explain those flaws and never lose perspective. Constant and consistent goal setting should allow you to avoid the worst of the bumps along what is an admittedly rocky road.

Poetry For Morons

Thanks for reminding us.

Allen Ginsberg being… well, Allen Ginsberg.

Don’t worry, you’re in good company. I am – fortunately enough – an ‘absolute moron’ too.

I only started reading poetry for pleasure this Spring, actually – although I’ve written it for much longer as a tweenager, under the guise of ‘lyricz’ (ignoring common knowledge that I can’t actually sing and never intended to).

Most of us haven’t really approached it outside school hours, and since it’s rather a niche thing nowadays, once we’ve dumped the satchel and scruff-handed notes behind, most people actually have no clue how to go about it.

So, pretend you’re me. You’ve accidently stepped into a way-too-up-market-for-you, beachwood floored bookshop by chance, smooth jazz slurring outside a nearby radio (count the number of black people actually in the shop, I dare you), and picked up – inadvertently – a copy of Ginsberg because the cover looked cool. You leave as quickly as you can before someone noticed your jeans had holes in them.

You get home. You open it. It’s full of poems. You know how to read (please tell me you know how to read), and you know how to read books – in sizeable chunks, sittings, whilst getting involved with the narrative itself. But poetry? Well.

 

I’ve wondered to myself about this barrier. I think there’s some misconceptions and mystique about poetry which means that it remains a niche when it perhaps shouldn’t be. So, let’s take them apart:-

 

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1. I have to analyse poetry to enjoy it.

I must be part of the insane minority that actually enjoyed picking up a pencil and scribbling notes over poetry pages as a kid, picking out polysyllabic terminology such as assonance, epithets, polysyllabic, metrical feet, enjambment, polysyllabic. Maybe I’m just a sadist. I prefer the term ‘word mechanic’.

Needless to say my first instinct to Ginsberg was to dissect him. Tear him to pieces. But in doing so I missed a lot of fun that comes from the surface reading of poetry – listening the how the words bounce and flick about on your tongue, watching them slam into each other and spin backwards:-

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…

Ignoring how canonical Ginsberg’s Howl has become in modern poetry and its endless parodies, and ignoring the vast swathes of context, melodrama, meaning which have perhaps transcended it in its original incarnation – ignoring all that pretention – there is a lot of fun simply to be found in the sheer exuberance of the language, its connotations, the pictures it paints, the emotions just on hearing the words without really recognising meaning behind them… Ginsberg, as evidenced, really isn’t a poet who writes by halves – although if you want more minimalistic writing, there is plenty out there.

An exercise I found myself doing at times was to lie back on by bed at midnight, Ginsberg held aloft in my left hand above my head, and swish through as many poems – or even excerpts of poems – aloud as possible. Part of the fun is just watching words dance about in weird ways. Poetry is often a lot of abstract wordplay and verseplay – emphasis on play.

It’s pissing about with language. And you don’t require pencilling remarks for that at all, to enjoy playing.

 

2. I have to understand poetry completely to enjoy it.

If prose is a long, winding river, starting with a spring, that eventually leads you to an ocean, with the joy being in the journey along the way and the small insights as to what lurks beneath the glimmering waters, then poetry is a natural well, a ravine. You can’t see to the bottom of it.

You could go diving for miles and die because of the crushing levels of water pressure and still not get to the bottom of it. You may never know for sure what’s actually kept down there.

You know what? That’s totally cool.

Part of poetry is being comfortable with the unknown. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable. You are not going to understand every nuance and technicality of a poem on one reading. That would be boring – you might understand what’s in a muddy puddle but you can’t return to it several times and expect to find anything different in terms of content.

Bear in mind that this doesn’t mean – for the writers out there – that poetry has to be incomprehensible to hold depth and flavour. It’s not a puzzle. It’s about conveying something in an interesting way.

A good poem – regardless of complication or how many layers you toss about it – will provoke thought or feeling enough for a reader to return to it again and again to attempt to re-experience it and see it from different perspective. A good way, actually of trying to get a handle of each line and each phrase and how it comes together is actually learning something by heart – line by line, one at a time.

