Category Archives: Writing

2 Years and 10 Views per Day: The Inexplicability of Failure

Where the flipping flying farthamster is mine?

 

In my last post I asked for feedback on how I could improve the blog. I’m not sure kind of advice I was expecting to receive. I guess I wanted someone to say something along the lines of “Well Mark, your blog is failing because you don’t write enough fiction/apologetics/writing related posts! That’s all we care about!” Or “Well Mark, don’t you see that the key is to write X? Write X and the people will come running to your door!” Or even “Geez Mark, didn’t you know about the magic success switch built in to WordPress? You must have had yours turned off all this time! Just flip the switch and the views will start coming.” Instead I got what I should have expected: some very nice readers (you are officially my favorites!) told me that they like my writing in general. Some people like the fiction more, others like the history posts, but nobody said they particularly disliked anything. Which sucks, because the more I think about it the more I realize that I didn’t want to know what I was doing right. I want to know what I’m doing wrong. I’ve been blogging for two freaking years and I’m daily views that are orders of magnitude less than two month old blogs that look like they were written by a constipated Shar-Pei. What in the world am I doing wrong here? I found myself Googling random strings of words like “blog failure” or “failed blogs” or “why oh why does nobody like me waaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” (that last one was particularly unhelpful).

I just have this frustrated feeling that everyone else knows something I don’t.

That feeling has followed me my whole life, really. Whenever I get frustrated with something that other people succeed at I can’t help but feel that I’m missing some vital piece of information. I’m smart, I work hard, and yet they’re having greater success than me; surely this means that they are hoarding some kind of secret information! Surely everyone else got some kind of secret manual on how to actually build muscle when you exercise, or play an instrument, or tie a square not, or hammer a nail without it bending, or get a headshot every time in an FPS, while here I am trying to figure it out on my own like a chump.

Of course reality is never that simple. Sometimes my own failures really are due to a lack of vital knowledge, but typically they have more to do with a lack of experience on my part, a difference in work effort, or pure dumb luck. There’s no “magic key” that I’m missing in most cases, no matter how much I feel like there is.

Still, it’s bothersome. I’ve been pouring over the numerous “How to run a successful blog” style of blogs and I’ve come away with nothing new. If anything those blogs are only more discouraging. Not only do they lack any advice of substance that I haven’t already heard, they also make little insinuating comments about how a blog with around a 1,000 views a day may take “a few more months” before it can grow to something decent. Nowhere is there any advice, it seems, for individuals who are such complete failures that their blog has 10 views a day after more than two years of regular posting.

I tried googling “10 views per day” specifically and that was the worse one yet. I found forum post full of people saying things like “Wow, I got 150 views today and I’ve only been blogging for two weeks!” or “It may take a few months for you to break 500 views a day, but if you’re consistent you’ll make it.” Then I click on over to my own stats page which reminds me, yet again, that my best day ever had a wooping 101 views…from 11 unique visitors. Apparently one or two of them decided to archive binge. And then I fall into dark frustration again, sure that somewhere I’m missing something that everyone else just naturally gets…

Now to address the obvious, insanitybytes22 and suckmywake both suggested that I need to promote myself more. Maybe this is the “key” I’m missing, but I must say that I doubt it. For one thing, I’m not even sure what promoting myself looks like. Posting links to my blog on Facebook? I did that for about the first year before stopping. Why did I stop? Because I wasn’t getting anything out of it. My first year of blogging had the most abysmal view count I’ve ever had, and none of the very, very few of my Facebook friends who actually clicked on the links became a regular reader. I was surprised to discover that my own brothers didn’t realize that I was still writing the blog. To be sure, giving the “post links on Facebook” thing another try is certainly worth a shot, and I will do so in the coming months, but I doubt it will make much of a difference.

Twitter is out as a self-promotion tool because I don’t do Twitter, and if I started an account today the only people who would follow it are people who are already reading the blog. There is literally no other reason for anyone to follow me, and honestly I’m not the Twitter type. My thoughts typically come in the shape of sprawling bog posts, not short, pithy tweets.

