Arrival and Some of Its Layers

We start today by talking about layers. I like layers existing in certain things – cake, bricks, geological strata – but spent a great deal of my life thinking that when you mention layers around any kind of art, that it immediately becomes the cue for pretentious wankery and arrogance to emerge to show you how smart other people can be while showing how clearly smart you’re not.

People would bring up the idea that this book or that film or the painting over there would have layers and I’d nod and make very agreeable sounds, really just in an effort to make them stop talking. It’s not that I couldn’t see all the layers, I just wasn’t very interested in getting that deep into what have been a very one comedy or nice piece of desktop wallpaper.

This changed a great deal over the last few years when I started getting my hands dirtier in story structure and developmental editing, because “layers” (the concept) had layers to it, and once you get past the part where people want to tell you something  some tweed-sucking academic once told them something in an airy tone that they later used to try and get a dry handjob in a closet from someone in their dorm, you see that layers are coiled springs of potential energy – the ability to convey information in a concentrated form without overtly stating it repeatedly.

I’ve seen Arrival 3 times now, it has layers, and I’d like to talk about them. In no way am I saying these are the only layers, these are just the ones I’ve seen in my 3 times. I absolutely encourage to go check it out for yourself. And before we go onward, yes, there are spoilers here, because it’s going to be impossible for me to mention these layers without giving away some plot elements for context. Don’t ever let spoilers dissuade you from checking something out, learning what Point B is when you’re at Point A still leaves you to discover the route, and still lets you draw your own conclusions as to how you felt.

Layer 1 – Challenging the traditional sci-fi organization

Arrival is a great movie. It’s enjoyable. It’s visually engaging. It’s got great acting. It’s well edited. The soundtrack is cool. Past that, it does a really interesting job in taking on one of the major elements in alien/monster-encounter media, the knowledge-malevolence axis (that’s not its real name, it’s named after a lady who wrote about it in the ’60s, I think her name started with an R, I cannot remember it, but we’re gonna talk about it as the axis because that’s what my notes have)

The knowledge-malevolence axis is the measure of how the alien or monster (also called “a creature” when you go back to B-films), regardless of whether they’re a time-traveling murder robot from the dystopic future, or they’re a benevolent water mirage, or a Xenomorph or Mr Hyde or whatever, interacts in a positive way with the humans in the media.

If you want the audience to assume the alien’s purpose is to rack up a body count, they rank higher in malevolence, because there’s no “positive” interaction, the humans don’t gain anything from the experience except possibly not dying.

If you want the audience to assume the alien’s purpose is to help or challenge humanity, then they’re not aggressive, and in fact are represented as smarter than humanity.

The shorthand is “as intelligence grows, body count drops”

Traditionally, if your aliens are straight-up murder factories, their intelligence isn’t really developed as a story point past whatever utility it serves in making the body count rise. They’ve got to smart enough to trap, fight, and kill humans, period.

And if your aliens are super geniuses with a mission, they don’t have to murder anyone, and don’t pursue that unless the antagonist of the film ends up meeting their end via tentacle, mental power or nifty CG.

Arrival smartly packages the knowledge-malevolence axis not in the aliens, but in the humans.

In the film, all the violence (from an aborted bombing to some tanks, helicopters and I think threatened missiles) is human-generated. Because the movie smartly points out that in the absence of a traditional alien antagonist that bleeds so we can kill it, we default back onto our second greatest fear – inferiority.

This tension is so often discarded in alien media. We see some uniformed guy questioning the protagonists as to the alien’s intentions, some lasers go off, and sure enough we know the alien’s intentions to invite us all to the dead body pile.

Here the uniformed guys take that same stance, but no lasers go off. So … they wait for the lasers to go off. And no lasers ever go off. But we have to assert some kind of toughness, so we’re ready with all this military bluster. The tension is one of humanity’s design.

So there’s no body count, there’s no overt threat (we’ll get there in the next layer), so what kind of alien-encounter film is this?

It isn’t. It’s a character study, there just happen to be aliens in it as vehicles for that study.

Onto the next layer.

Layer 2- Narrative Toolbox

I think we need to do just a little plot and character setup here. Our protagonist is a linguist (Amy Adams should get an award), and she’s recruited by the military to work on figuring out what our aliens are saying, so that we can figure out if there’s going to be a body count. She’s partnered with a physicist (because you can’t have a science fiction movie without science), and the pair of them go figure out how to talk to aliens.

It’s worth pointing out here that 2 things become pretty clear: first, our protagonist has an easier time talking to aliens than people (and not in that overused Aspergers-is-a-superpower-way), and second, that this is a movie about what people say and what it means. Now before we get to how the alien language is fucking super rad, we need to lens this movie through the idea of communication. Who has what to say, and what does it mean?

Our protagonist has to, on a plot level, figure out what the aliens are saying.
Our protagonist has to, on a secondary level, figure out what her visions/dreams/thoughts mean (they grow progressively more intense as a b-plot and bookends in the film)

The aliens have to, on a plot level, communicate a particular set of ideas to the humans.
The aliens, have to, on a secondary level, validate a decision they make that’s not immediately apparent or stated to anyone else (we’re gonna talk about it, hang on)

The army has to, on a plot level, interpret the alien actions and take appropriate response.

Communication is the primary currency in power dynamics. It doesn’t matter if we communicate through words, gestures, asses getting kicked, or dance offs (dances off … is like courts martial and surgeons general?), characters communicate with the intention of either maintaining or changing a power dynamic.

Our protagonist has a unique position in the film – she’s subordinate in every power dynamic she is a part of, but she never loses agency and is a pro-active character for the majority of the film.

It’s her actions that lead to alien conversation. Her actions that resolve military tension. And ultimately her actions that end the film on brilliant gutpunch. She’s got agency for miles, and she uses it.

The other element in communication is about the distribution of information that we communicate. We know that based on the shapes of symbols we see as letters, and the sounds we know to associate with them, that a few lines and dots turn into words. And we know that because of where a word is in a sentence, it has a certain importance and value to the information we’re trying to convey.

For example:

My dog is asleep on the couch means you picture my dog, being asleep, on a couch, in that order.

When we jumble those words up (not change the words, just their positions, the package of information doesn’t make sense.

The on dog couch my is asleep isn’t something we understand based on how we’ve come to interpret language. Left to right, finding nouns, verbs, prepositions, and all that.  (I’m way simplifying the study of word order typology here)

Yes, foreign language readers, many languages either operate as subject-object-verb as well as subject-verb-object, so you can tumble that sentence around and see how it comes out in Korean or Quechua for instance and still makes reasonable sense to both eye and ear.

Now we get into something a little deeper. Let’s talk about embedding, because it’s part of the alien language and it’s one of the two primary elements that tie the protagonist and the big story question together (the other being the last 2 minutes of the film)

Embedding is the idea that you take an idea that can’t stand on its own (a clause) and you nest it like one of those Russian dolls in and around other clauses within a sentence. You bury the idea not to obscure it (at least not intentionally), you bury it to give it a context.

Like this:

The man that the woman heard left.

To dissect this, you’ve got some unpacking to do:

  1. “left” refers to a past tense verb, not the directional
  2. A marker like “that” should clue you in to find the next nearest verb (“heard” in this case) and consider that to be a clause on its own.

So, if we were going to visually organize this sentence it’ll turn into

The man || that the woman heard || left.

You can, rightfully for the sake of parsing, chop the sentence down to “The man left.”

But what about that clause, what about “that the woman heard”, it’s important, right? It gives a context in addition to us pictured an absent dude, yeah?

Yes, it is important. If we’re establishing that what happened to the person she heard is more important than the fact that she heard him at all, it’s super important (because the sentence ends with “left”, meaning his absence is the last thing we take before going forward). And if we’re establishing a contrast between people the woman did and didn’t hear, the it’s super important because it distinguishes one man from another.

Embedding as an unconscious writing practice (where we shoehorn in all kinds of stuff because it’s important but we’re not really sure where to put it but we don’t want to lose it so it has to go somewhere) is one of the most comment manuscript murderers that I see at Parvus. It’s a congestion of information that makes it difficult to follow along and develop the intended mental picture.

Embedding as a conscious writing practice, being deliberate in the packaging of an idea inside similar ideas, is a great way to add layers inside sentences, or put another way, layers inside layers.

This is like a turducken quesorito, which sounds gross now that I’ve written it out.

So why did I have to lay out embedding? Because it’s central to the other big part of the narrative stuff here – embedding allows for non-linear development.

If you can package an idea within a sentence, and then take that sentence and put in a paragraph, and that whole paragraph creates a picture in the reader’s head, and that picture is shaped by context of all the other surrounding pictures, then it won’t matter what time this or that piece came into the mix if you’re already looking at the whole ensemble.

