Monday, February 27, 2006

Ask a stupid question...

Main Entry: pomp·ous
Function: adjective
1: having or exhibiting self-importance {a pompous official}

Main Entry: ar·ro·gant
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English, from Latin arrogant-, arrogans, present participle of arrogare
1 : exaggerating or disposed to exaggerate one's own worth or importance in an overbearing manner {an arrogant politician}
see: ASS

Main Entry: ass
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Old English assa, probably from Old Irish asan, from Latin asinus
1 : often vulgar : a stupid, obstinate person -- often compounded with one or more preceding adjectives {a pompous, arrogant ass}

Man, I hate to sound like one of those officious assholes whose greatest writing is contained in a thousand different blog entries and forum posts which combined could best be titled, The Writer's Rules for Writing Right. Ack. Gag.

I just can't help myself sometimes. When I give advice to other writers, I try to preface my advice with the caveat that what I'm suggesting works for me - it might also work for you, but maybe not. I think I've tossed out a couple of gems. Once, I gave this advice to a writer who was struggling with condensing her story down to just two pages:

Before you write a synopsis of your story, write one of your favorite Shakespeare piece; Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, Hamlet....After you look at the best writing on earth distilled onto two pages, doing the same to your own story is a lot less traumatic.

Like I said, it works for me. It isn't a rule, it isn't cast in stone, and there are a thousand other ways to do it. I like it, I think it is a good answer. More importantly, I liked the question that lead me to that answer. How to shrink a novel into a one, two, or five page synopsis is a problem every writer has to face. How to write an effective query letter is another good question, and there are even more good answers to it than to the synopsis question.

Okay, you're thinking, that seems pretty reasonable. So, why is he warning us that he's a pompous, arrogant ass?

Let me tell you why, pilgrim. I think most of the questions writers ask aren't good questions. I think they're stupid questions, and before you say it, let me respond: Of course there are stupid questions. Anyone who truly believes there are no stupid questions suffers from some sort of deficiency that doesn't allow them to recognize stupidity - not even their own. Is that pompous enough for you?

Let me give you an example:

Q: Should writers use profanity?

A: Do people use profanity?

Writers owe it to their readers to tell the truth. If your characters are a bunch of men on a battlefield, you better believe they are going to be using words that would make your grandma blush, unless your grandma grew up on a tobacco farm, and can cuss like a sailor pissing out the clap, in which case, any character based on dear old granny probably ought naught sound like the church lady when she speaks. On the other hand, if your characters are a bunch of church ladies, you probably don't want one of them telling the preacher to kiss her lily-white asparagus spears. Get it? I know most of you do. If you're a writer, you better get it.

Now that I've written my answer, I wonder if I misunderstood the question. Did he mean, should we use profanity in our writing, or did he mean, should we use profanity when we speak? Damn. I wish I know what the hell he meant.

I'm going to stop there today. What do you think, am I way off base here? Have you spotted any stupid questions lately? Please don't refer me to Miss Snark. That's cheating. In the army we would have called that a target rich environment, as in: "Custer surveyed the battlefield, and when he saw he was surrounded by thousands of Sioux warriors, he reassured his aide-de-camp by saying that they were deep in a target rich environment."

That Custer was one pompous, arrogant, ass.

Mark Pettus,
Monday, February 27, 2006

23 comments so far. Thank you, Blogger Shesawriter, Blogger Kelly Parra, Blogger Dawno, Anonymous Spicy Cauldron, Anonymous kristie911, Blogger Bernita, Blogger Erik Ivan James, Blogger JLB, Blogger Rene, Blogger anne frasier, Blogger Jeff, Blogger M. G. Tarquini, Blogger Mark Pettus, Anonymous Kirsten, Blogger serenity, Anonymous Anonymous, Blogger Mark Pettus, Anonymous Kirsten, Blogger Frank Baron, Blogger Moni, Blogger Amie Stuart, Blogger Dawno, Blogger S. W. Vaughn,

Let me know what you think

Leave a comment


at 5:50 PM Blogger Shesawriter said...

Yes, there are stupid questions, just like there are stupid answers. The trick is spotting them, and then giving diplomacy a try when you're dealing with them. LOL!

You're a riot, as usual. :-)


at 11:49 PM Blogger Kelly Parra said...