I suppose that leaves posting links to my blog in the comments of other people’s blogs, but that has always struck me as incredibly tacky. I hate it when people post links to their own blog in comment sections, so I’m extremely reluctant to do that myself. Still, I suppose I must try. It’s easy to say that I need more self-promotion, but I really don’t know what that properly means. I’d like to think that my work will speak for itself. Ah well. I’ll just have to try one thing at a time: and get back to posting on subjects that are actually interesting, rather than my own blog woes! Really, I feel like such a whiner even complaining about this. Still, the blog can’t live without content and we’ve certianly been short on that for the past couple months. I’m sure someone else out there can relate to feeling like you’re missing the manual for success.

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Science Fiction, Naturalism, and the Singularity

singularity

I love science fiction.

Though I haven’t read all that much of it recently.

The problem, I think, is that as I have grown older I have learned too much philosophy and metaphysics to really sit down and enjoy a meaty piece of speculative fiction. To be more accurate, I’ve learned too much of the wrong philosophy. Almost every really serious and thoughtful piece of science fiction I’ve read is heavily based in a naturalistic metaphysic, which is something I reject. This difference of opinion is particularly noticeable when it comes to science fiction opposed to other genres. In many ways metaphysics and philosophy is about models of reality, and different models will predict different things about the future.

For example, your average naturalistic model says that man is a kind of very, very complicated machine. Using that aspect of the model we can predict that someday we will build machines that are as sentient as ourselves. The naturalistic model also holds that the complexity of our bodies and brains is solely based in the natural process of evolution. If this is true then we can also predict that it is very likely that someday the sentient machines that we build will be superior to ourselves. This leads us to the whole concept of the “singularity,” the point at which computers will be smarter than humans and will be capable of designing even smarter computers which design even smarter computers and so on and so on for the foreseeable future. Once this singularity has been reached almost anything will be possible.

Of course it all depends on a purely naturalistic metaphysic.

If you’re like myself then you do not believe that the human mind is the product of a complicated machine. Though I do not fully understand what the mind is I understand enough to have confidence that it is not merely a machine. A machine is incapable of producing free will or reason, for example, and I have far more confidence in the existence of free will and reason than I have in the statement “the mind is what the brain does.” If we take this metaphysical position as our starting point the future looks very different. Computers may increase in processing power by wide margins but they will never be capable of reason or intelligence. Though some programs may be able to mimic human behavior they will only be able to do so by following the instructions of human programmers. Computers will never reach the lowest levels of actual intelligence; much less become our intellectual superiors. They will remain what they are: powerful processing tools. The computer on your desk is the equivalent of an army of accountants working at incredible speed, able to complete complex calculations and follow the commands of the most byzantine flowcharts imaginable, with only one major difference: an army of human accountants can think, while the computer can only obey. It is imaginable that an accountant working in a sea of other accountants could have an idea about a better way to solve the problem at hand than the instructions they’ve been given. The accountant might be completely wrong, of course, but a computer can never be wrong for the same reason that a computer can never be right. It doesn’t even have the capability to make an error without a human accidentally programming that error into it. How can a computer ever become a genius if it is not even capable of becoming stupid?

The only reason to believe that a computer could ever become intelligent is if you begin with the idea that the human mind is the result of a computer. Surely computers will produce intelligence if we can only make them complicated enough! It is a statement taken on faith, and faith alone. The computers we have now are as incapable of intelligence as a pencil and a piece of paper. It is only philosophy that makes them appear to be something more.

And that’s part of the reason why I have trouble getting into hard science fiction these days. The authors take so many things for granted that I simply don’t find plausible. It’s not like a fantasy either, where you can put your preconceptions away. J.K. Rowling does not expect us to believe that there is an actual hidden society of witches and wizards living in Britain, and thus we can enjoy Harry Potter; but the writers of many science fiction works do expect us to believe that the mind is actually a computer. No wonder I find one delightful and the other slightly insufferable.

 

Project Gutenburg: A Pretty Neat Place

Have you ever heard about Project Gutenberg? If you haven’t, prepare yourselves! Project Gutenberg is an online database that provides almost 50,000 books for free to anyone who has the gumption to go there and download some. There are no ads, no malware, and absolutely no fees. The catch? What, everything has to have a catch? A person can’t do something out of the goodness of their hearts? How cynical! I’ll have you know that the creators of Project Gutenberg made it out of their love of books and their desire to make books available to all mankind. I can assure you that there is no catch.

