Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Best Twist Ending is the One You Saw Coming (sort of)

Just as a friendly warning, this entry contains minor spoilers about Battlestar Galactica and The Sixth Sense.  If  you were going to watch either of these you probably have already, but just in case, there you go.  Even if you haven't seen both of these, the entry will still make sense.

After numerous attempts at watching Battlestar Galactica (mostly looking for a science fiction show hoping it would turn into either Firefly or season one of Heroes) I'm finally through to the last season, and while I have to say that for the most part I can't really recommend the show, it's taught me (or highlighted) some interesting stuff about storytelling (mostly what not to do).

The thing that caught my attention most recently is the way the "twist ending" of Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica falls so flat, and why some twists work while others don't.

Basically, there are twelve Cylon (robots out to kill us, according to episode one) models that look human.  At this point in the series seven of them are known, and the other five have not.  Even the other Cylons don't know who they are, and they had been building that hype for awhile.  At the end of season 3, we find out four of the missing five, who are all part of the human fleet and main members of the cast.  (Every episode of season 4 will beg you to keep watching by reminding you one has yet to be revealed.)

Now, TV implausibilities aside (the hundreds or even thousands of things that would have happened in the lives of those characters that coincidentally guided them to where they are now) the reveal falls really flat for one big reason: We never saw it coming.

When you watch a movie like The Sixth Sense and discover at the end of the movie that he's been dead the whole time, it makes you go, "Oh, yeah..." because you likely didn't see it coming, but if you rewatch the movie, it seems really obvious.

Now, I accept that this is hard to pull off.  But having your big reveal be too obvious is less of a danger than just never hinting at it.   If you never hint at it at all, there's no "Oh, yeah..." moment that actually makes a person want to rewatch or reread or replay what you've created.  It's just "Okay, sure, whatever."  The audience feels cheated.  The story no longer makes sense.

You can fool your audience.  You can deceive, trick, bamboozle, baffle, and mock your audience.  But when it's done, the audience has to see your story was leading up to that big reveal.  Otherwise your entire story just falls flat.  It's essentially the mystery writer's version of a deus ex machina.  It's almost always a sign of poor writing.

A great twist ending is one of the holy grails of writing.  It gets people talking about your work, gets them eager to go back and experience it again, and gets them looking more deeply at what you've created.... but you have to lead your audience there.  If it comes out of nowhere like so many episodes of Scooby Doo (surprise, it was this guy you've never met before!), your readers will just be left saying "well, you got me.  Thanks for wasting my time."

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

I'll Just Say It: Good Ideas Alone Have No Value

As a longtime writer, I find myself consumed with a huge variety of ideas and concepts.  I'm always thinking of something new, and always thinking about what to write next.  I also know a lot of other writers and artists, ranging from the casual amateur to honest to goodness published and paid professionals.  When I'm interacting with someone without much experience in shaping their ideas into a finished product, there are a few mistakes I see them make over and over.

It probably sucks for some of you to hear this stuff, but understanding it will make you better at whatever creative endeavor you're undertaking.

First, just because you've had an idea doesn't make it a good one.  It takes awhile to adjust to this, particularly if you've been nursing an idea in your mind long enough that you've become attached to it.  Few things in creative work are more disappointing than killing a project you love working on.  The reality is though that everyone in the world has a lot of ideas, so few ideas are actually original enough to stand out, and only a few original ideas are actually good enough that anyone else wants to hear about them or experience what you create with them.

When I was in college I wrote a ton of short stories (back then, one of the routes to getting a longer work published was to get a bunch of short stories published by anyone who would look at them, so you had a resume long enough to convince an agent to look at your longer work).  Mostly I wrote fantasy, and some of it had been published in e-zines and reasonably well received.

Well, once I got an idea for a story and tried my hand at some science fiction - a genre which at the time I was far less familiar with.  I was really proud of the end result.  It had great language, good pacing, and just felt really solid to me.  I knew I had other work that was weaker that had gotten published.  But try as I might, I couldn't get anyone to accept the sci-fi story for publication.  I got rejection letter after rejection letter (and the majority of rejection letters are pure form letters that offer no insight). I couldn't figure out why it wasn't getting attention, but eventually I abandoned it.

(I later realized that the story I had written - a story about the start of a new human civilization put into place by aliens, which in turn inspired the book of Genesis - is one of the most common, overused, dead horse beaten ideas in all of science fiction.)

Second, just because you have a good idea doesn't make it worth anything.  This is a much harder pill to swallow. When most people see something take off - whether it's J.K. Rowling making millions from Harry Potter or Billy Mays selling millions of units of stuff "as seen on TV" or anything in between - their thought is almost always "I wish I had thought of that."