Back to the plot – the visions our protagonist has are due to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (no not the Klingon), which says that language either determines or at least influences thought, meaning that immersion in a material produces thoughts and therefore dreams in that material (like when you listen to the Moana soundtrack enough times you start thinking about being a voyager).  These visions are dreamlike, but they’re revelations of her future. The conceit of the alien language, the semagram nature of it and its ability to be embedded with information means that time is no longer constrained linearly, as in you can reach point C from point A even though B in the future that hasn’t happened yet is known to you and tells you how to do it.

Armed with future knowledge, she can take actions in the present to make sure the future happens.

Relevant to the subject of her visions (a dying child and a broken relationship), we go down one more level.

Level 3 Terminality

This is the level where I cried. I have zero shame in saying that, because it’s rare that I find this sort of idea expressed in a satisfying way that’s not playing completely for maudlin necessity. No one’s dying a noble sacrifice, no one’s dying to complete prophecy, people just … die. And it sucks, and it hurts.

So, you’re our protagonist, you find out that after you deal with these aliens, you’re gonna end up in a relationship, have a daughter, then lose that daughter early. The question then is – why have the daughter if you know how it ends? (See how this parallels to our spoilers mention up top?)

Our protagonist says yes, and we the audience take an uppercut to the breadbasket over it because we’re immediately shown the title and end credits. She knows what’s coming, she accepts it anyway. It’s gonna suck, but that’s her choice.

This isn’t a movie about aliens teaching us about linguistic relativity. This is a movie about embracing life and making decisions knowing that it will end in something more pointed than “everybody dies.” This is a movie about communicating and sharing that information even though it has consequences.

Her relationship ends not because the daughter dies, but because she knew the daughter was going to die and she didn’t tell her husband. Did he have a right to know? Would he have said yes to having the daughter or the relationship if he knew?

And likewise, if you needed there to be the daughter (Point C from the above layer) without the daughter how could you have reached Point B at all?

What we’re left with at this level is the question of knowing the future and allowing it to impact the present. To me, for me, that’s a big giant shout-out to terminal illness. Granted, I’m biased, but hey this is my blog and I’m me, but knowing the future absolute influences the present in positive and negative ways.

It’s great motivation for finally accomplishing dreams. It’s terrible reckoning as to the reality that a pet will likely outlive you. It’s great for encouraging a change in character, and woeful for coming to terms with just how awful that character was.

But it’s not all bad, just like it’s not all good. In Arrival, she got to have that relationship and a daughter, for a little while at least. Yeah, you can argue that it was unfair to be taken away so short, or that it was her own fault for inciting it all, but … she still had it, and it had to have some good moments, right?

And for me, yeah, it can suck knowing that there’s a finish line to the marathon I only recently starting caring about participating in, but I’m still running (well, ambling, I mean, shit, I’ve got bronchial pneumonia at the moment) and I’m not done yet.

It has good moments. And you hold onto them and you use them as raft, bumper car, touchstone, lighthouse, reference point, and starlight to get you through the bad moments.

Go watch this movie. Please. And then go create things.

 

Happy creating.

The Post About The Shift

As I promised here, I’ve noticed a both intended and unintended substantial change I’ve made over the last few months. I suppose it’s been percolating for years, but because I’m often slow about absorbing or accepting ideas when they pertain to or affect me, I’m only just seeing it now.

Way back when, I was, bluntly, a mess. I was a dishonest, manipulative, arrogant, obnoxious bully of a guy. I can write that off to unchecked mental illness or addiction, but I don’t entirely want to excuse it. I saturated and perpetuated a climate where I was encouraged to stay not-nice, because it was easier to be a death metal porcupine with flaming quills than anything sensitive, empathetic, or sincere. That stuff was scary, because honesty always carries with it a pile of potential rejection or judgment.

Granted, yes, being a complete dick carries judgment and rejection, but I very artfully was able to say that was the fault of other people. How dare they not want to hang out or love or get to know the guy who treated them like shit! What was so wrong with them, because clearly John-in-his-20s was perfect.

I would love to say that this shift away from that trash-human was all due to sobriety, but I think the roots of this shift come from three elements: the sobriety, the people I put around myself after I realized how important happiness was, the material I chose to put my focus on instead of where it was before.

So let’s break this down.

The Sobriety
It’s undeniable that getting off booze, pills, and the wealth of poisons I was stuffing into my body played a huge role in how I lived. Sure, it revealed some way-less-than-great health issues that have some serious and big-time consequences, but between one thousand one hundred and thirteen days ago (at the time of this writing) and today, I am less engaged in efforts to actively kill myself because I’m angry at the world for not giving me enough love or success or attention or validation, like it’s all portion controlled and not the all-you-can-plate buffet that I’ve come to discover it is. I didn’t want to do the work of going out and asking or seeking those things I needed because I thought I wouldn’t get them, and when it became apparent to me that I had just as much right as the person next to me to be happy and cared about, this big personality and productivity and professional shift began. Sadly, I don’t remember the exact moment that switch was flipped, but I can ballpark it to a particular week and roughly say it was snowing that day, based on my recollections.

I’d be dead by now if I wasn’t sober. Period. Full stop. I am proud of my efforts, I have zero doubts that it was the right thing to do, even though the path to get me there wasn’t the easiest and along the way I had to change along the way. The clarity of mind and the appreciation for being alive matters in a way that’s greater than blog follower count, or client list, or bank account. I can grow and improve anything now that I’m not actively playing a part in my own destruction.

The People I Put Around Myself After I Realized How Important Happiness Was
Okay, let’s go back to me being a dick in my 20s and even my early 30s. I had friends. I had some good friends. I may have treated them poorly, we may have treated each other poorly, but this is where my life was. It wasn’t about being happy because I’d helped people (like now) it was about getting happiness in the misery of others to create some paradigm that I get my jollies from knocking other people down. It’s not healthy. I am zero percent proud of what I did and said back then.

Even after sobriety I didn’t know any other group of people to cluster towards, and I admit I did myself very few favors moving through the orbits of people back then. I was trying to make good and smart and healthy choices without recognizing that it’s hard to find them when you’re not seeing the red flags.

I discounted happiness as I thing I qualified for because I thought I had to atone for living poorly. I thought that these people around me would provide that happiness just because I was around, but my silence about how I felt and what I wanted didn’t clue them in that there was a thing to address. That’s on me. They’re people, so they’ve got their own issues, but I can only be responsible for myself.  I gotta put on my oxygen mask before I can help somebody else with theirs.

So, after painfully extricating myself from groups of people who I never meshed with the way I wanted, I floundered a little. I felt like that grape that sits at the bottom of the package – it’s not part of the cluster, but it’s not an inedible grape even though it gets overlooked because it’s not part of the cluster.

The best advice I can give to someone when they feel like that grape is that the only way you’re going to get different results is to take different action. And yes, you need to accept that the new action has risks to it, but that’s the cost for taking it. I took risks.

Okay wait, that makes it sound like I went skydiving into a volcano. I didn’t. I mean I started talking to new people. It only felt like skydiving into a volcano.

Here’s where I start name-checking people.

Bar none, the best improvement I made to my life was letting good people who legitimately care about me help me go forward one day and one action at a time. I would be completely and totally lost without Jessica Pruneda. She is at once my sherpa, my confidante, the kindest and best human source of compassion and caring I’ve ever met, and someone I am deeply pleased to go through life with. Also, she makes sure I do things like nap and drink water and not lose my shit. Her fondness for tacos also makes lunchtime a treat. I cannot say enough good things about her, even though she blushes super hyper easily and will totally deny most of it. She’s amazing.

Without Jeremy Morgan, Matt Jackson, and Mark Richardson, my life would be missing some of its crucial colors and scope (Cinemascope, the best of all Scopes, take that peri-!). They make me laugh and think and encourage me everyday. They make it easier. They’re awesome.

I cannot understate how crucial it is to do the tough act of looking at the people and habits you surround yourself with if you’re not getting what you want from life. Whether that means business or personally or casually or creatively, the climate you osmose affects your work and life. Tricky here is the idea that it’s not their fault if you need to change things. Nor is it a complete sign that you’re doomed to suck, it’s just a thing you need to change to do better, be better, and go forward. It’s fixable.

Happiness is vitality. It isn’t this thing you earn or work up to like trading in tickets at some prize counter, it’s a kind of lifeblood all its own, and despite what angry or loud people will holler on the internet, there’s nothing wrong with you that you don’t deserve to be happy. And other people can be happy concurrent to your happiness even and especially with the things making them happy aren’t the same as the things that make you happy.

