The 9 Questions of Development

Good morning. I’m recovering from the crud of Dreamation, so while I currently sound like I’ve been gargling hot road tar and inhaling everything through a bus exhaust, I think it’s time to blog.

Now I should point that this is version 5.2 of the post what was going to go here, having laid out ideas for everything from “What an Empty Workshop Can Teach You” to “How Steak and Herbed Butter Tastes Better When You Tell Sad Stories” to “Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman Want To Help You Write.” They’d all be good, but then I read this post from Chuck.

Yes, it’s another Wendig post where I have a response. I’m sick, don’t pick on me. Chuck’s onto something here, but I want to take it, spin it a different way and give it a nice remix.

Step one, we need some music. Here, have some.

Step two, you’re going to need a plot and a main character. Nope, doesn’t matter what the plot is right now. Nope, doesn’t matter what main character it is. Male, female, alien, sentient raccoon, awful wrestler. Just get both of those things in your head. I should point out that if you’re not sure about either of your two choices, if you’re not sure you like either or both of them, these questions will help you.

Step three, we ask a trio of questions about the main character, to give us a baseline on them.

  1. What’s your character’s greatest fear and how did it come about?
  2. What’s a situation your character is trying to avoid, why is that situation bad, and what are they doing instead?
  3. What’s one experience that would make your character happy?

The breakdown –

What’s your character’s greatest fear and how did it come about? I like this question going first because I don’t think we conceptualize our character’s fears that often, unless we’re going to tie it directly to the plot, and frankly that’s super lame. We’ve talked before about how the character has to be bigger and exist as more than just the rat in the maze that does the plot and then goes back to the cage. I think to some degree we can measure a character by the fears and the reactions to them, as well as the distance from them. It’s never made sense to me that you make a character afraid of something that never impacts them. (Being afraid of an asteroid hitting your planet when you’re telling a story about how you’re building a house doesn’t quite jive, because the scales are off – if you’re not going to be painting a picture of a web of insecurities, then you’re just eating page-space with material the reader can’t grab onto). Likewise, you need to know the circumstances of how that fear came around. Yes, I know, the character has that fear because you just gave it to them, but what’s a little vignette you can describe to illustrate it? Maybe it’ll come up in flashback, or you can reference it somehow, but it helps to know the origin points of things.

What’s a situation your character is trying to avoid, why is that situation bad, and what are they doing instead? The “situation” might be an encounter with someone, but it might also be an emotional state or outcome. Exploring why they don’t want it to happen might be an exercise in avoidance, and it doesn’t have to be a sob story in the making, it can be played for comedy to some degree as well. But that space needs exploration. So too does the flipside: knowing how the character is trying to get away from that situation actively is going to inform a lot of what that character does and how you convey that to an audience.

What’s one experience that would make your character happy? I mean this in the big sense, not just how great it would be to have chocolate right now or how much they’d like a sandwich for lunch. Is there some event or action or thing they want to have happen? Is the bank not going to foreclose? Is the big work contract going to go through? Are they going to go on a second date? Now, it’s worth pointing out here that this might be the plot of the story, or even a subplot, but it doesn’t have to be.  Your character doesn’t have to search out this specific happy, it doesn’t have to be the driving force of the story, but put it out there somewhere in the story’s universe to satisfy your character.

Step four, we put those three ideas to the side, and we go look at the plot. (Don’t discard the above three questions, we’re going to use them in Step five)

  1. Does the solution of the plot require the character(s) to change from however they are at the start?
  2. Is the plot something that you can develop throughout the story, or just in the last third or so?
  3. What’s lost in order to resolve the plot?

The breakdown –

Does the solution of the plot require the character(s) to change from however they are at the start? Characters are built for growth and change. They exist in a world where they get challenged. They have a plot that tests them. They have a philosophy that gives them a sense of size outside of the confines of the particular plot, meaning they feel and behave like real people. If a character doesn’t change, then there’s no sense of accomplishment. Sure, they might have completed some tasks, but if you can’t point to a shift in their behavior or their thinking, those actions are meaningless. The character’s behavior intersects with the plot and creates moments of tension. Like the guy who does his best to stay out of trouble, only to find himself in deeper trouble and barely escapes. Or the character whose passions actually play a pivotal role in the story, but because of the story, he may regard them bitterly. Change is good, even if change is scary and unknown and it makes you queasy, and makes you just want to accelerate through the scary parts to get to the comfortable things.

Is the plot something that you can develop throughout the story, or just in the last third or so? So many great stories wind us along page after page and then realize that “Oh, right, we’re supposed to be doing something” then there’s a manic race to quickly tie up the loose ends introduced way back at the beginning. To avoid that feeling of sudden acceleration and recklessness, make sure that every few story beats and scenes ties to the plot some way. Like spokes on a wheel, things should tie back to the central conflict. Yes, some parts are easier: the dead body, the murder weapon. And some parts are harder: the love story between the the protag and the woman secretly surveiling her, the relationship between the protag and her dog. But that’s one of the hurdles in writing, and clearing it will strengthen your craft and skills. Don’t just take the last six chapters all the way to 11, develop the story across the chapters (think butter spread on toast) so that you won’t have to race later to squeeze everything in before the story wraps.

What’s lost in order to resolve the plot? Even if the answer is “innocence” or “preconceived notions about X”, something has to be jettisoned, discarded, torn away, let go, released, or ejected. By identifying the material-to-be-lost within a key scene you’re giving the scene more impact, making the ideas matter more to the reader and giving them, as the kids say, “all the feels”. Loss is an integral part of development, and we can measure growth not just by the included, but the discarded as well.

Step five, where we tie these things together.

To do this, we’re going to work a little in reverse order. Here’s how.

  1. How would the loss of ___ change the way the character views happiness?
  2. What scenes can you point to in the progession of the plot also tie to situations the character wants to have, needs to have, or is desperate to avoid?
  3. Does the plot’s resolution develop any additional fears or emotional conflicts for the character(s) going forward?

What we’ve done here is partner the questions together (the 3s, the 2s, the 1s) to give us a third set of questions where character and plot come together. These crossroads-moments are significant because they show how the plot changes the character going forward, meaning the character is bigger than the plot, but the plot still mattered and had an impact.

Let’s break it down-

How would the loss of (whatever it is that gets lost to solve the plot) change the way the character views happiness? So, if the character is losing innocence over the course of the story, maybe that’s going to change how they feel about something makes them happy. At the most cliche, this is the “putting away childish things and stepping into maturity” but this might also be the loss of a partner changing the way a character feels about living happily ever after in love. What we lose either makes us care more about what makes us happy, or it reshapes how we interpret happiness.

What scenes can you point to in the progression of the plot also tie to situations the character wants to have, needs to have or is desperate to avoid? Maybe you character avoids large crowds. Maybe though that in order to chase down the killer, they’ve got to move through a crowded mall during Black Friday. Maybe your character needs to resolve her feelings about her dead child and she has to confront her grief by explaining how someone else can pick up the pieces and move on. Maybe your character is an ex-cop who left in a cloud of disgrace but now has to go back to the station to get some details on the robbery, and her former partner is now the chief.

Does the plot’s resolution develop any new fears or emotional conflicts for the character(s) going forward? Because characters are built to run on change, whenever the plot ties up, no matter what it was, there’s going to be some impact. Things have changed now, revelations exposed and character-states have grown and fell. Going forward whether that’s just until the story’s end or into the next book or the next session or the next episode, characters take their recent pasts with them. And because it’s recent, the wounds might not heal between tales. Which could lead to effects on the character going forward. (If you’ve ever messed up a limb or a joint, you know how winters can be a problem.) If these occur over the course of several stories or throughout one story, you’re helping cement that as part of the character’s composition. And we’re not just talking Indiana-Jones-hates-snakes, but also guy-who-loses-girl-thinks-he-sees-her-everywhere. Yes, there’s a fine line between making this an element and beating the dead horse into fine paste, but that’s what editors and multiple drafts are for.

*

Armed now with these nine questions, you have yet another set of tools in the toolbox for developing a story and a character. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go hack up a lung and try and warm back up. Keep writing. Make art. Tell good stories. Risk your hearts.