Well, I have some good news and some bad news.   The good news is that there are plenty of good ideas out there, and I'm sure you can think of something that could become a million dollar idea.  The bad news is, it probably won't.

A good idea isn't worth the cocktail napkin it's scribbled down on.  That's because while people often have good ideas, most people rarely, if ever, act on them.  They forget it, or stay pessimistic, or hit a road block, and never follow through.  Everyone has that friend, or that coworker, or that wacky aunt who has a new great idea every week but never follows up on any of them.  Unless you actually turn your good idea into a saleable product, it's not going to do anything for you.  Successful people don't want your good ideas, because they have plenty of their own.  They know the lion's share of the work is in the production and execution. Your good ideas aren't special.

Once you accept these two things (or more likely, learn the hard lessons yourself) your writing, your art, or your music will be all the better for it.  The more you practice and the colder you are when you assess your ideas, the more time you'll be able to spend on the ideas that are actually worth seeing through to the end.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Not Slow Cooker Pineapple Teriyaki Pork

This Thursday I wanted to get back to something I really enjoy and post a solid recipe for Teriyaki Pork (chicken works too) with pineapple.

Before I start I want to note that the original inspiration I had for this was a slow cooker recipe, but here's the thing with cooking meat and sauce in a slow cooker:   Almost everything comes out watery and looking like shapeless grey alien meat.   Don't get me wrong, I love my slow cooker and love using it to "cheat" by making dinner at 10 a.m. and then being able to forget about it all day.  But when it comes to making things in the slow cooker, the food isn't bad, but it could almost always be better if you used a different cooking method instead.  There are exceptions (like some stews) but as a general rule, if you're not satisfied with a slow cooker recipe, sometimes all it takes to get it right is modifying the recipe to cook in the oven or on the stove top instead.

With that in mind:

Teriyaki Pork with Pineapple


2 pounds boneless pork or chicken
1 large can diced pineapple, with juice
1 large onion
1 red or green pepper
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 cup rice (optional)

I recommend serving this dish over rice, so I begin cooking by starting the rice.  I love our rice cooker, but it does take a long time to cook.

Start by cooking the pork by whatever means you find convenient - this time around I did it in a pan on the stove top, but in the oven (40 minutes at 350 degrees, covered, with just a little water in the bottom of the dish to keep it from drying out or burning) probably works even better and results in pork that isn't as tough.

While the pork is cooking, cut up the onions and the pepper.  My preference for this recipe is to cut them into fairly large chunks, instead of dicing.  You can substitute or add any vegetables you like here, although I suggest sticking to stuff that has a nice crunch to it - snap peas and broccoli are both good.

Drain the pineapple and add the juice to a medium to large pot.  This process should yield about a cup of pineapple juice.  If it's more, don't worry about it and just add it all.  If it's less, you may have to add a little bit of water to make up the difference.  Set the diced pineapple aside.

When the pork is finished cooking, chop it up into bit sized pieces.

Add the brown sugar and soy sauce to the pineapple juice and bring to a slow boil, stirring often.  Add  just enough water to the corn starch to get it to dissolve fully, then add it to the soy-pineapple mixture.  This will get the liquid to thicken to to a good sauce consistency.  If you're impatient or it doesn't seem to be working, add a bit more cornstartch (but always dissolve the cornstarch in water first, it's much easier than dealing with chalky clumps of cornstarch in boiling liquid!), but err on the side of patience if you can, as you want to avoid adding any more cornstarch than you need to while still getting a nice, thick sauce.

Stir often - don't walk away - and reduce the heat if necessary if it seems like it's burning to the bottom of the pan.  After it boils for a few minutes the sauce will start to thicken.  Once this happens, add the pork, pineapple, onions, and peppers and mix well.  Heat for just a few minutes - we still want the veggies crunchy and closer to raw than cooked - and serve over rice.

First final thought:  I really liked the way this turned out.  It can easily be modified to fit different tastes as well - kick things up with a bit of garlic or ginger in the sauce, or if you like it hot, crushed red pepper flakes.

Second final thought:  I really need to invest in a camera, because cooking entries look really weird without the finished prepared plate money shot.

Pictured:  Not actually my pineapple pork.  But it's pretty close. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Gender Roles and Parenting

So because my wife is pregnant and I live in Ontario, I just recently got a "New Father Care Package" in the male.  I suspected it would contain a pair of ear plugs and a bottle of vodka, but in fact it actually came with a few books, one of which is The New Father : A Dad's Guide to the First Year. Great.  Thanks.  I appreciate any help or advice I can get. The main problem is that much of the book assumes that I am essentially a cross between John McClane and Fix-it Felix.

