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.

Advice from the Sages: Wednesday, August 12th

1) Writing Advice from Anne Lamott:

“For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

2) Writing Advice from Kurt Vonnegut:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

3) Writing Advice from Annie Dillard:

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place…. Something more will arise for later, something better.”

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.

Love Your Ideas: Friday, July 17th

“Where do you get your ideas?” It’s the question that successful creatives get asked over and over and over again.

The author Neil Gaiman says that his ideas come from out of nowhere. “I make them up. Out of my head.”

The problem is, that’s not a very satisfying answer for the aspiring writer who want to know, “how can I find some million dollar ideas?”

Gaiman suggests asking yourself some questions, and following those questions down the rabbit hole. Personally I really like these prompts:

  • What if…?
  • If only…
  • I wonder what…
  • Wouldn’t it be interesting if…
  • If this goes on…
  • What if I engineered a tree that sprouted dollar bills?
  • What if I woke up with wings?
  • What if someone gave me the secret book that explained, in detail, the truth of all conspiracies and historical secrets – the truth about all religions, leaders, wars, and kingdoms?
  • If only I could have a conversation with my great, great, great grandfather…
  • I wonder what toys do when people aren’t around?
  • Wouldn’t it be interesting if the global currency was a system of smiles and hugs?
  • If this goes on, and humans finally replace ourselves with robots, then what’s in line to replace the robots?

In Gaiman’s article, he says,

“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

I found this quote very telling. And it goes back to my idea the importance of habits. Authors and creatives like Neil Gaiman have been developing ideas for so long that the process has become second nature.

They have the same amount of ideas as anyone, but they are more aware, more tuned into the process. They’ve got a notepad on them at all times, or (like one author I heard recently) they dictate speech into their phones while they’re waiting around at the bus stop.

An idea can be a person or a place or an image, from which you start and begin to build. The single idea itself is only a jumping off point. When you combine one idea with another, then you’re off to a good start. But the magic really happens in the development, the fleshing out of the idea – which is a process that takes work. It takes brainstorming, writing and re-writing, constantly turning the object over in your hands to view it from all sides. This is the point where the author gets their hands dirty.

To creatives, ideas are cherished, loved and nurtured. The nurturing and development is what turns those seeds into saplings, and those saplings into forests, into entire ecosystems and solar systems. Now the reader, or the listener, or the casual observer, can come inside to this new world and have a look around, play for a while, even connect emotionally and get involved and become changed themselves by the idea. And that’s magic at it’s finest.

7 Plot Types: Thursday, July 16th

Here are 7 major plot configurations, as presented by Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.

Overcoming the Monster – There is a great evil threatening the world. The Hero learns of this evil, and sets out to overcome it. At the climax, right when it looks like the Evil will overcome the hero, the hero saves the day.

Rags to Riches – The hero is surrounded by oppressive forces – the forces suppress him and mock him. Eventually the hero makes a stand and overcomes these forces. He gains riches, gets the girl, and a kingdom to boot.

The Quest – The hero learns about something important, whether it’s an artifact, a person, riches, a place, whatever. He desperately needs or wants to find this thing. He “sets out” to find it, usually with a party of companions.

Voyage and Return – The hero begins at home, where life is nice and normal. Then he travels to a land where everything is wild and unruly. Eventually, after many trials, he conquers over the madness and returns to his home. A change and a maturity has taken place in the hero.

Comedy – The Hero and the Heroine are destined to be together. But opposing forces are conspiring to keep them apart. In the end, the oppressive forces can’t hold, they are overcome, and all of the characters are shown for who they truly are. This allows the new, appropriate relationships to form.

Tragedy – The Tragic Hero is committed to his course. In the beginning things go well for him, but soon he meets frustration. Eventually things start to spiral out of the tragic hero’s control. We know the tipping point is near. When the hero finally meets his end and destruction, the world around him is freed, and rejoices.

Rebirth – Similar to tragedy, except that the tragic hero realizes his errors before it’s too late.  Usually he is aided by a friend, or a lover, or some helper who allows the hero to see the error of his ways. The story ends with change and redemption for the hero and those around him.

Booker believes that humans are story creatures, and that stories have been critical to our evolution.

He goes on to say that all of these plots, and all of their myriad variations, are relatives of the “same great basic drama,” which all have to do with mankind’s evolution as a species, and the development and integration of the mature self.

My Problem Is: Friday, July 10th

So here’s my problem.

I spend approximately 10 hours / week writing these blogs. Maybe 15 hours if I’m enjoying myself. Never less than 5.

But that’s not the problem. The problem is that I’m not writing as much “story” content as I’d like. I’m getting at least one short story finished each month. But I think that I could do more. And I want to write novels at the same time.

I want to be writing stories, every damn day, because that’s the only way to write better stories.

Every minute of every day counts. So when I think about 10 hours per week of blogging, or 40 hours per month, well that’s a lot of valuable hours. And maybe more of those should be spent writing stories instead of writing about writing stories.

Now I’ve been going 4 months of blogging 5 days a week. I’ve never missed a day and I’m proud of that. But what are goals worth if they’re not steering you in the right direction.

But I can’t just quit blogging. I can’t even just say, “OK, now I’ll cut back to two days a week.”

Because I’m afraid that, if I did that, it wouldn’t actually lead to more story writing. Maybe it would just lead to more Youtube Watching, or more Bike Riding, or more Sleeping in on Sundays.

So here’s my brilliant solution / compromise.

I’m going to keep posting 5 days a week. Only some of those posts will not be “nonfiction blogs”, they’ll be some kind of story, some kind of serial or ongoing fiction plot-line.

