I didn’t really like it as much as I think I was supposed to

As I write this post, I’m less than one hour removed from having walked out of a movie before the big third act. And it was a very popular movie, one that broke quite a few records. It’s a wonder, really.

What’s even more of a wonder, woman or man reading this, is how I feel about it. It was okay. It wasn’t great or rad or huge or amazing. It just was. It was better than some of the other movies I’ve seen in the same universe, but it didn’t grab me or transport me or take me anywhere. I stayed in my seat, and did a lot of head shaking. A little eye rolling too. And that’s the problem.

Well, that’s part of the problem. I mean, in theory we should all be able to have our opinions and share them knowing that we’ll be respected as much before sharing as after, but I don’t know if you noticed this, it’s particularly difficult for some people to disassociate socio-political elements from storytelling elements. And that poses a significant problem for me right now, because I’m about to talk about some story issues with a movie and some people are going to assume I must be waving my genitals in outrage because how-dare-I-swim-upstream against all that this movie represents.

Here comes another dude talking Wonder Woman. Oh joy.

So first, let me say this and say it clearly – I have zero problem with the directing in this film. I have zero problem with the genders of anyone above or behind the line. It’s sad that it’s taken so long for a woman to accomplish what’s been accomplished. I think it’s fantastic that box office records are broken and a lot of people have panties and boxers in wads. Good. But that’s not where my issues are, and they never will be. However I know that for a lot of people that sort of thing forms a thick filter through which anything else I say will be colored, so even when I break down “hey this isn’t great development” it’ll be translated as “John sure does hate the womenfolk”, which is wrong, and any attempt to explain myself somehow reinforces that to a reader who comes in with their mind pre-decided.

Let’s talk about some positives. Wonder Woman, Gail Gadot, she’s great in this movie. She’s, yes, a good looking woman, but more importantly, she’s given a whole hell of a lot more to do in this film than stand around two dudes in a fight scene. She’s earnest and strong, and she is everything Wonder Woman.

Other positive: I think I saw the sun in a few shots. Like actual not-Snyderverse grey skies. The actual sun. Holy shit. Yes the color palette plunged quickly back to “muted = badass”, but there was actual color on screen at times.

Other other positive: It’s a really lean movie. Unlike the other Snyderian films that digress with long shots of staring or strange dream sequences or time tunnels, this story moves us from A to B to C without a lot of fat on the steak. Yay directing! Yay camera movement!

Okay, now let’s see if I can cover this story without plot spoilers. Just about everything I’m going to talk about is available in the trailers, so aside from one note about secondary characters being incredibly secondary, I’m not going to drop anything that isn’t either already out there, or isn’t sort of obvious.

Diana is an Amazon princess of Themyscira, the island home of the Amazons, and when World War 1 breaches the shores of Paradise Island, she takes up sword, shield, and lasso (hey where was the lasso when she was hanging out with Batfleck and allegedly-Superguy?) to go do what’s right. Joining her is Captain Kirk and a cast of otherwise pretty forgettable goodguys. Opposing her, as is pretty standard in her early story, are some Germans. Ultimately, her journey teaches her valuable lessons about heroism and it’s what molds her into the woman who will later fight a CG burnt-testicle cave troll.

That’s the plot in really broad spoiler-free strokes. That’s it. This is an origin story.

Let us dive then into the parts where the story goes askew:

  • Character Consistency. One would think that the Amazon princess who has never encountered the real world would be the very definition of the “fish out of water”, being that her civilization hasn’t really progressed much past the Battle of Thermopylae in terms of technology. However, throughout the film this is either ignored, or played up only when humorous. She doesn’t know what a dress is, but she has no problem encountering a truck or phone.  What this conveys is that she’s only a fish out of water when the story doesn’t need her to know something, which means you’re sacrificing story momentum for the sake of joke beats before working to get back up to speed. If she’s a fish out of water once, she’s a fish out of water always, unless she’s got an in-story reason to understand something. This does not mean everything foreign needs to be explained to her, but it does mean that the writing needs to make deliberate choices about what she knows, what she can deduce or intuit, and what remains unknown to her.

  • Character Motivations, Part 1. We need to define a writing term first. “Practical motivations” are the things a character knows how to do and therefore excels and looks for opportunities to do those things as a way of asserting control or competence in the world whereas “conscious motivations” are the desires, hopes, goals, and dreams of a character that they feel and that influences them to action. For our woman of wonder, the practical motivations are set up in the first half of the first act, a very breezy set of action montages where Amazons fight each other and our main character shows growing competence. It’s worth noting here (and we’ll do it again when we talk dialogue) that this is uneven montage construction, as she’s never shown failing, just always improving, so it’s hard to assess that these actions, this combat, is truly a challenge for her.

The conscious motivations are imparted somewhat nebulously. We’re told that she’s special, we’re told somewhat that she’s good and that she believes that mankind (non-Amazonians) is by default good, and that by itself should be enough for us to buy her as a hero in the story. Except that we know she’s a hero, because she’s all over the other movie where Bruce punches Clark and then feels bad about it. It’s these conscious motivations that we’re told about and don’t really see (she doesn’t have a “save the cat” moment although she has three moments where she gives the “hero speech”), that lead her to get into the big action pieces of the movie, and we’re supposed to be swept up in it … except that if we’re told rather than shown, it isn’t really embedded in us as an audience. We don’t get that chance to feel what she feels, and we’re distanced from connecting with her.

  • Character Motivations, Part 2. Our main character gets into the plot because she sees danger that no other character sees. This is good, because every character who isn’t her or Captain Kirk is kind of disposable and tepid. And that includes the antagonist (who we’ll get to in a minute). Any time a protagonist has to accomplish something that want for accomplishment should sit at the confluence of two things – a character arc and a plot conflict. Diana doesn’t really have an arc, because naivete isn’t really an arc, it’s part of what’s shed when you have an arc, sort of like the hair you lose during a haircut is only part of what informs the new changed haircut. Diana goes off to confront the bad guy because he’s the badguy, with no other motivation than “that’s what the story says to do.” But what does Diana want to do? What she should do is dependent on her arc, but I can’t say for certain what her arc was beyond “I’mma go be an Amazon during WW1.”

  • The Antagonist. In the majority of superhero stories, the hero and villain are on a collision course because they’re on the same line, moving in opposing vectors at roughly the same velocity. The motivations for each are as much chess match as they are binary conflict. In the film, the fact that Germans represent bad (because Germans = Nazis no matter the history, right?) is used as a blanket to certify that the villain is a badguy. Look out he has a gun. Look out he’s stomping around. Someone has to stop him, oh no. All this guy (it was Danny Huston by the way), all Danny Huston needs is a moustache to twirl and we’ll hit peak generic villain status. We learn about his goals through the protagonist (and worse still, through dialogue said by a secondary character to the protagonist) so that his goals can afford to be generic and broad because anything that ticks the “it’s bad” box counts. So if you were to ask me what motivates the story’s villain, it’s a generic reason of “bad guys like fighting and winning.” Yawn.

  • Lack of Tension. Maybe this is due to the fact that this story is set a century prior to the last one, so we know she survives, and we double-know she survives because she’s in the Justice League trailer too, but here in this movie, where we’re sitting having paid our $16 for a 3D matinee, we should at least have a feeling that maybe there’s some danger. Oh wait, no? We’re gifted with shots of her taking on a war zone unscathed and always looking like she was bred for war with technology she’s never encountered like it’s no big thing? Oh, okay.

Yes, this movie is low on the “Oh I hope she’s not in danger” scale. Nope, she’s not really in danger. And she should have been. Because it’s the overcoming of that danger that lets us root for the hero when the odds are greater as the movie progresses. She’s got gauntlets that deflect bullets. Shinguards that deflect bullets. An indestructible shield, and a sword. Yeah, she’ll be fine. She’s never dirty. Also, her hair never gets messed up. Magical Amazon hair and skin care products, I guess. Also, her makeup palette changed from shot to shot sometimes, either that or someone went a little LUTS-wild.

  • Dialogue duds. There’s quite a bit of talking in this movie. Not like an Altman or Smith film, but still, there’s a lot of back-and-forths. And sometimes the dialogue sounds like people, where they have feelings and aren’t cranking it up to 11 for “their moment”, but other times it’s clear that the dialogue is delivered because the character is center frame with a tight shot. Some of this dialogue doesn’t work.

Part of this dialogue revolves around a secret being kept from Diana, and prior to my walking out of the theater, the audience is left barely enough breadcrumbs to suss it together. Not that it needs to be spelled out (though my fear is that the third act hinges on the reveal, so gag me, I’m glad I bailed), but the danger in keeping a secret from the audience is that you can generate more confusion or disinterest than mystery and a want to solve it. Yes, it’s possible to keep a character in the dark but not the audience, but ideally, you keep both in the dark so the reveal carries an impact.

  • Convenient Plot. When a story is lacking tension, a “ticking clock”, a plot-idea that imparts danger or impending harm is used. There’s a ticking clock presented in the mid-second act, but it’s done conveniently. (This might be a spoiler, and I’m sorry) This story hinges around the WW1 armistice, where the good guys want the war over and the bad guys don’t … but there’s an extra level of complication because the armistice is also presented as a problem because it’s happening soon. Or is it?

The movie’s logic is this – if the badguy isn’t stopped, then the war will go on because badguy will be bad. If that’s the case, the armistice won’t matter because the badguy will be cause more fighting. If the badguy is stopped, it’s the same as the armistice, because the war will end. So how exactly is the armistice a ticking clock? Where’s the urgency?

  • Double Convenient Plot. Usually in a linear plot (A to B to C), you arrange the scenes at A, B, and C to be reachable and progressive. Like in a road trip movie you have to go to B from A and to C from B. Weak writing shortens the distances between points (usually between B and C, because it creates false urgency and masquerades as heightened stakes. What happens here is that point C is right next to point B on the map. A literal map.

Convenience neuters tension. It neuters momentum. It takes the foot off the story throttle. It reduces danger. In general, it’s not a good look, particularly in the back half of a story.

  • Slow-Mo No No. Slow motion shots are meant to turn the ordinary into extraordinary by putting the focus and elongating the tension around an action. A ball being caught, a switch being thrown, slow motion turns an action we wouldn’t think twice about into a motion we have to pay attention to. And as in other films (300 comes to mind … which makes me think there’s something about using Grecian material that requires slow mo), slow motion shows up here whenever there’s a big fight moment. A moment, where we’d be paying attention to the protagonist either way, where now we’re forced to double-extra pay attention just because she’s leaping out a goddamned window or jumping like a ballerina before shooting an arrow Horizon Zero Dawn style. Slow motion for slow motion’s sake makes it not special. It’s supposed to be special. Too much of it makes it not special. Also, slowing down action beats doesn’t make the action more important.

