Phillip B. Conrad

April 22, 2010

Ditch Your Muse

Filed under: Uncategorized — phillipbconrad @ 2:01 am

There’s a certain collection of memes about writing floating around that are generally accepted as conventional wisdom, to the point where they aren’t really questioned.  If you read enough writing books, you’ll see the same truisms pop up, over and over again.  One of the most popular of these old chestnuts is that you have an internal editor who will actively sabotage your efforts to write, causing you to be paralyzed with fear, instead of steaming forward toward a library of completed projects.  I’m sure you heard about this.  You lock up your internal editor by promising him he will have his day when it’s time to edit.  It sounds great.  It makes sense.  I got psyched.  I gave it a try.  So, who is this other guy who keeps slowing me down, and keeps the words from flowing?

Duality is a great concept, but it’s sometimes too simple.  Add a principal player and you move up to the trinity, a far more powerful metaphor.  Three acts, three strikes, three stooges; the power of threes is known the world over.  So, if you can have an internal editor, it makes sense that you could also have another distracting, yet necessary, persona who’s out to torment the hard working writer.  I know I do, by process elimination.  The identity of that persona is the none other than your humble muse, the most commonly personified aspect of creativity.

You probably thought that your muse was a power for good only.  It’s true, if you’re hard up for ideas, courting the muse seems like an imperative.  Typically the muse is portrayed as illusive, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes your muse is positively hyperactive, and in gets right in your face with ideas that demand your immediate attention.  There’s a time and a place for everything.  If the fountain of new ideas is gushing into your time reserved for actually realizing your other ideas, you have a problem.  The worst scenario is the temptation to pursue “better ideas” with your limited time.  This is a road I’ve traveled extensively, and it only goes one place:  The Land of Never Finishing Anything.

I call my muse “The Visionary,” at least when she’s bothering me, mainly because of the office personality she most resembles.  Understanding this metaphor depends on how much of your life you’ve spent in a bureaucracy. In any bureaucracy there’s this guy with enough political pull to tell you what to do, or get somebody else to tell you what to do.  He’s a positive, dynamic guy who always manages to pull amazing ideas from both inside and outside of the box.  The problem is all in his timing.  You might be 90% done with some project when he comes by, takes a quick look and then rattles off an idea that changes everything.  It really is an idea better than the one you are currently working on and inevitably requires you scrap at least 80% of the work you have already completed, if not start entirely from scratch.  The idea you had before, which was not only good enough, but probably also came from the very same visionary is instantly rendered null and void.  This is super-frustrating, even if you are paid hourly.

Over the years, you develop all sorts of bad work and personal habits to try and counter this ‘whole new paradigm,’ but it’s no good.  You just die a little bit every time it happens to you.  After you get used to doing this at work day after day, year after year, it starts to become normal.  In many ways, you lose the ability to be truly productive.  After a while, you aren’t even trying anymore because it never seems to matter.  The whole company is engaged in this dance of ideas that just circles around and around.  Sometimes the projects never launch.  Other times the launch to poor support.  No matter how well they do, they get replaced soon with other projects that seem completely different, but essentially perform the exact same function of what they replace.  It’s easy to let this mentality seep into your personal endeavors, but you must resist.  Until I was actively conscious of it, I let my muse take on this role of annoying visionary.  She slipped into it so easily, I didn’t even notice she wasn’t a guy, that guy.  If you ever want to achieve anything, you need to finish what you start.  In order to do that, you have to ignore the call to drop everything for the next big thing, even if it makes you feel like you’re currently putting the finishing touches on an artistic disaster.

