The Indiana Accords

I started drafting this post in the car during the twelve hours I spent hauling myself and a car full of stuff from Indiana post-GenCon to New Jersey, so if it’s a bit incoherent, it’s because I drafted it out loud in 45-minute chunks throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania.

As I’m told repeatedly, you can’t manufacture moments, you can’t force or make them happen, they’re a confluence of circumstance and things lining up with some coincidence. And every time I hear it, as you’d expect, I think that might be the third most-maddening thing someone can say to me, because what’s basically being said is that you can’t control a moment, and lacking control is one of those things that doesn’t go so well for me. I like control, I like order, and I like being charge of me and what I do.

So of course I love moments, and I chase them, because whatever’s uncontrollable and just out of reach is always the most desired thing.

I spent much of GenCon on a sly pursuit of moments. I wanted there to be little crystallized pockets of experience with specific people. To go to a meal with this or that person. To hug that person. To tell this other person I had missed them. To have, just between the two of us these little bubbles where nothing else mattered.

Now go contrast that with how badly I wanted to speak to rooms with 100+ people and make them all laugh and nod and walk out of the room thinking and feeling and energized.

This is the duality I think a lot of people struggle with, and my own struggle with it transcends the specific knowledge of writing craft of story development. It should, frankly, be bigger than what I know about query letters or marketing or dialogue, because life is more than the total of what you know, it’s the expression of what you know in way(s) that build(s) a bridge between you and the next person.

GenCon this year was about building a whole lotta bridges and moving away from demanding there be a-moment-or-else-right-now-goddammit.

See, there was this woman in the audience on Friday at my last panel of the convention,  I remember exactly where she sat: a row back from the front, on the the interior aisle. She wore a green dress, had dark hair, and kept her hands in her lap a lot. I don’t say any of this in a creepy way, I’m saying this because this woman changed the trajectory of my weekend, my plans, and my entire outlook on what I do.

It was a panel on setting goals and not giving up, and it had okay attendance for a Friday afternoon panel. Of course I would have liked to see more people in the room, but it’s okay, the people who were there were the ones meant to be there. And there was this woman. I cannot for the life of me remember her name, I’m not even sure she said her name, but I remember she was a seamstress, a costumer, and she was nervous.

Now I don’t know if she was nervous because she was asking a question of three people on a stage who had microphones or if she was just nervous in general, but she sticks out so sharply in mind. Now I’m going to paraphrase our interaction:

Her: I’m a costumer, and what do I do when I get discouraged about what I’m doing? I know the flaws in my work, and how do I keep going and doing this this when I know it’s  going to be tough and have problems?

Me: Tell me what you love about costuming.

And it was right there, everything turned. It was like a light switch flicked on her soul and she wasn’t this nervous person who sat quietly and timidly, she was this person who loved a thing and was excited about a thing and it mattered to her.

Her: I love that I can make a dress, an outfit, something out of nothing, and it’s really good and I love doing it, I love how it looks, and the work that goes into it because it’s fun and it makes me happy.

Me: Remember that every time you feel like it’s too hard. Can you do that for me?

Her: Yes. Thank you so much.

There was something about this reaction, this conversation, that wiggled its way into my brain and it took a long time the rest of the weekend to sort itself out. It wasn’t a bad thing, it was a great thing, the best of things, and I couldn’t stop seeing in my head.

The look she had on her face when she described how costuming made her feel. The eye contact when she said she could remember that. The way I asked her if she could do that for me.

Boom.

Moment.

See, up until that point, all the panels I was on were there to give information ahead of ego stroke. Yes, I’ll cop to it, I love the sound of my own voice, yes I love the fact that people come up and thank me. I love attention and I love the fact that I’m smart and good at a thing. And I know that this is not the healthiest space to constantly be submerged in for four days. I don’t want to be “on” for a whole weekend because it makes me an insufferable asshole who doesn’t relax and who is generally unbearable to be around. I’m conscious of that, and I wanted to avoid doing that.

But in the absence of that, I was feeling really lost. And when I feel lost, I try to focus on things that make me feel grateful, and things that make me feel like I still matter, because of course I need to ride the pendulum swing from it’s-all-about-me to I-don’t-matter-at-all and back again.

I look at the people who inspire me: here, here, and here (for starters) and one of the dominant feelings I take away is that they’re aware of the bigger audience, but they’re not talking to the group telling us that blessed are the cheesemakers, they’re speaking to each person one-on-one.

One-on-one, even when there’s this group.

One-on-one, just like the costumer and her question.

One-on-one, just like how a moment …

Boom.

Again.

The moments I felt best were not the moments where the whole room laughed or the whole room looked up at me. Those were nice, but they couldn’t touch the moments where a single person came up and said something nice.

Going forward, I’m committing myself to putting the one-on-one ahead of the group.

I’ll panel the hell out of everything every chance I get because I’m comfortable when I’m talking and teaching and encouraging, but I want anyone who comes in the door to feel like it’s just me and them.

I’ll put out videos and audio where the priority is one-on-one because that’s where the good connectivity and truly helping someone lives. Me talking to and with you. Not at you. Not over you.

And I’ll coach and edit with this same conversation, this same discourse in mind, because as a client, it’s me and you, riding to the end.

Because when I say I believe in you, I believe in YOU. You, person reading this. You, person wondering if they should get something edited. You, person who isn’t sure if coaching will help them. You, right there.

Let’s talk. Let’s work. Let’s get better and grow good things and expand and throw light out against the dark and be happy and make great stuff. Let’s be awesome.

Don’t you dare give up.

Happy creating.

John’s GenCon Schedule

GenCon is one of my favorite times of year, because it’s when I get to see the majority of my friends in one place for a few days, usually on or near my birthday. This year, however, my birthday already passed (it was yesterday), GenCon isn’t for another week, and many of my friends aren’t attending.

But this is all okay. I’ve got plenty to do, and plenty of opportunities to make some awesome things happen.

The Industry Insider program is one of those things I’ve pursued for years, and had always found it outside my grasp, leading me to make up a variety of reasons for my missing out – ranging from “they wouldn’t know what to do with my awesomeness” to “I wonder if they think I have cooties.” I’m very happy to announce that this year I have been selected as an Industry Insider and am fortunate enough to speak about two of my favorite topics: editing and motivation.

So let’s see what’s going on:

THURSDAY

So You’re Making Your First Game 10:00 AM- 12:00PM
Crowne Plaza :: Victoria Stn A 

This is one of my all-time favorite panels to do, because it arms new designers with the same toolbox I used to produce Noir World. This panel makes me super happy.  Ideally, this panel is done with Mark Richardson, who I will absolutely delight in tormenting while we discuss game development.

So You Want to Get Into the Industry 3:00 PM-4:00PM 1 hrs
Location: Crowne Plaza :: Conrail Stn 

This is the companion panel to the one above (at one point I wanted to do these back-to-back in the same room over the course of like 4 hours and make a crash course of it), and this shifts the focus out of specific game development and into being a freelancer available for any kind of industry work.  This panel works best when there are a lot of questions asked by an eager audience, and I’m hopeful that trend continues this year.

Breaking Into Game Design ICC 244 4:00PM – 5:00PM

Want to watch me hustle from one hotel to the next? Here’s your chance because this panel (my first Industry Insider panel) is going condense a lot of the stuff in the previous panels to a much larger audience, turning Thursday into a mini-Metatopia for interested attendees.

Creating A Bulletproof Rulebook ICC 244 6:00-7:00PM

Thursday wraps up with what I hope is the crunchiest panel of the day, because I really do want to get specific about things like construction and language.  Bonus points if you ask if I’ve had dinner yet.

FRIDAY

Mental Health and Gaming 2017 9:00 AM – 10:00 AM 1 hrs
Location: Crowne Plaza :: Pennsylvania Stn B 

This panel is dear to me, because it’s a chance to speak truth to stigma, and as tough as this panel can be for me emotionally, it’s worth it.

Writing Scenarios, Settings, & Campaigns That Kick @$$ 1:00 PM – 2:00PM 1 hrs Location: Crowne Plaza :: Victoria Stn C/D 

The first thing I noticed when they approved this panel was that they let me get away with the pseudo-curse @$$, because I didn’t think “Writing Not-Shitty Scenarios, Settings, and Fucking Campaigns” would fly. The second thing I noticed is that they gave me two rooms for it. Historically this panel has had about 4 – 9 attendees, so I’m hoping we break double digits this year.

Don’t You Dare Give Up, How To Set Reasonable Goals ICC 244 2:00PM – 3:00PM

Back to the Industry Insider panels I go for my final one of the weekend. This is also probably the most abstract and non-game-specific panel, because this hour will cover time management, goal setting, and organizing whatever it is you’re doing. I’m really eager to see this panel come together and I hope people respond well.

And yes, later that evening, I’ll be at the ENnies.

SATURDAY

RPG17105385 Death of a Good Thing Sat @ 10:00 AM 3 hrs Location: JW :: 310 :: 1 RPG17105386 Then Someone Died Sat @ 2:00 PM 3 hrs Location: JW :: 310 :: 2

I’m spending Saturday playing Noir World. Both games are sold out, and no, this year I’m not taking on stragglers.

SUNDAY

RPG17105387 Look, A Crime! Sun @ 10:00 AM 3 hrs

My weekend concludes with one more sold out Noir World game, and that makes me really happy.

In all, I’m really excited for this convention, and I hope to see a lot of you there.

Happy creating, and be good to one another.

Why I Don’t Lob Softballs

Ever see a link for something, get a flash of what you think the link’s content might be, then you go read the content and you’re not just disappointed, but downright angry at what you read?

Not because the content was controversial, but because it was absolutely less than you were expecting?

That just happened to me. And it’s prompted me to talk about something that you should know –

I don’t write a lot of fluff pieces, I don’t toss softballs, I don’t go light and gentle when it comes to writing advice, motivating writers, answering questions or otherwise working on craft and development.

And the reason is very simple: doing so at best does nothing and at worst is detrimental to a writer who needs actual practical advice and help, not a stack of GIFs like they’re on some Buzzfeed listicle.

It’s around this point that someone says, “Well doing the opposite of being gentle isn’t helpful either,” assuming that just because I won’t sugarcoat and waste your time I must therefore be mashing you and your work into a fine pulp. And no, this is not about swinging from one extreme to the other.

This is about knowing that a person who wants to handle rejection better or how to grow their audience or how to better frame a dialogue between two characters isn’t going to get a lot of help from a GIF from a recent Pixar film or television show.

What a softball like that conveys is not the ‘Aww, I’m sensitive‘, but rather ‘I don’t know how to address you and your problem in a specific way, and I’m not willing to try and make a reasoned response, so here’s a moving picture with the word YAAS imposed over it.’

There’s a downside to not writing milquetoast and benign posts, and I know it. I lose a lot of people who are used to a sea of advice that’s more pat-on-the-head than get-in-your-head, and I get called everything from abrasive to intense. For the most part, I’ve accepted this, and aside from occasionally rounding off a few edges and tailoring profanity more effectively, I haven’t changed.

Part of this business is hearing stuff you aren’t going to like be that rejections or bad reviews or criticism. Being aware and prepared for that experience, bursting whatever bubble and dismantling any echo chambers is critical for helping a creative take steps forward to being better and doing more and reaching whatever goal they have.

It’s worth asking if that three-second clip from Inside Out is really making you a better writer or if it’s just something to stare at while you spend time not addressing the problem, not improving, and not accepting the reality of what’s going on.

It’s worth asking if the advice that doesn’t push you just past your comfort zone, or doesn’t rattle a few of the things you took as firm is really the advice you want to keep absorbing.

A whole lot of people talk real big about wanting to be a writer, wanting to have a bigger and better career, wanting to do more than just write like it’s a hobby, and then they surround themselves with the well-intentioned but toothless content from tame inoffensive outlets, like forever trying to be not-a-boat-rocker is going to get you from creative point-A to point-B.

If you want to get better, the boat, your boat, all boats, need rocking. You need to step out of that comfort zone, disabusing yourself of horseshit fuckstick preconceptions and assumptions along the way. Yes, sometimes that even means being pulled and challenged out of the comfort zones that you cling to because there’s a fear keeping you belted down and held back.

The goal is to get you where you want to go, I keep coming back to that here, because this is something I’m passionate about. It’s my job. It’s what I love to do. And the route we take to get there is not always easy, and not always pretty and scenic, but it does get you there.

Is it worth it? I think so.

John’s DexCon schedule

It’s just about July 4th, which means it’s time for DexCon. This year, my schedule is pretty action-packed – I’m running Noir World (you know, that little game I Kickstarted  currently in-production?) every day, sometimes twice.

WEDNESDAY

Wednesday evening I’ll be in the lobby, hanging out. Maybe working-ish. Come say hello.

THURSDAY

R0199: Noir World; “Crime-tastic” by Back Alley Dealings; presented by John Adamus. An INDEPENDENTLY PUBLISHED GAME – Part of the Indie Games Explosion! In The City, it’s always a good time for bad people to bad things. Noir World is an Apocalypse World hack that features shared narration and tells a tragic drama set in a film noir-influenced world of the players’ creation. The story involves either a crime that has happened or will happen, and the players can be anything from the cops eager to solve it, or the criminals eager to get away with it. Thursday, 9:00AM – 1:00PM

FRIDAY

R0243: Noir World; “Crime-tastic” Friday, 9:00AM – 1:00PM THIS EVENT HAS BEEN FILLED! You may sign up as an Alternate at the convention.

SATURDAY

R0304: Noir World Saturday, 9:00AM – 1:00PM

R0350: Noir World Saturday, 8:00PM – 12:00AM

SUNDAY

D1225 – Writer’s Workshop – I’m doing a Q&A (you bring writing questions, you’ll get answers) in BoardRoom 2 from 10:00am – 12:00pm. If there are less than 3 people signed up, I’ll be in BoardRoom 2 working, and you should still come say hello.

R0377: Noir World; Sunday, 3:00PM – 7:00PM

***

If you’re wondering “Hey John where will you be when it’s not those times?”

Check the hotel lobby. I’ll likely be on the couch or at a table working.

***

If you’re wondering, “Can I squeeze into a game that I’m not signed up for, I really want to play!” my answer 90% of the time is going to be “No, I’m sorry, I can’t make that happen,” but it never hurts to ask me.

***

And yes, absolutely, I would love to meet you. No, I am not planning on shaking your hand (fistbumps are cool though), but I’d be delighted to talk noir and work and who-knows-whatever-else (Bonus points if you ask me if I’ve found my joy)

 

See you then.

I didn’t really like it as much as I think I was supposed to

As I write this post, I’m less than one hour removed from having walked out of a movie before the big third act. And it was a very popular movie, one that broke quite a few records. It’s a wonder, really.

What’s even more of a wonder, woman or man reading this, is how I feel about it. It was okay. It wasn’t great or rad or huge or amazing. It just was. It was better than some of the other movies I’ve seen in the same universe, but it didn’t grab me or transport me or take me anywhere. I stayed in my seat, and did a lot of head shaking. A little eye rolling too. And that’s the problem.

Well, that’s part of the problem. I mean, in theory we should all be able to have our opinions and share them knowing that we’ll be respected as much before sharing as after, but I don’t know if you noticed this, it’s particularly difficult for some people to disassociate socio-political elements from storytelling elements. And that poses a significant problem for me right now, because I’m about to talk about some story issues with a movie and some people are going to assume I must be waving my genitals in outrage because how-dare-I-swim-upstream against all that this movie represents.

Here comes another dude talking Wonder Woman. Oh joy.

So first, let me say this and say it clearly – I have zero problem with the directing in this film. I have zero problem with the genders of anyone above or behind the line. It’s sad that it’s taken so long for a woman to accomplish what’s been accomplished. I think it’s fantastic that box office records are broken and a lot of people have panties and boxers in wads. Good. But that’s not where my issues are, and they never will be. However I know that for a lot of people that sort of thing forms a thick filter through which anything else I say will be colored, so even when I break down “hey this isn’t great development” it’ll be translated as “John sure does hate the womenfolk”, which is wrong, and any attempt to explain myself somehow reinforces that to a reader who comes in with their mind pre-decided.

Let’s talk about some positives. Wonder Woman, Gail Gadot, she’s great in this movie. She’s, yes, a good looking woman, but more importantly, she’s given a whole hell of a lot more to do in this film than stand around two dudes in a fight scene. She’s earnest and strong, and she is everything Wonder Woman.

Other positive: I think I saw the sun in a few shots. Like actual not-Snyderverse grey skies. The actual sun. Holy shit. Yes the color palette plunged quickly back to “muted = badass”, but there was actual color on screen at times.

Other other positive: It’s a really lean movie. Unlike the other Snyderian films that digress with long shots of staring or strange dream sequences or time tunnels, this story moves us from A to B to C without a lot of fat on the steak. Yay directing! Yay camera movement!

Okay, now let’s see if I can cover this story without plot spoilers. Just about everything I’m going to talk about is available in the trailers, so aside from one note about secondary characters being incredibly secondary, I’m not going to drop anything that isn’t either already out there, or isn’t sort of obvious.

Diana is an Amazon princess of Themyscira, the island home of the Amazons, and when World War 1 breaches the shores of Paradise Island, she takes up sword, shield, and lasso (hey where was the lasso when she was hanging out with Batfleck and allegedly-Superguy?) to go do what’s right. Joining her is Captain Kirk and a cast of otherwise pretty forgettable goodguys. Opposing her, as is pretty standard in her early story, are some Germans. Ultimately, her journey teaches her valuable lessons about heroism and it’s what molds her into the woman who will later fight a CG burnt-testicle cave troll.

That’s the plot in really broad spoiler-free strokes. That’s it. This is an origin story.

Let us dive then into the parts where the story goes askew:

  • Character Consistency. One would think that the Amazon princess who has never encountered the real world would be the very definition of the “fish out of water”, being that her civilization hasn’t really progressed much past the Battle of Thermopylae in terms of technology. However, throughout the film this is either ignored, or played up only when humorous. She doesn’t know what a dress is, but she has no problem encountering a truck or phone.  What this conveys is that she’s only a fish out of water when the story doesn’t need her to know something, which means you’re sacrificing story momentum for the sake of joke beats before working to get back up to speed. If she’s a fish out of water once, she’s a fish out of water always, unless she’s got an in-story reason to understand something. This does not mean everything foreign needs to be explained to her, but it does mean that the writing needs to make deliberate choices about what she knows, what she can deduce or intuit, and what remains unknown to her.

  • Character Motivations, Part 1. We need to define a writing term first. “Practical motivations” are the things a character knows how to do and therefore excels and looks for opportunities to do those things as a way of asserting control or competence in the world whereas “conscious motivations” are the desires, hopes, goals, and dreams of a character that they feel and that influences them to action. For our woman of wonder, the practical motivations are set up in the first half of the first act, a very breezy set of action montages where Amazons fight each other and our main character shows growing competence. It’s worth noting here (and we’ll do it again when we talk dialogue) that this is uneven montage construction, as she’s never shown failing, just always improving, so it’s hard to assess that these actions, this combat, is truly a challenge for her.

The conscious motivations are imparted somewhat nebulously. We’re told that she’s special, we’re told somewhat that she’s good and that she believes that mankind (non-Amazonians) is by default good, and that by itself should be enough for us to buy her as a hero in the story. Except that we know she’s a hero, because she’s all over the other movie where Bruce punches Clark and then feels bad about it. It’s these conscious motivations that we’re told about and don’t really see (she doesn’t have a “save the cat” moment although she has three moments where she gives the “hero speech”), that lead her to get into the big action pieces of the movie, and we’re supposed to be swept up in it … except that if we’re told rather than shown, it isn’t really embedded in us as an audience. We don’t get that chance to feel what she feels, and we’re distanced from connecting with her.

  • Character Motivations, Part 2. Our main character gets into the plot because she sees danger that no other character sees. This is good, because every character who isn’t her or Captain Kirk is kind of disposable and tepid. And that includes the antagonist (who we’ll get to in a minute). Any time a protagonist has to accomplish something that want for accomplishment should sit at the confluence of two things – a character arc and a plot conflict. Diana doesn’t really have an arc, because naivete isn’t really an arc, it’s part of what’s shed when you have an arc, sort of like the hair you lose during a haircut is only part of what informs the new changed haircut. Diana goes off to confront the bad guy because he’s the badguy, with no other motivation than “that’s what the story says to do.” But what does Diana want to do? What she should do is dependent on her arc, but I can’t say for certain what her arc was beyond “I’mma go be an Amazon during WW1.”

  • The Antagonist. In the majority of superhero stories, the hero and villain are on a collision course because they’re on the same line, moving in opposing vectors at roughly the same velocity. The motivations for each are as much chess match as they are binary conflict. In the film, the fact that Germans represent bad (because Germans = Nazis no matter the history, right?) is used as a blanket to certify that the villain is a badguy. Look out he has a gun. Look out he’s stomping around. Someone has to stop him, oh no. All this guy (it was Danny Huston by the way), all Danny Huston needs is a moustache to twirl and we’ll hit peak generic villain status. We learn about his goals through the protagonist (and worse still, through dialogue said by a secondary character to the protagonist) so that his goals can afford to be generic and broad because anything that ticks the “it’s bad” box counts. So if you were to ask me what motivates the story’s villain, it’s a generic reason of “bad guys like fighting and winning.” Yawn.

  • Lack of Tension. Maybe this is due to the fact that this story is set a century prior to the last one, so we know she survives, and we double-know she survives because she’s in the Justice League trailer too, but here in this movie, where we’re sitting having paid our $16 for a 3D matinee, we should at least have a feeling that maybe there’s some danger. Oh wait, no? We’re gifted with shots of her taking on a war zone unscathed and always looking like she was bred for war with technology she’s never encountered like it’s no big thing? Oh, okay.

Yes, this movie is low on the “Oh I hope she’s not in danger” scale. Nope, she’s not really in danger. And she should have been. Because it’s the overcoming of that danger that lets us root for the hero when the odds are greater as the movie progresses. She’s got gauntlets that deflect bullets. Shinguards that deflect bullets. An indestructible shield, and a sword. Yeah, she’ll be fine. She’s never dirty. Also, her hair never gets messed up. Magical Amazon hair and skin care products, I guess. Also, her makeup palette changed from shot to shot sometimes, either that or someone went a little LUTS-wild.

  • Dialogue duds. There’s quite a bit of talking in this movie. Not like an Altman or Smith film, but still, there’s a lot of back-and-forths. And sometimes the dialogue sounds like people, where they have feelings and aren’t cranking it up to 11 for “their moment”, but other times it’s clear that the dialogue is delivered because the character is center frame with a tight shot. Some of this dialogue doesn’t work.

Part of this dialogue revolves around a secret being kept from Diana, and prior to my walking out of the theater, the audience is left barely enough breadcrumbs to suss it together. Not that it needs to be spelled out (though my fear is that the third act hinges on the reveal, so gag me, I’m glad I bailed), but the danger in keeping a secret from the audience is that you can generate more confusion or disinterest than mystery and a want to solve it. Yes, it’s possible to keep a character in the dark but not the audience, but ideally, you keep both in the dark so the reveal carries an impact.

  • Convenient Plot. When a story is lacking tension, a “ticking clock”, a plot-idea that imparts danger or impending harm is used. There’s a ticking clock presented in the mid-second act, but it’s done conveniently. (This might be a spoiler, and I’m sorry) This story hinges around the WW1 armistice, where the good guys want the war over and the bad guys don’t … but there’s an extra level of complication because the armistice is also presented as a problem because it’s happening soon. Or is it?

The movie’s logic is this – if the badguy isn’t stopped, then the war will go on because badguy will be bad. If that’s the case, the armistice won’t matter because the badguy will be cause more fighting. If the badguy is stopped, it’s the same as the armistice, because the war will end. So how exactly is the armistice a ticking clock? Where’s the urgency?

  • Double Convenient Plot. Usually in a linear plot (A to B to C), you arrange the scenes at A, B, and C to be reachable and progressive. Like in a road trip movie you have to go to B from A and to C from B. Weak writing shortens the distances between points (usually between B and C, because it creates false urgency and masquerades as heightened stakes. What happens here is that point C is right next to point B on the map. A literal map.

Convenience neuters tension. It neuters momentum. It takes the foot off the story throttle. It reduces danger. In general, it’s not a good look, particularly in the back half of a story.

  • Slow-Mo No No. Slow motion shots are meant to turn the ordinary into extraordinary by putting the focus and elongating the tension around an action. A ball being caught, a switch being thrown, slow motion turns an action we wouldn’t think twice about into a motion we have to pay attention to. And as in other films (300 comes to mind … which makes me think there’s something about using Grecian material that requires slow mo), slow motion shows up here whenever there’s a big fight moment. A moment, where we’d be paying attention to the protagonist either way, where now we’re forced to double-extra pay attention just because she’s leaping out a goddamned window or jumping like a ballerina before shooting an arrow Horizon Zero Dawn style. Slow motion for slow motion’s sake makes it not special. It’s supposed to be special. Too much of it makes it not special. Also, slowing down action beats doesn’t make the action more important.

  • Lousy CG. Short note here – it’s like someone just learned about masking and keyframes in Final Cut Pro. And why blur on the big CG stunts? To show something you wouldn’t subject a human or practical effect to, why does it have to be partially motion blurred with its lighting slightly off so that it screams “digital effect”?

  • Most Secondary Characters are Bland. The majority of non-critical characters are utterly replaceable, and only two of them stick out in my mind (Princess Buttercup, and I’m pretty sure that one guy was Remus Lupin). Secondary characters are often service characters, people who serve a function to the plot’s completion or character arc, otherwise they’re relegated to quips and levity. With a period piece, the secondary characters are often waypoints to measure the framing of the story, that is, these characters are the touchstones so that the primary characters can stand out more. In this film, this is taken to such an extreme, the secondary characters melt away aside from ticking a few standard movie quotas.

A secondary character should strive to stand out in some way that is greater than their plot contribution. Secondary characters should stick in our heads because of the impact they have on the protagonist’s arc, and no, it shouldn’t come through dialogue nine times out of ten. It’s not about catch phrases and quips, it’s about showing something that either makes an impression on a character or showing that not-doing something makes an impression on a character.

This all makes it sound like I absolutely destroyed this movie, and there were parts I liked beyond the physical appearance of actors. The big scenes they’re hanging hats on (No Man’s Land, Themyscira) work, and some of the smaller scenes (there’s one with snow, there’s a great moment with boats and fog) that do work.

If you’re about to tell me that my opinion doesn’t count because I walked pre-third act, I hear you. But by the time you hit the third act, the story should have all its major elements either presented or has hooked me to stick with it. What I saw of the first two acts didn’t keep me in the seat. If your mileage varied, I do hope you liked the movie.

Would I see it again? With friends, yes. On TV or Netflix, once sure.

And for the record, I do think this movie will generate less ire and workshop material than Batman vs Superman, which is both good and bad.

Until next time, good friends and creatives, keep rocking, and don’t you dare give up.

Happy writing.

The 12 Things Running a Kickstarter Taught Me About Creativity

Imagine waking up every morning for a month at the peak of the highest drop of the world’s scariest roller coaster. Every morning you’re right at the very edge, where your stomach is floating and just about to fall, where you can look down and see the plummet. And then you spend the day hurtling down and back, only to fall asleep along the way, waking up the next day right back where you were.

That’s a Kickstarter. I did one for 30 days. By all estimates, it was a staggering success. And it taught me a lot. I’d like to share these 12 things with you, because I think even though your thing(s) don’t look like my stuff, the lessons from 30 days in the trenches can still apply.

1. You’ll Never Know Where You Leave Fingerprints Until They’re Looked For

There’s a glut of procedural crime-detection shows. CSI:Duluth; Military Crime Solvers: Guam; CSI:Jack’s Bedroom. And in between all their softball action and banter, past all their alleged computer hacker scenes, they so often rely on little bits of powder to find a thumbprint to “nail the guy.” And it got me to thinking, you don’t know what you’ve touched until you go looking for all the places you’ve left fingerprints.

I didn’t know, I couldn’t gauge the imapct I’ve had on writers and gamers and creatives until I was asking people to exchange money for a product. I didn’t know where I had left fingerprints until over a thousand people plunked down their cash to the tune over of over a thousand dollars a day. My fingerprints were exposed with a little powder and little marketing. And it really got me thinking about how best to help other people leave better fingerprints all over.

You aren’t going to know who you impact where, how much, or when, but you can  ensure that the impression you leave is a positive one. Don’t be a shitgibbon. Don’t smear the landscape with your foul, noxious cloud of self-absorbed word ejaculate. Look to help others because it will help you too. And make an effort to stop thinking you’re a ghost amid the living, you leave fingerprints everywhere.

2. Ripples Happen, But The Lake Eventually Calms Back Down

There’s no way for me to accurately pinpoint the moments when I felt the most stress. Was it the third minute moreso than the ninth? Was it the final hour more than the first two? There are so many changes, so many times when putting yourself out there feels like you’re taking a giant or glacier-sized boulder and chucking it straight into the center of the lake that is your life.

The water is calm and glassy and totally perfect for Pinterest photography and then you go and fuck it all up with this giant rock of creative endeavor. A huge splash ensues, the glassy perfection is gone, and all you see are the ripples, the way the lake has changed and isn’t perfect anymore.

The lake, your life, it calms back down. It’s different because you’ve got this giant fucking boulder in it that wasn’t there before, but it does get back to looking nice. It’s a new normal, one that includes the boulder, and it’s just as great as the old normal, just different.

3. Love Give Love Give Love Joy

Shout-out to TV Crimes for this one. Why aren’t you listening? Seriously put them in your ears.

It sounds very new age crystal shop, but the best way I got through the days without turning into a gibbering pile of oily stress bowel movements and stressed out dry skin was by loving the ride I couldn’t control.

You cannot control, you cannot make other people give you money. You cannot force them to check out your work. You cannot make them care.

You can encourage them. You can lead them. You can suggest to them that they check it out. You can do everything in your power to appeal to them to consider doing it, but ultimately the choice is theirs. Their money, their time, their interest. All out of your control.

For a control-enjoying guy like me, that’s so beyond frustrating to accept. But, you have to. Learn to love that there’s so much of this you can’t control, yet you still have evidence that you’re succeeding. You’re never making people do it or else, yet there they are, checking out your stuff. You’re an observer to a rock concert in your honor. You’re given so many chances to love and be grateful for people’s time and support. The acts of gratitude pay greater dividends than the possible murder ballet you’d unleash by over-controlling things.

4. The Support Around You Makes A Huge Difference

No one should journey through the stress abattoir alone, and not just because having another person there means you can shove them between the deadly spinning blades in your place. Your support network, the net of people who care, can be an incredible boon if you let it be, and if you foster it to be one.

I don’t mean retreating to a crag of people clutching wine bottles like they’re partisans on the eve of battle, I mean putting people around you on the daily who look out for you, who ask how you’re doing, who ask (and then do) how best to help you on that particular day.

And this isn’t just the sounding boards upon who you crash your fears and doubts or speak your tentative “I think I might do…” plans. Those help, but you can’t only use that as a support. You’re not alone in any creative endeavor unless you choose to be. You can turn to friends, editors, agents, cover artists, readers, critique groups, all actual people with whom you can share the vulnerable, the hellacious, and the joyous. Stop thinking and acting like you have to do this alone so that it’s pure or better or because it’s what you have to do so that “it counts.” That’s a shitty way to neuter how great something could be if you stopped being a scared meatbag and asked for help to make something as awesome as you want it to be.

5. What You Say Perpetuates

Just like how you can put people around you to help, so too can you put out things from your brain and face that will help too. You, creator, set the tone for the climate and attitude around your efforts. Want it to be shitshow of complaints and doubts and shitty little cutesy GIFs? By all means then keep talking about how it’s so hard and how you think the little stack of pixels allegedly representing a cartoon bunny smashing their head against a a stack of pixels allegedly representing a desk really conveys what you mean.

If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.

Ditch the GIFs. Own your words. Own your feelings. Be responsible and vulnerable and honest and not a crotchmaggot.

If you want to surround yourself in an atmosphere of building towards success, where you celebrate the milestones and encourage other people to step up and step in to keep that going while you’re out doing other shit, then you have to be the first and most clear resource for that. Not necessarily the only, but you set the tone. And how you handle the shit that arises like scum deserving to be skimmed off your awesome broth is going to tell people how you want them to approach you and your creativity too.

You’re the boss of the whole sphere of your creativity.

6. Who Does It Better Is Fruitless

Comparison and competition is the angel of death. It’s the Ted McGinley Curse (google it) of creativity. There’s always going to be someone who’s doing a totally different thing than you in a different way that you’re going to want to say is better than your way.

You’re writing a book? Oh they’re making candles in the shape of animal feet. And for every 1000 words you put on paper, they’ve made nine giraffe hooves (hooves, right? giraffe toes sound creepy). Clearly there’s a 1:1 relationship between candles and books, so you suck and they’re the best.

Bullshit. Applesauce. Horsefeathers. Dicktits.

What someone else does, how they do it, that can be a great template, that can be an inspiration, but ultimately it comes down you doing your thing your way, and letting them do their thing their way.

With a Kickstarter, before you start, it can be a great idea to set yours up the way other people had theirs set up. But it’s completely nonsensical to measure how you’re doing to how they did however long ago. It would be like comparing your doctor now to the doctors of two centuries ago. The time is different, the environment is different. Sure they’re doctors, but one has a hacksaw and the other one has a machine that can visualize your brain’s electrical patterns.

Competing with other people, especially those who don’t and won’t realize you’re competing with them is an exercise in frustration. Your success is yours to carve out, and it’s going to look different than everyone else’s because you’re different than everyone else. You’re the only you. Stay that way.

7. Sometimes The Best Thing To Do Is No-Thing

Remember how we talked about control? Now where you gonna talk about its shitty sidekick micromanagement. There can be a great urge to tweak things along the way towards “finished product”, to try and get it “perfect”, thinking that if they liked this one idea expressed this way then they’ll totally love 10% more of that idea tacked on about a quarter paragraph to the left. In this age of metrics and charts and on-hand feedback, there can be a drive to constantly adjust in the hopes, however vain or valid, that you’ll hit the sweet spot and stay there so that your success is some unbroken super-perfect state.

Well, no. You can’t and shouldn’t constantly tweak everything. That way lies madness. It’s a road to exhaustion, because again, so much is out of your control. So at times, back the fuck off. Back. The Fuck. Off.

Build a sense of trust that you (and your support) have set up for success as best you can, and that any trends of success will continue without you constantly rubbing up on them like the bus is too crowded.

You want to get into the groove where success and production mesh, and sometimes that means you have to keep doing what you’re doing, not fiddle with it so it works better.

8. Don’t Forget Deodorant

The swell of succeeding, of monitoring, of ensuring that you’re doing a thing and it’s going well can be very consuming. You can lose hours and days and weeks to the investment of time and energy, and it’s easy to let things slide, because you can quickly term them as non-essential or just say you’ll do them later.

Keep that up though, and you’ll collapse into bed with your hands behind your head wondering why the room suddenly smells like old celery and onions that you soaked in kerosene and kept in a gym sock behind the refrigerator.

9. Is It About Stats Or The End Result

It’s one thing to set milestones for yourself, to say you’ve hit a certain mark and that you feel good about it. That’s great, and should be a happy-making part of production. The downside of those milestones is feeling like just because you missed one (like you wanted to write a 100,000 word book, but the story’s complete at 92,359), that your whole effort is wasted.

Stats are great, tracking stats is lovely (right up until the point you find yourself competing, see above), but don’t let that distract or derail from the fact that ultimately you have a goal in mind – a book, a piece of art, a thing, something you can give to people, whatever.

10. Schedules and Battleplans

You have to bring order to this chaos. It’s not going to magically arise by itself, and it’s not going to be there without you giving it a genesis and some momentum. Knowing what you want is totally separate from knowing how you’re going to make it happen. This is also something where you can bring in that support network, because while the production might be best done solo, you don’t exist solo, and it’s useful to build a roadmap to success when you’ve got someone else on hand to tell you that you’ve labyrinthed yourself into a corner.

Make a schedule, make a plan that you can commit to consistently, even if it’s not dramatic or hyper showy-offy. Consistency and discipline are going to carry you so much farther and longer than you think, especially in the early days where everything is exciting and burning borrowed momentum of newness.

11. It Is Every Ride At Every Carnival Ever, All At Once

I am not a fan of many carnival rides. I like the tilt-a-whirl, the scrambler, a decent merry-go-round, and a nice ferris wheel. That’s about it. I could give a shit about high speed dark tunnels and things that loop. They make me queasy, they make me anxious, I’m always afraid of losing my glasses in the dark on some stupid whipping bend.

Sometimes, the paths we take to success are all the rides we like and don’t like, every day for as long as it takes us to get the thing made. There are turns and darkness and anxiety, and there’s fun in squishy corners.  But you can prepare a little for it by knowing you’re going to run into parts you like and don’t like, but not always where those parts are going to be. Again, lean on support, trust yourself, and keep being consistent and disciplined in your march towards success.

12. Love, give love, joy, give joy love.

If you’re not in a place to love yourself throughout the process, if you’re not in a place to love the support you receive, if you’re not in a place to love the people who recognize from the outside, if you’re not at a place where you can recognize from your side of the fence that success is changing you for the better, that you can accomplish your goals with consistency and discipline and a good support network and a plan, then you’re in for a struggle.

Running a campaign about a project I love, creating more of that project to love, CHANGED ME. For the better. And it can keep me changed or not, that’s my choice. (Hint: It’s going to, I am liking myself more, and not just because I raised over $30,000)

It’s just easier to be less of a dick sometimes when the things so often worrying you aren’t worrying you anymore

 

The Three Categories I See Often

It’s been a busy week here for me – I’ve got a Kickstarter up and running in order to produce a role-playing game that I’m ridiculously proud of (also, writers, it’s got a whole lot of writing and development advice in there, because I wrote it that way); I’ve had some “interesting” (not my word for it) spikes and drops in blood pressure; I’ve been doing a lot of reading of submissions and queries over at Parvus. This has been one of the busier stretches I’ve had in a while, and though I’m grateful for it, it means I also have to prioritize the energy I have to manage the tasks on the list.

In reading all those submissions, I split them into 3 categories.

a. Those I reject immediately because they aren’t what we produce at Parvus, or what’s submitted is inappropriately submitted (follow the submission guidelines, and don’t assume the sole exception will be made for you).

b. Those I reject due to having a query that does not encourage me to open the MS

c. Those I reject after being intrigued by the query letter, but there are enough issues with the MS (the manuscript) to make me dismiss it after reading between 1-3 pages.

Today, I thought I’d show you some of the checklist I use for each category.

The Immediately Rejected

It is always surprising to me when the submissions are missing these fundamental elements that anyone in any publisher would ask for, yet there remains that expectation those red flags are going to be overlooked, or there’s some lack of awareness that so many other submitting authors are counting on the same possibility.

No, it’s not getting overlooked. This is my job. And no, I’m not the guy to make exceptions. I’m the opposite of that guy.

The Ones Where the Query Doesn’t Help Me Get to “Yes”

I want to stress that I not only make some of my living producing books and helping authors get published, but I also genuinely enjoy seeing people succeed. I always worry this marks me as weird, but I spend a lot of time committing a lot of time and energy to helping people get better, ahead of an easier route where I could sit back and gatekeep and throw my publishing dick around. That’s not who I am and not what I do this for. I want people to be their best creative selves, I want them to reach for dreams, and I want to see them realize those dreams because they worked hard to get there.

  • Is the query too long, as in longer than 1 page?
  • Is this query when a synopsis was asked for, or vice versa? (At Parvus, we like queries. We get a lot of submissions and I think the query is a more interesting lure to the MS than a synopsis)
  • Does the query evoke any sort of interesting emotions? Do those emotions partner with plot elements to create a context?
  • Does this query use hyperbole and desperation like a barfly at last call trying to either get one more drink or a last minute hookup?
  • Does this query just sort of ramble for a few paragraphs and fail to tell me anything interesting / in an interesting way or anything that I haven’t seen in dozens of query letters today, let alone this week or month?
  • Does this query do enough provoking to make me want to find out more, and the best/only place to find out more is to get into the MS?
The MSses with Issues (“The Icebergs”)

The MSses with problems not immediately known are often called icebergs, because their greatest problems are under the surface and aren’t seen until you’re trying to bang Leo DiCaprio and the King of Rohan doesn’t move the ship … or something.

And it’s not like every MS is going to have its problems disclaimed in some italicized paragraph on the top of page 1, but the elements of development become pretty visible over the course of a manuscript’s early pages – character; world-building; little bit of plot; how the author wants the reader to visualize things; pacing; word choice. And when they’re lacking, it’s often just as visible.

  • Has there been a definitive introduction to a character I can presume to be a or the protagonist?
  • Has the author demonstrated an ability to shape language and images as their own, meaning that over the course of the MS there will be a voice and tone?
  • After a few pages, do I get a sense of the atmosphere, character starting point, and maybe plot? Does the story feel motile, or does this read like someone is pushing pudding up a hill in a rainstorm?
  • Has the author demonstrated that they can subvert or challenge cliche, rather than embrace it and re-tread the same ground as so many other MSses that will be read and rejected today or this week?
  • Does this read like the author is trying too hard, either to sound smart or hide the nervousness because sentence structure is long, word choice is stiff and things feel stuttering?
  • How’s the dialogue, does it sound like people talking? Like actual people? Even if they’re using phrasing and idioms specific to their time period or story, does it still sound like two beings communicating and not just a stack of syllables laid out in an allegedly interesting fashion?
  • Is there flagrant POV shifting for little to no substantial reason? Or is the POV change necessary to define the author’s efforts?
  • Is it boring? Do I wish I was reading or doing anything else than trying to keep my attention here?
  • Is the formatting conducive to being read? Is the font consistent? Is the spacing and capitalization appropriate and functional?

These are some, not all, of the questions I run through in my head for every query and every manuscript. I think the benefit of seeing them spelled out rather than just hearing me say, “I get an impression…” or “I poke around the manuscript’s pages” is far more helpful to the person reading this who is about to submit somewhere.

Writers, don’t let this discourage you. Let this give you a chance to use more tools. Let this be a chance to improve. Let this be one more thing you read that’s practical and applicable to your work today.

Keep your head up.

Happy creating, we’ll talk soon.

The Marriage of Facts and Emotions

This post started as a series of complaints and muttered grousings made to a sleeping dog over the course of the last week. It later coalesced as what was going to be an audio post I just sort of fired off, and now, after pacing the first floor of the house, it’s a blog post.

When you spend time reading manuscripts and manuscript excerpts, be they for submissions or for contests or just for critique, you see a lot of the same mistake made again and again. Even if the specific words are different and the topics covered are different, the same mistake crops up.

And this is where we make sort of a record scratch noise and have a little sidebar.

Look, I know that this post is about to go out to a lot of people who haven’t really read much of this blog, and while I am thankful for your reading it, I would be completely unhappy with myself if I didn’t disclaim that I am not in the business of rectal smoke or being a cuddly kind resource that flounces around and doesn’t address the art and craft of writing with practicality and an edge to it, because my job and passion isn’t to be your friend. It’s not to make you all warm and fuzzy when you’re clearly treading water. It’s to make you better. Because I want you to be the best you can be, and if you’re about to say, “You can be nice about it” I’ll nod and still tell you that if your shit sucks you can and should fix it and if you’re clutching your pearls and feeling attacked just wait until you get beset with years of rejections and no feedback because you stepped out of your echo chamber unprepared. My job is to help you get better. So let’s get you better. No illusions, not a lot of hand-holding. This is art. This is craft. Here, we work for our successes. You want to masturbate over the dream, head elsewhere. 

Okay, back to the post.

So many openings make a critical error in their openings. No matter the genre. No matter the POV. The text lays there sort of flat like old soda, and doesn’t interest people. It’s boring. It doesn’t grab people. No matter how many carriage returns you use. No matter how many swears you use. It’s limp. It’s old spaghetti. It’s not going to make someone read more.

That error is the imbalance between fact and emotion.

Fact, for our discussion here, is any statement that provides information to the reader that they either didn’t have or need to have because some other fact benefits from it. This can be anything from a setting description to saying what kind of boot a lady wears. It’s all about telling the reader something they need to know going forward. And we assume these facts are always true, unless something in the presentation tells us otherwise.

Emotion, for this discussion, is any statement that evokes or educes a feeling from the reader. It’s describing how someone feels sad when the other lady kicks the bucket. It’s describing how the clouds inspire hope. It’s everything from the flowery to the straight -up assignment of feelings to a character.

Fact without emotion is dry. It would be like reading a few pages of dictionary. It’s informational, yes, but does it really make someone want to turn the page to the next columns of S-words? Information alone is not engaging, and it is not the thing that makes people turn pages, give a shit, buy books, leave reviews, or say nice things in tweets.

We are led and driven by emotion. Emotion, when you partner it with fact, gives a context and a reaction. It’s that reaction we’re looking for. Here’s an example.

It kept raining all night. Gary snarled when it thundered.  Gary hated the rain.

Those are 3 facts. It establishes several pictures in your head, and it doesn’t matter if Gary is a dog, a grizzled detective on a stakeout, or the king of horseshit cliche magical creatures, because it’s not until we get to the word “hated” that we have a context for the images in our head.

We want context. Context helps provide depth and engagement with the reader or audience. Context isn’t going to just appear because you provided a paragraph of facts about what two people did in a room, it’s going to show up when you take the facts and add some kind of character development to them. Evocative language (verbs, nouns, adjectives, whatevers) is your key to building context.

You want to avoid any situation where you can be asked, “What do you want me to do with this info?” or “Why should I care?” as they’re both signs that there’s a lack of context through which the reader can clarify or connect to or want to connect more to the basal picture you’ve put in their heads.

We’ve previously established that characters need to feel human so that we can connect with them and without them giving some kind of emotional reaction to the world around them, those characters might as well be the colored cut-outs we used to make on popsicle sticks in art class – flat, not terribly precise, limited – story tools.

This is not a call where every fact needs an emotional element following shortly thereafter like a kid brother who just won’t leave you alone when all you want to do is stare at the girls on the bleachers down at the park.

You can have groups of facts get shepherded by an emotion (like my dog and the toys she wants to have near the couch versus those she brings to a spot under the desk) when related or necessary as in the description of your dystopia all getting the label “oppressive” either overtly in text or implied by other word choices you’ve made.

Now, yes, your reader will supply some emotions because they’re human beings with experiences and naturally they want to correlate their emotions with their imagination that you’ve been fueling and prompting by giving them images for the movie screen in their head. But you’re not just letting them assign any old emotion to your story, right? You’re trying to take them down a particular path, and to do that you want them to experience and think about certain emotions more than others, right?

So your persecuted lovers in a medieval kingdom shouldn’t feel like a casual comedy when you’re trying to make people feel bad when Gwen nearly gets her head taken off by the axe before Bill confesses being the wizard before the evil Duke.

So your fish-out-of-water has an appropriate sense of wonder when they, the abused orphan of prophecy gets the cliche acceptance into a cliche brand new world that will forever cliche dazzle them as they cliche proceed over many stories with cliche villains and cliche tools that allow them to cliche deal with the cliche prophecy in a cliche way so that they learn a cliche lesson.

To associate emotion with fact, you need to be clear on what emotion you’re intended, and how you’re going to use sentence structure to deploy it. If you want X emotion to be felt as a result of reading Y paragraph, what words do the emotional creating and propagating?

Here’s a delightfully merciless exercise.

  1. Go double-space and print out your first page, or the page of the MS you’re the most proud of, no matter where it is in the story. And grab one highlighter and one pen (or two different colored pens, but I’m going highlighter/pen combo here).
  2. Choose either the highlighter or pen. If you’re using the highlighter, mark all the facts. If you’re using the pen, circle the facts. Yes you can mark a whole sentence if you want, but try to focus on whatever you think the facts are.
  3.  Now pick up the other thing you didn’t use in Step 2 (for me, this is where I get the highlighter because I just used the pen) Again, if you’re highlighting now, mark all the parts of the text that convey emotion. Or if this is the pen, circle them.
  4. In the margin, at the end of every paragraph, I’d like you to write down the number of facts in that paragraph. If this number seems very high, consider what you’re trying to do deploying info piece after info piece.
  5. In the margin, at the bottom of the page, I’d like you to write down the number of total emotions conveyed on this page.

Now because I sense that some of you are going to say, “I don’t get it.” Here’s an example page. EMOTIONFACT

Notice how the emotional stuff helps build voice and the factual stuff frames what I want you to picture in your head. And if I didn’t have the emotional stuff, you’d have a very boring recitation of A to B to C to D events, without many points for reader connection.

Voice is important. Facts are important. But you have to partner the two together for the whole page to lead us forward to the next page.

One of the major reasons why queries and manuscripts get rejected is because the mix of fact to emotion is skewed as to either bore the reader or under-detail the pictures intended to keep us reading.

To close here, let me point out that when I say emotion I’m talking about 2 types.

First, the emotions of the characters that help establish the voice and tone of the piece. And second, the emotion intended to be brought out of the reader.

By showing the character having an emotion (or even just emotions in general, a whole lot of stories start with boring people not feeling anything yet able to fully explain what they do as if telling me that they’re a tired worker is an emotional incentive to invest in a person for 300+ pages), and then be able to reference that emotion by coming back to that scene (think of a movie soundtrack where every time a theme comes back into play we feel a thing) or a shade of that scene, you reinforce the emotion in-character without bludgeoning the reader by always saying that Ronald is sad.

A lot of people pause here to say, “What about pacing?” What about it? If you’re early on (first page or pages), it’s obvious that you haven’t built pacing yet and that you’re building it there, so we know that you’ll hit 60 miles an hour after you accelerate up from zero. Also, good detail that paints a picture in the mind and reinforces voice does not slow down, it escalates it. Because the picture in mind will be clearer and the inertia will sweep me along like an avalanche.

Instead of a second sidebar, let’s rock a little wrap-up.

Hey creative. How are you? Ready to get up and give this a try? I know, there’s a lot here. But I want you to do me a favor – just think on this as you write:

I’m in charge of putting a movie in the reader’s head. So I need to control what the person sees, how clearly they see it, how they feel when they see it, and how they understand why I’m showing it to them. This book is my film. I need characters and emotions and arcs and decisions and risks and goals, not buzzwords and GIFs and excuses and fear. I’m going to make this movie on paper, and then share it with people because it’s awesome and it makes me happy to do so. None of the shit that the barnyard chickens cluck about matters, it’s just me and this movie and my want to get it out. 

You can do this. Even if you think you can’t right now, even if you tell me a whole host of reasons why all these other things need to be a certain or how other people need to act in a certain way or whatever fluffy cloud of shit you dredge up, you can do this if you keep at it. One word after the other, one idea moving into the next. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to be yours. 

 

Happy creating.

RECIPE Make Your Own Twix Bars

I have a sweet tooth. I’ve had one since I was a child, it got worse as a teenager and worse still as an adult. One of the nice parts about being an adult though is that I have my own kitchen and can produce candy for myself in far larger batches and portion sizes without having to leave the house and deal with humans on the days when people are probably the last thing I want to navigate.

One of my great candy loves is the Twix bar. Eating one reminds me of coming home from seeing the pediatrician, because my mother would always get me one when there were antibiotics to pickup at the pharmacy. It was the “you can eat this when you’re feeling up to it” treat, and it always marked the end of one month or another of bronchitis or strep throat or whatever I had managed to acquire.

I made my first batch of Twix bars while drunk and slightly high on pills. They turned out more like a Twix sheetcake, but I didn’t complain. However, I didn’t take any notes as to how I made them. Those notes (which became this recipe) came later when I made them a third time.

The Ingredients

Shortbread Layer:
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
½ teaspoon salt

Caramel Layer
2 cups caramel
3 tablespoons heavy cream

Chocolate Layer
3 cups chopped milk chocolate or dark chocolate, melted
1 tablespoon vegetable shortening (optional)

The Person Layer
1 beverage of choice

A Twix is a sandwich candy, so it’s a trio of layers. We’re going to start with the shortbread.

The How-To

  1. Get your oven to 300 degrees F. If you’re like any of my friends, take the pans out first. It’s an oven, not a second drying rack for the three pots you have, guys. C’mon.
  2. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP. With a piece of parchment paper, line a 9″ x 13″ pan. If you’ve got a shitty pan, spray the parchment.
  3. In a medium-sized bowl, beat together the butter, sugar and vanilla. Add the flour (GO SLOW AND MAKE SURE THE 2 CUP MEASUREMENT IS ACCURATE, THIS IS NOT A CASE WHERE ‘A LITTLE MORE WON’T HURT’) and salt. Mixture will be dry but will come together after mixing. The consistency you’re looking for is sort of between thick frosting and the good wet sand for sandcastles. It won’t start that way, but keep beating until it does.
  4. This is where you open your beverage of choice and have some. SOME, NOT ALL. We’re about to go do things with fire and sugar, so don’t go overboard. Just have a third. God, I can’t take you anywhere.
  5. Press the dough into the pan. This does not need to be super pressed tight because you still have to get this stuff out of the pan when it’s done, but try and get the dough in an even distribution across the pan. If you have lumps and ridges, call them artisanal.
  6. Take a fork and poke holes evenly spaced throughout the whole pressed-in dough. DO NOT SKIMP ON THIS. If you need to tell yourself that you’re doing this so that you have little divots for caramel and chocolate, do that. This is going to help the dough turn into the dough you expect in a Twix. I like to do this methodically and pretty uniformly, though I didn’t always and my previous Twix bars were awful for it.
  7. Get this pan in the oven about 37 to 42 minutes, until it’s a very pleasant golden brown color. In my old oven it was either 39 or 41 minutes, in my new oven it’s 37.  When the time’s up, take the pan out of the oven (it’s gonna be hot, use a potholder, don’t be a savage) and immediately take a sharp knife and trace the shortbread’s perimeter. This is going to make it easier later. Don’t worry about cutting the parchment paper, you’re not going to eat it (RIGHT, YOU KNOW NOT TO EAT THE PAPER, YES?). Get the bread away from the pan’s edges. Then let it cool. It can hang out on the counter or something. Let’s go play with fire and sugar.
  8. Take two bags of soft caramels (yes, you can use the kind you can impulse buy at the checkout line in CVS, I use the caramel bits from Kraft) and dump them into a decent pot you’d make soup in with the cream (SPRAY POT WITH NON-STICK PAM FIRST OTHERWISE YOU WILL HAVE TO CLEAN THE POT LATER). Start the temperature at low and work it up to almost medium (DO NOT GO TO MEDIUM), and using a nice silicon spatula, stir this together until it melts. Yes, you can make your caramels from scratch if you want to break out the sugar and karo, but dude I want some Twix bars sooner rather than later, and I don’t want to do that many dishes. You want to keep stirring until it’s sticky and all melted. DO NOT PUT YOUR FINGER IN TO TEST IT, IT’S HOT.Yes, you can also melt this in a microwave in 25-second bursts.
  9. When you’re satisfied with its melted state, pour the caramel over the shortbread. Use your spatula to get all the caramel out. Make sure the caramel is also evenly covering the shortbread, then get the whole thing in the fridge to firm up. This is gonna take about as long as 1 episode of any non-sitcom on Netflix (figure 43-48 minutes)
  10. Once firm, take it out of the fridge and using a sharp knife, cut the pieces into the Twix bar shape or whatever shape you . No, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Yes, you can take them out of the pan after you cut the bars but you don’t have to (see next step)
  11. In a method similar to when we made caramel, melt the chocolate. And then we have a choice to make:If you want to dip the bars, use tongs and dip each bar in the melted chocolate, then get it on a cookie sheet or back in the pan to freeze.

    If you just want to pour the chocolate over the bars while they hang out in the pan THEN cut them, that works too. Either way, get the chocolate all over your bars.

  12. Here’s the tough part. Get this back in the fridge for AT LEAST 2-4 episodes of whatever you’re watching. Ideally it’s 3 hours minimum, and I’ve had good luck with 4.  Finish your beverage if you haven’t already.
  13. Eat them after they are nice and cold and Twix-y.

And that my good friends, is how John makes Twix bars.

Arrival and Some of Its Layers

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

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

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

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

Layer 1 – Challenging the traditional sci-fi organization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onto the next layer.

Layer 2- Narrative Toolbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like this:

The man that the woman heard left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level 3 Terminality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Happy creating.