The 5 Rules of Writing

Robert A. Heinlein famously set forth his 5 rules for success as a writer. If you go to a SF convention and they are brought up at a writing panel there is almost always contentious disagreement on exactly how good and how much you should implement the various rules. Since I have a shortage of humility here are my thoughts on the 5 rules.

Rule 1: You Must Write.

Okay this is a very good rule and usually one that doesn’t promote arguments. Clearly if you do not write you can not be a writer, but I find the rule too vague on how much and how often you should write. Some author prescribe that you must write every day, but that’s too much for me. I personally write 5 days a week. Monday through Friday, leaving my weekends for fun and relaxation. This schedule of writing has been very beneficial for me and I believe that you should have a schedule to your writing. maybe 7 days a week is right for you, maybe three days a week, maybe even just 1 day a week. Whatever it is I think you should have one and you should stick to it. If you rely on inspiration and mood you’ll spend more time dreaming and less time composing. It is the act of actually composing where you practice your craft and you have to do it to get better. Screw waiting for the muse, get out there and write. We go to our day job without the muse’s help writing is the same way.

Rule 2: You Must Finish What You Write.

I have a whole essay on my thoughts that the most important skill a writer can master is completing the tale; this is the same thought. An unfinished piece is no good to anyone, not even the writer. Mind you not all pieces can be completed, but you need to avoid quitting because it got hard or you got lost. that can be a habit and a very bad one. It’s been more then ten years since i started a novel and not finished writing it. Some of those I did finish were garbage and you will never see them, but they were completed.

Rule 3: You Must Refrain From Rewriting; except to editorial order.

Oh, this is the rule everyone fights over. Let me give you my take on it. This rule is not an excuse to avoid proofreading and corrections. This rule is an excuse to avoid polishing your prose and tightening your plot. This rule in my opinion is not about revision but about rewriting. It is about second guess that voice inside you that has something to say. It is about letting fear take out the thing you think really matters because you’re afraid how people will take it. It’s about making your stuff dull and lifeless and like everything else out there because a million voices are yelling that you’re doing it wrong. Trust that your vision, your idea, your voice is worth the time and don’t back down from what you want to say. (The editorial order is a concession that checks in hand beat art and principle and may have been more of his public image than hi actual practice.)

Rule 4: You must put the work on the market.

Well, you want to be a professional and paid writer, yeah you gotta do that. If you want it on your blog, something that didn’t exist in 1947 when these rules were drafted, knock yourself out. The point is get coin for your words you must overcome the quite common fear of rejection. Strangely enough this has been the least problematic rule for me. I send it out, I get rejections, and move on, rarely worrying about that rejection for more than a moment.

Rule 5: You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Don’t surrender on the first rejection. Really if you’ve survived the first, the second stings far less. The truth of the matter is a single rejection tells you nothing except that the piece did not work for that editor on that day. You need to send it back out, again and again until either you sell or there are no market left. Now perhaps no markets left means – no paying markets, no markets you’d care to be seen dead in, that doesn’t matter. As long as there is a market where the piece might work, send it out. It is your job to write it it is the editor’s job to rejection and never do the editor’s job for them.

 

Well that’s my thoughts on the five famous formulations.

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Liberty Station

Today walk was out at LIberty Station in the Point Loma region of San Diego. For those who do not know San Diego used to be home to one of the navy’s three Naval Training Centers, the other two being in Orland (Where I did my basic Training) and up int he Great Lakes region. Several years ago the USN gave up NTC San Diego and it has since been trnasform into a bayside park,  business & Arts district.

Here is a panoramic shot I took today of Liberty Station. It didn;t turn out half bad.

 

Liberty Station

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Presido San Diego CA

For walk today, on the weekend my wife and I like to go out for walks as our exercise, my sweetie-wife selected Presido Park to avoid the crowds near downtown as Pride ramps up into full swing here in San Diego.

