Monday, December 10, 2018

Why I Miss “Because I Said So”




After receiving four messages of, “Are you coming?” and two phone calls, I agreed to meet with a man who had taken a serious interest in me. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, even though he knew that I was in a workshop and I had told him I would let him know if I would meet with him and a group of mutual friends after, deciding that he was so anxious he just wasn’t thinking clearly.

During this lovely dinner in which no one else showed up, he proceeded to criticize me constantly, mesmerizing me with his opinions on writing, love, and the world as a whole, I finally had enough of him when he asked me to explain the plot of the book I was workshopping.

“It’s a science-fiction novel about a biomechanic who falls in love with a brainwashed member of the cult who wants him for heresy.”

“Why would he fall in love with her?” he scoffed.

“Well, you’d have to read the book.”

I understood the accusation as, of course, that I hadn’t developed a chemistry or rapport between them. But, looking back on it, I recognize some of the assumptions people have about those who “are capable” of being brainwashed, and it raised a good question about a fight that was occurring within me. What did Libra have that Raiden didn't?

There was safety in her world. She got along with everyone. She knew her goals and she could ask—and listen—to most authority figures about the best way to follow them. He was alone, constantly having to make life or death decisions with no one to trust.

There is, in fact, a lot of appeal about trusting someone enough to obey them.

Of course, there’s a reason that mentality is so criticized. Many of us have been burned by bad advice, or not being able to fit into a formula. An older friend of mine spent her entire youth doing what she was supposed to by marrying a Jewish man, being a good wife, not wiling her way on education, so on and so forth, only to be left for another woman, blamed by her children, and struggling for money to survive for the next forty years. Personally, I’ve been checking every box for depression—eating right, sleeping right, meditating, counseling, medication, socializing, following hobbies—and it feels like it’s just getting worse as I progress.

Writers know best that there is no “right” way to getting into the publishing world. Even back before the popularity of ebooks there were successful authors—Gertrude Stein, Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf—who made their start via self-publishing. J.K. Rowling got picked very quickly by an agent, but rejected by many publishing houses. Andy Weir, Cassandra Clare, and E.L. James got a following from posting free content online. Some people met their agent in person and made friends first. Others submitted blindly to the slush pile. There are celebrities whose fame got their novels picked up, and those who sold the story on the merits of their pitch alone. Blake Snyder never got famous for writing screenplays, but did manage to make his name popular after writing a book on how to write for screenplays.

The path is twisting and ever changing and that in itself makes it overwhelming.

In recent months, I’ve been seeking out an app that would tell me what to do. It would ask me all the right questions and give me instructions on how to live my life so I didn’t have to keep thinking. After all, diligence wasn’t working. I spent years writing every day, polishing a pitch, and putting myself out there to just constantly be staring into a void. Nothing seemed to progress in my life, regardless of my efforts towards it, and one day… I just quit.

Knowing what to do can be far more inspiring that being uncertain about the right path to take. What happened to the good ol’ days where we had teachers and parents telling us the right way to live life. Not that I trusted them, of course, but it would be nice.

I often feel like my biomechanic, unintentionally having stepped outside the system and no longer protected by it, wanting nothing more than reassurance that, “If you do this, this will happen.” I feel like I’m lost in a bleak world where one misstep—faith in the wrong person—can lead to terrible, lasting pain, but standing still is not an option either.

For those of us who struggle to understand why anyone would be eager to turn to a cult, how we can condemn those “foolish” enough to be brainwashed, I would like us to think back on time when we faced nothing but uncertainty and pain, and how much we would have liked to have someone we trust, someone we have great faith in, tell us what to do. I don’t think that feeling is unique.

But, it’s clear to me that any time I want someone to trust, it’s because I’m spending too much time doubting myself. I know better than anyone what I want, what I’ve tried, and what’s important to me. I can make good decisions, give myself good advice, and just because I can’t trust myself blindly doesn’t mean I should give that power to anyone else.





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Friday, November 30, 2018

Types of Sentences and the Way They Love Us




I hate wanting to love something that’s so unlovable. (Although I’ll admit that loving something unlovable is even worse.) Many times I see independent writers committing to their craft, inspiring me with their ideas and tastes, creating striking concepts and hiring excellent graphic artists, to only get to the actual story part and cringe until my insides flip. We’ve all read a fantastic concept was tainted by the clunky word choice.

Voice is probably one of the most subjective aspects of writing, and readers typically have a love-hate relationship with the stronger prose out there. From Shakespeare to Hemingway, you’ll see a lot of polar opinions on the striking styles. So, when I say that the main common denominator of cringy writing is the lack of flow, it’s notable that the other common denominator is me. (Always, whenever reading anyone’s advice, consider your actual tastes and what sorts of things you respond to.)

Facebook recently bombarded me with a webpage similar to my own. His serial online fantasy of short stories had striking artwork and alluring title. I was also seeking a frequently updated website to take my mind off of the bitterness of Reddit, so I found myself clicking the ad link many days in a row only to stop reading after the first paragraph each time, so it was the quintessential right place and right time, wrong material.

What made the writing so bad?

