You Are Either Ignorant or Inept, Until You’re Not

Please, I hope you don’t take the subject the wrong way. I’m using the royal “you.”

In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande believes we fail to achieve complex goals in life for two primary reasons:

The first is ignorance – we may err because science has given us only a partial understanding of the world and how it works. There are skyscrapers we do not yet know how to build, snowstorms we cannot predict, heart attacks we still haven’t learned how to stop.

 

The second type of failure the philosophers call ineptitude – because in these instances the knowledge exists, yet we fail to apply it correctly. This is the skyscraper that is built wrong and collapses, the snowstorm whose signs the meteorologist just plain missed, the stab wound from a weapon the doctors forgot to ask about.

As a writer, I started off ignorant. I loved reading books, much like I enjoyed playing video games, but I couldn’t tell you how they worked.

And so I bought a bunch of craft books. I tried to read stories with a more critical eye.

Good! After several months of study, I shed my ignorance! So now I should have been able to write an instant best-seller.

Well, the first book attempt didn’t quite work out that way. Nor the second. Nor the third. Obviously, I was still ignorant. I just needed to read more craft books and it would all sink in. But after an embarrassing amount of additions to my learning library (don’t think I’ve stopped adding to the shelves, either), I realized most of them were starting to repeat the others.

Okay. So I had a good idea of how stories worked, but how could I apply that knowledge to my work?

A revelation.

I use checklists at work. A lot. I use them because there are way too many important variables to try and remember when I’m implementing a new system or putting together documentation.

Why not use one for writing? Theme? Check. Flawed protagonist? Check. Ally dies in Act 3? Check. Boy, doesn’t that just sound like the most inspiring, non-robotic thing ever? (Yes, I can hear you snickering.)

I tried it.

Over and over.

And I never finished one of those stories because I was bored to death. My writing was more wooden than a Spanish galleon.

The lesson?

Checklists are useful, but they are context-dependent. Writing isn’t brain surgery in the sense that no one is going to die if you leave one of those boxes unchecked. You don’t want to put in a theme? Don’t. Some will be disappointed. Others will love that you’re not preaching at them.

Where am I going with all of this?

Writing can be complex. A checklist is like a security blanket for my INTJ-leaning mind. It ensures I cover all of the required points.

Do you see what’s wrong with that last sentence?

Who’s to say what’s required in a story? Well, everyone. But that’s the kink in the hose. Everyone has different requirements (AKA, tastes). It’s cliche, but true: You can’t please everyone.

So what to do?

I’m thinking the best thing I can do is write for myself and hope someone likes the same things I do.

And keep writing until I’m no longer inept.

-Phillip

Have No Ideas? Liar.

I used to think I had no ideas.

I still do, but I also used to. (Yes, stolen without shame from the late Mitch Hedberg).

Seriously though, I’ve already learned from the past few days of consecutive posts that I’m not lacking in ideas at all. It seems to go back to that fear thing I talked about.

Popular science makes a lot of noise about the two sides of the brain, and while maybe not scientifically exact, there appears to be merit to the idea that our noggins tend to operate in one of two modes — the critical (or left) side of the brain and the creative (or right) side of the brain. And just like a single computer processor can’t truly multitask, neither can our brains — we’re either operating in one mode or the other at any given slice of time.

Writing teachers will tell you to get your story or ideas down while working in creative mode and then edit them in critical mode. There are as many variations in how much time should be spent on one or the other as there are stars in the night sky, so the scale slides, but the axes themselves never change.

So what does this have to do with ideas? Our brains are idea-generating machines, especially if we’re constantly feeding them. That’s the other important component to having ideas, but I think it comes naturally to most of us. It’s the fear part driven by the critical brain that seems to be the snag for people like me.

I’m hoping that by putting myself out there, by forcing myself to write something in public every single day, I’m whittling away at that critical side of the brain when he’s being nothing but a bitter obstructionist. I’m learning he has his place, but on my revised scale, I’m reassigning him to ensuring the product isn’t completely smashed to pieces so he can then slap on a label and ship it out. The creative side is the one with the calloused, grease-covered hands.

