Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘fiction

The struggling author III

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Looking back at my last update on the theme of the struggling author, I am now in a very different place. This includes having a much better understanding of writing, both as a process and as a means to produce fiction that works or does not work. It also includes having actually reached both a text mass and a sufficient maturity of outline that I probably could wrap up a readable book in just another few weeks time.

This I will not do, however, because that book might be readable, but also highly unlikely to satisfy myself and equally unlikely to be published. (Getting even a good book published is not trivial.)

Instead, I will take my time, aiming for a completion somewhere during next year’s summer. This will allow me ample time to modify both plot and text in light of increasing competence. Even now, most of what I wrote two months ago seems sufficiently weak that I am set on rewriting it—and that includes text that I was reasonably happy with at the time.

(To avoid misunderstandings: This is a good thing. It shows that I am improving. If I had not improved, then I would have cause to question my career choice. The time plan is set in the hope that I will continue to improve, so that my first book will not just be “OK” but something that I am actually happy with.)

There are still things that I struggle with. A notable example is the question of which of several alternatives to choose in key situations. Each choice can simultaneously open and close doors, and many choices can have an effect on the long term plot. Sometimes, it is possible to eat the cake and keep it too; sometimes, it is not. Consider, by analogy, questions from real life like “What if I had chosen a different major or college?”, “What if I had given that girl-/boy-friend a second chance?”, “What if I had not married that woman/man?”, “What if I had accepted respectively turned down that job offer?”, etc.

Looking at my own life, it would, e.g., be possible to have me go through both with my time as an exchange student in Germany and a later life in Sweden, with closer contacts to my family, less language issues, likely an easier career, etc. It would not be possible to combine this later life in Sweden with the actual continued life in Germany, unless the German part was cut much shorter than it was, missing much of the experiences that do make up the “book” of my life. True, even now, I could return to Sweden, but it would now be too late for many of the experiences that could have been a part of the alternate “book”, including differences in early “character development”.

Or, to take the excuse to segue into a different area: What if the last five (?) months had not seen my house terrorized with construction work? (The “book” of my life might be less interesting, but the book that I am writing might be considerably further along.) As is, the amount of noise has been considerably lower the last week or two, but simply will not end. I suspect that the apartment renovations are over and that some other party is now performing lesser works somewhere else in the building. This, however, includes such absurdities as loud hammering for several minutes at 5 AM (yes, AM!) two days ago.

Another considerable annoyance is the Künstlersozialkasse, ostensibly created to ease the financial burden of struggling authors and other artists through covering those portions of various pension and health-insurance fees that are paid by the employer for those in regular employment. I am a perfect case of someone for whom the Künstlersozialkasse is intended, and by the current law, the decision to include me should have been a trivial rubber stamping. Instead, the treatment of my application has been extended over more than two months—and then rejected. Moreover, this rejection has been given a motivation that is simply not compatible with the actual law. (Such misbehavior is, unfortunately, quite common in Germany, where e.g. the “IRS” often willfully ignores laws and precedence in favor of its own internal instructions, to the point that individual tax payers might need to go to court over something that has already been decided in favor of other tax payers; or need to go to court to for the same misbehavior several years in a row, even when they won in the previous years.) Moreover, the resources of this agency (or whatever might be the appropriate term) are often wasted on non-artists, like free-lance journalists, whose inclusion is contrary to the original intentions.

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Written by michaeleriksson

October 19, 2019 at 9:53 pm

The disappointing hero

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This week, I have read (increasingly, skimmed) about half of Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, ending with the chapter “Initiation”. Again, I find that a work that has been highly lauded, has had a great impact on thought, whatnot, is poorly reasoned, poorly written, and unconvincing.* I will not bother with the remainder.

*Disclaimer: There might or might not be more worthwhile content in the latter parts of the book.

