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Deliberate practice, and random movie stuff

From another retweet I saw on Twitter (via writer Brian Niemeier), this blog post asks the question: If you just keep writing, will you get better?

The answer really depends on where you’re at, but it boils down to this: getting better at anything depends on what some call deliberate practice. That is, practice with focused attention on what you’re trying to improve. It’s difficult, it takes brain work, because you’re forcing your brain to build new connections. As the task becomes easier, you’ll settle into using your new connections, but you’ll cease to become better. That is, just going through the motions isn’t going to automatically increase your skill. You’ve got to hone in on and focus on specific weaknesses. The whole 10,000-hours-to-become-an-expert thing is misleading, because it doesn’t account for how focused one is.

In regards to writing, this leads to the question: how does one engage in this “deliberate practice” with writing? Is it even possible, after a certain level of skill is reached?

Critiquing other people’s work and collecting critiques for your own will help, assuming you work with the right sort of critique partners, but there remains that nebulous boundary between what one might consider the product of a writer’s skill level and his subjective stylistic preferences. That is, how can one measure one’s improvements? Is there any way to increase one’s skill beyond requiring outside help?

I’m not really sure, I’m just thinking out loud…

For me, personally, one thing I’d like to practice isn’t so much writing in and of itself, but writing faster. Or, lest that make me sound like I wish to be more of a hack, perhaps I should say I’d like to be able to stay focused on writing for longer periods of time so that I can accomplish more in less time. That should be something I could practice, though practicing staying focused always risks that paradox of focusing on whether or not your focusing rather just focusing.

In other news, an new trailer for the upcoming fantasy drama A Monster Calls was recently released:

I read the book it’s based on, which was OK, but I think the story will work better as a film, and the director J.A. Bayona is one my favorites (he’s set to direct the next Jurassic World film), so I’m looking forward to seeing how he brings the book to life.

I thought this little sci-fi short called “Adam” was interesting for purely technical reasons. (I can’t really figure out what exactly happens in it… a wizard turns off a bunch of robots’ iPhones so they follow him like sheep?) It was rendered completely in real time in Unity. Some things aren’t so impressive; the waving grass and the water ripples look awful. But overall this looks pretty darn fantastic for something rendered in real time on a GeForce GTX980. I’m just looking forward to some VR animated movies. Hurry up, rich people of the world, and make them. (Reminder: the film rights to all my books are still available.)

Writing fiction and the final cause

Aristotle was turned into stone by a wizard

If one asks why the heart pumps blood, one could answer in two ways:

A. The heart pumps blood because because the brain sends electrical signals to it that make its muscles contract. Or,

B. The heart pumps blood to deliver nutrients and oxygen to cells and to whisk away their waste.

In philosophy, Aristotle would say that an answer like A is the efficient explanation, a sort of cause-and-effect answer. These are the events that happened before that which we are seeking an explanation for, which we identify as its causes. (It tends to come naturally to us humans, and it seems easy enough to understand, but there’s something I find rather mysterious about it. After all, how could we program an AI robot to form such explanations? Can they only be formulated by observation and experience?)

An answer like B Aristotle would call the final explanation, the end toward which the action is directed.

Now suppose I want a cold soda. I must use my understanding of efficient explanations to create (or at least recall) a set of ordered actions I would take to get that soda. I get up, go to where we keep cups, put ice in it, etc., everything done for the desired end of drinking a cold soda. If something does not as planned, I must edit my set of ordered actions. Perhaps we are out of cups in the cupboard, and I must get one from the dishwasher. Or perhaps we are out of ice and I have to leave a can of soda in the fridge for a while, or drink it warm, or drink something else instead.

Of course, there are all sorts of fun theological discussions to be had concerning the relationship between efficient and final explanations. Final explanations do not exist physically, after all; they are, by their nature, abstract, like thought itself. Perhaps one could say that they can only exist in a conscious being. Still, I could program an artificial neural network to teach itself to do some task, like read numbers. Upon studying the results, I may discover that some section of the network achieves some end needed for the final result. For instance, perhaps a part of the network recognizes the presence of a horizontal line. Now I could say that this portion of the network has the recognition of a horizontal line as its final cause, yet this portion of the network was not created by a coder, but is instead the byproduct of the efficient causes (the training of the network) put in place for the sake of some other final cause. In other words, though we as intelligent beings may recognize that something, like a portion of a neural network or a beating heart, appears to have a final cause, it does not imply that that system was necessarily created by an intelligent consciousness. It may be an emergent property. (Which isn’t to say that it isn’t part of another grander final cause (evolution can be part of a God plan), only that the recognition of a final cause is a conscious abstract act. Does that make sense?)

