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.
People freak out about commas. Please don’t. Yes, commas are hella confusing (the Chicago Manual of Style dedicates 59 distinct sub-sections to them, and even then there is ambiguity and opinion and wiggle room leftover), but knowing these four little things will almost entirely solve your comma problems.
1. The “Oxford”/”serial” Comma
This is technically the “list” comma: When you give a list, you put commas between individual items.E.g.,:
Go to the store and get eggs, pineapple, a ’57 Chevy, and enlightenment.
N.B. that the last comma (which I’ve put in red) is disputed; that lil fella is an “Oxford comma”.Some folks say it’s unnecessary (including, at least at one time, the AP Style Guide), preferring:
Go to the store and get eggs, pineapple, a ’57 Chevy and enlightenment.
But this can lead to hilarious ambiguity, such as this oft-quoted (and probably apocryphal) book dedication sorely in need of an Oxford comma:
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God
—or this actual and verified sentence published in the Times of London a few years back:
FYI, serial commas apply to lists of adjectives, too:
You mean that fat, red, flabby car?It’s mine.Why?
2. The “if, then” Comma
“If . . ., then . . .” statements need commas:
If you don’t cut it the fuck out,then I’m going to freak the fuck out.
Where this one tricks people is that we often omit the then in an “if, then” statement—nonetheless, we still need the comma:
If you don’t cut it the fuck out, I’m going to freak the fuck out.
3. “That/which” commas
Rule of Thumb: “that” is almost never precededby a comma, while a standalone “which” is almost always preceded by a comma:
You know that dog I hired?Turns out he has no idea how to use Excel, which is super annoying.
(So what is a non-standalone “which”? “Which” used in a phrase like “that which” or “in which”—in those cases, you don’t stick a comma before the “which,” because that would muck up the phrase.)
4. Commas by Ear
There are a ton of other commas (“parenthetical commas,” “conjunction commas,” “direct address commas,” etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseam)—fortunately, there’s an easy way to figure out where to put them without learning a ton of new rules. Here’s the trick:
Commas indicate places where you take a brief pause when saying something.
So, there’s a really easy way to get your commas right most of the time:
Read it aloud; if there’s a place where you naturally take a half-pause or shift volume, then stick a comma there. If you don’t pause, then strike the comma—unless it’s one of the three situations listed above.
For example, say:
Dave <pause> why did you say that?
That pause is the direct address comma:
Dave, why did you say that?
Did you know that Nate <pause> the terrible drunk in my carpool <pause> is marrying my sister?
That’s the parenthetical comma:
Did you know that Nate, the terrible drunk in my carpool, is marrying my sister?
This fourth rule is the golden rule, since most of the first three types of commas are also marked in speech by a pause or volume/tone shift—but sometimes those commas can be subtle to the ear, which is why it’s worth knowing the first three rules. Rule #4 will keep you covered 90% of the time, while Rules #1–3 will help you catch the tricky 10%
We’re done here. Go forth, my children, and sin no more.
(Want more details? Start with the Purdue Owl on Commas, and then move on to the Chicago Manual of Style, if need be.)
I’ve written scads of advice things to folks who’ve emailed me expressing interest in freelance editing/copywriting, but nothing sort of generically about productivity in the “GTD” sense.
Anyway, when it comes to that, two pieces of advice jump to mind. The first is something a rabbi said during High Holidays services once, which amounted to “God doesn’t really give a shit about something you did one time; it’s when you repeat things over and over again that God takes notice.” The rabbi was talking about sin, basically advising against beating yourself up over a single fuck-up.Instead, make good and move on to Do Good Things (which may or may not square you with any Magickal Sky Fairy, but is certainly a helluva lot more socially productive).
But this position—that the thing you do one time isn’t what you are—goes for everything, good and bad: You aren’t a thief just because you stole something one time, and you aren’t a writer just because you wrote and sold one good thing.The last story/book/article/brochure does almost exactly jack-shit to help you write and sell the next one. You are a writer because you write every day. So, decide on the thing you want to be, and be that thing for at least a little while every day.
