The Weekly Re-Motivator: Shooting into the Dark

I wrote a few weeks back about how I’m teaching improv in my classes, and drew some comparisons between that practice and writing. Well, I’m teaching it again (different levels and all), so it’s front of mind again.

Writing — drafting, at least — is like improv. Virtually just like improv, as it turns out. The blank page is like the first moments stepping out onto the blank stage, not knowing what you’re going to do or how it’s going to go over.

Then, you just start shooting into the dark. I mean, you know there are targets out there: good ideas tucked in the rubbery folds of your brain, lines and ideas and expectations that might resonate with an audience. But from where you stand at the start, you can’t see sharknado. You just fire away and hope you hit something.

And maybe you hit something right away. If so, great, awesome, train on that spot and keep shooting. If not (which is almost laughably more likely), well, what? Give up? Slink off the stage and give up? Hell,no. You aim elsewhere in the dark, reload, and let loose again.

See, improv teaches us not just to allow mistakes — improv encourages mistakes. The mistakes are where the learning happens. And if you aren’t drawing a few sideways glances or jolting some uncomfortable hiccups of laughter from the crowd, well, you’re not doing it right. If you’re not drawing reactions, you’re playing it safe, and playing it safe in improv is the equivalent of skydiving from the second floor: it can be done, but really, what’s the point?

And so it is with writing. Sure, you can play it safe. But what’s the point? Much better to see if you can surprise your audience — which, in the drafting stage, is only yourself — than to sit there boring yourself to death, playing it safe and staying in your tiny little circle of torchlight.

Screw that.

When I teach improv, I tell my students to think of it like a flowchart. You try a thing. Does it work? Does it feel good? Does it excite you? If so, continue down that path. Does it bore you? Does it feel “dead”? Does your partner look lost? If so, abandon that path and try something totally different. Then do it again. Does this work, or does this suck? Readjust, and press on. Readjust, and press on.

Reload, and shoot into the dark again.

The blank page is no different. If anything, it’s easier: you have the infinite safety net of as many drafts as you need to get it right. The absolute worst thing you can do in an improv is to give up and stop trying, and so it is with writing. And yet, that’s exactly what too many would-be writers do. It’s what I did for the past decade: sat back thinking how much I’d like to be a writer, but lived in fear of actually doing it.

Again, screw that.

Load up your word-cannon and shoot into the dark.

Worst that can happen is you miss. (Actually the worst that can happen is you hit a bystander, but y’know — if that happens, just aim away from the screams and try again.)

But as long as you keep shooting, you can’t miss forever.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

No Excuses

Why in the heck did I stop listening to the “Writing Excuses” podcast? (Stylistic note: I know the punctuation rules for plays, books, movies, and songs … what’s the rule for podcasts? Italics? Quotation marks? Bracketed with cats?)

For a guy in as much doubt as I am about my current novel (or, okay, novelS — I’ve still got that time-travel story locked in a drawer, just waiting on me to finish this superhero thing so that I can do some much-needed editing), it seems foolish to ignore tips and advice that are just floating out there in the open air. I’ve literally had episodes downloaded on my phone for months that I’ve not listened to, and I have no idea why.

This morning, for whatever reason, I turned it on.

<Writing Excuses> is awesome, it really is. If you are a writer like me (that is to say, a writer who maybe doesn’t fully, 100% consider himself a real writer because he has not as yet received any payment for anything he’s written; or perhaps a writer who doesn’t consider himself a real writer because he can’t shake the notion that he doesn’t know what he’s doing), you owe it to yourself to give it a listen. Their most recent spate of episodes (they’re in season 11 now) deals with this thing they’re calling “elemental genres”, which is a different way of thinking about stories. In short, and to sum up episode 1, elemental genre is not your bookshelf genre: horror, sci-fi, mystery, romance. Elemental genre is the thing that drives the story itself: heist, discovery, love story, quest.

