Following on my last post about the practice of writing versus practicing writing, I recently came across a Cal Newport article entitled Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre, in which he talks about the difference between practice and performance.

Flow” is a term coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, which he described as “a highly focused state conducive to productivity.” We’ve all experienced flow, that time when we’re writing or drawing or even writing code and the world seems to fall away as the glittering reality of what we’re working on comes into focus and we start really producing.

As Newport points out, the problem with flow in general is that it relies completely on skills you’ve already mastered. The moment you hit a snag in your work, a conceptual problem where there’s no existing solution stored away in your brain, flow breaks. You have to leave the zone of performance and drop down to the zone of improvement. You have to do something new.

Flow isn’t a state in which anything new happens. It’s an incredibly pleasurable state, of course; I know I enjoy it. I especially enjoy it when I’m writing stories, when I’m down in the muck and churning out dialogue and scene and plot, but the fact is that when I do so I’m riding on a lifetime of writing, repeating what I’ve already done. To get to the next level of writing, I have to drop out of writing and start planning instead.

That’s one of the problems with being a writer, though. A lot of writing involves “performance” in the sense that you’re not trying to improve your writing skills or style. And that may be a problem if writing doesn’t come naturally to you, but you want to do it anyway. I’m not entirely sure what to do with this conundrum other than to say that writing a story should involve a lot of Flow and opportunities to improve should happen elsetime.

James Koppel has a pretty interesting post about programming entitled Practicing is not Performing: Why Project-Based Learning Fails, about why trying to learn something about programming by doing a project is not the way to learn. I don’t agree with everything he says, but the gist of his comments really does get to me.

Last year, wearing my nerd hat, I set out to write a programming language parser using an obscure algorithm, working in two different programing languages that I didn’t know. I figured I could learn everything I needed along the way, as I’ve always done. It all took much, much longer than I’d expected: the languages were very different from what I’d ever known before, the algorithms involved much deeper math than I’d ever expected.

James’s advice is the fundamentals of learning:

  1. Break down a skill into the smallest components.
  2. Drill on those components rapidly and with feedback.
  3. Incorporate those pieces into larger assemblies, then drill on those.

Everything in my project tells me that I could have gone much faster if I’d followed James’s advice. On the other hand, learning how to write old-school proofs is something that just takes a lot of time, and working my way through The Theory of Computation is one of those things.

But this is my writing blog, and so the question is: how do you do this sort of thing with writing? Theoretically, you can. The classic MFA textbook on writing is Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, of which I naturally have two copies (I bought a second digital copy so I wouldn’t have to lug the physical book with me to re-read it), although you can frequently find it in used bookstores, where disillusioned writers drop it off after taking a summer community college course and realize writing isn’t really for them.

I once took that summer community college course on writing prose fiction, and the teacher and I disliked one another a great deal, although we had a lot of respect for one another, one of the few times I’ve encountered that dynamic. I learned a lot from him. He absolutely loathed genre writing. Other students rarely did the homework; I brought in 2000 words each week every week to be critiqued and discussed. He had to swallow his dislike of science fiction and romance to read through and analyze my use of character, presentation, plot, structure, and setting, as it was often the only material he had from students, and that was part of the class’s appeal.

Burroway has writing assignments, and I guess you could do them for each of the chapters in her book. I did some of them, what we could cover in an eight-week course, but I always worked with an eye toward incorporating the material into something that was already written. (For the record, minus the sex scenes, a lot of that classwork became a part of Travellogue: Reunion.)

Can you have “practice” stories, that never get shown the light of day? I suppose you can. But unlike code, a writers should keep everything in a trunk, where someday while you’re writing, it may call to you and say, “Hey, that think you wrote twenty years ago? Some variant of it would go perfect right…. there.”

I’ve been reading John Yorke’s excellent book on storytelling, Into the Woods. Yorke was a television writer, producer and executive for many years, and his insights into what makes series & serials tick has been invaluable to me in clarifying some of the things I’ve been blocked by in developing out The Journal Entries and my other stories.

Yorke writes:

Why does every series that doesn’t regularly refresh its characters have a lifespan of only two or three years? Why do most characters in soaps seem to dissipate over time and find themselves in endlessly similar storylines, becoming paler shadows of their former selves?

Characters have only one story, and all attempts to counter that are a lie. Soaps and series are lies— great and glorious lies if told well, but lies nonetheless. As with those we love in real life, we want our ficticious friends to live forever.

Drama demands that characters must change, but the audience insists they stay exactly the same.

