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.

The Next Project

I have put Progeny aside and let it stew. Some folks are checking it out for me and while I’m waiting for some feedback, I’m starting the next book. It’s based on a screenplay that I wrote 15 years ago. I’ve always thought it would be a better book or comic book series than a movie, but I found screenwriting a more comfortable format. I think the bare structure of a screenplay is just how I’ve trained myself to think all these years. Part of that is because I’ve come at writing as a filmmaker, but also because I get impatient when writing. I want to say the guy is in the room and here’s what he said so I can get on to the next plot point instead of providing heavy description of the guy and the room. But that’s movies. A picture is worth a thousand words and I’m leaving out 990 of them. So with this next project, I’m going to relax and write as much as possible to reset the habit in my brain.

Here’s something I realized as I’ve been reading: when I read a book I like, I read slowly and when I read something I don’t like, I skim. I read Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and loved it. It has a few mini tells in the middle that give away the ending (granted, I’m cursed with figuring out the endings of jokes, stories, and movies before most), but it was really well put together and fun to read even when I knew how it was going to end. I read it in two days, but that was because I couldn’t put it down. I caught every word and read my favorite parts twice. Before and since, I read some self-published sci fi that wasn’t strong. The pieces were highly reviewed on Amazon and I thought even if the writing isn’t great, the storytelling or ideas might be interesting. I got impatient with them almost immediately. The description was either pointless, predictable, or both. The stories had unnecessary characters or the main character knew too much without being privy to the information. Worst of all, the ideas were gimmicky and everything hinged on a wafer thin concept.

When I first saw The Matrix, I was floored by how many great ideas were packed into the story. I thought even one small element – like deja vu indicates lag in the matrix – could be its own story. You could harvest dozens of movies, books, comics, or games using that one movie as a source. These three or four self-pubbed ebooks I read prove that you couldn’t and shouldn’t. A small idea with no depth isn’t enough to sustain a novel. As a result, I flew through the pages hoping to find some kernel of awesome to make reading these books worth the effort. And didn’t find any.

So herein lies the rub. I believe Progeny reads the way it does because I was impatient with it. The story didn’t have the substance and depth I wanted as a reader. Since I was reading as I was writing, I literally skimmed the writing. I knew the idea was thin and the best part would be the ending so I cranked past all the development and skipped the meat that can make a simple story great. In other posts, I blamed it on my experience as a screenwriter, but now I realize it’s because the quality of writing and the strength of the idea didn’t satisfy my experience as a reader.

This next project will take much longer. I’m determined to write and enjoy the process of reading as I’m putting the words down. I know you’re supposed to always work to get to the end of the story, but I’ll take the slow road this time.