There is a major downside though, and that’s the fact that they only have books that have fallen into the public domain. Which means that a good chunk of their 50,000 book library is stuff nobody really wants to read. Fascinating titles such as The Pacification of BurmaThe Voyage of the Deutschland, and digital stacks of science books that are at least 70 to 100 years out of date. When I first visited Project Gutenberg I was quite unimpressed.

But the place is growing on me.

If you take the project at face value then you’re going to be disappointed. However if you treat it as a kind of slag pile of literary history in which you may find diamonds or rubies hidden among the cruft then the project becomes a bit more enticing. The links on the main page seem to favor searching by category, but I recommend searching by author. Think of your favorite author who wrote around or before the turn of the century. Chances are they have his entire bibliography.

I would personally recommend checking out the works of G.K. Chesterton. They have just about every book he’s ever written, and he was an impressive writer. I plugged his book Orthodoxy a while back but he was also famous for his fiction works. Check him out! Or, if not him, then some other late, great author. After all, it’s free! What do you have to lose?

The Scorecard: Year Two of Blogging

Last Friday was the second year anniversary of this blog. For two years I have been pumping out articles for your enjoyment! Last year I did a breakdown of my blogging habits. That year I had posted 88 times (which, given how long my posts tend to be, would probably add up to a short novel). I decided to shoot for even more this year. However lots of life events occurred here or there that may have thrown me a bit off track. Let’s take a look: how many posts did I make this year?

87.

Huh. That’s oddly close. Is the high 80’s my sweet spot as far as yearly posting goes? I guess we’ll find out next year.

As I was looking over the last year I found a few articles that I was particularly proud of writing. For those of you who have only recently started following me, here’s a good look at what I’ve been up to over the last year. I just made up the link names to catch your attention, so don’t be too surprised if you click on one and you find you’ve already read it.

Why I Think Science Fiction takes Writing More Seriously Than Literary Snobs

All about Envy

A Short Serious of Videos about the Most Awesome People on Planet Earth

Why the Guy Who Thinks Sentient AI is Two Years Away Doesn’t Understand Computers

The Fascinating History of Pencils (Honest! It’s Really Interesting Stuff!)

Why Objective Morality is a Matter of Taste

The Beginning of my Big Spiel on the Argument from Morality

I Finally Blog About Abortion, in a Small Way

 

These stand out to me, but there are 79 more to check out. Go archive crawling, I don’t mind. And here’s to another year!

 

 

 

Am I a Part of the World?

Monday’s post elicited a comment from insanitybytes22:

“’Does writing on your blog really make the world a better place?’

Yes! Because writing on a blog forces you to become a better person with a clearer vision of who are, and you carry that out into the world with you.”

It was a very nice and well appreciated comment, but most importantly it got me thinking. You see, recently I’ve been contemplating the weaknesses of my own personality. Some time ago my wife introduced me to the Enneagram personality typing system. I’m not going to say much about the Enneagram here other than the fact that it’s the best personality typing system I’ve ever found (to make a very long story very short: all the other systems I’ve tried, particularly the ubiquitous Meyers-Briggs, told me very little that I didn’t already know: the Enneagram told me things about myself I didn’t know I knew). Recently my wife was talking to me about things I might try to improve my mental health, based on my personality. Her central recommendation boiled down to the following: “You think and act as if you were separate from the world around you; an observer of the universe who occasionally interacts with it. You need to understand that you are part of the world.”

This probably seems like strange advice to most of you. For myself, it made perfect sense. Deep down I do treat everything as if it was something to observe. I try to separate myself from the world in order to protect myself from it. I may participate in volunteer work, or have fun with my friends, but somewhere underneath it all I treat life as if it was a movie or a book that I was making my way through. Occasionally I’ll notice that I’m doing this, and I’ll be suddenly struck with dread and anxiety as I realize “This is YOUR life. All of this is happening to YOU. This is REAL.”

When I actually put it down in black and white I realize how crazy that sounds. But I’m not crazy. The idea that I am separate from the world, or that my life is not really my life but a story I’m experiencing, is emotional and not mental in nature. I never really think that the world is a giant movie, and I recognize quite well that I am part of the world around me; it’s my emotions that tend to tint everything in the light of externality. It’s those same emotions that are filled with dread when I recognize that sentiment isn’t true.

