A Recovering Troll’s Guide to Netiquette

There's a right way to eat Twitter
There’s a right way to eat Twitter

How Twitter keeps teaching me to watch my bad behavior

Are you a constant contrarian, interjecting heated points into lukewarm discussions? Do you escalate things, directing conversations into your level of enthusiasm? On Twitter, do you tag users’ names after they’ve stopped responding? Do you reply after the fact, when no one’s paying attention?

Rather than contest a social norm, do you argue semantics, choosing abstract targets to sound politically correct? Are your rhetorical questions veiled attempts to express your feelings? Joking about sensitive issues, do you reveal too much truth in your jesting?

Is your profile page a minefield of polarizing statements, you wish someone would step on, just to give you a reason to go off on a tangent? Do you see yourself as a delegate for your beliefs or their defender? When you champion a cause, do you lead with a white flag or a bayonet?

There’s no shortage of assholes on the internet, but ask yourself: if you run into more of them than any other type of person, who’s the real asshole?

You might be a closeted troll and not even know it.

Don’t worry, there’s help. You can still hold your chin up without having to perform complicated mental gymnastics.

The goal of this article is not to scare you into the middle, to sway you from ever bringing religion or politics to the Twitter table. Its aim is not to whitewash your sense of humor, to take the teeth out of your sarcasm, or the venom from your satire. I’m not interested in silencing critics, getting psychoanalytic, or converting cynics into romantics.

I’m here to help you avoid transforming into a troll and to give some tips for dealing with those who have.

2. Chewing

Humble Thy Self: Admit your Mistakes

When designer Rob Sheridan posted a video on the internet’s shrinking attention span, I was so eager to recommend Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, that I paused the clip right before it mentioned the book. Seeing my Tweet, Sheridan called out the irony of my actions. I had no choice but to agree. Humble is the user who favorites posts that call them a Jack-Ass.

For someone who Tweets a lot about writing, I really ought to proofread more. Undermining my authority, my typos betray me. That’s why when someone calls out my mistakes, I try not to make a scene.

If a grammar fascist comes knocking, my personal policy is to thank them for their services, and hope they move on. I’m always seeking evocative adjectives to spice up my musing. Sometimes I mix up words that don’t mean what I intend.

Someone called me out for substituting ‘unrequited,’ as in unwanted love, for ‘unsolicited’ as in free advice. Having swapped these two out for so long, I forgot that I’d taken an artistic license. Maybe I needed to be made a laughing stock to learn my lesson. The trick was to laugh with my unrequested editors.

If someone catches me using “prey” instead of “pray,” like “I prey the Time Warner Templars aren’t aloud to join forces with the Cult of Comcast.” my default response is “It’s National Homophone Day, I’m just raising awareness.” It’s my way of saying, I recognize my mistake, thanks for catching it, now we’re both in on the joke.

I also celebrate Opposite Punctuation Day whenever I use an apostrophe in the possessive pronoun “Its,” and Dangling Particle Day whenever my sentences confuse the relationship between two nouns and a verb.

If you put a lot of content out there, you’re increasing your odds of someone spotting an error. There are funny ways to admit your mistakes:

– I’m not a reckless storyteller, I switch tenses to pique the public’s interest in time travel. I’m a scientist.
– Mislabeling the tragic “ironic,” I’m the king of irony, misusing the word as an homage to its actual meaning.
– I literally used the word “literally” in place of “figuratively” to see if you knew the difference. Congratulations, you passed my test.

Sometimes I need a reminder that “loose” is the condition of my pants without a belt, and “lose” is what happens to my pants if I run without that belt. Sometimes I just have to fess up to my Freudian slips, hang a lantern on my redundancies, and make a monument to my oxymorons.

When all else fails, I blame my phone’s autocorrect function, especially when it’s something I actually typed on my computer.

3. Drinking

Dealing with Trolls

Watching my favorite authors’ Twitter feeds, I’ve noticed a trend: the more followers they have, the bigger targets they become. You have the power to put out a flame war before it ever gets started. Here’s some of the best methods I’ve seen them use.

Troll Jujutsu

This is the art of using a troll’s force against them. Put their insult in lights for all your followers to see. Usually, Twitter users can only see conversations when they follow both participants, but if you put a dot in front of the other user’s Twitter handle, you broadcast their ravings to everyone you know. Another trick is to take a snap shot of the troll’s posts in case they try to delete them.

Troll Jujutsu is a great method to draw awareness to harassment campaigns. If you blog about sexism, only to find yourself besieged with sexist trolls, rebroadcasting their behavior can draw out supporters.

Turning the other Tweet

One of my favorite Tweeters has her writing advice challenged constantly. People have called her a self-indulgent narcissist, point blank.

Her response, “Yep, that’s me. I know I am, but what are you?”

Her’s is a method of non-violent resistance. Some users take abuse in stride, a sure sign their following is big enough to take on strays.

Another one of my favorite social media figures, automates her Tweets, posting links, quotes, and articles on writing 24/7. She replies, retweets, and writes live statements too, but some users are critical of her presence when she’s obviously sleeping.

Her response, “I’m just trying to run a business. You can always mute or unfollow, you have options.”

Link them to their Fallacy

Why argue with a troll’s reasoning when you can defer them to pages that have refuted their claims in advance?

