Monthly Archives: April 2011

HuffPo Begs for Change, Passers-by Scoff

My friend Bill tipped me off to AOL/HuffPo searching for a whole buttload of writers to blog for free for Huffington Post’s new local local local blog network, Patch:

“Anyone may apply,” Greenfield Patch editor David Cotey wrote in a post on Wednesday. “Parents, grandparents, favorite aunties, crafters, shopkeepers, baristas, hobbyists, nonprofit organizers, and government officials — here’s a chance to share your expertise and your voice.”

“Patch bloggers are not paid and will own their blogs,” Cotey continued, “so if you are already blogging and want to share with our readers, too, let us know.”

Some of you remember that I got let go as a contractor for AOL earlier this month. Unlike some (maybe most?) of the other freelancers that worked with AOL, I had no issue with being let go, based on my contract with AOL. I don’t expect anything more or less than was agreed to, regardless of all the great talent they lost.

The comments on the article, as you might guess, lean negative. Even if HuffPo’s play to get freely-generated local content is a bad business move for HuffPo or a bad career move for wannabe writers, why anyone would be against two parties coming to a mutual agreement on (free) work is confusing to me — especially in the writing world. Back when people learned skills and trades and didn’t expect the world handed to them after getting a state-approved diploma handed to them, you would do work for at cost or free until you established yourself and people valued what you did enough to pay you for it.

I don’t think it’s a great move by HuffPo just from a PR perspective, but I have no idea how badly this will end up.

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Book Review: The Bible, Part 1

If you haven’t read any of my previous posts about this, a friend of mine last year mentioned that I should do a book review of the Bible on here. Even though he was meant it as a joke I thought it was a pretty good idea, if not a little daunting. The only problem was that I had to actually read the entire thing, cover to cover, when previously I had only read bits of it here and there.

So I decided to follow a schedule where I could read the entire Bible in 88 days, which I mostly stuck to. I began on January 1st (no, it wasn’t a resolution) and things fell apart in the middle of March, the month I was supposed to finish. But I was able to get through it all very recently. It looks like I’m only partially holy.

While I was thinking about this review, it was difficult to really whittle down what I really wanted to say about it, given the expanse of the subject matter and style of writing. There were many ways I could go with this, so I decided to examine it objectively (impossible), with no value judgments (impossible), and as a book documenting the actions and beliefs of a group of people throughout thousands of years — and take note of the general sway of things, as one reading free of any predetermined belief system concerning religion or culture (impossible, but it was an attempt).

First, some basic facts. The most important thing to note is that the Bible is not a book, but a compilation of books spanning thousands of years, each books with their own set of purposes and contexts. There are 66 of them in Protestant versions, while the Catholic one has an additional 7. The Old Testament, the pre-Christian, Jewish texts, was written in Hebrew, while the New Testament was written in Koine Greek — and there are smatterings of Aramaic throughout.

The Bible is translated straight from “original copies” (i.e, there are 5,366 separate Greek manuscripts of New Testament writings) that are written in those original languages — not from a translation of a translation of a translation, etc., as some skeptics have erroneously offered.

This compilation of books cover a wide variety of subject matters, and plenty of it was only lightly-salted with the supernatural: poetry, military conquests, political intrigue and the rule of kings, genealogies, advice for correct living, letters to churches concerning behavior, and theological exposition and implications. Surprisingly, grandiose examples of a transcendent deity are sparse. More on that later.

The Old Testament, which makes up the bulk of this compilation of books, narrates the beginning of the universe and pre-historic events in the Jewish tradition, the establishment of the tribe and nation of Israel, ways in which Israel’s tribes would worship and serve their God, prophetic writings about both the fate of Israel and its enemies, many poems and different kinds of verse.

One of the first few things I noted about the Old Testament, besides superficialities like the repetition of information, was the constancy of the Jewish God’s judgments. I don’t mean “constancy” necessarily in the sense that he was always judging but that he was always dispensing justice to nations, especially to the nation with which he signed a covenant (more or less a “contract”), Israel. On the surface it’s expected that judgment on other nations would be instinctual as they by definition do not meet the Jewish God’s standards, but the constant haranguing of “one’s own” seems counterintuitive. But it does make good sense after quick consideration. Since God and Israel contracted with each other, the persistent failure of Israel to live up to her contractual obligations only makes divine retribution more an inevitability than an ill portent.

This constant dispensation of God’s justice combined with the rather verbose writing of the Old Testament authors, gives the bulk of the Old Testament a patina of despair. Even the Psalms — that go-to repository of emotional comfort in verse — flirts with manic depression every other stanza. There is very little in the Old Testament that isn’t tragedy or mere descriptive history.

