Human Error

"Am I the only one who sees that?"

“Am I the only one who sees that?”

Albert woke up in a hospital gown, on the floor of a small white cell. Rather than try the door, he sat up in the lotus position, waiting for the world to boot up.

Rubbing his eyes, Albert looked to the fluorescents, then to the shadow cast by the mattress. The brightness didn’t shift. Smoothing the pillowcase, he waited for the white balance to change. The fabric stayed beige.

Albert tapped his temple. When the H.U.D. didn’t show, he tapped it again. This had happened before he just had to remember how he’d fixed it.

Pinching the air, Albert waited for the search field to appear. The memory interface drew a blank. There were no folders, no windows, not even a floating pinwheel of death.

Turning around Albert wasn’t shocked to find a wall length mirror, but rather what he saw there. The lights in his eyes had been reduced to two tiny sparks, the same bland color as the florescent on the ceiling. There were no notifications, no pending messages, no emoticons. This was the first time Albert had seen the natural color of his eyes in a long time. The windows to his soul were wide open and what he saw was unsettling.

Despite the size of his cell, the world seemed so much larger than it had before.

Dr. Locke entered the viewing room behind the mirror. “What do you think?”

Dr. Walton shrugged, “He’ll be crying out for tech support in about five seconds.”

The Gremlin on My Wing

Someone has a bad idea

Someone has a bad idea

(If SoundCloud is down, download the track)

Submitted for your approval a radio play of sorts; a conversation between a pilot and the passenger that’s taken him hostage. One part drama, one part essay, and one part rant. All three fit the scenario, because the stowaway is the captain’s depression, and their argument is internal.

This was originally posted under the name The Depression on My Shoulder, but since the gremlin metaphor factored in so heavily I changed it to reflect the Twilight Zone episode that inspired it.

I’m always looking for new ways to articulate what it’s like to function with depression. Thank for listening and passing the piece along.

Beware of the Anti-Muse

Don't let the Anti-Muse steal your spark

Don’t let the Anti-Muse steal your spark

It takes a lot of positive reinforcement to support a writer’s ego. Flattery fades, while words of discouragement echo. It’s not that we don’t know how to take a compliment, it’s just that we lie for a living and we’re skeptical of everyone.

Praise for our writing feels like a put-on, something that dissolves upon cross examination. “What was your favorite part of my novel? What did you like most about the characters? Did you even finish it?”

Harsh criticism feels genuine, because it confirms our suspicions. “I knew that story came too easily. I should’ve outlined more. I should’ve shown it to more beta readers.”

What writers aspire to do is hard. We’re a generation trying to launch careers on Amazon while our competition gives everything away on Goodreads. It used to be that no one was buying what we were selling, now no one is taking what we’re giving.

One bad reaction invalidates a thousand compliments from family and friends, who we suspected were only feigning an interest to spare our feelings. A stranger’s insults resonate, because they have no stake in our wellbeing.

I can still quote the first negative comments I got online. They came from a message board where I’d previewed a few poems from what I’d thought was a collection worth publishing.

The first response read, “If you have a book coming out, then I’ll eat my hat.”

Enter the Anti-Muse. At the time, I had no idea how gentle he was being, that this was him on his best behavior. As I continued to share my work in public forums, the two of us became very familiar.

The Anti-Muse believes his tastes are universal. If something isn’t his cup of tea then the person who made it ought to shuffle off this mortal coil. It’s not enough for him to dismiss the author’s spark of inspiration, he needs to suck it right out of them.

Rather than leave others to separate the wheat from the chaff, the Anti-Muse burns the field down, planting seeds of doubt to spare the world from another crop of poets, bloggers, and self-publishers. When a budding author asks for advice, he tells them to quit. The Anti-Muse prides himself on his ability to quell artistic ambition.

I remember those first harsh reviews more than what I’d shared. That’s the problem with the Anti-Muse. He likes to linger.

2. Spark Hoarder

Living with an Anti-Muse on Your Back

Once the Anti-Muse gets under your skin, he sets up shop, stirring up intrusive thoughts, flooding the imagination with bad memories. He needs your self doubt on hand so he can reference it at a moment’s notice.

