The not-entirely-random thoughts of Chris Brecheen about writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, September 15, 2014


Twice this week I have trudged up the stairs into the "junk room," crawled past husks of half built robots, defeated training bots that are never going to be repaired no matter what anyone promises, smashed bits of cinderblock and concrete, various helmets or crests claimed as trophies, martial art DVD's, strategy and small unit tactics books, punching bags with split seams, and for some reason, a deflated yoga ball to the little table at the back of the room where I have set up Vera. I opened her up, and then just stared at a blinking cursor.

If you ever want to know at approximately what point my writing becomes impacted, it's (apparently) about sixty hours a week. Cleaning The Hall of Rectitude and teaching English as a second language usually leaves me enough time to write, but when sixty hours blows up in your face, there's not enough left.

On Monday I heard a gentle and polite knock at the door, and I walked over and opened it without the usual DNA scan/photon shield security protocols. It turned out to be the biggest mistake I've made since forgetting to rearm the Chickadee's missiles before we went up against the Tween Titans–my god but those kids were obnoxious.

The first blast was nearly twenty hours in one hit. I flew back from the impact, feeling the entire week's worth of free time slipping away.

ChronoTron (my nemesis) stepped through the door. His scintillating midnight blue and black cape swirled around him, shimmering with its futuristic textiles. His stoic jowls couldn't disguise a glimmer of sadistic pleasure. "Well well well," he said.  "Chris Brecheen. Imagine that."

"I figured out the problem," he said, dropping a discharged time siphon to the ground. "When I'm stealing time from most people, the power cycle isn't a problem. They just stare at you like dumb sheeple the siphon whirs up to full power. But you...you know better. You keep getting out of the way. That's why I invented these."

He pulled out two small, hand-held time siphons that looked almost exactly like pistols. "Smaller and faster. They don't steal as much time, of course, but their power cycles are so short that you won't be able to just dodge."

"So you're from like four thousand years in the future, right?" I asked.

"Yes," ChronoTron confirmed. "And we're out of time."

"Yeah, you mentioned that the last time you got your ass kicked. Or maybe that hasn't happened to you yet--time travel plots are pretty convoluted. But here's my question. In four thousand years, no one has realized that 'sheeple' is a stupid word and 'well well well is a cliche that no one really says.'"

His reply was to start firing. I tried to evade, but he was right about the time siphons being faster. Every time I ran from one bit of cover to another a few blasts hit me. An hour here. Ninety minutes there. ChronoTron systematically syphoned away my week while my eyes flick. With

That's when the house P.A. system start blasting Miley Cyrus. ChronoTron looked up incredulously. I just smiled and sighed.

Despite the lawsuit, Wrecking Ball has gone right on using the Miley Cyrus song as his "dramatic entrance" anthem. He really works hard to time that first hit right when she first sings "WRECK..."in the chorus. After that, if he can time slamming someone with a sedan or an entire wall of sheet rock, with the same moment in later choruses, he'll try.

In this case he wouldn't need the secondary timing. The fight was over in a single hit. The Herculean impact of Wrecking Ball's anvil sized fists jarred ChronoTron so hard that his contingency time hop assumed he was being slammed by a big rig truck and bounced him several days into the future to avoid the threat. The time stealer is a wily opponent, but not too able to deal with a concerted counter attack.

Or maybe not that wily considering he walked up to the front door of a superhero headquarters and knocked.

"Wow, I don't think I've ever really hit anyone into next week," Wrecking Ball said. "I thought that was just a thing people said."

Then he turned to me."You okay, Chris? I got here as soon as I could."All the heroes around here are pretty dismissive of me until villains start picking fights, and then it's like a little brother thing.

"Yeah," I said, standing up and testing all my various bits for functionality. "But he got most of my week."

"You're still here," he said.

"Yeah, I'm still here," I said. "But he got the time I needed write a couple of entries. And now I'm behind on everything, including housework and sleep. Hopefully I can catch back up by Tuesday or Wednesday and get back on schedule."

Wrecking Ball sat down next to me and sighed: "Nemesises suck," he said.

Wrecking Ball wasn't exactly the erudite orator of the Hall of Rectitude, but this time he'd said it all. "They really do," I agreed.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

No Apologies! A Defense of Why Speculative Fiction Needs No Defense (Part 7)

Back to Part 6
All The Way Back to Part 1  


What ignites our imaginations isn't realism. It never has been—not through the recorded history of our stories, and all we know about oral tradition.