  • Lousy CG. Short note here – it’s like someone just learned about masking and keyframes in Final Cut Pro. And why blur on the big CG stunts? To show something you wouldn’t subject a human or practical effect to, why does it have to be partially motion blurred with its lighting slightly off so that it screams “digital effect”?

  • Most Secondary Characters are Bland. The majority of non-critical characters are utterly replaceable, and only two of them stick out in my mind (Princess Buttercup, and I’m pretty sure that one guy was Remus Lupin). Secondary characters are often service characters, people who serve a function to the plot’s completion or character arc, otherwise they’re relegated to quips and levity. With a period piece, the secondary characters are often waypoints to measure the framing of the story, that is, these characters are the touchstones so that the primary characters can stand out more. In this film, this is taken to such an extreme, the secondary characters melt away aside from ticking a few standard movie quotas.

A secondary character should strive to stand out in some way that is greater than their plot contribution. Secondary characters should stick in our heads because of the impact they have on the protagonist’s arc, and no, it shouldn’t come through dialogue nine times out of ten. It’s not about catch phrases and quips, it’s about showing something that either makes an impression on a character or showing that not-doing something makes an impression on a character.

This all makes it sound like I absolutely destroyed this movie, and there were parts I liked beyond the physical appearance of actors. The big scenes they’re hanging hats on (No Man’s Land, Themyscira) work, and some of the smaller scenes (there’s one with snow, there’s a great moment with boats and fog) that do work.

If you’re about to tell me that my opinion doesn’t count because I walked pre-third act, I hear you. But by the time you hit the third act, the story should have all its major elements either presented or has hooked me to stick with it. What I saw of the first two acts didn’t keep me in the seat. If your mileage varied, I do hope you liked the movie.

Would I see it again? With friends, yes. On TV or Netflix, once sure.

And for the record, I do think this movie will generate less ire and workshop material than Batman vs Superman, which is both good and bad.

Until next time, good friends and creatives, keep rocking, and don’t you dare give up.

Happy writing.

Some Thoughts on Professional Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures With Feedback

Good morning, my apologies for the delay in writing. A lot has been going on of late, and frankly my dear blog fell by the wayside. Well, that and I was intimidated by some other blogs. But that’ll be another post. This morning, as I sit on my back porch and watch my dog chase rabbits, I want to say a little about feedback. I’m corralling quite a bit of it for several clients and their projects, and I’ve noticed a lot of good things and bad things that are all worth addressing. Here then, are a few points.

1. Nothing is worse than unhelpful opinion. If you’re the feedback giver, the last thing people want is your opinion. Of course, that’s what we say we want when we ask you for feedback, but we’re not really looking for your opinion, because an opinion isn’t anything more than your emotion. Those emotions get in the way of what I really need to take away from the interaction, your logical thoughts past the emotion. Sure, tell me you liked the thing I wanted, but go past the blanket “I liked this” or “This sucked walrus genitals” and give me something I can take back to the writing lab or the client and are actually viable possible improvements. The downside here is that your initial rush to be the-person-who-said-stuff (we’ll get there in a second) goes out the window, because what I’d prefer is a moment’s thought ahead of fingers hitting keys. Your opinion is going to suckerpunch the writer’s self-esteem, but when you get past the like/dislike barrier, you can actually help someone get something done.

2. Reverse the polarity on the negative-positive comment matrix. This is particularly true in playtests, where the positive comments feel like breezes compared to the negative’s hurricane force. Worse, a lot of people just rattle off a litany of complaints, dislikes and ill-conceived notions of oversight and call that feedback. Anyone can be negative. Anyone can say a thing that someone is going to take as evidence of their own failure, if that’s what they’re afraid of or in some way looking for and expecting. I’m not suggesting you hold back the negatives, I’m suggesting you deliver the positives with an equal intensity. This is the failing of a lot of “comment delivery systems” like “the compliment sandwich” or “roses and thorns” – the negatives are always going to be focused on so long as they’re delivered in more critical, biting ways.

3. You actually DO have to engage with the material. If it’s a game, you should play it. If it’s a book, you should read, not skim. If it’s a product, use it. What exactly do you think gets accomplished or how do you think any of what you say gets taken when somewhere along the line you admit to never actually doing more than a superficial glance?

4. If your statement can be prefaced by, “If I were the person making this …” think about the statement’s desired effect before you give it. As the feedback-provider, you’re not the content creator. You didn’t spend nights writing, you didn’t spend the hours sweating over the project, you don’t have to pop open your inbox with a sense of dread that all you’re going to read day after day is how people think your work is inferior. This isn’t the moment where you try and “prove” that you’re a better person than whoever made the thing you’re giving feedback on. This isn’t the moment where you stroke your own ego while demolishing someone else’s.

5. Don’t disguise #4 with some of that passive aggressive “Don’t you think …” stuff. You’re not veiling your attempts to be recognized as superior when you do this. What you say might actually be a good question, if you just went ahead and asked the question. Superiority, getting one up on the person, being smarter than … all of that accomplishes ZERO, sort like bringing a mitt to a ball game and expecting to ask you to go play in right field.

6. Interact with the material as-is, before you start interacting with it as-you’d-like-it-to-be. Yeah, you might not think that this character should have done X, or you might create some elaborate “headcanon” bullshit to satisfy yourself when you’re in someone else’s IP pool or develop some elaborate “shipping” to justify your own wants or beliefs that something should be a certain way. (A lot of these stem from fandoms and fanfiction, both of which still annoy me to no end). In playtesting, a lot of this gets passed off as “solution finding”, even though the perception of a problem only exists for the person who’s finding a solution. If the item is a problem for YOU, make a note, but you need not produce a solution – that’s the content creator’s job. (SIDE NOTE: These solutions to not-actually-problems often involve complicated steps, or only work in specific instances that aren’t easily duplicated consistently.) Likewise, if you’re reading a book and think Character A and Character B should be on a one-way course to the Bone Zone on the Hot Lovin’ Express, but they’re not, that’s not a reason to label the entire work as “garbage” because you haven’t gotten what you want. The point of feedback is to help the creator produce a work, not sate your whims.

What’s to be done? When giving feedback, keep your focus on the work, on delivering the positives in a way that gives the creator a sense of accomplishment, and framing the negative in a way that doesn’t crush the person, instead pointing out your view that you THINK (remember: feedback isn’t fact) elements can be improved upon. Be positive. Help people make better things, without the need to praise yourself or make you smarter than them. It isn’t about you, so get out of the way.

 

Happy writing.

 

The Cycle of Praise, Competition and Insecurity

Let’s put ourselves in a very large comfortable room. It’s a writing seminar. You’ve paid money to come here. You’ve made all these travel and work arrangements. You have waited for this seminar for weeks. You’ve got a charged laptop, some pens, a legal pad and a bottle of water – everything you need to take notes or do whatever’s asked of you in this seminar.

Let’s go one step further and say that I’m not giving this seminar, that Published Author X and Author Y are. Published Author X is a big deal. They’ve got a lot of books to their name, they write a popular blog, they have loyal fans. They play up the role of cantankerous maverick, equal parts grouch who hates “the establishment” and practical rebel who occasionally fires off big, shouty rants. Published Author Y has fewer books to their name, is less angry and ranty, and could be mistaken for aloof. Author Y isn’t terribly practical, and is known for stressing the importance of theory and frequently references academic sources and studies and papers while Author X is ten times more likely to cite their own work.

Got it pictured? No, the genders don’t matter. No, the location doesn’t matter. Make it ideal. Make your supplies infinite.

Now, put me in the back of the room, Obi-Wan Kenobi Force Ghost style.

Use the words, Luke.

Use the words, Luke.

Ready?

Author X and Y tell you that this seminar isn’t just going to be them talking to you, but they want you to write and they’re going to move around the room and check your progress. This might freak you, but they cage it as “a chance to get help from experts”. So you smile and start writing.

The first hour goes past. They move through the room, and while they haven’t gotten to you yet, you can hear what they’re saying to others. People look upset, dejected and disappointed. A few tear up. Someone loudly stormed off behind you. Author X and Y both say to keep writing.

The second hour rolls along, and it’s your turn. Author X comes over, asks to see what you’re writing. They scrutinize it, and call over Author Y. They both look at it. You might ask questions, but all you get out of them are the non-answers of “Hmm” and “Oh.” Their faces are a mix of frustration, constipation and that face your old neighbor makes when the kids up the block are too loud. Seconds stretch. Then they speak.

It’s not bad, could be better, I guess.” and “Well, yes, it could be better, but it’s, you know, alright.” It doesn’t matter who says what. Their answers are vague and deflating. (If this isn’t deflating enough, insert your own pair of really uncomfortable sad things).

Now the question becomes – do you stay and try harder? Do you head out the door? Did you just waste your time? Are you disappointed?

Sadly, that scene happens in some variation to a lot of people. They come to a seminar looking for something more than the inspiration they get just from reading a post, they come for more than the awkward guilt or shame of knowing they could do more or do it with less difficulty. I believe that people come to a seminar or a workshop or a convention looking for answers or a route to whatever their next step in their journey is. They have questions they need answers for, they need feedback on their progress, they want to hear what they can do, how they can do it better and what they should avoid or work on not doing.

How Praise Helps The Writer

Writing is a solitary and often emotional activity. We accept a lot of risk in the production of what we create, often enduring lengthy periods of rejection or lengthier periods of anticipating/expecting rejection and feel a deep attachment to the characters, the stories and the ideas. We generally write by ourselves, sitting at tables and desks and often with a schedule that differs from everyone else’s comings and goings. It’s an activity that puts you in your head, drawing the story out and onto the page. Sure, you might get up and complain at your pet or potted plant about how the scene is or isn’t working, sure you might argue with coffee pot or ice dispenser when you can’t quite get something right, and yeah, I guess you might sit and write with your spouse or significant other on the couch over there folding laundry and staring (why can we always feel them staring?) at us while we type frantically away. When the bulk of creation is internal (meaning in YOUR head), there’s not a lot of praise. We’re slow to praise ourselves, maybe we grew up that way or we just had poor role models for praise, or like me, you were told that praise is short-lived and really only given when you “truly” deserve it … but never get told the conditions when you deserve it.

