The Marriage of Facts and Emotions

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

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

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

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

Okay, back to the post.

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

That error is the imbalance between fact and emotion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a delightfully merciless exercise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Happy creating.

Arrival and Some of Its Layers

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

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

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

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

Layer 1 – Challenging the traditional sci-fi organization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onto the next layer.

Layer 2- Narrative Toolbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like this:

The man that the woman heard left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level 3 Terminality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Happy creating.

The Messy Filing Cabinet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Did I Just Watch – Now You See Me 2

The other night I watched/survived an airing of Now You See Me 2, and it left such an impression on me that days later, I find myself blogging about it. It … well, it wasn’t very good. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Yeah, I’ll give a rewrite version, but we need to back up and cover some craftwork first. So that means it’s storytime.

Like a lot of kids, I thought magic was cool. Blackstone Jr, Harry Anderson, various magician tv shows of the mid-80s, they made magic special, a kind of happy thing that was interesting and well-executed. As a kid, this was really very ooh and ahh material, and I admit, I was a sucker for card tricks and sleight of hand.

As I got older, and it became cooler to dislike more things, I still watched those specials with David Copperfield and his blousy nearly Goldblum-ish shirt and holding these over-produced get-to-the-trick specials that were interesting, but I didn’t quite feel the same way. I think there was too much patter, too much preamble, and I’m fuzzy now on how the tricks were shot for television, if the camerawork was part of the gimmick or if a camera guy thought it would be a great idea to show everything from a weird angle.

Older still, I learned that magic got co-opted by the pick-up artist movement, and it was simultaneously relegated to “parlor tricks to make panties disappear” (not my quote, I heard that about a decade ago and it’s stuck around my brain) and part of the then-beta-now-cuck stuff that not-real-men do that prevents them from getting laid. Magic wasn’t ooh and ahh anymore it was a means to an end. I am ashamed that for many years I wrote it off. I wish I learned some.

This brings me to Now You See Me (the first one). It’s a heist movie with magicians. At least, that’s the premise sold via frenetically caffeinated, stylized trailers. And I watched it. I vaguely liked it. It was an enjoyable way to pass 90 minutes. In this fiction, 4 magicians each have a specialty and are brought together because nebulous reasons to ruin a corrupt wealthy guy all while the FBI does just above the possible minimum amount of effort to think about catching them.

Now here come spoilers.

Except that the FBI guy trying to catch them is in on it, and not only wants them to succeed, but also wants to introduce them to a shadowy organization of magicians who do “real” magic. (Since it’s never explained, I like to think of them as people who just have a D&D player’s guide and a lot of material components).

Now because Hollywood so often confuses sequel expansion with new idea generation, there’s naturally a Now You See Me 2, and if you thought the first movie was a stylized, under-explained, jittery, poorly written mess, you’re in luck, because they’ve doubled down on all that while expanding the world building and adding more characters (side note: I like Daniel Radcliffe as a bad guy, he should do that more often.)

A quick summary of the sequel: Because of what happened in the first movie, the magician characters are on the lam, and a new bad guy wants them to one more job or else they’ll be killed, and of course in the end, the magicians turn the magical tables on all the villains (because every villain from the first is back due to reasons) and then the shadowy organization shows back up to introduce them to “real” magic, even though that’s what you’re told was going to happen at the end of the first movie, but I guess it hasn’t yet even though the concept in the first Act is that they’ve been working with the shadowy organzation all film. I guess they never got around to showing them real magic. Dick move, shadow organization, dick move.

Let’s talk about the good stuff in the films, because there is some:

