Things Are A-Changing Around Here, But I Hope You’ll Stay

ATTN: all the amazing people among your ranks who liked/followed this page for me.

As a courtesy, I wanted to let you know three things about this page. Some items are no big deal, while others may be deal breakers.

1. I ditched my pseudonym T.S. Junior and will henceforth be plain old Tom Scanlan.

2. I began a column on Medium.com/@tomscanlan , and along with my (unfortunately) infrequent updates on my fiction publications, I will be posting a lot more content.

3. Aforementioned column is about *butt-cheeks clench* politics, which I understand already surrounds you like carbon monoxide in a car with the windows up in a small garage at the moment.

You have the heads up now. If you’d like to unlike or unfollow the page I won’t be offended. I’m just glad we avoided the awkward moments where you start to hate my guts because I was blowing up your news feed.

If you’re curious about the column, it will cover social politics mostly, reactionary pieces to the day’s news, and researched op-eds.

Do you remember when I mentioned there might be a deal breaker? Well, I’ll put it this way: the column is going to be far, far away from being aligned with The Resistance. Like, if The Resistance is in Russia (pardon their tongue-in-cheek location) my column is going to be set on the moon, 238,855 miles away.

Thank you for your attention to this matter,

Tom Scanlan

 

T.S. Junior Experiential Exclusion Politics Will Murder American Fiction If We Let It, Identity Politics and writers

“Experiential Exclusion” Politics Will Murder American Fiction If We Let It

tenant of identity politics is that one group has no right to weigh in on another group’s central issues because they haven’t had the same life experiences. Black Lives Matter, for example, says white people can’t discuss black people’s problems because they aren’t black. They have no right to cite statistics or opinions on the matter. Yet, they must listen and be open to having “the conversation.”

In fiction, this means that a writer cannot write characters outside of their own identity, lest they “appropriate culture.”

On college campuses, “experiential exclusion” politics is rabidly divisive. Students have shown innovation in their efforts to find new ways to classify people by race, sexual orientation, and gender. Coverage of the Evergreen State College Incident is a microcosm of what’s taking place at our institutions of higher learning these days.

Why should you care as a fiction writer? Because before you know it, these children will replace the old guard of literature’s faithful Gatekeepers. They will control who’s allowed to express themselves and who squanders away in obscurity. The identity politics mindset may stop the next great American novelist from getting the early publishing credits they’ll need to get an agent.

We are already seeing these attitudes in the literary scene. Many journals have themed issues where they only seek writing from certain sexes, gender identities, nationalities, classes of immigrants. Some journals exclusively publish them in all issues. The key component missing from this noble idea is that we are not being inclusive, really, but we are excluding portions of the populations that are perceived as having been in power long enough. Diversity, in this form, uses exclusion in the guise of inclusion.

The detractors will argue, “Junior, you’re just a straight, white man, with sour grapes over the fact that subjugated voices are now finding their platform.”

Couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, I think the altruistic aim of diversity used to be to foster empathy and understanding between different peoples. In effect, to be the stove’s heat simmering beneath the Melting Pot. What is diversity now though, after the rise of identity politics? If you want true inclusion you can’t have any exclusion, can you?

The idea of elevating a perceived minority by silencing a majority is horrible logic. I’d argue that there is this widely held notion that Progressive Thought is automatically Intelligent Thought. I don’t know why that notion is in vogue, because I believe it’s the falsest of false equivalencies floating around in the ether. In art we need a diversity of voices and thought. American fiction writing should’t be all about challenging and destroying American values and what they stand for — critical theory stuffed into thin sausage skins of entertainment. Just as conservatism should never just be about challenging and destroying any social liberalism only for the sake of the act.