Little Praise, Then What?

Back in our imagined seminar, let’s go back to the Authors X and Y standing over you. We’re going to talk about the actual standing part in a second, but go check out their faces. The tension in the eyebrows. The pursing of lips. The somewhat blank stares. We’re taught at an early age (and through stressful experiences develop) to read faces for signs of danger or upset, and sometimes for some of us those systems are built on bad code. For me, if I can’t immediately register a positive response, I assume the super negative. I’m pretty sure a lot of people fall along that negative part of the spectrum if they’re creative.

Criticism might come from other people, but we define it. At the most basal, all Authors X and Y are doing are opening faceholes and passing air over cords in sound patterns. Our brains have to process those vibrations as sounds we know, then further process them into speech, then go one more step to put them into definitions and draw conclusions. Try thinking about that while listening to someone tear you a new one over the phone, or getting yelled at by a boss at work. It’s sound waves. The definitions at the end of that chain of brain processes? That’s up to you.

I’m not saying you should disregard what someone says, but I am saying to consider it before you lock onto the negativity of it. I’m also not saying you should jump the gun in the other direction and assume they hate it because they’re jealous of you. That’s a possibility, but no more so than your piece needing work or them being unable to properly express themselves and be able to maintain their personas and egos.

So What Can I Take Away From This?

Okay, let’s talk a little about this room we’ve imagined. See how you’re sitting and their standing? And how they’re standing over you when they walk around? We’re wired to accept them as authority figures. It’s how teachers interacted with as children. It’s how parents used to tower over us as we toddled about. Some of us tend to question authority and rebel and chafe at it, but most of us all get a sense that the standing person, the leader-person is more knowledgeable than we are.

This is not necessarily true. They might be more knowledgeable, as knowledgeable, or less knowledgeable than us. They’re just people. They do the same things we do. They’re fallible. They poop. They forget their keys and spill things and put off doing chores just like we do. They are human.

Yes, they’ve been published. They might have been doing this activity longer than you. They might have learned some things you don’t know and be able to help you do things you had trouble with before. On that basis, give them respect. But do not confuse respect for surety. This is not a case where you follow them into the mouth of hell. This is where you accept what they say then choose how you want to interpret it. No, you don’t get to be a dick about it, you do so graciously and sincerely.

“Thank you for [the feedback]. I appreciate you bringing that up.”

Don’t deliver that quote in that passive aggressive tone like you’re all sarcastic or worse, “killing them with kindness”. No, I mean really sit there with your feelings, compose yourself and thank them for saying whatever.

The Magic Trick

Okay, so Author X and Y? What you know of them are some facts (they’ve published books, they have a certain persona online, they’re hosting this seminar) and some abstracts (their personas, any emotion you believe them to have). You give them those abstracts. You project that. That’s stuff from you to them. In short: you expect them to be a certain way, they’re either going to act in accordance with that (live up to it) or you’re going to filter and color what they did or said to fit that expectation. We’re human. We do this. We expect the controversial person to be controversial, and when they’re not, we either claim the actions as poking fun at normal or we suffer a disconnect and have to change how we feel. We expect the aloof-looking person to be rude and we prep for it, and don’t give them a fair shake.

(Wait, the person I imagined WAS rude. So, yeah, they gets no fair shakes.)

The magic trick is that these people aren’t experts. There are no experts. There are people who have found ONE way to accomplish a goal, and there are people who are still looking. Instead of looking to duplicate what they did, look for your own path to goal accomplishment. Their path is not and won’t be your path. And only some of their advice is going to help you. Discern. Think for yourself.

Then What About Competition?

Stay in that imagined seminar, but I want you to add something to it. Picture the first things that come to mind when you read this phrases: legitimate publishing, traditional publishing, real writing success. A lot of people, upon coming across those words think about agents and editors and big offices and books going on bookstore shelves. For a long time that WAS publishing. Over time, we’ve seen a lot of different ways to get written things into the hands of people who want to read them. These new methods are different than the old methods for a lot of reasons – different end product, different steps in the production chain, omission of gatekeepers, whatever – but assuming the old method is “legit” and the new method isn’t is a lot like assuming the author at the front of the room holds some exclusive knowledge and has to decide if you’re good enough to know it. For me, that’s not legitimacy. That’s exclusion, and a loss of my control over my craft.

When teachers or agents or editors or publishers promote scarcity or exclusivity as a proof of legitimacy, they’re reinforcing the behaviors that deny praise and encouraging the anxiety and presumption of wrongness. First of all, they’re the decision-makers for that legitimacy. That makes the assumption that the person you impress speaks or has knowledge about what your audience likes. I might have been occupied for much of the day, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t vote this agent/editor person the power to determine what I like. They’re ONE person. If they don’t like your work, find someone else.

In our virtual seminar, look at the other people. You might think they’re all currying for Author X and Y’s favor, and you might think they’ll get it before you, but that assumes you’re not good enough to be liked. Now, let’s really shake things up. What if you didn’t buy into it? What if you didn’t write like you’re competing? What if there was no competition?

That's some deep shit, John

That’s some deep shit, John

There is no competition. None. Not because you’re better than they are, or they’re better than you are. They write. You write. You all have the same goal: to get your work out into the hands of people who want to read it (ideally in exchange for money).  Yes there’s scarcity in some models of publishing. But not in all of them. There are plenty of ways to accomplish that goal, why get rigidly attached to one? Yes, there’s a lack of praise all over the place. Negative feedback outnumbers (but not necessarily outweighs) positive feedback. We’re quick to give low reviews to things so that people can see how superior we think we’d be and so that we can get a moment of spotlight by sharing that negativity.

Can We Be Positive?

Yes, I hear you, you check out blogs and leave positive comments and tell people you’ll buy their books and you retweet and favorite their tweets. You promise you’ll talk to them when you finish your work. You tell your friends all about the books. That’s nice, but that’s the tip of the positive iceberg.

I am here to sink your Titanics of negativity.

I am here to sink your Titanics of negativity.

The 80% under the surface can be split into:

30% you learning something from what they’ve written (a model for dialogue or character or tension or something), 50% you writing. Yeah, you’re not going to escape that writing part. Sorry. It’s why we do this. But you can thank them. And not just, “OMG I <3 ur bookz! nbd tho” (or however the kids say that, I think I forgot a “squee” or something). I mean track down a method contact longer than a tweet and drop them a note. Tell them how their book got you through a rough part of your own writing. Tell them how you really enjoyed spending your lunch breaks escaping your hated job by exploring the world they made. Tell them how a character’s strength gave you hope when things looked bleak. Tell them how a moment in the story moved you.

It just got real dusty up in here, didn't it?

It just got real dusty up in here, didn’t it?

Put your guts out there.  See what you get back. You’ll be surprised to see what not being a negative fuckhole can give you.

The Cycle Has To End

If there’s little praise, then we are competing for it, then we’re not focused on getting guts on the page – we’re trying to divine what will please the praisekeeper – and they might be some fickle people. Snapping that cycle is as easy as looking at what you’re writing, remembering why you’re writing it and being aware that you (not others) are in charge of it. Yes, you can hand it off, but only do so to the people you know share the same intensity of care and enthusiasm you do. And when someone rains on your parade, understand that you don’t have to quit on account of storms. They pass.

Happy writing.

This is a Mental Health Post. You Might Find It Worth Reading

(Note: This is a mental health post. We’ll get back to talking about publishing and writing in a second. I know that these posts don’t get a lot of traffic, but it’s not a bad post, and I think you might find it worth your time. This is a small trigger warning for suicide, a larger one for codependency and a larger one for low self-esteem and self-value)

I woke up this morning about four hours ago, pretty convinced that everything was going to suck at some point in the near future. The laundry I didn’t finish folding last night would be in various states of disaster. People were going to call and tell me that they never wanted to talk to me again. People weren’t going to call and never wanted to talk to me again. The shower wouldn’t work and I’d be left a stinking fetid mess. The sale I’m running would collapse. The dog would run away because I’m such a terrible person. You know the sort of suck-age I’m talking here. The stuff that we work extraordinarily hard to keep under lock and key that only manages an escape when we’re tired or intoxicated or already feeling damaged. Epic suck-age of the highest level.

All these morning horsefeathers come after a late, tired night after a long and draining day. See, among the less-than-lovely mental health issues I deal with on a regular sometimes moment-by-moment basis, I’m codependent. I don’t handle separation well. I don’t feel good enough about myself to know with any certainty that the people I love are going to come back to me if they go anywhere further than a twenty minute drive, like they’re going to hit that twenty-first minute and say, “Holy shit, what the hell am I doing with John?” I don’t know how to be a 100% me alongside another 100% person, so that any relationship is a partnership and two-way street of communication, not just some weird conglomeration of people that occasionally includes food, humping and watching TV.

This lack of self esteem partners with a stunted emotional development growing up. I grew up in a barely demonstrative home. I only heard “I love you” when I was on the verge of tears or about to something consequential (like when I had to go to court for moving violations and was scared) or it would get written to me in emails while my parents were on vacation somewhere. It wasn’t bantered around, and as a result I had no real sense of how to express it. Hell, I thought even hugging a person of the gender you’re attracted to was a prelude to getting into bed with them. This left me fumbling when it came to sex, since I had learned from religion and my parents’ view of it that you only do it with the people you love, that you do it in private, and you do it only in “normal” ways. I’ve spent the last 15 years expunging the sense of limitation and shame that gave me.

I’ve gone through a lot of relationships, dates, and experiences to bring me far enough to where I can see that how I used to be, pre-therapy, pre-working-on-myself was remarkably unhealthy, immature and held back. I tend to use the phrase “-starved” to describe it now: I have been touch-starved, love-starved and affection-starved for more than a decade. Getting it now is like discovering an oasis, it brightens everything, but at the same time because it’s new, it’s feels ephemeral. Most of the good things in life feel ephemeral. I don’t like getting something I like then feeling like it will be taken away. It’s why I eat quickly and give myself hiccups. It’s why I mope around when people go off for a weekend. It’s why I feel jealous when people I know are making awesome things and I’m not asked to help.