Just as noticeable was the lack of actual, visible presence of God’s actions in a tangible way. Most of God’s interactions with humanity come through one-on-one transactions with prophets and kings: “God said x to person y.” And so it was. Yes, he parted the Red Sea, called down fire, and became a pillar of smoke and a pillar of fire, but most spectacles were private, localized affairs. There was not a terrible amount of worldwide fireworks and bravado that one would come to expect from a series of books dealing with an all-powerful deity. God, it seems, is rather gentlemanly: no heavy-handedness or overwhelming displays of physics but a tasteful restraint of power.

I’ll talk about the New Testament and other topics in Part Two.

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Ram a Titanic Into Your Story’s Iceberg

One of the good things about Ayn Rand is that she wrote a lot, and one of the bad things about Ayn Rand is that she wrote a lot. What she also did was wrote a lot about her characters and the story behind them that didn’t make the published version. After I first read Atlas Shrugged and finished it 18 years later, I reread the introduction in my version that explained the lengths Rand went through to document the history of her characters. There was even one character, a priest, that she tried to fit into the story but ultimately rejected it because she said she couldn’t make it believable (if only she thought similarly about her other characters).

When I first read about that, I was baffled. Why would someone spend so much time writing something that no one will see? It wasn’t until I finished the second draft of my current work in progress that I learned that managing a coherent and partially comprehensive history of a novel’s characters — for the author’s eyes only — was a common practice. Go to any writer or author blog and do a search for “backstory” and you’re sure to get something. To use a common metaphor, readers see the tip but the author should be able to see the whole iceberg.

I had the history of everyone in my novel in mind but I didn’t put it in writing, which was a big mistake. After completely gutting literally half of my novel’s text I had to rework some scenes and overall themes, some of the characters’ history had to change, too. This was for the better since a lot of the history of my protagonist, which gives birth to her motivations, was clichéd. Badly, badly clichéd. Though I had everything about her memorized and having the backstory handy would have made it easier from the the get-go since I could weed out the badly, badly-clichéd elements of her past before fleshing them out and making the ugliness more official. I would’ve also been spared the amateur mistake of having to explain everything in the novel; with a backstory you can more easily pick and choose which parts of the characters’ past to reveal as the plot warrants it.

Lessons learned and all that. Now if Rand would’ve done something about the Francisco d’Anconia speech…

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It’s Not a Race, It’s a Marathon

Since I have a little more free time I’ve been filling it up proper with writing other things. I’ve mapped a not ambitious writing schedule in my Google calendar but it’s taking me some time to adjust to it; my circadian rhythm-wheel has a dent in its rim and my tire formed a slow leak. I’m assuming there’s a window of adjustment time that I need to undergo but I’m wondering if there’s something I can do, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine-style, to speed the process up.

Jaimie mention’s that Natalie Goldberg and propping in order to write more effectively. I’m a little wary of taking advice from someone who is known for writing about writing, but I wouldn’t mind trying something like that out.

Let it be known also that Homer adopted a similar method of engaging his faculties with his “conversation hat”, which is a mark of epistemic certainty.

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I’m Releasing an E-book and It Will be Acceptable

It appears that I’ve decided to release an e-book of all of my mostly really short stories that I’ve written over the years, plus some new ones. The mighty, once-bearded Matt DeBenedictis will be slashing it to ribbons editing it so you know it will be good decent better than it is now. I think his last name means “of good speech,” so you know that something, somewhere will happen.

I have a title for it but I feel really uneasy about revealing it just yet. Naming things used to be a sacred duty before everything got Greco-Christianized. Now it’s just a way to ensure schoolyard beatings for your brood, which in some ways is kind of a better deal if you think about it.

It will be for sale at ungodly low price, or for free, or some combination of the two. I haven’t really decided yet how it will it be done. But if you’re an author or blogger and you’d to review it, let me know and you’ll get one.

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The Appropriation of Nonsense, Part 2

Read the first part here.

If you’re on Facebook, chances are you’ve listed quotes that reflect your philosophy or outlook on life. They are quotes with which we agree from people we admire, but there’s never a real opportunity to showcase the ones we don’t like — unless you have your own blog and can write whatever you’d like on there, like I’m going to do, right now…

“Find a guy who calls you beautiful instead of hot,
who calls you back when you hang up on him,” etc. – unknown

Read the whole awful thing here, and then the responses below the post. There’s not a whole lot of middle ground.

A woman’s unrealistic expectations for sought-after men is distilled in this one gag-worthy manifesto. Of course, there’s no reason for men to be overbearingly macho towards women (unless some women like that), but it’s also true of his polar opposite: the woman-worshipping, overly-romantic, castrato with truncated animus-sense are really suspicious to me. Do women really want a lapdog for a companion, or someone who is complimentary, not opposing, to their own characteristics? I don’t know, but the former is categorically unseemly.

