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Bad Horse

Sufficiently advanced friendship is indistinguishable from magic.

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The Writer's Notebook: Craft essays from Tin House · 2:17am Jun 10th, 2014

This book is good enough that I'm going to give a brief overview of it.

Tin House
Tin House is the brash newcomer of literary magazines. It's only 15 years old, just a baby compared to the New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic review, or Ploughshares. But its reputation, among the literary elite, is just below the first three and about the same as Ploughshares. You can read one free story in it online per month, or you can splurge and buy The Best of Tin House, which is, after all, their best.

As I said in a previous blog, I don't like it myself. It's the same as all the other literary magazines, only more so: Stories with no plots about characters age 30-50 who muddle about in their hopelessness for ten pages, then when things are at their most hopeless, the story ends.

But The Writer's Notebook is good. Who knows, maybe their writers could write something good if they were freed from the bondage of the literary establishment.

These are its chapters:


Dorothy Allison, who makes use of places in her stories much more than I do, says that "Place is not just what your feet are crossing to get somewhere. Place is feeling, and feeling is something a character expresses." So for example, she says:

Central Florida is despair.
New York City is sex.
California is smug.
Boston has never gotten over Henry James.
Iowa city is one hotel room and a chlorine stink away from the suburbs of hell.

Rating: :twilightsmile:

Hard Up for a Hard – on

Steve Almond writes about writing sex scenes. This isn't the usual how to write a sex scene chapter (yes, that's a genre); it's more a caution to remember why you're writing a sex scene. The purpose isn't always to arouse the reader. He gives one example where a character in the story writes a sex scene, and the result is unrealistic, but in ways that show us how pathetic and desperate the character is. (Because this is Tin House.) He gives another example of a sex scene that isn't arousing at all, because it's about a couple that has a terrible relationship and is desperately pretending to enjoy their sex. (Because this is Tin House.) It almost inspired me to rewrite the sex scenes in Pony Play to be less arousing. Maybe I still will someday.

Rating: :twilightblush:

When to keep it simple

Rick Bass talks about trying to fix a troublesome story by making it simpler. For example, by setting down your pencil and just saying out loud what it really is you want your character to say. Then pick your pencil and write that down and see if it works. Sometimes, the thing that you thought was complicated and deep is just a bunch of little thoughts tangled together. Sometimes a long string of quiet whole notes has more accumulated force than a quick crescendo of trumpets playing sixteenth notes.

Rating: :unsuresweetie: Rick Bass should have applied his own doctrine to his own essay. It's basically a long way of saying what I just said. And it has a bad lesson at the end, about a writing instructor who told a student that her story wasn't very interesting. She asked how to make it more interesting, and he said, "Try making yourself a more interesting person," which is possibly the laziest, least useful, and most vicious writing advice I've ever heard.

Revisioning The Great Gatsby

Susan Bell summarizes what Max Perkins said in his biography about how he edited The Great Gatsby. Perkins asked for, and got, extensive changes to the story.
- Fitzgerald deliberately made Gatsby's character vague, with the idea that realistic characters were too human, and so heroes must be vague. Perkins got him to be a little more specific.
- Perkins agreed that chapters 6 and seven sagged, and had Fitzgerald take an info dump about Gatsby's history, and spread it out over those two chapters. This illustrates an important principle that I haven't blogged about yet: Don't waste stuff that has dramatic potential. If Gatsby is a Gestapo spy, don't just tell the reader that. There's got to be a more dramatic way to find that out.
- Fitzgerald rewrote the story line by line to replace vague "deep thoughts" with specific impressions.

Rating: :twilightsmile:

Character Motivation

Aimee Bender writes a treatise against stories that can be summarized, including character motivations they can be stated in one sentence. She objects to the advice that you should know what your characters want. She thinks that you shouldn't know what your characters want, and that you should write about them doing things that you just sort of feel like they would do but don't know why. As justification, she cites famous stories in which she can't figure out straightforward cause and effect. She closes the essay with a quesitonable short story about an old woman who feeds liver to bees. I was not persuaded that her approach is anything more than a summarization of the postmodern dogma that anything that can be understood without a guidebook isn't art.

