Unfinished Business

Some days, you wake with a song in your head. This morning, I woke up with the feeling of melancholy I got when I finished Douglas Adams’ unfinished final novel, The Salmon of Doubt. To be fair, some of that melancholy was the fact that, to pad out the incomplete first act of the novel, his estate included not only early essays, but eulogies by his friends, but the bulk of it comes from the knowledge that Dirk Gently will never solve the mystery set out.

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Not to mention the dozens of other Adamsian characters we’re never going to meet. The few chapters we did get introduce us to a cab driver who is convinced that, because no one has ever said “Follow that cab!” to him, he is the cab everyone else is following. What else would there have been.

I bring this up because, twice today, I also encountered the tale of The Day the Clown Cried, Jerry Lewis’ Holocaust drama about a clown force to lead children to the gas chambers. He was so embarrassed by how bad, bad, bad” (his words in an interview) it is, that he decreed it not be be released for 36 years after his death, and another producer has added years to that, according to a recent AV Club piece. The combination of the two got me thinking about my potential legacy of unfinished stories.

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While I understand the drive to pore through every scrap of paper ever touched by famous writer (which I am not, although wouldn’t mind being), there is a part of me that feels uneasy about this. There’s a reason I write some things in, say, this blog or on my Facebook page (my two largest current soapboxes), and other things in text messages or emails. There are dozens of things I’d really rather not be seen by the general public: under-cooked ideas and unintentionally offensive remarks being merely two of them.

In some ways, this is one of the great quandaries of my generation, we of the Foodstagram and Foursquare check-ins. If Apple unlocks the iPhone of a terrorist, what is to stop them from doing the same to mine (aside from not owning one)? Is the NSA truly watching everything I do?  When we are sharing everything, is there such a thing as privacy?

This may also go back to the question I posed previously: How do I know when an idea has legs, and when it’s going to die in the Steamer Trunk?

The one facet, at least the one that relates to this line of thinking, is my control. The half-formed ideas lack the grace and poise of the edited ones. They are naked, they are raw, they haven’t had the time or consideration that can transform a questionable notion into a reasonable one; there are things that sound okay in my head, but sound offensive to someone else. I don’t much like being exposed in that way.

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(Incidentally, this speaks a lot to why I hate conversations on the phone, too. When I am speaking face-to-face, I have the context of another person’s body language and any props they may have; on the phone, it is my words and tone alone that must convey my message, and I can’t edit them as with an email or IM.)

All this is to say, a small part of me wishes I hadn’t read the Salmon of Doubt, and I don’t think those who watch Jerry Lewis’ film will be edified by it. The former is incomplete, raw, and unedited; the latter will–if it does see the light of day–smack of voyeurism. While we all wish we could see into the minds of our heroes, my sense is that the end result is less satisfying than anything we would have imagined for ourselves.

So, when I die, burn anything that isn’t ready for publication. It’ll be clearly and cleverly buried somewhere I’ll disavow all knowledge of.

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‘Dracula’s Daughter’ Bad

Generally, I’m not that into live albums. They’re recordings of a concert I wasn’t at, and listening to an incomprehensible mass of other people having a really great time isn’t my idea of fun. I make an exception for Colin Meloy Sings Live, largely for the banter, but he does something that I find endlessly funny and endearing each time I hear it.

“Tonight, I’m going to play you the worst song I ever wrote. And it’s bad to the core.” Meloy says. “The fact that I put pen to paper is really terrifying. It makes one want to retire and become a college professor or something. It’s the sort of thing that shakes the very foundation of your being. But I’ll let the song speak for itself…”

I love a lot about his length intro to what’s ultimately a third of a song. The song is campy, it’s goofy. It’s a little catchy, it will get stuck in your head. But, he’s right: it is a far cry from the complex and often intellectual writing style of Meloy’s typical work. It’s a first draft of a song through and through.

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On the other hand, there’s another piece of media I unabashedly love: Mike Mignola’s The Amazing Screw-On Head, the story of a robot who helps Abraham Lincoln fight the forces of darkness and his former butler-turned-Zombie. What I really love about it is that Mignola (as I heard it), wanted to make a series out of it, but felt like he got everything he wanted to do out of a single issue of the comic. When he tried to adapt it for TV, he had the same feeling about the pilot episode: this is pretty much all it needed. (Also amazing vocal performances from Paul Giamatti and David Hyde Pierce).

After writing about my own recent first draft the other day, I started thinking about the Purgatory folder. The place that bad story ideas go to sit the rest of their days in incomplete mediocrity. This is different than my steamer trunk folder, where “meh” drafts go to marinate. But what sets them apart? What makes one story worth working on and the other less so?

