LA Times Festival of Books Was LIT! (or… LAT.)

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Brave New World by… me!)

You know it’s a good day when even the title contains a bad pun.

I spent the last few hours at the LA Times Festival of Books, held at USC this year. I initially got a line about it from a friend of mine who met her publisher there – essentially, it’s a gathering of a bunch of small independent publishers, cheap bookstores (I mean cheap as in 5 bucks for a book), food trucks, author speakings and signings, and a shitload of other cool stuff.

It’s really cool from a reader’s perspective to be able to stroll through and not worry about overspending on books (although I did drop my entire month’s entertainment budget on it… lol). But on a whole other level, being able to network with a few publishers and other folks as a writer was pretty invaluable.

And I’m gonna share what I found with you! Who said reading my blog didn’t have its perks? ūüėÄ

One really cool group I met with was SPAWN, the Small Publishers, Artists, and Writers Network. The woman I specifically spoke to was Kathleen Kaiser, who runs KKA. The breakdown is: SPAWN is a pay-to-enter group of publishers, artists, and writers who all are interested in communicating about what’s currently happening in publishing and marketing. It’s a great way to stay in touch with some of the smaller groups who are much more likely to publish your work, but it does run at a cost to subscribe to the group – to the tune of $75 (sorry all my fellow poor graduate homies).

KKA, on the other hand, is Kathleen Kaiser & Associates, a group run by Kathleen who represents both companies and authors for all their communications and publicity needs. They’ve introduced a new program called “Author Promote Thyself” where they’ll personally help you promote and sell your work through multiple media. Again, this is a paid thing, but hey, if you’re socially defunct¬†like me, maybe you’ll want to give it a shot.

Next are two pretty sick competitions. The first is Writers of the Future, a SFF contest in which the winners are published in a collection of works backed and approved by L. Ron Hubbard, among other noted fantasy and science fiction writers. Winning this contest is essentially like getting your work read – and name recognized – by many prominent SFF writers.

The other contest is called The Launch Pad, and it accepts all genres (so my readers who aren’t SFF can have something to take a look at). Their goal is to help new-on-the-scene authors launch their careers by getting them looked at by some fairly significant screen and novel writers. Fairly significant as in Allison Gillogly from Ridley Scott’s production company, among others. One thing to be aware of is that this program is run by the Tracking Board, and so it will almost certainly have a Hollywood slant to it. If you’re in the top three spots, your work is guaranteed to be published, but it’s also possible you’ll be roped into a media deal for the rights.

Which, in all honesty, isn’t a bad thing. Just something to be aware of.

Next is a trio: Dreamspinner Press, Harmony Ink, and DSP Publications. These three are all run by a centralized managerial and support staff, but they’ve got their own slant. The unifying theme? All of them are LGBT-oriented genres and stories, so for anyone publishing queer fiction, you should absolutely check them out. Dreamspinner specifically does romance; DSP does sci-fi and fantasy (and caught my eye almost immediately), and from what I can tell, Harmony Ink does any kind of genre fiction. The LGBT themes are overt in a lot of the romance put out by Dreamspinner, but the woman running the stand told me the other branches don’t require explicit LGBT themes as long as one or more of the main characters are LGBTQ. So even if you’re writing non-LGBT oriented fiction, if you have queer main characters, you might consider submitting to them.

Then there’s Brick Cave Media. This group publishes sci-fi, fantasy, and poetry, and it’s clear to me they rep their authors because one of them greeted me when I walked into the booth. She ended up selling me her book as well as handing me some information for submission. Their open submission period is July 1 to September 30, so that should be just enough time for me to finish up my current writing project and make it all pretty and sparkly.

Finally, there was Austin Macauley,¬†and if I’m being honest, they were my favorite. They’re a decently successful publishing company in the UK who¬†just made the move into the US in January and are looking to take on new authors to establish a base here. Because they have an open submission policy, they take on any and all genres, and the two ladies staffing the booth were extremely nice in giving me literature about the company and taking down my information as an interested author. If you’ve done any research on the field, you know that new publishers and agents are a great way to get into the writing game because they’re always ready to work with up-and-comings, so this one is seriously a gold mine.

Well, that’s all I’ve got. A nice blend of publishers, contests, and groups for you. If you aren’t able to make it out to USC this weekend, consider this an abbreviated mini-festival, just for you.

Yours, with a fire lit under him,

-R.R. Buck

8 Questions You Should Ask While Editing Your First Draft

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion:¬†Photograph by Def Leppard)

Crap, I’m turning into Buzzfeed.

Well, be that as it may, I’m learning a lot from my second draft of my current writing project. I’ve done half-assed second drafts many times before without giving real consideration to what I want to accomplish – mostly vague things like “I want to make the writing more tight” or “I want to add in character development for Elmo” or something like that.

A good starter rule for writing books – especially if you’ve never written a good book before – is to have a good roadmap. If you outline the book really well before you start draft 1, you’re so much more likely to finish the whole thing instead of losing momentum halfway through. And if you outline your goals for your rewrite in draft 2, you’ll be a lot more likely to actually accomplish them.

Because who loves pointless rewrites, am I re-right?

(I’ll show myself out.)