 

Happy writing

The Dog Paddle Upstream

I couldn’t sleep the other night. I was cold. I felt alone, disconnected and sort of forgotten. So, I sat on my couch in front of a dying fire and watched Netflix. I didn’t know what I wanted to watch, which is never a good sign, because usually it doesn’t take much to sell me on a detective story or a documentary. I settled on ‘Salinger’ which I had seen before, but didn’t really pay attention to. I watched it the first time so that a woman would think I was smart, but I don’t think she ever realized I was even alive after our initial interaction.

If you’ve never seen it, you should. Sort of. It’s about 2 hours long, and it’s about JD Salinger, and he was sort of a fucked up sad dude. You got a pretty clear sense that he was super arrogant and obsessive, serving in World War 2 unhinged him, he loved writing and hated all the trappings of publication and he treated women like dogshit. Still, it’s got some great visual stylings and interesting interviews. So I watched, hoping that I’d learn something about his craft, like how he learned how to string words together in such a way that profoundly affected so many people.

See, in high school, I had to read Catcher In the Rye, and I hated it. I didn’t have the appreciation for wordcraft then, I didn’t understand much about voice or connectivity to a reader, but I thought as a character and a story, it wasn’t all that great. The character was whiny, and seemed obsessed with “phony”. The way my teacher raved about the book, you’d think these pages were supposed to unlock something in my brain or that they’d be my Bodhi tree under which I’d discuss the truths of existence.

More like this book bored the shit out of me and I kept questioning why we were reading it. I filed the book away as something I read and could cross off the expected list of things writers read. I don’t even think there’s a copy of it in the house.

So there I sat, watching the documentary, where it explained how people made some great pilgrimage to this tiny town where he lived, and camped out in front of his house in the hopes he’d appear and dispense wisdom. And in his later years, he was kind of a dick. I mean, I get that pressure around him didn’t help his attitude, but someone drives 400+ miles, even if they camp at the foot of your driveway, give them something other than “You should seek psychiatric help”.

There wasn’t any direct section that broke down his style, leading me to look at the interviews and snippets of quotes about how writing affected people. So I had to work backwards. To deconstruct how he saw writing, and split that from how he saw publishing and people and love and everything else. This is what I came up with, upon reflection:

1. Writing is done for yourself. You’ve heard this one before in a lot of permutations. Don’t write for trends. Don’t write to satisfy agent or publisher demands. Let’s spin it a little more. Write to express your feelings. Write what you want, audience and sales be damned. Audience and sales are the consequence of good writing, and the best writing stays closer to yourself and your expression of the world than if it strays wide into trying to fathom what other people want. The audience and sales will come, but only if you write true to yourself.

2. Have a point to what you’re writing. Maybe you heard this a lot in school, where you have to write a thesis or term paper and you have a statement at the beginning you have to justify by the end thanks to your ability to look up quotes and use parentheses. But this is different. Skip that research concept. It’s nice that we can all do that, but writing isn’t a pile of footnotes and a works cited page. Writing has a point, because whatever you’re writing, be it a blog post or a chapter or a game or a greeting card is an exploration of an idea. Later, we spin this idea into a pitch, but while we’re producing, we can keep the idea on our heads: This story is about two people who fall in and out of love with everything except each other. This is a song about not lying and enjoying rear ends. This is a game about how a plumber is a bag of dicks and earwax. We hold that idea as though it’s an axis upon which our whole created universe rotates, and everything from the littlest burble of text to the greatest action chapter  is an extension outward from that axis, with roots we can trace and motives we can fathom.

3. Writing is tough. As said before and elsewhere, the act of writing, the mechanical flexing of fingers on keys, is the easy part. You can train monkeys to write junk. You can rip off bad writing with your own bad writing. But nurturing an idea out of your head and into a draft, then a draft into a finished draft, that’s tough. Ideas evolve, and they require more than simple bits tacked on here and there. There’s a fullness to an idea, it has components and depth, and you can’t just slap a few thoughts on paper and call it a masterpiece. (Well, okay, you can, but that doesn’t mean it’s any good. Remember the quote from Lincoln: You can call a tail a leg on a dog, but that doesn’t make it so.) It’s an investment into a creative bank, stocking a fund  of imagination and talent. Make deposits frequently, and they won’t always have to be substantial ones.

4. Planning isn’t writing. There’s a time to plan out what you’re going to write. And a time to write it. I know a lot of mediocre-at-best writers who have planned for years because they think the best plan in advance will produce the best book later. They tinker more with that plan and less with how they write the words, and wonder why they’re spinning in circles and at best getting pats on the back at the mutual admiration society meetings that pass for writing groups. I’ve struggled for a long time to find a way to express my thoughts on planning and writing, and to date, the best explanation I got is – it’s the fog of war in a video game. You know there’s a whole map out there, you can press the button and see it, but the details of it are unknown until you get there. You have to explore (write) to discover the map (the story’s development). Don’t go to extremes and say you’re supposed to write and NOT plan either. Sketch out that plan, have a direction you set off in, but ultimately be willing to crumple that plan and use what the exploration tells you to inform and create a new map.

5. When the current goes one way, be willing and capable of going against it. Remember a few years back when everyone was writing vampires or zombies? Remember how lots of people said things like “If you’re not writing vampires or zombies, it won’t get seen by people”, and how quickly that metamorphosed into “Stop writing about vampires and zombies dammit, we’re tired of that!” ? That was the current going one way. You could go against it, sure, but many voices who have interests in keeping the current going would shout down that you shouldn’t if you wanted whatever carrot they were dangling. But there are just as many carrots to be had for going across the current or against it, even if you’re dogpaddling upstream or running over the water. You don’t HAVE to  (remember you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, ever), but if you feel you should or need to, go for it.

6. Draw boundaries. Okay so Salinger drew some extreme ones. He lived in seclusion. He locked himself away in a “bunker” to write. He fucked up his marriages and his kids with his coldness. He was a dick of high caliber. But the idea was there – the idea that there are some barriers you need to erect. I’m not talking about things you don’t like to do, or things you don’t know how to do and you’re afraid of screwing up, I mean there needs to be some areas where you’re not writing. Everything you do, everyone you know, everything you enjoy, hate, love, fuck, taste, reject, know about, shun, embrace, dance to, smile at or bitch it is going to influence your writing, and there’s no escaping that. But, you need some stuff in your life that isn’t the act of writing … if only for the simple fact that it will influence your work later. Me? I play games and watch movies and cook and complain and get moody and rock out to loud music. I draw a boundary around things I will and won’t talk about. I share a lot but not everything. My choice. For me. And I don’t have to explain it to you. Boundaries help temper things by reinforcing why they’re important. Which helps you focus on them.

If I had to add another, it would be:

7. You’re never going to find all the answers all of the time, just some ephemeral and situational answers occasionally. I never quite understood the people who would go to Jim Morrison’s grave (I don’t like The Doors, so that doesn’t help) or the people who would go seek Salinger like he’s got exclusive access to a vault of info and if you’re lucky, he’ll give you a piece and your world will forever be enlightened. Um, no. Those guys are just dudes. They’re human and frail and fragile and fucked up and regular. The musicians and writers we think “speak to us” really speak through us, since they’re as much revealing our existing information in new ways as they are elaborating upon it. Look, I love the Dave Matthews Band, and I’ve been to a concert, but at no point to date, did Dave ever come off-stage mid-song, walk up to me and tell me some great secret of existence. Do I like the music? Totally. Do I think there are ideas conveyed in those songs that are good and resonate with me? Absolutely. Am I going to track Dave down when he’s 70 and ask him for guidance? No, because that’s weird. Any answers I need, I can get, because the songs and books and art have given me tools to do so, not just glorified their respective creators.

I would encourage you to check out the documentary and see what conclusions you draw. You might surprise yourself.

Happy writing.

 

Oh, one last thing – I’m giving a Writing Workshop this coming Sunday at Dreamation, from 12 to 3pm. I don’t know the specific location yet, but when I do, I’ll tweet it. I’d love to see you there. It’ll be three hours of writing advice, discussion about publishing, creating and making things and likely some strongly worded opinions about things.  

The blog resumes on Tuesday. 

You’re Not Seriously Going to Publish That, Are You?

Good morning. I know I said there’d only be one post between now and Tuesday, but this isn’t it. Call this post bonus content.