YourLogicalFallacyIs.com is an excellent resource for this, cataloging and defining unsound statements, from the classic Straw Man: misrepresenting an argument to make it easier to attack, to the Middle Ground, claiming the point between two extremes is the truth. Each example has it’s own page so you can copy and paste the link when needed.

Not only is the site a great collection of comebacks, it’s a way to challenge your own style of arguing. Reading through the definitions, I can’t believe how many of them I’ve been guilty of.

4. Raising a glass

Starve them Out

If social media is your business and your profile is your brand, you might not have the time or energy to deal with escalation.

I’ve posted a couple of articles with the hashtag #GayRights, and I’ve got some hateful responses. These trolls never bother to click on the links (one article is on how hate monger Fred Phelps struck an accidental blow for gay rights, and the other is on how laws that deny rights to gays, on religious grounds, should deny rights to left handed people too). These trolls just searched the hashtag #GayRights and carpet bombed anyone who posted anything.

These weren’t hearts and minds I could win. They weren’t worth my time. That’s why I just hit the block button, end of discussion.

5. Napkin

How to Stop the Transformation

Even though I know better, I still have to fight the urge to air my grievances in online forums, to give into my reactionary nature and harass public figures.

When it comes to arguing points, it’s hard to make irrefutable statements in 140 characters. This is what a blog is for. Writing editorials in the longer form, I see where they work and where they need to be reinforced with research.

If you’re known for flying off the handle, letting the Tweets flow every time you turn on the news, don’t be surprised when you hemorrhage followers. You can bring light to important issues, but don’t forget to offer your readers something that’s distinctly you.

The best way to avoid becoming a Twitter troll is to balance your tirade to praise ratio. For everything you dump on, you’ve got to find something worth celebrating. For every polarizing statement, you’ve got to put out something magnetic. For every irrefutable claim you make, you need to ask questions that invite participation.

In the past, every time I championed a cause my followers left me to fend for myself. It wasn’t that these causes were toxic, it’s just that my tone was. One of the hardest lessons Twitter keeps teaching me, is to err on the side of positivity.

6. Stack of Twitter

Dream House

Struggling with a hostile work environment, Mark imagines the perfect hideaway, only to find it expanding into his real life.

1. Overgrowth

Dream House

Mark’s footfalls echoed into the distance. The hall had the dressings of a ballroom, and the length of a tunnel. No matter how far he went, the point at the end never changed shape. The banner beneath the ceiling must have stretched for miles.

Rays of light cut through the curtains, setting the tiles aglow. Walking with his eyes shut, he felt the sunshine on his nose. He could go on this way, counting windows without ever running into anything, or anyone.

The help was on holiday. There was no dust to polish, the sheets tucked themselves in, and the meals came out of their trays prepared. This gave Mark the freedom to ride the banisters down the stairs, to line couch cushions like dominos, to juggle Faberge eggs, ming vases, and leather bound first editions.

Wearing two story drapes like capes, Mark was a bachelor in a castle, an emperor of emptiness, the king of a kingdom known to no one.

The grounds were too vast to cross in a day. Mark had to set up camp in an uncharted guest room before finding the strength to press on. He had to traverse the deserts of the zen garden, the hilly expanse of the miniature golf course, and the pine highways of the bowling alley.

With each trek through the building, Mark discovered something. Feeling droplets on his forehead, he looked up to see water sculptures shooting streams through the chandeliers. He climbed staircases so wide, he mistook the steps for rows in a theater.

Crossing the library, Mark happened upon a fleet of fire engines labeled with the dewey decimal system. He didn’t understand their function, until he needed a ladder to get something.

2. Grey Stone Church

To save time, Mark rode a dirt bike across the courtyard, weaving around gazebos, hedge sculptures of video game characters, and a pride of bronze lions covered in bird droppings. He could’ve used the field for crops, for football games, or as a landing strip for commercial planes; instead he filled it with street signs to give himself an idea of where he was going. There was always a new path to explore.

The estate was ever expanding, but there were no contractors, no designs to sign off on. Mark didn’t have to suffer the sight of plumbers’ cracks, the sound of catcalls, or radios blaring. This was his project. He was the surveyor, the engineer, and the foreman.

He didn’t break his back carrying the stones up the mountain. He didn’t run a wheel barrel full of mortar across the foot bridge, or dig the trenches to fill the reflecting pools.

Mark’s castle wasn’t built from the ground up, it was composited. The parts weren’t airlifted in, they materialized from it.

3. Tropical

In the city, Mark’s studio apartment shared its walls with shouting brawls. Arguments echoed from floor to ceiling. He fell asleep to surround sound domestic disputes, quadrophonic make up sex, and the off tempo rhythm of creaking mattresses. Counting backwards on his pillow, Mark wasn’t sure if he ever lost consciousness.

In the morning meeting, Mark made the coffee hoping no one would call on him. His eyes stung every moment they were exposed to oxygen. They felt heavy enough to sink into his skull. Collecting cups, he was a satellite orbiting his coworkers.

Lee, his boss, followed close behind, tapping each employee on the shoulder, in a variation of Duck Duck Goose.

“So what’s your goal for the day?” Lee breathed down the staff’s necks until he got an answer.