We need to be honest with our perceptions and thoughts. A liberal who’s pretending because it’s fashionable is not being Truthful; nor is a conservative who’s pretending because it’s now counter-culture. The last people who should succumb to the social or media-driven pressures for gratuitous divisiveness are our country’s intellectuals, our writers. The American writer’s job is to chronicle American Life in all of its nuanced shades of grey, to break their backs to achieve honesty and Truth; it is their job to pose questions, not to provide answers. The writer has the difficult task of making their reader think with their hearts, not to shove agendas into their already plaque-clogged arteries.

The notion that writers outside a certain classification of identity cannot tackle issues within that community is foul horseshit. Writing’s all about empathy. No, writing is empathy by practical definition. We must feel that we have the right to walk in the shoes of others, to spend time in their heads, and whether they end up the hero or the villain, to tell their stories. Why? Because assuming the intentions are good, this is how to start conversations and create cultural understanding.

Where is it going to get us moving forward if people only empathize within their own small groups? I think we’d see even more exclusion. I think writers and readers would delve deeper into the vertical expressions of that identity’s sub-genre. In essence, sequestering themselves.

Reading calls for a balance between self-discovery and exposure to the Other, not exclusively either. As fiction writers, we wield our pens to provide this balance, a tectonic responsibility.

I know you have opinions on identity politics and fiction, and I want to hear your thoughts. Start a conversation in the comments.

Short Story Characterization: 6 MORE Tricks That’ll Make Your Character’s Ink Bleed Red

Here are 6 more advanced “tricks” for short story characterization

Here are the first six, which included:

  1. Combining characters who serve the same function in the story.
  2. Being careful about the timing and weight of non-central characters.
  3. Having your character be interesting in the first place.
  4. Not mistaking idiosyncrasies for character depth.
  5. How minimalism is an artistic style not a copout for weak ass characters.
  6. The reason you have to actually read literary journals.

If you haven’t read them already, read the first 6 short story characterization tricks, before moving on.

7. A character’s motivation can’t achieve clarity until you do

I once wrote a 75 page novella. Then I saw a movie with the same premise, changed it, and boiled it down to a now-published 25 page story. The exploratory writing of the fifty pages I cut taught me exactly what my character wanted.

Then I workshopped the story. And the character’s motivation and therefore the plot changed again in the next draft. If I hadn’t cut fifty pages and allowed other eyeballs to look at the story, I never would’ve achieved the distance I needed to make it publishable.

Figure out how you best achieve distance/clarity from your work, and do it.

8. What the hell does “Write what you know” mean in practice?

Ray Bradbury wrote this amazing book called Zen in the Art of WritingGo buy it and read it now.

Two main principles I took away from reading it were that a short story should:

  1. Be about a topic that you either really love or really hate.
  2. Have a character in your story that wants something related to that love/hate of yours.

When you approach a story in this way whatever you love/hate, or “know,” will sync up nicely with the driving force of the character by the second or third draft. There are millions of examples of how this can work out. Regardless, I am convinced that this is a formula for those stories that are just special.

To find what you love/hate Bradbury suggests making lists of nouns. Sounds silly, but it’s a pretty powerful way of doing this. The third step in this system is starting off with steps 1 and 2 covered, and just freewriting until a story takes shape.

9. Get used to exploratory writing if you care about character

Hemingway said that “the first draft of anything is shit.” I’d amend that to “the first draft of anything is drawing a map.”

Exploratory writing is different than freewriting.

Exploratory Writing is done with the intent of eventually producing a final product, but with the conscious acceptance that most of it will totally suck, and being at total peace with that because you’re willing to find “Atlantis.”

I touched on exploratory writing in #7, but I use it here to illustrate that you might sit down for a day’s writing without much of a plan in mind and end up writing the best short story you’ve ever written. You might think that one character is your POV character and end up with another. You may simply be writing the backstory your character needs in order for you to make a story set at a different time in his life work.

The trick is being open to exploring. If you aren’t, you risk writing wooden characters.

10. You should cater to your favorite literary journals

This may seem against the grain for the “true artist” in you, but just relax and hear me out. When you find that handful of journals that suit your genre and stylistic aesthetics, see what type of characters and narrative structures the editors are publishing.