The dirty little secret of all things artistic is this: They are always a disappointment to any artist of integrity.  Ideas are only perfect before you have them, and they just get worse as you bring them into actual existance.  You need amazing amounts of faith in your original premise to bring your ideas to reality.  It’s a long process filled with every kind of discomfort you’ve ever experienced.  You’ll cry, wince in pain, reel with nausea, and recoil in disgust before it’s over.  The last thing you need when going through this necessary and painful process is a seductive voice in your ear telling you there’s a better idea, one so great it’s worth dropping everything for.  It’s not true.  The new idea will also have walk an ugly path to reality.  It only seems better because it’s newer.  Your muse is tricking you into comparing apples to ambrosia.  Even if it was true that every subsequent idea you will ever have is measurably better than your previous one, so what?  Do you really want to leave behind nothing but a few hard disks full of half-baked projects for your heirs to bulk erase after you die? Wouldn’t you rather leave a completed, but imperfect, something … anything?

That’s the problem; now what’s the solution?  You need to remove the muse’s influence from the hands-on portion of your writing.  But unlike the internal editor, the muse doesn’t seek to censor your output, or criticize something that doesn’t even exist yet.  The appearance, and indeed the intent, is far more benign.  It wants to help you, but has shockingly bad timing.  You need special strategies for dealing with unsolicited ideas, because you really do want to keep them, unlike the purely venomous sabotage of the internal editor, which is of no use at all.  I recommend you keep a file, separate from all of your actual work.  I have a text file I call the idea pile, but I’ve heard of all sorts of other containers being used, some physical, some purely metaphorical.  It doesn’t matter that much what your container is.  You just need to have a place to formally put these ideas aside.

Typically, I try and write these ideas down as concisely as possible.  Twitter might have the right idea, with the 140 character limit, because that’s the high side of what you want to write, to avoid serious distractions.  Forcing yourself to be concise actually becomes very satifying, quite quickly.  It’s kind of like a little puzzle.  The important part is that you must declare to yourself, and your muse, that you have completed the idea.  You will obtain some small amount of closure by doing so.  Of course you haven’t completed the project, but you have produced a completed idea.  You can set this idea aside with confidence that it is ready to be evaluated and developed accordingly at some point in the future.  Indeed, you may actually have some great ideas in your pile for future use.  But even if you never draw from the idea pile, you got past the idea and back to work.  Of course, it’s best to adopt the mindset that these ideas are gold, a buried nest egg of creativity for those days your muse won’t work with you.  You have to be careful not to fight your muse.  Always be respectful and kind!

You shouldn’t have to process and save too many ideas that come to you while working before your muse catches on.  Do remind her that she’s welcome to inject flair and style into your current writing every time you move an idea into the pile.  Tell her that you’re nothing without her love and guidance.  It’s true and she needs to hear that now and again.  Ignore the sneers of the internal editor as you an enjoy a tender moment with your muse.  Be firm, but gentle, as you insist that you must go back to work.  She’s welcome to come along too, as long as she sticks to the project.  She might not want to, but that’s O.K.  We all have our roles in this process, and when it comes to getting the actual work done, it’s only the most conscious and determined part of you that going to do it.  It’s just like back at the office, except here, you have the final say.  Your visionary muse has no authority to direct the project.  Don’t give her that power over you, and you might be able to have something to deliver to your internal editor after all.

November 4, 2009

Make Mine a Double!

Filed under: Uncategorized — phillipbconrad @ 7:00 pm

It’s that time again.  NaNoWriMo is going on as we speak.  My gripe is, and always will be the month they chose for it.  I have never worked a job where November isn’t a hugely busy month.  Not only that, I don’t work in retail, which has to be brutal this time of the year.  So, last year I did my month in October instead and managed to cross the finish line without any of the formal support provided by being an official participant.  So naturally, I thought, “Why stop there?”

I have once again ignored the official structure of the program and set off on my own.  Of course, if you really write that intensely you’re bound to have some pretty loose thoughts in there.  Which brings me to gripe number two.  50,000 words is not a novel, especially when 10 to 15 thousand of them are probably going to have to be cut.  So, I modified the contract in the book a bit.

I’m shooting for 100,000 words in two months.  Am I crazy?  Probably.  But, there’s something to be said for exploiting momentum.  Also, I have been outlining and thinking about the book for several months now.  Blitz writing is as viable alternative as any in giving life to the vomit draft.

As you might imagine, I have to go now.  I’ll let you know how it all turned out sometime in January.