  • Actually talented actors (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Daniel Radcliffe, Mark Ruffalo) give less talented actors (James Franco’s brother, Lex Luthor/Mark Zuckerberg who isn’t Michael Cera, disposable female character, Woody “I’m just here because I get to wear a hat and something something hemp and vegan” Harrelson) plenty of opportunity to improve their craft while collecting what I imagine are lovely paychecks.
  • Occasionally you get flashes that the characters deliver dialogue that seems maybe like a person could say it, maybe.
  • The CGI for the tricks isn’t atrocious. It’s not subtle, but it’s not an affront to eyeballs.
Let’s roll out SOME of the bad, because I had to prioritize this stuff:
  • Stylized shots do not necessarily make for good shots. Framing us from the top-down and then turning the top-down into a left-right is confusing.
  • The movie thinks hyponotism involves grabbing or slapping people then talking at their faces.
  • Making one character talk immediately after another character does not underscore either of their points
  • Mark Ruffalo is the only character across two films with anything resembling a character arc, but don’t worry, it’s completely neutered in the last 10 minutes of the second movie by a photograph and Morgan Freeman dressed like a pimp from a 70s tv show.
  • The female actor changes from the first to the second movie, but again don’t worry, because in the first ten minutes of the second movie, she just says she’s the new team member and everyone agrees.
  • The magic goes from you-could-conceivably-learn-and-do-this to don’t-question-the-CGI-or-how-they-know-how-to-do-this pretty quickly
  • Don’t question when they had time to plan an orchestrate the con/heist/bad guy capture, just know they are always in on it from the very beginning and there’s no actual danger ever. EVER.
 No character arcs, no stakes to the plot, no danger to characters, unclear villain motivations … yeah sounds ripe for a rewrite.
Step 1 – We’re making 1 story, not 2. If there’s going to be a series later, that’s fine. But right now, we’re gonna take this heap of applesauce and make something better from it.
Step 2 – Everyone needs something to do that is tailored to them and that something has a reward that matters to the character.
Step 3 – Any magical elements serve the story’s plot and structure, rather than being 90 minutes where people watch CGI scenes
Step 4 – There’s actual challenge and risk in the story.
Step 5 – The world building is more than ceremonial or perfunctory.
Here we go …
The Characters:
Danny, Magician Number 1, his specialty is escapes. He’s a good kid from a good family, but he tells everyone a convoluted BS tale about foster homes and youth detention centers. He has heard about The Eye, an almost Masonic order of magicians who revere magic in its classical purest forms. He’s ambitious and sincere.
Jack, Magician Number 2, his specialty is card tricks. A street hustler, he fleeces tourists in games of three card monte. Whereas Danny talks about a bad upbringing, Jack had one, although at his core, he’s sweet, sensitive, and wants very badly to be accepted. He heard about The Eye on one of his only good memories as a child, going to a magic show and talking to the magician backstage, just after he tried to pick his pocket.
Lady, Magician Number 3, her specialty is platform and stage magic. She’s used to big crowds and middling success. She can start strong, but fails to hold attention. Instead of playing up her sex appeal outside of her stagecraft, we play up her disillusionment with magic – it’s getting boring and she’s tired of prop work. She’s been researching The Eye after noticing its iconography appear on older stage props.
Woody, Magician Number 4, his specialty is mentalism and comedy magic. A failed stand-up, he transitioned to mentalism because he was unoriginal on stage, but had a knack for reading people. He’s intuitive and empathetic, but totally skeptical that The Eye is a thing. He just wants magic to be a thing that people do.
Carl, the Villain, he’s a ruthless megalomaniac CEO, fleecing people through shell corporations for decades. He puts on a facade for the cameras, that he’s altruistic, charming, and friendly, but in reality he’s willing to kill to get ahead. Flipping that switch is creepy and never played for laughs. He’s a monster in a TV-personality costume. He’s currently stockpiling medications for cancer and AIDS so he can jack up the prices.
Ruffalo, the Cop/Fed, the agent/detective who gets assigned to Carl’s protection detail. He encounters the magicians and tries to stop them. He’s not in on it. He’s not stupid, this is never played as comedy relief, he’s at best a secondary antagonist.

Our film starts with Danny, in breathless voiceover, “You need to tie me up tighter than that.” We open on him on stage, an Elks lodge, a room trapped in the 1970s with men and cigar smoke to match. They’re unimpressed and barely paying attention. It’s a mostly silent crowd as Danny moves through his routine, finally disappearing behind a curtain and reappearing with the ropes tied in balloon animal shapes. Crickets, no one applauds. We cut to Danny loading his beat up car and snatching the envelope of cash out of a drunk Elk’s hand. It starts to rain, and the car stalls. The sound of rain hitting the pavement intensifies, and we cut to …

Jack, running. We see his legs churning, we see him navigating busy streets of pedestrians and cars pulling out of alleys and side streets. He’s running from the cops, a large smile on his face. He loses two of the cop pursuers and takes a seat in a grubby pizzeria counting his large stack of twenties and tens. It’s a good take. Just when he’s about caught his breath, he looks out the window and sees two more cops heading his way. Time to run again. He starts saying “Oh shi…” and we cut to…

Lady, saying “It’s not everyday you see a woman saw herself in half is it?” She’s in her pajamas, rehearsing her act in her apartment. She narrates each part of the trick: stand here, move arm up, no higher, turn, tap box, catching herself in the mirror time and again to correct her posture. She’s trying really hard. Over her shoulder and out of focus we see a table littered with sketches and plans and models of different set pieces. There’s a dressmaker’s dummy with a half-finished outfit pinned up. Over time, Lady grows dissatisfied with her rehearsals, and flops down on the couch (which a few seconds ago doubled as her stage) to watch TV. She channel surfs before catching an interview and we cut to …

Woody, on set, making Jimmy Fallon or some other easily amused jabroni in a suit laugh. There are two people flanking the host’s desk and Woody is making snap deductions about them, before running them through a simple card trick that gets enormous applause. We track him back post-interview to the green room, where he loots the craft services table and then ducks out quickly. The rear stage door opens and when a famous celebrity gets mobbed, he slips through unnoticed. He walks in the rain, collar upturned, out of frame.

