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.
You don’t have to love—or like, or even give shit one—about skating to enjoy watching Richie Jackson skate. You don’t need to know a lexicon of jargon to appreciate it, because most of what he does has no formal name, since it’s arisen from the immediate conditions and his feelings about them.
I guess I maybe dig Richie Jackson so much because he’s kept skateboarding—a thing that, since I was a kid, has been transformed into a sport and a career—as an expressive art form.
“I for sure had a vision, but how close to it I’ve gotten, I don’t know [because] I’ve dissolved it by making it a reality, and it’s different. [laughs] The original vision has ceased to be. I’ve replaced it with a bunch of pixels.”
Amen, brother. Amen.
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.
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:
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.
Just a quick note: I’ll be at Penguicon 2018 all this weekend (May 4–6 in Southfield, MI). Here’s a schedule of all the stuff I will do (mostly lit oriented; in gray) and might do (mostly games and movies; in non-gray colors).
I love hearing from folks who read my DIY books, because they are always up to something that I never imagined, and yet love on first sight. Case in point:
Last December I got an email from Hamish Trolove, a Junkyard Jam Band reader who mentioned he was building his own riff on a Shane Speal 2×4 lap steel with a build-in Mud-n-Sizzle pre-amp (project 12 in Junkyard Jam Band) and dual LFO box (translation: It’s a junkyard lap steel electric guitar with a built in pre-amp—so things might get loud—and an automated modulator, allowing him to dial in anything from a little honky-tonk tremelo shimmer to a big pulsing metal wobble).
As Hamish explained:
The instrument uses waste cargo palette wood, and TIG welding wire to mark the “fret” spacings. I find that old palettes often have extraordinarily hard wood with some amazing colours when planed down, sanded and varnished. Hopefully by the end of the project I’ll have something that looks fairly tidy-ish in a hobo/steampunky kind of way.
“Fairly tidy-ish” is such an understantement. Check this thing out:
Oh daaaaaaamn! I love everything about this! He also included a schematic of his expansion of my old Universal LFO (Junkyard Jam Band project 13), for folks interested in doing something similar:
Hamish also put me on to Frescobaldi, a powerful, pretty, and free sheet music text editor that looks amazing. (For every 100 of you who are wondering why you’d ever need such a thing, there is one musical geek who is gonna click that link and weep with joy. Trust me, for I have been that very geek.)
Incidentally, while you’re clicking links, don’t miss Hamish’s Baddest Mountain Dulcimer Ever.
Short version: Most office workers in the United States have a nearly 9-hour workday, but are only productive for about 3 hours. I.e., if you are a freelancer doing work that an office worker might do, then you can almost certainly make a decent living on ~3 hours per day.
Please stop beating yourself up and running yourself ragged. Focus on doing good work for half of each day and you’ll be just fine.
…when I go to sum up the story in a Big Picture way, I end up saying the same thing that I said about that election:
I totally hear where folks—angry, aggrieved, not-gonna-take-it-anymore folks—are coming from, because I totally agree with them: They are getting screwed. We just totally disagree on who is screwing them, or what is a sensible way to address that.
This story is about that, in a fundamental way.
I also tell an anecdote about seeing a homeless guy get ejected from a Coney in the mid-1990s, and make mention of Michigan trespassing laws, the sovereign citizen movement, my neighbors from Chennai, and Dave-o’s patented “magpie and junk drawer” speculative-fiction drafting strategy.
The Nov/Dec issue of F&SF is still on newsstands—but only for a few more days. Nab your copy soon!
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.