Where we poke fun at one fine fallacy that keeps us from enjoying our full potential, because we don’t know any better.
“I can’t … “
You can put just about anything after those two words… I can’t draw. I can’t swim. I can’t write. I can’t fly. I can’t drive a manual stick shift. I can’t roller skate. I can’t juggle wombats.
I don’t know when we first pick up that phrase, but I imagine for most of us it was pretty early on. And those things we learn early on are hard to shake, too. Like shyness, or comic books, or an aversion to broccoli.
I remember as early as kindergarten, there was already that peer pressure to compare our creative work with the work of others. We look over and notice the next kid’s finger-painting has a nuance ours can barely aspire to. And that little girl can stack blocks in a more collinear fashion than seems natural.
The embarrassment at such a young age, when adults expect so much of us, like remembering the order of words, or this staying vertical on two too tiny feets thing. It’s simply so much easier to sit down, stick our lip out, and give up on the whole idea to save ourselves further embarrassment.
“I can’t,” we say. I wonder who taught us those words?
Well meaning (or clueless) teachers or parents might tut-tut and simply agree with us, offering thoroughly unhelpful comforts, like “I guess your sister got all the talent for that in the family,” or “you’ll never make a living doing that anyway,” or “I’ll never get that paint off the cat.”
Actually, I think I heard the middle one later on, regarding something I could do… never mind.
Perhaps we gave it a really good try, but the right mentor wasn’t handy at that moment to ease us over the one tiny bump to “I can”. Perhaps we were on our way there, but some jealous person decided to insult our efforts at a sensitive moment. Perhaps we simply lost our patience.
And “I can’t” was ready.
I know, I’ve been there. In fact, to illustrate my point, I thought I’d publicly pick on a person who has claimed her whole life that she can’t draw.
“All my people look like stick figures,” she’d say, completely ignoring the popularity of XKCD, or the guy who trained Matt Murdock. No, wait…
I won’t name any names here, but– Okay, it’s me! Are you satisfied?! And I can’t draw! [pause for Non-drawers Anonymous greeting] “I’m a writer,” I say. “I don’t need to draw stuff” [sits down dejectedly.]
Then one day I write this cute short animated script about a boy and his dog, and some strange piranha, and a girl in a box… It’s a kind of an apocalyptic love story. You know the kind.
It had workshopped really well and I was getting excited to see it made into a PIXAR-like short… when I realized I don’t know how to make that process happen. I don’t know any animators, and we’ve already established I can’t draw.
My palette is a keyboard; my canvas a text editor.
Still, if I could somehow get someone interested, I thought naively, the cute story wouldn’t go to waste.
So I went looking for ways to get the project some attention. Actually, I’m still looking. But along the way, I fell across The Storyboard. I was intrigued by the rough sketches, used by the best directors and animators to plan a movie or an animated film.
I noticed that most of them looked all scribbly and stuff … so, perhaps even I could … no. Well, maybe.
Wanna See Something Pathetic?
(I knew you would. Sadists.)
So I tried my hand at this thing. I bought a sketchbook at the Dollar Store for a buck, because that’s how much I thought this venture would be worth. I drew a horizontal line halving all 50 pages of it in ink. And then I got to scribbling.
As predicted, I ended up with round-headed stick figures on squirrely bits of scenery (I’m okay doing buildings and stuff), like this one:
I know, right? Ugh~!
Oh, the derision and laughter I endured. (I can be pretty awful, to myself.)
But then I thought, I’ve gone this far, I should “stick” it out … (hehe). In the end, it would take just about all 50 pages (100 panels) to cover the entire story.
And Then Something Happened
Let me back up ten panels…
One day, around panel #90 or so, I began to notice something weird happening: Somewhere along the way my characters’ heads stopped being Charlie-Brown-round. They started looking human, with expressions and stuff.
I flipped back and realized, against all odds, I had drawn the same thing so often–badly–that my fingers had slowly rebelled, and through muscle memory or some other magical hokum, they began to draw things more better. More real. More cute. More like the way I saw it in my head:
Okay, not phenomenally better, I admit. But enough to make me realize I needed to go back and re-draw all of the round-heads to match the later ones. Once I got over the shock.
Somehow, through practice or patience, I had taken my first humble step towards The Impossible: I felt I was drawing!
So, I’m currently redrawing a lot of panels for consistency, noticing my background settings had improved, too. I’m still not sure where to find an interested animator who wants to bag a cute apocalyptic short–with piranha–for their demo reel, but at least I’ll be prepared if I ever fall in a pond with them (the animator, not the piranha–I hope).
There’s a moral to this story somewhere . . . Oh, yeah:
If you think you can’t do something, something you feel you might actually enjoy doing? Try it. Try a bunch of times. Maybe 100. Be easy on yourself, use cheap materials, be messy (fuck perfection), do small things–a lot. Just do it for fun.