What’s it a bonus of? How about a faceful of publishing and writing info?

See, the other day I sort of fell into a Google+ community and did my absolute best to be polite and straightforward in my post, and overall found the experience a little like trying to fish in the middle of a hurricane and wondering why you’re having such a hard time. It wasn’t a bad group of people, I didn’t encounter hatespeech or anything, but what I did encounter didn’t really sit all that well with me. And when things don’t sit well with me, I jump on a form of social media to talk about them.

What follows are a few things I’d like to clarify, debunk, rebut and otherwise wave a big giant neon sign at.

1. Apparently, quite a few people think that editing boils down to just applying grammar rules and some red pen corrections to manuscripts. Yes, they’re right. Grammar is a part of what an editor does, but saying that grammar is the bulk of editing is saying that the bread is the bulk of a roast beef sandwich. Grammar is one part. And to think that you can “just learn grammar and then edit on your own” tells me that you’re not only incredibly near-sighted about what editing entails, but that you’re either and-or both afraid to have your precious snowflakes shattered or you’re just cheap (we’ll talk more about cheap in a second).

Yes, it’s important to know the rules of grammar, so that you can break them in the course of writing, and so that you can abide by them when you need to. My understanding grammar helps me help a writer navigate the language to tell the best story. But if Writer X thinks that when I’m flagging sentences left and right, I’m only flagging the dangling participles or the need for a semicolon, Writer X might need to take a deep breath and realize that just like their story isn’t only a string of words in a sensible order, it’s also an idea trying to be expressed. Grammar helps, but what about story construction? Character development? Pacing? Tension? Readability? Minding your grammar isn’t going to fix those elements. Other tools of editing can.

2. People are incredibly cheap and quite happy to skip things that might be difficult or cause them to spend money or change whatever they’re doing. The question arose as to the cost of editing. Someone mentioned a book being a certain length (the number escapes me, but it was over 100K), and it wasn’t very difficult to multiply it by a rate of a few pennies to determine the cost to the writer as being somewhere in the neighborhood of around $4500 (I think). This number stopped a lot of people and rather than say, “Oh, I’m paying for a service.” they said, “That’s ridiculous, I’ll just get some readers to do my editing.”

Let’s put the publishing aside for a minute. Let’s say your sink stops working, or that it shoots water all over the place. You probably would call a plumber for that, because they’re an expert with pipes and sinks. The plumber comes in, assesses the problem and quotes you a price. Now how is it that you’ll nod your head and cut that guy a check, but when someone gives you a price on something that can help your manuscript, you go the other way and hand the errors to your friends? Would you do the same thing with your sink? (I wouldn’t. I’ve seen my friends.)

Sure, your friends can bang around your kitchen with a wrench or three, or tap pipes and look sagely. Maybe even one would get lucky and twist the right thing into place and fix it – maybe. It probably wouldn’t cost you much, maybe lunch or something. But it also might not work. Had you gone with the plumber, it would cost you more, but it would work, assuming your plumber wasn’t awful. So why aren’t you saying yes to an editor?

Don’t you believe in your work? Don’t you want it to be in the best shape it can be? Don’t you want it to be well received and well reviewed? Editing can improve the structure, tone and contents of a manuscript into something that will do better than a manuscript that hasn’t been edited as thoroughly or by someone without the experience.

Because that’s what you’re paying for when you write the editor that check. You’re getting their experience, their eye for detail and information, their ability to put things together and not just tell you what’s wrong but hopefully why it is and how to fix it. And just like plumbers, good service is going to cost you.

Okay, that’s the money. But maybe it’s not the money. Maybe you’re afraid of what editing will find. That your story has some holes. That you’ve got some weak areas in your writing. That you make the same mistake over and over again. It can be really easy to get back a page with the text all marked up with cross-outs and comments and notes and say, “Look at all this, I must be such a failure if the editor is writing this much in response.”

Yeah, you MIGHT suck at writing. I don’t know why no one’s told you that’s possible, maybe they did and you ran from them like your hair was on fire. And yeah, if what you’ve written has problems, an editor’s going to find them: it’s their job. But it’s also possible that what you wrote wasn’t awful, just incomplete or poorly fleshed out. Ideas that are somewhere on the page, somewhere in the text, can be salvaged and patched up and polished, but in order to excavate and discover them, the manuscript needs to be marked up. And you’re not going to be able to know whether it’s a total wreck or if there’s treasure hidden within until you read those comments.

And seriously, you’re getting into publishing a book. Thick skin is necessary.

3. “Fantasy Heartbreakers” don’t just exist in gaming. A ‘Fantasy Heartbreaker’ is a game that’s grown swollen and immobile due to clutter and bloat and the writer(s) trying to do too much with it. The project doesn’t feel focused, it’s trying to serve too many masters and be all things to all people. It’s like offering a Swiss Army knife when all someone asked for is a pair of tweezers. Sure, it has tweezers, but it’s also got these 690 other functions that get in the way. Heartbreakers happen, and they can be demoralizing. I wrote a heartbreaker game once. Got no credit. No paycheck. Just ridicule. Chased me away from all of gaming for years.

I’ve written some heartbreaker fiction too. I got it in my head I could write a thriller-cyber-dark comedy-horror story once. I wrote screenplays for things I wouldn’t show store mannequins. I wrote short stories I wouldn’t even use for scrap paper. The stories lacked focus, they were just files with words in them, and I’d stoke them like maniac fires but adding whatever new fuel I was consuming at the time. Read Irish fiction? Start writing punchy dialogue. Watch old movies? Draw out some scenes. Watch a British comedy? I’m scribbling nonsense into exposition to see if anyone’s reading.

When people tell me how big their book/game/script is, I’m willing to say about 85 – 90% of them are WAY too long. 150k isn’t a “short story”. It’s not a short anything. A single poem likely doesn’t need to be 20k. That great fantasy novel? No, really, there’s no reason it has to be 790k.

Pay attention to my next sentence. Stop what you’re doing, focus your efforts and be willing to admit you need help. Yeah, that’s not an easy sentence, because we don’t like talking about what we might have done wrong or what we’re not good at. It can be embarrassing, it can be shameful. Look, I’ve tried to die. I’ve ruined cars and relationships and homes and families and opportunities. All of that is embarrassing. The fact that you might need to split that monster book into two? Less so.

You know how you can tell you’re writing a heartbreaker? When the feedback you get stops being objective. Because as something inflates and takes on a shape of its own and you’re worried it might grow to consume a city, it’s hard to be able to spot the comparatively “little” things at its heart that cause the problems. If you’ve got 50-something chapters, it’s going to be really tough at a glance to point out that in chapter 3, you’ve got some run-on sentences. And what’s worse, when you’ve got something so engorged and bloated, YOU‘ve lost objectivity.

4. No, you can’t be objective about your own stuff, I don’t care what it is or who you are. Recently, I cleaned out a closet in my house. I filled bags with my old clothes. Old shirts, old pants. Some stuff I never wore, it still had tags on it. Some stuff I wore constantly. And for those worn items, each had a memory. I wore that shirt when I went on a date. I wore those pants when I was in this school concert. I bought that jacket so I could go to that wedding. Cramming those things into bags was meant to be cathartic, a release of old life and leaving my closet open to have new stuff put in. But you know what happened? As I went through the closet, it got harder and harder, as though the clothes were filled with cement, to part with things. I can’t get rid of that shirt, ex-girlfriend #4 said I had really nice eyes that one time when I wore that shirt. If I get rid of it, am I saying I don’t have nice eyes? Nope, can’t get rid of that pair of black pants, because that’s the pair I wore on that job interview, and those are my interview pants, even though I haven’t been on a “corporate” interview in 8 years. What this grew into was a closet half full of old stuff and a pile of laundry baskets on my floor that I live out of.

The solution? Bring in other people. People who don’t have any attachment to the project and who can stop you from listing off some sad rationalization as to why you really need all eleven black leather belts. The same is true with whatever it is you’re making. You’re not objective about it, not without a great deal (I’d go so far as to say 3+ years) of time between viewings. But you can bring people in who are objective. As an editor, I love my clients, they’re some of the greatest, kindest and most creative people I’ll ever meet, but they’re not objective about their work. They crab at me about why I cut this or trimmed that, but they aren’t paying me to agree with them – they’re paying me to help them get their words into the best shape, so they can stop living out of metaphorical laundry baskets with a cramped closet of memories and justifications.