A fatal flaw of this particular book is the psychoanalytic framework that Campbell imposes on the material, including a near obsession with sexual acts, Oedipal themes, and similar, as well as using cherry-picked dreams as support for his thesis and engaging in Jungian mysticism.* In his defense, psychoanalysis was taken much more seriously when the book was written than it is today, but even accepting a psychoanalytical framework, I suspect, the book would not stand up well to scientific scrutiny. For instance, giving examples of superficially similar stories (that might or might not have a common mental origin) or even stories with just some similar aspect** from various parts of the world, is not very convincing. How does the reader know that these stories are not (like the dreams) cherry-picked? If they are, what do they prove? Even if truly universal themes can be found, can we conclude that they go back to Campbell’s explanations? The reasoning used is usually thin, unconvincing, or specious.

*I originally intended to say that he was trying to force a square mythological peg into a round psychoanalytic hole, but that too might have been sexualized by someone like Campbell…

**I have not analyzed examples in detail, but looking back, I would particularly say that the proportion of the stories that cover even most of the entire suggested “hero’s journey” is quite small. However, the similar aspect need not even relate to one of the stations of the arc, but might well be something like presence of bodily fluids.

To boot, the information density is quite low, because most of the book appears to consist of the unreflecting retelling of myths, myth fragments, dreams, tribal customs, and similar, which seem intended to serve as proof more than illustration. It seems to be a disease in the social sciences to cover a lack of convincing arguments by just increasing the mass of text…

There might be a greater underlying principle (but then likely not psychoanalytic)—or there might be a whole lot of coincidence. (Or cherry-picking, or whatnot.) I might suggest a conclusion like “human brains have a tendency to enjoy or be fascinated with certain story elements, because they are ‘wired’ hat way”—but that would have been my claim even without reading Campbell’s book… From another perspective, at least parts of the “monomyth” just seem like natural narrative choices, e.g. in that putting a hero in an unaccustomed environment gives greater opportunities than having him remain in his familiar environment, or that a journey gives more opportunities for diverse encounters than a non-journey.

The same book written as a study on comparative mythology, the psychology of mythology, or similar, with a more scientific approach, could have been a very worthwhile read. Ditto, as a study of the characteristics of successful stories. As it is written, it is mostly pointless.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 8, 2019 at 11:51 am

Useful guides and useless advice / Follow-up: Useless guides on writing

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Recently, I lamented the quality of guides on writing ([1]). A few remarks based on my later readings and thoughts:

  1. Speaking of “guides on writing” was not ideal. I should have used e.g. “guides on writing fiction”.

    While many guides on writing (in a more general or more mechanics-of-writing sense) are poor too, the chance of finding a good one is fairly large. Strunk’s The Elements of Style, briefly mentioned in [1], is a strong example and gives excellent value for the invested time. I have recently re-read it for the first time in about ten years, and intend to do so again in the near-by future.* Another long ago read that I have in very positive memory, and intend to re-read, is The King’s English, which improved my ability to think** about language considerably.

    *I do not agree with him on all points, but he can stimulate thought even where I disagree. I urge the reader to pick as original an edition as possible, however; ideally, even pre-White. I note e.g. that a much more recent edition that I leafed through in a book store seemed very far from the original in insight and attitude, and e.g. even spoke of the need to replace an original “she” for “America” with “this country” (or similar), and included example texts by e.g. Toni Morrison, who, I strongly suspect, would not have met Strunk’s approval in terms of grammar and style.

    **Something that far outweighs the risk of encountering outdated rules.

  2. I have since found and read a few works on Wikisource more worthy of attention than those criticized in [1]. The most notable is The Craftsmanship of Writing, which is another good source of thought and understanding, as opposed to the canned, pre-chewed, follow-my-instructions-without-thinking advice of many modern guides.

    A lesser, but still positive, example is Stevenson’s Essays in the Art of Writing. Stevenson, of course, was himself a best-selling author (cf. a complaint in [1]).

    I give an honorary mention to Poe’s Philosophy of Composition when juxtaposed with another discussion of “The Raven” (note the skepticism as to whether Poe should be taken at face value).

