A Fake-Sounding True Story of Inspiration

I met my wife in Kansas City, between Christmas and New Year's 2008.  She told me she was an air-traffic controller, and at the time, I though that was this guy:

Turns out it's actually this guy:

Not exactly, but that's another story.

Anyway, within two hours of meeting her, I told her all my deepest, darkest secrets.  Amazingly, this didn't scare her off.  By the second time I saw her, I knew I was in love.

The relationship progressed pretty much normally until 2010, when unexpected circumstances forced her to move to Los Angeles.  I wasn't about to let true love drive away in a U-Haul, so I asked her to marry me and threw my chips in with hers.

Thing is, as much as I loved Kansas City, I didn't have any compelling reason to stay.  Sure, my family was there, and I love them deeply, but families stay connected no matter what distances separate them.  And I absolutely loathed my job managing the bar at a failing golf club.  Matter of fact, I had never had a job I liked--unless you count working at a liquor store where we could smoke weed in the cooler when I was in college.  That was the perfect job for a college kid.  But not exactly a long-term career.

Anyway, I knew I had to go with her.  Never questioned it.  So I told my boss to go screw herself (she was a bitch that lived to scapegoat me anyway), and struck out, like so many before me, to seek my fortune on the West Coast, faithful woman at my side.

During the transition, my wife had to go through some extended training in Oklahoma City, and I spent those weeks mostly sitting on the couch watching Harry Potter.  I found us an apartment, and I started looking for jobs, but basically, I had no plan for the rest of my life, other than marrying the girl I loved.

Then, on October 10th, 2010, I was awakened from a fitful sleep by a strange phrase tolling in my  head:

Jim Frankenstein, Rock and Roll Space Priest
Jim Frankenstein, Rock and Roll Space Priest
Jim Frankenstein, Rock and Roll Space Priest

I got up and wrote it down, and suddenly I found that I had other things I needed to write down.  For some reason, I decided that Jim lived in a place called the Five Systems--five solar systems settled by humanity.  And I looked on Wikipedia to figure out which stars would be likely places for such settlements, and pretty soon I was doing my first world building exercise.

Before I knew it, it was morning, I had twelve pages of notes, and my wife was up.  We ate breakfast, then I sat her down and told her that I had a new plan for my life: I wanted to be a writer.

There have been a lot of ups and downs since then, and I've had to learn a lot of hard lessons.  But here I am, writing and editing fiction for a living.  I've published one book already, and I'm working on my first (publishable) full-length novel.  As silly as it sounds, the course of my life was determined by seven random words popping into my head in the middle of the night.

So that kind of thing happens, apparently.


How to Use Pinterest Like an Author

If you're reading this, you are alive in the year 2015 or later, and therefore you have heard of Pinterest.  Maybe you don't know what it is, and if so, you're lucky in a way.

You'll learn a lot more about Pinterest than I'm going to tell you by visiting the site, or downloading the app, but here's the short version:  I think of Pinterest like a cross between your bookmarks in your web browser, and your Movie/TV/Books likes on Facebook.  A Pin is an image that that links to its location on the web, be that a website, or just a database of images.  You "pin" pins to your pinboards, each of which represent a category of interests for you, and those boards are visible to your friends.  Every time you pin something, it shows up in their Pinterest feed.

For the most part, Pinterest is a resource for girls to research hairstyles, makeup tips, recipes, and inspirational quotes.  Hate me for stereotyping if you want, but you know it's true.  Pinterest isn't exactly a sausage fest.

Not that there's anything wrong with hairstyles, makeup tips, recipes, and inspirational quotes.  The point is, Pinterest isn't a social network that immediately strikes you as useful in your writing career.

But you'd be wrong.  Not only is the site overrun with pins that link to brilliant writing articles, but the images themselves can serve a useful purpose to writers.

When you're describing a person, place or thing, you might start with a clear image in your head.  But you might not.  Maybe you know you want to set a scene in a church, but you don't have any specific church in mind.  You can look for pictures of churches on Pinterest, and pin the ones that inspire you.

And when it comes to characters, you can search for pictures of the actors and actresses you would cast in their role if your novel were a movie.  It might help you visualize them better, and provide more vivid description in your novel.

Another way Pinterest is helpful is as a source of inspiration.  Aside from all the lifestyle tips and recipes on there, Pinterest is a repository for visual art.  Everything from classical paintings to avant-garde sculpture can be found, and you never know what might inspire you.  Sometimes images can be amazing writing prompts.

Most people don't realize it, but writing is a 24/7 job.  Writers should always be on the alert for ideas, random facts, beautiful words, and inspiring images.  Pinterest is a great place to find these things, and it's a great way to organize them so they fit into your writing routine.


