Bad Writing Advice: Part 1 – The 4 (or 5) F’s

I’ve come across something in my writing that’s helping me a lot, and I’d like to share it with you.  Now, as with most writing advice, this bit won’t appeal to everyone. Some are gonna think it’s dumb or too hard or not hard enough or whatever. That’s ok. Ready? Here we go.

At the base of everyone’s brain exist the four F’s: Fighting, Feasting, Fleeing, and sweet, sweet lovin‘. These are down at the root, in the oldest part of our brain, the part we share with animals and worms and fish and stuff. Put at least one of the four F’s in any story you want to tell, and you got your audience by the amygdala. People love reading that stuff. They can’t stop themselves. Your story may still very well be absolute garbage, but people will keep reading it cuz it’s got those things our lizard brains crave!

Now, don’t jam the Four F’s in there. They have to flow natural. Otherwise, it just stops being good or so-bad-it’s-good and just winds up bad.

Allow me to illustrate.

The video above is a trailer for the B-movie “Sharknado. This is not a good movie. The characters are boilerplate. The writing is cliched as heck. The story is predictable. This movie is bad.

But it is entertaining. Why? Because it has all the four F’s.

The people FLEE the rising waters.

The people FIGHT the sharks.

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Yes, that is a man fighting a shark with a chainsaw. On dry land.

A good portion of the film involves FEAST-ing on beer. (This one is a cop-out. I don’t care.)

And this guy wants to MAKE SWEET, SWEET LOVE to Tara Reid.

Image result for sharknado TARA reid
Tara Reid on left. On right, guy who wants to make sweet, sweet love to her.

And there you have it. Put the four F’s in your story. Sprinkle them in liberally, don’t overweight any one of the F’s, or your reader will get a tummy-ache. And remember, this trick will not fix any problems you may have crafting appealing characters, compelling story lines, or immersive settings. But it will guarantee your story will not be boring.

The worst you’ll do is write Sharknado.

And the world will always need Sharknado.

EXPERT-LEVEL: There is a 5th F. It’s called FIGURING STUFF OUT. It is incredibly hard to do this well. It’s so hard to do this well, that if you have any doubts about being able to do it, just don’t.

Figuring stuff out is what made Watchmen one of the greatest books of all time.

Figuring stuff out is what drew millions of people to Lost in the mid-2000s.

Figuring stuff out (a good mystery) is something only the greatest of writers are able to accomplish well. You can lead readers/viewers on for a long time, but the payoff has to matter (as Lost fans know all too well).

Figuring stuff out is not a part of our lizard brain. Lizards don’t really care why or how stuff works. That’s an ape thing, a human thing. Figuring stuff out is how we got fire, the wheel, religion, philosophy, Rubik’s cubes, and Lady Gaga.

So, yeah. There’s fighting, fleeing, feasting, making sweet, sweet love, and figuring stuff out.

Oh, and funny…ness. Funniness. Humor.

And…frankfurters? Maybe?

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Kids in Cages. I mean “Summer Camps.”

If it was up to me, we’d let everybody in. The refugees, the asylum-seekers. Anyone who wants to come, let’em in. We can figure out who’s a criminal or infiltrator or Communist sympathizer after the fact.

That would be my stance.

And that is a terrible, stupid stance.

Although it’s dumb as hell to go around saying, “We can’t let any Syrians in until we can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that neither they, their children, nor anyone in their family line for the past 10,000 years has so much as sneered at the American flag” in the name of security, ignoring a humanitarian crisis half a world away, it’s equally dumb to let anyone who wants to come enter.

And no, this is not code for “Don’t let the scary brown people in, but whites are alright.” No. Like I said before, I welcome all refugees with open arms. Asian, African, European, Latin American. I lift my light beside the golden door.

We have to be a little realistic. This seems to be obvious.

