That Holy Shit Moment

Surprise!

She did WHAT? (Photo credit: Greencolander)

I was reading Locke and Key (volumes 4 and 5, because I was a good girl and rewarded myself with books) the other day. Very good series, one of the best I’ve read. And in these two volumes, there were a couple of moments that were full blown Holy Shit Moments. Fucking serious, something just jumped off that page and gut-punched me moments. I genuinely could not put them down until I was done. And then, when I was, I had a second of intense frustration that I didn’t have another one right fucking now.

I had to tell someone about it, and the only other person I knew who’d read it was in Australia. But texting is a wonderful thing. Here’s part of the conversation:

Me: OMG, did you read L&K 4 and 5? O_O

Krys: YES I did.

Me: She [redacted]! With A FUCKING [redacted]!*

Me: And poor [redacted]. : (

Krys: I KNOW. Broke my fucking heart. : (

Not the wittiest I’ve ever been in a text conversation. But that was the point. I didn’t have it in me to be witty. I just wanted to share. Those moments of the story were so good that I had to text someone on another goddamn continent just to say, “Holy shit. That just happened.”

Moments like that are so fucking rare in fiction. I mentioned before that I’m having trouble finding a new great novel, and part of the reason all the ones I’ve tried so far have fallen short is that they lacked those Holy Shit Moments. There was never a second that the emotion I felt was so strong that I had to share it with someone else or burst. My heart, blackened and cynical organ that it is, was never in danger of breaking.

It’s a hard thing to write. And it’s so elusive. I can’t sit down here and just tell you what made those moments so strong.**  They just were.

Writers, take note: those are the moments we should be striving for. We want to be able to drag people along for the ride. We want to break hearts. We want readers to care so much that we can break them.

I’m putting those moments from Locke and Key into my brain’s Hall of Records, where I keep all the Holy Shit Moments. *** Whenever I’m struggling to put words together and trying to remember what I should be doing, I can take those out and look. Not because I want to copy those things; I couldn’t, anyway. But because I want to remember that gut-punch, that moment of breathlessness. And I want to try to create moments like that of my own.

*You didn’t really think I’d spoil it for you, did you?
**Well, I could tell you some, but, again, spoilers.
***The Hall of Records also has a WTF? Gallery and a This Is Fucking Bullshit Display.

My Chair Is Made of Fire Ants

English: Ferdinand Magellan Español: Herando d...

Like this guy, but you’re discovering new ways to misuse the semi-colon. (Picture Credit: Wikipedia)

God, is there any hell worse than being in the same room while other people read your work?*

That short story I mentioned the other day? I finally got a draft I was willing to let other people see, so I called in my usual first readers: Krys and the Husband. Both give me useful criticism and never hesitate to point out the places I fall short. What you want from first readers, really. I’m lucky to have both of them.

But fuck, being the same room as one of them while they read something of mine for the first time is like sitting on a chair made of fire-ants. Big ones. With herpes.

It’s the worst dance of insecurity ever. You finally manage to get someone to take a look at something you’ve painstakingly assembled from raw wordage, but you’re unable to leave the room while they do so. So you sit there and pretend to be all nonchalant and shit. You find something to do. You read, or at least remember to move your eyes occasionally over the page without taking in a goddamned word. You look in the television’s general direction. Or, like me, you pretend to be writing something else.**

And the whole fucking time, your brain is saying shit like, Man, that piece was crap. You totally lost it in the middle there. And that ending? Where the fuck did that come from? You somehow managed to find something that’s both cliched and totally out to lunch. No one ever thought it could be done, but leave it you to find hitherto-undiscovered pockets of bad writing. You are Magellan with a thesaurus.

And, crap, he’s going to know soon. Why didn’t you take another day to look it over? Why didn’t you do another draft? For fuck’s sake, why didn’t you check it for spelling mistakes again? You’d be better off just going over there, ripping it from his hands, and throwing it into the fireplace. Okay, you’ll have to light a fire first, and it’s July and fucking humid as the inside of Satan’s gym shorts, but—

Then he looks up and say something like, “Hey, I liked this part. It was good.”

And you mumble, “Thanks.”

And you think, hey, maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe I just have no distance from my work this soon after writing it. Maybe I should—oh, crap, he hasn’t read the part about the vampire pickaxe. fuckfuckfuckFUCKFUCK—

And then you’re back in your chair of fire-ants.

*Yes, people, I know there are worse hells. That one with the hyper-intelligent yet curiously unsympathetic rats, for example. But I’m not in those right now.
**Okay, technically, I amwriting something else. But it’s only a cover. And because I ran out of newsfeeds and other blogs to pretend to look at. I even ran through Memebase, for fuck’s sake. Do you know how many poorly written captions I looked at to make myself feel better?

Four Types of Books On Everyone’s Summer Reading List

"Study drawing shows the allegorical figu...