Now that Mel Gibson is a racist and Danny Glover really is too old for this shit,
this is our best shot at Lethal Weapon 5.

I am not that guy.   I have no aspirations of being that guy.  Now that my wife is pregnant, though, there seems to be a lot more external pressure on me concerning gender roles.  I'm not really sure how to handle that.

There are plenty of things I enjoy that are stereotypically masculine:  Football, action movies, red meat, stuff like that.   But there are plenty of stereotypically masculine things I dislike, as well:  getting dirty, building anything or doing anything with my hands really, being stern with people, and plenty more I'm sure.

There are also plenty of things I like that are designated "feminine:"  Cooking, going to plays and art galleries, pop music.  

I come from a pretty blue collar family and a really conservative town, so there have been (and still are) plenty of people in my life that really believe that if I don't teach my "boys to be boys, and girls to be girls," then I'm a bad parent.  If my son decides he likes wearing pink or listening to Lady Gaga and I don't discourage him, I'm a bad parent.  If my daughter wants to play hockey or take wood shop and I don't discourage her, I'm a bad parent.   If my son or daughter sees me making brownies and and listening to Ace of Base, they're going to turn out bad, like a cake missing a key ingredient, because they didn't see me "being a man."

Now, I think that's bullshit, and I can brush it off.  It's just kind of a bummer to see that most of the (unsolicited) advice about raising a kid that I've received is essentially "You've gotta be the manliest man you can be, man" as if having Dirty Harry for a father is going to make a a kid more well adjusted. 

I don't get on the gender role soapbox very often, but it makes me sad that before my kid is even born, as soon as the gender is known, it will come with a long list of activities that are "right" or "wrong" that would instantly flip if the gender was different.   I don't know how to minimize that pressure on my child, but I hope I can.   When I tell my kid they should follow whatever dream and goal they have, I don't want it constrained by strangers who are judging them based on genitals. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How Playing Poker for a Living Ruined My Favorite Hobby

I love playing games.  I really do.  It's something I've always loved.  I played cards and board games with my friends when I was a child, I met many of the people in my high school social group by playing Magic: the Gathering, and some of my best friends in college were made spending long nights playing Axis and Allies, Risk, or any other strategy board games we could get our hands on (except Settlers of Catan, a game I really enjoy but one in my social group hated passionately).

Fast forward past college graduation to when I was teaching in Seoul, South Korea.  While I was there I discovered three things related to playing games:  First, that I am pretty decent at poker.  Second, that most people are really, really bad at poker. Third, complete lack of skill and understanding doesn't stop people from playing poker for money.

Now don't get me wrong, I love teaching and I loved being a teacher.   I loved all my students, even the ones that tried their hardest to make their teachers hate them. But this was a chance to do what just about everyone dreams of doing:  turning the hobby they love into a profitable profession.  I put in a ton of hours - often getting up at 5 a.m. to play poker online before work, then playing e late into the night after I got home - until I started actually making money.  Eventually I was making enough to replace my teaching income.

It's been a few years now of being a professional poker player, with enough intense ups and downs to fill a blog of its own.  Now that I've played millions of hands of poker, play daily for several hours, and have written articles for prominent blogs, poker magazines, and online poker sites, and am now a genuine expert at poker, there's a problem:  Playing games is frustrating to me.

I don't want to spoil anyone's fun here, but every game with a chance element (so we're excluding chess, checkers, go, etc.) comes down to something very boring:  Math.   Whether it's poker or Risk or Settlers of Catan, it's pretty much all just math.

In poker, you make and call bets based on the size of the pot in relationship to the likelihood of winning the hand.   In Risk, you can see how many armies you have and how many armies they have, and use those numbers to make an estimate of your chances of success.  Then you compare that number to the likelihood of winning or the game if you succeed or losing the game if you fail, then smash all those numbers together to decide if the move is a good one.

In Settlers, you plan your placements and building routes to receive the resources possible relative to your opponents.

Yes, you can ignore the math and gamble, but most of the time, you'll lose to someone who is paying attention to the numbers.  Sometimes though, your gamble will pay off.  You'll make the incorrect move, and win the game anyway.   That's part of what makes games fun:  It's a lot easier to enjoy a game when everyone has a chance of winning, even if some have less of a chance than others.

