The Muse: On Reading Good Writing

Hello readers! Long time no… Um… Write? I guess. Anyway, A here! I’m getting ready to head out on a two week international getaway with my main man, but I wanted to drop in and say “hey, I haven’t forgotten about you, Cactuslandia!”

I’m just busy and, frankly, a little less than motivated to write. C already covered this, but we’re up to our ears in rejections and my own writing has been stalled due to my transition to full-time work. (Yes, my metamorphosis to adulthood is almost complete. Now I just need to own a belt and sensible shoes… Oh, and buy a NEW couch for a change.)

Anyway, as much as I feel no inspiration or immediate desire to write, I’ve been continuing my push to read two books per month. Technically, I’ve been hanging out in the 1.5 books per month range, but, to be honest, I think I’d read a lot faster if more of the books I picked up were legitimately well-written. (No, this isn’t another rant about books that don’t deserve to be published… It’s more of a commentary on the written word.)

Sure, I’ve read some engaging stories in the past few months, but if the writing isn’t doing anything to propel my reading, it can take weeks for me to finish a novel. So-so writing that does the job of taking you through the plot but fails to keep you from checking how many pages you’ve got until the end of the chapter or the middle of the book or whatever just aren’t satisfying. Of course, this realization jumped out at me after picking up an article that demonstrated the power of, well, powerful writing.

Oddly enough, the article in question was in a copy of Vogue I read while getting my hair done. But it just captured me, you know? From start to finish. Granted, it was only about 5 pages, but the writing… It was really good.

You know when you get to the end of a story and go “wait, that’s all?” That’s the experience I want with every book I read, but that feeling has become more and more fleeting. Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m not particularly discriminatory during the actual process of reading. If I’ve paid for the thing, I’m gonna finish reading it, dammit. Maybe not the best attitude…

So, yeah… Reading good writing is the best. It’s the cure-all for content boredom. (Oh yeah, I work in digital content now, so that’s not helping me fill my quota of good reading material by any stretch of the imagination.)

That’s all for now! I’ll be back, and since Stratford is coming up fast, C and I will begin prepping Nerd Cactus HQ for all things Stratford/Shakespeare.

Stay tuned!

-A

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The Muse! On fandom.

This past weekend, I went to Disney World. My annual passes are almost up, and given my plans for the future, it may well be years before I get back to the happiest place on Earth. (Which, given that I still have not made it on the Snow White train thing during daylight hours, might be a good thing.) It was a miserable weekend, full of rain and sauna-like conditions that left me–despite my every effort–dehydrated and blistered. On the plus side, I did manage to keep from getting sunburned. So, at least I did something right. But being there, especially at Hollywood Studios (aka Star Wars plus some other stuff Studios), reminded me of something:

Star Wars fans are literally the worst.

They have driven the actresses who play Rey and Rose off the internet. They attacked the idea of a black storm trooper. Recently, they decided that Laura Dern’s purple hair and dress were just too damn ridiculous to be worn by an Admiral even though General Leia also wore dresses and had nice hair. (These same people, it should be noted, think Admiral Akbar should’ve been the one to suicide mission the ship. I’m beginning to think Star Wars fans aren’t that aware of the world, either. A guy named Akbar suicide mission-ing anything is probably not the sort of optics Disney wants, regardless of character history.) Earlier in the franchise’s history, they almost drove the guy who played Jar-Jar to suicide and mistreated the kid who played Anakin so badly, he basically had a breakdown. (Note: this is not to say that his mental health issues were caused by the abuse. But they certainly were exacerbated by them.)

These are people who are convinced that their elaborate fantasies deserve validation and they’ll be damned if they let anything else happen. After The Last Jedi came out, there was a surge of (mostly) dudes deciding that, you know what, they’ve liked the prequels this entire time, they were just afraid of saying so. So the prequels are good but the sequels are bad because…?