Well, I felt the story summarized the events without painting a picture. You have little understanding of the world or the character. It’s not that you’re overwhelmed with confusion, but that you don’t care. What’s going on within the character is unclear and underdeveloped, and, most importantly, each sentence doesn’t respond to any other’s existence. He tells the story like he’s listing events, with no sense for perspective, tension, mood, or point.

In other words, you could scramble the paragraph and it wouldn’t affect the rhythm or flow.

What does a sentence responding to another look like? Is that something that’s important? From my experiences reading amateur fiction, I’d say yeah. Understanding how sentences can connect to each other is a very simple way of improving the sound of your writing.

Standalone Sentences

A standalone sentence makes its point without implying follow-up or requiring preamble. That point does not have to be deep; “She had blonde hair,” clearly exists to give a description of the character. While it’s not enough information to be a story or interesting, it does not need more explanation before you consider the thought finished. Typically, a standalone sentence can be easily moved anywhere in the paragraph and still work. Deleting the sentences around it does not cause a comprehension or flow problem. It also doesn’t have an obvious next step. It could change subjects without it feeling like a lost thread. It also does not need to be simple, merely that the subject and action of the sentence are clear and feel finished.

There is nothing wrong with stand-alone sentences, and you will find that you use them often. The problem becomes when every sentence is independent of those around it, making the writing feel clunky as if the thoughts aren’t streamed together.

Leading Sentences

Conversely, a leading sentence implies that the thought isn’t finished, or brings up an interesting question that the reader wants answered. “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair,” might not go into why, but it makes the reader feel like it should. A leading sentence often becomes attached to the following sentences and they must both exist (at some point) for it to feel complete. Leading sentences, in contrast to supportive sentences, are usually concept based; their style could allow them to be placed later, turning them into a conclusion instead of an introduction, but they still often need to be kept in the same area.

Supportive Sentences

Supportive sentences give a follow up on the information already provided. They might be capable of being a stand-alone except for the existence of the leading sentence requires them to be nearby to make sense: “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair. Light colored eyebrows made a woman look like a chimp.”

Supportive sentences often use pronouns to reference pre-established subjects: “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair. It reminded him of his mother.”

Sometimes they need some information prior for them to be understood or to have proper spatial continuity: “She started cutting her nails with scissors,” may require her to find the scissors first, otherwise the audience feels like they missed something.

Contrary to popular belief, starting a sentence with a conjunction is accepted grammar in unformal writing, useful in creative fiction to convey meaning, inflection, and evolution of thought. In the same vein, there are other phrases and words that directly tie one sentence to another: “Johnny hated Susie for her blonde hair. That didn’t exactly explain why he felt compelled to follow her around all of the time.”

Why does it matter? How to apply it?

When you have a series of standalone sentences, typically speaking, the rhythm of speech is repetitive, the information is slow, it’s unnuanced and can come off as juvenile. The author doesn’t have a lot of room to play with the duration of actions, and you don’t learn anything about the characters through descriptions. It’s often too explanatory and doesn’t have a lot of atmosphere. Mainly though, when a writer has an understanding of the narrator’s P.O.V. and tells the story from that perspective, they naturally write a narrative with a smoother evolution of thought and events and organic description of the world. When they write in an object sense, they tend to summarize and be removed.

“Brandon and Kara went hiking but were unprepared for the physical challenge. ‘Hiking is hard work,’ said Kara. She cupped her hands and drank from a limpid mountain steam. They were in the San Gabriel Mountains and from their elevation could see Los Angeles and the smog in the distance. In Los Angeles city people lived in tiny apartments. The tiny apartments had tiny windows.”

I might add this author does this intentionally, admitting that he wants to be like Hemingway in his simplicity. It’s a style, but one that I’m pointing out due to the clear way it affects the flow (which is a choice you may want at some point.) The thoughts are disjointed from another and can be moved around fairly easily. The drinking of the stream isn’t what inspires the narrator to think about where they are; the author includes it because it’s information he wants the reader to know and feels it’s the right location for the bigger story, not typical train of thought. He also (intentionally) doesn’t use pronouns very often, which makes something that normally flows together (the windows in the apartments) feel like separate thoughts as well.

But, there are a good number of writers who do this unintentionally, and if you find this as clunky and Dick-and-Jane-ish as I do, then there’s a couple of ways to watch out for it.

Figure out the P.O.V. character

Writers can get unwittingly hung up on being objective. If you consciously decide to go that route for whatever reason, many writers can make it work and it certainly can serve a purpose. But most people read because they want to feel a human connection and see different perspectives on the world. Even a fantasy fiction writer will often have a much more charismatic style when the story is told through a human lens instead of a robotic camera, and readers learn more from (yes even fiction) writers who are honest about their opinions on humanity, the way the world works, and what’s important.

Who is telling the story and how do they think? Is it Kara? Charles? Another character? God? The author himself? All of the above? You are creatively free to decide whatever you like, just so long as you know whose voice is being conveyed and at what times. Description is typically not objective, and the way that Kara or Charles or God describe something won’t be the same. How the story is told teaches the reader more about the people involved than when you’re just stating facts.