People can contribute to your happiness, but you can’t expect them to fill the tank. It’s not all on them to be your everything-resource. Tough lesson, but worth it.

The Material I Chose To Put My Focus On
Before you can affect a change in yourself, you have to first accept that you’re a product of the environment and scaffolding you’ve built around your day-to-day life. If you’ve built an echo chamber, if you are only steeped in one particular avenue of thought or action, then what you’re doing and thinking is only going to show the hallmarks of that influence. We all do this.

Sometimes, this isn’t an issue, because the people and thoughts around us elevate and illuminate us. Sometimes though, it’s building sycophancy and perpetuating codependence.

For me, I put media and content around me that was disguised as intellectual or provocative, but was really no different than the stuff I was spewing in my 20s. It had some new window dressing, it had all new jargon, but it was still … people treating each other poorly under the guise of “educating” or “correcting” them, a position that no one appointed them to, and a position that wasn’t actually doing anyone any favors.

It stopped being funny or interesting to hear the same tired opinions or outrage or jokes. The horses were dead and beaten. It was time to move on, and when these other people didn’t, that meant it was time for me to go.

I found Movies With Mikey. I found Epic Rap Battles of History. I found the WWE Network. I stopped listening to angry dudes and ladies making mountains out of molehills. I started checking out people making stuff that was fundamentally not about how awful things were and how good things could be. Not counting the shirtless guys hitting each other with chairs. That’s more nostalgia.

It was a simple thing, to prune the Youtube subscriptions, to cull the blogs I read, and find new outlets. I asked this question – Is this bringing information and giving me something I can take away, or is this something I’m watching because I find the emotional outburst attractive?

It’s a question about whether or not I want to be actively engaged in checking out material or passively checking out because I’m checking out an echo chamber different than the one I just left.

You add all these things up: the decisions and the people and the thinking, and you can track me moving towards being a different John. The tweetstorms began to add in elements of motivation, I blogged less because I was focusing on learning how to do things in new ways and more ways that reinforce the vector I’m on. I started a Patreon as one more place to put out content where I could speak when typing didn’t cover all the bases I wanted.

In the very near future, over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to start talking about and sharing interviews and experiences I’ve given and had this year where I think (and hope) you’ll see this changed me.

I can’t twist your arm and make you see it, all I can do it is be that guy and do the best I can every day.

Thanks for reading this, I really appreciate it. Happy creating.

The Post-Dreamation 2017 Post

I’m less than twenty-four hours removed from the last day of Dreamation, and before I lose the majority of my day to a crowded inbox and a variety of social media platforms, I wanted to put down a length of thoughts about what I experienced this past weekend at Dreamation.

Up front, let me repeat what I’ve said for years: Double Exposure runs an amazing convention. This has far more to do with how orderly the chaos seems, how kind the people are, and how filled with opportunity every event can be rather than the fact that their three conventions (Dreamation, Dexcon, and Metatopia) are held within 15 minutes of my house. Even if they were held on Venus, I’d absolutely find my way there. Not just because my friends go there, or because Metatopia is THE convention to attend if you’re serious about creating games and stories, but because I can walk into a Double Exposure event and there’s a palpable energy of “We’re here to have a good time, we’re all in this together, and we believe in everyone’s ability to be positive and enjoy themselves.” It’s like bathing in an awesome spring for a few days. I come out of there physically tired and mentally alive.

If you’re a long-time follower of all I do, maybe you’ve noticed there’s been a substantial shift in my attitudes lately. This will get its own post later this week (I’ve already started writing it out in another window), but I want to point out an instance where this became very clear to me. If you track down any early interview I’ve given (especially those pre-sobriety), I was kind of a dick. I was arrogant, I was snotty, I was far more Malfoy than Potter. Those interviews, though I am grateful for the chances I had to record them, I cringe thinking about them now, and prefer to not listen or have them brought up. I’m not that guy anymore. I’m so thankful to not be that guy anymore.

I say all this because I got interviewed while at Dreamation, and I am 1000% serious when I say that you should not pass up a chance to talk to Meghan at the Modifier Podcast. She is insightful and kind while not letting you give pat answers of negligible effort. She encourages comfort and honesty without ever forcing you to do more than talk like you’re talking with an old friend. Game people, go talk to her, she’s really good at what she does, and I enjoyed the two hours she afforded me in her busy weekend to talk about all manner of things.

This interview wasn’t only a “hey please support my art” discussion, though we did talk about it. It was a conversation similar to the other more recent conversations I’ve had in interviews about the congruence and confluence of my passion and my belief that it’s okay to make stuff and be happy about making stuff.  That’s a 180-degree turn from the entitled jerk who compared editing to plumbing and spent far too long worrying about his position on some editor hierarchy that only existed in his desperate insecure mind.

On the “what did I do” front, I showed off Noir World some more, and you’re going to hear/read me talking about it a lot in the coming days and weeks, because it’s going to go off and be crowd-funded and published. I won’t apologize for doing that, I can only give you fair notice that Noir World and film noir are going to be lenses through which we have some discussions in the future.

The Saturday evening session of Noir World made up for the unsettling feelings I carried throughout the previous sessions – they were okay, sure, but the game didn’t cohere and sparkle the way I like. Now I could easily attribute that to the number of people who attended the sessions (it’s disappointing when people sign up and then no-show) more than the specific people, I don’t think it was their fault, they did the best they could. Some of the blame also falls to me – I could have done a better job doing a bit of structuring and managing expectations that I in hindsight think could have given people a better chance at walking away from the table thinking my game is less gonzo and more “buffet of possibilities”. Again, this whole paragraph is enough to spawn a lengthy separate discussion.

At any convention, I always try and feel like I fail at striking a balance between being at the convention, and detaching from it to rest. I’ve got legitimate grounds to go put my feet up and reduce my stress levels (or nap), but at the same time, purposefully getting away from the convention climate means I’m getting away from my friends who I don’t see in-person very often and I’m getting away from the nebulous potential of “If I was there, would someone have offered me a possibly great moment/idea/opportunity/conversation/game/thing?” Being not a large fan of saying, “I’m sorry, this is all my heart’s fault, that’s why I had to go take a nap rather than talk to you, person who I enjoy the company of,” I tend now to make my withdrawals quiet, but it’s always with a pang of FOMO that I do it. Today in particular will be thick with the fear of missing out, based on people’s accounts of how their Dreamation was. I know I missed things, and I admit right now that I’m a bit frustrated about it, even if that nap I took made it possible for me to get through the day without collapsing.

In all a great weekend with many dear friends who I don’t think I spent enough time talking to, or showing off this thing I made in the “right” way that would lead people to be as enthused about its success as I am.

The world keeps turning, we keep going, and we’ll do it better next time, right? Onward.

The Messy Filing Cabinet

Next to the left leg of the table that I use as an office desk, there’s a two-drawer filing cabinet. It’s littered with magnets. There’s a Thoreau quote. There’s a whole pack of that magnetic poetry and two buttons that reference clutter, genius, and being underpaid. Some of this stuff has been on these drawers so long I can’t remember where I bought them or when.

In short, it’s one more overlooked and underused part of the office.

Hold on to your seats, we’re going deep in today’s blogpost. SEO be damned, we’re on some personal tracks today. All aboard the John-train, destination: realizationville.

I have this habit, and if you’re a long time reader of the blog you can guess this, this habit where I get really great plans for stuff then barely follow through in the way I intended or hoped for. Sure, we can all write this off as the results of living with mental illness or actively sabotaging myself on a regular basis, but I’ve come to think of this as my looking for a best-fit. Best-fit is important to me: I was a kid who didn’t feel like he fit in anywhere, and I’m an adult who doesn’t think he easily fits in to categories about expertise and job description and experiences.

So back to this double drawer. It’s the best fit for the space under the table. There’s maybe a quarter inch of space between the top of the drawer and the bottom of the table. It fits, it belongs there, I don’t give it a second thought.

Again, no surprise for the long time readers, I have had a life with some twists and turns, and I’ve documented them, as both an effort to salvage-stroke my ego when appropriate, but also as a way to render toothless the venomous serpents and snarling beasts before me. In those two drawers, I dumped things. Things I fully intended to use later, things I wish I felt good enough or smart enough to say “Oh yes, I have these things here in my drawer, one moment please” but more often than not, the drawers became a graveyard for things that are best kept behind whatever metal this is.

