onwriting

On Writing: What Happens Next – Or – Send in the Clowns

Say, theoretically, something unexpectedly bad happens to you, your family, your world and you’re stunned and you’re trying to figure out what happens next. Here’s what happens next: next happens next. It just does and you won’t be completely sure what next is going to look like but it’s going to happen and then it’s going to happen again. There’s an inescapable gravity to next. It takes you kicking and screaming toward the future and doesn’t always do it politely.

What you feel, what you think, what you need, it’s going to vary based on the situation, the person, and the likelihood, however remote, of a new Tom Waits album. But you’ll need a next and fighting against it or expecting it to be different than it is for you or others, well, it’s as futile as fighting against the sunset. So the first thing you do is accept your next and if someone else is there with you and they’re also spun around upside down scared/sad/hurt/freaked out, you accept their next too.

And next will lead to next and that will lead to next again and I think you get the picture.

I’m in a philosophical mood about unexpected twist and turns and nexts tonight so I hope you’ll indulge me a bit. I don’t mean to be obtuse or to obfuscate the source of this mood. Yesterday was our Election Day and while I don’t like to get overly political here I think most people that know me or have read my work can guess I was With Her and I was pretty decidedly Not With Him. Anyway, the election is resolved and it didn’t go down the way I expected or wanted and about a half of us are now pretty stunned and maybe a little afraid. Maybe we’re a lot afraid. So I’m writing this for all of us but really I’m writing it for me. Writing this down reminds me.

I know it’s just politics but I also know a lot of people, myself included, feel this an awful lot.

There are commonly quoted stages of grief but I don’t necessarily put all my confidence in them. We’re not commonly quoted people and oftentimes commonly quoted wisdom just doesn’t fit right. What I do have confidence in is that sooner or later you’re going to want to stop with all the fucking nexts, all the thinking, and all the feeling, and you’re just going to need something that takes your mind off of things and that’s not only totally acceptable, it’s completely healthy. This is why we have troubadours and storytellers. This is why we have Channing Tatum.

That’s why, in this last part of a strange rambling blog, I’m calling on all of you. We comedians so work on your jokes. We need songs so practice your instruments. We need men in capes so sharpen your pencils and draw them. We need storytellers so tell us a good one.

I’ve been introspective and I’ve been depressed. I’ve been looking for my purpose and at least for now I’ve remembered what it is. I’m a clown and I swear I’m gonna go all out to make you laugh. I’m a storyteller and I’m going to do my best to earn your attention, to earn your distraction.

Take care of yourselves and the world around you. Be patient with yourself and with everyone else. Accept next on next’s terms because next isn’t going to negotiate with you. And when you’re ready, put on a big red nose and some silly shoes and help get the world back to normal.

And if right now you’re over the moon and celebratory because things went your way? Well, not everyone is and we’d all appreciate it if you were gracious and patient with us.

On Writing: Hey Ho! Let’s Go! The Ramones Way

 

“Ramones”

[1st verse:]
New York City, N.Y.C.,
Pretty mean when it wants to be,
Black leather, knee-hole pants,
Can’t play no high school dance,
First tone, hear ’em go,
Hear ’em on the radio,[Chorus:]
Misfits, twilight zone,
R-A-M-O-N-E-S
R-A-M-O-N-E-S
RAMONES

[2nd verse:]
Bad boy rock, bad boy roll,
Gabba gabba, see them go,
C.J. now hit the gas,
Hear Marky kick some ass,
Go Johnny, go, go, go
Tommy o-way-o,

[Chorus]

[3rd verse:]
Bad boys then, bad boys now,
Good buddies, mau-mau-mau
Keep it up, rock’n’roll,
Good music save your soul,
Dee Dee, he left home,
Joey call me on the phone.

[Chorus]

Writing is never not hard. Even if it’s fun or fulfilling or meaningful, it’s always hard, and the hard part is especially hard for me right now. I’m having a kind of existential crisis. I’m thinking a lot about what I’m trying to do and if it matters and where I’m going next and if it’s worth it. It’s a funk it’s been in for a few weeks and it’s really lousy. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe I took some criticism on the chin a little too hard. Or maybe it’s some kind of late 30s “why hasn’t it happened for me yet?” self-pity. I don’t know where it’s coming from or how to address it exactly but over the weekend I heard a radio story about a street being renamed in Queens and it reminded me of the best Christmas morning in the history of Christmas mornings.

addWhen I was 11 years old I received four amazing Christmas gifts that forever changed my life; the 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook, a set of clear green dice, and two cassettes – Mötorhead’s 1916 and the Ramones All the Stuff (and More) Volume 2. I liked Mötorhead a lot (who doesn’t?) but I fucking loved the Ramones. I listened to that tape until it was worn out. Since that Christmas I have never been without the Ramones. I had tapes and then I had CDs and now I have digital collections. While my taste in music has sometimes changed (the less we talk about that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tape I got from Pizza Hut the better), the Ramones have been in constant rotation since the first time I heard “Beat on the Brat” in my friend Shawn’s living room.