Anyway, I’ve recently been thinking about this stuff in terms of writing fiction, because an author naturally thinks about these things when plotting a story. Maybe not in a philosophical sense, but we give our characters goals, and we ourselves may have a certain climax or ending or theme in mind (final causes), and then we must order things together naturally so that one event leads to another (efficient causes) and the plot moves toward the ends we desire.

But when I plot out a story and work from an outline, there’s always a bit of joy lost in the writing process, and it can sometimes feel a chore; I know to what end everything is leading, and keeping it in mind so often can lead to boredom, and I find myself wanting to plot a new story rather than finish writing one.

On the other hand, whenever I try writing without an outline, I quickly write myself into corners, or I keep adding new plot lines and characters and the work becomes an unfocused mess.

So I’m searching for a happy medium. Is it possible to write without an outline and without knowing the final cause, yet being sure that the story will indeed come to a satisfying conclusion, as though I had been planning the climax all along? If so, how?

I think it is possible, but I’m not quite sure how to do it yet… (I suppose one could write backwards, but I think that comes with more problems than its worth.)

November happenings

Here’s a journal-ish update of what’s going on here…


At the end of October, I got a part-time night-shift job with the local newspaper printers, so I’ve been adjusting to that. It’s a nice stress-free job in a nice place with nice people, and the income it provides, even if small, is much appreciated; I’m still paying off a stupid college loan, and it’s always nice to have a little bit of spending money. It has some weird hours; I start at 11:45 PM and get off whenever the work’s finished, which is usually around 2:30 AM or 3:30 AM, but sometimes as late as 7:30 AM. My sleep schedule is usually already wired to those times, so that’s not a big deal. It’s just that I still haven’t quite figured out how to manage my time before and after in terms of meal-eating, working on my creative projects, and studying films (a more academic way to say “watching movies”… but I do try to pay special attention to story structure and filming techniques… I still want to make an indie film someday, even if it’s a short film). So I haven’t been getting much done creatively for the last half-month.

Laptop woes

For the last month or so, my laptop has been giving me increasing troubles with blue screens of death, crashing programs, and a hard drive that’s making ugly noises that it shouldn’t. So I’m guessing the hard drive is having issues. I don’t quite have the funds for a new computer at the moment, so I’ll probably have to replace the hard drive soon. Not looking forward to that. Fortunately I think all my important data is backed up, so I shouldn’t lose anything besides time and money. For now, I’m putting it off until I just get a little too fed up with the crashing or until the drive just dies completely… but I’ll probably have to replace it before the year is out. Maybe in a couple weeks when I get my next paycheck.

Book on melody

Yeah, I had hoped to release that book on melody by November 25th of this year, but of course that ain’t gonna happen. I’ve done hardly any work on it, and now I have some more ideas I want to try in terms of creating a program that generates entire symphonies.

Son of a Dark Wizard

I’ve started posting chapters of my upper middle grade fantasy book on, and I mention my ambitions with this project (and my method of self-publication) on my writing blog. Most of my creative energy is currently focused on writing a music score / companion album for the book. I’m hoping to have the score finished sometime next month; it’s a lot of fun to write, and I’m experimenting with more chromaticism than I usually employ. Rather than the happy fanciful flying about that Voyage of the Dream Maker featured, this score is dark, moody, and mysterious. At least, that’s what I’m going for.

Lacking the proper funds to commission a pro artist, I’m probably going to try illustrating the cover of the book and companion album myself… we’ll see how that goes. (If I ever do have the funds, I’ll commission a pro artist for a more professional-looking edition later.) But for now, my focus is on the music.

Other writing projects

I’m still co-writing several projects, on which productivity is slow as usual, but I don’t feel very bad about that considering the circumstances. Anyway, I do hope to start another solo writing project as soon as I can, as I hope the creative energy that will give me will aid the productivity of the co-authored work. I’m still stuck on plotting the intricately woven storylines of Stormground, but I have some smaller-scale ideas that I’m going to try fleshing out.