Back to Danny, who’s unloading his car into a garage, his mother’s. She’s standing there, watching him lug case after case, and they’re talking about how it went. Danny is upset because no one appreciated the work he put in, and his mom mentions that at least the paycheck was good. Danny opens the envelope to find out he’s been somewhat stiffed – he was expecting twenties and got ones. His mother consoles him and Danny heads up to bed. 

His room is a trove of magic glory. Posters of stage acts (and this is where set design can create all new acts not just Copperfield, Penn and Teller, Houdini) and line the walls, and his bookcase is a library of autobiographies and how-tos. He flops down on the bed, sighing. his mother passes by the door saying she’s going to bed, he says good night, then goes to bed himself.

We cut to the next morning. Jack is at it again, setting up his monte stand at the entrance to a city park. He’s drawn a large crowd, with Danny, Lady, and Woody making their way into it, staggered among the rows. Danny pushes his way to the front to become the mark. Jack starts his patter, and Lady yells from four rows back whichever answer is correct. Danny yells back that he knows, which flusters Jack, who resorts to palming cards and deliberately cheating, but only in a way that another magician would know. Danny catches onto this, and ends up cleaning out Jack’s wallet. He breaks away from the game, several hundred dollars richer. Except that to break away from the game, he’s gotta pass back through the crowd, and this gives us a chance to watch each of our four musicians bump, sneak, and lift the wallet. Ultimately, it ends up being dropped and picked up by Ruffalo, who breaks up the monte game and arrests Jack. 

Feeling bad his bilking, Danny sets about freeing Jack, and enlists Lady and Woody to join him. They spring Jack, but not before Jack swipes a folder off Ruffalo’s desk, and overhears something about Carl being a bad guy with a lot of money. 

The wheels are then in motion for the four magicians to collaborate on a heist of Carl. They begin with surveillance, and by combining Woody’s mesmerism and Jack’s natural charm, they get a quick tour of the “civilian” levels (let’s also give Jack a phone number or two). Danny tries his hand, and gets a few floors higher, but ultimately falls short of the prize as well. Lady gets all the way to inner office’s front door, but is stopped by a variety of countermeasures.

The result is that the team must rely on al their talents: escapes, card tricks, platform magic, and mesmerism to breach the inner office, only to find that the best “loot” is a few vague memos explaining pricing policy. However, this celebration is short-lived because just as the team goes to make their escape, in walks Carl to catch them. Cue Ruffalo’s return, and all four magicians in handcuffs. 

At least until mid0interrigation, Danny escapes, Jack palms the key, Woody convinces the officer to let him go, and Lady disappears behind a table only to re-emerge several feet away, locking Ruffalo in his own interrogation room. This commits Ruffalo to catching them, but also plants the seed that these four magicians have an interest in doing something about Carl. 

Danny spends his time at home, rehearsing the same tricks that they used in the Carl heist when his mother starts coughing. Turns out mom has been hiding an illness, and now the meds are too expensive. This clicks things into place, and Danny calls the magicians to finish what they started. 

Which they’d do, if Carl hadn’t counted on them coming back, and ratcheted up security. Not just Ruffalo, but greater countermeasures and more armed guards. The office is a fortress. The team aborts one attempt and is nearly caught by Ruffalo. They console themselves and Lady makes a passing comment that Danny would have done better if he hypnotized the guard. Jack tells Lady she’d have done better if she had palmed the keys. And that’s when they realize they need to learn each other’s craft to have a better chance. 

So they practice. On the street, in broad daylight and in their individual gigs. Think of it like a protracted montage. It starts off shaky, but they all start showing proficiency in other magical aptitudes. Excited to share this news, they reconvene and that’s when we all learn they have a shared interest in The Eye. 

Feeling well armed and unified, they go after Carl. And after several near-misses, they pull off the job, and get into the office, finding Carl’s documents saying he’s been adjusting prices and withholding medications. Except Carl was counting on them getting that far, and holds them at gun point. Ruffalo arrives and hears everyone out, which leads to Carl getting impatient and Ruffalo revealing that he’s been recording the story the whole time, because breaking and entering is bad, but it’s not tampering with people’s health kind of bad. Carl takes a shot at Ruffalo, who fires back. Ruffalo makes the arrest of the wounded Carl, and goes to thank the the magicians, only to find them all absent – they disappeared. 

One week later (we’re told by the graphics department), the magicians are casually chatting when Ruffalo pulls up on them. They get suspicious and nervous but he thanks them and hands them a stack of cold case files, all rich business types thought to be hurting the little guy, but nothing could be proven, and maybe they had some magic to spare. The foursome agrees, and just before we go to credits, Danny’s phone rings. He gets a single image as a text message, that of an address and a blinking eye. 

Okay, I think this quick rewrite works. It’s not perfect, I bet I could ratchet up the tension, but this post is already running long. Thanks for checking out my little patch job on a movie that so annoyed me I had to write myself angry notes on my phone until this blogpost came together.