There’s a Ramones song for just about everything I’ve ever felt or done. I learned more about dating from “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “I Just Want to Have Something To Do” than I think is strictly healthy and as I got older and struggled with anger and isolation and depression I replayed “I Wanna Live,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment,” and latter favorites “Strength to Endure” and “Poison Heart” until I felt understood and my foot tapped more than my heart punched my brain. There is never a bad mood or wrong time for me to listen to the Ramones. They are, as weird and possibly personally condemning as it may be, my collective spirit animal. Yes, if you get past all that Hemingway and Chabon and DeLillo and all the snarky jokes and even past the D20s and X-Men comics, you’ll find the very center of my soul is kept company by four awkward bony-kneed punk rockers with bad haircuts and leather jackets that started playing their nervous two minute songs years before I was born thousands of miles away. ramones-crest

Creatively, the Ramones were always one of my biggest inspirations. They started something in a garage in Queens, something that was a little bit of a throwback, a little bit amateur, and a lot cocky. They imagined punk rock as a thing they could just do. They didn’t need anyone’s permission or approval. They didn’t care if they weren’t classically trained musicians. They had these weird catchy songs, a mix of nihilism and humor, and a lot of energy and they just did it and it went around the world and across generations to inspire musicians in London and Seattle and even awkward lonely wanna be writers in 1991 Southern Oregon. My lifelong love of the Ramones and punk rock instilled in me the creative virtue of making things just because you want to, because you feel it, even if it’s not cool or worthy or successful.

So here I am twenty-five years later still listening to the Ramones years after all of the founding members have died and here I am still being inspired. The questions I’ve been asking myself lately have answers in these familiar songs.

In the radio story I linked above there’s a quote by Monte Melnick, the band’s long-time tour manager, that’s stuck with me since I heard it:

“They did what they could with what they had, which was their music. That’s the Ramones way.”

 

ramones-banner

On Writing: Kill Your Tokens (Diversity and the 21st Century Writer Part 2)

damthatswhack

It’s been a while since the first part of what I knew was going to be a series of posts about diversity in writing. This isn’t a topic I want to rush or schedule so if you’ve been waiting for this follow up, my apologies for the delay.

In this post I want to write about tokens. I’m not talking about coins that you put into cheap nickel arcade machines but about token diverse characters that are often plunked into cheap creative machines with similar consideration. Below is the definition of tokenism in this context taken from Wikipedia (emphasis added by me):

Tokenism is the policy and practice of making a perfunctory gesture towards the inclusion of members of minority groups. The effort of including a token employee to a workforce usually is intended to create the appearance of social inclusiveness and diversity (racial, religious, sexual, etc.), and so deflect accusations of social discrimination.

Now, I’m talking about a story and not a workforce but otherwise that hits the nail right on the head and highlights a common and really problematic continued trend in media content. To be clear it’s not that a minority character in a story is automatically a token but only when that character exists as a transparent effort at faux diversity. These token characters are often either homogenized or “translated” to the presumed mainstream (white, male) audience or have their Otherness played up to such a ridiculous extent that they become parodies of real people, more like exotic props than fully realized individuals. Token characters in this way are also frequently inessential to the primary narrative. They serve as lightning rods, drawing strikes away from the main character (and the creator) to solidify the protagonist’s heroism. Basically we can tell that our hero is such a great guy because he even has a colored/gay/lady friend and it’s totally not a big deal, you guys!

pieface_2

Green Lantern and his token Eskimo friend named Tom.

Back to Wikipedia for a finer point:

In fiction, token characters represent groups, which vary from the norm (usually defined as a handsome, white, heterosexual male), and are otherwise excluded from the story. The token character can be based on ethnicity (Black, Hispanic, Asian, et al.), religion (Jewish, Muslim, et al.), or be fat or otherwise unattractive, homosexual or a woman character in a predominantly male cast. Token characters usually are background characters, and, as such, usually are disposable, and are eliminated from the narrative early in the story, in order to enhance the drama, while conserving the “normal” white characters.

It doesn’t take a lot of time to think of say, fifty examples of tokenism in popular media from the “urban talking” black friend to the predictably catty gay one. Tokenism has become so pervasive in our media that it’s easy for content creators to fall into the trap accidentally and for audiences to ignore it. So many popular franchises are so shockingly monochromatic, masculine, and heteronormative that the one or two outsiders immediately stand out in contrast.