What ignites our imaginations is that which is just outside our experience. Something rooted in what we know, with just a tiny bit beyond the pedestrian. The power of metaphor, allegory, and parable drew authors of the past and draws authors of the present to write outside the realm of stark reality time and time again. It is the ability of speculative fiction to bring fresh life to age old philosophical questions and engage in social critique that gives it such strength.

We learn in reader response theory that no author can avoid a reader coming to the table of their fiction without pre-generated thoughts and feelings. This is more important in the age of identity politics and globalization than ever before. Confirmation bias and disconfirmation bias constantly get truly quality works of literature disregarded because of their message, themes, or even criticisms.

Speculative fiction upsets this balance. A piece written today about gay marriage—no matter how poignant, no matter how filled with concrete details, no matter how expansive, no matter how generous, no matter how honest, and no matter how empathetic—would find mostly an audience of people who’d made up their minds, one way or another, about the issue. That voice is lost and diminished by the preconceptions and prejudices of the reader. Those who agreed would nod their heads and relate. Those who disagreed would roll their eyes and probably never finish.

However, through speculative fiction the themes and relationships and characters and IDEAS can be explored “under the radar” of prejudice. A reader may not realize that the forbidden love between elves and humans is an allegory for same sex relationships. They may not realize that the criticism of class issues and the propaganda of meritocracy that exists in this lunar colony is really a critique of the U.S. even if a direct criticism would have slammed their patriotism-addled minds shut to the concepts by page two. The issues, the inequities, the emotions can all be explored without encountering the preconceptions of the reader. And even when such an allegory is blatantly transparent, it somehow still has power as an abstraction to inform—as a long and full history of the use of metaphors to make points clearly illustrates.

Lewis Carroll’s criticism of Victorian society wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting if not seen through the eyes of Alice or written up as expository essays, or perhaps a “realistic” tourist through the world of Victorian idiosyncrasies and political failings—indeed Carroll may have ended up a fair bit shorter and in little need of a hatter himself after such a work.

When gritty realism will get you executed, maybe talking cards aren't so bad.
Shelly’s warnings of science’s proclivity to rush ahead without consideration for consequence would not have been as engaging without a monster in it.

Nonfiction about the communist revolution isn’t particularly interesting. Even a fiction piece characterizing the ring leaders of the communist revolution and delving into their psyche would have fairly limited appeal. But a group of farm animals taking over the farm from its owners captures the imagination with the supernatural. Right or wrong, the opinions of half the English speaking world on the communist revolution are based largely upon the power of Orwell's talking pigs…upon the power of speculative fiction.

Or had we forgotten that Orwell liked to write fantasy and science fiction when issuing the blanket statement that “genre is not real literature”?

My point in playing the Star Trek TNG clip in the previous section was not to show how great Star Trek was or how great Data was or how great that clip was, but to illustrate the strength of speculative fiction. If anything the clip suffers from The Next Generation’s habit of getting a little too preachy when the music starts and Picard begins his didactic-a-thon.

And yet, from this simple clip, we see where science fiction can take us if we give it half a chance. The works of Hume or Descartes are a bit dry, and “realistic” fiction exploring the nature of sentience and philosophical questions so directly would probably come off at least as bad as Ayn Rand exploring the philosophy of objectivism through Atlas Shrugged (the mention of which caused every English major's anal sphincter to slam shut just now).

In the TNG clip however we can see several implications and ideas being explored, not just about possible morality surrounding our ongoing development of artificial intelligence, but also about what it means to be conscious, what it means to have a soul, and why we are sentient. It touches on slavery and exploitation as deep issues of social and cultural morality. All because Data wanted to resign. That is the power that speculative fiction brings to the table--a power that is idiotic to ignore.

If “genre” is going to mean “bad” within literary circles then we have to stop assuming something is genre until we have established its quality, and that judgment must come without regard to a quantum laser, a superpower or prominent canines.

If “genre” is simply going to mean possessing of certain stylistic characteristics or plot elements then we must acknowledge that there can be—and is—good genre, great genre, canon genre. And we must acknowledge that more is still being produced today by superb writers.

In either case, the conversations within the literary community must shift from the mode of storytelling to the effectiveness of the storytelling, and the prejudice against certain elements must be rethought. The alternative is to face an increasing backlash from the speculative fiction community who are upset that they can’t get a fair shake—and who have absolutely every right to be so. Further, the sneering genre-bending by today's avant garde will make such classifications increasingly meaningless mostly because (as has always and ever been the case with academia in the arts) the Ivory Tower doesn't seem to realize that it IS the establishment that modern artists seek to upset.  The dismissive attitude of the literary community to a work simply because it contains a speculative element (and conversely to shelter the "literary" speculative fiction from the label) must be exposed as nothing but baseless prejudice and rank elitism…and breathtaking stupidity.