Insanity doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” – a bunch of people

A quote of mysterious origins, sometimes attributed to Einstein or Benjamin Franklin. In the grand history of popular figures making ridiculous propositions outside their field of expertise, this offense is mild and probably meant find value in its brevity rather than accuracy. But that doesn’t matter, because the results of an entire field of research and medicine have now been condensed into one simple sentence. Now everyone can be a psychologist!

But apparently “insanity” is purely a legal term now, not a psychological one. I defer to this post to really explain the insanity (hyuk-hyuk) behind this quote.

God is dead.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

No, not a Trent Reznor original, and he appropriated it into a different context. This line appears twice in Nietzsche’s writings, first in The Gay Science and again in Thus Spake Zarathustra. It’s in the latter writing that it is Nietzsche himself actually saying the phrase.

This statement is meant more as a philosophical statement than a religious one, and it’s actually quite accurate even from a Christian worldview. The Christian God as a concept, having been killed by man’s disbelief, took the Christian sense of morality with it, and it is left to man himself to rebuild a proper absolute morality. Remove God as being the creator of any kind of philosophical framework and morality has to be originate from somewhere else. It makes decent sense at first blush, but that doesn’t stop dunderheaded Christians or angsty teenage poets from misapplying Nietzsche’s words.

All thinking men are atheists.” – Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway was an atheist but he didn’t say this, Henry’s Major from his A Farewell to Arms did, and it’s been used by atheists to encapsulate their intellectual dominance over religious belief. I might actually agree with this quote if it’s meant that men who think only are atheists, if you understand a belief in God to come to people axiomatically — as in, not on the basis of other beliefs but as a premise in itself. The only problem with this is that the atheist would be something more like a solipsist or nihilist from not arriving at any belief at all, if “thinking” is the only legitimate means of acquiring knowledge.

However, the Major’s intended meaning is just as unacceptable. No one would consider the ancient Greeks, Aquinas, Galileo, or any intellectual giant as unthinking because they held a religious belief, but if one categorically claims that no thinking person would believe in the supernatural is guilty of the No True Scotsman fallacy, which is very unthinking indeed.

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You Are a Failure

My friend Seth W just posted on his blog on failing at an endeavor out of our league. There’s some good advice for novice fiction writers, like me. It’s axiomatically unavoidable: you’re going to start out writing complete garbage, but that’s the only way you’re going to learn how to really write a good story.

Writing fiction, I’ve been told and I’m now experiencing, is something you catch onto, not something that can be completely taught. There are some guidelines to writing good fiction but I don’t think it’s essentially codifiable; one knows it when one sees it but it can’t be dissected very easily into its component parts. It “works” but we don’t know how, and the only way to start its engine is continually tinker with and keep turning the key until the pistons fire and the wheels don’t fall off.

In a week or so I will post a review of Tobias Buckell‘s Nascence self-released ebook. It’s an unusual card for an established sci-fi writer to deal out: it’s a compilation of his short stories that “failed” (didn’t get published), complete with the stories’ background and explanations. The most successful have to start out somewhere, and it’s not going be at the top and the climb is not going to be easy.

While you’re at the laptop, read about 25 Visionaries Who Created Empires from Virtually Nothing. There’s a few on the list with which I would take small issue but the bulk of it is noteworthy.

The failure of a new project should be used to whittle away at your process to set yourself up for success. If you’re not failing, you’re doing something wrong.

EDIT : Speaking of the evasive nature of good fiction, read Rebecca’s post on C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. The book breaks some cardinal “rules” of fiction yet it’s one of the finest speculative fiction/space stories ever written, as well as his entire trilogy.

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The Appropriation of Nonsense, Part 1

If you’re on Facebook, chances are you’ve listed quotes that reflect your philosophy or outlook on life. They are quotes with which we agree from people we admire, but there’s never a real opportunity to showcase the ones we don’t like — unless you have your own blog and can write whatever you’d like on there, like I’m going to do, right now…

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” – Brian Littrel

This was spoken by one of the Backstreet Boys, who are not known to make their living primarily through proverbial wisdom. I can understand his sentiment but the sheer astronomical inaccuracy is a killer.

If you shoot for the moon and miss, you won’t land anywhere. You’ll most likely keep going until you hit something, and the chances of randomly hitting something in space are next to none. Stars aren’t really bunched together like daisies to be “landed” among, except if you’re talking about astronomical scales and not relative to the size of a human teenage girl — Ashley can’t jetpack around in space and encounter stars on either side of her whizzing by like lampposts in the motion parallax. They would be just as far apart from each other as when she was on earth.

