Priorities

2015 appears to be the year of focus so far. I’ve shed a lot of the extra “big plans” to zero in on what I hope to do with the second half of my life. These plans included, but were not limited to: VFX/Gaming/Video school for kids, VFX/Gaming intensive training embedded at a Community College, Super-speed tutorial series, a series of funny/gory VFX shots, expanding my coding abilities, fix up some old vintage audio gear, maybe take on some sound editing jobs… the list goes on. Also in there was my plan to write more, read more, and do more stuff with my wife. Sounds ridiculous when it’s all written out like that. And there were more things! Oh, and we’re having our first child in five weeks.

It’s a little embarrassing to list everything out and realize that it’s not a list of priorities or goals, it’s a list of interests. It’s also a list of distractions. Ricky Jay has a great line in The Spanish Prisoner, “It’s one thing when a man’s hobbies get in the way of his work, but when they get in the way of each other, well…” I’ve found that I procrastinate not by laying around, but by cramming my list so full that I can’t get anything done. That way there’s always potential and never failure. It also feels like a list you might get when you ask a 6 year-old what he wants to be when he grows up, “A racecar driver, a fireman, an astronaut, a submarine captain…” You smile and nod and say, “You can be anything you put your mind to.” Little do the kids know I haven’t put my mind to any one thing, either.

Recently my wife suggested I make a list of true priorities, not goals. Naturally, I searched the internet for examples because research is the best and most readily available form of rationalized procrastination. “I can’t write today because I should read more about these authors who made it big.” When I made films, I spent a LOT of time on DVD commentaries and director interviews, but that’s a lifetime ago. Anyway, I compiled a list of 3 priorities and a list of 3 obstacles.

Priorites:
Family: includes wife, parents, sibling, and 1 (and only one) lifelong friend
Creativity: both consuming and generating
Teaching: best said by Buckminster Fuller, “Your significance will remain forever obscure to you, but you may assume that you are fulfilling your role if you apply yourself to converting your experiences to the highest advantage of others.”

Obstacles:
Research: reading up on the success paths of others is fun, but sucks time
Impatience: changing channels between ideas and interests is counter-productive
Completionism: must finish one thing or series of things before moving on

The obstacles are all forms of procrastination, but they are my primary challenges. When I’m on something that I want to do, I derail it by jumping over to something else I want to do (Impatience), but I also hyper-focus on some things so much that I can’t do anything else whether collecting all the achievements in a video game (Completionism) or reading every interview by the same author (Research) or looking for every issue of a writer’s comic run (Completionism meets Research) or reading up on ways to acquire and refurbish a specific set of vintage Marantz equipment (Research meets Completionism). I could cram a million examples into that one run-on sentence, but you get the idea. My obstacles are accessible, entertaining, and cheap. A steady stream of quick bursts of immediate satisfaction with no long term benefits. Like sugar. Or gambling. Or reddit.com/r/funny.

Even this blog post is a diversion from the book project I have been poking with a stick for the past year. But I can rationalize it by saying that I have a set of official priorities to filter everything I do this year. Instead of setting a goal like “finishing writing a book,” I can say, “Am I engaging in creativity?” Reading a book is good. Researching the author for hours and days on end is bad. Playing a narrative video game (Last of Us) is good. Building the best sword and finishing every side mission (Skyrim) is bad. And instead of marathoning episodes of Chopped on the weekend (not quality time), maybe the wife and I should take a drive to some river town and have lunch (quality time). See what I’m saying?

The filter is engaged. This blog post will count as creative writing and structural thinking. Both good things. Reading it ten times before publishing will be a bad thing, so I’ll try to avoid it and keep moving toward the good things.

Hey Kids, Do Your Homework!

I started a new idea and have been cranking away on it (intermittently) for a few weeks. I thought the idea was cool, the plot was cooler, and the name was the coolest. Then I thought, wait a second, what if someone else thought of that name? NAAAH! Impossible. But it wouldn’t hurt to take a quick look on Amazon, right?

WHAAAAAAT? Turns out there’s not only one SF book with the same name/concept, but like thirty. I’m still ok because my story is character-based and the world can be changed. But damn, seriously? I thought I was special. Turns out I’m only as special as thirty-something other self-published books. Oh well.

This reminds me of a lesson I learned a few years back. I worked on a movie called Hart’s War. The director’s name was Greg Hoblit (don’t look him up, yet). When the movie was over, he took the whole post sound crew out to dinner and I ended up across from him at the long table. We talked about basketball and he did what he could to convince me he could dunk. I never really bought it. I asked him about Primal Fear because I knew that was his first feature. Like a dummy, I asked how he got that picture. He said, “They brought it to me.” The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Co: That’s cool, how did they line you up with a picture like that?
Greg: From my television work. They thought it was a good fit.
Co: You were in television? Did you work on a series?
Greg: Yes. I created Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue.
Co: Oh. Heh. More wine?

Then the waiter brought his steak covered in mushrooms. The next part of the conversation went like this:

Co: You don’t like mushrooms?
Greg: I f***ing hate mushrooms. I can’t eat them.
Co: What happens when you eat them?
Greg: I die!

