Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling

(via Boing Boing) This list comes form a post on Aerogramme Writer's Studio (a blog I am now following), and, they write, "were originally tweeted by Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist."

I've heard some of these rules before, but I'm republishing them all here, because they're awesome, interesting to read, and I'm going to need to refer to them like fifty times in the next week.

Also, Mark Frauenfelder, the Boing Boing editor who reblogged this, picked his favorite (#13) and so did Aerogramme (#9) so I figure I should contribute my favorite, too.  It's #4.  I'm trying to figure out how it maps to a lot of my stories, and it's depressingly difficult to work it out with some.  This illuminates a lot of room for improvement.

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

I've written a (very mean) set of tips for journalism students

I'm the copy editor on my college's newspaper, and every two weeks I get about ten emails each with four or five attachments of articles from the journalism classes.  I have to edit all of them.  (Well, that's not true.  Some of them I just send back with a big NOPE.) This week, I kept a separate file open while I did it.  I wrote out a series of tips, in hopes of passing it off to the teachers.

It's not okay to give to the teachers.  So instead, I've published it here.

Tips for journalism students and other people submitting things to other people who are going to have to reformat those things so they aren't a pain in the ass [NSFW language]

An excerpt (below the fold because language):

9. Check to make sure the pronouns agree with each other.  If you say "Everyone," you have to say "Them," not "Him or her."

10. When you're trying to avoid clichés, don't write the cliché but swap out one of the words for a word with a similar meaning.  It doesn't make your language sound fresher -- you're just generally replacing a shitty sentence that makes sense with a shitty sentence that doesn't.

11. No, but seriously.  The punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.  There are few things more goddamn annoying than having to copy an editor on a new draft of something because everything was fine but you put all your fucking periods outside their quotation marks.

12. You're fucking allowed to use contractions.

Unpriced Job Amenities

I really like knowing the formal words for things.  I think it's because I get in a lot of arguments where I'm trying to defend the legitimacy of something outside the usual range of presumed value, and when I can give a phrase that connects to a body of research, it's harder for the person I'm arguing with to shut me down as arguing about irrelevant or nonsensical positions. For example, I frequently argue with my father about whether I should pursue the highest possible paying job, as a stepping stone to even better paying jobs, or whether I should pursue a job I like, as a stepping stone to jobs I'll like even more.

It turns out, there's a name for the thing I'm pursuing.  It's called Unpriced Job Amenities, and American economic theory is generally really bad about acknowledging them.  This excerpt is from an article on Slate, The Neglected Economics of Trying To Find a Job You Enjoy Doing:

We have a stylized fact whereby as a society gets richer, its citizens should be expected to consume more leisure at the margin. And indeed we see that over time hours worked has tended to fall in rich countries.

In that case what you see is that wages (how much do you earn per hour) rise faster than incomes (how much do you earn per year) because higher wages in part induce less work. But that's driven by a very simplistic picture of the economy, where you're either working on the assembly line (earning wages) or at home watching TV (enjoying leisure). Another thing people can do is deliberately earn lower wages in order to obtain better job amenities. [...]

That's really the same kind of leisure/income tradeoff as you see if workers cut back their hours, but it'll show up differently in national statistics. Instead of wages and productivity rising while income stays flat and hours fall, you'll see hours stay flat while wages and productivity fall.

(emphasis mine)

I'm thrilled I've discovered this phrase, and will absolutely be reading the linked research paper, Match Quality with Unpriced Amenities.

On not making sense

I'm working on a story right now that has put me in a somewhat more difficult position writing than I think I've been in before.  It's about dreams -- specifically, it's a simple inversion of the assumption that "awake" is the chunk of time when stuff makes sense and follows continuity, and "dreaming" is the time when everything is weird and symbolic. This idea seems like it should be pretty easy to work with, but it very quickly became almost completely unmanageable. I began to find that nearly none of the structural assumptions that help make sense of the world apply in even the remotest sense.

In this narrative, humans aren't mildly irrational creatures in a naturalistic world.  They're entities so logical that, in an idealist, formal world, we share a species-wide hallucination that seeks to make sense of the disjointed input of reality.

It's fun to explore, but it's also really complicated. Everything has to bear a relationship to reality and to dreams, but for a character who understands it, it would have to make an entirely disconnected but overlapping sort of sense.

I haven't figured out what that kind of sense looks like. But I hope I do, because if I manage it, this is going to make a really cool story.

I have submitted to the Album Challenge

I wrote about WriteWorld's Album Challenge early this month, when I had just declared my album choice -- "Get Better" by Lemuria.  I have since listened to that album so much that I've learned it by heart.  Fortunately, Lemuria is an awesome band. Today, I posted my entry.  It's here, on my tumblr, all in one piece.  I also posted it in a series of pages on this site, to (a.) give it a more permanent home, (b.) embed YouTube videos to the relevant songs for each chapter, and (c.) separate it into different pages for each chapter -- a format that was against the rules for the official submission.  Here is the link to start reading that one.

