Tomato Testimonial

Like most of the other bloggers on this site I’ve been having trouble meeting my writing goals lately (and non-writing goals for that matter).  In fact it’s been hard to even get started lately.  I won’t bore you with the specifics of the excuses.  Like most excuses they feel valid at the time but criminally lame after the fact.  I’ve had success in the past with written schedules but the latest attempt was less than successful.  All seemed lost.

Last week though Tim wrote a post right here on Writing is Cake about the Pomodoro Technique.  He heard about it at a presentation at Iginite Phoenix, an event you should attend if you’re nearby, failing that check out their site and youtube channel.  At any rate something about it peaked my curiosity enough to check out the Ignite preso and the Pomodoro site.  I’ve been using it for a few days now and I can’t say enough good things about it.  Let me tell ya people, this is a great time management protocol.  It sounds a little gimmicky at first and I suppose it is with jargony terms and phrases.  But when you get good results who cares?

The planning/time management phase is simple enough.  You make a sort of master ‘to do’ list called an Activity Inventory.  From that list you pick items that go on a ‘To Do Today’ list and estimate how many pomodoros the task will take.  Pomodoro being an indivisible unit of 25 minutes with a 3-5 minute break at the end.  Simple right?  But it lets you prioritize tasks in any number of ways.

Even more important for me is it lets you break down any task into smaller goals.  Not only does this lessen the sense of being overwhelmed by tasks, it means you always have a sense of making progress.  It keeps you you positive, in the moment, and focused.  And speaking of focus…my problem isn’t so much procrastination.  I can usually get started alright but staying on task is brutal.  Distraction is my demon and he is legion!  Dealing with distractions is built into the system.  Not by ignoring them but by acknowledging them.  If you feel a distraction brewing you actually write it down and make a decision whether to address it or move on with the task.  Of course most of them are easily put off and you’ll quickly be amazed how much work you get done in 25 minutes when that 25 minutes is only work.

So give it a try.  Read Tim’s post, check out the Ignite video, check out the Pomodoro site  If you’re not sure if it’ll work start small.  Try a two or three pomodoro task and see how it feels.  I’m hooked and I’m pretty sure you will be, too.  Thanks go to Tim, Greg Head, and Jeff and the Ignite Cadre.

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Meeting the Gods of Other Worlds

Sir Terry PratchettLast week I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Sir Terry Pratchett at Discworld Con, where he was the guest of honor. I was there to do a bit part in the opening ceremony, which I was happy to do as a long standing fan of Pratchett’s 30+ book Discworld series.

After galloping through my part (details unimportant), I settled down backstage to watch him address the audience. He is extremely sharp and quite funny, and while I listened to him I pondered the nature of fame.  If there was a living author whose style I would love to adapt, it would be his.  The puns, humor, characters, plots, and wit in his writing is something I can only aspire to.  Yet even if I had the pleasure of some personal coaching with Terry, what could he really teach me? He writes as he does because of who he is, and the enormous work he has put into it. There’s no magic he could bestow upon me.

Yet, nonetheless, there was something exciting about listening to him in person.

It was when he mentioned one of his characters, Commander Vimes, during his talk that a lightbulb went off for me. Terry was speaking of an entirely fictional character as a real, flesh and blood person, and every person in that room knew exactly who he meant. The knew how Vimes spoke, his view on other species, his battle with booze, and even which book he reads to his son. Terry Pratchett made Commander Vimes, gave him life, and now millions of people knew who he was.

That’s what was so exciting to me. Seeing this God of Discworld and knowing that the creations and worlds I slave over, hunched in front of my computer, are things that can escape and live on their own. The great storytellers make whole worlds for us to lose ourselves in, like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or J.K. Rowling. I’m certainly not in that caliber, but just meeting him was a validation that all of these great worlds were created by normal people just like (or somewhat like) me. It was an incentive to keep on pushing forward in my own writing, and although Terry certainly has no recollection of our brief encounter, I thank him for it.

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Complexity Simplified

So I’m still thinking about characters and what makes a good one.  Or at least a memorable one.  Sometimes I’ll hear people talk about ‘rich, complex characters’.  If you have one of those that’s fine I suppose but it occurs to me that many memorable characters are not complex at all.  Sherlock Holmes, Conan, Indiana Jones, The Man With No Name.  All pretty simple characters with pretty simple aims.  They need to be simple because if they are truly complex they have too many options.  Options drain the tension out of a story.  Characters need drives not options.

If Dirty Harry Callahan were more complex he might have the option of following the rules or even notshooting someone.  How well do you think that would work?  In the recent movie ‘Taken’, we know exactly three things about Liam Neeson’s character.  He’s extremely good at what he does (special operations), he’s obsessed with the details (of anything he does), and he loves his daughter.  When the daughter is kidnapped, this man has one option.  Get her.  No hand wringing, tears, calling Interpol, blaming himself.  Just instant and relentless action until his daughter is safe again.

