I’m not a fan of writing posts, especially those written by unpublished, self-published, and/or “neo-pro” writers. Nor am I fan of “celebrity slushreaders” going on about how they dream a story they select might win a Nebula like they were right there writing the story beside the author, or at the very least keeping their tea mug filled, as if reading slush wasn’t the equivalent of being so much human baleen.

Bullshit on all that.

But I’ve got two writing posts itching to get off my fingers so let me just get them done between now and next week and then I won’t have to write about writing or slushing for the rest of the year. I’m putting it here for my own benefit as much as anyone else.

People talk a lot about hooks and openings and grabbing the reader so they keep on reading. And yeah I use the word hook as well, but it’s not about that at all. (Rudy Rucker has a great bit on “hooks” in his Writer’s Toolkit, which everyone should download.)

Other folks talk about establishing trust between reader and writer, and I agree with them but wondered how that trust was gained because it has to be right at the start. Then I got a couple stories in the slush this week that helped me figure it out.

What it comes down to is control.

You can do whatever you want in your story. Write it lush or transparent. Climb Freytag’s pyramid or flip it on its peak and kick it in the rear. Anything goes as long as you’re in control.

As long as each word and sentence connects to the next word and sentence and the whole thing makes a pattern where there’s nothing more you can subtract from it. That’s control. Having pieces left in your hand at the end is control.

What’s not control is starting your story with a well-groomed hook and then piling on introspection, backstory, and/or setting details. What’s not control is leaving nothing out, but throwing it all in there and hoping for the best. Lush doesn’t mean overgrown or overwriting a story so thick it collapses under its own weight.

Every word must link together. They can be ugly or oddly shaped words, but they have to fit into the story’s overall pattern (and of course that pattern can be all freak-a-deak weird, but there has to be some discernable resonance there).

That’s it. Writing post number one is done. It’s all about control.

Next week 10 Bad Slush Habits. Until then here’s Spoek Mathambo’s disturbing cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control”. Don’t blame me if it gives you nightmares.

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10 responses to “Control”

  1. gordsellar says :

    You weren’t kidding about the nightmares… 🙂

    But as to your point — yes, yes, yes. It reminds me of this jazz theory teacher of mine who was also a pianist. He urged me to take notes on how I got from zero to wherever I was going. He said at some point he’d ended up where he’d gotten, and had no idea about how he’d gotten there, and had to go back and rebuild his playing from the ground up, so that he could be aware of it as he did it, and have the right kind of conscious control over what he was doing.

    It’s easier in a way in writing, since you’re not up on stage improvising in front of people. It’s harder because music is transient, here and then gone, and thus people are more forgiving of squeaks, wrong notes, and so on.

    Anyway, there are actually two important points in your post: not just the definition of control (which seems to also mean economy), but also the point that you can do anything you want. I sort of got into this groove, reading a lot of authors working in the same area and style, that I forgot that; the Russell Hoban book you handed to me (The Medusa Frequency) reminded me of that, just when I needed it!

    • Justin says :

      That video is kind of something.

      Yeah. This post is largely for my own benefit as much as others and it’s definitely something I am struggling to learn and apply.

      Your professor’s suggestion reminds me of the whole notion of Beginner’s Mind (sorry to get New Agey on you) where we tend to make great strides at the start of an endeavor because we’re paying more attention to what we’re doing, then we stop paying attention, and we plateau and can’t go forward until we go back to the start and pay closer attention. (I’m sure even for New Agey BS I’m butchering it…)

      I give thanks that writing is not a performance art. Well, maybe poetry can be…

      I’ll be curious what you think of Fremder. I loved most of it. There’s this massive infodump about 3/4ths of the way through it that kind of breaks the novel a bit (IMO), but even that is done in such a loopy idiosyncratic way that I had to accept it as it is.

  2. gordsellar says :


    I think that’s the kind of writing post I like: when the author is working through something and also posting it as a sort of guidepost to himself or herself — remember this place — as well as struggling with it. I think those are sometimes quite useful to me, as this was.