Equally obvious should be the fact that Trump totally just played us. Any time he starts a policy that people hate, he’s known ahead of time who was going to get pissed off. Then he waits, he hesitates, he wavers, and finally, he caves to pressures of his opponent and…gets exactly what he wanted in the first place.

Every time.

Ok, I don’t have a lot of evidence for this, but as Trump is a successful businessman and the tactic of asking for something you know the other guy is going to say no to so that you may “compromise” and get what you really want is not a new business strategy, it feels like a safe assumption to make.

But that’s not what this is about.

This is about what’s quickly turning into a humanitarian crisis the likes of which this continent has not seen since the days of slavery, Jim Crow, and mistreatment of Native Americans. (So, yesterday, basically.)

People should obey the law. I think we can all agree on that. Laws, like rules, should be flexible enough to bend, and if a rule has to be broken for the good of all, it probably wasn’t a very good rule in the first place. Asylum seekers should seek to entry this country legally. Many do and are turned away on the border (Vox has an article on this phenomenon). Others choose to endure long waiting lists, during which time their lives are still endangered by drug cartels or ISIS or whoever.

At least, that’s what I assume.

See, the truth is, I have no idea what’s going on.

I have some sources I rely on (BBC News, USA Today, the AJC, and yes, Fox News. CNN and MSNBC have even MORE commentary than the right-wing news station, and that’s saying something.) All of these sources have been and are called into question on a daily basis. What’s worse, even photographic evidence cannot be trusted. Hell, we can’t even agree on what color a white and gold dress is! (I went there.)

Our news sources are biased. We never get the complete picture whether because the reporters have an agenda, are too lazy to research, or we just plain don’t have access to all the facts for national security reasons. We’re all operating on partial knowledge, and the scary thing is we’re so convinced our side is right we refuse to even listen to the other side.

“But Obama and Clinton did the same stuff! Where was your outrage then, you millennial snowflake?”

Well, like most millennials, I was in elementary school during Clinton’s presidency. As for Obama, the answer is simple. There was outrage. A lot of it. Maybe there weren’t any hashtags or Tumblr pages, but protests happened. People made phone calls. There were marches. Don’t you remember?

Guys, I don’t have solutions. Is it wrong to separate parents from children? Yes. But it took me too long to come to that conclusion. I’m simply so used to government incompetence and cruelty for the sake of kindness that it doesn’t strike me as odd that our border security — like our criminal justice system and education system — cares more about making annual budget goals than actually helping the American people.

We can’t be keeping kids and adults in separate detention centers. There’s no real reason for it. In fact, it would probably create more problems to separate every child from their guardian. That’s a great way to lose track of people, let me tell you. Now if the parent is a danger to the child, by all means. Do your thing, DFCS. But using the threat of taking someone’s child away to keep them from entering the country illegally feels a step beyond the pale.

Compound that with the fact that it doesn’t really matter. Most parents would say, “At least my kid’s alive. I may never see them again, but at least the cartels won’t get them.” Heartless? Not really. Not if you’re desperate enough. And we cannot forget the desperation of these parents.

Does that excuse breaking American law?

Yes. No. I don’t know. Should I be sent to jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed my sister’s kid?

Shouldn’t these parents try to use legal means to seek asylum?

Of course.

But I ask you this, are you aware of the process of seeking asylum? Because I’m not. I have no idea. And I can’t promise you that if the cartels took over the eastern seaboard I wouldn’t try sneaking into Canada or California to get away from them. Would I stop to look at the Canadian embassy’s guidelines for it? Maybe. If I had internet access and could read French or English. If I could be certain I had several months to apply for asylum, call their agency to see where my paperwork went, apply again, get rerouted, etc.

Let’s be clear. Government agencies are less efficient than Jar Jar Binks in an elocution contest. They are Byzantine structures that, like the Byzantines, collapse under their own weight with the mass of a dying star. I’ve been to my local social security office to apply for disability. I had to go down there because nobody over there answers the phone, and you will never speak to your caseworker or see the file they keep on you ever because reasons.

