A Familiar Letter

writer // poet // mindful

Month: December, 2012

The Problem With Learning Fiction

Give your novel 4 acts.

3 acts.

5 acts.

The number of acts is irrelevant.

Oh, and Don’t Forget Joseph Campbell.


Here’s the problem with teaching fiction: craft blueprints how to write with reader psychology in mind, but every teacher spins craft differently.

We don’t even have a common lexicon. Just a jumble of jargon-y words that overlap and confuse.

Most successful fiction teachers have a devoted following not because their students have found Writing Salvation through their particular program.

(*watches for tomatoes*)

The sales pitch won them.

The perfect storycraft resource exists in theory. We just haven’t found it yet. We might never.


Anxiety overwhelmed me in high school. It still does at times. The only respite during those endless days came to me out of an obsession with Buddhism. One day I sat at the bench in chemistry class and went into a mindful state, and for a moment everything became bearable.


If life was Twitter, then mindfulness is looking away from your Twitter stream and noticing the stuffed animal below your monitor. A plush animal. He looks forward and his fur is light and dark brown.

Below you stands your desk. On the desk lies a keyboard and mouse.

When you lift your head your neck stays relaxed. The computer monitor glows.

Nothing exists except your neck, the desk, the keyboard, the glowing monitor, the mouse, and the stuffed animal.


A wise dude, the Buddha, said to be mindful. I’m no Buddhist but I plan on being mindful every day. When you are mindful, life simultaneously slows down and begins – a refuge in your mind.

Tolkien = Fantasy but Fantasy doesn’t necessarily = Tolkien

I heard one author say the other day that she was “yet another Tolkien imitator.” She had just come out with a fantasy novel, apparently complete with castles, swords, (time travel ok thats different sort of) and a map that could have come from page 1 of The Hobbit.

This is known as Medievalist fantasy, and was popularized and brought into the mainstream by Tolkien. It would be naive to underestimate his influence on succeeding generations.

I read the Lord of the Rings in elementary school, and grew up with Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy. So I’m definitely not immune. I drew maps of fantasy worlds obsessively after reading Tolkien. I made up languages that were actually ciphers, but I didn’t know that. I wanted desperately to make a universe like his.

I certainly didn’t understand the unique circumstances surrounding Tolkien’s creative process. As a philologist, he studied languages (that’s what philologists do, I’m told). He was deeply invested in the state of English lit and English mythology, and was dissatisfied with it. So he set out to create his own. However, he made the languages first, and then the worlds and stories to fit around them. Not the other way around.

If I said the word FANTASY, what first comes to your mind? Swords & sorcery, castles, wizards, elves, dwarves, dungeons & dragons. Perhaps, perhaps not.

How about: The Arabian Nights. The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Bible. The Iliad & Odyssey.

All of the above have heavy fantasy elements in them. Fantasy is as old as literature itself. I think it’s time we started thanking Tolkien for what he’s done, and then politely shelving him, in search of more distant shores for ideas.

Tell me what you think.

My first draft got Bullied in School

I’ve started spewing out my first draft scenes, instead of meticulously laying down each word. If you commit to the idea of rewriting, then it makes no point to care about what you say in the first draft.

Just tell the story in your sloppiest, stupidest fashion and don’t give a flying fuck if its feelings are hurt. Slay, butcher it, just make it weep. And unleash your inner sadist.