Brains Don’t Do Random, by Eric Witchey

Ripples

Brains Don’t Do Random

Eric Witchey

Every year over Halloween weekend, I go to a group of cabins in the mountains on the banks of the Mackenzie River here in Oregon. There, a little over a dozen writers and I settle in on Friday night and write scary stories. We set the goal of starting Friday night and having at least one story ready to read out loud on Saturday night. Most years, pretty much every writer gets a first draft of at least one story. Some of the more practiced and prolific writers will produce as many as three in a twenty-four-hour period.

Every year, someone finds out about this event and tells me I’m lying. “Nobody can write a short story that fast.” My response is pretty simple. I say, “Okay.” Then, I go about my business.

Every year, someone else who finds out about it says, “How can they do that?” There’s a hell of difference between the first person and the second. For the second person, I settle in and answer as best I can.

As near as I can tell, there are 4 components to being able to write 1 to 3 short story first drafts in 24 hours. The people who show up at Ghost Story Weekend have all four. If they don’t and they show up again, they generally have all four by the third year of attendance. Here they are:

  1. You have to believe it’s possible. See it happen, and you start to believe.
  2. You have to have internalized a sense of what makes a story. This is easy. If you grew up in a family that uses language, you automatically internalized a sense of story by the time you were three years old.
  3. You have to abandon the concept of making it good or getting it right. This is easy if you’re still four. It’s harder if you’re an adult; however, it can be practiced.
  4. You have to train yourself to produce in order to discover possibilities. See 3 for caveats.

The next step of talking to a writer who asked the second question usually involves them wanting to know how to practice 3 and 4. That’s a hard question to answer since no two writers are quite the same, but brains do have some common characteristics. Brains are all about recognizing patterns. Where no pattern exists, the brain will create one. Anybody who has looked at the night sky and said, “Look! There’s Orion!” has acknowledged this ancient and wondrous phenomenon of the human brain.

So, back to number 2. The brain knows what a story looks like. The brain knows you want to make a story. Now, you can plan a story. In fact, I often do. I’m not in any way suggesting that you should or should not. What I’m trying to convey is how 15-17 writers can, and often do, produce 1-3 completed short fiction drafts each in 24 hours. We are not talking good, though some are quite good. We are talking fun, finished, and shared. See number 3

Where was I? Oh, yes. The brain knows what a story looks like, and the brain will create a pattern even when no actual pattern exists. So, the real trick is telling the brain you are going to create story so that it starts trying to create story patterns out of the stuff around you. There’s a bit of a ritual to this. You can make your own ritual. I have one I use every day, which I will share shortly. However, the ritual for Ghost Story Weekend is kinda like this:

  • Decide to go.
  • Sign up to go.
  • Participate in the meal planning.
  • Start paying attention to ghost stories and all things Halloween.
  • Show up, have communal dinner, laugh, talk stories, write like hell, talk more stories, walk, more communal food, get anxious about the Saturday deadline, write like hell, print it out no matter how bad you think it is, and run to the reading.

I know. That’s doesn’t sound like much of a ritual. No arcane symbols were drawn (probably). No goats were slaughtered (certainly). No virginity was lost. (as far as I know). Still, the brain experiences all this as intention. Ritual establishes intention. The brain is internalizing these things as a set of instructions to get its shit together and start building ghostly stories in order to be able to create, produce, and deliver in a community where the tribe agrees this behavior is a good, proper, and rewarded. Human brains respond to tribal values. They get this stuff. They love a good fire and a little shaman tale-telling. Even more, they love to tell the tale.

Okay, but how do you practice at home to get the brain to play this game on demand. For me, it’s been about getting up every morning and doing some speed writing. I pick a writing concept I want to practice and three random topics from a long list I’ve built up over the years. The topics don’t have to be from a list. They can be anything. The first time I did this, it was a dirty coffee cup, a newspaper article I had just read, and a picture of a submarine. In the example below, the number came from rolling ten-sided dice. I go to that number in my list and use that topic. Here are the topics from this morning:

Concept: Push Pop (a.k.a., moving in and out of backstory in this case); 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Next, I check my watch or start a timer. I’m going to write as fast as I can for fifteen minutes. In that fifteen minutes of, literally, non-stop key bashing, I will try to execute the concept and touch all three random elements.

I start pounding keys in my attempt to touch each random thing while executing the concept. I don’t force the concept or the items. I just keep them loosely in mind while I let myself move into the mental space of allowing free association to flow through my hands. If typing is too slow, do this longhand. If you are going to use dictation as your dominant mode of composition, dictate. The goal isn’t to get it right or do it well. The purpose is to internalize patterns (concepts) while seeking to strengthen your flow state connection from brain/heart to your mode of composition.

In terms of Ghost Story Weekend, the concept would be Ghost Story.

The random topics can’t be tolerated by the brain. The brain needs a pattern, so it will almost automatically create one. Because of that, and no matter how impossible it seems, the mind will occasionally deliver the beginnings of an actual story. The more often you do this kind of thing, the more often it will deliver a story start. You don’t need to look for it or try to make it happen. When it does happen, you’ll know. You’ll be pounding away and have no thought in your mind of actually writing a story. Then, suddenly, you’ll go, “Huh. That’s a story. It just needs X, Y, or Z, and it’s a story. I’ll be damned.”