I'm pretty happy with how this story came out.  But, thinking back, I've been pretty happy with the outcome of some really terrible stories in the past.  Stories that I couldn't re-read, because they made me feel awful about myself.  So, I don't know how I'll feel about this by New Year's.

If you read it, I hope you like it.

Clarion writing advice, and a tangent about my own self-esteem

Cory Doctorow posted a link to a list of quotes from this year's Clarion workshop.  It's amazing, and digging through it is lighting up all sorts of points in my head about the story I'm currently working on (for the WriteWorld Album challenge). The quote that stuck out to me the most dramatically was this one:

“You have to be willing to be bad in public, to be a writer.”

Abstractly speaking, I know that's true.  I know that I have to put stuff out there, and I also know that the more I work, the more painful it's going to be to go back and look at my old stuff.  But in practice, I'm not very good at getting over it.

I mean, it's fine on the blog.  I produce so many posts every day that it's not hard to convince myself that the stuff I'm embarrassed to have said is so buried that no one will ever see it.  And, to any historians who might be combing through my archive to write a book about me (just in case), a lot of the most embarrassing stuff back there is stuff I don't believe anymore, or regret saying.  But some of it is just stuff I wish I'd said better.

But with short stories, I have so few, and with none in public, I feel like I'll be throwing a spotlight on my failure.  That needs to be at the top of my list of things to get over -- in fact, I think I'm going to add some stuff about that to my SuperBetter account.  It's not like trying to sell my writing will prevent me from saving money, and it will push me towards being better at the chance of making money doing what I want to do with my life.

Relatedly, I am applying to Clarion this year SO HARD.  Cory Doctorow and Kelly Link are both going to be resident teachers.  So, like, wish me luck and stuff.

Writer, the internet typewriter

I recently extolled the virtues of OmmWriter, a minimalist-resembling word processor that did a very good job of causing me to produce a huge quantity of text, much faster than I likely would have, otherwise. Unfortunately, as I also recently mentioned, my computer has undergone some fail.  I'm currently working out of a Chromebook my friend lent me while he figures out what went wrong with the computer, and while I love working out of a Chromebook, it can't do a lot of the stuff I want it to -- like run OmmWriter.

So I decided to check out something else, instead.  GoogleDocs is sort of fine, but I end up spending too much time worrying about the formatting.  And while I blog straight out of the built-in word processor in WordPress, that's not how I want to draft a story.  (Especially considering the risk of accidentally posting it.)

But I have discovered an alternative!  A web-based, minimalist word processor called "Writer," which looks like an approximation of an old computer monitor, and can be set to make typewriter noises.  Which is fun.  (I once heard a writer say something to the effect of, "A writer's job is to sit down for four hours a day and make clacking sounds on the keyboard.")

It auto-saves your files, and you can set up an account so you can access them from any computer.  You can also adjust the color of the text.  I set mine to 9dft7a, because (a.) it's a nice green color, and (b.) I enjoy the pun.

WriteWorld's Album Challenge

There's a cool writing challenge going on at WriteWorld's tumblr!  It's called the Album Challenge, and entrants are tasked to write a coherent work which is closely inspired by a single album.  Each separate part of the story must correspond to one of the songs on the album, in order, and include only and all the songs on the album you've chosen. I picked Get Better by Lemuria, because I know I like Lemuria's style, based on the song Buzz, but I haven't listened to that album before so I'm coming at it with a fresh mind.

I'm doing this because I find I have a lot of trouble pushing myself to create full, self-contained narrative works without some particular purpose in mind, and that seriously hinders my ability to just sort of dick around with writing, which is a problem because just writing stuff is how you practice writing and I won't get any better if I don't do stuff like this.

So I figure competitions are a good way to get myself into that (they come with prompts and deadlines) and the Album Challenge one looks like loads of fun.  I'll be up online when I'm done with it, by the end of this month.  And if you want to enter, the rules are at that link above, and the only requirements are that you name your album before submitting your entry, and you turn in the final product before September 1st.

Bleed on the page

I just asked Neil Gaiman a question on Tumblr, and I don't know if he'll answer.  But it turns out that Tumblr's question box has a word limit and doesn't offer html, so I had to edit it down quite a lot.  So, here's the long version, because I like it, and in case any authors might stumble across it and have an answer.

