The Three Categories I See Often

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Immediately Rejected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep your head up.

Happy creating, we’ll talk soon.

The Marriage of Facts and Emotions

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

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

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

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

Okay, back to the post.

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

That error is the imbalance between fact and emotion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a delightfully merciless exercise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Happy creating.

Arrival and Some of Its Layers

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

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

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

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

Layer 1 – Challenging the traditional sci-fi organization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onto the next layer.

Layer 2- Narrative Toolbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like this:

The man that the woman heard left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level 3 Terminality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Happy creating.

The Post About The Shift

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

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

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

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

So let’s break this down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s where I start name-checking people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

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.

InboxWednesday – Social Media

Holy mother of chicken fingers, Wednesday crept up on us pretty quick there. Next thing you know, it’ll be Friday and I’ll get a tweet from someone about to get turnt up for the weekend. (The first time I heard that phrase, I thought someone said turnips, and pictured someone having a really good weekend playing Stardew Valley.)

But we’re not there yet, creatives. So until then, let’s do what we do on Wednesdays and grab a question from my inbox. Remember, you can ask me any question you want, because even the ones that don’t go on the blog get answered.

Let’s do this.

John, I’m a 57-year-old man writing his first novel. My two kids are in college, my wife works full-time. I am financially stable, and I thought writing would be a good thing to do. My question is: what’s the point of social media? What good does it do me, when I’m not a teenager or not really good at it, and what platforms should I use for what purpose? My schedule in the evenings and weekends is open, so time is not a problem, but how do I best use these apps? – J.

J. (you asked not to use your real name, no sweat), thanks so much for your question. Congrats on taking the dive into writing. What you’re asking is big and good and it’s got some moving parts, so let’s do this in pieces.

These are my opinions, other people may disagree, and that’s totally alright. I want you to first know that you need social media. NEED it, like critical in the modern day NEED, because the traditional publishers aren’t going to dump buckets of money at your door to do the marketing for you. You know your book, and you know who you are way better than they ever will, so there’s freedom to being your own marketing machine. You can develop a system that’s custom  to you, and because it’s playing to your strengths, you’ll use it with less difficulty.

What I’ll do is breakdown each platform with a definition, an example where I can, and the pros and cons. Then I’ll use my social media as a case study. J., follow me on this, this is gonna be a lot of words, but you can do this, it’s just one step at a time, it’s not overwhelming unless you let it be. Don’t quit on this, let’s rock and roll.

Can I give you two ground rules? These are important. Write this on a post-it note. Carve them into the foreheads of your enemies:

1. Social media IS NOT just sales link spam. There’s a reason it’s called “social” media – being a person who does X (in your case, writes books) is the honey to the sales spam vinegar when you’re building a group of people you interact with.

2. Practice using it. Regular use, even if you’re just goofing around with filters or hashtags or puns or whatever will help you get better when you do have something important, like links to a blog post or a fundraising page or a promo for an event you’re attending.

Primary Platforms
What I call a “primary platform” is the social media where you’re the most comfortable. Maybe you’ll develop more than one of these, and that’s awesome. A primary platform is where you can reach a certain number of people, and you’ll know you can reach them without having to do anything that you haven’t already done before.

Secondary Platforms
A secondary platform is social media that’s new to you. You’ve never used it before, or you barely use it, and if you gave it more time, and did a little research, you could get better at it, but you’re maybe okay with it being more on the perimeter of your social media stuff.

I’m going to spot you one free primary platform – email. You’ve written emails before. It’s pretty comfortable. And along with the ability to write emails, you’ve got a list of people to sends email to, so that’s a prepped audience. I know what you’re thinking, “John I can’t email these people that I’m writing a book.” And I’ll go ahead and ask you what about being creative is so bad that these people would run from you like your a clown on fire handing out mayonnaise and guacamole? It’s okay to let the world know you’re creative.

