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.

The Intersection of Knowledge and Skill

The bag of onions was only $1.99. Which doesn’t make sense to me, because there are like 19 onions in it, each about the size of a tennis ball. But it’s 9:15 on a Sunday morning, and there’s a three pound chuck roast needing onions and au jus, so I go to the store.

It’s empty, the sort of empty that should only exist in movies and video games where there’s going to be something terrible happening once I get just a bit more inside the building. Maybe evil cannibals, maybe zombies, maybe ravenous nomadic clowns. But there’s nothing bad that happens. I come away from the store with a single bag of goods – the onions fumbling around the bottom of the bag.

It’s 9:38 when I started writing this post. With luck, it’ll go up later today, before I go to bed. I really don’t want to delay it to Tuesday, I’m worried that the freshness of the ideas will have faded, and it’ll be some stale sludge of ideas, like old coffee you’ve forgotten to purge from the machine.

On mornings like this, I am aware of just how much of life can be described as a series of intersections. There’s an irony here apparent to anyone who’s ever been in a car with me — I get lost incredibly easily, even on streets I drive regularly — so for me to talk about the meeting of two asphalt ribbons it’s amusing.

Intersections like the lives of two people meeting. Or a job in a field you’ve got a degree in. Or the moment where you realize you actually put together a piece of furniture and didn’t have any pieces left over. Two concepts, two items, two people, crossing paths. There’s a reason why we consider crossroads to be an important part of life, because at crossroads (intersections) we become aware of a choice to make – do I do this, and possibly change course, or do I skip the change, skip the potential good or bad that might happen, and keep doing as before? (Let’s skip the quantum discussion that interacting with the potential opportunity for change is in itself a change that will have effects on action, it’s a rabbit hole for another time.)

The intersection we’re going to cover today is where Knowledge meets Skill. Today, we’re going to get self-assessy, and we’re going to use me as the example, but I want you to do this for yourself on yourself. As a creative, being able to figure out what you’re doing, where you going, and whether you’re getting there or not (and I don’t mean in that plagued-by-self-doubt-so-assume-you’re-not-and-won’t-ever way)

We need to start with definitions. Can we agree that Knowledge is the sum total of information about a subject through study and observation? We know how to pour a drink into a glass, we know the capital city of where we live, we know that no one likes getting bad news in a text message.

Knowledge is a consequence of being alive. We learn as babies that our actions cause reactions (cry and get fed), and we continue add to our knowledge pools until we cease living (eight packs of cigarettes a day and a bad case of syphilis will do you in). Despite many people’s efforts and protests, there’s no way to skip gaining knowledge. I make a distinction here between knowledge and “learning”, because learning is the method by which we gain knowledge, and “learning” becomes synonymous with “school.” For some people (myself included) the structured education of K-12 and university was not the best way for me to increase what I knew, but since I was still alive, I was still gaining information. I worked jobs, I wrote, I was an unpaid intern, I put myself in situations (smart and otherwise) where I’d come out with more knowledge than when I went in.

So that’s one half of our intersection. We have knowledge. If we were to make a list of what we’re knowledgeable about, it would be pretty sizable, once we got past the worry that other people may judge us for how we perceive ourselves or what goes on our list. Here’s my list:

Knowledge I Have

————-

Writing

Speaking

Cooking

Motivate people

Internet piracy

Video games

RPGs

Publishing

Marketing

Film noir

Rex Stout

Movie critique

Screenplays

Tv writing

Detective stories

Sobriety and addiction

Writing critique

Editing

Social Media

Cartoons

Pop culture

That’s a whole lot of stuff, in no particular order, and in no way is that list complete. But I stand by what I’ve written there. No, it wasn’t easy. I had to really wrestle with some of the ideas there – were they worth mentioning? are people going to think I’m a jerk for saying I know that stuff?

The hard part was getting to a place where I was okay writing it down (which is why I’m writing this part of the past at 12:10pm having started almost 3 hours ago). It took work, I had to talk it over with people. I had to pace around the kitchen and talk myself into and out of writing it. But I got to a point where I was okay going forward, so there it is.

Make your own list. It does not have to be complete, it does not have to be ranked or prioritized. Just list stuff. There are no wrong answers.