These people have decided that the fans own the franchise. That their perspectives are the only valid perspectives. That their fandom is the only legitimate fandom and heaven forbid you can’t name every book in the now-not-canon EU. They talk about how Luke isn’t their Luke, whatever the fuck that means, like the character we saw in TLJ isn’t completely realistic. Think about it: the last time we saw Luke, he’d just brought down the emperor and saved his father. We’re meant to believe the empire will crumble, despite having no evidence to suggest this because, this just in, killing the emperor doesn’t dismantle the system! Anyway, it’s been almost forty years since those events happened. The emperor Luke fought so hard to stop has basically returned. And Luke, in his own mind, gave the First Order its very own Darth Vader. He drove, through his moment of doubt (which we’ve seen Luke have before, canonically), his own nephew to the dark side and to  the enemy. And not only that, but his single moment of doubt (driving that home–a SINGLE MOMENT OF DOUBT) ended up getting a whole new generation of potential Jedi killed. He let down his sister and his best friend, arguably drove them apart, and helped reignite the very entity he’d dedicated his youth to stopping. Whether or not he can be blamed for any of this–Ben Solo made his own choices, in the end, and the empire wasn’t going to just go away because the Emperor was dead–is up for debate, but the fact that he blames himself for it and goes into hiding is very much in character. Not only for Luke, but for the Jedi. And it’s not like Luke hasn’t been a melodramatic bitch from the beginning, guys.

But I take a huge digression. The point isn’t to argue that Star Wars ‘fans’ are wrong about Luke Skywalker (though they obviously are–and, though I haven’t read the ((again)) non-canonical EU books or played any of the games or anything, I have seen the movies many times and that’s enough to judge on); the point is to talk about fandom.

The fans do not own the thing they love. And, even more importantly, the thing they love does not owe them because they love it. JK Rowling didn’t owe fans a Hermione/Harry pairing (and the fans who hounded her into doubting herself and her authorial choices should be ashamed of themselves). Marvel doesn’t owe Loki fans another chance or a “more fitting” death. Star Wars doesn’t owe fans the Luke from the EU (which, for the third time, is not canon anymore). The fantasies fans create for their fan-fictions, no matter how well-thought-out or written or developed or whatever, are not canon and they do not automatically deserve recognition. In fact, fan-fiction writers should just be happy they’re allowed to write stories using someone else’s intellectual property at all.

All this being said, that doesn’t mean fandom should be without critique. There are valid critiques to be made of The Last Jedi. I don’t believe the casino scene was useless, but I do believe it was too long and messed with the pacing of the movie. Sometimes plans don’t work. Sometimes they end up not even being necessary. If the characters learn something from a plot arc, even if the plot arc (like, say, the plan to disable the tracker and whatnot) doesn’t work out, it is not a useless arc. Finn, Poe, and Rose all learned something. Finn became dedicated to the cause in a way he hadn’t been at the beginning of the movie. Poe stopped being the hotshot pilot that believed he knew best and thought fighting back was always the right move. Rose, who’d already lost enough, decided not to lose anymore. She also learned to stop worshiping people as heroes and see them as people, and maybe people she can fight among. (For the record, Finn would never have disabled that cannon. His death would have solved nothing and left the Resistance with even fewer numbers, plus taken away their man with, oh I don’t know, knowledge of how the First Order does things.) Criticize the movie all you want, but please check and see if those criticisms are born of genuine critique or whether or not a movie/book/whatever in your fandom is doing what you want.

Nothing you love is required to do what you want. It doesn’t have to follow your expectations or live up to the version you’ve created in your head. It isn’t bad because you didn’t like it, and maybe fans who find themselves complaining about SJWs or anything of the sort (like driving the sunshine from Instagram. Seriously, people. Kelly Marie Tran was human sunshine. WTF is wrong with you?!) should take a long, hard look at whether or not they’re actually a fan in the first place. Because when fans decide that they own the thing they love, they’ve become really damn toxic.