To bring this around to the point, reading insanitybytes22’s comment brought that back to me. You see the first reaction I had to the comment (after I felt good about the fact that someone was commenting positively on my post) was that improving myself didn’t really matter. And after I thought about that reaction I realized it didn’t make much sense. Of course improving myself matters! Self-improvement is vitally important to a life well lived. Understanding myself and developing my mind and spirit are some of the most important activities I can ever take part in. Yet it didn’t feel important, and after further contemplation I realized why. It’s because I emotionally viewed self-improvement as only being important if I could use that improvement to make the world a better place. Yet I know that if I helped someone else improve I would consider it making the world a better place. Yet somehow improving my own self is not making the world a better place?

Well of course it wasn’t, because I feel like I’m not part of the world. I’m separate from it. I treat myself as if I’m a tool whose purpose is to help fix the world. If you were trying to fix a car it would be nice to have good quality tools: but it would be stupid to spend more on upgrading your tools then you spend on fixing the actual car. After all, once the car is fixed the tools go back in the toolbox; and deep down I treated myself the same way. Sure it’s nice to improve myself, but only because that might help me fix the world. And once the world is fixed I’ll just pack myself up into the toolbox and be put under the shelf.

But the fact is that I am part of the world. I’m not a mechanic who studies and fixes the mechanism but a part of the machine as a whole. Improving myself does improve the world because I am part of the world. I am a participant in reality. Improving myself improves the whole.

My natural reaction to this idea is that it feels too self-important. If I start thinking like this won’t it make me selfish, focusing all my energies on helping myself over others? But this isn’t true. Focusing on improving myself can only make me more useful to everyone else. If I become selfish and ignore the needs of others then I am degrading myself. When I hear the needs of others and seek to help them I am improving myself. What good is it to try to improve the world before I have become improved myself? Can an alcoholic help others sober up if he’s still drunk? Can a liar help others become honest if he’s still practicing deceit? Can a doctor heal people if he is bedridden? If such people succeed it will only be haphazardly and almost by accident.

I am just now beginning to really understand what Jesus meant when he said “First take the log out of your own eye before you help your neighbor take the speck out of his.”

Writing this post helped me. I hope it helps you: but even if nobody reads it the world is a slightly better place.

Because I am part of the world.

Niche Media and Making a Difference

Things have been pretty quiet here on the blog. This is mostly because I’ve been musing about topics that are both personal and somewhat depressing. I often use writing as a way to understand my own feelings and work through difficult thoughts and emotions. The final product of these exercises is wonderfully cathartic but ultimately useless for general consumption. They illuminate and improve my own life, but they are unlikely to do so for others who lack my own personal context. I’ve tried to come up with a topic suitable for general consumption but I’ve been drawing a blank. I blame my last post for this: it was about abortion, and part of me felt that following it up with musings about writing or games or anything unserious would be indecorous. Unfortunately I have found that forcing myself to write about serious and important subjects when I don’t want to is a recipe for disaster. There will be a follow up post about abortion at some point: but it will have to wait until I can give the subject the time and attention it deserves.

Still, I began to wonder why I didn’t feel like writing more about abortion: or about apologetics or God or the poor or any other serious subject that is near and dear to my heart. This led to the logical next question: why do I want to write about these things in the first place?

Well, because I want to share important thoughts and ideas with the world.

Why do you want to do that?

To make the world a better place, I suppose. To contribute.

Are you though? Does writing on you blog really make the world a better place?

I don’t know.

This problem vexed me. Do I write for myself, or for others? What good is my writing anyway? Only a few people read my posts, and many of them already agree with me. Those that don’t agree with me are unlikely to have their minds changed by my writing, and the vast majority of those who disagree with me will never even see my blog.

I tried to pick myself up a bit. After all, what about C.S. Lewis? He was just an obscure Oxford don when he started writing, yet his words have touched and changed the lives of millions.

True: but remember how he got his start. He was asked to do radio broadcasts of apologetics talks during WWII. Since those talks were popular he put them into a book, and publishers picked it up and promoted it. From there any subsequent books he wrote would be newsworthy.

So what? Everyone starts somewhere. He started with radio, I’ll start with my blog.