Here are the questions I think make for a great second-draft editing process:

  1. Is my book of an appropriate length? Related, is the pacing good? The answers to these questions can be gained from using an alpha reader early in the process (I recommend The Adorer or The Writer¬†for your alpha reader). If someone can’t put your book down, you’re in a good place. If they can, why? What parts of the story are the hold-up for them?
  2. Are the concepts I need to be clear, clear? I usually give my alpha readers a pseudo-quiz at the end of reading a project of mine, including things like “how does the magic system work” or “what was the meaning of this moment”. Even if you’re not doing fantasy, you still want to make sure that the important concepts are understood by your reader – I’m all for interpretation of literature, but not if they’re actually interpreting the events of the novel wrong.
  3. How good are my characters? This is oh so damn crucial for practically any genre. I’m noticing as I’m writing this project that more and more of my friends and family who¬†don’t like fantasy as a genre are interested in this book. (Okay, it’s mainly just my mom.) When I asked her why she was more interested in this book, she said that the writing was better than previous things I’ve wrote, but also that the characters were better and more relatable. No matter what your genre is, if you don’t have good characters, your readers are not going to want to share their struggles.
  4. Do I have enough/too much __________? The blank here can be filled in by a number of things – character development and arcs, plot development, descriptions, action, symbolism that contributes to your larger theme or themes. Establishing balance between a plethora of different elements in your book will make it so that it feels like everything is happening at once, in a pleasant (not overwhelming) way.
  5. Is this scene/chapter necessary to the book? Should it be occurring right now? Should it be occurring from this character’s perspective? Is there anything that should be altered or taken out from this scene? If I’m being completely honest, most of my second draft is scene editing, deleting, and relocation. I now take every chapter and examine it to see first off whether it even needs to be there, and if so, when/where/from whose perspective it should actually be. DO NOT LIMIT YOURSELF JUST BECAUSE YOU REALLY LIKE A SCENE. If it needs to go, it needs to go.
  6. How can I move things more quickly/be more concise? This is one I’m just learning to do now. A lot of times, it seems like each of my first-draft scenes is focusing on one particular element – a single dialogue that reveals character, or a moment of plot development. I’m learning how to take these multiple scenes, cross out as many as possible, and recombine those elements into a single scene which accomplishes all of those things simultaneously. It makes for great, tight writing as well as a story your readers won’t be able to put down.
  7. Do we have continuity across the work? This one is important because oftentimes you start off with an idea of what things are, or what they should be, and then your damn deviant characters run off with the story and take it down a new path. That’s fine – wonderful, even – but in your second draft, you need to keep an eye out for early moments or details that don’t make sense with where you know your story is going.
  8. What did my alphas tell me? This might be one of the most important questions you can ask on your second draft. When you gave those lucky one or two people your first draft to read, what did they say? What should you change? Now, in case you haven’t been reading this blog for very long, I’m going to say it again, in bold¬†and caps so you know it’s important:¬†LISTEN OPENLY TO EVERYONE’S OPINIONS, AND THEN DO WHAT YOU WANT. You need to hear what every alpha reader is saying to you, but many of them will be directly contradicting one another. They are all opinions, and they are all important, but in the end, the writing is yours. Be neither wishy-washy based on the opinions of your public, nor rigid in your inability to change your “perfect” first draft. Be like… jello. Flop with the punches and send ’em jiggling right back when you don’t want ’em.

That’s all I’ve got for you. Good luck, and happy editing!

Yours, effervescently,

-R.R. Buck

Why Writing?

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion:¬†The Last Lost Continent by La Dispute)

I’ve been writing all my life, it seems. When I consider choosing any other art form to build my career path on, it just seems silly.

And yet, when I think about things, I realize I’ve been playing and writing music for just as long as I’ve been writing. Which is weird to think about, because I hardly consider myself a musician.

I started playing piano when I was nine or ten years old – about the same time I first started writing little kid stories and such. The first “song” I ever wrote on the piano was when I was twelve – about the time I started my first novella. And the first time I ever wrote something I considered to be an actual piece of music was in¬†exact conjunction with when I wrote my first novel.

How do I know that? My first songs were the soundtrack to my novel. (I know, I was a weird little high-school nerd.)

It’s just funny to think that I’ve been playing music for the same amount of time as I’ve been writing, and yet I feel so much more like a writer than a musician. I want to believe a part of it is innate talent, but it’s not – I’ve struggled just as much with writing as I have with music.

And neither is it training – I have been very informally trained in both writing and music, having learned both of them mostly by trying (and failing many, many times) on my own.

Still, when I remember bringing my whole family into my room after dinner to show them my newest “song” and then tripping up on the notes because I hadn’t even learned my own song well enough to play it without mistakes, it reminds me a little too much of me showing my rough, terrifying first drafts of writing projects to my alpha readers far before they’re ready to be seen.

So why did I choose writing over music? Others’ music is a lot closer to me spiritually than others’ writing, and I’ll generally spend more time in a day listening to music than I will reading.

It’s just a difference in medium.

Now, before I continue, I really have to say that I know¬†nothing about music theory or writing theory, so if I’m completely wrong, I apologize. These are my own reflections outside of any formal training.

