Anti-Intellectualism and The Case AGAINST Mediocrity

Anti-Intellectualism and The Case AGAINST Mediocrity

In one of my previous entries I wrote about how mediocrity can be inspiring– in the sense that it can fill you with the confidence to at least match the quality. At the hazard of contradicting myself, today I am going to beg you to make your content as good as humanly possible. 

Media causes ripple effects in society. I’m not an alarmist about how millennials are getting lazier and dumber by the second because on the whole, I believe that to be patently untrue and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to get you to vote for somebody. But I do recognize that during this transitional period of how we ingest our media, it tends to be indulgent (I’m not judging. I watched Stranger Things in a single day) and since our media has (ironically or no) saturated nearly every second of our lives, it’s important to check the diet of what we’re consuming.

The recent presidential debate was entertaining as hell. I know I had a good time on Twitter. But the fact that it’s become entertainment is a little disconcerting. On one hand, it’s getting people involved with politics. On the other, people are examining the performances of the candidates instead of the policies they’re proposing. I think our media has a lot to do with that–to compete with Game of Thrones, the presidential debate had to be a bit of a shit show.

As content creators, we have an opportunity (I want to say responsibility, but that’s a troublesome word) to engage our readers with critical thinking. That can be hard to juggle with the “entertainment value” of what we’re trying to create. I totally understand if you’re coming at it from the angle, “I’m an entertainer, I just want to help people unwind and escape their problems for a little while.” And that’s noble in and of itself. But what’s gained there if that’s all there is to it?

We live in a day and age where we hide in our bedrooms and watch Netflix until our eyes bleed. We play (awesome) video games that average to over 100 hours of playing time. We stare into our phones to avoid the awkward eye contact one might accidentally exchange on the bus. We indulge a lot of escapism. And sometimes that’s what we need. Feel no shame for escapism.

Perhaps feel some shame to what you’re escaping into, if there’s no merit in it. I know, I know, one can wax poetically and existentially on the Godawful Friday by Rebecca Black. You can create meaning in things that are otherwise devoid of any inherent value. And I will defend the honor of dumb action and horror movies until the end of time– is there any real lesson in The Friday the 13th franchise? Did I learn anything from A Nightmare on Elmstreet? Perhaps, but then again, maybe I’m projecting meaning onto those films, instead of gleaning any actual truth. They’re fun, but they aren’t challenging in any way. The same reason people like me dissect pop culture philosophically, is why kids often act out in school–they aren’t being challenged. 

That’s the word of the day right there: Challenging. I look to Jurassic Park as the perfect example. As a movie, it’s thematically perfect. It’s entertaining, it’s scary, it’s satisfying in the triumphant ending. And it also challenges the audience on issues of the role of mankind in the natural world, a challenge that is becoming more and more relevant. It also challenges gender roles, and asks the question frequently, “What does it mean to be a good parent?” Those questions vary in subtlety and are never preachy except for one siiiick example. You can walk away from that movie, fully entertained and unaware that the film was poking at those issues and still have those questions brewing in the back of your mind. And the book? Wonderfully dense with a lot of science jargon that adds another layer of complexity to decode to keep up with the pace of the story.

I don’t want to disparage other authors out there, or some of the incredible entertainment that’s been coming out. But I’ve seen the depths of what independent publishing can produce and people have purchased and consumed terrible, haphazardly written products in this brave new world of publishing. Not only are those books a scam (which hurts all of us, as a reader burned by an indie will be less willing to buy a book by another) it also stokes the fires of ignorance. We need to hold ourselves and each other accountable for the content we create, be it social media, blog posts (ahem), the books, songs, and films we write. It needs to challenge us first, make us ask ourselves the hard questions before asking the audience to consider our musings.  It’s important to remember that we aren’t just a product of the world we live in, we actively create it.

So let’s work on creating smart entertainment.

I’m not saying you have to be ambitious. I’m not saying you need to remove the wool from the eyes of masses and expose them to some forgotten truth about the world. I’m just asking as a fellow writer to try and instill a sense of purpose in your work, because that’s what’s going to resonate the most with the readership.

That and fart jokes.

Whatchu Know?

Whatchu Know?

The most hated question in interviews and Q & As with authors is probably “Where do you get your ideas?” Because the answer is almost always either a contemptuous shrug or the clichéd “From the world I live in.”

It’s kind of funny, because the latter is what writers are taught early in their career with the tired adage, “Write what you know.”

I think there are times when writers mistake that advice for “Write about my life.” There was an older woman in one of my fiction courses who wrote a really personal story about the day her ex-husband was released from jail. It was a deeply moving story… or it would have been, if it had been properly constructed. But when criticized, the writer took it personally, going as far as quitting the class then and there.

