All the World’s A Page

All the World’s A Page

During the office hours for a medieval literature class, my professor (and in case it wasn’t clear that I was a poor, poor academic, I was taking this class remedially, as I had flunked out of that same professor’s Chaucer class) told me something I’ve been turning around in my head ever since– that people in the Dark Ages read the world allegorically.

What the hell does that mean? Well, first you need to consider that folks in the olden days didn’t read words so much. Literacy was a tool reserved for Jesus nerds (clergymen) who would read, and then interpret, the Bible during mass. To be a good Christian, one has to read the Bible faithfully. So how does an illiterate farmer accomplish that?

According to my professor, a farmer dude might look at a tree and contemplate it as an allegory for Christ. He’d see the roots planted firmly in the ground, the branches leaning into the sun, and I don’t know, he’d see an apple or something. And he’d interpret that to mean by firmly grounding oneself in faith (roots), seeking truth in the God’s word (light, sun), one is rewarded (fruit, salvation).

And then he’d go stick some leeches on his butt because a barber told him that cured syph’.

Basically, the gist of it is that they saw the world as a manifestation of The Bible, that the world had the Word of God coded into its every corner.

It’s a common misconception that people in history were dumb. We have a tendency to think because we’re progressively marching towards a fairer world and have smart phones, that we’re smarter than we used to be. We’re not, exactly. Our phones are. The human brain hasn’t changed much in thousands of years (except the relatively modern trend of shrinkage). The farmer doesn’t have the tools of literacy, or a socially aware history, or access to modern medical science. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

But what I think that story speaks to is that farmer still had a critically thinking brain, and he applied it to the world around him using the lens of religion to understand and interpret that world.

Despite all of our technology, despite the lowest global illiteracy rates we’ve ever seen, I’m beginning to think that we still read the world allegorically. You’d think that it’d be the other way around– that we view something, we interpret it, and then we write our piece on it. And maybe that’s true some of the time and probably definitely true in early development. But I’m thinking that maybe our brains become wired to hold certain schemas (primed by upbringing, advantages or disadvantages, and media) about how the world works such that we interpret events before they happen– or rather, we justify events to fit our preexisting schemas.

Children do this naturally and intentionally– I personally crafted my life to reflect a reality of Calvin and Hobbes, pretended to be a pirate after watching Hook, and I would fight hundreds of invisible foes after watching 3 Ninjas. That’s until I discovered video games, after which, I made swords and shields out of errant pieces of metal lying around my house. I threw Pokéballs at bugs. I’d watch the ocean, hoping to see a dragon. I wanted these things to be real to the point that I was willing to let my imagination redirect reality into a personal narrative. At least until playtime was over.

Writers have a tendency to do this in adolescence in a very meta sense– writing fan-fiction using pre-existing fantastical universes to access their own emotions and frame their own internal struggles with something familiar. (Uncomfortable example: “Oh nooo,” said Professor Umbridge. “It seems I’ve dropped my quill.”) 

Now we live in an age of information bubbles, where two polarized sides of America can watch the same news story play out and offer two completely disparate interpretations, each one validated by their home base.

How does that happen? Well, we’re all aware of the concept of confirmation bias, right? That you only seek out the information that serves your views and ignore or discredit that which opposes your views. That’s the psychological mechanic behind reading the world allegorically. It’s just that The Bible we’re priming ourselves with now includes literature, movies, the news, memes and social media. Our brains understand the world around us through what we watch and read and consume on a daily basis.

Astrology is a good example of this in action. Let’s say you’re a Libra and are interested in dating a Leo (Hey, I’m a Leo! It doesn’t matter.) because you know and love Leos. You two go out for a drink. Despite this Leo being generally uptight and reserved, you might find yourself ignoring this and focusing on what makes them appear to be gregarious and outspoken. (“They laughed at my joke! Leos love jokes! This is going to work!” or “They were such an asshole to the bartender! Classic Leo! This is going to work!”)

Or maybe your Horoscope informed you that you would find someone who had been missing from your life and advised to stay away from tenuous situations. Then a friend from high school wanders into your workplace and orders a coffee (you’re a barista in this example, because, of course you are). Later, a dispute breaks out between coworkers and you choose to separate yourself from it. You get home and remember your horoscope, and wouldn’t you know it, it came true! Didn’t it?

Well, these are examples of shoehorning a paradigm into something benign– or in the dating example, a special kind of color blindness that sees all flags as white. Not to get into too much of a tangent on the cookie-cutter advice Horoscope writers dish out (not that it’s ever bad, per se, but it’s just common sense. Avoid tenuous situations? One of the reasons human beings are still alive is our capacity for risk assessment), but wouldn’t it have also been true if you read, say, a Cancer’s ‘scope and it said something like, “You will reclaim a memory you thought you had lost and cool heads prevail under times of duress?”

