Patterns Within Patterns

bali rice fields

It takes a damn good Villain to sustain a lengthy series. Petty criminals can be tracked and detained within the space of an episode, but a Voldemort or a Darth Vader can push your hero to the brink.

Arguments about what people should or shouldn’t do only distract from the reality of what people are actually doing.

Life is what happens from 9 to 5. Evenings and weekends are just commercials that break up the regularly scheduled program.

You can fake love, wealth and happiness, but you can’t fake fitness.

All I have to do to become a poet is read every poem ever written, starting with Homer.

What people/characters want is usually very different from what they need.

Life imitates life. The start of a new year is like the first flowers after a bitter winter, which is like a fiery sunrise after a moonless night, which reminds us of birth, which is like waking up after a long nap, which feels like forgiveness, finite youth, and limitless possibility.

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The Terminal Man: Tuesday, August 25th

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Michael Crichton fan, but his novel The Terminal Man was even less thrilling than it sounds.

Now I’m not a fan of critics or criticism. I believe that the artist should always be given the benefit of the doubt. Even someone who creates poor art is benter than no artist.

Also, me critiquing a Michael Crichton novel is like an ant telling a bee how to make honey, or like a wristwatch telling a flashlight how to shine.

Michael Crichton died in 2008, on the same day as the US Presidential Election. Who knew? But his techno-thriller novels catapulted my childhood brain from black and white to color. Who didn’t have their heart and brain thrilled by Jurassic Park? Man I wish Crichton were still around to comment on the state of current affairs – our people and our planet and our technology. I wonder what he would think about Iphones and 3-D printers.

Anyway my point is, now that I’ve been studying so much about story, novels, the art of story, and the way that good stories are crafted – I couldn’t help but be disappointed by The Terminal Man.

In the novel, we are supposed to be surprised and scared by the idea that men and computers are merging. Actually this aspect of the novel was more funny than it was disappointing. The damn thing was written in the early 70’s, so we can’t exactly blame Crichton for the fact that his techno-thriller doesn’t hold up. Because of how fast technology has changed in the last few decades, the novel feels much older than it actually is.

But I think, precisely because that techno thriller aspect didn’t hold up, I was able to see the other parts of the story for what they really were. The magic curtain was drawn back. The skeleton of the novel was exposed, and I was left hanging on to the characters, the emotion, the plot and the development of the story action.

As I try to write my own stories, I want to remember, and learn from, the aspects of stories that I don’t like, just as much as I learn from stories I love.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the novel…

  • I didn’t like that ending was so damn predictable.
  • I didn’t like that there was really no clear protagonist. I didn’t know who I was rooting for. I wasn’t emotionally invested in any of the characters. So I didn’t really care what happened in the end.
  • I felt like I was being preached to. Even if the technological aspect had been current and cutting edge, it still felt like Crichton was jamming the point down my throat. The message kept interrupting the story, whether it was the narrator who was waxing philosophical, or the characters who were saying things that the narrator obviously forced them to say.
  • Along the same lines, I didn’t like that the novel had such a strong and obvious theme. This only made it easier to guess the ending.
  • The characters were really just representations of different ideas. They never seemed free to act on their own will.

***

Michael Crichton you’ll always be my hero. It’s humbling to know that even you wrote a few mediocre stories when you were starting out (before the phase where everything you touched turned into a hollywood blockbuster). Thanks for giving Jurassic Park to the world. And Eaters of the Dead and Andromeda Strain too. And for The Sphere; Dustin Hoffman was great in that movie, and I’m still afraid of the deep ocean ever and jellyfish to this day.

How to Develop Your Ideas: The Million-Dollar-Skill: Tuesday, August 4th

In yesterday’s post, I busted a common writing myth.

I said that, “Writing is the easy part of the Writing Process. The true currency of the writing ecosystem is not the hard work of writing itself, like many believe, the million-dollar-skill is IDEA DEVELOPMENT.”