I think the danger is, when you transcribe your personal life into a fictional setting, is that you want the details to match up with your own memory. This doesn’t always fit the story and making the concessions to make it fit damages your own memory of events. Save that memory for yourself. If it’s funny, save it for parties. If it’s tragic, save it for therapy. This is you we’re talking about here. Keep yourself whole and don’t exploit your life for a chapter in a book.

Fiction isn’t a diary. It can be hard to remove your personal stake from a piece of fiction during the editing process. When it comes time to “kill your darlings,” and those darlings are “factual events that happened to you,” you will find yourself in a bit of a quandary.

“But how do I write what I know?”

My advice (which is probably advice given to me that I am repurposing here for your pleasure) would be to start recording how you interface with the world around you–going back to the answer up top on “how I get my ideas.”

Your friend is talking. How are they talking? Are they sad, happy, neutral, bored? I’m cooking dinner. I feel ____ when I cook, because ____. This rock that I’m holding is crumbly. It reminds me of _____. It’s windy right now. People are walking ____ in reaction to it.

A personal example of this is when I wrote a scene in which the main character is gifted pickled herring. A friend who read the chapter’s only statement on the chapter was “How the #$%@ do you know what pickled herring is?”

And the answer to that is I had pickled herring on saltines with my grandmother years ago and it seemed like a thing that old neighbors would gladly gift someone, and the kind of gift that you’d be thankful for, but not particularly excited about.

I used a memory from my own life, took out the detail I wanted, figured out why I thought it worked and wove that into the story I was writing… without writing the scene between me and my grandma.

I’ll have more thoughts on this later (I have more thoughts on everything all the time).

 

 

 

Character Sketching: Dungeons & Dating Websites

Character Sketching: Dungeons & Dating Websites

The first book I wrote (that has still gone unpublished, a-boo-hoo) came from the desire to summon a character into literary being that was so chaotic and anti-authoritarian (yet ultimately harmless) that he would rip through whatever situation I placed him in and get me to a finished manuscript. He did. Over the course of 50,000 words I got to know the guy. Then I threw 90% of the book away and started over (as is the fate of first drafts of first books), this time with more intimate knowledge of my character. I started with a concept and ran it through a machine of events and conflict. Ding! A character was born.

So as not to waste that much time and paper, however, character profiles and sketches were invented to save the author some hassle. It’s helpful to have a reference for all of the dramatis personae flying around a story. I agree. I have a hunch, however, that a lot of profiles focus on the character’s appearance (which usually translates to dry prose when described over and over…) or their general backstory (which can be interesting, if you go into one or two character’s histories in a novel, but quickly turns into a slog).

Writing a character profile is difficult, I think, because it’s hard to describe ourselves. You lovebirds on OKCupid know what I’m talking about– when there’s a gun up to your head to describe yourself, you end up talking about the music you like, the hobbies you enjoy, and how invested you are in your career. Vague. Which isn’t always a bad thing.

It’s better than, “Hi! I’m Dina! I’m 5’7″ I wear black eyeliner and leather boots with black jackets with pink buttons with little butts engraved in the copper and when I was growing up in an orphanage by the dragon lagoon, I found a pendant that farted when I prayed to it…”

It’s even harder to describe other people. Enjoy this familiar scene I have prepared for you:

“Tell me about Steve.”
“He’s funny.”
“Oh?”
“And smart.”
“I bet he’s shy, as well.”
“He is a little bit shy, but really fun once you get to know him.”

Uncanny, right?

Now here’s the Godfather of noir, Raymond Chandler, describing Phillip Marlowe:

“down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

“He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.

“The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.”

Damn, right? Here’s a few takeaways: Chandler is focusing on values. On basic motivations. On attitude. He knows how Marlowe is going to handle any situation, before he knows what the situation is. That kind of confidence is what can allow you to improvise.

Let’s say you write a scene in which your hero is fleeing a kill-squad of robots, only to run into her evil twin brother, wielding a machete. BAM. Writer’s block. You flip to your character sketch. It says, “She has a sick belt buckle.” Oh no! You keep reading. “She’s really funny.” That could come in handy later, but is currently useless. “Highly aggressive and brutally violent to a fault.” Phew, you exhale, wiping perspiration off of your brow. Now you know that you hero would kick her brother in the chest, grab the machete and start swinging wildly at robots until they overwhelm and imprison her for robot crimes.

Bad example, but you get the idea.

So how about this? Spend some time making character profiles (even with your currently written ones) and identify some key characteristics.

  • “What is their general attitude?”
  • “How do they respond to conflict?”
  • “What is their way of speaking?”
  • “What do they find despicable?”
  • “What do they believe in?”
  • “How sick is their belt buckle?”
  • “What can break them?”

Once you have the answers to this, or a list of rules that summarizes those values, you should have a pretty keen mental shorthand of your character’s behavior in addition to a concrete reference.