On the off chance you “land” on a star (you won’t land on it as much as you will get burned into nothingness), it will be quite some time before that happens: the closest star is our sun, which is 150,000,000 km/93,205,678 miles. Sorry, Brian…there’s too much wrong with this for me to look past.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

What I think Colonel Sanders is saying, implicitly, is that those who do not travel end up prejudicial, bigoted, and narrow-minded (heretofore refered to as being a “schnoggleractor”). While that may be true in some cases, I don’t think the two are causally related. People who are schnoggleractic just may be averse to travel because of another, root cause. One does not sprout from the other but instead are borne from something else.

My main reason for disliking this is contextual. At the time of this quote (the mid 1860’s, in his book The Innocents Abroad) travel of the kind Twain did was safe and quick only if you had the money or knew the right people. Most of those of lesser income or standing, who had no access to such resources, were out of luck, and thus — depending how Twain’s intention for this sentence — suffered from chronic schnoggleractorism as our social fate.

When I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry. I mean, I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.” – Mariah Carey

Another contextual one. This one is so bad that it’s inconceivable that someone could say it, and Carey didn’t say it. That fact didn’t stop major news outlets from shirking due diligence and reporting it as legitimate.

The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” – Mohandas Gandhi

Aside from the grossly assumed collectivism, this one is confounding. You see, the love of animals is paradoxically anthrocentric: the casual animal lover will ascribe more value onto animals that are large, aesthetically pleasing, or exhibit human-like traits (dogs, seals, lions, dolphins, butterflies, whales), but they don’t seem to care that much for the welfare for ugly, alien ones (ants, snakes, spiders, mosquitos). Thusly, the casual animal lover finds something unsettling throwing kittens in a river but doesn’t bat an eyelash about the mass extermination of bugs from DDT and other insecticides. At what point in the animal kingdom should the concern begin? Until that question is settled, I’ll pass on this one.

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My Amp Goes Up to 11 But the Power Just Went Out


As none of you probably know, AOL/HuffPo let go a bunch of freelance writers (no, not all of them) in the wee hours of this morning today, and yours truly was among the victims. It was pretty inevitable from the merger and the fact that, if any site among all the sites AOL/HuffPo owns is going have their numbers reduced, it’s going to be a heavy metal blog.

Though others that got let go may feel different, I have no qualms. There was some weirdness in how everything was handled, but I was a freelancer and no contract was broken. I was brought on board mostly by chance, when my good pal Seth told me about this metal blog he was starting for AOL while we were driving on the streets of Pittsburgh, looking for coffee.

I had a good run: 261 posts, almost 101k words written, and over two years of a fairly consistent posting schedule alongside much more talented and accomplished writers. I got to see some great shows and write them off my taxes, interview some great bands and people (weird fact: dudes in metal bands are normal people!), like Cory from Norma Jean talking about his love life, Alicia from The Agonist who spoke some French that I eventually figured out, Matt from Shai Hulud and his board game fetish, and Krysta and Stephen from Iwrestledabearonce and their gay metal shirt. I even got to cover a video shoot with a pair of contortionists.

Of course, if I had my druthers I would stay with Noisecreep, but I now have time to work on some short stories and finish the final, pre-agent draft of this curse book. There’s always something else to see when you turn a new corner and leave something behind.

Photo by Hot Metal Studio

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This Post is About Vomiting and Protagonists

In one of my high school classes there was a concept we discussed called the “nausea of indecision”, a phrase taken from James Joyce’s Eveline, whereby a literary figure is brought to a crucial point in the plot characterized by intense adversity. Usually at some point in the struggle there is a difficult decision to be made, and as a matter of the course of literature the character’s inability to decide is apparent. This indecision should be so acute that it would cause us normals in the real world to vomit if we were in their place.

Naturally, this applied more to classical or romantic literature than the modern, but there is still exists a remnant of this idea. Good books, we’re told, bring the protagonist to their extreme breaking point and reveal, say, where their true loyalties reside or whether they can truly overcome their fatal character flaw. While I think that’s decent advice, it can get out of hand and transform your story into a melodrama set in a gamed, Candide-like fantasy world that would infuriate the laws of probability. While a certain degree of this is appropriate for certain genres, like suspense, you don’t want to alienate readers by introducing surrealism into a realistic setting.

Anyone who has done high-intensity strength training or cardiovascular exercise (or watched “The Biggest Loser”), knows that nausea comes when exercise becomes overwhelming. It’s a little traumatizing but it’s ends up a blessing, because it means that you’re “breaking through plateaus” in your fitness. Nausea in general is a horrible experience — especially those few agonizing seconds before the big heave — but it means, both literally and literature-ly, that the damaging cruft is being removed and transformation is taking place.

As a neat reading practice in the novel you’re currently reading, watch out for the point at which it would make the most sense that he or she (or they?) would forcibly revisit their lunch. It might not make too much sense in that scene that they would blasts chunks, but the most likely scene is probably the most crucial in the story.

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