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.

 

 

 

The Post-Dreamation Post

This post is coming to you on Monday the 22nd of February. If it sounds a little janky, it’s because I’ve been writing it in sections while I’ve been at Dreamation, one of my local conventions.

I’d also like to point out that this is the ONLY post you’re going to get from me this week, I’ve got some surgery scheduled for mid-week, and I’m not going to be anywhere near any shape to be blogging later this week. It’s kind of a big deal, and yes I hope I’ll be okay too. On to other points.

Normally I do not shy away from giving panels to anyone, but catch me at the end of a day, or a bad day, or just when I’ve reached the end of whatever rope, and I would much prefer to sit and talk casually. Since I didn’t give a panel on Sunday, allow me now to write out what I would have said. Here goes.

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I believe, absolutely and fundamentally, that people should create art, and that art is not all that impossible to create. We face a lot of problems though when we make that decision, and while I have never yet successfully predicted the order in which these problems are faced by creators, I have to date always seen these problems in one form or another, creator after creator, no matter if we’re talking manuscripts or screenplays or little origami notions. They are universal, and I think the first step in unifying and normalizing our experiences is to get rid of the idea that you’re alone as a creative. Yes, you might be working by yourself, but that doesn’t mean you’re alone on a blue orb that hurtles through space. I mean c’mon, you’re not a Jedi on a rock watching the ocean.

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There’s the idea that what you’re making has to be of some certain level, whether that’s quality, or how marketable it is, before you’re allowed to proud of it, or think it’s a good idea. And that, I’m sorry, is complete horseshit and applesauce brought to you by whatever assumptions you’ve made or inherited that you’re only good because of bank accounts and sales figures. This idea shows up a few times in development, first in the idea stage, where people question whether the idea they just had is good enough, then again while they’re working on it, and it moves from some larval stage of notes to drafts or prototypes. Lastly it shows up in latter stages, like when it’s nearly done or when people can support crowdfunding it, or when there’s a big shiny “submit” button on an email or uploader for self-publishing.

The question of is it good enough is the same as the question of whether or not you, specifically you as a creative person who’s done this thing, are good enough. Good enough to be proud of your efforts. Good enough to be rewarded with other peoples’ time and attention and money, as if you wouldn’t be good enough without that manuscript or box or doohickey.

You must remember that you are not your product. Whatever the hell it is. However long it took you to think up, draft, revise, tool, develop, or create. You are good enough thanks to the sheer facts of being human and being creative and being brave enough to take an idea and birth it into the world.

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Along comes then the question as to what art is? Does art have any responsibility to do something? Not “do something” in the press-a-button-get-a-pellet way, but more like serve as advocate or soapbox or broadcast beacon for some cause or group or idea. By its very creation, art is a challenge, an attempt to fill a void that people haven’t perceived or thought about, so existence is already advocacy and broadcast. The contents need not take on some extra potence in interpretation thanks to cultures of politics or victimhood: sometimes it’s just a story of a trans man trying to buy his partner a Mother’s Day themed dildo, and not a treatise on lost culture. Don’t lose perspective, and certainly don’t adopt messages that you don’t want to stand behind.

Art exists, the artist cannot control how it gets interpreted, nor should they try. You might paint the word “Garbage” on canvas and tell me you’re discussing American politics, but I’ll tell you it’s awfully reminiscent of a 90s grunge band who had music that got stuck in my head. The question is not if I agree to your premise, but if I had a reaction at all, and can I, as an audience, appreciate the work, even if it’s not something I like? So when you’re making a thing, just make it. Make it for you. Make it your way. If that way means you get to give voice to people not often heard, or shed light in often dark spaces, or make conventional what so many believe abnormal, do it. But do not take on the extra baggage in some attempt to win points and curry favor. This is creativity, not the lightning round of a game show.

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Whenever there is a question of is it bad or wrong to do a thing or to do a thing this way, whether we’re talking about having a flashback at some point in a story, or having a piece of salescopy mention a product feature, or a character saying they drink Pepsi, I always respond the same way – no it’s not wrong, no one’s going to take your keyboard away for doing it. This is different than doing the thing wrong, like messing up how dialogue goes on the page, or misspelling congeniality. Doing the thing wrong means correction should happen, but just having something happen is not in itself reason enough to break out the knout and cilice, begging forgiveness from people on message boards and social media alike.

Permission isn’t meant to come externally, and in too many cases, the older models of publishing, with their emphasis on gatekeepers and exclusion, permission was this piece of meat dangled in front of the starving artists, so that there might be dancing for the amusement of those in ivory towers. That model isn’t dead so much as it’s had its control fractured, as new mediums and methods of publication offer a variety of options in place of waiting for anonymous people to respond to queries and dispense pronouncements. Because the power now sits in the hands of the author right up until the moment of submission, that permission has to derive internally, and be persistent through all the stages of creation. You can write whatever the hell you want, it can get edited and shaped into whatever will be clearest for the reader, and it will find an audience. Of course, the previous sentence has assumed you’ve given yourself permission to write and finish something without fear of later judgment, that you’ve given yourself permission to have drafts not be the finished product, and given yourself permission to go do the work necessary to figure out and find who the product’s audience is.

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Now let’s suppose just for a minute that you’re like me – a creative with some health issues (mental and otherwise), a few responsibilities, not as much time in the century to do all the things that can be dreamed in those moments when work is supposed to be happening – these are all factors that can erode the idea that you’re supposed to be making anything at all. How can you? There are bills that need to be paid, the phone never seems to stop ringing, no one at the office seems to care that you just totally figured out how to kill Maude in chapter 5, and that last night you wrote seventy-seven words about the way the car sighed like an old person sighing in a church pew. Life seems to make some distinction from the creative process, that one has to be separate from the other, that a creative has a life, and then goes off to some secret lair where they can create when the rest of the world isn’t looking, so long as they don the cloak of a pen name.

Creativity is not life’s kryptonite. It’s not to be kept in the shed like your zombie best friend, or locked away in the tower until you get miles of split ends. Creativity infuses life with necessary color and hope and imagination. Creativity takes the mundane into extraordinary places, and challenges conventions while inspiring everything from debate to contention to interest. So what’s wrong with admitting that you’re creative and that you’re making something?

Is it scary to do that? Sure. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
Does that mean that someone could judge you? Sure. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, and it also doesn’t discount the fact that you be judged right now, and not even know it. So why the hell give it that much mental real estate? Is that helping you in any good ways?

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Look, don’t give up. Tell the doubt and the doubters to go suck lemons. Like the man says, they’re going to laugh, but you keep writing. Don’t go down without a fight. And don’t give up the keyboard, the canvas, the microphone, the whatever. Not until you’re done doing your best.

There are loads of problems you can face – rejection, lack of appeal, poor technique. Don’t shovel extra weight like crushing doubt like Jupiter’s gravity and fear of a future that hasn’t happened yet compound whatever you’re doing with some grievous notions that it’s supposed to be some way or else it’s not good enough. You are the definer of your own success(es). You are the definer of when you give up.

What you do every day is up to you, creative. You’re good enough, and this guy on the internet believes in you.

 

Go make cool stuff. Go be awesome. Rock on.

What’s Up With Beta Readers?

I hope your weekend was a good one. Mine was good. It was brutally, nastily cold here in NJ, so I bundled myself up and worked. Lots of editing, some reading, loads of emails (Wait until you see #InboxWednesday).

This week we’re going to talk about a part of the writing process that I don’t really talk about a lot. We’re going to talk beta readers.

The reason I don’t usually go into a great heap of detail is because I have a mixed relationship with beta readers. Some experiences have been great, some way less than great, and it’s a part of the creative process I probably should spend more time on, because it’s becoming more mainstream to rely on them.

Let’s start at the beginning. A beta reader is someone asked to read the manuscript and provide critique, generally as one of the later stages of post-writing pre-publication. As their name says, they read.

They’re not editors. I mean, they may be an editor as their job or something, but their service to the manuscript is not a directly editorial one. They read and provide feedback. If you’re asking a beta reader to edit (aside from whatever things they randomly catch, I mean specifically wanting them to read and edit), then you’ve merged proofreading and beta reading.

I believe that anyone who does a job should be paid. So yes, I believe beta readers should be paid. Flat fee, per chapter, whatever, they’re helping you out just as much as the editor, and you’re paying them (right?), so make with the payouts.

But wait, you cry, where am I supposed to get the money? Or worse, why do these people deserve to get paid, they’re just reading?

And that, right there, is the reason why this post exists.

They’re not “just” reading. Their job is to read with a particular eye on story elements. Some authors provide a list of specific questions (hopefully they avoid the fluff ones like: “Did you like it?” or “Did you like X character?” because a beta reader is a lens for getting feedback focused on specific elements. What elements? Here’s some of the elements:

+character arc
+plot development and pacing
+tension
+story pacing
+number of characters
+the ease of readability
+narrative tone
+gauging how exciting the climax was
+gauging how satisfying the resolution was

These are story elements. They’re subcutaneous to the ego stroke of whether or not the person liked the story and can therefore blow smoke up the rectal cavities of authors. If you’re looking for praise, let your grandma read the story. A beta reader is not a praise factory, they’re a critical eye with a bit more objectivity than the editor who’s spent weeks with the MS or the author who’s been tapping the keys about it for a year.

Because they’re not being asked to fellate the insecure author (I talked to quite a few beta readers over the weekend whose feedback was irrelevant to their playing some kind of “you did good enough” validation), we come back to this idea that the author is the superior in whatever relationships concern the MS.

Let’s see how we get to this way of thinking.

The author has the option to hire an editor, and if they do, then the author employs the editor. There’s a servile power dynamic there.

The author tells the beta readers what to look for, so there’s another servile power dynamic there.

Pretty much anybody pre-submission serves the author’s needs. For some people, this power, particularly over a manuscript that they are very emotionally tied to or invested in, is ripe for abuse.

It doesn’t help that some pinheads mistake the “beta” in beta reader for a subordinate position off the bat. For the record, a beta reader is a text beta-tester, the surrogate audience member. Considering their role as audience, I would challenge any power dynamic because the beta reader is your resource for how the story will engage the marketplace. Confuse a beta reader, disinterest them, and you expose the fleshy story underbelly and possibility that your MS isn’t the polished gemstone you think it is. This is not to say it’s on the other extreme of formica or whatever zirconia gets sold on late night television, but there’s no reason to disregard or belittle the feedback because it isn’t the radioactive glowing praise that your MS is a bestseller waiting to happen.

Which is why I advocate for paying your beta reader. Treat them as a peer, not a tool, in your process and value their feedback. If you have (I’m making numbers up) 3 readers, and 1 says that the story is bloated with too many similar sounding names, or you’ve got the story all over the place in the first few chapters, consider what they’re telling you. Don’t blow it off just because it’s not as praising as what your other two readers might say. Remember that your MS may not be liked by everyone, that should you go forward and traditionally publish, an agent or editor may possibly have similar concerns, that your MS may languish in rejection hell for a while until those concerns get revised.