Crouching, Mark cradled the cups in his arms.

Lee moved onto his next victim, “What do you aspire to learn today?”

Reaching for a napkin, Mark’s stack toppled over. His security blanket rolled across the floor. Panicking, he clutched for the cups.

There was a tap on his shoulder.

4. Dream Coat

Lee smiled, he’d found his goose. “So Mark, what could you do differently to achieve success today?”

Mark looked to the ellipsis in his thought cloud. “Not drop the cups?”

Lee tossed him a line, Mark left him to tow it back in. Unlike the sales team, Mark had no figures to beat, no positive encounters to share, no acknowledgments to give.

Passing by a senior staff meeting, Mark heard Lee refer to him as an “Automated automaton. Good with numbers, but unable to compute casual conversation.”

Filling his thermos at home, Mark avoided the water cooler. He couldn’t understand emotional reactions to the weather, pride in parking spaces, or interest in other people’s children. He managed big accounts, but small talk went over his head.

When Lee mandated psychological assessments, Mark feared it was to uncover his glitch.

5. Towering Green

Sitting outside the therapist’s office, Mark paged through an issue of Home magazine, a catalogue of living room layouts, throw pillows, and patio furniture. Reading an article on Feng Shui, Mark scanned the waiting room.

Opening the door to her office, Dr. Jennings found Mark dragging a fern to the other side of the chairs.

Wiping the dirt from his palms, Mark only spread it around. When Dr. Jennings offered her hand, he went in for a hug, careful not to pat her on the back. When she directed him to a love seat, he lay across the armrests.

Dr. Jennings squint to hide her amusement. “Don’t worry. This is an informal chat, a way to gage the team’s overall satisfaction. Management thought this would be a little more personal than a survey.”

Nodding, Mark changed his position.

6. Wood Chipper

Settling in, Dr. Jennings read her chart. “How do you see yourself fitting in among your peers?

Mark shrugged. “The tall person in the back of the group photo.”

Dr. Jennings shook her head. “I’m not looking for a literal answer. Think of this office as a family. Which member are you? Do you see yourself in the driver’s seat, on the sidelines of a soccer game, or are you sneaking in a cartoon when you should be doing homework?”

Mark rolled his eyes, “I’m haunting the attic. I’m not sure if anyone even knows I’m there.”

7. Rubble Man

Mark never had the courage to see a therapist. Now one had been delivered to him. He made the most of this captive audience. Thinking it essential to give Dr. Jennings the whole picture, he got abstract. Over-sharing, he linked childhood humiliation to emotional scars left by ex-girlfriends. Looking at Dr. Jennings notepad, Mark watched her fine script devolve into automatic writing.

Running out of pages, Dr. Jennings decided to switch mediums, inviting Mark to try guided meditation. She came up with the scenario, leaving just enough space for him to fill the holes.

Dr. Jennings chose her words carefully, “I want to give your thoughts a beginning, middle, and end.” placing an emphasis on the word “end.”

Hesitant to sacrifice his hour, Mark was a reluctant participant. Entering the wilderness of his imagination, he was told to picture an animal jumping into his path. He described a badger sniffing the air, climbing up his leg, and settling on his shoulder.

The badger said, “How do you feel about your output today? Is this your finest work, or could you aspire to do better?”

Dr. Jennings suggested Mark keep his answers to himself until the end of the session.

8. Being Green

Leading her patient to a clearing, Dr. Jennings instructed him to fill it with something. “A treehouse, a log cabin, a beached submarine, it doesn’t matter, just the first thing that comes to mind.”

Watching a breeze draw circles in the grass, Mark felt it against his cheeks. Smelling the dewdrops, he took in the steady drone of the grass hoppers, rustling trees, and chirping birds.

Clouds rolled across the landscape. Their shadows morphed into geometric shapes, getting darker as they got smaller. Realizing why, Mark acted in the knick of time. He leapt from his position just as a support beam crashed down where he was standing.

A row of metal rained across the field. The dirt shift, propping the beams up, aligning each one into place. The ground embraced whatever the sky had to throw at it.

Staring into the sun, Mark watched its rays transform into amber arches, saffron spires, and scarlet shingles. Sprouting in spring-like formations, vines caught pillars on their way down. Bricks fell into perfect stacks. Leaves popped out from between them. Overgrowth ran up the building, before the roof had even come in.

In another world, Dr. Jennings continued giving her directions. She told Mark to go inside, she said something about a cup, its size and shape having some importance, but Mark didn’t hear her. He was busy moving in.

9. Afterglow

Crossing the estate, Mark bent time and space, moving from the top of the world to sea level without going down a single hill. One door spat him out in a tropical climate, while another spat him out in a snow covered forrest.

The porch overlooked a mountain range, while the parlor overlooked a beach front.

10. Toys in the Attic

Each session took him someplace new.

Mark lay in a hammock as long as a fishing net, high up in the meditation chamber, a glass dome, with a view unpolluted by city lights.

Star gazing, he found the Andromeda galaxy, then the long streak of the Milky Way. Dimming the lamps, he waited for the Northern Lights to make an appearance.