June 3, 2009

Brainstorming Characters

Filed under: Uncategorized — phillipbconrad @ 1:27 am

The book ‘No Plot, No Problem’ clicked with me. I seem to work well under tight deadlines and that’s what it’s all about. I’m about to embark on another relatively short period of intense writing. This time I’m doing a lot more preparation than you normally would for the NaNoWrMo competition. It’s part of a new theory of writing I’m working on. I’ll elaborate more on that as I develop it. It’s highly experimental at this stage.

What isn’t experimental is the emphasis on well-defined characters. Starting a large writing project without a really good idea of what characters you’ll have it’s pretty risky. Occasionally, some really cool character might wander into the story, but I’ve experienced mainly the opposite. I needed some important characters and only the bland and shallow showed up at the auditions.

When you’re on a dead-line, even a self-imposed one, you have take what you’ve got and run with it. Eventually, your motley crew takes shape and starts to behave like real inhabitants of books, but not until you’ve wasted thousands of words of on-the-job training on them. So, I’ve been brainstorming my characters for a couple of months now. It’s time to formally nail down the details of the team I’m taking into this project.

To do this, I employ a method I learned from Robert McKee. John Vorhaus and Jack Bickham have also promoted similar techniques, but the discovery of the yellow legal pads belongs entirely to McKee. He called it writing out the cliches, but I like to think of it as exhaustive brainstorming. You’ll need at least one yellow legal pad, and a very fast pen.

For reasons I don’t fully understand, this really does work better as a manual writing exercise. Honestly the yellow paper does work better than white. Start on a fresh page and make some notes as to what the role of the character will be. I usually don’t have names until really late in the project and will often write more than half of the piece with placeholder names. So I have character descriptions like ‘protagonist,’ ‘passive ally,’ ‘old friend,’ etc. One character at a time, start brainstorming possible character attributes. Make sure you leave the space to the left of the margin empty for now.

You need to be as unhinged as possible. You also need to write as fast as possible. Just list everything you can think of, no matter how crazy that could apply to this character role. You need to push yourself beyond the comfortable ideas, into the realm of truly new ideas. The initial ideas will almost always be the most obvious Hollywood style cliches: The hooker with the heart of gold, The evil, big business tycoon, the beautiful person with the single ugly aspect or attribute. It’s O.K. You need to get all this crap out of yourself before you get to the good stuff. When you feel the pen seizing up in your hand, you’re almost there, you just need to push your creativity to go a little bit faster than your memory of all the characters you’ve seen before in movies and on T.V. It’s worth noting that even if you are brainstorming extremely abstract and fine details, like ‘golden hair,’ your initial ideas will still be pieces that assemble into cliches.

After you push past the cliche barrier, you will see some really interesting ideas appearing on the paper. Use the space to the left of the margin to mark the ones ideas you’ll use and the ones you reject. Often your ideas will need elaboration. When this happens, circle them on the main list, write the good idea at the top of a fresh page and start the process over again. The whole point of this is to get past the obvious. You need to break free of self-censorship and work faster than your memory recall.

This method can be applied to lots of aspects of a story. I find it especially useful for determining big scenes. If you start a page with the words: Bad things that can happen in the office, it might take you a while to get past situations you actually saw on the T.V. show, The Office, but eventually, you’ll be spinning new ideas of workplace dread to put your characters through.

I go back to this technique all throughout the writing process. When I’m in the midst of a long project, I typically have one or two brainstorming sessions in between each session of keyboard writing. It really helps clear the log-jams and give me more options on where to take a story. Give it a try. Yellow legal pads are very inexpensive, and I bet you already own a few pens.

May 12, 2009

Living the Dream or “Fake it Until You Make it”

Filed under: Uncategorized — phillipbconrad @ 7:37 pm

One of the neat things about living in the Las Vegas area is that you are surrounded by interesting destinations.  Originally the intent was to have an entertainment destination that can easily be accessed by nearby cities, but it works even better in reverse.  Las Vegas is kind of a hub of the West, and you are literally only a few hours away from some pretty interesting places.