Eventually you will see: You are awesome at whatever you practice. Practice doesn’t really make perfect, practice makes it happen.
And I believe in you! ^_^
P.S., if you’re an animator and curious? I’m planning on sharing the storyboards as an exclusive on my Patreon page soon. And/or the script. I’m still figuring out what people want to see there. ^_^
The fourth in a series about finding your writing process, discussing the value of finding other writers to help tow you in from the vacuum of space.
For a writing process, this one is a little different. But it is one that has truly helped me to develop (and re-find my love for) several of my short works and poems, as well as scenes and chapters from my longer work. It also provided a happy relief from that vacuum so many of us writers find ourselves creating in.
What I’m referring to is the online writing workshop. These come in lots of flavors and forms–including the Meetup.com variety, but sadly the pandemic has put a hurting on those for a bit.
Most online writing workshops involve sharing your work–or chunks of it–online for others to read and review, like a regular in-person writing workshop, or a regularly writing gathering at the local coffee shop.
Yes, I feel a little insecure about that sharing thing, too. But on the whole I’ve felt pretty safe with one writing site: Writing.com.
I’m sure there are plenty of others, but other than sharing some stuff on Wattpad.com, which is more a place to get readers to read ongoing series pieces, Writing.com is the only one I’ve tried so far, because it felt just right for me.
Both Wattpad.com and Writing.com offer a lot of value for free, with the option to get more value for a nominal yearly price. Unlike Wattpad.com, Writing.com is designed for getting your stuff thoroughly reviewed, rather than just “Liked” and commented on.
In fact, the site employs its own friendly economy for that purpose, where writers (and the site) reward each other for reviews given, in whatever amounts they want, by way of Gift Points (GPs). You can buy these, of course, if you need more; or you can earn them by reading others’ work and giving honest, detailed reviews, just like you would in an in-person workshop.
The GPs can then be used to reward others, motivating them to review your stuff, to get what I’ve found to be priceless audience perspective on how your work is coming across. They can also be used (if you have enough) to pay for Upgraded or Premium tiers, which give you more features, more space to post your work, and all kinds of tools you can use to help your writing.
But the Free tier is generous, with space for at least ten works to be reviewed at once. They also have endless writing prompts, a plethora of writing contests (rewarded in GPs), advice columns, and lots of opportunities to share ideas and advice with fellow writers. I was even granted a free upgraded membership from some lovely anonymous soul through a program that lets you donate to help other writers succeed. It’s a pretty awesome thing.
They also have groups, which allows you to make your work private to just a small select group of people in your genre or area of interest. I’ve used both their Free and Upgraded memberships and been a part of an amazing genre-specific group there, and received wonderful feedback from them, while being amply rewarded for the same.
Even the most polished piece can suffer from data you forgot to mention, confusing visuals, or inconsistencies, because the story is so ingrained in your head after working on it so long. Your fellow workshoppers will help point these things out, along with any errant grammar or sneaky punctuation goofs. And they’ll try to do so nicely, with empathy, because that’s how things are done there.
Whether you go with Writing.com or another online forum, I recommend making an online workshopping group part of your process. It provides both the feedback and support a writer needs when that vacuum comes calling.
I thought I’d take a break from the serious writing stuff and share something I wrote nearly a year ago (2/1/2020) about delight, and crying. The good kind.
Background: OPB*, “The Show of Delights”
So, I’m getting ready to get out of my car at Starbucks, but I can’t seem to stop listening to the radio. It’s OPB, airing a This American Life segment about Delight. It is oddly delightful, beginning with the story of a poet who wrote a book about deliberately finding delight in his life every day for a year and what he learned about that.
Turns out, it had a lot to do with curiosity and being open to finding new things that bring delight. It’s also about embracing your inner child, who sees everything as new–not the jaded way we adults look at things. Like when a kid runs in telling all the adults in the room that there’s a rainbow outside–a fairly common occurrence–and everyone runs outside and “shares a gasp” with each other.
There’s another act where a daughter tells the story of her aging mother who decides one day she has just so much time left, so she’s going to dedicate it to finding delights. This adventure annoys her daughter, who has to help her out doing “whatever she wants,” involving a lot of spontaneity that her daughter seems too adult to put up with. Then one day, while interviewing her mom about this thing she’s doing, the daughter finally “gets it” and seems transformed.
This is followed by another segment following a girl who works at a zoo, at night, putting the animals to bed. I won’t go into everything that happens there, but it’s my favorite part. She sounds so young and (dare I say) cute. The narrator following her on her rounds does also. But that’s not the reason I can’t get out of my car on a cold night, despite coffee and warmth nearby urging me to vacate my rapidly chilling car on a January night.