Disclaimers aside, I feel that music is an incredible way of conveying¬†emotion. When I hear a well-written song or thematic score, I can¬†feel the emotion behind it without ever needing a word said. To me, that auditory format is better than almost any book, short story, or poem I’ve read in terms of conveying a single emotion or feeling.

(As an aside, this is why I love hardcore music – “screamo”, to those of you who are uneducated on the topic. Some of the most emotional, most beautiful music I know is lyrical hardcore music – like they say, some of the best art is produced by tortured individuals. For today’s playlist, I’ll put up one of my favorite hardcore songs – the one whose lyrics I’ve tattooed on my skin. The song, despite being “screamo”, talks about the unity of humankind against the cruelty of our world, and it never fails to make me tear up.)

Contrary to music, I believe writing is the ideal form of storytelling. The words we choose, the ways in which we put them together, allows us to take stereotypical, archetypal situations and characters and breathe a new life into them Рsomething similar enough to the rest of fiction to be beloved, and different enough to be enticing. We can gather the expectations of our audiences and fulfill them, if we want to Рor we can flip those expectations on their heads and leave the audience infuriated, but satisfied in a completely different way.

I’m not saying music can’t tell a story, or words and writing can’t impart emotion – obviously they both can. I’m just saying that I see each medium as being best at something, and the more important¬†something to me is telling a story. I love being able to construct worlds, to weave thematic and symbolic concepts into them so that the world becomes a parallel of our own, and to have an audience come away from the tale with a new perspective on how our own world works.

Or, I would love that, if I was any decent at writing.

AYOOOOOO!

Yours, laughing his ass off,

-R.R. Buck

Being a Writer in the Age of Social Media

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Say it Ain’t So by Weezer, Trying My Luck by the Strokes)

Here’s a quick paradox for you.

The traditional writer, the Shakespeare or Poe or Hemingway, is an introvert. Not always (I’m actually a counter-example – ENFP by a small margin), but I think most people would agree that, in order to be a writer, you have to like your alone time. After all, why else would you hide away from people for hours on end, writing your little projects with few hopes of being published?

Wow, dark. I like me today.

Anyway, if you’ve ever shared your writing with someone – and I mean baring your heart and soul through your work – you know how uniquely terrifying that is. If you haven’t shared yet, I can’t blame you, although I¬†will tell you that your writing will not get better if you don’t seek feedback.

It’s a difficult step, to take something that’s been so emotionally and spiritually close to you and push it out into the world for others to shit all over. You might start with just a close friend or a significant other, and then gradually move to people whose opinions tend a little more towards the critical side. If you do it too quickly, you suffer a meltdown (case in point). If you do it too slowly, you won’t learn anything.

But none of this is the point. The point is, in the twenty-first century when everyone’s lives are just vomited out online for everyone else to see, and comment on, and approve or disapprove, and rate, it is¬†expected for us timid writers to “be bold” and strike up a following on social media. I’ve seen dozens of literary agencies who, as part of the application and query for a manuscript, ask for my Twitter account.

Oops. Don’t have one.

Or my Facebook account – which I do have, but is pretty much just a forwarding address for all the things I post here and little else. The truth is, I really dislike social media. It’s hard for me to understand, it feels artificial, and it makes oversharing, lack of intimacy and privacy, and online stalking into serious issues.

My friends don’t get my gripe; they think I’m just being a stick in the mud. Honestly, it’s the same reason I don’t like to take posed pictures. When we as humans are aware we’re being watched, we do weird things that are out of our normal personalities. I guess it’s fear of abnormalcy or being seen as ‘weird’ or something.

If you’ve been reading, you know I have no aversion to being weird. I don’t understand most social conventions, and it seems like social media is a place where those social conventions are even more present and prevalent. For someone like me, who prides himself on being genuine and real in all scenarios (including this blog), it just makes me uncomfortable to see people being… well, not who I’ve grown to love them as.

(In case you were wondering about posed pictures, that’s a little bit different. I love the real little pieces of life, those silly inane memories that always bring a smile to your face. Like, my favorite video of my girlfriend is one where she’s eating a cracker in a really weird way. I don’t see that happening in these plastic fake-smiles posed pictures we find ourselves obligated to take at every social outing. BUT HOLY SHIT DO I LOVE CANDID PHOTOS.)

I just found it ironic that now, when social media is at its height, we writers are being forced into doing stuff that makes us extremely uncomfortable – not just having a presence online, but having an¬†engaging one that makes readers want to check out our stuff. Hell, what if you’re a boring person who writes incredible novels? You shouldn’t be punished for that because you can’t build a social media presence.

And don’t even get me started on “selling yourself”. As if it wasn’t bad enough I go into every interview terrified of the idea of trying to explain why I, a mere speck of dust in the entirety of cosmic existence, deserve to have this job, I now have to go online and try to sell¬†my¬†writings, the pieces of¬†my¬†soul. It’s instantaneous devaluation if people don’t buy into it.

Actually, if I had just one wish for non-writers (or even non-artists) who come into contact with people struggling with works of self-expression, it’s this –¬†know how important this project is to this person. I’m not saying it’s fair, but when you’re creating something so close to you, it can’t help but be tied up in your self-esteem, and when people are dismissive or cruel or hypercritical of that, it can really hurt you somewhere deep.