  3. Outside of Wikisource, I have also read Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics”, which can be quite helpful in understanding the limits of literary criticism, the benefit (or even need?) to see a work from the author’s perspective, and Tolkien’s own approach to writing fiction.

    Indeed, combining Tolkien’s text with earlier thoughts of my own (notably, [2]), as well as some library readings on literature, I am growing skeptical to literary criticism as a field and profession. There are differences in accomplishment between authors;* however, a discussion of an accomplished author might fail through a too limited understanding of the author’s intentions, and disapproval might say more about the critic’s understanding of the work than about the work. A particular complication is failure to understand what results from a deliberate artistic choice and what from lack of ability.

    *As demonstrated e.g. by comparing short-stories by typical school children with short-stories by typical professional authors.

    (But I doubt that this will keep me from writing the odd critical piece of my own.)

  4. Even non-book advice can be quite poor. I recall e.g. the border-line idiotic writing “process” that we were force-fed in school: Write down (by hand) a first draft. Write it down again as a second draft, making whatever changes are wanted. Write it down a third time, making only minor changes (e.g. to correct spelling) and with a main focus of legibility of hand-writing. This is both inefficient and boring, turning writing into mere busy work bordering on taking dictation. For someone who struggled with hand-writing, like yours truly, it was a disaster, killing my interest in writing for many years.
  5. One extremely good piece of advice that I have encountered repeatedly: Read own texts out loud.

    I have so far limited myself to “reading in my head”, but have still seen a considerable improvement in my ability to spot language errors ([3]). This likely for the dual reason that I am forced to read considerably slower than when reading normally, and that differences in “sound alike” words are enhanced, reducing the risk of accidental confusion. (The latter is a particular problem of mine, cf. [3].) A third explanation might be that I have now have two cognitive systems working in parallel, the “reading” and the “hearing” ones.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 30, 2019 at 8:53 am

The struggling author II

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Fairly soon after my “struggling author” piece, things started to fall into place, and by now, just short of the one-month mark, I have found my way to roughly a 40-hour week.* Moreover, I currently have no motivation problems, and self-discipline is correspondingly a non-issue.

*In terms of work relating directly to my book, ranging from research to actual writing; not including e.g. the reading of works by others or a few blog posts.

On the downside, the amount of actual output is still fairly low* and much of that in the process of being re-re-revised. This because I still am navigating some beginner’s mistakes, still have to think about some things that I expect to be automatic later on,** and have repeatedly found that my character conceptions and plot-outline require considerable changes in light of what I learned about them during writing***. I count on all three issues improving with time as I grow better and as the characters/plot reach a sufficient maturity.

*At roughly 13 thousand words or a little more than a quarter of the expected output for the National Novel Writing Month, including the short-story mentioned in the previous text. (The “raw” output, including the removed and the rewritten, is obviously higher than the “polished” output, but certainly not by anything near a factor of four. Then again, I likely have quality ambitions well above most NNWM participants.)

**Paralleling my experiences from e.g. programming, that every time a similar situation is encountered, the renewed decision will fall faster, be better, and/or require less thought, until it is at some point “internalized” or is made “by instinct”.

***Which, paradoxically, implies that it was a good idea to start writing before planning was finished: Writing has revealed weaknesses and problems that I was too inexperienced to spot just through planning. This might or might not be different for future books.

A problem area is dialogue: With all those movies and TV shows watched, I had assumed that dialogue would be fairly easy. In reality, I find that virtually everything said sounds highly unnatural in the first attempt. Moreover, the “voices” of the main protagonists are too inconsistent: comparing two chapters, I found that they each had different voices from each other (good) in both chapters, but that the voices were not consistent (bad) between the chapters… That the (non-dialogue) prose is easier might be a side-effect of all the past blogging, and that I have hardly written one word of dialogue since leaving school.* To my surprise, and in contrast, I have had no problems leaving the style of writing of my blog behind, in favor of something smoother and more “fictionally sound” (I still need to improve, but I am far closer to where I want to be than with dialogue).