The question:

There's a piece of writing advice that I've never really been able to get my head around.  I most recently heard it in a Harlan Ellison interview on YouTube[1. Dark Dreamers featuring Harlan Ellison, part 2, part 3] -- it's something like, 'Writing is easy -- just open a vein and bleed into your typewriter.'[2. The ask box also didn't allow paragraph breaks.]

I suspect that it's not literally meant to mean, "Write with your own blood, and some dark god will grant you a story that sells," though I could be wrong. (I didn't know that the ideas newsletter from Schenectady was real.)  But it's vague, in the way that "Dig deep" is vague -- I'd be surprised if this advice didn't[3. This is where I got cut off.] make perfect sense to anyone who already understands it.

Still, having not made it work so far, I don't know what it's supposed to feel like.  And if it is a metaphor, then there must be other metaphors that mean the same thing.  So, my question is:  do you know of, or can you think of, any other way to say what "Open a vein" says?

EDIT: Neil answered

Here's the original question, which I probably should have copied before submitting it:

Has the writing advice, "Open a vein and bleed on the page," ever been any help to you? It makes sense to me in a sort of abstract way, but I feel like I can't connect with it. Do you know any other ways to say what that means, which might be clearer to someone who doesn't quite get it when it's said like that?

And here's Neil Gaiman's answer:

Not really. “Write stories you really care about, as well as you possibly can, that other people might want to read” has proved much better advice over the years.

OmmWriter: a not-really-minimalist word processor

I'm checking out a new word processor today, called Ommwriter.  Its creators describe it:

OmmWriter emerged as an internal tool to help transport us away from the humdrum noise; allowing us to be at one with ourselves and our ideas. All said and done, after having created something so valuable, we figured that OmmWriter was just too good to keep to ourselves.

It fills up your whole screen right away, and doesn't let you out of that as long as you're writing.  You're either writing with Ommwriter or you're not.  It's a great advantage.  I've got two computer screens, and I often leave video up in one screen while working on something in the other.  Ommwriter won't even let me do that, blacking out the screen I haven't got the text up on.

I read about it at BuzzFeed, in an article titled 5 Minimalist Writing Applications: Which One Actually Helps You Write Better? Ommwriter was the winner at the bottom.

The reason I can forgive OmmWriter for being so far up their own ass about what is essentially an unadorned notepad on top of a new age-y screensaver is because, well, it works. The Sofia Coppola-esque musical score and lightly pulsing blue background do in fact make me less distracted. My fingers don't itch to Cmd-Tab away to check my Twitter feed. For me, this is a minor miracle. So if that means accepting that chromatherapy has subconsciously stimulated my tranquility core and purged me of writer's block toxins or whatever, so be it.

What OmmWriter really has going for it is what it doesn't let you do. Unlike WriteRoom, Byword, and iA Writer, OmmWriter has no mode other than full screen view, which doesn't allow you to access the dock and only lets you have one document open at a time. With no pop-ups, only mouse over options, not even preferences tinkering will take you away from what you're working on.

It doesn't seem like much but all these little touches add up to an experience that keeps me focused on my writing. And this time I didn't have sell my soul to Ray Bradbury to make it happen.

She's right -- those little touches are the difference between a word processor that lets you slip off into distraction land and a word processor that drags words out of your head before you realize what happened.  I'm looking forward to using Ommwriter to do a lot of my upcoming work in the next few weeks.

Figment: a writer's community?

John Green referenced Figment.com in his latest vlogbrothers video, claiming it's a community for beginning writers.  I'm arguably a beginning writer -- I've been doing it for a while, but I haven't published anything -- and I really need to start using online communities more, so I decided to check this one out. First thing:  Why do websites make it so hard to find their 'about' pages?  The links on Figment's top bar are: Home, Figment library, Features, Groups, Contests, Forums, The daily fig, Sign up!.  None of those sound super-informative, and the FAQ is only linked in tiny text way at the bottom.  That's great, but a lot of sites don't even have a bottom -- you scroll, and they just generate more content.[1. I know my site doesn't have an about page yet.  I realize this makes me a hypocrite.  I'm working on it.]

That said, the FAQ is pretty informative.  It sounds like a fun, immersive community, and it was founded by a couple of New Yorker writers, which leads me to believe they're probably pretty good about copyright.

The sign up page looks pretty straightforward, asking for your name,

(We encourage you to use your full real name. Ex: Barbara Walters)

email, and password, and date of birth and gender.  The only options for gender are Male, Female and Not Telling, which doesn't seem super-inclusive -- like, you have to be one or the other, but it's okay if you prefer not to say.  Better than just male and female, though.

Not super-thrilled about one of the clauses in the Publications section of the terms and services, either:

Unless otherwise provided in the terms and conditions of a Special Promotion, you will retain all of your ownership rights in your Content. You do, however, hereby grant us an irrevocable, non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, publish, publicly perform, and publicly display your Content, your name, and your screen name on the Website and elsewhere in any media now known or hereafter devised, along with the right to excerpt, analyze, and index your Content. Figment will not use your Publications in an anthology without your prior, written permission.

