Outlining By The Seat of Your Pants

Author’s Note: The following is my teaching essay written during my MFA in Creative Writing program at Goddard College.

Outlining By The Seat of Your Pants
A Teaching Practicum Essay

By Jack Cameron

Goddard College
MFA in Creative Writing Program

via Zoom in cooperation with Creative Colloquy Writer’s Workshop Series
Two classes consisting of eight one-hour sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays from September 29, 2020 – October 22, 2020

BEGINNINGS          

When I was in high school a local mystery writer by the name of Earl Emerson visited our English class. At the time, I fancied myself a writer and never outlined anything I worked on. For me, the fun was joining the characters I had created on their adventures and seeing where they ended up. When he spoke of writing he said much the same thing about his beginnings in his craft. In that moment I felt a sort of kinship. Then he explained how he spent fourteen years writing novel after novel that no one wanted to buy. So one day he decided to outline a novel before he wrote it. That novel was The Rainy City and was the first of his Thomas Black novels. Every novel he’d written since had sold. It was after he said this that I started to take outlining very seriously.

            It didn’t take long for me to see the advantage of having an outline. My fear was that outlining would take the excitement out of writing, but I quickly learned that knowing how the story would end actually freed me up to pay closer attention to the characters and the writing because the ending would be there when I was ready to write it.

            In subsequent years I met dozens of other writers. Many enjoyed outlining. Many others refused to even entertain the concept of outlining. They preferred to write by the seat of their pants. These ‘pantsers’ as they are sometimes called, seemed fairly entrenched. I’ve had many spirited debates about this topic and have found myself similarly entrenched in the outliners camp. But the more I talked to these ‘pantsers’, the more I realized that they simply did not understand that outlining isn’t a blueprint in which nothing can be changed. It’s a roadmap. The direction and destination are set, but the map is not the terrain.

            It was with this concept in mind that I set out to teach a class I called ‘Outlining By The Seat of Your Pants’. I was hoping to convert some ‘pantsers’ and help those interested in outlining avoid some of the common problems with outlining.

            Originally the class was going to be taught in person at my alma mater, The Evergreen State College Tacoma Campus. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic made that impossible. Instead, I contacted Jackie Casella, the founder of a local literary organization called Creative Colloquy. They had something called The Writer’s Workshop Series. I asked if I might teach my outlining class as part of it. While I had participated in events with Creative Colloquy before, this would be the first class I’d taught through them. In fact, it would be the first class I had ever taught.

SETTING UP THE CLASS

Once I had found a topic for the class and a sponsoring organization from which to run the class, I needed to come up with an outline for the class itself. I spoke with my classmates at Goddard who had already completed their teaching practicum and found that some had fulfilled the fifteen-hour requirement by teaching a morning session and an evening session to two different groups of students. This appealed to me because it would give me an opportunity to see how the same lesson worked with different students and because I honestly wasn’t sure I had fifteen hours of material to teach.

            Having figured out the format, I looked at my options for teaching a virtual class. Thanks to my attending the recent virtual residency at Goddard via Zoom, my familiarity with the platform made it an obvious choice. It also presented a problem. My experience with Zoom classes had taught me that any class lasting longer than an hour had better be riveting because after an hour of staring at a screen, people tend to be restless. Given my inexperience, I figured it best not to tempt fate. My classes would be an hour long, twice a week for four weeks. Students could attend in the morning or the evening. Students would get two hours of class every week and I’d be teaching four hours every week.

            Creative Colloquy had done multi-day classes and workshops before, but to my knowledge, this would be the longest class they ever hosted. Thankfully, Jackie agreed with the format.

            I wanted the class to feel intimate. It was my hope that perhaps the disparate students would make friends with each other over the course of the class. So I limited each class to six students.

            Even with the class restrictions I had no idea how popular or unpopular the class might be. It was unfortunate that the class had to be virtual, but rather than focusing on what the class could not be, I tried to think of what the class could. The one advantage of having a virtual class is that no one has to travel to attend the class. I took advantage of the writing community that Jackie had created with Creative Colloquy and helped her with social media posts and any questions potential students had.

            Most of the students were local, much like the organization I was working through, but there were a few who were out of state and two from outside the country. One was an online friend who I had known for years. She lives in Abu Dhabi. The other was someone from Australia who I did not know before the class started.

            In thinking about the class, I was all too aware that mine was not the typical college experience. I had taken a twenty year break from college and returned to community college in my 40s, but after getting my Associates Degree in Human Services, I transferred to The Evergreen State College Tacoma Campus where much of the curriculum is self-directed and there are evaluations rather than grades. After getting my Bachelor of Arts at Evergreen, I found Goddard to be remarkably similar, but more focused on writing.

            These experiences made it almost inevitable that I would conduct the class in an informal and friendly manner rather than one of achievement and competition. I would hardly know how to do anything else. More than anything, in putting together the class, I tried to imagine what I would want in such a class.