Instead, I was enthralled by this girl who has what seems to me to be a dream job, where she’s finding delight in caring for all of these animals who frankly could be in a better place (nature), but it’s her job to make them happy anyway. And it’s obvious that the animals appreciate her for it.
For some reason, by the end of this segment, tears are running down my face and I’m truly moved… but I’m honestly not sure why. Perhaps it’s the happy young voices and my inner child wishing I could have gone into a more fun career when I was younger. Perhaps I’m suffering an onset of hypothermia.
Whatever the explanation, I suddenly get the feeling that when I cry this way it means something. Something important.
What’s Happy Crying For
Okay, so I’m finally indoors ordering my coffee at the counter, all the while distracted thinking about happy crying and what it means … To me; perhaps to everyone. If only we knew. When we cry like that, quietly, delightedly, movedly**… doesn’t it feel like a reward of some kind? A gift from life?
When things feel so unexplainably, primally good, could this be something evolution built in a long time ago to say, “Yes. This.”
At this moment, I want this to be true so much that I force myself to sit down and write this note you’re now reading, because I know from experience that when you have these feelings, once you stray away from them, they fade. Like a dream, leaving a vague notion of Epiphanies Lost.
When I don’t write things down I spend the rest of the day feeling sad about losing something I don’t remember. I can almost hear the Universe in those moments, in the background softly murmur, “Okay, maybe next time.”
But it’s a sad murmur, because I think if there’s this complex thing called life, there must actually be a wonderful purpose to it, because we Keep Doing It for so long, all of us Animals of Earth. And the Universe is sincerely trying to tell us this, or our own DNA, or whatever it is that gives us that little nudge in our hearts when we do something right. Like crying at the good bits of life.
Or perhaps it’s some giant metaphysical machine churning away, like the mice in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Who knows how stuff really works.
To go to all this trouble of being born, learning how to walk, talk, think, make friends, learn complex algebra, and become creators of whatever our own reality and hearts desire… there really must be a deeper purpose to all that.
And how else will we know which way to go with our own purpose in life than to pay attention when life rewards us, like it does when we do sex right (I mean truly, mutually right). Or make someone smile. Or cry, happily, like there’s too much loveliness inside we can’t quite contain it.
A Happy Mission
So, like that early OPB segment, about the poet who spent a year recognizing and writing about Delights, I’m having this sudden urge to spend a year (or more) keeping track of the things that make me happy cry, and seeing where that attention leads me.
Because I get the feeling that the Universe really is trying to help us find our happiness, even if it does have all of these nasty obstructions ready for us to climb over. But then without things to overcome, how will we find the joy of accomplishment?
So, Cry #1 is this: Noticing the magic of crying at stuff. Yay!
* OPB: Oregon Public Broadcasting (the local affiliate of National Public Radio).
** Yes, I am horribly guilty of inventing my own adjectives. Sue me. Or give me a cupcake! ^_^
The third in a series about finding your writing process, continuing with borrowing wisdom from the big screen to write your novel, using the 8-Sequence Method.
The 8-Sequence Method is nothing new. In fact, it began when cinema began, when movies were only as long as film reels could hold, about 15 minutes of rolled plastic. When they figured out how to quickly change reels in the projection room, the movies we know now were born; and even today when reels are rare, they are designed to give us an interesting turn of the plot every fifteen minutes or so. (If you write screenplays, you might want to check out Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach.)
It just works. Fifteen minutes is just long enough to give us some fun with the current state of affairs, but about the time we’re looking for something new to happen. Boom, the main character falls down and must reassess and set out on a new plan.
Why eight sequences? The diplomatic answer is that two hours (8 times 15 minutes) is as long as the average viewer can sit focusing on one thing, while I think it has more to do with the size of the human bladder (have you seen the size of drinks in cinemas?). It does seem to be the perfect length though.
Using the 8-Sequence Method to write novels isn’t new either, with more than one writing book seeming to claim the idea. One such book, by Alexandra Sokoloff, (the first I found on this method) is so comprehensive on the subject, it is a veritable reference book on novel writing. It includes some great exercises along the way, too, but the best part for me is how she breaks down the plot into its most powerful components to make a great story. She does so using the same sequence structure used in film.
As expected, these sequences once more dovetail with the ubiquitous 3-Act Structure, where every other sequence begins on an Act boundary (Act II breaking at the Midpoint).
This is the version of the 8-Sequence Method I derived from reading the book (yours might be slightly different). Each sequence is a set of scenes propelling your main character in some inevitable direction, only to hit a new challenge at the end of the sequence, propelling them in a new direction. Every sequence is a little story of it’s own, with a minor climax at the end–the ones at the Act breaks more life-changing for the character.
Note the pair of numbers in the brackets beneath the sequence’s purpose. These denote how far into the story we are at this point:
- The hour:minutes through the movie,
- The pages in a novel.