Last weekend we drove over to St. George which is apparently a shopping destination within Utah.  Of course the reason we went is because it’s very close to the Zion and Bryce National Parks.  Both are fantastic. Pictures can’t do them justice, so I’m not posting any of the 1100 I took.

The funny thing about national parks is that almost all the people you see in them are foreigners.  It doesn’t surprise people that people come from all over the world to see them.  It’s the opposite.  I’m amazed at proportionally how few Americans bother to see these wonders right at home.

We met a man originally from Singapore, but currently living in LA.  He had visitors in from China and was taking them to essentially every National Park in Utah.  When my wife told him that we had visited Singapore years ago, he was surprised.  It’s not exactly a tourist destination, and I can imagine he only rarely runs into people who have been there.  We had found a friend, or at least a kindred spirit.  My wife, always the glad hand, urged him to look us up when he got to Vegas, his last stop on the Western Tour before returning to LA.  He offered his card.  She urged me to give him one of mine.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Staples was giving out free business cards, created by their web-based software.  I never pass up a freebie, so I made a design to promote myself as a writer.  They are kind of silly, and I really butchered grammar in favor of clarity with the line “available freelance.”  Oddly, the only criticism I’ve heard on this was, “Who ever heard of a writer who wasn’t available?”  The man from Singapore took my card and said, “Ahh, Fiction Writer!”  He looked at me with something that oddly resembled respect, and didn’t even ask for any titles of books.

All this got me thinking about identity and my place in the world.  If you write fiction, you are a fiction writer.  The fact that you haven’t published anything is irrelevant.  I certainly identify more with writers than I do with computer jockeys.  When my mind wanders, it’s working out plots, scenes and characters, not trying to solve business challenges with technology.

I’ve burnt out on computers.  It’s not that I don’t understand them, It’s that I understand them too well.  Names change, but the problems stay the same.  The motivation behind developing new languages, standards and gadgets seems to have more to do with somebody getting their turn rather than actually providing improvements in the technology.  Everybody still believes technology is a one-way street, leading to them.  Nobody is willing to meet in the middle because they figure they all paid their dues one time back when they walked the whole length of the road themselves.  Staying productive isn’t that difficult, but staying positive about it is nearly impossible.

There’s a saying that everybody in computers knows, “fake it, until you make it.”  Quite simply, this refers to how easy it is to transfer skill from one technology to a similar one.  Programming languages all have to do the same things.  Databases can vary in look and feel, but data is data.  The hardware changes but the basic function does not.  If you know one programming language well, it’s fairly easy to get up to speed on another.  Just get the job, and then fake it until you’re an actual expert.

It’s very common in IT and has given rise to web sites full of technology specific quizzes that hiring managers can use to grill applicants.  I’ve seen job ads asking for five years of experience with technologies that are less than two years old.  Pretty much anybody who’s had any success with computer work can cross train in a month or two.  Most managers don’t understand this, but put themselves in a position to quietly believe the lie anyway.  It’s too expensive to hire an applicant that exactly matches your needs.

I guess my business card says that I’m carrying this concept over to writing.  Nobody has paid me a dime for anything I’ve written, and the only stuff I’ve had published at all was not fiction.  However, I sit down in front the computer and produce people that never existed doing things that never happened in places that don’t exist.  I am a fiction writer.  I’m just not paid for it yet.

April 20, 2009

The 48 Hour Film Project

Filed under: Uncategorized — phillipbconrad @ 11:47 pm

I’ve read that a great way to learn about writing characters is to take an acting class.  That was a little bit too serious for me, but when a co-worker approached me last year, offering me a role in his 48 Hour film, I had to see what it was all about.  I had a very small role last year and essentially just delivered a couple of lines that were not particularly interactive.  This year was different.  I had a role that was almost a lead.

