Friday, April 11, 2014

Save Me from My Sin

I watched a fun little movie on Netflix, Robot and Frank. It is about an old man who suffers from senile dementia. His family loves him, but his son lives several hours away and his daughter travels the world, and his wife isn't around. He needs someone around to keep house and mind his health, so his son buys a robot.

Frank rejects the mechanical valet until it helps him shop-lift a soap from a local boutique. You see, he is a cat burglar who has been released from prison in his dotage. He is surprised at the complete amorality of the robot, and soon he is teaching it how to pick locks.

The robot obliges, because its primary mission is to keep Frank engaged and active while monitoring and helping to improve his health. The robot would prefer they work on a garden, but its programming is flexible.

They burgle the local library, and after that succeeds, they go after bigger prizes. It's a lot of fun because the "mark" is an unpleasant and annoying man.

If you dislike spoilers, stop reading and come back when you've seen the film...

It's OK, I'll wait...

No, really, I'll be right here when you get back...

What works well in this story is misdirection and uncertainty in the audience about how much or little is wrong with Frank's memory. As the cops close in on him, he summons his son, feigning death. He gives him a packet that's the same size and shape as the millions in jewels he's stolen.

The cops stop the son and demand to see the package. They find useless shoplifted trinkets. The son is furious to discover Frank is not dying, and the cops proceed to search the house with the son's consent. Frank flees and while he's on the lam, he has to erase the robot's memory.

The movie ends with Frank in a nursing home when his son comes to visit. Frank's dementia seems worse. He joins the rest of his family and they share a bittersweet visit. As his son is leaving Frank say, "Dig under the robot's garden."

The movie ends with a laugh that Frank has fooled the cops, his annoying son, and the audience who feared that Frank's final score would be lost. A lot of modern crime stories work this way with a similar "happy ending" as the crooks get away scot-free.

Which brings me to my point. I was taught as a child to fear God and believe in Heaven and Hell. My terror of the dark prompted me to seek God's mercy by asking Jesus into my heart. I didn't quite understand this transaction until many years later. (If you weren't so taught, and you do not so believe, that's OK, I promise not to pass an offering plate.)

My flawed childish understanding that I was "saved" from Hell and the devil's punishments in recompense for my acts of wickedness as defined by, say, the Ten Commandments, the whole of the Torah, or merely Jesus' summary to Love God and one's fellow man.

I didn't understand that Jesus doesn't save me from Hell, but he saves me from my sins. Whether the movie's Frank burns in Hell or not is immaterial. He's a thief at the beginning of the movie, and he's a thief at the end of the movie. He is never saved from being a thief.

Stealing makes you a thief. Lying makes you a liar. Adultery makes you an adulterer. And so on.

Stories can swing between the extremes of pornography and art, based on how they handle truth. If your story just panders to the audience's appetites, even non-sexual appetites, I call it pornography. Conversely, if your story tells the truth, even truths that make you uncomfortable, I call it art.

I once heard that there are some laws you never break, but you just break yourself against them. For this reason I think it unwise and untrue to tell stories where lawbreakers get off scot-free.

You might think this is moralistic claptrap and that's your prerogative.

But suppose that instead of being a thief, the movie's Frank were a murderer?

What if there's a body under the robot's garden.

Saturday, April 5, 2014


You know that perfection often exceeds our capabilities. We may strive for it, but we'll invariably slip just a little bit. I'm told that the aim of a marksman will jiggle a little with each heartbeat. The olympic competitors learn to slow the heart and time the shot in between beats.

I found myself with a bit of woodworking that needed doing. Keeping the saw blade on the line is nontrivial. The longer the cut the more likely you'll grow a little tired or your hand will shake a bit.

You have to tolerate small errors that detract from perfection.

Or know how to hide them: If you look at the woodwork in your house, you'll see the boards do not line up perfectly. They are offset by about a 16th of an inch. The eye will see every tiny discrepancy, but the offset will hide smaller variations.

I had a task which had me flummoxed. I had a piece of plywood that needed to be cut with a four-inch radius on two corners and a couple uber straight runs of several feet. I have a circular saw and a saber saw, but I lacked confidence in my skills.

So, I went to my neighbor who is an expert woodworker. While I looked on and helped him, he cut the plywood. And he did a great job. But it wasn't perfect.

This showed me something: He used the same tools I had and it wasn't perfect. It was more than good enough. That 64nd of an inch where he drifted from the line is nicely hidden by a bit of trim.

I learned that I'll tolerate errors when someone else does the work, that I won't tolerate when I do it myself. The standard of "perfection" is higher when I do something myself.

It is lower when I ask a favor from a friend.

And when I hire work from an expert, he's must know the craft well enough to hide the inevitable imperfections.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bracing and Jigs

It has been a while since I wrote about scaffolding. But just recently I built a treadmill desk. I spent some time Friday designing the unit and obsessing over details. Then Saturday I assembled the front and the rear of the desk. Then I ran out of wood, because I failed to plan as carefully as I ought to have. So, Sunday after church I bought the wood I needed.

