Stupid Scenarios #1: Duran Hits the Liquor Store

I’m currently in a headspace where I can squeeze out just enough words to keep momentum going on my current project, but don’t have much more, so I’m forgetting about regular blog updates for a while. One thing I’m doing, to keep my head in the story when I can’t squeeze out actual story because it’s become a thick glue-like paste and clogged up my brain tubes, is putting my characters in hypothetical situations. It’s a great exercise because you should know your characters well enough to know what they’d do in any situation, no matter how unlikely. I’m writing them synopsis style (third person present tense) so I don’t waste too much writing energy on them. I figured I’d post them here, because why not. The first is my take on the prompt: how would your main character go grocery shopping? Since my main doesn’t eat human food, I had to improvise.

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A Scatterbrain’s Guide to Time Management

Some of us don’t work well with schedules. As time constraints go, setting up a block of hours as “work time” and trying to stick to it every day doesn’t happen, no matter how we try to drag ourselves to the desk every day. I used to punish myself for not doing what I was supposed to by not letting myself do what I’d rather be doing. I ended up doing nothing, which is lame and had to stop. So I came up with a few strategies to keep myself honest and help me get work done.

The first step is self-awareness. I figured out how I spent most of my day with retroactive day planning. I’d record everything I did in a day, color coded in a calendar app so I could see how much of what I was doing at a glance. I have different colors for working, house stuff, health stuff, and dicking around. At first “dicking around” time made up the bulk of my time, which was a little depressing.

Next I figured out what kind of dicking around I was doing, and if some of it was needed downtime for my brain. I separated productive relaxation, like reading novels or watching documentaries, into another color called “Filling the Well.” More wasteful dicking around isn’t forbidden, but removing some of that color from the calendar made me feel better.

I also started noticing patterns, such as when I’m most productive and when my focus sucks. This let me aim my productive hours for when I typically have the most energy. When I made my vow to write an hour a day, I added a repeat “writing” block to my best hour for writing. I frequently shift the time around, but having it sit there in my calendar, reminding me of the promise I made to myself, has helped keep me honest.

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The Over-Competency Trap

There are at least two kinds of mastery in any art you care to name. The most recognized form is virtuosity, because it’s easy to quantify. You can follow a musical score to check if a performer is playing all the right notes and in the right time. The second is having a honed intuition, which is harder to capture. Knowing what notes to play is simpler than knowing how to play them. Its simpler than knowing what notes not to play. It’s safer than flaunting the score.

In ages past, virtuosity was elevated because it represented the heights human effort could obtain. Now that machines can perform with absolute precision, a human doing the same is considered robotic. You can train your muscle memory to play Flight of the Bumblebee in double time, or follow the Save the Cat formula to write a screenplay that hits all the right story beats, and still make people yawn. Virtuosity alone is not enough to be engaging. People now look for the human element, which allows for mistakes. In fact, you don’t even need to be that good to be great, much to the chagrin of anyone who’s mastered their craft and been ignored.

I’ve come to think of virtuosity as another plateau on Mastery Mountain, one near the peak. The over-competency trap is so dangerous because it’s almost indistinguishable from greatness. After all, if you’ve mastered the perfect formula to create art that wows the public and critics alike and gives you a steady paycheck, why change at all? It’s not like figuring out the formula to write an A+ undergrad essay, only to move into the real world and have people tell you your writing is undergrad garbage and you only got those grades because the curve was so low. When the whole world tells you you’re amazing, it’s easier to think you have nowhere left to go.

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The Power of Habit is Real

We’ve all heard this advice a million different ways: bum in seat, don’t wait for the muse, don’t worry about how bad it is – just get the words down. It’s been six weeks since I vowed to write for an hour every day, and I can tell you one thing: it works. It’s not as simple as writing gurus say it is though, which is of course why people find it so hard to follow (guilty). Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

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Sudden Comprehension of Writing Failure

I once again find myself struggling to get my weekly blog post up in time. The one I had planned is still a mess. I spent way too long trying to rewrite it from scratch, only to delete every single word. My head is also a mess, partly due to me having a sick day. I was going to take that as an excuse, but after putting off working on this post for the past two days, all I’ve done is set myself up to fail on the day the work is due.

I’ve engineered my own failure simply by falling out of the daily habit. My post/week schedule has often led to me only writing once a week, which is not enough if I’m going to write something weekly worth a damn. A weekly blog post has been a good tangible goal. It’s at least kept me honest, as I’ve not completely failed to deliver so far – even if I’ve got a few in a day late.

However, I’m past the point where just getting it done is good enough. I insist what I post be more than merely passable, which means putting in enough time to not just do a first and final draft, but get a second draft in as well. My first drafts are hot garbage, and cobbling them into something reasonable takes more than one edit – always – and too often I let myself forget this and post something sub-par.