For example, Die Hard is an action movie, but it’s really about a man trying to reconnect with his wife. Star Wars: TFA is a sci-fi space opera, but it’s really about a girl trying to find out just who the hell she is. The Hunger Games is a dystopian action story, but it’s really a story about political issues surrounding the balance of power.

In other words, genre as we typically think about genre is just the trappings of the story: the costume, the setting, the recognizable figures and signposts dotting the landscape. Sci-fi stories feature futurism or far-off planets or silvery bodysuits or aliens. Fantasy is gonna have knights and dragons and magic and names with lots of apo’str’ophes. (If I ever write a character with an apostrophe in their name, you can shoot me. Preferably with a word-gun loaded with exploding apostrophe bullets that explode and attack my face like a swarm of angry be’es.) But that’s just form.

When it comes to function, there is a world of possibilities lurking under the shape of the form. I listened to that, and realizations started crashing down around me like anvils in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I’ve been writing my stories as genre pieces without thinking too hard about what’s driving them. Which is why I’m off the rails and stalling out.

My current superhero story? The protagonist wants it to be a coming-of-age story, but it’s really a heist novel, because there’s a thing that the hero needs, and it’s closely protected by the bad guys.

My sci-fi time-travel novel? The protagonist wants it to be an action story, but it’s really an identity crisis, because the girl knows who she’s supposed to be but she doesn’t know why.

My head is exploding.

I have to go write some things down.

And then I need to listen to more %Writing Excuses%.

The Weekly Re-Motivator: Look Around

A short entry today:

Holy carp, it’s Saturday. The Thanksgiving holiday is basically over (teachers get a few perks). If you asked me — or, I’d imagine, any other teacher, even the ones that only got a few days off — I’d be just as likely to believe that we only got an extra day or two as opposed to the full week.

Not because I got a lot done over the break (I didn’t). Not because a lot was happening over the break (decidedly not). But just because when we’re sitting around with our families and spending time with the people we love, the time seems to pass a little faster. A watched clock at work can take an age to tick over, but the same clock when you’re enjoying time with the kids — watching them explore and paint and build with blocks and chase the cats and “read” books and “help” around the house — well, that clock runs at ludicrous speed.

It’s easy to lose track of that stuff. The tribulations of parenting a two- and a four-year-old seem to outweigh the joys on your average day-to-day. The good stuff is still there, of course, but it has to fight for its time, and when you’re working full-time, the stuff you have to do sort of ends up claiming its time first.

But holidays give us a chance to slow down and take a look at the whole picture, and you know what? This parenting thing? It’s not so bad. I gripe about it a ton, but all things considered, my kids are both pretty awesome. I mean, who cares if the house is a wreck, if my wife and I both have permanent raccoon-eyes, if the best moment of our day most days is the moment we’ve gotten them down to bed, the screaming has stopped, and we can sit on the couch and exhale. They amaze me every day, even if they do drive me nuts more often than not.

This week has reminded me of that. So even though I’m not going to give a pages-long things I’m thankful for account, I’ll just point out that I am, indeed, thankful for my kids, who, as I pointed out above, amaze me every day. And for my wife, who, truth be told, does most of the work with the kids and allows me to work a creatively fulfilling job and practice my creatively fulfilling hobbies. And for the rest of our family, who continually shower the kids and us with love. And … no, stop that. Keep it brief.

I started this post out planning to keep it short, and I’m creeping towards going long, so I’ll get to the point: the quote that inspired this post. Not a particularly poetic one, but a classic all the same, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

So. Here’s to the holidays that allow us to stop and look around once in a while.

This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.

Writing Journal: in which I ponder on stuff happening

I’m having serious insecurities about my writing lately.

I mean, I guess that sentence could be true for any writer at any time, ever, but it feels more so now, and I can’t really say why. I feel like the narrative I’m crafting is boggy and mired, like it’s trying to slog through a swamp replete with swarming, biting mosquitoes, noxious muck that sucks at your shoes, and probably a bunch of gators lurking just below the surface, waiting for you to come close enough to take a chomp at.