Of course, about then, the fifteen-minute timer will go off. You’ll think, “Shit. I was just getting rolling.”

So, you turn off the timer and keep rolling. I never place a limit on how much time I spend. I am always willing to continue beyond the fifteen-minute exercise. However, I do require at least the fifteen minutes.

Note: If you try this, keep in mind that it is very important to go as fast as you physically can. I tell people, and I mean it quite literally, if you don’t know what to write, write, “I don’t know what to write. I can’t believe that asshole wants me to do this stupid exercise…” Keep writing like that until something shows up or until the timer goes off. Over time, it gets easier. That’s the point.

Now, this ritual I have translates nicely into Ghost Story Weekend. At this point in my life and development as a writer, I get about three story starts per seven sessions. I get about one I really like per seven sessions. Add the ritual of intention that goes with attending Ghost Story Weekend, and the number of starts per seven sessions goes up. Normally, I need maybe three random topic sessions to find the first story I’ll draft at Ghost Story Weekend. Once I have one, others seem to come more easily, which I think is because my anxiety about getting the first one is gone. I can relax into the fun of the experience.

How do the other writers do it? I’m honestly not sure, but I think the combination of ritual, tribal values, and the brain’s innate need to find or create pattern is a part of the process for every writer in attendance.

The bad news is that this year’s event has been sold out since July. The good news is that the people who make this event happen have many other events coming up. Check out http://www.wordcrafters.org.

Here’s this morning’s warm up draft from the random topics above. When my time ran out, I couldn’t quite see a story, but I could see that the map, the compass, the cold, the idea of a planned life–all of these could be used to support a theme about a good life being built from the moments in which we are truly lost. We’ll see. I saved it. I always do. You never know when the brain will wake you up at 3 a.m. and demand that you complete the pattern it came up with while you were trying to sleep.

Concept: Push Pop; 3084 Treatment center; 2243 Shaking, sitting on the bumper, after being lost in the back country. Freezing. Sweating. Relieved, and still trying to look like I belonged there. Like I meant to do that.; 0861 I always pre-read Christmas gifts I give. Doris.

Sixteen miles was eight more than I had intended. The truck welcomed me a little after sunset, and the late winter freeze of falling night washed through the valley and my skin. Even before I reached the truck, my body betrayed my fear, relief, and nascent hypothermia. Still, my ego made me look around to see who else might have parked in the sno-park—who might see the late day cross-country skier returning to the safety of his truck and wonder what he had been doing out in the back country so late into the afternoon that another half hour would have seen him returning to the shelter of park, truck, and warmth in a racing skin in temperatures nearing 0.

I knew it was stupid. Part of me even knew it was cold, hunger, and dehydration, but pride kills people, and I was a person. Nobody saw me clatter over the plow piled snow ridge and the edge of the lot. Nobody saw me fall, strip off my skis, and hobble to the rear of my truck, and nobody saw me drop my ass onto the bumper of the truck even before I made an attempt to get my car keys from my fanny pack.

A vague, self-observing part of me laughed at my vanity. Another, less vague voice, smiled in relief.

Hubris? Pride? Narcissism?

Hypothermia. I started to shake in earnest, and I knew I needed to get my keys, get into the truck, start it, and crank up the heat before I would be able to put my gear away.

The fanny pack didn’t cooperate. Twisting it around to the front was a gymnastic workout. Finding the zipper took hours. Gripping it was like using frozen sausages as tweezers to pick up a contact lens.

The morning had been so pleasant—so full of joy and promise. A new home. A new job. My first outing in a new set of mountains. This was it—what I had worked so hard for, for so long. I had entered the world of productive white-collar citizens, and I was enjoying the benefits. I could afford the truck after seven years of bicycle only living. I could afford new skis after hand-me-downs from racers and always being five to ten years behind competitive equipment. I had new toys and a new skin instead of my coach’s high school skin.

The morning air was clear, crisp, and green wax cold. For me, it was perfect. Blue skies and squabbling scrub jays welcomed me to the Northwest forest. My trail book and maps were in order, and I had plotted my route—a short four miles, a shakedown route. An easy ski on a beautiful day.

No.

My hands shaking, the zipper finally gave. Digging in the pouch gave me a moment of panic. The keys weren’t there. If I had lost them on the trail, I was going to have to hike out to the main road and hope for the kindness of strangers.

Wax fell from the pouch. My compass. The emergency blanket that would have been my coffin if I had not lucked out and been directed toward the car by a couple back-country campers. I’ll never forget the concern and condescension on their faces—especially hers. I wished I had met her under different circumstances. He wasn’t worthy. He was a dick, and he would treat her like shit. Anybody who would tell a lost, cold man in the mountains that he was stupid didn’t deserve the kindness of a woman who shared her water and pointed out position on a map.