Here’s where I took a big risk. I wanted to keep the chit chat going. He had taken the snub from the young guy pretty well, but I could tell there was a little tension as if his face were saying, “who’s this punk who doesn’t know who I am?” I had a few glasses of wine in me so I went for it.

Co: You die?
(he was pretty much shouting at me in the Larkspur Inn, the most expensive restaurant in Marin County, a mecca for expensive restaurants. Yes, people were looking from other tables.)
Greg: Yes! I f***ing die if I eat mushrooms!
Co: Is that what happened last time you ate them?

Dead silence as he stared at me. The rest of the table and half the restaurant was waiting for the response. Swear to God it was right out of a movie. He laughed. Not loud, but it was enough to ease the mood. Then his steak showed up with no mushrooms and we talked about basketball and the actor Marcel Iures who was amazing in this movie that Greg was so disappointed with. The studio had ruined the surprise with the trailer and cut out the best parts of the drama in favor of more courtroom scenes. But Marcel as the evil Nazi was amazing.

Anyway, my original point was that you gotta do your background checks. It’s impossible to know everything and if you move forward with that attitude, you’ll get burned over and over. All reading is research and all research counts.

More stories soon.

Forking Ideas!

I’m over the one year mark on my first book. In that time, I’ve changed jobs, remodeled my house, traveled, taught classes, played Skyrim and Mass Effect 3, cleaned up surveillance videos for a private eye, shot a movie, edited part of that movie, and read a lot of books. Even so, I had plenty of time to work on Progeny. I can’t use time as an excuse for not being finished, even though it’s a handy one that I can reach from the couch. On average, it has taken me 3 hours to write a 2,000 to 2,500 word chapter. 16 chapters, 48 hours, right? Even if we double it and round it up to 100 hours, then calculate for 3 hours per writing period, then add a few for contingency and doubt, all I needed was 50 writing periods over the past year. I’m talking just for a first draft, not a polished version, but still, that’s barely once a week. Three hours once a week? Feels like I did a lot more writing than that. Why isn’t the book done?

This book is my first attempt at a long-form prose narrative. I can’t really call it a “novel” because it’s going to come up just over 30,000 words. I’ve seen charts where people call a novella anything between 20,000 to 50,000 so let’s call it that. The internet has also informed me that novella length is ideal for electronic publishing. A positive! And positives are important when venturing into a new personal frontier. When I start anything new (a script, de-hoarding project, etc), I want a lot of yes men around. People who are there at the launch of the ship. Thing is, support is easy to come by in the early going.

“Can’t wait to read your novel!”
“Novella.”
“What’s a novella?”
“Not as long as a novel. Ideal for electronic publishing.”
“Oh… Yay!”

But now it’s a year later, and people have stopped asking about the book. Actually, they stopped asking six months ago. Scratch support as a motivation to get the book done. But I can’t blame that, either. I’ve always preferred to work under the RADAR, then re-emerge with a first draft. Sometimes I reveal the completed draft to people who didn’t know I was writing it instead of the people who were asking about it way back when. It’s like refreshing the promise. If I give it to someone who asked about it last year, they’re not as pumped as those who never knew you were trying for it. But that hasn’t really affected me one way or another. Let’s do the numbers: chapters written in first six months = 4, chapters written since people stopped asking about the book = 10. So I don’t need external motivation, why isn’t the book done?

I’ll tell you why. All these forking ideas. Yes, I’m being funny. And yes, I’ve thought of all the other ways of using “forking” to hilarious effect. I will giggle each time I use it in a sentence, but the truth is, as I sit down to write Progeny, I get distracted by all the other stuff I want to write. A full year ago, I wrote this entry about managing ideas. I was really good about sticking to my “Not Main Idea Day” for a really long time. But in the past few months, I have not only had trouble with distractions from other ideas, but these ideas are splintering into more ideas. I feel like every time an idea forks, I end up with two or three different ideas that might even work together. Complicated! The whole concept behind Progeny is that it was simple, self-contained, and digestible for both reader and writer.

It’s gotta be anxiety. I’m anxious about finishing this book. I’m anxious about what to do next. I’m anxious about how much energy my new Dean of Education job is burning. All that anxiety is bad for focus. The only thing that has helped so far is reading. Reading helps me focus and reminds me of the satisfaction of completing something.

I read the first three Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) books in the past month. Really good. Even if you don’t like fantasy (which is light in these books), they are great reading. The style is casual and immersive. Since then, I’ve tried to get into other books, but it’s obvious when the author is trying too hard. The description will be clunky and forced, the dialog is that times ten, and the plot is either overly elaborate or non-existent. Why can’t all books have the sustained tension and satisfaction of Game of Thrones? GRR Martin’s background in TV is evident. He can interweave multiple story lines and keep you reading. But that was with the first three books. It is said that he was stressed out writing the fourth book and it shows. Even though I’ve just started it, the style is different. The confidence and constantly-moving story is gone. In short, GRRM was anxious and his mind wandered. In the first four chapters, it’s apparent that he wasn’t focused on his story.

Am I comparing my skill to GRRM? No. But it does feel like a distant camaraderie has formed with someone who struggles the way I do. Read Feast of Crows and see if you agree. Then keep that in mind if you ever get the chance to read Progeny.