Writing Class

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Writers:

I’m thinking of taking up writing workshops again.  In the olden days, I taught in bookstores and on campus extensions.  Right now, I’m torn between some sort of Zoom class or using my own home in Escondido, which I would greatly prefer.

I’ve heard from quite a few of you, and most seem interested in Zoom workshops.  If so, we can begin to set up a schedule.  Right now, I’m thinking of this:

  1.  Zoom workshop groups limited, perhaps to 6, although that may change.
  2. Either one meeting per week or one every two weeks, during which student chapters/stories, having been read by everyone before class (we won’t be reading aloud) are discussed in depth.
  3. For a fee, I’m thinking of $100 per class.
  4. If there’s enough interest, I could perhaps have two separate groups, each with the same schedule.
  5. Payment using PayPal (or check).
  6. How many meetings to attend/pay for would be up to individual members.  The group membership might change as a result.  We’ll see.
  7. Of course, the trick would be to find a meeting schedule amenable to everybody.  We’re probably not all on the same time zone.
  8. If there are enough people in San Diego County willing to trek up to Escondido (which I know can be a pain), we could work up an in-person schedule here.

I could also to work remotely with individuals who want feedback on their work.  I’m not drawn to this for two reasons:

  1. I’m not a book doctor or marketer or agent, so I could not promise that in the end the writer would have a publishable work.
  2. Workshops are the best way I know for writers to improve.  Critical reading of others’ fiction sharpens your own critical skills, which are essential for all writers.
  3. Still, if you’re interested in doing this, let me know, and we can decide on a schedule and fee.

Since I’m contacting you on FB, please respond, if you’re interested, using Messenger, or post a reply here.

Mind the Bollocks

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Accidentally shooting yourself in the crotch is becoming a thing, so here’s the beginning of a new list.

 

Man fatally shoots himself in the groin while attempting U-turn, police say

Man accidentally shoots self in groin inside Buckeye Walmart

Florida man sits on gun, shoots self in groin, police say

Marion police respond after man accidentally shoots self in genitals

[Wichita] Man seriously hurt after accidentally shoots self in groin

[Nevada] Man Accidentally Shoots Himself In The Groin After Loading Gun

Colorado Football Mascot Chip Shoots Self In Groin With T-Shirt Cannon

[Zion Grove, Tennessee] Man facing charges after shooting himself in groin

[San Antonio] Man apparently shoots self in groin while trying to help woman on Loop 410

Man rushed to hospital after shooting himself in the groin with a home-made gun stuffed down the front of his pants

Police: Wanted Felon Arrested After Shooting Himself in the Groin

Police say NYC officer accidentally shoots self in groin

Man Accidentally Shoots Himself in Groin at Gun Club

Worcester man facing charges after accidentally shooting self in groin on Christmas morning

Watch Kevin Owens Shoot Himself In The Crotch In Bizarre New Year’s Accident [VIDEO]

Providence man accidentally shoots himself in crotch while sitting in bed

Man allegedly hiding drugs in butt accidentally shoots himself in testicles

Oregon man shoots self in groin while showing off gun in supermarket checkout

Omaha man shoots himself in the groin while putting handgun away

Gun Enthusiasts Celebrate Man Who Shot Himself in the Balls as Their King*

Trump Supporter Shoots Self Through the Groin in Attempt to “Trigger Liberals”


*“The reason we are calling him king is partially because the poor guy already shot himself, don’t think he needs to be chastised as well… I’m quite sure he’s learned his lesson without the entire world calling him an idiot.”

Book Reviewing 101

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Once upon a time, and what a long time ago that was,  if you got a book published, you’d cross your fingers for a review in the New York Times, but you’d probably have to settle for brief reviews in smaller papers.  Now most of those stalwarts are gone, and a review in the NYT or the others left standing is even less likely than before.  There’s precious little space for paid reviewers to turn their attention on you.

In order to get that attention, writers are urged to market themselves on social media sites like Goodreads and Amazon author pages and Facebook.   I don’t do this myself (except for the occasional FB post), but I know plenty of writers who jump through all the hoops.

The result: Writers get tons of reviews, this time from unpaid reviewers.  Actually, it’s my understanding that some unpaid reviewers actually are paid—in copies of books.  Amazon, which owns Goodreads, also promotes a crack team of elite pre-publication unpaids, “Vine Voices”  http://www.amazon.com/gp/vine/help  These “most trusted” reviewers provide “honest and unbiased feedback,” for which they are sometimes paid by “participating vendors.”

This is supposed to be a good thing, although my publisher tells me there’s little proof that all this attention translates into sales.  Still, writers have to pay the rent, so many of us trudge off to these sites and market ourselves.