But your blog isn’t radio. Lewis’s voice was heard all over England in those broadcasts, tens of thousands of people listening in (many of them listening because they didn’t have anything better to do). That was the old age of communication. The era of mass media is over. Even if you got on a radio station today you wouldn’t have a percentage of the audience he had. And TV is following the same route. Now everyone’s media is personalized: there are tens of thousands of blogs, vlogs, and independent artists floating through the web finding tiny niche audiences of people who already think exactly like they do. That’s the way it is now. There is no “general” audience anymore. Your blog is just floating through the internet, picking up the occasional follower who already believes what you’re trying to convince them of.

I have followers who disagree with me.

One or two at the most. And you must admit that controversy is practically a hobby of theirs: they don’t follow you because you’re convincing them of anything, they follow you so they’ll have material for their own blogs and someone to argue with on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Perhaps you’re right. But it is better to do something than nothing, even if it all amounts to the same thing in the end.

That’s where that line of thought always stops. It is better to do something then nothing, but that’s not the best attitude to write with. Not if you want to get anything done anyway.

The internet really has changed things. Mass media is getting smaller and smaller, while niche media is growing larger and larger. It’s both beautiful and terrible. Not many people would be asked to speak on the radio in Lewis’s day, but when they did speak they spoke to a wide audience: rich and poor, atheist, and theist, liberal and conservative. Today almost anyone can start a podcast but their audience will be far more narrow. Religious podcasts will gather a religious audience, skeptic podcasts will gather a skeptic audience, liberals will talk to liberals, and conservatives to conservatives and all over the internet one hundred thousand preachers will deliver their sermons to one hundred thousand choirs.

On the other hand, sometimes the choir needs a good preaching to. And sometimes a stranger passes through, usually while trying to Google an unrelated but similar sounding topic.

Something is better than nothing, and the era of niche media may have a few tricks up its sleeves yet. Time to get back to work.

Why do I Want to Create?

 

One unfortunate problem with choosing writing as a preferred method of communication is that it is a slow process. If you have an idea that you’re really excited about and ready to share with the world right now you still have to sit down and write for an hour or two, or even for days, depending on the scope of the subject. By the time you actually arrive at the point you’ve been eager to get to it can be days or weeks later. By then your enthusiasm may have understandably waned.

 

I was very excited to go into a series on the argument from reason, but it’s taken me weeks to get as far through it as I have and I’m only halfway done. At this point it’s difficult for me to summon the motivation to continue further. It seems that I may require some time to rest from that subject so that I can build up intellectual steam for the second half.

 

To that end this blog post will have nothing to do with the argument from reason, and will instead focus on a topic that my mind is still engaged with.

 

It has occurred to me lately that most of the things I would really like to do for a living are not very feasible. I would love to write for a living, but very few people make enough money writing to live off of or to support a family with. Of course I’ve understood that for a very long time: one of the first pieces of advice an aspiring writer typically receives is that you should never quit your day job. Still, I did hold some hope for perhaps becoming a columnist or freelance writer and that I could potentially make a living at that. Since then I’ve realized that, with the advent of the internet and the ability for anyone with a connection to become their own self publisher, the amount of amateur and freelance writers has exploded while at the same time the demand for such writers has decreased. Trying to make living as a writer in the internet age is like trying to make a living at picking fruit in Dust Bowl era California: it’s just not going to work out very well. Unless I manage to write a book that becomes the next Game of Thrones or Harry Potter (at which point I can celebrate by building a mansion in the woods and an early retirement) I’m going to have to hang on to my day job.

 

With writing out my next preferred profession was filmmaking. And though I’m still terribly interested in filmmaking (and would like to make a documentary or two someday) I’ve come to realize that it is not a viable day job either. Once again I have the internet to blame (along with the march of technological progress that has made high quality video recording equipment available to the public). There are now more people attempting to make a living off filmmaking and video production than ever before, at a time when the amount of money people are willing to pay for such entertainment has remained generally constant. There are aspiring directors, editors, screenwriters, and the like all over the world, and there are less jobs working for the big studies then there used to be. Hollywood is doubling down on a small number of huge blockbuster movies and there are less opportunities for an up and coming director to make a name for themselves. Steven Speilberg has bemoaned that even he can’t get funding for more personal and artistic projects. If Speilberg doesn’t think there’s a future in movies then what chance do I have? At this point I’d have better luck dedicating myself to becoming fabulously wealthy and then funding my own film projects than trying to work my way into and then up the ladder of the studio system.