Because my moods were unstable and I was mentally volatile for so long, I heard from a lot of people (family, friends, relationships) that I had to “control” myself. I don’t know how to explain what it really feels like, it’s somewhere between feeling shame that you’re doing things that upset others and feeling out of control and off the tracks – you’re trying to make things better so as not to keep hurting people, but the harder you try, the worse you make things, because you don’t really know what you’re doing or how to fix it. So, at some point, I just learned it would be preferable (read: I wouldn’t feel like everyone hated me) to clamp down on all my feelings. Not feel them. Deny them. Lie about them. Skimp on pleasure. Skimp on connection. If I didn’t have to feel anything or risk anything, then I wouldn’t upset people, and then because I wasn’t upsetting people, they’d be happy with me, and (nebulously) love me.

This is probably the same decision that brought me loneliness, worsened my depression and sent me into a spin of really bad decisions and consequences. Because I was constantly trying to avoid upsetting people or avoid any feelings that didn’t conform to what I thought people expected, I never got a chance to develop familiarity with a lot of skills people need. It retarded my growth and rather than learn things in my early 20s, I’m learning them in my mid-30s. I don’t always have enough words to express how ashamed and embarrassed I am of that.

For instance, I never learned really how to miss people. My first experience with the feeling that I would miss someone came in the sixth grade when my friend Alex yelled from one backyard to me in mine that he was moving to Michigan, and did I want to come over and play kickball. I remember telling him no, and I think I said that I had to eat dinner or something, but the truth is that I didn’t want to play kickball because it would end at some point and then he’d be moving away. This began a lengthy game of tag between me and loneliness. People leave to go to different places for different reasons and I don’t know how to deal with that – I’m not okay with them going, I don’t want them to go, they’re my friend/partner/lover/co-worker/whatever and I selfishly ask, “What am I supposed to do?”

Codependency is loneliness’ toady. I don’t like being lonely. Loneliness and disconnection from others is what led to me slice my wrists on more than one occasion. Loneliness convinced me long ago that I was worth less than garbage, and that’s a thing I’m still trying to disprove. Oddly enough, I don’t feel that way when I’m not alone. It makes for a neat little destructive cycle.

Here’s a nice chart that sort of describes my terrible thinking

This goes on in my head A LOT. It sucks.

This goes on in my head A LOT. It sucks.

See how screwed up that is?

  1. It’s incredibly selfish. Notice there’s no box about the other person having to do whatever they’re doing – they might be at a job, or on a business trip, or dealing with hostages or whatever. To my panicked brain, self-preservation becomes self-absorption. AND I’M NOT EVEN UNDER ANY THREAT OF ATTACK OR HARM. I JUST DON’T WANT TO FEEL IGNORED, DISCARDED, NEGLECTED OR LIKE I DON’T MATTER.
  2. The only positive is when I’m not alone. Now, granted, I shower regularly and make an effort to smell good and am, at times, very pleasant and funny. But sometimes, people just can’t be around me (again: jobs, other responsibilities, other things they like that aren’t me). It basically says that if I’m not the center of someone’s universe, then I’m awful.
  3. The negatives are REALLY negative. It’s not that I’m boring or that I only tell the same three jokes, it’s not a matter of being “not fun” as to why I’m alone, it’s because I’m whatever’s beneath pond scum and garbage’s garbage.

This was a majority of my thinking yesterday. It was incredibly draining. I’m pretty sure it frustrated my friends to hear me go on and on about how not-good yesterday was. I know it frustrated me when SIX different people said variations of “Dude, you’re being way clingy and anxious. Sit down and be cool.”

What to do?

Last night, feeling like needed to get a handle on it today, I argued with myself (the dog was asleep by this point) as why I felt the way I felt. Normally I bounce this sort of stuff off someone, but when that someone is the same someone you’re in the middle of missing, you end up talking to yourself and feeling horrible for burdening them with anything less than glorious purpose. Because I know that if didn’t arrest this line of thinking, if I didn’t derail this craptastic train of doom, then it would get worse and then that dread I was uh, dreading … the bad stuff I didn’t want to happen would happen, and I’d be alone. Learning that I deserve and am good enough to be with people, be in a relationship, be good enough to work as hard as I do, be good enough to have friends, be good enough “not to suck” has been a tough struggle over the last three years, with a lot of tough times and a lot of thoughts that sap and erode the idea of “deserving” anything other than boxes of misery and sadness.

After a tough and teary conversation with myself, where I didn’t let myself off the hook until I got into the reasons and feelings that underpin the craving for attention and love and people, I promised myself that the next day would be better than today – not just because I felt I needed to do better by others, but because I didn’t need to drain myself and feel crappy like that again.

Which brings me back to this morning.

So I’m up early, laying in bed, feeling this sense of “Oh this day might blow” when I catch myself and remember the promise I made last night. And then I start applying the tools I’ve acquired. I made a list of facts, things that are true no matter what I feel or think or worry about. Things like “I know that today X Y and Z things will happen” (I’m not going to detail the list, that’s for me, but I’ll give you the broad strokes) or “I know this person said _______ to me.” Because I have these facts, I know I can reference them with two taps of my phone whenever I’m worried or anxious about something happening out of my control or not happening out of some imagined neglect. This list took me a good forty-five minutes to generate 11 things, because they’re all relevant to the problem I’m feeling and I skipped the stuff like, “I know the sky is blue” or “I know the dog likes me”.

This list, even knowing I have it, before I even look at it, helps. Facts get written down, and facts kill anxiety in the face, because anxiety is generated by my lying brain trying to get me to do things (however negative) that I’m habituated to doing thanks to brain chemicals.

I could have stopped there, because it’s enough to know I have 11 statements providing me some manner of grounding and comfort, but I didn’t. I wanted to temper the other side and make a list of wants, although looking at them now, a lot of them read like goals or regular efforts I’m going to do everyday, “I want to be better at _____” and “I want to _______ every day.” It’s good to have these too, although they don’t ground me like the facts do, they give me a vector and a “job” (that’s not the right word) that isn’t worrying about things that are on the fact list. They also snap the cycle of “how legit do I think these facts are?” because I’ve written them down, so they’ve got to be accurate – why would I write myself nonsense?

Doing that motivated me. I got up, I had breakfast, I started my day with a commitment to make it better than yesterday. Is today going to be tough? Yep. No doubt. But I’ve got these tools and I’ve got this resolve, so I’m going to do the best I can (and honestly, it wouldn’t be hard to have a better today than yesterday, that’s a low-ass bar). Then seconds after I got out of the shower (Hello, ladies.), I got a chance to express this plan and what is more or less this blogpost verbally. I’m a verbal guy. Words have a ton of meaning to me, so if I can say to someone, “I’m going to do this better” you can bet I’ll do everything I can to do it, and then exceed it.

Which brings us to right now. I sat down to write this post, knowing full well my mental health posts get as much traction as a running puppy on a wood floor, but I don’t care. Words have meaning and power, so I’m writing this down.

So onward. To make today better. To not be anxiety and codependency’s bitch. To celebrate the good. And put away laundry. And read a book. And pay some bills.

Maybe not in that order.

Yes, I swear, we’ll talk about writing and publishing next.

Writer, Why Are You Doing That?

I’ve been away for the weekend, part of a new regimen of relaxation and de-stressing, trying to get (and keep) my blood pressure down. It seems to be working, and in general, I’m finding my weekends a lot more happy and pleasant, doing everything from brunches with new friends to leisurely game playing or even deep conversations.

The upside is that my BP is down ten to twenty points over the last week or so, and I’m sleeping better and generally embracing more of life. The downside? I come home to a crowded inbox of 300+ new messages, all in various states of update, panic or frustration. Usually pruning this inbox down calls for a ginger ale or strong cup of tea, and leads to quite a few tweets:

 

Not pictured: The loud sigh that accompanies writing the tweets

Not pictured: The loud sigh that accompanies writing the tweets

Capture2

It’s not that I dislike talking to writers, quite the opposite in fact. I love talking to writers, and we’re not even counting the ego stroke reasons that come from making a living giving advice. Helping someone do something better, especially in those cases where what they’re doing excites some deep passion, is gratifying. Not unlike good ice cream, kissing or catching Murder She Wrote on television.

But there are times where setting writers straight, addressing issues, putting out fires, assessing professional damage and generally laying down a little smack is tiring. And grating. And draining. I have no kids, but I have to liken part of this feeling to what a parent feels when they tell a child for the umpteenth time to do something. Yes, okay, they protest, but way down the road, some time in the nebulous future, they’re going to be thankful for having that knowledge help them. Cleaning your room sucks when you’re ten, but when you’re 35 with many rooms to tidy, you’re thankful you know how.

So too it sucks when you’re a new writer and you’re trying to figure out your way in the wild world of writing. There are so many blogs to read, so many books to digest, so many “experts” all giving you advice that seems to vary based on everything from the number of books they’ve sold to the size of their social-media-credentials-slash-genitals. Unfortunately, there’s no codified set of things to do or read when you get started. And depending on the crowd around you when you start, you might mature as a writer in a fearful way, that you need constantly check some website for good and bad people because the world is full of thieves and con artists. Or maybe you never really mature because you get caught up in some petty social politicking on a message board that wants to talk more about sales than finishing products. Or maybe you deify a writer because their blog is pretty or because they curse or because they have some graphics in the margins, but you’re quick to knock them off that pedestal when you find new and conflicting information. All of these things are possible. As I write this, I’m thinking of writers who range from really great to really great-at-perpetuating-excuses-and-horsefeathers.

I don’t know where you are in your progression. I don’t know if you’re new or if you’ve been writing forever and a day. I don’t know what you write, how you publish or why you do what you do. Regardless, I want to break out the stop sign and slow the race down under caution (that’s the yellow flag, yes?) because of some behaviors I’ve seen.

Yes haters are gonna hate. Not everyone’s going to like what you write. It’s not bad. Some people will rationalize this as “you know you’re doing it right when people hate your work” and others will say you haven’t “made it” until you get opposition. Personally I lean more towards the first even if I think you can still be doing it wrong AND get negative people talking. And no, I don’t know if they’re hating YOU for being able to do something they wish they could (jealousy) or if what you’re writing is actually a bucket of mediocre-at-best wordspew. Chances are that yes, it’s a little of both. Chances are that people are jealous AND you could be producing better stuff.