Osvaldo Oyola makes a similar observation in Superior Responsibility: Spider-Man and the Thread of Identity:

If there is one thing we can count on in mainstream superhero comics it is the strange tension between the accretion of change and the status quo. That is, while the status quo tends to draw characters back towards it, undoing the events of intervening issues, the changes back and forth and the inconsistencies they engender become part of that on-going story.

This essential tension, that a character in a long-running serial be similar enough to the reader or watcher to be as recognizable and relatable in episode 300 as she was in episode 1, yet somehow be dramatic and engaging, is the dried pea under Ken Shardik’s hundred-high mattress collection stained with the love fluids of a dozen different species.

I am, as far as I know, an ordinary human being, with the limited time and space on this Earth we are alloted by fate and circumstance. Like all young people, I started out not knowing anything, and had to learn my lessons in all the usual ways, and sometimes in unusual ways. I have ADHD and a very mild form of something called Interictal Syndrome, which is like Asperger’s Syndrome “but not really,” and this manifests in a desire to subject everything to process, to explain everything (a component of interictal syndrome called circumstantiality), and to do so in a safe space.

Shardik was my tool and my Mary Sue for figuring out how people met and learned how to like and love one another. He’s always been that. Somewhere along the way, I realized that that was not enough, and that he needed to codify his— and my— moral core, and that the stories needed to be about something more than just getting laid.

Ken and I grew up and grew older together.

A lot of my stories simply are “processing.” I took a situation I was either in and didn’t understand, or a situation I wanted to be in and didn’t understand, and wrote several different stories where that situation played out. Not all of them were great, and some of them show the immaturity they’re meant to explore and overcome, but that’s kind a the point.

Looking back at them, and applying modern psychoanalysis, I can see how they map to classic maturity models.

The AIs create an environment of trust which must be explained, carefully; it’s not enough to create a science fiction environment in which trust is easy, it must be earned. Writing about that was one major component of the series. My characters must explore the limits of their autonomy within this universe. The highly aware ones question the sincerity of their autonomy, while the immature ones deal with their sense of shame at wanting to question it at all. All of the classic emotional stages are dealt with. I’m kinda proud of that.

But the character of Shardik has changed only a little over time. He came out, as I came out, to all the different things that he is: capable of intimacy rather than banal fuck-aroundedness, queer, kinky, and perpetually champing at the bit to be more than what his limited body and intellect allow, yet also perpetually frustrated that, in his universe, becoming more implies a blurring of identity and his sense of self.

So he stays the same, and acts out his frustration in a number of ways, all the while aware of them, moderating them, and trying to make something positive out of them.

I have ocassionally toyed with trying to come up with a story that breaks Ken without having to threaten his family relationships. Even Petri Dish exists on the presumption that, having embraced a limited form of more-ness, Ken only proceeds knowing that his family back home is taken care of. I do have a story where he snaps under stress, where coincidence overwhelms even his resources and he’s left with nothing but clawing his way back toward the respect of someone he’s recently met and expects more from him than even he has. It’s an interesting story, and I have yet to find a satisfying ending for it.

But this essentially static nature is why there are many more stories featuring other people these days. There are conflicts and traumas Ken can’t get involved with. He’s never been a religious fanatic, he’s never had parents of his own to deal with, he’s cautiously avoided embroiling Pendor in a major casus belli.

The upshot of this is that there aren’t many more stories to tell in the Journal Entries universe, at least not those featuring Shardik and his family. They’re kinda done with this. Wish certainly has a few more stories (she is not a mature and complete person yet) and P’nyssa probably. Aaden not so much; Aaden hit his mature stride even quicker than Ken because, unlike Ken, Aaden knew he had to, to feel comfortable in Ken’s presence.

They’ve had a good run. They’re grown-ups now, with little journeying left to do. Long live the Shardik family. But it will soon be time to let others take— and hold— the stage.

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a seminar on television screenwriting, and I learned a new term which has made me sit back and seriously think about the kind of writing I enjoy. That term was story engine.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the mechanics of writing. I am not, I fully admit, a very good human being; I don’t know much about the lives of other people, I have trouble understanding the motivations of other people, and I definitely don’t really grok too well the day-to-day motivations of contemporary people. For me, having a good framework on which to hang a story is utterly essential.

Most people understand, to some extent, the elements of fiction: Plot, Theme, Character, Point of View, Style, and Tone. “Plot” is the basic conflict: what happens, and why. Theme is the underlying justification for the outcome, the reason this story is worth telling and reading. Characters are the people who exist in the story.