When it matters, it’s when the situation isn’t so benign. Look at it from a political perspective, because apparently it’s impossible not to these days.

On the right: If your news, your friends and family, your Mark Wahlburg movies and favored political leaders are saying that Islam is a religion of war, you’re going to look at the world, afraid, and find examples to justify that fear– because examples of violence are there, and the natural tendency is to extend that example to all examples. But you’d be ignoring the 99.994% of the global Muslim population who aren’t extremists and the 94% of terroristic attacks carried out on US soil by non-Islamic extremists because that doesn’t fit the narrative.

On the left: If your news, your friends, perhaps not your parents, your comedians and favored political leaders vilify red state voters, you’re going to find examples of white supremacy, misogyny, and hate– because examples are definitely there. But you’d be ignoring the plight of former industrial workers who can’t get a job because governmental interests have left their economy to rot and their towns are in the valley of too populous yet too small to accommodate customer service jobs like cities and suburbs can. They chose the devil they didn’t know, because the last one screwed them in their perspective.

Obviously, I fall onto the left side of the spectrum. But I want everyone to recognize that our minds, beautiful machines capable of astounding works that they may be, are reactionary to precedent information which perhaps interprets the world for us, before we can even take a moment to breathe.

Psychological schemas are solid, but not unshakeable blueprints. We’re constantly updating (usually buttressing) the designs, but never lose hope that the most hateful of people can come around to a reasonable understanding as long as we remember that people are people and have always been people.

The only thing I can think to prescribe is a careful and well variegated media diet. I’m not saying you should listen to Alex Jones– I’m pretty sure no one should– but perhaps by entertaining– not necessarily believing or ascribing to– a palette of perspectives, we can understand each other’s personal allegory. Because our brains will favor a story over reality every single time.

Failing that, remember what Socrates said: “I do not think I know what I do not know.

 

 

 

Genre vs Fiction: FIGHT!

Genre vs Fiction: FIGHT!

There’s an interesting divide in the academic literary world based on the question of “what constitutes Literary Fiction?”

This rift has spread to the publishing world. The Literary Fiction camp holds the belief that Genre Fiction writers are cookie-cutter sellouts, pumping out as much trash as possible to earn a quick buck. Whereas the Genre Fiction camp views the Literary Writers as idealistic snobs, writing from an ivory tower and waxing poetic in ruffled shirts.

With some of the stubborn and pompous attitudes of literary authors and all of the garbage self-published on Amazon, it’s hard not to agree with both stereotypes. But I think if you want to get in the habit of writing successfully, you need to understand and aspire to both schools of thought.

Speaking of schools, here’s a story from my last class I ever took at University. It was a Renaissance Fiction Class, 400 hundred level. Through all of the reading, we were asked a simple question: is this Literature? No one, not even the teacher had a solid definition of what that meant. The vague answer is something like, “a written work that has literary merit,” which loops infuriatingly into itself.

The term began taking upon its popularity as its own thing around the time travelogues came into vogue–somewhere in the early 1500’s– and it’s easy to understand why, as a written, true account of a journey strikes on the “beginning, middle, and end” narrative structure naturally. These were supposedly non-fictional accounts, but there’s no doubt that details were embellished. The trend of intentionally fictionalizing these travelogues is traditionally credited to Sir Thomas More with his work UtopiaWe also read a bunch of martyrologies, another supposedly non-fictional account that has some, shall we say, mystical qualities to it (in addition to being objectively metal). With every chunk of reading we were asked if this was literature. 

More questions followed. Does literature have to be fiction? (A: “Not… really?”) Does it have to be interesting? (A: “Apparently not, because travelogues are boring as hell.”) Does it have to share significant insight into humanity ? (A: “Uhm, hmmm.“)

One answer was certain: that everything we read was written to the guidelines specific to a particular genre.

Another question: Was this considered Literature at the time? Nearly everything we hold in literary prestige garnered its accolades long after the author died. Shakespeare’s works didn’t get the literary treatment until the 20th century. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a horror novel. The Great Gatsby was considered a failure until after World War II. Is it literature? (A: “Let’s sleep on it and figure it out next century.”)

Now, as far as it relates to the publishing world, a distinction between literary and genre fiction can be made. As far as I can tell, the difference is this:

Literary Fiction focuses on introspective character studies that attempts to reflect a philosophical truth of the modern age. The character dictates the plot.

Genre Fiction focuses on universally recognizable characters driven to make choices by external actions. The plot dictates the character.