But does it really matter? Is it insecurity that makes you need everyone to love you? Fear that if one person doesn’t like your work, no one will? Not everyone is going to like what you’re doing. And they won’t like it for reasons as varied as they are: you curse, you don’t curse, you use too many commas, your character doesn’t do what they expect or want them to do, you take liberties with things that really annoy them, etc etc. Who knows and who cares. YOUR writing isn’t about THEIR praise, is it? (Remember that praise is a consequence of good work and talent)

So let’s assume you’re writing, and that you finish a thing, then you send it off to whoever. Let’s call them Jane Doe. Your book has been written on lunch breaks and weekends and late nights and in coffee shops and at your kitchen table. You really tried your best to tell a story and you fought back the sea of doubts that kept you from finishing it. And you package it up all pretty and write a doozy of a query letter. And Jane rejects it. You get a nice rejection letter that may or may not have some ink-scribbled notes on it. If you get rejected, don’t take it out on the person who rejected you.

You can totally hate the system. You can think it’s elitist, exclusionary, sexist, bigoted, biased, dull, unimaginative or whatever. You can say that it’s outdated, perpetuating a model of success predicated on scarcity as to perpetuate their own jobs. None of that changes the fact that your work wasn’t what someone was looking for. You can be angry, hurt, upset, disappointed, or shocked. You can mourn the lack of success. But don’t think that if you track down your rejector’s website, social media accounts or personal information, that you can make your displeasure felt and somehow Jane Doe will totally publish your work once you threaten to publish their home address and phone number. Getting your work published is NOT a hostage negotiation. You don’t get to blackmail or bully people to get your way. It’s not personal. It’s business. And remember, 50% of the process involves you having produced a thing, so don’t forget to look in that half of the equation when you’re trying to figure out what’s wrong. (Hiring an editor is a good thing to help clarify)

Now, maybe Jane Doe rejected you, and your threw yourself a Sucks-A-Lot party. Once you’re done pulling streamers down off the furniture, it’s time to send your work out again. This time, you find Sarah PlainandTall who could read your work. You check out her website and she’s got something called “Submission Guidelines“, and maybe you think ‘Guidelines are suggestions’. Submission guidelines are RULES, not suggestions. They cover everything from what font to put your document in to margins to size of piece and other similar details. Send out something that doesn’t mesh with the guidelines, chances are it won’t even get a rejection, it’ll just get chucked into recycling or sliced into shreds or cut into scrap pages for phone notes. Also, the guidelines aren’t to be selectively followed. You can’t skip number 3 and 9 just because they invalidate your work. You don’t get to pick and choose which rules you follow. If company or person X has guidelines you can’t meet, then find company or person Y instead. Following rules is a great way to make a good impression. Not following them is a great way to make a not-good impression, or validate any assumptions that you’re hard to work with.

In short: follow the guidelines, don’t take rejection personally, and don’t take your frustrations out on inappropriate targets.

Happy writing.

The 9 Questions of Development

Good morning. I’m recovering from the crud of Dreamation, so while I currently sound like I’ve been gargling hot road tar and inhaling everything through a bus exhaust, I think it’s time to blog.

Now I should point that this is version 5.2 of the post what was going to go here, having laid out ideas for everything from “What an Empty Workshop Can Teach You” to “How Steak and Herbed Butter Tastes Better When You Tell Sad Stories” to “Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman Want To Help You Write.” They’d all be good, but then I read this post from Chuck.

Yes, it’s another Wendig post where I have a response. I’m sick, don’t pick on me. Chuck’s onto something here, but I want to take it, spin it a different way and give it a nice remix.

Step one, we need some music. Here, have some.

Step two, you’re going to need a plot and a main character. Nope, doesn’t matter what the plot is right now. Nope, doesn’t matter what main character it is. Male, female, alien, sentient raccoon, awful wrestler. Just get both of those things in your head. I should point out that if you’re not sure about either of your two choices, if you’re not sure you like either or both of them, these questions will help you.

Step three, we ask a trio of questions about the main character, to give us a baseline on them.

  1. What’s your character’s greatest fear and how did it come about?
  2. What’s a situation your character is trying to avoid, why is that situation bad, and what are they doing instead?
  3. What’s one experience that would make your character happy?

The breakdown –

What’s your character’s greatest fear and how did it come about? I like this question going first because I don’t think we conceptualize our character’s fears that often, unless we’re going to tie it directly to the plot, and frankly that’s super lame. We’ve talked before about how the character has to be bigger and exist as more than just the rat in the maze that does the plot and then goes back to the cage. I think to some degree we can measure a character by the fears and the reactions to them, as well as the distance from them. It’s never made sense to me that you make a character afraid of something that never impacts them. (Being afraid of an asteroid hitting your planet when you’re telling a story about how you’re building a house doesn’t quite jive, because the scales are off – if you’re not going to be painting a picture of a web of insecurities, then you’re just eating page-space with material the reader can’t grab onto). Likewise, you need to know the circumstances of how that fear came around. Yes, I know, the character has that fear because you just gave it to them, but what’s a little vignette you can describe to illustrate it? Maybe it’ll come up in flashback, or you can reference it somehow, but it helps to know the origin points of things.

What’s a situation your character is trying to avoid, why is that situation bad, and what are they doing instead? The “situation” might be an encounter with someone, but it might also be an emotional state or outcome. Exploring why they don’t want it to happen might be an exercise in avoidance, and it doesn’t have to be a sob story in the making, it can be played for comedy to some degree as well. But that space needs exploration. So too does the flipside: knowing how the character is trying to get away from that situation actively is going to inform a lot of what that character does and how you convey that to an audience.

What’s one experience that would make your character happy? I mean this in the big sense, not just how great it would be to have chocolate right now or how much they’d like a sandwich for lunch. Is there some event or action or thing they want to have happen? Is the bank not going to foreclose? Is the big work contract going to go through? Are they going to go on a second date? Now, it’s worth pointing out here that this might be the plot of the story, or even a subplot, but it doesn’t have to be.  Your character doesn’t have to search out this specific happy, it doesn’t have to be the driving force of the story, but put it out there somewhere in the story’s universe to satisfy your character.

Step four, we put those three ideas to the side, and we go look at the plot. (Don’t discard the above three questions, we’re going to use them in Step five)

  1. Does the solution of the plot require the character(s) to change from however they are at the start?
  2. Is the plot something that you can develop throughout the story, or just in the last third or so?
  3. What’s lost in order to resolve the plot?

The breakdown –

Does the solution of the plot require the character(s) to change from however they are at the start? Characters are built for growth and change. They exist in a world where they get challenged. They have a plot that tests them. They have a philosophy that gives them a sense of size outside of the confines of the particular plot, meaning they feel and behave like real people. If a character doesn’t change, then there’s no sense of accomplishment. Sure, they might have completed some tasks, but if you can’t point to a shift in their behavior or their thinking, those actions are meaningless. The character’s behavior intersects with the plot and creates moments of tension. Like the guy who does his best to stay out of trouble, only to find himself in deeper trouble and barely escapes. Or the character whose passions actually play a pivotal role in the story, but because of the story, he may regard them bitterly. Change is good, even if change is scary and unknown and it makes you queasy, and makes you just want to accelerate through the scary parts to get to the comfortable things.

Is the plot something that you can develop throughout the story, or just in the last third or so? So many great stories wind us along page after page and then realize that “Oh, right, we’re supposed to be doing something” then there’s a manic race to quickly tie up the loose ends introduced way back at the beginning. To avoid that feeling of sudden acceleration and recklessness, make sure that every few story beats and scenes ties to the plot some way. Like spokes on a wheel, things should tie back to the central conflict. Yes, some parts are easier: the dead body, the murder weapon. And some parts are harder: the love story between the the protag and the woman secretly surveiling her, the relationship between the protag and her dog. But that’s one of the hurdles in writing, and clearing it will strengthen your craft and skills. Don’t just take the last six chapters all the way to 11, develop the story across the chapters (think butter spread on toast) so that you won’t have to race later to squeeze everything in before the story wraps.

What’s lost in order to resolve the plot? Even if the answer is “innocence” or “preconceived notions about X”, something has to be jettisoned, discarded, torn away, let go, released, or ejected. By identifying the material-to-be-lost within a key scene you’re giving the scene more impact, making the ideas matter more to the reader and giving them, as the kids say, “all the feels”. Loss is an integral part of development, and we can measure growth not just by the included, but the discarded as well.

Step five, where we tie these things together.

To do this, we’re going to work a little in reverse order. Here’s how.

  1. How would the loss of ___ change the way the character views happiness?
  2. What scenes can you point to in the progession of the plot also tie to situations the character wants to have, needs to have, or is desperate to avoid?
  3. Does the plot’s resolution develop any additional fears or emotional conflicts for the character(s) going forward?

What we’ve done here is partner the questions together (the 3s, the 2s, the 1s) to give us a third set of questions where character and plot come together. These crossroads-moments are significant because they show how the plot changes the character going forward, meaning the character is bigger than the plot, but the plot still mattered and had an impact.

Let’s break it down-

How would the loss of (whatever it is that gets lost to solve the plot) change the way the character views happiness? So, if the character is losing innocence over the course of the story, maybe that’s going to change how they feel about something makes them happy. At the most cliche, this is the “putting away childish things and stepping into maturity” but this might also be the loss of a partner changing the way a character feels about living happily ever after in love. What we lose either makes us care more about what makes us happy, or it reshapes how we interpret happiness.

What scenes can you point to in the progression of the plot also tie to situations the character wants to have, needs to have or is desperate to avoid? Maybe you character avoids large crowds. Maybe though that in order to chase down the killer, they’ve got to move through a crowded mall during Black Friday. Maybe your character needs to resolve her feelings about her dead child and she has to confront her grief by explaining how someone else can pick up the pieces and move on. Maybe your character is an ex-cop who left in a cloud of disgrace but now has to go back to the station to get some details on the robbery, and her former partner is now the chief.

Does the plot’s resolution develop any new fears or emotional conflicts for the character(s) going forward? Because characters are built to run on change, whenever the plot ties up, no matter what it was, there’s going to be some impact. Things have changed now, revelations exposed and character-states have grown and fell. Going forward whether that’s just until the story’s end or into the next book or the next session or the next episode, characters take their recent pasts with them. And because it’s recent, the wounds might not heal between tales. Which could lead to effects on the character going forward. (If you’ve ever messed up a limb or a joint, you know how winters can be a problem.) If these occur over the course of several stories or throughout one story, you’re helping cement that as part of the character’s composition. And we’re not just talking Indiana-Jones-hates-snakes, but also guy-who-loses-girl-thinks-he-sees-her-everywhere. Yes, there’s a fine line between making this an element and beating the dead horse into fine paste, but that’s what editors and multiple drafts are for.