Mark found his way to the dream house on his own. Pacing the apartment, he crossed over with his eyes open. Flicking the kitchen light, he watched torches spark to life. The banquet hall stretched out before him. Running the tap, he watched streams rise from the great fountain, feeling bubbles and coins beneath his feet. Taking a shower, the steam cleared to reveal the heap of coals in the palace sauna.

11. Moss Giant

The real world was full of secret passageways to the other one. Smelling oak barrels the moment he stepped into the cubicle, Mark discovered a wine cellar beneath his desk.

Waiting in line at the bank, Mark listened to the Christmas music playing over the speakers. Closing his eyes, he overlooked his estate from the bell tower. It had grown from a mansion into a metropolis. He’d yet to eat a meal from every kitchen, sleep beneath every canopy, or relieve himself in every washroom.

Mark’s stays in the dream house grew longer.

Charging through an obstacle course, he stepped through tires lined across a balance beam, two stories above a ball pit. A few cartwheels later, he was safe on a platform. Running up a springboard, he leapt for a ring. When he grabbed it, it made a sound like a keyboard tapping. Moving hand over hand, he heard the clicking of a mouse button. Dismounting, he listened to the slow hiss of a seat release.

Although the gymnasium lights were the same color as his desk monitor, Mark’s work was far away from here.

12. Rock Garden

Fearing his workout had pulled something, Mark felt a pinch on his shoulder. Turning, he found Lee’s talons squeezing into his tendon. Lee pulled Mark out of his trance and into his office.

Lee couldn’t wait for Mark to take his seat, before launching into his prepared speech.

“Mark, I know you’re not one for small talk, that’s why I’m going to give this to you straight.” Tenting his fingers, Lee tapped his lips. “Your numbers are down, my bosses want to put them out of their misery.”

Mark reached for the pen set on Lee’s desk. Tilting one toward him, the room shook, rumbling with a sound like cranks from a drawbridge. Lee spun around, opening the blinds to search for the source of the noise. Mark tilt the other pen in the same direction. The rumbling returned. Dust spilled from the ceiling. The tiles moved toward the window, fleeing the scene.

Shielding his face, Lee ducked behind the desk.

Moving onto the next accessory, Mark pinched a ball from the Newton’s Cradle. Lifting it up, he primed the pendulum. Thunder struck as it came down.

Cracks zigzagged across the support beams. The air was thick with sawdust. Lumber crashed down on the desk. Looking up, Mark found darkness where a corner office should be. A flash of lightning revealed the distant bricks of a vaulted ceiling.

The desk still had a few more toys for Mark to play with. Flipping a sand timer, he felt the chair sink out from under him. The carpet broke into tiny grains, sinking through the floorboards.

Lee shrieked, jumping out from his hiding place. Sand trickled through his fingers. He looked to Mark for an explanation.

Mark shrugged.

13. Pinkie

Vaulting over the desk, Lee charged through the door with no mind for glass.

The staff shot up from their cubicles.

Ignoring his wounds, Lee spun around to find the ceiling tiles back in place, the desk free of debris, and the carpet in its proper shape. The chair was still spinning, but Mark was gone.

In the room with the vaulted ceiling, Mark listened to the rain tap on the glass. Cranking the window open, he peered over the edge, trying to figure out his location. In the dark, he couldn’t tell if the gargoyle on the roof was a chimera or a griffin.

Lightning flashed, revealing a part of the dream house he’d never been to before: a spiral steeple wrapped in a water slide. Stepping out on the gutter, Mark knew this would be a good night to explore.

14. Redstone Complex

Punxsutawney Penitentiary (Audio Short)

Ever have that dream where you’re on death row and the only thing that saved you is when your subconscious lost the plot? This dream journal entry is all about the life saving awkward transitions you only find in dreams. Listen for the tone to shift, the title will make a lot more sense.


I just did the narration for Willow Becker’s 500 word fiction piece Commando, over on her site. Check it out.

The Myth of the Self-Made Blogger

1. Tipping Point

What pyramid schemers can teach us about blogging culture.

Enter the Pyramid Schemers

I used to work for the retail side of a tech company. Our goal was to demystify technology, to lower the entry barrier, to smooth out the learning curve. It didn’t matter if you’d purchased a device in our store, or if you received it as a gift, if you brought it in we’d teach you how to use it. Since no one worked on commission, we didn’t have to be selling, we spent most of our time informing.

When two giggling women walked in, with a tablet still in its shrink wrap, I was happy to get them going. Claire won her tablet as part of a work promotion, her sales numbers were the highest in her region. Diane was along to drool at her friend’s new toy.

Showcasing the dictation feature, I spoke into the microphone, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

Tapping the screen, I highlighted the sentence, hit COPY and PASTE, replicating the line over and over again. “And this is how you recreate a scene from The Shining.”

I gave them the grand tour of their technology, from photo manipulation to location based notifications. Helping Claire setup her email, I learned she worked for Rodan + Fields selling ProActiv skincare products.

Looking out into the mall, Claire pointed to a kiosk I’d never noticed. Opening the YouTube app, she typed a search for an advertisement. She narrated, “A lot of men use ProActiv, see: Justin Bieber… P. Diddy…”

Diane caught me looking at my watch.

She tapped the screen, “Adam Levine uses it too.” Claire latched onto my bicep like a barnacle. “Oh, don’t you just love that song Moves Like Jagger?”

