Start NaNoWriMo Right! Smash Writers Bloc!

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:

Clearflow Creative Writing Clinic

FREE READ FRIDAY: The first three chapters of EXPIRATION DATE, and more!

Looking for that perfect comic-dystopic-romantic sci-fi beach read? ExpirationDate 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.

If you want some inside-baseball about the novella, you can check out this interview with Gabie at Tea End blog.

Whoa! I am blown away by this Norm MacDonald interview

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.

All that aside, this is a really, really fascinating interview.  Neat stuff about craft in here—which I’m always down for—but also a really nuanced view of art as a product of human interaction and actualization.

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?”

and

Are you following the Kathy Griffin stuff at all?

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.

Do go and read the whole thing. It is worth your time today.

Need Help Building your Daily Writing Ritual?

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:

Clearflow Creative Writing Clinic

So You Need to Use a Comma

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:

Nelson Mandela was a highly accomplished man.
Nelson Mandela was a highly accomplished man.

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 preceded  by 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:

Davewhy did you say that?

Or try:

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.)

The Two Productivity Gurus You Meet in Heaven

Good Buddy AMEM writes:

You ever write a piece on productivity?

To which I reply:

Sorta!

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:

  1. Be the thing you want to be for at least a little while everyday.
  2. Don’t talk about “time,” talk about Priorities.

The “Millennial Whoop” and the Formula for Comfort Formulae

I’m interested in artistic formulea of all stripes, so my ears perked up when I stumbled across this blog post exploring why it is that every pop song I hear as of late seems to feel the same, even when they sound totally different.  The key: A little earwormy melodic alternation embedded into the hook.  Here’s the article’s kick-out—although the whole thing (which is rife with video examples) is well worth your time:

[T]he Millennial Whoop evokes a kind of primordial sense that everything will be alright. You know these notes. You’ve heard this before. There’s nothing out of the ordinary or scary here. You don’t need to learn the words or know a particular language or think deeply about meaning. You’re safe. In the age of climate change and economic injustice and racial violence, you can take a few moments to forget everything and shout with exuberance at the top of your lungs. Just dance and feel how awesome it is to be alive right now. Wa-oh-wa-oh.

Having read this, I wondered how persuasive such a simply piece of patterning might be. So, in five minutes I sketched out this little tune and, whaddya know, it sounds like the outro of basically anything I’ve stumbled across while tuning across the dial during the last several long summer car trips:

For the curious, there’s literally nothing going on in this song: The left hand is just a straight C Major chord alternating with whatever you call that lazy F Major where, instead of actually moving your hand up, you just skooch your thumb and index fingers up one white key each, so that you pick up F Major’s F and B while keeping C anchored as the bottom note (maybe that’s an “inversion” of F Major?)  The right hand, as per the “Millennial Whoop” formula, is alternating between the G and E two octaves up—i.e., the V and III in a progression where C is the root (i.e., I).  The lyrics (which, depending on your speakers, might be hard to hear without headphones; I’m shit at mastering) are just whatever popped into my head, and the whole thing was recorded using my cellphone.  The only “studio magic” (done in Garageband, and largely without any digital pixie dust) is “doubling the vocals” (see below—which is an excerpt form my book Junkyard Jam Band )—especially important in this instance because 1) I can’t sing for shit (which double-tracking tends to obscure) and 2) the mic on my cellphone didn’t pick up my voice particularly clearly, on account it was sitting on top of my keyboard’s speaker.  Even if it had caught my singing, I likely would have doubled the vocals anyway (which are actually quadrupled by the end—listen with headphones, and you’ll hear two extra voices, slathered in “chorus” effect, that come in on the second round of Oh-ee-oh-ee-oh-ohs), since that sorta lush studio overkill is baked into this running-’til-the-break-of-dawn! summer-hit genre.

 JJB-doublingvox
Continue reading “The “Millennial Whoop” and the Formula for Comfort Formulae”

Holy Shit! You Will Not Believe Weezer’s Creative Process

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.

Write Better: The Coyote, the Road Runner, Sympathy, and Craft as the Art of Constraint

Back at the beginning of March this list of Chuck Jones’s Rules for Coyote-Road Runner cartoons made the rounds:


(The pic, taken by filmmaker Amos Posner, shows a display in the Museum of the Moving Image’s “What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones” exhibit. It’s identical to the Coyote-Road Runner Rules Jones listed in his 1999 memoir Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist)

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.
*Amen.*

Continue reading “Write Better: The Coyote, the Road Runner, Sympathy, and Craft as the Art of Constraint”