*

Armed now with these nine questions, you have yet another set of tools in the toolbox for developing a story and a character. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go hack up a lung and try and warm back up. Keep writing. Make art. Tell good stories. Risk your hearts.

 

Happy writing

You’re Not Seriously Going to Publish That, Are You?

Good morning. I know I said there’d only be one post between now and Tuesday, but this isn’t it. Call this post bonus content.

What’s it a bonus of? How about a faceful of publishing and writing info?

See, the other day I sort of fell into a Google+ community and did my absolute best to be polite and straightforward in my post, and overall found the experience a little like trying to fish in the middle of a hurricane and wondering why you’re having such a hard time. It wasn’t a bad group of people, I didn’t encounter hatespeech or anything, but what I did encounter didn’t really sit all that well with me. And when things don’t sit well with me, I jump on a form of social media to talk about them.

What follows are a few things I’d like to clarify, debunk, rebut and otherwise wave a big giant neon sign at.

1. Apparently, quite a few people think that editing boils down to just applying grammar rules and some red pen corrections to manuscripts. Yes, they’re right. Grammar is a part of what an editor does, but saying that grammar is the bulk of editing is saying that the bread is the bulk of a roast beef sandwich. Grammar is one part. And to think that you can “just learn grammar and then edit on your own” tells me that you’re not only incredibly near-sighted about what editing entails, but that you’re either and-or both afraid to have your precious snowflakes shattered or you’re just cheap (we’ll talk more about cheap in a second).

Yes, it’s important to know the rules of grammar, so that you can break them in the course of writing, and so that you can abide by them when you need to. My understanding grammar helps me help a writer navigate the language to tell the best story. But if Writer X thinks that when I’m flagging sentences left and right, I’m only flagging the dangling participles or the need for a semicolon, Writer X might need to take a deep breath and realize that just like their story isn’t only a string of words in a sensible order, it’s also an idea trying to be expressed. Grammar helps, but what about story construction? Character development? Pacing? Tension? Readability? Minding your grammar isn’t going to fix those elements. Other tools of editing can.

2. People are incredibly cheap and quite happy to skip things that might be difficult or cause them to spend money or change whatever they’re doing. The question arose as to the cost of editing. Someone mentioned a book being a certain length (the number escapes me, but it was over 100K), and it wasn’t very difficult to multiply it by a rate of a few pennies to determine the cost to the writer as being somewhere in the neighborhood of around $4500 (I think). This number stopped a lot of people and rather than say, “Oh, I’m paying for a service.” they said, “That’s ridiculous, I’ll just get some readers to do my editing.”

Let’s put the publishing aside for a minute. Let’s say your sink stops working, or that it shoots water all over the place. You probably would call a plumber for that, because they’re an expert with pipes and sinks. The plumber comes in, assesses the problem and quotes you a price. Now how is it that you’ll nod your head and cut that guy a check, but when someone gives you a price on something that can help your manuscript, you go the other way and hand the errors to your friends? Would you do the same thing with your sink? (I wouldn’t. I’ve seen my friends.)

Sure, your friends can bang around your kitchen with a wrench or three, or tap pipes and look sagely. Maybe even one would get lucky and twist the right thing into place and fix it – maybe. It probably wouldn’t cost you much, maybe lunch or something. But it also might not work. Had you gone with the plumber, it would cost you more, but it would work, assuming your plumber wasn’t awful. So why aren’t you saying yes to an editor?

Don’t you believe in your work? Don’t you want it to be in the best shape it can be? Don’t you want it to be well received and well reviewed? Editing can improve the structure, tone and contents of a manuscript into something that will do better than a manuscript that hasn’t been edited as thoroughly or by someone without the experience.

Because that’s what you’re paying for when you write the editor that check. You’re getting their experience, their eye for detail and information, their ability to put things together and not just tell you what’s wrong but hopefully why it is and how to fix it. And just like plumbers, good service is going to cost you.

Okay, that’s the money. But maybe it’s not the money. Maybe you’re afraid of what editing will find. That your story has some holes. That you’ve got some weak areas in your writing. That you make the same mistake over and over again. It can be really easy to get back a page with the text all marked up with cross-outs and comments and notes and say, “Look at all this, I must be such a failure if the editor is writing this much in response.”

Yeah, you MIGHT suck at writing. I don’t know why no one’s told you that’s possible, maybe they did and you ran from them like your hair was on fire. And yeah, if what you’ve written has problems, an editor’s going to find them: it’s their job. But it’s also possible that what you wrote wasn’t awful, just incomplete or poorly fleshed out. Ideas that are somewhere on the page, somewhere in the text, can be salvaged and patched up and polished, but in order to excavate and discover them, the manuscript needs to be marked up. And you’re not going to be able to know whether it’s a total wreck or if there’s treasure hidden within until you read those comments.

And seriously, you’re getting into publishing a book. Thick skin is necessary.

3. “Fantasy Heartbreakers” don’t just exist in gaming. A ‘Fantasy Heartbreaker’ is a game that’s grown swollen and immobile due to clutter and bloat and the writer(s) trying to do too much with it. The project doesn’t feel focused, it’s trying to serve too many masters and be all things to all people. It’s like offering a Swiss Army knife when all someone asked for is a pair of tweezers. Sure, it has tweezers, but it’s also got these 690 other functions that get in the way. Heartbreakers happen, and they can be demoralizing. I wrote a heartbreaker game once. Got no credit. No paycheck. Just ridicule. Chased me away from all of gaming for years.

I’ve written some heartbreaker fiction too. I got it in my head I could write a thriller-cyber-dark comedy-horror story once. I wrote screenplays for things I wouldn’t show store mannequins. I wrote short stories I wouldn’t even use for scrap paper. The stories lacked focus, they were just files with words in them, and I’d stoke them like maniac fires but adding whatever new fuel I was consuming at the time. Read Irish fiction? Start writing punchy dialogue. Watch old movies? Draw out some scenes. Watch a British comedy? I’m scribbling nonsense into exposition to see if anyone’s reading.

When people tell me how big their book/game/script is, I’m willing to say about 85 – 90% of them are WAY too long. 150k isn’t a “short story”. It’s not a short anything. A single poem likely doesn’t need to be 20k. That great fantasy novel? No, really, there’s no reason it has to be 790k.

Pay attention to my next sentence. Stop what you’re doing, focus your efforts and be willing to admit you need help. Yeah, that’s not an easy sentence, because we don’t like talking about what we might have done wrong or what we’re not good at. It can be embarrassing, it can be shameful. Look, I’ve tried to die. I’ve ruined cars and relationships and homes and families and opportunities. All of that is embarrassing. The fact that you might need to split that monster book into two? Less so.

You know how you can tell you’re writing a heartbreaker? When the feedback you get stops being objective. Because as something inflates and takes on a shape of its own and you’re worried it might grow to consume a city, it’s hard to be able to spot the comparatively “little” things at its heart that cause the problems. If you’ve got 50-something chapters, it’s going to be really tough at a glance to point out that in chapter 3, you’ve got some run-on sentences. And what’s worse, when you’ve got something so engorged and bloated, YOU‘ve lost objectivity.

4. No, you can’t be objective about your own stuff, I don’t care what it is or who you are. Recently, I cleaned out a closet in my house. I filled bags with my old clothes. Old shirts, old pants. Some stuff I never wore, it still had tags on it. Some stuff I wore constantly. And for those worn items, each had a memory. I wore that shirt when I went on a date. I wore those pants when I was in this school concert. I bought that jacket so I could go to that wedding. Cramming those things into bags was meant to be cathartic, a release of old life and leaving my closet open to have new stuff put in. But you know what happened? As I went through the closet, it got harder and harder, as though the clothes were filled with cement, to part with things. I can’t get rid of that shirt, ex-girlfriend #4 said I had really nice eyes that one time when I wore that shirt. If I get rid of it, am I saying I don’t have nice eyes? Nope, can’t get rid of that pair of black pants, because that’s the pair I wore on that job interview, and those are my interview pants, even though I haven’t been on a “corporate” interview in 8 years. What this grew into was a closet half full of old stuff and a pile of laundry baskets on my floor that I live out of.

The solution? Bring in other people. People who don’t have any attachment to the project and who can stop you from listing off some sad rationalization as to why you really need all eleven black leather belts. The same is true with whatever it is you’re making. You’re not objective about it, not without a great deal (I’d go so far as to say 3+ years) of time between viewings. But you can bring people in who are objective. As an editor, I love my clients, they’re some of the greatest, kindest and most creative people I’ll ever meet, but they’re not objective about their work. They crab at me about why I cut this or trimmed that, but they aren’t paying me to agree with them – they’re paying me to help them get their words into the best shape, so they can stop living out of metaphorical laundry baskets with a cramped closet of memories and justifications.

5. Publishing shitty things isn’t proof of talent. Yes, in this great age of technological wonder, anyone can publish anything. You can write anything and get it up on Amazon. Here now is an actual conversation I have overheard at that bastion of writers, my local Starbucks:

Lady 1: I’ve just published my 30th book.

Lady 2: You did? You’ve been at it, what, like 3 months? Congratulations.

Lady 1: You know that Harry Potter lady, she only published like 10.

Lady 2: I’m sure your stuff is way better, you’ve got three times as many credits to your name in like half the time it took her to write one. You’re so talented!

This is why I stopped going to Starbucks for tea. Just because anyone with a bank account and internet access can mash their fingers and genitals and face against a keyboard (isn’t that how you’re writing? I learned it from a book!), doesn’t mean they should. This doesn’t mean the writer is a bad person, it means that just because something can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be done poorly or half-assed or done just because you’ll get money. That’s … well, to me, that’s kinda shitty.

Look at your reasons for writing. Why are you doing it?

  • For money? There are easier ways to earn money, especially more stable ways to produce a living income that can support more than yourself at a minimal level.
  • For praise? There are easier ways to get smiles and congratulations for your efforts. Feed the homeless. Donate blood. Help someone load groceries into their car.
  • For validation? Writing is a tough route if you’re trying to patch a hole in your sense of self-worth. There are too many critics, too many dissenting voices, all of whom get louder thanks to immediate gratification on the internet.
  • For fame? There’s a difference between being famous for something ephemeral like tabloid headlines or a sex tape and being famous for a big production of work. Guess which one takes longer.

It seems to me that we love to trash things, that it is easier to destroy than build, and we revel in something’s collapse far more than stand in awe of its creation. We pass judgment on TV shows, movies, books, actors, actresses, commercials, sports teams, clothes, sexuality, and a bajillion other things so quickly, and even when we build someone up, we love knocking them down later. Nothing seems safe from that intense spotlight and our vicious snark.