 

Happy creating.

The many words I say about Westworld’s first episode

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

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

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

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

Here’s the audio. Hope you dig it.

#ProjectCardiacPhoenix

We start with a medical update: Today has so far been a good day. I’m writing this with a blanket wrapped around me. The chest pain isn’t too awful. I’ve eaten something. I’m feeling up to writing this post. I have very little to substantially complain about.

My heart is for the moment stable. I’m responding to treatment, and doctors are hopeful I’ll continue to respond as well as I am, with my immune system holding strong and my bloodwork on the upside. This all gets punctuated with oxygen tanks and assistive devices, because while I’m declining, I’m not in the period of time the doctors refer to “The Decline”, which is the economics-sounding way of saying “the last few months of life.” I’m not there, I’ve got a few years between today and there.

I’m still not out of the woods, and frankly, short of miracles and transplant, I won’t ever be out of the woods. I’ve decided that if I’m going to be in the woods, I’m going to build a cabin there.

I want to introduce you to #ProjectCardiacPhoenix. The goal of this Project is to keep me going, not just financially, but also productively. One of the elements not often talked about with long-term illness (terminal or otherwise) is that it has a lot of downtime. You wait in a lot of offices, you wait for a lot of test results. You wait for things to change. And waiting is corrosive. Waiting is a forever-hungry beast with open jaws. It is corrosive to hope, which so often feels fleeting when you stack up all the medical updates, insurance bureaucracies, and physical issues.

See, one of the frustrating things, the gnawing mental shit, is that I’m 1000000% confident that I’m doing the best work of my career, lucky enough to do what I love to do for a living, and it’s just that the rest of my body is failing to keep up with my mind as it races along to being a better coach, editor, and writer.

I know so many of you have asked how you can help, and I have always struggled with guilt over giving you more than a polite answer, because I have felt like I was a burden to at least one other person since I was a small child. Now I’m an adult, and I still feel like a burden even talking about this, but as my excellent caretakers have all pointed out, “You need to do something while you can.”

Here are some ways you can help:

  • I’m releasing FiYoShiMo 2.0 all this month on my Patreon. It takes all the material of FiYoShiMo 1.0 (available here) and expands on it. I’m so proud of the work I’m doing. It’s this sort of material that I think is among my best, and I encourage you to support it (and the tweetstorms and me) by checking it out. I know I’m a few days behind, and I’m going to push out several days of content in one blast over the next few days.

  • Later this week, I’m going to add donation buttons to the site.

  • Share my posts and tweets with your writer friends, your creative posses, and your social media tribes. There’s a lot here and on Twitter that I think can really help someone.

  • In 2017, Noir World will be Kickstarted. If you’re a fan of film noir, role-playing games, or my writing, please check that out.

  • Consider coaching if you’re a creative unsatisfied with what and how much you’re creating. It’s not just for motivation or just for writing technique, it’s all that and then some. It’s designed to help you become a better writer and creative one hour at a time. And yes, writer’s block, publishing woes, query letters, and editing are all topics that coaching covers.

Let’s end with a bit of good news. I spent the morning talking to doctors and laying out plans to get insurance off my back somewhat, as well as sorting out the changes to my Obamacare and soon-to-be-Trumpcare-question-mark medical paperwork. Everyone, myself included, is in relatively good spirits.

Please, help #ProjectCardiacPhoenix in any way you can.

WRITE MORE GOODER – Do Not Give Up

write-more-gooder-logo

So, do anything exciting lately? How about that local sports team? Crazy weather we’re having, huh?  Let me show you what I’ve been up to, I think you’re really going to like this.

Write More Gooder, for those that don’t know is the podcast I’m putting out to talk about craft and writing and motivation. I’m proud of it, I think I’m getting better with every episode. By that reasoning, this is my best one yet.

In fact, this one is so awesome and intense, I can’t directly link to it in WordPress (it’s 52 MB too big) or over on Patreon (it’s 2MB too big), so here’s the Dropbox link to it.

The TL;DR on it? Do not give up. Not on your dreams. Not on your project. Not on yourself.

This message is so critical, so important, and so necessary. There’s so much stuff out in the world that tells us to give up, that encourages us to be discouraged, and it can be hard to stand up against that. But remember that we stand up every time we create. That’s our activism. That’s how we hold the line. That’s how we turn the tide. We create because it burns inside of us to do so. We create because the alternative is infinitely worse.

Nope, it’s not easy. Not easy by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s worth it. You’re worth it.

I hope you enjoy the audio. If you want more stuff like it, or if you’re a fan of the tweetstorms every morning, I ask that you pop over to Patreon and check out what I’m doing. Your very generous contributions of $2 are what make this stuff happen.

See you next week for more blog action (insert that ennh ennh ennh triple-horn sound from dubstep and rap here). Happy writing.

