Writing Advice

How One Video Game Helped Me Overcome Writer’s Block

15 June 2018

From Big Think:

Confession: I’ve been trying to finish a screenplay for almost a year. I have an outlet for it, it can help my career — I’m just terrified it’ll be crap. So here I am, picking at the thing, crippling my prospects instead of making it happen. It’s Writer’s Block. And fear. And a big damn problem.

I think this video game might be my solution.

Elegy for a Dead World is a game we’ve written about but never played before. Created by indie developers Dejobaan Games, Elegy puts players in the position of an astronaut exploring three beautiful, abandoned worlds. All are colorful and rich, but desolate and broken. Their designs are inspired by three landmark poems: Ozymandius by Percy Shelley, When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be by John Keats, and Darkness by Lord Byron. It is the astronaut’s – and player’s – job to investigate each world, catalogue the remains, and piece together the mysteries of each civilization by completing 27 writing challenges. The worlds are merely prompts for writing, and the goal of the game as Dejobaan sees is it is “everyone can write.”

So I gave it a shot.

“You begin on Shelley’s World, now devoid of life,” Dejobaan explains on the site. “A bloated, red sun scorches a landscape of towers, sculptures, and cryptic machinery.”

. . . .

I know Ozymandius, but I remember nothing about burned skies and broken machinery in it. As I walked through an empty planet full of wreckage, the wreckage implied a story. That was a puzzle in need of a solution, as Dejobaan explains:

Each world offers multiple sets of prompts. Each intended to inspire you to write a different story about it. Elegy might ask you to write a short story about an individual’s final days, a song about resignation, or a poem about war… we like to think of those as puzzles — writing yourself out of a corner, so to speak.

The first prompt didn’t match up with the poem. Neither did any of the others. With no other clues to go by save what I saw, I wandered the desolation forced to stitch together an answer myself.

I started filling in the prompts. Small ones at first. Timidly. Blathering words out through my fingers as quickly as they popped into my head. They were silly. They were on the nose. They were crap. But they were writing, and they were helping me advance through the level.

. . . .

From there, I played my way through the other two worlds. The Keats world was colorful and bright, like a Bob Ross painting of a Miyazaki film. It’s prompts were more abstract and personal than the Shelley one, asking me to do things like write a letter back home and write a song. Truthfully, it took me a few passes to get comfortable with those prompts. They were more personal and required more reflection and vulnerability than I expected to put into this game. Writing those prompts was much harder than simply writing observations about the scenery, especially since the scenery was so cheery and the prompts were decidedly not. But they were a good stretch for my creative muscles, and jibed well with the screenplay I need to finish. I appreciated the challenge.

Link to the rest at Big Think and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Better Words Make Better Products

13 June 2018

From Medium:

With all this talk of machine learning, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence, everyone’s focus is usually on the technology itself. Which makes sense, given that someone has to actually build those experiences. But your experience as a user of this world-changing tech hinges on whether or not you know how to use it.

That’s where my team comes in. We’re a mix of former journalists, playwrights, teachers, and novelists (amongst a variety of other professions) who write the content you see on your Microsoft devices — the UX copy, the support content — anywhere you see words in your Microsoft experience, someone from my team or discipline has helped craft them.

Across Microsoft, there are thousands of UX writers, technical writers, support documentation writers, developer documentation writers, marketers, and communicators.

When you have that many people writing for ONE single brand, how do you make sure that no matter where you interact with Microsoft, the words feel like they were written by the same team?

Enter the latest version of the Microsoft Style Guide

Style guides aren’t be-all-end-all rule books that result in a trip to the principal’s office if something isn’t followed. They don’t remove emotion or feeling or authenticity from your words. Rather, they help everyone here at Microsoft (and beyond) use similar terms to keep consistency across the brand — from Xbox to Azure to Windows, we all use it.

It’s not something we keep carefully tucked under our pillows at night (wouldn’t that be a hoot), but we do reference it regularly. It’s not just what terms to use or when to capitalize things, but also provides guidance for howwe talk. It gets updated all the time, to keep up with the way we, as humans, talk to each other. In fact, the latest version came out last month.

. . . .