You want a beta reader to push you, to flip your MS judo-style, beat it up a little (or a lot), because you’re trying to get the best MS possible. So why not beat it up a little? Does that mean more work for you? Yeah. Is that bad? No.

Not every beta reader is going to extol your praises. Not every beta reader is going to spew hot lava at you. Like so many other things, it’s about the combination of all feedback, rather than the authorial power dynamic. It’s okay to get feedback that’s harsh, I’d go so far to say it’s vital, unless you want to just live in a clueless bubble of faux-perfection where you don’t push yourself or your craft out of some fear that your emperor will be exposed as a nudist.

Getting to stage in production where you need to engage beta readers is not the end of the marathon that is publication. You still have to get the story packaged and either submitted, or into the hands of readers. So let’s talk for a minute about a different kind of power dynamic, where the author puts them on a pedestal. Which isn’t the point either.

Yes, the beta reader, to some extent acts like a surrogate audience, but again, they’re not just reading your story for enjoyment. Giving them concepts to keep an eye out for helps you steer through the parts of writing where you may find or think yourself weak. They’re useful, like so many other things I’ve talked about on this blog.

To suggest the beta reader is superior in some way is to suggest that you’re writing as to earn the praise of the audience more than the pleasure of writing or the want to see your story in the world. Yes, there’s an element of praise to be had by an audience, but it can’t be the only reason you sit down everyday to write. Not everyone is going to like your work, and they’re not supposed to.

Treat your readers like people, because they are people. Don’t be a dick, don’t throw some alleged superiority in their face. They’re trying to help you, let them.

I’ll see you later this week for #InboxWednesday, where we’re going to hear from Tonda.

See you then. Happy writing.

Some Thoughts on Professional Stuff

I’m writing this post in the throes of the weekend blizzard, punctuating each paragraph with a sip of cocoa and a disbelieving stare out a window upon a world that looks like some off-white hellscape.

Originally, I meant to write about the importance of determination, of being diligent, and of staying the course when so many voices (internal and otherwise) may form a chorus to chase you away from whatever you’re creating. And then I fell into a bit of a rabbit hole.

A friend of mine talked to me a bit about a situation he found himself in, where he received criticism for what he was doing (he’s an editor), and his critic was taking a roundabout way of saying he was exploiting writers and profiting from their newness in creating. It’s a completely bogus claim because my friend, let’s call him J, is one of the most forthright people I know. I don’t always agree with him, but I respect his work, and I think he’s smart enough, talented enough, and good enough, to help people create amazing things.

In reading what this critic said, it brought to mind a number of experiences and a number of frustrations I’ve encountered in the last two decades as a professional. Today, I’m going to detail some of them.

1 A freelance editor is not required if you’re going to submit your work to be traditionally published.

There is an editorial process that occurs during publishing, and it’s not a quick skim of a document and a cursory pressing of F7 in Word. There is no etched in stone rule that says you need to get an editor before you get published. I can’t make you get an editor. But I can tell you that if you’re serious about getting your work published, then you should be serious about doing everything you can to get the MS in the best shape possible before it leaves your hands to face some kind of judgment or decision about its acceptance or rejection.

If we weren’t talking creative arts, if we were talking cars, we’d be discussing how you go show off your car, and how you’d want it polished and tuned and waxed, right? You’d want it in its best show shape. Now you could clean it yourself, wax and buff each piece with a cloth diaper or a cloth of baby eyelashes or whatever car people use, or you could spend the money and have a professional service detail it. And likely, you’d justify that expense by saying, “I’m getting the car cleaned up so that it stands a good chance at winning a prize at the car show.”

Maybe you built that car by hand, laboring on weekends or late nights. Maybe you sunk a lot of sweat equity into the process. You learned things about refitting pieces, about upgrades. You busted your ass to make your car the best it could be. This is no different than what a writer does working on that manuscript. It doesn’t matter if it’s their first or their ninth, a manuscript gets built by the author a piece at a time, and there’s sweat equity invested in the production.

Do all you can to get your MS in the best shape possible so it can be sent off with the best possible chance for a positive reception. Often that means getting an editor. You don’t need to get the car professionally detailed before the show, but going that extra step might make the difference between the blue ribbon (or whatever award you get at a car show, maybe a gold wrench) and going home watching someone else celebrate.

2 An editor’s job can be accomplished by a good friend who reads a lot.

There is more to an editor’s job than reading. Yes, reading is a part of it, but there’s constructive technique also. Techniques about language usage, about understanding story structure, about being able to look objectively at components or looking at emotional elements dispassionately. I’m sure a good reader can point out that sentences don’t sound right, or that some parts of the story fall flat, but I wouldn’t expect that reader to be able to tell you what you can do to change it for the better specifically.

Likewise, that “good friend” may not want to be as objective with you as someone you don’t know. A friend is going to want to maintain that friendship, and that decision will often prevent the objectivity a situation calls for.

Oh I can’t tell Gary that his short story sucked, because Gary brings that chili dip to poker night.”

As before, the goal is to have the best manuscript possible, Gary’s chili dip be damned. So that professional you’re bringing in, part of the expense there is a level of objectivity. The editor doesn’t know Gary’s chili dip, and doesn’t know if Gary has a tell where he always exhales before he bluffs anything higher than two pair. Gary’s non-manuscript existence doesn’t factor into whatever the editor does. The job is to produce the best manuscript, no matter how nice Gary is. That requires a level of disconnection between Gary-the-person, and Gary-the-writer.

If the issue is that Gary won’t show his MS to anyone except a friend because he doesn’t trust anyone else to see his work, then that issue is Gary’s. It’s also an issue likely not easily solved with hugs and tacos. But we’ll talk trust in a second.

3 An editor can’t be trusted to understand what the writer is trying to do. The editor is going to change the MS (presumably for the worse).

This is the part of the blogpost where I really struggled. I can take this idea in two directions. I can say on one hand that a writer has to go into that working relationship with the editor knowing that the MS on the start of work isn’t going to be the MS at the end of work. The changes might be small, just commas. The changes might be deletions of text. But change is gonna happen. That’s just the nature of development.

On the other hand, I can come at this and say that the writer-editor relationship is not fueled or aided by ego. Both the writer and editor are presumably human, and presumably fallible. Thinking the MS is so untouchable and perfect is a trap that results in little productivity and high resentment.

If a writer cannot trust that the editor is saying whatever they’re saying with the intention of getting the best work out of the writer, then the writer needs to reconsider their expectations around editing. Editing is not sugarcoating or rectal smoke blowing. If a character is weak, if a motivation is unclear, if participles dangle, and plots don’t resolve, the writer can expect to hear about it.

Would you trust the plumber to fix your leaky sink? Would you trust the bus driver to deliver your kids safely to and from where they need to be? Yeah, you maybe don’t know these people intimately, and even if you vet them, there comes this decision where you have to trust this other person to perform the task set before them. If it doesn’t work out, if the bus driver is late, if the sink still leaks, if the editor is tough to work with, make other arrangements. That’s what contracts are for.

4 An editor doesn’t care about anything other than getting paid.

I can say with 1000000000% certainty that there are some real scumbag editors out there. I can say with 1000000000% certainty that there are some real scumbag publishers out there. There are people in this world who care more about paychecks than people, and more about a list of credits than a list of experiences.

Those people are the minority. Maybe for some people they’re the majority, because some people have only been operating in the figurative waters just around the pipe where the sewage spills out, but the rest of the body of water is far less murky and far less packed with weird lifeforms best left to nightmares.

There are good editors out there. Plenty of people who really care about seeing the writer succeed. As cheerleaders, trainers, sparring partners, collaborators, sounding boards, and whatever role the editor is tasked to play, the editor has an interest that extends past the invoice.

Let’s suppose you (yeah, you) and I are working together. It’s our best mutual interest for this working relationship to be successful. If we each do our parts, you end up with a manuscript you can publish. We work together on revisions, we go back and forth to get the words into their best shape. In the end, you’re satisfied with your MS, and I’m satisfied with how I helped you. When this works out well, maybe you tell people to look me up when they need an editor, and I’ll tell people to stay on the lookout for your book. People helping people.

There are the cynics out there who say what I just described is the unrealistic pipe dream, it’s the impractical daydream of someone who has never done “serious” work and someone whose opinion can be discounted and discarded because “the right people don’t know who I am.” There are plenty of people who look at my words, my Twitter stream, this blog, and say I rub them the wrong way. That’s fine. I am not out to be the world’s best friend. I am here to be the best me I can be. And quite frankly, maybe we could spend some time collectively trying to make the world less cynical and shitty, shake up the establishment and maybe, just maybe, see more success all around.

I don’t know anybody who says, “Oh I love what I do, but that whole receiving paychecks thing really messes up my day.” Yeah, I know many people feel they deserve more pay, but I don’t know anybody who says they hate getting paid. Yes of course, people like getting paid. But that doesn’t mean the only reason people do whatever they’re doing is because there’s a paycheck waiting.

5 An editor doesn’t need a contract or need to get paid because the writer has been working on this book in their free time, and no one’s been paying them.

Yes, an actual sober human said that to my face at one of my panels at a convention some years back. And as you’d expect, the panel was about hiring freelancers and working with them. This sober human then went on to say the same thing about layout people, artists, graphic designers, and any other freelancers I had spoken about at the panel, just so no freelance stone goes unturned.

I’d like to think I laughed. I am reasonably certain I made a face and insisted this person is entitled to their opinion before extricating myself from the room. I don’t think I told this person to engage in sexual relationships with themselves or with their mothers. I’m sure I was thinking it.

When someone does a job, they deserve to be paid in a valid form of currency as would be spelled out in a contract that details the structure of whatever work needs doing. Paying with “exposure” does not pay bills. You can die from exposure.

It’s shocking to me that some distinction happens where someone wouldn’t stiff the electrician or the dog groomer but they can find some corkscrew-y rationalization for not paying the people who helped them make something creative. It can’t be the lack of tangible product, because when the electrician is done, the lights work, and when the editor is done, the manuscript is in better shape. Maybe it’s a sense of entitlement that they should be paid for writing it, that publishing is some great bleeding of money, death by a thousand expenses. Whatever it is, it’s patently stupid and asinine.

Contracts help structure the working relationship. Someone does a job, they deserve to paid for their hard work. If the writer is about to balk that no one paid them, then they need to do something to reward themselves. Go get a sundae. Go to the movies. Drink root beer and watch monster truck rallies. Do something. Hard work gets paid, period.


Originally, there was a 6th item here, about professionalism, but I thought it would be better to address that one personally before we wrap this post up.