Skill is the other half here. We can define skill as knowledge used properly. That “properly” isn’t a subjective opinion, it’s more about relevant purpose. You wouldn’t use your knowledge of cooking when you’re raking leaves. There’s a time and a place to apply a particular knowledge to a particular situation. It’s that kind of properly.

Unapplied knowledge isn’t wasted, there is no wasted knowledge. No one other than you can compel or encourage you to do something with the stuff you know. Not your spouse, your friend, your boss, not some guy on the Internet. It’s my hope that everyone will find a way to apply what they know in a tactical and practical way to make themselves better happier productive creatives. What that application looks like, ideally, is completely individual. No two people are going to demonstrate skill the same, even with knowledge and skill (somehow) being 100% equal. And that’s the important part here – how you show off your skill(s) doesn’t have to and shouldn’t have to look like someone else’s. Yes, multiple can do the same thing (write books, make food, etc) but their individual compositions aren’t the same. That’s to be celebrated and encouraged. More authors. More creatives. More ideas. Different ideas. Ideas that conflict with each other. Ideas that provoke. Ideas that prompt actions. Bring all the distinct people to this party, bring all the skills and their demonstrations to bear. We’re all made better when we can contribute to our best abilities.

Listing the skills I feel most passionate about, I get this:

Skills

——–

Writing

Editing

Public speaking

Developing and encouraging writers

Writing critique

Watching TV

Using Social Media

 

What does your list look like? Yes, the list of knowledges should be longer than the list of skills, because you’re always going to know way more than you can act on.

Making these two paths intersect is where we find creativity at its most fertile. It’s where what you know meets what you can do about what you know. And it’s at that intersection you’ll find things like this blog, or a person’s YouTube channel, or a series of one-person plays about inventing random items or whatever a person is fired up enough about to share with other people.

Now, yes, I’m sure some of you reading this are saying, “But John, I’m not really excited about anything I’m knowledgeable about.” And to that I say, what’s something that you’d love to know more about it, and can you dedicate some part of your time to learning about that thing? Maybe you’re secretly into Taylor Swift songs, so you spend some time watching the videos and singing along. Maybe you’re fascinated by soap making, so you start talking to soap people. And even if that immersion doesn’t inspire you to at least try and apply the knowledge, I’m going to ask you one more question – what are you afraid of? If your attempt fails, then you’re right back to this spot, the same spot you’re in before you started. Fine, you want to grouse about time and money, okay, but if you’re letting money be the arbiter of whether or not you pursue a thing I’ll point out that email newsletters and YouTube videos are free. I can’t stop you from making excuses. I can’t stop you from finding ways not to do anything. Speaking personally, I’m great at finding ways to avoid doing stuff. But since I didn’t want that to be a thing I share with other people, it didn’t go on the above lists.

There’s such ability to discover and grow at this intersection, and you have to do it when you’re there. Trying to capitalize on Knowledge A by using Skill Q is like trying to learn how to swim while sitting in an airplane at 35,000 feet. You need to be in the place, you need to be in that intersection, in order to make use of it.

Here’s the genius of this intersection – even if you don’t have that much skill, if you stick around and keep gaining knowledge and then applying that knowledge, you’ll get more skill. And if you think you have a good amount of skill but want more knowledge, stick around and you’ll gain more knowledge. That’s the point of the intersection – you’ll get plenty of access to both things.

So make your lists. Make yourself a little roadmap of where you are and where you want to be. Get encouraged, and get active. Don’t let the doubt and the possible responses be the gatekeepers on what you want to do, it’s not up to other people to determine how you feel satisfied.

I’ll see you later this week when we’ll expand on this idea.

 

Happy writing.

The Machinery of the First 3 Pages

It’s Friday, good job making it through week.

Before we talk about today’s topic, I want to give you some updates:

1. The #FiYoShiMo manuscript (see the index) is still under construction. I’ve had a lot more to say about some particular topics. Combine that with health and work, progress is slow, but steady. I like steady. Especially with this, where I’m making sure each idea is presented as clearly as possible.

2. Noir World sees more players later this month at Dreamation. Not in a “test this out” way, but more like “hey come do this cool thing with me.” The MS lives on three separate files and I’ll cohere it into something greater than its parts, probably starting over the weekend. Depends on my energy level.

