Write Better: The Coyote, the Road Runner, Sympathy, and Craft as the Art of Constraint

Back at the beginning of March this list of Chuck Jones’s Rules for Coyote-Road Runner cartoons made the rounds:


(The pic, taken by filmmaker Amos Posner, shows a display in the Museum of the Moving Image’s “What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones” exhibit. It’s identical to the Coyote-Road Runner Rules Jones listed in his 1999 memoir Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist)

There’s some question as to the consistency with which The Rules are followed, as well as their pinned-to-the-wall workaday legitimacy, but as I work through a set of hard revisions on an almost-just-about-right SF novella, I’ve been thinking about these rules–not because I’m employing any of them in my edit (I’m not), but because they embody a different way of looking at constraints[*], and I’m very fond of drafting with a fuck-all attitude and revising with a sharp blade and very narrow constraints. By hewing to constraints we drive our work towards the Graceful Universality of fairytales, Willie Nelson songs, Basho haikus, Jones’ Coyote-Road Runner shorts, and the like. Besides, even if you miss the “graceful universality” bullseye, it’s effort well-spent, since the entire target constitutes “stuff someone will pay money for” (i.e., “work that meaningfully touches people”).

Jones’ Rules have been floating around the Internet for more than 15 years, during which time the list has swelled to as many as 11 items listed (in fact, Wikipedia editors only culled back to nine following Posner’s tweeted picture, even though Jones’ canonical nine-item Rules have been in print since 1999). Interestingly, the earliest instance of the Rules swelling beyond the Canonical Nine traces back to its *first* online incarnation back in 1999, which includes this 10th Rule:

(Rule 10.) The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.

This isn’t in Chuck’s Nine Rules because it’s something he explains a few pages earlier in his memoir, while setting up the discussion of the Coyote-Road Runner Rules. he returns to the idea in his analysis at the end of the book. It’s tacked on as a 10th Rule in that ancient webpage, but it’s really the 0th Rule, the fundamental Truth: The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote, and to a greater or lesser degree the Rules guide the forward energy of each story toward this goal. The Coyote is humiliated not so much by an active antagonist (that damnable Road Runner) as by his environment, by the core physics of the universe, by shoddy consumer goods, and by his own mania.

You know, like the rest of us.

All of which is a nice reminder for me, that any part of the craft–all of the rules of thumb and editorial tricks and writing tactics and daily grinding–exist to serve the 0th Rule of the Coyote and Road Runner: You need to cultivate the audience’s sympathy for the protagonist. “Sympathetic” doesn’t mean “likable.” Likability, in my humble, is bullshit: We don’t “like” Richard III, on balance, or Hannibal Lecter, or Walter White, or Lady MacBeth, or Medea–but these are among the most compelling protagonists in Western narrative.

Similarly, “sympathy” isn’t “pity”; pity is a form of contempt. We feel superior to those we pity. But I don’t think most audience members ever feel superior to even the very disagreeable protagonists I’ve listed above, flawed and awful as they are. Why? I imagine it’s because, like Coyote, they may be failures, but they certainly aren’t quitters. We can respect that, and sympathy rests on a measure of (often grudging) respect.

Now there’s most certainly another 3k words I can put to this–especially as it applies to the modern argumentative essay and social media–but let’s stop here, with the nuts-and-bolts Write Better advice:

  • Our job is to cultivate sympathy–not to be liked or pitied.
  • We write better when we hew to constraints that guide our readers toward “feeling with” our characters (even the Bad Guys).
  • There are many ways of formulating constraints; it doesn’t matter how they constrain you, so long as they do in fact constrain, that you at some point in your process feel hemmed in and annoyed by the Rules that you’ve set for yourself.

