In almost all regards—from title through execution, in the fears it tries (and fails) to exorcise, right down to its final graff—this is the 100% perfect short story for me. (And it’s likely no coincidence that it’s just about a perfect fit for my favored story formula, the 45/45/10 Three-Act.)
“The Donner Party” is mos def my fave story in the last issue of F&SF. It seems like an obvious gag straight through to the untangle—at which time it becomes bone chilling. Downright perfect dismount, in my humble. Recommended.
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.
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:
You don’t know what’s motivating your characters to do what they do or
You haven’t put those motivations on the screen/page
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.
I dunno; I just do.There’s something about it that makes it, in many ways, a more complete and superior horror story than any of the like-length CryptTV videos on YouTube.I think the principal problem is that when a “horror film” goes below ~3mins, the filmmakers almost invariably seem to decide that all they can possibly do in that time is craft a jump scare.As such, the piece is inherently callous (if not outright cruel) to the viewer.It’s bullying art, art that has decided it needs (or should, or is right) to inflict itself on you.That doesn’t mean that I don’t like art that confronts you with unpleasant realities—in fact, I sorta like that art best of all—but I want for us to go to that place together (both as a person making art and a person consuming it).
But then we have something like this—or like the weird, wonderful [Adult Swim] videos I’ve linked in the past.Because these things don’t think of themselves as horror, I feel like they’re more open to creating a more nuanced kind of horror, even in a much more compressed chunk of time.
The horror in this SNL skit is in what it implies about the universe that this family lives in, all the stuff that’s outside the frame (including that escaped almost-pizza beast).And part of what makes that horror is the fact that the world we actually really livein—this world, where I am sitting and tying and you are sitting and reading—is outside that frame too, and thus is sharing space with the horrifying reality that put these characters in that room with that awful thing (brought to you by Pfizer™).
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.
Lots of you are creative sorts, and all creative sorts struggle with the same million-faced goblin, under a variety of: Writer’s Block, procrastination, “activation energy,” the Lil Hater, Imposter Syndrome, not inspired, “so busy!”, obligations, etc.
I’ve spent pretty much my entire adult life wrestling this same sinister, slippery blob, and talking with other creative folk about what we each do to try and wrangle that ass-jackal into a corner so we can Get Shit Done.
I’d like to share the choicest bits with you.Learn to:
Use “Sprint Bursts” to build your writing muscles
Eat the frog and puke up the draft
Harness the power of the Pomodoro
Work with “The Guys Downstairs” to do the heavy lifting before you sit down to write
This is all wrapped up in a tidy little week-long clinic, waling you through the process of laying the groundwork for a solid Daily Writing Ritual.The clinic is totally free, with no lingering hassles.This list doesn’t get combined with my newsletter or anything else, and there is no hard sell, because I don’t have anything to sell.Just the benefit of my experience and that of the other writers I know.Sign up, get the first email the following Monday, and the final check-in/thank you a week later.That’s it.
Wanna invest 10 minutes a day into getting the words flowing?Check it out:
Looking for that perfect comic-dystopic-romantic sci-fi beach read? You’re in luck: The first three chapters of my novella Expiration Date are now available online (in both slick-as-hella web versions, and some pretty damn fine looking PDFs, perfect for offline, ebook, and tablet reading—just clicking on the “Print” button to open and save the PDF for that chapter. As an example, here’s the chapter 1 PDF.) And don’t worry, this isn’t a cheap tease: All nine chapters will be released, free to read, one each week for the rest of the summer.
I know that makes me sound like a dick, but for context: I was a teen in the 1990s, and so Norm MacDonald is sorta fixed in my head as a half-funny smirk standing off center in a scene framed around David Spade abusing Chris Farley.It isn’t that I wrote him off—upon reflection, I just realized I never even evaluated what the dude was doing; the director, camera man, SNL staff, and guys I sat with at lunch wrote Norm off, and I took their word for it.
I was gonna write a book about how to be a stand-up without being funny, but I thought it would be too cynical. I really think I could write it though.
A manual for how to perform an impression of a stand-up comedian?
That’s exactly right. It was mostly about crowd control. If you’re not very good you have to deal with the audience a lot, so it was a lot about how to do that. Like, you can pick on one person in the audience, and then the rest of the audience gets on your side because they’re afraid of being picked on. It’s all the psychology of mobs. You can learn it. I’ll go to a club and suddenly the guy who was the bouncer last time I was there is a stand-up, because he’s been there, watching how it works. Even jokes, you can do them mathematically without having any inspiration.
How’s that work?
You just take a premise and instead of following it to its logical conclusion you follow it to its illogical conclusion by having a faulty premise to begin with.
It’s surprising that you ultimately decided against writing a book that would’ve suggested that your vocation, the field of your life’s work, can be an empty, soulless shell of an occupation.
Yeah, I also thought it would be too pompous. It’s nobody’s fault there aren’t more funny comedians. If I were an awful comedian, I’d probably still be drawn to doing it. I remember when I first came to Los Angeles, Jay Leno was there and at the time he was the king of all stand-ups. And one night, I had to follow him. I was thinking, My god, this is going to be the worst. But Jay told me it’s fine to follow a good comedian. You just don’t want to follow a bad comedian. Or a filthy comic. They pull the audience down. It’s hard to go on after a filthy comic with, “What about Raisin Bran? Doesn’t everyone know how big a scoop is?”
What she did was grotesque. Disgusting. It shows how isolated everyone is. I was golfing last week and I told the guy I was golfing with, “It’s getting pretty crazy. I heard someone say they’re trying to ‘humanize’ Trump. Well, he is human.” And this guy goes, “Well, barely.” Jesus Christ. But Kathy Griffin went about as far as you can go. It’s like she had no sense of the history of that kind of image.
It’s hard to understand how someone didn’t say to her or the photographer, “Maybe let’s dial this down from an eleven to about a seven.”
The photographer, her manager, her agent, the person who made the severed head—no one said, eeeh. And I hate the immediate apology. Why are you apologizing? You apologize and then everyone just accepts that the apology is genuine.
What’s wrong with apologizing?
If it had gone over good she wouldn’t be apologizing for it. She’s only apologizing for the result and what it might mean for her career. It’s like when a guy like Anthony Weiner says, “I’m sorry. I made a terrible decision.” A decision? You had a pros-and-cons list about texting with that 15-year-old? The action wasn’t the result of a real decision.
Just a quick one:For folks who are having trouble with writer’s block (either in their professional or creative work), I’ve put together this little week-long clinic.Totally free, no strings attached. My gift to you. Check it out:
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.)