5. Publishing shitty things isn’t proof of talent. Yes, in this great age of technological wonder, anyone can publish anything. You can write anything and get it up on Amazon. Here now is an actual conversation I have overheard at that bastion of writers, my local Starbucks:

Lady 1: I’ve just published my 30th book.

Lady 2: You did? You’ve been at it, what, like 3 months? Congratulations.

Lady 1: You know that Harry Potter lady, she only published like 10.

Lady 2: I’m sure your stuff is way better, you’ve got three times as many credits to your name in like half the time it took her to write one. You’re so talented!

This is why I stopped going to Starbucks for tea. Just because anyone with a bank account and internet access can mash their fingers and genitals and face against a keyboard (isn’t that how you’re writing? I learned it from a book!), doesn’t mean they should. This doesn’t mean the writer is a bad person, it means that just because something can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be done poorly or half-assed or done just because you’ll get money. That’s … well, to me, that’s kinda shitty.

Look at your reasons for writing. Why are you doing it?

  • For money? There are easier ways to earn money, especially more stable ways to produce a living income that can support more than yourself at a minimal level.
  • For praise? There are easier ways to get smiles and congratulations for your efforts. Feed the homeless. Donate blood. Help someone load groceries into their car.
  • For validation? Writing is a tough route if you’re trying to patch a hole in your sense of self-worth. There are too many critics, too many dissenting voices, all of whom get louder thanks to immediate gratification on the internet.
  • For fame? There’s a difference between being famous for something ephemeral like tabloid headlines or a sex tape and being famous for a big production of work. Guess which one takes longer.

It seems to me that we love to trash things, that it is easier to destroy than build, and we revel in something’s collapse far more than stand in awe of its creation. We pass judgment on TV shows, movies, books, actors, actresses, commercials, sports teams, clothes, sexuality, and a bajillion other things so quickly, and even when we build someone up, we love knocking them down later. Nothing seems safe from that intense spotlight and our vicious snark.

That is, except for our art. We mystify art, and nod our heads staring at gallery walls like we have any idea how the splotches of blue on a canvas are somehow representative of President Millard Fillmore’s sex life. We cheer on self-published authors like they’re striking great blows in a grand revolution. But it’s not a revolution. It’s evolution. It’s not that we’re going to self-publishing because trad-pub is our hated foe, and soon we’ll all have a catchy revolution musical to celebrate, except for that annoying Cockney kid you only like once he gets shot, it’s that we have more options available to accomplish a task.

So why not be critical? Why not call authors out for poor writing? Why not tell the book charlatans and conference predators to go fuck off? Sure, yes, it’s easier to point fingers away from ourselves and say that we’re surrounded in garbage, but we can also and must also take a look at ourselves as well.

What can we do to improve ourselves and our work so that we’re not adding more crap to the mountains? (Here’s where I like to point out that just like you might feel that Writer Z is dogshit in a snow hat, they might feel the same way about you) Here are some ideas.

  1. Get over yourself. You are not a special snowflake. You’re a writer, a creator, and a producer of art, motherfucker.
  2. You’re human. You will suck at things until you learn to get better.
  3. You do not exist nor create in a vacuum. Thinking and acting so reinforces item #1 on this list.
  4. In order to get better, you should solicit help from people who are not biased towards you. Seek help from your friends, your enemies, experts and random people. Weigh all the data, make informed choices.
  5. It’s easy to get comfortable and surround yourself with material and people who like you, love you, accept you and enjoy you, but not necessarily challenge you. Challenge is an important part of love and life, because people who can call you on your shit and hold you accountable are the people who you likely don’t want to let down and are the people who you know absolutely care about you and what you do.
  6. If you’re not being challenged, find people, places and things that will. I’m not saying you need to leave Comfort Village forever, I’m saying it’s time to explore past those mountains. Or die trying.
  7. Thick skin is a good thing. Being unable to accept critique, comments, or feedback isn’t. If you’re wondering why people are telling you bad things along with the good, see item #1 on this list.
  8. However you get your art into the hands of an audience, someone else is doing it differently. Neither of you are wrong.
  9. It’s not about us-versus-them, this way over that way. You’re either going to challenge yourself to make something the best it can be, or you’re going to dick around and half-ass something that doesn’t really challenge you and lets you lie to yourself about what you’re doing and how good you are it. Chances are your greatest enemy in this effort isn’t the faceless corporation sending out rejection letters, but whatever crap you’ve stuffed into your head along the way. Brain enemas are tough, but worthwhile.
  10. How long will it take to produce your thing in the best shape it can be? As long as it needs to take. How large should your book/game/art/thing be when it’s in that best shape? As large as it needs to be.
  11. How will you know when you’re done creating something? When you’ve satisfied all the questions you asked at the start. Did the plot resolve? Did the character(s) change? Is this action over?
  12. What do you do after you’re done creating something, and you’ve let it sit untouched for a while? Give it to someone else, give it to professionals, give it to people who will challenge and encourage and teach and help you and see what comes next. Apply items #1, #2, #3, #4, #6, #7 and #10 as needed.
  13. Most of the questions you have can be solved by you working on whatever it is you’re making.
  14. Most of the questions that aren’t solved by #13 can likely be solved WITHOUT running to extremes or extremists or yes-men/women or the internet community of your choice. Likely your answers will be found in returning to the core concepts of why you want to write, what you’re trying to say and how best to say it.
  15. Work is improved through critique, revision and development. If you fear them, production is almost futile. Revision and critique are scary and overwhelming, but time in the crucible forges better material by burning away impurities.

I’ll close with this last item.

6. If you’re worried about theft, predators, wasting your time or wasting your money, you’re looking at this the wrong way. Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of new authors and creators. And when I ask them, casually, usually after we’ve exchanged a few messages, if they want me to take a look at what they’re doing, they retreat into a shell. Usually this is a fear-shell, that I’m going to burst their balloon or find fault and shame them. Sometimes though it’s because they’re afraid I’m going to steal their work.

Okay, I make a pretty decent living doing this. I edit things, and do a little writing on the side. I have a group of friends who I regularly hang out with and play games with. I watch a lot of TV. I read a lot. I’m writing my own game. I’ve got manuscripts squirreled away all over the place. When do I have time to go around stealing? And what makes you so special (snowflake) that I’m going to steal YOUR stuff?

Right, yeah, it’s kinda weak to say “trust me I’m not a predator” when you don’t know me, or when you’ve heard that before from people who said it and then ran off with your stuff. So instead of me saying it and gesturing around like I’m directing invisible air traffic, how about you check out my work, or ask about me (Twitter is a great place for immediate feedback)? Do your research. Price shop. Don’t rush into anything. Interview. Ask questions. Go to workshops. Ask more questions. Be an informed consumer.

Just stop assuming that you’re under constant threat of theft or ruination. There are horror stories out there, some legit, some conflated for pity or attention, and there are really some shitty people (writers, agents, editors, publishers, game companies, etc etc) out there, but thinking entirely about the number of people producing things and the number of people receiving accolades for producing things, do you think the bad really outweigh the good?

I don’t concern myself with the watchlists of bad editors and bad publishers and awful whatevers. I know a lot of nervous writers put a lot of stock in it, because it’s a list, and it’s on the internet, but I know just as many professionals who aren’t on that list who wouldn’t take a napkin without asking, let alone steal your work.

Bad analogy time: With all the hysteria around assholes in this industry, I liken it to those old films they used to show in school about the dangers of marijuana or rock music. Remember those old beeping filmstrips with scratchy audio that used to talk about how Betty went to a party where Tommy had a mary-jew-onna cigarette and Betty took a puff and now Betty is banging sailors down on the docks after school? Or the one where Susie went out with Janie and they encountered “that negro classmate Tyrone” and they listened to some swell new tunes, and now they’re all pulling jewelry heists? Yes, smoke a joint, you might run into some trouble. Listen to Nickelback, you’re going to want those three minutes back. But those scare tactics are the extremes of the spectrum, meant to enforce a behavior that isn’t too rowdy, not too ambitious and pretty tame.

