WARNING: There will be minor spoilers for Disney’s Moana in this post.
Last week I talked about the importance of the false goal, and I wanted to expand on that topic this week. And sometimes, the easiest way to explain what something should look like is to give you an example of what it shouldn’t. Enter Moana.
Sometimes storytellers get so excited about getting to the end, the gooey center gets forgotten. And really, who doesn’t love the gooey center? A lot happens in the heart of that murky swamp of act two that gets pushed aside. We know how to start, and we certainly know how to end (you know, WITH EXPLOSIONS) but the weird, swirly middle doesn’t get the same love and attention. So what should you be doing in the murky swamp? One thing the brilliant Matt Bird emphasizes in his Secrets of Story (a book so good I returned my library copy and bought my own) is that your protagonist should “pursue a false or shortsighted goal for the first half of your story.” (pg 107) Since this topic doesn’t get enough dedicated pages, let’s talk about false goals.
I worried and sweated over my dissertation the most while I was avoiding it. At dinner, at the movies, singing karaoke-- it loomed. I hefted this 200-page boulder around (literally and metaphorically) for years as it poisoned my life. I remember sitting down to a pleasant lunch with some old friends about six months into drafting. One friend bravely inquired about my writing. My (very mature) response was:
“I hate it. I just HATE IT!”
This week I wrote for Ava Jae's popular blog, Writablity. It's some advice to help creatives maintain sanity in an artistic environment that demands constant public exposure to your fans and your critics. Also Margaret Atwood. Enjoy!
Andrew Price’s video listing the seven habits of highly effective artists has great insights you should start using immediately. He’s talking about practice, not craft, so any artist will find his tips useful.
Since it’s also thirty minutes, I’ll summarize.
Don’t worry, I won’t spoil Ghost in the Shell (2017) for you… but the reviews are in, and they are decidedly “meh.” Despite Ghost in the Shell (2017) being visually and aurally stunning, no one seems to like it. So where did it all go wrong?
That may surprise you, because the original anime movie is loved by legions. Many of the scenes are lifted almost completely from the original movie, so it should be a no brainer, right? But when rewriting the 2017 version, the central question of the film (the question that holds your concept together) was changed. Once you mess with a story’s core-- it’s skeletal framework-- the flesh won’t hang on it the right way and it becomes an unwieldy lump. I’ll let Manohla Dargis of The New York Times describe the results:
I’ve waded through so many podcasts on writing and creativity, and Writing Excuses has risen to the top becoming one of my favorites. This podcast does something many others have failed to do: get to the point. Their tagline is “15 minutes long because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.” And they mean it… the first part anyway.
They are very diligent (almost zealous) about staying on topic-- or at least their fearless(?) leader, Brandon Sanderson, is. Perhaps the reason I like this podcast so much is Sanderson (like myself) believes the world can be explained with a proper outline and detailed bullet points. The podcasters are very conscious of their position as teachers as well as writers. They may begin with abstract ideas, but then they immediately ask: ‘yeah, but how do you do that?’
When I’m not reading or writing, I indulge in my other passion: I watch competitive gaming (video games in which players battle against eachother). Competitive video games and professional writing have some things in common. One of them is an ever-changing metagame. Broadcast personalities analyze competitive matches much like ESPN sportscasters. In their analysis they often discuss the game’s “metagame.”
“In the current meta…” They explain.
“This meta is very aggressive.” They all nod, ties bobbing.
The metagame is the strategies and environmental factors that affects the way a game is played. Most average players don’t pay attention to these shifting tactics. And even if they do, average players don’t know how to apply that knowledge to improve their game.
Understanding the metagame and knowing how to use it is what separates the amateurs from the professionals. So ask yourself, do you know your writing meta? Do you pay attention to the shifting environment that dictates your chosen field?
Sometimes a work gets under your skin, and it itches. You don't know why, but the novel/play/film sticks to your soul. I'm talking about that lingering sensation there's a puzzle piece missing but you just can't...
If you ever feel this itch, sit up and pay attention. Epiphany is on the horizon. Ernest Cline's novel Ready Player One clung to me this way. I kept thinking "Why does everything feel just a little off, as though I've fallen through a dazzling mirror?" That's when realized, Cline saturated his novel with the very nostalgia the book critiques. The characters, situations, and themes are all extensions of a 1980’s imaginative universe.