Or, in other words, accept the Fundamental Truth that Chuck Jones never deemed worth saying–that most artists come to see as so self-evident that it doesn’t bear mentioning:

You cannot catch or eat the Road Runner. But you always must chase.
*Amen.*

Continue reading “Write Better: The Coyote, the Road Runner, Sympathy, and Craft as the Art of Constraint”

When the Machine Knows You’re a Jew

Yesterday I hit Amazon.com to see how steeply they were discounting my book, and was met with this home page:


Check out that row of suggested titles above; they’re all Jewish children’s books. This stopped my heart. Because I am indeed a Jew, and I do indeed have small children.

Just for comparison’s sake, I switched my browser to Incognito Mode and reloaded Amazon. Here’s what I saw:

Still got Megan Trainor and the GEICO gecko, but now my above-the-fold pitch is for a bunch of HD movies that were big blockbusters that I’d never, ever watch. I.e., pretty generic.

Maybe this seems like no biggie to you. After all, algorithmically suggested purchases are a cornerstone of Amazon’s business model. I respect your position. I know that I’ve got more than a little paranoia and clinical hypervigilance informing my thought process. So, just to break down why this greeting from Amazon was so disturbing:

    1. All the titles are Jewish kid’s books. The algorithm seems *really* confident that these would interest me (and, shit, it’s right: We own an earlier edition of one of these books, and read it often).
    2. It’s unclear how Amazon would have reached this conclusion based solely on my interactions with Amazon: I’ve never ordered much in the way of explicit Judaica via Amazon, or had Jewish-themed items on my Wishlist or in my browsing history. I’ve ordered more tools and owl pellets from Amazon than explicitly Jew-themed items. This leaves two possibilities:
      • Their conclusion is based solely on my order size and timing–because I do indeed tend to place my big holiday order earlier than most, since I’m buying for both Xanukah and Xmas. But, man, that seems pretty thin justification to dedicate a major portion of screen real-estate to Jewish children’s books–items that would have basically no interest to huge swaths of the buying public.
      • Amazon can make some wicked-awesome inductive leaps based on buying patterns, the kind of stuff that you’ll never notice with the small sample sizes normal humans experience, but become glaringly obvious when you have Big Data to crunch. Like, maybe all sorts of people buy owl pellets and read Ben H. Winters ebooks, but only bona fide child-rearing Jews buy the second-cheapest owl pellet package that includes a bone chart and wait for those Ben H. Winters ebooks to dip below $2.99 each?
    3. Since the sub-points under #2 seem pretty far-fetched, we’re left to assume that Amazon is doing some very heavy-weight, semantically deep data correlation. Yes, it’s certainly “public knowledge” that I’m a Jew–not only does Google tell you so, but I’ve donated to Jewish charities, am active in my congregation, have worked for Jewish organizations, and have published essays and columns about being a Jew–but still, that’s some pretty granular cross-correlation for a site that mostly makes money off me by offering good deals on horror and SF ebooks and being able to quickly deliver the Slinkies my children adore and destroy at regular intervals. Which is to say that I’m left fretting not only about HOW Amazon determines I’m a Jew, but also WHY they bother, and WHAT might happen if someone else suddenly realized “Hey, I bet you Amazon’s data could cough up a pretty complete list of every Jew/homosexual/trans person/woman/Asian/whatever in the US! Wouldn’t that be a handy list!”
      • ’cause, you know, there’s never ever ever been a situation where a suitably motivated group of people with a pretty complete list of all the X-TYPE PERSONS in a geographic region has set their sights on killing all of them.
    4. As the kosher-market raid coordinated with the Charlie Hebdo massacre demonstrates, sometimes any old Jew is a good enough target.

So, that’s me, that’s my paranoia and hypervigilance, my over-reaction to a perfectly innocent commercial gambit. It’s just the free hand of the market, nothing more, nothing less. No one is coming to stuff me in a boxcar; I’m just a nervous guy with my nervous, paranoid fantasies (based on my relatives’ and co-religionists actual lived experience, and my own personal experience of anti-Semitic [micro]aggression and threats).