In the mean time I found a few extra boards and I was tempted to use them. But I did not, because I needed them for bracing. The front and the rear could be squared up and assembled while lying on the floor of my basement.

However, when I went to put the sides on, they had to stand up. And they had to be leveled. My son helped by holding things in place while I used the level, but at some point human arms grow tired and the attention wanders. If you've ever done anything like this you'll recognize my next step. I grabbed some clamps and extra boards and I clamped those boards in place. This gave me quick ways to engage and release these bracing boards and I was able to level and square everything.

Once things were leveled and squared, I could permanently affix the side boards to the framework. With a nice rigid framework I could mount the plywood top and I was nearly finished.

If you look closely at the two photos you'll see a discrepancy. The bracing boards in the first picture as well as the clamps are gone. Of course, after I'd mounted the side boards and gotten them perfect, the bracing boards were redundant. I released the clamps and put aside the bracing.

I've taken several pictures of my completed desk, and I've spread them around to my friends showing, "look what I did." And when friends come to the house, I show them the desk and I'm duly proud.

But I don't show the clamps and the bracing boards. When I worked in a factory, we had jigs that held parts together during assembly and welding. We never shipped those jigs to any customer.

I don't know how you write, but a lot of people have to work out a lot of backstory and details about
their characters before they can really "come alive." The trouble is that when an editor, or God forbid, a reader trips over this massive block of prose that does not directly advance the story, s/he may skip ahead, or worse, set aside your work.

You want people turning pages, not turning aside. You have to set the hook and keep them in your story. Which means that the beautiful character study you just wrote that gives you those deep insights into your character's psyche SHOULD NOT BE PUBLISHED. Or maybe it should be kept under wraps until after you've so thoroughly addicted people to your work, that some will want to read that formative background information.

By all means you have to write these scenes if that's the way you work things out, but by NO means do you have to include them in your story. It's like those braces you see in the first picture that have been removed in the second. This means you should write like the wind, and then edit with a keen awareness of where your story starts, what parts belong in and out of the story, and when your story ends. The stuff that you cut out aren't necessarily bad, they may simply be bracing.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Marketing Versus Publicizing

I was at the local Jot conference and I heard something that's wrong about "marketing." This bears on my earlier remarks about the business conversation between successful writer and editor.

When you're writing and hoping to make money doing so, you hear about an author's platform.

I think we make a mistake to focus exclusively on author's platform, and we make a mistake to call that "marketing."

Well, yeah, it's getting your work in front of the people with money who might spend it on your work. Those people are called a market. And you want them to know what you have for them.

But it's telling, not listening.

The writer should think of marketing as a dialog. When you speak, but not listen, it is not a dialog, it is a monologue, a speech, a sermon. Maybe you ought to do some listening.

I want you to imagine you've got all the people who buy books in a comfortable sitting room. (More likely a stadium, but please suspend disbelief for a moment.) You know that book buying people are hungry for something cool to read. They've got money and they want to exchange it for a way cool story.

Some of those people will say, "I like C. S. Lewis or I like Robert A. Heinlein," so you can get their money by simply being that guy. And after you're established as a famous author, you can get people's money by just being you regardless of what you write.

But since both of those guys are dead, and the people in this imaginary sitting room have read all their books, you want to find other things they like. You can only find out what they like by LISTENING to them.

Do those people in this virtual sitting room like sparkly metrosexual vampires? OR are they sick of them and want someone to stake the twee nitwits?

Most likely both answers are yes. Learn what folks like, and if you don't naturally grok the market, talk to someone who does. I'm not suggesting you write trash just because the public demands it. You know better than anyone what you can do a good job at, and if you're like most creatives, you have more ideas than you have time to implement them. I'm suggesting that listening will improve your target selection.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Inside Baseball

I was reading Larry Correia's blog when I saw him write this about a discussion with his editor, Toni Weisskopf:
I bounced several things off of Toni to see what she wanted me to focus my energy on next, (Having a ton of books under contract to be written is a really good problem to have) and she really wants to see this epic fantasy that I’ve been talking about for years.
This is a glimpse into the relationship between a successful author and editor. It struck me how businesslike the conversation was. Here's the deal, Mr. Correia and Ms. Weisskopf have a common goal: make gobs of money by selling books.

Mr. Correia has a good idea of how to put words on paper that make awesome stories. Ms. Weisskopf has a good idea of the sort of people she can reach and sell books to. Neither one of them have the whole picture, so they compare notes, brainstorm, and try to find out which stories will do better than others.

It's every bit as much a business conversation as one between a General Contractor and a Realtor about building a spec house. I know a few small businessmen and this glimpse of Mr. Correia makes a lot of sense when seen through this lens.

Contrast this with the depictions of authors in the mass media. You never see Richard Castle or Robin Masters talking to their editors like this. The popular conception is that the writer is some kind of free spirit whose creative outputs drop from his fingers in an arbitrary and capricious fashion as his muse takes him.

NO, the successful author is a successful businessman who builds things on spec, if s/he doesn't have a book deal, or to spec if s/he does. Most businessmen are normal people who relate to their vendors and customers who also happen to be normal people. And unless there's trouble, normal people conduct business with each other in a pleasant and cooperative fashion.

