Where I realize that working on too many things at once makes it hard to finish any one of them.
So, there I was, blithely flirting with YouTube addiction, looking up videos about storyboarding for my Batteries project (the one with the piranha), when YouTube’s silly autoplay-some-random-video thing started playing this video without warning, titled “The drawing advice that changed my life,” (by Struthless).
Since I’d been feeling a bit stymied by life of late, I was a little curious about life changing stuffs…
Turns out, it’s a vlog by an Australian artist who felt like he was being super creative, but felt “scattered” and not going anywhere despite being creatively active. He had all these ideas and projects, but not much forward motion.
Meanwhile, the guy he was working for and his wife were making a name for themselves making sculptures of a dog and a rabbit in different social situations. The same dog and rabbit each time, sometimes larger than humans, doing something mundane, like drinking coffee together.
You should get the story from the source (at the link above), but the gist of the video for me was … really quite immense. The moment he said the word “scattered,” I realized he was describing exactly how I’d been describing myself for a while, regarding my own creativity: Super busy on lots of things, but apparently not moving much.
Only a minute and a half through a ten minute video, I realized I was dividing my time between so many projects I loved, I wasn’t getting any of them done.
So, mind already blown by this dude talking on a porch, I’m continuing to watch the video for …
He had been whining to his boss/friend that he’d been so creative and busy with so many things, but without the success his friend had, and his friend comes back so eloquently:
All you’re doing is laying a single brick in a million different houses and expecting that one day it will magically become a mansion.
In other words, “scattered”. Like me.
The solution given to him by his more successful friend?
Just draw the same thing over and over for a year.
So the guy picked a thing, in this case a scavenging local bird he empathized with. He would draw this bird over and over … until it bored him. So, sticking with the plan, he decided to keep drawing the same bird, but in different situations, with different messages or jokes.
Before he knew it, he had created a theme, a niche, a character in an ongoing social story. Bricks in the same house. Again, I suggest you get the full story from him, because he tells his story better than I am, and he goes into a lot of the why and how of it.
What it meant to me, as a writer (a kind of artist, I think), is that I was in the same boat and needed a similar solution, which came a little later on, while journaling (personal whining to my future self) about this thing I just realized I was doing to myself.
(I’m hoping I’m not alone in this or I’m going to feel silly talking about it…)
This is going to sound odd (as if anything I write here doesn’t), but it hit me that I need to make the same decisions with my life that I make while creating my characters‘ lives.
What I mean is, asking myself this question, repeatedly:
What decisions from the myriad of possibilities available will move the plot along?
My Real Life’s plot, for my own personal story. Because, whether we’ve thought about it or not, when we’re old and not long for this world, we tend to look back and see that our life is a story, too!
It doesn’t matter if we’re writers, we’re still writing our own story. And when we get to the end, do we want that story to be about a whole lot of . . . nothing?
So, just like with Struthless in his video, it’s down to Decisions:
To decide on a direction means realizing I cannot go in all the directions I want to, chasing all the passions I’ve held onto, simultaneously. Shy of creating my own multiverse, expecting that I can plot my way in all these directions and think I’ll reach one destination is thoroughly unrealistic.
And ultimately doomed. And my subconscious knows this. I’m sure that’s where that feeling of being lost, scattered, hopeless, or unprolific is coming from.
I’m only just realizing this is the feeling of a plot line pausing at a crossroads, with several roads branching off into their own directions. One for each passion I’ve wanted to follow. I get the feeling that crossroad has been there for a long time, maybe since childhood.
And I recognize this feeling from my writing, too! It’s the feeling of indecision while plotting, knowing that if I can’t decide right now I can’t continue writing this story. I’ll have to put it down and try to put the passion and excitement I have for it on hold. This is frustrating. I don’t want to lose that energy and momentum!
The thing is, Real Life works the same: the longer I put off deciding which road to take, I’m taking none of them. Just like with my characters, I’m going nowhere, despite how hard I’m working, because that work is split between too many things.
Meanwhile, while I sit at the stop sign with my motor idling, time is dribbling past like water running into a storm drain. And as I watch, one or two of the many roads before me fade and pop out of existence, perhaps even a favorite one, out of lost interest, or lost opportunity, or out of sheer frustration or hopelessness.
And if I sit here long enough, letting enough time dribble down the drain, all of the roads before me will eventually do the same thing. Damn, my characters didn’t have this problem, did they? Well, yes. They did, actually. Those were the stories I eventually moved into my Inactive folder, with sadness, because I knew there was little hope of opening them again.
Is that what I want for my real life story?
Do I want my story ending without much action, without a hero, or a climax? That’s barely a story at all. No one, not even (insert deity of your choice) would want to write that story for us. What is the point of being born if we waste it on a non-story like that?
No. Despite how far down the road I’ve driven, it seems to me Now is the perfect time to decide on the plot of my own story. To decide on the ending so I can figure out in which direction to go to get there. And then choosing the dream or passion that will propel me there.
Just like a writer must do for their characters.
Making a decision on a direction means choosing only one Life Passion that will take me there. It seems that life–fictional or otherwise–has physics, too, including forces and momentum. Each passion pulls the story in different direction, just like the passions of my fictional characters.
It won’t be easy. I’ve carried some of those passions around for a lifetime, like learning a musical instrument or a foreign language; or traveling the world; or programming the next great computer application, like a fluffier, nicer version of Skynet…
Sacrificing a big fat bunch of my life’s passions, along with the physical debris that goes along with some of them, will probably make me cry–perhaps from relief! All I know is that this RL character needs less weight on her head, and a clearer direction to steer.
The cool thing is, I’ve noticed something about those endings when I’m writing a story:
- Oftentimes the ending I was aiming for turns out to be a miss, and the ending I get is a lot better, because my characters bring something unexpected to the table.
- Sometimes it’s not as good.
- But in either case, I still have a story in the end.
It seems to me real people deserve one just as much as my characters do.
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.