*A semi-recent parody of Plato aside, where even the attempt at sounding natural would have been contrary to the purpose.

This matches a more general topic of previous experiences, readings, whatnot being of less value than expected, because they did not have the purpose to further my own writing: Over my almost four decades as a reader, I much too rarely stopped to think about what made a book good, what could be done differently, what means the author had used to achieve a certain effect, etc. The result is that I gained much less (from an aspiring author’s perspective) from the reading that I would today—and that I have a great many works and authors that I need to re-acquaint myself with.

On the upside, this first month has given me a much better understanding of what is missing in my skill-set, what qualities can make a book great, what means and possibilities there are, and so on—and I am now confident that I can become quite good at writing fiction. (But note that I still suspect that it will take years. The difference between “now” and “a month ago” is the certainty that I can do it, given enough time.)

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August 29, 2019 at 4:39 am

Useless guides on writing

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For natural reasons, I have looked into various writing guides lately. Almost all have one thing in common–they are proof that the author is not qualified to write on the topic… (Often reducing my skepticism to the claim, “those who can do, do; those who cannot, teach”, in the process.)

Consider William Zinsser and his “On Writing Well” (specifically, the “30th anniversary edition”): The introduction begins with one of the worst “anti-hooks” (cf. parts of [1]) that I have ever seen—a discussion of an only tangentially relevant photograph. This is followed by a paragraph on how visitors are drawn to the photograph, followed by a paragraph on how writing has gone electronic but the photograph remains relevant (in the opinion of the author). What follows then, I do not know, because I decided to skip the rest of the introduction…

Now, does the story about the photograph have a valid and valuable point? It probably does, but this point could be made much better by actually getting to that point! (Which might be that writing is ultimately about the writer, or ultimately a human activity, or similar.) Even what might be valid about the photograph could be condensed to three sentences instead of three paragraphs.

The first regular chapter does contain a few good points and an interesting contrast between two authors, one who writes as a “vocation” (Zinsser) and one as an “avocation” (a “Dr. Brock”). However, this chapter, too, starts with an anti-hook: irrelevant background on how the two came to form a panel and discuss their writing with a group of students. I almost skipped ahead another chapter then and there. This type of writing might, barely, be acceptable in fiction, but not in a non-fiction work where the reader actually reads with the purpose of learning. (If I had seen these two anti-hooks in fiction, I might instead have complained about the blandness of the writing—the excuse that they would simultaneously serve as good examples of fiction does not hold.*)

*Obviously, the standards for writing fiction and non-fiction are different, and so are the purposes of fiction and non-fiction. It would be conceivable that these writing guides are poor, because an author who is good at fiction does not have the skills to write non-fiction. However, these anti-hooks would only very rarely make good fiction either—be they by Zinsser or someone else.

I persevered, going through such irrelevancies as the color of Dr. Brocks’ jacket…, and found material that a better writer would have condensed into no more than half the space—likely less.

Chapter two, admittedly, begins with a reasonable introduction: “Clutter is the disease of American writing.” (and an equally reasonable and relevant continued first paragraph).* Even Strunk (“Omit needless words.”) might have approved.

*I might have objected to the common misuse of “America” to refer to the United States of America, the likely unnecessary U.S. restriction, or questioned whether the rest of the paragraph was needed. I definitely have problems with the hypocrisy of his complaint in light of his own writing… (Notwithstanding my own wordiness—this is a point that I am far from mastering.)

But: A few pages later, I encountered the outrageously ignorant PC claim that use of “he” for “the writer” and “the reader” would be sexist… Note: not “outdated”, not “offensive to some groups”, not “contrary to modern norms”—but “sexist”! I am skeptical enough ([2]) to the relevance of the alternative motivations, but the use of “sexist” is inexcusable and entirely out of line, making implications about the intentions and mindset of others that are pure speculation—and usually wrong.

At this point, I could no longer take the author seriously, and threw the book away.

Similar problems appear to be quite common in this type of literature.