It wasn't only the characters in Ready Player One that are obsessed with the '80's. The tone, themes, and the very architecture of Ready Player One celebrates the '80's in every way possible. It is an immersive experience that rivals virtual reality. Ready Player One's level of cohesion should be an aspiration for writers.
Leadership is tricky for many ‘word people’ (writers, dramaturgs, humanities scholars, editors, librarians, etc.) because 'word people' are often a bit like cats: independent, solitary, self-reliant, and a bit ‘stiff in the knees’ when asked to bow to authority. A cat-ish person trudges to meetings as though a stick prodded them to the room. They offer vague criticisms but no practical solutions, equivalent to the mauled bird corpses real cats notoriously drag around. Then they expect everyone's gratitude for their contribution and proceed to preen until they lose interest, and then glower at the clock indiscreetly until the meeting is over.
If this is a portrait of your last meeting, you may be a cat-ish person.
So instead of talking about leadership with the typical tactics (microphones, ‘80s music, powerpoints, exclamation points, and emoticons) I want to do in our language: through a character study. Enter Pamela S. Turner's biography of Minamoto Yoshitsune, Samurai Rising.
What Minamoto Yoshitsune Taught Me About Leadership:
1. Always be the first to the Emperor.
Once upon a time in the 1100's, Kyoto was controlled by a low-ranking warlord who terrorized its citizens. The retired emperor of Japan invited the Minamoto family to invade Kyoto with his blessing. Yoshitsune led the charge from the south while his half-brother descended from the north. Their enemy ran in fear, but instead of pursuing them Yoshitsune rode directly to the retired emperor’s house and announced himself as Kyoto’s savior. Because he beat his brother there, he gained favor with the emperor. His enemy didn’t distract him from making a great ally.
2. Ask your samurai what they think.
Yoshitsune had humble beginnings and was not raised to be a warrior. Instead of hiding gaps in his knowledge, he often turned to his samurai for help. When embarking on a sea invasion, he asked his men for advice because he was a man of the horse, and not a sailor. This was an incredibly uncommon thing to do in Yoshitsune's rigid society.
Asking for advice does not make you look weak. Even if you have the answer, the point of this exercise is to inspire trust amongst those you have to lead. Yoshitsune was an independent man and a brilliant military strategist, but he still wanted to know: what do my soldiers think?
What will make you look weak is if you fret over the problem instead of taking action and drown in meeting after strategic meeting. Remember, you are the leader and it is your responsibility to get everyone out to sea as fast as you can.
3. Trade in your prized horse for a fallen brother.
When one of Yoshitsune’s sworn brothers fell in battle protecting him, our favorite samurai lord traded his prized horse-- a gift from the retired emperor-- to a monk who would pray continually for his brother's soul. His gift was valuable and deeply personal. In return he earned such profound loyalty from his immediate followers they eventually abandoned civilization and wandered the mountains of Japan with him. For years.
But don’t think you need to give everything you own to your underlings to gain their loyalty. These opportunities should be few and far between. But you need to go all-in when they arrive. Since you have been careful not to show favoritism, all your other underlings can assume a prized horse is in their future if they go to the mat for you.
4. 30 of your best will get more done than the other 3,000
Okay, we’ve all heard this before. The problem is we don’t understand how to apply it. When Yoshitsune and his brother, Yorinori, were ordered to take a fortress they put this principle to the test. Yorinori lead their whole army to assault the front while Yoshitsune took thirty of his best and scaled an unscalable cliff down into the fortress and set it on fire. This forced the enemy out the front gates and head-first into Yorinori’s cavalry.
But what would have happened if Yoshitsune had tried to assault the enemy’s front with his best 30? Slaughter. For some reason leaders try to make their 30 perform tasks best suited for 3,000. Yoshitsune was an excellent strategist because he often used a small force to do what small forces do best. If you have a lean but capable staff, consider how best to use your agile force to scale unscalable cliffs and burn down cities (metaphorically, please). Don’t waste your time emulating mammoth production companies or publishing houses. Be swift, be savage, and be precise.
There is a lot more to learn from Yoshitsune, so I encourage you to pick up Samurai Rising. You’ll also learn from his many, many mistakes from a brief but brilliant life.
One more trick: Yoshitsune always pushed forward. In any situation he kept moving, swiftly and efficiently. If you can do that, your (many) mistakes will disappear in your wake and be forgotten in light of your victories.