Unfortunately there is no easy way to turn your idea into a fully formed story. There is no failproof process. Scientists know surprisingly little about the “magic” of the brain. For all of our advancements, nobody knows exactly how the mind or consciousness works, which means we’re still pretty clueless about how ideas come to be.

BUT, fortunately for you and me, many bold and badass creative human beings have paved the road to success. We can pick and choose from their tactics. We can learn lessons instantly that it took them years of trail and error to determine. We can borrow their methods, and we can certainly borrow inspiration from the ones who came before us.

A true artist is a sort of magician. They take a concept, like a seed, and transform it into a finished product. It’s that process that we want to study and emulate.

So here is a list of methods and tricks that I’ve come across in my research. These are things I’ve tried myself to implement, and have had some bit of success with:

  • Composition Notebooks – Screenwriters, Novelists, and writers of all type talk about this method. They keep a specific notebook or a specific journal that is dedicated to a single project. Whenever they have an idea related to that project, they jot it down. Keeping all of the notes in one place helps to build momentum. Some writers will fill entire an entire notebook of ideas and ramblings, before attempting to shape those ideas into a workable outline.
  • Notecards – A lot of times we just need a cue, a stimulus, or some sort of outside prodding, in order to get the ideas flowing. Good ideas are often born out of associating two seemingly unrelated things. Many authors talk about using this process: take a bunch of notecards, on each notecard write a single word or phrase, it could be a person, a place, a thing, an event, an object, anything… The idea is to keep the cards simple. Once you have a whole lot of them, you can mix them all up and start experimenting. Let your mind run wild with the random associations that the note cards bring to mind.
  • Follow Author Neil Gaiman’s Advice – including some fantastic prompt questions to get your worker bees humming.
  • Dream Journals – Many authors write in the morning, when the world of dream is still fresh. Once the “real day” begins, and you start dealing with bills, chores, errands, work, the creative mind tends to get buried under these responsibilities. Dreams are truly the stuff of stories: they are Scary, Crazy, Sensational, Sexy, Colorful, Unusual, Unbound by the Laws of Physics, or the Usual Restraints of the Ego. The more you recrod your dreams, the more you’ll begin to remember them. It’s not uncommon for even the most serious, respectable of authors to credit their success to a random, run of the mill dream.
  • Ray Bradbury’s ListsI wrote a post about this method not too long ago. It’s a great way to get the idea muscle working.
  • Become an Idea Machine – James Altucher has built a career around the practice of being healthy and coming up with ideas. If you are looking for inspiration, I HIGHLY recomend the daily podcast by James and his wife Claudia, “Ask Altucher“, or reading James’ blogposts. Here is one of his most popular posts – all about how you can become an idea machine.
  • Study Story Structure – The Art of Story is truly fascinating. There are so many good books and authors out there. Here are a few that have inspired me. These kind of books are SO important, because they give aspiring authors a framework to work within. They really teach you how to transform your little baby ideas into full-fledged, gripping, masterful stories. Check out…
  1. Super Structure by James Scott Bell
  2. Story by Robert McKee
  3. Story Structure by William Bernhardt.

So there you go. Hopefully these are some helpful resources for how to come up with ideas, and how to turn those ideas into real life stories. I really, really hope they are as useful for you as they were for me.

In my opinion, this aspect of the writing process (IDEA DEVELOPMENT), is much more difficult, much more magical, and much more fascinating than the actual “sitting down and writing” part of the process.

If you know of any other good tips, please let me know, I’m always on the hunt.

How to Build a Fictional World – by Kate Messner: Wednesday, July 29th

Kate Messner has a great animated video that talks about her world building process. I transcribed some of her notes so that I could put them into use myself.

So here we go. How to go about building a Fantasy World (and how to write a story in that world).

1) Start with a specific place and time. Where is this world? Is it in the past/present/future? Maybe it doesn’t matter, but what does matter is that you make a decision, and go forward from there.