Then, whether in revision or at the beginning of drafting a new story you can cater your writing to those editors.

To a certain extent. Without detracting much of anything artistically.

You won’t get this advice elsewhere because it contrasts with the ideals of the artistic process, but it’s true. Being genuine to your own writing involves finding like-minded journals; the next step is making the editors happy so they’ll publish you.

11. Fiction Sense versus Real life Sense

Although this sounds obtuse, it’s painfully simple. Real life can be a messy shit show full of years of apathy, no conflict, senseless decisions, and no climactic moments.

Sorry, bro, no one wants to read that crap.

No matter what type of fiction, readers almost always want some element of escapism.

Fiction Sense means approaching your story and character arcs in a way that pleases a reader’s expectations, be it the traditional story structure or whatever a certain audience expects. So a clever character or situation, some sort of tension, a climactic moment, and all the questions answered at the end.

You’d be amazed how difficult it is for amateur writers to make it over this hurdle, believing that “but this is how it would happen in Real Life,” is valid.

12. What makes a short story “good” is the affect it has on the reader

A good note to end on is defining what makes a short story “good.” Honestly, it’s impossible. But from my experience it involves three things:

  1. Character Empathy
  2. Character Rememberability
  3. Character’s Epiphany Being Meaningful

I’m convinced this is what it takes to write a short story that matters. Notice that all three involve characterization.

If your readers can relate to the character emotionally and can remember either the name and/or character traits a week later, then you’re going to get that story published. Same goes for the character’s arc, or how they change, sometimes called the epiphany.

If the character’s epiphany is relateable, if it hits on some larger Truth the reader recognizes for the first time, about themselves and/or the world at large, then you’ve written a great short story.

Hope you enjoyed the second half of the 12 tricks to short story characterization

Comment below and let me know what you think. Now go finish your story.

Salad Fingers Explained: 30 Mind-Blowing Minutes of Horror

You remember Salad Fingers from the early 2000s?

This ten-part series of Youtube videos by creator David Firth disturbed us all back in the day. Whether it was the sickly green series character talking to finger puppets, orgasming while rubbing rust, or lactating through a swollen nipple, these videos fueled the nightmares of plenty of kids as friends dared each other to watch them alone in the dark.

What I didn’t realize–I was an 8th grader at the time–was that Salad Fingers creator David Firth was actually a horror genius and that the show was rife with deep meaning.

What if I told you that Salad Fingers was a shell-shocked World War One veteran with a mixed-race lineage that got him abandoned by his parents and that he now suffers from schizophrenic delusions while trapped in his own mind as he comes to terms with his life?

I know. Holy shit, right? I thought it was just a few creepy scares from when I was a kid.

Two videos explain this Salad Fingers theory.

The Youtube Channel The Film Theorists covers every mind-blowing detail in the two videos I’ll put below. It’ll take about half an hour. But trust me, it’s worth every minute.

 

I know, Salad Fingers Explained, is a bit overwhelming.

After you gather your thoughts, leave me a comment about what you think.

Happy Constitution Day, everyone!

This day in 1787 the Constitution was signed at the Philadelphia Convention.

Take a minute to reflect on how this document, which was penned by James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and contributed to by other Founding Fathers, has granted you the freedoms you enjoy each day in America.

Personally, I believe that the First Amendment, the Freedom of Speech & Expression is the single most important writings in our Constitution, and the best work of any governing body in history. I also believe that there was a reason the men who created the greatest country on Earth made this the first amendment. They understood how crucial the right to express one’s self is to preserving liberty. That without this right true liberty is impossible; to write, speak, live, worship, and protest the government how one wishes is impossible.

In essence, the people’s democratic power is impossible.