A particular annoyance is the “expert” who has his mind set solely on the writing of best-sellers, with no regard for other purposes of writing. True: I would love for my writing to earn me an early retirement (and I am not above writing a “pot-boiler”). However: That is not why I write… I write in the hope to develop myself further, to reach some degree of competence as a writer, and to, possibly, leave something behind that will be considered a strong literary accomplishment.*** In the choice between the success and accomplishment of, respectively, Stephanie Meyer and Kafka, I would take Kafka any day.* And: how many of these “experts” have actually written a best-seller (in fiction) of their own?** Indeed, comparing likely scenarios, my best bet to lead a comfortable life with early retirement would be to continue my career as an IT consultant.

*Where I go by Kafka’s success during his life time. What followed later, was of little use to him… (And it is hard to name worthwhile “serious” authors that have had few readers, and have been read by me, and will be recognized by the typical reader of this text.)

**I have personally read only one book on writing by someone who qualifies—Stephen King’s “On Writing”. While this book is quite weird, it has also, so far, been the most useful.

***Also see some texts on the same attitude from my pre-fiction days, e.g. [3], [4].

Written by michaeleriksson

August 15, 2019 at 1:00 am

The struggling author

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Almost ten days ago, I became a professional author, and I soon jokingly referred to myself as a struggling author.

This joke has turned out to be depressingly true, if not in the more common has-trouble-to-make-ends-meet sense: I have really struggled with the transition.

This in several regards, including:

  1. The trouble with switching from my sabbatical and its great freedom to a more structured schedule. True, I likely used to spend about a full work-week per week doing things like studying, reading, writing blog posts, etc., with an eye on personal development, rather than (just) fun. True, my new schedule* is not that straining and still allows much more freedom than a desk-job. Still, the switch has been surprisingly hard, both with the needed extra self-discipline** and the restrictions on choice.

    *Currently, I have four hours a day set aside to plan/research/write, one hour to read specifically about writing, and a handful of hours to read literature that I believe to be helpful for my development (also see excursion). The proportions will likely shift away from reading as I develop my skills.

    **I know from experience that once I start to postpone tasks until tomorrow, things can slide very fast. This might be acceptable for a hobby, but would be disastrous for a professional career. I simply must take a different attitude than during my sabbatical.

  2. I had great early problems using my time productively, to find out what I all needed and wanted to do and how to approach it. For instance, with most of my past (non-fiction) writing, I have just had an idea, mulled it over for a while, started to write, and the let the process take over. This has not worked at all—in part, because the book I have in my mind is has a lot of pieces that do not yet fit together. Indeed, I have so far written very little text, because the planning has taken over. While this is likely a good thing (at this stage), it leads to the next issue.*

    *I know that there is a school of “just sit down and write”. While I do not say that this is a bad idea, it does not fit who I am today and the comparatively complex book I am currently working on. However, I promise not to postpone the actual writing ad eternam and I do realize that planning beyond a certain point will not be productive.

  3. What I had planned in my head during my sabbatical simply does not work: The pieces, again, do not yet fit together. I have too little of a clue what will happen beyond a certain point. The characters are too shallow. The overall rules of the universe are not yet clear. Etc. (Of course, all these are things that could make anything written too early “wrong” as things clarify.)

    On the bright side, I have made great progress and am actually starting to understand what I want to write. (Whereas I just believed that I understood it ten days ago.)

  4. My understanding of writing fiction has altered dramatically. Being specific is hard, but the analogy of having read about cold water and the jumping into it shows the general idea. While it can be safely assumed that my understanding will continue to change over the years, this time has been humbling. In particular, I had not quite understood how much there is going on behind the scenes of a text. I have encountered advice about prose, motivation, character, …, in various forms since I was a teenager, but actually trying to write a non-trivial text contemplating such aspects is something different.

    This in part through writing (a first draft of) a short-story* in parallel to planning the book, which has been a very valuable learning experience. However, it has also shown me how long the distance to mastery still is.