Because writers are supposed to have  marketing skills.

Probably some of us do, just as some people excel at both pocket billiards and rock climbing.  But most of us do not.

The great Mitch Hedberg noted that when you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to other things besides comedy.  They say, “All right, you’re a standup comedian, can you act? Can you write? Write us a script.” They want me to do things that’s related to comedy but not comedy. That’s not fair. It’s as though if I was a cook and I worked my ass off to become a good cook and they said “All right, you’re a cook.  Can you farm?”

Anyway, those of us who have dutifully farmed then get to sit back and enjoy all this attention.

Every writer I know has experienced blowback, as opposed to feedback, from unpaid reviews.

I’m not talking about reviews which simply give a number of stars, or which just say “I liked it” or “This isn’t for me” or “I hate hate hate this book”  or “This writer’s books suck.” These are straightforward expressions of opinion. Everybody’s got one, and why not.

And I’m certainly not talking about those unpaids which are well-written and sharply critical.  If a writer takes offense because a conscientious reader didn’t like their book, that writer needs to toughen up.  And if a reviewer, paid or unpaid, backs up critical assessments with illustrative quotes and examples, then that writer should be grateful and credit the reviewer’s skills.  We learn from intelligent criticism, whether we are persuaded by it or not.

Finally, I don’t want to imply that writers are entitled to positive criticism from unpaids.  For pete’s sake, they’re unpaid. If they were writing for the NYT, they’d need to get their act together, but they’re not.  An unpaid reviewer, unlike most paid reviewers, actually has the option of being wholly negative, and I have no issue with that.  When you write a paid review, you usually feel compelled to say at least something positive about the book.  Unpaids have no such obligation.  On top of that, “constructive criticism”—criticism designed to help the writer improve–has a place only in a workshop/class setting. Reviewers, paid and unpaid, are not the writer’s teachers, friends, or fellows; constructive criticism is inappropriate (and presumptuous) in a review.

I’m talking about those unpaids who

  1. Encourage their readers to agree with them when all they’ve done is express their own taste, and/or
  2. Attack the writer personally.

My purpose here is to encourage critical analyses of unpaid reviews.  (Also paid reviews.)  Why? Because all writing, including written reviews, should benefit from critical analysis.  This is especially the case for writers, who must, as they write and revise, criticize the hell out of their own drafts.  Also, since all writers should toughen up, confronting these reviews critically should help with that.

This is not an “anti-bullying” post.  I’m guessing there are lots of these. Examples:  https://www.huffpost.com/entry/stop-goodreads-bullies_b_1689661  https://nathanbransford.com/blog/2013/09/the-bullies-of-goodreads

I’m not interested in whether reviewer is or is not a bully.  I’m focused only in the writing. The best (and worst) of all writers is on the page. Writing a good book review isn’t easy.  It begins of course with your own reaction to the book, but then you have to figure out why you’ve reacted that way, and then you ought to provide evidence (with quotes and examples) from the book to back up your assessment.  People don’t read reviews to find out whether a stranger liked the book.  They read to find out if they themselves will like it.

Some talented unpaids understand this.  Others do not.

Some time ago, when I was setting up a Mean Writers website (since abandoned), I collected a number of unpaids of my own stuff.  I’ll just list some here, with a few comments.

Here are some that simply report the reviewer’s response, which is fine with me:

  1. Bought this book for my daughter because she loved the author’s other book. Did not enjoy stories at all.
  2. I bought this book because I have read, and loved, two of Jincy Willett’s other books. This book was a huge disappointment. David Sedaris, a very funny man, said on the cover, “It’s just the funniest collection of stories I’ve ever read – really funny and perfectly sad at the same time.” Well, I get the perfectly sad – just not the really funny. Not a chuckle from me throughout. Just really sad stories.
  3. It showed a tiny bit of promise, but after having read the second book of the series I have given up on them all. The only people who would like this series of books is the very type the author is sending up. Some compare him to Oscar Wilde. What??? Because he sends up the upper English classes? But Oscar does is with wit and style.Am I supposed to give this book a high score because it evoked such strong feelings in me: disgust, horror, disbelief? Or a low score because I absolutely despised all its characters and the story line? Part of me wants to read at least one more if the subsequent novels (there are 5 in all) but only because I hope some if these people will seek redemption. I have a feeling though that they wont. And I really don’t want to waste my time reading about people who only know how to be cruel to one another.
  4. I couldn’t force myself to care about any of these people. Prose reads musically in an obtuse, pointless plot. Appears to illuminate only that the author is well-read. I’m about to put my copy on the driveway and run over it eight times. [This is my favorite unpaid.  I hope my prose doesn’t read musically in an obtuse, pointless plot, but this is a thoughtful and creative description, plus I love the idea of hating a book so much that you want to demolish it.  We’ve all been there.]

