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Pixar, and 22 rules of storytelling

via io9. I particularly like listing what wouldn't happen, and making sure characters have opinions.

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you've got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it's not working, let go and move on - it'll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d'you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can't just write ‘cool'. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto...

So. I just shipped off my most recent story, "Domo" to Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. I'm sure it'll come back rejected, because it would be insane to sell it to the first place I sent it to. But still, a guy can hope and pray.

What's it about, you ask? Why, it's about AI and robots getting religion, and one robot rejecting their artificial god and deciding to become Catholic. (I suppose this means I've finally shook off the last vestiges of my evangelical, Catholicism-is-evil upbringing.)

Christmas adventure!

So Friday night, I get out of work, hop in my car and make the pilgrimage from Columbus to the Mahoning Valley in northeast Ohio, once a shining beacon of industry, now... certainly not. A lot of old factories and empty store fronts.

There are also farms. My parents live in the boondocks, where the nearest street lamp is a mile and a half away. Great for astronomy; the stars are breathtaking. Pure sensawunda, there.

Anyways, I digress. I drive up there, find that the extra bedroom's been turned into a bedroom for my niece, which means there's only bedrooms for my sister and her daughter. Since Bekah's USAF reserve base is up there, she goes back home at least once a month. It makes sense. But with a Christmas tree and the Christmas train table taking up most of the living room, there's no room for the air mattress. I was debating sleeping in the  dining room, of all places while I waited for Bekah and her friend to clear out so I could pass out... At which point, Bekah decided she'd take Belle to bed with her for "a few hours."

Me: "By a few hours, you mean all night."
Bekah: ".....All right."

So I got a room to sleep in. Weee.

So here comes Christmas Eve morning, and my grandmother calls and tells us her sewer line is backing up and grandpa doesn't want to call a plumber because he thinks he can fix it himself, despite evidence that the back up was the main sewer line and therefor not easy to fix.

Panic ensues.

Christmas was supposed to be at grandma's. There's no room for a dozen people at my parents' house. My aunt (The one I live with) was driving up Christmas Eve and was supposed to sleep at grandma's, but with a sewer backing up... My sister goes nuts, because she fought tooth and nail for a traditional holiday meal, rather than going out to eat the way grandma wanted to do (Cooking at grandma's apparently stresses grandma to no end.) My aunt asks if she can stay with mom and dad, in the 1,100 sq foot house with one bathroom that, even when I was growing up, frequently meant visits to a tree. (Sorry, TMI, I know.) Oh, and a hot water heater that was probably dug up in an archeological site somewhere.

Eventually, however, grandpa relents, and they call a plumber. Christmas is saved!

Interlude: Christmas Eve night, I meet up with one of the few friends I still have back home for what has been dubbed "The Council of Joshes," as it was a yearly holiday gather between me, the friend I met (a Josh), a friend who was not there (another Josh) as he was visiting family in Columbus (ironic), and a friend (Not a Josh, but grandfathered in to the council.) who was not there because he was visiting family in Akron instead of the family in Warren. Christmas Eve is good. I get home and Belle is asleep in her crib, which is right up against the bed I was sleeping in the night before, but screw it, I'm not gonna inflate an air mattress in the middle of the kitchen at 2:30 in the morning. Especially not when the turkey is in the oven and my mother will be getting up at random intervals to baste it. (This was the compromise that allowed traditional Christmas. Cooking takes place not-at-grandma's.)

I wake up at 8 AM this morning, because I forgot to turn the alarm on my phone off. The phone that's like six inches from the still blissfully asleep niece. I manage to silence it before she wakes up, but not before her sleep is disturbed. I'd move, and her head would shoot up and look around like, "WHAT?! ADULT RADAR IS TINGLING!"

People are barely stirring at this point, so I didn't want to have her screaming in her crib while I was in the shower. I flopped back on the bed and pretend to just be rolling over or something. She put her head back down and went to sleep, until I tried to slide more than six inches off the bed. Then she'd bolt up, I'd flop down and pretend to sleep, and we'd repeat the dance all over again. And then again. And again.

Eventually I manage to slide off the bed with only a slight disturbance of the Belle, slip out the door and my sister calls, in a concerned tone of voice, "Mom! Is that you?"