3. Remember the Johnversations? The Youtube videos I did? They’re making a comeback. I might record one tonight. But I want to have one out for the Monday blogpost of next week. I have a few possible topics in mind, and if you’ll forgive the fact that I’ll be likely wearing a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, I sincerely think you’ll get something out of it.

4. I’m talking to some really smart people about what I can do to make better use of Smashwords. If you haven’t already checked out the stuff I have available, get the books while the price is still $3 each.

Okay enough with the updates. Let’s see what we’re talking about today.

There’s an old saying that an MS lives and dies by its first three pages. I tend to agree with it, and I know many readers (meaning: editors, agents, publishers, consumers) do as well.

What makes those three pages critical? The fact that they set tone and expectations for the reader. Whether that reader is someone with the power to move your MS towards publication, or whether that reader is someone’s mom who plunked down the bucks and got something for her Kindle to read while on vacation, you have to bear in mind that your first three pages are a machine with a purpose: to make the reader want to stay and invest time and energy and thought with the MS.

I know this can sound like it’s a compounding problem, since so many writing resources tell you with bootcamp intensity that your first paragraphs have to be strong and they’re important, and I don’t mean to up the anxiety you may feel about trying to keep all these plates spinning, but since paragraphs are part of the first pages, the whole shebang is important.

During #FiYoShiMo, we talked tone. And we got a little into expectations, but now I want explore that some more. What expectations would your reader have, where do they come from, and what do you do with or about them?

So that we don’t have to get all literary theory on a Friday, we’re going think like readers for this discussion. We’ll come back to being writers in a bit, just go with me here.

Find up any book you’ve never read. Doesn’t matter what it is. I don’t care if you’re in a bookstore aisle, or if you’re looking online at Amazon, or if you’re rooting through dead Aunt Jean’s grocery bags of crummy novels. Assuming this book has a cover on it, or at least a title page, you already have a lot of information, and that’s before you’ve even fanned through the pages.

a) You have an author’s name, and presumably can search for that author on the internet. While I’m writing this, I’ve timed myself to see how long it would take to pick up my phone, google an author and get to their blog. Total time: 11.71 seconds

Are you about to tell me that you don’t have seconds to look something up on your phone, or in a separate browser tab? Sure, yeah, I’m on a strong wifi connection right now, but we’re not saying this is hours spent digging around for info on an author’s name.

b) You may also find reviews for the book, depending on if you search the title, or the author is a magnet for controversy and all people ever talk about is how their book is somehow ruining all of existence.

c) You may also find other titles this author has written. Were they prolific? Was this a one-and-done deal? Are they still writing? Again, this is all accessible information.

d) We haven’t even considered the idea that you’ve looked at the book’s cover. Is there a picture? What does that picture tell you about what possibly may be going on in the book? Naked model holding other naked model while naked model number one stares to the side? Maybe that’s romance. Is anyone shooting a laser? I bet it’s science fiction. The cover art can color and create a lot of expectations.

e) Flip the book over. Any back blurb? (For you internet people, scroll down the page) What’s the summary tell you? Any quotes from other authors? Do those quotes sound sincere, or are they just streams of pro-sales adjectives like “amazing” or “great” or “couldn’t put it down”? Again, you’re being presented with expectations of genre and rough concepts of story.

f) Is it a thick book? Is the font tiny? How many pages? Now go and fan through. With that brief glance at paragraphs (don’t get into the text yet, just skim), do they look substantial, or do they look like tight sentences with white space all around? This is an expectation, not a fact, that you might have to labor to read this thing, so maybe you approach it timidly.

After all that, crack it open and read the first paragraph, then the first page, then go all the way until the middle or bottom of page 3. I don’t care if it stops mid-sentence. (If you’re on the Kindle, get the free sample and follow along)

What did those three pages show you? What things did you picture in your head? Here’s a list of questions:

i) Did you get introduced to the main character?
ii) Did you learn anything about the main character?
iii) Was there an action beat? What was happening in it?
iv) What did you learn about the world this story takes place in?
v) What did you learn about the setting specific to the story?
vi) Did you find out what the central conflict of the story is?
vii) Did you get introduced to the antagonist?
viii) Anybody die?
ix) How many conversations were there, and between whom?
x) Was anything foreshadowed?
xi) Was anything, in your opinion, underexplained or glossed over?
xii) Was there a chapter break?
xiii) Was there profanity or sex?
xiv) Did you get bored?
xv) Would you keep reading?