With new headphones, new album in the works

Last month, I was finally able to get my hands on a new set of headphones:


The Sony MDR7506 Professional Large Diaphragm Headphones.  They’re an older model, but still of a professional caliber, and right within my budget.  And they’re rather wonderful; I’m really pleased with them.

So, while procrastinating on fiction writing, I’ve been rediscovering the magic the music composing, and have already composed two tracks, roughly ten minutes together, for my next album.

This album will basically be a collection of short musical pieces that each go along with a fairy tale I’m writing; I’m aiming for about ten to twelve tales in all.  The tales themselves will be released for free online (though I might put together a CreateSpace paperback, mostly for my own guilty pleasure).  The album itself will likely be released through my bandcamp page, with some corresponding YouTube videos.

Speaking of YouTube, I’ll probably "monetize" my channel sometime soon.  While I really hate subjecting viewers to ads, monetizing your account is the only way to get custom thumbnails on your videos, and I really hate the automatic default thumbnails on my videos at the moment; they look abstract and bizarre, and they’re not doing me any favors.  I’d like to have titles on there, and some recognizable "style" to them.  I still like using the Music Animation Machine in the actual videos, though, rather the fantasy art like some YouTube composers use; I find the Music Animation Machine’s visuals are just a lot more captivating and engaging.

Anyway, of the two tracks I’ve written at the moment, one is orchestral, while the other is a sort of bitter-sweet lullaby for harp and two whistles (tin whistle and low whistle).  Of course, they both feature my typical song-ish melody-driven style.  They still need some tweaking, but I’m very pleased with them so far.

The new headphones are simply excellent for composing work.  Looking forward to continuing the work.  Of course, this is only delaying my work on that book on melody writing, on which I’ve hardly made any progress since my last post, but becoming obsessed with the joy of melody writing again doesn’t hurt, I guess.

I’m also spending this week trying to get my internal clock back on a normal schedule.  Since college, my internal clock refuses to stay on a 24-hour schedule; it seems to be slightly longer, so it tends to slowly shift out of whack, until it’s almost completely backwards, and I have to force it back into some sort of normalcy, which neither my mind nor body appreciate as they fight against it, making me randomly tired in the afternoons, wide awake in the middle of the night, hungry and not hungry at random intervals, random headaches (which I get anyway, really), etc… lots of fun.

Projects for April 2014

Last month, I did successfully submit some material to Nickelodeon’s animated shorts program. I didn’t have the time (or the skill, for that matter) to draw complete storyboards, but I did submit a written script along with some additional pitch material (e.g., character drawings, etc.). I don’t know how long they’ll take to respond, but since they probably received hundreds if not a thousand submissions, I guess I can’t really hold my breath. I’ll do something with the characters at some point, regardless, whether it’s making a short animated film on my own, or a comic book. But no time soon.

So here’s what I’m working on this month:

Querying agents

I finished my second draft of my middle grade fantasy novel, and have started the process of querying agents. Although I know the process can take a notoriously long time (several months to perhaps even an entire year, if not longer), I really believe strongly in my novel, so I don’t plan on giving up as easily as I did when I was querying agents for my previous novel. Actually, I don’t plan on giving up at all. If I come to exhaust my list of all possible agents, I will seriously consider self-publishing it. I don’t really want to do that; a middle grade fantasy will probably be insanely difficult to market on an e-reader. Middle grade readers usually don’t buy their own books, after all. But I refuse to trunk this novel; I’ll get it out there somehow. “And the world will know that this ain’t no game,” as someone once said.

Anyway, before I consider self-publishing, I’ll try as hard as I can to get an agent, which I’m sure will force me to find a new meaning of patience. I may be querying for a good while.

Short fiction

Since querying really doesn’t take much effort on my part, besides waiting and waiting for responses without going insane, I’ll be focusing my efforts on short fiction. I still have those two co-authored pieces I’m working on, which we’ll probably finish this month, and I also have a number of other stories I’ll write on my own. I probably won’t start another novel-length project for a while, though I’ll probably plot out some possibilities. But I’m excited to turn most of my writing attention to short works.

Maybe a screenplay?