Recently, I added a new term to my arsenal: Premise. The premise is different from the plot or the theme; the premise is why the reader would be interested in the first place. The premise is a promise the writer makes that the reader will enjoy this story. Premises are simple: Star Trek visits strange new worlds. Game of Thrones is full of sexy people in a nasty fantasy world. Law and Order sees justice done. Harry Potter sees awkward teens strive against vast, oncoming evil. Honor Harrington sees a powerful military woman going up against ever-greater threats to herself and her kingdom. Miles Vorkosigan sees a brilliant, honorable and ambitious man grindingly using himself up as he tries hard to drag his backward planet into the greater galactic civilization.

I like premise, because it solves a major problem. If you know the premise of the story and you’ve lost your way somewhere in the middle of the novel (the infamous “muddle”), ask yourself what your premise is and why this part of the book isn’t serving it well. “Keeping the promise of premise solves the muddle in the middle” has become part of my mantra about writing. Both Star Kingdom and Honest Impulses were well-served by this idea.

Story Engine is a term that resembles, in a way, the plot, but also the premise, and also the theme. It encompasses the characters the way plot does, but like a plot, is is often driven by what the characters need.

The basic idea of story engine is that the writers on a television series do not know what happens next from episode to epsiode. The writers know where the show starts, but they also need to know what direction it’s headed in, and what powers it. Earlier I wrote about Grillo-Marxuach’s notion, “When you start a series, be able to say what it is, but even that isn’t enough.

Modern television is no longer single-episode, with resets; characters and situations are expected to change and grow as a series progresses. The story engine is the pressure behind those characters and situations. In Game of Thrones, the story engine is about ambitious, violent people positioning themselves for survival in the face of an oncoming ecological disaster. Harry Potter is young people wanting to live and love as a powerful authoritarian evil threatens them. Honor Harrington is about a honorable woman serving an honorable nation as violent ambition threatens both. Charlie Stross’s Laundry Series is about a well-meaning but heavily bureaucratic government agency dealing with the rising tide of Lovecraftian horror as the stars slowly come into alignment. Kit Rocha’s Beyond series is about members of a sexy-but-violent Mad Max-style gang trying to do the right thing as outside forces align to crush them. The Journal Entries have always been about people discovering, assessing (or reassessing) their own self-identities in encounters where their romantic, sexual, or affectionate needs are on the line… in spaaaaace.

Writers are often told, “You can’t know the theme of your work until you finish it. Then you can decide if the theme is something you want to put in front of an audience enough that you want to re-write it.” That can’t work for a long-running series. You have to know the theme up front. You know to know what compels the characters, and what you as the writer want to say with your characters and their situations.

Story engines are dangerous. The story engine for Battlestar Galactica (2004) was “Humans struggle to survive in a massive, broke-down fleet of ships as they are relentlessly pursued by a robot civilization bent on their destruction.” Not every episode involved a Cylon attack, but in every epsiode character’s emotions were driven by the knowledge that an attack could happen at any moment. The problem with this story engine is that it has no definitive ending, and we famously now know how problematic that was.

On the other hand, if you have a hit series and your engine has a definitive ending… what do you when the studio asks for more? Stranger Things had this problem: what do you do next when [redacted] and the tear in reality is repaired? What next? Open another one? Lather-rinse-repeat?

And not every series needs a story engine. The MCU doesn’t have a story engine. The Infinity Stone arc is a story engine, but not every movie fits into that arc. Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, Spiderman: Homecoming, Dr. Strange and both Ant Man movies fall outside that arc. They may have characters who contribute to the arc later, but their stories are not driven by or pressured by circumstances that involve the Tesseract or any other of the Stones.

A story engine pushes from behind. It’s something that hits all the central characters where they live, and leads into multiple cycles of “minimal response/ pushback/ deal with new reality/ crisis closes in/ resolution,” all of which must also feed into the greater cycle of the series. This is probably why the story engine of so many series deal with “an existential threat to all mankind.” Most of the examples I gave have that: MCU Infinity Stone, Battlestar Galactica, Harry Potter, Honor Harrington, Game of Thrones, Miles Vorkosigan, all deal with the end of life as we know it on a planetary scale, because that’s something about which every character can get invested. Something smaller, like The Good Place, is much more personal: the conceit is that every character has a reason for where they are and there’s a mechanic for them moving on.

Anime, with its definitive long-form arcs has long has story engines. Ghost in the Shell Standalone Complex, a police procedural about an elite team of detectives, even did a masterful job of interweaving stories driven by the engine with single episodes that highlighted one or more members of the team. Chobits had the engine of Chi and Hideki trying to figure out if Chi is fully conscious and, if so, who she is. (A theme I’ve gone to time and again myself, and then several times successfully inverted, most recently in Honest Impulses.) Evangelion famously had a monster-of-the-week pulse while the engine pushed Shinji deeper and deeper into the mysteries of who his father, Rei, and he really are.