Being barely awake, I'm sure whatever I said was more of a snarl. I stumbled into the kitchen, found it to be smokey and my sister basting the turkey. She was also trying to siphon turkey juices out of the pan, because apparently the pan proved to be too small and turkey juice was flowing all over the oven, which was causing the smoke. Sister siphons off enough juice to satisfy her, closes the oven, and goes to get her shower. I flop on the couch, until I notice the smoke getting thicker, and go and open the oven to look at the turkey.

I swear a solid block of smoke came out of the oven and smacked me in the face. I jerked back, accidentally let go of the oven door,  which meant it expelled another block of smoke at me as the door was closing. The house is positively filling with smoke at this point, so I try to yank the kitchen window open, but my garden crazy mother has about 87,000 vases and a poinsettia blocking access to the window. I run for the front door, throw that open, and cough my lungs up on the front porch my dad is building.

I kid you not, I heard my coughs echoing through the woods across the street like the call of some enraged and likely dying beast. (They're like, woodsy woods. No houses. No buildings. Deer hunters and vines and things of that nature.)

So I run back to kitchen, try to get the oven again, get another solid block of smoke to the face, start hacking up my lungs, and Belle wakes up. From the other end of the house, Belle starts pleading for crib-redemption with all the logic a 2.5 year old can bring to bear. "Mom, I slept and now I awake!" "I see you!" "GET ME OUTTA HERE!!"

Back to the front door. Cough, cough. Angry sick beast in the woods.

Deep breath, back to the kitchen. Rip the oven door open. Go to grab the turkey, find that there's only one pot holder. Back to the door, cough, cough angry beast. I try to cover my mouth and nose with my t-shirt on the way back in, which accomplishes pretty much just covering the inside of my t-shirt with snot. (My sister later compared the smoke to the tear gas chamber she went through in basic training.)

I briefly consider waking up my mother, but decide the only thing she could do that I wasn't doing is freak out. I also realize my dad's going to be getting home shortly and the only thing that occurs to me is, "Great. Dad's going to come home, Mr. Air Force fire fighter, and I will have failed to clear his house of the turkey smoke."

Back to the kitchen. Find another pot holder, rip the stove open, yank the turkey out. Boiling hot turkey juice splashes all over the inside of the stove, smoke redoubles, the juice splashes on the floor and all over me. My shirt is now full of turkey smoke, turkey tear gas induced snot, and boiling hot turkey juice.

Say things I desperately hope my niece can't hear, cough, cough, paw at the kitchen window, knock vases into the sink, as well as the poinsettia pot, which causes half the plant to explode, and finally manage to get the window open.

The pleading for crib liberation turns into, "JOSH?! Are you OKAY?!" and I am so touched by her concern that I am unable to maintain the ruse that we are all asleep and it's just turkey elves at work in the kitchen and confirm that I am okay. Isabelle then resumes her shouted, one-sided negotiations to escape from her crib.

Smoke is not leaving the house. I am back on the porch, coughing, and notice through the window a fan in the dining room. (It's actually a great room. Living room, dining room, kitchen in one sort of contiguous "L" shaped area.) I manage to get that set up blowing smoke out the kitchen window. Mom decides to wake up, and her first words are,  "WHAT IS GOING ON OUT HERE?!"

There might have been more snarling on my part. It might have been coughing. I don't know. I don't remember. Eventually my mother gets the idea that the house isn't burning down, the turkey isn't ruined (Bizarrely) and yes, the turkey popper thing popped, so it's actually been fully cooked in all the chaos. Bekah's out of the shower, and she gets Belle up, who is happily wandering the house at a level well below the turkey tear gas, and trying to help me clean up the spilled turkey juice.

I suppose, all in all, it wasn't a bad holiday. But the whole weekend had this feeling like it was balancing precariously on the edge of a knife, and if it ever slipped, I'd wake up and realize my dad was actually Chevy Chase or something. Or maybe a horde of Dobermans would come rushing through the kitchen, and grandma would be off the hook, because we'd be eating Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant somewhere.

And good lord, capering about the house in a cloud of turkey tear gas will leave you absolutely drained.

Postscript: Weirdly, the smoke detectors in the house were working. I tested them afterwards. I can only assume that the nature of turkey tear gas is too foreign to register on them.
Article Here

Problem with "conservative movies" is the same problem that a lot of Christian books and movies have: they suck. In setting out to make something that preaches our values, we make something shoddy. Instead, the process should be, "Just write your damn movie/show/book/game/music and let your worldview inform the work."