All this being said, the people at Disney loved all things Star Wars. Yes, even Solo. One of the most popular things there was a replica leather jacket worn by Han in the movie. (It was like butter, people. Butter.)

OK. I did the thing. I mused. If you’re one of those not my Luke people, just click out of the window and go about your business. We don’t want your negativity here.

C

The Muse: Writing is Healing

Hello, and welcome to the newly rebranded Muse. Hopefully, you tuned in to C’s last update, because things, they are a-changin’. Essentially, responsibilities, adulthood, and the pursuit of free time have put an end to our rigid posting schedule and we’ll be focusing on delivering high-quality content on more of a monthly timeline.

So, yes, the Muse will no longer appear strictly on Mondays, but I think this will result in more inspired posts as opposed to the “oh-shit-it’s-Monday-what-can-I-write-about” pieces of the past.

With that in mind, I present to you, Cacti community, my first new Muse.

It’s Tuesday. Two days ago, my family made the difficult decision to say goodbye to our beloved dog, Fritz. He was almost 14 and debilitating arthritis was getting the better of him. The vet said he was suffering. He said it was time.

This weekend easily ranks as one of the worst in my life. Fritz was a sweet, loyal, neurotic wookie-like bear and it pains me that I couldn’t say goodbye in person. I spoke with him via a video chat with my dad the evening before, wishing I could reach out and scratch his ears. He was pretty alert, though he couldn’t do more than lie there. He knew it was me and listened to my words: the hollow “good boys” and choked up “the pain will all go aways.”

I made my parents promise to stay with him until the end. They kept their word, braving those final moments and making sure Fritz was surrounded by people he loved.

This was of significant importance to me, because one of my greatest regrets is that I wasn’t there when our cat was put to sleep. Granted, I was in high school at the time, but I was a snivelling coward and I left a scared animal that I cared deeply for to face the unknown without a loving friend nearby.

It doesn’t make things any easier and it certainly doesn’t make up for my past mistakes, but knowing that Fritz was accompanied by family and that he went peacefully provides a kind of closure I never got the last time I lost a pet. Fritz knew he was loved and cherished. That’s all anyone could want in their final moments.

Now, obviously, this hasn’t exactly been a Muse, but I feel that writing and sharing my grief is an important part of the healing process. Putting my thoughts down and taking a moment to reflect is my next step forward. Keeping my thoughts locked in while crying in the fetal position probably isn’t healthy after a certain point. So, let the healing begin.

A

The Muse: Actually on a Monday!

HELLO, Cactus-landia! And welcome back to Nerd Cactus HQ, where we had a bit of a hiatus. Adulthood got in the way of things, and we hadn’t seen each other at all in over six months (probably more) when we finally managed to catch up with one another last week. Aside from discussing Infinity War ad nauseum, becoming nauseated by the state of the nation, and then getting delicious ice-cream, we also discussed how we’re going to move forward with our venture.

I mean, we were hardly going to shut down, right? No way. But the fact of the matter is, we’re not really able to continue doing things the way we did before when we could basically get together once a month and figure everything out. It’s just not possible. And, unfortunately, it is also not going to be possible to continue doing things the way we did when we first started. Which means there’ll be some changes in the way the blog is run from now on.

Basically, the scheduling that was so good for us before is now no longer good. We’re not able to read a book every two weeks and we’ve basically gone through the backlog of books we want to pair, so we have to move forward. This means that Boozy Books will no longer be a weekly feature, but will only appear when we finish a book worth pairing. I’d venture to say once a month is probably a good guess, but I promise that, since it’s becoming a monthly feature instead of a weekly one, it’ll be an actual feature. Our weekend posts on Shakespeare and silliness will also be on a “I found something interesting” basis, but that’s basically what they’d become already, so that’s nothing new.

The Muse will continue to be a weekly thing. But it could appear any time during the week (the others will remain Friday and weekend posts), mostly because the muse might strike at any time. We’ll try to keep it on Monday by writing things ahead of time and scheduling them like grown-ups, but… let’s face it, we barely qualify as grown-ups as it is. The whole adulting thing is what’s caused this mess in the first place. Damn adulting.