Some poems might simply just be pure ‘play’, and little more than experimenting with emotions and ideas conjured up by that play – but even still, further treasures, witty asides, jabs you missed, references, new ideas – can be found on re-reading. If something’s a tad more ‘difficult’ (which doesn’t translate into better, regardless of what you’re sold), and you don’t know what exactly a poem’s trying to do, it’s no crime.

The journey in poetry, I believe, is not in following the river, but repeated dives into the pool to find for the pearls you missed out first time around. And part of the joy is the journey of re-reading and finding something new each time.

 

3. Poetry has one interpretation only/Poetry has every interpretation under the sun.

Well, that’s just daft, isn’t it?

A lot of poets put in loaded words all the time – deliberate double meanings – meaning that there’s an extra dimension to the original meaning. Sounds much less complicated than it actually is.

Double Entendre being a prime example which plenty of rock and hip-hop songs have mastered over the years (and sadly plenty have not). Simple things like running motifs – mentions, of say, clocks and datelines and time – can add information to what seems like a different picture literally.

And sometimes it’s ambiguous. Sometimes there is no ‘right answer’ in regards to the poem. And that’s something you have to learn to embrace and become comfortable with. Poets view their work in different ways: some ask questions, and some answer them.

Which does bring us to the other side of the coin. Whilst some poets embrace vagueness, others don’t:-

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

Phillip Larkin’s manner here is rather direct, with a smattering of humour. Poetry often puts people off through its supposedly ‘artsy fartsy’ persona, but that avoids the fact that a lot of matter-of-a-fact poetry exists (and can also be filled with depth – certainly, the tone of the poet doesn’t necessarily speak for the content).

Often a lot of poems will have a firm direction – and a few ideas floating about it – although it’s incorrect to say that things are about mutant space octopi when they are obviously not. Art might be subjective but that doesn’t necessarily mean all interpretations hold equal weight.

 

 

So, to briefly recap:-

1. I have to analyse poetry to enjoy it.

2. I have to understand poetry completely to enjoy it.

3. Poetry has one interpretation only/Poetry has every interpretation under the sun.

is all bullshit. Poetry is accessible, modern, and everywhere (what do you think music is full of if not for bad poetry?) – it’s a case of finding poets and styles you like and enjoy and tearing away old misconceptions. Because ultimately it can be fun and rewarding; it enriches the soul. And that, in a nutshell, is poetry for morons. Morons have souls to be enriched too, y’know.

Hortorian is back!

Hortorian is back!

And welcome, or welcome back, everyone! For those completely new new-comers, Hortorian shut its doors on August 20th 2011, after a broadly successful one and a half year run. The reasons for its closure are many – hacking, drama, slowly declining activity – but above all, I needed a break. Hortorian had accomplished a lot, but the end of the road had been reached. Afterwards, I vowed not to run another forum again.

And this vow is one that I’ve technically kept. Hortorian is back, but this time I’m not in the one in charge. In fact the only reason I’m writing this opening post is for  nostalgia’s sake. This isn’t the only difference between the old and the new. The gulf between the staffing team and the membership is going to be abolished, and we’re looking for newer and more innovative ways to showcase our art and writing.

This is pretty much our content hub, where articles about art, writing, the universe and everything will be published. Hortorian has a dedicated content-writing team, to provide you with everything form the super-serious to the witty.

The Hortorian Coffeehouse is pretty much our community forum, and the choice of name is pretty significant. The goal is to provide a friendly, laid-back atmosphere where writers and artists can network and share their creations. Although rules regarding content and respect apply and will be enforced, there is no formal moderating staff.

ReWrite is the biggest single development in this new incarnation, though it’s yet to be publicly released. I can’t tell you much about it yet, because the developer is a convicted serial killer who’s escaped death row, and will murder me in my bed if I breath a word.* But trust me, it will be cool!

I really hope you enjoy this new incarnation! A lot of work has gone into it, and as with all evolving projects, a lot of work still has to be done. But right now, I’m off to grab a mug of tea from the Hortorian Coffeehouse! You’re more welcome to come for one too! :)

 

*May or may not be true. There really is no way of telling who someone could be on the internet, is there?

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