I’ve recently come back from a trip, a week away from the house, and I spent a lot of time on this trip reading books about improving my mindset, dealing with self image, successful principles and maxims, as well as finding your purpose. Usually these books are in some way masturbatory (not like that), I mean that I read them so I can say I’m making some effort to improve myself, but it’s very detached: I read, but I don’t apply. Or more like I won’t apply until something takes me right to a precipice where my status quo is going to radically be affected … then after that I’ll change, and I’ll be all enthusiastic, but that just becomes the new status quo.

Are you seeing this? Does this sound familiar? Am I putting words to a thing in your life? Or is this a guy writing out a stream of thoughts because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself, and he’s too tired to clear off the bed?

Right, the drawers. Last night I came home from 13 hours of travel and saw the state of the room and felt like I was coming back from this great experience to a soiled oasis. This is my office, this chair and this creaky old table are where I connect to people and share work and share passion … and it seemed like this corner of this room was just the sewage treatment plant for a city best remembered in a Springsteen song.

It was more than just dusty, it was cluttered and heavy with everything. It didn’t fit me anymore. It isn’t how I wanted things to be. It had to change. No precipice. No imminent radical upheaval. I was just sick of there being two drawers of shit in the corner of a room.

Out comes the last giant trashbag in the house (something poetic about that). And I start filling. I pull open the first drawer, and sort it out. Then the second drawer. No drug paraphernalia, but here’s SOME of what I found:

  • An empty box of condoms that I neither remember buying or ever using.
  • A note inside said box of condoms about a series of blogposts about Plot (more on that in a second)
  • Three halves of three different mobile phones I’ve had
  • A bottle of long-expired horny goat weed that I remember vaguely getting as a freebie from a job I had 15 years ago
  • A small plastic box of pen caps, three WCW Nitro trading cards, and a keychain from Borders bookstores
  • Eight DVDS (and assorted notes) from seminars on building confidence that I am very deeply ashamed that I ever spent money on (more on that in a second too)
  • A broken Neti Pot
  • Two web cams, their cords and plugs removed
  • Three credit card bills for cards I no longer have, all from at least 4 years ago
  • A pile of discharge paperwork from various colleges that no longer requested my attendance (they were in a folder labelled “Fuck ’em”)
  • A half-completed application for information regarding becoming a private detective
  • A page of notes I wrote when I was high all about how I wanted to lose thirty pounds and start making YouTube videos with fancy graphics to talk about writing
  • A page of notes explaining how I should beg, borrow, and steal the equipment and software necessary to make those videos
  • A page of notes about how to quickly lose weight without tapeworms, self-harm, or crossfit (my solution was apparently saunas because women in towels … again, I was really high)
  • An aborted note to myself about how I should throw the lamp out the window because it never worked (I did get rid of the lamp when I got clean)
  • A stack of business cards in a folder labelled “Scary”, these cards are all from companies and people who I to this day am still intimidated by, even though I know them and have been paid by them to do work

Basically, it was two drawers of shit living in the corner of a room that I “filed” (can’t make the airquotes bigger) away to be forgotten, rather than acted on.

And now it’s in a bag at the top of my stairs (I’m gonna need help getting it out to the curb), and what’s in the drawers now?

  • My business card holder, all nicely filed
  • Eleven boxes of pens
  • Six packs of notecards
  • A mini 3-hole punch
  • The VIP pass I got when I saw Dave Matthews in concert
  • Three of the six portable hard drives I use to catalog my creativity

That’s it. My past sits in a bag at the top of the stairs, I can’t even see it from where I’m sitting in this chair. It’ll sit there until it goes out to the curb, and then it’ll be gone. I can’t think of a better way to signal that I changed something without having to have someone threaten to leave me or that I was ruining a life or that I was a disappointment or that I was bankrupting them emotionally and financially.

I got tired of cluttered drawers, and I did something about it. All me. By myself. Took maybe twenty minutes of effort to open drawers, make a pile, sort pile, and dispose of it.

So I’m sitting here now, writing one of the longest blogposts I have in months, and I feel better. I feel good, even. Like this is the way the books I’m reading about self image and goals and success are supposed to make you feel. Fuck you clutter, I’m succeeding!

I’m sorry if my life has derailed a lot of the ambitious plans I set out. I would hate to think that’s the definition people have of me, that I’m the guy who starts like a bat out of hell then quickly calms away to an occasional breeze. Hey look, I just cleaned these two drawers and realized that my passion and on a greater scale, who I am and how I identify as a creative was cluttered up too.

Cluttered up in expectations, in panicked “reality checks” where I talk myself out of attempting things for irrational reasons, in fear of rejection, in fear of losing control of the rudder that steers me so that I don’t go back to the paranoia and depression, in fear of losing what makes me me, even if I’m never really sure who that is unless I’m writing about being passionate and being brave and being good when it’s not easy.

I don’t know if any of this reaches you. I don’t know if this matters to you. Maybe this one’s just for me. And I’m way more okay with whatever the answer is.

I want to end with a quick note: Part of that trip that had me hours away from the house, and reading all these books was that I finally took the big professional risk of having Noir World recorded on One Shot, as well as giving a really candid and intense interview for Talking Tabletop. The game was great (it was a new experience for me, I don’t think I actually did a lot of talking, and yeah, I’m shocked too), and I think the interview was maybe me at my most honest and sincere. I’m excited for you to hear them both.  (Other note: Save some bucks for March, Noir World’s gonna go to Kickstarter then)

Thanks for reading this long blast of thoughts. I hope you found in it something to take away, even if you’re just shocked about the amount of shit a person can pack into two small drawers.

Go create, be happy, and don’t you ever give up. We’ll talk real soon, I’ve got this whole page of notes on Plot blogposts that I need to decode and write for you…so that’ll be fun.

What Did I Just Watch – Now You See Me 2

The other night I watched/survived an airing of Now You See Me 2, and it left such an impression on me that days later, I find myself blogging about it. It … well, it wasn’t very good. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Yeah, I’ll give a rewrite version, but we need to back up and cover some craftwork first. So that means it’s storytime.

Like a lot of kids, I thought magic was cool. Blackstone Jr, Harry Anderson, various magician tv shows of the mid-80s, they made magic special, a kind of happy thing that was interesting and well-executed. As a kid, this was really very ooh and ahh material, and I admit, I was a sucker for card tricks and sleight of hand.

As I got older, and it became cooler to dislike more things, I still watched those specials with David Copperfield and his blousy nearly Goldblum-ish shirt and holding these over-produced get-to-the-trick specials that were interesting, but I didn’t quite feel the same way. I think there was too much patter, too much preamble, and I’m fuzzy now on how the tricks were shot for television, if the camerawork was part of the gimmick or if a camera guy thought it would be a great idea to show everything from a weird angle.

Older still, I learned that magic got co-opted by the pick-up artist movement, and it was simultaneously relegated to “parlor tricks to make panties disappear” (not my quote, I heard that about a decade ago and it’s stuck around my brain) and part of the then-beta-now-cuck stuff that not-real-men do that prevents them from getting laid. Magic wasn’t ooh and ahh anymore it was a means to an end. I am ashamed that for many years I wrote it off. I wish I learned some.

This brings me to Now You See Me (the first one). It’s a heist movie with magicians. At least, that’s the premise sold via frenetically caffeinated, stylized trailers. And I watched it. I vaguely liked it. It was an enjoyable way to pass 90 minutes. In this fiction, 4 magicians each have a specialty and are brought together because nebulous reasons to ruin a corrupt wealthy guy all while the FBI does just above the possible minimum amount of effort to think about catching them.

Now here come spoilers.

Except that the FBI guy trying to catch them is in on it, and not only wants them to succeed, but also wants to introduce them to a shadowy organization of magicians who do “real” magic. (Since it’s never explained, I like to think of them as people who just have a D&D player’s guide and a lot of material components).

Now because Hollywood so often confuses sequel expansion with new idea generation, there’s naturally a Now You See Me 2, and if you thought the first movie was a stylized, under-explained, jittery, poorly written mess, you’re in luck, because they’ve doubled down on all that while expanding the world building and adding more characters (side note: I like Daniel Radcliffe as a bad guy, he should do that more often.)

A quick summary of the sequel: Because of what happened in the first movie, the magician characters are on the lam, and a new bad guy wants them to one more job or else they’ll be killed, and of course in the end, the magicians turn the magical tables on all the villains (because every villain from the first is back due to reasons) and then the shadowy organization shows back up to introduce them to “real” magic, even though that’s what you’re told was going to happen at the end of the first movie, but I guess it hasn’t yet even though the concept in the first Act is that they’ve been working with the shadowy organzation all film. I guess they never got around to showing them real magic. Dick move, shadow organization, dick move.