And hey, while you’re rolling your character’s stats, you might as well take another page from Dungeons and Dragons and try using the alignment spectrum and decide where you character falls and why. Want to use archetypes? Consult the enneagram which offers motivations behind archetypal behaviors.

Tired of writing? That’s cool, too.

Take a break and get to know thyself.

 

The Power of Mediocrity

The Power of Mediocrity

Here’s an exercise you can do the next time you go to the bookstore: research your favorite writer’s whole catalogue and figure out their worst book.

Go buy that book. Read it. Cringe through it. Note its virtues.

Now ask yourself if you can produce something at least as good as this. Chances are that you can.

With Self-Publishing allowing for anyone to enter the arena of fiction writing, there are no standards in place that would prohibit inferior works from reaching readers. Books are often error-laden and stiffly, quickly-written and lean more on heavy marketing than quality of the product. I’d advise that you be honest when reviewing their work– or if they ask for a review, be polite and decline.

But also note that you can publish something better than this. You can correct the market quality by the taking the time and thoughtful care to go over your book many times. Have friends and family review them with you if you can’t afford an editor. (I can’t. And errors keep popping up even years later.)

Make it the best damn thing it can be because even if it doesn’t make a lot of money, it can outpace at least half what’s out there, or, at the very, very least, it can’t do worse.

And that’s still a success.

Zelda as a Writing Tool

Zelda as a Writing Tool

My last post was about tapping into a mental state to encourage an improvisational approach to writing fiction. I don’t want to give the impression that writing fiction doesn’t take a whole helluva lotta consideration of organization and presentation or forethought.

What I am proposing is that there’s some mental shorthand you can use to make story telling fundamentals a little more intuitive. I learned this through the necessity of being a borderline criminally disorganized person.

What I mean by mental shorthand is a concept you can feel and visualize in your mind in place of a quantifiable, rigid set of rules. Think of it as a nemonic device for the fundamentals.

Let’s start with narrative structure. Fiction demands you pay attention to this. It’s one of the hardest things to grok (especially after you’ve written a complete work) and it takes reading piles of books and scrutinizing their organization with the intensity of a serial killer. If you don’t know where to start, I highly recommend revisiting Shakespeare (5 Act structure) because all of his work is separated neatly into acts and because you won’t be able to understand 70% of what’s being said, you’re more likely to feel how a scene plays out instead of relying on what information is being shared.

There are far better pieces on the basic elements of a story (if you aren’t familiar with The Hero’s Journey, or The Rules of Fairy Tales, or the Act Structure give those links a read. Sorry that the fairy tale link is so crappy. Best I could do.)

So, what serves as good mental forehand for story structure? What about, say, the game design of a dungeon from The Legend of Zelda? (Nerd alert: I’ll be in the cafeteria trading rock collections if anyone wants to give me a justified ass-kicking.) There’s no denying that by any reasonable standard, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is nearly a perfect video game. I like to use it as an example, because I’ve played through it so many times, I can mentally pass through almost every dungeon to the point that I can give somebody a pretty thorough walk through over the phone while I’m cooking dinner. Maybe your mental shorthand, or fundamental allegory, is a movie, or a painting, or a concept album. Maybe it’s a sick skate video. Maybe you’ve got it in your blood. Me? Zelda.

Let’s break down a Zelda dungeon.

  1. You enter and familiarize yourself with the atmosphere, and are given the task to complete the dungeon.
  2. You encounter enemies and puzzles of increasing difficulty
  3. You get to a point where you cannot continue without a specific tool
  4. You fight a mini-boss and receive the special item
  5. You utilize this special item to defeat and complete harder enemies and puzzles.
  6. You face and defeat the boss in an epic battle of Man v Monster
  7. The Dungeon resolves, you get a heart container and a piece of the plot is revealed

What the game designers knew is that they are driving a story through the format of game. They knew that that having the puzzles that you can’t solve without the item don’t have a place in the beginning. There needs to be build. They knew that you can’t have the mini-boss in the beginning or after the final boss battle. They knew that situations need to be developed such that the player gets better at the game before offering new challenges. they know that they have to offer rewards and they know where and when to place them. That’s what creates the story of a hero overcoming gradual conflicts.

Now let’s write a quick and dirty mystery plot with a few switcharoos.

  1. A detective is tasked with solving a murder of a senator.
  2. There are interests, I don’t know, The White House, that don’t want the case solved
  3. The detective loses a fist fight with another gumshoe
  4. Suspecting his rival for the murder, our hero follows him and learns that while he’s innocent in the murder, he’d been hired by The White House to jam up his investigation.
  5. Our hero throws this information in the President’s face, threatening to contact the newspapers and the President backs off
  6. Free from misdirection, the detective solves the murder. The Senator’s cat did it or something.
  7. The Detective leaves and contemplates the events of the story, inquiring for meaning in a bleak and cynical world.