But hey, I gave in, didn’t I? I made a blog, and I have all of about 18 people (I think?) following me. I promised myself when I started that I would be brutally honest with myself and my public, and never to sacrifice a genuine tone in favor of popularity, or to hide any of my numerous flaws. It’s the most respect I can give to you all, my readers, to be everything I am – and nothing I’m not.

Holy shit, what a hipster post.

Yours, antisocialmedialy,

-R.R. Buck

Time-Skips in Writing

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion:¬†Time to Say Goodbye by Jeff and Casey Lee Williams)

Here’s a real whiffler for you.

I’ve been working on a project for the past few months (I think I finished the first draft last year, but the second draft is decently more hellish) and one of the things I had considered was the idea of taking what was¬†supposed¬†to be a full-length novel spanning two years and condense it into a 50,000-word portion of a novel spanning about a year. (And yes, I know that 50,000 words is a novel in its own right, but this is high fantasy, baby.)

One of the nice things about the rewrite is that it’s helping me establish what needs to remain in and what can be taken out. I’ve found that the book can’t – despite my earlier idea about a relentlessly paced fantasy novel – leave out certain amounts of character development and exposition; otherwise, things happen far too fast and the audience isn’t allowed to acclimate to the world.

On the other hand, I’m learning that a lot of cool little details can come out in the woodwork instead of being forced into their own chapters of exposition, which makes it feel more like the reader is discovering the world and not being lectured on it.

Let’s get to the point, shall we? In my first draft especially (but still occurring in my shorter second draft) is the problem of how to fit a year’s worth of activity into 50,000 words. When doing something like this, a writer has to balance between the mundanity of an entire year’s passage – not every moment of that year is going to be the action-packed plot-forwarding character-developing moment the audience wants to read – while still making it seem like actual time has passed and actual growth has occurred.

In other words, you can’t just skip over the whole year (too jarring), you can’t make every single chapter saturated with action and development (too improbable and exhausting), and you can’t put in too many mundane chapters (too boring).

Because my manuscript is intended to be kind of like an adult¬†Harry Potter, I want to examine that series in the context of time skips. And let’s be honest here, the¬†Harry Potter¬†series is one of the best at putting an entire year into a book and making the gaps feel natural, almost imperceptible.

You have a few of those mundane chapters that still manage to accomplish moments of character development and plot forwarding – Harry, Ron, and Hermione in class talking to one another as they mix potions or practice charms, moving the story along as they discuss what to do, but also showing the daily life of a student at Hogwarts. You’re interested in what they’re talking about, but also what they’re doing in class – which makes it all the more exciting when that same spell or potion comes up later in the book, as it always seems to.

You also have passages where Rowling describes the change of seasons in Hogwarts, signaling that a decent amount of time has passed without it feeling like we’re skipping ahead entire months and losing out on part of the story. The accelerations through ‘boring periods’ and the decelerations to interesting snapshots and moments feels perfectly smooth and realistic.

So that’s what I’ll be going for in my book. It’s probably not going to work out as well as expected, but hey, that’s why it’s called¬†Journey Into Writing and not¬†Reed is a Writing God.

Yours, considering rereading¬†The Sorceror’s Stone for research purposes,

-R.R. Buck

 

Lessons From a Failed Query Letter

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Mehna Mehna from the Muppets Show)

Query letters. They suck.

You’ve just written yourself a beautiful 80,000+ word novel and you have to condense it into a single squished trash-compactor pitch. Gone are the days of grandiosity; you now have to showcase your work, establish your tone, share your previous experience, and hook in an agent whose job it is to literally go through dozens of these daily… and all in three to four paragraphs.

Nobody enjoys writing query letters. Well, I shouldn’t necessarily assume that – there are some sickos out there. But a query letter is as important as the work itself; it is the barrier to entry to that exclusive club without a name, where literary agents and publishers share drinks with established authors and book deals are signed.

As you might expect, I have had no success with query letters. I’ve queried for two books, one serious, the other just on a whim when I was getting started writing. I’d like to use this space to examine my serious query and try to interpret (in the lack of any real feedback) why it didn’t work so well.

Here we go:

I’d like to submit for your consideration the first few pages and synopsis of my 109,000-word high fantasy novel, Sleeper, which I consider to be the union of Mistborn and Inception. It’s the story of a young assassin searching for the cause of a citywide conflict, and consequently unveiling a conspiracy that leads to an unlikely place‚ÄĒthe city’s well-known but oft-overlooked dream realm.

As Kalin’s youngest blade in the night, Melira Canton isn’t in the practice of lending aid to her city, or even obeying its rigid social laws. That notwithstanding, she’d never assassinate a man who held the king’s coin, symbol of his favor‚ÄĒunless she wasn’t aware of the fact until afterward.

As she races to understand how she could have made such an egregious mistake, Melira stumbles upon a sinister conspiracy involving Kalin’s king. After swearing off his addiction to magic five years ago, King Artura VII has since reclaimed the power of the monarchy and used it to strengthen his hold on the city. Now, his newest ordinance escalates racial tensions and threatens to undermine the entire social hierarchy of Kalin.

