Balance in Writing

Balance in WritingI’m sitting here in my apartment and I’ve got balance on my mind.

This is partly to do with my current project of writing an Urban Fantasy series, and partly to do with the temperature in my building.

See, in New York, most apartments take advantage of radiator heating. With so many apartments crammed together it’s cheap and efficient. Also most apartment buildings are pretty old, especially where I live, and they sort of got stuck in the olden times in some odd ways. For example, I don’t have any outlets in my bathroom. Or take The Dakota. It’s one of the premier residential addresses in the world, an apartment building that has been used in movies, houses celebrities, and was the site of John Lennon’s tragic shooting. It’s one of my dream places to live. And yet it was built in 1884 so you have this landmark building where absurdly elite people live, but there’s no central air. They can’t exactly tear the thing apart to install something like that so everyone has window units. Not that that’s the end of the world, but it’s quirky.

Anyway, in my apartment the radiator has been going full blast for about a month now. I have no say in the matter. The building’s heat is either on or it’s off. I’m supposed to have some sort of control with a knob next to the radiator or something but that never works. I moderate the temperature in my place by opening and closing the window.

But the temperature isn’t the issue. The real issue is the drying effect. When the air itself is dry like in a New York City winter and you’ve got a radiator ticking away…well my mouth is dry and my skin is dry and my eyes are dry and I feel like a package of desiccate.

Or that’s how I did feel until I broke out my defensive measures. Every year when the radiators start coming on, people all over the city break out their humidifiers. To stay warm you need the radiator (once every few years the pilot light goes out on the boiler in my building and I get to experience a few hours without heat…it a cold that defies description) but then the air gets scorched so to counteract the radiator you need a humidifier. It’s a fun game of cause and effect.

And so I sit here, listening to the radiator hiss and watching the moisture billow out of my humidifier and I find myself thinking about writing. At this juncture I’m unsure of whether to press on with writing the aforementioned Urban Fantasy series and see what shakes loose through sheer pressure, or to step back and let everything coalesce in my head and examine it from afar and see if my past choices dictate a clear path. And I am struck by how much of this process is about finding a balance instead of learning a set method.

It’s just like my apartment. If I decide that my radiator can go to hell and crank my humidifier full blast, my clothes will literally be damp in a few hours and I’ll be miserable. If I say to hell with the humidity and let my radiator reign, I’ll be unable to swallow and inevitably get sick about eight times this winter.

It occurs to me that it isn’t about either device being “correct.” Neither one is right, but neither can be ignored. It’s about utilizing both of these tools in order to create a balance that makes my apartment comfortable.

Too often I see authors discussing how they write and it comes across as if they’re picking sides. They either outline or they work in the moment. Go Team Outline! Go Team Spontaneity!

And if one works especially well for you, well, yeah, you should use that one more often.

But it’s not the tool you use that’s important. It’s not the process that matters.

What matters is your work, your final product, your story.

So instead of worrying about how you write, maybe give some thought to what you write. Take a moment to remember your goal and then make your tools subservient to that goal, even if that means using multiple tools to find a balance that works.

Also…please send hot chocolate.

 

My Holiday Guide to New York

Urban Fantasy Author Joseph Devon's Guide to the Holidays in New YorkHi all. You know me as the author of some of your favorite urban fantasy books (available now for your holiday shopping!). But I am also one of the seven stewards of the city of New York, a title I just made up five minutes ago.

This title requires that I occasionally offer up my wisdom concerning this city. Sometimes it’s to reflect upon it as a veteran resident. And sometimes, like now, it’s to offer my wisdom to those newcomers visiting my fair town.

See, over the weekend I tried to go somewhere, anywhere, in the city, and all I found was gridlock and people swarming the sidewalks like the freaking zombies from World War Z.

It became clear to me that it was time to trot out my yearly HOLIDAY GUIDE TO NEW YORK!!!

Enjoy:

I have lived on the island of Manhattan for ten years now and every year there is a massive influx of tourists and visitors and merry-makers during the holidays.  People come for many reasons and to enjoy a wide variety of activities and so I’ve decided to put together some of my thoughts in order to help out all these weary pilgrims who make the journey to my fair city.

1.  STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM THE TREE:

Seriously.  Please. It’s a tree.  Yes it’s actually quite pretty and yes it’s very large but you don’t understand what you’re doing when you go visit the stupid thing. The foot traffic around Rockefeller Center creates a chain reaction that snarls traffic up in all directions. I don’t want a bus ride across the park to take two hours just because you want to see some lights.

Look.  Here is the location of the tree:

tree-location

Now here is my estimation of the area that becomes affected by congestion due to tree traffic:

tree-traffic

Please don’t go near the tree. I’m sick of telling my cab drivers to take the long way through Nicaragua to avoid traffic when I’m trying to get across town.

2. STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM CHINATOWN:

Chinatown isn’t known for it’s fast moving foot traffic under the best of circumstances but during this time of year it becomes another thing entirely. Somehow all of humanity stopping and pointing at the little shops that sell weird toys and disgusting fruits manages to bend time or something so that I seriously think the foot traffic actually starts to move backwards. And if you’re in a car just forget about it.

You think I’m kidding?

Here is a shot of Chinatown in June:

Chinatown Dialogue

Just try to imagine it when it’s crowded with holiday traffic. Occasionally I like to go there and get dumplings with family this time of year. Off limits.

3. STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM ANYWHERE I MIGHT WANT TO GO DRINKING:

There is a bar in Murray Hill called Rolf’s. This is what Rolf’s looks like (this was taken with my phone so sorry for the quality):

rolfs

You’re waiting for a punchline, aren’t you?

There isn’t one. Rolf’s is its own punchline. Around the holidays the owners go completely out of their minds and put up more decorations than, to be honest, the actual tree probably has. Rolf’s is known far and wide as the bar where Christmas goes to projectile vomit then die.

You may go to Rolf’s. The heat from the lights and the general creepiness of the dolls they hang up make it hard to last more than two beers there during the holidays.

Oh. Here are some of the dolls:

rolfs-dolls

One year some of the dolls had mustaches.

Maybe lasting two beers would be stretching it.

Feel free to crowd into this place as, even if I do go there, I won’t be staying long.

Otherwise the rest of the bars are off limits.

4. NOW THAT I THINK ABOUT IT, JUST STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM NEW YORK ENTIRELY:

Honestly. It’s closed or something. And they built a wall around the tree this year. Here look:

tree-wall

It’s bedlam.

Stay away.

If you want to you can gaze at this picture of the tree. That should satisfy:

the-tree

It really is pretty, isn’t it? And when you catch a glimpse of it as you turn the corner and look down that long alley of evergreens and statues and then walk in close to where the skating rink is and smell the chestnut vendors…

God damn it.

Okay. You can come to see the tree.

Just, you know, try and keep it down while you’re here.

The Five Why’s of Writing

The Five Why's of Writing

This week I’ve decided to trot out one of my favorite writing tools that I use whenever I find myself stuck while writing a book. This tool originated in Japan in the 1930’s, but it’s been on my mind recently for other reasons entirely.

A few episodes ago on The Human Echoes Podcast, Albert and Tony somehow came up with a hook for a story. They run a lot of writing contests based on their hooks, in fact they’re running one right now, but this wasn’t part of a contest. It just sort of popped out of nowhere (Al was probably jabbering on about something) and they decided it was interesting and they kicked it around a bit.

The idea was this: What if the zombie apocalypse had almost happened?

What if patient zero had risen from the dead and had started lumbering about somewhere in the Texas desert, but what if it all had been avoided because some kid with a rifle had popped him through the head?

That was the story idea: The zombie apocalypse that never was. A kid in the middle of nowhere saving all of humanity with one quick shot.

The idea is appealing, but it also has a number of tricky bits. I mean, I can see it in my head, the desert, the arid space all around, the rural kid eyeing this lumbering body, unslinging his rifle, then a quick *bang* and the zombie drops. And that’s it.

But that’s a single scene.

How can you make a story out of that?

I still don’t have the answer, but this idea has been in the back of my head for weeks now and I figured it would be a good excuse to break out the tool I mentioned earlier: The Five Why’s.

See, back in the 1930’s, one Mister Toyoda wanted his country of Japan to become a competitor in global manufacturing. At the time the country was lagging way behind the rest of the planet and in order to step onto the world stage, Mister Toyada was going to need every edge he could get.

Luckily the guy was basically a wizard about coming up with ways to produce an edge. There are a number of innovations put into place during this era of Japanese manufacturing that are now commonplace throughout the world, and I don’t just mean new technologies. I’m talking about how you get to new technologies: innovations in how companies are run, how decisions are made, how troubles are addressed. Things like actually listening to the people working the floor, or allowing, even encouraging, problems to be brought up so they could be solved instead of hidden.

One of the ideas Mister Toyoda came up with was the concept of troubleshooting by using the Five Why’s.

It’s pretty simple.

If there’s a problem, you ask “Why?” five times.

That’s it.

It sounds sort of stupid written like that, but it’s freakishly effective when put to use (to be honest, I usually find that the hardest part about using the various tools I discuss on this site is getting me to shut my stupid brain off and actually take the time to utilize them).

So the idea behind the The Five Why’s is to scrape away at surface issues and get to the root of what really matters. As an aside, Mister Toyoda (yes he went on to found Toyota) created a loom in those early years that granted a huge improvement in quality as well as a boost in productivity twenty times that of anything seen in the world at the time. So…yeah. The guy knew what he was doing.

But let’s try using this tool with the zombie apocalypse that never was, shall we? Please note, since this is art and not a faulty loom, the “Why’s” that you might think to ask will probably be different than the “Why’s” that I think to ask. That’s what makes art fun.