I was thinking of writing a screenplay as well. (Not nearly as much work as a novel, in my limited experience.) Ideally, I’d like to write myself a little library of small-budget projects so that whenever I get into film-making (one of those some-day things), I’ll have some possible small-budget projects ready to go.

I saw that the Virginia Film Office has a screenwriting competition, with a deadline of May 23rd, so I may enter that. They don’t charge a entrance fee, which is awesome; I refuse to submit to screenwriting competitions that charge entrance fees, as most do. (I think many competitions take advantage of new screenwriters’ starry-eyed ambitions; if you lose, there’s no pay off, and you’re out $20 to $50. The opportunity just isn’t worth it.)

OK, I think that’s it for this month. The only thing that may impede my progress is my recent addiction to the 2048 game, for which my current high score is 71216* (which includes achieving the 4096 block).

* Make that 76708. Ha ha.

Projects for March 2014

This month, I’m pretty much continuing all my projects from last month.

Middle grade fantasy novel

I completed my first draft of the novel in February; I’m now working on a second draft and hope to begin querying potential agents sometime this month.

Short stories

I’m still co-authoring a couple short stories, and still hope to write some more on my own after I finish a second draft of the novel.

Nickelodeon’s animated shorts program

I’m still working on my entry for this, but I only have two more weeks; entries are due on March 14th. I already have a script I can submit, but I was hoping to submit storyboards as well. However, my drawing skills are pretty awful, especially after more than a year with no practice, so I’m not really pleased with my sketches so far. I may end up just submitting the written treatment rather than storyboards, but I’ll keep trying for the storyboards until time runs out. Actually, perhaps when the weekend is over, I’ll consider temporarily dropping the other projects and focusing only on this until March 14th, because I would hate to waste this opportunity; who knows how long they’ll keep doing a program like this?

February projects

Here’s a short random update on what I hope to be working on this month:

Middle grade fantasy novel

I’m almost finished the first draft of my second attempt at a middle grade fantasy novel. I only have a few more chapters left to write. This month, I hope to finish this draft, edit it, write and perfect a good query letter to represent the novel, and once again begin an agent search.

Short stories

I am working on co-writing two short stories. I will probably also write some short stories on my own after I begin my agent search.

Nickelodeon’s animated shorts program

According to this post from Cartoon Brew:

[Nickelodeon] will choose a minimum of 10 pitches to develop into shorts that will appear on air, on, and the Nick app. The shorts also have the potential to be developed into full series…

I put together pitch material for an animated series proposal back in 2012. This looks like a great opportunity to put the material to good use. I somehow missed this program last year, probably because I was busy finishing my first fantasy novel (which never went anywhere, thus becoming my first “trunk novel”). So I hope to write and storyboard a potential animated short featuring my characters.

Writing nonseriously

Earlier this year, I wanted to find out what self-publishing an eBook for Amazon’s Kindle was like. So I quickly wrote a terrible fantasy book. It was a ridiculous story featuring awful writing, and I gave it a cheap home-made cover. I used a pseudonym for the author’s name and did no promotion for it. Would it sell? After six months, it sold! One copy! 65 cents for me! Cha-ching!

Obviously, it was not a serious endeavor, and I still aspire to be traditionally published. But quickly writing a really bad fantasy without worrying much about quality or editing was very helpful. I become a bit of a perfectionist with my work sometimes; I become afraid to write, fearing my work will not be good enough. So writing something that I consciously know is not-so-serious is rather therapeutic. And fun.

So I’m going to do it again, but this time through the blog of fake author Nicholas Oringuard, as he writes his epic fantasy, “Children of the Shattered Cosm”, which will end up being one of the longest fantasy novels ever written. (Sure, why not?) It tells the story of twelve children from twelve different worlds who slowly discover that their worlds are linked and that their own spirits are pieces of a grander shattered spirit who had the power create worlds. The children learn they must unite their spirits to save their worlds from destruction. Or something like that.

Check it out here. If you want to.

Some people don’t understand Snyder’s Save the Cat!

I love Blake Snyder’s storytelling book, Save the Cat!  I would say that it is a must-read for all storytellers, but I’m not sure every storyteller would necessarily understand it.  The patterns Snyder identifies are much more subtle than one may think when considering only the examples he provides.  A good reader would attempt to analyze films and stories on his own and look at how stories that are vastly different actually follow similar inherent structures.  That is, Snyder is not identifying arbitrary trends found in modern stories, he’s uncovering much deeper foundations that dwell naturally in the ways we humans process, relate to, and understand stories.  If you read his book as simply a how-to guide for writing a formulaic blockbuster, which you can, you’re completely missing the point.