In the first part of this series I made a case for why modern writers should take diversity into account when creating a story. It might seem paradoxical then that I’m also decrying tokenism as it seems like it’s natural solution to increase diversity in your content. There are two huge problems with using diverse characters as “accents” in your work in the service of diversity though. First, tokenism is a post-narrative device. That means it’s a device creators add-in after the narrative has already been established. Tokenism happens when you have a story nearly completely finished and then someone says, “hey – maybe there should be a black guy in the Star War?” A character introduced in that method frequently feel like an afterthought and often ends up a token. This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes a creator asks “hey – what if this character was different?” and that spins the whole story in a new and interesting way or sometimes the inclusion of diversity just isn’t a big deal. Laurence Fishburne is the master of being cast as a previously white character (Jack Crawford, Perry White) and being perfect and awesome at it because he’s a great actor. In these cases when a character has nothing that makes them inherently not diverse, it can be effective to open things up a little and bring in a different kind of character background but this doesn’t mitigate the bigger problem that can come up with tokenism.

You guys should watch Black-ish because Fishburne

You guys should watch Black-ish because Fishburne

The second big problem with tokenism is that it creates scarcity of character types. This is a huge problem in modern content and it can be an issue for non-token diverse characters as well as tokens. By including just the one featured diverse character that character naturally can be interpreted as the representation of all members of his/her background. Going back to Laurence Fishburne for a moment – he’s great as Jack Crawford and Perry White but he’s also one of the very few people of color with a significant role in those properties and there’s nothing about his characters that reflects his identity as a black man. It’s a different kind of silly ignorance to assume that the black experience means that Perry White would need to be from the ghetto or that Jack Crawford would be defined as being a constant target of institutionalized racism. Those stories wouldn’t be served by Fishburne’s character constantly talking about being black in America but when those roles are the only representations of modern African American identity they have a gravity to them. The thing is, it’s not fair to make Jack Crawford or Perry White the standard bearers for the modern black experience but with a scarcity of options it becomes harder not to. Yes, there are plenty of examples of Perry Whites and Jack Crawfords that are 100% authentic as shown on the screen and there are also plenty of real world examples of diverse people acting just like the stereotypes that have been lazily used to define them (the fabulous gay friend, the sassy sistah, the sanctimonious white male writer dude in Portland, etc.). That’s not the point. The point is, when you have just one diverse character, that puts a spotlight on your character and that character will be judged by his or her proximity to and similarity to assumed stereotypes.

Everything on the Internet needs more Lando.

Let’s talk a tangible example of the impact of scarcity. There’s a TV show I really like called the 100. I’m not going to go on a geeky rant about why I enjoy it but I’ll let Devin Faraci do it over at Birth.Movies.Death.  Anyway spoilers, you guys), in a recent episode of the 100 a fan-favorite character died in a way that evokes the Bury Your Gays trope and this has created a significant schism between the show creators and fans. The thing is, characters are always dying on the 100 but this death hit fans especially hard because of two reasons; first, the character was much beloved and fans don’t like to see beloved characters die and two, the character that died was a rare LGBT character on TV and one of two significant characters on this show -the other being the character’s surviving lover. If there were 7 LGBT characters on the 100 and the creators killed one of them, fans would still be upset but because of the scarcity of representation both on the show and  in all media, the blow is amplified. When content creators just use token or Laurence Fishburne diversity in characters they are going to create poorer stories and alienate some of the audience.

Alright, so how do you make sure to avoid tokenism in your content? Well, character authenticity is the first place to start. The characters should feel real if they look like you or don’t look like you. They should always have a core of truth. Avoid the bland and the fetishistic Other. Be aware of these concepts. But that’s not enough. It’s also necessary to include more diversity in stories. Maybe a particular story doesn’t allow you to include a completely diverse cast – that’s okay. That happens and that’s true to life. But in the next story or the story after that, look for different types of truth that do reflect the modern, diverse world we live in. Maybe none of your stories support the kind of diversity I’m talking about. Well, I would encourage you to imagine some different stories for a variety of reasons (if nothing else because of audience expectations and desire) but even then – that’s okay. Not every story needs to, not every writer needs to. BUT if you’re not going to be including more diversity in your content I think you should support others that do.

One final caveat: diversity in storytelling is a complicated and nuanced topic.  You see that photo of Lando? Lando is arguably a token but he’s also one of my favorite characters of all time. Some of that comes down to Billy Dee Williams’ natural charisma and some of it is the character itself but good things can come from questionable creative origins. I grew up in a really small town that was overwhelming majority white. But I had Lando and I had the X-Men and eventually in my teenage years I had every movie Samuel L. Jackson would ever do at the video store and, along with a lot of other fictional and real-world experiences, those characters populated my earliest conceptions of diversity in the world. My older brother has been an out gay man since high school, something that was not easy to do in our tiny Southern Oregon city. I remember movies and stories that featured gay characters that followed (the Birdcage, In & Out, Will & Grace), narratives that I hated as they represented stereotypes that didn’t reflect the reality of my brother, the reality of our lives. My brother wasn’t comic relief. He was my brother. He was a million things and those narratives were maybe three. But the funniest thing happened. Those narratives that I despised for being overly simplistic helped some people, even in my own family, connect to the gay experience. Nathan Lane in the Birdcage, over the top drag queen stereotype that he was, mattered. There’s a lot to think about with representation, tokenism, privilege and the power of stories to open or close minds. There is no simple right way to deal with it as a content creator – or a good person. The most critical thing we can do is talk openly about it and, more than that even, listen intently.