I might use this community to practice a bit and have some fun, but I definitely won't be posting anything here that I'm super-attached to.

Also, in section 10, there's a clause about not granting warranties that's in ALL CAPS FOR ALMOST AN ENTIRE PARAGRAPH, WHICH IS QUITE A LONG ONE.  This seems to have been for emphasis, but makes it really hard to read.

It also says (if I'm reading it correctly) that I can never, ever sue them if I sign up for the site.

I will update on further explorations as they become relevant.


I probably should have mentioned this earlier (pre-registration ends this Friday) but I'm going to Readercon this summer! I've been once before, last year -- Readercon is a convention for sci fi/fantasy writers, or genre writers more generally. I had an awesome time.  It was a blast.  The panels are pretty much universally (insofar as I attended them) incredibly informative, engaging, and fun.

Some of my favorite stuff from last year was finding out about and going to panels involving Caitlin Kiernan, who is one of the guests of honor this year, learning about Speculative Poetry (via a panel run by Mike Allen) and, on the very last day, stumbling in on a panel about Bordertown, which lead to buying a book that has become one of my favorite purchases, ever.  (I shall be reviewing that, one of these days.)

I look forward to writing about my experiences at the convention, the Monday after the convention weekend.  (There might be a bit of a content dump that week.)

Review: Bloggers Boot Camp

I want to be a better blogger.  Not just as a means to an end (though having a consistent audience would be nice) but as an end unto itself -- I want to be good at this, and I want to do what I can to master and advance the medium.  But it's difficult to work out how to do that on your own. Fortunately, I didn't have to.  I've had Bloggers Boot Camp, by Charlie White and John Biggs, sitting on a shelf in my room for about a month now, and this weekend I finally got around to reading it.

It's a great book -- it's clear, conversational, and highly informative.  The 1000 word a day rule I've been using comes from this book (I got it from the Boing Boing review last year, when I found out the book exists) but there was a whole bunch of other stuff I had no idea about.  (Did you know that Google Analytics is a thing?)

So, Bloggers Boot Camp gets a definite thumbs-up from me.  (I'm not sure about the star rating.  I keep giving things fives.  Maybe I need to read crappier books?)  If you're just getting into blogging, I recommend it.

Awesome John Green Quote

John Green, elder Vlobrother and author of novels, writes a secret blog that's only for people who have read his latest novel, The Fault in Our Stars, and want to participate in a spoilerific discussion of the book's contents.  Here's a link to that blog.  I'm not giving you the password, or telling you how to find it. He said something in one of his answers on that blog recently, which I'm going to clip massively out of context, but I don't believe I'm cutting away much meaning.  Anyway, it's a quote I'd like to remember, and maybe make needlepoint pillows with it on them, and since it's from such an obscure source I wanted to create a clear path back to it.

There's not much to say about the quote that's not specific to The Fault in Our Stars, except that it's pretty clearly implied that he's talking about writing ideas, not valuable objects.

I am always talking to people and trying to listen to them so that I can steal from them.

- John Green

And as a chaser, here's a Vlogbrothers video about being quoted out of context.

So I finished the second draft of my novel

By that I mean, I've finished covering the printout of the first draft of my novel with green ink, and am about halfway through typing up the second draft.  I'm pretty happy with the novel where it's at, though there are a couple of scenes I intend to go through and add, or rewrite, entirely -- the third draft is essentially going to be spot edits. I typed fifty pages up on Saturday, and that was long and painful and awful to do, but it's necessary work.

On a more personal note, I don't mind doing necessary work, even when it sucks.  I'm okay with going through the arduous task of retyping my entire novel, working through the annoyingly poorly scribbled green edits, over the course of several hours.  It's not fun, but it's not emotionally painful.

I'm willing to work much harder, in fact, to complete the sort of necessary but unpleasant work that leads to me finishing something like a novel, than I am willing to work towards creating something I don't care about, or creating nothing at all.

There's a lot of work out there that adds up to essentially nothing.  There are jobs that support systems I don't just care little about, but that I actively disdain.  There's a lot of stuff in this world I don't like, and people put a lot of work into making that stuff.

It's not just that those jobs are hard.  I'm okay with hard work.  I like hard work, insofar as I like going to great lengths of effort to create things I think are important.  What I'm not okay with, what I'm not willing to do, is hard work to create things I hate.

I love writing.  I think it's important, and I think it makes the world a better place.  So I'm going to do about 100 pages of not-very-fun typing in the next five days or so, happily.

Talk to you tomorrow.