You don’t need a story engine for a short story or a novel. But if you’re going to dive into writing a long-form serial of any kind, you’ll want to think hard about having one then. The deeper problem will be the idea that you don’t have a definitive ending; that way lies the disappointment of Battlestar Galactica and Evangelion. Have a place where you want your characters to be when it’s all over, even if, for some of them, that’s six feet under.

After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter how powerful the engine is that’s taking you there.

I recently read Ira Levin’s 1974 thriller, The Boys from Brazil, mostly because I had a silly idea for the Bastet universe that has since grown into something else entirely.

The one thing I was hoping for, and the one thing The Boys from Brazil is emphatically not, is a technothriller. It is, instead, a very Jewish thriller, in the sense that Levin concocts a genuinely horrifying milieu for Jews, and then sets the 60-something hero racing against the clock to stop his even older but better-kept foe from succeeding.

Ezra Lieberman is a Nazi Hunter, and he learns that Josef Mengele has dispatched assassination teams to six countries to murder 94 retirement-age low-level civil servants, all men. Information gathering was primitive in 1974 compared to today, but Lieberman has a friend at Reuters sift through death reports to locate deaths that match that description. He meets with several widows and their children, and then realizes it is not the men who have anything in common, and not their all-suspiciously-younger wives, but their sons, only children, all 13 years old, who all look similar. Not similar: exactly alike.

Josef Mengele has created 94 clones of Adolph Hitler, and distributed them to 94 couples who couldn’t otherwise have children. He then intended to make sure those 94 adoptive fathers died during their 13th year to ensure the “traumatic experience” that made Hitler Hitler was repeated in the boys’ lives.

As I said, this book is not a technothriller. Mengele has a chapter where he walks us through the remains of the laboratory, which is now a burned ruin. Levin tells us nothing about the techniques used. Which is actually to the better; we don’t need to know and, in 1974, cloning was a huge conversation in the popular and SF press. Levin, startingly for the time, refuses to buy into genetic determinism, and accepts that it’s likely the boys will not be anything like Adolph Hitler, and even if they are, they’re not going to be as successful as Hitler. As Lieberman says in a conversation later:

“I say in my talks it takes two things to make it happen again: a new Hitler and social conditions like in the thirties. But that’s not true. It takes three things: The Hitler, the conditions, and the people to follow the Hitler.”

And don’t you think he’d find them?”

“No, not enough of them. I really think people are better and smarter now, not so much thinking their leaders are God. The television makes a big difference. And history, knowing… Some he’d fine, yes; but no more, I think— I hope— than the pretend-Hitlers we have now, in Germany and South America.”

On the one hand, I, and most biologists, do agree with Levin’s view that biological determinism cannot result in clones having the same desires or talents as their progenitor. aOn the other hand, as we’ve seen today, Levin was incredibly, sadly wrong: not that many people joined the NSDAP (The Nazi Party), but enough did that the complacently satisfied and silently cowed population allowed the Nazis to overrun a fractured, defensive democratic opposition.

Which is where we are today: a loud and committed authoritarian populace, making up no more than a quarter of Americans, is attempting to silence and destroy the factured, defensive democratic opposition. That opposition is committed to the elevation of the United States as an intellectual and moral powerhouse, something Trump and his people cannot do as it is literally not in their nature, but is so factured on questions of tactics and outcomes that it has struggled to unify in the face of Trumpism.

The one thing that blows my mind about this book is that Josef Mengele is the villain of this book, presented as a mass-murderer who’s willing to commit murder even today to accomplish his goals. But the fascinating thing is that when Levin wrote this book in 1974, the real Josef Mengele was still alive. He was hiding out in Brazil, and his real life was far more boring and mundane than the burgeoning Nazi revival project depicted in the novel. But what was he going to do? Come out of hiding to protest that the book was a maligning, slanderous misrepresentation of his life and work?

Mengele died in 1979, and it’s fair to say he died badly: paralyzed by a stroke while swimming, he died of drowning, unable to save himself.

The book ends with one of the 18 boys whose fathers were successfully killed by Odessa. The boy is already a talented artist who loves to draw comic books and already knows about storyboards, and he dreams of being a filmmaker someday. As he draws a crowd scene for the movie he’s plotting, he hears

… the people cheering, roaring; a beautiful growing love-thunder that built and build, and then pounded, pounded, pounded, pounded.

Sort of like in those old Hitler movies.

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