And you seriously expect a truckload of borderline homeless Hondurans, people who climb through mounds of refuse to scavenge for food and discarded electronics to melt down for scrap metal to have the patience to sit through three hours (at minimum) of filling out forms, probably bribing public officials, and having to restart the process because government employees are the dumbest people on the planet? Oh, and the whole time they’re desperately hiding from the cartels and trying to keep their kids from joining one gang just to avoid getting killed by another gang.

Am I wrong? Am I being ethnocentric? Is Central America not a terrible place to live? Isn’t that why they’re coming up here? Look, I’m not saying it ain’t beautiful. It is. But it ain’t south Georgia. And as we all know, south Georgia is freaking horrible if you’re not over 50 and a Daughter of the Confederacy.

My point is, these people are in an impossible situation and deserve our sympathy. And maybe a little bending.

Just the other day, President Trump issued an executive order reversing the zero-tolerance policy introduced in April which required the separation of parents from children. Why was the separation required? Because the new policy charged the adults with felonies, which would mean jail-time, pending a hearing, and the law at the time forbade holding kids and adults in the same facility. This makes a bit of sense, as adults are, by and large, complete bastards. Not all of us. And not all the time. Most of the time, in fact, we try to reach for the wondrous potential we know we have deep inside. But we generally prefer to be bastards when we think we can get away with it.

Again, notice my wording at the end there. Notice the lack of sources? That’s because I am not a lawyer and I’m typing this at 10:30 at night and am too tired to read dry, overworked legal documents to figure all this shit out. Yet somehow we’re supposed to argue this on Facebook with Donna from HR and act appalled when she doesn’t recognize our immediate, armchair expertise? Who the hell do we think we are?

For now, it seems we will be holding parents and children together indefinitely until such time as the hearings to determine who’s a legit refugee and who’s a dirty rotten moocher (Ayn Rand’s words, not mine) can be carried out. And I assume they’ll be using the same facilities with the tinfoil blankets, concrete walls painted with Orwellian images of past presidents, and of course, chain-link fences. Oh, joy.

To sum up, the zero tolerance policy still remains. The families that were already broken up will most likely remain so for the foreseeable future, but no more will be divided.

Just as planned.

 

 

“Who are the Foo Fighters?”

 

Picture of alt-rock band Foo Fighters
Photo by Raph_PH – https://www.flickr.com/photos/69880995@N04/37001596252/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62729260 No alterations.

I heard one college girl say to the other, as I was coming down the stairs from the other direction. I work at a university here in Atlanta. Hearing that made me feel kinda old, to be honest.

See, I’m an actual 90s kid. As in, one born in the 80s. I was — and still am — too young to appreciate Nirvana (though I admit to being in the minority of my cohort). I went to elementary and middle school through the 90s and attended high school and college in the early 2000s.

This was a time before Youtube. Before instant streaming. But I don’t wanna talk about that. I wanna talk about “Everything Sucks.” Everything Sucks is a new show on Netflix about a group of kids going to high school in the 90s. It is a perfect encapsulation of my adolescence. Love, lust, hate, joy, depression. Everything is there. Even — sort of — grunge. Here’s the thing a lotta folks don’t understand: Grunge was for Generation X. That’s why the aesthetic is all over the movies of Kevin Smith, the movies of the 90s.

How do you spot a 90s movie? All the long-haired dudes in flannel. But those were films for and about college-aged people in the 90s. People who went to elementary and middle school in the 80s. People who caught the first episodes of GI Joe and Transformers waaaaaaaaaaaay back when they first aired.

My generation’s childhood introduction to Batman came via Michael Keaton and the amazing Bruce Timm and Adam West, not reading The Dark Knight Returns.And that’s what the writers of Everything Sucks seem to understand so well. It wasn’t just about grunge. Grunge was on the periphery. It’s what our older brothers/cousins were into, while we listened to Tupac and Britney Spears and watched Clarissa explain it all. Though honestly Tupac was a bit before my time too. He passed in the mid-90s, somewhere around 5th grade.