That’s fifteen questions, off the top of my head. You may have more, I could have asked more. But that’s FIFTEEN. And they’re not limited by genre or age of the book.

This is what’s important about three pages: it gets you started. This is the turned key in the ignition. Your picking up the book and opening it was the key going into the ignition, so now you want to get in gear and get moving.

I wish there was a simple formula to tell you that said that X number of paragraphs on the first page have to be about the character, then Y paragraphs have to be about the world, then Z paragraphs have to be about conflict. But there isn’t a formula like that. There’s no set percentages of text that need to be reached in order for your first pages to be engaging. Any combination of character, world, and conflict can lead to reader interest.

The question they teach in school is this: Who’s doing what, where, and why? It’s not a bad question. Whether you’re introducing Poe Dameron on Jakku, Ishmael boarding the Pequod, or Nick Charles mixing a cocktail, you’ve got a blank stage and a willing audience waiting for whatever you present.

So make it count. Don’t think of this like a long fuse that can slow burn before finally doing something. Rare are the people and situations where a reader sticks around until page 40 to see if “it gets better.” Rarer still are the professionals who stick around to page 10 in hopes that the MS gets its shit together.

It’s to your advantage to take a big swing and put together a good scene. It might not be the start of the specific plot, but it’s the reader’s access point to the plot, because you’re connecting them to a character and their world, and together they and this virtual being will (hopefully) get up their necks in the specific plot.

What does that look like? That’s up to your story. How are you going to get the reader immersed in your world, introduced to your character and convey the sort of vibe you need to in the face of their expectations? Here are three ways:

Sentence structure
It’s the primary mode of broadcast for your ideas. Vary that sentence length. Use push/pull to draw the reader in deeper as you provide details.

Word choice
No, this isn’t a permission slip to go adverb and adjective wild. Pick the best word or word phrase for the job.

Pacing
What information are you giving in what paragraph, and in what part of the paragraph? Why is it going there? Could it go sooner? Later? What’s your thinking behind that piece going where you have it? If I’m working to follow along, does that information in that spot help or hurt? Ease or retard my progress?

I wrap today’s 1600-something words with a reminder that you don’t have to do this perfect the first time. You don’t have some finite number of drafts to make this happen. No one’s coming to take away your keyboard or something-something-other-topical-American-political-commentary. This takes time, and yes, I swear to you, I promise you, if you keep doing this, if you keep working at it, you will see it pay off.

See you next week. Happy writing.

The Writer And What’s Important

I’m starting this post off with a trigger warning for suicide, addiction, depression, anxiety and self harm.

So, about maybe twenty minutes ago I heard that Philip Seymour Hoffman died. About seventeen minutes ago I heard it was from a heroin overdose. This had a way bigger impact on me than I thought it would, and after talking to some people, they thought it would be a good idea if I wrote out my feelings. This is that expression.

I worry about what I tweet. I worry that people think I’m too much of a downer, too negative, too much of a wet blanket. I don’t mean to be, I don’t wake up in the morning and say, “How can I be really miserable on social media today?” and I don’t make any excuses if that’s been the case for people lately. Actually, I wake up most mornings lately and try to find the strength to get out of bed, to get into and out of the shower, to pull on clothes and maybe if I’m not completely exhausted after that, to eat something and try to fake my way through a day. “Fake” there is a key point. Because sitting and just trying to summon strength, to draw up the courage and the will to keep moving, I can’t easily quantify that for you, but I can quantify the sense of expectation I feel – that I’m supposed to skip my feelings, not focus on them, and do work or be silent or that I have things I’m supposed to do for this errand or that. I’m not talking about the specifics of work, that’s separate and doesn’t factor into this thinking. I mean things like making huge financial moves for retirement or planning for what I’m going to do when I’m 40 or 50. And I take the advice I get, and I nod, and I slog my through it, and it shuts people up.

But the truth is, I feel really disingenuous about it, because I don’t always have the surety and confidence that I’m going to live to see 40. I don’t see the point in preparing for life at 65 when I’m giving everything I got to make it from breakfast to lunch.