2) Create a timeline for your world. What Kate Messner does is creates an outline of the history of her new world. What major events have happened? How did this world come to be? What are the key points of it’s history?

3) What rules are in place here? Start with basic things like gravity, light, magic – the rules of physics. Then move into the rules of society.

4) Who is in power in your world? Is there a government, a council, a little psychotic man behind a curtain, a hideous monster demon king? Who is running the show, to what extent, and how, do they rule?

5) What does society value the most? What do they fear the most?

6) What kind of technology exists?

7) Once you have this groundwork laid out, you can start to think about the “regular folks” of your world, and the day-to-day living scenario. What’s a normal day like in your world?

For example, what’s the weather like? Where do your characters live? Do they go to school or work? What do they eat? Where do they play? How do your characters move around, how do they commute? What do the plants and animals look like?

8) If you spend some time answering all of these questions, you’re going to start to get a really idea of what it’s like to live in this new world.

But it’s not enough just to create a world. Readers and Viewers aren’t interested in worlds alone. We’re interested in characters. You can have a pretty stage, but you still need emotion and humanity to bring it alive.

Two really good questions to ask, all along, while your world building, are…

*What kinds of characters does this world bring into being?

*What are the central conflicts of this world? Where is the trouble?

Asking these questions will help you come up with the most intruiging scenarios, the ones that will really bring your world to life.

9) In the end, Kate Messner says, drop some characters into your world and let them run wild. See what happens. The key is to get to the point where YOU understand the workings of your world, inside and out. Now you’re ready to plop some interesting characters into that equation.

Choose the most fascinating storyline that you can see, from your vantage point as the world creator. And don’t start in the beginning – you never start in the beginning – start your story in the middle of the action. Start your story right where things begin to get scary, dangerous, interesting, intruiging, wierd, critical.

 

7 Things I Learned From Walter Mosley: Tuesday, July 28th

When I’m stuck for things to write about, when I’m stuck for writing inspiration, I usually turn to traveling down the youtube rabbit hole. “Author interview”, “writers on writing”, and “Charlie Rose author interview” are my favorite searches.

This time around, I got drawn into an author named Walter Mosley. He is captivating speaker, easy to like, easy to listen to. I wasn’t planning on it, but pretty soon I was taking notes on everything Mosley was saying.

It’s a lovely thing to grab on to the wisdom of someone who’s put their whole life’s work into a craft or a pursuit. And I can just take all of his advice for free! It’s too good to be true…

Here are 7 things I learned from Walter Mosley:

1) The Writer’s Spirit: Mosley likens writers to explorers. He says that with every new character, writers are exploring the possibilities for new matter, new subjects.

2) Regarding Character: Novels are about the development of character. It’s how my character comes into the world, how they affect the world, and how the world affects them. They have to change. They have to find out something.

3) Windows into Other Worlds: A writer’s job is to answer the question, “what’s it like?” For example, “What’s it like to be a boxer in the ring?” “What’s it like to be a detective?” “What’s it like to be at sea for 90 days?”

4) Regarding Character and Conflict: Sometimes in books, you have a character (especially in the thriller or mystery genre) who is traveling down very straightforward path. For example, the detective is looking to solve a murder; or, the lawyer is trying to solve the case. But really, Mosley says, life is not that simple. In real life you have a lot of things, a lot of problems going on. It’s a lot of things coming together to create a much larger affect on the character. It’s not just that they have one, straight track to follow, or one single conflict to solve.

5) Writing Routine: Mosley claims that he writes 1,000 words a day. The next morning, he briefly edits that 1,000 words, then he writes the next 1,000.

6) Writing Schedule: His schedule is to write every day for about three hours, usually from from 6am to 9am, or from 7am to 10am. Mosley says, “Writing is almost a place of dreams for me. I do my writing early in the morning before most people are even up and going. Then for the rest of my day, I can go about my normal life. I don’t have to think about writing again until tomorrow.”