 

I considered creating a webcomic that could grow into something that could provide a stable, or even lucrative, income. It’s happened for many other people, and I’ve always been fascinated by comics as a storytelling medium. I’m still considering it: but it is just as pointless to put your hopes in a webcomic becoming massively successful as it is to put your hopes into writing. Perhaps it will take off, perhaps it won’t, but in the meantime you’ve got bills to pay and a family to support. In other words: don’t quit your day job.

 

All this negative, yet purely practical and realistic, thinking has led me to ask myself: why do I want to write? Why do I want to make movies? Why do I want to make webcomics? And the answers I find are complicated. I love telling stories. I love sharing ideas. I love books. I love movies. I love comics. I would find great enjoyment in making my own. Still, why does it matter whether or not I can make a living at it? Essentially it doesn’t: it would just be really, really awesome if I could just create all day and be paid for it. But then the question is, who am I creating this for? Why am I creating it? For the money? For myself? For others?

 

Probably a little bit of all of those and a few other things besides, if we’re being honest. Things like my desire to be someone important, my desire to create something that the world will embrace and say “Here is a great creator!” So we have pride in there, and ambition. And then there is the irreplaceability of the creative professions: any competent person with the right education can be an accountant; but only Gary Paulson could write Hatchet. There are millions (billions, really, if I’m being honest) of people who could do my current job just as well as I do, if not better. But only C.S. Lewis could write The Chronicles of Narnia. Deep down I do not want to be replaceable. So that desire comes into it as well.

But lately I’ve been wondering…do I need the approval of the world to do so? Do I need to be a professional to create something unique?

 

Well no. But just because something is unique doesn’t mean it’s good. I made a lot of unique things out of popsicles and macaroni when I was in kindergarten but that doesn’t mean that any of them were important, or useful, or beautiful, or interesting. It’s all well and good to say that you should write for yourself: but the fact is that if I was writing this blog post for myself instead of for public viewing then it certainly wouldn’t be this long or this detailed and it would be riddled with grammar and spelling mistakes.

 

It’s a vexing problem. One I haven’t found the solution to yet.

 

At least I feel that I’m closer to an answer then I have been.

Stop Thinking, Start Writing

As long time readers of the blog may know, I want to become a professional writer. The whole reason for starting this blog was so that I could become a better writer through the process of regularly writing for public consumption. One piece of advice that just about every professional writer gives is that the way to become a writer is to write. Write every day. Write constantly. Practice, practice, practice. Everywhere I look I find that same grim truth. There is no magic bean that will make you better at something, and talent is secondary to experience. The only way to get better is to write, write, write.

The problem is that I really suck at that.

I have tried several times to put a schedule together where I write every day. I never lasts. Writing is hard work, and most days I’d rather not do it. At the beginning of the blog I wrote a post three times a week, and wrote 750 words of personal reflection two times a week. Today I write about one post a week, and I don’t do reflective writing anymore. certainly some of this has to do with my work schedule. I have just enough time in the morning to get ready for work, and when I get home I have to cook dinner and do some billing work on the side that helps pay the rent. Any free time after that I’d rather spend relaxing, reading, watching tv, or playing games. Then my wife wakes up (she works nights and has a schedule that is effectively flipped from mine) and I make it a point to spend the rest of the night talking and being with her since I don’t get to see her in the mornings. This doesn’t leave too much time for writing. On the other hand…honestly, it doesn’t take too much time to write. I can bang out a blog post in under a half hour unless I need to do some research. Yet I find myself constantly choosing to do other things over writing.

Take today, for example. I knew I wanted to write a blog post. I’ve been meaning to for days. I had a few rough ideas of what to write about. Yet when it came to actually typing the words out, I stalled. I couldn’t start. All my ideas seemed too complicated, or not interesting enough, or just plain silly.  None of them were good enough. So, as I usually do, I just sat there thinking and thinking and thinking while staring at a blank screen.

That’s when I realized it. I’m thinking too dang much.

During my freshman year of college I took a public speaking class, and later participated in our schools forensics team (which is basically speech and debate). I had particular trouble with “impromptus” which were short speeches that had to be delivered with only two minutes of preparation time. I hate impromptus. I struggled with them. My impromptus would be full of pauses and interruptions. My professor would help me work on them, and every time he had the same advice. “Stop trying to find the perfect word! Just keep talking.”