            I had one additional idea: I would complete every assignment I instructed my students to complete. This would allow me to participate in the class while also outlining my next big project. I thought it would be a good way to make it more engaging for me. I would learn that I was very wrong.

THE FIRST SESSION – THE CORE CONCEPT

My first class began at 10:00am on a Tuesday morning. I had been told that all six slots had been taken. I started the Zoom call a full fifteen minutes early, nervous that I might have technical issues. I didn’t.

            For the first class I wanted to do two things: dispel some common thoughts about outlining and get the class thinking about the core idea of their story. In my original syllabus I had put these two topics as the first two classes, but as I reviewed my material, it became clear that I would have time for both in the first class. Before I could do either of those things though, I had to learn from my students what they already knew and thought about outlining. Were they new to the concept? Had they been outlining for years? Did they have an intense dislike for outlining? I would find that depending on the student, the answer was ‘yes’ to all of these questions.

            I have been known to talk a lot. It’s not uncommon for me to monopolize a conversation in a group of people if I’m not careful. Over the years, I’ve learned not to do that so much. It took some mental adjusting to realize that my students actually expected me to do most of the talking and lead the conversation. I know that this seems obvious, but it simply wasn’t something I thought about before I began the class.

            The next discovery I made was that it is very difficult to determine how long a particular lesson will take to complete. Each class was an hour long, but the length of the lesson was determined as much by class participation as it was by the content of the lesson. Despite combining what I initially thought would be two hours of material into one class, I found that I was out of material for my first session in just under forty minutes.

            To fill this time, I had an improvisational conversation with my students about their writing experiences and their expectations for the class. Some of what they said ended up informing future lesson plans.

            The first session in the evening consisted of five students. A sixth had signed up but never attended. Between sessions, I added some material to my lesson plan hoping that it would manage to fill most of the hour, but found the conversation at the end of the morning class so beneficial that I hoped I would have an opportunity to talk to my evening students in a similar manner.

            I needn’t have worried. It turned out that one of the primary differences between the two classes was that the morning class was simply less talkative because it was still morning. The evening class was much more engaged. In the morning class there had been one notable exception: A student named Ola was very talkative. I realized that this was because she was in Abu Dhabi and for her my ‘morning’ class was actually in the evening for her. Similarly, my evening class had a woman named, Mel who was in Australia. For her the ‘evening’ class was during her lunch hour.

            The evening class went much smoother. My class still ran short, but at forty-eight minutes, I was comfortable with that. I was surprised by the diverse experience in the class. One had never written much of anything. Another had published before, but never liked outlining. Yet another was attending the class because she was creating and running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

             After each class I sent an email that echoed things mentioned in class, gave links to anything I might have mentioned, and gave them their optional assignments. For the first class, the assignment was simple: Just write your core story concept in 30 words or less. I also gave a bonus assignment of expanding the idea to 100 words or less. This would be the only assignment I successfully completed with the class.

THE SECOND SESSION – CHARACTERS

Though the class was focused on outlining, there is a lot of preparation that goes into the outlining process that I felt needed to be covered. For my second session I wanted to focus on what I feel is the driving force behind all great stories: compelling characters.

            For this session I partially relied on John Truby’s Anatomy of Story. In his book, Truby explains how characters in a good story are not separate entities apart from each other but carefully connected in important ways. As he puts it:

“The single biggest mistake writers make when creating characters is that they think of the hero and all other characters as separate individuals. The result is not only a weak hero but also cardboard opponents and minor characters who are even weaker…

To create great characters, think of all your characters as part of a web in which each helps define the others. To put it another way, a character is often defined by who he is not.” (57)

I then related this concept back to their core idea. How their characters interacted with this idea would reveal their roles and help create dimensionality in their characters. I felt it was important to focus on character because to me the best stories are character driven.

Like the previous class I found that my preparation fell short of the hour long class time. In both my morning and evening classes I ran out of material around the forty-minute mark and had to basically riff from there.

After the second evening session, it became clear to me that the amount of time I spent preparing for the class and the amount of material I used for the class had to increase. I needed to over-prepare.

THE THIRD SESSION – STORY CIRCLE

 The second assignment was to write up character sketches of each of our major characters. I realized I had time to adequately prepare for my class or do the assignment myself. Not both. But I also found a deeper revelation. This desire to do the homework with the class wasn’t just me playing along. It was me resisting my position as a teacher.

            My students did not want and did not need me to do the assignments or to behave as a fellow student. They hadn’t signed up for a writing sprint. They had signed up for a class and a class needs a teacher. Teaching the class required more than my interest in the topic. It required me to do the work and come up with lesson plans that would help my students learn. In order to be a teacher, I had to stop pretending to be a student.

            For my third class, I focused on story structure. Though I was familiar with various story structures, I spent hours reading and watching videos on the topic between my second and third session. I found examples and sources I could share with the class. I practiced talking about them. I spent the weekend reading and rereading.