With me so far? Let’s look at specific platforms then. Each platform is going to take some time, especially when you’re just learning how to use it. No, you don’t have to be perfect at it, there is no perfect at it, but you’re going to need to take seconds/minutes to write things occasionally. Even if/when they’re wholly unrelated to the specifics of the book you’re writing.

Facebook
For me, professionally, Facebook isn’t my best option. It’s great when I want to tell people about work like we’re sitting on the porch with drinks and I’m just chatting about the day, or I want rant a little about video games or my weird neighbors, but I have a hard time turning that into sales. That’s not to say it’s impossible to do it, I know plenty of people who make that happen, but I know just as many people who keep the sales off Facebook, and use it more as a social pool for communication – one more way they can be a person first and a selling entity second.

The Pros: Everyone’s on it. Okay, not my mom, not that one guy I know who believes in chemtrails, lizard people, and nanochips inside vaccines that will one day activate and subjugate us, but like, loads of other people. Whether you just have an account for yourself, or you get a Page together where you specifically interact with an audience because of something you do or a way you identify (an author, a publisher, a whatever-er), you can communicate with other humans. It’s pretty easy to use, you just type in a box at the top of the page, you click Post, and boom, done.

The Cons: There’s a lot of people on it, and they’re going to talk about everything from politics to babies to work complaints to strange anime references to screeds about how they deserve preferential treatment to questions about robot apocalypses. That signal-to-noise ratio can be tough to parse through, and something as earnest and interesting as your “Hey I started writing a book” can totally get blown out of the water by your friend Sharon going on a rant about how the brown people are ruining this country and how we need to feel guilty about something that happened three hundred years ago that started our alleged national dumpster fire rolling down a hill.

Twitter
Twitter is my jam. I love Twitter. Each tweet is 140 characters, and that includes spaces. Yeah I know, there’s talk about expanding that, but even if they did, I’d keep it to 140. The concision Twitter has trained me to develop is critical when I’m speaking and editing – words are potent, and having to pick and choose how I describe something means I put a premium on clarity over flashy vocabulary.

The Pros: You can find a lot of like-minded people on it. I follow a heap of writers, creatives, editors, agents and people whose opinions and ideas interest and encourage me. Also, because of its fluid nature, I can jump into conversations or start my own pretty easily.

The Cons: It can feel like you’re shouting into the Grand Canyon while standing in London fog. You may have no idea that your words are reaching anyone, and especially at the beginning, it can be discouraging. But every once in a while, you may get surprised about who reads what you’re saying, who replies, or who shares what you say with their heap of people. (I have had a few “Oh shit, that person knows what I write!?” moments in the last year, they’re awesome).

If you do go with Twitter, and need a person to start with, start with me

Google+ (Google Plus, G+)
I have to admit J., I fell out of love with Google+. We grew apart because we both changed – G+ changed its layout, I found my groove with Twitter and other platforms. But Google+ is a viable longer form platform that you can use and build circles of people with. These communities share interest (you can build a writing circle), and there are large and active groups of people doing the same stuff you do, but as with any large mass of people, check that signal to noise ratio and don’t let the negative people poison your progress.

The Pros: It doesn’t have the glut of extraneous content the way Facebook does. It isn’t capped at 140 characters the way Twitter is. You can say a lot on a topic, you can read a lot about a topic, and you can get eyes on what you say. It sounds ideal, right? But …

The Cons: In a world where you’ve got other, more visual social media popping up, where there’s more immediacy and speed and interest, G+ can become an afterthought. Even with this blog, G+ is just one more place where I put posts, and occasionally chime in to specific groups, but otherwise, my attention is elsewhere.

Snapchat
This is a new one for me, as in I really started getting serious about it less than a week ago. This is the first of three platforms I’m going to talk about where you can use stills, video, and audio to get a concise message across. I’m hugely in love with the concept, and it’s easy to use once you check out how other people are using it.

The Pros: Again, concision is valuable. Short video can be personal and effective. Captions and filters can help put together an idea and package it for the current moment.