It occurs to me now that I have trouble writing regularly for the same reason. I want my work to be good. I want it to matter. I want it to be important. Because of that I never actually get around to writing. Honestly, when I let myself go and just start typing it’s quite relaxing. It’s starting to write that is a real pain.

I’ve been working on a short story for a few weeks, part of my ongoing attempts to get published in a sci-fi site. I had a cool idea and I couldn’t wait to get it written. I planned it all out from beginning to end. As I wrote I added more and more details. I thought hard about developing the characters, describing the environment, and making sure that the plot was not heavy handed or confusing. Because of all that thinking I haven’t touched the thing in over a week. It’s gotten to heavy. Writing it is a slog; I’m trying to make it perfect, and perfection is just too hard.

Isaac Asimov, one of the most well loved writers of science fiction in history, once banged out a short story in a half an hour for one of his publishers. His work is a bit infamous for being dry, mechanical, and to the point. He understood that not every story had to be perfect. And frankly, I think I’m more likely to actually succeed in writing if I try to emulate that style. The way I’m going now I’m more of a Tolkien: a man who spent years writing his books, which were obviously the product of a great deal of thought. After The Lord of the Rings took off he promised his publishers that he’d get The Silmarillion into proper reading shape. Up until his death he would tell you that he was still working on it, when in reality he hardly touched the thing. I love The Lord of the Rings but Tolkien was a professional professor first and a writer second. If I’m going to become a full time writer I’m going to have to go for volume first. A masterpiece will have to come later.

Boredom: The Key to Creativity?

I hate boredom. Of my many flaws, one of the most evident is my addiction to mental stimulus. If I have a stretch of spare time I will fill it with web surfing, reading articles, playing games, or watching videos. If the spare time continues long enough I’ll start hitting the bottom of the barrel. I’ll find myself on some funny picture website for an hour, after spending the previous three checking and rechecking blogs, news sites, and webcomics.

In short, I don’t idle very well.

Unfortunately for me, I think boredom may be a vital element of creativity. When we take in a great deal of content, it’s hard to produce our own. When we are constantly devouring other people’s ideas we have trouble identifying our own. In some ways it seems like creativity, rather than a noble pursuit for beauty and truth and originality, may be an act of desperation. Without other people’s ideas to sustain us we’re forced to develop our own. Without other people’s creations to entertain us we have to entertain ourselves.

It is simply 100% easier to consume a creative work than to produce one. Some of the most creative times in my own life have occurred when I had nothing more interesting to do than create.

Now that I’ve discovered this principle, I’m not sure what to do with it. Lock myself in an empty room with nothing but a notebook and a pencil? I don’t know. But from now on, instead of putting all my efforts into annihilating periods of boredom I’ll try to cultivate them instead. Quiet moments with no one to talk to besides myself.

It might work.

Swiftocracy!: Movies out of Books

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For the next two weeks each of my posts will be based off requests. For more information about how that happened, look here.

“Review books that have become movies, books that should be and what that would look like, and find a way to go on a rant! Also, anything else you would like to add on this subject!”

A science fiction and fantasy author by the name of Roger Zelazny supposedly had this to say to an aspiring writer who asked him for advice: “Tell a good story and all is forgiven.” That about sums up my current view of film adaptations of books.

I love books, and I love movies. Movies made from my favorite books should be right up my alley. I’m a very visual reader. I can see everything in my mind’s eye when reading. Because of this I used to believe, when I was young, that making movie adaptations of any particular book would be a fairly simple affair. Naturally there are some books, where almost nothing really happens besides inner conflict, that would make terrible movies. But the books I liked to read were usually less cerebral. I liked science fiction, and fantasy, and whatever I could get my hands on from the Scholastic book fair when it visited my school. I dived into Holes, Harry Potter, I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X, Artemis Fowl, Frindle, and Maniac McGee. I’d read anything I could get my hands on by Bruce Coville, Jerry Spinelli, Neal Shusterman, Louis Sacher, or Andrew Clements. Each of these unfolded in my mind like a film reel, only better because it convey smells, touch, and thought. Making them into movies would be easy. You just take what’s there in the books (though really I mean what I can see with my mind) and you film it. Simplicity itself.

When they made a movie version of Holes I was eager to see it. The Holes adaptation was pretty good. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 77%, which is an admirable score. My brothers liked it. My friends liked it. If I watched it today, I’d like it.

