Five Writing Exercises for @ben_brainerd (and Anyone Else Looking for a Prompt) #writing

Hey Ben (and the rest of the world),

Sorry this took so long to put together.  Life happened.  Here goes:

  1. “There is a corpse in the barn!!!”  X finds a corpse in the barn. S/he needs to go tell Y about this, but doesn’t want Z (who is in the same room) to grok the situation.  (Back when I used to teach high school, we’d frame this exercise like so: “You have found a corpse in the barn; alert your sister to this fact.  You may not use the words ‘body,’ ‘dead,’ ‘corpse,’ or ‘barn.’  Go!”)  Who are X, Y, and Z to each other?  Why must X inform Y of this situation?  Why doesn’t X (or Y or both) want Z to know?  What happens if (when?) Z figures it out?
  2. Eschew the Voodoo  We all have voodoo around our creative processes: We only work in Scrivener or with this font in Word or using that pen or writing in a Moleskine or before 8am or whatever.  For your next project eschew your usually voodoo and replace it with a totally foreign “habit.”  Write the story entirely on 3×5 cards, or in the “Stickies” app on your computer, or in emails sent to yourself from your phone, or on a piece of crap 99-cent notebook from the drug store or in Comic Sans or only working before getting out of bed or after brushing your teeth for the night or whatever.  Feel how changing tools changes the feel of writing and the piece itself–but also see how little difference it can make, how your good work is still good scrawled on a Post-It note stuck to your kitchen table, and how lazy hackwork is still just that, even when you’ve used your favorite pen in the prettiest journal anyone ever gave you for Xmas.
  3. Write in Freddish: Write your next story in a style that is a. highly constrained and b. very different from your “default” voice—for example, borrow the voice of an autoclave installation manual, or a EMT handbook, or extremely constrained vocabulary (see, for example, any early-reader children’s book, of Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words Hardcover). My absolute favorite recent fiction application of this technique has to be Greg van Eekhout’s “Will You Be an Astronaut?  That story fucking crushes my heart every time.
  4. Rewrite What Vexes You:  Take some story that recently annoyed you by not living up to your expectations and rewrite it the right way. (I just found myself doing this the other day via text message with my Mom and sister after we all separately saw, and were annoyed by, Solo—a film that I desperately wanted to love, but could not; it has some good gags, but a thin plot that is massively overburdened by something-for-everyone, “fan service,” and box ticking.  Something that’s for everyone is for no one, and box ticking us inherently boring.  Most annoyingly: You can actually make Solo into a really good movie purely through cuts; it’s a good, lean story buried in flab.)
  5. Write to the Formula:  I usually use the 45/45/10 Formula as a tool for revising—I have something roughed out and now it’s time to make it run smooth—but you can use it to build a story from scratch.  Outline it in three sections (I. is the Setup, II. is the Tangle, and III. is the Resolution).  Flesh out each section, noting that I. and II. need to have about equal amounts of material, while section III. has only about a quarter as much stuff.  Draft from there.

Continue reading “Five Writing Exercises for @ben_brainerd (and Anyone Else Looking for a Prompt) #writing”

Rewrite What Annoys You

It is very common for artists to spend a lot of time annoyed: You love a thing so much that you want to create more of that thing, and thus invest a lot of energy in honing skills at creating that thing.  Meanwhile, since you love the thing, you keep seeking the thing out. As your skills improve—and noting the immutability of Sturgeon’s Law—you’re bound to come across plenty of examples of imperfect executions of that thing you live.  Profound, near-constant annoyance is the natural consequence of this.

You can do two things with that annoyance:

  1. You can kvetch about it (e.g., preaching to your choir on social media)
  2. You can rewrite it the way you would have written it (i.e., the Right Way, Dammit!)

PRO-TIP: Almost every working artist I’ve asked about this has landed squarely in Group #2.

Consider this SNL skit—which comes very, very close to being The Best Twilight Zone Episode Never Written:

This piece could be great, but it falls flat and is unsatisfying. Why? What went wrong?

