Related: I keep this on a sign hanging above my desk, because while most truths are indeed self-evident, most of us need frequent reminders about obvious things; this is just such a thing. Consider this a #PRO-TIP.
I’m not natively a “New Year’s resolution” person—but as a freelancer, I live and die by forming and keeping good habits. Over the years of not starving to death or losing our home, I’ve learned a few shortcuts to faking a disciplined life. Principal among these:
This principal principle is super-duper useful for addressing the two most popular New Year’s resolutions:
Stop making “to do” lists; instead make a “Stop Doing” list.
For New Year’s Resolution Type #1 (which require doing more with the same number of free hours that already feel over-packed), the usual approach is to try to cram in one more thing.
That is obviously destined for failure. You aren’t going to suddenly have more free hours or more energy just because you added one more item to your calendar.
Instead sit down for 10 minutes, uninterrupted, in complete silence. This is vital, and insanely hard. For real, lock yourself in the bathroom or sit in your car in the grocery store parking lot or go to the laundry room—whatever it takes to get a solid 10 minutes without distraction.
Take a hard look at what you do on the daily—especially what you do with your phone in your hand—and ask yourself if you really love doing that stuff, or if it is vital to you earning a living.
Now write a quick “Stop Doing” List. This is a bulleted list of things that just really aren’t worth your time or attention. Just an example, if I glance at YouTube, I end up loosing an easy 20 minutes watching video compilations of old Vines or “Wins/Fails.” I don’t even really like those videos; I’m just stressed out, so I glance at YouTube, and YouTube knows what I watch, and there’s a whole endless scrolling list of distractions and . . . and I don’t enjoy it, it’s no good for my family or my business or my bank account. There’s no point to it. It is time squandered.
So, Funny Fails are on my “Stop Doing” List. So are:
If your resolution is to work in a 20 minute walk every day, trust me, you can find those 20 minutes easily just by cutting out two or three phone-based distractions alone.
Don’t cut back on Bad Stuff™; load up on Good Stuff™.
When it comes to things we like but are bad for us (cheap pizza, salty snacks, pricey coffees, etc.), the usual advice is to cut back. We resent this for a variety of deeply ingrained psychological reasons (from loss aversion to just plain perversity).
So don’t cut back; load up on Good Stuff instead:
Need to lose weight? Don’t say “I have to cut out cookies” or “I have to cut calories.”
Instead, say “I have to eat a ton of fruit.”
Any damned fruit you like—sweet n’ juicy berries, melons, bananas, grapes, carrots (veg is fine, too).
But, two important things:
Buy your chosen fruit or veg by the sackful. Take some with you every time you leave the house. Pack it with every lunch. Every time you’re hungry, start with whatever your chosen fruit/veg is. Have it first thing in the morning, have it last thing for desert.
Sick of your chosen fruit/veg? That’s fine; just means it wasn’t the right one. Pick a different one. Keep trying. There is a fruit or veg out there that you will never, ever get sick of having fresh and whole. That is your special fruit; cherish it.
I am a middle-aged White(ish) American man with a sedentary job. I don’t go to the gym (I do walk a lot, because I like walking and I have a dog). I drink alcohol daily. I drink a ton of coffee. I used to smoke.
My body should be a damned wreck. But I pack away five apples per day, minimum, and am subsequently in good health. ’cause you know what? If you have three apples before lunch, you don’t feel like stuffing your face. And if you’re full of apples and then a bowl of chili (or whatever), you don’t feel bloated and logy. You feel like going for a damn walk.
And you lose weight.
This is one of those bone-simple virtuous circles. Just ride it ’round and ’round and ’round: Do LESS, earn MORE; Eat MORE, weigh LESS.
This video is mostly narrated by Dr. Robert Cialdini, who’s most famous for his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (where he first presented most of the ideas seen here). This is a text book—if not the Bible—on how to talk to people about things that you really care about, and get them to see your perspective.
Cialdini started out as a research psychologist, and my understanding (which fits the tone of the book) is that he began working on the book—which catalogues and examines several categories of sales/influence tricks and techniques—as a sort of warning to lay folks. After its first publication, it became enormously influential among marketers, copywriters, businessfolk, and all manner of modern propogandists. If you write for any purpose (e.g., speechs, op-ed, news, fiction, non-fiction, persuading folks on the fence to vote for this or that) or run any sort of business, you need to read this book. For that matter, even if you don’t seek to persuade anyone of anything, I still strongly recommend every adult in America read this book, in order to better understand how it is you’ve come to believe what you believe, embrace what you embrace, and reject what “just isn’t your thing.”
(While we’re on the topic, you really should also read Darrell Huff’s HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS; the black arts outlined in these two books cover the two major toolsets that the politically and economically motivated are using to manipulate you and your loved ones every single day. Get your hands on Master’s tools; consider their possible applications in tearing down Master’s house*.)