I shrugged, “Haven’t heard it, but I like Gimme Shelter.”

“Do you like to travel?” Claire changed the subject.

I tapped the map application, anticipating a question about directions.

Claire continued as if I’d already answered. “So do I. That’s why I’m working for a trip across Europe. That’s the great thing about ProActiv, you can work as much or as little as you want. It gives you that freedom. You’re just selling something that helps people at the same time.”

She was giving an essay answer to a question I hadn’t asked. Her lips smiled, but her eyes did not. I couldn’t help but notice that she’d changed from the first person to the second.

Diane tagged in, “The reason we bring this up is there’s a lot of opportunities for men in the company. Men want the product, they know it works, but they want to buy it from other men. An extroverted person, like yourself, would be leading your own team in no time.

Looking at my reflection in a monitor, I counted the zits framing my forehead. Still, these women were telling me I could be the face of their acne treatment.

Tapping the tablet, I realized I was the only one still interested in it. “Before I send you on your way, let’s just review what we’ve done here…”

The pair exchanged a look. Their smiles flickered into frowns. Their upbeat tone took on an undercurrent of desperation. They asked for my phone number, for my email address, and the name I went by on FaceBook. They offered to take me to dinner. When I said I had plans, they offered to buy me lunch the next day.

For someone with an expensive cutting edged piece of technology, Claire acted like she was struggling to earn enough to eat.

I was relieved when my manager called me in back.

These women weren’t interested in buying anything, they were scouting. They weren’t shoppers, they were headhunters. They took advantage of customer service specialists, because we were captive audiences. We had to be nice, we were taught not to use negative language.

These scouts went to retail establishments to push a sales pitch. Exuding positive vibes, they made themselves appear easy to work with. Smiling, they kept on with a steady stream of compliments. Cults refer to this technique as “flirty fishing,” or “love bombing.” Multi-level marketers call this “cold sponsoring.”

2. Whoops

The Hard-Sell Shows up where it doesn’t belong

In America, we’re taught that hard work and perseverance always pay off, that with enough gumption anyone, no matter their circumstances, can pull themselves up by their own boot straps. We’re taught that if someone isn’t a success, it’s their fault for not putting in the effort.

This encounter with the ProActiv pushers shows that’s not always the case. Some systems limit upward mobility by design.

Multi-level marketers make very little off their sales. They give the biggest cut of their profits to whoever roped them into the project. That’s why they work so hard to recruit a team of sales people beneath them. Technically, this isn’t a pyramid scheme, but the cash flows in the same direction; to the people at the top.

This article isn’t going to focus on the quadrilateral shape of these scams, but the tactics used to sell them. When you’re exposed to these methods, you can spot them everywhere.

Working out of coffee shops, I’ve sat next to many multi level marketers, offering desperate people “exciting new careers.”

I hear them give the same pushy pitch, the hard sell, the all expenses paid guilt trip.

Shifting in their seat, the marketer says, “My personal philosophy is that you can have anything in life as long as you help other people get what they want.”

Sounds nice, but to quote Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want.”

The Myth of the Self-Made Blogger

Exalting the infallibility of the system, marketers blame the ones who can’t make it on their own. If you’re a blogger, some of this might already sound familiar.

The myth of the self-made person casts a long shadow over the internet. After all, this is the new frontier, where anyone can launch a self-publishing career.

There’s no shortage of social media gurus, echoing the sentiments of multi-level marketers. They talk like we live in a meritocracy, where talent and ability are always rewarded, setting the expectation that a good blogger will find success early on. You’ll go in thinking your cream will rise the top, your smart observations will corner the marketplace of ideas, and your merits will ensure you the best seat.

Putting in your best work, you’ll assume that an audience will magically discover it. The first person who lays eyes on your prose will share it with everyone they know. Now you’re watching the clock, expecting to become an overnight sensation.

The hard-sellers will tell you that blogging is a full time job, that you should post daily, that no matter what you’re writing you should give it all your energy. If you build it they should come, and if they don’t, it’s something you’re doing wrong.

The gambler’s fallacy has you believing that your loosing streak will turn, so you stay the course, doing the exact same thing, waiting for it to come out different.

I watch a lot of people lose heart, when their following stops growing. I’ve written about how this manifests in Twitter tantrums. I’ve watched people commit social media suicide, telling off their readers for not appreciating them more.

This is what happens when success is the assumption, you refuse to learn coping skills for when it doesn’t come. The short sighted saddle up and ride, assuming no one will ever buy what they have to sell.

Bloggers don’t just make themselves, they’re made by their community. Word of mouth doesn’t spread over night. Going viral isn’t a given, it’s a rarity. If at first you don’t succeed, you’re doing it wrong. Mix up your approach, come at it again.

3. Heads Up

Closing Arguments

Next time you see an article giving you the hard sell, examine the salesperson. Don’t just look at the volume of their followers, but their engagement. What I’ve learned, is that bloggers who say building a following takes years, usually have one.

Many bloggers promote themselves as a resource to authors looking to promote their work, authors who go on to write articles on promotion of their own. Spectators become mentors to other spectators. The cycle goes on, while less of us are actually writing. For a prospective author, social media has value, but a tight manuscript should matter more.