On Writing: The Five Minute Reader

pornhub audience

“I wonder what’s on pornhub, you guys!”

Back in January the popular porn site Pornhub reported that roughly 4 billion hours of pornography were consumed by their 21.2 billion visitors in 2015. Meanwhile, some studies estimate that the average American only reads about 19 minutes every day with those 25-34 averaging closer to 8 minutes. Oof. Do you feel that? A whole lot of discouraged writers just threw up their hands and said, “*&%$ it – I’m going to pornhub.” pornhub ad

Those are really discouraging numbers and they bear out from my anecdotal experience. I asked some friends how many minutes they spend just reading every day and got numbers between 5 and 10 minutes. You see one of the advantages pornhub has over reading (aside from the SEXOMGSEXNAKEDNAKEDSEXSEX) is that you can just queue up some light to medium core pornography on your iPad while you’re making coffee in the morning and checking up on Facebook notifications. Visual and audio media are tailor made for the modern multitasker. Reading a novel or a story or a blog post is a different value proposition.

Friends don't let friend read blogs while juggling chainsaws

Friends don’t let friend read my blog while juggling chainsaws

Sure, you could be watching three-quarter-core porno while you’re reading my blog but I think we all know that’s probably not happening. My blog kinda kills the porno mood, I’m afraid – unless you find insights on the publishing industry and creative content generation real steamy. No, if you’re reading this blog, or one of my stories or books, that’s probably all you’re doing. And if you are reading this and also doing pilates or chainsaw juggling or watching double decaf mocha core porno – you’re reading my work wrong. In fact you’re reading any author’s work wrong if you don’t give it your undivided attention. I don’t mean that you, dear reader, dear, awesome, click-my-link and tell your friends, reader, is wrong. No, you’re my favorite. But there’s a right and wrong way to read and just like it would ruin your pornhub experience if you paired it with my cogent literary analysis, it ruins my cogent literary analysis when you pair it with slappy slappy ding dong chicka chicka bow wow video taped naked stuff.

He’s more of a Franzen guy.

This is a really challenging time to be a writer of long-form fiction. There’s still a devoted reader base that reads a lot. I know several folks that are reading a book a week. But it’s not mainstream like it once was. You can be reasonably sure people have seen House of Cards on Netflix and make some passing reference to it during a dinner conversation but try bringing up the latest Michael Chabon book and you’ll probably get blank stares. I mean, obviously this isn’t true for every dinner table but in a country where F. Scott Fitzgerald used to be famous and could make a respectable Jazz Age living selling short stories, we’re now in a place in our history where reality TV stars get bigger book contracts than Pulitzer Prize winners. The written word is not as valuable as it used to be on a large scale.

All right. The end. Wow, that sure was a bummer.

But I'm totally rocking the haircut tho

But I’m totally rocking the haircut tho

Alright, here’s the silver lining: reading is coming back. It’s not roaring back all once but younger people are reading more than their elders. Digital readers and social media has changed things. There are 40 million members of Goodreads – and it keeps doubling. Now, that’s not 21.2 billion pornhubbers but it’s nothing to sneeze at. Where there’s a culture of reading there are readers and the culture of reading is increasing. Readers are finding and sharing new books with thousands or hundreds of thousands of readers in minutes. The average number books Americans read, skewed of course by voracious readers, is about 12. If you extrapolate from that – there are over 300 million people in the US and if you squint and look on the bright side of life you could take that 300 million times 12 and ignore a lot of complicated statistical considerations and yadda yadda algebra and end up with OHHEYSOMEONEMIGHTACTUALLYREADTHISAFTERALL.

The death of reading has been pronounced since before most of us were born. Radio was going to kill it. Then motion pictures. Then TV. Now it’s pornhub. And pornhub is a fierce opponent but storytellers are still here and readers are still reading. It’s really easy to be daunted. I can get 5 minutes? Is that all? We have to earn reader’s loyalty and attention just like we always had to. It might mean the stories have be better or different than they’ve been. It might mean that we have to write for a smaller but more passionate demographic and forget our delusions of being F. Scott Fitzgerald. It might mean changing the expectation of what long form fiction is to the modern reader. It’s a challenge but what’s one more impossible set of odds to overcome? It’s still a hell of a lot easier than chainsaw juggling.