Next, consider alternative ways to tell a story instead of linear events

Paragraphs of only description tend to be victim to too many standalone sentences. This is because when you’re depicting a stagnant image, the order of the objects doesn’t exactly matter, so many authors will start listing thing. Using the P.O.V. character, however, you get better ideas about how to make the description flow naturally. Kara bends down to take a drink from the pond, sees the reflection of Charles staring out at the city, and so turns to the city herself. The narrative now flows together, incorporating the descriptions naturally, and you don’t feel like you’re clinically being handed information.

Authors also don’t have to describe an entire scene first, just because the objects were there first, but can progress the events of a scene by sprinkling description throughout. Mentioning objects and places as the character notices them will make it feel more organic and less bogged down with artsy long passages of what every thing looks like.

Also, the same applies when avoiding a practical play-by-play during the actions of the scene, which is important because…

Length of sentence implies duration of action.

Telling the story in the way a person would remember it or in order of what they saw makes it easier to control the duration of an action. Punching someone is fairly quick. Driving down the freeway is much longer. However, when it takes the same amount of time to describe it, to the reader, it doesn’t feel like the timing is right and tension is decreased.

“Davi went to sleep on the second story of a large inn. Despite this, he woke up the next morning staring at the sky on a slab surrounded by debris. Half the roof sat at an angle next to him on the ground. A drop of dew fell off before the wind caught it and directed straight to his forehead.”

The major problem here really is the length—they’re all the same size despite each taking grossly different times to do. And in many cases in this story, the author “zooms in” on small, quick events like the drop hitting him in the forehead, while glossing over things that would have taken much longer, (falling asleep, traveling a good distance) and things that are much more important and interesting (like the revelation that the inn was gone.)

This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but his actual pacing consistently fights his desired tension. The jokes don’t land, the fear doesn’t grow, and the timing is generally off. The length of his sentences don’t serve a greater purpose, and they tend to lack that narrative flow I’m speaking about.

By thinking of the character’s mindset about all of this—even if the author decides he doesn’t want to describe the internal aspects—and following his train of thought, connecting some ideas to one another, the prose would be less clunky and more indicative of the mood the author wanted. Though I know it was unintentional, it was clear that he wanted each idea self-contained. Being in a large inn, waking up, the debris, and the dew drop were all separate thoughts and had their own single sentences. However, many of them should have been broken up into separate ideas and given transitions connecting them to one another. The reader needs to be given time to adjust to the normalcy of falling asleep at the inn, then comprehend it is suddenly gone, then look for clues about what had happened. Based on the speed in which the story is told, it feels like the character has already accepted the strangeness of the situation long before the reader even comprehends what exactly they are looking at.

Read the story. Out loud, but also not.

Sometimes beginning authors find themselves overwhelmed to what they’re supposed to be looking for when editing, and I never feel like there’s a lot of specifics other than forbidden words. When I started writing, it was a long and confusing path to really identify what cause contributed to what effect, without many people being helpful. Looking for the above signs and understanding how they related to each other took me longer to figure out than I wanted.

But, all that being said, most times, you will see things you can improve simply by reading what you’ve written. Most people suggest to do it out loud, and in this case, the lack of cadence really will become obvious by doing this. Mostly though, read your own writing. It’s the best advice I can offer and really doesn’t take a lot of effort. It’s less of an ego punch than being told, and most people are fairly savvy about what they need to do with their writing all by themselves—just so long as they sit down and actually look at what they’ve done.

Your story should flow from sentence to sentence, thought to thought, and how a story is told gives you just as much information about what’s being said. Check your writing for mechanical tendencies, and remember that people like people, even if it is a love-hate relationship.






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Thursday, November 29, 2018

An Easy Way to Tell If Your Book is “Good Enough”



“Good” isn’t a very good word to use when discussing art. It means different things to different people, and the word coming from the same pair of lips can evolve depending on the context. While I’d be the first to say that if you’re questioning whether or not your book is good enough, you should trust your instincts telling you that it can be better, but a more effective means actually might be just defining what “good” could possibly mean.

Is this intellectually stimulating?
(Does it make you think?)

A good book will activate your brain and make you curious, learn, or engage in some form of puzzle solving. Every scene—and to some extent even line—should teach you something new. But that doesn't mean it has to be calculus or the meaning of life. Maybe it's just that, "Oh, there ARE cows in this world!" Maybe it's, "Man, he's an asshole when he's stressed!" It might be grandiose, causing you to question the greater philosophy in life, or it might be factual, literally giving you interesting trivia about sharks, or it might just be related to the story, changing your perception on what you thought about who and what you were seeing.

Intellectually stimulating isn’t confined to rich literary books, the mystery genre thrives on causing a reader to speculate, question, seek out information, and try to find answers before the characters do.

If you’re questioning whether or not a scene is “necessary” or if your book is interesting, ask yourself if the reader is learning anything, has their sense of curiosity stimulated, or is asking questions. If not, it might be that you’re not giving enough new material or prodding enough of their unknowns. Go back through and make sure the “point” of each scene adds new info—even if that just answers a question the reader might be wondering. Most importantly, give your reader a heads up that they don’t know something important. Don’t try to keep everything a surprise until the end. Give out plot points over the course of the book and make it very clear when there is a question that has of yet to be answered instead of just springing it on them. (And if you do have a twist you want no one to guess, make sure there are plenty of other questions being asked and answered before then.)