The Anti-Muse has you writing slow, editing as you go, making you so self conscious about what you’re working on, you’re forgetting crucial details about the story to come. He has you overworking for simple statements, second guessing every line of description.

At first you worry your descriptions are too poetic, then you worry your verbs aren’t evocative enough. You use exaggerations to add emotional weight, catch yourself doing it, then resort to procedural accounts like you’re writing a police report. Your purple prose turn beige.

The Anti-Muse has you over researching your subject, then wondering if your dialogue is too technical, as if you dropped all this knowledge just to prove your knowhow. Then he has you gut every plot line that required any level of expertise.

When your imagination suggests a bold new direction, the Anti-Muse keeps you pressing on a familiar one. You play it safe, making sure everything you write feels familiar. Your characters speak in tired clichés, not because you lack an ear for dialogue, but because you lack the confidence to write your own.

Rereading your result, the Anti-Muse has you wondering if you should even bother editing. That’s his function. He’s a demon, sabotaging creative endeavors until the artist is ready to throw the towel in.

Dismissing the Anti-Muse

The good thing about encountering the Anti-Muse online is that he makes himself easy to identify. Like a desperate lawyer who knows the law isn’t on his side, the Anti-Muse makes appeals to emotion. He hates your art without offering a clear reason he thinks it’s wrong.

In some cases the Anti-Muse doesn’t know enough about the medium to offer constructive criticism, literary theory eludes him, he tears you down, because he doesn’t know how to tell you what to fix. He may not know art, but he knows what he hates.

In other cases, the Anti-Muse knows too much, but refuses to share his wisdom. He’s failed to make it on his own, now he resents anyone with similar aspirations. If he can’t be successful, why should anyone?

Either way, the Anti-Muse’s hostility is easy to dismiss, because you know there’s no sense in reasoning with it.

When I’m online, I tune the Anti-Muse out at the first signs of name calling, profanity, or the words “Sheesh” and “Bro.” I don’t put a spotlight on him when he’s heckling, because I know he only speaks in zingers.

Exploring forums on writing, there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t see an angry know-it-all, who is only there to put newbies in their place, trash talking like the conversation is a match of Call of Duty. Examining their comment history, I find they’re terminally toxic, self-congratulating, flame war veterans.

Some people come across as the Anti-Muse by accident. They know their stuff, but refuse to cushion their candor. They’ll grade your writing, without a professor’s kindly classroom manor. They don’t have the patience to pay you compliments. They spot problems and dive right in.

Before you go dismissing critics based on their tone, see if they’ve gone to the trouble of citing examples. Did they use terms that seem like foreign jargon? Look up their lingo to see if they touched on tropes you use too often. Did they give suggestions for taking your story in another direction? If they hadn’t come off as smug, would you listen to the advice they’ve given?

Every screenwriter that came to speak at my school said the same thing about getting notes from producers: if a suggestion was based on an abstract feeling, the screenwriter ignored it. If a producer touched on something specific, their advice was always considered.

When it comes to taking criticism, developing a thick skin isn’t a writer’s only responsibility. Developing an ear for good feedback is more important.

A critic’s ability to articulate is what separates assessments from reactions.

“No one cares about you, so why the hell would they want to read your memoir?” Isn’t feedback worth paying attention to.

“Every character speaks with the same voice, same dialect, and same pop culture references. You need to make them more distinct so we know which one is talking.” Is feedback you can use.

Just remember, your work will never be universally loved. You will always be a hack to someone. Accept it and keep writing.

3. Bright Eyes

There’s a reoccurring phrase characters on Lost always shout when someone tells them that something is impossible:

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”

Something about that stubborn declaration has always resonated with me. I find myself thinking it, every time someone tells me there’s no future in fiction, that I shouldn’t even bother, that I should leave the storytelling to some old Hollywood producers recycling the same franchises year after year.

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”

Put the Banshee to Work

She doesn't believe in doors

She doesn’t believe in doors

Dear fellow board members,

I’ve received a lot of complaints about the howling translucent entity that’s taken up residence in the emergency wing. Based on the consensus that she is in fact a banshee, I’ve taken it upon myself to do some Wikipedia research.