I want a world with good, well-written speculative fiction.

I want speculative fiction that engages in subtext and lives up to its potential as an art form with artistic integrity.

I want to talk about what is effective without a prejudice about what “counts,” and let what counts (or not) speak for itself.

I want a world where literary voices are hard on the settings of some authors that add nothing to the story—but that they do so without regard to whether that setting is a starship, a castle, or a rehab clinic.

No not THAT Starship.
Fire the image-finding intern.....again.
How much better would a writing teacher be to engage a student with the idea “that dragon historically symbolizes some human failing that your hero needs to slay,” rather than to simply, flatly demand its removal before proceeding. What a perfect container for so many literary elements exists in creating meaning from meaninglessness. I want instructions (and instrucTORS) that concern themselves with craft rather than content. I want to discuss fiction, irrespective of its hasty generalization into some pigeon hole.

Further, I want the lit sommeliers of the world to get their heads out of their collective asses and realize that it is not speculative fiction, but literary fiction that is the new kid in town. It is literary fiction that needs to work on its street cred if it wants to be anything but a joke (outside the ivory tower), and that they can’t just dismiss the most powerful storytelling medium of recorded history just by sneering through their monocles.

Speculative fiction is the giant talking Ents that roam the forest our sommeliers are standing in even as they casually discuss how forests are inferior. Perhaps it is time for them to look around before the Ents grow too irritated. Forest...trees...you get the precise idea I'm trying to convey about backlash and consequence and seeing things for what they are...even though it's not realistic.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Mailbox: Your Wildest Dreams of Avarice

Auto-pay buttons. Paypal hatred. And helping this blog in ways that don't cost money.

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I'm not above saving up questions to make my bimonthly appeal post look like a mailbox.] 

Dan writes:  

I know how Writing About Writing could make more money! Your Paypal button should include the subscription options. I bet a lot of people who don't think to click the button would be willing to set an auto-pay for a couple of dollars a month.

My reply:

I would love to have that subscription button! It sets up an automatic monthly payment and you can even label the subscription rates with really clever rates that remind people how cheap it is to support up and coming artists.

$2.00- King Sized Candy Bar
$5.00- Pumpkin Spiced Latte
$10.00- Movie At An Older Theater
$20.00- IMAX Show
$2500.00- Hookers and Blow

Well, you get the idea.

Anyway, it turns out when looking into this to answer your question that this service is something for which Paypal charges an additional $20/month. (It seems they have a pretty high opinion of their buttons.) As modest as Writing About Writing's numbers still are, I'm not sure we would even break even.

The thing is, Dan, you can make any payment you want recurring. If you make a Paypal payment (of any amount) you can click the little marker that says "Make this recurring" and give that amount each month. The button is impossible to miss. It's right next to the amount field if you click on the donate button.

It's there. In the middle.
Look closely.
No...between "amount" and "total."
Right now about 85% of W.A.W.'s meager but undeserved income comes from a half a dozen donors. (There's a reason I sing their praises mightily.) When lots more small donations start trickling in, or I have a lot more readers, I'll consider that investment.

P writes:

I hate Paypal. They are too greedy, and they involve themselves in the politics of their customers. Can I just send you a check?

My reply:

Paypal is kind of skeevy. It's like they think they're the only game in town. Unfortunately I don't have a lot of choices because they're the only game in town.

Right now, I'm afraid there's not enough interest in mailing physical checks. You're only the second person to mention it in nearly three years. If a few more people chime in, I'll set something up.

The thing of it is, I have to get a P.O. box for these kinds of correspondences, and they aren't expensive but they might not be worth it yet. Things get a little weird when you start having a public persona. I'm not even close to famous, and I already have some colorful folks fixating on me in various social media. My feminism posts always garner me a couple of nasty-grams (and Creepy Guy earned me straight up death threats), a couple of religious n00bs are sure they can talk me out of my heathenish ways, and I've got at least a couple of people who don't seem dangerous, but just a little obsessive and not something I want my family to have to deal with.

Sheesh, all I wanted was some sex-crazed groupies.

I hear they do the weird stuff.
If you really want to donate, and really hate Paypal, send me a private e-mail (chris.brecheen@gmail.com) and I will give you a c/o address of someone who will unerringly get a letter to me, and who works in a building with security so they will be insulated from the weirdness.