Compare books (I know I'm switching media, but there's more examples and the principle applies) written by a Christian to works of "Christian fiction." Look at The Lord of the Rings or Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, and then compare them to the kind of books you'll find in a Christian bookstore today. LotR and BotLS are vibrant works reflecting the faith of their authors; most Christian bookstore type of fiction is empty, shallow, and feels like nothing more than a cheap cash in.

(I will say that Lewis appears to be an exemption. Narnia and the space trilogy might be sermons, but they're well done. Or perhaps that was just how deep his faith ran. Who knows?)

Are we Christians really that empty headed that we consider that good? Are we Conservatives really that empty headed? When conservatives start making movies that reflect and don't make an unintentional mockery of my values, I'll start supporting them.

Book! Well. Anthology.

Locothology 2011, featuring yours truly, is now available for purchase here!

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Woohoo.

Guess who just sold a story about a grieving rabbi and a posthuman embassy on a dying colony world?

This guy, that's who.

On Japanese Buddhism.

This isn't actually a fresh post, but a repost of something brought to my attention by a spambot from the journal I kept before this one. Reposting it here for the sake of accessibility. This was written for the class that I got most of the ideas and information for Binary Boys in.
Japanese Religious Traditions Exam 2


I. There are many key terms in the passage from Kukai's “Differences between Esoteric and Exoteric Buddhism.” Among them are the names for the three forms of Buddha: Nirmanakaya, the historical buddha; Sambhogakaya, the manifestation of bodhisattvas and various other semi-angelic figures in Buddhist doctrine from the cosmic buddha; and Dharmakaya Buddha, the true, cosmic body of buddha. Dharmakaya is the cosmos, forever meditating and talking to itself for its own benefit. Sambhogakaya are the beings that Dharmakaya has created to talk to, but still part of the cosmic body. Nirmanakaya, called Shakyamuni, was born in India 2500 years ago, and is the founder of Buddhism in our world.
Exoteric doctrines, the teachings put forth by Nirmanakaya and Sambhogakaya, are simplified philosophies. They are not ultimate, universal truths; they are truths that fit with a specific time and place and audience. The comparison made in class was with a softball coach who tells one girl on his team to think of the ball in a certain way and another girl to think of it in a completely opposite way. “You're trying to kill the ball with the bat. Just worry about letting the bat meet the ball.” as opposed to “Stop worrying about hitting the ball. Just swing as hard as you can.” Neither of these statements is a lie, and neither is less true. One girl needed to be told not to swing so hard, and one needed to be told to swing harder. The needs of the audience were different. This is the same idea behind exoteric documents, according to Kukai. They can be remarkably different because they are adapted to the needs of those who are present to hear them. The ultimate truth, and the ultimate result, will, theoretically, remain the same no matter how it is phrased.
Esoteric doctrines, on the other hand, are ultimate, final truths. In Kukai's world view, esoteric teachings are those put forth by Dharmakaya Buddha. There is no attempt to explain or simplify these teachings, because Dharmakaya is forever talking to itself, and only for itself. Esoteric truths are not adapted to the audience. They do not change. They are for Dharmakaya's enjoyment and betterment, not ours, and as such, there is no need to explain them. If Dharmakaya speaks something, he obviously understands it. Taking the earlier example of the girls playing softball, esoteric teachings would seem to be more along the lines of the coach sitting down with a calculator, pen, and paper, and mapping out exactly how one should swing the bat, with what amount of force, at what angle, and where to stop the swing. (This, of course, is assuming that the coach is not me and can understand math more complicated than 2+2=4.) This exact, scientific approach would not be simplified for the girls. Possibly, it would not even be presented to the girls; they would have to be leaning over the coach's shoulder, watching as he mapped out the swing and put down the equations that would represent the trajectory of the ball after it was hit.
(They would also probably have to spend several lifetimes meditating on what they had seen before they could join their coach.)
This passage from “The Differences Between Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism” helps sum up Kukai's world view in something less than several dozen pages. It reflects his opinions on the whole of Buddhism, or at least gives a glimpse of his opinions: Exoteric forms are okay, but the real meat, the stuff you should really want to get into is the esoteric. The ultimate truths straight from the mouth of the cosmos.


II. The “good person” in the passage from Shinran refers to a being who attempts to achieve enlightenment of his own power-- through jiriki, your own strength. The “evil person” mentioned, on the other hand, is one who realizes that he is incapable of achieving enlightenment or the Pure Land of his own power, and must rely on the power of someone else; this is tariki, relying on the strength of someone else. The Pure Land here is the perfect land set up by the buddha Amida so that people would have a place to be reborn in that would be perfect, and free of distractions that would hinder them from achieving enlightenment. As the story goes, in the middle of a sermon, Shakyamuni Buddha stopped, looked up at the sky, and spoke the words, “Hozo has just made an incredible vow.”
Hozo was a man who had achieved enlightenment, and as he was about to enter nirvana, realized that it was very, very difficult to achieve enlightenment in this world. In fact, some would never be able to achieve enlightenment at all, if they were to be continually reborn in this chaotic, corrupt world. Hozo's vow was this: That he would not continue on to nirvana until he could set up a perfect land in which people could be reborn, free to meditate and practice Buddhist doctrine until they were capable of achieving enlightenment. However, in such a world, one must narrowly miss the qualification for being human (Perhaps struggling with corruption is part of human nature?), so these people must then be reborn into our world as humans, the only beings capable of achieving enlightenment, and, subsequently, nirvana.
Hozo established this place, the Pure Land, and moved on; having done so, he is no longer Hozo, but Amida, the buddha of infinite light and infinite life. Those who call on his name are reborn into the Pure Land.
The exact process of calling on his name is a matter of some debate. Some groups say that if you just say you have faith in Amida, you are saved. Other groups say that you must say the nembutsu-- “I place my faith in the Buddha Amida.”--- at the time of death; followers of this teaching go through their lives repeating “Namo amida butsu.” over and over, as much as possible. Shinran, however, believed that these practices fell into the category of jiriki-- by placing your faith in Amida, or by repeatedly chanting the nembutsu, you are attempting to achieve the Pure Land of your own strength.
In order to truly put your faith in Amida, you must give up all traces of jiriki. You cannot chant the nembutsu. You cannot merely put your faith in Amida by saying “I trust in Amida.” Instead, despair is the best path to putting faith in Amida: by realizing that you are completely and utterly incapable of saving yourself, and that you are doomed to be reborn into hell, then you have given up all traces of jiriki, and Amida can save you.
For Shinran, a “good person” is a do-gooder, someone who is attempting to attain the Pure Land through jiriki. He is not denying that this is possible, but he is saying it is much harder than just recognizing your own corrupt vileness. And if such a person, who must strain and work and sweat to be reborn in the Pure Land, than surely a person who has given up completely will attract Amida's attention, and, subsequently, salvation.
However, should one begin to revel in the fact that Amida has saved you, you will slip from tariki back to jiriki. A happy person will begin to act under their own power, instead of completely giving up all attempts to save themselves.




III. “But the ocean is neither round or square; its features are infinite in variety.” This is potentially the most important segment from Dogen's “Actualizing the Fundamental Point.” Much of Dogen's perspective on Zen can be gleaned from this passage, particularly the last half, “its features are infinite in variety.”
“Features” is a translation for the Japanese word “toku,” which is sometimes also translated as “virtues.” Toku, though it can be translated as “features,” “virtues,” or even “potential” (though this is less accurate), is a rough word to translate: “what a thing can be” comes a little closer to the mark.
In Zen, things only have meaning in context. The object being held by the master might be a staff or it might be firewood, depending on whether one is walking or freezing in the mountains somewhere. If a student rips it from the master's hands and smacks him upside the head with it, it is neither of those things, it is now a weapon.
The file in which I am saving this paper is nothing. It is an ephemeral collection of ones and zeros, easily destroyed with the wave of a magnet or a careless click of my mouse. In certain contexts, though, it becomes other things: The thing which I spent three hours doing on Sunday. In one context, it is to me a thing which will help determine how well I do in this class, and, by extension, a thing that will help determine how well I do in my college career. In another context, it is to my professor a measure of how well I am paying attention in class while I fill the margins of my notebook with tormented stick men. In yet another context, it is a thing which eventually be a several sheets of paper being hauled around in a notebook. And, of course, it is currently an example for talking about toku, what things can be. There are an infinite number of things it can be, though it cannot be absolutely anything: I will never be able to eat it and expect much in the way of nutrition. Toku does not mean something can be anything, it means that that something has an infinite number of possible context-meanings.
According to Dogen, we should be like this. The path to enlightenment lies in being receptive to contexts. One sits without action and without thought, (though not doing nothing, as doing nothing is doing something) and then one is truly receptive to the shape of reality. This is truly being a Buddha: responding to what is around you without allowing your thoughts to force unnatural contexts on it, to color your perceptions. There is the idea of a Buddha Seal: That reality has a shape, and we should conform to that shape the way melted wax conforms to a seal pressed into it. We should be receptive to the stamp of reality and give where it pushes in, flow into the nooks and crannies where it draws back.
The notion of me, of a being separate from the rest of the universe, is unacceptable to Zen and Dogen. This is an unnatural context, something thrust on to a portion of reality (ourselves) by ourselves. Yes, I have an infinite number of context-meanings, but though those include a self-contained being, I also have an infinite number of things I cannot be. While I am not a small African child in the savanna, that does not mean that I am different from the child: We are part of the same reality, same universe, made of the same stuff. We are both parts of reality, not separate from it. One of the things that we cannot ever be is separate reality.

