art hard

Torn shirts, quiet looks, and push/pull – What Lost’s pilot teaches us about storytelling, part 2

Looking for part 1? It’s right here.

Time for more Lost. As with last time, there are [XX:XX] timestamps if you’re watching along with this breakdown. I should say this isn’t a recap just for the sake of summary, I’m looking specifically at the pilot for key moments in the story design – the moments where the audience is informed of something, the moments something is developed, the moments there’s something to pay attention to beyond just the “hey that human is attractive” or “hey that joke is funny.”

[05:45] We get a name for our protagonist, Jack. Normally a character gets named a little sooner, and its one of our first points of contact and connection with them. We learn their name, then we learn more about them. Here, that’s reversed, we’ve learned about the guy (his courage, his skills, his attitude) ahead of his name, so we keep the focus on HOW he is as a person, rather than WHO he is as a person. Also “Jack” is a really generic name, if you’re unsure of how a name can affect how we organize what we teach the reader/audience about our characters.

[06:08] I’m mentioning this beat because it will ultimately be levity, but here we see Jack in another medical situation, trying to save a woman from someone else’s poor attempts “to help.” Again, we’re at a new beat in the scene, and we’ve got one more opportunity to reveal character-nature to us without dialogue expressly saying “I’m a doctor, here’s some jargon to prove I’m a doctor.” Dialogue is always going to come up short against a character’s actions when it comes to revealing something about the character, which is why the two so often have to work in concert in order to affirm something to the audience.

[06:58] Big giant explosion! Now this is caused by a wing falling, so I’m not entirely sure what exploded, unless the wing was made out of dynamite and the beach was all nitroglycerin (it was a pretty big fireball), so I’m thinking this was a nice action-for-action’s-sake-because-television beat. It does show us more about Jack (he’s the hero) and the geography of the scene when he’s running back across the beach pre-explosion.

[07:34] So we’re in this slow-mo, and it’s also here that I’m aware of the credits in the lower third on the left. Slow motion allows us to see the scope of things, to see just how bad it is, and give us an unhurried look at what’s going on. It helps impregnate the visuals with emotion. It’s visual exposition. There’s a rule in storytelling that exposition helps train the reader to receive the story, and slow-mo here over the scene of fire and panic and people and wreckage helps give the idea of “Oh wow, this is a mess” a bit more personality and weight. I’d go one step further to say it even gives the scene more humanity, because we’re not seeing a lot of corpses or gore, we’re looking at the confused and scared survivors.

[08:06] Over this slow-mo we’ve had orchestral strings, not in-scene sound. Music will always help emphasize emotion, giving us a reminder to feel a certain thing (test this yourself – watch any jump scare in any horror movie with and without the sound on and see the differences). Here, as Jack wanders around the wrecked plane, we get this confluence of strings and the emotion of “I’ve been in a plane crash” coming together. What this teaches us is that in this story characters aren’t afraid to feel feelings, particularly the sort of feelings we often term as “bad” or “private” or that we otherwise feel the need to hide from other people for whatever reason. This not only gives us more access to the characters and makes them human (they have feelings like we have feelings), it also helps convey this show’s tone, or what part of the tone will be.

Tone is  a tricky and sometimes nebulous thing that people grapple with in writing. You do need a tone, and it does need to be consistent, no matter what genre or POV. It’s a layer of expectation setting; it’s how you want to tell your story via its emotional vocabulary. If your story is lacking a coherent presentation, you’re going to confuse the audience but they won’t be able to specify what exactly you did to make them dislike it. (Hint: It’s tone. Tone helps tie a lot together).

[08:14] Remember that joke from 2 minutes ago? The guy trying to help so Jack sends him to find pens? He’s back and the joke pays off. I’m bringing this up because this serves 2 purposes – the joke and the dramatic moment  are both resolved by the same actions. This is good – this means we have fewer working parts to resolve and it helps keep the audience/reader engaged because we’re lightening the emotional load. This is part of the push/pull I talk about – if you can end drama with a lighter note, you gain momentum. The “right” lighter note shouldn’t completely undo or wreck the drama, but it does keep us out of being constantly inundated with heavy emotions that take a lot of mental processing power. Sometimes, you gotta let the audience breathe a little. And no, this doesn’t mean the tone has changed, it’s that we’ve let a little pressure out of our Instant Pot. We’ve been pushed forward with heavy plane-crashy drama, now we’re being pulled out of it, just for a moment, so we can move forward.

[10:05] So we’re at this moment on the beach where Jack has appropriated a sewing kit and he’s going to attend to his wound. There’s a lot here I want to talk about. First, notice how he hangs up his jacket. It’s a small touch, it’s maybe a developmental after thought -he just wants to keep his jacket clean- but then take a look what he did with his bloody t-shirt. That got dumped in a pile in the sand. Now, okay, I know, he probably won’t put it back on, to keep the sand out of the wound, but (and here’s the what-if) what if he needed cloth? Some part of that shirt was cleaner than the wound site, right?

And here we get our first female character introduction, as she plays nurse/stitcher, taking Jack’s direction. The resuscitated lady was female too, but we really didn’t meet her, she was a scene-object so we could show off our character and set up a joke amid tension. Here we get a nicer moment between two people, our returning vodka bottle, and a needle and thread. See how this scene keeps us away from the up-close of the needle? That’s because the focus here isn’t on the wound, but the people. This reinforces the idea and the momentum that this is a story about people. It also tells us something about these characters – they’ll help each other, or at least these two people will.

[12:21] We’re back to our strings, and we’re given the broad montage of the sun setting and people’s initial shock wearing off. They’ve built fires, they’re gathering supplies, they’re going to do more than run around and panic. We’re shown all this stuff at a distance, to make the people feel a little small against the landscape and make their efforts (proportionally also small) feel small, but because we’re framing this story about the people being people, this montage hits the right notes for drama and because the montage is a series of shots, it gives us movement going forward.

And thanks to pneumonia, I’ve got to call part 2 here. We’ll pick up in part 3 next week.

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, part 2 of many, step by step, the craft of writing, 0 comments

Explosions, tiny vodka bottles, and sand: What Lost’s pilot shows us about structure and timing, part 1

 

(photo credit: NY Observer)

With the news that Hulu acquired Lost, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Animaniacs, I thought it would be interesting to crack open one of their pilots to see what we can find about story development and craft. I chose Lost because it’s a really meaty two-parter, and it’s got more moving parts narratively. Also, it’s easier to breakdown than a cartoon, because I can’t always translate sight gags or cartoon physics into text in a better way than just showing you the clip.

Let’s start with what Lost means to me. The first season in particular holds a very strange but unique place in my mind, as it was one of 4 shows (Rubicon, Rome, and Cosmos being the others) my father and I watched together. This didn’t happen very often, as we seldom agreed on entertainment and just about any discussion of a show devolved into an argument about how I was somehow wrong or a disappointment.

For whatever reason, Lost was different. I think it was the early commercials for it, but something made us both say, “Yeah, let’s give that a try” so we scheduled ourselves a weekly appointment to be civil to each other and watch the show. I have to tell you – I liked that. My dad is a lot of things, and some of those things I don’t agree with, but I did like the fact that we had this show. And the show’s first season was good for us too. It didn’t have all the later drama or time travel or weirdness, and it told a pretty interesting story about people in a strange place all sort of bound together. It was Robinson Crusoe with just enough “Oh that’s interesting” to keep us paying attention.

Later seasons didn’t hold us though. My dad checked out I think at the end of season 2, and I stopped just before the final season, reading about the ending and feeling like bailing out early was the right move if I wanted to preserve the memory of the first season with my dad.

So what I’m asking you to do is put aside all the stuff we know about the later seasons. Let’s just look at this like we’ve put the television on for the premiere, and we’re gonna cover both parts here. If you want to watch along with this post (which you totally should), I’ve timestamped paragraphs as we go.

NOTE: Given the sheer amount of narrative stuff there is to talk about here, I’m stopping this post at about the [05:00] mark of the show. And then we’ll do the next few blogposts to cover the rest of the two-part pilot.

[00:03] Yeah, I’m starting with the title. The title of any story is either going to convey information (Old Man and the Sea is about an old guy and the water), context (Star Wars is about a war among stars), or as in this case theme. Lost is about people who are, well, lost.

[00:15] Eye opening. Like we literally open the show on an eye opening. I’ve talked before about how the first character introduced in a story is who the audience is going to associate with and attach to until given someone else, and the intimacy here (I mean we’re all up in this dude’s face) gives us very little doubt as to who this character is to us – he’s our protagonist. With television being a visual medium, we don’t need to write paragraphs describing the state of him in any way greater than just what the camera means to show us – the eye – and if you want to keep up the idea that “the sentences and paragraphs are your camera“, then you’d probably want to avoid eating up that first page by talking about the weather or the trees if you want to prioritize the connection the audience has to our protagonist. We’re zoomed in, we connect, and we follow along.

[00:20] A quick word here that the second shot we see we an establishing shot of the bamboo and flora of wherever we are. It’s shot from the eye’s perspective – we’re seeing what the eye sees, we’re the eye – so we’re reinforcing that relationship between the character and the audience. This is deliberate, and it’s going to reinforce the emotional, the what-are-we-supposed-to-feelness of the moment. In paragraph form, here’s where you get to go all hogwild about what’s around the character. Do up the weather, and the immediate visuals, all that. BUT no, you don’t get to move the focus away from answering the question: “If (the reader) was laying there in place of the character and didn’t move their head, what would they see or experience?” Not moving the head is the biggie here in what would be the writing of this. If we want to preserve the closeness of audience to character, we can’t move until the character does, and the camera’s only going to follow the character’s lead, not the other way around. That’s an important lesson, so let’s repeat it – you’re developing what the camera sees, so it’s important to figure out if the camera follows the character’s lead or if the character follows the camera.

Let’s go sidebar on this:

You’ll want some examples. The camera follows the character’s lead when a sentence contains an idea of what the character is doing, and then the next sentence continues to develop what the character is doing. Like this: Darryl walked across the cold floor. He tried not to step on any of the toys his daughter left out last night. (We get the picture of where and how Darryl is walking)

The character follows the camera when a subsequent sentence creates an opportunity rather than describe what the character is doing. Like this: Darryl was very proud of his acrobatics and was ready to silently cheer his good fortune with a fresh cup of whatever garbage coffee his girlfriend left in the apartment. The ringing phone stopped the celebration. (Here we develop Darryl’s feelings and even given him a little personal history, only to cut away from Darryl to draw focus to a ringing phone. With it ringing, it’s taking our attention and creating an opportunity for Darryl to do something – answer it.)

[01:25] Our unnamed protagonist has seen a dog and now stands up. This is important because now the camera moves back to establish context. We’re still invested in this character, so we no longer need to come back to his direct view (we’re not all up in his eye, seeing what he sees). We’re just about 90 seconds into the show, so if we’re saying X number of seconds is a paragraph, I figure we’re about 4-6 paragraphs in, and if we’re doing that publishing thing where the first page doesn’t start until the halfway point on the paper, then maybe we’ve turned the page in our paperback. This tracking isn’t as hard and fast like it is in screenwriting (1 page to 1 minute), but it’s worth having a clock in your head when you’re trying to figure out how long to spend on describing something before moving on.

[01:33] Hey look, a tiny vodka bottle.

[02:08] There’s a quick shot of a shoe hanging in a tree. This is an ‘establishing detail’ and we’re seeing it so that we know there’s a greater, stranger, somehow dangerous context to expect. Establishing details add or confirm context.

[02:26] Okay, there’s a weird camera move that I need to point out. The camera circles clockwise away from the protagonist, so that we keep the shot of the clear beach in frame. We juxtapose the empty beach with the woman screaming to set up some kind of incongruity between the two. The problem here is that our protagonist started on our right and is now on our left, turning left, so when the camera moved, he actually moved backwards and away from us – like circling a chair to try and chase the dog only to have the dog slip past you on the turn. This move doesn’t help us make all the incongruity more jarring, it just leads us to wonder “why did we stop seeing what the protagonist sees?”

[02:36] Oh, that’s why, the reveal of the plan crash and wreckage and people was supposed to be a big “Oooh” moment. Except let’s look at the distance between our MC and the scene, he takes maybe half a dozen steps and he’s clearly smaller than a plane crash, so the previous camera move tells us … did he not notice the plane crash because he didn’t turn left?

[03:23] Hey look, it’s that guy from Lord of the Rings standing way too close to a jet turbine.

[03:40] Big giant establishing shot of the plane crash. Also, I’m glad I paused it here because sweet Luther Vandross am I glad for the silence from Maggie Grace’s screaming. The importance of this shot is to highlight the physical hazards as well as the calamity of the scene. It’s dangerous, plane’s already a wreck, loads of people are hurt, and if that wing section comes off, people could be even more hurt. These are the stakes of the moment. We don’t really “know” any other characters and we don’t really have any framework for tying other ideas we have together, so we’re kept to this present moment where the plane crash is the biggest threat going.

[03:50] Now since the majority of writers tend to create stakes then want to create something smaller thereafter (to show that within this big deal there are a lot of little things going on, all cogs in some large danger machine), we cut to the guy pinned under part of the plane. He’s screaming for help, and before I get to the googling where I don’t think you’d be able to hear him over the sound of the turbine, but if we didn’t hear anything but the shrill whistle of a jet engine, the show would feel radically different, I need to point out the stacking stakes can work, and here’s an example.

Stacking stakes adds tension. There’s this plane crash and it’s a big deal but these localized elements of individual people and injuries help make the big thing feel even bigger without affecting the plane crash itself. They’re the effects of the crash but they’re the seeds of subsequent scenes and stories, causes that will later have their own effects. The plane crash is the first domino, even if it’s just a very big explodey domino.

[04:23] Ooh, a little blood.

[04:36] Our MC reveals some of his attitude and skills by dealing with the leg wound and then a pregnant girl, assigning her an aide, and getting her calmed down. If we’re on paper, I’m saying we’re at least 3 to 5 pages in, and we’re spending a lot of text showing context through sensory information – our MC looks overwhelmed, and were we there, we’d be overwhelmed, so we should convey overwhelmingness by taking about the sound and the sand and the screams and the blood and the whatever-else.

[05:06] The jet turbine explodes. Big huge moment, our protagonist tosses himself to shield the pregnant girl. This tells us a lot about his character.

So in the first 5 minutes what do we have? (not necessarily in this order)

  1. A male protagonist
    1. And we know he has
      1. Medical skills
      2. Courage
      3. Athleticism
  2. There’s a dog
  3. The guy from Lord of the Rings
  4. An Australian girl
    1. she’s pregnant
  5. Maggie Grace
    1. She’s screaming
  6. A plane crash
    1. A turbine
      1. It explodes!
  7. Lots of injured people
  8. Lots of people looking for other people
  9. A beach up against jungle
    1. Tropical
    2. Mountains in the distance

See you next week for more.

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, structure, 1 comment

Set the Table, Clear the Table

I have a particular fascination with the title sequence for Chef’s Table and certain scenes in Downton Abbey: I like to watch how the silverware, glasses, and plates get arranged. It seems weird, but I find something very soothing in watching linen unfurl and different things finding “their” space on the table with a precise intention and deliberate effort.

Maybe this is because I very seldom keep things that organized for long. I make the bed, and then dump things onto it. I swear that this time I’m going to not pile things on the shelf next to the desk, and then about a day later, I’m rooting through a pile of notebooks trying to find the one I want.

This is frustrating for me, and probably ten times moreso for the people who’ve ever lived with me, cleaned up after or around me, or generally wanted me to live in a better way.

The point I’m making is that part of organization is understanding the two bookends of it. You have to set the table before you can eat the meal, and you have to clear the table so you prepare for the next meal.

Today we’re going to talk about setups and payoffs as structural elements in story.

What Is A Setup?

A setup is any piece of information that creates an opportunity to be acted upon later. That piece of information might be a single word (like “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane), or a scene (like the discovery of the clue in any police procedural) or anything in between. Setups can function for plots just as easily as they can for arcs or worldbuilding. They can go anywhere in storycraft, but they will always have some rules in order to be considered functional or satisfying.

A. The setup must be paid off using information known or discovered just prior to the moment of the payoff itself.
B. The purpose of the setup is to add information of merit to what’s already known or assumed to be known.
C. The setup never contradicts its own setting up without sacrificing credulity or tone.
D. The setup must have a payoff of at least equal scope or fit into a greater picture to be revealed.

Let’s go through these one at a time.

The setup must be paid off using information known or discovered just prior to the moment of the payoff itself. If you’re trying to figure out who stole the priceless diamond, you have all the story events you know prior to the moment you’re in currently (where you’re in the middle of figuring out who did it) to help you uncover the thief. You can’t count the act of you figuring it out as part of the solution itself, because the process of something is itself not the solution (yes, exceptions exist, but for the vast majority, we’re safe in saying this).

If that was a little abstract, try this: 4 is the answer to 2 + 2. Adding two and two together will give you four, but the answer to two plus two is not the phrase “two plus two.”

In our diamond example, you figuring it out is 2 + 2 and the thief is 4, we want to get to 4.

Why make that distinction? Because it tells us that payoffs don’t have to immediately follow the setup if we don’t want it to. So long as I at some point get to 4, I can take my sweet time getting through 2 + 2, because I have the entirety of the story to discover both 2s and that I have to add them together. Likewise, I’m not going to get my 4 without understanding that the 4 is the end result of the effort, and I can only reach that end through my being able to have all the pieces in front of me. (Note: Yes, I know this is subverted beautifully in Arrival, but that’s not always going to be the case in every story)

If I reach my conclusion in some other way that is only suddenly revealed AFTER I’m supposed to have done it (like if someone tells me the who the thief is well after I’ve been trying to figure it out), then the whole effort put in to figure it out is wasted. Why did you just spend 85000 words to figure out that Erin did it when you have Terry just breeze in and undercut all the tension at word 85001?

If you’re looking to satisfy an audience, then they have to be aware of the setup, see how it fits into context, and have it paid off with what’s already known. Don’t think you’re scoring “clever” points because the payoff is out of the ordinary that cheapens the audience’s efforts to pay attention.

The purpose of the setup is to add information of merit to what’s already known or assumed to be known. “Information of merit” is information that makes a difference to the audience. It helps clarify what’s already known or it introduces information that will fit into context in the near future. It’s not just there to be there, and it’s not incidental. This helps to answer the question of ‘Why are you telling me this?’ and helps cement existing context into place. It doesn’t come out of left field, it doesn’t stick out against all the other context you’ve established, and the information gives us something new to add to what we already know.

Oh, you’re telling me that the Jess wishes John would moping about snow because she wants him to learn to appreciate things, it’s part of her nature and revealing that to an audience gives them insight into who she is and what their relationship is like. You’re not just telling me that because you wrote really zippy dialogue for each of them to say because every time you read it you laugh at your own snow pun. A setup that offers no additional insight or contribution to some element of story or the shading and coloring of other elements of story is something that can be flagged for removal.

Hold up. Pump the brakes. Let me make one thing super clear – this is NOT me saying that stories need to be streamlined anorexic skeletons that only have the barest of linear structures because all the other stuff is “skippable” or “junk” or “uninteresting” (insert your own bullshit word there). This is me saying that development must be purposeful. If it goes on the page, do something with it.

The setup never contradicts its own setting up without sacrificing credulity or tone. When you’re establishing something, let’s say you’re setting up that two characters had a previous relationship and one of them has carried regrets about it for years, that previous relationship’s existence cannot detract from the fact that you’re bringing it up. Again, development is purposeful, so if you’re going to connect the characters this way and include the regret aspect of it, if you want the regrets to mean something and carry some weight, the effect of the regret has to put some torque or strain on the character(s). If there are regrets, but they don’t have any weight, or if they never come up, are they really there in the first place, let alone do they matter?

Now if the credibility of the setup doesn’t matter, let’s say you’re writing comedy, you can toss this out the window. In something like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, there’s the garbage-can-in-the-jail moment where Ted says to remember to rig a garbage can and then we know he did because the garbage can falls on the guy. The character-in-peril moment is made into a joke because the setup (remember the garbage can) goes against what it’s setting up (we don’t see this have any impact on the story, we don’t see this create any paradox, we just see the end result of whammo, trash can).

The setup must have a payoff of at least equal scope or fit into a greater picture to be revealed. Think about a slot machine. You put in 1 token let’s say, and when you win, you never get anything smaller than 1 token back. You don’t “win” by putting in one, then getting one-third. The payoff and the setup have to be of at least the same scope or the payoff has to be greater than the setup in order to feel satisfying.

You’ve got the superspy fighting the villain on the rooftop as the bomb ticks down. The setup is that ticking clock, where the presumed failing outcome (what if the superspy loses) is that the bomb goes off and everyone dies. The payoff to the ticking clock has to be proportional to its existence. As you increase the scene’s tension (the clock is ticking), the urgency to not fail increases. If you set up this bomb with like a three day timer and the hero gets to fighting the villain with like 31 hours left, you’re suggesting that this fight is going to take 31 hours in order to have that “will it or won’t it go off” feel appropriately tense.

The reason why a payoff has to be at least as big as the setup is so that the audience can connect with it and then root for the payoff to end satisfactorily. Too small a payoff and the audience will wonder why we were supposed to care so much (and its related question, “Did I just waste my time?”). Too large a payoff and we’ll feel like we’re missing something.

Earning Your Payoffs

A payoff is any resolution of something set up. This is referred to in a lot of different ways: “closing the loop” “finding the pair/mate” “delivering on it”, but it all means the same thing – the tension or idea presented by the setup is concluded in a way that the audience can place it into context.

Like setups, there are also rules to follow:

A. The payoff has to follow the established rules of the world and situation it exists in
B. The payoff must be clear in at least one context or to one element of the story.
C. The payoff is always earned.
D. The payoff must be of at least equal scope to its corresponding setup.

The payoff has to follow the established rules of the world and situation it exists in. If you’ve set up that we need to find the corrupt politician’s emails that exist only on this one server kept in the secret basement of an Arby’s, then we’re going to deliver on that set up by dealing with the server in that Arby’s probably via hacking (since it makes sense relative to servers) and not via using an elaborate series of balloons and magic Vallhund (google it) smiles.

Payoffs serve two functions – to explain things that need explaining, and to create a context for the explained material alongside all the previously explained material. A payoff that comes out of the blue because it gets explained in incredulous ways is not satisfying. (See the post-patronus hippogriff scene in Azkaban, it remains a splinter under my skin).

The payoff must be clear in at least one context or to one element of the story. It’s not a payoff if it doesn’t resolve anything (it’s just another setup). Long form series are rife with them – The Sopranos have a guy wandering the Pine Barrens, Game of Thrones has giant dragon chains, Star Trek has Kirk’s eyeglasses. A lot of “media criticism” is made out of highlighting them, which is atrocious and teaches us nothing, because a thing’s existence isn’t the problem, it’s what is or isn’t done with the thing – the squandered potential of it.