So what do you do when you find a predator? You get out of whatever arrangement you’ve set up (if any) and then you go tell everyone who will listen about the jerk you just encountered. De-fang that snake. Scare away the wolf. But then, get back out there. How else is your art going to be produced?

I’m at Dreamation over the weekend. I’m giving a Writing Workshop on Sunday (12-3pm), so if you’re coming, I look forward to seeing you there, otherwise, I’ll catch you next week.

Happy writing

One of the Note Card Tricks

Hello everyone. Hope you’re well and enjoying your creative processes.

I get a lot of questions about “the note card trick” since I talk about it a lot, and usually only demo it in person at workshops or to clients, because it’s easier to see it in person. What I’m going to show you now is a scaled down version, mainly because it’s easier to explain in small bites. I’ve got some pictures here that should help you follow along. You can do this spread for protagonists, antagonists, plots and even whole book series if you wanted. I’m going to show it for protagonists, because that’s an easy place to start.

You’re going to need notecards. A lot of them. Way more than you think is reasonable for any person to own. I’m only showing up to 16 here, but I’ve used these for scripts and stories and had upwards of 100 as needed, if the story calls for that many things to be happening. The note cards that follow have numbers on them, so that you can see their locations.

To put it sort of math-y (I’m sorry, I know I said I’d try and keep math away from this, but I swear this flashback won’t take long), we’re going to make an X/Y axis, where cards spread horizontally and vertically from the beginning to the end of the story. For the example story, let’s suppose we have 4 chapters, but you’re going to have likely way more than that in your book. If so, just keep moving down that horizontal axis as you have to.

We’re going to start at the 0.0 point with a note card, like this:

This is a note card. It is the building block of this system

This is a note card. It is the building block of this system

Notice how I’ve put it at the corner of my table, so that I have a whole lot of real estate to work in. Ignore the holly jolly tablecloth, it was the first one I grabbed out of the closet. On that note card you’re going to put a fact/statement/phrase about your protagonist.

The important thing to remember about this trick is this: When we go to the right, we’re going through the story beginning to end. When we go vertically, we’re adding more details.

The first card is the Physical level of description. So Card (1) is what the character looks like. Is she short, tall, nearsighted, skinny, athletic? If you were to look up from your cards and see your character staring at you, what are the first things you notice?

Now let’s give her some more details. We’re going vertical:

We're going up from Physical, to Mental, then Social, then Aspirations

We’re going up from Physical, to Mental, then Social, then Aspirations

 

Card (2) describes her Mental level of description. Is she nervous? Arrogant? Passive Aggressive? If you were to have a conversation with your character, what’s the first thing you’d notice about your conversation together?

Card (3) describes your protagonist’s Social perceptions and skills. Does she socialize? Does she date? Is she extroverted? This level addresses the question “How does your protagonist interact with the world, and how does the world respond?

Card (4) addresses the protagonist’s Hopes and Dreams. What would make her happy? What goal is she striving for? Remember, this isn’t just talking about the plot of the story, I’m asking you to think of your character as a fully formed person who has more than this particular story’s plot going on in their life. Does she want to own a farm? Does she wish her father paid more attention to her? Does she want a deluxe apartment in the sky where she doesn’t have to wear pants and can eat guacamole all day?

You can go higher. Card (5) would cover a character’s Fears and Doubts. Card (6) would be Closest Relationship and Card (7) would be Relationship to Rival or Enemy. I’ve never gone above (7), because I’ve both run out of space and never thought past those tiers of character development. Feel free to substitute your own as you like, just be consistent with it. And if you do try new stuff, please PLEASE let me know. I’m always on the look out for new methods.

Let’s go to the next part of the story. For me that’s Act 2. For you that might be chapter 2 or part 2 or the next episode. In fact, you can take this time to lay out the horizontal for the whole project or the next chunk of chapters if you want:

Notice that in each chapter/section/whatever, I've got a Physical element represented

Notice that in each chapter/section/whatever, I’ve got a Physical element represented

 

Throughout my four acts here I’m going to mention more physical elements of my character. Not that I’m always going to say she’s a redhead or that she’s got green eyes, but I’m going to talk about some sort of relationship between her physicality and the world – she’s going to get banged up, bruised, a car is probably going to explode and maybe she’ll get muddy. That relationship spreads across the book, so it’s represented in these cards. So, on Card (2.1) I’m going to put down a fact about how she deals with fistfights, because at some point she’s going to hit a dude (play passes to left) (hashtag a-joke-not-enough-of-you-understand).

Add a card with some detail(s) at each level per each part/chapter/act of your story. Remember, this isn’t repeating the same things over and over, it’s about writing down different facets of the relationship the character has on that level to the rest of the world you’ve created.

This means you’re going to regularly ask yourself:

  • How is my character acting and reacting physical to the environments on a scene-by-scene/beat-by-beat basis?
  • How is my character handling the mental stresses/doubts/successes/strains on a scene-by-scene/beat-by-beat basis?
  • How is my character interacting with other people? Is anything developing? Is that development good or bad? Will someone pay a price in the end?
  • How is whatever my character is doing affect their hopes and dreams? Are they moving towards them? Has the plot put the goal on a shelf? Has it changed?

The answers should help you understand (conceptually) what the mindset and experience of the character is, so that you can translate it into words on paper so that other people can read it and relate in the same way.

So this is the story after more cards go down on the table:

This is all four acts mapped out.

This is all four acts mapped out.

 

What you’ll see in that picture are gaps. They’re intentional. A space like (4.2) or (3.4) means that the element doesn’t come up in that section of the story. And that’s an important point. Gaps create importance, and so long as the gap isn’t too wide (I’m sort of stretching it with (1.4) and (4.4), then that re-emergence of the idea makes us take notice – like the guy who keeps a key in his pocket only to remember he has it when he reaches the locked door. It makes both the first instance and its return matter to the story.

However, you might not feel comfortable doing that, so here’s a complete grid for you:

Here's a story where every possible slot has a card for it. This runs the risk of being congested.

Here’s a story where every possible slot has a card for it. This runs the risk of being congested.

I’m going to throw a flag on the play, and not just because I numbered these cards differently. A full story where everything is explored in every chapter can be MONSTROUS to contend with. It might slow down. It might get wordy. It might get confusing. Your mileage varies of course, but please PLEASE don’t think you have to fill every spot, especially if you run cards all the way out to 30 or more.

As I said before, you can do this for a protagonist, or even the antagonist. You can do this for the plot, but then the tiers become more about the impact of the problem on physical, mental and social levels, leading to sort of a zoomed-out picture of the story.

Hope this helps. If you have questions about it, catch me on Twitter, or write me an email.

RECIPE – Chicken Thighs With Prosciutto, Stuffed with Foie Gras

A note here about foie gras – I find it delicious. I’m not going to argue with you about how I’d feel if I were goose crippled and tortured for my liver, because if I’m not a goose and frankly my liver is wretched. If you have an ethical objection, skip this recipe, since the only substitution I can think to provide you is a combination of herbed butter, bacon fat and six spices, but even that’s not going to come close. No, you can’t even sub a cheese, because it’s both the wrong texture and the wrong flavor.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED

8 ounces foie gras pate
12 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
8 ounces thinly sliced Italian prosciutto
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, or to taste
very little salt and pepper to taste
A dinner plate lined with plastic wrap
Space in your freezer
1 large bowl for mixing things
1 skillet
1 chunk of bitter
Paper towels (way more than you think, just to play it safe)
1 oven capable baking dish, the sort of thing you’d make brownies in
1/4 cup corn oil

LET’S COOK

Cut pate into 12 rectangles (or as many rectangles as you can get, assuming you’ve played Tetris), and place onto the plate lined with plastic wrap. Place into the freezer. Combine chicken thighs and Worcestershire sauce in the mixing bowl. Seal with plastic wrap (I cover this with a clean towel), and get this into your refrigerator to marinate for 1 hour. Now, if you want to fiddle a little with the marinade, I’ve had good luck with mixing Worcestershire with a little grainy mustard, a little bit of fruit preserves, some five-star spice and a bit of not-spiced rum or cooking sherry.