“Professionalism” is a big subjective concept that relies on a lot of expectations and assumptions. It’s something that I spend a lot of time thinking, analyzing and worrying about. I wasn’t always concerned with how professional I was, but then again I wasn’t always aware of there being much in the world beyond myself and whatever itch I needed to scratch.

I don’t have a big fancy office. I don’t wear a tie to work. I don’t work for a big publishing house. None of those things mark me as unprofessional. Rather than let some commute or dress code or address define me as a professional, I let me work do the talking. That distinction, for me, is a huge one.

Good work, and good workers, are worth the cost. You hire me, you’re going to get someone who wants to see you succeed, but also someone who’s going to use the word “suck” in a comment about what your character is doing on page 9, because it sucks. I’m also the guy who’s going to write “Oh snap!” in a comment when your heroine starts kicking ass, because that’s awesome.

I’m not an editron-8000, some robot that just edits dispassionately.  I’m John, a guy who edits. My professionalism is defined on my own terms. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put my bathrobe back on before I have another cup of cocoa.

See you for #InboxWednesday. There’s a great question queued up.

The Writer and Icons

It’s Thursday morning as I write this. The week has been rough. With the passing of first David Bowie and now Alan Rickman, I am affected, and it’s a little shocking to me how much I’m affected. And because this blog is my little imperfect home on the internet, this is where my I write out my feelings.

If me talking about things that aren’t writing is a problem, if that causes you go find your writing advice elsewhere, I understand. You do what you need to do. But me putting my guts on the page is important to me, and it’s a part of who I am that matters to me, I won’t and shouldn’t change that because I’m worried about my business failing. I apologize that I let the numbers get in the way.

About two years ago, when Philip Seymour Hoffman died, I was similarly affected, though that was more because of the addiction aspect of it. 710 days later, I’ve got new reasons to hate cancer. It took my grandmother. It took a dog of mine. It took two of my icons this week. Very much fuck cancer.

I never met David Bowie. I think I saw him once, eating a slice of pizza in Greenwich Village, but I thought maybe it couldn’t be him because I thought David Bowie wouldn’t eat pizza, he’d be nourished by the creative energies of the planet, or he was powered by belief like Tinkerbell. Pretty sure it was him though.

Bowie let me be me. Not like he came to my house and said everything was cool, but through his music, I learned that it was cool to do things that went against the trends, whatever they were, and that you could stand out based on talent and clarity of voice, without being some demagogue. To a guy who never felt like he fit in anywhere, who felt his talent didn’t belong into any category on Career Day, who felt weird about having people believe in him, Bowie made it alright to be the Writer Next Door. I was just a guy, doing this stuff with words, and maybe it helped people, maybe it made them laugh, maybe it was just floating around digital space along with all the blogs about agriculture and nail polish. But it was okay, because I was getting my voice out there.

It made Bowie seem to be thirty feet tall, some endless wellspring of creativity. He’d never die, he’d return to the nebula from whence he came, off to visit some other civilization on some other planet in some other galaxy where people needed to learn it was okay to do things that didn’t conform.

For as ethereal as Bowie seemed, Rickman felt grounded to me. I remember seeing him in movies, and that sent me to his biography blurb on Wikipedia. I learned about his jump into acting, how he had this line in the sand moment where it was act or not. I admired that about him, I admire that about anyone, really, who sees what they want to do, and then jumps out of that plane to pursue it. That’s the sort of courage that puts people on the moon, and brings us airplanes and iPods and new flavors of candy.

I met Alan Rickman twice. It was 2011, I was working (barely) as a writer by this point, and I was in and out of New York City for professional and illicit reasons alike. A play I was writing that would never see the stage led me to meet a friend at a small bookstore. My friend never showed up, he was too busy being arrested, but I waited in that bookstore, browsing old mysteries. Alan Rickman came in and managed to be somewhat anonymous. It helped that maybe 5 people were in the shop.

Stopping people to talk to them is something I don’t do anymore. I don’t want to invade their space or their time, I don’t want to interrupt or be dismissed and have my view of them diminished as a result. But I had just seen him on Broadway in Seminar, and I wanted to thank him for the portrayal of Leonard, the writer who led this writing seminar. It was the stage version of what I was doing, and I felt compelled to tell him so. So I did.

He was gracious and kind, and I wasn’t interrupting or wasting his time I said. We didn’t talk very long, because I had no idea what to say, and he thanked me for seeing the show and taking the time to say hello. He was nice, and he made me want to be nice.

Some weeks later, I had seen Seminar a second time, and was uptown at a party I didn’t want to be at, pretending to be interested in people I was never going to be interested in, and really wanted to be anywhere else in the world. As I scrambled for a polite way to get my coat (I guess it never occurred to me that I could just ask for my coat), there was a bit of a flurry, and Alan Rickman, with his wife (they weren’t married then, just together) came in. They didn’t stay very long, but it was my second meeting.

Again, he was nice. He remembered me. He asked me how my friend was, and how I was. He asked how the writing was going, I told him I was thinking about giving it up and finding a desk job. He listened, and after a moment said, “Oh please don’t. What you’re doing is important and good and worth it. Get your voice out there.”

Which I wasn’t expecting. I think I was expecting this great actor to pat my shoulder or shake my hand and dismiss me. He didn’t. He went on to tell me that it’s important to do what you love, and that sticking with what you’re doing matters. I don’t remember crying, but I do remember thanking him. I cried later when I got home.

I felt like I found comfort. At time I felt like I had strayed off the path of my passions and had wandered into some thorny brush where I was preoccupied and self-absorbed. Alan Rickman pointed me back to the road. I haven’t lost sight of it since.

Again, he was someone I never thought would die. He’d just cease living, after saying something dramatic, then go on to be a Force ghost that would hang out wherever cool ghosts go. Some place with minimal dress code and good food I guess.

A long time ago, I read a book that says smart people often picture a dinner party of other smart people, where they can seek counsel. I thought that was so cool. I could picture these famous people hanging out with me and ask them what they’d do. I never thought Roger Williams would be all, “John, you should totally have a milkshake”, but I liked the idea of convening this parliament of talent when I needed to figure stuff out. Bowie and Rickman had long since earned their invitations. They’re still there now, eating mozzarella sticks and fresh fruit, waiting for me to take a minute and think about things.

I wish I had something big to think about.

To realize that your heroes and icons are mortal, just as you are, is a tough lesson for me. I’m aware of my own mortality, but not the people I think so much better than me. They’ll outlive me, they’ll be around like mountains. They’re Everest to me, and always will be, no matter what happens to me.

So here’s my advice to you, if you’re thinking that being creative, making stuff, chasing your dreams is too tough and you should go throw in whatever towel you have on hand, oh please don’t. What you’re doing is important and good and worth it. Get your voice out there.

 

The Hustle, 2016 edition

Good morning, welcome to Friday. I think were I a wacky morning zoo radio DJ, this is where I’d play some sound effects and then tell you the time, temperature, and traffic. Let’s all be thankful I’m not a DJ and get down to business.

We’re going to talk hustle today. Not the dance, I mean the Rocky chasing chickens, training montage, people doing stuff and getting stuff done hustle. WordPress was being pissy today, otherwise you’d be seeing images not just text right here.
So let’s define “the hustle” as all the things you’re doing to get better at being the best creative you can be while accomplishing your goal. That includes writing regularly. That includes blogging often. That includes … I don’t know, making sure you knit or paint or seed torrents everyday.
The goal, whatever it is, is where we’re going to start today. You need a goal.
There needs to be something driving your creative efforts. Maybe you’re trying to get a book written or published. Maybe you’re writing a script and aiming to get on the Blacklist. Maybe you’re trying to get a business off the ground. Maybe you want to be a wacky morning zoo radio DJ.
Without a clear goal, your efforts don’t have a trajectory – you’re just sort of doing stuff while time ticks by. Sure, things get done, but there’s that “why am I doing this” question hanging around.

What’s your goal? Why are you doing what you’re doing?
Picking that goal, if you haven’t already, is one of those simultaneously simple and scary decisions to make, like when you decide that Taco Bell is a good choice for lunch, or when you decide to call your aunt to see how she’s doing.
The lure of the goal is the end result. If I do all this writing and revising and querying, I’ll have a published book when all’s said and done. If I do a little coding, I can set up a website.
But there’s a trap with goals. It’s a trap of perspective and it’s one I fall into a lot, so let me pry my leg loose and tell you about it.
Yes, sure we can all set a goal. But is that goal set because you can reach it or because you want people to see you reaching it? What’s your reason for doing whatever it is you want to do? Want to see your book on a shelf? Want to earn enough money to take a vacation? Want to get over your fear of weasels? Those are goals for you, based on your own wants and thoughts. There’s this danger though, and I know it well, that you can set up a goal so that someone else will come along and tell you that you’re so brave or good or strong. And you keep at it, because as you work on it, they keep praising you. And there’s nothing wrong with praise. But (and here’s the tough part) some of that praise has to come from within you. You have to love what you do and like doing it and enjoy doing it even if no one sees you doing it.

Yeah, I know, it can suck sometimes.

I’m right there with you on getting my internal I’m-good-enough motor to kick over.
I’m saying that not because I want you to tableflip and walk off, but because part of the hustle is being honest and clear in your efforts. It’s not a bad idea to open a business selling socks, but it might be beyond your scope to start a business where you put all other sock makers out of business. There’s this concept called “target focus” at work here.
Target focus is seeing the small goal(s) within the larger one, and working to accomplish them, while realizing that you’re also accomplishing the larger goal.
Think of a marathon runner. There’s 26 miles to run from start to finish. That 26 seems huge and maybe that makes the runner worry about sore legs or blisters. But, if they think about just running that first mile, then another, then another, a mile at a time, the marathon gets done. They complete the marathon (the goal they set out to do), but there were smaller targets along the way that got done. And each target completed gave them a little momentum and incentive to keep going.
Take that goal, and break it down. What smaller targets can help you build to the larger one? I want to clean a room, I can stare at the voluminous mess and feel overwhelmed or I can quadrant off the room and work in 2 square feet of space at a time until I’ve finished. Or I can do one pass through the mess to collect all the laundry, and a separate pass to pick up all the books off the floor. There’s no wrong way to make targets.

A target is defined by:
a) A practical simplicity that advances you to completing the bigger goal
b) It’s something you can do that is actively productive

That (b) part is critical, and I was hesitant to talk about it until recently. Because anyone can take a goal and break it into pieces, but you can break pieces down again and again until you’ve sucked the effort and challenge out of them, until they’re inert. It might look like you’re doing something, but you’re not making a lot of headway. That lack of measurable progress can lead you to frustration.

Go back to that messy room. I can clean in 2 foot squares, which might be physically taxing or time consuming or I could at each pass, just pick up one piece of paper at a time and throw it out. I’d be here cleaning all day. Sure, I’m making progress, but I’ve slowed down to the point where it’s almost not seriously going to matter. And moving towards your goal should matter. You should want to accomplish your goal, for you, for your own reasons.