These are not bad at expressing their own response, but these reviewers assume, without evidence, that others will share it:

  1. Seriously?? NPR claimed this as a best book of the year? Maybe if no other books were written. This was the most boring book I have ever read! The reviews on the book claimed it was hilarious, witty and brilliant. On what planet!? I will give any book 100 pages but, kept reading this junk assuming it would get better. Wrong! Don’t waste your time or your dimes on this waste of paper. I will never read another Jincy Willett book again!
  2. I’m sorry….I have read the other reviews for this novel and I do not agree that this is a must read. It is NoT! I borrowed this book from the library and I am so glad that I did. The basic premise of this story is a good one …but I feel it was edited and put together badly. When your main character takes over almost a whole chapter of the book with her nonsensical lists of “funny words”…then your story has taken a twist that is very uninteresting. The villain is not developed until the last pages and your main character is basically running away from any confrontational situations for the entire book. I want to like the main character….not feel sorry for her. I’m sorry I read this book. Don’t spend your money on it.
  3. Call me a spoil-sport, but that issue with the dates REALLY bothered me as well. It’s a very sloppy mistake which seems to epitomize how I felt about this book. It’s clever at times, but Dorcas (the narrator) goes from being a funny, irreverent sage to an out-and-out pill awfully fast and Willett’s narrative style is wildly inconsistent. Literary and thoughtful at times, a messy spew of words the next. And that date mistake. How does a writer do such a thing? How does an editor not catch it? It only indicates that no-one involved in the writing or publishing of this book cared enough or took enough time with it. So why should I or any other reader? [Apparently there was a timeline error in the book, and I sympathize with the reviewer’s annoyance but not with their assumption that one error signifies that writer and publisher did not care about the book. The reviewer has no idea how publication works.]

And here’s a typical ad hominem attack:

This book was just plain awful. The characters were inconsistent and uninteresting. It’s such a stupid book. The only reason I kept reading until the end was so that I could make note of the pretentious and ostentatious vocabulary that peppers the pages. The author is, in my humble opinion, a show-off. Yeah, we’re all REALLY impressed. Better to just say “belch” than try to impress us by using the word “eructation.” It’s so obvious what she’s trying to do, which is to show us how well-educated she is. [Reviewer makes an obnoxious assumption about a writer’s word choices.  Our job is always to choose the right word for our meaning, and in a first-person narration (or in dialogue) a character’s personality will factor into those choices. In this particular stupid book, the narrator is introverted and bookish and chooses her words with deliberation.  I’ve looked at the offending phrase; Dorcas describes Guy DeVilbiss, a cartoonishly pretentious character: “His bee-stung mouth contracted into a little O, and he snorted, like an infant eructation.” I recall making that choice because of the characters of both narrator and Guy.  Looking at it now, I’m inclined to agree that “belch” would have been a better choice. It’s funnier, and Dorcas might be inclined to use it privately to ridicule Guy with a coarse monosyllabic. But the reviewer’s assumption (in their “humble opinion”) that a writer chooses words in order to show off is unwarranted.  Was Perelman a showoff? Reviewers should maintain tight focus on the page. As should we all.]

Finally, I sympathize with this one.  We’ve all had the experienced a book (movie, TV show) marketed to us (there’s that word again) as surefire hilarious and slogged through the whole thing without cracking a smile.  You do feel cheated.  But novels don’t promise; ads do that. There’s no such thing as universal funny.  If you’re not having the promised experience, read something else.

“Winner” is a book that suffers from bad advertising. I was promised a black comedy. “Riotous. Hugely funny…” and “The funniest novel I have read, possibly ever” appear right there on the cover.
The book was certainly sarcastic. It was caustic and biting but there was very little in the book that I could laugh at in good conscience. (And honestly, during reading, I wasn’t inclined to do so.) In many ways, it was more like a car wreck on the highway – horrific but engrossing – than anything else.
Ms. Willett’s main characters, twins Dorcas and Abigail, area a fascinating pair. Each completely embody the part of the human condition that the other lacks. “Winner” is the story of their interactions with each other and the members of a New England literary circle made up arch-typical characters.
Through my entire reading, I was off balance. I kept expecting ‘funny’ to show up and it never did. That said, “Winner” had other redeeming qualities which kept me reading. Ms. Willet gives Dorcas, the bookish narrator, wonderful recollections and descriptions of the joy of reading. The relationships between the people in a group and between the sisters were exaggerated for effect, but still intriguing.
Other parts of “Winner” were less successful. There were bits of extraneous metaphor and occasional clunky bits. Occasionally certain characters verged on caricatures. I understand what Ms. Willett was attempting to skewer but in the end, “Winner” falls a bit short. If I had come at “Winner” with different expectations I might have found it more enjoyable, but I never shook the feeling of being a bit cheated by a novel that failed to deliver on its promises.