Fry the prosciutto in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat until crispy. Drain, cool and crumble (I usually do this into a cereal bowl). Season with garlic powder, pepper to taste; set aside. Try not to eat all of this, you’re going to need it later.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

Remove chicken thighs from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Discard marinade, and make sure you wash that bowl out immediately, lest it smell sort of funky. Lay the chicken thighs out flat on a clean work surface (like a cutting board that you specifically use for chicken as to avoid getting some mutant strain of salmonella). Season with salt and pepper, then sprinkle crumbled prosciutto in the center. Place a cube of pate on top of the prosciutto, then wrap the thigh around the filling and secure with toothpicks. This is basically a joint, with a chicken wrapper. Don’t roll too tightly, but do your best to toothpick these things shut. And don’t forget to wash your hands.

NOTE: Use wooden toothpicks. Those plastic colored ones? Well, they’re plastic. And in an oven, they’ll melt. Avoid that and just use wooden ones. If you’re a little worried about wood in an oven, feel free to soak them in water, but don’t freak out, they’ll be fine.

Heat corn oil in a large skillet over high heat. Place thighs (USE TONGS) into oil, and cook until browned all over, about 5 minutes. When browned, place thighs seam side down into a glass baking dish. You can always find the seam side because presumably that’s where the toothpicks are.

NOTE #2: Okay, hopefully you’re using tongs and you’re not just dropping chicken into oil with you standing at ground zero for splatters. If you like, wear an apron. Or a blast shield. Don’t worry Luke, trust your instincts and USE TONGS. Here’s a nice pair. Remember to wash them after you’re done.

Bake in preheated oven until the chicken is no longer pink, and the juices run clear, 25 to 30 minutes, depending on size. I like to aim for about 27 minutes, that seems to work nicely for my oven.

Note #3: You’re going to want to pull the toothpicks out before you eat. I know, it might fall apart. If you’re just whipping this up for one person and it’s not like a dinner party or big deal, don’t sweat it. If this is your chance to impress someone, either for a date (this recipe has never worked on a date for me, the frying bit freaks out people) or some dinner party, when you go to plate, serve them seam side down, and just as you get them onto the plate, slide the pick out, sort of like how you pull on underwear while you’re still wearing a towel post-shower if you’re dealing with people. (What, I’m the only one who’s done that?)

You can serve these with quite a few options: brown rice with lemon, a delightful couscous, some roast vegetables (I like carrots and cauliflower for this dish, asparagus just makes your pee smell, and if you’re hoping to get lucky later, that can torpedo you, let’s be honest) or even a salad with a decent (meaning not-creamy) dressing drowning hopefully crisp and/or peppery greens.

Is this dish one of those “John you’re being a foodie again” meals? Absolutely. I can’t help it. This is one of my favorites.

RECIPE:: Mini-birds of Glory

This is probably the first “great” dish I ever learned, and I’m constantly tinkering with it. It’s comfort food, if I’m willing to do a little work for it. Now the basic recipe calls for little birds (starlings, quail, game hens) but you can easily do this for chicken breasts you’ve pounded flat or even pieces of dark meated fowl like turkey. I’m also including in this recipe one of my sauce recipes, because the original recipe calls for a lame and bland mix of butter and booze, and that sort of eliminates all the fun flavors of the rainbow.

What You’ll Need

2 to 6 tiny little birds of choice, or chicken breasts, or some kind of fowl or poultry
1 piece of aluminum foil per bird, large enough to wrap them like a baked potato, sort of
Mixing bowl
Salt
Basil
Thyme
Sage leaves (I get these in a glass jar, and you’ll need like 4 leaves per bird)
John’s Awesome Sauce #8

John’s Awesome Sauce #8
1 can Coca Cola (NOT DIET)
2 shots rum
1 1/2 cup sherry
1 package butter (1/2 pound) room temperature

To the cooking!

In a large mixing bowl, mix cola, rum, sherry, butter. No, it’s not really going to thicken. If you for some reason want it thicker, use HALF a can of cola and 1/2 cup of maple syrup. Really though, you’re not going to need to thicken this.

Once you’ve mixed the Awesome Sauce, you need to get the birds drunk. This is easily accomplished by treating each bird like it’s a Salem witch. Hold the bird by an end (Use tongs or wear gloves) and dunk them a few times while looking very serious about ergot poisoning or religious intolerance for witches or persecution or the fact that witches aren’t wood. Place each dunked bird onto a square of foil.

Once the bird hits the foil, sprinkle each with basil, salt and thyme. No, it’s not an exact science. You’re basically going to sprinkle herbs on wet bird.

Lay 3 or 4 sage leaves on top of each bird, like a really crappy blanket. No, it’s likely not going to cover every bit of bird, but that’s okay. That’s why you have foil!

Wrap the birds pretty tightly in foil, but don’t squish, you’re going to want to give them a little space in the pouch. You know how in movies the hero or heroine wakes up in a coffin? Like that. Give them a coffin’s worth of airspace.

OPTIONAL: You can put the pouches of bird on a cookie sheet or dish to make everything easier.

Place the now entombed birds in a 400 degree oven for 18 minutes.

Serve over polenta, pilaf, or a puree of your choice.

RECIPE – Peanut Butter Super Brownies

Do you like dessert? Do you want to have a few seconds of ecstasy unrivaled even by really attractive people and their lips? Then, behold, I bring you a recipe.

Peanut Butter Chocolate Brownies.

Yes, that’s right, it’s a brownie with peanut butter and chocolate mixed at the center of it. And yes, you can totally make these without having to go nuts with injectors and pastry bags and extensive gear.

Ingredients

Nonstick spray
6 Tablespoons unsalted butter
6 oz. dark chocolate or semi-sweet, coarsely chopped (I’m assuming you’ve gone out and bought a block of chocolate or that you’ve got squares and you’re going to chop them up. If not, go get a bag of chips and smash them up good with a meat hammer, and get your Thor on)
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup sugar
2 big eggs (preferably at room temperature)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon course salt
1/3 cup mini peanut butter cups (I like peanut butter cup minis for this, because they’re unwrapped already and I can eat the leftovers)
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter (I know, this is one time I actually want you to use creamy)
1 Tablespoon confectioners (powdered) sugar

How You Will Make Heaven In Your Oven

Preheat the oven to 350F. Thoroughly coat an 8″x8″ baking pan with nonstick spray and set aside.

Put butter, chocolate and cocoa powder into a microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 1 minute, then stir with a fork for one more minute. Then microwave for another 45 seconds and continue to stir until it’s completely melted and smooth. You want it to eventually look like pudding or a melted dish of ice cream. Not super watery, just, smooth. If you find lumps, use the fork.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs together with the sugar and vanilla until its pale like a 90s goth kid and maybe a little glittery like a bad glam band or student council poster, using an electric mixer, or a sturdy whisk. This should take several minutes, and if you’re whisking, some arm strength. This is a great time to employ a teenager, roommate, spouse or other person who “wants to help”. Slowly add chocolate mixture in a thin stream, whisking continuously to incorporate. Don’t dump it all in at once because any residual heat in the chocolate could start to cook the eggs.

NOTE: Go slow. Like ketchup out of the bottle slow. And you’re going to want to keep an eye on the chocolate’s heat. If you see the eggs starting to harden, or worse, scramble, it’s time to start over. Everything should be sort of a toothpaste consistency when you’re done. Teamwork is a great idea.

Now add the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, and salt) all at once and beat until just combined. Do not overbeat, but use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl and turn the batter over a few times to make sure everything is incorporated. Here’s how you tell overbeating – Can you still distinguish ingredients among the mix? If yes, you’re good. If no, you’ve overdone it. You can fix overdoing it BY NOT BEATING IT ANYMORE and praying that your food doesn’t turn out chewy. WHEN IN DOUBT, UNDERBEAT.  It’s a feel thing, and much like sophomore year of college, you want to do just enough to get by.

Pour half of the batter into prepared pan. Sprinkle a layer of peanut butter cups evenly over the batter layer. Then cover with the remaining half of the batter and carefully smooth with a rubber spatula to evenly distribute and flatten the batter, and cover the peanut butter cups completely. The batter is very thick, so be gentle and take your time spreading the batter around. If you’re like me, you get impatient and that leads to crooked distribution of mini cups and batter covering. Take your time. The smoother and more even you can get this, you’re increasing your deliciousness factor by powers of eleven.