When your rent is on the line though, it can get pretty frustrating to watch a player ignore the strategic underpinnings of a game and win anyway.  It's easy to laugh it off when all that's on the line is who gets to pick next week.  When more is at stake, it gets harder to ignore.

I accept that's part of playing poker professionally, but what I've noticed is that this frustration is now bleeding over into games where the outcome has no impact on reality.  I see someone make a poor move in a casual game with nothing on the line, and it frustrates me.  Sometimes it frustrates me a lot.  It shouldn't.  It takes away my ability to enjoy the game.

I successfully turned my hobby into my career.  I made a modestly impressive amount of money doing so.  After three years, however, it's clear that I really need either a new hobby, or a new job.  Maybe both.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Size of the Great American Novel isn't That Great Anymore (and I Think That's Great)

So, I've been out of the writing/publishing industry for a little while now, and a lot has changed in the last five years.  The fundamental rule - the one amateur writers the world over hate or refuse to acknowledge - is still true, and that is, if your novel doesn't fit into some very specific guidelines in terms of length, language, and topic, your manuscript goes in the trash can.  What has changed are some of those guidelines - most notably, the size of a novel.

The common wisdom used to be that unless your manuscript was big enough to consider it as a murder weapon, it wasn't big enough.   In On Writing Stephen King suggests that writing 2,000 words a day for three months will produce a "respectable" 180,000 word novel.   I've always felt this was a little ironic since I've always enjoyed his shorter work, such as Carrie and The Running Man, a lot more than his longer works like The Stand (I said it, come at me fanboys).  In fact I attribute a reasonable amount of his success to being able to get in, tell a story in as few words as possible, and get out.   180,000 words is a lot of words.

Well, the times they are a changin'.  Printing books is expensive and giving them shelf space is even more expensive.  People are also spending less time reading than they used to, and that means that now, it looks like most publishers rarely consider a manuscript over 100,000-120,000 words.  That's a full third shorter than the recommended length just a few years ago and personally, I love it.

High fantasy is the biggest offender, but I often read a book and think "this was a good book, it would have been a great book if they had shaved another off 20% of it."  I find that it's much, much easier to tell a 200,000 word story in 150,000 words than it is to tell a 100,000 word story in 150,000, assuming the writer has any interest in the quality of the finished product.

So this change excites me.  I have at least two half-novels written that died or stalled because I couldn't find a way to bloat them up to 180,000 words or more and still tell the story I wanted.  I can't say for sure that I'll be able to revive those projects (and I won't be looking at them at least until I finish my current novel, which isn't sci-fi or fantasy) but they'll certainly be worth a look.  It excites me.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Self Help - The Four Hour Work Week

So recently I started listening to The Four Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris on audiobook, mostly because I got it for free and it was recommended by Youtube vlogger PhillyD.

I'm only half way through but so far it follows the same line that most self help/live better/achieve your dreams/become wealthy type books follow - take a few genuinely strong pieces of advice, sprinkle in a little bit of bullshit to make sure you actually have enough content to get it published, and flesh it out with a ton of self promotion.

Alternate Title:  
"Success through four hours a week of actual work, and 90 of self promotion."

These books always make my blood boil because they almost always tell me valuable things that I need to hear (like Ferris's advice to stop trying to fix your weaknesses and spend your time capitalizing on your strengths) but it's surrounded by so much chaff it's unbelievable.  The Four Hour Work Week in particular is about how to save time and make your life more efficient; while it contains some good tips, I wish I had saved myself several hours by paying someone $10 to read  the book and writing down all the genuinely useful stuff in a two page synopsis.  In fact, the book itself recommends treating most things in life like that.   Maybe the book is just trying to be an effective object lesson?

I remember being a fan of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and if nothing else, books like this are good for helping you understand the way wealth in the world works (that being that hard work does generate wealth, but only if you're working hard doing the right things, and most people aren't), even if some are better than others at demonstrating how to come by any.

Where Ferriss succeeds is making a very strong point - why spend your life being miserable with the hope of being content in retirement, when you can set up your life to be content now?  Where he falters is where many similar authors do:  practical steps to take someone from a crappy office job or blue collar work into the life he recommends.  He makes a lot of helpful suggestions and offers some good tips, but it doesn't come together into any sort of cohesive working plan.

I'm torn.  Part of me wants to say "don't get this book" and part of me wants to say "get this book and a highlighter, highlight the useful stuff, and ignore the rest."

Maybe something will happen in the second half to really surprise me, but with the sheer volume of self praise and self-referential promotion so far, I'm not expecting much different for the rest of it.