The keys fell out. Painfully, I groped in the snow for them. They couldn’t have gone far. The lot was paved.

Finally, my sausage fingers retrieved them. I managed to open the truck, settle in, start it up. A little afraid to look, I made myself check the gas gauge.

It was fine.

I had survived, and I would go home, but I would not tell the tale. Not ever. Not to anyone.

The first mile had been glorious. My body sang with the joy of stretching out my stride, finding my lungs and my heart rhythms, letting the winter song of roaring silence wash over me and sooth away the anxieties and frustrations of a week of dealing with code while surrounded by executive liars and bean counters who had no idea what went into the magic we did at our workstations.

The quarter mile sigh released all my memories of the week into the mountain air in one long, frosty misty cloud that I left behind.

I found my rhythm, and I knew I could keep it for an hour, which would bring me back to the truck around 11. I’d be back in town by 1. Shit, shower, and shave, and I’d meet Liss for an early dinner and a film. In the back of my mind, she was the next piece of my puzzle of life. I could already feel her next to me, my companion, my mate in life and all the struggles of building family and future. The vision was forming, and the trail ahead was clear.

-Stopped Here-

 

Words of Wisdom to Inspire

By Cheryl Owen Wilson

Please read each word listed below individually.  Close your eyes and see the vision each word brings forth.  Is it not amazing how one word can paint a vivid picture in your mind?

Joy—Peace—Love—Explore—Magic—Laugh

Depression—War—Despair—Fear—Cry

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We writers use words daily to paint pictures in reader’s minds.  We also use them to inject the remainder of the senses: sound, taste, smell, touch.  But what are the other uses for the tiny insect looking expressions of language which magically flow from our brains, through our fingers, and on to a page, or computer screen?

Words, the right sequence of words, when read at the right time as evidenced above in the few I’ve listed, can fill us with hope or bring us down to the dark depths of despair. The world in which we live at various times in history has plunged entire populations over the cliff of despondency.  Thus, I am using my blog today to give examples of how I’ve chosen to use words, in my own humble way, to help alleviate some of said gloom.

At any turn in our lives each and every one of us are in need of inspiration, positive reinforcement.  In every aspect, be it personal, work related or in the midst of an artistic block when our muse is silent, a few simple words can help to move us forward.   Give us that much needed shove to get over the hump, see the sunshine through the fog, or simply get out of bed.  For myself one of the ways I gather encouragement is through positive/inspirational quotes.

My first venture in to this realm began years ago with a deck of affirmation cards called Positive Vibes.  I pick two to four at random monthly and place them on the mirror where my morning rituals begin.  It is surprising, and then again perhaps not, how on the mornings when I would prefer to climb back in bed and pull the covers over avoiding life one of those cards tells me exactly what I need to hear.  I then carry it like a mantra throughout my day.

In my work life (as a business manager) I tuck one of the many inspirational note cards I’ve collected in each employees monthly paycheck.  I am always seeking new, fresh cards.  These cards are small tokens of knowledge discussing topics from Joy, to Dreams, to Being Thankful, to Being Successful.  I started this practice over ten years ago.  Only once did I run out of the note cards.  Unfortunately I had no time to replenish them, so no words of wisdom fell from my co-workers envelopes when opened.  I received many more comments of disappointment around not receiving those small tokens than I’d ever received over a missed hour or two of time worked, but not reflected in their pay. Now, I make certain I always have a surplus.

In another area of day to day life called social media, we encounter many negative comments. However, I’ve also found a plethora of not only inspirational stories, but also those positive quotes I seek out daily.  In turn, I personally attempt to post at least one inspirational quote a week.  I also pull some of these quotes off the internet, print them, and hang them in my art studio.  They are hung like precious clothes on a line, and interchanged often.

In the vein of all of the above I have collected some positive quotes on this solitary art form we’ve chosen called writing.  I hope you find them helpful.  I hope you print some of them, cut them out and place them where they will be seen when most needed.

What is your favorite inspirational quote?

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Gratefulness: The Stone in Community Soup

FB1FBD85-58CF-4860-9801-6906C8C78E09By Cynthia Ray

In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, she says:

It is said that only humans have the capacity for gratitude. This is among our gifts.  It is such a simple thing, but we all know the power of gratitude to incite a cycle of reciprocity. We know that appreciation begets abundance”

It is almost as if appreciation and gratitude create something from nothing. There is an old folk tale called “Stone Soup” in which hungry travelers without resources or food put a stone into a pot of boiling water.  Curious villagers stop by to see what is going on and are told that this is stone soup, and if only they had a bit of garnish to improve the flavor it would be quite tasty.  Intrigued, the first villager contributes a few carrots for which the travelers are grateful.  The next passer-by contributes an onion, and so on, until a delicious soup is created and shared by all.  The inedible stone becomes the catalyst for sharing and nourishes everyone and generates gratitude which begets abundance.

The value of connection with a vibrant, generous, and creative group of writers and artists cannot be overstated. Through the miracle of connection, a wonderful community soup emerges, that nourishes all of us as writers, as artists, and as a people.

