Sense is More Important Than Accuracy

Accuracy is overrated when it comes to portraying something in a way that makes sense to most people. Outside a research paper or an architectural drawing, you’re more often looking for verisimilitude. Verisimilitude captures the essence, or appearance, of a thing. Today that means distilling it down to pertinent details rather than describing every boat in the harbor and their moorings (during the frickin climax, Dickens, wth). I’ve run across the distillation principle again and again in different contexts, so I have plenty of examples:

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Sudden Comprehension of Writing Failure

I once again find myself struggling to get my weekly blog post up in time. The one I had planned is still a mess. I spent way too long trying to rewrite it from scratch, only to delete every single word. My head is also a mess, partly due to me having a sick day. I was going to take that as an excuse, but after putting off working on this post for the past two days, all I’ve done is set myself up to fail on the day the work is due.

I’ve engineered my own failure simply by falling out of the daily habit. My post/week schedule has often led to me only writing once a week, which is not enough if I’m going to write something weekly worth a damn. A weekly blog post has been a good tangible goal. It’s at least kept me honest, as I’ve not completely failed to deliver so far – even if I’ve got a few in a day late.

However, I’m past the point where just getting it done is good enough. I insist what I post be more than merely passable, which means putting in enough time to not just do a first and final draft, but get a second draft in as well. My first drafts are hot garbage, and cobbling them into something reasonable takes more than one edit – always – and too often I let myself forget this and post something sub-par.

Today’s post is an example of sub-par shit. All I’m doing is berating myself, and posting it in public to hammer it into my head with shame. So, in the interest of writing something useful, here is what I must do to avoid this dilemma in the future (apologies for having to break my one-fuck-per-article rule, but this needs to be said in exactly this way):

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Your Generic-Ass Cover Makes Me Think There’s a Generic-Ass Book Inside

“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” Screw that. We all do, which is why you need to get your cover right. It’s the first thing people see. Before they figure out what your book is about, the cover has already made an impression. If that impression is boring, I don’t even let the title sink in. I’ve already gone on scanning, for a book that stands out and looks sexy.

So what makes a book cover uninteresting? How about rows and rows of samey shit. I don’t care if it’s as slick as a movie poster. If your cover is some Photoshopped stock model jobby with a dude on a horse, or a leather chick in the boob-butt pose, or some corseted lady swooning in Fabio’s arms, all your cover says to me is: “This is a McDonalds burger, just like every other McDonalds burger you’ve ever eaten.”

This is all some people want. I get that. I’m not here to denigrate that choice (much). I’m writing this for the authors who want to find success by standing out, not blending in. If you haven’t written the literary equivalent of a McDonalds burger, then holy crap do not package your book like a McDonalds burger. Avoid slick movie-poster covers, because everyone has one. Everyone but the trad pubs…

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On Collaboration: Equal Does Not Equal Same

Collaborating with others is a learned skill. One most people don’t learn properly in school because most teachers just throw a bunch of students together and hope for the best. The students almost always divide the work the same way: so everyone gets a smaller piece of the same job. This is not how projects work in real life because shit actually needs to get done, and it’s the worst way to go about it.

For example, in university I was once saddled with a group who thought sharing the workload meant everyone had to write a report and recite it in front of the class – independently. It could hardly be called a “group” at all. I tried to work for better cohesion: playing MC, tying people’s ideas together, and trying to engage the audience. I even tried to teach the rest of the group to memorize their shit so they wouldn’t stand there mumbling with their noses in their notes, but guess what they did come presentation time. Each was in their own little world, boring the shit out of everyone else.

One girl didn’t present at all, which I didn’t think was a problem because she’d dutifully taken on all the boring logistical problems the group had: taking responsibility for research materials, organizing people’s notes, getting the AV equipment. She’d done more work than anyone, but those immature assholes didn’t recognize it because it wasn’t the exact same work they were doing. When they started bitching at teacher that she shouldn’t get the same grade, I told them all to STFU and listed every contribution she’d made.

When you put people together and force them all to drudge through the same tasks, everyone’s performance is dragged down. What you end up with is an idiot group: one where the output matches the lowest performer involved. The only way to solve this is to find different tasks that fit each person’s skill-set and interests. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. A smart group delegates jobs based on people’s individual strengths and covers their weaknesses.

If everyone was as good as everyone else at the same things there would be no need to collaborate in the first place. The whole point of forming a group is to cover all necessary aspects of a project that can’t be done alone. The best collaborations I’ve had were with people who slotted well into all the gaps that needed filling, where people loved doing jobs others hated. Everyone at once could think, “I’m so glad I’m doing X and not Y,” and be confident that someone else was getting Y done because it’s a job the other person enjoys.

People do their best work when they love it (and continue to love it even when it’s frustrating). If you truly hate some aspect of the work you need done, farm it out. That’s what smart people do, because they realize their time is best spent on things they enjoy.

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Take Criticism Like a Pro

“How do you handle feedback?” is a question I get asked from time to time. It’s one I’ve had trouble answering because taking criticism is something I manage well enough that I forget how delicate people can be. Weeks ago I took part in a podcast where feedback was a main topic. I felt afterwards that we kind of made a hash of it because our responses were basically, “Well, feedback is good, right? Right.” I’ve been trying to work out a more helpful answer ever since.