How do you create?

-Phillip

I Met Santa Claus in Omaha

I needed a 4:00 AM ride to the airport. Through the sliding glass doors of the hotel lobby, February snow settled into a thin sheet over the parking lot.

A taxi pulled up and the trunk popped open as soon I stepped outside. After stowing my suitcase, I settled into the backseat. The driver turned around immediately and put out his hand.

“Hi, I’m Santa Claus.”

My first impression was that he was goddamn right, but I laughed, shook his hand and thought it impossible.

He pointed to the back of his red baseball cap.

“See, it says it right there.”

As clear as Rudolph’s nose, the embroidered SANTA should have put any further argument to rest, but then he handed me the business card.

“Yeah, so my wife and I had our names legally changed last year. We were on the news.

In between moments of wondering whether or not the snow would delay my escape from the Midwest, Santa regaled me with jokes (“You know how to make a honeymoon salad? Lettuce alone, no dressing.”) and good advice (“Get your folks a mug with a picture of your boy. That’s how I have coffee with my grandkids every morning.”).

It’s a funny thing, the writer’s well-groomed mind. Setting can appear at any time. Hints of conflict present themselves wherever people interact. Characters cry out to be remembered.

If you’re not doing so already, train yourself to pay attention. At Starbucks, at the gym, in the back of a taxi…

-Phillip

No!

I have only a few reasons to keep on running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished.

– Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

If I can learn anything from my son (and there appears to be no end of learning from him), it’s the importance of perseverance.

Do you have to go to the potty?

No.

Are you sure?

No.

You keep dancing around and grabbing your crotch. 

No.

Why don’t you just try to go potty? I’ll give you a treat.

<brief pause>

No!

Okay, so maybe this isn’t the best example. Most of the time he relents, but not until the last possible second. Of course, this leads to the occasional disaster, but that’s all a part of this parenthood gig I signed up for. But let me tell you, this kid knows what he wants and he won’t be bullied into doing it.

So I really ought to follow his script:

Why are you staring at that blank screen? C’mon, let’s go grab some of those Jelly Bellies sitting on the kitchen counter.

No.

Hey, you have about fifty new tv shows to catch up on. You haven’t even seen Breaking Bad yet. Do you really want to be the last person on Earth to see Breaking Bad? You might be next to last if you start streaming the episodes this very instant.

No.

I see you’re putting some words down now. They look kind of lame, though. You can’t use an apostrophe there. And you picked that for character conflict? Do you even know how this works?

Shut up.

Seriously, you call that writing? Just give up.

No!

I’m getting better at paying heed to Coach Angus.

-Phillip

Crushed Tomatoes

We’re under attack.

After a swim yesterday, we noticed some odd orange clumps on the stakes around our tomato plants. Upon closer inspection, the clumps were moving…

Being amateur farmers, we haven’t seen it all — all including aphids — so we had no idea what these were and had to Google them. It may be the summer heat that’s bringing them on (which also seems have brought on a record crop of cherry tomatoes). Sadly, we have been forced to remove every plant but one, as they were utterly infested. Here’s to hoping the solitary survivor makes it through. No matter what may happen to our sweet little garden this season, we can’t say she didn’t provide:

Special thanks to Angus for his yellow-tomato picking skills. He’s getting better at ignoring the green ones, but the ones he does pick meet a sudden end at the bottom of his shoe.

Rest in peace, young tomatoes, rest in peace.

-Phillip

Books and Generalizations

Went to the local used bookstore today. I love that place. It just smells amazing and in a good way, I can’t believe they’re still doing business after several decades in the same spot. I’m not the only fan though. There always seems to be a fair amount of foot traffic when I’m there. A happy sight.

Something that makes me even happier is how excited Angus gets when I say we’re going to buy some books. Then it’s “books, books, books” for the rest of the day until we finally leave. I’m hoping he can maintain that enthusiasm the rest of his life. At nearly three years old, I think we’re off to a good start.