In a small bowl, mix the peanut butter and confectioners sugar. Microwave on high for 30 seconds to melt slightly. Pour/smear this on top of the batter. If you’d like to get artsy, you want to “drizzle” this, then use a toothpick to “draw a pattern” but that takes time and you could instead be eating.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean-ish (no wet batter, but some crumbs may stick to it). Remove pan from oven and allow to cool completely before cutting into 1″ squares. This recipe should make about 30 brownie squares. I can tell you these are great warm, and good cold. If you’re going to reheat one, say you want to sneak one when you go walk the dog before you go to bed, wet your hand under the sink before you carry the brownie to the plate and microwave it less than 15 seconds.

This dessert will make you very happy.

Happy eating.

What I Do Isn’t “Horseshit”

Hi. I want you to read this post, then come back here.

The short version? Someone paid $800 to someone who didn’t deliver.

The part I have a problem with? Right here:

This is utter and complete bunk. Horseshit of the finest kind.  When I see agents doing this, I actually interrupt them on the panel and howl “horseshit.”
There’s nothing wrong with hiring an editor. I’ve recommended it several times myself. I have an ongoing relationship with a very good editor who reads manuscripts I’m thinking of taking on.  The problem is not editors at all.
The problem is WHEN you consult them.  IF you’re getting rejections, and you’ve been to writing conferences and taken classes, then maybe you invest some dough. 
You don’t hire an editor as step one of the query process. 

Um, okay, we need to unpack the “this”. Janet’s referring to the idea of hiring an editor to go through your work before you send it off to possible publication. She’s calling that idea horseshit. Now, I’d like to point out that I make a part of my living as an editor hired to go through work before it goes to publication. So, thanks to logic, she’s saying part of my living is horseshit.

Granted, there’s no reference to me, my blog, my resume or the things I’ve worked on in that whole blogpost. And I’m willing to bet that if asked, Janet Reid has not the first clue who I am. Which is fine, I don’t need to be known by all of humanity or editorkind. This isn’t a megalomaniacal rant.

What I do isn’t horseshit. I don’t take the money people give me and run. I don’t deliver poor quality work. I do my best to deliver thorough work done quickly. Yes, I can always be more thorough, and yes, being thorough is something I’m working on improving, because I think it only helps my clients and my projects to be so. Granted, in the Fast-Good-Cheap pyramid:

You're supposed to pick two.

You’re supposed to pick two.

I’ve got Fast and Good on lockdown, so comparatively, I’m not cheap. And I’m not. But I provide a service that isn’t inconsequential. If you want me to make sure your spelling is okay and your margins are spiffy, I can totally do that. If you want to know if your story makes sense from beginning to end, I can do that. If you want to know why people are rejecting your work over and over again and why your manuscript is a mess and you don’t know how to fix things and you don’t like your plot or your characters are out of whack, yeah, I can help with that.

My job, my greatest love in life, is helping people make their ideas into things they can share with other people. Sometimes, that’s the novel they always wanted to write, or the game they’d love to play with their friends, or it’s the start of a career in development and design or whatever. That’s my privilege to have the skills that can help make this happen. To call it horseshit is to tell me that what I’m good at and what I’m proud of is meaningless or worse, detrimental to others. That’s not cool. What I do helps people. Is it going to cost them money? Yep. Are they going to see improvements? Yep. Is that a bad a thing that I make my living doing that and charging people for it? Nope.

I’ve talked before about how I used to feel super guilty for charging people, and how I’d grossly undercharge. One of the reasons for this was because I wasn’t attached to a big publishing company, and at the time, being outside the system meant I really wasn’t seeing a lot of work, since the expected model of publishing (the “traditional” model) teaches people that they’ll get edited post-query acceptance. With the explosion of self-publishing models, I found more work, because now the bulk of development fell to the author, assuming they weren’t just uploading error-packed files to a server and charging money. And with that development process, I found I could help people. In helping them, I could help myself (it’s wonderful what a full work schedule does to feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness). Charging wasn’t an easy decision, since I tied it to my self-esteem, but it’s worked out for me, since now I can make my living doing this.

What Janet’s talking about is a legit problem – people get hosed in shitty deals when they try to make stuff, and it’s important to be careful and clear in what you’re trying to do. Yeah, people do go too far and get super guarded, holding back even talking about their ideas lest someone “steal them”. That extremism makes it super difficult to work with a person if they can’t even share the idea with the person who can help them. But, it speaks to a level of intimacy and trust – the project is near and dear to them, they don’t want to see what they love smacked around, treated poorly or wrecked. And they don’t want to lose money over it.

Totally understandable. And I get that it doesn’t help to say “I’m not an asshole who will take your money” if you don’t know me and you’ve had assholes take your money before. But you can find people who I’ve worked with who will tell you (some of them even emphatically) that I’m not going to take the money and run and that I can in fact help you learn to make awesome things.

While I was getting dressed, sorting out what I was going to say in this post, it occurred to me that there’s maybe a hint of this-how-things-are-done-don’t-question-it. The editing process can exist in a variety of spots in the publication process. What’s wrong with getting your stuff looked at before you send it off to someone who has a great deal of sway over its publication? Isn’t that like getting someone to check your outfit before you go on a big date? One of my good friends compared editing to “being told there’s spinach in your teeth before a date”, which is a great way to look at it.

Maybe it’s a sense of Don’t-question-me-I-have-an-audience-and-a-big-job-and-fame. I don’t really think this is an ego bullying trip. But for a second, let’s talk about validity. To do so, I’ll pull another quote from the post.

 “She certainly was legit-had an author featured at the conference, great website, several agents in her firm, etc.
THIS IS NOT HOW YOU DETERMINE IF AN AGENT IS ANY GOOD!!!

Here, there’s a discussion of what makes for a good agent, and the idea that it’s not found in a website or conference attendance or co-workers. So … by extension, you can’t measure quality based on how things look, or who they work with or where they’ve been, and the post goes on to say that you measure goodness based on accomplishment. Now, if you’re about to point out that Janet has a huge reach, and a big audience and posts way more regularly, and likely not about mental health or food or game design, and instead only looks at queries and publishing, I’ll just point you back to this paragraph. Measure the validity based on how something/someone helps you accomplish something.

An easier version – I can help you make your thing. It might involve dealing with bad habits, it might take time, but if you do the hard work, you can make a thing. I’m not here to take your money or let you down or leave you in a worse position than when I found you. I know there are predators out there who will rain on your parade and kick you while you’re down. And I know saying “I’m not a predator” when you don’t know me is about as comforting as being told “Hey I’m not going to rob your house” by someone walking by. If I wanted to make gobs of money, I would have paid way more attention in school, or learned to sell drugs by the kilo or something. Instead, I learned how to be really good with language, and how I can use that skill to help you make stuff. Less lucrative than drug kingpins or lawyers or plastic surgeons, but to my mind, way more rewarding.

Does this mean I’m out shilling in front of every conference room or seminar? I can tell you that I used to, when I was young and stupid and didn’t know any better. And I can tell you that it got me NOWHERE. This doesn’t mean I don’t shamelessly plug myself in panels, both seriously and humorously. Yes, of course, I want to build my business, and yes I want to have more blog readers and get more emails and help more people. Sure, yes, I like getting paid for it too. I ask on Twitter for work, I post openly about my work schedule, I stick my rates on my blog, so that people can hire me. I do that, because I don’t have a company behind me or guaranteed work waiting for me. I have to hustle and pursue it. So I do. That’s not a sign of predatory behavior, that’s a sign of I need to have money to afford travelling to conventions and I like paying bills on time.

Over the course of my writing this post, as my stomach has grumbled (must be time for lunch), my initial sense of being slapped in the face for being “new” or “freelance” or “small-time” has faded somewhat. I do think that bad practices need to get called out, no matter who’s they are or what the fallout could be. Many emperors wear no clothes, and we as a consumers and creators need to be aware and willing to point out the bad practices and be equally able to point to the good ones as well, and then do better all around.

I’m going to keep telling people “You should get someone to look that over before you send it off to publication” NOT because it’s money in my pocket, but because that can make your project better, and isn’t that the point?

Happy creating, I’m going to go eat something before my stomach gurgles any louder.