With the threat of civil war drawing nearer, Melira’s investigation leads her to the heart of the subterfuge‚ÄĒKalin’s malevolent dream realm, where the shadowy creatures known as incubi lurk. Though dangerous at night, the incubi are largely disregarded by the Kalinites during the day; it is commonly known that the incubi are restricted to an existence inside of the dream realm.

Commonly known, and not entirely true.

Readers of modern high fantasy will enjoy Sleeper, a fresh and dark twist of the classic fantasy world. Although the novel stands alone, it can be extended into a series.

I am a recent graduate of UCLA with a degree in neuroscience. My writing cocktail is equal parts Brandon Sanderson, Suzanne Collins, and Brent Weeks. I hope it goes down smooth.

Thank you for taking the time to read this query, and for your consideration of Sleeper. I’ve attached the 1050-word prologue below.

So let’s start off with the few things I did well.

First, I didn’t give any extraneous details. I had no previous writing experience at that point, and I didn’t waste time trying to explain why my agent should consider a first-time author. The reality of it is that agents are always down to consider first-time authors – just not the ones who have to try to explain themselves.

I kind of stuck to the three-paragraph format, which I cannot emphasize enough. Unless you are some kind of genius (and then it really doesn’t matter what kind of query you write), you must stick to that format – hook, synopsis, author bio. My synopsis was multi-paragraph, but otherwise, I got to the point quickly and kept the pace over the course of the letter.

I also pointed out that the novel was stand-alone (a white lie, in this case, as it was intended to be the first installment of a series). If you’re a first-time author, agents are more likely to pick you up for a single book than for the beginning of a series (or at least that’s what I’ve heard).

So what did I do wrong? Well, to start, I didn’t establish much of an authorial tone. Sleeper is saturated with dark language and witty characters trying to stave off an oppressive, malevolent force – that should have come across here. Otherwise, we just feel like this is yet another standard fantasy novel about “assassin is forced to save city”.

Also, there was almost a clash of tones with the later portions of the letter. While I loved the “writing cocktail” bit, it gave the letter this dash of humor that seemed really out of place with the darker themes of the synopsis. I need to learn to pick a tone and stick to it.

Finally, the cardinal sin of sins in writing – I told instead of showing. “A fresh and dark twist of the modern fantasy world” is something that should come across through the synopsis and the sample chapters, not from me telling my agent so in the letter.

Not all of these things might have led to the rejections from publishers and agents. It’s possible that it just wasn’t a good time for them, or that the market was saturated. But I really believe when you write a killer query letter, an agent will perk up in their seat and say, “Screw market saturation – this can sell regardless.” And that’s what you’re going for.

Yours, developing a new obsession for pistachios,

-R.R. Buck

Why I’m Not Religious

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: You Can’t Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones)

Okay, let’s settle some things right off the bat so nobody gets upset. I will¬†not in this post be talking about why *BELIEF X* is better than *RELIGION Y* or how *RELIGIOUS POPULATION OMEGA* is ruining our good ole fashioned American Puritan ideals. There’s too much conflict in the world as it is (which is a recurring point, as you’ll see below).

I also will not be using the correct form of religious. Several very smart people in my life have informed me that¬†religion comes from the Latin¬†religio, which means “obligation or bond”, or more informally, ritual. (In case you were wondering, by that definition, we are all technically religious – anyone who has a cup of coffee every morning or performs any ritual they adhere to is religious.)

I will be using the modernized word “religious” to describe ideas and beliefs in¬†organized religions, as opposed to the modernized word “spiritual” to describe ideas and beliefs about God, the afterlife, or other topics/questions usually answered by belief systems, organized or otherwise.

So, to begin the conversation with the terms defined, I would like to say that I consider myself “spiritual”, but not “religious” – in other words, I have beliefs about God, the afterlife, and other questions that I have determined myself, outside of any organized religious structure.

I’ve had a lot of religious influences around me growing up. My father’s side of the family was mostly Presbyterian; my mother’s side, mostly Catholic. Neither of them forced their beliefs on me, although I did have quite a few long conversations with my father about spirituality and belief (and I continue to). Oh, and at least one of my brothers is atheist.

One of my best friends is Catholic, and another was Scientologist for a while until she realized… well, let’s just leave it there. I’ve talked with nondenominational Christians, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists – there are certainly gaps in my knowledge where Judaism and Islam are concerned, and I’m trying to bridge those.

Concerning religion, I have historically said two things to anyone who would listen to me. The first is that, to me, nothing is more inspiring than hearing someone who is truly religious talk about their beliefs – it fills me with so much hope and happiness to see someone sharing a beautiful core part of themselves with me.

The second is that religion produces some of the best and worst people in the world (along with nationalism).

I usually find myself playing devil’s advocate (no pun intended) to folks on either side of the aisle who tell me that either religion is the answer, or science/education/atheism is the answer. (By the way, I am not equating science, education, and atheism – I’ve simply heard all of them opposed to religion in different contexts.)

However, on a long train ride with my girlfriend, we got to talking about this kind of stuff and I felt I found the perfect analogy for what I believe. I see our experiences, thoughts, and beliefs as a kind of a toolkit for understanding and interacting with our world. In a person’s toolkit there might be rationality, logic, and science, as well as history, religion, and morality. (Yes, I’m going to separate morality and religion. Deal with it.)

