Well #?^%: That BEEP-ing Goodreads app

Incredible how it’s been almost a year since my last Well #?^% post. I gave up on numbering them after I realized I skipped a number here and there. But it’s nice to get back to some classic content and write a good old fashioned rant. This one is about my least favorite part about Goodreads‘ smartphone app.

Mostly, I use the app whenever I’m browsing a bookstore or the book section at Target. After reading the back and inside covers of books that catch my eye, the app is a convenient way to check reviews and what else the author has done. Maybe the best part is that it helps keep me from impulse-buying every book that dazzles me. And if Goodreads hasn’t talked me out of that dazzling book, I use the app’s handy barcode-scanning feature.

As much as I love that tool, it is also the reason for this post. Even if my phone is on vibrate, the app makes an obnoxiously loud BEEP every time I scan a barcode. If I was the kind of person who maybe only scanned one book, maybe I would hate that noise a little less. I could scan my book, then run away before anyone could catch on that I was the cause of that awful BEEP.

Roadrunner, looney tunes, beep beep
My visits to the bookstore sound very much like the Roadrunner. Image source: wikia.

At minimum, I scan two books. I want to keep track of everything that I want to read. Books I saw promoted on Twitter three weeks ago that now sit on a bookshelf in front of me. BEEP. Books by authors I love. BEEP. Books with crazy awesome cover art that I will read regardless of the premise. BEEP.

I become the weird person pulling book after book off the shelves, holding it up to my phone, and making that ungodly noise. It’s not so bad that I stop using that feature on Goodreads. I could simply type in each book’s title and accomplish the same task. But some part of me just loves scanning books. If that BEEP could be removed, I would love it even more


Well #?^% XXVIII: A writing rule I can’t stand

At a world-building workshop for fiction writers I attended last Friday, a familiar writing “rule” came up. It’s not one I like and following it has never worked for me. For whatever reason, hearing it taught as an absolute part of the process made me angry—at least angry enough to doodle some angry faces around that part in my notes. The rule:

“Figure out as much about the world you’re creating before you start writing the story. Don’t build as you go, or else you’ll end up painting yourself into a corner.”

I’ll break down the three elements of this so-called rule that bother me.

Bianca's weird face
The doodles weren’t worth uploading, so here’s Bianca making the sort of face I made internally at hearing that “rule.”

Rule: Figure it out before you start writing

Some people have to plan out every little element before they can write a single word. Others like to run with an idea as soon as it hits them and see where it goes. I’m in the middle camp. Once I have a character, a conflict, and what makes the situation unique, I start writing.

There is a lot that goes into a made-up world. Depending on how far the story will go, you may need to only develop the culture and people in one city. Or maybe you’ll need to work out a few cities, or even different countries. If it’s all going to be plot-relevant, of course you’re going to need to fit all that information in. But you’re not going to write about it until the relevant moment. That moment might be as simple as someone using a deity’s name as a swear word. You don’t need to know every step in the traditional dance used every third Tuesday to honor that deity before a character can say the name.

Rule: Don’t build as you go

It’s silly to think you will not deviate from your carefully constructed plan even a little. What if you’re writing, and it suddenly occurs to you that a minor conflict between two characters should be a little deeper than mere dislike? To add depth, you decide that it’s really about the fact that their grandparents were on opposite sides of a war. Now you need to figure out all the details of that war.

In the next draft—remember, there will always be another draft—you can sprinkle in more allusions to that war to further flesh out your world. You didn’t have to have that figured out before you started the first draft. You built it when you found a need for it.

You will build as you go. You will rebuild as you go. You will demolish things you built in the first draft. Don’t worry about it.

Rule: You’ll paint yourself into a corner

I’m not sure if you knew, but you can edit and revise what you write. A first draft is not a final draft. You are not limited to only moving forward; you can go back and fix whatever mess you made at any point. You could chug along and go all the way to the end of the draft before you start fixing. Or you could figure out a solution the moment you find the problem, fix it in what you already wrote, and carry on.

I do that all the time. You aren’t limited to one try to get everything in the story right. The writing adage I agree with the most is, “You learn to write by writing.” And if you’re going to create a fully immersive fantasy world, you’re going to learn everything you need to know as you write about it.