Caveat: Yes, some of the hard data and studies in the original Influence haven’t aged well, but the bold strokes—about how people behave and how our minds get changed without our realizing it—is still rock solid.
BONUS: Check out this analysis of Oprah, and compare it with what Cialdini describes above:
I understand that this is a stressful time of year for many of you. Get a sweet, milky coffee, sit in a comfy chair, and just watch this over, and over, and over again. You will feel better.
If anyone’s got any ideas for additional challenges, let me know.
— Ben Brainerd (@ben_brainerd) May 24, 2018
Hey Ben (and the rest of the world),
Sorry this took so long to put together. Life happened. Here goes:
At its core, this writer advice is a variation of the One True and Eternal Law:
Always take the path that leads to writing and editing more
This should be painfully obvious—wanna swim faster? swim more! wanna play piano better? play piano more! wanna draw better? draw more!
In truth, the secret isn’t the strategy (“write more!”); that’s self-evident. The tricks are the tactics that folks who excel use to make it a tad easier to get their shoulders to the wheel. Wanna write more? Here’s a tactic…
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:
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:
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.
Key takeaway: If the beats on your story outline can only be conjoined with “and then”, you are fucked. They need to be joined by “but” or “and therefore.” By forcing yourself to use “but” and “and therefore,” you force yourself to go into the heads of your characters and actually pin down why they are doing what they do—which is a thing readers want to understand, and will be cranky if they can’t figure out.
Watch this for details:
UPDATED February 24, 2018
Just to clarify, this is exactly what folks are talking about when they talk about character’s “motivations.“ If the characters’ motivations aren’t clear to the audience, it’s either because:
Subsequently, all the audience can figure out is “This happened and then that happened and then the other thing happened”—and unless they are willing to work overtime to dowse those motivations by reverse engineering them from the results, they are not going to be able to figure them out (and, even if they do figure out this unnecessary puzzle, they have every right to be pissed at you, because solving plot/motivation riddles isn’t their job; they’ve paid you to entertain them).
This is the Number One problem that I see hobbling (or, more often crippling) otherwise solid storytelling—especially in film (where, for a variety of cultural and economic reasons, a lot of the writers are really just barely cutting their storytelling teeth): the story gets lost because the plot goes slack because characters are just doing stuff for no discernible reason. The result is that the audience gets bored—and subsequently angry, because you have wasted their money and time.
My wife and I were watching a horror movie the other day that perfectly illustrated the value of making sure you’ve got a story held together by “but”/”and therefore”, not “and then”. The movie ended, and we were lost for a second, trying to figure out what had just happend. Then it all clicked together. The story, I realized, fit together really nicely—in fact, it fit together more then nicely, it fit together gratifyingly—but in many individual scenes, the character’s didn’t seem to be motivated to do what they were doing. From the audience’s perspective, the scenes were stitched together by “and then”s, instead of“but”/”and therefore”s. The story was solid, but the plot was muddled because understanding a plot requires understanding the causality at the heart of the story and understanding that necessitates understanding why folks do what they do—i.e., their motivations. (For the canonical bit on story vs. plot, check out E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel or just read this.)
(Incidentally, the horror movie in question was The Gateway, streaming on Hulu [originally titled The Curtain—which is, for a variety of reasons, a much better title]. Despite what I’ve just said, I really did dig this movie; if you like quirky non-Euclidean horror, give it a whirl.)
So, how do you avoid pissing off your audience this way? One trick I know a lot of writers use (I think I first heard it from Jeff Vandermeer, who calls it “reverse outlining”) is to take the offending story and then re-outline it. 9 times out of 10, just writing it out in outline form, beat-by-beat, will surface problems in the logic or pacing of the story (even if you aren’t an outliner usually—I almost never write from an outline, but reverse outlining can often help me see where I’ve messed up, in much the same way as art students used to be taught to critique drawings by first flipping them upside-down). Once you have that outline, step through it and make sure each element can be connected to the next by either a “but” or an “and therefore”. Flag any line items that you can’t almost immediately link in this way, and then go back and look at them. pro-tip: Many of this, you’ll find, can just be cut—turns out they’re meaningless little skin-tags marring the smooth skin of your plot. Others, you’ll need to sort out and rewrite, but even there, you’ll be shocked at how often the “but”/“and therefore” pop out once you clean the crud out of there.
FUN BONUS EXERCISE: Read this whole thing, and ask yourself:
Is this more plausible as a CIA guide for resistors trying to drag down fascists in foreign nations, or as a plot to nudge patriotic Americans into suspecting organized labor and broad progressive social movements of actually being enemy saboteurs?
If you write fiction long enough, interviewers will start to ask you “Where do you get your ideas?”