In all my reading, I’ve found a banshee’s primary function is to warn of an impending death. Now that revelation must seem blood curdling to a family in an isolated cottage, but here in the ER she’s just redundant.

The way I see it, those mob goons buried one too many bodies in the forrest, and this banshee followed the crime wave back into the city, from meth factories to dark allies, until she hitched a ride with a couple of EMTs. She’d been orbiting the vortex of death until she got sucked into the big black pit of it.

She’s our problem now: wailing down corridors, bleeding through operating tables, distracting surgeons and horrifying patients, but what if she could be our solution?

My proposal is simple: if this apparition knows which patients are about to meet their end, why not make her part of the triage process? If a patient is doomed, there’s no reason they need stay on our list.

Until now we’ve treated patients based on the urgency of their issue, but if we’re absolutely certain there’s nothing to be done, aren’t we morally obligated to move on? If the banshee’s never wrong she’s not a pest, she’s a Godsend.

Instadamn: A Twilight Zone Audio Short

Insta Damn

(If SoundCloud is down, download the track)
(Download the instrumental version here)

Instagram finally has some competition: an image sharing application programed by demons, setting out to torment users through touch screens, cursing cameras, and casting voodoo onto viewfinders. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this photo viewer sees exactly what makes users so impure.

This is an invitation to hear a sales pitch from another dimension. A place where the technology we take for granted takes more than we bargained for. A place of vanity and disappear. Tune in, because the advertisement you’re about to listen to is coming straight from the Twilight Zone.

Be Evil: Why Writers Should be Cruel Gods

My best Dr. Strange Pose

My best Dr. Strange Pose

Writing for the web, I find it difficult to return to long form storytelling. Maintaining an online presence, my short stories always feel more relevant to hot button issues of the day. Working on a novel, I don’t have the instant gratification of ‘Likes’ and comments.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King recommends churning out a draft in three months. He says, if you wait any longer you’ll lose momentum. For writer’s trying to woo an audience on social media, this time frame is tough to maintain. Blog entries and short stories are speed bumps on our novel’s journey.

Returning to my work in progress, I’m often stumped. The characters aren’t as fresh in my mind. I know where the story is supposed to go, but the direction doesn’t seem as interesting. There’s a writer’s blockade around my inspiration. King’s curse comes true.

Usually I’d just give up and move onto the next bright shiny idea, that was before I’d stumbled onto a method to revive my manuscript. Now, rather than stick to my original outline, I give myself something new to look forward to. Not a crowd pleasing triumph, but a problem in need of solving, a plague on my characters’ houses. A big terrible event on par with George R.R. Martin’s infamous red wedding.

This new tragic twist wouldn’t betray the story, but it would be shocking enough to jump start my interest.

The Mind Explosion

The Mind Explosion

Make a Bad Situation Worse

Rereading works in progress, I look for seismic activity. These tremors take the shape of character traits, details I’d put out there to make the character seem more real.

In The Book of Mirrors, I made Austin, the hero, a troubled teen who’d grown up into a successful author. For flavor, I mentioned that she used to have a compulsion to pluck out her hair. I wasn’t planting anything in the grand scheme of things, but when I got stuck something about that character detail became appealing.

In the story, Austin is brought on to ghost write a draft of a forged diary. The diary is supposed to be a cautionary tale to scare teenage girls away from sex, drugs, and the occult. The problem is it’s been stitched together from the real experiences of a dozen other contributors, each one with a background similar to Austin’s. This Frankenstein’s monster journal is so effective at drawing out the reader’s empathy, it gets under the skin of anyone who works on it.

I got stuck trying to figure out the best way to visualize Austin’s descent into madness. She’d spent the story writing in a mirrored room, a place her benefactor said would help Austin reflect on her life. I figured, he’d return to find she’d broken the mirrors and cut herself with the shards, but as I got closer to the scene, I felt like it was a copout, a cheap horror gag I’d scene several times before.

I was about to put the piece on the back-burner when a little voice inside of me said, “Wouldn’t it be terrible if the benefactor returned to discover Austin had plucked herself bald?”

My initial reaction was, “That somehow seems more insane than more traditional forms of self mutilation. If she’s that far gone, how will she come back from that?”

The little voice whispered, “Are you really sure you want her to come back from that?”