If you’ve used Microsoft products for a while, you probably remember seeing an error message like this:

“The end-user manually generated the crashdump.” That’s what you’re left with as a customer — most likely without an understanding of why your computer blue screened, and an even smaller chance to know what a crash dump is. *Sad trombone sound playing* *potentially followed with tables flipping*

As Microsoft has evolved, so has our voice. We’re friendlier, understanding that not everyone who uses Microsoft devices and software has a computer science degree or understands how to use run-commands. I’ve been here for over a year and still feel that tingle of anxiety when I press Win+R — “Oh god, I hope I don’t press the wrong thing and accidentally reset something” — trust me, we’ve all been there.

. . . .

Our new blue screen looks more like this:

It’s still not fun to get that message, but we hope you’ll understand that something went wrong with your device, we’ll restart it to see if that fixes it, and we’re collecting data to make your future experiences better.

Link to the rest at Medium

The reporter who exposed Theranos tells investors how to spot another Elizabeth Holmes

19 May 2018

The Theranos story is interesting to PG for a variety of reasons. However, he thinks this particular part of the story may be of interest to authors for the construction of characters.

The principal character in the Theranos story is CEO Elizabeth Holmes, who managed to attract very smart investors and keep the Theranos story alive and vibrant for quite a long time while the company’s products were failing to work.

From Fast Company:

The Theranos story got everyone’s attention because it involved all the ingredients for a classic drama—hubris, greed, big personalities, and fraud. The blood-testing tech startup’s rise and fall, from a $9 billion valuation and CEO Elizabeth Holmes posing for magazine covers to revelations that its technology didn’t work and being targeted with multiple federal and state investigations, is by now legendary. But the story wouldn’t have been told without the reporting of the Wall Street Journal‘s investigative dynamo John Carreyrou, who doggedly asked the tough questions that punctured the unicorn’s facade and exposed Holmes’s lies.

Carreyrou tells the tale in his new book, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, which goes on sale on Monday, May 21, and has been optioned for a feature film starring Jennifer Lawrence and helmed by The Big Short director Adam McKay.

. . . .

Fast Company: What made you first suspect that something might be a little fishy about Theranos?

John Carreyrou: The absolute first tip-off was reading the Ken Auletta profile in the New Yorker. Even though [Elizabeth Holmes] had risen to fame six months prior, she only got on my radar screen with that story.

I read it with interest and some of the details struck me as off—one of them was that she’d dropped out of Stanford after only a year and a half to start a medical startup. And I thought that was weird. You can do that with computer stuff but not really with science and medical research. And another thing was the absence of peer review publications, which Ken Auletta to his credit pointed out. And also her quote summarizing how the technology worked. I thought that was ham-handed.

But to be fair, I probably wouldn’t have done anything if I hadn’t been approached by Adam Clapper, a blogger who’d written a short skeptical item pegged to the New Yorker story.

. . . .

FC: What is your advice for journalists covering Silicon Valley, where there is so much cheerleading by the media?

JC: Everyone out there covering the Valley should have some healthy skepticism and not fall into the trap of cheerleading all the time. I think that Silicon Valley has become one of the most fascinating beats in the country. If you’re a journalist today, it’s really become an important part of the American economy—all this innovation but all this pretending and rule-breaking and these larger-than-life personalities. It’s a fascinating beat. I would love, if I were a young reporter in the early part of my career, I would really be happy to cover Silicon Valley.

. . . .

FC: That’s amazing that some didn’t ask for something as basic as the [Consolidated Financial Statement].

JC: What Holmes did very successfully was that she positioned Theranos as a classic tech company and investors allowed her to do that. In tech, maybe you need to do less digging and less forensic due diligence because it comes down to programming and coding. But actually, Theranos was first and foremost a medical technology company—that involves medical research and science.

Those investors who came in after 2013 allowed her to make them forget that. They should have been asking those questions, hiring scientific consultants to ask how she had solved problems in physics and chemistry that thousands of researchers had struggled to do.

Link to the rest at Fast Company

For those not familiar with Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, here’s a link to an article in The New Yorker referenced in the OP.


Us Animals

25 April 2018
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From The Millions:

There are so many ways for a nest to fail. So many ways for a sentence to fail. In my years as a field biologist I watched how the natural world dealt with the inevitability of failure—in life, mating, reproduction, predation. Unaware, I began to translate what I observed directly into my writing style.