Let’s talk about the good stuff in the films, because there is some:

  • Actually talented actors (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Daniel Radcliffe, Mark Ruffalo) give less talented actors (James Franco’s brother, Lex Luthor/Mark Zuckerberg who isn’t Michael Cera, disposable female character, Woody “I’m just here because I get to wear a hat and something something hemp and vegan” Harrelson) plenty of opportunity to improve their craft while collecting what I imagine are lovely paychecks.
  • Occasionally you get flashes that the characters deliver dialogue that seems maybe like a person could say it, maybe.
  • The CGI for the tricks isn’t atrocious. It’s not subtle, but it’s not an affront to eyeballs.
Let’s roll out SOME of the bad, because I had to prioritize this stuff:
  • Stylized shots do not necessarily make for good shots. Framing us from the top-down and then turning the top-down into a left-right is confusing.
  • The movie thinks hyponotism involves grabbing or slapping people then talking at their faces.
  • Making one character talk immediately after another character does not underscore either of their points
  • Mark Ruffalo is the only character across two films with anything resembling a character arc, but don’t worry, it’s completely neutered in the last 10 minutes of the second movie by a photograph and Morgan Freeman dressed like a pimp from a 70s tv show.
  • The female actor changes from the first to the second movie, but again don’t worry, because in the first ten minutes of the second movie, she just says she’s the new team member and everyone agrees.
  • The magic goes from you-could-conceivably-learn-and-do-this to don’t-question-the-CGI-or-how-they-know-how-to-do-this pretty quickly
  • Don’t question when they had time to plan an orchestrate the con/heist/bad guy capture, just know they are always in on it from the very beginning and there’s no actual danger ever. EVER.
 No character arcs, no stakes to the plot, no danger to characters, unclear villain motivations … yeah sounds ripe for a rewrite.
Step 1 – We’re making 1 story, not 2. If there’s going to be a series later, that’s fine. But right now, we’re gonna take this heap of applesauce and make something better from it.
Step 2 – Everyone needs something to do that is tailored to them and that something has a reward that matters to the character.
Step 3 – Any magical elements serve the story’s plot and structure, rather than being 90 minutes where people watch CGI scenes
Step 4 – There’s actual challenge and risk in the story.
Step 5 – The world building is more than ceremonial or perfunctory.
Here we go …
The Characters:
Danny, Magician Number 1, his specialty is escapes. He’s a good kid from a good family, but he tells everyone a convoluted BS tale about foster homes and youth detention centers. He has heard about The Eye, an almost Masonic order of magicians who revere magic in its classical purest forms. He’s ambitious and sincere.
Jack, Magician Number 2, his specialty is card tricks. A street hustler, he fleeces tourists in games of three card monte. Whereas Danny talks about a bad upbringing, Jack had one, although at his core, he’s sweet, sensitive, and wants very badly to be accepted. He heard about The Eye on one of his only good memories as a child, going to a magic show and talking to the magician backstage, just after he tried to pick his pocket.
Lady, Magician Number 3, her specialty is platform and stage magic. She’s used to big crowds and middling success. She can start strong, but fails to hold attention. Instead of playing up her sex appeal outside of her stagecraft, we play up her disillusionment with magic – it’s getting boring and she’s tired of prop work. She’s been researching The Eye after noticing its iconography appear on older stage props.
Woody, Magician Number 4, his specialty is mentalism and comedy magic. A failed stand-up, he transitioned to mentalism because he was unoriginal on stage, but had a knack for reading people. He’s intuitive and empathetic, but totally skeptical that The Eye is a thing. He just wants magic to be a thing that people do.
Carl, the Villain, he’s a ruthless megalomaniac CEO, fleecing people through shell corporations for decades. He puts on a facade for the cameras, that he’s altruistic, charming, and friendly, but in reality he’s willing to kill to get ahead. Flipping that switch is creepy and never played for laughs. He’s a monster in a TV-personality costume. He’s currently stockpiling medications for cancer and AIDS so he can jack up the prices.
Ruffalo, the Cop/Fed, the agent/detective who gets assigned to Carl’s protection detail. He encounters the magicians and tries to stop them. He’s not in on it. He’s not stupid, this is never played as comedy relief, he’s at best a secondary antagonist.

Our film starts with Danny, in breathless voiceover, “You need to tie me up tighter than that.” We open on him on stage, an Elks lodge, a room trapped in the 1970s with men and cigar smoke to match. They’re unimpressed and barely paying attention. It’s a mostly silent crowd as Danny moves through his routine, finally disappearing behind a curtain and reappearing with the ropes tied in balloon animal shapes. Crickets, no one applauds. We cut to Danny loading his beat up car and snatching the envelope of cash out of a drunk Elk’s hand. It starts to rain, and the car stalls. The sound of rain hitting the pavement intensifies, and we cut to …

Jack, running. We see his legs churning, we see him navigating busy streets of pedestrians and cars pulling out of alleys and side streets. He’s running from the cops, a large smile on his face. He loses two of the cop pursuers and takes a seat in a grubby pizzeria counting his large stack of twenties and tens. It’s a good take. Just when he’s about caught his breath, he looks out the window and sees two more cops heading his way. Time to run again. He starts saying “Oh shi…” and we cut to…

Lady, saying “It’s not everyday you see a woman saw herself in half is it?” She’s in her pajamas, rehearsing her act in her apartment. She narrates each part of the trick: stand here, move arm up, no higher, turn, tap box, catching herself in the mirror time and again to correct her posture. She’s trying really hard. Over her shoulder and out of focus we see a table littered with sketches and plans and models of different set pieces. There’s a dressmaker’s dummy with a half-finished outfit pinned up. Over time, Lady grows dissatisfied with her rehearsals, and flops down on the couch (which a few seconds ago doubled as her stage) to watch TV. She channel surfs before catching an interview and we cut to …

Woody, on set, making Jimmy Fallon or some other easily amused jabroni in a suit laugh. There are two people flanking the host’s desk and Woody is making snap deductions about them, before running them through a simple card trick that gets enormous applause. We track him back post-interview to the green room, where he loots the craft services table and then ducks out quickly. The rear stage door opens and when a famous celebrity gets mobbed, he slips through unnoticed. He walks in the rain, collar upturned, out of frame.

Back to Danny, who’s unloading his car into a garage, his mother’s. She’s standing there, watching him lug case after case, and they’re talking about how it went. Danny is upset because no one appreciated the work he put in, and his mom mentions that at least the paycheck was good. Danny opens the envelope to find out he’s been somewhat stiffed – he was expecting twenties and got ones. His mother consoles him and Danny heads up to bed. 

His room is a trove of magic glory. Posters of stage acts (and this is where set design can create all new acts not just Copperfield, Penn and Teller, Houdini) and line the walls, and his bookcase is a library of autobiographies and how-tos. He flops down on the bed, sighing. his mother passes by the door saying she’s going to bed, he says good night, then goes to bed himself.

We cut to the next morning. Jack is at it again, setting up his monte stand at the entrance to a city park. He’s drawn a large crowd, with Danny, Lady, and Woody making their way into it, staggered among the rows. Danny pushes his way to the front to become the mark. Jack starts his patter, and Lady yells from four rows back whichever answer is correct. Danny yells back that he knows, which flusters Jack, who resorts to palming cards and deliberately cheating, but only in a way that another magician would know. Danny catches onto this, and ends up cleaning out Jack’s wallet. He breaks away from the game, several hundred dollars richer. Except that to break away from the game, he’s gotta pass back through the crowd, and this gives us a chance to watch each of our four musicians bump, sneak, and lift the wallet. Ultimately, it ends up being dropped and picked up by Ruffalo, who breaks up the monte game and arrests Jack. 

Feeling bad his bilking, Danny sets about freeing Jack, and enlists Lady and Woody to join him. They spring Jack, but not before Jack swipes a folder off Ruffalo’s desk, and overhears something about Carl being a bad guy with a lot of money. 

The wheels are then in motion for the four magicians to collaborate on a heist of Carl. They begin with surveillance, and by combining Woody’s mesmerism and Jack’s natural charm, they get a quick tour of the “civilian” levels (let’s also give Jack a phone number or two). Danny tries his hand, and gets a few floors higher, but ultimately falls short of the prize as well. Lady gets all the way to inner office’s front door, but is stopped by a variety of countermeasures.

The result is that the team must rely on al their talents: escapes, card tricks, platform magic, and mesmerism to breach the inner office, only to find that the best “loot” is a few vague memos explaining pricing policy. However, this celebration is short-lived because just as the team goes to make their escape, in walks Carl to catch them. Cue Ruffalo’s return, and all four magicians in handcuffs. 