I say that as someone who knows what it’s like to set a HUGE goal that generates a lot of buzz, and then feel overwhelmed and undermotivated to go accomplish it. Maybe undermotivated isn’t the right word, so let’s pick a new one … how about terrified? Terrified of failing, terrified of succeeding, terrified of discovering I’m either good or not good at it … just plain scared to make progress.

Setting target helps. You can reach targets. Targets are realistic and not scary, they’re activities that happen every day. Set targets that have a bit of challenge, but that you can do. It’s not being anti-ambitious, it’s tempering that super-ambition down to a practical level. So that shit gets done. Try it, let me know how it works for you.

Geared up with a good goal and a motivation to do it, targets focused on, we get to the obvious yet not-obvious part of the hustle: <strong>you actually have to do whatever it is you want to do</strong>. If you want to be someone who makes soap, you have to make soap.

Here we find all kinds of distractions. The Internet. Relationships. Other goals. That whole stupid part where you have bills and taxes. Day jobs. Pants.

Keep that goal and its targets in mind. Remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. The distractions will still be there for you to handle later, but when you’re on the hustle, when you’re being that creative doing that creative stuff, tell the distractions to wait outside.

I know, I know, some of that stuff doesn’t feel like a distraction. You need that Spotify playlist so you can write. You need your coffee. You need to make sure the dog has water. You just need to check one more thing. You say that’s not a distraction, you just need to be doing it instead of hustling towards your goal. (Feel free to repeat this paragraph out loud a few times, I’ll wait.)

You’re not working in a vacuum. Unlike Matt Damon, you haven’t been stranded on Mars. There are interruptions. That phone’s gonna ring. The kids are gonna need something. The dog has to go out. Yes, there are things that are going to break your momentum.
Let me give you a tool for getting back to hustling after you take a break (either intentionally or not). This is what I do, maybe it’ll work for you.
You’re going to come back to your work after whatever paused it, and you’re going to picture, in your head, in as much detail as you can give a single snapshot, your goal being accomplished. See that book on the shelf. See your foe vanquished at your feet. See the Kickstarter funded. See the yolk not breaking when you flip your eggs. Get that in your head, then count to 10. Then push yourself into work.
You can get the momentum back. Really. You just need to push. And that push (I don’t have a fancy term for it, if you have one, tell me) takes energy, force of will, whatever you want to call it. But you’ve got your goal in mind, right, so getting back to work is what’s going to make that goal a reality.
You lose the momentum, you lose that vector, you get it back. Trip, fall, get back up again. There’s no penalty for however many times you stop, stall, stutter, tumble, break down, pause, uhh, or swear you’re going to give it up but keep going anyway. You’re not a bad creative because you didn’t do whatever you’re doing in one super long productive period. You’re not a bad creative because you tried and failed and then had to try again.
The important thing is that you got back up and tried again. That you put your fingers back on the keys. That you didn’t just close the laptop and say you were right all along about never getting your dream made.

Get back to work. Hustle. Make it happen.

The Tease Of The Bookshelf

So, it’s Wednesday. Middle the week. Hump day. That day where I always feel like it’s too early to make weekend plans, but that if I don’t make those plans, I’ll let it go too far and miss out on something.

First, let me take a minute to thank all the new people who have come to the blog within the last few weeks. I am sincerely thankful for all of you, and if given a chance would write you all emails expressing how much it means to me that people even take a few minutes to read my words. My reach is never something I understand, but it is something I’m very eager to expand. Sort of like a toddler, or a small drunk dictator. I suppose there’s very little difference between the two.

Second, let me give you an update on #FiYoShiMo. If you’ll look at the toolbar, you’ll see a FiYoShiMo index page. That’s a whole list of links that will take you to each post in the month. Yes, I know day 2 is a pdf, but that’s because WordPress is a jerk, and I have no idea where the post went. The entirety of the posts exists now as an MS, which I’m busy polishing (read: fixing the internal links so they’re text, and formatting) and my next goal is to get it proofed and start querying. I’ll be putting everything from the querying process onward on the blog as a series of posts. It’s been far too long since I was in the publishing trenches, and I’d prefer to be in the thick of things and not upon some pedestal looking down. I may fail, I may succeed, but no one will be able to say that I didn’t try.

On we go to today’s topic, which was suggested to me via Twitter conversation. Maybe conversation is too broad a word, it was more: “Hey John, write something about this, I’m struggling with it.” And the good news is that I struggle with it too, so I’m going to spend some words expressing my own experiences. I’m hopeful you’ll find a parallel in your experiences. Maybe together we can work this out.

So I’m writing this from the upstairs office (read: the computer in my bedroom) of the house. I could have written this in the actual office in the house, but I didn’t. I could have written this on my phone, and then I wouldn’t have had to get up from the couch, but I didn’t. The majority of my writing takes place in this chair, on this machine, and it’s so ingrained me as a process that writing anywhere else feels awkward and even a little scandalous.

The problem with writing in this room (aside from the fact is that there’s no fireplace and no couch), is that there’s this bookcase on my right. It’s currently a post-holiday mess, as I haven’t filed away any of the new books I’ve picked up over the last month, and I haven’t cleaned up the spilled business cards from my last convention. It is an obelisk to and a microcosm of my writing career – crammed with material, often in need of organizing.

On those shelves are all the books written by the people who influence and inspire me. Some are friends. Some are authors deader than disco. Some are clients, or were once. I look at that bookshelf every few sentences when writing. Because it is one of the many lighthouses by which I orient myself. Yes, I have several in my life. We’ll talk about that some day.

That bookshelf is where I go when I need a boost. It’s there when I don’t know how to structure something, it’s there when I need a reference. All useful stuff. It’s a bookshelf, it’s a tool to aid me, and also it keeps clutter off my floor.

But stacked along with all my references and notes, is anxiety. And to be blunt about it, envy is a jerk. Anxiety is a huge fucking jerk, the amalgam of every bully, every blowhard, every abuser, every torturer you can imagine. And that’s because anxiety is armed with a barbed nagyka of self-doubt.

Anxiety uses it competently to flay the nerves, skewer assumptions, and scourge confidence.

And here’s how it happens.

So you’re writing, or you’re thinking about writing. Maybe there are words on the page, maybe they’re still forming semi-orderly lines in your head before they paratroop down screen or page. All things are going well. You’ve got something to drink. The dog doesn’t need to go out. The phone isn’t ringing. You’ve got a good playlist queued up. No one’s knocking at the door. It’s go-time, writer. Time to make the words happen.

In that instant, in that small moment of pause between one word and the next, you catch the faintest whiff of worry. You have words down, your fingers are dancing over keys, but the pace is slowing. The worry grows. The writing stops. Your stomach does a little toddler’s tumble. And so begin the questions.

Is this okay? Am I good enough to do this? Is this going to do alright? Will an editor shred this in their toothy maw? Will anyone buy this stuff? What the hell am I doing? Crack crack crack goes the flail. In those wounds, already festering and raw, more self-doubt seeps in. Until you’re comparing yourself to other people. Until your fingers aren’t on the keys. Until you’re unsure of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Now this is even before we can talk about anxiety burgling its way into your head when you’re not writing. There’s material there for a dozen lifetimes of blogs by a thousand billion people. I’m looking at the panic, worry, and doubt that comes when the words are supposed to be coming out.

I look at my bookshelf, and see the names. Would I ever be as good as them? Would they recognize me as talented? Would they let me into whatever fantastic club I believe them a part of? Am I good at anything? Will I leave a legacy like theirs? Am I shouting into some void? Would I be better off moving to some orchard and picking fruit? (I bet I’d be a great orchardeer, or orchard caretaker, orchardtaker or whatever)

There was once I time where these thoughts would send me angrily to pull the shelf down, and throw the books every which way in the room. There was a time when I’d write a very large “Fuck Everything” on social media, or any media and just go play video games and sulk. That anger has been pulled from me, with regular leeching of comfort and wisdom. And I’m thankful. Because now I get to sit here and see the anxiety coming. Now I maybe know what to do about it.

See, I don’t know if I’ll leave a legacy. I have no idea if anyone but a few people will remember me when I’m gone, let alone remember me fondly. I have no idea if there’s a secret good-writer club. I don’t know if some of the people whose books are on my shelves know I exist.

It’s hard to say that I don’t care. Because I do care. I just try not to care so much. That’s not easy. I know it’s not easy. But it’s what I need to do to get my fingers back on those keys. It’s what I need to say to myself, over and over, even out loud, even at meals, even just before I post to the blog, so that I assure myself that these efforts aren’t lost.

No, no, this isn’t some blather where I’m seeking your praise. Sure, I’d love some right now, but I’m trying to be objective here, don’t you see? The answer to the anxiety is reassurance. We can debate whether it’s best from yourself or others later, the fact remains that reassurance from somewhere is often enough to kick anxiety to the curb.

So I look to my lighthouse again. And yes, there are plenty of writers to be envious of there. Book after book share the same names. But tucked between them, there are the books I worked on. The things I’ve done. My name may not be on many covers, but my name’s in there. Reassurance.

Here’s where you tell me, John, I’m just (WHOEVER YOU ARE)) and I haven’t been published. What good does your lighthouse do me? All I have are these books by other people, and I feel so small and insignificant.

And I will say to you – the act of writing is reassurance. Yeah, I know, it’s not as reassuring as being published, but I’ll tell you that plenty of people I know have been published more than once and they’re never coasting on some idea that they’ve “made it.” There’s that hunger, that drive, that hustle. (We’ll talk hustle Friday)

Do whatever you can to reassure yourself that what you’re doing, what you’re making, belongs on a bookshelf. Even if it’s your bookshelf. Maybe you go play with your kids when you’re done writing for the day. Maybe you go look at SpongeBob porn (I just found out that was a thing). Maybe you go into the backyard and stare at clouds. Maybe you play Spider Solitaire until your fingers cramp. Whatever you do, whatever balm you can provide yourself, go do it.

And then go write. One idea, one word, one step at a time. You lose your bearings, you look to that lighthouse, you look to that waiting reassurance, and you get back to writing.

Let’s make a deal. I’ll believe in you, you believe in me, and we’ll go shake anxiety down for its lunch money and buy tacos when we’re done writing for the day.

You’re good enough to do the amazing things. You’re good enough to write what you want. You might need help, it might take a while to write what you want. but you can do this.

Don’t give up. You’re not alone. (maybe I’m saying this as much to myself as to you) Go write.

See you Friday, when we talk hustle.

Some things to do now that you’ve read this post —
Check out the Google Community where you can congregate with other writers doing writer-stuff.
Want more John-words? Got a few bucks? Check out Smashwords.
Find me on Twitter, and see what I’m talking about today.