The Cons: A lot of snapchat is aimed at fashion or celebrity, and a lot of snapchat (at least when you google people you should follow on snapchat) skews younger than you or I, J. But don’t let that throw you off, because you don’t have to interact with that userbase if you don’t want to. It’s not the most intuitive interface, so you might have to fumble a bit early on to get a handle on it, but the good news is that the snaps you do send out only last 24 hours, and so there’s no great lasting shame in the snap of the inside of your pocket while you went to the grocery store, as happened to me earlier this week.

Instagram
There’s an intimacy possible in the visuals we present to the world. They’re a glimpse into our lives that goes beyond “buy my thing”, and I think the sharing of you-see-what=I-see is super important if you want show that what you do is not mysticism or impossible, and that you’re grateful for life. Instagram is tons of photos, it’s primarily visual, and it’s a great tool for showing (literally) more than telling.

The Pros: The peek behind the curtain is interesting. It’s honest, or at least it should be. It’s got a great interface, you can knock it out with a few clicks on your phone. Getting comfortable with hashtags (think of them as indexing tools) will make your production that much easier.

The Cons: If you’re like me, you suck at taking photos you’d call interesting. This is in part due to a lack of practice, and also due to a pressure I feel from the signal-to-noise discussion that Instagram is “supposed to be” all pictures of lunches and random bragging selfies of people better looking than me doing things I can neither afford nor have the means to do.

Periscope
Here now we’re at the fringe of my expertise. Periscope is a video broadcasting tool, that allows you to stream video to an audience. It’s not something I’ve really gotten my hands dirty with yet, but I’m going to be changing that over the course of this week.

The Pros: Streaming video! Live broadcasts! That’s huge. Gone are the static walls of text (said the guy writing the blogpost), and interactivity is at a premium. This is a big deal if you have something to say and want to get it out with immediacy and emotion. But …

The Cons: Building an audience to check out the broadcast takes time, as it does for any of these platforms. Also, given the projected nature of this content, you’ll need something to say or show – a lot of “Uhh” and “Um” won’t hold an audience’s attention. No, I’m not talking production values, I mean pure content. Figuring out what your content is goes a long way to helping steer it out of your head and to other people.

Anchor
Another new one for me, it’s an audio platform where you record short notes and receive other short notes or responses in return (they’re called waves, because nautical theme). I have barely tried this once, and haven’t even set myself up yet, but that’ll change over this week too.

The Pros: If you’re like me, you tend to have a logjam of thoughts that sear your mind and need to be let out, and quick bursts of audio are great for me when I’m feeling particularly laden with urgent purpose. And because you don’t have to see me, I don’t have to feel as awful about being one of the not-pretty people as I do what I do (note: this discomfort comes up for me on Snapchat something fierce) I need to play around with this more.

The Cons: If you’re like me, as you talk, you gesture. You work in the visual space in front of you, making air quotes and hand-based diagrams. They don’t always translate to audio, because despite allegedly having moves like Jagger, you can’t hear my hands make the “so this is like this and that’s like that” gesture.

Pinterest
Pinterest is a repository for static content (like blogposts), where you can collate information about a particular topic. You can have a board (a group) of pins (links) about whatever topic you want, although I have to say they’re a little draconian about butts, curves and intimacies.

The Pros: If you’ve got a lot of blog content to give out, if you want a lot of content to read, Pinterest can be a gold mine. With one of the big two browsers (Chrome, Firefox), you can get an extension to allow you to pin stuff through a simple right-click context menu, and it is an easy way to have a lot of resources at hand.

The Cons: It can be a swallower of your time. There’s so much stuff out there, and so much of it more signal than noise that you can blow a day pinning material one thing after another, stepping away from that writing that needs to happen because “just one more Pin” turns into “three hours later” pretty quick.

Blogging
I was on the fence about calling blogging a form of social media, because social media is becoming more and more conversational and concise, and blogging can range in length and frequency of use. But blogging has a communal aspect, so it’s social media for our discussion.