Those signs of seismic activity, I’d written subconsciously, steered me toward the emotional volcano at the heart of the story. All I had to do, was listen for the tremors and let it flow.

The Force Awakens

The Force Awakens

Don’t be Conflicted about Conflict

In his book Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business, screenwriter David Mamet says, “Every scene should be able to answer three questions: “Who wants what from whom? What happens if they don’t get it? Why now?”

Mamet’s statement breaks down into three concepts: Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. If every character is motivated to act on their goals, there should be conflict, especially if their goal isn’t compatible with anyone else’s. This is how scenes reveal characters, advance the plot, and tip the scales of hope and dread

If the scale is tipped too far toward hope for too long, not only will the audience lose interest, so will you. If it’s tipped too far toward dread the story will be emotionally exhausting, to read and to write. The trick is finding the right balance, to create just enough tension to keep you and your audience engaged until the end.

Not everything that can go wrong in your hero’s life should go wrong, but your reader ought to think it’s a possibility. They need to believe you are a cruel God and that yours is a harsh reality.

I don’t use every tragic outcome that comes to mind, but I foreshadow as many of them as I can. This way, a happy ending feels like a well earned surprise. Trick your audience into thinking you’re telling a tragedy, then give them a victory.

God might forgive people in the moment, but writers should wait until the third act to decide their character’s fate.

I can come back to stories that I’ve sat on because I write with a loose plan, leaving space for bad shit to happen. Just as stories are born from “What if?” questions, so are plot developments. I ask myself, “What if this terrible development upset my hero’s plan?” If I decide the idea is too harsh, I dial it back and it becomes, “What if I allude to the possibility of this terrible development? Now, how do I prevent it from happening?” Either way, I add to the tension.

For me, so much of writing is tricking myself to press on. If I can keep myself at the edge of my seat I’ll keep going, if only to find out what happens.

The Heckhound

We got our psychic vampire from a breeder

We got our psychic vampire from a breeder

That first week was fun. We thought it was adorable, the way Butterscotch rubbed her snout on the carpet until she sneezed, the way she kicked her little ears until her tags jingled. She walked around the lake with her tongue out and her rump held high.

Joggers guessed what mix she was, asking what shelter we got her from.

Rolling our eyes, we said, “We rescued her from a breeder.”

Two weeks later, we scoured the net to find the breeder’s site had mysteriously disappeared.

It wasn’t that Butterscotch peed on the carpet too much, it’s that when she did it was in the shape of a pentagram, never spilling a drop outside the circle. It wasn’t that she begged for the chicken in my hand, it’s that with one bark the drumstick vanished only to reappear inside her jaws. It wasn’t that she tugged on her leash, it’s that when she did we jumped entire blocks, materializing into oncoming traffic.

Butterscotch’s bark had bite. There was fire in her puppy dog eyes.

When she snapped at the mailman, his shorts burst into flames. When she marked the hydrant, her urine seared a hole through the iron, making a geyser on the boulevard. When she had trouble jumping onto the mattress, she chomped on the box spring until she’d crushed the corners and made herself a ramp.

Now we’re stuck like this, sleeping diagonally in a pile of toys, treats, and rawhides. We dare not leave, because we know Butterscotch will sniff us out wherever we go.

In the Mouth of Minneapolis (Audio Short)

Mouth

(If SoundCloud is down, download the track)
(Download the instrumental version here)

Even though this piece has the city of Minneapolis in the title, it could take place anywhere, anywhere artists sacrifice their standard of living in pursuit of their dreams, anywhere they persist despite all their failures, anywhere hope is in a shorter supply than fear. This is for those of us who feel like we’re on the tip of a hungry tongue, waiting to be chewed up and spat out. Continue reading

It’s Good to be Bad: On Writing Unlikable Characters

My shadow keeps doing that

My shadow keeps doing that

The very first line in Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places is, “I have a meanness inside me, as real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out…”

Right out of the gate, I knew I was going to like this book. It spit in the face of everything my screenwriting background had taught me. Libby Day, Dark Place’s narrator, doesn’t care what the reader thinks of her and that’s one of her most endearing qualities. She doesn’t pet a dog to win us over. She doesn’t compensate with a sense of humor. If she’s an ice queen with a heart of gold, she doesn’t wear it on her sleeve.

Libby wins our affection almost by accident. She’s the lone survivor of a murder spree that claimed her mother and two sisters. The moment this personal tragedy could get our sympathy, we learn she’s been exploiting it for money, living off of donations, even having a self help book on recovery ghost written for her. Now she’s down to her last few dollars. She’s a loser who strives to be as unlovable as possible.

Libby testified that her teenage brother sacrificed her siblings in the name of Satan, but didn’t actually see the event go down. When a group of true crime junkies hire her to investigate her past, Libby starts to wonder if the killer is still out there.

Libby’s call to action forces her to grow fast. Since she starts from such a low place, she has nowhere to go but up. Even though, she set out to rub us the wrong way in chapter 1, we find ourselves rooting for her when the book is done. Her no bullshit attitude proves beneficial. She doesn’t come with a strong moral code, but she finds one on the way.

These are the types of stories I love the most: likability long cons. If Libby had started as a grown up girl scout, she wouldn’t have commanded my attention.

Ask yourself, if Tony Stark was a gentleman from frame one, how compelling would you have found his transformation into Iron Man? If Han Solo never cared about Galactic Credits, how much would you have cared when he helped the rebellion at the last minute? If Catwoman hadn’t stollen Bruce Wayne’s fingerprints, would you have cared as much when she decided to help him save Gotham?

Unlike those lovable rogues, Libby Day doesn’t even bother being charming, but she goes through a similar karmic transition.

"There's nothing behind my back..."

“There’s nothing behind my back…”

Average Characters are Overdone

A trap early writers fall into is trying to make their characters likable from the get go. Treating character introductions like job interviews, they go out of their way to make a good first impression.

A lot of writers think the key to making characters relatable is to make them as average as possible. This is why sitting through movie trailers feels like watching a parade of Joe Everymen. I’ve already written about how much I hate that feeling. I don’t find regular Joe’s very compelling. Designing your lead to appear hyper normal, is a cheap way to make them accessible. A smarter investment, would be to give them a goal your audience can relate to.

Maybe we’re not all blue collar slobs, but we all want a reason to get up in the morning. Maybe we’re not all Joe-sixpacks, but we all want to be happier than we are. Maybe we’re not all average Americans, but we all want to be loved by someone.

Your character doesn’t need to be someone the audience wants to have a beer with. They’re not running for president. You don’t need to file down their jagged edges. Well developed characters are just as likable as characters that are just like us. It’s more important for your hero to feel like a human being than a delegate for all of humanity.

"... I swear."

“… I swear.”

Don’t Avoid Every Extreme

Writing a believable character is a lot like trying to seduce someone; if you’re too calculated in your approach, your target audience is going to feel it. They might not be able to explain why it’s not working, but they’ll have a very strong hunch. If you use manipulative language on a first date, your date has every right to walk out on you. If pander to what you think your audience wants, they have every right to put your book down.

Readers have read enough stories to subconsciously recognize writers’ tricks. Character formulas are not love potions.

If you write with an imaginary audience in the room, you’ll sacrifice your honesty in the name of broadening your appeal. You’ll avoid extremes. You’ll struggle to make your character vulnerable, without seeming too whiny. You’ll make them an underdog, with an unnatural resilience. You’ll waste too much time trying to make them seem smart, but not too clever. One sarcastic quip too many and you’ll fear you’re losing your reader.

If you write with your audience in the room, you’re setting yourself up for writer’s block. How can your story move forward, when you’re so afraid your reader will turn on you?

There’s something freeing about writing nasty characters, then unleashing them on the total squares that occupy their universe. We all spend so much time saving face, it’s fun to watch someone cast off social mores with reckless abandon. Audiences might find your hero repellant in the prologue, only to root for them later on.

Sarcastic, cynical, arrogant people are not without their appeal, so long as they’re three dimensional. Defects give your characters room to grow. Don’t rob them of a deep emotional change by making them too likable from the get go.

My Best Photoshop Costumes for Halloween

I’ve done a lot of digital dress up for horror themed articles on my site. Here’s a collection of my best computer generated costumes for Halloween.