Rating: :twilightoops:

Fairy tale is form, form is fairy tale

Kate Bernheimer claims these are 4 elements of traditional fairy tales:

Flatness: Characters are flat. They have one emotion and no psychological conflict. The traumas they experience have no lasting impact on them. Some characters are named and yet have no attributes at all; they are placeholders, to complete a necessary set of three, for instance.

Abstraction: Fairy tales tell, but don't show. The settings have few colors, primarily red, white, and black.

Intuitive logic: Fairy tales don't make sense. Kate might mean something like what I said in "Fairy tales are random", but I can't tell, because this section is only two paragraphs long.

Normalized magic: No one is surprised when magical things happen.

Now the essay gets confusing. Kate listed these four properties, and now feels obligated to make some closing, unifying statement: "Fairy tales hold a key to the door fiercely locked between so-called realism and non-realism, convention and experimentalism, psychology and extraction." And so on, for three pages, but not really adding anything further.

Rating: :twilightsmile:


Lucy Corin says you should look for patterns in your stories by printing them out, spreading the pages out on the floor, and marking different things in different colors. Once you can see the patterns in your story, you can refine them. She uses Flannery O'Connor's story "A good Man is hard to find", which I think I've mentioned I don't like, as a case study, and managed to convince me to like it less by showing the cues in the story to say that Bailey and the serial killer are in some way the same sort of person. (She's the second writer to use Flannery O'Connor as an example, which isn't surprising, since O'Connor's stories all fit the Tin House pattern of starting out with a bad situation, getting worse, and then stopping.)

Rating: :twilightsmile:

There will be no stories in heaven

This is the second essay to use The Great Gatsby, and the second to refer to Italo Calvino. It surprises me, given the vastness of literature, that most of the references that literary types make are to a small number of works, probably less than 100 total.

Tom Grimes' idea is that every story has a clock in it that counts down and lets you know how close you are to the end. This is rather like the pickup artist trick: tell a woman, before you start talking to her, that you only have a short time, so she knows you aren't going to ramble on forever unless she asks you to and doesn't start trying to escape.

He also talks about tempo. I didn't get much more than that from this, though that may be my fault. But somebody should write a book called "Storytelling advice from pickup artists."

Rating: :twilightsmile:

The mercurial worlds of the mind

This is the third essay to talk about Italo Calvino's stories. It is rather what you would expect from an Italo Calvino fan: A string of tenuously-related bite-sized ideas that may or may not have anything inside them.

I find the literary establishments obsession with Italo Calvino annoying, because I have listened to many lecture series about fantasy, and they always talk about Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In the future they will probably also talk about Salman Rushdie. It never bothers them that almost no one who reads fantasy reads anything by any of these people except for "100 years of solitude" [1]. Italo Calvino, in my mind, represents the bait-and-switch practice of the literary establishment when they lure you in by saying they are going to talk about fantasy, science fiction, or some other thing you're actually interested in, and then talk about something else entirely, done by literary authors, thereby dismissing the entire genre as inferior attempts to do what literary authors do.

Rating: :facehoof: This essay is long and doesn't make any sense, which is why I ranted about how literary professors talk about fantasy instead.

Making a Scene

A basic idea: Story is what happens. Discourse is how you describe what happened. Summary is when story time > discourse time.

Anna Keesey contrasts unfolders like Dickens or Hemingway, whose stories are full of stuff happening, with infolders like Virginia Woolf or, in the most extreme case, Proust, who describe at length what their characters are thinking and feeling, for whom story time << discourse time. She doesn't say that one approach is better than the other, just that you should know which one you're doing, and why. Hemingway, she says, does no "infolding" because part of his message is that the interior of characters is private and inaccessible.

Rating: :twilightsmile:

Le Mot Incorrect

Jim Krusoe talks about the virtue of using the incorrect word. He suggests deliberately going overboard, trying out words that seem overwhelming or inappropriate in hopes of finding a happy mistake. I remain skeptical.