Is this emotionally stimulating?
(Does it make you feel?)

Alright, makes sense. But what about those genres that completely lack nuance or surprise? The formulaic romance novels that some people gulp down like a dog who hasn’t had food for a whole five minutes?

Well, a book doesn’t always have to raise questions or wonder. Quite frankly, predictable books usually do far better than ones that leave too much to the imagination (re: don’t tell you what they’re about until three pages until the end for fear of spoiling it). That’s because books are a means for people to feel things when life isn’t getting them what they need. We live vicariously through the characters in order to love, laugh, and win when we lack that sort of excitement in the real world. We want the catharsis of crying and the jolt of fear.

Life teaches us to protect ourselves from these emotions though, so it’s not uncommon for new writers to attempt to save characters from conflict and other intense feelings by making everyone friendly, things go pretty well, and just write sort of a dull story about someone who is navigating their world decently. Realistic usually, but that’s often the problem. If we wanted to experience a world lacking drama or mood swings, we’d just go back to our day jobs.

The most common reasons that a book isn’t activating people’s emotions is that...

1) It needs to be pushed farther. Scarier, funnier, happier, angrier, more erotic. Usually the idea is there, but the writer didn’t take it as far as he could. Most books just need "more" in their scenes. Have the characters push each other's buttons, say the wrong things, do something stupid. 

2) There’s not enough variety. Playing a mood can kill a book, and if you look at most story formulas, they often suggest high contrast. Failure, failure, success. Drama, drama, humor. Loneliness, loneliness, wanted. Polar emotions can intensify each other, so it’s a good idea to make sure your scene of two characters fighting has some agreement and, yes, even bonding, as well as that no scene exists solely to explain. If the scene is really about explaining how the magic of the world works, make the explainer patronizing and the listener pissed off. Emotions are contagious.

After you’ve written something and you're wondering if it goes far enough, ask yourself what the reader should be feeling at multiple points, especially towards the end. It’s not a big deal if some scenes are intellectually founded without a great deal of emotion, but you’ll notice quickly if the emotional aspects are pretty muted throughout.

If a scene doesn’t keep the reader either intellectually or emotionally activated, that scene is boring.

Or, at the very least, not meeting its full potential. Don’t overwhelm the audience with constant new information or worry that not every scene is a tear-jerker. They’re not supposed to be. Sometimes the feeling of reprieve is extremely valuable, and you want different degrees and types of reactions. However, when people feel like something is missing, that maybe their work doesn’t have that magic, thinking logically about the intended impact (to our brains or our hearts) can better answer if it's your insecurity or your brain talking.




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Friday, November 16, 2018

Choice be a Chick Tonight




He didn’t show up to two rehearsals so far. This was after I requested three times for him to check the schedule and make sure that he could attend all of them. Not a word.

The young man gave me a strange conflict sheet when auditioning: “Known/Unknown.” That was all it said. He later crossed it out and wrote, “Work 4 nights a week.” I was assuming he didn’t know which nights or what times, hence his lack of thoroughness. Turns out, the first two he was working, one which I found out when I made a point to contact him, the second when I called him to know why he wasn’t there. He told me that he thought he had made it clear that he was working Friday through Saturday. He said sometimes until six, sometimes until nine. All rehearsals started at six thirty. He said he thought he’d made it clear that he couldn’t work at all those days.

He was also extremely condescending. A neckbeard, of sources, a 21 year old techie who boasted constantly, introduced himself via argument and disagreement. The first thing he ever spoke to me was a criticism in a conversation he wasn’t a part of. For the rest of the night, I never heard him once agree with anyone.

He had gained a bad reputation at town. One person was his Uber driver, having to wait at least ten minutes every time the guy called. Another worked with him at a coffee shop. Being late and a no-show was his cup of tea. He ended up pissing off most cast members by directing and criticizing, including the play’s biggest sweetheart.

He complained about the part he got. He insulted the writer to her face.

I was going to fire him. I was actually looking forward to it. There was some part of me, deep down, who really wanted to take out all of my previous experiences with irresponsible and conceited pains-in-the-ass on him. But I thought better of it.

I am a strong believer in the golden rule. I am a strong believer that people can change.

When I took him aside and chewed him out, he was, understandably pissed. He accused other people of being too sensitive, claiming that he should be able to say, “That’s a fucking stupid idea” as long as he could back it up.

I did not say, “That’s a fucking stupid idea,” having him not take my blunt criticisms well; instead pointed out not only how having a judgmental person in the room directly impacts a person’s aptitude, and explained that even if he’s right, that everyone is overly sensitive, he’s the one who faces the consequences. We were going to fire him. His reputation around town was terrible, and I’d mentioned my stress dealing with him to a fellow theatre producer who wanted his name so she could never cast him. I somewhat wanted him to quit because I knew of people who I could count on who had, at that point, done pretty much the same level of work.

He needs to focus on his goals and reputation and take care of himself, ironically, by taking care of other people. I also made a big point to add that if you tell someone, “That’s a fucking stupid idea,” and are wrong you hemorrhage credibility where, “Here’s what I’m concerned about,” doesn’t. He’d often come across as naïve and oblivious on numerous occasions because of his tendency to state things he wasn’t informed about as fact.