If you’ve never felt the rush of drugs in your system, or the sharp bite of a razor at your skin, or felt like the best recourse you could take is just to not be alive, to spare everyone around you the burden you assume you’re being on them, I don’t know if I can really express to you what the pain of depression is like.

It has a physical component, it has fatigue, but it isn’t like sore joints or a muscle strain. It has an emotional component, a sense of disconnection and isolation, but it’s not like shock. It has a mental component (obviously) but it isn’t like stress. It’s a weight that ebbs and flows, irregular tides of frustration, confusion, tension and upset. You want to escape it but you don’t have the energy. You want to out-think it, out-maneuver it, but it knows all the mazes and corners of your mind. You want to avoid it, but it’s like trying to hold back smoke, it slips around your guard and creeps in at you. So you get swallowed by it. I liken it to drowning. Let’s take that further, it’s like drowning when you don’t know whether to float or go down to the bottom. Because at the bottom, it just won’t hurt anymore.

So it becomes this effort for pain relief. ‘Management’ feels too much like appeasement, so you go to something more binary: get rid the pain, or have it. And maybe you take up addictions. Needles. Pills. Drink. Sex. Love. Work. Maybe you go for any or all of the above. Maybe you just want to stop hurting because you can’t remember the last time you didn’t hurt. Or maybe you do. Maybe you remember when everything was great. Those oases, those sandbars out in this giant ocean of suck become memories you run back to as often as you can. Maybe it was time with a lover. Maybe it was time you smiled. Or laughed. Or orgasmed. Or ate something tasty. Or thought, just for a minute, “This feeling is kinda how I perceive everyone else to feel all the time, this is great.” And the pain goes away, because you’re focused in the moment. You want to absorb every sensation and second of it. You want to be able to recreate it either practically or in your mind.

Along the way, as you try to keep going forward, you get a lot of people saying things like, “You’re special.” “I care about you.” “You’ll get through this, you’re strong.” I don’t always know if the people who say those things know what it feels like, but I can always tell when someone comes from the same pain and then tells me they care. It feels different than just some blanket statement made because they don’t know what to say. It’s sign of membership in the world’s shittiest club. We know the secret handshake and the decoder ring to translate our pain into our lives as though it was part of our skeleton all along.

Now let’s suppose things go too far, and you lose yourself for a little while, and you give in to those nastier thoughts. The drugs. The razor blade and rubbing alcohol. The wishing your brain could focus so that you can make plan or write a note. And let’s suppose that you do something harmful to yourself. I’ve been there. It’s like an immediate electric jolt. You come out of a fog, and some part of your brain, the part that millennia ago feared fire and the wolf and the bear kicks into gear and says. “Put something on that wound. Stay awake. Go talk to someone. Get moving.” You don’t have time to really ponder the emotional significance of the towel that’s holding your blood. You don’t have time to debate what sort of new failure you’ll feel like when you come to terms with the idea that maybe you did just do what you did. Now there’s new pain. Immediate pain. Right this second pain. Something you can deal with. Something to manage. Something you really can’t screw up.

And you remember all those people who told you take care of yourself, and you imagine who would really be upset if it had worked, and you imagine what would happen to your stuff and you realize there are immediate ramifications for what just happened. Stitches. Itchy gauze. Lots of questions from nurses and doctors. Invasive questions. Questions you think they don’t deserve the answers to because to them, it’s just words on a paper during a long shift. But to you, those pen strokes are a measure of your life. Where it was. Where it is. Wherever it might go next.

People start telling you that you have to focus on what’s important. And you tell them that it still hurts, and they say they know, and then they tell you about how you can handle yourself differently and that it makes the pain vanish. Say more good things to yourself. Talk to people. Try dating (note: If someone at an ER at 8am ever tells you that the solution to your problem is going on a good date, you just shove a stethoscope up their nose and tell them John said it was okay to do so). Pray. Go be with your family. They stress to you that you’re a part of a machine, a gear that needs to be in place for the machine to function. They skip the idea that you-as-a-cog don’t feel you’re working well at all, and that by reminding you of your place in the machine, that your individual problems take a backseat to making sure things function for everyone. Some might even tell you how selfish it would have been for you to avoid pain. You might then feel extra guilty on top of everything else.

