2013 In Review, Part 2: Actions

I don’t know if you know this, but mattresses are expensive. I start this post off saying that because I need a new one. And I know I need a new one because the one I’ve got has this Sea of Tranquility crater in it after many many years of loyal service. But I wake up with a sore back and erratic sleep, which makes posting something contemplative a little like trying to swim laps in a pool of oatmeal. But, let’s soldier on.

2013 was a good year, though you wouldn’t really know by looking at the blog. Sure, I got some really nice response to when I sliced and diced Agents of SHIELD, and I can draw attention when I get personal, but on the whole, I get the impression I’ve got sort of a stealth readership: they come in, read something in multiple chunks, then go. Maybe because I write such long things (I don’t see that changing anytime soon), maybe because I seem to lean heavily on the side of “intense” topics, but I don’t see the great swells of readers come in and stay around.

The same can be said for Twitter, where this year I gained quite a few followers, lost a lot of followers, and still regularly mashed the “intense” button pretty hard. I don’t see that changing anytime soon either. This lack of immediate and large audience can screw with your head in big and small ways, and does a marvelous job at times of making you feel like you’re whispering in a canyon or humming opera at a rock concert. So if I’m ever asked, “Who’s your audience?” I have to pause and preface it with, “I think my audience is …” rather than give anything definitive. That’s something I really want to discover and develop in the coming year.

When I think about 2013, I see three things – I see tremendous professional successes. I see attempts at new opportunities. I see the things that didn’t work out.  So that I don’t end on a downer, let’s juggle this order a little.

Tremendous Professional Successes

2013 was another huge year for me as The Writer Next Door. My name is on games I’m ridiculously proud of (sometimes not even as editor), I began developing systems (for LARPs of all things) and found I have a decent eye for design, and I spread out past novels and games and into theatre, television and film. It doesn’t matter that a lot of that work won’t see the light of day, what matters is that I did it once, and can do it again. And I want to. I just got a game in the mail yesterday, and seeing “Editing and Development” as where I’m credited really hit home that this is my job, this is what I do, and what I do best. And I’m going to keep doing it, full tilt.

I don’t normally talk finances, because my lifestyle is my own, and I don’t have to justify my purchases or my habits to anyone, but I can proudly say that 2013 was 45% more profitable than 2012, and was my best professional year to date. I believe this is due in no small part to my continued work with all the talented and amazing companies I am lucky enough to be associated with, call friends and colleagues. My success is due to your creativity and efforts, and I am grateful. I’ll even bring in the companies who haven’t paid me yet (there’s two of you that are significantly outstanding), because 2014 is the year your successes will bear fruit, I have every confidence.

You want specifics? Designers and Dragons. Becoming. Paranet Papers. Ribbons. Double Tap. Fate Worlds. Khan of Mars. Those are just the ones I can think of without opening my Dropbox and looking at the 2057 items with a 2013 date on them.

Let’s not forget the Johnversations, the GenCon seminars, the panels all over the Double Exposure circuit and even an appearance on the West Coast. I discovered that aside from lighting, which I still suck at, I can put together a pretty sweet presentation or workshop, and get good reviews. (Especially if the topic is mental health or writing).

Big huge year. A catapult of a year, launching me to bigger things ahead. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

The Things That Didn’t Work Out

If you’re playing our home game (defined as following me on social media), you’ll note that I took some pretty big swings at relationships and a social life this year. How’d they do? I refer you to my lack of long term relationship and numerous heartaches. Did I learn anything? Yeah. I got my heart just beaten to a fine pulp, and I’m still upright and kicking. Maybe it’s not 100%, but I’m still on my feet. It’s crazy and scary and really difficult for me to quantify all that works and all that doesn’t, but I keep trying. I know now more than ever, I want someone in my life to share the awesome with, and I know that I’m not easy to be with or be around sometimes. But I’m willing to try. I don’t know what else to say about it.

There were quite a few projects that didn’t get off the ground. For various reasons, plans and money didn’t congeal into drafts or crowdsourcing, and a lot of great people’s great ideas didn’t see the light of day. Here’s to hoping 2014 is more fertile ground for them to bear successful fruit. What that taught me is that I do sort of know how to advise and counsel someone through a Kickstarter, which is good, since I’ll have my own in 2014 (see below). What it also taught me is that there’s a lot more professional knowledge in my head than I thought, and I am not the failure engine many people thought I was a decade ago. I’d like to think I grew out of that.

I also started my own project, The Great Game, after watching my friends take ideas first mentioned on Gchat and turn them into books that are now on my shelves. I worked hard on TEN drafts of it, applying the discipline and focus I have to paring down ideas and building something. It was ambitious, it was very detailed. And it didn’t work. Well, that’s not true. It worked in my head. It worked when I ran it. It worked because far more of it existed as thoughts in my head that I termed “obvious” and never bothered to write down, rather than existed in the pages I did write. When other people ran it, it stalled out, choked by its blank spots and over-ambition. The Great Game lays gutted in my Dropbox. It was a wonderful teaching device.

It’s also a great segue.

New Opportunities

So you’d think that with one game dead, I’d be discouraged. I was for a little while, and I did let that doubt eat at me, wondering if I’d always be a design bridesmaid and never the bride (I look awful in white). But once I was done thinking I should give up entirely, and after I watched a couple Rocky movies, I got up and looked at what I built, and saw it for what it was – an early skeleton. Taking those pieces, I began a new skeleton, and can say now that The Great Game has become Noir World. The scope is different, and I will detail all of this on Noir World page (which I’m going to work on after this post goes up), but it’s more in line with the stories I like to play and the characters that interest me. Also, using *World rules gives me a framework and eases some of the design pressure off. And I like the system. With a few tweaks and new bells and whistles, I can have something of my own. With over 10000 words already, I’m on my way.

2014 is also the year I’m going to watch more friends make more things. Tracy Barnett has what I imagine is the most ambitious inclusive project I’ve ever seen in Iron Edda, and somehow I get to edit it, in whatever shape it develops. I’m going throw money at Kevin Kulp for Timewatch. And at some point in the year, I’m going to join them in crowdsourcing Noir World, at least so I can pay for art and layout. Who knows, maybe I’ll get an award or recognition at least. That would be cool.

And there will be more seminars at more conventions. Maelstrom. Crossroads, if they’ll have me. Origins. All new places. All new adventures.

So that was 2013.

Oh, and there’s a new Doctor. And more Sherlock. And I bought a 3DS. And I have several terabytes of media storage. And I rebuilt my bathroom. And I made more Spotify playlists.

If you’re wondering why this post isn’t laden with resolutions, it’s because I believe quite firmly that anything you can resolve to do at the end of one year, you can resolve to do at any other time of the year, and I have no idea what’s stopping you from just resolving to do it, then doing it.

Here’s to 2013, you had some awesome parts (which all seem to be in the summer) and some sucky parts (some summer) and lots of amazing things in between.

2014, let’s do this.

2013 In Review, Part 1: Believe

It’s the day after Christmas. Five days remain in 2013. This seems like a great time to get introspective. Rather than do it chronologically (which I had wanted to do initially, but that didn’t feel very cohesive), I want to do it thematically, by talking about one of the big elements 2013 taught me. Part 2, which I’ll probably write on New Year’s Eve, will cover another theme.

This seemed to be the year for gifts with meaning. The gifts I received were payoffs to inside jokes, or items long treasured and finally delivered. So, once this post is up, you can rest assured I’m going to be watching the hell out of Murder She Wrote, and perusing writing guides. But that doesn’t account for what I’ll be reading tonight. To explain it, I need to back up a step or so.

My mother is devoutly religious. Not like in that extremist way we so often mock, by comparison she’s greatly subdued. Church every Sunday. Bible study groups twice a month. She enjoys old hymns and I think misses the old-fashioned ways of a church with sermons that promoted kindness and compassion over donations and awkward revelation. Her church of choice, the church  of my youth, is in total disarray, having fired or forced out all the people she knew and claiming “budget cuts” as the reason for drastic changes to services and practices. This didn’t drive my mother’s faith away, just more insular. More personal.

Now she knows my faith, which in my teens was admittedly quite strong, has long since warped, cracked and faded. In the throes of illness, I didn’t go running to a god in the sky, and I was rather vocal in how shitty it seemed that a benevolent loving deity would afflict something he created in his own image with madness and depression. My mother was patient with me, enduring all my lengthy bouts of paranoia and depression, my spontaneous angry explosions and hypersensitivity. She never pushed Christianity back on me as the answer, and did her best to intercept the people who thought (apparently seriously) that maybe I had been taken by demons or that mental illness was a test from a god.