He was offended that I made a point to say he was replaceable. I told him, truthfully, that he should be flattered. I knew that he could do better and so I was going through the effort to be clear about the problem and hopefully aim to fix it.

It is harder to work with and redeem someone who has failed you once (or especially several times) before than it is to start over with a new player. If someone takes the time to tell you that something isn’t working, it might mean that they need you, that they don’t think they can find anyone else, but it doesn’t necessarily come from that. I’ve never stuck beside someone because I thought I couldn’t do it without them. I’ve done it because I liked them, because I believed in them. And because I knew their mistakes were idiotic and easily fixed.

The conversation ended pretty well. It wasn’t filled with only criticisms, and I pointed out how his insults to the author (that his character wasn’t really about “acting”) was actually doing himself a disservice too. There were parts of acting that came easily to him, hence why he got casted after even getting himself off on the wrong foot with me. I told him honestly that I was glad the ideas were coming easily for him, but that wasn’t typically normal and it was a hard part to play. He was good at making things his own.

At the end, after the heat died down, I told him that I just couldn’t understand how he could miss so many rehearsals (very uncommon in my years of doing theatre) even after I’d told him to check the schedule.

“I’m a certain kind of special.”

Thing was, he was never late or absent again. He was actually the most punctual person from that point on, despite having claimed several times that being disorganized and tardy was an integral part of his personality. He had explained that he did these kinds of things at work and internships and other places, confirmed by his reputation around town.

My thoughts have always been, well, just don’t do that.

I’ve encountered this several times in my life, where someone who is severely failing in a certain area of their life refuses to change obvious behaviors causing it. Romantically, professionally, or even artistically, many people who can’t get a leg up are making obviously bad choices.

Show up. Be mentally present. Respect other people. Put in effort to do a good job.

These bare-minimum things are absolutely required if you want to excel, and once you’ve made the decision to be a good team player, it’s actually not hard at all. Even as someone dealing with depression, who dreads daily living, I am capable of being on time, listening to people, and thinking critically about how to achieve what is necessary.

Procrastinating is a choice. Tardiness, being unreliable, lying. All flaws are is really a series of choices. You don’t necessarily think about them, and sometimes they’re so ingrained that it’s far more of an effort to not do it. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s going to define you, that you are incapable of achieving your goals because of this tendency of yours.

Today I struggled to get out of bed. I was tired, like always, despite having slept fifteen hours the day before. How could I mentally go to work? It’d been like this for so long, and I couldn’t muster the motivation exist, let alone look at my overflowing to-do list. Yet, I knew that these unproductive days were eating away at me, that I had responsibilities, and so I made myself rise, go to the computer and start writing. And you know what? I feel a lot better now.

Sometimes the decision to do something is the hardest part. But it is still up to you to choose what you want in life and seize it.




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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Checklist for the Organized Non-Writer



I like checklists. They remind me that I’ve actually done something when my wired up brain is so intent on searching out things to be pissed about. Sometimes, also, things can get overwhelming and having them sorted out manageable action by manageable action can remind you that it’s all doable.

And that’s exactly what makes the checklist for the writer being completely useless:

1) Nothing is a bite-sized task.

2) It’s not linear step-by-step (but also, thank God for that.)

3) It’s really hard and unpredictable to get something checked off.

After a bizarrely emotional few months in which I struggled to see the purpose in life itself, I tried to pull back onto my feet in the usual way. By giving myself a to-do list and a few little chores a day, I could bring myself to feeling competent and get little reminders of what success feels like. But doing the web comic felt repetitive, always one step behind. I was too tired and unfocused to write a blog. The novels needed to be reread, and the fact of the matter was I simply just didn’t care. I didn’t care about creating or writing. I slept and worked all the time, and living felt like I was just moving forward for the sake of it. Couldn’t stop, yet no reason to keep going.

I decided what I needed was a checklist. I felt like my writing career had turned stagnant. What’s the best way to fix that? By figuring out what I needed to do to move forward. So I sat down with myself and created a sort of "What Must Be Done" list to give myself goals and feel like I wasn't the stagnant woman I felt.

-       Finish a novel. Fifty-thousand words in, I could do it a page a day by September 8.
-       Second Draft - Read through for pacing, flow, and mark down any big picture issues like character arcs, dynamics, intrigue, conflict, tension, and continuity. Sept. 13.
-       Get some space. October 13. (Work on another novel.)
-       Third Draft - Zoom in on specific scenes that are the weakest in the book. Oct. 18.
-       Fourth Draft – Focus on word choice, dialogue, clunky sentences, consistency in style. Oct. 23.
-       Contact Beta Readers. Nov 1.
-       Fifth Draft – Respond to readers’ critiques. Feb. 7.
-       Repeat betas, writers groups, etc. Professional Edit?
-       Polish Edit. May 18.
-       Jackson Hole Writers Conference. June 30.
-       Edit from Writers Conference. July 16.
-       Query letter.
-       Synopsis.
-       List of agents.
-       List of comparable titles. (Read contemporary books in the genre.)
-       Submit August 1, 2019.
-       Create a marketing “persona” of my readers.
-       Create a budget and marketing plan for existing and pre-existing projects.
-       Gather more of a returning “costumer” on my social media page.
-       Visit more conferences.
-       Rebrand Stories of the Wyrd artwork to be consistent.
-       Get new headshots.
-       So on and so forth. 