I'm curious to what set this off, Mark. ;) I'll give you another view...every writer is at different stages, different levels. Some will ask the obvious because they are really just not sure, not confident, maybe.

The key is to offer advice if you know the answer and walk away. If someone starts picking atcha, that's a whole 'nother story. *laughs* But it's still good to walk away. =D

at 11:59 PM Blogger Dawno said...

When ever I hear the "there are no stupid questions" the little voice in my head just blurts out (still in my head, though) "...only stupid people" And I feel ashamed. Sometimes.

The question about profanity strikes me as a sypmtom of a deeper problem - the writer is thinking about An Audience. "If I want to be a best seller I have to appeal to An Audience that will make it a bestseller" and that immediately sets off a whole chain of assumtions about readers, including "people won't read my book if there's profanity in it"

Balderdash. You're right about writers telling the truth. That's what readers want. Not someone's preconceived notion of what is acceptable for An Audience.

Dang. I think I should go have some nice Rosy Perfection Salad and cool off.

at 4:04 AM Anonymous Spicy Cauldron said...

I don't think you're being arrogant, not once in this entire article which I found to be a very entertaining read containing more than a few gemstones of truth.

No, I didn't get arrogant or pompous coming through at all; funny, direct, sharp, brutal, yeah, okay. None of those are bad in context. Your basic argument, which I agree with, would in fact be better served if you were to cut out the 'I may be seen as... but...' type of phrase. Just go for it.

If people want to take offence, or see you as a pompous twat, then let them: they're clearly not receptive to good advice and thank goodness for that. I mean, if stupid people started taking good advice, where would that leave the rest of us? x

at 8:41 AM Anonymous kristie911 said...

I agree with Dawno...there are no stupid questions, only stupid people. Only I don't feel ashamed to think that. I talk to them every day at work...I'd love to give examples but you don't have nearly enough space. I think you're view is enlightening and hilarious. Of course, it could be my warped sense of humor! But thanks for making me laugh anyway!!

at 8:42 AM Blogger Bernita said...

~ sigh~

at 8:53 AM Blogger Erik Ivan James said...

Good post and I thank you for stopping by mine from time-to-time.

I alway have lots of questions to ask, most of them stupid. However, I try to sneak in a good one now and then like:

Where in the hell is the blue cheese and steak recipe?

at 11:18 AM Blogger JLB said...

Howdy! I found you through Lisa Coutant's blog. While I've heard plenty of wonderfully stupid questions in my day, few hold a candle to what was seen on a recent resume for a computer programmer:

Across the top of his resume, the first line read "High attention to detail," with the word detail misspelled. YIKES!

at 12:02 PM Blogger Rene said...

I'm with Erik, where's the blue cheese and steak recipe. If you were truly a pompous, arrogant ass you would want to show off by posting it.

I don't mind stupid writing questions that deal with the mechanics. It's the industry questions. Like "how much money will I make when I get published?" It grates on my nerves.

at 2:31 PM Blogger anne frasier said...

target rich environment. i like that. i really like that.

mark, your page is still slightly messed up when viewing on a mac. upper right hand corner. everything else is fine.

at 5:25 PM Blogger Jeff said...

Of course I believe there are dumb questions, but I have to qualify that remark. What may be a dumb question to one person may not be to another. For example, I'm a novice to the writing profession. If I ask a question of a seasoned writer the question might appear dumb to them. (Good grief, everybody knows that!) But hopefully the question is not considered indicative of a low IQ, but rather my lack of knowledge in that particular area. We learn by reading,studying, observing, and asking questions (even dumb ones).
As to the question of using profanity, if the story and the characters call for it, by all means use it. You're absolutely right, Mark, you have to show and tell the truth. :)

at 8:53 PM Blogger M. G. Tarquini said...

Oh great! Now I have to worry whether or not my questions are stupid?

at 9:48 PM Blogger Mark Pettus said...

Tanya - Is quoting Forrest Gump diplomatic?

Kelly - Now that's a stupid question. ;)

Dawno - You had me at balderdash.

Spicy - South Wales?

kristie - I love it when women laugh at me. It always reminds me of my ex-wife.

bernita ~moan~

erik - Sorry. I forgot. It's really simple, I'm almost afraid to post it now, as it will never live up to the hype. Next post. I promise.

jlb - Welcome aboard. Not long ago I misspelled a writer's name in a letter to her agent. I knew it as soon as I hit send, so I sent a second email asking to be forgiven.