            While Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey is a well thought out way to look at story, I have never found it particularly useful. I fundamentally disagreed with Blake Snyder’s book Save The Cat because I don’t believe that characters necessarily need to be likeable as much as they need to be understandable. (Walter White from Breaking Bad isn’t a likeable character, but since we understand why he does what he does, we’ll follow him anywhere.) What I have found very useful in my own writing though is Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. I wanted to teach the Story Circle to my students as I found it the most helpful way to look at stories.

            I first came across Dan Harmon’s Story Circle in a profile of him in Wired magazine in 2011. It’s essentially a simplified and more user-friendly version of The Hero’s Journey.

He wanted to codify the storytelling process—to find the hidden structure powering the movies and TV shows, even songs, he’d been absorbing since he was a kid. “I was thinking, there must be some symmetry to this,” he says of how stories are told. “Some simplicity.” So he watched a lot of Die Hard, boiled down a lot of Joseph Campbell, and came up with the circle, an algorithm that distills a narrative into eight steps:

  • 1.  A character is in a zone of comfort
  • 2.  But they want something
  • 3.  They enter an unfamiliar situation
  • 4.  Adapt to it
  • 5.  Get what they wanted
  • 6.  Pay a heavy price for it
  • 7.  Then return to their familiar situation
  • 8.  Having changed

Harmon calls his circles embryos—they contain all the elements needed for a satisfying story—and he uses them to map out nearly every turn on Community, from throwaway gags to entire seasons. If a plot doesn’t follow these steps, the embryo is invalid, and he starts over. 

(Raftery, Brian. “Dan Harmon Drives Himself Crazy Making Community’)

            In both my morning and evening classes my students lit up. They asked questions (and I knew the answers). They wanted to know more. They seemed to understand what I was trying to convey. It was the first session where I truly felt like I had some idea what I was doing. The assignment for the third session was simple: look for story circles in whatever television, books, or movies they consumed.

            There was another aspect to this level of preparation: I was enjoying myself. I had successfully navigated the first two sessions, but neither was fully enjoyable because I felt myself struggling quite a bit. I ran out of lesson plan before I ran out of time and as a result I felt like I wasn’t succeeding. With this class, I enjoyed the whole experience knowing that my students were learning.

THE FOURTH SESSION – THE SHORT OULINE & PERSPECTIVE

The fourth session of my class was the half-way point. We had talked about the seed of the story, characters, and story structure. Given that the class was about outlining, it seemed like it might be time to talk about actually writing an outline.

            However, the class went differently than I expected. Maybe my experience in the third session had given me some overconfidence. Maybe the fact that having classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays simply didn’t give me enough time in between classes to prepare enough material for Thursday classes. Whatever the case, my morning class in which we talked about how to do a short outline of their stories ran out of material at around the twenty-five minute mark. I knew I couldn’t simply wing it with nothing for the rest of the hour. So I took my loose sketch of next week’s lesson plan on character perspectives and started teaching that. The character perspective exercise was something I had come up with on my own where we write the story as seen from each major character’s perspective. I’ve found that this often locates plot holes. In between the morning and evening classes I solidified the perspective lesson plan and taught what I thought was going to be sessions four and five in session four.

            This experience was not only humbling but gave me a new problem: What was I going to teach for session five? Session six? I could do that, but it was just postponing the problem. I had to take a look at remaining parts of my entire lesson plan and rework it.

THE FIFTH SESSION – SCENES

After what happened with session four, I again spent as much time as I could making sure I had an hour’s worth of lesson plan. Now that they had a solid concept of their characters and story I wanted to get into the details of a scene. Many of the same mechanics at work in a story are at work in each individual scene. I spent a lot of time researching and finding examples of good scenes that I could show my students. The assignment for session five was to simply write one scene. Given that the class was a Tuesday class and they only had a couple of days to get it done, I didn’t expect much.

            I was surprised. Not only was this an assignment that garnered the most participation, but the results were impressive. I could see the students’ use of the topics we’d talked about in previous lessons. Their talent impressed me. I felt like just maybe I was succeeding at this teaching thing.

THE SIXTH SESSION – THE FINAL OUTLINE

Originally I had planned for this to be the seventh session, but since I had put sessions four and five together, I was now at what I thought was going to be the penultimate session, with still two sessions to go.

            This session was probably what most of the students expected the entire class was going to be. I focused on the final outline. I had no expectation that anyone was going to turn in a final outline. A final outline has every scene from the story in it and can sometimes be thirty or forty pages. I told them to ignore the old adage of ‘show, don’t tell’ because this outline was for them, not for the audience. I reminded them that the outline is just a guide and not scripture. Outlines can and should be changed when necessary. But I reminded them that if their characters started running away with the plot, they may want to do more character work and rework the outline before they continue with the manuscript.

            This class went well with both morning and evening classes lasting almost the full hour. I also asked them to email me over the weekend with any topics they wanted to talk about during our seventh session. My solution for having combined two sessions during our fourth class was to have a session that was simply whatever topics the students wanted to talk about. This would give them an opportunity to ask questions or touch on items we had not had a chance to cover in previous classes.