So, like a bad spin in a board game, you back some spaces up on the board. You focus on things with a narrow focus. Eating. Staying hydrated. Going to the bathroom. Not itching that damned gauze if you’ve got any. Maybe you play with the dog. Maybe you watch birds out the window. Narrow focus. You rein in the thinking about big things like what you’re going to do when you’re older, or if you’ll ever do X or have Y or be a part of Z again, everything stays small, in the micro, and your concerns become more about reducing pain on a smaller level. A personal level. Where it’s just about building yourself back up to a point where maybe this time, the pain won’t swallow you.

It’s not easy. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But I know what’s really important to me now, and I want to use myself as an example in an exercise. I should point out that this exercise isn’t about pointing out that you should feel like you’re disappointing these things if something bad happens, but instead to reverse this idea – that you like these things, so you want to keep going for them. Here’s my list.

I love games. They’re intricate puzzles and expressions of ideas from fertile minds that only want the ideas to be shared and enjoyed. I love designing them, editing them, writing them and playing them (not always in that order). The fact that I can point to a big chunk of my income as coming from what I love only makes me want to do it more.

I love food. I love preparing it for myself. I love cooking for other people. I love how someone looks when you put food in front of them. I love the smile that follows a good first bite. I love anytime someone can say, “You have to try this.” I love ingredient hunting, recipe building (it’s like a deck builder, but for my stomach), and I love the work it takes in making it. Even in a small kitchen, the fact that I can bang some pots and pans around and put together a meal that people will talk about is a great accomplishment to me. The fact that I use better-than-average ingredients or prefer skillful kitchen efforts is just another way of demonstrating my love for food and its craft. Sure, I love a PB&J on a toasted English Muffin, but I can also love the lobster thermidor and apple salad. Food is the one true love of my life that hasn’t broken my heart. Steaks don’t cheat on you. Hot wings won’t leave you suddenly. Chocolate chip cookies don’t care if you don’t know how you want to spend a Friday night. Food is love. Food is life.

I love communicating. For as alone as I feel, for as bereft of talent and worthiness I might feel on occasion (seriously, have you seen my friend circles? I am a match flame compared to their forest fires of genius), the fact that I can put words to things and express ideas in a way you can understand is the greatest triumph of our species. Of any species. Communication is what allows ideas to bloom and spread, what moves people towards and away from each other, and what marks our creations as beautiful. Art, music, it’s all communication. I speak quite a few languages. I converse about a ton of topics. I love a good chat. I love a good chat that spirals into some collaboration or partnership or friendship. It’s telling to me, now that I sit here with a dog laying on my feet, that in my darkest moments, I always want someone to talk to. Even if it’s just to pass the time.

To do this exercise yourself, as I learned it from a good man from Jamaica Queens (I think I’m supposed to say, “ya heard” whenever I say that, but he’ll probably tell me I’m putting too much white on it), identify three things or people or concepts or activities that keep you going. That you’d slog through the worst case scenario (zombie apocalypse brought about the rise of Nazi Clowns and the collapse of societal order, obviously) to keep being you. And apparently, you can’t say “My spouse” or “my kids” because that’s somewhat of a societal or moral expectation and that’s kind of cheating. As I understand it, you’re supposed to look very much inward to find your deep loves and then express them, so as to fortify them and refresh your dedication to them.

So that’s what’s important to me. And that’s why I’m sitting here blogging today. And that’s why I can understand the reasons a talented man can put a needle in his arm. And why someone doesn’t. And why I might. And why you shouldn’t. And why it’s worth talking about.

If you or a loved one needs help, get help. It sucks, it’s embarrassing. But if you need help, it can make all the difference if its something that changes a situation from awful to survivable.

Normally I conclude a post with “Happy writing”, but that doesn’t apply here. Let’s go with “Do your best to take care of yourself today” because that was some great advice I got today.

Take care.  Talk soon.

Pretty But Hollow

“Pretty but hollow” was my summary of the new Snow White and Huntsman movie, which I went into with something of an expectation that it would be actiony or gripping or would move me in some way other than to squirm in my seat and ask “This is still going on? How long have we been here, six hours?”