A River Runs Somewhere in the Vicinity of It

So the other day, my lovely bride and I watched the critically-acclaimed Robert Redford film A River Runs Through It. Any of you who have been alive since the late 80's or so will have heard of this film.  I remember it being very well-received when it came out, and people talked about it a lot.

Somehow, I never saw it.  It was one of those classics I just missed along the way.  That's happened a lot in my life.

For the last few weeks, whenever we watch a movie, I try to analyze its story structure.  Most of the time, I even pull up this little list I keep in my phone, to track the writer's use of archetypal scenes that tend to appear in properly structured stories.  It's by no means an exhaustive or universally applicable list, but these scenes are general enough and familiar enough that this structure can be applied to most movies and novels out there, whether the writer was aware of it when they wrote the story or not. (For a complete look at my list, check out my series on Story Structure)

So as we watched the tale of the Maclean brothers, I was on the lookout for a clear three-act structure, a revealing midpoint scene, and some sort of character arc expressed in a handful of key scenes.

To be frank, I found none of this.  Instead, I found a lot of narration about what the world was like in the eras the story is set in (nearly all of which was crammed into the first third of the film), and not a whole lot of scenes that show us what the world was like in those eras (Post WWI, into the Prohibition Era).  Not only did the first part of the movie rely too heavily on narration, but there didn't seem to be any main plot established.

There were a few scenes in the first half of the movie where I thought "Oh, this is what this movie is going to be about", but none of them really ever led to anything.  When Brad Pitt's character Paul brings a Native American girl to the speakeasy, I thought maybe this was going to be a movie about racism.  But after that scene, the town's disdain for Native Americans is never mentioned again.  There was a scene where Craig Scheffer's character Norman comes to bail brother Paul out of jail, and the policeman on hand says that Paul has been spending a lot of time in the local lock up, drunk.  So I thought maybe the movie was going to be about Paul's downward spiral.  But then the movie spends a good third of its length dealing with Norm's life, which is, frankly, pretty boring.  Paul pops in every once in a while to remind us he's still troubled, but we never really see any of his troubles up close and personal.  In fact, they're mostly hinted at, and never openly discussed.  In the closest thing to a climactic scene I could find, we see Paul taking Norm to some bar/casino/brothel where he is clearly on the outs with the proprietors.  Paul gets into a short-lived, apparently consequence-free scuffle, and the pair leave.  Paul then decides he must go back in and gamble, and Norm leaves.  Whatever conflict existed there, we the audience don't get to see.  Later in the movie, the narrator mentions in passing that Paul gets shot--over what, they (and we) never find out.

Basically, the entire plot of the movie happens off-stage, and it happens to a supporting character.  Meanwhile, we the audience are subjected to a lot of flowery narration surrounding the rather dull events of the "good" brother's life, and dragged through a series of beautifully shot, but long-winded scenes about how fucking grand fly fishing in Montana is.

I don't even think the fly fishing really serves as a metaphor for the lives of the characters, even though the writer repeatedly labors the point that Paul's technique differs from their father's.  We get that Paul marches to the beat of his own drum, but we're never told why we should care.

This film is not a story.  It's a photo album.  The few shreds of conflict it contains are either passed over or resolved quickly, and the struggles of the characters are told solely by the facial expressions of the actors, never actually involved in anything resembling a plot.  Every time you think "oh, this sequence of events is sure to lead to some kind of central plot line" it doesn't.  Nothing plot-like endures for more than fifteen minutes or so, and none of the mini-plots connect to each other in any way other than happening to the same cast of characters.

In a word, this movie is boring.

I know myself well enough to know I'm a bit of a contrarian, and I'll admit that there have been a few times in my life where I've decided to dislike popular things simply because of their popularity.  But that was the young me, and the older I get, the more I find myself struggling to find the logic of the things I like or dislike.  For me, it's not enough to simply feel the way I feel about a particular thing, I must know why I feel that way.  And there's always a why, just sometimes you need to learn the technique of a particular art form before you can see the why.

So it is with storytelling, both in books and film.  There is a technique and structure that is generally adhered to.  Anyone who says that the structure is confining and produces cookie-cutter films is either A) a true genius, or B) an idiot who doesn't understand the rules.  I'll let you figure out which is more probable.

In my post about the four stages of competence, I mentioned that one of the surest signs a person is unconsciously incompetent is that they see no value in the skill in question.  Such is the case when someone looks at a list of archetypal scenes (like the one I keep) and thinks that their story simply must break this mold.  I do agree that the rules are meant to be broken, but they are not to be ignored.  Successful masters break rules all the time, but they always do so with good reason--in full knowledge of the why.  If you think your story needs to break the rules of proper story structure, and when I ask why you respond "it just does", then you are almost definitely an idiot.  Sadly, I think that Norman Maclean, author of the original book, was an idiot.