THE SEVENTH SESSION – STUDENTS’ CHOICE

Monday rolled around and I noticed that four of the five people in the evening class had sent me questions and topics while the morning class had not sent me anything. Given that the next session was in less than twenty-four hours, I reached out via email and received suggestions and questions from two of the five remaining students in my morning class.

            I knew immediately that there wasn’t enough material to sustain a whole class and decided to ask myself what I had missed and what I might want to talk about with the class before it was over.

            Since the morning class had not given me much to work with, I included some of the material the evening class had asked about. I also decided to talk about diversity in stories and how it’s important to remember that somewhere out there is a person just like your character and they will read what you wrote. If you get it wrong, they’re going to be upset. If you get it right, they’ll love you for it. It turned out to be a topic that fostered quite a bit of discussion.

            More than any other session this one felt like a real class. I was leading the discussion, but the important part was that it was a discussion. There was some awkwardness in that two of the students from the evening class were unable to attend and they had both asked a significant number of questions via email. I waited to talk about those last just in case they came in late. I really didn’t want to have them come in and hear me say, “I’m sorry. We just answered your questions.” Luckily I was able to record the session so that they could watch it at a later date.

THE FINAL SESSION – RESOURCES AND GOODBYES

For the final session I had intentionally prepared a short lesson plan. I shared with the class what sources I used for the class, what materials I find useful in my writing craft, and ‘rules’ I’ve gathered from various writers I admire. I then allowed time for the students to reflect on the class and tell me what worked, what didn’t, and any other topics they wanted to talk about. It’s difficult to give that ‘last day of school’ feeling via Zoom, but I tried my best.

            Students expressed thanks for the class. One told me that they were unable to watch television now without looking for story circles and questioning the underlying mechanics of the story on screen. When I told them that I may do another class, to my surprise, they all asked me to notify them if I did. The morning class actually went a half hour longer than expected as our discussion warranted the extra time.

ENDINGS

As I write this, there is a voice in the back of my head telling me I need to prepare for Tuesday’s lesson plan. I don’t know that I became good at teaching during this time, but I certainly did get used to doing it.

            I had no idea if I would enjoy teaching and was pleasantly surprised to learn that I did. I also did not expect to connect with the students so much. It’s a genuinely odd feeling to know that I may never talk to some of them again. I have some sadness that I did not expect to feel.

            I still need to work on time management. I feel like the times when the lesson plan lasted the full hour was equal parts preparation and dumb luck. It’s clear to me that over-preparation is key and I marvel at work that must have gone into some of the four-hour classes I’ve taken. I don’t think I’ll ever look at classes quite the same way again now that I’ve been on the other side.

            My classes did not end up following the syllabus I put together and sometimes didn’t follow the lesson plans. There’s a real need for improvisation in effective teaching, but I also feel like I need to spend a lot more time preparing for class than I did during this practicum.

            I got into this program to hone my writing craft with a casual interest in teaching. I am shocked to discover that now, after teaching for four weeks and sixteen hours, after learning just how much hard work has to go into class preparation, after learning that despite all that the whole lesson plan may fail, after all of that, I’m already in talks with Jackie at Creative Colloquy to teach another class.

Works Cited

Raftery, Brian. “How Dan Harmon Drives Himself Crazy Making Community.” Wired, Sept. 2011

Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

My First Book Is Going Out of Print And That’s A Good Thing

selfie

It was 2006. I wrote a book about all the mistakes of my 20s. It was fun to research, write, and release. I had dozens of conversations with people I might never have met otherwise. At one point, I even had a meeting with a producer from Hollywood about making a Ruin Your Life movie.

Ruin Your Life is meant to be a humorous manual of bad but not hurtful behavior. For the most part I think it still succeeds in that.  But there are portions of the book that I find myself unable to defend. Initially I thought this would mean cutting the objectionable parts and reissuing it, but I think cutting parts out of Ruin Your Life runs contrary to the spirit of the book. So I think the responsible thing for me to do at this point is stop publishing it. I have contacted my publisher to have the book be taken out of circulation. It will be out of print and I doubt I will be putting it back in print.

Ruin Your Life had a good run. It sold hundreds of physical copies and thousands of digital copies. I’m happy for the experiences that happened as a result of that book and apologize to anyone who was hurt by anything I said in the book. As always, the reason I portrayed things one way or another was I thought it would be funny. No harm was meant.

For anyone still wanting to get a copy, it is still available on Amazon as I write this. By this time next week it definitely will not be and it could be gone any time between now and then.