As I grew older, and began to coexist with my illness, her faith was hers, and my lack of faith was replaced with logic and science, and depending on who I was dating, either an amalgamation of Buddhist thought, New Age positivity or whatever snake oil a particular business was shilling. My faith was over there, in the corner, as disused as dress pants.

Come forward to this year, and this Christmas. She bought me the entire Murder She Wrote series, remembering how I adored the show and thought my grandmother WAS Angela Landsbury and that she did solve crimes in Maine when we weren’t visiting her. (They really were dead ringers). As we’re concluding the festivities, and preparing to go our separate ways, she slips one more gift, still wrapped, on top of the pile in my arms. She tells me to open later. I promise I will, since she looks serious about it.

Hours later, after watching television and DVDs, I head up to bed, and unwrap her gift. It’s a softcover book, a collection of thoughts and ruminations not just of Christian thought, but also Islamic, Jewish and Taoist thought. Quotes and short essays, organized by theme. She’s placed a gold silk bookmark in the inside cover. She’s inscribed it very simply

It’s okay to believe again, just believe in something.

And in that moment, I realized that in 2013, my beliefs have been all over the map. So I lay there in bed last night, with sleep punctuated by random nightmare vignettes (people turning to stone chickens; a slow robotification of pets; my arms falling off on a date with a Cthulhu cultist, you know, that sort of thing), trying to sort out my beliefs. I continued this process over breakfast, and what follows are my beliefs.

  1. I believe it is the fundamental undeniable right of all people to live as who and how they like without one shred of shame or persecution.
  2. I believe it is the fundamental undeniable right of all people, no matter circumstance or perceived barrier, to be able to speak, write and express themselves, and receive help in doing so better.
  3. I believe in my friends, no matter where their lives take them: to new places, to new jobs, to new things they make, that they’ll be absolutely successful in those efforts, because all my friends and smart and talented.
  4. I believe in my work, in my ability to develop thoughts into words and paint pictures on mental canvases
  5. I believe that 2013 was the year I realized that my heart was broken and my trust in people a little banged up, but I’m willing to have either or both of them mended.
  6. I believe that 2014 is the year I will have my name on a creation of my own where I’m not the editor.
  7. I believe that given the opportunity, people are at their core, good and kind and just, and it’s only fear and expectation and doubt that leads them to act selfish or cowardly.
  8. I believe that 2013 was the year where I pushed myself to new avenues and new activities, and found some I want to do again in 2014, and others I would only do in extraordinary circumstances with extraordinary people.
  9. I believe that 2014 I will continue to do more, achieve more and experience more, and learn from it all.
  10. I believe that I have an undeniable, unavoidable mission and purpose to help people create things, be it games or books or movies or whatever – I’m here to help, facilitate, educate, clarify, amplify and broadcast.

I have no idea what 2014 will bring me, but I imagine it’s got some ups and downs and good things and tough things. I know what I want, I know what I’d like to experience, even if I don’t always know how to get it. So, as 2013 closes, let’s make 2014 the year we believe again. In ourselves. In each other. In what we do. In what we want to do.

And let’s be there to help each other. To teach each other. To celebrate. To mourn. To accomplish. To learn.

Here now, at the end of the post, let me tell you a secret: I’d really like 2014 to be a year where my eyes are a little less sad, and my heart a little less heavy. Wouldn’t mind my fingers still churning out the work though, I like that part.

Happy writing and celebrating.

On Adverbs

It’s cold, snowing and my office is littered in empty Amazon boxes. This sounds like a perfect time to write a blogpost. And what better topic is there than adverbs? Well, okay, yes, there are loads of better things to talk about but give me this space to point out something someone else said, and then let me tell you why they’re right … sort of.

Josh Yearsley was kind enough to call me respected and even quote me when I called adverbs “the tumors of sentences.” While there are other places I can talk about and/or doubt how respected I am, I want to come back to the quote, because I stand by it.

Now before I dive in, go read Josh’s whole post. It’s worth your time. Ready to go forward?

I hate adverbs the same way I hate cancer (which is why I compared them to tumors in the first place) because in both cases, a lethal, corrosive, virulent poison infects a body that might otherwise be healthy. I’m no oncologist but I’m pretty sure that a tumor is an abnormal growth of cells, and if we continue our metaphor, then as words are the cells of writing, adverbs are words gone awry.

Josh points out that there’s a good case for adverbs, that they offer vectors and degrees, and he’s correct in saying this. An adverb should tell you “how much” when we tether it to a specific action or concept. That’s the healthful function of adverbs. They shade in the picture we’ve got in our heads and give us just a little bit more depth. So where do the wheels come off?

I’ve talked about it before, the idea that “when everything is special, nothing is special”. We can extrapolate that idea here to say “When everything has an adverb, nothing is as clear as you think it is.”

Writers may be screaming, “But John they give specific detail I can’t give otherwise!”, which is true on face value. When you tell me:

He gingerly came around the corner.

you’re telling  me something about how you want me to picture his movement around this corner you’ve created. You want me to take my understanding of the word “came”, with all the concepts I know it to mean, and tweak it with a degree so that I know HOW this guy got from Point A to Point B. There’s nothing wrong with it, it totally works, it’s grammatically correct. But is it truly working in relation to other sentences we have around it? Yes, sure, I don’t have any sentences around it so that’s kinda cheap, but let’s make something up. Suppose that sentence showed up in a horror story, where there’s a killer on the loose and some young sexy teens are hiding in the house. Got it in your head?

When we’re looking at a sentence editorially, there are some parts we can change, and parts we can’t. It’s a sentence by sentence issue, framed by the bigger ongoing paragraphs, because the sentences ahead and behind of a sentence-in-question helps us know what to cut and what to spare. So in our horror example, if we’re working in the teen slasher vein, let’s break up the sentence into some working components and see if we can mod the sentence.

Here is it again:

He | gingerly | came| around the corner.

I broke the sentence into some really nice basic chunks. Can we change any of them?

1. Probably can’t change “He”, because that’s the character we’re following in the paragraph.

2. “Gingerly” tells us how an action was taken, so maybe we can change that.

3. “Came” tells us what “He” did, so while we can’t get rid of that (without eliminating the sentence), maybe we can clarify it.

4. “Around the corner” informs us about a location relevant to the action, and we can’t really change that without changing something fundamental about the scene. If we suddenly get rid of the corner, but in later sentences, that corner is important, we’ve created a continuity error that can confuse a reader, rip a hole in all of space and time and in general make a mess of a manuscript. At least two of things are science facts.

We can change #2 and #3 with less consequence than if we change #1 and #4. Here’s where some very subjective and difficult-to-explain nuances of editorial craft arrive to make what I’m doing way tougher to translate, and I apologize for that.

Imagine the sentences that come before and the sentences that follow our example sentence. Think about whoever you imagine the author of all these sentences to be, and imagine you’ve had several conversations with her, so that you get a sense for how she speaks and how she writes and what words she puts in whatever order. It’s easier to do this with an actual person, true, but this is just a hypothetical to show you something. How does the author compose their ideas? Do they use strong and distinct verbs that go way beyond “came”? (Maybe they prefer “rushed” “skedaddled” or “boogied”) Is the verb less important and they want to paint other parts of the picture in greater detail, and just sort of handwave you past the verb? (Maybe they like “courageously” “with alacrity” or “under his own power” squeezed into the sentence)

Chances are, a verb and its modifiers are going to fall under the knife far more than any logistical elements or the sentence’s subject. It’s not that the WHAT HAPPENED and HOW information is less critical than anything else, it’s that it can be so critical, that you want to make sure it’s clear enough to match what the author originally imagined it to be.

A soft verb, that is a verb that inadequate expresses the action, can be a stumbling block for a reader, and a momentum killer for a developing scene. If our example sentence happens in a really tense beat, where the killer is right on this guy’s heels, and we want to convey that tension as part of the information, maybe “came” isn’t going work in our favor (unless we’ve been using it throughout the rest of the MS). Maybe we want something even more evocative, like “tip-toed” or “crept”. A stronger verb doesn’t need an adverb to prop it up, because it’s evocative by itself.

The adverb colors in a detail about the “came” the author wants us to know. It’s a moment of setup and simultaneous payoff, so that we as readers see what the writer intends. But “gingerly” doesn’t convey the scene’s tension, as the scope of it only sticks to the verb. It’s enough information to tell me about the walking, yes, but not enough to make the nailbiting I-hope-this-guy-doesn’t-die feeling stronger. So because this scene is supposed to convey tension, and I want a smooth machine of words working in unison to deliver feelings and ideas to the reader, “gingerly” can be cut, and maybe, if it leaves a divot, I’ll change the verb to something stronger.