Everything Sucks is set in the town of Boring, Oregon in the year 1996. A small American town. Racism is somewhat invisible here, much as I remember. But homophobia is still in its heyday. Matthew Shepard’s murder is still two years away. Columbine is three years away. The first season of the show has dealt with growing up in a single-parent home, the pain of suicide and divorce, and the isolation that comes from knowing you’re different from everybody else.

This movie focuses a lot on the so-called outsiders. The drama geeks — actor and tech — that I spent a lot of my high school time hanging around. (I always felt they were way too cool for me, though I was sort of one of them. More on that later.)

I see a lot of myself in two of the characters: McQuaid, the undiagnosed Aspie who can’t tell his crush is not actually interested in him, and Tyler, the eager, barely pubescent, chronic outsider who just wants to be accepted by the cool kids. Granted, Tyler’s a bit more demonstrative than I ever was around the opposite sex (though then again I did have this annoying habit of telling every pretty girl I knew that I thought she was pretty, as if that would somehow translate into a relationship?).

Everything Sucks!.png
Everything except this show…

Anyway, awkwardness aside, I just can’t stop gushing about this show. I found so much that was relatable. Long bus rides full of excitement. Longer bus rides when everyone was sick and tired of being around each other. CHURCH CAMP. The unapproachable hottie who is actually way more normal than you think.* The gay kid who gets called a d–e in the first episode.

Oh, did I forget to mention the casual homophobia? This show has very little of it, but it’s creeping in the background. It’s the dark undercurrent of the 90s. So many kids with feels they couldn’t express from fear. Shear fear of being mocked, teased, threatened, beaten. I witnessed some of this firsthand and heard about it secondhand from good friends who received death threats for being out while in college. For my part, I’m straight. My mother might be considered ahead of her time. She never let my brother and I use those words that got bandied about on the playground, in locker rooms, and just about everywhere else. You know the words. I censored one in the first paragraph.

Why am I harping on this? Because one of the main characters is discovering her identity as an LGBT person. She’s not sure what her label is but she knows what — and who — she likes. So far, only three other members of the cast know. One is an ex-boyfriend she dated only to head off the teasing she was getting. One is the girl she likes who reciprocates her feelings. One is the boy with a crush on the girl she likes (see what I mean about ALL THE FEELS?).

But her dad? He remains oblivious. He’s the principal. He seems like a nice guy. But I am still nervous to see how he will react when she comes out to him. In 1996. One year before Ellen comes out. Two years before Matthew Shephard. Three before Columbine. A little less than 20 years before the Supreme Court declares laws prohibiting gay marriage as being unconstitutional. Even in 2018, LGBT teens make up a disproportionate population of homeless, abused, and unemployed Americans.

Don’t get me wrong. This show has its share of drama, but it is hilarious. There are moments in every episode when I roared with laughter. When Tyler bemoans his supposed friendless status yet can’t tell the conservative Christian girl Leslie totally wants him. When Luke has to come up with and simultaneously defend his movie pitch to the drama club on the fly. Banana slug.

Everything Sucks!.png
This freakin’ show…

But despite all the humor, IT’s always there. In the background. Lurking in the shadows. The unspoken threat. That love which dare not speak its name.

Oh yeah. Remember when I said I always thought the drama kids were way too cool for me? Well, my main reason for that is there were these guys in the drama club/classes who were always surrounded by beautiful girls. They were hilarious, always cracking jokes. I assumed they were the most popular kids at school. But there was one thing I always thought was a little odd. They all had the same accent. Not a Chicago or Savannah or New York accent, no. I’m talking about a more Nathan Lane way of speaking.