On the way out, I guess I just want to point out that this is an excellent moment to crystalize what “privilege” really means when we talk about “White Privilege.” As I’ve written in the past, 99.999% of the time I’m as White as any other pink person, and enjoy all those privileges. But when I see a thing like this, history indicates I’d be a supreme fool not to take a moment to meditate on the ramifications. No American Xtian or Athiest has to do that when Amazon greets them with a big fistful of Xmas items.

Simply put: “Privilege” means the privilege of not having to invest cognitive cycles in wondering who might be coming to hurt you and your children. This is why, when the fan starts getting shit-hit with things like Charlie Hebdo and Ferguson and GamerGate you need to be a little patient with us hysterical Jews and Blacks and women and whatever. We get a little worked up because, now and again we’re just completely worn out waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Anyway, this isn’t just a pity party for those of us who live in a protected class. This party is for you too, for you in the majority, you who sleep easy, because it’s instructive of the Shape of Where We’re At:

There are no more secrets.

Yeah, sure, you’ll get your little bullshit secrets–that you pooped your pants a little last week, that you kissed someone you shouldn’t have in 7th grade, that you’ve got some naked pictures, whatever. But it’s not like I got paranoid yesterday; I’ve been paranoid for almost forty years. I’ve sorta made a point at keeping the word “Jew” from being associated with my name whenever I suspected it might go into structured data (in my medical records, for example). But still, Amazon found me, and they weren’t even really, really looking. They don’t have some sort of ideology that rewards flushing me out, they have no demagogue promising that their God Thing will lavish them with heavenly rewards for hurting me and mine, they have no cosmology that holds that I’ve systemically dicked them over with interest rates and business shenanigans. Amazon saw it fit to sort me out and label me “Jew” in some arcane column of some totally banal, cyclopean spreadsheet because it means an extra $5 to $10 in sales a year to them, if even. That was enough to make it worth it to Amazon. And they did it on their own, without ever violating my “rights.” And if tomorrow Amazon switches business gears, and becomes the world’s marketplaces for demographic lists of people instead of the world’s marketplace for SF ebooks and horror anthologies and owl pellets, well I just better hope that no one running a bomb lab in Yemen or Boston or Paris decides to buy a mailing list.

Here’s the thing: I was fine with being “David Erik Nelson, Jew”–because that’s what I indeed am, what I’ve been my entire life. And for most of my life, when being a Jew has caused me grief, it has done so in association with being David Erik Nelson, as a response to something I did or said. Sure, it may not have been fair–when an Xtian gripes about Xmas, it’s because everyone is stressed out; when I do so, it’s because I’m a fucking whining Jew who should just be glad America tolerates me–but at least it felt personal and specific and, in some way, intelligible. When the threats came, it was because someone specifically disliked something I wrote or said or embodied.

But in Amazon’s datacenter, I’m a row in a table. The index on that row is something like “CUSTOMER #2045674” and the cells include “kindle-owner” and “SF reader” and “owl pellet buyer” and “Jew” and my mailing address. Just another row, among millions–until that table gets resorted by the “Jew” column, and then I’m a box waiting to be ticked off by God-knows-who for God-knows-what-reason. Maybe they want to send me free Xanukah candles! Maybe they want to send me a bomb disguised as a printer cartridge! I guess I’ll have to wait for the mail man to come and find out then! Oh brave new world that has such things in’t!

All of which is to say: The data got smart faster than I did.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING: “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!” #gobblegobble #writing

This is, in my humble, a damn-near perfect gag–which is saying something, because I find single-camera laugh-track situation comedies almost entirely unbearable to watch. They are the awful, crippled, shambling intermediate link between stage plays (which I like) and modern cinematic multi-camera sitcoms (which I *also* like). That said, the terribly be-shitted wasteland of laugh-track sitcoms was–by very virtue of the enormous piles of shit–nutrient rich soil, and some wonderful things flourished there. Chief among them were gags like this. Here it’s presented as a single, stand-alone joke. But in the episode itself, it was broken up (you can see the rough jump cuts where it’s pasted together here), and developed across the entire half-hour of programming as a sort of lietmotif.