I know there is a lot of discussion of the freedom of speech and hate speech in the national spotlight right now. You may have seen the protest over Ben Shapiro at the University of California at Berkeley on Friday. I’m not going to ruin your Sunday morning with politics, but I would like to instead suggest some reading. This past year the Supreme Court ruled on this issue, in a case called Matal v. Tam.

That’s all. Happy Constitution Day and Sunday. I’ll leave you with those important words below.

–T.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Short Story Characterization: 6 Tricks That’ll Make Your Character’s Ink Bleed Red

Advice on characterization in short stories can be vague and frustrating, but I promise that mine is as concrete as the streets you walk.

“Tricks” is really a euphemism for the advanced mystic-level writing advice you’re about to get. I (l)earned them through blood, sweat, and crippling mental anguish. Here’s my resume:

  • Twelve years of
  • writing workshop barbarism and
  • soul-vandalizing rejection from editors;
  • millions of words of useless story drafts, and
  • $100k of student loan debt

 

I bet you see a lot of on-writing articles that regurgitate the same beginner approaches to short story writing. I see them everywhere. And I always used to think to myself, “God, I wish someone would lay some advanced knowledge on me. I know the basics. Just give me the key to figuring this short story crap out.”

This is what I’ve said out to do for you, in a post that originally started at 12 “tricks,” but got slashed in half once I hit 3000 words. I know you ain’t got time for that.

So let’s get you off and running with six, and the next part of this two-part series will be up next week!

6 advanced-level tricks to characterization in short stories

1. Combine characters who serve the same function in your story

This often comes up in a short story workshop. As part of the short story as an art form, you should limit your scope as much as possible for the sake of overall concision. This includes the number of characters you put on the page.

Be wary of third wheel characters. A lot of amateur writers will put a character in the story that serves a function in the story that they falsely believe the antagonist cannot serve. A brief example from my own work.

In an early draft of my short story, “The Women in Grenada Part 2,” I had a character’s former boxing manager as an important character in the past who shaped the protagonist; then, I had a separate character who ran the illegal boxing ring that the main character took part in for money in the present. Then a brilliant woman in my weekly writing workshop said that it would be more powerful if I combined the former boxing manager and the illegal boxing ring hustler. They served the same purpose in the story, really, and in fact, this made the whole premise more emotionally resonant.

Look for opportunities like this in your short story. Remember that it’s all about condensing in short fiction, that less done well is more powerful in this form than having a lot of good elements.

2. Be careful about the timing and weight of characters who aren’t central to the story

In short fiction characters who get a lot of attention and get it early on are expected to develop and be the main character in a short story. Editors and readers will tell you without exception that red herring characters kill stories. An example might be starting a story focused on someone other than the point-of-view character.

Keep in mind that the word count wheelhouse is around 3000-5000 words right now in the current literary journal scene. You can’t breathe at this size. There’s good news though. Short stories should only have one POV character, until you’re good or big enough to smash that rule. So to be honest, all you need to do is not give supporting characters backstory, flowery descriptions, or excessive dialogue, unless it is crucial to the main character and their plot.

A second easy-to-follow trick here is avoiding name soup. Even you become expert at introducing characters, doling out too many first, last, and nicknames too rapidly, makes the reader feel as though their drowning in hot, boiling name soup. Consider ice-breakers back from college orientation: weak-kneed and self-conscious you meet a hundred people, and what, remembered ten names? The same goes here, but the reader is trying to determine which character they’re supposed to care about.

3. Have your character be interesting in the first place

I created a character/plot quadrant that explains a painfully simple way to ensure your characters are interesting.

T. S. Junior and his dank meme correlation quadrant between character and plot

Share this!

Yes, you could argue this is oversimplified a bit. But I swear that over the years this has come up time and time again in workshops. Writers create normal average Joes or Jills, and thrust them into normal average worlds. Or, indicated by the German Shepherds, they put loco characters in frenetic, nonsensical worlds.

 

 

I give this advice all of the time, and I’ll give it to you now. Readers are more likely to care about your character, and secondarily, your plot, if you use contrast here. It’s inherently interesting and full of conflict to see crazy people cope with normal settings, and to see normal people cope with crazy settings.