As I went on, I started to seek out things I might be excited to do. My list got longer and longer and many of it became “redoing” work I’d already put in, or getting off track until I became greatly overwhelmed.

For me to finish Take the Wheel the way that I want, I will be waiting a year to see any results, and even then, just because I can check something off doesn’t mean that it’s done with. There’s too many variables and room for quality control. And the main point is, the first thing on the list will take a while, while anything I can do "out of order" is also a huge time commitment.

Even dissecting it into subparts still doesn’t make you feel accomplished and missing the little deadlines I have (4,000 words a week) can give my heart a pretty hard twist.

I’m a hater of formulas and think everyone should experiment with their path to success, that no little “checklist” is going to help you get there. But seriously, why don’t I have some little dude telling me what to do step by step? Why does every choice have to be so difficult? Every step like I’m carrying a thousand pounds?

Failure, whatever that means, leaves you in the same position you started. Often just as blind or lost as Day One. The truth is, I’ve checked off most items on this list in my life several times, and at the end of the day, I don’t see my progress, even if the little list said so.

Let’s face it. As a motivational tool, this one isn’t a great one. It’s just a reminder of how slow and uncertain the process is. I wish there was a means to feel like you’re actually getting somewhere, that event he backtracks felt like moving backwards rather than just twiddling your thumbs in dismay of being a part of the void.

On the other side of things, I get to check writing a blog off my to-do list today. Three days late.




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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

It Ain’t Over Until I Stop Talking



A secret, unspoken joy of a small town is that particular moment when your professors go from being authoritarian experts and become your equally lost peers. Sometimes it’s a blessing, a means to return the gift of support and motivation your fifth-grade teacher instilled in you.

One of the most impactful adults of my childhood would go out of her way to make sure I’d be able to escape the other students when overstimulated by their, we’ll say, antics. She supported my creativity and rule breaking more than any other, and even allowed me to take charge of an entire class period to “teach short story writing” to my fellow third-graders.

As an adult, I encountered this woman again in my creative writing group, where I found her to be immensely insecure and uncertain about her convictions. Other members looked down on her and questioned her choices constantly, a giant man barking, “WHY?!” at her anytime he disagreed with her vision. Unexpectedly, I was given power to empower her just like she had for me.

It can also be a bad thing. Teachers are humans too, and with that comes all of the pettiness and politics that teenagers take possession of. My high school drama teacher had been the longest, most constant relationship out of all of the people who have taught me. I thought her stern and opinionated, but intelligent, passionate, and respectful.

Yet, when I became a teacher myself, I started to question her decisions, starting to realize the ineffectiveness (and unfairness) of how she prioritized the students with natural showmanship over teaching the eager. She wanted high quality shows with minimal effort, not to teach, not to challenge. There weren’t many “lessons” in her lessons. As I worked with her as an adult, professional peers, I found more unsavory practices. She would scream at the techies, insult her directors, and take over any group discussion to make it about her needs and her opinions. Her judgment was law and everyone else was a philistine. The work she produced itself wasn’t something I was too enamored with, and soon the woman who I’d idolized in my youth was nothing more than a stress-inducing diva.

She had had a lot to say about… well, everything, and was my initial introduction to a great deal of writing/acting rules. “Everyone wants something even if it’s just a glass of water,” sort of opinions. And I, as someone who despises being told what to do, never took it seriously, doing my own thing regardless. It was as I aged that I realized that these parroted pieces of advice weren’t always the clearest. Once I understand—via experience and practice—what they were trying to get out, I had more respect for them. But there’s one thing I’ve heard constantly that I still to this day think is too vague to be remotely useful: “Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end.”

While talking with a woman about the playwriting group I founded this year, she mentioned her idea—a café with strange characters—and my past mentor’s criticism: this whole beginning, middle, end shebang. The writer accepted the advice eagerly, but was unclear about which direction to go with it. To me, that made sense, as I always wanted to quip back, “The beginning is when I start talking, the end is where I stop, and the middle is everything in between.”

It’s sort of like when people say, “Get rid of it because it’s unnecessary.” Well, the whole book is unnecessary really. More to the point, I find that it’s misdirecting from the real issue—it’s not unnecessary, it’s that it’s boring and easy to cut. Or boring and doesn’t lead anywhere. Maybe it’s a distraction or looks like the author is rambling. But, the more important part is that it is boring, regardless of the impact it has later on. If it was interesting and off-topic, no one would bat an eye (unless they wanted to hear more about it.) So-called unnecessary details are what separates the story from the summary, and sometimes those little jokes that don’t move the plot forward are what actually keep the audience glued to the screen. To me, the word “unnecessary” is a shame tactic that requires little thought to get something to change something.