Writers and Envy

We start this week with a post that I’ve been toying with for a while – you’ll find I do that, my Drafts folder has 30+ posts in some state of ideas or partiality – today we’re going to talk about jealousy, and not as a story concept.

Let’s start today with a trip to any convention, awards show, or bookstore. Doesn’t matter which one. Here’s the scene:

So we’re standing (or sitting) there, and we’re watching other people’s success. Maybe they’re going up on a stage to get an award. Maybe they’ve got a whole room full of people lined up at a signing, maybe the bookstore can’t keep their books on the shelf. We’re right there, watching this, and no matter if we’re clapping or not, no matter if we’re in the line or not, no matter if we’re holding a book to buy it or not, we feel this yank somewhere down around the stomach, and it coils its way back through the spinal cord and its malevolent fingers snarl and hiss their way into our brains, and we start getting this feeling, maybe yours comes with a voice (mine sounds a little like Stewie Griffin if he hissed on his s’s)

That other author, that other creative, it hisses, you could be doing that. That could be you, hell that should be you. Why aren’t you the one doing the winning? Don’t people like your work. I guess not. I wonder who does like your work. Probably no one. I mean, the good work is what gets rewarded, and it looks like you don’t have any rewards right now.

That voice is a real bastard.

You know what? Let’s go one more. We’re in your house, and we’re in your favorite reading spot. You just picked a book that a friend recommended. Doesn’t matter who wrote it or what genre it is. You sit down to read it. Everything’s great until you hit that one sentence. That one damned sentence that expresses an idea so beautifully it hurts. The sentence might be long or short (it doesn’t matter), it’s just exactly what needs to be on that page, and back comes that voice.

You’re never going to write anything as good as that. Don’t you wish you could? Don’t you wish your author-voice looked like that? You know what? Let’s get the Pussycat Dolls stuck in a loop in your head too. You deserve that too.

Total. Dick. Move.

I don’t have a fancy term for it, but it’s envy. We get envious of what other people can do, what they win, what they have, and then as a bounce-back from that jealousy, we start measuring ourselves against it and always find a new way to make ourselves woefully inadequate. Some of us could even go professional in our lack-of-measuring-up-ness. If we could make a living doing it, we’d own mansions and yachts.

Envy is when we look at what other people are doing or what they have and believing that we should have it instead or the other person shouldn’t have it at all. It’s a feeling that in a comparison between us and them, because our brains love to separate along us/them divides, we’re getting the short end of not just one stick, but a whole forest full of sticks.

There’s a few things at work here, so let’s unpack them.

A) It suggests that you think you’re work, incomplete or not, is shit when compared to other people’s work. Fun fact: You can’t measure your unfinished work against someone else’s finished work. They’re not comparable on the same terms. Of course the house still being built isn’t as nice as the fully furnished one. Of course the pencil sketch you just started a second ago where you drew one line isn’t the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Even if it is done, here’s another way to look at it – can you compare a garter snake to a king cobra? They’re both snakes, they’re both found on the planet, they’re both things you can google or run away from, so why can’t I get really specific about weighing them against one another? Because one’s going to kill you and the other is a nuisance in a cornfield.

Authors: your crime thriller and that lady’s epic fantasy novel are both books the same way the garter and the cobra are both snakes.  But aside from being printed on paper, and having ink on that paper, and a few other bits that we use to define them as “books”, the similarities stop. I’ll even give you a pass on them being in the same language and using the same font size. They’re still very different things. A different thing is not automatically a bad thing. Just like how you’re different from me, and that doesn’t make either of us wrong or bad. Unless you’re a clown, because then I doubt you’re human at all.

What we do is different from each other, and that’s one of the best parts of being a creative. We can all take the same writing prompt and tell completely different stories. No one’s wrong that way, just different.

B) It suggests that there’s a reason someone shouldn’t be having the experience (that you’re aware of) them having. This two parts to this one – first let’s all take a moment to recognize that you’re not the one who dispenses permission slips for people to do what they do. There isn’t a person who does that. That’s not a thing. Our individual attempts to control are often efforts to manage a sense of powerlessness. (Johnfession: I had that yelled at me once during a breakup fight, and I’ve kept it rattling in my head since)

You’re not in charge of other people’s experience, so you don’t get to determine if they’re allowed to have it. Now I know there’s a great deal of social controversy in that statement, and I don’t care. Everyone, yes even the people you don’t like, gets to have their experience, because you know, they’re like alive and stuff. Likewise, they’re allowed to create whatever they like, even if you don’t like it.

Second, you’re not them, so you don’t know the whole picture of their experience. You see the end result that got them to that convention or awards stage or bookstore, but you don’t know if the effort to get them there cost them a marriage or they had to do it while dealing with kids and a mortgage or a dying parakeet or a drug problem or coming to terms with the fact they like Ke$ha and Taylor Swift music.