A payoff can serve multiple setups, as in the case of plot or climax resolution where killing the badguy settles the questions: “what’s gonna happen to the badguy” and “will the good guys survive?” But not all payoffs need to be multipurpose as too often this can feel rushed or lumpy (that’s not a great word but I don’t know how else to describe the globular nature of things just mashed together into a knot of scene and story), which results in unsatisfying storytelling.

The payoff is always earned. The satisfaction of the payoff comes in knowing that the character(s) faced some kind of challenge or difficulty in getting it. While the payoff accomplishes something material to the story, it carries an emotional and psychological weight that we don’t need handed to us, because we enjoy the responsibility and sometimes challenge of going through the story to earn it along with the characters.  Delivering us the payoff tells the audience you either thought them too stupid to “get it” or that it doesn’t matter ultimately if they worked for it or not, so instead of being stupid, you don’t respect their effort.

The payoff must be of at least equal scope to its corresponding setup. As before, the parity between the two adds to the sense of value for them both.

Placing This In Story

There are two ways to handle setups and payoffs: you can deliver on them as-is/as-expected or subvert them. You’ve got to understand the utility of both to really know how to construct setups and payoffs that’ll best fit your story.

Delivering as-is means the audience gets the intended reward for the intended work at the intended time. The story where Bruce Willis kills a guy for selling his daughter an ugly hat in a linear A went to B went to C progression makes sure the audience feels a certain way at a specific time and the story is devoid of confusion and nuance because really it’s just the story of Willis shooting people to collect a paycheck. Expecting certain moments and certain feelings and getting them feels satisfying.  The majority of setups and payoffs are delivered as-is because they’re cumulative effect helps present the story in the way its meant.

Subverting the expectation means taking the as-is and altering it either in execution or delivery. Your big “Bruce Willis has been bald this entire time” twist suddenly colors the entire story and brings the tale of haberdashery and petulance to a satisfying conclusion but not because it was directly linear, but the twist helps frame the linear material into a different and deeper way.

Think of it this way: Subversion adds depth because it counts on the as-is to do its job.

This is why you can’t do a story that’s only twists, because then you have no stable base to build from (assuming you want to preserve tone and credulity). The most recent twist always takes the most spotlight, so if you stack three twists atop one another, you’d be reducing the impact of the first two.

Subversion works when you let one element become the frame or lens for all the other not-subverted pieces (egads! that’s his cousin!) or when the subverted payoff or setup helps focus attention on a different take on existing material (as in that’s his cousin, but instead of being creepy, it’s aromantic).

Whether this overall means you delay the payoff or present it in a way that’s not expected is up to you. Whether you present the setup without the elements you think we’re used to seeing (the damsel in distress is suddenly Chris Pine) or not is up to you.

But be deliberate. Plan this out. Don’t think that you’ve got to have a twist just because “it’ll sell” or “go over better.” Setups and payoffs help cement legacy content and establish story mythology and world building, this isn’t something to slapdash through.

Do you have a favorite twist? What was one that you tried and failed? How could you have rehabbed it and saved it? Tell me below in the comments.

 

Happy writing

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, by request, dissect writing, 1 comment

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

 

Posted by johnadamus in amazing experience, art hard, breaking down a list, 0 comments

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.

Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, art hard, books are good, breaking down a list, check this out, checklist, 1 comment

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.

Posted by johnadamus in answering questions, art hard, character stuff, check this out, get help if you need it, 0 comments

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.

Posted by johnadamus in amazing experience, art hard, check this out, dissect writing, movie review, movies that make me think things, 1 comment

The Post About The Shift

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

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

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

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

So let’s break this down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s where I start name-checking people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by johnadamus in amazing experience, announcement, art hard, believe in yourself, big announcement, 0 comments

The Messy Filing Cabinet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by johnadamus in amazing experience, announcement, art hard, believe in yourself, check this out, checklist, 0 comments

The many words I say about Westworld’s first episode

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

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

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

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

Here’s the audio. Hope you dig it.

Posted by johnadamus in art hard, audio post, check this out, find your hooks, 0 comments