This sounds sorta stupid—or, at best, equal parts stupid and profound, like the Wise Men of Chelm—but still, every story I’ve sold in the last, I dunno, eight-ish years has been mostly written 25 minutes at a time weekday mornings while children slept.
The other piece of advice is straight from Ramit Sethi, who is sort of a huckster and sort of dead-on about most of what he says (albeit in a huckstery life-coach-ish way). Anyway, one one his big pieces of advice (at least a few years ago, when I was more actively following him) was to stop saying “I don’t have time for X.” All of us are busy and all of us blow precious minutes and hours dicking around on Facebook and leafing through shitty magazines and watching crap we don’t care about on YouTube and whatever. We have time for it. You can get up 25 minutes early every morning and write stories and novels 25 minutes at a time. You can get in shape—great shape, really—25 minutes at a time. You can learn about retirement savings or knitting or how to eat all vegan 25 minutes at a time. We use time as an excuse, because we don’t really—in our hearts—give a shit about the things we say we want. Just like TLC warns, we are scrubs “always talking about what we want / then we sit on our broke ass”
The real problem isn’t the time, it’s the prioritization. So, just the honest and start saying “I’m not prioritizing that.”
“Lose some weight? Sorry, I’m not really prioritizing going to the gym right now.”
“Hate my job? I’m not prioritizing finding a new one.”
“Feeling perpetually pyscho-emotionally fucked up? Yeah, well, I just can’t prioritize finding a shrink and going to sessions.”
(These are all drawn from my life, incidentally.)
Changing your language like this forces us to really look at what we’re doing, ’cause when your kid says “Can we go play at the park?” or “Can you read me this book?” or “Can we watch this show?” and instead of saying “I’d love to sweetie, but I don’t have time” you say “I’d love to, sweetie, but I’m not prioritizing that right now”—well, you feel like a royal douchebag, and you do the important thing instead of the thing you thought was important.
So, that’s the advice:
Be the thing you want to be for at least a little while everyday.
After a long trip, the dashboard of our Scion xD lit up like a Non-Denominational Gift Giving Holiday Display.
Since this is our “good” car (in contrast to our Prius with the bum AC, which is miserable for summer road trips), I high-tailed it to the mechanic, terrified that we’d done Something Bad to the car that we’re relying to get us through at least another two years (at which time our youngest can enroll in public school, freeing up $1200/month for an auto payment on something big enough for us all to not drive each other to the brink of murder during every damn road trip).
Our mechanic (Rons’s Garage, God-of-yr-Choosing bless ’em!) is fantastically honest and
It was nothing
So why the light display?
We’d left the gas cap off.
We fueled up as we rolled back into town, as my wife needed the car for work the next day (a ~30 mile drive). And we hadn’t screwed the cap down all the way. A loose cap makes the car’s computer believe there’s an air leak somewhere in the fuel system (’cause there is–around the lose cap. If you’re wondering why the car gives a damn: To ruy efficiently, you need to maintain a proper fuel-air ratio in the engine, and it’s easiest to control this if you have a sealed fuel system. On top of that, petrol fumes are bad news for the environment, so many car’s additionally check for leaks just to make sure you aren’t wrecking up the joint with stray hydrocarbons).
The car can run basically fine like this, and there’s no real danger of damaging the engine. Put the fuel cap back on, reset the warning light, and all is well.
The lesson: If your car is throwing a CHECK ENGINE light, make sure the gas cap is tight. If it’s loose (or you lost it), then tighten it down (or replace it), and keep driving. If there’s nothing obvious wrong (no sluggishness or weird noises) and it isn’t nearly time for an oil change, you’ll be fine, and the light will reset itself within 100 miles. If it stays on, then go to the mechanic.
Ron didn’t charge me, because he’s a solid dude (which is why I keep going there). But plenty of guys would charge you for figuring it out (they did spend time pulling the code from the car’s computer and troubleshooting my dumbassery), and a few would even use this as an excuse to “repair” some “major problem.”
If you use LinkedIn, then your email and LinkedIn password have probably been compromised.If you reuse the same password across several sites, then you are likely a total sitting duck waiting to get exploited.Go change passwords NOW!