It’s not that adverbs are going to be absolute wrong words to use, it’s that they get used when they should be, as Josh points out. For me, I’m reading to get the picture in my head, to share the desired experience, to project onto and into the story, so when the words don’t make that easier, and I find myself filling in too many blanks or propping up concepts that didn’t quite deliver as hoped for, I balk and stop reading. That’s the sort of situation a writer wants to avoid.

Right about here is where someone makes the assumption that if I’m pro-cutting words, I must be a huge fan of brevity and concision. My usual response is to point them to this blog or any interview I give, where concision isn’t even in the same zip code. I believe concision and brevity have their place, the same what that adverbs have their place in certain styles of writing and within the voices of certain authors.

So, the short response to Josh:

Adverbs work sometimes, they are most likely to fall or get changed when I’m looking at them editorially, and abuse doesn’t provide specificity only confusion. I still think a lot of them can go, allowing the verbs and context to be intensified, though that’s more on a case by case basis.

This post got away from me, I think. I shall revisit it.

 

Happy writing

How Atomic Robo Changed The Way I Edit & The Way I Like Things

I do a lot of reading. It’s kind of a job requirement. Sometimes what I read is good, and sometimes what I read isn’t.

But there are other times what I read changes me, affecting me so intensely across so many levels, that I take what I’ve learned and go forward. This is one of those times.

I want to tell you why you should be reading Atomic Robo, and when it comes out, why you should playing the Atomic Robo RPG. I mean, you should already be playing games, so consider that just one more you should be getting.

We start with some backstory. In broad strokes, Atomic Robo is a comic about a Tesla-built robot who saves the world through the application of science and kicking ass, not always in that order, and never in the dull way that sounds. Robo, as he is called, has a team of Action Scientists with him and is part of an incredibly deep and intelligent world where Edison is a jerk, there’s a brain in a mech suit, a velociraptor uses crystals to do … stuff and in general lots of things explode. Not always in the order, and never in the dull way that sounds.

My first exposure to Atomic Robo came (I’m a little fuzzy here) when I read the early pages when it debuted because one of the creators, Brian Clevinger had this other comic I really liked. I didn’t know what Atomic Robo was, or why it was interrupting my regular reading, and I guess, it was okay. Kind of interesting. Maybe I’d follow along. Then I forgot about it. Mostly. Sort of. It was a thing I heard of and that I was vaguely aware that other people read, but it wasn’t on my radar.

I also knew that it was going to be a role-playing game. It was a big deal, because people were really excited to work with the property and it sounded fun and it’s a great system and it’s got some cool elements in it. Working on it, for me, would have been awesome, but moreso because I love to work on things, and less because I love to work on THAT thing. Again, it wasn’t totally on my radar. But it was getting there. And I would needle people if they had seen the thing in development and if it was cool. Eventually, I was lucky enough to be brought onto the project, and that meant Atomic Robo now HAD to be on my radar.

So I got the books. And I started reading. And I realized what a mistake I made by not keeping it on my radar. Because it works. It’s as realized a piece of created fiction as the novels I love to read, the TV shows I like to watch and the movies I love to attend. It’s GOOD. No, it’s better than GOOD. It’s great, and it made me look at the creative process in new ways, because if that’s the sort of material people are capable of producing, then the level of discourse about process has elevated and the bar is raised and the gauntlet thrown. Atomic Robo challenged me to go all the way to eleven, and I hope I’ve done so. Let me explain.

Note: This is MY view and interpretation of things as I see them. I’m not an artist, I do have any technical art training, I have minimal experience working in comics, and I am devoid of terminology thereof. 

I should point out that you can get the first issue of Atomic Robo for free on Comixology, and you can get many books on Amazon as well.

Here’s the opening panel of the first issue:

ATOMICROBO01

Opening panels in comics are like the opening shots of films. They’re establishing shots. They are our entry into the created world, just like openings in books. Here, we get some information like a location (Himalayas) and a date (1958). This gets partnered visually with our expectation of the location, the Himalayas are cold and snowy and sort of stark, so the image is white and kinda pointy. We need the year because we’re telling the story in that year, so we have sort of a framework for our expectations. We’re more likely to encounter things of that time period than any other period, so we can start setting the context in our heads.

The rest of the page involves two guys smoking, guarding something. You get a sense of the cold because of their dialogue.

Our hero, Robo, pops up on the next page in a flashback, marked with “One Week Previous”. His first line? “I’m only here to tell you that we’re not interested.”

Hold right there a second. What a character says is HUGELY critical, because it gives us insight not only into who they are, but how they view the world and their place in it. We know going into the comic that it’s got about a robot (he’s on the cover), so maybe have the expectation that he’s going to sound like Twiggy or at least like Data, or be cold like a Terminator. He isn’t. That’s a line of dialogue a person would say, and immediately we as readers know that Robo isn’t just a robot, he’s a person-robot. A personbot. He’s Robo,

The visuals? He’s wearing clothes. Like a person. And we see not eyes, not like a person, so he’s not human, but we see eye spheres, ocular sockets, whatever you want to call the round things. Visually humans use a combination of eyelids and eyebrows to convey expressions, but Robo doesn’t have eyebrows, so we have to judge expression based on dialogue and the dilation of the eye … things. The sort of squint he does? That’s a human gesture. I make it when telemarketers call. I make it when I die in a video game. It confirms that Robo is a person.

The second page looks like this:

The dialogue reads like real people.

The dialogue reads like real people.

 

In this page, the second of the comic, we get not only the character established somewhat, but there’s a plot – track down someone or something called Helsingard. The spacing on those speech bubbles indicate the back-and-forth of a discussion. Rather than apply numerous “he said” to things, we can actually look at the text, see how it’s lettered and see the emphasis. The emphasis shows inflection, putting some torque and spin on the words, to show persuasion or intensity. In text we can often get away with adverbs or sentences to accomplish the same thing.

The fact that I’m two pages in and have this much information already is brilliant, because nothing has been wasted. There’s no fluff here to trim. I need everything I’ve got so far. The Himalayas, the guards, the general, Robo, Helsingard. That pause about making Robo civically a “human being”. All important. Delivered in a deliberate and specific order to arm me for what’s coming up.

So onward into the comic we go, a few more pages in, and we see a different side of Robo, and an important element in the whole comic. It’s smart and funny. Robo has humor. Not like a “humor chip”, but an actual developed sense of humor. Like a person.

Here’s part of the page.

See? Jokes!

See? Jokes!

 

Our understanding of robots isn’t that they say things like “Jeez” or “Wow”. That’s what people say. Also, in that bottom panel? Those guys are loading guns. They’re bad dudes. If this were a tale of people, chances are, the humor wouldn’t work because humans know that bullets are bad. But we don’t know what bullets would do to Robo, so we wait, and the joke pays off.

Onward!

Comics are static images, just like the words of pictureless fiction, so any motion is implied. This isn’t Harry Potter where the photos get a chance to move. This isn’t the internet, where we can look at Hobbit gifs. These are flat pages, so we need to use a variation of psychic distance to understand action.

Here’s the page:

ATOMICROBO05

Alright, let’s break this down.

First, you don’t see the bullets leaving the gun, because it’s not about the bullets, it’s about the color of the muzzle flash (yellow) and the sound they make while firing (BLAM). And we know this because that information is split into two halves vertically. There’s a gap in the activity in that panel, so that we see two columns of action: the guns firing and then the sounds. There’s no clutter in the middle so we only have that information to work with. It’s no different than this:

WORDS GO HERE

The guns fired.

MORE WORDS GO HERE

Move to the next panel and we see the results of the guns firing, and they’re next to each other on the page, so it’s like the bullets moved from panel to panel, the way an actual in-person bullet would go across the room. We don’t have motion lines to indicate how fast Robo moveS, we see Robo having already moved. And he’s sort of recoiling. He’s a robot. Aren’t they supposed to be impassive. Oh right, Robo’s human-ish. So is his response.

He starts with “Stop that” which is not what a squishy human would say to bullets, but what a squishy human would say to, maybe a bunch of horseflies at the beach. Nuisances of a slightly higher magnitude than mosquitos or when you bite your tongue.

Then there’s movement. Well, a sense of movement. Again, there are no motion lines to indicate movement, which shows that the creators trust us to make that connection that because Robo is now smaller and above the rest of the framed image, he must have jumped up. The next bit of dialogue “Jerks” is a continuation of the Robo-is-a-funny-dude element already established.  The rest of the page is verbally silent, because the focus is on more implied motion.