Thank you, everyone for your support. Rest assured that my next book, a novel will be out by this time next year at the absolute latest.
– Jack Cameron

QUINTANA SCRIPT EXCERPT*

jesus (1)

It was recently announced that Jon Turturro will be reprising his role from The Big Lebowski as Jesus Quintana. Below is a script excerpt from QUINTANA.*

TITLE CARD: 1990

INT. JESUS QUINTANA’S APARTMENT – LIVING ROOM

WALTER SOBCHAK sits on the couch. JESUS QUINTANA walks into the room he’s carrying one bottle of beer. He uses a bottle opener on the wall to OPEN the beer. He then DRINKS THE ENTIRE BOTTLE. He looks at WALTER.

JESUS
So. You want to roll with the Jesus?

WALTER
You and I are the only ones who give a fuck about the game, man.

JESUS
We need a third. Who you got, man?

WALTER
How about the Dude?

JESUS
The Dude does not roll like you and he does not roll like the Jesus. What about the little guy?

WALTER
Forget it. Donny’s a surfer. He’s out of his element on the land.

JESUS
Tell you what. Jesus is gonna think on it. You come back Saturday. We talk it out.

WALTER
I can’t. Not Saturday.

JESUS
You come see the Jesus on Sunday then.

WALTER
Sounds good. With you on the team, how can we lose?

JESUS
You know it, baby! Jesus never lose.

WALTER
You’re not going to miss any games being all the way across town are you?

JESUS
Shut the fuck up. You can count on Jesus. Jesus is planning to move to Venice soon.

WALTER gets up and heads for the door.

TITLE CARD: THE FOLLOWING SUNDAY

EXT. LA STREET DAY – WALTER SOBCHACK is walking down the sidewalk and encounters a LEMONADE STAND. There is an 8-YEAR-OLD boy behind the stand.

8 YEAR OLD
Hey. Hey, Mister. You want to buy some lemonade?

WALTER
What?

8 YEAR OLD
Do you want some lemonade?

WALTER
Sure. I’ll have some lemonade

WALTER takes a paper cup of lemonade and drinks it.

WALTER
That’s pretty fuckin’ good lemonade.

8 YEAR OLD
Five dollars.

WALTER
For lemonade?

8 YEAR OLD
Five dollars.

WALTER
Are you hustling me?

8 YEAR OLD
You said it was fuckin good.

WALTER
I can’t believe it. I’m being hustled by a fucking kid.

WALTER pulls out his wallet. He opens it. He has RECEIPTS and TWO ONE DOLLAR BILLS.

WALTER
I can give you two dollars.

8 YEAR OLD
You owe me five.

WALTER
You know what? Fuck it. Fine. My friend lives just down the street. Come with me. I’m sure he can front me five bucks for your little hustle.

8 YEAR OLD
Who’s going to watch my stand?

WALTER
Do you want the money or not?

EXT. – OUTSIDE JESUS QUINTANA’S HOUSE – DAY

WALTER & 8 YEAR OLD walk up to the front porch of JESUS QUINTANA’S house. Walter KNOCKS on the door. He waits. KNOCKS AGAIN. No answer.

8 YEAR OLD
Nobody’s here. Where’s my money?

WALTER
He’s here. He told me to meet him here.

WALTER tries the door. It’s unlocked. He steps inside. The 8 YEAR OLD steps in with him.

INT. JESUS QUINTANA’S HOUSE – DAY – MOMENTS LATER

8 YEAR OLD
Did we just break in here?

WALTER
Shut the fuck up, kid. Jesus lives here.

8 YEAR OLD
What are you talking about? This ain’t no church.

The two of them walk through the house, down a hallway. They hear the sound of a SHOWER just as it turns off.

The bathroom door opens. JESUS QUINTANA walks out soaking wet and completely NUDE.

The 8 YEAR OLD SCREAMS and runs out of the house.

JESUS
What the fuck, man? Get the fuck out of here!

WALTER
We were going to talk about our bowling team! Remember!

JESUS
Deos Mio, man. You break into my house with some fucking kid and want to be on my team. Fuck you, pendejo. Get. The. Fuck. Out. Jesus will never roll with you!

WALTER turns around and starts walking towards the open front door.

WALTER (muttering)
Stands around naked in front of a kid. Calls me names. Guy’s a pervert.

*Note: This is NOT really a script excerpt. It’s something I made up.

15 Minute Story #2: The Marty Party

TheMartyParty2

Oh, you’re going in the book, motherfucker. When I write that explosive memoir telling everything that’s happened, you’re going in that book. What will I call that chapter? Douchey Guys And The Men Who Are Fooled By Them? I’m sure you’d say it was just a Marty Party, but my friends were there and they saw you and they saw what you did and they told me. So now I know and now you know I know. I hope it was worth it.

You’d say you were too drunk to remember. You’d say you didn’t mean to kiss him. You’d say a lot of things, but you can’t right now, can you?

I can’t believe you walked into that party and said, “He couldn’t make it.” Yeah, that might be due to the fact that we got pulled over on the way there and thanks to our little pre-funk, I blew a .09 and got arrested. Did you bother to tell them that, asshole? No. Instead you got drunk, made out with Chad’s brother and then…

I spent the weekend in jail, you know. The whole damn weekend. You’re the only one who knew I was there and you didn’t bother to tell anyone. You just got your mac on and hopped up on that railing trying to show off your gymnastic skills. But you were drunk and the railing wasn’t stable. Marty’s place has a great view, but that view means quite a bit of a drop.