On Writing: Writing the Revolution

I’m a pretty big political junkie. I follow the news for both parties pretty closely and I like to talk politics. Politics being politics those conversations often turn into (hopefully) civil debate and I enjoy that. I don’t think it changes many peoples minds when we debate an issue in person or on Twitter or Facebook but, if the conversation goes well, I think it changes the perspective on our “opposition.” It’s really easy to imagine that people that don’t agree with you are crazy fanatical “others” but in most cases people that don’t agree with you are just your neighbors, coworkers, friends, and family. They want similar things you want. They just think there are different ways to get there. I think some of those ways are completely wrong ways but I try, like I hope a lot of us try, to see some common ground between us, even if the only thing we have in common is that we seem to enjoy debating politics.Cthulhu2016

2016 being an election year it seems like a lot more people are interested in the stuff I’m interested in pretty much all the time. There are memes and hats with stuff written on them and hashtags and people wearing very serious clothing talking very seriously on television about very serious things. This happens every four years. People get really engaged because the presidential election is like a super-sized edition of American Idol where the winner gets the nuclear football instead of a record contract. I’m not dismissing the presidential election. I’m not dismissing any elections (did you guys know they happen more often than every four years?) but I think that political engagement and revolution happens every day not just Election Day. Voting is not the only act of civil engagement you can and should engage in. It’s only just a little bit about what being a citizen is all about.

It seems like this year there’s a lot of division between pragmatic versus idealistic ideas. Candidates either have status quo shaking new plans to fix America or more centrist establishment-reviewed ideas. I was talking to a friend of mine about that divide the other night and I was talking about what defines my political idealism. I consider myself an idealist. I’m a big ol’ sappy optimist that believes we can change the world if we come together fifteen times before coffee. I’m a Superman guy, not a Batman guy. I believe that my fellow Americans, and really all of the citizens of the world, are inherently capable of good works and understanding. I think we can save the planet, feed the hungry, house the homeless, hug the bears, treat the sick, and have a really good Star Trek television show with Bryan Fuller as the show runner even if CBS thinks it should go on some silly digital subscription service that no one wants to have to get. And I think we should do those things and believe in those things even if they are hard or improbable. I think we should do impossible lofty insane-sounding things for no better reason than because we’re sincere decent people trying to do good in a world that doesn’t always make that easy. So that’s me, the idealist.

Lex2000All that said, I don’t believe any of the presidential candidates can do a thing to really change the world for the better alone. I think that any movement that depends on a popularity contest of a single person is a movement that I can’t get behind 100% because it’s a game show between candidates pretending through strained smiles that they’re perfect in every single way and their opponents are evil. Sure, some candidates are more genuine and some are more fake but the same mechanism that picks a prom king and queen is what we’re working with as a baseline. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a candidate that I don’t wholeheartedly support now (or haven’t, historically) and it doesn’t mean I’m cynical. It means our system of government requires a majority of over 600 people to do anything of significance. That’s not cynicism – that’s high school civics. Our founding fathers didn’t want a monarchy. They divided government on purpose. They didn’t want one person with their name on the currency telling us how it’s going to be. They wanted checks and balances and yeah, some of the rules and ways those checks and balances exist are convoluted at best, but that’s the USA and bumper stickers and tweets aren’t going to change that. I see and I read so many of my peers getting very excited about THE candidate that can change Washington and I want them to be excited. I don’t disagree that their candidate has some smart ideas. But I want them to stay excited and stay engaged every day after November 8, 2015. I want the citizens of my country to vote and put that little “I Voted!” status thing up on Facebook and keep voting and going to rallies and donating if that’s what they want to do and then still not be done.

VoldemortVaderSo, how do you stay engaged in politics outside of our election process? I think the answer is to create. I think creation is the ultimate form of revolution. Telling stories, making art, these things aren’t partisan. They’re not covered by CNN as events but they matter more than another in a series of shouting matches between people standing behind podiums. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the way a lot of people thought about civil rights with words, not a ballot box. Star Trek showed us a future we could aspire toward where old conflicts of race and religion were overcome in favor of a brighter, more optimistic future. Will & Grace showed Middle America that gay people are nothing to be afraid of. The idealism I talked about before, it sneaks into those works and into our minds. I said before that I don’t think civil debate or political rhetoric changes most people’s minds but I do think that stories and art can open them. Stories and art cut straight to our shared humanity. They appeal to our better angels. They inspire us and reassure us. They relate to our anger and to our hope. At a time when politics splits our country in half, there are still stories and art that we all connect with and through that connection to the work, we are connected to people we are so sadly divided from the rest of the time.