At least until mid0interrigation, Danny escapes, Jack palms the key, Woody convinces the officer to let him go, and Lady disappears behind a table only to re-emerge several feet away, locking Ruffalo in his own interrogation room. This commits Ruffalo to catching them, but also plants the seed that these four magicians have an interest in doing something about Carl. 

Danny spends his time at home, rehearsing the same tricks that they used in the Carl heist when his mother starts coughing. Turns out mom has been hiding an illness, and now the meds are too expensive. This clicks things into place, and Danny calls the magicians to finish what they started. 

Which they’d do, if Carl hadn’t counted on them coming back, and ratcheted up security. Not just Ruffalo, but greater countermeasures and more armed guards. The office is a fortress. The team aborts one attempt and is nearly caught by Ruffalo. They console themselves and Lady makes a passing comment that Danny would have done better if he hypnotized the guard. Jack tells Lady she’d have done better if she had palmed the keys. And that’s when they realize they need to learn each other’s craft to have a better chance. 

So they practice. On the street, in broad daylight and in their individual gigs. Think of it like a protracted montage. It starts off shaky, but they all start showing proficiency in other magical aptitudes. Excited to share this news, they reconvene and that’s when we all learn they have a shared interest in The Eye. 

Feeling well armed and unified, they go after Carl. And after several near-misses, they pull off the job, and get into the office, finding Carl’s documents saying he’s been adjusting prices and withholding medications. Except Carl was counting on them getting that far, and holds them at gun point. Ruffalo arrives and hears everyone out, which leads to Carl getting impatient and Ruffalo revealing that he’s been recording the story the whole time, because breaking and entering is bad, but it’s not tampering with people’s health kind of bad. Carl takes a shot at Ruffalo, who fires back. Ruffalo makes the arrest of the wounded Carl, and goes to thank the the magicians, only to find them all absent – they disappeared. 

One week later (we’re told by the graphics department), the magicians are casually chatting when Ruffalo pulls up on them. They get suspicious and nervous but he thanks them and hands them a stack of cold case files, all rich business types thought to be hurting the little guy, but nothing could be proven, and maybe they had some magic to spare. The foursome agrees, and just before we go to credits, Danny’s phone rings. He gets a single image as a text message, that of an address and a blinking eye. 

Okay, I think this quick rewrite works. It’s not perfect, I bet I could ratchet up the tension, but this post is already running long. Thanks for checking out my little patch job on a movie that so annoyed me I had to write myself angry notes on my phone until this blogpost came together.

 

Happy creating.

Filling Your Notebooks

My brother and I aren’t very big gift people. Sure, we’ll spend money on other people, but for ourselves and each other, we don’t really go for it. For years we’d skip each other’s birthdays or christmases, maybe making a token effort if a parent or someone else prodded us with guilt.

That changed a bit in the last few years, as our financial situations and personal situations evolved. My brother moved away and got an amazing job with stable income. I got clean and sober and treated. It’s two different kinds of stability, I guess.

But we started giving a shit about gifts, when budgets (mostly mine) could stand it. Now it wasn’t just “hey I got you a gift card” it’s “I got you this one gift card for this one thing that I know you value because your time is precious to you.” We don’t make a big show of trying to do that gift thing that maybe happens near you – there’s a great big production made of showing off how much you can afford or how much you know the person values it, as if the being seen giving this gift is more important than the why you gave the gift.

This year was a slightly better year than expected financially. I can’t say it was the best, but I ended the year with a few checks that got me a bit of cushion during the holiday season. I wanted to get my brother something nice, so my mom and I pooled some resources to get him a few housewares and some fun stuff.

What he got me was a complete set of moleskine notebooks. Here they are on the desk beside me as I write this post.

Probably one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.

Now if you’ll notice, there’s still plastic wrap on two of them. And up until about two minutes before I started writing this post, there was plastic wrap on a third.

It meant a lot to me that he got me notebooks. That on some level it was him recognizing that I do a lot of thinking and writing and notation, so notebooks are a perfect gift. I really appreciate these gifts.

I appreciate them so much, I feel like I don’t have ideas worthy enough to put in them. As though I haven’t earned the privilege and honor to use these pieces of paper because none of what I have done to date is “good enough” to be immortalized in these little notebooks.

Sure, I’ll save it to one of a dozen thumb drives or a portable hard drive or Dropbox like it’s no big thing, but there’s … something suddenly more concrete about writing it down in a notebook. That’s what I want to talk about a little today.

Initially, I didn’t unwrap these things because I was too busy telling everyone how much they meant to me, that it was just really nice to carry them around in my bag. That it was one of those elusive “Writer Bucket List” items where I got to carry a moleskine.

And after I think everyone got sick of me saying I was grateful, the shock of it set in. And up until about 5 minutes ago, I couldn’t express that shock beyond just saying that I didn’t think I had an idea good enough to go in them.

See, the other issue I have with them is that they’re finite. There are only so many pages to each notebook. Space in them is precious. The digital stuff, that’s practically infinite, because I can Ctrl+N a new document out of the ether and because the content in a document disappears when I tap the Backspace. That digital space seems infinite.

It’s in that gap, in that difference, that the paralysis lives. We see it in other places: people who say they’re going to pursue a resolution or a lifestyle change versus those who do the work or in politicians who make campaign promises and then upon election act wholly different.

We all possess the ability to talk a big game and make these big plans, but when we have to act on it (hell, even our language speaks to it in an aggressive way, when push comes to shove), there’s not just the inertia of activity to overcome, but there’s this whole ocean of doubt – is my idea good enough, am I going to get rejected, is this going to fail, am I wasting my time and energy, will it matter, do I matter?

So here these notebooks sit. Only one of them has any info in it. One of the smallest ones has four addresses written in it – all possible places to eat. I could have done that on my phone, so why did I write that down, but I can’t crack into the larger books?

Because the little notebook is about the size of the post-it notes I often write things down on. It doesn’t have the same weight (psychologically) that the bigger books do. It’s practically disposable, and I’m sure if I left it in my jeans pocket and it went through the wash, it would be disposed of.

Maybe for you, you don’t have these notebooks. Maybe you don’t have a stack of physical products in actual shrink wrap. Maybe you come at this from another direction – maybe for you, the act of typing your idea up and saving it as a file has more heft to it than the scribbling you do in that little notebook you keep tucked somewhat away. Either way, an idea becomes more real when it is made more concrete.

One of the toughest things we can do as a creative is make the idea (something intangible, it lives in our heads and dreams and we can describe it, but it’s hard to share exactly and precisely) into something tangible. But we have to do it. We have to find a way to do it.

But, you ask, having read the 1024 words that precede this one, what about those questions of doubt and possible future rejection? What if I type my MS up and it gets rejected, what if you write down an idea in that notebook and it doesn’t pan out, haven’t we both wasted time and stuff?

There are two  points lurking under the water here.

a) That you’re saying your time is wasted if you do a thing and it’s not perfectly received, and you need to know how a thing is going to be received before you do it

b) That if the idea gets rejected then you’re a failure, so writing it down hastens defining/discovering/confirming that you’re a failure

Look how precarious that is. Look how they’re both points about control – In (a) you need to control the future so that you can control how you spend your time and effort and in (b) you need to control how you’re thought of or labeled by other people.

All because of writing something down! That’s how we got to these two points.

I can name on one hand the number of people I’ll show the contents of these notebooks to. They’re not going public, I have a blog and Twitter for that. Now, yes, maybe later, an idea from a notebook will make its way to some other medium where other people will see it, but as the notebook, not so much.

You cannot control how other people perceive your efforts, and naturally, yes, you don’t want your first draft to set the standard for how we regard later drafts (though isn’t it interesting we treat first impressions of people so seriously?), but you can’t make the people like you to such a degree that they’ll never have a bad thought of you – you’re not in charge of them and their thinking. The best you can do is be you, and be the kind of you that makes you feel best while inspiring others to feel and be their best, all while everyone is doing the stuff that makes them feel good and inspires others to go do stuff too.

We all live with, we’ve all adopted, this notion that we’re seconds away, one tweet, one draft, one email, one pause, one word away from another human finding out that we’re undeserving of their love and help and attention and respect because of what we do, who we are, who/what we love. We all have this feeling, and we all perpetuate this idea that we’re the only one who has this feeling, that it’s unique to us.

It’s not. It might not always take the same form with every person, but the feeling isn’t just yours. This one version is bespoke to you for a variety of reasons, but we’re all there.

We are who we are, and we’re never undeserving of love and respect and care and attention and help. No matter what we make, who we love, where we go, how we are, what stuff we do. We might not all agree on things, we might present each other with differing points of view or ideas that don’t fit neatly with other ideas, but we’re all capable of existing in a world where there are multiple people and multiple ideas. I checked.