That is, except for our art. We mystify art, and nod our heads staring at gallery walls like we have any idea how the splotches of blue on a canvas are somehow representative of President Millard Fillmore’s sex life. We cheer on self-published authors like they’re striking great blows in a grand revolution. But it’s not a revolution. It’s evolution. It’s not that we’re going to self-publishing because trad-pub is our hated foe, and soon we’ll all have a catchy revolution musical to celebrate, except for that annoying Cockney kid you only like once he gets shot, it’s that we have more options available to accomplish a task.

So why not be critical? Why not call authors out for poor writing? Why not tell the book charlatans and conference predators to go fuck off? Sure, yes, it’s easier to point fingers away from ourselves and say that we’re surrounded in garbage, but we can also and must also take a look at ourselves as well.

What can we do to improve ourselves and our work so that we’re not adding more crap to the mountains? (Here’s where I like to point out that just like you might feel that Writer Z is dogshit in a snow hat, they might feel the same way about you) Here are some ideas.

  1. Get over yourself. You are not a special snowflake. You’re a writer, a creator, and a producer of art, motherfucker.
  2. You’re human. You will suck at things until you learn to get better.
  3. You do not exist nor create in a vacuum. Thinking and acting so reinforces item #1 on this list.
  4. In order to get better, you should solicit help from people who are not biased towards you. Seek help from your friends, your enemies, experts and random people. Weigh all the data, make informed choices.
  5. It’s easy to get comfortable and surround yourself with material and people who like you, love you, accept you and enjoy you, but not necessarily challenge you. Challenge is an important part of love and life, because people who can call you on your shit and hold you accountable are the people who you likely don’t want to let down and are the people who you know absolutely care about you and what you do.
  6. If you’re not being challenged, find people, places and things that will. I’m not saying you need to leave Comfort Village forever, I’m saying it’s time to explore past those mountains. Or die trying.
  7. Thick skin is a good thing. Being unable to accept critique, comments, or feedback isn’t. If you’re wondering why people are telling you bad things along with the good, see item #1 on this list.
  8. However you get your art into the hands of an audience, someone else is doing it differently. Neither of you are wrong.
  9. It’s not about us-versus-them, this way over that way. You’re either going to challenge yourself to make something the best it can be, or you’re going to dick around and half-ass something that doesn’t really challenge you and lets you lie to yourself about what you’re doing and how good you are it. Chances are your greatest enemy in this effort isn’t the faceless corporation sending out rejection letters, but whatever crap you’ve stuffed into your head along the way. Brain enemas are tough, but worthwhile.
  10. How long will it take to produce your thing in the best shape it can be? As long as it needs to take. How large should your book/game/art/thing be when it’s in that best shape? As large as it needs to be.
  11. How will you know when you’re done creating something? When you’ve satisfied all the questions you asked at the start. Did the plot resolve? Did the character(s) change? Is this action over?
  12. What do you do after you’re done creating something, and you’ve let it sit untouched for a while? Give it to someone else, give it to professionals, give it to people who will challenge and encourage and teach and help you and see what comes next. Apply items #1, #2, #3, #4, #6, #7 and #10 as needed.
  13. Most of the questions you have can be solved by you working on whatever it is you’re making.
  14. Most of the questions that aren’t solved by #13 can likely be solved WITHOUT running to extremes or extremists or yes-men/women or the internet community of your choice. Likely your answers will be found in returning to the core concepts of why you want to write, what you’re trying to say and how best to say it.
  15. Work is improved through critique, revision and development. If you fear them, production is almost futile. Revision and critique are scary and overwhelming, but time in the crucible forges better material by burning away impurities.

I’ll close with this last item.

6. If you’re worried about theft, predators, wasting your time or wasting your money, you’re looking at this the wrong way. Lately I’ve been talking to a lot of new authors and creators. And when I ask them, casually, usually after we’ve exchanged a few messages, if they want me to take a look at what they’re doing, they retreat into a shell. Usually this is a fear-shell, that I’m going to burst their balloon or find fault and shame them. Sometimes though it’s because they’re afraid I’m going to steal their work.

Okay, I make a pretty decent living doing this. I edit things, and do a little writing on the side. I have a group of friends who I regularly hang out with and play games with. I watch a lot of TV. I read a lot. I’m writing my own game. I’ve got manuscripts squirreled away all over the place. When do I have time to go around stealing? And what makes you so special (snowflake) that I’m going to steal YOUR stuff?

Right, yeah, it’s kinda weak to say “trust me I’m not a predator” when you don’t know me, or when you’ve heard that before from people who said it and then ran off with your stuff. So instead of me saying it and gesturing around like I’m directing invisible air traffic, how about you check out my work, or ask about me (Twitter is a great place for immediate feedback)? Do your research. Price shop. Don’t rush into anything. Interview. Ask questions. Go to workshops. Ask more questions. Be an informed consumer.

Just stop assuming that you’re under constant threat of theft or ruination. There are horror stories out there, some legit, some conflated for pity or attention, and there are really some shitty people (writers, agents, editors, publishers, game companies, etc etc) out there, but thinking entirely about the number of people producing things and the number of people receiving accolades for producing things, do you think the bad really outweigh the good?

I don’t concern myself with the watchlists of bad editors and bad publishers and awful whatevers. I know a lot of nervous writers put a lot of stock in it, because it’s a list, and it’s on the internet, but I know just as many professionals who aren’t on that list who wouldn’t take a napkin without asking, let alone steal your work.

Bad analogy time: With all the hysteria around assholes in this industry, I liken it to those old films they used to show in school about the dangers of marijuana or rock music. Remember those old beeping filmstrips with scratchy audio that used to talk about how Betty went to a party where Tommy had a mary-jew-onna cigarette and Betty took a puff and now Betty is banging sailors down on the docks after school? Or the one where Susie went out with Janie and they encountered “that negro classmate Tyrone” and they listened to some swell new tunes, and now they’re all pulling jewelry heists? Yes, smoke a joint, you might run into some trouble. Listen to Nickelback, you’re going to want those three minutes back. But those scare tactics are the extremes of the spectrum, meant to enforce a behavior that isn’t too rowdy, not too ambitious and pretty tame.

So what do you do when you find a predator? You get out of whatever arrangement you’ve set up (if any) and then you go tell everyone who will listen about the jerk you just encountered. De-fang that snake. Scare away the wolf. But then, get back out there. How else is your art going to be produced?

I’m at Dreamation over the weekend. I’m giving a Writing Workshop on Sunday (12-3pm), so if you’re coming, I look forward to seeing you there, otherwise, I’ll catch you next week.

Happy writing

Marching to Your Own Beat: Cadence, and How It Helps You

Good morning.

We’re less than a week away from Metatopia, which is my favorite convention, not because of its size, but because it’s where I do the most talking. I love to talk. Go watch any Hangout or video I’ve done. Check out an interview. I will talk, enthusiastically even, with very little prompting. And this one time, when I was trying to actually be silent, it weirded people out.

I love to talk. Because to me, great speakers capture the minds and attentions of their audiences not only through their words, but through their presence. I grew up feeling as though I would need to distinguish myself from the swarm of other kids – kids who could play sports, get girls, ride bikes, and generally appear way more put together than I was. So I chose to practice how I spoke. It never got me girls. I can’t remember a time that I said something and people flocked to me, but I do remember wanting that to happen. I do remember this commercial, although I think my version had kids in a classroom.

There’s power in the ability to hold the attentions of room. There’s power in being able to fill the room with your voice. There’s power to putting words on the page, so that people will turn page after page and want more.

It’s not only knowing a number of words, or even how to string them together. It’s about knowing how to push them. And pull them. To weave together a melody in your speech, not in a lilting capacity, but in a way that insists the listening or reading audience take notice and follow along, is the best professional power available. It will distinguish you from other people. It will make your words matter.

So let’s talk today about how you can improve your cadence. You have a cadence naturally, both to your written words and your spoken ones, so it’s not like you have to acquire one first. You just have to understand it. I’m not a speech pathologist, nor am I an occupational therapist, but I’ve been to each of them in the course of my life, and remember many of the exercises I had to do in elementary school.

I. Listen to any recording of a speech. I did this in the pre-Youtube days, so I had mostly old film clips in libraries and written transcripts. Later though, I remember having a CD-ROM, I think it was Encarta, that gave me access to audio files. Now, there’s Youtube, and you can easily find speeches to listen to. Try this one, this one, this one, this one, this one and this one.  Yes, I included a fictional speech. Yes, I included some historical ones. The “reality” of the speech in context doesn’t matter, I want you to listen to the words (or mute the video and read the subtitles), and see how they’re delivered.

II. Get a sense of emphasis. When I learned how to diagram sentences in school, and later again as an editor, I had to learn this fantastic set of marks, they sort of looked like apostrophes and dashes (I can’t find them easily on Google, since I can’t remember their technical name), and you marked not only syllables but also where stress came into play. Since I can’t find a Google set for you to look at, I’m making my own. To the badly Photoshopped images!

Let’s look at one part of my favorite poem.

POEMUNEDITED

 

On the face of it, there’s a ton of commas. But it’s poetry, so we can let that slide. The words sound flat if you read it the way you’ve read this sentence. No, we need to inflect, we need to use the words to grab our audience, so we put these commas in place to tell us when to pause, and when to look at the word that comes before the comma and see how important it is.

Let’s mark all the pauses in red.

POEMEDITED01

 

Still with me? Emphasis is a combination of syllable and pause, of sound and silence, or knowing what part of what word needs a little extra kick of volume or projection. Here, we have commas help elongate the words, drawing the audience closer to the speaker (because they have more to say) and lengthening the amount of time that speaking happens.

III. Track your syllables.  In the above piece, there’s only 3 words with more than 1 syllable (father and gentle and into), so we’ll start by looking at them. We have to see which syllable in those words gets the downbeat, the more forceful of the sounds we make when we use that word. We’ll split the syllables with a slash (you can also use a dot), and I’ll mark my downbeats in blue.

Now, yes, this is subjective, based on how you want to sound, so what I mark here might not be what you mark. And that’s awesome, Since I’m me, I can only talk about what I do, and I’ll mark my downbeat syllables. It looks like this:

POEMEDITED03

 

Okay, you caught me. I cheated and picked some lines that all have first-syllable downbeats. It’s just easier to explain cadence this way. But you might find words that require other syllables to get the emphasis, depending on what you’re writing, what language you’re writing in, and how everything gets expressed.