I don’t agree with every piece of writing advice, but I understand the value in it. Not everything works for everyone. Maybe building your world first is what you need to do to make what you want.

Well #?^% XXVII: Not writing for a different reason

It was pretty much a standard for me that I didn’t write every single day. You don’t have to go far into my blog archives to find posts where I talk about not working on the things I ought to, either because of all the other work I had to do leaving me tired or I just didn’t want to spend my “free time” doing more work. But over the last six months or so, I started writing every day. I usually write a lot.

Since I sent out The Thieves of Traska to beta readers, I haven’t been writing. I started working on the second installment in the trilogy, but decided it would be better to wait until the ending of ToT is absolute. So, I’m just going a little crazy.

My brain won’t shut off, so it has been coming up with scenes and ideas non-stop. Could be I’m shooting myself in the foot by not writing most of them down, but I’m really trying to give myself a break. It’s so tempting to just keep working, but I know that I’ll need to come back to the story with fresh eyes — both as I’m editing, and when I get to the next parts of the story. Characters and concepts have to be reintroduced so new readers still know what’s going on, but old readers don’t roll their eyes and think, “I know all that! Get on with it!”

I’m still figuring out how that will work, and I’m sure it will make for some good blog posts in the future. For now, though, I just want to keep my sanity. I want to stop imagining spinoff novellas that go into the pasts of other characters. I want to stop thinking about awesome things that could happen in book three, then wonder how I can set up for them in book two.

Unfortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it), I will probably keep poking around at this world I invented. I’ll write scenes in my notebook about other characters so I can understand them better. I’ll write notes about made-up religions so I’ll know how people should react to their world.

At least I can’t stop being productive, right?

A Recap of 50 Shades Darker

Friends, if you were following my commentary/play-by-play of Fifty Shades Darker on social media two weeks ago, you might have been surprised when that all just stopped suddenly. Truth be told, I didn’t actually finish the book. I have 132 pages left and I probably won’t read them. That’s because the fantastic conflict I had been waiting for fizzled and died about 100 pages ago and nothing following that has been interesting. So you have my apologies for this collection of thoughts on 74.8% of Fifty Shades Darker, in which Anastasia attempts the basics of adult communication, Christian’s a guy, and the awesome ex-girlfriend with a gun subplot gets lost in a bog of uninteresting make-up sex.

50 Shades Darker

Also, it’s unlikely that I’ll get to the third one. I was only invested in this series for the laughs my commentary gives others. That’s normally a pretty good motivator for me, but I’m going to abandon ship right now and spend my time on more stimulating/entertaining in a good way things.

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Best and Worst of Critique Comments (bonus)

It’s been fun going through the nice and nonsensical comments my peers have left on my short stories over the years. Some are helpful, some are supportive, some are mean and some are just plain funny. They’re a great way to remind my fellow writers — particularly those new to having their work critiqued — that everyone’s got an opinion. Sometimes those opinions can hurt your feelings, but it’s important to look past that for any valuable input you can use. Just like when you read customer reviews on Amazon.com, you tend to ignore the ones that just say “Awful product. Never buying from this company again.” because there’s nothing there to advise you on why you shouldn’t buy the product. For all you know, that guy didn’t even read the product description before he bought the thing.

For this bonus episode, we’re actually going to take a look at some more comments left on the last three short stories I wrote. What makes these comments so special? Well, they come from my professor. I’ll go ahead and give him the benefit of the doubt — it’s the end of the year, the loud class next door has been bugging him all quarter, and there could be something in his personal life really stressing him out. This is the first time his comments have proved less useful and — as in the first picture below — a little hurtful.

Instead of launching into a defensive tirade, I want to use these comments to show you all that even professors, who we sometimes put on a pedestal for all their wisdom and experience, can offer less than helpful feedback.

hunters comments
“I’ll allow this one trip down a medieval rabbit hole, but if you do it again, you’ll start with a C. That you didn’t know if the story is set before or after The Black Death tells me you need to do more research.”

This wasn’t the first fantasy story I’ve passed off as historical fiction for this professor, but it’s the first time he’s responded in this way. This story earned an A, so I’m at least doing something right. But that just makes the threat of a lower grade bizarre. (To clarify, when he said “you’ll start with a C,” he meant that a C is the highest grade I could get if I did everything else perfectly.)