Starting The Year Off

Blank pages and I never had this relationship before. I didn’t think twice about them. I never became aware of their size. I never courted their infinite potential. They were just the space where I put words. They weren’t scary. They weren’t ominous.

So when I spent the whole of December filling them, day after day, the blank page was just this workspace. It had no greater meaning to me than a legal pad or the notepad I keep in the kitchen to write grocery lists.

But then I took a much needed day off. Technically, it was a weekend off, as I’m rewriting this post on Monday morning. There was a post here, but it was raw and a little desperate … but we’ll get there. I took that day off, and looked backwards. That’s not something I normally do, but we’ll get there too.

Reflection is a trap. Reflection can lead to nostalgia, envy, comparison, and a host of other distractions. And into that trap I fell.

The blank page of the blogpost became prison and torturer all at once.

To fight it, I did what I always do, I did what I tell everyone to do, you go spit in its eye and you get to work. Writing with that edge of proving the doubt wrong. Full throttle, no brakes.

Now I could tell you that just bull-nosed slogging through that moment of doubt or fear fixed everything and I’m all 100000000% back on track, but that would be a lie. Sure, making my fingers put words on the page helped there not be a blank page, but reflection doesn’t just evaporate just because you do something.

Oh no, reflection takes the words you’re making and snacks on them. It sees what you’re doing and (if you’re like me) it starts to compare them to other words. Maybe other words you wrote, maybe other words other people wrote.

Now I’ve done some checking and I am not Tesla, Pressfield, Doyle, Wendig, Stout, Miranda, McKee, Dawson, Baker, Henry, Engard, Balsera, Hicks, Macklin, Edison, Ford, Foley, or King. I am none of those people. I am a guy in a bathrobe that smells like woodsmoke. I am a guy who sees success like it’s a light at the end of a tunnel. A tunnel that I’ve been running like a marathon, with both my legs chained together, dragging behind me the assorted cement covered ghosts those who doubted me, adults who abused and infected me with doubt and fear, a number of rejection letters, professional faux pas, and unspoken envies and regrets. One foot in front of the other. I feel the ghosts clawing at my shins and ankles. One foot in front of the other.

What I’m saying is, I see what other people are doing, I look at what I’m doing, and I often feel bad about what I’m doing. It makes me melancholy. It makes me desperate. You won’t see the blogpost that I originally wrote, where I went on and on about how much pneumonia sucks. You won’t see the stream of consciousness I needed to exorcise from me. That was the frustration and vulnerability and fear taking my ideas and tinting them.

Sure, it was a good post, some of those sentences have so far been repurposed here, but this mess of reflection and comparison feels like quicksand. Struggle in it, become aware of it, and you’re going down.

And because now I’m aware of it, the blank page is white quicksand.

When that pull grabs you, when you start going under, you start grabbing at anything to stay afloat. For me, it’s shocking transparency and raw honesty. Tell the world how I’m hurting. Tell the world how tough, hard, scary, and grim the world can be. Talk about mental health. Talk about poverty. Talk about health care and heartache and fleeting happiness. Be vulnerable, so that people won’t just read my words, but they’ll feel something. They feel something, so I’ll feel something.

That doesn’t stop the quicksand, it still pulls, but at least then I’m not sinking so quickly. But I’ve lost something along the way. It’s not terribly “professional” to be talking so horrifically about the downsides of being me. It’s not encouraging for people to come hire me if I’ve spent blog page after blog page talking about chest pains and hospital visits. It’s not the start of a great working relationship if I get angry at one group of people for not hiring me while I do get the chance to work for another group of people.

So what to do?

I go look for the magic sword. mastersword

There’s this moment in Legend of Zelda, where your little guy is wandering around the maze of woods, trying to get his shit together, trying to overcome obstacles, trying to keep going (does any of that sound familiar?) and eventually, after a few adventures and some hard work, you come to this clearing and there’s this sword in a stone. You of course have recently discovered the ability to wield said sword, because quest logic, so you yank the sword from its pedestal, and it’s go time.

Armed with that magic sword, you are ability to mow down your opponents and feel pretty sweet while doing it. It’s a pretty awesome sense of accomplishment. I’ve always liked that moment. It’s wonder this little warrior guy doesn’t slice his thumb off, but he does alright.

To find my own magic sword, I go find things that inspire me: today it’s a hardcore wrestling match where I watched a man fall twenty feet and not die, and a little boy building with Lego, and turn that perseverance, turn what those things mean to me, into my own I-can-do-this magic sword, which I get to wield because it’s my own damned magic sword.

Armed now, I go attack the voices in my head that tell me I don’t know what I’m doing, or that I’m not good at doing whatever it is I think I’m doing. I stab and swing and carve a swath of “Go fuck yourself, voices” into that screaming chorus of no-one-loves-me-and-no-one-could-because-look-how-bad-I-am-at-doing-things and I equate bad with failure with wrong. So of course I need to stab the ever loving hell out of those ghosts. There’s good work in me, I just need to get this crap out of the way first.

All this came from the reflection, remember, from taking time away from writing daily. I see this, I hear the voices, I swing the sword, and say to myself, “To avoid doing this on the regular, I should probably stop reflecting, I should probably stop stopping.”

Yeah, that’s a completely reasonable solution (that’s sarcasm). Swinging from one extreme (go full super work) to the other (do nothing) is not a solution for anything that isn’t turning on a light switch.

Which means my only option is to put the words on the page and keep trying.

I don’t know how to be that ideal professional. I don’t know how to blog “Effectively” according to Pinterest articles. I don’t know how to do a lot of that stuff.

What I do know is writing. Word craft. Story structure. Creativity. Words.

So let’s spend 2016 getting better at things. Let’s go together on this trip where I go get FiYoShiMo published. Let’s march through lessons about writer’s block and story structure for bad TV and movies. Let’s talk professionalism and audience building and good networking. Let’s have a laugh at the number of stories I have that start with, “So I have vague recollections of meeting this person when I wasn’t sober…”

Let us make 2016 a year where we do good work together.

And don’t worry, I’ve got this magic sword.

 

What Did I Just Watch – How To Get Away With Murder, First Episode

As I’ve done elsewhere (here, here and here), I watch a TV show and poke at its writing, its characters and its plot. I get critical and snarky and often offer a more compelling rewrite when necessary. It’s been a long time (5 years) since I dusted off my screenwriting skills, but I still keep abreast of good writing and writing analysis when it comes to things on screen.

Today I take a look at How To Get Away With Murder, because six people on Twitter told me I should, and because Netflix thinks I might like it. Did I? Kinda. Enough to want to watch more.

It’s a popular show, and I can see why. But it’s by no means without weaknesses. So let’s talk about them.

First, Let’s Cover The Characters (thanks to Wikipedia, I have character names)

Wes Gibbins – Let’s call him Slack-Jawed Eager New Guy. He’s the character we follow the closest in this ensemble. He’s marked by eagerness, newness, and I think there’s something wrong with his neck and face, but we’ll get to that later.

Professor Keating – She’s the tough as nails and therefore badass and strong law professor around whom the show orbits. She’s complex, she’s mean, she’s intentionally unlikeable and therefore mysterious, and plenty of characters tell me that she’s a good lawyer, so I don’t have to bother discovering that for myself. Thanks for all the TELL to save me from having to work on the SHOW. Let’s call her Mean Lawyer.

Connor Walsh – The gay narcissist part of the law student ensemble. Let’s call him RuthlessGuy because I don’t think anyone told him he wasn’t a rom-com badguy.

Michaela Pratt – Another tough as nails, strong, badass. Let’s call her UnlikeableWoman. We’ll talk about her in some detail later.

Asher Millstone – Still one more guy from the law student ensemble. I think he’s the token white character among all the diversity. I have very little idea what he brings to the group other than helping it appear more diverse. Oh, he’s got a terrible name that should be on someone who ties a sweater over his shoulder and worries about a regatta or stock portfolios. Let’s call him PreppyGuy.

Laurel Castillo – She’s an idealistic law student, she’s also the check mark on the obvious Hispanic demographic. And being that this is a primetime show, I bet at some point she’s going to (a) have a troubled backstory with a broken home (b) start an inappropriate relationship where she has to trade idealism for success (c) go full skank and use discovered sex appeal to get what she wants. Call her the Idealistic One.

We’ll add some other characters as we go along.

I’m watching this episode (sadly) in 480p, so my screencaps may be blurry. I apologize. You can also follow along yourself, on Netflix.

The Breakdown

Opening 20 seconds: Staccato intro – imagery of TP, people bunched together, tension, anger, energy. Music underscores this. I like this intro, it’s got a good sense of interest, it’s visually engaging. In text I imagine a few paragraphs of various vignettes, not completely spelling everything out, but giving the highlights.

Cluttered. Underlit. The visual equivalent of about three paragraphs of worldbuilding.

Cluttered. Underlit. The visual equivalent of about three paragraphs of worldbuilding.

0:34 After a harsh sweep from hot color to cold color, we see a man blurrily running. The implication is that this is a character we’re going to follow. The move from hot color to cold color is visual, it’s the same thing in text when we start a paragraph with a name just after spending some time doing a little worldbuilding. I prefer this in text. The underlighting and over saturation of blue makes things look unclear.

0:37 After following the running man, we come to another poorly lit moment. An argument. It’s the first use of the word “bitch”, and it gets a response of, “Don’t tell me how to feel right now.” By putting the characters at odds with one another but only through dialog, you’re expediting the audience’s connection to the tension and the momentum of a story in progress. It’s not a bad thing to do, but it can be overdone and it makes really big assumptions on behalf the audience as to how they’re to connect with characters depending on what they’re saying. The tension of the moment is revealed in the dialogue’s delivery, which is preferable to outright saying what the problem is by saying it. (We’ll talk about that in a second.)

0:42 The revelation of an object is the first major camera move, and the first major visual cue that this item is important.

Look at where the light falls on this thing. It's screaming

Look at where the light falls on this thing. It’s screaming “PAY ATTENTION TO ME”

The fact that we are so blatantly told to pay attention to this item tells the audience it is important. It tells me, as I critique this, that the writer(s) don’t trust the audience to figure out that the first individuated item shown on screen since the opening montage would by default be important. This is the sort of things that earns a “WHY DO YOU HATE YOUR AUDIENCE” comment from me.

** For the new people, I often challenge the writer with why they hate their audience or reader when the writer fails to show that they believe or trust their reader/audience to be competent enough to follow along or get what’s important. It’s one of the things I’m known for **

0:48 The show’s first legal citation, Commonwealth v Deloach. Spoken by Idealistic One, it shows her character is brainy, and that during this crisis-argument, she speaks less emotionally. I have zero idea who these people are or what they’re doing, but it has something to do with this trophy. And the show title gives me an idea that murder is a thing that happens. I can draw from these facts that the idealistic one knows something about the law. It would be great if I got some character names so I could distinguish people.