When I speak to an atheist about why they’re not religious, the answer I hear is the same as when I speak to a religious person about why they’re not atheist. It amounts to, “I can understand the world and my purpose in it completely with my chosen tool.” Now, I want to add that there are much prettier and more intricate, nuanced ways of putting this – I’m just trying to save space, since I’m already running up against 600 words.

So anyway, I see an atheist trying to screw in nails with a screwdriver, and a religious person trying to hammer screws into a fixture, and I just can’t understand why there’s this mutuality going on. I mean, who said that logic couldn’t coexist with religion? (Someone much smarter than me, probably.) However, I always saw it like sensation – there are only so many types of stimuli you can sense with vision, and at a certain point, you have to use audition, or gustation, to get the full picture of things. Likewise, there are some patterns of thought that, to me, transcend or defy logic – questions of religion and God – and when dealing with those things, using logic to try to justify or prosecute religious beliefs is like trying to see a sound.

Maybe it’s just because I was a neuroscience student surrounded by a bunch of people telling me that the soul can be deduced to chemical impulses in our brains. Maybe it’s because I love hanging out with religious people who think the Bible should transcend skepticism. Either way, their argument sounds the same to me –¬†I don’t need a well-rounded toolkit, thanks. I’ll stick with my one pair of pliers.

Let me break here for a moment to say I believe in God(s). I believe in an afterlife, and I believe in a purpose to each individual in this life which will help them become the best person they can possibly be. I find myself to be one of the few people who would define themselves as “spiritual” who think about those kinds of things as much as someone who would define themselves as “religious”.

So why have I not joined an organized religion? I’m not gonna feed you some line of bullshit about how “religions are constrictive” – religions are a tool, just like anything else, and allow for as much interpretation, or lack thereof, as any other tool – but I¬†do believe that no religion adequately aligns with my own beliefs about the divine.

I like to dabble in a little bit of everything. Let’s take a Christian trinity God with the roles redefined under my own rhetoric; throw in some Americanized karma; add a dash of my preferred spice blend of morality derived from many different world religions and finish off with a handful of predestination (I could write a whole other post about why I don’t believe in free will the way we see it).

When people ask, I tell them I’m deist – it’s kind of true, as I do believe in the “clockmaker God” who sets the universe running and then sits back instead of intervening. But it’s so much more than that. It ties in with my beliefs about ethics, my own personal philosophy of optimism and childishness, and my purpose in life. It is so uniquely¬†me, it hurts.

And that’s what I think religion should be. It should be an extension of yourself. If you can find that extension in a pre-composed religion, that’s wonderful for you – all sincerity and love. But if you can’t, I don’t believe you should force yourself into believing something just because the people around you do, or because you don’t feel comfortable or secure without the arms of a god around you at all times.

(That’s another thing – I love when atheists say that religious people are just scared of not having a safety net, because to me, it seems like many atheists are scared of not having free will. Just sounds like two sides of the same coin.)

Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that I see the world as being this terrifying, cold place where the only way people can survive is to come together. And the most frustrating part is that¬†this is what religion should do (IMO), bring people together! But all I see are the Christians saying their religion is the one true path to God, and the Muslims saying their religion is the one true path to God, and all religions disagreeing with one another and everyone is fighting all these goddamn wars throughout the entirety of history in the name of their ONE TRUE PATH TO SALVATION.

The wonderful thing about belief is that it is yours. You don’t have to believe in anything you don’t want to – despite what some may say. For instance, I don’t want to believe in a God that discriminates. I don’t want to believe in a God that thinks being anything but heterosexual is a sin. I don’t want to believe in a God who has defined a single perfect, correct religion and will not let believers of any other faith in.

I want to believe in a God who loves everyone equally, who doesn’t care whether you’re a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist, an atheist, a deist, a Zen Gnostic, a Pastafarian, or an occultist, as long as you did the best you could in your life to be the best person you could¬†be. I want to believe in a God who watches over us, loves us, weeps for us when we fail, rejoices with us when we succeed, and cares not for what temple we worship at, or what our ritual is – so long as we stick to it.

So far, I haven’t found something like that in any of the religions I’ve had experience with (although Hinduism is pretty damn close). If I find something more like that along my search, I’ll let you know.

Yours, hoping he didn’t ruin your Easter,

-R.R. Buck

Socioagnosia – A Growing Problem

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: this)

Before you even Google, it’s a made-up word. There’s a similar term called social-emotional agnosia, but it’s not at all what I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about is something that’s bothered me my entire life, has strained relationships with friends and family, and is kind of funny but ultimately sad.

I like to joke to people that I was born without the part of my brain that understands social niceties. The subtleties of conversations and things said between the lines, the understanding of what is and is not appropriate in a given social scenario, and the entirety of passive-aggresivism as a form of communication – all of these things are complete voids to me.

I didn’t really notice it very much until the first time I ever asked out a girl. Ah, wonderful memories. Her name was Lindsey Cornelius, and in the one of the last days of eighth grade, I had the audacity to ask her out (having spoken to her about five times previously).

She laughed and said no.