The Pros: You can say what you want, how you want, as often as you want. Your blog can be a home base for what you’re doing, giving you an unfettered and uninterrupted space to paint your internet real estate how you like.

The Cons: Audience growth is slow, and you can get discouraged by staring at views and thinking you’ll never get past ten or thirty or whatever. You can, you will, you just need to consistently put out good ideas in clear ways. Good content gets read, so make stuff that expresses clearly what you want to say and how you feel.

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So let’s use me as a case study. Out of the nine social media platforms I just talked about, I’ve got accounts on all nine, but I would call Twitter and this blog my primary platforms. I’m more comfortable here and at 140 characters professionally than anywhere else. Facebook sees daily use, but that’s more personal or anecdotal. I talk about what I do, but I don’t really do what I do with the people on Facebook. It feels weird to me, like I’m asking my family if they want to help me out, and I suppose that idea will need to change, but right now, I like this divide between pro-John and off-hours-John.

Snapchat has been my new vector for socializing, and my small as all get out following is clients, friends, a few celebrities who don’t get annoying, and professionals I learn from. My goal there is to get better at using the service, and I’m not going to do that without giving it a go myself. If you want to find me on Snapchat, I’m at johnwritesstuff.

Instagram and I don’t really know what to do with each other. It’s there, I am following some interesting people, but I don’t post much, mainly because I don’t know what to post. I don’t work visually, so I struggle to put up anything other than various doughnuts or foods I’ve eaten, which perpetuate that social pressure and make me feel bad, so then I use it less, and onward and onward that cycles. But I’ve got a youtube video queued up to watch after I write this post, so maybe I’ll learn some new stuff.

Pinterest is my recipe and idea hole. It doesn’t seem very conversational, but it’s a great education tool for me. Want to learn about business strategies,  enchiladas, candle-making, and old movie posters? I can do that all in one fell swoop.

The remaining platforms are on my “To check out” list, and I said on Twitter the other day that I wanted to try Periscope later this week, I’m thinking Friday. Hmmm.

On the whole, I divide part of my workday into check the various feeds, but not all at once. I’m on twitter throughout the day, I check Facebook in the morning and while I eat lunch, I snapchat now when an idea hits. I blog three times a week. I pinterest or read pinterest usually after work, because some of that relaxes me.

Because time is the most precious business commodity, I’m picky about allocating it. Were I new and starting out, I’d pick one or two platforms and get comfortable. I’d give myself a wide deadline of like 3 months with daily experimentation to see how it fits for me. If a platform didn’t work out, I wouldn’t go back. You don’t need to have all of them going in order to market your work successfully, and you certainly don’t want a pile of responsibilities that take you away from the writing when they’re supposed to be supporting it. So, J., you do what works for you, and if that’s one thing, awesome, if it’s eight or more (because there are more platforms I didn’t cover), awesome too.

I believe you (and anyone regardless of age or gender or genre or whatever) can learn to use this stuff and connect with other people both professionally and personally. It might not be instantaneous, but it can be done.

Hope that answers your question J.

I’ll see you guys on Friday for more blog times. Have a great middle of your week, don’t let the jerks get you down.

Happy writing.

Stop Aspiring, Start Doing

I’m an aspiring author.”

I hear those words a lot. I read them a lot in tweets and emails. And we’re going to talk about them this morning.

Good morning, welcome to Friday, good job getting through another week. Got any good weekend plans? I’ll be playing video games and editing manuscripts, which is a pretty good time. Oh, and I might treat myself to a steak.

Today we’re going to talk about aspiring, and why that word isn’t doing what you think it does. Because I don’t want you to be aspiring, I want you to be doing. Doing what? Doing whatever it is you do creatively.

So many people talk about aspiring, so let’s look at the definition first. Here:
Aspire1Aspire2Aspire3

Aspiring, from what I get in these 3 definitions, is wanting to do a thing or having a plan to do a thing. I don’t see in these definitions the actual effort, just the preparations.