I was not aware that today is the anniversary of San Diego’s founding and as such the meusem at Presido Park was free. It’s not a big muesem but it was my first time there.

Here is a photo of the outside if the Presido, and one fo Mission Valley, the area of San Diego I call home, looking east from the mission’s tower.

Presido

Mission Valley

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Sunday Night Movie: Gun Crazy (1950)

As many people already know I am a fan of film noir though there are many, many movies of that genre I’ve yet to see and Gun Crazy was one of those. Based on a short story Gun Crazy is about a pair of lovers, pistol trick shot artist, who enter into a life of 1-gun crazy001crime and hold-ups. It is surprisingly accurate to the short story, with only mild modifications. Made in 1950 when the production code remained in effect this film still manages to be a fairly straightforward piece that attempts to capture the addictive thrill of crime and anti-social behavior.

In the best tradition of the genre the plot is driven by a femme fatale, in this case the character if Anne Laurie Starr, a woman who has a vast appetite for an expensive life, action, and lethal undercurrent of anger in her personality. Doomed from the moment he met her is Barton tare. Presented in the film as the only man who has outshot Annie the film’s title actually references Barton and not Annie. It is his story that we really follow and his obsession with guns never has a clear genesis but if the defining characteristic of his personality — that and his inability to use a gun to kill. This deadly mix, a woman with an explosive anger and sharpshooter unable to fire on a living thing, place themselves in the worst possible life choices, becoming stick-up artists. They are likable but flawed characters, and the film is deeply engaging. Though produced on a modest budget the director Joseph H. Lewis manages a number of craftily staged pieces including a bank robbery that is shot in one continuous take and solely from a vantage point inside the get away car.

Of course a film made under the production code cannot end well for criminals. The Code required that all characters who engaged in crime met a just end by the film conclusion. Sometime that created forced endings, but with Gun Crazy the ending has the right tone and does not come off as moralizing. Rather like Lord and Lady Macbeth Bart and Annie are characters doomed by their natures and their choices.

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A Few Thoughts

What is intolerable will not be tolerated. This is the truth of our age and of all ages. I wish I could say I was surprised by recent events, both the shooting of citizens by the police and the shooting of police officers, but I am not surprised. Shocked, horrified, roiled with grief yes, but not surprised.

I will not drag out all the arguments and evidence but it is clear to me that we have a system issue with police forces acting with lethal impunity. Racial Bias is a major factor in that – if you do not think that is true I doubt that there are any arguments or data I could deploy to persuade you. Prosecutorial deference is a major factor, the occupation mentality of metropolitan police forces is a major factor, the crime waves from the 1960s through the 1990s are major factors, police forces becoming a major source of income for cities is a factor, how much or how little you assign to each of those and other factors is more likely to speak more to your bias than to objective reality. (And yes, that apples to me as well.)

Political finger points and point scoring will not make any of this better only worse. The root cause, police conduct, must be addressed and all the factors appraised as objectively as possible.

Nothing excuses last night’s terrorism, and that is the applicable term just as it was with Oklahoma City and 9/11. Nothing excuses the police forces in unjustified killings. We must move beyond seeking excuses and seeking solutions which are not the same thing at all.

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Theater Review: Macbeth

1-macbeth-webI am not a fan of all of the Bard’s works. There are many that simply do not translate for me and I have a difficult time emotionally investing myself in the story. Macbeth is not one of these. It is my favorite play of his. While I have seen a number of film versions, films inspired by the tale, such as Throne of Blood, and a few taped stage productions, until last night I never experienced the play live and in person.

Every summer The Old Globe theater in San Diego hosts a Shakespeare Festival. Three years ago I attended a production of The Tempest and it thrilled me, last night production of Macbeth took things to a higher level.