TIP FOR WRITERS: This sort of multi-strand punctuated development is a really great tool both for building and managing tension (and thus carrying the audience along), and for building stories that can grab and hold otherwise non-overlapping audiences (MY SO-CALLED LIFE is sort of a perfect example of this: Most episodes had largely independent narrative threads about the parents and teens, making that show highly watchable to two groups who otherwise can’t agree on much).

ANOTHER TIP FOR WRITERS: When this joke is presented standalone like this, it becomes obvious that it’s a pretty tidy example of a piece that is pleasing and easy to track, in part, because it manages cognitive load gracefully–establishing a premise, building expectant tension, then releasing that tension–with a classic three-part structure.

FINAL NOTE: When I was a kid, it was the general manager’s punchline that I repeated–“as God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”–believing that it was the key to this house. I mean, after all, folks laugh when you say that. But as I get older and re-watch this each year, I find that what really, really makes it is Les Nessman’s earnest reporting of the facts–he is, in fact, in his naiveté, perfectly modeling what a reporter should be and should do–and especially his shell-shocked recounting, during the story’s Tangle, of the turkey’s counterattack. I’ve found that often–especially in literary fiction–authors confuse the Tangle with the Resolution, believing that once they’ve provided the Setup and Tangle, their story is done. I’d previously assumed that this was because they’d mistaken a simple twist for a “twist ending.” But the WKRP Turkey Drop Gag gives a clue as to a deeper reason for why folks confuse the Tangle for the Resolution: It’s because the Tangle is often the source of your story’s real punch, the place in its core that it coils back down into in order to spring out from its heels and knock you silly with the Resolution. (If these terms–Tangle, Resolution–are throwing you, just skim the bulleted bit near the top of the cognitive load post.)

Write Better: Watch Penn & Teller Saw Your Cognitive Load in Half! #writing

One of the things I think about a lot when I’m writing–but have only written about a little and tangentially–is cognitive load: The amount of data we expect readers to juggle and integrate. Readers only have so much cognitive bandwidth; writing that begins to overload this bandwidth is, at best, “challenging”–or, more frequently, simply frustrating and tiresome.

Managing Someone Else’s Cognitive Load

One way (the primary way?) of managing cognitive load is to balance the new/interesting/challenging items/structures you want readers to handle by giving them very easy-to-digest formulaic frameworks. E.g., Do you have a very complicated plot? Then either give them a very constrained set of characters (e.g., very few in number–like in Primer–or highly caricatured, like in The Usual Suspects). Numerous or very psychologically complex characters? Keep the story running in real-time (Hitchcock’s Rope), or confined to a single location (Reservoir Dogs), so readers don’t have to track both shifting alliances and shifting time/place. Very elevated language, or a challenging invented argot (Clockwork Orange, looking at you)? Keep the plot straightforward and the structure rigid (Clockwork is, at its heart, a very simple morality play broken into three equal-weighted acts, and tracing a downright medieval character trajectory).[*]

And so on. There’s a million combinations, but it starts with realizing that your reader’s attention is finite and precious, and you need to make hard choices in directing and managing that attention.

The 45/45/10 Formula

My fall-back formula for managing cognitive load in a story is to break it into 45/45/10 by word count:

  • The first 45% of the words are the Setup: Characters and situations are presented and relationships made clear.
  • The next 45% of the words are the Tangle: A complication disrupts (or at least complicates) the situation laid out in the Setup.
  • The last 10% of the story is the Resolution: The knot is Untangled, for better or worse.[**]

45/45/10 stories have pretty consistently proven easier for me to place than anything else, and I believe that’s because they are much easier to *read*. (It’s a very common pattern–you see it all over short stories and novels–and students of creative writing will no doubt notice that it’s basically a boiled-down version of the infamous three-act structure I was going on about last week. Just to make a quick point about process, though: I fall back on the 45/45/10 as a way to analyze things I’m revising, or to help me suss out where I should go next if I lose the thread of my narrative, but it isn’t like I use it to generate stories. It’s a formula into which I plug in characters, situations, and problems, not a handle I crank so that a black-box will poop out a salable story.)