This article says:

In Save the Cat!, [Snyder] stresses that his beat sheet is a structure, not a formula, one based in time-tested screen-story principles. It’s a way of making a product that’s likely to work—not a fill-in-the-blanks method of screenwriting.

Maybe that’s what Snyder intended. But that’s not how it turned out. In practice, Snyder’s beat sheet has taken over Hollywood screenwriting. Movies big and small stick closely to his beats and page counts. Intentionally or not, it’s become a formula—a formula that threatens the world of original screenwriting as we know it.

And whose fault is that?  It’s the fault of lazy screenwriters, uncaring directors, and cowardly producers.  It’s not Snyder’s fault that a lazy screenwriter takes his beat sheet as a formula and ignores the countless possibilities he has to express each beat in an infinite variety ways.  It’s not Snyder’s fault that directors accept the word of these lazy screenwriters.  It’s not Snyder’s fault that producers fund these projects, relying on a “formula” to generate a hit.

I don’t think this article is necessarily trying to blame Snyder; my point is simply that blaming Snyder is nonsense.

I found the above mentioned article on author Nathan Bransford’s blog, where he writes:

Save the Cat! doesn’t just offer suggestions on structure, it literally says what needs to happen on specific pages, from the opening image that sets up the protagonist’s problems to the false victory at 90 minutes to the closing image, which mirrors the opening image.

It sounds like Bransford is commenting on a book he either hasn’t read or hasn’t understood.  Snyder does not “literally say what needs to happen on specific pages.”  He gives guideline page numbers for a 110-page screenplay based on where a beat should hit within a film’s overall structure, the page numbers naturally correlating to the time at which a beat would appear in a film.  If any beat is out of place in this structure, the story will risk feeling slow or rushed or both.  Good screenwriters and directors should naturally be aware of how their creative decisions affect story pacing, so I fail to see how giving page numbers is some horrible sin that dares to stifle creativity.

Furthermore, the “opening image” beat has less to do with setting up the “protagonist’s problems” and more to do with setting up the story’s tone and mood.  Read the book, pages 72 to 73.  Most storytellers naturally understand that the opening of a story will set up audience expectations, so delivering an “opening image” that promises a different sort of story than the one planning to be told will naturally risk alienating readers.

That the opening image and closing image should reflect each other should also be understood naturally, as the end of story will relate to its beginning in some way, either providing a great contrast or a more literal reflection.  “And the story starts again…”

Lastly, Snyder’s beats have nothing at all to do with guaranteeing success.  It is very easy to follow the beats and still create garbage.  But just as the sound of a toilet flushing will never suddenly be considered a beautiful symphony, no purposeful shunning and avoidance of Snyder’s beats will result in a surprise success.  Snyder’s beats are not arbitrary; they are ingrained in human psychology.  That a “formula” becomes recognizable in some big-budget modern films is entirely the fault of the artists working in the industry.  It’s still an art after all.


ETA: I think Steven Spielberg’s fears about the film industry imploding has less to do with big budget films becoming formulaic and more to do with the marketplace for big budget films becoming overly saturated.  But I don’t know how the money flow goes in such a big budget industry.

That book on melody…

I started writing a book on melody back in 2008, I think it was. Maybe even a bit before then. But then I got sidetracked programming melody generators, namely my Android app and my online version. I learned quite a lot from these endeavors, so I’m glad I spent time with them before continuing my book; it made for fantastic research. I still plan on creating a desktop version of the melody generator, but there’s a lot of interface programming to learn. I really hate interface programming!

In the meantime, I’m returning to writing that book on melody. I’m starting it from scratch, though I have plenty of notes to work from that I made while programming the melody generators, so I have almost all the content I need. It’s just a matter of sorting it out and presenting it in an easy-to-follow way.

For now, I aim on having it done by the Fourth of July, and then releasing it as soon as I can after that. It will most likely be a self-published ebook, though I’m not yet sure how I’ll sell it. I’ll worry about that later.

And now I better turn off my computer… big storm above…