That way, I’ll keep the daily posting, which I like because it kicks my ass into producing every day whether I like it or not, but I’ll turn more of those hours into “story producing hours.”

***

Now that I’ve had the idea. I know this needs to happen. But I’m scared to do it. Because it will probably mean even more weekly work. It will mean I need to plot a full story arc (or two) before I can begin the first installment. And it will mean publishing more stories at a faster rate, which for me feels more high stakes than just a nonfiction blogpost.

So because I’m scared to start this, I’m gonna go ahead and say, “to begin at an undetermined date.”

So, hopefully in the next month of so… (that’s the anxiety talking again)

I’ll jump into a slightly different routine of… 1 short story per month. 2 blog posts per week about writing. And 3 installments of a short story series per week. Or something along those lines.

Obviously I’ve got a lot to figure out. But right now the idea feels right. More to come.

***

Have a fluffy, feathery weekend everyone!!

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.

 

Build a Ladder to the Sky: Thursday, July 2nd

A piece of writing is only a failure if it goes unfinished. At all costs, you must bust through that finish line ribbon.

But it’s hard to finish a project and write “the end.” It’s easier to keep revising forever and ever. And that’s because we know that once a piece of art is finished, it ceases to be ours. Now it belongs to the universe. The child is independent of the parent.

10 yards from the finish is when all the insecurities come on stronger than ever before. The fears have been barking all along, but now they’re snarling and spitting in your face. They want you to keep that piece of art “in progress”, away from any potential rejection or failure or negative feedback.

But the road from amateur to expert involves practice, failure, and experimentation. As an artist you aren’t allowed to skip spaces on the game board. There are no shortcuts, no freebies, no “advance to go” cards. You can only get better by progressing slowly through each stage.

And that’s why unfinished works don’t help us. They don’t move us forward. While a finished piece, even if it isn’t a masterpiece, is always a lesson learned and another brick added to the foundation.

Nearly every successful writer says, “My first three novels are still sitting in a drawer somewhere. Nobody has ever read them.” I hear it all the time on author interviews. Those first few novels were garbage, so why did they even bother? Because those lackluster stories were the critical bottom rungs of the ladder.

So write your crappy songs. Paint your ugly pictures. Tell your scatter-brained stories. And in doing so you’ll slowly build a ladder to the sky.

 

5 Quirks of the Fantasy Genre: Monday, June 22nd

I want to write a fantasy series this year, so I’m trying to do some respectful research on the topic… What do fantasy readers like? What do they expect? What are they tired of?

Here are a few notes I’ve been picking up on the fantasy genre.

1) Point Of View: The third person omniscient narrator was popular in the old days but has since fallen out of fashion. Much more popular is the third person limited, where the author jumps around to different characters, but stays close to each character, looking over their shoulders and only letting the readers know what the characters themselves know.

I must be a part of this trend, because I personally don’t like when authors jump out of the 3rd person limited and into the 3rd person omniscient.

I think it’s because, the omniscient narrator reminds me that the author is present, and that the author already knows everything. The third person omniscient narrator reminds me that there’s a writer behind the story. I’d rather not be reminded that I’m watching a movie – I just want to be swept up in the action as if I’m there.

2) Grey Characters are the most interesting. The battle between good and evil is not as white and black as it used to be in the old days. It’s important to get inside the heads of all the characters and realize their motivations. There are no heroes and no villains – only humans who want success, love, and prosperity –  humans who are insecure, afraid, and irreparably damaged just like you and me.

3) Portal Fantasy is apparently out of fashion? I don’t know if this is true or not, but it seems to be a hot topic between readers and authors.

A portal fantasy is when the main character travels in between worlds. The classic example is Alice in Wonderland. Other examples include Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, and The Magicians.

A non-portal fantasy is when the story begins and ends in a fantasy world. Lord of the Rings is an easy example – there’s no modern day kids popping in and out of the Shire. Middle Earth is its own reality.

But portal fantasies are what I’ve always loved! Surely those types of stories can never be exhausted? There are pros and cons to both, sure. Maybe portal fantasies aren’t in fashion, but they’ve sure sold off the shelves in the past.

4) Introduce a Reader to a Fantasy World Slowly. Don’t throw in too much newness too quickly. Don’t scare the reader away. Give them something normal and introduce the magic gradually as you go along.

I appreciate this about the Golden Compass series. Pullman does a good job of letting you slowly into the fantasy world. Actually I think all successful fantasy authors have figured this out. A fantasy world is queer, unusual, brimming with foreign words and concepts. If you push too much of it too quickly, the reader might shy away. Give them time to get used to their new universe and they’ll slowly start to buy into it.

Harry Potter doesn’t begin with Harry flying crazily on his broom, casting Patronus spells against the Dementors. It starts with a regular boy in a regular enough house. We are slowly introduced to the crazy over time.

5) Avoid Info Dumps. I hear this a lot in regards to fantasy. The underlying problem is that fantasy authors are world-builders, and as such, they have a lot of information to relay to the reader. It goes without saying that “info-dumps” are bad in any genre, but in the fantasy world it’s a particularly sticky trap. Talented writers figure out how to relay that information slowly, over time, through the mouths of their characters, and in the midst of the action.

***

That’s all for now. A part two will be coming shortly. Whenever I start researching, I’m just reminded of how much I don’t know. But it’s fun to learn. The fantasy genre, for all these reasons, is intriguing to me. I loved it as a kid and I want to offer my own stories to the catalog.