The fact of the matter is… life sometimes forces you to put your creative endeavors on a schedule. You’d like to write whenever you want to or whenever the muse strikes, but you can’t always do that. There’s bills to pay and animals (or kids) to care for. Families to see. Nations to save (on that note: please be sure to vote in any upcoming elections. The only way to prevent the death of democracy is to exercise our most fundamental right). You know… life. And though it may betray that wannabe bohemian artist pouring their soul over the page as they die from consumption up in the frozen garret of your creative mind, sometimes you need to be left-brained about all those right-brained activities.

So, we’re scheduling writing time. We’re getting all disciplined and shit. And while it might suck (especially since we’re still in the querying phase for Merc, and it’s literally soul-sucking), it’ll be the way we get to move forward as a partnership when life seems so determined to get in the way. So… here’s to growing up!

Sorry, Peter.

C

Monday Muse: Inspiration for the Uninspired

It’s Mondayyyy. And, lordy, was it ever a long one. BUT, I’ve been a very bad blogger as of late, so I’m going to put together a Muse even if it kills me.

So, lately, I’ve been pretty uninspired. I’m tired, I’m bored, I’m feeling unproductive, and the news/political nonsense have me on edge. All. The. Time.

Also, I haven’t done much writing. This, in spite of the fact that I’m pretty much always daydreaming about my latest projects. I take notes as necessary, but trying to sit down and find the right words for these characters seems like a Herculean task.

I’m slowly crawling out of this funk, and the catalyst was undoubtedly having the chance to meet Imbolo Mbue. Her author talk back for Behold the Dreamers provided tons of inspiration, but it was after the event that this uninspired writer truly found inspiration.

I spent a few minutes speaking with Ms. Mbue one-on-one, asking her writer-y questions that she graciously answered. I was most interested in the fact that she is a “self-taught” writer. She has several degrees (none of them in writing) and she never intended to be a writer, it was just something that felt right.

As someone who has loved writing forever, but never really gotten a chance to take a “formal class,” this gives me so much hope. My writing could, indeed, be worth publishing even without a master’s degree in writing. It’s all a matter of being true to the story and knowing that sometimes the process of writing is going to feel like I’m chipping away at a house-sized hunk of rock.

Mbue described writing as a journey of self-discovery even as you discover the story and characters that speak to you. Writing is an extension of yourself, so, yes, it has ups and downs. The important thing is to come back and keep chipping away at that rock, because eventually you’ll end up with a diamond.

A

Monday Muse: On An Early Wednesday!

Hi, guys! Happy all the awesome stuff I missed in the last month while I was taking my holiday sabbatical. Sorry it went on longer than was perhaps necessary. I had a great time in New York City (SO GOOD!), a wonderful Christmas, and a quiet New Year spent writing and researching agents.

But now it’s 2018 and we’re back. It’s time to get into the swing of things, get the blog up and rolling, and use that lovely vacation backlog of ideas and joy to break out some new content. Well, I mean, we’ll still be following the same format, but I’ll stop doing round-ups for a bit. (OK, I did re-read Thursday Next over the holiday, but I read new stuff, too.)

Let’s talk for a second about goals. Resolutions. Whatever you want to call them. Especially writing goals, since I don’t really think anyone wants to talk about going to the gym more. (OK, so I do plan on going to the gym more, but that’s because it’s the last prong of my three-pronged health plan. But still… that’s not what we’re about here.)

I am not someone who spells out writing goals. Heck, I’ve never been someone who wrote down goals, went in for affirmations, bullet journals, mind maps, whatever else is out there. I have sticky notes everywhere (both real and virtual), a map of Esmeihiri taped to my wall, another map in a box since I’m still adding towns, etc. Day planners? Nope. Way too rigid. Also, I’m way more likely to forget something like an appointment once I write it down, so that doesn’t work.