Rating: :twilightoops:

Shakespeare for Writers

Third essay to talk about Shakespeare. It reinforced my opinion of Shakespeare, which is that he is given a free pass for his many grievous mistakes, praised exorbitantly whenever he does something that is merely competent, and loved honestly only for the poetry in his plays (which always strikes me as unfair, since dramatists after Shakespeare were not allowed to write poetry in their plays). Margot Livesey spends much of her time excusing Shakespeare's sloppiness, such as that Hamlet is at most 19 in Act I, and at least 30 in Act II.

That said, the lessons taught are good ones:

- Don't be dismayed if some of your stories are at best rehearsals that will enable you to write good stories.
- Be careful how you repeat yourself, and why.
- Begin dramatically.
- Don't hold back the good stuff.
- Consider beginning in the present.
- Negotiate your own standards of plausibility. [bad advice]
– Once you've invented your rules, keep them.
– Omit appropriately.
– Don't over explain.
– Borrow, don't steal.
– Know which kind of suspense your narrative depends on.
– Be aware that form and tone govern content.
– Consider a subplot or two.
– Develop your characters as individuals and in relation to each other.
– Let the reader know which characters are major and which minor.
– Be ambitious with your language.

Rating: :twilightsmile:

Lost in the Woods

This is an odd conglomeration of examinations of stories in which the main character fears social isolation. There's an excellent analysis of "Folie a Deux" by William Trevor (I guess; I never read the story). The author explains why she doesn't like stories with happy endings. (This is Tin House.) The theme that's supposed to unify the different pieces of this essay doesn't, but I don't mind. The individual pieces are insightful. A foolish consistency, and an insistence that nothing be said unless it can be fit into an essay-sized narrative, is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Rating: :twilightsmile:

Performing surgery without anesthesia

Chris Offutt writes about revision. What he says is the single best piece of advice I can give anybody about writing: Most people don't revise; they polish. They write something, and then go back and try to improve each sentence or each paragraph. What they should be doing is figuring out what the story is about, ripping it apart, throwing big hunks of it away, and pushing it around until they find the best way to make the pieces fit together.

He also has some useful tricks:

- Don't take shortcuts. You'll figure out a clever way to get away without writing chapter 4, sort of. That doesn't always mean you shouldn't write chapter 4.

- Combine characters when you have too many, and the combined character will be easier to remember and more interesting.

Rating: :yay:. Except for the part about eliminating adverbs.

(Mis)adventures in poetry

I didn't read this carefully, because it starts out by quoting William Carlos William's modernist injunction that art must "cleanse" language of all of the "dead, stinking dead, usages of the past", by jamming words into contexts where they don't fit in order to knock all those nasty, slimy connotations off of them and give, I don't know, pure strings of letters untarnished by meaning. This is the opposite of what I think poets should do. Then it talks about writing poems by gathering little bits of pretty phrases and weaving them together, because surely that will work. Then it talks about happy mistakes, of poets who retained typos in their poems, although IMHO some of these mistakes weren't very happy.

It has some useful advice about taking lines that are simple and straightforward and boring, and rewriting them:

The sun shines on the water => The sun beats lightning on the waves

But then it goes back to praising randomness and the inner muse as things that must be untrammeled by logic or design:

Young writers often ask me [very long & meaningless thing X]. What this question suggests to me is that these writers are thinking about what a poem will be like before they actually sat down to write it... How can you know what a poem will be like before it arrives on the page?

Rating: :facehoof:

The telling that shows
I reviewed it here.
Rating: :yay:

Generating fiction from history and/or fact

I could summarize this as saying that sticking just to the facts doesn't tell the truth as honestly as making stuff up that communicates the drama and importance of a true story. "People who... Only allow themselves to be moved by stories that are directly autobiographical in their events... Mistakenly equate a plain style... with sincerity."

Rating: :twilightsmile:

1. Hush, Ghost. Look, I made you scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page to read one freaking footnote. Wasn't that fun? Won't it be fun to scroll back and try to find your place again?

To the rest of you, I apologize.

Report Bad Horse · 1,162 views · #writing #recommendation
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Comments ( 24 )

Maybe I should've posted on just one chapter at a time. :applejackunsure:

Rating: :facehoof: This essay is long and doesn't make any sense, which is why I ranted about how literary professors talk about fantasy instead.