So that’s a movie,  what about prose?  I mentioned Sherlock Holmes.  Despite his vast knowledge and skill set, as a character he’s really only one thing.  A logic machine.  If you want something a little more modern check out the Dexter novels (also an excellent show on Showtime) by Jeff Lindsay.  Dexter Morgan is not complex.  He has no complex emotions, no human emotions at all.  He’s a serial killer and his character can be boiled down to two things.  The unstoppable need to kill and the need to follow the code his father set down for him.  Pretty simple but Lindsay gives us suspense, drama, humor, and horror by watching a simple driven character exercise his few options in different situations.

Regimented Writing

You know how it goes.  Work was crazy so I was really tired when I got home.  I’m just gonna check my e-mail and then I’ll jump all over my novel.  MonsterQuest is on and this time they might get DNA from a real live sasquatch. 

Whatever, a day gets away from you, then a week, maybe even a month.  Maybe even more.  I haven’t written a whole lot in the past two weeks.  I’m not blocked.  When I do write it goes pretty well.  It’s a good spot in the work too, not a slog.  So why am I not writing? 

Well, one day work really was crazy and I really was tired.  The truth though is that I’ve just been wasting time.  There’s no excuse for it.  It’s just truth and hey, it happens.  It doesn’t make me a bad person but bad habits seem to stick so much better than good ones and I’ve wasted the better part of a month.  What to do? 

I made myself a schedule.  This is huge.  I don’t even wear a watch and I made a schedule.  A real schedule with time slots and what happens in those time slots and here’s why it’s going to work.

1)  I wrote it down.  It’s not out there hanging in the ether.  It’s right there hanging by my desk.  With magnets.

2) It’s not demanding.  Most people think they don’t have enough time to do things but they’re usually just not using their time well.  It’s natural-the human is much more grasshopper than ant-but it’s an easy fix.  Budget your time the same way you would budget money.  Look at the time you have and what you’re really doing with it.  Taking the rugrats to karate may be worthwhile but if you’re watching The Biggest Loser on Tuesday nights you’re wasting two hours.  Write for an hour.  Work out for an hour.  You’ll be a better, fitter writer.

3) It’s specific.  My new schedule includes things I think I should be doing everyday.  If you take swing dancing class (people did that in the 90’s kids) put it on the shedule.  If writing happens at 6:00.  Then six o’ clock is ass in chair, word processor on, and whatever music, drink, funny hat, or other muse-courting activities done.  If it takes you a half hour to court your muse you might want to put that in the schedule.

4) It’s habit forming.  Or I hope it is.  Bad habits are easy to form, almost effortless, but good ones usually require a little focus and linear thought.  Like a schedule.

Extreme Characters: Jim Profit

Some of the most interesting characters we encounter in literature and film are those that are well outside the norm. They are not like anyone we know, and are probably not like anyone we could ever be.  How do such extreme characters impact the stories they are in?

Are your own characters this interesting?  Don’t be afraid to challenge the limits of what makes a good character. One good one can make and change your entire story.

In this case, the character is a sociopathic businessman from a little known TV series: Jim Profit.

Jim Profit was a VP at the mega-corporation Gracen & Gracen. When he was born his father didn’t know how to raise him, so put him in a cardboard box shipping box (from Gracen & Gracen) with a hole cut out so he could watch television. Finally escaping his abusive father, he worked to burrow deep inside the company whose logo adorned his childhood prison. A master manipulator and functioning sociopath, he still sleeps naked on the floor of his plush condo in a cardboard box.

Blank Canvas

If someone grew up in Cape Cod as the son of a famous nerosurgeon, we would have certain expectations. Or if they grew  up in a hippie commune in the 60s.  What do you expect of a boy who grows up in a cardboard box, raised by a television?

With less of a frame of reference for the audience to identify with the character, the writer must work harder to fill in the details. It also gives the writer freedom to write those details however they see fit. Does a character raised by television grow up to be a babbling idiot? A trivia superstar? An obsessed sociopath? You could make an easy case for each. Stretching your character’s limits provides a much broader, cleaner canvas for you to make your sketch.

Intriguing Motives

When we identify with a character, like the hardworking handyman or the shyster lawyer, we can make assumptions about their motivations. But what motivates someone like Jim Profit? As you watch his schemes unwind in the show of framing coworkers or saving an executive’s marriage, you can never be quite sure what Jim is up to.

With a familiar character, these twists and reveals may seem like cheats. When the character is so strange, so unknown, they are more readily accepted. Sometimes you’re never quite sure which of Jim’s motives are real… and sometimes wonder if he even knows.

Gray Morality

Morality tales can be great stories, but they are also well worn paths. There is a whole region further off the trail that is far less explored. Many of Jim’s action have both good and bad outcomes, so is he a good or bad person? What is he capable of? Is he really amoral, or just incredibly true to his own definitions? You can put characters like Jim in situations where you would never find either the White Hat Hero or Black Hat Villain.  In turn, this leads to a wider range of stories you can tell.

Sadly, the show Profit was canceled after one season in 1996 so we never got to see Jim’s story arc complete. I think he was just too early, as dark shows like Dexter now thrive. He has remained a cult favorite, and Profit keeps resurfacing on cable and on a DVD release in 2005.  People remember the extreme characters, so don’t be afraid to stretch.