Holistic Writing Pt.1

“General Systems Theory, a related modern concept [to holism], says that each variable in any system interacts with the other variables so thoroughly that cause and effect cannot be separated. A simple variable can be both cause and effect. Reality will not be still. And it cannot be taken apart! You cannot understand a cell, a rat, a brain structure, a family, a culture if you isolate it from its context. Relationship is everything.”

– Marilyn Ferguson
The Aquarian Conspiracy

I’ve finally found a way to explain how I view writing: In an interview for Suspense Magazine, Shannon Raab asked me about my writing style. For whatever reason, it struck me then, that in addition to being what I consider an elemental writer, I’m holistic in my approach to fiction. Well, and writing in general. Take, for instance, the titles of my blog posts and the addition of a quote (normally) at the beginning of each one. The titles are usually taken from the end somewhere … this post being an exception since I’m talking about a general concept. This is a good example of looking at something as a whole, instead of piece by piece.

And with that simple admission, I realized more about myself as a story-teller, as a Fantasist, than I have through the reading of countless books on the mechanics of writing, the creative self or on the craft of fiction.

What is a Holistic Writer? Well, considering that after googling it, I came up with nothing (save some bits on quantifying English-as-a-second-language students), I suppose the burden rests with me to define it. So here’s the world according to Garp … er … Chancellor …

Five Key Aspects of a Holistic Writer

1. A Holistic Writer views a story from the outside in; not chapter by chapter, or line by line, but first as a whole. Like Holistic medicine, everything is integral. Everything works together. Visualizing your fiction in a completed state, even before you begin, is no different than visualizing the brain/body connection.

2. A whole is the sum of its parts. Sentence structure, cadence, plotting, characterization, even if all of these things are mastered on their own, they are nothing unless you know how to use them all at once. Each is a cog in a machine, and without perfect timing, you’ve just got a bunch of really pretty, yet utterly useless, gears. As the saying goes, ‘You can teach me how to write, but you can’t teach me what to say.’

3. A Holistic Writer, when he/she does look at the individual parts, he/she looks at them in relation to how they work within the system. For example: If something feels off in your characterization, it helps to look at how the other variables are affecting your ability to properly work with those characters. Is your plotting rushing your characters’ needs to develop naturally? If your cadence is off, could your sentence structure be the cause of the discordant rhythms in your prose? If you continuously run into plot holes, instead of immediately reworking your entire plot, check your dialog and see if the problem isn’t how your characters see the plot, and therefore how they’ve conveyed it to the reader … the problem could be perception.

4. There is more to being a Holistic Writer than just how you write, or how you view your writing. It also encompasses how you relate to your work on a personal level. Your personal life and emotional well-being will affect how productive your are, how in-tune you are with your fiction, and how easily you will address issues when they come up. Your eating habits, what you feed your body and brain, will also correlate to your level of ability. Yeah, sometimes a writing binge will follow on the tails of a night of heavy-drinking, or staying up for several nights in a row … but remember, we’re looking at this as a large picture. Even Hemingway reportedly wrote while sober.

5. Speaking of notoriously disturbed, brilliant authors … does it seem like the most skilled authors were/are connected to their writing in ways that the hobbyist isn’t? This is what I’m talking about. A Holistic Writer, is never not a writer. At the grocery store, he/she takes note of the tantrum of the five year old in front of them because it relates to a hissy fit thrown by Jane Doe in WIP#45. The Holistic Writer doesn’t take off, or compartmentalize their life, in the same way that a gymnast is always a gymnast because what they eat, how they sleep, what they do in their off time, and how they organize their schedule, all affect performance. And don’t be mistaken … as an author, Holistic or not, you are performing. We have an audience, a stage, and a whole cast of characters. The only difference is that as an author, you’re the stage manager, the actor, the playwright, the costume designer … you get the drift.