Penn & Teller Cut Through the Tangle

So, all that said, here’s Penn & Teller’s version of Sawing the Lady in Half. I love P&T, but not just because they are good magicians (in fact, having seen them live now and again, I can see that they aren’t always that hot, in terms of the mechanics of sleight-of-hand; they botch things just as often as any other live pros). What I love about P&T is that they make the fact that magic is a narrative art front and center; it’s not about technique or gimmicks or effect, it’s about telling stories (just like good ads and good poems and good stories). And, because I’m still a post-modern comp lit student at heart, I’m tickled even further by the fact that their stories are always *meta*fictions, stories about the nature of stories themselves, and story telling. They are *meta*-magicians whose work, over the long haul, comments on and critiques their craft in a deep and loving way. I love *that* meaty, rich approach, which means that even if I occasionally find the execution a little weak, I don’t care because the overall *narrative* of the trick is itself delightful and instructive.

As is the case here: this trick–and oldy, but a goody–falls tidily into my best belovéd 45/45/10 formula: They give as a full Setup–with four characters (one of them being us, the audience, who in P&T’s stories is *always* a character), they Tangle that Setup, and then they Resolve it in a way that implicates everyone involved (including us, the audience). it is a tight and lovely 3min35sec. Watch it, and watch the clock while you do:

Continue reading “Write Better: Watch Penn & Teller Saw Your Cognitive Load in Half! #writing”

Paint Your Nails, Change Your Habits

Here’s the thing about habits and rituals: They are enormously evolutionarily advantageous. We are cognitive misers; making decisions and remembering things take energy (which is finite), and forgetting things can be very costly–even deadly. So, we’re primed to form habits, because they offload this effort. The productivity books and blogs are full of anecdotes about Famous Admirable People establishing rituals to free up their headspace (e.g., Einstein had a closet full of clothes that all matched and never wore socks; he could just dress at random without putting effort into choosing garments).

Any task that you can initiate in under two seconds[1] is not perceived as requiring effort; it easily slips into habit and automation: Putting on a seat belt, switching off a light, grabbing some M&Ms from a bowl on someone’s desk, glancing at a cellphone.[2]

As this little list makes obvious, there are up and downsides to this mechanism, as an unhealthy or downright dangerous habit can form and ossify just as easily as a good one.

So, I love that this guy’s nail-polish hack–by creating a consistent distraction–effectively increases the cognitive effort of the habit up beyond the threshold, so the automation falls. Maintain this consistent cognitive load, and the habit softens up and becomes far more susceptible to modification.

Red Thumb Reminder – YouTube

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DIE HARD (its Origins), Violence, Redemption, and Xmas (Plus a Bonus Writing Tip!)

Good pal Mojo got me thinking about DIE HARD again the other day, and it brought to mind the novel that movie is based on, NOTHING LASTS FOREVER by Roderick Thorpe–which I read over Xmas last year. Below I’ve pasted a slight polishing-up of my Goodreads review of NOTHING LASTS FOREVER (which I gave 4 of 5 stars) from early this year.

Takeaway: “Xmas stories are inherently about redemption, as is Xmas, which for so many families seems to be the Hail Mary pass of the emotional calendar.”