As an avid reader of new writers, I know how there are stories that don’t have their beginning, middle, ends, just verbose tangents that make you feel like you’ve wasted your time. Yet, I also say that there are so many exceptions to what constitutes as the effective trifecta of a story plot, it’s mostly based on an, “I’ll know it when I see it,” mentality. It’s difficult to warn a writer starting a new book what to look for without the use of a formula, and surprisingly, there are many formulas and rules to choose from. I recommend that all authors experiment with these, but that takes years of tooling around and research.

So what about the new writer who wants to make something cohesive?

A cardinal rule is to remain focused.

If I’m telling you the story about how I broke up with my boyfriend, I’m going to include the aspects and factors that I consider relevant. I may begin my story with how we met, but only if I think how we met is demonstrative of how we ended. So, by the fact that I had to ask him out and be incredibly aggressive, it might be a great place to begin if our relationship ended due to his lack of effort. How we met foreshadows how we ended. But if we just met in a grocery store and we broke up because he doesn’t think brushing his teeth is important, that might not be the best place to start.

What’s “on topic” is really easy to identify because it’s a true story: we have all this information we know we can’t tell each second of—two years together, there’s a lot of days that can be summed up or skipped over—and so we have a better natural filter. (Some of us more than others, of course.)

Fiction is a little more difficult, especially genres like fantasy and sci-fi when details like where the milk she pours into her cereal came from might be something the audience needs to know for sake of world building. Plus people love subplots.

However, the rules remain the same. Millions of things happen to these characters, not all of which need to be explained. Staying focused doesn’t necessarily mean to one story, but it does mean to ask yourself how information relates to other information, or if a scene is even telling the audience anything. Just because a character would go to the bathroom, being human an all, it can be left out unless the fact that they went at that time informs later or earlier actions.

Beginnings

Really, most people would agree that you can start a book out in anyway as long as it’s interesting. Personally, I would focus on that first, but I will throw out a few things that seems to be successful.

Good beginnings typically…

-Give strong sense of character.
            In Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill’s dance through the “rat” infested cavern and his argument with his humanoid opponents immediately give a sense of how he handles conflict and endears him to us.

-Gives a sense of the author.
            Whether it be The Martian or Pride and Prejudice, the strength of those first paragraphs lie in the perspective/philosophy/sense of humor. We get a vibe to the voice of the book, and some insight into who the writer is; why they’re writing the damn thing in the first place.

-Gives a sense of the overall mood and/or theme of the book.
            “It was a dark and stormy night.” Horror, comedy, drama, a rollercoaster, you get a taste of what emotions the rest of the story intends to instill in you.

-Sets up important details of the character’s situation that explains later actions.
            When we see that Lilo has no friends, no family, and is intensely weird and alone, it becomes the foundation to not only the stakes in losing Stitch, but also makes sense as to why she remains loyal to her terrible, disloyal dog.

Middle

I remember, when first writing a novel, thinking about what the hell happens in the middle? And the truth is, this is the most flexible, yet easiest part to get wrong (as in, lose your audience.)

Good middles typically…

-Make a huge change in the character’s situation.
            So, if we see how the character handles conflict in their comfort zone, what happens when we take them to a place they’re unfamiliar? Blake Snyder, writer of Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need refers to this as a “upside down world” and the idea is, after establishing a normal life, how far in the opposite direction can we go? I don’t think it needs to be absolutely polar, but definitely the middle is going to want to look very different from the beginning, if that be setting, social standing, or the types of problems the character now has.

-Explain the character’s priorities and concerns.
            There should be a moment of doubt and resistance when a character’s life changes—as humans don’t like change in general, and it adds to who your character is. When suddenly he’s faced with a decision, you learn a lot more about it when it comes to why he hesitates. Why wouldn’t he do something? What ultimately propels him?

-Show the “concept.”
            Your book often starts out with an idea, such as a young boy finds out he’s a wizard and goes to school, or even you’re in a café with a bunch of colorful locals. After you set up what’s normal and strange for the life of the people in your story, take a moment to play with the actual concept that caused you to write the book. Have Harry take a magic class. Let your locals make jokes at each other’s expense. For the first portion of middle section, write the book the way you want it to be without worrying (too much) about stakes or progression of plot.

-Set up more reasons the character needs to succeed.
            The beginning needs to tell your audience why the character cares about whatever it is he’s trying to do, but the middle needs to emphasize the importance. This is where you start adding stakes and developing even more reasons for the character to pursue his goal and, most importantly, to do it now.

The End

A good ending will, of course, tie the majority your threads together and leave the reader feeling something. Many amateur writers fail in this area because, honestly, they get impatient and they quick. They rush the ending and sort of just stop.

Endings, especially for novels, can get away with “lacking” certain aspects, even being improved because of it. Books in series, for instance, don’t want every problem tied up, and even standalones might do better if you leave the audience with a question rather than answering it for them. That being said, it’s very easy for a reader to feel ripped off if the author doesn’t have an ending with an impact.

Good endings typically…

-Leave the audience feeling something has changed.
            A reader will put the book down feeling scared or on edge, excited or satisfied. They might have new intellectual concepts to chew over, or even be inspired in their own life to make a difference. A bad ending will make a reader wonder why they bothered picking up the book in the first place, typically because though the author tried to instill emotions, they did not succeed.