You sure you can't wrangle some description of the chapter out? Maybe a few extra perspectives can help you figure out what the author intended (and failed) to write about.

2194314 I'm gonna pre-emptively conclude that it's just bad timing and you'll have far more than 35 views and two comments on this excellent (and insightful and entertaining and fun- :pinkiecrazy:) review somewhen tomorrow.

I'm not going to lie. It is one hell of an MWoT (Mighty Wall o' Text). I tl;dr'd it. It was too much for me to handle.

I'm sorry :,(

That last little bit right at the end right there gives me ideas for a hilarious and undoubtedly offensive post that might be disingenuous or not, and will likely derail things.

Sounds like fun, eh? ^.^

Ok, fine. I will concentrate all my mental power on reading your review, despite the fact that it's reviewing something that's adult literature, meant for someone my age and older, and not filled with attention grabbing coloured pictures.

It will probably hurt (why do you think I avoid most of these types of your blogposts?).

Then, depending on how convincing you are, BH, I might buy the book, only to be sorely pissed when Ramona Flowers is not the one to deliver it in 5 minutes and instead I will have to pick it up at the post office 5 weeks later because no one was at my house to sign for it 2 weeks earlier.

Then I will go on an immature rant on putrid bloody disgusting footnotes.

Rating: This essay is long and doesn't make any sense, which is why I ranted about how literary professors talk about fantasy instead.

Want some Dexedrine? It helps me concentrate and keeps me from wandering everywhere and touching things. It's great for helping me get shit done.

It's next level Ritalin.


Want some Dexedrine? It helps me concentrate and keeps me from wandering everywhere and touching things.

It sounds like it's more important for you to have it... more important for all of us. :unsuresweetie:

You are missing the rating for Making a Scene.

Interesting read. What is the scale? Yay, Sheepish, Smile, Unsure, Oops, Facehoof? Or perhaps they are meant to reflect your face as you read each chapter? :twilightsheepish:


Wasn't that fun? Won't it be fun to scroll back and try to find your place again?

:twilightoops:<ctrl><F> [ 1 ] <Enter>

Quick notes (I have to get to work soon):

1. I hate that semi-random attitude towards poetry. It's not just that I don't like it, I think it actively harms the quality of discourse.

2. You can tease and belittle all you want, Mr. Horse, I will still be using footnotes.

3. Y'know, I like Shakespeare, I adore Calvino[1], and I even enjoy the music of Mahler. I'm beginning to suspect there might be something wrong with me.

4. I'm not too much of a fan of stories with tragic, bleak endings. It's not just that I don't enjoy them personally[2] (I don't), it's that I feel the universe provides us with tragic bleak endings in limitless inexhaustible quantities. Entropy is certain, death inevitable, and tragedy fated. It's hardly original to do it in story form too, now is it? Besides, the demand for unhappiness in your stories, the sniffy disdain for the happy and cheerful dismissing it all as kids stuff... there's something unspeakably adolescent about it all, isn't there?

[1] Though holding a lecture on fantasy and talking only about Calvino is reprehensible. He is a fantasist, sure, but I would never call anything of his a good example of fantasy as the term is generally understood. He's too odd, too experimental.
[2] I admire Chekhov—in much the same way I admire the author of this blog—but I rarely enjoy the stories. Mostly I endure them.

Were Mr. Horse to belittle, would he not better be called Mr. Pony?

– Be aware that form and tone color and content.

I don't understand this.

I prefer my sun to shine on the waves than to beat lightning upon them. When a cloud beats lightning on the waves, it is an exciting tempest. When a sun beats lightning on the waves, it is an exotic fantasy. Unless the poem or prose in which the sun is beating lightning on the waves is actually an exotic fantasy, the effect of "The sun beats lightning on the waves" is just to sound detached from reality. It is such a violent interpretation of what is otherwise considered to be a peaceful beauty. It might be useful to indicate a character on the edge of psychosis.

2194902 I like Calvino, but I think of his stories as after-dinner mints, not as dinner.

Author Interviewer

I can't tell you how many times I read that as "Tin Horse".