It was the first time I came to realize that there were tiers of social popularity, and that I was not in the top one. (I know, that realization came late, right?) Of course, this trend continued into high school, where all the shit really started hitting the fan.

I had a nice core group of friends and enjoyed making an ass of myself with them, doing things loudly and with little care as to who was watching. It got to a point where my little brother would defend me to his friends, who called me things like “weirdo” and I’m sure worse words.

I¬†was a weirdo, and still am. I consider it one of my more endearing traits. But not everyone, especially the people close to me, see it the same way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had friends or girlfriends take me politely by the arm away from a party or other social setting and tell me, “What you just did was inappropriate.” Or worse, I find out about it a few weeks later, after it’s already left my mind.

See, the thing you have to understand about my family is that there were¬†four boys growing up. Each of us louder than the last, all struggling to get our words – and sometimes our fists – into the conversation. There wasn’t exactly a lot of room for subtlety or passive-aggressive acts. As a matter of fact, there was pretty much no room for that.

My friends were kind enough to indulge me in my deficiency, and I didn’t associate with anyone ‘popular’ in high school, so I didn’t actually learn what it was like to be on the receiving end of passive-aggressive actions until college. And then, oh boy, did I learn.

I had a friend (I don’t believe he reads this, but it will almost certainly be hell for me if he does) who saw many of my habits and actions as being inappropriate. Of course, I never knew this because he never told me outright; instead, he would make passive displays of his frustration – which I am¬†infinitely proud to say I actually picked up on.

Unfortunately, I never knew what he was mad at me for.

See, that’s where passive-aggresivism breaks down for me. I can understand someone wanting to change a behavior but wanting to be tactful about the way they bring it up. But when I notice someone is upset about something and I cannot determine what they are upset about, I get more and more guilty without knowing what to change. And believe me, I¬†want to change it; I just don’t know what it is.

I explain it to people like this – I’m going to Japan for the first time, and I commit some unpardonable faux pas. A Japanese person starts yelling at me in Japanese and I can clearly see they are upset and want me to change something, but I don’t speak Japanese and I don’t know what it is.

Then someone else, well-meaning but frustrating to me, comes along and says, “Well, just learn Japanese!” and I am¬†so down for that. But¬†then I learn that everyone speaks a different dialect of Japanese, and everyone has a different set of social rules, and they all just expect me to know all of this. I ask them to teach me Japanese and they say, “It’s just something you have to know.”

I’m not kidding. People have before told me, “If you’re telling me that you don’t see how¬†that’s inappropriate, you’re bullshitting.” To which there is only one response on my part – a shrug, a sad half-smile, and an apology for something I don’t understand but must be sorry for, under social convention.

I wouldn’t be quite so frustrated about this if it wasn’t for the fact that there was an alternative which is easier, clearer, and in a way more beautiful. It’s called direct honesty, and I work to cultivate it in every important relationship in my life.

You’re upset with me?¬†Tell me why. I will strive to act in a different way, knowing exactly what made you upset and why it’s important.

Some people are wonderful about this, even if it makes them uncomfortable to say, “Hey, what you’re doing right now is pissing me off.” But some people continue to refuse to tell me what’s going on. They think (or I assume they think, because they won’t tell me directly) that I should just know better, that I should be able to pick up on the subtleties. It’s like telling a colorblind person to just¬†know the difference between red and green.

Okay, having finished the rant, I now want to talk about why my beliefs about this are kind of bullshit.

^This guy, am I right?

I didn’t really consider this until some of my coworkers at the library brought it up a few weeks ago. Without going into a long story, I had said something during an interview with a potential staff member that was¬†totally¬†inappropriate. Of course, because I’m me, I didn’t know that until they brought it up a few weeks later, and then I was embarrassed in the extreme.

The conversation evolved from there into something more about the expectations we bring into social interactions. The staff members, both of whom were women of color, encouraged me to consider what I, as a straight white man, might not perceive about the expectations and rules applied to outgroups and minorities in social scenarios.

I have to be honest and say I mentally rolled my eyes at that point – old habits getting the better of me. I’m still struggling to abide by the YH8 principle¬†and sometimes I forget that equity and equality are not the same thing. But later on, when I thought about things with a more level head, I decided that treating my social dysfunction as an excuse to not try to understand others’ headspace was detrimental to my relationships and myself.

Where does this put me on the argument I’ve been having with myself on this post? Well, for one thing, I still don’t believe passive-aggresivism is an okay thing. If my coworkers had never brought up the misconduct at the interview to me, I wouldn’t have been able to learn from it and grow as a person. But I¬†do believe that entering a conversation or social scenario without giving consideration to the different beliefs, standards of propriety, and baggage each other person brings is rude and in some cases oppressive.

Bottom line – I will try my hardest to understand the expectations and rules of social situations in the future. If you know me, you know I will fail. When I do, please tell me in a direct way, so I can keep improving myself towards that golden standard of tolerance and pleasantry that I someday hope to reach.

Rant over.

Yours, cuddled up in a blankie,

-R.R. Buck

Digging Deep as a Writer

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Raytracer by Emperor X)

This is going to be a little bit of an awkward one to write, because I know my girlfriend is reading my posts, but I think it should be said.