All this to say that I have no real goals. I have goals, but I can’t say I’ve got some sort of life plan written out the way so many other people do. I want to finish drafting Liar, keep chipping away until we can find an agent for Killing Mercutio, and get Lost City re-developed in time for NaNo so I can have another go at it. In between, I want to add more to my Esmeihiri Bible, work on my play, figure out how to fix Eve of the Gods (even though I know it probably means rewriting it from scratch), and develop Earth Rising along with my writing buddy (the one that isn’t A. I know! I’m so fickle with my loyalty, though I’ve been writing with this person for a decade now).

Yeah, I know… a tall order. But, for me, that’s just my general goals overall. I don’t have anything scheduled. I’m not going to write 1000 words a day and add a character to my binder. Scheduling myself like that makes me feel like I have to do all those things or I’ve failed. But leaving myself open, letting myself contribute to that mega list in whatever way my creative vibe leans, makes me feel a lot more accomplished. And it makes it easier for me to work.

This time of year is full of people telling themselves they’re going to do something. Most of us won’t go to the gym how much we promised or follow through on that weird diet or organize all the closets. My way to combat it is to create a big list and sort of freestyle my way to progress. See, the way I see it is that it’s better to move forward than it is to focus so much on one thing that you freeze or exclude everything else. The goal is progress and creating a habit that works for you.

So… that’s my whole shpiel on writing goals. I mean, if writing lists and scheduling things makes you happy, I’m not saying don’t do that. I just want you to do whatever works for you. That’s what makes the best goals.

C

Monday Muse: Names are Important, But Let’s Be Real…

Hello and welcome to the Monday Muse! It’s been a while since I did a Muse, due to busy schedules, date confusion, and general forgetfulness. For this, I apologize.

But I’m here today! And I’ve been thinking about this particular topic for quite a while, to be honest. So, it’s time I finally put it down in writing.

As writers, C and I have repeatedly advocated the importance of world building, backstory, and names. Every little detail you put into your story helps create something that is multidimensional and believable (within the given parameters of your world, of course). 

Now, sometimes overzealous writers get carried away with the nuances they’ve created, and feel that it’s important that every aspect of their work has a hidden meaning. More often than not, this also applies to the names characters are baptized with. And, also more often than not, it results in lame, cheeseball revelations that most people saw a mile away… “Ezra means “help” so this character’s issues stem from childhood trauma.” “You can’t trust Janus, she’s two-faced.” We get it, you know how to use Google.

Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is: yes, names are important – super important – in the journey to creating great characters and great places, but there is also a fine line we must dance as authors. Don’t overdo it with the magical, mumbo jumbo names that somehow manage to foreshadow your protagonist’s entire story.  And give it a rest with made up names within the context of a story that is supposed to take place in our reality. It’s unnecessary. And it takes away from how the story stands on its own.

I’ve been struggling with “overnaming” myself lately, and I think it’s important to step back and be as objective as possible when you ask: “is this character, under this particular name, believable? Would I make it through this story without scoffing at the title character’s prenom?” You might be surprised.

Also, please don’t name your characters something that’s so jarringly dramatic to the ear that it becomes off-putting. I know… Hard to do objectively, but that’s why you have bookworm friends to give you beta reader feedback, amiright? Because somebody should have sat Rick Riordan the f**k down and steered him clear of “Magnus Chase.” 

Long time followers will know that I have a soft spot for the Percy Jackson series, but I think Riordan has gotten a wee bit carried away.  I literally did a spit-take when I saw the cover of his new book – and I wasn’t even drinking anything! 

Magnus Chase? That’s not a name, that’s a punk rock band. Or a luxury sunglasses company. Or maybe what Kanye West might name his pet jaguar. Or his next kid… Hmm, maybe it’s not the most unbelievable nonsense name.

Anyway, for those of you participating in NaNo, I salute you. Name your characters wisely, and with love, and they will serve you well. 

Happy writing!

A