I wonder if it was painful. Now having a DUI is the least of my worries. I’m the guy who has a cheating dead boyfriend. My friends want to console me but they don’t know what to say.

Next month, Marty’s having his legendary Valentine’s Day Party. He hasn’t sent me an invitation. Thanks a lot. You ruin my social life even in death. I hope landing on those rocks hurt like hell.

Words by Jack Cameron
Illustration by Ossaín Ávila Cárdenas

About 15 Minute Stories
It’s good for writers to write every day, but it’s easy for life to get in the way of that. One solution I read about recently was to write a 15 minute piece of short fiction every single day for a month. You may not have time to do NaNoWriMoevery month, but if you like writing, you can always find 15 minutes.

So for the month of January, I’ll be writing and posting pieces of very short fiction that I took 15 minutes to write. I’ve asked that my friend, Ossaín Ávila Cárdenas join me by taking 15 minutes to draw an accompanying image for each story.  Ossaín is one of the owners of a local zine shop in Tacoma calledThe Nearsighted Narwhal

Being Wrong On The Internet

duty_calls
People are wrong on the Internet. People will say things that are factually inaccurate and easily proven false. They will say things that any 5-year-old who hasn’t been hit in the head with a baseball can tell you are untrue. They will tell you that vaccines cause autism. They will tell you that more guns make people safer and that the last mass shooting was a hoax. They will tell you that everyone on the West Coast will get cancer within five years thanks to Fukushima. They will tell you there’s a secret root that cures all cancer. They will tell you about Obamacare killing thousands. They will bury you with absolute bullshit that if you heard anyone saying in a city park, you would just assume that person is a crazy person.

And yet, if you’re like me, when these people say these wrong things on the Internet, rather than ignoring their prattle like you would if a crazy person were ranting in a park, you feel compelled to correct them. You feel the need to make sure that if someone less intelligent than you were to stumble upon such a post, they would at the very least see your comment showing that the original post is absolute crap. Because what if an innocent and naïve person were to read the original post and think that it’s true? What if your comment is the only chance to stop some other person from sharing this obviously asinine crap? If not you, who will speak truth to stupid?

It’s been one of my pastimes over the last few years. One might even call it an addiction. I find a cause I’m interested in and I care about. I find people who disagree with my stance and I battle it out online with them. Whenever possible, I try to use links and facts and statistics to back up what I’m saying and try to insist that they do the same.

I’ll tell people that I like talking to people I disagree with because it’s the only way I learn. I’ll tell people how at one point I was a anti-choice, pro-death penalty, gun rights, Christian Quaker, and how through talking with people I disagreed with, I am now none of those things. And while that is true, it’s not why I do it.

I am not going to learn anything from someone who thinks 9/11 was an inside job. And there isn’t going to be a theologian alive who is going to convince me that God exists. There aren’t facts out there that will convince me that killing someone is the best way to show as a society that killing is wrong. Many of the things I see as true are things I’ve thought about and studied so much that in many ways I’m simply frustrated with those who see things otherwise. More to the point, I just want them to pay attention to the facts and see where that leads because I think if they do that, they’ll find themselves in a similar area.

I haven’t been doing it to learn. I’ve been doing it because it’s fun. And while I’m all for having fun, there are better ways to have fun than at someone else’s expense. Taking out my frustration and anger on people who have opinions not backed up by anything more than their feelings on the matter while enjoyable isn’t really what I want to be about. I’d rather take that time and simply make a compelling argument here on my website than get into a thread war on Facebook that inevitably ends with someone I might otherwise think is an okay person all pissed off at me because I’ve ridiculed them for having the audacity to post something stupid.

My point here is simple. I have things I need to do and things I want to do that all take priority over telling someone they are wrong on the Internet. So instead, I’m going to treat you like the crazy person in the park and simply walk away. Facebook friends who post too many bullshit stories will find themselves no longer part of my Facebook friends. Websites that post click bait will be ignored. Commenters so incredibly stupid that it’s strange they’re capable of literacy will be likewise ignored. In short, to all you climate change denying, 9/11 conspiracy, gun nut, anti-vaccers out there, I have better things to do with my life than to tell you that you are wrong on the Internet.
– Jack Cameron

The Cult of One Good Thing (Revisited)

POV CoverIt was the summer of 1995. I was 20 years old. I was going to Tacoma Community College. I was about to get married. I was living in a tiny basement apartment next door to Stadium High School. And I was absolutely clueless as to what the future was going to hold for me or what sort of life I’d end up leading. One day that summer I went to Stadium Thriftway and picked up a magazine with a worried looking Michael Richards on the cover (In 1995 Kramer from Seinfeld was the biggest star on television.). There was a big headline that said, “WHAT SHOULD I DO?” and yes, at 20 years old this was a question I asked myself all the time but that wasn’t the part that spoke to me. It was the smaller headline just under it that said, “Live like $70,000 while making $35,000 by Jesse Kornbluth (a man who knows)”. This was something I was definitely interested in even if I hadn’t a clue who Jesse Kornbluth was.