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The most touching spam comment ever.

Recently posted on a five year old-ish post of mine:

Subject: Card software
"Can I fair-minded estimate what a assuagement to locate someone who in actuality knows what theyre talking all round on the internet. You unequivocally identify how to allure an outflow to silly and contrive it important. More people neediness to interpret this and understand this side of the story. I jargon believe youre not more predominating because you once entertain the gift."

There was then a link to some sort of spam site. Still, I'm sort of touched about this spam bot's comments about me.

Reasoning!

“The fundamentalists are funny enough, and the funniest thing about them is their name. For, whatever else the fundamentalist is, he is not fundamental. He is content with the bare letter of Scripture—the translation of a translation, coming down to him by the tradition of a tradition—without venturing to ask for its original authority.” ~G.K.Chesterton: ‘All is Grist.’

In 'net parlance, "This." Emphatically this. The frustration with the mindless acceptance of what people are told is one of the main things that disillusioned me from my faith and one of the things that eventually drove me back and on to this theology gig.

I don't really ask that people agree with me. I have unorthodox views on a lot things, even if they're generally things that aren't going to make or break someone's faith, such as the age of the universe* and the existence of aliens.** All I ask is that people have reasoning for what they believe, instead of, "Well, Pastor Bob said it was this way." Christianity is not an oral tradition, and human beings were created with the faculty for reasoning for a purpose.

Right. Anyways. I have a paper to finish, and I still have to make potato salad for small group tonight. Off I go.
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*14 billion years plus, just like science says! The idea that God created starlight enroute to earth 6,000 years ago means that every event we see outside our immediate neighborhood never happened, and God is a liar. I've seen zilch in the way of satisfying evidence for a decaying speed of light, and Occam's razor would tend to rule out other, more exotic ideas for explaining the lightspeed problem that I've seen.

**The argument that "The Bible doesn't leave room for aliens" is silly. It doesn't mention them, sure. It also doesn't mention the Japanese, or Indians, or Celts, or any of that. Meanwhile, the evidence back at home is that the Creator likes life and crams it in everywhere He can. I'm not saying Greys are visiting us, I'm not even saying that we'll ever meet them, or that there are even intelligent aliens. But that's a lot of empty space out there and we're increasingly finding that the lifeless places on Earth really aren't.

My fledgling career as a theologian.

Well, not just yet. I am 4 weeks into my first five week course with Ohio Christian University. (OCU's online program, rather than having you do three at once for an entire semester, has you doing one at a time, in a third of the normal time.) In those four weeks, I've written four papers, with a fifth due at the end of this week. (Monday.)

To date, the fledgling theologian has:
Cited Heinlein's Time Enough for Love (I'm probably lucky the prof was unfamiliar with Heinlein, even if it was just the "Specialization is for insects" speech. Otherwise, I'd probably be kicked out.)
Used a Buddhist illustration in a debate.
Used the Princess Bride as an illustration. (Okay, that's pretty inoffensive.)
Argued with the prof at least two weeks out of the four.

On the other hand, I've also cited Aquinas a couple times, which seems to please the prof to no end. Maybe that makes up for all the other, uh, quirks.

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