My Problem With ‘Problematic’

Alright, let’s get into something. This is gonna be maybe messy, so let’s start off with a musical moment. Rock out to this first

So, how many people have heard things like this:

“This game’s content is problematic.”

“This person’s writing is problematic.”

Now maybe there’s a back half to that sentence, something that mentions racism or sexism or another -ism. 

I can agree that the second half of the sentence can be a legit problem, because -isms can be really bad and dangerous and not good. But that first half of the sentence, the part where problematic is carted out like it’s a mighty Rancor to eat guilty parties? Well, that’s weaksauce of the highest (lowest?) caliber. 

“Problematic” is not a blanket behind which actual complaints or statements should hide. Nor is it something that should evoke cringes and fevered runs to change habits. It’s just a word, and a conflated one at that. 

Look, if you’re producing racist or sexist or some other -ist material, that’s not cool. That’s not going to go over very well, it’s going to be controversial, and you’re going to smash a lot of peoples’ buttons. Also, it’s weak craft. I have enough faith in you as a creator of things that you’re able to avoid resting on tropes and bias so long as you’re willing to give a damn about what you’re making. 

But back to this word that gets tossed around like it’s the herald of other problems. Like it’s a red flag before the red flags. Or, as is becoming more the case, it’s the substitute for actually mentioning the problems. 

I was tempted to pull tweets from my friends where this word gets tossed around because it fits into 140 characters and evokes a sense of “this is wrong and I don’t like it”, but I was afraid that they’d thing I had a problem with their opinions or them having them. So, to be clear…

I HAVE NO PROBLEM WITH YOUR OPINIONS OR THE FACT THAT YOU HAVE THEM, I AM CALLING YOU OUT ON THE WORDS YOU USE TO EXPRESS THOSE OPINIONS

Why? Because there’s a whole big wide action-packed language to use, and trotting out problematic like it’s Silver Surfer to your annoyance-Galactus is sort of like me saying saying winter is cold. Yeah, cold is totally a fair word to use to describe my impressions or thoughts on winter, but it doesn’t really tell you how I feel. No, I’m not talking like going on some lengthy monologue as to the desperation of the dark months, but I can certainly string a few sentences together to express my thoughts. No shield-words, no brow-beating either. Just my opinion on a thing. It isn’t wrong, it isn’t right, it’s just my feelings and we can totally agree or disagree. You might even be able persuade me to change my mind. 

When a word like problematic gets used over and over and in a variety of contexts (even if you can group all of them together as “indicative of things that I/we don’t like” – even if there’s some “we” you just appointed yourself commander-in-chief of), it loses meaning. It’s not a word-spokesperson, and using it like it’s a red letter on your blouse or a sheet of yellow paper you have to show people forever doesn’t speak too highly of your position. You want to make that impact and get people to reconsider their ways or make a change, then break out the language toolbox and build an argument. 

If you’ve just had a thought that perhaps I need to reconsider this in light of the fact that Twitter only fits 140 characters at a time, I want you to reconsider how your structure your argument. I don’t want to draw some juvenile line in the sand and say, “Use your adult words”, but like, use your adult words. It’s a big language. I bet you can totally find new ways of citing problems you have with things and expressing feelings and even possible solutions without blanketing them in words that you’re hoping the audience intuits to mean “oh this person really has a problem, I should do something about it”, because let’s face it, that’s what you’re asking them to do – read your mind, share your level of upset and then cater to you. Which is a way ridiculous expectation. 

A better expectation? That you speak your mind and going forward someone somewhere, maybe not affiliated with this situation at hand, changes what they’re going to do. And then, there’s a domino effect as more and more people react to that change. Is is instantaneous? Nope. Does it totally change the thing you’re talking about? Nope. (The downside here is that in your complaining, you likely sound kinda spoiled, entitled or expecting the world to deliver unto you things they way you want) Does the world revolve around you? Nope. (It doesn’t revolve around me either, I just checked, and it sucks.)

Use clearer language. It might take longer. You might have to think harder about how to say what you want, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it?

Happy writing (and I guess, arguing?) 

RECIPE:: Chicken Case-o-Awesome Soup-Meal

Let’s do some cooking, shall we?

Today’s recipe is a thick soup, and it’s awesome. It’s not quite a quesadilla flavor, it’s not quite an enchilada, but it’s in the same ballpark.

THINGS YOU’RE GOING TO NEED:

1 Slow Cooker

about 8 hours of time

1 15-ounce can black beans, that you’ve rinsed and drained and left to sort of dry. Seriously, dry them out. It’ll be worth it. Now if you’re like me, you see the word “can” in a recipe and you swap it for as fresh a supply as possible. But that’s not what everyone does, so here’s a can.

1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes (I used the kind with sweet onion in it) Now if you don’t have some pre-fab diced tomatoes, take a few off the vine, and be ready to crush them with your hands like they broke your heart over the holidays by kissing someone else. Or they totally struck you out in kickball. Something. Wreak vengeance upon them. Add in a finely chopped fist-sized onion to increase their suffering. Little bits, no bigger that thumbnail size.

1 10-ounce package frozen whole kernel corn Or you could not be a savage and carve the kernels off ears of corn like a normal person. If so, this is about four ears.

½ cup chopped onion If you’re adding in onion above, reduce this in half (or less)

½ cup chopped yellow, green, or red bell pepper Colors! Seriously, this is just for color. And if you can only get one color, that’s fine. I won’t tell.

1 10-ounce can enchilada sauce You’ll find this in the international or slightly-racist aisle of your grocery store. It might come packaged in a tiny can, or like a tube of toothpaste. It’s important, and no you can’t sub salsa for it.

1 10.75-ounce can condensed cream of chicken soup If you’re about to tell me about the salt in a can of condensed soup, I’m going to turn this recipe right around. Just get a can of soup. Your mouth is gonna thank me later.

1½ cups heavy cream Yes, HEAVY cream. Hooray for fat. Hooray for flavor delivery systems. No, you can’t sub this out. You’re going to be cooking for 8 hours, and this is the foundation for all the awesome flavor. If you tried to use milk, you’re going to get sludgy wet solids once the water cooks off. Don’t hate your food. Use the cream. Again, mouth-thanking and all that.

1 cup shredded Pepper jack cheese (4 ounces) Of course you have this on hand anyway. That goes without saying.

2 chicken breasts You don’t have to hammer these flat. I mean, you can, but you don’t need to. It sort of does away with the notion that you’re a Bond villain and you’re torturing these chicken parts because they displeased you.

GOT IT? NOW LET’S ROCK

Step 1

In a 3½ to 5 quart slow cooker, combine drained beans, tomatoes, corn, onion, and bell pepper. Place 2 chicken breasts on top of mixture. Yes, you’re gonna have like a mountain of vegetables with two breasts on it. And yes, I wrote that sentence just so I could say two breasts.

Step 2

In a large bowl, whisk together enchilada sauce and soup. It’s going to start lumpy, like bad gravy. We’ll fix that in a second. Gradually whisk in cream until smooth. It’s easiest to pour in some cream, whisk for the duration of your favorite TV theme song, pour in more cream, whisk for the duration of your favorite hook from a 90s song, then add the rest of the cream while you hum something like the Raiders march, or the Godfather theme.  You’re aiming for a slightly thick, but smooth (lumpless) slightly red or brick-colored tint to what might look like turkey gravy gone too far. If there are no lumps, you’re ready. If there are lumps, whisk like the bowl owes you money. Once the lumps are gone warm this up in a microwave or over a medium low stove flame for about a minute or so.

Step 3

Pour sauce mixture over ingredients in cooker.Cover; cook on low heat for 6 to 8 hours or on high for 3 to 4 hours. Don’t forget to wash all the dishes and things you used. Be careful with that chicken breast stuff, don’t fuck around with salmonella.

Step 4

After everything’s cooked, remove the chicken and cut or shred into bite sized pieces. Try not to eat all of it now, because it’ll be hot. Eat some anyway, because you’re a rebel, Dottie. Add the now-shredded chicken back into soup.

Step 5

Serve this in bowls. Top with pepper jack cheese. Can also be topped with avocado, sour cream, or crushed tortilla chips. Fritos actually work pretty well here.

You can even eat this with a spork.

Happy eating.