The magazine was called P.O.V. and as a comic book guy I couldn’t help but notice it said, ‘Premier Issue’.  I bought the copy and read it cover to cover. The Kramer interview was hilarious. Their advice about Skyy vodka being hangover proof was quickly put to the test and passed. And then there was the Kornbluth article, “The Cult of One Good Thing”.

Now before I go any further it’s important to note that at this point in my life I wasn’t making $35,000 a year. I wasn’t making half of that. My resume was short and unimpressive. But so what. There might be a thing or two in the article I could use and I’d probably be making $35K in no time anyway (not true but optimism in youth is eternal).

The basic premise of the article is that you can live a really amazing lifestyle (or at least appear to) by focusing on quality instead of quantity. This is true. The article suggested good clothes to buy and that joining various clubs and other social gatherings are the way towards a better life and to do so, one should avoid spending copious amounts of money on sub-par stuff for a sub-par apartment. Out in the world, no one knew what kind of place you lived in as long as you appeared presentable.

When I read all of this at 20 years old, it was a revelation. I felt like this article was giving me some sort of cheat codes to life. There was one particular bit of it that struck a chord with me. Regarding other people like yourself who aren’t making a lot of money he said, “At the end of long days, their idea of fun may be to flop in front of the tube and share their miseries; if you hang with them long enough, that will be your idea of amusement too.”  I had many people who did exactly this. Most of them watched sports which I found just mind-numbing. I had no interest in ever becoming someone who drank Bud-Lite while watching the Super Bowl.

Over the years, I would reread this article. I would quote relevant parts to friends from time to time. One friend asked me if they could borrow it and being a lender of things, I let him borrow it. He then promptly lost it.

I continued to purchase P.O.V. until it went out of business in 2000. And to be perfectly honest, I actually used almost none of Jesse Kornbluth’s specific advice. (I still don’t own a Brooks Brothers shirt.) But the theme of the article echoed in many of my actions. The idea of buying something of high quality regardless of price instead of something that was average and cheap stuck with me. Right now I do have beer in the fridge. They are four bottles of craft beer bought at 99 Bottles rather than a case of Bud Lite from 7-11.

A few years ago I decided to find out what Jesse Kornbluth was up to these days. It turns out he’s still giving advice on the good life. He has a website called HeadButler.com which specializes in recommending awesome books, movies, and music. I subscribed to his newsletter immediately. Thanks to the newsletter I saw the excellent and haunting movie Winter’s Bone, I read Cara Hoffman’s incredible novel, So Much Pretty and even reviewed it on this site.  Recently I was thinking about that old article from P.O.V. and I decided to email him and see if he still had it. He wrote back and said that he did not have it.

If it were still 1995, that would have been the end, but since it’s not, I looked on Ebay and found a copy of the premier issue of P.O.V. for $12. This was four times what it cost in 1995 but I didn’t mind. After all, the theme of the article was that quality sometimes costs more.

– Jack Cameron

How I Write Part 7: Scene Cards & Sound Track

If you haven’t noticed, a lot of the things I’m suggesting may seem like they’d be more suited to moviemaking. There are reasons for that. When people read stories, they play movies of the stories in their heads. They can’t help themselves. So it’s best to make your story at least in some ways, cinematic.

By all means you should write whatever you want to write and if it turns out to be more literary than cinematic, that’s fine. My favorite book is Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but the main reason it hasn’t been turned into a movie is that it’s mostly about a father and son on a motorcycle ride. Of course anyone who has read the book knows that a lot more than that is going on, but there’s still the underlying story.

 That’s what this sort of outlining is about. It’s fine to have subtext, but that’s not the sort of thing you can teach. It’s in you and your story or it’s not and at least for me, I’ve found that this is the stuff I like to discover while I’m writing.

So, you’ve got your final outline. You’re ready for the last steps before you jump into the deep end and start writing. Take your final outline and a set of 3” x 5” cards. Write down each scene on each card. Nothing too descriptive. (i.e. “Amber comes  home and encounters burglar”) Every time the place or time changes, get another card. You now have a scene log.

Using your scene log, go through your cards and ask yourself two questions about each scene:

1)      Does it further the plot?

2)      Does it further the character?

If the scene doesn’t do at least one of those things, toss it out and get it out of your final outline. You don’t need it.

 Now you have a list of scenes on cards. As you write the scenes, throw away the cards. This, I’ve found can be incredibly therapeutic. You feel like you’re accomplishing something. Whenever possible use the cards instead of the final outline when you’re writing. This will help you avoid any urge to copy anything from the outline.