When I took a writing class at a local community college, many years ago, I had no idea that it would launch me on a lifetime journey of discovery, of becoming, and of connection.  In that short fiction writing class I met writers with a similar mindset and purpose.  They were quirky, off-beat, had a sense of humor, and loved to write and read fiction of all kinds.  The teacher, a well-known published author, made her living as a full-time writer.  That in itself was inspiring, but she also had a heart for mentoring and encouraging budding and would be writers of all ages and abilities.  She created community just by who she was and what she believed in.   Just like in the folk tale, giving creates community, and is reciprocal, ongoing, and ever-expanding.

One key piece of advice that I took from her class was to join a writing critique group, and to attend writing conferences and workshops.  Since then, I have been a member of several writing and critique groups and facilitated one for several years.  In those circles, one comes to know people on a different level.  These groups provided a place to share the knowledge, expertise, challenge and joy of writing.  The connection and friendships that came from those critique groups continue to unfold.

Over time, the connections that I have made with writers, artists, and mystics, have supported me, have inspired me, and have amazed me.  When someone I know publishes a book or story, I feel pride for them.  I buy the book, read it, review it, and share it.   I know what it takes to write a story, I know what they put into that book. Perhaps I heard them read an early version at a critique group, or perhaps they shared the struggle to produce that beautiful piece of work, and I rejoice with them that it passed out of the valley of the shadow of possibility, and through their efforts into a real contribution to the community soup.

Another gift connection brings is the synergistic and creative collaboration that is born out of artistic community. Two examples from Shadowspinners include the collaborative “Collection of Dark Tales”, and the Labyrinth of Souls Novels, which started as a collaboration between Matt Lowes as the creator of a game called Labyrinth of Souls based on Tarot cards, and an artist in Germany. The game inspired a collaboration of writers to produce novels loosely based on the game, with the common theme of a journey to an underworld.  Some incredible writing came and continues to come from that collaboration.

I am eternally grateful for the indelible friendships, for the generous, open-hearted hands that helped me along the way, with feedback, with encouragement, with a kick in the backside when needed, and everything that went into the community soup, even the stones. No, especially the stone.  It’s the catalyst.

 

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Friends are Forever….

 

How to Get Rich Selling a Novel to a Major Publisher, 2000 vs. 2019

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Prologue: I wrote this as a joke among friends in January. This week, I posted the original version as a thread on Facebook. Sadly, it was taken seriously. I’ve been full-time freelance since 1990. I have had wonderful experiences with editors, agents, publishers, and other writers. I’ve also had horrible experiences that include having work stolen, pirated, and used in ways I did not authorize and from which I did not profit. Buy me a scotch at a conference, and I’ll tell you horror stories. However, I will also require you to listen to the glorious moments that I have been privileged to experience. I know of no profession or job that does not include both good and bad experiences. Writing, more than most jobs, is a lifestyle profession. Please don’t take this seriously. Little bits are true. Other bits feel true to some people. However, that little bit of truth and feeling are mixed with lies and myths to create the following.

How to Get Rich Selling a Novel to a Major Publisher, 2000 vs. 2019

by Eric Witchey

2000:

  1. Learn the Craft.
  2. Write a good book.
  3. Get an agent.
  4. Sell the book.
  5. Go to signings and parties.
  6. Write another good book.

2019:

  1. Be really lucky, or….
  2. Establish financial support and freedom to pursue craft: husband, wife, trust fund, inheritance, poverty lifestyle, Patreon, GoFundMe, hut on a third-world beach, a diamond heist, etc.
  3. Choose a currently very popular genre. Base the choice on what you like to watch on TV.
  4. Read a few popular books in that genre so you can pretend to have read a lot.
  5. Learn enough of the language of craft any way you can to sound like you understand it when you are interviewed for webcasts or by Oprah.
  6. Establish credentials that prove you learned the craft: A couple honorary internet Ph.Ds or a six-week, low-residency MFA are good enough. In a pinch, Microsoft Certifications can be used. You can also purchase reviews, purchase awards, and pay someone to campaign for awards for you.
  7. Spend a few thousand dollars attending a conference and buying people drinks where editors and agents can be met and slowly befriended while you repeat this exercise 20 times a year to demonstrates that you have number 2 firmly in hand and can travel the country and world promoting and hand-selling the books a publisher might buy.
  8. Establish platform: Build, buy, or steal a mailing list of over 50k people, create or hire out author sites on all social media systems. Don’t worry. You don’t have to use them. You just have to have them so the marketing team can nod sagely and say that you have platform.
  9. Establish more platform: Create or hire out a successful YouTube channel, generate endless self-promoted appearances, hire a click farm to manipulate search engine hits on your name to exceed 500k, participate in lots of blogs and vlogs talking about you and your life as a famous writer.
  10. Write, or hire someone to write in your name, a book or series of books that: can be compared to two, but no more than three, extremely successful books or series so that marketing people can begin to believe they won’t have to work if they allow your book to be purchased by the publisher. However, be careful that your book or series is just different enough so that they have to change the cover art, blurbs, and press releases they used for the books you compared yours to. You can’t be too careful with marketing people.
  11. Get a famous author with film industry connections, say George R. R. Martin, to pitch your book or series to Netflix, HBO, or the Syfy Channel.
  12. Get an offer.
  13. Show the unsigned film offer to a publisher.
  14. Get an offer.
  15. Show the unsigned book offer to an agent.
  16. Sign with the agent.
  17. Let the agent sell the book to the publisher, which will require a new contract that gives the agent a higher percentage of all derivative products.
  18. Agent says, ” It’s a good contract. You don’t want to be considered hard to work with. Don’t overthink. Just sign.”
  19. Let the agent’s film agent negotiate the contract for the film, which will require you to reduce your up-front and take points on net while the agent’s agent and the agent lock in a percentage of points on gross for themselves.
  20. Agents all say, ” It’s good. You don’t want to be considered hard to work with. Don’t overthink. Just sign.”
  21. Go online and vaguebook about what might happen soon.
  22. Read the marketing instructions the publisher publicist assigned to your book has sent you. Realize it will be expensive to fly to go to signings and interviews in places like the independent bookstore in Brillton, North Dakota, pop. 1700. Note that the marketeers have committed to nothing except sending you the list.
  23. Ask for money for promotion. Marketing people say, “This is standard for our first time writers.” Agent says, “The money will come. Stay focused.”
  24. Take out a loan against your advance.
  25. Remain upbeat and plucky. Dutifully start the prescribed prepromotion for the book, but carefully adhere to contractual constraints and only hint at the pub date and possible film. Wouldn’t want to sour the deal or be considered hard to work with.
  26. Continue prepromotion for one to five years before you can announce the pub date and the film deal.
  27. Finally announce a publication date range that is intended to match the film release.
  28. Come up with an idea about merchandising. Publisher loves it. Realize that all merchandising revenue is owned by the publisher. It’s a good contract. Don’t overthink it.
  29. Politics and infighting end the film production.
  30. Production company declares bankruptcy.
  31. Agent says they can’t help.
  32. Agent’s film agent won’t return calls or emails.
  33. Hire an entertainment lawyer.
  34. Receive bill from lawyer for lots of phone calls, prework on lawsuit, and the final meeting in which you are told you are a creditor and won’t get paid.
  35. Publisher blames the story. They drop you just after you have delivered the second book, which you wrote in hotel rooms, vans, back alleys, and bookstores while promoting the first book and film. They cancel publication and demand the advance back.
  36. Agent blames the story. The second book, which you personally fought to get back from the publisher, “isn’t right for them at this time.” They drop you and tell you that you have to pay the advance back but won’t get their percentage back because they did their job and get paid for the work they did.
  37. Bookstores remainders your first book. Your name is forever associated with losses on their computer ordering systems. Even if you had another book, they wouldn’t order it because your name is on the cover and the last one lost money. However, they got paid for the books they sold and didn’t have to pay a dime for the books they didn’t sell. There’s that.
  38. You realize that you are the only one who does not get paid for the work you did.
  39. But wait. A huge company bought the assets of the defunct production company. The project is resurrected. The film is made. Hooray!
  40. You celebrate with a banquet for your sister and both your patient, supportive friends. The brewpub has never had it so good.
  41. The film burns bright in pre-release focus viewings. A novelization of the film goes to your former publisher. It tops out the NYT Bestseller List. Everyone gets paid except you because you were only a creditor to the first production company.
  42. Your accountant sends you a bill and a P&L that shows your net profit for the entire process is: -250k.
  43. The lawyer puts a lien on your house.
  44. Return to 1.

The 12 Steps of Getting Over Yourself

by Christina Lay

I have a confession to make. I’ve completed 15 novels and novellas; some of them are even published. This does not include an indeterminate number of drawer novels, those hideous beasties who lurk forever in a state of suspended animation waiting for my fickle brain to become interested in them again. But they are important too, because they represent hundreds of hours of learning the hard way.

I’ve done a lot of hard-way learning. One would think that at this point I would have mastered the art of noveling—or as some people call it, “writing”—but the process of bringing a novel into the world is an ever-evolving, ever-elusive endeavor, and there is no end point, no graduation ceremony after which you will forever breeze through the process of writing like a mature, unruffled professional. No, writing is an exciting ride, a roller coaster of surprises, a minefield of potential failures, a vale of tears.

Recently, I did another dance with The Wall. You know. The one that stops you. This one stopped me for longer than usual. During this Winter of My Worst Novel Ever, I penned the following ripoff of the famous 12 Steps of Alcoholism Anonymous. May they come to your aid during your next Worst Novel Ever.