But when it came out I hated it.

Sitting in the theatre my mind was full of objections. Stanly Yelnats is supposed to be fat! Where did this grandpa character come from? That’s not right! That’s not quite how it happened! Zero is black? (As it turns out, that was just a mistake on my part. The book never specifically says that Zero is black, but it doesn’t say white either and all of the little implications seem to indicate that he is definetly ethnic. Still, in my mind’s eye, Zero was a skinny white kid.)  I was outraged. How could they mess up the book so badly? I compared the movie on the screen to the one I had seen in my mind and it just didn’t match up. I was shocked to learn that Louis Sacher himself had worked with the filmmakers and gave the movie his seal of approval. How could he do that? They changed so many things!

Looking back on that I have to laugh at myself. The movie is actually quite accurate to the book by adaptation standards. They only changed a few elements and kept almost everything else the same. My problem was that I couldn’t understand why anything had to change at all.

After years of watching movies, reading books, and trying in my own clumsy way to create some of my own, I’ve learned better. The simple fact is that books and movies are different forms of media, and different mediums have different requirements. Movies are a visual and audible medium, while books are neither. They’re experienced in different ways. I can pick up a book, read it for a few minutes, put it down again, come back to it later, flip a few pages back, reread something, and put it back down again. Movies aren’t meant to be viewed like that. They’re meant to be watched from start to finish in one sitting. They’re different crafts and require different skills. The visual arts require a completely different set of skills than non-visual arts. They have their own needs, strengths, and weaknesses.

On top of that there are practical concerns. It’s unreasonable to find someone who both has good acting ability and looks exactly like the main character and has the name recognition to put people in the seats. A book may take hours or days to read but a movie needs to come in around two hours or nobody will want to watch it. In a book writing a scene that takes place on an alien planet with giant robot dinosaurs and crystalline aliens who occasionally explode takes exactly as much investment (that is, in time) as a scene where a lone woman sits in an empty room and cries. In a movie that first scene costs millions in special effects and will take months of work while that second scene can be done at a hundredth of the cost over the course of an afternoon. A movie needs a different kind of climax than a book. For example, in the last Twilight book the tension comes to a head when a bunch of powerful evil vampires face off against the good vampires and their allies. In the book everything builds up to this, and there is a lot of fear about who might die, whether there will be a fight at all, what will happen to their family, etc. The climax ends with the evil vampires deciding to leave after what amounts to a long and tense conversation. This works in a book; the conversation is tense, everything rides on it, etc. But in a movie it would be a flop. You can’t have people standing there and talking as the big third act climax. So when they made a movie out of it they actually showed a huge fight scene between the vampires with all kinds of craziness. I can’t blame them for this (and the way they pulled it off without totally going off the rails of the story was pretty clever). The book’s climax as it stood was unfilmable if you wanted it to be successful.

With all that in mind I began to wonder what the key to a succesful adaptation was. And that’s what brings us back to the quote. “Tell a good story and all is forgiven.” A movie can change almost as many details as it wants…provided that they actually make the movie better. Or at very least that the movie is a good one. Lord of the Rings is an almost perfect example of an excellent adaptation. The book was called “unfilmable” for good reason. It’s dense, it’s long, it requires a ton of backstory and exposition, there are too many characters, too many subplots, and too much going on for it to translate to film. But Peter Jackson did it. He did his best to keep the core of the story while streamlining it for filming. He added things, he changed things, he threw out a lot of stuff altogether. But in the end they are fantastic films and well loved by Tolkien fans. The majority of his changes made the film better. I like Tom Bombadil, but Jackson was right to cut him, the barrow wights, and Old Man willow right out. They would have made an already long movie longer, ruined the pacing, and were generally unimportant to the greater story. Now some changes didn’t work out so well (Frodo telling Sam to go home over lost bread? Are you serious?), but on the whole the trilogy works because they are good films executed well.

If you want to adapt a book you need to have two things as your focus. The first is that you must respect the original work. You must believe that the book contains a story in it that is worth telling. If you do then you must be committed to telling it well. Part of that is knowing that changes will have to be made.

Unless you’re one of the people behind the film adaptation of Eragon, in which case my advice to you is to never make an adaptation again. Also, thanks for ruining everything. I hope you’re happy.