Today’s post is an example of sub-par shit. All I’m doing is berating myself, and posting it in public to hammer it into my head with shame. So, in the interest of writing something useful, here is what I must do to avoid this dilemma in the future (apologies for having to break my one-fuck-per-article rule, but this needs to be said in exactly this way):

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First Scribble Journal (Unfinished Sample)

The Value of Dicking Around

What do you do when your drawing skills are so rusty you can barely draw a straight line and get hand cramps in less than half-an-hour? Discomfort with my drawing tools (including learning all new illustration software) has been a big hurdle to getting back into design. So I’ve been doing something about it: going back to basics. My first step is drawing exercises that are equivalent to practicing scales.

After spending a week repeatedly scribbling on my tablet and clearing the page, I started noticing interesting textures coming out of it. I opened a large page in Pixelmator and scribbled until I’d almost filled the page with black. Then I hit save, and the scribble journal was born.

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Advice That Makes You Go Duh: Write What You Want to Read

Or read what you want to write. It seems obvious, right? But like any advice distilled into a pithy phrase and passed around until it loses meaning, there’s more to it. The horizontal champions will tell you it’s about market research – figuring out what “works” so you can make readers happy with the same product. Writers with more artistic aspirations take this advice to mean distilling the essence of the greats. I don’t dispute either, but I’m here to tell you something different: it’s about distilling your own essence.

Here’s where I’m tempted to use another scene from The Holy Mountain, the one where a dude poops in a jar and the alchemy apparatus turns it into a turd of solid gold, but I’ll refrain. Moving on…

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From the Competency Plateau to Mastery Mountain

Mastering any skill is a long process filled with learning, practice, and failure. Without learning, all practice will do is ingrain bad habits. If don’t practice, everything you learn will fall right out of your head. And if you never risk failure, you’re hobbling your learning. You need all three, otherwise you plateau.

The slow climb to mastery mountain usually starts with a gentle slope. As you rise in skill, you’ll meet many hikers along the way. At this point, everyone’s a dabbler. There are no real stakes involved. This part of the climb tends to be fun, unless some jerk is hiding in the bushes throwing stones at other people. At this stage, harsh criticism is neither welcome nor helpful – we’ll come to that later.

If you keep at it, you’ll reach the competency plateau. The work is still fun and comfortable. Your skill may even make you money at this stage, because it’s finally good enough that people will pay for it. You’ll have much congenial company here, but don’t fool yourself: most people resting on their laurels aren’t going anywhere. There are three types of people who climb no further:

1. Dabblers are the people who’ve tried something for long enough to figure out they didn’t like it enough to continue. They’re often distracted by far more attractive mountains on the horizon, so they climb down and make the slow ascent up some other track. However, all mountains look blue on the horizon. If you turn from them as they turn to muddy grey, you’re turning away from reality to chase a dream. If you want to turn a dream into reality, you need to grasp the jagged rocks ahead and start climbing.

2. Hobbyists are perfectly happy staying on the plateau because they’re doing it as an escape from their real jobs. Hobbyists are generally chill, so it’s best to leave them to do their own thing. Again, harsh criticism is often not welcome here. Hobbies are great, so don’t come down on someone for not taking something seriously because they’re just having fun.

3. Hacks either keep to themselves, turning out a decent living with competent work, or are pernicious “gurus” who offer to teach you how to climb the mountain ahead, even though they’ve never conquered it themselves. Beware the latter, because he is either a dunce who doesn’t know how awful he is, or is out to scam you. Though, if you only want to learn how to be a competent hack yourself, he has much to teach you. He’s this guy:

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How the Talent Myth Hurts Everyone

“Some people are just naturally good at some things, and other people aren’t. If you’re no good at something, don’t give up. You just haven’t found what you’re good at yet!”

If you’ve heard that, or any variation thereof, feel free to roast whoever said it over an open fire because that person is feeding you a comfortable lie. It’s bullshit – especially that “don’t give up” bit, because that’s exactly what they’re telling you to do. Here’s a similar quote to put the first one in perspective:

“Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

—Homer J. Simpson

How are those quotes even close to the same thing? Here’s what the first quote really says: “If you’re not good at something first try, then give up and keep giving up until you find something you’re instantly good at, because that’ll totally happen. In the meantime (meaning until the day you die) you can pretend your genius is all pent up inside instead of taking a big scary risk to do something you actually enjoy with your life.”

The above sentiment is often trotted out when someone complains that something is “not fun” or “too hard” and desperately looking for reasons to give up instead of useful advice about how to tackle the problem. However, the most pernicious lie is in the first sentence: “Some people are just naturally good at some things and other people aren’t.” Because this plays on the myth of “talent” and the idea that skill is innate instead of learned.

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