Modern fiction necessitates an overlap– Don Delilo’s White Noise, for example, ends a meticulous and surreal study of a modern family with elements borrowed from a thriller. It’s in that overlap that you should aspire to. On one hand, learning and understanding the conventions of basic storytelling is important, because those elements don’t really change over time. Our brains are wired to understand stories and, ideally, you want the reader to understand and enjoy the act of actually reading your book. On the other hand, you should give a shit and try to make your work as affecting and relevant to the world around you as you possibly can.

Because at the end of the day, literature is like pornography. No one really knows what it is, but we know it when we see it.

Capitalzing On Your Joe Job

Capitalzing On Your Joe Job

Every one knows that you’re not in it for the money. The money might come, but it’ll come later, years later, after you’ve amassed a small library of classics. Or it might come biweekly if you work in media or journalism.

For everyone else, there’s the Joe Job, the daily necessity of labor and exertion to fuel your creative career. For a lot of us who were trained academically to write, this is also a necessity to improve value of our work.

When I was taking fiction courses in college, I mostly spoke with people in my own age bracket. After college, I was unemployed for quite a while. And you know what? I didn’t get much writing done. There was very little stimuli, outside of media. I wrote one piece that I’m horrified to revisit. It’s flat. It works as a cerebral exercise and only that, as there are few things in the story that resemble real life interactions or motivations. Once I was brought into the fold of the workin’ Joe, I couldn’t stop writing. I figured I could use my daily experiences to aid my creative process. It worked. Because, hell, you have to work a job, right? That much in life is certain until Robots replace us all. So until then, you may as well utilize your 9-5 the best you can.

One aspect of trying to create a career out of fiction writing that not a lot of people consider is what kind of job you need to have to make it work. I’ve watched a few of my fellow creative minded friends walk into a demanding (sometimes satisfying) career and hang up their paint brushes. Now, this could be irrational, but I admit that I’m afraid to lose that freedom, so I stick to employment that allows my writing life to exist– staying out of offices and school rooms and maintaining flexible schedules (At least that’s how I frame it. You could also say, poor job market, Millenial work ethic, yada yada. Clam it). These jobs might not pay as well as I’d like, but there are lessons inherent in any professional capacity. Let’s take a look at some that I’ve learned:

When I was employed before college, I wasn’t looking for anything I could use. I wasn’t writing then. NEXT.

My first job out of college was as a barista. It was a seasonal job and I was terminated after three months. I didn’t get much out of it writing wise, other than a sense of schedule. I slowly became more consistent with the time I set aside to write because, well, I had to. Simple lesson, but an important one. Now that I wasn’t writing for a publication or for classes, I had to motivate myself to get things done. During my period of unemployment, however, I didn’t value my time as effectively as I did while holding a position somewhere. Once scarcity was established, I began to value my personal time exponentially– and began understanding how to use it effectively to start and complete writing projects.

The next job I got was at a home improvement warehouse. I liked it. It required a lot of physical labor, a few tasks that required quiet concentration and a lot of talking to people. And people get chatty at those stores. It helped me connect with blue collar Americans. My co-workers and customers fed my imagination and gave me grounded details of their rural lives. It was stuff that I could take back to my desk and fold into scenes, enriching the sense of realism. One of my supervisors found out that I was a writer and joked that I was going to make him a villain in one of my books. And then I did, as I could perfectly account for how he’d react in any given situation. That job also helped my dialogue immensely. More on that in a bit.

Third job? Makin’ sandwiches. Everyone should hold a job wherein they don’t give a single, solitary doo-doo about at least once in their lives. And then they should quit. I’m not sure I learned a writing lesson at this one, but I did learn how far I could push my writing schedule while phoning in a work performance. At the frenzied height of one of my novel revisions, the daily schedule looked like this:

3 PM – 9 PM: Make sandwiches, go home

9 PM -4 AM: Write

4 AM – 8 AM: Lucid dream about writing

8 AM – 10 AM: Write down the passages I wrote while asleep

10 AM – 2 PM: Nap

And repeat for nearly two weeks. Then I got sick and had to tone it down a little. Maybe I learned a lesson about my own boundaries and limits. Maybe not. NEXT.