The 12 Steps of Getting Over Yourself and Finishing the Damn Novel

  1. Admitted we were powerless over the plot, and that our novel had become unmanageable
  2. Came to believe that a really good book on craft could restore us to sanity
  3. Made a decision to turn our plot and our characters over to the care of a workshop or writing group, and to try and utilize their critiques as we understood them
  4. Made a searching and analytical inventory of our novel
  5. Admitted to our muse, to ourselves, and to our writing group the exact nature of our screw-ups
  6. Were entirely ready to ruthlessly cut these defects of plot
  7. Humbly asked our writing group to help us
  8. Made a list of all the places we had gone wrong, and became willing to remove all of our adverbs
  9. Made direct cuts wherever possible, except when to do so would injure the story or character development
  10. Continued to take an honest inventory and when we went wrong, promptly corrected our course
  11. Sought through writing groups and workshops to improve our storytelling abilities as we understood them, gathering the knowledge of how to write and the caffeine to carry those ideas to fruition
  12. Having had an awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others by participating in a writing group, leading workshops, writing articles, and by using what we learned in all our writing affairs

 

The Cyclic Deteriorating Fallacy of Personal Experience

Funny turtle flying on hang-gliderPhoto Source: Be_Low, iStockPhoto

The Cyclic Deteriorating Fallacy of Personal Experience

Eric Witchey

In memory of Maj. R. David Witchey, who fell from the sky and forgot to get up.

We have all done something that worked really well then discovered that the next time we tried it, we failed miserably.

As a child growing up in a small town, I dreamed of learning to hang glide. Once I was out of the house, I bought myself lessons. At the time, I lived in Idaho. Hang gliding was everything I hoped it would be. The instructor was sharp, and I knew I was in good hands. We flew tandem until he felt I had a handle on the “kite.” Then, I had to go through a sequence of practice and validation under supervision until I could be certified to fly solo. That process started on a short hill that allowed me to just get my feet off the ground but not go high enough to be dangerous. I demonstrated straight flight and landings before I graduated to a higher hill. On that hill, I had to show I could manage a launch, a left turn, a right turn, and return to center and a landing. Check. The next hill was higher and dropped off a lot faster. I don’t remember what I was supposed to learn there, but it was the last stop before I could take a kite out unsupervised.

The first day on that hill was glorious. Idaho clear blue skies, a stiff breeze but not a wind. The breeze came in toward the hill and hit the wall and rose in an updraft. I was about to feel my first lift into a soaring situation.

I launched. The updraft took me up like a dandelion puff blown by a child. I was a bird! God, it was wonderful! Ah. I remember now. I was supposed to show I could turn and follow the ridge line, turn away and follow it again, then make my way to the landing zone. So, I did. I pulled the control bar in a bit to bring my nose down and get some speed to make my turn. I followed the ridge a little, turned away, the followed it again. I had to keep pulling the bar in to keep from being swept upward, and part of me wanted to just let the kite go higher to feel the sheer joy of it. Since I was being trained, I followed the program. I landed safely. It was one of the more triumphant moments of my life up to that moment. Hey, I was only 19.

A week later, I returned to the same hill. The weather was a bit different, but not much. The kite was the same. The program was the same. If I did the flight successfully two more times, I’d be on my own.

So, I strapped in, lifted the kite, and launched.

For some reason, I started to sink immediately. Instinct made me push the bar out to lift the nose and gain altitude. Instead, I stalled. The kite twisted on its center and did a wing over. I plummeted toward the hill face.

The keel, the point, of the hang glider hit hard rock. The kite crumpled. My harness yanked at my chest. My helmet hit something and bounced off. Then, silence. Dead silence. Not even the sound of a breeze in the grass, and at that moment I understood what I had done wrong. The weather was a little different. I expected the updraft. No breeze. No updraft. When I started to sink, I pushed for altitude that my mind and body told me should be there.

Physics is a bitch. Gravity always wins.

My instructor clambered down the slope to me at great personal risk. I climbed out of the wreckage. He grabbed my shoulders and yelled, “Are you all right? Are you all right?”

I looked at the mess I had made and said, “I broke the kite.”

He said, “Fuck the kite! Are you all right?”

Did I say that I had a good instructor? I had just destroyed his training rig and split his helmet almost in two. Remember the helmet bounce? Completely destroyed the helmet. His concern was for my well being. I did not have to pay a dime for his equipment. Good man. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember he was a lineman for the phone company in Idaho. In case the universe ever brings him to these words, THANK YOU!

Now, here’s the thing. I had a powerful, good experience. The emotional impact was huge. The joy was very high. I wanted that experience again. I wanted it a lot. My mind and body remembered every detail of that experience and did everything right to have that experience again. However, conditions had changed. Failure was inevitable.

The cyclic deteriorating fallacy of personal experience works like this. We seek a result. Let’s say we send a hundred stories out to magazines and one of them wins an award and pulls a big cash prize. Three more sell. The rest garner rejections.

It’s only natural to look very closely at the one that won the prize and money to see what we did that we should do again. We would probably look at the other two as well.

Suppose we discover that each story had an unrequited love element, a female protagonist with red hair, and a mountain resort.

So, we write more stories with unrequited love, female redheads, and mountain resorts because we think, “Yeah. We’ve got it dialed in.”

So, we send out a hundred stories, but we only sell one.

Well, that one should have the best details for allowing us to sell more since we already did the love, femred, and mountain bit. The analysis shows that the story didn’t just happen on a mountain resort. It happened during ski season at the mountain resort.