I create as an act of idealistic rebellion. I create to entertain and to educate and to challenge. I create because I have too much energy and engagement that one presidential election isn’t nearly enough to sate my passion for making the world a better place.

If you can’t create or don’t want to create yourself, support creators you care about, that you know, that speak to you. And support creators that haven’t created anything before, young people, or disaffected, marginalized people. Reach down past the vitriol and the slogans and feel that idealism, that sense of possibility, and give into it. Explore different worlds as a prism to see yours differently. This doesn’t preclude or replace supporting your favorite presidential candidate. It just makes our world better or at least more interesting every single time.

On Writing: Stories About Tacos, Chihuahuas, and Just Not Feeling It

If you look at the post chronologically before this one you’ll see that it’s months old and that’s the longest gap I’ve really ever had posting things on this site. Which prompts me to tackle the question of why in this ever-so-brief return.

I haven’t been neglecting this site (and my also in arrears podcast, Rough Draft Out Loud ) because I’m not writing. I’m always writing. I’m always working. I’m a happy workaholic. When I watch TV with my wife and strange co-dependent chihuahua freeloaders, I’m thinking about stories. New stories. Old stories. Stories about tacos. Yadda yadda yadda stories. I’ve got a few novel-length things I’m picking away at, some older manuscripts I’m editing, and other sometimes non-sequitur plots and schemes. Nothing I want to post about right now. Which is the pivot to why I haven’t been blogging much lately:

Freeloader.

Freeloader.

I haven’t felt like blogging much lately.

Creative work is different than other kinds of work. It requires a deeper level of honesty and engagement. A good creator doesn’t create because it’s been X number of days/weeks/months since the last creation. He or she creates because it’s time to create. There’s a funny balance between creating when the fickle muse comes to you and only then and creating so you can monetize your creation and pay for tacos but that balance is for the creator to figure out. It’s not for the audience. One of my favorite films of 2015 was Max Max: Fury Road. That was a pretty good movie right? It was good because the people making it put good work and energy into it. If they were just putting it out to fill a production schedule, I’m not sure it would have been all that great.

I’ve thought about this especially regarding my favorite old beardy writer man named George RR Martin. Martin isn’t done with his new Song of Earth, Wind and Fire book yet and the popular HBO series is now going to move past where the books are. This is disappointing and challenging to his devoted reader-base and I think that’s understandable. But do you want a new book or do you want a good book? Ideally you want both but Martin isn’t a factory and you can’t hire more people and make it go faster. He’s can create when he can create and he’s done when he’s done.

I’m not comparing my blog to Martin’s books and I know I have a much smaller base of people really clamoring for my nonsense (hi Mom!), but it’s a concept that not just readers need to understand – I need to understand it too. There have been times that I have put out blog posts (or podcast episodes…) that I was less than 100% engaged in because I felt like it was more important to have regularity than it was to have quality. Now, in our year of the Blade Runner replicant 2016, I see the error of my ways. Half-baked blog posts just to get views and trending lines burned me out a little bit and it led to material that didn’t live up to my standards.

So, when you or me see that I haven’t post on my blog for a few months and you or me wonder why that is – the answer is that I didn’t have anything to blog or say. And that’s okay. Now, I suggest you look at my pet chihuahua, and go back to my previous blog posts if you still want some good quality nonsense. I’ll post more but like LL Cool J says, don’t call it a comeback.

 

 

On Writing: Break the Cauldrons and Sink the Boats

In 207 BC general Xiang Yu of the insurgent Chu told his army to cross the Yellow River and destroy any means they had to get back as they marched toward a decisive confrontation with the Qin armies in the Battle of Julu. The Qin army greatly outnumbered the Chu but, like a lot of famous battles between upstart forces and the entrenched army of the status quo, the Chu were victorious and the Qin Dynasty, the first of the great imperial Ancient Chinese dynasties and the etymological source for the European name “China”, became a foot note in the history books.  Xiang Yu’s order (“break the cauldrons and the sink the boats”)  became a legendary proverb about committing everything toward a set goal and not allowing retreat to be an option.

As I write this  from my shiny red IKEA desk in Portland, Oregon, I don’t have a lot in common with Xiang Yu but the proverb credited to him is something I think about a lot. There are a lot of similar stories about crazy generals doing crazy general things involving burned bridges and burning boats and then there more contemporary examples of crazy football coaches bloviating that “winning isn’t everything …” – well, you know the rest. There’s a whole world of Glengarry Glen Ross style business self-help affirmation that wallows in this imagery and reduces these concepts down to buzzwords and platitudes.

BurningBoat

To make your sales team effective you have to be like Hernan Cortes and scuttle your ships (and come to my airport Hilton seminar)!