I did tech support for Apple products at a call center. Not only did I get an education in pacifying aggravated customers, I got the opportunity to chat with every geographic region in the USA. It not only gave me a crash course in regional dialect, but also how different communication methods provide insight into how people think. I came into that job with the bias that New Yorkers were a pissed off, curmudgeonly people and that Southerners were a simple folk. I was delightfully proven wrong. New Yorkers speak fast. They live in a fast-paced world, even when they aren’t in a hurry. There’s no reason to take offense to that. They’re also probably the most generous people I spoke with– I’ve been invited to dinner no less than five times by New Yorkers and Jerseryans, every time in an aggressively friendly manner. Meanwhile I learned that while Southerners speak at a slow pace, they’re not slow witted. I held that bias longer than I’d like to admit. Then I had a call where I was walking someone step by step through a reboot process, and usually by step 3 or 4, I let the customer take it from there. He didn’t. I asked him if he knew the next steps in the process and he said that he did but was waiting until I told him to do so. It wasn’t that he, or Southerners generally, was a dum-dum, he just respected my authority on iPhones. How this relates to writing (you may have wondered 200 words ago) is the dynamic of effective dialogue. It’s my opinion that dialogue, in addition to any narrative information conveyed, should reflect an attitude. In that respect, this job was a goldmine. I figured if how a person asked for help with iMessage could sketch a small portrait, then every tiny line out of a character’s mouth should be another brush stroke of a mural.

I’m going to skip all the other jobs, the gigs, crawling back to previous employers, and other months of unemployment and go straight to my currently held position:

It’s pretty great. It’s physical, so I don’t resent sitting at a computer for hours at a time at night, provides enough critical problem solving so I don’t go completely insane, and since it requires following procedures, I have the opportunity to day dream and mentally review what I’m working on creatively, fix logical issues, revisit character relationships and figure out the next step, all while performing my daily paid duties. Or, I listen to podcasts (some about writing, some not) to keep myself up to date in the goings on in the world without that biting into time after work so that I’m prepared to dig into my projects in a creative mindset when I get home.

The point is, you shouldn’t despair at your job. There are opportunities to expand your creative life everywhere. Keep your mental note pad open and figure out a way to keep writing, even when you’re not writing.

 

 

Conflict is the Grandmother of All Invention

Conflict is the Grandmother of All Invention

A huge, horkin’ lump of fictive writing is critical problem solving. People don’t like to hear that.

Conflict is the basis of all storytelling. Without conflict, there’s no drama, no expression of character that isn’t simply expository. Right? If a book was just character exposition, it’d be a really dense psychoanalytical essay. Those are called character notes.

Which means you have to create a problem and then resolve that problem. I think this is where a lot of writers get stuck. I do, and somewhat frequently.

So what I’m trying to remember in any given scene I’m writing is that [Character] is in situation [A] and needs to get to situation [B]. How can I make that dynamic?

In my day to day life, I drive from home to work and nothing really happens other than some expected traffic and a few jackass drivers recklessly changing lanes. I wouldn’t relate this to my co-workers in a story (maybe just a, “Ugh, traffic was terrible,” exclamation, because I’m Cathy. Apparently.), because I’m still in situation [A]. Nothing’s really changed. I still go to work, and despite that being a different location from Home, it’s still the same as it ever was and not really a story to tell or even remember.

Essentially, the value hasn’t changed. Shawn Coyne, from the excellent Story Grid Podcast, speaks often about valence shifts. A beginning value has to turn by the scene’s end–from a positive to a negative, a negative to a positive, a negative to a double negative, etc.

Those shifts in value are inextricably linked to conflict. The broader story has the ultimate conflict, right? I’m gonna use Zelda here as an example, again, because that’s the way I’m drawn. Link can’t just find the Triforce in some bushes in Kokori forest. He’s gotta burn through the dungeons first, each one upping the ante in difficulty level, before the final showdown with Ganon. And even though Ocarina of Time ends shortly after it begins, you understand that something has changed.

Despite being unreligious, we can go biblical, if you like. We’ve heard that Job is faithful to his God, but we don’t know Job is faithful until a series of conflicts utterly destroy his life, but his willful servitude to God remains the same. Likewise, there isn’t so much written about the actual paradise of Eden, as there is Original Sin. Perhaps it’s more human to focus on the conflict of a serpent offering a divergent path than it is to ruminate on how awesome everything is/was. Extra sidenote: Milton’s Paradise Lost is far more interesting than Paradise Regained, and even the most studious English major would be hard pressed to remember the Paradiso part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, whereas everyone has a working familiarity with the Inferno. (Because metal.) And maybe that has to do with how placid Heaven is. It’s a story that you can’t tell and don’t really remember. But the journey there will always be more memorable, to borrow from the wisdom Facebook Macros.

In a lot of ways, it’s the tiny moments between great shifts and upheavals of story that conflict can be the most profound. Maybe I would (and have) related stories of commuting to work where I spilled coffee on my crotch and nearly ran into traffic. And there’s the brilliant Louis CK sketch about picking out groceries and not being able to pay for it, where financial circumstance stands in the way of the goal and Louis walks away with the awkward realization of preliminary necessities such as money. I bring this up because the most dreaded part of actually writing is usually the “maintenance scenes” that bring the plot into focus. And I myself dread these scenes, because they aren’t fun.