I’m not really sure. But I figured it was worth rambling about for a few hundred words.

What I do know is that this is one of those “Your Mileage May Vary” scenarios, as some ideas that I can’t make work, someone else can. Then again, there are a ton of ideas that I think are dumb that someone else has already packaged and sold (I typically use this idea to calm myself when I’m worried that I’ll never get published).

Maybe the ‘this is the worst story ever written’ feeling that comes with your average first draft feels different when you know the potential could be a lot stronger. Perhaps it’s that you get to the end and the internal BS-o-Meter hasn’t tripped any alarms. It could even just be that I reach the end and am still madly in love with the idea, whereas another idea might be one I met at a party, took home and gave a fake number to in the morning. At the moment, I think it’s that I got to the end and saw some of things that were wrong with it, but knew I could fix them–see also, the reason people sink hours upon hours into Minecraft.

I don’t really know. So, I figured I’d ask the other writers out there: what’s your threshold for seeing a story through to the bitter end versus canning it forever?

Permission to Suck at Writing, Captain?

Think for a moment about the last book you loved. The experience of reading it was likely something not unlike this:

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Here’s the thing. I can almost guarantee that the book you read isn’t the same book the author started writing. For the non-writers in the room, this is because no matter who you are, if you’re writing something, the first draft is going to suck. It is going to suck hard. It is going to make Transformers 2 look like a work of art. It’ll make The Room look like it has a coherent plot, dialogue and characters. It’ll make [insert widely-regarded bad thing] look like [widely-regarded awesome something]. (You can fill in your own pop culture references. This blog is interactive!)

Every book. Every short story. Every script for every movie, play, radio show. No exceptions. That’s what a first draft is, it’s what they’re for. Anyone who says otherwise is a pretentious hack. Writing a crappy draft is not the hard part.

The hard part is allowing it to suck.

A couple of months ago, I picked up and read through one of Chuck Wendig’s writing advice books. From it, the tip that stuck out most was giving yourself permission for the first draft to suck. There was also something about hacking your way through the narrative swamp with a machete? (His advice is a lot of fun).

It stuck with me because it’s not something I really know how to do. I’m hardly a perfectionist; there are many, many areas in my life in which mediocrity is acceptable. But when I set out to write a story, I want instant gratification or nothing. I want this story to be an exact carbon copy of the idea that’s in my head, and I want it to be perfect.

See where the problem starts?

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I recently finished the first draft of a story. It’s an idea that’s percolated in my head for a few weeks now. I’ve mentioned it to a few people who are excited about it. I’m not going to say more, as I don’t want to over-hype it, in case it turns out to actually suck. Which is a possibility for these reasons:

  • Characters have little to no personality.
  • There are only two named characters.
  • Their names are so dull.
  • They’re also both good guys.
  • All of the bad guys are outside of the narrative.
  • There’s no conflict.
  • There’s a giant plot hole at the end (because I changed my mind about something halfway through).
  • The ending is mostly exposition and a little rushed (because once I saw the end in sight, I galloped toward it)
  • Oh my god, what was I thinking with the names?
  • I’m not 100% the physics work.

The idea that’s in my head is a lot more bad-ass than the one that wound up on paper. The temptation is going to be to can it. Leave it there, like the half-dozen other stories sitting unfinished in a folder in the Cloud–or as I like to imagine it, Idea Purgatory. That’s what it gets for being unsatisfying.

Those of you who are writers are likely to tell me exactly what I’m about to say I should do, so I’ll beat you to the punchline: Let it sit for a while, then suck it up, and jump back in the saddle; that’s the only way to fix it.

I think this is an idea worth finishing, so I’m going to. I’m going to let the crappy story marinate in my head for a few days more. The intent is two-fold: One, new ideas are going to come to the fore that’ll make this story more interesting; two, I will get so annoyed at how bad the draft is that I’ll have to start the second in order to get it out of my system.

In the meantime, I’ll keep reminding myself that it’s okay for this one to suck. Because this is the version only I have to see.

Welcome Home to the Wasteland

Forgive me, WordPress, for I did not run.

This week, for those wholly removed from the video game community, Bethesda’s fourth iteration of the post-apocalyptic series came out for PC, PS4 and XBone. Fallout 4 is a huge game, a huge nerd-cultural event, and the reason I didn’t run this past Thursday night.

I’d pre-ordered a special edition of the game, but opted not to shell out for the two-day shipping from Gamestop. It had finally arrived, and I was finally going to play it. We have a road trip planned, so I also had to pack and make dinner before I could play. And also squeeze in a run.

Then it started to rain. Honestly, I just needed the excuse.