This professor also doesn’t like genre fiction — he prefers contemporary realistic fiction — so I’m taking this particular comment as an opinion of taste rather than objective assessment of quality. Taste should have no bearing on a grade.

sleepless comments
-A Good, if a bit melodramatic at times. She had a miscarriage? Stillborn? Co-worker’s callous remark a bit implausible. Where does he work, or Where did he work? In a silver mine in Reno circa 1870?”

For my contemporary story about the married couple that had a miscarriage, my professor generally felt it was melodramatic. During verbal critique, he offered some rather morbid suggestions on how to adjust the situation to be “more dramatic,” such as turning the accidental miscarriage into an abortion forced by the husband. This question about where the husband works that a coworker would make such a callous comment about the wife seems odd, especially given its phrasing.

Sure, I have years of anecdotal proof that people, myself included, can make tactless remarks without thinking. I think we’ve all said things and realized a few seconds later that, gee, I really shouldn’t have said that. But it’s hard to tell if what I wrote sounds more like intentional insensitivity when my only feedback is a quip. It’s important to explain why something doesn’t work when critiquing.

invaders comments
“A dystopian futuristic Robo Cop War of the Worlds woman warrior swooning techno romance novel? Part of one?”

Perhaps the least helpful feedback (as far as clarity on what changes are needed to improve the story) comes on the last story I submitted. Only the professor read it, so I can’t use my classmates’ comments to help decipher what’s “wrong” here. I guess any mentions of giant machines during an alien invasion will bring to mind War of the Worlds, but I’ve never seen any Robo Cop. Regardless, most writing is derivative of something these days.

What’s not working with this feedback is, again, that I’m not being told what isn’t working. Is it the “romantic voice” people have said I write in? Is the presence of a female character — who spends the whole story freaking out and trying not to bleed out from a gunshot wound — to blame for the “woman warrior” feel? What exactly am I supposed to change for the revised version?

As you can see, my friends, comments you don’t know how to respond to can come from anyone. They could even come from you. If you get responses like this, ignore what won’t help you. And if you’re critiquing someone else’s work, remember to explain why you think a change is needed.


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Best and Worst of Critique Comments #6

Here we are, ladies and gents: the last Best and Worst of Critique Comments. It’s been a load of fun and I love all the wonderful reactions you’ve posted here or on Facebook. Thank you very much to everyone who has been reading this mini-series since it began!

This final story was only 500 words. It’s in the more romantic vein of work I’ve produced, focusing on a moment between a husband and wife a few months after she’s had a miscarriage. I spent a few weeks on this one and I’m very happy with how it came out — especially since everyone underlined the sentence I spent the most time crafting. There was some dissent on whether or not I should have dropped an F-bomb at the end of the story, but I haven’t decided what to do about it (if anything).

So without further ado, I give you the best and worst of the comments:

“This is a very soft, romantic piece. It suits your romantic voice. I was a little bit confused as to what exactly was going on, but I appreciate the subtlety you use to convey your ideas.”

“Such a truly wonderful short-short. You captured a moment, a history, and a hope in a small space as well as I think was possible for this.”

“While somber, you balanced it with such great humor. Because, well, when something is just too damn sad to be funny in life, that’s the moment that it has to become funny if progress is going to be possible. So beautiful job with that.”

“Aw this DID hit me right in the feels!”

“Weddings are murder.”

“It’s engaging the whole way through and the ending made me smile. Also, the coworker is a DI**. Don’t change a THING.”

“I want a hint of how/why she miscarried, if it just happened, or if something external caused it. It would be easy to include here.”

“I like that the dialogue is very casual and funny, but what’s going on is deeply emotional. You made it touching and sad without being melodramatic at all.”

“What does this mean?” Written next to an underlined piece of dialogue that says, “I said you’ve never been easy.”

“There maybe could have been more descriptions of their body language and their comfortability with each other. There’s a lot of dialogue, so add some descriptions.”

“Good dialogue. Good chemistry between characters. The amount of ‘I’s can be cut down.”

“I presume Maelyn was their child that died or was a stillbirth. I presume she wants to forget the nightmare through sex.” 

“Excellent story. Really tells a lot about the couple and their marriage without a bunch of ‘fluff.'”