IV. Find the tempo/meter. Meter is the pace by which words are expressed. To find the meter, there are a few pain in the ass exercises, but the easiest one is to look at where the pauses (seen here in red) fall in relation to where your downbeats are. See how in our example there’s always at least 1 syllable between a pause and something emphasized? Like we’re on a rollercoaster, that syllable let’s us go uphill to reach the top, before sending us racing down.

So if we mark our downbeats, and they drive us forward, we have to ease off the gas and let momentum carry us forward to the next set of ups-and-downs. I’ll mark the upbeats (the spots where we can let sound reduce, where we build momentum before the next downbeat) in green and mark more single syllable downbeats in blue.

POEMEDITED04

 

The effect is a pushing and pulling of sound. We draw the audience to us with emphasis, we give ourselves a little distance by relaxing that sound. Down, to up. I like this piece of poetry because it has cases of emphasis and decline WITHIN single words (Curse, bless, etc) and that creates this great tempo to follow throughout the piece.

Here’s today’s magic trick – You can apply these exact same elements in WRITTEN text.

Also, go through this whole post, find the push/pull, then go see how using it can change your own writing.

The Crunch of Conversion

Note #1 As I was typing this post’s title, my typo was “Crunk of Conversion”, which might shape up to be a whole different topic for a different day.

Note #2 This post comes on the heels of Ryan Mackiin’s post about Fate conversion. You’ll want to read his post too.

In his post, Ryan (who I may refer to only as Macklin throughout this post, but that’s mainly because how I refer to him in my head) identifies six problems when bringing new games to Fate flavors and, to some degree, the reverse of that as well. I agree with his six points, I just want to expand on a few and give my own experiences.

To start, I’ve done a lot of converting, though much of it has been for my own local gaming group, or to respond to something someone asks me for in a speculative way. The few times I’ve had to bring Fate to things professionally, I found it far easier to do a hard transformation of either one or the other, which has lead to a lot of questioning assumptions I had both of Fate and of the conversion process in general.

Recently I checked out Reddit, on the advice of clients who thought my writing expertise might be valuable there. Along my searches and attempts to learn the site and its mores, I came across the FateRPG subreddit (my apologies if I’m using the term incorrectly) and found quite a few posts penned by disenfranchised people who felt like Fate was lacking in some meaningful way, that Evil Hat should produce videos to explain the material, that this system sucks to some degree, etc etc.

I didn’t work directly on Fate Core’s primary book. That was handled masterfully by Ryan and Lenny and Brian and Mike and Jeremy, and doubtless I’m forgetting other people. I was just fortunate to be in the vicinity of that creative process. I was however, fairly central to the Fate Worlds books. I don’t say that because I want you all to know how big a deal I am, I’m saying this because my success today is tied very directly to the success of that project. That stack of files turned into two books and gave me numerous opportunities to work with people I’d not have the chance to otherwise, and I am so grateful for every second of that time and those conversations. So, Fate Core as a system is close to my heart.

And to hear these people, these people who were once explained to me as “4chan Lite, depending on where you’re looking”, tell me that this system I have my name (somewhat) attached to might suck or does suck or doesn’t blow their faces off, well, that bugged me. And I wanted to do something about it. But, I didn’t. I read their posts, I saw what they were talking about. I disagree with their premise and much of the (mis)understanding, but they’re totally capable of not liking a thing I like. So I didn’t comment. I fed no trolls. I refuted no linear claims that some system was superior to Fate because Fate didn’t expressly say what to do, or that it lacked tables and elements to produce specific play-results. It just got me thinking.

Then I read Macklin’s post. And I did more thinking.

The result is this post, where I’m now about speak more about conversions, and although I’m going to cite Fate as examples, my hope is that I can be broad enough in my writing as to talk more about conversion from A to B, rather than stay only in Fate’s arena.

I. Not every system will do the same things when you convert to it, or from it. This I think, is the largest hurdle I faced, and a huge assumption I made, that a conversion is just a new coat of paint on existing constructs. That’s no more true than saying a three piece suit is plate mail since they both come in shiny hues. When you have an existing system, like it or not, tired of it or not, that system does something. Maybe it really accurately represents … commercial transactions, or maybe it does so better than other things, if it’s not doing it perfectly. Maybe it doesn’t do gunfights particularly well, so you want to either infuse gunfights into this system (let’s call it X), or take what X does well, and graft it onto another system (let’s call it Y).

So we’re looking at (X + gunfights) or (Y + commerce). Let’s ignore the fact that we’re leaving the remnants of X or Y respectively behind. We’re building a piecemeal thing here, a beast fashioned of many different parts, and we hope all these pieces work together.

They may not. And that’s a harsh pill to swallow. Here’s an actual example.

I continue to do a lot of work on a Dresden Files LARP. I jettisoned the old system once i was brought onto the project and adapted Fate Core (which was sparkly new at the time) to it. I further included ideas for using a deck of specific cards (to be now replaced by the Deck of Fate). I felt pretty good about this, and thought “Oh, well now this should work, since basically, I’ve broken down Fate’s machinery into digestible pieces a LARPer can use, and I’ve tacked on a really nice resolution mechanic that will keep the game from dragging along.

If I had to assign percentages, I figure this build of the system was about 80% Fate Core and 20% everything else – some from this system, some from that. And I liked it.

Then it went out into the world, and we played with it.

It worked. Players loved it. But while I had pictured a race car, to my eyes I saw a Model T. Sure, it worked, but it was one a-wooga horn shy of being comical. I hadn’t planned on the fact that you can’t wholly replicate a system wholesale just under different paradigms and expect the same results. What works around my table does so because of the tacit understandings and conventions of my table, and that is not the same as 30+ people in a room with no tables, dice or regular peeks at character sheets.

So, I poked the system with a few sticks, and that brought me to the second concept:

II. Don’t confuse streamlining for alteration for improvement.

I saw Fate now as broken. I saw it not delivering to one group of players what it did for another group. It didn’t matter that one group was LARP and the other tabletop. Players are fundamentally the same at their core, they’re storytellers and enthusiasts of systems to tell tales collaboratively, so whether one groups gives a shit about costuming while the other is super concerned about whether or not we’re ordering Chinese, doesn’t matter. I was determined then to prove something to these people, because it’s not that the system failed or failed to live up to any expectations, I, as system designer for this LARP, failed. And I do not tolerate failure.

So I gutted Fate. I pulled out the Four Actions. I pulled out the fate point economy. I hobbled stunts. I made Fate not-Fate. I had some aspects, I had some resolutions, I had some skills. I guess I kinda made a gimpy *World engine.  I looked at Fate the way (and forgive me for this metaphor) someone with an eating disorder approaches food – that my original view sucked, that I had to be purging and starving the system until it was “good enough”. What I was doing was mistaking the working components of a system for bloat, and confusing streamlining for improvement. I had an image disorder over the system. I looked at it, and saw something inaccurate.

I don’t know if you know this, but when you pull the principle tenets out of something, it ceases to be that thing. A civilization without laws is lawless. A dinner without plates, forks and knives is just a stack of meat. A plane without wings is a metal tube. But I absorbed the false sense of failure and was consumed by it, I figure I lost whole nights to the alchemy of making one thing into another.

So I worked on it. And worked on it. And simultaneously worked on a lot of other projects, but was still stung by my perceived failure. I didn’t actually fail, no one told me I failed, no one said my work wasn’t good or that it wasn’t enjoyable. And the players didn’t know about the number of drafts or the amount of time I spent going over page after page, rule after rule. Their end result was positive – they got a new game, a good game and had a good time. I should have been pleased when they applauded and whooped and cheered. I should have felt satisfied by their continued mentions that they loved how things worked.

Eventually, I stopped working on it, because I was tired and didn’t know what else to do. I resigned myself to having created a mediocre-at-best thing, and that I was now really good at only creating mediocre things, despite my talent at editing. And I let the file sit untouched for months.

Somewhere in the time, I found the third element of conversion.

III. Things don’t have to be, and can’t always be crunchy, loose, cinematic, dramatic, procedural, fast, detailed, flexible, solid, inclusive, simple or tough to the same degree simultaneously, and certainly not to everyone’s appreciation. What you’re really doing in a conversion is taking a source material, adjusting, adding subtracting and torquing elements in and around it, but you’re doing it for yourself and the bigger picture audience, not just the one guy who complained the loudest, or the one you worry will complain the loudest later.

Once I put the document down for a while. I got to watch the game get played. I gave my little briefing up top, no one had any questions, then I got out of the way. I thought it was alright, I thought this would be … tolerable for people over a few hours. I had weathered some criticism that the game ‘should have’ this or ‘would be better if it had’ that, and caved too easily to those elements (only to later strip them out when no one was looking) so I was ready for more people to remind me of things I lacked or how I was mediocre at best, and I could slink back to my editorial castle and hide.

But they didn’t. People came and asked if they could read the rules. If they could try it at home. If they could do it again with more friends later. It wasn’t mediocre. It just was a different facet of a success experience, and one that changed the way I approach conversion, which let me to the fourth and final conversion note in this post.

IV. Conversion isn’t ‘fixing’ the system or even patching its holes. Conversion is all about transmogrifying one set of experiences so that it better meshes with other experiences. 

Look, Fate doesn’t do equipment the way D&D does. It tasks players to collaborate to tell the best story. It does not work all that well when the focus of the player is to accrue bonuses by the ton for some mathematically penile measuring contest. Fate isn’t perfect. Guess what? Gumshoe doesn’t do aspects very easily. And Fiasco doesn’t care about an economy of gold coins. Lots of games do different things, and don’t do others. Maybe, just maybe, the system does what it does, and it’s your idea that needs to change, not the system. Or maybe both have to meet in the middle, just like how players and the GM have to collaborate.

I can use a variety of systems and toolkits to tell the story I want. But maybe, if I really want to replicate a specific action in a game, I need to tweak some part of the system to do so. Or maybe I will relax my hold on that specific action, and I don’t need to be so fixated on having it be a certain way.

Yes, systems are there to serve the story. But they’re not subordinate to the story, anymore than the Allen wrench is your IKEA dresser’s bitch. Jettison what doesn’t work (but doesn’t cripple play), include and blend in what does, provided it’s not too jarring.

It comes to this: System + Story + Players (+ GM) = Good Experience.

 

Happy writing and gaming. Many thanks to Macklin for getting me thinking.