Once you've figured out how to devise a cunning plot, fill it with dazzling characters, and render your stories in breathless prose, think about how you can be a reliable business partner. This includes communicating clearly, meeting deadlines, and exceeding your partners' expectations.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Knowing What To Do

I got my BA from Cedarville College, a Baptist college that had chapel every day. One day I walked into chapel and sat down. I heard something that sounded a little off. The music from the piano and organ was doing a prelude to the service, but I could hear much more quietly a sort of huffing sound. I turned to look and saw a girl lying in the aisle shaking.

I said this was a Baptist institution, so you should realize she wasn't speaking in tongues nor was she slain in the Spirit. She was in convulsions from an epileptic seizure.

I felt a little embarrassed. Looked away, and wondered what I should do about this. The girl was clearly in some kind of state. Something had to be done, but I didn't have any idea what. I felt quite helpless. Others noticed and started whispering to each other, obviously feeling much like I did.

Then my friend Dave Kisner walked in. He sat down in a nearby pew. Looked around, saw the fuss, and without pause he strode out of the room to call in a medical emergency. He returned moments later and ministered to her needs until a couple EMTs took over. Then he resumed his seat.

While I was dithering and feeling helpless, Dave knew what to do. He took charge and got help. I remember it over three decades later.

I vowed that if ever presented with that situation again, I'd follow Dave's example.

Today I read this story about how Robert Downey, Jr. administered first aid to her grandmother.

I must admit that I have little in common with ACLU and Hollywood folk. I think you might say our respective orbital inclinations differ by about 180 degrees.

Nevertheless, I could really empathize with Ms. Dana Reinhardt who related her experience. I've been there. It wasn't blood, and the victim wasn't my grandmother, but I recognized her helpless feeling.

Life administers pop quizzes. We may choke like Ms. Reinhardt or I did. Or we may excel as Mr. Downey or Mr. Kisner did. I suspect more of us choke than excel, but this doesn't mean we can't learn and be ready next time.

It's all knowing what to do then doing it.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

I Used To Like X

I want you to fix in your mind your favorite artist. Make a list of all the things s/he did to make you like him/her. Let's suppose you like the way s/he puts words together. Or you like the way s/he provides insight into the human condition. Or you like that clever twist at the end of his/her short stories. Now, for the purposes of this essay we'll refer to this artist as X.

If I met you in a coffee shop and mentioned X, you'd wax rhapsodic about him/her and recite at least some of those things on that list that I asked you to make.

Now, suppose that you discover that wonderful creative person you had in mind was also a leader of the National Socialist Party. Or s/he was outed as a closeted KKK member.

I'm supposing that everyone reading this hates fascists and white supremacists. But if you don't, substitute something else that you hate. (It is an unfortunate trait of our society that we tend to identify mutually antagonistic classes of people and then we set at each others' throats.)

Armed with this additional factoid about X, let's return to the coffee shop and I ask you about X. Now what do you say? Perhaps you'll feel rather sheepish: regarding X's writing as a guilty pleasure, or perhaps denying any enjoyment of X's work.

Then imagine the next time you're in a bookstore and you see X's latest work on the shelf. Will you snap up a copy with the same fervor as before? And after you finish it, will you post a review that is as positive as before? Or maybe not, you don't want the taint of association with double-ungoodness.

If you are an artist, you won't want that taint, and you won't want to be identified with any demon groups. This is a matter of personal brand management. Though it is easy to eschew evil in its Nazi and White-Supremacist forms, it get tricky when you're a Republican looking at a Democrat artist, or vice versa. (That's why I'm a Whig. A pox on both your houses!)

A bit of controversy can be great fun as any fan of cismale gendernormative fascism or glittery hoohas can attest. If someone on one side says something ridiculous and someone on the other side responds with ridicule, pass me the popcorn. This explains why I like Larry Correia and Sarah Hoyt.

It's easy to go too far as I've said about Ann Coulter. I'm not concern-trolling Mr. Correia or Mrs. Hoyt, because they have NOT gone too far. But I am not interested in tilting at every windmill. Unless you really enjoy slapping around idiots, there are some topics of conversation you might want to avoid. Some controversies are more interesting to me than they are to you, I want to shy away from those you'll find boring.

Let's return to your friend X. It is common in these busy times to go off half cocked. Internet mobs are like traditional mobs in that low-information people respond to half-truths or lies with great passion. Thus we may find that X really isn't really a Nazi, but s/he said something that could be construed as such. Or maybe X's art was wholly independent of his/her Nazism.

If you liked X because of his/her art, and you discover a taint of something evil in X, you should remember the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every person. You should be slow to judge until you've got all the facts. And checked them. And you should temper your judgment with understanding.

I fondly remember the Tarzan and John Carter novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. My enjoyment thereof is alloyed somewhat by accusations of racism, but I cannot deny he could spin a great adventure yarn. Though I used to like Edgar Rice Burroughs, I should not dismiss his work.

Those more worthy than I: