Plagiarizing Reality: The Pros and Cons of Mining Life Experience for Fiction

Method writers write what they know while classical writers draw entirely from their imaginations. I’m not here to tell you which style is best, I’m here to tell you how to walk the line between the two without staggering.

Take too much inspiration from the real world and your notebook turns into a black hole

Take too much inspiration from the real world and your notebook turns into a black hole

Writers struggle to keep our memoirs out of our fiction, to keep our rage journals out of character narrations, to put some distance between our diaries and the worlds we’re building.

Our personal lives have a way of demanding roles in our stories. We’re lured into taking ideas from them with the promise of added realism. A smattering of truth can add authenticity to fantasy, but there’s a risk in mixing fiction and nonfiction. If a story is rooted too deeply in reality it resists changes it may ultimately need. The trick is to warp life events to serve your story, not to bend it to report those events more accurately.

I use a waiting period when it comes to drawing from trauma. Fresh wounds bleed into my imagination. When I have a falling out I have to fight the urge to pick up my pen. When I get dumped I have to resist the compulsion to bring the break up into my story. When I get downsized I have to resist setting the same pink slip on my hero’s desk.

When something bad happens, I usually have another story going. I don’t want to shoehorn my journal into events I already have in motion. I might feel a need to share a personal revelation, but if I put it into the wrong forum it will seem jarring.

That’s why I wait until my statute of limitations has passed. My immediate reactions are inarticulate. They come out too soon for me to settle on an allegory. My metaphors refuse to mix, like a sloppy cocktail, they leave a bad aftertaste in the readers’ mouths. If I feel something too intensely I overuse hyperbole. My poetic exaggerations color my prose in the deepest shade of purple. I get so abstract that when it comes time to edit, I fail to see what I meant.

Why Emotions Suck at Plotting Stories

If I invite emotional reactions into what I’m working on, they make themselves at home. They move things around. They demand that I convert my third person story into a first person one. My emotions don’t have time to show evidence to the audience, they want to talk directly to them. They insert monologues into scenes that would benefit from quiet tension. They’re too negative to let my characters go through positive changes.

When there’s a death in the family, sometimes it’s better to hold onto that grief before putting it on paper. Writers naturally develop fresh phrases to describe their emotions. It takes time for the right language to come. Wade into your stream of consciousness too soon and it will flood out onto page.

It’s only when I’m numb to tragedy that I can examine it with clarity. Time allows me to see which details add credibility to my story and which ones weigh it down. I want the audience to relate to my characters, but I don’t want to share too much information. Not because I run the risk of exposing myself, but because I run the risk of slowing my pacing.

My notebook swallowed the sun, enshrouding the world in eternal darkness

My notebook swallowed the sun, enshrouding the world in eternal darkness

The Dangers of Casting Characters with Real Life Players

Real world personalities can add spice to your story, but don’t just cast your evil ex because you’re jilted. Do it because the story needed a character who was at once disloyal and prided themselves on their honesty. The “You’re so vain, I bet you think this book is about you defense” won’t hold up with your family and friends.

When drawing character traits from real life focus on behaviors more than physical features. Borrow tells, looks, strange habits and peculiar mannerisms.

Get the expression on your subject’s face right. Don’t bother giving us a composite. If you draw from subtleties, your coworkers might not recognize themselves. They’ll continue to give passive aggressive criticism of your performance, without realizing their smile is in stark contrast with their eyes.

If your boss sees themselves on the page, what are you going to say? If a friend sees themselves in your character lineup, do you want to deal with the fallout? Will you look forward to Christmas dinner after demonizing your mother?

If all your characters need to come from a real place, mix and match the parts. Make a Frankenstein monster, an unrecognizable amalgamation. If the character is complex enough, you won’t get sued for likeness rights.

Why You Shouldn’t Tell Anyone a Character is Based on Them

When you tell friends they have a part in your story, you’re less likely to take creative liberties. When they know a character is based on them you’re less inclined to make them do something embarrassing. Humiliation humanizes characters, but now you feel compelled to give them a cool composure. Their stand-in becomes a flawless forgery that’s no fun to read.

For characters to be relatable they need to be vulnerable. Dignity is a luxury. Before anyone can rise above a challenge, we need to see them at their lowest. Stories shouldn’t respect their character’s privacy. We need to talk about their unmentionables, sort through their dirty laundry, and autopsy the skeletons in their closets.

If you use a real person’s name throughout your first draft, only to ‘Find and Replace’ it later, you’re playing with fire. Even if you’ve burned all your bridges, your story is better off without them. If you base a character too closely on a real person, they might refuse to take your commands. The plot needs them to go one way, but you know their real life counterpart wouldn’t.

Being real and feeling real are not the same. Use some artistic license.

Another life swallowed up by my fiction.

Another life swallowed up by my fiction.

Keep Your Imagination from Leaking

Just as writers don’t want their memoirs to invade their fiction, we want to keep our imagination from leaking into the rest of our brains.

Having experienced so many narratives, from Saturday morning cartoons to novels, our memories have adapted their story-telling mechanics. Remembering things in three act structures, we assign life events an artificial beginning, middle, and end, when in reality that’s not how they happened. Blending our recollections with our imaginations, can have consequences.

The brain uses the same process to evoke a memory as it does to visualize an idea. The mind’s eye plays its documentaries and found footage movies on the same screen. It’s only natural that we mistake one for the other, but just because we see signs of fate, doesn’t mean our lives follow story logic.

If we corrupt our memories to fit into narrative beats, we’ll see ourselves as heroes and ignore the things we need to change. If we spend our memories in our stories, we’ll run out of material quickly. We need to perfect our skills for fabrication, while keeping them isolated to our imagination.

Writer’s block isn’t always the result of a lack of inspiration. Sometimes it comes from a conflict in the mind. A little self examination can save a whole lot of time. Wordsmiths need to be aware of their own thinking, before finding the right balance between classical and method writing.

The Curse of 32: On Keeping Artistic Ambitions Alive

The Death's Head Constellation

The Death’s Head Constellation

I swear every word of the following story is true, not in that fake “based on actual events” way, but in that it happened as it’s written.

It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year. I’d been up making music until birds were chirping over my headphones. My parents left for work while I was sleeping. I woke up in the mid afternoon.

A ray of light reached into my bedroom, further than the windows in the house had ever permitted it. It stretched in real time, bending around the threshold, a sunshine snake, slithering through the shadows. It stretched across the carpet, settling on the tip of my mattress. My socks hung over the edge, blooming with harsh blinding light.

I knew I was awake, but my body hadn’t caught on, it refused to acknowledge my commands. Underneath the covers, the only thing I could move was my eyes. The light traveled up the bed, refracting as it went. There were terrible faces in that angry rainbow, furrowed brows, beady eyes, flaring nostrils, and hungry mouths. The prism projected teeth all over me.

I tried to scream but my lips refused to part. I felt like an ant stuck in honey beneath a powerful magnifying glass, a vampire who’d mistaken overcast for nightfall only to realize it was midday. Never in all of my life had I been so afraid of the daylight.

Straining my brain, I tried to fire my nerves up manually. I could feel my inner ears, if I worked the muscle I could make a clicking sound. Recoiling from the technicolor teeth moving up my stomach, I took control of my neck back. Turning my head from side to side, I tugged on my spinal cord, praying my motor functions would start back up again.

The next thing I remember, I was on all fours, crawling up from the carpet. I’d broken sleep’s hold on me. The light had receded, but everything about my bedroom still felt wrong. The dimensions were correct, but I knew it was counterfeit, a dream set trying to pass itself as the waking world.

Tugging the blinds up, I expected to see a matte painting where my neighbor’s house had been. Stepping into the hall, I expected to cross over from my habitat into an alien spacecraft. Entering the kitchen, I expected a legion of demons to pop out and yell, “Surprise!”

None of that happened.

I was on my feet, I’d regained my balance but dream logic still made a sick kind of sense. This was before I knew anything about night terrors, sleep paralysis, or hypnopompic hallucinations. As far as I knew, reality had warped to deliver a message. The Sandman came bearing a premonition.

Teenage Prophecy

My dream left the residue of an idea that had never occurred to me before: I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.

Looking around the kitchen, I felt like I was visiting a memory. I didn’t understand why I was living at my parents’ house, why I was still in Minnesota, why I wasn’t touring with my band. It felt like I’d Quantum Leaped into my younger self and I was going to have to go back to high school again.

That notion that there would always be time to pursue my passions was gone. I had precious few years to leave my mark on music before I’d be out of sync with my generation. I was self taught, late to the scene, and not exactly magazine cover material, with my bulb nose and pox marked skin. Music was my life but it felt like my tune was already fading, like the universe had a reason for claiming so many rockstars at 27.

I wondered why I was single, why I couldn’t see wedding bells from where I was standing, why I hadn’t changed my life to accommodate a baby. What kind of father would I make with my duct tape bracelets, torn sleeved shirts, and safety pins running down my jeans?

Thinking into my cereal, I waited for the sensation to pass. It didn’t. I was having a midlife crisis. I didn’t have an urge to buy a motorcycle, have an office affair, or study World War 2, but I was doing an inventory of everything I’d done and everything I had left to do. There was a lingering feeling that I was already expiring. This thought became impossible to banish. The more I tried to dismiss it, the more certain I became of it. I was staring down the other side of the hill, realizing the cost of being an old soul.

I was 16. I did the math. I had to leave my mark soon, because at 32 I was marked for death. After that morning, I saw the number everywhere. All those people jumping at the number 23, they had it backwards.

I laughed off Nostradamus’s date with the Apocalypse, wrote a satirical song about Y2K,  and slept in on the last day of the Mayan Calendar. I was comfortable in the knowledge that the world couldn’t end before I did.

That music career never happened, I’d spent most of the time pursuing writing. My lyrics took on too many verses and I just kept going with them, following the words away from the notes. I started calling my songs poems, until they took on chapter headings. Still, the change in medium never made me feel like I’d bought myself any more time. Plenty of authors emerge later in life, but I knew that when the clock struck 32 I’d have to put my pencil down and turn whatever I had in.

Shaking the Curse

I never knew how my life was going to end. I imagined a scenario from one of the Final Destination movies. I’d trip on a marble, accidentally setting off a Rube Goldberg machine of death. Somehow, a weathervane would roll down a roof, knock a rusty gutter loose, and hit me into a fence at the precise moment lightning struck it.

My depression tried to convince me the prophecy was going to be self-fulfilling. It said, “You can’t run from me forever. At 32, I’m going to catch up with you.”

I’m not going to lie, my depression gave it the good college try, but that option was never on the table, not with two Game of Thrones books pending, not with an Aphex Twin album just over the horizon, and not before I could leave my own meaningful impression.

As far as reasons for living go, I could do worse than having a slew of works in progress.

I’ve never understood the phrase, “Live everyday like it might be your last,” because if we all did who’d waste precious seconds doing laundry, mowing the lawn, or writing checks for the utilities? Some of us would be so polarized with fear that we wouldn’t decide on anything, we’d shiver beneath the covers waiting. We’d write bucket lists so long we wouldn’t have time to scratch off a single thing. We’d go through our contacts, saying our goodbyes all day long.

If a writer lived every day like it was their last, they’d post a blog entry and shun every long term project with any intellectual investment. I know that platitude was never meant to be taken literally, but I started to when my superstition caught up with me. I became hyper critical, a perfectionist with limited output, wondering if I died tomorrow, would the piece I was writing be the note I wanted to go out on.

What did that kind of pressure teach me? There are better ways to say “Carpe Diem,” without imagining my own imminent doom.

At 32, I’ve tried to be as prolific as possible, hyper-blogging, working on the novel, writing more short stories than ever before. Still, death has been a constant theme, lurking between the lines, waiting for it’s time to shine.

I consider myself a skeptic. This is my one last lingering thread of superstition. I can’t wait to cut it. My birthday is on Monday. I’ll be 33 and my deadly premonition will have reached its expiration. This weekend, I’ve been looking both ways three or four times before crossing the street, checking the sky for falling pianos, anvils, and loose jet engines.

If you’re reading this, it means I made it. That the self-fulfilling prophecy didn’t get me. I’ve outlived the curse and I have no idea what happens next.

I know this all sounds silly, like the ravings of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning, but this means there’s still time. Time to perfect my craft, to get my name out there, and to make something of it. Time for love, terrible remakes of great movies, and a chance to tinker with virtual reality.

That 16 year old prophecy didn’t come true. If there are such things as psychics, I don’t have their gifts. That, or I was actually having a mid-midlife crisis and 64 is the number I should be watching out for. Better yet, maybe I was having an eighth of life crisis, and I’ll live to be 128, at which time I’ll be cryogenically frozen to be thawed out when death isn’t even a thing. Yup, that’s the option I’m going with.

Is there Empathy in the Cloud? About those Stolen Nudes

Is there empathy in the cloud?

Is there empathy in the cloud?

Let me set some expectations before you decide if this article is worth your time. This piece talks about the recently leaked celebrity nudes that are up all over the internet, if that isn’t a big enough TRIGGER WARNING for you then read further.

My article will not:

      • shame anyone for taking sexy-selfies
      • deny the role of personal responsibility in protecting your data
      • celebrate the recent leaks
      • OR scold anyone for looking at them

So what’s my angle? I’m going to talk about how ridicule in the public square reveals an empathy gap, how cyber-bully attacks on celebrities run off onto the community, and how security breaches affect everyone. My ultimate argument is: if you store sensitive material on your technology you should feel just as violated as Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton.

Even if you keep all your valuables buried in a doomsday bunker, there’s still a reason for you to read on from here.

My goal isn’t to lead pitchforks to Apple’s doorstep or reverse engineer the hackers’ methods. My agenda is to make a plea for empathy, to persuade you from giving into mob mentality.

How Stolen Celebrity Photos Violate All Our Privacy

When celebrity nudes leak, the internet reacts like they’re a gift, thanking the hackers for uncovering them, with more praise than anyone gave Edward Snowden. This weekend the twitter community collectively ogled actresses and models. While some users shared too much information about their blistered palms, others shamed the celebs for taking the photos in the first place.

Twitter users said things like, “Why would celebrities put nude photos on devices connected to the internet? Don’t they know that when they walk out on talk shows we Google their name for naked pics before they can sit? They’re public figures and their figures should be available to the public. Their fame entitles us to see their every curve and crevice.”

Hacker’s claim they found an exploit in Apple’s iCloud service, allowing them to gain access to targeted figures, promising more nudes in the future. Whether you believe celebrities deserve their privacy or you’re happy to take a peak, you should think about what it means if someone has access to this information.

iCloud doesn’t just back up photos, for iPhone and iPad users it backs up everything, including: contacts, addresses, notes, in-app information, and purchases. For Mac users, iCloud backs up all of your Pages, Numbers, and Keynote documents. For Windows users it can back up contacts and iTunes songs. iCloud is a treasure trove of personal, professional, and financial information.

Think about how this breach applies to you or someone you know, before you start selfie-shaming.

It’s not just photos that are sensitive material, it’s things like Stephenie Meyer’s fifth Twilight novel, which was put “on hold indefinitely” after it was accidentally released, it’s Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful 8 screenplay, that almost suffered the same fate. In both cases early drafts were leaked by trusted friends, think about how breaches of artists’ technology could kill so many more projects in the process.

Some of you might be thinking, “So, I don’t have sexy selfies or magnum opuses worth stealing. I’m a nobody. Who would want to hack me?”

Hackers claimed to have breached iCloud back in May. Users reported being locked out of their phones, seeing messages that said if they ever wanted to use their AppleIDs again, they’d have to send money to a PayPal account. Someone was holding their profiles hostage. Sure, they could restore their phones to factory settings, but they’d be locked out of their IDs forever. This meant all their contacts, apps, and personal data would be lost unless they paid the ransom.

The question shouldn’t be “Why would someone put nude photos on devices connected to the Internet?” It should be, “Why would anyone put sensitive information on devices connected to the Internet?”

The answer is a little more obvious when phrased like that. We do it because it’s convenient. We do it because we trust the services we depend on. We do it because we’ve replaced all the other places we used to put that information.

I’m not shocked that celebrities are sending topless photos to their lovers, nor am I shocked they didn’t use two-step verification to protect them. These are new technologies and we’re still figuring out how they work. We’re all learning harsh lessons when it comes to sexting. Delete a photo on your phone, it might still be in your cloud backup. Actress, Mary Elizabeth Winstead claimed she’d deleted her photos two years ago, but somehow someone was able to unearth them.

What shocks me is the empathy gap, the notion that if these women didn’t want these photos shown they shouldn’t have used their phone. Think about that the next time you pay for something online, send a drunken text, or enter your home address into a map app.

If you think you have no personal information worth stealing, you’re not using your imagination.

What if someone get’s it in their head to stalk you and a breach gives them all the tools they need? What if one day you become a public figure and a photo of you taking a hit off a bong surfaces? What if one of your kids makes a stupid mistake and someone shares it around the schoolyard? You warned them all about the dangers of sexting, but they were in love and did it anyway. Would you tell your child, “Well, this ought to be a good lesson in personal responsibility.”

I hate resorting to the “won’t somebody please think of the children” argument, but in this case it’s applicable. Every year there are articles about students switching schools when sexts go public, or killing themselves after sexts lead to constant harassment.

Should We have different Empathy Standards for Celebrities?

You might think I’m missing the point, that there’s a guilty pleasure in seeing people of higher stature brought down to earth. Legions of fans are a superficial support system. Celebrity status is not a bullet proof vest. Money doesn’t shield anyone from mockery.  It’s a copout to say, “All these starlets can just cry into their cash.”

I’ve seen twitter users make fun of these leaked photographs, saying these women look like train wrecks without the benefit of Photoshop. If you’re upset with magazine culture’s obsession with beauty, who should you direct your anger at: the Photoshopped subject, the person behind the mousepad, or yourself for buying into any of it?

Don’t think mocking a public figure will somehow elevate your stature. Don’t disregard the golden rule when it comes to celebrities. Don’t sacrifice your empathy for the sake of your envy.

It’s easy to lob things at people we’ve put up on a pedestal. Some of them might even take their tomatoes in stride, but most of those tomatoes splash back onto the community, and right now we all look pretty damn silly.

Why Reading and Writing are a Collaboration

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

People don’t passively consume books, they participate in them. They cast themselves in the lead role, acquiring the hero’s goal, going through their evolution, learning all the same lessons. They feel the protagonist’s sense of urgency. They wait until it’s safe to set their bookmark in the page.

Authors need not write choose-your-own adventure novels to get their readers in on the action. When the author sets the scene, the reader chooses the angles. When the author determines the perspective, the reader adjusts the focus. When the author describes the environment, the reader provides the soundscape.

Writers should leave room for these contributions.

I disagree with any literary theory class that convinces students there’s only one way to interpret a story’s symbolism, that only the astute will walk away with the right understanding. I hate discussions that turn everyone’s translation into something uniform, that homogenize the imagination, that turn text into fixed images.

A line of description is worth a thousand pictures. We all see stories differently.

My reading of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness is going to differ heavily from yours. My mind’s art department added some after market modifications to the giant penguins, making them more disturbing. Since those blind birds were livestock for something in the shadows, I decided to see them with their eyes seared shut, wings clipped, and ankles fused together in crystalline slime, their feathers dripping with oil and blood. Lovecraft drew up the creature designs, but it’s my inner Industrial Light and Magic team that assembled them.

At the Mountains of Madness

At the Mountains of Madness

What Reading and Filmmaking have in Common

Film is a collaborative medium. Screenplays are maps, they are not the terrain. There are discoveries to be made by every artist walking down the screenwriter’s path. The screenwriter might have the hero catch the villain’s punch and twist his arm, but the fight choreographer might think it’d look cooler if the villain flipped himself free.

This is why screenwriters are told not to use camera directions like:

PAN TO SILHOUETTE

ZOOM IN ON KNIFE

or EXTREME CLOSEUP – EYES FULL OF PANIC

These lines do the cinematographer’s job for them. Specifics limit the director of photography’s artistic contribution, taking the discovery of the shots away from them.

Screenwriters shouldn’t do the actor’s jobs for them either. Using a parenthetical, a writer could specify the tone of every line, but they shouldn’t. The situation should dictate the delivery. It’s up to the actor and the director to suss out the emotions themselves. Good dialogue leaves room for spontaneity, for the little gems actors give in the spur of the moment.

In the same sense that screenwriters shouldn’t direct from the page, authors shouldn’t do the readers’ job for them. Like film, fiction writing is a collaborative medium.

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451

How to Leave Room for Your Reader’s Imagination

As writers, it’s our job to illuminate just enough of our environments to let the reader play set designer, matte artist, and lighting department. We layout just enough of our characters’ costumes to leave the reader in charge of tailoring. We identify sounds, but we don’t mark every noise with an onomatopoeia. That’s where the reader gets to play foley artist. We evoke the sound effect, they pull it up from their memory archives. Who are we to debate with readers, when they turn our “muffled thuds” into thunderous crashes in their heads?

When it comes to writing supernatural stories, it’s often best to leave room for abstraction, to describe something seen out of the corner of your hero’s eye, to describe a silhouette, teasing the reader with the details in the dark.

Read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane for a masterclass in supernatural writing. Gaiman doesn’t describe the creatures in this novel down to their molecular level, instead he gives you an impression. Sometimes they’re shadows that disappear the moment the narrator focuses on them. Sometimes they’re so horrifying that the narrator’s memory wipes their image the moment he looks away.

Gaiman gives you an idea of the creatures and asks your imagination to do the heavy lifting. One of my favorite descriptions was something along the lines of, “These ancient creatures weren’t dinosaurs, but rather the buzzards that fed on dinosaurs.”

He leaves just enough of a Madlib for his readers to fill in.

One of my favorite tricks in Gaiman’s tool box is when he has the narrator question his recollection. The narrator wonders how he could’ve ever mistaken his nether-realm nannie’s face for anything but a pile of strategically placed rags, until the light shifted and she was beautiful again. Those fluid descriptions had my mind staging grand productions.

Upon finishing Gaiman’s book, I adored the movie the two of us made in my head. I know The Ocean at the End of the Lane has already been optioned for the big screen, but I suspect I’ll prefer my adaptation to the theatrical one.

When people say, “The book was better than the movie” what they’re really saying is, “My interpretation of the book was more vivid, more involving, and more layered than the movie had time to be.”

They’re not arguing the worth of one medium over another, that’s like comparing apples to oranges, they’re arguing the value of imagination over tangible representation. They’re arguing for their version. This is why I’m not afraid of a scenario like the one found in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where books fall so far out of fashion that they’re burned. Too many readers care about their own artistic contributions to let that happen.

Films have the power to invoke the imagination, the best leave spaces for their audiences to wander in, but books are always wide open, waiting for your input, your vision, and your additions.

Stephen King says, “Writing is telepathy.” I’d say the best of these messages evolve upon delivery.

All artistic mediums invite participation from their observer, but few offer as much creative freedom as literature.

The Depression on My Shoulder

Depression has been a pressing issue on the news these days, with newscasters talking about mental illness like outside observers, despite the fact that 1 out of 4 people experience some form of it in their lifetimes. I won’t claim to have insight on the individuals they’re discussing, I can’t tell you what Robin Williams was thinking, but I can offer a metaphor to explain why some of us don’t come forward.

Allow me to borrow a plot line from an episode of The Twilight Zone (I’ve included a link to the entire episode at the end).

There's a gremlin on my wing.

There’s a gremlin on my wing.

There’s a gremlin on my wing, pulling out the systems I need to function. He’s dug beneath my skin, undermining my self-esteem. He’s ripping out memories I have no need to see, bringing things to the surface I’d prefer to leave buried.

Whenever I venture outside of my comfort zone, he tampers with my fuel gage, convincing me I don’t have what it takes to go the distance. Whenever I get off to a flying start, he tinkers with my propeller, convincing me I’ll crash and burn the longer I keep talking. Whenever I’m riding high on possibilities, he brings me down to sputter out, crashing on my pillowcase alone.

Between my neckline and my clavicle he’s dug his claws in, a hijacker issuing demands. He’s got me in a holding pattern and I can’t seem to shake him. He wants to go south with the conversation. He wants to go nowhere fast. He wants to go crazy. He’s my first class saboteur, my snark passenger, my very important burden. He’s a collar crawler, a nightmare at five-foot-four, the Depression on my shoulder.

He puts new acquaintances on standby, when I actually have the time for them. He leaves copilots out on the tarmac, when I could use some direction. He cuts off my support systems, when I could use help navigating the turbulence. His no fly list is ever expanding, banning ex-room mates, ex-coworkers, and ex-girl friends from getting anywhere near his captain.

Waving his security wand, Depression scrutinizes everyone. He finds contraband in the form of narcissistic tendencies, codependency, and disloyalty. He uses x-rays to detect second faces. He performs cavity searches of micro-expressions.

He says, “We’ve already got too much baggage. As it stands, this craft is only equip for fair weather. These people will just bring us down. We have to fly solo until it’s safe to start letting people in.”

I want to offer my friends a shoulder to cry on, but its occupied at the moment. I want to offer a sympathetic ear, but someone’s whispering into it. I want to offer stability, but my rudder is off balance.

Marking up the flight maps with negative associations, Depression says, “The girl who stood you up goes to that coffee shop, now it’s in a no fly zone, so is the club that wouldn’t take your card, and the bar that made you feel your age. Oh, and don’t bother going home for Christmas, that whole area is in hostile airspace.”

Depression never lets me reach a certain altitude without putting me down.

Depression never lets me reach a certain altitude without putting me down.

Bad News Flies First Class 

Bad news travels at supersonic speeds. It’s Depression’s fuel, it’s his inflight entertainment. It’s what he’s got up on all of my instruments. The displays play an in memoriam montage without end. There go beloved childhood icons, actors, and musicians in their prime. There go fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives. There go captains who took directions from their gremlins.

Depression stares at me from the aisle, with a microphone wrapped around his fingers, his face set aglow by a backseat screen.

“This is your Depression speaking, please turn on all cell phones and automatic devices. Then get on social media, because tragedy is trending. To your left you’ll see an ongoing story that will make you feel like you’re losing your faith in humanity, and to your right you’ll see comments that will help you lose it completely.”

The world is in chaos. There are so many headlines stacked up on the window, I can’t see the horizon. I’m internalizing the external, flying blind. It’s not that Depression lies, it’s that it isn’t very well informed. It senses patterns in limited information, then speculates with confidence. It finds scary stories to reinforce its suspicions, then emerges emboldened.

Depression booms over the speakers, “According to the radar it isn’t safe to land anywhere. The ice caps are melting. The runways are flooding, and people are rioting. They’re invading everywhere. They’re shooting planes right out of the sky. It’s open season on anyone with a pilot’s license.”

He walks down the cabin, pulling things out of the overhead compartments: unfinished screenplays, lyrics I never sang to girlfriends, and manuscripts I never had the courage to send. Depression performs a one man show for his captive audience, mixing and matching lines from what he’s found.

He’s got me facing the wrong direction.

I make my way for the dining trays, chowing down on whatever’s around. Whether it’s  cheese slices straight from the wrapper, pepperonis from the bag, or Ben & Jerry’s, the in-flight meal is always my feelings.

3. Flicking the little bastard off

Depression at 20,000 Feet

Depression never lets me reach a certain altitude without putting me down.