    *While comparatively short, it is much more “intellectually ambitious” than the small exercise and experiment stories I have written in the past.

  5. I have had various annoying and unexpected problems of other kinds, e.g. an unexpected computer crash* when I had really delved into my short-story or in that I have tried to use an external keyboard, which has had weird side-effects. (Specifically, killing the middle-button on my mouse and the Umlaut-generation on the keyboards. I still do not know what has gone wrong, despite hours spent trouble-shooting.)

    *They are very rare with me, but when they do happen, it is always at a particular inconvenient time. Moreover, with various passwords, encryption, user accounts, …, it can take a while before I am up-and-running again, which kills motivation.

Nevertheless, I remain with my decision: I might not have known how cold the water would be (at least not during the early days), but I did know that it would take years to get where I want to be, and I do know the difference between doing something as a hobby and doing it professionally—-the one is fun, the other is work. I also take comfort in sayings like “Aller Anfang ist schwer”* and “Alla är vi barn i början”**.

*German: Every beginning is hard. (More literally, possibly, “Everything’s beginning […]”.)

**Swedish: We are all children in the beginning.

A caveat to others, however: My situation is special. I have the luxury of having a few years worth of living expenses saved up and my decision to go pro was partially motivated by the wish to learn how to write fiction, in that I knew that being a pro would be helpful in a different manner from just dilly-dallying as an amateur with a dozen other interests. Most others should learn how to write well first and go pro later (if at all). Certainly, quitting a job the one week and concluding that writing will not work out the next (understatement of the year) is not a good career move.

Excursion on future updates:
Do not expect overly many. Between fiction and my (other) blogging, I will likely prefer to not burden my fingers with additional blog posts. Moreover, I intend to seek anonymous publishing, implying that sharing book-specific details might be a bad idea.

Excursion on reading:
An incidental, if possibly temporary, change is that I read in a very different manner at the moment. In the past, it was mostly a matter of entertainment; now, I often actively think about various aspects of the text, notably what works well, what does not, and respectively why. (Including formulations, structure, plot, …)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 10, 2019 at 2:19 am

Sabbatical over, going pro

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With the end of July, I am officially terminating my sabbatical to become a professional author of fiction. If and when I will be a good, published, and/or money-earning author—that is yet to be seen.

As for now, I have a number of ideas for books and short-stories, one of which I have been planning in my head for some time. While the planning stage is not yet finished, I will gradually start to generate text—should I make a mess of it, well, Rome was not built in a day and even Steinbeck’s first effort was poor. (Cf. a footnote in an older text.)

The road to this point, has been long: I have casually toyed with the idea since I was a teenager, possibly even earlier, and I fell in love with one particular book-idea at some point in the winter 2017/2018. This idea first made me consider writing books seriously (but I will save it for a time when my skills have improved considerably). During my sabbatical, starting in April 2018, I have grown the conviction that I need to go professional to have a reasonable chance at achieving something, as well as spent considerable time improving my understanding of fiction, writing, what it might take, etc.—including through a more active/conscious reading of fiction, reading about fiction, experimenting with small test stories, and writing about related topics (cf. a number of earlier texts).

I am a few months behind plan for three reasons: a shyness in pulling the trigger, great problems with finding an official source of information on the bureaucracy side,* and the disturbances through renovation works in my house that have made work hard and often forced me to spend a significant portion of the day outside my apartment (cf. several earlier texts; the last period has, knock on wood, been considerably better).

*Including options for health insurance, whom I need to tell about my plans, and similar. I have a text in planning to discuss this in more detail. Short story: plausible sounding information source A insists that I should ask implausible source B who points to source C, who ignores my specific questions in favor of a few PDF files that I had already downloaded and read on my own.

My other writings will likely be scaled back a fair bit as a consequence,* and I will likely focus on the neglected “Sweden visits” texts in the short term.

*Especially compared with this July, which has set a record—partially, because I wanted to get a few texts out of the way.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 31, 2019 at 12:51 am

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