During a previous shopping trip, I picked up The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard. The only stuff I’ve read by him includes the first few chapters of Rum Punch (on which Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown was based), but I was captivated with his mastery of dialogue. Known for his gritty urban fare, I was surprised to learn that his career actually took off after writing westerns. I’ve been in love with 19th century America the past few years, particularly The Old West (which encompasses cultures as varied as its land). I think the fascination can be traced to something Matt Braun said in How to Write Western Novels:

 Any novel set in the Old West, whatever its literary merits, represents a legendary time in our national consciousness. In the 1860s, the United States was not yet a hundred years old. America had no mythology of its own, no fabled characters such as Beowulf and Roland. So we invented a cast of mythical creatures, the cowboys and gunfighters and plainsmen of the Western frontier. We combined the King Arthur legends with the medieval morality plays, adding the chivalric code of the Old West into the mix, and called it a Western. All in a matter of years, we created the literature of our newly invented mythology.

That jives well with my love of history, mythology, and the fantasy genre.

Funny thing is, I’ve never been into reading or writing what I considered Westerns. I always had this prejudice in my mind that Westerns were the same story over and over — fighting off the rich land baron who wants to steal the family farm, a final showdown between the good guy and the bad guy in a dusty street, and the white-Stetsoned cowboy who rides in to save the distressed belle. Cliches.

As fascinated as I am with the era, I figured anything I wrote in that setting was only that — a different kind of story set in the Old West. Certainly not a Western. But I’ve learned that’s been a pretty ignorant assumption. Of course the genre is filled with those types of stories, just like any other genre is filled with books that are nothing but cut-and-paste tropes. Elmore Leonard, James Carlos Blake, and Larry McMurtry have shown me that in-depth characterization doesn’t have to be absent from a story set in the West. That dialogue doesn’t have to be wooden.

So maybe my stories have been Westerns after all. I may be arguing pure semantics, but by dismissing such a large body of work, I know I’ve been missing out on some great stories.

It also gets me thinking about what other genres I’m short-changing my education on. Regency romances? YA dystopia?

I’ve got a lot of reading to do.

-Phillip

Growth, Writing as Translation, and Other Thoughts

Though I’m tempted to make up some fun and fabulous things to explain my blog absence, you’re likely not reading this for a list of excuses. So, I’m just going to skip the stories about battling miniature dragons made of stained glass and evading the Sinaloa cartel’s top hitman (his name is Gary and he’s from Scotland) and jump right in:

It’s commitment time. I’ll be blogging every day for the next three months. Those entries won’t be nearly as long as this one.

Probably.

Why am I doing this?

Just another brick in the road to being a successful writer. That road requires me to acquire the habit of writing because the only real failure of a writer is not writing. Just like brushing my teeth or waking up at 4:30 AM to exercise every day, it’s all about building habits. I don’t like doing those things every day. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But I do them anyway because I know Future Phil will thank Present Phil. Also, I don’t purposefully take breaks from those things. Life will take those things away on its own and I don’t need another reason to lose the discipline.

Why blog every day for three months?

According to The One Thing, it takes 66 days on average to build a habit. Maybe a little bit less for some things. And then a heck of a lot more for others. I figure that after 90-ish days (too lazy to pull up the calendar), the message will be clear one way or another. In truth, I plan to do this every day so long as it makes sense. That could be the three months, that could be the next three decades (Whoa).

What follows below is a stream of consciousness format you’re likely to see from me. A whole lot of things being said without much thought given to order. I may attempt to put something coherent together, in case you’re actually reading this, but that’s not the point of this exercise. It’s to get comfortable with a commitment to writing.

Alright, I said I’d jump right in and there I went with the lengthy preamble:

I’m a regular reader of Dean Wesley Smith’s blog and recently took an online workshop of his (Editing Yourself – sample here). He and his wife (Kristine Kathryn Rusch) are controversial figures in the writing community — apparently, they are persona non grata after being invited as guest lecturers at a rather well-known writing boot camp and telling the students they’re killing their voices with all of the critiquing and rewriting. Worst of all, they told them that writing should be fun! It becomes drudgery under the guise of self-improvement and a “No Pain, No Gain” mindset.