Again, no motion lines, but Robo’s hitting the ground produces a wave of force and a sound (THUD), and we get a sense of Robo’s weight because THUD is big and the wave ripples around his position. He’s heavy, and he’s just hit the ground. In the last panel, there’s nothing said again but now we see the door, and we see Robo having turned to reach it, to run for it. We see him run without actually seeing him run.

There’s no wasting panels. There’s nothing clubbing me over the head as a reader asking me if I see what’s going on. I’m trusted to figure it out, or stick with it until I do. It’s economized, effective and elaborate, all at once.

For something to have that impact, for something to hook a reader (even a jaded one like me) and hold my attention now across 6+ books, that’s significant. I could have easily put the first book down, declared it “Okay” and gone on to read anything else. I didn’t. Because Robo presented me information in a way that says, “John, you’re a smart guy, just check out what we, other smart guys, are doing.”

What does that do for me professionally? A few things:

I. It shows me that precision and direct action isn’t synonymous with “cheap” or “rushing”. I mean “cheap” like handwaving and copping out, skipping on things because you’re in a race to other things. That’s a trap professionally, the idea that if you go fast enough you’ll get extra work and extra cool points. And while fast is AWESOME, fast and thorough, fast without rushing (yes there’s a difference, and that difference is in focus and discipline and talent) is better.

II. It shows me that picturing a scene in one medium can translate into another medium. Comics are great because they partner visuals with written text. Yeah, sure, they’re static, but they’re not just blocks of text. They’re still frames of a motion picture, and I’m trusted to fill in the rest. And it’s not like “the rest” are the significant details, I’m shown those. The big signposts and moments of awesome are there, the connective tissue is often left up to me, and that’s what I want as a reader, and that’s what I teach as an editor. That’s how you don’t hate your reader – you see them as your peer and you treat their intelligence with respect as they collaborate with you to tell the story.

III. Humor plus action plus focused storytelling pays off. Yes, you can write funny things to have people say them. Yes, you can make those funny people do not-funny but exciting things that provide tension. Yes you can make those funny people do action-y things in such a way of storytelling that we stick with them, we follow them and we don’t need the other stuff, the detritus of writing that pads lines and strokes egos. We don’t need congested paragraphs that show off the writer’s chops. We came for a story, we get a story.

Atomic Robo is available at Comixology and on Amazon, and probably other places I don’t know about. You should read it, because it’s storytelling in all the best ways I know, and in that I don’t-know-what-it-is-until-I-see-it way. It’s beautifully crafted, the words and pictures married to provide a complete expression to the reader’s mind, and give them not some half-baked idea that sort of fizzles out, but something that engages in the present and encourages for the future. I could teach whole workshops about it, and very happily tell you how awesome it is. And we didn’t even get to the talking dinosaur or the jetpack flying ladies. Or the sentence “Action Geology.”

You should be reading this. And take from it any writing lessons you can find. Because it’s awesome.

 

Happy writing.

The Writer and Growing Up Sick

Before I write a fun post about writing and good stuff, let’s have a moment of realtalk. This is your trigger warning for physical illness, mental illness, suicide, depression, eating disorders, dysmorphia, body shaming, body hating, self harm, and frustration. Yeah, I know, that’s a lot, but I want to make sure we’re all out on front street about what kind of conversation we’re having. 

We have to start at the beginning. I was supposed to be born on Halloween. I was born in August. It was 1978, and premature births didn’t benefit from the technology and advances they do now. I weighed less than a pound, I didn’t always breathe, I hadn’t really finished cooking, and there I was, out in the world. I used to get wrapped in doll clothes and the foil from Velveeta packages and lay under sun lamps. I guess my love of bright warm sunny days started early. 

My chest used to be a haven of scars. Crescents and dashes. Divots and little puckers. So many machines working so hard to keep me alive. My parents organized and started three blood drives to make sure I had enough to survive. I wasn’t supposed to, according to most accounts. I would grow up brain damaged, limited, sickly. I don’t know the language used to tell my parents that I was going to need a lot of help, but I like to imagine that it was told to them by a doctor with some wicked muttonchops. The humor makes it a little less intense for me. I know I was diagnosed “Neurologically Impaired” and with cerebral palsy. I know there was a lot of talk about how I had really obsessive traits and habits, no motor skills to speak of, but I was conversant, and bright and observant. But we’ll get there. 

We have to go back in time. I am a middle child. I had an older brother, Daniel. He was born in 1976, and I don’t know if he lived for minutes or hours or days, but he didn’t live very long. My name John, is actually John-Daniel, because my mom wanted some part of him to live on. I know he was born severely handicapped, and didn’t survive. I have no photos of him, but my mom stitched this cross-stitch piece dedicated to him, of two kids walking in the rain under and umbrella. They look so sad, so heartbroken in it. I don’t think we ever really talked about it, and frankly, I’m not sure my parents are in any place to do so. Sometimes, when I’m staring out the window as I like to do, I like to imagine my older brother calling for me, asking me to hang out, to laugh and play some games, to listen to me when I’m sad, to do for me what I do for my brother.  I would have liked to have an older brother, even if he was handicapped. He’d be the best older brother ever. 

Okay, come back to me as a baby in 1978. Now, I’m not a parent, so I have no frame of reference, but I’m pretty sure that there’s like a short window (like days, I think) where you get to take your baby home after you deliver. I don’t know what it is, but I imagine it isn’t the half a year I spent in the hospital. All tube and transfusions. A fighter from day one, my grandmother used to say. There’s a scar on the top of my head, I didn’t discover it until about ten years ago when I needed to get some stitches and couldn’t explain what it was. Apparently there was a tube that got slipped into me up there. Doesn’t surprise me, though I do wish they like, installed some robot parts or something. That would be pretty sweet. 

So when you spend the first half a year of your life fighting everyday to do things like breathe and probably poop and whatever else babies do that we take for granted, your parents naturally get protective. I mean, this kid needs a lot of help and aid, and they’re young-ish adults, and they haven’t been in this situation before (I mean, who has?), so they do the best they can, given all their worries and insecurities and fears. They turn to faith and the support of friends. They do the best they can. 

The downside is that I was tiny. Like tiny tiny. Like I have class photos of me as a pretty cute platinum blonde kid who’s maybe as tall as a kitchen chair. There’s this photo in my living room of me in this ugly-as-hell-baby-blue sweater, but I keep it not because I’m rocking some 80s bowl cut, but because I’m smiling. It’s my only photo with a genuine smile. Pretty sure that sweater today would be super hipster. 

And being tiny (people loved the word “frail”), I could pretty easily get knocked on my ass by illnesses. A cold wouldn’t lay me up for a few days, it would be two weeks minimum, and more than likely it’d develop into bronchitis or pneumonia and I’d be sick for a month. Or two months. I’d get ear infections if you looked at me funny, and I’d run fevers in triple digits with any illness. My memories of childhood involve laying on couches under blankets, drinking chicken soup out of mugs and watching game shows like Press Your Luck. All my Whammies were sick.

Couple that with the fact that I had NO motor (gross or fine) skills, and it becomes clearer that I wasn’t going to hit homeruns, run for touchdowns, or get a varsity jacket. I think that really hurt my dad, because my memories so often include me standing looking out the windows of the house, watching kids play. I remember one time in sixth grade, my two friends Alex and Jake taught me how to hit a ball that wasn’t on a tee. First time ever. Made me feel so awesome when I did it. I imagine other kids have that feeling years earlier.  I learned how to tie my own shoes in the sixth grade. I practiced for hours after school learning that “make one loop, cross it over” method, which I still can’t freaking do, and settled for the “make two bunny ears and cross them” method, which I think is way cooler.

I had physical therapists teach me how to walk on balance beams that were 3 centimeters off the ground. I had one guy teach me how to do a forward roll. I had a lady spend a whole year teaching me how to use scissors. I’m a grown man, and I still hate scissors. Everything that crafty, strong kids do, I learned. In my head, that became “everything healthy normal kids do, I will always have to learn.” Like being able to pinch things between your fingers, or snap your fingers, or learn how to run without letting your knees bump into each other and send you faceplanting onto the floor. One of the reasons I have tried running as an adult (and not just because I want so badly to be in a shape that women find attractive) is because I remember being in elementary school and being told to run laps around the gym and feeling this sort of electric pulse through my legs and my own nerves freaked out that I was moving. And then I realized what I was doing, and fell over. 

What I did have was a brain. I read. I mean, what else could I do, if all the other kids were kicking a ball or playing two-hand touch, and I was so tired of watching from the sideline? I devoured knowledge and asked so many questions. Why is this that way? What makes this work? Why doesn’t it work this way? Could we change it? It meant you could give me a box of books and I’d be nice and content for a day or so. It wasn’t until later, as a teenager, that my questions became rebellious, little protests against the established authority who I felt was just trying to remind me that I was different. As if I wasn’t painfully aware that I wasn’t dancing with girls or playing stickball or going on ski trips. As if I didn’t spend so many summer days wishing just once I could hit the ball and people would cheer for me. As if it didn’t hurt deeply to know that I wasn’t wired the way other people are, and that I used to screw up using a steak knife (I used to miss the meat and nick my fingers or just scrape at the plate). I haven’t forgotten any part of that. 