And I realize that the book is an autobiographical, quasi-fictional memoir.

Anyone who has bothered to learn anything about story structure knows that there are very good reasons for the distinction between fiction and nonfiction.  A person's life very seldom makes a good story.  Even people who led quite exceptional lives.  If Mr. Maclean wished to tell his life's story, he should have done so in the usual way: by writing a nonfictional autobiography, and Redford should have made a documentary about this relatively ordinary man.  Instead, in Maclean's unconsciously incompetent avarice, he chose to cast a thin veil of fiction over his life's tale, while steadfastly refusing to learn the forms and techniques of fiction.  The result was (I'm sure) a very boring book which I will never read, and a very boring film which I will recommend to no one.

I invite you to decry my heresy below!

Ruminations on American Horror Story

So my lovely bride and I have been watching American Horror Story since the beginning, and I have to admit I have mixed feelings about the series overall.

The simple explanation is that I liked season one, didn't like season two, LOVED season three and so far I'm disappointed in season four.

But Peter McQueeny isn't satisfied by simple explanations! Lord no! On with the longwinded explanation!

I think that at least 60% of what season one had going for it was the mystery. We didn't know what to expect from the show yet, and that made it easy to get involved. And they had good actors, which helps.

In a more technical sense, what made season one good was that it had a group of protagonists (some of whom developed into villains) that drove us through a central plot arc. It was a haunted house, and all the subplots were properly subordinated to that main story. And the ending rocked.

Season two just went totally off the rails for me. I felt like it was unfocused; jumping randomly from one plot line to another.  There really was no central arc holding things together. Just a location with some backstory. God, the amount of backstory they shoehorned into that season was downright criminal. How about some narrative present, please?

Also, I just plain don't like Sara Paulson.
Yeah, I said it. I think Sarah Paulson is a second-rate actress. So making her one of the primary protagonists of the series didn't work for me.
Season three was much more focused. It had a central storlyline to carry all the dangling subplots. It was a simple story (witches trying to survive in a hostile world) but it was enough. And Sara Paulson was mercifully filed away in a (well-written) supporting role.

The only thing I didn't like about season three was that Taissa Farmiga's character got sidelined for the bulk of the series. Not only do I have a schoolboy crush on her, but the character was our entry point to the story. She was set up as the protagonist, but then pushed aside so Jessica Lange could get all gross and GILF-y on us (which, by the way, is becoming AHS's thing now: gross, GILF-y Jessica Lange). Ew.

Farmiga's character did emerge as a protagonist toward the end, but I wish they could have kept the momentum up the whole time.

Season four is now falling prey to the same flaws as season two. Season four started with a central plot, and it was a good one: the townspeople hate the freaks and the freaks hate the townspeople. Enter Twisty the Clown, and you have a classic 'wrongfully-accused' narrative. Beautiful.

And then--for no reason at all--the writers killed Twisty. Not only were we robbed of the most richly terrifying and demented character in four seasons, but Twisty's demise also resolved the freaks vs. townspeople plot before it really had a chance to get on its feet.

At first, I thought that Twisty had died to give way to Dandy, who I enjoyed only ironically right up until the point where they gave him that awesome American Psycho-esque scene where he pumps iron in his tighty-whiteys and decides to be an artist of murder. Brilliantly uncomfortable stuff!

But then--again, for no reason--the writers put the breaks on Dandy's storyline and make him go all gooey over the Sarah Paulson twins.

Brief aside--season four is giving me a double dose of Sara Paulson. God help me.
At the end of the last episode I've seen, we have Dandy re-affirming his goal of becoming a killer, but in a much weaker scene.

Sorry AHS writers, you don't get to double down on your strongest scene. The only effect the weak attempt had on me is that I no longer give a flying flip what happens.  Even if they build Dandy into a second Twisty and reignite the primary plot (which, I'm guessing, is what they're planning), the writers have now lost my trust. They took what I consider to be a bad turn, but instead of committing to it and trying to make something out of it, they keep changing direction, and now we're adrift just like season two. To compound matters, the net is buzzing with rumors of Twisty's return, which means the writers are really refusing to commit to a story line, and this season is *probably* going down the tubes.  My only lingering hope is that they will kill the Sara Paulson twins, and I won't have to listen to her syrupy rendition of a Southern accent anymore.

Speaking of accents! I wish they would quit giving everyone accents! That kind of stuff just knocks on the fourth wall for me. I look at the character of Elsa, and all I see is Jessica Lang doing an accent. Which prevents me from loving or hating the character, which in turn prevents me from giving a hoot what happens to her.

I'm a completist, so I'm gonna wind up watching the whole series no matter what they do. But if my TV were stolen today, the remaining episodes of AHS would not be one of the things I would miss.
Walking Dead? Now that, I would go to a friend's house to see.