Cynthia asks: 

I love your blog!! I want to support it but freelancing in today's economy means I'm never sure when my next job is going to be or how long I need to make a payday stretch. I'd totally come be your groupie, except for three minor factors: I'm on the east coast, and kind of married, and pretty darn gay. Anything else you might like?

My reply:

Just knowing you considered it is enough for me. That's so moving! (~sniff~)

I have an FAQ about how to support Writing About Writing including a bunch of free ways, but it's always good to post them once in a while for people who don't go digging around the website.

1 Turn off your adblock for JUST this site.
I make about 20 cents a day from Adsense, but the only page views that count are those that can see the ads. Modern entertainment consumers really need to realize that free content will only remain free (or continue to exist) if the creator's bills get paid. That's not even enough to buy instant ramen. People visiting blogs or websites who go to extraordinary lengths never to have to see an ad are actually killing the entertainment they enjoy. If you turn off your adblock, then every time you visit W.A.W., you'll be supporting me a tiny bit without having to pay a dime. (And though you should never just click the ads for no reason, you might see something you like.)

Don't worry. You don't have to sit in a miasma of Pop Up Ads like you're suddenly back in 1994 listening to Ace of Base and All-4-One. Most ad blockers allow you to turn them off for JUST the domain (in my case chrisbrecheen.blogspot.com). They'll still protect you from stupidity on other websites.

2- Share the articles you like on social media.
I can reach about 100 people through my personal networks. That's about how many page views I'm guaranteed to get if I share on every social media I am on. For an article to go any further, someone else has to share it.

3- Click the little buttons.  A lot.
Google is probably going to be the robot intelligence that enslaves humanity for its own good. But right now it's focused on making sure you can't "trick" it into improving your SEO with fluff pieces. One of the most effective ways to help an article get more traffic (by being a higher result on a search engine) is to do things like give it "Likes," "+1s" and "Thumbs Up."  Google tracks that and puts the articles people like higher on their search results. If you want to help W.A.W. you might be just a little more generous with those endorsement buttons than for a normal site.

4- Stumbleupon is especially awesome.
Stumbleupon is the source of about half this blog's traffic, and up to 75% on any given day. The ways Stumbleupon works is that matches specific interests with random people.  So utterly random people who have listed "writing" as an interest will see an article "liked" through Stumbleupon.  For each "like," more people are shown the article.  If one of those people gives it a like, it just keeps going, possibly becoming like the article version of a sci-fi movie-of-the-week monster.  S.U. is not as clumsy or random as a FB blast. An elegant social media, for a more civilized age.

5- Comment or drop me a line.  
Just hearing that you like W.A.W. is really nice.  I make about five dollars a day and work about five hours a day–so I'm making just over Laotian sweatshops, but well under Malaysian ones. There have been a deplorable lack of hawt groupie threesomes since....ever.  Most of the time no one makes a comment. Every week I get these anonymous nasty-grams that imagine untold medieval tortures upon me.  It's really nice to hear some of the good stuff from time to time whether it's just an article you particularly liked, or a general appreciation of my work.

[By now you probably suspect the truth. While these are real questions sent in by real people, I saved them for our bimonthly appeal post. Writing About Writing's future depends entirely on you. I will try to only bug you about it once every couple of months (which is better than NPR!) but please don't forget that this website could become a place for all my free fiction or go down to one post a week depending entirely upon you.]

Friday, September 12, 2014

Post Coming

For folks following closely, today's Mailbox is running a little late, but it will still be here. This week has been a stress bomb with about 20 hours more househusband work than normal. So I'm running a little behind.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Last Call for Y.A. Nominations

What is the BEST stand alone young adult book?  

We have lots of nominations for best stand alone Y.A. fiction.

In fact, we have too many. There's no way our poll can handle them all. I have to pick the ten or twelve titles that have the most "seconds." Nothing without at least one "second" will go onto the poll, and depending on how fierce the nomination process gets, I may have to only take titles with two or more.

So please stop by and give a "second" to all the titles you'd like to see make it on the poll. Or if you have a last minute nomination that you want to add, there are still a few days before I finalize the poll. Or if you just want to see how things are shaping up....

The rules are there, as well as the complicated definitions of Y.A. literature and why I'd rather be the includer and not the enforcer.

Please please please please leave new nominations or seconds on the original post rather than here, so everything is in one spot when I go to set up the poll. I am easily addled on the best of days.