First, feedback is essential to creative growth, just as it is with biological evolution. Without the push-pull of outside forces, life wouldn’t have developed the complexity it has today because it wouldn’t need to. We’d still all be single-celled organisms swilling primordial soup – if that. Of course the process requires death and pain. It’s unavoidable, but beneficial. Just ask someone who can’t feel pain. They’ll tell you their life is a constant struggle not to maim themselves because their body won’t tell them when something’s wrong. For art, the same is true.

But how did I learn to take the pain? I suppose some personal history is in order. First day of art college: the pottery class all got to throw something on the wheel. Afterwards the teacher took a clay wire and sliced all their pots in half. Students whined. Because back in high school everything they made was a precious gem to take home to mommy. This shit, however, would not fly here. Students paid to learn, and that meant dissecting every pot until they stopped sucking.

A similar lesson was carried out in figure drawing class. Students spent days doing nothing but 30-second gesture drawings. They wouldn’t get a good long pose until they’d practiced getting the whole body down in as short a time as possible. This kept students from spending all their time drawing the model’s face, or boobs, or whatever – over focusing on details without grasping the bigger picture. It also taught another valuable lesson: not every stroke of the pen is sacred. It forced students to practice and get used to drawing endless reams of crap.

Every student had to learn how to critique and be critiqued, though these sessions were soft compared to some places online. It was a supportive environment where your work was regularly picked apart. And nearly every student (that didn’t drop out after first year) realized that criticism wasn’t personal. These people were trying to help (even if that help was misguided attempts to get students to stop painting realistically in favor of abstract expressionism because the instructor drank the Greenberg/Rosenberg Kool-aid).

So my answer to how I handle feedback is: training.

Of course finding ways to train your mental feedback forcefield can be difficult, especially if your only available resources are online, where trolls lurk around every corner. The answer isn’t finding some hugbox where criticism isn’t allowed, because these environments are toxic, poisoned by the egos of people who’ve devolved into the creative equivalent bacteria, endlessly eating their own shit and never evolving. To learn how to take criticism you have to seek it out, and that means putting your stuff out there. So what are some ways to ease into it?

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Fanfic is Not a Threat

How do you feel about fanfic? Does the thought of basement dwellers shitting all over your favorite franchise make you shudder? Does the idea of someone stomping all over your vision make you hulk out? Well, maybe it’s time to calm down over this douche-tide in a pony vagina (I’m going for a non-cliche way of saying “tempest in a teapot” – I don’t think I was entirely successful). Fanfic has been a thing for ages, and it hasn’t destroyed literature yet.

To gain some perspective, I’m going to turn to modding for a moment. I recently posed the question: how do you feel about other people modding your mods? The group I talked to were pretty cool about it, even found it flattering, but I’ve encountered modders who get bent out of shape about people messing with their “artistic vision” – which is bullshit, and here’s why.

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How to Sit Yourself Down When Your Brain Goes Bugfuck

I’ve been bouncing off the walls all week, perhaps longer. I’ve managed to get a lot done lately, but the panic sets in the moment I wonder if I’ve been taking off in the right directions. It’s hard to gauge, especially when the money’s not coming in, seeing as it’s modernity’s primary indication of worth – and even though it’s 100% shit, we’re stuck wading in it. Anyway…

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Boy, The Latest Entry in my Journal is a Doozy

Since I started writing seriously I’ve been keeping a journal of interesting physical sensations and unusual experiences. It’s usually things like freezing my face off in -40° weather and what it feels like to defrost afterwards, or the incredibly specific pain of a pinched nerve. However, the other day I recorded one hell of an experience: a full on hypnopompic hallucination.

It started when terrible sound filled my dream, a voice yelling “PAT PAT PAT PAT…” It was Dalek-like, like a man yelling into a voice modulator. The sound confused me more than anything, until I saw an old-fashioned hunting party ride through my backyard carrying bazookas on their shoulders. The image was silly enough to make me realize it was a dream and wake myself up. But the sound didn’t stop.

I pinned the sound on my boyfriend. He wasn’t so much snoring as making little puffs of air, but my brain converted it into the reverberating shout:

({(PAT)}) ({(PAT)}) ({(PAT)}) ({(PAT)}) ({(PAT)}) ({(PAT)}) ({(PAT)}) ({(PAT)})

It was creepy and terrifying, more-so because it accompanied visual hallucinations.

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Advice That Makes You Go Duh: Summing Up a Story

If you can’t sum up your story in one sentence, you don’t have a story so much as a bunch of shit that happened. It could be a long sentence, but you only get so many “ands” before people stop listening. If you can’t make someone interested in your idea within that framework, it’s time to take a step back and figure your shit out. It’s a lesson I learn fresh every time I start new story.

Often people start with a situation, but not knowing their character’s drives, they fail to turn that situation into something that moves the reader to give a damn. I’ve found summing up your story in as few words as possible is a great way to reveal this fundamental flaw.

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