Were they gay? I don’t know. As a rule, I’ve never gone around asking people if they’re gay. Even when my friends hang up calendars filled with half-naked firemen, I make no assumptions unless they tell me directly. But that’s not the point. The point is I never once saw a gay couple at my high school or in college or even on television (though LGBT couples were first starting to get representation in mainstream media around the mid-90s). Why not? Were they closeted? Were they ashamed?

Were they afraid?

As a practicing Catholic, I’m not quite liberal enough to be a full ally to the LGBT movement. Good example: I’ve been leaving off the “Q” whenever I’ve used that acronym. But I voted against the amendment to the Georgia constitution officially defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. I just couldn’t abide that. I still can’t. There are some things society and the government just isn’t allowed to do. Telling folks who they can marry is one of them.

But this is the 90s. When just saying something like this would get you called “gay,” which was a social death sentence. When people thought every gay person had AIDS. When people thought gays were going around recruiting children into their “alternative lifestyle.”

This is a personal issue for me. I have LGBT friends and family. I don’t agree with everything they believe. I don’t support everything they do.But I will always fight for them. For their right to exist as free and independent members of an accepting society built around love and justice.

Anyway, we’ve gotten way off track, and I’ve yet to address the question burning in the hearts and minds of my younger readers. These are the Foo Fighters:

Happy Easter, kids.

*Yes, normal is a real thing. I’ll explain what I mean in next week’s post, probably.

Saving the City!

Super-proud of my hometown. You can read more about the 30,000 and Sunday’s March for Our Lives here.

Definitely worth checking out!

And of course, I’m not in favor of a total gun ban. That’d be stupid. But some surely some kind of legislative or cultural shift needs to happen? We’ve had something like 20 school shootings since January?

Come on. Let’s do something.

Defending Escapism

I’ve posted on this topic in the past, on my old blog. My feelings haven’t changed.

Escapism is often decried as immature or irresponsible. As if to say someone locked in a basement filled with spiders, frantically trying to find another way out, is somehow guilty of sloth.

Escapism is a perfectly rational response to a world filled with evil. Engage and defeat evil if you can, of course. But if you cannot, escape is a valid second option.

The human desire to escape to a better world could be seen as evidence that we are not meant to be here. That we are meant for heaven. As the good book says, our hearts know no rest until they rest in Thee.

This is not to say we should not work for a better world. Or at least that we should work to help our own neighbors where they are. But there’s only so much we can do. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. And we are so tired.

In the meantime, we have Star Wars and fantasy and superheroes to sate our yearning for a better world.

Let no one mock our escapist fantasies, our dreams of a better tomorrow. Come my friends, tis not to late to seek a better world!

Snowpocalypse III: The Snowening

Hiya, kids! Down here in Georgia, we’re experiencing Snowpocalypse III: The Third One. Eagle-eyed readers will recall the original Snowpocalypse back in 2011, which served as the precursor to Snowpocalypse II: Snowmageddon in 2014. Now the winter weather is back. It’s Snowpocalypse III: With a Vengeance!

All of us at Conq Comix/Optimist’s Umbrella are having a grand day out in the snow.

Here is Darth Vader, leading the troops to conquest:

Leading

Uh oh! Looks like somebody crashed on a forbidden tundra! Yoda and R2D2, heads just barely over the snow, walk through a frozen plain!

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Meanwhile, Mr. Freeze gets his revenge on Batman and Robin, using his freeze ray to encase them in snow!

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Here, Vader confronts Luke Skywalker at last! Behold, Luke Skywalker, fallen in the snow, his lightsaber out of reach, as Vader looms over him!

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“Join me. And together we will rule the North Pole as father and son!”

As Batgirl and Mr. Freeze argue over the power of his ice cannon…

toomuch

Here, the Green Lantern Corps assists Superman with the construction of the Fortress of Solitude:

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Meanwhile, it appears Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker have resolved their differences.

Snowangel
A redeemed Skywalker and son make snow angels!

And Yoda and R2D2 have repaired their ship.

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“Be back, we shall!”