1:00 Oh look, I get some character names – Connor, Michaela. If these characters know each other, why name-check? Is it because there’s an audience and we’ve gone 60 seconds without any proper nouns aside from a legal reference? When my friends and I talk (and generally not in poorly lit forests), I seldom name check them when we’re all together because we are all smart enough to figure out who’s talking to and about whom, and if for some reason it’s unclear, someone asks. Ding the “Why do you hate your audience” bell again.

Yes I know, we have to introduce characters, and we often do that through names spoken in dialogue. Yes, I know that during exposition text, we don’t need to speak the character’s name, especially in third-person POV. I just wish the dialogue was smoother. Not less calm, smoother. Less I-am-using-your-name-so-the-audience-associates-it-with-your-stupid-face” and more I-am-a-real-person-in-this-situation-and-this-is-my-reaction.

1:14 The dialogue continues doing a whole lot of telling and not a lot of showing. We learn this is a campus and that this is a busy time of year, even though we saw that visually about seventy seconds ago. The fact that this has to be told to me does two things:

i. It dings the “Why do you hate your audience” bell
ii. It makes me dislike the character saying this line even more.

Because it’s a bossy, I’m-trying-to-be-tough thing to say. It’s not a quip because it’s not played for comedy, but as the line of dialogue is so lengthy and delivered so aggressively, it’s more TELL and less SHOW. I don’t know why we couldn’t have been trusted to figure out that a bonfire and a sports coach saying they were going to kick Ohio’s ass (or whatever) didn’t clue us into it being a campus sufficiently. Are there people who actually see that and think there’s a border dispute or state-to-state hostility branching out? If so, you’re on notice South Dakota, it might be time for you to become West New Jersey.

1:24 “This is murder none of us know what we’re talking about.” Cue the suspenseful organ music. This point of speech is way on the nose. It reveals plot – these people killed someone – and dialogue should not reveal plot, dialogue is a reaction to plot (you don’t need to talk about the plot, because these characters were presumably present for it happening)

It’s like saying:

“What a car wash.”
“Yes that car wash we were at sure was interesting, right my three friends who attended the car wash with me not ten minutes ago before we came to this malt shop?”

Here the audience gets spoonfed  because it’s clear this show doesn’t trust anyone enough to pick up what’s going on. They’ve talked evidence, wiping prints and putting an item back, it’s a show called “How To Get Away With Murder” as the title. I’m sure people can put two and sixty-five together and see what’s happening. But no, we get this line of dialogue from the Idealistic One. Much like explaining a joke, if you have to spell out what’s going on, you’ve already lost.

These characters circle the plot somewhat or at least sort of dance around the shadow of the crisis that’s led them to this moment, before finally flipping a coin to figure what to do with a body. Have these people not seen a TV show, movie or video game? If the death was accidental I could see a sense of surprise (“Oh gosh I’m sorry I didn’t know caving in your head would kill you), but with this many people involved, I don’t think someone tripped, fell and landed repeatedly on a blunt instrument in someone’s hand.

My first suggestion was that they’d use the bonfire from the opening in some way, because when you set up a thing, you should use it in some way, and because maybe I’ve spent too much time enjoying media with body counts so the story development around murder isn’t so shocking. I also suggested they take the corpse out in a boat on the Italian coast and toss it overboard before impersonating them for a while.

So they circle the plot and stall their argument (so we really know they’re conflicted, you guys) and then flip a coin.

2:10 The toss of the coin cuts to the spinning of a bicycle tire because someone struggled I guess to think of a worse transitional device. Is it because both objects are round? It can’t be because both are spinning – the coin is flipping, the wheel is rotating, it’s not the same axis of movement. Either way, we transition out of cold blue light to bright day, which means this is a flashback to simpler happier times. The text on screen tells us it’s 3 Months Earlier, and immediately establishes that this show will cut back and forth between MurderTime and ColorfulTime.

THERE ARE NINE SECONDS OF BIKE RIDING. NINE. Are we showing off his pedaling skills? He’s not doing tricks. He’s just riding in a straight line. It’s not a custom bike. It’s not about the bike riding, is it? Whatever it is, this is filler.

2:35 We see our viewpoint character looking up at the name of the building he’s entering. Middleton Law School. The shot
lingers on the sign SO THAT YOU KNOW HE IS GOING TO LAWYER SCHOOL. Again, audience, eat your nom noms.

2:44 We move inside the building for the first reveal of a missing girl who sort of looks like Avril Lavigne. The camera is starting to stick on shots, which is the visual equivalent of writing multiple sentences about a thing. We’re one step away from having a giant arrow appear to tell us what’s important.

Our POV character, it’s worth pointing out, has some issue with his face, because for the last nearly 3 minutes, he’s made essentially one face.

See the half open mouth? Maybe it's a jaw issue.

See the half open mouth? Maybe it’s a jaw issue.

If this look is meant to show amazement at him being a fish out of water (we’ll later learn that he is, because he’ll TELL us, not show us), then the look should have happened AS he was coming into the scene, not brought with him from before. Now he just looks like a bipedal trout.

3:04 We endure some famous real-world lawyer name checks to help reinforce that we’re in lawyer school. Again, we’re TOLD that Keating is as good as, or better than other people. It’s not questioned. It’s just a fact in this universe. This saves us the trouble of drawing our own conclusions about how good a person is at a job. Notice how we’ve lingered on a few people with that sticky camera. Think about this in terms of an exposition paragraph. Does each one of these lines of dialogue warrant its own sentence? Could this get summarized? How could the audience care more about this stuff?

3:16 Warning! Annoying trope ahead! New Guy meets Unlikeable Woman. And we see her as a ubiquitous “strong” character who doesn’t put up with anything. She’s holding a highlighter in her hand so you know she’s focused and dedicated. The fact that she’s black and a woman helps fill out the show’s “Necessary to pacify the internet” bingo card. The idea of the “bitchy” character being synonymous with strong propagates the idea that a woman (especially a black one) has to be so tough in order to be perceived as strong, else she’s played for nearly racist comedy

This is the moment where I put the brakes on and write this out in large letters on my notepad:

Bitchy =/= strong Sassy =/= strong

Yes, sure we can “relate” to bitchy characters in the sense that we know of them in our real lives, but do we really enjoy
their company? Do we like to hang out with them? Do you want to get to know someone so forcibly tough and spiky on purpose? Does their hostility and arrogance make them attractive to you?

3:21 The assigned seating dialogue concludes the meet-not-cute and prompts the subsequent scene. I highlight this because New Guy never struggles to find his seat, although in a few seconds he’ll be in the correct seat without difficulty. For a fish out of water, he’s not demonstrating a whole lot of struggle. He’s not showing a lot of competence either.

3:37 Intro of Axis Character. An Axis Character is the character around which the whole show moves, they’re often the title character (House, Sherlock, Frasier) or they’re the biggest star in the cast (like here, it’s Viola Davis) She’s also tough. We know this based on her first line and how she delivers it: “I don’t know what terrible things you’ve done in your life up to this point but clearly your karma is out of balance to get assigned to my class.”

Remember how we just talked about tough as nails not being the same as strong? Teeth bared, claws out posturing isn’t
strength, it’s aggression. It’s a response to perceived threat, the way that strength of character is perseverance or strength
of body is bending bars and lifting gates.

The more hostile and in-your-face, the harder it is for the audience to connect, or want to connect, unless your audience
is packed with people who either submit to strength quickly, or they’re looking for aggressors to emulate so they can mask their own insecurities.

4:00 Viola Davis (I’ve now decided to just imagine that this is how Viola is everyday, that this isn’t a role for her) sells the title. For those that don’t know ‘selling the title’ is when you reference the title within the work, usually in dialogue. It’s a little cute, but it happens here.

You noticed how her head obscures part of the title, right? That's a pretty crappy shot.

You noticed how her head obscures part of the title, right? That’s a pretty crappy shot.

4:18 There’s a line here about “a real lawyer” which I think is meant to reinforce that Viola Davis isn’t the in the fucking around business (more on that later), but the delivery here makes me think this line was supposed to have more to the paragraph, like she was supposed to trash some people to set herself up for genius.

4:28 We’re just now getting to the plot. If we hold to the screenwriting maxim that a page is about a minute of show, we’re 4.5 pages into our script. It’s hard to parse that into novel terms, but I’m willing to say we’re about three pages in at least. Now, I’ve taken a lot of slices here every few seconds, but is it me, or does this show feel like I’ve been watching it for 13 hours?

5:22 About a minute goes by and we’re getting plot, but then we go make New Guy a fish out of water by asking him what the mens rea for the plot is. My issue with this scene, aside from the camera shot, is that this is a law school, yes, and presumably, he had to take the LSAT to get into this law school. And presumably the LSAT included the term mens rea on it … so why is he acting like he’s never heard of it? Is that because the average audience member isn’t up on their legal terminology? Or is the writer hating the audience again because they’ve managed to make the Axis Character look smarter than everyone else (which she should be, she’s teaching) and the POV character dumber than everyone else (which he shouldn’t be if we’re supposed to believe he belongs in this environment)?

In this setup of plot, we also learn that New Guy is a transfer student, so he’s unprepared. Why he doesn’t speak up and say this until he’s spoken to first, I don’t know. We also get to see glimpses of our ensemble as the aspects they represent.

New Guy – creativity and eagerness

Ruthless Guy – intelligence and focus

Idealistic One – Validation seeking

Unlikeable Woman – Take charge attitude

Other Guy – Other stuff

Often what happens in ensemble pieces, individual characters represent aspects. There’s the brave one, the smart one, the outgoing one, etc. This concept shows up in a lot of media.

7:30 With the plot thoroughly explained and the characters roughly sketched, we go forward to a new scene. Where an entire classroom is now in an office listening to the “client”. Aside from my complete confusion as to how this is allowed, because I’m pretty sure they all gained knowledge about an ongoing case and there’s gotta be rules about that I think, there’s a logistical issue.

Here’s the classroom in the previous scene:

Big room, lots of people in seats.

Big room, lots of people in seats.

And here’s the classroom inside her office:

How can all these people hear one woman at the far end of the room?

How can all these people hear one woman at the far end of the room?

Really? All these people in that space? Is her office the TARDIS? I’m calling disproportionate description. My rewrite (later in this blogpost) will reflect changes to avoid this setup.

8:41 Introduction of Frank. I really wanted him to say “badabing” or “badabing badaboom”, but instead he’s the token sexist not-a-lawyer-but-a-guy-who-gets-things-done guy.

8:50 Introduction of Bonnie. She’s pretty generic here. She pops back up later and we’ll discuss her then.

9:05 Hey you guys, remember that item we set up about eight minutes ago? Now it’s back! We’re paying off our setups, right? We all took screenwriting 101 and we were all in class for the third week, right? All we have to do now is save the cat!

