So Many Banned Books, So Little Time…

As friends know on social media, I’m a big fan of Banned Book Week that occurs every Fall. Given that people continue to challenge books and, really, are only looking out for you, whomever you might be, I find it a good tradition to continue. Several members of my family are or were librarians — and I well remember challenges to books growing up from parents who were worried our dainty minds would be perverted by various books.

I generally always try and read a banned or challenged book during this week. Last year, it was The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, which is delightfully profane in the best possible way you want from a book. It left me thinking a lot about identity, masculinity, and race that I’m sure made many people concerned. I mean what if someone younger had asked the wrong question or came up with the wrong answer? More than that, conversations might have erupted, including two-way conversations. Very troublesome.

A lot of libraries have a display up this week to give you some ideas about a banned book to pick up, so do drop by. Ask a librarian for some recommendations. The equivalent of a Jane Austen villain will be entirely put out by you doing so, and isn’t that reward enough?

The Pumpkin Spice Must Flow

Unlike Starbucks, I’ve held off until this, the first official day of Fall, but now that’s it’s here:

Resistance is futile. Search your taste buds, you know it to be true!

But why is that anyway? And why do people hate it so much? Rebecca Jennings is glad you asked.

Write the Dang Thing

Look, writers are gonna write… except when they come up with voluminous excuses not to. So, periodic posts like this one to help motivate people are always handy.

In other words, enjoy this piece about how Laura Vanderkam gets her writing done while having 4 children, blogging, speaking, and presumably breathing and eating.

Pushing Your Buttons… or Just Taking Them Away

Okay, so I implied on Wednesday that I try and help people work smarter, not harder… because working on projects that go nowhere doesn’t help anyone.

So imagine my umbrage when I read an article by Jacopo Prisco about all the “placebo buttons” that are out there designed to give people the illusion of control. Do you people not know conspiracy theorists will run with this?!?

Do you want the Hulk? Because that's how you get the Hulk.

Of course, I have to wonder which is worse: being given buttons that don’t work and not told they don’t work OR having buttons that do work taken away.

Enter Apple, the company that’s never bashful about being forward thinking beyond a customer’s furthest vision. Apparently, they’re not so keen on the home button on their iPhones and, as of this post, may have ditched it. (Look, I write my posts in advance, all right?)

I’m not sure what’s worse, but I’m definitely keeping out of the way of the Hulk when he gets the news.

You Can’t Do it All – Enterprise Edition

We haven’t had a wonky Wednesday in a while, have we?

All right, so let’s tackle something that affects businesses big and small. In fact, it affects families, too. How many times have there been “too many things” to do or deal with in a week?

As it happens, I deal with project selection at work — and it makes me long for the family-based stuff. Why? The number of players involved in “what to do?” for a business is, more often than not, exponentially larger for a start. And if you think trying to get a five-year-old to accept you’re not buying everything in the toy store, just wait ’til you have to let an executive know they can’t get all of their 27 initiatives funded.

As probably comes as no surprise, the folks over at Harvard Business Review have thought about this a lot — and have come up with a list of seven ways in which your organization might be holding onto too many projects.

By definition, this really should be more useful to those of you dealing with project selection (and, frankly, killing off zombie projects) at work. But if you apply bits and pieces of this to the fam, I won’t tell.

A Century of History… in Cookies

However your week has gone, you deserve to learn about the important history of cookies from the Neil Degrasse Tyson of cookie knowledge:

Happy Friday!

So Say We All… Well, Except for Those Chuckleheads

I touched on notions of fandom with my Crisis of Infinite Star Treks series and certainly toxic fandom has been more on people’s minds in the past year or so in any case (see, for example, these pieces on CNET and in Wired).

So it was interesting to read Ryan Britt’s piece in Den of Geek talking with the writers of So Say We All, a new book about the Battlestar Galactica remake… including the fact that it was not just a remake, but a “re-imagining.”

There’s obviously more in the book than just the subject of fandom, but that’s the focus of the article. Certainly, BSG –as it’s often abbreviated– provided ample opportunity for toxic fan uproar from its short yet expansive stint on TV. I’m sure had it been made nowadays, the uproar and venting would have been omnipresent. Much of what they pulled off was nothing less than exceptional, but let’s just say I don’t want to be in a room of BSG fans discussing how the series ended. That’s just going to get unpleasant.

Increasing Writing Motivation by Increasing Joy

For this Labor Day, a day where many of us are sure not to labor, it somehow seems appropriate to share this piece by Mark Marino about how to have more joyous writing exercises.

Sounds like pretty good motivation to me.

Four Act Structure and the Twist

As something to shake things up with your writing, consider this piece on “still eating oranges” I see pop up from time to time. It’s about Kishōtenketsu, a storytelling structure familiar in many Asian narratives.

The article here focuses a lot on how it’s different from the Western focus on conflict, but I think it’s also worth looking at simply for the notion of the third act twist. Within a given narrative, say a narrative chock full of conflict, having these four beats happen can make for some fun plotting.

Happy writing!

Originality is Overrated. That’s Okay.

I was a screener for a film festival recently. It’s something I’ve done before many times — and just like writers reading a lot of others’ writing, watching a lot of films can give you perspective on both what you want to do and what you don’t want to do as a filmmaker.

As you might imagine, a screener’s job is partly to vet films. You’re trying to score all the submissions to see which ones with the high scores should get a second screening… the most suitable of those eventually going into the program (as I posted the other week, “the best” isn’t always what does nor should make it into a particular festival’s program). Part of the score was based on how original the film was: how did it come across on a spectrum of fresh to re-hashed?