(It’s important to get close to these marks, because the audience or reader will be getting edgy to see something happen here, whether they know it or not.)
Sokoloff not only breaks down the importance of these sequences and how to set them up for those of us who like using index cards to plot our scenes, but also delves deeply into the dramatic “elements” that usually appear in each sequence, elements audiences have grown to expect from reading and viewing the mass of work that came before; things that make a story satisfying. She defines these elements not just for the plot, but for character development, setting, theme, plants and reveals, and a bunch more stuff too numerous to mention here.
I suggest getting her book, Story Structure Basics: How to write better books by learning from the movies* to see for yourself. I keep mine handy as a checklist for revising my own drafts.
Oh, wow… I just noticed she now has a series of writing books out on the same subject–and they’re very inexpensive for what you get.
I guess I know what I’ll be reading for a bit.
The second in a series about finding your writing process, continuing with evolving your story ideas from one powerful sentence to a completed novel, using the Snowflake Method.
Here’s a writing process we used in just about every intermediate and advanced writing class I attended in college (and I must have taken them all), from creating fiction to essays to screenplays, and it really did the trick to get us writing.
We never named it out loud in class, but it is the practice of evolving ideas by expanding them outward, like a snowflake. And it’s lovely. In fact there’s a wonderful Snowflake Metaphor, where the simplest evolution of a triangle (triangles again!) becomes the most complex structure of nature itself . . . in the form of a Fractal: a creature with a finite area, but an infinitely large perimeter. Much the way your own brain makes space for new ideas on its rippling surface, you can use those ideas for your story by expanding the perimeter of one simple story idea.
So many of the writing books on my shelf also seem to use this technique in some form or another, I presume because it simply makes sense. Stick with me Pantsers, you’ll probably like this. Like in class, most of the time we just did it without going into the how or why of it.
But one veteran author, Randy Ingermason, did, and he calls it–appropriately enough–the Snowflake Method. Ingermason came up with 10 steps he himself goes through to evolve an idea for a book into the actual book, by building outward.
Basically these steps are:
- Start with a one-sentence description of the story – what screenwriters call the Logline. Many of them swear this is the most important sentence you will ever write. There are whole books about Loglines.
- Expand Step 1 into a paragraph – Ingermason writes 4 sentences here: 3 disasters and the ending. They conform, once more, with the 3 Act structure mentioned before.
- Write a one-page summary of characters in the story.
- Expand each sentence in Step 2 into a paragraph.
- Expand each character in Step 3 into a one-page synopsis.
- Expand each paragraph in Step 4 into a full page.
- Expand Step 5 into separate Character Charts, which he describes in more detail in his book.
- Expand Step 6 into a list of scenes.
- (Optional) Expand Step 8 into a Chapter Outline.
- Write the First Draft!
Ingermason describes the form and purpose of these steps with a lot more detail, as well as how they build that ever-present triangular plot structure, but hopefully I’ve given you the gist of it. Notice how he alternates between plotting and character development here, which makes a lot of sense to me on a few levels:
- Character development (character arc) is the backbone and heart of every good story.
- Shifting back and forth between story and characters gives you a break and a little distance, which
- Gives your subconscious room to come up with even more awesome ideas!
Throughout this entire process, Ingermason makes it very clear that the material you generate here is mutable and fluid. In fact, one major benefit of doing it this way is to identify the holes and logic-bloopers that typically only become evident after the First Draft; an ugly mess to revise after the fact. But here you can catch them early and fix them as you go, quickly adjusting backwards through the steps–all the way back to the Logline, if need be.
For Pantsers and Outliners
The Snowflake Method isn’t an outlining structure meant to constrict you, though it ends up creating a lovely map in the end. Instead it is a liberating idea-generating house party, where the beer cans and bottles somehow end up in the right recycling bin by themselves. Uhm… okay, not my best metaphor, but it is cool to have so many ideas grow on each other and be able to know exactly where to put them, rather than that big ugly pile of notes you have to bribe yourself with chocolates just to get through.
And here’s another cool benefit: when you do get to Step 10, make sure you sit down next to a NaNoRiMo person when you start, because:
- You are going to write FAST!! A Snowflaker already knows exactly where they are going, with all the details of every scene. You’ll have to get a water cooled keyboard to keep up with you.
- The resulting draft is going to be TIGHT, unlike the meandering monster the NaNo writer will have to deal with at the end. (I’m not dissing NaNo-writers at all–I respect that they are at least writing, unlike a few “writers” I’ve met. Including me at times…)
- Writers Block will be scared to death of you, since you will be too busy to be impressed by it. Poor thing.
Hopefully this gives you a tantalizing taste of the Snowflake Method. If you’d like to learn more about it, check out Randy Ingermason’s book, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method (Advanced Fiction Writing Book 1)*.
Next Week: Alexandra Sokoloff’s 8-Sequence Structure.