Monday, August 31, 2009

Don't Feed the Trolls

“Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”
(Robert Heinlen)

So, my most recent story in the Piker Press is one of my favorites so far. I tried a couple of new things, and for the most part I belive I succeeded.
The story is called "On The Wagon", and is told from the point of view of Karl, a recovering alchoholic. Karl is speaking to his Alcoholics Anonymous group, and telling of the experience that drove him to get "On The Wagon". (Hat tip to Sand for the title - I suck at titles...)

I won't give up the ending, you have to read the story to get that. But the two new things I tried were:

1. To write the story completely in the voice of the main character. No other characters speak, and there is no narrative voice.
2. To have a character who uses a specific dialect to more clearly portray his background and personality.

The first part went well. Even without a narrative voice or any formal exposition at all, the story is clearly portrayed. That part wasn't too hard, and it was good exercise for my "Show Don't Tell" muscles. (They tend to be weak and flabby. This is good during NaNoWriMo when taking three pages to explain a coming of age ceremony is a good thing. Bad when people actually begin to try and read your work!)
But the dialect... Dialects are hard for me. I tend to be obsessive about spelling, grammar, and punctuation, so having a character who uses a different dialect gives me a headache. Especially with Karl. I wanted Karl to be a redneck. It may have had something to do with watching old episodes of "My Name is Earl" while writing, but I think it had more to do with basing Karl on a character from the play "Greater Tuna".
I had to keep on reminding myself to misspell things, and to insert double-negatives and all kinds of redundant filler. It took a couple of re-writes before I sent it to the editor of the Piker Press for consideration.
Even then, Sand (the aforementioned editor) kicked it back with the advice that a few of my phrases were "out of character with Karl's vernacular" and that I ought to take a look at them. She also agreed with me that the ending left much to be desired. (The first ending was an attempt to weasel out of coming up with an ending at all - which is no way to end a story...)

So, a couple more re-writes later I felt much better about Karl's vernacular and Sand agreed. The story was published as part of the special "Alien Issue" of the Press, and I felt pretty good about how it came out.

Then, the Anonymous poster showed up. First of all, let me say that I normally avoid feeding trolls. I usually assume that the kind of people who get their jollies by anonymously posting inflammatory remarks around the 'Net are not worth my time. And I hate to encourage them. You can't win. However...

This comment appeared in the comments section after my story:

05:09:26 PM

Very cute tale. A few thoughts. First, this character would not use the words “bizarre,” “espresso,” “rhythm,” “emanatin’,” “skeptical,” or “ridicule.” Instead, it could be “crazy,” “thet fancy Starbrothers coffee,” “music beat,” “shootin’ out of it,” “think I’m touched in the head,” “makin’ fun o’ me.” Also, you have to capitalize Kleenex because it’s a brand name. tissue would be lowercase. Well-done dialect too.

At first glance, I was simply baffled. What? Did I write Karl so badly that I went right past "My Name is Earl" and landed smack dab in the middle of "Deliverance"? Had this person ever spoken to a redneck? Was he REALLY saying I should have used the phrase: "thet fancy Starbrothers coffee" instead of the word: "espresso"?

And if indeed, Karl was backwoods enough not to use the word "rhythm" then why in the heck would he care if his kleenex was capitalized or not? Karl just wanted something to blow his nose on. In fact, I suppose, given Anonymous' opinion of Karl, I should have had him just blow a snot rocket on the podium. The heck with facial tissue!

I responded rather snarkily I suppose, although I forced myself to not compose the entire epistle I had in mind. (I have saved that for you, Dear Faithful Reader!) Mostly due to my sneaking suspicion that this was a troll who was simply looking to start a fight, I simply asked if he was serious about the "Starbrother's" thing, and if he had not heard of the concept of a "Genericized Trademark". (I suppose I saw those two as the most egregiously patronizing of his suggestions.)

I was most bothered by the fact that he seemed to think that he knew Karl so much better than I. After spending all of one evening with him at the AA meeting, he was ready to judge Karl and relegate him the the unwashed hillbillies of backwoods Arkansas. And the fact that he would actually feel that an uncapitalized word was important enough to even bring up.

Don't get me wrong. I love feedback on my writing. Notice earlier in this very account, when I so gladly took the advice of my editor and made revisions to my story. So why did this Anonymous poster give me such pause?

I waited all weekend long before responding again. During this time, several of my fellow Pikers came to my defense and tried to point out to Anonymous how obnoxious and grating his critique was. This should have been further evidence of the fact that he was either a troll or a real-life literary snob. He shrugged off any suggestion that his suggestions were off, and instead accused his detractors of personal attacks. Never giving an inch, he finally made a statement that made me understand his entire motivation:

"re-read the story and replace certain words with my suggestions. if you can't see an improvement, then you're not reading carefully."

Anonymous had no intention of helping me improve my story. He wanted to remake it in his own image. He was utterly convinced that all my story needed to be better was to let him re-write it. Then, it would be so much better.


So, my commitment to let the troll starve went out the window. I foolishly took the bait and responded yet again. This time I clearly identified myself as the author; I was not sure if he recognized me as such, since I had earlier posted under a pseudonym. (I thought he would recognize me as the author despite the pseudonym due to some earlier comments I had responded to under that monniker. But I guess his talent lies more along the lines of spotting words that rednecks don't use and un-capitalized trademarks.)

I composed what I felt to be a well-thought out statement of why his comments had been taken so badly by myself and other readers. I conceded that perhaps I had not been entirely successful in portraying Karl's background through his dialect, but that his suggestions for change were nothing more than his opinion that he could do the character better than me. Also, I pointed out that he had misspelled my name. (Just to show that I can point out ticky-tacky mistakes too.)

Well, I won't bore you with the details of his response. You probably have already guessed how it went. Instead of accepting that he might have been mistaken just a tiny bit, I got a long lecture on how I should take criticism better. And how I should be glad that he was willing to re-write my story for me, since then it would be so much better.

So, lesson learned. Not that I will be looking for Anonymous' advice before I submit my next story. Not that I am going to go back and re-write Karl as some sort of brain-damaged inbred hill-billy. Or even that I will begin capitalizing the word 'kleenex'.

I learned the lesson that I knew from the beginning:

Don't Feed the Trolls. Sorry Anonymous - no more free chicken for you.

© 2009 Tyler Willson. All rights reserved

1 comment:

  1. I've been looking at the posts by this particular troll; it does not normally capitalize the pronoun "I" -- an affectation I despise, and one which tends to make me think that either the writer is a nitwit pretending to be avant garde, or that the writer has issues with self-image. Feh.

    So the troll may have either problem as an impediment, or it may be that the troll has a long-standing relationship with heavy drinking while on the internet. Get drunk and annoy someone -- and now the Piker Press is a target.

    Don't feed the trolls. But also don't listen to them, as they will try to convince you to come join them under the bridge, where they will either eat you up, or ask you to go to a writer's workshop with them. Ugh for both choices.