So refreshing!

I understand both sides of the coin. Trust me, I’m usually feeling the pain of my workouts the next day, but I know they’re good for me.

And yet I can’t help but admit how much Dean and Kris’s creed resonates with me. It all seems to be about getting over fear doing things The Wrong Way and needing to ask permission. It’s a total mind-shift.

No more: “If I don’t have Mortimer die in Act 2, it will ruin my story because it doesn’t fit Bob Nobody’s plot model on which I paid hundreds to take his class…and oh man, I’ll never get an agent without getting that right! I’m just not cut out for this…I think I’ll give up for awhile until time has healed the wounds and I start this cycle over again.”

More: “I don’t care if Barb hates this. She’s one reader. I’ll put the work out there, forget about it one second later, and carry on with this next fun story burning a hole in my brain!”

Again, the prior mindset leads to paralysis and guess what…years later and I still have nothing to show for it. Do I want to be a writer or not? No one ever said this would be easy, but that doesn’t mean what I think it means. The hard part isn’t the writing or learning to write. The hard part is the paradigm shift. It’s how you look at yourself and the things you do. It’s about overcoming fear. Because if you’re fearless, then there’s nothing to stop you from writing a shipping container-level of crap.

A big thing I’ve learned from Dean and Kris is that artists and craftsmen, quite simply, cannot see their own work. They’re translating things in their mind’s eye into another medium — words, colors, textures, and so on. It’s up to the other party in the transaction, the reader/observer/appreciator(my favorite), to translate them into their own mind’s eye. You already have the image in your head, so how can you judge whether or not you’re successfully sending that to someone else? You can only put it out there and have the other person tell you if you were successful or not.

So with that in mind, how do you become better? It boils down to a single word that everyone else in almost every other creative field beside writing seems to acknowledge — practice. Once you shift your perspective, that comes naturally. You’re not afraid to write bad anymore. You’re not afraid of feedback because you just listen, and if you agree with the advice, you apply it to the next work. You just write, and learn, and write some more.

That’s how you get better at translating. That’s how you move forward and stop looking back.

You learn what does and doesn’t work.

But that’s not the only thing you learn.

Personally, I’m learning a lot about what doesn’t work for me in regards to process. As Dean often says, there is no right way to write, but there is a whole hell of a lot of wrong ways. I’ve tried both meticulous outlining and shitty first drafts in the past. Always seeking to write that perfect book (The Pursuit of Perfection – another great read by Kris Rusch). I’m finding myself more productive these days by doing the following:

Reading constantly. 

Over the past three months, I’ve exiled myself from Facebook and other forms of social media. After reading about the virtues of taking a 30-day break (Cal Newport’s Deep Work) from social media to objectively evaluate its value, I knew it was a challenge I needed to face if I wanted to be an author. The number of times I found myself mindlessly thumbing through social media apps on my phone was astounding. So much time wasted. Time not spent with my son and wife. Time not spent educating myself.

The biggest thing I’ve been missing out on? Time not spent enveloping every synapse in the motions of a good story and the lives of intriguing characters.

Studying what I’ve read.

I’m working on outlining five fiction novels I’ve recently read (currently in the middle of #2). The genres are all over the map — historical fantasy (The Lions of Al-Rassan), high-action urban fantasy (Monster Hunter International), slow-paced urban fantasy (American Gods), thriller (Every Dead Thing), and historical fiction (The Pillars of the Earth). I’m quickly learning that when I’ve been planning my novels, I haven’t had nearly enough bones on which to slap on some flesh. Not enough characters, not enough conflict, not enough disasters, and so on. I’ve also learned that while there are some universal truths to structure, there is so much variety in execution. It’s a part of author voice, and not only that but each author seems to write each book with its own voice.

So the Truth is revealed! There is no secret to writing the perfect book. To that, I say both Well Shucks and Hallelujah!