Only they know how hard they worked, because they did the work. Everything and everyone else with a thing to say (positive or negative) is reacting to their own opinion of that work. Opinions aren’t the arbiters of experience, facts are. We don’t have all the facts about how someone worked, so our concept of it is limited. And with a limited picture, we can’t accurately say that they do or don’t deserve the results they’re having.

C) What they’re doing is no indication of whether or not you can do it too. How we create is unique to us. We might all be making books, or phat beats, but how we go about it, even with the same tools in hand, is specific to us. Just because we can all write a sentence using the word “callipygian” doesn’t make my sentence or your sentence better than everyone else’s. We might like certain sentences better for a variety of reasons specific to us, but we’re still talking opinions. About things external to us.

Could you have strung together the same words and done the same as some other author? Not necessarily. Remember that when we’re looking at that convention or stage or store shelf, we’re seeing factors beyond the words – there’s the audience, the marketing, the cover. That success they’re having that you wish you were having is a confluence of a lot of factors. You have your own factors, and that’s where I suggest we take this post so we can wrap it up.

It’s so tempting to look at how well someone is doing and knock ourselves down a few pegs because of it.But we’re not capable of having their experience, at best, we can have a version of that, provided we do the work to get us there.

Want an audience like that other creative? Go build an audience.
Want a book cover like that? Find an artist, make it happen.
Want to do a signing? Finish the damned book and arrange one.

Yes, of course it always come back to the work. As in doing the work. Not using other people to chart and justify and reference your position. Positions are too motile and fleeting. The minute you put down another word, make another blogpost, meet another person, you’re in a different place than you were. They’re ever changing. Learn to roll with that, and take advantage of it – today’s hard day is often the catalyst for tomorrow being a better one.

And of course, I believe in your ability to do the work, no matter how well someone else is doing.

 

See you later this week. Happy writing.

Why Am I Getting Rejected? Part 2

Hello! How are you? Was the weekend good? Can you believe that thing that the person said or did with the thing about the thing? Yeah, I can’t either.

Okay, enough chit-chat, you’re not here for my palaver.

We’re back at the Rejection Series. On Friday we talked about how the query can reject the MS before the MS even gets looked at, and now we’re going to come at this from a different direction. Today we’ll look at how the early pages of the MS can reject you.

Let’s assume for all these five cases that the query was interesting enough to lead the reader to check out the MS.

Whereas last time I told you to get your query letter, I want you to go get the first five pages of your MS. Yes, seriously. Double-space them. Print them out. Meet right back here when you’re ready?

Cool? Then onward we go …

Issue 1 – The opening paragraphs don’t encourage the reader to go forward.
This might be the big manuscript killer. The opening page is critical, like absolutely vital, to establishing the tone you’re trying to convey to the reader, regardless of the information.

You want to talk about weather, or blow something up, or write a quip, fine, but remember that whatever is in those opening paragraphs is the impression I’m taking forward. Yes, I’m beating the drum on word choice and decision making, but I don’t know any other way to stress to you that if you want me to go forward and ultimately say yes to your MS, that opening has to engage me.

Maybe that engagement is provocative, or it’s funny, or it’s new/a new take on a common idea. That engagement won’t happen if you’re trying too hard to be something or some author you’re not. It won’t happen because despite all camouflaging efforts, that try-hard blanket will hang over you. It’s visible, like a bad comb-over. Just be you, express whatever idea you have in as sharp and as “you”  as possible (this is a great time to mention the importance of voice), and you’ll be engaging.

Issue 2 – The tone of the first page (or so) does not match the tone of the subsequent pages. 
One of the ways people try and correct Issue 1 is by really working the hell out of that first moment in the book and then the next moment or scene in the book winds up feeling jarring and strange because it didn’t get the same intensive scrubbing. My example for this is a TV show, the newer version of Battlestar Galactica, where the SyFy tv-movie presented one feel and vibe and setup, then the first episode (and particularly the second) felt like I was watching a completely different, and not good) TV show.

I use that example because I hoped what I saw in the front would carry forward, and when it didn’t I made a variety of sighs and curses before never watching another second of it. Don’t let that happen to your MS. Yes, word choice and story-decision-making help this, but so does editing. NO, not self-editing, I mean getting other eyes on it. YES you need to get other eyes on your work before it goes out into the world.

Also, let me point out that this problem is fixable by applying the same strategy to every scene/moment in the MS. Assume the reader looks at this page, this moment, this scene, wherever it is in the book. Is it going to be interesting on some level? Don’t confuse ‘interesting’ with ‘perfect’, because interesting things are often imperfect and they’re supposed to be. Every word on the page helps paint a picture in the reader’s mind, so what will you do with their blank canvas?

Issue 3 – The pages have errors, big and small, that don’t encourage the reader going forward.
One of the big concepts I battle with is the idea that editing is both someone else’s job, as well as it being too expensive if you out-source it directly. It’s this duality that keeps authors from investing in things like editing or coaching, so that they can improve what they write, so that when they send the MS anywhere (to publisher or consumer alike) it’s in its best position to have a positive reception. Errors are catchable and fixable, and it’s worth the time (and the money, where appropriate) to get your work edited.