Growing up sick, growing up aware that your health is precious, changes a person I think. In my case it amplifies the insecurity and anxiety. Couple that with other issues (which no doctor has yet to tell me is directly tied to my physical stuff or if I just got the winning ticket in the oh-shit-that-sucks lottery), and I don’t just think “be careful not to catch the cold” I think “do not touch a sick person”. It turns “being sick is no fun” into “being sick can kill you.” I’m 35, colds aren’t about to punch my ticket. But try telling that to my brain when I hear someone sniffle or cough. 

Growing up sick means that you get into a sense of knowing your body not just in terms of what an ache means or what hurts, but also what isn’t “right” according to the pressures of society. You’re small, you’re weak, you’re not a man. You need to be tougher. You need to be macho. You cut yourself so that you have scars “the chicks will like”, you cut yourself to let the fat out so that you’ll be like everyone else. You go to the gym and do your best to lift weights just like those other guys, but your body isn’t built like that, so you get lean, but you hate lean because no one’s kissing the lean boys, they’re all up on the football players and the wrestlers and guys who years later will be guidos and bros. So the hell with lean, the hell with lifting weights. You hate your body. It’s stupid and broken and it betrays you with twitches and spasms and occasional inability to do things like press a sequence of buttons on a controller fast enough or when you’re lucky enough to have some intimate time and you can’t get your fingers to flex to take off your lady friend’s bra. It’s not just dislike of your body, it’s hate. It’s contempt. It grows and festers like hot toxic sludge and you don’t want your body anymore. 

Growing up sick means you feel like you’re forever falling short, and that you have to compensate for anything and everything you do. You might not be able to bench press anything (I seriously have no idea what I can bench, but I know I can carry groceries), but you’ll damn sure talk somebody’s ear off. You might not be able to run marathons, but you will be the best damn public speaker in the room. You find what things you can do without the fuss or the second thought or the hate and you magnify them, you promote them. You pretend the other stuff doesn’t even exist, so that you live in this constantly broken sense of reality where all you’re good for and good at are these few skills. The rest is worse than shit. 

Growing up sick means that a health scare, be it exposure to a disease of whatever kind, paralyzes you. You’re hyper-vigilant about germs, about what you’ve touched that other people did, about people who have what thing going on with their body and whether or not it can affect you. You swear that the best cure for a sickness like that is death. You maintain that not-so-in-secret. Not their death, not other people. Just yours. Because they can handle it. They’ll find meds and science and their bodies will get them through. But yours, to your thinking, will give up, so why not lend it a hand? Just don’t use scissors, because fuck scissors. Seriously. 

Growing up sick means you figure the best defense against illness isn’t exposure, to build the immune response, but education. You read anything you can about brains and bodies and lymph nodes and GI procedures. You learn the names of ducts and glands and whatever they produce. The downside is that you read an article about brain aneurysms and think you have one. Or you meet someone with an illness that’s not actually bad and you’re a complete monster to them. A fighter from day one. 

I say all this, because I’m waiting on phone calls from doctors about things, and I know there’s nothing wrong, but until the phone rings, I’m in search of surety, and trying to explain that to people takes some prefacing. 

I say all this because space invasion means diseases could be launching a microscopic D-Day, and because I don’t know where you’ve actually been and my brain is screwed enough not to believe you until I really get to know you. 

But what can you do? These are the cards you get dealt, and you play the hand until your time at the table is up.

I’m still playing. 

 

Chapters!

Hello again everybody.

Thanks so much for your very kind feedback about my previous post. For the record, no, I’m still not my usual super cheery amazing self, but it hasn’t gotten worse either. So onward we march.

I asked on Twitter for some blog topics, and got a few very interesting ones. One in particular stood out, because the minute I said, “Yeah I like that” quite a few people (twelve I think) were very excited in response.

So let’s look at the suggested topic:

 

TWITTERPOST01

Josh is curious about what a “good” chapter looks like. And while it’s super easy and incredibly tempting to tell him not to think in terms of good and bad, because they’re crazy subjective, that’s not going to help him. And it is worth noting that a chapter does have a structure, and ideally that structure should help, not hinder, whatever’s going on.

The problem though is that not every chapter in every book in every genre by every writer is going to be the same. Sometimes we’re reading love stories, sometimes it’s horror, sometimes it’s a lengthy rant about the dangers of single ply toilet tissue. Further, the second question about exciting parts of a larger story is kind of misleading. Exciting (like good and bad) is subjective, and there are some parts of some stories that you don’t want to be exciting. For instance, I don’t want to see excitement and/or tension in the part of the chapter where the hero falls asleep or the heroine washes her hair. It’s not exciting. It might be really nice for the character to do, but it doesn’t need to rivet me to the chair, because I can deal with a sentence or two about sleep and hair care, and as a writer, I’m not worried that at the first mention of something not-as-exciting as other parts of my book, people are going to flee and hate me. So let’s look at the components of chapters in terms of when they work to serve the story versus when they don’t.

Positive Elements In A Chapter

Does this chapter introduce new information? If we’re telling a story with a plot (doesn’t matter what it is), does this chapter give us more detail? A chapter is a step forward in information, we should be able to move from this chapter to the next one and say we learned something we didn’t know before. Yes, this chapter might not be a step forward chronologically in the story, time might not advance, but what the chapter tells us about the characters, the plot, the created world, should be new and in addition to what we already know. Now you can make a case and bring up a good point about first chapters, since there’s nothing new in front of a first chapter, but the rule still holds true here – only instead of relying on whole chapters before it, first chapters are built on a sentence-by-sentence case, where we gain information a discrete unit (sentence) at a time.

Does this chapter cement what we already know (or think we know)? Whether a first or fiftieth chapter, once we see this chapter is providing new data, we have to make sure this chapter is also affirming existing data. This is often called continuity, but outside of fiction this also pertains to contradictory instructions (where you earlier said X but now you’re saying Y) and shifts in assumption (suddenly the author assumes the reader knows more because the reader is deeper into the document). Since our most fundamental building block of knowledge is a word, because it evokes a concept and a memory and a feeling all simultaneously, and we compile words into sentences to give them vectors and focus, we have to be able to trust that the application is constant, that is, that the word we used back seven pages ago still means the same thing it does later on, unless we’ve expressly and obviously changed its definition. Inconsistency in language means that we aren’t conveying in an easily understood way and that our readers will possibly not want to keep reading because “all of a sudden the book got weird/dense/strange”. There’s often a whole editorial pass for continuity, because leaving plot holes and resorting to hand-waving is ultra lazy. Also, since the writer can’t be everywhere constantly to explain things to people whenever they get to a particular part of the story, why not make it easier on them by just avoiding this potential problem from the start?

Is this chapter a complete package? Chapters should start somewhere, even if the action being described is carried over from previous chapters (like chapter 4 opens with the car crashed into a pole, because chapter 3 ended with the car skidding on the highway) or that the chapter is called “Combat” and contains all the game rules for fighting. It has to start somewhere, and even if you’ve established some really funky variable chronologies in your story, there still has to be a starting point, even if a particular starting point differs from others throughout the book. In fact, it’s impossible to have a chapter that doesn’t have a starting point. Likewise, chapters should have endings, sometimes with summaries of what you’ve just covered (like study questions) or a push into the next action (cliffhanger) or just the cessation of that line of thought. Chapters have to end somewhere just like they have to start somewhere. The trick isn’t in having them or not having them, the trick is in knowing where the story is served best with those starts and stops. Manipulation of those starts and stops across the span of chapters is a lot like the push/pull we’ve discussed elsewhere about carrying the reader forward throughout the flow of the words.