4. Don’t mistake idiosyncrasies for character depth

A dumb idiosyncrasy, in the context of short fiction, would be the high school quarterback who also loves reading the Romantic poets. Or, say, the young woman who trips ovaries every weekend at raves but has a Beanie Baby collection she tends to meticulously. If the story pivots on these personality quirks then of course that’s an exception. But if the only purpose, as I intend with my examples, is to show that the author wants the readers to understand these characters have a level of softness to them… it’s dumb.

While idiosyncrasies can be meaningful and great, it’s not where character depth comes from. For instance, if that quarterback doesn’t go to the rager after a big win because he has to and wants to go take care of his mother who’s on hospice with terminal cancer, and he reads her Keats because she loves that, that’s depth. Ditto, if the raver is so hungry for an escape because her bank account is overdrafted and she lets psychologists study the affects the drugs have on her brain for extra dough, and the only way to fall asleep at the clinical trials is cuddling her Beanie Babies.

A common mistake amateurs make is telling the reader about quirks, instead of showing real depth.

5. Minimalism is an artistic style not a copout for weak ass characters

For the longest time, I struggled with revising my short stories. In fact, I’ve had years where I’ve done no writing other than first drafts because I was overwhelmed and confused by the process of revision. When I was younger my solution to this was just cutting. I thought “every word in a short story has to matter” meant that omission was the mission.

It didn’t help that my favorite writers were minimalists like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and at one point even Amy Hempel. The truth is that minimalists wrote that way because it was how they best got their stories across. It’s not for everyone. I learned the hard way that the iceberg theory only works if you actually have the part the Titanic runs into and the submerged part, not just floating ice cubes. I.e., you can’t just slice, dice, and assume that your reader is going to care enough to interpret subtext in your story.

Put another way: nobody cares about the subtext of what someone they don’t care about says.

 

6. You have to read literary journals.

If we’re all being honest, it’s pretty overwhelming how many aspiring writers who want to publish in literary journals do not read literary journals. Literary journals and the short form itself are tailored for the experimental and avante-garde. To give you a spot-on analogy, reading literary journals is the equivalent of “staying up on what the kids are up to these days” in pop culture and music for us old folks. You can’t expect to become a part of a sub-culture if you aren’t immersed in it.

The good news is that you can use submission sites like Duotrope or Submission Grinder, to narrow down the hordes of lit journals to your specific genre and/or style. From there, simply read the journals to determine if they’re really a good fit for your work. Many offer free stories, but hell, maybe submit to your one dream publication and support them.

Bonus: citing a specific story you loved in your submission query letter as the reason you are submitting your story to that journal goes over really well with editors. Even if you don’t get published that time, you’ll be creating a relationship or at least some name recognition for next time.

I have to cut this in half because your time is precious. Enough amazing short story characterization advice for one sitting

So the additional 6 tricks of the 12 will be coming next week!

What you do for now is re-evaluate your stories.

You should also totally re-read this and share it far and wide. I’d also love to hear if any of these might help you in the comments, or feel free to ask for clarifications if you’ve got questions.

 

 

T.S. Junior Interview: “What I like about crime fiction so much is that it deals with the most extreme situations that people find themselves in”

The Dorset Book Detective

T.S JuniorShort story writer T.S Junior, who is soon to publish his first full length novel, provides me with an overview of his inspirations and how his love of politics and experience working in prison has helped him to create the tension filled tales he has become known for.

Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction and mystery writing?

This is a great question. The truth is that only after twelve years of writing fiction do I think that my writing style has started to set like concrete. It started with Crime and Punishment for me. Fyodor Dostoevsky is of course mythically good. The close psychic distance in his third person narration, with a lot of indirect discourse, formed my approach to fiction. His philosophical bent and use of gritty imagery also influenced me. What I like about crime fiction so…

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