There’s nothing wrong with preparation, it’s how we improve and effort towards success. But preparing to do X isn’t actually doing X, and that’s the important point.


I want to take a second to point out that moving forward from aspiring to doing can bring a lot of people and their opinions into whatever you’re doing. They may say things like “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” or “Are you sure you want to do X that way?” or they become some sort of oracle when previously they had just been critical. Take their feedback with a few handfuls of salt. Critics are not the boss of you. It’s okay to move forward and do the best job you can, even if that job requires time, patience or learning some new stuff. You’re allowed to make mistakes, and you’re allowed to get better. Okay, sidebar over.


We use aspiring to talk about stuff that hasn’t happened yet, but we’d really like it to happen. As if we’ve placed the order with a server, and we’re waiting on our entrees. This suggests that what we want is subject to external forces, and while that is partially true depending on circumstance (selling a million books means a million books need to be produced), the bulk of what we aspire to do is within our ability.

Maybe it’s not automatic. Maybe we’ll need to raise money, get training, change a habit, start a new habit, talk to some people, take a risk, fill out a form, get on a plane, write an email, or whatever. But we can still do those things. We’re not wholly incapable of performing the task, it’s that we’ve mentally resigned ourselves to a position where we think we can’t accomplish the task.

It would be expensive to travel. Equipment to do that thing is expensive. Getting something done takes time. You don’t know who to talk to. What if people laugh at you? What if other people, society, the universe, determines you’re awful? Note: It’s been pointed out to me that awful people can run for President and get their party’s endorsement, so don’t give up hope.

We imprison ourselves in a little comfortable low-risk cage, with shackles made of fear and excuses and projection. We could be doing stuff, but “our place” is over here where we don’t let ourselves take whatever steps necessary, or even take the steps beyond those. Because we might fail. Because we might be rejected. Because we might find out we’ve wasted time or money.

Says who?

Who’s going to laugh at you for taking that vacation? Who’s going to think you’re a failure because you’re taking noticeable steps towards your goal? How is making an effort the same as failing?

It’s time to stop aspiring, and start doing. This is how we got to the moon, landed a dishwasher on a comet and know what DNA looks like. This is how we created national parks, got a black guy elected, and learned that graham crackers get even better with chocolate and marshmallow.

But how? How can we excise this word and this idea out of our heads when we see it repeated over and over?

We prove it wrong. We prove it to be an inadequate descriptor of what we’re doing.

We’re not just people staring out the window, diddling around, with big hopes and blank spaces. We’re creatives. We make stuff. We tell stories. We make art out of cheese. We shake our moneymakers. We hammer metal into shapes. We do stuff, sometimes with pants on.

Every day, every chance you get, not just when convenient, not just when you remember to, do something substantive that gets you towards your goal.

A writer? Get more than 1 word on the page. Aim for multiple sentences. Not revising them. Fresh ones.

A maker of stuff? Sketch, prototype, develop.

What I’m saying is do more than just think about it. Do more than fire up the imagination and wouldn’t-it-be-nice engines. You can make this stuff happen.

No, not right away, nothing happens right away. It’ll take time. But you have time, more than you realize. And you’ll accomplish the goal, you’ll get where you want to be, you just need to make progress.

No, it won’t always be easy. Some days you’re not gonna wanna do anything. Some days you’ll feel like you haven’t done nearly enough. The goal is going to look a million billion miles away.

But that’s when you look at the work you’ve done. The actual work, not just the time spent thinking or staring out the window watching the neighborhood pass you by. See the words on the page? They weren’t there before. See the sketches? They didn’t poof into existence. You did that. You took a step forward. Good job.

And celebrate when you take that step forward. I know, it’s not the goal, but if goals were only one step away, you probably wouldn’t be lamenting them not happening, would you?