Things You May Want To Avoid In A Chapter

Does the chapter do too much? As said above, chapters have beginnings and ends. They should ideally contain a progression of material, either introducing it fresh (as a first chapter would) or perpetuating it until it can be closed later (the way a middle chapter would) or tying things up (the way an ending would). Not every chapter in fiction is going to do all three of these things, of course, but it’s important to recognize the role a particular chapter plays as introducer, perpetuator or closer, and making sure the chapter does those things. When a chapter oversteps, and information loses its individuated spot (like cars double parking), then you start creating situations where material isn’t given appropriate weight by the reader, because they have to squeeze more stuff into their head, because you keep shoveling it onto them. This discourtesy, this lack of respect, most often comes up as nervousness on the part of the writer, the idea that they have all this information that they swear they prove its all relevant and has to be used right-this-second, and if they don’t get it out right there in that particular part of that exact page, it has no other place in the book and everything (including all of time and space) will fall apart as your created world is torn asunder. Which isn’t true. It’s in fact fabricated bullshit you’ve convinced yourself is super mucho important because things are going well in your writing and you’re freaking out. You have all the pages in the world to get these ideas out, and even if you’re working within a constraint of a word cap on a project, chances are you have the ability to do multiple drafts and possibly even an editor to help you find the best-fit for all the ideas, even if the best-fit for that idea over there might be not-in-the-thing-you’re-writing-right-now.

Does the chapter repeat other chapters? At some point, and I don’t know when it was, our attention spans took a nose-dive. Maybe it was when it became super easy to look at porn. Maybe it was whenever we all decided to stop wearing hats. Maybe it was when we invented the machines that propel us into outer space. But collectively, specially, our attention span tapered right off. Some people will go all gloom-and-doom at this notion and say things like “You only have three seconds to keep someone’s attention because they’re soooo busy!” (I really hope you made up your own arm waving at that one) but when you later question them as to what people do that has them so busy, the answers seem to all suggest that a lot of time is consumed in a lot of short actions like looking at phones, blinking at monitors and feverishly responding to other stimuli. To compensate for all this, we started repeating ourselves, as in the case where you can post tweets to facebook and to your blog and you can stick blog posts to twitter and facebook and other blogs … all that. This isn’t a bad thing, when it serves a purpose (like getting information out quickly to a wide audience), but when the same information shows up again and again, it’s annoying. Yes, we get it. This thing got written. Yes, you said she was blonde already. Yes, I know, the gun has only one shot left. Recycling this information more often than not is proof that the writer really doesn’t trust their reader to remember things they’ve read, and/or to some degree, that they don’t trust themselves to establish a fact and then leave it alone with bringing it back up. There is also something to be said for over-saturation, where a detail too oft mentioned loses the specialty it needs. If the response to a fact is a huge sigh, chances are you’ve said it enough times.

Does the chapter fit? In the progression (not arrangement, I don’t mean something arbitrary like in a game or manual) of the story, does the particular chapter belong in the space you’re assigning it? Does, for example, that chapter about the kid bored at school belong between the two chapters of the kid’s parents fighting robotic farm animals? Would it make sense to hold off showing what happens to the protagonist trapped on the roof (for a whole chapter) because you totally want to show the flashback of how the protagonist first learned to love being on a roof ? (by the way, the flashback-as-teaching-tool-as-a-chapter is way super totally overused, especially if you bring us out of the flashback at chapter’s end and practically quip). Stories, remember, are progressions of actions and emotions, carrying the reader from their starting point, educating them and delivering them the world you built and leaving them back in their world, changed by experience of sharing yours. Huge bumps in that road jar the reader, and too many times jarred can lead the reader to lose interest. Make sure there’s a clear path from A to B to C.

 

Josh, I hope I answered your question. I know it probably wasn’t the answer you looked me to give, but I am partial to this one.

Everyone, stay well, keep writing and be good to one another.

A Conversation In The Writer’s Head

ME: *working on whatever*

Voice: Hey guess what?

ME: What?

Voice: You’re going to stop working now.

ME: I am?

Voice: Oh yeah, because have you seen it outside?

ME: But I’m working —

Voice: Yeah, but look, just for a second. It’s terrible out. And has anyone said anything nice about that blog post you wrote? Or did anyone say you’re funny today? Oh, hey, you remember that thing that person said the other day on Twitter that literally had zero to do with you, yeah, let’s think about all of that. Starting … now. 

ME: Why are you doing this?

Voice: Because I want you to remember how alone you are. How much it hurts. How the holidays fill everyone with joy and you just get to ache. 

ME: You think I forgot?

Voice: Well, it looked for a minute like you were going to try and be positive and get through this. Don’t forget that’s the opposite of what you learned growing up.

ME: Well, yeah, but I’m in a better place now.

Voice: Oh, yeah, check you out. Way better place. How’s that being single working out? Are you comforted by the money you don’t have? How about all those posts on Facebook from smiling and happy parents? All that helping your better place?

ME: Don’t be mean, life’s better now.

Voice: I’m not being mean. Mean is over there though if you want to say hi.

ME: What?

MEAN: FUCK YOU YOU FAT SACK OF SHIT. NO ONE IS EVER GOING TO LOVE YOU. NO ONE STAYS WITH YOU. YOU DON’T FINISH THINGS. YOU COWARD. YOU’RE TOO AFRAID TO GIVE UP BECAUSE YOU’LL PROBABLY SCREW THAT UP TOO. 

ME: Whoa, that guy is —

Voice: Yeah, mean. So how are you feeling now?

ME: Not great.

Voice: Well, let’s see if I can help. Remember [this one time one great thing that happened for like a short period of time]? Remember [the awful thing that happened later when you completely blew the great thing out of proportion]? How about a montage of [various and sundry heartbreakings and failures]? Still feel like working?

ME: You don’t know what “help” means.

Voice: Oh, help, the way you help people? All the people you can’t help because they can’t pay or because you just can’t save them all? Yeah, you’re super helpful.

ME: Well the other half though, they’re super good to me.

Voice: But how much work do they have for you?

ME: I gotta wait. People need to make things.

Voice: Oh, right, making things. Let me just point out [success other people have at their own thing in a short period of time] and compare it to [your own sense of accomplishment]. Let’s see you blog your way out of that one.

ME: It’s true. I look at how far other people come in their efforts and I get jealous and frustrated and upset with myself, but I’m still writing. I just put the new mechanics together.

Voice: But they’re not original. You read four books then took their best parts.

ME: Original is tough in design. Ephemeral.

Voice: Like love. Just checking, still alone? Nobody holding your hand lately?

ME: Yeah, still alone.

Voice: I think Mean has something to say.

ME: Oh no.

MEAN: THE PART OF YOU THAT CONNECTS TO OTHER PEOPLE IS BROKEN. YOU WON’T CONNECT TO OTHER PEOPLE THE WAY YOU DID TO [PERSON], [PERSON], AND [PERSON]. HAPPINESS RUNS FROM YOU.

ME: Nice Oxford comma, Mean.

MEAN: I MAKE GRAMMAR MY BITCH THE WAY FAILURE MAKES YOU ITS BITCH. FAILY FAILERSON FROM FAILING FALLS FLORIDA. 

Me: Nope, not going to work. I can pick myself out of this hole. I have music and porn and people who care.

Voice: Let me just work that backwards – Can you really trust them? Are they just saying that? And porn? That’s biological, I can just nip all that pleasure seeking in the bud. And music? Don’t you like listen to the same ten things over and over. Really, you wonder why no one digs your Spotify playlists, you’re boring.  *click*

ME: What did you do?

Voice: Oh, I just turned off the appreciative parts of you. Good luck with that porn and music and food now.

ME: Why did you do it?

Voice: Because it’s winter. Because being alone hurts. Because you haven’t melted down or nuked things from orbit lately, and you’re due.

ME: I don’t do that anymore.

Voice: Not to be a pig or anything, but I seem to notice that since you stopped that, there’s a lot less nudity in your immediate vicinity. 

ME: What?

Voice: You got your head on straight and the ladies left. 

ME: Well no, I can point to a few.

Voice: Any of them still around?

ME: Point taken. I feel tired all of a sudden.

Voice: Yeah, just sit there. 

ME: I should do something though.

Voice: Oh, great, are you going to watch Leverage from beginning to end? Supernatural this time?

ME: What’s wrong with that?

Voice: Mean and I did some research – you aren’t Batman, Nightwing, the Doctor, Timothy Hutton, or either of the Winchesters.

ME: You did research?

MEAN: WE TOOK A LOOK AT YOUR SHITTY LIFE AND COMPARED IT TO THE LIVES OF PEOPLE WHO AREN’T YOU AND AREN’T EVEN REAL. OH AND POSTSCRIPT, EVEN THE DOCTOR IS CHANGING. 

ME: Regeneration happens. It’s part of the show.

MEAN: THE NEW GUY WILL BE BETTER LOOKING THAN YOU. 

ME: You don’t know that.

Voice: Ahem [Google Image Search].

ME: Dammit. Well what am I supposed to do?

Voice: Well maybe if we really work at, you can totally go all to pieces and your exes will email you and imply that their lives are better off without you. Oh, and if you do go all to shit, think about how embarrassing that will be!

ME: You know damned well I don’t hide from it anymore.