Light outline.

I’m still not comfortable with purely pantsing things as I know the aforementioned universal truths are not yet ingrained into my subconscious, so I’m partial to Take Off Your Pants, but only the first half dealing with a simple one-to-two page outline. Just enough to make me confident to hit the page running and not feel tied down to it.

Cycling.

No, not the kind involving pedals and tight pants. Another piece of advice from Dean. The idea is to create as clean of a first draft as possible, doing a light round of editing during the writing phase while still in the creative mindset with absolutely no rewriting once you hit the end. To “fix” things at the end would be to eat away at your own voice.

Cycling is something I did instinctively when I first started writing. Again, I was doing it all wrong! In my quest for knowledge, I “learned” that writers had to write shitty first drafts and that writing is rewriting. To “edit” during the first draft is the worst possible thing any writer could do outside of murdering the neighbor’s prize-winning Siamese and blaming it on the kid in the wheelchair living in a trailer down the street.

But the thing is, I actually produced work doing it this “wrong way.” (Sorry, I’m killing you with all of the quotation marks.) Was the writing good? Parts of it, but as a whole, no. Does that mean I failed? Not in the slightest. It was one of the few stretches of time in my short writing career where I was practicing regularly, and therefore, succeeding in the best way possible.

DREAD having to revisit a story after the first draft. I’m tired of it at that point. I’ve gotten it out of my system, but now the Gods of Writing are telling me I have to spend an untold number of days and weeks staring at the damn thing again!? Nope… That may work for some folks, but now I know that at this moment in time, it does not work for me.

And so I’ve become comfortable again with writing a little bit, cycling back and adding or erasing details, and then typing some more new words, and then repeating. This is how I finished a recent short story and how I’m working on my current story. No more fearing the voices of “But you could be writing needless words, because what if the structure needs major surgery!” Yeah? If it does, then I’ll keep that in mind for the next work. Thanks for the info, you stupid, little, frightened kitty cat of a critical voice.


During all of this fiction-writing stuff, I’ve also been re-teaching myself computer programming (Python). I haven’t touched the stuff in awhile and it’s becoming more and more important for my day job. It’s something useful to know these days, at least until I can finally live the life of the full-time creative.

Along the way of my learning journey, a revelation hit me. For some reason, I’ve seen writing as needing to be learned in a different way than the way I’ve learned everything else in my life. With programming and most other learnable skills, it’s always about daily immersion and repetition. Deliberate practice. Constant study. Constant application and facing the fear of the unknown. Just trying things and having them not work, having to deal with the mental (and oddly physical) pain of trying to figure out something that feels like it’s going to crack your mind in half.

Why the hell should writing be any different? Because of some deep-seated belief that it’s art and can’t truly be learned in any other way than through some misguided, lazy man’s osmosis? Nope. To truly make progress it going to take lots of sweat and tears (no blood unless you’re susceptible to paper cuts). It means constancy and consistency.

It means ass in chair. Writing.

It means reading. A lot.

It means willing to be bad.

And so we come full oval (let’s face it, this post wasn’t a clean circle). A three-month commitment to posting once a day on this blog scratches out at least a couple of those to-dos. It gets my fingers on the keys. It gets me excited about writing.

What will I write about? I don’t know. Will I make it three months? I sure hope so. But if I don’t, one thing will hold true: I’ll know a little bit more about myself than I didn’t before. I’ll know if I tried to bite off more than I could chew or if I just gave in to more excuses.

I’ll grow.

What more can I ask for?

-Phillip

Done Right By You

done-right-by-you
Courtesy of Rob Lee on Flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/roblee/31294361

Burl Langston leaned against the cedar post. Behind him, a few longhorns mulled about. On the other side of the fence, clouds of dust hung over the plains like soiled cotton as countless shorthorns spilled onto a patch of alfalfa. Burl’s toothpick splintered, so he spit out the pieces. He had plans today, like every day, but a seething anger pulled him here on yet another morning. Read more “Done Right By You”