I’m not done writing about this … it’s a concept I’ve only begun to explore, and it fascinates me. But, it’s late and I’ve had the most productive writing day I’ve had in YEARS. So, needless to say, I’m wiped out. But, those are the top five components of being a Holistic Writer. Here they are again, summed up this time. A Holistic Writer …

1. Sees their work from the outside in.

2. Understands their work as the sum of its parts.

3. Sees those parts only in relation to each other and the whole.

4. Sees their fiction in relation to their person.

5. Cannot separate their writing life and their everyday life, because they are one and the same.

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A Conversation With Jack Ketchum

“Who is the scariest guy in America? Probably Jack Ketchum.” ~Stephen King.

It’s been a damn good week for me.

Yeah, I know … I just posted. I’ll likely lose a subscriber or two for posting twice in one day, but the good news is … you’ll live. You oughtta be stoked that the reason I’m posting again today is because I’m bringing you a conversation with one of my all-time favorite horror authors, Jack Ketchum.

1. As authors, seeing our novels transformed into movies, where flesh and blood people are acting out scenes we’ve already seen played a hundred times over in our heads, is something few of us will ever experience. What has that been like for you? If I recall correctly, you’ve been able to get a little more hands-on in a couple of the films, what was that like ?

When it’s good it’s a total kick in the head, when it’s not it’s…disappointing.  I’ve had more of the former than the latter, happy to say.  It’s pretty amazing.  You write a book in the privacy of your own room, it comes out of one mind and one mind only — or in the case of THE WOMAN, two —  and then you get this whole group of talented people all bring their own skills and minds to it, their own energy.  I’ve been on the set for at least a day or two with all my films and it’s always amazing.  With THE GIRL NEXT DOOR I probably spent over a week on set in several locations.  And on THE WOMAN was there for nearly the entire shoot.  That was an experience.  Working with Lucky McKee and watching actors the caliber of Pollyanna McIntosh, Angela Bettis and Sean Bridgers bring these people to life.  You want to see a couple of writers smile!

2. What is your greatest fear as an author? As a human being?

As an author?  That crazy sonovabitch will shoot me in the head for writing THE GIRL NEXT DOOR.  As a human being?  Alzheimer’s.  I think in general we mostly fear an old age in progressive lingering pain.  That and the aforementioned crazy sonovabitch.

3. The first novel I read of yours was the uncensored version of Off Season. From the outside, it appears as though you’ve moved into a place in your career where you aren’t at the same kinds of mercies that you once were in terms of censorship and word count, etc. Did you know, or have faith, back then that you would arrive at the place you are now, or was there a fear that you’d always be fighting to keep things as you’d originally penned them?

The only books I really had a censorship problem with were OFF SEASON, because of the sheer degree of violence and SHE WAKES, where I had a secondary but important character who was a male transvestite.  Berkeley Books said “you can’t do that!”  And I was new with them and had already been dumped by Ballantine and Warner so I buckled and changed it.  I think I’ll always have a problem with word count among the major publishers because I tend to write short and tight.  But maybe not.  E-books seem to be changing that, making shorter offerings acceptable.  We’ll see.  And you’re right, I don’t have to fight much these days, and pretty much knew that the day would come when I wouldn’t.

4. I promised not to ask you anything too cliché, but selfishly I have to ask: Do you have a favorite story that you’ve written?

I’m not choosing a favorite daughter.  Sorry.

5. One of my personal fears as an author is that I’ll die before I get all of the stories out of my head that need to come out. This is ridiculous of course, because we never truly run out of stories. In some cases, there are stories that refuse to be written, despite how hard we try to pen them to the page (pun intended). Do you have any stories like this? If so, how long have they been lingering and do you think they’ll ever come to fruition?

A quote I like a lot comes to mind.  “Take your time,” he would say to himself, “if the cat’s in a hurry she has peculiar kittens.”  That’s Louis de Bernieres, from BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS.  Some stories just leap out at you, beg to be written right away.  Others gestate — or in my case, sometimes fester — for quite a while.  You can’t rush them.

6. Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction have, for too long, been the redheaded stepchildren of the literary world. How have you dealt with criticism from that elitist society, and what kind of advice could you give those of us who are in the midst of, or about to be bombarded with, the same sort of cold reception?

Feggeddaboudit.  Write what you need to write and what you enjoy writing.  It’s important to keep in mind that writing’s just high-level play.  You’re doing the same thing, basically, that you did when you were just a little kid, inventing games for yourself.  They’re your games, and sometimes the other kids will want to play along and sometimes they won’t.  So long as you’re having a good time, so what?

7. I’ve never read a horror novel of yours that didn’t have depth behind it. In fact, I’ve seen more depth in some of your novels than I have in most of the purely literary novels I’ve had to read for professional review sites. I can’t help but to wonder, psychologically, how it is that with seemingly little effort, you get straight to the heart of so many unmentionable issues. You’ve tackled subjects such as rape, incest, drugs and violence, fluidly and without the need for overly ornamental prose. What do you think the differences are between works such as yours, and works that deal with similar subject matter, other than the obvious? Could it have anything to do with the fear of ourselves—the fear of what we’re truly, utterly capable of?

Thank you.  I think the key here might be that I don’t want to waste your time, or mine.  That is, I don’t want to write pure escapism — fancy-dress vampires and such.  I’d like to engage us both in a bit of dialogue about something important while at the same time telling you a good story.  I think all good writing, literary or genre — and both of these should be in quotes, to my mind — should remind you that the world is so much bigger and more diverse than your own, richer than just your experience of it for better or worse, that people are like you and not like you at all.

8. What is your definition of evil?

Lack of empathy and conscience.

9. If you could go back in time, to the days when you were writing merely for your own pleasure—before you were published or even submitting—is there any advice you’d give yourself?

Yeah, don’t try to be so fucking literary.  Don’t try to reinvent writing.  Just write.

10. The darkness of human nature, in my opinion, seems to be a common theme throughout your works. This begs the question: Do you think we are born inherently good or evil? Is it all in how we’re raised? Or a little bit of both?

I’m an optimist about human nature.  There are those among us masquerading as humans — those are the sociopaths, the ones without empathy and conscience — but they’re by far the minority.  We should watch out for them, but not despair because they happen to be there.  Most of us do as the Greeks say, go with the good. Whenever you get too down on human nature, ask yourself what other species on earth tries over and over to protect the existence of other species?  We’re still new, still evolving, and we reinvent ourselves every ten or twenty years or so.  We’re communicating right now via computer!  Good grief!  We’re practically magic!

** A HUGE thanks goes to Jack for taking time out of his seriously hectic schedule to drop by The Asylum! We sincerely appreciate it and of course, as always, thank you for sharing your awesome work. The world of horror simply wouldn’t be the same without you!!

Doesn’t Play Well With Others…

It isn’t that I feel your criticism unworthy of making my work better—that isn’t the case at all. It simply makes my work yours and I’m not willing to share the burden. You see, I don’t play well with others. Well okay, I didn’t just figure that out—I’ve known most of my life. It has just been brought back to my attention.

Yeah, I understand that this is part of the industry, get a thicker skin, blah, blah, blah. I’m not talking about career moves here. I know better than to argue with the editor who is trying to get my manuscript in shape, or to refuse my agent’s suggestions. I do have a brain and a smidgen of common sense (not much past that, mind you). I simply have a different opinion on the value of a ‘critique’ than most.

Before I say anything else, let me make clear that I have beta readers—a couple of which are brutally honest and I handle it just fine. I want to hear what they have to say, because I trust them. I know where they are coming from—I know their bias and their preferences. We don’t always agree on things and more often than not, we clash. But the dialog is always beneficial because I know what to do with it. Now, with that said, let me state that I personally would never join a critique group. Why? Because my belief in positive reinforcement pervades my ability to give what others consider ‘useful’ criticism, and I am an independent creator. I’m not alone in this viewpoint. There are a slue of other authors who agree with me, but an even larger population that doesn’t. When I’ve voiced my opinions on this in the past—without fail, I always get the you should toughen up and take what’s good for you lecture. It’s always well worded and backed up with solid logic. Problem is, Thalidomide also had fairly sound logic behind it…oops. Feel that an unfair comparison? Toughen up and take what’s good for you. Thalidomide is a powerfully effective drug, and works wonders for patients with Multiple Myeloma and Leprosy. In other words—what’s good for one person, isn’t necessarily good for everyone.