So, now we write stories that have love, femreds, winter ski resorts.

And we don’t sell any.

In the same way that physics is a bitch, underlying principles of story are a bitch. Trial-and-error is biased in favor of the cyclic deteriorating fallacy of personal experience. In the same way making all the same moves in the hang glider resulted in a crash, isolating the apparent patterns of success from successive successful stories will result in a crash.

Unless…

We are very clear that the analysis and subsequent attempts to create results must include expansive experimentation based on principles rather than emotional impressions of success or failure. I call that playful experimentation (a.k.a., practice).

Playful Experimentation Based on Principles

One of my favorite quotes about success comes from the German flying ace Manfred Von Richthofen. “Success flourishes only in perseverance — ceaseless, restless perseverance.” For me, the perseverance part is not so difficult. I’m more-or-less built for it. Adding the ceaseless, restless part is the important bit to me. The ceaseless, restless bit means that I must constantly test my world and my boundaries. I suppose that’s why I have never really settled into a genre. Instead, I have bent genres and searched for how one informs another. I have assumed, sometimes incorrectly, that each genre has its own tricks and techniques to teach me. I have assumed that experimentation across genres would bring me insights and techniques that could not be had as long as I returned to the same hill where I had success and attempted to fly in exactly the same way as when I had that success.

To beat the fallacy of cyclic deteriorating personal experience, apply the principle of unsupervised play.

In fact, to keep writing from getting stale, I recommend many of the techniques used by children. In another essay, I describe the parallel play process, which in turn came from the restless, ceaseless experimentation with words and tales and forms and processes.

Playful experimentation requires several things adults are often in short supply of. First, it requires the ability to completely divorce oneself from any sense of risk. That is, the story a writer is playing with must not be under deadline. It must not be part of an expectation of material or pride success. It must not be for this magazine, that anthology, to that publisher. Playful experimentation requires the worry-free mindset of a child exploring a newly discovered, vacant field. The writer must be able dash there, and there, and over there while also pausing to pick up a stick to slash at weeds or turn into the spear of Ajax or into a rifle or crutch.

Second, it requires a sense of whimsy combined with a desire to understand. To approach writing as a thing of rigid process is not playful. To get to a space of discovery, the writer must be willing to do things that seem stupid in the moment but then, unexpectedly, force the subconscious to step in to create a pattern that becomes the discovery.

Third, it requires an idea of what can be done. Forcing the hang glider to go up without an updraft does not work. The principles of aerodynamics and gravity do not allow it. So, seeking out the principles that govern the reader’s internalization of experiences triggered by the words on the page is critical to creating combinations of playfulness that reveal new ideas and effects.

For example, most writers know that stories generally create emotional changes in characters by stressing those characters through conflict. It is a universal principle of stories. Some writers I know argue that without it, the text is not a story and falls to the category of mere personal essay or memoir. I would argue that few personal essays or memoirs are not stories. I would also argue that most, if not all, powerful personal essays and memoirs revolve around some core conflict.

I digress. Taking the underlying principle of conflict, one approach to ceaseless, restless experimentation is to employ the principle in an experiment of randomness. Pick a handful of silly things and try to employ the principle of conflict while connecting the silly things.

Personally, I often pick a principle, roll a set of ten-sided dice several times to come up with three or more random, four-digit numbers, then find those numbers on a long list of observations, objects, insights, and thoughts that I keep. I put those randomly selected elements at the top of a page then write as fast as I can in an effort to execute the principle. The randomness of the objects forces the subconscious to attempt to create a pattern connection between the objects. The chosen principle forces a construct that will either succeed or break. Either way, something is gained from the effort. Sometimes, seeing a failure unfold reveals new patterns, new methods of allowing the reader to see or feel the moment on the page. Sometimes, seeing the experiment succeed within the structure of the principle results in new understanding and skill in the execution of the principle.

Worst case for the above experiment is that the writer has fun and the brain is given a set of patterns (principles) to which it becomes tuned and to which it begins to, or continues to, adapt.

The important piece from the above is not the process. The important piece is that principle combined with play is a type of practice that keeps writing fresh and keeps the writer on a path of discovery that deadline-driven work, paid-for work, pride-driven work cannot provide. Mindfulness of underlying principles combined with playful experimentation results in discovery.

Had I considered the principle of aerodynamics and approached the day with a less rigid focus on succeeding with the defined exercise, I might have had more fun and been more inclined to discover what I could do on that day and in the days to come.

A week later, I did go back and fly again. I did it because I had decided to quit flying because I could not trust my ADHD brain to focus on all the conditions that allow a person to fly safely. Going back one more time was my way of proving to myself I was not quitting out of fear. Rather, I wanted to quit to stay alive.

-End-

Paper Clip by John Burridge

Today on ShadowSpinners we welcome John Burridge, who brings us a tale of mystery, inspiration, and not-so-ordinary objects.