Why aren’t they? I have a feeling that if the I as the writer am not engaged in writing a scene, then the reader won’t be either. Throwing a ball a couple feet ahead of where you stand ad nauseum isn’t a sport and it isn’t much fun to watch. (It’s actually kind of disconcerting. Delilah.)

To solve this the South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone installed a policy in their writing room about using “but and therefore” statements in their outlines instead of “and then,” ensuring that the comedic and plot beats from the first act NECESSITATED the beats from the second act to respond to the first and also present a new situation, organically leading to the third act which results in an earned payoff.

And I feel the lesson there is that by investing into the questions and problems you have written in the first paragraph of a scene, a logic will present itself– so long as you are actively putting your story over the fire of conflict.

See what boils to the top.

 

 

Actively Engaging Media

Actively Engaging Media

I’ll never understand people who don’t read. That’s not true. I’ll never understand people who passively ingest media. Thems the kind that just let the TV happen at ’em.

You’ve probably heard it said a good writer is a great reader. It’s an alright adage, despite having been repeated to the point of redundancy–and with good reason. Because whatever mechanism that drives human ambition is blind to the amount of work that goes into a piece of working literature. You may keep meeting the people that want to write a book who don’t read any books. You may keep running into people who call themselves writers who don’t actually produce anything. But if you meet a writer who does produce and doesn’t read? I don’t know, write their teachers from high school and inform them how much of a disappointment their students have become. The point is that this writing schtick takes work and that work primarily consists of reading a butt load. If you don’t like reading, then, Jesus, dude I don’t know why you’re here. But if you’ve been putting reading books on the backburner, remind yourself that it’s as much work as it is play and crack that sucker open.

So rejoice, all ye wordsmiths, for yer work be entertaining and usually pretty fun. Reading is a good time and don’t forget to enjoy it. But lets take it a step further. I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog about the worth of analyzing films and video games.  I want to ruminate a little further on that, such that that in addition to becoming great readers, we also become great purveyors of art of all kinds. So maybe don’t take off your writing lenses when you treat yourself to a Netflix binge or video game marathon.

The good news is that you were probably going to watch movies and television shows anyway. The challenge is sussing out a lesson in works that exist for us to disappear into– and feel free to become absorbed into a film, that means the storytellers are doing something right. It’s up to you, however, to figure out why it was so effective in ensnaring your attention.

We’re all brothers and sisters in this world of storytelling and there’s a lot to be learned from analyzing other mediums. Think critically of how a film is shot–think of the technical nightmare it takes to pull off a scene like this. This is important to pay attention to because, to dust off another overused adage, “Writing is like directing a movie in someone else’s mind.”

Think about how a single frame can tell a story by its composition:

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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

 

By this screen grab alone, you see evidence of Norma’s vanity (the mirror), her break from reality (as she’s not even looking at herself, or the police in the mirror but somewhere far away) . You understand the severity of the situation– there’s been a murder (gun being held as evidence) and Norma’s suspect (police. duh.). And as far as tone goes? An unsettling clash of dark darks and bright lights.

How would you write this scene in a book? How would you write it in a short story? A poem? A song? You’d write it differently for each, I’m sure, because you aren’t half-assing this. Do you get a different feeling from the writing? How so? What details are you leaving in? Out? Why? What changes? Asking ourselves a lot of questions helps to understand the choices being made in other’s work and asking the same question of our own work leads to bigger realizations and (ideally) a clearer focus of what we’re trying to achieve.

So we’re paying attention now, effectively “reading” all forms of art. But where to start? What does a balanced media diet look like? You already know what you like to read, right? Start there and keep at it. And if you find yourself merely entertained and reamin unchallenged, hit up a booklist and maybe pick up one or two of those the next time you’re strolling past your book store. Film? How many of IMDB’s top 250 have you viewed?  Read analyses of film, film, video games. (Hell, I watch hour long videos summarizing Final Fantasy plot lines, because I remember being moved by them as a kid and want to identify the successful elements those stories hit upon.) Read The AV Club after your favorite episode of whatever airs and get your brain juices flowing.

We live in an age when criticism outnumbers content 1000:1 and there’s a lot of content out there. Identifying the useful, educational criticism should help cultivate storytelling instincts and give you the tools and vocabulary to dissect your own stories and see what’s working and what is not.

Read. Watch. Listen. Read.

And don’t forget to write.

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?