Now, being a conscientious sort, I wanted to do right by the festival and uphold their standards and methodology. I didn’t want to ignore the word choice of “originality.” But as I started in, I was troubled. Pretty much all the overarching plots and scenarios were ones I’d seen before: the father trying to connect with his kid, the assassin having second thoughts, the artist having a creative block, and so on. I’ve seen all these scenarios before.

Ah, but I hadn’t seen any of the films. And here’s where things sorted themselves out. You see, I found I could easily give high marks to films that had scenarios I sussed out within the first few seconds, but had a specificity and truthfulness that came alive in a way I’d never seen before. That’s how one is original: by being specific and truthful (not necessarily factual). By giving authentic, well-realized characters that, even where they’re familiar, are well developed. Characters that could make the right or wrong decision at any moment because of how they honestly arrived at this moment and you have to keep watching/reading/listening!

I thought of this more expansive, more abstract idea of “original” when I read a piece by writer Chuck Wendig, whose blog post –quite eloquently, emphatically, and using not-safe-for-work language — asserts that originality is overrated. And yes, he’s talking about the notion –the Sword of Damocles nightmare, really– that torments creative people: somewhere, someone will look at the creative work and realize it’s not 100% unique. Why, you can see echoes of other stories and characters and situations in it! Now the ever-lurking Imposter Syndrome flares up in the creative person and misery ensues.

My realization that originality (as in uniqueness) was not all that occurred about 10 years ago. I was already going for specificity in my writing after absorbing that and other lessons from Brenda Ueland and others. I directed a short film, a quiet fantasy of the gentle Twilight Zone variety. The magic of the world is quickly understandable the moment it’s revealed because you’ve seen that sort of magic before. I didn’t care about that: I wanted the focus to be on the moment of decision and the relationship between the characters. That, incidentally, is why I love working in science fiction and fantasy, because of the scenarios you can concoct that give these wonderfully heightened moments of decision, sometimes safely removed from the real world and its ready-made dismissals (“oh, well that’s not exactly how [x] works, therefore nothing they have to say must have truth”).

Anyway, an interesting thing happened when the film made it out into the world. I got two sets of feedback. Audiences, by and large, were swept up in the characters and moment of decision as we had hoped. However, several festival judges and other reviewers didn’t like it because they had “figured it out” too easily. It wasn’t “original” enough.

And that’s a key reason why I think many creative people continue to stress about the notion of being “original.” Because among gatekeepers, tastemakers, and even an average audience member, the notion of uniqueness, of that sort of originality is revered. Achieving the label of “original” is a prize to be won.

And let’s face it: who doesn’t want to be an original? Who doesn’t want to be unique? And for those of us who create some form of art, be it writing or paintings or music, who doesn’t want that work to be described as “original” and for “original” to mean “my word, this is a unique, singular piece of work!”

But take another look at Chuck Wendig’s article, especially if you skimmed it the first time. Just like Dorothy, you’ve had the solution the whole time. You are the unique element. You are what makes your work original. It’s what you bring to it. And people will be perfectly happy with your work even if it is “unoriginal” if it is authentic and fresh and they get swept up in it.

And that brings me back to the beginning where I was talking about screening films. The good ones were original in terms of being authentic, in terms of being specific, and in having a vitality that made me want to keep watching. And they did it because of what the filmmakers were bringing to it: their unique perspectives.

I don’t have to fret about my story being unique, but I have to worry about my storytelling being unique… or at least distinctive enough that people want to let me continue telling the story.

Let me unpack that. I don’t think the gatekeepers and reviewers and others who might judge my work as “unoriginal” are wrong, per se. True, I think many of those people are using “original” to mean “something I have never, ever, ever seen before” and I think that’s a useless measure of storytelling on anyone’s terms, not just how one “should” judge my work.

And I have no say in how they judge my work. They just will. I will hear filmmakers and writers sometimes complain about how their work is judged unfairly and I empathize, but we don’t get a say in the fairness of their judging. In fact, if they’re not a fan of a particular genre or style of story, I expect them to be a bit more unfair. And I suspect those people will label my story “unoriginal” and dismiss it more readily if it isn’t the most unique thing ever. Its uniqueness is what will make them pay attention. It’s very possible you’re going to create something that doesn’t click with some people and never will. Understanding this will help you endure some people calling your work “unoriginal.” I mean, they’re not wrong, but as long as you have an audience who enjoys your work, they’re also irrelevant.

But there’s also a time when someone might call your work “unoriginal” and what they’re really touching on is that the work feels inauthentic. It feels hackneyed or clichéd. It doesn’t have that specificity that makes one long to find out what happens next. If I’m in a position where someone is telling me my work is unoriginal and I realize it’s this, I have to roll up my sleeves (and if it’s with a finished film, that’s bad, because I can call it a draft, but it would have been far cheaper to get that critique at the script stage). Of course, it’s easy to say that after the fact. In some cases, you have to make some of those films first.

So nowadays, I don’t worry about if the writing I’m doing is “original.” I worry about the characters seeming truthful. I worry about the situations seeming believable. And I want the audience (readers, viewers, listeners) to have a sense of payoff. The notion of “payoff” is paramount for me and probably worth a blog post on its own. For the discussion here, I’d distill it as an audience member consciously or unconsciously going, “Oh, yes!” at the end of a story arc. And they don’t do that for hackneyed, cliched, inauthentic tripe.

Of course, it might not be “original,” but that’s okay.