Readers love this question (it’s also a dreaded chestnut of con Q&A panels). Writers hate it. It’s like asking “Where do you get the time to write?” Every one of us gets the same 24 hours each day; doctors spend some of those doctoring; drug addicts spend some of that getting high; writers spend part of one of those hours writing stories. One person can be any or all of those, and more.
Likewise, we all see/hear/mis-hear/read/misread/imagine all sorts of crazy crap every day. Those are ideas. That’s where ideas come from.
But that’s maybe a cheap answer, because it takes the question too literally. I think maybe what folks are asking when they ask “Where do you get your ideas?” is “How do you store/catalogue all the weird shit you see every day so that it’s useful to you later?”
And to that, my answer is this:
My brain locks on to odd shiny things and hordes them.
Most of the fiction I write comes out of a collision: I’ll stumble across some interesting fact or idea or snatch of plot or dialogue, but won’t really have any use for it, and so it just sorta bobs around in my head. Sooner or later, as other shiny ideas catch my notice and get tossed into that cranial junk drawer, several will bang together and stick in some interesting way. When ideas stick together they make a distinctive POP!ing sound. I listen for the pop, then start writing.
This is the essence of the “magpie and junk drawer” approach to research and writing. I stumbled into it as a kid having to do research papers, and it’s served me well ever since. Go forth, apply this in your life, and sin no more.
Sideshow Bob: [chuckling] Mr. Simpson, you are forgetting the first two noble truths of the Buddha.
Homer Simpson: I am not!
For those who slept through Buddhism 101—or failed to see The Simpsons Episode 8F20 (season three, episode 21, first aired April 9, 1992)—the First Noble Truth of the Buddha is this:
There is suffering.
Which isn’t such a revelation at first glance, but like a lot of things with the Buddha, the big reveal isn’t in what he’s said, but what he’s omitted:
The First Noble Truth is not: There is suffering because you’ve done bad things.
nor is it: There is suffering because you didn’t try hard enough.
nor is it: There is suffering because you are a screw-up.
nor is it: There is suffering because man is born of Original Sin.
nor is it: There is suffering because God is dead!
nor is it: There is suffering because God is a jerk!
nor is it: There is suffering because there was never any God!
There is no “because” at all. It’s a simple statement of fact that should be obvious, but which we all deny on a daily basis: There is suffering. There just is. Often with no one to blame. Often for no reason at all. And that’s fine; stop beating yourself up over it (which, handily, brings us to the Second Noble Truth—Suffering is born of craving and desire and clinging to How Things Should Be—which is important, but not really germane to skateboarding).
I bring this up because I need to share something with you:
If you are an adult person getting on a skateboard,
YOU ARE GOING TO GET HURT.
Full stop, no ifs, no becauses, no unless, no provisos.
If you are really careful… YOU WILL STILL GET HURT.
If you always wear your pads… YOU WILL STILL GET HURT.
If you are lucky or unlucky, careless or stupid, cautious or clever…YOU WILL GET HURT.
It might be minor or major, might land you in the ER or sit you on your sofa for an afternoon with ice on your knee, but one way or the other YOU ARE GONNA GET HURT.
… and that’s fine. If is fine and just and right that you will be injured, because, as the Buddha and Sideshow Bob remind us, There is Suffering.
Every time I start talking to someone my age about the fact that I returned to skateboarding at 36, they voice admiration, and then something like envy, and always lurking around is the sentence “I’d break my neck if I tried that!”
And the thing is, while you will certainly get hurt, you probably won’t break your neck. There is, as it turns out, quite a distance between hurt and crippled, and even a further reach to dead. I’ve seen folks take tremendous falls and pop right back up, I’ve seen—and taken—minor falls that have turned out to be sprained ankles and broken wrists and concussions. I’ve seen—and worn—bruises every color of any Michigan sunset in any season. I’ve seen plenty of broken bones, but not a single death or black out.
So let me share with you something my doctor told me when I told her I’d taken up with skateboarding—on the visit I scheduled as a follow-up after a trip to the ER:
“Good. Keep it up.”
Her rationale: If you are an adult American, than it is almost certain that you aren’t getting nearly enough exercise. And—Noble Truth alert!—you aren’t likely to start getting more exercise as you continue aging. So, in the absence of everything else, the choice here isn’t between taking a risk by jumping on a skateboard and playing it safe by not doing so: Not getting enough exercise absolutely guarantees a shorter life with degraded quality. Absolutely, with no exceptions. Full stop.
Getting on the skateboard? You’ll get hurt, but you won’t die. And, hell, I regularly hang with a 70-year-old dude at my local skatepark. Does he tear it up? Nope; he cruises around, carving on the transitions, working on dropping on. But he’s having hella fun, and I’ve seen him take big falls and pop right back up.