I like the sun beating lightning bit. :O Wish I could think of stuff like that.

Oh come now. Surely more of an exquisite after-diner digestif. An eau-de-vie, say, or an exotic liqueur. :twilightsmile:

2195409 You've had too much pony when...

I just remembered that a few years ago I bought a book of Shirley Jackson short stories, and while The Lottery was as suspenseful and tense as I remember, the others were exactly the sort of thing you sound like you're railing against as being boring junk. I don't even remember if the characters were pathetic and desperate, or anything about those stories. That's how boring they all were.

As for the book itself:

-I've made up my mind to try and become a more interesting person, but not because one guy directly told me to. It's just a conclusion I came to on my own terms, as a solution for my problem of not being able to talk to most other people about my hobbies and interests for fear of being judged weird or whatever. Also, a broad knowledge pool can only help me write about things.
-I've been reluctant to get into Salman Rushdie because I quit The Satanic Verses after the bewildering first few pages, and then he shot his mouth off about how my favorite TV shows aren't good enough for him. Meh. I am kind of curious to know what Italo Calvino has actually wrote and whether he's actually part of this awful mentality of his own free will.
-I got the advice about combining characters from Film Crit Hulk, and it's one of my favorite pieces of writing advice in recent memory.
-The stuff about not being afraid to stretch the truth a little in writing historical or biographical fiction is pretty accurate from my experience from biopics. Most of them suck because they focus more on hitting the most important beats of a real person's life like a checklist, while Amadeus owes part of its awesomeness to lying about Salieri and Mozart.

You say that this is a good book to read, but your review hasn't exactly convinced me. It sounds like you want to take a scalpel to it like a doctor cutting gangrenous flesh off a patient to save his life. When you post the icon of Smiling Twilight, it often sounds like Unsure Applejack would be a better fit.

Also, I have a bit too many books on writing advice that I need to get through before I think of buying this one. I have Film Crit Hulk's Screenwriting 101 book (most of it applies to more media than just film), Alice LaPlante's The Making of a Story, and Jeff Vandermeer's Wonderbook, which is an illustrated guide specifically for speculative fiction, which is MUCH more my style than the Tin House formula.

Author Interviewer


I don't have a problem! I can quit whenever I want! D:

"Storytelling advice from pickup artists."

Sounds like something that would be right at home in "Uncle Bad Horse's stories for impressionable young foals". roundstable.com/forums/images/smilies/emot-rd-leer.png

Generating fiction from history and/or fact
I could summarize this as saying that sticking just to the facts doesn't tell the truth as honestly as making stuff up that communicates the drama and importance of a true story. "People who... Only allow themselves to be moved by stories that are directly autobiographical in their events... Mistakenly equate a plain style... with sincerity."

Hey, I remember learning that lesson when I read Tim O'Brein's The Things they Carried. Damn, that was a good book. Needless to say, I agree with the sentiment.

Strongly empathize with your response to (Mis)adventures in poetry, too. Haven't read the essay itself, of course, but I very much agree with "This is the opposite of what I think poets should do." You ever considered writing poetry here? I know most readers probably wouldn't be interested (and, hell, you might not be interested). The only real poem I can remember seeing on this site is one that Horizon wrote (though that's probably because he was talking about it at EFNW 2013 when I was there). It was a good poem!

2200986 I've always been afraid of poetry. Writing bad poetry seems more embarrassing than writing bad stories.

2201220 Haha, that's pretty reasonable. It may also be that bad poetry is harder to identify as such!

Or, yeah, maybe everyone will just laugh :pinkiecrazy:

2195076 Speech-recognition typo. Should say, "Be aware that form and tone govern content." I'm back-and-forth on whether this is good or bad advice. I think it's a chicken-and-egg thing, but form and tone probably have the final say.

Comment posted by yamgoth deleted Jul 5th, 2014

I think your deliberately wrong use of internet footnotes counts as your evil act. Just sayin'.

Super Trampoline came up with a way that makes footnotes like a million times more tolerable:

>> yamgoth Or you just open too browser tabs, And have one be at wherever in the story you're reading, and have the other one be at the footnotes section

This seems to be a good compromise, eh?

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