The first thing you come to realize working on a small film is how little control you have, as an actor.  The screenplay may have obvious holes or points where it just makes no sense at all.  The director may have some some terrible, clumsy props he wants you to use.  The cinematographer will certainly have limitations to what is possible with his hardware.  Sometimes all these issues are bundled within a single person, other times they are actually spread out out over several folks.   On top of that, you may have serious differences with how the other actors are working.  No matter what though, your say is minimal.   It’s a very different world than the prose writer’s world of total control.  Thankfully, the insane deadlines keep the disagreements from festering too long.  There’s just no time to bicker, you need to get that film in the can.

This year I was in three big scenes that involved a lot of back and forth with two different characters, both far more skilled actors than myself.  I had to do physical comedy, work with props, blend action and dialogue as realistically as possible, and eat up a lot of screen time acting with only my face.  It’s a heck of a lot harder than it than it looks.

There’s a theory of writing, pioneered in the book Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.  It’s the theory of motivation and reaction.  Essentially, you build fiction entirely from action, then a reaction, then either a new action or a reaction to the reaction.  It reads like a over-simplification, perhaps a nice theory, but certainly not a law of the writing universe.  My recent acting experience leads me to believe that is is, in fact, a law of the fiction universe, as real as gravity is to physics.

Quite simply, acting with somebody else is the clearest illustration of how this works, I can imagine.  There you are, standing around in somebody’s living room watching intently for a cue, either verbal or acted, to do your part.  Actions don’t just come from out of the blue, except the first one in the scene.  Any doubts you might have had about applying this theory in your writing dissolve when faced with experiencing it as an actor.  If you have an action that gets no response, it’s painfully awkward. It’s equally uncomfortable to try and pull a reaction out of nowhere.  No matter what it says in the script, things have to happen for a reason.  Actors have to fill these holes with something, even in a situation of minimal direction.

Another unforeseen benefit of acting as a means to study character is that it really adds a reality check to what a character will or will not do.  This pops up in books a lot.  Some character does something with no apparent motivation that just seems way out of character.  It happens in movies too, but you can be pretty sure the actor was well aware of being forced into actions that make no sense.  Often times, there’s nothing an actor can do about it.  You have to pick your battles, and actors start in a position of weakness, unless they are super-stars.  Fighting with the director over why your character does something is probably not the best way to advance your career as an actor.  Nevertheless, they feel it when they’re forced to do or say something that just doesn’t make sense. Prose writers need to keep this in mind, as they are essentially tasking the reader with providing the acting for the story.

When The 48 Hour Film Project comes to your town, and really it goes everywhere, I strongly suggest you get involved.  No matter what role in a production you take, you’ll learn a lot about the movies, fiction and specifically character interaction.

April 17, 2009

The Value of an Writer’s Manifesto

Filed under: Uncategorized — phillipbconrad @ 1:44 am

I’ve been reading a lot about manifestos on the web these days.  Almost all of them seem to have some burning need to convert people to their way of doing things.  Perhaps they are just worded emotionally for the sake of convincing the creator of the manifesto to stay true to it, I’m not sure.  I don’t want to demean the great collective artists’ manifestos of the past, like the Bauhaus movement.  I don’t have a problem with people gathering under the flag of artistic ethic at all.  After half a lifetime of working in various companies toward collective goals, I’m not anxious to emulate that experience with my writing.  I see writing as uniquely personal.  It’s one of the last great pursuits where one person controls nearly all aspects of the art.  I consider an artist’s manifesto to be entirely personal.  I will not detail mine here.  It’s something you have to develop yourself.  Although you do not absolutely need one, a personal manifesto is very helpful in keep you on track.

When you are in the heat of a project, the ideas, and your fingers, are flying.  Suddenly, you have to make a choice.  It might be a serious choice, or a trivial one, but you have to stop and think to decide which way to go.  Without a manifesto, you have to stop and ponder the choice.  You might lose your rhythm and run the risk of hitting a block or following some odd distraction off into the land of the unproductive.  However, if you have a robust manifest that you have developed, you quickly decide and keep writing.  Obviously, you can’t possibly have a manifesto that covers everything, but you’d be surprised at how many of these blocking moments can be totally avoided by logging some thinking up front about what you want to do with your writing.  Naturally, you will want to update your manifesto as you learn new things, but for the course of a single project, it’s probably best to stick with one set of rules.  At least, when you are in one phase of a project, say the vomit draft, you’ll benefit from having some basis for making quick decisions.  The idea is to have a set of rules to fall back on when you get stuck, not to paint yourself into a corner.