Don’t give someone else bad directions just because it’s the path you’re on. Don’t give someone the hard-sell to justify your buyer’s remorse. There’s more than one way to get to the top of the mountain, don’t say that yours is the surest when you’re still at base camp.

We all glorify do it yourself promotion because that’s the method we’re using, but it’s not the only one worth choosing. We all want to feel like entrepreneurs, but we shouldn’t close the door on traditional publishing either.

Blogging isn’t a full time job if there’s no profits. If you’re not making anything, you can afford to take a step back to perfect your craft. A massive following doesn’t mean automatic sales. It can help, but only if you’ve written something worthy of word of mouth. Hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but good work gives you a better shot at it.

Clarity is Cool (Audio Blog)

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

This rant is for anyone who took an English literature class course and still didn’t loose their passion for writing, for anyone who can read something without having to search for a hidden meaning, for anyone who thinks that symbolism should come secondary to a good story. Continue reading Clarity is Cool (Audio Blog)

The Trouble With Seeing Everything through the Same Lens


On analyzing the motives for murder

Some trigger warnings are in order. I’ll be talking about sexism in the entertainment industry, masculinity, and spree shootings. What do these things have in common? They’re the subject of an article that’s been getting a lot of blowback. Their connection is debatable, but it’s one worth examining.

Usually I don’t weigh in on these types of controversies, but I felt I had to, because I almost wrote the exact same article.

The Article in Question

Prone to seek out citations to confirm my suspicions, I cast off information that challenges my opinions. Trying to come to an understanding, my biases often win. When tragedy happens, it’s in my nature to make assumptions. I cast blame before the contributing factors are confirmed. My emotions don’t have time to wait for all the facts to come in.

That’s why when I read the article In a final videotaped message, a sad reflection of the sexist stories we so often see on screen, by Ann Hornaday, in the Washington Post, I felt like I could’ve written it myself. The story links the actions of Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista shooter, to the presentation of women on the big screen.

Like Hornaday, I believe “a sexist movie monoculture can be toxic for women and men alike.” Still, I can’t help but feel that linking the male underdog, who always gets the girl, to the actions of a killer is an oversimplification. Downplaying other contributing factors, Hornaday limits her observations to the domain of film criticism.

Her exploration of gender roles on screen comes with citations, it’s in her wheelhouse, it’s well informed, but her thoughts on Rodger’s motivations are speculations written with the tone of conclusions. She doesn’t ignore his mental illness, but she disregards his life experience, as if his worldview was only informed by what he saw on screen.

2. Holding Camera High

I Made A Similar Connection

After some of the facts on the shooting came out, I started writing about how movies warp our sense of romance, leading to unrealistic expectations. So many coming-of-age flicks make it feel like there’s a manic-pixie-dream-girl on her way to save every man from his own cynicism. This makes viewers feel like there should be someone for everyone all the time, like isolation is uncommon, like introversion is a bad thing.

Our culture glorifies young couples, slapping their skin on every screen, sex has gone from an expression to an expectation. My early draft pointed the finger at everything from indie movies to Axe body spray advertisements (Lynx for those of you who aren’t in the U.S.).

I speculated that our need to shoehorn romance into everything warped Rodger’s expectations, but my theory didn’t sit well with me. My brash writing style made it sound all encompassing, like my insight allowed me to see the piece of the puzzle lost on the 24-hour news cycle. Then Elliot’s message board ravings came to light. The kid thought he was leading an uprising. When he tried to make a case that refusing sex causes suffering akin to a crime, I realized I had no clue what was going through his mind.

There wasn’t one convenient factor to encapsulate his motives. I realized, I’m not a forensic psychologist. Even if I had a strong hunch, I couldn’t pretend to know what made him tick. I was doing a disservice to my argument by associating him with it.

This is what happens when I rush to diagnose a cause by observing a handful of symptoms, as more evidence surfaces my authority is undermined by the autopsy. Reality could care less about my subjectivity. Just because I see everything through the lens of my expertise, doesn’t mean the truth will bend to it.

I don’t want to sweep Hornaday’s arguments on the “Celluloid Ceiling” under the rug. The entertainment industry is overdue for a reckoning. In blockbusters, female characters are used to motivate their male counterparts, they’re always in need of rescue, like Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins, or they’re killed to motivate the hero’s mission, like Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight, or they’re there to seduce the hero as part of a deception, like every woman with a speaking role in The Dark Knight Rises (hey, Nolan brothers, I love you, but you’ve got to write better parts for women).

A lifetime of seeing the same vigilante tropes are bound to leave an impression, but men are not so impressionable that we all go out and try to be Batman. These power fantasies have an impact on our mindsets, but the effects are insidious, they’re cumulative, and hard to quantify. Hornaday’s theory is still missing the crucial link to connect these movies to Rodger’s actions.

3. Eye in the Viewfinder

Don’t let Your Experience Blind You

Our extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. We need to show our data. That way, if we’re proven wrong, at least it makes sense how we mistook correlation for causation. When we speculate, we ought to admit that’s what we’re doing. Without a compelling argument, it just seems like we’re inserting our topic into a conversation where it doesn’t belong.

Hornaday saw her field all over Rodger, linking his tone in his YouTube manifestos to Christian Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.