The problem is in the Resolution (that’s the final 10% of the piece — for an overview of my 45/45/10 Formula for narrative, check out this blog post or this one). In any piece the Setup creates series of “open loops“ that need to be closed in the Resolution in order for the piece to feel satisfied. The open loops here include social isolation (which is introduced by Danny almost from go, and keyed to his goofy dream of singing his “I wish” songs with friends), a Twilight Zone leitmotif (evoked by the musical cues, camera work, and acting style, especially with He-Man and Lion-o), and also elements of sexual frustration.  This last item is lightly implied by mother’s nap, but really explicitly introduced by He-Man—and this is crucial—at around the 2min10sec mark, when he punches through a wall out of sexual frustration.  The 2:10 mark puts this bit of stage business at about 45% of the way through the piece, where it naturally transitions from the Setup to the Tangle (no clue what these terms mean?  Check the bulleted 45/45/10 Formula overview here).  Given both the timing in the narrative and the drama of having a character punch through wall out of sexual frustration, you’re making this issue seem really, really important.

And then you introduced She-Ra—already a sorta-kinda sexually charged nostalgia callback—being played by Arianna Grande.

So, to recap, here are the unresolved open loops:

  1. Social Isolation
  2. Singing/Music
  3. Sexual Frustration

And we’ve just brought Arianna Grande onstage: a very gregarious and sexually attractive young woman with a stunning singing voice.  The audience is gonna have certain sorta obvious expectations of the basic outline of how these loops should be Resolved.

So let’s look at the Resolution:  Sexual frustration is sorta addressed (but not for the primary character, just for side-characters mom, Lion-o, and He-Man). But, social isolation and the Twilight Zone aesthetic go entirely unaddressed. Watch that final scene again: It seems almost like the actor is expressing his frustration at the skit more than Danny is expressing his frustration at the fictional situation.

As an audience member, I’m kinda let down.  As a writer, I’m almost fatally annoyed because they were so close to knocking this out of the damned park!

How would I fix it? It’s so simple: First, keep the Setup unchanged (that’s the first two minutes or so).  It’s a fine Setup, really. In the Tangle (that’s the next two-ish minutes), I would keep almost everything the same as well, but would strike the birthday hug gag between Danny and She-ra. (Don’t worry; we are still going to use this gag, just later, to close the skit.)

Let’s run through what we’ve got now: Same Setup (with Twilight Zone look-n-feel and Danny’s social isolation). We introduce sexual frustration. He-Man busts through the wall after Sister. He brings back She-ra. The three toys-come-alive all start trashing the joint. Mom comes in, chemistry sparks with her and the hunks. Those three leave for the hot tub. Now Danny asks She-ra for his birthday hug. We keep She-ra’s reply as written—she doesn’t like hugs; she likes to smash!—and Danny announces: “Well, I like singing songs with my friends—even if that means singing by myself!” Unashamed, he begins belting out his “I wish” song. She-ra (who, you’ll recall, is being played by a goddamned operatic pop star) is taken by Danny’s heartfelt song; she’s a warrior princess, and has never before heard the beauty of song. She begins to sing along with him—and then returns to smashing, never flagging in her song. Danny, thrilled to have a friend, keeps singing and he starts smashing the joint up, too.

The camera pulls back, swivels, and reveals a black-&-white Rod Serling impersonator (everything else is still in color). Cue Twilight Zone bongos.  Rod Serling looks dead into the camera, puffs cigarette, and delivers a Twilight Zone-style summary outro:

“A lonely young boy.  A savage warrior princess.  An unlikely birthday wish—and an unlikely duet that could only happen … in mom’s hot tub”—Serling stomps out his cigarette and races out the door to join the hot tub orgy.

Boom.  That’s the skit this skit clearly wants to be.

These Aren’t Concentration Camps (Yet)—But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Good

I strongly urge you to watch this video:

and read this article (“Inside the Former Walmart That Is Now a Shelter for Almost 1,500 Migrant Children” ) all the way through, then call your reps.

My point here: This is not a “concentration camp” by any modern conventional standard (in that “concentration camp” connotes harsh conditions, overcrowding, and general neglect if not outright abuse). Here’s a New York Times description at what they saw at this specific migrant internment center:

Most of the boys are from Central America. Many of them smiled, waved at or shook the hands of the reporters touring the site. They were asked by the reporters and Southwest Key executives, in Spanish, “How are you?”

The constant reply was “Bien, bien,” meaning “OK, OK.” The media was not allowed to interview the children.

Some were leaning back, getting a shampoo at the sinks in the shelter’s barbershop, where a striped lit-up barber’s pole spun outside the door. They lined up in the cafeteria for dinner — chicken, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables. Some played pool, or joined a tai chi session in the rec room. One teenager sat at a cafeteria table with his head bowed and hands clasped, praying silently. Another told the cafeteria worker who served him dinner, “Gracias, Miss.”