It’s slow going, is what I’m trying to say. Not the writing — that’s moving along just fine — but the story itself. I constantly fear that it’s lurking dangerously on the precipice of going down forever in the mire. And I’m not 100% sure what to attribute this feeling to, this spider-sense that something’s wrong. The writing doesn’t feel so terribly dissimilar from the writing in my first novel, where I felt like things clipped along fairly well.

I think — and who the hell knows, certainly not me — that I’m doing too much explaining. What I mean is, I feel like the current story is more centered on a single character than my previous stories, and it’s particularly centered on the way this character sees the world. That viewpoint is pretty cynical (go figure) and a bit self-doubty (you don’t say) and ultimately a bit nihilistic (shocker). All of which is fine, maybe, but I feel like I’m spending entirely too much time in between things happening dealing with my character’s reactions to the events, with his thoughts and fears and plans for what’s coming next, rather than, you know, just getting to the next thing.

Then I go and watch, oh, I don’t know, any TV show ever and it’s nothing but things happening at breakneck pace. Tonight it’s Penny Dreadful, for example, and in one episode, a character tracks down his childhood home and throttles the current landlord; another pair of characters turns another character evil and then all three bathe in the blood of a previous antagonist; another character enters a hypnotic state wherein she learns of a previous involvement with another character that we never knew about, and yet another character goes on a murdering rampage with yet another character he just met while still another character chases him across the desert of the Wild West. I mean, holy sharknado. That’s all in just one hour.

Now, yeah, I know, that’s TV, which is not a novel. TV is a flash-flame, table-side grill, while a novel is a slow-cooker. But still. There’s hardly time to breathe in between all that stuff happening, let alone time to reflect, react, or plan for the future.

So, then, I take a page from that particular book and pursue tonight’s writing with a mind toward action, action, action, and bang out 850 words without breaking a sweat. And it’s great! But it leaves me wondering: am I writing this particular novel all wrong? Am I living too much in the character’s (and, by extension, my own) head, at the expense of actually letting the story happen? Maybe the story needs more passages like the one tonight, more swathes of stuff happening with less thinking about the stuff on the part of one character or another.

But then, (dammit,) I circle back around, because aren’t the protagonist’s internal struggles just as important as the external ones that manifest as he’s robbing banks to equip his newfound secret lair with the help of his newly reprogrammed robot companion? (Oh, yeah, spoiler alert, I guess, kinda.) I mean, the current novel is sort of an anti-superhero story, so it needs a fair bit of rock ’em sock ’em action, but without that introspection weaved throughout, won’t it ring hollow?

Just another missive from I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing-island.



*hops back on the hamster wheel*


Baby Elephant Walk, or Juxtaposition Makes the World Go ‘Round


I haven’t been doing a ton of reading lately, but I have been working my way through a Stephen King novel that I picked up off the bargain rack: Cell.

It’s not the sort of earth-shattering powerhouse that The Stand was, but it’s in a similar vein: post-apocalyptic survivalist us-vs-them quest to save the world.

I’m not going to write a full review or anything, but I just wanted to share something. In the novel, much of humanity is turned into, essentially, zombies by a mysterious transmission on their cell phones (get it? Cell? Social commentary, whee!). But as part of the mysterious transmission, the affected zombies develop this sort of hive-mind shared consciousness and begin to swarm and flock and generally do all kinds of freaky, unsettling stuff.

But one motif that sort of threads through the whole thing — and serves to defuse the abject terror of the situation — is that the phone-crazies huddle together at night to rest, reboot, and listen to some truly terrible music. One such piece of music is Baby Elephant Walk, by Henry Mancini. And, well, I just took it as granted that it was a ridiculous bit of fluff — with a name like Baby Elephant Walk how could it be anything but ponderous, playful, and harmless?

But I got to the end of the novel and it came up again, and I realized I needed to know what exactly the Baby Elephant Walk was all about. So I googled it, and now I know that I knew what it was all along.

Yeah. That’s basically the zombies’ theme in this post-apocalyptic horror-show novel. Fargoing fantastic.

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