“God, I can’t believe I have 49 more shades of grey to get through. Maybe reading in the nude will make this seem like less of a piece of shit.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

When temperatures rise and the television becomes a hopeless vortex of reruns and boredom, people start turning to books again. Most people have a stack that they want to get done between the end of June and the beginning of September. Well, to help you get organized, here’s a list of the four most common specimens:

1. That Book You’ve Been Meaning To Read: Everyone’s got one. It can usually be identified by its presence on a bookshelf, covered in dust, but with a curiously pristine spine. No dog-eared pages, no coffee stains, no notes in the margins. Usually weighs more than the cat, or possibly two cats if you picked up this particular book in a lit class in university. You know it’ll be good for you to read it. Hell, it’s a fucking classic! People are probably judging you right now because you haven’t read it. You’ve just got to get around to it. And maybe stop using it to prop up your couch. Chances of completing: 1/6, unless Armageddon happens and there’s nothing else to do. Then 1.25/6.

2. That Book You Pretend You’re Not Reading: You’re so fucking embarrassed to be reading this one. Often sketchy, incredibly popular but also hated, this is the book you badmouth on the internet. But you heard so much about it that eventually your curiosity got the better of you and you started reading. You’d just die if anyone caught you reading this, which is why you either do it on an e-reader, so no one can see the cover, or in the privacy of your own home. In bed. Under the covers. With a flashlight. Chances of completing: 5/6, but you’ll develop a nervous twitch.

3. The Wild Card: It lured you in with its flashy cover and catchy title, and you added it to the stack. Now it’s time for it to prove what it’s made of or get the fuck out of Dodge. Chances of completing: Roll a dice. Take off two points if the protagonist has an endearingly obscure hobby (luthier, competitive origami, artisanal sex-swing constructor) or if the words ‘nuclear reactor’ are involved anywhere in the back cover copy. Add one if there’s lots of sex/violence/witty dialogue.

4. The Old Favourite: You’re read this book so many times it’s falling apart. Rounded corners, broken spine, herds of old book marks lost in the pages…but you love it anyway. Maybe the summer you first read it, you were having a good one. Or maybe it’s just a damn good book. Either way, when the mercury rises, you find yourself searching your shelf for it once again, thinking that maybe this is the year you finally update to a new copy, one that isn’t held together with a rubber band and a prayer. But you never do, until it finally gives up the ghost and drops into a watery grave in the kiddie pool. Farewell, old friend. Chances of reading: 6/6, and then you’re going to have to buy a new copy and give the old one a proper burial.

Angry Beard Power, or Why I Need Book Recommendations

George RR Martin at the Comicon

Behold the Beard of Power. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve hit a slump.

Not with writing; that continues at the usual pace.* But I haven’t found a good book in what seems like ages.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve found lots of okay books. Some of them I’ve even gotten halfway the way through before losing patience and interest. Others meet the fate described here. And a few I finish, but they leave me unsatisfied. It feels like eating a low-fat, low-calorie, no-sugar ‘dessert’ when what you really want, down in the depths of your grubby little soul, is cheesecake. Yeah, it’s sweet(ish) but it doesn’t satisfy the craving.

I’m not sure what’s going on, but I can pinpoint when it started. I began reading The Song of Ice and Fire series about eight months ago. Got all the way through A Game of Thrones and halfway through A Clash of Kings before the ennui set in. Not that they’re bad books; I can definitely see why so many people enjoy them so much. But I wasn’t feeling it.

And that’s when it started. I don’t know if George R. R. Martin is using his fearsome Beard of Power to reach out through the  internet and punish me for not finishing his epic series**, but I’ve hit the worst reading slump ever since putting that book down. It seems like I lose interest in every novel halfway through. Short story collections, too. Non-fiction still seems to be going well, but I need some fiction in my diet, man. I feel bereft without it.

So I’ve been hitting the bookstores, virtual and physical, looking for something. I’ve tried different genres: epic fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, mystery, science fiction, dystopian, literary. I even had a go at reading some sample chapters of Fifty Shades of Grey before bursting into uncontrollable laughter. I’ll admit to being a little stumped as to what to do next.

But I do know exactly what I need: I need a good book. A new one. Going back to an old favourite, no matter how much I love it, isn’t going to fix this. I need something new, something fresh, something I’ve never read before that hits me between the eyes like a squirrel on PCP that has learned to fly.

Tall order, maybe. But it’s been done before. Last time I hit a slump like this, Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind pulled me out. And somewhere out there is a book waiting for me to read it. I just have to find it.

So: what are you reading?

*Varying between rocket ship and sea ooze, with nothing in between.
**Of course, he hasn’t finished it, either. So there.

How To Make Me Hate Your Story

Working in the lab

Yup. Positive test for bullshit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading a new novel the other day when my Writer Sense started tingling, and I realized that there was something wrong with the book.

This is pretty standard for a writer. We judge the crap out of others because we’re so used to judging ourselves. We can’t help it. It’s an automatic reaction, like cringing when people write affect when they mean effect.* And usually I can figure out what’s bothering me quickly. Unlikeable protagonist? Seen it. Wooden dialogue? Done that. Just plain boring? Read it so many times I’m bored of that.

But this one was tricky. I rounded up the usual suspects, but none checked out. It had a decent plot. There were varied characters. There was a nice mix of action and drama and sex and bloody violence. I couldn’t figure it why I wasn’t enjoying the book. So I kept reading, running diagnostics on that fucker like it was an ICU patient circling the drain.