Everywhere, some of the shelter’s more than 1,000 employees hovered nearby — they sat at the ends of the cafeteria tables while the boys ate dinner, watched “Moana” with the children in the old loading docks and escorted lines of boys in the hallways.

The vast majority, Southwest Key officials said, crossed the border unaccompanied.

That said, these certainly fit within the broad dictionary denotation of “concentration camp”—in that they are “a camp where persons (such as prisoners of war, political prisoners, or refugees) are detained or confined”.  (And we have no idea if other such centers are better, worse, or about the same).

Still, calling these “concentration camps” runs the risk of continuing to erode the general American understanding of the heinous magnitude of suffering endured by  the Jews and others interned and enslaved by the Third Reich, or the Americans of Japanese descent imprisoned by the U.S. government, or the countless others who have been confined, reeducated, absorbed, and exterminated by the smooth-grinding wheels of governments.

On top of that, calling these “concentration camps” is a disservice to progress and to these specific children.

That said, saying that “these aren’t concentration camps” is in no way meant to suggest that what’s happening here is good; it’s getting overcrowded, it’s unsustainable, they’re starting to set up tent villages (in Texas, in the summer—lack of rigid shelter and HVAC is a huge drop in livability outside El Paso). This is precariously close to starting the inevitable slide into what we all would recognize as concentration camps.

But, goddamit, right now we are very close to doing the Right Thing here: Most of these kids are showing up at the border without parents or guardians; it is right and good to shelter them, feed them, protect them, show them Moana. That’s what a country dedicated to the huddled masses yearning to be free should be doing.  With proper action, there is an opportunity here for these centers to level up to being well-run refugee centers.

We should call our reps, and say as much: I want unaccompanied minors to be sheltered and fed.  I want those who’ve been abused, or whose home places have been made unlivable by gangs or failed governments, to have access to asylum.  Kids who have braved the elements and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, they’ve got True Grit; I want to know how they can become my neighbors and fellow citizens.🇺🇸

Joyner Lucas’s “I’m Not Racist” — a perfect musical example of the 45/45/10 Formula

The 45/45/10 Formula for narrative/argument is one of the perpetual bees bumbling around my bonnet.  This video for this song is such a stone cold perfect example (and, subsequently, so rhetorically devastating) that I just had to share.  PRO-TIP: The first two-and-a-half minutes will likely be almost unbearable to watch for most white Americans.  If it helps, know that Joyner Lucas (the musician and the voice you hear throughout the song) is black (although not the black guy in the video).

At any rate, to review my 45/45/10 Formula:

  • The first 45% of a piece is the Setup: Characters/concepts/situations/dynamics are presented and relationships among these made clear
  • The next 45% is the Tangle: Complication(s) disrupt (or at least complicate) the situation laid out in the Setup
  • The last 10% is the Resolution: The knot is Untangled, for better or worse

In the case of this track, the Setup runs from the open to ~2:50. The Tangle then runs to ~5:50, and from that point to the cut to black is the Resolution. What especially thrills me here—beyond the hard body impact of the rhetoric itself and the lean power of the videography—is how shifts in the music mark out the transitions between stages in the argument: Each section break is marked out be an abrupt shift in the tone and mood of the backing track.

This is a wonderful primer on how to structure an narrative argument to hold an audience and not persuade them, per se—because that’s not the goal—but rather to enduringly stick in their craw, so they keep troubling over your argument long after they’re done with the piece of entertainment.  This is how you write moral fiction.  This is how you plant the seeds that grow the trees that, indefatigably and seemingly effortlessly, bend the arc of that moral universe back toward justice.

And that, kids, is our business.  Go, watch … and learn.

Marketing, Rhetoric, Writing, and Mr. Rogers (a primer, of sorts)

This is a tremendous example of practical rhetoric: understanding an audience deeply and meeting them where they are—without assumptions or bias—so you can guide their thinking in a way that’s a win for everyone. If there was ever an example of “white-hat marketing,” then this is it: Mr. Rogers Had a Simple Set of Rules for Talking to Children” 

  1. “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street. 
  2. “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
  3. “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, Ask your parents where it is safe to play.
  4. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.
  5. “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.
  6. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
  7. “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
  8. “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
  9. “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.

I write and have written all sorts of things (DIY books and essays and textbooks and book reviews and reference articles and newspaper stories and business columns and fiction and blah, blah, blah).  For the last decade most of my money has come from writing marketing copy.  If you’re covering your bills that way, then you quickly learn the First Noble Truth of Marketing:

You need to meet people where they are.