One day on the Gila River I saw a bright green-blue snake slide through a willow with a flycatcher egg in its mouth. Endorphins flooding my body, I wrote about it right away, taking a seat on the sandy shore and jotting down a few winding versions of the event in my notebook. But nothing that I wrote rang quite right. I was too close to it, too amped up. It would only be later in the calm of my tent that I could process what I’d seen, reflect on it, and write. A little distance goes a long way.

The monsoons came fairly early that year I worked surveying breeding willow flycatchers via kayak on the Gila River in southeastern Arizona. After a particularly strong downpour I found three nestlings drowned in their own nest. When I tried to write about it, I found my syntax to be choppy and blunt. I wrote in the margins of my notebook, simply, they are gone. All dead. Again, I needed time to process what I’d seen.

The survival rate for songbird offspring is only about 30 percent, with large ranges within that statistic, of course. While doing nest monitoring on the Gila River, our crew monitored some 50-plus Southwestern willow flycatcher nests. At the time, this was a stronghold population for an ever-dwindling, federally endangered subspecies. Over and over in the course of just one field season we watched this struggling population build, lose offspring, rebuild, and try all over again. I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time, but this kind of constant reminder of life’s fragility crept its way into my perspective and prose.

. . . .

When a nest fails, birds waste no time. They pick the pieces up and move on. A nest is repaired, a new clutch is laid, and they are on to the next plot point of their narrative. It is in this way that I began to write stories about loss—and then survival—with the particular lens of a biologist. The people in my novel began to share traits with some of the animals I observed. My characters knew how to pick up the pieces and march on into the future. They didn’t make a big deal of it when their whole life fell apart, but moved on because they had to. These people in my writing, you might say they were channeling their inner animal. And then all of a sudden I was one of them.

Link to the rest at The Millions

Do the Doing: An Actor Writes

19 April 2018

From Brevity:

“I’m noticing a pattern in your work, and it’s a problem,” my mentor said.

I was near the end of my third term of my fiction MFA when she put her finger on something happening in my writing whenever emotions grew strong. To show an intense scene’s rage, anger, or grief, I’d throw in more adjectives and adverbs, believing more description would create more emotion and show I really meant it. Only it had the opposite effect. Instead of getting across intensity, my frantic, overly dramatic writing pushed readers away by taking them out of the scene.

“But it feels that intense,” I argued.

“It’s not your job to feel it, it’s your job to make your readers feel it,” she replied.

. . . .

Actors practice sense memories, using their imaginations—tasting an imagined cup of steaming hot chocolate, folding a pretend pair of threadbare jeans—in order to sharpen their ability to call up emotions those senses may trigger. Just as you might bake your grandmother’s lemon cake and find the smell carries you back to the summers you sat on her back doorstep watching fireflies until bedtime. You might feel sad and miss her, or maybe grateful you had her love when you were small. Those long-held emotions come alive again, triggered by a smell.

In rehearsal, I’d imagined my own life’s experiences into an emotional well from which my character could draw. And I succeeded. I produced a torrent of tears and full-throated keening when I was reminded of my little boy’s drowning, as though the loss took place only yesterday.

The scene ended. I wiped my face dry, thrilled with myself, very impressed. Boy, had I shown everyone how I could act! The director calmly rose from his chair and I waited for my praise. In a gentle voice, so quiet only I and my scene partner could hear he said, “Sometimes it’s important to remember that what we want in theatre is for the audience to experience the tears. You, my dear, are so good at stirring yourself up, I’m afraid they’ll just sit back and watch you do it, and that’s not what we want.”

Link to the rest at Brevity

Narcissistic Abuse And Codependence For Writers

8 April 2018

From Psych Writer:

There is often a strong reaction from readers of my novel, The Sleeping Serpent. The main character, Nico Romero, is a highly skilled charismatic yoga master who manipulates women to serve his desire for wealth and celebrity. One of the most frequent questions I get from readers is, why would a woman allow a man to abuse her? Why doesn’t she tell him to go to hell, and walk away? A codependent relationship with a narcissist is as addictive as cocaine. It’s an obsessive compelling force. Unwittingly, it can happen to almost anyone at a vulnerable time in their lives.