Ultimately the movie starring Mrs Twilight and Thor looked pretty. It was colorful, striking and visually engaging – more for the color palette than the pretty people. And the score was rich and added great atmosphere, but on the whole, there just wasn’t anything going on – I mean, yes, I know the story, but still, there wasn’t anything to take away from Mrs Twilight’s “acting” (looking like she’s constantly going to say, “Umm” and then staring off-camera like she’s trying to remember why she’s walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge) or from Thor being Thor in a fantasy setting. (Okay, I’m sorry: for being a 3rd or 4th level Ranger, and doing the bulk of the heavy fight scenes.) He can sort of convey emotions, I’ve seen him do it, but he can only be as good as the template in place by the script, and the script, well, I think it was practically criminal how they took good actors (Hoskins, McShane, I’ll even throw in Theron) and reduced them to colorful imitations of a cartoon.

And all this got me to thinking about what it takes for a manuscript or book to dazzle me and how many of them can be called “Pretty but hollow”. Let’s talk about that today.

Now before I get into this any further, let me point out that I’m not saying all books need to be original, but…all books need to be original. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel, but you do have to demonstrate how you’re differently interpreting the wheel when you compare your creation to the benchmarks of your genre or concept.

You no doubt know what the ‘other guys’ are doing in your respective fields. It pays to know your competition when you’re creating something, and no one wants to have the idea that one thing clones or copies another tossed around. The problem with that is you only have so many basic templates (Man v Nature, Man v Man, Hero’s Journey, Lost Love, etc), so you can easily be sort of a dick about writing and say that everything copies something else – but I find that attitude doesn’t encourage people to do anything other than to panic and not write. Also, it’s silly to waste your time thinking about who copied whom. This is no longer the elementary school playground, and you’re totally able to do whatever you want (so long as you understand the consequences of your choices).

On the outermost layer of the story, whatever the genre or ideas, your work may look like generic or typical, but there have to be hooks that pull the reader in deeper and there has to be substance underneath that veneer of “this is what I’m used to” so that people can see what you’ve done differently.

And by “differently” I mean “done what demonstrates your talent and your abilities, rather than your desires just to do something to earn a fast buck or create a profit stream. Because this is an art above all else, if you wanted to get fast money, there are other more suit-and-tie ways to get it (although I suppose there can be an art to bank robbery and the burdening of the middle class by corrupt corporate dickwagons).

There’s a formula I want to pass on to you here, that will help you find the meat beneath the surface.

It is Y, but then what?

Y is the genre or type of story you’re writing. The answer to the question though is what you’re doing to distinguish yourself and draw the literary-talent Excalibur from the stone and proclaim yourself the once and future king/queen of your awesome writing kingdom.

So your question might look like one of these:

It’s a memoir, but then what? But I’m telling this story that emphasizes the heart of one character, told through a drunken lens of bad Thanksgivings.


It’s a detective story, but then what? The main character only eats waffles.


It’s a non-fiction instructional to help people train their cats to speak, but then what? Dude…it trains cats to talk.

Am I expecting you to know what makes your story interesting? Yes. It’s not that much to ask really. If I’m holding your book in one hand, and anything else (let’s say you’re trying to get me to read your book and not play Ticket to Ride), what would you say in order to convince me that I don’t have to go be a train baron of the 19th century?

Knowing your hooks is critical. Knowing what you’re doing differently (because you have a talent for it) is absolutely positively a must when writing. During those down moments, spend some time hunting down what makes your work special and unique and what you’ve got a talent for….and try to get those ideas into a single sentence or phrase. Practice saying it. Believe it. Know it the way you know that few things in this world are cooler than nachos and good tunes.

Finding out and building those things makes your story NOT hollow. Like good shampoo it gives your story body. It also lets you do something you’re good at, which is awesome for your self-confidence. (What I’m saying is that there’s no downside to figuring out what you’re good at and then doing it)

Also, totally save your money and skip Snow White and the Huntsman. You’d be better off spending the time talking to people you can’t stand while scrubbing your tear ducts with bleach-soaked glass shards. Yeah, it was that bad.

Rock on.

Happy writing, see you guys later in the week.


Oh, post-script: In two weeks I head to California for a week. There likely won’t be a blog post then, but if you want to follow my adventures, find me on Twitter, and Facebook.