Join us after the holidays, when we go to the beach!

 

Real Talk

Gonna talk feminism for a second. Feel free to check out.

Was just thinking about something. In 3rd grade, my friend K wanted me to hold her medication bottle for her because she didn’t want a bulge showing in her jeans on class picture day.

That’s messed up, right? She was freaking 8. Who told her what societal expectations of women were? Who was holding her to them?

Anyway, she went through a LOT as we got older. I hope she’s doing alright now.

I dunno. I got nothin’.

That’s all folks. Read my comic. It’s funny, and there’s aliens and lasers and magic and stuff.

I Dreamed a Dream


Justice League comes out soon. I, for one, can’t wait. DC took such a risk starting their cinematic universe with Wonder Woman. Now I hear Justice League takes place in a world where Superman’s already dead! Talk about risk.

It’d have been nice to have seen Man of Steel. It’s a shame that project got cancelled. I heard it was really something, but the studio just couldn’t settle on an ending. Why, I heard one draft even had Superman breaking Zod’s neck!

manofsteel
Still from Man of Steel, never officially released.

I know, right? It’s one thing throwing him into an abyss, but breaking his neck? Is this Superman or Rambo?

Anyway, thank goodness no one saw that Dark Knight Returns adaptation they made. I think it was called Darky Darko and the Space Troll or something? Can you imagine if they’d tried to base a cinematic universe off that? Yikes.

bvs
Batman confronting Superman in Darky Darko, in case you didn’t get a chance to see it during its rather abrupt run.

I mean, it’s an ok film, but there were some major “huh?” moments. I don’t regret seeing it (twice), but I’ve no desire to see it again. I hear Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck reprise their roles from “Darky Darko,” but obviously with different backstories. I mean, a world where Batman and Superman hate each other? Who’d want to watch that? Yeah, in Justice League, they’re gonna be best friends. Well, so long as someone casts a rez on Superman.

But yeah, the new Justice League movie should feature Wonder Woman prominently, as she’s the flagship character for the DC cinematic universe (much like Iron Man is for the MCU).

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Wonder Woman was the first official movie in the DC cinematic universe, setting an inspirational, colorful tone.

Could anyone have predicted Wonder Woman’s success, coming as it did just five years or so after Dark Knight Rises? It was so smart of Warner Bros. to recognize that, while a grimdark tone works great for Batman, not all DC characters should be treated in the same way. I think that’s part of the reason we never got to see Man of Steel: Supposedly, they were going to make it similar in tone to Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Can you imagine? A brooding Superman? Eesh. That may not have gone over well with a lot of people.

Thankfully, Justice League, the second-ever installment in WB’s DC cinematic universe, debuts November 17 of this year. It looks like there’ll be plenty of action, laughs, and drama. I guess we’ll see what happens!

Seriously, though. I really enjoyed BvS, Man of Steel, and Suicide Squad. They may have their flaws, but they are fun movies! May even wind up buying BvS on DVD or Blu-Ray someday.

Just Messin’

I like to play rpgs with folks online. We were talking about comics and fantasy novels, and I mentioned it’d be cool having a comic about our game. It’d work better than a novel, since we’ve had so many characters show up for 1 or 2 sessions, only to vanish later on. That kind of thing is nonsensical in a book, but it happens all the time in comics. Then you get one of those little captions at the bottom. You know the kind. They were more common in the comics of my youth.
Where is Bloodwing hurrying off to? Check out Dark Riders: The Scourge #1 in stores now! 
That kind of thing.
Image result for bloodwing xmen 2099
I started reading comics in the 90s. Of course, Bloodwing’s a real character!

Anyway, I’ve been thinking it’d be cool to release a comic that started at issue 173. I’ve never understood the obsession over issue 1s. The first couple issues are always the roughest. I like a comic with a few hundred issues in the bag. Shows they got staying power. The comic’s not going to just disappear in a month.

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Right, Transformers: Generation 2?