I did a little research to see if I was being a sissy. Turns out there are more than a few authors who swear by cautiously accepting critiques on their work. According to Kristen Painter:

“Luna/Berkley author P.C. Cast doesn’t use a critique group for two reasons. One is that she feels her writing process works best as a solitary endeavor. “Often it feels as if I’m soughing through mud, but it’s mud I have to fight through myself. That’s how I resolve plot problems and how I develop characters. If I had help, or even too much input from others, I don’t think my end product would be the same.” (http://www.kristenpainter.com/writers/CritiqueGroups_RWR.pdf)

Painter goes on to list the second reason Cast doesn’t use a critique group as time. “Many authors produce work at a greater rate than a critique group can critique.” To be fair—in addition to the authors she lists as not using groups, Painter also shows the other side. So, I’m not saying that there isn’t value in it. I’m merely saying that it doesn’t work for me. I find it infinitely more useful when a reader points out areas of strength than when they comment on what they personally didn’t like. If eight out of nine readers mention my character development as being strong and no one ever says anything about the worlds I’ve created—I’m going to get the idea that I need to work on my level of description. Maybe some authors don’t take subtle hints…rest assured, I do and have no need for others to tell me what they would have done had it been their story.

I suppose that gets to the heart of my issue. When you hand your work to other writers, you are asking for just that. No writer can read something in the draft stages without the question, ‘what would I have done here’ staining their ability to be objective. And that’s the problem, it isn’t your story. You’ll never hear me tell another author how a story should have gone—that isn’t valuable feedback. Nor will I ever suggest tearing a story apart because it isn’t ‘marketable’ the way that it is. Critique groups as they are now, are a relatively new creation. A writer in decades past would have a few trusted readers, if he/she showed an unpublished work to anyone aside from their editor. The concept of a collective or collaborative effort is an invention of mass market production. If you want to produce a manuscript to please the masses, show it to them first.

Personally, no thanks. I’m a purest when it comes to fiction. If it didn’t happen that way, I’m not changing it or adding fluff to make it more palatable to the market. Period. Burn me at the stake for it—the masses are good at that. I’m simply tired of seeing it worded as an absolute, when it isn’t. I’m tired of reading that in order to take yourself seriously as an author, you should sign up for the unsolicited criticism of an anonymous online community or a face to face, weekly commitment with other authors…because no serious author does it alone. This simply isn’t true at all. While we may be the exception, we aren’t a myth.

I’m not interested in hearing critique groups or critiques in general defended. I’ve heard it all, more than once, and saying it again won’t change how I feel about it. Writers get up in arms over this…which makes no sense if you think about it—I’m criticizing the norm and you’re immediately rushing to the defense…doesn’t that fly in the face of your argument? Shouldn’t you take my words for what they are and maybe see if you can’t learn something from them? Improve? My favorite argument thus far is the assumption that since a work hasn’t been published yet, there must be something inherently wrong with it. Really? You believe that? And passing it through enough critiques will eventually whittle down the ‘errors’ and you’ll have a ‘publishable’ novel at some distant point in the future? Formulas don’t work. That, is a formula. To hell with those who say it needs shredding. Tolkien himself told Lewis that he should scrap Father Christmas from The Chronicles of Narnia. Several years ago a poll was done in the united states that asked grade school children what part they liked best, and wouldn’t you know…Father Christmas won by a landslide. So, it isn’t even a matter of who is giving the criticism—whether they are qualified or not—you know when something is right or wrong in a story. Have a little more faith in yourself and your ability to write.

Stephen King said it best, No, it’s not a very good story – its author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside.”