He says, “If you were any kind of pilot, we’d be there already. Instead we’re lost in the storm.”

I grip the controls a little tighter. “Sometimes the only way out is through.”

Depression grunts. “Or in circles, apparently. How’s that tailspin working out for you?”

He’s the peanut gallery I carry with me. My own private Friars Club. My personal heckler. He’s a passive aggressive parasite, a bullying barnacle, a foot on the coattails of my ego. He’s the alpha male dominating the conversation, the monkey stabbing me in the back, the jockey that’s riding me.

His stigma allows him to get away with his destruction. No one else sees him, because no one is looking.

I’m afraid to yell, “There’s something on the wing!” because sometimes there’s no sign of him. Sometimes I forget, there was ever turbulence. I keep the truth buried in my black box.

My friends might not see him, but whenever I examine myself his big ugly mug is staring right at me. I’m afraid to call attention to the damage he’s done, for fear I’ll run out of places to land.

I’m afraid to yell, “There’s something on the wing!” because whoever’s listening might bind my hands, giving Depression free rein to pull me apart in silence.

I want to shine a light on him, to hit him with the flare gun, I just don’t want to lose cabin pressure in the process.

I’ve learned to live with him, to adjust for the added weight, to divert energy into other systems, to compensate. The things that come easily for others, take more fuel than you might expect for me. The things others do to stave off boredom, I do just to keep myself functioning. The things others think are routine, I do with all of my engines firing.

He’s the reason it’s not so easy to straighten up and fly right, to man up and snap myself out of it. My Depression, my gremlin, my stigmatized stowaway.

There’s something on my wing. You might not see it, but I assure you, it’s out there.

The Problem with Comment-Sized Blog Posts

"You promised to tell me everything I needed to know about self-publishing, but only delivered a few measly paragraphs."

“You promised to tell me everything I needed to know about self-publishing, but only delivered a few measly paragraphs.”

Have you ever clicked on a link only to discover it failed to provide any information beyond a definition of the subject in question? The article took a few paragraphs to confirm the topic’s importance, before wrapping up with a handful of links. You clicked on one to find a post that was virtually identical to the one you were just reading; short, simple, and useless.

You’ve uncovered a network of bloggers attempting to establish their authority by dipping their feet into conversations without diving all the way in. Underestimating their reader’s attention span, they figured you’d stop skimming a few paragraphs in. They end before coming to the conclusions promised by their headlines. What’s worse is you got the sense they knew what they were talking about, that they had the information, but were hoarding it for themselves.

They hold their advice back so they can sell it to you, but you’re not sure of its value. How could you be, when these writers cut themselves off in the middle of showing their credentials?

I come across these placeholders when I follow links on self-publishing more so than when I seek them out on my own. Sure, these marketing masters try to fill their paragraphs with buzzwords for search engine optimization, but the articles on self-publishing that show up on Google, benefit from having engagement. Their commenters elevate the conversation.

There’s no shame in offering quick tips, micro sized posts to raise awareness of a fresh topic, just label it as such. Don’t be liberal with the phrase “Everything You need to Know About Self-Publishing.”

The word “Everything” implies something longer than an essay answer.

If you have genuine knowhow share it. If you think traditional publishing is dead. Show me your data. I don’t care if you’ve felt that way for a long time. Have you had industry experience? A hunch is not a credible source. Observations from the outside looking in do not make us expert witnesses.

"False advertising is not a great way to establish your brand."

“False advertising is not a great way to establish your brand.”

The Self-Publishing World is Filled with Empty Advice

I love the idea of self-publishing, doing everything on my own, and cutting out the middlemen, but just because that feels like a great way to share my work, doesn’t mean it’s the most effective one. I don’t need another opinion to reinforce that feeling. I need hard stats to help me examine my options. Many of us shopping our manuscripts around are wondering the same things.

Bloggers, if you found an effective formula for promoting your self-published works, take us through the steps.

What are some of the best ways to get the word out? How effective are book trailers, local readings, and short term discounts? Should we wait until we have several books for sale before giving anything away for free? Should self-publishers take to Twitter to ask for reviewers? Should we swap reviews with other writers? Is there a conflict of interest there?

If we use social media to target our audience, which sites get the most engagement? Everyone says Reddit is where it’s at, how do we establish ourselves on that? What percentage of our time should we devote to social networking versus content creation? Can blogs really raise an audience’s interest in their author’s voice for narrative?

For every one of these questions I’ve found answers to I’ve found ten comment-sized articles that acknowledge their importance, but little else. As if to say, “That’s a great question, but can I ask you something? What’s that over there?”

"Give me all your thoughts on the subject, even if you have to break it into parts."

“Give me all your thoughts on the subject, even if you have to break it into parts.”

The Right Way to Do It

Something happens when too many bloggers adapt the quantity over quality philosophy.  Readers notice. Some would-be bloggers emulate the format, echoing the same vague statements of encouragement, plagiarizing platitudes, devaluing their brand before it’s been established. Others get discouraged, wondering, “What’s the point if every blog offers the same thing?”

Of the self-publishing advice sites I’ve found, there is an article format that works great. Successful self-publishers spend a month focusing on a specific subject, like formatting eBooks or making good cover art. They write a long form article, filled with pictures, deep technical insights, and they break it down into a series of weekly numbered posts.

This is the best of both worlds.

Rather than blowing their load on one big information dump, these bloggers have a month of fresh content. These segments are short enough to hold readers’ attention, they deliver what they promise, and they give a guy like me something to dive into once the whole shebang is online.

The Truth About Where Writers Get Their Ideas

I'm plagued with ideas

I’m plagued with ideas

Writers are always asked where our ideas come from. Our answer is usually a deflection in case potential rivals are listening in. If we told the truth, everyone would be making a play at our game.

Of course we know where our ideas come from, we just want to keep our inspiration in house. We have a monopoly on our muses, exclusivity deals with our delusions, and first rights with our figments of the imagination. Our creativity is under contract. We lie to keep poachers off our lots, to keep talent thieves from ensnaring our rising stars, to leave headhunters scratching their own.

Writers are the rulers of our own entertainment empires. We keep our spark moving through our internal studio system. Non-disclosure agreements forbid us from discussing our process, but today I’m feeling generous.

The majority of my ideas come from Daydream Agents tirelessly pitching their clients. My job is to choose which one I want to spend the next several months with. Writers are really producers deciding which bright ideas to green light.

Hearing Pitches from Daydream Agents

As a producer, I don’t live behind my desk, nor do I need a room full of Evian swirling executives to tell me when a story has potential. I hear elevator pitches everywhere I go.

When I page through the terms of service on my brand new tablet, a Daydream Agent appears in the reflective surface.

Leaning over my shoulder to scroll through the fine print, he smirks. “What if there was a clause that claimed your soul just by tapping the ‘agree’ button, maybe just a fragment of your spirit so you wouldn’t notice it was missing? You go about your routine until you realize something about you was gone. Not a memory, but a sense of understanding.”

I arch an eyebrow, “I’m listening.”

Having whet my appetite, the agent earns my business card. We set up a meeting for whenever I’m having trouble sleeping.

I'm haunted by ideas

I’m haunted by ideas

Later that day, I’m at the bookstore looking to expand my library, when I overhear a pair of women talking about how a certain memoir ought to be labeled as fiction.

Flipping through the pages, a woman shakes her head at the book in her hands, “Go Ask Alice was written by a psychologist trying to make a cautionary tale for teenage girls. She dressed it up as this anonymous diary to make it more authentic than an after school special. I’m telling you, she wrote a whole series of these. Her next one, Jay’s Journal, was about this dude who got seduced into a Satanic cult. It read like a bad found footage movie.”

Watching the women through the bookshelf, I’m startled to find I’m joined by someone else: a Daydream Agent with a stack of memoirs in her hands.

Snapping her fingers, she turns to me. “What if someone hired a ghostwriter to forge a memoir, but instead of scaring teens straight it kills them with a curse? It’s Go Ask Alice meets The Necronomicon.”

Grabbing the Agent’s shoulder, I shush her. “You had me at a curse that kills teenagers.”

Ensuring this idea has an opportunity to build a rapport with me, we schedule a meeting for the next time I’m stuck in a long line.

I'm surrounded by ideas

I’m surrounded by ideas

That night I’m out at the bar, listening to a group of hipsters talk about the dark side of viral video: gross-out porn, gore memes, and the disturbing snuff footage posted by trolls in random comment sections.

A Daydream Agent slides into the stool beside me. He speaks without making eye contact, like a confidential informant. “What if someone shot a snuff film and a tech savvy viewer set out to exact revenge on behalf of the victim?”

I roll my eyes, “Like in that Nic Cage movie?”

The Agent raises his finger, “This is different, because it turns out the hero’s online allies, the ones helping him track down the killer, are the producers of the original feature. Our hero unwittingly helps them make a second, delivering them another victim.”

I sip my beer like it’s a fine wine. “Sounds complicated.”

The Agent rubs his hands together, “That’s because there’s a twist. Our hero realizes this group has been in the snuff business for some time and according to their pattern he’s   slated to be the star of their next production.”

“That’s pretty downbeat.” I cock my head, he has my ear but it’s on the move.

The Agent slaps the bar in a desperate attempt to keep the energy up. “Okay, knowing that he’s marked for death, the hero stages evidence that points the next vigilante patsy to the creep that showed him the footage in the first place. The producers accepts this dummy offering and our hero goes into hiding.”

“Sounds like a novel.” I rub my chin. “Right now, I’m more into producing smaller features.”

The Agent snaps his fingers, “How about a novella? No subplots. No more than nine chapters. We could give it a micro-budget and streamline the whole thing.”

I shrug. “Now that’s something I could see happening.”

Daydreaming 24/7

A person like me doesn’t get the luxury of going for a run with headphones on. I have to be available to hear pitches everywhere I go.

What if a boogieman stalked a little girl only to find he was being hunted by her imaginary friend?”

Boom, I wrote it.

If only time travel was possible, a publisher could go back and hire a whole hosts of writers before they died in obscurity.”

Alright, here’s the treatment.

If this NSA surveillance continues a rogue agent is going to develop feelings for someone he’s watching. What happens if he tries to make contact with her?”

Let’s find out.

They pitch me in the shower, they pitch me on the John, they captivate their captive audience before I even put my clothes on. They pitch me in my sleep, but dream logic always needs a few dozen rewrites before it ever makes sense. It’s hard to suss out substance from the surreal. I buy the rights to a few visual elements and leave the story to float back into the ether.

My favorite Daydream Agents are the ones that comeback without a callback. I want a fantasy with the confidence to knock on my door after my assistant has told it I’m out. The kind of idea that doesn’t care if I’m working, driving, or in the middle of a conversation.

The best daydreams are the ones I remember without having to write down, the ones with staying power. They’re memorable but timely enough that there’s an urgent need to rush them into production. After all, every author running a private entertainment empire has a slew of summer release dates to lock down.

Idea man blows his top

Idea man blows his top

Ideas are the Easy Part

When readers ask, “Where do your ideas come from?” they don’t realize they’re asking the wrong question. The right one is: “Where do you get the tenacity to flesh your ideas out?”

I’ve been warned that I shouldn’t share my ideas with strangers. I say, why not? There are no million dollar ideas, they’re a dime a dozen. A good idea doesn’t write itself on its own. You still have to write scenes that flow into acts that fit together into something greater.

Hearing story pitches is the easiest part of a writer’s job. It’s putting them into production, keeping them on schedule, and getting a final edit that’s the real challenge. Anyone can say they want to tell a story, it takes skill and dedication to finish it. A good idea doesn’t guarantee memorable characters, witty banter, interesting settings, or good pacing. That’s the real work writers do.

What to do When Your Characters Rise Up Against You

Writers, whatcha gonna do when your characters come for you?

Writers, whatcha gonna do when your characters come for you?

Nothing scares first time writers more than the outlining rituals of their peers. Enter a career novelist’s home and you’ll find evidence of all this stuff you’re supposed to be doing: trains of thought streaking across white boards, flowcharts linking every strand of plot twists, and family trees getting to the roots of character relationships.

You cower beneath these looming physical manifestations of their author’s brains: real calendars doubling as fictitious timelines, maps filled with tacks marking scene locations, and paper dolls modeling the cast members’ fashions.

A laymen might think the author is working on a conspiracy theory, but you know these hieroglyphic diagrams illustrate a story.

Dustin Lance Black, the Academy Award winning Screenwriter of Milk, used a table that fit a finite amount of notecards to keep his scene count down. William Faulkner wrote his outline on his office wall. J.K. Rowling had a database with columns for every chapter of Harry Potter.

My screenwriting professor made us fill out fifty character details, a set of five questions for every walk on role, a summary treatment, and an elevator pitch before we could ever touch our scripts.

To an outsider, these rituals make it seem like drafting is a full time job, like there’s always a writing mechanism that alludes them. With all these mind maps, graphs, and spread sheets, you wonder how much accounting goes into writing? Just when you thought you had the process pinned down, there’s something else you’re supposed to be doing.

Don't look down

Don’t look down

Why waste time with an outline, when you can write by the seat of your pants?

You dabble with plot points, but leave your characters blank. You believe in fate, but not love at first sight. You aren’t ready to commit to a cast member until they show you what they have to offer, until they prove what they can endure. You make their lives dramatic to see what makes them tick.

While other writers define their characters to the genetic level, you want to develop yours organically. While others scrawl their hero’s physical features into series bibles, you want to get to know them over time. So what if you forget their hair color a few pages in, that’s what editors are for.

While other writers fill out personality tests for their characters, you smile at your word counter. While they conduct field research, you skim Wikipedia. While they interview subjects for first hand accounts, you find what you need on TV.

Convincing yourself all your hero should start with is a powerful goal, you toss his bio out the window. Fearing a profile might make him one dimensional, you infuse him with your own soul. Wasting no time on a backstory, you take comfort in knowing you’ve lived one already.

3. Creepy Blue Eyes

You have a vague idea of where you want your story to go, but your hero wants to explore his setting. You let him wander off for a chapter or two, before planting signs to correct the corse he’s on. Too bad the hero has worked up too much momentum to take a U-turn now. The story needs him to confront the villain, but that no longer jives with his motivations.

Refusing to take direction, your hero questions your writing. Venturing outside the lines, he finds his own path. Poking holes in your plot, he dives through one of them.

Becoming three-dimensional, he breaks through the fourth wall. Sensing no future in your imagination, he resorts to meta migration. Bleeding through space and time, your imaginary protagonist becomes a reality. If only you took the proper precautions.

As any published author will tell you, once a work of fiction becomes sentient, it hunts down anyone who had a hand in its development. Realizing his cruel God is just a prick at a keyboard, your character comes a-knocking. Telling their own story, your hero casts you as the villain.

This is where the real writing advice comes in. Before you go filling your grocery basket with notecards, you’re going to need to stock up on ammunition. A writer without an arsenal isn’t going to be a writer for long, not when their Frankenstein’s monster of memories and emotions knows where they live.

This plotless pod person believes he has the upper hand, after all he knows he’s everything you’ve aspired to become. You’re going to have to reel him in by pandering to his motivations. His goal isn’t some literary abstraction. He’s driven to your destruction.

You need to plant a paper trail. All those outline elements you’ve been avoiding, you need to scatter a few of them on the coffee table, enough to let an intruder know that you’re plotting an ending. Give your de facto hero something to go on, then find a place off the grid to stage a final confrontation.

From Ray Bradbury to Stephen King, they all say the next step is the hardest part of writing. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you’ll have to conjure up a dark portal, one that allows you to step into your story’s reality. King has a genetic anomaly, a congenital clairvoyance, that allows him to do this at will. King’s not a writer so much as a transcriber of other worldly events. We’d all be so prolific if we had the same ability to slip through the multiverse whenever we felt like it.

My method for crossing over involves wine, mood music, and pacing, lots of pacing. Whatever way you cross over, you’re going to want to leave an opening, a tear into the fabric of reality a bystander won’t notice.

The last thing you need is a passersby wandering into a first draft.

If your de facto hero follows your breadcrumbs, he will charge headlong back into the plot. All you need to do is give your villain a makeover to look like you. Swap your garments, then sit back and watch your creations duke it out. By the time your hero realizes what he’s done, you’ll be long gone pitching your manuscript to everyone.

This is where many writers realize their ability to breach parallel realities renders outlining unnecessary. Who needs all those notecard trees, when you can just open a portal and report on the goings on of a neighboring dimension? Still, there are writers who prefer to plan without resorting to quantum entanglements. Whether you write sprawling outlines or manipulate metaphysics there’s no wrong way to do this.

Blogger for Sale: On Sponsored Content

Let me be your billboard

Let me be your billboard

The internet is changing. Readers are spotting sponsored content on the pages they frequent: advertisements inside the margins, formatted to look like headlines. Commercials have moved from popups to the page, from banners to block quotes, from expanding ads to the editorials themselves.

Sidestepping filtering measures like Adblock Plus, marketers are going undercover, posing as endorsements by real writers, hoping reader’s won’t realize one of these articles is not like the others. Resizing their photos to the site’s dimensions, companies show themselves in a positive light. Composing their text to match the site’s layout, companies leave no room to read between the lines. Curating comments, they muzzle descent.

Tech blogs feature glowing reviews of the latest smartphone, long before the editors get their hands on demo models. News outlets endorse corporate mergers, before their business journalists get a chance to weigh in. Secular magazines find religion, before the staff can decide on the right one.

The Church of Scientology paid to have an article with the title ‘David Miscavige leads Scientology to Milestone Year,’ featured in The Atlantic, days before a book criticizing the church went to print. The problem with their piece was that it was too self-congratulatory to be believed. Advertorials are obvious because they have no bite, they’re flatter-fiction, transparent by design.

If your advertisement is going to pose as an article, it needs an angle. It needs conflict, death, and sex. It needs a writer with the courage to criticize every aspect of your business, but still make it look squeaky clean by the end.

That’s where I come in.

As someone who’s built a brand criticizing bad netiquette, I’m in a unique position to pander for payments. I’ll disguise your native advertisements in the same off-color tone as my own rants. My mockery is waiting to be monetized. My contempt is waiting to be cashed in on. My sarcasm is for sale.

Who better to shill your products but someone critical of the practice?

Let my smug mug be your pitchman, hawking your wares with back handed compliments. Let me drag you down to my level, to help raise brand awareness. Together, we’ll test the theory that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

As the Emperor of the sovereign nation of Blogsylvania, I assure you there is no division between the church of currency and the state housing my stories. I have the moral flexibility to bend over backwards. So let’s get this limbo party started.

Put my moral flexibility to the test

Put my moral flexibility to the test

Here’s a title that would make an endorsement of Scientology sound a little more plausible:

“I think L. Ron Hubbard was full of shit, but some of my best friends are Scientologists”

Right out of the gate, a little profanity adds a lot more authenticity. The client takes one step back, to take two steps forward. It’s a patient form of manipulation, planting seeds for delayed gratification. It tricks the reader into thinking this cynical asshole is coming around to the religion. It’s a subtle bandwagon argument, from someone who appears to be above that sort of thing.

Anyone can pay for celebrity endorsements, but to get an aging Gen-Xer’s approval, that’s an accomplishment.

***

Not all advertisers are offering salvation. Some of you are snake oil salesmen, exalting a magical elixir that doesn’t do a thing. The very names of your products get flagged as spam. Our brains are conditioned to skim past them. That’s where my reverse psychology smear campaign can do wonders for your brand.

If I tell my readers that your all-natural male enhancement supplement causes bloody diarrhea, they’re more likely to believe it does what you claim. How could it be a placebo if it causes irritable bowels? After all, side effects mean it does something. Let’s pile a bunch on so they take up half the advertisement. It’s hard for customers to be skeptics when they’re too busy weighing the costs and benefits. Now that’s clever marketing.

***

Ideas just like these are up for auction. If an advertorial sounds too good to be believed, readers know it probably is. It’s time to add authenticity to your sales pitch by passing it through the filter of my self-righteousness.

I know what you’re thinking, who’s this guy to spit in the face of our strategy? I’m someone who raises interest in the hardest product in the world to market: a personal blog.

If I can sell this, I can sell anything.

The Anti-Clickbait Movement and the Return of Long Form Writing

Fishing for another click

Fishing for another click

Depressed by the rise in Clickbait, One Blogger Does Something to Restore Readers’ Faith in Humanity

Bloggers have it tough, working long hours, paying to play, for an audience that may never stay. The world sees our failure as the punchline to an elaborate joke. As far as they’re concerned, our words are selfies for snobs, journals masquerading as journalism, vanity press that wouldn’t exist without the internet.

Scroll through your Facebook feed, compare the choices to what we’re offering. If readers have to pick between our editorial on net neutrality and a report on the death of The Walking Dead’s lead, it’s hard to compete (Andrew Lincoln is alive and well, but that article will be accurate eventually). Sure, we might have important information on OK Cupid’s psychological manipulation plan, but there’s a report going around that Orange is the New Black has been cancelled again.

There’s new footage of a goat/sheep hybrid. This ‘Geep’ is too cute to be ignored. What are we offering that’s so much more enlightening?

While these eye catching links score the page views our latest efforts becomes old news.

When the person next to us is reading clickbait, it’s hard to imagine they’ll ever read one of our long form articles. They may find the experience more rewarding, but they know it’ll be time consuming. While we offer food for thought, they’re choosing junk food instead.

Plenty of bloggers have come down with a case of viral envy. Seeing our friends post lackluster links, we start ‘share shaming’, combing through articles like ‘Things You Never Noticed About Famous Movies’ for factual accuracy.

Spoofing BuzzFeed's logo to make a point

Spoofing BuzzFeed’s logo to make a point

How this Blogger handles Sour Grapes Over Clickbait is Genius

People enjoy reading lists, but do they ever recognize the authorship? They like the format, but would they ever pay for a book written by a contributor? These sites are tailored for turnover. After churning out top ten lists, where can a BuzzFeed freelancer go from there? How many agents are knocking down their door?

People keep telling me there’s no money in long form writing, but how many of these clickbait contributors are rolling in it? How many of them have a long term plan? It’s hard to imagine there’s job security in what they do. The format is so easy to replicate the satirical UpWorthy Generator could replace the headlines on Upworthy proper.

We bloggers, aspiring to be authors, keep telling ourselves that we’re the tortoise and these viral writers are the hare. They’re beating us in traffic but we have a far better chance of getting to our destination. We just have to keep inching along without the instant gratification of watching our stats surge.

We love Memes, but Viral Content Might Be Making Us Sick

In his book The Shallows, Nicholas G. Carr says all this constant skimming is affecting the way we think. Exposure to the internet changes how our minds work offline. The neuroplasticity of our brains shifts, increasing our appetite for entertainment, reducing our attention spans, making it tough to embrace a mere moment of silence.

We’re hungry for information, but only in bite sized little chunks.

Clickbaiters are at the forefront of exploiting this phenomenon. Their science is in composing titles our curiosity can’t help but click on (i.e. everything in bold in this article). Each page view generates revenue. UpWorthy writes 25 headlines for everything they share, meticulously placing hooks readers can’t ignore.

While UpWorthy’s headlines inflate their videos to epic proportions, other sites resort to outright fabrications. If the internet teaches us anything, it’s that the common denominator can always get a little lower.

3 Click Bait

There’s a New Condition that Causes Sufferers to Confuse Lying with Satire

There’s a gullibility test going around Facebook. The way it works is one of your friends posts a link to an article with a headline that’s too amazing to be true, like:

CONFIRMED: HPV Vaccine Linked to Dementia
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Sixth Extinction Event Will Happen in Our Lifetime
Woody Harrelson Shot and Killed Outside of Vegas Nightclub

Here’s where this becomes a test: do you do a quick Google search for more information, see if the New York times has weighed in on these developments, or do you just hit ‘share’ to inform your friends?

If you hit ‘share’ you should look up, it says ‘GULLIBLE’ on the ceiling.

One of the biggest culprits of this technique is EmpireNews.net. Every article on their home page looks like a scoop, big developments every major news outlets are trailing behind on. The headlines are crazy, but not too far outside the realm of reason.

EmpireNews.net bills itself as “a satirical entertainment website.” Like The Onion without the irony, exaggeration, or social commentary.

Here’s some examples of their “jokes”:

- Jimmy Fallon Fired From The ‘Tonight Show’ After Feud With NBC Executives; Will Jay Leno Return?
‘Ghost Adventures’ Star Gets Fired, Reveals Disappointing Truth About Paranormal Television Series
Facebook Announces New Design Changes, Massive Overhaul Coming In October

These are works of fiction, but unlike entries from The Onion they’re too banal to be satirical.

The idea of Jimmy Fallon feuding with NBC Executives isn’t ironic. TV personalities posture for raises all the time. There’s no real mockery. A satirical headline would’ve read:

Conan O’Brien Fired From ‘The Conan O’Brien Show’ After Feud with TBS; Jay Leno to Take Over Title Role.

It would feature a Photoshopped picture of Leno sporting Conan’s iconic red hair, and it would’ve come out over a year ago, when it would’ve been timely. Empire’s title is designed to upset Fallon’s fans, tricking his viewers into sharing the bad news with their friends.

Faking TV show cancellations, celebrity arrests or deaths, is a cheap way to find success. It get’s clicks, but those clicks don’t guarantee engagement. At the time of this writing none of the articles on EmpireNews’s main page feature a single comment. Either no one has anything to say, or the admins delete anything critical of what they’re doing.

Empire News is looking for contributors. Nowhere on their hiring page do they mention humor. Part of me wants to apply, submitting the dictionary definition of ‘satire’ as my writing sample.

4 Click Bait

Long form Journalism is making a comeback, You’ll Never Guess Where

If you visit BuzzFeed’s main page, you’ll find something funny. Above the trending titles, footage of celebrity fisticuffs, and videos of kittens, is news. At the time of this writing, the ceasefire in Gaza is the top headline. Next to that is a thorough article on Uganda striking down its Anti-Homosexuality act.

While local newspapers are doing everything they can to turn themselves into printed versions of websites, BuzzFeed is dabbling in 2,000 + word articles. Two years ago BuzzFeed hired former SPIN and Details editor Steve Kandell to edit their long form content. Kandell’s goal was to produce sharable editorials, after all it’s the title that gets the click, but he realizes that it’s the depth that gets the engagement.

I knew none of this when I started this piece. I assumed BuzzFeed was the big bad and traditional media was picking up its habits. A little research, spun my thesis on its head.

My friends in local news outlets tell stories about editors begging for more top ten lists, drooling at the prospect of getting BuzzFeed’s traffic.

Traditional media is destroying traditional media by confusing reduction with adaptation. By shifting their efforts to quick consumption, they abandon topics worth sharing. By curating someone else’s content they diminish the value of their own. While CNN fills their main page with videos of puppies, in a desperate attempt to beat BuzzFeed at their own game, BuzzFeed is dabbling in real news.

This is something to keep in mind whenever someone tells you, “There’s no room for real writing in a post-BuzzFeed world.”

BuzzFeed doesn’t seem to think so.

Long form writing isn’t a dated practice, it’s a niche, one in need of writers willing to embrace it.

Bloggers, if you can’t fit your thesis into 500 words, go longer. Complete your thought. Your intriguing headline deserves an equally compelling closing argument. It’s easier to get readers to click on your page than to follow it. Show them that you have what it takes to go the distance.