“No! It was a sweet story, don’t spoil it with foul language.” Written next to the F-bomb, but not near the word “di**” a few paragraphs before.

“I would have wanted to know more about their past, but due to the word restriction, see that’s impossible. You could consider making the father losing his job somehow related to them losing their child.”

“Maybe change the title. It sounds to romance-novel-esque and the story is so far from that. :|”

“So sad… :(” Written next to the sentence, “It’s something I can only see in my dreams.”

“I don’t know. This line seems too rough for this piece. It’s a little jarring. I understand what you’re trying to say though. Maybe ‘f***ing’ is too strong of a word.”

“Love this whole thing. You say so much with so little.”

“Genetic flaw/virus?”

“I do like page one more than I like page two, though — there’s something about that conversation that just seems off when compared to the trauma but, then again, it’s a way of dealing with it.”

“Also, why was Tom such a di**?? Maybe add a little line about him, that describes his relationship to the narrator/his wife. But this was beautiful okay?!”

“The relationship between the two is so descriptive and lively. There’s a crucial AND symbolic meaning, even in the rhythm of your voice.”

“This was a really interesting take on what I assume to be a pregnancy? Or abortion? Or miscarriage? Your writing is so quiet and really beautiful.”

“I love Maelyn, she seems so genuine. When she curls back up in his arms and just giggles — aw, dead. I also loved the transition from touching her head and wanting to touch another. Nice subtleness with the information regarding a failed pregnancy.”

“The only part I’m unsure about is the ending. It seems like this would be in the realm of her character, but it doesn’t fit here. It tears away from this tender moment you have given us.”

“?” Written next to the circled phrase, “I hope to God.”

And there we have it. Thank you very much for reading! I wish there had been more outlandish comments, but there was only one person who seemed to be reading a completely different story.

Well #?^% XXXIII: The post-college plan

This is now the second time in my life where the advice everyone seems to be giving — and following — is “Spam the world with applications!”

Four years ago, “the world” was limited to colleges. Fill out the applications, organize portfolios, write essays and hold your breath. When senior year began in September, my friends were putting together lists of their top colleges and their fallback plans. Come December, they were in a frenzy to finish all their applications before the deadline. I remember one girl was so frazzled, she wrote a couple of haikus for her essay. I think she got accepted there.

It was different for me. I started looking at SCAD back when my brother started attending — my second year of high school — and sent out my application in August. I didn’t have to write an essay, but I submitted an art portfolio. I got my acceptance letter the first weekend of October and took it easy for the rest of the year.

A friend recently told me how she sent SCAD acceptance letters from other colleges and got them to increase her scholarships. Part of me wishes I’d done that just for a lighter financial burden, but I know the younger me didn’t see the point in wasting time applying to other schools when I got into the one I wanted.

Now that I’m 26 days from commencement and my degree, “the world” includes potential employers and grad school. I’m putting off getting my master’s for a year or so — just long enough to get some working experience, pay off student loans and have enough to actually afford higher education — and looking straight at employers. More accurately, one employer.

Once again, I’ve chosen to apply to SCAD. I love my internship and I’ve got a good start. A few months more and I might be quite capable. But the big worry from others is that I’ll get stuck — by choice, they say. It’s the classic “You could do so much better than this!” story without the dramatic disappointment in my choices.

“Is that really what you want to do?”

“This is just a step toward something better, right?”

At 21, I know just as much about my future career path as I did when I was 18. Sure, I’m more aware of the options, obstacles, considerations and consequences, but anything’s possible. That hasn’t changed in four years and it isn’t about to. I could bump into one of the editors for Savannah Magazine the next time I buy eggs and get a job offer. I could finish my book, get an agent, get published and do what I really want. I could be a full-time employee at SCAD while I earn my M.F.A. and then go on to teach at whichever university I please.

People have been asking since high school, “What are you going to do after you graduate college?” And my answer has always been, “Make enough money to afford to eat and sleep under a roof.”

That might sound like the vague, eye-roll-worthy response you’d expect from someone with no goals or ambitions — just a college degree — but it’s the most specific answer I can offer. I want to afford my own food and my own home, and I’ll work whatever job I have to for that. If I’m good at the job and I enjoy it, that’s like ordering a 4-piece Chicken McNugget and getting 5 at no extra cost.