Director Brian Kulick staged the setting as sort of a WWI analog, but not as directly one-for-one as the recent PBS Great Performances production with Patrick Stewart as Macbeth. Kulick’s staging is more atmospheric than literal. I am not going to go through the production scene by scene, but I want to touch on a few that I think illustrate the tremendous power in Kulick’s vision and the artistry of the actors.

The opening setting is hospital ward with six patients in varying degrees of bandages. The witches’ opening lines are passed from patient to patient, muttered or shouted from the lips of those traumatized by wars horrors. Three of the six are the witches played superbly by Makha Mthembu, Amy Blackman, and Suzelle Palacios. When they reach Macbeth’s name all six rise and shout the name in unison. A literal chill shot down my spine and theater potential for horror was realized. Many horror films have failed to achieve the effect I felt last night from Act one scene one. Time and again the production return to horrific themes and there failed to be a single appearance of the witches that did not produce dread and unease.

Macbeth and Banquo are played admirably by Jonathan Cake and Timothy Stickney. I was particularly impressed with the performance Sticknety gave as a living Banquo and as his ghost. Without line too often the ghost sits there and any horror must come from empathy with Macbeth. Stickney, moving with a slow and menacing pace while smiling an expression that filled me with dread, truly captured the horror of a walking spirit.

There are portions of the text that I have always found problematic. The Porter is rarely funny, and the murder of MacDuff’s son can in lesser hands be accidently funny. Neither was true last night. Both the staging and performance in these scenes, subtly changed from the concept of the text, enhanced each scene in it humor and its horror.

The entire cast was wonderful and not a single note of their performance struck me as sour. I am so happy I did not see a matinee showing. I doubt the horrific aspect work quite as well under the bright California sunshine as they do during a dark and chilled night.

If you are in the area, go see it. It is well worth an evening of your time.

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The Power and Dangers of Narratives

Humans are pattern finding engines. Look up into the sky and you’ll find patterns int he clouds, watch the seasons and you’ll see the patterns in birth, life, and death. Finding these patterns are essential to our survival and success. Among the most powerful patterns that we are sensitive to are narratives.

Narratives are how we transmit culture to each other, how we teach morality, how we explain the mystery of life purpose, and explain to ourselves how the world works. Narrative is often the heart of understanding. We live under layers of narrative but usually there is a foundational structure that speaks to our interpretation on a basic level about the workings of life. Are you a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian? Odds are the reason is due to that fundamental narrative. Pessimist, optimist, realist? The answers the same, it’s that underlying substructure that explains to you how and why the world is what it is.

These supporting narratives are powerful tools in helping us navigate a life that is far larger and far more complex than anything we can fully understand. These analogs for reality break it down into comprehensible bits that we can manipulate and understand but they have a danger to blind us.

Just as that cloud that looks like a dragon is not a dragon, it is nothing more than a multi-ton collection of water vapor, the world is not a narrative. The world is the world, the narrative is a model in your mind representing the world but a model is never what it symbolizes.The danger of forgetting that is what happens when you encounter something at odds with the model.

The danger of forgetting that is what happens when you encounter something at odds with the model. What do we do when we run into something that contradicts our narrative? We tell ourselves we that we are rational creatures but often narratives are more powerful than our reason. If we lazily approach an event the narrative is in control and facts that contradict it are often distorted or ignored. Like sculptors, we break off and discard that which is not part of our mental statue.It is hard not being lazy. I joke at my day job that I work hard so no one knows how lazy I am, but it is only partially jest.

It is hard not being lazy. I joke at my day job that I work hard so no one knows how lazy I am, but it is only partially jest. It’s even harder to change a well-accepted narrative in yourself. It’s far easier to dismiss others, to ignore evidence, and retreat what is safe and familiar. It is easier, but it only drives you further from reality.

Take the hard path. Work at seeing where you are wrong and not where you are right. Write new narratives.

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A few thoughts on the Atrocity

I am not going to get into the politics of the atrocity. Not because this is not the time, but because there are many many others acting as excellent advocates for their positions and my voice is unneeded.