MEAN: I HAVE GUILT AND SHAME WAITING IN THE BACK FOR YOU. AMAZON SENDS IT BY DRONE NOW. 

ME: So what are we talking here? An hour off? A night off? What would get you two to back off?

Voice: Well, this isn’t really a negotiation. We are in your base, killing all your happy doods. 

ME: You want me to wave the white flag?

Voice: I want you to hurt. You’ve been doing so well lately, the counter-balancing pain has to be extraordinary. I don’t see you talking about that, blog boy. 

ME: Maybe because that wallowing isn’t effective.

Voice: Don’t look now, you’re wallowing in it.

ME: Dammit.

MEAN: OH HEY LOOK, OTHER PEOPLE HAVING ALL KINDS OF SUCCESS AND HAPPINESS! DON’T WORRY, YOU DON’T GET A SHARE OF IT.

I wrote that nice one-act play because while this is happening to me, and I talk about it, there are a lot of people out there who go through conversations like this (or worse) who can’t talk about it. I mean, as it is, this is probably the tipping point where I usually just shut down for a while, but I wanted to at least get one more word in before I go sit quietly awhile. If there are people in your life who you know are going through this, or something similar, be there for them. Let them vent. Give them tissues. Be supportive. Even if it’s just you sitting in the same room with them so that they don’t feel like no one wants to be near them. Do it. Help them.

BUT … don’t force your help on them. You don’t have to fix them. They don’t want you to fix them. They probably don’t want to inconvenience you with all that might entail. Don’t just tell them to cheer up. Don’t just tell them to think positive thoughts. And depending on their belief structure versus yours, certainly this isn’t the time to get preachy at them. This isn’t a matter of sitting next to the right kind of rock or spending money on the right products spoken by the right people. They also don’t want to hear how you once had a bad day because you spilled your coffee and you had to give like a tough presentation at the office. It’s not comparable, despite all your well wishes.

I can only describe what it’s like for myself, and it’s this – everything is muted. The colors are duller. The foods taste less intense. The sounds seem muddier. The joy of anything from boobs to books to butts to bathrobes is less than it normally is. It’s a lot of asking “What’s the point of X?” when X is something you used to like. Who gives a shit about my love for Starburst? Does that matter? Really, is anyone going to care that I’m pretty sure the other day I figured out how to do a *World LARP? How critical is that?

There’s a sense of weight, of moving through concrete and wanting to move faster, of knowing I “should” move faster, but I just can’t, despite all efforts. I just don’t have the energy. I don’t know where it went, but it isn’t from a lack of sleeping or eating meals. It’s a sense of slow drain and decay. Of a light dimming.

I say things like that, and I get a lot of advice. I get a lot of “Stay strong” and “I’m here if you need me” which I love, because I can believe the people who say it. I hear a lot of apologizing “I’m sorry you feel that way.” which my head interprets as “I don’t know what to say since who knows what will make you worse, but it sucks what you’re going through.” I also get a wide range of “advice” like the following:

  1. If you prayed, you’d be healed
  2. Just get out of the house more.
  3. Can’t you just meet someone and shut up?
  4. Be happier!
  5. You have to get over this event or that event or this person or that person. Just stop thinking about it. Get a life, move on.
  6. How long is this time going to last?

None of the above statements are helpful to me because they either take control out of my hands (#1), patronize me (#2-4) or shame me (#5, #6). If I knew how long this was going to last, don’t you think I’d mention that? Telling me to move on points out that I haven’t while other people have, and that’s not encouraging. It’s sort of like telling the driver of the last car at the Indy 500 that they’re not winning – they know, and you’re not offering anything new or substantive to their efforts. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the victim of a wizard’s spell, so I don’t need to offer opals to the local temple to ease my affliction.

So what can you do? It hurts to watch people go through this, and believe me, it hurts to go through this. You can:

1. Be gentle, kind and supportive. If a person feels alone, unloved, disconnected, and abandoned, then demonstrate to them that they aren’t. Talk is nice, but talk might just be done to fill space. Actions win.

2. Offer, but don’t push. There are loads of things I could be doing right now if I was in a better headspace. Knowing that I can do them when I’m up for it, be that something as simple as eating dinner or as complex as “let’s play a game” means that while life is going on around me, it’s not passing me by and I can still contribute.

3. Give thanks. I know that when I feel worse than secondary or tertiary, when I don’t know if what I’m doing has any value, it’s the sincere appreciation from people who I actually did help that matters. One of the worst parts about being down is the sense that you have no value, even if your name is on things and in books. This is also a great practice to do when no one is down, and you just want to stoke positive fires.

4. Comfort. This one is dicey for me, since I really really don’t like that many people in my space or touching me, but I know it means a lot when someone goes out of their way, even for a second, to do something for me. Hand me my bathrobe. Bring me a snack. Smile at me. Share a moment. It helps squelch the sense that I’m a burden or that no one wants to interact with me. Now, if this is a case where intimacy is involved, be kind and supportive. It might feel like a panacea up front, but the naked pantsless parties can be extra draining and can also bring up feelings of worthlessness if people can’t …. deliver.

On the bright side, this isn’t the way way bottom of down-ness. I’m not at a point where I need hospitalization or anything, I’m not giving up work or anything like that, I’m just … down. I’m told this happens. It just sucks when it does.

I’m going to go sit for a while in my comfy clothes and robe and slippers. I’m on Twitter, kik and snapchat (johnwritesthings) exclusively when I’m down. Just know that on those last two mediums, it’s way more NSFW and way more raw. Use caution. Bring cookies.

 

How To Succeed At Killing Your Project Without Really Trying

December is my leanest professional month. This is likely due to the fact that it’s crammed with holidays and expenses and the freelance editor and writing coach you might need doesn’t rank as high on the list as say, your phone bill, the credit card or the food you need for your kids, pets, roommates or yourself. I understand this, and spend a great deal of time hoarding like Smaug so that I can get through this month and into the new year with the expectation of some good work, good clients and good income.

Now, at this second, there are things on my calendar that are “up in the air”. Projects haven’t been finalized. Firm decisions haven’t been made. Funding hasn’t been secured. Contracts haven’t even gone out yet. But it’s early, so I’m not too panicked in most cases. I know that as the month moves forward, I’m going to see things come into my inbox, that I’m going to have those discussions and that things are going to get set up. Mostly. Sometimes. Okay, let’s face it,that’s not always going to happen.

It’s not going to happen for a few reasons. And it’s better we talk about them now, while your idea might be a seed in your head, then talk about when we’re staring at the mess after the fact.  So here now are some reasons why your project didn’t get off the ground.

I. You’ve mistaken “let’s talk about it” for “this is what I’m doing”. I hear this a lot, usually from fiction writers. They want to spend heaps of time talking about what they would do when they reach some time in the future, when a particular scenario they imagined happens and when they get to some point far past wherever they are in their book. They want to plan the whole thing out, know what’s around every corner and create some kind of road map. That road map is bullshit. All that talk and knowing what’s around the corner? Artifice. We’re great at making lateral moves when forward progress scares the shit out of us. Yeah, that planning process is a comfort because it gives us the illusion of security, without any of the effort in doing the work. Nothing replaces putting the words on paper. Nothing gets around the fact that in order to have a finished book you have to write it. And I don’t mean write notes upon notes and hold meeting after meeting, I mean actually taking the time to sit and write. This is why when someone says, “Let’s schedule several meetings about how we’re going to do this.” I restrain myself from saying a litany of things, because I know it’s a stall. I know often it’s a lateral move. I’d much rather schedule meetings where we talk about what’s already done. Talk to me after every chapter. Talk to me after the character creation process. Let’s totally fist-bump when you get an agent. Not before the work is done. While the work is going on.

II. You got some feedback and now you don’t want to do a thing. Let’s suppose you write something, maybe it is or isn’t a whole first draft, but it’s at least some pages. Maybe you’ve never done it before, or you’ve never written stuff like what’s on these pages. And you take these pages, you’re even proud of them, and you offered them to some friends and your family. Let’s say they even loved them, and said “I’d like more please.” This might lift your spirits, so you do write just a little more and say, “I’ll show these to other people.” And you do …. and you get some feedback. Maybe that feedback isn’t like what your friends and family said. Maybe this feedback pokes a lot of holes in your balloon. Maybe this feedback challenges you, upsets you, annoys you and makes you regret writing those pages. Maybe the feedback doesn’t actually call you stupid, but you sure feel pretty stupid, seeing the number of times someone calls out how often you change tenses or what you’re saying isn’t clear.  Do you keep going? No, don’t keep going, you’re only going to make it worse, because clearly you don’t have the tools to do this?