There’s really no limit on the kind of stuff you might want to put into your manifesto.  I try and keep mine focused on ideas that will help keep me moving forward, staying in the zone.  For expample, for a project I’m working on now, I’ve laid down a few rules on viewpoint, nothing earth-shattering, but not the kind of stuff you want to have to ponder when you should be producing words:

1.  I am using intimate third persons perspective
2.  A change of viewpoint characters is noted by at least a section break, but preferably a chapter break.
3.  The first sentence of the new viewpoint will always contain the viewpoint character’s name.
4.  The vast majority of all writing will fall under the viewpoint of the Protagonist, followed by the Protagonist’s Ally, and the Antagonist.  Any other required viewpoints should only be used if absolutely required.
5.  Anything goes in the prologue POV, in the service of providing a viable hook.

It’s easy to where this set of rules could be used for a writer’s entire career.  However, if you wanted to do a first person story, you’d have to shelve most of these rules.  Never throw away your old rules, just put them aside, because you may want to bring them right back into play for future projects.

Besides simple mechanical uses, the personal manifesto can relate to the nature of your fiction world.  If you want to set up some hard-boiled rules, you might want to include that in your world there can never be honor amongst thieves.  If you do, you won’t be writing the Godfather, but it’s a perfectly sensible building block of a more freelance crime environment.  Rules like this can help you direct your story.

You can also build in rules for your own personal work ethic:  I will write 2000 words a session, and then enjoy a Scooby Snack.

The best thing about building a manifesto is that almost all of the work in creating it can be done it time you couldn’t have been writing anyway.  Actually compiling the rules is far easier than it is to come up with them in the first place.  If they seem to contradict each other, it’s obvious and you just need to shelve the ones you aren’t using right now.  Throw a mark on them or something to indicate that they made the finals.

Although this may sound overly formal, It helps me make the most of my writing sessions.  I don’t think there’s any worse feeling than showing up for a writing session and failing for being blocked or disorganized and sloppy.  If you just pump out words to meet your quota and get that feeling that you’re going to cut those words later, it’s very depressing.  Usually, it’s not as bad as it feels, but just that feeling can slow you down, and leech the joy out of your writing.  Holding yourself to your own set of rules, can increase your efficiency and make you feel more confident at the same time.  Careful evaluation of the success or faliure of these rules, can really help you hone your craft.

March 28, 2009

My Las Vegas

Filed under: Uncategorized — phillipbconrad @ 10:19 pm
The Stratosphere From MLK Blvd. and 95

The Stratosphere From MLK Blvd. and 95

The Las Vegas people visit is not the same place as the Las Vegas that people live and work in.  Although I love the audacity of The Strip and locals casinos that are like mini-cities, I also love the Vegas people live in even more.  The city is in a constant state of construction.  The spirit of reinvention that The Strip is known for, permeates the whole area.  Nobody is satisfied to leave things as they are when they have an dream to make it better.

This picture was taken from the exit of the new Costco Business center.  They renovated a perfectly good Costco, with the dream of creating a different kind of Costco – one with a greater selection of energy drinks, beef jerky and rubber gloves.  Sadly, this dream did not include the lunch counter, so I mainly go here for gas now.  I always thought that whole ‘business’ aspect of Costco was a ruse.  I never thought people actually used the place to stock their small businesses.  I always thought you just went there to buy huge quantities of stuff for personal/family consumption.  But apparently there is some segment of their customer base that actually uses the place as a wholesaler.  I never thought the prices were really low enough to allow for profitable resale, but I guess I’m mistaken.

Anyway, we lost a good source of cheap lunches, and gained a store that closes earlier and has less of the food items I would normally buy.  So, I take my Costco business to the more suburban locations.  If I ever need six boxes of medical exam gloves though, I know where to go.

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