But wait! There’s one last thing you should do before you sit down to write your story. This may seem silly and inconsequential, but I’ve found it really helps.

I’m going to assume you have a reasonable collection of mp3s. If you don’t, you know someone who does. Go through your music and make a new playlist. This isn’t necessarily music you’ll be writing to, this is the soundtrack to your story. This music should set the mood you want for your story and will help you get into the frame of mind necessary for the story. Usually, over time, the music list gets longer and longer. This is good.

Now you’re finally ready to write your story. Follow these instructions and I can’t guarantee your story will be good, but it will be solid. Good luck!

I will be posting here throughout the month with updates and tips. It’s almost time to begin.

– Jack Cameron

How I Write Part 6: The Final Outline

Only a few days until the beginning of NaNoWriMo. This weekend is crunch time for me. I’m almost done with my prep work but there’s still some things to iron out.

This is the next to last step in my outlining process. The Final Outline.

Every step you’ve taken so far has changed your story. Your theme turned into a story. Your characters gave your story life. Your characters’ perspective gave you new insight into your story. Now it’s time to take all of that knowledge and turn it into something you can work with.

This is the outline you wanted to write all along, but you didn’t actually have enough information to do so. Write this outline in the order you want it in your story. If your story starts midway through Act II and flashes back to the beginning, write the outline that way. You’ve already worked out any chronology hiccups, so you should be fine. This is your road map if you get lost during the writing.

This outline can be as long as it needs to be. Try not to leave anything out. You can even throw in some dialog if it’s important to the story. There probably won’t be too many new surprises or significant changes in at this point, but you never know. If you do make any sort of major change, go back to your Perspective Outlines and make sure you haven’t screwed up anyone’s story.

Once you’re done with this step, you should feel pretty good about the story. Staring at a blank page shouldn’t scare you at this point. You’re almost ready.

Did I say ‘almost’? Yeah. There’s still two more things you need to do before you finally sit down to write. I’ll get to those next.

 

 

How I Write Part 5: Perspective

I think we’ve all had that experience where we’re watching a movie or reading a book and we suddenly realize that we thought of something that the writer didn’t think of. There’s a hole in the plot and the more you think about it, the bigger the hole gets. Anyone with any good amount of writing under their belt can probably remember plot holes of their own that they discovered. I know I have.

Plot holes can kill a story and given all the work you’re putting into the story, it’d be nice to avoid them. There is no easy way to do this, but I do know a couple of techniques that work fairly well for me.

Even with well developed characters, there are times that the plot can get away from us. Things happen in the story because we need them to rather than because of the actions of the characters. This is when your plot starts to fall apart. Here’s how you stop this from happening.

It’s time to write some more outlines. Rather than telling the whole story like in previous outlines, these are different. Take every character and write their story. This is the same story you’ve been working on, but it’s from just that character’s perspective. It only includes the knowledge and experience that character has. If the character is a main character, it’s likely to include almost all of the story. If it’s an insignificant character, the outline might be very short. Write the outline like the character told you the story of what happened.

Now I know it probably seems like a lot of work for nothing. You might think you can get away with just doing this with the main characters, but really, the more characters you do this for, the better off you’re going to be. Occasionally you’ll find that you assumed a character had knowledge he didn’t actually have or you’ll find that a character was apparently doing nothing for an extended period of time simply because you didn’t need her in the plot for a while.

There are people who think you can skip this step, but I really think it’s one of the most important things you can do for your story.

– Jack Cameron

How I Write Part 4: The Big Outline

You know your basic story. You’ve fleshed out your main characters. If you’re anything like me, once you know your characters, they’ll start changing the plot on you. This is a good thing. Character-driven stories are easier to write and more fun to read. Let them take you where they need to.

Read over your original outline. Read over your character sketches. The thing you want to remember is that right now, none of it is in stone. You can still change anything you want to. And again, changing things at this stage is a lot easier than changing things later.

Now that you have the characters and outline in your head, it’s time to write the Big Outline. Unlike the previous one, you want to write down everything you can think of in this one. Include, plot, subplot, character moments, and anything else you think you might need. This outline should be a few pages long. Write it from beginning to end. If your story jumps around in time, this is a good chance to make sure you have the chronology correct.

If you’ve done your job right, there will probably be a few surprises. Now that you know who you’re dealing with, they’re likely to make different choices than you had them make in the original outline. Now is the time to let these things happen. If it goes somewhere that doesn’t fit with the rest of the narrative, you can always junk it or use that particular part for another story. And you can always change the character if you need to.

Once you’re finished writing the outline, read it over a couple of times. This is your story. If you don’t like it at this stage, change it. You’re going to be spending the next few weeks wading through this story so if it isn’t a world you want to be in, fix it fast. If the author isn’t interested, then the readers definitely won’t be.

At this point, there are a lot of people out there who would just start to work on the actual writing, but I don’t think it’s time yet. There are still things you should do before you hit the ground running. We’ll get into those next.