So open your notebooks. Write down that stuff. Make the transition, one step at a time, to doing something more than worrying about whether or not you’re good enough. Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll all find new reasons to keep thinking we’re going to be revealed as impostors later, but for right now, let’s just take a few seconds to take some steps forward.

Here’s mine.

I think that’s a pretty good start, don’t you?

Happy creating. One step at a time.

Why You Need To Promote Your Own Stuff

Would you believe this is the third attempt at an opening? Or maybe that I’ve already tried everything from imagining a conversation to a start with some fire like this was a Killer Mike mixtape, and nothing so far has seemed to capture that intersection between why I feel you need to understand this and how I think you can and should approach it?

Okay, here we go.

If there’s a Family Feud big board of topics that come up in my conversations with writers, one of the top three answers on the board has to be “I’m not very good at marketing, I don’t want to market my stuff, and why do I have to market it

Yeah, I know. That’s three things all by itself, but let’s just assume this is a really wide Family Feud board, and maybe Steve Harvey is shot in IMAX or something. (don’t picture that or googling it, please)

What I’m going to talk about now is that I think if you’ve ever said that trio of ideas, I think what this all boils down to is this – you don’t want to take the risk of promoting a thing and getting either no response or worse, a backlash.  We can dress that up with the notion that you don’t know how to do it, or that you don’t have money to spend on it, but I’ve talked to people who do know how to do it, and I’ve talked to people who have the money, and it comes down plain and simple to that fear of rejection.

So let’s take a second and point out that it’s entirely okay to be afraid of the possibility of rejection or the ignoring of your efforts. That’s a thing that can happen. But there’s an equal chance of it being not-rejected or not-ignored. Because you haven’t done the thing yet, there’s a 50/50 shot. Them’s good odds, honestly.

But oh no, you’re saying from whatever seat you’re in while you read this, you need there to be this one kind of response in order to be worth the trouble and effort. It’s not enough just to get 1 sale, you need 100 sales, or 1000 views, or 16 reviews or whatever. There’s some hurdle to jump, some hoop to pass through, some point you have to surpass in order to give yourself the permission to entertain the idea that you’ve succeeded.

Applesauce. Horsefeathers.

The nice thing about setting up those hoops is that it gives you something to point to when you don’t achieve it, and it becomes something a bit more concrete every time you fail, so that you get to stay in that bubble where you’re not good enough and can’t-ever-be-so-long-as-X-or-Y-or-Z-is-a-thing. Rather than loosening up on the self-imposed mandate that you need to hit some particular target to justify yourself, you double down, and that ratchets up all the pressure and tension on the situation. Which, and I don’t know if you know this, isn’t actually conducive to you being in a headspace where you can produce at the level necessary to reach the target. The notion that “pressure bursts pipes and makes diamonds” (which is a mixed metaphor) is great when you want to be known for pressuring yourself in order to produce, rather than getting yourself known for what you produce.

Too often we assume the worst is going to happen, particularly when something is more out of our control than in our control. And audiences are very much out of our control. We can’t make people act a certain way forever, we can’t make everyone conform, we can’t accurately predict the vastness of potential in response and its degrees.

This isn’t to say we have to be desperately grateful for every .000001 of every percent of every metric, as if we’re only good enough to warrant getting that much. You’re not. You deserve whole numbers. You deserve actual recognition. But that’s gotta start from within yourself and then radiate outward so that it can come back to you at all.

Being “bad” at marketing and promotion is something you can improve. Write more tweets, learn how to take 140 characters and get your idea across. Write readable blogposts. Learn 2 format, newb. If you’re writing ads, you can practice your salescopy. These are all skills that you can improve, with practice. Which means investing the time, and then following that up with money AFTER you feel more comfortable doing it – there’s loads of free ways to promote yourself and what you’re doing, so long as you’re willing to put that pressure building gotta-hit-this-one-target stuff to one side.

Marketing is as much about setting up expectations (in others) as it is about managing your own. When you write the copy, the tweet, the blog post, the whatever, going into it with the idea that “like everyone I know is gonna see this and love it, and then I’m gonna get like all the supporters and people will finally bring me what’s mine!” is a recipe for frustration when you realize that out of all the infinite possible responses you could get, you’ve set a very narrow gaze on this one particular one, and likely this one particular one requires a lot of other factors to align and move in specific ways and times. Basically, you’ve tried to control so much of the uncontrollable and unknown that you’re ensuring more frustration than success if it doesn’t go how you want.

Let’s talk about success. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that part of success is defined on your own terms, and that chasing other people’s definitions often keeps people from reaching their goals while mistakenly enforcing some notion that they’re “humble and hungry.” So let’s make it clear here – your success comes on your own terms. You don’t have to meet someone else’s criteria in order to be happy, because it is not your job to please them.

Other people can have their metrics and their ideas of success, and they can go apply them to their own efforts. Maybe their metrics and barometers are great, and by all means, you’re free to employ them if you like, but you’re not beholden to them.

Managing your own expectations means not only assuming the worst is going to happen. Expectations aren’t just two extremes, and I urge you to stop and take a deep breath before you go do a thing where expectations are involved – Are you assuming total failure? How high is the bar set? Take responsibility for your expectations.

And in that responsibility, I tell you to go one further. You’re the best resource to talk about your creation, because it came from you. In addition to being able to talk about what it is, you can also talk about the process, the emotions, and the decisions you experienced while you made it. When you rely on other people to talk about your stuff (like when you put your eggs in that basket where you expect a publisher to do the heavy lifting of making people aware of your book, but we’ll get there in the next paragraph), any information they have is secondhand – you’re the primary source, and if you’re truly proud of what you’ve made, why wouldn’t you want to talk about? (This is where, again, I point to expectations assuming failure and then point back to that 50/50 earlier)

There’s nothing wrong with having other people assist you in getting the word out about what you’re doing. It’s super helpful to you. It builds bridges, it makes connections, it strengthens networks. It helps create and direct the flow of positive information.

This is your creation, whatever it is, and you need to get out in front with it. Show it the hell off. Even if you don’t want to make it about you because you’re worried that who you are is somehow a disincentive to enjoy what you’ve made (and frankly I’m not sure if that says something about your ego or your work’s quality), make it about the work. What it is, what it means to you, what you are trying to do with it, all that good stuff. Put the focus where you want it to be. You get to the control that.

Several writers I’ve spoken to in the last eight months have talked to me about when they make it “big” (meaning: get traditionally published), they’ll be really relieved that they won’t have to do anything other than just write the books. I’m going to put on my Managing Editor of a successful publisher hat (shout-out to ParvusPress! airhorns! other celebratory sounds you can imagine!) and tell you straight –

A creator has to work even after the creation is made.

There are blog tours, there are interviews, there’s tweets to make, there’s people to email, there’s a lot of work that the author does. This is in addition to what happens on the publishing end, which is setting up all those things AND doing promotional stuff to aid the author in having a product that generate sales so that people earn paychecks. (You’re following @ParvusPress on Twitter, right? I’m just asking)

Maybe you’ve heard this before: If you want the rewards or results, you gotta do the work.

Marketing is no different, and everyone from Big-Fancy-Author-Number-Three to mid-list-Author-Eleven to random-creative-who-publishes-slash-fiction-about-Law-and-Order has to do SOMETHING (or more likely multiple somethings) so that people know that there’s something in the world they should check out.

It might not be easy, but it’s doable. And if you do it often enough, you’ll get better at it. Yeah, you’re gonna make mistakes, but it is through our mistakes that we can figure out what to improve so we can see better results.

You gotta do the work. And I believe in your ability to do it.

 

Happy creating.

Of Curses And The Nature Of Creating

So, it’s 2017. We’re about to face another monster of a year. Who knows what could happen. Meteor strikes. Twitter hashtags. Various grocery stores running out of ginger ale. It sounds like anarchy ahead. All the more reason to be creative and declare ourselves creators … but we’ll get there,

I used to think I was cursed. Not by some old lady on the outskirts of my town (why do old ladies always live on the edges of towns? Do they get better cell phone reception?), because I have always done my best to be nice to old ladies (in case they turn out to be the cursing type).

Instead, I assumed it was a vengeful former relationship breaking out the altar and making with the incantations. That’s probably incredibly presumptive and short-sighted of me, but when I look back at my life I measure it by the relationships I was in, and the work I was doing.

And for a long time, I wasn’t doing a lot of work. I worked, I did stuff, but I had this habit of looking over at what my friends were doing. They were doing big things, with big names, big money, and big ambitions. It made me feel about four inches tall. It made me feel inferior. I still struggle with a lot of those feelings, on the days when my body doesn’t want to cooperate and I’m asleep on a couch by 2pm because I just can’t keep myself upright.