For anyone still unconvinced, let me expound a little further on why this game release is so packed with excitement for me. I first encountered the series in middle school, playing with a friend late into the night. Fallout, Fallout 2 and Fallout Tactics were early, turn-based RPGs. A different style, made with the same black humor about the apocalypse. Man had created the bomb, man destroyed the world, and man had to live with the consequences–sometimes, these were funny.

Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas (which I played in reverse order) continued that tradition in a very different style. Closer to a First-person shooter, I was initially totally opposed, until I actually tried them and found them addictive and engrossing.

Then I started to hear rumors that the fourth installment would be set in my home city, Boston.

Not only would I get another trip to the wasteland, I could check in on how my home town fared in the apocalypse (spoiler alert, not well). Not only would this be one of the biggest and most advanced Fallout games so far, it would feel the most familiar. IT would be filled with places I knew.

I will be going around searching for all of my old apartments (and as the town I grew up in is pretty close to Concord, we’ll see if I can find it too). I’ll be checking out my favorite spots and old stomping grounds. All with my trusty dog sidekick, Dogmeat.

What I’m really saying is: Sorry, not sorry.

Getting Enough Pizza For Everyone

I refuse to link to any of the coverage of the stupid Starbucks coffee cup, because I refuse to give anyone ad revenue for the awful, useless non-story that it really is. I further refuse to acknowledge any point of view that isn’t “this is a vapid, useless thing to get worked up about” or “The guy who got everyone all worked up about these is a con-man.”

Really, I just want to stop hearing and talking about it. So, let’s stop.

You tell ’em, dumpster divers.

What I want to talk about instead is political correctness: that invisible social contract oft-lamented by those who feel they’re unable to live up to it. That feeling that you have to walk on eggshells in order to not offend someone you’ve never met before. [I think there is another side to this discussion that I’ll likely explore in a later post, but for now, this one goes out to people who whine about everyone being “too PC”]

I fully understand, it is hard to acknowledge that you have made a mistake. Continue reading

The Hippest Miner

One of the things I forgot about running after Daylight Savings Time is that my favorite spot, the reservoir, has no lights around its track. While it’s generally fairly clear, I’d really rather not take the track without some way to see what’s around me–I’d really rather not go swimming in this weather.

I can solve this with a head lamp, which I strapped on over my headphones and handkerchief–now less to soak up sweat and more to keep my head warm. Combined with the gloves, which I wound up not needing, I got the distinct impression that I looked like a really hip miner.

Undeterred by the fact that I would, technically, be appearing in public so dressed, I set off. I had been sick all last week, so this was my first trip out in several days. Ever since I ran out of C25k programs, I’ve been doing roughly the same half-hour program each week, and I fully expected to fail this time because of the time off. Even altered my route slightly, so it would be a little shorter. I was a little surprised to complete the full half-hour, just a bit slower than usual.

That is, I was surprised until later that evening when my bladder woke me up. It was a long walk to the bathroom on sore stems…

Procedural Cop Drama

Let’s start with the controversial statement: Black Lives Matter.

Yes, we can also acknowledge that they aren’t the only ones that do. The reason those lives in particular are significant right now, is that they’re the ones being killed disproportionately right now, often by police.

Let’s also acknowledge that it’s not all cops: There are good cops, and there are bad ones. One bad apple does not actually spoil the bunch (except in your crisper drawer, although I think we can all agree this is not where the majority of news happens).

The Sci-fi version of the adage goes: one alien worm can infect the whole ship.

It’s always been particularly jarring for me to see bad cops coming to the fore when I consider the police officers I have worked with in the past: During my time as a journalist, I worked in a handful of towns and with the local law enforcement in each one. One of the departments in particular, as I got to know them best in nearly 2 years working with them, really impressed me with their openness to the press and to the people who would wander in. I spent a good couple of hours copying police blotter items from a public terminal behind the front desk in the station, and overheard a number of people come in with any number of complaints (none of which I recall or ever recorded for the paper).

My sense is that the Chief of Police in that town affected the department. He came to all of the discussions hosted by the town’s governing about installing an automated license plate readers on a couple of their vehicles. The Chief of Police attended several of the town’s Board of Selectmen meetings, listened not only to the arguments the Selectmen made, but to the townspeople who were concerned about the technology’s potential to invade privacy of ordinary citizens. Leadership can make a huge difference.

The discussion ultimately ran long enough that a potential grant the local PD could have used to purchase the technology ran out. The department said they might explore other grants in future and would try to develop a better policy for the future. Since leaving the town, news coverage there has been a bit spottier, but I couldn’t really dig up anything more recent than my articles about the topic, so it may have died there three years ago (I lost track of the story and could be wrong, though).

It’s anecdotal evidence that doesn’t at all exonerate police officers who are not upholding the laws evenly to all people. Your mileage may vary. While the counter-refrain that “All lives matter” is not an incorrect statement, it’s mostly associated with either serious misunderstandings, or outright lies about Black Lives Matter as a movement and as a slogan. The cops who are out there, and are actually trying to do good work certainly deserve our praise. Those who are committing atrocities in our name deserve to be called out and stopped.

My point is this: We’re hearing about bad cops and not good ones because there is a bias against those positive stories, but it’s not the bias the right-wing “news” machine is constantly banging on about. It may actually be a bias that Rupert Murdoch created: the bias to sensationalism. Another observation from my admittedly short years as a journalist was about the types of content that did well. The stories that I loved, poured my heart and soul into, and spent my time chasing down were invariably the ones that got a quarter of the reach of the stories I kind of hated and copied from police-provided materials: the police blotter from that public terminal and the arrest logs (which were handed to me with personal details redacted).

I’ll admit, I’m not an expert and this is a partially researched idea, so I may not be able to lie the blame at the feet of Fox and Murdoch, but I do know what the end result looks like: It looks like stories that fit into a prevailing narrative getting more attention. It looks like news outlets taking a relatively minor kerfuffle over Starbucks making their coffee cups minimalist, and plopping it on your Facebook feed, so you can mock the ‘War on Christmas’ crowd. They in turn will see our mockery and take that as clear signs of a liberal conspiracy, and it’ll feed up through their news-based echo chambers. Both sides will make a huge ado about cups we ultimately toss in the trash, and the people writing the articles will rake in the ad revenue.

What I’m saying is this: If you want the news to be better, start reading better. Stop sharing articles that aggregate three or four tweets into a news story Look for stories that get to the heart of the matter. Do you want to see less of a media firestorm about random crap? Find stories about things you’re actually interested in, share those instead. Do engage in the Facebook-based whack-a-mole that is unfollowing crappy viral “news” outlets. I encourage you to challenge yourself by trying to find stories that challenge your understanding of a narrative, even if that may not be for everyone–if you are going to do it, though, stick to sources you recognize and trust.

And this is how you unfollow a news source.

Who Needs An Adult?

I’ve often said that, while you do have to get older and more mature, you never have to grow up. This is usually just before I buy myself a LEGO set or play some old game from my childhood. This is also acknowledging that for me to act like a teenager (when I am not) is immensely unappealing, and that I will ultimately have to make adult decisions.

What occurred to me is that, at the tender young age of 30 (31 later in the week), I’ve never really felt like an adult. Hypothetically, I have been one for some time: Legally speaking, 12 years. I’m nearing the point where I’ve been licensed to drive for half of my life. Given the preponderance of Tumblr posts and memes on the topic, I feel like I am not alone in experiencing this sensation.

I’ve written before about how many of the people writing about Millennials are more in need of brains than zombies are, but I didn’t really suspect an ulterior motive. I’m generally pretty optimistic. However, it seems to me that the writers of roughly 90% of all anti-Millennial thinkpieces are written by the Baby Boomers, and are at the very least contributing to the “I’m not an adult yet” mindset. I was content to assume it was the ramblings of people genuinely concerned but completely baffled by “the kids.”

For possibly the first time in the history of the internet, what changed my mind was actually a meme:

I’m more than happy to blame Fox “News” for their part.

It seems that, if this is not intentional, then it is the work of the generation that never seemed to grasp the phrase “Self-fulfilling prophecy.” I also note, with some chagrin, that there’s a tendency for non-Millennials with strong opinions on the generation tend to be the same crowd who lament the “Pussification of America” (and I use the term only because it’s one of theirs).

I do know this: We are adults. We don’t have to start acting like them, because we have the opportunity to define what that is. We don’t have to follow the model being laid before us by the loud-mouthed Baby Boomer crowd, and generally, we’re not. We’re more than capable of the adult decisions we have to make.

I’m hoping not to come across as ageist, but I believe the opening volleys in this “war between generations” was fired by the older generation. As I’ve remarked before, we hate to be typified and categorized–there is even a bit of disdain about being lumped in with “Millennials” every time I hear our generation described–but non-Millennial writers have been trying to class us as “unprofessional.” “selfish” and “vapid.”

Perhaps we should pity them, for they are ultimately clinging a losing cause. When I think of the majority of politicians, I envision old, aging men clinging loosely to the reins of power they don’t yet want to give up. The have had their turn, but are unwilling to let anyone else give it a shot–they’ve earned it, we haven’t. At least, that’s what I hear when people make arguments against, for example, gender equality and gay marriage.

But then again, what do I know? I’m only just an adult…

Note: Perhaps I just need more caffeine. I am writing early on a Monday morning…