Compare that observation to the article Elliot Rodger and America’s ongoing masculinity crisis by Lisa Hickey, for The Good Men Project. Using math, Hickey looked into the last 70 mass shootings to figure out what they all had in common. Of the shooters, 69 were men, many of whom had patterns in their lives prior to their breakdowns.

In 26 of the shootings the shooter had been fired from his job. 68% of workplace shootings happened before the recession, declining to 20% after 2003. It’s Hickey’s belief, that disgruntled employees felt less isolated in a down economy. Surrounded by peers in the same position, they were less likely to retaliate with a shooting. Society pushed these men to see themselves as breadwinners, but when society was in shambles their gender role didn’t prove as fatal.

Hickey believes our limited definition of masculinity lowers men’s self worth, preventing them from seeking help, or developing real coping skills. It could be a contributing factor to why some become shooters.

If Hornaday believes that movies shape the definition of what it means to be a man, this article adds weight to her argument. It does this with statistics, not just an interpretation of the killer’s last video statement.

As journalists and bloggers, the worst thing we can do is come to the right conclusion for the wrong reason, to present ourselves as delegates for a subject, only to communicate it with bad logic. Letting our tongues slip, our tone creates a negative reaction toward our positive points. Shooting from the hip, we lose converts in the crossfire. Going over the top, we undermine our arguments.

4. Holding Camera Out

Check Yourself before You Wreck Your Reputation

Before you write that article on a current event, ask yourself: is your expertise applicable? How much of a stretch is your angle? Is your subject really there or have you projected it on? Are you adding or subtracting from the conversation? Does the situation apply to your central issue, or has your topic turned into a blue car, where once you buy one you see them everywhere?

Would your piece benefit from recent examples to evoke your reader’s emotion, or should a little abstraction spare them some pain?

Hornaday’s article had great points that weren’t fully realized. I don’t think her piece deserved the backlash it got, which I fear would’ve happened without Elliot Rodger’s name tacked on, simply because it was an article on sexism in the entertainment industry written by a woman.

She posed questions worth asking. I implore her to ask them again, but with a better argument. The framing of Rodger’s video manifesto isn’t enough to sell me on the notion that he believed he was in a movie.

Not to say that that hunch is without merit. There are studies on how dramatic mediums can effect our perception of reality.

Jaye Derrick and Shira Gabriel of the University of Buffalo, and Kurt Hugenberg of Miami University coined the Social Surrogacy Hypothesis. Their research found that television displaces social interaction, tricking lonely viewers into thinking they’re friends with the characters, this made them less likely to seek meaningful relationships or admit to feelings of loneliness.

5. Lens longshot

Name Behaviors not Names

Hornaday’s article proposed a theory that read like a conclusion, and director Judd Apatow and actor Seth Rogen thought she was pinning the blame on them. This is where her article could’ve benefited with generalities that focused on the behavior of male characters, rather than point the finger at a specific actor. Sure, Seth Rogen benefits from male privilege, but he doesn’t preach misogyny to a chauvinist choir, his characters always get the girl, but they never hate her.

On Twitter, Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow’s responses read like they believed Hornaday made a direct correlation between their films and Rodger’s sexist entitlement. This raises a question of editorial etiquette.

By leading with a photo of Rogen promoting his newest film Neighbors, the article makes this implication, which is unfortunate. It takes focus away from a broader systemic problem: Hollywood is dominated by men, men who write what they know, and what they know rarely covers the experiences of women. This is why female characters are so often seen through the eyes of male leads. This turns girls into goals, when better writing would give every character a goal of their own.

The underrepresentation of women on the big screen contributes to an empathy gap in men. It might have been a part of Elliot Rodger’s problem. I’ve written about how male writers can help to correct this, but really, women need to be equally represented in the writing room. That’s something predominately male producers need to hear, something we should all be asking for.

I believe entertainment has a broader impact on our culture. It may not drive our actions, but it contributes to our self perception. Rather than shy away from this conversation, I urge Hornaday to find more support for her conclusions, drawing them out in a longer form (maybe an ongoing series on the subject). I’d invite her to include television, cable news, and advertisements in the conversation. If she does, I’d be interested to see what she finds.

Take Back Your Imagination (Audio Blog)

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

Part song, part spoken word anthem, the above piece is a mantra for getting writing done. It’s creative advice served with a side of synths, and a beat worth bumping to, a metaphor for writers trying to keep stressors from stalling their fiction.

Think of it like this: you’re a director charged with delivering a film on schedule. Your story is the production, your imagination is the location, and every aspect of your personality are the stage hands.

What happens when the morale shifts, the spirit of the set turns toxic, and the forces behind the camera get overtaken by doubt? You grab yourself a megaphone, and you own your production. When Inspiration goes on strike, its up to you to shut Fear, Anger, and all the other scabs out.

You’re filming on a closed set, kick Heartache off of it. You’re not about to go wasting film on Self Pity’s vision. Narrow your focus through the right lens. You’re not about to give a panic attack all the best lines. The name on the director’s chair is not “Depression.” It’s high time you took back your imagination. Continue reading Take Back Your Imagination (Audio Blog)

Dealing with Thought Pollution

1. Looking Up

The Distraction Generation

The internet has changed the way I process information. Watching TV, I can’t help but sift through browser tabs at the same time. Playing video games, I listen to an audiobook about the information age’s diminishing attention span. Multitasking, I shuffle down the sidewalk, texting while cycling through internet radio stations.