When I blog, I know there are typos and words I skip because I think I’ve typed them. I know I flub punctuation. I’m not perfect. No writer, no editor, no publisher, nobody is perfect. Errors happen, but there are (or there are supposed to be) steps in place to catch them.

For instance, I can send my drafted blog posts to people who will tell me that I’ve misspelled camouflaging again. Or I can get to the desk ten minutes earlier to re-read the sales copy before definitely approving it. These are things within my power to get whatever is in front of me into great shape.

When I open that MS, and the first page has things like tonal shifts, hopping POV, missing words, and/or substantial grammar issues, I sigh and tell myself that here’s one more for the rejection pile and grumble a little that 99% of that could have been caught and fixed if the person gave a shit about their work, my time, and their efforts.

Because that’s the message it conveys to me. I don’t know the writer. I know them by name and email address, but I don’t ‘know’ them. When the first pages are badly tossed word salad, and because I’ve got a lot to do on any given work day, I have to go with my gut-based first impression that this author, no matter how well intentioned, couldn’t be bothered to give me their best. If they can’t treat their work and the jobs we both have to do as editor and author with respect, what other conclusion can I draw?

Issue 4 – The MS has a load of potential and suggestion, but never pays off.
Last week, we talked about the bait-and-switch between query and MS. Here’s an extension of that. This is the MS version of ‘talks a big game and doesn’t deliver.’

If Issue 1 wasn’t the killer, this issue is. And that’s because the issue crops up not on page 1, but in the later pages, after I’ve read a bit and invested my time, interest, and energy. I read it, I start making notes, I start telling people to make time so they can read it and make notes, and then I get a rug pulled out from under me when the “good stuff” never happens.

Maybe it’s the subplot that doesn’t pay off. Maybe it’s a whole book of plot setup that will pay off a little in book 2 and 3 and 4, meaning I have to be willing to take a chance on the whole series (this is especially irksome if the later books aren’t drafted yet, and I’m suppose to take the hope forward that the idea of a series is publishable/saleable.) Maybe it’s the climax that’s not satisfying. Loads of elements in the story can peak too soon, weakly, or not at all and leave the reader unsatisfied, but not in that positive hungry-for-more way. More like how I felt when hype exceeds product, as in restaurants or video games.

And this is another treatable issue. Take the MS to multiple readers who have no emotional stake in being biased. Not the partner, spouse, child, friend, beloved co-worker, bestie (is ‘bestie’ still a thing?). Beta readers. People who aren’t well known. Writing groups. Editors. People who don’t have to say nice things because of non-creative agendas. Fresh eyes, objectivity, and feedback that might not be all rainbows and kittens can help get the MS into better shape.

Issue 5 – The MS turns out to be a soapbox for the author’s agenda. 
Most manuscripts are written by people who want to tell a particular story because the story is interesting and because they think they have an approach to the material that others don’t.

However, there are a number of authors who write stories as vessels and disguises for their opinions about material they otherwise can’t say for whatever reasons. These are the manifestos about government control disguised as protagonist dialogue. These are the stories of sexual violence fetishized and glorified. These are the stories where a hard stance can be taken, but the author can gain some distance from it because, “it’s not them, it’s their character(s).”

There’s a sincerity to seek for here. On the minor elements, the unobtrusive stuff isn’t a soapbox. But when an author disguises (often poorly, though you’ll never convince them of that) their belief under some narrative veneer, and that belief gets brought up again and again as if they’re saying, “DO YOU GET IT, HUH? DO YOU SEE WHAT I AM SAYING?” in a great stage whisper, it doesn’t matter how masterful the other MS elements can be portrayed – the soapboxing overshadows many other elements.

Let’s back up a second, because this assumption of agenda also extends to readers. How many great books are marred by one-star reviews because of reader misinterpretation and sentiment? How many authors see sales suffer because of the trolltastic machinery of ne’er-do-wells and the hypersensitive dogpile?

As part of a publisher, I’ve got a responsibility to look for manuscripts that can be made into books that people will buy. As an editor, I’ve got a responsibility to help the author produce the best book possible, not the best soapbox possible.

You can’t totally excise your personal opinions from your work, and it’s folly to think you can, since your opinions and ideas are part your voice. But that voice is for sharing, not for proselytizing. It’s for sharing without the agenda of conversion. The world is big enough for all the voices of all the people, and it’s not a numbers game of social politics. Nor should manuscript development happen with the express purpose of furthering a brand, but that can be our segue to our next (and last) installment in this series.

See you all later this week. We’ll talk soon. Happy writing

Why Am I Getting Rejected? Part 1

Today’s question: Why does my MS get rejected?

I get this question maybe 1 in every 7 emails, and then it usually gets followed up with a question about why I didn’t answer that rejection question.