Hey, maybe you don’t. Maybe this creative process isn’t your jam the way you hoped it would be. Maybe this isn’t how you’re going to spend your twilight years. Maybe this isn’t how you’re going to live your life post-corporate world.

But maybe you do have the tools, and you’re just … new at them. Shit, I have a toolbox in the garage and I think I’ve used four of the sixty something-tools in there. I’m great with those four, but those other fifty-something tools? I wouldn’t throw them away and say the money was wasted, I’d PRACTICE with them. I’ll learn how to use them, by using them. You’re going to make mistakes with new tools. I mean, you’re new. That has to happen so that you can figure out how to use them better. Then, with PRACTICE, you won’t be new anymore. That’s totally how practice works. It makes you not new.

So this feedback you got, it’s a call to practice. If you interpret that as a call to quit, then maybe you were looking for that all along. Or you just needed something/someone’s permission to take yourself off that hook of expectation.

III. You mistook fund-raising for audience-building. Okay, you’re going to make a thing. Maybe you wrote it on napkins and you want to transfer it to legal pads. Maybe you’ve invented a very awesome series of pulleys and gears to help massage rodents. Maybe you’ve finally cracked the code and figured out why no one likes fruit cake. And naturally, as we do in capitalist indulgent societies, we want to receive money for our genius plans, so that people will pay us to take things forward. It’s not that initiative is eliminated, it’s done with the hope that the exorbitant costs are mitigated, so that it’s easier to produce your wonders and deliver them to clearly salivating and eager people who want to drink your Kool-Aid. Right? You’re just going to say, “Fuck fruit cake” and they’re going to toss money at you, right? You just need to sign up for a crowdsourcing website and you’ll be sitting on a mountain of cash by the holidays, right?

Oh no. No no. If no one knows who you are, and especially if no one knows who you are and there are loads of other people offering somewhat identical products, how are you expecting them to choose you over the other person(s)? Raising capital is not simultaneous to raising an audience. You need one to get the other, and it’s far easier to struggle a little and build the audience before you pass the hat around. Thinking that having the idea alone, and the first scraps of a draft together is all you need to be the next million-dollar crowdfunding wunderkind is dangerous. Dangerous because the egoic plummet from that height is devastating. Dangerous because if you’ve got people to help you, and promised them money, you need to be able to pay them. (Please tell me you’re not going to pay them out of the Kickstarter funding, that’s such a huge assumption, and what are you going to do if you fail? How are you going to cover your debts and obligations?)

Build your audience. Don’t go on that giant six figure hunt just yet. Think you can raise a few hundred dollars? A thousand maybe? Think you could do that, say, once every two months for two years? I bet you’d have a nice steady audience that way. Wait, hang on, there’s an underlying assumption here – that your product is of good quality and is well supported by you. If you’re just tossing out fluff and horsefeathers because you need  the validation of people liking you, just do it for free.

IV. You skipped the part about actually doing the work. You have loads of big ideas. “What if there was an X or a Y or Z in the world?” You write them down. You maybe even take more notes on them during the day when you’re bored or waiting for shows to download or stuck in boring meetings. They’re good ideas, you’ve convinced yourself, because you had them, and because you only write down the good ones. You have a whole filing cabinet full of ideas. You don’t mine them, you don’t go back to them, you just write them when they come to you. You just write them when the muse, inspiration, the universe, the great and all powerful speed force, Batman, the Doctor, or the cat grants you a moment of genius that elevates you out of your mundane existence and for a second gives you a peek into Olympus, where smart people are just being smart all the smart-time. (PS We have cable up here. And recliners. And there are no commercials during sporting events. And we have large desserts.)

What’s missing in this creative idea-generating place, is that in order for you to give the world the X or the Y or the Z, you have to go make it. Not just have the idea about it. Not just keep it locked away in your head where only you and Professor X can check out its coolness. The book isn’t going to write itself. That painting ain’t gonna color itself in. The production of the thing is as noteworthy as the finished thing. This is how things get made – they progress out of the idea stage into the realized stage. (See above for what happens when you mistake this realized stage for just talking about doing a thing)

V. You didn’t realize how much other work your project needed. Let’s say you want to make ….. a card game. Doesn’t matter what it’s about for the sake of this paragraph, so just, right now, in your head, think of holding a stack of cards in your hand. Now, let’s think about all the steps you’d need to so that anyone else could hold those cards in their hand. Well, for starters, you’d have to write down the idea. Then you’d probably want to get it edited so that it fits onto the card. Which means you’re going to need a way to layout the cards. And that might also mean you want art for those cards, so now you need at least one artist, and you’re going to need some kind of distribution system for getting the cards to people. When you were thinking about the steps, did you think of all of them? Does hearing all those steps kill your desire to make a thing? It happens. Ideas are like that: great bits of excitement, no sense of scope. Thankfully, you can get scope by talking to people about steps in the creation process, and by trying it yourself, and by asking questions. But if your creative urges are so quickly snuffed out by how much work it’s going to take to deliver them, I can make a pretty good argument that you didn’t want to do the work in the first place.

VI. You assemble the Shitty Avengers. I like to imagine that for every incarnation of awesome comic book teams, there’s some not-talked about group of heroes who just sucks. They don’t communicate, there’s no team work, they’re impossible to motivate, they don’t believe in a unified goal. Maybe their talents never get used effectively. Maybe they’re not trusted to do a good job, and not given room to do that job. Maybe they’re just crappy at what they do. Maybe in that pyramid of “Expensive Quick Talented” they’re cheap and … that’s about it.

Putting together the wrong components to make a thing happens. Maybe the team looks great on paper, but because there’s poor communication or weird expectations, things just don’t come together. Then while the individual components are great, they just don’t work FOR THIS PROJECT. (I should probably talk about that in length at some point). If you realize that in order to make your dream thing a reality you’re going to need other people (and like 95% of things need someone else at some point), do yourself and your project a favor by making sure those people are the most talented ones for the job you need them to do. Don’t ask your plumber to bake your wedding cake (unless they’ve demonstrated they can). Don’t assume the barista can help you manage your finances. Find trained people who can help you succeed. Find trained people who can help you succeed, and give them room and your trust so that they can actually do their job and help you succeed.  (PS No one likes Dazzler, just saying)

VII. You let the audience too close to the stage. I am a huge fan of transparency. I will tell you every abstract, puerile, prurient, and minute thought if given a medium to do so. I will create things on Google Docs so that people can watch, one part performance art, one part validation. I think transparency in process is critical for building trust, encouraging growth and staying motivated. It’s not always easy, since along with the good parts of transparency, you do have to contend with the admissions of hard things, or the sad things or the things that might make people not really like you and your work. But, that’s not a sufficient reason to abandon transparency.

So where’s the red flag? Where’s the danger zone? Is there, in fact, a highway to it? The danger is when you mistake “show them everything” with “let them into the process”. This is usually more of a work thing for me and my clients, though I am starting to see it crop up in my non-work stuff too. You want the audience connection, you want other people to enjoy your work, maybe validate you, maybe stroke your ego, maybe encourage you to go further, but you somewhere somehow decided that the concession you’d have to make to get their thumbs-up is to appease them, is to let them give not just opinions but let them change the thing you’re making to suit THEIR whims, not yours.

I don’t mean you can’t give something to people and say to them, “Make sure this makes sense.” or “Find me typos.” I mean offering people something and letting their critique (not feedback, that’s a totally different thing) radically and undeservedly change the way you’re making a thing. Let’s say you’re writing a book about a train robbery. Maybe it’s a sci fi story because you want lasers. You start telling people about it, maybe you even give them a sample, and someone comes back to you saying, “This is great but would be way cooler if there were remote controlled sex robots” or whatever. So you, wanting them to like you and like your work, write the best sex robots ever. And then more people come along with more feedback and you start adding in their ideas too. Eventually, under the weight of all these additions, your project morphs into not your story about the train robbery but a dirge about sex robots in love with overstuffed furniture on Mars.

Remember who you’re writing for. Yes, the audience gets the book, but the process, but the idea at the core of this effort, that’s yours. You’re giving them YOUR vision, you’re giving them a one-day pass into the theme park of your creation. They’re present to enjoy your work, you don’t serve them, for their whims are ephemeral and mercurial, and sometimes people are dicks and you won’t be able to make one, any or all of them happy. So don’t. You don’t have to let other people into the workshop. You don’t have to let people beyond the velvet rope. You don’t have to cave to their voices. You don’t even have to show them anything other than the finished work. Remember, you’re not doing whatever it is you’re doing expressly for them. You come first. And that’s awesome.

Make the most of your post-holiday Monday. Tell someone you care about them. Make someone smile. Write and create.

Happy writing.