This is all predicated though on taking your goal and breaking it into reasonable steps. And the key there is “reasonable.” Reasonable means not only a manageable size given the current time frame and all the other stuff you have going on, but it also doesn’t require extraordinary intervention. Winning the lottery so you can pay off your crushing student debt is not as reasonable as say, having 2 and not 3 drinks when you go out, so that eleven dollars doesn’t leave your checking account is reasonable.

Your goal shouldn’t always means an end to your life as you know it. Sometimes, yes, it can, if you wanted to become a monk and live in a cave, you probably don’t want to living in downtown Seattle going out to microbreweries every night. But on the whole, you can develop incremental steps towards your goal (those steps are goals themselves, don’t forget), where the rest of your life doesn’t detour.

My point is, you don’t have to keep aspiring. You can go do it. One step at a time. Set up your own steps, and make your goal happen. I believe in you, even if I’m just a guy on the internet blogging three times a week and tweeting a lot.

 

Have a great weekend, happy writing, I’ll see you back here Monday.

Show vs Tell, Emotion vs Information

Welcome back to your work week. I know, I know, weekends always seem so short and the hours you do other stuff seem to vastly outnumber the hours when you don’t have to put on pants. And as a guy makes his living doing the opposite of that – I only have to put on pants when I’m not working – I get it. So let’s dive into making good art and we’ll get through this.

There’s a big deal made about “show versus tell” and it’s worth the big deal, for sure, but I ask a lot of writers what they think it means, and I hear a lot of differing answers. They’re not all wrong, some are just incomplete, or vague. Today, I want to give you another definition for it, maybe you’ll find this more applicable or understandable than how I normally talk about it.

But that means we need to give the usual definition first, so we can build a point of comparison. Usually, I talk about show vs tell as a way to give the reader a sense of investment, or “room” to be a part of the story, as the writer doesn’t over- or inflexibly explain the elements in text, so the reader is drawn deeper and forward into the fiction.

And that’s not a bad definition – you show the canvas, you don’t have such a rigid sense of what’s been painted on it, and you had the reader a little brush and a little color and say, “Yeah, I know I’m talking about a coffee table, and it’s not that critical that I need to be so controlling, so you picture whatever table you want, it’s cool.” A fair definition and explanation, but it’s hard to grasp if you’ve never done it well.

Here’s the new way to come at this. We’re going to talk information transfer theory, but rather than get super technical and duller than bad paint, we’re going to stay simple.

Information transfer theory is the idea that one person has something to convey to someone else, and how they choose to do that. Maybe it’s spoken, maybe it’s a gesture, maybe it’s written. Maybe it’s smoke signals and arranging rocks. Whatever it is, info goes from one person (the creator) to another (the receiver), and we use have very declarative verbs to express that transfer: speak, say, yell, write, draw … tell.

Telling is all about conveying information. And yes, when we relay information, we don’t want there to be any wiggle room, we want our meaning and our specifics conveyed, especially when the information relates to something critical. Would you be okay with playing the telephone game if the original message is “Your house is on fire!” or “Would you like medical attention for that gunshot?”

We learn a lot of telling in school. We tell the class about the book we read. We tell the teacher the answer for question 18. We tell the attractive person that we want to go to the dance and then she tells two people she doesn’t want to go with you, so they tell you her message, with their fists. (8th grade was a very strange experience for me).

We learn a lot of telling from our media. The television tells us the news, weather, sports, political atrocities and traffic updates. Those blogs you subscribe to tell you all kinds of stuff about whatever you’re interested in.

Telling lets the receiver be very passive in the transfer relationship. You sit there, the other person does all the work. Telling is the lapdance of writing. You get an experience … but is it really the experience you want? Save some dollar bills and keep an eye on how much telling you’re doing.

Showing though is the champagne room. You get past the expositive bouncer, and you have some ability to feel something (that’s some wordplay for your Monday). The flip side of information transfer theory is emotion prioritized over information. We feel however we feel based on the information, but we can be steered towards some emotions over others based on context.