7) Regarding Younger and Older Generations: Mosley says, “The older you are, the more you live in the past.” A lot of older people get upset at young people, saying they’re shallow or selfish or whatever. Young people live exactly today, in the immediacy of their world. It’s important for old people to realize that a lot of their notions are no longer valid. They have to remember that young people are living in the now – for now it’s all they know.

The World’s a Dream: Wednesday, July 8th

Inception. The Matrix. Vanilla Sky. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Shutter Island.

My favorite movies are the ones where the bottom falls out of the floor of reality. The curtain gets pulled back and we realize we’ve been deceived all along. The center does not hold.

It’s not always easy to classify these stories into specific genres. They might be action, adventure, thriller, psychological thrillers, mysteries…. they are thick, brain bending, revelatory, uncomfortable types of stories.

I’ll never forget that last scene in “Inception”, where the top is spinning and spinning and it’s about to fall… and suddenly the credits roll.

Lost is still one of my favorite TV shows of all time. It’s popular for writers to turn their noses up to the show, because of it’s complexity eventually got out of hand and the plot couldn’t be tied up in a pink ribbon. But even though I didn’t get all the answers in the end, that show and those characters took me for a wild ride. The ride itself was thrilling as hell. The journey of that show, for me, far outweighed the conclusion.

****

Right now I’m in the middle of a year long project to blog five days a week and write at least one short story a month.

What I hope this year will start to teach me is…

Where is the intersection between what “readers want” and “what I like to write”.

I have no idea yet. But I know there’s a market for fantasy, and those types of stories seem to be the ones that interest me the most. The only way to find out is to do it.

And I’m excited as hell at the thought of one day finding that sweet spot.

 

P.O.V. = Person, Tense, and Distance: Thursday, June 18th

“Point Of View is made up of three components: person, distance, and tense,” says author and editor Alida Winternheimer.

1) Person is the obvious part, what we usually mean when we talk about POV. 1st, 2nd or 3rd person.

2) Distance means, “how close is the reader to the action?” The closest that a reader can ever get is 1st person/present tense; this means we are in the action right as it is happening. 1st person/past tense is still pretty immediate, but it’s a step back, since the events have already happened. The 3rd person/past tense/omniscient narrator is far removed from the action – you’ll find this a lot in fantasy novels, where the author is dealing with a lot of characters, doing a lot of world building, and covering a lot of ground.

3) Tense means either present tense or past tense.

Different POV’s lend themselves to different genres. 1st person/present tense is good for thrillers and action stories, because it heightens the action and raises the stakes. For example, The Hunger Games is narrated in 1st person by Katniss Everdeen.

A big sprawling fantasy series like Lord of The Rings is told in 3rd person/past tense. Tolkien needs to cover a lot of ground and he needs an all knowing narrator. For the most part Tolkien’s narrator stays “close,” meaning that we are limited to knowing what the characters know. But sometimes he jumps into an omniscient narrator, and tells us things that none of the characters even know.

Harry Potter is told in the 3rd person/”close” or “limited” point of view. These stories aren’t quite as action packed as a Hunger Games story. But they do have a lot of mystery and suspense, so a limited narrator serves to keep us guessing. We discover things alongside the characters, and this builds the excitement.

One of the most common mistakes that beginning writers make is “head hopping,” or jumping around between different points of view. All of the advice I’ve heard is that it’s best to keep it simple. It’s best to limit yourself to one or two points of view. And if you do skip around, do it for a good reason.