 

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Writers:  If you’re interested in this enterprise, please comment or otherwise contact me (jincy@jincywillett.com) with any unpaids you’d like us to look at and discuss.  I look forward to hearing from you.

From My Father on Veterans Day

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My dad died ten years ago.  Here’s a letter he wrote to Paul Fussell, author of The Boys’ Crusade (I had given him this book with great trepidation because Dad didn’t talk about the war–combat vets don’t–but I knew that this book was about his group. I’m so glad I gave it to him.) Anyway…

“Dear Mr. Fussell:
 
“I am one of those “boy survivors, now around eighty.” When I first read “The Boys’ Crusade” I felt that I wanted to write to you. Now that I have completed the second reading I feel compelled to do so.
 
“…I did my ASTP stint at Providence College and then later joined the 26th (Yankee) Division on maneuvers in Tennessee. You know the rest of that story but there are a couple of things that I wanted to add. I wound up in the Second Squad of the First Platoon of Company “K” in the 328th Infantry Regiment, 26th Division, attached ultimately to Patton’s Third Army. When you itemized those items carried into combat by most infantrymen, there was an anomaly in our outfit of which you apparently were not aware. When it was announced that we were being committed to combat in some unknown place, we were ordered to line up with our raincoats and overshoes in hand and then told to throw the raincoats in one pile and the overshoes in the other pile. The rationale, we were told, is that we would not need these in combat. Well, we did go into combat and it rained, and it got cold, and colder, and it snowed, and the water in our slit trenches often froze over at night, and we were pinned down cold, wet, and miserable, scared to death, and for six weeks we did not change our clothes. At the end of that time, those that did not get killed or evacuated with wounds for the most part had severe trenchfoot and I was one of those. [The casualty rate for this group was over 50%.] Through tender care and patience, and a lot of luck, I did not require any amputations but I have been in trenchfoot centers crowded with kids my age with toes amputated and legs amputated to the upper thigh and always bilaterally. Would we have been better off with overshoes and raincoats? Those in command didn’t think so. [Note: I know, because Dad told me, that it turns out that trenchfoot can be avoided if you just take off your boots every night and massage your feet and legs, but the soldiers were never taught that. They were taught about brushing their teeth and avoiding VD, but not trenchfoot.]
 
“After being discharged, I attended Brown University to get my deferred education. While there I met and become very close to a professor of mathematics called Ray Gilman and when I read “An Operation Called Cobra” I recalled a conversation that I had with him. I had mentioned that I had driven through the rubble called St. Lo may times while on temporary duty on Patton’s Red Ball Express. He told me that he was involved with that in a way. He said that when Cobra was under consideration, the Allies realized that there would be many “friendly fire” casualties and, as a mathematician, he was called on to calculate the degree of those casualties given the terrain, the position of all troops, and the planned bombing patterns. He did so and came up with a number that, as I recall, was somewhat under three percent. On the basis of that estimate (and other things!!), Operation Cobra was carried out with the results that you so graphically described.
 
“Finally, before I read your book, there were certain bits of information about the war that I thought were known only by me. Thank you for erasing that burden from my mind. I am very grateful.
 
“Most sincerely,
 
“Ward C. Willett.”
And here is one of his V-Mails from France–I found it in a box full of photos and papers when I was cleaning up and organizing after his death.  He was very young.

What I Wonder

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What I wonder, Christian Nationalists, is who is going to pay for what’s coming. And by “pay” I mean in tax money, and by “what’s coming” I don’t just mean the banning of abortion, because obviously you’re coming for birth control (as practiced by women) and for “suspicious” miscarriages.

Who’s going to pay for an expanded police force to ticket obviously pregnant women caught smoking or drinking. Or, I don’t know, jogging? Kayaking? Because you have to protect the fetus, and women lack common sense.

Who’s going to pay to monitor all women of childbearing age? Because they can be pregnant and not showing, and they can be up to no good. I had a friend, a good Catholic, who one day deliberately shoveled wet, heavy snow until she miscarried. She didn’t believe in abortion but had no problem with that. But how is that different from smoking or drinking or drugging when you’re pregnant? Really, guys, the sky’s the limit, because women are sneaks.

Who’s going to pay for all the trials and prison cells when your mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters fill them to overflowing? Because an animal with its leg in a trap will chew it off. Because, let’s face it, women are animals. (That one is actually true.)

Seriously. Where will the money come from? I know that your hard-earned taxpayer dollars are very, very, very important to you.