Macho invasion stories (that contain more genocide than I’m comfortable with) used to inspire white dudes in a white shirts with black ties “conquer” their sales quotas isn’t usually the same place I look for creative inspiration but there is a resonant truth in these proverbs that’s maybe better represented by a scene from the 1997 science fiction movie, Gattaca. In Gattaca, if you haven’t seen it or if you’ve forgotten about it because it’s almost 20 years old, Ethan Hawke plays “Vincent Freeman” (sci fi isn’t known for subtly), a man born without heavy genetic modification in a world where everyone is perfected in utero. Freeman wants to take a rocket ship up into the stars but the genetic tests they run would disqualify him. So, he devises a movie’s worth of clever tricks to fool the system and show that all you really need to succeed is gumption (and lily white skin – apparently melanin is one of the things they can prevent in the future). Anyway, the big emotional uppercut toward the end of the movie comes when Vincent explains how he’s always managed to do more than people expected from him – he doesn’t save energy for the return trip. I haven’t seen this co-opted by the business bloggers yet but I’m also not looking too hard for it.

 

I want to give Shankar so many high fives, you guys

I want to give Shankar so many high fives, you guys

My favorite new-to-me podcast is NPR’s Hidden Brain, a truly remarkable social science podcast by the coolest social science guy in – well, are there any other cool social science guys? – Shankar Vedantam. The episode from this last week about backup plans is what got me thinking about Xiang Yu and Gattaca and specifically how it applies to creating. In the podcast Vedantam introduces a lot of awesome social science goodness about how having a backup plan can not only hinder you in pursuit of your ultimate plan but can also make you more reckless. The idea is that having a backup plan, boats waiting for you get back across the Yellow River or a whole continent not filled with Aztecs just hanging out and not being genocided or a list of potential lovers if your relationship doesn’t work out, might seem safer but it also makes you more likely to need a backup plan.

So, here’s how I bring it back to writing and to any creative venture you’re ever going to do. You cannot create anything without risk. You have to risk that you can realize your vision, that people will understand and like your vision, and that you can take that vision and convince people to come listen to you talking about your vision at a bookstore or a comic book convention or the airport Hilton banquet room. Risk requires faith – or at least cocky disregard for consequences – and things that can help you retreat at best just undermine your confidence and at worst can actually drag you down.

ChristianBale

Lassie! Batman and a bunch of extras fell down that well again!

Think about what Christian “Weird Batman Voice” Bale learned when he was at the bottom of that totally not ridiculous giant well in the documentary Dark Knight Rises – if you have a rope around your waist you can’t jump as effectively to little Nintendo video game ledges. Yeah, he had a broken back and needed a knee brace 30 minutes ago but it was definitely the rope that was the problem with that climb.

It’s November and a lot of you are in the middle of your NaNoWriMo 30 day to 50k novels. I’ve been there. I’m cheering you on even as I work on my stuff in different ways. The best way to finish your first book, or your second book or your thirtieth, is to not even let not finishing it exist as an option. If you hit a snag, you find a way through/around/over it and keep going until the next snag because there will be a lot of snags and precipices and doubts and head colds. Even if it takes you more than 30 days – especially if it does – you just don’t stop. And after you finish your NaNoWriMo novel if you try to publish it and it doesn’t work? You don’t go back to your boat. You never go back to your boat. Eventually – and don’t be naive about it, it might take a LONG time – you will get to where you need to get if you’re stubborn and resilient enough. You might need to change directions and you might need to fall back a little bit toward your boat but when you do retreat, you only retreat so that you can march forward again. Burn your boats. Break your cauldrons. Cut your ropes. Forget backup plans. Write.

On Writing: Fighting a Wizard in the Basement of the Moon Base

When I was at the Willamette Writer’s Conference a couple weekends back I attended a session called “Eleven Rules for Writing Science Fiction.” The instructor was enthusiastic about the subject matter and probably has a real strong industry knowledge about publishing Science Fiction in the current market but I found myself seething with barely concealed contempt for an hour and a half. My notes from the panel include a couple of pretty sweet lightning bolt doodles that my middle-school notebooks would be jealous of, and a lot of “truths” offered by the instructor: “Science Fiction IS real”; “In sci fi there is nothing supernatural/fantastic”; “ESP/telepathy is NOT Science Fiction.”  Aside from the fact that there are plenty of sci fi classics that defy these “rules” (there were more than eleven – I counted),  they seem arbitrary and exclusionary. Is that what Science Fiction is about? Is that what any kind of storytelling is about?

No ESP or telepathy in Science Fiction, huh?

No ESP or telepathy in Science Fiction, huh?