Today I answer it.

In the past I haven’t been wholly explicit about the reasons for rejection because they aren’t codified or standardized. What might get you rejected in submission #1 might be the thing that gets accepted in submission #2.

So what I have for you today is a few reasons why your submission gets rejected. I’m splitting this into several parts – issues with the query; issues with the manuscript; issues with other author-y things – because otherwise this would easily be the longest and most rambly post I’ve ever written, and judging by my blog stats, my long posts get as much traction as a puppy on a wood floor.

Go get your query letter. I’m going to make a very large and very strong cup of tea, and together we’ll have some realtalk about how that query might be the thing getting you rejected. Meet me back here when you’re ready.

Let’s do this.

Issue 1 – The query does not make me want to read the MS.
When I read a query, I should not want to put the query down and go watch the lawn grow. A dull query, even when it’s just a few paragraphs, can feel like an abstract for a lengthy obnoxious/pretentious academic work that I can’t believe people get degrees for. (Shout-out to all the dissertations about shoes or the comparison of gender and its effects on pasta)

A query’s job is to encourage, tease, and drive the reader to manuscript to see how the promises of the of the query get paid off in the MS.

You can have all the interesting names and ideas and scenes and decisions in the universe in your book, but if your query doesn’t express them in a way that makes the reader want to check them out, then it won’t matter.

This is why queries can’t be slow burns. There’s a minimum of space, and word choice has to be at a premium. Start where the action is, don’t detour into fluffy things, and keep the focus on getting the reader into that manuscript.

Issue 2 – The query is unfocused.
The compensation for trying to keep the query exciting is that there’s so much going on in it, so much stuff described, that it’s unclear what exactly the MS is about, or what’s the more important element(s) warranting attention.

This is not about there being a lack of information, this is about an abundance of information and little (or none of it) is prioritized. And it needs to be.

As the query writer, you’ve got to help the reader get through the query, get excited, and get into the MS. To do that, build us a path we can navigate. Start somewhere exciting, somewhere intriguing, and work us forward through the ideas.

I say ideas, because you can’t keep us orbiting one idea where you just find different synonyms (the MC is brave! the MC is courageous! the MC knows no fear!). Segue us from one idea to another, so we can get a taste for the world, the character, and the plot (not necessarily in that order). Make decisions, lead us in a direction that ultimately gets us into the MS.

Issue 3 – The query is too short.
Scanning my inbox, 80% of the query letters I have rejected have been a paragraph inside an email where they’re also mentioning how they like this or how they read that.

It’s a query LETTER, not a query paragraph. Spend more than 2 sentences making the reader interested. Aim for a sweet spot between 90 and 300 words, and that count includes things like your name, info to reach you by, and the sentence ‘Thank you for your consideration.’

When the query is so short, my first thought is that the person either isn’t really interested in me reading anything they write, or they’re not actually as serious about getting published as they claimed. If they were, why wouldn’t they say more?

Issue 4 – The query is too long.
This doesn’t happen as often as Problem 3, but it does still happen. Much like Problem 2, this is a case where things aren’t prioritized and decisions aren’t made, so every possible idea gets thrown into what is often a block of text in the hope that somewhere in the word-glacier the reader can unearth the interesting bits.

They probably could, but they shouldn’t have to. Here’s another case where the decision-making process is critical, because the reader gets a selection of material that would increase the likelihood of going into the manuscript with an enthusiasm and interest.

Again, sweet spot. Make choices.

Issue 5 – The query talks about A, but the MS presents B.
We’re wrapping up with part 1 with a great bridge element to where we’re going next. The query’s promise of manuscript potential has to pay off. On the surface, this is something as obvious as saying, “don’t bait and switch”, where the query talks about the MS being a fantasy epic about chicken farmers and the MS is actually a bisexual love triangle of teenage poltergeists, to something as nuanced as the promise of an action thriller that misses core genre beats and staples like the villain’s demise or the romantic subplot.

This isn’t limited to insidious skeevy tactics. This comes up in the course of any manuscript that doesn’t deliver on its promises or premises. And when I say ‘doesn’t deliver’ I mean that the elements in the query aren’t found in the MS, not that they’re poorly developed. (Poor development goes back to Issue 1)

Inconsistency, nerves, over-ambition … there’s a number of reasons why this happens (you know how movie trailers have scenes and lines that don’t get into the film, but because they’re in there, you go see the film? This is that, but for books) It’s an entirely correctable problem that you can solve by putting only the stuff that happens in THIS ONE BOOK in THIS ONE QUERY.

You’re writing a series? Great, tell me that you are, but you only have to query this MS I’ve got in front of me, so I don’t need to know the plot of book 4 when you’re trying to get book 1 published. Tell me about book 4 AFTER we say yes to book 1. It’s the horse and cart, or eggs and basket metaphor, maybe a little of both.

This series will continue on Monday, where will look at how the MS can get you rejected. See you then. Happy writing.