It’s not a great story, but you can see how the beats match up to the break down of the dungeon. You can also apply this to the micro level in individual scenes to make sure that the scene stays active. I confess I’m not always on point with this, largely in part because I think it’s funny to let a scene sit awkwardly for an extra beat and have characters argue with each other before proceeding (which is still conflict, so hey).

I bring this up because making charts and lists and spreadsheets is tedious work and if you, like me, are something of an improvisationalist, then it’s a lot easier to feel out your written world in terms of something familiar and fun instead of clinical and boring.

There’s a good chance you’ll have to make a chart or timeline anyway. But that shouldn’t mean you should rob yourself of fun methods in your toolbox. Enjoying writing and producing working fiction needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Hi there! Are you here to see my wicked rock collection?

 

Writing as Improv

Writing as Improv

First, a suggestion: If you are a hopeful writer in high school or college, the absolute best advice I can give you is…

Take theater.

Second, an explanation: Me and my friends get together and discuss our current projects semi-regularly. Because I live in Portland, most of these friends are musicians. We got to talking recently about the concept of “flow” and what it takes to improvise musically.  It means practicing your technical skills repeatedly and then turning your brain off.

Here’s an article what happens to your brain while free-styling rap, the cut of the jib of which is:

The areas implicated in processes like organization and drive were marked by an increase in activity, while those parts responsible for close self-monitoring and editing were deactivated.

I think it boils down to trusting that one knows their technical skills are there and by tapping into one’s subconscious, that it will automatically organize itself into a song. It’s like having a dream right? The majority of us are not film directors and yet we build sets, costumes, create characters and write dialogue all while our brain is supposedly “off.”

The famous quote of comedic genius Del P. Close is “follow the fear.” Fear is the mind killer and, in art, that might actually be a good thing. It’s a way to shut out the ego and trust your own instincts.

I want to bring this discussion to a classic argument shared by writers: “To outline or wing it?” Nearly every reading I’ve gone to, this question is asked and the answer is always the same– “it’s up for debate, but I personally need to outline my own books, so I don’t lose track of yada yada yada…” But what about the other side, the “wingers”, that don’t plan ahead? Another quote to the rescue:

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Thanks, E.L. Doctorow. And I agree with him. Well, how about that I agree with both? If you’ll indulge me about my own writing process, I make a loose, looooose, outline that’s almost never more than 1-2 sentences denoting what needs to happen per scene. If I have a complicated web of relationships (such as in Muddy Sunset) I’ll spend some time figuring that out ahead of time in a notebook and set it aside. As far as the actual writing goes, I take those 1-2 sentences and then I improvise.

Authors often say that this causes the problems of 1. Creating more work later (true) and 2. is messy and inconsistent (not always true) because 3. Without a plan, you are lost (often true, but not always a bad thing).

To which I want to ask the following question: If I know I’m driving to the beach and have three hours to do so, does it really matter what road I take? Recall any family vacation and I almost guarantee you that the thing you remember most is where you stopped along the way, not the actual mind-numbing highway through Kansas (sorry, Kansas). Or you remember changing a tire, or waiting for the tow-truck, needing the bathroom 75 miles away from the nearest gas station– you remember everything that hadn’t been planned or accounted for. Not having everything in place ahead of time allows for spontaneity. I try to maintain a rule that I need to surprise myself at least one time per scene. If I, the author, am surprised, there’s a fantastic chance that the reader will be surprised as well.

Another quote, this one by Raymond Chandler, a personal hero of mine:

“The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.”

This too speaks of tapping into that fugue state, and following the subconscious instinct in storytelling.  It’s about trusting what lies beneath the topsoil of your brain, that’s there’s something special under there and it’s up to you as the writer to uncover it and show it around. Maybe your tools haven’t been sharpened (it’s a lifelong game, and no one ever reaches 100% perfection) and if that’s the case and you don’t trust yourself yet (or perhaps too much) there are many viable spaces online to practice and get feedback.

So back to the beginning. Hopeful writers still in school: take drama. Participating in theater during high school helped me nearly as much as taking creative writing and standard English courses. Theater taught me…

  1. To improvise.
  2. To embrace the fear of performance.
  3. To step inside a character’s psychology, physicality.
  4. To shut my own brain off and go with “The Flow.”

These are the lessons that don’t get covered in English courses (“But what does it mean?“) or creative writing courses (“What does Raymond Carver teach us about Craft?”).

If you aren’t in school and find yourself stuck with writer’s block, perhaps try to engage the subconscious mind and participate in other disciplines: music, theater, drawing.

You might be surprised what your brain has in store for you and your story.