The fact that this object gets called out to give it additional importance (it’s a motivator for characters to perform well, it’s only coincidentally the murder weapon or vice versa) is unnecessary. If it were just an object in the room that the camera didn’t center a shot on, this would seem more natural. And it would keep the focus on the murder and the statue’s use as a weapon or evidence. Again, this gets changed in my rewrite.

9:08 We cut BACK to the MurderTime. I’ll remind you that we were there about eight minutes ago. Eight minutes, maybe one commercial break has passed. Referencing something that happened in less time than it does to get up, put on a pot of tea, heat tea, steep tea and sit back down to drink it is not vital. It’s lazy. It’s spoonfeeding us more and more show. I know, this is Episode 1 of a show, and they want to give all the interesting stuff a chance to hook the audience, but when you’re hooking people in ways that don’t assume their intelligence, how long do you expect them to keep watching?

10:41 After a jump back to ColorfulTime to show New Guy discovering just how much out of water he is, we’re back again to MurderTime. It’s been a little over a minute since we were here last, and the swapping back and forth without a montage can be jarring. Our lawyer school student ensemble is rolling up the body in a carpet, and UnlikeableWoman is defiantly standing there so she can deny knowing what they were doing. That sounds like it should be a great line, but the narrative assumption made is that none of the other people would roll over on her for a reduced punishment. That’s a pretty telling decision, suggesting that ultimately this group of characters is bonded so tightly, and none of them would act out of self-interest. We haven’t been shown this bond, but the show has gone ahead and told us this is happening.

12:40 Here we see the bond when UnlikeableWoman throws a campus cop off their trail, and because a TV show can’t resist taking a chance to have its threats reduced, the cop has to go stop invisible offscreen looters. Neutralizing the menace is supposed to lead us to believe that the group is lucky, but it’s hard to be lucky when the writing is so packed with convenience and spoonfeeding. I’m sure if there weren’t offscreen looters, the writers would have had his walkie talkie chatter or maybe his shoe would need tying. Convenience is poison to tension and pacing.

13:33 ColorfulTime again as we watch lawyer school, and our ensemble (who we completely know now has to advance in this “competition” so we’re only really watching it so their roles (see above) get reinforced. The shock that NewGuy makes it is completely invalidated by all the flashbacks. It doesn’t matter if his character is surprised, WE aren’t. And if he’s supposed to be our surrogate, our entry point into show, then we’re BOTH supposed to be surprised. Again, this is something my rewrite will address.

19:40 NewGuy goes and talks to Keating, and discovers she’s getting some Night in her Rodanthe (IMDB it), with a guy who I thought was the Tae-bo guy (it isn’t). She gets up off the desk and goes to talk to NewGuy, and when she discovers the unlocked door … she CALLS FRANK (her associate) to yell about it. She doesn’t yell back at her paramour who clearly either teleported into the office or used the door – even if she was waiting in the office for him – so there’s no reason to call Frank. If you’re saying, “But John, clearly Frank doesn’t know his boss is enjoying the company of her not-husband and fucking around while being in the business of not fucking around, so we need to know that Frank was the last in the office and responsible for the door.”

BUT … she’s doing this in front of NewGuy. The issue really isn’t the door. The issue is that NewGuy now has information he isn’t supposed to. Why not keep the scene tense? Why give any amount of shit about getting Frank in trouble?
22:13 Here we see Ruthless Guy is gay, because he’s exploiting a one night stand for information that the team can use in this plot. It’s not all that bold a move to make a character gay, and it’s not all that racy to imply gay sex. So, this is just to rile up some viewers who want to see some pecs and watch a sort of nerdy Asian guy get a little something something. You go completely unnamed Asian guy, you go.

It’s not even a shock that a guy we’re calling Ruthless Guy would act like this to get what he wants.

Though I do like the fact that this wasn’t done by a woman. Kudos. Onward though, things are about to suck for a few minutes.

28:11 A lot has happened in the 6 minutes, and it’s completely unnecessary. All of it can go. We learn that they’re almost caught disposing of the body (there’s no need to have that happen, it doesn’t make it more tense); we meet Keating’s husband and there’s a tense moment between NewGuy and Keating (there doesn’t need to be one); and we have a scene between Frank and the Idealistic One that ends with Bonnie telling Frank to stop screwing the students. Which means Frank is going to bang the idealistic One (and while this reveals information about Frank, it means Idealistic One won’t stay Idealistic, which muddies her character arc).

Why? Because the minute she gets it on, she’s no longer idealistic. If her arc is to slowly decay under Frank’s advances, then this scene needs to be much softer, the start of a chain of dominoes, not a ham-handed clarification that Frank gets into peoples’ pants.

29:56 We’re back in time again (oh, right, I have no idea when that scene between Idealistic and Frank happened, it’s unclear, and that’s a HUGE problem in a show that’s going to regularly manipulate time to tell me a story at both ends). Now we’re with NewGuy and Keating, moments after they shared a tense look while meeting her husband. She’s cornered her student in the bathroom, and she reveals that she and her husband are trying to conceive and it’s “putting pressure on the marriage”. This means the dude she was in her office was … going to release some pressure? She and her sexual plumber don’t need a reason to be paramours. They can just be paramours. Let her reason be unknown, or later, just show a dead bedroom situation.

33:00 We finally get to some plot tension (the episode runtime is 43:40, we have 10 minutes left, and we’re just now getting to episode plot-based tension) when Bonnie has failed in her job as associate because she didn’t get some camera footage. This results in a fight as Keating gets pissed at her, and because Bonnie is a secondary character, she buckles. So this isn’t a fight between two developed characters with respective motivations, this is a chance to the audience to wonder how Keating is going to be amazing at her job. Which should be less in question because twenty-something minutes ago, all the students did was say how amazing she was. Again, this is a tensionless scene, as we have little reason to suspect that our Axis Character is going to lose in our initial experience with her.

To resolve the plot, Keating makes the move to have her sexual plumber take the stand (and thanks to yet another don’t-worry-audience-you-won’t-have-to-think-too-hard flashback, we see the sex plumber to be a cop who was supposed to be doing police-things instead of Keating-things. I guess this is meant to show us that she’s willing to risk everything for a win, but this is the first time we’ve met this whole environment, so it’s hard to know if this infidelity mattered to her. It’s hard to know if this infidelity has even been going on for a while (maybe it’s a one night stand, who knows). It’s under-established, so the risk doesn’t have any tension you’d expect it to if you want to make us care about risking it. Again, the rewrite will do something about this.

37:43 Of course our heroes win the day, and just because we can’t leave well enough alone, UnlikeableWoman delivers this line: “I want to be her”, meaning she wants to be like Keating when she grows up. That’s not a quip, that’s not sharp, that’s sort of obvious. Unlikeable and Keating are the most similar characters, it only makes sense that a possible arc for Unlikeable is that she rises up to challenge Keating’s alpha-bitch status.

Here’s the shot:

The guy in the background behind Ruthless IS NOT David Tennant.

The guy in the background behind Preppy Guy IS NOT David Tennant.

See how she’s fidgeting with her engagement ring? This is a visual cue that’s willing to sacrifice her engagement (and therefore her life as it is or as it could be) to be Keating. But look at the giant spacing next to Idealistic (also, what the hell is she wearing? Everyone is all jacket and shirt, and she looks like she’s ready for Cosmos after work with the other au pairs). There’s a huge gap that ideally would be filled in, maybe by sliding Ruthless out of the foreground and into the midground, so you get a sense that they’re all equal here as a team. But that’s probably asking too much.

41:10 We also get the arc for the bigger season (presumably), referencing back to that Avril Lavigne missing girl at the top of the show. Yet again dialogue tells us plot details, as Keating and her husband discuss it, and Keating says “I bet the boyfriend did it.” Now, had the camera moved back to the TV screen, we’d be left in suspense. But no, that damned sticky camera stays on the two of them:

Again, who taught the camera guy his job, why are you showing us this damned lamp?

Again, who taught the camera guy his job, why are you showing us this damned lamp? Product placement?

practically screaming that the husband was Avril Lavigne’s boyfriend. Now, the look Keating is giving him, that’s almost announcing she knows what’s going on. If she knows he cheated, does he know about her affair?Is that suspicion supposed to drive us anywhere? I’d flag this so hard for a rewrite.

42:50 We’re back to MurderTime where the students have finally gotten the body prepped for burning, and the last moments of the show? Who’s the body? KEATING’S HUSBAND! Yes, that was an interesting development, I will give credit for it, but that means on some level you’ve just made the students and Keating adversaries rather than partners, especially if it’s later revealed that Keating actually loved her husband. We have no mention of motive, which is supposed to make us tune in to find it, and we have no idea how this reached this point.

The show goes to credits.

Before I get to my rewrite, let me point out a danger in manipulating time the way this show does. We’re starting at both ends (forget the run time of the episode for a minute, we’re talking narrative ends) – we have events around a murder contrasted against how the group of murderers all got together. If each is developed in their respective vectors (meaning the intro timeline moves us from Day 1 to Murder and Murder moves backwards to show how it was done, then planned), ultimately at the end of the season, we’re at the dead middle between Day One and Murder. Since we like to end seasons with a cliffhanger or something big to lead us forward, a reasonable middle point would be Keating discovering the plan, or at least suspecting something’s up. But that nullifies the idea that we’ve set Keating vs students as opposing forces. Which means it’s unlikely to have a Keating discovery as the midpoint-turned-finale. See what happens when you bend time? It requires far more planning, maybe too much. And when the show spoonfeeds as much as it does, why keep watching?

The Rewrite

Before I can give you my version of this show, we need to make some substantial changes to the ensemble.

1. We’re going to cut out Preppy Guy. He didn’t do anything, so out he goes. Any emotional arc he had we can fold into RuthlessGuy.

2. We’re going to combine Bonnie and Frank, and we’ll call the character Bonnie. And Bonnie is both an associate lawyer (so we can put her in courtroom scenes) but also the willing-to-do-anything goon, only we’re not going to make sex her primary weapon. She’ll be sexy, but we’re going to make her bi or pansexual. You’ll see why in a minute.

3. Keating isn’t teaching law school, she’s running a law firm and our students are her first-year associates. Each associate, rather than be students representing different emotional facets, will now represent different legal experiences. Idealistic One will be an inner city public defender, UnlikeableWoman will be a career lawyer from a family of lawyers, RuthlessGuy has ambitions of politics, and NewGuy is a quiet small-town lawyer who got recognized because of some articles he wrote. This way, everyone is already good at their jobs, and we can dispense with the classroom/collegiate necessities.

Ready?