Okay.

texas desertQ 1: Why is this story interesting? I’ve thought about this thing for weeks, I keep coming back to it. There’s something gripping about the idea, but what?

A: It’s an inverse of the norm. Usually zombie stories are massive tales that contrast the world we know with what would happen after a zombie uprising: the cities teeming with undead, camps in rural areas, governments collapsed, our heroes in peril. That sort of thing. But this is the opposite. We have all of that in our mind when we think of a zombie story, but here it’s all subverted with one quick shot. We have the eerie stillness of a single note instead of a massive power chord.

Q 2: Okay. But why does the apocalypse get stopped?

A: Within this scene we really only have one action taking place. And, as stated above, that one little action means the world…but why does it happen? Why would this kid shoot something walking through the desert? I mean, either he’s a sociopath that roams around hoping to shoot wandering hobos, or he knows what he’s doing. I love a good sociopath story as much as the next guy, but I think this story has more weight if the kid knows that the wandering body is a zombie and that he should take it down.

Q 3: Why does he know this is a zombie?

A: Hmm. There is the obvious way to go with this, which is that the thing would probably look like a zombie. Still, shooting a person in the head is a big step. Everyone likes to yell at the screen during monster movies that the characters ought to attack the bad guy or run from the bad guy or be aware of the bad guy waaaay earlier than they actually do. The idiot characters should be quicker on the uptake. But the thing is, you say that because you know you’re watching a movie. If I’m being honest, I’ve come across plenty of weird people that could have been dangerous in some way or another, and they could have been movie-monster dangerous for certain. But I’ve never shot any of them in the head. The kid doesn’t know he’s in a monster movie and I don’t see him shooting someone (keep in mind that I picture him using a rifle at some distance) just because they look worn down and are shuffling along. He’s in the freaking West Texas desert. If someone had gotten stranded there, that’s what they would look like. So why does the kid know to shoot? Well…it’s a zombie so it’s undead. So the kid must know that. So the kid must know that whoever he is looking at is supposed to be dead. So the kid knows the zombie. Or knew the zombie. And he knows it has risen from the dead.

Zombie HunterQ 4: But why does he shoot?

A: This sounds like a repeated question but it’s not. The kid is looking over the desert at someone he knew, who he knows is dead, only they are up and walking around. That’s still not motivation enough to shoot. That’s motivation enough to slowly walk up to the thing and talk to it. Honestly, if you saw someone you know to be dead walking around, I think talking to them would be a universal first step. “Hey! Fred? Um…how’ve you been? Pretty sure we buried you awhile back…soooo…” I mean for all this kid knows, this is the long-lost twin of whoever he’s thinking of. Again, raising a rifle and shooting someone in the head in a calm setting is a big move. It’s a hot, still, Texas day in the desert with nothing around. There’s plenty of time to assess the situation. Plus the thing is in the distance just shuffling along. You don’t go from seeing that to, “Oh I should kill that person” for no reason. Why shoot? Only one answer. You shoot because you know this thing is dangerous.

Q 5: Why does he know it’s dangerous?

A: He knows it’s weird. He knows he’s scared and confused. He knows something isn’t right. Maybe he’s freaking out a bit and fear is yelling at him to raise his rifle and fire…but he can also imagine his mom’s voice yelling at him asking why her baby boy murdered someone who looked like Fred in the desert. The drive to avoid looking like an idiot and going to jail for being dumb is pretty strong. So how does he know, I mean calmly-raise-a-rifle-up-and-draw-a-bead-on-a-human-skull-know that he needs to shoot? Because he’s seen this thing in action. Because he knows what it can do. Because he’s seen the zombie virus run its course. He’s seen something lumber in and bite someone he knows. He’s seen that person die. Then he’s seen that person get back up and try to bite someone else. He knows what happens. He knows it’s dangerous because he’s seen it already. This thing attacked someone while he was watching. And now it’s heading  somewhere where others might be in danger.

And there it is. That’s where the story lies. That’s why one rifle shot means so much.

The details? Oh those are just details. Like maybe Zombie X roared into camp while the kid and his dad were out hunting, ripped his dad’s throat out, fed a bit, got distracted, wandered off in the direction of town. The kid saw it all. He freaked out and went into shock over his dad’s corpse. His dad’s corpse sat up and attacked. He put his dad down. And then the kid realized that he has to go hunt his father’s killer. Or, hey, maybe Zombie X is killed at camp and his father is the one lumbering off towards town.

The decisions? Oh there are decisions to make. As I’ve said over and over, I would opt to tell this in one scene. Meaning I would have to get across all the information about the hunting trip or whatever through cues and thoughts, so I’d probably tell this with a pretty close connection to the kid’s mindset.

Problems? Oh there are bound to be problems. I’m not saying this exercise solves all your story-writing problems forever.

What this exercise does do is help you get to the core of what’s really going on so you can tell your story more effectively.

It doesn’t answer everything in one swoop, sadly.

But hey, it’s a lot better than adding some nudity and hoping for the best.