And also this fact: As Americans we have quietly accepted–in our narratives, and in our government actions, and in our news stories, and in our lives–that the truest Redemption comes through Violence. I don’t state that as media criticism, but as Fact: The Big Win if we want to reduce the amount of high-speed lead going into bodies in this country won’t come from bickering about banning X or buying back Y or screaming about Z’s right to keep and bear As, or screeching that all the Bs are a bunch of Cs for valuing their Ds more than the lives of Es . . . or whatever. It won’t come from threats (no matter how dire) or from punishments (no matter how sever). We will significantly curb our violence when we start telling each other new stories about how to address problems with something other than Force. Full stop.

So, please, be gently–with yourself and with everyone else–on these Days of Awe.

Anyway, that got harsh, and I apologize; it’s Funseasoneveryonehappytime! So, the review:

Here’s the caveat on that rating: This book is actually 5+ for fans of DIE HARD (not the franchise, which God willing *has no fans*, but the original movie), but probably something like 3 stars for Normal Humans Not Already Wrapped Up in an Exploration of Crime Fiction and 1970s Nihilism (for those touring American crime fiction looking to get the lay of the land, I give this an honest 4 stars–and there we sit).
This book is sturdy enough–the pace is good, the bigotry relatively muted, the writing basically stays out of the way–but I’m going to go out on a limb and says that the only thing that makes it remotely interesting to the vast bulk of modern readers is that it’s the basis for DIE HARD (which, incidentally, is my favorite Christmas movie. In case it can’t go without saying, I’m not Christian–but nonetheless feel this film, both in content and mood, captures something ineffable but central to the Xmases of my youth. I can even go so far as to let DIE HARD 2 in on Xmas. But it stops there, Bruce Willy, despite you being my shiznt. For real.) But it’s NOTHING LASTS and DIE HARD taken *together* that’s so fascinating, because they’re basically Dark Twins.
DIE HARD retains the structure of NOTHING LASTS: The basic formula is the same (Problem Solver arrives to CA via plane, ends up sucked into loved one’s raucous office Xmas party, thugs invade, elevators, machine guns, cops and walkie-talkies, ho-ho-ho, &c.), all of the set-piece action sequences that make DIE HARD a delight are carried over from the movie, and both are similarly rooted in a downright iron-clad commitment to the Aristotelian Unities of time/space/action[*] They are, in essence, the same fundamental story told differently, like two bands’ alternate covers of the same ur-song. (I know, it sounds like I’m bizarrely claiming that somehow NOTHING LASTS–which came first and is the *cited source* for DIE HARD doesn’t have primacy. I am, in fact, claiming just that. Like STAR WARS vs. WHATEVER SOURCE YOU FAVOR, this story hits a Deep Place in the American psyche).
But DIE HARD and NOTHING LASTS are twins separated at birth and raised in different homes and in different time periods. DIE HARD–and this is why the DH version of the story has legs that NOTHING LASTS doesn’t–is fundamentally about the Redemptive Power of Violence (both enacting and enduring violence) in the New Year Birth Season of what, in all honesty, is sort of the craziest God you could make up. It makes the ur-story seem like some Norse myth lit only by fire in the darkest depths of the dying time. NOTHING LASTS is no less violent, no less grueling for protagonist or thrilling for the reader, but it is deeply cynical (in the way only America of the ’70s could be) and fundamentally nihilistic. It’s not about the Redemptive Power of Violence because it exists in a universe where there can be no redemption–which is also why, in contrast to DH, it doesn’t *read* as a Christmas story, despite having exactly the same timing and setting.
Xmas stories are inherently about redemption, as is Xmas, which for so many families seems to be the Hail Mary pass of the emotional calendar.
By itself, NOTHING LASTS is the sorta book you find abandoned in a beach rental, read over the course of a couple days while your kids get sunburned, then re-abandon in a motel lobby once you’ve finished the final page. But reading it against DIE HARD lets you see what’s really making DIE HARD work as an essential Xtian American text about how Violence–absorbing it and meting it out–is *the* Way to Solve Our Problems. Frankly, having them side by side answers a helluva lotta questions raised by the daily news.
Recommended, especially in this time of Giving and Receiving.