THE LONG VERSION
This breach seems to have gotten less press than usual, even though it’s liable to have a broader impact on folks, so I want to make sure it’s on everyone’s radar:
An enormous hack of LinkedIn accounts has surfaced (details). Crackers snagged ~164mil login credentials; since the passwords were stored as a unsalted hashes (i.e. “not securely”), the vast majority of these passwords were cracked.
I took the liberty of checking a couple friend/client email addresses while I checked mine (using this tool), and found that most of the emails I checked were included in the hack (as was I). LinkedIn hasn’t proactively informed anyone I’ve contacted about this. So, I’m spreading the word.
The immediate problem is losing control of your LinkedIn account (which, let’s be real, doesn’t necessarily mean much for most people). The bigger problem is that many folks reuse the same password on many sites. If the email:password you used on LinkedIn is the same as the one you used on Twitter or Facebook or Gmail, then those accounts are now also up for grabs. While a LinkedIn account may be of limited value to criminals, a Twitter or Gmail account can be much more useful, and a bank or credit card account—let’s not dwell on it. Did you start changing passwords yet? Go change passwords NOW.
Plug in the email address you use to log into LinkedIn (or any email you use to log in to any site; this service tracks many data breaches)
If you get a green bar, you lucked out. If you get a red bar with “oh no!” in it, continue to step #4
Read whatever details the site offers about the breach(es) you’ve been included in, and change your password(s) immediately.
Also set a new password anywhere else that you used that same password
Passwords are inherently crappy. It’s just a fact of life. Consider upping your security in two ways:
Set up “two-factor authentication” (also called “2FA”) on any account that lets you do so. Different sites have different systems (and, alas, call them different things), but they all boil down the same: Once 2FA is set up, logging into your email account (or whatever) will have an extra step. First you enter your username and password and hit submit (like normal). Then they ding your phone (either with a txt or via app) and wait for your to respond (either by clicking “accept” on the app or entering the six digit code they’ve texted you). If you don’t respond, you can’t get in. This makes it impossible for someone to log into your account unless they have your username, password, and your phone. Much more secure. (I’ve added 2FA to several personal web tools I depend on, as I was getting hammered with a brute force attack a couple weeks back.)
Please seriously consider using a “password manager” or “password locker.” This is a piece of software (or service) that securely stores your usernames and passwords for all of your accounts. That way, you don’t have to chose easily remembered passwords for all of your accounts. Instead, you choose one very good password for your locker, and then let the locker generate insanely hard passwords for your individual accounts (all of my passwords are now 20+ characters long and randomly generated). Lots of folks like LastPass and 1Password. I prefer KeePassX and use MiniKeePass on my phone (I have lots of nit-picky reasons, but the tl;dr: The software implements good encryption algorythms in a secure way; it’s open source and well vetted; it’s not “cloud based”—”the cloud” is just “some other dude’s computer” [with all that implies, viz. security risks], and a cloud computer full of the master keys to folks’ online lives strikes me as an attractive nuisance, at best).
Sorry to be your bad news bear today; I hope you all get green bars and nonetheless CHANGE YOUR PASSWORDS, GET A PASSWORD MANAGER, AND START USING 2FA WHENEVER YOU CAN!!!
Artists: Even if you are lukewarm on Weezer, this interview with Rivers Cuomo (the band’s frontman) is so worth your time. I’ve got more than a little experience with collaboration, creativity under duress, constrained writing techniques, and Oulipo-like methods, and yet I’ve never come across a process like this, which is at once ornately technical (spreadsheets, demo files, something akin to A/B testing) and is so meticulous in the interest of harnessing randomness and stripping context and formal planning out of the creative process.
Weezerians: To those who dig Weezer already, know this: The stories in their songs are not stories they wrote, but stories you wrote in response to the fragments they gathered and the formulae they use to collect and organize those fragments.
Public Service Announcement:Song Exploder is consistently awesome (for example, it introduced my 9yo to Iggy Pop and made him an instant fan). So worth subscribing and supporting.
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.