I had to be cursed, or so I thought, because I was working, admittedly not very regularly or hard, but I wasn’t getting the same rewards as people who were working concurrent to me. Where was my success, I’d ask myself. Why am I not good enough to have enough money to buy things and be famous and be a big deal? What am I not doing that they’re doing?

And the answer was the work. (Hint: The answer is almost always doing to the work.) I wasn’t doing the work.

See, I thought I was cursed because that’s easier than admitting I wasn’t working efficiently, honestly, or productively. It’s easier to blame something outside ourselves than look at what we’re doing and assess our efforts as falling short. No one wants to stew in that marinade of self-defeating applesauce, so we just … don’t look at it. Like the dust bunnies under the bed.

When I say “working efficiently” I mean working in the best manner possible, playing to my strengths and my best understanding of HOW I work. That means writing in the mornings, and meetings with people in the afternoons, because it’s just enough social interaction to take the edge off my fight against loneliness, while also leaving me freed up to put words on pages and things.

When I say “working honestly” I mean working in a way that is accurate to what and how I’m feeling. Even before my heart started to want to kill me, even before I was aware of what I ultimately doing, I spent far too long trying to be like those friends of mine who I imagined swam in McDuck-ian money vaults because they were asked to write book after book, script after script, game after game. I was trying to be them to get their success, and then when it didn’t arrive for me, I spent a lot of time complaining and perpetuating that wish-cycle while looking longingly out the window at the invisible strands of success that wafted by my door like a cartoon dog tracking scents. I wasn’t being honest with myself. Those other people, whomever they might be, they’re not me. They have their own lives, their own issues, their own stories. Me trying to be like them isn’t going to make me have their successes. I have to be me, we all have to be ourselves, and we all have to live out our own stories, using and infusing them into our creativity. We must be honest with ourselves, not so that we can perpetuate some idea that we all suck, but rather that we have a package of skills and talents and feelings worth sharing, unlike everyone else’s.

When I say “working productively” I mean actually working, putting in that time and energy to make stuff. I spend and spent a lot of time hastily writing little piddly bits of text, a few lines at most, then I would say ‘I’ve written today, that’s enough’, just so I could go move on to something else. I’d flit and float through things working in these little chunks where I never really got up to a working speed and never really broke and efforting sweat. And that, dear friends, is some bullshit on a croissant. Think of this – you want to go to the gym to get into better shape. So you get some workout clothes, you find a gym you like, and you walk in. You even get on the treadmill and take a whopping three or four steps on it, before leaving for the day. That’s not working out. That’s not putting in enough effort and energy to help you reach your goal, which is what you have to do if you want that goal as badly as you say you do. For me, that means not just doing the work I have in front of me, but also going out and looking for more work opportunities. It’s not just about a few steps on the treadmill, I gotta get a-runnin’.

If there’s a curse in all this, it’s self-inflicted, and that’s the hardest part to stomach. I brought my lack of success on myself, and I perpetuate it every time I don’t put the time into the work. Success isn’t going to get dropshipped to my door just because I’m in the phone book (are phone books still a thing?), success is the result of effort done mindfully and skillfully, with a subset of that success often being financial gains.

Creativity is more than just a thing you occasionally bump into or catch a snapshot of. We tell ourselves that so we can perpetuate the idea that it’s hard to be creative, or that we’re supposed to struggle, or that we’re not good enough to succeed, etc etc. Creativity is always there, always a surging river, and we’re always able to ride it.

If I can ask you one thing, it’s this: I don’t want you to keep holding yourself back. You don’t have to struggle in order to be a “legit” artist or creative. The “starving” doesn’t make your work better. The idea that you’re not good enough to succeed at making a thing because of who or what or how you are is bullshit.

You’re you, and that’s fucking great.

So let’s be us. You be you, I’ll be me. And let’s make stuff. Let’s not anchor ourselves to the fearful ideas that we have to be this-cool-to-do-the-thing, and let’s put aside the curses and “supposed to”s that we’ve dragged along on this ride so far.

Let’s go make stuff. Make it when it’s tough, make it when it’s scary, make it when you’re scared. Make it when the world seems like it’s 140 characters away from global hellscape. Make it because you have the ability to express yourself. Make it because you deserve to have your voice, your idea, your passion, your created thing, out into the world.

Because you’re you, and that’s fucking great.

 

It’s not just Happy Writing anymore, it’s Happy Creating.  I’ll see you soon. Don’t give up.

The many words I say about Westworld’s first episode

It’s been a while since I’ve seen new television. I watch a lot of Netflix, going back through the shows I remember, highlighting the past in favor of present that is equal parts grief and stress.

What new stuff I take in comes from online sources. Movies with Mikey and various youtube channels ranging from video games to science to wrestling and all else in between. I try hard not to make it an echo chamber. But I also try to avoid drowning in the spew of news and not-normalcy that’s running around.

So when I started watching Westworld (I caught 15 minutes of its premiere but got sidetracked by other things, and ended up marathoning the show just after the finale aired), I was floored. I know, in an age of Netflix and Amazon shows, and the track record of HBO programs, you’d think I would be less engaged or less surprised that it was good. Westworld was capital-G Good throughout its season.

I turned on my microphone, I took a deep breath, and I tried to make a little commentary track to highlight good writing and storytelling elements. Too often lately I feel like I’ve been calling out the bad stuff, so this was a nice change of pace.

Here’s the audio. Hope you dig it.

#ProjectCardiacPhoenix

We start with a medical update: Today has so far been a good day. I’m writing this with a blanket wrapped around me. The chest pain isn’t too awful. I’ve eaten something. I’m feeling up to writing this post. I have very little to substantially complain about.

My heart is for the moment stable. I’m responding to treatment, and doctors are hopeful I’ll continue to respond as well as I am, with my immune system holding strong and my bloodwork on the upside. This all gets punctuated with oxygen tanks and assistive devices, because while I’m declining, I’m not in the period of time the doctors refer to “The Decline”, which is the economics-sounding way of saying “the last few months of life.” I’m not there, I’ve got a few years between today and there.

I’m still not out of the woods, and frankly, short of miracles and transplant, I won’t ever be out of the woods. I’ve decided that if I’m going to be in the woods, I’m going to build a cabin there.

I want to introduce you to #ProjectCardiacPhoenix. The goal of this Project is to keep me going, not just financially, but also productively. One of the elements not often talked about with long-term illness (terminal or otherwise) is that it has a lot of downtime. You wait in a lot of offices, you wait for a lot of test results. You wait for things to change. And waiting is corrosive. Waiting is a forever-hungry beast with open jaws. It is corrosive to hope, which so often feels fleeting when you stack up all the medical updates, insurance bureaucracies, and physical issues.

See, one of the frustrating things, the gnawing mental shit, is that I’m 1000000% confident that I’m doing the best work of my career, lucky enough to do what I love to do for a living, and it’s just that the rest of my body is failing to keep up with my mind as it races along to being a better coach, editor, and writer.

I know so many of you have asked how you can help, and I have always struggled with guilt over giving you more than a polite answer, because I have felt like I was a burden to at least one other person since I was a small child. Now I’m an adult, and I still feel like a burden even talking about this, but as my excellent caretakers have all pointed out, “You need to do something while you can.”

Here are some ways you can help:

  • I’m releasing FiYoShiMo 2.0 all this month on my Patreon. It takes all the material of FiYoShiMo 1.0 (available here) and expands on it. I’m so proud of the work I’m doing. It’s this sort of material that I think is among my best, and I encourage you to support it (and the tweetstorms and me) by checking it out. I know I’m a few days behind, and I’m going to push out several days of content in one blast over the next few days.

  • Later this week, I’m going to add donation buttons to the site.

  • Share my posts and tweets with your writer friends, your creative posses, and your social media tribes. There’s a lot here and on Twitter that I think can really help someone.

  • In 2017, Noir World will be Kickstarted. If you’re a fan of film noir, role-playing games, or my writing, please check that out.

  • Consider coaching if you’re a creative unsatisfied with what and how much you’re creating. It’s not just for motivation or just for writing technique, it’s all that and then some. It’s designed to help you become a better writer and creative one hour at a time. And yes, writer’s block, publishing woes, query letters, and editing are all topics that coaching covers.

Let’s end with a bit of good news. I spent the morning talking to doctors and laying out plans to get insurance off my back somewhat, as well as sorting out the changes to my Obamacare and soon-to-be-Trumpcare-question-mark medical paperwork. Everyone, myself included, is in relatively good spirits.

Please, help #ProjectCardiacPhoenix in any way you can.