Before this, I’ve been sitting in lab waiting for an experiment to wrap up, and two hours of dead time in a quiet lab is a great recipe for writing. So I was working on a chapter in which one of the main characters is… well, in order to avoid spoilers, let’s say one of the main characters is wounded severely.

In this passage, one of the other characters finds this wounded character and – well, here’s the part where I got kind of stuck. See, I was trying to write that sense of panic when a person stumbles upon someone they love who’s in immediate physical harm, but I couldn’t find the right words to say. I couldn’t really access that emotion.

So I did something no sane, healthy person would do. I dug back into my memories and found something terrible.

My girlfriend is diabetic, and she’s great at managing it. In the entire time we’ve been together, there have only been two or three instances where her blood sugar has gotten too low too quickly – for those of you not familiar with the disease, that can result in hypoglycemic seizures.

I feel like I’ve told this story so many time before, but I haven’t fully learned to cope. I’m going to try now.

There was a moment a year or two ago when she spent the night at my place and, when I woke up in the morning, she was seizing next to me in bed.

(Wow, that brought tears back. Give me a second, I’m trying.)

It was one of the most uniquely frightening things that’s ever happened to me. Seeing someone you love in a place where you know nothing you can do can help them…. I can’t even begin to describe it.

All I remember from those first frenzied moments of waking was me saying, over and over, “Oh, shit. Lindsay? Oh, shit.”

Doesn’t exactly make for a great bit of dialogue, does it? But it’s real. And the panic is real.

So, back to my writing. I was trying to capture this feeling of mindless terror in one of my characters, and in order to do so, I closed my eyes and spent a few moments back a year or two ago. Then I wrote exactly what I saw, felt, and thought.

Here’s what came out :

Deira started to scream.

Sera whirled around, scanning the woods. She lay on the ground some several feet away, clawing at her chest, her eyes wide open and glaring at the night sky, sounds of inconceivable pain leaving her mouth.

‚ÄúDEIRA!‚ÄĚ

Heedless of all noise now, Sera tore through the trees to Deira’s side. He was barely aware of a series of sounds behind him as Lucent did some sort of Signature. He grabbed Di by both shoulders, then released her immediately, afraid of hurting her further but not knowing what else to do. Words were bubbling up from his throat, half-choked by sobs.

‚ÄúDi‚Ķ what is it? What‚Äôs wrong? Di? Di, what‚Äôs hurt?! Di!‚ÄĚ

She would not speak, could not. She writhed on the ground, her fingers curled and contorted, her eyes rolling at sights he couldn’t see. The same high keening sound continued to come from her gaping mouth.

‚ÄúOh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit.‚ÄĚ

He held her, clutching her trembling form to his chest, tears streaming down his face. Words continued to come from him, but he could no longer hear his own voice. He could only perceive her, her screams, her anguish. It consumed him.

Um, so, yeah.

Look, I’m not telling anyone with a trigger to try to relive it for the sake of realism in their writing. What I¬†will tell you is that digging deep, accessing that source of pain, can make your characters – and by extension, your readers – feel that same crushing emotion you felt. It can bring that sense of horror into their minds.

Can we take a minute to let go of this excess emotion? I don’t know about you, but I’m going to take a minute to listen to a happy song. I’ll put it on the playlist at the top when I’m done.

……..

Okay, I’m back. And I want to say that this doesn’t have to be a mechanism only for writing terrible scenes. For instance, let’s take the opposite – how did you feel when you lost your virginity? Got married? Got drunk for the first time? What was your mental state during the best memory you’ve ever had, and how can you translate that to a scene in which your character is feeling the same way?

To make your characters interesting, they have to be the right combination of real and unreal. They have to be real because people have to feel like they understand and know the characters, to identify with them; they have to be unreal so they’re engaging and different than the ‘characters’ we know in real life.

A large part of that realism is in the way characters respond to situations. No one on the face of the earth speaks like one of the leads in CSI unless they’re a total douchebag. On the other hand, the success of a character like Jim Halpert from the Office is due entirely to the (very realistic) way he reacts to situations.

So when you have a scene you need to nail that contains an overload of emotion, you need to make sure you¬†nail it. And it’s really easy to go overboard with the cliches and the standard language and have that emotional scene feel flat and unrealistic. The way you can avoid that is to dig deep and find your own memories, frightening as they may be, to dredge that emotion up and into words.

Side benefit – it’s also very therapeutic to write some of that emotion out. You wouldn’t believe it, but I feel lighter right now. This was almost a confession in some way.

To reiterate, I am¬†not telling you to relive your triggers if you can’t handle them. I’m only saying that, for an overemotional scene to be real and gripping, it has to come from something grounded in reality.

And one of the most wonderful things about nailing a scene – something I’ve only experienced once, as I am still a lowly unpublished novelist – is when someone comes up to you and says, “That’s exactly what it was like for me, and to hear someone else describe it made me feel like I’m not alone.”

Hopefully even just one person reading this will identify with what I’ve written, and then I’ll have done my job.

Whew, who knew I could get so emotional in lab, huh? Thank God for indie acoustic music to calm me down.

Yours, only slightly emotionally exhausted,

-R.R. Buck