You cannot “create demand,” only meet it.  You cannot “educate customers,” only furnish names for things they already feel in their hearts. Everyone is busy and distractible.  Everyone hates ads and hates marketing. They have absolutely no desire to bother figuring you out; you need to figure them out and talk to them where they are.

And once you grok that First Noble Truth, you instantly understand the Second Noble Truth of Marketing:

All writing—every article, every story, every poem, every email—is marketing; no one has the desire to squander their energy figuring you out. You must meet them where they are.

And once you meet them, you can take them where you two need to go together. 

Continue reading “Marketing, Rhetoric, Writing, and Mr. Rogers (a primer, of sorts)”

Don’t Know Much About Anglerfish?

Well, then, you’re in good company: We know next to nothing about these freaky mofos.  Wanna get started?  Watch this video, then google around the phrase “polyandrous sexual parasitism“, then recall the existence of the Human Centipede film franchise, then embrace the gibbering madness as it engulfs you and absorbs you into its grand, æternal, sleeplessly dreaming circulatory system—Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nfah Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!

Toledo Mini Maker Faire Coming this Fall!!! CALL FOR MAKERS IS *OPEN*!

The Imagination Station in Toledo (where I was helping folks find the Good Noise™ all last December) is hosting their very own Mini Maker Faire this September. Great folks down there, and a great location along the river.  I’ll be there all day with the Loud Lab (amplified Slinkies, simple DIY synths, electric diddley bows. and more)—so mark your calendar.  And, if you’re a maker sorta a person, consider applying and showing off what you do (the application deadline is fast approaching).

See you in September!

Contact Your Reps: The PotUS Needs to Stop Sanctioning Bigotry🇺🇸🔥

Here’s the email I sent my reps last night.  Maybe you wanna tell your reps something similar.  It’s been more than a year, and the President is no better at this than he was before he was sworn in. Maybe Congress needs to try something different—’cause all the nothing they’ve done thus far hasn’t had the intended effect (*grumbles* lousy beatniks).

SUBJECT: The PotUS sanctions bigotry, assists persecution

Dear [NAME TK],

I was truly and deeply dismayed this morning to read the President’s remarks on the recent NFL decision to fine players who kneel during the National Anthem.  Specifically:

“You have to stand, proudly, for the national anthem. Or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”

Just to be clear, I don’t particularly care for football, nor for labor practices within the NFL.  If that employer wants to set a weird (to me) rule about how to comport oneself during pre-game musical performances, then that’s for those employers, their employees, those employees’ union, and the courts to sort out.

I’m not even that concerned to hear a President so blithely unaware of existing First Amendment precedent; sure, I learned about cases like West VA State Board of Ed v. Barnette in middle school, but not everyone benefited from my fine education, and not every President can be a noted Constitutional scholar.

But I’m extremely concerned when I hear a sitting U.S. President breezily opine that a group of people who believe differently than he “shouldn’t be in the country.”  I grew up in a community with a very small number of Jehovah’s Witnesses—folks who, for religious reasons, do not pledge allegiance or stand for the National Anthem.  As a Jew, I did not share their beliefs—but I was taught, by my family, my faith leaders, and my teachers, that their beliefs were worthy of my respect.  More to the point, I was taught that their beliefs were due equal protection under the law—just like mine.

President Washington promised us a government “which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  President Trump, meanwhile, sanctions bigotry and assists persecution—with these words, and with countless other utterances and decrees, tweets and executive orders.  In the decade before Trump my local Jewish Community Center received zero threats. Within 18 months of his nomination, we’d had two.  We hadn’t had run-ins with white supremacists here since the mid-1990s.  Last year our skatepark was festooned with dozens of swastikas and emblazoned with “JEWS DIE” and “WHITE WOMEN NO NIGGERS OR JEWS.”

Violent crime in general is trending down in the U.S., but hate crimes continue to climb—and speaking out against any element of that rising tide of hate and bias seems to run the risk of having a target painted on your back by a big bully, who we inexplicably permit to continue to bludgeon private citizens from his bully pulpit, uncensured.

What the hell are we supposed to do to feel safe?

Sincerely,

David Erik Nelson

SOURCES:

(This "America golem" is Nazi propaganda from WWII, but remarkably apt these days.)
(This “America golem” is Nazi propaganda from WWII, but remarkably apt these days.)