-Utilize emotional swings within the last few pages to achieve this.
            There should be a moment of doubt as to whether or not the character will succeed/how they will succeed. If the hero ultimately wins the battle, at one point, he needs to look like he genuinely might lose. You don’t have to convince the reader of this, many books don’t, but if you can, all the better. If he comes in and just wins everything, blowing away the enemy in one fell swoop, the conflict doesn’t look hard enough, and the ending isn’t as much of a payoff. If you don't know what the main character is trying to succeed at, it's a sign that your story is just unfocused rambling, and it's likely you're boring the reader.

-Make it clear why you told the story.
            It was funny, arousing, or cathartic. It explained a big problem in our world we need to solve, or at least open up to discussion. You had a point, and you made it, even if you don’t give answers.

-It makes sense as to why we saw the rest of the story.
            If the ending would work just as well without the buildup, then the buildup isn’t working. Because we saw the whole thing from beginning to end, we see how what happened in scene two makes the finale make sense/more important to us as the audience. This falls in line with staying focused; at the last scene, we know why we needed to learn everything we did throughout the book.




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Saturday, July 28, 2018

Blinders are for Horses

“I’m done,” the least invested child of my class told me, racing past to put his poster on the finished pile.

I held out an arm. “What about all that white space?”

“You said I could have some if it was intentional!”

“Is that intentional?”

“Yeah!”

“Because it looks like you just got bored.”

He grinned sheepishly at me, quickly admitting, “I did get bored.”

“And it looks like it,” I replied, turning him back towards his seat. “Color in the background and then you can be done.”

When the students get older, the arguments get harder. Third graders sort of accept your answers for what they are, but middle schoolers start to become pedantic and make “On-Paper” rebuttals that can stump you if you don’t fully know why—or are willing to admit the truth about why—you believe what you believe.

Adults can be just as bad. “Artistic vision” makes me want to beat someone with a keyboard. Not because their tastes differ from mine, but because so many half-assed pieces are stunted by that excuse. It’s not that you create something “ugly” and are proud of it; it’s when you’re new to what you do and don’t challenge yourself. When something looks unfinished, or is painfully dull, and it’s claimed to be the vision in the first place.

On the other hand, sometimes that “finished” look is actually just an arbitrary restriction of professionalism; a singular method society demands even though many other options work just as well. There are associations, like the papyrus or comic sans font—even Times New Roman for hell’s sake—that come off as amateurish simply because the average Joe has access to it. There are cultural traditions, like ties are formal because ties are formal, which, one day, someone decided to buck the rule and created a new association—ties are for punk rock. The rule made way for a contradiction; the impact is caused by the breaking of the expectation. It begs the question: What is innovative and changing convention versus what is a mere amateur who doesn’t know how to do it correctly?

And more importantly, what do we do with the untalented artist who claimed his poor execution was just above our plebian imagination?

I should mention at this point I’m currently tranq’d out by anti-anxiety medication. For a long time when confronted with (what I considered) a poorly skilled soul who cried “vision!” I told myself to mind my own business and stop getting worked up—that focusing on the quality of my own skillsets is what will bring me satisfaction and yield results. But when you’re constantly looping into fight or flight mode, already feeling hot with pent up rage, this can be hard to do. Now that I’m synthetically calm, it’s easy for me to say the obvious: Don’t argue with bullshit artists. Worry about your own bullshit if you want to improve.

As I work with people of all ages, I find that the real trick to speedy development is simply looking to what they avoid. There are areas that don’t draw our interest, that we’re not practiced in, that we cut corners with, or ignore all together. These spots, blindspots as I refer to them, are easy to enhance on their own, and enhancing those will improve the broader picture in turn.

It’s a fairly quick and fun process if the artist is willing to a) acknowledge it is being unfairly ignored b) actually do something about it. Even a little something.

This might be the white of the paper on the drawing. It might that you don’t have a clue what women characters are thinking when a man awkwardly hits on them. It may be you zone out during action sequences, or don’t care about building a world that’s unlike what others have already seen, or that you find several different camera angles a waste of everyone time. It may be shadow, color, or just making your straight lines actually straight. In fact, it could be pretty much anything, and you may care so little about it you won’t even notice you haven’t touched it.

Sometimes, seeing these things can be difficult, even for the willing; on occasion they’re small and subtle, or it’s not a question you even thought to ask. You don’t always know what you don’t know. Which is one of the best reasons to get outside feedback. But, really, I’ve often found that most people are consciously bracing against a solution they’re already afraid of, a problem they’re denying, or a convention they’ve rejected that, if they just experimented a little, would open up a world of options.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the same old arguments with children that I have been fighting all my life. Not just with my peers or my students, but even with myself. It’s the real question for every artist. Am I being too hard on myself? Or am I just being a lazy bullshitter?

We all have those moments when we can’t decide if it’s good enough, or the time we knew it wasn’t but couldn’t pinpoint why. In these times, I’ve realized there’s an easy question to ask yourself:

Is there a part of the story that I’m avoiding because I don’t know how to do it right?

And, as I say to my students, if the answer’s yes, there’s an easy solution.





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