A writer has a responsibility, though I’d call it a duty and obligation, to make the reader feel something.

But, you say, if I’ve got information to convey, and I can’t control whatever the reader feels upon hearing that the sky is overcast on a particular day, how can I make my reader feel anything?

Well, writer, assuming they feel nothing doesn’t speak very highly as to what you think of your readers. What you’re subcutaneously asking is how you can make them feel “what you want” when they read that the sky is the color of pigeon wings.

Which is why we need the combination of show AND tell when we create art. No, you can’t and don’t want to be all one or the other.

All tell, and you’ve got a dry stack of words with minimal warmth and interest. You’re Spock telling me about planetary life signs. After a while, we need to go find another crew member to interact with.

All show, and you’ve got words with greater width than depth. You can go on and on, adding adjectives and flourish to same ideas, making them more ornate or being more specific, but you’re not combining them with other information to build a complete picture. It’s a teenage love letter, happy to be repeating “I love you” a thousand times, but not having a depth to the idea. And after awhile, it loses its meaning.

But telling serves a critical role: it gives us a boundary, or more like several boundaries. It establishes the perimeter within which we can do all the emotion-evoking we want. And the more definite the boundaries, the more detailed we can get within them.

For example, let’s look at the room I’m sitting in while I’m writing this. It’s Sunday, at 1 minute past noon as I write this sentence, and I’m in an office chair, a bottle of water on my left side, next to my phone that I’ve plugged in to charge while it streams Spotify. The blinds are up on the windows to my right, and the windows are closed. I can hear morning doves. My feet are cold.

That’s a whole lot of telling. I’ve put together quite a few boundaries:

  • The time of day, and the day of the week
  • The chair I’m in
  • Some of the items to my left and right
  • The state of the window blinds and windows
  • What I hear
  • A physical sensation I’m experiencing

With those things defined, I don’t have to qualify additional boundaries. You have enough there to picture me sitting here writing on a Sunday afternoon. What I can do now is add in elements I think will help you feel something in the ballpark of what I intend the text to feel. I can add character and color and shading and narration so that we see a completed picture that tells you a story, not just a set of facts.

Like this: It’s Sunday, just after 12 noon, and as I write, there’s two thoughts at war with the writing – first, I want a shower, second, I want it to be about ten degrees warmer and ditch this grey sky. It’s a downer, no matter how loud I play swing music or think about delicious food. The chair creaks under even the gentlest strains, locking me into a posture like I’m stuck in an economy seat next to some shoe salesman named Earl. Checking wordcount, I’m through 1260 right now, so I’m pretty satisfied. My feet are cold, and I wish I had something other than water to drink as I stare out the windows.

No, the above facts didn’t all make it, because when you aim to evoke emotion, you’re not going to need all the facts to stay, because narration isn’t recitation.  Nor will there be a perfect 50-50 balance that you can always strike.

But you need to define the sandbox somewhat before you go play in it. Information is the basis upon which we educe emotion from our audience, whether we’re writing a touching eulogy or using green on a canvas to make someone remember the lawn of a childhood home.

Consider your boundaries. You control the focus and camera movment, so why do we need THAT piece of information in THAT spot at THAT time? Is it to get us to feel a particular way in a particular moment? Or are you building towards something in word-increments so that when we soon reach another point, we’ve got this whole context in hand so we can appreciate what you mean?

Consider the emotions. How intensely do you need us to feel them? Do we need to feel them as intensely in every sentence, every time? Is that going to yield diminishing returns, constantly keeping the reader cranked to 11? Don’t forget you also hold the ability to push/pull, to vary the words and the emotional triggers and state. The audience has come to you for a whole story, and you’re leading people through the experience a word at a time.

I know, it’s one thing to talk about it, another to do it. So go practice it. Draft after draft. Paragraph after paragraph. You’ll get better at it, the more you do it, and the more you push yourself to do it in ways and places you didn’t think you could or should (yes, you can and should do it all over the place).

See you back here for #inboxwednesday. Happy writing.

Of Writers and Scotsmen

Welcome back to the week. Hope your weekend was a good one. Mine wasn’t too shabby, thanks for asking. The weather’s getting warmer, so I’m encouraged to leave the blinds up and I’m counting those days until the clocks shift an hour when we’re one step closer to me having windows open and music blaring – it remains my favorite stretch of the year.

Also, on a personal note, I’m getting better. The meds are working, I can afford them now (yay insurance!), and I’ve got more energy than I had last week. I’m not completely up to speed again, but this is definitely a big step forward.

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Before we get into today’s topic, I’ve got a favor to ask. I’ve put together a short anonymous survey (you don’t need to give your name or e-mail address) that I’d appreciate you taking. It’s 10 questions, and won’t take more than a few minutes.

Check it out here. Thanks.

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Today we’re going to talk about sort of a hot button issue, depending on how often you frequent message boards and forums for writers, though the problem exists outside of writerdom. I want to talk today about the No True Scotsman fallacy and how it kills rather than strengthen writing and its communities.

What is the No True Scotsman? It’s an assertion that a “true” (read: “real”) __________ wouldn’t do whatever it is they’re doing.

Like this:
A: No writer succeeds without an MFA.
B: I’m a successful writer, and I don’t have an MFA.
A: Yeah, okay, but no real writer succeeds without an MFA.

Swap “writer” for any label you can think of, and swap the back half of the sentence  (start with the verb and go forward), and you’ll see this a lot. Here are some examples I’ve heard and read over the weekend.

No real writer writes children’s books.
To be a real larper, you need to be out there every weekend.
No real feminist thinks penetrative intercourse is acceptable.
No real chef makes a casserole.
A real writer would know that only trad pub makes you legit.
No real parent lets their child eat a doughnut.
To be a real gamer, you had to have played Dungeons & Dragons first edition.
No real patriot thinks we need to get rid of guns.

Maybe you’ve heard this sort of stuff before. Maybe it hasn’t been in the form of a single sentence, but the idea gets put out there that there are “real” writers and then there are “not-real” writers based on what people do or don’t do. You see this a lot on message boards when people ask questions or challenge assumptions or just plain don’t know because they’re new or unsure.

What this does is create an unnecessary division within a group, so there’s an opportunity to create an us-versus-them environment, where one group can deny access, praise, legitimacy, information, or experience from another group. It’s another form of gatekeeping, since it makes one group have to validate themselves to the other group, if they want to be considered “real.”

It’s a giant crock of applesauce and horsefeathers.

Because a real writer is someone who writes. Period. A real gamer is someone who plays games. Period. A real ____ is someone who does/is _______, because the act of doing a thing is  what makes you a person who does a thing. To suggest that someone isn’t legitimate because they don’t conform to your metric says that you’re somehow the arbiter of other people’s efforts and talent and thoughts.

I just checked. You’re not the arbiter of other people.

I’ve also noticed that the people who want to spend their time talking about who is or isn’t a “real” writer are often doing so at the internet watering holes for writers, and often do so repeatedly over the course of several hours. I watched one user write 7 or 8 posts over the course of 2 hours, feuding with anyone within 60 virtual feet about how you shouldn’t go to Author X’s blog, that Author Y’s blog was better, how you can’t trust any editors, how you need to be doing A and B and C things … all this talk, when they could instead let the writing and production of writing be a meritocracy.

Want to be a real writer? Then be writing. Make good art. Art hard. Challenge yourself. Don’t poison the watering holes by pissing in it. That time you spend yapping about who is and isn’t a writer is time YOU could be writing, helping yourself rather than shutting down others. Unless, of course, you feel you need to shut down other people to feel better about yourself.

We’re all true Scotsmen. We’re all real writers, even if we disagree with each other or work differently.

See you later this week for #inboxwednesday.

Happy writing.