I was halfway through when it finally clicked: there was no agency.** None of the characters made a real choice, good or bad. Everything was presented as inevitable. Man sleeping with a married woman? Can’t help himself. Woman cheating on the husband she loves? Not sure why, but has to do it. Attracted to a girl you’ve only seen once? Irresistible force*** drawing him in. Even the guy who murders two people doesn’t choose to do it. It just kind of…happens. In fact, there was only one real choice made in the whole story, and it happened off-screen. That was what set the events of the story in motion. After that, it was all done.

Which is boring as shit.

What’s the point of having an entire cast of characters who don’t choose? They don’t have to make the right choice, but, goddammit, they have to do something. They can’t just be puppets. But that’s what these characters were. Someone else (the author) was pulling their strings, and all they could do was helplessly dance.

So what did I do? I put that book down, and in all likelihood, I’ll never pick it back up. Because the second I figured out what was wrong, I wasn’t interested in what happened to those characters. I left some of them in terrible situations, too. Kidnapped by monsters. Chased by cops. Losing their minds.

And I don’t care. If they’re not going to try, then I don’t give a shit what happens to them. Choose right, choose wrong, but don’t sit on the sidelines. They have to act, even if it’s to do something stupid. Or I’m going to get bored and walk away.

Because I can only read so many books in a lifetime, and I’m not going to waste one of those slots on a bunch of lazy victims.

*Christ, it’s like God’s fingernails on the chalkboard of the universe. If you do this, I’m coming for you.
** No, not the CIA. Agency in this sense means the characters’ ability to act upon and influence their world.
***Not boobs. That I could at least understand.

Naked At The Podium

Run on the Seamen's Savings' Bank during the P...

Get him! He mispronounced 'sherbet'! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You want to make three-quarters of the people in the world shit a brick? Tell them they have to speak in public.

Then sit back and watch the blood leave their face. A common fear, that. And, for a lot of people, a pretty serious one.

And don’t get me started on the usual advice. Picture everyone naked? How the hell is that supposed to help? Take a representative sample of the population, and tell me how many of them you’d want watching you in the buff as you read something at a podium. Your eyes would be magnetically drawn to their junk. It’s true and you know it. And then they reach down to scratch—

You know what, I’m going to stop this right here. Brain bleach will be available at the end of the post.

This came up in writer’s group the other night. We talked about what a common fear it was, especially as it relates to reading your own stuff, which is what we were doing.  And we talked about how necessary it is, especially for writers.

Other people might be able to avoid doing public speaking or reading. But writers…you don’t get that luxury*. And you shouldn’t. Reading aloud is great for writing. You ever get stuck on a word? I do. Lately for me it’s been ‘glanced’. Characters were always glancing at things. You never notice how much you overuse a word faster than if you read it out loud twenty fucking times in a page. Reading aloud also helps your dialogue. And all kinds of other things. But the fear is still there.

And it’s bullshit.

This is just your brain being an ass. “You can’t do this. You’ll screw it up. And then everyone will know that you’re a fake!”

Fucker. But it’s hard to ignore that voice. You figure that once you screw up, it’s over.

More bullshit.

Speaking from personal experience, I have screwed up almost every possible way there is to screw up while speaking in public, short of actually vomiting in front of people. (I’m saving that for a special occasion.) I’ve stuttered, stumbled, mispronounced, misquoted, and mis-attributed. And that’s only the start. I’ve tripped on my way to the podium. I’ve accidentally cursed while giving seminars, both as a student and as a teacher. I’ve cursed reading in church (Grandfather’s funeral. I like to think he would have been amused.). I’ve lost my place and stood there in dumbfounded silence (wedding vows, no less. And I was reading off a damn sheet!). I’ve flashed my damn underwear to an auditorium (high school play with togas. Should have seen it coming.).

Was I embarrassed? Sure.** But at no point did I die of it, and no one—absolutely no one—gave me shit about it. Yeah, I got a few cracks about the underwear thing, but that’s it. And it wasn’t the end.

And that’s the big secret. Once you do it, it’s not that bad. If you read in public enough times, the law of averages says you’ll screw up at least once. Probably more. But if you’re going to let a fear of screwing up stop you, you’ll never do anything.

Doesn’t mean you can’t prepare, of course. Try reading your stuff out loud to yourself first. Or your cat. Once you feel good about that, move on to a friend or significant other. Someone who is guaranteed not to be a dick about it. And then maybe a small group of friends, like our writer’s group. Small exposure to build resistance to the crushing Red Virus of Embarrassment. If you still feel awkward, try a group like Toastmasters. Some people I know have done their program, and they say it helped a lot. Practice is the key here. Practice, and forgiving yourself for your occasional mistakes. Because everyone screws up. I’m proof enough of that. You screw up, and then you keep going.

And if that fails, try the naked thing. At least the resulting brain aneurism will be a quick death.

*If it is a luxury. I think avoiding it just makes it worse.

**Except for the wedding (it’s my damn party, I’ll take as long as I want) and the funeral (I was more worried about spontaneously catching fire.).