In the Golden Compass series that I’m reading right now, Phillip Pullman uses a 3rd person narrator, but he mainly sticks to the main character’s (Lyra’s) point of view. Once in a while Pullman will jump to other characters. For example, Lyra is asleep for one whole chapter of the book. While Lyra sleeps, we follow another character, a Witch, into another scene. When Pullman does this, I immediately feel a bit disoriented. The whole time I’m thinking to myself, where is Lyra? But Pullman is very deliberate with these scenes. They are usually short, and they usually dump a whole lot of information and backstory into the mix. We get a little break from the main action, and soon Lyra is awake again and we’re off and running.

Alida Winternheimer’s advice is, whatever POV you choose, choose it on purpose. Use the point of view that gives your story life. In the end it’s just a technique, a tool in the writer’s bag – it can kill a story, or it can turn a good story into a great one.

“Help me please!” he screamed madly as the writing gods cast thunderbolts down from the mountaintops: Wednesday, June 10th

Writers and Readers, I need your help.

I’m reading The Crown Conspiracy by Michael J. Sullivan right now. I’m a huge fan of the “Riyria” stories and of Sullivan himself. But there’s something about his writing style that throws me off. Let me give a few examples…

(1)
“This is Albert Winslow, an acquaintance of ours,” Hadrian explained as Albert pulled a chair over to their table.

(2)
I do an honest business here,” Hall protested as they pushed him up against the wall with the rest.

(3)
“Does this have a point?” she asked with irritation as she took a seat on her bed.

In all three of these examples, the author is jamming two sentences worth of information into one. All of them follow this formula: piece of dialogue + identifying the speaker + “as” + describing an action. Sullivan uses the word “as” to connect a piece of dialogue with a piece of action. He uses this technique all over the place, and now that I’ve noticed it, I can’t stop noticing it.

If I was an editor, I would feel inclined to change the formula so that the bit of action comes first, and the dialogue comes second. Also I would split them into two separate sentences, instead of combining them like Sullivan does.

Here is how I would change each sentence…

(1)

Sullivan’s Version:

“This is Albert Winslow, an acquaintance of ours,” Hadrian explained as Albert pulled a chair over to their table.

My Version:

Albert pulled a chair over to their table. “This is Albert Winslow, an acquaintance of ours,” Hadrian explained.

I took out the “as” and turned it into two sentences. I put the action first and the dialogue second. I guess the conundrum is that, in reality, the action and the dialogue take place at the exact same time. As a writer you have to pick which one comes first. Maybe that’s what Sullivan’s trying to get at by using “as”.

(2)

Sullivan’s Version:

“I do an honest business here,” Hall protested as they pushed him up against the wall with the rest.

My Version:

The guards pushed him up against the wall with the rest. “I do an honest business here,” Hall protested.

Again, I split it into two sentences and moved the action in front of the dialogue. Also I identified “the guards” instead of using a pronoun. I like that Sullivan’s version is fast and action-packed, but I can’t help but feel like he’s taking advantage of me with run-on sentences.

(3)

Sullivan’s Version:

“Does this have a point?” she asked with irritation as she took a seat on her bed.

My Version:

She took a seat on her bed and asked, “Does this have a point?”

This one annoys me the most. Sullivan not only uses his “as” trick here, but he also uses an adverbial phrase (with irritation) to modify the feeling of the dialogue. I like what Stephen King and other authors say about “he said”, and “she said”, and how writers should keep it simple for readers, instead of using a bunch of adverbs like “he said angrily” or “she said excitedly“. Anyway, adverbs aside, I still feel like Sullivan is cramming too much information into one sentence here. Again I would choose to put the action first and the dialogue second. Note that I didn’t split it into two sentences this time. I kept it as one, but I used the conjunction “and” which I like better than “as”.

***

My goal here is to learn professional tactics from a professional author. I don’t give a shit about grammar rules or any kind of obtuse writing rules. I just want to know what works best. What do readers like? -That’s the only rule that matters. Obviously Sullivan’s thousands of fans aren’t deterred by his writing, so why does it bother me so much?

Do you like Sullivan’s style? And do you think my edits clean up the language, or do they just take something clean and make it clumsy?