My rewrite – Our show opens on a nightspot. A graphic tells us this is early November, X number of days before the election. The place is packed, the music is loud and the bar is lined up three deep. The camera tracks through the room over someone’s shoulder until we get to a booth in the back, where RuthlessGuy is flirting with a guy, and the two men vibe strongly. Once the shot widens, the guy we were following (who turns out to be NewGuy) gives RuthlessGuy a nod. RuthlessGuy excuses himself from the table and his flirting to make a phonecall, maybe under the auspices of “making sure his roommate isn’t going to be home” to give the flirting a hint of sex to come. What he’s really doing is calling UnlikeableWoman. 

UnlikeableWoman takes the phone call after stepping away from a very fancy cocktail party, where she’s chatting with powerful people (one of them is Keating, but we don’t know that yet). Ruthless tells Unlikeable “You should come hang out with NewGuy for a drink, he looks lonely” which sounds like something flirtatious, but is in fact a code to relay information. She nods and responds affirmatively, then goes back to the cocktail party. 

We cut to Bonnie and Idealistic One, they’re just getting out what was likely a mutual shower, they don’t talk, and Bonnie tells Idealistic “not to get too comfortable, she isn’t spending the night.” The camera lingers on the bathroom floor, we see a lot of mud and blood smear the shower stall floor, and wet clothes hang in the back of the shot. 

A title card and some credits hit the lower-third of the screen, and they fade to reveal a graphic of “3 months earlier”, and that we’re now on a subway platform. It’s crowded, and must be a morning commute, as people are half-awake, propped up by coffee and locked to their phones. The camera weaves through the crowd, showing us NewGuy, Idealistic One, Unlikeable Woman, and Ruthless Guy, all looking more awake than most. They all board the train, endure the ride and we cut from closing subway car doors to opening elevator doors, as the foursome gets off an elevator and walks into a large boardroom. Seated at the center of the large conference table is Keating, and she’s got her back to us. She’s yelling into the phone, and from behind her back, waves the foursome to seats. Bonnie moves in from out of frame to hand each one of them a maroon folder but warns them not to open it yet. UnlikeableWoman and Ruthless Guy both disobey this order, to the glare of Idealistic One. New Guy waits patiently. 

Keating slams the phone down and spins in her chair to jump us right into the plot – A woman she knows personally is accused of murdering her husband, and Keating is sure she’s innocent. The team is tasked with building a case. The problem? The evidence all makes this woman (who we’ll call Jen) look guilty, even if they come at it from several different directions. Each of the foursome propose different defenses, all to Keating’s frustration. Finally NewGuy asks if he can open the folder, and when Keating agrees, he reads and then proposes a possible defense that Keating likes. The trick though is that in order to make sure this works, they have to get a cop to admit he screwed up while on duty. The camera lingers on Keating’s face, although she agrees while trying to hide her real feelings. 

The team compiles evidence, talking to different people, doing research, and then eventually Idealistic One says they need to talk to the cop. Keating says no cop would talk to first-year lawyers, so she’ll do it. Cut to Keating laughing in the shower with the cop. They spend some time in the afterglow, but Keating rushes the cop out of the apartment a few minutes before her husband comes home. He’s cold to her, not because he knows of the affair, just because he’s antagonistic. She tries to engage him, even seduce him, and he’s too far gone into complaining about work to care. He stomps out of the room and she picks up her phone to text Bonnie to “keep an eye on them.”

Cut to Bonnie, watching a meeting between NewGuy and Idealistic One. The shot makes it look like Bonnie is interested in NewGuy (so the exploited twist of her being into Idealistic One gets some interest), and we cut to Idealistic and NewGuy arguing about the ethics of how it isn’t right that they’re getting a cop to lie or something. NewGuy trusts Keating, saying she hasn’t led them wrong before, though Idealistic is pretty sure this is them risking too much one time too many. 

The camera comes up on the packed courtroom, where Keating is working on the defense of her client, talking to some doctor or something. RuthlessGuy keeps handing her notes and everything seems to be going along quite well. We cut to the bathroom, and we intercut between Keating talking and gesturing, and Unlikeable Woman doing much the same thing in the empty bathroom. They move motion-for-motion. Unlikeable Woman drops a pen she was using to gesture with, and when she comes up to look in the mirror, there stands Keating, for who knows how long. Keating asks if Unlikeable’s impression has gotten any better, and the two share a tense moment. The two women exit the bathroom and wait in the hallway. 

Joined by Ruthless and Bonnie, who gives them an update on what the jury is up to. Keating’s phone rings, it’s her husband and he’s trying to get her to say yes to attending some event she isn’t interested in. She eventually says yes, and returns her focus back to her team, asking where NewGuy and Idealistic are. Ruthless shrugs, Unlikeable Woman makes excuses, and Bonnie tries to call them – which is when they arrive. They can’t find the cop. Keating is furious.

Keating tracks down the cop, he’s out with his wife and newborn child, and she convinces him through a dicey conversation that if he doesn’t testify in court that he screwed up, she’ll reveal to his wife about their affair of the last several years. The cop agrees, and his wife is left completely clueless. 

Cut to the cop on the stand, and rather than implicate himself, he deviates from the agreement to implicate the doctor Keating was previously questioning. Everyone rolls with the punches and the client is found not guilty. During the celebration, Keating takes another call from her husband, saying to Bonnie, “I could kill him if he doesn’t get elected.”

We jump forward in time back to the pre-election November. The foursome meet in an abandoned lot, a pile of bags and tools in hand. From a parked car emerges Bonnie, and she explains if they want to do this, here’s how to burn a car. Idealistic One sets about removing the plates and the paperwork from the interior, and we catch her looking in the backseat – at the corpse of Keating’s husband. The team preps the car for demolition, but waits… until Keating pulls up in another car, walks up to the scene, and tosses in a whole box of lit matches. 

Our first episode ends with the sounds of the car burning.

I’ve told a tighter, darker story, with far fewer time jumps and more reasonable, if unknown, character motivations. But that’s just how I’d do it, because that’s the sort of show with this title that I’d like to watch.

Hope you enjoyed this longer post, hope it gave you a glimpse of what writing critique can do when you apply it to a TV show. Let’s talk later this week.

Sniping The Doubt

So many of you have come to this blog after my guest spot yesterday on Chuck Wendig’s blog, and I truly hope that you find my mix of writing advice, mental health discussion, random nerdery, and occasional food/life-based things to be worth your valuable time. I don’t camouflage much of my life, which has good and bad elements to it, so please know, new people, that my aim is not to offend or shock – I’m just happier showing all the ups and downs and bumps and bruises and fears and joys that come with living and working as a creator, editor, and writer of stuff. 

One of my new favorite video games is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. For those who don’t know, it’s a game about a Rambo-esque soldier running all over the Afghan and African countryside in the mid-80s while shooting Communists. There’s a rather deep and confusing backstory to the whole series of games involving clones and giant robots, but none of that is relevant for what I’m talking about today.

While still early on in the game, you get the chance to obtain a sniper rifle. It’s not a very fancy one, it’s loud and not that strong, but it’s a chance to shoot those jerks from long distance. The game prizes stealth and staying undetected while wreaking your bloody and bullet-fueled maelstrom through the land, so it’s a risky proposition to fire such a loud gun and expose yourself to return fire.

But damn if it isn’t absolutely satisfying to watch some digital pinko drop. For ‘Murica. Or something.

You’d think the game wouldn’t be one I enjoy, since it’s tense and requires patience. But yes, the guy with the terminal heart condition happens to enjoy the occasional foray into I’m-a-badass-ville and he’s learning to be patient, mostly.

So I’m laying there on this rock, zoomed in on the dome of some fortress guard, and I can feel my heart churn under my ribs. My palms are sweaty. I trying my best not to drop the controller and give up. I aim. I squeeze the trigger button. The dude collapses. I forget for a minute that every other badguy around knows where I am as I dance on the couch. Many “Oh shit” and “Run stupid, run”s later and I’m safe to try again.

It strikes me that this is also pretty close to my approach with writing and making things. Maybe it’s close to your approach too:

1. I get very excited that I’m going to do a new thing, and that potentially it could be super successful.

2. I get very worried that instead of being super successful, it’s going to be super awful, and I’ll have to try and find a part-time job selling pillows and towels again in order to cover my medical bills.

3. I start to plan what I’m going to do. I watch videos, I read blogs, I take notes, i crib shamelessly from other people.

4. I start to panic that what they’re doing, even if I modify it, will never work for me, and that I’ll never figure out how to make it work.

5. I organize all the thoughts and plans into one cohesive storm-the-French-beaches battleplan.

6. I stare at the battleplan a while. I go do other stuff and manufacture reasons to keep from going forward with my plan. I wait for the “right moment” or “a sign”.

7. I get angry with myself for not being more successful or more accomplished.

8. I get angry with myself for getting angry with myself, remind myself that I am supposed to be avoiding stress like that, and continue not going forward with my plan.

9. I talk, complain, bitch at, lament, moan, gripe, and crab with other people about my plan. I hear them get excited for me. It makes me think, just for a second, that we’re talking about some other human who clearly has the potential to be very successful.

10. I go start my plan.

In those moments where I’m not saying yes to the plan, where I’m not taking action, I’m the sniper watching the guy through the scope. My hands are sweaty, I’m really eager to start doubting myself. I’m all set not to shoot the badguy, but to tell myself how this is going to suck even if I do shoot him.

I don’t like that part of myself. I recognize that it’s essential, that it’s a critical facet for building a whole me as a maker of good stuff, but I don’t like the volume (quantity and loudness) of the doubt that can geyser up to slow me down.

For whatever reason, I forget that I’m the one holding the rifle. I forget that I’m the one who can actually do something about the doubt. Yes, sure, I can walk away from all the plans. I can give up editing. I can give up working, get on state financial assistance and spend my remaining time in some sub-standard medical gulag. Or I could shoot the doubt in the face.

Right. In. The. Face.

I don’t know if my plans will work. I don’t know if I’ll keep any new followers on social media. I don’t know if I’ll say something and people will go running for the hills. I don’t know if I’ll complain one too many times about my health or healthcare and people will write me off (there’s a pun there somewhere). But I do it anyway.

Because just like my digital Rambo can’t let the Commies win, I sure as hell am not going to let the doubt win.

Who knows if I’ll succeed. If I don’t, I’m right back to how I was before – still functional, still pretty happy, still owning an awesome dog, wearing an awesome bath robe and surrounded by so many amazing and great people.

It doesn’t matter what your plan is. It’s what you want to do. You can make a plan to accomplish anything, so long as you’re disciplined enough to work at it, and willing to reward yourself for progress as passionately as you are willing to demonize yourself for shortcomings. It’s hard, all this stuff is hard, but the good things are supposed to be hard. It’s how we grow. It’s how we reach new heights and learn to keep reaching, never complacent, never resting on laurels. It’s how we put people on the moon. It’s how we sent robots to other planets. It’s how we learned to make nachos and paint toenails.

Shoot your doubt. And don’t worry, you have unlimited ammo.

Happy writing.