I grew up in a small city in Southern Oregon and when I was a teenager my life revolved around four things: new comic book Wednesdays, new episodes of Star Trek, (the Next Generation and then Deep Space Nine), the release dates of sci fi/fantasy/horror/awesome movies, and my regular Dungeons & Dragons games. I hated going to school. The students were culturally conservative bullies that would sometimes yell out “devil boy!” and tackle me while I was walking toward the bus. The aggressively religious teachers and counselors used their positions to proselytize and shame me in front of classes, like Mr. Fox who boomed “may God strike you down!” in front of about thirty kids after I got caught with a fantasy book in my backpack or the academic counselor that told me I could get out of detention (for bringing that same fantasy book in my backpack) if I went to his Christian youth group. I didn’t get along with my family and I didn’t have many friends. The few friends that I did have bonded over being outcasts and we escaped, like so many kids then and now did, into fantastic worlds where the freaks had a school where they got to be superheroes (X-Men) and a future where smart kids were respected (Star Trek). Science Fiction didn’t have rules for us. It had possibilities. Time travel, telepathy, lasers, jetpacks, aliens, and spaceships hung out with spandex and cape wearing supermen, elves and paladins. If we could imagine it, it belonged, like we did in a small pocket world free from gay bashing, racism, religious intolerance, and the casual abuses of modern cynical American culture.

This story about how I first found Science Fiction is the same story you could hear from a million others. So what happened?

Eventually the playful arguments over who would win a fight, Wolverine or Batman, turned serious. I don’t know if it was just me and my friends getting older and becoming more set in our ways, if we created rules that allowed us to be the ones rejecting other people for the first time, or if it happened to everyone universally around the same time as genre fandoms grew and matured. The Tim Burton Batman movies were great. Batman Forever was not and if you disagree, you have to go. If you like the Star Wars original trilogy, you have to hate the prequel trilogy or you need to get out. If you like the odd numbered Star Trek movies, there’s something wrong with you. ESP/telepathy is NOT Science Fiction and if you disagree, you should leave the class, you should stop liking Science Fiction, you should never tell Science Fiction stories.

Science Fiction is ALWAYS super real, you guys. Those are the RULES.

Science Fiction is ALWAYS super real, you guys. Those are the RULES.

When someone talks about rules for imaginary worlds what I hear is “may God strike you down, Devil Boy!” or “your fag brother is going to get AIDS and die.” Obviously that’s not what the instructor of this WWC session was saying or thinking. She was just talking about the tropes and accepted norms for a marketable genre. But it rankles me the same.

I find myself a lover of science fiction that has a really conflicted relationship with science fiction fans that I find sometimes hostile and standoffish. I’ve been called a “self-loathing geek” because of how uncomfortable I am with some of the trappings of fandom but I’m not self-loathing at all. I’m proud of my geek bonafides. I was married in a Superman t-shirt and I have a cool rancor toy in my regular Christmas decorations. I love Science Fiction more than I can capture here. It was a life raft for me and I have no contempt or hesitation for it but all of the rules and segmentation just make me really sad and disappointed. When I wrote about comics and other genre topics at Bleeding Cool regularly I would often get comments that said something like “you don’t like X or Y the same way I like X or Y? FAIL” – and a lot more that used saltier language. I was celebrating the culture and content and I was on the receiving end of flippant vitriol. It seems that the only thing outcasts can agree on eventually is the need to make more outcasts. I’ve seen people use the “rules” of Science Fiction to say that Anime fans can’t come to the same parties as Doctor Who fans or that cosplayers don’t belong at comic book conventions. I’ve seen these rules used to discriminate against women, minorities, or just enthusiastic fans that like things other people don’t like as much. Genre “rules” start out as fun debates between equally accepted fans but they turn ugly as soon as those debates aren’t equal anymore.

I believe in stories as a means to bring people closer – not a means to keep people on the outside. So much of modern Science Fiction (or fantasy or comics or Vin Diesel movies) seems to be a series of litmus tests to “prove” you’re a real fan. When people asked me what I was pitching at the Willamette Writer’s Conference I told them I was pitching Science Fiction but I wanted to tell them that my Science Fiction doesn’t have your rules. My Science Fiction doesn’t have any rules. My Science Fiction thinks your Science Fiction is interesting and wants to talk about it more but my Science Fiction has better things to do than fit into your Science Fiction box.

Alright, I don’t like to waste a whole blog post on a soapbox diatribe so I’m going to give you, right here without the necessity of a weekend writer’s conference, all you need to know about writing Science Fiction:

  • Always focus on your story and your characters – don’t get hung up on gadgets or backstory (even if they’re pretty cool)
  • Be aware of the tropes and expectations of your setting/sub genre so you can play to them or play against them
  • Make it new and wonderful and awesome for all the lonely outcasts reading it on crowded school buses
  • Have fun with it because at the end of the day it’s all just stardust and hope from your fantastic imagination

I got an email from someone that’s reviewing one of my manuscripts. He wrote that he was at the part where they (the superheroes) are fighting a wizard in the basement of the moon base. I was so proud. Hell yeah they are. I wouldn’t have it any other way.