Have you ever met someone you instantly connect with—someone who seems to know who you are, and what you need? A narcissistic sociopath is charming and magnetic, they appear to be perfect—the answer to your prayers. They are emotional vampires—the ones who use manipulation to seduce their victims. They have a keen ability to quickly identify your inner wound, your vulnerabilities, and appeal to your vanity and fears to bind you to them. They make you feel a part of them, something larger and somehow more alive.

. . . .

Persons with narcissistic personality disorder treat others as an appendage and source of supply, though they can never feel gratified. Just like a vampire story, a narcissist will siphon another’s life force in the attempt to fill the echoing emptiness they feel inside. When Nico doesn’t get his way, or someone disappoints him he becomes enraged and has a meltdown that provides him with a release of pent-up anxiety and euphoric high which empowers him in the face of feeling worthless. There can be no acceptable explanation for not responding to his (or any narcissist’s) immediate demands. In the book, the extreme drama Nico creates is a plea for validation stemming from his fear of loss.

Link to the rest at Psych Writer

How To Write The Perfect Mystery

5 April 2018

From Crime Reads:

Writing a good crime novel is difficult, soulful work. These books we love take on some of humanity’s darkest moments, looking for answers, meaning, or just the catharsis of a full recording. Yes, there are pillars of the form—the disappearance, the sleuth, the colorful side characters and suspects, the insistent search for truth. But there’s no magic formula, no instruction guide that can take you chapter by chapter through writing a successful mystery. There is, however, the wisdom of the greats. From Christie to Chandler to the modern-day masters, many of our favorite authors have turned their attention to the craft of the mystery novel. Scouring the books, interviews, letters, and articles of these icons, we’ve assembled a handy guide to writing a great crime/mystery novel. Some of the advice is easier said than followed; other times the ideas are downright contradictory. Take the wisdom in doses, chew it all over and use what works for you. Above all, keep on writing mysteries and we’ll promise to keep on reading them.

. . . .

“The plans for a detective novel in the making are less like blueprints than like travel notes set down as you once revisited a city. The city had changed since you saw it last. It keeps changing around you. Some of the people you knew there have changed their names. Some of them wear disguises.”

–Ross Macdonald, On Crime Writing (1973)

. . . .

“A lot of novelists start late—Conrad, Pirandello, even Mark Twain. When you’re young, chess is all right, and music and poetry. But novel-writing is something else. It has to be learned, but it can’t be taught. This bunkum and stinkum of college creative-writing courses! The academics don’t know that the only thing you can do for someone who wants to write is to buy him a typewriter.”

–James M. Cain, “The Art of Fiction No. 69,” The Paris Review (1978)

. . . .

“The writer is like a person trying to entertain a listless child on a rainy afternoon. You set up a card table, and you lay out pieces of cardboard, construction paper, scissors, paste, crayons. You draw a rectangle and you construct a very colorful little fowl and stick it in the foreground, and you say, ‘This is a chicken.’ You cut out a red square and put it in the background and say, ‘This is a barn.’ You construct a bright yellow truck and put it in the background on the other side of the frame and say, ‘This is a speeding truck. Is the chicken going to get out of the way in time? Now you finish the picture.’”

–John D. MacDonald, The Writer (1974)

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

The True Test of Character

3 April 2018
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From Writer Unboxed:

I love survival stories. Ernest Shackleton in Antarctica, Uruguayan soccer players in the Andes, plane crash survivors in New Guinea—I’ve read and loved them all.  (The books about those stories are Alfred Lansing’s EnduranceAlive, by Piers Paul Read, and Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff.) Aside from the fact that survival stories are the best possible thing to read when you’re sick (so you have a cold? It’s not scurvy! And you’re not trapped inside a tent in gale force winds where it’s 30 below and there’s nothing to eat but seal blubber!), they’re also a wonderful window into character and how people respond in extreme circumstances. And since the best novels are about ordinary characters running up against unexpected obstacles, be they icebergs or aliens or a husband’s surprise announcement that he wants a divorce, survival stories are a good road map for how to draw believable characters.

. . . .

Putting people in strange settings gives them a chance to grow. When a bunch of 19-year-old soccer players found themselves alone in the Andes with little food, shelter, or means to melt snow for water, some curled up and waited to die and some immediately started searching for ways to get help. And the “natural leaders” weren’t necessarily the ones who took charge in this bizarre and unexpected setting. What will your characters do if they find themselves in a different world?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

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