This instant gratification for sensory stimulation has done a number on my brain. Last time the power went out, I stocked up on battery extenders for all my mobile devices. I couldn’t help but imagine all the casting announcements and movie spoilers I’d be missing.

Given my condition, it seems like the only way I could get any writing done, would be if I moved to a cabin, with no wifi or cellular reception. Like a doomsday prepper, burying busses underground, I’d need prolonged isolation before I could hear my internal monologue again. Stealing three extra walls, I’d have to convert my workspace into an actual cubicle, a hyperbaric chamber in the middle of the call center.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King says he writes behind a closed door. I can’t help but imagine a bank vault with wall mounted laser turrets, a retinal scanner, and a terminal to read his palm print. A fortress of focus, where he writes not on a computer, with its frenzy of features, but a quill and a piece of parchment. Whatever his method, it works for him.

If only I came of age in a time of such discipline, a time before the laundry list of notifications filled my screen, before I felt phantom vibrations when my phone was still plugged in, before I had social media pen pals asking me to share chain letters every morning.

I lack the self control to write behind the closed door of my apartment. There are too many toys vying for my attention.

The Playstation’s red light turns green. Spinning, the disc drive says, “You’ve sunk a hundred hours into Skyrim, it would be such a shame if you never finished the main campaign.”

The flatscreen whispers, “You’re a season behind on House of Cards. Nothing a little binge watching can’t fix.”

The free weights peak out from beneath the coffee table. “How do you expect to fight crime with those muscles? Better do a set of reps before you go out on patrol.”

My medley of monitors blink on. My anthology of albums roll out onto the floor. My brickwork of paperbacks topples over. Fearing cabin fever, I overstocked on distractions for last season’s hibernation. Now I have to go out just to get any writing done.

2. Putting the Mask On

A Stroll through the Smog

My laptop gives me the freedom to write anywhere, too bad the tool of my trade has so many other uses. This electronic enabler can clog my imagination. My solution for staving off all this thought pollution, is to dip my head in the smog, at least part way.

This is why I work in coffee houses. They give me the sensory stimulation I need to get back to writing.

People watching pacifies my desire to see talking heads on screen. Eavesdropping, occupies my eardrums. My rotating cast of friends distract me from the inherent loneliness of my calling.

These sights and sounds shake keys in front of my subconscious, giving my conscious mind the time it needs to get things done. A little background action makes the perfect filter for my distractions.

If I restrict my headspace, writing in a protective bubble where my thoughts are clean and clear, each word gets the formal treatment. I break up the flow, editing as I go. Crazy notions aren’t worthy of documentation. I get stuck more often, when I get stuck I turn to my distractions, and the cycle begins again.

If writing behind a closed door is like working in a tuxedo, public writing is like working in a Hawaiian shirt: it’s loose and casual, I don’t have to worry about getting mustard all over it, or the quality of everything I’m coming up with. With my doubt diluted, the stakes are lowered. With my inner critic diverted, I’m free to have fun. With my thirst for input quenched, my output flows forth.

3. Putting the Tie On

Filtering Negative Energy

There are drawbacks to writing in public. Not every distraction is within my control. I don’t get to choose who occupies my space. I lack the authority to fire coworkers, kick passengers off the bus, or be the bouncer at the bar.

I’ve written articles on how eavesdropping and people watching can help your writing, but that’s only if you have a choice in the subjects you’re observing.

Demanding to be watched, some people are too loud to leave eavesdropping as an option. Turns out, writers have hecklers same as any other performers.

I can’t tell you how many people have given me their best Stewie Griffin impressions, “How’s the novel coming? The one you’ve been working on for three years? Got a nice stack of papers? Got a compelling protagonist? Got an obstacle for him to overcome?–”


I used to have a lot of stormy weather friends, interrupting my process to vent. I could never tell if they wanted advice, reassurance, or acknowledgement. They were broken records who didn’t realize they were telling the same story over again.

Toxic people fill my headspace with negative energy. Tainting my writing, they fragment my sentences. With my thinking cap knocked backward, they make me feel like hanging it up for the day.

Recently, a social bully threw a plastic bottle at me for looking off in the middle of his story. I walked away without acknowledging him. I don’t believe in rewarding bad behavior, especially in adults. I have a zero tolerance policy for people who bring temper tantrums into my writing space.

4. Wave Goodbye

The Right Smog Levels

When I first saw people Tweeting a call for social media silence so they could get some writing done, I thought they were insane. Why didn’t they just unplug and come back when they were ready? Now I get it. It’s like quitting smoking, tell everyone what you’re doing and they’ll hold you to it.

If one of your followers catches you in a chat, they’ll call you out. “Aren’t you supposed to be writing?”

Sometimes I need those checks and balances. Sometimes I try to spin one too many plates at the same time. Sometimes I need structure.

With too much thought pollution, I get nothing done. With too little stimulation, the same thing happens. For me, it’s all about balancing the smog levels in my brain.


A great book on how the Internet is literally changing the way we think is The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr.

Writing friends, please share the methods you’ve devise for finding focus in the comments. Continue reading Dealing with Thought Pollution