I linger outside the supermarket where I sometimes write.  The hot sky is the color of ash, as if someone has smeared the remains of a BBQ pit across heaven.  The breeze makes it seem like the grey smudge above hides rain, but the forecast is for heat and an insulating inversion.  I’m tempted to make this a drinking night–the day’s been frustrating–but I opt to try to write instead.  A cold blast of air-conditioning hits my face as I walk inside.  

I stalk through the aisles, try to find something that will inspire me to write, purchase some healthy-ish snacks, then head upstairs.  The table I normally write at in the supermarket’s mezzanine is occupied by an older lady with the props of homelessness:  an over-burdened cart, which might have been an IV rack in a past life, its thick grey wheels signaling that it’s possibly from a hospital or nursing home, with full, plastic rival-market shopping bags hanging from it.

I cast about the mezzanine and end up at another table; like all the others, it’s a cool, dark, and highly polished sheet of marble or artisanal concrete, flecked with mica glinting like stars.

I set up my tablet, plug in headphones against the inevitable wailing children, cell-phone-using psychiatry patients, and estranged roommates.  I type–hoping that this time the words will flow like a spring in an oasis; like the aurora borealis at midnight; like a pod of dolphins dancing among the waves; like lover’s kisses along the nape, around the hollow of the neck, and over those places loved best.

Instead, I write ten or so lines of bad Oscar Wilde pastiche and maybe three lines about the Prince of Lyres standing over splinters of his instrument in front of the still locked gates of the underworld.  Gee, thanks, subconscious.  Tell me something I don’t already know.

Then the children, their mothers, the cell-phone users, and irked roommates parade by my foreign workspace–each one stomping the floor in just the right place to make my borrowed workspace tremble.  This would never happen at my regular table, which is not on the path to the market’s restrooms.

The old woman–pushing her cart before her–joins the parade, makes for the elevator, and exits the mezzanine.

By this time, I’m thinking this isn’t going to be a good writing night and I should just go meet up with my ex-critique group for a drink–but, it’s still early, and, actually, I should be saving my money.  A math tutoring session at the next table over decides me that if I’m going to not-write doggerel, I may as well do it in a better setting.  Besides, an attendant with antiseptic spray and cleaning rag has swooped over the vacated tables.  I scoop up snacks, pack, tablet, and keyboard, and I walk–headphones still on–to my regular spot.

I get to the table and there in the dark-sky-and-mica-star center of it is a paperclip.  Which slaps me back in time.  Weeks ago last June, at an elder-stateswoman-writer’s memorial, someone told a story about paperclips.  A few days before the writer died, the story-teller (an atheist) and the writer were joking around about supposed afterlives and randomly came up with the word “paperclip” as the message the writer would send as proof if she found herself in heaven.  The day after, the story-teller, in a moment of synchronicity, inexplicably found two paperclips–which he presented to the memorial gathering–linked, in his pocket.

I pick up this singleton paperclip.  It’s steel or some other silvery metal, with little grooves worked into the loops for extra gripping friction.

What meaning does one assign a paperclip–which may have been left behind by an elderly and possibly homeless woman when she left, pushing her belongings and errands out into the hot evening with a setting sun hidden by smoke and ash?

Paperclips hold pages together–paper planes which touch but do not connect.  Maybe the paperclip says, “Hold together;” but hold what?  There’s nothing currently in it more substantial than thought.

I rotate the paperclip in my fingers.  It’s not perfectly flat.  The inner loop of metal is pulled up slightly from the outer loop.  At one point it held together something–a manuscript? a prescription and receipt? a photo and resume?–but holding whatever together has warped it.

I put it down next to my keyboard and stare at it as I type.

Is the shade of a great writer leaving me a paperclip as a sign of encouragement?  Or, is it a reward for sitting with butt in chair and fingers on keyboard instead of slouching against a tavern table with a margarita in my hand?  Or, is it a challenge–write the story this empty paperclip will have to hold together?  Or, is it a message–the writer connects meanings to the actions in the text?  Yeah, right.  “Don’t lose the day job,” would be a more likely message, and I imagine she’d have better uses for manifesting paperclips, like leaving them for her family or people she’d known much longer than our two years’ acquaintance.  Or her agent.

I write all this while staring at the paperclip.  It’s getting late.  Maybe tonight I’ll dream about paperclips.  Maybe I’ll make a shirt that says, “My writer friend went to heaven and all I got was this paperclip.”  Maybe I’ll write a fantasy story about a magician who makes a talisman of paperclips linked together into a necklace:  every paperclip a star, every star a soul, every soul a story.

***

John Burridge writes short stories in the high fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary urban fantasy genres.  His work explores familial relationships, choice, and identity.  A native Oregonian, John lives with his husband, son, and two requisite cats (one fluffy and grey, the other sleek and black).

John is an alumni of the Eugene Wordos, a professional writer’s critique group.  He was an active member from 2001 to 2017, and he chaired or co-chaired their meetings from 2003 onward.

His first professional sale was to Writers of the Future.  Since then, he has garnered a few other sales and many, many rejection slips.  You can read more about him and his publishing history at https://johnburridge.blogspot.com/p/bio-writing-credits.html.