    I don’t think the idea of Beginner’s Mind is all that New Agey, but then, I’m even (mostly) comfortable with the model of learning discussed in The Inner Game books. Actually, this post prompted a response on my own blog (as well as prompting me to finally publish a bit on using The Inner Game of Music in my English/Public Speaking teaching). The writing related thing is here. (And that post links to the TEFL-related discussion of the book, if you’re interested.)

    As for writing-as-performance-art, I find it just usually results in bad writing. Or that’s how I remember the examples I’ve read. Sometimes there’s a passion that can be captured that way, but other than a few poets whose first drafts were spontaneous, and pretty sharp (William Carlos Williams and Frank O’Connor come to mind) I don’t tend to be a fan of it. (Kerouac’s “jazz poems” especially I don’t care for.)

    I’ll let you know what I think of Fremder when I get around to it. I passed The Medusa Frequency to Chris, since I think he might enjoy it.

    • Justin says :

      Thanks for the links. I put The Inner Game of Music on my What the Book wishlist. (because it’s not like I can ever get tired of giving them my money…) YES! to your point about how we’re taught to focus on “how to X” rather than “how doing X feels and sounds” when it’s the latter that brings us to the former. Took me years to realize that, and even now it’s not hardwired but something I need to remind myself.

      Hope Chris likes TMF.

      • gordsellar says :

        Oh, if you’d rather borrow the book, it sits unread at my university library and nobody would miss it… plus I have long, long borrowing privs. If you want me to loan you a copy, no problem, just as long as you get it back to me within a few months. 🙂

        Focusing on how doing X feels and sounds is something I’ve had to constantly reteach myself. I wonder, somewhat, whether this is part of what it means to be a modern person. We seem to have lost the capacity to do all kinds of things in our modern societies that our ancestors did with a certain regularity, so I can’t help but think that the focusing on “how to X” might not have a kind of inhibitive function, one that works as a social stabilizer. (Since people who might want to do all kinds of things balk because they don’t know “how to X”, forgetting that, yeah, the way to figure it out is to try it and see how it feels, and inch your way to knowing how to actually do X effectively.) Not necessarily always a bad thing, but it may be part of what so many creative fields seems somewhat crippled and stuck on a loop today.

        The first thing that came to mind when I thought this all over this afternoon was the story (probably apocryphal, since only one prof ever mentioned it, and since I can find nothing online to verify it, at least not the Anglo net — the prof was a French-Canadian, though, so who knows?) about Debussy being asked by what theory he’d composed his “Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune.” He said, “By my taste,” and the theoreticians who’d asked were horrified. As if the piece wasn’t amazing unless Debussy had composed it according to someone’s explicit rules in some book somewhere.

      • Justin says :

        Sure. I’d love to borrow it. It’ll keep me from ordering any more books until I at least finish a third of what I bought in the past month.

        What kind of things do you mean here “all kinds of things in our modern societies that our ancestors did with a certain regularity”?

        I’m inclined to agree with you, though not sure if that’s simply because we might share similar biases. Possibly it’s some kind of byproduct of industrialization coupled with any number of consumer-driven expectations? Like the expectation that if you follow these rules you too will be able to do X, like doing X was some kind of rote, standardized, everything can measured, assembly-line activity. Not to mention the expectation of instant gratification or that everything should be fun/pleasurable, so we’re not likely to put in the time needed, since at first it might not be fun.

        Though from your example, this sounds like the opposite where it’s our devotion to pedigree (or authority) that keeps us stuck in the box and distrustful of those who rely on intuition.

      • gordsellar says :


        “Debussy quickly made progress with his new teacher. At the age of eleven he was accepted into the Paris Conservatory as a pianist. He spent the next ten years at the conservatory baffling the instructors with his absurd ideas, but intriguing them with his new methods. Many of his teachers said his music was theoretically absurd, but he simply replied, “There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is law.” Nonetheless, he studied many years under traditional technique for he wished to add to his accolades the highest honor, the Prix de Rome.”

        No source given, but… anyway, that’s sort of something…

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