These thoughts of mine are of no particular importance but they are mine.

First, I dislike the use of the word ‘tragedy.’ Tragedy often suggests something passive, earthquakes, tidal waves, hurricanes, and diseases are tragic. This vile evil event was an atrocity. Atrocities are always active, there is an agency to them happen. A cowardly, evil man made this happen.

The details of the cowards life are still coming to light and often early details are erroneous, but the picture painted is a complex one. Yes, he was Islamic, though apparently not very devout. He claimed allegiance to ISIS during the event, but also a number of people reports he had been to the club often and was often rejected. He was born in the US and raised here, but at least his father seems much more of the old country.

There is enough here for nearly everyone to shove him and his actions into a predefined bucket. One that will no doubt fit a preconceived narrative and not challenge that person’s already held notions. The truth as it seems to me is far more complex and simple answers are likely to be wrong.

I think here in the United States we are experiencing a cultural pathology and I have no idea how to cure it.

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Movie Review X-Men Apocalypse

Okay this has not been a particularly fun week for me. My arthritis has been flaring making my toes and finger joints very painful. My knees – damaged more than 20 years ago by poor martial arts instruction – were also hurting. Just top it off though Bryan Singer’s latest X-Men film disappointed.

1-xmenWhere X-Men: First Class was set in the 60’s, and X-Men: Days of Future Past was a 70’s period piece, X-Men Apocalypse is set in a parallel early 80’s. The first Mutant – Apocalypse – (It’s really stupid to call him ‘The First’ as mutation is a constant and evolution.) has risen from his slumber since his last heyday during the time of Ancient Egypt (and since Ancient Egypt covers a span of time more than 10 times longer than US history, it sorts of begs the question *which* ancient Egypt?) and is out take over a world far more complex than one of stone and bronze. Of course it is up to our plucky hero mutants to band together and stop him.

After my sweetie-wife and I walked out of the screening I called the film so-so. As the days have passed my judgement has turned harsher. Truly this film is spectacle over story. There is not real character story being driven here. There are hints of some, but never fleshed out and made real. There is a twenty minute diversion into an action plot that serves only to give Wolverine his screen-time but advances the plot not one millimeter. Cut it out and the film isn’t changed at all. It screamed that the studio demanded a Wolverine scene and this was how they shoe horned it into the script. (One credited writer, but six credited with ‘story.’)

This film also take a turn into what Man of Steel pioneered – Disaster Porn. Great destruction is visited upon cities around the world. Huge building laid waste, entire area devastated in fantastically rendered CGI scenes. And none of it mattered. There was not one character moment within that destruction and without characters there is no emotional connection. Look to 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Every single time a starship is hit the very next shot is people being killed, wounded, and paying the price for the battle. This is no accident, it is a master director keeping the human POV present and because of that keeping the audience emotionally engaged in what is really just special effects.

While this film was not the insult to intelligence that WB foisted upon us with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, it was merely fight, fight, and more fight without character, story, theme, or purpose.

I cannot recommend.

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The most important skill to a writer

Here is a quick post about what you need to focus on as a writer. There are plenty of important skills to master good fiction writing. Crafting complex interesting plot, creating compelling characters, dazzling prose, strong important themes, having a distinct point of view or voice, all of these are important.

But.

I think we can all recall novels and short stories where one of these elements was less than stellar. Books that are massively successful despite some poorly drawn characters, tired cliched plots, or that they brought nothing new to light. (Mind you I don’t think aside from self-published material – and only some of them not all by any measure – do you find all these faults in one work. But many works survived with one or two of them.)

There is a skill that every published author has mastered no matter the material.

They finished.

The story didn;t end up in a forgotten drawer, on in an uncompleted file on their hard drive. The author stuck with it, did not give up and chase a new shiny idea, but did the work and wrote to the end.

This is the most important skill, learning to finish. Because if you can’t, none of the other things will matter.

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