I misspelled the agent's name in the second letter.

(In the light of the James Frey incident, let me say that only half of the above is true. The rest is fiction.)

rene - I post my ass all the time. Oh... you meant the cheese sauce. Sorry.

anne - You're a best-selling author. Buy a decent computer, fer pity's sake.

Jeff - That has got to be the stupidest... um... :D

m.g. - Why should you be any different than the rest of us?

at 10:24 AM Anonymous Kirsten said...

On the plus side, what could be more fun than putting stupid questions into the mouths of fictional characters? (lol -- don't answer that!!!!)

at 5:43 PM Blogger serenity said...

Indeed, though, the pivotal moment is when we "experienced" writers are asked one of those stupid questions and we first repress that reflexive, arrogant sneer ... then realize we once asked those exact same questions.

I don't believe I'll ever be done learning, and I'm quite certain I'll always be able to produce a stupid question.

at 8:33 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

Should writer's use profanity?

Fuck yeah.

I love the TV show Trailer Park Boys for that.
It's... so... REAL.

But, I just can't picture all characters using it.
EG: Miss Marple is not the sort to bitchslap someone and tell them to 'effing' confess or she'll get medival on their spotty English ass, with a pair of knitting needles.

Unless it's satirical, in which case,
Fuck yeah.

at 10:18 PM Blogger Mark Pettus said...

Kirsten - Who you callin' fictional?

Serenity - I'm willing to be that no one who reads this blog entry will ever again ask me a question - stupid or otherwise.

E.Ann - I love your enthusiasm, darlin', although I have this wonderful visual of Miss Marple bitch-slapping someone, then clapping her hands to her face - shocked at her own behavior.

"Oh. I'm so effing sorry. What the 'ell is happening to me?"

at 9:39 AM Anonymous Kirsten said...


at 12:56 PM Blogger Frank Baron said...

I'm generally patient with stupid writing questions (and questioners). If we want our writing to be real we have be adept at putting ourselves into other's shoes, even dumb ones.

I'm a computer moron. I ask really stupid questions of my computer-savvy friends. Between hoots and snorts of derision, they answer me, kindly trying to find words of one syllable that might penetrate my fog. I appreciate it, and them. The condescending bastards.

What was the question again?

Oh crap. That was a stupid question wasn't it?

Oh crap. Another. I'm stopping now.

at 7:27 PM Blogger Moni said...

Ass: yada...yada...yada SEE Mark Pettus? Why the self effacing humor? I looove it though; too funny! But now I'm scared, if you weren't saying that tongue-n-cheek, then I don't know if I want to send you a couple of pages or not. I've already had a new one ripped, thank you. Ha! ;)

If in fact I did, I don't have an email addy.

And still I can't help but feel a bit paranoid, with my posting, "[insert expletive]". You'd better not be critiqing my posts...are you? (kidding) Are you really? ROTFLM--ASS--off! ;P

Awesome as usually.

at 8:00 PM Blogger Amie Stuart said...

Computer morons--ask me any question you want, just don't ask me FOUR TIMES cuz your old ass can't remember, dad. I mean...oh never mind.

YOu ain't pompous. I've been busted by contest judges for the depth and breadth of my character's 4-letter vocabulary. Did I change any of it? HELL NO! But I did have a strong urge to introdue them all to my brother--his favorite word begins with F =) and so does mine.

at 12:57 AM Blogger Dawno said...

I heard a bit on the radio tonight by the comic Lewis Black - he said that in New York City fuck isn't an overused word anymore, it's become a comma. (I'm paraphrasing a bit - it was much funnier the way he said it, but I was driving and just couldn't stop on the freeway to write it down verbatim).

There's a guy who uses profanity often and well.

at 9:22 PM Blogger S. W. Vaughn said...

Yeeees! Let the profanity proliferate! Real people fuck -- I mean, say fuck, of course.

I ask stupid questions all the time. I'm getting quite good at it.

For example: Hey Mark, are you, like, some kind of writer or something?

Here's a stupid question quoted from a Writer's Digest article:

Mom to aspiring writer son, upon being presented with son's very first book manuscript: Oh, honey! Did you type all of this?

I can see my mom asking me that, especially after she reads all of my profanity.



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